Friday, May 23, 2008

Death of a Salesman

DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller presented by the ENSEMBLE theatre at the Seymour Centre. This play was first performed in 1949. A year after that premiere on Broadway Miller was asked to write a first anniversary item for the New York Times. Of many observations the last paragraph is worth noting: “So what is there to feel on this anniversary? Hope, for I know now that people want to listen. A little fear that they want to listen so badly. And an old insistence – sometimes difficult to summon, but there nonetheless - that we will find a way beyond fear of each other, beyond bellicosity, a way into our humanity.“ Last night in the Seymour Centre we wanted to hear. And there is a fear (disappointment) that we still need to hear so badly. This is a great play. It is my pick for the Best Play of the 20th Century. (Not counting THREE SISTERS.) The capacity it has to stimulate the mind and move one’s soul is overwhelming.

Miller was a tremendous admirer of Ibsen and his use of theatre as a tool for social change (agenda) and of the power of the debate and catharsis in the Greek Dramas.

And so, this play is about Willy Loman (LOWMAN) not King Oedipus, it is about Everyman and the choices he must make to get on, to survive. It is about the father and the son. It is about the struggle between two viewpoints: Willy (The father) and his embrace of the American Dream of having “to excel to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count… I am not a dime a dozen!” And of Biff (the son) and his dawning discovery that he must be true to himself by challenging the preconcept of the Capitalist Dream and that of his father and ask “Why I am trying to become what I don’t want to be?” to suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off… in Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas.” and to the final tragic confronting cry of son to father “Pop, I’m a dime a dozen and so are you……Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop… and neither are you.”

This 58 year old play stung members of last night’s audience to tears. Its’ truths, its’ power is as significant today as it ever was. The Design both Costume and Set by Judith Hoddinott, meets the needs of the complex expressionistic / naturalistic shifts in the text. The lighting is not as detailed as could be in assisting the shifts of times, and the Sound not as useful as it should be. The director’s care with these elements and the guiding of the actor’s lacks the meticulous demands of the writing. The direction is sterlingly adequate. At best solid. Whether it is the lack of time (the rehearsal time very short) or just a lack of rigorous attention from the Director, Sandra Bates, and her assistant, Jennifer Don, only the company can know best. Sandra Bates obvious skill, which is no small gift, is choosing the play and then casting it well. But that is the role of a Producer rather than a Director.

Sean Taylor as Willy Loman is impressive with a vocal timbre of some substance, and a physicality of exhaustion that gives weight and proper gravitas to the character. The performance is well conceived but maybe just a little too contrived. There are moments when the actor as technician seems to be going through some “Acted” gear changes. It does not always appear to be organically spontaneous. One can see the craft. The brio of possession of the actor by the character is absent and robs it of its potential shattering life force. The performance is too careful and lacks real danger in execution. It is nevertheless ultimately powerful. Jacki Weaver is, (relatively,) playing a subservient role as the wife Linda but brings all the work to a more than satisfactory conclusion with her final graveside lament. The sobbing sound drifts from that of an old and beaten woman to that of the sobs of a young optimistic bride. The sound of the sobbing, devastating because of the show of what was once optimism for the future with the “handsomest man in the world”. Anthony Gooley as Biff is powerful in the last great tragic act but he needed to be physically simplified. An abundance of physical tics and twitches sometimes interferes with our participation in the emotional depths of the character. The secondary activities are expressions of what we with less to read would be able to endow the character. The directors could have solved these things. The best work comes from Tom O’Sullivan who tactfully and cleverly shows us the journey that Miller has crafted for Happy. It is a wonderful piece of acting and construction. The character revelations are masterly piece by piece. Moment by moment Bit by bit. O’Sullivan’s sense of timing in the tempo of delivery in his scenes. throughout the play is impeccable and thrilling and lead the other performers to match him. (The restaurant scene in Act 2 for example.) The rest of the company are very committed and clear, notably Adriano Capelletta, Olivia Pigeot and Jonathan Prescott (particularly as Stanley, the waiter).

It is the inherent musical rhythms of Miller that could afford much more detail from the Directors for it is in this area that the production falters. The text is a great prose poem. Deceptively sounding like real speech but it is a big orchestral score. In this case an operatic score. It was the discovery of Richard Wherret’s THE CRUCIBLE at the STC many years ago of the operatic scoring and themes that made, at least the original season, so powerful an experience. The stakes of the reality and the metaphor were powerfully expressed and heroically played. The heroism is there in this Salesman production but the music is slack particularly in the first act, and so the possibility of greatness is lost. (So aware was the director Kazan to the importance of music, that on the afternoon of the first performance, he took Lee J Cobb, his Salesman, across the road to see part of a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony by the Philadelphia Orchestra, to prime him for his night of theatre.)

It is an object lesson to read Arthur Miller’s recollection of the preparation of the original production in his autobiography TIMEBENDS to appreciate the intricate and meticulous detail that is needed to create the highest achievement. Kazan and Mielziner and Eddie Kook toiling tirelessly and demandingly in all areas of the production with their actors and crew.
However, The Play Is The Thing, and DEATH OF A SALESMAN is more than worth the time spent with it at the Seymour Centre. It has been such a disappointing year of performance so far. (Honorable exception, arguably, being Lachlan Philpott.) Every ambitious playwright, screenwriter should be made to firstly read this play and then see it translated into life on stage, over and over again. It is an exemplar of great dramatic writing.

Wish: to see a greatly prepared AFTER THE FALL. Are you listening Cate and Andrew?

Friday, May 16, 2008

My Name is Rachel Corrie

MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE, based on the writings of Rachel Corrie by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. It is being performed as part of the B Sharp Co-Op curated season at Belvoir theatre. A Bareboards Production. This is a diary account by Rachel Corrie of her trip to the Middle East as a peace activist in 2003 which ended in her much publicised death whilst attempting to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. Throughout this account there is a naïve discovery of the world which leads her to a tragic end. The performance by Belinda Bromilow is very, very natural and beautifully low key. It is very mesmerising and even when the writing becomes a little unsatisfactory one stays with the piece. Shannon Murphy has guided the actress through the daunting task of a one person piece with useful assistance from the Lighting and Soundscape. The actress seems assured and it comforts us. It is the trick of literature and the performing arts that tells us the story of one human being that helps us to appreciate great political and historical events. It contextualises it for us. It shifts it from abstract knowledge into a visceral knowing. It is odd to say but it had the same contextualisation that a work like THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK had on me as a teenager.


COLDER by Lachlan Philpott presented by PUSSYCATOMOKO at the Griffin theatre. This is another of the curated Co-Ops in the Stablemate season. This is the best new Australian play I have witnessed this year. Developed with the financial assistance of the R.E.ROSS TRUST, Philpott not only breaks with traditional structure and form in his style, he creates a world with a keen eye for authentic detail and depth, has a masterly control of plotting and character revelation with a musician’s ear for rhythm and cadence, the ability to set a theme or subject and to know when to repeat it, develop it, contrast it. The text is like a sextet for six voices. Each one of these voices at different moments are either a chorus or a duet or a solo. Each one of these guises are a character and with a subtly delineated journey and personality whether as Chorus or individual. This text has the same kind of interest as Andrew Bovell’s SPEAKING IN TONGUES. Add to this a beautiful command of language with poetic imagery of some potency. This is a theatre text of some quality. One needs to want to go to the theatre for reasons other than just entertainment. THE SEED; MEN LOVE AND THE MONKEYBOY; RUBEN GUTHERIE are conventional in almost every way along side this work. COLDER is brave and rewarding in ways that these other texts have not even begun to investigate.
This production needs more time in rehearsal to allow the director and actors to be absolutely on top of this script musically. It is here that the actors need to concentrate because the form of the journey is relatively unique for most audiences, so that the audiences need to be coaxed onto the “moving train” and trained to listen before it can move into gear and speed off. (It is like what a company of actors must do when embarking on Act 1 Scene1 of a Shakespeare and most texts of heightened language and new form, the audience have to be “trained” to ATTEND in a way that is different from their usual experience.) The performance I saw was little jangly to start with but the admirable ensemble of the performers gradually found a harmony of rhythm and exchange. A sophisticated Sextet of a Music-Play began to reveal itself. I was deeply moved at the end by the experience and on so many levels of appreciation. Go. (Later in the Season Roland Schimmelpfennig’s ARABIAN NIGHT is to be presented and it will take you on a similar journey.)

Wouldn’t Richard Wherret love to have had this text in his hands? I hope the major Companies around Australia have sent in a spy to give the play the possibility of a bigger exposure. Congratulations to the Writer, Director, Producing Company and the Actors. The Actors are admirable for their pursuit of an unselfish ensemble. It has one more week of performance. If you are a connoisseur of the theatre this is definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Salome - In Cognito Volume 3

THE RABBLE and Carriage Works present SALOME - IN COGNITO VOLUME 3, at Bay 19 Carriage Works.

AIM: To explore a way of performing. To develop a style of theatre that explores the possibilities of the instrument (physical and vocal) and a new form of expression that is different from the expected. (As an art form are our methods dated? Have we developed as openly as say the plastic arts or music?

TOOLS: A swimming pool. A glass museum case. (At least large enough to display a full grown man.) A set of metal gurney tables with kitchen equipment. eg A juicer, a blender, a micro wave oven, a cutting board, kitchen utensils (especially knives), some foods (Strawberries; they weep red juice when cut up or blended, yeh!), olive oil etc.
More to come......

INGREDIENTS: Think A Bible Story.Think Commedia. Think Caravaggio. Think Oscar Wilde (too much Baroque Language ?????) Think Lindsay Kemp (Didn't he do Salome as well?) Think La Fura dels Baus, Think Peter Greenaway. Think Derek Jarman. Think John Waters. Think Robert Wilson. Think Anne Bogart and Viewpoints. Think Annabelle Arden and Theatre de Complicite. Think Castelluci (I don't know him well enough, just a little.).
More as it comes........

Step 1. Put in juicer.
Step 2. Mix in Blender.
Step 3. Put in Micro wave ‘til you think it is cooked.
Step 4. Find “a structure in repetition and accumulation” (avoid when tempted “a faithful representation of a linear narrative.”) ie “do not hold onto the hope of a narrative cohesion .”
Step 5. Ask Questions, do not give answers, they are less interesting.
Step 6. Pour onto stage.
More to come.......

RESULT: “Images that are shocking, boring, disquieting” etc. I saw a very beautiful awe inspiring space equipped with the above props. I saw a woman (Salome) in a period crinolined wedding dress in white face and bleached white hair wearing a veil dragging a Styrofoam Esky with a rope behind her. I saw a handsome bearded man (Herod) with a shoulder fur wrapped round him. (I think pants.) I saw a bearded man (Herodias) in a blue crushed velvet full length cocktail dress in high heels with a diamante bracelet. (Surprise. No actresses available or is this a statement?) I saw a bearded man (John the Baptist) in an ancient skirt like thing in a glass cabinet. I saw a woman (Judith. Really? Two bible women!! Oh, I see.) dressed non specifically -sometimes a person/sometimes a dog (?). They then moved about the stage engaging, not engaging physically mostly. Dragged the glass case around etc. Sometimes they put their hands down their throats, either their own or someone else's. Sometimes they pulled something out of a throat accompanied by a gagging sound. Sometimes they had frottage with each other, or simulated anal sex. Once, someone lay on their back and jerked about on the floor whilst having a creamy substance piped onto their face and in to their mouth. Also someone cut up someone’s wrists and then washed them clean in the swimming pool. Someone went into the glass case and out of a big bottle threw red paint or tomato sauce all over the front panel. (It was an image of blood!!). Then someone got a chain saw and buzzed it menacingly a few times and then pretended too cut off the head of John the Baptist .The same person dragged the Esky pass us again into the wings and then the others stood in a dishevelled line their costumes were now really dirty etc and Salome came on stage with a real almost new baby (the most gorgeous baby; AH something truly beautiful at last.) They then sang a song in types of harmony, the gist of their text being something like "Sometimes it is sunny and sometimes it is rainy. Sometimes I am happy and sometimes I am sad" etc. (Not exact but approximate.) A lot more happened too. The images were accompanied by a very interesting Soundscape by Max Lyandvert. It sustained me through the piece.

This is an exploration into Performance Art. This was mostly derivative and probably needs more “microwaving” for it to cook into an original form or statement that is exciting and/or palatable. It is still very much for me Performance Kitsch. (Bringing on the baby absolutely tipped it into it for me) On the card inviting us to search out the performance, the blurb suggests that "Salome drips with taboo, sex & sublime." Taboo only if you have been in a Hermit's cave. Sex only if you are a very new voyeur. Sublime, depending on your sensibilities, and I think some of the audience might go for Puerile. On my night there were about 30 of us. Only two left. I had a much better time than I thought I would having been warned. I look forward to Volume 4. On opening night I understand 44 Sydneysiders elected to leave. Is it
Sydney or is it the work? Whichever you decide I believe Sydney needs to be more adventurous so you can say "at least I can say I saw it and this is what I think. How about you?"

Romeo and Juliet

At Wharf 2 The SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY EDUCATION present ROMEO AND JULIET. The text has been edited to play even less than "the two hours traffic" the Chorus tells us about in the original. It has been edited for 8 actors and maybe too slimly to do justice to Shakespeare. He has however weathered centuries of this abuse, so not to blame or worry too much.

On a red dirt floor with a ubiquitous, deteriorating ute and a middle height wooden tower (it was presumably, once a water tower- I'm guessing that design detail,- and not just a convenient acting Balcony for Juliet?!!!!! ) the concept is to place it in Outback Australia. You then people it with a multi race / indigenous cast. The Design concept is cursory and the application in the production reveals itself to be grossly superficial. Tokenistic and not developed with any insightful rigour. Since the Production concept is proscriptive the casting for suitability and skill may become a problem. What should follow? Maybe a rethink? Or is the idea too temptingly politically-cosy?

The best acting comes from Ursula Yovich as the Nurse, intelligent, warm; Lucia Mastrantone as Mercutio, quick (sometimes too quick) witty and physically deft; and Michael Habib as Capulet, strong clear and supportive. The rest of the cast is hopelessly inadequate to the task. The principal acting concentration for the others is speaking the words clearly. Storytelling, character, and character relationships do not enter the stage. There is in this production no Warring Houses, merely mildly choreographed backyard disagreements. (There is a knife). Worse still there are no star crossed lovers. Romeo does not seem to be in love with Juliet (except in some grinning doltish way) and certainly this Juliet when she looks upon her Romeo does not love him, and worse maybe, she doesn't even like him!!! (I wondered if she actually saw him, since no matter what offer the actor offered she proceeded with her responses as if in a bubble.) If there is not that sexual chemistry there is no TRAGEDY. Issac Drandich as Romeo is not able to deal with the complicated technical demands of the writer to be fluent or connective as character. Sophie Ross has some technical armoury but there is no inner warmth, or theatrical insight or empathy for Juliet .When she comes to the two great Aria-monologues, (“Gallop apace you fiery-footed steeds..." and later "Farewell. God knows when we shall meet again...") the bench marks for an actor's qualities, she takes them at too fast a pace and as a relatively private rumination. It is a technical task. The emotional given circumstances and the emotional discovery and journey in the speeches are forfeited and the character loses her empathetic opportunities and the audience is left puzzled and divorced from the action. This young actress, who may have potential, needed guidance.

I had to decide whether to be so specific in this probe. WHY? Why I am is, because I can take the Casting Director and the Director to 10 or more coffee shops or bars and introduce them to a number of actors, who will give them a menu (!!!!!), who would have given their lives for the chance to investigate these characters. Was the Production Concept too restrictive in casting choices? Should it have been altered? (It is subsequently so shallowly explored, anyway?) When does the Artistic Aesthetic of the Company come into Action? I would be upset if this were just an ordinary production for a general public BUT since this is a production of the EDUCATION WING of the STC and that it was aimed at schools and young audiences, to give them a performance that did not give the play or the actors a better chance to succeed is an outrage. A scandal perhaps.

At the 20/20 discussions I attended for the Government Plans for the Arts, EDUCATION was the first priority. If this were a High School production with High School actors I would be justly proud of the choices. But this is THE SYDNEY THEATE COMPANY. The Company's investment to developing future audiences lies here. Where is the long term vision in these choices or is it just the short term political comfort of this concept that needs to be nurtured? I believe that here is where the Company's resources need to be most vigilant. It should not be some sop to government policy but the very raison d'etre for the Organisation.

Will these audiences want to see live performance ever again? Do they think Shakespeare is boring or irrelevant to their lives still? (Will they pass their exams?) I think after watching this production I know the answers, therefore let me help: If you want emotional content see ZEFFIRELLI's film. If you want political and contemporary context see LUHRMANN's film. If you want some textual feel for language see CUKOR's film (maybe). But beware the Educational context of THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY'S EDUCATION production of Romeo and Juliet. Discuss.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Packer

At The Old Fitzroy Theatre in a local pub, a Coop production of a one man show called THE PACKER written by Dianna Fuemana. This work has a long performance history and the actor JAY RYAN has been associated with it since its workshopping in New Zealand in 2003. He has performed it in New Zealand, The Edinburgh Festival and recently in Melbourne. This is clear in the performing. Jay Ryan impersonates 8 different characters over the course of the work (approximately 60 minutes with a 20 minute interval). There is a deft physical skill and embedded ownership in the impersonations-each character having strong "iconic" gestures to help us identify them as he switches from one to the other. He plays both sexes and all ages and some ethnic diversities. The vocal work is characterised well (although there seemed to be some strain). This is a Bravura performance of honed skills. The joy is in watching this young actor enjoying performing. It is contagious.

However the writing is not very insightful. All the characters are superficial observations and in clichéd activities. The Director of this production (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) has attempted to give the characters something more than skin deep projections but the writing does not allow for much opportunity. So, in directed silent moments or in extra long transfers from one character to another the director tries to give the audience and actor more time to endow the life forces with something more than a stand up comedy dimension. When one compares the other one person piece on in Sydney at the moment: Robyn Nevin's work in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, the depth of JOAN Didion's text and the characterisation of the actress leaves a much more satisfying experience.

Back From Front

First up in May is Dean Walsh's BACK FROM FRONT at the Performance Space at Carriageworks. BACK FROM FRONT began as a short solo work called EX-SERVICED in 2002. It was according to Mr Walsh "a personal response to my grandfather's disclosure of some very disturbing circumstances he experienced " in the Second World War. This work has now grown to cover a much larger canvass of interest. "a poetic reflection on the cycles of violence from a global perspective to domestic and individual unrest". Other reflections are "on the loss of innocence" and "about deep hope-hope in individuals realising the need to change and embrace their humanity ". Dean Walsh goes on to say “he has chosen to make this work via physical language and visual media" This work has been developing over the past 4 years. The first night performance was cancelled because of some computer difficulties and on the following night one could appreciate the problems that may have caused the delay. The Media Artist ROLANDO RAMOS has made a considerable contribution and with the Composer/ Sound Designer ROSALIND PAGE; the Lighting and Software Design by SIMON WISE had a Herculean task. My experience of the performance was that Dean Walsh had taken on more than he can do at this time. Not only were the technical demands enormous the combined Direction/Choreographer responsibility were great as well. The direction was languid it lacked propulsion and a clear path of communication. The choreography appeared to be under rehearsed and approximate. (The exception was Marnie Palomares.) Although the seminal idea for the concept has merit and some nobility the Dramaturgical work, NIKKI HEYWOOD, seems to be perfunctory. The work has nothing new to say and it has been said before and in much more satisfactory ways. The statements were hackneyed. Once again this work fails at the beginning of the process. The Concept/Text has not been structured rigorously enough and nurtured searchingly throughout the process. If this were workshop then the remedial work can be begun. It is exciting to see artists exploring across creative and technical intergradations to express their concerns. One thought immediately of Garry Stewart, Nigel Jamieson (in HONOUR BOUND), and in my most recent experience of this, Lloyd Newsome's Company DV8 at the Adelaide Festival and his work TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU. I thought it would be great to have an artist like Mr Dean with this kind of vision to be mentored to one or all of these companies. While studying the program subsequently I found that this had in some kind of fashion occurred. Certainly this work can only become better with focused continued development as is, but I do feel the dramaturgical approach is the basic flaw no matter how much time passes for the work to tighten up.