• 03 Jan 2012 /  Other

    I slipped into 2012 like a green tree snake – slithery and quietly and happy in my own skin. Due to the convergence of any chance elements I found myself at the moment of transition on a balcony of an apartment on the bend in Mcleay Street that takes you from Potts Point into Wolloomooloo Bay. With a group of truly lovely friends we were guests of a 93-year old gentleman – a widower – who had been in the building since the 1950s. The spic interior looked as if it had never be altered in those years. His flat jutted like the front of ship into the night air. And how balmy was it? So I got to see the Newson fireworks from a most spectacular angle and prefect distance. We could see the whole panorama from stuff shooting off city buildings across to the bridge – all its goings on – and what seemed to be about five main sites stretched all along Sydney Harbour – was Fort Denison one of the take-off sites? Anyway – we got the lot.

    Yesterday then involved a little picnic in Prince Alfred Park, a swim at Coogee and a 8pm turning up at a run-down pub in Chippendale for the end of a Kooky party – a scene that collates a bunch of this city’s most harmless if colourful oddballs – and one of the very few ‘branded’ dance events I could ever find myself these where 1. I know people and 2. feel even slightly comfortable about wriggling my limbs to a funky tune without feeling foolish! Kevin Jackson wrote some months ago of the You Little Stripper crowd at Red Rattler. Much the same gang tho this was a more low-key ‘recovery’ type affair. So there you go – a brief insight into my exotic lifestyle beyond theatre foyers. Not usually so interesting I should add, but a nice start to the year.

    Before 2012 Sydfest swoops into action in a few days let me do a bit of catch up. Brief, but I just want to get this stuff up and out. That may sound a little ungracious – but I hope you get my meaning. I am trying to get into the habit of waking up every morning and going pretty much straight to my desk – or wonky depending how dodgy I feel. But to the matter – some recent shows I have seen and don’t want slip into the past unacknowledged. First up – Phil Spencer’s The Great Apeth.

    Anyone who sees me at opening nights would know I often attend these events with actress Maggie Blinco. I’ve rarely mentioned her name on this site, because the ‘personal’ for me has mostly been about ‘me’, when a more interesting personal all along would have at least included  ‘my friends’. This is a tricky aspect to the business of writing however: to what extent one can and should put out stories (however near or far to factual) that touch on other people’s real lives. Not Maggie, far from it, but many of my friends live somewhat controversial lifestyles – and how much does a friend who happens to write have a right to put their stuff out there. Maybe I should ask Helen Garner!

    The Great Apeth was one of about ten playlets on an autobiographical theme curated by Phil Spencer at the old Fitzroy under the banner of The Horse’s Mouth. I went down particularly to see Spencer’s own piece, The Great Apeth, mostly because Spencer had cast my friend Ms Blinco to play his grandmother.

    A rif on Madame Blinco.

    Ms Blinco with her pal the bloggist - photo by Brett Monaghan

    A truly wonderful women with such an enormous life force – hardworking, joyful, kind and generous. Maggie Blinco has become so much part of my life this past half a decade, and kept a close watch over me these past several years while I have been struggling more than usual. A women full of courage and laughter and magnificent joie-de-vivre – who also just happens to make the best chutneys and often cooks fabulous meals for large groups of friends. Most importantly Maggie Blinco is an actress. An actress who featured in some of then most interesting and successful production on the days of the Old Tote and Nimrod. Including Pearl in Richard Wherrett’s Summer of the 17th Doll at the Nimrod in 1973, Rex Carmphorn’s 1985 production of Nowra’s The Golden Age in Melbourne, and the STC’s production of one of David Williamson’s most talked about plays, Dead White Males. Always one to keep up with the young, in recent years Maggie has acted in a number of successful Indie gigs including The Beauty Queen of Leenan, Stories From the 428 and Kiss Me Like You Mean It. She has recently started work on a new play called Biddies (the female partner to Codgers) which will tour nationally. Maggie was also the sexy lady selling Tim Tams on tele last year. Sales went through the roof!

    So there – that’s a little bit about the person I am so often seen with in foyers. And despite seeing her in many shows this is the first time I written about one of the productions she Maggie has been in.

    Victoria Sponge - takes a lot of beating!

    The Great Apeth was a sweet little piece which, by way of metaphor, included a real Victoria sponge that miraculously emerged from an oven towards the end of the play – to be enjoyed by some lucky members of the audience. Ms Blinco made this cake for each performance, though sadly it was all gobbled up before the plate got to my row. I saw Spencer’s lovely homage to his relationship to his father, called Bluey, about a year ago, which included a puppet Chimp. So we go from a great ape to The Great Apeth (the meaning of which I have forgotten – it’s regional slang for something). This was a more modest piece, but also a first showing, where Bluey has been around a while. Ihht certainly revealed enough potential to merit further work. If I had a dramaturgical comment, it would be that while Spencer focuses on ‘his relationship’ to his grandmother, she does not quite get to tell enough of her own story. Understandably The Great Apeth is conceived and delivered through the grandson’s eyes, but at some point you start to want the character of the grandmother to tell more of her own story. I wouldn’t say Blinco is obliged to work with crumbs, but the drama itself may benefit from whomever is playing the grandmother to have access to a larger slice of the cake. (I write this without having discussed this with either Spencer or Blinco – it’s my view, not as a friend of the actress playing the grandmother, but rather as a veteran theatre-goer with an interest in what sort of writing craft leads to good theatre and leverages the bestest performances.)

    The playlet, like the cake, was rather a light slice of life but rich in gentle charm; and the fondness Spencer and Blinco enjoy for each other’s company clearly mirrored the play theme – a bond many of us have likely had with an elder in our family – if not grandmother then a great aunt. I had such one, my Aunt Patricia, with whom Maggie Blinco shares the same birthday (Cosmology?). Blinco was ideal for the role, not least because the character epitomised a mental adeptness and physical sturdiness, along with a dry wise sense of humour. All traits Blinco drew on with an effortless charm that caused audience members to ooh and aah. Spencer meanwhile was his delightful ‘boy-next-door’ self.

    Phil Spencer - looking serious!

    The Horse’s Mouth included ten works in all, of which I saw three: along with The Great Apeth the night I went included Zoe Coombs Marr’s monologue, I‘ve Been Everywhere Man, a road-trip adventure (often misadventure) as a solo lesbian to Cooper Pedy – very drily told and a lot of fun. And Tim Spencer’s  ‘interview’ with a gay hooker called Show Me Yours, I’ll Show You Mine – with actor Charles Purcell in the pay-per-view role. It was quite an original take on what could have been quite a predictable sojourn, so in all a good night out.

    I’m not really into critiquing these works, just saying I saw them and acknowledging the ever-growing scene of indie productions of new writing. Obviously, the more opportunities to road test developing material the better.


  • 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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  • 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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  • 23 May 2011 /  Reviews

    I started this a couple of weeks back, but have been caught up in other work. Two very different and interesting shows worth noting for the record. The Disappearances Project is Version 1.0′s latest creation and it’s very fine. Two actors sit – wide apart – in a broad empty space in Carriageworks. The only movement is the moving image behind them – the view from a slowly moving car as it journeys through street after suburban street in the quiet hours of the evening. Someone is searching? For what? For whom?

    The two characters – played with great discipline and restraint by Jana Taylor and Irving Gregory – are amalgams of many people who have found themselves in the predicament of someone they love going missing. The dialogue is composed of recorded conversations covering the many aspects of what it is like to lose some from your life without explanation – never to return. From the initial bewilderment and hope, to what it’s like dealing with police, Centrelink, Medicare, family and friends and onto the gaping years that lie in wait that stretch on as the mystery is never solved. In Australia around 30,000 go missing a year. Close to 90 percent reappear – most of them after not too long. But a significant number are never heard of again – and this is what this work for the stage is all about.

    The Disappearances Project

    Interestingly Taylor and Gregory stick to one ‘voice’ each – despite the varying sources of their material. Each has created a very calm and thoughtful character who has clearly been through a great deal of grief, but has no longer the fire to share the past in tones beyond wistful, slightly bitter regret. When you have been through such a tormenting time, melodrama is cheap. The grief has emptied them, yet they also see more clearly. The effect is odd: as if each us has some such person inside them waiting to grieve a similar loss.

    You’d think such a decidedly low-key presentation might come across as a bit limp. Quite the opposite. While the resources put together to make this show are modest, that decision has been deliberate and the impact is big. We hang on every phrase: the experience is quite hypnotic. The whole event rather like watching a car crash in slow motion.

    A lot of thought and work has gone into this production. The footage I gather was shot around Bathurst, whose theatre arts people – including Stephen Champion at Hothouse – supported the making of this project. Many others were also involved – with major credits going to Yana Taylor, who not only acts, but worked on its concept and research, devising, co-directed with David Williams, and she directed the film. Williams also played various roles in many aspects of the production, and his outside eye as co-director has led to a finely-tuned work. Others involved, some are Version 1.0 regulars, include among the creatives: Paul Prestipino – composer, Frank Mainoo – lighting design, Sean Bacon – on camera and Deborah Pollard – on dramaturgy. Individually their contributions are outstanding; and together as a team they help create a very powerful work of art.

    Out in the western suburbs – Bankstown to be particular – we had a very different two-hander run for a short premiere season. Ama and Chan breaks new ground for this smart company that works in those spaces where our ideas about who we are as citizens rub and sometimes spark. What’s new here is that it’s a comedy – almost I Love Lucy in form. We have on stage the highs and lows of a marriage between two western Sydney migrants – Ama (Effie Nkrumah) from West Africa and Alan Lao (Chan) of Chinese origin. They are not particularly experienced performers, but both have big personalities, and director Drew Fairley has done a great job devising this show with them, which climaxes in them creating a TV cooking show filmed from their own suburban home. Culture and food go hand in hand, so it’s a lot of fun to watch this version of a Punch and Judy show play out before our eyes. Each has plenty to say about the other’s cooking!

    Ama (Effie Nkrumah) & Chan (Alan Lao)

    Here is the blurb: Part stand-up, part-theatre, part live-to-internet cooking show; Ama and Chan is a witty and savvy look at love, fusion-cuisine and an unplanned flatmate. Ama is a Ghanaian woman who likes Chinese food… a little bit. Chan is her Chinese husband who isn’t afraid of wigs, curves or FuFu… much.

    They’re social networking celebrity chefs. Their recipes for Asian-African fusion cuisine have gone viral. The traffic on their Facebook pages often causes a worldwide meltdown. After a mighty wedding and slew of In-Law bickering they’ve finally rented a place of their own. But where is their furniture? Where is the Pork Neck and who is the guy in the spare room?

    In this less-than-fabulous situation, they conjure up a plan to buy their dream house. But first they have to get rich. And even more famous. They get a camera, fusion recipes to die for and let YouTube do the rest. Ama and Chan invite you to the filming of their soon-to-be-popular Reality Cooking Show.

    Though utterly different in tone and style from The Disappearances Project, Ama and Chan also makes great use of technology without swamping actors. There are connections to Facebook and YouTube as well as the use of Google maps at the opening of the show and then the cooking scenes are filmed live and beamed onto a screen above the stage. Story-wise the show is a little bit clunky as it moves through three quite different barely linked phases. But the idea of the show is fabulous and its energy is very high.

    The Disappearances Project enjoyed full houses, partly perhaps because it was for free – and in a now familiar venue. Ama and Chan debuted in the new Bankstown Arts Centre and undeservingly struggled to get a crowd. Let’s hope both these shows get another run. Ama and Chan needs a bit more work before it gets back up – but both these shows are little gems.


  • 01 Apr 2011 /  Reviews

    Well there were a few oldies there: John Bell and Anna Volska, Garry Simpson and his better half, Kevin Jackson, Madame Blinco, Richard Cottrell and young Turnbull! Nice ones – who like to see the future in good hand. Oh and me!

    We were more matriachal, patriachal and fraternal (no not frat party) onlookers to another exciting Next Gen move as Tamarama Rock Surfers debuted at their new venue, the theatre upstairs at the Bondi Pavilion. They still keep the Old Fitzroy. Nothing so far has succeeded at this venue for very long. But if anyone can make it work I expect it will be TRS artistic director Leland Keane and his team. They would know better then me, but I suspect success will depend on embedding the theatre into the generally lively milieu that is Bondi Beach and environs. Plenty of bright groovy arty and arts-friendly people live down that way – movie and fashion people as well as writers and theatre folk. Can they be tempted to be drawn into a theatre if they think it is their own? Community and all that…

    On the edge...

    Last night’s audience meanwhile was mostly the burgeoning younger theatre crowd that is slowly but surely pushing the oldies out of the the way. In their different versions, generational change has now taken place at the STC, Belvoir, Griffin (well the new mood is fresher and image bolder under Sam Strong), and now we have cross-city expansion for TRS! It was an audience, filled to overflowing with varied forms of youthful talent. I could smell not only the future, but increasingly the PRESENT. This is GOOD theatre IN Sydney NOW!

    You would know by now I think what is happening in Sydney is largely actor led – or should be – given that we that we have so many good actors. Just as New York has dancers. And when our theatre is especially good, it’s when our writers and directors give these ‘players’ material worthy of their gifts (Speaking in Tongues, The Wild Duck). Certainly, again, the case here. This is a show-piece for one of our very best physical theatre performers.

    Stepping out...

    I have no idea where or how Gilshenan got to be such a fine clown. He’s a 1988 NIDA graduate, but that school has turned out no-one else with this actor’s gift for storytelling through movement. Interestingly, and crucially this solo show – Fools Island - has been especially created for Gilshenan with the help of co-writer Chris Harris and director Chris Jo Turner, who have both studied with the Le Coq movement-focused school in Paris. It shows. I have no idea how this show was put together, and what is meant by ‘script’ here – because the play is without words except for occasional quotes from Shakespeare – The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Tempest, Richard III, many others.

    It not just mime tricks with occasional words, a story does unfold. The particulars of the story-line are not always entirely clear. The words take us to deeper places in  our mind than the actions alone would allow. More of this needs to come to the surface for this play to reach its potential. But these are early days for a show that will surely fine-tune in front of audiences. You can see that its designed to tour – even internationally. It begs to go to the Edinburgh fringe. That the words are from Shakespeare suggests Gilshenan’s times with the Bell Shakespeare Company have also paid off. I do think all those roles have played their part in getting Gilshenan this far as a rounded, thoughtful and accomplished actor, not just a trickster. No wonder the Bells were up on their feet at the end in deeply felt applause. Sometimes you wonder what all that hard work by the Bell Company will leave behind – here is a most satisfying example.


    The story is cute: some pre-human type lands on Earth from outer-space – on a tiny island as big as the stage. We watch on as he learns to move and, in his own way, speak – before he can start to make sense, through a series of strange encounters, of why and what it is like to live here in this crazy place we all call home. This ‘cosmic’ creature, like all good clowns, is born from the core of actor on stage – Gilshenan’s inner self. Oh, and he has an evil twin.

    The evolution of the character’s skills in the early part of the play are a marvel to behold. Eventually he masters the English language, and after doing so goes straight to the top. In reaction to the world he discovers – physical, emotional and spiritual – he ends up speaking only famous phrases from Shakespeare. They are a wonderful selection of ‘best bits’. In fact in this theatre, the whole evening has an Elizabethan feel, with the open-thrust stage, and the use of both high and low comedy. Like all good clowns, Gilshenan’s has his not-so-silly side. I wouldn’t necessarily say dark – more mystified. The world is a ‘wonder’ to this clown. As a piece, the show feels of some dopey Gilligan-type has landed on Prospero’s island. What he discovers is more than strange noises – but what else is going on could, at times, do with a bit more clarification.

    Tree hug...

    In time we discover Gilshenan’s performance splitting into two – as the good brother and the bad one – which allows for certain famous Shakespearian themes to be explored from filial loyalty to revenge. Meanwhile the island’s single coconut tree, transmogrified with a few strokes of black marker, into a desirous woman, allows for the exploration those other topics Shakespeare liked to touch on: desire and love. The result is delightful and tender portrait of archetypal man struggling with the basics of existence.

    Gilshenan is not alone in the good work. On stage with him is musician and fun maker, Rose Turtle Ertler – her contribution is lovely in itself and beautifully matched.