Wednesday, October 17, 2018

An Enemy Of The People

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, by Melissa Reeves, after Henrik Ibsen, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 7th October - 4th November.

Melbourne writer, Melissa Reeves has adapted Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. It has been transposed and adapted to contemporary Australian times: 2018. It is a very faithful set of adjustments and is essentially true to Ibsen's content and spirit - both his politics and his humour.

The original play concerns two siblings, one a Doctor and the other a Politician - he is the mayor of the small town. Peter Stockman, the mayor, has taken in his brother, Thomas and his family, on their return to the town and has found him a job at the local Town Health Spa. It has become the major investment for the town's future as a tourist attraction. Thomas Stockman, unfortunately, finds that the water is contaminated with toxic base metals and calls for the Spa be closed down. The clash between the commercial interests of the town and the truth speaker of collateral damage that may manifest, become the principle centre of the play's moral debate.

In this adaptation, the two siblings are now a brother and sister. Dr Thomas becoming Dr Katherine (Kate Mulvany). She has a daughter in tow - Petra (Nikita Waldron), a young school teacher with some feisty contemporary principles and challenges. As well, there is, in the house, a cleaner, Randine (Catherine Davies) - an invented character that argues a Reeves' interest concerning the 'class war' and the pathetic ignorance of the Australian ne'er-do-well middle classes. It is an authorial burden that the play need not have borne - but there it is. (Ms Reeves was part of the team of writers of WHO'S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS - 1998).

Ranged against the truth of Doctor Stockman's discovery are the Small Business Association, represented in the play by Aslaksen (Kenneth Moraleda); the sensation seeking and ambitious media, Hovstad (Steve Le Marquand), his assistant, Billing (Charles Wu), led by the mayor Peter Stockman (Leon Ford). Further pressure is applied from kin of Katherine's, Morten Kiil (Peter Carroll), who is the owner of the mill that has been the probable cause of the poisoning of the water sources. It leads to a riveting town meeting, where the arguments are thrashed about with rancour, bullying and near riot, and culminates in the destruction of the 'whistle-blower' with a personal physical and emotional victimisation of Katherine and her family - FUCK OFF MAD BITCH, emblazoned in red paint across her residence's windows.

The play is rendered in five scenes (Acts) as the original is, and besides the many political issues of the original play has added a few more. There is, however, a lightness of touch in the writing and, especially, in the playing of the material. No character lacks a virtue or more, and no character lacks a vice or more. It is a very (wryly observed) human struggle between siblings, family and the demands of successful capitalism at all costs over moral (and health) principles - with the expedient short term view dominating and taking charge of the decisions of the community. This version of the play trusts Ibsen and reveals the contemporary relevancies with ease, keeping his mordant sense of humour, of the 'ridiculous' of the (small, petty) human becoming transparent under pressure.

We have seen the issues in films like Spielberg's JAWS, way back in 1975, and certainly in the world's response to the possible disaster of human activity induced Climate Change in the parliamentary theatre's of our governments. Nothing much has changed.

"What? What do I have to give up to get what I want? Do I really want to give up what I have, my life style? It's not my problem. I'll be dead when it fully manifests. Burn some more coal to supply my energy cheaply! I'm flying around the world soon: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and some of those exotic and cheap holiday destinations in East Asia. I love to be pampered. South America just too expensive to get to. Am I missing much? Maybe."

Director Anne-Louise Sarks, keeps the play bustling along and has a leading lady, Kate Mulvany, with the intelligence, wit and skill dexterity to give the audience an almost effortless confrontation with some serious contemporary issues. The audience is not weighted down with the importance of the material but, contrarily, are enhanced with a buoyant feeling of hope. Ms Mulvany manages magnificently the comedy and balances it smartly with her enraged passion in the Town Hall clash. Having Doctor Stockman a woman adds a dimension of the pertinence of the #metoo movement to its power. Ms Mulvany is in the midst of a particularly rich creative spurt, what with her adaptation of Ruth Park's novels for the STC production of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH and this - a treasure to be seen.

Leon Ford accounts himself well, while Kenneth Moraleda, especially, negotiates the cynical, almost caricature drawing of the 'villains', of Aslaksen, with finely judged choices. Not all the other actors have the same finesse to humanise their tasks beyond almost 'cartoon function'.

The Set Design, by Mel Page, with a dominating glass box that requires the actors to wear 'machinery' over part of their face and have a misshapen back side (the batteries) to make a micro-phone projected noise when they speak their dialogue in it, that makes the actors sound as if they are communicating through a tin-can along a piece of string, is a failure of imagination, creating an obfuscating vocal issue of craft deliveries that interfere with the subjective belief in the actor's creations. The contrast between the natural voice and this other is obvious and is kind of boring to have to endure again (STC's CLOUD NINE, was similarly marred.) The grandiose score from Composer, Stefan Gregory, was humorously appropriate and was much appreciated, while the relatively bland Lighting Design of open whites from Verity Hampson gave the production a clean perspective without fussy distractions.

I enjoyed this production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, very much. Melissa Reeves' approach to Ibsen's craft and ideas was, for me, a great relief and reward. While Kate Mulvany, at the moment, does not seem to be able to do much wrong.

N.B. There is no bio-graphical notes of the original writer, Henrik Ibsen, that inspired Ms Reeves' play, in the program. A fairly normal occurrence in Sydney Theatre practice, alas. Just surprised that Belvoir, a champion of writers, has been so neglectful.

The Feather In The Web

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, THE FEATHER IN THE WEB, by Nick Coyle, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 5th October - 17 November.

THE FEATHER IN THE WEB, is a new play by Nick Coyle.

Back in 2009 we saw Mr Coyle's HAMMERHEAD [IS DEAD] and one could see the promise of a writer with a decided black-comic surreal state of mind. In Hammerhead, the hero of that play, we saw in 90 minutes his life flash past him after been hit in the head with a hammer by his sister before dying. A series of episodes populated by 'crazy' characters tickled our funny bone. At its conclusion, however, one was left with a feeling of independently funny sketches, that didn't seem to add up to much.

My experience in the SBW Stables Theatre the other night of THE FEATHER IN THE WEB, was similar.

My impressions were, firstly of a very wonderful set of performances from the actors: Claire Lovering (Kimberley), Michelle Lim Davidson (Lily, plus others), Tina Bursill (Regina, plus others) and Gareth Davies (Miles, plus others). The energy of creation and the delight in their inventions, plus a sense of a wonderful ensemble spirit, spilled off the stage continuously in an 110 minute, no interval show. Ms Lovering, Bursill, stunningly clever, with Ms Davidson creating an especially subtly layered performance - watch her quite work in those last scenes.  Mr Davies, has a wonderful clown that is the inspiration of all his offers but does not show the same versatility of character creation/demarcation of the others - all his 'others' are much the same as each other.

Secondly, the extremely good Design by Sophie Fletcher: a series of blinds, cloths/drapes, scenic back-drops painted in a gentle set of pastel colours upon which some very effective Audio-Visual's by Mic Gruchy, were projected to take us on/and to the many different locations of the play. The demands of quick change and furniture arrangements were extremely well thought through and activated. The Lighting from Trent Suidgeest, was, as usual, meticulous and aesthetically pleasing, whilst the Composition and Sound Design by Steve Toulimin supported everything demanded by the writing and the Director, Ben Winspear. Mr Winspear's staging and highly disciplined and motivated cast were arresting.

The play presents a series of comic sketches, with a central heroine, Kimberley, common to each, each relatively funny, all inhabited by really rich darkly-comic characters infused with a keen sense of the writer's acerbic observation and cauterising wit of some of the world most of this audience would live in. Kimberley, who decidedly announces to two women that she is going to the mall and never coming back, after stuffing their mouths with a polenta cake, takes us on a kind of road trip. We hitch-hike in a car with a family which ends in an outrageous crash, then, a visit with a Make-up artist in the mall which concludes in a handy, sticky, climax, and next, to a psychiatrist's office where the roles become quickly reversed. Kimberley arrives at Regina's house where she is mistaken as a hired waitress and put to work in preparation for an outdoor party. It is here that Kimberley is smitten with the bride-groom to be, Miles. So begins, nine scenes tracing the unrequited love affair between Kimberley and Miles, who in her manic obsession applies a number of relentless and extreme strategies to win her man.

The production finished and though there was much to admire, as I have indicated, even if one felt that there one too many scenes/sketches to sustain my complete interest - for instance, one felt that Scene 10, The Improv Course, although a long comic gem, didn't seem to have much raison d'être for being there in any constructive way for the narrative. We applauded and acknowledged the artists all involved, but I asked, as did my theatre companion: "What was that about?" We were both puzzled. Not dissatisfied but bewildered. We loved the performances.

We had a drink or two in the foyer to sort it out.

We didn't.

I went home and decided to read the play to try to solve my response, for I had heard enough clues during the performance to suggest that there may be something else really going-on beyond a set of looney Pythonesque sketches concerning the unfortunate Kimberley with her anarchic behavioural actions in a highly satirised middle class society.

So, some of my cogitations.

Says Kimberley:
I think I'm like a spider, because, I have pre-programmed abilities [...] And once I've made my web I have to wait there. [...] Even if I'm starving to death. And then one day I feel ... something struggling, something caught ... A fly. It's you. But it's not a fly. It's a feather. It's you.
 Kimberley, a young woman, following the conventions of her middle class upbringing has built a 'web' to attract and capture her man - her sustenance, a 'fly' - and discovers that the man, in her 'web', that she has been waiting for, Miles, is a 'feather' - a decorative inedible thing - not the fly that could sustain her, really sustain her. The feather in the web = Miles.

Kimberley has had a perception of the world she grew up in - middle class suburb with middle class assets - a mum who makes polenta cake and thinks she is progressive; a happy family in a car playing 'eye-spy' and having a sing-a-long with all the appearance of happiness; a mall makeup artist providing artificial coverings (a bronzer) and spewing out verbal inanities at a rate of a million miles an hour; a psychiatrist with more 'problems' than her own, and, finally, a family-to-be: Regina, a manic middle class mum with all the unfounded prejudices of entitlement both in action and verbalisation; a gormless, narcissistic son, Miles, floating comfortably on the adoration of the women and the ease of his life - a mother, a job, a gym, home; a wife, Lily, vacuous, vacant, on the typical tread-mill of social and cultural expectations in beige/white binging with pop-corn and aerated water, on a beige 'white couch, endless true crime shows which she is not able to follow. She is constantly checking her iPhone.

The Regina, Miles, Lily saga goes on for nine scenes and Kimberley succumbs to the emotional exhaustion of unrequited love and (just like Masha in Chekhov's THE SEAGULL) with growing visitations of the Aura before the Migraine, begins voluntary Euthanasia until, just before taking the second breath of annihilation, has a vision of the life she should have instead of being dead:

          I want to go to university. I want to enrol in a university and become a teacher. English. Or        geography. And then, to get married, move to a small town, and teach in a school. And have children. I'll have children. It'll be hard work and I'll love them. They'll grow up, we'll drift apart, but it'll be fine. I'll drive them to sports, and I'll see plays but no play will ever change my point of view. I won't have strong opinions, but I will get more conservative. And I'll get cancer, but I'll get over it. And I'll stay busy, and read. I'll have a dog. I'll have a garden. But then it'll come back and I'll die. And people will cry, and then get in their cars and go for lunch. And I will never be in love again. And you know what? That all sounds wonderful to me.

A reversal of all, she, in her personal 'fury', had shrugged off, beginning with the stuffing of the cake into the mouths of, possibly, her mum and next door neighbour. Kimberley a 'spirit' of protest, an 'outsider', a 'visionary' who saw the values of the world, the web, about her, stark with horror, who can no longer struggle against the tide, and at the moment of annihilation is crushed, succumbing to the system as it is. (We never know of her chosen fate.)

Then we have a coda, an Act Two, that is only one scene long. We are in a hospital and Lily is a hundred years old and is in care and is having a delusion that her nurse is Kimberley. Lily has, earlier in the play, showed intimations of a same sex attraction to Kimberley, but rejected it, pushed, brushed, it aside - for it was definitely not a part of her middle class trajectory - after all she has found a fly in her web - Miles. Lily takes the path well world worn. But she tells her nurse, who she believes is Kimberley:
Oh, Kimberley! Kimberley, I've missed you! These last weeks, or years really, I thought ... I wondered ... Because I knew you wouldn't do it. I KNEW. [...] Kimberley, it was a trap, the whole thing was a trap. I should have gone when you ... Where did you...? I could have gone when you ... 
Then, the 'nurse' tucks Lily in, checks the drip, the machines, writes something on her chart, puts the chart back on the end of the bed, [then] kisses Lily passionately on the mouth, exits. Lily, says : "Ha!" And in this production, Mr Winspear has an explosion of bouquets of flowers fire-work across the back-cloth. Lily is rewarded with the intimation of the life she suspected she could have had, now, when she is about to die - the pressures of convention having webbed her to a life of biege unhappiness.

Another speech then stood out, had sprung to mind. From earlier in the play. One from the mother figure in the play, Regina to Kimberley:
[...] Someone's in love. ... I've seen that face before. Once. In Montreal. On my very own face. I met a man in a bar. He couldn't speak English. and I couldn't speak Canadian and he wrote down his number on a piece of paper and gave it to me. But during the night a pipe burst and the room was flooded and the numbers on the paper washed away. Just like that. Washed away. That's how doors in your life SLAM. Then someone bricks them up, and vines grow over them and no-one even remembers there was a door but there was. There was! And there was a man through there, a handsome Canadian man, who I never kissed, who's probably dead now for all I know. And there are different children, and different grandchildren, who'll never be born, not that there's anything wrong with children. But a pipe burst, and here I am. In my garden with you.
Another woman webbed into the mis-chance and convention of the system.

The lives of these three women trapped in the web of societal norms.

Now, why was this not clear to my companion, a young woman, and myself in the experience of the production of the play? Mr Winspear has 'packaged' a stunning production but the cleverness of it, the coup d'theatre of some of the effects, the overwhelming cleverness of the 'sketch-like' comedy that he has drawn with his gifted actors simply fails to dramaturgically 'point' to the spine, the reason for the play. (Perhaps?) It is what I suspected with HAMMERHEAD [IS DEAD] in 2009, that there was more to the play then what we experienced. The Direction, in both cases, needed more nuance.

When one finds a writer who has a special lens through which he sees the world one must forensically demarcate the 'truth' of what he has observed and had the courage to ferociously reveal it - dressed though it may be in raucous surreal tropes of black-comedy - and help the audience to see and hear the trenchant pain and critique. Nick Coyle is relatively well served by Mr Winspear, but not deeply enough. Perhaps THE FEATHER IN THE WEB. will clarify, will distill, with continuing performances, to reveal the almost unbearable truth at the dark centre of this very, very compassionate play and playwright.
"There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes the whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own." - Herman Melville. MOBY DICK, Chapter 49, The Hyena. 
The discerning eyes of Nick Coyle and his heroic figure, Kimberley.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Lie With Me

Photo by David Hooley

Brave New World presents, LIE WITH ME, by Liz Hobart, at The Old 505 Theatre, 5 Eliza St, Newtown. 2 - 13 October.

LIE WITH ME, is a new Australian work by Liz Hobart. This is a new iteration of this project that has been in development over a period of almost 2 years.

It examines the circumstances of a 'serial' killer. It focuses in on the parents of the young man - Sebastian - and the devastating effects that it has on them. Questions of responsibility in the manners and hazards of bringing up a child - whether the unhappy marriage shadowed the young son's choices - talk of whether the behaviour was generated by Nurture or Nature, and the concept of what is evil, surface during this near 90 minute presentation.

It, too, illustrates the collateral damage to this family in the glare of a relentlessly interested media, and shows the different mechanisms that the mother and father use to weather the gratuitous appetite of the public's interest and the psychological pressure effect exercised upon them - although, LIE WITH ME, has an Australian location the case of American, Jeffery Dahmer, seems to be a catalyst to the play's inquiry, although, not exclusively.

This story is told by three women, Lyn Pierse, Nathalie Murray and Julia Robertson, necessitating that they play all the roles - male or female - invented by the writer and co-devisor, Director, Warwick Doddrell.

Ms Pierse, as the mother, Janice, sits in the central position of our interest, and invests considerable focus, empathy and professional skill in maintaining character exposition and interrogation. She manages to present, within the opportunities of the writing, a complex woman of simple needs, thrust, unexpectedly, into the spotlight of insatiable curiosity. There is neither sentimentality nor histrionics in the creation of this woman but, with the strength of Ms Pierse's presence, we are given a woman that demands our respect for her great personal difficulties and ultimate tragedy. This is an amazing theatrical 'coup' from Ms Pierse, for, when one watches closely and observes that besides creating and charting the dilemma of Janice, Ms Pierse, as well, is having to also to be a technical 'instrument' - stage-hand - in the moving of the furniture, props etc to facilitate the action circumscribed by the writer and Director - at one stage managing the positioning of 10 chairs and a table, by herself, in the midst of the progress of the narrative.

This multifarious bind of tasks, no less encumbers, Ms Murray and Robertson in being able to deliver a clear demarcation for the number of characters and dramaturgical functions each has narrative responsibility for. Both these actors are astonishing to the commitment of the demands of the production both character-wise and technically, negotiating the demands of the Director with élan.

There is ambition and a vision in the staging 'manner' that Mr Doddrell is pursuing, although, for me, it sometimes overweighed the clarity of the story, and distracts from the content interest in the writing. This was a flaw in his recent production modes for STUPID FUCKING BIRD, which was burdened with Directorial/Auteurial flourishes at the expense of the clarity of the storytelling, of the writing. Set and Costume, by Isabella Andronos; Lighting Design, by Sophie Pekbilimli; Sound Design, by Ben Hinchley: complicated tasks well executed under demanding terms.

The collaboration with the writer Liz Hobart, by Mr Doddrell, needs a stricter focus/control on the number of strands of concern/debate/enquiry - its interests are too diverse and/or are not always fully woven into a co-herent fabric. The text needs more discipline, a clearer focus, editing.

LIE WITH ME, is interesting for not focusing on the "Monster" but rather on those innocents about it and the rippling 'waves' of consequence that tragically envelopes them. Not, necessarily, as subject matter  under explored, but, empathetically, a serious position of focus for a world where the news can become a cause celebre engulfing all in its wake, tragically, disastrously.

Maggie Stone

Photo by Robert Catto

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents, MAGGIE STONE, by Caleb Lewis, at The Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 29th September - 21st October.

MAGGIE STONE is an Australian play by Caleb Lewis. It was written eight years ago. This is its first outing in Sydney.

Maggie Stone (Eliza Logan), a let-herself-go, middle-aged lower rung corporate slave - small loans officer - struggles to maintain an equilibrium of pleasantness around the 'service' she is meant to dole out. Coming from a past that sat in the fringes of criminality her tolerance for everyday courtesy is severely impaired, for, from where she comes, calling a spade a spade was the usual no frills manner that unequivocally worked - saving time and effort. Her job is on the line with two complaints racked up against her - one more chance is left.

Enter Benedict Deng (Thuso Lekwape), a Sudanese refugee, who, seeking a small loan is rejected by Ms Stone, during a session where she is eating her lunch from Maccas and is slightly distracted and therefore pissed off - 'it's my lunch break, for God's sake!' Her decision is by-the-book but could have been given - I mean, if your pissed-off, you're pissed-off! Right? He leaves and foolishly pursues the wrong means to meet his needs. This brings his wife, Amath Deng (Branden Christine) and angry son Benny Deng (Thuso Lekwape) into her arena of consciousness and has her conscience and sense of human charity, unusually, aroused. Is it her sense of physical mortality - Col's and her own - that blows that small flame into a fire of action?

Set in Melbourne, we meet a world of refugees - Sudan and Syria (Amath, played by Kate Bookallil) - all trying to honestly get their lives moving in small business, some having to resort into the ambit of petty criminals, in this instance, a money lender, Leo Hermes (Alan Dukes), who takes cruel fiscal advantage and makes tough debt demands that result in fear, terror and death. It is a dramatic co-incidence that Leo is an acquaintance of Maggie.

The hard-won 'charity' offered by realist Maggie to Amath Deng is contrasted to the White Christian Charity of a privileged do-gooder, Georgina Spack (Anna Lee). The play begins as a kind of comic-satiric observance that shifts, in its no-interval 90 minute length, into drama to tragedy with a serious intention of social critique glimmering through the construct.

I enjoyed the journey and was pleasantly surprised with the deft turnings in mood so as to accommodate the plot and thematic concerns of Mr Lewis' writing, that have some real pertinency for us, today. Despite, that the play is eight years old, it seemed to me spot-on, unfortunately, still, in the urgency of its conversation concerning race and class prejudice, the plight of the refugee, the morality of cultural and human survival in a profit driven world, and of the motivations and dignity of charity, for both the receiver and the giver. It takes courage to receive charity says one of the characters - that set me watching the events of the play through an entirely new lens.

All the performances coaxed from the actors by Director, Sandra Aldridge, had the clear focus of 'function' that each character represented in the schemata of Mr Lewis' writing, with the addition of a light but right depth to back-story 'method' identification and ownership for us to be able to believe in them and the story to absorb the dramaturgical sociological critique with ease. The Design, by Sallyanne Facer, facilitated the swift changes of location on the broad width of the Eternity Theatre stage, assisted particularly well by the Lighting Design from Matt Cox and the composition and Sound Design of David Bergman.

MAGGIE STONE, is a recommended night at the theatre.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist

Sydney Theatre Company and Adshell present, an Australian Adaptation by Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles, of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST by Dario Fo, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. September 10 - October 27.

ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST, is a play written by Italian Writer, Actor, Dario Fo, in 1970, in response to the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, following his arrest under suspicion of being responsible, as a terrorist, for a bomb explosion at a busy bank in Piazza Fontana, at the centre of Milan, in which sixteen people were killed and around ninety were injured. Pinelli was subjected to 72 hours of interrogation before 'falling' to his death from the station's fourth-storey window. The preliminary investigation concluded that the evidence pointed to 'accidental death'. A second inquiry claimed it was a suicide. "Was he pushed?" became the question of the hour, as inconsistency after inconsistency in the evidence was gradually revealed to the public. This play, '... ANARCHIST', came to fruition as a counter-inquiry to the misinformation being spread on both sides of the political landscape. Though, Pinelli, the 41 year old railway worker was indeed an anarchist by conviction, he was also a staunch pacifist, and a quiet family man. He has often been referred to as 'the seventeenth victim of Piazza Fontana'.

Fo began his career as a writer and actor of provocative sketches for Italian radio, became a 'variety Star' on television, and, with his wife Franca Rame, moved into creating work for the theatre, independent of sponsorship, finding critical success in a series of farces responding to current issues of the day, which put them both under the watchful eye of the government censorship and other establishment institutions (such as the church). From the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) program notes: "The right wing of the Christian Democratic Party was in government at the time, whilst the main opposing party was the Italian Communist Party. Each side using covert forces in an attempt to topple the other, it was a period of secrecy and unparalleled scandal ... Historians describe an "Italy of mysteries', whose course was determined by 'faceless men' and 'uncontrollable forces' acting as an 'alternative state'. ... Extremism on both sides - the left preaching revolution (Communists), the right (neo-fascists) working to bring a coup d'etat, creat(ing) a double threat of violence and terror". Fo and Rame were not affiliated to any organised political body but with Marxist teachings fuelling their world view were 'goaded by a situation of necessity' wrote and performed '... ANARCHIST,'  as they felt that anger and action was the most respectful response to Pinelli's death.

ANARCHIST was built from 'zealously collected available material, using information passed on from journalists aligned with his cause and directly quoting some of the most ridiculous lines from both official inquiries. Pinelli was the anarchist of Fo's title, but other principal characters like the Inspector Pisani and the journalist Maria Feletti also have counterparts in the true story.'

Establishing the truth was not a matter of revenge, Fo insisted, but an essential step in enabling (citizens) to recognise the 'barbarities' of the present to prepare for the future. So, he wrote a grotesque farce about a tragic farce, scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the down trodden.

Fo was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature twice, and accepted it, finally, in 1997, surprised and shocked, that this august representative of the Establishment Order was so persistent, declaring that, they, the Establishment, usually took great pains to shut him up and clap him in handcuffs.

The STC has commissioned an adaptation for their production from Francis Greenslade, and the Director, Sarah Giles. It is a fairly faithful and respectful adaptation, using the comedy tropes of the Italian traditions of commedia dell'arte and of the giullari (Medieval strolling players) that have evolved into the great contemporary theatre 'clowns': caricature, comedy 'patterned' routines - the lazzi - and the ingenious use of props for creating and extending visual jokes, and incorporating the political ridiculousness and boisterous playfulness of the Fo.

ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST, fitted into the STC's 2018 season and its exploration of power and social responsibility - e.g.THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI - and Kip Williams in his Message in the STC program goes on to say:
Where the programming of this play really clicked into place was when Sarah (Giles) proposed a thrilling and audacious idea. What if the anarchist - a role traditionally played by a man - were played by a woman, namely comic genius Amber McMahon? More still, if the entire cast of male roles were played by women in drag? ... We both buzzed with excitement at Sarah's vision for this play: using an all-female cast to explode the play's examination of structures of male authority. ... ' 
Ms Giles says:
All signs pointed to this version of this play. The idea of an all female cast highlighted Dario Fo and wife Franca Rame's politics in a way that felt truly exciting - it breathed a new life into the play for me. ... To do these things is a political act. ...'

Certainly, the premise of Fo's play, in the face of another Prime Ministership change erupting from the inner machinations of the factions within a political party; the recent ructions of the revealed 'culture' wars between the present government and the supposed independent Australian Broadcasting Corporation - the ABC - and their appointed representatives; the 'criminal' behaviours of our Financial Institutions by a Royal Commission, to be exposed, seemingly, abetted by a 'sleeping' governmental power structure; and the glaring facts of the lack of women represented in positions of decision (power), clangs loudly, ominously, when we read of 'the mysteries of Italy' that Fo wished to interrogate crowded with 'faceless men', 'uncontrollable forces' creating 'alternative states' and to glance at the present state of our own Democratic Pillars of Community.

The women in this company: Caroline Brazier (Superintendent), Julie Forsyth (Inspector Bertozzo), Bessie Holland (Inspector Pisani), Annie Maynard (Maria Felettti/ Constable 1), Amber McMahon (The Maniac) and Susie Youseff (Constable 2) have created 'in drag', with Costume, Wig and Make-up help, an hilarious band of hapless men, each of the actors wearing their 'identities' with a supercilious, satirical relish - they seem to be enjoying the joke of the appropriation of sexual identity and skewering it to a sticking post, even if it were being done, I perceived, gently, even with respect! - odd, I thought, that there was no viciousness of cultural retribution, or, maybe, Kevin, that is too male a trait for these actors to employ or feel? Too much?

Julie Forsyth is, however, amazing and Bessie Holland, frightening.

What I wished more of with these performances was to be able to see, feel, the reason of why they were doing it, why they had agreed to adopt/adapt their roles - one wished that within the cleverness of the creations that they have made that there was, as well, the necessary political fury of the #Metoo movement and its growing profile. The actors seemed to be too careful within their physical constructs, too polite, and lacked the daring of spontaneity in the physical comedy - no anger which was the dynamic fuse of the Fo clowns in the original, no anger at their sex's subjugation to the male contsruct about them - they lacked the possible danger of their 'drag-King' choice, they were held in by safety first, possibly for clarity.

This may have come from the 'harnessed' bourgeoise comedy of manners that this text and style of production pursued, under the inspiration of Mr Greenslade and Ms Giles, both, ultimately purposed to comic exactitudes of timing with funny dialogue of positive ridiculousness and rehearsed routines, technically imprisoned with each other, with some props, with some scripted sound cues/jokes and with special visual effects, that in their execution were performed for a safety's sake, respectfully.

There was no risk in-the-moment going on, no real zaniness on stage, no 'circus', no-one metaphorically swinging on a trapeze without a net beneath them. These performers had hoisted themselves onto a 'trapeze' of dangerous impersonation (will we succeed?) but kept the net below, tautly stretched. What? Why? To keep them from artistic humiliation? They were expert but 'netted', collared.

There were Artists on stage but no zanies, no disturbers of the peace - no 'Furies', no Drag Kings! These performers gave us the literal version of the euphemism of 'THE KINDLY ONES' rather than true social/cultural FURIES. There was no sweat of fear of the fury overtaking them, no fear of arrest, by the infuriated champions of the present status quo on this stage. There was, absolutely, no need to shut this company up or to put them in handcuffs. They wore the trappings of male impersonation, they politely exposed the ridiculousness and stupidity of these men in that guise - as the men in the original would have had to do in their guise of commedia clowns, because of the writing's demands. These wonderful actors did not go into satiric fury, where angels fear to tread passions, despite this given opportunity.

We are told that Fo, in the first production, would improvise a prologue discussing the latest daily political developments and events connecting them to the central themes of the '... ANARCHIST'. One has read of his company's penchant for off-the-cuff improvisation within the structure of the scripted work - following the traditions of the commedia dell'arte - and one longed for this STC company to cut loose and bring the pregnant commonalities of the contemporary Australian political scene into the centre of this work. These actors hardly broke into authentic possession of anger.
There was no identifying connection to the growing fury, 'revolution', that some of the Australian community feels at this time with its own governments' power machinations, and the present status of women in our society, let alone with the international circus of the US politics and the outrages of the Kavannagh nomination to its Supreme Court and the degradation of the courage of Christine Blasey Ford (and all women). None of this currency seemed to occur, as an energy force to fuel this production. We, instead watched well rehearsed artists on the stage in the Drama Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. There were no anarchists on stage, simply comic actors managing plotted laughs, very, very well. There was no sweat from the effort  to maintain restraint, it was already restrained. There was no visible grasping for control of the creative need for this play to be spoken, now, today, in the Opera House, by these women, for it, all, was sedately in control, in tidy rehearsed restraint, for a comfortable night in the theatre. A production that would entertain and not, definitely NOT,  'disturb the horses'.

I have fond memories of the rapturous bourgeois reception of Brecht's THE THREEPENNY OPERA, as part of the repertoire of the Old Tote's Opening season for the Sydney Opera House, 45 years ago in November, 1973, with that comfortable middle-class audience, at the Cultural Event of the Century - the opening of the building - with their well priced ticketed seats, laughing with and singing internally, along, to, a play that ought to have shaken them to the cores of their social conscience. Nothing much, it seems, has changed in the exact theatre where both these plays, THE THREEPENNY OPERA and ACCIDENTAL DETAH OF ANARCHIST, critiques of 'power and social responsibility' by Marxist authors, were presented by the leading establishment theatre in Sydney: The Old Tote, historically, and the STC, extantly.

This production is a successful comic evening in the theatre, amusing and especially so for the 'political act' of having women play traditional male roles. For, after all, we, Aussie's have had men play women for yonks - Dame Edna a staple of our culture - swinging it around, can be oh, so daring and 'modern', a revolutionary gesture. Yes?

What an opportunity for real protest, revolution, in the theatre, has been lost.

I find it objectively amusing that The Sun King, Louis XIV, was the sponsor of the greatest social cultural critic of his time, MOLIERE - an artist practising the arts and crafts of the Italian comedy dell'arte traditions - and censored him in no way at all. It took over a century and twenty odd years to pass before for the French people rebelled against such power. Let us hope that it is takes less times for Equality to be achieved in our time.

Bring back Melissa Bubnic's 2015 play, BOYS WILL BE BOYS*** (incidentally, I observe, the STC produced it in its smallest theatre at The Wharf, fearing that its politics might inhibit its commercial success?) It was, and is, a 'political' work that has more contemporary resonance than this production of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST. More's the pity.

More Courage, I reckon. I laughed, I smiled, I admired, and then had some fish and chips while I read some more of MOBY DICK. My world not perceptibly changed at all by my attendance at the STC's ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST.


Photo by Asparay Photographics

New Ghosts Theatre Company in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre co-present, YEN, by Anna Jordan, in the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), at the Kings Cross Hotel. 27th September - 13 October.

YEN, is an English play by Anna Jordan. It won the Bruntwood Prize in 2013.

YEN, is a bleak and yet compassionate sociological exposition of two boys, 14 year old Bobbie (Jeremi Campese) suffering from severe ADHD and his 16 year old brother, Hench (Ryan Hodson), stunted in his emotional maturity, living with Taliban, their dog, in a squalid flat in a local Council Estate, having been deserted by their their twice widowed Mother, Maggie (Hayley Pearl), who has found another man, Alan, to live with - both these adults, addicts and alcoholics. They are visited by a neighbour, 16 year old Jenny (Meg Clarke), who has concern for the dog. Jenny lives on the Estate as well but in slightly better circumstances. Jenny is the author's dramaturgical 'circuit breaker' and is the catalyst for the events of the play.

In this society which is adopting and advancing, at phenomenal speed, the technological algorithms of AI that will possibly replace the working poor, Ms Jordan, in YEN, poses, underlines, the present gathering catastrophe of whole sections of our community that will become no longer just exploited but rather irrelevant. Already, there is a mental unbalance in some of our community who find respite in addictive behaviours as a mechanism to deal with their declining opportunities even if it was one that was essentially exploitative, as does our mother figure, Maggie. Bobbie is already in biological damage, from the start, probably, from foetal alcohol syndrome and has the stench of a 'doom' about him, while Hench is underdeveloped and paralysed in a physical and cognitive state where his social education has come from screenings of porn and Play Station and a lack of parental role modelling - his hormonal needs have had no-one to teach him even how to touch another, let alone love another. Says Jenny without irony, underling the tragedy of this play: "Family's important, don't you think?"

Substitute the British terminology of Council Estate for the Australian term of Public Housing and the relevance of this play will strike you as firmly as a stroll into parts of Waterloo or Surry Hills, will, could.

This production of YEN, Directed by Lucy Clements, set in a putrid apartment environment of convincing power by Designer, Ester Karuso-Thurn (it almost smells), is assisted by the Lighting of Louise Mason to create an outdoor space as well, with the aural cluing by Sound Designer, Chrysoulla Markoulli, has powerfully convincing performances.

Hayley Pearl creates a convincing arc of a narcissistic sociopath wallowing in the amnesiac deflections of drug abuse as Maggie, disgusting us with the reckless indulgence, and confusing us with the self-pitying knowledge that she has in a sober state, evoking from us a sense of empathy - reluctant though it might be in giving, seeing the havoc that she is wreaking on herself and her children. Meg Clarke creates for Jenny a courageous but naive innocent of warmth, confusion and disillusionment. Jeremy Campese is frightening in the absorbed possession he evokes on stage as the hyperactive Bobbie, with sharp and keenly observed symptoms even when comatosed in a medical-drug calm in later scenes. The contrasting tension between his loyal, loving nature and the demon force for destruction within him is palpable and distressing. The journey of Ms Jordan's narrative takes us, turn and turn about, into places of excruciating, aching tenderness to frightening palpable violence (mostly off-stage). The keel, the spine of this work is created with a phenomenally sensitive and sustained performance from Ryan Hodson as the bewildered adolescent, Hench. The complexity of his fragility and his sobbing ache to understand his predicament is worth observing - it is a beautifully conceived performance of an underprivileged helplessness that has no moral compass to guide him - except, perhaps in a sentimental gesture of hope from the author, in a wordless near ending scene.

Is it enough for Ms Jordan to present these sociological realities and give us no inkling of the action I should make to prevent it? To do something about it? Is it enough for me to feel that I have touched a world that moves me and given me a sensibility, a knowledge, with a glimmer of a distant hope - and sigh, with relief, 'there but for the grace of god, go I?' Is it Ms Jordan's subtle dramaturgy to have our two young men introduced to us watching porn and playing with a Play Station, for me to extrapolate that I am watching Poverty Porn whilst I am at play in the Station: Theatre? In a good mood I could feel hopeful about Bobbie, Jenny and Hench. In a bad mood I good feel despair and a fear of the ultimate destruction of Bobbie, Jenny and Hench. Is watching this play enough for me to have done to assuage my conscience from a sense of responsibility? Should I do something? What should, can, I do? Should I make a donation to a relevant charity? What, Ms Jordan, do you think I should do with this cultural provocation?

YEN, an experience that will concern you about your own societal relevance. Or, more worryingly, your children's and their children's future relevance. Few of us have the time to investigate our world because we are barely keeping up with our own surviving strategies in a biotech world that just seems to be going faster and faster. Unfortunately, history waits for no man and you and they - your children - will not be exempt of the consequences.

So, see YEN, and join in the cogitation.

N.B. In the program notes, The Artistic Director and Founding member of New Ghosts Theatre Company, Lucy Clements, declares: 
New Ghosts Theatre Company is first and foremost a playwright's company ..."
This declaration seems to be at odds with the actual glamorous program, for, there is NO biographical information given about the playwright. So, maybe the New Ghosts Theatre Company is not first and foremost a playwright's company. Everybody BUT the playwright is presented in the program. 
It is, a bug-bear of mine, as you all know. The Sydney Theatre scene can be so neglectful of their playwrights - the source of their inspired efforts!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Musical Island - A Silent Spell

Magic Sounds Theatre Studio, presents MUSICAL ISLAND - A SILENT SPELL. Book and Original Songs by Natalia Mitzikis, at 107 Projects, 107 Redfern St. Redfern. 28th October.

MUSICAL ISLAND - A Silent Spell, is part of the 2018 Sydney Fringe Festival.

The Creator /Director and Producer of this musical work is Natalia Mitzikis. It creates a 'fable' for Princess Minor and Prince Major and their need to create music and song, being confronted by a powerful 'witch', Queen Silence. The young couple seek support from Flatty and Sharpy and together with Lady Rhythm, Double Trouble and Princess Melody, some Romany Gypsies and Bandits, overcome and defeat Queen Silence in the Misty Valley.

All, the writing (dramaturgy), design, directing, performing is naive and fairly rudimentary (inexpert) in its presentation, aimed at a family audience, children, especially. There is much aspiration here but not, as yet, enough craft.

The Sydney Fringe Festival is vast in its repertoire offerings all over the Inner and Western City during the month of September. The 1st - 30th of September: Cabaret, Circus, Physical Theatre, Dance, Plays, Musical Theatre, Stand-up Comedy, Music of all kinds. The 2018 Fringe Festival program has expanded by 20%, built on last year's record. One can't see everything and so one has to curate sensibly. Curate very carefully.

The strength of such an offering as MUSICAL ISLAND, in this Festival, is the opportunity for community artists to have a go. Undoubtedly, Ms Mitzikis has spent much time (years?) in writing this work and with an enthusiastic group of young people rehearsed for months (?) or weeks (?). It is rewarding, in of itself, to watch this work committed to by a company of young Australians of diverse backgrounds: Filppino, Russian, Singaporean, Afghanistan and Chinese heritage, at least. However, enthusiasm is not enough to make this musical play arresting, for the skills of the performers are of a hugely disparate standard. One of the most successful elements of this ambitious work was the animations screened in support of the action of the story from the SAE Creative Media Institute Staff and Students.

The 2018 Sydney Fringe Festival was able to provide several spaces for MUSICAL ISLAND to be seen and tried out in front of a live audience. As with the INNER WEST SIDE musical presented fairly successfully at the Seymour Centre earlier in the season, the artists would have learnt an enormous amount as to what worked and what didn't, to now retire to their creative desks, once again, and develop, edit, re-write, expand, the work to a new iteration.

To succeed the principal ingredients are: Persistence. Patience. Perspiration. Humility. Read the history of STRICTLY BALLROOM, MURIEL'S WEDDING, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, and MELBA. Any great musical!

The Message

Cathay Playhouse present THE MESSAGE, a play, based on the 2005 novel by Mai Jei, at the Lend Lease Darling Theatre Quarter, Darling Harbour. 27th Oct - 30th Oct.

THE MESSAGE, is a play based on the novel by contemporary Chinese novelist, Mai Jei. It was produced by an Australian/Chinese Sydney based company Cathay Playhouse - I have seen other productions over the past years. This play is the first almost contemporary work that I have seen. The novel was published in 2004 and was made into a successful film in 2007.

Set in the city of Nanking in 1942, four individuals - code encryptors - have been brought to Qiu Castle. There has been an assassination of a high ranking official in the ruling Japanese puppet government set up by the former Nationalist, Wang Jingwei. One of these individuals is suspected of being a 'spy' - a 'ghost' - for the resistors/assassins in the struggle in China with their ruthless invaders.

Ryukawa Hihara (Gordon Guo) of Japanese origin, a Scholar of the Chinese culture, is the investigative officer in attempting to find the 'ghost'. He is assisted by his henchman, Bai Xiao-Nian (Josh Cui Heng-Yi). Through intimidation, even to torture, he manipulates the five suspects into a waiting game where he hopes they may inform on each other. As 'tricks' and mis-information are employed suspicion moves from person to person: Jin Sheng-Huo (Hong Wang Hong-Peng), Wu Zhi-Guo (Zeno Kong Zhe), Li Ning-Yu (Denise Ye Wei-Dan) and Gu Xiao-Meng (Melissa LI Ya-Jing).

The play is constructed in the mode of an Agatha Christie mystery with more blatant illustrations of physical and psychological violence - people locked in a fixed unescapable environment with the pressure of time ratcheting the tension to extreme heights. It is interesting to note that past repertoire presented by Cathay Playhouse has included Agatha Christie's famous THE MOUSETRAP, in 2015.

This production is Directed by long time Resident Director of Cathay Playhouse, Wang Hui-Li, and manages in the many scenes to keep the audience in an attentive rapture. It is very interesting to watch these actors display their skills in such a naturalistic exercise in their own language (there were sub-titles). All, particularly the principals, are convincing. There is great discipline throughout all of the elements of the performing company.

Gordon Guo, has the opportunity to create a suave but mentally tortured Japanese alien who in the search for the 'ghost-'spy' is haunted by the ghost of his now dead wife, and moves, incrementally, to a kind of 'madness', breakdown. The play offers the two women a complicated story and Denise Ye Wei-Dan and Melissa Li Ya-Jing, seize their opportunities with relish.

Says, Wang Hui-Li, 'Cathay's intention to perform the THE MESSAGE is to remind us of our past for the revolution, revive the almost buried past and commemorate (the) silent heroes who fought with their blood and life.'

Saturday, September 29, 2018


Photo by Brett Boardman

Little Eggs Collective and The Clari Boys present, PINOCCHIO, Composed and Devised by The Company. At The WareHouse, 255 Euston Rd. Alexandria. 25 - 29th September.

Little Eggs Collective and The Clari Brothers have devised a mime/movement/dance work with the title of PINOCCHIO. It is part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.

Walking on a cold Wednesday night, with threatening rain clouds skimming over the declining Harvest Moon in the late September sky, to a Warehouse building in Euston Rd at the south end of Sydney Park which is in the midst of the cataclysm of West Connex construction with all its attendant road and footpath disruption, I staggered into a car park (after an exhaustive challenge from the 370 Bus Stop, some half mile away) surrounded by wire fencing, following a tiny trail of pink lights, that led to an illuminated door. I squeezed into a 'foyer', completely packed with 6 or 12 audience, where the box office sort-of-was, manned by a nearly competent computer user, being hassled with people checking their electronic tickets on their devices, and/or buying on-line - they do not take cash! - you must be a member of the Big Brother Surveillance On-Line Culture to get in to see PINOCCHIO! A desultory couple of packets of chips and soft drinks - no alcohol, no visible sign of the recent ubiquitous glasses of red wine in hands to be seen (it hardly felt as if I was at a Sydney Fringe or Theatre event) - decorated the squashed space. The 8pm starting time came and went. The box office competent went, at last, to welcome the audience - most of us outside were stalled in the cold open air - where, standing precariously on some cement stairs near an industrial rubbish bin he shouted to the bewildered members of the audience sheltering in the tiny 'foyer' to come out and hear his warning instructions on how to enter the theatre and how and where to sit, but, first, he wished to acknowledge the First Nations people, and instructed us to do so, with him, in Auslan, which he laboriously taught us as he, prayerfully, went on with the oral translation. We were all made into temporary 'mime' artists. He wondered, out loud, after all that, if there was anything he had left out. I muttered, under my chattering breath: "Just us, out here, in the cold, beginning to get agitated that it was well past 8pm, the advertised starting time."

At last, we entered a vast Warehouse space with some uncomfortable three rows of chairs on a flat concrete floor surrounding the playing space on three sides, set to one side in the huge warehouse space, with a wall of wire fencing holding back, looming in the dark, some piled boxes. The back wall of the stage is an impressive high grey walled set, with opaque old style oblong windows inset, that shift colour from the lighting - both by Nick Fry. On stage surrounding a heavily built, a la workshop table, are the team of six performers frozen in varying positions with white painted face-eye make-up, dressed simply in quasi-period 1930-40's workman clothing (Costume, by Ella Butler). Mathew Lee, Annie Stafford, Grace Stamnas, Laura Wilson, Max harris and Oliver Shermacher.

High on the wall of the back setting some text is projected in Italian with accompanying English translation - kind of Brechtian in purpose, guiding us through the plot of the scenes/story throughout this 45 minute show. The actors come to life. There is no spoken word - it is a mime/movement/dance work - choreographed by Georgia Britt (who is also the Assistant Director). The performers, all, have multiple skills - they sing beautifully, and move/dance very athletically, individually and collectively. Two of them, Max Harris and Oliver Shermacher, also, play the clarinet which is employed intimately into the action of the work, assisted with choral/noise from the cast and some background soundscape.

The Director, Julia Robertson, writes, maybe, a trifle too grandiloquently:
Pinocchio is a story about an individual, Geppetto, seemingly alone in the world but with an imagination that keeps him entertained, challenged and alive.The creation of his own reality keeps the monstrosities outside at a safe distance ... (until) ultimately destroyed, in order to survive, Geppetto must relinquish what it is that makes him human and become a puppet to the regime. ... As a new arrogant superpower spreads hate across our world today, we find ourselves in an empty warehouse, now a make-shift theatre space, pushing ourselves to our creative limits in an attempt to spread a message of love, of understanding and of solidarity.

There is much to admire in the work. The visual aesthetics of Set, Costume, Lighting are simple but elegant. It looks as if there is decent budget - unlike most of the Fringe work in this Festival. The movement work is tight and beautifully 'drilled'. All the aural offers are calmly mesmerising - voice and instrument. And there is a coup de theatre that concludes the work that is sensationally 'pretty' if not carrying the dramaturgical clout that may have been intended.

This is an allegorical conceit, concerning an unnamed 'new arrogant superpower' but set during the rise of Dictator (and tyrant) Mussolini of Italy in the 1930's 40's - a photograph of the uniformed reality is removed and replaced on the back wall of the set, perhaps to cue us, who can see it and recognise what it is of - and there is, in the final moments of the work, a grand design gesture of specific Italian location.

The Company have set the work specifically in period and a history and has made the assumption that the audience have knowledge of the allusion - if, of Italian heritage, perhaps, you may do, otherwise, not necessarily so. So, the dramaturgical premise of Little Eggs production, PINOCCHIO, may zip over the head and knowledge of most of its audience. I have experienced a generation of theatre students who have no knowledge, or only a vague idea of who Adolf Hitler was, let alone Mussolini, or that there were two World Wars.

The texts projected onto the wall, only vaguely readable, are of mostly academic referencing and have not much familiarity to the PINOCCHIO story as I know it - even if this scenario is slightly Disney tinted. The action on the stage hardly produces a Pinocchio figure for us to identify with - it is puzzling and disconcerting. It is instead really about the trials and tribulations of Geppetto, is it not? - should the work be called Geppetto, then? And, although these performers are skilful none of them have yet honed the most important quality of the mime artist - identifiable vulnerability. This should be the quality that all should have. Mathew Lee, especially, as the Geppetto figure, ought to have. It is the lesson that the great mime/movement artists have given us. It is why Charlie Chaplin in his day and still now, is affecting, even on silent movie film. It is why the great recent Italian clowns/performers, Dario Fo and Franca Rame won the hearts and so the minds of their public. The audience understood the propaganda of the work because it was 'sugared' with touching emotional identification. It was not the skills that the public appreciated and identified, it was the vulnerable heart throb of the character's personas. The skills were peripheral (though, of course, essential). This company of PINOCCHIO has, yet, to find that vulnerable humanity of their creations, to supersede the admiration of the finesse of the artists' technical physical and vocal offers.

Passing out of the theatre space, one saw the creative artists behind the desk at the back of the seating, bustling, and in serious discussion. Perhaps, the work will find adjustment for its political statements to become more readable and so, then, relevant, and the 'acting' more vulnerable. At the moment the politic is opaque and the emotional life of the performers underdeveloped.

Aesthetically, PINOCCHIO is in good shape - dramaturgically not so much and emotionally it is underwhelming. One longed for the Federico Feliini atmospherics and emotional delicacies. One longed for the sweep of AMARCORD, it, too, set in the period of Mussolini, lambasted with great comic terror and sadness and madness by Fellini and his team.

If the Sydney Fringe is about providing the opportunity for artists to present work-in-progress to take it further in more refined iterations than PINOCCHIO (Geppetto?) is worth catching. Just take note of my first paragraph and prepare the planning you may need to get there.

A Double Bill: The Intervention; and Good, Die Young

French Santa Productions present, A Double Bill: THE INTERVENTION, by Valentin Lang and GOOD, DIE YOUNG, by James Sweeny, at the Erskineville Town Hall. 25th - 29th September.

THE INTERVENTION, by Valentin Lang and GOOD, DIE YOUNG, by James Sweeny, are two new Australian one act plays. They are part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.

In THE INTERVENTION, three young people, a woman  (Mary) and two young men (Steve and Joe) are in a share house and have found their lives going nowhere and, maybe, are dangerously overwhelmed by a dependency on alcohol and recreational drugs. They try an intervention. One of them dies - drink-driving - and the other two commiserate on their way to the funeral with more drinking. There is, as well, a vacuous creative artist/singer (Anthea), that serves as a catalyst to the events of the play scenario.

The writer, Valentin Young, has an observational accuracy to the comic/drama of these characters and their plight, and in a non-interrogatory way simply presents the situation without judgment. We are left with the experience of these four young people to make of it what one will. Lloyd Allison-Young has Directed his company with an approach to character that varies from straight realism to melodrama to a self aware comic comment on character and situation. It is in the inconsistency of the acting styles amongst the actors that causes one to be never sure of the tenor/tone of the point-of-view of the production. Is this a piss/take or a soulful reality check? Are we meant to ruefully observe this as a mirror of contemporary living amongst a certain profile of young Australians? Should we find it tragic? Pathetic? or, ridiculously, accurate? stupidly sad? Hmmm?

Damien Strouthos Directs the second play, GOOD, DIE YOUNG, by James Sweeny (who also plays a leading role). It begins with a young man (Alex) declaring that he and his 'Company' have developed a way for a digital tattoo to be inserted into our body system that will make one AMORTAL - the ability to 'conquer' all disease and ageing. He has voluntarily partaken in the process. He is 28 and that will be the age he will always be - he will avoid death, unless there is an accident or a decision to suicide. He looks forward to live into his hundreds, he says. He has a casual sex-partner (Jane) who is simply mortal. She is vulnerable to disease, ageing and consequent death. He tells her of his physical status. He offers her, entrepreneurially, the same opportunity. She is appalled at the fiscal cost - and protests that this 'technical' intervention is only for the rich. She declines. She procreates a daughter with him. The mother  is diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. The daughter, (Poppy) in a late scene, is preparing for her first teen-age date. He is, still, physically only 28. She, the mother, is ageing, dying.

Mr Sweeny provides an intriguing premise for a conversation in the theatre.

We believe that we have found ways to control the world around-outside us, but now with the twin revolutions of infotech and biotech, it seems, we could restructure not just economies and societies but our very body and minds - we could gain control of the world inside us, and be able to engineer and manufacture life. This is one of the concerns in Yuval Noah Harari's latest book, 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY [1]:
We will learn how to design brains, extend lives, and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. ... It will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what it will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems.

Mr Sweeny, with his play, tantalised me with the prospect of an exposition and discussion concerning a most urgent present Social crisis, but, deflects to concern us in a rather too domestic, romantic dilemma between a man and a woman, than an interrogation of the discovery and choice that the 'hero' of this story has become part of. Things, such as, the ethics concerning the power to manipulate the world inside us and reshape ourselves. Asking more interrogatively, are the engineers, entrepreneurs and politicians aware of the political and social implications of their decisions. Investigating the consequence of this Technological Disruption inside us. And, as we are experiencing the results of our species' Technological Disruption on the ecosystem of the world outside us, believing that we were the Masters of Universe, what pause might we give to this 'hero's' new Biotech advance, as he practices a new role as Homo Deus - being a God-like being?

None of these questions concern Mr Sweeny's preoccupation. Tom Stoppard famous for his intellectual playwriting interrogations and human observation was 29 when he wrote ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD. I am not sure of the age of these two new playwrights. But, both of these plays by these two young writers are encouraging to witness for their  grasp of the literary playform and character. I wished that the concerns were not quite so soppily immersed in youthful angst - sex, drugs - and more visionary in putting their skills to the discussion of more philosophic profundities about the incidents of life that their characters are immersed in. Maybe, with more life experience they will move into that territory. I have especial hopes of Mr Sweeny who 'tricked' me with his play premise that there was going to be a possibility of a contemporary, adult ethical debate of urgent relevant issues - alas, this was not to be. This time.

It was a cold night out last night. The Erskineville Town Hall is a cold, uncomfortable make-do, make shift venue, part of the resources of the Sydney Fringe. However, I loved being at the Erskineville Town Hall with the French Santa Productions. It was reassuring to see all these young artists - writers, actors, directors - putting their developed skills and passions onto the stage - knowing what 'sacrifice' they had made to prepare this 'work' for us - writing, rehearsing, probably with little budget - if any. It was exciting and hopeful to be the oldest person in the theatre - the audience I was with a full house, demographically were, probably, in their mid-twenties, and they were there supporting their peers, and with attention, appreciation and generosity. The theatre is not dead, and is a part of the Australian psyche and culture, and is being pursued, generationally, with passion.

P.S. There was no program and I have not been able to find a cast list (as yet) and so no actors have been credited. I appreciate their devotion to this new writing.

N.B. Sent to me later. These are the actors in the above productions:
Mary - Jesse-Belle Keogh.
Steve - Luke McMahon.
Joe - Valentin Lang.
Anthea - Elle Harris.

Alex - James Sweeny.
Jane - (young) Jessica Clarke; (older) Amanda Stephens Lee.
Poppy - Emily Pincock.


  1. 21 LESSIONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY - Yuval Noah Harari. Jonathan Cape, London. 2018.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Inner West Side

Ultra Cult present INNER WEST SIDE - The Musical. Book, by Jake Bayssari. Lyrics, by Jake Bayssari and Lucille MacKellar with Madeline Johnston. Music, by Tom Cardy. In the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Rd. Chippendale.17th September - 21st September.

INNER WEST SIDE - The Musical, is a new Australian work, having its first outing as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.

Andrea (Laura McDonald) returning to Killara after a week long holiday in Berlin has become so aspirational about her need to find and be her true self, decides to live in the Inner West, in Newtown. She begins by shacking up with Aussie cool chick, Lana (Rhianna McCourt), whom she befriended in Berlin. She hides her origins and wealth - her parents have reduced her weekly allowance to only  $500.00 per week!

Having gained approval from her other room-mates, CC Razor (Roy Joseph) and Freya (Britt Ferry), Andrea is taken on a tour of some of the local sights: The local Barista, Dan (Gautier Pavlovic-Hobba); the St Vincent's Op-shop on King St. where she meets the queen of the scene, Monica (Elouise Eftos); and later smashes it out at a Rave. Things develop: Monica is 'de-throned' by Andrea in an underhanded-way; Dan is dumped; Lana becomes disillusioned. Andrea becomes unhappy, seeks rescue, and is, by a forgiving Lana, so that we all can leave the theatre with the message of the last song in an INNER WEST STATE OF MIND  - a happy ending. Andrea an anti-hero in the shadow of Muriel.

This is a first draft of a new Australian Musical and it is, at present, a big mess of aspiration. The Book, as it is, has underdeveloped characters and motivation. The narrative is 'bumpy' and not dramatically cohesive - we seem to get to 'this place' in the story to get into the next song, without much dramaturgical exposition to help the audience, know what has transpired to get there. We need more narrative 'dots' from the writers to get from here to there in the story on stage.

The best aspect of the material is the whip-smart vernacular, lingo, talk - it is very clever, witty, funny. Says The Director and writer, Jake Bayssari: "It was deep, sarcastic, ironic, messy and downright Australian." All of this is true bar the "deep" bit - and that is what needs attention. It is far from 'Broadway Baby' ready, as Mr Bayssari, in his program interview hopes.

The music (by Tom Cardy) is "a unique blend of musical theatre style story-telling an indie garage rock". Maddie (Johnston) says: "I can't wait to hear people humming the songs on the street". Well, at the moment that is not going to happen much - there is nothing tunefully or lyrically interesting enough to lodge in our brains.

This production has terrific zest in the well drilled choreography by Madeline Johnston, and a Set Design by Antony Robinson, that had me reminisce about the Musical RENT - mere references, of course.

The company is led by Laura McDonald and supported by Rhinna McCourt, and a standout bravura from Elouise Eftos. The other women of the company: Britt Ferry, Georgia Britt, April-Rose Desaglen, Lily O'Hare, Ruby Teys, Alexandra Gonzalez and Amy Bennet, all, are enthusiastic contributors. Gautier Pavolvic-Hobba, has the most developed male role, with Roy Joseph, Lincoln Elliot, Freddy Johnston, and Grant Loxton backing it all up.

INNER WEST SIDE - The Musical, has promise. Let Mr Bayssari and his writers go back to the writers' desk and bring us another iteration. The history of musical theatre tells of the long gestation developments required for this form in the performance arena to reach their potential.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Harp in the South

Photo by Daniel Boud
Sydney Theatre Company presents, THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, by Ruth Park - Part One and Part Two, an Adaptation for the stage by Kate Mulvany, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Miller's Point. 16th August - 6th October.

A HARP IN THE SOUTH, is a new Australian play in Two Parts, adapted by Kate Mulvany, from the books of Ruth Park: A HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948), POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) and a pre-quel to the earlier novels, a late-comer to the Darcy family history, MISSUS (1985).

These books tell of an Irish/Australian family, the Darcy's. The first two books are focused on the family's travails living in the Sydney slum suburb of Surry Hills in the post-war era of the late forties. MISSUS, written almost forty years later, told of the family's pre-history living in a country town, Trafalgar, before the marriage of Hughie and Margaret and their move to urban Sydney. The-prequel is not as successful a book as the original two and in this new stage adaptation Part One covers selected episodes from MISSUS and from THE HARP IN THE SOUTH. Part Two is mostly pre-occupied by POOR MAN'S ORANGE. Part One is approximately three and a half hours in length, while Part Two is told in three hours. The performance schedule is such that you can see both parts over one day or over two separate occasions.

The first two books were a part of my early education. My family are of Irish/English heritage with my mum's side of Irish stock (Faddy) and like the Darcy family came from the country. In our family's history, from Barraba, in North West NSW. The family moved to Sydney in the late 1920's to Coogee, Brook St. I knew my great grandmother, "Little Ma" and great grandfather, "Old Pot", who ran a Pool/Billiard room in Chatswood, and grandma, Kathleen, "Gran" and her 6 sons and 2 daughters - my Mum, Beryl, Aunty Bernice and Uncles: Pat, "Bonza", "Red", John, Bruce and Jim. Grandfather had passed away from consequences of the First World War, in the Prince of Wales Hospital - hence their living in nearby Coogee.

When reading the Ruth Park books, in my early teens, there was a sense of great personalisation/ownership of the world of the family and their story, although, we didn't live in Surry Hills, it was a place I knew because of other relatives living there (as well as in Erskineville and Alexandria). Some of my uncles were taxi drivers and connected to the SP Bookies and Two-Up Schools in the Surry Hills area - I was once sat on the back fence overlooking one of the sewage laneways to 'cockatoo' if I saw any coppers comin' to warn the bookies and customers inside, to skedaddle. Fortunately, I didn't spy any that afternoon and didn't have to squawk. It was, in the fifties, a raffish place stuffed with working class characters surviving in harsh circumstances, dreaming of making a fortune by gambling and, possibly, off the lottery! My personal history explains, perhaps, why I have such an affinity to Peter Kenna's THE SLAUGHTER OF ST. TERESA'S DAY (1959) and A HARD GOD (1972), and Dorothy Hewett's THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME (1967) - three plays set in the Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Redfern area.

There has been another play adaptation of the first book (which I read In the NIDA library, years ago - sorry, don't remember the details!) and a television adaptation made for Channel 10 in 1986/1987 of the first two books, written and Directed by George Whaley - I didn't especially like it, despite some of the actors' work. It all looked so over Art Directed, so clean and 'shiny'.

Kate Mulvany has had to elide and or remove elements and events and characters of the novels - the frustration of any adaptation of a favourite novel, they always leave out some of your favourite 'bits' - and has also 'politicised' some of the content in eliminating some of the male dominations and expanding the women's position in the books for the contemporary play/stage, even exaggerating, in feminist terms, some of the speeches coming from some of the characters. Not, that I think, if, Ruth Park was alive she would not have approved of the bent, if not wished/encouraged less excessive zealousness, in the language to do so - the "Beaten ..." speech spoken by Dolour towards the end of the last play, for example, for me, just a little over-the-top, over-stating.

It is, however, a fairly marvellous achievement and has much to be admired. Dramaturgically, I would quarrel about the over-Irish sentiment in the play adaptation of the last two books and argue for a subtler Irish/Australian characterisation - my uncles were of Irish heritage but were distinctively Australian, not Irish - for instance, I knew few of the musical songs (Irish) that the denizens of this Surry Hills sang a lot of, and longed for a little of the church music that was such a big part of our musical lives, whilst enjoying the radio 'pop' music of the period. And, and, I protest the sentimental close of this production that ought to not have a melancholy ending but, rather, an optimistic beginning - the cycle of the natural world of death and renewal in the tearing down of the slums of Surry Hills for new plans, and that the play look optimistically at renewal - the NEW - as a reflection of the seasons through the Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring feel of the construct of the novels. One should not feel that the marriage of Dolour and Charlie was the sign of an end but rather the hope for the future. I was recalling the Fellini film AMARCORD (1973) that covers a year in the memory of a young boy that observes, after the devastating loss of his mother, the return of spring and the 'blossoming' of a new future, a beginning, for the survivors of the story - a nostalgic revocation rather than a tragic/sentimental death knoll.

The Design of the production, by David Fleischer, is wonderful in the architectural scale of it all - Mr Fleischer's usual stylistic preference - and is especially refreshing in the continuous shaping and zestful energy of the shifting 'frameworks' of the houses of Surry Hills in the second part of Part One. Some friends especially enjoyed Part One, preferring it to Part Two - I argued with them, suggesting that it was the relative lack of visual dynamics in the staging of Part Two, with a static set of looming grey walls (except for the ever active revolve) that dropped their appreciative 'thrill'. Was it the absence, in contrast, of the element of imaginative/visual dynamic of the moving frameworks, that stultified their creative energies of participation? Too, I thought the dominant colour of the Design superstructure of the modern grey (black and white palette!?) was not right. In my memory of living in that era and my re-imagining the time, on reading the books, the colours were of an industrial haze that filtered the light into golden browns/orange, it, flecked with soot and dust, dominating my recall. Surry Hills was warmer, even cozy, in its poverty and fug of industrial, alcoholic fumes of the factories chimneys - jam (and salt - hello Belvoir). Or, am I carrying the archaeological layerings of subsequent memories that I have accrued from the Australian master painters' palettes of the period, of say, Drysdale, Tucker, Dobell, Brack, Perceval, Preston? The Lighting Design is by Nick Schlieper. These observations are kind of carping detail, because the effect of the writing and production is mighty good.

Kip Williams, the Director of this production in epic style, builds on the skills he has been developing, seen in his gigantic staging of CHIMERICA, last year, and honed and superseded here. His management of transition through a staggering number of scene shifts and the management of his 18 actors to create many, many characters has finesse and detail - it is great to see old storytelling form, relatively, uncluttered with unnecessary experiment in technical flourishes - it is as if Mr Williams has discovered that new form can be old form 'done better' - as the character, Con, in the adaptation of THE SEAGULL, STUPID FUCKING BIRD, by Aaron Posner says. The adopting of various styles of storytelling from broad caricatured comedy, to gentler family character comedy, to sentimental melodrama, rough-house realities, with touches of epic poetry, are carried through with an assured confidence of deliberated choice. The integration of all the elements of the production are seamless - for instance, the assembly of the chairs for church and school, done in a twinkling of an aesthetic eye! Especially impressive is the Composition of the atmospheric score of this production by The Sweats, the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson and the Musical Direction by Luke Byrne.

There is a cast of 18 actors, and on occasion, costumed stage hands as 'extras', to fill the stage, and all give a comfortable contribution of Ensemble playing of a high standard. Heather Mitchell, steals every moment that she is on stage as Grandma Eny Kilker - her extraordinary physical and vocal characterisation an object lesson of accuracy and tempered energy that electrifies every intention of Ms Mulvany's storytelling with cracking ease - a delightful cheekiness dare in every moment. One is dared to disbelieve but Ms Mitchell is so convicted that one cannot take one's eyes or ears off of her. Then one asks oneself later: is that Ms Mitchell as Mrs Wiley in the hospital scene with all those doctors in that blonde wig? It is - how marvellously subtle is she? A great Australian actor. Helen Thomson is in very familiar territory in her comic creation of Delie Stock and goes at it with stage relish, but then shows sensible restraint and character in her brief appearance as Brett's Mum - the contrast is remarkable. Bruce Spence has, at last, a series of roles on the Sydney stage that reveals his secure versatility - his catholic priest, Father Cooley is magnificent and is contrasted with his 'music hall' turn as John Kilker, and romantic, courting Swede, Mr Gunnarson. While the subtle drawing of the romantic lead of Charlie Rothe given by Guy Simon is the high point of convincing, moving, truthfulness for me, that has not a whiff of sentimentality about it - the alcoholic despair of his grief  over Roie - it is all accurate, clean and gently moving, delicately honed, whilst his earlier brief appearance as crippled Jeremiah (Jer) in the first act of Part One is haunting in its presence and in memory. Rahel Romahn has a stage presence that attracts attention in his delicacy and wit of creation, George Zhao, similarly, makes an impression as 'Lick' Jimmy. Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Jack Finsterer, Benedict Hardie, Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Lucia Mastrantone, Tara Morice, Ben O'Toole, Rose Riley, Contessa Treffone and young Joel Bishop or Jack Ruwald make up the rest of this excellent company.

THE HARP IN THE SOUTH is an especially good production. The scale of this Australian story on stage with these 18 actors is what a National theatre ought to be about. Large Australian stories with opportunities for many Australian artists to flex their skills and creativity for Australian audiences. I understood that this was one of the projected visions of our 'lost' Artistic Appointee of the Sydney Theatre Company, Jonathan Church. It is a relief to see Mr Williams and The STC taking on that welcome vision with this project - although, next year's season does not follow through, have the promise of this same brilliant scale.

I have seen this production twice. I recommend it thoroughly. Though the books are worth knowing and have the personable ability for you to create with Ruth Park your own version of the Surry Hills, Darcy family, story.