Saturday, July 20, 2019

Anna Bolena

Photo by Prudence Upton

Opera Australia presents, ANNA BOLENA, Music by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Felice Romain, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. July 2, 6, 9, 13, 17, 20, 23, 26, 2019.

ANNA BOLENA, is an Italian opera written in 1830, by Gaetano Donizetti, using the court of Henry VIII and his forcing of divorce from his second wife Anne Boleyn and the courting of his third wife Jane Seymour as the spine of the narrative. There is very little historical nuance to this libretto by Felice Romain but a great deal of dramatic confabulation to engender as much drama as possible to allow the creation of great dramatic music from orchestra and singers. Solo, duet and other figurations of ensemble, backed by the presence and usage of a large chorus and orchestra, is employed to create what we now know as classically, the Grand Opera style: a bel canto feast for the ears that when ignited with the best of available talents can inflame a passionate emotional excitement in the theatre audience. Neither narrative (story) or character is the reason to go to a Grand Opera experience, it is the least important consideration to attend the performance (don't go expecting a true history of Anne Boleyn), and is, basically, a framing device that is virtually displaced by the indulgent, glorious MUSIC makers - Composer, Orchestra and Singers.

ANNA BOLENA is an example of this experience, capped perhaps with his LUCIA DE LAMMERMOOR (1835), whilst in claque competition with other composers of the time, Vincenzo Bellini: LA SONNAMBULA (1831) or NORMA (1831); Giacomo Meyerbeer: ROBERT LE DIABLE (1831), LES HUGUENOTS (1836) (and much else - make your own list. It may include Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (1816), SEMIRAMIDE (1823) ). These works feeding the appetites of the great opera houses and their audiences of the time, have gone in and out of fashion as time passed which can partly be understood because of the 'incredible' musical demands of the composer and the physical scale of the works: talent and budget considerations. The recent revival period for the bel canto style happened in the '50's and 60's when singers such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo appeared with musical instruments of breathtaking presence and technical dexterity that transported the audiences into ecstatic states of musical heaven.

Opera Australia's decision to present ANNA BOLENA, is following a recent international 'trend' to resurrect this opera, not often presented. The OA's audiences should have jumped with excitement at the opportunity to hear and see this work - an invitation to journey back to the 'grand old opry' days. Bombastic, perhaps, but when the ingredients are 'talented', a thrilling bel canto 'noise' indulgence can be made, and that can make life worth living through.

The work requires solo voices of some flexible talent and formidable technique, especially so when the composer decides to have the principal performers 'face front and stand to deliver' across the width of the proscenium arch, the characters' inner monologue expressed in musical harmonic competition, backed by a large murmuring chorus and orchestra. The Opera Australia, BOLENA company, does astoundingly well, under the control of Conductor, Renato Palumbo, led on-stage by the coloratura soprano of Ermonela Jaho (Anna Boleyn), surrounded by the mellow maturity of the mezzo, Carmen Topciu (Jane Seymour), and rich baritone, Leonardo Cortellazzi (Lord Percy), glorious soprano Anna Dowsley (in the trouser role of Mark Smeaton) and the support of bass, Teddy Tahu Rhodes (King Henry VIII), however uncomfortable he sounded.

This was especially so in the first act of the performance I saw on the opening night. Each sequence throughout the first act, thrillingly peaking musically only to be 'topped' with the next grand-standing musical challenge that followed. One was whipped into a breathtaking aural awe at the whole company's disciplined confidence in delivering Donizetti's 'goods' - an ecstatic high, in the interval.

Unfortunately, the second act did not have the same affect. Whether it is a weakness in the actual musical structure of the work, or the lack of time for the company to prepare this part of the work in rehearsal with the necessary on-stage rigour, to give the same practised balance of accomplishment as act one - after all it is nearly three hours and a bit of music, quite a demand - I have not the sufficient knowledge to analyse. But he second act was a considerable disappointment. It would be interesting to attend later performances to see what 'doing-time' may have settled, cemented. Has the second act improved in its affect?

The work is Directed by David Livermore in a fairly stodgy manner with a 'modernising' (post-modern) concept (such as the opera Company's dancers' presence, in a set of visually puzzling post-modern costume choices, during the overture, and in many other vital moments of dramatic import during the story telling throughout the night), with clumsy staging of singers' positions about the space that suggested, in my growing frustrated state-of-mind, a kind of ill considered amateur vision of the Grand Opera style, it being continuously hampered by a ridiculous indulgence in permitting melodramatic emotional expression in gesture (especially from Ms Jaho, sitting legs wide in the dramatic confrontation with Jane Seymour on the revolve steps like some exasperated tavern shrew, or latterly, bent backwards like a dying swan, as the reality of Anna's execution approached) that could not often be accepted as a serious solution for a contemporary audience to believe in as a sensible offer. Often, it was risible. Objective laughter instead of subjective immersion. Add the catastrophe of the mis-matched post-modern concept for the costuming, by Mariana Fracasso and they created an intellectual distraction as we tried to understand them instead as a clarifying aid to interpret the action of the play.

Then, Mr Livermore was burdened with a Digital design demand, made by the philosophy of contemporary opera staging envisioned by the Artistic Director of the Opera Australia Company, Lyndon Terracini, that not only has ingenious 'flying' panels of LSD screens being continually positioned and re-positioned during the physical action and musical singing of the performers, and that are covered in imagery that is both still and/or animated continuously throughout the night, Designed by Set Designer, Gio Forma, who was served in visual content supplied by D -Wok, to support (compete?!) with the primary interest of the night, the singing and dramatic characterisation of the performers.

The visual offers of this ANNA BOLENA were often being a distraction from the principal reason to spend one's money and time in the Joan Sutherland theatre; to hear and see Donizetti's ANNA BOLENA. The imagery was often visually repetitive in its presence so that it seemed to have no dramatic purpose for narrative or metaphoric symbolism for the action of the performance. For instance, the panels with digitalised animated beetles crawling up-and-down the huge screens, when first appearing were so thrusting in their visual presence that one attempted to 'define' their meaning in matching it to the action of the narrative on the stage, embodied in the performers - one, either could, or could not. But can you imagine the irritation when the same imagery came back in the opera storytelling later in the evening and have it hang about for an extensive time with no direct harmony to what had happened before, when they demanded our attention, or, to now, to the events of the play. One could only conclude they had re-appeared merely as decorative background and were so because the budget for the digital design had all been consumed and no other imagery could be afforded. One became mesmerised by the repetitive distraction of the computer-generated-trails of the beetles. Was this why the second act was moribund in its effect? Whatever, the cutting edge benefits of the flying buttresses of the LSD screens on their tracks illuminated by a very limited collection of images - still or animated - soon exhausted their acceptable usefulness in creating a rewarding creative experience in the theatre for the storytelling. It must be said that when the music and the musicians were free and clear from the visual clutter of repetitive imagery it worked best.

Simple choices to focus on the raison d'etre of the revival of this opera ought to have being employed. The artistic explorations using the latest design fad ought to be more astute and economical in their selection by the Director and the Designers. Time to solve this is an expensive part of the budget dispersal I imagine - but if you are going to do it, then do it well and ensure that you have the budget to do it well, all of the night. For this Digital regime coming from the Direction of Mr Terracini for AIDA, BUTTERFLY, and WHITELY, in this year's new production work, signals, in the result which we so far have endured, needs much more care, time, money and ART. As it is, it is an obvious blight to the full success of the production and the experience..

ANNA BOLENA, then, is a mixed 'bag' of excitement and irritation. It was great, though, to be able to attend an old fashioned night at the Grand Old Opera.

Things I Know To Be True

Phot by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir presents, THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, by Andrew Bovell, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 8th June - 21st July.

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, has gathered a critical and word-of-mouth reputation. Such, that I was urged to see the play. I did last Friday night. Afterwards, I was just kind of angry, angry that such a great piece of writing had been so bowdlerised in production.

Andrew Bovell's play, for me, Australia's leading playwright, is a wonderfully perceptive and astringent overview of the Australian Family and the different readings a six unit family have in practising and understanding what Love is within the spread and influence of relentless Time. Dad, Bob (Tony Martin) and mum, Fran (Helen Thomson) and their four grown children, Pip (Anna Lise Phillips), Mark (Tom Hobbs), Ben (Matt Levett) and the youngest, Rosie (Miranda Daughtry, talk directly to us, in monologue form between abreacted episodes that cover the passing of a year, indicated visually for us by the passing of the seasons, in the presence of the family pride, Bob's backyard roses. Those Pink roses, on the side of a green painted, cracked concrete backyard.

Watching (reading) the play the epic dimension of THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, shone through and resonated, in my imagination, with the observed power, of the great Russian family sagas: for instance, especially, Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA, Dostoyevsky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Chekhov's THREE SISTERS.

The famous first line from Tolstoy's novel: "All families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" ricochets around my memory often during the performance of Mr Bovell's play. In ANNA KARENINA, the Oblonsky family, the Levin family, and the Karenin's career through the time structure of the novel, the toy of the frailties of human needs that manifest in unexpected ways and create dramatic and comic trajectories of a gathering profundity of experience for one and all. None of what happens, necessarily, is what any one of them expected, but is what was fated, as they pursued their idea of happiness. So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Dostoyevsky's last novel, reveals at length the family struggles between Father (Fyodor), his sons, Dimitri, Ivan, Alexi and their partners. Says Ivan:
So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course, ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it.
So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

In Chekhov's masterpiece, THREE SISTERS, shaped by the influence of a life lived and forensically observed, alongside thinkers - philosophers - such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the family Prozorov: Olga, Masha, Andrey and Irina, struggle through three years or more of their lives in the quest for happiness, idealised in the desire to return to Moscow, away from the exile in the boondocks of the Urals. We are told by Masha, the eldest of the surviving family:
The music is playing so cheerfully, so proudly, you feel you want to live! Oh, God! Time will pass and we'll be gone forever, we'll be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, how many of us there were, but our suffering will turn into joy for those who come after us, happiness and peace will come to the earth, and we who live now will be remembered with a kind word and a blessing. Oh, my darling sisters, our lives are not over yet. We will live! The music is playing so cheerfully, with so much joy and it seems in just a little while we will know why we are living, why we are suffering .., if only we knew, if only we knew! (It doesn't matter! It doesn't matter!) If only we knew, if only we knew!
So, is the scenario in Mr Bovell's play.

Andrew Bovell in his THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, builds from his other theatrical writings (e.g.SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1998), WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING (2008)), a uniquely brilliant Australian contemporary context for a similar literary focusing on the building blocks of our civilisation: Family, Love and Time, in the Aussie backyard!

This is a provocatively, timely, play.

It is a pity then, that Director Neil Armfield lacks the courage to reveal the play's philosophical confrontations for the Australian audience face on but instead dumbs down the serious aspects of Mr Bovell's look at how Australians survive their family 'tragedies' of living. Where Bovell writes comedy of a Chekhovian kind in THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, Armfield conjures caricatured farce, permitting Ms Thomson, especially (it is her usual caricatured comic-revue performance), and the other actors - some more than less -  to unleash their formidable comic techniques to obfuscate the deep wounds and the consequences of them on the family's history of interaction. And, when there is serious issue of life changing events, such as the confession of Mark desiring a gender reassignment or Ben's criminal embezzling, we witness a kind of high scale soapie-melodrama. So, when intransigent tragedy strikes one of the persons of the play, we are delivered a syrupy dose of indulgent sentimentality from Rosie. Caricatured farce, melodrama and sentimentality.

Every issue of cultural importance written into this play by Mr Bovell, to facilitate our ability to confront with true maturity the realistic blemishes of what it is to be human in the modern world, Mr Armfield, has guided his actors to reduce it all to banal triviality, permitting the audience to ignore it as suffering and brush it off as merely amusing and or sad, allowing a shallow warmly comforting contemplation. There is no striving or offering for any manner of in-depth engagement with the cultural challenges revealed. It is an Old School, out-of-date Aussie Directorial aesthetic that deflects serious examination for popular entertainment. It steers us away from difficult contemplation. This Directorial conceit belongs to a by-gone era. This Director will not point us to employ close scrutiny, to confront the realities of our lives. He seems to wish us to sustain a warm by-gone fantasy, to allow us to continue to bathe in a romantic delusion of living in the 'lucky country'.

The response of the audience I sat with was predictably beguiled into the comfortable raptures of this far-flung antipodal world, demonstrating for me, the willingness of our performance art culture to lead our audiences to a delusional myopia to the realities of what is happening in our world, what life demands of us - how else, I asked myself, could one understand the politics of our day and the lies we swallow for comfort's sake.

Mr Armfield's gestures mirrors a commercial wrapping that pervades the programming sensibilities of our theatrical gate keepers, starkly instanced even in the recent selection of the Sydney Film Festival 2019 opening film, where they scheduled the soft and bourgeois PALM BEACH, with its set of social dramas amusingly confronted, to be ultimately, blithely giggled away, played by the familiar old gals and boys of our unreal film world, rather than with the exposure to a part of Australia's history that is a thing known to be true but is ignored or hidden in a more important film, shown in the same Festival, such as Jennifer Kent's THE NIGHTINGALE or Mirrah Foulkes' JUDY AND PUNCH. Both these films with a subject narrative and characters too hard for an Opening Night audience at an Australian Film Festival?


Anna Lise Phillips as Pip, the 'Nora' figure fleeing her marriage and children comes nearest to showing us a situation of a thing we know to be true as she digs down as best she can, despite the lack of honest contemplated support from her surrounding actors, into a raw experience of pain and guilt whilst also finding the courage to embrace, for Pip, the possible joy of escape to Canada. Painful human ambiguity.

Tom Hobbs, given the difficult character of Mark who needs to be Mia doesn't convince us of the pain and reality of the social and psychological contemporary dilemma of the choice she has made - the toll of living in the 'judgemental'  environment of most of our culture for all of her life so far. There is a baulking in his physical realisations of both Mark and, especially, Mia and an adoption of melodramatic gesture in the emotional requirements of the character and story, which are aided and abetted by Ms Thomson and Mr Martin in their characters' response of relative hysteria. I felt uncomfortable with the lack of truths that I know of in this section of the play.

Matt Levet, too, seems to lack complete conviction of technique to deliver on stage Ben's nefarious and drug-addled alpha truth. While Miranda Daughtry makes theatrical choices almost on every occasion rather than contemplated and engaged truth based revelation, withdrawing from any self-knowledge to create Rosie. We, rather, see an awkward actor at work to a conscious affect, than that of a life existing in front of our eyes.

All these actors chosen and giving performances under the Direction Of Mr Armfield.

The use of the rose bushes as a metaphor for the action of the play and arc for Bob's story, Designed by Steven Curtis, is blatant and horribly boring in the climatic moments in the destruction of the garden, where the theatricality of pretend rose bushes overrides any essence of truth to be believed as, especially, Mr Martin, appears to be truly, emotionally, 'running on empty' to be believed.

There is in this production of this play not enough truths that I recognised to be true. Artifice rather than Art. I was extremely disappointed (and, did I mention, angry?) Admire the play, loathe the Direction.

P.S. I yearned, during the night, to see the family sagas of Sean O'Casey, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1924), or THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS (1926). Edwardo de Fillipo's SATURDAY, SUNDAY AND MONDAY(1959.  How about Jez Butterworth's recent, THE FERRYMAN (2017)?

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE has a cast of only six actors - illustrating, further, the 'genius' of Mr Bovell, in the dramaturgical density of theme and truth he manages to reveal with such limited assets. All of the examples I have instanced in my yearnings have casts of an unfashionable size. So, not likely to be curated. Although, Belvoir did buck its usual 'method' with their early year production of COUNTING AND CRACKING. More of that, please!

Saturday, July 6, 2019


Photo by  by Clare Hawley

Out House Theatre Company and Seymour Centre present GLORIA, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 6-28th June.

GLORIA is a play by one of the rising 'stars' of playwriting in the United States: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. His writing has garnished many literature Nominations and Awards: WAR (2014), APPROPRIATE (2014), AN OCTOROON (2014), EVERYBODY (2017), GLORIA (2018).

GLORIA, is set in a magazine office, where a group of aspiring young writers are working in jobs that are unexciting, perhaps even deadening: Ani (Annabel Harte), Miles (Justin Amankwah), Dean (Rowan Witt), Kendra (Michelle Ny), Lorin (Reza Momenzada) and Gloria (Georgina Symes). They fill out their day at their desks with their menial tasks, laced, some might say, enhanced, by bored though incisive interactions that only the really bright and frustrated can observe and dish out with careless abandon. They have all been at these desks far too long but the hope of promotion, artistic recognition and opportunity keep them hanging in there, hardly making monetary compensation for their daily 'torture'. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins once worked as an editor/writer of The New Yorker magazine - although he resiles that this play is anything like that experience.

Gloria has been in that office far too long. A decade or so longer than the other, relatively, younger perks. Gloria is regarded as an oddity of survival by her work companions. Gloria decides to give a party at her home. All the office is invited. Only Dean attends. Gloria is not happy. Gloria snaps and tragedy ensues.

Mr Jacobs-Jenkins has had us bubbling along to a witty, caustic American sensibility of acid cruelty in a familiar space with familiar character types. They have edge and precision. Take this bunch back in time and they could become, if history was kinder, a contemporary Round Table grouping - "The Vicious Circle" - with Kendra, perhaps in-training for the Dorothy Parker role!

The interval is heralded with a shocking office event. It would be an awful spoiler, to tell you what it is, other than it is a coup de theatre - an astonishing coup de theatre. It takes one's breath away.

The second half is set 8 months later and in three new locations. Dean has left the office and after a personal break has written a book about what happened. Nan (Georgina Symes), who was chief editor at the magazine, has also written a book, with authority, about her experience in the office that Gloria afternoon. But which she witnessed only peripherally. The lengths that people might go to to achieve fame based about their actual life, or borrowed life experiences, are satirically and cynically, robustly examined.

The humour that the playwright gives us in this second act is still wasp-edged sharp and funny - it has a sting in its tail - but the context now is coloured, soured, by the penchant of what might be said to be the bad behaviour of the grasping modern human. What began as a modern New York comedy (a la Neil Simon or Woody Allen) is now a biting comment about the deterioration of our species and our corrupted ethical boundaries. This is crack-a-jack writing that will give you real pause. Ambition, real ambition, seems to have no boundaries. Ambition, when it is an addiction, can be lethal. This play definitely holds a mirror up to the contemporary audience - it is an intelligent but bitter image to reflect on.

"Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent as the heavy petting of literature." - Fran Lebowitz. 
"The lowest form of popular culture - lack of information, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people's lives - has overrun real journalism" - Carl Bernstein. 
"Facts tell. But stories sell" - unknown.

Directed, by Alex Berlage, this group of actors handle their roles (some have multiple responsibilities) with an adept precision, creating characters that could, recognisably have walked off the set of SEINFELD. The writing certainly is a gift for any actor with nous. Mr Witt is clever in the detailing of his man (men) and all of the company are impressive and respectful, with varying degrees of skill, of the writer's framework - how lucky are they to have such a writer.

Sets and Costume are from Jeremy Allen and serve the play's environments with economy and restraint. The Sound Design and Composition are by Ben Pierpoint and have his usual accurate eye and ear serving the writing and production without bombast. Mr Berlage with his Direction and Lighting gifts has employed an unusual restraint of 'dazzle' effects, and trusts that the writer will serve him well. That the writer is God - serve that God well and all will be well. Of course, the better the writer, the more sure you can be that you need not do much else, than reveal the text with clarity and insight to his appreciative intent. Just good taste and trusting restraint need be employed. This is the best writer, undoubtedly, that Mr Berlage has engaged with, in his outings in Sydney.

AN OCTOROON, was presented up in Queensland earlier this year and I wonder what they made of it. I hope someone will take up the challenge. Sydney could do with more of the calibre of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' mind and skill. I am sorry if you missed GLORIA - it did have an extended season. And as I've written before thank god for the enterprise of Outhouse Theatre Company (THE FLICK, THE ALIENS) - it's a godsend to have a company that reads plays and offers them to us to experience, for if we depended on the diet that The Sydney Theatre Company offers us we would be so much poorer and ignorant of the world of great contemporary playwriting.

The Return of Ulysses

Pinchgut Opera present THE RETURN OF ULYSSES. Music by Claudio Monteverdi. Libretto by Giacomo Badoaro. At the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. 13, 15,16, 18 and 19 June.

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES, with Music by Claudio Monteverdi, using a Libretto by Giacomo Badoaro, was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Pacio in Venice in the 1639 - 40 Carnival Season. The opera was rarely performed until the late 20th Century and the work has been reconstructed from many sources. This Pinchgut Opera production has been laboured over by the Artistic Director and Conductor, Erin Helyard, utilising the Orchestra of the Antipodes, with guest artists Fernando Guimaraes, performing Ulysses and Catherine Carby as his patient wife, Penelope.

The work originates from the final chapters of Homer's THE ODYSSEY. After ten years of war at Troy and a further near ten years of wandering on the seas Ulysses, in disguise, returns to the island of Ithaca where he finds his wife Penelope besieged by suitors in the belief that she is a widow.

Gods and human characters of all kinds make up the action of the work where recitative, duets and ensemble are part of the musical formula of the work.

On the night I attended the first act of the opera was rather a tedium. The libretto was dull in its narrative and in its characterisations, with the Director, Chas Rader-Shieber, seeming to simply move the singers/actors perfunctorily around the space without much rhyme or reason. The music was arresting mainly because of the concentration of the members of the orchestra and its conductor, with the utilisation of the 'authentic' instruments to conjure a sound that was antique, an 'early' music fascination. As well, the Design, by Melanie Liertz, was not particularly useful as support for the story and mostly boring in its striving for an aesthetic arrest.

Unlike some others who had sat around us, we stayed for the second half.

The experience was like night and day. Whether it was the drink refresher or not during the interval, the second half had a coherence of readable narrative, blessed with emotional yearnings from, romantic to tragic, and leavened with a contrasting humour. One was induced to participate with the event. The design seemed to awaken to broadening and deepening its affects, with the Lighting ,by Nicholas Rayment, expanding that effect with casual, unfurling beauty.

The singing of Brenton Spiteri (Telemachus) and that of Fernando Guimaraes (Ulysses) was engaging and Catherine Carby (Penelope) added a yearning warmth that gave real satisfaction. The three suitors giving humour to their predicament. sang with perky alert contributions of style and effect. The Director handled this act with grace and sensitivity that the more perfunctory first act had none of. To be utterly pedestrian, the second act was, as well, considerably shorter than the first.

One was pleased that one had stuck it out and returned to the auditorium after the interval.

Pinchgut Opera produce this work without much (or any) subsidy. Watching the devoted concentration of the audience one was struck by the absolute need that this company and its field of interest have as a part of the fabric of the Sydney cultural scene, that undoubtedly, enhances this city and gives it a quality of life, that without it, would have not as much depth. Not to have this work and this company as a possible choice for the devoted (elitist) opera (music) goers would lessen the social capital of these devoted people and their influence. Not to have Pinchgut Opera would diminish this City, State and Country. When the NSW government spends many.many millions of dollars to tear down a sports stadium to replace it with another similar, one wonders why it cannot find some small subsidy to ensure that this jewel of artistic expression is given the means to sustain its contribution.

Conductor, Erin Hellyard and his orchestra, the Orchestra of the Antipodes deserves the assurance of continuity and opportunity. Their presence enhances the audiences lives and the cultural reputation of the City of Sydney.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Anotomy of a Suicide

Sugary Rum productions in association with Red Line Productions presents, ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE, by Alice Birch, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. June 12 - July, 6.

ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE, is a play by English writer, Alice Birch. REVOLT SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN was seen at Old 505 and her screenplay LADY MACBETH (2016) heralds a fearless writer examining the place and role of women in the world. ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE, places three women, Carol (Anna Samson), Anna (Andrea Demetriades) and Bonnie (Kate Skinner) on stage side-by-side in front of a spacious house which all three live in. The play unwinds with the three women speaking at the same time or separately, supported by a collection of seven other actors: Danielle Catanzariti, Jack Crumlin, Teale Howie, Charles Mayer, Guy O'Grady, Natalie Saleeba and Contessa Treffone, who create some twenty one characters that interact with the three principal women.

The play begins in a welter of text where the three principal women create a kind of chaos that might reflect the jumble of the mental state of the three spinal cores of the narrative, of Carol, Anna and Bonnie, as they negotiate their lives. Gradually, we begin to discern through absorbing the Costume design details and the mental sifting of the textual information that Carol is living in this house in the '70's with husband John (Charles Mayer), and following the expectations of her cultural time has a child: Anna. That she falls into a post-natal depression is not understood by those about her who diagnose that the having of another child might help to stabilise her. Carol, after bouts of wearying treatment in the medical system of the period, finally suicides.

Anna is Carol's child now adult and is living in the house in the '90's, a disturbed individual, a social rebel, who has embraced a heroin addiction to survive her emotional fragility, trauma, not understood by her ineffectual father, John. She meets Jamie (Jack Crumlin) who helps her clean-up and together they marry and move into the family house and, following the norms of the time, ultimately, have a child, too: Bonnie. It is the trauma of child birth and its upbringing that plunges Anna back into addiction and a life of erraticisms that leads to fierce treatments (e.g. electric shock therapy) that end in the option of suicide as the choice for survival.

Bonnie is the granddaughter of Carol, the grown-up daughter of Anna, living today or in the near future in the inherited house. She has become a Doctor and in the daily confrontational pressures of her work place and trying to solve her sexual identity finds herself spiralling into emotional vulnerability and possible inclination to suicide. Bonnie desperately tries to find a solution to what may be another family inheritance, beside the house: a propensity to suicide. But the authorities of her time hinder her ability to take the action she feels may protect her from her 'destiny'. Bonnie demands that she take agency of her body with sterilisation that may prevent what she suspects is a genetic inheritance, that of suicide. She wants the family 'trait' to stop with her. But her needs must be faced with obfuscating medical counselling, so Bonnie may not be able to survive that emotional demand.

The play finishes without resolution. Does it conclude with hope? One hopes so as the lights subtly change infront of us.

Alice Birch has thrust unequivocally three women and their issues centre stage and around them the worlds they live in with the social, cultural and political influences afflicting them in the ordinary living of life. Kate Skinner is outstanding as Bonnie, as is Andrea Demetriades as Anna, in the revelation of their women, with detailed and sensitively lived choices offered painfully to us - they are extraordinary in what they create (suffer) for us to identify with, while Anna Samson reveals a demanding immersion in created depression, but lacks the theatrical finesses, the refined edge of sharp storytelling-pointing, shown in the work of her two partners. Ms Samson's work is sustained and moving but is blurred in its clarity of objective intention.

The company of actors are astonishingly clear in their multiple roles and in the objective contribution to the thematic trauma of Carol, Anna and Bonnie. The many scene shifts and time adjustments are handled under the Direction of Shane Anthony with gathering purpose and nuance of clarity, instilled comfortably in his actors.

The other women in the cast are significantly eloquent in the action of their various characters with Ms Saleeba remarkably sure and convicted, while Ms Catanzariti is deeply moving in her principal journeys (including Anna as child). Ms Treffone has theatrical intelligence but often underlines the emotional journey of her women without sufficient character demarcation. The work evolves, mostly, from her own personality, with little focus on the differences of her several women: all three could be a singular persona.

The men of the company are, relatively, undercast and so the characters are, in contrast, mostly, only shadows of their possibility both in delivering dramaturgical function and fully owned character, and although the male characters are in the writing supporting roles they are important and ought to be better realised to maintain the density of the truthfulness of the three time zones and worlds. There is opportunity provided by Ms Birch but is not engaged in fully by the men to varying degrees of intent.

The Set Design by Shane Anthony and Gus Murray is a beautiful backdrop to the psychological action while the complicated and detailed Costume Design by Siobhan Jett O'Hanlon is a very important tool in supporting and clarifying Ms Birch's remarkable play. Lighting Design is by Veronique Benett. The Sound Composition is supplied by Damien Lane.

ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE, is worth seeing. I thought essential viewing for serious theatre goers. It is the kind of play that demands the audience to make active contribution for it to be fully appreciated. It gives us puzzles and invites us to solve them to gain the most from the two hour of stage time. It assumes that we are intelligent and does not resile from that complimenting assumption.

As with the recent production of PRIME FACIE this is valuable time spent, in a form that only the theatre can give you. The text is a formidable read in its layout, and so what Mr Anthony and his actors have done in staging this work is undoubtedly of a high order of theatrical nous.

Do go.

Saturday, June 22, 2019


Outhouse Theatre Co in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre co presents TREVOR, by Nick Jones, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. June 14 - July 6.

Trevor (Jamie Oxenbould) is a 200 pound chimpanzee, adopted and kept by Sandra (Di Adams), in her home. She is a single 'parent', her husband having deserted the home front. Trevor has had a limited 'career' in the entertainment industry with his appearance on a talk show starring Morgan Fairchild (Eloise Snape), a one-time soapy star.

In this play by American writer, Nick Jones - mostly television;ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, GLOW - Trevor has an anthropomorphic relationship with us, the audience, as he confides to us his view of his life's given circumstances - his growing frustration with the continuing downward spiral of his 'acting' career that has not even provided recent audition opportunities and the resultant frustration of the non-recognition of his great talent. If you know some actors the text may sound as a familiar rant!

On the other hand Sandra and other humans in the sphere of Trevor's existence: next door Ashley (Ainslie McGlynn) mother of baby, Police Officer, Jim (David Lynch) and veterinarian Jerry (Jemwell Dannao), presents a contrasting point-of-view of Trevor's growing dangerous behaviour. These contrasts of the opposite, different perspectives of the events of the play provides the audience with a great deal of good-humoured comedy - and the fact that the play moves to a darker place of catastrophe does gives pause to the indulgent good humour that we have participated in giving to the play's narrative experience, despite our instinctual sense that this set-up will end very badly. Depending on how deep a commitment you personally have in your ability to positively anthropomorphise your pet or objects, you might be distressed by what happens.

'Does this play have a moral edge of confrontation?', you may ponder, 'or, is it just a light weight gesture of nonsense?'

If you lean towards the second choice of how to read this play's content, the compensation for the consumption of one's time spent in the theatre is in the appreciation of the usual wonderful work of Jamie Oxenbould as Trevor - his creation of his talking chimpanzee is so simply pleasing, that it commands awe. The consistency of Mr Oxenbould's talented offers in Sydney's theatre scene is further sustained here.

This performance is further balanced with a fully convincing naturalistic creation by Di Adams of Sandra, Trevor's keeper, that has all the compassion of a truly lonely figure reaching for a companionship - responsibility - that has, unfortunately, developed into a serious co-dependency, that weights her affections in her relationship with Chimpanzee Trevor, and blinds her to the alarms signalled by the other humans in the world about her.

The other actors in this production carry their supporting roles with an earnest reality and restraint that adds much to the 'tragedy' of this comedy. Garth Holcombe as Trevor's imaginary actor rival, Oliver, is also an amusing counterpoint - both their simian egos at competition with each other (very LA-like).

Set and Costume Design by Jonathan Hindmarsh is aided and abetted by the lighting of Kelsey Lee, and the Sound Design of Melanie Herbert, in creating a real world that grounds the play into a recognisable truth.

TREVOR, is an okay night in the theatre. The actors do so much to make the time spent with the conceit of the play relatively fun. As you like it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Prime Facie

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre presents, PRIME FACIE, by Suzie Miller, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Nimrod St, Darlinghurst. 17th May - 22nd June.

PRIME FACIE, is a one hundred minute, one person play, by Suzie Miller. It won the Griffin Award for Best Play in 2018.

Tessa is a feisty young woman from a working class background who finds her talent in the practice of Law. In the journey of this play Tessa experiences what it is to be on both sides of the incidents of the court system. It becomes a devastating revelation.

Suzie Miller is a writer who has practised in Law to subsidise her first love: writing. Many a writer, especially the Australian writer, with this country's limited opportunities to be able to make writing the lone occupation of their industry and source of a sustaining income, have had to have a 'second' job. The Griffin Theatre have presented on the SBW Stables stage other works by this writer: CARESS/ACHE; SUNSET STRIP and her career has had support internationally, with many of her works having had nominations for awards of excellence.

For me, PRIME FACIE, is the 'flowering' of her gifts, it is a work of high quality, bursting with an intensity of a lived/observed experience and with a missionary passion of the highest integrity to talk about issues concerning the Law and its application to this country's citizens, underlining the injustice it can wield especially on women. It is a play that says something of great importance for our present day, fearlessly. It has, at its centre, a woman of high intelligence, ambition (and not a sportsperson!). A woman we come to admire and support in her daily interactions in a world dominated by men. What happens in the play becomes an almost unbearable angst for those of us seated in the audience. PRIME FACIE is the best of the theatre writing that I have experienced from Suzie Miller. Her courage to put this in the public domain is what makes this work glow with irresistible power.

PRIME FACIE, is posed as a one person monologue. It is a hundred minute journey. A Hundred Minutes as the lone storyteller on any stage is a truly daunting challenge. The solo actor has no other resource but themselves to develop a relationship with that unrehearsed other 'actor' - the audience, which is different every performance (and that is where the act of improvisation/being 'in the moment' becomes the other essential ingredient/thrill of being an actor) - to bring them into an empathetic state of sharing so they are able to invent and act the sub-text of what is said and shown to them.

It requires an actor of tremendous technical skill with the resources to cross a great landscape of emotional range and to have the courage to delve into the 'truths' of their own self to convince the audience to suspend their judgements, so that they are able to jointly participate in the story and take in the lessons of the play for their lives. Actors, good actors, quite early in their careers divine acting is not an escape from their own life. That it is not a game of 'pretend'. Rather, acting requires the actor to 'reveal' the first hand experiences of their own lives/identity to be the basis of their ability to tell the story of the character.

I have reckoned that the Best Resource an actor has is her/his self: their own life, which is made up from the experiencing and conscious gathering of their lived life, supplemented with the secondary resources of other lives which the actor has unconsciously (consciously) observed, with an added intense engagement with the other arts practised about them: dance, art, music, and absorbing what they have to say of our times. 95% of every character is essentially the particular actor engaged in the task of revealing the aspects of their self, that, with imaginative expansion or diminishing can create the uniqueness of the character. It takes courage as a craftsman to do such a thing but it is the essential element that is required for any performance to have the possibility of conviction and, sometimes, it can assume greatness.

Knowing oneself, having the capacity to be able to make selection and, then, the skill to edit/refine those details to piercing specifics, crowned with the COURAGE to do it every night, is what the artist - the actor - embarks upon every time they step onto the stage or in front of the lens. It is a frightening challenge that every actor takes on to story-tell for their 'tribe'. Sometimes, it becomes an ephemeral witness of Art. The actor permits the character to 'possess' them. It is a practice of great moment and risk to themselves. It is the exquisite 'magic' of the artist at vulnerable capacity. It is, for the audience, a gift that they may not always realise has been given them.

This is all leading to underline the astonishing performance that Sheridan Harbridge offers to the audience to illuminate the source material of Ms Miller's story (life experience). Feisty, funny, world wise, street wise, intelligent, committed, arrogant, confident, self aware, prejudiced, observant, skilful, compassionate, confronted, devastated, angry, outraged, courageous, stubborn, humility, are some of the facets that Ms Harbridge shares with us about Tessa, Ms Miller's woman. What is marvellous is the craftsmanship of Ms Harbridge's craft, its clever structured revelations that are presented with a sure integrity of judicious selection and restraint. Never does the acting of Ms Harbridge shift into sentimentality - it gleams with intelligence and wit, even taking us into a place of surprised compassion when her Tessa shockingly plunges into a raw emotional pain. We all, willingly, create with her, under her subtle control of our wills/focus, the heart centre of the play's injustice.

One knows that Ms Harbridge creates a 'miracle' of sage revelation when one realises that one has been watching this one woman for 100 minutes. The passage of time is so swift - Ms Harbridge's clever disguised detail at speed, induces us to reveal ourselves in identifying the commonalities of Tessa's experience (and gets us through a slightly didactic spell of indulgence from Ms Miller, late in the play), so that the busy contribution of our attention has been so intense that not a single minute of Ms Harbridge's offers allows us any mind wandering from the centre of the stage. Time had been suspended - a rare experience in the Sydney theatre going travails.

Lee Lewis, The Director, after the masterstroke of casting Ms Harbridge, has stepped back and allowed the actor to take possession of Tessa, and permitted the play to take hold of the audience. Her contribution is invisible, but, on reflection, firm. It is the opposite to the overkill that we recently had with the Sydney Theatre Company's production of A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF under the hand of Kip Williams. Gentle visual choices of signage guidance on the walls of the space, along with just a slight, raised, circular platform, in shades of black/grey and white, Designed by Renee Mulder and lit by Trent Suidgeest, subtly Sound scored by Paul Charlier, are elements that support and focus the actor and the writing without drawing attention to themselves.

PRIME FACIE, is the play we have been waiting for. Ms Harbridge has created the role that should propel her into the front line of casting in this city: magnificent, astonishing. There was, and I hear, is, every night a spontaneous standing ovation for Ms Harbridge's performance. I teach that an actor is not the 'high priest' at the altar of thespis, but is the sacrifice. Ms Harbridge does that for us every night on the SBW stage and merits your attention in a very contemporary work of important debate.

Do not miss.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Made to Measure

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Seymour Centre present, MADE TO MEASURE, by Alana Valentine, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale.16th May - 1 June.

Alana Valentine, the writer, notes in the program:
Weight bias is a pervasive and destructive form of discrimination. Shaming and bullying people who are living in large bodies is common, callous and counter-productive to their life and health. But equally problematic is an attitude which advocates that people living in large bodies should just be left to their own devices, that when they ask for support and advice they should be ignored.
Tim Jones, the Director of this project, is also the Artistic Director/General Manager of the Seymour Centre and as part of his mission in those positions has determined to highlight the presence of the Seymour Centre as the University of Sydney's performing arts venue and connecting it to the many Departments of research of the University to encourage a joint development of communication through the theatre of their serious investigations and endeavours so that the general public can easily absorb and appreciate, be enlightened of the studies of the University. With this project assiduously researched by Alana Valentine, Steve Simpson and the many nutrition scientists and doctors within the university have made a focused and active support to the project.

The text is voluminous in its language density, although, nothing is offered that is not easily recognised and absorbed. It is an old fashioned theatrical set of argument and debate, that has a roller-coaster emotional 'ride' that forbids any indulgences of sentimentality.

This has to do, as well, with the incredibly generous and open facilitation of the material by Megan Wilding who inhabits the body and world of the character of Monica with a naturalness and confronting honesty that allows the audience to participate in the hurdles of her pursuit of a dress for her wedding/marriage. Ms Wilding has a remarkable persona of a woman who has dealt with welters of discrimination and yet has managed to find an intelligent, though, not un-pained journey to survive. One can sense, both Monica's and Megan's past and admire their present that seems to be open to public exposure as it serves their mission to inform the world of the lives of the marginalised ''other". Ms Wilding's sense of reasonable forgiveness and acceptance accompanied by a striking wit permeates this work but, in truth, has done so in all of her offers I have seen on our stages.

Opposite her, Tracey Mann, as the couturier, the designer and maker of the wedding dress, with her character's experienced confidence of adapting to the needs of her 'customer', is cool and empathetic, and as the dramaturgical antagonist of Ms Valentine's writing, holds a credibility and wonderful balance to the offers of the Monica character. This pair of actors are worthy and generous participants that keeps this robust exposure of discrimination and the hurtfulness of it, both from the outside and more tragically from the inside of the world of Monica.

Sam O'Sullivan in his two roles gives support to the machinery of the play without pushing for attention, merely supporting the central story revealed by Ms Wilding and Mann.

The Set Design and Costuming, by Melanie Liertz are, relatively, pragmatic in their effect.

MADE TO MEASURE is another fine contribution by Alana Valentine to the canon of Australian Theatre Writing, in her artistic mission to revealing the marginalised voices of our communities, wholly justified by her intense practice of 'massaged' verbatim after a very focused research plan in the world of each play's focus of interest.

American Psycho - The Musical

BB Arts and Two Doors Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents, AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical. Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa, Music and Lyrics by Duncan Sheik, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave., Darlinghurst. 16th May - 9 June.

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, is an adaptation of the 'infamous' novel by Bret Easton Ellis of 1991. It is a satiric observation and skewering of the American values of the 1980's in which the (anti-) hero, Patrick Bateman, a corporate aspirant, among many other idiosyncrasies, regards Donald Trump as a figure of admiration. It is an ironic note that we in 2019, 28 years later, are engaged with 'a media-saturated society where a narcissistic, greedy misogynist with severe status anxiety can become the leader of the free world'. Donald Trump is a prescient mentor, indeed, for the Musical's hero Patrick Bateman. This deliciously terrible outcome/parallel gives the musical adaptation some possibility of a fearful edge.

The novel became a film in the year 2000, starring Christian Bale, and was, interestingly adapted by a Guinevere Turner (an out Lesbian, so Google tells me) for Director Mary Harron, which gave the screenplay and subsequent film an interesting 'slant' to the over the top misogyny and toxic male violence of the original novel. The gay and feminist perspectives provided the material with a challenging context. I enjoyed the film very much way back, 19 years ago.

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, in the Book by Roberto Aquirre-Sarcasa seems to have leant further in that direction and in this production of the Musical by Alexander Berlage is embraced with the emphasis emphatically on the 'camp' aesthetic, in its design both Set (Isabel Hudson) and, especially, Costume (Mason Browne) - all three of these artists having so successfully collaborated last year in the wonderful over-the-top-campery of their production of CRY-BABY last year at the Hayes. Susan Sontag wrote that: the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. And although Mr Browne does not have the budget to do it: Camp says Sontag, "is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers". Mr Browne does marvels with what he had to spend for what he wanted the show to be without the three million feathers. As does Ms Hudson and the choreographer, Yvette Lee, taking full advantage of the Designers offers and the undoing of the creative leash that Mr Berlage gives her to play in.

This aesthetic is carried on in the casting of Ben Gerrard as Patrick Bateman, who has made such a splash with his appearance and style in work such as I AM MY OWN WIFE, BUYER AND CELLAR, at the Ensemble Theatre, and, spectacularly in the recent Bell Shakespeare/ Griffin adaptation of Moliere's The MISANTHROPE, where his creation of Cymbeline seemed to be a flawless/seamless identification with the narcissistic inclinations of some of the world about him, with a performance that had the shirt off more often than on. Mr Gerrard followed on with an investigation of one of the leads in ANGELS IN AMERICA, at the Old Fitz. All in all, this CV is quite a collection of gay men of extreme temperament to work on - not that Patrick is gay, just that he has those exaggerated qualities - which this production shrieks out for. Mr Gerrard has had plenty of practice to get to Mr Bateman and toy with it under the permissive Direction of Mr Berlage.

Mr Berlage and his team, with a musical adaptation of the score by Andrew Worboys (there is no live orchestra), grab back to a Set Design that like Mr Berlage's first introduction to the Sydney Theatre scene with his graduation production from NIDA, THERE WILL BE A CLIMAX, (later seen at the Old Fitz), revive the trope of the continuous turn of a revolve to help create and propel the relentless energy of the work - one thinks, exhaustedly, during this performance: 'When will the revolve ever stop? and, later, 'Is there a metaphysical meaning to when the revolve reverses into the anti-clockwise mode, or not?'

All of the action is reflected in three rooms of mirror, creating an illusion of a crowded self-obsessed humanity that values image over any sense/glimpse of character depth or empathy. The shimmer of ice-cold perfection is the universe of this stage vision (perforce of the content of the novel), illustrated, amusingly, in the famous competition of the young corporates over the 'elegance' of one's calling card.

It is lit in support, startlingly, in primary colour, and fluorescent tubing, also by Mr Berlage, glowering in, mostly, a black-hole/abyss, to give a cutting edge to the look of all the bloody action of the story. This production of AMERICAN PSYCHO seems to be a natural for the present Sydney audience's pre-occupation that counts appearance/style over any serious interrogation of the content of the work.

Patrick Bateman is both the principal character in the action of the story as well as being the narrator. It confronts the actor with a demand to sit comfortably as the subjective experiencer of the events of the work as well as being required to step out of the narrative and take on a sardonic, dry, smart-mouthed objective commentator of the action. Slipping in and out of those guises is a kind of circus trick that makes demands for a technical feat of some skill. Mr Gerrard manages it with panache, using a repertoire of physical and vocal gestures that we have enjoyed in most of the work we have seen previously, in his stage (and television manifestations), but, which also could leave the audience in a disconnected position of nodding (I've seen this before) while watching the familiar mannerisms.

This was not, for me, too much of a problem, but was one that revealed the performance as lacking in spontaneity or originality, especially surprise, and when compared to the relative 'weakness' of Mr Gerrard's singing voice was almost not remarkable. Mr Gerrard is undoubtedly an accomplished actor but has, merely, an adequate singing voice. That that voice had to carry the central figure in a Musical who barely leaves the stage and has a huge musical demand, seems to be huge risk. For, on the night I saw the performance, he did not seem to have the added 'oomph' to pitch his sound over and above the accompanying chorus and orchestrations, and, so, relatively 'disappeared' in vital moments. It was never more worrisome than in the final song, 'This is Not an Exit', when Mr Aguirre-Sarcasa (Book) and Mr Sheik (Music and Lyrics), attempt to give Bateman a redemptive dimension and a gesture to suggest that he is a human just like all of us in the audience (in this production he leaves the stage and sits with his audience looking at the other players, identifying as one of us). Mr Gerrard did not have the vocal power or the warmth of sound to convince us of this contrivance - this pivotal moment fell flat - one was not convinced that Patrick Bateman was a human worth embracing or forgiving. Patrick Bateman remained a bloodless murderous psychopath - frightening.

The rest of the company are startling in the commitment to the demands of this production requiring them to shift scenery and location, change costume, sing untiringly,, and dance effortlessly while negotiating the ever turning stage-revolve. Shannon Dooley (Evelyn Williams), Liam Nunan (Luis Carruthres), especially, create characters that stick in the mind despite the obviousness of the dramaturgical function, while Blake Appelqvist (Paul Owen) steals the show with an ease of presence, having a physical plasticity and accompanying singing quality that could, perhaps, take on the role of Patrick Bateman with ease and power (recently I saw Mr Appellqvist in a solo role, in a new Australian musical DORIAN GRAY NAKED, and was mightily impressed - a Star?)

The 'politics' of the novel and the film, and, perhaps, even of this musical version of that source material that "ambition is an instinct necessary to survive, and empathy can be switched on and off when convenient. (and) Perhaps the only way to break such a cycle is to strive for authenticity and rediscover what actually makes each of us happy, mindful and above all else, human ...' (Program notes), seemed to me relatively elusive in this dazzling production. The textual content and its tools of telling seemed to be about a decade or two passé - the events and times have moved on. Of all the novels of that time the social impact and heritage of AMERICAN PSYCHO, may be, mostly, today, famous for the the sensation of its original scandal and the scary fascination that we have as a species for the bloody serial killer that may be stalking our neighbourhood. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, the 1987 novel by American Tom Wolfe , a work studying the same times, sits higher as a superior work of satire and literature, I reckon - a Dickensian-like forensic study of a society in terrible straits (it was by the way, a terrible film).

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, at the Hayes Theatre, is a dazzling production, that is relatively empty in its content impact. Sydney should love it. I was admiring but unmoved.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Party (verb)

PARTY (verb) devised by William Yang, in the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House. 10th and 11th May.

I first knew of William Yang when he was Willie Young and part of the cast of the iconic original production of THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, in 1970, and recently re-staged at the Seymour Centre in 2014. Willie was part of the troupe that created, under the Direction of John Bell, as an an actor/singer/musician. Later, I remember him as part of the Rex Cramphorn Company in his Studio experiments on some of the Classical repertoire. Willie was never an actor really. Then, other than seeing photographs of him at dinners at Patrick White's he kind of disappeared from my radar. Later, he re-appeared in my life at public parties where he always carried a camera and clicked away at the scenarios. He always dressed as himself and seemed to be content just to wander around and click, click, click.

In fairly recent times, as William Yang, he has curated his photography to create published photographic essays in book form and launched a career on the stage showing, thematically, some of his photographic work - a kind of slide-night - (the quality of the photography as photography is debatable, but as historical record, invaluable) - where he acted as a verbal interlocutor to place the work in context. I have seen several iterations of this endeavour.

PARTY (verb), is the latest offer. It concentrates in presenting a photographic history/memory of the infamous Dance Party culture of Sydney from the early 1980's up until the present. There were only two performances. The night I went - the first performance - it was like being at a gathering of old friends come to remember those old times. One saw friends that one thought were dead as well as other friends who were at the last Bad Dog or Kooky Party a month or so ago. It was a family get together, it felt warm, inclusive and special. This was a family gathering come to relish and indulge in joint ecstatic memories - one was wondering who had been captured and, was to be shown, while secretly hoping, that they might be up there in one of the photographs.

Accompanied with a soundtrack presented live by Jonny Seymour and Paul Mac performing as as Stereogamous, standing to one side of a projection screen, William Yang in a flat and mostly lugubrious voice introduces and, sometimes, elaborates about the individual projected images and of the history of some of the participants. It turned out that this show of the Dance Club phenomena became also, sometimes, a very personal journey, for Mr Yang, as we meet ex-lovers and companions across the time era that included the AIDS epidemic. It became a little maudlin, though, highly respectful, and for some of us, ultimately, fairly moving.

If you have attended other iterations of this formula from Mr Yang, there was nothing really new here - it was fairly familiar in its mode with the curiosity of the selected image/memory the sustaining element that kept one present. At 80 minutes it only just began to wear us down- you know, like any slide night can do.

Most of us were glad to have made the effort to come even though in all of those photographs of the parties and the memory of being confronted by William's lens, one did not appear in the haze of the dance spaces over the almost 40 years of coverage of this show. We got to feel warm with our chosen 'family' and were happy to be re-acquainted and have our past drawn into the present.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presents CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, by Tennessee Williams, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 3rd May -

Part way through Act One of the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Tennessee Williams, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Directed by Kip Williams (and it was probably only twenty minutes or so into the text), I knew that I was having an experience in the theatre that was what I recognise as an experience of Grand Theatre. Watching this production of Kip Williams was the equivalent to me of what I have often experienced in the three hour or more in a Wagner Opera experience - a "Grand Olde Opry" experience, one that through its writing and the endurance of its time spread, was going to lift me to the upper echelons of exposed truths that would both burn my soul and still elate me to the joy of being witness of one man's genius in his distilled and earnest learnt vision of what it is to be human. A gift of earned insight seared from his pain for us as a gift to guide us through our own travails.

This production had the handle on the possibility of the writing and relished the words of Mr Williams' labour. This was what some would call Grand Old Fashioned Theatre. The play is written as one continuous act and is in 'real' time: three and a quarter hours long. I was witness to the huge scale of Tennessee Williams' conception. This play revealed itself as a Masterpiece and put into contextual shadow most of what we see on our stages in Sydney, as contemporary writing that in imaginative context and theme is in comparison banal, pygmy, empty, shallow. When did a new play, especially an Australian play, tell us that we were to deal with notions of existential DISGUST? MENDACITY? LIES? LIARS? GREED? Issues of our present day. Not for a long time in my experience. Let us not dwell too much on the mastery of language usage and character conception and realisation, and daring of the dramaturgical structure of each of the three acts of the play, for it is painful to know what we do not have enough of when we go to the theatre here.

Now, what I am raving about is the Play not the Production, for this production is flawed tremendously, with the ego of the Director, Kip Williams, though, relatively, it is surprisingly restrained in the exhibition of his usual 'tropes' to reveal to us his needs to make us aware that he is in charge of what we should appreciate. He signals with Sound Composition and Design (Stefan Gregory) and Lighting Design (Nick Schlieper) to intrude on the subtleties of Tennessee Williams' writing, and his confidence in our, the audience's, intelligence. It is gross overstatement of effort, over and over again, indulged with volume of noise and a huge wall of blaring light.

The Sound and Lighting being the most intrusive affect, for there are also visual missteps from the first reveal of the Set (David Fleischer), that despite the careful notes from Tennessee Williams in the text, is the Director's decision to set the play in 2019, which looks, in result, in the considered conversations of solution with the Director and Designer, like a high fashion furniture shop display room, with pieces of expensive (minimalist) bedroom furniture marooned in a vast landscape of blackness that has no walls or doors, a huge warehouse show room (one looked for the price tags). Black, white and grey - reflected in mirrors many a time - having a colour dominant 'coolness' with no suggestion of the humidity of this plantation, one of the finest in the South, with all of its fecund growth surrounding it, no humidity of the sexual tension in this bedroom. The logic of the gradual disappearance of elements of the objects of design throughout the three acts, during the night into the darkness, seems to be unfathomable except as design mistakes or shallow thinking with a necessity to get rid of it (which the actors stage-managed throughout this naturalistic play, along with their other duties which involved acting!). The bed, Brick and Maggie's bed, in this design is a flimsy piece in a contemporary minimalist scale without any of the deliberate symbolism of the ghosts of the houses' history permeating - no memory of Jack and Peter, the two old maids that once owned this bed, this estate, no Simon Schama (Tennessee Williams) Ghosts haunting this room or place.

And lets not dwell on the awful visuals of most of the costuming (Mel Page), especially of the women. (The men all get away with a look of reality and function).What was Mae (Nikki Shields) wearing? What of some of Magige's wardrobe of dresses that she paraded before us? - (oh horror, horror, horror). And the 'sausage skin', white tube, full length dress that Big Mama (Pamela Rabe) wore was a shocker of some note.

The long first act 'aria' that Maggie gives in Act One is full of daring physical choices from Zahra Newman. It is stuffed with the high energy aggression of a musical comedy inclination of dance choreography. Ms Newman, perhaps, taking a cue from her introduction engineered by the Director, by giving a 'campy' torch-song rendition of some of CRY ME A RIVER to introduce Maggie - for a moment I thought we were in for a cabaret version of the play! It is an astonishing performance but it lacks any, or most, of the tactics of the Maggie written on the page. It lacked the desperation of a worn-out woman trying to secure her future, her old age security, from a man she knows is not interested and is past care. This Maggie was a childish elf seeking attention relentlessly. It is not completely fair, but my memory of Kathleen Turner and the tremendous grief and fear of a woman that motivated her actions was completely absent from this performance and the memory of the Wendy Hughes sexual heat with her Brick, John Hargreaves, was not apparent. Energy galore, outrageous choice galore but little to no close reading of the text. It seemed to me a performance indulged by the Director.

Harry Greenwood, playing Brick, does not look as if he was ever an athlete and a figure of desire - a kind of god - his body looks clapped out and seems not to have any memory of the taut hurdler on the athletic field that we are lamenting. Mr Greenwood's theatrical intelligence is a kind of compensation and gives his all, but he seems to be way out of his emotional depth in securing the self laceration of a man that hates himself, that cannot face the possibility of his truth - his homophobic internalisation of his greatest fear. He fares much better in the second act when faced with the fierce heat and energy of Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy, for there is a spark of contact, a pain of history present between them that does not really reveal itself in the work with Ms Newman in the first Act.

Hugo Weaving is the other reason to see this production - he is, quite simply, magnificent. And the intrusive hand of Kip Williams which was so evident in their last collaboration: THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, with his cameras, is absent from this production and allows us to enjoy every gesture of offer of this great artist, unimpeded with film editorial direction. We are not forced to choose of where to look.

Pamela Rabe, in the above mentioned costume, adds to her gallery of entertaining grotesques (read my blog on DANCE OF DEATH), in her decisions in creating Big Mama. Lumpy and bent-over, wig almost askew with a flourished handkerchief Ms Rabe wrinkles as much laughter as she can squeeze from the opportunities Tennessee gives her. It is a highly appreciated performance - some of the audience finding it hilarious. Its only competition in the laughter stakes is in the delicate and wise offers by Peter Carroll in the tiny role of the bewildered, limited churchman, Reverend Tooker. Ms Rabe could learn by watching the understatement of Mr Carroll in securing his laugh rewards with the role.

Nikki Shields, as Mae, despite the costume, and Josh McConville as her husband Gooper, succeed, in the third act, to make these two characters almost human and maybe motivated from 'good' and decent ideas. They give interrogated performances - then, they nearly always do.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at the STC, worth catching. Read my blog of the Belvoir production to read my analysis of the play and my 'beef' about these auteurs of Sydney. The best thing about this production is that the love that the Director espouses for the Writer, in his program notes, allows the play to breathe at its own value. GRAND OLD THEATRE, the like of which one thirsts for in Sydney, and is happy to appreciate even in this flawed effort.

The writer is indeed GOD.

This production of the play uses the first published version of the text.


Photo by Prudence Upton
Opera Australia, present SALOME - An opera in one act by Richard Strauss. Libretto by the composer, based on Hedwig Lachmann's German translation of the French play SALOME, by Oscar Wilde, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, throughout March, from 6th - 26th, 2019.

SALOME, an old Old Testament, bible story.

SALOME, a sensational poem/play, in French, originally, by Oscar Wilde from 1891 - banned, originally, across most of Europe.

SALOME, an outrageously daring composition and adaptation by Richard Strauss written in 1905. Banned, but appreciated and highly lauded, gradually, through the operatic world.

SALOME, a contemporary production by the brilliant Gale Edwards, for the what I imagine should be an eternally grateful Opera Australia, that is as outrageous in its intellectual and physical conception and execution, placing this female-'revenge' work undeniably in our contemporary era of the 'revolutionary' contemplation of the 'gender bubble' of the history of the male gaze on the other half of the species than any I have ever seen before. It is accumulatively a highly disturbing and thrilling experience. It is even more remarkable to meet such sexual relevance and power in an Opera House, where the heroine usually either goes mad, marries (usually unhappily) enters a convent or dies a tragic death.

This production, is not new, it has been in repertoire for a few years, but it had the foresight to herald the eruptions of the sexual power-politics of 2019, and it is simply shocking and exciting to see, today, Ms Edwards' prescience of mind with her fellow collaborators, Brian Thomson (Set Design), and Julie Lynch (Costume Design) and Choreographer, Kelley Abbey, in the creative act they have conceived and delivered is remarkable.

This 'showing' of this work has been 'staged-revived' by Andy Morton - which seems odd to me since Ms Edwards is living in Sydney and was/is available to keep it refreshed and true. It is interesting to note that there are regular revivals of Ms Edwards' highly-reviewed Opera Australia productions such as the ever revived LA BOHEME – where the present management, led by Lyndon Terracinni, have never ever permitted the original artists, despite their availability – to take responsibility in reviving their work for us. What are the 'politics' guiding this decision to deliberately avoid using one of the great Australian Musical artists and her 'team' from giving us the benefit of their genius? This is a question no one at OA seems prepared to engage with.

I felt the heat in the revenge of SALOME on the male gaze in the demanding of the head of John the Baptist, in the daring acting, choreography and singing of the role on this night, by Lise Lindstrom. The head of John the Baptist has probably never had such a 'reward' before! Not only the singing but the acting and daring choreography that possesses Ms Lindstrom is moving beyond belief- across a wide emotional range of response.

The masterstroke in this production of the famous Dance of the Seven Veils is where each veil reveals contemporary provocative images of women's objectification through Western history: from that of a little girl with her 'teddy' on the lap of her 'Daddy', to the brilliant choice of reviving the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing above the grate of the New York subway system with her dress billowing up over her head. The images are mind-blowingly arresting.

Jochanaan (John, the Baptist) is wonderfully sung with an alabaster torso gleaming seductively through the costuming and staging in the 'ownership' from Alexander Krasnov. While Andreas Conrad creates a hectoring and saturated evil as Herod. It is no fault of his that the seedy and decadent presence of Claude Rains permeates my memory from his performance in the 1965 George Stevens epic of the life of Christ in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD - a Herod of evil, oozing its way off the screen into my clammy alarm of infected dampness of rot.

Less successful is Jaqueline Dark (I last saw her as the Mother Superior in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) as Herodias, who seems to believe stock melodrama effects in response to the events of the opera are enough to fulfil a contract of belief for her audience to the machinations of a woman scorned and full of revengeful hate.

 Too, the Design image of a freezer of hung corpses looming over the action of play may now seem more than a trifle over-the-top in its constant presence - its opening impact quickly becomes a bore of visual oppression and dullness: time as wearied this concept. The costuming concept now seems dated for the other minor characters covering the ages of history, and today seems to be an intellectual over-statement.

I regard The Metropolitan Opera in New York as the Best Theatre Company in that city. The quality of the skills necessary to make opera work are available and rich in its reach of talent but is managed with contemporary design and intellectual rigour of stunning relevance on a consistent basis over the wide and extraordinary genres of the opera form. Ms Edwards' production of SALOME, seems to have satisfied my receptors with high approval and with adjustments to the passing of time in her team's visuals could well sit comfortably in that company's work.

Just why Ms Edwards sits in her home in Glebe, a stone-throw away from the performance venue where her work is re-shown by a clearly pleased Opera Management, while others attempt to recreate her work, is a question we, who travel the world and believe in the opera as a viable contemporary form need explanation, don't you think?

Gale Edwards' SALOME, you just need to see it when you can.