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Monday 9 April 2012

BELVOIR’S ‘EVERY BREATH’ written & directed by Benedict Andrews, dissected by me.

When John Howard quoted Chekhov in Benedict Andrews’ play, “Never put a loaded weapon on stage if no-one is thinking about firing it,” I thought to myself, shooting this play would have been a mercy killing.
‘Every Breath’ is an exercise in humiliation- of its cast, its characters and its audience. But you know what? For once, I don’t blame Benedict Andrews for this work as its director and writer. He’s an artist who has a particular voice and style that we’ve come to love or hate. I have no doubt he approaches his work with his own brand of integrity. I don’t think he sits at home mulling over how he can lock the audience out of his work- it’s just his work, given a main stage viewing, time and time again. I mean it would be easy for me to slam Andrews. People have come to expect it. But I do go in to his work hoping to see something that crystallises his ideas and awakens in me a new respect and admiration for him.
No. This time I blame Belvoir and their creative management team for allowing a piece of work to go on the stage that should never have seen the light of day. It’s time to stop experimenting with a group of friends who want to dabble in the craft of writing with no evidence that they are actually any good at it and then give them the main stage to test their work. I don’t want to pay $50 to sit in a theatre laboratory and watch gratuitous, disconnected, poorly-written plays. Just stop. Please. Stop. And that’s what Belvoir should have said to Andrews. Stop. But they didn’t and we all wear the cost.
Let me give you a four line synopsis of ‘Every Breath’.
Chris is an androgynous security guard looking after a family who are ambiguously under threat. She has sex with every member of the family, often. She gets shot and everyone masturbates to try and rekindle their time with Chris. Chris then strips naked in front of the audience.
Got it? Great.
First question: Was it meant to be a comedy? There were times I laughed out loud but I don’t think I was meant to. The guy in the row behind us seemed to suggest he was just as confused when he said ‘What is this play about? I don’t get it’. The people who walked out before the 80 minute show had finished seemed to have ‘gotten’ quite enough.  The smartest thing about the show was not to put in an interval. There would have been very few return patrons to the second half I would think.
Second question: I thought we’d moved beyond the lights down, new scene every 20 seconds transitions in professional theatre. Apparently not. Why is it that the ability to understand that if your episodic narrative doesn’t have coherence or structural integrity and technical trickery can’t save it, you can’t see that there may be a problem with the material?
Third question: How much did the set cost? Alice Babidge is a design genius. I mean the set is very clever, she never disappoints. In fact, the tech crew and design personnel are often the highlight of the creativity to be showcased at Belvoir.  They must look on with horror when they see what is unfolding on stage and wonder how Belvoir get away with it.
The set, a hydraulic, large reflective tiled square that lifts out of the floor and can be manipulated in many configurations, like something out of a Cirque de Soleil show, was a creative piece of machinery in an otherwise gratuitous play. But was it worth the cost when it affected sightlines or was another tool in poor transitions? If you are going to spend all that money, at least use it well.
Fourth question: This is a biggie. Who on earth did you think would want to see this play? Let’s put aside that we have two 16 year old characters cavorting naked sliding around the floor with each other.  I don’t know many brothers and sisters of that age who would want to swim and grope each other naked in the pool. I mean I know a lot of teenagers and I’m sure if I asked them on a scale of grossest things ever they could think of doing, this would probably rate high on their list.
Then let’s count the amount of nudity, graphic simulated sexual acts and self-gratification, even during other character’s monologues to the audience. It started to feel like a live pornographic exhibition. Did I stumble into Sexpo by mistake? It was completely degrading to everyone who was involved or witness to it.
You know those moments when you realise you have been sitting watching something with a quite unconscious expression of incredulous disgust? That was me and I’m sure I was not alone. And when I looked at some of those actors, like John Howard, I felt he was ashamed of being associated with this play and I couldn’t blame him. The play was an offense to the talent of the actors on stage, making them commit to this palpable waste.
Fifth question: What are you selling to me in this show? If your aesthetic is to alienate, like the predilection of the German artists, in order to avoid empathy or catharsis to heighten the ideas, this play only takes you half way there. You see, the lack of empathy, that I got. Never for one moment did I care about the characters. But if you want me to focus on the ideas of the play, could someone help me out here? What’s your message? What are you saying? What’s your objective? Your through-line? Your social examination of the human condition? What??
This play is so thin that even a reference to Greek mythology in an effort to make us believe that Chris is a contemporary irresistible Hermaphroditus wasn’t enough. Was it to mirror art and life as Chris utters “I have this recurring nightmare where I am on display in a circus or museum….I have to stand there naked for a very long time and it hurts….And all these people are staring at me..” before she strips naked and stands there in pain? OK. So is the play about making people do uncomfortable things for a play? Well, you can tick that one off the list then. Success.
There were big holes in the plot. Why is this family under threat? And from whom? If this is the premise or construct of the events of the play, surely it needs to be dealt with?
At the end of the show, if the only pity you feel is for the artists involved in this show, you know it’s a dog. A floating dog in the pool maybe.
So my final words are back to Belvoir. Stop letting artists, whose writing is not ready, jump the queue. You made Brendan Cowell and Kate Mulvany test their work downstairs before giving it an upstairs program and it really honed their craft. Same with Tommy Murphy, who worked with Griffin, before programming him into Belvoir’s big stage, or the musical Keating did a cabaret run before it morphed upstairs. Do the same for your mates because you’re actually not doing them, or those involved with giving it life, or your audience, any favours by putting them on when they’re not ready.
Stop. Please. Stop.

Sunday 8 April 2012

DARLINGHURST THEATRE & FISHY PRODUCTIONS ‘Time Stands Still’ dissected by me

Last night I caught ‘Time Stands Still’ at the Darlinghurst Theatre, directed by Kim Hardwick and it got me thinking, why is a strictly realist piece so unfashionable these days?
Donald Margulies’ play is a masterful, well-constructed piece with intelligent dialogue, interesting characters and relationships and I think Hardwick has done a solid job in honouring this lively, high stakes provoking play. She has not inserted herself into the play and made it about her ego, her tricks or morphed it into something else. Instead Hardwick has taken the integrity of the work and trusted the writer’s words to deliver for the audience, gently manipulating the actors, design and effects to focus on the characters and their existentialist dilemmas.
Perhaps that’s why we don’t see as many realist plays anymore. What director wants to let the playwright’s work be the focus in this world of director as auteur? How passé of Hardwick. What was she thinking?

I know I have referenced national styles and their development so let me segue way briefly into American Realism. Margulies play captures this style in its tempo, setting and what is happening right now, just as some of the best American writers before him have done and are found now in his contemporary playwrighting peers, like LaBute, Lindsay-Abaire or Letts. The psychological interplay of tactics in securing our own desires is given a real context and when done well, gives us a chance to reflect on our own choices in life and what we've done to get there. This is all found in 'Time Stands Still'.

‘Time Stands Still’ explores the crossroads of living a conventional life as opposed to diving into the voyeuristic world of recording the horrors of humanity at war. Protagonist photographer, Sarah Goodwin (Rebecca Rocheford Davies) is brought home by her long term partner and fellow journalist and writer, James (Richard Sydenham) after being injured in a roadside blast in Iraq. Then enter Sarah’s agent Richard (Noel Hodda) with his much younger pregnant girlfriend Mandy (Harriet Dyer) and watch the complicated personal choices unfold as they recuperate, rebuild and redirect their lives. It is an examination of what defines us, our deal breakers, sacrifices and compromises or do we accept that the journey we want may leave us taking that path alone in order to be true to our desires. Can we give other people what they want and at what cost? It’s more complicated than that in so many ways- this is a play with layers.
In terms of acting, the women in this play are outstanding in presenting the complexities and dichotomy of feminist choices. Margulies writes his women well and Rocheford Davies and Dyer do them great justice in their portrayals. Hodda and Sydenham’s characters were generally well-executed although sometimes I felt they lapsed slightly in nailing belief, especially when subtlety was called for. The other criticism would have been the American accent work that felt contrived and inconsistent and sometimes detracted from otherwise strong performances. Once again, the women of the play had a mastery of control here and made the play much more believable and built tension with skill and honest deliberation. The boys did pull the big moments out of the bag most of the time and certainly you couldn’t criticise their energy, focus or intensity.
And as a side note, the last time I saw Noel Hodda on stage was when I was 16 and at high school and saw him play Kenny in ‘The Removalists’ in the mid-80's. It was one of the first times I saw live theatre and suddenly engaged me in a way I had rarely experienced before- three dimensions, live action- a voyeur of the slice of life. It excited me. Up until then, plays had been books you read in class taking turns having your class mates butcher characters and lines in their lacklustre, monotonous reading until you wanted to poke your eyes out with a stick. It is fair to say that seeing live theatre started my own journey of living and loving this form and it is why I am so passionate about making sure theatre is accessible to the next generation. So just a little shout out to Noel Hodda, Williamson and even the designers of that play back in 84. I still have Kenny's t-shirt of "Get Loose With The Moose" burned into my memory.
Back to 'Time Stands Still', Lucilla Smith's set design, constructed by Michael Watkins was beautifully crafted in creating this Williamsburg loft, an open, trendy space, capturing the essence of this world and letting the characters interact with and within their environment with natural ease. Teegan Lee’s lighting also falls into this category and I loved some of the silhouettes cast in the window and its changing time shifts and seasonal variety.
I don’t think you’ll leave this play with burning visceral impressions or thinking it’s the most powerful thing you’ve ever seen (perhaps that’s the other reason realist drama has played second fiddle to the contemporary aesthetic) but I definitely think you’ll get your money’s worth, you’ll be supporting some good independent theatre and you will engage in a thought-provoking piece.
And that should never go out of fashion.

Saturday 7 April 2012

CATHODE RAY TUBE’S ‘The Great Lie of the Western World’ dissected by me

‘The Great Lie of the Western World’ is the latest offering from collective Cathode Ray Tube currently showing at the Tap Gallery.
Cathode Ray Tube is the love child of Alistair Powning, Jessica Donoghue and Michael Booth and they specialise in writing, producing and acting in their own work. This is the second production of theirs I’ve seen and there is an improvement in writing in this play- more connected relationships, better use of the natural ‘voice’ of the male characters and at times, some witty dialogue.
I am appreciative of the drive and creativity of this collective and I think over time, as they hone their craft, they will write much more sophisticated and natural works that perfectly capture not only their skill set and agenda but also rely on less contrived dilemmas and thin twists. It will stop trying to be clever and it will just be.
I guess this comment stems from the tenuous premise of the narrative- a vigilante angel (O’Donoghue) and Jesus figure (Booth) gate crash the house of Simon (Powning) and his girlfriend Fiona (Kate Skinner), wander around the streets of Marrickville, force him to confess his gambling addiction, get Fiona to love herself and reconnect the lovers before heading off on their next Highway to Heaven style mission.  They didn’t quite pull off the story- at times it felt more cheesy than poignant, especially when Jesus-figure, Emerson (Michael Booth) is trying to inspire confidence in the other characters and get them to confess their ‘sins’. However, when the boys were bantering, it felt far more truthful. And the acting of Jessica Donohue and Kate Skinner were especially strong.
This is a talented ensemble but it needs to be less indulgent and more controlled. I know Cathode Ray Tube fight using a director but I don’t think they’d necessarily compromise their spontaneity by using one, especially when they are so heavily involved in every step of the process. Don’t dismiss what an experienced outside eye could bring to your work. I have no doubt the right director could help refine the delivery of dialogue, focus issues, timing lapses, tighten the interaction between characters and perhaps even help in the editing of the script through the workshopping and rehearsal process.
Having said all of that, I will admit I am probably ten years too old to really appreciate this play. 'The Great Lie of the Western World' seems to be aimed at the mid 20’s to the mid 30’s demographic. And clearly being one of the few sober people in the audience at the time didn’t help any. As much as I was entertained/annoyed by the pantomime interaction of the audience, “he’s coming for you- ooh here he comes..” or the gamut of emotional sounds in response to lines or action or even the conversations in the second row about breaking up with your hairdresser were a fascinating insight into the life that I must have missed 15 years ago, it was clear this play was not really going to inspire the response in me that it did for others in the audience.
Honestly, if you’re under 35, you’ll probably enjoy the relaxed nature of the play and the attempted cleverness will delight you in many ways. Over 35’s, this one is probably not for you.
It's got potential, it's got legs but it is wonky on its feet.