Monday, May 1, 2017

Two recent French films: Personal Shopper, and Frantz

Here are two French films worth catching. What is it that the French have? Their work is so good, or, is it that we only get to see the best of the best?

1. PERSONAL SHOPPER

PERSONAL SHOPPER is the second film that Director/Writer, Olivier Assayas and actor, Kristen Stewart have made together. The last was CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA, starring Juliette Binoche. Ms Stewart was the supporting artist of that film. In this new film she is definitely front and centre - the star, the camera hardly has her out of sight. I had never seen Ms Stewart in any other work that I could remember, not even any of her extensive child/teen films, let alone any of the TWILIGHT franchise, so, I was curiously, surprisingly, arrested with her performance in the CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - I could hardly shut up about her - she won the French equivalent of the Academy Award - the Cesare - the first time a non-French actor had done so.

PERSONAL SHOPPER, too, arrived with glowing broadcasts of Ms Stewart's work and she delivers an amazingly focused performance with her Maureen. Maureen, a young American in Paris, works as a personal shopper for a busy fashionista, Kyra (Nora von Walstatten) and carries out her work with professional precision, however, spiritually debilitating it may be. In that modern world the internet gadgets of that world dominate her interactions - it is a set of cold pragmatic interactions - some chillingly unsettling, as that with Ingo (Lars Eldinger), the insecure partner of her boss.

To complicate, lubricate the film, Maureen's brother, and twin, has recently died from a congenital heart disease, which she, too, has. He was a 'medium' to the spiritual world and together they have promised to reconnect from the other world with a 'sign'. Maureen stays in the house that her brother lives in and has sensed some atmosphere. Or not. The CGI spiritual arousals that we witness are sophisticated and intriguing, indeed.

The Spiritual hunt for a 'sign' created, for me, the tensions of the Henry James' film adaptations of THE BOSTONIANS (1984) and THE TURN OF THE SCREW, its film title being: THE INNOCENTS (1961), both dealing with 'ghosts', or not. This film quickly ratchets up into a gripping ghostly modern thriller, as, especially, her iPhone begins to receive messages that seem to suggest that she is being stalked intensely by an omnipotent eye. This combination of an old-fashioned spiritual thriller in contemporary dress with the contemporary world tools that we all have in our pockets or purses, lifts the work into a more than clever experience - it reverberates, dare I say, with the same urgency of the time reality that Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), did - the idea that all the events of the film were happening all about myself, contemporaneously. Thrusting forward with a relentlessly swift pace and the subtle intermingling of both 'worlds', combined with the cool, (stunningly beautiful) and absolutely modern character created by Ms Stewart, PERSONAL SHOPPER delivers the thrills in a deeply satisfying manner. The film does not feel 'cheap' or 'cheesy' even despite the genre territory, for the performance,the Cinematography, by Yorick Le Saux, the Editing, by Marion Monnier, the colour Design are flawless.

Some have felt that not all of the film 'adds up', but if you watch closely, it does - just! The final sequences in the 'old world' of a distant country, far removed from the present modern metropolis thump-beat, brings a pacific and satisfying resolve to the ghost story. Or, not.

The performance by Kristen Stewart is as arresting as anything that Isabelle Huppert has given us - and you know that is saying something - she maybe her heir! Although a French film it is played in English. Highly recommended.

2. FRANTZ

FRANTZ is a new film from Director, Francois Ozon. It was written in collaboration with Phillipe Piazzo, inspired by the Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount 1932 film, BROKEN LULLABY.

It begins in a battle scarred provincial town in Germany after the First World War. Adrien (Pierre Ninney), a French ex-soldier is observed grieving at the grave of Frantz, and gradually finds himself inveigled by the family of the dead soldier. Anna (Paula Beer), the grieving ex-fiance, and his parents, Doctor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Maria Gruber).

In stunning black and white cinematography that occasionally subtly shifts into Sepia colour (Pascal Marti), with Production Design by Michel Barthelemy and Art Design by Susanne Abel, the romance of this story, moves through the pains of the aftermath of war on the people of two nations and travels along a narrative trajectory that is gorgeously provocative and unexpected. The performances of the two principal leads are ideal in their understated offers, beautifully supported by a vast company of the other actors.

It is a beautiful film that transports one out of one's daily life and has a modern integrity of manipulation that can be highly recommended. Not to be missed, especially by those with a romantic heart and faith in the destiny of the human animal. Do Go. The French have what ? A je ne sais quoi - an indefinable something that captures elements of being human in a totally optimistic but real way.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Chapel Perilous

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, by Dorothy Hewett, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 25 April -27 May.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS is a play by Dorothy Hewett written in 1972.

Dorothy Hewett was born in 1923, in the landscape of the wheat fields of Western Australia. She was home schooled until her mid teenage years when she went to Perth to an Anglican school. It was when she arrived there that Dorothy began to realise that she would be, necessarily, on a lone personal quest for her individuality. In pursuit of her self-realisation the value systems of the world around her would be her nemesis, her combatant. Rebel, atheist, sexualist, iconoclast, Communist, feminist, novelist, playwright and poet - all these things, especially the poet, put her at odds with the cultural 'wasteland' of her era.

Writing for the theatre as a poet in epic style, in form impressed from the European avant-garde (the Symbolists, Wedekind, Brecht and others), her works were liberated, unburdened by the dominant rules of naturalism and were, mostly, a confronting conundrum for the Australian audience's of the 1970's. Even in time beyond - really, until THE MAN FROM MUKINUPIN (1979) - Ms Hewett was a, relative, persona non grata to/for audiences. It was just not her exploration of form, however, - some would say a female form - that isolated her, it was also her content: the world as experienced by a woman and told with a free-wheeling open-hearted fierceness, joy and puzzlement that blind sighted the audiences to embracing her. For, Ms Hewett could not be anything but honest. And honesty about the female 'functions', instincts, needs and wants were subjects of exposure that good manners and social convention, dictated by Church, School and State, in the rigour of censorship handed down by a rigorous patriarchy had prevented that from being publicly (theatrically) discussed. As revealed in the time scape of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, from the early '30's through to the '60's (at least) Sally Banner lives in an Australia that was deeply, deeply 'proper'/conservative. The woman/poet Dorothy Hewett could be mad, bad and dangerous to the fabric of society, it seemed.

Her first play THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME (1967) was, mostly, a social realist melodrama set in the 'lower depths' of the working class of Redfern, but was mixed with a 'poetical chorus' of women, which in the experience/exposure of the general Australian theatre audiences used to the well-made play was an alien and derailing experience. This play dealt with the working class struggle within an ordinary family for social justice, revealing its poverty and alcoholic heritage in a mire of overt sexuality and post-World War II social/political disorder - plus, poetry spoken by the 'dregs' of the city! The cultural cringe was severe. It was 'proper' and perhaps acceptable to read of these sort of things in novels, in the privacy of one's own head/home, but in the theatre, surrounded by other people, it could be, was, awkward.? "Entertain us, please - none of that mirror up to life stuff." The response to the play was critical.

The next play was THE CHAPEL PERILOUS. Ms Hewett, being no slouch in her own literature reading and influence, gives the play its shape from the inspiration of Sir Thomas Malory's LE MORTE D'ARTHUR (1485) focused not on Knight: Sir Gwain of olde, but on Sally Banner of now, and her quest, her struggles, to find the 'grail', that will permit her to be true, to release herself as a positive individual influence on the world. The frankness of the episodes in Sally's journey and the powerful sexual independence of the character was a confrontation in its time, possibly is still, today. The language was realistic and scarifying for its society, and possibly, still is, today.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS comes with a reputation for being 'awkward', in its structure with sudden flights into various 'form', let alone its content. I have seen this play in several incarnations and it has always appeared to be a 'mess' of a play, but Ms Licciardello, at the New Theatre, has found a way to tell it that has a lucidity and a unification of the forms to its social/narrative purposes. Her intellectual conceptualisation as to the play's intent and method has harnessed Ms Hewett's work, with elisions and adaptations, for ease. Whether we are seeing all of Ms Hewett's artistic courage and vision on stage in this production is another thing altogether.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, is possibly the most auto-biographical play that Ms Hewett wrote. Though, all of the works resonate with her life experiences and personality - bravado. If one reads her auto-biography WILD CARD, published in 1980, one can appreciate the gifts of the writer in her inventive, imaginative and technical adventurism in writing from her life for the theatre.

This production of the play has pared down (musically and visually) what some have called 'a mess', 'awkward', to create a clear theatrical path of co-hesive storytelling - this is the strength of Ms Licciardello's vision. Although, I felt that the musical element of the play had not been given the attention it should have. The choral work under prepared or, under powered, not given sufficient attention to performance clarity and dramaturgical intention (Musical Direction, by Alexander Lee-Rekers). The Set Design, by Kyle Jonsson is functionally inventive, dark and primitive in its statements (an altar of sacrifice, in an arena scape) encouraging a Lighting Design from Martin Kinnane that glows in yellows and oranges, and contrasting arid blues, in teeming haze, too, darkly (under lit?). The Costume Design, by Courtney Westbrook, creates with flair the passing of eras/time with aesthetic clarity and clever changes. Clemence Williams, too, has created a diverse and apt Sound Design to register, signal, the changes of mood with skill.

A lot of the persona of this play, as written by Ms Hewett, are satiric caricatures, (in this production of nine actors called the Ensemble: Courtney Bell, Jasper Garner-Gore, Madeline Osborn and James Wright) representing distilled core/extremities of elements of the mainstream culture - those elements challenged by Sally Banner. This company of actors, and this should include Meg Clarke, as Sister Rosa, Brett Heath as Cannon, and especially Alison Chambers as Mother and Headmistress, led by Ms Licciardello, do not trust that the 'satire' has been written in, and tend to 'gild the lilly' by aggressively playing the writing without really investigating the people they are lambasting/representing with any backstory truths. The satire is built in, and there is no need to play it. Instead, I thought, as I watched, just play the truth. Simple. Honest. Real interactions (and certainly in this production where the Symbolist Masks etc have been removed) are what surfaces as the acting mode necessary for this production to score best. For the actors to present a bunch of mixed believers in the conventions of their society as normal, as natural as anyone else - we, certainly, see enough examples of this extremity played out regularly on our daily news bulletins by real people, passionate believers in their point-of-view, to not need the actor/satirists to exaggerate them. It was a point underlined in the Trump-'sketch' in last year's Wharf Revue, BACK TO BITE YOU, where simply screening Donald Trump speeches/interviews without comment was satiric enough!

The best performance in this production of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, comes from Tom Matthews, who in playing representations of all four of Sally's love interests: Michael, Thomas, David and Saul, 'plays' with a naturalistic power (Stanislavskian prepared truth) that exposes at the same time, both, the satiric observations and the human failings of these men of those eras with, what appears to be, careful selection and restraint. Ms Clarke does the same with her Judith (though not her nun) - Sally's first passion - her performance grounds the scenes with Sally with comprehensible realities. Mr Heath, also, demonstrates glimmers of knowledge of the human dilemmas of the Father's tasks, too (though a trifle wooden) but not with, as I have mentioned, his overstated Cannon.

Julia Christensen, carrying the immense role (banner) of Sally Banner, gives us a spine to the story. She is obviously equipped with the intelligence to approach the challenge of the writing and has an enormous reservoir of emotional life to deliver it. However, Ms Christensen's performance struggles with harnessing both her objective understanding of Sally's function in the play with her personal (subjective) emotional identification to Sally's journey, and with what Dorothy Hewett is revealing, as author, of herself.

At the performance I watched, the personalisation, the ownership, of Sally Banner by Ms Christensen, overwhelmed her artistry, and prevented her from creating a character that is the Sally Banner written by Ms Hewett, and it seemed that I was witnessing a live (improvised) personal response to the material. There was little real interaction with her other actors - she played, mostly, it seemed, within a pre-conceived arc, generating the performance independently of the other actor's offers, all from her own passionate identification, and demonstrated  no real restraint in her erupting choices to have us, help us, pierce to the dramaturgical functions of the character and the writing, sufficiently, for our responding empathy.

All this is said with an admiration and sense of expectancy of better work from this artist, for I have seen her potential in other places. Ms Christensen's performance is Okay but not what I suspect it could be. For instance, I kept reading her offers of her Sally with a 'thrusting' head used for emphasis, from phrase to phrase, to be accumulatively, in appearance, an emotional habit of the actor rather than the actor's craft CHOICE to reveal Sally. The last work I have seen from Ms Christensen was in A PERIOD PIECE - a satiric piece, and the habits of her performance work - essentially, a lack of craft RESTRAINT to her impulses - were, similarly present in that performance. I had seen her, as well, in another comic piece called AN INSPECTION - and, as this was my first viewing of her gifts, it appeared very arresting. The two new viewings since have given me the same actorly habits as the major offer. It is interesting to note that Ms Licciardello also Directed A PERIOD PIECE with their Company: GLITTERBOMB. They seem to be supporting muses for each other's work.

I left the New Theatre with a growing admiration of the potential of Ms Licciardello - there is conceptual intelligence and staging skill (although, some of the setting of scenes on the downstage floor limited the viewing for the audience sitting in the back half of the theatre). Her production of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS reveals the courage and, sadly, relevance of Ms Hewett's work. Sally's need to define herself necessarily by the relationships that she has with men - her 'neediness',  her search for 'love' and mistaking sex as the instrument to find it, rings out as a dominant chord of 'tragedy', as does the final moment in the play where Sally, finally, gives in to the demands of the world about her and bows to their command. Ms Hewett's Sally fails in the end, perhaps, because her 'grail' is undefined. How relevant is that to the contemporary woman in the world of 2017?  However, I look forward to Ms Licciardello growing a gift for guiding her actors more accurately, and less indulgently, with more discipline, to reveal not only the 'What' but the 'How' of the writer's intentions (or, in this production of her adaptation's needs).

Dorothy Hewett is a trailblazer in the ambition of her playwrighting and this production ought to remind people of her vision and potency. It brings the historic Australian female playwright's voice to attention and one hopes that we see other productions of her work, 'messy', 'awkward', though they appear to be. THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY (1976) for instance - almost, completely neglected. Ms Licciardello and Ms Christensen presented a work called, A PERIOD PIECE, at Old 505 Theatre, recently, focusing on the female 'period'. Maybe, they will tackle Ms Hewett's BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY (1972) where an infamous 'flow' stunned audiences of the time. Still may - will?!!

For audience interested in Australian playwrighting, in the lost female voice of our Australian theatre repertoire (Alma de Groen, another: RIVERS OF CHINA; THE WOMAN AT HE WINDOW), I can, with some small reservations, recommend that you go see this work, at the New Theatre.

Says Sally, proudly early in the play: 'Queen Elizabeth, Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Joan of Arc, Boadicea, Grace Darling, Elizabeth Frye, Helen Keller, Daisy Bates, Sally Banner'.

Let's add Dorothy Hewett, to that list.

P.S. It was fascinating/exciting, for me, to see Director/theatre activist Aarne Neeme, at the New Theatre, at the Opening performance, as it was he who encouraged Dorothy to write this play and who Directed the first production of the play at the New Fortune Theatre, in Perth in January, 1971, with a cast of actors of greater size. History in motion. History flowing about us, mostly, unperceived.

N.B. It has been a week of retrieval of the Australian repertoire from the Independent Theatre in the Sydney scene with THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, by Dorothy Hewett and DOWN AN ALLEY WITH CATS, by Warwick Moss. A good week, then.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Down An Alley Filled With Cats

Photo by Andrew Langcake

Throwing Shade Theatre Co. in association with EMU productions presents, DOWN AN ALLEY FILLED WITH CATS, by Warwick Moss, at the King St Theatre, Newtown. 25 April - 13 May.

DOWN AN ALLEY FILLED WITH CATS, is an Australian play written in 1987, by Warwick Moss. It is a two handed small-time conman comedy-thriller. Timothy Timmony, a Polish refugee second-hand book seller matches wits with a petty Aussie 'crook', Simon Matthews, in search of a 12th Century Sung Dynasty vase treasure (The Maltese Falcon?!) worth an estimated 'half-a-million'.

Two contrasting characters from two different worlds locked in the same space, over night, apply their wiles amusingly, intriguingly in classic Agatha Christie style tension: "Who's telling the truth?" "Are they who they say they are?" "Who's doing what now?" and "Who do I believe?" As the Director, Tom Richards, says in his program notes: 'We quickly learn to expect the unexpected!' That's the fun of this light entertainment and although it doesn't have the theatrical (disguise) surprises (or budget demands) of a play like Anthony Shaffer's 1970 comic thriller, SLEUTH, it certainly reminds one of it.

On a depressingly realistic set, that does look like many a second-hand bookstore in the local neighbourhood, on King St, Gabriel Egan (Simon) and William Jordan (Timothy), play it out with, as yet, a nervous bravado. Still finding their way with the text and audience, the performances should grow in confidence as the run progresses. Both these actors make the characters a winning personality - audience allegiance can switch from one to the other with ease, and one begins to 'invent' the solution to each of the plots twists for them - it is kind of fun.

I had never seen the play before, or read it, and am delighted to have caught it. It has a surprising confidence in plotting and a deft hand at characterisation and comedy-suspense. Along with Ron Blair's PRESIDENT WILSON IN PARIS, it represents a genre of Australian playwriting that is rarely seen or appreciated.

Film's I've seen recently: Beauty and The Beast and The Wolfpack

Here we go some filums I've seen recently.

1. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

A Disney and Mandeville co-production, of a live action and CGI animation version of the 1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST animation film, which has so far made $1.101 billion. There is, obviously, no accounting for taste. Except to note that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the most expensive musical movie ever made when one includes the hefty Marketing budget. Marketing the product (art?) is very important, indeed.

The film is a safe remake of the Musical created by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. It features a blatantly bland performance from Emma Watson, as Belle. (Ms Watson - Hermione from the Harry Potter franchise, in case you are trying to figure out who she is - was paid $3 million and a bonus if the film scored Big Box Office - it has! She is an admirable political activist - perhaps - but can she act?). Dan Stevens, supports as the Beast, who is more attractive in the Beast CGI disguise than as the rescued Prince. Kevin Kline gives an unusually subdued performance, as Dad - make-up is good. Luke Evans gives an unimaginative reading of egoist Gaston - looking a little old for the casting, by the way - allowing for Josh Gad, as his side-kick, Le Fou, to get acting honours and an historic Gay Moment tick box (oh, come on 'gay role play for all the movie' tick box) - whilst, meantime, Emma Thompson, as the voice for Mummy Potts, wins the the best, the most affecting performance. What a waste of Audra McDonald talents, by the way. Ian McKellen does a 'phone-in' or, what else can he do?

This new version of the story gives writing credits to Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, the film Directed dully by Bill Condon, with enough (some) classic film references to other films to entertain, to tantalise us to keep us awake - e.g. The Sound Of Music hill moment, the Frankenstein crowd hunt moments etc. Let's have a competition to see how many you can find? If only Mr Condon could top his 1998 GODS AND MONSTERS movie, or the 2004 KINSEY movie which he also wrote, we might want to believe in him again. But this is just horrible hackwork - not that of a real artist, is it?

If you have kids that have never seen a movie, take them along if you want them to have an indelible child hood memory, I guess. Don't worry too much about the subtle social engineering going on. My first cherished movie memory is SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, and I just love, Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY, and still have nightmares because of PINOCCHIO. I have turned out ok, don't you think? Disney was my childhood saviour, I guess. So, though I can be entirely bored and unimpressed with this formulaic bit of commercialism as an elitist adult poseur, it must have some value for some out there. $1.101 Billion is not anything if not good capitalism, or, is that just good altruistic Disney Corporate Family Entertainment? Would Walt have been pleased?

2. THE WOLFPACK.

THE WOLFPACK is a 2015 first time documentary made by Crystal Moselle.

Walking down a New York street, Ms Moselle encountered a pack of boys all dressed as if they were characters from Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS. She followed them and talked with them. She made friends with them, fascinated by their interest in film. They became friends and she gained their trust. These young men were more interesting than she could ever have guessed. Gradually, over time she discovered that these boys had lived most of their lives in a four bedroom apartment in the East Village. They had never, rarely, left that apartment. OMG. The Angula family, the six boys and a younger sister, under the direction of their father, Oscar, and home schooled by their mother, Susanne, rejected the corrupting outside world of the USA. Their lives were built on movies. They had a collection of some 10,000 films. They made films of their own. Building the sets and properties and making the costumes from their own resources, sometimes, shooting the same film multiple times, in their apartment.

Footage made by Ms Moselle has been augmented with a collection of home made movies made by the family over the many years of self-captivity. The film, later, captures the boys moving out from the apartment into the world and finding their way. The documentary is amazing because it is mostly just observational with occasional interview. The boys, the mum and even the dad, relate to the camera aurally, but minimally. They all appear to be remarkably adjusted and all seem to be finding a niche in the world that was once forbidden.

So many questions arise after the viewing and it is that mysterious aspect of the experience of the film that tantalises. It is that that urges me to encourage you to catch it.

Fascinating. Weird. And yet, oddly, re-assuring. I don't know why I feel that way. I know the premise should be the source of much judgment and even cynicism and yet! ... Is it the fact that there is no classic climatic drama or conflict or violence? That the film is so even tempered that one becomes detached into a 'floating' acceptance and hope for the family? That in the final images as one of the boys Directs a film of his own that has a feel/look of an Art-Indie film, like that of a Alejandro Jodorowsky film? Or, of the imagery of a Fellini. Or the atmosphere of a David Lynch. I don't know what it is!

I saw it with a friend that had seen it before and their reaction was, they said, so different from the first viewing. There are lovely 'spaces' in the footage of this documentary for you as an audience to endow, to interpret, that this film/documentary might resonate very differently for you each time you see it. Depending and been affected by your emotional state with your world. There is an ethical ill-at-ease aspect to it for me at this time, and yet at the same time, I am so curious as to know what will happen to this family, to these boys that I can't forget THE WOLFPACK. It kind of haunts you. I care for the family, the boys particularly, and have hope for their safety, happiness. Remember the 'connections' you had with the Maysles' film Grey Gardens (1976) and your fascination with the two women, mother and daughter, the Edith Beale's, living, isolated, in the East Hampton's? Then, this may be your new adopted interest/family.

Highly recommended. Truth is truly more amazing than fiction. Henry Fielding in his 1749 novel, TOM JONES, talks of the telling of the MARVELLOUS. THE WOLPACK is that experience. Marvellous. A Marvel. It has to be true, because fiction could not have imagined, invented this 'plot'/story arc. It does not follow the rules - it is alive and thence, unpredictable. Maybe that is what it is, it is as unpredictable in plot development as I hope my life can be, should be.

I saw it at my new favourite cinema: The Golden Age Cinema, down on Commonwealth St. Surry Hills. It is such a cool bar and screening room. Beware the Paramount cocktail - I had two - it was my birthday.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hysteria

Photo by Robert Catto
Darlinghurst Theatre Company, present HYSTERIA, by Terry Johnson, in the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 31 March - 30 April.

The official title of this play, written in 1993, by Terry Johnson is: "HYSTERIA, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis". The play treats the last days of Sigmund Freud, in his London refuge from Nazi Germany, dying of cancer of the jaw, hallucinating on morphine injections, given by his friend Abraham Yahuda, dealing with a visit of Jessica, his anima, (i.e. the psychological equivalent of his denied female self), who reveals herself as the daughter of Rebecca S - one of the famous foundation cases of some of the theories of Freud - is she illusory or not? - and a visit, for tea, from the famous Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Psychology Theory, (Jewish histroical/biblical identity), and the Theory of Surrealist Art are intertwined in the hysterical conversational narrative of the play.

The intermingling of the intellectual density and 'fun' of these three worlds have given this play a linking in appreciation to some of the great works of that other British playwright, Tom Stoppard e.g. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD or, better still, TRAVESTIES. For, in addition to the complication of the text material, Mr Johnson has embarked on an experiment/explication of form, by introducing the mayhem of farce - which is referenced in the play with a set of running gags concerning Freud's recent attendance at Ben Travers' ROOKERY NOOK, in the West End of London, in 1938.

The task the Director, Designers and Actors in attempting this play is one of facing up to great ambition. The double difficulties of this play has not daunted the international theatre scene, the play having been regularly revived, ventilated, over there - even declared a 'masterpiece' of this genre. Last time, shown in London, as recently as 2013, with Antony Sher, as Freud - Directed by Mr Johnson, himself. I don't remember that the play has been seen here, in Sydney, before.

At the end of this performance in the Eternity Playhouse I came away with a great admiration of the playwrighting - the ideas are, indeed, thrilling to have to reckon with - challenging, stimulating, heady. The 'drama' of the ideas, in this production, are clearly purveyed to us. What is missing from this production is the comedy of the wit and more especially of the farce in the form of the structure. There is much to be dealt with in the analysis of the obsessional neurosis of Freud and Dali, but, one truly wished that it had been leavened with the farcical elements planned by Mr Johnson. There is only half of the writer's intention, artistry, on this stage.

Ms Dowling and her Designer, Anna Gardiner, get off to a fatal start when they ignore the Design Settings indicated by the writer. The first decision was to re-configure the architectural plans of doors and windows, a catastrophic choice when working with the mechanisms of farce which the writer has meticulously worked out (mentally, choreographed) to provide the visual comedy of the farce to balance the dense verbal wit of the text. Importantly, they have, as well, ignored that the setting be 'naturalistically rendered to contrast with the design challenge towards the end of Act Two.'  Ms Dowling and Gardiner present the audience not with the naturalistic setting of Freud's consulting study at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, London (preserved as a museum today) but a surrealistic set of grey walls, one of them dramatically tilted outwardly with, necessarily, working doors, and, similarly, painted properties of books and statuettes (that provide 'screens' for projection), leaving no journey for, to the drug induced visual climax required by the writer toward the end of the play. Indeed, this production introduces the kind of imagery at the start of the play that Mr Johnson indicated is part of the climax of his play's surrealist structure - the incarnation of both the 'dream' worlds of Freud and Dali's theories. The beginning of this production of the play has a huge projected image of an injecting needle vacating, presumably, a drug (morphine) into the neck of a resting Freud. The illusory coup de theatre climax of Act Two, planned by Mr Johnson, has been, sadly, dramatically, pre-empted.

The actors in this company: Jo Turner (Sigmund Freud), Wendy Strehlow (Abraham Yahuda), Miranda Daughtry (Jessica) and Michael McStay (Salvador Dali) all have a marvellous grip on the fascinating verbal densities of Mr Johnson's text - the 'drama' of the debates are clear. But they play the farcical actions of the play and deliver the verbal wit (sometimes deliberate banalities) of the script with an earnestness that defeats any possibility of a gathering of laughter, that accumulatively, ought to be hysterical - 'an emotional frenzy', 'emotionally disordered', says my dictionary. Part of this has to do with the re-arranged architectural features of the original Design Settings - the actors are not where they should be, technically, for the playwright's planned visual gags to work - but, also, with the casting.

It seemed to me that Ms Strehlow is the only actor who has an instinctive flair for the kind of comedy she is in - her energy, and physical and verbal timing and intonation is spot-on. (One should note, that Ms Strehlow is cast against gender as the historical figure, Abraham Yahuda. "For, why?', some of us may ask - it does not seem to have a rhyme or reason to be so, and, maybe, I extrapolate, it is just a contemporary 'political' gesture by this company to achieve gender parity on stage - but, I should remark, by the way, it is extremely well done by Ms Strehlow, it is a wonderful and convincing bit of characterisation [despite the fact she never ever wears a suit jacket - oddly unconventional for the period!] Ms Strehlow is, indeed, a terrific actor). Michael McStay seems to have the intellectual acumen to deliver the intellectualisations of the Dali of the play, but seems woefully, inexperienced or unaware of comic playing - his vocal work is just under par - diction and musicality - and, as a great deal of the Dali comedy is in the idiosyncratic use of English by this Spaniard, it disarms/hides much of the witty, bubbling hysteria of the scenes. While Ms Daughty has, too, intellectual agility, she appears to be capable of being only 'deadly' serious with next to no instincts or abilities for the comic possibility of her role. Mr Turner, in the central role of Freud, is caught with no real actor to play his comedy opportunities off, except Ms Strehlow, but that is not often enough, to create much of the comic havoc that the role has the potential to deliver - Mr McStay and Ms Daughty, being 'dead comic weights' - there is nothing for Mr Turner to build his comedy with or from.

The opening black and white videography, assumedly the decision of Director and Designer, reminded me almost instantly of the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock film, SPELLBOUND. SPELLBOUND is about a Freudian psychologist played by Ingrid Bergman helping a man (Gregory Peck) unscramble a guilt complex. (P.S. for you acting buffs the famous Russian actor/teacher, Michael Chekhov, is also in the film in a supporting role). Part of the film includes a dream sequence that was conceived and designed by Salvador Dali (although, only 2 minutes survived from, a now lost 22 minute sequence). The camera work and angles of the HYSTERIA videography had the hall marks of Hitchcock style - I, also recalled a similar conceit used by the visiting Kneehigh production of a staged version of BRIEF ENCOUNTER, with steam train images, noise etc., etc. - so that the coincidence of Freud and Dali and this video imagery threw me into seeing the earnestness of the acting in that film and felt that that is what this company of actors were, possibly, unconsciously, replicating. It certainly explains in my consciousness the dullness of the comedy affects in this production.

Whatever, this production of Terry Johnson's play has only half of its intention on stage. The half that is on stage is fascinating - it is why I then re-read the play, but there is no substitute of reward by not seeing the intended farce as well, and reading the play can't do that - those words and scripted intentions need the 'right' flesh to bring them to life. It is this bravura commitment of the writer that has made this play A. Formidbale, but, also B. a Masterpiece. The play remans Formidable for Darlinghurst Theatre Company and is no Masterpiece in this production. Unfortunate.

Big Fish

Photograph by Kate Williams
RPG Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Company presents, BIG FISH - 12 Chairs Version: Book by John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and The Columbia Motion Picture written by John August. Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 18 April - 14 May.

This version of the Broadway musical, BIG FISH is called the 12 Chair Version. The original production had, for instance, a cast of something like 45 performers. This version has only 12. It is an authenticated and approved version. At the performance I saw it was a 13 Chair (performer) version. The leading actor, Phillip Lowe, was suffering from a voice difficulty, and so, as so often happens at the Opera, for instance, Mr Lowe walked-danced the role he had rehearsed, but was voiced, both dialogue and song (under-studied) by the Director, Tyran Parke, in a 'chair' in the front row. Mr Lowe did not lip-sync the dialogue just the songs - it was still a very effective, affective experience. (It did underline, however, the odd disembodied experience we have with much musical theatre, when the voices are miked - the sound coming from the broadcast speakers rather than from the body of the actors - so one can ask: does it really matter whether the performers are actually singing or lip-synching to create an experience for the audience at a modern Musical Theatre performance? It seemed not at BIG FISH with Tyran Parke singing while Phillip Lowe mimed and lip-synched - it all seemed normal! It may be what, among other things, made the recent CALAMITY JANE experience so refreshingly exciting, in that the actors sang unaided by electronic boost - we, the audience, were invited to 'lean' into the artists and see AND hear the sound coming from the actual body of the artist, not from broadcast speakers above our/their heads - we became a vulnerable part of the imaginative, visceral experience with the performers.)

Mr Parke, has created a beautiful production with the Production Design elements by Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt creating a false proscenium of ocean blues and white gauze curtains for the magic of the storytelling with costume and properties wittily and 'magically', often 'delicately', apt for the shift in scene and storytelling. The Lighting by Matthew Tunchon has a tremendous diverse and intricate sensitivity in assisting in the 'gorgeousness' of the show - it looks marvellous. The Choreography, by Cameron Mitchell is inventive and lightweight - in the proper sense (an amazing contrast in 'style' to his clever non-choreographic influence in CALAMITY JANE, the last show seen at the Hayes), and executed with élan and gusto by all on this tiny stage.

The musical Direction, by Luke Byrne, with his small band of six musicians has a depth of Sound and a briskness that keeps it all moving - even if the Music score and lyrics, by Andrew Lippa, are not necessarily memorable. All of the performances are well acted, sung and danced - there was a great sense of the ensemble carrying the responsibility of the storytelling of this musical with great heart and imbued belief - it seemed they 'loved' what they were doing: Seth Drury (oddly, affecting as Karl the Giant), Brendan Godwin, Joel Granger, Zoe Ioannou, Brenden Lovett (full of inventive energy and having fun with a number of 'hair' disguises), Alessandro Merlo, Brittanie Shipway, Aaron Tsindos (enjoying himself in this genre) and Zachary Webster, with Phillip Lowe, in the principal role of Edward Bloom (voiced amazingly well by Tyran Parke), Katrina Retallick (strolling comfortably through the role of the wife and mother, Sandra Bloom) Adam Rennie, as Will Bloom (well sung, if not, always, carrying the role of the disaffected son convincingly) and Kirby Burgess. A young actor, on my night, Sam Wood, confidently took on the young Will Bloom.

One could not want a more wonderfully executed production. It is first class.

I personally, do not like the premise of BIG FISH - nor, do I much warm to the hero of the story, Edward Bloom - it has the overt sentimentality of a classic Broadway musical - a fractious father (Edward) and son (Will) relationship; the father being a Travelling Salesman (hello Mr Loman) and a Disillusioned Son (hello Biff), which is reconciled at a painful death-bed of cancer, with a contrasting birth of a new son and father relationship arriving (aww!), which, they seem to promise, will be better - lessons have been learnt (Yes). Intermingle some wholesome, heart-warming stories spun with all the misty romance of a knee-slapping country Alabama populated by naive 'yokels', circus folk, fish, mermaids, witches, giants and heroics that push the limits of believability, and add the 'reality' tension of a patient wife suspecting an uncomfortable extra-marital affair (that may or may not have been requited) and a town threatened with flooding, and you may exit the theatre with a 'sugar-hit' of indigestible manipulation. On the other hand it may be just what you love about the musical theatre genre: says the synopsis in the program at its end: "BIG FISH, a magnificent tale. Spectacular, fantastical, and overflowing with love."

In an early flash back scene, Edward sits on his son's bed and tries to read to him the book his boy Will had been reading. Edward - dad - cannot even pronounce the characters' names, it is the Greek classic, Homer's THE ODYSSEY. He tells Will to abandon such stuff, flinging the closed book to the bottom of the bed, and rather to listen to his dad's home spun stuff about a witch and a predicted future. But, you know what? after watching this show, I reckon, Will was on the right track. I wished that Will had won out and we had heard the story of Agamemnon instead of Edward's hero.

The Hayes Theatre quality production reputation flies high no matter the content of the show. - and that is simply a matter of personal taste.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Sylph


Harlos Productions presents THE SYLPH, by Jodi Rose, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown. 18 - 29 April.

THE SYLPH, a new Australian play by new-comer, Jodi Rose.

Ms Rose was a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet Company and settled in Sydney in 1994, where she set up a studio for the teaching of ballet. One of her students, for over 20 years, is the actress Gertraud Ingeborg (is still!), and after a conversation realised that her teacher had an idea to write a play about a famous ballerina, Marie Taglioni, an Italian dancer of the early 1800's. Colleen Cook came on board as Director, and together these three women worked on a one woman play that reveals the professional and personal life of 'a superstar' in her time - the same time, of history, as the women of  FALLEN.

As we discover, throughout the course of this play, the professionalism and personal sacrifices that Marie Taglioni had to make to achieve success and renown were as fierce and demanding then, as they are for professional artists today - one that is full of passionate dedication and the strains of what it is to be human: the demands of a merciless profession for physical perfection and the needs of a woman for love and family - the tensions between the 'extraordinary' and 'ordinary' demands of a life.

Besides meeting an artist that has, for most, disappeared into the mists of time, the magic of THE SYLPH is the witnessing of a similarly dedicated artist, Ms Ingeborg, with her profound personalisation and keen identification that translates to an almost seamless 'possession' of Marie, the dancer of the play. The spirit of both these unique artists in their pursuit of excellence are personified here with skill and glowing personal insight and warmth. One becomes 'bewitched' by Ms Ingeborg's performance as a gentle, charm filled seduction resonating with lived 'truths'. The performance glows like a tiny jewel under spotlight.

Ms Rose, Ingeborg and Cook have investigated and retrieved the life of a woman of the mid-nineteenth century and revealed, with their portrait of Marie Tagliani,  a complex and full creation, fulfilling what seemed to be similar creative objectives of the recent team behind the She Said Theatre venture, FALLEN. But, here, Harlos Productions, with deep research and authentic identification, both 'historic' and 'contemporary', have resulted an imaginative and authentic work of integrity and social 'importance'.

One wishes that this jewel sat in a more beautiful 'jewel box' - the Design elements at the Old 505 Theatre are merely pragmatic and are an aesthetic hindrance to the full pull of this play and performance, which is obviously an act of love from the three propelling artists responsible for its arrival in the Sydney theatre landscape. (Let us hope for a theatre 'angel' to provide a more generous budget, to fulfil the full potential 'magic' of this production, that ought to have another 'life' - WITS, take note.)

THE SYLPH should be of interest to balletomanes, and to collectors of unique performances from independent artists, of which Ms Ingeborg is a shining and persistent example. Whether the contemporary political agency that the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) have set out to conscientiously fulfil in their interest in FALLEN, is at the the core of THE SLYPH's existence, or not, this work should be, could be, at the centre of that audience's interest, too.

It is a short season. Do Go.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo


Mad March Hare Theatre in association with Red Line Production present, BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, at the Old Fitz Theatre, in Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. 12 April - 6 May.

An Easter Saturday night opening at the Old Fitz. And what an opening. BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, by Rajiv Joseph, presented by a young Independent Company, Mad March Hare Theatre, Directed by Claudia Barrie, was an unexpected pleasure. One of the highest order.

On the eve of the celebration of the Resurrection of the Christ of the Christian faith - a faith that has, for me, given deeply seated ethics to try to live by, but which have, as I travel the wearisome path of living and witnessing my world events, become less and less powerful in my debating consciousness, to try to reckon the 'balance' and 'justice' of what I 'know' as right and wrong, good and evil, so that the gathering conclusion that it is our animal nature (perhaps, like that of a Tiger) that will dominate our choices on this planet over that other 'gift' we have developed as a species, of reason, brings no elation. But, Mr Joseph, with this play, has found a means to startle one to fresh musings as to just why we, homo sapiens, exist and what for? It is a wonderful couple of hours that is as refreshingly 'deep' as it is funny and compassionate, though not necessarily, absolutely, re-assuring. One leaves the theatre with two gifts, the first a refreshed pondering upon our species' continuing cataclysmic choices, and a celebration of the power of the theatre, when the writing is as daring and good as this.

Rajiv Joseph has written a play that straddles the live world and the bardo. The bardo is that state of the soul between its death and rebirth. When you die, some believe, you enter the bardo and your true nature is uncovered. The Bengal Tiger, two American army 'grunts', Tom and Kev, one of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday, with his brother's, Qusay's, decapitated head in a plastic bag, and the haunting presence of a defiled and ravaged innocent, Hadia, move and hover in the bardo, to reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of the living animal than they had when alive, and, yet, are still in suspense, throughout, about the meaning of it all. A talking wraith-tiger and many talking human ghosts in the city of Baghdad at the zoo (and later, prophetically, at a leper colony) at the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 is part of the theatrically brilliant imagination of Mr Joseph. The existential provocations of all, especially from the Tiger, are a kind of fertile 'garden' of some verbal beauty.

In the play we meet our journeyman, Musa, an Iraqi interpreter for the American invaders, who was once an artist/gardener and had made the fantastically beautiful topiary garden for the bloody, violent Uday in his enclave. It is Musa's tragic history we follow as he has an 'engagement' with all the other characters at some point in the play. A gold plated pistol and a golden toilet seat, once belonging to Uday, too, become the plot device to draw us through the drama and intellectual 'topiary' of this play.

I could not help but be enthralled by this magnificent text that dared to talk to us as adults and be unafraid to grapple with the existential questions that have haunted us from the time of the Greeks into Shakespeare, and, forward, for instance, into the modern times of Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, in the public, secular spaces of our theatre. Mr Joseph creates a real and surreal world, an absurdist world, switching from one to the other with ease and unrelenting focus, balancing seriousness of mind with 'whacky', one-line zingers of comedy. I have not had a better time in the theatre since ANGELS IN AMERICA for the assiduous and daring conversations that we have with the characters, and the challenge of the content of the play.

On top of that, Mad March Theatre has found a group of collaborators that confidently and without a single unsteady will, deliver clarity and vivacity to all that they do in service to the vision of Mr Joseph's play. Set Designer Isabel Hudson has found a magnificently simple solution to using this small Old Fitz space to accommodate all the needs of the play - a diagonal damaged wire fence through which most move from one world to the other, and a set of LED animal masks (using templates provided by Wintercroft Masks) to make living 'topiary' hedges, that are wonderfully executed, and resonate both with beauty and a grimness. The Costume Design, by Stephanie Howe is also carefully and beautifully wrought. Benjamin Brockman has created a visual 'gothic' with his detailed and atmospheric Lighting Design. Nate Edmondson, Composer and Sound Designer, has contributed a rousing and propelling, authentic sounding soundscape to keep the play moving and focused - the best of his prolific contributions to the Sydney theatre world for some time.

All of the actors are impressive. Josh Anderson, creates graphically a relatively simple minded soldier of war, Kev, who becomes 'blasted' with the experience of it all and finds himself incarcerated in a 'madness' that has him moving to the bardo where, too late, some knowledge of what life is, becomes a relief. Tom, played dynamically by Stephen Multari, a soldier 'injured' with the loss of a hand and the blight of greed - his possession of 'gold' - drives himself to self-estruction. Tyler de Nawi, as the ghost of Uday, is impressive with his double-identity as a lover of beauty and a ruthless psychotic bloody villain - come-to-me sexy and yet repellant, both at once. Megan Smart and Aanisa Vylet are convincing and startling in their characterisations, presenting the literal as well as the metaphoric power of what they have to do. Maggie Dence as the Bengal Tiger (the role performed by Robin Williams on Broadway) is steady and wise with a huge textual responsibility, carrying the dignity of the benighted Tiger with simple feline gesture and a ready wit for the humour and a gravity for the 'philosophy'. While Andrew Lindqvist, as Musa, gives a slow burn of a performance that gathers impact and power as it unwinds - an intelligent - dramatically well-plotted - and moving performance. Musa and the Leper, are the only live characters left at the end of the play. The former has a decaying 'spirit', the latter, a decayed, decaying body - they have not yet entered the bardo. And nor have we!

Credit must go to Ms Barrie who has Directed a wonderful night in the theatre. Her aesthetic control, her guidance of the actors and other collaborators, and the confident clarity of her exposing of the text, the writing, is very, very adept. (Too, she has negotiated the tricky need for some of her actors to speak in Iraqi with seeming success).I have seen her work with BELLEVILLE and SHIVERED and a growing confidence informs each of her productions with play choices of some formidable challenge. Pay attention to her work, I reckon. Something special this way comes.

Go. Do not miss this production if you cherish theatrical excellence.

P.S. I hope our playwrights go to see this play. With our prodigious play writing industry (see my blog summary of LOOKING BACK AT 2106) one continues to ask where are the plays? BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO has vision, courage, intelligence and a refined sense of theatre craft - how to tell a story, how to illuminate an 'agenda', how to entertain and enlighten. Compared to my last experience at the theatre, which was FALLEN, a new Australian play, at the Seymour Centre, The Mad March Theatre Production of BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, shows the way. Writing (the Writer is God - poor writing, no play [I know, from first hand experience!]. One cannot make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, no matter how clever the actor), directing, design and acting, all the 'tools' in place to demonstrate why the theatre is important and irreplaceable as a forum for the search for meaning in our lives. It is a heritage that has been going on for two and half thousand years!

P.S to the P.S. Who reads plays at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Belvoir? Why haven't those companies produced this play? It is a credit to the Independent Theatre scene in Sydney that this play has finally been produced. It is a shame that the major companies did not include it in their repertoire, don't you think? After all it only has a cast of 7! well within the STC budget display at this administrative heavy company. And with imagination, as demonstrated at the Old Fitz, the Design can be solved.Who reads and recommends the plays?

N.B. This company has not in their program notes included the writer, the reason why all this exists. Grrrr! Briefly, Rajiv Joseph has written many plays, ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER (2008) was produced at the Ensemble, and GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (2009) has had several airings in Sydney. BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO was first performed in California in 2009, and opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre, Broadway, in 2011 in a limited season, with Robin Williams. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. NEXT TO NORMAL, a musical, controversially won it. Hmmm?

Fallen



Sport For Jove Theatre Company, She Said Theatre and Seymour Centre present FALLEN, by Seanna van Helten, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Rd. Chippendale. 6 April - 22 April.

FALLEN is a new Australian play by Melbourne writer, Seanna van Helten. In FALLEN we meet six women, five young girls: Martha (Abbie-lee Lewis), Georgie (Eloise Winestock) Julia (Moreblessing Maturure) Isabella (Rebecca Montalti) and a late comer, to the house, Rosina (Chantelle Jamieson), with a supervising Matron (Lucy Goleby), who are inmates in a house of Charity, a half-way house, in London in the Victorian era, early, 1847.

Over the two act play, of three hours (including interval) we watch these young women, chosen particularly, volunteered specifically, act out their relationships, that seem to revolve around the perennial human needs (no matter what gender) of avarice and ambition, greed and power. Despite they been dressed in quasi-period costume (Chloe Greaves) with some generally untidy period hair styles (Benjamin Moir), most of these actors cavort with loose modern physicality (Anja Mujic, Movement Director) and with broad Australian dialects as freely as if they were playing in the same psychological territory as the young women in HEATHERS (1990 film) or MEAN GIRLS (2004 film). The experience of the production of FALLEN feels as if we were witnessing a period costumed episode for/from the television series of PRISONER or WENTWORTH. These women in Urania Cottage could be the women in Wentworth or, even ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK - bar the dialects. "Girls will be girls", it seems to be saying.Yes? No?

The many scenes of FALLEN present the women dealing with each other and the Matron of the house, manipulating, teasing, quarrelling, flirting, with little to no dramatic revelation or motivation and next to no storyline. The dramatic arc, the journey of these characters is almost a flatline. Where we begin with them is near where we end with them. The individual scene writing is of interest but they, collectively, just don't go very far, narratively, side-by-side. A collection of beads do not make a necklace without the string to display them. A collection of scenes do not make a play without the string of forward action of want - a what and why of the action, a clear plot. The women of this play have volunteered to be where they are, they have accepted the conditions of their 'contract' because they all want the same thing - a better life. Just what that better life of these individuals maybe is hardly examined in this text. We get to know little of their past and little of their expectations of their personal wants for their future - we see only the slow stewing pressures of the present in the emotional hothouse of this cottage. This is a work of fiction and little poetic licence or research seems to have taken place among the collaborators bar, perhaps, a heaping on of the contemporary personalisations of each of the artists - with little or no absorption of the given circumstances of the place and time of the story they have decided to tell - early Victorian England.

The inspiration of this play comes from some discovered facts concerning the founding of Urania Cottage as a Home For Fallen Women, in Acton Road, Shepherds Bush, through the philanthropic interests of Miss Burdett-Coutts, an independently wealthy heiress and the novelist Charles Dickens.(The mention of Dickens "a famous man", suggests the Director, requires an insertion of "an eye rolling emoji". Though not one for the independently famous wealthy woman, I note.) The plan was to select some women from desperate circumstances, provide a refuge for them, as an alternative to the other workhouse propositions, to have them to try to forget their past, and to offer education in domestic skills to provide opportunity for a new beginning, a new life, perhaps in the colony of Australia. Dickens' philosophy was of the most practical kind to "... action, usefulness - and the determination to be of service ... The World is not a dream but a reality, of which we are the chief part. ... " Once the Urania Cottage was formally opened, having selected the Chaplain, the Matron and set details of costume and study, Dickens took a very active interest in overseeing the major part of the routine (one wonders whether it was a crucible of observation for his writing? Isabella Gordon, one of the women at the cottage seems to have been the origin of Martha in DAVID COPPERFIELD.) The experiment was destined for failure, Dickens and Miss Burdett-Coutts suffered disappointment, for the first women who had been sent out to Australia in order to start new lives had apparently taken up prostitution on the ship itself. The particular group in the study of this play are based on the story of Isabella Gordon, who in league with two others, began to stir up resentment against the Matron and her assistant.

Little is known of the actual women, the Director Penny Harpham tells us, that they are 'untraceable' 'vanished' 'disappeared', so that a lot of the psychology and backstory of the characters in FALLEN is a generalised 'gist' of likelihoods - mostly with backgrounds of mistreatment, fantasy, and deprivation leading to prostitution etc. As such the subjects/the women of the play are a disappointment and are as 'insipid' and or 'stupid' as most of Dickens' young heroines in his novels - he was in the midst of writing DOMBEY AND SON - particularly as at the same time as this philanthropic endeavour was taking place, JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS - with startling women characters, written by women - and Thackery's VANITY FAIR, with one of the most brilliantly notorious women of fiction, Becky Sharp, appeared. With wider reading from the novels of the Victorian era, the world of FALLEN could have been peopled with some truly dynamic role models for the fictional world of this play's construct and agenda. Women of intelligence, active instinct and courage in the face of adversity and social discrimination.

For what do Ms van Helten and her Director, Penny Harpham have the female protagonists actually do in this play? Say in this play? Not much more, it seemed than the familiar behaviours that have trivialised the female sex in most literary history, with their continuous teasing each other, plotting, spying against each other, fighting and dancing with each other. Do they actually work or are they wiling away the time waiting for someone to rescue them, whether it be a male hero or villain, sending notes through the cracks in the wall, the fences? Oh, how I longed for one of the great revolutionary heroines of Victorian literature to be shadowed in this play as a protagonist of some power in it. With some of the traits of a Jane Eyre we may have had the spirit of a Germaine Greer infusing this play with some real muscular and consequential heft. With Becky Sharp, whose sprit could we have seen? Or, Diana Merion, the DIANA OF THE CROSSWAYS of George Meredith, what insights into the conflicts that besiege the women who attempt independence could we have seen investigated. What if Sue Brideshead in Hardy's JUDE THE OBSCURE, or Rhoda Nunn in Gissing's THE ODD WOMEN or Isabel Archer from Henry James' THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, had been an inspiration for complexity for the women in this fictionalised play?

Generally, it seems to me, reading the program notes and publicity blurbs, the Writer and Director, were deploring the ways in which Victorian women are recollected as conforming to social stereotypes; where they appeared frail, less intelligent, dependent on men (Dickens in this case - insert, eye rolling emoji!) but controlling or diverting male lust by serving as wives, guardians of hearth and home. (Why have the artists not conceived a role for representation of Ms Burdett-Coutts in the schemata of this play, I wondered - selective exclusion?) There is little in depth of study  of the period of history and an application of that to this play script's integrity.

This is true of other contributions to this production. The acting has some considerable diversity in the participants experience and skill and so the playing is not of the same world or play. The responsibility for this is first that of the Actor and then the Director. We have, for instance, a kind of sophistication of skill and general insight into the world of the play with Ms Goleby's creation of the Matron (classic gothic villain with a shadowy, salaciously suppressed lesbian undertow), but a merely personalised ownership - playing herself, as Isabella, in an extreme naturalistic life-like mode from Ms Montalti - sometimes barely able to be heard in the audience, and presenting a choice of a modern ill-discilpne of physical characterisation. This could also be said of Moreblessing Maturure's performance as Julia - a lack of skill in both voice and body undermines the clarity of her storytelling tasks, no matter the apparent 'truth' of the emotional connections she seems to identify. Her lack of proficiency always distracts us from the character to the actor's problems. And what was the Director's dramaturgical decision aiming at at having these English characters, who have, I imagine a variety of regional dialects,  speaking in an anachronistic and broad range of Australian sound? It was faintly ridiculous everytime they spoke of far away Australia as their coming destination - it seemed that they had been born and bred there. The rationalising of the choice was/is fairly opaque.

The Set Design by Owen Phillips had a grey screen wall, divided into furnished acting spaces, that created only a vague sense of period or reality - rather it seemed to have been decided upon to facilitate a Video Design, by Michael Carmody, and though that was often hauntingly beautiful and I thought had potential impact, it was not fully realised by the team in storytelling terms. The prominent door handles on the set were so inappropriate for the period that they became a centre of much distraction for me. Too, the bobby pins in the hair of the women - did they belong to this period? And what of the pet wild mouse kept in a little box with a sliding lid that often was wide open during long conversation? Why didn't that mouse leap from its prison with such an easy egress available - or, I began to think, was its failure to get out and escape, a simple metaphor for the paralysis of any of these women to leave what we came to understand in the text of this play their unhappy prison?  "No", I cynically  thought to myself, "too sophisticated a decision to have been made for this production!" (When one is not engaged in the content and drama of a play one has some (a lot of) spare time to see and wonder why things are. In nearly three hours of watching one has to be engaged some way!)

SHE SAID THEATRE is a Melbourne Company and this play came to attention after great support from many different 'agencies' in our current 'industry' to develop new Australian plays via Playwriting Australia (Tim Roseman, Samantha Hickey), the National Script Workshop, and the Victorian College of the Arts (Raimondo Cortese, Richard Murphet), and a reading of it at the FESTIVAL FATALE run by the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) at the Darlinghurst Theatre,  last year (2016). SPORT FOR JOVE, under the encouragement from Lizzie Schebesta, it seems - a regular actor with Sport For Jove and an active founder of WITS - has taken on the premiere production of this play. And while the venture certainly ticks many popular boxes for contemporary exhibition: a play investigating the role of women in society; a play with female characters played by women; a production team of collaborators dominated by women artists; a deliberate diversity of casting along multi-cultural representation, what the play does not have, at this time, is a  tick-box for homogeneity of skills, or depth of investigation of the world of the play. This is the first production of this work and if we were in a more sophisticated Arts precinct, this production would serve as a springboard for re-writing to lead to the development of another production, if one thought it worthwhile. The experience of most American plays that reach the principal centres of performance often have five to six - more - productions and Draft development. Here, in Australia that is, rarely, the case. This is not Sport For Jove's first new play venture, last year's ANTIGONE was a new work and was certainly at a more sophisticated level of readiness for presentation than FALLEN. What are the lessons learnt by this company from this production in the Reginald, and what development will happen with this play, as a result of this public exposure? Or, more than likely, knowing the precedents of history, will it now go into a bottom draw in somebody's bedroom, or study?

One had high expectations for this work. I have enjoyed other work examining the position of women in an historic period, that illuminated the past for the present: the work of Pam Gems (QUEEN CHRISTINA; CAMILLE) or April de Angelis (PLAYHOUSE CREATURES), and both these playwrights could serve as models of approach. Disappointment only lets me appreciate FALLEN as an explorative workshop of a new raw text rather than as a finished new play. It needs to have a more detailed research period and a more complex philosophic tethering for existing, and more care about the casting. It felt, merely, a fashionable and over hasty enterprise rather than a serious attempt to examine its originating raison d'être. Says Director, Penny Harpham:
As women, we know too well that what is said about us is very different to how we might actually feel or what the reality of our situation really is. We're used to be spoken about, sidelined and have rules and laws about our bodies and lives dictated and decided by men. We wanted to give these women a chance at a more complex, a more full, a more challenging representation. The quiet revolution for us has begun.
Sadly, there is not much challenging going on with this play through the female gaze of these artists. There is little new complexity, or fuller representation of these women of our Victorian past - we have seen and heard what they say and do in Ms van Helten's FALLEN, all before, in other works,  in Dicken's for example - (insert, eye rolling emoji.) The Female gaze here is not easily discernibly different to what we have already read or seen. There is no revolution sparked here with this play. It is more a kind of 'huff and puff'. There is barely a glimmer of revolutionary imagination or original enlightenment for us.

Unfortunately, SHE SAID THEATRE, with this play and production of FALLEN, has the aspirations of angels, and only that.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong


Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence in association with David Atkins Enterprises and ABA present the Mischief Theatre company Production of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd Walsh Bay. 5 April - 21 May.

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is by three writers, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer (both LAMDA graduates) and Henry Shields. It was a production by Mischief Theatre at the Old Lion Theatre, London, that was picked up commercially and has had an extraordinary success in the West End, London, and recently opened in New York. From little things great things grow! This production has an Australian company of actors - with one exception - Directed by a British Director, Sean Turner.

I saw this production a week after the press night. The large audience in the Roslyn Packer Theatre were, what in the industry are known as the "GP" (i.e. General Public). I didn't meet or see anyone that I knew - no 'professional' theatre goers, then, no Opening Night 'snobs'. This audience responded to this 'show' with a generosity of heart and hilarity from the first 'beats' of the comedy, that began before the play proper, and carried on, unflaggingly, throughout a generous two hour length, that included an interval (a necessary rest for most of the audience, it seemed to me). One would have to be a 'hard hearted adamant' not to respond to what was going on, firstly, on stage, and secondly, in the auditorium, with anything but a fun-filled humour.

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a silly but constantly hilarious performance of THE MURDER AT FAVERSHAM MANOR, by Susie H.K. Brideswell, Produced, Directed, Designed and everything else, as well as starring, Chris Bean, for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society.

What can go wrong during a performance goes wrong in this show. Now, for anyone that has ever participated in the theatre, whether amateur or professional, you will recognise most, if not all of the disasters that are strewn across the two hours of traffic on this stage. Fortunately, though I recognised most of the events, they never occurred, in my experiences, all on the one night - 'til now! Clearly, this audience I was with recognised the veracity of the disasters in front of their eyes. Besides, helpless long choruses of laughter, there were also many, many rounds of applause as the actors of THE MURDER AT FAVERSHAM MANOR coped, and, often, ingeniously, solved the problems arising, so that the Show Must Keep Going-on.

What you see has to be seen to be believed. And what you see will not let you sit there with a po faced grip unless you are 'dead'. - even then, considering the energy of attention and appreciation of the audience around one, a comic infection will take place and one will be 'electrified' as Frankenstein's monster was into life and be urged to cry out as Olivia does in TWELFTH NIGHT (in different circumstances) "How now! Even so quickly may one catch the plague ... Methinks I feel this [play's] perfections, with an invisible and subtle stealth, to creep in at mine eyes' and ears, and bids one to surrender to all this joyful silliness.

Of recent times ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, NOISES OFF, two 'BIG' commercial farces have swept their audiences, in Sydney, into a frenzy of comic release, and maybe as a sign of the needs of our contemporary life mood, young Australian writers such as Declan Greene with his play, THE HOMOSEXUALS OR FAGGOTS and Kate Mulvany and her, THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR, have embraced the world of FARCE, to entertain (enlighten) their audience.

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, unlike, perhaps some of the other plays I have mentioned, does not necessarily set out with any deep social agenda/issue to extrapolate, except, perhaps to entertain and induce an admiration of the need to survive and to keep going, no matter the obstacles.

Adam Dunn, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Darcy Brown, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, Brooke Satchwell, Tammy Weller, Francine Cain, Jordan Prosser, Matthew Whitty and Resident Director and Actor - an actor from the London experience - James Marlowe, are outrageously heroic and adept in keeping this most difficult form of theatre humming along with a fearless and generous skill and, I have to say, courage - it looks dangerous! In the original ingenious Set Design by Nigel Hook, Lighting by Ric Mountjoy and Costume Design by Roberto Surace, a terrific night can be had in the theatre.

Suspend any intellectual pretensions and you will find a vulnerability to the possible health virtues of the effects of generous comedy bubbling irresistibly to the surface of your presence. You might even have a lighter step as you go out of the theatre to 'face the day' we are all living through in 2017 - rain or no rain, Syria, North Korea, Puitn or no Putin, Trump or no Trump, Hanson or no Abbott. I had a great time not only because of the events on the stage but because I was surrounded by an audience absolutely having a visceral fun filled delight, and it was difficult to resist either of those energies. I can recommend THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG to those with an appreciation/sense of the ridiculous - that also has, for some of us, (though for most of this audience, it seemed) observations of theatrical stage disasters, that at our re-union theatre gatherings we re-call with embroidered enthusiasms. (The stories of the STC NICHOLAS NICKLEBY company have kept many a friendship aright and alight! - don't ask. ... Well, if you must,begin by asking any of us: "What was the Brooker Club?")

Go.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Rasputin Affair


Ensemble Theatre present the World Premiere of THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR, by Kate Mulvany, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 1 April - 30 April.

THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR is a new Australian play by Kate Mulvany. The play is concerned with the assassination, in December, 1916, of Rasputin, a Russian peasant, semi-literate monk and mystic, who exercised extraordinary power over the last of the ruling Romanoff family: Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.

There is a note in the program:
Although this play is based on true people and events, some events and characters in this play have been fictionalised and should not be construed as truth.
And, this is the case. Though, as a curious and avid reader of the strange historical enigma that Rasputin has become, Ms Mulvany's play, for me, is tantalisingly, more than less accurate in its detail. There is, however, some 'licence' taken with the appropriation of Russia's history and this particular story in the comic, farcical mode that the work is draped in.

The production has some first class work, from the actors, Tom Budge (as Felix i.e. Prince Felix Yusupov), John Gaden, in very fine form (as Vlad, i.e. Vladimir Purishkevich - a right wing politician), Hamish Michael (as Dimitri i.e. Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich), Sean O'Shea (as Grigory Efimovich Rasputin) and Zindzi Okenyo (as Minya, a peasant servant and many other guises).

Director, John Sheedy has the actors spinning in a helter skelter of comic offers in a very assured and complicated production. He has elicited from his Designer, Alicia Clements, a delicious and witty Set, staging the many entrances and exits and different locations with panache. The Costuming, too, is meticulous, whilst, the Lighting Design from Matthew Marshall is spectacular, accompanied with a very detailed and supportive Sound design from Neil McLean. All the elements of this handsome Ensemble production are, indeed, top of the rank.

There is a problem, however, in that the comic tone of the work just does not seem to have found its right knell. With the tolling bells of the opening sound cues, and the reading of a dreadfully prophetic letter by the Monk Rasputin, to begin with, the audience are left not quite sure on how to 'read' the production that follows. It has all the intimations of a very interesting story but the playing of the actors seems to 'rocket' off, immediately, into a stratosphere of farcical exaggeration that the audience hasn't quite been prepared for, and so, not grasped and are, subsequently, unable to get aboard with them, no matter the excellent 'lunacy' of the said comic skills of the actors - in fact, that excellent lunacy, is, rather, I think, a bewildering barrier to entrance and comprehension. Just who are 'Fifi', Vlad and Dimitri, that we meet suddenly, and more than a little hysterically? And what an odd dialectical sound is coming from the tinted bespectacled servant - who is she? Is she who they say she is? In fact, with my audience, it is not until after the interval, when, presumably, they had conversed with each other about who was who and what was happening, that they were able to fully participate in the play. True, the play, also becomes more physically, nakedly comic, and in text becomes rather more contemporary in its vernacular.

THE RASPUTIN AFFAIR is as brave an attempt at farce as is Declan Greene's THE HOMOSEXUALS OR FAGGOTS, over at the SBW Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, but its purpose in this mode of writing is rather, in comparison, opaque. Just what is the playwright, Ms Mulvany, saying with this wonderful cocktail of history and comic invention? What does this mayhem of history and comic flair give us to take away, other than a chase of 'entertainment', that does demand that you jump on board at a perilous speed of unprepared commitment?

Is it that truth is stranger than fiction and that the facts of history can be really, truly farcical? For, the subject and content of this play are historically true: Rasputin was poisoned and shot many times, beaten and thrown, trussed, in a rug, off the Petrovsky bridge, and, yet, on autopsy, it was drowning that was found to be his cause of death. The prophetic letter read as prologue and epilogue to the action of this play does, also, actually exist! If the facts of history can be fraught with farce, and that is the statement/point of this play, it might help to let us know with a little more clarity somewhere in one of the character's speeches - for at the moment one leaves the theatre as to wondering why and wherefore have the Artists expended so much effort for such little point. In this it is found wanting, unlike Mr Greene's farce, that has a verbal wallop (startingly political) in the sting of its tail.

This production of Ms Mulvany's play has a similar raucousness as the 1978 Boney M pop song: RASPUTIN.

Ra ra Rasputin Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Ra ra Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame the way he carried on
... Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame ...
They put some poison in his wine
He drank it and said I feel fine...
And so they shot him 'til he was dead.
Ra ra Rasputin ...

On the other hand I can recommend some engrossing, serious reading:

RASPUTIN; Rascal Master, by Jane Oakley. 1989. Labyrinth Publishing S.A. Switzerland.
RASPUTIN: The Last Word, by Edvard Radzinsky. 2000. Translated from the Russian by Judson Rosengrant. Allen & Unwin Australia.
THE ROMANOVS: 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. 2016. Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
RASPUTIN, by Douglas Smith. 2016. Pan MacMillan.

Go see for yourself.

P.S. In the above book: THE ROMANOVS, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, there is a footnote at the end of the chapter titled 'Catastrophe', dealing with the Rasputin 'era'. (p. 598.)

            One of those who cooked for Rasputin during the Great War was a chef at Petrograd's luxurious Astoria Hotel who went on, after the revolution, to cook for Lenin and Stalin. He was Spiridon Putin, grandfather of President Vladimir Putin.

'History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce' - Karl Marx.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Under Milk Wood


Genesian Theatre present, UNDER MILK WOOD, by Dylan Thomas, at the Genesain Theatre, 420 Kent St. City of Sydney. (Closes April 8th)

The Genesian Theatre, like the New Theatre, are two of the oldest theatre institutions in continuing practise in Sydney. Both are classified as Amateur Theatres.

The definition of 'amateur' in my Macquarie Dictionary provides an idea I cherish:
One who cultivates any study or art or other activity for personal pleasure instead of professionally or for gain. 
This can define most of the participants who toil for these companies. However, it should be noted, that even in this supposedly sophisticated city, these theatres (and other organisations) are also, still, important places which nurture the aspirations of young artists by providing opportunity for 'real' activity, helping the honing of skills and artistic vision, where no other resource exists. Several artists in this production of UNDER MILK WOOD are such aspirants. Hence my attention and attendance. I was invited. I wished to appreciate their commitment.

UNDER MILK WOOD, by poet, Dylan Thomas, was written as a Play for Voices - a radio play. It was an unfinished text when the writer died, prematurely, in 1953. Staging it is a challenge. The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) did so a few years ago with mixed results. True here, too, the production by Ylaria Rogers, has similar hits and misses.

The Set Design by Martin Searles and the Lighting by Liam O'Keefe provided a very attractive dream scape to present the many, many characters and stories of this Welsh sea-side town through the cycle of a one day time. Nine actors create some fifty four characters. The Costume Designer, Pheonuh Callan, has wrought tiny miracles, as these valiant actors pop-off and pop-on in different modes of apparel to distinguish their tasks, rapidly. It demands a very busy - hectic? - effort for the actors.

It may account for the text sometimes lacking specific concentration, resulting, again sometimes, in an emotional 'gist' of communication instead of a careful identification and ownership of the words and so, accurate portrait of character and revelation of 'story'. There is much 'love' here, but not enough objective clarity. The play flattens out and drifts into a generalised and disengaging mood mode rather than thrilling particulars of evolving detail.

One begins to wonder of what is happening back-stage, for the actors to change and to pop-off there, to pop-on over there, in what seems to be no time at all (a kind of NOISES (less) OFF, going-on!) Sandra Campbell and Martin Searles were my favourite purveyors of this attempt to present the dream world of Mr Thomas - careful, intelligent vocal moulding of image and feeling.

It is always interesting to attend these sometimes neglected theatre companies and to be arrested by the work. The productions always are at the mercy of the skill of the Director and the available artisans and hence the 'quality' of the work can be very erratic and when one decides to support these theatres it can be a bit of a 'pot luck' experience (no less true, I suppose, with the so-called Professional Theatres - haven't we borne that blight recently?).

It is interesting to note, that my experience at the New Theatre, last year, was fairly horrendous, but this year I, and it, are having a very good run of production success (THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED; CONSENSUAL, for example). Still, it is only April, isn't it?

I should declare that both the Genesian and the New Theatre provided me, as a young ambitious artist, some early opportunities and a deep 'love' and priceless education for the theatre. Many, many other professionals of renown can similarly recall their beginning in the Amateur Theatre theatres. Keep your ear open - it is word-of-mouth that alerts one to possible unexpected treasures.