• 21 Oct 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    I put a shorter version of this post up on Facebook initially where I thought more people might read it immediately. It is here now for the record. If you want more on details about the show, go to this website ‘A View From Moving Windows’. It will tell you who has been involved in this production for the 2012 True West season production currently playing at Riverside Parramatta (for one more week only): production people, the writers, actors etc. In fact it tells you a lot more than that: there’s a blog on process, lots of photos – and all the stuff younger-than-me people can do on a website.  And if you go it after you’ve read what’s here, you should have an even better idea of  why I liked this show so much. Below belongs to no great tradition in critical commentary – it is more a love letter to a friend climbing the early steep peaks of a great life as a theatre-maker. I have added a few sentences here and there for extra detail.

     

    Everyone knows Augusta Supple and I have formed a mighty friendship and it’s not just coz we like each other as people and share a lot of values. Augusta is a player and I am a watcher – and I have followed her creative journey closely over past four years – and not missed much. Occasionally I have offered back-up when the rest of the world seemed to be somewhat confused or intimidated by her talent. A View from Moving Windows is not a show that suggests promise: it’s a lot better than that. Augusta’s Joan-of-Art commitment to new theatre writing craft has been to swim against the current current. Some have been either troubled or confused by her multi-skilling – is she a bloggist, a producer, administrator, Board member, a writer and/or director – or what? In her case these are not endeavours pulling her apart. Let’s just say she is a theatre-maker first and foremost – and she is carving a space out for herself (a bit like Scott Rankin did in the early years of Big hArt) in a tight little theatre world where if you don’t fit into an pre-existing box you will find it very difficult to even make a start. Augusta’s unique gift is to make larger artistically uncompromising work (thus far on the smell of an oil rag) whilst never failing to treat her co-workers with affection, loyalty and respect.

    Here we have an elevation of the idea that spurred on Stories from the 428 where a group of talented writers wrote short pieces to a theme: taking the bus from Circular Quay to Marrickville. That project involved a large number of writers, actors AND directors. The separate pieces then combined to fit into a single evening, contained within an over-arching shape by August Supple who had directed a few of the pieces herself.  There was a unity of feel, but the ride at times was a bit bumpy. Here Augusta Supple goes one step further and directs all the works, with a little help on the choreographic side by Chloe Fournier. What I found astonishing here, despite my familiarity with so many aspects of Augusta’s work, is the quality of the  directing. The  action is light and springy, we range deftly over vast seas of emotion – in solos, duets and big (overcrowded train) scenes. The writers on this project – since it is the writer Augusta privileges as the primary theatre-making creator – are: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Jessica Bellamy, John AD Fraser, Noelle Janaczewska, Nick Parsons, Teil-Kim Pok, Emrys Quin and Alison Rooke. If you don’t know these names than you’re not paying attention. Here is the fountain source of future playwriting in Australia. And butting against the system in this city Augusta is giving them all a chance to grow their craft.

    I found all the writing good here and some of it fabulous. Little of it you would call truly naturalistic – it feels like that at times along way. But in almost all cases, somewhere, you sense the gears change. A subtle shift that suggests these writers are also actually experimenting with form (as our writers so need to if they are ever going to get back to significance as culture contributors) As someone who has had the odd encounter with a train I found these so many different views on/experiences of train exciting and freeing. There are many different kinds of people traveling on these trains – some hurt, some a little mad, some a little annoying, others funny: yet all are good people. And that’s the shows gift to its audience. Its aura of civilised compassion.

    As for directorial skills: this is a very artfully composed work. Nifty, smooth, a light touch – never bringing attention to the fact that Augusta’s directorial skills are formidable. It’s not Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook who have millions of dollars to spend on every show, years of experience, and years and months to make a show. But you know ‘A View From Moving Windows’ stands up for itself, without qualification, for what it is. Augusta calls on the highest standards from herself and her people – so let’s just call this the finest little show seen in Sydney for a long time. And if you have ever wondered exactly who Augusta Supple is – and what can she do – then do go see this.

  • 16 Sep 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    A bit like its relative the feeble splattered numbat, I can announce today that the staged native Australian play may rarely be sighted but is not extinct. Three promising sightings in week and none are rewrites of geek classics. I am not going to review these plays fulsomely. I wish I could (the earning money thing is still on my back). And, while none are perfect, all are bright and sparky, deserving of  audiences and informed feedback.

    I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard: Wendy Strehlow, Tom Stokes, Caroline Brazier & Andrew McFarlane

    The first sighting was Toby Schmitz’s I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard which is one of those titles that catches your attention without being too literal – like ‘going to bed with a good book’. It’s a play written by someone who is not only familiar with the ‘ins and outs’ of theatre practice, but has also had a good think about the art-form’s traditions and purpose. All this is interwoven through an almost formulaic story: wannabe actor introduces girlfriend (significantly more experienced in the voodoo of theatre craft) to his nice respectable parents. It’s set around a dinner table and as the liquor flows, social boundaries collapse or are wilfully breached. The girlfriend turns out not only to be a ‘free thinker’ (at the table), but she hits on Dad when when he takes her upstairs to show off his nerdy hobby. There was an intention, I understand, from Schmitz to create a major f#ck-off role for an actress. As it turns out there are two. Caroline Brazier plays the key role of Sarah the actress to the hilt. But also Wendy Strehlow absolutely nails the ‘middle-class’ wife, Jackie. The male roles are well by served by Tom Stokes as Luke the under-confident son (clearly Sarah would rather sleep with Tom Stoppard and/or Luke’s father), and Andrew McFarlane as an overly hospitable ‘muddle-class’ dad, Tom.

    I want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard is conventional in form but knowingly so and there is something peculiarly ‘Stoppardian’ (self-reflexive) in that. This is partly ‘theatre about theatre’, a motif we find most prominently in Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead (to be presented in the STC’s next season with Schmitz in one or other of the title roles.) Overall, Schmitz’s handling of his material is deft. At some point I looked into the program thinking this surely can’t be Schmitz’s first attempt at a play. Indeed it is not – just the first one I have seen. He’s been scribbling away on the quite for some time, all the while rising the ranks of ‘who’s who’ in Sydney as an actor.  This is a smart, fun production. Leland Kean’s direction is nuanced, well paced and attentive to detail. I Slept with Tom Stoppard is a TRS production playing at their second venue – the Bondi Pavilion.

    The Lunch Hour: Branden Christine  & Sean Rennie

    Chris Aronsten’s new play, The Lunch Hour, is also a positive sighting. Directed by Kate Gaul and playing at the Darlinghurst Theatre , we have  another play that toys with theatre-making as one of its themes. Stylistically, it’s very different from Schmitz’s creation in working deliberately against our well-worn expectations. This script is overtly innovative, multi-layered, jagged and crunched. It’s odd formulation may irritate some and, while I admit I got a bit confused now and again, I admired the author’s daring. In this instance we have a call centre populated by out-of-work actors, dominated by their drear boss. They are competing in a playwriting competition around which the action in the office twirls. In the second half the workers discover their boss has also written a play, about them.

    Not surprisingly Gaul’s direction is confidant and thorough, and in this instance the action is very pacey and emotions high-pitched. The energetic and energised cast – Angela Bauer, Branden Christine, Briallen Clarke, Bali Pada, Shaun Rennie, Gerry Sont and Sonny Vrebec. It’s a fun, smart, edgy, if at times a little opaque, Indie gig .

    The Lunch Hour: Gerry Sont

    Third cab off the rank was Jonathan Biggins ‘romp com’ Australia Day. Biggins has steadily worked his way up over the years as a comic writer  (notably his annual contributions to the Wharf Revues). It takes time and determination to master the skills of funniness.

    In more recent years, Bi9ggins also honed his skills as public host and master of ceremonies.  This play is built around a ceremony: first half the preparations, the second half the day itself – Australia Day in a smallish country town. The characters are diverse and recognisable – you would say ‘cartoonish’ were they not also carefully humanised. Added to this is an ideal cast, under the baton (‘directed by’ is simply not a good enough term) of Richard Cottrell. No-one else in this country right now possesses anything like the skill to discipline and then let a cast go free to bring to life this kind of comedy. Can I put this another way? Most Australian comedic writing, born especially out of the heyday of Melbourne’s Australian Performing Group – APG  (The Hills Family Show, Dimboola) and Sydney’s Nimrod (Biggles, Hamlet on Ice) works up a madness of laughter out of  laissez-faire messiness. The British tradition from which Richard Cottrell’s skills were spawned demands rigour – a straight back from the actors and impeccable timing.

    Australia Day: Geoff Morrell & David James

    The creative paths of Cottrell and Biggins first crossed on Ying Tong (about the Goons) in a cast which included David James who is in this production too. It was such a success Cottrell was then invited to direct Travesties – one of the STC’s best-ever productions with a cast that included Biggins and Schmitz. Yes it’s all one big mix-and-match family. Australia Day is Biggins chance to show us what he can do as a writer with a large canvas. By and large it works well. My only comment would be is extent to which it flips from funny to serious and back and forth. Mostly a kindly form of satire. But every odd while we get a bit of speechifying. Were Biggins to tackle such a writing project again, he may want to take a closer look at the techniques of Wilde and Orton – where the more serious stuff is embedded in an unbroken comic surface. Not easy – but it never pops out. The cast this time: Valerie Bader, Kaeng Chan, David James, Peter Kowitz, Geoff Morrell and Alison Whyte. Some performances need to settle a bit, but they will.

    Australia Day: Valerie Bader, Alison Whyte & Kaeng Chan

    While the above comments are not quite reviews, I have taken this little bit of time out from other duties to say thank you to the three writers for relieving us, however momentarily, from the passing fad for taking great classical texts and reducing them on the hot stove of vanity to mere spoonfuls of indigestible jus. That said, another dig. If what we have here are actually home-born Australian plays, why are they so conventional in shape. Might we not look to the kangaroo, the platypus and, dare I say, the feeble splattered numbat – for inspiration when it comes to shape/form? Get groov’n kids: take a closer look at Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, by way of example: to date my favourite recent play to successfully push playwriting boundaries. We’re into the second decade of the 21st century. All of these plays, formally, predate Waiting for Godot - which is the combined full stop and exclamation mark of late Modernism. Since then, the mid-150s, we have been sliding backwards. What happened to the breakthroughs by Hibbard and Sewell. No wonder the latest wonder-generation of directors are knocking together their own texts. Auteurs perhaps by default.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The Australian play

  • 21 Jun 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    In fairness to all, this should be a very long, carefully thought out and even more carefully worded response to last night’s premiere of The Histrionic (written by the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and translated by the Melbournian-cum-Sydneysider Tom Wright – resident brain at the Sydney Theatre Company). But it’s not. I am pushing this out beginning at 7am the next morning in an effort to the first critic to give this play and its production the thumbs down. In the hurry I am possibly going to break all or some (of my version of) the rules of criticism I have laid out so carefully over many posts on this site. For starters the grandiose opening statement served unprepared. What we sat through last night was utter rubbish – folly from the moment it was agreed (by whom?) to create a production of this (to our culture) infantile play to the utterly predictable performance from Bille Brown (not his fault) in the lead role (it’s effectively a two-hour monologue) and the over-produced spoilt-brat production rendered by Melbournian-cum-Berliner Daniel Schlusser. Another f8cking rococo-auteur flung from the hurdy gurdy of Melbourne’s art-theatre scene into the embrace of Sydney’s mainstage theatre practice. I’ve got nothing against Barrie Kosky or Simon Stone. Who has been a greater champion of their work than me? But a third in Schlusser? Toss in the equally (or more or less) gifted/problematic Benedict Andrews – who bids/bodes (not from Melbourne) from Adelaide – that Athens in the south. But who shares with the other three an obsession with making Australian versions of German theatre. Whether that is German (specifically Berlin) theatre of the present or of a decade or two ago I can’t say. Last time I was in Berlin the Wall was still up – bricks and all.

    Bille Brown as the thesbian Bruscon & Barry Otto as the Landlord: photo by Jeff Busby

    In fairness, documentation exists which indicates Schlussser has created much good work back home – Melbourne – that little fraying vestige of Mittel-Europe where you are corrected by the waiter if you mispronounce ‘jambon’. I am being a smart-arse. To give the director true credit, go read Alison Croggon‘s rave (and excellently argued) review of The Histrionic which opened at the Malthouse on 11 April 2012 – a few weeks back basically.

    The Histrionic is a play written by a very talented Austrian – who both loved and lashed his homeland in a manner not dissimilar to Patrick White here. I am no expert on Bernhard – but I can say from this play (or do I mean this production – no way of unscrambling this egg) that his concerns bare very little relation to this country’s softer history (pace First Australians) or this country’s far less pompous theatre-making culture. What in Vienna was likely akin to tossing buckets of a sausage-factory waste at those in the most expensive seats in the house, is here no more than a chance to be diverted from the humdrum of our every-day lives with something allegedly artistic  that’s even more hum-drum. In the oeuvre of things this production of The Histrionic sits at the Baal end of the scale – not (sticking Simon Stone for the moment) the elegant and searching  production of Strange Interlude currently playing at Belvoir.

    I have no problem with the odd play from overseas being put up for us to see for no other reason that to know what theatre-makers in other countries are up to. But do all the case studies have to come from Berlin or Vienna? (And yes I’d much rather by typing on my lap-top from a cafe in one of those cities right now.) What about the playscripts emerging from South America, Mexico, Canada – who all share our agony in trying to throw off the yoke of our colonial origins (be they English, Spanish or Portuguese).

    This play is a diatribe against the many in Austria (if the author is correct in making this claim) who have turned a blind eye since 1945 to their complicity in Hitler’s rise to power (beyond offering his mother a manger in which to give give birth). The strength of this play is its capacity to insult Austria’s finest citizens. For goodness sake we don’t even have fine citizens – the powerful people in our society are yobs – aka Gina Rinehart (or should that be Herr Reinhard) and John Singleton. Neither of whom are likely to have ever sat in a theatre. This Thomas Bernhard playscript is the launching pad for an attack. Here in Sydney at the STC’s Wharf Theatre it attacked no one in the room on opening night – and is very unlikely to have that impact on anyone who chooses to buy a ticket to see it.

    Okay so let’s say this production is a chance for the wonderful Bille Brown to sport his wares. Remember his superb Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss at Belvoir  one of my favourite performances by anyone anywhere ever) – where he pushed to the cliff-edge of extravagance for sound dramaturgical reasons. Here we get Brown, as the vain, deluded hack actor, Bruscon, trading in the Wilde silver for identikit in stainless steel. On reading this play, the first person you would think of to play the part would be Bille Brown. But not that Bille Brown – a new one. A different one. What we get here is schtick! All responsibility for this mishap goes to the director. This will read as an odd idea – given how many times I have not been nice to Barry Otto over the years. But he is luminous in his tiny support role here as The Landlord – and has all the wares for a much more surprising and anarchic Bruscon.

    Let me segue for a moment and go Hugo Weaving’s recent rendition of Valmont in the STC’s superb production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses where an essentially extremely humble actor (however skilled) threw himself into a documentation of vanity (sophisticated, duly confident, urbane) that will stick in my mind for at least as long as Brown’s Oscar Wilde survives. That’s what we look for in acting – reach! What we get here is Brown making a big effort to act bad acting well. It might have just been opening night nerves but obvious effort is not a trait that draws one to a performance. It’s precisely the other way round – like Bille Brown and Judy Davis in Andrews’ recent production of The Seagull.

    I’ve run out of steam and I’ve got a life to live. I am sure I’ve created enough grief here to furrow more than one brow. Someone tell me I’m wrong – and why? And I’ll have another go at defending my stance.

    PS: Hitler means nothing to us here in Sydney in 2012 – whereas he probably does still live on in the hearts of many an Austrian (love him or hate him). This production serves no purpose – it’s not even a toy or a lolly or a distraction. This is Schlusser’s Baal.

    THE NEXT DAY

    I declared that this was going to be an intemperate response – and that I would likely break many of my own home-made rules to writing criticism.  Looking over this response I see I did both those things. I have as a result made some small changes and am going to say a little bit more which might better explain my reaction.

    Firstly I cut the last line of what I published because it was personal and just plain rude. There was nothing instructive in it. However intemperate one gets there needs to be a constructive purpose to one’s words. And I have fiddled a bit with my comments about Brown’s acting – basically pointing to the ‘effort’ his performance appeared to show and how effort is the last thing one wants to observe in a big performance. All great acting IS an effort, but it also an effort we in the stalls should not observe.

    Why I want to say more 24 hours later is because I have hit someone over the head with a saucepan in my first experience of his work. And that is the director Daniel Schlusser. I defer to his good reputation and Alison’s admiration for this production. But that’s not quite enough. I am taking much of my vengeance out of the wrong person. I am not going to take back anything I said about the Berlin influence or auteur directing, other than to say that in pointing my guns in those directions I am happening to miss the main target.

    Having calmed a little – what I should be saying is that i don’t like this play. Schlusser has probably done a very good job in bringing it to life (indeed he has – especially visually).  And that the problems I cite with regard to Bille Brown’s performance are less to do with Brown’s acting or Schlusser’s directing than they are to do with the script itself. So here’s what happened. I exited Wharf One unmoved and somewhat puzzled that so much creative effort had gone into bringing to life a script that seemed to me to be of little consequence -even as entertainment. When I got home and read the program notes, that’s when I allowed myself to become angry. One of the most irritating features of this script is the actor Buscon’s insistence that the green emergency exit lights are turned off for the last few minutes of the show – an incessant claim repeated over and over,  that artistic perfection required a civic safety rule to be momentarily broken.

    While watching the play my reaction was: what’s the fuss. It’s a light. Why is this detail so important to the success of the play about to go on? It’s not as if the burghers of the city were uniting to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa. On getting home and climbing into bed with the program, I discover that this is a reference to a real-life event. That the director of one of Bernhard’s plays had been confronted with precisely this problem when premiering it at an important theatre festival. And in fury he cancelled the season after one single performance.In the larger scheme of things like global warming, human trafficking, the millions starving, this seemed a pretty tiny set-back over which to throw a hissy fit. That is what distressed me about this play and its production. I hold to what I say about the director and the lead actor, but they are largely the victims of collateral damage. The very idea that you could turn such a pipsqueak real-life crisis into a major work of art seems childish to me and vainglorious in the extreme.

    It may well be that Bernhard uses this little event as a springboard into a larger attack on the values and priorities of Austrian officialdom. But we shouldn’t need to have read the program notes from cover to cover before we see a production for it to make sense to us. I am delighted that the STC is putting effort into supplying us with more in-depth reading about our experience earlier in the night. But it’s putting the cart before the horse for audience members to fully appreciate the show they have just seen only after they have applauded, the curtain has gone down, they’ve somehow got themselves home – and are only now finding out what it was all about just before turning off the bedside lamp.

    It may be that the production needed to be more ‘critical’ of Buscon’s outlandish and egoistic behaviour for it to work for us – the great egalitarians we Australians are. But there’s another side issue which I failed to raise. While this play is essentially a two-hour monologue, the leading actor is supported by six other actors. Together they get no more than a few dozen lines of dialogue. And separately or together they play no significant role in moving the story forward. By-passing the dramaturgical limpness of their presence, one can see how their presence is also born of the way theatre is made in cities like Berlin and Vienna. Where companies might have 30 and sometimes up to 60 full-time actors on their pay role. In that way of making theatre there is nothing particularly decadent about putting six other actors from the ensemble up there as mere foils for the star turn. Very likely one or more are playing lead roles in others plays in this season’s repertoire. But here in Australia, to have an actor of the quality of Jennifer Vuletic pick up a paycheck weekly for little more than walking around in a strange costume and, towards the end, be smeared with a bit of black on her face is decadent. In our theatre culture it is a waste of talent and of money.

    I don’t know if I have just dug a bigger hole for myself – if so, well all I can say is I felt I needed to. The first version of this review, however correct or incorrect in its analysis, suffered from the same disease as the show I was complaining about. It was hysterical.

    Oh and on that point – you see we could go on. Let’s talk about how women are treated by the author. It may well be that Buscon himself is misogynistic, as opposed to the author. But if that’s the case then the entire production lacked a vital element – and that is irony. I go back to Schlusser and Tom Wright and the STC and Malthouse: is this really the best reading we could give of this play to an Australian audience? Or am I deaf and blind? Is it   that the reading is ironic – ever so subtly ironic, however, that we mere Sydney mortals are just too crude to pick that up? That we were, in fact, being served jambon – and stupid us thought it to be mere ham.

  • 13 May 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Bloodied but unbowed

    Here are the two photos I was going to include towards the bottom of the previous post – but they wouldn’t stick.

    Icarus descends

  • 13 May 2012 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Despite the relaxed freedom a small Asian city offers (I am writing from Chiang Mai), when it comes to this site I feel a bit like an entombed warrior. That I have to climb out to freedom for air by way of a hole that has already been mostly closed over. A few weeks is a long time in Sydney theatre, who would ever have thought.

    I feel thus trapped because I have not until now commented on Babyteeth at Belvoir, written by Rita Kalnejais and directed by Eamon Flack; Every Breath which followed at Belvoir, written and directed by Benedict Andrews; and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, written by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, and guest directed for the Sydney Theatre Company by Griffin’s artistic director Sam Strong.