• 30 Aug 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    We bloggeroos are a fickle lot – I am getting close to Dame Nellie Melba’s record in the number of times I have declared my imminent/immolate retirement – and then along comes  a play/production that can’t be allowed to pass by without comment. I  have put aside my Library work for a day, at high risk (not really) coz I saw playwright Melissa Bubnic’s Beached the other night – in the last week of its run. And unlike some other reviewers, I thought it was a classy and engaging gig. On the encounter alone I was impressed enuf to feel I had to put fingers to keyboard. Then I read Kevin Jackson’s forensic demolition job. We had different reactions and I felt that would be an interesting subject to explore. We are a happy bunch of bloggers, Sydney onliners – and often refer to each other’s work in a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect. Encouraging readers to go elsewhere if they are interested in a different (even opposing) response. 

    Blake Davies plays 400 kilogram Arthur Arthur

    PR BLURB: “Arty is huge. Ginormous. Morbidly and grossly obese, he’s in need of a gastric bypass to save his life. At over 400 kilos, he’s the world’s fattest teenager. Arty is also being followed by a reality TV crew. Will he lose the kilos needed to have the op? Will he survive to eat another cream puff? Will Louise, his Pathways-to-Work officer, transform his life in ways he never imagined?Unapologetically satiric, Beached is also the moving story of a man imprisoned in his own body. It lays bare the mercenary nature of reality TV, and turns the microscope on society’s insatiable appetite for human misery.Beached won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and was shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Award. It pairs the razor sharp wit of Melissa Bubnic with the imaginative direction of Shannon Murphy (This Year’s Ashes, Porn.Cake).”

    Playwright: Melissa Bubnic; Director: Shannon Murphy; Set and Costume Designer: James Browne; Lighting and AV Designer: Verity Hampson; Sound and AV Designer: Steve Toulmin; Dramaturg: Kit Brookman; Assistant Director: Liz Arday

     CAST: Gia Carides, Arka Das, Blake Davis & Kate Mulvany

    There’s the PR pitch and a list of the talent involved from Griffin’s own website. Mr Jackson clearly loathed pretty much everything about this play and production, and he goes about saying why (as he always does) with  the eye of a specialist in forensics. I have no doubt he meant every word (he never squibs), and I respect Mr Jackson for that. His review of Beached makes for quite a thrilling read. Just how many ways can one theatregoer hate a work? Go here and see! Different responses should be encouraged: no single reviewer is ever entirely right (except in the minds of the most feeble); and a range of views stimulates a richer public conversation.

    Cast: Blake Davies, Gia Carides, Arka Das & Kate Mulvany

    First up, in reviewing a play, we must remember that each performance is a unique work of art, merely bearing a similarity to the performance the night before, and other evenings yet to come. Then there’s the matter of what each of us brings to the encounter. Meaning: say Mr Jackson and I were there on the same night. It is still possible that our responses would differ.

    There is one other factor which, in this case in particular, I think we should consider. And it’s by chance. Mr Jackson, I believe, was there on Opening Night – usually my spot. And it is he who usually slips a week or so later – as I did this time. I have pushed my Library work to one side for couple more days to make mostly one simple but I think important point. Bubnic’s text is, in my view, unusually sophisticated and calls for much more in terms of staging than your average chatty realist new Australian play. For director Shannon Murphy this is her strong suit. Without bringing attention to herself as some kind of heavenly blessed auteur, she can wrangle quite demanding stagings into shape, going well beyond ensuring the words are enunciated ‘brightly’ by her cast.

    The cast: on set!

    It would be sad to see this play slip past, recorded as underwhelming, just because however many weeks of rehearsal it got, or number of ‘previews’, it was not ready in time for the reviewers on opening night. It’s happened before. Exhibit A – Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers of the Absolute. Phil who? you say. Dreamers what? you ask. My point exactly. Exhibit B: when are we going to see a fully fleshed out revival of Louis Nowra’s Visions which, under-prepared and under-resourced, brought the fledgling Paris Theatre Company to its knees before the company could even stand up. It was NOT the script’s fault! It just asked for more than the director and cast could deliver on time.

    I wouldn’t let off any script/production so lightly. But what I saw a few weeks into the run was a production and performances that had caught up with what the script appeared to call on. It was exciting to see Bubnic’s many unusual authorial demands succeed. How does one present a 400-kilogram character on stage?  How do we present his predicament seriously and keep the work entertaining. In the case of Bubnic the writer – a very quick and witty language surface. Once the cast is across this stuff, as they were by the time I got to the show, one could only admire the deftness fleetingly. If Bondi Beach were a comedy act, our heads were up out of the water on occasions for barely a breath, before we were hit by another zinger. Not all one-liners I might add. Just a writer at work who in her bones knows what options and complexities the stage can offer to tingle those in the audience with working minds. And as mentioned above, no-one better to deliver on this front than director Shannon Murphy. She is a ‘mistress’ technician. Her productions are characterised by their 3D clarity.

    Against all odds – they fall in love!

    Even the casting puts you on notice. These are unlikely choices – in particular your average-kid kinda guy, Blake Davies, as ‘Fatso’ (Arthur Arthur). The gap between him (out of the fat-suit in a fantasy dance sequence) and the character entombed in a costume that looks more like a Big Mac than flesh forces you to fill that space with thought. Something a German dude called Brecht once tried. Similarly Gia Carides as the doting mother is accused of being too broad. I thought it took a special sophistication (and a whole load of experience) to get that Westie Bogan mother so right. Remember Bubnic has packaged her core topic (dependency) in the fancy of the Reality TV show. Carides’ ‘enabling’ mother may not have been there to see in all her complexity on opening night. But I saw what I thought was a very fine performance – in particular how what looked on stage as ‘broad’, at the same time appeared convincing , even subtle and tender on the screen. Similarly, Kate Mulvany, particularly as the Centrelink staffer, brought comedy to the stage and at the same time producing a torn and confused mascara-smeared empathy on the screens.

    I probably should have said this earlier. While the action is set in Arthur’s bedroom (well he is an immoveable mass  - a ‘beached whale’), the TV show comes to him. Encroaching on all sides of Arthur’s place in the world, is a clunky moveable rig of lighting gear. It is this device (conceit?), this staging coup d’etat, that allows actors not called for in a scene to work the live camera feeds. It goes to the place where Benedict Andrews’ cameras in The Maids never even attempted. And what’s really shocking is the fourth and final actor: Arka Das, playing the TV producer is not white. His family origins are likely embedded in the several-thousand-year history of what we like to call the ‘Indian sub-continent’ or London East Enders might call a ‘paki’. There is no reason why he should be ‘white’. The script says nothing about the colour of this character’s skin. No reason for him to be ‘white’ other than is what we are used to. A brilliant example of what Lee Lewis (recently appointed Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre) meant when she took on Australia’s theatre culture in her Platform Paper “Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australia“. Das is as good as anyone else on stage. And the gap that opens up between us and the colour of his skin proffers further terrain for our minds to climb over on a sub-textual mountain range called ‘Being and Otherness’.

    Director Shannon Murphy with playwright Melissa Bubnic

    I am not giving the play or the production ten out of ten. Mainly because it ends with a whimper when it really needs a bang. I would have exploded that human burger and splattered most of the audience in chicken gizzards if I had been Bubnic the writer-terrorist. Sadly, an unrealistic proposition however appealing. But there’s no dodging the bullet: a play is only as good as its ending. It’s oh so easy to set stuff up. But it’s all about how you bring the doggie home. That said, I write this review as an act of encouragement to Bubnic (keep writing!) and Murphy (keep on directing!). I can see why Mr Jackson responded differently. I respect him for that, and find what he wrote interesting. It certainly helped me tease out a lot of what were mere half-thoughts in my own mind – and put those amorphous shapes to the test of argument. As above!!

    Go here – for Chris Hook’s review in the Daily Telegraph. He thinks what I think – just makes it more simple.

    Go here – for a review of the Melbourne production

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The script of Beached is a particularly idiosyncratic ; and if this work was not ready for opening night, it may well have come across as rather so-so.  It could very well have improved with age. What I saw was a very smart script. The way playwright Bubnic found a way to tell her story on stage, I thought, was impressive. A high degree of craft was involved stylistically and structurally. And the surface – the dialogue was smart and glittering with unobtrusive wit – as well as true to its cause. If it had not been smart and glittering on opening night, I can quite understand why a good number of people were under-impressed. And considered the play a bit loopy and ungainly rather than, as I found it, bold and fresh.

    It is of course the responsibility of the director to have the production ready for opening night. But few shows ever are and it’s the adrenalin of a first showing which often masks ill-preparedness. So maybe with the degree of difficulty required, director Shannon Murphy may not have quite got it there on time. Seeing now, weeks in, it’s clearly very well directed. And that Shannon Murphy was precisely the right person to take on this ply’s challenges.

    Secondly: as mentioned in  the official blurb above, Arthur’s life as a fat person  and his upcoming operation is the subject of a reality TV show. So we have two screens monitoring the live action. A device put to much better use than in Benedict Andrews’ The Maids. And (here I utterly disagree with Mr Jackson, I thought Zoe Carides mother was absolutely on the money, and her ‘to camera’ sequences were particularly good.

     

     

    and then as that wears off the feeble bones of the work are laid bare

  • 11 Jul 2013 /  News, Reviews, THEATRE

    Solange (Isabelle Huppert) on screen & sister Claire (Cate Blanchett) with back to audience.

    ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI

    Hello friends. I was asked if I would write a review of The Maids for the Australian Book Review. I may have the chance contribute an occasional few over the year to this a nicely respectable and somewhat upmarket site. It was not easy to come to an apt response to this latest imaginative and edgy production by Benedict Andrews, given the limited word count (800 words) – a discipline from which I had been liberated (for better or worse) since I launched this mostly theatre review blog. Here I am, for ABR, responding to a readership possibly quite different to my blog-reader regulars. No mucking around, I played my evaluative role very straight – ie: no wandering off topic. NO slacker style. I over-ran my word limit so there were a few cuts made - judicious I thought. A couple of bloopers (my fault for not properly checking the proof) have made their way through to the print version, but corrected here for this online version:  so please go to this link to read my

    The Maids review for ABR.

    I put quite a bit of thinking into it and finding the right words. Please note -just as Claire and Solange alternate identities as well roles. so do I . I have fixed the add-on pars here (and photos) .There are a couple of occasions in the ABR when I confuse Blanchett’s Claire with Huppert’s Solange. Just mentioned are the roles each plays. While we are at it, I want to post a link to Lloyd Bradford Syke’s review  at Crikey online. Not only does he get the casting right and agrees with me on several points. But he adds something missing from my review which has been weighing on my conscience since I posted it. For all our reservations about the production (and Syke is tougher than me on director Benedict Andrews), he gives over some paragraphs to the acting  - the excellent, verging on brilliant performances by all three actors: Cate Blanchett, Isobel Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki. To come in so hard on some aspects of the production and not acknowledge its areas of achievement is both insulting to such high-calibre actors and poor criticism (if that’s how writing about this work online can fairly be described). So I encourage you to go to Syke’s review – not just for the ‘negative’ points we agree on, but also take a look at his paragraphs on acting – which with, in hindsight I whole-heartedly concur. When a friend in the profession kindly pointed out my mixing  up of names, he reminded that my blog has one eye on the historical record. That’s true, so a good reason to get the casting right. But also fill in the yawning gap: regarding references to the performances. In whatever circumstances wee were lucky to have three such fine actors all on stage in Sydney together.

    Huppert & Blanchett – conspiring sisters deep in role play

    One paragraph I cut from the ABR review before I presented it to them, for want of space had to do with  the casting. Say if you are stuck with the inevitability of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle  Huppert and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki. We have a situation here on stage that many have commented on: the ‘maids’ did not look anything like sisters (Blanchett and Huppert), and further credibility is diminished in the fact that we have one sister (Blanchett) speaking Australian. And the other (Huppert) not only in English with a heavy french accent, but also so fast, many of her lines were lost – on the opening night audience at least. We also have a beautiful blonde (Blanchett) and Huppert with dark hair and rather plain looking (I don’t quite know how that is achieved given Huppert is one of France’s more visually spell-binding screen actresses?)

    That we have a problem  - and a suitable solution – arrives when young Elizabeth Debicki flaunts in midway through the action. For a newcomer, up against two superstars it’s dazzling to watch her maintain total power. Blonde and beautiful and with  an Aussie accent I think ‘Debicki could easily be Blanchett’s sister’. If six inches taller.

    Debbicki (as Madame) makes her entrance.

    Debicki (as Madame) makes her ‘classy’ entrance

    So here was my thought. Why wouldn’t you cast Debicki and Blanchett as the sisters. And Huppert as Madame. She’s on stage for less time, but you could hardly say the role of Madame is less significant. More importantly, her different’ look’ would make more sense. More so her French accent, which could be genuine or ‘fake’ (put-on to delineate superiority), would transform itself into a very big positive.

    Debicki (Madame) & Blanchett (Claire) could easily be sisters.

    That’s all for now. I hope you do go read my review for ABR link above. And can I say in passing. Just as this posting is way over due, so is my review of Angels In America – which in a single word is ‘fabulous’. Want more? ‘Perfectly cast’ and ‘very well directed’ by Eamon Flack.

    “Drowning’ in work!

    Why the delays? My National Library work at the moment – the typing part – is taking up pretty much all my time. As my source of income (and fascinating work it is) I am way overdue with a pile of stuff. Some good news (I hope), quite soon my website is going to be redesigned with more options for me as post host and for you as reader. More stuff, a wider range of subject areas,  more often, in various categories and formats. So don’t give up on me just now. Keep an eye out – this site will probably flip over to its new look in about a month. That’s the plan – will report in on progress here and on FBook.

     

     

     

  • 09 Jun 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

     

    John Bell in full command!

    As every mood or odd behaviour is given a name (diagnosis) these days and a pill to match, there must surely be something coming down the line for the panic and guilt of theatre (reviewers) onliners who just cannot keep up with the number of shows worth substantial comment. There are about six shows I’ve seen of late I would like to write about but will never get to. And a pair of big ones in the writing pipeline: Angels In America at Belvoir which I have seen and is very good; and The Maids at the STC which I saw last night. Also good in a mightily different way.

    The modern mess-of-a-society set – designed by Stephen Curtis.

    But to my purpose. No matter what burdens and excitements an online reviewer might face, his or her world simply has to stop to make way for the very rare moments when greatness is witnessed. Especially on this site, which concentrates on value (in the long and short term) rather than a quick thumbs up or thumbs formula. Consequently, I have a duty to and the honour of acknowledging John Bell’s extraordinary rendition of Falstaff in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of Henry IV. It’s a condensed version of Part One and Part Two (separate plays) and for modern audiences it’s a good idea and in this version works well. The production as a whole is good and lively in the way one might expect of a production John Bell also directs, with support in detail from Sport For Jove’s Damian Ryan. I’ve rarely loved Bell’s directing as much as his  best performances. And when it comes to acting he has two speeds: 1. respectable and 2. mind-blowingly brilliant. Of the latter that I have seen that immediately come to mind are his original Arturo Ui, his Cyrano, his Kosky Lear, Astrov in Mellor’s Uncle Vanya in the dying days of Nimrod, Prospero on Armfield’s Tempest. Oh and a gloomy, abrupt, daunting Sebryakov in Tamas Ascher’s recent STC production of Uncle Vanya, with its all-star cast and overseas tour.

    John Bell as Richard III (Bell Shakespeare Company).

    This Falstaff has received little fanfare – maybe I have not been paying attention. In the fair world it should be the talk of the town. In earlier decades it would have been.. Even I only heard about this career high point in time to catch the last performance. It is a dark broody, funny exasperating, physically ruined but mentally superior,  perfectly articulated Falstaff. You only have to look at a few photos of other attempts to pick up the Santa-Clause belly-wobbling ho-ho jollity favoured by tradition. Bell knows his Shakespeare to his bones: not just the works themselves, but he has a deep intuitive feel for the sensibility, intent, mood and mind of the greatest ever of playwrights.

    Falstaff is traditionally played as a bloated piece of fun – and that’s just too simplistic. He is vital to our understanding of Hal’s journey from boy to man, prince to king. Bell sets himself apart from above-mentioned theatre-lite cliche. He knows that to truly pull off the study of Hal’s shift from youthful self-indulgence to sobriety and respect (now king) for the the traditions he previously mocked, Shakespeare relies on Falstaff crucially as  mirror and a foil. Casting out of court his great fun-buddy, cohort, and father substitute, Henry V does so resoundingly in very few words at the coronation, is one of the most important scenes in he play. (Images above include some from productions of Verdi’s opera and famous paintings, but they all reinforce the point  - that Falstaff is too often portrayed as Santa Claus).

    In battle – for what?

    In this version, Falstaff’s downfall is as cutting as politics gets. And we feel its brutality because of the very complex, heartfelt, beloved and flawed Falstaff Bell has created. Pathos, bathos, hilarity, dignity, as gross as it is elegantly drawn.

    Fallen from a great height.

    As is the case of many a Bell Shakespeare production, and these days I dont see them all, the casting is uneven – and it shows in the performances. I don’t like being unkind to young actors who may yet  blossom, but Matthew Moore barely makes a mark as Hal.  It’s good but lacking in largesse. So sadly, much of what Bell delivers falls flat due to lack of reception. That’s a pity and may be why more has not been said/written about Bell’s performance. I don’t mean to pick on Moore, it’s not his fault. But you have to ask where is the fire in thee belly. Who can forget Joel Edgerton in the part for Bell Shakespeare (both Henry IV plays in full)? Most of the younger actors in this production produce underwhelming results, More senior actors meet standards commensurate with their age and experience. And as a whole, the evening is pretty good.

    Matthew Moore as Hal – a good effort if not quite rousing enough. In the moment here…

    This isn’t a full review, it’s just a chance taken to put on the record a performance by John Bell at his greatest. I feel grateful to have seen it. and it will stay with me among other treasure in my small chest of great theatre encounters.

    Dressing room honours for the great John Bell.

    Meanwhile here’s to the great master John Bell. A big tick for bringing to life yet another of theatre-writing’s great characters!

    For more on John Bell’s acting career go to this essay by Louis Nowra published in The Monthly in 2011 – it’s a very discerning evaluation.

     

  • 22 May 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

     

    Sarah Pierse and Robert Menzies

    ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI

    Fury, currently playing at the STC Wharf One is both an impressive achievement and an interesting slap across the face for me – or at least someone I used to be. On the former – the achievement, read more below. But let’s just set this up. As part of my journey as a reviewer, over many years now, I have probably spent as much time lying on the couch looking for answers from the ceiling, as I have spent on seeing shows or writing about them. I have built into me now a set of ‘foundations’ and ‘principles’ from which emerges my reading of any new production. It’s my own self-help guide constructed mostly out of trying to rectify mistakes. Near the top of the list: early on I realised that the call for objectivity from a critic was utter bunkum. The more realistic path, wherever possible, was to attempt to show your hand. Never to assume that one’s owns views are superior, but that in explaining how one came to these conclusions one might create some interesting reading. 

    This should mean that even a reader who disagrees with what you have to say can come away from your review stimulated by that experience. You may move some to a position closer to your own, or you may not. That is not the point. The point is that reviewing is a highly ‘subjective’ act. The question is not ‘what’ but ‘why’: why do we prefer one production-script-performance over another? It is in part a delusional exercise because one can never really know. For example: what is taste and its role in one’s critical tool kit? Or sensibility? Or what we had for dinner before the show? Hence the hours on the couch. In the very least we must attempt to reman alert, keep an eye out for our blind spots even though we will never come to know all of them. 

    Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury takes me to the heart of one of my most frequently exposed built-in blind spots. From my earliest writing I have had little interest in the problems of the ‘well-off’. To the point where it took Mozart to convince me open my mind to the work of other art and artists supported by royal courts across Europe in that time. To this extent I fit into the generational mould of the parents in Murray-Smith’s Fury. Okay, I have not done quite as well as they have financially over the ensuing decades. But back in my university days I was similarly influenced by the view that ‘direct action’ was needed and possibly justifiable to bring down the ‘establishment’. It was a global movement, most intensely embodied in groups like Italy’s Red Brigade and Germany’s spin-off, the Baader-Meinhof group. It was the birth of modern ‘terrorism’: it drove the Black Panther movement in the USA and the IRA in Ireland. Direct action rarely went to such extremes in Australia (although there was the ‘Hilton Bombing’ in Sydney).

    I think I baulked sat the idea of bystanders as ‘collateral damage. But I do remember sitting around a table of university comrades smoking marijuana ($30 an ounce back then) and supping red wine from a flagon, discussing who we might blow up if we were terrorists. My suggestion, a young woman of roughly our age, who reeked of privilege – otherwise sinless  apart from being her father’s daughter. In 2013 she is now Australia’s richest woman/person (worth over 20 billion dollars – four times wealthier then her closest competitor Frank Lowy). How good was that for a pick, way back then, if you were out to shape the course of history. Or simply eliminate a creepy person from her position of influence in today’s Australia. On the up side, had I ‘enacted’, we may never have enjoyed the Dallas-like shenanigans that followed the employment (initially hired by Gina) of a Filipina maid named Rose (or the musical starring Paul Capsis that begs to be written by someone – one day I hope).

    PS: to this day I say jokingly (perhaps not jokingly): ‘If I wasn’t a pacifist I would be a terrorist.’

    Okay money can’t buy happiness in its entirety, but it can minimise a lot of the pain poorer people are born to suffer. Fury is a play about problems in a well-off family. I have become less strident with the years (which is common) and I’ve known for some time that the life of any type or class of person can rightly merit the attention of a playwright. And many rich people do a lot of good with their money. And I am sorry I had not yet come to that view in my early days as a reviewer in my 20s when I savaged so much presented in Richard Wherrett’s era as artistic director of the STC. That said, I may still come to the same evaluations now. Because it’s not that so many of these plays (by David Williamson and others) were about a well-off class people, but that the characters in these stories in the end were so often let off the hook. Infidelities to one side, the institution of marriage upheld, and the family returned to the dining table ready to break bread and enjoy one of father’s better wines from his cellar. As audience members we had been teased and mildly provoked. Acknowledging our imperfections, we drove home to our lives unchanged, our foibles more-or-less ‘endorsed’. Resolutions utterly at odds with the brutal endings being produced by the best filmmakers from Germany and France and Italy at the time: Schlondorff”s version of Heinrich Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katerina Bloom a favourite for me on the topic of the ‘down’ side of terrorism. The more recent Spanish film El Lobo, ‘The Wolf’, based on a true 1970s story also captures the gripping taste of the terror. 

    Sarah Pierse 

    Joanna Murray does NOT let her family off the hook in Fury. She presents good lovely educated tasteful people – and they are all those things. But one can never presume seemingly good people have led entirely good lives. Her study does not lack  compassion but nor does it wimp out.

    I won’t go into the plot (it’s not for spoiling – with its artfully constructed narrative line). But let’s just say Mum and Dad are shocked to discover their perfectly brought-up son has done something wrong. Utterly, and seemingly inexplicably, at odds with everything the family believes in and, up until now, presumably these values have been absorbed by their son while growing up? The parents are not impressed and they let it be known. No matter how drunk, influenced by others, or just plain silly a mood he was in – there was no excuse. Emotionally the boy is shunned. Meanwhile the parents look elsewhere for others to blame.

    Well then – as we find out. How about what Mum did when she was about the same age? When all that comes out, Dad comforts his wife. ‘They were different times.’ ‘That was part of the era.’ In the end this unfair protection racket put up against the sins of the son in favour off the mother’s fails to hold up. No walking away from the ending of Fury free and easy. There were loud painful gasps of what felt like self-identification in the withering closing scenes of the play. I certainly felt them in my stomach. This is a play worthy of high praise, not only for taking on the bourgeois mould and unpacking it. But to do so, it needed the skill of a surgeon. I gather director Andrew Upton did encourage Murray-Smith to trim off a little of the play’s flesh before opening. If so, it was a job well done because the passage of the play remains taut, and the bones that hold it together at a structural level are there for us to see. For playwriting craft, it is as close to Ibsen as I have encountered in a long time. In preparation for something I have to say at the end, let’s also remember director Andrew Upton might be new to directing, but his metier is playwriting; and and more often than not in the area of script doctoring – which to me includes his translations into English of, now, a good number of other language classics. I have not seen a lot of Joanna Murray-Smith’s work, and of that I have seen I was aware that I had to take into account my built-in prejudice against plays about the sufferings of the well off. That acknowledged, I still remained ‘iffy’ about some of her work. Quite clearly not this time. This is the world she knows, was brought up in – and it’s mostly best for writers stay as close to that as they can. But taking the bourgeois model, placing it there up on stage before us, and then exquisitely dismantling it, scene by scene, makes this not only a great play. But a breakthrough moment for Murray-Smith.

    Harry Greenwood, Geraldine Hakewill, Sarah Peirse and Robert Menzies

    I could say a lot more about  Fury, but I have already spent days in trying to get right the little that is here. I am presuming readers here on my site seek out other opinions as well. Please go elsewhere for more detail and likely different. So just a few other brief – not unimportant – acknowledgements. Andrew Upton does a fantastic job directing this play. Everyone knows I have got a bit sick of the recent fashion for multi-skilling. And as a writer and translater he did not have enough directing experience to pull off directing Bulgakov’e large-scale The White Guard, a play he had translated for the National in London, where in the hands of a more experienced director it was well received. Fury is a better choice. The cast is smaller, the drama is – while at times explosive – well contained. It’s in Wharf One not the huge Sydney Theatre across the road. And most importantly, it’s a play that requires a director with the thinking power to match that of Joanna Murray-Smith. What this play has to offer its audiences rings out loud and clear, nothing messy, under-realised or over-stated.  I feel a huge personal relief to put those words into print, because Andrew Upton has been on the receiving end of some tough words from me. To his credit, he has remained professionally respectful, indeed welcoming and cheery when our paths have crossed. Here is a job by Upton very well done.

    One last comment. It’s a good cast all round, but one particular performance stands out. Of course one can never go past the work of Robert Menzies, who plays the father. But it is the performance of Sarah Peirse I want to privilege. New Zealand born and bred, she is well known there for her  work. I first encountered Peirse in Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Gethsemane – where she certainly caught my eye – ‘classy’ I thought. Her next Sydney encounter, also at Belvoir, was in the dreadful Business. That production offered her nothing to work with and I would not be surprised if it was an experience she would rather forget. Now here, in Fury, she is offered a fabulous role and it plays to her strengths. Peirse, whatever else she has in her bag of tricks, appears naturally sophisticated, stylish, worldly-wise and in full command of her body as an instrument. There are little things she does with her hands and her head, and the way she begins a sentence which in a less-skilled actress might appear as ‘ticks’. But in Pierse, guided by years of experience, she knows not to rely on her best moves to keep her afloat, but more judiciously picks the moments when we realise only Sarah Pierse can get away with that (something similar could be said of Judy Davis at times). I know I might have been going a bit actress crazy of late. Most recently putting Helen Thomson up on a pedestal. For credibility’s sake, let’s call that the pedestal for ‘a young actress’. So for Sarah Pierse we need another pedestal – for an actress ‘at the height of her powers’.

    Sarah Pierse and Geraldine Hakewell

    As you can tell, I had a good time at Fury. I was fully engaged as well as impressed. And I loved how it forced me back into the cauldron of my working principles – reminding me that judgement is always driven by hidden forces. We can never know them all, but  we must do our best as critics – to continually ask not ‘what’ so much as ‘why’. The STC is having a great year. It’s been a long time coming, but not for want of effort. Looking ahead, I would be very surprised if there is not going to be more good stuff for us from the STC this year.

    The ‘something I have to say’ referred to near the top has to do with the editing of Tom Holloway’s Forget Me Not. It’s a play and production that merits a fulsome response. Separately and together, both have very many virtues. I am a big Tom Holloway fan. And I know it’s not fair to leave a comment like this hanging. Where is the ‘why’? But I did wonder about the trimming of that script – was too much taken out? Unlike the excellent editing of Fury, it felt like bits of Forget  Me Not were missing. And I know it was trimmed at some point in the development process. My feeling was that the gifted Colin Moody was not given enough material to work with – whether they were cuts from his own role or that of his long lost mother. I don’t know when I will get to that play/production – I may not – but if I can I will.

     

  • 14 Apr 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Not since the 2009 Sydney Festival presented Tamas Ascher’s Ivanov (with his Budapest-based ensemble company Katona József Theatre) has this city seen such a meticulously honed comedy. Though at least two locals works should be respected in this context. John Bell’s  2007 two-man version of The Government Inspector starring William Zappa and Darren Gilshenan, and Richard Cottrell’s 2009 production for the Sydney Theatre Company of  Tom Stoppard’s Travesties with a stellar cast including Toby Schmitz, Jonathan Biggins, Blazey Best, Rebecca Massey, and again William Zappa.

    Owain Arthur

    ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI

    One Man Two Guvnors is a bold (indeed brilliant) reworking by Richard Bean of the plot of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 Commedia dell’Arte masterpiece, Servant of Two Masters. When I say reworking, I mean the elaborate comedy featuring pace, identity confusion, sight gags, witty double entendres, audience interaction and stereotypical characters are maintained. The difference here is re-setting almost the same story in the ‘swingin’ 1960′s seaside resort town of Brighton. The ‘stereotypical’ characters, in this version are drawn from a long British comic tradition going as far back as the Restoration, especially the  Carry On movie series, and more recently On the Buses, George and Mildred, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Are You Being Served. There is even a nod and a wink to this tradition (along with other Stoppardian cultural plundring) in Travesties. No other country produces anything else like it, with Australia specialising in a more laconic self-deprecating style. And America’s love of laughing at other people, especially those less ‘advanced’ (The Gods Must Be Crazy II on tele last night).

    Amy Booth-Steel, Colin Mace and Owain Arthur

    I am not going to go on at length about this production but to simply say it  is dazzlingly perfect. With triple the challenge of keeping us engaged because, unlike Ivanov, it is almost entirely devoid of ‘serious’ content – what we might call a ‘serious  theme’. We are here to be drawn into a world fancy and fantasy and kept there to the very end by means of consummate technical execution. The production, I should say up early, was created/directed by the National Theatre’s top honcho Nicholas Hytner with the assistance of Physical Comedy Director, Cal McCrystal.

    Edward Bennett and Mark Jackson

    I can praise the technical accomplishment with confidence  because I saw a screening of a live performance of the National’s original production some time late last year in the same Sydney Theatre. So this time I could sit back and see how all the so many pieces of this Swiss clock were put together. To my delight, a couple of the biggest gags I had forgotten and swooped on me in seagull chip-stealing surprise.On the subject of technique. I can’t say how often we miss the mark in doing plays like this in this country. To give us our due, no other nation in the world would be likely to succeed with an attempt at Dimboola or The Hills Family Show. We do ‘messy’ very well. But ‘messy’ is death to this genre of British entertainment.

    Joshua Lacey, Owain Arthur and Edward Bennett

    Kellie Shirley and Rosie Wyatt

    I recommend this production to anyone who wants a good time. But more so to anyone in the business who thinks one day they may direct or act in a British comedy of this sort. Or even to anyone who has an interest in witnessing an example of theatre-making to perfection. I love the idea that a work for the stage can be so technically impressive, albeit steeped in tradition, entirely engage and need not carry a ‘message’. That low art can be elevated, through sheer execution, to high art. I know the tickets are not cheap, but if you are an emerging theatre maker I urge you to find a way to a performance  if you can. It’s like seeing, just once, Nureyev dance or Sutherland sing. That may be a slight exaggeration – or to might not. It depends to what extent you read this work to be a celebration of a special and very demanding theatrical genre. Like Butoh.

    Amy Booth-Steel

    Another lovely touch are the music interludes, mostly a look-a-like 60s pop band – but some of the actors get a chance at the microphone as well.

    Edward Bennett

    For the record the star of the show is Owain Arthur, in perfect collusion with Edward Bennett, Amy Booth-Steel, Sabrina Carter, Peter Caulfield, Nick Cavaliere, Alicia Davies, Richie Hart, Mark Jackson, Colin Mace, Oliver Seymour Marsh, Mark Monero, Alan Pearson, Kellie Shirley, Seun Shote, Billy Stookes, Philip Murray Warson, Russell Wilcox, Leon Williams, Matthew Woodyatt, Rosie Wyatt. This revival has been spiffily redirected by Adam Penford. The team: Designer – Mark Thompson. Lighting Designer – Mark Henderson. Music (including songs) – Grant Olding. Sound Designer – Paul Arditti. Fight Director – Kate Waters.

    Owain Arthur with full cast

    Another feature of this production I want to mention is its sustainability. It’s played at the National on the South Bank, on the West End, Broadway, and even in Adelaide before arriving in Sydney. It has more stops to go including Melbourne next. The work is hugely demanding physically, especially for Owain Arthur who is rarely off stage, and for most part at full speed and high tilt. Yet what I saw here in Sydney earlier this week was as fresh and alive as the version I saw in the screen from London many months ago. Pretty much every ‘improvised moment’ is pre-set.  How the cast keep up this illusion deserves a gold medal. No slumming it for the colonials.

  • 03 Apr 2013 /  OPERA, Reviews

     

     

    Opening Night – Photo by James Morgan

    When I read Kevin Jackson’s review of Carmen on the Water I thought to myself: what else is there to say? I agree with all his major points, and cannot improve on his translation of those thoughts into words on the page. What he regards as good and important is good and important to me too. Quibbles over some minor matters in the middle about electronic sound –  I hold a different view. As to his views on the varying vocal strengths and weaknesses, especially among some of the lead men, I probably agree. But I decline to go there officially (as have mentioned before) for lack the  art-of-aural expertise. Above all else, it is Mr Jackson’s ravishing praise for Gale Edwards as a director that I whole-heartedly support. And about which I want to say a bit more at the end. In the main – re:  Edwards and her core design team – and the significance of their achievement in taking on this work in this particular way. It’s not against anything Mr Jackson has to say. It’s just that here I take a different tack from Mr Jackson, my own little bit. But I believe my comments will be make more sense after you have had a good read of his review.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Apart from that, my only contribution to this re-posted post is decorative. The repressed magazine designer in me – also a person who simply loves good pictures –  has added some images of the show in the modest belief they can capture information that cannot always be stuck to the page in words. So here is Mr Jackson’s review with images added by me.

    Carmen

    Posted: 30 Mar 2013 12:52 AM PDT

    Choreography by Kelley Abbey

    Opera Australia presents Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, CARMEN by Georges Bizet.

    All costumes designed by Julie Lynch

    Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) presents its second season, following on from last year’s LA TRAVIATA, with Gale Edwards’ spectacular production of CARMEN by Georges Bizet (1875).

    In the open balmy air of a late Sydney summer, on a stage suspended over the Sydney Harbour foreshore, at the site of the colony’s first farm: Farm Cove (how startled would the ghosts of that first settlement and the indigenous population be tonight?) surrounded by the contemporary skyline of the city of Sydney, with the glowing sails/shells of the Sydney Opera House to one side, in the background, with the passing of harbour ferries and other flotilla, reflecting off the moon struck/lit surface of the harbour waters.

    In keeping with CARMEN’S military theme, HOSH marshalls a veritable army of artists, performers and technical crew, … Regiments include 154 performers kitted out in 284 costumes; 490 staff and crew, together with 50 volunteers. Their arsenal of weaponry includes 1320 metres of LED lighting and two 24-tonne cranes reaching 26 metres in height. While the top brass principals are bunkered down in dressing rooms beneath the stage, the enlisted men and women of the chorus occupy 16 shipping containers set up like barracks beneath the audience seating. At musical HQ, the orchestra pit has been expanded and reinforced to keep the troops happy under the vigilant baton of their musical general.

    Escamillo: another outstanding costume drawing by Julie Lynch

    A spectacle of an opera, indeed. An epic effort of organisation on a scale of shocking dimension and organisational ‘nightmare’ harnessed under the aegis of Ms Edwards. It is a success on almost all value systems.

    SPECTACULAR is the word.

    Brian Thomson’s bull ring

    Brian Thomson has designed a massive abstracted red ringed ‘bull ring’ with a black surfaced (historically, black and red, is, almost, this designer’s signature) raked floor, tipping the cast towards the audience. We see the back side (and, so,back-to-front) huge signage of the name of the opera CARMEN, covered from our point of view, by ladders and platform scaffolding, on which the chorus can look down and participate in the action. The dark outline of a bull sits waiting for its cue to ignite in red neon-like splendour. A centre piece of the upstage of the arena can open hydraulically into a kind of vomitorium, for the entrance and exit of the cigarette girls and patrons of the bullring. Practical, large scale properties – a tank and truck of the era of the Franco war in Spain are craned-in, spectacularly, from opposite sides in act one; as is a large shipping container for the act three warehouse. To capture all of this and support the emotions of the story, the lighting by John Rayment is dramatically bold, matched by costume designer, Julie Lynch, with iconic character splashes of colour:  e.g. blue for the ‘good girl’, Micaela; red for the ‘bad girl’, Carmen and “realisms” of the soldiers uniforms, etc. Clear design solutions for such an epic visual scale problem.

    Installing the Carmen Letters 

     

     All these photos by James Morgan

    To make this operatic piece work at this location, location, location – imaginative staging is demanded. Ms Edwards triumphs in the first three acts with deft and brilliant organisation of the massive ‘crowd’ scenes. But, even more fortuitously, her skill creates dramatic focus and power in the intimate character scenes as well. In the open air with all of the visual dimension of a Sydney night in one of the most glamorous locations in the world, simply with two actors/singers tied to each other, each at one end of a taut rope, Ms Edwards burns into our concentrated memory retinas the great duet between Carmen and Don Jose in act one – it is one example of unforgettable visual staging and powerful storytelling, that she conjures for us throughout the night. Assisting the impact of the work is the Choreography of Kelley Abbey. The opportunity to use the uncurtained space with the densely atmospheric scoring in Bizet’s music preludes and entra-acts are not wasted by these two artists, but seized excitedly, and a thrilling, and sexually propelling blood pump is given to the performance with dynamic dances and dancers (Mr Bonachela-eat your heart out - DE NOVO!!! ). Even the chorus is managed to move as one – a miracle. That that this does not carry through to the last act after the stunning solo of the flaming red ‘skirt’ (Kate Wormald) with the arrival of the bull fight’s crowd, flags and all is, sadly, anti-climatic (perhaps time became a problem?) Fortunately the music is compensation.

    Rinat Shaham sings, dances and moves as one dreams Carmen to be. A great, daring, sexually explosive performance. Dmytro Popov as the hapless, mummy’s boy, psychopathic killer, Don Jose, grew and grew musically through the opera to great account. Nicole Car sang ‘goody two shoes’ Micaela, beautifully – it is, to my ear, the least interesting music. Andrew Jones was a disappointing Escamillo, for whilst looking the part, he did not have the vocal excitements that the role has to give. He could not either with precision or power match his fellow’s powers. Musically the performance dimmed. I also enjoyed Samuel Dundas as Morales, and Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, both these men, singing and physically emanating immense sexual power.

    The orchestra hidden beneath the stage, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gave a wonderful sound, communicated to us, as were the singers by the electronic wizardry of Tony David Cray. Mr Cray must be worth his weight in gold to Opera Australia for the sound was accomplished, indeed – it matches his work that I heard last year in DIE TOTE STADT. I don’t much like the use of electronically amplified sound – there is no real choice, of course, for work on this scale, and, as I have said, well done here – but when the chorus in act four sing the supporting noise in the ring, contrasting to the drama of the final bloody duet on the stage between Don Jose and Carmen, it did not work at all dramatically. The sound is, though softened, still projected at us, and one is not required to endow the moment with a scintilla of our emotional life. Dramatically, the opera performance begins to go off the boil in this production’s final act, and one is not moved, one simply watches – distanced. The sexual empathy of the deaths of Don Jose and Carmen indicated in the pulsing of Bizet’s score and in the action of the libretto, is not posible. It sounds all too mechanical – too, ironically, dead.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – Photo by James Morgan 

    (Diversion: It is my observation that the musical theatre has lost its appealing power as a result of a dependence on the electronic amplification of the singers and the orchestra, (the disaffection from musical theatre began for me with the electronic presentation of the orchestra with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s PROMISES, PROMISES (1968) – remember, that orchestra were in a covered pit too? although, there was a plastic bubble, center-pit, so that the conductor’s head and shoulders could be seen by us!) At the musical theatre today the music is projected AT us.Washing unremittingly, over us, whether we want to hear it or not. No effort is necessary from the audience to engage in any concentrated way. It lands on us unflinchingly. I love it when the performers ‘unplug’ (remember that moment in the Barbara Cook concert at the Lyric Theatre, a few years ago, when, after a long night ofelectronically assisted singing she unplugged for the encores – what a difference in temperature in the audience – how we listened, how we joined Ms Cook in the performance – the contract for listening was changed – it was amazing), and I have noticed when this does occur, all of us audience participants do, lean in to the music, and make a contributive effort to hear the communication. We are invited to work with the unassisted singer/orchestra and real theatrical exchange happens. A Shared Experience.)

    My first introduction to CARMEN was listening to an old 78rpm recording of my dad’s with Lawrence Tibbett, singing on one side of the record, the Toreador Song, from CARMEN, and on the other side, the Te Deum at the end of act one of TOSCA – thrilling. I played it over and over again. I remember the CARMEN JONES (1954) movie musical version with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (sexy film I remember. I was young and probably didn’t know what sexy was, of course! , but I was , strangely, moved) and, perhaps my first full scale opera version of CARMEN was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982 with, the only thing I can really recall, the Josef Svoboda design! – I do remember being disappointed. The film based on the Hemingway novel THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957) with Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Ava Gardener and the Pedro Almodovar film, MATADOR (1986) have always evoked the CARMEN story. Bizet’s L’ARLESIENNE SUITE has always thrilled me. THE PEARL FISHERS, except for that duet, always a bit boring. CARMEN in contrast, always a popular choice. That Georges Bizet died at the age of 36 in 1875, on the 33rd performance of this opera is, surely, one of the great tragedies of operatic history.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – this time in power red – Photo by James Morgan 

    In the essay in the Handa Production program, Philip Sametz tells us:

    “To put Bizet’s death in perspective, had Verdi died at 36 his final opera would have been LUISA MILLER (1849). No RIGOLETTO, no LA TRAVIATA, no IL TROVATORE – no OTELLO ! At that age Wagner had just completed LOHENGRIN. CARMEN was Bizet’s first masterpiece, and his last work. Even at this remove, it is tempting to speculate on what he might have created with the new-found brilliance that calls out to us from every bar of the score.”

    Nicole Car as Micaela & Dmytro Popov as Don Jose

    The international ABC of the Opera repertoire, box office money makers: A for AIDA; B for LA BOHEME; C for CARMEN. Gale Edwards has for Opera Australia given a cash cow, and, by the way, an acclaimed artistic success, with her recent and present version of LA BOHEME. Now with CARMEN another exemplary artistic success – box office too, it seems, looking around me,  no empty seats on the night I went! And, as well, last year, a critically stunning success for one of the world’s most difficult operatic works, Strauss’ SALOME. Dr Haruhisa Handa, the founding Chairman of The International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC), the major sponsor of this work,  and the Opera Australia Board led by Ziggy Switkowski, with Lyndon Terracini as Artistic Director, must be congratulated for the vision and trusting faith that they have had in this great Australian artist. A for AIDA is the only one of the magic three that Ms Edwards has not yet done for the company, it must be next, I guess. One would be foolish not follow through – for the company and the audience.

    To marshall all this company for this HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR production of CARMEN, from the smallest contribution to the larger contributions, and succeed, requires an artist of great vision, will, know how, and tenacity. A personality and passion driven by the muses of the theatre.

    Gale Edwards, deserves congratulations.Bravo.

    Brian Thomson and Gale Edwards with the set model and Julie  Lynch’s costume drawing

    WHAT I WANTED TO ADD IS THIS – AND IT DEPENDED ON YOU HAVING A GOOD LOOK A SOME IMAGES OF THE SHOW

    As Mr Jackson points out Carman along with La Traviata is one of the world’s most popular operas. And without taking anything away from them artistically as complete works of art, it is easy to not pay attention to the actual stories being told. So popular are the tunes. And what we think is our familiarity with the the stories.Gale Edwards is right, the themes in Carmen are progressive even for today – regarding the status women – and the call to arms for those with the opportunity and strength of character to take on patriarchal dominance. In a very wise artistic decision, Edwards moves the time-setting forward from the 1870s to the time of the Franco’s Spain – let’s just say roughly 1940s. Not only are we closer to the story historically, it offers immense freedoms to the designers and choreographer to apply a very fresh and appealing look.

    What we get from set designer Brian Thomson is the best of his personal aesthetic writ large. Mr Jackson talks of the ‘simple’ bull-ring. The red lettering of the name CARMEN 13-metres high is a shout of feminist power cross the harbour addressed to the citizens of Sydney in general. From the audience’s perspective we get the name in reverse (a classic Thomson device) but also a wall of scaffolding that can easily carry at any one time a great number of the production’s 150 approx performers. And the outline of a bull which comes to life at just the right moment. I also really liked how the  back wall (the scaffolding and the letters) not only served to bounce a lot of the sound back to the audience. And equally, how this year the set blocked any view of the Opera House. That’s a big statement to make. That the SOH, in these circumstances, serves as an unhelpful distraction.And that An Opera Australia production can stand on its own two feet (is that four with the bull?) without having to bow and scrape to the Utzon masterpiece.

    Andrew Jones as toreador Escamillo – Photo by James Morgan

    From designer Julie Lynch a much more sexy Modernist look; and the same goes for Kelley Abbey’s fabulous choreography. From lighting designer, John Rayment you get one of the country’s best (in great modesty) ‘serving’ the work of the other creators. You can see from the pictures that the lighting is incredibly spectacular, but it never serves itself. First and foremost, Rayment brings the work of Edwards, Thomson. Lynch and Abbey life. And when i say life – this is a show brimming with passion and life-force without ever stooping to the banal or obvious.

    Chorus – Photo by James Morgan

    Where I differ from Mr Jackson, is that I loved the sound. That’s mainly because (too many rock concerts when young) I rarely find the sound levels in the Joan Sutherland (Opera) Theatre at the SOH big enough to hold my concentration, and I end up spending most of the time studying the directing and acting. Which is fine but I also want to acknowledge this production’s sound designer, Tony David Cray. Some traditionalists my baulk or have quibbles. It’s like moving from test to  one-day cricket. But for me the amplified sound is not just louder. The clarity is also extraordinary and I was drawn much closer to the the listening bit of opera making – probably its most important feature.

    Clearly great progress has clearly been made in ‘sound’ department  of live stage production. Well I can’t imagine Madonna or U2 settling for anything but better than the best.  I mean – when you think of the conditions – outside, wind, the noises fom the harbour and the city. Also placing the subtitles on the lower rim of the slanted platform stage is a plus, easier to read and you miss less of what’s happening on stage. As for the seating, eating, drinking and bathroom areas, lessons were clearly learnt from last year. In 2012 Ross Wallace did a fabulous job in very difficult circumstances. This year Eamon D’Arcy has been able to make improvements. Like the bathrooms with black & white tiled floors even.

    Dmytro Popov as Don Jose & Rinat Sharam as Carmen

    What I am leading to is this. Even if Carman has strong anti-authoritarian feminist themes, much is gained in the telling of this tale outside like this –  ’writ large’. Not all operas could cope with the expansion. But in this instance, I think Carmen is better told big! It’s not just a story about two men and two women – it’s about the society in which they are trapped. And with size the society becomes a much stronger character in its own right.  I think Carmen is improved played outside like this  - at this size (and quality). The large groups of dancers or soldiers are not just there to fill up space or supply a bit of ‘fun’. They give the characters a much more vivid social context. Opera Australia isn’t slumming it here, trying to pull in a few extra bucks, or offering those untutored in the elegance of attending an opera in the Joan Sutherland Theatre a way in. Just as Slumdog Millionaire took movie-making to a new level in the way it used size and numbers to a purpose. So too here. I don’t think every opera would survive the transition, so I look forward to finding out what the choice is for next year. I also think Opera Australia has found the perfect team. Edwards-Thomson-Lynch in particular are definitely a highly prized unit.  And you would pushed to find another team of three in the world who could pull off with such finesse a production of the size and artistic flair as this.

    Photo by James Morgan

  • 11 Mar 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Hi, its now more than a week since I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Belvoir. With a Mardi Gras Parade and Party in between. Plus Library work, plus other shows, etc. The good news is Alison Croggon who eventually caved into the pressures of blogging after I think nine years of devotion, has been salvaged by ABC Arts Online and she has a chance to do what she is so good at in another place in cyberspace. A good and proper result. Meanwhile I struggle , but let’s not sond like a tin drum.

    I thought this Simon Stone directed A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of the worst productions of a good script I have ever encountered. Stone is good and smart and I trust self-assured enuf to take a bitch slap from an old queen like me (on behalf of one of the great theatre queens – Tennessee Williams).

    Consolation for Belvoir is that, the night I saw it, the production appeared to be well received by paying punters. But to someone like myself who has seen a lot of theatre I could only watch in silent horor as this poor little ship of lost and confused characters drove itself into an iceberg. I’ve not seen the play onstage before, but anyone who has seen the film is well aware of the potential to bring to life fabulous characters in a gut-wrenching version of  ’a failing marriage’.

    “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a 1958 American drama film directed by Richard Brooks.[1][2] It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tennessee Williams adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe. One of the top-ten box office hits of 1958, the film stars Elizabeth TaylorPaul Newman and Burl Ives.”

    The play is fabulous and well-constructed, and the film has excellence written all over it. One could dare say the life story of the Hollywood marriage begins with Cat: Taylor (Maggie) and Newman (Brick) are incendiary in the intensity of their struggle to keep their young marriage afloat. In my view the sexiest paring ever in a Hollywood movie – maybe any movie. With the final collapse of the dream a mere eight years later with Elizabeth Taylor again, on this occasion an old marriage, paired with Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A hundred-year history (say 1920 to 2020)  squeezed into less less than a decade – 1958  to 1966 – thematically speaking. In the first we have a couple who can’t conceive because the man does not want to have sex with his wife anymore, not since his best mate has died. A homosexual undercurrent (this is Tennessee Williams remember), quite explicit in the play. And in the film version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we see an older couple initially grieving over the loss of their child and we end up discovering there probably never was one. I know Elizabeth Taylor is much admired for many reasons, but to be remembered forever she would only have had to complete these two roles. I saw a superb stage production of Who’s Afraid..in London some years back at the National starring Paul Eddington and Margaret Tyzack, directed by a woman and designed by a women. A ‘womanly perspective’ was perhaps a key to that production’s wonderful ‘reading’, along with two superb leading  performances. So I know actors (apart from Newman and Taylor) can make this play work. In fact the Old Tote version in 1964 starring Jacqueline Kott, Alex Hay, Wendy Blacklock and Kevin Miles, directed by John Clark is still  remembered by anyone who saw it as one of the highlights of the Old Tote’s era.

    I was not expecting director Simon Stone to cast similarly on the pheromonal ‘richter-scale’ as the Cat film, but there is nothing at all sexy happening here between Jacqueline McKenzie (Maggie) and Ewen Leslie (Brick). They are two of our best actors. As much as a fan as I am of both, I could not see them in these roles – especially as a pair. And I am right, it doesn’t work out. Nopt necessarily their fault  - they appear to get little guidance (or the wrong guidance) from the director. In fact I am starting to suspect Stone (and designer Robert Cousins) when evolving a new show simply ask themselves a hundred times over: what will the audience expect? Well let’s just darn well do the opposite. McKenzie’s greatest stage performance that I have seen  in Sydney was her Joan of Arc – the very definition of NOT sexy. And having missed all Leslie’s Melbourne work of late, I go back to ‘his ‘star is born ‘ moment in The War of the Roses to know that he too is an actor of the highest calibre. My compliant has nothing to do with their private lives, personal  bedroom skills, or even the casting here. But when I saw the McKenzie/Leslie combo I did think: ‘I hope the director knows what he is doing’.

    Ewen Leslie (Brick) and Jacqueline McKenzie (Maggie) – photo by Heidrun Lohr

    On the other hand I was excited in advance in the casting of Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy and was disappointed to see him have to withdraw and be replaced by Marshall Napier – who did extremely well I must say at very short notice. There are other performances that hit the mark, noteably Lynette Curran as the begging mother and Rebecca Massey as the grasping sister-in-law.

    The most obvious problem with this production and just about every person has mentioned it – is the loss of the USA Southern drawl replaced by regular modern Australian. Anyone who reads me would know I have no problem with such a shift in theory.

    It’s also one thing to point to, in this instance, an artistic mistake. Quite another to unpack the reasons that might explain why. is it really or only a matter of accents? Such a discussion would easily  fit inside the larger one we have been having over the past few years on the ripping up, cut-and-past, abridged, edited, updating etc of playwright’s scripts by a new generation of young Australian directors. But why in the case off Tennessee Williams does it come off as such a gaffe. One possibility lies in the intricacy of Williams’ surface – his dialogue (and with that the original accent that goes with it). It’s likely (but not a scientific fact) that if you strip any one of his William’s plays of its high camp-Rococo surface, what lies beneath all  of a sudden appears pretty  thin. A brilliant example of  Marshall McLuhan’s 1960′s observation that ‘the medium is the message’. Extra reading includes Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. The latter being one of the most obvious influences, however out of date, of my way with ‘criticism’.

    For a clue to what I mean: have you have seen Almodovar’s All About My Mother? There are scenes of an actress on stage in a Madrid/Barcelona (I forget) production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a very camp production (in a very camp film). You dont have to be very smart to predict the result of combining Williams and  Almodovar in the cauldron of creativity. And more to the point just these few small scenes in the Almodovar movie carry a gravitas that on a set of comedic scales outweighs this current Belvoir production of A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Sydney by a square root of infinity to one. And note: there were no southern accents: the production was in Spanish. Possibly trash Spanish, I wouldn’t know. But we knew even by way of gesture that we were watching something very camp – within camp. The whole film is camp: and, here’s the droll irony, you wouldn’t have heart if you didn’t want to cry at the end of this film. As  we all should want to cry when we get to the end of pretty much any Tennessee Williams’ play.

    So to say the Australian accents is the primary flaw may not be true. Perhaps better to ask where was the exotica, the frills, the ‘campness’ that by way of contradiction creates the birth of empathy and ultimately grieving in the bodies of production’s the audience.. And if you think ‘camp’ is a derogatory word holding little meaning beyond a slight to a person attempting to light a cigarette a la Bette Davis – go read the other Sontag essay (on that subject) I sited above.

    I generally hold the view that you can do anything to or with a playwright’s script so long as it’s as good or better than what the playwright had in mind. In truth every production of every play, even every performance of the same production is different every night. So it’s not ‘difference’ from some sturdy template that’s been breached here.

    Words (certainly my words here) are ill-equipped to carry the meaning I would wish to capture here – so bear with me as I stumble while I try. In a way it’s the  same difference been believing in astronomy and being asked to believe equally in astrology. It’s by no means an effortless leap. And it takes us into the dark heart of making theatre. Can I defer to the words of a marketing guru from Conde Nast in New York, who came out to speak to those of us (back then) holed up in the grubby Atarmon Vogue office.

    He told us that every magazine title had its own built-in DNA and anyone working on that particular magazine had to submit to that scientific fact. By way of evidence he pointed out that the wrong photo on a cover could cost a million sales and the right photo could add a million sales. And here’s the rub of it: take the photo that failed on one title (say Vogue) and put it on another one targeting a different audience (say TeenVogue), you could have another big sales hit. So while a director may quite rightly refuse to see him or herself as a servant to the so-called ‘author’s intentions’, they may not have been left off the hook to do whatever they want. If you wish to do anything you wan you need to include ‘the words’ on your ‘to-do’ list. Because somewhere in a pre-existing script lies a tiny nano-molecule of DNA which, if you don’t respect it, this thing as tiny and as important as the Higgs-Boson particle will rise up like a fire-spitting gorgon and drag you down into Dante’s sixth (Heresy) or eighth (Fraud) level of hell. Pardon my lavishness.

    It’s a precarious case I put. And it goes hand in and with the other unscientific theory I have as of why we can still see in our minds-eye the best performances forever, while the rest fade away. I say they are printed like an x-ray on our souls. Well how flippy-floppy is that – yet in my view truer than true. Given that Simon Stone is still young and has had a few big hits as well as a couple of mega-misses I decline to pass any further judgement – for now. Other than he’s lucker than other directors of his potential in hitting the big time with so little behind him. Other than ask him to next time ponder prayer-like, as the Cardinals are doing right now in the Sistine Chapel, for even a glimpse of the theatre-art’s version of the Higgs-Boson particle in whatever the play-text he may wish to adore – or maul as is the case here. However Stone or any director goes about their theatre-making experiment, they need a collision – with something so tiny and not yet even certain to exist. But that collision remans a must. What we have here is a speedy whip around Switzerland and part of France – but no impact. Directors – you must look to the text’s DNA – once you have that in your grasp – party up as much as you like.

    At the end of every production of any Tennessee Williams play the audience should be left to heroically weep. I cared nothing for these characters, nor their predicaments. Even the candy-coloured party curtain is a mistake – it’s too strong. Far too dominant. We in the audience suffer no grieving in this version of the Cat On a Hot Tin Roof story. That curtain – the production’s only visual totem – doesn’t work as irony. And it’s surely not trying to tell us that all is well in Big Daddy’s Lear-like kingdom. That we can’t see through the curtain’s shrill cheeriness to what lies behind  is only one of this production’s many problems.

     

     

  • 25 Feb 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE


    ALL PHOTOS BY BRETT BOARDMAN

    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.

     

     

     

     

     

  • 12 Nov 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    By long overdue I mean I should have written about these shows weeks ago – if only life and work were as easy to meld together as one would wish. In terms of one-again off-again, Blogs just don’t work. You take a break – you lose your readers. Do they ever come back? Now is not the time for negativity. What I do want to say is that after a year of debating the viability of this site I have decided to give in one more go. Filling in a few bits meanwhile but starting properly in January 2013. All sorts of factors have held me back. But in my silence people have come to me in foyers to say that they miss my words. So I guess there are more people out there reading me that I thought  – and I need to know that. There is no point giving three days on a blog post if nobody is reading it. I do encourage you all to post a comment now and again: even if it’s just ‘Hi Jim – that was crap.’ Just to reassure me that I am not simply barking at the moon.

    Genevieve Lemon and Colin Friels – Photo by Heidrun Lohr

    For now, an simple acknowledgement of some shows I have seen of late. At Belvoir, Death of a Salesman – I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve changed my mind. I was greatly influenced by Kevin Jackson’s review (no bad thing in itself). But I have decided to stay with my own original view that the ending was just fine. Jackson’s review is fascinating and his argument compelling. But if the end was faulty – as he claims – why would it still be with me so many weeks later. We didn’t lose out in the process of upgrading the text for our own time. And so, I have settled now on the view that this was a fine production, well directed with a fine cast – led magnificently by Colin Friels.

    So much commentary over the past two years has been often focused on this new fashion for ‘mucking around’ with the texts. Text as in what the playwrights wrote. It has to be obvious by now that this is not a passing fad, but a shift in the way theatre is conceived and made – at least in Sydney. It is, as they say in political circles, a ‘new paradigm’. And it is only to be expected that people who come from another time are having difficulty with it. So too are critics. Even enthusiasts like me: because we have not yet worked up a language to appropriately address this re-jig of means and purpose of theatre-making. I have encouraged a new generation to step up to the plate.  Accepting the invite to dinner, it is not my job to then tell them what to out on the banquet table for us to east. Only whether it worked for us or not.  The fact is the era of Neil Armfield and the likes of me are over, as culture changers. We have in 30 years made our bed  and so we must lie on it. Quite proudly I think. And what we are seeing from the best of the next generation is work, at it’s best, takes us to great places, by a markedly different road map.  This does not mean I am not looking forward to Armfield’s 2013 Sydney Festival, a stage adaptation of  production at the STC of Kate Grenville’s wonderful novel The Secret River. I have said a few times in the past, that if Neil Armfield had not contributed so significantly to the era now drawing to a close, I may well not have bothered to proffer my comments from the side-lines. It is true, by now, I can second guess Neil’s approach to staging. And still love it. But it certainly won’t look anything like a production from Simon Stone or Benedict Andrews.

    I thought the production to follow Death of Salesman, that being a ‘version’ of Noel Coward’s comedy Private Lives, was very well done. Here we had another example of, not so much a fad, but changing times. The matter of ‘multi-skilling’ effects so many aspects of the lives of young people these days, why wouldn’t it spill over into theatre making. Actors are writing, writer’s are directing, directors are writing, actors are doing screen as well as the stage. Meanwhile some of them are working  all over the world, but coming home every now and again for something special here. It is no longer a question of:  ‘Is this this approach to theatre-making  valid?’ But rather: ‘Does this example of the new ‘multi-skilling’ and mix-mastering the original script succeed. Benedict Andrews’ Every Breath, which he wrote and directed, did not get over the bar. On the other hand, his recent production of Private Lives, directed by Ralph Myers dis – and at quite a height. And this was, so far as I know, Myers’ his  main-stage directing debut (better known as a gifted designer and currently also Belvoir’s Artistic Director). Not surprisingly Myers designed the set and it fitted the production hand-in-glove. My link widget isn’t working today – so for more detail go to Lloyd Bradford-Syke’s at Crikey. Or go to Belvoir’s website which will link you to other reviews as well.

    Zahra Newman with Toby Schmitz

    Creating comedy is not as easy as it looks, and Myers’ production was  not only radically updated, but light of touch, amusing and very well paced. He had an lovely cast in Eloise Mignon, Toby Schmitz, Zahra Newman, Toby Truslove and Mish Gregor- who gave of themselves full. They were all the right people for these roles: they knew what was expected from them and it caused the production to sing. An aesthetically united production team as well: costumes – Alice Babidge, lights – Damien Cooper and sound – Stephan Gregory. If these names are starting to sound familiar at Belvior, well why not? There’s something to be said for team-work especially in theatre-making, and Armfield had his favourites too for the same reason. The show has just closed – but it was a a great way to broach the end of the 2012 season. One last show left for Upstairs opening 17 November – Beautiful One Day – based on a notorious ‘ death in custody’ case on Palm Island a few years’ back.

    Ryan Corr with Jacqueline McKenzie – Sex With Strangers: Photo by Brett Boardman

    Ian Meadows in Between Two Waves

    Readers I wanted to go on and write about the STC’s production of Sex With Strangers with Jacqueline McKenzie and Ryan Corr – masterfully directed by screen-director Jocelyn Moorhouse. And Griffin’s excellent production of Ian Meadows’ new play Between Two Waves, with Meadows in the lead role. But I keep crashing and I am afraid I will lose all the above at any minute. So I will post what’s here today. Get on with some prep for a National Library interview booked in for this afternoon. And get back to the other two productions as soon as I can. Both deserve high praise. With regard to the latter, my understanding is that Meadows did not expect to play the lead role – and had to be coaxed into it. That was a good idea – but Meadows has been multi-skilling as an actor and writer for some time now. It’s a very sensitive realisation of a troubled character – I have to admit one whose concerns I share and often also find disabling.