Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Serpent's Teeth

The Sydney Theatre Company presents the STC ACTORS COMPANY in THE SERPENT’S TEETH, two plays by Daniel Keene CITIZENS & SOLDIERS at The Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House on 24th April 2008.I mention this date so precisely because something rare was happening, for the first time in a long time in the theatre in Sydney I felt that the relevancy of the plays were immediate and concerned my life vitally. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Headline for the day was ‘The going just got tougher. ”It concerned “families on modest incomes” needing to be shielded from the increases to Petrol, food stuffs, electricity and rents. As I watched the people in CITIZENS cross their empty landscape, I wondered uncomfortably “How tough is tough? (especially when you look at the advertisement for a certain Bank in the back of the STC Program inviting those of us “Who Have Gone Far, to Go Farther with our own Private Banker). The Brechtian parallels were too guilt making, to deal with fully. Then the second play opening on the eve of ANZAC DAY (Australia’s big War Memorial Day) SOLDIERS, made the experience even more confronting. This theatre was as alive as Today’s Headlines.

In the years to come when we look at the archival photographs of this production we will be in awe of the LOOK. The Set Design by Robert Cousins assisted by brilliant Lighting by Nick Schlieper is simply magnificent. (Costumes by Tess Schofield also lend subtle support.) This Design not only looks good it is a very effective tool in the storytelling. Perhaps the best element. No, the Sound Design/Composition by Paul Charlier is also greatly evocative.

These two plays have ringing contemporary issues. CITIZENS, the first play, is set against a fabricated cement block wall forced down stage close to the front. The acting area is a narrow passage way covered in pebble waste from the wall .It is monolithic and had deliberate imaginative reverberations, for me, of the Israeli West Bank Wall. Pamela Rabe making her debut as a Director at the STC has prepared a production of some real promise. The Lighting and Sound Design she paces deliberately and patiently to create atmosphere and a sense of passing time. The contrivance of the writer is to have vignettes of characters in pairs or threesomes play out their hopes and agonies as they traverse across it from one side to the other .It begins with the squeaky sound of a wheel barrow off stage and then the entrance of an old man, Rasid (John Gaden) pushing a barrow carrying a root trussed orange tree sapling, accompanied by a young boy. They stop and rest, talk and move on. There follows other groupings: An old man and his daughter traveling to a funeral under a bright yellow patterned umbrella; three young men collecting stones from the debris of the wall with sling shots in hand; a pregnant woman and husband wheeling their property to hopefully a safer place for the birth of their child. It reminded me of a Brechtian device. It also reminded me of a Peter Handke play THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER where people cross a village square for an hour. We watch and endow these characters with history and meaning. That text has no spoken dialogue and there were times when you wished that these characters in CITIZENS had less or none. When I stated that Pamela Rabe had made a “promising “debut I mean that Ms Rabe knows this Company of Actors well and has elicited a set of performances that reflected a more considered set of choices then what we have habitually expected of them. They appear to have been challenged by one of their own (Pamela Rabe is a member of the Acting Ensemble usually) that was not content to settle for their usual offers. It was exciting to see Peter Carroll offer a really wonderful physicalisation; Brandon Burke offering a subtler vocal and physical creation other than his usual uncouth brutaliser; Eden Falk giving a straight forward clear unfussy reading of a straight forward youth etc. It was “promising“ only because it fell down in the emphasis of expression of the text. The actors erred on “gilding the lily” both in textual and physical delivery. They still felt tempted to theatrically point the moments. In saying after an exhaustive walk across the stage “we have a LITTLE way to go”; or anticipate and then hold a physical take on spilt water for an unnatural length of time is not to trust the writing and worse to underestimate the audience to do its own thinking. Putting it together as a co-collaborator. The actors wore their hearts and nerves on their sleeves instead of trusting that their knowledge and observation from the rehearsal would be enough to allow it to be expressed simply and with restraint. When Peter Carroll sings his text in what seems to me an old John Gielgud style from the 1930’s where sound is of more importance than sense or truth and is joined by other cast members in a similar rendition of the text, or where the physical responses to textual clarity are overplayed, then maybe the Director is not in full control of the performers because this text, I think, needs to be more simply expressed, Daniel Keene’s text needs to be trusted. To quote Kenneth Tynan the acting does not need to “seize you by the lapel and yell secrets into your ear; humanity itself, not the romantic individualist ,is what it is seeking to explore” Real people rather than the actor’s tendency to give us life as melodrama. Ms Rabe’s work is on the verge of solving the piece, it just requires more courage from the actors to withhold so that the audience can endow and experience it with them instead of being told what to think and feel. We are asked to watch them instead of sharing with them. This play has a European sensibility. It has observed the human condition at “the wall” and felt pain and desolation. It simply asks us to look at what life is for some people and for us to make the connection. There is a touch of sentimentality in the acting. Don’t you find when the emotion is too strong, we, as a Culture have a tendency to deflect it into sentimentality to make it easier to deal with?

Certainly one felt this need to deflect from the emotional mirror that SOLDIERS was asking of its audience. The audience grasped for laughter in the early stages of the performance I attended to avoid the content of the play. Every swear word was a release the audience seized upon to make things less difficult to endure. How do we respond to watching families gathering for the imminent return of dead soldiers from a war zone? (How more pertinent now with the death of Jason Marks in Afghanistan?) It is an uncomfortable place to be. What Daniel Keene has to say, the comforts, the conflicts, the grievings are uncomfortably relevant (especially on ANZAC DAY EVE).

The Acting Company knew that the play was important in airing such diverse viewpoints. They loved their writer and their scenes and text and they showed us how much. Tim Maddock (the Director) seemed to have lost control of this outpouring of love and sense of responsibility, for the play diminished into an exhausting performance of emotional states. The text got buried beneath the actor’s need to show us how to feel. The Actor is a story teller. They are there, we trust, to tell us a story not to demonstrate their feelings. Unfortunately these actors let the text become secondary to their truthful but overpowering feeling. The text became wearisome, the poetry incomprehensible. The text was Sung.

The play began well with a large black space (a hanger) a small door opened and a powerful white light pierced the gloom, John Gaden as Tom Lewis entered, sat on a chair and wept powerfully and noisily. It had the power of Greek Tragedy. He silenced himself. Stood up and exited. Closed the door. The profundity of a Greek Theatre Primal Experience left us in nervous anticipation. Unfortunately, what followed was sentimentality and glowering symbolism. The pushing of huge hangar doors open and shut (to show us the brilliant lighting Design presumably). Actors entered and exited. Later actors stood together on two immobile trailers in a sculptural arrangement and stared at two other actors draped on the floor. A little boy ran round the stage with a model aeroplane and buzzed the grieving Aunt interminably. It lacked restraint. It lacked the dignity of the Human trying to function under great duress. It did not give the audience space to begin to imagine and participate with them. The actors wanted to show us what the emotion was. What we should be feeling. This powerful text became an exhausting mire of actor’s love. It was “sung “with operatic orchestration of choking emotion.

Glimpses of what I felt was needed came from Marta Dusseldorp but she had not enough to do to lead the company and no support with her partners to imprint the style. Luke Mullins and Ewen Leslie likewise were impressive and showed the way. One longs from this company a Helen Weigel or a galvanizing Olivier to take the work to another place. The Actors Company seems to be too egalitarian in its respectful ensemble. The Tall Poppy trembles??!!! All of these actors are gifted, we trust, and of the best potential in their profession but no one in the company has led the way. Each company member must have the potential individually, otherwise why are they there, and we are left unsatisfied as an audience. With Cate Blanchett joining the Company in The War of The Roses will we see that ingredient that seems to hold this Company from becoming the Must SEE of our dreams?

THE SERPENT’S TEETH by Daniel Keene is sign of a maturing Company. The choice to place it in the repertoire and give it such resources begins to intimate that our Artistic Directors and the Organisation they are leading are believing that their audiences are wanting more than Entertainment. This production does not succeed but it needs to be supported because it augurs well for our future. Our times on stage. The venerable English Critic Michael Billington wrote recently that the ideal theatre experience has wrapped up in it, three E’s. ENTERTAINMENT. ENLIGHTENMENT. ECSTASY. With consistent challenge in the repertoire, for all of us concerned, this will happen. It requires Time, Courage, Respect and Audacity.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ruben Guthrie

A new play commissioned by Company B from Brendan Cowell after he won THE PHILIP PARSONS YOUNG PLAYWRIGHT’S AWARD in 2005 called RUBEN GUTHRIE, playing in the B Sharp Space Downstairs, is blessed. It is blessed with a clear unfussy staging by the director Wayne Blair; by the wonderful look through the work of Jacob Nash (Set and Costume) and the Lighting by Luiz Pampolha (the third design mentioned in this series of notices); and most fortunately by the terrific performance of Toby Schmitz. Here is a performance of such miraculous ease: intelligence, dexterously skillful voice and body work. His acting is so deceptively simple that you are swept along with this text despite its weaknesses. What is a marvel is the artful control of every moment (this is in a close space) it looks so effortlessly spontaneous that he might be living the moment NOW, for the first time and he invites you in to experience it with him. Charming, clever and vulnerable. When are we going to see Mr Schmitz been tested with the great benchmarks of skill like Hamlet etc.?

Brendan Cowell might be writing from closely experienced territory and the writing is strongest in the beautiful language of the monologues. It fails relatively in the scene interactions between his characters. Mostly two handers they are glib and mostly just expositional arguments for the next riff of the protagonist. The actors add some flesh to fairly perfunctory exchanges and it is a credit to their skills to be able to cover the soap opera text they are given to play to keep us engaged. The best of this work comes from Torquil Nelson who creates a completely unpleasant character (Damian) with insightful flair and Megan Drury playing a recovering addict (Virginia) that presents a character of alarming ambiguity. Is she a good person or a bad person.?? etc… In the hands of lesser actors or in one case a beginner the text is palpably inferior to the Monologues. I have always felt that a good playwright arrives when he can command a scene with three or more characters in the one scene holding forth from each of their point of view: argue the arguments, keep the plot moving and deepen the characters and their relationships. Witness Stoppard in ROCK AND ROLL, the dinner party scene in Act 2. When you read the interview with the writer in the program you do come to suspect that this is very close to the writer and it does have the feel of a recovered alcoholic and much like Saint Paul at Tarsus has come out of it as Zealot. The text becomes preachy and if I were totally cynical seemingly politically opportunistic. This is a very important contemporary social issue in Australia but the writing needs to be less obvious. If the parent company take this BSharp (ie Co-op) production up into the main house as they did THE SEED this year, call in the Dramaturgs please, for a close rewrite on what is at the moment only potential material blessed with a significant performance.

The Kid

The Griffin Theatre Company presented a revival production of Michael Gow’s THE KID at the Stables Theatre. It is 25 years since the original outing. I remember the play of three young underprivileged teenagers coming to the city to claim compensation from the Department and their adventures, meetings and disasters being confronting and moving. Gow had originally sewn in Wagner’s Ring as a hook during the scene breaks that gave the piece pathos and a grounding. It is interesting to see the play now, post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Gaza, Hurricane Katrina and the gentle threat of catastrophic Climate Change and the rise of Fundamentalism in Religions.

Immediately, on a set of brutalistic concrete, discomfortingly covered in manga-cartoon graffiti Art the actors hurtle into the action of the play with a great deal of commitment and exciting concentration. It maybe too loud (certainly some of the actors seemed to have strained their voices) and maybe too much energy without relief of contrasting stillness or subtlety push the audience to lots of bewildered watching, trying to catch onto the narrative of the play but the concept of the direction and design is clear. The Apocalypse is nigh. IS HERE.!!!!

The director, Tom Healey and his Design team: Set and Costume by Gabrielle Logan (wonderful) Lighting by a brilliant Luiz Pampolha overwhelm us with the accumulating bleakness of the play and our times. The acting is of a high quality. Mark Pegler playing several characters has the foreboding of doom and danger about him in each incarnation. Yael Stone the brutalised victim (Desire) espousing the coming Apocalypse is marvellous in her big scene of selling her church’s teaching. She had me listening and gasping in horror and disbelief. I felt grief and pity for her. (Sometimes physically a touch over stated.) But the best work came from Eamon Farren as a marginalised youth (Donald) looking for a world to live in ,who finally becomes the comforter and survivor of the journey. He quietly listens and watches with deft compassion and offers love in a terrifying world. In this dehumanising world he comes to carry our hopes for a future. Sensibly judged in the hurly burly of the other actors his sensitivity and revealed inner life becomes a touch stone for the audience to rest in, hope in. Akos Armont charts the journey of the charismatic but flawed leader (Dean) a little to well. There is a sense of contrivance sometimes of the actor telling his characters’ story , and the humanity of the pain of this truly disengaged human is not always deeply touched on. The performance has interest but doesn’t draw compassion from us. This was not an easy night in the theatre (nearly two hours of full bent contemporary noise and ugliness) but worthy of the time given by audience. It was wonderful to see this play reconfigured for our times. It worked 25 years ago and in this production still does.

Men, Love and the Monkeyboy

At the Darlinghurst Theatre - a co-op space - I saw a new Australian play, The World Premiere of MEN, LOVE AND THE MONKEYBOY by Caleb Lewis. The Ape and Homo Sapiens shares 97% of the same DNA. The play tells us early. We then see the other 3% acted out ,mostly men and women behaving badly. The Direction (Christopher Hurrell) is not good or when I saw it, late in the season, the actors had lost discipline. The Design is not very useful and the staging is adequate. The Acting style is pitched somewhere between Television Situation Comedy (think My Family or Everyone Loves Raymond) and Soap (think Neighbours) and is truly painful to watch. Actors playing from a learnt audience response to the gags and pathos of the performance rather than an in the moment experiencing of the characters dilemmas and interactions, or a story that had life or death stakes.. Despite this there are glimmerings in the text that this writer has real promise and sometimes there is a text attached to some intelligent observation and in the scene between the characters Hayley and Chelsea in the second act some interesting observations about the dilemma of the contemporary woman and how she is seen in a post-feminist world. In an ideal world this play would go back into a rewrite and have a new production and cast. In the Australian production reality the play will never see the light of day again. A shame as it may have promise. Look forward to Mr Caleb’s next go.

Rock and Roll

Opening in Melbourne in late February, Tom Stoppard’s ROCK AND ROLL, opened at the Sydney Theatre April 14th. It is sad to realise that this is the first new play by Stoppard that Australian audiences have seen since ARCADIA some 13 or 15 years ago. This is what? The result of the Impoverishment of the Arts in Australia? Impoverishment of Financial Support or Intellectual Thought ,or Artistic Vision? I hope it was the first. We recently had Mr Stoppard in Sydney to give a talk. It was a full house with an eager audience. How embarrassing that we have not been even able to give a reading of THE INVENTION OF LOVE or THE COAST OF UTOPIA trilogy .Two works of arguably the greatest living theatre writer in the English speaking world neglected by our theatre companies. The former has a cast of nineteen and the latter a cast reaching into the thirties and nearly nine hours long .That must be the reason we have been deprived!!! We haven’t the financial wherewithal to mount such an offering. Not on Intellectual or Artistic reasons, surely ?

ROCK AND ROLL was not a disappointment. Stoppard is as challenging as ever. Sappho , Marxist philosophy, Czech-Russian politics and the contemporary music world of the Sixties into the Seventies embracing Syd Barrett to the Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe along with a deeply moving human story of love, suffering and death means you have to have your senses fully alert when you enter the journey of the performance. Difficult, bracing and very rewarding to experience.

Simon Phillips the Director, has a good handle on the play and along with his Designer Stephen Curtis, Lighting Designer Matt Scott and the Audio Visual Design by Josh Burns it is a fairly clear execution of the play. The lighting had a huge rock concert like rig that flew up and down in the scene breaks, sometimes masking the audio visual history : politics and music projected onto a huge screen at the back of the set. I felt longeurs of pacing in these moments, too long, to much time to become distracted with the frustration of trying to see what was being projected while the rig ascended and descended. All the actors give assured performances. William Zappa as Max, surely the best actor performing in Australia at the moment, is as always clear, intelligent, emotionally engaged and communicatively alert to his audience. Matthew Newton as Jan holds his own, even though vocally it is just a trifle too narrow in range for such a long role. But best of all is Genevieve Picot in the Eleanor/Esme double. Here is an intelligent and deeply moving performance. The full grief of approaching death in the first act is devastating to experience and the sheer subtle yearning of love in the second act strikes a chord of shared knowledge that the audience is grateful to have expressed for them. At least I did. This was a rich performance beautifully judged and controlled.

Is there something still unsolved about the acoustics in this relatively new space , The Sydney Theatre? In my seat, K33, in the stalls, it was difficult to always hear. Other friends in the front of the upper circle also had difficulty. The great problem of all new spaces: The Acoustic design. When I think back most of the successful performances have used microphones. Not a permanent solution, I hope.


Company B’s presentation of ANTIGONE, a version of Sophocles’ play by Seamus Heaney, is a beautiful version which Heaney alternatively called THE BURIAL AT THEBES. Here at least is a young director that cares about the text and seems to respect what actors do. Alas, Chris Kohn, the director, along with his designer Dale Ferguson have made an error by setting this play in a rundown Community Hall on some undernourished housing estate. He immediately reduces the power of the piece. They dress the actors in down market costume, not clothing, so from the given visual circumstances I can’t match the look with the dignity and status of the text. Too, there is big sonorous composed score /soundscape by Jethro Woodward that keeps taking me to grander places –at least to the grounds outside a Palace wall. Deborah Mailman has the focus and charisma to give us an Antigone but is matched up against an entirely inadequate Creon. Boris Radmilovich seemed to be struggling through heightened English as a second language and musically was missing the rhythms of the text and even mishearing the musical cues of the other actors in their exchanges. He seemed to be not in the same space with his fellow players and not able to phrase or find the vocal technical means to argue the text for Creon. No sparks can fly between the exchanges with the other characters. So Ms Mailman’s work is all potential not realised. There is good work from Hazem Shammas (Haemon) and Pachero Mzembe (Guard). The Chorus of Paul Blackwell is all versifying: lovely imaging but no character or argument. Gillian Jones has piercing presence as Tiresias but an injured sound that hardly penetrates the auditorium. Her Eurydice is virtually dumb and has more power for it. This production is a tragedy for Sydney audiences because it has been some time since we have had the opportunity to experience the primal power of Greek Tragedy.

Moving Targets

MOVING TARGETS by Marius von Mayenburg (translated by Maja Zade) was developed from scratch with the director Benedict Andrews over several years of collaboration, since 2005, with 6 hand picked Australian actors. From discussions the actors were given “a book called THE SECRET PROJECT”, which was the source of company discussions and improvisations etc. What was intriguing for me was the fact that this work of Mr Andrews was to be around an original work developed by him with a living and present writer. I have been puzzled by the other work of Mr Andrews for many years, and the fact that critics, other professional peers and certainly the arbiters of what is committed to and shown to our audiences, that is the major companies :the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir’s Company B and in this instance the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne The Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts and The Sydney Opera House, have supported his development, I would at last see what he is about without the fear of literary vandalism. I have witnessed over the past few years his approach to Calderon’s LIFE IS A DREAM, Chekov’s THREE SISTERS, Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Patrick White’s THE SEASON AT SARSPARILLA, and last year, Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? It seemed to me Appropriated Art. Taking someone else’s art and reducing it to his own interests with little respect for the writer’s intention. And I was usually made angry then inpatient and finally bored. Reduced to an inertia of boredom. So I went with some hope of enlightenment . Alas this was not my experience.

This performance had already had the benefit of a season at the Malthouse in Melbourne, a short season at the Adelaide Festival and was in it’s second week of presentation in Sydney. I saw 6 actors in grungy street costume in a dirty white three walled wooden oblong box with an untreated wooden floor, a table, a tablecloth, a long red lounge, a piece of stained red carpet, two chairs, a sleeping bag and a couple of toys. They began to play Hide and Seek and played it continuously on and off over the next two hours without an interval break. There were No Exits on the set. This should have warned me of the coming HELL.

What did I learn from this incarceration? I gathered that we live in fearful times. An age of terrorism. If we ignore what is going on we are in trouble and/or if we do something about it, it may lead to even worse trouble. This I knew already. Reading better informed critics (eg. Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter in real time rt84) it seems it was about Children and Parents, and from the Director’s notes “how this little community of strangers operate as players and storytellers. It displays the construction and erasure of a missing protagonist, and it studies stagings of absence and presence”!!!!!! The problem is that the whole storytelling tools used are all abstraced as well. Maybe full of meaning to the creators but not with enough clues for me to begin to read what was going on. I was not invited to work with these actors but to observe them. To watch them. The techniques of the acting - communicative styles were that of pretence. Pretend thankfulness, pretend fear, pretend petulance, pretend surprise, pretend everything!!! Not a single thing I could identify with and believe in to begin to participate ; rather it was a lecture that I must watch and solve. In an Objective place. Since the acting was self affecting and self absorbed and self satisfied I did not feel that I needed to be there. I made not a mote of difference to them. They would have gone on doing what they were doing with or without me. The other tools of the production: Lighting that was glaringly bright and intense to depressingly dim with bursts towards the end, of multi-colours to produce pretty shadows on the dirty walls; banging into the walls and stamping on the floor (such noise), a live microphone which could be yelled in to, random sampling of sounds played loudly or irritatingly without reason except for affect and amongst others things towards the end, finger paintings executed and stuck to the wall; the actors finding reels of beige masking tape and sticking it to the set walls and pulling it across the space to make a spider web of tape in which the actors hid ,whilst on hand held microphones, they delivered the final words of the text. By this time I simply looked at the floor in abject surrender hoping that my release from this No Exit of Hell would happen soon. The text and the production technique had truly alienated me. The text seemed banal and the techniques derivative, arbitrary tricks. They never seemed to be part of a need to communicate to an audience. There was no organic need for anything .I kept thinking I would rather sit through another journey of say Richard Foreman, Charles Mee or Mac Wellman than Marius von Mayenburg. Even,to stay in Germany, Rolan Schimmelphening.

As I climbed the steps out of The Studio Space at The Sydney Opera House fleeing an Artist Conversation with the Company, I suddenly recalled that it was here that I had witnessed Kantor’s DEAD CLASS many years ago. It, too, had come to Sydney via an Adelaide Festival. But that was an explorative work that had vision, coherence, and an outrage of experimental technique that still cared for the fact that there was an audience that it wanted to share the work with. It was one of my high benchmarks of theatre going. This was a bench mark, but at the other end of the scale.

Now please understand that I think Benedict Andrews is sincere. But for goodness sake give him a grant and put him in a Laboratory with his “creatives” and when his ideas have been given time to incubate then give him to us to experience. Rex Cramphorn was bestowed the opportunities years ago so there is a precedent. It will save a lot of angst. My audience could scarcely be polite enough to applaud the actor’s off the stage. I anticipate with quiet dread his War of the Roses with Cate Blanchett and The Sydney Theatre’s Acting company next January.