Thursday, July 31, 2008


SCORCHED by Wajdi Mouawad translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau. This is a Company B production at Belvoir St Theatre.

Iread this play maybe nine months ago. It is so beautiful to read (in this magnificent translation). I shall quote some excerpts...

"I have a baby in my belly. Wahab! My belly is full of you. My belly is full of you. You see? Isn’t it amazing? It’s magnificent and horrible, isn’t it? It’s an abyss. And it’s like freedom to wild birds, isn’t it? And there are no more words. Just the wind! I have a child in my belly. When I heard Elhame tell me, an ocean exploded in my head. Seared.

Some more : "I’m leaving, Nawal. It’s all over for me, soon I will reach the light, but for you, it’s just beginning..... We…. our family, the women
in our family…… are caught in the web of anger. We have been for ages: I was angry at my mother, and your mother is angry with me, just as you are angry at your mother. And your legacy to your daughter will be anger too. We have to break the thread. So learn to read, learn to write, learn to count, learn to speak. Learn. Then leave. You will hear my voice telling you: 'Leave Nawal, leave! Take your youth and any possible happiness and leave the village.' You are the bloom of this valley, Nawal. You are its sensuality and its smell. Take them with you and tear yourself away from here, the way we tear ourselves from our mother’s womb. Learn to read, write, count, and speak. Learn to think. Nawal. Learn."

And more: "We are at the beginning of the hundred years war. At the beginning of the last war in the world. I’m telling you, Sawada, our generation is an 'interesting' generation. Seen from above, it must be very instructive to see us struggling to name what is barbarous and what isn’t. Yes. Very 'interesting'. A generation raised on shame. Really. At the crossroads. We think, this war will only end with the end of time. But people don’t realise, if we don’t find a solution to these massacres immediately, we never will."

The translation of this text is expressed in such simple but beautiful words. The language of these connected, sentenced words is so simply poetic that one longs to either feel the shape of those words in ones own mouth or to have ones ears caressed by them, because they evoke such rich imagery and deep remembered feelings, a viscerally sensuous experience is promised. The resonances of living are over powering in this text.

Then, when layered within the savage world of the play the tension between those two realities, the poetic text and the world of the play, is so exquisite that to experience it could be one of the great humbling human experiences, that makes you grateful to have been lucky enough to have read it or heard it. I had some expectation of this when attending the performance at Belvoir St.

Wajdi Mouawad is of Lebanese Christian Maronite origin but is now a French Canadian. The play was written in French and translated into English for the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. The Greeks, through there surviving dramatic literature (and much else) have been attempting to tell us humans how to live well, for thousands of years. We have ignored them. In this play the Oedipus Rex story and the great cycle of The Oresteia weave their way through my consciousness. Myth and Instruction threaded into our times and place.

The Design: Set by Stephen Curtis, Lighting by Nigel Levings combined with astonishingly appropriate and beautiful costumes (Anna Borghesi) (most beautiful because of their appropriateness) set the mood for Epic. It felt tremendous as we began and it conjured up the images of my quarry experience of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata in Adelaide years ago and led me to a vast and shimmering world of possibilities. (The Mahabharata with red carpets on a desert floor; Scorched with a ghost coloured sandy desert floor on top of a red and off white mosaic patterned floor) The actors entered as a company with gracious authority and sat down on one side of the walled space. And Brian Lipson playing our guide to the story, Alphonse Lebel, began.

The Director,
Neil Armfield in his notes talks about the experience of rehearsing this play at day thirteen, with thirteen (working) days to go. "At times the intensity of the play’s emotional demands has the ability to overtake and overwhelm the actors. I assume we will move beyond that stage but I don’t really know, and maybe that liability is a crucial part of the play’s danger, it’s challenge." How prophetic. On the performance I saw several of the actors were clearly overtaken and overwhelmed by the emotions of the story and failed the challenge relatively. Yael Stone as one of a set of twins, Janine, was in such a heightened state of nervous anxiety that physical tension prevented an audience sympathy. Vocally the telegraphed emotional states caused the sentences into generalised abstractions of sound instead of clear words and language. Emotional state, no clear storytelling. This was more profoundly clear as Ashley Lyons playing the other twin, Simon,played in almost every scene with her with such understated but clear physical and vocal expression that we were able to endow the fears, horror of the questors, on their Oedipal journey, on him. (The scene towards the end of the play when the origin of their paternity is revealed, is a case in point. Scene 35. The voice of ancient times. Ms Stone in full stretched demonstration of tension collapsed downwards with the horror of it as if she had been physically assaulted, melodramatically. In contrast Mr Jones in restrained but focused concentration heard the news and simply held his breath. (What a breath was held.) The imaginative sympathy that I could endow him with over took and overwhelmed me. I had a catharsis of grief and terror of the Old Testament type and was not simply asked to watch someone else have it. Gillian Jones (with microphoned assistance) also appeared to be overwhelmed by her material and the last beautifully written letters that reveal the climactic truths became a series of halting, hesitant gasps of thought that expressed a feeling of sentimentality instead of deeply felt clear headed expressions of love and forgiveness. The language should be the primary means of telling not emotions. The letters are gestures that should be reminiscent of the Mandela example in South Africa. Of such unbelievable modest human greatness that one must consider ones own behaviour. We are "at the crossroads. We think this war will only end with the end of time. But people don’t realise, if we don’t find a solution to these massacres immediately, we never will." At the performance I attended sentimental mood not text is what I received with these vital letters.

On the other hand the crystalline accuracy of emotion, thought and articulation of the text by Paula Arundell delivered with laser like focus of detail at speed was breathtakingly magnificent. Moving to the point of petrification. Here was a craftsman honouring the possibilities and all the demands of this extraordinary play. Zindzi Okenyo was attempting to follow her example and did well. But even more remarkable was Ms Arundell’s attention to the play. As an observer on the side wall her empathetic concentration draws us to her when we are lost by the other actors sometimes bewildering offers, she through default became the principal source of energy in any scene and guided us back to the narrative. Special attention must be given to Brian Lipson's performance. Playing our "guide", Alphonse Lebel, his text was a necessary clown to the journey. Just as rich in it’s poetry but punctured with wit, malapropisms. "Between the devil and the Blue Danube." "There is a train at the end of the tunnel." Mr Lipson’s handling of the humour and the created character is mercurial, subtle, dignified and delightfully (relievedly) human. I also enjoyed the work of Adam Hatzimanolis, his quite dignity and understated sense of tragedy.

This is a wonderful attempt at what I think is a great contemporary play. Whether the company ran out of time or not, and there are problems that need more clarity, such as scene 31. The man who plays. (Plays at killing or at photography.) It is, on reading the play, both such a powerful metaphor for the human challenge of choice in the way we can live our lives (crudely: a pursuit of beauty versus pursuit of violence) and also an integral introduction to the horrors of the plays penultimate revelations, that the way it is performed or staged at the moment it seems to rushed to have the proper impact and set up. Neil Armfield says in his notes by the time we read the program "it (the production) will, hopefully, have reached some meaningful form." It almost has.

In the final moments of the play Janine and Simon listen to their mother’s silence. A great classical scholar Richard Beacham says of The Oresteia. It is "a triumph of hope over despair, reason over superstition, and justice over brutality." This could be said of SCORCHED. Today (July 31st, 2008) "The Bosnian Serb wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, will make his first appearance before the United Nations Yugoslav war crimes court to enter a plea on genocide charges at The Hague." The final direction from the writer after listening to the silence of the mother is a cue for: Torrential rain. Sadly this did not happen in the Belvoir production.

Playing now until 7 September upstairs at Belvoir St Theatre.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.

Monday, July 28, 2008

An Oak Tree

AN OAK TREE by Tim Crouch presented by B Sharp and Ride On at BELVOIR St Downstairs Theatre.

This is a Co-Op production. This play has one actor who plays the HYPNOTIST (John Leary) and has rehearsed it for several weeks with the Director (Tanya Goldberg) "This actor wears Walkman/iPod headphones connected to a wireless receiver--this enables the HYPNOTIST to speak to and instruct a second actor through a microphone without the audience hearing." In performance there is a second actor who plays FATHER. "The actor playing FATHER can be either male or female and of any adult age. This actor is completely unrehearsed in their role and walk on stage at the beginning with no knowledge of the play they are about to be in." On the performance I attended Wayne Blair was the actor.

The body of the play deals with a car accident which results in the characters in the play dealing from many points of view with the aftermath--the consequences. However this play uses this as a means to do more than tell a story to an audience. This play examines the CONSENT and the IMAGINATION that we all give to the act of creativity when we buy a ticket, enter and sit down in a theatre space - waiting for a story to be told. The Hypnotist gives the audience a set of rules: to paraphrase, "we are in an RSL club off Oxford Street" and we are. Or to be sure I was!!! Later I am in the Sydney Opera House!!! I know as well that I was beside the road of a car accident. I also know that I saw an Oak Tree become a girl. I also saw the Hypnotist give instructions to the actor playing the Father. WHAT I BELIEVE I SEE. But, I also watched John Leary who was playing the Hypnotist manipulate the performance. I also saw Wayne Blair re-live the action of hugging a tree. I also saw a Father grieving at a roadside near a tree. I also remember empathising with Wayne Blair for his vulnerability and courage in even doing this improvised, in the moment, performance. I was dazzlingly, in both an objective and subjective state of creativity. I was both an active participant and an enthralled observer. I was in and out of it. I in one moment was laughing at a hoary vaudeville joke then gasping with emotion and a real feeling of grief. I was at the places of the events of the play and I was in the theatre and I was conscious of it. But not only that I was also personalising moments in the play and I was conscious of doing it while doing it. I was touching on past and recent experiences in my own life to understand what was happening in front of me. The taking of the dirt near the accident to cover the tree trunk took me back to a book I had just finished that talked of the bible story of Noah’s flood as not a destruction of the known human world but rather as a dissolving. Since we are dust, when you add water we dissolve into mud which, in the action of the play, you rub onto the tree trunk so that the trunk becomes person. The oak tree becomes the girl. This all flashed through my mind while watching the two actors say and do what they had to AND I was involved and conscious also of my thought structure and realising its origins etc. The experiential layering of what was happening to me was mighty.

OH MY GOD did I have a good time!

OH MY GOD I was stimulated in the brief hour of the performance way beyond what was being shown to me and BOY was I also conscious of it. Totally exciting! (This is a totally subjective exclamation.) I only hope you are too when you see it.

The "Creatives": Xanthe Heubel (Designer), Lighting (Verity Hampson) and Composer/Sound Designer (Michael Toisuta) make wonderful contributions. The Sound especially provocative to the imagination. (The passing traffic on the road especially evocative.) (I do wonder if the set design is just too literal and fixed.)

John Leary was terrific and Wayne Blair marvellous.

This performance has a different actor playing the FATHER every performance. It is happening as if for the first time (at least, the Father’s role and the affect on the Hypnotist IS.). Wouldn’t it be fascinating to watch them all? What about when a woman plays the FATHER, as Leah Purcell, Jackie Weaver and Robin McLeavey have done? How fascinating it would be to see the writer, TIM CROUCH, play the role as he will as part of the Melbourne International ARTS Festival later in October. Layers on layers.

Last year I saw Tanya Goldberg’s Direction of Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and was struck by two things. Firstly about the quality of thought that went into her reading of this contemporaneously notoriously difficult text. Secondarily the gift she had in elucidating very clean and clear performances from all her actors. A Director who understands and nurtures the actor as artists, not puppets. (I have observed that it is a rare gift.) I believe Ms Golberg is worth encouraging.

Here is a quote from the printed text of the play that I think is worth considering when watching AN OAK TREE (or, as I have after): "The distinction between fact and fiction is a late acquisition of rational thought—unknown to the unconscious, and largely ignored by the emotions." ARTHUR KOESTLER.

When I and others stumbled out into the foyer much excited conversation with relative strangers occurred.

An Oak Tree is no playing until August 10 at Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.

Starring John Leary and guest appearances from some of Australia’s leading actors including Wayne Blair, Patrick Brammal, Brendan Cowell, Joel Edgerton, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Genevieve Hegney, Claudia Karvan, Amy Kersey, Steve Le Marquand, Chas Licciardello, Lech Mackiewicz, Deborah Mailman, Belinda McClory, Robin McLeavy, Amber McMahon, Pacharo Mzembe, Bojana Novakovic, Eddie Perfect, Leah Purcell, Richard Roxburgh, Toby Schmitz, Jeremy Sims, Jacki Weaver and Ursula Yovich.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Age Of Consent

THE AGE OF CONSENT written by Peter Morris presented by BAREBOARDS Productions, ARTS NSW and TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS at the Old Fitz.

This is a Co-Op production. The play was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001 and then subsequently at The Bush Theatre. This production began it's Australian life at this year’s Adelaide Fringe in March, 2002.

The program notes suggest that the play was inspired by the Jon-Benet Ramsay and Jamie Bulger cases. But Peter Morris himself is never that specific in the play itself or in the original program notes. This is a conceit of the Production or Director. He began, he says, with notes of "monologues about tabloidization of youth". Now he says he doesn’t know "if it is still about tabloidization (whatever that is), but its certainly about youth, and what it means to be a child or a young person in the world today."

The play is made up of two intertwining monologues. The first by a young single mother attempting to bring up her young pre teen daughter Raquel. (Stephanie, played by Caroline Kemp.) The second by a young nineteen year old male awaiting his release from a correctional facility after serving his time for the murder of a child. (Timmy, played by Ivan Donato.) The text is wonderfully written. Insightful, poignantly funny, inherently tragic.

Caroline Kemp’s performance is confusing. One is not certain whether Stephanie is just a dim witted woman, herself a victim of bad parenting and contemporary media aspirations who looks for a "celebrity" way to bring up her little girl: A panto career, a modelling career, a Les Miz career, an advertisement actor’s career who blithely pursues that path at the expense of her child’s well being in total ignorance of the consequences on her child or a mother who in the desperate need not to be a failure knowingly pimps her child for personal comforts, her last scene in an old crumbling villa in Tuscany "So much… peace" while her daughter under the predatory guidance of Desmond Varady, "walk down to his car, him with the picnic hamper" ….containing... "A bottle of claret and two glasses... and her little hand reaching up to clutch his pinky finger." Stephanie left behind with her last line "You have no idea how nice it is to be alone." The performance is superficial, an actress aware of the comedy and not much of the opportunities of the tragic pathos inherent in the character. The direction of the performance is not clear enough. Muddled. On the performance I saw the actress noticeably lost concentration several times and had to correct her text which suggested to me someone who had played this role too often and was simply acting a facsimile of what was on the page, not much depth or real presence in the moment or else incredibly nervous. Stephanie’s final moments had tears running down her cheeks. It was puzzling to try to understand why.

On the other hand the performance of Ivan Donato is spectacular for its balance between the emotional explosions and cool headed awareness of Timmy. A young child who looking for love, attention, acts out a tragic event that results in him hitting a young friend with lead piping like "Mrs Peacock did in the conservatory" in the game of Cluedo then subsequently putting a battery in his mouth "because I thought he would come back… come back on, he’d start moving… like in TOY STORY, the second one." and now as an intelligent young man, ten years later with a good education in the correctional facility, trying to find a way to live in a world that he is about to enter with no acceptable motivation to explain what he did. He worries about leaving a life where he is regarded as unique to enter one where he will be like us, the opposite to unique, which he believes is the equivalent to worthless, hopeless. Mr Donato inhabits this character and is both scarifying and empathetic. Mesmerising to watch.

This is a very interesting play. Unfortunately the production under the direction of Shannon Murphy does not reveal its full potential. The Design (Set and Costume by Rita Carmody), Lighting (Matt Schubach) and Sound (Steve Toulmin) are functionary. The management of the two actors in the space sometimes distracting: Taking us from the focus of the play merely for positional shiftings of the other actor.

This play reveals what GITTA SERENY in her 1998 book CRIES UNHEARD urges us to consider. These two voices Stephanie and Timmy are only two of the voices in the contemporary world of rising abuse and violent juvenile crime. And like the subject of Ms Sereny’s book, Mary Bell, "there are many people in our society who dismiss children such as Mary as 'evil' and with that both condemn them and absolve themselves of any responsibility for their fate." And if a play such as THE AGE OF CONSENT can serve any purpose, on hearing Stephanie and Timmy’s voice it must help us to change that attitude, must help us to change the future - for the sake of all our children. The final Consent that Mr Morris engages in, is this complicit consent we give for this story to be told. "The consensual relationship: not just the willing suspension of our disbelief, but more generally the profound sadomasochism entailed when any audience assembles… I simply mean: tragedy gives pleasure, and we come to the theatre (read and watch the tabloid media) to watch these characters suffer (Big Brother, Australian Idol), but I hope we also come to empathise, and suffer with them." Like the startlingly brilliant film of Hanneke FUNNYGAMES (both the original and the American remake) it is quite disconcerting when Timmy at the end of the play talks directly to us, first person, no fourth wall, and tells us to "Applaud. For yourselves. Clap hands for you and me and all of us whose voices count for nothing in this world, I mean, we made it this far in silence, didn’t we? We might do something about it yet. Know what I mean?"

A flawed production but recommended both for the play itself and Mr Donato’s work.

Playing at The Old Fitzroy Theatre until 23rd August 2008
Tuesday to Saturday 8pm & Sunday 5pm
$28 Adult, $20 Concession, $34 Beer, Laksa & Show
Cheap Tuesdays $16 Adult, $24 Beer Laksa & Show
Bookings online or 1300 GET TIX (1300 438 849)

Monday, July 14, 2008


Sydney Theatre Company presents through WHARF 2LOUD: MANNA Lyrics and text by Dan Spielman. Director, Composer & Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert.

I am a fan of Max Lyandvert interests. Fully enthused by his work on the puzzling but intriguing Richard Foreman's works MY HEAD WAS A SLEDGEHAMMER and NOW THAT COMMUNISM IS DEAD MY LIFE FEELS EMPTY and his sound work on so much of my theatre going in Sydney. Dan Spielman I know as an actor with indelible memories of some of his luminous story telling skills in Barrie Kosky’s recent production of
THE LOST ECHO adapted mostly from Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES. It seems that these two artists met and have mutually inspired each other and developed a project that attempts to investigate a form of theatre expression where language, sound and image will be explored anew. The curators of WHARF 2LOUD have given them a place in the 2008 program. This is work that one sees explored and presented usually at THE PERFORMANCE SPACE. It is exciting to see this "out there" work at the mainstream company building. It is probably no coincidence that it happened during Sydney’s Art Biennale. The possible frontiers of art forms under the theme of "Revolution"(Chekov’s Konstantin longing for new forms!!!) being explored.

Intentions were to present "a poignant visual and aural installation... MANNA is a theatre work for five voices. Part poem, part song cycle, part radio play... This is an X-ray process. The transmission of language is the medium of sound. And sound is music, speech, song, sound effects or soundscapes all at once. MANNA can be at once a song cycle and an ear-play."

One assumes that the Lyrics and Text of Dan Spielman were the point of inspiration and the spring board for the investigation. There was evidence of form exploration in the use of voices, sound, lighting and physical images which were alternatively interesting, beautiful, clich├ęd, boring, distracting etc. The full gamut of response was elicited from me. A success as far as the theorist and innovative practitioner Vsevolod Meyerhold would be concerned. A divided self that both loved and hated the experience. An experience that certainly did not leave you in a state of sedation. You left the theatre agitated, elated and argumentative. What irritated me with Manna was the obfuscation of the lyrics and text. The language became only disconnected sounds . The soundscape although interesting in itself was often undermining the clarity of the communicating language: the poetry.

Problems were compounded by performing artists that did not seem able to deliver the goods as Communicators of poetic speech ie. "the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings of articulate sounds" with "a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion." The only truly authentic communicator was Jamal Rekabi who played several instruments and sang in a voice of such beauty and feeling that one could have opted for an evening of him alone. Although sung in a foreign language it had a great sense "of grieving and the existential consciousness of loss" that the work seemed to be striving for. There was a sense of authenticity in the work of Gertraud Ingeborg and Boris Brkic merely at the presence of their well experienced lives, but only Ms Ingeborg had any real skill of delivering her text with connecting thoughts. Mr Brkic merely gave us disconnected sounds in the shape of sound bites. Noise not communication. Worse still were the two younger performers who did not seem to have a vocal instrument of any sound flexibility or beauty and certainly no real skill in supplying the spoken text with any imagined thought to illuminate the sounds of the words. The result was a relatively ugly noise divested of any meaning. The poetry was present neither in the sound or the language/words of Mr Spielman. A long section regarding the recurring word of a "soldier" was rendered to a meandering, longwinded tedium.

The visual offers were mostly distractions and not useful to the exercise. For instance during the last long "Poem" delivered by Mr Brkic the rest of the cast busily organised the staging of a last image of trays of different items eg cutlery, leaves etc flanking the movement of a long white topped table with a prone body on it, being slowly rolled forward toward the audience. What it meant, was to me, by this time elusive and unimportant and just part of the confusion of the intention of the project. I was not surprised on later reading the program notes that several of The Rabble Company who also presented this year
SALOME to Sydney were involved. Similarly here as there, the work seemed to be improvised and imposed on the finished work and not schematically relevant.

This is important work. The theatre need artists actively engaged in the exploration of new form desperately. Like Kostia’s play in THE SEAGULL this was for me a failure or simply, depending on your point of reference, not understood. I felt it was not communicated. If I could read on the page Mr Spielman’s lyrics and text I may have had a better understanding of the original inspiration for this collaboration. But the page to stage process here has not being a useful form of theatrical collaboration to give to an audience to appreciate the writing.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Happy Prince

THE HAPPY PRINCE presented by THEATRE OF IMAGE at the Seymour Centre.

Theatre of Image Artistic Director Kim Carpenter, is responsible for both the Direction and the Design of this adaptation of the Oscar Wilde Fairy story. The Design is meticulously thought through and beautifully executed. There are images here that should stay delightfully in the memory for some time to come: The Little Swallows wooing of the Reed is but one of many. The Puppet Makers (Tina Matthews and Garth Frost), Mask Maker (Paul Fraser), Costume Maker (Lucia Franze) along with the clever Set construction and painting (Pier Productions) are masterful in their ability to lead the imagination to a place of play.

The adaptation by Richard Tulloch is serviceable but I felt its tone was too cool and lacked the sophistication and beauty of the language of the original that Wilde has written. The tendency to use vernacular such as "chief", "no way Jose" etc vulgarises the tale. It is an urge to condescend to the audience to admit the jargon of the world. (Even though that itself is dated: very Nimrod!1970’s, and should be revised.) The music score by Sarah de Jong is heavy-handed and seemed to be over orchestrated. The atmosphere of the sound created a fair ground feel rather than fairy tale and often intruded counter productively to what was happening on stage. The Company performers: John Gregg, Benn Welford, Romy Bartz, Adam Kronenberg and Beth McMahon worked tirelessly, if sometimes a little perfunctorily.

The Design skills of Kim Carpenter are undoubtedly superior but the Directorial area does not match. The casting of John Gregg appeared odd. The tale is of a Prince and one of the elements of the original story is the implication that the Prince died young. This Prince looks like an ancient King. The acting by Mr Gregg is spoken beautifully but on my performance hardly invested with any feeling. A boring radio voice merely reciting the text. A Happy Prince that was truly made of lead. This was significantly contrasted by the wonderfully warm and gloriously articulated life, both vocal and especially physical that Benn Welford brought to his creation of The Swallow. His detail of thought experience beautifully communicated. His work lifted the experience to a possible place of enchantment. The contrast of performing I suspect was the major contributing factor to my being unmoved by the storytelling. The performance was generally remote and demanded to be observed rather than participated with.

Theatre of Image is deservedly famous for its images. Its actual story telling direction needs more assiduity based on this performance.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Don't Say The Words

DON’T SAY THE WORDS by Tom Holloway. A World Premiere presented by the GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY and the TASMANIAN THEATRE COMPANY at the SBW Stables Theatre.

On the coldest night in Sydney this winter, so far, with rain sprinkling around me, after almost two weeks of every night out at some theatre event, I had an uninspiring dinner grabbed between work and the theatre and then walked to the SBW Stables Theatre, bought my ticket and then climbed the stairs into that relatively uncomfortable space. I had recently written a series of reviews which were never entirely happy about what I had experienced. Mostly, lately, had begun to be irritated about Directors (both young and mature) conceptualising a production of a play and relatively obliterating the writer’s intentions. (eg.
SPRING AWAKENING). One of my readers had felt that I was maybe a little "mean" in my complaints. I had to give myself PAUSE.

I sat in the auditorium and saw the Stables tiny stage space further reduced by a raised Set design (Adam Gardner) of a glossy, black tiled bathroom muffled by an opaque, plastic shower curtain. My heart sank. This maybe the fourth bathroom set I had experienced in Sydney in the past few years, usually a director and designer’s conceit, not set there for any reason other than perhaps metaphor. Never much clarifying the play. The house lights pulsated momentarily from the dim state to a bright state and then faded to black. A Soundscape (Kelly Ryall) that felt it was made of dragging paper over a live microphone and other "modern" techniques of sound alienation began to be uncomfortably broadcast. ("Oh No!" I lamented.) A sound of a car on gravel and then the footsteps on gravel. Two neon bars (very trendy!) at the top and bottom of the mirror lit up and dimly I saw a man crawl out from it. ("OHHH NO!") The shower curtain began to retreat neatly and the lighting revealed a woman in a black petticoat and a man in a tee shirt and jeans. He picked up a microphone and karaoke style sings badly to "History Never Repeats" by the Split Enz. ("OOHHHH! ERHHHH!") The actors began the text loudly in a stylized manner, I braced myself for what the front of house had warned us was a seventy minute, no interval journey.

The actors Anna Lise Phillips and Jack Finsterer began just a little uncertainly, feeling for their rhythm, warmed to each others creative state, then having found that, seemed to adjust to us like sensitive musicians, and then continued their duet and gradually seduced me into the play. The experience of real theatre. There was a circle of communication. And although the set design had all the requisites of a bathroom: tiles, grubby bath tub, filled with water; disgusting, rusting, lidded toilet bowl and encrusted hand washing sink and washing machine all of which were functional during the action of the play, and even though most of the activation of function was metaphoric rather than necessarily naturalistic they were never gratuitous. In fact they enhanced the meaning of the play. Water flooded from the bath tub on cues that supported the textual moment. The bath water was used as a cleansing agent to support a later series of textual expositions. The sound scape was beautifully and seemed to be detailed exquisitely to the mood of the dialogue. The lighting (Paul Jackson) was atmospheric and a "character" to the sensitivities of the text. It was all in concert. All as one. There are seven scenes in the play and later Brett Stiller joins the orchestra of instruments and is thrilling in his execution. In fact all three actors are a wonderful ensemble. I did feel that the first scene with Ms Philips and Mr Stiller was especially wonderful. As was her later solo. Mind you, as I write, it occurs to me that the scene with Mr Finisterer and Mr Stiller was also amazing. Maybe most of it was? UH?!!!!! I had a most satisfying night in the theatre. Not 10 out of 10!!! Maybe the confined space did not facilitate easy staging choices for all the moments in the play And I was prevented from sharing all the information?? Maybe the costuming was a trifle perfunctory(?) but something was not quite fulfilled.

This was directed by a young Director
Matthew Lutton. The press palaver (spin) (The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.) I had read on the walls of the foyer whilst waiting to go upstairs. (UMMMM!) It naturally, in my then state of a cynical regular theatre goer, prejudiced me to my apprehension of the coming night. However based on this one experience of his work it might all be justified. This was wonderful, beautifully thought out work. Even though the whole Design concept was not demanded by the writer, not one element was an imposition. It all served to clarify the writing and not as it has mostly done in my apprising of other work of other directors, obliterated or obfuscated the play. Alleluia!! How I wish that I could have seen his TARTUFFE in Melbourne. A classic illuminated for a contemporary audience with a modern artist???

The writer Tom Holloway has written a magnificently taut play. The Dramatic editing of his material and the organising it and the style of communicating it are all excitingly challenging for the audience. Its precision is admirable and certainly it appears to be a script that actors want and will want to act. It is no surprise to read the writer’s clue in the published text that DON’T SAY THE WORDS was inspired by the play
AGAMEMNON by Aeschylus. The structure and dramatic elements are strong and wonderfully expanded or diminished as Mr Holloway’s inspiration needed. Tom Holloway has looted but also respected his source. Many another writer has taken inspiration from the Greeks. From The ORESTEIA, of which AGAMEMNON, is the first of the trilogy, writers of the ilk of "Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Racine, Eugene O’Neill, Gerhart Hauptmann, and T.S. Eliot" have found inspiration. Mr Holloway has done Aeschylus proud.

I have had a very good time at the Stables Theatre this year. All of them, mind you, challenging. Two plays, both Australian have been particularly exciting to witness.
COLDER by Lachlan Philpott and now DON’T SAY THE WORDS by Tom Holloway. I recommend a visit. I hope that.the major companies have had a look, and feel that a larger audience would be enriched by another production. I urge you to go.

Don't Say The Words is playing now until 26 July 2008 at the SWB Stables Theatre.
Tickets through MCA Ticketing online or phone 1300 306 776.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Which play are you most looking forward to seeing?

Looks like people are most eagerly anticipating SCORCHED, upstairs at the Belvoir St Theatre. So here are some details...

Written by Wajdi Mouawad, translated by Linda Gaboriau
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Paula Arundell, Carl Dewhurst, Adam Hatz, Gillian Jones, Brian Lipson, Ashley Lyons, Lucia Mastrantone, Zindzi Okenyo, Hazem Shammas, George Spartels and Yael Stone

Season runs 19 July - 7 September.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.

This month, have your say about which play you think Bell Shakespeare should produce next. Vote now! -->

Pearl (Moderator)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Spring Awakening

SPRING AWAKENING by Frank Wedekind. Adapted by Simon Stone presented by The HAYLOFT PROJECT and B Sharp at Downstairs Belvoir.

From the Director’s Notes: "I put on classics as a means of expressing the timelessness of particular aspects of the human condition." Further: "My job, as I see it, both in adaptation and direction is to strip away anything that gets in the way of this realization - anything that no longer speaks to us today - then build up a structure that facilitates the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of a piece that may in its original form have seemed antiquated" (Simon Stone.)

The Set design (Adam Gardnir) consists of what I took to be 9 chicken coops/cages. In each was a thoughtfully crafted installation relating to the world of the occupiers eg. the "coop" of Moritz was stacked with books etc related to his pre-occupation of academic success. Wendla’s coop was set in a hay loft (later she has her first sexual experience there). Each character is wonderfully demarcated in this way. It is a pleasure to look at it and solve. The Costume design (Mel Page) has a beautiful colour palate across the characters, but is not as easily read. The period look of Moritz in contrast to Rilow dressed in a "hoodie". Other costume choices provoked further puzzlement. The second act had them out of their coops onto a lime green floor with multi-coloured straight lines zigging and zagging in white singlets and underpants (Later be-spatted with fake blood). The Lighting design (Niklas Pajanti) is detailed and remarkably beautiful. The Sound design is also well conceived if not always integrated to the needs of the actor’s textual audibility. If this were part of the present Sydney Art Biennale it would be an interesting piece of Installation Art. As an aid to facilitating the play or even this adaptation of it, it is a conceit: (an elaborate metaphor, a fanciful notion.)

The Adaptation: reducing this three act 19th century (1891) play of enormous cultural and dramatic writing significance to two half hour acts and shrinking the cast from that of 30 men and 7 women to 7 actors is no small feat. There are some fine exchanges in the writing but there is also some diminishing of the original’s intent and density of objective. There is in this adaptation only an essence of the enormous achievement of Wedekind. I hardly understand what Mr Stone regards as antiquated or obstructional in the original, in what is still regarded as a play of great confrontational sensibilities and still daring explorations in style. Not many contemporary writers dare to explore such subject matter and form.

What is most disturbing is the direction. Mr Stone has encouraged his actors to play in a physically over caricatured style. Appearing as grotesque gangling teenagers eg in the second act Amanda Falson as Ilse is encouraged to gyrate with the looseness of a deranged strung puppet. Vocally they are urged to shout with unbridled passion. Angus Grant, playing Melchior, plays his scenes in his coop red faced with bulging neck veins and stretched vocal chords, giving himself further obstacles for vocal communication by banging the metal wall and floor of his coop. (When he and the others are not attempting to be heard over the Sound Design). (Thank goodness for the restrained relief, demonstrating, that vocal pitch is a better choice than volume for communication, that Ben Hjorth gives in his rendition of Rilow’s frightening masturbatory fantasy speech in the first act) The cacophony of the noise that the cast and sound design render under the guidance of their director reduce the text to such an obscure phenomenon that no communication other than a belligerent assault on the audiences senses and empathy can result. "Enjoyment and understanding" are not part of the affect that the performance has on its audience. This classic play is obliterated by this production and serves as an example that "Form" does not always provide "as much meaning as content."

There is an air about this director, a feeling of a need to be an auteur of the theatre. A puppet master with the intellectual conceit to believe it his mission to save the classic repertoire from obscurity by overloading it with directorial imperatives that mostly draw attention to themselves instead of facilitating the play. I can’t help but echo Murray Bail who recently was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It’s an awful era in a sense because it’s an age of narcissism… All this 'look at me' stuff." One senses it in Brendan Cowell’s performance in the Bell HAMLET, here in Simon Stone’s SPRING AWAKENING and in Benedict Andrew’s productions of the classics. This is in strong contrast to Ostermier’s work that I recently observed in his production of A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF at the Adelaide Arts festival. Theatrical intelligence and experimentation with form that also served the play’s narrative and intentions.. The writer was more than mouthed respect and admiration.

This company under the direction of Simon Stone have recently worked on a second project CHEKOV RE-CUT: PLATONOV. Despite my experience of SPRING AWAKENING I am curious to see what the direction or cumulative knowledge the company would have taken with this relatively primitive play of Chekov. It is hardly a classic and may bear some value in being re-cut.

PS. I recently enjoyed very much the Musical adaptation of SPRING AWAKENING on Broadway.

Playing now until 13 July at Downstairs Belvoir.
Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.
Full Price $29, Concession $23, Group Bookings $25, Cheap Tuesdays $10 minimum - one hour before.
Performance Times Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday - Saturday 8.15pm, Sunday 5.15pm