Well there were a few oldies there: John Bell and Anna Volska, Garry Simpson and his better half, Kevin Jackson, Madame Blinco, Richard Cottrell and young Turnbull! Nice ones – who like to see the future in good hand. Oh and me!
We were more matriachal, patriachal and fraternal (no not frat party) onlookers to another exciting Next Gen move as Tamarama Rock Surfers debuted at their new venue, the theatre upstairs at the Bondi Pavilion. They still keep the Old Fitzroy. Nothing so far has succeeded at this venue for very long. But if anyone can make it work I expect it will be TRS artistic director Leland Keane and his team. They would know better then me, but I suspect success will depend on embedding the theatre into the generally lively milieu that is Bondi Beach and environs. Plenty of bright groovy arty and arts-friendly people live down that way – movie and fashion people as well as writers and theatre folk. Can they be tempted to be drawn into a theatre if they think it is their own? Community and all that…
Last night’s audience meanwhile was mostly the burgeoning younger theatre crowd that is slowly but surely pushing the oldies out of the the way. In their different versions, generational change has now taken place at the STC, Belvoir, Griffin (well the new mood is fresher and image bolder under Sam Strong), and now we have cross-city expansion for TRS! It was an audience, filled to overflowing with varied forms of youthful talent. I could smell not only the future, but increasingly the PRESENT. This is GOOD theatre IN Sydney NOW!
You would know by now I think what is happening in Sydney is largely actor led – or should be – given that we that we have so many good actors. Just as New York has dancers. And when our theatre is especially good, it’s when our writers and directors give these ‘players’ material worthy of their gifts (Speaking in Tongues, The Wild Duck). Certainly, again, the case here. This is a show-piece for one of our very best physical theatre performers.
I have no idea where or how Gilshenan got to be such a fine clown. He’s a 1988 NIDA graduate, but that school has turned out no-one else with this actor’s gift for storytelling through movement. Interestingly, and crucially this solo show – Fools Island - has been especially created for Gilshenan with the help of co-writer Chris Harris and director Chris Jo Turner, who have both studied with the Le Coq movement-focused school in Paris. It shows. I have no idea how this show was put together, and what is meant by ‘script’ here – because the play is without words except for occasional quotes from Shakespeare – The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Tempest, Richard III, many others.
It not just mime tricks with occasional words, a story does unfold. The particulars of the story-line are not always entirely clear. The words take us to deeper places in our mind than the actions alone would allow. More of this needs to come to the surface for this play to reach its potential. But these are early days for a show that will surely fine-tune in front of audiences. You can see that its designed to tour – even internationally. It begs to go to the Edinburgh fringe. That the words are from Shakespeare suggests Gilshenan’s times with the Bell Shakespeare Company have also paid off. I do think all those roles have played their part in getting Gilshenan this far as a rounded, thoughtful and accomplished actor, not just a trickster. No wonder the Bells were up on their feet at the end in deeply felt applause. Sometimes you wonder what all that hard work by the Bell Company will leave behind – here is a most satisfying example.
The story is cute: some pre-human type lands on Earth from outer-space – on a tiny island as big as the stage. We watch on as he learns to move and, in his own way, speak – before he can start to make sense, through a series of strange encounters, of why and what it is like to live here in this crazy place we all call home. This ‘cosmic’ creature, like all good clowns, is born from the core of actor on stage – Gilshenan’s inner self. Oh, and he has an evil twin.
The evolution of the character’s skills in the early part of the play are a marvel to behold. Eventually he masters the English language, and after doing so goes straight to the top. In reaction to the world he discovers – physical, emotional and spiritual – he ends up speaking only famous phrases from Shakespeare. They are a wonderful selection of ‘best bits’. In fact in this theatre, the whole evening has an Elizabethan feel, with the open-thrust stage, and the use of both high and low comedy. Like all good clowns, Gilshenan’s has his not-so-silly side. I wouldn’t necessarily say dark – more mystified. The world is a ‘wonder’ to this clown. As a piece, the show feels of some dopey Gilligan-type has landed on Prospero’s island. What he discovers is more than strange noises – but what else is going on could, at times, do with a bit more clarification.
In time we discover Gilshenan’s performance splitting into two – as the good brother and the bad one – which allows for certain famous Shakespearian themes to be explored from filial loyalty to revenge. Meanwhile the island’s single coconut tree, transmogrified with a few strokes of black marker, into a desirous woman, allows for the exploration those other topics Shakespeare liked to touch on: desire and love. The result is delightful and tender portrait of archetypal man struggling with the basics of existence.
Gilshenan is not alone in the good work. On stage with him is musician and fun maker, Rose Turtle Ertler – her contribution is lovely in itself and beautifully matched.