So it has been the American Century this year at the STC with a string of works which, when lined up in a row, offered us a composite picture of the great democracy’s downfall. Well that’s my one-line precis. I probably would have scribbled it before even seeing any of these plays. Who needs to see a bunch of plays to know America is flushing itself down it’s own toilet. But how and why? Is that where theatre-making can come in?
In chronological order of writing, Our Town (1938), A Streetcar Named Desire (1956), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1956), August: Osage County (2007) and finally Tot Mom (2009), create an arch from small-town blues to big-city scandal. I write this before the 2 November opening of American director Phillip Seymour Hoffmann’s production Sam Shepard’s True West (1980), with Australian actors Wayne Blair and Brendan Cowell.
The main cause of America’s 21st century downfall, as I see it, is not mentioned in any of the plays: what I would diagnose as Evangelical Chatshow Obesity (ECO). Meaning that the American banquet has melted under a blowtorch of self-indulgence into a vat of carcinogenic trans-fats, which the nation’s size 48 citizens flap around in as if attending an invite-only Hugh Hefner pool party.
On a planet obviously overcrowded with hundreds of millions of hungry, shanty-dwelling people, it is bizarre to watch the human race’s most successful country swell up and explode from a galaxy of diseases caused by over-eating fake food smothered in the pus of a hundred thousand septic face-lifts and sterioid-popping zits.
The question about a theatre company creating a concept season, as some arts festivals do, is whether enough people get to see enough of the program for the ideas to work as a package: either on individuals or the mind of the city as a whole. And then where is the published critical commentary that might assist even season ticket holders in making more sense of their experience? In attempting to have a go, let me start by trying to pin down some performance dates.
1 September 2009
A Streetcar Named Desire opens just over a year ago at the Sydney Theatre, starring Cate Blanchett with acclaimed Scandinavian actor, Liv Ullmann, directing. Tours to Washington DC and New York.
17 December 2009
American film director, Steven Soderbergh, premieres his own script, Tot Mom, with an all-Australian cast, Wharf One.
3 July 2010
STC Co-Artistic Director, Andrew Upton directs Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Sydney Theatre, with mixed local and American cast, including William Hurt and Robyn Nevin. Tours to Portland Oregon.
13 August 2010
Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company tours its own production of August: Osage County, Sydney Theatre, after seasons in New York and London.
18 September 2010
Local freelancer, Iain Sinclair, directs an all-Australian cast in Our Town, SOH Drama Theatre.
Let me start with a show I really liked, Steven Soderbergh’s Tot Mom which re-enacted the real-life story of the murder of a child (possibly by her mother) and how that event was taken up with unseemly passion by one particular Florida television news commentator, Nancy Grace. Soderbergh is fast on his turn-around times, as anyone who saw The Girlfriend Experience at the June 2009 Sydney Film Festival would know. That cross-genre cinematic treat spliced documentary, mockumentary and drama into a study of the private life of a high-class hooker. Set in 2008 during the global financial crash, filmed in 2008, it premiered at the January 2009 Sundance Film Festival – a mere six months before being seen in Sydney.
Tot Mom was about the June 2008 disappearance of toddler, Caylee Anthony. Her mother Casey was charged with murder in October 2008, Soderbergh’s dramatisation premiering just over a year later, in advance of the trial scheduled in Florida in 2010.
This drama was not about whether the mother may or may not be guilty. It rightly presumes that this decision remains the province of the courts. Rather, it looks at the role of media in such high-profile cases, with echoes of O. J. Simpson and, more pertinently for Australians – Lindy Chamberlain. There was quite a bit of talk in the Florida media about the point of an Australian stage version of the story. But here our experience is strongly weighted in favour of a ‘presumption of innocence’; or should be, whatever gut instinct tells us, in light of what we and our media did to Lindy Chamberlain.
The form of the work was what made Tot Mom stand out. Not just that all the dialogue came from recorded footage – really real – doco stuff. Essie Davis as Nancy Grace was seen by the audience only on a large screen. To achieve this Davis was locked away in a small room, backstage, facing a camera to deliver this ‘live’ performance. The chat-guests and other ‘commentators’ and local citizens were played by nine other actors (multiple roles) who sat in a row of chairs with their backs to the screen and stepped up to microphones facing the audience to converse with Davis/Grace. The technical demands on all the actors were enormous, and, all being good Australian actors, came up trumps. How anyone can say this was just like watching TV was blind to the conceit. It felt like it, sure. But the construction of that illusion was highly artful.
Indeed while detractors complained that Tot Mom was no different to, or better than, watching a couple of hours of trash reality TV – that, to me, seemed to be its core artistic achievement. To take one art form and render it into another is interesting in itself. Here you could see how the technology/structure of the original art form (television) influenced the production of meaning. Tot Mom was in part a critique of America’s most popular form of critique: ‘reality’ television. And whatever other themes were raised, audience members were forced to ask: ‘Is this the reality America has become?’. It would be great to see this production again, after the others we have seen in the STC series: to reevaluate its insights. In my view, Sydney audiences never quite appreciated just how perceptive and ‘critical’ Tot Mom was. A vintage Soderbergh study of ‘where America is at today’.
And by implication, the satellite state that Australia has become over the same one hundred years. The verdict of innocent decided this week in the Brett Stewart ‘sexual assault’ case should surely encourage us all to ponder the role of our own media in inflaming the public imagination, potentially skewing court-cases, and ultimately putting an innocent person through a lot more than they deserve.
Another point of interest in the Tot Mom production was whether an American celebrity filmmaker was up to the challenge of a directing work for the stage. If he wasn’t, what the heck was he doing taking a job off one of our locals?
This question was in the air because, in my view, the prior appointment of Liv Ullmann to direct A Streetcar Named Desire, did not deliver what it promised. For more on that see my original review. I found Streetcar, despite a wonderful cast, under-directed. And I was not surprised to discover that Ullmann had had little experience as a stage director. Nor was I surprised that the production garnered rave reviews in Washington and New York, given that a cast of this calibre was more than able to knock the production into shape by themselves over time.
Then along comes Soderbergh, also a filmie and no experience with stage directing that I know of; and yet he pulls off what I thought was one of the theatre-making highlights in the last couple of years.
Nothing any of us can do can ensure an artistic success: but hey we can work the variables to the best of our advantage. Personally, I like many aspects of the ‘internationalisation of the STC’s programing, leveraged by Cate Blanchett’s personal status as a ‘film-star’ (as well as being a stage actress of the highest order and, one senses, a savvy, unpretentious, thoughtful, genuinely caring-sharing human being). I hold Andrew Upton also in high regard and together they make a formidable team. Though I do wish Upton (aka Fluffy) would not give up so often in the ‘sartorial stakes’. I know it’s not easy keeping up with Blanchett’s (Glitter’s) skin glow and coat-hanger frame; but a little leadership – like a comb through the thinning locks – might encourage others among the opening night crowd to also keep trying. (Tip: I phone STC PR early afternoon to find out what label/colour Cate is planning to wear that night because I don’t want to clash or, for that matter, steal her thunder.)
Another little secret: all that delicious free food we get to eat! You know Cate bakes all of that at home in Hunters Hills in the afternoon: three mix masters going at once, shaking off the kids clinging to her apron strings, and sometimes even drives the van in (balancing the towering croque en bouche on her lap) all the way over the Gladesville Bridge, etc.
Such seemingly insignificant little homey touches are rightly intended to balance out all that ‘international stuff’ like visiting Hollywood celebrities taking jobs off locals.Yet there have been a range of permutations in the international guest versus local artist stakes at the STC over this American series. There is no pattern to what has worked and what has not. But we can look to what has NOT worked in a couple of instances and ask why. What’s been heartening is the fact that, overall, the local contributions have been as good, some better in quality, than the imported stuff,
A case in point, Iain Sinclair’s finely nuanced all-Sydney production of another American classic, Our Town, currently playing at the Drama Theatre.
The question the Streetcar production did raise was: why Ullmann? And how? How did she get the job? That question has never been satisfactorily answered. Perhaps it has never been asked. Had there been due diligence? Some of the other recent guest American celebrity appearances have also not delivered on their promise. Most notably William Hurt as James Tyrone Snr in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Although it is likely completely untrue, and consequently unfair, there is a smell to these appointments of impromptu conversations (slightly drinken or drunken?) over crystal punch-bowls at Los Angeles award-ceremony after-parties. “Hey, you know we’ve got this cute little theatre on the water down in Sydney. You must come over! What the heck (back-slap).” I think we have a right to be concerned about how Upton and Blanchett do make some of their celebrity appointments after reading how Hurt was invited to play James Tyrone in a production that toured to Portland Oregon following its Sydney Season.
After attending a public forum at which Upton spoke, Oregon’s Barry Johnson (www. artsdispatch.com) documents Upton (I hope correctly?):
“First, maybe you want to know how the show came together in the first place?
Well, it started on the set of this summer’s “Robin Hood,” during which Cate Blanchett (Upton’s wife, they have three sons) and William Hurt struck up a friendship. They even went to the theater together, the three of them, and after a dismal production of “A Winter’s Tale” (see? good actors/director/script, less than brilliant results), Hurt asked Blanchett why she’d avoided the “LA thing” for “something a good deal harder, as we all know,” Upton said. Which also describes Hurt and his continuing passion for theater, I suppose.
Upton and Blanchett had already chosen “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for their next season at the Sydney Theatre Company, and after the ride back from “A Winter’s Tale,” they started pondering Hurt in the role of Tyrone, the family patriarch. (“Theater, good or bad, brings you together,” Upton quipped — which he does on occasion, quip, I mean.)
When Upton later asked Hurt if he’d consider the role, Hurt immediately said yes, because he’d been thinking about the play ever since acting in it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s — with Allen Nause — which Upton didn’t know at the time. And when Upton later asked him if he could recommend a possible theatrical partner in America, Hurt suggested Artists Rep, with whom he’s had two previous successful encounters.”
RETURNING FROM THE THEATRE – LONDON
So simple as simple as that. Hurt is famous and he wants to do the role. Handshake deal. No more questions asked. A mere conversation in the back of a horse-drawn carriage or a limousine. Hurt may have created some memorable screen roles. But as Marlon Brando proved decades back, an actor can only get away with mumbling when a camera is inches from your face. In the big, acoustically unsympathetic Sydney Theatre, Hurt’s performance fell into an abyss of inaudibility somewhere before stalls Row J. From where I was sitting in Row B I received his ‘cinematic’ offering: but in theatre terms, it was nouvelle cuisine: tiny if nicely arranged on a huge plate. Simply not enough.
I will not go into whether or not Hurt was ‘difficult’ in rehearsals or had problems finding his character. I will stick to what I saw on stage, and ask this: ‘how is it possible that an actor capable of little more than the volume and rhetorical formality of a back-seat chat in a hire car get to be cast as James Tyrone? The story tells us early on that Tyrone had trod the boards for half his life as a stage ham in big 19th century American provincial theatres? You don’t even have to meet Hurt in person to know he lacks the vocal/rhetorical resources for this part. That he lacked the stage craft also, I guess, must have come as a bit of a gulping shock.
The actor playing James Tyrone must also be able to emotionally ‘overwhelm’ Mary Tyrone, in this instance, Robyn Nevin. That certainly didn’t happen. It was Robyn Nevin’s show. And whatever garlands we place at her feet for being as good as she was, it is not right that a single performance towers above others in this particular play. This a play composed of duets where pairs of actors should be working together to lift the scenes to the level of high drama.
There is more to say here. It was in my original draft and I cut it out because I thought I had said enough in one piece. But as one reader wrote to me privately – it is the elephant in the room. So I am returning these comments to the post. The other problem with LDJIN was the director’s lack of experience – and this time it’s Andrew Upton. A question via email was posed: was I afraid to ruin my chances to tuck into more of Cate’s home cooking? No, it was not that. But I can see now in looking over the piece where I evaluate the pros and cons of casting choices – both casting actors and directors – Upton’s poor handling of LDJIN needs to be cited. If I am going to put the boot into Liv Ullmann, then where’s the level playing field? Fair enough.
Elephant No 1: despite my general enthusiasm for the Blanchett-Upton leadership model, I am surprised that a writer (Upton) who is cutting his teeth as a director, would be so bold as to take on such a mammoth work. Any artistic project can fail: but when it fails and you have so little experience behind you, then questions are asked. It’s like in politics: not only does it have to be right, it’s also got to LOOK right. And it did not take long into LDJIN for us to start wondering if Upton had bitten off more than he could chew. Don’t ask me how I know this but ‘bit off more than he could chew’ are words straight from the mouth of Mr William Hurt, in reference to Upton’s direction to a colleague working on the show. So he who can’t act (in this instance anyway) criticises he who can’t direct (in this instance anyway). Nice: it must have been a happy rehearsal process.
What I do know, and have said above, is that this is a play essentially composed of huge verbal duets. Pairs of characters – husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son, mother and son – face off and go on huge emotional journeys together. With actors working ‘individually’ in scenes, these journeys almost never got off the ground. At the end of the show we still had four individual characters working by themselves. What was missing – directorial expertise. maybe not a big problem with the right cast: but in the circumstances it was all very unconvincing and certainly not great theatre.
The bottom line is: Upton did no better on LDJIN than Ullmann did on Streetcar, for the same reason: and I gave her a hammering.
It is also not fair to criticise Nevin’s performance when, as my correspondent notes, she was left having to hold up the show almost single-handedly. I had thought I might wait until Upton directed The White Devil in the next season. let this one pass by, not be seen to be discouraging. And see how he went with that before I raised the question of whether he should so take advantage of his status as artistic director to give himself such plum directorial jobs.
While I am in for a penny, I may as well go in for a pound. Or should that be hung for a sheep as I might a lamb? If I am going to be cast out of the city for bursting the Glitter & Fluffy bubble, we might as well get it over and done with. I’ll do what my supporters and loyal readers expect me to: and point to the other elephant in the room.
Elephant No 2: how also do we explain the casting of Robyn Nevin’s daughter in LDJIN as the Maid? Emily Russell did a good job, I am not questioning the validity of her casting from that angle. But at a company where there is a history of playing favourites, and with many young actresses in this city up to the task, this appointment also did not LOOK good. Nevin flaunted the ‘independence’ of her choices when artistic director of the STC, fearlessly, as she ruled the company with an iron hand. There are quite a few actresses in her age bracket who feel she hogged the big roles, as well as directing and running the company. But Upton and Blanchett are presenting as a more caring sharing, democratic model. And in that context, Upton giving himself plum directing jobs he is not yet up to, and casting Nevin’s daughter in a play with her mother in the lead undermines this new artistic team’s credibility.
I am reluctant to drag Emily Russell into this because it is no one’s fault to be someone’s daughter. And I did go out of my way NOT to mention the fact that Russell was related to Nevin in my Platform Paper on the STC Actors Company. When a couple of the younger women left that ensemble part-way through, Nevin invited Russell into the group. Several of those I interviewed for that essay said they were ‘surprised’. There was no auditioning, as there had been when casting the ensemble originally. But they all said Russell was a lovely person and so, in fairness to her – and her right to accept roles offered her – I let her appointment pass. Even though it also LOOKED bad to those for whom the Actors Company project was already leaking credibility.
So I say this now because it is not the first time. I also have to ask myself: did Nevin have any involvement in the casting of Russell in LDJIN? And if not, how could the STC be so insensitive to appearances? Can I also say it is with some relief that Nevin is not appearing in any shows in the 2011 STC season. Not that she would have time: what with two shows at Belvoir and two at the MTC. Perhaps the new STC artistic directors can at last escape Nevin’s long shadow.
Let it also be said that Nevin carried the production on her back with some nice help from popular Oregonian stage actor Todd Van Voris. Unlike Hurt, blogger Johnson tells us: “Upton chose Portlander Todd Van Voris as Jamie Tyrone during a long audition process in Portland, during which he grew increasingly more impressed both by his skills and generosity as an actor.” Well, there you go. Do a bit of homework and you get a result. Van Voris gave a wonderful performance: a kind of – “This is how you do it guys”.
Another excellent example of ‘this is how you do it’, is Iain Sinclair’s production of Our Town. I don’t rush up to directors very often at an opening night party and pour/paw lavish praise. But I did on this occasion. Because I thought by any standard, Sinclair has done a superb job, with an unexpectedly good play, with an outstanding cast. Part of what I like about the production is its simplicity. Intelligently conceived, Sinclair’s Our Town is also beautifully realised.
Handing the bulk of the work over to the actors, some very senior local players are on hand – alongside a mesmerising Darren Gilshanen as the Narrator, there is Toni Scanlan, Susie Prior, Anita Hegh, Russell Kiefel, Christopher Stollery, Josh Quong Tart and Frank Whitten. All create beautifully rounded, heart-pulsing characters. And all work together to create a evocative ‘shared’ world on stage.
But this big cast play also calls for a litter of young folk, and here we got two luminous performances from the teenage lovers, Maeve Dermody and Robin Goldsworthy. Indeed all the young ones down to the littlies, as well as junior teenager Ashleigh Cummings, are disarmingly transparent and confident.
Though I can understand why a few friends who see less theatre than me, don’t quite get it after the razzle-dazzle of August:Osage County. Yes it’s less fireworks, more a slow burn. But the flame is true. Nothing would change my opinion of Our Town as one of the highlight productions of the season. I would also like to bring attention to the the fact that director Iain Sinclair has been honing his craft for years now, and wow, has he taken this main-stage debut opportunity by both hands. He has earned this praise – no fast-tracking for him.
Last year, when I was working on the Currency Press essay on STC Actors Company, Barrie Kosky put the view that the biggest problem with theatre in Australia is the lack of good theatre directors. Or is it, rather, the lack of opportunities we give those we have? After years in the wilderness, Richard Cottrell is back into the STC fold with a production of Loot next year, after his wonderful Travesties and Ying Tong. I hope it is not too long before Sinclair gets another chance. I note Simon Stone is currently flavour of the month and good for him. But in terms of craft, compared to Sinclair and Cottrell, he’s still a novice.
If we return to our starting theme – the American Century: what can the five plays of the last year tell us? Well firstly, a whole lot of people have to see all the plays for thematic programing to work. And then there has to be an opportunity for wide-ranging discussion. Where does that opportunity lie when print media commentary has collapsed and the heavy task of keeping discussion alive has been handed over to a group of volunteers? A round of applause please – I think we ‘on-liners’ (I don’t care for the words ‘blog’ or ‘blogger’ – they sound like steamy dog turds on the shag pile). Yep, we on-liners in Sydney do a pretty good job and there are quite a few of us now (Augusta Supple, Kevin Jackson, Diana Simmonds, Epistemysics, those at australianstage.com, to name but a few). I do recommend that you show your support by dropping in with a comment now and again. Please remember, theatre commentary online is hard work and we are all doing it for free. Altogether hundreds of hours of work – all because the print media has stopped doing its job. Sometimes the silence is discouraging. So it’s up to you guys to let us know if you think its worth our effort to struggle on. Egg us on – even if that means throwing rotten eggs in our direction.
For those few of us lucky enough to see most or all pf the American season - A Streetcar Named Desire, Tot Mom, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, August:Osage County and Our Town – there is a meta-narrative. Or several. Likely each of us walks around with our own in our head, or several. None of these plays are ultimately sentimental, and the way individuals both love and hurt each other in different ways in each of the plays was, for me, one of the motifs that caught my eye. The series, from Our Town to Tot Mom, also documents what we might call the bust up of the American Dream – and at the heart of that, the death of community and the collapse of family.
Then there is the matter of stage craft. While August:Osage County is a throwback to earlier styles (knowingly so), and Streetcar and Long Day’s are both somewhat ungainly Classics, the stand-out works formally are Our Town and Tot Mom: the chronological book-ends to the series. As others have noted, for 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was incredibly groovy – it still is. And for early 21st century, Tot Mom was about as hip as you could get. Stylistically, these two works could not be more different.Yet creatively, both stand on the frontier of their time. And both look at a community, warts and all, and open it wide – unflinchingly – so we can peer in.
One is gentle, the other is savage.
‘As gentle as it has been savage’: I guess that’s one way of describing the last 100 years of America – on the street, in the little towns, the big cities, in the movies, on TV, on stage. ‘Gentle and savage’: that may well describe this essay too.
In the hands of Upton and Blanchett, the STC has expanded its brief to cover a lot more work, and a lot more kinds of work. Under the likes of Richard Wherrett, Wayne Harrison and Robyn Nevin, seasons directly reflected the personal tastes of the artistic director. The Residents, Education and other development streams – including working in partnership with other Sydney-based and interstate companies, together create a much more complex STC brand image. It is definitely not all about directly ‘mirroring’ the tastes of Upton and Blanchett. Their passion and commitment cannot be questioned. But everybody needs feedback, and I hope it is understood that any critical comments I make in this post are done so with the greatest respect.
I believe the first job of the critic is a positive one: to enthuse, celebrate, honour and respect. But for any of that to have meaning, or carry weight, every now and again the critic has has to say: No, not good enough.Or simply ask: What on earth were you thinking? Like dentistry and garbage disposal, criticism is necessary, if not much loved. For those of us who got to see the entire STC American series over this past 12 months, acknowledging a few faults here or there, the project overall – it must be said in closing - has been adventurous, valuable and hugely impressive. Blanchett and Upton are taking the company up to a new ‘international’ level. They just have to not forget that, wherever it ends up, all good theatre – always has and always will – begin at home.
THERE IS NEVER AN END