• 22 Jan 2012 /  Reviews

    I have been seeing a show a night for the past week with just one more before the 2012 Sydney Festival is over for me. I am grouping some of them here, as they kinda go together. Besides I need to get back to my real job – the bank manager in my brain is hassling me. I have seen more of this festival than I have for quite a while. All of it has been interesting, some of it quite special, with the home-made fare more impressive than the imported.

    Paul White in Afternoon of the Faun

    Certainly more stylistically and formally advanced. Others may hold a different view, depending on what they have encountered. I did not see Babel, for example, which was greatly admired by many. But as dance, I wonder if it could have Read the rest of this entry »

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  • 12 Jan 2012 /  News, THEATRE

    A pile of new home-grown works are premiering at this 2012 Sydney Festival – and I’ve seen three in 24 hours.Well, over a cycle of two evenings. What’s great about seeing them so close together is the chance to observe just how innovative much of our theatre practice is nowadays. What would have caused a great fuss a few years ago is is simply the accepted way of making work now. New means it leads to unexpected outputs – and hence fresh ways of looking at our ever-changing world.

    Russell Kiefel in Buried City - photo by Heidrun Lohr

    First off the rank was Urban Theatre Project’s (UTP) Buried City at Upstairs Belvoir. UTP have made regular appearances at Sydney Festivals over recent years. Based in Bankstown, often creating site-specific work, Festival regulars have previously had to trek beyond their cultural comfort zone Read the rest of this entry »

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  • 08 Jan 2012 /  News

    It is a neat coincidence: here I am contemplating how I might expand the content and terrain of this blog – to take in more then my random views on local shows and, by various technologies, I come across several print media articles I feel are worth sharing. The one I just put up – on artistic inspiration – came via a Facebook post. This new one arrived via an email sent to me by another Australian friend who happens to live overseas (London this time): namely Chris Westwood (or West to pals). West is most famous for being one of the women who raised the money to purchase the Surry Hills theatre from Nimrod that is now Belvoir.

    We complain a lot here about how badly off we are – and yes Sydney in particular is an expensive city, with housing costs especially proscribing opportunities for local artists to afford to make work – or live work. And for audiences to afford more ‘art events’ in their lives. But we are living in a bubble – and have not stopped to consider what is happening in other part of the world, post GFC (yes I know it tastes like chicken).

    Margaret Thatcher sought to shift power from the producer to the consumer

    This shake-up article  - read here – by playwright David Edgar reveals the crisis in the UK and does us all a big favour in outlining many of the most important reasons why governments should support the arts through direct funding – even in tough times. Perhaps especially so.

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  • 07 Jan 2012 /  Reviews

    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.

    Damen Ryan as Macbeth

    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.

    Tomkinson as Macduff falls at news of the family murders

    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!

    The Taming of the Shrew - on location in Rome

    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.

    Danielle King as Katherina

    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.

    On board the ship of state

    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!

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  • 06 Jan 2012 /  Reviews

    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.

    Alison Bell as Rosalind & Yael Stone as Celia


    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.

    Trevor Jamieson as the outcast Duke

    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.

    Gareth Davies as Phoebe

    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.

    Ashley Zukerman as Orlando

    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.

    Little lambs - Gareth Davies & Shelly Lauman (with Alison Bell/Rosalind in background)

    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.

    Charlie Garber & Casey Donovan as Audrey

    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.

    Yael Stone with Bille Brown (as the Duke's brother) - happy at the beginning of the play before the kids are cast out!

    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.

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  • 30 Dec 2011 /  Other

    Well it’s been a rather scrappy year year for me post-wise. Blogging – if I have to use that plain word. Lots of shows I missed and others I saw and did not write about it. Then some excellent theatre I did see – and some of it I did write about. I think. Everybody knows that I have had health problems to the point where I really have to stop talking about such tiresome stuff, even if these ‘personal issues’ are not finished with. To be frank, I have been waiting for these difficulties to pass before I took up life and writing again with hitherto passion. But after so much ‘waiting’ and so little progress I am faced with the prospect that my pain problems my never pass. If so, I need to change my mental posture. If this is the deal from here on in, for survival’s sake I need to readjust my head-space. I am going to have to mature into into some sort of Buddhist-like acceptance. I should say in passing – so tricky is the game of life – that hope may be born in its abandonment. In my heart of hearts I do believe I will get better. But not while I wait – or dare to presume to. The basic decision is: James you have to move on. If the kitbag is heavier so be it. Very many people on the planet – hundreds of millions – have pulled shorter straws. Get back to writing – it cultivates happiness. In the least, keeps you distracted.

    The bloggist - getting back to my roo(t)s - lol

    All if which reminds me why I think Waiting for Godot is the very best play of Modern times. The play in which ‘nothing happens twice’ and happiness eternally postponed. It speaks to me as a Modernist at heart (and mind). But a Modernist who lives in a Postmodern world – and who understands that art practice has had to change to speak to and about life now – this latest (new and yet re-used) version of the ‘human condition’ that’s been called Postmodern. It’s an odd position to find myself in. Born in 1955, a couple of years  after Godot premiered. The point at which Modernism in theatre reached it highest point – and effectively announced/denounced its own end. Well – use-by date anyway. Dragged by its coat-tails off the stage. Godot is an exclamation mark at the end of an era.

    So here I am uncomfortably at home with the language and rituals of Modernism – its respect for order, hierarchy and ideal of perfection. The Ibsen play, Leavis’s critical values – etc. And yet a true believer in the view (the fact!) living circumstances have changed so much – multiplicity, repetition, looping – that the critical language ascribed to the task of tug-boating Modernist art practice into lively dinner party conversation no longer has the torque needed to straighten out our thoughts on the world (and its art) as we find it today. (Yes, you will probably have to read the paragraph again. That’s okay it took several rewrites to get it clean.)

    Henrik Ibsen - the very model of a Modernist

    The world is different, art practice is different. Even theatre – often the last of the forms to move with the times – has started to become different. Even in Sydney in the past year. Though there have been forebears – notably Kosky’s The Lost Echo, Benedict Andrews’ ‘oeuvre’, and some squeaky noises coming out of Carriageworks – the official date we moved out clocks forward was probably the opening night of Simon Stone’s production of The Wild Duck. Why, because indisputably – it worked. Oh The Lost Echo worked too, but not enough people were yet ready to face its implications.

    All of which places me in an awkward position because I have not kept up with the critical language that has evolved hand-in-hand with Postmodernism. That is party generational, mostly laziness on my part – but also a reflection of the fact that this language has paralleled and interfaced much more passionately with – say – visual art. And art of the new technologies. And not theatre. Not theatre in this city in our time anyway.

    Damien Ryan's excellent outdoor production of The Taming of the Shrew

    I got up this morning to write about Shakespeare – notably productions of two of his comedies – As You Like It at Belvoir directed by Eamon Flack and The Taming of the Shrew (the outdoor Sydney Hills Shakespeare in the Park 2011) directed by Damien Ryan. And I will get to them – if not today. They were/are both good productions – also both a lot of fun. Then I was drawn, by way of preamble or segue, into Kevin Jackson’s overview of theatre in Sydney in 2011.  It fell out of my email box. And a goddam fine evaluation it is too. Which is what got me starting where I began at the top here today. Aware that I had seen a lot of shows – because I knew what Jackson was writing about (and almost overwhelmingly I agreed). But myself, I had written about so few of these shows – and that gave gave me pause for thought: what an odd year for me personally. For my personal life (and its vicissitudes) to so invade the public realm of my writing, such as it can be called.

    Eluding the clutches of auto-obsession, can I say in passing, we are lucky to have in this city a group of very fine onliners (okay bloggers) including Jackson, Supple, Epistemysics, 5th Wall and myself (when I am in form) – there are others. Together we shit on what is presented in the local print media, and combined we almost make up for the singular achievement of La Croggon in Melbourne. So for a fine assessment of this year’s Sydney output go to Kevin Jackson here - Looking Back 2011 – and my way of compare-and-contrast from Jason Blake  - Star Turns and Back Up in the Wings – at the Sydney Morning Herald (a pretty fair effort btw given the constrained circumstances of our print media).

    And just to loop in a quasi-Postmodern way – where the notion of value itself is tendentious – I note that Kevin Jackson, out of all the shows he saw this year, most admired The Libertine which played at the Darlinghurst Theatre (and I am sorry to say I did not see). Directed by Damien Ryan – same-said director of the Hills outdoor Shrew I saw a few nights ago – which I want to say here and now is, to my mind, one of the best shows I have seen this year! So garlands, in old-fashioned showbiz language, to carry into 2012 for Mr Ryan from two of this city’s ‘umble bloggers. Well done mister. (He also gets a letter to the editor in today’s SMH!)

    And so for 2012 – and the autobiographical strand of this little post. Waiting for Godot – more accurately in French – En Attendant Godot. ‘Attendance‘ not so much’ Waiting‘: more of a component of ‘acceptance’ in that. Not so restless. Which is why I think the play is so great. It is the play that show us what life on this planet is like once we accept God is lost to us – God is dead. We have killed her and now must live with the consequences. But what’s great about the play, which is really only revealed in a good production, is that the primary coping component of surviving the debacle of God gone – is laughter. From wry smile to raucous chortling. Which makes the play just that little bit Buddhist – big bit really. To be able to look at all the sorrow in the world, all of it, as a true Buddhist can, and without a flicker of denial – still smile. This smile is not a luxury or an escape – rather a necessity to living. Living truly. Because, as we smile less (says he wanly), the light starts to fade. And when we stop smiling full stop, at the point of suicide for example, the light is switched off.

    Roger Rees and Ian McKellen - happy chappies

    Of course the death of Rosie Lalevich has cast a long shadow across many of us – because to many of us we equated this beautiful woman with joy itself. And so if Rosie can’t do it any more, how are the rest of us meant to? I don’t have the answer to that – though clues are found in the kindness of others. Our own kindnesses when we can manage them. And in the best of art. Which takes us back to En Attendant Godot. A good production of that play – for example the one we saw in Sydney in 2010 with Roger Rees and Ian McKellen (not just Ian McKellen thank you – takes two to make a cosmic joke) – helps us live. Because, while there is no denying our ontological circumstances, a resounding tinkle of laughter (read joy) rang loud and clear on that occasion from the stage. And like shaking the hand of the Dalai Lama, such experiences stay with us – and help us stumble along.

    You might guess from this little piece that, in my months of quietude, I have been thinking of where to take this blog. Gosh, maybe I can even call it for what it is! Let’s see – as the monks in saffron robes advise – little steps…

    I am pondering broadening my writing landscape. I’m sorry but ‘reviewing theatre’ in itself just does not do it for me any more, as much as I live on the air of staged experience – week in week out. And I find being introduced as ‘a critic’ or ‘reviewer’ embarrassing. Like I am standing there in front of some poor innocent person covered in shit. Why and how we (you and I) move on from here I cannot say. In advance, I do not know. But neither did/do Vladimir and Estragon. And they, after all, are our role models – lol.

    PS: there is a blessing in not having been raised on the language of Postmodernism – for it has many traps for all but the most thoroughly versed writers and readers. But what lies ahead – indeed has arrived – is a challenge to those of us who wish to write about theatre in this city. Write – not just enthuse or complain. If theatre is indeed at last is catching up with, well not just visual art, but more effectively mirroring the world we actually live in, then we have to find a critical mindset – if not an exact language – to match. I can’t promise you I am going to achieve that. But I do know one thing from Modernism – form is function. Aka – the medium is the message. Aka – what we say is one and the same as the way we say it. So obligingly moves are afoot. (Stage direction: ‘Does not move.’)

    PPS: Will write on the Shakespeare comedies next…and probably Ryan’s Macbeth which I am seeing 2nite!

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  • 28 Dec 2011 /  News

    So where have I been these past three months? I got asked to be part of the team working on a TV doco about the history of Australian theatre. Called Raising The Curtain, it’s been commissioned by Stvdio. And a while yet in the making – probably screening towards the end of 2012. It’s a three-part series, three hours all up, starting with convict beginnings all the way up to the present. It focuses on three themes. Episode One – the entrepreneurs and dreamers, including the crazy cats, especially before government funding who put their money and reputations on the line, time and time again. Episode Two looks at the ‘voice – namely the emergence of Australian playwriting. And Episode Three – the theatre-makers – directors, actors and designers – and some of the best ‘Australian’ work they have produced.

    Cordelia Beresford, Ian Walker and me - photo by Ross Wallace

    Quite a sweep. I got to work with the research team for five weeks and then spent four weeks doing the on-camera interviews. That second part was pretty intense – two interviews a day on many days – maybe eighty hours – to be cut down to three! Luckily the complete interviews will be deposited in an archive and will be able to be accessed in the future by researchers. Plus some re-enactments, live footage and lots of photos. And lots of big names – around forty all up – including from senior ranks the likes of John Bell, Robyn Nevin, Geoffrey Rush, Jacqui Kott, Jim Sharman, Jack Hibberd and Evelyn Krape, Ray Lawler, Louis Nowra, Stephen Sewell, to the latest generation including Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, Simon Stone, Lee Lewis and Lally Katz. Among the sweetest interviews was a double we did with Ken and Lilian Horler and among the most moving, Jack Charles. Kosky was interviewed in Berlin.

    Where it all began in Carlton and still going strong.

    Director Ian Walker now puts together a rough cut and somewhere around May 2012 there will be another round of interviews – including some more big names who were too busy this time round. Among the highlights was Ross Wallace’s evocative and highly adaptable set, and Cordelia Beresford’s elegant cinematography. Who would have thought talking heads could look so good! We used theatres as locations, from rehearsal rooms at Belvoir, The Stables (original Nimrod) to the Fig Tree Theatre on the old NIDA site, to the new Melbourne Theatre Company complex, and of course cute little La Mama in Carlton where so much that is Australian theatre today began. The producing team included Aline Jacques, Julia Peters and Margaret Murphy.

    Asking the questions was an interesting challenge because your truly is not in the doco – no slouching back in loafers Andrew Denton-style. Rather questions that prompted the talent to speak directly to camera. It took a lot of concentration and quite different to the more easy-going approach I use for the National Library’s oral history interviews. The interviewees were great: some fascinating and hilarious stories were revealed – perhaps for the first time.

    The original Old Tote (now Figtree) on the UNSW campus.

    The challenge to the series is doing justice to what happened before the emergence of Pram Factory and Jane Street. But that is the goal – a 200-year sweep focusing on the people and the events that played a part in making our theatre ‘Australian’. That wrestle to get away from all that was British and whatever else all-American.

    Don’t want to say too much here – too early. Apart from thanking Essential Media for the fascinating job. TV is hard work but I think there is a good doco in the spawning. Much to be done in the editing room. And thanks to all the interviewees. You were very generous with your time and thoughts. It became quite obvious as the days unfurled that theatre attracts a particularly generous kind of human being – not much money in it so why do it? There’s a whole lot of love. Camaraderie, crazy adventurism, and communal creativity.

    Well let you know more over the coming months.

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  • 27 Dec 2011 /  News

    Here I am trying to get back into the onlining spirit by being silly and putting up dumb YouTubes and generally trying to get jolly for Santa and 2012 – and then we get a week when the world stops turning for whole bunch of special people. I put up a post about Carmen Rupe coz she was fun and deserves remembering. Meanwhile the social media is awash with the death of all sorts of famous people.

    Harold Hopkins (left) with John Howard in The Club

    But -  in our own community we have lost two very special human beings. Harold Hopkins who died two weeks of asbestos-related mesothelioma, aged 67. Lovely guy people tell me – lovely actor. For old times sake pull out Gallipoli or Don’s Party or The Club. I remember him best in his great performance in The Doll Trilogy.

    And now the passing of Rosie Lalevich, who took her own life – obviously after much personal anguish. I didn’t know Rosie that well, but she made me feel special whenever I bumped into her. Always good for a hug and a laugh and a big talk about theatre.

    Rosie in the wheelchair in Missing the Bus to David Jones

    Rosie (sad) in Necessary Targets with Vivienne Garrett

    Rosie happy with a friend - Jai

    A recent triumph was her performance in Theatre Katanka’s gorgeous Missing The Bus To David Jones, but her good work goes back to La Mama in the 1980s, and a highlight would be her performance in A Little Like Drowning at Belvoir in 1992, directed by Rosa Clemente with a cast that included my dear friends Maggie Blinco and Dina Panozzo, and Tony Poli among others. There was a very gutsy side to Rosie Lalevich, which I encountered the first time I met her when she was producing The Vagina Monologues (a very good production it was  too). Rosie also produced and acted in Eve Ensler’s other play, Necessary Targets, about Bosnian women war refugees. In life and on stage, Rosie was funny and bold – and had a huge heart and cared so much for others. Anyway, I have been very sad about this. And for those who knew her better, this past week no doubt very many tears.

    There are for you Rosie!

    There was a funeral a few days ago – and there will be a wake in the New Year. For those of you not on Facebook I will keep you informed.

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  • 07 Oct 2011 /  AUTOBLOGRAPHY

    That was what it said on the back of one of the meditators (see previous post): Hey Ho – Let’s Go. I thought it suggested a rather positive mindset to take into the adventure of ‘moving forward’ – which  is I hope the next item on this comic’s life agenda. This life’s comic agenda. Not a lot different to what the eternally-wise Marilyn Koch (hairdresser Joh Bailey’s business partner) used to say to her customers: ‘Darlink! You look down you stay down!’ Indeed. In a nutshell.

    Up at the Vipassana meditation centre you aren’t allowed to look anyone in the eye or (heaven forbid) speak to someone. But you can’t avoid staring at their back if they just happen to be sitting in front of you for up to twelve hours a day for ten days. Yes some of the fellas are cute, but that thought never crosses your mind – devoted as one is to higher matters. To be honest, I cut my stay short – I left after day eight. To anyone who has ventured into the Vipassana thing, you would know this is not done – bailing early. But it was so f8cking cold up there, cold and wet and windy – and whatever else going on in my mind/body was all so much more difficult with my multiple lifetime of body dings crying out as if a dog was biting into my lower back and hips hour after hour. Current weather in Blackheath (I just Googled) at 6.30am, Saturday 7 October is: 6C and 99% humidity. So imagine how cold it was in those hours before daybreak. Mmm and so cosy here in my Surry Hills pad. Yep, I got the timing wrong.  I had especially waited for the winter be over. But it wasn’t, oh well.

    The short of it is that the eight days was pretty fantastic and I have emerged lighter and more calmer/karma. I do wish to thank Epistomysics for his short departure message – wishing me ‘Om Voyage’. And so it was. While the last time I ‘sat’ it was mainly ‘emotional stuff that presented itself in the encounter of stillness, not surprisingly this time (given the technique takes you almost inevitably to your biggest burdens first), the focused mind took me straight to my unreleased assault legacies. And while I got a lot of psychic release from the 8-days, it manifested itself in a fairly whopping escalation of pain in those sites. Such is the process, and this time much of it at night. So after being told to go to our rooms and ‘rest’ at the end of each day (that’s at 9pm – you get up at 4am), I would go to my little monk’s hidey hole and there, through the darkness, the games would really begin. Waking up three or four times with my remaining unfixed injured bits on fire. Which is what I went up to Blackheath to address. And why the cold weather made the experience just that much more difficult.

    Hot showers and cover myself in more Deep Heat then back to sleep – then awake again a hour later. Then four am the bell would gong – time to get up.

    Blackheath weather!

    The other interesting feature if this trip was that my big days came up very early. For a newcomer day six is by reputation the most difficult. And while there is no common pattern, it makes sense to think that the days you are most likely to get big encounters (and with them big releases) come in the second half of the course, for me this happened pretty much as I walked through the gates. Maybe because I have been trying to get up to do this meditation thing for over a year now, and so there was a lot anticipation. Still I did not expect to get tsunamied on the first night as I lay on my bunk. Or for that encounter to repeat itself several times over the first few days. Okay, so I blew my load early. By day six, I really did not feel the need to go any further – not for now. Enough was enough. I stayed on a couple more days, which only confirmed my view. Given the state of the weather and its extra-curricular impact on my bones, I thought I could/should go.

    The teachers were very much against this: the one promise you make at the beginning is to sit the ten days. Because it really is a carefully crafted process and they like to land you in a green paddock which only emerges in your mind on the last day. But ultimately it was my call – and so here I am now with a couple of days to spare before my short-term full-time job starts – next Monday. Yes the money has come through for the TV doco I mentioned in my last post. More on that another time, no doubt.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been home about 18 hours and I am happy with my decision: I feel good. I feel quiet, calm and strong. With a couple of spare days now up my sleeve to get a few things done. Item one – on this site: Namatjira in Canberra. So let me go to a new post with that. I will get stuck into it today and, I hope, get that finished and up tomorrow. Time to give it the attention it deserves. Then Sunday night I go see The Summer of the 17th Doll at Belvoir. No newspapers or mobiles or  iPads up at the meditation centre, so I have no idea what the reaction has been thus far. I will try and keep it that way. Not often one get’s to see a highly anticipated work a week-and-a-half into the run (settled in) and yet free from word-of-mouth. Rather ideal.

    Hey ho Lets go     ….

    PS: apparently it’s a Ramones song   ….

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  • 13 Aug 2011 /  Reviews

    In all the too-ing and fro-ing  in recent months over the primacy of ‘original texts’ versus trendoid updates, the core of the issue has really been as old as – well let’s say the time I was on a Sydney’s Writer’s Week panel – some years ago now.  The other contenders for best celebrity one-liner were Richard Wherrett, Louis Nowra and Katharine Brisbane. I could have that wrong, it might not have been Wherrett – but anyway – someone in the director’s corner. Because the topic was: ‘Who’s more important: the director or the writer?’ For argument’s sake a suitable word-boxer in the director’s corner might have been Barrie Kosky. Though it wasn’t him coz he would have knocked us all out  – just through sheer verbal dexterity and condescending grandeur – and he would have won. And he would have one and I remember me winning. Brisbane of course had to keep a lady-like leg in both camps. Anyway, I think I won because after the writer and the director had finished telling us why HE was the most important, I suggested that in my view it was NEITHER of them. I have put this case before on this site in different ways but let me re-iterate vis-a-vis the Writers Festival anecdote.

    My case was this: that 48 hours after opening night, where were the writer and director? They were up the pub drowning their sorrows over beer and chardonnay respectively, proposing increasingly exotic ways of removing me – the critic – from the living world. My review had just come out that day and they were apoplectic with rage. So drinking it was – and a new-found camaraderie against was ever-so clearly a common enemy. All the while the actors were attending a fresh rendition of the work of art, of which each claimed to be the primary creator. Security cameras would prove, as the art took place, the writer and the director were not even in the room (theatre). I wasn’t there either, but an audience  – the people a critic represents – were.

    So here is my point. As much as I love writers and directors – let’s say equally as well as profoundly – neither is or are the primary creators of the art form, together or separately, we call theatre. Actors are! And not just actors. Not actors alone. In my conceptual universe – it’s actors and audience together who create theatre. On the night, each night. Each night a new and fresh work of art born in the imaginative space that sits – both physically and mentally – between the stage and the auditorium. Born and then dies as it is born. Somehow miraculously, when it is good, the experience leaving an imprint on our souls  – sometimes forever. The show that’s no good – on my body anyway – it doesn’t stick. So it’s not just that actors are more important than writers and directors, but that it’s actors and audience, together as a team who make theatre happen, especially the best theatre. The best writers and directors meanwhile – cf Shakespeare and Moliere – know this. Having trod the boards themselves, it was obvious. And it’s obvious in their scripts. As writers they worked as servants to the actor-audience relationship. From this I trust you can deduce that I respect good writing, I just put it in a different place in the working order of the theatre-making process. In relation to when the gongs are handed out and acclaim sets in.

    So how does this effect the debate we have had over the past few months over the fancy rejigging of Euro Classics versus the diminishing interest by the big companies in the living Australian playwright (in the old-fashioned sense of the word – he or she who comes up with their own story and writes it down)? Well it puts most of the main players in the debate – including those opposing each other – in the same corner of he ring. Basically, we in the audience don’t give a goddam where or how the material is sourced – just give the actors something good to work with. ‘Don’t give a goddam’ is perhaps an overstatement: as connoisseurs, devotees and recreational punters, of course we like to admire a good script in itself – as much as we admire good directing in itself. But the tail should never ever wag the dog. Nothing worse than theatre where actors are treated like shop dummies and the director considers the presence of an audience to be of minor importance or a major distraction.

    I go to the trouble to clarify my position because it has probably looked over the past few months that I have been slipping and sliding. In one post I am all for director as auteur, then I am missing my down-at-heel Aussie writer. It’s because I love them equally, and in my mind those loyalties don’t clash. What bothers me is when writers and directors gang up and claim supremacy of status over actor and audience. What was really wrong with The Business is that the acting was crap – and I don’t blame the actors for that. What they were asked to do was crap. So much so it was offensive to the audience – the shit of disrespect was being flung as far as the stalls. I liked The Seagull because I liked the acting – not everyone did. Many among out=r more discerning have experienced more nuanced readings and therefore felt the production schematic. I liked the acting because I thought it fitted well with director Andrews scheme of things – to me the acting worked with the directing (the unusual visual add-ons like the unexplained  ‘real life’ sign) to create a ‘whole of theatre experience.

    More Belvoir references: why did we like The Wild Duck? it wasn’t the groovy re-translation (few would have known the characters had been reduced in number by about half). It certainly wasn’t the somewhat irritating glass wall that turned every character into some kind of caged bird. It was the acting. Not just Ewen Leslie and Anita Hegh, but also in so-called lesser roles, Anthony Phelan and Eloise Mignon. Why did I like Neighbourhood Watch so much? Because the actors took me – and many (not all) of us in the audience – to a special place. So much so, I didn’t notice the shortcomings in the writing cited by others. Or if I did notice, I didn’t care. How brilliantly did Kris McQuade’s heart-rending Milova (officially a supporting role) hold up against Nevin’s tour-de-force?

    How do we get to the Sydney Theatre Company from here? Segue. Take a bus I guess. Coz what I want to talk about in this post – mostly – is acting at the STC. The good, the bad and the ugly. I need to preface these comments however (haven’t done enough prefacing, you ask?) I just need to say a couple of things before I get to the subject of acting. I was around when the STC was born and I lived through the era of every STC artistic director: Richard Wherrett, Wayne Harrison, Robyn Nevin and now Glitter and Fluffy – the Upton-Blanchetts. Each regime/reign has had its strengths and weaknesses, and on balance mostly strengths. All have run the company in their own quite brilliant ways. But I want to say this: no matter how well I got on with any of them personally, none of Wherrett, Harrison or Nevin ever took criticism with good grace. Not often anyway. Not from me, not from anyone. I think Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton should be given there due: whether it is for their decisions as artistic directors, or their creative work in the fields of acting, writing and directing they have always maintained an amazing openness to critical comment. Even Neil Armfield, equanimous in temperament in day-to-day life, has been known to bristle – rare as negative reviews of his work have been. And I would be the same. I am the same. The hairs on my back also go straight up!

    However Glitter and Fluffy feel in private, and at times it surely has to hurt, in public they keep up a highly principled courtesy. That has not stopped them being on the receiving end of some big serves, even from me. As artistic directors they have been hammered for some of their biggest choices. As artistic directors, for example, in the area of inviting in – sometimes dodgy – overseas talent. As an actor, Blanchett has found herself in several productions where, if not personally criticised, the show she has been in has taken heat – and as the show’s leading actress (inevitably) it surely must rub. I’m referring to say Streetcar here where many thought visiting director Liv Ullmann did a fairly crappy job. As a writer, Upton got massively rubbished for his own play Riflemind. And while Blanchett has ventured into directing modestly, Upton has taken on some huge texts – and his work on them has not always impressed. Namely, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

    Whatever the critical reception of one show or another, I am sure other reviewers in this city would generally agree, Upton and Blanchett remain committed to open dialogue.

    In the past year, I have not had a chance to review in full as many STC shows as I have wanted to. For some reason life sometimes just gets in the way – and so here is a bit of catch up. I scribbled out a few mediocre comments on  Zebra and an a equivocal ‘I dunno’ in response to Baal. Hardly a reflection of what the STC has been up to in the past year.

    I was overseas when Uncle Vanya opened, and it as made known to me when I returned that the artistic directors wanted me to see the production. I think they were truly proud of it. I had a few small reservations, but there was a lot to like. I am not surprised it has been received so well in Washington, this week. After all director Tamas Ascher is not only a fine director, he is a director who puts his actors centre-stage. It is a given that we have a hoard of fine actors in the country (as we do sportsmen and women – is there a connection?) Vanya has in it – Blanchett, Bell, Roxburgh, Weaving – do I need to go on? I should have written pages about this production, and now is not the right time. Though on the subject of acting – how brilliant was John Bell? Bell is always good, but often no better than good because, when he can, he tends to to play it safe. Ascher, I am told, pushed him into that zone (as Kosky did in the Bell Shakespeare Lear) where Bell was awesome. As were the other actors named above – Blanchett, Roxburgh, Weaving.

    In terms of giving credit where it is due, little was made of Andrew Upton’s adaptation. We have a problem here. Basically none of us here who swan around publishing critical commentary are qualified to evaluate the many translations/renditions/adaptations of this run of Euro-classics we have had of late (Uncle Vanya, The Wild Duck, The Business, Baal, The White Guard) and now playing in STC Wharf One, Lorca’s Blood Wedding (directed and adapted by Iain Sinclair).

    The Vanya is Upton’s adaptation. As was the version of The Cherry Orchard we saw in the final years of Robyn Nevin’s reign. I mention this because the British director, Howard Davies, re-used Upton’s Cherry Orchard script for his production at the National in London (Zoe Wannamaker as Robyn Nevin) – and some us got to see that, screened (it had been filmed) at the Sydney Theatre, a few weekends back.

    In all, Upton has created at least seven adaptations of major classics including, for Howard Davies at the National, Gorky’s The Philistines (2007) and Bulgakov’s The White Guard (2010). Both attracted critical comment Upton’s textual contributions, much of it positive – some of it less so. The naysayers mostly followed arguments we have had here about taking so-called liberties with the original. Our arts reporting is so dire here these days that most people wold not know what Upton is best known for internationally – these adaptations. And it’s funny that we have had all this hoo-ha about the pro’s and cons about rejigging the classics for out times (and our city) – and Upton’s name had hardly been mentioned.Though this nicely balanced piece of commentary by Jo Litson was published on the STC’s own website.

    I say ‘hardly mentioned’ because the forensic Mr Kevin Jackson did recently take a close look at the same subject in his review of The White Guard. In a wide-ranging piece, which picks up a number of threads online theatre commentators in Sydney have been pursuing of late, he also cites specific examples of where Upton has intervened quite creatively with the literal translation. If you go to both this above mentioned links, I think many of you will find the answers you have been looking for. Or at least some smart healthy discussion. My point here is to merely highlight Upton’s international reputation as an adapter of now a large number of classic texts.

    Back to acting. Can I say, while I liked Upton’s script, I found the acting in the National Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard overly predictable. To me, it was ‘how you do Chekhov well’. But to such an extent i could predict just about every hand gesture or fleeting glance Wannamaker made. I imagine those who disliked the acting in Andrews’ The Seagull would have preferred this for its nuancing and consistency. Personally, give the acting surprises in that Seagull any time.

    So to my topic – my title: ‘Whatever Happened to STC Acting?’ Let’s consider those STC shows where the acting as been a feature: A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Uncle Vanya. All three served up huge scoops of first-class acting. What was weird was that two of the directors  – Ullmann for Streetcar and Upton for Long Day’s Journey were inexperienced relative to the heftiness of the texts and the casts – and overall size and status of the shows. And it showed – lowering the peg of overall achievement for both. In Vanya, the fact that Upton’s adaptation had such an Australian feel rubbed up against director Ascher’s Hungarian origins at times. My best example for this was the very broad accent asked for from Hayley McElhinney as the sister Sonia who lives on the farm. Other have commented on the attempt to make class/culture distinctions in this production through the use of different Australian accents. But what would the Hungarian Asher know about this, hew would have had to be advised. In the case of McElhinney, I don’t think it was good advice. Her flat broad country sound belied her well-to-do upbringing, and was even more harsh than that of the peasants and underlings working for her. I only mention this because I thought it denies this highly sensitive chance to go to a place in herself that would have allowed Sonia’s famous last scene to sing.

    Reservations I had about any of these three shows is small beer compared to their overall achievement. All three were unforgettable achievements. Even though I was very tough in my reviews of both Streetcar and Long Day’s Journey, both productions have stayed with me. And more to the point here, all three of these shows featured great acting – great Australian acting. And I am not at all surprised that all three of done so well on their USA tours.

    What I want to ask is what has happened to acting at the STC more recently. While some debates the pro’s and cons of the Zebra script, most were underwhelmed by Bryan Brown’s acting. For a show with only three actors this was an issue. The core problem with Baal, in my opinion, was the acting. There was none – just a bit of hanging around on stage. The biggest acting problem was Thomas M Wright in the lead role who was meant to be a character of Pied-Piper like charisma. So lacking in pulling power was this performance – how could any of the characters be drawn to THAT! – I stalled in my response wondering if this had not been a deliberate decision by the director to mindf*ck us. In some bizarre intellectual way, turn our expectations upside down. But no one else on stage, from an acting point of view, was worth the price of a ticket either. Pretty young people walking around naked is not acting. The set was the star – and I will come back to that.

    Then came The White Guard, discussed at length above. I think I have said enough about Andrew Upton’s adapting skills for it to be clear I hold the man in high regard as a writer. Is he one of the world’s great directors – no. Should he, as artistic director of the STC, be taking on such big directorial gigs as Long Day’s Journey and The White Guard so early in his progress – I think not. For an artist who displays no arrogance as a human being, I don’t understand why Upton has not chosen to take a more cautious path into the word of directing – if that is where he wants to go. He’s nothing like Robyn Nevin – and yes I am going to say it after 10 years of silence on the matter – who hogged every major role for a senior actress in her time as AD of the STC. And being so busy running the company and directing herself, rarely delivered at full capacity in any of these parts. Different now she is back to being freelance, which only proves my point.

    Not only was The White Guard ordinarily directed, the acting was almost without interest. Darren Gilshenan did well to hold up his part, and there was a certain quality to the performance of Miranda Otto. But after that I never believed there as a war taking place outside. To what extent the director takes responsibility for this is hard to know. A better director would have got more from this cast, but this cast in itself was hardly what you would call major fire power. Featured in the cast were the male members of the STC Residents. And this, in fact, is the trigger to this long post. What is going on with this STC acting ensemble, this group of wannabe kids who replaced the incredible if controversial STC Actors Company? We have read virtually nothing about them in the press, not even that at least three of the ensemble have left – without explanation. Nor have these three been replaced. And what about their journey as actors? If their work in The White Guard is anything to go by, they have made no progress at all. Not wanting to jump ahead too much – but the same concern arose this week when we saw the female members of The Residents at work in Blood Wedding? We have given this group of young actors a lot of time, but we are yet to see them work together in away that suggested an ‘ensemble’ quality. And not a single one has risen from the ranks to suggest even a semblance of star quality.

    Not long ago we had a production of Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness. Beautifully costumed, but again oddly cast and the acting didn’t grab. There is a reason why I have not been reviewing STC shows in full of late – none have inspired a response in me

    After the desultory experiences of Baal, The White Guard and Edward Gant who could have thought the company could stoop to such an artistic low as Blood Wedding. Another Euro classic! Yes we should see them, but only if we are fairly sure we can do them well. ‘Spanish’ is a big cultural stretch for us, and this production gets nowhere near what this play by Lorca needed. That we had a Spanish play calling for high formality and HUGE passions was always going to be a big ask for any Australian troupe, laconic in temperament as we are. But to muddy the water by inviting in a Polish-trained designer: not of the minimalist Grotowski school, but the type that love’s silly over-elaborate masks, and other forms of loaded imagery – that suggested neither Australia nor Spain. Gifted as the designer may be – this was, to my mind, the wrong person for this job.

    Not that the designer was the show’s biggest problem, again it was the acting. Some big-armed gestures from Leah Purcell. But after that? The casting of Resident Sophie Ross in all her peach-skinned Celtic splendour was just nuts when you could have had Zindzi Okenyo, another Resident, who at least shows some semblance of being hot blooded. Overall, you go to see a play by Lorca to be blown away by the ‘passion’ – the very subject of Blood Wedding is passion. And to get this lame facsimile was very disappointing. After months of sullen silence, a question in my head began to take shape.

    What is also worrying about the STC right now is the imbalance between the very high production values and all this under-whelming acting. Great sets (Zebra, Baal), great costumes (Edward Gant) and incredibly well-made but aesthetically inappropriate design features in Blood Wedding only served to highlight the fact that the company is losing a grip of its sense of what good theatre is made of. Can think about getting back to basics – the core artistic promise. the actors and his/her relationship – on the night – with their audience.

    ADDENDUM (several days later)

    A colleague wrote in to say this story felt as if there was more to come. When in the back of my mind it was my retirement speech. Not quite – but more of that in my next post.  And he was right. There were a few issues left lingering in my mind. The two subjects I want to touch on stand at opposite ends of the theatre-making scale in Sydney (in it’s current creative climate). After dumping above on so much STC product from a great height, I wanted to mention two shows I neglected to mention that I really liked. They were both directed by Pamela Rabe: Elling and In The Next Room (or the Vibrator Play). I know that sentence is immediately going to surprise some people – re The Next Room. Pamela Rabe got her first chance to direct while a member of the STC Actors Company. Now in theory an actor should bring certain skills to the rehearsal room that a director who’s come straight from an Arts degree at Sydney Uni make lack. After all they have encountered the specific challenges an actor faces; and they’ve usually had both good and bad experiences working with directors. It doesn’t always translate because there’s more to directing than understanding acting – there’s the handling of time and space, and in most of our theatre the ways and means of communicating ideas apart form that which can be expressed through actors bodies.

    In the case of Rabe, the requisite package of gifts seems to hold. I’m not talking about how good or bad the scripts were. A whole coterie of people found the writing on In The Next Room lacking, not in craft, bit in progressive political dimension, if I can put it that way. Many felt that some of the roles were cliched stereotypes (ie the man who enjoyed the anal probe as an ‘artist’), worst of all that a play that purported to be FOR women, folded the women in the story back into very conventional social roles by the end. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put the politics of the writing to one side. Both Elling and In The Next Room offered great acting opportunities – in the style with which our major companies are familiar. And this is where Rabe, as a director shone. For Elling Rabe selected a lovely cast – Darren Gilshenan, Lachy Hulme, Glenn Hazeldine, Frank Whitten and Yael Stone – and from the stalls, they were a delight to watch. the same is true for In The Next Room. Whatever you thought of the play itself, the acting was first rate – especially among the women – Mandy McElhinney, Jacqueline McKenzie, Helen Thomson and Sara Zwangobani.

    I am sorry to have punctured the pride of director Iain Sinclair in being so blunt about my disappointment in Blood Wedding, but after a series of disappointments with the acting in STC productions of late – unfortunately it become the one, in terms of timing, to find itself sit firmly in my sights. Was The White Guard any better directed – no.  Was the acting any better – no.

    I guess I built entire post on a promise that remains, until now, unstated. That Australia produces, and boasts among its ranks, so many wonderful actors. I’ve mentioned, many names in this piece. I could mentioned as many again twice over. We are physical people, just as we produce great sportsmen and women, we produce great actors. the difference is we support out actors, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Imagine if NIDA enjoyed the budget and highly trained staff of the Australian Institute of Sport. Whatever a sportsperson needs in the country to win a gold medal, they get – experts in nutrition and mindset experts alongside, scientists and physical trainers. Some of out actors win gold – Logies, Emmys, Tony’s, Academys – but they get there on their own-some. And usually by giving up on Australia and taking themselves of to success and acclaim via Los Angeles.Why Australian actors do so well in the USA is a question I can’t answer. But when the likes of Robyn Nevin in the Long Day’s Journey tour, or Blanchett, Roxburgh and Weaving are similarly acclaimed during their recent Vanya tour, I am not one bit surprised.

    Let me go to my second point. I’ve been talking about the big end of town. Just by chance as I was finishing off this piece last week, I went out to see a tiny little show out at Parramatta. The show was called Unsex Me and  it played in the smallest room in the Riverside complex – I think it’s called Raffertys (which is a really dumb name for a venue – especially the token ‘experimental’ space – given the that the first thought that comes to mind is ‘Rafferty’s Rules’ – aka disorder/shabby. After all I’ve said about the importance of actors and their inter-relationship with audiences here was a stunning example of what I have been talking about. Okay, so there was some direct audience interaction, but that’s not what I as talking about. Quite simply very little of this show could come to life, or make sense, without the presence of an audience. Which for a very little show on a tiny budget, would not have made rehearsals easy.

    But that’s not my main point here. I’ve heaped a lot of praise on Australian actors and acting here. But truth to tell, even our best actors only use some of themselves – given our house – or National – style. It’s still effectively ‘talking-heads’ theatre. The full resources of an actor’s body are rarely called upon in Australian theatre culture. And that’s what was so mightily impressive about Unsex Me. Modest though the show was in every way, it was a very rare reminder that there is a lot more to acting craft then what we get to see in either our big mainstream shows or in our low-budget Indie gigs. Unsex Me was very obviously co-created by director Michal Imielski and actor Nick Atkins. Imielski was trained in Poland, but unlike the designer of Blood Wedding, he’s from the ‘poor’ theatre tradition of Grotowski where the resources of the actors body are mined relentlessly. There were other aspects to the stage ‘grammar’ of show – some well-deployed props including a giant balloon and a set of wine glasses, and sound/music is also a strong feature. The work explored aspects of a young man’s courting rituals, but in ways that constantly surprised and across a range of moods from serious to whimsical and downright silly.

    Imielski could not have created this work without  Nick Atkins. This young actor is at the beginning of his career, but if this is anything to go by we have the prospect of a major talent. Not only is he good, but also just so different. There were parts of the show where what Imielski required Atkins to push his body in ways that reminded me directly of Grotowski – lean, athletic, precise, strict. There were other sequences where Atkins played directly with the audience and even called them up onto the stage. Every audience member’s worst fear. What was interesting, at least on opening night, was that such a trust had been established, I think anyone in the audience would have have felt fine. By that I mean even me – we felt we were being ‘looked after’.

    I am not going to suggest that Unsex Me is the greatest show I have ever seen. It is what it is: an experimental piece created on a small amount of money by an almost unacclaimed director and a very young actor. Not all the show made sense, and on opening night a whole bunch of technical tings went wrong. But it didn’t matter – for me there was something so refreshing about this show. However modest, and whatever its shortcomings, Unsex Me embodied that secret x-factor I keep looking for in my theatre-going experiences. And usually never get. For a fulsome report on Unsex Me go to Augusta Supple’s site.

    What is that ‘x-factor’ that unique theatre-as-art-unforgettable gene? I can only allude to it, hint at it. You touch it, you name it – it disappears. It is by very definition elusive – that’s the secret to its identity. It’s a matter I’ve touched on in the past. Just as I mentioned at the top the primacy of the actor-audience relationship. The next question to ask is: what is born of that relationship? Something clearly very real – otherwise, why would we go back and back. But unreal to – it’s both three-dimensional and without dimensions at all. This is the best way I have found to describe the theatre experience: and to do so I have to resort to allusion, enter via poetics.

    Co-created, theatre is born in the empty space between actors and audience. As the more physically active partners, the actors throw it out there – hopefully the audience identifies and responds. The question I have asked myself many times is not so much ‘what do we remember – but ‘why’? So I come to this: theatre is a photograph printed on our souls. A lousy print, it’s faded by the next day. A good print stays with us – like a tattoo or an x-ray. The memory stays burned on our bodies – on the bodies that exist inside our bodies – the people deep down we really are.

    I can understand why, after so many years of attending theatre sometimes several times a week, so much of it is lost to me. The question I ask is why are there some moments I can still remember – as alive today as they were unfolding in front of me.  How do you make theatre like that? You can’t force it. You can’t make it happen – but you won’t even begin to succeed if you don’t try: eg Unsex Me. These guys are trying.

    By way of a more renowned example, let me cite what I guess would be my favourite – and most memorable – show ever. It played at an Adelaide Festival, I guess sometime in the 1980s. It came from Japan and was called Mizu No Eki (To The Water Station) created by Ota Shogo. I am not going to say any more here, but to point out just one feature of this incredibly powerful and evocative work for the stage – it used no words, though there was and still is is a playscript. As much as I love words, I am well aware of their limits. And they certainly are only one resource available to people who wish to make great theatre. The rle words paly in a threatre script would need to be the subject of another whole discussion: perhaps another day. For more on Mizu No Eki, go to this site. Try not to be confused, while some of the commentary (Mari Boyd) is about Ota’s production, this site is linked to a research project looking into the work – the video material is not from Ota’s original version. I am sure if you want to know more, you will find more.

    PS: I’s like to put some photos to this post, but it would take another two days. Maybe I’ll get a chance another time. I don’t like like leaving work looking like this, but that’s life. Sometimes you just can’t do everything.

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