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.