• 13 Aug 2011 /  Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ADDENDUM (several days later)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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