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Wednesday 30 October 2013

STC’s ‘ROMEO & JULIET’ dissected by me.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ opens to a montage of youthful hedonism butting its head up against reckless conflict on a grand and elaborate set and revolving stage, accompanied by an exciting contemporary soundtrack. Wow. Seriously. Wow. It’s rare that in the very first moments of a play you could get me to sit up and feel like I’ve been awakened to a brand new interpretation of Shakespeare but Kip Williams’ direction of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, especially in the first half, was a liberating theatrical experience of the destructive power of living in the extremity of the present moment. I was swinging on that chandelier all the way until interval.

I loved it so much I went twice (to see the first half but more of that later). STC’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a visual feast and the play’s mood, tone and themes were captured beautifully in Williams’ production. This show felt young and fresh. What we see is youth and privilege in an aimless environment finding distraction in stimulants, sex and violence. Try to set it some boundaries and suddenly there’s something to aim for- breaking and pushing those same boundaries (don’t fight, don’t disobey, don’t go to that party…). It perfectly captured a youth culture that lives for the now. What do I feel right now? What do I want right now? Who do I want right now? There is no future to plan for, no consequences to consider and as you’d expect from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, that is at the core of the tragedy.

Seeing Benvolio (Akos Armont) and Mercutio (Eamon Farren) careen with their trolley of alcohol, provoke a fiery Tybalt (Josh McConville) and making it all so active and visceral as we dance around David Fleisher’s imposing and ostentatious set of the Capulet estate, was a beautiful image. Dialogue was redundant. Williams’ pastiche captures the moment and, like a film, we pan around each vignette through the revolve to feel the intimidation and trappings of wealth and then we’re left with intimate moments for our characters in the space left behind, outside the home.

Fleisher’s set also brilliantly serves as multiple layered spaces that extend the opulence and meaning, such as the huge squash game between Capulet (Colin Moody) and Paris (Alexander England), the party scene, Juliet’s (Eryn Jean Norvill) bedroom, the balcony, and Friar Laurence’s (Mitchell Butel) garden and chambers. The comedy of Juliet in disguise as the Nurse (Julie Forsyth) trekking towards her wedding to Romeo (Dylan Young) was another delightful montage as she encounters each character and several double-takes, just like us in the audience, re-looking at the expected as something entirely new. We see the transience of each moment of the play for its characters and it is underscored with a soundtrack of bass lines and percussion. Ah to be young and invincible again.

Of course, the second half takes us somewhere else and suddenly we get serious and lose the energy and vitality of the first half. Whilst the first half is all party, love, hope and playfulness, the second half is doom and gloom and we feel the slowness of pace and rhythm and the buzzing electricity fizzles into middle-age and damned consequences very quickly. The second half feels like it needs an edit as it takes a bex and has a good lie down. It’s inherent in the script but I wish Williams found a way to keep it more alive and active, which he finds in the very end but we’ve already put our shoes back on, started calculating our monthly grocery bill and are ready to go. The first half is visual. The second half is dialogue. The first half is new. The second half is Shakespeare, if you know what I mean.

However, for the first half alone, I hope you see this show if you haven’t already. Norvill’s Juliet is exceptional and the boys of the Montague clan are a lovely triumvirate of energy who own the stage and banter with ease. These boys act as if they've known each other for years and there is a natural chemistry that exudes between them. McConville’s Tybalt (knocked out with a knee injury the first time I saw it, which just seems wrong for the King of Cats) is as ferocious as you’d expect and Moody’s Capulet and Anna Lise Phillips’ Lady Capulet are a perfect example of juxtaposing positions of power and wealth. Forsyth’s Nurse is a terrific comedic vehicle for the actress and she ‘milks that baby’ for all its worth. She minces in a world that strides and runs and we love her pretensions and protestations.This is a strong cast and for a play whittled down to ten characters, it feels appropriate in this contemporary interpretation.

It is obvious that Williams has experience directing opera because there is something epic about this interpretation and design. Williams’ youth is also a drawcard. He taps into something raw and real in youth culture and I recognised these characters and personalities as self-gratifying privilege left to fester.

Technically, the show is masterful. Even Fleisher’s costumes are inspired and although I've made no mention of Nicholas Rayment's lighting, I love the use of his small light in the big space as destiny creeps in from the dark. Williams, crew and cast have outdone themselves and if not for the second-half blues, I would have kept returning to the show like one of those crazy theatre stalkers but that last hour was too much. Too too much. Until then, I’m grabbing the trolley of grog, an inflatable balloon and pretending I’m about 30 years younger than what I am.

Hurrah for giving me something exciting, even if you couldn’t sustain it. I’ll take it and run with it.

Tuesday 29 October 2013


Imagine what the plane trip back from that fateful day in Dallas almost 50 years ago must have been like- Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson sharing the presidential suite with the coffin of John F Kennedy. One woman recognising that her life is irrevocably changed just as one man faces the same dilemma. But for Jackie Kennedy, as a woman, wife and mother, who is she without her famous philandering and powerful husband and for Johnson, he must now become the man to rule the country but is marked by his own invisibility and uncertainty. Both are haunted by the ghost of JFK and neither are sure how to emerge from his substantial shadow.

In Bakehouse’s production of Ron Elisha’s play ‘Love Field’, now showing at the Tap Gallery, we are witness to a possible conversation (admittedly, all fiction but lots to ponder) between Jackie Kennedy (Lizzie Schebesta) and Lyndon Johnson (Ben Wood). Director Michael Dean has transformed this tiny space, designed by Nick Plummer and Suzanne Millar, into an intimate Air Force One journey with our two characters. Whilst there were times I felt the relationship and scenario felt a bit contrived- Jackie’s blood soaked outfit, some mixed accent work and the phone calls to Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife pushed the friendship a little too far, there is a great chemistry between Schebesta and Wood that made me believe in the relationship and this is what the play hinges on. These two actors breathe life into this short imagined scenario.

This is a play of possibilities set in a crucible of catastrophe. There is something commanding about the sheer physical presence of Johnson and Wood manages to also find Johnson’s crippling self-doubt. The moments where we see him thrust into JFK’s jacket is reminiscent of Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk all rolled into one uncomfortable and reluctant hero. Johnson cannot wear the loved mantle of his predecessor and the implication is that perhaps leadership will not ‘fit’ him. Schebesta’s Jackie Kennedy contrasts this with her need to support and mother, like a First Lady might, in conflict with the fact that she no longer serves in this role. There are also moments where anger boils because whilst she could forgive Kennedy's sins, she cannot forgive his departure. She is in a man’s world and her currency is only in how she can complete the picture and serve her master, now gone. Behind every good man and all of that. This is reiterated in the confusion of who sits where in the executive suite now that their roles have changed.

Of course there is some romantic intrigue between them in Elisha’s play and this gives a new context to the real phone recordings played at the end of the show as well as the projections that sometimes interrupt the action and it is a credit to director and cast that make us want it to be true, even though we imagine there’s very little truth in it at all. There is a longing and desire that underpins their relationship. He represents a steady monotony and she represents an intelligent and beautiful counterpart.

The undercurrent of plane noise from sound designer James Colla and the stark brightness of lights from Christopher Page add to the frenzied tension of events and even when the stage is still or characters don’t speak, we understand that the buzz of circumstance is ever-present.

‘Love Field’ is a short excursion as far as what it requires of you in time and effort but it is a polished and thought-provoking play and audience seemed to exit satisfied. I know I was. 

Friday 25 October 2013

BELVOIR’S ‘HAMLET’ dissected by me

I had heard only positive reports about Simon Stone’s ‘Hamlet’ and so I was actually excited to see this show, particularly as I have seen so many variations of ‘Hamlet’, starting with my own university days working in the production crew and partaking in Shakespeare’s play night after night and it made me swear that it would be a long time between ‘Hamlet’ drinks. ‘Remember me’ it cried and damn it, I did. All too well.

Of course I have also started to warm to Simon Stone in a love/hate relationship. I think the fact that he has been allowed to experiment on the big stage with the most extraordinary of resources and talents at his disposal has given him opportunities no other director of his age has had, the privilege to hone his craft at an audience’s expense. As a result we have witnessed some previous efforts that might best be described as ‘rank and gross in nature’ and it means that now he has started to theatrically and directorially mature, we are seeing a much more sophisticated and controlled Stone.

In fact, what Stone has given us in this ‘Hamlet’ is a perfect example of Epic Theatre’s verfremdungseffekt. In many ways the edits of this script, now down to eight characters and two hours & twenty minutes, he has also edited out much of the emotion and potential catharsis. That isn’t to say that there aren’t examples of ‘emotion’ on stage, it’s just more external and visual rather than internalised realism.

Hamlet himself (Toby Schmitz) gives us all the words and actions of a man in grief and yet I am unmoved and I feel this is deliberate. Stone’s mantra is to ‘listen to every single word’ and in this instance, I’m hearing them very differently from what I might have heard before and I get to think about these words and the ideas of the play in a new way too. Brecht would have been proud. Stone’s choice to have the stage filled with the ghosts of the play is exciting. It does breathe a new context into Hamlet’s lines and madness- we see what haunts him literally before our eyes and not simply implied in Shakespeare’s script. We are inside his dilemma, we witness him chased by his demons and ask, what is he to do? They are demanding justice and he is tied to them whether he wants to be or not (to be). This is an interpretation where seeing it is much more important than feeling it and so whilst you exit the play thinking ‘I didn’t really invest emotionally in this play’, I believe that’s the point. Consideration, not catharsis.

The ‘play within the play’ is now a puppet show manipulated by Hamlet. It’s a clever device of showing Hamlet’s role in exposing Claudius (John Gaden) and offers one of the lighter moments of the play as he straddles from audience to puppeteer and engages the puppets in the rude play we’d expect from a bawdy Shakespearean ensemble and it highlights the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude (Robyn Nevin). Gertrude herself is interpreted as a little fond of the drink, rarely without a cup of wine in hand and it’s easy to see how reliant she is on external stimulation and the will of others. There is some comedy in Polonius (Greg Stone) and he also provided me with one of the only moving parts of the play when he and Ophelia (Emily Barclay) are reunited in death. That I felt. Then I realised, our interest is in not so much the living but more in the dead and we know that Hamlet’s journey must end with joining them.

Ralph Myer’s set adds another layer to Stone’s vision in ensuring that the first half is filled with curtains, hiding spots, shadows and secrets. The second half is Stone’s hallmark white box, full of exposed and heated disarray with nothing hidden- the pressure cooker is on full speed. Benjamin Cisterne’s lights echo Myer’s design, with the first half so dark that it may promote an abnormal enhancement of circadian rhythms but if you can stay awake, the stage looks heavy with grief. The second half then serves as a battleground of scars of Hamlet’s ghosts, actions, loss and life. I should also add that the live music (Luke Byrne and Maximilian Riebl) becomes the soundtrack to this visceral examination of the play’s ideas and so technically, there’s much to admire in this production.

For a show that constantly moves, it’s interesting that it felt so static in my mind- perhaps because I’m engaging in the ideas more than the characters. The ending may have influenced this with the circle of ghosts joining Hamlet even before they’ve been killed and the lines are spoken in trance complete with camel cries of death and song. It is a fascinating ending to focus on what’s lost and not what’s happening and that purgatory is for the living as well as the dead. 

I did enjoy Stone’s version of ‘Hamlet’ as a visual spectacle of words and ideas. I did mourn the loss of emotion but only temporarily. The power was in the way the show resonated long after seeing it. 

‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

DINNER AND A SHOW dissected by me

On Sunday I headed into The Rocks as part of the Pop-Up Festival and only slightly distracted by the markets, I caught Outrageous Fortune’s ‘Dinner and a Show’, playing until October 27th at 37 George St.

‘Dinner and a Show’ is the creation of a group of young artists who wanted to devise and perform theatre that young people would like to see and sought to challenge the idea that theatre is more than a traditional passive audience experience. With that in mind, ‘Dinner and a Show’ uses the convention of processional theatre where each room is set up as a different show that you move to at will and interact with over the course of the hour, some much more interactive than others.

For instance, after being welcomed by the maƮtre die, Bendeguz Devenyi-Botos and waitress (and director) Ava Karuso, we were lead into a room entitled N.U.T.S, a self-help group where allergic reactions are merely manifestations of fear and we are all coached into reciting mantras and affirmations in regards to our fear of cashews. The real treat is that in each room, as the title would suggest, you are also supplied with food and so we left N.U.T.S with a cup full of peanut brittle. Anaphylaxis be damned, we were cured.

I was then personally guided out to the veranda where I was sat at the table of my ‘date’ for the evening, Paul Musumeci and we (by we, I mean me) engaged in series of tests to see whether I was his perfect match in his ‘Paul Musumeci’s Love Quest’ as I ate my way through our chocolate engagement cake. Things went awry when I tried to slice his hand open with the plastic knife (don’t ask me to role play- I will embrace it a little too readily) and so I left our date and headed off to see the ‘Doctor’ James Hartley as part of his performance of ‘The Cure’. For the record, liquid sugar solves most problems.

I then ventured out to the courtyard and saw Lillian Shaddick engulfing the table, filled with a feast of treats and was asked to ‘Feed Her’, the challenge to see how much and what combination of foods I would like to feed her. Maternal instincts kicked in and I did try to force her to snack on the vegetables.

The final show I caught was ‘You Can’t Tune a Piano’ performed by Patrick Richards, who cooked us a creamy tuna pasta dish whilst telling us his weight loss story. I missed ‘Morning Breakfast Hello’ but there was certainly plenty of choice on offer throughout the one hour experience.

‘Dinner and a Show’ would be a really fun experience to take your kids to- it’s family friendly and would especially appeal to the 10-14 year olds who would delight in its interactive and sweet temptations on offer. The portability of shows and experiences means that you are free to come and go as you wish and only involve yourself as much as you desire but certainly, a young audience would appreciate the active nature of the show.

The material itself has a way to go to appeal to a broader market- it does feel juvenile and underdeveloped in some regards but it doesn’t take away from the good-natured sense of the show and even old cynics like me appreciated the risk-taking involved by the performers (um- hello- I tried to slice Musumeci’s hand open- you don’t know what your audience will do). The performers had lots of energy, even if they haven't yet honed their skills.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly interactive experience in a great city location (I went Sunday for lunch so I could shop at the markets after), why not check out ‘Dinner and a Show’ for something different. 

Sunday 13 October 2013

NEW THEATRE’S ‘HAY FEVER’ dissected by me

Noel Coward wrote as if words slipped effortlessly off the tongue, slicing through all in its path and wit was used as a weapon on the witless. He made it look as easy as breathing, his voice coming through loud and clear in every word and I think, because it jumps off the page, there’s a belief that it’s just as effortless to stage. A bit of finery, an accent and off you go.

It’s a trap the New Theatre and director Rosane McNamara fell into in her production of Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’. Coward’s play takes us into the country retreat of the Bliss family and the torture they execute on their visitors in order to find inspiration and satiate vanity. McNamara’s production made Coward look like very hard work. Lines and accents were forced, vocals declaimed and some awkward timing meant that there were holes in the show that even Coward’s words couldn’t fill. Vocal coach Frank McNamara might have suggested that it doesn’t matter what your accent is if you’re yelling each line, especially to actress Jorja Brain (Sorell Bliss), who found no nuance in the many moods of daughter Sorell because every state came off as hysterical more than petulant.

There are a few bright spots in the New’s ‘Hay Fever’. Alice Livingstone, who plays matriarch Judith Bliss, floats onto the stage and once she’s there we feel like the play is in good hands as Livingstone relishes the moments her character indulges in the torment of others and her delusions of self-reverential importance. Some of the ensemble cast, especially those who are the victims of the Bliss family’s humiliation, mostly deliver. It makes the play okay but overall it’s very inconsistent in timing and dramatic language.

David Marshall-Martin’s set might be criticised for lacking in ornate charm but it adds to the idea that this family’s status is more self-serving than dedicated to paying attention to anything in the home, as evidenced in their treatment of housekeeper Clara (Sharron Oliver) and their inability to retain staff. The set filled the deep stage dimensions of the space and I loved all the possibilities of entrances and exits that it created to add to the elements of the farce.

I admire the New’s attempt to tackle ‘Hay Fever’ but it’s still a distance from being perfect. I hope they relax into the text and start to have fun with it on stage so the chunks of uncomfortable silence from the audience won’t send them into a panic and they can truly start working together and really listening to each other. Livingstone is the closest to doing this and the rest need to follow suit pronto in order to do Coward’s work justice. 

Friday 11 October 2013


John Romeril’s play was first performed in 1974. Like many plays of the New Wave era, there’s a sense you’re about to witness lots of the Ocker larrikin with lashings of sexist and racist behaviour from ignorant, fearful and often uneducated Australian men.

‘The Floating World’ fulfils all of the above but there’s something more to it that helps lift it out of an exploration of male conditioning. What Romeril’s play also delivers is the damaged man from the atrocities of World War II who doesn’t know how to reconcile the suffering of war and forgiveness of the perpetrators in a world where war was more romance than reality and no-one spoke of its torment. Of course, you put our main protagonist, Les (Peter Kowitz) on a cruise to Japan and watch him unravel as his war wounds resurface and sanity becomes tenuous. It gives the play much more bite than just a historical examination of Australia at the time in which it was written.

Stylistically this play also delves into interesting ground. Early on our stage comic (Justin Smith) talks about the ‘death of vaudeville’ and throughout ‘The Floating World’, we see it in practice. The play’s classic vaudeville beginnings become increasingly darker until we find ourselves in Les’ surreal world completely.

Director Sam Strong has cleverly played with the interactive audience elements of 'The Floating World' and puts us front and centre of the awkward comedy and tragedy of this show. I was seated next to several RSL veterans and it was interesting watching their responses to the material that made me think Romeril’s ‘stereotype’ of the Ocker male wasn’t much of a stereotype at all…

The ‘live’ aspect of the play is enhanced by Justin Stewart Cotta’s foley effects at the side of the stage accompanied with overall compositions by Kelly Ryall meant that this play always felt ‘active’ which then makes the juxtaposition of Les’ solo breakdown a powerful statement of what lies beneath the smoke and mirrors. Stephen Curtis’ design of the flashy cruise ship with the exposed fluorescent lights of the rostra made us feel acutely aware of the isolated floating world of Les’ despair in a new world order. Verity Hampton’s lights further explored this notion.

There are many layers to this play and it is unfortunate I went on the first preview night when things weren’t quite in control yet. Dialogue was pushed too fast and too loud so the ideas of the play and the dimensions of character, especially with Howitz, were often lost. This also meant that sometimes the coherence of the story fell away as the rhythm and pace lacked control. Howitz’ big monologue at the end was hit and miss with some really powerful moments and then waves of reciting lines. He just hadn’t nailed it at that time.

But it’s a good ensemble cast and the highlight for me was definitely Valerie Bader as Irene, whose understated skills in comedy and excellent timing hit the mark every time.

I predict this play will go from strength to strength and it’s a pity I didn’t see it later in the run as I think the control issues will (if they haven’t already) be sorted and the play will be a real winner. I was surprised by what I feel is a play that still has such relevance, not only as a piece that promotes a generational understanding but also represents global acts of violence committed and the subsequent silence expected of the victims even today. Take advantage of seeing ‘The Floating World’ and watch a play that manipulates form and style and has plenty of interesting ideas to keep you engaged.