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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.