Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Peer Gynt

Photo by Marion Wheeler

Endangered Productions presents PEER GYNT, Play By Hendrik Ibsen, Music by Edvard Grieg at the Paddington RSL CLub, Oxford St, Paddington. 30th June - 3rd July.

A month and a few more weeks ago at the RSL Club in Paddington, Endangered Productions under the Direction of Christine Logan, 80, or so, performers took a curtain call which was enthusiastically given by an audience who had just witnessed an Australian first: a presentation of a performance (edited) of the play PEER GYNT (1867), by Hendrick Ibsen, Translated by May-Brit Akerholt, with the incidental music by Edvard Greig (1876) under the Direction of Peter Alexander. Meanwhile, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Sydney's Leading company and, arguably, Australia's leading theatre company, were showing their adaptation of Anne Bronte's only novel, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, adapted by Emme Hoy, and another Australian first, a new play, TOP COAT, by Michelle Law, with a combined cast of, perhaps, 20 actors (only). Both these plays it seems, were needing more time for more drafts (I've been told) to make them ready for the spotlight of the lavish budget of a heavily resourced STC main stage presentation. The contrast between the plans and objectives of these two 'production houses' and the result on the stages could not be more clear.

As I experienced the audience's excited response to the evening's events and watching the gathered artists joy at the reception they were given, I could only wonder at the power of a community that determines that the discipline of the performing arts is a necessary thread in the fabric of our civilisation and so, sacrifice time to a physical, vocal, mental and emotional demand to create a neglected and powerful philosophical work an airing, that in Australian terms is an endangered 'animal' as it disappears from performance memory because of the neglect of the major professional companies.

In this audience there were in attendance a crowd of professional people who had seen or performed in this work in times past, alongside a well read audience and their friends who were seeing and hearing this great piece (of almost impossible staging demands) of. entertainment and confronting intellectual provocations for the first time. A combination of poetic drama, dance and music, shifting through realism, social satire and surrealism, across the landscapes of the Norwegian woods, into the deserts of the Middle East - through the palaces of the mythical and historic residences via the witnessing of weddings, births and deaths, corporate greed and madness to predictions in pursuit of the meaning of existence through Peer Gynt's pilgrimage of self discovery. 

Under the aegis of the Creative Director of Endangered Productions, Karen Lambert and her partner (in crime) Christin Logan, who is also the Director of PEER GYNT, the performing company is led by Philipe Klaus, as Peer, and Elaine Hudson, as his mother, Aase. Both these actors shoulder the demands of leading this company of mixed experience and gifts by committed example through this work. The clarity and sprightly energy of Ms Hudson charges the narrative with energy and a peerless perception of the dreadful circumstances of this specimen of humanity, of a single parent having to struggle in a judgemental world to grow a man, a possible pillar of her community. Ms Hudson sparks, in the scenes with her son, lived by Mr Klaus, into a handsome and beguiling promise of leadership and courage in his telling of the hunting of  the deer, who then shamefacedly dwindles into a rascal in the early acts of the play - that sets up the tender and grief filled farewell on Aase's deathbed (assisted by the beautiful offer of Greig's Death of Aase) - and to propel his focus as he takes hold of the late scenes of the text, supported by a huge collection of other artists playing multiple roles, especially Alan Faulkner (Troll King), Jack Elliot Mitchell (The Thin Man), Katherine Munro (Woman in Green and Anitra), with a singer Emily Turner (Solveig) and the ebullient joy of Wei Jang in all of her character explorations, as stand-outs for me. 

The task of bringing all the parts of Ibsen's anti-hero to life and balance, through writing of comedy, satire, confronting realism and melodramatic, melancholic tragedy, to find the multiple facets of a complex human begging for the enlightening solution to the timeless riddle of the Sphinx, both unconsciously and consciously, so as to be able to comprehend the meaning of life and the philosophic landscape that Peer Gynt finds himself in, is a monumental one and Mr Klaus stretching and finding his artistic muscles maps for us clues that Ibsen himself seems to be just finding clarity for as he puts pen to paper, to embody a man, even if it is belatedly, in heroic manner and action. As with Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ibsen's Peer Gynt only finds a truth at the end of a long physical and emotional journey. Each challenge, each success and especially each failure maketh this man. Mr Klaus actor's intelligence and growing grasp of the greatness of his challenge was awakening gorgeously in front of us and will undoubtedly manifest itself more clearly every time he embarks and completes this enormous journey that Ibsen has given us. (Alas, there were only four performances.)

This production has been edited down to a three hour meeting that in the original is some five and a half hours long! What is not shown on stage at the Paddo RSL Club, may make a whole for the sense to reveal more easily Ibsen's intentions. However, this company to realise Ibsen's intentions has chosen a contemporary Australian translation by a Norwegian born writer, May-Brit Akerholt, who now lives, has lived, in Sydney's Blue Mountains. Fortunately for this Company Ms Akerholt has acted as Dramaturg as well as translator and was present throughout the whole process (at every rehearsal) to shape and edit and guide the Director in her choices that had to be made for this production to tell the story and thematics in a curtailed time frame. This translation is wonderfully funny (cheeky). Contemporary funny with all its social critique and wisdom still intact. (Ms Akerholt has had more than twenty of her translations produced by leading companies around Australia and some overseas. Ibsen, Strindberg, Jon Fosse have had her skill and devotion.)

Says Ms Akerholt: 

You cannot translate a piece of literature. You rewrite a work of fiction written in one language to another, with the aim of creating a new language that has the same effect on audiences or readers as it has in its original form. Ibsen's power lies to a large extent in his language, and in the way he manipulates it. ... Peer Gynt is written in a variety of verse forms ...

One of the most striking aspects of Ibsen's modernity was his mixture of the comic and the tragic. Peer Gynt is written with contagious exuberance and vitality. ... However, it is also a highly political and serious dramatisation of a life wasted in pursuing dreams, fleeing from responsibility, seeking power instead of love. ... (Peer Gynt is) a play full of metaphors and fairy tales and symbols. ... 

We accept the dream-like figures entering Peer's life, because the play creates strong worlds with their own 'inner logic', where characters and action become the logic. When the Button Moulder comes to fetch Peer's soul (to melt it down to start again), we go with the play into the world of legends, and in the whole of the last act, into the worlds in which folklore, myth, fairy tale and reality jostle for space. The trolls in Dovre Mountain are dramatisations of famous fairy tales and stories, but to Peer they are both alluring in his search for the princess and her fortune, and frightening because they become the barriers to his search for himself.

... what Henrik Ibsen's drama did (was to transform) drama and theatre at a time when the western stage still flourished with melodrama, French farces and romantic comedies into an art that laid bare a society based on hypocrisy and double standards."

The Choreography by Alison Lee brought thrills in the Company Dance of the Hall of the Mountain (Troll) King and in the sinuous Arabian scene featuring Anitra - the seductress of the desert  - and throughout the rest of the long journey of Peer, all supported by the 30 strong orchestra led by Peter Alexander gifting the audience with Edvard Greig's famous, romantic score, coloured further by the opportunity that Grieg gives the human voice, the Coro Austral Chorus - a chamber choir - led by Margot McLaughlin There are 26 seperate numbers, short and long, interspersed throughout the sprawling epic play. "In every instance", says the conductor, Peter Alexander, "(the music) intensify and magnify the dramatic situations." The inspiration of Ibsen's characters and story, struck a deep chord of emotional cultural identity in Greig and he ultimately wrote some ninety minutes of music. He, subsequently, organised some of it into two Suites that have become a staple for international orchestras and a part of my musical education in primary school.

The Scenic design on a tiny temporary forestage by Sandy Gray is more than just suggestible clues to location and is supported by the lighting of Michael Schell to create vivid atmosphere, that is, as well, sympathetic to the Visual Images created by Andrew Mill, with the Video and Projection provided by Wayne Richmond. There was a huge team resource of craftspeople to help realise the design of costume led by Miriam Lohmann

This production of PEER GYNT is significant for what it has achieved with little to no budget to reveal the great challenge of this play. It is even more significant as an example of Artistic leadership. The Leadership of a collection of mostly women, who decided to stage, to resurrect, a giant of a play, by one of the giants of dramatic literature, Henrik Ibsen, and a musical score of one of the giants of classical music, Edvard Greig. A unique presentation, a first in Australian history, a play with music that is capable of entertaining an audience and also through legend, myth and fairy story as touchstones for an entry point to provide a poetic critique of a society riven by hypocrisy, greed for wealth and power, that one hundred and fifty years later is still poetically able to be embraced and still found to be exhaustedly relevant in its societal present day boundaries.

Whereas, what has the leadership down at the kingdom of Kip Williams, down at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) elected to present us as the best contemporary work available? Have you already forgotten?

The contrast of leadership values could not be more stark. 

The Professionals that were in attendance at the PaddIngton RSL Club at PEER GYNT's opening night was stacked with the great and interested. Subsequent performances (only 4) were also attended by the wise and thoughtful theatre audiences. Those of us who watch the National Theatre Broadcasts at the DENDY or the PALACE Cinemas (the Orpheum and the Ritz, as well) for $25-$27, to get our legitimate stage experiences were at the PADDO RSL CLUB. We were there less we forget what good theatre is. Lest We Forget.

Congratulations to the ironically titled ENDANGERED PRODUCTIONS, in their choice of play and courage to do it.

P.S. When I was a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), my year of study performed the whole of PEER GYNT, under the Direction of Alexander Hay, our Head of Acting (1971). It began at 8.00pm and finished at 1.30am. There were five actors that played a portion of Peer. Tony Llwellyn-Jones carried an early Peer, that included the Deer Hunting speech. I got to play the whole of Act Five Peer Gynt. I began that responsibility at midnight after playing much else before and finished at 1.30am. Tony and I attended, together, the RSL opening performance, retrieving the pleasures of this play. (We also presented on the same set Dylan Thomas' play/poem: UNDER MILK WOOD (1954), to ensure that the full company of actors (in all 16 of us) got a fuller share of acting challenges.

Alex, a few years later presented with another year of students the whole of the cycle of five plays in G.B. Shaw's BACK TO METHUSELAH (1922) up in the Jane Street Theatre. Those were the days. When training was training. Indeed. By DOING.

John Clark, through Coach House Books (A new imprint of Currency Press), has just published his book: AN EYE FOR TALENT: A LIFE AT NIDA, which is a recollection of the History of NIDA (PEER GYNT is mentioned) and the SydneyTheatre scene. It is a comprehensive and informative work, which I highly recommend for any serious theatre person.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Gods And Little Fishes

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents GODS AND LITTLE FISHES, by Richard Sydenham and Jamie Oxenbould, at the New Theatre, 420 King St. Newtown, 31st May - 25th June.

GODS AND LITTLE FISHES, is a beautiful gem of a play that the writers control with unerring sensitivity.

It is a play about Grief.

Its narrative wrapping/content is the recall of a terrible set of circumstances of 1960 that disturbed the provincial blanket of protection that Sydney wore - perhaps, Australia, as well - when an ordinary, suburban Bondi family won the Sydney 0pera House Lottery of $100,000 - a fantasy dreamt by all of us a big cheer - only to have a stranger call on the telephone a month later with a demand of extortion in exchange for the safe return of their kidnapped son, Graeme. A huge panic. Then, following, a time of nightmare suspense until the body of a child was found in the sand dunes of Seaforth. Then the confronting recognition in the morgue. The reality is the notorious Graeme Thorne Case, that along with the Wanda Beach Murders and the Beaumont Childrens' Disappearance brought Australia into the age of "stranger danger" and to the Police using forensic science as a tool of investigation, success of conviction.

The setting of this production by Hannah Tayler, has the grief performed on a central platform of furniture with a backdrop of blue and clouds where Frank, the dad, a travelling salesman (Jamie Oxenbould), meets some companions in a surreal dream, a man dressed as a bear (Andy McDonell), a small clown (Eloise Snape), and a strongman (Arky Michael), allowing the facts of a new emotional landscape to be revealed whilst on the outer perimeter edges the true life ordeal is told with Frank, his wife Kate (Katie Fitchett) and his son, Jeffrey (Sarah-Jane Kelly).

The balance between the zones of experience are delicately achieved by this team of artists with dignity and  a sense of mission - an ensemble wholly involved with every element that each of them contribute to the gently unfolding "lesson" for its audience. This includes the subtle Sound design by Lloyd Allison-Young and the Lighting support by Grant Fraser. We are smoothly coaxed through difficult terrain and become bewitched, charmed and only slightly bewildered by the adventure of this play.

Harsh reality and the astonishing reservoir of resilience that we have as witnesses of this unspeakable family ordeal, which is illustrated and illuminated for us from this modest stage - which then rebounds for us while and when we regard the pile-on, as we sit in this New Theatre building, of these times of pandemic and war and the perfect storm of climate change and world-wide economic crisis, with a gentle story-telling technique and bravura that inspires not anger and a sense of depression but rather an offer of a small light of hope, even though the glimmerings are far away (All the world's a stage) of our humanness - that we are not only vulnerable but also are resourceful, that we can be survivors however we evolve or mutate as a species. Hope.

GODS AND LITTLE FISHES, and this performance Directed by Richard Sydenham took me to a place of contemplation that elicited comfort and a little joy, despite the darkness of the play's actual content, which I vividly remember actually happening around me when I was a 12 year old living in North Ryde with the newspapers of The Truth and The Daily Mirror, the virulent tabloids of our time, stirring us to a frenzy of cultural fear. But, I'm still here - in fact, we're all still here.

Gentle, almost unremarkable, but a privilege to have experienced. GODS AND LITTLE FISHES.

Do go.

GODS AND LITTLE FISHES won the 2020 The Silver Gull Award, as an unpublished and unproduced new full-length play.

Friday, May 13, 2022

An American in Paris, A New Musical

The Australian Ballet, GWB Enterprises present, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, A NEW MUSICAL under the Direction of Christopher Wheeldon, adapted from the MGM Vincent Minnelli Musical Film, with a new Book by Craig Lucas, Music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, at the Theatre Royal, Sydney. 20th April - 20th June.

The MGM Musical film of 1951, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, Directed by Vincent Minnelli, made famous by the dancing of Gene Kelly with a famous film debut performance from Leslie Caron and a Musical Score with Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, is the inspiration for this stage Musical.

This stage work has been adapted with a new Book by American playwright, Craig Lucas, under the direction of  British Choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. The first significant change is the Setting of the time it sits in, originally in the film a more comfortable early, gradually resurgent late 1940's, early 1950's Paris, now, at the opening of this show at the Theatre Royal, we begin on the actual liberation day in 1945, when in a war torn, exhausted Paris the Nazi flag is torn/brought down and the triumphant Tri-colours of France are hoisted into the air, claiming at the same time its history and of the aspiration of the restoration of Paris to be, once again, the beating artistic heart of Europe.

The backdrop of the stage design by Bob Crowley, takes advantage of contemporary technology and uses digital projection, organised by 59 Production, to have the stage wide collapse and rise of the two opposing flags of Germany and France, with a thrilling and triumphant statement. The Bob Crowley 'magic' continues spectacularly throughout the production employing the colour palette and shape contents of famous artists of this time: Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Mondrian, to back the striving modern dance choreography and cabaret scenes of the City of Paris. That colour resource is apparent in the Lighting Design of Natasha Katz, and in the costume of the performers as well. The costuming of this production appears to be immense and the ensemble are mightily tested in the elaborate swift changes that they must make to continue this production without a wrinkle to its technique in achieving a sleek smoothness in its storytelling journey.

With the change of date, the fears and weariness of war, are inserted by Mr Lucas, into the stories of a few of the victorious American armed forces in Paris meeting and mingling with the French survivors, introducing the poisonous and ruthless, insidious political monstrosity of anti-semitism that still persisted in the psychological abuse present in a supposed liberated world, post 1945. The name of our Narrator/composer American soldier figure is changed from Adam Cook to Adam Hotchby to underline his Jewish heritage (out of respect to the  Gershwin family Jewish heritage, I suppose) and with the introduction of a French Jewish family, Madame and Monsieur Baurel and their son, Henri, who reveal their resistance activity during the German (Nazi) occupation of France. It attempts to bring a layer of serious contemplation to the world of this musical. This conceit works more or less, depending entirely on your own disposition.

The other thematic gesture is the careful layering in of the development in Art: painting, music and dance. Of the quiet battle between rigorous classicism and the exploration of the modernist stretch into the abstract image on painting, sculpture and the choreographic shifts of other types of dance movement, with the accompanying explosion of Jazz as a means to express life in modern times, adopting the sounds of the machinery of war and industry, into musical composition for both classical and popular contemporary stages, in the Concert Houses, the Cabaret and  radio platforms! This conceit works a treat.

The structure of this Musical book is, unfortunately, formulaic. The classic romantic-comedy leads, supported by the second-banana buddies, and pushing against traditions represented by the older and supposedly wiser Elders of the tribe. Jerry Mulligan (Robbie Fairchild) and Lise Dassin (Leanne Cofe), Adam Hotchby (Jonathan Hickey) the romantic leads; Henri (Sam Ward) and Milo (Ashleigh Rubenach) as the second-bananas, he an aspiring Cabaret performer, she an enthusiastic American art philanthropist; with Anne Wood and David Whitney as the resistant Elders, Madame and Monsieur Baurel. 

The conformity of the Book, however is created and sustained by the expertise of the performers. The dance drives the production; the ballet world and the cabaret/musical theatre world. Robbie Fairchild (once a member of the New York City Ballet) and Leanne Cofe (once of the Royal Ballet, London) are wonderfully skilled to act as both soloists and partners of the Christopher Wheeldon choreography, Mr Fairchild is particularly brilliant. Both can also sing quite well. In the Cabaret world, Sam Wood, and Ashleigh Rubenach are delightful both as singers and dancers of that world. Mr Wood a bit of a scene stealer - in a good way, I mean. While the entire ensemble are required to dance in the ballet and cabaret mode - the tap dance, particularly rousing. They are impressive. Some 33 performers I read!!!!

The ingredients of this AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is first rate, and yet the sum of the experience is a trifle dull. The long 17-minute dance sequence - the climax of the intentions of the work - does not quite achieve its focus or our hold attention - true, for me, in the film, as well - and one felt that there were too many endings to the show. It just kept going on and on. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, perhaps a firmer editing was what was called for. I saw the New York Production as well, and it had a much larger space and, certainly, the 'pool' of high quality artists to choose from much, much larger. There, too, on Broadway, the time palled.

Is it the lack of genuine Gershwin songs that defeated the experience? We had:  "I got Rhythm"; "S 'Wonderful"; "They Can't take That Away from Me","Stairway To Paradise"; and a few others, and when the orchestra lighted into full swing, led by Victoria Scammell, we were transported to a kind of Heaven but it seemed to me (and I am no expert), the other adaptations and orchestrations by Rob Fisher were less than impressive. When I recognised phrases from other Gershwin material I lit up with empathic recognition, only to be disappointed that we didn't get more of it. Was it that the Gershwin was relatively light on in the two hours twenty minutes? Is that the explanation for the disappointed feeling at the end of the night?

Go see.

Monday, March 21, 2022

North by North West

By special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), NORTH BY NORTHWEST, adapted by Carolyn Burns, based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, written by Ernest Lehman, at the Lyric Theatre in the Star Casino complex. 9th March - 3rd April.

Alfred Hitchcock had decided he needed a change of style and, particularly, after the twisted Freudian themes and motifs of his then disparaged VERTIGO - released in 1958 (it, belatedly has become  regarded as a Hitchcockian Masterpiece) - he began a treatment of THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE, based on a novel by Hammond Innes with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. It didn't work out. They quit on it. Being under contract they had to produce something for M.G.M. , so the Cold War suspense thriller, romantic-comedy, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, gradually crystallised.

It seems that Hitchcock had collected in his spare time a glad-bag of scenes and images he would love to see filmed. Taking that cue from their creative conversations Lehman went on a field trip to pick up some location colour from Hitchcock's 'dreams' and after visiting the UN headquarters in New York, taking a trip on the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago, checking in at the Ambassador East Hotel, with a park carer taking a scramble up the side of Mt Rushmore, among other adventures. He returned home and at their first re-meeting sat down with Hitchcock to put a screenplay together with what amounted to be an itinerary without a plot. 

Together they put their hero into a predicament and worked out how to get him out of the trouble he found himself in. Then he was dropped into new trouble and once again they had to solve how to extricate him. On and on it went with the question "Now what?" always being posed and explored to solve. "I never knew where I was going,' said Lehman.

'As a result ," Mr Lehman tells us, "Everything was written in increments: moving a little bit forward, then a little bit more, a page at a time. "Okay, you've got him out of Grand Central Station. Now he's on the train, now what? Well, there's no female character in it yet. I better put Eve on the train. But what should I do with her? ..." Always asking, "What do I do next?" So, in the end, the audience never knows what's coming next, because (we) didn't either."

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of Hitchcock's most successful films: in fact, an instant success that has been maintained over 60 years of cinematic life:  a suspense thriller of misidentification of an innocent bystander, Roger O. Thornhill - a classic Cold War paranoia, which Hitchcock had used many times before, (the two versions of THE MAN THAT KNEW TOO MUCH, for instance - 1934 & 1956) - that ensures a chase across the United States unravelling a double, double spy plot engaging with knives, planes and guns, bullets both live and blanks, resulting, of course, with the reveal of a micro-film that both sides want, hidden in the rounded tummy of an expensive art piece! 

Add to the spine of this narrative adventure fantasy a script that instead of straight dialogue is mostly, really, repartee, or if you prefer, foreplay - a long verbal flirtation with lots of meaningful looks - and you have a mixture of genre that is irresistible. Physical adventure, intrigue and lots of humour, of innuendo laden with charm - charm and deliberate restraint. The original filmic casting was Cary Grant, the greatest of the Hollywood comic charmers at this time and under his spell Eva Marie Saint, his co-star, rose to the occasion to be his equal, being provocatively charming, right back. The audience no matter their sexual identification swooned as these two handsome figures 'battled' it out. This film has always been a favourite and hasn't aged one bit in its ability to tantalise and please its audience. Suspense and longing smiles. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is critically regarded as Hitchcock's lightest film.

Most of us in this Opening Night audience knew the film and so we arrived at the Lyric Theatre knowing what happens to the innocent Roger Thornhill (David Campbell), and how he and the other characters are extricated from one trouble spot to another. The "What next?' we already knew. So, the "HOW" in the Lyric theatre is not so much the thrill of the plot twists of escape but rather the "HOW" are they going to bring certain famous sequences in the film to life on stage. You know, HOW are they going to solve the extraordinary stalking and chase of the hero by a crop duster plane, spitting bullets at him. The climb and chase across the Mount Rushmore sculptures. This is the the thrill tension of the anticipated stage version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST for us fans of Hitchcock. For the audience seeing the story for the first time they are having a double wonder of a production. The Lehman adventure story and the cleverness of the playful storytelling techniques  - the respectful, stylish mashing of actor with Audio-Visual tools., it turns out. Of the genius of Hitchcock and of the team of creatives working with Simon Phillips.

In this production the physical solution of the HOW are they going to do it is where laughter of surprise and wonder at the audacious theatricality of the methods employed becomes an assured source of holding this night together for all the audience: those who are familiar and those who are not. This staged version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a rich night of fun and joy.

The adaptation of this screenplay by Carolyn Burns under the direction of Simon Philips, from the resources of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), is adroit in managing all of the main events. The play text is a true adaptation of the original - it is respectfully faithful. It begins with a set Design (Simon Phillips and Nick Schlieper), of a ghostly white skeletal cage-like structure of parallel lines both horizontal and vertical across the back of the stage and coming down both sides, 'wings', of the stage - left and right. The production begins with a boldly tongue-in-cheek recreation of the Saul Bass opening credits offering an inventive solution that in doing so, announces a restrained comic tone, right from the start, that is then, remarkably sustained throughout the entire of the production. 

The wonderful comic balance that Simon Phillips achieves is one that has a cosy period identification that never pushes into farce or vulgarity.  There is no Sydney Oxford Street Camp going on in this production and the respect given the source material never wavers into parody and one trusts, instinctively, that there is not going to be a musical 'drag' interpolation going to be featured in this storytelling creation, unlike the Kip Williams' offers in works like his CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF***, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY or, believe it or not, DEATH OF A SALESMAN***. Anything Goes when Mr Williams or his Assistant Artists takes hold of the Classic repertoire - Sydney's audiences' penchant to demand superficial style over substance - to celebrate it with standing ovations and applause - seems to give the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Mr Williams and his assistants licence to indulge its audiences (and themselves, it seems.)

The colour palette of the Lighting (Nick Schlieper), is that slightly underlit warmth that Francis Ford Coppola and his cinematographer, Gordon Willis, captured so beautifully in THE GODFATHER trilogy - and is cosy, safe, 'homey'. Further, sonically, the famous Bernard Herrmann score from the original film has been given permission to be used and its familiar, propulsive Spanish dance rhythm known as the fandango is awoken, recalled, and our, probably, subliminal memory, unconsciously use it to support  Mr Phillips' imaginative solutions, joyfully, to assist in accepting the manner of the choices made by the production artists. Other Composition and Soundscape are harmoniously created by Ian McDonald.

On the Set, there are in each of the wing branches two cubicles where the cast using a pointed, live camera 'play' with toys - tools - to project images on a large screen on the back wall. The images are made up of comic toys and child-like illustrations that ground the feel of the 'art' into the games some of us have created in our bedrooms, as kids, getting out our crayons or paint brushes with a tone colour of the Hollywood technicolour of the '50's to make the background images of our own stories, whilst we also built/organised: toy planes on a stick that will crash into a toy bus and catch fire, or a train set moved on tracks past the camera to be projected in real time onto a screen. (Memories of the work of the Australian company, MY DARLING PATRICIA'S came to call.) And, just wait until you see the solution to creating the climatic scramble of our heroes across the Mount Rushmore monument. It is MTC artistic integrity, not STC vulgarity holding it all together. Ingenious and amusing in its wonderous cheeky concept. The Audio Visual design of newspaper headlines etc by Josh Burns also uses techniques of the old Hollywood studios that ramps up the visual support for the storytelling.

On the floor of the stage, chairs and some prop lounges (on wheels) are wheeled about to create images of a car, taxi, a train carriage, the interior of an art auction, bedrooms and foyers of hotels etc. The very busy choreographic control by the company of actors of the props for the scenes have a tight rein of efficiency and balletic elan.

A company of 12 actors create to what appears to be a cast of hundreds. Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaen Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Sharon Millerchip, Wadih Dona, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline Craig and Douglas Hansell. David Campbell as the hero, Roger Thornhill, is the only actor with one character to maintain. Everybody else swiftly shape shift with the assistance of Costume (Esther Marie Hayes) and wig, make-up. It seemed to me that Ms Hayes work is exemplary in solving the quick changes that are necessary for the production's fluidity but it is at the expense of a good consistent period look. There is however no real excuse for the fit and cut of Mr Campbell's suit that more often than not looks like 'a bag of fruit' than the tailored serenity of the original. This Thornhill looks flustered and baggy in the suit he dons rather than in neat control. This Thornhill does not support the 'coolness' the confidence of the original by a long, long shot. (I read that Cary Grant had seven identical versions of his suit to maintain the character's temperament visually throughout the shoot of the film. Not so, alas, for Mr Campbell. The film went way over budget to complete! - that set of suits, perhaps?! The MTC, probably did not have the budget.)

Amber McMahon, plays the heroine, Eve, with a wig that looks like the blonde straw that appeared in M.G.M.'s THE WIZARD OF OZ, perched on the top of her head, hair-sprayed to what looked like a lethal stiffness of curled sharp edges. Ms McMahon, as well, never quite manages to make her Grace-Kelly period 'costumes' look like 'clothes' that her character has chosen to wear. The suits are okay but the 'cocktail' look not so well accomplished. Fortunately, Ms McMahon has a personal style that almost excuses the uncomfortable look in those required petticoats.

All of the actors have the difficulty of playing roles meant to be captured by a camera and hence there is a need to theatrically illustrate the subtleties at a scale that can reach into the back rows of the theatre. It can add a coarsening to the comedy of Lehmann and Hitchcock's screenplay, none more, for instance, than in the famous train repartee between Thornhill and Eve Kendall. Ms McMahon mostly succeeds with this problem though sometimes she treads to the very edge of vulgarity with choices like the throw of her legs in the bed scene in the train. It gets a laugh but almost prostitutes Eve's character. It is on the edge and one can see the temptation that Ms McMahon is resisting - for the bigger comic gesture to score a laugh is a fairly familiar choice employed by Ms McMahon in her past work offers. It is an admirable "battle' that we can gauge Ms  McMahon is having to subdue that usual comic reflex trait, to have us identify her Eve Kendall as a saintly sophisticated operator.

Bert LaBonte is a smooth operator,  seductive as the villain Phillip Van Damm. He is all that we could wish for, with the memory of James Mason oozing into our consciousness of recognition in some of the Labonte stylish body language and a capacity to wear his clothing as if it were tailored just for him.

 Genevieve Lemon is consummate in her comic invention of Roger's mother, Mrs Dinah Thornhill, and manages to create a mordant wit for her many other minor tasks. 

Tony Llwellyn-Jones pulls out his usual fussy physical choices to make the 'Professor', they are hardly distinguishable from his performance as Pickering in the Julie Andrews production of MY FAIR LADY***of a few years ago. 

Dorje Swallow and Lachlan Woods (Leonard) make an impression in the ensemble work.

The vocal work of the company, employing a familiar '50's mid-Atlantic Hollywood dialect to create period and consistency helps enormously for us to enter the game of the theatre with them. It's a fake Studio dialect, but it is instantly recognisable and fun.

David Campbell who is more often seen in Musicals on stage (or, as a host on daytime television), plays straight down the line in this play, with some subdued comic flair and a genuine truth with his own pleasant aura of a nice guy projecting a dignified restraint necessary for us to believe the dilemmas and interactions of his beleaguered hero, Roger Thornhill. 

Cary Grant began his career as a comic acrobat in the Music Halls of London and Vaudeville Theatres in New York and once he began making strides in the film industry in Hollywood it was his well trained physical body language that assisted him to create a musical rhythm for all his work. Watch his physical timing in the Screwball Comedies of the 30's and 40's to see what I mean expressly. (Charles Chaplain and Burt Lancaster are two other athletic bodies that made distinctive physical impressions on screen) Bernard Herrmann of his choice of the Spanish fandango for the main thematics of his score for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, didn't seem to make sense for a movie that takes place entirely in America, but Herrmann had a genius for music embodying a movie's psychological DNA. Herrmann's inspiration became clear when he explained that his use of the fandango was inspired by Grant's "Astaire-like agility," which was never more apparent than in the crop-dusting sequence, where he sprints through the cornfield like an Olympic athlete. It is this physical agility, the suave movement of the body, the instinctive body memory reach that seduces us, along with his turn-of-phrase, the witty quip, the musical cadence and timing that distinguishes Grant's Thornhill. 

Throughout the huge responsibility of this very big role - Thornhill is in in almost every scene of the play - the wit of the text is assiduously available within Mr Campbell's 'tool box' and he seems to have worked hard to require the disciplines to make it work, but his characterisation is undermined, relatively, in the lack of consistent strength of skill in the physical life. Mr Campbell, does not persuade us, of his Olympic stamina, he does not seem to appear to have the "Astaire physical agility," or an apt state of physical fitness to employ as part of his characterisation. Mr Campbell is pleasantly charming, and it is that identification of his own inimitable self that we identify, (his morning television hosting) that helps us to carry him over the line and make his Thornhill work. We like David Campbell and we want to make his performance as Roger Thornhill to work as well. It does.

When I was a kid one of my passions was collecting the editions of a comic book called CLASSIC COMICS. These comics were coloured illustrated versions of Classic movies e.g. ROB ROY, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH. I used to hang out for the publication of each one in the local newspaper store, along with my Disney Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comics. This Simon Phillips' production has the coloured illustrated warmth of those childhood memories of the 1950's comic. NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the Lyric Theatre, has the same visual radiating comfort as those Classic Comic books, with the added bonus of a restrained tongue-in-cheek humour of the knowingly theatrical solutions used to bring us, on the stage, this Cold War Chase Thriller. 

This production is a cartoon for adults and for their children as well, I suspect. Nothing offensive here, but a clever and advantageous use of 'oldie-worldie' Audio-Visual techniques that tells a story with clarity of drama and wit. The storytelling is front and centre here, unlike the STC's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, where the Audio-Visuals and the Director are the star of the evening, burying the one actor so that the storytelling of Oscar Wilde's story becomes lost in the self-conscious employment of modern techniques of image making. 

The actors in this Melbourne Theatre Company production are permitted to be the storytellers of Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST. 

The actors are primary. 

Under the behest of Simon Phillips they reveal respect and trust in the original work and triumph in a most delightful way.

N.B. A resource for this post: 

1. CARY GRANT : A Brilliant Disguise, by Scott Eyman - Simon and Schuster - 2020.

2. The very good notes in the program - unusually interesting and informative.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Hand to God

Red Line Productions present, HAND TO GOD, by Robert Askins at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo. 24Th February - 26th March.

Because of mitigating circumstances in my little personal life I have pulled back from attending the theatre (The contemporary cinema seems to be more rewarding!)  The last time I went to the theatre was to see DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in December. 

So, I ventured out as the Pandemic seemed to have quietened and my medical adventures, too, have become more manageable if not "cured'. I have a loyalty for the Red Line and Old Fitz and as well admire the work of the director of this production of HAND TO GOD, by Robert Askins: Alexander Berlage.

In between the deluge of rainfall that Sydney has been enduring I got myself to the theatre with a young acting student as my guest.  By Public Transport as I have never driven!

The Set Design, is what we see on entering the theatre, by Jeremy Allen and Emma White, and is at first, in the back halls of a minor Christian church in Cypress, Texas, where a recent widow, Margery (Merridy Eastman), holds classes in a  self-created Ministry of Puppetry, to spread the stories of Jesus and his gospel. The walls of the hall are painted with many stirring missionary images of Jesus, including one wrapped in the Stars and Stripes of the good old USA. There are several other locations we travel to which the Designers have facilitated with deft choices for speed and identification.

Margery's teenaged son, Jason (Philip Lynch), is in trauma and has created a hand-sock puppet called 'Tyrone' in class that has begun to help him divest his grief  and anger at the loss of his father and at the 'bewilderment' his mother seems to have adopted as a way of being. To say 'Tyrone' is an angry puppet is an understatement and he becomes more and more uninhibited - foul-mouthed and gross - in expressing his rage. It appears that Jason has become 'possessed' by the devil and has developed a split personality: SPLIT!

Pastor Gregg (Gerard Carroll) who has a passion for his parishioner, Margery, (and it is fairly 'muscular' in expression), has conceived Jason is in need of a good old-fashioned exorcism  - his wooden crucifix in its leather holster - which in misadventure compounds to make a most tumultuous resolution. Sometimes satirically funny.

Whilst Jessica (Michelle Ny), another church-goer having a crush on her friend Jason has developed a puppet of her own, 'Jolene', who exhibits free-wheeling sexual fantasies and breasts stuffed in the sock-puppet to rival, in scale, those of Dolly Parton!  The scenario that Jessica has imagined for 'Jolene' is creepy and disturbing to the extreme -  with what 'Jolene' offers 'Tyrone', laughter may be the only sensible way to receive it in the theatre.

Teenager, schoolfriend, of Jason, Timothy (Ryan Morgan), does not need a puppet persona to assuage his teenage psychological developments, he simply declares his sexual attraction and fantasies to Margery and in her own emotional turmoil, she is grateful and throws all inhibitions to the wind and indulges in gratifying and addictive sexual adventures up to and including a dominatrix S&M fashion with this eager minor - a pederasty that is more than comically icky. It is inappropriate to say the least. 

The play purports to talk of faith, morality, religious hypocrisy, and the frailties of trauma in a family visited by 'death'. In production it is more interested in making us laugh no matter the appropriatness of technique or content. HAND TO GOD, first appeared off-Broadway in 2011, returned to a larger off-Broadway theatre in 2014, and then migrated to Broadway proper for a ten month season in 2015.

Twenty minutes into this very good production, I just felt that the content and concerns of this play had been made radically outdated since the pressures of world climate change and the epidemiological traumas in our lives that has confronted us. This play now just seemed trivial and ultimately vulgar and a horrifying example of the gross hedonism that we as a cultural community had evolved in accepting HAND TO GOD as a normality. 

I became swiftly objective in this experience and brooded that if this is what the gate-keepers of Red Line believe is the play we need in our lives, in 2022, today, I had better take more care about what I decide to spend my precious time watching. The content  of HAND TO GOD, and its contemporary appropriateness turned this night and my effort to attend as a total waste of my time. And, this is no matter the very clever work by all the actors, elicited by Alexander Berlage, supported by all the other artists, including the contributions of the Lighting Design by Phoebe Pilcher and, especially, the technicalities of the Sound Design by Daniel Herten to finding the way to tell this story by American, Robert Askins to us.

For, it is wonderful to welcome Merridy Eastman back to the theatre, who gives a nuanced performance of wonderfully gauged choices in comic technique married to a moving - heart-on-sleeve emotional sensibility. Her Margery a three dimensional woman in an hysterical farce. Her  Margery is in desperate need of rescue, and it is so palpable that one wants to reach out to hug her and quieten her life grief. Ms Eastman's is a standout performance, one so complex and so vulnerable.

Philip Lynch is striking in his energies in inhabiting Jason with 'Tyrone' grafted to his right arm, but, it is a performance in action that seems to beggar us to admire Mr Lynch's work - the actor's consciousness dominates the story offers, preventing us from identifying sympathetically with the back-story quandries of Mr Askins' character, Jason.  Mr Lynch whilst relishing his opportunity to play this split personality lets his personal satisfaction with what he is doing show.

Ryan Morgan, Michelle Ny and Gerrard Carroll, with writing that is relatively threadbare for their characters' backstory and journey, still manage to triumph with full on commitment, even when they are grossly larger than life. They definitely keep us in the loop of this genre's technicalities.

HAND TO GOD, then, despite the professionalism of all the artists involved has dated considerably since its first appearance, 11 years ago. It is a long time ago. In the cultural climate of 2022 this play is a hollow relic of another time and value sensibility. Mind you, on the Opening Night, some of the audience were whooping it up - friends of the theatre and actors or general public? Who knows? My companion and I were not so easily pleased. It will be a personal decision to 'give in' or decline, push away.

There are recent plays out there that have surfaced  elsewhere and deserve to be seen in Sydney. Red Line ought to check out the resources of a competing Sydney company: OUTHOUSE. OUTHOUSE seem with every work they bring to us to find theatre experiences that are pertinent, challenging and entertaining. e.g. ULSTER AMERICAN, GLORIA, JOHN. All three of these contemporary plays (and others) changed its audience point-of-view of the world that they and we live in. The writers having the courage and the intelligence of wit to entertain us as well. It all begins with the quality of the writing, the writer.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Death of a Salesman

Sydney Theatre Company presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN, by Arthur Miller, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd The Rocks. 3rd December to 22 December, 2021.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, written by Arthur Miller in 1948, produced in 1949, tells the story of an ordinary American family : the Loman family. Father/husband Willy (Jacek Koman), Mother/wife Linda (Helen Thomson), Sons Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Callan Colley). Biff is 34 and has returned home to Brooklyn, after an adventure in the cowboy world of the horse for dog meat Misfits, in a dilemma of disillusionment, seeking confession with his socially degraded brother before confronting his father with a shared secret that has eaten up half of his life, that will devastate his mother and push Willy to a decision that is at once criminal and yet, possibly, a salvation.

This is the story of an ordinary family that has lived through the war to end all wars: the First World War, then the monetary boom of the Jazz Age of the false hope of the possibility of the American Dream, busting in the stock market crash of 1929 and flattening out through almost a decade of what is called The Great Depression, a time of cruelty and terror, rescued by the industry of another great war with a cynical cause of optimism for saving the world, concluding with the exploding of two Atomic bombs to demonstrate power leading to the bleak cold war politics of fear rustled up by their President Harry F. Truman who had a finger not far from the next button, the Nuclear Button. Why is the bland domesticity of the Loman family find itself on the edge of a tremulous emotional abyss? Because History will out. Terror, fear, cynicism, greed, poverty, distress and depression. Depression that leads to the act of Suicide. And, oh, this is a family of Jewish immigrant origin. 

Does not this play reverberate for us in its titanic truth telling, whilst sitting in a token of good citizenship, the Roslyn Packer Theatre, during an enduring pandemic? Is not the Loman family a fair representative of families I know, today? My own family, perhaps? Sitting on the edge of another tremulous abyss?

This is why DEATH OF A SALESMAN is regarded as a Great Classic play. The ONE of the 20th Century, I say. And, this is why we get to see it revived in our theatre spaces time and time again, Nationally and Internationally. 

This is not my first encounter with the Loman family. There have been many, many others.

Christopher Bigsby, an academic devoted to the study of Miller/s work recorded Miller saying in his book of conversations ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY(1990):  

All these years later I see a play of mine that I wrote thirty-five years ago, and I see that the audience is screwed into it in the way that they were in the first place, I like to believe that the feeling they have is that man is worth something. That you care that much about him is a miracle, I mean considering the numbers of ourselves that we have destroyed in the last century. I think art imputes value to human beings  and if I did that  it would be the most pleasant thought I could depart with, apart from the fact that it entertains people, keeps them amused for a while. If I left behind that much value, it would be great. I have a weakness for actors and when they are transformed, or seem to be, by something I wrote, it's a miracle to me. When they become somebody I imagined it moves me very much. I guess the other thing is the wonder of it all, that I'm still here, that so much of it did work, that the people are so open to it, and that we sort of clasped hands somehow, in many places and many languages. It gives me a glimpse of the idea that there is one humanity, there's just one homo sapiens. Underneath all the different etiquette and the incomprehensible languages we are one. And I think it is a sort of miracle. What does a writer want? He wants to have left his thumbprint on the world. (That sounds like Willy Loman.) That's right. Who does not want that?

So it seemed, last night in 2021, that the audience was "screwed into it ... " Time, almost 3 hours flew past, for some. This play still holds its thrall on an audience. Even one as far away as Sydney, 71 years after its first performance.

This was, probably, my tenth experience of Willy Loman. I, sitting in my seat, remembered my first : Ben Gabriel at the Old Parade Theatre for the Old Tote Theatre Company. He was the described small man Miller had wanted. I've seen more statuesque individuals give the work, and it works best when Willy is a feisty, diminutive individual. I've seen Warren Mitchell give it at the Seymour Centre, and of course the filmed version with Dustin Hoffman, a small but robustly dynamic figure (both, much admired by Arthur Miller), and last night when Jacek Koman exhaustedly entered to lay down his bags and remove his coat to begin the marathon journey of Willy Loman, we saw a small man that was to be writ large.

The Director, Paige Rattray, has presented with a Set design by David Fleischer, with an open curtain to allow us to digest the picture : a striking image of a huge architectural art piece that has a decaying proscenium arch, slightly off-centred, upstage, flanked by a towering set of ware house windows that reveal a 'warehouse' wall of bricks; to our left a height exaggerated white doorway surrounded by drab green coloured walls, with a five pronged chandelier of period bulb design hanging from the roof, as if of a period dance hall; an abandoned white refrigerator, a card-sized table and a few chairs litter the space as the audience gathers it self together. It is a puzzle to solve. Where are we? What does this image mean?

Enter, when all is ready, a group of actors dressed in costume of the late nineteen forties manner, organised by Teresa Negroponte, to have a figure called The Woman (Brigid Zengeni) make verbal selection of Arthur Miller's description of the Set Design he had imagined. Our imaginations are asked to imaginatively produce the time and place of the actual play via the verbal descriptive recitation inside a vastly looming real image that, in my case, defied understanding. It seemed to be a grandiose solution! Why not build Mr Miller's solution? As an old actor, I fumed at the STC Budget costs for such a design - which is the usual artistic solution that Mr Fleischer presents: an expensive Art piece that gives little aid to the explication of the play for us plebs sitting in the auditorium whatever the patricians, he and Ms Rattray, know of its intention and symbols. The waste was exampled in the gigantic chandelier hanging from the roof, which was only once functionally lit, for the curtain call, and at no other time in the playing. An arrogant gesture of gratuitous design. Cost? Mr Fleischer's work on Terrence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA was also an expensive, curious and useless solution to the demands of that play. Beautiful? Perhaps. USEFUL TO THE STORYTELLING? NO! It was extremely informative to see the Design solution that the National Theatre in London employed to present a contemporary read of the same play. Throw Mr Fleischer, the designer, into the Museum of Contemporary Art with his images, and employ some more actors, with the money saved, for God's sake!

Jacek Koman is fully informed of the opportunity of this iconic role, and there is an actor's intelligence of selection at work and the physical life of the character is vividly impressive throughout the night, peaking in his growing madness of helpless depression, in the night club scene. In quiet moments his vocal efforts can be intelligible, but in moments of emotional demand the injured raspy voice grates - is ugly and jarring -  and obfuscates the content of the line, and any musical pleasure in presenting the lyric prose/poetry of the writing. The performance is physically masterful, undermined in its achievement by a vocally inadequate sound. It is the Physical life that burns indelibly in my memory of Mr Koman's Willy. However, Mr Miller wrote in a form of prose/poetry, honed with this work to a perfection, and such that it becomes a hallmark of all his subsequent work - each text scripted with a craftman's exquisite pain - an achievement that is not possible to hear here. Here, Mr Koman reveals a mis-casting by Ms Rattray. His voice is an injured instrument. Willy requires an actor that can 'sing', subtly, with the beauty of the English language, to reveal the text. You will understand what I mean when you listen to the cadent beauty of Philip Quast's musical sensibilities as Ben, in this production, using an instrument that is primed to deliver content whilst simultaneously revealing the beauties of the sound of the English language shaped by a major mid-century American poet. Miller has picked up the baton from Odets, O'Neill, which he passed to Albee, and then onto Shepard. 

The original title of the play was THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD, the play conceived as taking place in Willy's head, conjured on this desperate night of reckoning, conjuring the other figures to help him justify his determinations. Willy draws the Biff he needs and the crisis that brings Biff home is the catalyst that organises Biff to an agonising climatic confrontation, in the third act of the play, with his father that is resolved in the revelation that Biff LOVES his father. It is what Willy needs, conjures : the revelation that gives Willy a confirmed sense of worth despite his failings that ushers him to his final sacrifice to provide for his wife and son(s). So, he hopes!

Josh McConville creates a Biff that cries like a baby, at the age of 17, at the event of his discovery of his father's fallibility and betrayal of his mother, Linda, in the highway motel, that festers into a disease of awkwardness after a brooding on it for a further 17 years to a volcanic eruption of grief and rage in that climatic scene between father and son. McConville exploded into physical expression that had the bravura of an actor rather than the passions of the character in the given circumstances offered, it was as if the physical gestures of the actor were being pumped to generate the emotional force, instead of using the considered intellectual emotional construct in the information of the text - to which he should be listening, vibrating from. These moments, towards the end of the play, undermined  Mr McConville's wonderful choices of frustration we saw in the nightclub scene and caused me to withhold my full admiration of his passionate fury. 

Whereas, Callan Colley gives a marvellous controlled muscularity to his lunkheaded Happy determined for mediocrity when his youthful bloom begins to set - the arc of Mr Colley's work was consistent and buried in the character/man he was charged to bring to life. The work felt full and deliberately purposeful, beat by beat.

Helen Thomson creates her Linda from a place of exhausted empathy imbued with the effort of holding her world together, as it is her duty to do. Miller gives this woman no feisty objection but instead a saintly devotion to her allotted role in this family of masculine demands.  Washing, cleaning, repairing, making do, anticipating her men and offering advice, begging for change. Linda is part of the memory, vision, that Miller has with all his Mother roles, taking, as a poet does, from the three dimensional construct of his own mother, revealed to us in his magnificent autobiography TIMEBENDS, so that he can employ the poetic licence of selection to suit his artistic purposes. From his knowledge of his mother Augusta, Linda becomes the Good Woman of this play, as the Mother is as ROSE in THE AMERICAN CLOCK, and not as the Mother figure in AFTER THE FALL, for instance. It is a praiseworthy performance from Ms Thomson until we come to the all important and hotly (historically) debated Epilogue : the scene at the graveside. It was Arthur Miller's insistence that the scene remained in the first production. In the published text for all consequent productions.

Says Miller to Christopher Bigsby

The key (to the play) is in the requiem at the end, which everybody wanted me to cut out. They said the audience were never going to stay there because Willy Loman is dead; there's nothing to say. Of course they did want to stay there, just as you do want to go to a funeral. And what  is the point of a funeral? You want to think over the life of the departed and it's in there, really, that it's nailed down : he won't accept this life.

The difficulty for Ms Thompson is the indecisive staging of the scene, by Ms Rattray. Unfortunately, the gathering is spread, initially, upstage and gives the actors obstacles to prevent a muffling of the dialogue and, similarly, when the circle is brought closer downstage around the seated, on the floor, Linda Loman. The scene is rushed and the sense of the word by word importance of the contribution of each speaker and, as importantly, the active listening, the attention that must be paid to what is happening, the conscious construct by the play's writer, for the audience to pick up the clues of the subtext, was not made meaningful. Instead of this scene being the climax of Mr Miller's intention it seemed to be treated as an unnecessary adjunct to the play.  A play, any of Mr Miller's plays particularly, do not ever finish until the final point of syntax is expressed: that famous full stop. The casual staging and direction of  the Epilogue dispersed the focus and reduced the opportunity for the story of Mrs Linda Loman to truly count. She is the last one standing. Is it, therefore, her play? Is the death of this salesman Willy her tragedy? Her playing arc for the audience to embrace finishes with the final full stop. In Mr Miller's life, as his autobiography testify's, his mother counted. Linda in the daily sacrifice of herself as the wife to Willy Loman, and mother to Biff and Happy, always knew that Willy could never accept his life. She knew this and she knew it was the inheritance that her boys would be forced to live with and out.  All that she has left at the end of the play is the materialistic gain of the decaying house. Her husband dead, her boys ruined, that house is all she has left of the promises of the American dream. The irony of her  line to be, at last, "Free and Clear", repeated twice, is a punch to our gut. Ms Thomson's Linda under the direction of the scene by Ms Rattray is unable to make a satisfactory conclusion to her story. The epilogue we see is sentimental and lacking in the objectivity of the ruthless eye of Miller as he strips Linda bare and bereft in the aftermath of Willy's actions. She sits in the crucible having her 'fat' burnt away, and we are meant to watch and feel her terrors just as in a later play, THE CRUCIBLE, John Proctor, is shorn of all of his delusions and stands near naked with all his strengths and weaknesses revealed.

(By the way, FREE AND CLEAR, was also once considered a possible title to this play.)

Bruce Spence as cousin Charlie gives a measured and masterful construct to a role that floats between the naturalism of the period writing style and the Miller experimentation with the surreal tendencies of Eugene O'Neill and some of the more interesting European writers of the time (Eugene O'Neill, Miller and especially Edward Albee and then Sam Shepard outriders of the mainstream American dramatic literature style?). Later, Mr Spence blots his contribution with a set of gratuitous choices as a drunken waiter, even to his elbow slipping on the curve of the refrigerator door, gaining laughs but undermining his integrity of choice.

Philip Quast takes on the role of Ben, a huge and dynamic construct of Willy's mind, a giant of a figure 'sailing' across the stage in white suit, panama hat and umbrella, cane, declaiming in an ultra poetic/prose of journeys to the fabulous wealth of Alaska and Africa. Mr Quast meticulous in his handling of his text making a delicious moment in managing to reveal  the internal rhyme of AlaskA and AfricA wittily exaggerating Willy's dreamy delusion of what is a successful life. The exaggerations conjured by Willy a tragic exposition of his state of mind on this precarious night in the Loman house is manifested in Mr Quast's performance. (His song and dance act, introducing the Nightclub scene, is not his fault and is not part of Arthur Miller's plan!).

Other members of the cast provide function to the machinations of the play's wheels if not always making impressions of considered understanding of Miller's dramaturgical intention for their presence on the stage in their scene. Little intellectual interrogation, I thought. Vulgar comic opportunism instead. The nightclub scene for instance begins in Ms Rattray's production with a vulgar musical interpolation to the text as something "delightful, delicious" via Cole Porter, instead of the tragic loosening of Willy's mind - the two  louche women played for vulgar laughs instead of the ghost train conjuring of Willy's mental breakdown - so that the scene becomes a diversion of comic release rather than the cruel, deliberate dismembering of our 'hero's' state of mind - "in my own head." Instead of forcing the audience to brace itself into the gradual, tragic burning away of Willy's self in the crucible of the action of the play, Ms Rattray provides a comic distraction as if the play was merely a series of vaudeville sketches, with a dark ending! 

I could go on and on in this deconstruct forever.

The play, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, is a 5 Star rating.

The Sydney Theatre Company's production of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a 2 star bust.

 It begins with that design by Mr Fleischer, which has nothing much to do to reveal the actual action of the play (where his grandiose chandelier is lit only in the curtain call), through to a poverty in the interrogation of all the elements of every scene by the Director and the actors in them. This maybe my tenth production and so, in my experience, this production has the same function as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare for Shakespeare - a cursory introduction to Arthur Miller's work simplified for easy digestion if not always an accurate exposition of the actual play. 

That the Sydney Theatre Company continues to produce work of such interrogative poverty is indeed a tragedy for Arthur Miller's reputation and for the quality of theatre going in this city/this country. Thank God for the regular National Theatre Broadcast in our local cinemas that show us why the plays  are in their repertoire - old or brand new - and deserve to be seen. 

Every time I see an NT production I count the number of actors on the stage and weep for the Australian actor's opportunities on their main stages. Hire more actors. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, about to have its second showing in Sydney and a tour, has ONE actor, and TWELVE technicians onstage to assist her - "wtf", as they say. Our actors have been mostly unemployed for 18 months -2 years. While the administration of this leading company took home pay every single day of the disaster. EMPLOY SOME MORE ACTORS. Save money with simpler, economic design!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Merrily We Roll Along

Photo by Phil Erbacher

Luckiest Productions and Hayes Theatre Co present, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point. From 21st October - 27th November, 2021.

Going off to the Hayes Theatre in the expectation of once more (I have seen at least three other productions in Sydney) engaging with Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. I had a palpable sense of excitement. 

Stephen Sondheim is one of the Greats of contemporary theatre. I have rated him alongside Edward Albee, a writer and figure of the same generation - Albee born in 1928 and Sondheim in 1930. Albee passed away in 2016 at the age of 88 and Sondheim in March celebrated his 91st birthday. Two Great American geniuses spanning two centuries with a body of work of great note. I would include Tom Stoppard, who is a contemporary English writer and is only 84 as another Theatre Elder Genius whose work one approaches with anticipation and respect. Both these latter men are still writing, Stoppard having in the West End his latest play, LEOPOLDSTADT, on stage (It has been announced that the National Theatre Broadcast will screen performances of it in early 2022 in selected Sydney cinemas - a don't miss opportunity), and Mr Sondheim is working with writer David Ives on a new musical called SQUARE ONE. Interestingly, this work explores a romance between a couple that is told backwards in time. Sondheim had been working with Terrence McNally on another romance moving backward in time. That work lost impetus some time ago. Well before Mr McNally's passing. This time exploration is a constant challenge it seems

The range of work, both in content and explorations of form, from Mr Sondheim, is staggering - he is regarded as having "reinvented the American Musical". One of the bio-graphical tit-bits I have always held close is the fact that Mr Sondheim has always enjoyed the creation and solving of puzzles. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, was just such a task that Hal Prince, a regular collaborator, a theatre Director, proposed to Sondheim (via an introduction to the original play by Prince's wife Judy). The original play (1934) on which the musical is based (of the same name), by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells the history of three friends in reverse time order - from older to young; from bitterness to innocent ambitions. Sondheim shifts the time zones and creates relationships different to the original. 

Sondheim in his book, FINISHING THE HAT (2010), reviewing and investigating his body of work, tells us he took, when tackling MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, 

The Notion: Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter and movie producer in his forties, reviews his life, both professional and personal, especially his relationships with his best friends, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas (his song writing collaborator), and two wives Beth and Gussie. The action moves backward in time from 1981 to 1957.

The fact that the work ends in 1957 - the year of Sputnik moving through space -  requires that he reflect the musical traditions of the period - the thirty-two-bar song - and working through the standard musical structures. He uses an example of the problem solving he had: "The structure of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG suggested to me that the reprises could come first : the songs that had been important in the lives of the characters when they were younger would have different resonances as they aged; thus, for example, "Not A Day Goes By," a love song by a hopeful young couple getting married, becomes a bitter tirade from the wife when they get a divorce, but the bitter version comes first in the musical's topsy-turvy chronology." This kind of puzzle was part of the attraction to this particular project for this artist. "In addition", he adds, "the show gave me the chance to revert to the sharp urban feeling of the songs in COMPANY and FOLLIES."

Indeed, as this production reveals itself on the Hayes Theatre stage the bitterness, anger and pain in the opening sequences that the major characters meet us with, makes this show not necessarily a happy night of escapism, which, especially, as we had all just come through stringent times in our Pandemic lives (and still are in), whether MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG was an appropriate demand of us - "Give us laughter and escapism, some songs to hum at home tomorrow morning!" - Of course, the optimism of youthful dreams in the midst of early attachments, does come and takes us out of the Hayes Theatre to the streets in a relatively hopeful state with songs such as OPENING DOORS and OUR TIME, having given us a chance of 'rapture'. It is, though, in the last half hour of the two and half journey that we are allowed to wallow in sentimental optimisms about the potential of our futures both professionally and personally. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is quite a demand. 

This difficulty of not having easily attractive individuals to want to identify with for such a long time in the structure of the playscript may be part (there were other possible artistic choices) of the reason that the original Broadway production failed with only 16 performances and 52 previews before closing. However, Sondheim continued to develop the script, tinkering with it in a production at La Jolla in California at the invitation of James Lapine in 1985, and further working on it for a production in Seattle in 1990, and an Off-Broadway revival in 1994. Each time making decisions that helped the audiences to 'get on board' with the show were introduced it seems. Then came British productions, the first notable one in the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester in 1992. It was the Donmar Warehouse production in December in 2000, Directed by Michael Grandage, that received the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Like a dog with a bone, Sondheim with positive collaborators ensured that MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG would become a work as interesting and exciting a challenge for artists and audience. A work that not only entertained but asked you to participate as a thrilling puzzle-solver. A work, like all of Stephen Sondheim's offers, that pleased you with affected feelings and intellectual challenges, involving both music and language. Content and form wrapped together and with an exhilarating energy that all Artists reach for.

When MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG begins, arrive with all your senses alert and invested in the thrill to be treated by an artist that respects and trusts that you are not a comatose but an intelligent sentient being. Someone PRESENT in the MOMENT. It is a work that has not only the basic ambitions of a work such as the musical COME FROM AWAY, that reopened in the huge commercial theatre space of the Capitol Theatre the night before, but, also a challenge to ask you to 'act' with the artists to be able to have a complete night in the theatre. All of Stephen Sondheim's body of work have this aura, and it is why I include him as a genius, who, as with Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard lift the theatre experience into something more than a good night out. (That he not only writes his lyrics but creates in the mysteries of the musical language as its partner, he may be the superior of the three)

Directed, by Dean Bryant, and with a longer rehearsal experience than usual, that has included not only the practical needs of staging and re-staging to employ the growing gifts of his small cast of only eight, he has had an invaluable extended dreaming time with all as the show was faulted to the necessary closures perforce of the Covid-19 virus Pandemic.

The Set Design (Jeremy Allen) is a static warm brown wooden box surround (good for acoustic) that intimates, in some of its details, of an art deco radio broadcast theatre  space which envelops a raised platform that allows the necessary furniture to inhabit the space alongside a permanent straight backed piano. Behind is a curtained space where the band/orchestra of four is situated, guided by the versatile Musical Director for each performance, Andrew Warboys. The work has been scored, traditionally, for a 13-piece orchestra, but Mr Warboys says in the program notes: 

I felt it important to be able to emulate the big Broadway orchestra sound and also access the intimacy of a tight jazz quintet.

My response to Mr Warboys' orchestration is that it errs in a definite flavour to the sound of a jazz quintet. The 'intimacy', that Mr Warboys suggests is diminished with a Sound Design (Dave Bergman) that enjoys a bombast of volume that is discomforting to hear in the small space of the theatre and, maybe, reduces the personality of each of the songs, plotted and woven particularly through the cultural aural profile (sounds of the popular music) of each of the musical decades, beginning in 1975, through to the sounds of the 60's to the late 1950's - a challenge that Sondheim talks about as one of the thrills of creativity that he had to solve. The microphoned actors are balanced extremely well to make the important lyric content as clear as a bell. The Stage Design also accommodates cameras and screens that is both pre-recorded (image and musical sound - Dave Bergman) as well as live throughout the night, that prescribes the lighting design to not 'flood' the image (Veronique Bennett) and causes more a need for a generic style rather than a sophisticated spot one.

Among the actors the performance to relish is that of Ainsley Melham, as the lyricist/writer character, Charley Kringas (Mr Melham gave us the Disney Aladdin - which he subsequently gave on Broadway and in the Stage filming of it in London for the Disney Company!). He exudes intelligence, wit and a physical and vocal confidence that appears effortless. He takes charge of the 'patter' song: FRANK SHEPARD INC., in the middle of the first act and hauls this production into focus, (and an enthusiastic and grateful break for applause) that in the hands of the other artists, in the first half-hour or so of the show, has meandered entertainingly, but without clear direction of communication of Sondheim's sophistication of intent. It is not fair to say right out, but Mr Melham has the famous "IT" quality  - just look at his video imagery beside the other members of the company. They all individually can shine but Mr Melham glows. It's a gift which he has no control over (Monroe and Dean had it. Judy Davis has it. Kristen Stewart, Sarah Snook and Adam Driver, Ryan Cor have it), and when harnessed with instinctual gifts and brightening skills (and good luck) is a launching pad to the A-list.

Part of the difficulty of this production includes the gifted but technically immature performance by our leading character Frank Shepard, impersonated by Andrew Coshan, who uncomfortably 'pretends' that he understands what it is to be 40, and a commercial success who has knowingly sold his creative soul to the devils of money and power, while deserting his first wife, Beth, (Tiarne Sue Yek) and family, to ruin two other women, his other besotted best friend, Mary Flynn (Elise McCann) and a conniving woman, Gussie Carnegie (Georgina Hopson), she, too, besotted, but besotted as only an emotional narcissist  can be. Mr Cosham becomes more comfortable as his character youthens and gradually moves into his power that, at last, reaches out to our empathetic buttons. Life might bake Mr Coshan's gifts to permit his talent the opportunities to grow, for there are grace and obvious vocal and physical skills. Is Mr Coshan shy? Or, is he surprised by this opportunity? I hope his courage grows to help to risk failure (I would not have thought that this Frank was either a composer or a film director).

Tiarne Sue Yek, gives a very moving performance as Beth and reveals the complications of living, in her rendition of her bitter iteration of NOT A DAY GOES BY. What follows is a well thought out sub-textual motivation for Beth's survival and the character and actor become immersed in each other. And as Ms Sue Yek begins to move into the younger, and more familiar emotional territory, the characterisation grows. What I saw, as well, was a sturdy ensemble actor in the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG company.

Similarly, with less writing of sophistication in his given tasks (Joe), Aaron Tsindos, is a great support to the ensemble, although there are instances when he reaches for the temptation of receiving response rather than choosing subtlety of a truthful characterisation. Although playing function without building a person, Mr Tsindos is almost always an asset to production.

Vidya Makan, playing a variety of roles is a very sophisticated member of this ensemble, enough to have me read her biography in the program, only to be reminded of her offers as Catherine Parr in the musical SIX. I hope she is returning to that production if, and when it resurrects. Evan Lever appears in the ensemble as well. 

The acting in the company for the first third of the show was generally  strained - tentative - unsure to commit. 

Elise McCann, playing the bitter Mary Flynn is more caricature than character and while scoring the laughs (and how  - a la Elaine Stritch) lacks visible character motivation - and, once again it is only in the last youthful section that Ms McCann reveals to us clearly the yearning for Frank's attention that is the lynchpin for her character's action - it was too late. This Mary was not funny she was a withering hostile. 

Georgina Hopson given the 'peachy' role of mendacious Gussie to create, decides to truly belt it, and bat it she does with the decision to go for the camp - High Camp, chew the furniture and walls of the set Camp - to belt it into the stratosphere of our universe - searching for 'star' rather than for the ordinary human truths and the revealing realism that that demands of an actor creating character. Like any canny actor Ms Hopson recognises the gift that Mr Sondheim has written for Gussie at the opening of Act Two, NOW YOU KNOW, and it has become the apotheosis of her performance. She chooses to throw out sub-textual subtleties for over-the-top energies that literally obfuscates the lyrics with demonstrations of  "I love it"-explosive emotional states. Her acting choices for a very wonderfully written character is lazily all too dependent on extravagant physical gestures and face pulling - bent at knee and jutting chin - to achieve her characterisation. It needs directional aid for an approach to the Sondheim repertoire that demands naturalism and observational truths. Truth is required not a classic musical theatre caricature - Sondheim doesn't write those kind of people unless he is indulging himself with the crazy merriment of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where he wrote the Music and Lyrics for a Roman farce by Plautus. 

Mr Bryant, as part of his responsibility has neglected to help the actors solve the acting of the older iterations of these characters or calm the grotesques. With his choreographer, Andrew Hallsworth, simple physical adjustments coupled with psychological investigation and observational skills could help the actors find a way to a more truthful possession.

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, has become one of the 'sleepers' in the Sondheim repertoire and although this Musical is not a match for the best of his work, it is still true to life and full of challenges that can test the best of the singers/actors in our industry. I left The Hayes Theatre pleased and stimulated with a growing admiration for the subtleties of the challenge of this work as an actor, director, both musically and as a character driven work. It is a worthwhile time in the theatre.

There are some who will choose COME FROM AWAY, as their musical theatre experience. Some will choose MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

I choose both, enthusiastically. 

Horses for courses, of course.

Welcome back to the theatre.

Thursday, July 1, 2021


FUSER Production present INTACT, Devised work by Cecile Payet, Emily Yalli, Sabrina Muszynski, at the Woodburn Creatives Redfern, 1 Woodburn St. Redfern. 26th May - 27th June.

Cecile Payet is a young French artist I came into contact through an acting class situation. It is several years since we last crossed paths. Recently I was invited to attend a performance of INTACT, the debut work of this company: Fuser Production. Cecile was always an artist one thought had the determination and vision to make a contribution to the arts scene in Sydney.

INTACT, is a solo movement piece built on the physical skills of Olivia Hadley with input from Steve Lu, Cecile Payet, Emily Yalli, Sabrina Muszynski - fellow devisors. A young woman dons a uniform and wielding a weapon, she explores the physical power necessary to be an active military soldier - we witness physical shifts of some beauty and exhilarated confidence that belie the coming horrors of war and the devolving into disability - with legs that are paralyzed, demanding a whole new perspective on life and movement. The potential of a 'new' body movement is explored.

The arc of this journey uses the Set Design (Sam Wylie), a focus on a gleaming hospital gurney that with its mobility and shelving facilitates the transitions of the work from episode to episode. The confidence and trust that the performer has in the evolving characterisations is never more evident than in the propulsive Sound Design  (Martin Gallagher) that vibrates an energetic force, illustrated in the intense and flexible Lighting Design, by Travis Kecek.

This debut work can be found in a little 'hole-in-the-wall' venture, access easy from Cleveland St, with seating for 20 or 25 people, cosied up on these winter nights with teas/or coffee. INTACT is modest in budget but aesthetically beautiful and intriguing in its posed ideas - driven by a passion that is engaging and makes one curious with what this company might follow up with.

FUSER Production and Cecile Payet, keep your eyes peeled.


Photo by Robert Catto

Darlinghurst Theatre Company present, ONCE, Book by Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics, by Songwriters, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, based on the film (2007), Written and Directed by John Carney, at the Eternity Theatre, Burton St Darlinghurst. 4th June - 18th July.

A few years ago on a Saturday afternoon in New York I took myself to a matinee performance of an Irish musical, ONCE, staged by the New York Theatre Workshop mostly, because it was Directed by John Tiffany. Mr Tiffany had, also, that season (2013-14) Directed a production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and I had been very excited by it. Alas, his production of ONCE, with the same artistic team was an irritating disappointment. The production was on a Broadway scale, even to a working bar on the theatre stage where you could imbibe and meet your neighbours, before the show and in the interval before been ushered to your seat. It was an Irish work that was deeply rooted in its Irishness  - maudlin unrequited love with a growing mystery of attraction and encouragement going on, and going on, and on, and on. It was raining outside, on the Broadway streets, a depressing cold rain, and, in contrast, my fellow audience members were boisterously excited. I was, sadly, not. Not. Not.

A week or so ago, in Sydney, on a wet winter afternoon I went to a Saturday matinee of ONCE at the Eternity Theatre. This theatre is, in contrast to the Broadway experience, an intimate exchange between the audience and the cast. The budget covers pieces of furniture surrounding the walls to create an impression of a drinking pub somewhere in Dublin which facilitates the company to sit, stand on it and even move it about. center stage etc. Too, there are a couple of doors that allow the actors to move on and off the stage to facilitate intimate exchanges between characters and fullon company songs of joy and hope. It is all a much more pleasant environment, even without the working bar on the stage. 

Production Design is by Hugh O'Connor assisted by a sympathetic and useful Lighting Design by Peter Rubis. The work is Directed by Richard Carroll, aided by a Movement Director, Amy Campbell and they create a clarity and fluidity for the performance that was easy to sit through. The Musical Director, Victoria Falconer, has guided the artists to produce a handsome and empathetic sound, with Sound Designer, Dylan Robinson, balancing the orchestra instruments which are present on stage with some of  the performers, costumed as 'characters' in the bar.

Guy (Toby Francis), a street singer has said goodbye to his girlfriend who has gone to find a life in the United States (New York) that her family and Dublin cannot do for her. He will follow her when he can 'make' the money. A Czech Girl (Stefanie Caccamo), who carries an enigmatic and charismatic energy, bumps into the street busking that Guy gives and has an instinct that his music should be nurtured. Girl has her family in this Pub 'tribe' and they all facilitate the evolving talent of Guy, building a musical band around him, resulting in a recording. Over the arc of the play Guy becomes torn with his relationship to the woman in New York and with the mysterious Girl. We have never met the mysterious girl in New York and don't until almost the last beat of the work, whereas we have 'travelled' through the growing tendrils enveloping the two on stage: the Guy and the Girl. The Girl was whom we were favouring - but that favouring results only in another unrequited love.

The ensemble inhabiting this Dublin Pub all look and feel comfortable, supporting the arc and ache of most of the journey of the protagonists with the songs of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, though I drift off and remember the afternoon as a long blur of songs of unrequited lamentations of love. However, this production, in contrast to my other encounters with this work, was comfortable and not one of agitation, as the others have been. Something was working at the Eternity. Toby Francis being especially attractive in his character of Guy.

This production was warmly embraced by the audience  around me. In fact, this season has been extended to meet the demands for seats. Meanwhile, I had seen COME FROM AWAY at the Capitol Theatre earlier that week. Both works are driven by the 'folk' origins of the given circumstances of the story telling, Ireland or Newfoudland. However, the personal love life of Guy in ONCE is overwhelmed, in contrast, to the relative vastness of the lives of the visiting passengers and the citizens of the city of Gander of COME FROM AWAY. The humanity of both works make ONCE a 'micro' or 'COME FROM AWAY a 'maxo' illustration of an optimistic possibility for the homo sapien, as a species, in places and times of significant stress. 

I can thoroughly recommend COME FROM AWAY as a pertinent contemporary conversation in contrast to the 'siren' calls of the over familiar dilemmas of ONCE. 

See both, if you have the time and money.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Grand Horizons

Photo by Prudence Upton

Sydney Theatre Company presents, GRAND HORIZONS, by Bess Wohl, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd The Rocks. 7th June - 3rd July.

I thought, as I sat in the Roslyn Packer Theatre on the Opening Night that GRAND HORIZONS, has a set of characters mirroring the highly successful 9 seasons, 210 episodes, television sitcom, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (1996-2005 : two elder parents who are abusive and abused - in our case 80 year old Nancy (Linda Cropper) and husband Bill (John Bell), two competitive brothers - in our case married, harried Ben (Johnny Nasser) and hysteric gay son Brian (Guy Simon), and a wife - in our case a very pregnant, patient one called Jess (Zindzi Okenyo). The play has two guest spots to enliven the family interactions, in our case a young gay pickup (James Majoos) for our uptight Brian who is taught a few surprising things about his internalised homophobia and the 'girlfriend', 'floozy' (Vanessa Downing), that Bill has met at his Standup comedy class who is in much sympathy with Nancy who has weathered Bill all this time. Ms Wohl's company of characters are familiar and very comfortable to be with.

Nancy and Bill go through the habit/ritual of preparing to eat the evening meal - a choreographic dance for the huma-trons. After chewing, 80-year old Nancy asks for a divorce, Bill chomps, and, calmly, gives it. Divorce ON. The sons are just panicked-spare at the news while Jess offers stock new age guides to calm them down. The big woofs of laughter come from the revelations of 80-year old mum's sex life and her flagrant use of 'potty' language to talk about cunnilingus and the use of clittorial vibrators - "How shocking - how hilarious!" - and Bill's woeful standup comic jokes about  4 nuns and St Peter  and curmudgeon sling-off's at everybody around him, at the over-the-top whinings of Brian, the grossly grotesque gay hysteric Drama teacher son, Brian, backed up by a similar overworked lawyer brother, Ben, who feels massively under-appreciated (they could be the Crane brothers from Frasier - two closeted 'straight'/gay men!) 

Now, I'm not denying that there are regular laughs going-on, some of the audience were highly entertained. But why they would pay $89 or $67 to watch this down there on Hickson Rd when they can see it free to air every day on Channel 11 Bold, I don't know. Director Jessica Arthur has encouraged an enlarged facsimile of the Broadway Helen Hayes Design, more or less, from Renee Mulder - this retirement apartment in the Grand Horizons building for the STC is sooo large - the floor plan is huge, the height to the ceiling is gigantic and every nook and cranny is visible in the white blaze of light ( bright light for comedy, so they tell me) from Verity Hampson. One wonders the Budget cost for such extravagance - it could probably cover the costs of 5 or 6 independent theatre productions! Ms Arthur has adapted the play to a Sydney location and employed the Australian accent to deliver the American rhythms and word sounds (I assume the author Ms Wohl has given permission, and not just a gross appropriation of another artist's work or culture) and deftly moves the actors across the space and manages the sensational act one curtain with great aplomb. 

Linda Cropper is astonishing. Her characterisation is marvellously observed and delivered and seems to be able to make so much TV dialogue dross, a kind of verbal Gold.

Is there not an Australian comedy out there? I recently attended the reading of Joanna Murray-Smith's THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, which I don't believe has been professionally seen in Sydney. And if we are going international, I might encourage the curators of our season repertoire at the STC contact the people at the local Outhouse Theatre Company and get a few tips for they seem to read the international reviews and the new pertinent plays: GLORIA, THE FLICK, JOHN, ULSTER AMERICAN, a recent choice. THE SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, is another contemporary play produced at the Eternity Theatre, Darlinghurst, by The Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company, that seems to have escaped the door keepers at the STC who curate their season/s work

If the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) regards itself as the leading theatre company in Australia, can you imagine its equivalents in London: The National Theatre of Great Britain (or Scotland, for that matter), or The Royal Court, can you imagine these leading National Theatre companies presenting GRAND HORIZONS on their stages? 

I meditate - agitate - that QUESTION: ... ... Not bloody likely! 

Come on STC, leave this play to the Genesians, the amateur theatre down in Kent St. Become what the present  sparks may call AWOKE!

GRAND HORIZONS, is a slick professional production of a play for the comatose.