Thursday, July 20, 2017

Little Borders


LITTLE BORDERS by Phillip Kavanagh, presented at The Old 505, Eliza St, Newtown 5th July - 15 July.

LITTLE BORDERS is a new Australian play by Phillip Kavanagh and was the winner of the 2011 Patrick White Award.

This production at The Old 505 was wonderfully good. Director Dominic Mercer have with his Designers: Charlie Edward Davis and Jeremy Allen, a clean dropped cyclorama unrolled onto the stage floor forward towards us, decorated only with a small circle collection of 'toy' model houses that can be (magically!) lit from the inside. This space was brought to eerie life with an atmospheric Lighting Design by Emma Lockhart, mostly, with a bluish (ghost-like) tinge - ominous - supported well with Composition and Sound Design by Clemence Williams.

Two young actors: Lucy Goleby and Brandon McClelland, individually brimming with acute craftmanship and astute sensibilities to the writer's affects to achieve his attentions, have a remarkable empathetic chemistry and seamless concentration of delicate insight, a duo of wit and satiric gentleness, each dressed eloquently by Isabel Hudson for the shifting storytelling. They are a formidable and talented duo. An outright bonus for us, indeed. All of the elements of the production are exquisitely shaped by Mr Mercer.

LITTLE BORDERS has us meet a modern couple full of modern paranoia and mania. Elle and Steve are recognisable in the world we live in, if not in the mirrors of our own home - quell the horrors of that recognition, and be grateful for your own control and restraint, I presume and hope! The play is a direct conversation to us, the audience, in duet and in monologue. Regular readers of this blog will recognise my dislike of this 'modern' common formula of playwriting. However, so gifted were this duo of actors, and the accurate precision of the musical tempo conducted by Mr Mercer, I was transported into the centre of the play without emotional hesitation or my usual prejudices about the playwriting-methodology pricking my consciousness - I was involved, 'lost', in the storytelling by these characters - these actors and Director.

This is the first production of this remarkable prize winning play of 2011 some 6 years after its celebration by the Patrick White Award. Says Mr Kavanagh in the notes to the newly published text: 'At the time of writing it felt speculative--a satirical world we could soon end up inhabiting if our political discourse continued on its rhetorical path of division; if we were encouraged to give over to fear and panic; if the violence we perpetrated outweighed anything that was aimed at us.' And, when one reflects where we are as a culture - civilisation - in 2017, that is what seems to have, more than less, manifested, and it makes this play and this prescient playwright worth attending to.

Certainly, I need to see a new production of REPLAY, by Phillip Kavanagh, the play produced at the Griffin, a few years ago, which was for me a confused and mystifying experience. One sensed the talent of the writer and that was despite the production on the stage. Watching this first play, LITTLE BORDERS, has made me extremely curious about the possibility of a different, new production of REPLAY, to discover what it is saying.

LITTLE BORDERS at The Old 505 was a pure gem of theatre making. I wish that you were able to catch it, but, alas, the short season has finished. But, who knows? Will keep you informed, if it has a resurrection.

P.S. Phillip Kavanagh's LITTLE BORDERS is the first official 8th Buffalo play script to be published. It is a text for two young actors with some wonderful monologues. Contact: 8thbuffalo@gmail.com
Note that Sport For Jove also have self-published some of their original texts e.g. Chekhov's THREE SISTERS, in a new contemporary Australian translation by Karen Vickery; ANTIGONE, a new text by Damien Ryan. Check their site.

The Plant

Photo by Prudence Upton
Ensemble Theatre presents, THE PLANT, by Kit Brookman, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 8th July - 5 August.

THE PLANT, by Kit Brookman, is the winner of the Ensemble Theatre's 2016 New Writing Commission. Sue (Sandy Gore) and her three children, Erin (Helen Dallimore), Daniel (Garth Holcombe) and Naomi (Briallen Clarke) are packing up the family home after the death of the Husband/Father from, what one of them describe as: 'in-built obsolescence'. It is essentially a comedy.

On a raised green covered platform, backed by a wall of curtain (the Set and Costume Design is by Isabel Hudson, working within the skeleton of the NEVILLE'S ISLAND Set demands, the other play in repertoire at the theatre), the Director, Elsie Egerton-Till, moves the actors around the space to use shared direct novelistic exposition to the audience whilst also accommodating interactive scenes between the characters. The children, all, are pre-occupied with their own lives and only cursorily attend to their mother's needs. It is three years since the passing and Sue has not recovered from her loss. She responds by buying a plant, a Bergonia Rex, and gives it a name, Clare, and has animated conversations with it. The children are kinda weirded-out. Mother seems more contented.

It is a comedy with a very gentle observational eye on the millennial manners of this time. But, soon, we are introduced to the plant with a human form (Michelle Davidson, swathed in a 'plant costume'), and suddenly, the play lifted into an intriguing surreal possibility - the possibility of an absurdist reality, A Lewis Carroll, Eugene Ionesco or even Monty Python wonderland!! I was immediately excited to see where Mr Brookman was going to go. Unfortunately, we are quickly disabused of that tantalising trajectory and we are shown a meeting at the ocean edge between depressed Sue and a homeless young woman who strike a deal for mutual support and aid. So, the play returns to a pat-naturalistic set of conflicts that are amusing but oh-so-familiar, even when faintly ridiculous. The playwright, tiresomely, over-explains all the motivations, and the action of the play stays fairly static and so we, mostly, get to admire the charm and skill of the actors to keep us continuously, pleasantly, engaged.

Ms Dallimore and Clarke are especially spry with their material and carry great conviction both comic and real. Mr Holcombe manages a fairly cliche arc-journey and character with aplomb, whilst Ms Davidson puts to very admirable result her personal charm and skills to keep us interested in the not completely realised - in the writing - potential of her human/plant, Clare. At the centre of the play is Ms Gore who holds a delicate balance with her character's depression and comic struggle to survive, using a mellifluous vocal sound that, for some, is mannerist and an irritant, for others, a delight.

Ms Egerton-Till's management of the stage is not always sure in the demands of the space and its relationship with its audience, but that maybe the result of the need to share the Design area. The Lighting, by Benjamin Brockman is not as subtle as to make it invisible, as yet, whilst the Sound Design, by Daryl Wallis supports the world and atmosphere of the work.

THE PLANT, is a pleasant time spent in the theatre and is a benign and amused observation of possible modern manners.

This Much Is True


Red Line Productions present THIS MUCH IS TRUE, by Louis Nowra, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo, 12 July - 12 August.

THIS MUCH IS TRUE is the first major commission from Red Line Productions. The Old Fitz Theatre is a 60 seat theatre in the basement of the Old Fitz Hotel, in Woolloomooloo, and one of the regular denizens, one of the locals of the neighbourhood, that uses the pub as a regular drinking location and 'community centre' is Australian writer Louis Nowra. Since 2014, Andrew Henry, one of the Directors of Red Line Productions, has encouraged Mr Nowra to write a play for the theatre and here it is. It features a character called 'Lewis' and is the third play where 'Lewis' appears, the earlier plays being SUMMER OF THE ALIENS (1992) and COSI (1992), to complete what Mr Nowra calls: THE LEWIS TRILOGY.

We enter and meet some customers in the bar of a very tired space. Once we are 'comfortable', Lewis enters (Septimus Caton) and talks directly to us, the audience, as he explains his reason why he is in THE RISING SUN pub - he has just moved into the neighbourhood and is looking for a local drinking 'hole'. He has found the one and then he introduces us to the present, and some past, 'personalities' of the bar: a debt collector, Malcolm (Alan Dukes), a drag queen, Venus (Justin Stewart Cotta), a rogue chemist, Clarrie (Martin Jacobs), a manic depressive, Wesley (Ashley Lyons), a 'fixer', Cass (Danny Adcock), a financial consultant, Rhys (Robin Goldsworthy) and barmaid, Gretel (Joanna Downing). It has been one of the many traits of Mr Nowra's work to look at the underclasses, to find beauty in misery, to appreciate the 'honour' that may be found in the many (all) stratas of our world.

THIS MUCH IS TRUE, is a new Australian play, that sounds and looks like a revival of a classic of the Australian Theatre, of a past time - of the 50's-60's. You know: THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL***- Ray Lawler; or, THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME - Dorothy Hewett; or especially in the output of Peter Kenna, THE SLAUGHTER OF ST TERESA'S DAY and even, A HARD GOD with its love of the shaggy-dog storytelling and Irish/Aussie sentimentality and love of the 'blarney', a bragging one-upmanship. Broad comic 'characters' filled with the breath of a warm identification in cliche caricatures and situations imbued with a language of romantic argot and exaggeration. Without Indigenous or migrant character and no women drinkers, other than the pallid hippie barmaid and a drag queen. THIS MUCH IS TRUE, has elements of Mr Nowra's Uncle Bob Herbert's 1979 play, NO NAMES ... NO PACK DRILL - it, too, not shy of indulging a cultural nostalgia for the exciting Underbelly of past times of the Aussie 'battler' making the best with/of the least in World War II criminal Kings Cross. Some of it is true, but most of it is 'romance' - the romance of an underclass white set of rogues. The content of this play - a two hour, no-interval, 'hard-on-yer-bum' journey, is as familiar and, oddly, seems as welcome today, as it always had been.

Add, then, the very bold playing of the actors encouraged by Director, Toby Schmitz, the crisp, excited 'presentational' style of a time gone-bye - literally watching 'actors-on-the -stage' playing, affectionately, characters - that conjures a benign nostalgic 'drug' aura that permeates the tiny space at the Old Fitz to give, for the willing, an ecstatic high of seeing the familiar 'family-tribe' in a 'holy' tribal meeting place - the local pub, and you can glow with cultural memory radiations.

Danny Adcock has the time of his life with the opportunities of Cass, the classic storyteller who, as the local 'fixer' might be 'full of it' or not, and offers us the fun of trying to guess which story is which - bull or not! Too, Martin Jacobs as, Clarrie, the local chemical mixer - a fallen educated chemist - has a clear energy that cuts through to the crazy hilarity of his addictive service/habit to his community. Both these performances in a comic high-style of near vaudeville dynamics of hilarity - expressed, gloriously, with barely repressed energetic physicalities, on the edge of 'exploding'.

It is transfixing to remember Justin Stewart Cotta's performance as Vershinin in Sport For Jove's production of THREE SISTERS***, exactly this time last year, and watch him inhabiting a self-centred, misogynistic survivor as a drag queen star, Venus, full of self-delusion and self-pity as to why she is alone. Quite a contrast of acting bravura.

The rest of the company capture what the writer offers with appetite, with Ashley Lyons, attempting to bring some tragedy to the relatively thin story-line written by Mr Nowra, for the bi-polar depressive, Wesley. Mr Nowra is, otherwise, generally, generous to his actors giving each a time in the sun - a monologue - to give a turn on this 'vaudeville programming', a moment in a solo spotlight, on the Old Fitz stage. One must not forget the surety that Mr Caton gives to his Lewis as our interlocutor to these members of our 'tribe', with very subtle, but telling, touches of observation of the writer himself. It is a relatively thankless task for Mr Caton but is imbued with verve and intelligence, mining the few opportunities smartly.

There are some Directorial sleights of hand with the Set Design by Anna Gardiner and the Costuming by Martelle Hunt, incorporating well an atmospheric Sound Design, by Jed Silver and the dab-hand with the busy Lighting plot of Matt Cox. Mr Nowra's writing is often wonderfully robust and has an old style hyperbolic Aussie poetry about it all, bringing the nostalgic warmth, in style, of a Setting Sun, rather than the pith and promise, the sap of growth (future), of a Rising Sun.

This is a fun, heart warming night in the theatre. It demands a long sit on hard benches but with the proper pre-load, you might get through it with ease.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Before Lysistrata

Photo by Zaina Ahmed

Montague Basement in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre presents, BEFORE LYSISTRATA, by Ellana Costa, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel, 11 - 22 July.

BEFORE LYSISTRATA is a new Australian play, by Ellana Costa, presented by a dedicated young company of artists, Montague Basement.

LYSISTRATA, a play by Aristophanes, written in 411 BC, tells of the women of Athens and Sparta who decided to withhold sexual activity until their men gave up a war and made peace.

BEFORE LYSISTRATA, is a contemporary prequel by Ellana Costa, a speculative fiction presenting the journey of the women/wives of Pericles and Archidamus: Lysistrata and Lampito, during the declaration and warring of the two nation states Athens and Sparta in what we know as the Peloponnesian War, and how they came to the joint call-for-action heralded in the famed comedy of LYSISTRATA.

In this play, initially, both women make public championing speeches for their country's cause - positive propaganda - encouraged, strategically, by their condescending and bullying war lords/husbands, who use the 'soft power' of the female perspective to keep the states in conflict. But, as the war rages on, and both sides suffer great losses, including the personal loss and risk to their own children, the women begin to question and challenge, at great cost to themselves, the values that underpin this need for war. Though enemies, the rival women find that they have concerns that ought to bind them - that the face to face conversation can de-demonise the enemy and allow/permit an embrace, instead, to a common, concerned humanity - to peace.

(It is the lesson of the new and highly prized play, OSLO, by J.T. Rogers - a play dealing with the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians - soon to open in London after a season in New York - the 2017 Tony Award winning play. When for Sydney, I wonder? It has a cast of more than 10 and is very intelligent and provocative, with only a few laughs - so-o-o, probably, never!)

In this traverse space in the KXT one wall has ancient Greek script covering it, on the other, there are presented documentary images of modern warfare (one being, a truly frightening video compilation of the politicians and generals of the wars of the last century), and, including, pithy quotations from Thucydides' great book: THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONESSIAN WAR: e.g. "self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and respect of self, in turn, is the chief element in courage"; "so little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand". In fact the structure of this drama reflects, sometimes, the means that Thucydides used in his History construct (i.e. the direct speech forms).

The Director, Saro Lusty-Cavallari, has employed some very inventive activities for the many scenes of the writing to present the arguments and expositions of the characters of Ms Costa's passionate vision statement. Ms Costa says in the program notes:
BEFORE LYSISTRATA is about a lot of things. It's about the role of women in leadership and about the inactive Left. It's about the power of working together and the folly of elitism. It's about us vs them, and realising there is no other side. It's about what we can do right and what we have done wrong. 
I gathered, that it may be about the sense of individual and social responsibility.

And, true, it may be about all those things and, perhaps, other things as well, but no matter the promising writing by Ms Costa and the invention of Mr Lusty-Cavallari, it all comes to nothing if the acting fails to deliver it. It is an all female cast: Michaela Savina - as Lysistrata, she is also the writer of the Story of the play; Alex Francis, playing a double male set of characters, Pericles and Archidamus; with the writer herself, Ellana Costa, as Lampito. And, although, they are committed and passionate, they are mostly only aspirational as actors, with observably underdeveloped acting skills - vocal and physical - and so fail, consistently, to bring this material to any gripping dramatic reality so as to capture and 'keep' an audience involved, interested. One of the primary skills of any Director is to be able to CAST well. Clearly this has not happened here - it has a 'feeling' of nepotism (a lovely word of Greek origin): patronage of 'family' relationship but not of merit. Their credits in the program have many projects in common - and it brings, unfortunately, this ambitious and laudable enterprise of BEFORE LYSISTRATA, undone - down. With better actors this play may be of more impact.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cloud Nine


Sydney Theatre Company, presents CLOUD NINE, by Caryl Churchill, at Wharf 1, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay. 1 July - 12 August.

Let us begin at the top. This is the BEST production I have seen at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) for many a long year. Get your self a ticket ASAP.

This production of CLOUD NINE, a play by Caryl Churchill, written in 1979, Directed for the STC by Kip Williams (their new Artistic Director), with Matthew Backer, Kate Box, Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell and Anthony Taufa  – is an absolute "knock out".

To begin where all things in the theatre (and cinema) begin: The Writer and the Play. Caryl Churchill has been an idiosyncratic leader in the development of form for contemporary English theatre. In content, she has mostly explored the abuse of power with a bent to feminist themes and ideas highlighting issues of gender and sexuality.

CLOUD NINE is an early play in her oeuvre and was written for Joint Stock Theatre Group under the Direction of Max Stafford-Clark. The Joint Stock Method was to set up a workshop in which the writer, director and actors research a particular subject. The writer then goes away to write the play, before returning to the company for a rehearsal and rewrite period. The workshop for CLOUD NINE was about sexual politics. Ms Churchill tells us:
When I came to write the play, I returned to an idea that had been touched on briefly in the workshop - the parallel between colonial and sexual oppression, which Jean Genet calls 'the colonial or feminine mentality of interiorised repression'.
So, the first act of CLOUD NINE is set in Victorian Africa, where Clive, the white man, imposes his social and cultural ideals onto his family and the natives. In this act Ms Churchill sets up further insights by requiring cross-gender and race casting and it is, besides being hilarious, a pertinent contemplation. The second act is set in London in the time of the play (1978-9) with its burgeoning changing of attitudes towards sexuality, and, although, this is some 38 years ago, the act today, still, has much relevant confrontation to astonish and move one. (Although the two acts are 150 odd years apart the characters are only 25 years older.)

I had re-read the play before attending the performance and had felt the play was interesting but not arresting - as the Director, Kip Williams says in his conversation in the program notes;
When you read a Churchill play, you really only comprehend one layer of its meaning off the page. In her theatre, the performer is central to how the text makes meaning. 
Any production's success is dependent on the quality of the actors and Mr Williams has found a cast that brings this text to vital life. The acting from this company is remarkably good, each a gem of great worth, but, all, in ensemble, a 'tiara' of rare quality - thinking, inspired, by Queen Victoria's jewellery!

Josh McConville brings a stony rigidity of sexual hypocrisy to Clive, the patriarch of the Victorian family in the realms of steamy colonial Africa - a man of his period exercising his privilege(s) - and gets to contrast this male power by having to play in the second act a young girl, Cathy, hardly out of her infancy, full of wilful exploration and explosive energy.

Harry Greenwood is breathlessly brilliant and disciplined in the cross-dressed role of Betty, the wife of Clive, with a hankering for infidelity with the local derring-do hero, Harry, and then is subtle and gently moving as the son Edward sensibly coping with his floating sexuality in the second act.

Anthony Taufa embraces Harry Bagley, a repressed sexual explorer - pan-sexual - with confused charm, to contrast as Martin, the husband of Victoria, a superficially engaged feminist male who can't help trying to dominate his wife - a marvellously difficult challenge which Mr Taufa meets with some grace.

Anita Hegh playing the Victorian mother-in-law and inhibiting arbiter of behaviour, Maud, blossoms appealingly with a growing, if reluctant, taster of sexual freedom as Victoria in the second act - it is a remarkably subtle and detailed 'drawing' of character development.

Matthew Backer, playing the self-loathing blackman-servant, Joshua, (Ms Churchill stipulates that a white actor play this role) balances this 'angry' tragedy with the blundering sex-ploiter Gerry, trying to find his true self in the dominating charge of his sexual appetite. Mr Backer creates another superb performance for us this year, the other, his recent 'turn' in ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS , at the Hayes Theatre.

Heather Mitchell is truly delicate and pathetic in the 'trouser' role of young gay Edward in the first act of the play and is positively radiant as Betty, in the second act, finding her independence and rights with gathering confidence and joy. The final moments of the production are worth the cost of the ticket and Ms Mitchell once more gives us a gift of storytelling and character that is devastating in its fine judgement and inhabited realities. Glorious, as usual.

Kate Box, playing a duo of women in the first act of the play, Ellen, a repressed governess, in the wiles of Africa, a victim and 'slave' to the conventions of Victorian expectations, and Mrs Saunders, a widowed, emancipated woman of courage cutting a swathe through the jungles of Africa and the conventions of the period. She is remarkable in the powerful contrasts between confused, gentle and desperate Ellen to that of assertive, confident Saunders. The demarcation of each is immaculate and breathless in its finely judged timing - the speed of her costume changes are astonishing in their achievement, just in themselves! However, in the second act, she 'tops' those characterisations, when as a single mother-lesbian, Lin, Ms Box creates a woman finding her self with a delicate, compassionate insight that reveals an actor with consummate skills of intelligence and emotional truth with a finely managed vocal and physical characterisation. Collectively, it is a stand-out performance.

It is a simple joy to write of this company of actors who bring such humour, insight and compassion, skill, to the satiric writings of Ms Churchill, and credit must go to Mr Williams in his astute casting ability. That this company of actors can bring such individual and ensemble gifts to this production one wonders what they, if they were a core to an Ensemble Company, what could they bring to the STC stage on a regular roster. (I have a further list  of actors to add to that co-hort!)

The Set and Costume Design are by Elizabeth Gadsby. It was with a sense of 'oh, no!' that I greeted the white, windowed box, set in an upstage corner, and although one was appreciative of the metaphorical conceptual statement of the idea-image, it is in the staging practicalities that it fails. Scenes in the 'box' lost vocal clarity and dynamics - the temperature, tempo of the play dipped every time it was used - one was always grateful when the actors came out and we could engage once again with the full sound of the embodied voices of the actors instead of coping with a cool and confused echoing, broadcast (?) shallowness of sound emanating from the box. The soil floor of Africa in the first act was covered by a 'grass' floor of the London park in the second. The stage-management must have been relieved, although it is the elaborate period costuming of the first act that 'suffers' the most 'damage' with that soil(ed) choice - it is a usual preference in the aesthetics of Mr Williams (e.g. THE GOLDEN AGE, FALLOUT.)

An intricate element of the production's success is the Music Composition of Chris Williams and the Sound Design of Nate Edmondson, whilst the Lighting Design by Alexander Berlage is subtly supportive and beautiful.

CLOUD NINE is a must to see. One might think that this 38 year old play might be slightly dated in its sexual political concerns - and in the contemporary detail of the evolving sexual platforms of our age that is quite true, but in the cultural overload of traditions still affecting us, nothing much as changed - look at our own governments' prevaricating on same-sex marriage, for instance - and if the 'old' powers could, the 'Victorian' ethos would be reverted too, no doubt. CLOUD NINE is as relevant as ever. Besides, artistically, you will not have seen better at the STC for some time - the quality of the Acting and delicacy of Directing is astonishing and all inspired and supported by great playwriting from one of the living Giants of our time: CARYL CHURCHILL.

Do go.

P.S. It is of interest to me that all the actors are graduates from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), that is 'old' NIDA, and that the Director, Set and Costume Designer, Lighting Designer and Sound Designer are, also, graduates. I should declare that I, once, taught at NIDA, and have watched these actors grow over the past years with interest - I do have 'inside' knowledge and observation of these actors over many, many years. It is, however, not prejudicial favour that caused this production's reportage by me, and you can best judge that, by seeing for yourself.

Neville's Island

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble present NEVILLE'S ISLAND, by Tim Firth, at the Ensemble Theatre, McDougall St, Kirribilli. 29 June - 12 August.

Four middle-aged men on a community/business bonding excursion are wrecked on the rocks of an island, are stranded and out of network contact. Each man with a hidden 'psychic' break lurking just below their consciousness, under the duress of this isolation and their relatively inept ability to adapt to the challenges, disintegrate into a bourgeois (and superficial) 'Lord of the Flies' scenario. The conceit of this work is that it is filtered through the 'mask of comedy' with not too much swap to the 'mask of tragedy'.

NEVILLE'S ISLAND, by Tim Firth, was a play commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn for his theatre in Scarborough. It transferred to the West End for a successful season. It, also, was made into a television comedy in 1998 - unfortunately, for me, it is not a GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. Mr Firth's most famous work is CALENDAR GIRLS, a re-write of his film, which later, became a musical called, THE GIRLS. For this play Mr Kilmurry has adapted the text with Australian sociological and geographical references.

Mark Kilmurry, has cast actor, David Lynch (Neville), with a company of television performers: Andrew Hansen (Roy), Craig Reucassel (Angus) and Chris Taylor (Gordon), whom some of us may celebrate as part of the outrageous The Chaser Team and their other satiric 'spin-off's': The Hamster Wheel, CNNN, The Checkout and War on Waste, that have (will) be remembered for their important contribution to Australian television comic history. The honed comic skills of these performers are employed with witty observation of 'characteristics' of the men they are impersonating and are infused with the core warmth and appeal of the personas of each of these appealing well known personalities. It is an easy night in the theatre. Really, not much more challenging than a night in front of your television set watching a well written but lightweight sit-com.

It is simply told on an inventive 'island' Set Design by Hugh O'Connor, lit by Ben Brookman with his usual panache, supported by a Sound Design of bird noises, fireworks and nearby, but 'blasé', civilisation mechanics: a passing disco cruise boat, a search plane and a rescue helicopter, among them! The costume/stage management department have quiet a challenge with all those wet clothes (those 'poor' actors in the middle of winter!) - well done!

My last time in the Ensemble Theatre was watching their wonderful production of Edward Albee's genius play, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? I loved all three hours of its harrowing comic inventiveness - it is a great play. NEVILLE'S ISLAND, no matter the skill in putting it together, is not a necessary 'cup of tea' for me - it is a sedate, commercial piece of ordinary television writing. But following through on the Company's by-line : "ENSEMBLE - theatre for everyone", this production will please some of their audience. It seems to be astute commercial curating, for, most of the audience I was with, had a very good time.

Horses For Courses, no doubt!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Morgan Stern

Photo by Chrissie Ianssen

Company of Rogues present MORGAN STERN, by Gina Schien, in the Downstairs Theatre Belvoir, Belvoir St Theatre. July1 - 2.

MORGAN STERN an hour long monologue-play by Gina Schien, was presented earlier in the year and is now preparing to tour to the Edinburgh Festival.

Morgan Stern is haunted by THE GENT. The Gent a mysterious figure from the English Georgian era is some 221 years old, is part ghost, part protector, and has been been assigned to minister to Morgan, a young Sydneysider living with schizophrenia. Both The Gent and Morgan are struggling with memories, hauntings of 'madness' and institutions. Ms Schien is writing from an intimate exploration of schizophrenia, family and the search for internal peace, having lived an experience with her own brother. There is complexity in the rapidly shifting narrative across centuries and countries (hemispheres) and in the writing has an urgency and power in its unravelling.

Under the Direction of Goldele Rayment, with a vividly supporting Sound Design by Tegan Nicholls, Graeme Rhodes presents Morgan Stern. There is intelligent imagination going on here, but the skills to deliver the demands of the writing are limited to a narrow range of expression, both physically and, especially, vocally. Resultantly, the storytelling offers tend to flatten out and fails to keep one sufficiently stimulated, engaged or concerned. The vital risk of monologue performing - is the need for the actor to emanate an internal energy that activates and radiates, for a reaching out to engage the audience with the storyteller. The audience must be irresistibly drawn to the actor and absorbed into the need to hear the dilemma of the character. Mr Rhodes tends to 'blur' his tasks and fails to clearly demarcate the many different characters of his story. He rather insists that we go to him. Mr Rhodes, at this performance, failed to startle us, to galvanise us to 'travel' with The Gent's or Morgan Stern's journey, he rather asked us to do more work to stay with him than we could, we ought.

1984

Photo by Shane Reid

Sydney Theatre Company in association with State Theatre Company South Australia and by arrangement with GWB Entertainment and Ambassador Theatre Group presents The Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre production of 1984, by George Orwell - a New Adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay.

This play, 1984, is a new adaptation, by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, of George Orwell's 1949 novel, NINETEEN EIGTHY-FOUR. It has been made twice into film, the last time in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. As in ANIMAL FARM (1944), Orwell was attempting to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into a whole. To give a tangible pause to the peoples of the world coming out of a World War and attempting to caution them on how to re-calibrate the future governance of their society, so as not to repeat it all over again. Two World Wars in the one century may have been enough for Orwell, born in 1903, who also experienced the shattering political (Fascism, Communism) and economic (The Great Depression - Capitalism) events of the first half of the Twentieth Century. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR features on most lists of the World's Greatest Novels and with recent political events (in Russia, North Korea, Syria etc and, principally, the election of Donald Trump into the American Presidency) it has become a recent Number One on the contemporary Best Seller List.

It is an odd experience watching this new adaptation of a novel that has had such an influence , even if ignored, on popular culture - there are probably few of us who have not read it, or know the gist of it, or is untouched by its paranoidal cultural referencing, its influence, whether it be in its fear filled political concepts or simple popular culture adoption of language: newspeak; thought crime; thought police; doublespeak; room 101; the brotherhood; doubleplusgood and, of course, the most famous of all: Big Brother."Big Brother is watching You". The 'Orwellian' state of Being (I wonder how many of that Reality Television audience know the origin of that program's title?! Or, if they do, think it a cunning joke?).

The experience, in the theatre can be odd (for me, is odd) because we know what is happening, what is going to happen and how. There are no narrative surprises or suspense. We know it is a bleak, clinical observation of a man, Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, in the Ministry of Truth of a totalitarian dystopian society, who rebels against its demands, is captured, tortured and brought to heel. It is a cold war story of a government that is interested in maintaining power for those of the Inner Party. It can describe the fears, if one has any, of attitudes to our own governing powers - church, state and corporations. So, what is remarkable is the grip that this production took on the opening night audience in which I sat. For the 100 minute, no interval act of the play, there was a breath-held concentration that did not waver in its intensity and fervid commitment. Total stillness was a remarkable hallmark of that experience.

This production is a copy of the British original which has been touring around the world - Sets, Costumes et al (like the recent, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG), but with an Australian cast of actors, Directed in Australia, by Corey McMahon. The performances of the actors, with generally impeccable English dialects and stylised physical gestures, seemingly choreographed for them, which they own as if they were their impulse, are first rate, led by Tom Conroy (Winston) and supported by Terence Crawford (O'Brien), Ursula Mills (Julia), Yalin Ozucelik (Charrington), Fiona Press (Mrs Parsons), Renato Musolino (Martin), Guy O'Grady (Syme), Paul Blackwell (Parsons) and either, Molly Barwick or Coco Jack Gilles (Child).

It is the Set Design, by Chloe Lamford, with all of its theatrical tricks/coups, highlighted by a dominating video element - live and recorded - (Richard Bell, and associate, Ian Valkeith), and intense atmospheric Lighting by Natasha Chivers, driven forward by a Sound Design, by Tom Gibbons, that captures our attention to empathise with the journey of Winston Smith. One feels the confident thrust of the Directorial conceits of this production and appreciate the professional aura of the artists at the helm of this night in the theatre. It is pretty schmick!

1984, is absorbing, if, in the end, not an entirely cathartic experience. One is 'pleased', like, perhaps, the denizens (translate: the Inner Party) of the Capitol in the dystopian country of Panem, located in the novels of Suzanne Collin's THE HUNGER GAMES, might be, and like them, are not 'moved', cannot be 'moved' in our wallowing comfort, in any way. The original novel was written as a 'warning' of future possibilities of the governing of our society. The novel, the film and the play, this production, are hardly warnings anymore, in 2017, but are rather a re-iteration of realities that insidiously exist, nakedly, in the global corporatisation of the 'governing' powers that we willingly participate in today - that serve us, Inner Party members of our society, with complicit, compliant agreement. The after party in the foyer of the (for some of us) ominously named Roslyn Packer Theatre, had that strange reverberation about it - canapé? wine or beer?, as much as you can need! We were not to far from the Bangaroo complex of corporate development, I kept thinking.

1984 is good theatre making, but cumulatively, a redundant contribution to revealing our present world dilemmas.

Hot Brown Honey


Sydney Opera House, presents HOT BROWN HONEY in the Studio Space at the Sydney Opera House, 7 June - 2 July.

HOT BROWN HONEY, is a hybrid burlesque/cabaret 75-minute performance featuring dance, poetry, comedy, circus, striptease, song, hip-hop, beat-boxing and political effrontery of a hilarious and rousing kind, all of it with a serious intent. There is much (possible) 'offence' offered but it is couched in the most embracing warmth of activism that no-one could really take umbrage and, rather, only 'grow' in a 'bracing' perception of the daily oppression of being 'a hot brown honey' in a white patriarchy. In truth the show, ultimately, spreads its intent for the recognition of the debilitating plight of all women in much of our habitual cultural behaviours. Says, the Leader/Mc of this hive, Kim "Busty Beats'' Bowers: "We do this for the women who cannot speak. We are taught that silence will save us. But we will make noise!"

In a strip tease emanating from a maze of ostrich feathers we see layer upon layer of political stereotypes removed until the women stand before us in maids costume - black skirt and tops with white frilly aprons. We watch a reverse striptease of an exotic island maiden that distills the sexist 'romanticism' of such cultural cliche with hilarious ingenuity (Lisa Fa'alafi). A visually confronting costume is animated by Ofa Fotu, has she belts out the familiar lyrics of IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD - the song for the rest of time will be heard by you in a completely new and alarming context. And late in the show, Crystal Stacey performs a circus/burlesque 'strap' act that becomes much more than that. It gradually transforms into a horrifying exhibition of a woman enmeshed in a web of physical abuse. Says 'Busty Beats', "Will you stay the same? Or, will you rock the boat?" To the RnB/soul tune of ROCK THE BOAT (Hues Corporation-1973) all of us are urged onto the performance space to dance together in a unified stand-up for enlightenment and justice - for rights. Enriched and inspired, perhaps.

With all this political confrontation the show in a welter of boisterous tongue-in-cheek ferocity using the beat of uplifting music and a sense of empowering optimism invites and permits all of us to experience the exhilaration of the whole combined tone of the evening with a hope and faith in the possible energy of/for an enlightened change. The six Australian women in this performance troupe: Kim "Busty Beats" Bowers (co-creator) Lisa Fa'alafi (also, the Director and Co-creator), Mateharere Hope "Hope One" Haami, Juanita Duncan, Ofa Fotu and Crystal Stacey come from heritage ranging across Aboriginal Australian, Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Indonesian and South African. It is a combustible mix of perspective that is as important as it is entertaining for the era we live in. The time seems ripe for such a show.

Political burlesque/cabaret with an exuberant intention to awaken its community to some of the unpleasant realities around us. Should see.

P.S. The Costume Design is especially amazing - I mean amazing. The Set and Lighting Design is, too, a major contributor to the energetic thrust of the performance. Can't find the names of these artists! in my research! Thanks for the ingenuity. (Daniel Anderson, Lighting?)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Slut

Edgeware Forum and Rue La Rocket in association with Red Line present SLUT, by Patricia Cornelius, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomoloo. 15-24 June.

I first saw SLUT*** at the New Theatre in 2015. SLUT is a short play for 5 women by Australian writer, Patricia Cornelius. It is a production, Directed by Erin Taylor, and played by Julia Dray, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Jessica Keogh (Lolita), Danielle Stamoulos and Maryann Wright, on the Old Fitz Theatre stage.

From the chorus of actors talking in a joint-narrative direct to the audience we learn that Lolita of her peer group matures physically earlier than the others. The societal perceptive-pressure on this young woman radiates from her friends and spills to the men in the world about her. Judgemental perceptions isolate the young woman and 'wounded' she finds herself in a web of abuse. The effect on this promising young woman's life is 'catastrophic'.

In crisp and uncompromising logical content written in a kind of prose-poetic form, Ms Cornelius, in 35 minutes takes us on a journey of realities that are breathtaking in their truthfulness. The 'collateral damage' to Lolita, and by inference to our society is tragic, even as we recognise its accepted everyday familiarities.

This performance is 'drilled' with a precision of specifics that makes light work of the trajectory of the narrative that, ultimately, has an inevitable weighted impact. The company of actors are a synchronised ensemble working in a space belonging to another production (THE VILLAGE BIKE) that have an empathetic fervour of the need to tell this story.

It is well done by all. By demand, another of Ms Cornelius' plays SHIT, is returning to the Seymour Centre for a short season.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Viliage Bike

Photo by Andre Vasquez

Cross Pollinate and Red Line productions present THE VILLAGE BIKE, by Penelope Skinner, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St Woolloomooloo. 7th June - 8th July.

THE VILLAGE BIKE is a British play by Penelope Skinner, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre, in 2011.

Rachel Chant in her Director's notes tells us
In preparing this play we went down many tunnels of research: the Madonna/Whore complex, objectification, gender roles, pornography, power and sexual liberation. ... In this so-called 'post-feminist' world, THE VILLAGE BIKE asks us to consider, "what does liberation look like?"
Becky (Gabrielle Scawthorn), a school teacher on summer holidays, and just pregnant, buys a push bike to exercise and discover the 'landscape' of her village life. Her husband John (Benedict Wall) has put away his shared pornography (but not thrown it away) and with a surprising 'missionary' zeal begins absorbing the 'sensitive new age guy (SNAG)' practice around the duty of care for the pregnant woman, and his world environmental responsibilities, exemplified by his study with 'text book' of the woman's experience, and developing passion around the curse of plastic bags. His need for sex is subsumed by these new cravings, whilst Becky has grown an insistent sexual need and looks for ways to relieve her cravings. Ignoring the 'mumsy' aid offered by neighbour Jenny, (Sophie Gregg), Becky finds herself oddly affected by the local plumber, Mike (Jamie Oxenbould), who has come to fix her home's 'sweaty pipes', and terribly attracted to the local village 'jock-atification', Oliver (Rupert Reid).

Initially (and maybe the first act is slightly over written), THE VILLAGE BIKE has all the gentle but pertinent middle class satiric tropes of early Alan Ayckbourn plays e.g. RELATIVELY SPEAKING (1965), ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR (1974) but gradually moves into much darker territory such as the later Ayckbourn material investigated in WOMAN IN MIND (1986). Becky imaginatively spurred by her pornography watching, finds herself plunging into a real life situation that like the Isabelle Huppert heroines in films like THE PIANO TEACHER (2001) and ELLE (2016) finds herself in a 'world' out of her control - be careful when 'fantasy' becomes a 'practice'!

This is a very 'adult' (unusual and so intriguing) experience in the theatre, more so as it places a female character centre stage with human needs usually framed within the (generalised) male psychological profile and is examined with an uncompromising and realistic gaze. In Sydney this feminine contemporary world view has probably not being shown so forthrightly since, perhaps, Dorothy Hewitt's work of the 1970's-80's (THE CHAPEL PERILOUS (1972), BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY (1972), THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY (1976). It has taken six years for this play to reach a Sydney stage and one ought to be grateful for its arrival.

Ms Chant, has had the good judgement in her casting by having Gabrielle Scawthorn at the centre of Ms Skinner's THE VILLAGE BIKE. Over the past few years Ms Scawthorn has given performances (STOP KISS, E-BABY) of insightful intelligence with a breezy charm, but more importantly, amazingly, centred around subtle revelation that blends a fearless personalisation of the actor with the given circumstances of the writer's creation to her character's journeys to such a degree of refined craftsmanship that one can be confused (sometimes to the point of alarm) of whether we are watching a 'life' on stage - of the truth of a being in the centre of an evolving existence - or, rather watching an actor crafting, acting out for us.

We see on our stages (and film) many performances that are good, very good, but, in my experience in the theatre, are of a style of the last century - decade. Ms Scawthorn is in the midst of finding a way to move the measuring stick/the bar of what passes for great acting to a new and higher place. With the character of Becky in THE VILLAGE BIKE, Ms Scawthorh has found a role with a breath of opportunity to put her instinctual explorations (and skills) in to practice. What is astonishing is the non-demonstrative offers Ms Scawthorn gives thoroughly and relentlessly throughout her every moment on the stage - In THE VILLAGE BIKE, she rarely leaves the stage - with an almost seamless self-demand that, in the theatre, is a marvellous, olympian-like feat. The 'volcanic' internal life Ms Scawthorn creates for us is wonderfully balanced with her expressive skills (voice and body) which are utilised with delicate and seemingly improvised, economy/restraint. Ms Scawthorn is no priest at the altar of thespis, but rather the sacrifice on the altar - it is daring, risky and demanding. The subjective life of the actor/character held firmly within the objective knowledge of the writer's creativity. A marvel of the evolving 'art' of acting. Within the confines of this 'tiny' theatre space the work is both 'theatrical' and yet 'cinematic' in scale, both, at their best.

What we might see, Ms Scawthorn give, in one of the great classic roles on a main stage is the adventure one, as a regular theatre goer, is looking forward to. A Nora. A Hedda. A Phaedra. A Hester Collyer (THE DEEP BLUE SEA). It is a limitless possibility.

Ms Scawthorn is well supported by the other performances about her. Rupert Reid gives a performance of consummate suavity and sexual lure that is unsettling in its physical ease and attraction. Jamie Oxenbould creates a man of bewitched and bewildered bumbling, surprised and grateful with his unexpected good luck, while Benedict Wall, straddles the honest goodness but naive husband/father to be, with a delicacy that prevents the character from becoming a caricature or writerly function, as does Sophie Gregg in her similarly difficult role as the neighbour/mother next door - this woman it seems is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And one must congratulate Kate Bookallil with a small but gigantically effective cameo as the other woman/wife, Alice - it creates a shocking moment of ethically confronting reality.

The women in Ms Skinner's play are startling, on consideration, in their refreshing clarity and are the 'powerful' centre of the point-of-view of the writer, with the men, wryly observed in all of their habitual and 'helpless' masculinity - flawed and culturally self-entitled to their 'function'.

Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt are the production Designers and solve the demands of the set requirements within the confines of the Old Fitz space with great skill. While the lighting by Hartley T A Kemp is focused on the illumination of the locations and is accompanied with a Sound Design and Composition by Nate Edmondson - Mr Edmondson seems to be on a cresting wave of creativity, what with JATINGA and other work heard in our theatre's so far this year.

THE VILLAGE BIKE, introduces us to a writer, Penelope Skinner, worth knowing and brought to life by a company of tremendous artistry. Within the modesty of the Old Fitz possibilities THE VILLAGE BIKE, production is a very interesting (important) time in the theatre. Along with Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, putting women centre stage in a refreshing and confidently focused bravura.

Should see.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

I Love You Now


Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents, I LOVE YOU NOW, by Jeanette Cronin, at the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 9 June - 9 July.

I LOVE YOU NOW is a new Australian play by Jeanette Cronin, for two actors, Jeanette Cronin and Paul Gleeson, Directed by Kim Hardwick, Designed by Isabel Hudson with a Lighting Design by Martin Kinnane supported by Co-Composers and Sound Designers, Max Lambert and Roger Lock.

Leo (Paul Gleeson) and June (Jeanette Cronin) have loved each other. Says Ms Hardwick in her Director's notes:
I LOVE YOU NOW is, at heart, the exploration of a deeply flawed marriage. Betrayal, guilt, complacency, denial have become embedded and now, at a precipice, June introduces Leo to the idea of role playing
For near 90 minutes, vignettes of role play unfold on a very handsome set representing a hotel room. From when lovers first fall in love and tell each other everything to when they fall out of love and don't say anything. The stakes in these lovers' games become high for June, as she reveals to Leo that she is dying. (Oh, no.)

My experience with this production of I LOVE YOU NOW became one of uncoupling progressively from the events on the stage and began, rather, reflecting on works of a similar pattern: Pinter's THE LOVER (1962), OLD TIMES (1971) and BETRAYAL (1978). Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). I even contemplated the memory of Bernard Slade's tiresome play, SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (1975) as an alternative to this. Anyone of those plays I wished I was watching, other than this. And, you know, I don't think the writing is the big problem - it seemed, from what I could discern, quite confident.

The problem at the core of this production is that Ms Cronin is both the writer and the leading actor. The writer of the play appears to have the sense (intellectual) of what is going on, but the actor, on the other hand, mostly wants to show us, only, what June is feeling (emotional). In other words the actor has mapped the emotional arc from vignette to vignette and displays it, but has not mapped the narrative arc with sufficient, enough, clarity. The subjective - emotional - choices of the actor overwhelm any objective - intellectual - storytelling choices that the writer has given.

Ms Cronin is best when she sits sadly contemplating June's coming death - she enjoys that sentimental communication to us - but otherwise seems to be simply acting-out, indulgently, for herself, rather than making considered choices to communicate to the audience , the character June's journey. Just what is the audience meant to receive from this play? The character on stage 'seems' to be Jeanette rather than June. One remembers her recent performance in another self-written play, I HATE YOU MY MOTHER at the Old Fitz, and recall character gestures, that, repeated here now, become 'habits' - 'tics' - of the actor. Ms Cronin's vocal and physical work is blurred in its spontaneous personalisation combustions making it enormously difficult for the audience to decipher, to focus a narrative arc to keep ourselves engaged, attentive. Ms Cronin keeps showing us lots of emotional 'stuff' but fails in telling us much with clarity.

Mr Gleeson, thank goodness, manages to hold a cleaner narrative line for his Leo and balances it more credibly with the emotional rise and falls of the many vignettes, the actor's simultaneous objective and subjective concentrations each supporting, clarifying the other, so that we, the audience, can 'read' fairly accurately what is going on with him. He is a stabilising influence to the experience.

The production looks very good in this space. Ms Hardwick has created a number of aesthetic choices in her work and has valiantly attempted to hold some focus for the audience's clarity of the 'events' of the play. The Design, the focusing and handsome lighting by Martin Kinnane, the use of the 'live' musicians, the 'game-play' with the losing and finding of the spectacles (metaphor?) are all thoughtfully employed to give the audience an opportunity, a chance to be stimulated. Alas, to no real avail.

On the theatre card blurb we are told:
I LOVE YOU NOW is a sexy, tragi-comedy about love and desire ... plus tango!
The quality of the dancing (much lauded in the pre-production news) is a symptom of the problem of the production. Not good enough to have such a central metaphoric place.