Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Campaign


White Box Theatre and Seymour Centre present THE CAMPAIGN, by Campion Decent, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, City Rd, Chippendale. February 11 - 28.

THE CAMPAIGN, is a new Australian play from Campion Decent, commissioned by the Tasmanian Theatre Company, telling the history of the 9-year campaign for the human rights of the Gay and Lesbian community of Tasmania.

THE CAMPAIGN is presented largely in a verbatim mode and based on interviews and research through the Parliament of Tasmania, the State Library of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. It is a meticulous 90-minute work loaded with a plethora of material. Every twist, obstacle and turn in the pursuit for justice in the State of Tasmania is delivered in a classic Theatre in Education (T.I.E.) theatre style.

Five actors: Matthew Lee, Simon Croker, Madeline MacRae, Jane Phegan and Tim McGarry, impersonate some 32 characters. They do so with great skill and clarity. Earnest, zealous, emotionally (with occasional coy sentimentally) imbued with a marvellous sense of ensemble. Simon Croker, particularly, engaged us with his simple ownership of all he was responsible for, as was Jane Phegan, in a more matter of fact way.

THE CAMPAIGN impresses as a very confident attack of the material, drilled by Director, Kim Hardwick, in a simple Design of Setting and Lighting by Martin Kinnane, backed by Composer and Sound Designer, Patrick Howard.

One leaves the theatre teeming with information, a history. And it is an important one to record. This production is part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival of 2020 and is of significance for that community. The problem is that there is no drama here. It is a long, blow-by-blow chronological account of the events and characters involved.

It became, frankly, difficult to stick it out, to participate with it, attentively, for 90 minutes. Restlessness crept up. It became a bit of a bore.

A play? A lecture accounting a political history? More the latter than the former.

Six

Photo by James Morgan, Getty Images

Sydney Opera House in association with Louise Withers, Michael Coppel and Linda Bewick by arrangement with Kenny Wax, Wendy and Andy Barnes and George Stiles, presents, SIX , by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss - Book, Lyrics and Music - in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House. 4th January - 5th March.

SIX, is a contemporary musical, having its origin as part of the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. Taken up, it was further developed and is now represented by seven companies throughout the world, including a Broadway production opening in 2020. SIX is a musical phenomenon.

SIX is the 'herstory' of the six wives of Henry VIII. It has been conceived through the influential contemporary lens of womens' empowerment, catapulted by the energy of the #metoo stance. It is a brilliant, sassy, sexy, vital deconstruction of history - amusing cheeky and out there.

Henry WHO?

This is the story of Katherine of Aragon (Chloe Zuel), Anne Boleyn (Kala Gare), Jane Seymour (Loren Hunter), Anne of Cleves (Kiana Daniele), Katherine Howard (Courtney Monsma), and Catherine Parr (Vidya Makan), told with an energising musical score that, we are told, has been influenced by contemporary artists as wide-ranging as Beyonce, Shakira, Lily Allen, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Sia, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys and Emeli Sande - a pop sound of thrilling daring throbbing with the delicious skill and power of an all women band: the Ladies In Waiting: Claire Healy (Musical Director and Keys), Ali Foster (Drums), Debbie Yap (Guitar) and Jessica Dunn (Bass). The energy of 10 empowers women irresistibly envelops you.

DIVORCED. BEHEADED. DIED. DIVORCED. BEHEADED. SURVIVED.

Henry and the other men do not appear and all we need to know is what the women tell us. Forget the historians Agnes Strickland, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and David Starkey's (and countless others) forays into investigating the historic sources of these women (some of it very 'lean' and/or politically distorted) and 'play' with the alternate that writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss have provokingly conceived for you. Their six women are inhabited by roistering Australian artists with broad 'colonial' sounds welcoming "Sydney" - "Hello Sydney " - into their version of what happened inviting us to choose our champion queen after we have heard their 'pitch' for supremacy, who finally jettison that conceit for the power when they intuit that 'sisterly' co-operation will succeed redemption for  their stories when they act as a team rather than as competing rivals.

SIX has a costume Design (Gabriella Slade) with a nod to history but rendered in over-the-top contemporary pop-music style, with glamorous lighting (Tim Deiling) and feisty choreography (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) propelling you into an out-of-mind experience of uninhibited fun. We stand at the end of the show and groove along with the Queens in ecstatic celebratory style. I spotted some 'groupies' who seem to have seen it before, recording iPhone camera in hand, as they mouthed almost every lyric in this 75 minute cyclonic whirl of history told with tongue-firmly-in-cheek.

All the company is sculptured into a secure ensemble - you will have your favourite(s) - mine were: Chloe Zuel (the Spanish Queen - NO WAY) and Kiana Daniele (the German Princess processing with the company in a Berlin Club: the HAUS OF HOLBEIN, with green outlined fluorescent glasses and fringed Elizabethan neck ruff added to their clothing styles - GET DOWN, sings Anne).

With SIX the Sydney Opera House curates another great night in the theatre: Hannah Gadsby: DOUGLAS and the Hofesh Schetcher Dance Company with their GRAND FINALE.

Catch SIX, if you can. Great night.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Angry Fags

Photo by Chris Lundie

New Theatre presents ANGRY FAGS by Topher Payne, at the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 5th February - 7th March.

ANGRY FAGS, is an American play by Topher Payne, first appearing in 2015, to be re-written and achieve some very positive attention in 2017. This new version is what the New Theatre is presenting as their contribution to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festivities.

A friend of Bennett Riggs (Brynn Antony) and his room mate, Cooper Harlow (Lachie Pringle), has been bashed. In the state of Georgia, where they are living, there is no legislation regarding Hate Crime and despite protest from the community, the local Lesbian Senator, Allison Haines (Meg Shooter), does not feel it is appropriate to take legal action against the perpetrator.

Feeling disempowered Cooper takes a vigilante revenge. Stimulated by that decision and successful action Cooper begins to develop a plan of vendetta sabotage and assassination, speculating that what respect is not given to the Gay community through good will and social compliance will be altered through acts of fear: that then, attention will be paid. The crimes escalate in their radical violence and the two men descend into a realm of heinous criminality.

in the first scene, Cooper and Bennett capture us with whip smart 'gay humour' while having a picnic before they ignite an explosion that kills, we learn later, not only their targeted victim but also many innocent bystanders. The play's structure takes us back in time and we watch these intelligent men grow from scene to scene into American psychopaths. The gathering horror towards our 'heroes' becomes overwhelming as they begin to have to kill their friends and co-workers to protect their anonymity.

We have met Kimberly Phillips (Phoebe Fuller) a young mother of children working in the same campaign office for the Senator as the two men do and found her endearingly funny. By coincidence of time she has to be silenced - killed. This leads to another two murders. Adam Lowell (Tom Wilson), a lover of Bennett takes control of the situation and escalates himself into an electable position of power with the help of the corrupt media represented by a television investigative reporter, Deidre Preston (Emily Weare). The political opposition, Peggy Musgrave (Monique Kalmar), is haplessly naive.

ANGRY FAGS begins as a gay comedy and finishes as gay horror. And like the South Korean Academy Award winner PARASITE, travels through several modes of genre. This is a whip smart play full of surprising twists and turns that reflects for us a recognition of the dark machinations of the moral dilemmas faced by our protagonists that step by step shifts the ethical lines of our supposedly civilised world. Sitting there in the New Theatre we recognise the corrupting influence of the Trump Era and what we have come to ignore and passively accept as the new normal.

Director Mark G. Nagle, guides his company of actors smoothly through the play, with Mr Wilson and Ms Fuller especially interesting inhabiting their responsibilities with confident wit and charm.

ANGRY FAGS is a surprisingly entertaining night in the theatre and probably worth your attention. It is witty, clever and has an objective that uses the gay invitation as a subtle temptation to take you into a a dark critique of the world we live in.  We watch the world we know warp before our eyes. Amusement turns into horror.

Grand Finale



Sydney Opera House presents GRAND FINALE from the Hofesh Shechter Company, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 29th January - 2nd February.

GRAND FINALE is the third work presented by the Sydney Opera House of the Hofesh Shechter Company: a dance company based in the United Kingdom, with an international cast of nine dancers and five musicians from France,Taiwan, United Kingdom, Poland, Belgium, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Scotland, led by Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli whose origin/training was with the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. They are now resident at Brighton Dome and Shechter is an Associate Artist of Sadler's Wells.

In 2010 he created POLITICAL MOTHER, and in 2014, SUN (both seen in Sydney). Olivia Ansell, Sydney Opera House's Head of Contemporary Performance tells us in the program notes (a free program?! AMAZING. Something free from the Sydney Opera House Trust management - there will probably be an internal inquiry as to how that Happened! For, of course we still had to pay the TAX they call a Booking fee.) : ' As we struggle with political and environmental crisis, GRAND FINALE is timely. Shechter's latest work addresses civil collapse, ecological disaster and humanity's demise. Shechter stares unflinchingly into the void and creates a masterful dance for the dark. Equal parts lyrical musical performance, theatrical experience and manic celebration, GRAND FINALE is an electrifying post-apocalyptic tale of euphoria, surrender and doom.'

It is, as well, I reckon, a simply marvellous emotional high - one comes out feeling there is hope in the world if work like this can be created in our stressful ugly time.

Using the vast width of the Drama Theatre stage and its depth, the consequent black void is wreathed in dense haze illuminated through with a moving lighting design (Tom Visser) of red, yellow and orange streaming (lightening strikes) through the murk that is moved around by the whirl and hurl of the extraordinary flexible writhing bodies of the dance company: moving, collapsing, falling, collectively as one, or in many combinations of solo, duo, trios etc, with impressive large gesture of the whole body to meticulous hand, wrist, neck detailed choices (a la Fosse), dressed in a range of magnificently selected contemporary styles and clothing combinations (bare feet). The set has moveable black oblongs reminiscent of the wall shapes that have divided the Palestinian and Israeli Territories, or abstractly, for me, to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, as my imagination reached back to the mysterious black oblongs standing as a radiating force in unexpected places in the Kubrick scenario (Set and Costume design by Tom Scutt).

The vitality and challenge of the choreography is dazzling and presents a thrilling intellectual puzzlement of true non-verbal communication, that keeps one on edge and in the moment in the pursuit of understanding if there was significance, with the dancers and the choreographic offers, enlivened by a moving orchestra of five creating live in a sound surround of a compelling, vibrating electro-acoustic score and its effective atmosphere (music by Hofesh Shechter and Music collaborators Yaron Engler and Nell Catchpole).

All the senses are properly engaged by light and sound into a subjective emotional state that kept one enthralled throughout the two halves of the work. The live orchestra (almost a klezmer band - James Adams, Christopher Allan, Rebekah Allan, Sabie Janiak and Desmond Neysmith) clearly love their  role in the energising of this performance, and of us, directly, in a wonderfully silly interactive collusion in the interval - "sing, hum along with us!" They play lengthily a romantic selection from Lehar's THE MERRY WIDOW throughout the first half. (Hey, could I be seduced as well by any other piece of musical kitsch? Answer: probably not.) I was pitched into a kind of irresistible euphoric emotional rapture and couldn't have enough of it - whilst being surrounded by the most contemporary propulsive electronic composition - the mixture of the old and new acoustic compositions was spectacularly successful.

GRAND FINALE was simply an extraordinary experience for the senses and intellect that was both confronting with its imagery and messages and yet full of the hope that the good spirit of the human may still shine through the murk of the destruction we are causing to the planet and to our species' moral ethical guidelines. The company in the despair of the present demonstrated with striking beauty of sight and sound images, to give us a faith that we might hope that we, as a species, will (can) come to our senses. Our possibility of invention is available if we wish it.

I rushed straight to my iPhone and messaged as many of my friends as possible to buy a ticket and see this work. It was without doubt a creation worth sharing and celebrating even in the distressing journey, to get  there, one would have to make through the smoke haze of our outside atmosphere, the leftovers of the terrible cataclysmic fires that had erupted all around us (now, water and rain - floods).

GRAND FINALE is why one goes to the theatre. I expected nothing, necessarily, but received much. A greatness that will live in my memory banks and the gift of a hope that was translated into an emotional, intellectual confidence, that seemed to signal the possibility of survival. In all the honest striving of our artistic brothers and sisters there is never any guarantee that it will succeed. And we, who go to the theatre often enough can testify to that. Many more misses than hits. Ha, ha. There is absolutely no guarantee that the application of practised Craft will metamorphose into Art - but when it does manifest it can compensate for all those other honest failures that we have supported and endured. All of my contacted friends who got to the Drama theatre agreed with me. The audience I was with on that fortunate night certainly did as well. (How did I know to go - I didn't - this was a belated Christmas gift from my dear friend Kate - it was the grandest gift of the season, thank you. What a friend, eh? Spoilt.)

GRAND FINALE, simply breathtaking. Craft becoming Art.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Songs for Nobodies

Photo by James Morgan
Duet Productions in association with the Sydney Opera House present SONGS FOR NOBODIES, by Joanna Murray-Smith, In the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House. 23rd January - 9th February.

SONGS FOR NOBODIES is a work written by Joanna Murray-Smith. This performance is a revival production, it having been seen first some 10 years ago.

Five nobodies tell us of their individual brush with fame, interactions with five extraordinary divas: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas.

All ten figures appearing in this 90-minute show are inhabited by Bernadette Robinson, she dressed in a simple black skirt and tailored black jacket of an indeterminate period fashion with a coiffured hairstyle that, similarly, is of an undefined time, that together radiate a visual cohesion to the setting, whilst moving with subtle vocal dialects from one character to another, in different places and time zones, telling their stories comfortably on a circular raised platform surrounded by black pieces of furniture that permits the making and drinking of tea and or alcohol in a casual naturalistic manner - it radiates an all confident mood of relaxed environment. Safe and secure.

Each anecdotal interlude - curiosity - leads us to a musical performance from each of the stars, impersonated by Ms Robinson with extraordinary physical studies of the iconic gestures and adjustments to the vocal characteristics of each of the singers and the stylistic demands of the particular music genre of the divas we meet. We recognise  the stand and deliver dramatics of Judy Garland, the honeyed country and western crooning of Patsy Cline, the pained vocal tones of an older and injured Billie Holiday, the gutsy broad planted challenge of defiance from Edith Piaf with her strident vocal personality, and the glory of the dramatic operatic soprano diva Maria Callas taking no prisoners in the giving of her vocal energies and acting gifts to her audience. Ms Robinson is impressive, supported wonderfully by a live band.

This experience of SONGS FOR NOBODIES in the Playhouse in 2020, was one to admire. Ten years ago the virtuosities of Ms Robinson may have inspired. But time has passed and the energy of this production, Directed by Simon Phillips, is now so comfortable that the daring and cutting edge bravura techniques, the 'circus dangers' of possible failure, engaged by Ms Robinson with the challenge she has taken on, no longer has the effect of wonder. Its dominating quality now delivers a safely expected ease and so has us, as an audience, to objectively admire the artist but are not necessarily placed in a vulnerable subjectively that gives us permission to be awed, to be inspired, by  what is been offered, happening. With this 'trapeze' artist and her act there was no moment when one felt she might fall, fail to pull off her 'trick'.

There is, thankfully, an audience for this work still, and there were many admirers on the night I saw it. I was slightly distracted, observant, but no longer moved, either for Ms Murray-Smith's five women or the five musical artists in the revelation of their vocal exposures, created by Ms Robinson.

For the admirers.

Family Values


Griffin Theatre Company presents, FAMILY VALUES, by David Williamson, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst/Kings Cross. 17th January - 7th March.

FAMILY VALUES, David Williamson tells us it is his second-last play. CRUNCH TIME, soon to premiere at the Ensemble Theatre will be his last. After 50 years of writing for the theatre, its time to put up the pen, type writer, computer keyboard, or what ever. The Stables Theatre was where we saw THE REMOVALISTS way back in 1971, so it is fitting that the Stables Theatre, then the Nimrod Theatre, hosts this play.

On the eve of Roger's 70th Birthday, dutiful wife, Sue, has organised a family get together with balloons and funny hats to mark the occasion and celebrate - an infantilisation of a high court judge. Is there meaning there? one wonders. A conservative dining room table and six chairs around it, centre stage, becomes decorated, gradually, with the bringing on of a cake crowning the whole event. A set of stairs (that lead nowhere - they, too, maybe a metaphoric symbol?) dominates the space. Set and Costume Design by Sophie Fletcher.

In this room we meet a privileged conservative North Shore family. And each of the characters have been given extreme 'political' positions to 'stand-in', demarcating, very obviously, their profile differences. A brouhaha is certainly to erupt when they gather in close quarters with each other, for sure.

Mr Williamson gives us an ultra conservative law maker and rigorous sustainer of the letter-of-the-law Judge Roger (Andrew McFarlane); a domestically obedient but quietly opinionated political spouse (when roused) - domestic duty first but with a 'book-club' bourgeois curiosity ready to take 'arms' for a just cause, lovely Sue (Belinda Giblin); daughter one, a radical political activist and feminist with a defy me, if-you-dare set of beliefs, Lisa (Danielle King) ; daughter two, an emotionally frail (maybe not be all there?) timid lesbian administrator of Border Force legalities, Emily (Ella Prince); a family interloper, Emily's not liked partner, a forceful, dominating lesbian, with a missionary zeal to enforce Border Force legalities who embraces her military role-power with ruthless relish, Noeline (Bishanyia Vincent); mysterious stranger, a runaway illegal refugee fleeing Border Force control - who is a deluded innocent believing that goodness will triumph in the end, Saba (Sabryna Walters); and only son, a damaged middle boy-child who has found himself by adopting a radical born-again Christian ideology (Pentecostal Hillsong?), that has given him an identity and responsibility to proselytise to all - he feels empowered, at last, Michael (Jamie Oxenbould).

In the family interactions, Mr Williamson dials up the language of each of these diametrically opposed beings to extreme and simplistic blatant temperatures of venom and conviction that releases a gale force verbal farce. Add inflamed sibling rivalries that have not been resolved despite their growth into physical adulthood: they are burdened with arrested emotional development. An indulgent helicopter parent and partner, who has for all of her life been visibly as neutral as possible with all of the demands and stances of her very needy family. A set of political-religious zealots, each with the energy of the righteous believer that they are ABSOLUTELY right. And, lastly, the intelligent innocent caught in a desperate trap of circumstances.

With the sureness of a vintage and experienced writer Mr Williamson constructs the dramaturgical logics of the observational comedy as farce and lets it unfurl.

Lee Lewis, Directing her last play for the Griffin before her shift to Queensland, attempts to manage the 'rage' that Mr Williamson unleashes in this work, to guide her actors into a mode of acting that has been out of fashion in Sydney for some time - except in the sketch comedy that dominates much of commercial television - FARCE. You may recognise it when you recall the FAWLTY TOWERS television classic. We rarely see it on the Australian stage and not many of our actors have the practised skills available as part of their tool kit. It requires a central truth that can be exaggerated to spin into controlled realms of ridiculousness - it demands precise technique and a cool observational in-the-moment rapport with all that is going-on around you.

This company of actors have varying success in creating and/or sustaining the Marx Brothers mayhem that this form of theatre requires. We have the secure central reality of a 'Roger' character and a phlegmatic Sue to gradually become the anchors of reference for the other comic specimens that lift off 'mother earth' and spin into the farcical outer planetary system of say the far away Uranus or Mercury - extreme realities. It means that all must 'fight' - compete - for their character's point of view with a restless tenacity and fearless attack. (Like playing winning doubles tennis on speed).The Griffin actors all exhibit a passion that unfortunately gets out of their control so that shouting becomes the most favoured mannered choice for these actors to claim their characters and argue their point-of-view.

A perfect example of this style of performance we in Sydney saw when the National Theatre brought their magnificent farce ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS to the Roslyn Packer, a few years ago. And if you are really alert you would have seen The Old Vic theatre company, led by the brilliant Andrew Scott, give a stunningly funny and exhausting farcical performance of a re-conceived version of Noel Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER. (Catch it if you can - it still has some limited screenings around the Art House Cinemas in Sydney).

On the first Opening night (Wednesday) there was still an unsure investigation of the required style that Mr Williamson had set these actors. The performance was very precariously held together. None of them had really found a sureness of confidence in what they were doing. At one end of the offerings from this company one had the bizarre intricacies of choice that were been made by Ella Prince as psychically wounded Emily, providing puzzles of acceptance that drove one to believe that her character was either a deranged nervous wreck in need of urgent therapy, or an actor just plainly out of her depth in finding the solution for her given task - it was most confusing. The acting style of the others having to present extreme theatrical positions, building on the 'offers' of the other actors, were mostly demonstrated with a lot of shouting and deliberate naturalistic cross-over argument and physical confusions. The focus of the play became opaque in the welter of out-of-control offers.

Now, the play's arguments are extremely familiar - cliche  simplifications - for most of this audience. There was a comfort in that the content of the play was pitched as a familiar mirror - the writing was pandering to the converted who responded with the confident knowing that this family and its values live next door and are not, definitely not, our family values. Thank god or, at least goodness, if you don't believe in him any longer.

The experience of the performance I saw was discombobulating - on the one hand it being familiar territory of contemporary argument and so mildly amusing, but on the other hand delivered with an unsure set of technical 'guesses' in offers from the acting company of a kind that were mostly visual and verbal obfuscations that prevented a clarity of connection to the 'humanity' of these people and their point-of-views. It looked dangerously out of control. However, Ms Walters, in her  speech - plea - for the position of the refugee, Saba, was plainly moving and brought a calm centre to the events -creating the eye of the storm - for the play to, momentarily, have space for comprehension - a wonderfully motivated piece of work from this actor. Just why we don't know of her on our stages is a worry, considering the quality of her judgement in the mayhem of this performance and play.

The audience, I was with seemed to appreciate the play in action but in discussion afterwards were more than slightly bewildered of what they had just watched. Curious, indeed. See what you think. Maybe the performances have gradually found their way with the information that the audience responses may have semaphored to them as they gave one performance after another. Comedy is so dependent on the give and take, the cause and effect, the exchange of creative energy between the actors and the audience that the production might have been slightly undercooked on the Wednesday night but now has gradually found its way with a more stylistic confidence to ensure the black, black satiric observations of the typical Australian bourgeois family entrenched with a set of 'terrifying' values, that has made Mr Williamson so angry, that in his penultimate 'shot' of speaking as our contemporary storyteller felt the need to deliver the extreme obviousness of bitter caricature to hammer his point-of-view as a farce - a literary mode that he has never really engaged in before in his dramatic writing history.

It will be interesting to hear what his ultimate play CRUNCH TIME, at the Ensemble Theatre, has to say in his writing farewell. And in what dramaturgical mode he shapes - proposes it. Interesting.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined



Redline Productions in association with the Sydney Festival 2020, present, BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED, text by Reg Livermore, Mary Rachel Brown and Louis Nowra in the Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, Sydney. January 7-26th January.

With the announcement that there was to be a re-imagining of the BETTY BLOCK-BUSTER show/phenomenon that had made its debut in 1975 at the Bijou Theatre in Balmain, confirming Reg Livermore a star - for he had made his mark of ascendancy to the 'stars' in our theatrical heaven as part of the 'Tribe" in the 1969 production of the American musical HAIR, and spectacularly in the first - 1974 - production of the British musical ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW - I, who was there (twice) all those years ago, on one hand reacted with a positive excitement to the nostalgic yearning that BETTY may be made flesh again, but on the other hand had a contrary fear of possible disappointment. Flip-flopping with anxiety in anticipation of the Resurrection of BETTY. Fellow rememberers exchanged hopes and fears.

BETTY was Reg Livermore's conception, and those of us who saw Her remember the occasion as one of those experiences that was a turning point in our lives. The counter cultural revolution that had sprung into being in Carnaby Street in London in the sixties, on the streets of Paris in 1968, or in the Sex-Drugs-Rock 'n Roll movement of the youth in the United States in the anti-Vietnam and Race Protests/Riots for African/American equality and 'Gay' rights, US 60's-70's, seemed to arrive as an authentic expression of our rebelliousness at the BETTY Bijou in Balmain. Her audacious presence awakening some of us in limpid Australia to Go for it. Speak up. Do something.

It was a full decade, at least, after the international shift in the performance language that had resounded around the world before Australian artists caught up. And BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER was the production and performer that dragged the provincial Sydney audiences into a new and thrilling cultural engagement that was a Shock for the New in a uniquely Australian voice. It was in a verbal and visual language of our own. It was vernacular Australian. This production awoke us fully to the power of seeing our culture being perceived through the eyes of one of us with skills, intelligence and courage, with a raw and visceral energy. We felt a definite climax of home-grown revolution radiating out from white-faced, aproned, naked bummed, Betty Blokk-Buster armed with a feather duster as a weapon to sweep the cobwebs of our comfortable life styles away.

There had been some glimmers of an authentic Australian mode of critical style and content on our stages that in my consciousness began in 1970 with the NIDA/Jane St. rambunctious production THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, by Michael Boddy and Robert Ellis (directed by John Bell), followed by the fledgling Nimrod Theatre Company at work in the SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst/Kings Cross under the aegis of John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler, who with an authentic set of plays, commissioned from Australian playwrights, spoke to us in a language, vocal and physically, about urgent and cultural issues of our own.

This was a time, I remember, when going to the theatre could be a radical statement, especially, to our parents' generation, that is, they who had participated for long years under the Federal Government of re-elected, re-elected Robert Menzies. It was a palpable thrill and a keen sense of cultural revolution to go to the theatre in Kings Cross around the corner from one of Sydney's most notorious Police Stations watching David Williamson's THE REMOVALISTS (1971) - a play about domestic violence and the brutality and corruption of the NSW Police Force - one wondered, sitting on the wooden benches of the packed theatre, on a hot summer evening, whether we would be 'raided' by the cops and arrested. It was just as thrilling to be watching David Williamson's political/sociological critique in his famous/infamous DON'S PARTY (also, !971, Directed by John Clark). Those were the days when going to the theatre could be dangerous.

On television, in our lounge rooms, the MAVIS BRAMSTON SHOW (1960's) - a political review and sketch show, even an astounding soap-opera called NUMBER 96 (1970's) had prepared us, taken us into a titilating place of dare. They were outrageous - my Catholic upbringing was in shock with the challenge of its upfrontery, and we were excited (and secretive) to confess to our school peers the iconoclastic entertainment we were watching. Those religious mentors, the Marist Brothers would have NOT approved (Well, what did I know about my spiritual guides!) It was confession material:"Bless me Father for I have sinned 6 times this week. I watched Mavis Bramston once and Number 96 five times and had strange revolutionary thoughts especially in bed".

Reg Livermore's BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER live launched us into another stratosphere of cultural revolution. Attention was demanded. Attention is what we gave. Not one of us, who entered that theatre in Balmain (it is no longer there, of course), was the same person when we left it - we had been transformed into much more alert citizens. We had been given courage, as well.

So this new REIMAGINED version in the Sydney Festival was going to be what, like what? Were we in for a contemporary dare of a shock of the new zeitgeist? Were we going to be awoken/provoked to revolutionary stirrings?

Sadly, no, we weren't.

This new version was a kind of homage to some of the icons that were part of the Bijou Show. We were given an impersonation of the redoubtable BETTY in the famous opening routine. We met the complaining 'snitch' - a woman, of course. We were taken back to the memory of Reg's version of Billy Joel's CAPTAIN JACK - swirling cloak et al in a hallucinogenic daze of lighting, stage smoke (as it was called then) and cloth. The band and singers revived WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. (Oh My God, to talk/sing of drugs so publicly, in 1975 was so amazing, today not so much). We recalled the house wife and the smashing of the plates 'tied' to a kitchen sink sketch - the original was more caustic than Dame Edna had ever been - this version in 2020 was without even a wink at the treatment of women in this age of #metoo. No Indigenous observation at all. No pointing to cultural diversity or disability as part of our world experience. This re-imagining of BETTY lacked cultural edginess, unlike the original which was all edge. In this show's content there was barely a twitch of confrontation or dare. It was a comfortable cabaret full of nostalgia, for those of us who remember the original, and of appreciation of the skilled, safe, entertaining cabaret mode in the conservative 2020's for those who were meeting BETTY for the first time. The audience encouraged to stay in their comatose state.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is not a turning point of experience for any audience of 2020. You'll have a nice night in the tent - camping, as you know can be fun. Take your aunty.

New material was written by Rachel Mary Brown and Louis Nowra and perhaps Reg Livermore - he was certainly aware of the show and was a collaborator. However, this new material lacked the flash and dash confrontation of the originals - this content was mildly, even timidly, pleasant and oddly with no resonance of urgent concern for our day-to-day lives - it lacked a vital contemporary observation or critique. We were not incited to 'rebellion' or to even give a simple nose-snoot to our betters. Mr Morrison and his peers were safe from satiric scrutiny. There was no mention of any international or national government flaws. No mention of the most important issue of our times: Climate Change - fire or smoke or destruction of fauna and flora on a catastrophic scale. No comment about refugees or detention centres. No mention of the stark exposure of the corruption in our National Corporations or Institutions, unearthed by a reluctant Governments Royal Commissions and the subsequent crushing of our trust, the demoralisation in the rulers of our laws, of ourselves. Do you remember the time when the Banker and Priest was regarded as a pillar of the community?? - there was no allusion to that destruction of our civilisation as we have known it. Being bereft and without moral anchor is with this BETTY alright, I guess. Not worth mentioning.

The musical program led by Andrew Warboys and his orchestra and support singers/dancers was delivered with panache by the star of this production Josh Quong-Tart. And within the boundaries of the musical and satiric gifts/skills of Mr Quong-Tart , when he was dealing with the idiosyncrasies of his own musical interests - some heavy metal rock - there was an authentic palpable dynamic that was admirable. That was not always true - easily seen - of his homage choices, of Reg's/Betty's choices.

Mr Quong-Tart is a very fine actor - his performance as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's play THE JUDAS KISS, at the Old Fitz, was a brilliant one. Most of his other work has been for middle-of-the-road television. His musical experience, on his internet profile, seems to be relatively limited (a season in THE LION KING). So it is a surprise in the act of faith the Producers and Director has given this artist to bear the responsibility of reawakening audiences to the genius of Reg Livermore. His affectionate homage of the Reg Livermore BETTY was, at least, relatively accurate, if lacking the hutzpah incisive, precise energy of the star quality that Mr Livermore has in spades. Still, has it - note Mr Livermore's extraordinary work as Alfred P. Doolittle (Reg is 82) in the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is an entertaining middle-of-the-road cabaret, in the magical environs of the famous spiegeltent, that fondly unfolds from the proffered hook of revisiting a cherished icon of past years. Craig Ilott Directs with his customary 'smoke and mirrors' sleight/slight of hand (not much depth), supported in a Set Design by Brian Thomson, with costumes by Tim Chappel and the razzle dazzle of Lighting, streaking in the haze, by Trent Suidgeest. Choreography is by Ellen Simpson. Glitz and surface.

What this pleasant cabaret in the balmy atmosphere of Hyde Park does do is insist that you get onto the internet and find the video/film of the original production with Reg Livermore in the full force of his gifts. Youtube it. There it all is. See why BETTY is a Legend and not a myth - you can watch what BETTY was and why she is revered. Mr Livermore's rare gifts startling still today. The discipline and laser like finesse to all he does is incendiary. Mr Quong-Tart does well but not as well as our memories were, or of the actual vision one can google of the recorded original. There is no thrill of cultural shock or dare here. There is a pleasant cabaret with an artist having a go, provoking a justified nostalgia.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Anthem

Photo by Victor Frankovski
Arts Centre Melbourne and Performing Lines Australia with the Sydney Festival 2020, presents ANTHEM, by writers: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 15-19 January.

ANTHEM, a work commissioned as part of the Melbourne Festival in 2019, represents the reunion of the writers of the 1998 play WHO'S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? to examine and tell us through story invention of the present state of the nation: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas are the word smiths, whilst Irine Vela provides the musical scoring.

Getting together, they write in the program note:
We sat around the table and thrashed out our ideas. We argued and yelled and laughed and when we got sick of the sound of our own voices we ventured out into the city. It was winter in Melbourne. It was bleak. The world seemed tough. We caught trains out to the end of the lines and into the city again and brought the stories of what we'd seen back into the room. Slowly we began to build a picture of a city, a place, a country, a time of fractured identities, racial tensions and economic hardship. 
Our play is set largely in the public domain, particularly on trains (the set by Marg Horwell is made of a sets of stairs descending to a station level, where platforms are moved by members of the cast to form carriages with rows of seats for passengers to sit), where our conflicting identities around class and race and gender and sexuality clash and compete for ascendancy, or simply for space and the right to be seen. What became apparent is that we we are not one nation brought together by a single anthem. Our country is not "fair' in any meaning of the word as our Anthem proclaims. We are riven by difference and disagreement and the arguments around our national identity are acrimonious and dangerous. Our political leadership has failed to provide a vision that could unify us and instead, seems only to entrench our differences. The nation's powder keg waiting to blow. "The Fire Next Time," says a character in the play quoting James Baldwin.
As in the earlier work, class remains our shared and urgent theme. ...

The writers' work is split up and interwoven through the dramaturgical structure of the play.

Andrew Bovell has written a poetic chorus of discontent for the voices of the actors, it, interspersed throughout the structure.

Christos Tsiolkas bookends the evening with a conversation between a successful young Australian couple - strangers (Thuso Lekwape) and Eryn Jean Norvill) - stuck on a stalled Euro Tunnel train engaged in First World conversation of self satisfaction.

Melissa Reeves introduces us to the crazy relationship between two 7/11 workers (Sahil Saluja and Eryn Jean Norvill) who indulge on a fanciful 'Bonnie and Clyde' adventure on the trains in response to the wage-theft they have experienced in their employment.

Patricia Cornelius introduces us to a house cleaner (Amanda Ma) meeting up, serendipitously, on a train with her ex-employer (Maude Davey) who has fallen on hard times and stalks her ex-employee in search of companionship, oblivious of her once privileged behaviour, and her present delusional sense of entitlement. Also, there is an indigenous woman (Carly Sheppard) haranguing with barely repressed rage the train passengers, demanding the return of her country in the traditional confronting argot of the Cornelius' underprivileged world.

Whilst an indigenous woman (Ruci Kaisila) sings anthems that include 'Amazing Grace', coming to the edge of the stage, as the final statement of the evening, shaking her tin cup and demanding of us that we "PAY UP. PAY UP."

Other characters, street roughs and intimidators from marginal life styles are created by Reef Ireland, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Osmah Sami, Eva Seymour, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton. 14 performers in all including two musicians playing live with a double bass and violin. Yes, there is a classical music sound as the soundtrack to this working class angst - cute, eh?

We are regaled with some of the contemporary economic failures/ills of the community - the have-nots flailing out at the haves - boiling up, stoked by the anger of the underprivileged underclasses into enacting social responses of extreme intimidation on the public transport system - I use it, do you? - generating a sense of fear and hopelessness.

The appearance of a gigantic Australian flag drapped across the back of the stage being pulled down and spat upon was, I guess, a kind of climax of ironic symbolism to this 'show' entitled: ANTHEM.

The content has been earnestly chosen. The acting, from all, passionately missionary in its zeal to reveal critically (some of) the problems of our times. The Direction/staging by Susie Dee is pragmatically efficient.

The tone of the performance style is self-consciously theatrical with a tendency to parody the emotions rather than to really engage in them. This company were really 'ladies and gentlemen of the theatre' rather than the real people that the writers had found on their wintery Melbourne trains in the research stage of the play.

To instance: the train terrorism by two hapless angry youths, corralling passengers and pointing a gun at various targets were directed, by Ms Dee, to react with a 'mock horror' vocal and physical choral response. In contrast, I thought of, remembered, the long televised gun-siege in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe (2014) in the centre of the CBD Sydney where I watched people respond truthfully to the possibility of death with guns pointed at them - certainly no 'mock horror' response. Here, in ANTHEM, I mused, we observe a pulling of the reality to avoid, I supposed, a real recalled trauma in the audience - letting us off the hook of dealing with truthfully the fact of unvarnished terror. I recalled the film NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994) and the visceral experience that those two youths wrought (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), crazed in response to their circumstances with weapons that took them to sexual excitement, much like, Ms Reeves tells us, is what her couple indulge in resultedly. NATURAL BORN KILLERS is a classic film from Oliver Stone that was culturally controversial - it is, relatively, forgotten but not because it was badly made but because it predicted the coming times, savagedly - it will survive as a classic of cinema making because of its courageous raw truth telling. Similarly, Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), I guess as the 'Droogs' maraud their environs with terrifying intent.

I found the production 'soft'. (see my similar response to Neil Armfield's production of THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE). Making the content palatable rather than challenging.

Further instance: the singing of the Australian Anthems from the Indigenous performer, Ruci Kaisila, displaying a powerful sound. But, in the experience in the moment, I could not discern whether Ms Kaisila was more interested in making - demonstrating - that beautiful sound she has been gifted with, at the expense of communicating the lyrics and delivering a political point. AMAZING GRACE - the obvious/cliche manipulative choice of song (my toes curled) - was sung beautifully but not with any real dramaturgical punch! Was Ms Kaisila and Ms Dee's objective to sing those anthems beautifully, or deliver a political coup? Where was the Director, to clarify this? (It was curious to note that Ms Kaisila never spoke any text or expressed her dilemmas as a contemporary indigenous member of the Australian community, on those stations and trains.)

There is nothing so difficult to execute on stage then to have a company of actors recite a Chorus responsibility, solo and in unison, as Mr Bovell has challenged his actors to do - it requires a forensic organisation of the sounds of each of the actors to create harmonic choral clarity to deliver the text with assured intention - it is a time consuming intricacy. It is like learning a musical score - no easy feat, especially as the actors are writing their own score with tonal and tempo choices and then having to deliver the spoken words with accurate precision of intention. It did not seem to me that this company had invested enough time or had the instinctive skill to have this succeed as a tool for dramaturgical effect. Mr Bovell's work was relatively neglected and had little to any impact.

Now, I know that I am a relative nay-sayer in my response to ANTHEM, for as I predicted to my companion at the show it would be praised with high regard.

"Undoubtedly (and unfortunately) ANTHEM will be hailed by the critics and the comatose audience as: 'thrilling, daring, and oh, so timely - pat our backs for our courage stuff'."

"Aren't these writers, actors, Director cutting edge soothsayers?"

"Amazing aren't they? Brave, too."

"Melbourne is so consciously political, isn't it?"

"Thank goodness we are?" they say. "You are so lucky that we can bring it to Sydney audiences for your Festival season."

"Yes, we are and thank you so much. Bravo, Bravo."

A standing ovation was given.

"Enjoy our Anthem to reveal the zeitgeist of our times, to inspire you to find a new and true direction."

"Phew. Someone is saying it, and just in time, I reckon. I feel so good. Thank you." Enough I've done?

"Hmm. aren't there other issues: Corporate and Institutional corruption, Climate Change, failure of leadership, that may be contributing to the present zeitgeist of despair, demonstrated on our public transport systems, as well?"

"Oh, yeah. But no-one on those trains spoke of it. So, what does one do?"

Well, maybe when these writers 20 years ago had nothing but their disconcerted youth made WHO'S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS?, to register a protest of the pain of their political position in their lived-in environment - it hit a target of the shock of the naked truth of/for the times. But, I wondered, now that these same writers are the rewarded, successful and esteemed (famous) counter-culture 'saints', are they indulging their new monied privilege, still believing that they are the rightful and righteous spokespersons for the contemporary underclasses, which, socially, they have no longer much 'authentic' connection to? Kind of pretend socialists looking down from their Ivory Towers of literary 'wealth' telling not truths, but fabulous Fictions? And I mean fabulous as in Fables.

There is historical precedent of course for this change of politics as one matures. I always felt betrayed when my Socialist heroes in the theatre: Joan Littlewood and Edward Bond, just two, who let their beliefs burn out in the comfort of the trappings of wealth in later life. It is such a corrupter - just read ANIMAL FARM, which the author George Orwell sub-titled A Fairy Story.

I, must confess, I just became 'angry' with these writers and performing artists, and worse with the Australian audience,I was with. I stayed sitting in my seat at the interval staggered with what I had been given in the theatre from these artists. Once again I watched the opportunity of an important political statement softened for our comfortable bourgeoise - for who else could afford the price of the tickets? Not anyone on those trains. It was a shallow cousin to the effect of the impact of the original WHO'S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? by these writers and this creative company,

A huge, distressing disappointment.

Lady Tabouli

Photo by Robert Catto
National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Festival present, LADY TABOULI, by James Elazzi, at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. 9-18th January.

LADY TABOULI, is the latest work from James Elassi. Mr Elassi is a member of a Lebanese Maronite (Christian) family and its culture. All his works, that we have seen in Sydney (OMAR AND DAWN), concern themselves with the struggle of the young male (usually) struggling in the pull, on one hand , between the traditions of his culture and their demanding expectations and, on the other hand, the secret of the forbidden heritage of being a member of the abhorrent LGBTIQI community, as well.

Danny (Antony Makhlouf) has been given the responsibility by his sister, Josephine (Nisine Amina) to be the Godfather to her 8 month son. In the expensive family zhuzhed up kitchen it is the day of the Christening and Josephine and her mother, Dana (Deborah Galanos) are meticulously (obsessively) arranging all the traditions of such an auspicious event with a frenetic hysterical energy - even down to the correct colour of the almonds that are to be part of the feast.

Danny is trying to participate in the day, but having just broken up his engagement to a young woman, a shock to his family, he feels it is time that he explained the reason. He confesses his homosexual inclination. The family and all its traditions culturally and particularly religiously rejects the confessed sinful identification.

Danny is warned by his Uncle Mark (Johnny Nasser) that he will be torn between his God, his Church, his Family, his traditional Lebanese Community and his sexual identity that his Australian culture has made acceptable and legal. He is a sinner and so will be an exile forever. The struggle and the 'punishment' for such a heresy is a catastrophe for the well being of the young man. The drag queen LADY TABOULI (Johnny Nasser, also) maybe his only ally.

The play is written with a detail knowledge of the Lebanese world and the nuances of such an important event as the Christening. It gains quite a bit of humour from its close observations. It, as well, recognises the tensions of the 'bombshell' that Danny has lobbed them at such a time - the reactions are uncomfortable and disturbed. Hypocritical and shallow. Impassioned and fearful.

The audience I saw this performance with was impressive because of the diversity of age and cultures present and its preparedness to witness the dilemma that the play posed. It proposed a true and living experience that the traditional cultures of the immigrant tribes must deal with in a very visceral way as their children must choose between the two traditions offered them: the old family-tribal traditions, or the freedoms of their adopted secular state.

Antony Makhlouf as Danny, (he is the usual actor that takes the central role in Mr Elassi's works) expresses the fear of his 'coming out' and the exasperating culture reprisals that he can expect and the regret for the shame and expulsion from the world that has nurtured him so fiercely, with a studied conviction. Whilst Deborah Galanos' mother figure exhibits the 'bigotry' of her generations' expectations and the tremendous condemnation she and her family will receive from her community whilst suffering her daughter, in the creative hands of Nisine Amina, displaying the hypocrisy of her generation in her predatory compliance to the 'rules' while not really believing, for the convenience of receiving the tribal gifts and social standing that her efforts will endow her with, because she is, demonstrably, a good and faithful tribal member.

Director Dino Dimitriadis indulges in an excess of Design Imaging from Jonathan Hindmarsh, with a huge set of cumbersome walls of an elaborate kitchen and living room which the actors must laboriously push about in scene changes and to refurnish exhaustively. The action and length of time it takes to do this, halting the dramaturgical action of the play, is covered by a sound track of ethnic music (Ben Pierpoint) and burning candles and haze lit by Benjamin Brockman for grossly theatrical effect. I wondered if the Design presentation could be less ostentatious, simpler, grounded and less baroque. It felt as if I was in the usual concept of a lush musical instead of the raw suburban angst of a tribal cultural conflict of personal tragic consequences in the Western suburbs of Sydney.

This production's flamboyancy distracted one from the serious content and the sincerity of the work of the actors. It diminished the issue exposures that concern the writer. Though, if you have been a journeyman with Mr Elassi's output, LADY TABOULI, does seem to be a re-iteration of the same concern. Now, Arthur Miller, at his core has written only one play, too, but the circumstances of character and situation are so diverse that it never feels that we are in familiar territory. DEATH OF A SALESMAN, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and THE AMERICAN CLOCK for instance, at core an examination, an exposure of the illusion that is the American Dream. Mr Elassi needs to be more creative in the fields of his given circumstances in his plays to continue to sustain our interest in his important cultural concerns.

The performances and the drama of the cultural dilemma in this production of LADY TABOULI, was diminished by Mr Dimitriadis with the aural and visual choices overwhelming the effect of the acting and the content. The production Design shifting into a spectacular missionary zeal of a kind of glorified orthodoxy - of one kind or the other tradition - the ordinary humanity of the dramaturgy buried in over stated imagery/symbolism.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

2019 looking back, The Year in Review

2019 was a challenging year for myself with a health issue intruding on my ability to see as much theatre as I usually do. Of what I did see here is my summary of the year.

Griffin Theatre at the SBW Stables in the first part of the year produced some work that was of great import for our cultural discussion and maturing.
Two Sydney Festival offerings:

  1. A re-presentation of a political 'feminist' hit called LOVE AND ANGER, written and starring Betty Grumble.
  2. SINCE ALI DIED, performance piece created and performed by Omar Musa - a re-presentation dealing with minorities trying to 'fit' into the Australian ethos.

    Then:
  3. PRIME FACIE, a play by Suzie Millar, about the law and women in it, with a stunning solo performance from Sheridan Harbridge - a great one. Directed by Lee Lewis, hands off, trusting the writer. Harrowing and true. Ms Millar, once upon a time a lawyer - she knows of what she 'speaks' with this one.
  4. CITY OF GOLD, a new Australian play by Meyne Wyatt dealing with contemporary Indigenous issues that was searing in its coverage. Mr Wyatt, brilliantly incandescent playing the central lead supported by Shari Sebbens and Matthew Cooper as his siblings. Unbearable courage by Actor and writer, Meyne Wyatt - he, like Ms Millar above, knows of what he speaks from first hand and relentless daily experience - what a life of luxiourous ignorance I have had. Directed, by Lee Lewis, with a hands-off approach - trust ing the writer, again.
Most of the rest of the year was not so good to sit through. SPLINTER - no, no, NO! FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION - terrific acting, unclear play - what was it saying? Should I care? - an extended time on those seats at the SBW Stables that told us nothing worth taking away. iT became boring. Is entertainment enough in the world we live in? No, no, no!


As part of the Sydney Festival I thought highly of THE WEEKEND, by Henrietta Baird: another solo work inhabited by Shakira Clanton, Directed by Liza-Mare Syron. A tense journey into a contemporary indigenous world, told boldly and bravely. This is from the Moogahlin Performing Arts Company - an Indigenous company based in Sydney in its second decade of survival. Check out THE VISITORS, coming up in 2020 Sydney Festival - I hope it fits the bill.

As well, Paul Capsis and Jethro Woodward with the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra giving a brilliant contemporary song fest as part of the Sydney Festival in the Spiegel Tent. Not my kind of music but when a 'genius' delivers it one does suspend one's prejudices and sits in awe and gratefulness.

I went to the Opera this year. I saved up and spent some dollars to indulge myself in the greatest and most difficult of the Performing art forms with a friend who adores it as well. Opera Australia. The only success was SALOME, a revival of Gale Edwards' stunning production (which she was prevented from re-staging, much like her production of LA BOHEME which is regularly trotted out - almost annually, without her watchful eye and standard demand). SALOME had a committed and stunning performance from soprano Lise Lindstrom. World class production. Just why Ms Edwards is not engaged by OA is a kind of scandal, I reckon.What's the answer Mr Terracini and the OA Board? Please explain. Is it that she is a demanding 'woman'? Looking at the Directors that OA engages it seems there are a few there that are, anecdotally demanding! The rest of the work that I attended was woeful. ANNA BOLENA, over produced with powerfully inadequate LED screens distracting one from the Singing - the only reason to present ANNA BOLENA - the beautiful music, the 'belle canto'. The new Australian opera WHITELY, the usual arresting score by Elena Kats-Chernin, a huge disappointment because of a libretto of startling banality in concept from a usually clever writer, Justin Fleming - as I said in my blog: "a Dud". Explain Director David Freeman? Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini? While the theatre version of WEST SIDE STORY, (not the Handa Opera version) was hampered with casting of a considerable number of young performers barely able to sing, dance or act this phenomenal work - most of the company were actually making their professional debut on a stage! Not good enough. Striving for competence instead of cresting the wave of assuredness. It is hard to spoil this work, and it still glimmered greatness despite the OA production hindering its qualities - which are very, very demanding.

Belvoir was a great consistently disappointing house to visit.


  1. A diminished minimalist presentation of the great Epic by Bertolt Brecht: LIFE OF GALILEO, made palatable only by a performance of great clarity from Colin Friels, and a naughty scene stealing collection of characters by Peter Carroll, and add a valiant Sonia Todd in a variety of gender bending roles.
  2. A terrifyingly boring production by Neil Armfield of a truly great play, an Australian Tragedy, THINGS I WANT TO BE TRUE, by Andrew Bovell. A production content to seduce the audience with melodrama, farce and sentimentality instead of confronting it with difficult cultural truths. Happy to keep us as a nation juvenile and immature - manipulated into weeping copiously - how cathartic -having been served recognisable performing caricatures, of the type we saw in the early 70's with say, THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, or even earlier with the adaption of Stele Rudd's DAD AND DAVE! After seeing this: I mean, how good is Australia? Hey? Eh?
  3. PACKER AND SONS, a new Australian play by Tommy Murphy, that was very, very interesting that had, unfortunately, its initial dynamics of fierce energy and trajectory "bogged" down by over detailed research in the middle of the play - the Intel stuff - which was already well known, that needed to be truncated for the sake of sustaining the dramatic arc in the storytelling (a consistent trait of Mr Murphy's work process - loosen it up, I reckon. Some poetic licence, please). A dark macho play - only men on stage - of the Australian Male psyche, using the Packer Family as a case exemplar to examine the ugly origin of our existing corporate and social culture where the ethical boundaries have shifted so far that they hardly exist - especially, if you get money and power, if you do so. Might it explain Mr Morrison's raison d'ĂȘtre? Frank and Kerry brilliantly envisioned by actor John Howard and gob-smackingly inhabited by Josh McConville, as young Kerry and tragic James. Nearly a great play. A relief for the Belvoir audience. 
  4. Directed by Eamon Flack, most assuredly.
I didn't get to see COUNTING AND CRACKING - couldn't afford it. FANGIRLS - couldn't get in when I finally tried to after relentless urging from friends. I had already seen BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, twice. I saw THE WOLVES at the Old Fitz - not a play you need to see more than once and absolutely squirmed through the sickeningly manipulative EVERY BRILLIANT THING - maybe my own state of health closed me down to receiving it without anything but horror!? I see EVERY BRILLIANT THING is back in 2020, as well as JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, awful, awful guff for any but the sentimental one's amongst us. Oh, horror, horror, horror! A certain family in The Shire will have a terrific time with this play, if they think to include the arts as part of their remiss.

2019 registered the sadness of the constant misfiring at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC): a misconceived and control-freak production by Kipp Williams of one of the great plays of the last century: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF - just do the play, please. Opening with Maggie the Cat singing Broadway style CRY ME A RIVER. Really? Tennessee Williams is regarded as a kind of Genius by most theatre goers. Arguably, this play one of his greats. Why did you think you could improve on it? Thank god for Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy, despite the distressing tragedy of having to watch Mr Weaving patiently wait for the intrusive Directorial gestures to complete themselves so that he could get on with acting the character to tell the story. The over-the-top Sound Design with that wall of Lighting that blared and blinded us, as it underlined the dramaturgical matters for us 'dummies' in the audience who otherwise, I assume Kipp Williams thought, would not get it. (And by the way, how much did it cost the company to build and use that Lighting effect? - probably, I have mused, the salary for several actors that could have been engaged in other plays. Directorial effects at the expense of employing actors. Yes? No? This 'crime' was repeated by Mr Williams as he explored his third production of that "great" (?) play, LORD OF THE FLIES (he had directed it elsewhere, previously) - a cacophony of noise and distracting casting decisions (remember last year's production of THE CHEERY SOUL, oh my!) It seemed he had learnt not much with his other productions of this text. The only survivors on stage in this catsatrophe were, for my money, Mia Wasikowska (in her first stage performance ever - what a talent she is, then) and that continuing marvel Rahel Romahn, who continues to produce the 'goods' over and over again (COSI, for instance). All those young actors in that production blindly trusting their Director - having to reproduce that production night after night would have taught them resilience if nothing else.
To follow at the STC we had curated by Mr Williams THE TORRENTS - a play looked forward to but unfortunately tackled in a production that flourished in the amateur values of the 1950's, the time it was written; THE REAL THING, a middle-of-the road Stoppard with Stoppardian 'apprentices' learning how to do it - one of the most challenging writers to investigate. In summary it was a severe undercasting serving one of Stoppard's lesser achievements; and then a revival of the 'antique' COSI, a horribly dated work from the pen of Louis Nowra. One of the hopes of the present theatre, Sarah Goodes, valiantly doing what she could do to rescue this time spent in the theatre - a valiant, but in vain, effort by this talented Director.
The STC year ended the 2019 season with a revival of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, by Martin McDonagh. The best production that this company has given us, all round, for years. Paige Rattray in her best work yet, treated the play with respect and love - no mucking about with auteur gestures - just delivering all the black marks written on the white pages, and employing Design creatives such as Renee Mulder and four actors who, under her coaxing, delivered thrilling performances: Noni Hazelhurst, Yael Stone,, Hamish Michael and Shiv Palekar. A perfect old-fashioned storytelling technique mixed with horror, suspense and black, black comedy - you can trust Mr McDonagh to deliver the goods if you follow his 'recipe'.

Mr Williams does know how to do it - remember his straight forward success with last year's HARP IN THE SOUTH? Solving the writer's play, if it is any good - and why else would you choose to do it if it wasn't good to start with - is a very, very, difficult thing to achieve. Mr Williams is undoubtedly gifted but is in need of a 'mentor' to advise him in his choices, I reckon - who can he trust? Mmm, next year's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. adapted by Mr Williams with a female Dorian is giving me much anticipatory anxiety.

Had a startling time at the OLD FITZ with Alice Birch's play ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE. Directed by Shane Anthony who untangled this challenging script with a crisp insight and discipline on that tiny, tiny stage. A marvellous play. Mostly well acted.
Of course there was KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, by Samuel Beckett, brought to life through the meticulous talent of Gale Edwards guiding Jonathan Biggins to flirt with greatness as Krapp. A jewel in the 2019 season of plays.

At the Old 505 in Eliza St Newtown, saw new Australian work, ARE YOU LISTENING NOW, by Xavier Coy. A promising writer well worth catching. Also, saw AN INTERVENTION by hot English writer, Mike Bartlett. Directed by Erin Taylor with two unexpected wonderful performances by Jessica Belle-Keough and Bardiya McKinnon. (Mr McKinnon also scored well in LOVE IS THE FIRST REVOLUTION*** at the Griffin.)

I enjoyed JOHN, by Annie Baker, in the Reginald at the Seymour Centre. Directed, by Craig Baldwin with two outstanding performances from Belinda Giblin and Maggie Blinco. Ms Blinco has had an especially exciting bloom this year as she also made an impression in her work as Dawn in the Kings Cross Theatre's production of OMAR AND DAWN, by James Elazzi.

I had a special night at The Reginald at the Seymour Centre with American writer Branden Jacob-Jenkins and his clever writing in GLORIA. This play was Directed well by Alexander Berlage.

Mr Berlage scored great kudos for his production of AMERICAN PSYCHO at the Hayes Theatre. Dazzling work on a shallow piece of writing. Supporting musical theatre performer, Blake Appelqvist, made another good impression after his earlier musical presentation in DORIAN GRAY NAKED - A New Musical, by Melvyn Morrow at the short-lived Limelight on Oxford. CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, a musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, made its debut bow in Sydney and proved to be a very interesting event - despite the difficulty of doing it under relatively straightened disciplines - a musical play that one has at last had the opportunity to see. The Siren Theatre Company's spin on a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Victorian operetta, H.M.S. PINAFORE, led by Kate Gaul, was cheeky beyond cheeky, with Tom Campbell creating a series of characters/contributions that were outstanding in their comic twinkles whilst accompanied with a gorgeous singing voice as well.

To finish, I loved the experience of Cirque De Soleil's KURIOS - Cabinet of Curiosities - an astonishing night that was, for me, a return to form for that company. Also, SCHOOL OF ROCK, the unlikely product of Andrew Lloyd Webber with a remarkable performance by Brent Hill, supported by Amy Lehpalmer. I, unabashedly, loved it.

I should like to say that my greatest joy is in going to the cinema. I think I will write some comment on those experiences this coming year. Move over David.

Absolutely blessed to see THE FAVOURITE (perfectly cast and daringly Written and Directed). US, so superior to GET OUT - both, however, outstanding cinematic offers. JOKER, with a magnificent inhabiting - physically, psychologically - of character by Joaquin Phoenix - came to love the simplistic writer/director's political statement. I almost forgot to write about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, which hangs about my consciousness as I try to estimate the impact of Tarantino's writing and 'deliberate' Direction - it is a 'mystery', a 'mystery' worth cogitating about. I get careless about the quality of Leonardo Di Caprio's acting and don't often remark about it, one takes it's quality for granted, as he is so consistent. Truly, his performance as the cowboy star on the career skid is absolutely remarkable - he appears to be so nonchalant and does not indulge in any gesture of histrionics to draw attention to his characterisation. He should be studied by any actor seeking clues on what is great work (WOLF OF WALL STREET, is another example) - though it is so subtle that one mayn't be able to see what he is doing. The contrast of acting styles are so brilliantly contrasted when one puts the self-consciously celebration of performance by Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER beside that of Leonardo's in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Another actor who has caught my attention is Juliet Binoche, her mesmerising talent that continues to grow and grow in subtlety from film to film, this year: WHO YOU THINK I AM and THE TRUTH, try to block out HIGH LIFE - torture by the hour. Annette Bening, of course, I never miss anything she is in.

THE NIGHTINGALE, fearless storytelling and Direction from Jennifer Kent, with a company of actors not afraid to be ugly and/or horrifying, an extraordinary film frame by frame - a trifle too long, one could take out a superfluous 15 minutes with no damage done, I reckon. JUDY AND PUNCH ,Mia Wasikowska continuing to confirm her gifts with Damon Harriman having a champion year. THE KING - saw it twice in the one week - an underrated film, I reckon, swamped by all the other quality films that came at us in the late year releases, great writing and tremendous performances by all - Timothee Chalamet, Ben Mendelssohn, Robert Pattinson and especially Lily-Rose Depp as Princess Katherine. PAIN AND GLORY, Almodovar back in form as writer and director with one of his great collaborators, Antonio Banderas - a marvellous performance.

Adored THE IRISHMAN, MARRIAGE STORY, THE REPORT, THE TWO POPES, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (both its actors and the Director have astonishing bravado), and believe it or not THE GENTLEMEN - was I surprised? What a great time (stupid and outrageously self-consciously clever that was no more than a demonstration of enthralling macho-ego - tongue firmly in the cheek - leaving the overrated KNIVES OUT for dead as a thriller. Great performances from the three 'Old Guys' in THE IRISHMAN (Pacino, Pesci, De Niro) and the other two 'Old Guys' (Hopkins and Pryce) in THE TWO POPES'. These five veteran actors demonstrating how continuous work can burnish talents to such effortless (in appearance) style and truth.

What of Adam Driver in MARRIAGE STORY, THE REPORT and in the latest STAR WARS offer - now, there is a range of work/skill that should knock your socks off in awe! Certainly, Scarlett Johansson recovers her status in my eyes as an artist for she has never been better when challenged, as she is playing opposite Mr Driver - well you'd have to lift your game, wouldn't you, just so as not to look stupid? - but then the casting of Laura Dern, Alan Alda and everyone else in that film was a near perfect score by Noah Baumbach. Sorry, I couldn't get on board LITTLE WOMEN - I was so detached from the experience trying to find some character, no matter the quality of the acting, that I could empathise with - spoilt conceited individuals, all, except perhaps, Marmee. Hated KNIVES OUT (tedious slow conceit), FORD V'S FERRARI (What was Christian Bale doing? Matt Damon redeeming himself in the last ten minutes.) and PALM BEACH - bourgeois pulp.

Documentary at the cinema: APOLLO 11 (Todd Douglas Miller), PAVAROTTI (Ron Howard), MARADONNA (Asif Kapadia) - all enthralling

So enjoyed a big screen OUT OF AFRICA and some of the Hitchcock repertoire. Indulged in DVD watching - discovering the genius of Cecil B. Demille (and Claudette Colbert), John Ford (and, ahem, John Wayne), Howard Hawks (what a spread of genre making?!) George Cukor (one of my ancient favourites), George Stevens, David Lean, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Ida Lupino, and, of course Alfred Hitchcock (from his silents to the later works. Watched maybe 15 films in chronological order to analyse his instincts in contrast to his 'learning'.)

Just beginning to truly appreciate the Silent Movie and the acting style it demanded - WINGS< SUNSHINE< CITY LIGHTS - relating it to the 'new' physical work demanded by the best contemporary film makers where the story is been told with the camera forcing us to 'read' the actor, cathartically 'inventing' the narrative that is held in the internal 'life' of the performer by the ruthless stare of the lens of the camera to catch the subtlest clue of facial or physical gesture, they becoming the offer we have to deal with, as there is less and less dialogue 'telling' us unequivocally, what is happening. The audience no longer engaged at looking or viewing, being 'spoon-fed' but now are having to "READ" the images up on the big screen. To become active participators not indulged 'dummies'. To have to imagine and therefore to "act" with the performers. Thrilling!

If you haven't watched SUCCESSION, you're a dope. And THE CROWN is still worth the effort.

2019 down. 2020 up and rising.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Packer and Sons

Photo by Brett Boardman
Belvoir Theatre Company presents, PACKER AND SONS by Tommy Murphy, at Belvoir Upstairs, Surrey Hills. 21st November - 5th January.

PACKER ANS SONS is a new Australian play by Tommy Murphy.

It is a play that focuses on the men of the Packer dynasty. Sir Frank, Kerry, Clyde and James. We meet Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch - another Australian power merchant family. And wheeler-dealer Jodie Rich - a failed power interloper.

No women appear in this two and a half hour saga - is it that their invisibility or silence is a tacit wink that they are consenting agents to the world about them? Silence is Consent?

On a bare stage, Design, Set and Costume, by Romaine Harper, supported peripherally with a fixed opaque glass passage across the long back wall, so that the moving figures behind look like blurring 'ghosts' reminiscent of the Harry Potter imagery that we know as The Death Eaters, with the wheeling on and off of location descriptive furniture and minimum properties (office, home,- outdoor and indoor - hospital, etc) supported with a drama impacted Light Design by Nick Schlieper, the play begins with a melodramatic lightening sharp white spot accompanied by an overheated orchestral score from Alan Johns that shockingly jolts us to an adrenaline witness of the polo field where Sir Frank (John Howard) lies flat on his back after a heart attack has de-horsed him as his sons Kerry (Josh McConville) and Clyde (Brandon McClelland) urge the panicked minions to get the ambulance and helicopter to bring rescue - technically Sir Frank was dead for 6 minutes but rose like the vampire/zombies in our dystopian popular fictions to continue his reign with added determination and concentration.

The movement and Direction of the play under the hand of Eamon Flack is dynamic in its energy effort and the elicited performances by the company of actors are impassioned and detailed realisations that keeps one alert and partly mesmerised. The casting trick of shifting Josh McConville from the young Kerry to the young James through a remarkable physical demonstration and his other bravura offers are startling in their accomplishment - here is a great actor, challenged by the role and rising to it with courage. Whilst the dominating focus that John Howard brings to both Frank and the older Kerry is multiplied-up by his physical size which is employed as a crushing weapon: ruthless bullies, both, used to have everybody, anybody to dance to his savage tune. To be loved by Dad is to be his tool/fool. His manipulative skills knew no boundaries.

The play focuses on the father and son relationships and through the well known incidents in the lives of these men Mr Murphy reveals the ugly toxic masculinity and the dominating patriarchal closed-fist that is wielded in the passionate pursuit of money and power through the generations of this archetypal Australian family. Without much relief of comedy or much warmth of human kindness, the revealed ugliness of PACKER AND SONS might go to explain the culture of this country that has begun to unwind in the teens of the twentieth-first century: it might begin to illuminate as to how the corporate world - our banks and institutions (churches) and our political party governments have felt it had permission to shift the ethical boundaries of our founding principles so long as they won the wealth and power race. (It goes certainly to explain the United States and its Trumpian rise to Power.) This is a play about power when utilised by men and its inevitable corrupting influence.

Another 'theme' of the functionaries in PACKER AND SONS has manifested itself in my consciousness as well: that the decay function of our biology which is nature limiting our life spans to a brief 60 or 70 odd years, cannot dim the manifest surge of our species to strive at all costs the passionate pursuit of Wealth and its brother product, Power. Decrepit Old Age" has no effect on the will-charged emanating Atomic/Nuclear menace that once seeded and owned grows and glows even as the corpse of our flesh and blood rots us.

The play, however, does not sustain its thrilling initial energy, and becomes bogged down in its middle section (ending Act one beginning of Act Two) with a deeply researched blow-by-blow account of the 0neTel crash led by James. Mr Murphy has a habit to bind himself too strictly to his research (e.g. Mark Colvin's Kidney) - and he needs to be encouraged to give himself permission to take some poetic license with his facts to maintain a dramatic dimension trajectory. In truth it is the performance conviction by all that brings the play relatively into safe harbour: Brandon McClelland, John Gaden. Nick Bartlett, Anthony Harkill (and two young boys alternating night to night: Nate Sammutt, Bryson Wolfe).

One wonders whether we should now see the female view of this family and that time, with their strategies to participate in the hell's kitchen of such malignant bearishness. The television series SUCCESSION, could be, arguably, about the International career of the Australian Murdoch family - and it works because there is poetic fictionalisations in their family, the Logan's, political rivalries that allows dramatic opportunities in the 'melodrama' of great storytelling.

PACKER AND SONS is, still, a good night in the theatre, but not a great one. SUCCESSION and the Logan family is a great one.

Douglas


Token Events presents DOUGLAS, by Hannah Gadsby in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. 17th December - 21st December.

A large screen at the back of the Concert Hall stage is covered with a projected photograph of Ms Gadsby and her dog Douglas (a large poodle). It is Douglas that has inspired this new show, tells Ms Gadsby - well, new to Sydney for it has already had a showing in Adelaide in March, then Melbourne and has toured to some cities in the USA. In 2018 Ms Gadsby became an internet star with the release of a performance of NANETTE on NETFLIX, which has received an international critic rating of 100% and has been acclaimed as 'ground breaking'.

Coming through one of the huge side doors on the side wall of the Concert Hall Ms Gadsby in her dressing of trousers and jacket with her hallmark black rimmed glasses strode confidently but politely middle stage to the roaring support of the two and a half thousand audience. Acknowledging her reception with gentle waves she begins by referencing the likelihood that most of us are here as follow-up to NANETTE, and rhetorically wonders what the expectation might be from us of this new show DOUGLAS. She tells us that Douglas was inspired by the response to the last show, in which some social media participators had described NANETTE as 'less comedy and more a lecture'. She then proceeded to give us a "chapter' breakdown of what were the order and subjects to be covered, this night, finishing with the announcement of a concluding power point LECTURE and if we felt disinclined with any of the plan she would understand if we left.

No-one did.

Ms Gadsby is a standup comedian, writer, actor, political and gender activist, art historian and an astonishing observer of the social interactions of humanity with all of its historic habit of repeating itself. In my observation the great comedians have the 'heavy' capacity to see the world about themselves with piercing eyes that then translates to devestaing comedy. Devastating because of the ,often, naked force of their observational truth delivered in a voice that summons courage of the highest order to publicly articulate. The great comedians release for us the daily anxieties of being alive and of our attempts to function with some sense of hope to find a way to optimistically move forward as a species. These 'visionaries' are often the contemporary and dreaded "Cassandra" that speak the unspeakable truth and are generally disbelieved. To be a seer, the seer, in the tribal structure is not, necessarily, a comfortable thing to be.

Over the next 90 minutes or so Ms Gadsby took us across many hot press button issues in our sociological and philosophical real-time landscape that were both scorching to hear but charged, fortunately, with the weighty shock of the usually 'unspoken' to beckon gusts of comic laughter from us that crashed noisily about this Concert Hall with a palpable gratifying relief. The relief of a communal identification of what was been given - spoken - accompanied by a joy to have Ms Gadsby as our spoke person/verbal witness, for her intelligence is obviously peerless and her courage superb. (I mused a scary dinner guest). Even if you may not agree with her subject targeting or, perhaps, the vernacular argot in which she couches her propositions, you will be impressed.

90 minutes or more, is a generous offer, in a solo performance, and the alertness she has to the energy response of her audience is utterly, utterly brilliant. Her concentration and control is astonishing. The time spent in the auditorium zipped by. The performance never dragged. In fact I felt less tired at 10 o'clock that evening than I had when I entered at 8. I was inspired and felt smart. I felt like the mere man Bernard, shown to us during her power point lecture on medieval religious panting, who was with the spurting lactation of milk from the Virgin's breast transformed to become a higher being by becoming a saint: Saint Bernard. I entered the Concert Hall as Kevin and after being euphemistically 'lactated' upon with showers of witty words, felt I was leaving that hall as Saint Kevin and a possible enlightened proseltysing of the gospels of Hannah Gadsby!

Part of the preparation for the performances was a stipulation that one's iPhone was to be turned off and then placed in a supplied package, that was then locked. At the end of the performance the package would be unlocked. 'Inconvenient', I rankled. But, in practice, not at all. So, no-one was able to illegally film the work.

DOUGLAS will be released in 2020 on NETFLIX, so if you have missed this brilliant night in the theatre you will be able to catch it then.

Do not miss it.

Hannah Gadsby: NANETTE; DOUGLAS.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: FLEABAG.
Both amazing.