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Tuesday 18 June 2013


Three hours, two intervals and times that by two if you want to see both shows on the same day. Had timing constraints been on my side, I would have happily sat through it all in the one sitting. Instead I have contented myself with Part One this time around and that's what I'll focus on here.

'Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches', written by Tony Kushner in 1988 and recently tweaked by the writer in 2010, is a great play. Kushner not only writes beautifully but he understands theatricality. The play bounces between witty banter, philosophical debate and insight, the individual struggle of conscience, identity and duty and the rampant and terrifying epidemic of AIDS. On top of that, 'Angels One' knows how to use theatrical elements, how to juxtapose scenes, manipulate split focus, integrate technology and the space to tell its story of the human dilemma of existence and acceptance. If you remain faithful to the work, it will do a lot of the work for you and to the credit of director Eamon Flack, he has done exactly that.

Flack has embraced an anti-Belvoir creative directorial vision and kept the play set in America, in its time period of the 80's and complete with accents. This may sound like I'm stating the obvious but if 'Death of a Salesman', 'Private Lives' or 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' were anything to go by, making the choice to stay true to the text's context has been a very unusual and good decision. Sure, part of this play is historical. My recent love affair reliving the 80's has reinforced for me what a turbulent time of change it was, politically, socially, economically, technologically and even idealistically. The 80's reflected a time when 'greed is good', the self was more important than community, wealth was easier to acquire and the tensions in the political superpowers created a nihilistic hedonism that embraced all of the above.

But the play is more than an insightful gauge of the 1980's Reagan years and much more than an American story. 'Angels' delivers a powerful  indictment of mortality, belief, relationships, loyalty, love and ambition and these are themes that cross any era or accent. The play does not feel dated. 'Angels' actually feels enlightening, as corny as that sounds, and a play that can traverse culture and time, when it is so time specific, is a good play indeed.

I saw it on a Sunday afternoon and the acting was a little uneven. I call it the matinee lull or the after-effects of a big run and a long week, as they are playing both parts in rep and it is a huge ask of any actor. Consequently I found myself not always tuning in to the full extent in some of the monologues, which sometimes felt low in energy and as if the actors weren't completely engaged in them themselves. But the duologues were much more successful for everyone.

Robyn Nevin had problematic vocals- she really struggled with a couple of characters such as the rabbi and the doctor, to project those lines out to her audience. No-one is doubting her ability to deliver and she can utterly transform herself in each role but I always get the impression with Nevin that she wants the audience to come to her instead of her giving it out to the audience. Marcus Graham (Roy M. Cohn) plays the angry American with aplomb. I just found there was something missing in any other dimensions to his character and so I'm really looking forward to seeing Part Two to see what else he brings to this role. But there is no doubt that with Graham opening this play centre stage that he draws you in  immediately. I'm definitely keen to see more from this cast and their characters in 'Part Two: Perestroika', especially as some of them, like Paula Arundell (Angel/Emily) and Ashley Zukerman (Joseph Porter Pitt) just seemed to be on the brink of some wonderful character arcs.

But the highlights for me from this show would have been Mitchell Butel (Louis Ironson) and Luke Mullins (Prior Walter). There is something so real and believable about their relationship on stage that gives such integrity to the choices and theatrical surprises of the play. Butel's one-sided conversation with Belize (Deobia Oparei) was probably the comic highlight of the play and certainly for both of these characters, even though its content was inflammatory and sadly, reflective of wearing the victim-badge. Mullins has a striking frailty to his performance, likeable and fragile. There is a complexity to his portrayal that is a huge part of this play's success, particularly contrasted to his lover Louis (Butel). This is great casting and acting. Butel and Mullins are the cornerstone of the play's story in Part One and they are lovely to watch.

I'll save all the design critique for Part Two, which I'm seeing next month after I return from a few weeks in Russia (it just seems appropriate to tell you that in a review of 'Angels in America'), so expect a few quiet weeks on the posting front.

So if you can get a ticket, you'll get your money's worth in 'Angels in America: Part One' and it will give you plenty to talk about in the foyer in each interval and afterwards.

How refreshing to see Belvoir invest in a play of this magnitude and deliver it with integrity and faithfulness. 

Monday 10 June 2013


I’ve come to enter the King St Theatre with some trepidation. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a full length play at this theatre that I’d classify as sustaining engagement. Harsh but true. So even though ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ is flawed, it’s the best thing I’ve seen at King St Theatre for a long time.

Director Ira Seidenstein has done something very unusual with Shakespeare’s text. He’s tried to find alternative ways to present the familiar and he’s not afraid to push boundaries. Even in his notes he discusses this production as a “project for a group of theatre practitioners to come together for a few weeks to throw off the shackles and protocols of good, conservative, conventional, commercial theatre…we are taking the time and risk to explore, rediscover and present the whole of Antony & Cleopatra”.  Indeed he does. It’s over 3 hours (and the first half almost hits two hours alone). Sometimes it’s tough work but there’s enough in this production to keep you going.

It’s a flourish of an opening and it even managed to occasionally distract me from the two very young children in the second row eating their way through the corner store and then moving to the front seats to lie down and have a nap. It’s an odd play to bring your three and six year old daughters and then supply them with a vat of crisps and at what age do we actually eat with our mouth's closed? Well the fact that this play made me forget the feast happening behind me is a pretty good sign.

I appreciated the physical embodiment of the play as directed by Seidenstein. This play is constantly active and strives to keep the text moving. Sometimes it strays from good sense but it also challenges how you could play it and so it adds an intrigue to a well-known story. And please- after STC’s static first hour of ‘War of the Roses’, this was sheer relief.

There were times, as indicated, it made some very odd choices. A bit of kinky sex play between Antony (Berryn Schwerdt) and Octavia (Tammy Brennan), if you will. The hard hat and bunny ears gave a comic complexity to that relationship that was less than believable. I got the impression that nothing was too bold a choice in this interpretation. Heaven help the actor if he is waiting for Seidenstein to pull them back. ‘Make it bigger’ would be a more fitting description of his directorial vision.

But there are moments that add flavour to the text. Having Enocarbus (Brinley Meyer) played by and as a woman adds a new sexual tension, especially in her scenes with Agrippa (Paul McNally) and so the tango between them fits in the scene in a very odd kind of way. Seidenstein finds a musicality to the play and even lays down a beat using the proficient drumming skills of actor Yiss Mill. Antony’s death scene is also given a comic overhaul, as Cleopatra’s (Denby Weller) minions (Natalie Lopes, Bron Lim and Erin Gordon) move him around the stage, adding to the comic melodrama.

There are varying degrees of success in finding the right rhythm of delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Schwerdt is completely at home and he’s not afraid to commit to each moment, regardless of its absurdity and thus he finds an integrity in its oddity. Brendon Taylor also sat into the text and most of the cast certainly had moments of delivering this big play. Kudos to the student component in the cast. Although clearly lacking the sophistication of skills to make it sound or appear natural in execution, they had terrific energy and commitment.

Probably the strangest interpretation was of Octavia. Shakespeare refers to her as shy, reserved, demure- well practically frigid. She’s a screaming banshee in this play and the high emotion does not look comfortable for the audience or for Brennan. That then creates problems for the scenes with her and Antony and with Octavius (Jonathan Dunk). Cleopatra is also a bit hit and miss in regards to emotion. She is played at either extreme and so we never really get to know her more than superficially in this production. Her death then lacks impact- although to be fair, that can be said of all of the deaths in this show. But it’s hard to say whether that’s Weller or a directorial choice. I’ll go for the latter.

Seidenstein is an experienced clown and so his work with Bruno Lucia in his various roles in this play provides some of the best and most expressive moments of the night. Lucia knows exactly how to manipulate the comedy each time he is on the stage. There’s a light that goes on when he enters the space- he enters with presence.

I imagine the cast provided their own clothes because I see no costume designer credited. But I was impressed with the modernity and appropriateness of their choices and some of those actors are stylish indeed. I want to go shopping with Meyer and Weller.

The last 20 minutes felt like it needed a good edit but overall, I’m glad I saw this play and I think it’s worth a viewing. It’ll ‘make the familiar strange’ but that’s half of its charm because the cast are wholly committed to the exercise and it allows the audience to take the journey with them.

Get along before it closes on the 15th June. I’ll be interested in your thoughts…

Sunday 9 June 2013

NEW THEATRE’S ‘ENRON’ dissected by me

Whoever said it’s a disaster to combine entertainment and education in the theatre? ‘Enron’ takes all of those things, the disaster that was Enron and unpacks its pieces so that the average punter can understand how it happened, then gift wrap it with a side of vaudeville and theatrical metaphor. The New Theatre’s ‘Enron’, directed by Louise Fischer, will leave its audience satisfied on all counts.

I don’t think the New could attract a more diverse audience if it tried. I love a bit of audience eavesdropping and from what I heard, there were loved up couples, some very experienced theatre patrons, the slightly drunk man and his friends in the third row and a group of young adults who are genuinely surprised by what is about to unfold. I heard them ask ‘I kind of wonder what's going to happen in the second half’ and I thought, ‘how can that be?’ And then I’m reminded that when Enron went down, during the whole 9/11 tragedy, and required a US$5 trillion dollar bailout to keep the economy afloat, some of these audience members were probably only 10. I almost fell on the floor when my 16 old students didn’t know the specific particulars of 9/11 before they reminded me that they were 4 at the time. See, while the events of the play feel so recent in my mind, that’s what’s smart about Lucy Prebble’s play- it delivers the events of Enron in a way that offers insight into 90’s corporate values that define who we are today. This is more than a historical play. It’s a lesson in greed, excess and the loss of tangible assets in a virtual world.

The four mains in this play are really strong. Matt Young (Jeffrey Skilling), Cassandra Lee Heschl (Claudia Rose), Nick Curnow (Andy Fastow) and Peter Flett (Kenneth Lay) really deliver the goods. They each capture, in their roles, either the ambition to build something for the future or how to future-build their ambition. Of course, Prebble has given them great material to work with and director Fischer has brought it to life on stage. I was surprised to read that Cassandra Lee Heschl has just returned to acting after considerable time away from the craft because she brought an experienced nuance and depth to Claudia Rose and created one of the only likeable yet flawed characters on stage. Perhaps it because the character of Claudia Rose is so old school in her business ideals that we middle-aged cronies are attracted to her. She is not above manipulating others and is not painted as a saint but when she utters at the end of the play, ‘Is it true that my division was the only one that made money?’, after her unceremonious dismissal, we can’t help sharing in the glee that she was right to practice business as she did. Aren’t we still romantics like that?

Matt Young made Skilling as unlikeable as you could hope. But amongst all that corporate villainy, we recognise he’s a victim of his own making and trapped so firmly in the appearance of success, and rewarded for it, that admitting his flaws become impossible. Same can be said for Curnow’s Andy Fastow. It’s a classic case of the accountancy whiz triumphing over his bullies at the expense of any integrity he may have possessed. We see how desperately he wants to please and will find anyway to do it. Flett’s turn as Kenneth Lay was a blend of loyalty mixed with rewarding excess in conflict with that loyalty. He doesn’t understand this new world he’s been thrust into but recognises he can profit from it and in the end, his way forward is to head in a direction way beyond his comfort zone. Profit trumps morals. His abandonment of what made him successful in order to create more ethereal success was a clear recipe for disaster. Even when the fallout of Enron’s crash was engulfing him, instead of trying to find the truth, his classic line, ‘You don’t bury a dog and then dig it up to smell it’ captures the deliberate corporate ignorance of dodgy practices that have made CEO’s billions but bankrupt the common man.

There were a number of lovely stage elements that gave the play theatricality beyond the normal doco-drama. I enjoyed the ‘box’ metaphors but the inclusion of the caged ‘raptors’ was my moment of the match. It was fun having the 90’s flashbacks, although it felt a little amateurish at times. Clarisse Ambroselli’s set allows for the creative use of levels but can feel clunky in moments, especially as it seemed to slow down the action unnecessarily.

There’s lots of energy coming from the ensemble and apart from a slowness to respond to cues by some, they serve the play well.

I don’t always love each play put on by the New but I do appreciate the variety they offer and the sense of involvement by its theatre community. 'Enron' sometimes feels clunky and forced but there is much more to like than not. This is a play to support. Get yourself a ticket to ‘Enron’ and regardless of what you either know or don’t about the insalubrious trading fiasco of Enron, you’ll come out better informed and entertained.

Saturday 8 June 2013

STC’S ‘THE MAIDS’ dissected by me

Just as it’s a given that I will cry in ‘Warhorse’ (and I did), it’s just as certain that I will have an opinion on a Benedict Andrews show (and I do). His latest project, after a long absence post ‘Every Breath’ is the new English translation by Andrews and Andrew Upton of Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’, now showing at the Sydney Theatre. Gosh, it seems appropriate that on the two year anniversary of my blog I get to review a Benedict Andrews play, so here it goes:

Boooooooooriiiing. There. That’s my opinion. Soporific. I have to say I was somewhat surprised. I’m used to being  disrespected, outraged or surprised by the reoccurrence of those BATSHIT tricks (BINGO) and Andrews’ style but bored and disinterested, that felt new.

Why was I bored? Well, it’d be for two main reasons. Firstly, the pace of the play, especially when it was just the two maids (Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert) is way too slow. The rhythm of this play is laboured. It needs a damn good edit and someone to crack a whip on some of the delivery and the overuse of silence between the characters. It feels like a soap opera at times (heightened by the video feed- more of that later).  I gather that’s partly the effect Andrews was after, except it felt more ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ in a play that needs more kick in its tableaux of characters' expressions and segue ways between dialogue. I did see it on the very first preview night and so I will make a prediction that as the season progresses, I think Andrews and team will fix that issue and it might make it much better than the night I saw it, which was clearly a work in progress. In the program it says it is 90 minutes without interval. When I saw it, it was 125 minutes without interval. Slashing 20 or 30 minutes off this piece would do it the world of good. Slash this piece and not my wrists comes to mind.

The second and more problematic issue was Isabelle Huppert. She is not good. There is no connection between her and the material and no chemistry between her and Blanchett. Add to that, I only understood about half of what she was saying through her thick natural French accent. Problematic, to say the least. That I could have forgiven if there was a genuine conviction in the comedy, relationship and delivery. Huppert’s big monologue at the end was a disaster. Do you all know the story about that terrible production of Anne Frank somewhere overseas? Essentially, the production was so bad that when the Nazis first enter the scene, looking for Anne and her family, someone from the audience yelled out ‘She’s in the attic’. I will admit that during some of that dreadfully slow first half and Huppert’s mono at the end, those words were rattling through my mind. Those words and a sudden thought that perhaps, at this very moment, even watching John Howard masturbate on stage might be more preferable than this.

I felt the play only came to life in the second hour when Elizabeth Debicki, as the towering, youthful and gorgeous Mistress, entered the stage. At last, life, intrigue, and the scenes between her and Blanchett were very watchable. I had wondered, when it was revealed that Blanchett was playing one of the maids, who on earth could possibly rival her as the Mistress. Debicki did it with ease. Blanchett is always going to have something worth the exorbitant ticket price but I think Debicki is the real star of ‘The Maids’. Debicki managed to capture the blasé superficiality of the Mistress and her torment of those under her with humour and belief. She was terrific.

Yes, Andrews has a few of his staples on stage. The mirrored walls were there but they did feel right in this play about what’s on show and exposing the ‘play-acting’ of life. The profanity was prolific but after we meet the Mistress, it makes sense and falls into place. I thought Alice Babidge’s set was great- I loved the opulence of the clothes and the flowers, all of which are designed wholly for the appearance of decadence and none of which provide any real joy for the characters at all. They are there to taunt you but can never be yours and if they are, they remind you that image is a barren king in this empty world. The room fills the Sydney Theatre stage and made it feel intimate at the same time- a feat in itself. Loved the placement of the mirror and didn’t even mind the camera placed in it to allow us to be the voyeurs of those sitting in it (and helping round out the ‘glass box’, so to speak).

The rest of Sean Bacon’s video feed felt superfluous or obsolete. It added nothing, except a distraction. Had it been better used and not mainly for close-ups of vases of flowers, then maybe it could have worked. As it was, it’s an idea that hasn’t made its fruition into a technique relevant to the narrative or style or effect.
The soundtrack, composed by Oren Ambarchi, was another one of those techniques that just didn’t seem to add meaning to the play and its context or style. If it serves a function, apart from the soap opera crescendo that I’ve already damned, then I don’t know what it was. Of course, you can just call me stupid and be done with it (and there are those who gleefully will) but if you agree that I might know something about theatre, if it’s redundant from my point of view, it might be for many others too.

So, here’s my thinking in a nutshell. I think this play will get better. I think that for once, perhaps Benno hasn’t completely disrespected his cast and there are actually some good moments in the middle of this play. I thought the translation worked. The rhythm and pace should pick up over time and if Huppert can radically improve in diction and performance, it could be a very good play. At the moment, however, it is very, very ordinary. There's very little tension, comic or otherwise until you get to the scenes with the Mistress. The season is sold out so I don’t think it will make the slightest difference to getting punters in the door and the fact that Blanchett is in it will be enough for some people to get excited.

But I want more bang for my buck than ‘The Maids’ provides.

Sunday 2 June 2013


What a pleasure it is to see a production of David Williamson’s ‘The Removalists’, originally set in 1971, that understands the importance of staying true to the era in which it was written. ‘The Removalists’ certainly still has themes and characters that are relevant to us today but some of the language has dated the play and feels out of place to set it in contemporary times, as the 2009 problematic production of Wayne Blair’s from STC demonstrated a few years ago. Director Leland Kean has found an effective nod to the time it was written and to its audience today, finding equilibrium in Williamson’s New Wave play.

The narrative focuses on a young police recruit’s first day (Ross) with his crooked sergeant (Simmonds), two women (Kate and Fiona) seeking their assistance over a domestic dispute, Fiona’s resistant husband (Kenny Carter) and the removalist sent to clear the Carter’s household. I can’t imagine there are too many regular theatre-goers who aren’t familiar with ‘The Removalists’- it has been on the prescribed text list for more than one course in the school curriculum for over three decades so chances are you’ve encountered it at some stage in your life.

I first saw it when I was at school in 1984 and I recently directed a school production of it myself. So it’s of interest that I reflect back on it today, almost 30 years later since I first saw it, with the Rock Surfers’ production at the Bondi Pavilion. When I first saw it in 84, the play felt far more normal and now, what stands out is that all this time has passed and here is a play about domestic violence, male brutality, corruption, power and sexism and there is only a limited change in attitudes in 2013.

Let’s first deal with the sexism of the play. Kean has artfully manipulated our understanding and viewing of the treatment of the two sisters Kate and Fiona (Caroline Brazier and Sophie Hensser).  Not only do the women respond to the names they’re called like ‘slut’, ‘bike’ ‘twat-flasher’ and ‘bitch’ with lines like, ‘It doesn’t worry us Sergeant. We’re used to it’ but even those men not involved in the action, like the removalist (Sam Atwell) make comment on the women in the play, ‘I think she’s a trollop too’ to Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta), whose beating of his wife seems inconsequential to the male attitudes abound in the room. Even the sergeant’s (Laurence Coy) first instinct of hearing the domestic nature of the complaint is to farm it off to Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) before stating, ‘Never arrest a wife-basher if his missus is still warm’, said only minutes before his overt sexual claim on ‘assisting’ the women becomes obvious, especially as Coy grabs his groin and leaves us no doubt of the sergeant’s intentions. The women in this play are expected to trade sex for favours and heaven forbid if they are doing it for their own pleasure or gain, that will be used against them too, as Kenny yells to Fiona, ‘you squeal like a stuck pig for me in bed…tell the sergeant how you can’t enough of it sometimes’. The women have no power. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. For a play that deals in the acquisition and maintenance of power, the women are the most vulnerable. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could say in 2013, problem solved? That’s the power of ‘The Removalists’, that the misogyny and heightened male aggression is still so evident and universal.

Kean has achieved giving Williamson’s women more depth than I’ve ever seen in a production of this play. Brazier was outstanding as Kate, who managed to evoke sympathy from the audience which took me by surprise. Truth be known, none of these characters are truly likeable and yet we do feel for the predicament they find themselves in and Kean’s menace in the play aids in that feeling.

O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Ross as less of a victim and more of an idealistic constable, resistant to the sergeant's prying, also makes the ending even more disturbing. Kean highlights how Ross resorts to violence against an already weakened and beaten Kenny showing how these fatal actions of Ross perhaps were not out of character or so surprising, given the pressure on him to show his power as a man. Ross is proud and the verbal humiliation he gets from every other man in that play drives his ‘self-control’ out the window. Men have to hurt other men (and women) to show their worth, whether it is for power, show, defence or domestic reasons, violence is the key to status in this world.

Kean’s production also has great moments of comedy- the opening silence between Simmonds and Ross as Ross ‘bounces up and down on his bloody toes’; the removalist's cocky indifference and repetition of his only concern, money and not people, ‘I’ve got $10,000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive’ is almost the equivalent of Simmonds deal with Kenny to provide him with prostitutes to keep his silence over the beatings. Everything is a deal in ‘The Removalists’ and there is a price to pay for getting what you want, although no-one gets to claim on that deal in the end. 

The physical comedy of Ross and the TV set was a hilarious theatrical metaphor of Ross’ own tenuous grasp of his own destiny. And watching the men of the play sit around drinking after the false ending, securing their ‘futures’ and watching Kenny struggle to even open his bottle was an indictment of men refusing to deal with the big picture of their actions and instead comically deal with the immediate fallout. Change is fought by asserting your power through the status quo of aggression and humiliation. Kean has used the absurdity of their dilemma to make the quasi-naturalist elements even more frightening.

There is menace in this play. Cotta’s delivery as Kenny is brutish and ominous. I was frightened of him and I was safely in the second row. Seeing his physical deterioration contrasted to his escalating verbal violence was heightened in this portrayal. Other effects on the audience were audible, such as Simmonds’ own crotch grabbing and bottom slapping of the women, or his sexual leering in regards to Fiona’s bruises, evoked sounds of disgust from the darkness of the audience, especially given the age difference between characters, which adds to the cringe-factor. The shock of Kenny’s appearance, bloody and beaten was another obvious reaction from those watching.

Kean has found a plethora of contrasts to work with in this play- age and generation, powerful and powerless, authority and aggression, not to mention each character’s own journey. We see Fiona trying to reclaim power, we see Kate’s used against her, Kenny’s complete reversal of power, Simmonds lack of self-control from boss to brutalised and Ross’s idealism morphed into a frenzied and panicked murderer. It is only the removalist who remains unmoved and constant and given he is the representative of society, or us, to be clear, we come to understand that Williamson is projecting our own inability to change or aid in the wrongs or injustices of the world. Rob, the removalist, is a cowardly voyeur, to be laughed at as the world crashes around him and he sits, unmoved. 

Kean has utilised the elements Williamson gives him in the script and enhanced them with technical imagery. Ally Mansell’s set of the station, as bland as a hospital ward in eucalypt green, with Simmonds ensconced behind his big desk of authority, leaves Ross exposed in the open of the centre stage. Simmonds has the power of the force to lean on whilst Ross has nothing. In the Carter’s household, the stripping away of furniture removes the trappings of domesticity and lets us witness the exposed violence of the men left on stage as they dance their ritual of aggression around the corpse of Kenny. The three doors were another nice touch, especially as they attempt to use the shafts of light to seek solace and power or run out and in, searching for an exit or enlightenment and all doors leading them back to the space they just left. Luiz Pampolha’s lights capture these moments and again, using lights to create the effect of the venetian blinds at the start of each act allows us to be the voyeurs that we accuse the removalist of being.  Jed Silver’s soundtrack not only places us back in 71 but he gives each character their own sound of the 70’s, from rock to ballad and offers an insight into the workings of their minds and personalities. Choreographer Scott Witt managed to create realism to the violence that is hard to achieve for the stage.

So in 1971 this play offered us a new theatrical expression, in 1984 this play felt like pure realism, in 2009 STC gave us a production that made ‘The Removalists’ feel completely anachronistic and in my own production I wanted to heighten the absurdity and comedy, Leland Kean and the Rock Surfers found the right balance in 2013. Whether you’re studying the play or not, it is worth heading out to Bondi and watching a quality production that can still captivate the audience of today.