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Thursday, 26 February 2015

THEATREXCENTRIQUE'S 'POPE HEAD' dissected by James


Theatrexcentrique's 'Pope Head', written and performed by Garry Roost, is a chaotic and energetic bio-piece on the life of Irish born painter, Francis Bacon. As someone who isn’t incredibly familiar with the personality of Francis Bacon, I was interested in what I would discover from the performance. I knew enough to know he was a Surrealist visionary and sometimes classic idiom maker (“Champagne for my real friends. Real pain for my sham friends”). Bacon’s turbulent life no doubt makes for some intriguing and exciting writing, however interestingly, the writing was probably the production’s weakest point. Needless to say, the performance is enlightening, at times engrossing, funny and horrifying.


The set is appropriately simple; white floors and walls, with a triptych centre stage. The panels are spaced so Roost can walk between and behind the paintings, often going out of sight to reappear again a second later, sometimes transformed into a new personality. These transformations, made through physical and vocal characterisation and slight costume changes, occur just as much in front of the panels as behind. The volatility and schizophrenic nature of Roost’s performance only adds to the chaotic and tumultuous nature of Bacon’s psyche.


Roost’s Bacon is a breathy, dislikeable yet scathingly amusing character. Often manipulative and uncaring, he is also an intelligent, tortured soul with clear tastes on art, criticism and sexuality. Roost brings him to life admirably. There is something satisfying about watching an actor work hard on stage, and Roost certainly does, deftly transitioning between characters in varying impassioned states.


One thing that felt lacking, as I mentioned earlier, is the writing. There are moments of clarity, but largely the text feels encumbered by a desire to express all, to tell too many perspectives of a story. Roost’s text would have serviced the performance better had it more clearly delineated between timelines, characters and ideas. At times this creates pleasing and achievable riddles to solve and discover as an audience member (Who am I seeing now? When does this take place?), but largely it resulted in distancing the audience from the narrative and the character.


Some original music by Matthew Williams and Eddie Gray, a close friend of Francis Bacon, was also featured throughout the piece. While at times it felt unnecessary (dark, unnerving soundscapes over what was already dark and unnerving parts of the performance), Eddie Gray’s string compositions were at times a delightful counterpoint to such a troubled character.


Overall I enjoyed the production. While there were problems with the text and its clarity, dramaturgically it was well produced and director Paul Garnault made some lovely decisions with its staging. The main talking point however is Gary Roost’s performance. He is energetic, tortured and breathes a frenzied life into a complicated character. The production is worth seeing if only to experience the commitment and energy in his performance.
Pope Head runs from the 24th of February till the 6th of March at the Old Fitz.
Tuesday – Saturday 9:30pm, Sunday 7pm.
Tickets: $20 + Booking fee.


By James Harding.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

BELVOIR’S ‘KILL THE MESSENGER’ dissected by me

Sometimes you see a play where the facts of its narrative defy belief. ‘Kill the Messenger’ is one of those plays, except the facts are indisputably true. Written and told by Nukkiah Lui, ‘Kill the Messenger’ explores institutionalised racism and the deaths of two people ignored by the system. 

This is powerfully driven home in the story of Paul, who died riddled with terminal cancer but untreated in hospital and Lui’s grandmother, victim of a termite infested commission house and eventually injured through its neglect and deterioration. 

Lui was convinced by director, Anthea Williams, to play herself in the production. That’s not an easy task and made all the harder for the writer to live through the experience of your world in the makeshift reality of the stage. But Lui does it very well and her humour keeps the mood light so she can punch the message out when needed. 

Some of those moments are in the scenes with Paul (Lasarus Ratuere) and his sister Harley (Katie Beckett) as he strips her home of goods to feed his drug addiction. But it is in the interactions between Lui and Peter (Sam O'Sullivan) where her anger of the dichotomy of their experiences is given focus and those between Paul and Lui unfold like ghost scenes and are beautifully crafted and reminiscent of ‘Conversations with the Dead’. 

Ralph Myers design allows for a square of light and two large projection screens to endow the narrative with an authenticity and simplicity so as not to overpower the storytelling but make the images we witness bold and direct. Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting is integral to that, creating a box that allows us to compartmentalise the interactions and issues that arise. 

It is a reminder how much we, as a primarily middle-class white audience, take basic services and care for granted. Complaints are often not treated as suspicious nor as irrelevant and so it is a wake-up call to us, in the comfort of a society geared towards telling our stories and catering for our needs, that this is not the truth for all. 

Lui tells us this play has no ending because the issues stay unresolved. This is a well-crafted play to recognise that the structure should mirror the content. It’s an example of contemporary black theatre and stories that need to be told and need to be seen. Whilst it’s easy to dismiss older Indigenous plays as historical, there is no escaping the immediate relevance of ‘Kill the Messenger’.

As Lui says at the end of the play, ‘I wrote this for you. Especially for you. Just for you. I’m standing here, in front of you, and I say please, listen.’ It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Monday, 16 February 2015

NEW THEATRE’S ‘MOTHER CLAP’S MOLLY HOUSE’ dissected by me

‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’, written by Mark Ravenhill, with music by Matthew Scott, and directed by Louise Fischer for the New Theatre pulls no punches. After the initial shock of sex, whores, cross-dressers, gay sex parties, swinging role plays and whatever else Ravenhill can throw in, you learn how to breathe through it and work your way towards the messages of the play. Well, almost.

The New Theatre made a bold choice with ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’. Obviously inserted into their season to capitalize on the large crowd converging for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, this production offers topic relevant theatre to celebrate the cause. Whilst the play will certainly provide that in spades, the ideas do get a little murky, lack some control and I’m not sure the themes are fully realized.

The play vacillates humorously between the seedy world of Victorian repression and the world of contemporary times. Using promiscuity as its motif, we enter a world where men are looking for uncomplicated sex, found mostly with each other. It’s not quite as simple as that. For instance, some characters are steadfast in their desire to be monogamous but find themselves dragged into an environment to please their partner’s need for random and frequent sex. We see boys trying to become men in a new world of opportunity and sexuality and others looking for gratification outside their marriage where, as some characters put it, ‘any hole will do’. It’s about identity, titillation, desire, fantasy, aspiration, change, family and fulfillment. 

There are some good performances on offer. Deborah Jones (Mother Clap) conveys her character’s journey as conservative wife to enterprising business owner, where values are as fluid as the economy itself- change is much easier when money is involved. Garth Seville (Stephen/Edward/God) found the comedy in his archetypes, Steve Corner (Princess Serafina) created a gentleness and masculinity to serve the two aspects of his role and Chantel Leseberg (Amy/Tina) entertained with diversity of attitudes and expressions with energy and strong comic timing.

Overall the cast do a fine job and the set (Bethany Sheehan) is versatile to quickly play with the different eras and the use of the scrim and lights (Andrew Weston) allows for the production to illuminate the transient world outside of Mother Clap’s shop.

I wouldn’t say I’d rush to see this again because the cake is not quite cooked and I think the problem is mostly in the script itself but I didn’t come out disliking the show, even if it took a while for me to wrap my head around exactly it was I just saw.


‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’ runs until March 7th at the New Theatre.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘DREAM HOME’ dissected by me

Well congratulations David Williamson on not only writing but also directing a play where you managed to exemplify how dated your work can be, which is quite the feat when this play is less than a year old. With ‘Dream Home’ you’ve played the stereotypical race, age and gender cards and hit each of them with a sledgehammer so blunt that I wasn’t sure which of them was more offensive. 

Yes I do. 

It was the blatant sexism in the portrayal, behavior and treatment of each of the female characters in the play that had me shaking my head in disbelief. How is it in 2015, we still write plays where the only way to see women is as prostitutes or bitches and in some cases, both? At least with both you’ve made them two-dimensional. If only you could find the elusive third so that we could possibly enjoy well-rounded female characters on the stage.

‘Dream Home’ has four female characters and three men. There’s our protagonist Paul (Guy Edmonds, who did his best to make the role work as every character interacts directly with him). Paul is lusted after by all the women in the play and just to add a sympathetic tone to his plight, he is also painted as the victim to his wife Dana’s (Haiha Le) insistence that he give up his dreams as a composer and become a responsible breadwinner, urged on by the imminent arrival of their first child and a new mortgage.  Women are a wonderful fantasy but the reality of them is dream-crushing more than dream home…

Whilst the scenario itself could carry the play to a certain extent, it was constant barrage of sexually frustrated women knocking down his door like an episode of Benny Hill that had me scratching my head in bewilderment. There’s widow Wilma (Katrina Foster), Paul’s kleptomaniac middle-aged neighbour who not only dishes out gossip and blackmail aplenty but also offers sexual services to Paul for a price, as she has to desperate men in the past. Williamson paints Wilma as a ruthless wanton, gratifying her own salacious desires and earning a buck at the same time. She is as unlikeable as she could be. We laugh at her (or we would if the play were funny) and pity her loneliness that we fully recognize as her own making because single middle-aged women are despicable. 

Then there’s Colette (Libby Munro), wife to Sam (Justin Stewart Cotta) and ex-girlfriend to Paul. Colette, dissatisfied with Sam’s possessiveness, tries to seduce Paul once again. After all, a woman’s best escape from a bad relationship is to find another man, another protector. Heaven forbid we should desire self-sufficiency because we’ll all end up like Wilma if we do.  Women only have the power of their attractiveness and their bodies to get what they want. Let’s get that message out there to the next generation asap. Thankfully Colette’s problems are solved by an affair with someone else and with a newly vulnerable Sam (thanks to his bromance with Paul), Colette now has a man who can make her happy and she doesn’t need to stray anymore. Gee, the messages keep getting better. Women stray if they’re not fulfilled: only men truly understand other men and all of them are at the mercy of those women- the needy, nagging nymphomaniacs.  

Finally, there’s Cynthia (Olivia Pigeot), ageing Qantas flight attendant, wife to Henry (Alan Flower). Cynthia humiliates Henry within the first moments of their arrival on stage (driven by sexual frustration) and very quickly sets out to seduce Paul (she quite literally rips off his belt and undoes his pants while hapless Paul stands in shock and awe at the alacrity of her actions). It’s fair to say that had the roles been reversed, we might say attempted rape and if not for the arrival of Dana and Henry, we are led to believe that he might not have been able to fight her off. Cynthia later announces her affair with a married man because she is not sexually satisfied with Henry, but we can solve everyone’s problems by calling in a well-endowed stranger to service her while Henry watches them, much to his delight. 

I’d spend more time on the racial stereotyping of Sam but frankly, it is almost redemptive compared to how the women are portrayed. At least Sam and Paul find common understanding after the initial violence and bullying. When Paul finally stands up to Sam, we applaud his heroism but when Paul’s wife Dana tries to do it, she is a bitch.  Sam and Paul’s friendship was probably the only thing watchable in the whole play. 

I’m not even going to address the acting or the production itself. It’s irrelevant given the material it had to bring to life. I know not everyone will interpret the play as I just did. It’s a harsh reading, granted. But broken down to its core, ‘Dream Home’ is a sad indictment of how we see women in Australian society by Australia’s most prolific playwright. You can call it comedy but it’s as dated as Dick Emery. 

If the Ensemble want to entice a younger audience, this is not the way forward. I know you have to pay the bills. Is this how you want to do it?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

URBAN THEATRE PROJECT’S ‘BANKSTOWN LIVE’ dissected by me

Having heard of ‘Minto Live’ and the Urban Theatre Project’s (UTP) work, I was curious how this whole things works- months of community liaison to create a cultural and experiential street party. After attending their latest project, ‘Bankstown Live’, I can tell you that it’s a vibrant and diverse insight into not only the local area but also the integrity of UTP in finding authentic voices and expressions of the flavor and colour of the community and respecting the stories and benefits they bring. ‘Bankstown Live’ is raw, ragged and real.

Northam St in Bankstown provides our backdrop. Closed off to traffic and filled with beach chairs and seats, you move between people’s yards, footpaths and tree-lined street to engage with any of the nine activities taking place over the four hours. It’s well organized and even though there are glitches, like crackling headphones on the pre-recorded monologues from ‘The Last Word’ or the visuals and/or sound dropping out every now and again, it only adds to the experience of live community theatre and technical issues are soon resolved from the diligent staff on hand. Add to that, the chance to eat local specialties and a sneaky ice cream makes for a great way to further the delights of the area.

It all kicks off with the scaffold of a house carried down the street by some of the night’s performers, lead by an Aboriginal elder, paying tribute to country and those past and present with a smoking ceremony.

When Emma Saunders’ piece began, using local the Vietnamese community dancing on the street, it was endearingly charming and the warmth of support for the challenge of publicly displaying and coordinating their work was both beautiful in its awkwardness and commitment.  The live music supplied by Toby Martin and guests was a lovely touch and had a CD been on sale, I would have happily snapped one up.

I also appreciated the 'Family Portraits' section of the night, where local activists or personalities set up their lounge room on the street and you get to converse with them about whatever takes your fancy- family, politics, culture. I had the pleasure of talking to Wafa Ziam (and the privilege of tasting some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, made by Wafa. Apparently the secret is the cardamom). We talked about issues for women in the local area, which seems to be the story for women everywhere, reminding us all that Bankstown is not so different as the suburb each of us have come from to attend the event tonight.

UTP also featured their film, ‘Bre and Back’  directed by Rosie Dennis. Projected in the middle of the street onto its calico backdrop, it was a moving tribute to two families, four women, and the relationships of mother and daughter. There was humour- I still have the line uttered by Noeleen Shearer, “Don’t need a fishing licence, we’re Aboriginal” in the context of the film a terrific reminder that law and culture have such beautiful contradictions. As a piece here, it felt slightly out of place but it's such a good piece of work, it didn't seem to matter. 

One of the highlights of the night is Mohammed Ahmed’s performance of his book, ‘The Tribe’, devised by Ahmed and Janice Muller. It is worth joining the long line to enter the backyard of 156 Northam Ave to catch his exemplary storytelling and enter the world of growing up in his family’s tribe. Transformational, rhythmic and at times, non-linear, Ahmed weaves stories of his grandmother and family that echo his unique experiences with our own and we are totally engaged.

'Lullaby Movement' by Sophia Brous and guests was a haunting finish to the night and as quiet descended on the neighbourhood, her singing was joined by the crying of babies, of excited local children in their pyjamas coming to investigate the siren song and all noises blended to create a multi-dimensional soundtrack to the night. 


‘Bankstown Live’ is much more than a piece of theatre. It’s a thought-provoking artistic community vision of cultural understanding and experience  and should be a must do for the Sydney Festival.

Monday, 19 January 2015

THE GENESIAN THEATRE’S ‘THE WINSLOW BOY’ dissected by Rhiona

Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play ‘The Winslow Boy’ is the story of fourteen year old Ronnie Winslow and his family’s fight to prove his innocence after an accusation of theft at the Royal Naval College at Osbourne. The play, based on a true incident, is full of subtle social commentary and moral dilemmas that encompass one’s duty to the heart and obligations to the family.

This production, directed by Nanette Frew, did fairly well to keep up with the pace of Rattigan’s writing and overall delivered a rather polished performance.

Unfortunately, there were a few little things that hindered the production from being ‘fantastic’.

In terms of blocking, you had actors moving mindlessly merely to accommodate other characters. After standing up from reading on the lounge to kiss her father, what motivation does Catherine have to move to the other chair to continue reading – apart from not overcrowding stage right? 

Having said that, even when there was little blocking, it felt unnatural. Characters would stand facing each other in a way that seemed less due to a formality and more so of awkwardness, leaving the scene rather stagnant.

The blocking should generally accompany the script. Instead, what we had here at times was a gag emerging from the discrepancies – Violet asks Ronnie for a kiss, gets a hug. This would be fine given a little consistency – mother asks Ronny for a kiss, gets a kiss. I could pin it down to the closeness of relationships, but from the audience’s perspective (laughing) it just felt like a lack attention detail.

On that note, the devil is in the detail; so when Ronnie shows up “all wet” and “shivering” I expect the lad not to be bone dry. I can suspend my disbelief but not when the rest of the production was designed for realism.

Set design by Owen Gimblett was accurate for the period, but the actors’ interaction in the space did beg questions about his use of space. Although aesthetically pleasing and superficially quite practical, there was an awkward amount of movement behind this chair and that chair and around that area over there. Perhaps it was a lack of familiarity or maybe it comes down to the blocking, but it did seem like the performers had to weave through the set a little too conscientiously to be comfortable.

Grace and Arthurs Winslow (Lois Marsh, David Stewart-Hunter) were very well cast and fulfilled their roles to a tee. Sonya Kerr also gave a striking performance in her role as Catherine Winslow, Ronnie’s strong, independent and forward-thinking sister. 

Tom Massey, who played Desmond, deserves a special round of applause. He made his narrative the most endearing but by no means the most important. He left me wanting him to be rewritten into more scenes, but didn’t detract from or undermine the plights of the other characters.

Likewise with Roger Gimblett in the role of Sir Robert Morton. Although a more significant part, he carried himself with such confidence and performed with a particular finesse which not only made his scenes more enjoyable, but the production as a whole.


The Genesian’s performance of ‘The Winslow Boy’ was true to the story and followed the line of most adaptations. Thanks to a traditional approach and a talented cast, this production didn't fall short of Rattigan's writing.