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Sunday 26 August 2012

LA BOITE & GRIFFIN’S ‘A HOAX’ directed by Lee Lewis and dissected by me

This play has something engaging about it, especially in its narrative. Rick Viede has written quite a clever play and it’s probably a worthy winner of the 2011 Griffin Award. It tells the story of the fake autobiography and the public’s insatiable need for the ‘misery memoir’ and the more graphically disturbing and shocking, the more we love it. It’s an examination of exploitation, ambition, transformation and power.
The script is good- well worth a read if you don’t see the show. It’s got a couple of jumps in narrative so at times things are suddenly revealed or change and we don’t feel like the shift was adequately signposted but I’m not sure whether the minor flaws are in the writing or in Lewis’ style of directing.
I’ve seen a few of Lee Lewis’ shows and her style seems to focus on sucking the emotion out of the first half (an attempt at Epic style?) by playing things almost presentational over representational. This means there seems to be a connection lost between audience and characters early on, dialogue can be hammered out at a million miles an hour and delivered (with her design choices) in monotonous, discordant force or like a clinical transaction. Lewis saves the pathos for the end, contrasting the choices of the first half. I guess (in a Mother Courage and Her Children kind of way), Brecht would have suggested it was to focus on the ideas and not the catharsis of the characters’ journeys. But I think the ideas are caught up in the journey of those characters and by distancing myself from the stakes for those involved, it actually takes away some of the power of the narrative and its ideas.
But I do see the satire of Viede’s work and the absurdity of the situation itself and Lewis has played on the heightened sense of ambition and drive of the characters with some success. It just feels like it’s not always in control because sometimes, too much is just too much. And this is certainly evident in some of the acting. If you don’t let vulnerability creep in till the end, that is a hard ask for any role or actor and there is certainly varied success in this show.
It takes a while to warm to Miri/Currah (Shari Sebbens) at the start. We then see her transform into the role created for her (as Currah) but the reality is we don’t sense any tension from her situation until she really is abused. Sebbens has energy and intensity but is played as unlikeable, even as she dances around the hotel room in childlike excitement. So as she is played as ambitious and hard from the first moment, her transformation is lessened.  I think this is more a reflection of the directorial vision that Sebbens’ skill as a performer.
Glenn Hazeldine as Ant does try to bring a gentleness to his role that is contrasted later by the dark and distressed obsession he has trying to regain control of his work. Hazeldine is the strongest of the cast and his years of experience are evident.
The two roles that feel out of place in regards to interpretation are Ronnie (Sally McKenzie) and Tyrelle (Charles Allen). Tyrelle’s bouncy flamboyancy at the start, the gay queen archetype, suddenly shifts to a much more sinister, unhinged role and then to the man in control of all of the other players on stage. It was a difficult transition to reconcile (writing or directorial?) I don’t know if I believe his behaviour and hatred of Currah can be so tied to his actions because he felt betrayed by her lack of authenticity. However, it did provide us with what I would consider to be the most powerful moment in the play as he pulls out the shotgun and proceeds to abuse and terrify those on stage and kudos to Sebbens and Allen for thoroughly committing to that difficult scene.
It is in that moment, after laughing about the contrived abuse, we are forced to engage in the heightened brutality of ‘real’ abuse. I think Allen did a solid job trying to reconcile the polarising attributes of this character and perhaps because the role felt more functional than real, this is exactly what was asked of him.
But it is the role of Ronnie, played by Sally McKenzie, that missed the mark. McKenzie’s hysterical portrayal of Ronnie- in crisis, in control, in negotiations, was played with little clarity. The archetype was pushed even further into the realm of ridiculousness and therefore we weren’t given the opportunity to relish in her role or function in the play. All you saw was the uncontrolled or disconnected hysteria. So it is not until the end when she starts to manipulate Ant do we see the potential was there to play any other stake than butch mercenary or victim of a hysterical breakdown. It felt like missed opportunities for Lewis and McKenzie to realise the dimensions that could have been accessed in this role.
All in all, I did enjoy this show. It’s not perfect and maybe I’ve been a bit hard on Lewis and the text is harder to realise than I could know.  But there is a lot here to enjoy and the controversial and current issue is food for thought, with the intimacy of the Stables a good venue for ‘A Hoax’.

Sunday 5 August 2012

O’PUNKSKY’S THEATRE’S ‘THE SEAFARER’ at Darlinghurst Theatre

I don’t think it’s a secret that I am partial to Irish plays but I only discovered Conor McPherson’s work a few years back after watching ‘Shining City’ at Griffin. Since then I’ve devoured many of his plays and was really looking forward to seeing this show, one of his more ‘upbeat’ plays, if you can believe Irish theatre has such a thing.
McPherson, like many of his Irish contemporary counterparts love a twist and a turn and a tilt and just when you think you’ve figured it out, another tilt for good measure.  ‘The Seafarer’ tells the story of two brothers, irascible Richard (recently blind after falling into a skip…) and Sharky (his reluctant carer whose own life is in tatters). The brothers are ‘celebrating’ Christmas Eve with a poker game with old drinking buddies Ivan and Nicky and a stranger from Sharky’s past, Mr Lockhart who’s back to collect his own debts. If you can imagine a boys own adventure, combined with elements of farce, folk tales, a bit of mythology and the supernatural, all set in the mess of the cold sitting room long neglected, you’re on the way to picturing ‘The Seafarer’.
O’Punksky’s Theatre Company are an independent theatre group well-known for their staging of Irish plays that showcase their skill and passion and celebrates the camaraderie of this very talented bunch of actors. If ever there was a reason to support Independent Theatre, O’Punksky’s give you a wealth of reasons. And ‘The Seafarer’ is one of those reasons.
I’m going straight to the cast because it is the ensemble nature of the performance that most strikes you about this production. These guys are having fun, relishing running into lamps, blindly hitting the staircase, savouring the shifts in power, the language, the drinking and even the crusty bits of toast clinging onto their jumpers. As an audience member, when you see a cast inside the play and the characters, having fun with each moment, you can’t help but enjoy it too.
Director Maeliosa Stafford, who also stars as Richard, talks in the program about the difficulty of “directing from the inside”. And it would have been a challenge- I’ve yet to see anyone really master it. I think that it’s almost impossible to have your eyes completely on the play when you’re in it and if I had one criticism of the show it would be that the rhythm sometimes lagged and it needed a kick in pace in moments (and this is backed up by a program that promises a 2 hours and 10 minute show with a 20 minute interval and ends up taking 2 hours and 45 minutes). I think a full-time director in this regard would have probably tightened the show.
However, Stafford’s Richard was marvellous. He’s the sort of character you want to embrace and slap at the same time. There is something wise or insightful about Richard in the glimpses of lucidity he enjoys between his barking commands and alcohol induced intentions. Stafford captures this beautifully, in language, physicality and personality. The ability to play ‘blind’ is incredibly hard, to keep focus and energy in this role but Stafford never faltered. His comic skills were some of the best I’ve seen and I would think that this will probably be one of Stafford’s favourite roles to play in his extensive career.
Patrick Dickson as Sharky is stuck in the straight role for most of the play and this can present its own challenges- always the martyr and never the master. But Dickson played the conflict and hopes of Sharky with belief and gave freely to the ensemble for them to use his character as a springboard for their own characters to jump off and swim in the pool of comedy.
And then my favourite character, Ivan, hopeless but dependable, played with such humour by Patrick Connolly, was such a treat in this show. It’s hard to believe Connolly only graduated from acting school 5 years ago because he tackled this like a seasoned professional. The rest of the cast could have been dancing naked around that stage when Connolly’s Ivan was buttering that toast with such intensity that I couldn’t have focused on anything but his actions. And he had plenty of them. Gorgeous work and perfectly cast.
John O’Hare bounced on stage as Nicky and brought a slickness to that role that I hadn’t imagined when reading it. In the play he is described as ‘a skinny, nervy appearance…wearing a tatty-looking anorak and threadbare grey slacks that are slightly too short for him, revealing white towelling sport socks..’ but costume designer, Alison Bradshaw’s choice to make him a little more kept and an edge of sleazy in his leather jacket and jeans I think worked really well and served as a contrast to Sharky, especially as both men care for the same woman. O’Hare finds the dimensions of naivety and ambition of Nicky, making him a cross between a player who hasn’t mastered the game (of life and poker) but always thinks he will. O’Hare is infinitely watchable and the energy he brings to Nicky and the scene changes the whole feel of the stage. He is a generous performer.
And that brings me to William Zappa. Anyone familiar with Zappa’s work will know he is a fabulous actor. I will never forget his outstanding work in Albee’s ‘The Goat or Who is Sylvia?’ Zappa gets to have real fun in this play and he clearly enjoys each moment. He gets the joy of being the catalyst of change for many of the others on stage and shuffles those stakes with the professionalism we have come to expect from him as a performer.
I don’t often spend reviews giving intricate details of each cast member (but it is easier with a cast of just five). But I do it for ‘The Seafarer’ here because what was obvious was the generosity of its ensemble to let every actor take their moment, to serve the play and not the actor and the respect these guys have for each other is obvious. And that’s the beauty of Independent Theatre at its best- you get to enjoy the collaboration of a team you can put together yourself, who all want the same things and all feel they have ownership in the final product.
So a few technical thumbs up to finish: what a great set, designed by Amamda McNamara and painstakingly constructed by members of the cast and any friends they could convince to come and help them; Nate Edmondson’s sound design of the blaring storm happening outside (and inside) the house, complemented by Tony Youlden’s lighting design.
Honestly, this show won’t disappoint. It’s probably a little longer than it needs to be but the integrity of what’s happening on stage will keep you engaged.
Go and support some great indie theatre and do yourself a favour.

Friday 3 August 2012

STC’S ‘THE HISTRIONIC’ directed by Daniel Schlusser and dissected by me

Two names: Bille Brown and Barry Otto. You would think that would be enough to go to the theatre and see a great show. You would think that the skill of both of these fine actors would knock this one past the boundary, over the fence and into the faces of the excited crowd.
Well, if you were thinking that, you would be wrong. Once again, Sydney Theatre Company have found a way to kill off their ageing demographic by sending them into a boredom-induced coma. That might also explain why it was one of the smallest audiences I’ve seen in Wharf 1 for a while.
And look- it’s not the actors, designers or director who’ve sent them to an early grave, in my opinion.  It’s Thomas Bernhard’s script as translated by Tom Wright that feels like the guilty party.
STC- what is going on? You are not having a good year. Everything that looked good in theory seems to be only two-dimensional in performance. ‘Histrionic’ took me back to last year’s ‘Edward Gant’- all the pieces feel like they should fit but they just don’t.
So let’s look at why it didn’t quite work.
I think it’s chiefly the script. Bernhard’s play is in response to his experiences on stage in Austria and it is written as a personal criticism of its petty government authorities as well as a self-deprecating examination of his own idiosyncrasies. Bernhardt has clearly placed himself in the centre of his writing in the role of Bruscon (played by Bille Brown) as he rallies against all the things that annoy him (which happens to be everything). I learn more about Bernhard that I do about anything else in this play.
Bille Brown does a terrific job in trying to bring life to Bruscon. The problem is the play doesn’t allow much of a journey for the character so his ranting and raving, so beautifully physicalised by Brown, lacks tension or complexity. He hates the town, he hates the stage, he is annoyed by his wife, his son, his daughter, people, lights, curtain, food… We don’t get to see him truly vulnerable, outside of a heightened tantrum or in any real conflict because he’s always in conflict. There is a lack of variety in the way the character has been crafted (by Bernhard or Tom Wright?) so that all Brown can do is give us his best performance skills and hope it is enough to mask that Bruscon is just a bit of a whinger.
Add to that, although the play has seven characters, it is essentially written as a monologue so the other characters are given idle busy work in feeding Bruscon reasons to complain or tasks in which to try to keep him happy. It’s a play pretending to be an ensemble piece but in no way is. It should be a one-man show- in fact, it would have been far more interesting if it was. It would give an actor the chance to create for us these other characters on stage, transforming and using his skills far more artfully perhaps that trying to sustain this thin play for one hour and forty minutes.
It’s such a pity to have assembled a lovely cast in a play that gives them such a little amount to do. They certainly did the best they could, wandering around the stage moving props on designer Marg Horwell’s set. And she gave them plenty of great things to play with- headless horses, huge hands, big ticket items. The set was all you could want to have some fun and to create a place of disrepair, a place long past its prime like an abandoned playground. This, of course, added to the metaphor of Bruscon himself.
I don’t think the cast could have done anymore with the script than they did. So I can only presume director Schlusser has pushed them all to embrace as much energy and comedic potential as the script allows. The only time tension potentially drew me in was in the quasi-sinister moments between Bruscon (Brown) and his daughter Sarah (Edwina Wren) as the very nature of their relationship suggested some sort of unnatural and abusive alliance was in place. But this was never really pursued so we felt nothing fulfilled its promise.
And that’s where the big problem in the script seemed to lie- when it seemed to want to take you into dark, uncomfortable places, it wimped out on itself and went for the potential laugh. I know a script can tread both of these waters but this one didn’t quite fulfil either. It was an anti-climatic punchline to the joke it hadn’t quite set up properly.
So all I can say is this: Bille Brown is a very good performer.  The cast kept themselves busy and gave an expressive performance in Brown’s background. The design was very interactive. The costumes were colourful.
It’s a shame they couldn’t have been given something better to work with.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

BELVOIR’S ‘Death of a Salesman’ directed by Simon Stone & dissected by me.

I’m trying to come up with a word or phrase to describe Simon Stone’s directorial style. So far all I have is ‘Ditexter’ for his ability to take the text and rework it to fit his brand. But the phrase that’s winning at the moment is ‘capsule director’- I think Stone likes to close his characters in to deliver their inner monologues and heighten the microcosm of the dilemma using any kind of capsule- a shower, box or in ‘Salesman’, the car. The metaphor becomes literal. Welcome to the world of Simon Stone and welcome to his latest offering, Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.
Simon Stone probably has the reputation as Australia’s most sought after and employed director. I’ve had plenty of time to ask myself why. His fingerprints are all over each show he directs. There’s no disputing that ego is a driving force in his work- sometimes wonderful, sometimes disastrous. He favours stark, gritty theatricality over naturalism. He wants to be an auteur of works more than be contained in the role of playwright’s director. And just as he loads his vision onto each play, off he hops to his next project, empirical style, trusting his cast and team to realise his concept.  And then I got it. What is Simon Stone’s smartest move as director? It’s to choose an outstanding cast to realise whatever vision he creates and to make it work.
‘Death of a Salesman’ is an interesting choice for Stone as he doesn’t normally choose a work he can’t ‘retextualise’ and Arthur Miller’s estate are pretty clear about changing the text. You can’t. Not a word. But by gee, how you stage those words, they are up for grabs and enter the capsule director, Stone.
Obligatory plot paragraph: ‘Death of a Salesman’ is the story of Willy Loman and his two sons, Biff and Happy and the conflict between the domestic and national values of a post WWII world. Whilst the success of an individual hinges on material gain, what happens when your sons can’t live up to your expectations and neither can you? That’s a simple overview but cuts to the heart of it.
If you are familiar with the play but not the production let me tell you that the only set device used in Stone’s interpretation is an old Ford Falcon on stage. Scenes are played inside, outside, on top of, around, in front, behind the car, etc. It’s done with natural and sometimes broad Australian accents and it’s set in modern times. Those not familiar with the play, Miller has it set at the time it was written, post WWII, mainly in the Loman household in suburban Brooklyn, USA.
I will tell you what I missed in this production- I missed the house. It wasn’t detrimental but I realised how much the play depends for me on that house. The American Dream seems tied up in that house. But I didn’t mind the car. Sometimes the entrances and exits from the car felt laughable- like characters conceived in the car emerging to fulfil role and function but when Colin Friels as Willy Loman is in that car, Stone’s capsule comes to life. I will admit to doing several of my own inner monologues in my car or rehearsing great conversations (with no-one in particular) in the sanctity and privacy of a moving vehicle. The car still worked for me. Didn’t love it but it worked.
I missed the appropriate accents, particularly as words can’t be changed it meant that cultural and time specific anachronisms were present throughout. We refer to particular years like 1928 and then we pull out an iPad. It’s strange and sometimes alienating until you settle into the groove of the show.
And this leads me to ask the question: is setting it in contemporary Australia giving it a new life and perspective or is it imposing a vision that doesn’t quite gel with this classically American play? As I’ve often said before, plays contain cultural codes that sometimes are very specific to the country. For example, would ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ work if you set it in mid-America in 2012? Although the thematic concerns of ‘Death of a Salesman’ are transferable, I don’t know that the cultural context is in the same way. Giving it an Australian flavour does not necessarily make it an Australian play.
Here’s what I didn’t mind in Stone’s interpretation- the exclusion of the end scene. I always felt that after the demise of Willy, that last requiem scene felt redundant (hope I haven’t spoilt the plot…I’m hoping the title was already a giveaway). That last scene can feel didactic and Stone’s choice to omit it probably gave more importance to the man than the death. Of course, the death is meant to teach us that we can so easily be a victim of the times and it may get a little lost without the last scene but I think the rest of the play delivers that message clearly, especially with Colin Friels behind the wheel (literally).
So let’s talk about the incredible performances put in by Stone’s cast. Let’s start with Friels. The intensity and passion of his portrayal of Willy Loman was one of the most outstanding turns I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Loman is one of the most challenging acting roles- full of contradictions as he shifts from present to flashbacks, as hero to broken man, from his prime to long past it, from joy to anger and back again. Friels gave it everything. He was a powerhouse of emotion and pain. I’ve never seen anyone do this role with such integrity. Bravo.
Patrick Brammall and Hamish Michael as sons Biff and Happy were beautifully cast and gave those characters real depth. Brammall’s torment at the crossroads of feeding his father’s expectations and hopes as opposed to vomiting out the truth and abandoning the whole charade was exceptional. His ability to go from young Biff to disillusioned man meant that Brammall gave Friels the strength of interplay that you require in such a role. Michael’s Happy served to contrast this with humour and gentleness.
The rest of the ensemble gave wonderful cameos- special mentions to Luke Mullins in his variety of roles, each of them distinct and skilful; Pip Miller’s Charley, gave us another layer to Arthur Miller’s concept of fathers, sons and the Dream as did Steve Le Marquand. Blazey Best also filled the stage with energy in what were such crucial small roles. Genevieve Lemon also had plenty of wonderful moments as Willy’s wife, Linda. I just felt the constant teeth-clenching acting needed moderation. I know that sounds harsh because really, she was present in intensity and integrity throughout, but the fact that she spoke through her teeth constantly drove me a little insane.
So, in essence, I did enjoy it. I didn’t love it but the quality of acting made me glad I saw it.
The lighting and sound were so ingrained into the show, I honestly couldn’t tell you any specifics about it and there’s something quite wonderful about that- there’s a whole soundscape and atmosphere being created that is so subtle and complementary, it’s integrated completely. Now that’s good technical work.
I’ll contemplate this production a little more and decide whether Stone is just lucky or a very clever man (in a monologue to myself on the car trip home).