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Friday 23 December 2011

SOYP's Ultimate Theatre Etiquette Guide

In the season of generosity, I am leaving the artists alone today and instead dedicating this blog to theatre audiences in the vain attempt to teach you all a few lessons in theatre etiquette.

So here’s the 10 point plan on how you can be a better audience member.

1.       Switch off the phone. I mean off. Not just on silent. Not vibrating. Not checking your messages or the time throughout the show because even when you think you are covering the light with your Neanderthal palms, we can still see it. It’s a classic move of pulling focus. You’re upstaging the action and you’re not even on stage. Get out or get that bloody phone off.

2.       Theatre is not a movie. Don’t take your crinkly wrapped snacks in and take what feels like 20 minutes to unwrap it and munch away. The fine line of suspending disbelief is certainly broken by the sound you are making. Eat beforehand or take in a banana and then at least you can throw the peel on stage if it’s a dog of a show.

3.       This one is for the oldies. Do not narrate the action for me during the show. Many a show has gone from realism to Brechtian when the old lady next to me taps me on the shoulder during a scene and tells me that Hedda is “on her honeymoon” or when Paula Arundell in ‘Blackbird’ is in the middle of her emotional monologue to her old lover about his paedophile tendencies and an audience member leans over to her friends and states “Oh that Paula Arundell is an excellent actress” at the top of her voice. Yes she is but now she’s not so engaging because you have broken the spell. A little bit of shush wouldn’t go astray. Oh, and if you suspect you might go to sleep and snore during the show, maybe a) the show’s not so great so give it a miss, b) arrange for someone to wheel you out of the exit or c) take some serious drugs which will not only keep you awake but give you a very interesting perspective of the show.

4.       As an extension of this- for the school students and younger members of the audience- yelling out “you’re hot” will not secure you the actor’s phone number and screaming when the lights go down as if you were in the Roman coliseum waiting for the Christians to be eaten by the lions may suggest you need to get out more or certainly watch less TV. Talking to your friends during the show will be heard and frustrate the rest of the audience and will just reiterate the generational stereotyping that teenagers are annoying, selfish shits. Please don’t give people reasons to dislike you more than they already do.

5.       Stop being so polite at the end of the show when it should inspire a revolt of disgust or appreciation. How about taking on a more European approach to theatre? Booing in the curtain call or rhythmic clapping when it’s wonderful. And can a plant in the audience cue in the audience to clap if you have one of those confusing endings so we all know when it’s time to go home? Also think about not giving ordinary things a standing ovation because you want the actors in the show to see you and get that nod of thanks and acknowledgement or because you are a sycophantic theatre-goer. If it didn’t make your heart stop or take you on a journey that changed your perception of theatre as you knew it, stay seated.

6.       I know it must be hard for parents to keep vestiges of your old life once those babies arrive. Babes-in-arms or mothers club has been a great invention of cinema audiences. However, no such initiative has occurred in theatre yet so really think twice before bringing that baby with you to the show. The sound of a crying baby is not only creating a visceral effect on the audience but I can’t imagine there’s an actor in the world who could stay in character when the sound of a baby permeates the stage. Get a babysitter or sit out in the foyer and demand a live video feed. Never presume that a) your baby will stay asleep during the show or b) when they make sound you can make a beeline for the exit in time. I know this makes me sound like a bitter barren spinster but theatre relies heavily on the actor audience relationship and babies aren’t ready for that journey yet.

7.       The saving a seat policy in those theatres without allocated seating is a tricky beast, especially if you are saving lots of seats. I say take pot luck. If you can’t stick together as a group, you’re on your own buddy. Chances are you have seriously under-estimated the size of 4 bottoms and the whole row are going to suffer as a consequence and if your friends have sent you in as the scout because they want to leisurely make their way up and would rather not be seen with you, this may be very telling of your relationship. Get some friends who will at least enter the theatre with you at the same time and not use you as their personal seat saving assistant. Demand equal status by claiming the best seat, shrug smarmily when they finally grace the space with their presence and let them fend for themselves.

8.       Now let’s talk about personal space. I’m not a big girl and don’t need a whole lot of space but gee, when the person sitting next to me decides to encroach upon my space, watch me grow in my spatial demands. If you’re a fattyboomsticks, I can forgive you up to a point that your needs are a bit out of your control. But it’s the medium-sized space stealers that annoy me the most. Legs sprawling, arm-rest stealers, bags on seats makes me want to hit you. You are not in your lounge room. Here you are expected to share. Stay in your space, buy two seats or at least buy me dinner first if we’re going to get that intimate.

9.       Stop pretending the show was fantastic if you didn’t actually understand it. Admit it was flawed. A great production of a Shakespeare play will transcend and communicate the language and ideas to an audience member who is illiterate, blind or intellectually disabled. A bad production will leave a highly-educated audience member none the wiser. It is the same with all theatre, whether it be physical, mime, epic, absurdist, verbatim, post-modernist, etc. It can be visually engaging but leave you hollow. Stop pretending you enjoyed it because you’re scared people will think you’re an idiot if you say you didn’t get it. At least it will promote some healthy discussion of the arts and their ability to connect and program for their audiences instead of blindly pursuing their own agenda with the same tired old artists.

10.   You know when I said I was going to be kind to the ‘artists’ by leaving them out of this equation? I lied. The last and most important point is to present something to your audience that includes them in the theatrical journey and doesn’t cater just for the director and his two wanking faux-intellectual mates. When your audience leave the theatre mumbling the question “What was that about?” all your visual performance art trickery has not delivered the narrative. Regardless of form & style, most plays still have a message or narrative that need to be delivered, especially in the mainstream. Don’t lose it. Enhance. Start with the text and go from there instead of trying to fit the text into your tricks or you will be in danger of presenting the same performance in each production, regardless of the actual play.

I’m sure you will have more you can add to the list and I encourage you to do so. If we can train our audiences to respect the unwritten contract between actors and audience and each other, hopefully we can get our artists to do the same and become one big happy theatre family.

Monday 19 December 2011

SOYP's 5 Biggest Theatre Fails of 2011

It only seems right on the announcement of the Sydney Theatre Awards of 2011 that I announce what I believe to be the shows we wish we’d avoided during the year. Some of these will come as no surprise if you have been avidly reading my reviews for the last 6 months. Also, there were some shows I thought might be dogs from the start so avoided them (read here shows like No Man’s Land and The White Guard). So here’s the list as I call it:

1.     The Seagull- Belvoir St Theatre. Yes, pretty obvious really. I did see the second preview show so maybe it grew legs but chances are, most legs left at interval and had a very stiff drink to mourn the work of Chekhov, who seemed to have absented himself from Andrews’ interpretation. For more details, read the full review in the backlog. Needless to say, three hours of relentless theatre wank left me with intellectual RSI. On a positive note, it was this show that finally compelled me to start this blog, along with number two…

2.     Baal- STC. This dickfest, in every sense of the word, may have impressed with a wonderful set design and who knew you could recycle stage water? What you can’t do is take a second rate play, get your gear off, play bad heavy metal with banal poetry, swig a bottleneck or two, throw in a bit of badly simulated sex, a few death scenes and expect it to impress anyone. Actors and audience looked uncomfortable and not because there was a stage full of willy but because there was no point to it at all. What sounded good in concept for Simon Stone did not translate to the stage. Boring and pointless.

3.     Zebra- STC. Decent enough concept in Mueller’s play. Impressive naturalistic set by David McKay. Direction by Lee Lewis- questionable- I’m not convinced she gave the text layers in her direction. But what made this play a firm entry into this list was Bryan Brown. There’s a reason Brown hasn’t done a lot of theatre in his long career and I think it’s fair to say that he demonstrated that clearly in this show. Wooden. Did I believe his character at all? No. Did I disengage then from the crux of events that lead me to the climax of the play? You betcha. It was like being promised gourmet fare at an expensive soiree and being served vegemite on a spoon. Brown is so busy playing Australian he forgot to act. Sad for the rest of the cast and for the audience.

4.     Jack Charles v The Crown- Belvoir. I know we are meant to blindly appreciate the staging of Indigenous monologues and there is a long tradition of storytelling within the culture but this was one of those attempts that never hit the mark. There has to be a point when getting a non-acting Indigenous storyteller who unpacks his hard life story on stage, badly, in aimless spatial meanderings, is not an automatic entry to the stage. It was like listening to your grandfather after a few beers retell a story he vaguely remembers from 40 years ago whilst he spins a pot, spins a yarn and then breaks into a bit of karaoke. Enough already. Develop Indigenous writers and expect more from an incredible culture who have so much to give and stop dumbing down offerings and expectations.

5.     Now this one is hard - whilst the four above were pretty easy, the 5th place offering did have some good elements to it. But just by a nose hair, I’m giving 5th place to Loot- STC. I thought the play was dated, the pace and timing made its audience feel like they were watching a bad sitcom more than a farce. Whilst the second half picked up and the boys of the play tried to make this one work, Caroline Craig’s lack of commitment and general lacklustre mincing let this play down. There were more sighs in the audience than laughs. A disappointing outing of Orton’s work.

So there it is- 2011 unwrapped. I’m forcing myself to go to most shows in 2012, even when I sniff disaster so maybe I’ll see you there. Next year I’ll also be on twitter so I can give you updates during the show- I’ll be sure to let you know how to join if you need instant reviews or want to send me vitriol, after all, I am an equal opportunist.

And here’s hoping Belvoir and STC offer more work we can love in 2012.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Arts Radar & Griffin Independent’s The Ugly One, directed by Sarah Giles and dissected by me

It seems Sydney has gone crazy for German playwrights. Marius Von Mayenburg is the latest to get an outing in his play The Ugly One, staged at Griffin theatre and directed by Sarah Giles.

The Ugly One explores the idea of the contemporary obsession with physical appearance in a snappy sardonic 55 minutes. It was nice to see Eden Falk back on stage after the soul-destroying-overkill years of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Ensemble almost had everyone from the Ensemble banished from Sydney forever.

The Ugly One tells the story of a man so ugly, his wife can’t look him in the face but is forced to only address him by looking above his left eye and his boss won’t let him represent the company in public. His ugliness, a surprise to him, forces our intrepid main character to seek out the modern day solution to physical obstacles to success- plastic surgery. With a new beautiful face, he becomes adored, cloned and subsequently we see his personality morph into the new ‘ugly one’. Eden Falk is easy to engage with. He has natural stage presence and we can't help enjoying his bewilderment and eventual vanity.

Sarah Giles does a pretty solid job in bringing this elongated sketch to life and even though I’d say the almost hour of the show felt like it had stretched the premise, Giles and her cast and team make the most of this material and I certainly enjoyed this more than the last thing I saw of Von Mayenburg’s- his collaboration with Benedict Andrews in Moving Target.

What the play does do well and is helped by a solid cast is its ability to capture the rhythm of the play in the firing of quick dialogue like an episode of The West Wing. Stand out performer for me was Jacinta Acevski in her transformational acting, vocal and physical control and expression. But the whole cast are enjoyable and skilled in execution and there is a lovely feel of complicite in the ensemble. The experience of actor Jo Turner probably aided this young cast to hit the beats of the play.

Michael Hankin’s design was certainly interesting in its reflection of the audience space. I’m not sure it really enhanced the play but I did feel like I was attending a workshop with friends and this was heightened by the greeting of the audience by Gig Clarke as we entered.

This is one of those plays you come out saying, ‘that was fun’ but can also be a bit of a throwaway play in its ability to disappear from your consciousness fairly quickly.

But watch out for Sarah Giles. I think she is a director on the rise and I look forward to her other offerings in the future.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Belvoir's As You Like It, directed by Eamon Flack and dissected by me

The word delightful seems appropriate to describe Belvoir’s production of As You Like It. Director, Eamon Flack has done a lovely job in breathing life into Shakespeare’s comedy by playing with space, mood, design and even taking small liberties with the text but completely in keeping with the style of the play. This is a great example of the successful marriage between dramaturg and director in Flack's staging, in what is best described as an engaging performance for his audience and sustaining it all the way through.

The first act of As You Like It opens unconventionally using every entrance and exit as possible and endowing a sense of intimacy with audience, especially when Alison Bell’s Rosalind crosses through one particular row to strike up an awkward flirt with Ashley Zuckerman’s Orlando.  Transforming the space in this way for the court scenes is a clever contrast to the later pastoral scenes using the stage and makes us realise that perhaps we as audience are part of this courtly urban, contemporary (and corruptable) world. This contrast is also found in the rhythms of the play, as the hurried establishing scenes and subsequent banishments of those who are threat to power, like a Labor Party meeting room, seem to fly like a bullet before the neon greenery of Arden explodes, or dare I say ejaculates, onto the stage and the pace suddenly grinds into a rural retreat of relaxation. We seem to hit a real turning point in the play, where a post-coital cigarette wouldn’t go astray as the languid life of the play takes on a new rhythm. Silence is hardly found in that first act and now the beautiful use of it is found throughout the next two Acts until we start to hurtle towards the reveal of disguise and the pace must pick up once again.

There never feels like a moment when Flack and his excellent cast (and I include all of them in this) and creative team are not in control of this play. The doubling up of cast and gender switch are used creatively and appropriately and this play has lent itself to Flack taking comic liberty with this idea. Gareth Davies in that wedding dress is played to great comic effect whereas Shelly Lauman’s Silvius is a much more grounded interpretation. Flack understands the world and style of the play and has not been afraid to explore a contemporary, free-spirited take on Shakespeare’s comedy. Nothing highlights this more than the use of “sheep”, especially on returning from interval and seeing many of the cast dressed in their sheep’s clothing, grazing away and jumping out on unsuspecting audience members, much to the delight of those already in the audience who could fully relish the dramatic irony of what was about to take place. The subsequent shearing of the sheep, returning via a springboard onto the stage and the final entrance of the ‘black’ sheep had us all firmly in the palm of the director’s hands. This was a very clever device and I would defy anyone not to have experienced sheer joy in those moments.

The energy and lightness of the play, including transformations from villains to heroes, all in the name of love, was completely captured in Belvoir’s staging of As You Like It. The music was also a real strength in imbuing mood and style- the soundtrack of the singing and music and composition work of Stefan Gregory was skilfully executed in complementing the mise en scene of the play. Damien Cooper’s manipulation of lighting also aided in capturing the locations and rhythms of the design and settings. By keeping the lights on all the audience initially made us all part of this play and it was a pleasure to be in it and serves as contrast to the steady creep of darkness in later Acts.

Had I seen this play before I crafted my top five picks for the year, As You Like It would have been a contender. I think this production appeals to all ages and you would certainly have to be filled with the spirit of the Christmas Grinch not to have enjoyed it. For those keen to see how you can play with Shakespeare’s comedies and make it current and light, this is a must.

Friday 2 December 2011

Gross und Klein directed by Benedict Andrews and dissected by me

The opening of Gross und Klein, Cate Blanchett’s engaging comic monologue regaling the conversation going on outside her door, using her wonderful manipulation of voice and timing, held the play in great promise. But like all of director’s Benedict Andrews theatrical offerings and German post-modernism, it must go downhill and Gross und Klein was no exception. By the end of this play the almost 3 hour show felt twice as long, as evidenced by the snorting elderly, who had succumbed to sleep and not Blanchett’s star power.

German surrealist literature….well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective. By the end not even the enticement of hearing the actors Q & A or catching another glimpse of Kevin Spacey in the audience was enough to make me want to stay. Benedict Andrews’ art of dragging out time and place, of the excruciating focus of deliberately stretching out every moment until all you can hear is your own breathing, meant that this play was very hard going in the second half. His choice to continually choose works that look at the isolation of people who are cast out as aliens in their own worlds is often played the same in his stylistic surreal interpretations. People may argue that this is what he wants- we’ve covered this before in previous works of Andrews, but I have to ask, if I come out of the play thinking that without Blanchett, that play is a whole bundle of boring and even with her, I just don’t care about what happens, has it really fulfilled me as an audience member. I mean throw me a bone- I still have be invested in the message, even if you don’t want me to empathise with the characters.

There is no disputing that Cate Blanchett is a great actress and this play is clearly a vehicle for her to remind us that she is an accomplished performer. However, I feel like the rest of the cast were dumbed down or abandoned in development in order for Blanchett to only ever be the driver of this show, with the exception of the Dictation scene with Richard Pyros, whose comic abilities were at least allowed to flourish in the byplay with Blanchett.  For such a large ensemble it felt like they were all bit players in a one man (or woman) show and most of the cast looked as disinterested as I was in the end.

The set design by Johannes Schutz was problematic. Perhaps partly that is the space of Sydney Theatre that allows for the epic and yet I think this play called for intimacy. Perhaps it is because he was designing from another country and didn’t get to feel for the space and its design needs. The most confusing part was the Ten Rooms scene as the audience were left to wonder whether these entrances were into different rooms or the same room in the passing of time encompassing the routine of daily drudgery. I didn’t mind the repetition- I just felt the coherence was lacking.

Oh…and the glass box. Seriously? Again? Is there no other theatrical metaphor Andrews can use to show isolation and observation? Please refer to my previous Bingo cards and tick that one off the list. These days I think Andrews is so predictable that the only element of surprise I might possibly have that I could never anticipate in one of his shows is to actually enjoy it.

The second half of Gross und Klein stalls like Andrews trying to discuss his own vision and that’s what kills it in the end. There feels like a serious need for editing and that reinforces my previous points about the play’s rhythm and pace. Gross und Klein needed a sophisticated manipulation of interpretation- I wonder how it would have fared under the original director Luc Bondy?

Just one final sledge before I go. Robert Menzies. Now I’m all for suspending disbelief but if you seriously expect me to accept that Lotte’s obsession with her husband Paul can be encapsulated in Menzies, you’re delusional. Menzies range is limited and thus characters played by him suffer from a lack of dimensions and complexity. If Lotte’s spiral is connected to her relationship with Paul, we are in some serious danger of dismissing the play’s journey even before it starts.

So if you haven’t seen Blanchett in action, really this is the only reason you would go to see Gross und Klein. If you have, well, I’d suggest there are better ways to spend your time and money. And my advice to German writers- lighten up people. You are in some serious need of joy.

Monday 28 November 2011

The SOYP Top 5 Sydney Theatre Experiences 2011

I’ve made no secret about the shows that got my knickers in a knot this year so let’s take a tiny moment and reflect on what the Sydney theatre scene has presented in 2011 that made me glad to be at the theatre. Here’s my top 5 shows (so far):

1.       Terminus. STC. You can read my full review in previous entries but essentially what I loved about this show, staged at the Drama Theatre, was the vivid, evocative writing that catapulted my imagination into these three interconnected stories.  The immense performance skills of the actors to engage me through their complete commitment in deconstructing their stories, without the need for contrived dramatic action, makes it a clear winner. A polished, professional and engrossing show.

2.       Speaking in Tongues. Griffin. Andrew Bovell, one of Australia’s best playwrights, proves that his writing rarely dates. The beautiful weave of duologues, played in multiple roles by an exceptional cast and directed by Sam Strong still hits its mark 15 years since its debut. I love Griffin’s rationale- put on emerging and landmark Australian works, such as Lachan Philpott, Jane Bodie, Patricia Cornelius, Sue Smith et al. Bovell’s manipulation of form and text proves he is a master-craftsman at what he does and Griffin is one of the most crucial companies in exploring local works and deserves more recognition from government and arts funding.

3.       Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Belvoir. Yes, it hasn’t all been roses this year from Belvoir but they got the formula right with this seminal Australian play. Embroiled in scandal before its debut, with the last minute retrenchment of Luke Ford as Johnny Dowd, the design, direction and beauty of this play breathed its way again onto the stage, as fresh as the air coming through the exposed window onto the street. Sure, I wasn’t completely convinced by the paralysed physicality and constant tension of Steve Le Marquand as Roo and Yael Stone’s Bubba pursued the bounce like a lazzi out of control and needed a thumping as the season went on, but I forgive it because most of the time it got it right and I was thoroughly engaged. Susie Porter, Helen Thomson, TJ Power, Dan Wylie and Robyn Nevin were outstanding. Once again, a special mention to Nevin. The lady could kill you with one lashing of her tongue but my god, she can act.

4.       The Dark Room. Belvoir Downstairs. This was a close tie with They Called Him Mr Glamour. There is an intimacy of space in this small but beautifully designed theatre that allows you as audience to connect with these powerful works. The Dark Room, written by Angela Betzien and directed by Leticia Caceres came out of nowhere and slammed you into the wall and held you there for the entirety of the show. I was completely transported into the remote world of the outback and the abject despair that comes from living in a place the rest of the country neglects. The characters dug their way into your consciousness and even now, weeks later, still knock at my temples for recognition. I was in that room with them and am complicit in their actions. Superb acting, writing and direction. We haven’t seen the last of this play.

5.       The Laramie Project. Riverside. Amateur company, Chalkdust Theatre, deserves a special mention in their staging of this verbatim piece about the gay hate crime of Matthew Sheppard. I didn’t love this play when it was first staged by Belvoir some years ago but Chalkdust and director Jonathan Llewellyn found nuance and intent and their control in performance and form and it was beyond what I have seen many professional companies do this year. This one took me by surprise and has earned its place in the top five. The stalling opening of actors preparing for their roles was perhaps the only choice that marred what was an otherwise excellent production. This also serves as a reminder that there is a wealth of talent outside of the mainstream and for those who are overlooked by the big guns, get out there and tell the stories that excite you.

So although I’ve seen some shows this year that made me want to set Chopper loose with a loaded weapon on stage, it’s worth reflecting on what’s out there that makes it a pleasure to go to the theatre. It is a pity I missed Threepenny Opera and Bloodland as I have heard great things and no doubt they would have given the list a shake up.

I’m also challenging theatre patrons to go and see productions outside of the mainstream. Check out Griffin, Darlinghurst Theatre, Seymour’s Reginald Theatre, Belvoir Downstairs, the Old Fitz- see what’s on around Sydney and think twice before taking out thousand dollar subscriptions with the top dogs. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
And for those who hate the foray into happy critic, don't worry. The hit list of bottom 5 will be finding its way into a post by the year's end, I promise!

Sunday 27 November 2011

God's Ear presented by Pursued By A Bear & dissected by me

Kudos to independent theatre for taking on interesting work and bringing it to the stage. ‘God’s Ear’, written by Jenny Schwartz and presented by Pursued by a Bear at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre and under the direction of Jonathan Wald is a surrealistic journey into loss and relationships.

This would not have been an easy play to stage- the linguistic complexities, the heavy subject matter, the stylistic challenges interwoven with an occasional break into song doesn’t always work but for the most part, this play is a pleasant break from tradition.

The opening is a hard ask for any actor, to jump into revealing the death of her son to her husband and although Natasha Beaumont made a good fist of it, she didn’t quite master it. Consequently, it took about 15 minutes to completely commit to the play and the play didn’t fully come to life until Julian Garner’s Ted and Helen O’Leary’s Lenora stole the show with their drunken grab for intimacy and escape. A special mention of O’Leary’s portrayal. It was clear the audience loved every moment.

Having said that, Beaumont’s character of Mel doesn’t offer the same chance of comic dimensions as she is trapped in the grief of a mother that cannot reconcile past and present. There is a some lovely interplay between Cameron Knight’s Guy and Garner's Ted, and engaging vignettes from Kieran Foster, Victoria Greiner and Gael Ballantyne to explore the repetitive text and deliver it with nuance and meaning. Greiner’s role of 8 year old Lanie is always going to be tough for an adult actor to make believable but Schwarz’ dialogue gives Lanie a voice that Greiner presented with energy.

Schwartz’ play is an experiment of form and her manipulation of language is the strongest element. The brief foray into song feels like it was a stream of consciousness choice that probably should have been cut in the editing process but overall, Wald can be happy with his choices in casting and direction. The play with proxemics may have been an obvious choice in exploring Ted and Mel’s relationship but the warmth of the ending made it worthwhile.

If you get a chance to catch this play before it closes, do. It’s worth a viewing.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

BATSHIT Bingo- The Ultimate Benedict Andrews Bingo Cards

Need something to amuse yourself during the tedious hours of any Benedict Andrews production? Welcome to:


Playing is easy and free! Simply use your card to keep track of all the elements typically seen during a Benedict Andrews production. If any item listed on your card comes into use, just cross it off.

If you can cross off any row across, down or horizontally, YOU’VE GOT BATSHIT BINGO!

Be sure to let the audience know!



Got the idea…you can add to your table by inserting 4 of your own BATSHIT (Benedict Andrews Theatrical Show Intellectualised Tricks) items below to complete your bingo set.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Loot & STC's 2011, dissected by me.

Oh dear. Clunkety clunk clunk. The first half of STC’s production of Orton’s ‘Loot’ has the pace of a Cliffy Young shuffle in what needs to be a Usain Bolt sprint.

Partly the problems with this play are due to some of the dated shock value. There was a time it relied on the 1960’s conservative backlash & outrage at the issues of promiscuity, homosexuality, police corruption with a bit of murder on the side. Now, well, it’s the bread and butter of Channel 9 programming so it’s hard to be indignant. In fact, if it doesn’t come with a lot of titty action, it feels decidedly old fashioned.

The other big issue in this play is Caroline Craig. I hate to say it but she was like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Complete lack of commitment to role, inability to capture the rhythm of the play and looked bored, reflecting my own expression, for the entire show. Craig was a mincing piece of dialogue in a funny accent, devoid of character or energy. And given she has to drive the first half, the whole play stalled, much to the dismay of a fine cast as those boys did their best to compensate for her efforts.

The second half picked up a bit as McConville, Zappa, Gilshenan & Jones took a bigger role in the play’s denouement. But it was no surprise to hear the audience bemoan a lack of engagement in the action of the play, especially as the play was so reliant on physical humour, timing and wit.

This play is symptomatic of STC’s entire programming this year. One big yawnsville. And I can’t even blame Andrew Upton’s direction. I’m still getting therapy from last year’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into the Night That Never Bloody Ends’.

So let’s do a year in review of the boring turn out of STC’s year…

’In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play’ quite a promising start. Strong female cast and good writing.

‘Zebra’- Bryan Brown turned this play into a wooden casket, threw it into the fire and cremated any promise it ever had. Possibly the gong for the worst acting I have seen so far this year.  It didn’t matter who else was in the show- you can’t act against a tree.

‘Baal’- well, you’ve read my review. Pretentious piece of pooh.

‘Terminus’. Imported from overseas. Thank God.

‘The White Guard’. Who cares?

‘Edward Gant’. Missed everything to draw the pieces together and make this play work.

‘Blood Wedding’- suicided in the second half.

‘Threepenny Opera’. Actually heard this was good and Perfect was perfect & when Capsis hit his stride, also great.  Sorry I missed it.

‘Bloodland’, ‘No Man’s Land’ & ‘Gross and Klein’ yet to hit the stage but let me pre-empt my feelings on a couple of those. If I see John Gaden and Peter Carroll in one more show, I’m going to hurt someone. So to put them both together is double the torture. I will pluck out my eyes and throw one at each of them if I am trapped watching that show. And I so wanted to see Pinter’s play but you couldn’t pay me to do that to myself.

As for ‘Gross & Klein’, I was looking forward to it too…and then they appoint Benedict Andrews as director when Luc Bundy dropped out. BYO neon lights and incongruous German references in an Australian context. Don’t forget to take your BATSHIT bingo cards, available online soon. I’m hoping as he wasn’t able to import his creative team and cast the play that it might survive the BATSHIT experience. We’ll see…

So if ‘Loot’ is still showing when this review goes up, don’t bother. Go and see what’s showing at Griffin instead. You’ll pay half as much and get twice as much engagement.

Monday 3 October 2011

Belvoir's 2012 program, dissected by me

Firstly, I have to ask, has Belvoir been taken over by the faux-bearded, cardigan-wearing, soy-skinny-latte-drinking, 20+ something set?

I mean, please...why is it that every classic play needs to be re-written so a contemporary audience will understand it? How stupid do they think we are? Seneca, Euripides and Eugene O'Neill are getting their work overhauled by Simon Stone and others in 2012 after Ibsen and Chekhov got hammered this year. And if next year's works reflect this year's reworks, as an audience you can expect to be left out of the equation altogether. After all, we are philistines who wouldn't understand the resonance of the classics in the modern world and should just move our antiquated arses aside for the new breed who are deep inside the belly of the common man, man. Right. And nothing says common man like Myers, Stone, Andrews et al and their intellectualised tirade of barely coherent, socially inept unpacking of the season at the launch. I only hope Myers can direct better than he can speak in public.

It seems ironic that the best work Belvoir will stage in 2011 is Armfield's direction of 'Summer of the Seventeenth Doll', a beautifully crafted seminal piece of Australian work by a man who knows the integrity of the work, when to manipulate it and when to leave it alone. The boys of Belvoir don't seem to be able to keep their hands off it.

Never underestimate the willingness of your audience to engage in sophisticated work, whether it be contemporary or classical. Just stop performing for what entertains you and start thinking about your audience. There are times I wanted to smash a brick through your fourth wall and hurt somebody with the trite on offer but it would have bounced back from the perspex wall and clobbered me on the head and I figured you'd already done that with the work in the first place.

So, apart from the re-written classics, what am I concerned about in the 2012 season? Well, Benedict Andrews writing and directing this year. I won't be needing to ingest any metamucil that week. It'll be flowing straight out of the glass box, past the raining ash and pissing itself up the wall, joined by the money I've just forked out to watch it. Don't expect to understand the production. Only the faux-bearded set and their entourage will get it (or pretend to) and you'll be made to feel like an idiot or a relic of the boomers or even generation x if you question it and the critics will wank all over it and you will ask yourself, 'Is it just me? Did I just not get it?'. Answer: no but thanks for your $60.

I will be developing the ultimate Benedict Andrews bingo cards to take to his shows from now on so at least you can amuse yourself by crossing off the Benedict Andrews Theatre SHows Intellectualising Tricks (BATSHIT). I will expect calls of Bingo to be heard in every show. You can't imagine my horror at discovering Luc Bundy was replaced by Andrews for STC's Gross & Klein this year so I can only imagine how the cast felt. Profound disappointment I would think.

Ralph Myers will be making his mainstage directing debut with Coward's 'Private Lives'. If he leaves Toby Schmitz to just do his thing and leaves Coward's work in tact, the show should take care of itself and no doubt he will direct it to maximise his set. I'm sure it'll be fine but I have to ask, how indulgent is it of Myers to have as much of the cake as possible? I'm sure if he could star in all the roles as well, he would.

Simon Stone. Writing, directing, wanking. Need I say more? Sometimes aided by Chris Ryan. Put me in a pension home now.

Death of a Salesman. OK. I'll go but gee, I'll be glad when this text gets a little rest. Didn't Ensemble only do this play a few years ago? I thought they made a good fist of it. Time to get it off the HSC text list so we can look at Miller's other plays. And I hope Colin Friels enjoys this one more than the last play, 'Zebra', he did with Bryan Brown at STC. It was sleepwalking on stage. He is capable of such great work but if he smells a stinker or is acting against a piece of wood, you won't see his magic on stage, it'll be dead man walking.

Lucy Guerin getting another shot. Nice. But the pressure is on to make sure we see theatre in the dance a little more this time.

There's a couple of Indigenous plays. Check. A few contemporary works, devised from community projects that will feature downstairs. Check.

So, in summary- positives may be the great amount of local works being staged. Negatives may be the people who are staging them. All I know is this, I've sent in my subscription and am taking a chance on every show (with bingo cards in hand) so you can look forward to more blogging happening next year.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Griffin's 'Smashed' directed by Clare Watson & dissected by me

This short play, showing at the Stables Theatre and directed by Clare Watson is a reproduction of the first staging of the play in 2005.

Watson refers to the collaborative approach to creating this work and the play does exude that sense of ensemble, sometimes at the expense of polish or coherence. But having said that, I found some of the moments of the play interesting, such as the idea that friends live in our memory and even when they don’t exist in our lives anymore, they still have impact in our choices, actions and future.

I enjoyed the non-linear approach to narrative in exploring the relationships between characters. This is a hard technique to pull off and it didn’t always work but kudos to writer Katz for the attempt and using it to question our own accuracy in recalling events and the stream of consciousness and triggers of our own memory.

This production brought back memories for me too- I thoroughly enjoyed the trip into 80’s music, especially Toto’s ‘Africa’.  There’s nothing like the 80’s to make you reminisce about your own past and those who impacted in our lives and paths.

I liked Miller’s set that attempted to crystallise the ideas of the play- model dollhouses representing places and times past as well as youthful innocence and the notion of looking into our lives as ‘grown’ outsiders. It was visually interesting and even though the set wasn’t fully realised in the play’s direction, it did give moments for the actors to interact with their memories in this small rough stage space.

Actors Suzannah McDonald and Katherine Tonkin showed skill in breathing life into these characters. The farmyard horror stories were a highlight, as was the ending of stripping off Hazel’s costume and ‘leaving it by the road’- a lovely directorial decision to impact Hazel’s end and Ruby’s grief. I will say that 6 years ago when these actors were straight out of acting school and performing this the first time round that the characters may have had more currency because in this production they felt a bit too old for the roles.

Overall I enjoyed this production. Katz has had a very good year on the Sydney Theatre scene and certainly seems to be a talent on the rise. I commend Griffin’s choice to invest in upcoming Australian writers and charge realistic admission prices. Even though their shows can be hit and miss, the rationale of supporting the local scene will keep me subscribing.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Belvoir's 'Human Interest Story' presented by Lucy Guerin Inc & dissected by me

Hello Upstairs Belvoir. What's going on? Your downstairs experimental work is finding its way upstairs and I'm not unhappy about this.

'Human Interest Story', choreographed and devised by Lucy Guerin and cast is a foray into dance and physical theatre, aiming to 'synthesise the many relationships between the news and our experience'.

I found Guerin's show fascinating in its referencing dance and movement to express our everyday exposure to the media and the dichotomy and then sometimes correlation between our actions and our world. Perhaps Guerin's point of showcasing our privilege of prancing juxtaposed to the dangerous or current events outside our own door was explored most effectively in Stephanie Lake's freedom of movement and disinterested responses to the chorus of questions posed by the television-hypnotised, robotic company. The humour of this moment was further enhanced with Anton Enus giving such newsworthy credibility to the trivial and banal lifes of the troupe in their everyday interactions.

The 'power' moment came for me in their deconstruction of the print media, carefully laying out each page of the broadsheet before leaping, shredding and stuffing it into the costume of performer Alisdair Macindoe and then sprinting around him and pushing him to the floor. This frenetic and hostile impulse to the news and its carriers or those who dress in its words was an incredibly engaging moment.

My attention did wane in the last 20 minutes through the deliberate repetition of the news and action and although the point wasn't lost on me, my focus and attention was tested and it made this 70 minute show feel considerably longer. However, I accept that this was the point but it did test the generosity of its audience and probably detracted from creating a thorough and completely powerful piece of theatre.

The experienced theatregoer used to popular realism will struggle to shift into the world of contemporary dance. Dramatic expression in this form of this stylised movement is not restricted to communicate traditional narrative based action. This can mean that as an audience member I am trying to read meaning and understanding in every gesture and it is hard to let that go. So I didn't always follow every moment with dramatic coherence and had to abandon style to engage in form.

If Belvoir are going to aim for a younger vibe in its audience, it will best be achieved through works like this and not butchering the classics and dumbing them down for the masses.

Bravo Belvoir for taking the road less taken.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Belvoir’s Windmill Baby, directed by Kylie Farmer and dissected by me

David Milroy’s ‘Windmill Baby’ is one of the more engaging Indigenous monologues written over the last 20 years. And that’s saying something because I feel like I have sat through an endless supply of Indigenous biographical or autobiographical monologues to last me a lifetime.

So, before I get cracking about this production, I am going to make a statement that will win me no friends, I’m sure. In fact, I am aware that saying this is going to cause a stir amongst the Arts community who have politely if not fiercely supported all Indigenous works, the good, bad and ugly. I have to say that mainstream writers would not have been so politely tolerated had they clung to one expression of writing on the same theme for so long. So listen up-I am officially banning the monologue as a dramatic form for Indigenous writers as a means of theatrical expression.

Look, I know they are intimate pieces of theatre, some more successful than others, and a way to express an autobiographical or historical agenda to a mainstream audience as a one man or woman show. And I know that even with the theatrically limited monologues, theatre, which is generally left of centre and white middle class, will always clap and nod appropriately and feel genuine guilt and emotion over the injustices inflicted and then cheer for the triumphs of the human spirit over adversity.
Yes, I know by the telling of personal experiences we highlight the political themes that express Indigenous aspirations for equality and allow the voices of history to be heard. I know…I know…I really do. I even hate myself for saying this.  It is not the intent I am criticising, although the expression sometimes lacks substance and feels more like therapy rather than theatre and I am not saying don’t tell your stories- I encourage everyone to tell their story if you can manipulate it into an engaging piece of theatre. What I am saying is that Indigenous writers have overused this form and that it has become passé and predictable. It’s time to play with form.

Right, controversy over, back to the show. ‘Windmill Baby’ is a more sophisticated storytelling theatrical piece because it creates a world in what Milroy calls “conversations and characters past and present, jockeying for a place”. These characters are fully realised in actor Roxanne McDonald’s rich portrayal of Maymay, an old Aboriginal woman returning to her camp which is situated on the old cattle station she once “amassed treasured memories” and then proceeds to bring these characters, relationships, desires and memories to life. Even director Kylie Farmer states “the characters’ connections are luminously woven with a poetic rhythm connecting each story simply and beautifully” and this is realised in Belvoir’s Downstairs production of this play.

What separates this play from others in its form is its ability to craft a throughline in the vignettes connecting the pieces into a well-rounded story and creating dimensions in the world the character Maymay inhabits. All eleven characters have wonderful moments of poignancy through McDonald’s interpretation and skill and her friendly, inclusive style of storytelling to her audience. The play takes us on a journey through hardship using humour, music and direct audience address. I will admit in the first ten minutes the traditional style of “yarning over the campfire” tested my resolve but McDonald won me over with her creation and imagery of the memories of her youthful fight for the heart of stockman Malvern, her shopping trip with Malvern and his reaction to her purchases, her integrity in portrayal of crippled Aboriginal gardener Wunman and his forbidden relationship with the boss’ missus.
It was the final story of Maymay’s promise to Wunman and the crossing of the river that most touched me. McDonald’s powerful physicality and emotional conviction and connection to these characters raised the stakes for me in this deservedly award winning play.

Maymay’s catharsis in sharing with us these bottled up memories provides us with a form of catharsis too. We mourn the losses and air the dirty washing (literally and figuratively) so that we can look to the future and not carry the burden of the past with us anymore.

Designer Ruby Langton-Batty aided in breathing life into Milroy’s work through her wonderful outback abandoned set of the cattle station, worn and eroded and imbued all over with the colours of the Australian desert. For the record, my boots are still stained with the sand. It makes me feel distinctly Australian.

I’m very glad I saw this play, especially as obviously it will be the last Indigenous monologue I’ll be seeing. Kylie Farmer has directed a very moving interpretation of Milroy’s work and all the elements have created a piece of theatre that beautifully manipulates tension and dramatic imagery and can’t help but draw its audience into a world we can believe real and encapsulating past and present.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Belvoir's 'Neighbourhood Watch', directed by Simon Stone & dissected by me

I saw this show with some trepidation. I’d heard very different reports about the production and I will admit I walked into the theatre with low expectations. After all, Belvoir hadn’t yet pulled one out of the bag for me this year in their upstairs theatre and I thought I may be seeing a more polished version of something as thin and superficial as ‘The Business’.

So it was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed ‘Neighbourhood Watch’.  I was sitting in the second row, which was probably prime position for this quite intimate drama- as friends who were seated up the back did not connect with the play as well as I did. Maybe this is one of those plays where your engagement is affected by where in the theatre you are located.

Chiefly, the play was all about Robyn Nevin. She was superb. Just ask her, she’ll tell you. So it pains me to say that in this show, I would have to agree with her. The play was written for Nevin, literally. Her role as Ana, a lonely, elderly Hungarian immigrant, living in the suburbs of Sydney, who forms a friendship with young Catherine, was so well crafted that if you hadn’t told me it was Nevin, I wouldn’t have known. Her transformation was an impressive display of her skill as an actor.

Kris McQuade also did a wonderful job of bringing minor characters such as Milova, an old neighbour of Ana’s, to life. Her breathless heaving up and down the stairs was comedic, pitiful and engaging. In fact the strongest roles in this play were carried by these seasoned performers. The others were good but didn’t always hit the mark in development and pathos quite like Nevin and McQuade. Charlie Garber was likeable, Stefan Gregory, Helen Mitchell and Ian Meadows fulfilled multiple side characters and Megan Holloway did a good job of playing probably the most flawed main character in the script. More of that later.

Director Simon Stone’s love of the revolving stage actually served him well in this production. The most impressive use of designer Dale Ferguson’s stage was the lovely movement of the tram as it took the audience on a journey through time and location and captured the rhythm and eventual tension of isolation and danger. I was not so enamoured by the carpet engulfing the whole set, perhaps representing the padding, false covering of reality or the grey pallor of suburban life. The metaphor was not completely convincing. But I forgave it as it didn’t distract from the action.

Perhaps the most flawed part of the show was in Lally Katz’s script itself. Don’t get me wrong, the script held its own and was generally very good. But I would say it was one or two drafts from being complete. Whilst I loved the transitions between past and present and its stylistic experimentation between fantasy and reality, the character of Catherine, the representation of Lally Katz herself, was underdeveloped. This is always dangerous ground for writers, trying to craft semi-autobiographical characters into three dimensional personas. Often writers struggle to flesh out detail and objective perspective or complexity on characters that are representational of themselves because we can never really be subjective about ourselves. The character of Catherine felt like she was a vehicle for Ana and therefore her own story didn’t quite have the punch or impact you would want in the final denouement. The writing also seemed to want to avoid the risk of pushing the emotions of the audience in key moments at the end. It’s a risk that if you go for it, it may become trite and melodramatic, but I wish Katz took the risk because the payout, had it worked, would have created this current engaging play into a powerful piece of theatre. I notice that the production had already deviated from the script, as you do when you have the benefit of being able to workshop and perform it with a strong and appropriate team. I could pass judgement on young Eamonn Flack as dramaturg, casting criticism regarding his age and ability to truly work with insight into a predominantly female, immigrant, ageing world. But I’ll just let it sit there and let you decide. A bit more reflection and time will see Katz’s script refined and a terrific Australian play in the works.

Overall I enjoyed this show and I don’t think I was alone.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

STC's Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness directed by Sarah Goodes & dissected by me

I really wanted to like this show. It had all the promise of a powerfully engaging show. So why did I come out 100 minutes later not giving a toss?
Was it the writing? Unlike Anthony Neilson’s more sophisticated work, ‘The Wonderful World of Dissocia’, this play felt like it wasn’t in control of its subject, style or characters. While it seemed to chug along at times, it struggled to stay on task, like a temperamental teenager who wants to be treated like an adult but behaves like a hormone- riddled man-child. I really don’t know what this play was trying to be. I know it was a mesh of styles and I understand it strove to set up conventions in order to break them but in the end, if the message is blurred and your audience aren’t satisfied, there’s something not working.
Was it the actors? They seemed to be slogging their guts out on this. But it was a bit like watching really accomplished performers, where I can see they have amazing skills but the characters aren’t quite sufficiently built in dimensions or detail. And I find it hard to say that because really, the actors were superb. I do think Paul Bishop was miscast- I think he was too young and pretty to play Edward Gant. A great actor, that’s not in dispute. But I get the sense that Gant needed to be much older in order to highlight the play’s reveal in the end, to showcase the suffering over the years of the character and the tension of his promise and his existence. And perhaps if you don’t get Gant right, it makes it even harder to enter the world of his troupe.
Was it the design? Once again, an outstanding display from new designers ‘Romance Was Born’. The mask, the costumes, the staging were all beautiful interactive pieces in the play. And yet, was this distancing me from capturing the style of this run down body of actors, all trying to redeem their existence in a world they have either been outcast or tried to exit. Did the design detract from the bleakness of the message by being too pretty? Would the play have been better served by reflecting the lives and world of the characters as they try to create meaning in a world that has given them nothing but a chance to belong to this run down, desperate group of storytellers?
Was it the directing? Did Sarah Goodes struggle to find the pathos in the characters? I just don’t know.
Was it the ending that asked us to accept that the action of the play was contrived and now what is happening is real? Did we just find that leap too much to believe? Did the actors not pull it off? Was it just poorly written?
Perhaps all these fine separate pieces just didn’t sit well together and as a result we have a pretty jigsaw that make a series of disconnected images but not a complete picture.
All I know, despite its intention, is that this play did not hit the mark.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

'33' by Cathode Ray Tube & dissected by me.

‘33’ is an ensemble piece presented by Cathode Ray Tube, produced by Jocelyn Brewer and currently running at the TAP Gallery in Darlinghurst.
It revolves around the evening of Saskia’s 33rd birthday & kicks off with the unexpected arrival of her brother, joined eventually by her friends as they settle in to celebrate her birthday before things turn sour.

It’s an intimate six hander piece, although sometimes I felt we were all part of the party, especially the young couple next to me who felt the need to narrate their thoughts and opinions constantly during the show. Maybe it was the excitement of their phones vibrating that kept them tantalised through the events. Or the fact that they had imbibed an extra 30 minutes of alcohol as the show went up late and we were forced to hang out in the bar with Rocky, the ginger tom. And that is not a euphemism.

There were lots of things to like about the show, even if it’s not quite there yet.  The first 20 minutes is particularly engaging as the surprise arrival of Saskia’s brother Josh, (played by co- writer Alistair Powning) sets up a tension straight away. Things start to drift a little as the rest of the guests arrive. There’s Saskia’s (Emily Stewart) friend Maya, (Jessica Donoghue), whose marriage to Tim, (co- writer Michael Booth) has broken down as they head in different directions. Throw in lesbian friend, Lily (Gemma Atkinson), and lothario Lachlan (Ben Dalton) into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a young person’s guide to social diversity and dramatic foils.

Each character has their moment in the sun, so to speak, although the play gets confused by whose story it is telling and doesn’t always succeed bringing about closure or develop a clear function for each character.

Cathode Ray Tube, formed in early 2009, set out to “be like a rock band, to jam regularly, muck around with material, create stuff and most of all to have fun”. The play certainly has that feel. It emanates a collective and devised vibe. After the success of ‘That Old Chestnut’, ‘33’ has a very similar feel and this is a tight working ensemble. There is a sense of real life and a rapport amongst the collective - they are having fun, are very comfortable on stage together and that makes the audience feel relaxed in this intimate space.

Of course, this doesn’t always work theatrically. Staging is, at times, awkward in the several split scenes going on at once, fighting for the focus of its audience. The character-driven plot gets lost amongst quick unpredictable transitions and character intent is not always clear. Sometimes the whining of the characters feels much younger than I would expect from people who are 33 and if not for the device of Saskia’s 33rd birthday party, I would have felt I was watching characters much younger. Lines like “I will always hold you in my heart but can no longer hold you in my arms” may have cemented that impression. Or maybe that’s my middle-aged-self speaking…

I think the piece’s greatest weakness lies in the fact that there is no director. Actors beware. As good as you are, do not underestimate the power of an appropriate and skilled director, (unless, of course, that director is Benedict Andrews and then ‘33’ would have been set in a Gulag in 1940, complete with firing squad, a coal mine and a flying fox). A director would have ironed out some of the devised indulgences of the staging and asked some of the big character questions like why Josh has run away from commitment now and why did he break contact with his sister, why no-one made poor Saskia lunch when she was a little girl, why Lily doesn’t seem overly concerned by the fact that her partner broke up with her that night, why Tim doesn’t want a baby, why Josh is so angry by the prospect of Saskia and Lachlan’s flirtation and why Saskia doesn’t come to Maya’s rescue in covering up her infidelities.

Having said that, there were some funny moments and some of the acting was strong and engaging. Full credit to Jessica Donoghue for going on even though she was ill- the reason for the show going up late I am told. None of that came through in her performance. There is also a naturalness in delivery, an organic communion between characters that the actors demonstrate in moments on stage and it was clear that the audience felt they were getting value for money. There are great moments of truth in there, coupled with times of missing the mark.

Overall, the play felt like a long form improvisation. There was a lovely sense of spontaneity but moments of lost artistic control. Like a choir without a musical director, there were great voices but no-one to tie it together and manipulate or conduct focus, intent, action and staging. Some of their internal conflict didn’t seem to be enough to push them over the edge. It would not be hard to achieve –it just needs more workshopping with a director. I would love to see this play again once they have a director’s vision and skill in place and have a chance to review the dramatic function and objectives of the characters.

Whilst they haven’t managed to tie all the threads together, they are on to something worthwhile and I hope they pursue drafting and controlling this piece. It has all the makings of a good piece of theatre.