• 25 Feb 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE


    I came home from the theatre a couple of nights ago and, somewhat over-excited, I announced on Facebook: ‘Sorry Judy and Cate, Helen Thomson is my new favourite Sydney actress!’ By that I did not mean for the others to step down from the podium, but perhaps make some room. My ‘shouting from the roof tops’ wasn’t about who is good, better or best, although an official acknowledgement of Helen Thomson’s elite status is overdue. And there are others, to be fair – Pamela Rabe and Susan Prior immediately come to mind. In fact the trouble is we have too many good actresses for the number of roles available. Many more than we have capable men. So if I haven’t mentioned your name here already  it doesn’t mean I don’t hold you in high regard. It’s just that I want  to talk about Helen Thomson in Mrs Warren’s Profession. This was definitely her  role – in the demands it called far: an artlessness that required great craft.

    Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren – quietly confidant before the troubles start.

    It’s been building, my admiration for Thomson’s work. And it’s not just about being a good actress. It’s also her kind of acting which particularly appeals to me. There is so often a tender vulnerability, and  a compassion for the characters she plays. Along with an invisible, gravity-defying structure holding her best work aloft. Elegant, light of touch, sensitive, deft, tender are descriptors that immediately come mind. Her characters appear to be spun out of air. But then, whenever we least expect, we are shown the boldness, conviction and fortitude of a lioness in attack.

    Some of the productions where I have been drawn to her work include In the Next Room or the vibrator play, The Season at Sarsaparilla (both at STC) and as Pearl in Neil Armfield’s production of The Summer of the 17th Doll at Belvoir. But nevermore so have we seen this ‘other’ side of Helen Thomson’s gift/skill than in the title role of Mr Kitty Warren in Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession.

    An excited mother with daughter Vivie – played by Lizzie Schebesta.

    At first Thomson begins as if speaking through a veil. It feels kind of thin, almost unconvincing. Is the actress unwell? It’s actually a deliberate disguise, which goes with the story. Because not long after, in an answer to a question from here daughter, the veil is ripped away. Even her posh accent is thrown to the floor. We realise she has been in control the whole time. She’s been toying with us. Towards the end of the play, she slips in and out of these two people (the original and her double) as she struggle’s to explain to her beautiful, smart, bold, honest daughter as to why it is the way it is. It’s all been for her, her daughter.But the daughter, Vivie, will have none of it. Unfortunately she has been brought up too well to take a step back. A terrific performance also – confident and bright – from Lizzie Schebesta as Vivie: on equal footing with Thomson – scene for scene, if a little less complex. We will be surely seeing more of Shcebesta after this.

    Drew Forsythe as The Revd Samuel Gardner & Eamon Farren as his son Frank.

    What was mother’s profession, her daughter asks? Okay so what is her profession now? Why? Why still. The daughter does not like what she hears. Any more than the mother likes to hear her daughter speak to her this way. This is a mother-daughter cat-fight that leaves a lot of claw marks. And at the end of the play, we are left probably agreeing that both are in the right only to the extent that they are  both, tragically, to some degree also in the wrong.

    It’s a brilliant script by Shaw, in my view more significant and successful than Pygmalion; though in its time it met with much consternation from the critics and authorities alike. Performances were banned in England and America for several years. A case of too many home truths about the system for those running the system to accept.

    Simon Burke ‘tiptoes through the tulips’ as Praed.

    I’m really not giving too much away. Because Shaw, inspired  by Ibsen, chose to take on social themes. And Shaw, like the provocative 1970s German filmmaker Fassbinder, also liked to leave his endings open (see Fassbinder’s film based on the Ibsen play A Doll House). The mother and the  daughter may part ways, but that’s not the point. The question is – why? What prior circumstances had led to this? We know from Isabella in Measure for Measure there is also (hello Vivie) the sin of  pride. Is the daughter really doing the right thing it sending her mother packing?

    Well, that’s for us to argue over wine or coffee after we leave the theatre. Bourgeois drama requires ‘closure’ – by the end we are happily back to where we were in the beginning usually after one too many songs. Grateful for being thoroughly distracted from our worries in the real world for a few hours before we return to it unchanged. It’s like sugar, we can enjoy some of it in our food, but it cannot compose  the entirety of our diet. Shaw did not write bourgeois melodramas. Shaw was a fair-dinkum Socialist, from a time when that meant something. And we, the people, must find our own answers to the questions raised in the play. Or in the very least admit the subject under Shaw’s spotlight is more complex and multi-faceted than we thought before we the entered the theatre.

    Money talks: Martin Jacobs as Crofts hitting on the young Vivie.

    A few other thoughts. The STC has had a heck of a fine start to the year. And looking at what lies ahead one could chance a bet on a bit more good stuff coming our way. On paper the combination of particular actors and directors to scripts looks good. And the texts are of interest. Who doesn’t want to see The Maids with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a production directed by Benedict Andrews? We can’t ask for more than that. What leads to success beyond this is in the hands of the gods, or a good rehearsal period, or perhaps even chance.

    This production of Mrs Warren’s Profession is directed by up-and-coming Sarah Giles who very clearly succeeds in delivering the package in one piece and with impact. Despite a few quibbles I have, she should be very proud of her achievement.

    Vivie is catching on. 

    Let’s have a little talk, shall we.


    It’s neat and well-paced. For a Shaw play you feel the comedy woven into the politics. Though I think Giles could have pushed Simon Burke as Praed a little more to an extreme (easily within the grasp of Burke’s talent and experience). As a family friend, Praed is nice and jolly. But his blindness to the reality that other people can be very wayward is seen by Shaw as irresponsible. Burke’s Praed tiptoes through the lives of his friends blinkered to anything that might be called problematic. He is not just in the play to add a bit of fun. To Shaw it’s a fault: only a character as wealthy as Praed can drift through life without a care in the world.

    Similarly with Drew Forsythe as The Revd. Samuel Gardner, whose role on the plot I will not divulge. As keenly presented as he is by the gifted Drew Forsythe, it’s a given that Shaw loathed dithering county clergymen as much as he did the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through harmless little rituals like country christenings and weddings, along with visits to his wealthier parishioners for cups of tea, the very good Revd. is stitching up a continuation of the class divide. I do think here some of the punch in the play is lost. On top of that Revd Gardner is living out one very big lie.

    What Giles focuses on – the relationship between mother and daughter – is excellently done. Yes we have two significant talents at work here in Thomson and Schebesta. But their scenes need to be orchestrated. And yes we have a new director rising the the ranks.

    The dirt starts to fly.

    It’s a simple and effective set, from another emerging talent, Renee Mulder. Perhaps a little hesitant. Its scantiness apart from a wall of flowers (very nice) works well. This simple look certainly didn’t need a revolve, especially for the little work that was asked of it. The costumes meanwhile are just lovely: beautifully made and not a bit overstated.

    All in all, we have a work the creatives can be proud of.  A middle ranking achievement from the newbies, but that’s fine. Some of the  support roles could be pushed around  a bit more to add further echoing of the themes (some audience members will leave this production unaware that Shaw loathed people like Praed and the Revd Gardner). I need to say here quickly Martin Jacobs, however, absolutely nails Sir George Crofts. A rather slimy figure who knows all too well that money can buy happiness. If  not quite so in the case of Vivie, other chances lie ahead. It’s this decision, regarding Crofts offer, where Vivie most directly mirrors the major life choice of her mother. But her mother did not enjoy the benefits of a good education, when it comes to the fight, as a card to put down on the table!

    Feelings win for a short time over Vivie’s reasoning.

    One  reason to go out of your way to see this production is  Shaw’s wonderful script, influenced by Ibsen yet even more overtly conscience-prickingly provocative. Both dramatists suffered rejection of their early work for much the same reason: the content was of their plays was ‘scandalous’. When, in looking back from where we are a century later, we know the Shaw’s real offence is in questioning the rights of some among us to enjoy extra privileges. Actually lots of extra privileges. For no input from themselves.

    That the cruelty of class divide has morphed into a global format (country against country as much as citizen against citizen) is not a point this production puts to us directly. But it doesn’t mean we can’t take our mind there as we snuggle in under our  one-thousand-thred linen sheets.

    The other is Helen Thomson’s intelligent and beautifully shaped performance. Criticism is never objective and should never pretend to be. All I can say here is: I love watching Helen Thomson act. And never more so than as the heroic and loving mother, Mrs Kitty Warren. Who gets spat on in the end for her doing the wrong thing so her daughter can enjoy the right results.

  • 11 Feb 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    I’ve written previously that I was only going to concentrate on the big four this year – STC, Belvoir, Griffin and Opera Australia – and even their output is too much for one person to cover adequately. Anyway I just happen to have seen a mix of other shows over last weeks which I thought I would try to cover in one post. Following this I have promised Roger Foley (Ellis D Fogg) to put up some news about his upcoming special festival of events. Very keen to tell my younger readers about this – it’s a very rare chance. Then I’ve got two operas to write about (I’ll do them together). All in prep for the next big one - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - starring Jacqueline McKenzie and Ewen Leslie, Simon Stone directing and Robert Cousins designing. The cast includes Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy, a performance I await with interest. Unlikely casting but very possibly inspired.

    Back to my speed date through these gigs I’ve seen of late. Peter Pan at Belvoir, School Dance at STC Wharf One, Rust and Bone at Griffin, Great Falls at the Ensemble, Milk Milk Lemonade at the New Theatre.

    Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet, Luke Smiles and Jonathon Oxlade in School Dance
    © Lisa Tomasetti

    School Dance is an excellent study of pimple-age self-consciousness, written by Matthew Whittet (who also performs). It has been visiting Sydney from Adelaide, the creation of Windmill – a theatre company for young audiences and their families. Directed by the company’s Artistic Director Rosemary Myers. Sorry to have not alerted you earlier because it is one of the most tender, funny and well put together shows I have seen in a while – and for all ages. The Sydney season is now over. The best features of  School Dance was the unity of its group invention and wide-open embrace of the audience. The cast reached out for us in the required first two minutes and kept us locked in engagement to the very end. A very fine show. People  were talking about it in the same breath as The Secret River during Sydney Festival time.

    Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance © Lisa Tomasetti

    Quite a contrast in value to the show I saw the night before, Peter Pan at Belvior. I had hoped to re-read J.M. Barrie’s much loved story before I saw the show. Curious to see how the translation from prose to stage (as in The Secret River) worked out. In retrospect I am glad I didn’t, because without such back-up I discovered this production simply did not communicate its story to anyone who was not not already familiar with the narrative line (I have run this question past a few people). A few names like Wendy, Tinker Bell (original spelling) and Captain Hook had some resonance. But with no memories of any story attached. Just names in the vast crowd of fictional and factional characters from books and films, newspaper reading and yarns over meals that hide in holes in walls in my brain – collected now for over 50 years: from Shy the Platypus to Hedda Gabler to Eddie Obied and the Faceless Men of Sussex Street. Some mouldy some fresh.

    Meyne Wyatt as Peter Pan: Photo by Brett Boardman

    Whatever my past experience, it was up to the production to stand on its own two feet and for the cast to tell me the story afresh. That didn’t happen. The show has enjoyed excellent reviews (I am happy for that). But I am guessing  most other reviewers and the bulk of the paying public enjoyed the show because they still have easy access to some imprint  of the tale in their minds – onto which they could over-print with this production. There were some minor efforts at invention in the design. But overall, This Peter Pan it was a revealing as staring at a Rothko painting for two hours with my eyes shut. I am glad I emerged devoid of any experience to take home with me because at the bar there fell open an intense debate about gender roles – such as ‘women waiting on the desires of men’ (however old). Stinging criticism of the play’s under-text, which, I was relieved to discover, I had nothing to contribute. And so I could just listen and suck on the re-assuring nipple of a Coopers Pale Ale.

    Geraldine Hakewell as Wendy: Photo by Brett Boardman

    For me the cast failed to reach out for me in that crucial first few minutes and never after that. It was completely insular, performed as if no one else was in the room. By that I mean an audience. It wasn’t an A-list cast, and even though the casting of Meyne Wyatt as Peter Pan had caused a pre-show buzz, he needed more guidance. I think the director, Belvoir’s Artistic Director, Ralph Myers, might have got lucky with his previous effort (Noel Coward’s Private Lives) because that cast was much more talented and experienced. As I said above, I am glad most other critics liked it, and I presume most ticket buyers did too.But to suggest Peter Pan is up there with The Book of Everything, dearie me that’s utter folly: just like comparing chalk with brie. In my defence the photos look better than the show did on stage. It wasn’t an artistic mess, it was just a mess.

    The whole Peter Pan cast: Photo by Brett Boardman

    Let’s get down to the more Indie shows.

    Rust and Bone at the Griffin  intertwined three short stories by a Canadian writer Craig Davidson, the cutting and pasting by  local (talented) playwright Caleb Lewis. This is man-eats-moose kinda stuff thrown on a plate by its creators akin to a late-night roadside diner feed on the highway to hell. Again I felt left out. I could find no reason why I should be listening to these boring tales or why Lewis would  think them even more interesting on stage if convolutedly intertwined. The acting was pathetic. Lucky this wasn’t an official Griffin gig, but not many people would know that. The new people better not squander too much of the goodwill the company has acquired under the leadership of Sam Strong. In fairness, because I am not gong to bother to put a case, here is a link to a positive and well argued review from Crikey reviewer, Lloyd Bradford Syke.

    Christopher Stollery & Erica Lovell on the road – Great Falls: Photo Steve Lunam

    Now to the taste-treat favourite of this lolly-bag of stage encounters. If you have any interest in theatre at all – especially writing and acting, I beg you, go see this. It’s heaven on a stick. A play at the Ensemble called Great Falls by American writer Lee Blessing. Not a familiar name but a master craftsman, and he has learned a lot about succinct, character intense, forward-driven writing in his close to  60 years in the game. IThe production is unobtrusively, yet very astutely directed Anna Crawford. The actors are Erica Lovell playing the grown-up-too-soon obstreperous step-daughter and Christopher Stollery is the never-can-quite-get-it-right, trying-to-make amends step-dad who decides they should go for a drive. To describe it as funny and heart-warming may make it sound like a slab of American Pie. If it is, then it’s very well baked.

    I will let the first two names pass by  - Crawford and Lovell – mainly because I am new to their work. But I have been watching Christopher Stollery for some years now, and particularly catching my eye of late for his stripped-bare, measured, ego-free honesty. A whole lot of giving to a series of slightly off-centre middle-aged men. The kind you find in the books of Don DeLillo. Apart from craft, Stollery also pours a whole lot of compassion into a man who just can’t ever get whatever he’s trying to do quite right. Maybe once, by the end: you decide.

    Stollery & Lovell in Great Falls: Photo by Steve Lunam

    Very impressive for newcomer Erica Lovell to keep up with Stollery all the way, with not a flicker of self-doubt. This is why I trundle off week-in, week-out, in all kinds of weather, just to catch, just a few times a year, acting that’s this unvarnished and eloquent. Great Falls is a lovely play as modern as it is old-fashioned; and here, at the Ensemble, very nicely done.


    Kieran Foster as Elliot (the farm-boy next door) with his true love Emory played by Mark Dessaix in Milk Milk Lemonade.

    For my last play/production I am going to be as lazy as I can. The show was fab, i could go on but running out of steam. I have pulled this up from director Melita Rowston’s Facebook page. Just a few words from me straight after getting home from the New Theatre where thjis production is playing. Another American play, another good recipe if not quite as rich. This one’s called Milk Milk Lemonade by Josh Conkel. Why that title I have no idea because the play is set on a chicken farm. Again a deceptively well put together script.



    It was my first taste of  Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras season 2013 and here’s what I scribbled to Melita: Jimmy Waites ’Adorable production – very well realised and a heap of fun – the love story was beautifully told by both the writer and the actors – and presumably input from you too - a gay play fit to be called a gay play. Go find and read a  fabulous first novel called Lord of the Barn Yard. Not gay but just as hilarious and naughty.’ Trust me – if you’re in the mood for fun and you’re a gay or gay-friendly indie theatre lover. This one’s for you.






  • 27 Jan 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    A friend in the business asked what The Secret River was like. Here is my slightly tinkered with email reply: ‘You must see The Secret River. The Secret River is 6 years in the making (to our amazement we found out on opening night it was the first project commissioned by Cate and Andrew when they took on the artistic directorship). It’s not only Neil at his finest, Bovell at his finest, a cast drawn to brilliant performances – sets costumes workshop etc. But no-one has yet said that this is also a highly intellectual and polemic work. Its race relations politics are well worked through and we have Australian theatre’s most important contribution to the History Wars debate since Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji.” 

    Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River
    © Cassandra Hannagan / ABC Arts online


    That ‘History Wars’ kerfuffle may have gone quiet in other media and art forms for want of anything further left to say. But our theatre has struggled throughout to find effective ways to engage. Not for want of interest or effort, or the number of works (just one being The Seven Stages of Grieving) that have paved the way for these tw0 outstanding works for the stage. But to get to the top, it’s a matter of both understanding the potential of the art form we call theatre, plus the ability to realise that potential technically and creatively. Saying is one thing, doing is another. Both Scott Rankin (director of Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, and Neil Armfield (director of the STC’s The Secret River), understand in their bones what theatre was, is and can be. And both possess the skills to bring a major work to life. If in very different ways. Despite both being about Australian race/culture relations, the two works could not be more different. Nor the methods the directors employ. Do I prefer one to the other? I don’t think we need to go there quite yet.

    Nathaniel Dean as William Thornhill

    There are a few theatre-makers hovering in the next rank who I think are making their own way up the ladder of excellence, mostly by trial and error. And some excellent older creatives still around who have been forgotten with nary a thought for what they might have to offer the ‘now’ generation. A great squandering that.

    For example: Chekhov master, George Ogilvie, may not be up to directing a full main-stage production these days. But how many people who think they are important in Australia’s theatre-world today are familiar with Oglivie’s name, much less his body of work? I can cite another director of the first order barely remembered from the generation that followed Ogilvie’s: namely Rex Cramphorn, who spent several of his early years writing theatre reviews for the Bulletin. On 9 November 1968, Cramphorn published an end-of-year overview titled ‘Ideals and Actualities’, covering both Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Not too happy with what had been dished up, towards the end of the essay he writes in a fragment of consolation: “No-one would suggest the theatre is booming in Melbourne. But some conclusions may be drawn from the success of the Melbourne Theatre Company, with George Ogilvie’s production of The Three Sisters, probably the best thing I’ve seen in theatre in Australia.” (1 – see end of post)

    Anita Hegh as Thornhill’s wife – Sal

    This is a glowing praise from a young buck (Cramphorn) who in the next few years would emerge as the most formally innovative director this country has ever produced, making work (initially in Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ tradition) in a manner entirely at odds with Ogilvie’s essentially classical style. Their commonality – a huge belief in the importance of the actor and a meticulous eye for (correct) detail.

    My questions are these. If you don’t know your theatre’s history, how could you ever get near knowing  - and/or sharing – a story from our nation’s broader history? Plus, if you’re in the play-making craft, leave the room now if you can’t or won’t put your actors first. Ogilvie and Cramphorn, Rankin and Armfield share the same view: it’s their job to assist the actors in finding a way for them to tell the story. The theatre director is a facilitator not an auteur, even if the final look of the work gives the latter impression. People wonder at how Armfield bumbles round a rehearsal room, as did Cramphorn: yet up come the lights on opening night and what is our reaction? ‘This could only be an Armfield’ or ‘This could only be a Cramphorn’.

    An early meeting: Ursula Yovich as the narrator, Roy Gordon as the elder Yalamundi & Rhimi Johnson Page as Wangarra

    Self-centredness is quite a valid posture in other art-forms like painting, novel-writing and particular film-making where actors are indeed rightly slaves to the director’s celluloid/digital vision – where we are seeing a story through one eye (not even two). But not theatre: in the most painfully telling example of last year was Benedict Andrews’ navel gazing in Every Breath at the Belvoir compared to his brilliant open-hearted generous rendition for Opera Australia of The Marriage of Figaro which had premiered only a week earlier.

    In making important work, development and rehearsal time are factors. Scott Rankin’s Ngapartji Ngrapartji took seven years to create – far reaching, unrelenting, thorough: involving much consultation with the owners of the story and traversing much sensitive cultural terrain. Pretty much daring to go where no whitefella in Australian show business has ever gone before. With a passion to truly tell a story from the view of this country’s First People as best he could, given the position he was born into as a non-Aboriginal. There are plenty of posts dedicated to Rankin’s work on this website – if you can find any of them. This site I know needs a thorough tidy up.

    Sal making friends

    Making music – Trevor Jamieson and Iain Grandage

    Armfield’s The Secret River, we discover on opening night, took six years to produce. I doubt if it took as many working hours as one of Rankin’s major works. There is a lot to be said, nonetheless, for letting things brew – and in this case it shows. This is one of the most meticulous works from Armfield (and his team) out of the many he has created in his favoured ‘backyard barbie’ style. A deceptive throwaway feel that leaves the audience wide open when the big moments hit.

    That said, he has been forced to tread warily through much of the same land-mined cultural terrain that Rankin has stared down. I’m not going to favour one over the other here because each of these directors go about making theatre in very different ways. Rankin determined to ensure the people who own the story, or are close to it, are included in its dramatisation – and ideally benefit socially as well. Say in the case of the more recent Namatjira, descendants not only got to show their own art work in good galleries in all the main cities the show played. But by the end of the run they were getting prices twice or more than what they had been before the show got up.

    In The Secret River, Armfield is somewhat let off this hook. This is essentially an Australian (History Wars) race-relations story (as were Ngapartji Ngapartji and Namatjira), but quintessentially from a whitefella’s perspective. Where Rankin might defer to many people from outback communities in making his work, Armfield really only needed Stephen Page, of Bangarra Dance Theatre fame, as an Artistic Associate, and Richard Green as a Language Consultant. No going bush for Armfield. But nor was there any need.

    Confrontation escalates

    What must have come first after choosing to commission this project would have been who to hire as an adapter? From novel to play-script – in this instance from a very good novel to a play-script which will need to go about its task of telling the same story in a very different way. The job went to Andrew Bovell, not only one of our most sensitive playrights but with an intellect to grasp the fundamentals of the challenge. Firstly, a big slab of the novel is left out. I will come back to that. But unlike the novel, we have characters standing right in front of us and half are Aboriginal. Both sides try to communicate the only way they know how – in their own language. So great swathes of the dialogue are in a particular Indigenous language we whitefellas in the audience don’t understand. In program notes from historian Anne McGrath, we are told that  ”the people from the region the play is set  - in and around parts of the Hawkesbury River – identify as Darkinjung  and Daruk people. However with its tributaries, creeks, elbows, and associated pathways, various dialect and  language groups have complex histories of connection.”

    For a mainstream basically white audience this language wall makes a big statement. While there are very many Aboriginal languages and dialects (many dying out fast), how many of us know how to say ‘hello’ in even just one of them? It’s a question Big hART has asked its audiences in the past. Also it’s clear to see that Bovell is an excellent collaborator. As is Armfield, including in the rehearsal room where he constantly encourages input from his actors. But here especially there must have also been an intense co-operation between Bovell and language consultant, Richard Green (Language Consultant); and a great sharing among  the cast and production team overall. Overall their shared endeavour creates such a deceptively simple and seemlessly put together work.

    Jeremy Sims as Smasher Sullivan – one of the eccentric Hawkesbury River survivalists

    This post is somewhat back-to-front: keen to discuss the making of the work I have overlooked the making of what? Kate Grenville’s beautiful novel of the same name - The Secret River - tells the story of the struggles of William Thornhill, a boatsman on the Thames who, being caught for theft in an effort to feed his family, is convicted and sent with his family to the gulag at Sydney Cove. Where, after some years, he is set free and allowed to make a life for himself and his family – however he chooses. Bovell has taken the bold step of beginning the play with Thornhill staking out a claim on what he thinks is an unclaimed piece of unused, unwanted acreage jutting out into the lapping waters of one of the Hawkesbury River’s many quiet estuaries. It’s not much but it’s ‘freedom’.

    As the drama unfolds we get to meet a family of Aboriginals who happen to consider this same piece of land as theirs. Each group politely waits for the other to move on. After a few years of tolerance and near-friendship, both families realise this is not going to happen. That’s when the trouble really starts.

    There is an imbalance between the way the two family groups are portrayed. The Thornhills are fully fleshed out individuals (western-style). Whereas the Aboriginal characters present more-or-less as a structureless mob. We can tell they have a leader in Yalamundi, but after that? Here too the production is making a point: this story is told through the eyes of William Thornhill and this blob of lookalikes is all he can see. He becomes particularly concerned when he discovers his boys are making friends with the ‘native’ kids, playing games and learning skills from them. It is mostly through the  innocence of the children in the story that any potential rapprochement is cultivated. Sadly the adults, especially the white adults, fail to take advantage of these openings to better understanding and reconciliation.

    Given the inability of the two racial/cultural groupings to cultivate any meaningful coming together, Bovell decides that at times a narrator is needed. This responsibility is given to Ursula Yovich, thoughtfully played, along with a couple of other smaller character roles. She may be overly gentle in her rendering of a story that ends in pointless tragedy. But I have made the point before, going way back to the emerging works by Aboriginal theatre-makers in the 1980s: that there is something counter-productive in yelling at people who have already declared their interest and  empathy by putting dollars down for the chance to know more. I am not at all against ‘angry’ theatre, and there have been some great examples when Aboriginals got their first chances to make the kind of theatre whitefellas do. And on the subject of race-relations in this country, even today, we could have more of that. But it was certainly not the approach Jack Davis took, Australia’s most successful Aboriginal playwright through the 1970s and 80s, despite the searing content of his tales (Kullark – 1972, The Dreamers – 1982, No Sugar – 1985). Nor has it ever been part of Armfield’s repertoire, which is partly why his productions of several of Davis’s plays worked so well.

    Armfield understands that Aussies get their back s up very quickly, and so he calculates social change by way of  theatre-making in inches. Over the past twenty-five years he has, as a result, quietly knocked-down barriers and moved us all a good distance. The opportunities he gave to the telling of stories by Aboriginal people about Aboriginal people when Artistic Director of Belvoir cannot be under-estimated. Built on the endeavours of many others – actors, writers, and directors from both sides of the racial divide. Whitefella efforts going back to Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Brumby Innes (1927) and  the New Theatre movement  in Melbourne which, by the 1940s, was employing Aboriginal actors. Then in 1970 came Jack Charles’s Nindethana troupe which joined forces for a while with the Australian Performing Group (APG), along with new plays in the European style by Aboriginal writers, including Robert Merritt and Kevin Gilbert, addressing interracial disfunction. One could add many paragraphs to get to the present where we now have our first Aboriginal Artistic Director of a State Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch in Queensland; who attracted international as well as national attention in 1995 with his direction of 7 Stages of Grieving (written and originally performed by Deborah Mailman), and Rachael Maza Long (daughter of Aboriginal actor Bob Maza) very recently directing the autobiographical work Jack Charles Vs the Crown, co-devised on the writing side by Jack’s life-long mate, John Romeril.

    Jumping over very many significant writers and their plays, directors and their productions, actors and their characters is my Captain’s Pick. It goes to Scott Rankin’s Big hART Theatre Company’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, a work I mentioned at the top of this post. He is currently working on a mega-project in WA’s the Pilbara region. My encounter with Ngapartji Ngapartji, when it played at Belvoir, was the kick-start for this blog. Entirely different in construction and temperament, I could almost say ‘coming from the opposite direction’, The Secret River is also a masterpiece  - if not quite as complex in its invention

    If we forget the meta-framework of race-relations that so far holds together (I hope) the argument of this post, let’s now push the lens in closer. What do we have? As I started in that brief email to a colleague: ‘Neil at his best, Bovell at his finest..’ etc

    Some of the best scenes are when we break away from the ‘inter-racial-families-in-conflict’ narrative and we get to meet a circus-like carnival of weird and wild freaks who have previously staked out their claims on other pieces of the Hawkesbury and made it work for themselves, one way or another. They enjoy their lives: if nothing else it’s at a distance not only from England, but also (most of the time) the authorities based in Sydney Cove.

    Knowledge transferred by way of the children

    To the acting. From the first moment the emancipated convict William Thornhill convict carves his name into this little patch of godless earth, we know actor Nathanial Dean is born for this part. I’ve only seen Dean in a couple of live shows before, and for whatever reason his work did not particularly register. To give this massive role to a near unknown takes almost reckless courage on the part of the director, but Dean takes up the challenge and very successfully gives it his all. This is a blistering heart-stopping performance when required, and these ‘hot’ moments are held back typically by Armfield for those special occasions when the big guns are genuinely necessary. Not since Ewen Leslie in the second half of Benedict Andrews’ The War of the Roses have we had such a moment where an actor takes his professional destiny by the horns. It’s a beautiful, soul-searching performance that captures every quiver of competing emotion this role demands.

    Armfield is famous for his impeccable casting (with the odd mega-blooper tossed in to remind us even he is mortal). No mistakes here. Anita Hegh as William’s wife Sal, is both as wilful and submissive as the character and the times allow. Beautiful and measured, staunch – with just a hint of bruising to her soul. I am not going to go through the whole cast one by one. It’s in the nature of the work that the Aboriginal actors are given fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves as individuals (they are a ‘the other’). But for the history books, the Aboriginals in the cast are: Bailey Doomadgee, Kamil Ellis, Roy Gordon (as the Elder), Ethel Anne Gundy, Trevor Jamieson, Rhimi Johnson Page, James Slee, James Slee and Miranda Tapsell.

    Sal is aided in her illness

    The actors cast to play the Hawkesbury ‘maddies’, on the other hand, get to turn in some of their most colourful work ever. Each a Hogarth drawing come to life. As a group  they create a vivid reality by way of emotion-releasing brutish farce. Rarely have I seen Jeremy Sims, Colin Moody, Judith McGrath or Bruce Spence be so bold and inventive. I’ve left out the Thornhill kids, played by Lachlan Elliott, Rory Potter and Callum McMannus. All sweet, upright and bright. Here is probably the right place to mention composer Iain Grandage who performs live on stage: I don’t know how to  write about music. But it worked for me.

    Colin Moody as Thomas Blackwood (secretly married)

    We learn as the years go by and the NSW colony grew, settlers on the Hawkesbury found it easier to ignore Sydney altogether and instead row upstream and do business with the evolving township of Windsor – which eventually is where the story ends. Thornhill’s ultimate transformation into a gentleman of means requires not just a breakdown in his family’s relations with the Aboriginal cohabitants led by Yalamundi, but also a massacre.

    Trouble stirring

    The setting by Stephen Curtis is iconic – the roots of a massive stage-size ghost gum (solving this theatre’s acoustic flaw at the same time). And I thought costume designer, Tess Schofield, did an inspired job creatimg the impression of a time long-gone-by without resorting to the literal. Every item of clothing feels and looks like it’s from back then, but it’s not. Check the ‘boardies’ on Rhimi Johnson Page (see photo 4 from top). Make-up also adheres to the costumes’ mix-and-match aesthetic, if that’s what you call these smears of colours across the characters’ faces – wounds, burns, war paint, carnival masquerade.

    If the play has a dominant theme, it has been aptly put by Rory Potter, a young actor playing one of Thornhill’s sons: ‘I see the story as being about how Australia’s future and past could have been different if people like Thornhill had stood up and said this [killing] was wrong. I think people need to know what actually happened.‘ (SMH – 21 Jan 2013)

    It’s starting to get nasty

    If I can pull the lens back for one last long-shot. Just as we get this sickening sense as Thornhill marks out his modest little plot in the opening scene, that it symbolises the entire continent; equally the elder Yalamundi and his mob represent the entire indigenous population of this country ultimately dispossessed of all that was theirs and many murdered. I know the season is sold out, but it’s touring to other Australian cities – and let’s hope it can come back to Sydney for another run! So I won’t spoil the ending. Only to say that the production closes on a very sad image that could well speak of 150  years ago and/or today. It may only be William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) no longer talking to each other, and the building of a fence to keep them apart. But it is also very obviously the end of a game of winners and losers. Can there ever be true reconciliation?

    This photo off the net reminded me of something!

    (1)  If any of you found interest in my rather inexplicable references to George Ogilvie and Rex Cramphon up the top: for more go to ‘A Raffish Experience: the Collected Writings of Rex Camphorn (edited by Ian Maxwell for Currency Press). Or with a click of your mouse, you can read this essay through (also by Ian Maxwell and published in Double Dialogues). It’s well worth it.

    If you are still wondering, it was all leading to an anecdote about Ogilvie on tour with an MTC show and rehearsing his famous Three Sisters at the same time. It was about Monica Maugham getting up extra early one morning to practice and practice, until she got it right. How the kind of maid she was playing would correctly lay out a very long linen table cloth. It had something to do with striving for perfection I guess. If you want an even madder segue: it was on one of these  regional Victoria MTC bus tours of the mid-1950s that a bored witless (witful?) Barry Humphries came up with the first inklings of Edna Everage.

    How vaste a distance have we traveled since William Thornhill’s emancipation? And for better or worse?


  • 12 Jan 2013 /  News, OPERA, THEATRE


    Okay so there are Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover – and I’ve tried most of ‘em. Ten Green Bottles, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seven Shades of Gray and there’s even A Hole in the Bucket. Well and good. But how many ways are there to see-in the New Year – say if you’re a Sydneysider. Whether it’s luxury-viewing from a Woseley Road mansion avec staffed/stuffed canapes, an apartment rooftop in Potts Point, a boat on the harbour, Barry Humphries’ private party, Clover Moore’s Mayoral gig on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, or with your head under the doona. That’s just a sprinkle of options.

    The last few years I have been lucky. If you have been following my whereabouts this has included two Clover parties (the floor you are standing on actually shakes when the fireworks explode) and last year I was part of a rent-a-crowd for a wonderful man who lives in an apartment overlooking the city from Macleay St as it curves into Woolloomooloo. This fine 95-year-old retired architect/widower poured champagne into our glasses with the sturdy hand of a man 20 years his younger. And we were there because he wanted to throw a party and mathematically all his friends were dead. We mere 40 to 50-year-olds threw some youth into the room and from his balcony we got the full vista of five different fireworks exploding points. Our host told us that when he first moved into the apartment in 1955 there was only one high-rise building. From his ‘period’ lounge-room he had watched the city grow.

    In a world full of great old cities being bombed to smithereens, or overwhelmed by the homeless and rotting garbage, Sydney is an oasis. Signs of growth are everywhere. Let me segue to my job. Just looking at the plays I am going to see over the next seven days (all home-grown product even if linked to the Sydney Festival program). At Belvoir, there is J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan adapted by Tommy Murphy, directed by Ralph Myers. The next night I’ve got School Dance at STC Wharf One, written for Adelaide’s youth company Windmill by Mathew Whittet, directed by Rosemary Myers, with a cast that includes the deliciously talented Amber McMahon.

    Cast of Windmill’s School Dance

    Then it’s an adaption by Andrew Bovell for the Sydney Theatre Company of Kate Grenville’s fabulous novel, The Secret River, directed by Neil Armfield, playing at the Sydney Theatre with a cast of over twenty. There’s a new show at The Stables, Caleb Lewis’s Rust and Bone at the Stables. And apparently the new annual David  Williamson at the Ensemble is rather good.

     Who gives a toss if this year’s Sydney Festival management has decided to invite only a few reviewers to only a few things. I am happy with my lot of home-grown works. Which is my point. The work we can make by ourselves these days can come together and create a mini-festival without attending anything brought in from overseas. There will be hits and misses, as there always is to with the imported stuff too. But we have evolved so much in the past twenty years as a creative city (given the right support), missing out on some imported shows isn’t as as devastating as it was twenty years ago. Meanwhile pesky reviewers effectively banned. Unless every show is already sold out to the rafters, you would have to wonder what is achieved by keeping the media at bay. See this recent post by me - Alison Croggon Retires from Theatre Notes - about the future of reviewing.

    One of  highlights of the local works is  Opera Australia co-production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball  with probably my favourite company in the world, Barcelona’s La Fura dels Baus (‘The Rats of the Sewer’. I think I’ve survived four of their shows in different places around the world: my entire being hurled into another stratosphere each time.

    Here are some pictures of the production I found on Google. If you have ever thought of taking the leap from theatre into opera land, I don’t think I could more confidently recommend a production (in advance of seeing it myself). Wait for whatever reviews it gets if you like or throw yourself recklessly headlong. These pictures are enough of a draw-card for me. Along with Sydney, La Fura dels Baus is also creating versions of this Masked Ball  with Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires; La Monnaie, Brussels; and Norwegian National Opera & Ballet, Oslo. No doubt the Sydney Festival has helped finance and promote the gig – but given the number of local artists involved (musicians and singers) it is not what you would strictly-speaking call an import.

    I hope I am not giving too much away. To me these pictures serve as a draw-card. Who wouldn’t want to pull money out of their pocket to see what the image below is all about?

    Arriving at last at the main topic of this post: my New Year’s Eve 2012/13! I somehow found myself with two tickets to the OA’s gala night which includes a performance – this year of La Boheme - and then canapes and drinks after which we watch the fireworks from the glassed-in foyer above Clover’s party (or other vantage points). Actually 9pm fire-works at interval and then grog and tastings and idle chat from 10.30 till the bridge and the harbour exploded at midnight into a burst of noise, colour and lights.

    The evening hosted by Kylie Minogue!

  • 12 Jan 2013 /  News, OPERA, THEATRE