Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Mum, Me and the I.E.D. - Director's Notes

I am Directing a new Australian play at The Depot Theatre in Addison Rd. Marrickville. It previews Thursday night, 16th August, and opens on Friday, 17th August, playing Wednesday to Saturday, until September 1st.

MUM, ME and THE I.E.D. is a new Australian Play by James Balian and Roger Vickery. Produced by Collaborations Theatre Group.

The actors are Phillipe Klaus, Elaine Hudson, Matilda Brodie, Martin Harper and Joshua Shediak.

The remarkable Creatives are Martin Kinnane (Lighting), Ben Pierpoint (Sound Design), Rachel Scane (Set and Costume Design), Lydia Kelly (Stage Manager and Operator), Julia Cotton (Movement Advisor) and Anthony Babicci (Scenic Painter/Advisor).

All of these artists have been remarkable to work with.

It is inspired by a short story written by Roger Vickery based on the circumstances of an acquaintance of his. A mother, who has a son home from war.

Like Arthur Miller's stylistic conceit in his play, AFTER THE FALL, this play is told through the mind set of its principal character, in our case through Rob Harrison - a soldier (Medic) returned from several tours for the Australian Army in Afghanistan. Rob is struggling with injuries of the mind, what has been, in our modern times, identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD. PTSD is an illness that is of the mind that when 'triggered' takes the individual out of their 'present' and back to the 'past', to the trauma(s) of origin. Beside the violence of the psyche which is often demonstratively distressing, the unpredictability of the triggers are a principal 'danger' to the person.

This new Australian play takes us into the mind of a particular soldier as he attempts to find a way to acquire an equilibrium to be able to function in his world. He is, like all of us, an unreliable narrator. Recalling and shuffling his 'triggers' that may make sense for himself of what has happened and what IS happening to him. We only have one voice in a conscious PTSD state talking to us. Most plays, that I have read around this issue, avoid the mention of PTSD. Mr Balian and Vickery's play bring it to vocal underlining - it is said out loud, often, it is not a mysterious unnamed illness. The audience will experience the result of psychological injury. It is a roller coaster horror story.

I have been concerned for some time about the relative lack of support for the mentally 'injured' soldier who has until recently been stigmatised as a 'malingerer' or 'pretender' of injury. The Australian Army, the Australian Federal Government seem, to me, to be publicly recalcitrant in its  belief in the scale of the issue of the soldiers who have returned with this 'injury'. A missing leg, arm, eye, any Physical evidence is regarded with some kind of undeniable respect and compensation - but that of the mind is suspicious and debatable. It is, probably, a serious BUDGET issue for the Government and Defence Force, and to deny, or under report the issue is a pragmatic action of immense expediency (and cruelty.)

It is urgent for me to bring onto the stage an Australian play that may be a conscious source to begin a more public consideration/conversation about this terrible problematic 'epidemic'. To give aid and compassionate respect to the veterans of our services.

There is a kind of poetic irony to be rehearsing and later, playing this work, in The Depot Theatre, in the grounds of the Addison Road Community Centre, which was once an army base. To enter the site one passes a Historical Guide Post/Sign that tells us of The Save Our Sons (SOS) organisation, set up by Nareen Hewett in the era of the Vietnam War, in June 1965, until, it finally ended in 1972. Said Ms Hewett
We wanted mothers to stand up and say, "I'm a mother and I don't want my son to go" or "I don't want any son to go, not just mine."
Too, we park our cars in what was probably the Parade Ground where the young 18-20 year old draftees and volunteers were inducted into the necessary automaton of Army Preparation and Service. Our Mary Ellen and our Captain Crowe, our Rob and Brownie, feel, spookily, the ghosts from the past been resurrected in Mr Balian and Vickery's play. We feel the responsibility of the conversation that this play in its pertinence is having.

I accepted to work on this play because I could not find a contemporary work that was Australian that could authentically speak to us today in 2018. THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD, by Damien Millar (2008), at the Griffin, and then THE LONG WAY HOME, by Daniel Keene (2014), at the Sydney Theatre Company, were the last Australian plays of quality that took me to a conscious space of social alarm. I was reading American and, especially, British plays that touched, investigated these themes. I needed to find an authentic Australian voice concerning the Australian issue.

PTSD is a modern term for what we, in my family called, "Shell Shock", that went back into the history of my family, back to my Great grandfather, a survivor of World War I, to my uncles and dad who survived the Kokoda Trail and the Navy, who behaved in most peculiar, moody, ways, especially on ANZAC DAY, when they seemed to lose the plot with their past comrades of war in drunken reunions. I thought they were just stupid men, and now in hindsight comprehend the horrors of war and the comradeship that was welded into their lives. The possibility that they were coping with shell shock, PTSD, never entered my head. It was the education I had had, my Primary School Social Studies classes, which never spoke about the real casualties of war and Empire making. It hid the permanent psychological damage: for the glories of Empire (British) were taught to us as achievements of greatness, which we excitedly celebrated with 'Cracker Night' on Empire Night (Later Commonwealth Night) around street bonfires! I need to assuage my ignorant guilt in my behaviour to my progenitors.

In reflection, I have come to appreciate the behaviour of Barney and Roo in the iconic Australian Play THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, better. I long to see a production of the Australian play, THE TOUCH OF SILK, written in 1928, by Betty Roland, concerning an Aussie soldier returning from the Fields of War in France, with a French wife (it is not only a PTSD story, but also a Refugee story!).

This is 2018, one hundred years since the end of the First World War, the supposed War to end all Wars. How many men, generationally, apparently, returned from war physically uninjured, but, are living daily in 'tortured' states? Hiding in rooms, the bush, the outback? In our research for this play we have shared the poetry of writers of war experience.

"FOREHEADS OF MEN HAVE BLED WHERE NO WOUNDS WERE" - Wilfred Owen, Poet and World War I veteran.

This is still the stigma of the contemporary PTSD veteran. There are no visible wounds. It causes shame, guilt and anger in these men and women.

I have encouraged the writers of MUM, ME and THE I.E.D. to expand the impact of PTSD into the ripple affects on the family and community at large. With Katie Pollock as their dramaturge, the writers, James Balian and Roger Vickery worked through some 18 drafts of the text before they brought it to me. We are now working on what I estimate be the 26th Draft of the writing - amazing resilient, generous writers. AMAZING! The actors of this production with their voluminous research and discoveries becoming the latest urging and opening of the finished/evolving script.

We have come to realise that all of us whether war veterans or not, in the pell mell of our present pursuits of living in the modern world, consciously or unconsciously are walking through, metaphorically, fields of IED's that can trigger in our psyche and take us to places of danger and erratic behaviour, at any time.

Grief we are told will pass, but in truth it sits within us permanently and may be triggered by the most trivial experience as the recent play and production, AIR, by Joanna Erskine, at The Old 505, taught us. We believe we have 'moved on' from that trauma but in reality it sits permanently within us hidden, locked away, until it is 'triggered', sometimes by a trivia, and strikes us as an IED of the mind.

Of course, I have always pointed out that the writers FREUD and JUNG wrote to help, through therapy, to solve life problems for patients in their clinics, and at the same time that STANISLAVKI wrote his books to solve artistic problems for actors - skills for acting. The modes to solve these problems, for life or art, are extremely similar. The actor is always searching his 'past' to solve his 'present' needs to channel entry points to find truths to create for an audience. It is where the artist searches for the 'triggers' to creative belief. The actor needs to be mentally 'healthy' to willingly take on the risk of injury. It is one of the dangerous "mysteries" of the craft of the actor - the necessary channeling of our personal and cultural traumas to be able to tell stories convincingly. It is why acting is HARD.

I hope you can join the conversation with us in the coming weeks.


Kevin Jackson


PYT Fairfield presents. PLAYLIST, a group-devised work by the company, at the old School of Arts, 19 Harris Street, Fairfield. 2-11 August.

PLAYLIST is a new Australian work devised by PYT under the Direction of Karen Therese.

The company of five performers, five young women: Ebube Uba, Mara Knezevic, May Tran, Tasha O'Brien and Neda Taha, part of the diverse cultural community in the outer Western suburb of Fairfield, have developed a 'show' based on their conversation about the artists, not exclusively female, but mostly, that have helped shape their everyday lives and social and political worlds, under the guidance and Direction of Karen Therese, the Artistic Director of the company.

It is says the program:
PLAYLIST is a feminist adrenaline rush. It's Beyonce meets the women's marches meets Australian Idol. It's full of suburban dreams and pop star fantasies; a 21st century call to action about the critical issues of our times.
Who is going to shape the future for women in Australia? Living in the #MeToo world, PLAYLIST explores the experiences, ideas and power of young women. PLAYLIST brings together the diverse skills of the performers, street dance forms and pop songs to offer an unconventional dance form experience.
The movable Set blocks by Zanny Begg are manipulated by the company as a sub-conscious means of propelling the experience of the work with Show-Biz Lighting by Verity Hampson.

The strength of this work is the disciplined dance work of the company, Choreographed by Larissa McGowan, tight, spunky and seemingly effortless in its energies and rigour - the 'joy' of moving - the company love it.

However, the weakness of this work is the content of the material, prepared by Director Karen Therese, that though it is fun and delivers insights into the growing-up influences on these young women, is, cumulatively, shallow in its concerns and the politics feels 'grafted' onto the event.

Or, was it, at the performance I saw that the performers delivered an oral performative affect of a lightly, trendy, hashtag, robotic commitment that is being 'mouthed', rather than coming from a core revolutionary belief of their espoused politics? At my performance, at least, the text did not seem to be authentic, not organically revealing in-the-moment truths. It seems well-drilled but not owned - pop - popular - propaganda, which they seemed to 'flaunt'. We were definitely at a performance.

Unlike the integrity of TRIBUNAL or the authentic simplicity of revelation in the work JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER, PLAYLIST feels more like a Musical Theatre escapade. Of delightful fun and immense skill but not attached to the usual PYT sense of social and cultural 'mission'. Still worth catching.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Moby Dick

Photo by Marnya Rothe
Sport For Jove Theatre Co and Seymour Centre present, MOBY DICK, adapted by Orson Welles, from the novel by Herman Melville, in the Reginald Theatre, City Rd Chippendale. 9th August - 24th August.

MOBY DICK, adapted by Orson Welles, from the novel by Herman Melville.

When this project was announced, I was surprised and couldn't help wondering why would you do it? Orson Welles filmed himself performing scenes from the novel in a one man version; he presented for the stage, MOBY DICK - A REHEARSAL, in 1955; and prepared a film version that was left unfinished in 1971. (I cannot find the information that can tell me the actual origin of the text we are seeing at the Seymour Centre, this month.)

I have attempted the Melville novel many times but never completed it. I don't know many people who have actually read it - "A mighty messy book" is a quote from the program note. I know the story through the Hollywood version, written by John Huston and Australian, Ray Bradbury, Directed by Huston, starring Gregory Peck (1956), in which Orson Welles, incidentally, has a small role, Father Mapple. I have, vicariously, read literary appreciations of the novel of 1851 and have a sense of it, the breadth of the vision and thematic occupations of the author and the many genre styles, Melville engaged in. The novel is regarded as one of the Great American novels. One day, soon, I promise!

So, what intrigued me while watching this production by Adam Cook, for Sport For Jove, was the literary power and ethical debates suggested (if not fully engaged with) in this Wellesian text (though, knowing Welles, I should not be surprised at its erudition): The spirit of God and the Universe, the fear and power of Nature, Greed (capitalism) and the exploitation of nature, Race, Masculinity and the meaning of Whiteness, the disastrous disease of Obsession, of the need for Revenge and the consequent struggle between Good and Evil, the Young and the Old. The language is heightened, poetic and theatrical - the breadth of Shakespeare's thematics and contemplations in poetry, an inspiration for Melville - so, the scale of the text on the stage I found arresting and immensely stimulating. Of, course, the text at only 81 minutes, or so, is possibly, nay probably, a 'horrible' diminishment of the original. One day, soon, I will read the novel!

I can recommend this production for the experience of the text.

Adam Cook in his program notes tells us,
When Damien Ryan and I decided that MOBY DICK would be our next project for Sport For Jove, I knew I couldn't direct a production of the script as Orson Welles envisioned it. As a play written for an ensemble of a dozen white men and a token white woman playing a little black boy from Alabama. Nor did I have any interest in casting a dozen white men. The story that Herman Melville wrote describes a doomed whale ship called the Pequod crewed by sailors from every race and corner of the planet ...Our starting point was the cultures and national heritage that make up our cast.
And so, there is a racial, cultural representation in the casting - an example of the Australian "melting pot" of immigration policy that has given this country its diversity. As well, however, maybe, following the need to have gender parity represented as well in the casting - a contemporary political shifting - this production has engaged four women with their voices and feminine viewpoints to become part of the crew of the Pequod.

Crucially, there has been a cross-gender casting of the tattooed harpooner, Queeqeg - Wendy Mocke - as an islander Princess, so losing the homo-erotic tensions of the novel, between he and the narrator of the tale, Ishmael, that was infamously part of the novel's original controversy (Tom Royce-Hampton - who strips almost naked for us, in this production). Whilst, the young challenger of the Captain of the ship, Starbuck (buck not doe) is created by Francesca Savige, thereby losing the symbolic heightened tension between the idealistic and young whaler male with the madly obsessed older Captain of the Ship, Ahab (Danny Adcock), thereby dissolving a constant thematic of Melville's writing (famously, distilled in the characters of of Billy Budd and Claggart in Melville's last novel BILLLY BUDD); and Pip, the African slave cabin boy (Rachel Alexander) - in this production a South East Asian of no distinct sex. Too, Tashtago is played by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash. While all these actors give brave and committed performances the historic all male hot house environment of the world of the novel, the play, is, relatively, emasculated, and the dramatic impact of this story, its philosophic questioning, is diluted. Herman Melville's two great books, MOBY DICK and BILLY BUDD are symbolically made dangerously powerful within the all male world of the wooden keel of the nineteenth century ship.

As well, the company of young actors: Mark Barry, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Bryden White-Tuohey (as well as Mr Royce-Hampton) have voices of no deep sonority (bass) - rather light weight sounds (baritone/tenor) in colour and effect, and since their is much poetic verse spoken as a company, the aural masculine power of the writing is, further, with the cross gender casting, much more diminished - Mr Adcock and Jonathan Mills, have no sonorous depths to contribute, either. For me, the only authentic sound of this heightened masculine world was that of the percussive ship bell - its clapper ringing-in the world of a nineteenth century male domain on the high seas in the quest of whale - in this incidence, the fatal meeting with the Great White Whale, Moby Dick.

The contribution of the Designer, Mark Thompson: Set, gleamingly atmospheric with its mixture of wood (ladders) and metal; Costume, a subtle blend of quasi-period and the modern; enhanced by the lighting of Gavan Swift, along with the company choreographic-movement to create the great whaling climax confrontation with Moby Dick, himself, by Nigel Poulton, is visually impressive, accompanied by propulsive live drumming (Tom Royce-Hampton - a member of Taikoz), and a Sound Design by Ryan Patrick Devlin.

In the central role of Ahab, Danny Adcock, in gravelly voice, is possessed with the mania of revenge, balancing the emotional angst with the philosophic debates of the tortured soul confronting the wilds of nature, with a consummate intellectual clarity.

To answer my question of why to do, to see this production: It is to hear the poetic erudition of this adaptation - (Reader's Digest in form, and vocally underpowered, though it may be) and the commitment of Mr Adcock.

N.B. It is once again my lamentable duty to point out that the writer, the adapter of this play, Orson Welles, has NO biography in the program - a very, very Sydney thing - to render the writer invisible - unknown.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Nell Gwynn

Photo by Chris Lundie

New Theatre presents, NELL GWYNN, by Jessica Swale, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 8th August - 8th September.

NELL GWYNN, is a British play by Jessica Swale. The play won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016.

The play in a very large number of short scenes - it is in two acts and is almost three hours long - brings to life the career of Nell Gwynn (Bishanyia Vincent), a young woman who grew up in Cheapside experiencing the rough side of life with her 'old Ma Gwynn' (Susan Jordan) and sister, Rose (Eleanor Ryan). The sisters became orange sellers (!) in the Kings Playhouse, Nell attracting the amorous attention of the leading actor, Charles Hart (Rupert Reid), who besides 'bedding' her, encouraged and trained her in the Arts of Acting - with the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, amongst many sweeping reforms, he permitted women onto the stage, which he had become enamoured of in his European (French) exile.

Nell first appeared in John Dryden's (Steve Corner) INDIAN EMPEROR at the age of 15, and over time became a leading comic actress: "pretty witty Nell" as Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diary of the times. At the age of 17 she became the mistress of the King, Charles, in 1668, and grew a loyal place in the heat and heart of the King, who ensured that even after his death (1685) she would be kept: "Let not poor Nelly starve" his last words, it seems. The heir to the throne, James II, in brotherly respect, paid off her debts, which she had accrued through a very generous life style, and gave her a pension. She died at the age of 37 - well beloved by the public.

This comic invention by Jessica Swale, creates a feisty young woman of wit and charm, giving the episodic development, a modern-day 'spin' of a 'feminist' at work in a patriarchal world. The writing style is briskly modern and, relatively, lightly sophisticated -straight to its contemporary 'political' points. It has the repartee of amusing banter - badinage - 'down flat', able to be grasped by all, mildly similar to that of the cheeky pertness of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's television series, BLACKADDER, starring Rowan Atkinson.

Ms Swale's play does not at all reflect the language of the period, the complicated comic circumlocutions of the actual Restoration play e.g. Wycherly's, THE COUNTRY WIFE (1675), Etherege's, THE MAN OF MODE (1676), Aphra Behn's, THE ROVER*** (1677) or, Congreve's, LOVE FOR LOVE (1695), nor the contemporary brilliance of writer, Stephen Jeffreys', exampled in his play of the Restoration Theatre: THE LIBERTINE*** (1994) - which, generally, in this modern world, seems to be a literary and comprehension challenge, both, for most contemporary actors and contemporary audiences, with their technical skills dictated by the iPhone twittering in their back pockets, training and gratifying their short attention spans by prohibiting their ability to speak, communicate, listen beyond a certain number of allowable words! - letters of the alphabet, is it?

The Director of this production, Deborah Jones, has taken on the challenge of the episodic structure and many Set locations of NELL GYNN, (Set Design, by John Cervenka), that requires a cast of 16 actors in Restoration 'drag', being verbally witty, and occasionally having to sing and dance (Choreography, by Virginia Ferris). Ms Jones copes within the limits of budget and available talent, and for the most part delivers a very pleasant winter's night in the theatre - although, the clothing defeats her and her Costume Designer, Deborah Mulhall - it is, collectively, a visual 'nightmare', individually, though, some good work - and one felt that the last hour or so of the play needed more rehearsal - attention - as it began to lag in contrast to its earlier energy and crispness - as an audience member one began to tire.

Bishanyia Vincent has the intelligence and attractive light witty comic style to sustain the journey of Nell throughout the play - to be its, necessary beating heart - and handles her surrounding supporting actors with generosity and good sense. There is, especially, good theatrical 'chemistry' between her and Rupert Reid, who warmly creates a man of patience and gentle wit - it is not so obvious with her other major partner, Lloyd Allison-Young, as Charles II, who gives offers to his partners in the play but rarely receives, listens, or is affected by the return gestures. Steven Ljubovic, as the displaced actor, who has impersonated the women in the company's plays - Edward Kynaston - is amusing; Shan-Ree Tan, in a fairly thankless role as theatre company manager, Thomas Killigrew, creates an impression, as does Eleanor Ryan in a non-comic role in a comic play. All the company seem to be having a good time and that is infectious to the 'colour' of the production for their audience.

NELL GWYNN, is a light-weight comedy easy to digest. One wishes that Ms Swales' character had some of the verbal grit (feminist grit) that Elizabeth Barry, another actress of the Restoration period, had in Stephen Jeffereys' play, THE LIBERTINE. We have seen other female characters of the stage of the Restoration period in PLAYHOUSE CREATURES***, by April De Angelis (1993), that gave us Mrs Betterton and another version of Nell Gwynn. There is still another woman who made her mark in what once was an exclusive realm of the man, Anne Bracegirdle - and, with such a nomenclature could be an interesting exploration.

Thank goodness for the 'small' theatres in Sydney (supported by the artists without recompense - because of their necessary need to practice their craft), that curate contemporary work for Sydney audiences from the bigger world, that otherwise in this self-proclaimed INTERNATIONAL CITY would never be seen. Is it enough to have an architectural wonder, such as Utzen's so called Opera House, to draw the international tourist, to declare that Sydney is a cultural destination of note or importance? - I don't think so. I mean, that building is a wonder but what happens inside it is often an embarrassment of a wonder of another kind. My international guests are often startled with shock and disappointment. One, further, does wonder about what are on the Sydney Theatre Company stages (DINNER***) and at the Belvoir- A TASTE OF HONEY***, at times, as well, with such good contemporary writing available.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

King of Pigs

Photography by John Marmaras

Red Line Productions presents, KING OF PIGS, by Steve Rodgers, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo. 1st August - 1st September.

KING OF PIGS, is a new Australian play, by Steve Rodgers.

This play has domestic violence as its target for discussion. Says Director, Blazey Best:
I've been hearing a lot about the 'Epidemic' of Family Violence and - faced with the statistics and the sheer relentless regularity of horrific stories in the news - it's hard to dismiss this as hyperbole. ... (KING OF PIGS) is not an apology for the perpetrators of violence, nor is it setting out to lay any blame on its victims. It's an invitation for us all to look at ourselves, our attitudes, and our prejudices.

Ella Scott-Lynch plays the Woman - playing five different women in five different scenarios with four different men: an uptight banker type (Ashley Hawkes); a young sex adventurer-addict (Christian Byers); a 'sporty' brutalist with a competitive streak (Mick Bani) and a therapist, father figure (Kire Tosevski) to a young primary school son (Thom Blake -at my performance - or, Wylie Best, the alternate).

A series of scenes over 70-minutes reveals to us a history of the arc of all, from the first meeting to the complications of partnerships that begins as love and dwindles to acts of violence. The time shuffled scenes are documentary/drama-like glimpses into the relationships. The men of the company play different distinguishable representatives - each an easily recognisable 'type' of man - with a committed honesty, revealing men entrenched in a culture that permits, enables, their unconscious entitlement, as the strong, the cultural patriarch, to vent frustrations with acts of violence, on the women, the weaker, the matriarchs.

Ms Scott-Lynch, as Woman, gives a performance of much virtuosity covering the plight of her five women without judgement or sentimentality. It is a demanding task delivered with focused energy, skills and creativity. A tour de force.

The play in its cool exhibition simply asks us to observe the women who weather the cultural inflictions from the male of our species. It seemed, to me, that the play was demonstrating -suggesting - that all of us, both the male and the female, must begin to take action, to talk, to protest, for change to happen. Both sexes must consciously awaken each other to the tragedy and injustice of this violence. A bridge between the sexes needs to be built and sustained.

Says Steve Rodgers of the advice given to him from his father, a counsellor of men who have anger management problems, some with domestic violence convictions: "When examining an issue that seems intractable, unchanging, and even hopeless, try to find some hope."

In the concluding scene of THE KING OF PIGS, the young boy reads a school speech for his parents - mother and father - that he has prepared. A speech about rocks, of the geology in the heart of this country. It is simply erudite, insightful and caring. Here is our hope, the innocent excitement of being alive, pure and optimistic, of a young soul not yet 'corrupted' into the status quo of the living human culture, appreciating the heart of his nation - "How', asks the mother,"can we keep him untainted?" - (I paraphrase).

Statistically, two women are being killed every week.

The play is Designed by Isabel Hudson, lit by Verity Hampson, with a striking score composition by Iota, that does much in keeping the night from becoming too grim. The Sound Design is by Tegan Nicholls.

KING OF PIGS, is a welcome and challenging night in the theatre, beautifully acted by all, notably, Ms Scott-Lynch and especially, Kire Tosevski.

Hell's Canyon

The Old 505 presents, HELL'S CANYON, by Emily Sheehan, in the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St. Newtown. 1st August - 11th August.

Photo by James John

HELL'S CANYON, is a new play, perhaps, a first play, by Australian writer, Emily Sheenan. 60 minutes long. Ms Sheenan in her notes for the program tells us that she wrote HELL'S CANYON 'to try to make sense of the grief and rage and pain I felt as a young person'.

Two teenagers, 17 year old Caitlin (Isabelle Ford) and 15 year old Oscar (Conor Leach) are weighed down with the angst of the recent circumstances of their lives. Hunter, Caitlin's boyfriend and Oscar's older brother, has hung himself from the rafters in the garage. Both these teens are coping with this tragedy as best they can, by themselves. Caitlin, however, is coping with even more, she has been diagnosed with cancer of the bone and is due for an operation almost immediately. This she tells Oscar on a flee from the world supports they have had about them. They struggle against a sense of joint despair.

The writing has promise, it has a poetic vision and a daring to 'play' in a place of surreal, as well as in the grim naturalism of the greater part of the play's circumstances. There is too much exposition that tends to repeat itself before it moves forward with the 'storytelling', and the tragedy sometimes becomes, in this production a kind of overstated 'melodrama'.

Ms Ford, as Caitlin, unfortunately, gives a performance that tends to play in a narrow vocal range and volume, with a tendency to 'pretend' - recite - her text for her journey, than to 'experience' it. Mr Leach's work is 'composed' on a, relatively, superficial and unsophisticated palette, trusting that his attractive energy will be enough to convince us to be concerned for Oscar. It does not.

Director, Kate Crawthorne, has staged the play but has not interrogated the play or required her actors to tell experienced truths. Intellectually, Ms Crawthorne's program notes has a sense of the dramaturgical potential of Ms Sheenan's play but she has not the penetrating skills to mine them for the audience with these actors.

What is best about this production is the determined effort by these fledgling artists to show the work. HELL'S CANYON is the first of many stepping stones, one hopes.

The Almighty Sometimes

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES, by Kendall Feavour, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst. 27July - 9 September.

THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES, by Australian writer, Kendall Feavour, was first presented at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February, 2018. The Griffin Theatre Company is now presenting the Australian Premiere, Directed by Lee Lewis.

The content matter of this play is of interest in our zeitgeist. A young girl, Anna (Brenna Harding), at the age of eight has filled notebooks with writing that is extraordinarily advanced in its observational content - if not problematic in its violence. Is Anna unwell - mentally unwell?- or, a prodigy? Her mother Renee (Hannah Waterman), after Anna fails at a supposed attempt of suicide - throwing herself out of a one story window and breaking her arm - seeks consultation with doctors. After much interrogation, Anna, at the age of eleven, has being diagnosed with a range of mood and behavioural disorders and under the care of Vivienne (Penny Cook), a highly respected child psychiatrist, is put on a regimen of drugs.

When the play begins, Anna is now eighteen, she is being moved to an adult psychiatrist - as the medical system requires. Anna realises that what happens to her is now her prerogative - she is an adult. She has choice. As a child Anna could write. As an adult she can't. "Is it possible?" she asks:
I have been on those pills so long, I don't know who I am without them - if the things I say or do are because of the medications or in spite of it - but what I do know is that before you put me on them I could write. It's the only thing I know about myself that is true, or real, or in any way authentic - and I was ... good. Better than good - I've been thinking for a while now that maybe I could have, or might have been, or am, or was, some kind of - I don't know ... some kind of - (prodigy?)" 
Against the wishes of her mother and psychiatrist Anna withdraws from her daily drug prescriptions, goes 'cold turkey'. Her behaviour takes on a radical trajectory almost immediately, and a new drug regime needs to be found because chemically the brain, as we understand it, has been potentially changed.

The play reveals Anna's, the patient's behaviour, under traumatic stress and the ripple effect of that on those about her: firstly, her psychiatrist who decreed the original drug therapy and now is under pressure to find a 'formula' to hopefully re-medicate Anna, successfully; secondarily, her mother who made the original decision to medicate her child-daughter and now is having to begin care all over again, for her adult-daughter - wracked by the efficacy - ethics - of her first decision that she made on her daughter's behalf; and, lastly, Oliver (Shiv Palekar), a young man who had begun a relationship with Anna, who has had a history of caring for the 'disabled' - his dad - and may be now too empathetically 'burnt out' to continue this new relationship - he struggles with his need to survive as an individual and undoing his habitual instinct, training, to sacrifice himself for the less able.

Ms Feavour in her notes in the program tells us that she began writing the play in 2012 in response to what was being debated concerning the so-called medication 'epidemic'. That her generation, 'Gen Y, had the dubious honour of being the most medicated in history' and that there was little to no research on the long term effects of psychotropic medications, or any suggestion of how many of these young people would continue their treatment into adulthood - maybe, into perpetuity. The fear that her play of 2012 might be dated was wiped away when she discovered Gen Z, Anna's generation, was far more likely to be medicated than her own. - it is still, in 2018, a vital issue.

Each experience of mental illness is different and some like Anna's are profoundly confusing as to their 'correctness' of diagnosing and medicating, and yet, on the other hand, there are many young people who have undoubtedly had their lives saved by medical intervention. To apply a medication regime is fraught with real and ethical dilemma.

What is it that we know of how the brain works? Not enough? Enough? Here is the dilemma at the heart of this play.

Ms Feavour's play is an emotional and simplified exposition of this debate. I felt that the first half of THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES was too long-winded in its exposition and it was not until after the interval break that the play became at all absorbing. I kept, mentally, referring back to the Lucy Prebble play, THE EFFECT, which co-incidentally was premiered in 2012, in London (the same year that Ms Feavour began her writing of this play). For, its examination of these same issues were presented in a more interesting and complex construct and execution. (Both Sydney productions of THE EFFECT were underwhelming and misconceived - relatively shallow in their investigation of the potential of the writing. I was fortunate to see a lucid and challenging version: the original production at the National Theatre.)

The actors in this production are genuinely involved and convinced about the debate at the interesting core of Ms Feavour's concern and have a kind of zealotry, and give a clear sense of the 'argument' of the characters (and play) and have an 'intellectual' grasp of the emotional potential of each of their people. However, the effect of the performances, I felt, were relatively superficial - 'theatrical' - in their reality.

Mr Palekar, plays Oliver, an intelligent 21 year old blue collar worker, as a slightly dimwitted 13 year old in his tendency to semaphore physically - facially and gesturally - 'demonstrating', his character's responses to the challenges of Oliver's journey.

Ms Cooke, as psychiatrist, Vivienne, is impressive in her technical and energetic delivery of the text, but the professional knowledge and skill of the character seemed to lack studied security of depth to convince me of an organic passion for Vivienne's professional diagnosis and frustrations which gave an impression of the character's 'arrogance' rather than honest belief in Vivienne's decisions/actions.

Ms Waterman, as the Mother, Renee, chartered her journey with a secure arc of storytelling but tended to sit on the surface of an emotional empathy - erring sometimes into a kind of sentimentality - asking for a sympathy for Renee's bewildered situation instead of revealing the complex motivations for her original decisions and the sustaining of her suppressed traumatic stress disorder - there is artfulness on show but not plumbed raw experienced truths. No doubt, Ms Waterman knows of them but is, relatively, resisting revealing them as a living life force (of her own).

Brenna Harding, in the very difficult and challenging central role of the unstable Anna, plays with a fervour of raw energy and passion from the 'get-go' that cumulatively becomes a sweeping force that, in the small space of the SBW Stables Theatre, is overpowering and ultimately opaque in its garbled and noisy volume for involving belief - it lacks control, gradation. There is a kind of impression that the textually referenced films GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) and FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) were the basis for Ms Harding's 'entrance' in creating Anna - for the control of the prepared storyteller was relatively absent from the work, and was rather substituted with frantic generalised symptoms of the character combusted by an excited passion for the opportunity that the writer, with this Director, has offered her. The performance can be admired for its energetic commitment but is distracting in its passionate, unsophisticated skill blurrings. One can barely empathise with Anna, for the information of her text is 'drowned' by a powerful demonstration of emotional states. We can observe Anna is emotionally disturbed but cannot, easily, discern Why.

Director, Lee Lewis, places the work on a raised white stage with a Todd-AO 70mm curved wall and, simply, a couple of chairs and a table, Designed by Dan Pottra, and lit, by Daniel Barber.

The content of THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES is pertinent but not interrogated too complexly. This production, seems rather more interested in the emotional opportunities it can provide for the storytelling, overwhelming the intellectual arguments provided. We get to watch the effect of the ploys of the 'victims' of this contemporary epidemic practice of chemical medicating of unsocial behaviours, sometimes at the expense of the real persona of the individuals.

The Griffin are giving us a sensation in their theatre. Passion is all. I became more admiring of Lucy Prebble's THE EFFECT and its relative balance of compassion and scientific debate around this social/political issue.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Cry Baby

Photo by Robert Cato

Producer Lauren Peters and Hayes Theatre, present CRY BABY, Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger. Based on the Universal Pictures Film Written and Directed by John Waters. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. July 20 - August 19.

CRY BABY, is an American Musical of 2007. It is based on a John Waters film, as was the musical, HAIRSPRAY, of 2002. HAIRSPRAY played on Broadway for 2,642 performances. CRY BABY managed only 45 previews and 68 performances. One was a mega hit the other a mega flop.

However, CRY BABY at The Hayes Theatre belies those set of facts. For this production led by Director Alexander Berlage is a great big booming hit - (or, a great big piece of clever persiflage, perhaps?) It concerns the star crossed lovers, Allison (Ashleigh Rubenach) belonging to the pastel 'squares' of a Baltimore environ and the other-side-of-the-tracks vivid 'drape', Wade 'Cry Baby' Walker (Christian Charisiou). Like Juliet and Romeo they fall in love and nothing much runs smoothly until the end. The Eisenhower American Dream culture is being assaulted by a youthful revolution of a claustrophobic reality to the beat of the iconoclastic threat of Rock 'n Roll led by Cry Baby (a Johnny Ray sound-alike, a precursor to the full on Elvis swivelling hips and bombardment of sound), from Turkey Point, who with his 'kooky' (draped) crowd invade and uproot the dullness of his home town - but, not without punitive overload.

John Waters known as the 'King of Bad Taste' or the 'Pope of Trash' wrote and made the film CRY BABY in 1990, starring Johnny Depp, in the middle of his career when he had mainlined the mainstream and gone commercial - as far away, in tone, from the infamous PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) as the planet Uranus is to Earth. The musical is a sanitised Waters effort, made for popular consumption, that still, though, has enough subversive satiric (if not quite satanic) patter to keep a gurgling comic response coming from its audience - for, the ridiculous (read, stupidly funny) Book (Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) and the smart Lyrics (David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger) are well served for clarity by the Sound Design of Tegan Nicholls (an unusual achievement in the Hayes in my experience.)

In this production, Isabel Hudson has created a Set Design for CRY BABY that has a bubble gum, candy stick explosion of red and white stripes, booby trapped with wall and floor door flaps for pop-out appearances from a tireless ensemble of incredibly energised 'youngsters', twirling, swirling about in eye-boggling, outrageously conceived Costumes by Mason Browne, some whip smart wiggery (Wigs by Vanity) and Make-ups (Oliver Levi-Malouf).

Mr Charisiou (Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)) and Ms Rubenach (I'm Infected) are incredibly gifted vocally, and within the cartoonish needs of this genre, give impeccable and well judged performances, that are extremely charming and lively - a secure central core for this endeavour. But, then, so do they all, right across the casting board: Joel Granger, as the sneaky goody-goody villain of the piece, Baldwin (Squeaky Clean); Laura Murphy, the screw loose nutter of the piece - serious stalker, Lenora Frigid (Screw Loose); Alfie Gledhill, the seriously talented 'Mercutio' support to the hero - Dupree (Jukebox Jamboree); and a wonderfully sustained performance of 50's caricature of hypocrisy, by Beth Daly, as Mrs Vernon-Williams - awful but likeable (I Did Something Wrong ... Once). There is a gang of seriously young groupies: Hatchetface (Manon Gunderson-Briggs), Wanda (Amy Hack), Pepper (Bronte Florian) and an Ensemble, led by wickedly 'camp' Blake Erickson, in a series of don't-blink-or-you-might-miss-'em cameos that inspires crazy but disciplined work from Brooke Almond, Hayden Baum, Aaron Gobby and Ksenia Zofi.

It is the sheer full-on energy of the production propelled by the gaspingly brilliant choreography of Cameron Mitchell - wait till you see the bravura piece: Jailyard Jubilee! (inspired by Elvis and his JAILHOUSE ROCK -1957?) - and the Musical Direction of Nichols Griffin with a small band of four that takes you by the scruff of the neck and hurls you into the mindless madness of this invention.

CRY BABY is not deep. The characters are 2D caricatures. There are no real emotional demands. The material aims at a 'campy' soft satire. Or is it cleverer than I think - disturbingly clever? Hmmm?

WHATEVER! There is talent galore on stage that serves the material impeccably and did overwhelm me - you. Well, you were cheering, weren't you?

Director Alexander Berlage has this year given Sydney: THERE WILL BE A CLIMAX, at the Old Fitz; HOME INVASIONS, at The Old 505 and now this. He has an ability to weld a company together and package a bright contemporary gleam to his work, for Mr Berlage is also an extraordinary Lighting Designer. For like CRY BABY these shows had a most pleasing aesthetic and energy - though, nearly all surface and, mostly, little meaningful content. Or, if it does have content, is it just overwhelmed with enthusiastic glitzy 'show-biz' indulgences? Is Mr Berlage aiming at entertainment of a startling pleasure that reduces, perforce of his skill, the works to being more, than less, empty headed in affect.

It was more than a little creepy to hear, after the horrible 'journeys' of murder, arson, deceit, injustice, persecution and lax moral compasses, that are the spine and activity of nearly all the characters of this 'satiric' story, to have a final song belted, optimistically, out to us from an American Broadway musical that NOTHIN BAD'S EVER GOING TO HAPPEN, in the future, without thinking of the U.S. of A. and the Trumpian tweets that invade our grip on the world, nearly everyday. Is it enough to have a good laugh at a large part of the American Dream gone to smash, dragging the rest of us to hell with it, to just have a quick image of a multi-coloured Mexican hat been squashed underfoot into one of the trap doors to oblivion to assuage the celebration at the end of CRY BABY? I don't know. I felt my ecstatic 'rush' at the end of the show might have been what Nero felt as he played his violin while Rome burned down around him. The terrible question is: Do I regret the time spent with this American 'propaganda' and have any guilt that I actually loved, loved, loved it? And, now recommend it to you?

CRY BABY was a late (hasty?) substitution for the first expected production of AMERICAN PSYCHO, after its rights were not available, for this team at The Hayes.

CRY BABY = AMERICAN PSYCHO. Cue the iconic Hitchcock PYSCHO Soundtrack quote by Bernard Herrmann as I ponder this more. (Shriek! Shriek! Shriek!)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Taste of Honey

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, A TASTE OF HONEY, by Shelagh Delaney, in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills. July 21 - August 19.

A TASTE OF HONEY, by Shelagh Delaney, an English play, written 60 years ago, in 1958.

The first production of this play came under the care and Direction of the iconic Joan Littlewood - a woman leading a new way to present work for the theatre with the gusto of a vigorous iconoclast wanting to enliven, and to breathe in an energy force to the experience of the theatre, as a vital life force of relevance and the three E's: Enlightenment, Entertainment, Ecstasy. This happened at the famous Theatre Royal, Stratford East - its highpoint being the famous and influential production of OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR, in 1961.

Kitchen Sink Realism, a reactionary force against the 'well made' play, epitomised by the work of Terence Rattigan (THE WINSLOW BOY (1946), THE DEEP BLUE SEA (1952), SEPARATE TABLES (1955), began with the shattering force of John Osborne's LOOK BACK IN ANGER in 1956. A TASTE OF HONEY arrived in 1958. Later, in 1959, Arnold Wesker's regional kitchen sink plays such as ROOTS cemented this 'revolutionary' movement.

Essentially, A TASTE OF HONEY, is of the 'well made play' pattern but its content was a shock of the new for the audiences: a savage fractious relationship between a Mother (Helen) and Daughter (Jo), both figures shifting the conventional moral compass to shocking antagonistic statement after statement within the social context of the times - the 1950's; a sexual relationship between a much older woman (Helen) and a much younger man (Peter); a sexual relationship between a white girl (J0) and a black man (Jimmie), shown on stage, resulting in an unmarried girl's pregnancy (Jo is only 16); and the prejudices and co-dependent consequences of a life shared with a homosexual man (Geoffrey) and a pregnant 16 year old girl (Jo); all of this set in the provinces of a working class 'voice' of the regional city of East Salford, part of Greater Manchester, instead of the usual West End middle class vacuum. Add Joan Littlewood's ground breaking production tropes of a live jazz dance band on stage and contemporary dance interludes, and here was a startling popular hit.

The British film industry erupted into the New Wave with the Woodfall Films, with the same objectives of telling working class stories, set up by Theatre Director, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz, with the support of American, Harry Saltzman, in the late 1950's and all of the 60's. It began with LOOK BACK IN ANGER, in 1959, with A TASTE OF HONEY, made in 1961, becoming its first and best commercial and critical success. Woodfall's Artistic acme was to come, with the Tony Richarson iconoclastic film style for TOM JONES (1964) - nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 4.

A TASTE OF HONEY, was and is an iconic force of its time - that Ms Delaney, who wrote this play when only 19, subsequently, had no follow-up play of greater significance might be part of the patriarchal environment of the time - both Osborne and Wesker, for instance, having, relatively, and in contrast, prolific careers of produced plays to follow.

The Belvoir production of A TASTE OF HONEY, Directed by Eamon Flack, has sufficient qualities of production - with Design elements that are flashy. Some might argue: Too flashy? Drawing attention to themselves. Costumes that look deliberately like costumes not clothes, contrasting, in affect, with the ultra realistic Set Design grunge, both by Mel Page. Lighting, from Damien Cooper, that in its key offers become mega-theatre statements of Art Gallery quality of a painterly pictorial beauty. Swinging Contemporary Sound Composition (of a 2018 period affect), by Stefan Gregory, that is not always served well by his own Sound Design locations. All of this topped with Movement/Choreography interludes by Kate Champion, extremely vital but show-offy, that feel, conspicuously, grafted onto the play.

One of the problems with the production is that there is not really an assured sense of Place or Time. Are we in East Salford or a suburb of one of Australia's cities? For, no matter Mr Flack's tepid geographic re-namings of some of the places in the play, the other textual contents of the play stays definitely Northern Hemisphere and the language rhythms remain powerfully un-Australian.

Genevieve Lemon - the Mother figure, Helen - is one of Australia's great actors and this performance is good but is not quite possessed by the actor, which is one of her usual gifts, (remember her WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? last year?), and I wondered, WHY? Is It because the need for belief in a character, that will permit 'possession', has to be in the authentic ownership of the language, both its music and content? Is it that the adopted Australian sound created by this company of actors, under the Direction of Mr Flack, is not compatible to the music of the writing? The text of regional English Helen, and the others occupying this play, is at war with this Belvoir company's Australian musical utterances, compounded by the Aussie lack of transferable 'knowledge' from a culture that is not theirs, to their own, both in the sense of Geographical Place and Period Time. This is subtle in its fracturing of the belief in this live performance, but it is apparent as the length of this work - two and three quarter hours - unwinds to reveal the consequent theatrical fracking, that may have been done, I suppose, for cultural relevance, for the Belvoir audience.

Are they so dim?

Josh McConville, as Peter, too, is unusually bewildered by his character, and lacks his usual perceptive lucidity of the psychology of his responsibility, observable not only in his tentative verbal ownership but, oddly, in his physical adjustments, which are most often supremely clear and clued for his audience - is it, I wondered, that he is being 'foxed' by the cigar, or, the palpable age difference between himself and his love object, Helen?( Not owning, believing the attraction?) There was no such problem with his successful last assignment for Belvoir in THE SUGAR HOUSE, with his violent working class hero, Ollie Macreadie.

Tom Anson Mesker, as Geoffrey, the homosexual art student, is the most awkward in his offers, vocally underpowered, sometimes inaudible and, most often, delivering an uncomfortable and unconvincing  physicality - it is obvious in his clumsy choreographic offers, lacking stylistic confidence and hence, finesse.

Thuso Lekwape, as sailor, Jimmie, somehow supersedes the Directorial obstacles and creates a viscerally winning character and is aided and abetted by Taylor Ferguson, as daughter, Jo, his exclusive acting companion, who once again, rides above the obstacles of the production to give a wholly complex and empathetic young woman of 'difference', almost suffocated by the given circumstances of her class and education. The 'in the moment' improvisations between Mr Lekwape and Ms Ferguson are exhilarating. Ms Ferguson's energy, focus of effort, belief, and alert attention to the offers of all her stage partners are the sources for Ms Ferguson's creation - she allows the others to help tell her story and has, in reserve, imaginative and emotional resources to propel the dilemmas of her Jo, centre stage.

Despite the awkwardness of the aspiration of Mr Flack, Ms Delaney's play survives in its concerns - but they are concerns of another time, the concerns of 1958. 60 tears later, there is no longer any shock in what we see on the stage at Belvoir. It is, relatively, ho-hum in its ability to confront us and stretch us to cultural disquisition. It feels as if we are in a History of Theatre presentation - the experience one can often have at a local Amateur theatre - The Genesians, in Kent St, for instance. (Will we see one of Agatha Christie's plays on the Belvoir stage, soon. For, reading The London Theatre Record, Agatha is having a vogue resurgence in London with some very positive reviews!)

The production forces one to ask, to help justify the spending of the resources of Belvoir on A TASTE OF HONEY: Why are we watching this play on one of the few Professional stages of the Sydney theatre scene? Why? Does Australianising of this provincial English play of 1958, tell us anything that supports the need for its revelation on the Belvoir stage in 2018? I don't think so. The only vaguely thrilling contemporary frisson in this production are the dance and musical interludes between, Jo and Jimmie, from Ms Champion and Mr Gregory, and really, they are just decorative, distractions, titivations around a fairly dated night in the theatre, despite the quality of the acting.

Mr Flack in his Program Notes suggests that one of the possible cogitations, for us, of the events and characters of A TASTE OF HONEY, is, that like Jo:

"You can stake a claim to your originality. Being a bit wrong, a bit daft, is a precarious position to be in, but if you play it right you can turn wrong into something new. ... You might be able to break in a new form, and make some history. Littlewood did it. Delaney did it with this play. ... "

Has Flack done it with this production of Shelagh Delaney's A TASTE OF HONEY, in Sydney, in 2018? Make this play NEW? Make a New Form? Create History? I don't think so. No, Mr Flack hasn't been able to play it right, the choice of this play is a precarious idea, and maybe just wrong and daft. It is 60 years old and nothing on the Belvoir stage makes it feel new, new form or historical (except for the wrong reasons.)

The authentic Australian working class play experience may be coming with the Sydney Theatre Company's THE HARP IN THE SOUTH. A TASTE OF HONEY is definitely not it.

Should we send Mr Falck a list of plays to consider to produce for his 2019 season, or, is it too late?

P.S. Read my blog on THE ROLLING STONE***.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

You Got Older

Photo by Clare Hawley

Mad March Hare Theatre Company and KXT bAKEHOUSE present, YOU GOT OLDER, by Clare Barron at the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel. 13 July - 4 August.

YOU GOT OLDER, is an American play, from a young up-coming playwright, Clare Barron. It premiered in 2014 and won the OBIE AWARD in 2015.

YOU GOT OLDER, is a cancer and dying play. It seems, the writer, Ms Barron, lost her job, had a break-up and received the news that her father had had a bad cancer diagnosis. Her world seemed to be collapsing. Writing became a solace. She went home to care for her dad. This play emerged. It is, then, an auto-biographical work - except, in the real instance, dad survived.

In the play, Mae, a lawyer (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), has lost her job, has had a break-up and has gone home to care for her father (Steve Rogers), who is in treatment for an invasive cancer. In her small mid-western city in a snowy winter, her siblings and their family (Alex Beauman, Alison McGlynn, Sarah Meecham) gather around to support dad, she re-acquaints herself with a school friend, Mac (Cody Ross), and has sado-masochistic sexual fantasies with a hatted cowboy (Gareth Rickards).

The sexual fantasy of dreams manifested, perhaps, from stress, the relentless desire for real sex - the life force - in a house in the shadow of the grim reaper, Death (Chekhov irony?) - it's been 41 days since Mae last had it!, she tells us - comforting but dulling banality of conversation and behaviour from family and friend are mixed with the quasi ponder over the profundity of the brittle knowledge of the inevitability of human mortality. These are the ingredients of this many scened play.

The play has us facing, as witness, the stoicism of a family in the midst of an inevitable reality - death - of a painful one under sedation. It is acutely observed and has a surprising sense of humour bubbling through the gloomy circumstances and climaxes with a release orgasmic dance 'party' resolution - life will - does - go on, for some, I guess, until they get older.

For me, the mechanisms of the writing are too obvious - and one simply waited for the emotional break and its aftermath to come with a tired predictive patience - it came - some of us were moved - some of us not. The writerly technique manipulation to painful sentiment was too transparent for me to get willingly on board. Was I told anything I didn't already know before the play finished? Was I changed by what did happen? Was it worth the whole 2 hours in the theatre? Well, for me, No.

Director, Claudia Barrie, has elicited very good performances from all of the company of a very naturalistic kind. Mr Rogers as the dying dad, especially, gives a portrait of an ordinary bloke facing his inevitable fate with admirable stoicism, with gentle restraint, even in his tearful 'crack-up', while Ms Gordon-Harriet pushes her character's brittleness just a little too obviously - the strain of Mae's condition is an 'acted' strain - Ms Gordon-Harriet does not seem to touch too deeply within herself to have us believe what is really going on - it is indicated artfully but not truthfully experienced. (It is telling to remember the recent work of Elijah Willliams in THE ROLLING STONE as a reference to the quality of depth I was looking for, that may have released my cynicism about the work into a 'co-operative' emotional belief).

Isabel Hudson, with an ever consistent artistic contribution, creates a believable space with economy and enhancing aesthetics on this difficult traverse stage, and with Emily Brayshaw, who has Designed the Costumes, a world that is redolent with imaginative verisimilitude. Lighting is by Ben Brockman, and the Sound Design and Composition by Ben Pierpoint resonates with time location and emotional direction without overstatement.

This is of the well made, but fairly ordinary, American play genre, which is well done - produced - by MAD MARCH HARE THEATRE, with the usual delight in the grotesqueries of the body, that Ms Barrie in her choice of plays to direct, has a curious predilection for.

P.S. There is, in what is almost a Sydney tradition, NO program notes telling us of the writer. Everybody but the writer Clare Barron, the originator, the source of the artistic effort.
Again, just saying!
The writer made anonymous, invisible.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Stupid Fucking Bird

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents, STUPID FUCKING BIRD, by Aaron Posner, at the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 12 - 28 July.

STUPID FUCKING BIRD, is an American play by Aaron Posner, first seen in 2013. It has taken flight from the source material of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL. It is kinda an adaptation that follows more than less the original plot and concerns of Chekhov but transposes them to a darker contemporary world - reconstructing the leading characters, expanding some of the minor characters and/or mashing some of the other characters into a composite of the originals. This play has seven actors, the original has 10 actors, at least - there are many 'extra' roles in a good production of THE SEAGULL.

In the original, a young writer, the son of an actress, gives a showing of a play he has written in demonstration of NEW FORM for the theatre. Similarly, so does Posner's hero, Conrad (Mansoor Noor): it is called, WE ARE HERE, starring his adored one, Nina (Megan Smart), much to the chagrin of his insulted actress, mother, Emma Arkadina (Kaitlyn Thor), unrequited love-lorn Mash (Annie Stafford), bewildered but patient Dev (Lloyd Allison-Young), too well loved, phoney, Doyle Trigorin (Gil Balfas), and befuddled Dr Eugene Sorn (Brendan Miles).

Director, Warwick Doddrell, along with his co-creatives: Set Designer, Jeremy Allen; Lighting Designer, Veronique Bennett; Costume Designers, Ellen Stanistreet and Jane Hughes; Composers and Sound Designers, Ben Pierpoint and Mary Rapp and Movement Director, Shy Magsalin have devised a mega-theatrical impact - NEW FORM?

We enter the theatre to a pumpingly loud dance track with all 7 actors onstage having a physical, individual 'rave' - the sound track to this show is contemporary propulsive and sometimes drowningly over loud - until all actors gather around a microphone-stand in a spotlight and then decide not to speak - they have already, individually, done this, conspicuously, in the 'dance-prologue' - there must be meaning!

One of the actors, then, crosses the stage to another spot lighted microphone-stand and asks us to command the play to begin - there is a lot of fourth wall breakthrough with direct conversations and provocation to encourage the audience to converse directly with the players - some do. The actors never leave the stage (except for the interval, and when they refuse to take a curtain call - 'the rude buggers'.) and move the Set pieces and props around, sometimes, distractingly, maddeningly, through and over text. One of the Set pieces is, unfortunately, a sealed black box (alarm bells ring in my head) with one wall a window glaze with a visible standing microphone - which not many of the actors, frustratingly, know how to use to communicate to us from this 'isolation booth', as the characters career around and crash into each other in the cramped space lit a fiery red.

The Director seems to employ all the theoretical stuff of Meyerhold, Artaud, Brecht, Charles Mee and ... name some other well loved academic theoretical theatrical faddists and adaptors (Kip Williams?) There are, as well, song interludes self-accompanied on ukulele and guitar (Music, by Jim Fishwick) and dance routines and trendy modern dress with glimpses of naked features. It is all there (oops, not true: no paper crowns or dirty underwear!), including the painting of the auditorium walls to extend the fourth wall to the back seats, face-on blinding lights, occasional improvised text around issues of the day that, I guess, are declaring that we are all performing, that we are all here, together, this day, this night. All of us are actors in this theatre - in real time life - together! WE ARE HERE.

I am a declared Chekhovphile - if there is such a thing - and, so some might think that STUPID FUCKING BIRD, would not be my samovar/cup of tea. But, you are wrong, I thought the script by Mr Posner a brilliant piece of work. He brings onto stage, verbally, a possible sub-text of Chekhov's people - what Chekhov, famously, doesn't write but ambiguously provides clues to the possibilities of - and it is funny, insightful, playful and generally faithful. Does this play stand alone as a comprehensible piece of theatre? Does one need to know the original to appreciate what's going on? I don't know. But I, who knows the original play fairly intimately, found it a provocative tease, cheat and joy.

The play, as well, is not called "THE SEAGULL, by Anton Chekhov, adapted [adopted] by Aaron Posner", but shouts out: it is a new fucking play., STUPID FUCKING BIRD. I wish that some of Sydney practitioners had the nous, courage to do the same. I, by the way, loved Benedict Andrews' adaptation of THE SEAGULL - though thought the directorial/production by Mr Andrews, of his own play, a woefully misconceived failure. I even liked all of the above mega-theatre offers from the creatives of this production, BUT ... But, this clever, brilliant writing requires seven brilliant actors with skills that are mega! There are four actors up there that, however, well-drilled and enthusiastic they are, do not really have the prepared instruments to bring this bird to full flight.

Mansoor Noor as the depressed misanthrope, Conrad, brings an energetic delight to the challenges of Mr Posner's play and his Director's 'commands', igniting into a fully fledged creation, exhibiting wit, intelligence and a high perceptive (wicked) sense of humour - he is a 'hurricane' of focused skill beneath the wings of this BIRD. Too, Annie Stafford, as Mash, grabs hold of the cynically depressed and ironic self-deprecating emotional violence of her 'pathetic' character, and although some of her spoken vocal work doesn't always deliver a comprehensive clarity for the audience, the songs, from her, are a relative treat. Megan Smart playing Nina has a more difficult assignment, having to play the earnest central love interest of the play but draws one into the predicaments facing her character with delicate sensitivity and the full force of casual cruelty and consuming narcissism.

Mr Balfas as Trigorin does not have the charismatic force for the man nor much of his indolent sexuality - the story 'fuss' about Trigorin is dim in this production - and partnered with Ms Thor's Emma Arkadina ,which is, mostly, superficially 'acted', and like Mr Balfas' performance, vocally under-owned, under-skilled, places a large hole in the fabric of the production. There is a theatrical intelligence in both Mr Allison-Young and Miles' work but also an inherent dullness that prevents a radiance of thrill for the audience to want to identify with their men. There is function but not much generous 'giving' energy.

All of the Mega-theatre gestures employed under the Direction of Mr Doddrell are arresting but are not, always, in this production harnessed to elucidating what is going on. When, for instance, towards the end of Act One, this company step into the 'isolation box' lit in red with a live microphone-on-stand, one expects that this offer from the Director, and each of the actors, is going to add to a rising, comprehensible stratospheric catharsis, a step-by-step buoyant lucidity of the action and themes of the play, but as none of these actors seem to know where to stand to be communicative with the microphone and are choreographically in chaotic mayhem - some never ever reaching the broadcast position - all one can do in the audience is to be distracted, irritated, with the lack of accuracy - is it a lack of rehearsal? - for, both the lack of disciplined vocal orchestration and physical choreography from all the actors destroys the possible theatrical intent of the 'trendy' statement of the glazed black box.

One has little choice but to become objectively disconnected to the production and the play. One gives up - it all becomes just a gist of an 'idea', for the storytelling. I do suppose the text that Mr Posner has written is part of his dramaturgical argument for the play and is meant to be heard by the audience and is not meant to thrown away by the actors in a welter of noise and movement, otherwise he could have just written say "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb" for each of the actors in this interlude. What this company of artists are offering us is really not enough when one is working with such writing. To be approximate (or, just enthusiastic) with the technical skills demanded is not enough. The text, talk, is here, sacrificed, by the actors, under the Directorial behest of Mr Doddrell, with either inaudible or incomprehensible diction and the need to keep the action going.

STUPID FUCKING BIRD is a demanding 'farce' of intellect, vocal, physical and emotional judgement, skill control. It requires a cool head, objective technical control, and certainly not uncontrolled demonstrations of emotional states in an expressed intellectual conceptualisation of mega-theatrics. The text must be primary. Only Mr Noor, in this company, has it all. In spades.

STUPID FUCKING BIRD, then, for some of us is worth the effort to see, despite the obfuscations of performance and Direction - a contemporary take on Chekhov's THE SEAGULL that is truly daring, original, relevant and still respectful, even adoring of the original. Mr Posner has made a career of adapting other people's work - novels and plays. He has, for instance also adapted UNCLE VANYA, as LIFE SUCKS and THREE SISTERS as NO SISTERS.

My biggest laugh came in one of Conrad's raves that maybe we don't need NEW FORMS but rather OLD FORMS DONE BETTER. Now that is a real challenge for some of our contemporary Directors.

The Man in The Attic

Photog by Blumenthal Photography

Shalom and Moira Blumenthal Productions present, THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, by Timothy Daly, at the Eternity Theatre, Burton St. Darlinghurst. 4 - 22 July.

THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, by Timothy Daly, is an Australian play having its Australian Premiere after showing in Europe, in Paris in 2012, in Avignon in 2013 and 2015, Italy in 2015 and Greece in 2017. The play won the Patrick White Playwrights Award in 2007.

Based on a true story, The Wife (Danielle King) and The Husband (Gus Murray) rescue and hide The Jew (Barry French) in their attic towards the end of the war in Germany. The Jew is an expert craftsman with jewellery (watches) and the couple put him to work, secretly, to create a service and goods for bartering that provides their food, survival, needs. The Neighbour (Colleen Cook), a war widow with strong ties to the Nazi machine suspects and blackmails The Wife and The Husband to enter the blackmarket with them. The war finishes and the three 'hosts' are reluctant to lose their 'golden goose' and hold The Jew kidnapped with the delusion that the war has not ended. More profit ensues from the American occupation.

Timothy Daly in the program notes answers a self-proposed question: Do we still need more plays about the Holocaust?:
The realities of hatred, racism and anti-semitism are still so strongly with us, both with the extreme-left and the extreme-right of politics, that far from being timid about such plays, we should announce them as vital and still much-needed because they attempt to answer urgent questions still pulsing through contemporary society.
The Director (and one of the Producers) Moira Blumenthal quotes the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." Sitting in the Eternity Theatre with an audience that seemed to be made up, mostly, of Jewish friends, one could palpably feel the effect, the cultural importance, and the imperative for this audience to witness this play so as to be able, perhaps, to live their lives forward, by looking backwards at some other lives to which they are, possibly, tragically tied. The stillness, the quiet absorption of the telling of this tale was permeated with a kind of gentle melancholy. THE MAN IN THE ATTIC was being much appreciated.

Mr Daly found this story and with a very conventional structure and with sure pencil-thin strokes of characterisation, that because of their cliche familiarity, are easy to endow and imagine. The writing is straight forward narrative with little in-depth psychological motivations or ethical debate, that is mixed in with a 'spiritual' context of the contemplation of the universe of the heavens by one of the characters with a telescope, to give the play a kind of quasi profundity of contemplation.

Ms Blumenthal has with Costume and Set Designer, Hugh O'Connor, come up with a look that, supported (camouflaged), by the Lighting of Emma Lockhart-Wilson, allows the audience to enter the 'conspiracy' to create time and place - it is a very successful offer and makes the Eternity stage 'work' - which is not always the case with other productions we have seen in this space. Tegan Nichols makes conventional but sound Sound Design.

The performances are reliable and provide as much believability within the limitations of the writing style as possible. Gus Murray has a simple direct ease with The Husband's venality and cold-hearted villainy, assisted by the typical Nazi zealot with greed and sex as the basic propellant for the choices of The Neighbour of Ms Cook - who manages, just, to not wring her hands or twirl the proverbial moustache, melodrama cliches, to signal her function in the play. Mr French, as The Jew, who virtually has to play without any support, as he is 'locked' in the attic by himself, gives a creditable, if sometimes a too much 'romantic' sentimentality colouring, to his fellow's quandaries. Whilst Ms King digs into the pathos of The Wife, who becomes conflicted with the actions of her choices and provides some shallow glimpses into the questioning of the stability of her character's moral compass.

THE MAN IN THE ATTIC, is a curiously simple construct of an old fashioned kind, but with this audience around one, it strikes a chord of remembrance and rings the alarums of the necessity of the need to be constantly vigilant about what freedoms and respect have been gained, for they could, easily, slip away again.