I don’t like to write in a panic, but an average review for here on this site takes two sitings – a day apart. And if it looks clean and makes sense it probably means I have had a third look at it – as I just did today for the Belvoir As You Like It. But Sydfest 2012 starts tonight and I want to get this story up and out before I get swamped by the arrival of the carnival in town – stomped by the arrival of the artistic carnivore! And sucked into its maws! This year’s festival looks to have some fine possibilities – but more of that from tomorrow. Meanwhile my small window of opportunity to try and do justice to one of the most bold and creative theatre ventures we have seen in this city for a while.
People have talked about taking Shakespeare to the masses ever since – well even Shakespeare himself did that – and quite successfully. And outdoor settings have often been popular also since the building of the Globe. Why, to this day, still, I am not sure. But picnics and Shakespeare – people love it. One of the big surprises working on the SBS/Essential Media doco on the history of Australian theatre (see earlier post) was the discovery of just how popular Shakespeare has been in this country since the very first theatre was built. Partly a symbolic clinging to old country values. And also for the many decades ,when local scripts were few and far between or meagre in theatrical ambition, a bit of ‘Best of Shakespeare’ gave our colonial thesbians something to bite into. A soliloquy here, a murder scene there – endless rounds of applause. Stories form the gold fields of diggers demanding certain crowd-pleasing verses be repeated up to a dozen times. And no surprise that Falstaff – ruddy drunk of the higher orders so disrespectful of authority – was the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Dame Edna Everage in utero.
But to the matter.
In my time as a bloggest I have made many new friends – and far fewer enemies I thunk that I did in when in print media. Some over these past three years I have met via correspondence – ie a meeting of minds. The first two readers to make themselves known to me were Augusta Supple, whom you all know if you follow Sydney theatre online. And the other was actor (mostly – but variously skilled) Christopher Tomkinson. Just as I found time a few days back to homage my friendship with Maggie Blinco, and well everyone knows that Supple and I are some kinda inter-generational tag team. So too I want to take this moment to add Tomkinson to my ‘friends’ cart. What a smart lovely man, a keen reader of blogs, a great encourager – and a very good actor. One only has to see his work in the current Sport by Jove Macbeth where Chris plays MacDuff to know what I mean. The combination of sensitivity and power, balancing the big gestures with the small moves, the clean clear voice work – and always a sense of commitment to both his character and the production as a whole. As Damien Ryan, Sport by Jove’s artistic director, would well know: Tomkinson is a great guy to have on your team. I certainly want to say thank you to him for encouraging me to stay with this blog – when a few times last year I wanted to throw in the towel. Those coffees and chats were timely and helpful.
Chris often gives me tips as to shows I might want to see. And my biggest mistake last year it seems was to have overlooked his advice to go see The Libertine. Acclaimed by all who saw it at the Darlo, I did not realise (or hear the words said) that this was a Sport by Jove production directed by Damien Ryan. That tiny piece of information might just have got me there despite pressures at the time of other work. Because Chris Tomkinson had pulled off the near impossible this time a year ago when he succeeded in getting me to leave the security blanket of the eastern suburbs for just one night and head out out see Sport By Jove’s production of As You Like It, an outdoor gig (are you kidding me), miles away (oh no!) – part of the Sydney Hills Shakespeare in the Park 2011 season at an old farmhouse/colonial property at Bella Vista. Wherever the f8ck that is – I still don’t really know.
That As You Like It was fantastic, especially when you took into account the challenges of an outdoor setting: a plus ‘ideas-wise’ for the Forest of Arden perhaps, but making many more technical demands on cast and crew. But it worked. The show was so alive and fresh and convincing, and seemingly effortless, there was no need to take into account these extra challenges. The production simply took off and we stayed afloat in a balloon of ideas from director Ryan and his skilled and diehard loyal cast. Tomkinson was excellent as the Duke in that. And a daunting wrestler too!
So enjoyable had last year’s outing been, it did not take a lot to convince me to attend this year’s season – both plays this time. I’ve mentioned the Macbeth – which had a world war feeling to it. And three teenage blond witches in white straight out of some contemporary vampire movie. Among the highlights along with Tomkinson’s MacDuff and these three witches, was seeing Damien Ryan – the director- in the title role. Ryan, I see in the program, has done quite a bit of Shakespeare – well it shows in his directing. But acting too quite a few times with Bell Shakespeare. He is good – this is a fine performance balancing the necessary recklessness with the unstoppable primordial fear. If Bell Co has helped leverage Damien Ryan into the place he now finds himself professionally, then a big tick to them. But one senses also a lot of self motivation and rock-cracking hard yakka. As it is, Ryan skills base is up there with his superb theatrical imagination.
Performing two plays in repertoire means some juggling with the casting – maybe even some shoe-horning. This was not noticed in The Taming of the Shrew (a little bit in the Macbeth), which I think is one of the most cogent, alive, articulate, fun, technically competent Shakespeare productions I have ever seen. If The Libertine put Ryan on the map, then this Shrew should nail him to the sticking post. From whatever angle you choose to come at it, this Shrew is very well directed. Like Sam Strong at Griffin, another director whose workskills I admire, Ryan makes no attempt to be trendy – to play the star.
This Shrew’s setting is Italian film industry circa 1950s – think Cinecitta and Carlo Ponti – husband of Sophia Loren and producer of 140 films including many of the the best of the best this golden age – including works by Fellini and Visconti. Though the feel of this production is more postcard romance – you know scooters and scarves – the type of films Cinecitta churned out in spades.
And to sustain the metaphor, we actually get some adorable film sequences. The play begins ‘on location’ with shooting being interrupted by the landing of a noisy bi-plane in a nearby field. it dive-bombs from overhead. The difficult and impossible-to-marry Katherina (beautifully played by Danielle King) has arrived. Now that’s an entrance – covered in grease and holding onto an engine part. Cut to the ending and every modern director is faced with the same problem – Katherina’s speech of submission to her now husband Petrucio (nice work also from James Lugton). Which in this production is as straight and true as it could possibly be. This is theatrically sound but so far as contemporary sexual politics is concerned – very retro. That’s okay! Director Ryan has a trump card up his sleeve. We flick to film for the closing scene: instead of the married couple leaving by roadster with cans clanging from the rear, and husband at the wheel, the couple are flying out. And what do we get? Petrucio being squeezed into the back seat and Katherina – aviatrix extraordinaire – assumes ‘authority’ at the controls.
I cite this as an example of just how gifted a director Damien Ryan is. He understands the play deeply, and he knows how to wrangle its wild side – its problematics. He also inspires great loyalty from his actors and, in turn, he knows how to draw out the best from them. The verse speaking, despite the outdoor conditions, was uniformly excellent. Rhythm and pace outstanding. Camaraderie and team work on a high. And best of all, and I say this in light of the strengths and weaknesses of the recent Belvoir As You Like it: above all. superb story-telling. We, in the audience, were drawn into an adventure peopled by gorgeous characters – but for all the fun being had, we never lose hold of the story being told. And the points being made along the way.
One more credit: for both productions, Anna Gardiner’s excellent designs.
I won’t go on. You get the drift. I have to iron my undies for tonight. The Macbeth is good, the Shrew is great. Most important of all – from Sport by Jove’s artistic director Damien Ryan – more please!