Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Every now and again a local original work comes along that defines a prominent issue and gives it a powerful theatrical voice. Lachlan Philpott’s new play ‘Truck Stop’, commissioned by Q Theatre Company and directed by Katrina Douglas is that play.
It was a privilege to see something so sophisticated in its writing and production that I encourage everyone to see it and if you have teenagers, take them with you and use it to springboard a discussion with them into current teenage trends and behaviour in this global accessible graphic world we now live in.
‘Truck Stop’ is based on a true story where two 14 year old girls were prostituting themselves in their lunch break at the truck stop down the road from their high school. But it is much more than this. It explores a highly sexualised immature culture where a real knowledge, understanding and comprehension of the consequences of sexualised activity and images are missing from the behaviour itself. It is action without emotion, a numbed idea of the reality of what you do and what it means, when the impact and footprint of the now can’t be felt, where the idea that ‘everyone is doing it’ is enough permission you need.
I can tell you how much truth there is in this. It is not a small scale problem. Incredibly young teens are sending each other nude text pictures, sexting, engage in sexual activity, easily accessing pornography and there is a feeling that this is what is expected or the norm. Sex has become a commodity and the idea that love and sex are disconnected permeates through.
Philpott captures this issue using a cast of 4 as his vehicle. His eclectic style, a combination of direct audience narration, real time action, transformational acting, linear time shifts, audio visual overlays, popular culture songs, internal verbalised monologues- they all offer an insight into the actions and motivations and relationships of these characters. Apart from that, it leaves the audience with some really big questions to consider. As psychologist Michelle says to Sam “Where do you live? Not the house or street or suburb but in here. If you can’t see the difference between what’s going on in there and what’s happening around you, what’ll happen to you?” How can we teach teenagers who are immersed in an uncensored adult world how to process and respond to it? And whose responsibility is it to teach them?
‘Truck Stop’ is given great respect and life by director Katrina Douglas and her outstanding cast. Douglas utilises Philpott’s words in the frame of designer Michael Hankin’s set, like a rough, barren school square, surrounded by metal benches and neglected scrub. It’s a clinical, functional area, left without nurture or care and it is made clear in this play that the characters have been relegated to this area as they didn’t get in quick enough to grab anything else worthwhile. It’s a powerful metaphor of their own existence and age- trapped in a wasted area and left to survive as best as they can. Nothing beautiful can grow here.
Actors Eryn Jean Norvill (Sam), Jessica Tovey (Kelly), Kirsty Best (Aisha) and Elena Carapetis (playing an ensemble of roles) were superb. They created roles of such conviction, flavour, integrity and tension so audience couldn’t help but engage in these journeys. It was the perfect recipe of cast to complement Philpott’s intent.
This is a play I cannot recommend highly enough. Writing about it doesn’t really do it justice. This is a play you just need to see. Now.
Friday, 25 May 2012
Once you spend the pre-requisite first 15 minutes of any Simon Stone written & directed show adjusting to his style- bleak, stark sets, graphic language and unbridled detail of sexual encounters from men- there is a lot to enjoy about his work (most of the time…I’m never letting him off the hook completely after 'Baal').
But there is a maturity surfacing in his most recent works which make some of his hallmark tricks (he really could have his own bingo card) feel like appropriate and sophisticated choices. You know this time I actually enjoyed the glass box. Go figure.
‘Strange Interlude’, adapted by Stone from Eugene O’Neill, takes the skeleton of O’Neill’s story and gives it quite a delectable fleshing out. In many ways, Stone’s is the better version, particularly for his contemporary audience. It explores the life of protagonist Nina Leeds (Emily Barclay) over her 25 year journey from her tumultuous youthful ideas of love into what can only be described as a middle-aged resolution of love as burdensome or tedious. Oh those middle-aged people…poor things…it comes as liberating when your lover leaves and your husband dies, doesn’t it?
Stone’s material is interesting and engaging and direction thoughtfully crafted but his smartest move was in the casting of a superb ensemble of actors.
In the first moments when Mitchell Butel as Charles Marsden delivers his monologue reminiscing about his own inadequate sexual encounters, I wonder why it is Butel has never really registered on my radar before. Butel is superb and this is again highlighted in his drunken stupor later in the play. Butel’s comic timing is genius. If you ever wondered about the adage of “no small parts, only small actors”, Butel will show you how to take a small role and knock it for six. Even actors who pop on to the stage for what feels like far too short a time have their moment to shine, Anthony Phelan, Kris McQuade, Eloise Mignon and Amos Armont. A special mention also to Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke who played young Gordon Evans on the night I saw it reminded me of those young boys that child protection legislation was invented for, so the impulse to hit him has to be overridden. He was one of those child actors who’s able to get right inside that character and relish the part. It felt truthful instead of rehearsed.
Barclay is also a surprisingly good casting as Nina. She felt a bit young to convey the time span required of the play but I think she managed it well and her petulant tantrums and desires were captured beautifully. The double header of Toby’s- Truslove as Sam Evans and Schmitz as Ned Darrell were such a highlight of this show. Truslove is a gifted improviser and I sensed there were wonderful moments of play when he was allowed freedom by Stone to take a moment to go there and this contrasted nicely with those moments of his transformation throughout the play, his personality moving from clay to brick. Toby Schmitz has also firmly established himself as an actor of clear, appropriate choices, a true ensemble actor who will give each moment the energy and power or subtlety it needs and asks of his fellow cast mates to step up to the plate to join him there. Schmitz could sell ice to Eskimos.
And this brings me back to Stone. He has written good material for his cast to sink their teeth into and as a director he has successfully brought it to life. Glass box and all.
Robert Cousins’ design of the play is a blank canvas- like a TV studio's neutral backdrop ready to project and build images of the scene and perhaps Nina’s life. Small set items are bumped in and out as needed to represent moments or memories, sometimes surreal and dreamlike. Damien Cooper’s lighting is used to either add warmth when required or spotlight the emptiness to intensify the scene. It allows us to see the scene and not the dressing and it works for this play.
This is a good play and you know, I always dip my toes into Stone’s work with some trepidation, but I was very happy to swim in this piece. Stone seems to understand the journey of love, lust, broken relationships, lost moments, moments that never were, choices you wish you hadn’t made and how to live with the choices you have made. Stone has crafted a complex vehicle and I think he’s firmly in the driving seat with a great set of companions, travelling towards a desired destination.
Just don’t take your hands off the wheel Simon…
Thursday, 24 May 2012
Confession: I know my LaBute. So this review may potentially a) make me sound smarter than I actually am and b) go into more textual depth than I normally do.
Playwright Neil LaBute is a man after my own heart. He is fascinated with the psychology of people, the dysfunctional nature of relationships and how much damage can be done with language. Amongst it all his caustic humour pervades the page as he examines his subjects under the microscope to get a closer look. He is, in essence, a writer of the contemporary ‘morality tale’.
LaBute is a favourite of Darlinghurst Theatre- he’s probably been staged there more than anywhere else in Sydney that I’ve seen. But LaBute is deceptively complex. He, like Mamet and Shephard, is responding to the American society in which he has been raised. Naturally there are universalities in themes and ideas that transcend specifics but there is something ingrained about American culture, class and attitudes that struggle to be fully realised anywhere else outside of the States. You know what I mean? I can be sitting there watching an Australian play that has fairly universal themes but I recognise these characters, I work with them, I am related to them, I probably am one of them. There is a slight disconnect in American realist characters on our stage that even though I recognise the archetype and so many characteristics are just human and not cultural, there are tiny things I don’t fathom that distance me slightly from who these people are. It takes a very skilled performance and direction to realise the complete layers of cultural complexity, if it can be done at all. This doesn’t mean the play can’t stand on its own, it just means that nailing the characters and their relationships is essential or the disconnection widens and the play feels superficially entertaining.
‘Reasons to be Pretty’ deals with America’s (and the world’s) obsession with beauty with an added coming-of-age story. A boy (Greg) grows up and becomes a man.
To me Darlinghurst Theatre, under the direction of James Beach, got the humour and language of LaBute’s blue-collar play ‘Reasons to be Pretty’ (not all of it- the production cut each characters’ major monologue to the audience). The audience were certainly entertained, especially by the male characters of Greg (Andrew Henry) and Kent (Stephen James King) but Beach missed the morality tale of LaBute’s work. Beach’s decision to play Kent as a caricature means that we are not surprised by his betrayals, tantrums, misogyny or double-standards. It makes him funny but we don’t associate him as ‘real’. This is a missed opportunity to explore LaBute’s point that these are real people. This behaviour is engaged in by real men. How much more powerful would it be to have this dialogue and action from someone who the audience perceive as a three-dimensional real character?
Having said that, Beach and Darlinghurst theatre certainly understand their demographic. You only have to hear the clinking of beer bottles dropping between the seats as they clearly express their pleasure or friends of the cast supportively yelling “you’re hot” during the show. They are there to have fun (I’m not making a judgement) and aren’t really invested in the idea of introspectively examining their own beliefs and values on a Friday night. So I can confidently say that most of the audience walked out thoroughly satisfied with this interpretation of the play.
Onto more specifics: it’s hard to kick off a play mid-fight. The intensity required of the actors to convince the audience that we are in the middle of what is the ‘end’ of a relationship we haven’t even been introduced to yet is a hard ask. There is no room for error. Julia Grace (Steph) and Henry’s Greg did a pretty good job of this- although climbing on the table felt a little contrived and yelling in that space is hard. Acoustically, Darlo Theatre needs a lot of work (please take note potential sponsors) so vocals get lost amongst the echo and it makes accent work truly difficult.
Andrea Espinoza’s design could have been played with more too. LaBute’s plays exist in a geographic (and often moral) vacuum, in familiar but non-specific or hermetic settings. Instead of trying to create a realistic setting or wheeling out a restaurant wall, maybe a more expressionistic representation could have been employed. And there’s a slight (but maybe petty) disconnect between references to blue uniforms but wearing a black one. I know it’s minor but audience do pick up on those things. None of these things are deal breakers, just food for thought. The set and costumes were certainly functional, just sometimes clumsy.
The decision to accompany scene transitions with a mixed tape of power ballads sprung out of key moments of the previous scene were a sentimental touch that didn’t help in delivering LaBute’s work. A rousing rendition of Tina Turner’s ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ post fight with Greg & Kent or James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ post Steph’s outburst on being referred to by her boyfriend as having a “regular face” just misses the point. LaBute is not sentimental. He’s brutal. Go with it.
I still for the most part enjoyed this play. I thought every actor did what was asked of them and the comic timing of Andrew Henry and Stephen James King was particularly good. And when James Beach says in his program notes “My main hope is simply that tonight entertains you and reminds you of moments when love went wrong”, this is what you get.
I just wish he gave me more.
Sunday, 20 May 2012
It’s an unconventional start to a review but before I even start deconstructing the production, I must add to a previous post on theatre etiquette. This note is for the man in Row B, sitting in front of me. Please use a deodorant. Regularly. Maybe even change your shirt before you go out at night. Your body odour, the worst I’ve encountered for a while and I have been trapped in a room with sweaty teenage boys that come up roses next to your olfactory assault, made me gag on my own scarf. Were you a plant from bitter enemies to halt my postings? Well played stinky man, but no cigar (and had I lit it in your presence the les dangereuses gases permeating from your undergarments would have sent us all up in flames).
So kudos to 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' for still managing to engage me when such sensory adverse conditions were in play. This production has a number of things about it I really like. Firstly, Hampton’s script is a deft adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel. I love that it’s a generally well written vehicle for strong middle-aged characters and actors. I love that there are more roles for women than men. I love that it explores the social politics and inequalities of women in a clever, interesting way and contextualises a world where the appearance of restraint is paramount but that this world is a façade for deceit and delves into the tactics of how to get exactly what you want without arousing suspicion. And I use the word ‘tactics’ especially here as this dissection is going to focus on that technique and concept.
It is an entertaining play brought to life with skill and sophistication. It’s not perfect but I was never not engaged. I’m not going to give you paragraphs of plot (you know my thoughts here- google the story if you need to). A three hour play does not need an episodic breakdown. Trust me when I say it’s interesting and you’ll enjoy it.
So let’s accept the following criticism in the spirit of understanding that it did not affect my enjoyment but it’s why the play may have been engaging but not powerful.
Let’s start with the biggie- the lack of chemistry between Hugo Weaving’s Le Vicomte de Valmont and Justine Clarke’s La Presidente de Tourvel. The play hinges on convincing us of Valmont’s pressing desire to conquer and seduce the chaste Tourvel, to get her to succumb against her will and in the process, as much as he tries to deny and conquer his own feelings, he deeply falls for her. If we don’t believe the connection and turmoil between them, it is a skilled but superficial sell, especially when it unfolds. It is this event that changes everything in the play- the Vicomte’s relationship with Pamela Rabe’s La Marquise de Merteul, his actions and motivations towards others and ultimately his own fate that then unravels the fates of others. Although Weaving and Clarke are undisputedly fine actors there just wasn’t anything between them that convinced me of his passion or her capitulation and therefore the ending didn’t pack the punch it needed. Perhaps they were affected by the odour attack wave from Row B?
I’m a fan of Weaving. He does know how to command a stage and his name on the show list will always sell tickets. But I felt his tactics for much of the play lacked subtlety. He’s got swagger but this character needs to be able to charm and disarm and if you come in to the room with your intentions as broad as daylight, even the murky haze effect used on stage won’t hide your objectives from the other characters. It does come as a surprise that they could have all been so profoundly stupid or naïve to fall for his tricks. One of the flaws of the play is that the younger characters are often just fodder or targets for the older characters so if there isn’t more manipulation and subtlety in tactics, it makes the younger characters feel whiney and one-dimensional or purely under-written. I thought the actors gave it a brave shot but had director Sam Strong encouraged more tactics in manipulating others to reach their intentions, there may have been more for the younger cast to bite in to.
Now let’s talk about Rabe and that wig. Was it a deliberate choice to dress her as Robyn Nevin? If you are playing a conniving, intelligent, complex villainess, was the director making a statement here? Rabe was completely transformed but I couldn’t help but think there was another motive floating around here… I’ll leave that with you.
Rabe gave a solid, strong, intimidating performance. There may be a few questions, like Weaving, where I wonder if a more nuanced list of tactics could have been employed. It is hard to imagine why she never aroused suspicion from those around her- she was a formidable mercenary. And if this is what we predominantly see, the declaration of ‘war’ is not a tilt, it’s a natural progression. If it is a society resting on the façade of restraint and integrity, where was the façade? I think she put all her cards on the table, like the metaphor of the opening scene, from the start.
There were great moments of tension amongst it all, although sometimes played out in slow motion, like the duel between Valmont and James Mackay’s Le Chavailier Danceny. The ending also felt like a variation of Hamlet, with bodies strewn across the stage. None of this was detrimental but felt slightly contrived. Perhaps we would have been moved more had that chemistry and tactical variety been employed.
I think director Sam Strong has crafted a play that its audience will feel they got value for money but my only question of his work was whether he was intimidated by the calibre of his cast so he didn’t rein in choices or whether he is still yet to master the art of subtlety. After seeing ‘The Boys’ and this show, he certainly knows how to bring a story to life and engage an audience and interpret material with integrity and skill but I question whether he has fully developed a range of tactics and beats to explore and express character choices. Sometimes less is more.
Finally let’s look at design. I can’t help looking at this beautifully constructed French provincial set by Dale Ferguson and wonder if he’s available for home renovations. It’s well-utilised, practical and allows characters to twist and hide amongst the choices of entrances and exits. It captures the world, even in the chamber for live piano refrains from composer Alan John.
There was also flair in Mel Page’s costume designs- an elegance of class, character and personality with a contemporary flavour. It did sometimes feel like the worlds were anachronistic but I think this is an inherent note of Hampton’s writing more than directorial choices. It works for the most part without too much confusion.
If you can get a ticket to 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses', I’d recommend a viewing. But bring your own smelling salts or a scented hanky in case the man in Row B is back for an encore.
Sunday, 13 May 2012
Firstly, sorry for my prolonged absence. Did you miss me? (Rhetorical)
It was not my first thought to combine these two plays but seeing them within 24 hours of each other, there are remarkable similarities (in my eyes) that have brought them together.
And so, in simplistic terms, today’s double dissection lesson is about the affect or difficulty of the art of breaking the fourth wall.
Let’s start with Griffin’s ‘The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself’. The play, written and performed by Bojana Novakovic with music written and performed by Tim Rogers explores the existentialist crisis of a young woman, Mary Maclane, and uses a series of monologues, interaction between Novakovic & Rogers, music, song, the occasional dance and relies on direct audience address to create a sense of spontaneity and playfulness.
Belvoir have combined forces with Force Majeure in their staging of ‘Food’, currently playing at Belvoir Downstairs. It is a co-directed production by Steve Rodgers (who also wrote the play) and Kate Champion. It explores two sisters, working in the family take-away restaurant, who create and recall painful and joyous memories and reinvent themselves, just as they reinvent their attitudes and experiences of and through food. It is a beautifully crafted performance that uses physical theatre, dance, song, monologues, technical elements, character interaction and direct audience address.
Both plays use very similar techniques, although content is varied, and yet ‘Food’ manages to convince us as audience to invest and connect with its characters in a much more sophisticated way than ‘Mary Maclane’.
‘Mary Maclane’ relies heavily on being able to convince you of the impromptu nature of action. At times it deliberately sets out to be stylised, like the opening, and this works fairly well. Rogers’ acts as ringmaster in introducing the subject of the play and setting up an expectation of the character of Mary Maclane and the style in which we will explore her life.
But the problem with sustaining this is that it starts to feel didactic after a while- the audience are being force fed the material and the actors are working so damned hard but unfortunately not always succeeding in engaging those watching it.
There are times the actors are genuinely interacting and bantering with the audience, latecomers being the obvious and fun target of Novakovic’s improvisation. We enjoy the comic tension of these moments. It is when they are trying to make it appear impromptu and it feels staged and rehearsed is when it falls short. These moments need to feel organic and natural. Reactions need to feel spontaneous, like a confident improvisation. Instead, at times it feels petulant and indulgent and moves into dangerous ground in trying to convince its audience to stay with them.
We know, of course, they are working from a script. But if the style is to make it feel a little stream of consciousness, improvised, impromptu…well, if the internal energy isn’t there, if the sense of playfulness is forced, it really feels tedious. And that, for me, was much of ‘Mary Maclane’. It was a well-rehearsed play that didn’t always capture the ability to project itself as a series of reactions to emotion, memory or desire.
I thought the writing was smarter than the performance. Maybe part of the problem was Novakovic’s choice to star in her own material. That’s a tough ask. Maybe director Tanya Goldberg didn’t quite succeed in bringing the material to life at all times because her cast were too invested in the process.
But kudos for the songs and music, they were the most enjoyable part of the show. Musicians Dan Whitton and Andy Baylor did succeed in finding the joy in play on stage, perhaps because they were liberated from any dialogue. I also loved Anna Cordingly’s design, particularly the costumes. If that coat worn by Mary Maclane doesn’t make an entrance in winter fashion week, I’ll be devastated.
And the one part of the script I really enjoyed is when the play commented on its own ‘process’ when Novakovic stormed in with her rehearsal diaries and Rogers started reading from it. It’s just that there was a lack of consistency in sustaining these moments of play.
So here’s the thing about ‘Mary Maclane’. I think an audience of the under 25’s will really like this show. It’s got some clever writing. There are some moments of genuine audience interaction that works, it’s got live music, a bit of spectacle, movement and colour and most importantly, deals with the existentialist dilemma and a passing reference to the devil. That’s normally a good combination to keep the young happy. But for those of us older than that, the show will feel a bit forced and passé. But I will commend the attempt and theatrical concept, even if it left me bored at times.
As for Belvoir/Force Majeure’s ‘Food’, even though it uses many of the same techniques, there’s a whole different level of control and engagement. For a 90 minute show without interval, my attention never lapsed. There was nothing about this show I didn’t like.
From the opening beats of music and movement of Emma Jackson’s Nancy, I was entranced by the action and its deeper meaning- enhanced later through the characters’ soliloquies as they take us through their personal disconnection from their painful experiences and history.
The cast were exceptional. Jackson and Kate Box as her sister Elma and Fayssal Bazzi as kitchen hand and traveller Hakan showed how you sustain and convince the audience of the naturalness of your material when you are engaging directly with them. Hakan’s slide show, the characters jumps between conversations with each other, talking about themselves in the third person, heading out into the audience and making them part of the show, culminating in feeding us and passing out wine (is that not reason enough to come to this show) was artful.
This show felt completely organic (this is not a pun on the food, composted each night). I believed it and I believed them. Rodgers’ script was one of the best I’ve encountered from the local scene for some time. Its smart dialogue and moving monologues, weaved beautifully with the natural movement of Kate Champion's direction and it managed to manipulate my emotions with seeming ease. I craved for a happy ending for them all. And that is a clever piece of theatre.
The design by Anna Tregloan created an environment that captured not only the complexity of a kitchen but also the containers of our memories and experiences all housed in a space that allows for the rhythm and practicalities of the play. Martin Langthorne’s lighting also complemented the mood and ideas of this play, occasionally shining memories on the pots hanging from the wall as stories unfolded, creating striking imagery.
There were so many clever layers to the design. Most of all, the sound design by Ekrem Mulayim was a masterpiece. Just as I lusted after the coat from ‘Mary Maclane’, Mulayim needs to sell his CD of ‘Food’ at the foyer. It’d be a best seller.
I know ‘Food’ and ‘Mary Maclane’ offer different endings and tone. But ‘Food’ succeeds in taking their audience on the journey with them whereas ‘Mary Maclane’ falters. It is the art of finding the internal energy as actor to deliver the material with belief and ease, it's the light in the eyes, it is creating and maintaining a style in best exploring the ideas and dimensions of the characters and it is an understanding of how to convince the audience that this is the most natural expression of form.
And if you force it, you kill it.
There are things you’ll like about both shows but in how to keep your audience engaged and happy, especially when you’re going to include them in the show, ‘Food’ is the outright winner.