Saturday, 28 December 2013
It’s easy to forget that the Ensemble are an independent theatre company because there is a gloss and polish in their productions and design normally reserved for the bigger funded theatres. The downside is they also come under fire for not taking more risks in their programming but if you have to keep your base subscribers happy, you had better devise a season that caters for a wide, conservative audience. That means putting a few old favourites in there: a Williamson, a classic, a contemporary, a woman, a local new work and plenty of mainstream, narrative and linear-driven plays. It’s why you can throw in a ‘Frankenstein’ or a ‘Red’ each season because without the bread and butter of what will pay the bills from the formula above, there would be little room to experiment at all and the Ensemble would be demolished on its prime real estate location and turned into a monstrosity of high density apartments.
So I went to see Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Neighbourhood Watch’, directed by Anna Crawford, secure in the knowledge that it was one of their bread-and-butter programming choices. What I didn’t expect and clearly underestimated was Ayckbourn’s ability to use a relatively obvious vehicle of a neighbourhood watch group whose fear of the outsider prompts them into drastic and dangerous action, to actually present a clever depiction of ideas, characters, relationships, human needs and insecurities that resonate long after the play is over. Whilst the play appears simple, its satire has bite. There are some genuinely funny moments in this play and we recognise these characters. They are condensed versions of talk-back radio callers, thugs and bullies, the damaged, of some of our well-meaning but xenophobic elderly or conservative relatives, neighbours, co-workers or friends. Dare I say it, they might even represent us. Whilst we see this gated community grow in power and intent, what they do to assert and sustain control in the name of protection leads them to do things that certainly contravene human rights and suddenly I’m thinking about our national policy towards those seeking refuge in our country and our tough, inhumane response to them and I think this play isn’t absurd, it’s a comic version of suburban fear. It’s just that our baseball bats, sentries and stocks on the ornamental roundabouts all happen off-shore.
Amanda McNamara’s and Peter Neufeld’s design of the lighting scape of illuminated houses scattered in the web on the roof is a lovely metaphor for our lofty and tangled community ideals that Crawford captures in her production of Ayckbourn’s play and the bookends of Hilda’s (Fiona Press) memorial to her brother Martin (Brian Meegan) is a smart signposting of our hypocrisy and ambition.
It’s a well-cast play and each performance is a committed expression of the archetypes you might expect to find in your own neighbourhood and you will nod in recognition as they journey throughout the play and delve into a fear of strangers, neighbours, change, sexuality, abuse and loss. Of course whilst you laugh at this seeming comedy, you realise in so many ways that what you’re watching is the history of humanity and the real tragedy of how far away from ‘Christian values’ we stumble without realising it.
It’s a nicely packaged play that delivers a pertinent message and is a worthy programming choice.
Thursday, 26 December 2013
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays because unlike ‘Taming of the Shrew’ when protagonist Beatrice finds love, it is because she is feisty and is allowed to stay that way when Cupid’s arrow hits. And there’s the rub- the play’s most notorious bachelor Benedick finds himself deeply in love with Beatrice because she is quick, smart and funny. She's sassy to the max and it gives me hope that intelligent men exist in Sydney desperately wanting that kind of woman and are straight, single and waiting for me.
So with that theatrical hope in my heart, off I trotted to Bella Vista Farm once again to see how Sport for Jove would serve it up and no surprise, they didn't disappointment. Director Adam Cook has found two exceptional leads in Tim Walter (Benedick) and Matilda Ridgway (Beatrice) to not only show transformations in passion and intention with excellent comic timing and energy but there is sexual tension filling that space from the start. It’s like watching young people punch each other in an effort to get their attention in a naïve attempt for physical contact. Each line by Walter and Ridgway packed that punch and we felt the savage blows as the tension rose in each verbal conquest.
Of course there’s more to the story that these two characters but they are far less likeable or have less dimensions to sink your teeth into as an audience member. Claudio (Christopher Stalley), although the picture of chastity and christian virtue, abandons his fiancé Hero (Madeleine Jones) in an astounding act of public humiliation; there’s the Machiavellian bastard brother Don John (Julian Garner), jealous of his brother’s, Don Pedro (Robert Jago) status and sworn to thwart and undermine him and then he abandons his villainous minions as soon as things go pear shaped. There’s also our comic relief in Dogberry (James Lugton) who knows how to sell that 'ass' and that's all I'm saying (it's not as inappropriate as it sounds but captures the scene perfectly). It’s a play full of deceit and trickery but like a good comedy, the characters end up all the better for it. It’s interesting that a play that revolves around falsehoods should expose our characters’ authenticity. That’s clever indeed. Add to that, it's a fun play and Sport for Jove know how to be playful and cheeky as well as truthful and tragic.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is exactly the kind of play I’d be taking my kids to see, not only because taking your kids to the theatre should start as soon as they can put a sentence together and walk on their own two feet but because this is a play that says you can be any kind of woman or man and you still find and deserve love without compromising who you are or what you want. You don’t have to be crafted in anyone’s image or expectation of who you should be. The scene where Don Pedro asks Beatrice to marry him, as off-hand as it seems, was the perfect accompaniment to that theme- she turns down the prince because he is not strong enough to hold her love or fulfil her needs. It was a great scene between Jago and Ridgway and a beautiful way to communicate that power and status alone do not a marriage make. Hold out. Don't be seduced by the trappings of wealth and influence.
So you’ve got a few more days to get out to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at Bella Vista or catch it at the Norman Lindsay Gallery or the Leura Shakespeare Festival in January. Take your family, watch some quality Shakespeare with a quality company and spend some time talking to your children about how we understand ourselves better from theatre and discussing the play’s potent messages on the car trip home and count yourself a better parent for it.
Sunday, 22 December 2013
This year in Sydney, theatre definitely stepped up its game, particularly in the big funded companies like Belvoir and STC who had been clawing back after some pretty dismal years of programming and artistic choices prior to 2013. Maybe it was their declining subscriber base that spoke loudest or perhaps it was the stiff competition from independent companies that made them actually try to engage in what audiences might want to pay good money to see. Whatever the case, it’s made my job much harder- how do I pick just five best shows in a strong year of theatre and did I see five shows that I could categorically call the worst?
So what I’m doing this year is combining it all into one post and reviewing the big boys and the independent scene and what they did well or didn’t quite crack.
Sydney Theatre Company had a very good year indeed. I did not see everything- I missed about four or five shows as it would have necessitated taking out a small mortgage in order to afford the full subscription to Sydney’s most consistently expensive theatre experience. But this was a year I didn’t begrudge them my hard-earned cash (although don’t buy program vouchers people- I’ve been burnt by pre-buying them to discover that many programs were already supplied).
‘The Secret River’ was an outstanding start to the year and even after Colin Moody’s anti-Armfield tweets, the show was a powerful statement in dramatizing Australian racial conflict of ownership, relationships and hardships. Bovell is a playwriting master and what was delivered on stage and in design was a beautiful rendition of that vision and Grenville’s original novel.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ was another home run, just for the Schmitz wig, the camaraderie of Schmitz and Minchin, Ewen Leslie’s terrific ‘player’ work with an energetic and comedic ensemble and another incredible design effort from Gabriela Tylesova. Director Simon Phillips took Stoppard’s clever witty words and gave them the warmth and playfulness they needed.
The first half of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was by far the best thing I saw all year. Although not sustained, it was the only thing I went back to see twice. It made Shakespeare sexy without needing sex, if you know what I mean. Its power was in its youthful precariousness and physical embodiment of hedonism and privilege on a rotating stage that for once was used with filmic ease and enhanced every action in the play.
‘Waiting for Godot’ was a bold programming choice after Sydney experienced Sir Ian McKellen last year in the travelling production but sceptics were silenced by the strong and skilled production at STC. Hard going but it was worth every painfully absurd, existential minute.
The only thing I saw at STC this year where I thought they had missed the mark was ‘The Maids’. Thankfully Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett pulled it out of the fire when it was just the two of them on stage but Isabelle Huppert was a questionable choice as she dragged the play into a stumbling tower of ham-acting. When her character yelled out ‘this is rubbish’, you heard many murmurings of agreement in the audience. I was one of them. Yet it wasn’t all bad and so I couldn’t name it the worst thing I’d seen all year.
I thought Belvoir had two really impressive main stage shows this year (well three if you count both parts) with Angels in America and Miss Julie. Angels kept true to its era and ideas and reminded us all that a play may be 30 years old but is still current when performed with integrity and passion (a lesson Belvoir have struggled with of recent years) and Miss Julie gave us the best modernisation we’ve seen of works there for some time. Both plays found the sticking point in making us uncomfortably engaged in the dilemma of destructive choices and consequences. I found Hamlet intriguing in its dissociative style and allowed a new perspective in regards to Hamlet being a man of action and a ‘purveyor’ of death. I appreciated it but I didn’t love it. Same can be said of ‘Persona’. Whilst at times it seemed to teeter on gratuitous, there were some really interesting ideas bouncing around and the leads were very strong in delivering the play’s difficult narrative and style.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ was Belvoir’s only offering that I saw (and I only saw half the plays on offer throughout 2013) that made me cringe with how Belvoir via Simon Stone shuffle women into predominantly disposable and aggressive archetypes. Women are either parasitical or power-hungry nags. It’s not giving dimensions to women- it’s stereotyping powerful female characters, removing any hint of realism and downgrading and dismissing intentions and struggles. And I will state it here…I don’t know how I feel about taking one of the canon of female characters, Hedda Gabler, and having her played by a man in drag next year. Whilst I love what the Sisters Grimm have done in subverting their characters, style, content and casting, if the rest of Hedda Gabler is not being subverted in Belvoir’s 2014 season and Ash Flanders is playing Hedda as ‘straight drag’, what are we really saying to women? We’d rather see men take on your roles? Thank you, you’re redundant? This may be one of the strongest female characters ever written but you ladies can’t play it like a man? I’m putting it on record I have an issue with it. But more of that in a later post on the upcoming 2014 season. As for Cat, there was still enough in the play to make me appreciate parts of it and so it also misses the worst of theatre pile.
Griffin Theatre Company had a solid year. The Floating World was probably the best of it but because I caught it during the first preview it hadn’t quite found its feet to cement itself at the top for me but I understand its potential and that it may have climbed its way up later in the season.
On to some of the Independent Companies (and we have a plethora of them so do avail yourself of seeing more independent theatre in 2014 if you’ve only ventured into the mainstream before now), The Ensemble was a pleasant surprise. Whilst generally programming quite harmless pieces and a few classics, all of which had their strengths and downfalls, it was their production of Frankenstein that was one of the highlights of the year. Director Mark Kilmurry created an intimate tale from Nick Dear’s epic version and then cast the brilliant Lee Jones as the creature. It does give me hope that his Richard III in the 2014 season might be a version I can enjoy. I think Kilmurry is at his best when he can strip away the realistic exterior and style of plays and focus on specific ideas, characters and symbols and it’s a breath of fresh air for the Ensemble.
The New Theatre in Newtown has received much praise for its production of Jerusalem but my pick was Alice Livingstone’s direction of Top Girls. I loved the strong female ensemble and I enjoyed seeing Caryl Churchill’s writing back on the Sydney stage. Now if Belvoir had scheduled ‘Cloud Nine’ for Ash Flanders in drag, that would have made sense.
Sport for Jove is another quality independent company on the scene. Whilst I think you’re in safe hands with all of their shows, their recent production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, directed by founding member Damien Ryan was one of their best. It’s still playing. You really should see it.
The Tamarama Rock Surfers have had a mixed bag of a year. Whilst their production of The Removalists was one of the best I’ve ever seen and artistic director Leland Kean gave us more dimensions to Williamson’s female characters than we’ve seen before, with a standout performance by Caroline Brazier, it could not make up for the terrifyingly bad Empire: Terror on the High Seas that no doubt sent Kean into some serious soul-searching post-production. It was, by far, the worst thing I saw all year and even though the other reviewers politely praised its attempt, that ship had sunk before it sailed. Written by Toby Schmitz, he gave a strong case in reminding us that although the name might put bums on seats, it will not necessary create a work of any quality. Dadaist it may have tried to be but by also including a melodramatic and rather absurd narrative in trying to give a semblance of continuity in its form, the mesh of ideas and styles imploded and vomited on its audience. Needless to say, my invitation to review back at Rock Surfers may be a long time coming.
Squabbalogic are doing great things with contemporary musicals with impressive production values and talent. Their recent production of ‘Carrie’ was a clear example of this in action. The Tap Gallery and Old 505 keep producing interesting, new and experimental work and I’m sorry I didn’t catch ‘Penelope’ and the ‘Motherf**ker with a Hat’ at the Tap due to other commitments. I’m especially sorry I didn’t get to see the Eternity Theatre’s ‘All My Sons’ as I’ve heard nothing but praise from reliable sources about all three shows. I did see many things at King St Theatre and it’s still a place that’s struggling to create interesting and engaging theatre and so I hope it has a better 2014.
So the real winner this year was the audience and thus I’m naming Sydney Theatre Company as the best (and priciest) all-rounder in 2013. I’m calling Sport for Jove as best Independent Company and I think almost everyone who's producing theatre picked up their game this year. Worst, as called, was the Rock Surfers ‘Empire’ but it was one play from the season and I think they may have been far more burned from the experience than I was.
I don’t know how this compares with your list but if 2013 is anything to go by, getting your loved one some theatre tickets for Christmas might be a great gift. So stay tuned for my upcoming review of what I think we’re going to see in 2014 and have a great break (a leg) season.
Sunday, 15 December 2013
There aren’t many theatre companies that instil a confidence in their audience that everything you see them do is going to be good but every time I see a Sport for Jove show that’s exactly how I feel. The only trepidation I have heading out to their shows is whether I have enough petrol in the car to make it all the way to Bella Vista Farm, whether it will rain and wet my fabulous hair, that I will be attacked by a swarm of wasps or succumb to lactose intolerance from all the cheese I foolishly ate during the picnic dinner. Never, ever have I felt any concern over the quality of the work produced by Damien Ryan and his Sport for Jove team because they know how to do theatre, indoors and out, collaboratively and artistically, traditionally and contemporary and always with integrity.
There’s a tremendous lot of talent in play in each show and it feels like ego is checked at the door in favour of delivering the vision of the first artist, the writer and combining it with the vision of Ryan and the collective. No tricks, unless they serve the style and ideas; no big name stars carrying a show but an ensemble with experience, skill and commitment and really good material delivered by a top notch artistic team.
Sport for Jove care about their audience and it’s obvious that by promising and delivering an experience that its punters find clever, creative and cathartic that the rest of the industry and the general public have nothing but respect and anticipation for each show produced.
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ was no exception to this rule. Director Damien Ryan even enlisted the assistance of the team to help inspire him to adapt the text and he has crafted a version absolutely loyal to the original but with such a modern and playful edge that his cast own it, led by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano. But taking the adage, ‘no small roles, only small actors’ whenever anyone in the ensemble was on stage, they were absolutely present, in role and alive for the moment. There is a beauty of readiness from each actor that helps suspend our disbelief as audience, even in the most exceptional of circumstances. For instance, we’ve just entered the barn to watch the starving soldiers fight off their enemy somewhere in the distance and yet I’m there with them. Even the moon got in on the action and when it was called for in dialogue, it politely cooperated and hit its mark, on cue, emerging from the clouds. I mean when a company can control nature, you had better sit up and watch.
There were a couple of moments I felt an edit might have been nice- all to do with Cyrano’s dialogue (and Ozucelik has more words to pump out at lightning speed than seems humanly possible). The lazzi where Cyrano mocks his own nose just stretched the elastic too far and his death scene had a touch of the Pyramus and Thisbe but that’s also a problem in the cocktail of the epic, romance, melodrama and realism that anyone would find hard to master.
But this is a minor criticism in what is an excellent production. Kudos to Ozucelik, to Lizzie Schebesta’s feisty portrayal of Roxane and Scott Sheridan’s handsome, cheeky but intellectually paralysed Christian de Neuvilette. I could easily list every cast member and the fine performances from each and how Ryan manages to use audience in the gentlest of ways to include without intimidating, how Barry French has used this gorgeous setting of the Bella Vista Farm to create the world of the stage, of homesteads, nunneries, battlefields and bakeries and how Anna Gardiner has provided a masculine European period design and how impressed I was with Toby Knyvett’s lighting. Every player wins a prize and the audience win the biggest prize of all and that is the privilege of seeing great theatre.
So head to Sport for Jove with the confidence that you are witnessing a troupe who know how to produce good theatre and that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
Saturday, 14 December 2013
‘Coranderrk’ is a massaged-verbatim play by Andrea James and Giordano Nanni and directed by Isaac Drandic that explores the Aboriginal mission, community and farm of this name set up and run in the late 1800’s in rural Victoria. It’s a story that sits under similar Aboriginal plays that focus on the injustices of the Government’s Board for the Protection of Aborigines inflicted upon our land’s first people.
There is sense of frustration in watching black history plays as I’ve mentioned before. Partly it’s the reminder of white guilt for the ignorance and destructive power of white authority and partly it’s because we hear it a lot in this form and dare I say it, it can feel repetitive or like theatre as therapy.
But about twenty minutes into ‘Coranderrk’ we’re introduced to something new; John Green, white station manager and all round fair and good man and the play develops surprisingly new and welcome dimensions. Maybe it’s that it gives us hope that we haven’t always been against each other and that good white men and women are scattered throughout history. This is reinforced by the character of Caroline Morgan and we see white characters just as frustrated and hamstrung by stupid government bureaucracy. It may centre around race but we see more than the white villain and it gives the play depth in an otherwise didactic form.
‘Coranderrk’ runs for about an hour and contains all the conventions of verbatim- multiple characters played by a small cast, direct audience address, interviews, projections of historical figures, locations and events, and a whole lot of names, dates and figures. Theatrically it can feel stifling but it does ask all the right questions and especially the big one, What if we had allowed our Indigenous to be self-sufficient and set them up for success? Who might we have become as a culture? And that’s worth pondering.
If you took Tennessee Williams, put him in drag, asked him to recreate a Civil War ala ‘Gone With The Wind’ darkly comic piece with the express purpose of respecting and subverting the genre at the same time, you might come close to what Sisters Grimm founders Ash Flanders and Declan Greene have created with ‘Summertime in the Garden of Eden’.
‘Summertime’ is a black comedy satire that defies every expectation we have of the stereotypical Southern heroines, about our etiquette, equality, gender and race, all wrapped up in a very non-PC bundle but that we still recognise in its expression and walks the tightrope of hilarity and offence. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I didn’t know what side of that tightrope to fall on. If this play aired on the ABC (before the current government shut it down), I’m convinced it would meet the fate of The Chaser’s ‘Make a Wish’ sketch. It’s satire with big bite and if you present it your fleshy vulnerable and conservative underbelly, it will slap it until it stings.
But Sisters Grimm do more than push boundaries in re-crafting how we perceive our own conventions of role and genre; they do it with clever material and talent. It’s tongue-in-cheek with substance and integrity. It satirises pretension of image, of the sacred, of suppression and its sacrilegious content can quickly have a serious edge that rescues it from offence for offence sake. It’s unmistakably edgy yet played with glorious authentic melodrama that lapses briefly into meta-theatre when even it owns its own pretensions. It’s comedy deliciously served on a fluffy cloud of sweet insidiousness.
I did spend the first twenty minutes of this show processing how I felt about the role reversals and racial expressions, especially with Agent Cleave’s Daisy May Washington. The juxtaposition of a handsome bearded man in a dress with distinctly feminine mannerisms clearly playing a woman without ‘playing a woman’ does take a moment to adjust to as audience. Then there’s Bessie Holland’s Big Daddy and Genevieve Giuffre’s ‘Mammy’, with dolly in hand and suddenly your head is reeling with how on earth you could find the subverted convention of what we expect as relatively conservative theatre-goers possibly amusing. So you have a choice: don’t find it amusing or go with it. I chose the latter and was pleased I did, even just to enjoy the superb acting from the ensemble.
Agent Cleave was one of my favourites. His focus and gesture was impressive but Peter Paltos as Clive O’Donnell, Daisy May’s love interest, was incredibly powerful in his role’s dimensions, as lover, cheat, liar, victim and victor. He was utterly believable in a play that sets out to challenge this very style and had terrific comic timing to boot. Holland and Giuffre also delivered sterling performances in extremely challenging roles and Olympia Bukkakis as Honey Sue Washington was thoroughly entertaining in her ‘Savage Garden’ (oh, the irony) solo.
Declan Greene has directed a twisted anti-play, anti-form and anti-conventions in its gothic/ romance blend that shakes us out of our comfort zone and immerses us in a new way to treat an old story. Marg Howell’s set gorgeously typifies the extravagance and decadence of the Old South with humour and irreverence and its destruction throughout the play is treated in exactly the same way. The opening entrance of Daisy May captures exactly this idea and sets it all in motion, emerging from unexpected places and reminding us all that whatever you think you can hide, it’s going to be exposed in the next 70 minutes of this play.
So give in, dance in the garden, smell the flowers, wrap yourself in cotton wool then rip it off, choke on it and you’ll emerge all the better for it.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
If you like your 50’s music with a side of narration, like a director’s commentary over a soundtrack, ‘Sons of Sun: The Sam Phillips Story’ might be what you’re after.
Dubbed a ‘rock and roll play’, ‘Sons of Sun’ is more of a tribute to Sam Phillips and his role in producing some of the greats of 50’s music legend like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. The band, led by John Kennedy, are the focus of the show and actors Matt Charleston, Damian Sommerlad and Corinne Marie step in occasionally to add a documentary feel to the music in enacting the script by Kieran Carroll.
It’s all a bit contrived as there was a definite sense that we were there for the music but it slides into engaging its audience in dramatic historical verbatim-style transitions between tracks. It was done with great integrity and there is clear talent in music and performance and the audience of the Bridge Hotel were thoroughly entertained. The multiple characters played by Marie and Sommerlad were solid examples of transformational acting and although Sommerlad had to spend almost every musical impersonation that involved picking up a guitar and playing it with his back to us while Kennedy cranked it out, we forgave this ‘rock and roll’ play because the acting was secondary to the show.
Matt Charleston as Sam Phillips was impressive and as he had the most dimensions to play with in role, starting as visionary underprivileged underdog and culminating in overworked producer with questionable tactics, he got to take us on a journey that not only involved the evolution of music but also character.
The audience were certainly enjoying themselves and as soon as the doors were open, it was a fight for the best tables and let me tell you, the over 50’s show no mercy. But this is a polished and enjoyable night of music with a bit more depth and context and director Neil Gooding has managed to transition action and music to please the crowd.
It was a pleasant way to spend a Friday night and rock it out with the retirees….in your blue suede shoes…like a hound dog…goodness gracious great balls of fire.
Monday, 25 November 2013
I enjoy my adventures to the Old 505’s community space. Not only does life invade your senses upon entering an area clearly occupied with the seedy realism of local residents but I also love the notion of supporting, developing and exploring the experimental works that take place up there on the fifth floor.
Sean O’Riordan’s most recent play (as writer, director and actor), ‘Apples and Pears’ was what took me to the Old 505 last Friday night. O’Riordan’s play captures a mix of Joe Orton, Edward Bond and a smattering of Harold Pinter to create a quasi-absurdist piece that revolves around Max (Geoff Sirmai), spurned lover now aged and looking to reconcile his criminal past with those who he had imprisoned, Judy (Deborah Jones) and Les (Sean O’Riordan) and their daughter Kristen (Eleanor Ryan).
The impressive set that fills the space is the first sign you’re seeing something invested in this text. Andrea Espinoza’s design makes us feel the first twinkling of Pinter is this crowded, decrepit flat that resembles a man who has hoarded his life away since the 1960’s. Its lack of colour, of personality and of life itself perfectly encapsulates Max. It is only the chess set and framed picture that suggest any kind of activity or connection to the world he has forfeited. Tony Youlden’s lights make us feel like this is a one bulb, dimly lit, dank and dirty flat and so before any character sets foot on the stage, we have already started crafting a narrative.
Sirmai’s opening monologue as Max contains lots of lovely potential but the premise of setting the wheels in motion of his liberation or castration and the signposting of his relationship with the 'queen' is not there yet. Max has been waiting and planning this moment for decades and for me the dialogue feels indulgent and forced more than serving the character and probably needs another draft to aid both functions effectively. I think part of the issue is that the opening monologue doesn’t quite tread the boards of absurdism (yet) nor realism so it’s slightly out of place and feels contrived so early in the piece. This didn’t stop me enjoying the show and it’s not an issue of commitment. This never faulted at any time during the two hour performance.
Also slightly strange was O’Riordan’s delivery of dialogue staring out into the audience. Without using direct eye contact with those he was trying to oppress, Les felt less than real and the threat of his power is as damp as the flat he's standing in. The physical moments of pulling teeth or playing with the hammer were terrific but I wish he looked at the other characters more than the glassy eyed expressions out to us.
The other thing not quite there yet are the ‘tilts’- those moments where the action or information suddenly shifts to reveal a twist or turn in events. O’Riordan’s script might be missing one more tilt, especially for the female characters and this might help reconcile why Judy would want to save Max, which felt undeveloped and unexplored. It seems to me she’s ready for independence and not looking to embark on throwing herself into another relationship with a man who essentially abandoned her so many years ago. Judy, especially with the powerful performance of Deborah Jones, is a manipulative dominatrix. I would have liked to have seen this followed through in the final tilts of ‘Apple and Pears’. It means that the ending doesn’t deliver the lovely finish it could but it still leaves us mostly satisfied. But I’m not a dramaturge (some would argue not even a reviewer) and so this is my opinion based on my reading of the play in production. Confession- it may partly be affected by the fairy floss martini I had before the show and my reputation as a one-pot screamer.
But it’s all positive from there. This show has one amazing thing to recommend it. Deborah Jones. She steals the show in delivery of dialogue, accent, energy, tactics and expression. In fact, the story really hits its strides when she enters the space, especially when Les (O’Riordan) enters and allows Judy to play with the dimensions of character. It’s a cast of experienced and talented performers. This play was an entertaining night out and one of the strongest original works staged in the Old 505 I’ve seen so far.
It may seem like I’ve cast more than a critical eye over this work but it’s given out of love. There is a lot to commend this play and I think its outing at the Old 505 will be the first of its many public incarnations. No doubt O’Riordan will keep refining this play until it’s exactly where it needs to be and then it’s going to be an enormous vehicle for all in it and will have a deserved decent run in bigger mainstream venues.
It is thoroughly refreshing, like a potent fairy floss martini, to see local talent in all its forms on the Sydney stage and hoorah for providing a solid base in writing and performing as offered in ‘Apples and Pears’. I tips me glass to you all.
Monday, 18 November 2013
I thought for sure that a musical based on a Stephen King novel could not be serious. I’d even told friends I was going to see a parody of King’s ‘Carrie’, written by Lawrence D Cohen and music by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford and playing at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. I may have sold it on that premise to my theatre companion when I saw it on Friday night because how can you represent a girl with telekinesis, the religious zealot that is Carrie’s mother, a group of vicious school bullies and an unfortunate incident at prom in song and dance? Surely can’t be done.
Umm…wrong on all counts. Done and delivered by Squabbalogic under the direction of Jay James-Moody, musical direction of Mark Chamberlain, choreography of Shondelle Pratt and a very talented cast and crew. Well dip me in a bucket of pig’s blood and call it legitimate entertainment for that’s what ‘Carrie. The Musical’ is.
This show is as polished and professional as any big shot show I’ve ever seen. ‘Carrie. The Musical’ has integrity in its material and execution and under James-Moody’s directorial talent, this musical captures the essence and mood of King’s novel.
Sean Minahan’s set expresses the supernatural, destitute, abandoned world of this play and its social attitudes in the scaffolded ghost-like interiors. It’s also a lovely metaphor for Carrie and the world she inhabits- not quite formed, haunted by shadows of the past, repressed and painful and dying to become whole. Mikey Rice has created a series of impressive lighting effects- boxing in the spotlight and enhanced by Jessica James-Moody’s sound design, we get to jump between the present world of survivor Sue Snell (Adele Parkinson) and the events of the play as recounted in action and ensemble with a slick theatricality and tension.
I’ll admit, I did drift off during some of the songs but for the most part, the cast were terrific, especially lead actress Hilary Cole as Carrie. She was an exceptional performer in belief, vocals and movement. I never doubted her dilemma and the effect it was having on her. But this is a great ensemble piece and interactions such as innocent do-gooders and young lovers Snell (Parkinson) and Tommy Ross (Rob Johnson) or bitter bully Chris Hargensen’s (Prudence Holloway) song in homage to daddy; Carrie (Cole) and her mother Margaret’s (Margi de Ferranti) troubled and abusive relationship shown in Carrie’s imprisonment, or the comic byplay of Norma Watson’s (Monique Salle) plotting and teasing or teacher Lynn Gardiner's (Bridget Keating) attempt to help are just some of the highlights of this show.
I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and even if you’re no fan of Stephen King (I’m still getting therapy for ‘The Shining’), this show will convert you to the horror of King’s novels in the nicest form possible.
So skip the school formal and venture into the world of ‘Carrie. The Musical’ before something nasty happens.
Friday, 15 November 2013
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ is one of those seminal plays that redefined theatre in the twentieth century. It catapulted ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ into the mainstream and fuelled the global existentialist post-World War II dilemma. We are familiar with its themes of the endless stagnation and meaningless repetition of life; time as a subjective and painful oppressor; the intrinsic state of loneliness, even when we are with other people; and of course, the biggy, what is the objective truth in reference to faith?
Our two main characters, Vladimir (Hugo Weaving) and Estragon (Richard Roxburgh) are suffering from a crippling paralysis of action and even though they talk about breaking the cycle but they never do. Don't we all know that feeling? There is ‘nothing to be done’ but the same thing every day. In a nutshell, it doesn’t get much bleaker than this.
This is the third time I’ve seen this play (maybe only the second- it's one of those plays that feels like you've seen it more times than you have) and this will be the last (I hope). If I am to take the adage ‘to thine own self be true’, I love this play and I hate this play. I love it for its clever, ground-breaking ability to present a completely different, depressing world view through the power of its staging and style. I hate it because it’s painful to watch and it’s meant to be just that. It’s hard-going and it requires much of its audience to sit in the silence and repetition of the characters and by inference, reflect our inadequacy to act upon our intentions in a world without meaning.
Yet, there is brilliance in Beckett’s ability to comment on itself, on society, on the world and on religion. It can feel like eating those highly potent good-for-you vegetables that you don't want to eat and that take so long to chew in their textual-vitamin-rich-blandness that you'd rather choke to death than digest it.
I tell you this as a long prelude to explain why any production of this play would struggle to make me love the three hours of watching it. I appreciate it, of course, but you will still need to rub my back in the last hour as I suffer in the 'endless stagnation of my own existentialist crisis'.
Andrew Upton has given 'Waiting for Godot' a damn red hot go and previous director, Tamas Ascher, who had to pull out of the show, is not missed in this interpretation. Upton has earned his stripes and does great justice to Beckett's masterpiece. If you love this play, you won’t be disappointed. If you struggle with this play, you won’t be disappointed. If you hate this play, why on earth would you go and see it in the first place? It would be like getting teeth pulled.
Roxburgh is superb in his physicality and comic timing and ability. I had forgotten how masterful he is in regards to stage presence and he steals this show. Add in Weaving's strong performance, they are a powerhouse partnership and there is a dynamic energy and synergy between them. Philip Quast’s Pozzo, especially as oppressor, was also terrific and Luke Mullins, the only man to have had more work on stage this year than Toby Schmitz, is utterly transformed and transfixing. The cast bring it home.
Zsolt Khell’s set design, originally conceived with Ascher, of browns and blacks in the rubble of this post-apocalyptic world that also pays homage to the run-down theatre of its time is another chance to comment on art and life as indistinguishable. Alice Babidge’s threadbare and worn costumes are as depressing as the play itself and Nick Schlieper’s lights never make us feel comfortable as the state makes day grind into hours before hitting night and disappearing back into day so quickly. It’s like my heart-rate lowers, life has ebbed into a painful chore and relief never comes. Add the underscore of the discordant sound design of Max Lyandvert and I am completely immersed in the misery of this world.
The play feels longer than it needs to be and we were all warned via email days before the show that the advertised 2 hours and 30 minutes was closer to 3 and honestly, I desperately needed it to end. I saw the first preview, which was already a polished and professional outing, and I imagine they will shave a bit of time off it throughout the season and if they don’t, go with it- that’s the spirit of the play after all. And as I stated earlier, this is my crisis in the crisis of the play’s crisis. It is not the production. It fulfils all you'd want from this play.
If you’ve never seen a production of ‘Waiting for Godot’, this is a strong, faithful and appropriate production. Roxburgh and Mullins are incredible but they are all substantial and talented in this cast. If this play can be enjoyed, this is the production to see. Then have a very stiff drink post-show and maybe a massage.
Monday, 11 November 2013
I saw Michelle Pastor perform her show, ‘Spoil Your Love Life’ on Saturday night at The Newsagency, Marrickville. It’s a tiny converted space opposite Enmore Park that allows a very small audience to fill a room. It's also aided by the kindergarten-size chairs for the audience and the narrow performing space.
Pastor has experimented with this show over the last few years. It had one incarnation at the Tamarama Rocksurfers Homebrew in 2011 and did a tour of the Adelaide Fringe in 2013. Essentially the show can be summarised as a married woman locking herself in the bathroom to escape the kids and the monotony of her marriage so she can fantasise about being swept off her feet by Hugh Jackman. Of course most of those scenarios then seem to involve a series of failed attempts to find happiness with him and with Pastor’s character falling down in the street, humiliated. For me, the idea of a fantasy seems to involve a happy ending, in every sense. What a pity that her fantasies seem to involve failure and rejection.
It’s quite a polished show and does have some nice moments. It pumps out a few show tunes, there’s some interaction with the musician and there’s an opportunity to dress her up in an audience-devised toilet paper dress and cotton wool confetti. The problem isn’t the skill of the performer, it is the tired old material.
The show raised a question that concerns me and it may seem strange after my most recent review on the feminist piece playing at the Ensemble, but why do so many women devise material around the pursuit of a man, marriage and subsequent lack of fulfilment? Is this our narrative? Is this our sole purpose in life? How many men engage in parallel stories? I can’t think of many solo-male shows that are primarily about finding the perfect girl, unless it’s tongue-in-cheek to highlight a hypocrisy and hyper-sexualised perception of the opposite sex and how unrealistic they are in finding what they’re looking for. Men seem to have stories about surviving addiction, beating the system, jumping obstacles, or about identity, growing up, avoiding growing up, etc but it is generally not about women. Women are not the focus of their narratives. No more will I sit in the audience, watching women do shows about men and their desperate need to find some sort of elusive happiness by securing the romantic notion of fulfilment through love.
Speak to a man and you’ll be lucky if he even tells you he’s got a family. To him it just doesn’t seem relevant. It's incidental and not a note-worthy achievement. I once did this series of intense personal acting classes with this guy where we spoke about the death of our parents, our deepest fears and hopes, etc and it was ages before it was revealed he was married with kids and only when a mutual friend told me. How does that not come up in conversation, I thought? For men, marriage seems part of a story but it does not define them. Why can’t women embrace the same?
I’m generalising but the point is this: if women make men the focus of their stories in expressing that our ultimate quest or focus should be in securing a man, that’s sad. In the case of this show, if the focus is that even he can’t make you happy and clearly we can’t find happiness within ourselves, that’s worse. What frustrates me is this is the story we constantly tell. Where are the narratives about women overcoming adversity, about our successes, failures, achievements, impressions, etc that don’t involve trying to get married or make a man the focus of it? And by implication, what are we saying to our girls about what it means to be our sex and what power are we endowing to men if we are always telling them that they are the key to our happiness?
I do not want to sit through another one-woman show about singledom, marriage and misery. Instead let me see your show about your quest to be the first star ship captain, your pathetic record of ski injuries, fighting the local government development plan- anything but looking for love in all the wrong places.
To finish, ‘Spoil Your Love Life’ was perfectly adequate but maybe you can find or devise material that excites you and your audience and fills the house. After three years, if this material hasn’t done that for you yet, let it go.
Friday, 8 November 2013
Gina Gionfriddo’s play is deserving of its selection as a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for many reasons. Firstly, it’s tapped into a real currency of topic about feminism, violence, promiscuity and pornography. Secondly, it nails the existentialist dilemma for women of career or family. Thirdly, it explores the mother and child relationship and its own crisis of identity and finally, it explores loss and discovery- of love, of idealism and of our finite existence.
They say (well, I’ve been known to say) that good material will do most of the work for you and this is excellent material. I’ve just taken a fruitless search into trying to buy the script online so I can enjoy it all over again, highlight sections and start posting them on Facebook to annoy my friends. Lucky for director Sandra Bates that she chose well in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’ and generally cast it well and then shaped it so it could do its work.
It truly is a joy to watch a play that entertains as it informs. I’m certainly now more educated on feminist theory and the parallels of horror films to the women’s movement and the division of feminism in regards to pornography and even though the play is contrived into lessons to nut out all this theory, it cleverly weaves this into the developing and changing relationships of the women and man of the play. The theories of women at work versus women at home are a bit hackneyed and cliched but it does allow for the play to take us somewhere different in the second half that puts it all into perspective.
There were a few times when I thought the play had enormous resonance for me in its dialogue and banter. I guess as an orphaned, childless, unmarried woman in her 40’s (otherwise known as a bitter barren old spinster) some of the lines in regards to “no-one will love you like your mother does” and “your life doesn’t begin until your mother dies” are freakishly close to the bone. What becomes apparent as the play progresses is that for many women, mentoring is the new motherhood and this perhaps best describes the relationship between childless protagonist Cathy Croll (Georgie Parker) and Avery Willard (Chloe Bayliss).
What is probably the least sympathetic role is that of Gwen Harper (Anne Tenney) and her husband Don (Glenn Hazeldine). Perhaps if I had kids, the portrayal of the homemaker as a desperate, jealous and controlling manipulator might have angered me. Instead I breathed a sigh of relief that it was not a reflection of me.
The production itself was a faithful rendition of the play. Graham Maclean’s New England styled home got the job done and Bates has played with proxemics in how close the actors got to the audience whilst still maintaining that fourth wall, which didn’t always help sightlines but did allow for interesting dynamics on stage.
But mostly, the cast managed to bring dimensions to these roles, driven by Georgie Parker and especially Chloe Bayliss, who not only got most of the good lines but delivered them with sass and perfect comic timing. It is the insights that her character Avery brings that allow us to identify with her as an audience because the more she learns and the more she sees, the more critical she is of that information and relationship, just as the writer wants us to be. In many ways, she becomes the most mature character on stage by the end of the play.
Diane Craig (Alice Croll) as Cathy’s mother had great moments on stage and the relationship between Craig and Parker was utterly convincing as mother and daughter. Hazeldine’s Don was a terrific portrayal of the middle-aged lost boy who not only fails to live up to his potential and by having a wife who is thoroughly disappointed in him, he doesn’t have to be disappointed in himself. He can be the poor, hard-done-by, nagged husband. He can be viewed as the victim and our sympathies then fall with him, which is a fascinating study of gender roles once again.
It was only Anne Tenney who I thought didn’t deliver as strongly as the others. I felt her journey never quite rung true on stage and her character was slightly over-played in expression, accent and timing and therefore came off as contrived.
However, I’d happily sit through this play again for the writing alone and for women everywhere, this should be mandatory viewing. Maybe take your men folk too and dive into a history of feminist theory and gender relationships discussion post-show if you can.
Wednesday, 30 October 2013
‘Romeo and Juliet’ opens to a montage of youthful hedonism butting its head up against reckless conflict on a grand and elaborate set and revolving stage, accompanied by an exciting contemporary soundtrack. Wow. Seriously. Wow. It’s rare that in the very first moments of a play you could get me to sit up and feel like I’ve been awakened to a brand new interpretation of Shakespeare but Kip Williams’ direction of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, especially in the first half, was a liberating theatrical experience of the destructive power of living in the extremity of the present moment. I was swinging on that chandelier all the way until interval.
I loved it so much I went twice (to see the first half but more of that later). STC’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a visual feast and the play’s mood, tone and themes were captured beautifully in Williams’ production. This show felt young and fresh. What we see is youth and privilege in an aimless environment finding distraction in stimulants, sex and violence. Try to set it some boundaries and suddenly there’s something to aim for- breaking and pushing those same boundaries (don’t fight, don’t disobey, don’t go to that party…). It perfectly captured a youth culture that lives for the now. What do I feel right now? What do I want right now? Who do I want right now? There is no future to plan for, no consequences to consider and as you’d expect from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, that is at the core of the tragedy.
Seeing Benvolio (Akos Armont) and Mercutio (Eamon Farren) careen with their trolley of alcohol, provoke a fiery Tybalt (Josh McConville) and making it all so active and visceral as we dance around David Fleisher’s imposing and ostentatious set of the Capulet estate, was a beautiful image. Dialogue was redundant. Williams’ pastiche captures the moment and, like a film, we pan around each vignette through the revolve to feel the intimidation and trappings of wealth and then we’re left with intimate moments for our characters in the space left behind, outside the home.
Fleisher’s set also brilliantly serves as multiple layered spaces that extend the opulence and meaning, such as the huge squash game between Capulet (Colin Moody) and Paris (Alexander England), the party scene, Juliet’s (Eryn Jean Norvill) bedroom, the balcony, and Friar Laurence’s (Mitchell Butel) garden and chambers. The comedy of Juliet in disguise as the Nurse (Julie Forsyth) trekking towards her wedding to Romeo (Dylan Young) was another delightful montage as she encounters each character and several double-takes, just like us in the audience, re-looking at the expected as something entirely new. We see the transience of each moment of the play for its characters and it is underscored with a soundtrack of bass lines and percussion. Ah to be young and invincible again.
Of course, the second half takes us somewhere else and suddenly we get serious and lose the energy and vitality of the first half. Whilst the first half is all party, love, hope and playfulness, the second half is doom and gloom and we feel the slowness of pace and rhythm and the buzzing electricity fizzles into middle-age and damned consequences very quickly. The second half feels like it needs an edit as it takes a bex and has a good lie down. It’s inherent in the script but I wish Williams found a way to keep it more alive and active, which he finds in the very end but we’ve already put our shoes back on, started calculating our monthly grocery bill and are ready to go. The first half is visual. The second half is dialogue. The first half is new. The second half is Shakespeare, if you know what I mean.
However, for the first half alone, I hope you see this show if you haven’t already. Norvill’s Juliet is exceptional and the boys of the Montague clan are a lovely triumvirate of energy who own the stage and banter with ease. These boys act as if they've known each other for years and there is a natural chemistry that exudes between them. McConville’s Tybalt (knocked out with a knee injury the first time I saw it, which just seems wrong for the King of Cats) is as ferocious as you’d expect and Moody’s Capulet and Anna Lise Phillips’ Lady Capulet are a perfect example of juxtaposing positions of power and wealth. Forsyth’s Nurse is a terrific comedic vehicle for the actress and she ‘milks that baby’ for all its worth. She minces in a world that strides and runs and we love her pretensions and protestations.This is a strong cast and for a play whittled down to ten characters, it feels appropriate in this contemporary interpretation.
It is obvious that Williams has experience directing opera because there is something epic about this interpretation and design. Williams’ youth is also a drawcard. He taps into something raw and real in youth culture and I recognised these characters and personalities as self-gratifying privilege left to fester.
Technically, the show is masterful. Even Fleisher’s costumes are inspired and although I've made no mention of Nicholas Rayment's lighting, I love the use of his small light in the big space as destiny creeps in from the dark. Williams, crew and cast have outdone themselves and if not for the second-half blues, I would have kept returning to the show like one of those crazy theatre stalkers but that last hour was too much. Too too much. Until then, I’m grabbing the trolley of grog, an inflatable balloon and pretending I’m about 30 years younger than what I am.
Hurrah for giving me something exciting, even if you couldn’t sustain it. I’ll take it and run with it.
Tuesday, 29 October 2013
Imagine what the plane trip back from that fateful day in Dallas almost 50 years ago must have been like- Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson sharing the presidential suite with the coffin of John F Kennedy. One woman recognising that her life is irrevocably changed just as one man faces the same dilemma. But for Jackie Kennedy, as a woman, wife and mother, who is she without her famous philandering and powerful husband and for Johnson, he must now become the man to rule the country but is marked by his own invisibility and uncertainty. Both are haunted by the ghost of JFK and neither are sure how to emerge from his substantial shadow.
In Bakehouse’s production of Ron Elisha’s play ‘Love Field’, now showing at the Tap Gallery, we are witness to a possible conversation (admittedly, all fiction but lots to ponder) between Jackie Kennedy (Lizzie Schebesta) and Lyndon Johnson (Ben Wood). Director Michael Dean has transformed this tiny space, designed by Nick Plummer and Suzanne Millar, into an intimate Air Force One journey with our two characters. Whilst there were times I felt the relationship and scenario felt a bit contrived- Jackie’s blood soaked outfit, some mixed accent work and the phone calls to Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife pushed the friendship a little too far, there is a great chemistry between Schebesta and Wood that made me believe in the relationship and this is what the play hinges on. These two actors breathe life into this short imagined scenario.
This is a play of possibilities set in a crucible of catastrophe. There is something commanding about the sheer physical presence of Johnson and Wood manages to also find Johnson’s crippling self-doubt. The moments where we see him thrust into JFK’s jacket is reminiscent of Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk all rolled into one uncomfortable and reluctant hero. Johnson cannot wear the loved mantle of his predecessor and the implication is that perhaps leadership will not ‘fit’ him. Schebesta’s Jackie Kennedy contrasts this with her need to support and mother, like a First Lady might, in conflict with the fact that she no longer serves in this role. There are also moments where anger boils because whilst she could forgive Kennedy's sins, she cannot forgive his departure. She is in a man’s world and her currency is only in how she can complete the picture and serve her master, now gone. Behind every good man and all of that. This is reiterated in the confusion of who sits where in the executive suite now that their roles have changed.
Of course there is some romantic intrigue between them in Elisha’s play and this gives a new context to the real phone recordings played at the end of the show as well as the projections that sometimes interrupt the action and it is a credit to director and cast that make us want it to be true, even though we imagine there’s very little truth in it at all. There is a longing and desire that underpins their relationship. He represents a steady monotony and she represents an intelligent and beautiful counterpart.
The undercurrent of plane noise from sound designer James Colla and the stark brightness of lights from Christopher Page add to the frenzied tension of events and even when the stage is still or characters don’t speak, we understand that the buzz of circumstance is ever-present.
‘Love Field’ is a short excursion as far as what it requires of you in time and effort but it is a polished and thought-provoking play and audience seemed to exit satisfied. I know I was.
Friday, 25 October 2013
I had heard only positive reports about Simon Stone’s ‘Hamlet’ and so I was actually excited to see this show, particularly as I have seen so many variations of ‘Hamlet’, starting with my own university days working in the production crew and partaking in Shakespeare’s play night after night and it made me swear that it would be a long time between ‘Hamlet’ drinks. ‘Remember me’ it cried and damn it, I did. All too well.
Of course I have also started to warm to Simon Stone in a love/hate relationship. I think the fact that he has been allowed to experiment on the big stage with the most extraordinary of resources and talents at his disposal has given him opportunities no other director of his age has had, the privilege to hone his craft at an audience’s expense. As a result we have witnessed some previous efforts that might best be described as ‘rank and gross in nature’ and it means that now he has started to theatrically and directorially mature, we are seeing a much more sophisticated and controlled Stone.
In fact, what Stone has given us in this ‘Hamlet’ is a perfect example of Epic Theatre’s verfremdungseffekt. In many ways the edits of this script, now down to eight characters and two hours & twenty minutes, he has also edited out much of the emotion and potential catharsis. That isn’t to say that there aren’t examples of ‘emotion’ on stage, it’s just more external and visual rather than internalised realism.
Hamlet himself (Toby Schmitz) gives us all the words and actions of a man in grief and yet I am unmoved and I feel this is deliberate. Stone’s mantra is to ‘listen to every single word’ and in this instance, I’m hearing them very differently from what I might have heard before and I get to think about these words and the ideas of the play in a new way too. Brecht would have been proud. Stone’s choice to have the stage filled with the ghosts of the play is exciting. It does breathe a new context into Hamlet’s lines and madness- we see what haunts him literally before our eyes and not simply implied in Shakespeare’s script. We are inside his dilemma, we witness him chased by his demons and ask, what is he to do? They are demanding justice and he is tied to them whether he wants to be or not (to be). This is an interpretation where seeing it is much more important than feeling it and so whilst you exit the play thinking ‘I didn’t really invest emotionally in this play’, I believe that’s the point. Consideration, not catharsis.
The ‘play within the play’ is now a puppet show manipulated by Hamlet. It’s a clever device of showing Hamlet’s role in exposing Claudius (John Gaden) and offers one of the lighter moments of the play as he straddles from audience to puppeteer and engages the puppets in the rude play we’d expect from a bawdy Shakespearean ensemble and it highlights the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude (Robyn Nevin). Gertrude herself is interpreted as a little fond of the drink, rarely without a cup of wine in hand and it’s easy to see how reliant she is on external stimulation and the will of others. There is some comedy in Polonius (Greg Stone) and he also provided me with one of the only moving parts of the play when he and Ophelia (Emily Barclay) are reunited in death. That I felt. Then I realised, our interest is in not so much the living but more in the dead and we know that Hamlet’s journey must end with joining them.
Ralph Myer’s set adds another layer to Stone’s vision in ensuring that the first half is filled with curtains, hiding spots, shadows and secrets. The second half is Stone’s hallmark white box, full of exposed and heated disarray with nothing hidden- the pressure cooker is on full speed. Benjamin Cisterne’s lights echo Myer’s design, with the first half so dark that it may promote an abnormal enhancement of circadian rhythms but if you can stay awake, the stage looks heavy with grief. The second half then serves as a battleground of scars of Hamlet’s ghosts, actions, loss and life. I should also add that the live music (Luke Byrne and Maximilian Riebl) becomes the soundtrack to this visceral examination of the play’s ideas and so technically, there’s much to admire in this production.
For a show that constantly moves, it’s interesting that it felt so static in my mind- perhaps because I’m engaging in the ideas more than the characters. The ending may have influenced this with the circle of ghosts joining Hamlet even before they’ve been killed and the lines are spoken in trance complete with camel cries of death and song. It is a fascinating ending to focus on what’s lost and not what’s happening and that purgatory is for the living as well as the dead.
I did enjoy Stone’s version of ‘Hamlet’ as a visual spectacle of words and ideas. I did mourn the loss of emotion but only temporarily. The power was in the way the show resonated long after seeing it.
‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’.
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
On Sunday I headed into The Rocks as part of the Pop-Up Festival and only slightly distracted by the markets, I caught Outrageous Fortune’s ‘Dinner and a Show’, playing until October 27th at 37 George St.
‘Dinner and a Show’ is the creation of a group of young artists who wanted to devise and perform theatre that young people would like to see and sought to challenge the idea that theatre is more than a traditional passive audience experience. With that in mind, ‘Dinner and a Show’ uses the convention of processional theatre where each room is set up as a different show that you move to at will and interact with over the course of the hour, some much more interactive than others.
For instance, after being welcomed by the maître die, Bendeguz Devenyi-Botos and waitress (and director) Ava Karuso, we were lead into a room entitled N.U.T.S, a self-help group where allergic reactions are merely manifestations of fear and we are all coached into reciting mantras and affirmations in regards to our fear of cashews. The real treat is that in each room, as the title would suggest, you are also supplied with food and so we left N.U.T.S with a cup full of peanut brittle. Anaphylaxis be damned, we were cured.
I was then personally guided out to the veranda where I was sat at the table of my ‘date’ for the evening, Paul Musumeci and we (by we, I mean me) engaged in series of tests to see whether I was his perfect match in his ‘Paul Musumeci’s Love Quest’ as I ate my way through our chocolate engagement cake. Things went awry when I tried to slice his hand open with the plastic knife (don’t ask me to role play- I will embrace it a little too readily) and so I left our date and headed off to see the ‘Doctor’ James Hartley as part of his performance of ‘The Cure’. For the record, liquid sugar solves most problems.
I then ventured out to the courtyard and saw Lillian Shaddick engulfing the table, filled with a feast of treats and was asked to ‘Feed Her’, the challenge to see how much and what combination of foods I would like to feed her. Maternal instincts kicked in and I did try to force her to snack on the vegetables.
The final show I caught was ‘You Can’t Tune a Piano’ performed by Patrick Richards, who cooked us a creamy tuna pasta dish whilst telling us his weight loss story. I missed ‘Morning Breakfast Hello’ but there was certainly plenty of choice on offer throughout the one hour experience.
‘Dinner and a Show’ would be a really fun experience to take your kids to- it’s family friendly and would especially appeal to the 10-14 year olds who would delight in its interactive and sweet temptations on offer. The portability of shows and experiences means that you are free to come and go as you wish and only involve yourself as much as you desire but certainly, a young audience would appreciate the active nature of the show.
The material itself has a way to go to appeal to a broader market- it does feel juvenile and underdeveloped in some regards but it doesn’t take away from the good-natured sense of the show and even old cynics like me appreciated the risk-taking involved by the performers (um- hello- I tried to slice Musumeci’s hand open- you don’t know what your audience will do). The performers had lots of energy, even if they haven't yet honed their skills.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly interactive experience in a great city location (I went Sunday for lunch so I could shop at the markets after), why not check out ‘Dinner and a Show’ for something different.
Sunday, 13 October 2013
Noel Coward wrote as if words slipped effortlessly off the tongue, slicing through all in its path and wit was used as a weapon on the witless. He made it look as easy as breathing, his voice coming through loud and clear in every word and I think, because it jumps off the page, there’s a belief that it’s just as effortless to stage. A bit of finery, an accent and off you go.
It’s a trap the New Theatre and director Rosane McNamara fell into in her production of Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’. Coward’s play takes us into the country retreat of the Bliss family and the torture they execute on their visitors in order to find inspiration and satiate vanity. McNamara’s production made Coward look like very hard work. Lines and accents were forced, vocals declaimed and some awkward timing meant that there were holes in the show that even Coward’s words couldn’t fill. Vocal coach Frank McNamara might have suggested that it doesn’t matter what your accent is if you’re yelling each line, especially to actress Jorja Brain (Sorell Bliss), who found no nuance in the many moods of daughter Sorell because every state came off as hysterical more than petulant.
There are a few bright spots in the New’s ‘Hay Fever’. Alice Livingstone, who plays matriarch Judith Bliss, floats onto the stage and once she’s there we feel like the play is in good hands as Livingstone relishes the moments her character indulges in the torment of others and her delusions of self-reverential importance. Some of the ensemble cast, especially those who are the victims of the Bliss family’s humiliation, mostly deliver. It makes the play okay but overall it’s very inconsistent in timing and dramatic language.
David Marshall-Martin’s set might be criticised for lacking in ornate charm but it adds to the idea that this family’s status is more self-serving than dedicated to paying attention to anything in the home, as evidenced in their treatment of housekeeper Clara (Sharron Oliver) and their inability to retain staff. The set filled the deep stage dimensions of the space and I loved all the possibilities of entrances and exits that it created to add to the elements of the farce.
I admire the New’s attempt to tackle ‘Hay Fever’ but it’s still a distance from being perfect. I hope they relax into the text and start to have fun with it on stage so the chunks of uncomfortable silence from the audience won’t send them into a panic and they can truly start working together and really listening to each other. Livingstone is the closest to doing this and the rest need to follow suit pronto in order to do Coward’s work justice.
Friday, 11 October 2013
John Romeril’s play was first performed in 1974. Like many plays of the New Wave era, there’s a sense you’re about to witness lots of the Ocker larrikin with lashings of sexist and racist behaviour from ignorant, fearful and often uneducated Australian men.
‘The Floating World’ fulfils all of the above but there’s something more to it that helps lift it out of an exploration of male conditioning. What Romeril’s play also delivers is the damaged man from the atrocities of World War II who doesn’t know how to reconcile the suffering of war and forgiveness of the perpetrators in a world where war was more romance than reality and no-one spoke of its torment. Of course, you put our main protagonist, Les (Peter Kowitz) on a cruise to Japan and watch him unravel as his war wounds resurface and sanity becomes tenuous. It gives the play much more bite than just a historical examination of Australia at the time in which it was written.
Stylistically this play also delves into interesting ground. Early on our stage comic (Justin Smith) talks about the ‘death of vaudeville’ and throughout ‘The Floating World’, we see it in practice. The play’s classic vaudeville beginnings become increasingly darker until we find ourselves in Les’ surreal world completely.
Director Sam Strong has cleverly played with the interactive audience elements of 'The Floating World' and puts us front and centre of the awkward comedy and tragedy of this show. I was seated next to several RSL veterans and it was interesting watching their responses to the material that made me think Romeril’s ‘stereotype’ of the Ocker male wasn’t much of a stereotype at all…
The ‘live’ aspect of the play is enhanced by Justin Stewart Cotta’s foley effects at the side of the stage accompanied with overall compositions by Kelly Ryall meant that this play always felt ‘active’ which then makes the juxtaposition of Les’ solo breakdown a powerful statement of what lies beneath the smoke and mirrors. Stephen Curtis’ design of the flashy cruise ship with the exposed fluorescent lights of the rostra made us feel acutely aware of the isolated floating world of Les’ despair in a new world order. Verity Hampton’s lights further explored this notion.
There are many layers to this play and it is unfortunate I went on the first preview night when things weren’t quite in control yet. Dialogue was pushed too fast and too loud so the ideas of the play and the dimensions of character, especially with Howitz, were often lost. This also meant that sometimes the coherence of the story fell away as the rhythm and pace lacked control. Howitz’ big monologue at the end was hit and miss with some really powerful moments and then waves of reciting lines. He just hadn’t nailed it at that time.
But it’s a good ensemble cast and the highlight for me was definitely Valerie Bader as Irene, whose understated skills in comedy and excellent timing hit the mark every time.
I predict this play will go from strength to strength and it’s a pity I didn’t see it later in the run as I think the control issues will (if they haven’t already) be sorted and the play will be a real winner. I was surprised by what I feel is a play that still has such relevance, not only as a piece that promotes a generational understanding but also represents global acts of violence committed and the subsequent silence expected of the victims even today. Take advantage of seeing ‘The Floating World’ and watch a play that manipulates form and style and has plenty of interesting ideas to keep you engaged.
Friday, 27 September 2013
When I was very young my mother took me to see a live production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, playing at the Umina Beach Community Hall. There wasn’t much to do in Umina. I believe there still isn’t but seeing live theatre as a child was an experience that provided much needed joy and excitement. More than that, it allowed me to first enter a world where you can begin to suspend your disbelief. It wasn’t like television or film that can create an absolute ‘real’ world for children (and some adults, truth be known) but can only be enjoyed from the distance behind the screen. Theatre forces you to accept that wearing that planter box really means you are a turtle, even though in three minutes you will be a bird, a snail or whale. Or it makes you believe that dogs can talk or that singing and dancing forest animals are the most natural thing in the world, all in three dimensions.
Theatre for children is one of the important foundations in activating imagination, especially in a society that does it all for you. Now more than ever is when you should give your children the opportunity to enter that world of make-believe and thoroughly entertain them and you in the process.
It was a delight to sit with my six-year old companion Emily and hear her laughter and that of the children around her at the Ensemble’s ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’. This is a polished and professional production with a quality ensemble that took me back to my own childhood love of theatre. It’s a clever and playful show that explores one year with the forest creatures, featuring best friends Frog (Stephen Anderson) and Toad (Jay James-Moody). There’s also terrific little cameos from Snail (Jonathon Freeman), Turtle (Crystal Hegedis) and Mouse (Lizzie Mitchell).
A piece of blue material and bang, I’m in the pond. A few leaves and suddenly, I’m in autumn. A rolled up backpack and zing, you’re a snail. The creativity of Anna Gardiner’s design and Shondelle Pratt’s choreography with Anna Crawford’s direction and musical direction and before you know it, I’m six again and reliving truly wonderful moments of the fantasy of theatre, its catchy songs and dancing, gentle teasing of our idiosyncrasies and a lovely tale of loyalty, friendship and adventure.
Children’s Theatre is often under-rated as an art form but with productions like ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’, there’s no excuse not to go to the theatre and start your children on a love affair with imagination and fantasy whilst teaching them some important moral messages about friendship. There’s colour, spectacle, movement and humour and this cast deliver a professional and engaging show that will please the parents just as much as the kids.
So why not include the ritual of heading off to see a great piece of children’s theatre every school holidays and if you can start with this show, you’re on to a winner.