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Sunday 25 March 2012


Ah…Irish drama. Such beautiful verse and dialogue, such darkly comic writing with a hint of mysticism, such a propensity to take human hopes and shatter the feck out of them.
Segue way into ‘The New Electric Ballroom’.
Enda Walsh’s play explores the lives of three Irish women in a remote fishing village and their fishmonger visitor, Patsy, and the perilous enterprise of giving into the first stages of love and the consequences of dashed hopes and dreams, where shame and disappointment define your destiny.
Many countries have a distinctive style of writing, whether thematically or stylistically. Irish drama, from my own ignorant viewpoint, seems to give its characters a glimpse into the light, a glimmer of happiness before the clouds roll in and piss all over it and in the process, allows its audience to laugh at the absurd, heighten the mundane and create a sense of the supernatural. I love it and here I claim my own dark sense of humour and Irish heritage and, like most Australians, there is an appreciation of the comic and poetic expression of these themes.
It is because of the richness of language and cadence of delivery that it takes a very skilled and experienced director and cast to be able to communicate the complexities of the drama. Director Kate Gaul didn’t completely master the play as evidenced in the first 30 minutes but it did get there in the end.
The rapid fire dialogue of Breda (Odile Le Clezio) and Ada (Jane Phegan) as they hug the door with their backs to the audience in the opening scene means the dialogue all rolls into one blur and you spend some time playing catch up. In fact the first half hour lacks clarity- either in the rhythm of the play or in the direction of the narrative such as when Ada tells us about the events that transpired when she was riding back from work and starts on the initial patterns of storytelling, we as an audience are expecting to head in one direction but the writer cleverly manipulates and diverts our focus as he sees fit. None of these stories are random and in fact they become beautiful metaphors for what is to come and I feel like Gaul didn’t quite connect all the dots in planting these ideas so we don’t lose the coherency of the threads.
But once you understand the pattern of the play- that ‘light bulb’ moment, you can then sit back and enjoy what is to come. And for that I think you can thank Justin Smith as Patsy. Smith brings this play thoroughly to life- his energy, skill, focus and hypnotic vocals meant that for a brief pocket in time, we all fell in love with him, just as writer and director would hope. By setting him up like this, when they pull out the rug we really feel the loss.
The revelations of the second half redeem any confusion from the first half and for this reason I didn’t mind having to work as an audience member in figuring out what was going on, although I will add a little more control in the choices of the first 30 minutes would have made this play a must see. Tom Bannerman's design enhances this dark insular world and I do love the old school or retro choices that suggest these are characters trapped in their past.
I do hope ‘The New Electric Ballroom’ pulls a profit for Siren Theatre Company under the patronage of the Griffin Independent season. It is a good play directed and performed by a generally good cast.
And as I mentioned in my review of ‘Terminus’, when is Australian writing going to get the funding and development it needs so we can consistently shape and refine our own poetic and theatrical national, social and cultural agenda?

Tuesday 20 March 2012


I’m tempted to just send you all to Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary and read his review of this play because I doubt I can say it any better.
But that’s cheating so let me break it down for you.
The success of theatre is often reliant on a number of variables coming together to create a piece of magic for the audience. There’s the writing. Actors are often at the mercy of the script. If you’ve got great material, quite a bit of the work is done for you. Then add the director and the vision that he or she will bring to the text (sometimes even reinventing the text altogether ala Stone and crew). Then that vision is hopefully communicated in the acting, design, and technical and that all of that is played out in the right stage. Maybe a dramaturg helps. Maybe the audience is exactly the right demographic for the show or ‘imbibed’ (Cameron Woodhead- that’s for you) enough alcohol to be open to everything but not so drunk to think the show is interactive. Maybe the issues of the show resonate, maybe the planets align.
All I can say about ‘The Paris Letter’ is that none of things happened in this show.
You know I’m loathed to hit the little guy hard but gee, what were they thinking in the creative decisions of this show?
Let’s start with the script. Jon Robin Baitz’ play about two central characters, one flamboyantly gay man, Anton, and his once lover and now repressed friend Sandy and their journey from the 1960’s to the early 21st century, sounds like it would be a winner for the Mardi Gras season and certainly the full house of men in the audience members suggested that on paper, they made a good choice. Really?
I tell you the best part for me was that I didn’t have to queue for the ladies (I was one of the 4 women in the whole audience). Apart from that, this play had few redeeming features. For a play written in 2004, it felt dated. A gay man, who is living in New York in 2002, with a gay step-son, gay friends and gay acquaintances, with a personal fortune of millions who feels repressed? Hmmm. Bad enough that it started with the aimless wandering of one character who only stopped to snort cocaine from the kitchen table before he shot himself and then finished with Anton grinding sleeping tablets into Sandy’s whisky and killing him. You don’t often get such melodramatic bookending. And that’s just the first and last 5 minutes, not to mention the 2 hours between.
Director Stephen Coyler must have felt he was directing for the Theatre Royal. In 1890. That might explain the melodrama or the musical theatre expressions, mugging constantly for the audience. This was best encapsulated in the performance of Peter Cousens as Anton. In costume, expression, mincing gay vocals- it was Are You Being Served, Mr Humphries for the stage. Nicholas Papademetriou’s portrayal of Sandy lacked belief or conviction. At least his psychiatrist character channelled some talent. And Susie Lindeman’s Betty Boop portrayal of Katie was the nail in the coffin.
Best performer in an otherwise problematic show was Caleb Alloway as young Sandy. It’s ironic in the program notes that he states he’s going off to do more acting study at The Actors Centre. Note to Mr Alloway- you may the only one in the cast who probably doesn’t need to.
Yes, it’s harsh. But I do want to make the point that all voices have a place in the theatre. It is not that this is a ‘gay’ play that makes it a problem. It is a poorly written and executed play that make it a problem. Can’t we give our gay community and other audience members who want to support a diversity of voices something more intelligent and layered than this? Angels in America anyone?
And as Kevin Jackson stated, let’s also give it better luggage when travelling to France, darling. That may have been the biggest travesty of all.

Sunday 18 March 2012

GRIFFIN THEATRE’S 'THE BOYS' dissected by me

It’s taken a while to post this- apologies to all impatient fans of the dissections, especially as the season has officially finished but as I saw this in its second last show, there didn’t seem to be a pressing need to rush it to the presses and damn it, sometimes life gets in the way.
But to all who saw this, you would recognise what a good production this was. Not flawless, but certainly worth a viewing.
‘The Boys’, in its first run 20 years ago, actually saved the Griffin Theatre from financial ruin. How fitting, now the Stables is resplendently upgraded that we revisit this play (although am I the only one who is scared of falling down those stairs every time I leave the theatre?). Written by Gordon Graham, it is a powerful examination of male violence, especially towards women. Nothing new there- it’s a theme constantly highlighted in our art and our lives, but this dark play also focuses on the women who don’t want to believe the men in their lives could be capable of such hatred, even when in their core they know it to be true. And by keeping most of the violence off stage, it makes the contemplation and consequences of this brutality actually far more vivid to its audience.
Director Sam Strong has successfully managed to bring this structurally non-linear but primarily realistic play into the 21st century whilst still keeping the essence of the original script. For a young man who looks like he could hardly have been born when the first production was staged, there is a maturity in his ability to reinvent this play for a contemporary audience whilst still maintaining so much of the original. Perhaps it is his ability to collaborate intelligently with the writer, his cast and production team and those who brought it to life first time around. It’s lovely not having the ego of the director overtly interfere with the production but trusting his team to all take ownership of the play in delivering an authenticity to the work and let them deliver his vision and the play with integrity and passion.
One of the most striking elements of the play was Renee Mulder’s exceptional set design of the sunburnt backyard with the iconic hills hoist, the high tin fence and gate, locked to keep people in or out. The symbolic use of this cycle of poverty, desperation and damage was at the very heart of ‘The Boys’ and as an audience I never felt I needed to be anywhere else to see the action unfold- it was the perfect representation of this world. Nothing grows here that isn’t neglected or at the mercy of the harshest of conditions. Unable to flourish, nothing is designed to nurture it and ultimately it is the deadening of this environment that drives all who live there to either resent or suffer in the dirt of their conditions. This was further enhanced by the assaulting sound design of Kelly Ryall and lighting of Verity Hampson who never left us in doubt of the turmoil of the action encapsulated in the groaning harshness of these design choices.
As a design sideline for a moment, was there also not a delicious pleasure in watching the hapless audience members sitting right next to the couches who had to look like the action taking place next to them didn't affect them at all in their embarrassed spotlight, or was that just me?
It would be easy to ‘endgame’ the stakes in this play when performing it- the violence is raw and constant. But the actors find some texture in their roles, moments of softness belie the fleeting hopes that give way to entrenched misogyny and brutality. As I said earlier, the play is not without some flaws- I felt Jeanette Cronin played the mother as a caricature at times, pushing it just a little too hard and sometimes Josh McConville’s accent sounded a bit cockney laddish but the power of his performance meant you forgave the lapses in vocal or accent control- such was the strength of his ability to inhabit the character of Brett. Eryn Jean Norvill’s Nola didn’t quite pull of the last monologue- the rhythm felt sluggish, but once again, for the most part she did an exceptional job in making us believe her portrayal. The cast should be commended in bringing us into this world and delivering a powerful and disturbing portrayal of boys who are left to define their masculinity without appropriate male guardians to then rebel against the only people in their lives who have tried to guide, shape, need, nurture or manipulate them, the women.
I hope you got to see this play when it was on. It was a play that delivered and reaffirms that Griffin is one of the most exciting places to see theatre in Sydney. 

Saturday 3 March 2012

DOUBLE DISSECTION: Belvoir’s ‘Babyteeth’ and Factotum’s ‘Hedda Gabler’.

This may seem like cheating that I am offering my opinions on what seems like two very different plays. Maybe it is. Isn’t it nice I don’t have to follow anyone’s rules? But there is a point to it if you care to continue.
‘Babyteeth’, commissioned by and showing at Belvoir St Theatre was written by Rita Kalnejais in 2011 and is directed by Eamon Flack. It is the story of 14 year old cancer victim, Milla and the people in her life- her parents, violin teacher, neighbour and boyfriend.
‘Hedda Gabler’, Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, premiered in 1891 and is now showing at the Tap Gallery for Factotum Theatre Company, directed by Liz Arday. It explores the story of Hedda, her recent marriage, her independent spirit, affected by social constraints and status and its ultimate consequences on her and those around her.
But I don’t really want to focus on the stories of each play- that’s not really my thing. I’ve said before, if you want to know what the story is about, go and read the press release or the blurb on the back of the show flyer. For me it’s about the experience of both plays for the audience (or on me in the audience if you will) and that’s why I’ve thrown them together.  I want to address the same thing about each show- the lack of tension.
So, to all those people who hate teachers, stop reading now because I’m going to put my teacher hat on and give you a little lesson on tension and audience engagement.
Ever wondered why you felt ambivalent about a show, why it may have been interesting but you weren’t moved by the plight of the characters or didn’t really care what happened to them in the end? Well there’s a good chance the show was missing tension.
Tension is the thing that draws you into the action, creates anticipation about events, relationships, choices, objectives, intent- it lies in the tactics, the obstacles, the subtext, the subtleties of the action. And it can take many different forms- inner, comic, sexual, etc. It makes you care about what happens in the play.
So why did ‘Babyteeth’ seem like it had all the ingredients but wasn’t quite cooked? The acting was good (a special mention to Eamon Farren although all cast were strong). Robert Cousin’s  rotating stage design was a lovely metaphor for the cycle of events and a great vehicle for the constant changes in location and yet still reinforcing the lives of this intimate group of characters bound by the events unfolding in this house. In fact the technical elements all enhanced the story and Flack brought out the eccentricities of the characters- the prescription medicated mother, steady injectable dad, drug dealing boyfriend, ditzy blonde pregnant neighbour, cantankerous Latvian violin teacher and his small protégée and the terminally ill protagonist.
I think the answer then lies in the writing. Kalnejais has focused her energies on painting these colourful characters and it is not until we get to the end of the play, with Milla and Moses (her boyfriend Farren) lying in bed contemplating death that we feel our first twangs of tension- a concern for the lives of these people. The ending is the strongest part of the play but for what is almost 2 and a half hours in length, this is a long time to wait. There's too long spent on the gags and not enough on the tension between the characters and their choices, hopes and disappointments. Whilst the comedy elements are interesting and my attention didn’t really wane, which suggests that Kalnejais has all the makings of a good writer, the writing just hasn’t quite reached the maturity of developing the drama in the comedy. The eccentricities outweigh the emotion.
Now onto Factotum’s ‘Hedda Gabler’. Believe it or not, it gives me no pleasure to kick the little guy. I don’t want to ‘shit’ all over the small independent co-op group, struggling for audience. I respect the courage to stage work, perform in the public arena and all the time and effort they have invested in the show. So I will write the following as kindly as I can.
‘Hedda Gabler’ is a play strewn with tension in its writing but unfortunately director Arday has made the choice to turn the play into a melodrama. The problem with doing this, playing the objectives and attitudes of the characters in such an obvious way, with other characters pretending not to notice, is that there’s no suspense left, no anticipating what may happen next. It becomes a latent interpretation of the characters and in a social setting of the late 1800’s, what you mean should probably be more hidden. Here is an environment where you are often talking about anything but what you really want to talk about. It's what under the surface that makes it a powerful exploration of social relationships, personal needs and wants and how to manipulate people to get what you want with subtle power shifts and plays. So if you expose the protagonist as a villain immediately and constantly, we see the ending a mile off and what’s at stake for us? This is best captured when Hedda holds the gun to her temple and your audience started sniggering. It’s probably not the effect you want.
You can, of course, play it anyway you want. But there is a cost and in this case, it is at the expense of tension.
But there are a couple of actors who really tried to bring it- Richard Hillier and Lana Kershaw. And I encourage all the creative team to keep trying and learning and experimenting with their craft. I also suggest you call in a few experienced and trusted colleagues to look at your work and offer a fresh and honest perspective so you can continue to learn and grow and hopefully succeed.
And there endeth the lesson on tension. Regardless of style or form, find the tension, play with it, manipulate it but whatever you do, don’t forsake it.