Monday, June 30, 2008

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

The Studio at Sydney Opera House presents 1927 in BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA proudly supported by the British Council.

1927 is a group of four artists from the UK who have concocted a pleasant little Cabaret event . It was a prize winner at the Edinburgh Fringe 2007.

A simple projection screen. Projected are some very beautiful, nostalgia-like animations and live action film (Paul Barritt) which two of the performers Esme Appleton and Suzanne Andrade perform in front of and interact with, whilst the fourth of their troupe, Lillian Henley, accompanies on piano. The tunes are original but are faintly delightfully familiar. They present maybe ten or so tiny sketches each with a title such as THE LODGER, THE GRANDMOTHER. (My two favourite stories.) The content is lightweight and frivolous. They have the air of children’s bedtime stories but these are told by little girls who once may have been Belles at Saint Trinian’s School. There is always a slightly sinister edge. An amusing sinister edge, thankfully. If you remember ROCKY and BULLWINKLE and The Fractured Fairy Tales you will have some sense of the wicked but twisted, innocent humour. It is a very lightweight hour (or less) but it could serve as a balm for tender minds in this cruel world.

It is now playing in Melbourne at the
Malthouse Theatre until July 13.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


HAMLET presented by Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre.

There will be quite a disquisition to follow, so stirred am I. But for those with a short concentration span or otherwise let me be brief. (“Brevity is the soul of wit”.) This production of HAMLET is a failure. A failure on almost on all counts. *(Well, not quite all.)

To quote a program note HAMLET “is arguably the greatest tragedy in the English language”, ”a masterpiece”. It maybe the pinnacle of English playwriting. It may be the greatest “poem” written in English. It presents for all the artists who collaborate on it, perhaps, the artistic equivalent of the feat of scaling Mount Everest. One needs to be prepared. One needs to be primed. One needs to be fit in every capacity as an artist. The Ballet World have SWAN LAKE to take the measure of all its artists. The Opera World may have Verdi’s DON CARLOS or Wagner’s DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN. The Symphonic Orchestra Beethoven’s NINTH SYMPHONY. A Company’s standing is measured by its achievement in the venture. So for the theatre stands HAMLET.

I felt that one artist in this Bell production met the requirements. Nick Schlieper. The lighting Design is peerless in its deployment and look. An artist of great skill and experience brings inspiration to the task of elucidating the play.

Secondarily, the Set Design (Fiona Crombie). On entering the theatre the set is visible and it prepared me to anticipate a great event. A huge open space surrounded by vast, tall grey walls. On one side a great outdoor crypt that is despoiled by leaking water that collected in a long rectangular trough. Another wall where the arches have been boarded up with long red-brown horizontal boards. The gaps between the horizontals allowing us to see narrowly through to the space behind, as if repairs or alterations had been begun then forgotten, neglected. A detailed tiled floor, once beautiful now worn. Decay and neglect. A long black metalled spiral staircase curls down from the height of the building, off centre in the space. Is this world off centre, and spiraling out of kilter? “There is something rotten in the State of Denmark” and it is elegantly made visible. The Furniture in the space is deliberately incongruous: an off cream armoire (later positioned to be used as the killing cupboard for the hidden Polonius): a glass case holding the sword armoury of the house, paltry in scale (it too is brought into the action). Chairs and tables are carried on and off. The Set is magnificent in creating atmosphere and atmospherics. However the Costume design (again Fiona Crombie) is relatively sparse and simplistic in its decisions. It seems one costume per character is the rule. It is pathetically strange to have Gertrude whether at a wedding celebration, in bed or at a funeral to be permanently in the same piece of clothing. Beautiful as it may be, it just has too many demands being made of it. Clearly this Elsinore is not only decaying it is broke. The Queen has no wardrobe. I can see no artistic reason for this choice. I guess there may have been a budgetary reason. So, maybe the Set Budget could have had trimming to assist the costume department? The other costumes are quasi contemporary and are suitable, just unimaginative and the decisions seem to be based on mostly pragmatic reasons rather than detailed consideration. A flaw, in respect to this work??

Next the Company has invited Sarah Blasko, an Aria winner (2006) for Best Pop Release, to write the score for this production. It is wonderfully ethereal and effective. The text of the songs are, however, just blurred vowel sounds with no consonant usage to help us hear words (if that is what was happening). Not once did the sung score elucidate its presence even with the assistance of a microphone. Style over substance. To have Sarah Blasko live on stage undoubtedly may have some “street cred“ for a young audience and may actually help the sale of some seats but it is hardly a useful tool for the play. Marketing over-riding artistic clarity??? A strange choice. It fails the project.

There is not one actor in this production that I think meets the challenge of this work either in readiness or execution. An exception may be young Laura Brent, a fledgling in the profession (playing her second professional engagement). There is integrity in her work and her short aria ”O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” is engagingly done. Her mad sequences later in the play enthrallingly and inventively played. (The musicality and clarity of her singing more interesting for an audience than Sarah Blasko’s.) (Placing her at the back of that deep setting was no help on the part of the Director. I was sitting close, whether the audience at the back could hear it at all is not guaranteed.

Most of the Company are trained actors from well established schools. Some recently, some eons ago. But the vocal preparation for this task is not very evident. Now, in the Australian context, an actor is lucky to work on stage once a year and even more remotely to work consistently on texts of such demand. However, I believe it is partly the responsibility of the actor to keep that instrument in a prepared state. After all, these actors have been chosen by the Company because the Director believed that they had the skills of actors. That they could manage the requirements of the task. There is not a single voice of any musical flexibility (bar one) present on this stage. The responsibility of the contemporary actor who decides to work within this area of the theatre is to tell the story well, create memorable characters from the source material and, heavy though it be, to pass on the heritage of the English language to the next generation. The poetic structure and beauty of the musical construction of the sounds of English in the hands of a master poet: Shakespeare. It is the actor’s task. It is the Contemporary Actor’s responsibility.

The audience should have been breathless with the ordered revelation of the events in the play (no matter how many times they may have seen it) and exhilarated to see such people alive and expressive on stage struggling with their fates (with our fates for this play “was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature”) and finally to be enthralled by the richness and beauty of our own tongue/language. This barely happens in this production and only possibly because we had been primed in the study in the classroom or in our homes in anticipation of the witnessing of the Bell Production. Pity any who entered the experience without prior knowledge.

Presumably the Director, Marion Potts, has the actors she thought were best for the purpose. There is a voice coach (Carman Lysiak) credited but what was the Voice preparation? Let alone the speech work? Is the Coach full time? Is there time set aside for such work in the rehearsal? Once again our Companies seem to be niggardly in vital areas of their responsibilities (see my review of the STC’S: THE GREAT). For these instruments are not up to the skill demands required to do this job well. Here Marion Potts and the producing Company Bell Shakespeare need to take some care. It is as if Swan Lake were been performed by unprepared dancers.

Claudius (Colin Moody) appears as a bloated murderer/usurper with an unfitness magnified by a voice usage that is pinched and squeezed into a high baritone/low tenor register with little expressive range. The intelligence of the reading is hampered by the relative lack of vocal colour. Some times it seems to run out of breath support. Gertrude (Heather Mitchell) lacks vocal clarity and in her only aria/speech, “There is a willow grows askant the brook.” is barely audible. The Ghost (Russell Kiefel) uses a robotic Dalek (Dr Who) quality that seems strained in communication. Polonius (Barry Otto) sings his text within a fairly mannered repertoire of range. Chris Ryan, Joe Manning, Tim Richards, Matthew Whittet, Darren Weller and Paul Reichstein are similarly, generally careless about the rigour of skill necessary to do justice to this play. There is intelligent clarity of most of the speeches but it is often achieved by reducing the verse to prose abandoning the verse structure altogether. It appears that this is a skill too demanding to be attempted. Robbing Shakespeare of one of his great distinguishing gifts as a playwright. It is a bit like singing a Verdi score with fewer length of notes and to your own tune because of a lack of ability. The demands of the play reduced to the habits and restraints of the “creatives”.

Now we must come to Brendan Cowell’s performance of Hamlet. At the performance I attended Hamlet made an appearance that was startling for its physical energy. Any misgivings that I may have brought to the performance were unexpectedly swept away. I was in a palpable state of aesthetic arrest.This physically loose, unbridled mess of a boy with a shambolic look, it seemed already considerably deranged, charismatically took charge of the stage. Petulantly, whilst sitting on the stairs he demanded attention by deshoeing and throwing them to the ground. Naughty. Here was a naughty boy. Where was Mr Cowell and Ms Potts going to take us? Not far I’m afraid. The rest of the performance stayed in much the same physical place ignoring Hamlet’s own advice to the Players “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand…” and further on “And let those that play your clowns speak (and in this case DO) no more than is set down for them--for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, THOUGH IN THE MEANTIME SOME NECESSARY QUESTION OF THE PLAY BE THEN TO BE CONSIDERED. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.” The deshoeing and dropping of the boot is just a naughty physical distraction and not an audacious character expression because it comes from a need to pull focus, to stress the action that vocally he is not able to deliver. There is some real visible effort from this actor as he strives for articular accuracy but his vocal quality is injured even from the first. Vocal registers, strings are missing in this actor’s equipment. Seemingly to compensate he uses volume. This use of energy was quite beguiling for a while but by the second act it was wearing thin and by interval it was as if you have been struck over and over again with the relentless violence of volume. A volume of noiseful effort. Now, there is sense in the line delivery for the most part but once again at the expense of the verse structure. Here is “a ROARING BOY” reducing the role to himself, hardly the Renaissance Prince that is written on the page and that we wait for great actors to expand into. Tragically the second half of the play on the night I saw it was marred by an actor under great vocal duress and it was impossible not to empathise for the actor and fear for what permanent damage he may be doing and anything that Hamlet may be doing or the play telling us is lost. The Gertrude Closet scene is a rabble of half vocalised noise. Heather Mitchell has nothing to build from; the return from England; the Yorick speeches; the Ophelia grief lost. It is quite a considerable relief when finally Hamlet utters “The rest is silence. “

The director Marion Potts in a recent magazine article tells us why she cast Brendan Cowell: “There’s a sense of danger about him; he is very smart; I think it is a combination of being quite brave as an actor, but also quite sensitive. It means he’s not at all afraid of locking horns with some of the deeper emotions that Hamlet has to grapple with.” Now I would say based on the performance I attended that all this is true. But the next question Ms Potts should have asked is “Does he have the technical capacity to express all of those things night after night for a very long season in Sydney and Melbourne?” Based on my observation I would have to say “No, he does not. Why then did the Director and the Bell Shakespeare Company then take this risk? Is it based on the commercial cred that the Celebrity /Arts journalists have given Brendan Cowell“ BRENDAN COWELL ON BOOZE, BAD BEHAVIOUR AND LIFE IN THE SPOTLIGHT” ?? Here is an actor of some credibility but also a marketable, attractive package. In all the publicity material, and there has been three long and extensive articles in the last month just in the Sydney Morning Herald (even spin doctoring that ‘BRENDAN COWELL is a MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”.) the Bell Company has certainly got, as they say in the business, Bang for their Buck. But in all three articles in the Herald the journalists have all stressed that Mr Cowell has had no training and had never even played in Shakespeare before. Just why did the Bell Company feel that this was a good choice for the leading Shakespeare Company to take such a great risk? His first Shakespeare is HAMLET for the Bell Shakespeare Company!!!!! To risk it’s innate artistic mission in giving Australia the best Hamlet of our generation. The risk was taken but many people were surprised and hoped for the best. Marion Potts is finally responsible for this casting that the ability to cast well is the great gift of the good director.

Why did Brendan Cowell take such a risk? Certainly it would be a great temptation to be offered HAMLET at the Bell Company. Bur Mr Cowell has intelligence and a sense of possibilities. His sensitivity has raged against what he has thought was mediocre in the theatre industry. Hamlet is like running the Marathon at the Olympics. Did he really think that the physical and vocal training of 5 months would be enough? Brendan Cowell in one article was associated with the Hamlets of Gielgud, Olivier and Burton!!! Now this was not Mr Cowells’ doing but expectations are made to be high when ranked with such actors. And comparisons can be odious. Bravo for trying but some better consideration should have been made. Yes, I agree with Mr Cowell in the Herald (May 24-25), you can act. But within your range. LOVE MY WAY. NOISE.

What other contribution has Marion Potts made to this production? There is a palpable presence of expectancy about the atmospheres of her work with the Designers. But I simply do not know what Ms Potts and her Hamlet were trying to do with interpretation of the text. We have all seen many, many Hamlets and we go again to see what the steering artists have to say for our times. In this case there is no clarity of purpose. We have not been lucky with our Hamlets in Sydney. Now with our Hedda Gabler’s we have had much to debate. At least Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis and Cate Blanchett. Each a Hedda to be reckoned with. Now those were artistic adventures. An event of import and much discussion with Actors that were up to the challenge. In fact don’t you think that if you want Bang for Buck commercially that the casting of Ms Davis or Ms Blanchett as Hamlet might be worth a risk?

In the interval I was talking to seasoned front of House Staff at the Drama Theatre. Their well seasoned advice was for the Bell Company to keep this production but recast Leon Ford. He was a great Hamlet in a not so good production for Bell, so they said. Maybe he is the understudy the company may need.

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Now playing until July 12
Bookings through
Sydney Opera House: (61 2) 9250 7777

Melbourne season at The Playhouse, The Arts Centre
Jul 16-Aug 2, 2008
Bookings through
Ticketmaster: 136100

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Pillowman

Company B presents THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh at the Belvoir Theatre.

“The Pillowman” won the Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Play after it was presented in London in 2003. It also was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005 in New York. On this outing I don’t think it will be similarly nominated in any such category in the Sydney Theatre Awards. The play is the same but clearly the production is not. This is the painful risk the playwright must take in the collaborative minefield of the Theatre.

This play is set in a Totalitarian State somewhere, sometime. When it was done in 2003 and in 2005 in London and New York with the recent shock of the World Trade Centre attack and the subsequent reaction of the Democracies of the World, waging a War on Terror through legal and “hidden “ means, this play had an urgency and relevancy. In Sydney in June of 2008 those facts and the added exposure of the Australian Shame for its care (abuse) of its children, whether it be in Indigenous Australia or in the suburbs of Brisbane, Adelaide or in the suburbs of our National Capital, Canberra, (The Sydney Morning Herald June 26, 2008 page 2.) this play should still pack a wallop. It doesn’t. In fact I found I was bemused and confused by this production. I had read the play and thought like the director it was terrific, exciting. And I mean TERRIFIC in the Elizabethan Sense: The hackles on the back of one’s neck stood up.

Based on the program notes the Director Craig Ilott, had had “no play“ that “had ever gripped or excited“ him in the way this one did when he read it. The opportunity to do this play, evidently, became a passion. Unfortunately the passion has become impassioned and the director has mistaken emotional confrontation and extremities as the right choices for what is happening in this text. The actors playing Katurian (Damon Herriman) and Michal (Steve Rodgers) in the long pivotal scene in the end of the first act have been directed to explosive emotional heat and reduce the action of the scene to sibling melodrama. But in reality, in a close reading of the text, in the language and the syntax, one can see a much more sophisticated intention. The text is a Comedy of the Grotesque. The images, juxtaposition of images and the surprise twists and turns of the differing realities, as new information is released in the sentence to sentence, sometimes phrase to phrase structure, give us a play that is at once horrific and shockingly funny. A kind of guilty comic relish of the attractive gleam of evil. It is much like the pleasure one had in the Anthony Hopkins original performance of Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. No such accuracy of reading happens here. It is sentimental instead of cool and cruel. Confusingly emotional instead of forensically analytic. Bleeding heart instead of cool head. At the interval my theatre going partner and I were disappointed and confused.

The second half of the play is mostly a long interrogation by the two policeman Tupolski (Marton Csokas) and Ariel (Dan Wyllie) of the protagonist of the piece Katurian. Interestingly, the play came to life with a sense of the comedy of the grotesque. Marton Csokas instinctively and technically brilliantly uses his text to reveal character, story and the manipulation of language. He gives great pleasure and some sense of why this play has been lauded and the other works of McDonagh highly revered. And certainly the clues for the Director on what the writer is about are all in the previous plays and in Mr Csokas’s performance. This actor knows and reveres his writer, his director seems to be confused. (By the way, Marton Csokas, in my estimation, was the only jewel in the recent production of WHO’S AFARID OF VIRGINNIA WOOLF?, His integrity in honouring Albee’s text was the only thing that prevented the “Vandals” in completely obfuscating Albee’s great play.) Dan Wylie is supportive but has tacked on a physical characterisation that seems to be ultimately superfluous to his genuinely good instincts with the text. The “Story Telling Actors” Amanda Bishop, David Terry and Lauren Elton acquit themselves efficiently, as the writer asks, no more and no less than instructed.

The Set Design by Nicholas Dare is terrific, the Lighting (Niklas Pajanti) is what was necessary. The Sound (Jethro Woodward) just a little too obvious in its ominous use of drone. A mixed bag of experience.

This production may represent the reason Martin McDonagh has said that the theatre is over for him and why he is finding great pleasure in Writing and Directing for Film. If, IN BRUGES, recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival, is any reflection of his feelings then our cinematic pleasures have increased in promise and the theatre going public deprived of the possibility of the real experience of a challenging mind: LIVE!!!!!!

Playing now until July 13. Bookings through Belvoir Street Ticketing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Poster Girl

POSTER GIRL by Van Badham at the Old Fitzroy presented by THE GEMEINSCHAFT DOGS (THE G-Dogs Theatre Co) and TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS.

Remember Patty Hearst and her kidnapping. Now remember Paris Hilton. Now think Poster Girl: Mindy Xyloine and have her kidnapped by some hippie group to promote their demands for free organic vegetables mix in media news and a police force corrupted by drugs and sex, highlight the celebrity creative team around our kidnapped Girl and you have the ingredients for this satiric cartoon of aspects of our contemporary society. It is a very amusing context and the writer has an edge with one line quips that elicit some good laughs.

This play was originally workshopped at the AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PLAYWRIGHTS’ CONFERENCE (ANPC) in 2006. The problem with zeitgeist satire is that it can feel dated very quickly. Two years later this play is funny but it has lost its edge and feels a bit like last month’s Tabloid. The production values are those of a "shoe string budget" and don’t add up much to clear support. The Direction (James Beach) is safe and really needs more pace and a lighter touch. The video sequences are nicely done but cause the on going tempo of the play to falter, the music scoring is “hip” but unfairly sets the pace of the show which the acting doesn’t match. The actors do a fair job, some more technically skilled than others for this kind of comedy. Enjoyed the contribution of Fayssal Bazzi, Shannon Dooley and Andrew Lees especially.

This is the kind of play when it is in its right time zone that we need to see more of: Bright, breezy and satiric with a wicked and forensic eye. It reminded me of the television program on Channel 7, The MAVIS BRAMSTON SHOW in the 1960’s that always began with an up to date satire of the week’s, even day’s, events social and political. What does Badham have to say about NOW? I hope we find out really soon. This is a CO-OP production.

Old Fitzroy Theatre - Cnr Cathedral & Dowling Sts Woolloomooloo
Playing now until July 12
Tickets: $20/$28 or $34 for a beer, a laksa and the show
Bookings through Moshtix

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Great

THE GREAT by Tony McNamara at The Wharf Theatre for The Sydney Theatre Company.

This is the seventh play of Tony McNamara that the Sydney Theatre Company has produced. It is a committed relationship.

“So why a play about Catherine the Great? Injustice would be the main reason. Catherine the Great was in fact, really great, and yet she is remembered as ‘that Russian Queen who did it with a horse.’” Mr McNamara in his program notes tells us that was not true. He goes on to assure us that he is a writer and he “likes to make things up” and he wanted a story “that embodies the spirit of the person rather than the literal truth of her reign”. I really enjoyed this play. I didn’t much like the direction but I think it is a good play.

Firstly the play: It IS very witty. The text is dense with cleverness and verbal surprises. Plot wise it is a little slow internally in terms of forward action, sometimes lollygagging about with cleverness instead of getting on with it and at two hours fifty minutes (with interval) probably could stand some cutting or re-writes.

A Clearer sense of character and scene objectives with some suspense, which could be achieved with some delicate pruning, could keep the audience breathless with attention instead of resting until the scene ends, (we had often got to the end of the scene long before the writer.)

One of the characters somewhere in the second Act talks about the difference between “salacious” and “substance” and I reckon that there is too much salacious usage of vulgar slang. Ten or twenty less “fucks”, “cocks”, ”sucks”, “cunt” even “ arsehole”, substituted with a more substantial vocabulary wouldn’t reduce the trendy modernity of the language which Mr McNamara seems to be striving for in his effort to write a “contemporary comedy” in an historical period. For the most part it fails to work as shock tactics and comes off as rather silly puerile juvenile jinks and doesn’t sit at all well alongside the great body of the rest of a mightily sophisticated use of language.

This play besides been witty and clever also has some serious (if not necessarily new) observation about the wielding of Power by Great People for the betterment of mankind and the personal sacrifices that Great Ones make to maintain their vision unswervingly. In Catherine’s case, in this play, the sacrifice of her own true love, Hermes. (Hello, Queen Elizabeth 1) Why, then, does this play feel like a soufflĂ© rather than a more substantial human drama?

I would lay the blame at the Director’s feet. Mr Peter Evans has failed to chart the growing human dilemma of the young Catherine in Act one, in her pursuit to create a great Russia which results in the necessary sacrifice of Hermes, and so when the character of Val turns up in the second act and haunts the older Catherine with the loss and guilt, it has no real impact. The comedy has been the focus of the Direction and the spine of the play relatively neglected. Like Christopher Hampton’s LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES, I believe THE GREAT has both serious comedy and real dramatic intent and opportunity.

But even with the comedy, the care of the Director in focusing the actors into being more technically adept in the delivery of this very heightened text is noticeably absent. There is a real Stoppardian need for “clarity of utterance” with this writing and it has not been given enough attention to succeed. The actors need to live in the particulars of the thought processes of the lines of the text and often those processes are swamped with generalized emotional indulgences that blur the clever and athletic acrobatics of Mr McNamara and the audience is robbed of the full potential of the comic dexterity of the writing. The playing of the actors becomes flabby with unnecessary emotional content at the expense of the rigour of the cool technique of thoughts with sharply thought charged particulars.

The actors of course must bear some of the responsibility for this as well. The line between good and great is not too far distant from each other but to achieve it, it requires much hard work in both preparation and performance. I will not dwell too much on what I personally feel about these actor’s vowel sounds that flatten the muscularity of most of the verbal energy in the writer’s exciting use of language, but unless the words, too, have accurate consonant finish they lack even more finesse and impact.

Robin McLeavy as the Younger Catherine gives a wonderfully intelligent and felt journey but lacks sharpness of thought choice and clear storytelling decisions. Emotional states are at the forefront of the work. It meanders through the Russian Court like a bewildered Alice in Wonderland rather than a highly intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious leader of a Nation. Her Natalie in the second act is just a badly behaved young Miss. Toby Schmitz as both Peter in the first act and Didi in the second was having a very off afternoon at the matinee I attended. Neither the verbal or character work showed much depth. It certainly misfired in the comedy department and seemed to be very superficially motivated. Ben Geurens playing Hermes in the first act seems to be more comfortable there than he is as Val in the second act. He seems to be unhappily cast and relatively uneasy in action. Alan Dukes is inventive but over strives in the physical comedy. Nicholas Bell seems to lack real charisma to pull off the older Orlov. While, Mandy McElhinney has the adept hand for the dry witted double she plays, Marial and Angeline, Matthew Moore struggles with the vocal execution of his work. The sound is too broadly Australian to be useful. He is best in the emotional conflict scenes. Liz Alexander as the Older Catherine begins well with commanding presence, and initially, a “clarity of utterance” vocally. But the acting choices tend to become histrionically melodramatic. Poses are struck and emotional vocal theatrics are used for affect. There does not seem to be any sense of the history of the characters past life - a life force that is evolving as the events unravel. Rather each scene is played for itself. It is self affecting and affected, not truly experienced, undermining the opportunities that the writer has given her and ultimately leaving the audience unmoved. Truth is substituted with hollow theatrics. It is, oddly, old fashioned acting.

Where was the Director’s attention? As it was a new play, was it on the dramaturgy and not on the production? (I note that no Dramaturge is listed in the credits, surely a prerequisite for a new work.) Certainly his actors could have used that third eye more rigorously to help guide them.

The Design, Setting and Costumes and Lighting (Fiona Crombie, Tess Schofield and Damien Cooper) have initial impact but along with the Alan John score they get repetitive and boring as we whirl around on the revolve for another scene change.
(It is also tedious and irksome to have a scene ending with a commanding figure who we believe to be THE CZAR of RUSSIA having to then pick up his royal chair as if he were a Serf (or stage hand!) (What, we have no funds for a backstage crew at The STC?)

Coincidently, the most thrilling theatrical experiences I have had in the past few years were both Russian. At recent Sydney Festival events I saw one year a TWELFTH NIGHT, and on another UNCLE VANYA. Listed in the TWELFTH NIGHT program were several Voice Coaches and three Movement Coaches. The VANYA company had a similar support. This Sydney Theatre Company Production has no Voice Coach credited and only a Dance and Fight coach. Is it here that the work of very talented people come unstuck? That there is not enough resources to provide necessary support? Both a Voice Coach and a Movement / Body Coach could have been felicitous.

I believe that this is essentially a well written play and deserves attention.

However, I feel that on the benchmarks of my long theatre going experiences, that this Production is only a respectable Provincial Company’s achievement. See for yourself.

Wharf 1 now playing, until 13 July
Approximate Running Time: 3 hours, including interval
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 or
online through STC

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Altar Boyz

ALTAR BOYZ: Book by Kevin Del Aguila. Music and Lyrics by Gary Adler and Patrick Walker. Conceived by Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport. At the Seymour Centre.

There will be a preamble. Forgive me. In the tradition of
Alison Croggon, the Melbourne Art Blogger (see her notes on The Serpent’s Teeth) I thought I should declare my self interests when talking about ALTAR BOYZ.

In my last
blog concerning STONING MARY I complained of the series of doom and gloom works I had experienced this year and protested that I longed for another contrasting vision. On approaching ALTAR BOYZ I wondered whether I would regret what I had wished for.

It is well established, and I am often quoted as saying, that “I HATE MUSICALS”. “I THINK THEY ARE A DEAD FORM AND ARE MANIPULATIVE SENTIMENTALITIES. PUERILE.” Now I will confess they are really my Guilty Pleasure. (I still am sometimes found at amateur theatre productions of musicals especially if they are Sondheim. (FOLLIES when are you coming??????) It all dates back to my first professional theatre experience as a 16 year old when I sneaked off from my formal studies to the old Theatre Royal with my Teacher’s College Scholarship Funds to see a matinee of OLIVER with Andrew Sharp as the Dodger, Tony Sheldon as Oliver and his mum Toni Lamond as Nancy. So swept out of my world was I, that I went back that night to see it again. My affliction goes quite some way back!!!
I am...
A : An ex-Catholic (Or an RC ,that is a retired Catholic.)
B : An ex-Altar Boy.
C : Although I am not an ex Boy Band member I am an ex-choir singer from the North Ryde Parish Church.

Firstly I should like to congratulate the new kid on the block in Australian theatre production world OVATIONS LIVE (Steve Loe and Colin Grayson) (We need more of you on the scene) for their timing and perspicacious eye in finding a project that may serve as an antidote to the behemoth Production House of the Catholic Church Australia, the Vatican State, the NSW State and the City of Sydney Council (How many are Catholics or RC’s in those decision making networks) courtesy of the ordinary tax payers. I have been sliding into a quite deep pit of despair as I saw reminders of WORLD YOUTH DAY (or rather WORLD CATHOLIC YOUTH DAY) on television and even courtesy of the RTA Authorities on the Pacific Highway. “30 Days to go” etc….That Production House trumpets two highlights of the coming July Theatre Season: THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS that will be reminiscent of the great Medieval Mystery Cycles, staged scenes in different locations around the city of Sydney. We will be able to see Betrayals, Mock Trials, Popular Justice (Vote 1 for Barabas or 2 for Jesus), Public Tortures (Flagellation), Public Abuses (Crown of Thorns forced on the head until firm and won’t fall off) culminating in not one but three barbarous Crucifixions on a Winter Day in Sydney in the year 2008, free of charge. To be followed by the witnessing of a Dogma of Faith: the magic, sorry, miracle of the transubstantiation of ordinary wine and bread into the actual blood and body of the Christ which we in an interaction will be able to ingest, performed by the star, sorry, the Pope and many robed acolytes. I believe there may be an entrance fee. Check The World Youth day web site. (I especially look forward to the Design by Michael Scott-Mitchell as he has achieved so much in memorable work for The Olympic Movement and latterly the Dohar Games.) The chosen site for this event is at the Temple of Gambling and Intoxication (Many Aussie-Irish Catholic memories there I can tell you) at the site known as Randwick Racing Club. My secret hope is that someone will organise an SMS Happening for crowds of people dressed as Martin Luther to suddenly appear at different locations with a scroll of demands and a hammer and large nail to protest. Forgive my persiflage but last night Altar Boyz stimulated me into a state of creativity into understanding my reaction to my night in the theatre

ALTAR BOYZ is very simple in its idea. It is the recreation of a Catholic Boy Band made up of Matthew (Cameron MacDonald), Mark (Dion Bilios), Luke (Tim Maddren) and Juan (Jeremy Brennan). Plus Abraham (Andrew Koblar) giving the final performance of their National Raise the Praise Tour. The Book is simple and the Lyrics are satirically amusing. The music generic sounding Boy Band stuff. The performers give a full on 90 minute Olympic stamina and skill display of very intricate and funny choreography, each of the characters with individual iconic body language. The sound within the genre is very “bel canto “but could do with many more consonants (NB Mr Maddren esp, attend Ms White). The Acting is classic Musical Theatre Presentational. I laughed out loud often. On more than several occasions I was actually moved to hoot!!! And I have to confess I was manipulated into a few teary moments of Musical Theatre bliss. The band led by Robert Gavin has a great punch. The Design: Set, pragmatically boring; the costumes terrific (Andy McDonell). Lights theatrically useful (Luiz Pampolha). All of this is brought together by Kate Gaul. Her work is clean and lean. Within the limits of the piece it has great unfussy Artistic Integrity. Tight inevitability. (Eat your heart out Ms Edwards and Mr Armfield and maybe move over. There is a new star in town. Looking at her resume in the program there is an astonishing range of work and high achievement.)

Look this is SILLY, SILLY, SILLY but it is FUN FUN FUN and I exhort you to GO, GO, GO.

In the last years of my schooling at the MARIST BROTHERS we had a text book called THE CHRISTIAN GENTLEMAN which we read in Religion Period every Friday between 1.30pm and 2.10pm. I remember somewhere that we were warned never in polite society to ever talk Politics or Religion. If you loved KEATING then you transgressed that rule. If you have kept Peter Carroll in work and Ron Blair in Petty Cash by attending THE CHRISTIAN BROTHER over the many years past, then I know that you will love ALTAR BOYZ and will transgress again. “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been many years since my last confession.” Another Guilty pleasure.

Wednesday 11th June, 2008 - Saturday 2nd August, 2008.

Tuesday - Friday: 8.00pm
Saturday 2.30pm & 8.00pm
Sunday 2.30pm & 6.00pm

Opens Wednesday 13th August, 2008

Bookings through
Seymour Centre or Ticketmaster.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Which is your favourite independent theatre space?

Last month's poll results are in. Do you agree?

This month's poll is...
"Which play are you most looking forward to seeing?" Vote now!! -->

Pearl (Moderator)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Stoning Mary

Stoning Mary a play by debbie tucker green at the SBW STABLES THEATRE presented by FROG BATTLESHIP supported by Griffin Stablemates.

When we enter the space thirteen actors are standing in a flat straight line across the widest part of the Griffin stage. The walls are black. The floor is black. There are some bricks full and whole, strewn across the stage. Later are revealed a few precast plastic chairs with metal legs. The people on stage are cheaply dressed. The clothes of the “working poor” (Maybe Target or K Mart).The lights dim down in the auditorium and a projected slide appears on two walls. “THE AIDS GENOCIDE. …THE PRESCRIPTION” Later another projection for another scene says “A CHILD SOLDIER” and later still: “STONING MARY” The actors make stage adjustments and some begin talking. A WIFE and a HUSBAND and an ego for each. They seem to be very agitated. Strained with tension and fear both physically and vocally. They reveal that dying has come sooner to their relationship than expected and that they have a prescription for only one of them. Their frustrations with each other erupt out of them. Unpleasant and hostile. They appear to be in a right good Australian barney, frightening and on the edge of violence (It reminded me of the world that the play of THE BOYS belonged to). The Egos assist by giving us descriptions of what the characters are doing eg looking up to the skies etc as if reading a film scenario. In the next scene MUM and DAD talk about their SON. They are afraid of him. They blame and argue with each other for that occurrence. The Son has done something. Later he appears with a gleaming machete / hatchet in his hand by his side. These parents agitate each other and reveal an angry and desperately unhappy relationship. These first two scenes swap in and out with each other. The Suburban mayhem of dysfunctional relationships are accurately familiar. Then, thirdly we are presented with an oddity for an Australian suburb: that of a pathetically embittered conversation between AN ELDER SISTER and A YOUNGER SISTER. It is odd because the younger sister is apparently going to be publicly stoned to death. The verbal relationship rings true but the actual threatened event does not. It seems to be so far fetched in an Australian setting. The first two scenes we know only too well to have happened in recent history in our Australian suburbs. So I am bemused. Finally another couple have another tense debate about a prescription and then THE YOUNGER SISTER (in a black out) has her hair shaved off (presumably). It finishes with a last projected slide that says “IT RAINS”. Complete Blackout.

The audience on Opening Night applauded enthusiastically and called the actors back for a second call. And certainly the actors had displayed a virtuosic verbal dexterity and a passionate commitment, if somewhat overwrought, to charge the atmosphere in this small space with enough emotion to deserve such a response. However, on reflection the acting prowess is not enough compensation for the writing.

After the performance I read the program notes by the Director, Lee Lewis, to be told that this play is not set in Australia but in Africa. Oh, then, THE ELDER SISTER AND THE YOUNGER SISTER scenario now has a believable context, my bemusement was slightly alleviated. (Excuse my ingenuousness.) On talking to my fellow audience they too had had no clue that this was the case. If clues are in the text, production (I notice there is no Designer credited) or direction than it is so oblique that it was negligible to my experience of the performance. (I subsequently re-read the play as well and found my complaint substantiated.) It is a concept / conceit on the part of the writer. It is like looking at most Turner Art Prizes and having to read an essay to have the work explicated. Don’t you think the performance needs to stand on its own? The London critics seem to have got it. So is it the production that hasn’t found a way to make that clear to the audience?

Lee Lewis says in her notes “debbie tucker green is one of the most exciting and important contemporary playwrights on the planet”. Saying that does not make it so. The planet is a BIG place. And how well read are you? Is this the play that you wish to persuade us with about debbie tucker green? I certainly find the FORM in which she is writing promising: the attempt to write in a poetic pseudo verbatim language, a kind of contemporary poetic rap speak. (And when you read her other works, she seems to have got it down) but the CONTENT??? Is it enough to tell us how angry and nihilistic she is about a hard and cruel world to leave us in a stew of guilt and impotent despair? debbie tucker green has only written half a play. The one she has written is only 65 minutes long so she had time up her sleeve to go further. Is it not one of the great peculiarities of the Performing Arts that not only can they show us the world but it can also show us how to live in it. How to act civilly in it, how to find our humanness in it? It seems, for this writer, making a statement is enough. I don’t think so. Exciting, important playwright? Not yet. Not on the basis of this work. Promising verbal poet, I can concede.

Timing I guess is everything. And the programming of this work comes in my experiential journey in the theatre this year after a whole set of similar nihilistic doom and gloom works; MOVING TARGETS; THE KID; THE SERPENT’S TEETH; SALOME; even COLDER and I have just have become a little weary of going to the theatre to be confronted and sometimes verbally assaulted with a world that I reel in everyday anyway and offered no ways of behaving to help me have hope and do something positive for a better world . I feel this could and should be one of the contributions of the Performing Arts. If the curators of these seasons could look at variety of visions for its patrons it might help.

Nevertheless, let me point out that this project is the result of a CO-OP of Artists who are presenting this work with no real prospect of even a poverty wage re-imbursement. The contribution and skill and passion of all these people should be an object lesson for the hostile critics of artists around Australia who see them as spoilt lay-abouts leeching off the welfare of government. STONING MARY is an interesting and certainly provocative contribution to Sydney’s and Australia’s cultural fabric. Without these artists passions we would be the poorer. Thanks for the provocation. Much admired.