Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Underpants

Photo by David Hooley
Sugary Plum Productions and Seymour Centre presents, THE UNDERPANTS, by Steve Martin, adapted from DIE HOSE, by Carl Sternheim, in the Reginald Theatre,Seymour Centre, Chippendale,.

Carl Sternheim was a German Playwright and Short Story writer. Play, DIE HOSE, was written by this German writer, in 1910, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm was an infamously unstable (neurotic? paranoid?) leader of a world power who became what some people regarded as "Prussianized'. He became immersed in the romance of the 'look' of the military uniform which leant him to the conception and instrumentation of a highly militarised country with a civil government of rules and regulation that made way for an ultra socially conservative way-of-living for his populace. It was he who built a war machine, competing with his British cousin's, Edward VII's, navy that encouraged him to war in 1914, that became the cause, perhaps, for the continuing carnage of the mid-twentieth century that was to follow in consequence of the 1914 - 1918 catastrophe.

Sternheim's play was a cheeky satirising of the moral sensibilities of the emerging German middle class: its petty snobbery and insidious growth of anti-semitism - a sly (dangerous?) act of iconoclasm from a German citizen.

Steve Martin, the American actor, comedian, writer and musician, following his success as a screenplay author, which includes, ROXANNE (1987), L.A. Story (1991), and several plays including the hilarious PICASSO OF THE LAPIN AGILE (1993) that featured Einstein and Picasso in debate with a time-traveller blue-suede-shoed musician (Elvis, is it?), wrote in 2002 an adaptation of DIE HOSE, we know as THE UNDERPANTS.

Unlike the original cultural satire that Sternheim wrote, Mr Martin's adaptation of THE UNDERPANTS seems to be preoccupied with creating a light-weight sexual farce full of puns and double-entendre and precisely calibrated comic entrances and exits with little serious concern of comment on the social mores of his society's political developments (Context, of course, being the 2002 era). This production THE UNDERPANTS, by Anthony Gooley (I have seen other productions) seems, as well, to have taken on the new cultural development created by the #MeToo movement (context, of course, being 2008 - some 6 years after the debut of the original production of THE UNDERPANTS), and attempts to create a more nuanced dilemma for the heroine at the centre of the story, Louise Maske, played by Gabrielle Scawthorne. I don't believe that that works and believe it rather intrudes on the farcical flow of the comic concept of Mr Martin's play.

Whilst in a nearby park attending a military parade that actually features the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Louise Maske's enthusiasm for Royalty caused her underpants to fall from under her skirts to her ankles. She quickly recovers the 'pantaloons' hoping that no-one has noticed. Unfortunately, her husband,Theo Maske (Duncan Fellows), a deeply conservative public servant, has witnessed it and is aghast that it may be an impediment to his advancement in the civil service. His temper with his wife is deeply wounding in its misogynistic tenor - the accepted tenor of the times.

But to make matters worse, the Maske's have been unsuccessfully attempting to rent a spare room in their apartment, but after the recent incident in the park, they have applications from two men, a foreign, romantic poet, Frank Versati (Ben Gerrard), and a local accountant, Benjamin Cohen (Robin Goldsworthy). Later, two other men enter the scene, an elder gentleman, Klinglehoff (Tony Taylor) and, believe it or not, The Kaiser himself! (Ben Gerard). It turns out that they all have seen the underpants around Louise's ankles and have been 'moved'. Mein gott im himmel!

The success of this evening in the theatre are essentially, the performances. The actor with the most consistent and best grasp of the style is Beth Daly, playing Gertrude Deliter, a neighbour and sexual conspirator in leading the innocent but unconsummated wife, Louise, into the libidinous opportunity that these men present. Ms Daly has the vocal rhythms and physical discipline to deliver everything that is required for pulling off the difficult demands of the farceur, with faultless accuracy. Mr Gerrard as the poet, as well, creates a character of seeming insouciant care as Versati (although, his impersonation in the later cameo as the Kaiser, tempts him back to his too oft tendency to play it for 'camp'. (See my blog of AMERICAN PSYCHO). Robin Goldsworthy manages his masked Jew in a hostile world with a delicate balance that also permits the comic element of Benjamin Cohen to glow. It is a pleasure to watch Tony Taylor at work, although his role requires only a brief appearance. Duncan Fellows carrying the leading role as pompous Theo Maske lacks the consistency of form to have us fully engage with his offers.

In the central role of Louise, Ms Scawthorn, who is usually so secure with her choices in creating character, sometimes in this work appears bewildered as to how to marry the exaggerated demands of the comic lens that is farce and the nuanced naturalism, the more tempered expression required for a woman in a crisis of loyalty, guilt and need, to be revealed. The 'gear changes' to do this are apparent and seems to interrupt the advancing accumulative speed of the farce and so, prevents the climax of the comedy to be fully exploded.

The other admirable elements in this production are the work of Choreographer, Cameron Mitchell, with some interpolated features of dance wittily and confidently carried through, as well as a slow-motion fight hilariously sustained by Mr Goldsworthy and Gerrard, under the direction of Fight Co-ordinator, Scott Witt.

The design is mostly functional that appears to be under constraints of Budget by Anna Gardiner to create details of location and is brightly lit by Benjamin Brockman, with an accurate and witty selection of Sound Design by Ben Pierpoint.

The play finishes after about 90 minutes. One concludes that the parts are worth seeing but they do not up to much of a whole. Full enjoyment, then, is thwarted and one feels a little unsure of what was the point of it all. Certainly, it seems to have no satire of any of the social sensibilities of our world in 2019, as the original play aimed for under the wit of Carl Sternheim. As some one we know might say: "Sad. Sad."

Friday, November 1, 2019

Baby Doll

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, BABY DOLL, by Tennessee Williams, Adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 18th October - 16th November.

BABY DOLL, began its life as a film in 1956, written by Tennessee Williams. It was Directed by Elia Kazan as 'a black comedy'. It was shaped from two one act stage plays by Williams: 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON (1945) and THE LONG STAY CUT SHORT or THE UNSATISFACTORY SUPPER (1946). Tennessee Williams adapted the screenplay as a play, himself, under the title TIGER TALE in the 1970's, but this work at the Ensemble Theatre has been made by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann - long time collaborators at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

The film was nominated for 5 Golden Globes, 4 Academy Awards and 4 BAFTAS. From my teenage memory (in the 60's) the lasting, arresting impression of the film is the sensuality, sexuality of life below the Mason Dixon Line in the American state of Mississippi in the emerging but passionately resisting steamy culture of the 1950's. One tastes this flavour again in the adaptation of most other Tennessee Williams' plays for film - the raw sexual tension between a man and a woman - A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), and later in other's films such as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988). The sexual undertow of a peculiar world sparking into inevitable violence and tragedy.

BABY DOLL recounts the story of Archie Lee Meighan (Jamie Oxenbould), an ageing owner of a similarly ageing cotton gin (mill), who has struck a bargain with a dying father that he could marry his daughter,'Baby Doll' (Kate Cheel), if he promised not to consummate their marriage until she reached the age of 20. Almost twice her age Archie has been stretched in the honouring of that promise, particularly as 'Baby Doll' is both ambiguously defensive and enticing, Lolita-like - often employing deliberate flirtation in their 'heated' relationship which has become 'hotter' of late as the 20th birthday is only days away.

Besides the heat of this sexual tension, Archie's business is under threat from an up-to-date corporate-owned cotton mill nearby. He simply solves this problem by striking out, in the cloak of night, with an act of arson destroying his rival. The manager of the burnt out mill, a young stud of a man, Silva Vaccaro (Socratis Otto) turns up at Archie's mill, next day with 27 wagons full of cotton that he needs milling, urgently. Archie may have won out with his business interests. But, on the other hand, inevitably, Silva and 'Baby Doll' scent each other out and Archie's other world erupts into high tension - the core of the action of the play, on the stage.

The film was attacked by the moral right of the period with, particularly, the Catholic church regarding the film as "greviously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency" and had the film "Condemned". Some respected critics also joined tho protest declaring the film 'as a lurid tale of a virgin child bride, her sexually frustrated husband, and her smarmy lover." TIME magazine called it "possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited". This production at the Ensemble Theatre will have no such moral protest to deal with - it is bombastically, intellectually too tame.

Director of this production, Shaun Rennie, says in the program notes:
Re-examining BABY DOLL through a contemporary theatrical lens has allowed us to explore the continually evolving and shifting beliefs regarding a woman's right to autonomy and control over her sexuality. Together we've interrogated the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding Affirmative Consent, the many roles women are forced to 'perform' in order to manoeuvre their way through an unbalanced system where the male gaze is omnipresent, and to question the permanence and depth of exciting social changes that have been made slowly and progressively towards righting that imbalance.
That does seem to be an exciting proposition for the artistic collaborators of this production to have had during their rehearsal period, but to be honest, at our entry point, as an audience to the result of such cogitation, it does not seem to have affected, influenced, much, the storytelling in this production of this 63 year old provocation embedded in the mores of its period. Except as a possible encouragement for, as Mr Rennie suggests, a personal 'further interrogation' of the community values of our contemporary sexual politics. The play as written is for its time, the social and political atmosphere of the 1950'-'60's' at the centre of its interest, and to attempt to gainsay it into the contemporary debates about the agency of female sexuality etc, without a dramatic re-writing adjustment seems to be a far-fetched aspiration. The context is of great importance.

The film interpretation is a highly emotionally charged experience that resonates the skill of its actors: Carol Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, Directed by Elia Kazan, and all four of these artists are steeped in the "Method" technique devised by Lee Strasberg that had such a profound affect on the major performing artists of this cinematic and theatrical period - a created reality of heightened intensity that was based on a known truth played, usually, in a heightened state of expression. It always and still does create a physical, visceral response to the sensitive in the theatre or cinema - it is of a genre style of deliberate sexual disturbance.

This technique of 'playing' was served, in part, by the demands of the writers of the period of which Tennessee Williams was a strong advocate (it is, also, present in the works of playwrights William Inge, Arthur Miller).

As the writer Anton Chekov, served the 'revolutionary' style of acting that was the evolving technique of naturalism led by Constantin Stanislavsky who collaborated with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, his co-Artistic director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, that changed the style of approach to acting at the turn of the twentieth century, Tennessee Williams was the principal inspiration for the "Method' approach. BABY DOLL serves violently the Strasberg 'Method' of the mid-twentieth century which was an exploration and exaggeration of the traditions of his forebears, it situated at the core-heart of the Williams' plays and screenplays. It is what gave these texts the vivacity and conviction that was the underlining support for the period's work as a shock of the new.

It was this artistic element that, for me, thwarted my marrying with this Ensemble production, as this company of actors were not engaged intimately with the Method and failed to serve the thrust of the energy of the Tennessee Williams writing style.

The performance style of this company was signalled by the overwrought and over loud Sound Composition (Nate Edmondson) as an overture to the beginning of the play which seemed to encourage a 'bellowing' noise pattern of the text, from all the actors, particularly, from Mr Oxenbould, that seemed to preclude any real communication to the other actors for cause to affect the development of each character's argument of objective. Each actor/character seemed to be locked into a self-contained bubble of intellectualisation - a style that was more analytical - than of an expression of a primary subjective emotional source of energy.

(The loud sound volume of this production both electronic and human reminded me of a recent interview with the Musical Theatre star, Patti Lupone, who gave an evaluation of the contemporary Broadway Musical - 'they hurt my ears' was her reply, and that the electronic sound manipulation prevented any real ability for the audience and singer/actor to achieve any real nuance of private intimacy exchange for the character development and narrative journey).

The sensual sexuality and ambiguous preening of the Baby Doll character so powerfully evident in the film, and definitely the cause of much of the political scandal that erupted about this work as film, was absent in the work of Ms Cheel - besides the fact she did not appear to be the self-described 19 year old teenager struggling with the power of her growing sexual radiance, but rather presenting a much older woman reasoning her evaluation of how best to 'win' in the situation she has found herself placed in by Archie, her much older husband, and the arrival of the young stud called Silva. Without that vividness of the burgeoning sexuality of this "virgin child bride" the play has hardly a solid lubrication to deliver what Tennessee Williams has written for provocation in 1956. The intellectual cogitations about this work in 2019 are not part of the Williams' interest.

This production of BABY DOLL was a huge disappointment. The best of the work was given by Maggie Dence as the disappointed-with-life old lady of the house, Aunt Rose Comfort, who mostly, appears to ignore what is going on about her.

The Set Design by Anna Tregloan has been prescribed as a whole contribution to the atmosphere of the Mississippi milieu as it shares a repertory need with another play that uses the same space in a scheduled pattern of performances. Verity Hampson with her Lighting Design does as well as she can to support an atmosphere to create the theatre vision of a steamy sweaty environment that goes beyond naturalistism as best she can.

This is a one act play that in its content provocation may be better served by viewing the film.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Little Trojan in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre presents, ROSALINE, by Joanna Erskine, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) 11th - 26th October.

In Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET, Romeo, a son of the Montague's has been wandering in the woods alone, "[w]ith tears, augmenting the fresh morning's dew/ Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs." All, he thinks, for his love of Rosaline. Later, that evening he breaks into a party held at her cousin's Juliet's home to be close to his Rosaline - both women, daughters of the enemy family of Verona, the Capulets. On seeing Juliet, Romeo, instantly, falls in love with her and the prescient admonition - chiding - that Romeo's priestly mentor, Friar Laurence has given him "for DOTING, not for LOVING" Rosaline rings, fatefully, true. ("Dote" means to be infatuated or foolishly in love, or in love with the idea of love - it comes from the same root as the word meaning "to take a nap".) Romeo's 'love' has been an artificial one - he has been in a stupor, a dotage of adolescent indulgence. Rosaline is forgotten, post-haste, and Juliet becomes all.

In Shakespeare's play we never learn much about Rosaline. She is glimpsed, once, at the Capulet ball, but she is not a dramatic character in the play: she has no lines. What we know of her is Romeo's and his 'mates' projection. Part of Romeo's frustration (attraction?) with Rosaline maybe that she has "sworn that she will still live chaste", that she will die a virgin and without progeny - a challenge that any red-blooded Italian machismo might take up! (Juliet, then, on sight, seems to be an altogether different proposition/challenge.)

ROSALINE, is a new Australian play by Joanna Erskine. Since 2007 Ms Erskine has ruminated on how she can give a voice to the woman scorned in one of the world's great romantic tragedies. To tell Rosaline's story. For, Ms Erskine refused 'to believe that Rosaline simply disappeared'. The play, ROSALINE is, of course, Ms Erskine's contemporary projection of a possible alternative drama for Rosaline (Aanisa Vylet), involving Romeo (Alex Beauman), his friend Peter (Jeremy Campese) and a Friar (David Lynch).

The Rosaline, of this play, is furiously possessed - obsessed - in lust with her Romeo. She will have him and, she determines, y no-one else shall. This belief passion leads her to actions and extreme behaviours. Ms Erskine's play tells a story that is as predictable in its tragic trajectory as the original Shakespeare does when trumpeting his story in the opening sonnet-Prologue of ROMEO AND JULIET.

Directed, by Sophie Kelly, on a dour Set design (Set and Costume Design by Lucy McCullough) - a raised grey rectangle, encasing a pit, where most of the action takes place - the actors, in a collection of multiple scenes tell the story of Rosaline and her pursuit of her Romeo.

The difficulty, for me, was the acting style from all the actors of an almost unabated earnestness. The actors seemed to sit above the text and played the 'idea' of the characters and the dramaturgical intention of the narrative. There was, for me, an artificiality of sound and gesture, not, observerdly, sprung from any organic truths of personalised experience. I had an impression of actors with a clear romance with the missionary zeal of the play and Ms Erskine's 12 year yearning. Truth, evidence of a real lived experience (personalisation), owned vocal characterisations, were strangely rare in the 75 minute production of the play. The actors seemed to be talking at each other not to each other, no-one seemed to be affected by what they heard or saw - they were performing in a bubble. I could not believe the plight of anyone in the play. I was guided to the idea of the play rather than to experience any authentic 'happening' in the tragedy of this Rosaline.

Ms Vylet, who plays Rosaline, I remember essaying a passion not much different in energy and 'nakedness' in a production of THE GIRL THE WOMAN out at Riverside, Parramatta last year - her characters, in both instances, driven by a sexual need that, too, led to disaster. This possession of Rosaline, by Ms Vylet, did seem extremely familiar. (Oddly, I felt, there is no other female character in the play - one wondered if Juliet ought to have appeared, even as Rosaline does in ROMEO AND JULIET, a silent presence?)

In the time of my uninvolvement during the performance "Does it always need to be the case - that tragedy is the conclusion to a woman who pursues her free life choices? I have just finished Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, CITY OF GIRLS (2019), whose intention, partly, was/is to tell the story of a young nineteen year old woman - Vivian Morris - finding herself in the world of New York in the 1940's and decades after. A story of empowerment that includes wild choice that leads to consequences that are both near tragic but also, satisfyingly, concludes as a celebration of her freedom of choice in her complicated life.

ROSALINE, is the fruition of a 'passion' of writer, Joanna Erskine. Last year I was truly moved by Ms Erskine's play AIR and could recommend it unreservedly. This production of this new play I am less enthusiastic about. It plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until the 26th October.

As You Like It.

That play has a Rosalind - one of the great Shakespearen creations. His other Rosaline is one of the 'teases' to the gang of men led by Berowne in the comedy, LOVE LABOUR'S LOST.


Belvoir as part of the 25A program presents SLAUGHTERHOUSE, by Anchuli Felicia King, Downstairs Theatre Belvoir. 16th October - 2nd November.

Writer, Anchuli Felicia King, and Director, Bonita de Wit, two young Australians, both found themselves studying in the Performance Arts Program at Columbia University in New York (not that they hadn't tried to find a place in Australian schools to do just that - their resourcefulness in finding the alternative way to training seems to have forged some strong 'gifts', despite, I imagine, the great expense). Their respective American friends at school made sure they became acquainted and diffidently, at first, i've been told, they did. Great! One result is SLAUGHTERHOUSE, a new play by Ms King which is being Directed by Ms de Wit, in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir as part of the 25A Program. The 25A Program is an opportunity for five young collectives of artists to emerge in a Production presentation supported by the Main House that is the Belvoir Company.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE, is a play about an 'ethical eating start-up' encouraging the world to be aware of the source of their food with an abattoir being at a frightening centre (having, the night before, been shocked by the 7.30 Report exposure of the latest racing scandal and the maltreatment of thoroughbred horses, it was an unpleasant and piquant confrontation) What could, therefore, be more 'trendy' and 'honourable'? But in this instance, as in my real TV life, something seriously has gone wrong with the experience of the organisation's aspirations.

Five actors present five independent monologues telling the unravelling 'event' that has undone them, from their individual point of view. We sit in a growing wonder as each character connects directly to us, having us develop identification - allegiance - or not, and having to decide which one is speaking the truth and which ones are pandering a verbal concoction of face-saving self interest. Who ever you lay loyalty too makes little difference to your experience in Downstairs at Belvoir, for you will have an inevitable reflexive comic response and a startling mental and visual stimulation of some rare quality.

First Bianca - the Social Media manager - gives us her horrified memory and we are introduced by Brooke Rayner to the spizz of a scintillating comic writer, Ms King. It is a dazzling comic opportunity and in the performance by Ms Rayner of this completely self-obsessed 'youngster' with hesitant twitches and rude habits of eating, dressed in orange clothing, we are supremely mesmerised to her spot-on hilarious creation. We subsequently meet the 'sexual-dick' of the collective who believes he is the answer to any woman's dreams inhabited frighteningly by Adam Marks. We meet Sasha, played by Stephanie Somerville, the bosses' Personal Assistant, in all her weaning ego, who gives stage space to drug enhanced DJ, essayed by Tom Matthews, with all of his delusions that gradually, subtly, wins some surprise of empathy from one - weird. At the top of this start-up's pole is Hannah a self-centred CEO who takes full advantage of her sexual energies to enjoy what she may gain from the 'greenie' and guilt laden conscience of the 'clients' that they have inveigled to join them in support. Romy Bartz has all the pseudo-modest sinuation of body and innuendo to provoke many a wet dream as she tells Hannah's version of what has happened.A performance worth relishing.

All of us have been manipulated into an exhaustive state that was in its 75 minute drive, glued together by chaotic crashes of Sound that blasts the aural senses accompanied by doubling and tripling visuals with video - live and pre-recorded - that keeps one from resting our attentions (Ms King not only has written SLAUGHTERHOUSE bu, also, has created the Sound and Video input!)

We are in the world of a stimulating contemporary comedy of modern cruelty and savage critique, with a Design by Brendan de la Hay that is startlingly white, doubling as screen for the video action, with the detritus of modern high tech gadgets dumped on the periphery edges in discarded abandonment. Everything, especially conscience, seems to be easily dispensable in this millennial world. The Lighting by Phoebe Pilcher supports the concept of the look of the show, brilliantly. The primary colours of the costumes, also by Mr de la Hay, spring out at us to create an ocular discomfort that the masks (PIG-man!) and other properties may have you recall your youth or the last queer party you attended - you know BAD DOG or CLUB KOOKY?!

This work by Ms King and the sure hand of the Director, Bonita de Wit, ensures no matter what generation you belong to an hilarious and witty night is on offer - a surprise of real quality in all areas that is worth seeing. Ms de Wit recently debuted in Sydney, on her return from New York, at the Hayes with her production of the new Australian musical RAZORHURST (it was not so sure an experience as this work is), while Ms King has had her play, GOLDEN SHIELD, just close at the Melbourne Theatre Company, and she awaits the opening of a co-production by the Sydney Theatre Company and The National Theatre of Parramatta, WHITE PEARL, out at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Two artists worth noting, I reckon.

Go see. It plays until November 2 and is only $25 a ticket. A bargain, I promise.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Cirque du Soleil, Kurios

Cirque du Soleil present, KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities, at the Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, Sydney. 3rd October - 24th November.

KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities, is a work from the juggernaut that is Cirque Du Soleil, a Canadian Company that has an astonishing network of creations performing all around the world.This work has been Created and Directed by Michel Laprise.

KURIOS, is a return to form for this company. The show before last was not so hot - the speciality acts great, the story fluffing it up, boring. Kurios is set in the late Nineteenth century (one supposes) and all the Design elements are of an extraordinary standard - a s steam-punk visual influence. Set (Stephane Roy) and Costume (Phillipe Guillotel). Amazing detail enhanced by Lighting of extraordinary effect. All this serving a fanciful story of an incredible Seeker, in search of wonders of this Victorian industrial world of invention, which he curates and stores in his cabinet of curiosities.

This story-line is simply decoration to help distract us during the huge Design changes that are carried out to permit the stunning virtuosity of a troupe of International artists to be shown off to maximum effect. In the case of KURIOS, the thematic fibres of the staging of this work, works. It is a brilliant conceit integrated flawlessly throughout the night masked by an incredible Sound Design from a live orchestra, timed to perfection to initiate the cueing for the actions of the speciality artists. The music is by Raphael Beau, Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, a kind of electro-swing fuzz with a jazz smother led by Marc Sohler and Singer Sophie Guay.

It is the calibre of the specialist artists that are always astonishing that one goes to Cirque du Soliel for. And with Kurios there is no let down. Fun percussionists and jugglers, a plastic and pliant foursome troupe of acrobats with bodies that do things that do not seem possible to be done, a chair balancing act mirrored in duplication from above, a duo of men swinging about us in a daring, flying ribbon act, a bouncing net act that has the participants flying about the levels of the stratosphere, a solo yo-yo artist that will leave you with your mouth agape. It is all so physically stirring - dare I say sexy! This is a show of two one hour halves and not a minute ought to be missed. Much more than what I have said happens, I hope you will be surprised and tantalised to a state of excitement and disbelief, not only with what I have 'spoiled' but, too, by what I have left out.

The show, Kurios, is the Full Deal. It is an entertainment for all generations and, truly, you are guaranteed a blast of a night. The Cirque Du Soliel aesthetic and it's design organisational skills for enchantment and wonder begins the moment you step into the huge tent that covers it all.

Do go. You will have an unforgettable time.

The Angry Brigade

Photo by Bob Seary
New Theatre present, THE ANGRY BRIGADE, by James Graham, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 1st October - 2nd November.

THE ANGRY BRIGADE, is a British play by James Graham. It is a two act play. The Angry Brigade are a collective, a far left terrorist group, active in the late 60's. They were responsible for a series of 25 bombings. Their bombs caused mainly property damage, no deaths and only one minor injury. It caused the British Government, in 1971, to set up a specialist group - The Bomb Squad - within the Metropolitan Police to investigate these crimes of terror. It led to the development of a new investigative methodology to detect and arrest these terrorists of the streets of London. This Brigade were all arrested and imprisoned. The British Government were well prepared for the consequent IRA activity in London when it erupted.

In the first act of the play we begin at the formation of the team central to the investigation and then follow through, discover the procedural 'rails', that will formulate the investigative pattern of action. We meet Smith (Davey Segale), the appointed leader, Henderson (Madeline Withington), Parker (Sonya Kerr) and Morris (Benjamin Balte), and watch them coalesce over the period into a team with a mission that does its job and in doing so, also, unleashes them selves from the strict conventions of their own tight worlds into looser and contemporary revellers of the mores of the British 1970's.

This first act is more matters of fact than expansive insight that has a rather dulling effect on concentration, aided by the acting, generally, been permitted by the Director, Alex Byrant-Smith, to indulge in characteristics rather than in development of character and their arc.

During the interval the stage has been re-configured (Set and Costume Design, Sallyanne Facer). We had been in the basement setting at the Metropolitan Police for the first act of the play and in the second act of the play, a different number of locations, spread across a nearly bare stage. (Acoustically, the open stage hampers, sometimes, the clarity of text - it has an echo chamber affect.) The Lighting is by Michael Schell and there is a robust Sound Design by Glenn Braithwaite.

In the second act we now meet members of the Angry Brigade. We see the events from their, the young terrorists point of view. This is a keen strategy from the writer, Mr Graham, and as the principal four actors of the first act also carry the majority of the responsibility of the verbal action in the second act it causes us to imaginative engage with the actors in a very different way. Davey Seagle takes on John, Madeline Withington takes on Anna, Benjamin Balte plays Jim and Sonya Kerr is Hilary. We are surprised to understand that only one of the Brigade are from working class roots, most of them are disillusioned youngsters of the bourgeoisie.Mrs Thatcher must answer for her policies.

This company of artists have been imbued by their Director, Mr Bryant-Smith, with an energetic passion and commitment to the integrity of the writer and his intensions. This is the stirring, galvanising element of the night. These actors believe in what they have taken on and wish us to observe the relevancy to our own times of protest. There is a supporting cast that help sweep the night along: Nicholas Papademetriou, Kelly Robinson and Will Bartolo.

This is an interesting play by one of Britain's most politically engaged writers. His home country have responded eagerly to his out put. THE ANGRY BRIGADE was written in 2014 and is a lesser work than his spectacular award winning, THIS HOUSE (2012) and his play about Rupert Murdoch and his takeover of The Sun newspaper: INK. Only 37 Mr Graham has written some 22 plays and, as well, for television - QUIZ (2019) - and film. He, also, wrote the Broadway Book for the musical FINDING NEVERLAND. Prolific is one word. Talented is another. One is grateful that the New Theatre has curated THE ANGRY BRIGADE, for us Sydney siders to be able to engage with his work. One does long to see INK., THIS HOUSE, and perhaps (I haven't read it), LABOUR OF LOVE - a prize winning comedy.

The Real Thing

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Sydney Theatre Company, presents by THE REAL THING, by Tom Stoppard, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 9th September - 26th October.

THE REAL THING, is a play by Tom Stoppard, from the approximate middle period of his output - 1982. Prior to this it was the intellectual brilliance of his word play and juggling of various viewpoints that gave his work the effervescence of the best cold champagne that money could buy. Exhilarating nights in the theatre that made one feel smarter and wittier than one had suspected, known, of oneself ever being: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1968); JUMPERS (1972); TRAVESTIES (1976). THE REAL THING, had all the wit as usual, but at its centre it had, as well, a sensitive beating heart that felt that it, at last, could feel the ecstasy of love and the bruises of despair of that same thing called love, and could safely, truly, express it and discuss it, in public, on the stage. Later work, ARCADIA (1993); THE INVENTION OF LOVE (1997); and the screenplay SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), go on to illustrate that growth luxuriously and rewardingly.

The character of Henry in THE REAL THING is autobiographical to a large degree. The role of Annie, in the original production, was taken by Felicity Kendall with whom Mr Stoppard developed a relationship, both of them at the time married to someone else. Says Simon Phillips, the Director of this Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production:
THE REAL THING marked a turning point - a shift from using other people's ideas meretriciously to expressing his own ideas, and more importantly feelings, equally eloquently.
Lots of things are thrown into the disquisition of the playwriting in THE REAL THING, that keeps us engaged, but at the core of the experience we grapple with the puzzlement of what is love? and how do we know when the love we feel is the real thing? We learn that it is when experienced as ecstasy and also as despair and, yet, manages to sustain our partnership through the thickness of it as well as the thins of it.

We have seen this play on the Sydney stage many times before this version in The Drama Theatre. It still has its charms and can still hold the audience in its palm, although in this production it occasionally reveals its age and 'creaks', forcing us to be patient with some of its observations and theatrical tricks of structure. The play feels long, though it isn't, merely two and a half hours, including an interval. That feeling of length is a signal that something is not quite working, don't you think? It takes so long to get to the end - it seems to end many times. On my night there was an anticipatory exit applause given, despite the fact there was more - embarrassingly - to be said and done. We had to re-gather ourselves, those of us who had thought that exiting was the next move of the night! The amount of time built around the MacGuffin of the 'ghosting' by Henry of a play written by a working class Brodie, an imprisoned soldier, does, ultimately, stretch the limits of our attentiveness. And when Brodie finally does appear - metamorphose - none of us care too much, for we had already indicated that we felt it was time to go home, thanks very much.

Mr Phillips remarks that
If Stoppard sets challenges to your attention span, he sets equal challenges to his actors, demanding a mental acuity and an effortless command of high-tensile language.
This company of actors appear to have the "mental acuity" but not quite the "effortless command" of the high-tensile language. Both Johnny Carr (Henry) and Geraldine Hakewill (Annie) manage the commands of the technique Mr Stoppard requires, but, only just. Their effort to deliver is a visible strain and does not give us much luxury of confidence that they will get through. Other actors that we have seen in this play in other productions over the years, were, generally, much more experienced than these two young thespians. They give creditable performances but not absolutely confident ones - we cheer them on but we should not ought to have that responsibility. We are pleased that they have managed well enough.

The best performance comes from Julia Robertson, in a small supporting role as Debbie, and, happily, when Dorje Swallow does finally arrive as Brodie, his suavity and control of the scene has us wishing he had arrived earlier and had had more to do. Rachel Gordon (Charlotte) is adequate, so is Shiv Palekar (Billy), while Charlie Garner does not seem to be able to inhabit Max, the actor - the other betrayed lover - and who rather presents an oddly caricatured vocalisation as a substitute for a living, breathing man - the idea of this 'stagey' Englishman called Max (Maximilian, I suppose) as conceived by a satiric Australian comedian.

It is a very extravagant and contemporary design by Charles Davis, and we do get to watch it change 'shape' regularly during the performance, accompanied by James Brown's Sound Design and Composition, lit sumptuously by Nick Schlieper. Mr Phillips as a deft hand Directing this work but not the energy to lift the actors and production into an effortless brilliance, which is what THE REAL THING necessarily demands and we expect.

I like Stoppard's work a great deal. I am a fan. I flew to New York to see his trilogy of plays, THE COAST OF UTOPIA, dealing with the Russian philosophers and their entwined personal lives that would set the foundations for the Russian Revolutions in 2002, guessing that we would never see them in Sydney. Three plays. Nine hours long. A company of 30, or more actors. Never ever, in Sydney. I had a moderately fair night with this version of THE REAL THING.(Come to think of it, that maybe my usual remembrance of this play). I wish that the STC had cast the work with more experienced players, or, better still, were more courageous with presenting one of his other works that have never been seen in Sydney. There are many, many of them.

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, SPLINTER, by Hilary Bell, at the SBW Stables, Darlinghurst.6 September - 12 October.

This is a revival production of SPLINTER, by Australian writer, Hilary Bell. It was first produced by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in 2012.

Man (Simon Gleeson) and Woman (Lucy Bell), husband and wife, have just had their daughter Laura returned to them. She had been absent for nine months. No-one knows where she has been or what has happened. The play begins in a mood of wonder and excitement. Also, disbelief. Are they laughing or crying? Is it a dream? Is it real?

Laura has not spoken. She is an enigma.

In the original production at the STC Laura, the daughter, was represented through puppetry, manipulated by two actors. In this production she is an invisible figure that Man and Woman have colluded to invent and believe. They both interact comfortably with the empty space where their Laura, for them, palpably exists. It was, at the STC, I remember, an intriguing performance adjustment to endow the puppet(s) with the responsibility of being Laura. There grew in the storytelling an intriguing sense of mystery and magic - spooky even, like the surreal episodes with the puppets in Ingmar Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982).

In this production, Directed by Lee Lewis, it is a very odd visual 'offer' to have Woman talking and feeding an empty space, invisible soup on a real spoon. I came to endow the empty space with them and justified that acceptance by coming to believe that Man and Woman have become desperately unhinged in their grief and have invented, jointly, a 'child' to help them survive what life has thrown at them, they are splintered in front of our eyes - much like George and Martha are in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1962) - remember their invented son with blue hair and blonde eyes? With this theatrical ploy in this production of SPLINTER, the atmosphere that permeates this production is one of a discomfortable sadness viewed through a fog of the possibility of a Norman Bates psychological possession, a la Hitchcock's masterpiece, PSYCHO (1960). That so desperate is their grief that can manifest a life force which they believe is a human being not a fantasy.

Man and Woman are joined together and concentrate on Laura, to enable her to recover. The couple begin empowered with their invention but that disintegrates gradually through the events of the arc of Ms Bell's story. As time moves on Man begins to express moments of doubt that their invisible Laura is NOT their Laura. He tells Woman of his problems and the relationship begins to splinter, too. The splintering becomes a growing battle to maintain their sanity, with Man moving to the rejection of this Laura, whilst Woman desperately clutches at the splintering 'game-play' of the invisible Laura. The tension between the two positions becomes unbearable.


And so different an imaginative path from that that I created with my first experience of the play. Hilary Bell's thematic obsessions are influenced by her life long entanglement with fairy stories and the influence of the unreliable narrator. Both elements are at the creative core of her writing - all of it, I dare say. This work at its glimmering beginning and in its progress development was fuelled/referenced by "spanned sources as diverse as Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW, folk tales about changelings, the Grimm Brothers' THE WILD SWANS, Anderson's THE SNOW QUEEN, and a memoir written by Ed Smart about his daughter's disappearance. ... At the core of the play's story is doubt and its corrosive nature." , says Ms Bell in her Program notes.

Doubt leads to shifting of the lines of logic and when, as in the case of this play, the two protagonists: Man and Woman, take opposing stances: one of change and the other of holding ground, the stress/strain splinters their worlds.

The blank weirdness of the colour palette of the Set Design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, delivers the creeping sense that outside that wooden doorway, window frame, we will find ourselves in the middle of the woods - alone and lost with invisible threats - Red Riding Hood's big bad wolf or, Hansel and Gretel's ginger-bread house that has a caged boy been fattened for dinner. That we are on the edge of our fears, sanity. There is a great visual stimulation enhanced by Benjamin Brockman's Lighting with the shadows of Mic Gruchy's Video Design.

Hilary Bell has a powerful ability to create, subtly, her stylistic language obsessions inside a text that seems on a surface read simplistic and obvious - tackling it, in depth, however, and the hidden complications become an exciting challenge for the artists.

Thus the work requires actor's with a confident intelligence and an easily accessible resource that can create the sub-text in communicable action alongside the audible text. The VOICE becomes the necessary tool to solve the complication of this play. With only two actors carrying the work the task is, indeed, formidable.

The major hurdle for me in fully embracing this production lies in the vocal quality of Simon Gleeson. Mr Gleeson is a highly appreciated Musical Theatre Artist (LES MISERABLES, OKLAHOMA, THE FAR PAVILLIONS), his singing voice sitting in the upper register. Mr Gleeson's speaking voice, on the night I watched the play, sat high in its register, too and unfortunately had a kind of strangulated quality. I had the experience of hearing an instrument that could not/did not reach into the resonant body qualities that could contrast 'musically' with his regular sound and so handicapped the effect of the tragic unwinding of the Man's splintering.The dark dramatics of a Bass were not used. His sound was an obstacle to my engagement, belief, in the Man and his dilemma.

This was made more obvious when the verbal and vocal skill that Lucy Bell was able to command as the Woman filled the SBW Theatre space with a variety of calibrated choice of sound that not only created drama but a resonant character with whom we could comfortably identify and care about because of her vocal access to her fully body resonant quality.

SPLINTER, having a new production in Sydney, is worth seeing. Whether it be your first encounter with it or, as in my case my second that permits me to compare and contrast. One of the important experiences of going to the theatre, that is a rare one in Sydney, is of being able to appreciate not only the core content and its qualities but also to observe how the individual artists can shape and highlight the material in a new and more individual challenging way.

Part of the excitement of being a regular theatre goer in London (New York) is that one can see many productions of, say, HEDDA GABLER - many in one year and to be able to observe the influence of each of the artists playing Hedda on the experience of the character and story. In Sydney, I have seen Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett (with others) tackle this great challenging role and being devastated by the influence of their unique self on Ibsen's challenge. However, those opportunities have been spread over 30 or 35 years -when did we see Ms Blanchett's Hedda: 19, 15 years, ago? For the general public the Sydney audience virtually has to re-learn the play because of the passing of time not always giving the audience the easy opportunity to compare and contrast, appreciate or disparage, the ART of the performers, creatives and writer. It is, is it not, great to see different principals performing the Prince an ODette/Odile in the same season of Swan Lake? To see those varied artists, encompassing the same choreography and characters on the same musical beat, and yet create unique individual contributions that can throw new light onto the possibilities of the story. Is it not a gift in your theatre going experience?

This revival of SPINTER, although still spread over a time space of 7 years, is invaluable if you are a serious theatre goer and not just someone who simply wants entertainment. One can become, with this opportunity, a connoisseur of art - like reviewing a film or re-regarding that painting hanging faithfully on the walls of the NSW Arts Gallery.

SPLINTER is playing up at the SBW Stables for a few more weeks.


Photo by Clare Hawley
Outhouse Theatre Co and the Seymour Centre, present JOHN, by Annie Baker, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale.19th September - 12th October.

JOHN, is a play by American writer, Annie Baker. It is the third play by Ms Baker that the Outhouse Theatre Co have produced for Sydney audiences. THE ALIENS and THE FLICK. All three Directed by Craig Baldwin. All three of them have been extremely rewarding nights in the theatre. Ms Baker becomes more interesting and more daring with each play. JOHN takes you somewhere beautiful and is gentle in taking you there.

JOHN, is, in literal length, a three-hour fifteen-minute experience (with two short intervals). Set in the living space and breakfast room of a Bed and Breakfast (B&B) accommodation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, convenient to the haunting sites of the battle-fields of the American Civil War. Two customers, Jenny Chung (Shuang Hu) and Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (James Bell) girl-friend, boyfriend, arrive late one winter's night during the Christmas season, to be welcomed by Mertis Katherine Graven (Belinda Giblin), the owner and devoted hostess.

The bedrooms are named after notable figures of the bloody Gettysburg collision and are situated upstairs. Eric finds that he is not in the room that he had booked because of a leak - he is not happy about the unexpected change - it is a curious moment of whiny petulance, of expressed dissatisfaction that, on reflection, later, is a signal to his persona, that, we will gather is not satisfied with much. It is, we discover, the worm in the bud, the core of his relationship with Jenny. It is, evidentially, a deteriorating relationship that has an unseen character, a friend of Jenny's, John, floating in the ether (ethereal) background of their tensions, that materialises, climatically, as a force of overwhelming destruction, as Eric pursues with mounting hostility, in the closing act of the play, access to a mobile telephone belonging to Jenny.

Oddly, Mertis' first husband was also called John, he seems to have been a force for good. Her second husband, George is, we think, living in the back-of-house, ill and dying - we never meet him, just hear of him - he could be just an empathetic projection of imaginative invention for the grieving Mertis - we never get to know. George haunts the back rooms and our curious perceptions.

There are lots of things that we don't get to know. There are lots of things that are raised over the course of the play to which no answers are given. Ms Baker is more interested in giving us connections and contemplations not just narrative 'facts'. She is interested in engaging you into inventing and endowing the possible layers of the life - lives - in the play with your own primary knowledge and developed secondary resources. We, the audience, become creative agents, in support of the actors who are giving us JOHN.

The fourth character of the play is Genevieve Marduk (Maggie Blinco) a friend of Mertis, who visits every now and then for the comfort of the friendship that Mertis can give her. Genevieve is blind. One demonstrable way of their friendship is that Mertis reads to her - a spiritual sustenance. She also supplies earthly sustenance with cookies. Genevieve is sightless but not blind - rather like a kind of Greek Seer. Tiresias-like. She tells us of visions of her dead husband and of his vengeful actions that are as vivid as you could wish them. Dark images of invasive insects that invade her head and body, devour and turn her mad, she claims. Genevieve has an entrance, a gateway, to a vivid metaphysical world. Blind in the real world but vividly sighted in the metaphysical dimension.

In Mertis' house, meticulously Designed by Set and Costume Designer Jeremy Allen (assisted by Veronique Benett, who also is the Lighting Designer) - even to an overhanging ceiling - stuffed with the detritus of spooky collections of 'dolls' and other paraphernalia perched on every possible surface that all seem to stare (glare) at us, one is, subtly, discomforted.

Sitting in the theatre one may recollect the horror films of CHUCKY - who was a serial killer whose spirit inhabits a "Good Guy" doll and continuously tries to transfer his soul to a human ( as does Genevieve's husband?), for in Mertis' house it is the "Samantha Doll" (1986) sitting on a shelf, unavoidable to one's sight as one ascends the stairs, that features in the memory of Jenny and haunts her with a particular dread - and is used as a tool by Eric who threatens 'abuse' to the Doll unless he is given her iPhone, unlocked - be careful for what you wish for!

Featured above this is a portrait of a widow from the days of the Civil War. This house, situated near the bloodiest battle field of the Civil war, with 57,225 casualties over the three day fight, maybe haunted. This battlefield was the Turning Point on which this nation's fortunes were drawn. This B&B maybe the Turning Point for these two adults: the maybe-boyfriend/girlfriend in the existing world. Genevieve, quietly, believes so and silently witnesses the disaster. Mertis thinks maybe so, too. They both know that the haunting is important. One of them believes that the haunting may possibly be positive. In a reverie with Jenny, Mertis talks of the metaphysical soul of the human animal, of the other animals, of plants and, even, she provokes, of the soul in the picture frame around the widow's portrait.

When was the last time a play, a night in the theatre, offered that kind of provocation to contemplate, take home, change you?

This is a 'weird' play. One feels the creep of Henry James and his perceptions of spiritual dimension: THE TURN OF THE SCREW, or, more nakedly, John Clayton's film adaptation, THE INNOCENTS (1961), with Deborah Kerr. JOHN, grew, for me, as the evening passed, into a supernatural psychological thriller - the shivers of the insidious naturalism of ROSEMARY'S BABY suggestive ascetic (1968 - Roman Polanski) chimed into my consciousness. The ultra naturalistic style entwined in the existential metaphysics of the gifted.

For, like the 2016 film by Olivier Assayas, PERSONAL SHOPPER, starring Kristen Stewart as Maureen, who is embedded in the details of a modern 'frozen' world: fashion, jewellery, travel, computer laptops and iPhone - recognisable gadgets of little emotional consequence, Maureen is, also, passionately enmeshed in the belief and pursuit of proof that her dead brother, Lewis, is attempting to contact her from the other world - from the spiritual realm. Similarly, Annie Baker presents to us, also, a beautifully articulated real world - it is presented in ultra-naturalistic detail that when it is engaged by the actors is something more than theatrical storytelling but is a kind of glacial documentary, (at a daringly boring reality time pace). We see authentic human beings, doing very ordinary things, that are surrounded by worlds greater than what they know, for certain.

Mertis, however, is in touch with those layers of perception and simply articulates the possibility. Annie Baker with her play JOHN is urging us to put away your wifi 'gadgets' and just be, to see what is there - to extend the walls of our perception. As in Christopher Nolan's 2010, INCEPTION, find what is really there? It is astonishing.

Mr Baldwin as coaxed his actors into trusting their writer, and although there were nervous tentative moments on the Opening Night, it seemed the actors sensed the intrigued absorption of their audience as the play evolved and began to trust, and honoured, without fear of boring us, the writing and the intention of Ms Baker. The modern robo-humans Eric and Jenny collide on this battle field in this B&B at Gettysburg, and there are revealed dire consequences to their relationship, blindly overseered by Genevieve, and, especially, the wonderful Mertis, each suspended, on the rims of the ethereal world of the awakening consciousness that every human animal can have if awoken.

Now, Thornton Wilder is another author, that with his plays, particularly: OUR TOWN (1938), THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (1942) and almost any of his wonderful novels: THE BRIDGE OF SAINT LOUIS REY (1927), for instance, has dared to treat his audience's with spiritual possibility in the contemporary world and JOHN, the other night, transported me to that miraculous level of pursuing that gate way to sensitivity.

I recommend JOHN and its layers, levels, possibilities, that if you attend with your eyes truly open,  perception of your world beyond the everyday activities may be able to be made possible. Tall order but worth the time to try. Put down that social media eater of your time and just relax, spare the time and permit perception beyond your venal needs. The actors, especially, Ms Blinco and Giblin are rewarding. Mr Bell is so very good that I could not decide whether it was the character or the actor I was responding to with such hostility! Whilst Ms Hu was a gently winning performer for whom I hoped her John was going to be rescuer.

JOHN, is worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, Shostakovich 'Symphony No.4' and Khachaturian 'Violin Concerto In D Minor'


I reckon that you can trust the Russian composers for a great experience in Concert. So, it was last Saturday.

I had never heard the Khachaturian Violin Concerto in D minor ever. In fact I know little of the output of Khachaturian, the ballet scores: GAYANE and SPARTACUS, the most familiar.

Aram Katchaturian was of Armenian extraction, educated as a child in Tiblisi, Georgia - that city being important to Josef Stalin.

Stalin was extremely interested and demanding in his concerns for the influence of the Arts on his citizenry and, in particular, that of the influence of Music. During the domination of the Soviet by Stalin from the mid-1920's until his death in 1953, as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the three regarded composers of the Soviet were Khachaturian (1903 -1978), Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) and Prokofiev (1891 - 1953).

Prokofiev lived mostly in the United States (with Soviet sanction) after the 1917 Revolution until a voluntary return to the Soviet in 1936, but both Khachaturian and Shostakovich remained in their homeland and weathered the demands of the tyrant, Stalin, as to their musical output. It seems that Khachaturian was the most compliant in fulfilling the demands of the officially-approved classicism of Socialist Realism entwined with his passionate love of his heritage of the folk songs and dances of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - and except for a very brief period was the favoured Soviet Composer and was publicly rewarded.

The Violin Concerto in D minor was made in 1940 (during World War II) and became an enormous success, approved by Stalin and the war feverish citizens. It is a lush escape into a romantic musical heritage, especially in the introspective focus of the second movement (andante sostenuto) that sweeps one away into a kind of blissful 'heaven' of an idealised Russian 'sound'.

The solo work of Canadian/American violinist (he trained at the Juilliard School - 1993 -1997), James Ehnes, was outstanding. Looking 'cool', holding his 'Marsick' Stradivarius of 1715, with what appeared to be a concentrated nonchalance over the approximate 35 minute playing, he subtly wove a magic control of his responsibility with a very sympathetic and supportive orchestra, wonderfully conducted by, Mark Wigglesworth (the principal guest conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra - how lucky are they?) Modest but spectacularly gifted and prepared, Mr Ehnes received a tumultuous response from his audience which he further gratified with a thrilling virtuosic solo encore. One went into the interval energised with a romantic optimism that, even if only momentarily, the cares of our traumatic world became a faint issue.

The second half of the program, Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op,43, that demands a very large orchestra, crashed into our presence, literally, sonically CRASHED, introducing the reality of what it may have been like to be a creative artist under the ruthless scrutiny of Stalin. The score over its lengthy 60 minute duration teases us with what could be a parody of the Socialist Realism 'grand style' demands of the regime riddled with what could be interpreted as sudden musical imagery of the desperate bleakness of the soul. (One is required to ponder.)

Shostakovich was one of the Soviet artists that did not leave his country but loyally and dangerously stayed with his comrades and attempted to survive with integrity. Julian Barnes' 2016 novel, THE NOISE OF TIME, is a great insight into the possibilities of the exhausting life - physically, psychologically and emotionally - that Shostakovich elected to endure, alongside his family, to create music in what I call, romantically, Russia (other than the USSR - Soviet).

This great Symphony was almost completed, it written in 1936, during which time his highly received opera, LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK DISTRICT, was viewed by Stalin himself in that January. There followed soon after an anonymous critique, in the Communist party newspaper, Pravda, which condemned the work without mercy - and suddenly Shostakovich, a musical hero of the times was regarded as a traitor to his country, and was deserted by his fellow musicians and the general public - his life seemed to be in possible jeopardy. Was this article in Pravda written by Stalin, himself?

The result was that the 4th Symphony was withdrawn by the composer from performance - shelved judiciously for fear of further denunciation, or worse. The 4th Symphony had its first performance in 1961. Stalin had been dead for 8 years. The 5th Symphony appeared in late 1937 and it was praised for its accessible style and Shostakovich became rehabilitated with and by the Soviet hierarchy. Just how much of a dissident was Shostakovich is one of the great debates concerning his work even up to today. I have been persuaded he was one of the great creative artists who lived all his life in the Soviet defying the tyranny of power as best he could, most subtly in the midst of a terrifying quandary where interpretation becomes the defining element of intent. I try never to miss a work played live, written by Shostakovich. And, one should not neglect the chamber compositions - their tempestuousness is thrilling and arguable. What more does one want from art?

Mark Wigglesworth majestically and with great passion led the Sydney Symphony into a performance that shook his audience into a spell bound embrace. The contrast of efforts, the contrast of noises in the time of the composition's length: fast and slow and all in between, loud and soft and all in between, tonal range from top piercing spears of pain to melodic bathing romanticism and all in between - seemingly influenced by Mahler - from solo instrument to the full orchestra were 'tools' of great manipulative control. I was forced to 'think' while listening not just 'feel'. This was a composition of humanity revealing the pain of a single artist daring to reflect, perhaps, the pain of betrayed comrades, fellow patriots. The Nazi's and the Siege of Stalingrad was soon to come.

The 4th Symphony is still, relatively, under represented in the concert hall. One is so much more familiar with the popular and accessible 5th. But after hearing this rendition, could the 4th Symphony become recognised as the GREAT work of Dimitri Shostakovich?

One can always trust the 'Russian' composers for an experience in the concert hall.

Amazing night. (Thank you Kate.)

Emerson String Quartet

Musica Viva present, EMERSON STRING QUARTET, at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. September 7th and September 9th.

The EMERSON STRING QUARTET. One of the world's great string quartets. They must be heard live. I have their recording of the Shostakovich Quartets (2000), which may account for part of my love obsession around all of the music by Shostakovich. Included in Program One was a Shostakovich quartet scheduled - so, no brainer - I had to attend.

The Emerson String Quartet, which took its name from the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was formed in 1976, while they were studying at Juilliard. In 2013, the Quartet was reconfigured when cellist Paul Watkins joined the original members of the Emerson Quartet: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton.

Saturday at 2pm in the City Recital Hall we heard, Joseph Haydn String Quartet in D major, op 71 no 2. (1793).The Bela Bartok String Quartet no 5, Sz 102 (1934) and Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet no 8 in E minor, op 59 no 2 'Razumovsky' (1806).

I know little musical repertoire and all this music was new to me. It is strange to hear music that one has not the slightest knowledge of. I found myself sitting in the concert hall, hoping that a familiar melody would be played to comfort one with the glow of recognition - an acquaintanceship. It didn't happen - there was no recognition of a single 'melody'. But the beauty of the musicians and their control and soul-bearing energy entranced one enough into a state of transfixed awe to give satisfaction.

I do not believe I am a fan of Beethoven - a capital sin, I am supposing - but the sheer concentrated skill and devotion of the Emerson Quartet drew a spell of contentment and insight in the quartet's post-interval rendition of the Beethoven contribution that, especially, in the third and fourth movement (the Finale) skipped into a jaunty mood surging with a Russian folk tune quotation that may have (may have) awakened a memory. It certainly had a feel of youthful energy, of Spring, and I was subsumed into an all embracing of Beethoven's quartet.

Brexit, Trump and Scott Morrison. Economic woes and the tension caused by the unprecedented fires ravishing our country, the dread of irreversible Climate Change, all seemed, relatively, distant, as one applauded the gift of the music that the Emerson String Quartet had just given. One left the Recital Hall, high on life.

Monday evening at 7pm: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart String Quartet no 21 in D major, K575 (1789). Antonin Dvorak String Quartet no 10 in E-flat major, op 51 (1879) and Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet no 5 in B-flat major, op 92 (1952). Again, the excellence of the musicianship was transporting despite the relative lack of familiarity with the music.

Of course, I was rewarded with the Shostakovich, as I had a familiarity with it. from my CD collection. The pain and agony of the composer weathering the condemnation of Stalin, haunts this quartet through and through. The humanity of the composer was bared with great restraint and respect: Honour, by the Emerson Quartet. Their ability to translate with superb skills and amazing  empathy the grief of the composer from instruments to instrument, must have cost the players much. The performance was astounding.

Musica Viva, congratulations for bringing the Emerson String Quartet to Sydney (philistine Sydney - the Hall was not sold out in either concert.) These two performances were great musicianship and emotional experiences of some powerful depth.

(I wondered sometimes whether the musicianship was so excellent in its sensitive detail and playing whether it rendered the quartets a little too drily? The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), a jewell in the Performing Arts experiences in Sydney, have a skill as wondrous as the Emerson Quartet but deliver, I think, a lustre of flowing life, a fluidity of sound that is more accessible. Still, neither of these two musical cohorts should ever be missed.Dedication that can deliver genius, I think.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Caroline, or Change

Photograph by Marnya Rothe
Hayes Theatre Co presents, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Elizabeth Bay. 23 August - 21 September.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is a work, an autobiographical work from Tony Kushner. He is famous for ANGELS IN AMERICA (1993) - (maybe, as well, for the screenplay of LINCOLN (2012). Born in Manhattan, his family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he was a young boy. He wanted to write about race relations, the civil rights movement, and African Americans and southern Jews in the early 1960's.
This play comes from sorrow, from anger and grief, and also from hope learned from history, from recent history, which has shown us both the terrors and also the pleasures of change, which shows that change, progress is difficult, uneven, uncertain, but also absolutely possible.
The two principal antagonists are Caroline Thibodeaux, an African-Americas maid working in the Gellman household, and 13 year old Noah, the son of this Jewish family, living in Lake Charles, in 1963, both growing and challenged in a world that is demanding change.

ANGELS IN AMERICA is a landmark play that is still celebrated and contemporaneously performed at regular intervals. That work holds a fascination and level of satisfaction like almost no other play in recent history. And though all of Kushner's output is remarkable nothing has quite achieved the greatness of that play, is my observation. So how does CAROLINE, OR CHANGE fit?

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is a musical written over four years of intensive work and first produced in 2002, with Jeanine Tesori as composer. The Hayes produced VIOLET her 1997 OFF-BROADWAY musical and I recently caught her work FUN HOME which won the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2015. It was marvellous. This production, Directed by Mitchell Butel, is the first iteration of this work in Australia. One, I, have hung out to see this Kushner/Tesori collaboration, over the years, for many reasons, the least of which was to make contextual valuations of the writing of the work. ANGELS was so intensely, brilliantly, confronting in its political aspirations, and also entertaining, I was deeply curious as to the content and achievement of this work.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is an intense observation of the pressure-cooker challenge of the 1960's for an older fashioned African-American woman bringing up her young family, as a single parent, in times of sweeping political debate and striving for civil rights, as to whether she can afford to change. She must be able to ensure the stability of her family. Caroline understands the unconscious racism of her employers and makes a choice to endure it for safety's sake, but struggles to maintain her submission in the argumentative heat blast of her 'liberated' daughter, Emmie's beliefs. Caroline may agree with her daughter but can she afford to do anything about it?

It, also, reveals the struggle of a 13 year old pubescent boy, a Jewish boy, in the midst of great physical and philosophical change as he begins to face the challenge of growth from boy to man and the necessary adjustments he may need to make to respect himself and his actions (this is the Kushner autobiographical reveal) especially, towards his 'friend' Caroline - just what is the value of a $20 bill in the great scheme of things?

The writing work is complex and relentless. It is naturalistic and also surreal (the Moon sings to us), it is political and dramatically domestic. The musical form is that of gospel/rhythm and blues/folk sung-through in an operetta style. I kept re-calling the Aretha Franklin documentary, AMAZING GRACE. To find the cast was and is a challenge for any production of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. Mr Butel has found an actor/singer, Elenoa Rokobaro, to inhabit the difficult role of Caroline, and almost coaches her to assurance. Her performance crystallises in the second act with a wonderfully committed rendition of Lot's Wife that moves one gratefully, this having been prepared for with the contribution of Nkechi Anele during the pressure-cooker demands of Emmie in the second act. In fact, the second act is when this musical began to realise its spectacular potential. It was when Amy Hack (Rosie Stopnick-Gellman) supported by Tony Llewellyn-Jones (Mr Stopnick) blossomed into power, as well.

The Set Design is crowded with the demands of the writing and yet fulfils its needs with visual grace by Simon Greer, and the Lighting of Alexander Berlage. Choreographically the stage is relatively cramped and Yvette Lee has a company of 'dancers' of varying ability to coalesce as an ensemble, although the multiple-role casting, requiring swift dexterity in Costume change (Melanie Liertz) by the company, might be solved with the repetition of performance (I saw this production in first preview). Musically the show is in steady hands under the Direction of Lucy Birmingham with a live orchestra of six. The Sound mix is complicated (Anthony Lorenz) and, as yet, not absolutely balanced.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is definitely a must see for Kushner and Tesori fans. Now, I need to hunt down Kushner's THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH THE KEYS TO THE SCRIPTURES, and I might die satisfied and happy.

P.S. The Company includes:Alexandra Fricot, Andrew Cutcliffe, Daniel Harris or Ryan Yeates, Elijah Williams, Emily Havea, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva.