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Friday 24 June 2011

'Terminus', written & directed by O'Rowe and dissected by me.

I had heard mixed reports about Dublin’s Abbey Theatre’s show ‘Terminus’. Some people had chucked in their tickets, not bothering to go after they’d heard it was an indulgent & static application of verse. Others raved about the power of storytelling. As much as it may distress you (hit unsubscribe now if this is you), I am closer to the latter than I am the former.

So before I get stuck in to what made it work for me, I feel compelled to stand on my soap box and ask when Australia and the Arts are going to invest in developing our writers? What Ireland seems to do so well is recognise that developing a National voice through their writers, of all ages, is the spine of good theatre. Let’s start with a story worth telling and a voice worth hearing before we start dressing the stage with everything else. Australian mainstream theatre produces less than 30% of local works as opposed to 70% in most other countries. And throwing Australian works into a theatre without significant script development and workshop opportunities can be as dangerous as swimming with sharks. Those writers who understand the importance of developing their work in collaboration with actors, designers, directors and a dramaturge have the opportunity to extend some wonderful ideas and drafts into the most fluid and powerful pieces of theatre. Take Andrew Bovell’s  ‘When The Rain Stops Falling’ as one of the most obvious examples of this process at its best. So it is no wonder that there is a scarcity of Australian works that are even harder to sell to an audience when they do come along, because they have been left to foster their own talent and call in every favour to try to develop their work in some independent theatre in what still feels like a draft form. It’s about time the Government & Arts got more substantially behind our theatre writers of all ages and not leave them in a vacuum to find their voice- and those lucky few who get some assistance are still in need of further opportunities to fine tune their work.  Theatre is one of the most powerful tools to capture what is happening in society at any given time. Theatre should contribute to the spiritual life of a nation. What a pity most of the voices we hear come from somewhere else and we don’t think our own are worth hearing or developing.

Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Terminus’ is a beautiful weave of three voices who share their stories of one fateful night in Dublin and how their lives interconnect during the course of the recounting of those events. O’Rowe, writer & director states “The monologue can express isolation like no other form” and what is captured with great skill in the performance of these monologues is the disconnection of the characters from those around them and from their own desires and emotions. I must admit, the staging of the play in its simplicity is an easy critical target for an audience. Actors stand and expressively tell their story and apart from a short overlap, sit down on the stage until their story recommences. All of this is framed with the shards of a mirror, the cracked lives of those whose stories unfold before us and the dim lighting comes from a concentrated spot that only seeps between characters in the tiny moments of isolated dialogue and at the end when all stories connect. It is reminiscent of the stylings of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, where the actor’s entire body is utilised in telling the story without the need of anything else on stage. We are used to the theatricality of the neon lights and gold tinsel to sell action. But ‘Terminus’, although expressed in the form of three parallel monologues, evokes such a picture of action that I can visualise the locations, characters referred to, actions, emotions and relationships. I saw the violence, the rescue, the chase,  the twisting of intestines hanging from the crane- each moment delivered to us with such imagery and passion. And not only did I see it, I felt it.

There is a deceptive simplicity to the presentation that Sydney audiences rarely expect but make no mistake, there is some terrific acting happening here. There was tremendous skill in being able to communicate the language of the text and embody the lives of the characters. I will admit, the rhythm of the verse was a little alienating at first but once the first beat of monologues finished, the actors and I seemed to have struck some communion and I was right there with them. And here’s the rub….I cared about what happened to each and every one of them. We want them to be victorious- even the most repulsive of characters. We want them to have their moment of redemption. Now how’s that for clever writing and performance- you made me care about your characters and not a glass box in sight.

Every nuance of the character came alive to me in this controlled and engaging delivery of storytelling. As Mamet would say “All that is under control is your intention” and Mamet created his system of Practical Aesthetics as a way of working with the actors that fit the needs of the writer. So it is not surprising, given the director, Mark O’Rowe,  was also the playwright of ‘Terminus’, that he has employed, even unknowingly, some of Mamet’s ideals. Acting is about what the characters do. This does not mean they have to ‘do’ them on stage. I see their actions in their descriptions, manipulated through their expression and attitude towards those events. The actions, presented through the craft of the actor’s body and voice, are deciphered from the script. I think that’s why I was so surprised by one gentleman’s question in the post-show Q&A when he asked why he had spent all this money to see what he felt was a radio play. Oh dear. Where do I start? Is this what we have trained Sydney audiences to think? Do we rely on & expect elaborate design, aimless intentions and trickery posing as substance before we can call it theatre? What happened to the beauty of the story and the skill of the actor in expressing it without needing a barrel of monkeys, a crate of bananas and a well-placed duck? Well put your cardigan back on, adjust your man bag and quietly leave before you make a fool of yourself.
Look, I’m all for a big design, a jumble of symbols and a brass razoo if it enhances the work, but honestly, it would have been completely out of place here. It’s as redundant as the fat clinging to my thighs. I know we’ve been treated to so much good theatre to come out of Ireland over the last decade. The work of McDonagh has probably got the most attention in the mainstream sphere and perhaps audiences are under the mistaken idea that all Irish plays involve a frantic action sequence involving sadistic torture, a mallet through the head, a few missing digits or a dead cat. The work of Conor McPherson is probably a closer relative to O’Rowe’s play in its favouring of the solo story amongst its audience of characters.

All I ask is that you put your predilection for elaborate action and staging aside and just enjoy the beauty of acting and storytelling in this form.

Monday 13 June 2011

Belvoir's 'The Seagull', written by Chekhov, butchered by Benedict Andrews & dissected by me.

When director Benedict Andrews spoke to the audience before the show to apologise going up 10 minutes late, he should have kept the apologies coming in for what was a travesty of a tragedy. But what is obvious is that Benedict Andrews doesn’t care about his audience- or the play for that matter- because if he did, I can’t imagine he would have presented such a self-indulgent butchering of Chekhov’s work. 
I blame ‘War of the Roses’, where the raining glitter and ash, the static performances, spitting blood, flour, sweat and 8 hours of what turned out to be therapy-inducing theatre was so lauded by the critics, Andrews fell under the spell of theatre’s greatest  wank. And I firmly believe he thinks he is cutting edge, he is reinventing the theatre, he is breathing life into the classics (like he successfully did with ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’)  and those who don’t agree are fossils, poor sad souls trapped in theatre’s past and unable to journey into this new generational funky wave. Dismiss the haters as ignorant traditionalists. It’s ironic, given what ‘The Seagull’ is about, that he feels he is poking fun at us. I’d like to think he is poking fun at himself in there somewhere but I think Andrews spends too much time in his own head. I recommend a holiday, Mr Andrews. Get some sun, a few drinks and a dose of the real world.
Segue way into Belvoir. What are you doing?? I’ll forgive you for the appropriation of Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’, even if I thought the glass house was a bit much and the re-writing a bit thin because I think you managed to make it work for the most part. I haven’t yet forgiven you for ‘The Business’, where we all learnt that an 80’s soundtrack and retro costumes do not a play make. But this? Where do I start? Is this the result of putting a young man in the artistic director’s chair who is caught up in trying to be clever and naively putting a season together with people who think exactly the same as him and market for an audience exactly the same as him? Where are the voices of contrast? Maybe you should direct your audiences to what you’re doing Downstairs, which is much more interesting, than subject them to what you are doing on the main stage. I’m giving notice now that if you turn ‘Summer of the 17th Doll’ into a play set in a modern cafe in Marrickville, I’m outta there.
I saw this production in the second preview night so maybe it’ll pick up over the season, although reports back from friends who are either leaving at interval or bemoaning the waste of 3 hours may suggest otherwise. The first thing that strikes you is Myers’ set- what can only be described as a trailer park in rural coastal Australia. So let’s address that for a moment. By all means, reinvent the classics, transpose them into a contemporary world, be bold. However, if as a result of this you lose the play, what are you presenting? If you are desperately trying to fit your round piece into a square hole, you’ve lost perspective. Don’t significantly mess with the play if you can’t make it more relevant or a better version of itself. And don’t sell this as ‘The Seagull’. You may as well market this as ‘3 hours of Andrews & Co wanking over Chekhov’. What a waste of a good cast but more of that later.
I should have trusted my instincts after watching the opening scene of Masha engaging in a bucket bong. I missed another opportunity to run out and reclaim my night once they unveiled yet another glass box to represent the theatre (come on Belvoir & Andrews- find a new metaphor), or the neon lights declaring  REAL LIFE- when the lights were working. There is some attempt to make this a theatrical device of the pretention of theatre but that only made it more confusing when Andrews actually uses it to remind us in the second half that we are now watching real life. Oh...and let’s not forget the raining black ash to represent the dark winter and dashed dreams? If you’re going to remove the essence of the play and fill it with symbols, and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Benedict Andrews play without it, can we at least employ something new?  But even with all that, Andrews’ complete contempt of the audience by staging almost the entirety of the second half inside the trailer, behind the glass doors, reminding us, I suppose, that we all return to the mundane world of reality after the show, was enough to make me wish I was at home cleaning the mould in the kitchen cupboards.
I was confused by the keeping of the names and the references to returning to Moscow if we’re now in Jindabyne.  This was perhaps best highlighted by the choice to present Ilya Shamrayev, played by Terry Serio, as a brutish, esky carrying, Australian stereotype. And I was not alone in my confusion. At interval you could hear a multitude of voices asking their companions to explain what this play was about and I’m not sure that the second half clarified any of that for us. I know Chekhov treads such a fine line between comedy and tragedy. In fact most Russian playwrights walk this road and it’s a brilliant reflection of a harsh landscape, life and culture and times of great upheaval and revolution. Andrews’ play probably does a better job exploring the comedy rather than the tragedy but the production is all over the place. This production is monochrome in its message. Whilst it attempts to hammer home the idea of enduring real life, it has garbled every other complexity of the play and washed it away, sacrificed them to make sure that we all got the idea that real life is hard and boring. I don’t need to go to the theatre for 3 hours to learn that one message, thank you very much. Please refer to the comment on my kitchen mould as evidence of my understanding.
Andrews has  cast such a wonderful assembly of some of Australia’s finest- Judy Davis, David Wenham, Billie Brown, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, John Gaden (although on a personal note, if I see John Gaden in one more show I may poke my eyes out with a blunt stick. Aren’t there any other distinguished older actors apart from Gaden and Peter Carroll that could get a look in?) He has also employed a generally fine young ensemble of actors. Yep. Cast them all and then completely pissed them up the wall on this heartbreaking misinterpretation of what should have been the highlight of the Belvoir season. They did their best to try to make this work but to no avail. I can only imagine how bad it would have been without them. Terrifying.
I wish I could have come out raving about art vs life or about the parallels of Russia in 1901 and Australia in 2011. Instead my hope is that Belvoir stops sending me letters to donate money or bequeath them in my will because I’m feeling my internal organs atrophy as every second of these productions tick by. If you keep producing work like this, I can’t see myself subscribing ever again. Get your hands off it, get someone in to tell you some cold hard truth and start respecting your audience.   Andrews says in the program “In Ralph’s first year as Artistic Director, I wanted us to reflect on the task and craft the impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience?” The answer is simple: your audience.
If you insist on seeing it- and as the season sold out before opening, I’m imagining many of you will-start drinking early and hope for the best. I strongly advise that this will not be a show you will want to sit through once, let alone twice. And if you’d like to skip the whole thing and come over and clean my kitchen cupboards, I could give you the entire Seagull experience in much less time and much cheaper.
It’s your call.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Commenting and Editing Go Astray

So can't seem to edit or leave comments on my own blog. Shits me no end.

Anyway, have to post to firstly say, sorry for the apostrophe misuse in last post but it won't let me go back in to edit. Note to self- do not post at midnight and learn how to troubleshoot whatever the issues are on my computer or program.

Normal service now resumed...

Friday 10 June 2011

STC's Baal, June 2011. Directed by Simon Stone and dissected by me.

Remember those terribly pretentious things you wrote or staged at university when you felt that you & maybe a select few of your generation were the only people who really understood the world & then years later you realised you were full of shit?
Welcome to STC's production of Baal.
Director Simon Stone (Stone is the poor man’s Benedict Andrews, who is the poor man’s Barrie Kosky) tackles Brecht’s early didactic play the only way a young man knows how: blood, sex and naked bodies. Ho hum. Even Stone admits in the program, “to understand Baal, perhaps it is necessary to forget what you know about Brecht” and this production certainly does abandon Brecht in so many ways. The play is a very early work of Brecht’s, when he was at university post WWI and he tried to rewrite it many times. Why you might ask? Because it was flawed from the start and the message somewhat indulgent and garbled. I think Brecht, like so many writers, understood that the playwright he was to become was a distance away from the playwright he started as. The play is an interesting homage to Brecht as far as it is an historical examination of Brecht as an experimenter of form and technique. It is a typical piece of generational angst, caught up in its own attempt to express a world of change. It might serve as an interesting experimental show in a rough theatre space such as the Stables or Downstairs Belvoir but as a main stage show, Baal has completely missed its demographic and doesn’t succeed in affecting us at all.
The biggest mistake any director can make is to presume that ‘alienation’ gives you permission to not engage the audience in the action or plight of the characters. Let’s get this straight- I still need to be engaged by the journey and plight of the characters; I’m just expected to avoid catharsis. And here lies the crux of the problem with the play in the first place. Brecht had yet to perfect this art. It’s like asking Mozart to present a concert featuring his musical childhood composition of chopsticks. So the director tries to fill the flaws with tricks and the tricks are the only thing about the show that you will remember in the end. The fact that I leave this show not giving a toss about anyone (and I could be heard quite audibly suggesting, as Baal drags off one of the many female victims to skin her alive, “They’ve already killed the play, they may as well start killing each other” -and by the end my friend and I were in giggles by Baal’s rants) is probably very telling.
Alright- so let’s talk about what was interesting. The lighting & set by Nick Schlieper, especially in the early scenes, really played with tones that forced a sepia neutrality and tried to enhance the unreality of this forced fake world of art and creativity that then in the second half became a real dim reality to the hedonism of Baal’s world. The falling set in the second half and the ‘green rain’- recycled water caught by the set and sent back into a tank for reuse in the next show, was impressive technology & obviously a statement about the external world & a reflection Baal’s microcosm. Some scenes even took a moment to strike a chord, like the chorus of women surrounding Baal as he descends into madness, but unfortunately these moments could not be sustained by Stone- who didn’t seem to be in consistent control of this play. And the best evidence of that was the gratuity of nudity & beer. Yep. Got it. Hedonism. Now crack open another can and show us your willy. Whatever.
Stone calls this play a tragedy- “by presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential...Baal is the nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct”. Ah...sorry, what was that? Do you mean, by presenting as many cocks, cans, titties and a man in women’s undies, we will expose the deepest darkest parts of ourselves and show the world how terrible to succumb to this extreme? I struggled to think the cast cared, let alone me. I left the theatre more concerned about what to have for dinner than what message the play might have tried to imply. And if I don’t get the message and I don’t want to take up any valuable brain space I might have left trying to figure it out, and you’re presenting the 20th century’s leading didactic playwright, Bertolt Brecht, for God’s sake, you’ve missed the bloody point. You’re sending me to sleep not stirring up my desire to change the world. Missed. The. Point.
I think STC know that this play may have missed the mark. I couldn’t help looking around the theatre at the usual blue rinse demographic and think they must be grateful the show is only 70 minutes and then look around to the younger, more desirable audience theatre’s seem to be trying to get through the door and wonder if beer and cock is enough to keep them happy. Even a complimentary program doesn’t seem like quite enough to make me feel like I got value for money. Interesting they wouldn’t let me drink before the show but suggested I drink after. Once again, very telling.
So, in a nutshell, the play is interesting for what it tries to do but doesn’t quite make it work. It has invested a lot to jazz up a relatively thin play but doesn’t quite get it over the line. The play is an experiment and I feel like I’ve just paid a substantial sum to see something that is not controlling its form or function. Gone are the days when an audience was easily shocked and this play tries a little too hard and the stink of desperation seeps through. Is it Brecht? Theatre of Cruelty? Who knows or who cares. It’s no Kosky’s ‘Women of Troy’, that’s for sure.
Perhaps the contemporary translation and appropriation of Brecht’s song by Wright, Stone & Gregory sum it up best:
“Where do I feel love the most in all the world?.....The place I find the most exquisite is in the toilet, amongst the shit.”
Well hello Baal. I could not have said it better myself. 

Welcome to the site that tells you about theatre as it really is.

I've seen a lot of theatre over the years. I teach it. I produce it. I've even been known to appear in it. I would see professional theatre at least once a week and come out often feeling disappointed with what I just sat through and then when I read the reviews from the professionals, who often reward the attempt and not the actual production, I can't help feel disappointed all over again.

So this blog will serve to give you a new and different viewpoint on the Sydney theatre scene, productions, directors, acting, designing and general theatrical choices. I welcome your posts, even if they are contradictory to mine. Bring on the debate- I think that's what the scene is really missing, amongst other things.

No more pandering to the wank of theatre without it being called exactly what it is.

Welcome to shit on your play. com.