Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Overcoat

Photo by Clare Hawley

The Costi Siblings present, THE OVERCOAT - The Musical, based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Book and Lyrics, by Michael Costi. Music, by Rosemarie Costi. For the Belvoir 24A Program, in the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 15 November - 1st December.

THE OVERCOAT, is a new Australian work, a Musical, by Constantine, Michael and Rosemarie Costi, based on the Gogol short story of 1842. The literal translation used is by Alena Lodkina. Gogol seems to be the parent to a writer like Kafka and his more familiar concerns.

In this version of the story, Nikolai, an overworked and teased copy clerk, in the byzantine hive of status in the 19th mid-century Russian Civil Service in St Petersburg, becomes obsessed with the acquiring of a new overcoat - an overcoat that is beyond his means, but not beyond his want. In affording it, Nikolai experiences much deprivation, and, unfortunately, has it stolen, sending him into shock, into a fever which, ultimately, causes his demise.

The score by Rosemarie Costi has its inspiration origins in the use of jazz. Jazz, is claimed by this creative trio, to be an urban sound and 'is a form that captures both the stifled cry of the melancholy, and the endless hum of the insomniac streets.' A trio, Sarah Evans (Double Bass), Josh Willard (Saxophone) and Tate Sheridan (Piano), unfold the inspired score with skill and yearning.

Told in song and long stretches of dialogue between character, four performers: Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel, Aaron Tsindos and Charles Wu, carry the responsibilities. Mr Wu, gives an enchanting, sensitive and meticulous performance as our hero, Nikolai - it is a very moving centre to the relative success of the entertainment. Aaron Tsindos gathers some seven characters to erudition. But, it is in the undercasting with Kate Cheel and Laura Bunting, that the work stumbles with an imprecision, nervousness and underpowered vocals. Clarity and surety of demarcation in the creation of the many characters that they have responsibility for needs much more attention to be convincing and keep an audience suspended in belief.

Emma Vine has created a Design that has the weight and flexibility for the many locations required in the story telling, assisted by very beautiful graphic signage to designate the where we are. The Overcoat, itself, lacks the detail of the short story and is a relative disappointment in its appearance, for the impact of the story to have the stakes of the catastrophic developments to be realised. Alex Berlage has created a detailed and sympathetic Lighting Design as support for the atmospheres and story development.

Michael Costi has changed the famous name of the hero of this famous story, from Akaky Akakievich to Nikolai (the author's name) and quizzically has removed the coda of the ghosts at the end of the Gogol tale that gives the original so much poignancy - it feels odd and arbitrary, to have chosen such an iconic work and then to undo one of its greatest moments.

Constantine Costi, The Director of this work, other than in the guidance for two of his actors, has a vision for the aesthetics of the work and presents it in a very confidently conceived manner if not sometimes flubbing it in execution. This 24A program is intended as an opportunity for the development of new work. THE OVERCOAT as it is, is worth seeing. Its further iterations, will I hope, benefit from this necessary exposure.

The Wild Party


Little Triangle present THE WILD PARTY. Music and Lyrics by Michael J. Lachiusa. Book by Michael J. Laschiusa and George C. Wolfe. In the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Cleveland St, Chippendale. 15 - 24 November.

THE WILD PARTY, is an American Musical, with Music and Lyrics by Michael Lachiusa. Book by Michael J. Lachiusa and George C. Wolf. It was performed on Broadway in 2000, and was nominated for 7 Tony Awards.

The year before Mr Lachiusa's musical MARIE CHRISTINE, had premiered on Broadway, with Audra McDonald, but closed after a short season. It was based around the MEDEA story and is famous for the degree of difficulty of its score. THE WILD PARTY, is inspired by the 1928 Book-long poem of the same name by, Joseph Moncure March. It deals with the hedonism of the Roaring Twenties, that was also captured in the writings and lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his wife Zelda (THE GREAT GATSBY, comes to mind). The poem was widely banned as lewd: Some love is fine:some love is rust;
But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.
Lust of all kinds, drugs and an uninhibited wild, wild time that does, ultimately, have consequences covers the two hour show,

This musical appears, to me, an extremely ambitious piece of work. Using the poem, we meet Queenie (Georgina Walker) and Burrs (Matthew Hyde), a couple in a co-dependent and violent relationship, who decide to give one of their famous parties. "With a guest list worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah, the party brims with vaudeville's bawdiest. From a brassy stripper, Madeline (Prudence Holloway) to a devilish playboy, Jackie (Jack Dawson), a sinful brother act, Oscar (Samuel Skuthorp) and Phil (Michael Boulus), to a fading Broadway diva, Dolores (Victoria Zerbst), an ex-boxing champ, Eddie (Olivier Rahme), to an ex-chorus girl, Mae ( Emily Hart), a hopeful ingenue, Nadine (Tayla Jarrett), to a pair of hopeless producers, Gold (Zach Selmes) and Goldberg (Simon Ward), and a flock of vivacious chorines (Victoria Ruxton, Matilda Moran, Rosalie Neumair, Sophie Perkins and Jordan Warren), to a morphine addict, Sally (Madeline Wighton), and latecomers, Kate (Katelin Koprivec), and her latest accessory, Black (Andre Drysdale), the line-up of characters are as wicked as they come. During the wild night gin, skin and fun, the guests find themselves in a tangle of lust, limbs, and secrets."

The book sketches some 20 characters, each with a song(s) and backstory of their own - it is a very egalitarian sharing of the evening's entertainment. Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Mr Black become the central engine of the 'crisis' of the story but every character carries impact. This requires extreme attention to individual development and one of the things I particularly enjoyed was the work that the actors and the Director, Alexander Andrews, had given. All of the characters have song(s) (bar the chorines) and all of them have a continuous story arc to sustain. On this small stage, Mr Andrews and his choreographer, Madison Lee, create a sensitive detail.

This is supported by an atmospheric Design, both Set and, especially, Costume, also, by Alexander Andrews. Terrific Lighting, by Blake Condon. The score is mostly a play-through challenge and is well done by Conrad Hamill with an orchestra of eight, although there is considerable difficulty with the sound balance between the voices and the orchestra 'noise'. It never seemed to find a good solution - and in a show where the lyrics are of a major importance in establishing and maintaining the individual personas of all, it was a severe obstacle to complete relaxation to fully enjoy the night - one had to fight hard to sort it all out.

Mr Andrews has the capacity to encourage his young artists to commit full-bore to their tasks, and Ms Lee's choreography is startlingly well disciplined and integrated into both the dance aesthetics and character, plot, clarity, though in this sized space is a physical force to be weathered by the audience. It's energy can be overwhelming.

Mr Lachiusa has written a score and constructed a book that is almost fiendish in its difficulties, and certainly challenges this young company vocally, especially, in the second half of the show, and not all of them pull it off. Ms Walker in the leading role of Queenie has the physicality, and type down pat, but seems to be underpowered in the decisions she has made vocally, often inaudible with an under enunciated word usage that become maddening in its soft obscurity. The best of the young performers, as an example of what should be a bench mark is Victoria Zerbst, as Dolores, in a role that is, maybe 20 years too old for her - but, such are her skills and her discipline and judgement that one is left full of admiration. Mr Boulus, Skuthorp, Selmes (I kept wanting to tell him to cut his hair! - not fully committed to the artistry of what otherwise is a good performance annoyed me, intensely), Ward, Rahme, and Ms Hart, Koprivec and all the Chorines are impressive more often than not.

THE WILD PARTY, is an ambitious work. Little Triangle is an ambitious company - their performance of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, earlier in the year was amazing. Director and Designer, Alexander Andrews; Musical Director, Conrad Hamill; Choreographer, Madison Lee, are all outstanding and ought to be watched. This company of ferocious musical theatre actors are to be commended for their offers.

THE WILD PARTY is difficult and full-on but it was impressive to have the opportunity to see this work live on stage. Musical Theatre buffs should be delighted to be able to see it whatever their reservations may be. This company deserve your attention.



The Dance of Death

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Belvoir presents, THE DANCE OF DEATH, by August Strindberg, from a literal translation by May-Brit Akerholt, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St. Surry Hills. November 10 - December 23.

Judy Davis, as Director, has devised with her company of actors: Giorgia Avery, Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe and Toby Schmitz, a production of August Strindberg's THE DANCE OF DEATH, using a literal translation by May-Brit Akerholt.

August Strindberg is a famous Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. Most of the English speaking world is familiar with his playwriting, but in Sweden he is equally renowned for the multi-disciplined artistic and social output across a sixty-three year of volatile and controversial curiosity. He was born in 1849 and died in 1912. His work is marked by its reflection of what was happening to him in his intellectual 'rummaging' throughout his life - his own personal experiences shaping his output and the many embraces of what he sensed and discovered, the collective output often revealing contradictory points of view.

He had three marriages (all three women younger than he, and actors) and 5 children, between them all. He experienced sanity and 'madness' (reflected in his literary output as INFERNO). He was a deist and atheist. He embraced Darwin, Nietzsche and spiritualism. His life's output a chaos of personal tussels, each one of them virulently held for as long as it seemed relevant for him. Each stance changed when he was revealed another way to explain the reason for life, for his existence.

His playwriting styles altered as he discovered new interests and 'grew', evolved. He has work that reflects 'naturalistic tragedy, monodrama and history plays to his anticipation of expressionist and surrealist dramatic techniques.' The English speaking world is familiar with his naturalistic explorations in plays such as THE FATHER (1887), the famous and groundbreaking, MISS JULIE (1888) and CREDITORS (1889), to the later period of THE DANCE OF DEATH I and THE DANCE OF DEATH II (1900), THE DREAM PLAY and THE GHOST SONATA (both, in 1907), which worked in the writing realm of Symbolism, Expressionism.

He wrote THE DANCE OF DEATH I in May, 1907, and in the 'critical' response to it – wrote THE DANCE OF DEATH II, later in the same year, in November. Both plays are of full night length. Belvoir is giving us THE DANCE OF DEATH I - the play most favoured, explored, famous.

Edgar (Colin Friels) and Alice (Pamela Rabe) have been married for nearly 25 years, have borne 4 children, with 2 surviving, both of them deserting the home ground as soon as they could, which is an isolated 'tower' on an island off the coast of Sweden. Edgar is a Captain in charge of a regiment of soldiers, in the relative 'boondocks' of influence. Alice was once an actress. Their situation is fraught with poverty and boredom, mismanagement and paranoia. There existence together is rotting in the latter degrees of loathing but are bound in the games of mutual destruction. There is in their hatred a kind of love. The world about them, the humans that they are in contact with, servants, soldiers and relatives, become joint sources for projected torture. Kurt (Toby Schmitz) visits, and he becomes the unwitting victim of both, in a game of destructive one-upmanship. Kurt becomes the 'toy' that they systematically compete to destroy.

THE DANCE OF DEATH, is a famous portrait of a deteriorated marriage, that will not divorce or separate. It is reminiscent of the love-games of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil in Laclos' novel of 1782, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, where both enjoyed the cruel games they inflicted, and boasted of their manipulative skills. It inspired the Edward Albee play: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and the coruscating GET THE GUEST act. It has a famous history of great actors taking on the challenge of Edgar and Alice, that keeps it in the contemporary repertoire. Actors of great skill need to have the confident chutzpah to begin to tackle these roles and this play.

I am a socialist, a nihilist, a republican, anything that is anti-reactionary! I want to turn everything upside down to see what lies beneath; I believe we are so webbed, so horribly regimented, that no spring-cleaning is possible, everything must be burned, blown to bits, and then we can start afresh 
Alone and isolated from two of his wives and his children - with another winter/spring relationship to come - his mental stability unsure, his monetary surety in a parlous state, debt ridden, Strindberg tries to blow to bits the idea of male and female partnership with a withering and bitter savagery.

The last production of this play in Sydney was probably the Sydney Theatre Company production with Rhys McConnachie and Gillian Jones. From memory it had very few laughs. Ms Davis and her collaborators seem to have taken inspiration from Sir Jonathan Miller's 1986, essay, SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES, which eruditely investigates the possibilities, the manner, the way, to bring to life the classic play for contemporary audiences. Looking at those plays as if they were newly minted, written. For, this production of THE DANCE OF DEATH, at Belvoir, is a 'laugh, comic, riot' that shakes any memory or pre-conceived vision of how it ought to be done with the rigour of the spirit of the social and cultural critic that Strindberg always was. An artist whose antennae was literally vibrating to the zephyrs and hurricanes of the zeitgeist about him, whether it contradicted his last 'statement' or not, that either enhanced his standing as an artist, or destroyed it. These present artists at Belvoir seem to be vibrating to Trumpian times where laughter may be the only way to deal with the chaos around what were once the Pillars of our Community, to be able to continue to move forward. And what more central Pillar than that of the sacredness of Marriage (and family) could be targeted for the personal conscience of each member of our middle-class audience, 'straight' or 'gay'? Let's embrace the subversive nature of our times and blow this bourgeoise concept up.

Brian Thomson has Designed a beautifully lurid space. A circle of black marbled floor, with a few pieces of necessary furniture: chaise lounge, dilapidated upright piano, low slung cupboards with doors, fuming with the perfumes of alcohol, upturned chairs and a table, and props - including a 'spooky' mechanical telegraph spool that taps out communications in code that appear to be pregnant with forebodings - all surrounded by a moat of fetid blood red water junked with debris - it obviously used as a dumping ground for domestic refuse - bridged at one edge by a wooden slated cross-over, with faded blood-red Ingmar Bergman-like walls (or just the usual Swedish interior decor tradition?!) decorated with fading indecipherable images, encasing-hovering about it, with, at one edge of that wall a portrait of Alice in actor pose decorated with wreaths of blue be-ribboned vine leaves on either side, hanging within reach, if you climb a rickety metal ladder, anchored in the moated waters. There are, as well, swaying chains with clothes hooks (meat hooks) dangling down.

The Lighting by Matthew Scott haunts the space atmospherically, augmented with candle light, occasionally, and flecks of lighted reflection of the water onto the walls emanating apprehensions of the spectral, as a ghostly helmeted shadow (Hamlet's father's ghost?!) parading before us, every-now-and -then.

Supporting this gloom laden space is a wonderfully, detailed and deliberately dissonant score - especially, for the piano - that activates the action of a predictive dance with death, The Entry March of the Boyars (Johan Halvorsen), towards death, by Paul Charlier.

The play seems to be set in the twentieth century naughties with Alice dressed in a slime-green full length dress, conveniently buttoned up-the-front, who later on appears in a vampiric red, bustled costume - from this actress' Alice's wardrobe, one presumes - and a set of wigs that produces a futuristic image - for the setting of this play - reminiscent of silent movie risqué vamps such as Theda Bara (a famous Salome) or, the irrepressible Louise Brooks (the famous Lulu, of PANDORA'S BOX). Of course, the Captain is in a rumpled uniform (sky blue jacket) that would not pass muster on a parade ground inspection, with knee high black boots, with at times, broad sword and spiked helmet. Kurt wears beneath an oddly shaped overcoat, a long set of period tails. (there is no Costume Designer noted in the program, rather a Costume Supervisor, Judy Tanner).

When we enter the theatre, Alice is posed/poised on the chaise and Edgar sat at the piano, in a suspended time freeze, waiting to be activated, perhaps, by the gaze and attention of an audience. The dialogue of this production has been adjusted for the contemporary ear with close adherence to the literal translation (and notes) from the expert translator, May-Brit Akerholt, and we are soon launched into the bracing, chaffing married relationship of this couple isolated in the army citadel. From the start, the signals of the comic tenor of this production performance are given.

Colin Friels, is startling in his energetic crispness of voice and speech intention, accompanied by a physical capacity of a military man that has developed a second-nature body memory of discipline that belies his age and decrepitude, frightening us with the possessed passion of the famous Dance of Death to the Entry March of the Boyars (Choreography, by Thomas Egan), as well as fighting off the freezing paralysis of a heart that seems to be blocking the pumping of the life force of his blood. This man is mad with manic dread and the need to fight to maintain a life force, so levers whatever advantage he can to feel alive, by prickling, provoking, his married partner to extremities of excess. He is as ruthless with her as he is in his diabolical manipulation of Alice's young cousin, Kurt, torturing him into a state of vampiric blood-drinking, blood-letting. Mr Friels' performance sits as a fulcrum between sanity and insanity, with the wide-eyed visions of the catastrophic reality he finds himself in - age - and the over-heated efforts to overcome that - giving us a bi-polar swing, echoing the dangerous chains and meat-hook ends visually supplied in Mr Thomson's Design.

Countering the savage relationship offers of Edgar, Ms Rabe's Alice is an unbridled oozing green-pustule of viciousness stoked by the frustration of an actress - I AM AN ACTRESS, claims Alice in the middle of her warring - forced to retire from the stage to play in the game of marriage only to find it a dance of death. How great or mediocre Alice's festering talent is/was is the sickly conundrum that bubbles and boils before us - but there is no mistaking the motivation of her urges - anger and revenge.

Ms Rabe has always, for me, shown a perspicacity to wrinkle out the comic possibilities of every creation she has had, whether fully appropriate or not - it was part of my disturbance with her performance work in the recent production of THE CHILDREN, for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), though, my dis-ease goes as far back as most of her work for the Sydney Theatre's Acting Residency Company, under the Direction of Artistic Director, Robyn Nevin for the STC. In THE DANCE OF DEATH, Judy Davis has permitted and encouraged Ms Rabe to unleash her comic sensibilities in an undiminished torrent of astonishing invention and excess. Bent at her ankles and knees and, as well, at her waist, she leans forward, deliberately stooping to disguise her height, flourishing her hands in busy, distracting detailed gestures of emphasis with a tilted head and over articulated mouth, striking and pitching the room furniture for melodramatic-comic affect whilst attempting to devour all the oxygen in the room to suffocate her victims, her husband Edgar, and even more ruthlessly, her cousin, Kurt - even going so far as to semi-undress to pendulous nakedness to seduce and manipulate him to her ends. The American comedian Carol Burnett, in her days of television vaudeville (The Carol Burnett Show - 11 seasons from 1967-78) could not have created a more complete persona of comic sexual desperation. I sat there thinking that what Maggie Smith was to the British Theatre, Ms Rabe might be to the Australian theatre - having over the years revealed a studied humour with a penchant for comic campery (or, is it kitch?), not only as characteristics for her acting challenges but as a personal mark of her gifts - will one ever forget her tottering, fully-height, amble down centre stage - Ms Rabe's creations often find the centre stage - slipping, with poised manufacture, on the ejaculated sperm that had metaphorically gushed out in one of the episodes of THE LOST ECHO? No. But, undoubtedly, Alice in THE DANCE OF DEATH, is a florid bravura of comic intent that supersedes anything she has come to offer the Sydney audiences before. Whether it is balanced with dramatic justification of character, or not, will be part of your argument in the foyer afterwards. When Alice and Edgar manage, at this production' s end, to re-organize the room and themselves into the poses that began the play, the promise of the repeat of the boredom of the daily savagery of that household strikes a note of physical recoil - 'oh, no!'

Toby Schmitz in playing Kurt, a character written to react rather than to activate the action of the scenario, is perforce having to play in a handsome restrained mode. Mr Schmitz's intelligence and skills manage to find a substance of focus that, nearly, balances the assaults from Edgar and Alice to hold his ground as an object of independence in the events of the play rather than just a convenient cipher for the actions of the warring married couple. It is an admiral gift of work from Mr Schmitz.

This production is a startling and controversial lens through which to see Strindberg's famous play. It will antagonise or please - and, it will definitely surprise. There is no doubt concerning the theatrical intelligences of these famous artists: Judy Davis, Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz, Brian Thomson, Paul Charlier and Matthew Scott; and there is no need to question their earnest sincerity and, even most importantly, their respect, for the source material, so what they have created, concocted is worth dealing with absorbing.

Does it work? I'll leave that for you to find. But, I feel that both August Strindberg and Sir Jonathan Miller, would be pleased with the iconoclastic assault on this 'revered' (over revered?) masterpiece. Judy Davis has blown everything to bits.

Go.

N.B. There is no biographical note for the writer August Strindberg in the program. Beloved once again neglecting their responsibilities to their writers. Ibsen, last time. !!!!!! ?????

Blame Traffic


twenty seven six present BLAME TRAFFIC, by Michael Andrew Collins, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St. Newtown. 13th November - 24th November.

BLAME TRAFFIC, is a new Australian work, by Michael Andrew Collins.

It is a one act (60 minutes) play that has a fatal traffic accident at its centre with six random lives orbiting about it in relative ignorance of their interconnection, or, of the risks that they take, and the impact that they have had on each other. Its conceit reminds one of the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu/ Guillermo Arriaga trilogy of films: AMORES PERROS (2000), 21 GRAMS (2003) and BABEL (2006), that reel through a similar random interconnection of lives.

Michael Andrew Collins, has written this play and Directs it. The combination of Mr Collins' possession of the writing and directing delivers with his actors a totally immersive experience that is clever in its organisation of content and arresting in the simplicity of the acting style that the actors confidently exude. Beginning with the fresh 'attack' of a direct monologue form, delivered lucidly by Violette Ayad, and then with the ease of the work from Emma O'Sullivan, Mary Soudi, Nic English and Alex Stylianou, in duologue or combination monologue, one was captured, enraptured from the start to its conclusion.

It is set (Patrick James Howe) in a simple black space with chairs and a backdrop of a set of three movable light boxes to give atmosphere to the shifting locations. There is no attempt at acted realism just a simple paring back to the actors at work using the text to transport us to creating the 'naturalistic' detail inherent to the story, that can often, when physically introduced, clog the communication of the play - it is an owned 'contract' of style, discovered by the collaborators, that the actors simply offer and we take-on willingly and without confusion.

Earlier in the year, we saw Mr Collins play, IMPENDING EVERYONE, commissioned for performance by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP). This new work is a considerable development in style and confidence. It is a fairly remarkable growth.

I, thoroughly recommend the production, the acting and especially the writing. Get yourself along to the Old 505, for BLAME TRAFFIC.

Violette Ayad : Lilian.
Nic English ; Zio Tony.
Emma O'Sullivan : Jaquie and Dion.
Mary Soudi : Sara.
Alex Stylianou : Gabriel and Radu.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Norman Conquests


The Ensemble Theatre presents, THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, Three Plays by Alan Ayckbourn, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 19th October - 12 January.

THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, are three plays: TABLE MANNERS, LIVING TOGETHER and ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN, by Alan Ayckbourn, written in 1973. They are famously recognised as one of many masterpieces from this author who has written some 82 plays and is still writing.

These three plays have the conceit of happening all at the same time, just in three different spaces. The first in the Dining Room. the second in the Living room, and the third in the Garden. Each play can stand independently and the entertainment hilarity is extremely rewarding. See all of them and the compound knowledge they you acquire about what is happening in the other spaces doubles and then trebles the comedy reward. They can, by-the-way, be seen in any order.

Annie (Matilda Ridgeway), is in the country home looking after an ill mother (who we never see) and on this particular weekend has arranged for her sister, Sarah (Danielle Carter) and her husband, Reg (Brian Meegan) - they have two children - to come and take over mother's care to give herself a break. Annie has planned a secret weekend tryst with her brother-in-law, Norman, a shaggy librarian (Yalin Ozucelik), who is married to her other sister, business woman, Ruth (Rachel Gordon). Annie, also, has a vague local neighbour, Tom (Sam O'Sullivan), a vet shambling around the place, who the others hope she will marry!

Nothing works out the way anything was planned. These intensely middle class no-body's, catastrophize their special knowledge of their siblings, of their marriage partners, and of the 'hopefuls', in a recognisable observation of the mundanities of the human species to an outrageously funny scale. And what is especially wonderful, is the accuracy and complexity that Mr Ayckbourn builds in the psychological portraits of each of the six participants with a piercing but empathetic eye - his eye for detail, and home truths are extremely perceptive and cozened in an ironic and wry sense of humour. Being a Chekhov fan, I recognise the forensic nature of Mr Ayckbourn's play, and like in Chekhov, recognise Mr Ayckbourn's wicked sense of the ridiculousness and his crafty sense of farce, the comedy of just being alive and surviving, at a graduating scale.

Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the plays are beautifully revealed and 'hum' along with all the confidence of a well oiled machine. The dramaturgical skill of the comic and dramatic formula of the writer's cleverness is immaculately understood. Mr Kilmurry has also selected a wonderfully accurate group of actors who have created real, vulnerable people, and who then, instinctively, have let their comic instincts stretch to the needs of the writing for it to reward the audience with six hours of blissful laughter, and an ultimate identification of compassion for these hapless, ordinary people, who, if we dare to contemplate, are much like ourselves and our extended families, extended or close.

Danielle Carter is the 'roaring' engine of this machine, and the neuroticism and self-possession of her Sarah drives and buoys the action. Ms Carter creates a wonderful energy while acknowledging the complexity of the frustrations of Sarah's predicament. At the other side of the comic energy input, Sam O'Sullivan's Tom, the vet with no real personable understanding of his own species, bumbles, round-shoulderly, through the strifes of a world he hardly grasps the logic of. The conflict of dramatic/comic tempo is hilarious.

Matilda Ridgeway, as Annie, the plain Cinderella at the centre of the weekend gives a remarkably reserved and perceptive quizzical frustration to all that happens - it is one of the best pieces of work that I have seen given by Ms Ridgeway - and the contained stamina of it all is wonderfully admirable. Rachel Gordon's Ruth, the brusque, sensible business woman, the wife of the wayward protagonist of the collective, Norman, although literally short sighted - in want of glasses - has the best sight of a truth seer and surprises us with her counter intuitive re-action, a 'wisdom' - it appears to be an effortless contribution.

Brian Meegan, as put upon, but dependable Reg, gives a performance of such subtle nuance that is both hilarious and yet so demanding of us to give empathetic care and identity, that it could almost be the best of the performances on the stage. Though, that is difficult to claim amidst the talent of this production - it will be a matter of personal taste. For, Yalin Ozucelik, as the Norman, the man of insatiable conquests, eponymous Norman, is spectacular in the precision of his comic intelligence and plastic gesture so that despite Norman's near despicable self, creates an affection from us that we might give a wagging-tailed labrador.

This company of actors will, each, reward you, undoubtedly.

What greatly assists is the Set and Costume Design of the three plays with all the attendant detail of everyday living in a long lived-in domestic house, by Hugh O'Connor, who is delightfully perceptive with just the right detail of prop and costume to be able to give the audience the imaginative spur to fill the whole space and characters with a history and familiarity. Each of these beautifully curated Designs are enhanced by the Lighting Design of Scott Allan.

THE NORMAN CONQUESTS I saw, in an all day sitting:1.00pm. 4.30pm and 8.15pm. My guest and I were as fresh with stimulated energy at the end of the night as we had naturally had when we arrived at the theatre. Now, that is nearly nine hours at the theatre. Six hours watching and laughing. Three hours recovering and reflecting about the humans we are.

What a wonderful night, or two, or three at the theatre. What a wonderful gift for the seasonable end of the year. Go see why Mr Ayckbourn is so revered. Go and enjoy a performance so lovingly and wonderfully fulfilled by this team of artists. The Ensemble at his modest clever best. Highly recommended.

A Cheery Soul



Sydney Theatre Company presents, A CHEERY SOUL, by Patrick White, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 5th November - 15 December.

A CHEERY SOUL, is an Australian play by Patrick White, written in 1963. It is a re-visit to the suburb of Sarsaparilla, first introduced to us in Mr White's 1962 play, THE SEASON AT SARSAPARILLA.

Next year is the 40th Anniversary of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), and A CHEERY SOUL was its first production in 1979, Directed by Jim Sharman, upon the invitation of John Clark and Elizabeth Butcher who were the founders/creative artists of the first season of the STC. It starred Robin Nevin as Miss Docker. Ms Nevin re-iterated that character for the STC, in 2001, under the Direction of Neil Armfield, so that this new production, Directed by Kip Williams with Sarah Pierse, as Miss Docker, is a third go-at-it for the STC audiences. Belvoir, the New Theatre have produced it as well.

Miss Docker (Sarah Pierse) is being forced out of her long time accommodation - she will be homeless. Mr and Mrs Custance (Anthony Taufa and Anita Hegh) offer a room in their house, determined to do a good deed for the woman who gives her time and advice to the community so generously. Miss Docker, this Cheery Soul, causes a kind of 'havoc' in the Custance household, and is moved on to the Sundown Home for Old People (Women), and despite - because of - her cheery presence, blithely, causes 'havoc' again. None of its inhabitants can escape her kindness. Nor can the church congregation and its pastor, Rev Wakeman (Brandon McClelland) and his wife (Nikki Shields) - in fact the Reverend dies from his effort to cope with the presence of Miss Docker in his congregation. Miss Docker finishes wandering in the cemetery, near the crematorium, being 'pissed' on by a dog - the 'dog' and 'god' referencing not neglected by the writer.

The play begins in a quasi realistic style but once Miss Docker's move to the Sundown Home begins, in the second act of the play, Mr White's play shifts gear and morphs into a kind of gathering 'surreal-gothic' of a deliberate non or anti-realist style. We move from conversations between individuals to a a combination of conversational exchange with a choral vocal mode of narrative and observation development. Design-wise the denizens of the Old People's Home are presented by Alice Babidge, as satiric exaggerations in costume and wig, (premonitions of the mother figure in Alfred Hitchcock's PYCHO in that scary house on the hill), and in this production performed by a mixture of same sex actors: Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Tara Morice, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens, Nikki Shields, and men as women 'in drag': Jay James-Moody, Bruce Spence, Anthony Taufa.

In a week where a research project has revealed one in four Australians experience an intense feeling of being alone - a great number being widowed women - so that the Victorian Government is contemplating the establishment of a Ministry of Loneliness, based on a model in practice in the United Kingdom, A CHEERY SOUL, can have a visceral resonance for some in our community.

This production of A CHEERY SOUL, by Kip Williams, brings with it the dominant form explorations that he has been pursuing in the last few years.

He has, firstly, perforce of the experience opportunities he has been 'gifted' with, honed an admirable skill in the marshalling of his actors in dynamic military-style about the stage, whilst insistingly engaging the actors with the extra responsibilities as stage managers, scene-furniture and props-shifters, to produce 'miracles' of stage transformations seamlessly and decorously. In this instance, with the added aid of the whirls of the double revolves of the Drama Theatre stage, spinning in opposite directions (not so profusely or obviously used, perhaps, since the Robin Lovejoy production of Shakespeare's RICHARD II, in the very Opening Season of the Drama Theatre in 1973). This epic stage movement skill mode began noticeably with his work on UNDER MILK WOOD, (although, those of us who saw it may remember Mr Williams' NIDA production of a single voiced Samuel Beckett play, in which he employed some 40 actors), and has been polished through his further work in LOVE AND INFORMATION, CHIMERICA, THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI and the recent six hour adaptation of Ruth Park's THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (particularly, dazzling, it was, in the first play).

After an artistic break, in his production of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, Mr Williams, secondly, returns to explore his interest in integrating, for theatrical evocation, the use of video and live camera action to highlight his dramaturgical ideas of/for the play, in combination with the live stage action. In this instance, with his Designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, and Video Designer, David Bergman.

It is all projected almost at 'Cinerama' scale across the wide back wall of the Drama Theatre stage, sometimes in pinhole cameo silent movie style portraits, or live action with a combination of colour and black and white palettes, with, seemingly, an intentional homage (or not) to the skill of the famed graphic film credit artist, Saul Bass. It is indeed often very beautiful and inventive, although the images are often visually 'blocked' to full view for the audience (it will vary as to where you are seated in the auditorium), by the concrete set pieces whirling in front, on the stage.

To achieve this Directive conceit there is a visual intrusion of cameras and camera operators in full view of the audience (though, they become, gradually, 'invisible' - and less objectionable - similar in effect to the pupeteers performing in a Japanese Bunraku performance).

This is all accompanied by a grandiose, sometimes bombastic, score from Clemence Williams, that does much to distract us from the scene change action, if not have us reminisce about recent music support in the Marvel Comic cinema repertoire.

However, the theatre technique of theatrical 'close-up', where the actor directs his experiences face and body forward for the audience to 'read' and 'endow' is distractingly interfered with by forcing the actor to turn profile, in their climatic storytelling journey, and to, instead, direct his emotional life to a camera on the side, to be projected, limitedly, usually only in facial close-up, onto the back wall, editing out the peripheral body language, that with a great actor, along with the depth of the truth communicated from the 'soul' of the actor through his/her eyes, is the epitome of their vulnerable skill, so that the 'live' performance becomes, rather, a distanced, be-headed, deadened one, at projected scale on the back wall of the space - I sometimes had images of the head of Robespierre, recalled, with his famously roving eyes goggling around in the basket, after being guillotined at the climatic time of the French revolution! The exploration of cinematic effect, by Mr Williams and his collaborators, in the live space of the theatre, grossly undermines the theatre actors' skills, and, somehow, rather than scaling up the impact, cools it to objective observation instead of visceral experiencing. The chance of audience catharsis with the actor in the moment is 'scientifically', 'technically', diminished, appropriated by the Director's camera. Mr Williams, obviously, has never experienced the joyful ambition of the actor's practice of his theatrical skills, in contrast to the different techniques, and joys, of the challenge for the cinematic 'lens'.

There seemed to be, on the night I saw the play, a lack of a variety of musical tempo to the rhythms of the text, it all, rather, played, conducted to the dictates of the 'machinery' of the production: revolves, cameras, costume changes (indeed, meeting the actors after the performance one was aware of their exhaustion, after, perhaps, a long technical preparation in the theatre. They were, vocally, relieved that there was no matinee on the following day). The actors' instincts, appeared to be intruded upon by the necessary adjustments that they had to accommodate to facilitate the production conceits, when they ought to have been in unfettered symphonic (poetic) flight inspired by Patrick White's writing.

As well, the greater part of this text is Voice driven. The company of actors engaged by Mr Williams on this production are all actors of skill, but considering the demands of Patrick White's ambitions, one wonders if the actors had been auditioned for their vocal gifts. Choral speaking in a play is infamous in its challenges and generally avoided, and here, in this production, which requires them to take up this 'gauntlet', the combined sounds made by these actors are unmusical, especially, in tonal range, and not sufficiently conducted to the 'horrendous' discipline needed to achieve clarity of just plain word delivery. It was all muffled - vocal entries mistimed, appearing to be uncertain - and merely a communicated 'gist' of images and author's intentions - little communal incisive specificity.

One wonders whether the voice qualities of the actors were considered with the Voice and Text Coach, Charmian Gradwell, in the casting decisions, and whether time was found to prepare, rehearse, the chorus of voices in their individual and choral responsibilities. The late and lamented Cicely Berry, the famous voice teacher-coach at the Royal Shakespeare Company, was tirelessly opinionated about the vocal time needed for such work to be able to be solved for contemporary audiences. It seemed time had not been sufficiently given for the actors at the STC to be able to, with a second-nature possession, deliver the skills necessary - unlike the time that seems to have been given to solve the Directorial visions of the necessary stage craft required by the Director, for it to work well. For, in my experience on the night, it was the imprecision of the choral oral communication that turned this time spent in the the theatre to one where the Cheery Soul became a Dreary Soul - one's focus was defused into the tedium of not hearing musically, or, with clarity, great swathes of the text and shifting concentration to a divided attention on distracting visuals as some way to compensate, to keep oneself entertained. It became exhausting.

One wished that Mr Williams was more concerned with content communication than to form/style communication. The time required to do both is what Ariane Mnouchkine, or Robert Wilson, or Robert Lepage have. Is TIME (which, generally means, money) the essential problem of why A CHEERY SOUL, relatively, fails, at the Drama Theatre, at present?

It was interesting to have conversation with a younger generation of artists after the performance, who had never seen the play before (or, even read it) to ask me why A CHEERY SOUL was regarded as an Australian classic. They thought it was boring, they got the point at the end of the first act, and could not comprehend the need of another two hours in the theatre, since nothing of real interest arrested their appreciation, or interested them. They earnestly suggested that there had to be better plays to be doing than A CHEERY SOUL, even in the Australian historical repetoire. They were, literally bewildered, and I wondered whether it was just a generational nostalgic reverence for Patrick White, especially by those artists that knew him personally, that provoked so many productions of this famous novelist's playwriting.

The conversation gave me pause.

Recently, I had read again THE TREE OF MAN (1955) and introduced myself to the great THE TWYBORN AFFAIR (1979) - now there is a content resonance for our contemporary times - and was left excited and enhanced from time spent with a great and perceptive artist. One's world is changed after time spent with a Patrick White novel - as difficult as they can be (my special favourites are VOSS (1957) and RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT (1961). Never was I ever seduced into that state of mind with any production of any Patrick White play - I, always, sit outside of the content to appreciate the artists trying to solve the work as theatre, and, occupy my time as to whether they have or not succeeded. One is never immersed in the stage world - or, at least I have never been. Is Patrick White a Henry James - a great novelist who has ambitions in the theatre and fails as a playwright? Harbouring an ambition outside his strengths, comprehension of form requirements, his true instincts as a creative story-teller?

Any production of A CHEERY SOUL must be driven by the performance of the Miss Docker. It is she that must hold our interest. Apparently this figure at the centre of the play had appeared in an early short story, written by Patrick White while he and his partner for life, Manoly Lascaris, were living on their 'farm' in Castle Hill. She was based on a person in their community. Patrick White was not an easy person to know, I understand. David Marr's biography: PATRICK WHITE: A LIFE (1999) tells us so, amongst much else. He appears to have had a distinct and active 'bullshit' meter and he would be, could be, merciless in his opinions and behaviours towards his 'targets'. His observation and distilled version of that woman in the persona of Miss Docker is unrelenting in its precision of skewering enthusiastic 'goodness'.

That, under the direction of Mr Williams, Sarah Pierse, creates a figure that asks for empathy, at many turns, diminishes, for me, the dynamic unconscious cruelty of a self-contented person of unquenchable belief in her 'christian' conceit of the rightness of her aired opinions and actions  believing it to be a 'goodness', a 'kindness', acts of 'truth-telling', coming from a source of love. This mollifying of the portrait of a woman who creates so much havoc in the lives of the others around her in her community (even a death) makes her too soft centred and removes the stringency of the merciless 'cruelty' of her choices. It diminishes the skewering of the type of person written and reviled by Patrick White. Miss Docker needs to be blithely carefree, careless, about what she does and says. She has no pity for others she believes are 'fragile' in their life choices and 'corrects' them ruthlessly, she has no qualms at all. And, after all, White, ultimately, has the dog/god piss on her as she roams the landscape of the crematorium, probably blowing with the ashes of the recent dead.

It is the enthralling fascination of 'villainy' that makes the Duke of Gloucester in Richard III, or Edmund, in King Lear, powerful, that gives those plays their thrilling spine. So it is with this Cheery Soul, otherwise she is diminished into a repellant bore who asks us to 'understand' her relentlessly. Miss Docker is not 'human', she is a steely zealot. She, really, does not give a 'fuck' of what you think of her for she knows she is right. She should not become a figure to whom we give sympathy but rather someone we want to avoid. Beware of those bearing gifts! Especially those who bear them with a missionary zeal of righteousness. Sarah Pierse gives a titanic performance, it just seemed to me, wrongly emphasised.

The best of the other actors are Anita Hegh, Jay James-Moody, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens.

Some of us talked about the STC as the producers of the best contemporary 'drag' shows in Sydney, what with the spectacular appearances of Jay James-Moody, Bruce Spence and Anthony Taufa in this production, and the double lip-sync by two actors as Judy Garland, and a sailor suited Barbra Streisand in this show. (Garland, Streisand, where did they come from? One wonders to what end? To cover a costume change? Or, because the Director can do what he wants? I wondered whether Patrick White would have weathered it?) Add the recent all female casting of ACCIDENTAL OF AN ANARCHIST at the STC and some of us could be considered to be right.

Ha, ha, ha.

Over it? I might be. You?

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Giving Up The Ghost


Pop Up Theatre presents, GIVING UP THE GHOST, by Rivka Hartman, in the Limelight Theatre on Oxford, Oxford St., Darlinghurst. 17th October - 3 November.

GIVING UP THE GHOST, is a new Australian play, by Rivka Hartman.

A husband (Chris Orchard) is dead and in a coffin at home. His wife (Elaine Hudson) is preparing for the mourning. Her daughter (Madeline Withington) has the option of a bright future in research at a University but is caught up in a relationship with a wealthy distractor (Andrew Wang). Neither parent are happy about this. The wife conjures the spirit of the husband and together attempt to strategise the ways and means to lose the boyfriend.

The major part of this play has the aura of a Jewish 'New Yorky' comedy but neither the writing, nor the Direction, from Rivka Hartman can find the right tension and timing to bring it to life for the audience. The play works best when the emotional 'kicker' for all this delusional affect is revealed - that the Wife, also a Doctor, has assisted her Husband to death. Euthanasia. He was suffering from terminal cancer and she, now, has a worrying sense of guilt - this dramatic edge was the best part of the night.

GIVING UP THE GHOST, is the first production in a new performance space in Sydney: LIMELIGHT on Oxford, run by Julie Baz and David Jeffrey. It is a pleasant space on the top floor of a three storey terrace in Oxford St - 58 seats. A Bar and Restaurant on the ground floor and a live music and bar space on the first floor. Next up, at LIMELIGHT, is a production of the musical COMPANY.

Whose Uterus Is It Anyway?

Photo by Jasmine Simmons

Bite Collective and the Old 505 Theatre presents, WHOSE UTERUS IS IT ANYWAY?, by Georgie Adamson, at The Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown. 30th October - 10th November.

WHOSE UTERUS IS IT ANYWAY?, is a new play by Georgie Adamson. Ms Adamson recently completed her MFA (Writing for Performance) at NIDA and this was the play she wrote whilst she was there. It is being presented as part of the inaugural FreshWorks Femme season at the Old 505 Theatre:
FreshWorks Femme is a brand-new initiative, bringing together some of Sydney's fiercest young female theatre makers exploring new ideas and how they view the world.
The Creative Team has Eve Beck, Directing; Madeline Osborn, Producing; Camille Ostrowski as Set Designer, and of course, Ms Adamson as the writer. Martin Kinnane, is the Lighting Designer and Alexander Lee-Rekers is the Sound Designer.

WHOSE UTERUS IS IT ANYWAY? is set within the frame-work of a television Game show where four contestants compete against each other for their free reproductive health treatment. There is only one winner. A young mother, Lila (Annie Stafford) with two young children and a disintegrating marriage; a single, uncommitted to any aspect of her life, by-habit, narcissist, Michelle (Chelsea Needham); Tom (Finn Murphy) a transitioning female-to-male; and a young nun, Mary (Ally Morgan), are the contestants. Clearly, the range of 'types' fits within the notorious boundaries of contemporary Reality Television, as well - wildly diverse. The host, frontman-'stooge', is Toby Blome. He regales them, in turn, with 'provocative' questioning and in each case they are taken into vicarious re-enactments from their lives to clarify how and why they are seeking the health treatment.

The advertising 'blurb' for this play tells us that it 'pokes and prods at the intricate invasions and sinister ridiculousness of reproductive health care', giving an indication that in this set-up of the Game Show/ Reality Television format, that some serious reveal and political gestures will be made about contemporary women's health issues. They also promise that: 'We'll (OOPS) get right deep down to dirty secrets and messy details'.

It is the latter tone, the OOPS, that dominates the body of the writing and the skills of the actors. Says the 'blurb': 'What happens when an IUD, and STI and an abortion walks into a bar?' A question for a jokey punch line. It is the question and the jokey punch lines - clever, though they are - and a huge weight of afternoon television melodrama, that takes up the bulk of the writing and the style of acting. It is an entertaining light-weight experience, and at 90 minutes, in need of the blue-pen of the editor.

The actors, generally, stride the satiric send-up of the undergrad humour of observation of television mediocrity and the soap-opera style of 'naturalism', with varying competencies, and, unfortunately, with, for them as artists, not much material of real bite for political intensity and challenge. The title of the play: WHOSE UTERUS IS IT ANYWAY?, is the most provocative text in the play.

Good fun is had by all. Especially, Toby Blome, who not only carries the Compere with great, sustained, cheesy élan, but also plays a huge variety of pencil-thin characters in the soap-opera re-enactments.

It is a busy show to stage technically with all of its shifts of location and styles, and Director, Eve Beck, manages it, within the limitations of the budget, fairly well, with Martin Kinnane delivering with his usual meticulousness, lighting cues to keep it all attractive and 'moving forward', aided and abetted by Alexander Lee-Rekers' Sound support.

There was not much bite from this Bite Company production. It pandered to the ridiculousness of contemporary mediocre television that dominates our viewing opportunities, and, relatively, neglected the opportunity to seriously challenge and educate its audience with the cultural ignorances of the every day real dilemma of being a woman with issues that concern their health, let alone their uterus.

Watching this play I was reminded of the Paddy Chayefsky script for the 1976 film, NETWORK, Directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Peter Finch (recently staged as a play in London), where the Game Show was used as framework for a fierce social critique. It was horrifyingly amusing and damned confronting in its philosophical musings.

WHOSE UTERUS IS IT ANYWAY? does not honestly represent "Sydney's fiercest female theatre makers exploring new ideas', the stated aim of this inaugural work for the FreshWorks Femme season. Nor, did, by-the-way, the recent STC production of ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST, give us anything too fierce to deal with. So, might I recommend Betty Grumble's, LOVE AND ANGER. Now there is FIERCE. And you can get to see it at the Griffin SBW Stables Theatre early in February next year.

The show at the Old 505 Theatre is a light weight escapade - a silly night in the theatre, easy to enjoy.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Wyrd - The Season Of The Witch


Ninefold present WYRD - The Season of the Witch, Devised by the company, Ninefold, at The Pact Theatre, Erskineville. 31st October - 3rd November.

WYRD - The Season of the Witch, is a new Australian work devised by the company Ninefold, under the Direction of Shy Magsalin, inspired by the Suzuki Method of Acting Training. It has an intense physical centre married with an intellectual approach to text. Ms Magsalin has worked and trains regularly with the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT), Japan, and through her further training at the University of Western Sydney has been exploring the form and content of MACBETH.

The ensemble's relationship with MACBETH began in 2013 with their project: MACBETH: 9 SCENES REHEARSED. This version of the project , WYRD, has been almost 2 years in the making and has been specifically assisted by an atPACT Residency. atPact is for companies exploring new ideas, new performance platforms and new forms of audience engagement.

The discipline and the dramatic power of the physical commitment of this ensemble: Erica Josephine Brennan, Aslam Abdus-samad, Paul Musumeci, Gideon Payten-Griffiths, Melissa Hume, Shane Russon, Jessica Saras, Tabitha Woo, led by Victoria Greiner, as Our Lady, is in a mesmerising state of embryonic potential. The movement techniques and expressions (dance) for the storytelling are beautifully conceived and executed, if not, yet, completely, seamlessly owned by all of the performers. But, vocally the instruments are not all equal and whatever the hard work of the vocal coach, Amanda Stephens Lee, it remains the weak link of the project development.

This story places The Lady Macbeth in a push and pull collusion with the Wyrd sisters. The textual spoken adaptation is pure Shakespeare cut-up and diced for the company's own focus and concentration - well done - to follow the arc of the human tragedy whilst, also dialling up the 'volume' of the horror.

Victoria Greiner has the focus, charisma and stylistic bravura to hold the centre of this work steadily - her vocal work and physical vocabulary is disciplined and always meaningfully possessed. Great and easy to watch. She is well supported by all, especially Ms Brennan as Wyrd One (watch her stunning physical finish). Ms Woo, too, is a physical dynamo. Mr Russon gives real gravitas and language clarity in his well focused offers.

The atmosphere of the witch craft and magic spells, the horror of the world of the play, is enhanced magnificently, by the Music soundscape of Melanie Herbert - exciting to hear and provoking in its sensitive details The Design by Victor Kalka: Set and Costumes, is stylistically simple but most effective, the Lighting by Liam O'Keefe supplying visual tension and atmosphere galore.

The black magic incantations - led by Hecate and her sisters are often edited out of the play - coming from the well lit circle of these players, had me comprehending the superstitious power that this play has emanated throughout the centuries. The infamous curse of the play of Macbeth awesomely respected by most thespians, may well, indeed, be true. That we were seeing it on Halloween Eve heightened the effect even more!

WYRD - The Season of the Witch, is a very rewarding hour in the theatre. Crammed with a dense amount of hard work - clearly, the physical training has been intense; , however, the vocal training needs the same commitment in time, focus and discipline. It is a very brief season exposure but well worth the effort to catch.

The last time I was at the Pact Theatre was to watch the SheShakespeare version of MACBETH. Last time it was a difficult couple of hours, this time Ninefold has a work inspired by the MACBETH play that merits your attention and appreciation. It is on the cusp of 'greatness'. I recommend it.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Two Hearts

Photo by Clare Hawley

The Anchor, in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co. presents, TWO HEARTS, by Laura Lethlean, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), in the Kings Cross Hotel. 19th October - 3 November.

TWO HEARTS, is a new Australian play. Three recent Drama School graduates, Katie Cawthorne, Jessica Arthur and Laura Lethlean have formed The Anchor company to produce theatre work.

Over the past year they have developed this 60-minute play, TWO HEARTS. It comes from the conversations of the experiences of past personal relationships and their perception of how important the small details of their relationships became.

Somewhere in a terrace house in Darlington: Girl (Eliza Scott) meets Boy (Damon Manns). Girl and Boy slowly approach a relationship. Girl and Boy have an intense relationship. Girl and Boy dissipate that relationship. Girl and Boy end that relationship. Girl makes a terminal decision. Boy accepts it. The end. This is not an unfamiliar genre in dramatic storytelling literature. It is, then, relatively, a 'boring' plot conceit. Although there is a strange figure (Phoebe Grainer) that 'haunts' the scene that doesn't quite crystallise either in the writing, direction, or performance as to have us understand her existence (function), which may have made TWO HEARTS a less predictable story experience.

The strength of the night is the writing detail from scene to scene from Ms Lethlean - its preoccupations are indeed off-centre, quirky and refreshing, otherwise, it could have been a difficult and long hour in the theatre.

The performances, elicited by Director, Ms Arthur, are adequate for the purpose but lack much depth of personal revelation interrogation from these actors that may have given this relationship story more resonance - the performances are sincere and in the case of Mr Manns, charming, but essentially are soap opera in their conceptual detail in expression.

The Design, by Maya Keys is a simple raised rectangle covered with sea grass matting with the shadow of a fan - that may have had symbolic intentions as it slowed to a stop as the story unwound to its end. The Lighting is, by Martin Kinnane. The Sound Composition and Design, by Jess Dunn.

Degenerate Art

Photo by John Marmaras

Red Line Productions and Old Fitz present, DEGENERATE ART, by Toby Schmitz, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo. 18th October - 4th November.

DEGENERATE ART, is a new Australian play, by Toby Schmitz.

DEGENERATE ART, is a 100 minute play without interval. An interlocutor, played by Megan O'Connell, introduces us to a group of men, dressed in variations of contemporary schmick black, who have been brooding about the stage as we entered, occupying a Set Design, by Maya Keys, of a wall smear of, mostly, green and black paints (one part of it hung like a picture, free air, in a gallery) with two contemporary small screens on the side walls, that during the proceedings will display AV images of art and location that will elucidate some of what is going-on (AV Design, by Aron Murray), the whole lit moodily and dramatically by Alexander Berlage. There is, as well, a subtle Soundscape from the indefatigable (and super-sensitive, intuitive) Ben Pierpoint.

These men turn out to be Adolf Hitler (Henry Nixon),and most of his principal and influential henchmen: Heinrich Himmler (Guy Edmonds), Joseph Goebbels (Toby Schmitz), Herman Goering (Giles Gartrell-Mills), Reinhard Heydrich (Rupert Reid) and Albert Speer (Septimus Caton), and what we experience is the journey of the rise of Nazism in the Fascist atmosphere of Germany from approximately, 1933- 1945.

A year, or so, ago, I read BLITZED, by Norman Ohler (2015), who wrote of the rise and dominance of the Nazi regime by its leaders and manipulation of its population, through the lens of Drugs and the habit of usage. Giving another entry point to recalibrate the reason for such a time in our species' dark history. Fascinating. (but then, of course THE ROMANOVS, 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016), gave similar allusions to the last days of the Romanovs, in their seats of power!)

Mr Schmitz's play is told through the lens of the importance of Art (plastic, film, music) to the regime - stemming, perhaps, from the personal fact that Adolf Hitler was twice rejected as a student to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts ( he couldn't draw heads, we are told.). It is the story of the so-called Degenerate Art movement, the looting and hoarding of great art objects, and features the making of a film called TITANIC, and the dreams of Hitler/Speer in creating a great architectural wonder city. Fascinating, too.

This is Mr Schmitz's second play using the background of the Nazi regime. CAPTURE THE FLAG, being the other. Why? Says Mr Schmitz in an essay DEGENERATE ART: DARING TO LOOK (available on the Audrey Journal site):

Putting minorities in detention camps is the norm again. As is the careless employment of incendiary language straight out of the Nazi Handbook. Racism has returned to the lives of many, from Moscow to Calais, Washington to Canberra, from London to Melbourne. Nazism didn't end in tragedy, it created tragedy. And when Politics fails to curtail it, as it has and will again, the Art must be employed to expose it. Urgently.

DEGENERATE ART, brings these criminal men to the stage whom we already know, vaguely, from our history reading (and, perhaps, SBS Television - sometimes known the 'Hitler Channel'). Through Mr Schmitz's invented character: the Interlocutor, they are shown to be not only ruthless in gaining and maintaining power but also obsessed, maybe, fragile individuals distracted, preoccupied by Art. Again, Mr Schmitz:
For decades after the War serious historians refrained from trying to understand who Hitler was in any depth. He was an anomaly, a nobody in the right place, perhaps insane, and Academia prioritised turning to How it happened. ... Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, forged the bracing revelation, reeking of truth, that monsters are very rare. Its the normal people we must watch out for. ... Not only is it important to see these people as humans, but it is our long-overdue obligation. It's easier to write them off as 'not us'....
Hitler can be seen as a man without real character, rather a black hole at the centre of Nazism - an angry jealous artist - rejected and vengeful.

To this end it was through reading Gitney Sereney's 1995 tome ALBERT SPEER - HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH, and the literary fiction of Jonathan Littell's THE KINDLY ONES (LES BIENVEILLANTES, translated into English in 2009) of the auto-biographhy of 'Maximilien Aue', an officer in the Nazi army, that I began to realise the human scale and horror of ordinary men's capabilities in the pursuit of passionately believed 'ideals'.

Does this happen with Mr Schmitz's play and production and performance at the Old Fitz?

The play is written in sculpted English in mainly verse form and is, possibly, beautiful. Certainly, the vocabulary and the control of the word order of that vocabulary is dazzling. The content is stuffed-full of references, political and artistic, from, it appears, an highly educated mind. So rich is that mind and its literary pursuit as a playwright that it may exclude many of the listeners from an easy penetration to comprehensibility. This play has the intellectual sophistication of Tom Stoppard at his brilliant best but lacks the character or plot development, that Mr Stoppard has, mostly, employed to speak of his pre-occupations to make it an entertainment as well as an enlightenment in the theatre. (Does Mr Schmitz intend an animated lecture formula?)

This textual combat, further, was not aided by the super energy of a co-hort of wonderfully erudite actors with vocal skills of an awe inspiring standard that produced (from 6 male actors) an alpha-male torrent of relentlessly hurled sound that buffeted us in our seats with its forcefulness. I found myself wrestling with the sound waves and grasping and gasping for sense, so as not to succumb to being drowned by it all - clutching for 'straws' of comprehensibility - one became bedazzled, discombobulated, exhausted. At the interval-less end of the production I felt that I had been run over by a large semi-trailer truck. "Clang", "clang", the searing warning siren of the horn, and all those huge wheels - "Whoosh!" hurtling towards me, squashing me. My guest was similarly tyre-dazed. We held our hands to get out, we were more than a little unbalanced.

DEGENERATE ART, is a remarkable offer in the 'landscape' of our bland Australian theatre world.

It is for the brave. It is for the interested and curious of the Nazi raison d'être.

It is not for the casual theatre goer. It is not for the theatre goer looking for a light distraction.

Do not drink in the bar before you go in, and, depend, you will need the bar after you come out.

I long to read it.

I long to see these remarkable actors invested with so much committed passion in their next work of art.

DEGENERATE ART, is, possibly, an amazing text, and we are excited by the quality of the discipline of these artists with their honed skills (rare to have such a collection of actors together on the one stage, at the same time.)

On reflection, maybe, just maybe, The Old Fitz Theatre is just too small a space to take the scale of the performance art that this play demands. Then, again, DEGENERATE ART is not a 'commercial work' that any of our subsidised companies, in Sydney, would (could) possibly consider to exhibit. So, thank goodness for Red Line and the Old Fitz, for their artistic curation, otherwise we'd never have got the choice to witness the latest Toby Schmitz labour of love: Writer, Director and, belatedly, actor. It is dense and definitely overwhelmingly intense.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam

Photo by Noni Carroll
The National Theatre of Parramatta, presents, JESUS WANT ME FOR A SUNBEAM, adapted from a novella by Peter Goldsworthy, by Steve Rodgers, at the Riversides Theatres, Parramatta. 18th - 27th October.

JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, is a new Australian play from Stevie Rodgers, adapted from a 1993 novella, by Peter Goldsworthy. It appeared, first, in a collection of stories, LITTLE DEATHS.

Linda (Emma Jackson) meets Rick (Justin Smith) while at university. They fall into an intense (obsessive) love and marry quickly, while still at uni. They study - it seems literature is at the centre of it, they read some Steinbeck for us) - they find a 'house', they have jobs and then they have a child, Ben (Liam Nunan). Linda becomes obsessively in love with her son, and concerns herself with the difficulty, problem, as to whether she has the capacity to love another child. She does, however, have another one. A girl, Emma, affectionately known as 'Wol' - as in owl, as in, I suppose, a wise owl. Mum has her bond with Ben. Dad has his bond with 'Wol' - Mum, dad, son and daughter, a perfect family unit says their priest (Mark Lee). These parents in a diligent if not a more than overprotective way, go so far as to throw out the television so that the children won't be 'polluted' by real life influences. Linda becomes particularly upset at a television report of a family murder and suicide. They, instead, read books, have family picnics, play games, and go to church - an idyllic family unit in a self-protective cocoon.

Unfortunately, 'Wol' contracts leukaemia, as a young child, - a cancer. Why, asks Linda, does God allow so much suffering? What have I, we, done wrong? Trauma blindsides this family - hubris catches the family out! In her bewildered shock, quandary, she blames God, even her own dad, Grandpa (Mark Lee), who still smokes and could have polluted the child. Doctor Eve (Valerie Bader) guides the family and the child through a long bout of treatments. The ups and downs of recovery and recidivism take the family on a spiral of emotional grief. It tests and stretches their love bonds. Ben, at one stage overhears his parents discussing a family euthanasia scheme. The ultimate plan that they come to is for Rick to inject his daughter with an overdose, and then himself, so that they can both meet Jesus together.

One of the last scenes of the play is to watch mum hugging daughter on one side of the bed, and Ben holding dad on the other side, while dad lethally injects his daughter and then himself.

Adapter, Steve Rodgers, in his program notes says:
JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM is about love and grief. Like all great stories, it revels in the grey areas of acceptability - what is too much love and how do we recover from an idyllic family love when its cruelly and fatally interrupted?"
The Director, Darren Yap, who commissioned the play, says:
     
         SUNBEAM asks us - if there is a God, why would he allow so much suffering? And the bigger    question for me - to what lengths would a parent go to protect their child?


Apparently, in this play (and novella), one could go to the lengths of murder and suicide, with surviving family being complicit witnesses - which is a crime, and has secular punishments as a consequence, besides the psychological trauma of the survivors, particularly, for the young Ben - all motivated by an obsessive (unhealthy) selfish love, and all in the faith and hope, in a religious myth of an after-life, reduced to a vision of Jesus waiting to greet Dad and Daughter in the heavens, whilst otherwise ignoring all rational evidence that death is an inevitable norm - with all consciousness evaporating - and the teachings of Christianity that murder and suicide is a Mortal Sin and only Hell and Satan would be greeting you. Apparently, we can ignore the evidential proofs that death is simply the destiny of all living species, and that its timing of conclusion being the variable for each individual.

The play has little to no debate on the struggle between faith and reality. There is no steady eye on the dilemma of the surviving family - what of Ben's mental health, or the effect on the Grandparents, for instance? Little discourse on the ethics of it all. It is, rather, a step-by-step showing of the decline of heroic 'Wol' and the anguished family in their hot-house cocoon of 'love', and who come to a devastating set of decisions.

There is much sentiment and for some of the audience it was a 'weepy' experience. For me, I was in a state of shock. Later, I found myself in a state of bewildered, subdued, anger. Did one need to be a parent of children to appreciate this play? A parent of a particular kind? What does this play truly say? Did it debate any of the immoral acts we witness - murder, suicide? Debate any of the beliefs of the participants? Is their love a healthy love?

All the actors give good performances. The Design elements: The Lighting by Verity Hampson and the Set and Costume Design by Emma Vine are striking (although that towering centre bookcase, stuffed with books, in the centre of this household, climbing to the 'heavens', surely must have been full of a wisdom that should have tempered, informed, the behaviours of Rick and Linda, if they had read any of them - its presence became an irony of educated ignorance for me, probably not the Designer's intention). The Composition by Max Lambert and Sean Peter, teetered on the edge of sentimentality and Mr Yap's Direction was fairly standard in its staging choices.

Peter Goldsworthy was once a Doctor. The novella sits in the genres of Domestic FICTION and Christian FICTION, according to my research.

JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, is surely an aphorism of some Sentimental FICTION?

N.B. Just my usual observation that the writer of the source of this play/work has no Bio-graphical notes in the program. Why are the writers ignored? (Shrug shoulders.)