There is a delicate balance between rushing into print – all gut reaction. And leaving it a while to let your thoughts settle. The life of a work for the stage is like a candle, however, with only so much burning power before it sputters out. Okay we remember core moments from the most ‘luminous’ experiences. But my particular mind has an eject/reject button that works on over-drive – and if I delay a response too long I can be left with a shadow of a shadow receding in darkness – and not a lot to recall. When I was working at the SMH, I gave up taking notes during the show mainly because it irritated neighbours, your head was always down when something good was apparently happening, and the writing in light of day was illegible. So long as I didn’t get waylaid at an after-party (I rarely stayed round in those days – just not the done thing), what I used to do was sleep on it – the show that is – and wait and see what I remembered of it in the morning. Not having a formidable forensic memory like Kevin Jackson, what I woke up to were the highlights, just enough to peg a review on. I let my dreaming do the main evaluation for me. Sometimes of course, if the show was weak, I would remember almost nothing when I woke up. Which was important to know – okay so the show made zero impact – though that didn’t make the writing job ahead to easy.
In my current effort to catch up with work from last year, I certainly feel I left this one a bit too long. But I did want to put something down for posteriority: Eamon Flack’s debut production Upstairs at Belvoir of As You Like It, especially after the bashing I gave him as dramaturg of The Business.
I have always admired those reviewers in the old movies who rush out to a public phone (no not retrieve their car from the Opera House car park) while the audience is still applauding; though you need a nice hat to tip onto the back of your head for that sort of look. Actually, there were we a few times when I was that the SMH when I had to attempt something similar – when the then editor had a thing for a while for so-called ‘overnight’ reviews. He had heard that they still did them in New York, despite advances in print technology that had over the previous two decades pushed deadlines back (not forward). Why not here? We were a global city – on the verge our our Olympics! What he didn’t seem to know was that those New York performances – the ones being reviewed overnight – usually play in the early afternoon. So the ‘critic’ has more than an hour up their sleeve to get home and file something that makes at least a little sense.
Some great near catastrophes during this particular regime. For Neil Armfield’s production of The Seagull, starring Noah Taylor as Konstantin – the young playwright, a small space had been left on the front page of the next day’s SMH for me to fill at interval. This was new in the ‘mysterie’ called reviewing – at interval! Something more extensive would be filed a day later. Trouble was Noah Taylor as miscast – being the character rather than being able to act the part (in my view anyway). He was and still is an idiosyncratic film actor of some note. But on this occasion, lacking the technical skills for stage work, a paragraph on Noah on the front page the next day – lacking back-up, seemed like a bad idea to me.
I gulpingly phoned the night editor from the Belvoir admin office to say I was NOT going to file. I was not going to say something or someone was no good without the additional explanation as to why I thought so. To me it has always been that way: to my mind its not whether or not a reviewer likes a show (who cares) but WHY? Whether we as readers agree or not, a reviewer’s answer to that question – WHY – should ideally be of interest. I was not going to be responsible for ‘Noah Taylor is Fucked’ on the front page of the SMH without something that, though it may not soften the blow, at least explained WHY I had arrived at this view.
The night editor of a daily broadsheet has less interest in the nature of your content than in getting the assigned hole actually filled. So you can imagine the ruckus. I committed one of the newspaper trade’s greatest sins – a hole on the front page. Filled in the end by I don’t know what, but I almost lost my job over that.
There is also much I could tell you about my review of the Boy from Oz, how that got up – that has a massive back story. It too was an overnighter. In that instance, and this is the way we normally did it: we cheated. I attended the final preview and wrote from that. Then I was to attend the opening night, and I would have half and hour – again in some theatre building back office – to fine tune on a phone-through in the wake of any significant variables.
There was a huge variable. Todd McKenney had been weak at the preview – and I had written so in my draft. Then on opening night he was brilliant. Spellbinding. Presumably he had walked through the night before (which others have done in his situation) with a view to ‘saving himself’ for the opening-night crowd and ‘overnight’ reviewers like myself! At the end of the show I rushed semi-panic stricken into the above-mentioned back room, got access somehow to my story, and quickly changed about six adjectives. That was really all I did, replacing words attached to McKenney’s name like ‘shit’ to ‘awesome’, ‘lousy’ to ‘fantastic’ – then I resent. Close call.
I am telling you this because I think you should know how newspapers work: anyway at that particular point in time.
On another occasion I really had to file an overnight view overnight. Well within ‘minutes’ it seemed of the show ending. Phoning form a both would have been a better idea. There were to be only two performances and no previews – so this was the real thing. It was a review of a concert by Bernadette Peters – part of a Leo Schofield festival. Sydney Opera House assisted as best as they could by letting me park my car under Utzon’s stairs for a fast getaway. But the SMH had been given incorrect times and the show, I discovered as I picked up my ticket, was going to run past my deadline. I had a message sent round to Ms Peters to say someone would be getting up out of the front stalls of the Concert Hall someway into the second half – and it was not because I hated the show. It was going to create a kerfuffle because I had a great seat – right in the middle of the row. Which meant, with no centre aisle, climbing over a lot of bodies.
As it turned out the first half ran over time, and I calculated I would only be in the second half for about ten minutes before I would have to make my ungainly exit. So I got in my car and shot off at the interval break. Two unfortunates. Firstly the show had technical problems with the sound and I said so. Due to its odd shape, it is difficult to wire the Concert Hall for sound and satisfy all audience members – and this was the task of an engineer that has flown in from the USA only that day. Worst still – and my fault – in my haste to file, I failed to mention I had only seen the first half of the show. This was all the vengeful La Schofield needed to bring me to my knees. For someone who had been sued himself for reviewing a restaurant dish, I thought his behaviour pretty bitchy and lacking in perspective.
Schofield and the SMH‘s then editor-in-chief were bum buddies at the time, and boy-oh-boy did the sky fall in on me. That was the beginning of the end for me at the Herald’s esteemed reviewer. With a bit more trouble from Cameron McIntosh’s camp not long after. At some point in my ensuing correspondence with Schofield, he penned the memorable phrase – ‘you will never work in this town again’. And in a funny way I haven’t. Not a circumstance entirely to his credit, but I am sure Schofield played a role in getting rid of me from the SMH.
In not to long a time I was cast out of court (Sydney and its cultural life) and I had to find a new life for myself in a country setting. Dural – well Glenorie (lower-economic Dural) – which for many years became my own personal Forest of Arden. I was in a relationship with someone who loved horses – and we bred one or two foals a year. Meanwhile I grew vegetables and worked at a nearby dog boarding kennel – one of the most fun jobs I have ever had. Plus work for the National Library.
So I know what it is like to be rendered unwanted and to go find solace in the world of nature: the premise of As You Like It. It feels bad and it feels good. Depending on the weather – and your daily mood.
It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of AYLI – with its so many playful twists, turns, surprises and reversals. Also many shifts in tone and mood. Much of the beauty of this particular Shakespeare comedy lies in how it manages, seemingly effortlessly, to combine lighthearted toying with some of Shakespeare’s finest philosophical insights into the experience of living. Jacques ‘Seven Ages of Man’ soliloquy, for example. Speeches on why we should be happy to why we should be sad. And a whole lot in between. A play about everything that counts – in a play – seemingly – about not much at all.
It’s a script that also begs for playfulness in production – indeed it requires playfulness – for it to work. So, in the times we live in – the way WE make theatre – a lot rests on the actors, director and design team. This production delivered on this front: inventive, sweet, funny, wise, sad. It’s been a slow burn for director Eamon Flack, having spent most of his theatrical career in the boiler room of literary advice, script assessment and dramaturgy. I can say it now, his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Downstairs Belvoir did not do it for me. So I looked forward to this next step up the theatre-industry food-chain with curious interest. The step up that it is, this As You Like It can be counted a significant professional success for Flack.
Flack is intelligent, and some of the best ideas were brainy: like setting the opening court scene in among the audience, with characters running up and down stairs, in and out of entrances and exits. A lot of hard work but, after so many productions experienced in the space over the past 30 years, here was yet another a fresh approach to using the Belvoir Upstairs auditorium. It was an idea that saved the stage itself for the Forest of Arden. Which when we got to it initially was, from designer Alistair Watts, no more then a single little flower mid-stage. And a dark green back-curtain. Very cute.
Also clever, and I can say this now the show is over, was the point at which Arden bursts into full colour (see photographs). We have been in the forest some time, with esingle flower, several scenes of Rosalind and Orlando crossing paths – including Orlando posting his love letters – which in this production were post-it notes. All the while Rosalind in disguise as a man. Although Orlando can’t know it, there is a point when Rosalind falls in love with him. And it was at this point, not our arrival into the forest itself, when the stage exploded with ribbons of colourful streamers. Utterly unexpected and such a lovely way to animate this special moment in the story.
Indeed, as the action unfolded, so did the set. By the end, Watts – in his main-stage debut – created for us one of the most delectably fresh and charming sets we saw in Sydney last year. The highlight being a small pond, around which (and even in) many scenes were played – climaxing with melancholy Jacques (played by Bille Brown – that was good casting) peering, Narcissus like, into its surface to close the show. On behalf of all of us, after everything we have been through, what does he see? More ignorance and/or self-deceit – or a greater truth? Do we?
I have left this review too long to go into a lot of detail. But here are a few random extra thoughts.
Casting Aboriginal actor Trevor Jamieson as the wise-man twice over – as both Adam and the Old Duke – required a special effort from the director to help this gifted Aboriginal actor find his way into a kind of theatre-making quite foreign to him. Yes he brought his ‘gravitas’ to his roles, but as if on his back in a sack – largely unopened. A missed opportunity I think. In fact its where Flack showed signs of inexperience – not quite getting the best out of all his actors equally – well cast as it was. I am saying this in advance of my review of Damien Ryan’s outdoor production of The Taming of Shrew – where for a small indie show – playing outdoors – all the performances were strong and you could see a more experienced director’s hand at work. (Yes it’s in my list of catch-up shows to review.)
When it came to the performances, achievement in Flack’s As You Like It was noticably uneven. Even the very capable Alison Bell, a good choice for Rosalind – though sensitive and engaging, at times lacked conviction. Not in the head or heart – but in the voice. Some intervention might have also helped here – to get her to speak up a little more boldly. Not loudly – bit to be, what do they call it – ‘on voice’? Ashley Zukerman as her love interest, Orlando, on the other hand, delivered a beautifully measured performance: necessarily sexy, but also sensitive, intelligent, unassuming, very much in the moment – physically and vocally.
There was, as mentioned above, a huge lot of fun in this production, which was its chief appeal. With the likes of Yael Stone as Celia, Rosalind’s sidekick – utterly gorgeous – as you would expect. And with lots of silly buggers business coming from Charlie Garber (Touchstone) and Gareth Davies (several roles including Phoebe), there was no want of amusing detail. Mel Dyer’s motley costumes certainly helped, the highlight being her flock of sheep – which kept turning up when least expected. The was indeed pastoral with a capital bleeet! Some nice honest and skilled work from Hamish Michael as Oliver too. As for Bille Browne as Jacques, well the production was lucky to have him. He is one of our finest actors – and that was more than obvious. Good lights and sound from Damien Cooper and Stefan Gregory as per usual respectfully and respectively. Oh Casey Donovan was a nice surprise cast as Audrey and Hymen – which means we got a great song from her! Yes Donovan is a fantastic singer, but I got a hunch there’s more of an actor here than we have yet quite seen. Can we see her in something else soon? If there was an overall weakness, it’s a challenge in the play itself that Flack did not find a way to overcome. And that was, while we cheered all the inventive detail, the production overall lacked thrust. As I mentioned at the top, what drives As You Like It is elusive: and the director probably needs to decide for themself: ‘My version of AYLI it is going to push this to that core theme – and all the way from beginning to end.” Presumably Flack did that, but if so, we didn’t quite get it. For all its smarts, this version of the AYLI it story was a little bit soft.