Time is the enemy of a writer covering a festival – here are two shows that deserve contemplation for all who see them, even more so from the commentators. This far into the 2012 Sydney Festival, reviewers are proving their stamina, or lack thereof. I tend to jog along with the second pack. Not out of the race, but struggling for air. I’d like to say a lot about these two shows: Never Did Me Any Harm (Force Majeure and Sydney Theatre Company) at the Wharf and The Boys (Griffin) at the Stables. I’d also very much like to be at the Symposium today on Aboriginal Theatre. But normal life events – like seeing my GP whenever he can squeeze me in – also can’t keep piling up forever.
Both of these shows are set in an Australian backyard. And, though very different in tone and form, each have significant creative histories. Force Majeure – Kate Champion (director) with Roz Hervey (associate director) and Geoff Cobham (designer) – has been evolving a performance language that combines movements with words (dance theatre) for some time. Among Champion’s influences was her time with Australian (but British-based) choreographer Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre, whose most recent outstanding work, Can We Talk About This, premiered at the Sydney Opera House’s 2011 Spring Dance Festival. While very different in appearance, Never Did Me Any Harm and Can We Talk About This both draw on extensive interviewing from which highly-edited ‘verbatim’ scripts are created – what I might call ‘primary language documents’ – are born.
For Never Did Me Any Harm, Champion interviewed (mostly parents – but non-parents too) on the subject of ‘parenting’. It’s a hot topic – especially the subject of helicopter-parenting, where too much supervision is never considered quite enough. Until of late anyway.
Note to readers: That’s where I got to before I had to see my medical people – and had to take a few days off! (See previous post.) So now I am totally behind in my reports. Anyway…
You Never Did Me Any Harm took inspiration from Christos Tsiolkas book The Slap. So we have a great book, an outstanding TV series, and now a performance piece. YNDMAHarm is not a literal rendering, but rather it springboards from the same core idea – the pro’s and cons of contemporary parenting. We get a lot of points of view with eight performers playing multiple roles: some are dancers: Kristina Chan, Sarah Jane Howard, Vincent Crowley, Joshua Mu and Kirsty McCracken; while others are actors – namely Marta Dusseldorp, Alan Flower and Heather Mitchell. It’s a sign of the quality of the work that you rarely notice that not all dancing or not all are speaking. It’s a tale seamlessly told in words and movement.
Champion has collected a very fine troupe for this show, many are parents. And the perspectives offered on the subject are wide-ranging and pertinent. Since I am so behind in my reviews I am not going write too much on this show. I have to catch up – so largely skip over the ‘why’ – and get to the judgement. This is a superb show, beautifully balanced on the fine line that sits between theatre and dance. The aesthetic is highly evolved, characterised by gentleness and a warm wit. The dance language cannot be read ‘literally’, yet it tells us a lot – a lot that cannot be said in words. Meaning the movement is highly evocative of the themes pursued. Obviously the actors do most of the talking, speaking for people whose views have been recorded. These are some of our best actors, and it shows in the vividness of each and every scene. Credit for the smooth flow of the show goes to Champion and her support team. So far this is my favourite show in this festival: the most artful and complete.
I should note that this show also reflects a very harmonious coming together of Force Majeure and the STC, with Andrew Upton (STC co-artistic director) contributing as dramaturg, and his company offering production support. I mention this because it is an attractive feature of the Upton-Blanchett artistic directorship: that they share their worldly goods with less-well resourced creative teams. The other show down at the Wharf for the Festival, by the way, A History of Everything, is another STC co-production. This time, the STC Residents ensemble is working with the acclaimed Belgian company Ontroerent Goed. I missed seeing that show due to illness this past few days. But it’s on for a while so I might still get a chance.
Back to backyards. The Griffin’s contribution to the festival is a revival of Gordon Graham’s The Boys, a 21-year old play about male violence against women and the women who love these men. Why? Well that is the subject. The play was born out of the communal shock at the brutality of the murder of Anita Cobby in 1986. This play was turned into a very good film, and we are seeing it again because some see this play as a classic. While this play is strong and thoughtful, personally I don’t think it is up there with Away or Speaking in Tongues, but from the audience reaction on the night I attended, I think my views are in the minority. In my view, the straight up-and-down realism, effectively brought to the stage in this production, constrains the author from a more penetrating analysis. Too often you can hear the author’s voice (not just his intention) popping out of the dialogue. My reservations are minor and rather technical – this play still packs a punch. And, after Speaking in Tongues, the second play to have premiered at The Stables some time back, to be re-examined by Griffin’s artistic director, Sam Strong. It certainly deserved a second look.
I have no criticism of the acting or the direction. Other than to say I thought it was all a bit big for the room. Just too many slammed doors and banging on the corrugated iron fence, and to much yelling and screaming for me. But this is where I often find myself in the minority, in the enactment of literal violence on stage: I don’t believe it needs to be expressed so literally for it to work. Quite the opposite. Some of the scariest people I have met are more likely, when at the peak of their power plays, to whisper. Not all, but some. I’m just saying that there are other ways to convey violence than through sheer noise.
That said these are fine actors too: Josh McConville absolutely on song as the eldest brother, and leader of the pack, with good back up from Anthony Gee (hardly recognisable) and Johnny Carr; and Jeanette Cronin as the boys’ mother, a wonderful performance of a woman in denial, with Cheree Cassidy, Louisa Mignon and Eryn Jean Norvill as the three girlfriends.
The point of the play is to try and gain insight into what makes a group of young man pack-rape and murder a woman by looking into their relationships with the women in their lives. I felt the same about Hilary Bell’s well-regarded play, Wolf Lullaby (about a young child murdering another child). In neither play did I emerge feeling I was any the wiser as to motivation. Despite all the efforts of both playwrights. Anyway that’s just me – I have a forensic mind, and as good as these plays are, I just want more evidence.
The difference between the two back yards – in YNDMAHarm and The Boys is telling. In the former we have a cute inner-west yuppie look, full of toys and lovely green lawn. In The Boys we are hemmed in by the corrugated iron, some front seats have been replaced by a dirty old couch, there’s a clothes line and some rather dead grass.
Sam Strong direction of The Boys meanwhile, is characteristically acute. And I am glad we have been given the chance to see this influential play again. I readjusted my view on Speaking in Tongues up, when I saw his revival of that play. On this occasion, I have taken The Boys down a peg of two. It’s still good and well worth seeing. But I think, in this instance, the film does a better job in getting into the minds of these particular characters.