• 06 Aug 2011 /  Reviews

    That’s not the name of the script, it’s called And No More Shall We Part. But it is a ‘say good-bye’ play. A woman has a terminal illness and she decides to put an end to it by taking (illegally) some pills. Her husband isn’t so keen, makes a bit of a fuss; but finally gives in to the idea. This is an intimate study of their last weeks – and more particularly, on a parallel time line – their last hours together. I think Holloway is one of our most interesting playwrights, and each of the plays of his I have seen so far has been just a little bit different stylistically. I was very taken by Beyond the Neck, a meditation in the form of four soliloquies on the Port Arthur massacre – ordinary folk looking back many years later. I thought this was an incredibly moving production, directed for Belvoir by Iain Sinclair,  with Holloway doing very well in get under skin of his characters. Love Me Tender was a version of the Iphigenia story from Greek mythology, directed by Matthew Lutton, also at Belvoir (with Griffin). This was a highly experimental script where the lines were not allocated to any particular characters. I thought Lutton and the cast did a brilliant job in bringing this play to life. It had great physically, was beautiful to look at, and had fantastic performances. But, in all, did not quite make sense. Well not to a lot of people who saw it. I knew the myth behind this modern version and so it was good for me. But how many among the paying public know the Iphigenia story? You did need to know the work’s mythical origins for the production to fully work. Nice try for an emerging playwright nonetheless.

    Russell Kiefel and Linda Cropper

    Here, Holloway has gone for straight up-and-down naturalism – all the way down to the umms and ahhs. While there is much to admire about this script and Sam Strong’s thoughtful production, I don’t think Holloway quite pulls of what he attempts. They are a pretty average suburban couple, nicely played by two fine actors – Linda Cropper and Russell Kiefel – who on opening night were still working on settling their performances in. They are certain to take off over this next week and the whole experience will be a lot stronger.

    The story is well organised; and carefully engineered in time and space by director Sam Strong. There are some very fine moments, as the pattern of action builds to climax and gentle resolution. It’s a slow burn and then, towards the end, the action catches fire. But Holloway loves big emotions and grand ideas. And though they are kind of there, sort of, what happens in between is barely engaging. To much trivial chit-chat – which would be fine is there was subtext. But, apart from the simple fact someone is dying, not enough lies underneath the surface of the words.  ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ …. and …. ‘I had an affair once’ …. ‘yes I know I did too’ …. really doesn’t take us very far. What about …. ‘why do we live, my love’ or ‘you never loved me anyway’ …. just to toss in a couple of randoms.

    I should declare my hand here. I have interviewed several GPs who, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, admitted to euthanasing quite a few  patients. I know a women who used to buy the heroin for another doctor to euthanase his patients, who then used the stuff on himself. I remember several guys who I visited in their last few days before they (I knew – though they did not say) put themselves to sleep. A lot more happens in these situations, from awful to funny, that Holloway has not even begin to imagine. A play on this topic should have really knocked me around. It did not.

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  • 29 Jul 2011 /  Reviews

    Robyn Nevin at her best as the colourful Eva

    I’ve never thought of myself as the addictive type – more a dabbler. But the shot in the arm I  got from seeing Lally Katz’s inventive, funny marvelously humane play, Neighbourhood Watch, made me realise why I have been so listless and grumpy of late. Let’s not worry about the price per gram, the gear of late has been dodgy. And if not dodgy then just not the right stuff to keep this little camper happy.

    I accept that it’s been more of a programing accident than a conspiracy that we have had so many Euro classics of late; and that much of this work, in itself, has been fascinating and of  high artistic merit. But as one Russian masterpiece followed another, I found myself feeling a bit like Heath Ledger in Candy doing detox – drab of spirit and not wanting to get out of bed. I suspected it was all sorts of maladies: from personal crap in my life to big-picture stuff like the state of the world. Now I know: I just needed a fix of plain and simple good new Australian drama. I have suspected for some time that there has to be a deep psychic reason for me to go back and back to the theatre – something to do with repressed aspects of my persona, which are liberated in the event of others acting out stories (that mean something to me) on stage. When I say ‘mean something me’, it would be narcissistic to expect every new production be hand-crafted to please my personal predilections. As someone who writes about the city’s theatre culture, quite often I need to honour and respect work that speaks to others more than it does to me. So long as it speaks to someone!

    Megan Holloway as Catherine - learning about life

    But the relative silence over the past few months on this site, in which only a very few shows have been reviewed by me, was mostly the result of my coming away time after time unaffected by the latest theatre experience. It was getting to the point, starved of personal inspiration, where I could no longer even speak about shows I thought others might like. Not just any new Australian play was going to pick me up – Zebra didn’t; though Silent Disco certainly put some spring in my step. What I needed was a script of the calibre of Neighbourhood Watch and a production as fine as the one that premiered on Wednesday night. I came out at the end bouncing with a rush of endorphins. And this morning I was happy, for once, to get up and go straight to my desk.

    Neighbourhood Watch features an elderly Hungarian woman, Ana – a forensic characterisation from Robyn Nevin – falling into an unusual relationship with a young neighbour, Catherine (aka Kitty-Kitty) – a lovely spare characterisation from newcomer Megan Holloway. The script is immediately funny and quirky, opening up incrementally onto an emotionally sweeping panorama that in many unlikely ways embraces love, compassion and hope. Both women have had men in their lives – and lost them. In the case of Ana, coming from war-torn Europe, she is wise but tough to the point of meanness. Catherine on the other hand, in Ana’s view, is way too gullible and soft. They converge and clash and ultimately find common ground. It’s a study of a lovely friendship.

    Kris McQuade in shining form as the put-upon Milova

    Fleshing out the story are a bunch of other neighbours: Catherine’s script-writing house buddy, Ken (Charlie Garber); sensitive middle-aged Christina (Heather Mitchell); an elderly Balkan emigre, Milova (Kris McQuade). Then there are the men Ana and Catherine have lost – half a world and half a century apart: an injured soldier Ana meets towards the end of the war and Catherine’s Ken. Both parts parts played with nuance and sensitivity by Ian Meadows. Concise and graceful, watching Heather Mitchell on stage is always a delight. Kris McQuade is unlikely casting as decrepit old Milova, and pulls off a coup in bringing this unloved women to life. The good news for Charlie Garber, as the token modern young bloke, is that he has been well guided by director Simon Stone in this production. More restrained and grounded than he has been in  several productions of late.

    Ana and Kitty talk about men

    There are many secrets to the success of this show apart from the marvelous script. And by that I mean not only hugely inventive from Katz, but excellently dramaturged by Eamon Flack with director Simon Stone. At last a new Australian play arrives on stage already knocked into shape. The good news about Simon Stone’s directing is its unobtrusiveness.. In both The Wild Duck (successful) and Baal (less so), you could see this young director’s hand at work. Not always a bad thing, I’m not against the Kosky-Andrews auteur syndrome. But this play needed a lighter touch and that’s what it gets.

    Charlie Garber as flatmate Ken with Catherine

    When I talked last post about good theatre growing up out of home soil, Neighbourhood Watch is an example par excellence. Katz has told us that she was inspired to write this play after getting know a particular Melbourne women. And then she wrote the script with Roby Nevin in  mind for the lead role. The work benefits consequently in its specificity; as well, from the longer lense, its romantic sweep. Apparently Belvoir has a massive hit on its hands, and tickets are well night impossible to get; though a few are being released on the day of each performance. It was also impossible to get into The Seagull, just recently, with Judy Davis. But that production there was more controversial. While I liked it a lot, many discerning theatregoers did not. I do not expect the same debate over Neighbourhood Watch. This is a smart sweet play, excellently produced

    Does she miss him? - Ian Meadows as Catherine's elusive boyfriend Ken

    The buzz in the foyer after the show was palpable – it’s been a long time to encounter an opening night audience on such a high. Whether recreational users, or an addict like myself – we were all buzzing around high as kites. In such a circumstance I should, for once, go to the trouble of acknowledging the other contributing talents. Dale Ferguson’s open set makes ideal use of the Belvoir corner: the ex-factor being a hidden revolve that is excellently used in the story-telling. I especially liked the bus trip traveling at speed. Ferguson also gets a credit for costumes, covering both contemporary Australia and war-era Budapest. Damien Cooper’s lighting design, like the direction, effective without drawing attention to itself. A special note for Stefan Gregory, who not only composes and plays music on stage, but services several smaller roles.

    Some older audience members are going to look at Nevin’s Ana and at times be reminded of her Miss Docker. The characters do have their similarities. It’s a plus. Nevin is brilliant at putting together these combative ladies who, at times, can hurt despite being driven by good intentions.

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  • 13 Jul 2011 /  Reviews

    Hi Kids, apologies for the silence – I have been out picking cotton – which is code for bum down head up trying to earn a few bucks. I cryptically hinted only recently  I have a day job, so no I don’t live on air or the blue blood of young actors. But it is a job that comes and goes in waves – call it freelance, casual, wotever – it helps pay the bills and it’s lots of fun. Right now I got some work. Last year was quiet – with repercussions for the quality of cat food I could buy for Amos and Nitro. But the system has kicked in again and now I am on a new project (a history of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras – more on this later). I mention this other life as people almost always introduce me as a critic, which at parties inevitably increases the likelihood of going home alone. I appreciate that age may may also be a factor at play, but I do remember in my younger days  – at the height of my fame as a critic – the look of fear that would overwhelm a young virgin-type when they suddenly anticipated forensic degustation of their potential upcoming bedroom performance. To assure the said victim that I was hugely inept myself has never seemed to help.

    Anyway, after years of schlepping around the fringes of print media I have mostly given that sort of thing up. The odd essay maybe. And I do have a possible book to work on – on the work of a stage designer – agreed to by a publisher but being expensive needs raising finance first. Meanwhile, as financial philosopher Peter Singer may ask: “how is James to live?” Well yes, true, the kindness of strangers. But, apart from that, since 1993, I have also been recording what are known as ‘whole life’ interviews for the Oral History and Folklore Collection of the National Library of Australia. Quite simply ‘life stories’ of interesting Australians. Because these assignments are not in print, few people know they exist – so here I am to tell you. Not just because it’s about me, but to alert you to the phenomenal archive of stories here, of which mine are but a few handful among many thousands.

    I came to this Library work, nearly 20 years ago now, as a journalist who happened to be living in inner-city Sydney, the physical/spiritual/emotional heart of Australia’s AIDS epidemic. The National Library was embarking on a major new topic: ‘Australia’s Response to AIDS’. Initially I mostly interviewed young men who were dying, including actor Timothy Conigrave, who at that point was halfway through writing his famous  book, Holding The Man, later turned into a successful play. That was a great interview – by that I mean, Timothy (not surprising to anyone who knew him) was funny and heartbreakingly honest. Actors playing the role have been able to listen to his voice and manner of speaking, which is why the part has never been played sentimentally. Tim was bold and cheeky to the end – no syrup.

    Several of us worked on that project, but a decade later I was asked to revisit it by myself. Re-interviewing not only survivors, but doctors, nurses, activists – and catching up with people who had slipped the net the first time around. One result of all this work was an offer to work, more recently, as a researcher on a documentary called Rampant: How a City Conquered AIDS (by the director of Leaky Boat). Rampant is a fantastic film because it shows you just how amazing many of the people were who engaged together at so many levels in Sydney to stop the epidemic from spreading from the gay ghetto (elsewhere via drug users and sex workers) to the broader public. If you’re reading this and have no idea what I am talking about, this is today’s main point. How well do you know the history of your city? And just why is it that you  think we don’t have our own stories of interest to tell?

    Let me put it another way. I hang out a bit with quite a few people young than me – even some in their 20s. And I am shocked how little they know about even the recent history of this city. Being mostly up-and-c0ming theatre people, I am even more dismayed to discover how little they know about the history of this city’s theatre life. As individuals it’s not their fault. If they wanted to know more, where would they begin to look? But I also believe that it’s currently the fashion to think that the past is not important. Belvoir’s recent publication of a book overlooking its creative life thus far is a helpful contribution. While there needs to be a more research and publishing, I think more importantly is the need for us to start respecting the past as a resource. Australian theatre is forever re-inventing the wheel – with not enough building and moving forward as a result. And these histories are quite specific.

    If there is one thing I have learned over the years is that theatre – of all the art forms – is the most parochial. Sydney’s theatre world is a solar system away from that of Melbourne’s. London, Prague, New York – either now or a hundred years ago – is another galaxy. And yes it’s all very nice to toy with a so-called ‘classic text’, either reverentially or with massive creative disrespect (turning Gogol into Gaga), do as much of that sort of stuff as you want. But if we want a theatre culture to thrive, it also needs to regularly till home soil. And if you don’t what’s in that soil nutritionally, how can you make the best of this year’s sowing and next year’s harvest? Shakespeare may well have set most of his stories in times past and in exotic locales, but that as just a trick: every single one of his plays was also, sometimes mostly, about what was going on in London that year. Were the King’s Men reviving medieval church drama or even the Greek classics: no. Every play they, and their competitors, staged was by a current or very recent local playwright. I believe there is a connection between this simple fact and the huge numbers – thousands a day – that attended the Elizabethan theatres.

    You may say that this job is better done now by TV and film. My argument would be that no matter how much of it is done by those forms, our theatre still needs to rise up out of our own local soil for us to produce truly beautiful flowers and healthy nutritional crops. Okay the plays can be set anywhere in place and time, but to do what we have done in recent years and downgrade the status (almost get rid of) the Australian writer  – and the home-grown story – is, I think, a huge mistake. I am picking up here on the discussion which followed my review of The Business and has continued on other online theatre blogs in relation to a number of other shows – including Baal, The White Guard and The Seagull. Those comments have set me thinking: something is wrong with our current funding and programing priorities? Since I started out in the 1970s, I have never known a time before when at least one, if not several, playwrights were household names. The breakthrough moment was Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the 17th Doll, which in the 1950s not only played to huge numbers in Melbourne and Sydney, but toured up and down the eastern states, a town a night – and then went on to New Zealand and  even London. John Sumner, soon to emerge at the Artistic Director of the MTC, regarded the play’s success to be an aberration, and went to no trouble to encourage any more of that sort of thing  – not when you had so many fine English plays, new and old, to choose from. In his view this was more than fortunate, given the fact (as he saw it) that Australians had no interesting stories of their own to tell. That kind of attitude, I believe has crept back into the group mindset. And while it may be true that Dad & Dave nostalgia, or Home & Away soap are not what we are looking for, that in fact it may be quite difficult right now to know where our home-grown talent could and should be heading that doesn’t mean we don’t encourage it. Those with an interest in the theatre in Australia – audiences as well as theatre-makers – were familiar not only with the names but the work of many living playwrights including Stephen Sewell, Dorothy Hewett, Alex Buzo, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Alma de Groen, Louis Nowra, David Williamson. In 2011 I cannot suggest the name of one contemporary playwright as well known or whose work is held in comparable regard. Look to the USA, UK, anywhere in Europe, almost anywhere in the world where a theatre culture exists – and the same would not be true. However else we play with the data available, this tells me something is very wrong.

    I have decided it is not good enough to simply say ‘an international’ outlook better suits these times. For all its success at so many levels, especially skills and competence, our theatre world right now feels unimportant and spiritually empty. We blame the print media for being ignorant in not caring about it. But have we ever  stopped to ask if perhaps we are not newsworthy? I am fairly sure that if we came up with something interesting enough it would be splashed across the front page. When Opera Australia presents La Traviata next year on a massive pontoon moored off Lady Macquarie’s Chair to audiences of 3,000 a night, I am sure it will get media coverage. A work for one actor and one audience member would also attract attention if it were truly interesting enough.

    Rather than comment on the artistic policy of the big theatre companies ( maybe another time soon), I am going to pursue this conversation from another angle: the Indie scene. A few weeks back I saw three shows back to back. Rope at the Bondi Pavilion, The Coming World at Darlinghurst Theatre  and Mum’s In: Stories from Razorhurst. Rope was actually Peter Hamilton’s 1929 West End (London) thriller, Rope’s End, which Hitchcock turned into an absorbing thriller. The play in its time (and place) was well regarded. There was a very good team working on this show including director Iain Sinclair and actors Anthony Gee and and Anthony Gooley. It’s a thriller with a few ‘social issues’ relevant to its time. There is no reason not to do it now, but at one’s own risk. The anti-war themes now appear feeble. So, at best, it’s a thriller. Or needs to be. And this production simply did not not jingle the nerve endings enough to earn that title. I can be done: I saw a production of Wait Until Dark, a very similar kind of play, at Marian Street some years back starring Georgie Parker and Andrew McFarlane – it scared the pants off us!  I felt, watching Rope at the Bondi Pav, that about 80 percent of the effort on the night went into keeping the British accents straight and generally creating the period milieu. All that would have been simply assumed in London in 1927 and the actors would have devoted the bulk of theirenergies to other stuff like like creating heightened psychic atmosphere. Also, I attended a few days into the run (not freebee opening night) and there were only a handful of us in to see the show.

    A couple of night later and it was much the same thing. The Coming World by American writer Christopher Shinn is relatively recent (premiering in London in 2001), but it suffered the same challenges as Rope in that so much work had to be done by the cast in mastering the Connecticut accents that few acting resources appeared leftover to bring the play to life. It was a good cast – Cheree Cassidy and Ian Meadows, and a director of promise in Caroline Craig. But did the earth move for me – I sat there rigidly disengaged. Again I was attending a couple days after opening night and the audience was tiny.

    While this is hardly a scientific survey, I found it fascinating to discover that I had to fight my way in to see the next Indie gig in my diary. There was a queue down the street. After the mind-numbing experiences of Rope and The Coming World, I trotted out on a very cold night at the end of that same week to Mum’s In: Stories from Razerhurst. This was the creation of Vashti Hughes – a show for one performer (Vashti) with piano accompaniment from partner Ross Johnston (co-writer credit), and a script involving many characters – male and female -  from the era of east Sydney’s razor-gangs, including Tilly Devine (brothels), Kate Leigh (sly grog), Nellie Cameron (prostitute), Frank green (thug) – all getting ready to attend  the funeral of Guido Caletti, leader of Darlinghurst’s razor-gang Push.

    It takes a lot of guts to create your own one-person show, though credit must also in this case to others, including director James Winter. But here’s the thing. Mum’s In didn’t even have the support of a recognised co-op or Indie venue. It was put on in a ‘secret venue’. Nor did it have what you might call ‘a budget – a nearly bare stage and one outfit. What Vashti does do however is throw herself into creating a script that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. She just dug into the soil beneath her own feet and pulled up this story like as giant sweet potato (apologies for the extended agricultural analogy). The ‘secret location’ (you only found out where it was after you booked) was in East Sydney, not far from the East Village hotel which for most of its life was better known as The Tradesman’s Arms, famous for the sawdust on the floor in the Razorhurst era, put there to soak up any blood. Of which, apparently, there was lots.

    Vashti would be the first to admit that Judy Davis is the better actress. But with a good story and loads of commitment, help from her team, she pulled off a fun and successful Indie theatre gig – certainly one of the best Sydney has seen this year. All advertising was done at no cost by social networking, as they like to call it, and word of mouth. If you arrived in 1930s gear you got a discount on your ticket. You also got a shake down for hidden weapons. Inside, at the tables, you could buy ‘sly’ grog served in jam jars. Despite the secret venue not being exactly of the era the story was set in, a general ambiance was created. I sat with a friend and two older women who could well have been Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh in their senior years: they certainly dressed up for the occasion.

    So this theme of telling our own stories. I am trying make two points. Our theatre culture’s past if full of stories, and we should know them. and our Australian culture more broadly – past and current – is loaded with many fascinating stories. Where to find them. Back to my day job. For one thing, nothing is stopping you dipping into the National Library’s Oral History and Folklore collection. I will finish with this. After the AIDs project I was invited to start interviewing eminent theatre professionals. I have completed dozens of these now. There are more from another interviewer and there is a huge collection from dance world. Personally, I had no idea when I started out how fascinating out theatre past – say from the 1930s – has been. But you can access these interviews – that’s what they are there for. I am off the theatre topic for the moment while I concentrate on an oral history of Sydney’s gay and lesbian Mardi Gras. But, I suggest, listen to my interviews with directors including George Ogilvie, George Whaley, Peter Oyston, Doreen Warburton, Arne Neeme, Richard Cottrell, for example. Hear them talk about directing the classics as well as their many premieres of new Australian plays. Not everyone has been interviewed, and not all the interviews are equally successful. And no interview is uniformly fascinating. But I can assure you, put in the time, keep your ears open – and you will learn heaps. The struggles, the ups and downs, the hits and flops, the great personalities – great stories – all om a theme – striving to create an exciting home-grown Australian theatre culture.

    To look at a list of the people I have interviewed for the National Library go to this address. Better still – head to HOME – and take a snoop around the whole collection. People have been interviewed from all walks of life. Right now the Library is working on a series of interviews with Forgotten Australians – people raised in foster and institutional care. I worked in this briefly in its pilot stage – oh my gosh. You think we don’t have stories – are you kidding me. Sorry no photos with this story – too busy. After all, I am currently immersed in a near permanent state of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras – from 1978 to 2011. That’s a lots of bums up (and tits out) and I have to deal with as many as one person can single-handle. Occasionally coming up for air!

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  • 14 Jun 2011 /  Reviews

    There is a reason why people like myself head off to the theatre several times a week, year in year out. It’s because we know, every now and again, that we will stumble into a dark room and find ourselves presented with a miracle in the form. A work of stage art that makes you laugh and cry and think and be glad to be alive – if for no better reason than you got to see this show. In this case, it is Benedict Andrews’ funny and tender, clever and humble production of The Seagull – the first of Chekhov’s most famous and celebrated plays. It was a play that went down badly at its premiere in 1896, and even to this day the most promising productions usually fail to get near to its shy and tender heart. Oh yeah, it’s funny too. Especially in this version.

    The calm before the show

    I can’t think of a play I love more, and here it is on stage in all its vulnerable, elusive beauty: true to the spirit of the text (I think there is such a thing), and forged from Andrews’ increasingly fascinating personal stage language. Andrews’ creative impulses endeavour, like no other Australian director, to balance intellect and feeling. And, as he get better at telling stories on stage, he finds more and more room for his actors (all very good here) to contribute fundamentally to the making of the work. Meanwhile, we are already used to him working intensely with his designers to create stage worlds that capture in physical form the ideas he has chosen to explore.

    Fortunately for Chekhov (and theatre history) The Seagull got a second chance when, in 1898, Stanislavski chose to direct it at his Moscow Art Theatre. There’s an irony in the story of The Seagull’s shaky beginnings because that’s how the play itself opens. With a play within a play - which goes down rather badly for its young author. One of the reasons I like this play is its topic -  it is as much about the subject of art (an interest of mine – lol) as it is about life: more specifically, about the making of art and its reception.

    Constantin's avant-garde play: Maeve Dermody as Nina

    Chekhov takes four sensitive artistic types and throws them into conflict at several levels. A young writer, Constantine Treplev (Dylan Young) and a young actress, Nina Zarechnya (Maeve Dermody), versus the mature and successful actress Irena Arkadina (Judy Davis), Constantine’s mother; and her current companion, the writer Aleksei Trigorin (David Wenham). Arkadina and Trigorin have arrived at the family estate from the city for a summer holiday. Not unexpectedly, their short stay turns life among the regular residents upside down. This tension between the colourful goings-on of the big smoke (somewhere far away) and the dullness of the family retreat is a feature of much of Chekhov’s writing (plays and stories). In The Seagull it is played out with particular intensity, what with the many references to Arkadina’s city life as a famous actress and Trigorin’s renown as a published writer. Also involved in the story are Sorin (John Gaden), Arkadina’s brother, in charge of the estate but in failing health; Dorn (Bille Brown), the family doctor; and Masha (Emily Barclay) the daughter of the manager Shamrayev (Terry Serio) and his wife Polina (Anita Hegh).Then there’s Semyon (Gareth Davies), the poverty-stricken school-teacher, in love with Masha (reluctantly she ultimately succumbs).

    I once saw a version (early 1980s?) at the Royal Court in London set in rural Ireland, with London’s West End standing in for the actress’s St Petersburg. This was at a time when such relocations (and associated textual reworking) was new, and it worked brilliantly. I thought at the time, we could do this for The Seagull in Australia, living as we too have done for so long under the shadow of similar provincial insecurities.

    back from a holiday - Bille Brown as the doctor Dorn

    The setting here is a dinky 60s-70s fibro holiday house of the sort you find on the dripping edge of Lake Macquarie or Jervis Bay. The big-smoke could be Sydney. How far we have come? That we could construct such a conceit! It’s a perfunctory L-shaped kit home with lots of aluminium-framed doors and windows, clunky bunk beds and cheap floral seating  – designer Ralph Myers. Costumes are by Dale Ferguson and lighting by Damien Cooper. For those of us who grew up with these kinds of holidays, it’s a perfect rendering of our childhood memories. Many of these shacks still stand – and so with a translation that has been impeccably nuanced into this setting, the time is now. Scenes played within the house remind us at times of Andrew’s wonderful production of The Season at Sarsaparilla for the STC Actors Company.

    Emily Barclay as the 'emo' Marsha

    David Wenham brutal in his cool as Trigorin

    In Chekhov’s original rendering, doom-addled Masha dresses is black, drinks too much and snorts snuff. Here in the Aussie setting, Masha’s look is ‘Emo black’, starts the show with a wobbly entrance in those ridiculous clunky multi-strapped ‘prison shoes’ women have been sucked into wearing for the last year or so. She is literally out-of-kilter with daily life. Through the show she knocks back a lot of vodka, but in this silent opening sequence she presents modern Australia to us by way of putting together and getting high on ‘pot’ by way of a bucket bong. Voila – here is our world. Suburban tragic…

    The action kicks in when other characters arrive to prepare for a presentation of Constantin’s ‘futuristic’ play with a solo performance from young Nina. In this version the stage is a smallish perspex cube within which the ‘wild’ dramatisation is contained. Not only is this a youthfully ‘avant-garde’ setting, this show behind glass reminds us of Andrews’ productions of Who’s Afraid of  Virginia Woolf and Measure for Measure. While these were mature (and successful) works, it’s nice to see Andrews’ make fun of his own creative impulses. Soon enough all the main characters have assembled.

    Dylan Young as yearning Constantin

    Unfortunately, after not too long, Arkadina begins to mock, fobbing the playlet off as folly in front of the other guests. Humiliated, Constantine brings the production to a hasty close and flees in humiliation. Utterly absorbed in herself and her own needs, Arkadina does not realise how hurtful she is being. Sorin tries to alert her to the dangers of her actions, but she rejects his admonishment. To add counterpoint, playing the ‘observer’ throughout the play, Dorn on the other hand sees talent in the play. But it is not Dorn from whom Constantine desperately needs approval, rather his mother.

    Typically of Chekhov, in a series of tiny incremental moves, the happy holiday inexorably unravels. All but a coupleof  the most perfunctory servant characters get to reveal their dreams, cut short more often than not by harsh reality. Yet Chekhov insists this is a comedy, and in the production definitely so. All the characters are flawed, none more entertaining so than Arkadina – the actress mother. A diva in her own lunch-time, and played here with mesmerising brilliance by our own most singular diva, this country’s greatest actress, Judy Davis.

    Gareth Davies as the put-upon school teacher Semyon

    If I could digress for a moment. Nothing will send a shiver of excitement through theatre lovers in this city than news that Judy Davis is to appear on stage. These occasions are rare, and since her graduation from NIDA in the late 1970s, she has never disappointed. Off stage some say she is difficult: all I can say to that is for an actor to be able to expose themselves emotionally to the extent on stage that Davis is able, I am not surprised they sometimes find day-to-day life hard going. Why I refer to this is because what we have here, effectively, in The Seagull, is a diva playing a diva. And what is so enthralling and impressive is the way Davis creates her crazy emotionally f*cked-up, overly theatrical Arkadina, from a place inside herself that is free of all vanity. I am struggling to find the words for this, but for the record, it’s important: to try and explain how Davis’s greatness comes from a very humble place in herself. Most famous Arkadina’s ‘steal the show’. Davis only does this to the extent required by the character, she plays the ‘diva’ only in inverted commas, and often hilarious in her interpretation. But what makes her performance so remarkable is the extent to which Davis disciplines herself to remain at all times committed to the work of the ‘ensemble’. Now at the prime of her life, we are seeing in Davis’s Arkadina a once-in-a-lifetime performance. Consummate, impeccable: yet typically Australian in being ruthlessly ‘anti-star’.

    Judy Davis as Arkadina with the two men in her life - (top) her son Constantin and (above) her lover Trgorin

    Judy Davis as Arkadina with the two men in her life - (top) her son Constantin and (above) her lover Trigorin

    This is only possible because Davis shares the stage with actors who can match her: Bille Brown, John Gaden, David Wenham, Terry Serio, Anita Hegh – these are the seniors. How good can casting get! I often cite this as a golden age of acting in Australia – well here it is for anyone who has got themselves a ticket to see. Every one of these actors finds a wonderful, personal truth in the characters they play. And, to add to the excitement, we obviously have a future when the younger parts are able to filled by emerging talents as good as Emily Barclay, Gareth Davies, Maeve Dermody and Dylan Young. From the overall pool of talent available, Andrews’ has cast this play to perfection. That’s half the job done. Then, not only does he allow each of these actors the chance to bring themselves to these roles – without damaging that, Andrews’ then spins into life his interpretation. His ‘reading’ of The Seagull is for us in this city today. It’s the balance between the freedom Andrews allows his actors here and the shape he gives to the world he creates (for them to live within) that makes this production so impressive. So beautiful to watch. I don’t want to take anything away from what Andrews has done before, and among the highlights for me have been his Julius Ceasar and his Sarsaparilla. But this production is surely a new high point. I don’t know what Andrews has been up to since he relocated to Berlin, but we don’t really need to know. This is the latest in his series of Australian works and it announces his certain arrival at full maturity. I really don’t think you can get better theatre-making than this.

    Nina is 'the seagull'

    All photos by Heidrun Lohr

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  • 03 Jun 2011 /  Reviews

    I’ve have been struggling with this one for weeks, it’s been like having an albatross hanging round my neck and getting stinkier by the day.  I’ve decided to burn all previous drafts cut the dead body off and toss it back into the sea. If it floats, well and good. If it sinks, so be it. I know the problem: while there is much I admire and respect about this production,it also happened to leave me unmoved. Positive or negative – I can find little in me to generate a response. So whatever comes out here is by way of effort and a sense of duty, not enthusiasm or outrage.

    Some packaging. I wrote a very tough response recently to The Business, and since Baal is in many ways it corner opposite, the presumption would be that I would come out raving. But art is rarely so simple, nor writing about it. Both works are by what I guess we are now calling the new generation to float to the top of the profession here in Australia. And there are some commonalities. Both work are radical rewrites of minor texts by famous writers. And bother are shows that are very strongly director and designer driven. In other ways the two shows could not be more different. If The Business, whatever anyone else says, was shrill and ill-prepared, Baal is a thoroughly considered project and well worked through. Secondly, it is much easier to write about a show if you react to it with a passion – either way (positive or negative). In that sense I found it easy to write about The Business because it stirred a reaction in me. That did not happened to me watching Baal. I thought it was classy, but I came away unmoved: neither shaken nor stirred.

    Baal and a victim: photo by Jeff Busby

    It may well be that this was its point. The creators seemed to deliberately choose to work against certain conventions and emotional expectations. With so much of what is popular in theatre – like big emotions – surgically removed, we were being pushed, I think, to think. But what about?

    Let me say early up that, with all the baalihoo about the current trend fort rendering-renditioning-stealing-translating-reworking-adapting (call it what you will) of classic texts, I chose on this occasion to experiment by taking the work for what it is on stage now – unfamiliar with Brecht’s original. I have never seen a production nor read a translation. This seemed an important opportunity, given the course of the current debate. Most ticket-buying punters are unfamiliar with the ‘originals’ on which many of our more important current productions are based. And I know, from my own experience, it does have an effect. Tom Holloway’s Love Me Tender was inspired by Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. I knew the source text and – talking to others who had seen the show and been quite confused by it – I realised that my familiarity with the Euripides helped me ‘read’ and appreciate Holloway’s script. And hence the production. I remember people involed in the production saying, ‘oh you don’t need to know the original’. Although I never reviewed this production at the time, I have been waiting to say this: yes you do, yes you did!

    We all bring different pasts into the theatre, and theatre-makers can never ensure we all start on the same page (as it were). But theatre is a communal event, and in the debate about this new fashion for re-fashioning classic texts (remembering all translations are re-fashionings to some degree) I think a simple fact is being overlooked. Yes, of course you can re-jig the heck out of an old script for contemporary purposes. But I do think artists need to remember that in stripping and honing, in cutting and re-arranging, in adding and subtracting they are spending a lot of time with the original and are getting to know it very well. One of the reasons why I liked The Wild Duck is, not only was it emotionally engaging but, having some familiarity with a couple of conventional translations, I was able to admire what the writers had ‘done’ in bringing their version to life for a 21st century audience.

    It also had what I personally enjoy in the theatre – big honest emotions. Now I that may well be a matter of personal predilection – yes I live out  a big slice of my personal inner life by going to the theatre. But I am not sure the general ticket buying public (and they are a very mixed bunch), are always getting what the artists are setting out to create in these new ‘readings’ of classics because there is a backlog of knowledge packed into the scripts’ origins to which many are not privy. And then the double whammy in Baal, a whole bunch of – let us call them cliches about traditional theatre making – are surgically removed. So what we have is as new as the newest work of art in an art gallery. Unfortunately, a work of art in an art gallery can sit there for decades until people catch up with it. Theatre, I would argue, has to pick people up from where they are now and lift them to a new place.

    Of course this is getting more and more difficult when the way we experience the world is getting more and more individualised – no more talk around the water cooler at work about last night’s hit television show because we were all watching something different. And anyway, who works in an office – personally, I don’t see people for days. The closest I get to sharing whatever happened to me last night is on Facebook (and that usually involves me taking a photo of one of my cats and hosting that up via various forms of technology).

    Then there is the ‘cold fish’ argument. It is a valid endeavour, but to and one pursued by Brecht himself. Remove the big emotional responses, so we can better observe or study that is happening to the characters. I am denied my cheap thrill, that’s okay. But what happens if I am being delivered food for thought and I see nothing on the plate to digest. Not nothing I want to digest – that would be like being to scared to eat peas (like poor Wozzeck). But nothing – I emerged from this production in a zombie state. Neither alive nor dead.

    That is not how it has been for others. Some have loved the show – people with fine minds and lots of theatre experience. other with fine minds and less experience. I don’t know many people without a fine mind, so I can speak for them. But equally there are others who have not cared for this work in quite a passionate way. For good leads, I recommend you read both Alison Croggon and Kevin Jackson. Both are impressive responses, if very different. And you will likely get more from reading both those reviews back-to-back than you will from reading what I have here. Certainly what I write here is somewhat contingent on those responses.

    Director Simon Stone worked with Chris Ryan on the script for The Wild Duck. here, with Baal, Stone worked with Tom Wright, the writer best known in Australia for working in this new field of radical rewrites. Croggon has some great insights into the strengths of this production and Jackson puts up some great counter-arguments. Jackson makes one very interesting finding, a personal one – which has opened a door in my thoughts. Jackson expresses a weariness with the many portrayals we have been getting with what’s wrong with the world (existential angst), and wonder when we are going to get top see a show that laughs in life’s face (my words) or offers us some way out  – say we all become Buddhists or give in and mass suicide at the end of the show (my suggestions).

    Jackson and I are not so young and it’s likely we’ve both seen a bit doping life’s rounds. And I guess that’s where I had problems with this show. For me it as like – big deal! There is a massive story in here – about the power charismatic people have over even the best of us. And it important message got through to some people. But for me, Baal – in this incantation – had no charisma. And I presumed that was what the cutting-edge artists involved in this production aimed to achieve. No outbreak of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ to stir our loins. So the masses today are drawn like moths to the flame to people without charisma? It’s true they are – you only have to look at the Lady Gaga phenomenon. But this play is not going to speak to Lady Gaga fans, and those of us devoted to art theatre (well me anyway), I am walking out wondering why I didn’t stay home and watch Masterchef (thoughts of food if not food for thought).

    It’s one thing or another – and I am stumped because I am unable to read the artists’ intentions.

    One: either the artistic team has gone put of its way to eliminate as many obvious emotional triggers as possible. The rock star sings some songs, but they hardly have emotional wrench of ‘Bali Hai’  from the musical South Pacific. If this had been been a Kosky production, by way of some lite relief, I can see the naked female chorus knocking off a juicy version of ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair – and Send Him On His Way’. Which of course the female characters should have done with this boorish Baal: sending him packing and go off on a Slutwalk! But no they succumbed - everyone of them – to his pulling power. Until one of them is dead in a river. Meanwhile one buddy starts dressing up as a chick to see if that can catch Baal’s eye that way. But to no avail as Baal starts pursuing an affair with a nuggety 100 percent bloke. It’s all very daring and unorthodox – that is, if you’ve not lived much of a life.

    This is where Kevin Jackson and I join ranks. This is such a piss-weak version of ‘outrageousness’ (my words again), if you have any idea of what goes on out there in the real world. And has been for several dozen centuries. Nudity – so what. Rape and pillage – so what. It’s like it’s all so yesterday to imbue such events with emotion. And okay, if we have to trade emotion in for idea – that’s fine. But what’s the idea? What are we meant to be taking away from this show? I’m not being rhetorical – it’s a genuine question. If this show hit you between the eyeballs – let me know. Tell me why.

    While I am delighted that this highly literate generation of well brought up kids are interested in making theatre (as opposed to just movies and video clips), I do wonder sometimes about what is going on in their heads. I know it’s a generalization, but have you noticed how many of our young theatre-makers right now are not only male (yes that old whore horse), but have double degrees, speak several languages, don’t smoke, drink, eat meat or commit adultery. Had great parents and went to good schools. Most by 25 are (happily) married with one kid. They work hard and are very nice. But few seem to have suffered. Not something I wish on anyone, and I accept you don’t have to have done it to know it. But  interesting, in this context, the excerpt (below)  from a story in The Australian that appeared before Baal’s Melbourne premiere:

    ‘Stone prefers to adapt the work of others rather than write original plays, he says, because his privileged upbringing meant he has nothing to struggle against. “One reason why I still work on classics and don’t write truly original plays is because I don’t really have that much I’m dying to say about my life, which is fairly boring and ordinary.”‘ I admire Stone for his honesty (as well as his talent). But does that mean that he and those working on this show see the featured nudity and orgy scenes as ‘exciting’. That is the other option: that the work is highly exciting to some people – just not to the likes of Jackson and myself who both endured a ‘whatever’ reaction.

    All that said,  this is very beautiful to look at.  The production is immaculate – even the filth is immaculately done. The set is a tour-de-force and the lighting design (both by Nick Schlieper) blasts your eyeballs out of your head at times with its astonishing brilliance (both meanings). But one should not leave a theatre singing the sets, as the saying goes. I am not disparaging the work as I did The Business. I respect this production, I just didn’t get it. It went right past  me like a curved ball. Sorry if I’ve seen too much of life for this particular version of angst and suffering to make much impression on me.

    Can I just add, in defence of this Baal. Not all shows are created with the view of personally pleasing me, and or anyone in particular. And the artistic vision of the STC at the moment is quite different from what we have had before. The programs of previous regimes have been strongly stamped by the personality of the artistic director. The company is so big now, and working out of so many venues, it is taking a different path – and that is not to please some of the people all of the time. But rather, many of the people some of the time. And if we critics put the boot into STC for producing In the Next Room, which we regard as bourgeois and shallow. Or bite it on the for bringing in so much stuff out from overseas. The we have a duty to support the company’s decision to give this bold home-made production a chance. Whether it speaks to me personally is beside the point.

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  • 10 May 2011 /  Reviews

    I would have liked to have continued on with the previous post without a break: I still need to  make my main points. But such is the challenge of writing this kind of review which needs to be well argued – in fairness to all. So here we go again. I have longed worked on the principle that it is a minor point whether a reviewer likes a show or not. What counts is the quality of the reasoning they pursue to argue their case. Human nature being what it is, those involved with a show being reviewed don’t fuss much over ‘reasoning’ if you begin by saying you ‘liked’ the show. They are just happy to be ‘loved’. But if a reviewer thinks a show has problems, then they better have a darn good reason. Or else. The droll irony is the more complete the reviewer’s argument, the more devastating for the victim.

    Let’s say I accept Jonathan Gavin’s ‘rendition’ of the Gorky as a valid starting point for a potentially successful drama. A night in the theatre that not only excites and entertains, but makes some nifty observations about the way we live.

    As I mentioned in the previous past, this script is racy and feels kinda superficial on the surface. By that I mean I don’t think it is superficial down-deep – lol. I’ve had a good read of it and I can feel a dark and potent theatre event hovering in its loins. Why so? You only have to look at the last lines of the play. I mentioned previously, in outlining the story, that Vad has been running the family company with passion but not a lot of care for the health of the workers. There are references throughout to staff falling ill due to lack of good ventilation (presumably it’s a dangerous product they are working with); and as the patriarch lies dying we hear on the TV news of a looming court case. At one point, high in the drama, the ferocious Vad reveals how little compassion she has for a worker who has died (of something like mesothelioma) or his wife.

    Natalie: Don’t you feel, even a little bit – um, responsible?

    Van: Which man?

    Natalie: Um. Someone Johnson.

    Van: Ken Johnson. we paid him a good wage, put food on his table, sent his kids to school. He knew there were risks. Why did he think we were paying him so much to drive a van around?  We gave him a mask to wear.  But he smoked and he was always taking it off to get a fag in his mouth. And now his wife turns on the tears, and everyone thinks, “Oh, the poor dear”. She’s had all the money she’s going to get from us.”

    You could say this speech is just part of the comic mix, showing just what a hard bitch Van is. But, of all the snippets of dialogue it is this topic Gavin returns to when closing the play. Husband dead, Van has found a way to stay in control of the money. And in a final reflective moment we hear her say:

    “That woman who lost her husband. he worked in the workshop, he drove the van. We gave him a mask but he wouldn’t wear it. Breathing in. Breathing out. The breath that killed him, that was 30 years ago.” She puts her hands to her chest. Following her own breath. In. Out.

    ANNA pulls the vertical lines closed.

    (END)

    We can never know a writer’s intentions. But to return to this matter of dark responsibility in the final moments suggests to me that Gavin wants to think about at least some themes seriously. If I am right, I’d love to know what he thinks of this production. He wasn’t at his own opening night. Then again this writer does work a lot in Melbourne and I think is also quite crowd-shy. Who knows why he wasn’t there – just odd.  Most writers (apart from Beckett) tend to attend their own nights (Bernard Shaw would sometimes boo!)

    The core point is this: if this is a meant to be a serious play, you wouldn’t know it from this production. What the creative team have done has run with the ‘superficiality’ in the script, and escalated it several times over. Everything about it – set, costumes, casting, staging acting – is overwrought and overdone.

    How much more potent might this production have been if Cristabel Sved and her team had chosen to underplay the outrageousness of Gavin’s script? Worked into it some psychological depth. Caused us to pause now and again to stop and reflect. Challenged us to think unexpectedly, instead of relentlessly pursuing the over-obvious. Subtly is nonexistent as Sved points us to stuff and demands that we laugh. The chick is really fat – ‘laugh at her kilos!’ How much more interesting might it have been if the actress cast had been just a little bit overweight – the barbs would have been a lot more hurtful. Wasn’t anorexia ‘born’ in the 1980s – follow that theme? The character mocked for being disabled. Also there are some good actors with disabilities out there including a wonderful dancer with cerebral palsy who has worked with Kate Champion. That sort of casting might have put the audience on the spot. And added real danger power to the laughs in this production.

    Am I prepared to accept this production as an honest mistake? Coloured by youthful enthusiasm? To a degree – yes. But there is no getting away from the fact that the artistic decisions, as they accumulate, lead to an increasingly unfunny experience. And the whole project smacks of a certain arrogance. I have been pretty nice to this emerging generation of artists. But I have to call this one the way I see it. Talented and enthusiastic you may be, but you are all still relatively knew to the game. And at any age, smugness is unattractive. As I flagged in my previous post, you don’t set a play in the 1980s with a view to making fun of that era (or its people) – not without a higher purpose. Wherever and whenever you set a  play, the critique must surely – in part at least – be sheeted home to us: on stage and in the stalls. If that was an intention here, then that is the error. It does not show.

    One indication that this production lacks humility has already been cited by others. A remark made by dramaturg Eamon Flack in his program note: “The Business is the play that the quintessential Australian playwright David Williamson didn’t have the courage to write.” Ummmm – no. Whatever anyone thinks of David Williamson’s plays, and I believe a good number are are better than The Business, Williamson has never lacked courage. Despite a sensitive ego, aware that there are naysayers out there, he has walked up to the guillotine of yet another opening night around 40 times with his head held high. He has enjoyed praise, he has been rewarded financially. But he has also borne a lot of criticism. Ridicule even. Yet he has never given up. Or if he has, it’s never been for very long. As a play and as a production, in my 30 plus years of going to the theatre, at best, The Business is a minor event artistically. And even if its better than that, it’s not really for its creators to say so.

    I wouldn’t make such a point of this if this comment came from the writer or director. It would still be silly, but artists (with a deep need to believe in that they are doing at the time) quite often work from an exaggerated sense of their worth. But a dramaturg? In a response to my initial post on this play, a reader noted the lack of quality dramaturgy in this country. I agree. So what is a dramaturg? Good question, long answer. Whatever they are, the skills base surely include a dispassionate quality – an ability to keep an eye on the evolution of a project without getting too carried away. Leave hyperbole to marketing. They get paid for that kind of thing: we expect and accept it from them.

    If it’s any consolation, Jim Sharman’s first opera production got reviews with headlines including: “I Walked Out” and “Desecration of a Masterpiece”. He survived – indeed he went on to create very many fine shows.

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  • 06 May 2011 /  Reviews

    If you’re wondering about the good news, read my previous post. This is the bad news post. I don’t think Belvoir have got it quite right with their premiere production of The Business, if I can put it as politely as that. Just a reminder that my default position these days is pretty congenial. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years pondering the nature of ‘reviewing’ if it can possible have one – a nature that is. And my cute definition of a critic is: ‘ half parish priest, half dentist’. In reality it’s never quite fifty: fifty. In the gauche 1980s, the decade in which The Business is set, I was launching my career as a theatre reviewer at the National Times, and couldn’t be more excited than when faced with an opportunity to ‘pull a tooth’. And my trainer-wheels extraction technique usually involved very little anaesthetic. When I set up this website, so many years later, I consciously chose to swing the other way. The plan was that I would lean towards the ‘pastoral-care’ side of the business wherever possible, with particular attention to the struggling souls of the current emerging generation of practitioners. Darling how can I help?

    Sometimes I look at posts on this site and think I have been too soft. You can only go by your intuition: but I had come to the view that at this time – right now – and where I was placed in my head – carrot was a better strategy than stick. But for my kind words to mean anything, every now and again, I have to be frank. Call it how it is, even if the news is not so good.

    Written by Jonathan Gavin (commissioned by Belvoir), The Business – set somewhere in Australia in the 1980s – is based on a play, Vassa Zheleznova, by Russia’s Maxim Gorky – written in 1910, prior to the revolution. I guess while he was away from Russia living in sunny Capri. No he wasn’t a bourgeois – Russia was dangerous for him at times. And if you can’t be at home why not be somewhere nice. Nice and where you can get a lot of writing done. Which he did while sunning himself and supping lattes – or whatever they drank back 100 years ago on that pretty-touristy Mediterranean isle.

    Information on the Gorky play is hard to come by and I don’t know how director Cristabel Sved came across it, or what inspired Belvoir to commission this home-town version. My understanding is that Gorky’s original is no masterpiece (certainly not cited in the company of his Lower Depths (1902) or Summerfolk (1904);  apparently it’s on the melodramatic side given Gorky’s reputation as the so-called ‘founder of social realism’. There is a 1953 Russian film, if you could lay your hands on it. Ultimately all this by-the-by. Though it should be said, however weak or strong Vassa Zheleznova maybe, Gorky is one of the great writers and he took his work seriously: as did others including Chekhov, Stanislavsky, Tolstoy, Lenin, Stalin and Solzenitsyn. I’m pretty sure he’d be alarmed at what the production team has done to his play in turning it into The Business. it looks to me to go against everything Gorky stood for.

    It would be nice to let this matter of the adaptation go; and obviously I am not in a  position to compare Gavin’s version to the Gorky original. But, before I do, I want to repeat a question raised recently in a comment made on Alison Croggon’s website by one of her readers regarding Baal – which opens in Sydney next week. Why are we seeing so many adaptations of old European plays/prose? Whether they are successful: The Lost Echo and The Wild Duck. Or not so successful: Don’t Say The Words or Optimism. What has happened to the new Australian play?

    The Business: not so funny...

    That said, let’s now forget Gorky and the Vassa play. What counts is whether Gavin’s script – stand alone – is any good. The Business is very broad, brash and noisy. Nothing Like  Gavins’ Bang! which regular readers will know is my favourite Australian play in years. In writing style and conceit, The Business is closer to A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Peter Nichols – 1967), which Gavin acted in quite recently: a successful production that toured extensively. Nichols’ play deals with a serious subject – parents coping with a child who has cerebral palsy – and it’s done an incredibly outlandishly and ‘inappropriately’ funny way. It’s an important play of its time. So in accepting this commission, Gavin would have been more then aware that it is possible to write a ‘trashy’ disrespectful script and, if handled the right way, it could have a devastating impact on its audience.

    The plot of The Business involves a family hovering over the imminent death of the father who, over the years, has built up a successful business; which he started with his brother (now a silent partner) and run with great efficiency (if not much care for the well-being of workers) by his wife Vad (in the equivalent role of Vassa). The action plays out over a condensed time period as Vad tries to deal strategically with the fact that she (of all people) has been left out of the will. She’s driven and ruthless, but she cares about the business and her kids (destined to inherit it) are a bunch of no-hopers. Yes, this is a study of greedy, superficial people. And I guess when it comes to greedy superficiality in Australia, the 1980s may well come to mind. Now might be a good time to read Augusta Supple’s review. She had as many problems with the production as I do – and many of the same ones.

    I mention Supple’s review here because in a reply to my comment – she asks me what the 1980s were like? She was a mere kittenback then, as were most of the creatives involved in the making of this production. Yes, I admit it, I was around – I am an 80s guy. I was 25 in 1980 – so at the beginning of my professional heyday. I thought at the time that it was the decade that didn’t have a style, style-free, rather than the cringe-worthy one for which it is now apparently so famous. If the latter premise is correct then Stephen Curtis’s costumes are devastatingly brilliant. And Victoria Lamb’s set – if that includes all the dodgy gadgets and crass consumer products engorging this family’s home – is a homage to every 1980′s aesthetic mistake. But we all didn’t live in houses like that and dress like dags. Sydney fashion for women was dominated by the fabulous exoticism of Flamingo Park (Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee). And guys of my age who visited London came back with post-punk stuff from Vivienne Westwood’s shop Seditionaries or, less outrageously (and in very fine taste), early Paul Smith and Antony Price (who dressed Bryan Ferry).

    The newspaper I was reviewing for, The National Times, was certainly exposing some very dodgy tax practices (‘Bottom of the Harbour’ schemes), and I was often hammering Richard Wherrett’s Sydney Theatre Company for what I saw was shallow glitzy theatre making. But most of us weren’t involved in get-rich quick schemes. The bulk of the population were nice decent people trying to get by.

    In 1980 we were living under the Puritan dictatorship of Malcolm Fraser, who had kicked out our hero Gough Whitlam in 1977: until Bob Hawke came to power in 1983. But by then, those with their hands on the financial levers of the country had lost control. In 1980 housing interest rates were at 8 1/2 percent, by 1989 they were at 16 1/2 percent. The beginning of the death of housing affordability for middle Australia.

    So far as ‘lifestyle’ is concerned a whole swag of us were not only witnessing the death of the idea of owning our own home, we were caught up in the horror of the death of many of our friends from AIDS. Many of the most beautiful young people dying in the most horrible ways. Most of us who were there – living in inner-Sydney – and have survived, have buried the bulk of our memories of that time. We needed to: to get on. Which is why when Augusta Supple asked me what the 1980s was like -  initially I had a blank. I was blocking. So I can understand why a bunch of bright young thangs in 2011, in choosing to create The Business, can only see value in mocking the excesses of the 1980s.

    But that does not make it right – unless you have a higher purpose.

    The fact is the bulk of 80s people weren’t dressed like mongas obsessed with making a quick dodgy dollar at anybody’s expense. This is The Business’s first big mistake – the people who made it don’t know what they are talking about. They have cherry picked: which is fine depending on the purpose. What is that purpose – the purpose of The Business?  My feeling is that this production overlooks another basic theatre rule, which I will discuss in my next post. Let me offer you this teaser: don’t f*cking point at other people and laugh! Theatre, to be of any value, has to be about US! Those who are in the theatre on the night.

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  • 01 May 2011 /  Reviews

    There are many reasons to admire this new Australian play – and its production. Lachlan Philpott’s sensitive and engaging text and the bright performances of its cast being the first to come to mind. This is my first chance to come to Philpott’s writing ‘at strength’. I saw Bison at Belvoir Downstairs a couple of years back: it was okay but essentially a fairly early revived work. If the more recent Colder was anywhere near as good as Silent Disco is, I can understand why interest has been brewing.

    There is a lot of new playwriting out there, but very little of it captures today’s world so vividly and with such compassion and humour. Not just any world in this case: but that of today’s teenagers. For all the right reasons, this experience in the theatre made me feel rather old. Okay, we all know what its like to be a kid. But in today’s world? I thought I might have had some idea, but no I did not. How times have changed. Growing up has never been easy, but with so many absent and/or damaged parents, no apparent ethical framework on which to hang decisions, lots of freedom but nothing much to do with it, teenage years today come across as unreasonably tough.

    Meyne Wyatt (Squibb) with Sophie Hennser (Tamara)

    Silent Disco is on a face of it a version of Romeo and Juliet. The boy Jasyn Donovan (aka Squid), played by Meyne Wyatt, is a Koori kid who lives with his brooding auntie. His girlfriend – of several ‘weeks, days and hours’ – is Tamara Brewster, played by Sophie Hennser. Tamara lives with her uncaring dad (who in later years has come out gay), and she meets with her problematic mother on the odd occasion. The parents are mere shadows in this drama, and that’s the point. The only adults to make their presence felt are Jasyn’s older brother, Dane (Kirk Page), who partway through the play gets out of jail; and a uniquely seasoned and caring school teacher, Ms Petchell (Camilla Ah Kin).

    What happens is the stuff of school-day life, the minutiae, the ups and downs in the classroom, the yard, and the stretching suburbia beyond. The plot is built on some classic devices: the brother’s return to the outside world turns it entirely upside down, and it’s all building to the school formal – but will we get there? Can first love ever get very far? And with so much going against it? What I really like about this script is how Philpott begins with a very standard storyline (so we are on a familiar track) but builds it into life – into three-dimensionality – with such attention to detail that we really are forced to look at the world afresh. I can’t say with any authority that this is how young people today (from this particular world) think and speak. But it rang true to me; and on the night I attended, the teenagers in the audience looks to be giving the show the thumbs up.

    Lachlan Philpott

    What’s really special is Philpott’s handling of language – not just the jargon and vocabulary, but the way thought itself is organised these days. Nothing linear left in today’s world – language is mashed. And regarding the play’s title: yes indeed: who really knows what’s going inside the heads of kids these days?

    Philpott’s script has been embraced with commitment and verve from the cast. Mayne Wyatt brought himself to notice in The Brothers Size. Sophie Hennser as Tamara is particularly astonishing: the story is told mostly from her perspective, and the emotional and intellectual adventure this young actress embraces  (with such confidence) is pretty massive. Kirk Page, as the brother is sexy and threatening. Camilla Ah Kin’s compassionate optimism as the school teacher is beautiful to watch. Plus she gets a chance to ‘play up’ in one adorable scene as a local check-out chick.

    I’ve mentioned how Griffin is leading the way among the main companies in nurturing its relationship with audiences. So it’s no surprise to see artistic director Sam Strong himself posting comments on the website: “On Friday” Strong posted recently, “we had the company run of our next main season show, Silent Disco. Seeing the full work in front of its first official audience was a lovely reminder of the unique nature of new writing. In Silent Disco, Lachlan achieves three things that make new writing special. First, he reflects our contemporary world back at us. It’s refreshing to see a work so firmly located in the here and now of our very own Sydney. Secondly, Lachlan reflects that world in a way that makes us see it anew. Finally, Silent Disco transports us completely into someone else’s experience. It has been an unfortunately long time since I was a teenager but the beauty of the play (and what Associate Director Lee Lewis is doing with it) is that we all get swept up in the story of Tamara and Squid.” I totally agree.

    Kirk Page as Dane

    I can only cite a couple of slight imperfections in the writing, and I hope Philpott takes it as a compliment that the best I can do is nitpick. One is that Ms Petchell herself does not go on quite enough of a journey in her own right. Ideally we should see her too end up in a different place. And the other is that the matter of Tamara’s dad having AIDs. It’s a bit blurry in the facts area – presumably he’s living with HIV illness (only now being diagnosed) which is not the same thing. On the matter of Ms Petchell, we hardly notice because as a character she is so beautifully drawn, and thoughtfully realised by Ah Kin. Regarding the AIDs stuff, yes I know that kids today are ill informed and confused – but how the subject is handled in this play (easily fixed – next draft – a few new lines) is not helpful.

    Camilla Ah Kin as Ms Petchall

    Lee Lewis’s direction is confident and empathetic. Justin Nardella’s set is simple and groovy. Ross Graham’s imaginative lighting design a bargain for the price. Two quite new guys to the business and both definitely have what it takes. Sound design is by Stefan Gregory. Gregory has contributed to so many outstanding productions over the past few years, from The War of the Roses to The Wild Duck, it’s high time – in the very least – that I mentioned his name.

    Try and catch this show if you can: it’s what good Australian theatre today is all about!

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  • 24 Apr 2011 /  Reviews

    The Easter Bunny in Cate Gaul's motley As You Like It

    Colin Friels was quoted recently to the effect that we should ban productions of Shakespeare for a couple of decades. I don’t agree exactly with that, but I understand where he’s coming from – and it’s not just Birchgrove. Of all the repertoire out there, I don’t understand the predilection and, as someone who has been seeing theatre for a long time, I’m really not interested unless it’s a production with an awesome cast and a director with major rungs on the board – I mean superstar – world top ten! Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Barrie Kosky. At a stretch Neil Armfield.

    But, I do have a lot of respect for director Kate Gaul the director, who appears to never stop working. If someone doesn’t offer her a gig, she makes one happen. And here she creates an inventive As You Like It, with a sweet mood, cool music and lots of sanguine atmosphere. And she probably gets the best she can out the cast she has available to her. Most are pretty green and it shows. I thought much the same of Gaul’s previous pitch at a classic, her Seagull. Others were more keen. And it was well received by enough people to make the project worthwhile. I hope the same is true here.

    Getting hold of a decent space is pretty tough for Indie attempts at classics. I think The Seagull pulled a pretty good crowd at the old Sidetrack space, Marrickville, which these days is closer to the middle of where many people live than it was a decade ago. Though you could hardly say it boasts an inner-city buzz. And, no matter how many millions of dollars the State Government throw at the building or the senior management’s salaries, the same is true for the Performance Space. The Venue of the Undead: the only time this precinct is alive is when the food markets are on - every Saturday. And it stuns me that the arts managers of this huge venue haven’t yet got round to connecting with this crowd. Last night was typical, I arrived a good half an hour early, the big cavernous foyer was like a morgue, the cafe/restaurant area was shut; with a mere two benches made available for seating. I found a rather expensive designer chair had been left outside by some slacker staffer who had probably been rushing off for their Easter break, so I sat out there and fiddled with my mobile phone. As you do these days. Until some friends arrived and I went inside where we talked only about very important things. A few minutes before the show started a couple more divans where pulled out by techie types. The elderly has-been in me lurched and fell gratefully into what I would not exactly call the item-of-furniture’s embrace.

    Director Kate Gaul had to contend with the equally cavernous and morge-like space made available for her production. For a low-budget gig it had a nice look – picking up on the play’s ‘motley’ motif. She spread the show around in ways that were quite appealing, and acknowledged the height with a use of a semi-sheer front curtain. What more can I say than that she did well in the circumstances. I hope this fabulous new generation I keep talking about enjoy this opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most perfectly written comedies. It would help a few more in the cast dug just a little bit deeper – inhabit your roles and speak up.

    Venue-wise, it really is much more fun to head down the Old Fitzroy: little theatre packed into a sardine tin. Beer and a laksa thrown in, lots of buzz. I was down there a little while back for a play called Me Pregnant, written and directed by Nick Coyle. This guy has a small and deserving following for his quirky performance pieces, and this was enjoyable without quite making it into the masterpiece category. I had encountered Coyle’s writing before in the form of Hammerhead (Is Dead) which played at the Stables. I thought it was utter rubbish. The ravings of a lunatic. But when you see Coyle handling his own material it makes sense.

    Nick Coyle's tragic childhoodNick Coyle’s terrifying childhood

    Me Pregnant was pure folly, a sort of camp-Gothic fairly tale with the writer-actor playing all the parts. I can’t not say the seating arrangement for half the audience was pretty bizarre – we sort of had to watch the show from over our shoulder as the actor decided to perform from (officially) the wrong end of the theatre. This in itself is, I think, an insight into the Coyle mind.  I am surprised rear-vision mirrors for old Datsuns were not supplied - that might have worked better. Still I had a good time. I had a chuckle, and I would welcomingly go and see Coyle do whatever it is he actually does as an artist again. He might need to remind me what exactly that is

    A lot less comfortable was the fourth in a series of one-performer shows (Fools Island and Jack Davis v The Crown being the previous two) foisted on a public currently starving for crowd scenes and mass employment (depending on whichever side of the curtain/industry your on). This was Cut, at Belvoir Downstairs. Written by Duncan Graham, directed by Sarah John, starring Anita Hegh. This was at the opposite end of the spectrum to Me Pregnant in terms of atmosphere, intent and tone. Here we had serious art theatre. Very serious indeed. Some people have really liked this show. And I might too, at a second look. I am going to try and do that before the season runs out.

    In this dark brooding piece, Hegh is a women with concerns on her mind. And in a string of short scenes lit very dramatically, we get a very intense study of a woman with concerns on her mind. What those concerns were I have no idea. This show had the strangest physical effect on me. I wasn’t at all tired, and I’m not sure if it was the bursts of strobe lights. But at some point I shut my eyes (to spare myself permanent blindness) and I never really returned to the show. Did I pass out, a petite mal, reader I cannot say? I thought my eyes were open, I thought I was watching the performance – but nothing stuck. Apart from thinking that the script was interesting but a bit lacking in specifics, a bit vague and arty-farty; and apart from thinking Anita Hegh appeared to be doing a good job with this seemingly dreary meaningless material, I can’t say much more. Other than that if one is alert enough for it and in the right mood, this show may well be f*cking great? Well, not great but possibly interesting.

    The people I went with all had a much better time: from getting it totally and thinking the whole experience quite superb, to being very impressed with Hegh with a few questions about the script, yep, being a bit to ethereal for its own good.

    So that’s it. Done and dusted – instead of the usual 3,000 words on one show over several tortured postings and a lot of angst here for the cats. It’s 9.30 on Easter Saturday and not even Christ yet arisen. A miracle. Worthy of a chocolate egg!

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  • 19 Apr 2011 /  AUTOBLOGRAPHY

    I simply can’t imagine how there could be any interest in a version of The Seagull directed by Benedict Andrews starring, among others, David Wenham and Judy Davis. So am doing Belvoir a big favour and giving this humble little gig a plug in my site. Single ticket sales go on sale from 27 April for season opening early June. So it’s not sold out already – but you are going to have to be pretty quick on the day I would guess.

    For those of you not in the loop, Davis is our greatest actor – there is her and then no-one else. Sorry Robyn, Cate etc. Complex and private, Davis’s stage appearances are rare. In my job at the National Library where I interview eminent Australians – for me that’s mostly theatre people – several people have said they regard Davis’s 1986 Hedda Gabler to be the best performance they have seen in their lives. That would be my view too. Davis walked out on stage and even as she moved quietly around the space, before saying a single word, the audience could barely breathe: we knew already that something terrible was happening to this character. Nobody I know who was there that opening night, and I have discussed it with quite a few people, have forgotten that opening sequence. And the dramatic reach of the performance that followed – audacious. So put La Davis in the mix with Chekhov and young B. Andrews – however many years later – and I would definitely suggest stay at home. Be a dag. Your chances of an unforgettable night out are only about 100 percent!

    The Seagull - clockwise from front: Maeve Dermody, Judy Davis, Anita Hegh, David Wenham, Gareth Davies - Photo by Brett Boardman

    Looking at the photo it strikes me how much Davis looks like Glenda Jackson – it’s just the photo, she doesn’t really. But I am reminded one of my first theatre experiences was Hedda Gabler starring Glenda Jackson, touring here in the mid 1970s. Jackson who is now a UK politician, burst on the scene at a very young age in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Every actor finds the life of their best performances from deep within themselves. Jackson admitted once to suffering severe stage fright. So much so her body temperature would drop while waiting in the dressing room to go on. She said to get herself to go onstage she would imagine lighting  a fire inside herself. From an initially flickering, tentative flame her incendiary performances would be born. If you dig around and find some film footage of Jackson on stage, or if you have ever seen her work, this anecdote will make sense. He acting does indeed have an icy surface, and yet you sense she is on fire at the same time.

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