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.)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Ear To The Edge Of Time


Sport For Jove and Seymour Centre present, EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME, by Alana Valentine, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 13 - 27th October.

EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME, by Alana Valentine, won in 2012, The 5th International Stage Award - a competition for the best play in the world about Science or Technology. This is its premiere in Sydney (perhaps, the world?).

Professor Geraldine Kell-Cantrell (Belinda Giblin), an internationally famous scientist has commissioned an anthology of poetry that has science as its subject of pre-occupation. Daniel Singer (Tim Walter), a poet, has been given a PhD-student, Martina Addeley (Gabrielle Scawthorn), working at an outback radio telescope site under the supervision of Steven Sarvas (Christopher Stollery), to have, as a subject matter. An aggressive and impatient poet and an aggressively defensive scientist do not begin well at their initial meeting - each suspicious of the other's life time investment. Further meetings tentatively soothe the relationship and when Martina has made a scientific discovery Daniel is in on it and accidentally passes the information onto Steven, who follows through with developing data proof that substantiates the find without informing Martina. Martina feels betrayed and must accept the shared success of the discovery with Steven and 'The Team.' Besides which, later, she hates the poem that Daniel has written and feels it represents untruths - she does not wish for it to be published.

This bare bone remembrance of what happens in the play does not tell of the erudite presentation and debate of a whole panoply of ideas: The practice of art, the practice of science, of the practice of ethics around these two different fields, of the role of gender in the practice, of the personal and institutional politics involved in continuing the practice. Is scientific research bigger than the pursuit of Ego. Bigger than Gender Equality? Is the work more important than the workers? The discovery more important than the discoverers?

There is robust conversation in this play without interval. There are great linguistic complications concerning astrophysics (pulsars; double pulsars etc) which have not have been 'dumbed down', which in the minds and mouths of these actors make it perfectly comprehensible for us in the moment of hearing it in the theatre (Don't ask me, now, to explain it!). There is, also,interrogation of the differing precisions of the poet and the scientist. There is intrigue about institutional political strategies of some sophistication revealed. It is, then, a feisty play and nothing is absolutely black or white and no-one is either sinner or saint - but, all, are passionate and driven, and definitely right from their own perspective!

The poet is our interlocutor, he begins the play and directly engages us throughout. Mr Walter, is sometimes a trifle over enunciated and terse and makes some 'purple' acting choices to deal with some of his more 'purple' dialogue as a self-righteous poet, who feels, as the 'plot' unwinds, he has a missionary responsibility for the finding of truth and then righting it, and, instead, becomes an unctuous zealot coping, uncomfortably, with constipated poetic ambitions. Mr Stollery's Head Scientist is a charming avuncular that has us trusting him implicitly and so creates a figure of bewildering objective ambiguity - sweet, honest man or villain? His other two little cameos as the uber driver and the book seller, are object lessons of economy and style - most amusing.

Ms Scawthorn carries the scientific conversation and the beating pulse of a motivated female student scientist in an awful but, apparently, normal quandary, with a striking balance of intelligence and emotion, both employed to harness the passions for everything she has to chart as Martina. Her best work, and where the sparks of real drama really combust - fly - are in her engagements with Ms Giblin, as an older female scientist of similar acumen and flair for her chosen field. The cool wisdom and fiery drive of her Professor  Geraldine Kell-Cantrell is balanced thrillingly with the metamorphosing young scientist. It is in the restraint of what we can all read in the bodies of these two actors that gives the performance real grip, clarity and crisp freshness. (Aren't these two actors great? I love their cool intelligent passions.)

The Director, Nadia Tass, has taken this wonderful writing by Alana Valentine, and given it the respect to hurl it at speed at us. There is no pandering. She has no doubt that the words on the page, embodied, ingested and spoken by terrific actors, will be enough. There is much verbal detail at speed. Go alert.

Shaun Gurton has designed part of the 'dish' of the telescope, high above the stage, and has projected upon it actual visions of the universe and images of scientific data that reflect a tranquil but mysterious beauty. There is no other clutter on the stage to distract us from the language, ideas, politics and humanity at the core of Ms Valentine's very stimulating play. The Lighting Design, by David Parker, serves the simple changes of locations. Dan Nixon has created a Music and Sound Design of similar aural impact - serving to support, illuminate.

The text, with all of Ms Tass' decisions, is primary. Hoorah!

AN EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME, is a very arresting work that is full of much reward. I recommend.

An important Australian work.

N.B. The panel that chose this play by Ms Valentine as a WINNER were: Tony Kushner, David Lindsay-Abaire and Donald Marguiles (no slouches in the field of playwrights), and Nobel Laureates Robert C. Richardson, Frank Wilczek and David J. Wineland. (All men!)

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 are 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 - 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.

Interesting.

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 an easy 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.