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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.