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Sunday, 29 January 2012

TAMING OF THE SHREW dissected by me

On Friday night I braved the weather forecast and ventured off to Bicentennial Park in Glebe to see the Sydney Shakespeare Festival’s version of ‘Taming of the Shrew’. This is currently running in rep with ‘Hamlet’ and so actors have been duly charged and challenged with learning many parts and lines this January & February.
The location of the Shakespeare Festival is certainly is a great location with the throb and lights of the city surrounding the action and an industrial speaker system and spotlight keeping us all in the action once the pseudo-summer light faded. The makeshift stage on its portable trailer is also a versatile and well-utilised design concept for either play.
Firstly, the play is a bit of fun and the actors seemed to be enjoying the open space and its proximity to the audience as part of the playing space ran between the picnic blankets and beach chairs of those watching. Sometimes the movement and conflict of stage business seems overdone but this wasn’t an issue for those lazing around, cheese and biscuit in hand (someone please remind me that the lactose intolerant aren’t cured just because you’re eating outside), getting their Friday night Shakespeare quota.
Director Julie Baz has given an active and entertaining interpretation to the play. It can skip over the fundamental feminist concern of the treatment of women and how their submission is the prime object of desire,  but as a crusty middle-aged woman myself, according to modern literature I could do with a lesson in this too. Just ask any poor male who has to spend more than 10 minutes in my company. I could teach that Shrew a thing or two. In fact wouldn’t it be interesting to have Katherina played by an obvious middle-aged woman (No- I'm not looking to audition). Certainly when Petruchio claims he is “too young” for her or when Katherina’s father states he will not marry off his younger daughter Bianca  “until Katherina is married” would certainly give another dimension to Shakespeare’s play.
Some actors seemed to have a better grasp of the rhythm of the language than others and it was fairly clear that the leads were more comfortable in the skin of the words- not that the production had major flaws, just some inconsistencies in conveying text and meaning to their audience. Strongest by far was John Michael Burdon (Petruchio). Having said that, no-one let down the team. Christina Falsone, Emily Elise, Nicole Wineberg, Cherilyn Price and Lana Kershaw were a strong female ensemble who all had moments of connection with audience and character, especially as many played more than one role. The guys also held their own out there in a venue of great distraction where keeping your audience engaged is certainly a tough ask.
What is also especially nice about this event was the camaraderie in the ensemble who take on roles as designers, choreographers, production assistants as well as act and direct. I think the very concept of this is a wonderful thing. January has been filled with seeing a lot of independent and alternative theatre and I have come to really appreciate the spirit and commitment of those who have been locked out of a fairly limited pool of mainstream opportunities and created their own. It’s one of the things I love about the Arts, that any venue can serve as a theatre (read Richard Schechner’s thoughts on that). I love the bravery of independent artists who realise that theatre and engaging in the empathy of the craft through any means is not dependent on waiting for the call up but in creating your own performance opportunities and for the truly dedicated, even your own theatre company. Julie Baz and David Jeffrey should be congratulated for their passion in staging the Sydney Shakespeare Festival over the last 5 years.
And the audience seemed to agree that the night was an enjoyable foray into the world of Shakespeare. It's a very user-friendly environment and evening for kids, family and friends.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

SHORT & SWEET WEEK 4 dissected by me

Last time I reviewed Short & Sweet (week 3) I seemed to bruise a few egos (ironic given that I thought I was being quite nice compared to how I have slaughtered some of the big guns). It all stems from the word ‘amateur’. Those people taking umbrage at the concept of being called amateur, can I remind you that the essential meaning of the word is to do something for love, not money? Almost all people involved in this community event are unpaid. The draw of being involved in Short & Sweet is to not only enjoy your moment in the light, maybe showcase your work or experiment in a non-threatening environment and to most importantly, celebrate the Arts in action.
Yay for you. Now get over yourselves. This is not a high stakes career move. Even the pro’s understand this is an amateur festival so don’t get offended if I continue to call it such. It doesn’t mean you won’t find talent on stage, it just means that it’s open to everyone and results may be inconsistent because of its open door policy. But isn’t that worth celebrating too? I have seen some people hop up who would never get a look in inside the industry and probably never seek to pursue it and I’m moved by their joy at having their moment on stage in front of family and friends.
Enough. Let’s look at week 4. This week stepped up the standard from last week. In fact when it came time to vote it was actually difficult to decide between 4 of them out of the 10 and the others were mostly solid pieces of work too. And in the spirit of inclusiveness, let me briefly cover some of the positives of each 10 minute play.
‘Shackles’ was a solid duo exploring the bond between sisters when the rest of your life has turned to crapola. ‘The Forgetting’ was played with risk in exploring the metaphor of the ‘fringe’, ‘Tis The Season’ was an energetic homage to ‘Cosi’, as was ‘Like a House on Fire’, an engaging monologue performed confidently by Erin McMullen, ‘Let Me In’ was a nice showcase of young talent with a brief committed cameo by Rita McCormack and ‘Dispatch’ was a thoughtful piece on life, love and death.
Special mentions go to the comic tropfest style piece ‘Three’s A Crowd’ whose tag paid dividends and ‘I’m Falling Through The Sky’ was another strong contender and delivered with skill and emotion by its cast Gael Ballantyne and Tessa Coulter.
But the highlights of the show for me were ‘Driving The Holden’ and ‘The Athiest’.
‘Driving The Holden’ created a world and backstory in its short time frame, developing dimensions in the relationship between the characters as their journey intertwines. It’s the sort of play you wish was longer. Special acknowledgement of Harley Connor’s performance of Eddie, whose magnetic presence and focus made this play enjoyable and engaging.
When ‘The Athiest’ started I thought it was going to be another sledgehammer of obvious tactics and stock characterisation so for this play to completely win me over is a credit to performers and directors (who are one and the same). The expressiveness, comic timing and clever concepts in writing were a great way to finish the night.
I am a real fan of the (amateur) Short & Sweet Festival. It is absolutely worth the Government Arts funding and it warms my cold, bitter (amateur) heart seeing all those (amateur) punters up there in one form or another having an (amateur) ball.
It’s the power of theatre and theatre for the people at its most inclusive (amateur) best.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

'I’m Your Man' created and directed by Roslyn Oades and dissected by me

Downstairs Belvoir are continuing a relatively successful tradition of new interesting works, playing with form and exploring local content and writing. This is certainly encapsulated in Roslyn Oades’ creation and direction of ‘I’m Your Man’.
Oades’ play uses recorded transcripts of interviews with 7 professional boxers and has edited these down to represent the journey and life of her subjects in this 70 minute play. However, rather than her cast memorising lines, the actors wear headphones and speak along to the sequence of these carefully edited audio interviews word-for-word, including every cough and stumble.  This technique has ensured there is an authenticity to the words and ‘hyper-real’ performances.
Having 5 actors play a series of characters with different accents, backgrounds, ages and in one case, gender, has enhanced this strict verbatim technique and is thoroughly engaging for the audience. There is some initial confusion, as alluded to before, regarding the one female in the cast, Katia Molino, whether she is playing a male boxer but it becomes clear through her skill and commitment that her characters are all male and the bravery in casting pays off in this respect (and FYI, her incredible agility and fitness made every woman in the audience green with envy).
One of the challenges for the performers but delights for the audience is in the action and design of the play. The stage is kitted out to represent a training gym for the ‘boxers’, complete with fight posters and inspirational quotes, and they circuit around the equipment with incredible commitment between their direct audience addresses or interaction with each other or their audience. Heaven knows, watching John Shrimpton’s sweat pour off him and form pools of occupational health and safety certainly added to the authenticity of the whole event. There is a real sense of the world of the boxers and the choices they have made in whatever stage they are in their careers as well as their hopes and, at times, dashed dreams. The play honours the integrity of the subjects in the most theatrical yet real way possible.
Kudos to the entire ensemble for their ability to bring a truth and belief to each moment and their ability to communicate this to their audience. The cast realise all their roles with great empathy as well as vocal and physical skill.
This is a play that you really should try to see before its season finishes for the festival, although I sincerely doubt we’ve seen the last of it. It’s the sort of play I’d love to see do a Regional tour so aspiring auteurs of theatre can be inspired by local writing and acting.
‘I’m Your Man' is a success of verbatim technique and I can’t imagine any audience member leaving the space having not enjoyed Oades’ experiment in recording and staging the courageous subjects brought to life in her unique and skilled direction.

Friday, 20 January 2012

SHORT & SWEET WEEK 3 at King St Theatre & dissected by me

Let me start by emphasising the word amateur, not because I am about to vomit vitriol on the work but to remind everyone that the Short & Sweet Festival is designed for the average punter on the street to have a go at writing, directing or treading the boards. Do not go to this expecting polish and frou-frou. What you will get is the chance to see your friends, neighbours and rellies trying to make a fist of their designated 10 minute play, not always successfully but certainly supportively. You will see cardboard props representing everything from cars to spaceships- there is something endearingly kitsch about the whole thing.  

The festival is structured into many weeks and a couple of different venues playing 10 x 10 minute plays over the 5 days of their allocated week. The plays are a mixed bag of styles and stories, directors come from all walks of life as do their cast. In each week there is bound to be a play that hangs together a little better than the others- sometimes because of the writing but mostly because the cast may have some professional or trained actors and the director, who also may have some experience, has been able to utilise their skills.

The audience also get to become part of the festival as at the end they get to vote for their two favourites and the winners eventually find their way to the finals. That is the night to make sure you have your ticket- the best of the best. However, there is something wonderfully democratic about the festival and the rawness of the heats that are worth checking out. Everyone has the same opportunity of success.

In this week kudos goes to the cast of the first play, ‘Just The Ticket’, who came to the director’s rescue when her cast pulled out 48 hours before the show opened. You wouldn’t have known- they managed well. Another play with potential was ‘Other People’, where the quality of performance stepped up a notch in ability. ‘Mother Love’ had a poignant ending, ‘Last Man on the Moon’ had some comic writing and ‘Macspin’ was another script with potential in its clever ideas.

The plays and performers overall have the subtlety of a sledgehammer when expressing their intent. But let me finish by reminding you once again of the word amateur. Forgive the festival its sins and revel in the joy that anyone can bravely live out the desire to have their moment in the spotlight and appreciate the communion of theatre.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

NEVER DID ME ANY HARM devised by Force Majeure and dissected by me

Our next Sydney Festival offering playing in Wharf 1 at STC, ‘Never Did Me Any Harm’, uses a fusion of physical theatre (when did we start calling this dance theatre- I’m so out of the loop) and verbatim techniques to explore the subject of parenting with a focus on disciplining children.

Kate Champion’s direction and the company mind of Force Majeure have managed to devise a creative vision of the perils of over-parenting. I mean, we’ve all had those conversations about the lack of resilience in children and how parents want to be their children’s best friends instead of an authority in the household. Letting children fail now seems to be heresy and this was beautifully communicated in the piece. I’m sure complaining about young people and how they are raised is the clich├ęd commentary of every generation but no less relevant today than it ever was. So I have no doubt every parent watching this show will shift a little uncomfortably in their seat at times, nod knowingly in others and laugh at the recounts expressed overall.

There is an energy and passion to this devised work, especially in the comedy of the direct audience addresses. Vincent Crowley’s rants regarding the cotton wool of parenting or ‘helicopter parenting’ strikes a chord with the predominantly middle-aged audience. There were also some more poignant moments but mostly in this 65 minute show, the voices you’ll hear will amuse you. It is the movement that carries more implied depth, especially in the collaborative pieces where connection and relationships between performers is at its clearest.

The design is also well utilised- the suburban backyard, full of adventure but fenced in and sanitised to all who inhabit it. The sense of play was engaging and its stifling of this same play demonstrated the piece’s intent. The lighting, sound and projections are also impressive, although I should add that depending on where you are seated will affect your ability to really appreciate this. I think this is one of the shows you need to be seated central to the action and not shafted into the far stage left hand corner- I really struggled to see all the graphics and many were lost in execution.

Andrew Upton served as dramaturg on this show and I must say this is where he does his best work. I wish he’d do more of this and less directing. As a dramaturg and translator, Upton is at home in the theatre world. He has something to offer that can enhance the work of a show. I’m yet to see that translate into his work as a director. Let’s see what he has to offer in 2012.

‘Never Did Me Any Harm’ strikes me as a show with great potential that is almost there and audience won’t be disappointed by what they do see. It is polished and enjoyable but feels like it is 15 minutes short of being complete. But perhaps that’s how devised Dance Theatre is. I’m sure someone will be kind enough to let me know.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A HISTORY OF EVERYTHING dissected by me

This offering from Alexander Devriendt, Joerl Smet and the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed in collaboration with STC, playing at Wharf 2 was my first outing for the Sydney Festival this year. Don’t expect to see traditional narrative, structure, acting or characters in this devised piece. As the title suggests, this play covers the history of the universe and you’ll be pleased to know that it can all be encapsulated in 100 minutes. It’s about discovering our humanity, in all its forms and what has made us who we are today as well as what have been recurrent themes throughout time. It transcends culture, race, time and space.

Don’t be scared by the warnings in the foyer of nudity. It’s no booby/willy fest. Everything is tastefully in context. The opening monologue of the play gives a beautiful perspective on looking at life and our world backwards and so from the very start you can’t help be intrigued and engaged in the notion of retrospectively exploring our life and creation and thus the crux of the play- a journey through the universe, from now to its beginning.

There were times the fluency of the play slightly stumbled and felt a bit amateurish but it can easily be overlooked as the play is constantly evolving- whatever day you see it, it will have been updated to include the day’s major events, including the cricket score- thank you very much. Also, let’s not forget that many of these performers have English as their second or third language and so hurdles in delivering the play in English must be forgiven. It never affects the essence of the performance in its rhythm and thematic expression and maintains a clear engagement in its relationship with content and audience.

This play has a plethora of facts and events to cover. The mastery in timing and hitting their cues and lines should be applauded. Even the projectionist had a tough time keeping up.

I found the moments that most stayed with me were the well written, thoughtful monologues, the powerful visual imagery created through cast tableaux, the comedic and intelligent use of props, such as the orbs, placards and the fantastic use of the floor map, which serves almost as another cast member in the ensemble, especially in its metamorphosis in the end.
A special mention goes to the lighting and sound design. As the universe devolved, the subtle but evocative use of lights as they dimmed and reflected our own presence in this world was terrific. And the blinding light of the first moments of the creation of the universe was inspired, as were the images of our sun, the planets, and the devolution of life. The rhythm of those moments contrasted cleverly with the frenetic pace of the current world. It does mean that the last 20 minutes feels like it drags but given it is encompassing millions of years in the development of the universe, it makes poignant use of time to express its ideas.

This devised work by Devriendt and cast is a winner for all involved. It’s the sort of play that sits with you and makes you reflect on its ideas and the more you think about it, the more you realise how clever it is, its script (I'd love a copy), its production elements and execution all combine to make a theatrical whole and thoroughly engage their audience. This is the sort of creative approach to telling stories or exploring issues you wish all schools would embrace in teaching curriculum, regardless of the subject. Can you imagine history, biology or physics being taught in this way? Wouldn’t that be something?

One of the things I most enjoy about the Sydney Festival is the chance to see risk in expression of ideas and dramatic forms in a devised and global context and the collaboration of artists and practitioners from across the world in finding a common voice in communicating these issues. This is one of those shows I wish everyone who doubts the importance of theatre in our culture in examining who and what we are would go and see. It will literally change your world. Retrospectively.