• 28 Dec 2008 /  Reviews
    Life Can be Crap

    Life Can be Crap

    Rabbit by Londoner Nina Raine is typical of playwriting these days, but a particularly successful example of it. You get a realistic setting – a yuppie drinking venue and a few mates meeting up to celebrate a birthday – Nina’s (Alison Bell). Everyone is 29 these days it seems. The mates include a couple of ex-boyfriends: one major, Richard (Toby Schmitz); and one minor, Terry (Ryan Johnson). Then two girlfriends:  Emily (Kate Mulvany) and Sandy (Romy Bartz). All are highly educated, civilized – and seem to have everything. That’s what I mean about this being a typical play for now – same terrain as Tommy Murphy’s Saturn’s Return and Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, and several more if I stop to think. It’s either ‘bored and employed’ or ‘back from Iraq’ these days.

    Alison Bell as Bella: photo by Brett Boardman

    Alison Bell as Bella: photo by Brett Boardman

    There’s always a stylistic riff, and this one comes in the form of hallucinogenic appearances from Nina’s father, called Father (Geoff Morrell). It’s not been an idyllic relationship, but Father is dying. So why the heck is Nina out with friends celebrating when she should be with Father? Well, that’s what gets sorted out over the course of the play.

    While Rabbit appears to be just another case of today’s young-people-with-everything feeling something is missing (and to some extent it is), Raine makes a good case for empathy. Better still, this play – typically composed of shallow chit-chat over more and more alcohol – ends up travelling some distance: and so you feel like you do go on a journey. Missing from far too many plays these days. Whether you were charmed or not, this was the problem with John Doyle’s Pig Iron People – it was a still-life picture not a journey. While I just can’t imagine Toby Schmitz ever being a barrister (far too disrespectful of convention) or Kate Mulvany a surgeon (can’t see her putting the knife in), these are not criticisms. Both are wonderful actors, it’s just that after a while you just get to know actors to well – even if you don’t really know them at all.

    The acting from everyone in this production is good – one of the pleasures of the show. This is a good group and the performance I saw – a Saturday matinee a small way into the season – all were on song. Alison Bell gives a wonderful shape to Bella’s journey. And while she may be just another privileged brat, none of us can be blamed for the times we are born in or the circumstances. I got to greatly care for her predicament. I felt her pain.

    Toby Schmitz: get me a lawyer

    Toby Schmitz: get me a lawyer

    While everybody in the cast is strong and true, I want to say something about Toby Schmitz. Putting aside the fact that he is the profession’s current top spunk, Schmitz has an amazing gift to animate his characters, move quickly between dark and funny, and appears to live deeply in the moment. So naturally gifted, I put out this warning notice while he is still on the way up: be vigilant or you will end up with no more than a bag of oft-applauded tricks. Yes, the audience loves you – so don’t go there. Schmitz was excellent in both The Great and Ruben Guthrie. I look forward to seeing him get offered a rip-your-guts-out soul-searching classic role?? Coz I think he can do more than charm and laughs.

    Another of the delights of this production is the work of Brendan Cowell making his mainstage directorial debut. I will say this now. Cowell is a very talented writer, but his natural facility (not unlike that of his good friend Schmitz ) is not a best friend. Sometimes you wish for more rigour. Writing a play ‘over-night’, or whatever, is not necessarily something to brag about. Cowell, too, is a born actor, and his naturalistic work is strong and true. And while there were great stretches of Hamlet where he was in the zone – called me old-fashioned – but I find it ridiculous that a person with zero technique in verse delivery would be cast in such a role. That was marketing not casting, however ‘good an effort’ Cowell put in. He was fantastic, in my view, in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, my all-time favourite modern (post?) play since Godot. Yep, I think it’s a masterpiece. But back to Cowell and directing: this production of Rabbit is beautifully paced, well nuanced, and one senses a happy camaraderie in the rehearsal room encouraged the lovely, open, shared performances we get to see. If it was a miserable rehearsal process, then Cowell did an even better job to bring the separate parts together.

    Brendan Cowell: Photo for Time by George Fetting

    Brendan Cowell: Photo for Time by George Fetting

    Cowell is one of the lucky ones to have been taken under Nevin’s influential wing. It was a good call on her part. From the first play of his I saw, an endlessly long ATM, with twenty scenes that should have been the last, it was clear Cowell had talent. You worry sometimes that it comes a bit easy. Even Ruben Guthrie, which he spent more time on, is still more of a scratch than it is open-heart surgery. That Cowell spurns criticism with what sometimes feels like a cavalier over-confidence might come back to bite him on the arse one day. To become a great writer he needs to keep pushing at narrative and formal boundaries. That said, Cowell can be very happy with his directorial work here. I would have no hesitation seeing him at the helm of another production. Let me make a daring prediction: this may end up being what he becomes most famous for. I like getting in early: I went up to Cowell at the end of ATM (despite it going on forever) and predicted he had a big writing future. So let’s see how off the mark I am with this one. His intimate experience as writer and director feeds excellently into his work on this engaging production.

    Can I say how much I love the work of designer Genevieve Dugard? I got to meet her out in the desert as she is the designer for Ngapartji Ngapartji. One point I’ve not fully articulated about that show, despite all I have written, is how beautiful it was (is). This is the split in the path between director Scott Rankin and other theatre artists working in so-called ‘community’ theatre, his aesthetic is so highly evolved. And so it is not surprising that he likes to work with Dugard, whose work is not just functional but lovely to look at. Dugard’s designs possess a sophistication and elusive wistfulness that lift you to a higher plane. It is not generally known that Dugard was invited to design Gale Edwards’ recent Rocky Horror Show, the one where she was meant to have a free hand at a whole new look and concept. Sitting on a bus out in the desert, I got some sense of the bold new vision Dugard offered to that project. It really was quite brilliant – a spin on contemporary celebrity culture that would have turned Rocky on its head. And worked – I believe – in a fresh way for a whole new generation. Not surprisingly, it was too much for that &^$#*()*&face Richard O’Brien and his narcissistic money-glutton team, and so Dugard was taken off the job. As we all know, Edwards ended up creating a version just like every other so far – which just happened to have an unusually good cast. An opportunity squandered.

    Cowell's Rabbit: Frantic Assembly

    Cowell's Rabbit: Frantic Assembly

    Why Nina Raine called her play Rabbit is beyond me, I think it’s a nickname used by her father just once. Though I do appreciate the fact that most plays these days are called Rabbit (including one by Cowell) or refer to rabbits (I Hate Rabbits). I’ve even got a bit of one in my bottom drawer that’s not called Rabbit, but has some rabbits in it….ones that have had their ears ripped off by some yuppie on crystal meth (oops). It will likely stay in the drawer – I like to stay fashionable, but one draft short if public scrutiny (lol). Interestingly Cowell’s own Rabbit was picked up by Frantic Assembly in London, in 2003, to whom Cowell submitted and worked hard on many fresh drafts (contradicting what I said above). it was likely better for the further work, though I don’t think the production set London on fire.

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  • 11 Sep 2008 /  News

    I’ve partaken in so many launches of late I could be mistaken for Cape Canaveral, or should that be a speedboat derby. I will ultimately get onto Jim Sharman’s biography, Blood and Tinsel, perhaps closer to Christmas shopping time. Anybody who puts a photo of me in their book when I was so young that there was still an ‘air of innocence’ about me is certain to get their product endorsed!

    Last week, Monday 1 September, there was the launch of the 2009 Sydney Theatre Company Season. The Upton-Blanchetts were in full glow, and a spirit of fun, excitement and enterprise filled the air of the Wharf Theatre Foyer.

    Glitter and Fluffy

    Glitter and Fluffy Launching Their Debut Season

    Cate and Andrew (aka Glitter and Fluffy), gorgeous little pussy cats that they are, can clearly be seen pushing the company in new directions. No upheavals or revolutions, but some conceptual tidying up and what looks on paper like some excellent team building.

    The company’s activities have been divided into three areas. Here’s a quote from G&F’s online message:

    “The major divisions are MAIN STAGE, NEXT STAGE (artists and artform development) and BACK STAGE (readings, forums, tours and more), not to mention our Education Program. There are various offerings and activities associated with each (and there are a lot). If you were really keen, you could probably find something to do here every week – we certainly do! You can learn about the Main Stage Season on this our brand new website. As for what’s going on with Next Stage, Back Stage and the Education Program – we’ll let you know the details later.”

    The MAINSTAGE program meanwhile is broken up into three categories by venue: Wharf 1, Drama Theatre SOH, and the wimpily (sic) named Sydney Theatre. (Why not the ‘Robyn Wherett Complex’?)

    With five gigs booked in, work at Wharf 1 has been branded: ‘Discover the Essence of Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf’. These productions, I guess, will focus on those more intimate theatre experiences for which this venue is ideally suited. It includes, on the Australian-play front, a fresh rendition of David Williamson’s classic The Removalists, to be directed (NB) by Wayne Blair; and an upgraded version of Tommy Murphy’s new play, Saturn’s Return, which has just finished its sell-out debut season in Wharf 2. In regard to Saturn’s Return, it’s great to see the theory of working plays up, through process, being put into practice. It will be fascinating to see what this inventive new play looks like in ten months’ time

    Soft on Actors - Steven Soderbergh

    Soft on Actors - Steven Soderbergh

    2009’s celebrity guest, Steven Soderbergh, will also be creating a work for this cosy venue – a good subscription teaser! Coz you aint gonna get in any otherways

    With three gigs, the Drama Theatre is branded: ‘Have a Great Night Out at the Opera House’, kicking off with Tom Stoppard’s writerly pleasure palace, Travesties, to star Jonathan Biggins (currently at the height of his powers) and master craftsman, director Richard Cottrell. The pair recently worked exceedingly well together on the Goons gig, Yin Tong. With Michael Scott Mitchell on set design and Julie Lynch on costumes, I can’t see how the word ‘fabulous’ is to be avoided by those of us generally disinclined to hyperbole!!! Plus Blazey Best, Toby Schmitz and William Zappa among the other cast members. Can we have same NAMES please!

    The Robyn Wherrett Complex (ex-Sydney Theatre), is hosting two shows under the category ‘The Big Event’.

    Names Please! Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett and Robin McLeavy: Photo by Derek Henderson

    No Big Names? Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett and Robin McLeavy for A Streetcar Named Desire: Photo by Derek Henderson

    One of themis Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire, to be directed by Liv Ullmann starring ‘Our Cate’, Joel Edgerton, Russell Kiefel, and rising mini-diva Robin McLeavy. That’s leaving out a bunch of other ‘hot’ names also in the acting line up. Ralph Myers is on set design, with Tess Scofield on costumes. Can’t see it myself – but I guess I’ll plod along.

    Show Pony - Dame Nellie Melba

    Show Pony - Dame Nellie Melba

    A point to be made here. Up until now, our mega divas (Judy D, Robyn N, Cate B) have been involved mostly in small productions at the Wharf. There were reasons for this – like allowing them to be ‘pure artists’, etc. But I can just imagine Nellie Melba looking across the road and saying’ ‘What’s wrong with that Big House over there!’ So with both The War of the Roses (SydFest 2009) and, in a much larger role, in Streetcar, we have Ms Blanchett rising to the challenge and clamour – and putting herself out there where the whole world can see. Bravo!

    Cate Blanchett has taken to her duties in her first year as co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company with remarkably good grace. She was obliged to endure some appallingly cheap hits in the print media early on. Her response was to smile and not bite back. Actions prove louder than words, and this – we are discovering – is her way. That she can segue from ‘global icon’ to ‘local industry team player’ by just pulling her back into a pony tail is amazing to watch. She knows when she has to turn her aura on, whenever this is required of her, and when she doesn’t. If she doesn’t have to, she don’t. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to run into the men’s room and hide. It’s the ‘heat’ – lol.  I sometimes think of her as the cinematic child of Kate Hepburn and Grace Kelly, sister of Catherine Deneuve. If cryogenics can allow that.

    It’s different for Andrew Upton, aka Cary Grant, who has been exposed to less ‘tall poppy’ crap. He, on the other hand, has probably got to learn how not to want to be ‘everybody’s best mate’ coz somewhere along the line he is going to have to make some hard choices – between one best buddy and another. Very State of Origin, if you get my drift…But hey, how about the enthusiasm and the smarts!

    Jeremy Sims - Cast to Type: Photo by Derek Henderson

    Jeremy Sims - Cast to Type: Photo by Derek Henderson

    The other comment one could make about the 2009 program is its focus on team building. This can be observed in who has been put to work together on shows mentioned above. Wayne Blair, of Aboriginal descent, gets to tease out the themes that hold The Removalists together. Including a couple that might have been overlooked in the past? By asking Blair to direct, we have a special interest in this revival. The entire talent packages around Travesties and Streetcar promote excitement. This is not a season where plays have been picked and then production teams put to them. Jeremy Sims stars in a play called God of Carnage. Say no more! Rather, a play has only made it onto the program if it was thought that the ‘right team’ could be found to bring the work to true life.

    There are a couple of one-off treats as well. Most notably, a new look Actors Company performing a mega-version of three Medieval Mystery Plays in the vaste expanse of CarriageWorks at Redfern. More on that another time.

    For a full run down of the main-stage program (Wharf 1, Drama Theatre SOH, and the Sydney Theatre) go to the STC’s website.

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