I thought last year overall was pretty good, but this one flew out of the starting blocks a week or so back with the opening of Sam Strong’s production of Speaking in Tongues for Griffin at the Stables. This is theatre at its best. But before I get to that…
The upgrade design of the foyer is coming along. A few months ago I thought it finished and was aghast, planning to mount a protest or something. All that was wonderful about the old place had been stripped away – for what? Now I can see how the new look is coming together and is likely going to look and feel rather good. It will eventually include a coffee shop annex where writers can alongside critics – open laptops at separate tables – as some create and others demolish!
I hear they offer more than one opening night at Griffin now: well it’s a small space and everyone wants to be there. The place is hugely on the rebound. Not just a new artistic director in Strong, but a whole new PR style – very young, fresh, interactive and light-spirited. It feels good online and even better when you walk into the theatre. If pussy cats run the STC, then Griffin @ the Stables is a tumbling puppy. From a good litter and jumping around to play with us – its largely precinct-based inner-city audience.
Lucy Bell & Caroline Craig
This production of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues kicks off Sam Strong’s first commissioned season and it makes a strong statement. The play premiered in the same venue 15 years ago, directed by the company’s then artistic director, Ros Horin. Horin premiered some important work at this theatre, and at the time Speaking in Tongues captured our attention – it was the Bang! of the mid-90s. Though more lucky, it attracted a good deal more attention.
By way of detour – in a concern for how times have changed: can I ask how is it possible that a play as brilliant as Bang! has not been picked up by anyone? That production alone at Downstairs Belvoir last year should have toured with that exact same cast and excellent direction. If that play had appeared ten or 20 years ago it would have been famous overnight. In 2010 its passed over as a minor work. it doesn’t make sense, though I see it in part as a failure of theatre arts media coverage – such as it is these days.
Back to another Australian play rare in its brilliant craftsmanship and depth of themes. Ros Horin’s cast for her premiere version of Speaking in Tongues was pretty classy: Elaine Hudson, Glenda Linscott, Geoff Morrell and Marshall Napier. And it was very well directed and performed by the standards of the time.
But if we want evidence that we are better at making theatre these days, here it is. This production is gripping: Strong confirms himself to be one our best directors, a combination of high intelligence and evolved sensibility. And he has assembled a fabulous cast in Lucy Bell, Andy Rodoreda, Caroline Craig and Christopher Stollery. More to the point, Strong guides these actors into a kind of acting that seems to reach a new high point in our local style.
Christopher Stollery & Andy Rodoreda
The first 20 minutes (the bolting out of the blocks) were astonishingly good. This is a very difficult sequence technically where two couples meet in a bar (two different bars): all are married, and it just happens – unknowingly - each is flirting with the other’s partners. Both pairs head off for infidelity. One couple goes through with the act. In my moral world the line was crossed well before that. But as the play unfolds, the odd couple who chooses NOT to go through with the fun bit of the night tends to claim the high moral ground. They are not spared the repercussions, however, which I think is fair enough.
The writing of this opening sequence is truly musical, as the characters talk over each other – in parallel. Horin’s production was stylistically groovy but a little difficult to follow. In this current rendition of the opening sequence we hear every line. It makes sense and it sounds beautiful. It’s scored like a woodwind quartet: breath flowing through differently pitched and tibred voices – execution to orchestral standard. People write about this sort of thing in the craft of acting – musicality: but here we actually get it and it’s very rare.
This is my first review on this site since I have decided to recommit to it. After all the troubles I had with it over the past 18 months, I was seriously contemplating throwing in the towel. After some further pause and restlessness, I’ve decided to give it another go. It’s going to take a while to get my writing back into gear, and my readers back. So the build will be incremental. Here is what I might call ‘notes towards a review’. What I am saying is I am not going to write a lot here. Obviously I am recommending this show – its special. A standout and a great way to start the year.
And I will add is: look to the acting. We seem to have evolved a laconic naturalism over the past 30 years since we started putting Australians up on our own stages. That ‘style’ perhaps has something to do with our national character, and also to do with the small spaces in which much of best work is presented. The danger when your audience is only a couple of metres away, is to over do it. And there is always the risk of choices looking predicable and obvious.
Not so here. While all the actors here are good, I have to say something particular about Christopher Stollery. In the last couple of years this actor has found something that has lifted him into a different league. There is a lot of regular Aussie bloke stuff here: but not a cliche in sight. Stollery’s men (he plays more than one role) and their predicaments are handled with a combination of stoicism and compassion that makes their ‘ordinariness’ electrifying. I thought here we are, at last we have got to what we have been searching for.
I mentioned opening nights ‘plural’ because ours had some special guests. Most notably, Ken and Lilian Horler who found the run-down old horse stables that become the first home of the Nimrod – now the venue for Griffin @ the Stables. We owe so much to these wonderful people, and in an era where the past is rendered so little respect, I felt an urge to acknowledge their presence. It was part of fun of the night to notice them love and laugh their way through the night’s entertainment – in the venue they founded so many years back now.
Caroline Craig, Lucy Bell & Andy Rodoreda
And secondly Lucy Bell on stage. To watch this actress, now a woman in full bloom, its worth remembering that as the daughter of Anna Volska and John Bell, she spent her earliest years crawling around on the floor of this theatre. the Bells were there with the Horlers from the very beginning.
I guess what I am trying to say is that what I love most about theatre is its ability to offer regular theatre-goers like myself a sense of belonging that I feel nowhere else. That quality can wax and wane over the years when it comes to as specific venue. But right now, you can feel a big hug as you enter the Stables and its a feeling a like. I could hazard a prediction. In Sam Strong’s hand (Sam’s strong hands) the Griffin will enjoy a revival of significance. Could this city’s theatre life be on the verge of redefinition: the duopoly of STC and Belvoir being broadened to include Griffin @the Stables as a genuine third major player. The signs are good, let’s see how we go.
I should make one more point. Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling turned heads – here was a remarkable play indeed. History of course is there to be rewritten: what we now know is that Bovell wrote a play of comparable quality fifteen years ago – Speaking In Tongues. So it wasn’t just a play that indicated promise, as many of us thought at the time. It was in fact a very fine text from which to build a drama back then; and equally, almost more so, now.