Monday, February 13, 2017

The 2017 Lysicrates Prize for playwriting

This is the third year of The Lysicrates Prize for playwriting. Two philanthropists, husband and wife. John and Patricia Azarias, founded The Lysicrates Foundation "with the aims to encourage and promote Australian creativity, particularly in playwriting; to help restore the beautiful Lyscicrates Monument in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden; and to foster an appreciation of both Australian history and our living heritage from classical Greece. ..."

To this end the Griffin Theatre has been 'recruited' to assist in the organisation of the playwriting objective. An invitation was sent out to established writers to submit a first act of a play that was in process to a panel at the theatre. This year from some 20 submissions, three writers were selected. A Director and Actors, over a three day rehearsal period, prepared a 'staged ' reading for an invited audience. Following the democratic tradition of ancient Greece, the audience were invited, by placing a token in a 'jar', to vote for the Best one.

This year's Playwrights and Plays were:

Jennifer Compton: THE GOOSE IN THE BOTTLE. Director, Gale Edwards with actors: Belinda Giblin, Celia Ireland, Claire Lovering and Kate Skinner.

Nick Coyle: FEATHER IN THE WEB. Director, Ben Winspear. Actors: Tina Bursill, Linda Cropper, Gareth Davies, Nikki Shields.

Melissa Bubnic: GHOSTING THE PARTY. Director, Kim Hardwick. Actors: Lynette Curran, Amanda Muggleton, Shari Sebbens.

The winner was Ms Bubnic's play, GHOSTING THE PARTY. It has an 86 year old, her daughter and her granddaughter. It focuses on Grandma's preparation for death as she looks back over life. It is funny, beautifully observed and political - euthanasia is part of the very funny chat! These basic qualities that many an Australian play could use. I, too, liked it best! One hopes that the play, if finished, sees the light of day. Maybe, even at the Griffin, one of the hosts of this event. None of the past winners - Steve Rogers (2015), Mary Rachel Brown (2016) - declared by this 'democratic' vote have been produced at the Griffin, though a runner-up, Justin Fleming's THE LITERATI, through some 'Republican' order, I suppose, found its way to the light - so there goes the popular voice of the people, I guess.

Mr Coyle's play was intriguing, a series of scenes of interaction between a young woman and the rest of the world. While Ms Compton's work didn't have any thing of much interest going on that could capture our attention undividely - it felt 'old fashioned' in form and pre-occupation.

It was a gentle afternoon and it was good to be in air conditioning in the Verbrugghen Hall, at the Conservatorium of Music - it had been 42 degrees and humid outside. The theatre had a smattering of the general public but seemed to me to be buzzing with Federal and State politicians - none of the present Arts Ministers it was noted were there (Mr Harwin distracted with Energy business that afternoon) - some of them giving a 'speech' beforehand, and lots of lawyers and 'glamourati' all over the place - lots of suits and ties and well heeled others. I wondered how many thought of any practical ways to support the ailing and financially 'slashed' arts in this country while 'huffing' and 'puffing' about the Art's importance both, historically and contemporaneously, and the 'joy' in participating in this gathering. I was a little agitated by the self-congratulation in the atmosphere of the room. (Read my blog on THE TESTAMENT OF MARY to see why).

Still, the playwriting Lyysicrates Prize is a good thing, and it, at least, exists, and is a sign that someone cares. Mr and Mrs Azarias, the Arts community thanks you, especially the writers.

The Foundation's other objective to restore the replica of the Lysicrates Monument in the Botanic Gardens was achieved last October.

Intersection

Photo by Tracey Schramm
ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People) present, INTERSECTION - a collection of short scenes/monologue by 10 young writers in the ATYP Theatre, Wharf 4. Walsh Bay. 1st February - 18th February.

INTERSECTION is a program from 10 playwrights: Peter Beaglehole, Angela Collins, Thomas De Angelis, Izzy McDonald, Charles O'Grady, Suzannah Kennett Lister, Zoe Ridgeway, Jordan Shea, Lewis Treston and Honor Webster-Mannison. 19 actors under the Direction of Katrina Douglas tackle seven duologues, one trio and two monologues. The material is mostly dealing with the journey of adolescence in this decade of the twenty-first century.

Ms Douglas has Directed the works with care, some of the performances very arresting, and found a way to marry the varied subject matter to fit a logical coherence in presentation. The best of the short 10 minute works, for me, were: THE TRACK AND THE CHURCH, by Zoe Ridgeway, that had a refreshing vernacular captured well, performed by Hudson Musty and Jackson Williams. LITTLE DIFFERENCES, by Joel Shea, with pleasing performances from Rebecca Gulia and especially, Elliott Falzon. PRAY 4 MOJO, by Charles O'Grady, examining the plight of the 'different' in our society with two poignant performances from Kurt Pimblet and Adam Stepfner.

The program was an hour and fifty minutes long and could have benefited with an interval. Those seat become very HARD, and this program usually is on in the Summer and the theatre has no air-conditioning! I presume that the work is been presented with an audience in mind. One began to tire and loose stamina as the evening toiled on. It does neither the writers nor actors any favour, really, by not giving the audience an opportunity to have a refreshing break to take back into the auditorium, so as to give proper attention to the latter section of the collection. (I note that my favourites, mentioned above, were chronologically, early in the evenings offers!)

I found the scenes a great relief and noted that the two monologists suffered from the contrast to interaction between players. The Set and Costume Design was by Isabel Hudson, Lighting, by Emma Lockhart-Wilson and the atmospheric Sound Design, by Tom Hogan.

The Little Dog Laughed

Photo by Photo Bob Seary

New Theatre presents, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, by Douglas Carter Beane, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 7 February - 4 March.

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, by American writer, Douglas Carter Beane, has had a previous outing at the Ensemble Theatre in 2009. The play had been nominated in 2006 for a Tony Award, in New York, and, I, based on the Ensemble production that I saw, could not understand why. It appeared to be one of those New Yorkie glib 'homosexual' plays about the cliche shallowness of being 'gay' and of the cliched ugly strategies needed for surviving in the show business world - especially Hollywood - full of comic 'zingers' and comfortable sentiment. In my past blog I talked about having read the play and having thought there was something more to this play than blithe hilarity to titillate the 'brethren' and the earnest 'progressives' of the New York theatre-going population.

So, it was with surprise/relief that this new production at the New Theatre by Alice Livingstone gave a production of the play that was scaled to a naturalistic presentation with characters, venal though they are, that not only scored comic waves of laughter but also some relevant , not necessarily pleasant insights, into the personas of the characters. The play is a sweet/bitter pill and wickedly clever enough to claim your attention.

This production is part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival for 2017. The New Theatre has been part of that Festival for some 20 years and in 2016 was the proud recipient of the ACON Honour Award for Arts and Entertainment. This production of THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, is a good quality continuance of that tradition.

On a cool grey Set design (Tom Bannerman) that has a simple but elegant style about it, we are introduced to the action of the play by an ambitious agent/manager, Diane (Sarah Aubrey), who has the piercing intelligence of the realities of her industry but with enough wit and élan to seemingly 'float' above it - whatever 'dirt' she plays with, she carries none of the 'soil' of it, or, so it appears. The writing for her character, both as a monologist and as part of the action is where a great deal of the comedy sparkles - as cynical as it may be, it is hilarious in a very 'campy' way. Ms Aubrey, immaculately dressed (Costumes, by Louise Mason), has captured the surface insouciance of this woman wonderfully, who is, truly, anything but carefree or careless when it comes to her client and what he can do for her ambitions. Ms Aubrey reveals the shark-like ruthlessness of this industry with a glamorous edginess that scores a repulse-attract magnet for us audience members, thankfully, safely out of her range of preying. We appreciate, even savour, her cruel wit and are relieved she is not part of our world.

Brett Rogers plays Diane's passport to riches and fame, an actor called Mitchell - with boy-next-door matinee looks - who is suffering from a severe need for intimacy as his career begins to take off. His problem is that this intimacy is necessarily requited by men - Mitchell is a closeted homosexual - not a good look for the Hollywood money movie-machine moguls. He has held his mask in place up to now, it seems, until he meets a young rent boy/prostitute, Alex (Charles Upton), and after a false start falls into a state of infatuation that might derail Diane's plans and his super-objective: to be a BIG movie star. Mr Rogers is consummate in his relaxed and languidly handsome performance, capturing Mitchell's belief in what he is experiencing as love but also revealing, ultimately, the spineless unprincipled drive of Mitchell's worldly ambition. He trusts that Diane will protect and guide him, the moral principles, cost, not his concern. He is 'baby' to this 'mummy' figure, indeed.

Mr Upton, as Alex, gives a nuanced gamin performance and has enough physical charm and warmth to seduce us into the pull of Alex's attraction circle. It is a charm boyish-enough for us to ignore any signals that his casualness with his bi-sexual relationship with Ellen (Madeline Beukers) that has created a pregnancy and the embrace of abortion, might give us. It is a good performance. Or, am I, too, like Mitchell, infatuated? For, Mr Upton doesn't quite reveal the cynical calculation of Alex that 'rolls' his unconscious drunken victim and then cooly lights a cigarette , while sitting on the bed, and assesses what Mitchell might be able to do for him: Alex is on-the-make, and is always on-the-make no matter his protestations of love (he does protest too much!) - he takes what he is offered, 'bribed' with, without much argument: a cheque for $10,000 and happily escapes all negative consequences of his choices. Undoubtedly, Alex is a grifter, too.

Ms Beukers, as Elllen, is attractive and sufficient, but lacks the actor's skill, insight, or courage to show us that her character is not so nice - a selfish opportunist, running with the main chance, whether it be her sugar-daddy's credit card, or Mitchell's wedding ring. No one in this play is an admirable human being. Beware the packaging.

The comedy and attractive surfaces of these characters are the definite 'sweet' of this play. Their self-centredness and deep-seated mendacity, their, ultimately, ruthless actions to succeed are the 'bitter' of the play. This production,  under the guidance of Ms Livingstone, elevates the play with a cultural maturity that tries to tell, show, a truth of a time and place that needs scrutiny. Obviously, the warning was not heeded in 2006 in New York. Perhaps the 'sweet' comedy was too deflective for the audience to taste, notice, the 'bitter'. Indeed, indeed, the little dog might be laughing all the way to the White House in Washington.

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED is an interesting and recommended night in the theatre. Just pay attention and don't become infatuated - look below the surface. Mardi Gras 2017!

La Traviata



Opera Australia presents, LA TRAVIATA, an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, Libretto by Francesco Maria Plave, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Selected dates between 3 February - 1 April.

LA TRAVIATA, was first performed in March, 1853. Verdi first saw the play adaptation, by Alexandre Dumas, fils, of his novel, THE LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS, in Paris and was inspired to write an opera on these themes - he wrote the score in just under a month - a wonder.

Violetta, a demi-mondaine, renounces her life of pleasure for the sake of Alfredo; but is persuaded by his father to give him up for his own and his family's good. She returns to her former protector, with whom Alfredo fights a duel and is forced to flee the country. He returns to find her dying of consumption.

In my experience, my favourite Verdi operas are AIDA, LA TRAVIATA and THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. LA TRAVIATA is my musical favourite. My introduction to TRAVIATA would have been an LP recording with Joan Sutherland, aeons ago. This production of the opera by Elijah Moshinsky was first performed in 1994 - 23 years ago. It is set in the period of its creation, the Paris of the 1850's by Michael Yeargan, and has a sumptuous four scene design that seems to be a recreation of Parisian paintings of the time period. The detail is astonishing and the look has a reality that is breathtaking, the singers dressed in period costume, by Peter J. Hall, with a Lighting Design, by Nigel Levings, that simulates an authentic atmosphere and creates spatial usage of a beautiful complexity.

I have always enjoyed this production. This performance, however, is the first time that I have been transported, such that time seemed to be suspended. Ermonela Jaho, as Violetta, has the physical delicacy and look to bring great impact to the story of a woman dying of consumption. Besides, she can sing the range of this role with the most delicate fragility and softness, to the defiant rally of the famous Sempre Libre, of the first act, with the greatest of skill and emotion. But what is best, is transfixing, is the commitment to the physical life (and death) from every fibre of this actor/singer's body. Her acting of this role is superb. Ms Jaho has the sentient presence of an energy that is able to translate the power of Verdi's music through every gesture across a range of movement that telegraphs the human dilemma of Violetta's decline with clarity and brimming empathy. Ms Jaho's stage presence and her movement through the moving third act on a stripped stage of enormous naked spareness is a masterclass in acting technique - Ms Jaho matches the musical portrait of this grief stricken and dying woman with a similar inspiration of genius. Verdi would have cheered!

One is completely absorbed by every moment that Ms Jaho is on stage - this is true star quality. I have not seen it for such a long time on a Sydney opera stage and when this whole audience stood to give her a standing ovation it was an impulse of gratitude and admiration of the most genuine regard - this was no first night claque of subscribers rising in loyalty to the company, this was a whole audience thanking a performer for the gift she had just given us. This is why and when opera can be the Greatest of the Performing Art Forms. I was still 'high' outside on the Opera House Promenade twenty minutes later - at my time of life and stage witnessing, a rare event to have a new benchmark of brilliance, of excellence. It makes life worth living.

Her performance seemed to vivify the other performers: Ho-Yoon Chung rising to the demands of his Violetta, even though his acting style is, in contrast, gestural and, relatively, operatic melodrama, his musical efforts became richer as the night proceeded; Jose Carbo as Alfred's father, Giorgio, was provoked to a level of being in the role; whilst Dominica Matthews (Flora), Adrian Tamburini (Baron Douphol), Natalie Aroyan (Annina) gave support with warmth and vulnerability, as they usually do -  jewels in the crown of Opera Australia.

The orchestra led by Renato Palumbo had a wealth of sound and discipline that seamlessly supported the performers and 'told' the musical story. The Revival Director, Hugh Halliday, has prepared this production with great care, the Chorus owning the great crowd scenes with ease and wit.

LA TRAVIATA, as taken its inspiration from the Dumas, fils, novel, where the principal character is called Marguerite - made famous in the 1936 Greta Garbo film, Directed by George Cukor - based on an actual woman, Marie Duplessis - a mistress of Dumas', himself. This story continues to inspire artists: Baz Luhrmann's MOULIN ROUGE, with Nicole Kidman, and in recent times an extraordinary work ( of a musical cabaret style) by Sydney artist Sheridan Harbridge - SONGS FOR THE FALLEN, which travelled to New York to great acclaim.

Do go. Try to catch Ms Jaho. Understand, that two other singers take over the role during its long scheduled run. Beg, borrow and steal to catch Ms Jaho before she finishes.

P.S. The above clip is not of this performance. But it does give a hint of its sumptuous Design.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Strategic Plan



Griffin Theatre Company presents A STRATEGIC PLAN, by Ross Mueller, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 27 January - 11 March.

A STRATEGIC PLAN is a new Australian play by Ross Mueller.

Andrew (Justin Smith) is a rock 'muso' working in the industry for hire - session guitar etc: a gig with Powderfinger, for god's sake! But he can't play live any more: tinnitus, migraine… a health spiral is enveloping him. The art/craft of his passion can't cover his financial responsibilities, and he wants to marry, so he applies and is recruited to take on a full time job by Board Manager Simon (Matt Day) as a CO-CEO for a youth music organisation called Staccato - at least he is still connected to music. The building - space - of Staccato is in physical decrepitude and reflects the depression of the company's decline. Andrew devises a program that gives life back to the Company with the development of a bold new strategic plan with a young music enthusiast/'wise-arse', Jill (Emele Ugavule), who sees through the politics of the situation but has dreams/ambitions for producing. What Andrew has set up, and with his future proposals, it is enough for Staccato to look like a going-thing. Andrew then finds himself in the midst of a corporate 'scam' to bully him out of his job - it was only a six month probation, he's told - so that a sell-up can be taken on. We meet Linda (Briallen Clarke), the blithe Human Resources (HR) rep on The Board of Management. Bewildered and ultimately enraged, his health encroached by panic and depression, Andrew decides to fight back and calls the company out even to an expensive and lengthy case in court in pursuit of compensation for 'psychological injury'. He loses - the law can't ensure justice! What does Andrew have left? The music of his young protege Jill. His life passion beats quietly, perhaps enough to resuscitate Andrew's spiritually, even if the rest of him is a wreck.

Anybody that has been the subject of harassment (and a kind of destruction) by a Corporate Institution (even when it is a not-for-profit organisation), and I can speak from a very vivid and ugly experience inflicted upon myself and others, led by a determined CEO and a HR legion, will recognise the tactics and ghastly language at the centre of Mr Mueller's play. The play brings back lurid memories in capital letters. Indeed, one of the strength's of Mr Mueller's writing is the very fine ear and eye he has for the argot/parlance of the world's of his characters.The CEO/HR textual cant and method in this play is horrifyingly accurate to my experience - the revealing of a Corporate Strategic Plan all to familiar. I am not sure that this play is merely a 'satirical' rendering of this situation, for for the first hand survivors of such a life episode it feels much more like 'documentary' re-creation. I know less of the other world of the 'muso' but the lingo, too, had a ring of mocking authenticity.

The ambition that Mr Mueller has in giving us the machinations of these worlds, with a satirical edge garnished with more than a soupçon of frustration and impotent anger, brings to mind the Australian Broadcast Company's (ABC) UTOPIA, written by Rob Stitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner. Unfortunately, the dramaturgical structure in A STRATEGIC PLAN lacks a clean shape to permit an audience in the theatre to get on board. The shifts from the Staccato music venue to the Government office at the Road Traffic Authority and the 'fire escape' space in the law court, with the sleight-of-hand time shift 'games' of the text, and the role sharing by a couple of the actors, is not solved in production. Certainly, the Staging, Direction, by the usually assured Chris Mead (THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD, QUACK), does not elucidate, easily, any of this shuffling. The acting, as well, does not have the clarity of style, the homogenous equilibrium of that television company. Two of these actors get it and know it; two don't. Technically, Mr Mead has let the cast 'shout' a lot and at a fairly unvaried tempo. Noisy and kind of relentless. This play, without an interval, became exhausting.

Mr Smith, as Andrew, has a formidable job to play the hapless victim on his downward spiral of physical, emotional and psychological breakdown, and is unable to take us into the character's dilemma with a clarity for the audience, for us to give him either an understandable empathy or mordant comic appreciation.

That the music industry part of the play - the sentimental heart of the text, where the true identity of Andrew exists - is almost completely dependent with his interaction with Jill, it cannot really glimmer to life, as there is very little chemical spark coming from Ms Ugavule to be a catalyst for that journey. She seems able to do little more with her responsibility than to deliver the text competently. There is no sub-textual creativity going-on here from Ms Ugavule, no sense of Jill's 'past' that brings her to the 'present' of the play in pursuit of a 'future' - the work is blandly one-dimensional. Whoever Jill meets, there is no mask-shift changing of strategy at all, no psychological adjustments. Ms Ugavule seems to be bamboozled by the world that Jill is so 'cool' about and the language/lingo does not come comfortably from her character. One watches Ms Ugavule and expects more, hopes for more, want more, for her presence is arresting, but nothing emanates, no matter how closely one reads her acting offers to allow us to enter the ambitions and relationships in this part of the play. Mr Smith is up against it to bring the play to life without better support.

For, then, Mr Smith in the bigger part of the play is matched against Mark Day, who is blandly handsome as Simon, but lacks the chutzpah necessary to deliver the naked mendacity of the character to take us into the whirly-gigs of modern corporate ambitions and shocking behavioural manipulations - the performance is all surface and lacks any backstory to supply motivation, the comic timing is mechanical, without an organic inspiration discernible. There is little creative comic intuition going-on, and when Mr Day assumes his other casting, the lawyer Perkins, other than to drape a lawyer's costume over Simon's suit to indicate to the audience he is another human, nothing at all is demarcated! The audience has to do a lot of work to decide if we are meeting a new character or not.

The only real support for Mr Smith comes from Briallen Clarke who, as she did in the STC's HAY FEVER, creates comic 'gems', subtly demarcated but individual characters, Linda and Leanne, with insightful panache and technical prowess, even if both characters are conceived, preposterously, by the writer, as only caricatured functionaries for his satiric targets. Ms Clarke brings a motivated life, however fragile, to the work, to help us believe. Part of the routine skill/job of being called an 'actor', by the way.

The principal Set Design by Sophie Fletcher is deliberately 'scungy' and doesn't solve the shifts of location in the text with much imaginative flair. The changes are decidedly clumsy in their solution. The Lighting (Verity Hampson) is realistic in its ugliness and not conducive to be a comic invitation for the satiric mood of the play.

I was disappointed with A STRATEGIC PLAN. Mr Mueller's CONSTRUCTION OF THE HUMAN HEART, A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY, even CONCUSSION, have given me a great expectation of his work. I read the play after watching it and saw the hallmarks of Mr Mueller's interests and stylistic adventures that always engage me, but is there a need for more edit, does the work meander to long in the ferocious 'anger' of the commentary or do we need to see another production to bring it to life? A version of the chicken or the egg puzzle, for me. See what you think.

3 More Film reviews… Paterson, Split and Manchester By The Sea


PATERSON


PATERSON is a new film by Jim Jarmusch. It follows a week (a Monday to Monday) in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, who writes poetry, is married to Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a home-body 'adventuring' with artistic explorations in 'black and white' forays, with an English Bulldog, called Marvin (Nellie), for company.

Every day has a similar pattern of task, at variance only on the weekend. It is about the little everyday world and the ordinary intimacies of exchange between the casual acquaintances of the bus route and his nightly visit to his local bar and, mostly, with the loving husband and wife who have ambitions (maybe twins!) - small, though they seem to be. Paterson in his note book writes poetry, inspired by the surrounds and denizens of Paterson. Laura decorates the house, creates dresses and decorates cup-cakes, and learns to play a guitar. Marvin watches protectively over his domain and with his 'jealousy' provokes the only real drama of the story.

Mr Jarmusch with Cinematographer, Frederick Elmes and Production Designer, Mark Friedberg, create a glow of beauty on the drab surrounds of a small town. I kept recalling Thornton Wilder's affectionate and gently profound play OUR TOWN.  Paterson, the city/town which claims, in the film, Lou Costello as a son, as well as the modern American poet William Carlos Williams (he wrote a 5 volume book of poetry about Paterson), is revealed by the settled routine of the daily life of the characters we meet in 2016. They are captured in a steady cinematic rhythm of enveloping drollness, masterfully controlled by Mr Jarmusch without any hesitation to embrace the time for us to absorb delicate, incidental detail. Mr Jarmusch reveals himself as a poet of the image, accompanied by a gentle soundtrack, mostly composed, by Mr Jarmusch himself. This is unashamedly what some would call an Art Film - and it is as idiosyncratically beautiful in its composition as other films by this Director: STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984), DEAD MAN (1995),ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013). A consistent 'auteur' of the medium in his very unique remarkable artistic manners.

Adam Driver, who we have noticed more and more arrestingly on our screens (STAR WARS; THE FORCE AWAKENS - 2015; and in the up-coming SILENCE), here in his steady ease as a 'good' man looking at the world around him with a gentle optimism and faith that inspires his poetic bent - his personal crisis rescued with a meeting of 'magical' coincidence - is hypnotic in his secure demeanour of not appearing to be doing anything but living in front of us - his apparent simplicity is a great gift for the film and the audience. (Paterson's poetry the work of Ron Podgett).  Ms Farahani provides gentle eccentricity that creates a cocoon of warmth in the domestic world that is menaced only by the devotion of Marvin.

I am a fan of the eccentricity and courage of the worlds that Jim Jarmusch creates and if you love the medium of film, loving PATERSON (and all his other work) will be no effort. Highly recommended, for all, who are not frenetic.



SPLIT


Oh, woe. Oh, woe, woe, woe.

This is an awful couple of hours in the cinema. I went because my 'date' loves the horror, 'scary' genre. And I thought it can't be all 'bad' as it has one of the more interesting actors in the industry James McAvoy playing the lead (ATONEMENT (20007), THE LAST STATION (2009), X MEN - FIRST CLASS (2011), FILTH (2013). The temptation to play a character, Kevin, who is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) with 23 diagnosed personalities (another one manifests during the storytelling), is too big to say NO, too. I reckon, Mr McAvoy should have been wiser because this is a shambling tale with the classic supposition that being mentally ill automatically equates as being dangerous. I understand there has been some distress in the relevant community about the depiction of this character's disability and some protest.

I believe there should be some protest about the quality of the body of work of M. Night Shyamalan which since his first film THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), which was his artistic peak, has been on an unceasing downward spiral of ordinariness ever since. Sure his films, generally, make money, but at what cost to other artists who could benefit from studio support. Here is an example of the Hollywood business 'numbers' game in glaring evidence.

Not only is the screenplay 'lame' (superficial) and the editing leaving logic holes all over the place and with no forward propellant in the tempo of the storytelling - it is in a 'flat-footed' static mode - no real tension, no hold-your breath moments, the acting is, only, at best competent: Betty Buckley as Doctor Karen Fletcher; or really awful: Anya Taylor-Joy, as Casey Cookie (really Mr Shyamalan, that name is meant to be taken seriously?!) The other two kidnapped girls are shuffled off-screen very quickly, thank goodness, but only after one of them has been gratuitously stripped down to bra and undies and paraded down a hallway for our salacious delectation. Mr McAvoy, who can do, has done, better work, is mostly having, it seemed, a lot of fun dressing-up and glibly demarcating, physically, the personas he has to play - the CGI 'Beast' being a total joke at his expense - one could only laugh at its grossness.

This film has made money, I read.  It has, too, had some positive critical response but it could only be because this film is a bit better than Mr Shyamalan's past stuff. Give it a miss. It is so ridiculous on so many levels that only fanatical fans could 'buy' it. When one thinks of this genre I have Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS (1961), or Polanski's ROSEMARY S BABY (1968) as benchmarks of suspense and mounting horror. It is cheaper to buy those movies online or at your DVD store and view at home than to buy a ticket at the cinema to see SPLIT at your local cinema.



MANCHESTER BY THE SEA


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a film Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Kenneth Lonergan has written some wonderful plays: THIS IS OUR YOUTH (1996), THE WAVERLEY GALLERY (2000) - Pulitzer Prize winner - and LOBBY HERO (2001).and wrote and directed his first film the remarkable YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000) with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, and followed it up with a modern social epic called MARGARET, with Anna Paquin and a legion of great New York character actors. MARGARET was made in 2005 but was not released until 2011 after a 'terrible' disagreement and battle between the producers, studio and Mr Lonergan. There are two versions of the film a two and a half hour cinema edit and the three hour eighteen minute version on DVD. The latter the preferred Directorial 'cut'. It has, subsequently, been ranked by a BBC Poll as one of the great films of the twenty first century - number 31. (Lonergan had, as well, worked on the script of Scorcese's GANGS OF NEW YORK.)

Mr Lonergan has a view of the world informed by a close study of the human, influenced, perhaps, by a Freudian education from his family - both of his parents (mother and step father) being psychiatrists and analysts.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA concerns Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) whose brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies and he  finds himself designated as the 'guardian' of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He has been drawn back to Manchester, reluctantly, and, we, via the flash-backs to an earlier time, come to see a tragedy that Lee has never 'moved on' from. What he does in the present time is acutely affected by his past life. In a very interesting article in the November 7th, 2016 The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead, Lonergan is quoted with an alternative observation of the different ways we may respond to trauma, and in the case of Lee, it neither kills him nor makes him stronger but simply, permanently, maims him. There is not any happy ending here. It is a registering of a truth of some lives, where the trauma is not to be worn away.

And this is what we watch in Casey Affleck's cauterising performance where his actor's choices makes every piece of dialogue formidably packed with complicated content and fathoms deep of emotional complexity and pain-filled truths. The many moments of silent communication that Mr Lonergan takes in close-up of Mr Affleck, during the film's length, are full of a knowing of grief that we as an audience have the space to endow, that makes the film a moving devastation of participation for the attentive audience - we experience the tragedy of Lee, personally, and we come to a shared realisation of the burden of a bottomless grief.

There is not a false note in any of the other performances either. For instance, Lucas Hedges, as teenage Patrick, who plumbs the 'giddiness' of what it is to be young and trying to respond truthfully without loss-of-face to the world he is growing-up in, in the blast of tragic loss and emotional destabilising fissures. He is achingly 'young'.

Mr Lonergan's script illustrates the peculiar juxtaposition of the great strokes of tragedy sitting without much of a dividing line beside comedy. The comedy of non-sequiturs, the comedy of real life, where the need to seriously critique Star Trek is as demanding in the hours of that insufferable psychic pain, in the tradition of the Chekhovian heritage we have been given. The film is enriched by its perfectly observed 'humour'. The two masks of drama: Comedy and Tragedy sit well together in this film.

Too, one should mention Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler who make transformational impact in their supporting scenes. (One does need to remark on the sheer physical 'beauty' - sexiness - of Mr Lonergan's casting, and note it alongside the geographical beauty he sets his film in, to see his 'trick' to seduce us to an easier acceptance of the real pain and 'horror' of this story of human despair and pain - the beauty of the 'flower' and the 'serpent' beneath it.)

Mr Lonergan with his cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, capture the scenic beauty of this Massachusetts's fishing village, covered in snow and reflected harbour stillness - the glory of nature in stark contrast to the turmoil of the people living in it, on it. The strife of the human condition in placid, passive nature. The blues of the sky and the sea blurred into the ether, masking, hiding the demarcating horizon. The sea and the universe one - a vast collective unconscious.

Lesley Parker in charge of the Music reflects the classic Tarkovsky/Malick manipulation of choosing sacred music to support and elevate the banality of pain - shifting real life into an ethereal motif of universal dignity (ANDREI RUBELEV (1966)/THE NEW WORLD (2005), and effortlessly takes us there.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, is a film from a perceptive human being that examines, fearlessly, aspects of what it is to be human in the twenty first century (all his writing is redolent with this vision) with an artist's control of deliberate aesthetic to keep us engaged. It is subtly manipulative but its power subsumes any cynicism that one may have while watching.

Two American films crammed with great acting and artistic integrity: MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, are not to be missed experiences in the communal cinema space.

It has been a good year, so far, to go to the cinema to see some great films, movies, pictures, flicks.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

I Hate You My Mother

Photo by Rupert Reid
Real Harpy, White Box Theatre in Association with Red Line Productions present, I HATE YOU MY MOTHER, by Jeanette Cronin, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo, 24 January - 11 February.

I HATE YOU MY MOTHER, is a new play by Jeanette Cronin. Ms Cronin is well loved and respected as an actor, especially, in Sydney. In 2014, Ms Cronin presented her first play as a writer: TELL ME AGAIN, which was followed up a year later with QUEEN BETTE. I enjoyed them very much. In each Ms Cronin also starred. Her third play, I LOVE YOU NOW, is part of the Darlinghurst Theatre season, later, this year.

I HATE YOU MY MOTHER, is made up of four revolving scenarios stemming from four different locations, time in history,  and characters. In each scenario there are only two characters and Ms Cronin and Simon Glømmen Bostad juggle dialect and different individuals in each.

Ms Cronin in her Writer's Notes:
Throughout our known history, child sexual abuse has somehow been able to hide in plain sight. Why is something, so publicly reviled, so privately tolerated? How has it remained entrenched in our schools, churches and families for so long? Is it just Nature's crooked way? The order of things? A privilege of the stronger?
To begin any play with a disembodied voice is asking for audience comprehension difficulties. We as a species, take some time to focus our hearing, our animal instincts (our flight or fight primalities) unconsciously, defensively, looking for where the sound (the noise) is coming from causes delay in comprehending what the noise is, and then in tuning in to hear it. In the case of I HATE YOU MY MOTHER not only is this how we are introduced to this play - a pre-recorded voice - but it is in a heightened 'poetic' language form and is very, very long - it stayed a garbled noise. Whatever was said was hardly comprehensible - the audience was disengaged, put-off, right from the start.

The subsequent writing, that which I could decipher during the performance, seems to have a similar admirable 'literary' quality, which pursues a constructed image of 'people' over four episodes, with a genetically inherited oddity of webbed feet! - perhaps, the symbolic DNA of a child-abuse gene, carried through history, "Nature's crooked way"? I thought, later. I am not sure whether the writing is confused, or if it is the performances that are drawn under the guidance of Director, Kim Hardwick, that are not adequate enough to communicate with clarity as to what is going on, either in the dimension of the literal in-the-moment storytelling or in the metaphoric framework.

Ms Cronin playing the characters she has written for herself has a passion of commitment and seems to know exactly what she is saying, where she is, and why she is doing and saying what her women need to communicate. The problem is that the performer's energies are driven from an intelligence of knowing coloured by a 'dam-busted' emotional inspiration that obliterates the information in her lines (text) and, instead, delivers an overwhelming 'demonstration' of emotional states. We can see each of her women are emotionally charged, its just we cannot hear with clarity what they are saying, and so are unable to understand why what is happening is happening. It lacks objective control.

Mr Bostad handles his four tasks with some vocal skill, but with not much verbal insight. Essentially all four of his creations have a two-dimensional shallowness - he speaks the words and there is an intellectual emotional identity but there is no engaged sub-text, no motivation going on, no real 'life-force' of character, all we are given is the actor at work. There is, oddly, a relaxed rapport (maybe, a respectful physical one), between the players, but no real communication. Certainly, no real agreed clarity of what they are communicating to the audience beat-by-beat, together.

Instead of the audience having a "plain sight" of the issues Ms Cronin as writer and actor wishes us to share, the experience in the theatre becomes more and more opaque as the 65 minutes of the performance unwinds. It is a puzzlement that we take with us as we leave the space, and a relief from the overwhelming emotions.

Ms Hardwick recently Directed in this same space, THE SHADOW BOX, and with her, then, Design collaborators created a felicitous visual space. She does so again here, this Set Design, by Tyler Ray Hawkins - a black box wall surround with black reflective floor with appropriate furnishings and properties, has an art-installation abstracted symmetrical use of bars of fluorescent lighting to create a visual flare of distraction, accompanied by a contrast of the warmth of the beauty of the 'space' Lighting by Martin Kinnane. The Costume, also by Mr Hawkins, of elegant black and white detail and a simple modernity serves for both actors all the time leaps of the play, and matches the physical look of the set with a kind of immaculate pleasure. There is Sound Design by Nate Edmondson, too. The design elements are the most interesting aspects of this experience and is obviously a strong aesthetic inclination in Ms Hardwick's Directorial quiver.

I HATE YOU MY MOTHER, does not have the clarity of purpose that the other work by this Australian writer/actor has had for me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Inspection

THE INSPECTION, by Richie Black, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown, 25 January - 28 January.

I saw this production without invitation and completely accidentally. I got my theatre's mixed up and went to the wrong place. I couldn't get to where I had promised, so, I stayed and watched this fledgling work instead. Maybe, this is my FIRST acknowledged symptom of an encroaching senility?!!!!

Anyway, what was most pleasing about this accidental night in the theatre was the fact that THE INSPECTION, produced by Julian Ramundi, was a restricted showing of a new work. It had been Written, Directed, Designed and Acted by a young troupe of fairly recent graduates from various drama schools. It was an hour fifty minute farce concerning the plight of a rentee coping with a leasee's inspection.

Now, I believe Comedy is the hardest of the genres to write, direct and act. That one would dare to create a no interval comedy for 110 odd minutes was a sure sign of inexperience and optimism. Mostly, for me, this was a kind of 'agony' to watch but it was alleviated by my very honest admiration of the whole enterprise. I was excited by the effort and dedication. More power to them, I say (check out my THE TESTAMENT OF MARY lament).

I may, of course, have been more of hindrance to the players as I was seated in the front row and did not laugh much at all. Others, fortunately, did.

The writing, by Mr Black, is sporadically clever but unwieldy in its sprawl - hard to keep it constantly resuscitated. The Direction, by Jessica Dick, is promising if still lacking in precision and sureness of where to edit, and the lack of a development of a sense of forward action - and for a farce a necessary MANIC  forward action is recommended - so we don't have time to engage with disbelief.

The acting had flashes of adequate comic instinct from all: Amy Hack, Nicholas Hasemann, Tom Nauta, but with a special mention of the gift and resilience and instincts of Julia Christensen, as Kate, the rentee - she never left the stage and I just loved watching her pull as many tricks as she knew out of her 'bag' to try to keep the whole thing afloat, I thought she was marvellous and a martyr for her ART. And to Kiki Skountzos as Diane, the Strata-boss nightmare, who in a late entry to the proceedings had a vision of the character and playing style that was needed and was supported with a logical psychological clarity and an hilarious sense of the 'physical who', both, with costume and make-up detail and stylistic 'movement' elaborations.

The Design, by Ara Nuri Steel, for a necessarily naturalistic environment was hampered by the productions meagre budget, but had a knowing sense of what was needed.

So, it was an 'agony' in the viewing, the doing, but I am glad I saw it. A re-iteration of this play with lessons learnt with this production's staging, and some more draft developments and I may well be glad to say I saw it at its first outing.

 I hope.

Thanks 505 for the support to these young, hungry artists.

Odd Man Out


Ensemble Theatre presents ODD MAN OUT, by David Williamson, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 19 January - 18 March.

ODD MAN OUT, is a new Australian play, by David Williamson. The play explores a relationship between Ryan (Justin Stewart Cotta), a 'numbers' genius employed and paid well by a Big Bank for his skills, who suffers from an undiagnosed case of Aspergers' Syndrome and Alice (Lisa Gormley) a 38 year old physical therapist counting down her fertility clock with some urgency.

We watch Ryan and Alice meet on a bus (what he is doing on bus, with all his social phobias and owning a 'flash' car, I couldn't work out). Arrested by the attention paid to her by her near-by co-passenger, Alice (in Wonderland?), is swept off her feet and within a ten-minute conversation accepts an invitation to dinner. Fine food, cultural explorations, daily flowers become part of Alice's new whirl, over the following weeks, months. The intensity of Ryan's attention knocks this therapist completely off kilter because she does not seem to be able to see, to read, the physical or verbal/emotional symptoms that Ryan exudes, as a warning sign or that this relationship is, consequently, possibly, going to be fraught, difficult. Alice, will not or cannot hear her family and friends disquiet after several disastrous social interactions with Ryan. Instead, fairly quickly, within months, Alice gets herself married and ensconced in a loft apartment with Ryan, which he insists on renovating. Ryan's gift-wooing technique and the urgency of her want of a child seems to have disarmed all cautions from her reasoning. Her own psychological trait, which her mother reminds her of: a need to care for the 'injured bird' - she seems to have had a history of collapsed, ill-judged relationships - hardly gets a look-in as a subject to be developed in the dual responsibilities of the ups-and-downs of this relationship.

The play begins and stays as a direct conversation guidance with the audience through the experience of Alice as she recalls her incredible (and, I, essentially, found it very incredible) journey. The play devolves into a kind of tutorial or a Cert IV qualification class on how to assist an individual suffering  Asperger's Syndrome to integrate into 'normal' social interactions. We even get the presentation of colour-coded cards stuck to a wall as we are taken through a how-to help sample. It is almost as if Mr Williamson in research for another play has googled Asperger's Syndrome and has hung his writing around that research with little time for real dramaturgical sophistication of character motivation or backstory. Alice even, talking straight to us, recommends a book and author to look up if we are really interested to know more about the treatment of the Syndrome. I waited with bated breath for a 'Further Reading…' recommendation from her, during the play.

Mr Cotta and Ms Gormley are essentially the two hour play and they are very committed to what they have been given to work with. Mr Cotta has all the external symptoms down pat, obviously so - why Alice didn't notice, Ryan's physical characteristics and verbal/emotional tics, as we all in the audience did, and not register caution, perhaps only a psychiatrist could illuminate - and, on the night I saw the play Mr Cotta tended to overplay every choice, particularly the big emotional melt-downs - his behaviour was hard not to notice. Ms Gormley given Alice's biological need for a baby (I'm 38, tick, tick, tick…) by Mr Williamson, as the principal motivation for her need for this relationship to survive - although the luxurious life that Ryan could and did supply, surely, was a temptation to justify her staying the course and returning to it after a separation, I thought - does as best she can with her natural charm to have us, even through an interval, to bear-up and stay sympathetically with Alice - it is a hard call!

The other actors, Rachel Gordon, Matt Minto, Bill Young and Gael Ballantyne, play the other characters that are written hardly beyond 'functional' tools for the storytelling . These actors have charm and theatrical 'savvy' and, so, do well - or, as best they can.

Ryan, with his propensity to think through every social situation logically with no comprehension of ordinary empathy causing social combustions of an outrageous kind, caused much mirth from the audience. I imagine it was funny for all except those of us who have dealt with this personality problem, first-hand. They even sat through the therapy class/tutorial with attentive patience and laughed at Ryan's growing 'frenzy' - the Ensemble presented this kind of 'educative' play for its audience last year with e-baby and maybe believe that it is a formula-for-playwriting that is a box-office 'goldmine'.

ODD MAN OUT, in its aspirational dramatic formula, reminded me, some, of Mr Williamson's THE JACK MANNING TRILOGY. The best of those plays was the first one, FACE TO FACE, and ODD MAN OUT does not display anywhere near the sophistication of the dramaturgical structure and insight into his characters conflicting motivations, that was in that play, written in 2000. ODD MAN OUT 'feels' to me as an early-draft of an interesting and concerning medical dilemma, worth examining. The play needs work, lots of it. There is a reference to the 1988 film RAIN MAN, with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, but Mr Williamson does not reach the subtly of that commercial screenplay (written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass) to capture us, uncritically.

Mark Kilmurry, Directs efficiently. Design by Anna Gardiner is abstracted with a quasi brain x-ray pattern on the back wall and six multi-coloured illuminated, portable boxes serving as the furniture - simple and adequate. The costume solutions are spare and, too, simple and nearly adequate (Renata Beslik)

You know and I know that David Williamson is one of Australia's great writers. ODD MAN OUT is not one of his great plays. If you are intrigued by Asperger's Syndrome, perhaps, just google it, or, watch RAIN MAN.

Monday, January 23, 2017

3 more 'flicks'…Jackie, Lion, Moonlight.

The year has begun with some 'flicks' of a wonderfully high order.

JACKIE

JACKIE is Directed by Pablo Larrain (NERUDA), Written by Noah Oppenheim. It focuses on the 4 days after the assassination of President John Kennedy and the public ceremony that commemorated his funeral. The framework of the story we are told is centred around the famous interview between LIFE Magazine journalist, Theodore H White and Jackie Kennedy. This gives room for the film to roam, selectively, back and forth over the life of Jackie with Kennedy, with an especially interesting re-creation of the black and white White House Tour that Jackie made for television.

The film is an intense plunge into the shock and grief of the woman and of all those around her, they being, not least, the Nation. The film is not a sentimental or unbalanced burden of sadness but rather an intense portrait of a woman with many faces of survival: the projected affected innocence of the White House's First Lady, the besotted lover of her husband, the shocked and depressed partner, the careful mother with her children, the wily wielder of power as a 'politician' who determines to create a proper complexity of appreciation for her husband's legacy in his short Presidency - to create a mythical Camelot out of the events - and the bewildered shaken practiser of a Faith in God trying to make sense of what has happened to her and her young family. Her vulnerability and her steeliness. Her seriousness and her dry and incisive humour.

Natalie Portman gives a wondrous performance. It is interesting to refer to the video of Jackie Kennedy that one can find on You Tube and watch the meticulous construction of observation that Ms Portman has made, and to admire the subtle adjustments she makes to convince us that we are watching the real person. The Settings and Costume seem to be ruthless in their capture of the period of the sixties, which are not always attractive or enhancing according to the zeitgeist of present style and standard to persuade an easy identification for us with the personas and world of the story - the hair styles and the habit of smoking, for instance, create a disquieting truth of immediacy while watching - ugly, shocking, a little alienating but ringing of truth! All the supporting performances are seamless in their commitment to convincing us. Peter Sarsgaard, as Robert F. Kennedy; Billy Crudup as journalist, Theodore H. White. John Hurt. Richard E. Grant. They are all definitely supporting roles for the focus of Mr Larrain's film is determinedly fixed on Jackie and, hence, Ms Portman, front and centre on screen with demanding, steadfastly long close-ups and full body takes.

The film brings one to a silent stilling observational stance in its watching. It is like watching it from a distancing documentary coolness that builds unconsciously a cumulatively profound depth of grief that produces an admiration of the dignity of this human being in her darkest moments, and one is surprised at what has occurred to one - a deeply subjective identification with this figure from our social history in a major turning point in our cultural development. One can't help but wonder at the film's stealthy persuasion. This is an example of the power of cinema as a storytelling medium. Amazing.

It is a peculiar film to watch, in this day and age when one remembers where the dignity of office of the President of the United States has travelled to with the latest inauguration. But then, one further reflects on the truism of the benefits of dying young, since by doing so it can leave room for a constructive fantasy, where a longer life span, a history, can sometimes, in its reality, besmirch, ground our appreciation. Whatever one knows of Kennedy and his failings, that have been revealed over the last fifty odd years, the Kennedy presidency  is, for us romantics, still an example of a time of a CAMELOT and its failed possibilities. This film shows us Jackie's victory of her vision and determination to manipulate history. For, what she steered for history's sake for John and her time in office, endures. This film is gorgeous propaganda to have us to further believe it.

A rewarding 'flick'.

LION

LION is a mostly Australian production and is based on a memoir by Saroo Brierly, A LONG WAY HOME, and concerns Saroo Brierly who was adopted as a very young child from an Indian orphanage by an Australian/Tasmanian couple and his search for his 'real' family 25 years later. It was a film that I was suspicious of seeing, fearing the possibility of an over manipulative sentimentality. However, I was seduced by this film quickly.

The first 'act' is set in Kolkatta and has the feel of a Dickensian social nightmare, filmed with little dialogue, trusting the audience to read the visual clues selected by Cinemaphotographer, Greg Fraser with Editor, Alexandre de Franceshi, under the debut Direction of Garth Davis. The artistic communication where the image is more engaging than the verbal - demonstrating, perhaps, how the unconsciousness's true medium is not verbal but imagistic. It is quiet a gripping mode for holding and sustaining our attention.

The second 'act' deals with the a close-up of a more personal 'universe' of the grown Saroo struggling with a need for his Indian identity, the depression and gradual obsessive torturous desire beautifully played by Dev Patel. This performance is an extremely impressive one for the layers of cinematic acting that he projects to capture us to experience his 'grief' and 'desire' for his closure. The screenplay by Luke Davies (CANDY) has a sophisticated insight into the desperation and depression of an individual's need to discover his true self.

The third 'act' moves into Saroo's literal journey back to India and to a more regular story telling mode and here is most possibly nearest the sentimentality trap one feared. But the editing intertwining the past with the present keeps the familiar, expected moments from becoming too an emotional indulgence, and the music score by Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertleman works well in pushing the atmosphere forward without too much dwelling in the obvious.

The performances of a very large supporting company of actors are also outstanding, with Nicole Kidman, as the adoptive mother Sue Brierly, giving some extraordinarily persuasive moments. Rooney Mara is modest in her screen time and is admirable for that. The Indian company is just as convincing, with Sunny Pawar, as the young Saroo, particularly winning.

I was moved enormously by the story and was very impressed with the elements and fine judgement of all the details taken to deliver it. I felt excited and exhilarated at the end of the film and have recommended it to friends without hesitation.

A terrific surprise.

MOONLIGHT

Oh, wow! This is great film.

MOONLIGHT is a great film. Not least because of its contemporary political importance that underlines the American movement BLACK LIVES MATTER that has risen in the past year in the United States (and is as pertinent to our own country and our Aboriginal community), for it deals openly and honestly with parts of that community of disadvantage, disability and discrimination with powerful insight and cinematic beauty. The film's  great surprise is that it demonstrates that ALL, I mean, ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Based on a play by American writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE, Barry Jenkins has Adapted and Directed this story of the coming-of-age of a black american boy-to-man living in Liberty City (what looks like a 'project' community) in the city of Miami. The story in the film is divided into three sections covering three episodes in the life of our hero, as child: Little (Alex HIbbert), as a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and young adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes). What is special about this film is that there is not a single white character of any importance as it looks with a startling compassion at the journey of a young disadvantaged black man unsure of his sexuality and struggling to survive in the hostility of his world, finding solace and guidance from the most unexpected people.

Mr Jenkins takes us into an underworld that has often been used for sensational crime stories that instead, here, elects to show us raw humanity caught in behaviours that they do not necessarily have control of. Our knowledge of this world is turned upside-down and the compassionate revelation is artfully managed with all the elements of the cinematic craft brilliantly collaborated. James Laxton's cinematography is astonishing in its choices, combined with the startling editing techniques engaged to deliver the material by Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders. The Musical score from Nicholas Britell immerses us in the situations of the story sensually, using a range of choices from hip hop through to classical orchestral affects.

The pain of the experience of Little-Chiron-Black is visceral and creates an empathetic anxiety in us the audience with mesmerising power. I felt that I had held my breath with ache for a 'happy' resolution for the length of the experience. The three actors (above) playing the one role are heartbreakingly brilliant. Too, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland playing 'Kevin' in the three episodes; Naomie Harris as Paula: Mahershala Ali, as Juan and Patrick Decite, as Terrel, are significant in their contribution.

The mode of contemporary film acting, which we can see in the work of Director's like Steve McQueen (TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA) and almost everything from Terrence Malick (THE TREE OF LIFE), is employed here by Mr Jenkins in the demanding long takes, (also used by Pablo Larrain in JACKIE) usually in close-up of the actors, where the 'inner life' of the character is 'interrogated' by the camera for our reading and endowing, without dialogue, to allow us to 'tell' (work out) what is happening - a 'trick' to have the audience to have to actively participate in the invention of the story, the narrative of the character's emotional conflicts and resolutions. The audience is actively engaged to imaginatively 'act' out what is happening with the actor and his character's narrative. Some call it "Slow Cinema". I call it "Participatory Cinema". It is exhausting but invigorating to have to engage at such an active level. We don't sit back to be shown all, we are invited to sit forward and create with the actors and collaborators. It is thrilling in a very quiet and sophisticated way.

Considering the film's content and point of view, that MOONLIGHT has been made at all is a demonstration that there is still some contemporary American cinema that is not all about the Hollywood 'numbers' expectations. It still can find a way to be able to tell stories of transcendent hope and to find beauty in the most despondent of circumstances. Standing beside the 'numbers' formula of a film like PASSENGERS, or ROGUE ONE, MOONLIGHT is a miracle of dedication and human responsibility to all in our society.

RUN, don't Walk and see MOOLIGHT.

P.S. The author of the play may be familiar to some of this audience as Imara Savage introduced us to his 'genius' with a production of one of his plays THE BROTHERS SIZE, a few years ago.

Champions



CHAMPIONS, from Form Dance Projects for Sydney Festival. World Premiere, in Bay 17, Carriageworks, Redfern, 17 - 22 January.

Martin del Amo, is responsible for Concept and Direction, also, Choreography and Text (along with the Dancers) for CHAMPIONS. He says in the program notes:
A commonly held belief is that sport and the arts do not go together. The argument goes that artists often think of athletes as competition-obsessed 'boofheads', while in turn, athletes deride artists as self-indulgent 'wankers'. ... CHAMPIONS is a dance piece presented as if it is a sporting event. ...
The largest of the performing spaces at Carriageworks, Bay 17, has a striking Set Design by Clare Britton, with a large astro-turf green floor boarded by an azure-blue surround, glowing in the Lighting Design of Karen Norris - looking like a practice field at night. At height, above the space, across the width of the performing area, at the back, are six video screens which present us with pre-recorded image of commentary room and banter with other Video Design that ranges from the literal report of interviews to written text and more abstracted flights of distracting fancy, from Samuel James.

We first meet, as we wait for the performance to begin, the Chicken Mascot (Julie-Anne Long) parading about the space to keep us semi-prepared for the main event/action (she also re-appears in a half-time interlude/break with a solo dance). On come the 11 dancers, in sporty warm-up clothes: Sara Black, Kristina Chan, Cloe Fournier, Carlee Mellow, Sophia Ndaba, Rhiannon Newton, Katrina Olsen, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares, Kathryn Puie, and Miranda Wheen, who lay out their yoga mats and begin the warm-up stretches of the 'team'. From the Video screen we are regaled by the Commentator, Mel McLaughlin, with an extremely 'cheesy' guide to the particular skills of each of the performers with clumsy and banal clangs of proposed humour. This is the height of the comedy interludes, sad to say.

The pulsing score for the dance, by Gail Priest, cues the dancers into movement. What these dances give us is an extended endurance performance of synchronised walking, running, posing , gesturing etc. that demands, undoubtedly, immense concentration and skill but a lot of repetitive action. This heralds the form of the production and whether in slow motion or at speed it becomes an interest-dwindling and soporific hour to engage with. There is no doubt about the well-drilled skill and commitment to the 'quite-counting' concentration to the timing of it all, it is just that it is devoid of personality or any arresting excitement. The performers excel in their earnest dedication but there is nothing to appreciate but the sheer stamina and impeccable endurance of these dancer/athletes, and their extreme and admirable state of physical fitness.

There is, brief, but irritating naivety in the bald, didactic, politicising, verbal quotations about the status and financial disparity in women's sports compared to the men's, and a late and almost gratuitous introduction to the plight of the 'aging' dancer. The clumsiness of the introduction of these elements was such that rather than sympathy one was dismissive in hearing (it occurred to me, hearing Ms Chan's slightly apologetic lament, that the Sydney Festival ought to curate the wonderful work of the Australian Dance Artists - a group of spirited and aging dancers - who have been collaborating with different artists, principally, Ken Unsworth, over the past few years in his studio in Alexandria - e.g. DEPARTURES, SEVEN IMPOSSIBLE PIECES, that deserve recognition for their contribution to the Sydney Dance (and visual ingenuity) scene. A company that Ms Chan may wish to help with her gifts in her future. Sydney audiences should see this company's work that perforce of its usual space has limited audience capacity.)

CHAMPIONS, then, seems to tick some boxes of worthy contribution to justify the scale of the presentation in Bay 17 in Carriageworks, but fails to take off as a dance work of much excitement or invention.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Testament of Mary



Sydney Theatre Company presents THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, by Colm Toibin, in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Walsh Bay, 13 January - 23 February.

I trained as an actor and have spent a long time/career teaching actors, so, I am just saying, as someone who has a high regard for acting and actors:

The last productions from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) for their Sydney audience concluded five weeks ago (or so) with the closing of A FLEA IN HER EAR (9 actors), SPEED THE PLOUGH (3 actors) and THE WHARF REVUE (4 actors). In the mean time Christmas and New Year, and the Sydney Festival has come and has either gone (or going). The large STC Administration and its staff has, probably, have had their paid holiday leave and a relaxed time with an assuring income coming into their bank account. Unless, of course, they were part of the responsibility for the presentation of THE PRESENT (13 actors), on Broadway, that opened a week or so ago, and either worked from 'home' or were in New York toiling (oh, lucky Ones) for that audience to be.

The audience in Sydney has not had a production for five weeks from their largest and leading theatre company. The four theatre's, that the STC usually use, have being either unoccupied or 'leased' to others. THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, opened last night. The production has a single actor, Alison Whyte - ONE - on a Sydney Theatre Company stage (and, that actor, by-the-way, is Melbourne-based. No bankable talent in all of Sydney's talent pool, it seems.)

In other words, not a single Sydney-based actor has been seen to be working for the Sydney Theatre Company in their home city, Sydney, during that time. As well, AWAY, the next scheduled production, opens in four and half weeks (18 February). So, over a period of nine and a half weeks, only one actor will have been employed by the STC and able to be seen at work, live, on a Sydney stage. Is there something wrong with this picture? There are, of course, other artists employed - Design and Stage Management. But only ONE ACTOR.

 A cursory glance of a couple of the back pages of the theatre program for the THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (or, any of their programs) has a list of the Sydney Theatre Company Administration with near a couple of hundred names (both full time and part time employees, I presume). So, on this day, 19 January, 2017, a Sydney resident can see ONE actor at work at the STC while 'representing' a gargantuan administration of Sydney's largest theatre company. Some would have us believe Australia's leading theatre company. In four and a half weeks time, when AWAY joins public scrutiny, ten other actors will be able to be seen - for a full visible total of 11!  11 actors supported by a couple of hundred administrators/support artists!!!

(N.B. I have just been reminded by a reader that AWAY is a co-production with the STC and the Malthouse - a Melbourne theatre company - and so, probably half the cast, i.e. 6 of them will only originate from Sydney, the other half from Melbourne. So, the STC will manage to show, employ 7 Sydney actors over that period. Just 7. CHIMERICA will be in rehearsal but not open until the 28 February. I have come to understand that the STC has invited some students from NIDA, unpaid, to fill out its cast, as extras. Really? Where is the Union? Pay some Professional Sydney actors, don't you think? Give them a living, for goodness sake.)

I am just observing and saying... ... ... you know, La, la, la ... ... ...

I mean, don't you think that that is kind of weird? That the huge Corporation, that the STC is, seems to have been nurturing the artistry of one visible actor for NINE weeks. I look at the National Theatre program in London and can see a range of actors of considerable numbers every week of the year, in their three or four spaces. What is going on in Sydney? Are all those Administrative staff in the back pages of the STC program necessary over and above the presence of the actors (and other artists) on their Sydney stages? What do you think, Mr Williams? Mr McIntyre? Ms Azzopardi? The Board of Directors? What does it look like? Ought you to be rationalising the past growth of the administration and culling what may be excess, to find and divert the money saved to find the ways and means to have actors and writers on stage to be able to tell bigger stories for Sydney audiences?

I think it is more than weird. I believe it is, at the least, to be an unbalanced use of resources for the major theatre company, that is supposedly serving Sydney audiences and developing the Australian performing arts culture for today and the future. And even more catastrophically, I see it as unfair behaviour from the STC towards the aspirational actor who simply wants to work their 'craft' for their community. Is it any wonder the Independent Theatre community is thriving? It is the actors only realistic opportunity to utilise their skills, training, artistic ambitions.

Is anyone of importance talking to this company at all about this situation? Equity? Government? Funding bodies? Actors?

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY, is a one act play (80 minutes, approximately, with one actor,) and is a re-creation of the New Testament story of the final travails of Jesus Christ (although his name is not ever mentioned). The four books that we have, to assert the philosophies of Christianity, were written many years after the supposed death of that figure, conjured from memory, and serving the propaganda needs, perhaps, of the Apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the John version that has sparked the imagination of the Irish Novelist, Colm Toibin. This work began as a monologue, became a novella, and then re-written as a short play. The image of the figure of Mary, Christ's mother, and John, at the scene of Christ's crucifixion striking him, specifically.

This is an impassioned monologue from Mary's point-of-view, as an older woman, a refugee, fending off the questions of others of the circumstances and events in the life of Christ, as they prepare to write his story. She knows what happened, guided by the intuition and witness of a mother of her son and gives a pragmatic and fiercely defensive telling of the 'famed'-'framed' events: such as the curing of the lame and blind, the bringing back from the dead of Lazarus, the Wedding Feast at Canna, the cruelty of the crucifixion (recall of Mel Gibson's graphic film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, flashing through the memory bank) and the apostle's construction of Christ's own resurrection. Mary tells us of a dream she had had and told, that has been 'spun' into reports as 'facts', that then have been passed on as 'truths'. Mary suggests the manipulative motivating needs of those who wrote and spread the stories, appalled that her child-son has been called the 'Son Of God' and 'The King of the Jews'. (Scorsese's THE TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, popping into one's consciousness). Mary can tell us how her son was made, she intimates, suggestively.

The production, tightly ushered, Directed by Imara Savage - the Sound Design, by Max Lyandvert, perhaps a little over demanding - begins with a stunning, throughly Baroque image of the iconography of the cult of Mary that has grown over the centuries, freighted with overwhelming emotional energies, especially, for us Catholics in the audience (one, being myself, an engaged high school member of the LEGION OF MARY, in my traumatic Marist Brothers school experience). Soon enough, Ms Whyte steps out of the alcove of adoration/idolatory, designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, and strips that image down to the contemporary under-dressed woman that this Mary becomes in the course of the play, that finishes with her packing and sealing the Costume paraphernalia in a brown cardboard box to be stored - somewhere, somewhere in the dark, perhaps.

This is a play, essentially, about the mother/son relationship (Mr Toibin has written a collection of Short Stories called MOTHER AND SONS [2008], and it is, relatively, a present theme, in all his novels) as much as it is a deconstruction of the New Testament books, it seeing the events and the son through the imagined lens of this woman/mother. It is curious to reflect, however insightful and inventive this text may be, that THE TESTAMENT OF MARY is a play that uses those men's 'fictions' to write a new version by another man. It was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who started it all, and now we can add, Colm.

Ms Whyte, with the solo responsibility of this play is a very powerful, sure, storyteller. The language of the text has a formal articulation and construction that demands a gentle adjustment to hearing anew, but is carefully, studiously, lovingly, handled by Ms Whyte. The performance of some 80 minutes of concentration is very, very fine indeed - even if one wishes for a richer vocal instrument - and is full of deeply conjured imagery and, mostly, controlled emotional identification, though once or twice there is blurred information, its clarity overridden by emotional anguish.

What one takes away from the work is the intrigue of this familiar and once important story having been 'bent' and reviewed through a contemporary eye, supposedly, that of a mother/a woman, that really expresses the disillusionment of an ex-catholic (Mr Toibin classes himself as a "collapsed" Catholic) with his faith and accompanied by a rage at the failure of that philosophy to achieve the intentions of the goals/lessons of the testaments. "Once a Catholic always a Catholic", I am told, and certainly I sat in the theatre with my personal indoctrination rising once again in my consciousness and causing me to lament the loss of my innocence as I continue today to try to make sense, find a way, of the how, why and what to live for ...  to live through.

This production will work best for ex-Catholics, I reckon. For others, if the Christian gospels have not been part of your life, a curiosity of historic and influential fables. Perhaps, a possible stirring curiosity.

P.S. Was it not odd as one walked the long corridor of the Wharf Theatre headquarters of the STC, to the Wharf 1 Theatre, to see the posters of last years season (2016) still on the wall on the Opening Night of the 2017 season? One wonders which part of the Administration had neglected or failed at their job. The STC, in mid-January, already behind the times. Not an omen the Ancients would appreciate, eh? Just who is running the 'shop'?  As any good businessman will tell you the quality is in the details.