This is Acting - Greta Scacchi & Patrick Dickson in Mary Stuart: Photo by Steve Lunam
I have been lying in my life-raft this last couple of weeks thinking about a lot of things: some of them not ‘things’ exactly, in the 3D sense. Although, given the shapes they can take in the mind, ‘memories’, ‘feelings’ and ‘ideas’ are, I guess, things too.
I sent you all out an offer to contribute feedback on what you thought of this site and the statisticians are wading through this mass of data. Thankyou Tom, Neil and Tim: between the three of you (three is a nice round number – lol) I got pretty much the feedback I was looking for. Meanwhile, as I dragged myself through the various phases of fever from ‘life is pointless’ – all the way to – ‘but that is exactly the point’, I settled on a few thoughts of my own. One particular matter of ongoing concern: to what extent do I want to write about local theatre shows? And how? What approach should I take?
Me and my Sick Bed
The trouble was I’d been quite shaped by my trip out bush with Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji – the gig which launched this site. It was such a profound theatrical experience. On returning to the Big Smoke, regular shows just did not seem to be making much impact. Not only were they boring, most of them; but I was at somewhat at a loss as to say why. I found myself unable to make a meaningful response. I coild not put my finger on, what I realise now, was simply a lack of pulse. I suspect this might also have been the case had I not been away. But, with my little site up and running, I have been invited to join Sydney’s theatre critics judging group and this means seeing a lot more shows than I have been for a while. Writing for Australian Stage Online, I was pretty much able to pick the potential cherries out of the local theatre pie. Now I have to face the full degustatation. Nothing wrong with that, it is something I have done before. But to keep the PR folk happy, and rightly so, you are expected – in return for freebies – to write something. Not necessarily jolly, but at least meanngful. Many of the shows, I realise now, have been neither good nor bad: but rather trapped in a twilight of minimal commitment and hence negligible impact. Not until well into my fever did I realise that this was what needed to be said; and, if I went through that door, I might find a way of writing meaningfully about shows again. So here we go.
What appears to be missing these days, first of all, are ‘drop-dead’ amazing performances – most actors are working small. There is not a lot from the top to inspire the young ones coming through – much less keep audiences glued to their seats. This is partly because the Aussie scripts especially are seriously underdeveloped, at a time when our tastes have evolved. Not only are story lines weak, but there are few roles being created that you could describe in anyway as meaty. Experimental, edgy stuff is either non-existent, too cerebral, or buried in that energy graveyard called Carriageworks. And young theatre artists seem to think that to make good theatre you need to go no further than put on the odd minor Sam Shepard-like play in between gigs for film and TV. Entertaining sometimes, but none of the above is theatre as art.
Overall, there appears to something mealy-mouthed about current overall industry output. The work is not even dastardly old-fashioned as, say, in the closing years of the Old Tote (in Sydney) era – in the mid 1970s. Okay, so every decade cannot be revolutionary; but there are some core principles that hold good theatre together. And one is a supreme commitment from the artists involved. ‘Half-hearted’, across the board, from writing, to directing to acting, appears to me to be – currently – the characterising trait. In referring to three productions below I’ve seen of late, I am only starting on my plan to try and unravel what the heck is going on.
Playwright Dallas Winmar: Photo by Simon Schuter
Dallas Winmar’s play Yibiyung about Aboriginal dispossession at Belvoir was very well put together and its themes sincere – but for those of us who go to Belvoir – the encounter with the subject matter was way too predictable. For a big issue story, the small emotions brought to life on stage appeared ‘not to scale’. Nothing happened to me while I was watching, which did not seem right for a story of such innate tragic resonance. I wanted to give to the work but it asked nothing of me. Okay I was was at the beginning of my descent into feeling crook and, for that reason also I left at interval. But how much time does a show need ‘to throw you a lifeline’ (a connection) before you feel you need to get to it and save yourself. I’m not reviewing this show here, I say to those who require a critic to stay to the end. But I can report honestly that little of note happened to me by the end of in the first half. Home to my pussy cats and my sick bed.
At the other end of the drama spectrum, we had an important opening night in Kookaburra’s Little Women. Was this the show to haul the struggling company to its feet, or drag it down its death. I am happy for the company that the show has received mostly kind reviews. No idea how it is going at the box office; but from where I was sitting, again, almost nothing of interest happened from the lights up to interval. That was well over ninety minutes. My guest, a music scholar of some repute, was so horrified by the banality of the work, he declared he could simply could not sit through any more. I was thinking more along the lines, well ‘this is a bit to plain for me too, but maybe I’m not it’s audience’. When I thought, ‘Whatever its target audience, this Little Women is simply not delivering the basics. It’s not so much that the performances were half-hearted. Indeed there was brio and gusto everywhere you looked. But it was ‘faked’. All art is imagined, but this Ltttle Women is best described as a composite of familiar moves pretending to authenticity. I realise now that this is style as acceptable to some as a houseful of ‘genuine reproduction’ antiques. Not to me. Give me the real thing or a real fake – but not some half-baked in-between.
Spot the Difference: Little House or Little Women?
That the show is all corn syrup and Little House on the Prairie is fine by me: but a faked version of crap?. Like Woolies’ ‘maple-flavoured’ on your panjacks? That’s okay, so long as you are prepared to acknowledge the difference. Music issue to one side (the likely fact that the work is really quite minor); and regarding the story (of much less significance to Australians than it might to Americans who grew up on the book): there remains the matter of artistic commitment. I’m not saying people did not try. Rather, the kind of trying they were up to onstage was pretty much a waste of time. How about standing centre stage – and when deliver your lines – mean what you say. Really mean what you say. Don’t ‘cartoon’, or ‘act out’ meaning what you say. But say what you mean and mean what you say.
For me there was something utterly unengaging in the performances. I didn’t believe anyone on stage, beyond the odd passing moment from some of the senior players. I don’t think anything like ‘conviction’ had been asked of them. I understand this is how opera productions are often directed, or put together, so it was not surprising to discover that the Australian Opera’s own Stuart Maunder was at the helm. Yes, the acting in an opera is often sketchy, and while this has become increasingly out of fashion, it is still not uncommon. But not always a problem, or to anything like the same extent, if the human voice is there to take on the role stage -to become the mechanism, if you like, for ‘lift off’. How much Puccini is utter cornball until the diva opens her mouth to sing? And then it is oh so real!
Unlike Kookaburra’s Company, which did embody genuine conviction, Little Women was about as forgettable as fairy floss in the wind. Let it go, it will break apart, some of it might catch on a bit of barbed wire somewhere (like this site). Ultimately it will decompose, fairly harmlessly one hopes, back into the environment. But if the show fails to pull its required audience, will the question be asked: did we actually offer anything even approaching the value of the cost of a ticket?
On the other hand, an almost impossible challenge was pulled off over at that Ensemble, where the translation of a late 18th-century German verse play by Schiller was brought to life with a modest budget and to some extent, a workaday cast, in a tiny space. That is not entirely true – we had Greta Scacchi, a very fine actress, in a lead role, and Patrick Dickson among those in supporting roles. The play was Mary Stuart (trans. by Peter Oswald) directed by Mark Kilmurry. My point is that you don’t need the world’s most famous actors and the biggest budget, if you re prepared to put ‘everything into the work’. Not just hours of it, but put your performances on the line. Commitment must be your launch pad. And this is what this production offers in abundance.
Greta Scacchi as Elizabeth I quoting Vivienne Westwood: Photo by Steve Lunam
The Ensemble space is tiny, yet Nicholas Dare’s dark brooding set creates a potent mood. Costume designer Julie Lynch is a superb technician with delicious flare – and here her work is as good as it gets. To match the set, everything is gray and black – but with splashes blasting orange that announce to us that this was ‘heightened’ drama. For Scaachi, in the role of Queen Elizabeth 1, we get Vivienne Westwood tangerine hair: it is wicked and exciting, and it promises Scacchi a wonderful launch-pad for a performance that is a nuanced as it is volatile and articulate. Nicholas Higgins’ lighting brings the work even closer into atmospheric unison, as does Daryl Wallis’s music and sound.
It’s true Kate Raison is a little out of her depth technically in the title role of Mary Stuart, but this does not seem to matter a lot: because Raison is there for us in every other way. Raison is part of the Ensemble family, and it is this quality of ‘belonging’ which one can always look forward to at this funding-free vintage harbourside venue. In any case, Raison brings a uncluttered honesty to her characterisation which, in itself, is very appealing. For quite a few actors The Ensemble offers the closest we have in this city to a home; and its audiences enjoy the same quality. It was particularly pleasing to note that the rest of the cast, seven in number, were there for Raison throughout, as they were for Scacchi and, indeed, the play.
A Candid Kate Raison as Mary Stuart (Julie Hudspeth in Background): Photo by Steve Lunam
If ever there was fresh reason to take a closer look at the acting training over at the Ensemble school, it is found in the performance of recent graduate, Jonathan Prescott, as Mortimer. Better than keen and bright, the groundwork of a well-rounded technique is also already in place. Of the supporting roles, one is always assured to know Patrick Dickson is in there somewhere. In many ways, he best represents what is good about this production; in this instance, as the doubting Dudley. Dickson never gives less than his best. Often found amidst a classic, too often he appears abandoned to survive alone. For once, he is in amenable company.
If ever a night at the theatre lay in wait for early departure, on paper, it would have been this. A history drama, two hundred years old, of German origin. In a little theatre, short on resources. Yet this time, in the break, I moved seats to a spare one closer to the front – so I could enjoy an even more intimate engagement.
There is a lesson in the writing. However sweeping and contested the historical events may be, Schiller/Oswald craft the play down to a very neat – and forward-urging package. Kilmurry’s production has good rhythm, but best of all is the commitment he brings to his duties. There is much honour in this work, and the cast appear to have followed his lead.
Discussing The Play (1967)
I was stunned to check the sundial on my mobile, on exiting the theatre, to find I had been swept away by this little North-Shore production for a good two-and-a-half hours. And so, sought an opportunity to share my encounter with others clinging to similar-looking programs on the railway platform. That they were heading North into middle-class heartland, and myself the opposite way, back over the harbour to the demi-monde of Sydney city was beside the point. The experience we had just shared urged us into conversation, which quite wonderfully capped off the night. I’m sorry not to have been in a position to get this piece up onto the site earlier, at least for the sake of Mary Stuart. But its season does have another week to run. The production isn’t miraculous, but you will get what has been largely absent from ostensibly fancier productions of late around town.