Friday, October 31, 2008

Family Stories: Belgrade

Ride On Theatre and Griffin Stablemates present FAMILY STORIES: BELGRADE by Biljana Srbljanovic. Translated by Bojana Novakovic.

This play is written by a Serbian author dealing with the games children (may) play in the debris of a war zone. The war zone can be that of the domestic house front between the sexes, between the generations, between the neighbours, next door or next city. It is the terrible tale of the Human Animal when placed in extremes of stress. The stress is always relative and always viable for those in the thick of it. My body. My bed. My bedroom. My house. My suburb. My city. My country. And it is the humanity of it. The mothers and the fathers the brothers and the sisters. The Family of it. This play is called FAMILY STORIES: BELGRADE. But it is just as applicable to any Family whether it be Belgrade or 201 Marilyn Street, North Ryde, Sydney, or Bankstown or the Indigenous family in the Alice, South Australia or even the family in B SHARP’S production of KILLER JOE. ( a play by Tracy Letts.)

Children watch and learn how to behave. They play imitative games to make sense of their world. If the world they live in and watch is full of patriarchal abuse, racism, violence, rape, murder and much else, then that is the game the children might play to make sense of what is happening about them. This learning may be the pattern on which these children may base their modes of behaviour as adults to be able to survive. The cycle of life repeats itself and the families history repeats those stories that began in our literary culture way back with the Greeks and the House of Tantalus. This, then could be called “FAMILY STORIES: SYDNEY”.

In 2008 how far have we progressed? The two Directors of this production Robert Kennedy and Bojana Novakovic have only two words in their program notes (NB Mr Sinclair): “WAKE UP!” Art and artists have been calling that out for as long as we have recorded history and literature. WAKE UP! WAKE UP!

The gentle and savage conceit of this play is that we have adults play children play adults. The games they play are domestic tasks like the making and eating of dinner. The discussion of politics. The struggle between the internal relations of the generations in the family, which may end, as in these children’s invention, with a bullet in the head for the parents, executed by their children. It may record the forced family separation as a result of economic hardship, the broken hearts that may ensue. The unbridled grief of bereaved family members and relatives at loss, every kind of loss. The stories are familiar and looked at, with the knowledge of adulthood (us, sitting safely,in the audience), are foreboding and weighted with grief for the human condition. And yet the writer, Srbljanovic gives us an irresistible satiric edge and so the opportunity to smile, even grin or laugh at the games. We recognise the games, we recognise the strategies employed by these innocent children to get what they want. Funny Games. Grotesquely humorous. Our hearts ache for little Nadezda (Phaedra Nicolaidis) so traumatised by the world about her that the only role that the other children can give her is that of a dog. The only one, that at the beginning of the play, she can take. She plays the family dog well. In Serbian, the name Nadezda can be translated as Hope. This proves to be the case, for Little Nadezda finds a vocabulary and grows into a being with a voice. A voice of her own.

Phaedra Nicolaidis is totally transporting in this truly magnificent performance. Even if one ignored the artistry and craftsmanship of this actress, her stamina is admirable enough. She glows with the focused energy of a committed story teller with all the humility of an empathetic human, bringing to life the world and tragedy and hopefully future, of this young war zone victim. Tanya Goldberg (Milena) gives a performance shot through with intelligence, a sense of style and humour. Richard Gyoerffy (Vojin), as the patriarchal figure understands the role but is not technically moderated vocally. It is sometimes hard to bear the sound that is too relentless, to be finally convinced of his intentions (One suffers physical pain.).

The Set design (Simone Romaniuk), that of a cubby house made of cardboard cartons is imaginative and amusing. The lighting (Verity Hampson) and sound design (Basil Hogios) are supportive to the vision of the production.

This play deserves careful attention. It is for adults. But especially adults that still have the aspirations and inspirations of their childhood selves and like little Nadezda, in the play, have hope for a better future. “Out of the mouths of babes” The History of the Ride Out Theatre Company demonstrates in their selection of material, that they produce with a shining integrity, that adds immeasurably to the moral construct of our theatre going in Sydney. It may not always add up to Box Office success but it certainly enhances our lives. For all of the intended objectives of The Kosky/Wright THE WOMEN OF TROY at the STC I found myself much more moved by the writing and production of FAMILY STORIES: BELGRADE. Out of this catastrophe this Serbian writer is not nihilistic but still has a belief in HOPE. Maybe having to live in the crucible of the war zone gives one the great gift of the valuing of life and the possibility of a better future.

This is a CO-OP production.

Playing now until 8 November. Book online or call 1300 306 776.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Killer Joe

B SHARP presents KILLER JOE by Tracy Letts at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

There has been a BUZZ around this production. I made sure I got there despite my schedule and the uncommunicative Box Office at Belvoir. I rang twice, hung on twice for almost ten minutes and finally walked to the theatre, the day before, to get my ticket. Now isn’t that dedication to my pursuit of a good time?

Part of the reason why, may be the reputation of the writer. Tracy Letts, an American writer, is the new flavour of the year. His play, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY first presented at STEPPENWOLF Theatre in Chicago opened last year on Broadway and has won a stream of prestigious awards: eg Pulitzer prize 2008 and the Tony Award 2008.

(It will be presented at The Melbourne Theatre Company next year. [Not on the Sydney horizon yet! Poor old Sydneysiders, by the time the big and latest “hits” get to us, if they ever do, the zeitgeist has swallowed them up and the world looks back at us and laughs: "You culturally deprived suckers, you!" How is it we get left out of the contemporary "red hot" loop? I mean ROCK AND ROLL came to us late from Melbourne, years after its international debut. THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, seen years ahead of us down there in frosty Melbourne. FROST/NIXON been and gone in Melbourne. No sight of it in Sydney. AHHHH, what is the problem? The leading Company in Australia is where? Look at The South Bank Art Precinct stretching conveniently from Federation Square across the city with amazing Art facilities to the Malthouse and you might have an inkling of a Community / Government that values the contribution that a healthy and an international contemporary ARTS Community can give its citizens. Even the title of the Sydney Festival in contrast, say to Adelaide and Melbourne ARTS Festivals is worth noting.]) Forgive the digression.

As I said there is a buzz about his production. Well lets see why. This Director (Iain Sinclair) has decided that this play might work well if we follow the wishes of the writer. Lets set it with the Set and Costume design, where the writer sees it. Lets encourage the actors to investigate the Texan dialect, both its sounds and rhythms, and lets give it a go. Lets not set it in the desert of South Australia or the miasma of the Queensland boondocks with those Aussie sounds and rhythms, which I think I can do. And now, lets attempt to follow the written instructions of the writer and see what eventuates. If he suggests a near state of complete undress lets try it. If he suggests violence lets do it. And lets do it at some level of full throttle commitment. Etc, etc. Lets trust, that the writer knows how to make his play work, and treat him as GOD. "In the beginning there was the word and the word "should" be made flesh." Holy Toledo, it works! Oh Wow!!! It is like some someone has found the pot of Gold. TRUST THE WRITER. Let’s not rewrite him to fit our skills. Let’s expand ourselves to match this particular man’s vision of the world. Not everything needs to be set in Australia for us to identify with. We do have television. We do go to the movies. I believe the world can be both universal and particular at the same time. I / we are not dummies. So at the risk of sounding facetious, congratulations to the KILLER JOE artistic company for the courage to accept the challenge of the WRITER. Imagine the Australian version of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It’s set in Texas for a very good reason. And you know what. I /we get it. Mr Sinclair does to.

There is a feel of veracity (for most of this work) and a tempo of risk that is palpably present in the space. It is quite exciting to be in, for an audience. We were not going to be allowed to be passive observers. It looks right (set and costumes by Luke Ede) . The lighting (Matt Cox) takes risks of being “Authentic” in atmosphere. The sound, unfortunately, (Jake Phillips) has good effects but poor engineering. (Maybe the engineering system was eaten up by the requirements of the music presence of a live band (The Snowdroppers) but it was a kind of diminished noise and the effects were not very well developed. It seemed to me that the same storm happened every time, over the passage of weeks in the narrative, both the lightning flashes and the sound!!!

The actors had a general energy of drive, highly staked characters. They had a go at the dialect and it was a fairly even success rate of achievement, nothing drew to an attention of doubt -there was at least, a consistency. From the dynamic entrance of Sharla (Anita Hegh) naked except for a T-shirt, scratching her privates to the menace of Killer Joe Cooper, (Christopher Stollery) one is thrown into, without a single second of apology an uncompromising world of "rednecks" and a family on the edge of a kind of culturally permitted insanity.

Christopher Stollery, maybe, taking some cues from Javier Badem, and then adding some dark fantasies of his own, creates a memorable scary “mother fucker”. Mr Stollery does not hold back and there is never a false move from him. I’ve never seen him better. Mr Stollery keeps this world alive for our imaginings. He leads this company well. While most of the rest of the acting is good, it is not completely satisfying. The character journey of Sharla is quite a twisted trail, and I was not really interested in the character until almost too late. Mr Letts has given opportunities for clue giving earlier than ones seized by this actor. Maeve Dermody (Dottie) does not quite have the theatrical energy of the rest of the company. There is something more going on than just mere intellectual diminishment. (I was also distracted at the detail of a bare hand handling of a long heated dish coming from the microwave. Both the bowl and the lid were handled without burning the flesh. A very strange anomaly in a production that emphasised the reality of its details. A cloth or gloves!!) On the night I saw it Mr Josh Quong Tart (Ansel) and Mr Robin Goldsworthy (Chris) seemed to be overstating their choices. I tended to read accurate characteristics or in acting terms “secondary activities” (Nose scratching blinks and other physical tics, dirty underwear, wet clothes because of the outside rain [well Mr Quong Tart was wet, Mr Goldsworthy must have had an umbrella!!]) They were external indications, glued on rather than motivated from the psychological needs of the character’s internal life. It became slightly irritating, mostly because it was just a fraction short of convincing. It was been shown to me rather than experienced. These actors were acting. This was not real like I had almost convinced my senses to experience. Oh, bummer, I am in a theatre.

Besides the work of Chrisropher Stollery what really keeps you going is the fabulous story skills of Mr Letts. The twists and turns, the rise and fall of tensions, the black and often unexpected humour are surprising and hypnotically addictive. When you read his other texts: AUTUMN:OSAGE COUNTY and even a more freaky story BUG you are reminded of the dazzling writing of Martin MacDonagh (THE PILLOWMAN etc). This is very witty and scary stuff. The essence of great story telling.

The Director Iain Sinclair is fairly well on the mark in his approach to this play. More discipline with his actors and a less cerebral wrapping around the text would probably less inhibit the result. The "essay" in the program about Terror and/or Horror is maybe a bit over the top in your real concerns with this play. Here is a great story. Here are a collection of crazy people. Just get on with that. This may be reminiscent of Sam Shepard (CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, BURIED CHILD, TRUE WEST, A LIE OF THE MIND) but Mr Lett’s poetry and thematics are secondary, it seems to me, arguably, to his intentions. Mr Sinclair is just a little too well organized, the playing of his production is too particular, too neat. It has not the real danger of “apparent” spontaneity. There is a careful strain to details (Look at the film of ATONEMENT and see where too much ART kills a story.)

I had a good time but I was not completely convinced. Most of the rest of the audience I was with were. (Hey, what a party pooper. I didn’t like the band interruptions to the impetus of the story for instance. I would have probably cut them, but then it is an interesting idea. (After all Sam tried it with A LIE OF THE MIND, and unfortunately, it sunk, in practice, that production too!!)

This is, once again another outstanding piece of theatre that is a CO-OP production. Take note major funded houses. It's cheaper and much, much more exciting. A pity the artists aren’t paid.

Playing now until 2 November. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mary Stuart

Schiller’s MARY STUART. In a new version by Peter Oswald. Presented by the Ensemble Theatre.

Arguably, five great classics of the repertory were promised this year in Sydney. The Bell Shakespeare presented HAMLET. The ANTIGONE at Belvoir. THE WOMEN OF TROY at the Sydney Theatre Company. The Ensemble Theatre as part of its celebratory 50th Anniversary Season offered DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Arthur Miller), and now the great German play Friedrich Schiller’s MARY STUART in a new version by Peter Oswald. This acclaimed version was premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005. Peter Oswald is a verse dramatist himself and has written this new version in a mixture of prose and poetry.

MARY STUART is a surprising choice for the Ensemble Company in its 50th Anniversary Year, but I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see it. Verse drama has only once appeared in this company’s repertoire. In their 50 year history HAMLET is the exception. I cannot even remember Mary Stuart been presented in Sydney before. (The last time I saw it was a few years ago at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.) So this is a very innovative offer from the Ensemble Company. Looking at the biography of the Director, Mark Kilmurry, (other work has included HAMLET, CYRANO DE BERGERAC) one can detect he has a bent for this kind of play or perhaps it was the opportunity of working with an Internationally acclaimed actress, Greta Scacchi, and finding a role that would sustain and challenge her (a brave choice considering that the World’s present international Elizabeth [much lauded] lives in Hunter’s Hill!!!)

I am sorry to report that this production of this great play is not very good at all. The director is surely responsible for the conception of this production, design and casting. The Company has approved it. (Look at my lament about the Bell HAMLET production.)

Greta Scacchi makes a fair fist of her role as Elizabeth and has prepared herself vocally and physically for the demand of the text and its style, even if played in such a small space as the three sided Ensemble room. Ms Scacchi’s use of the language, verse and the drama inherent in it, is imaginatively engaged, detailed and thought through. There is narrative, drama and wit. It has a variety of action in the textual usage that is easy to identify with. The physical life has a set of iconic gestures that behove a Queen and give the required status to the characterisation. The dilemma of a ruler is precisely delineated, and given the less than useful offers of the other actors to develop the complexities of the role, Ms Scacchi gives her audience a definitive place to empathise. In this production, the play is hers. I have always thought that this role, Elizabeth, of the two Queens, is the better role to attempt to solve. If you look to Donizetti’s MARIA STUARDA or Benjamin Britten’s GLORIANNA, you will see that they tend to agree. "Although ostensibly the tragedy of Mary, the truly tragic figure is Elizabeth. While Mary rises to a state of serenity, detached from the uncertainties and yearnings of life, Elizabeth is forced to commit judicial murder by the political pressures she lives under and ends utterly isolated on her throne, condemned to live on in the real world of politics."

Of the other actors that I felt achieved some level of commendable communication, Daniel Mitchell, as Burleigh, gives impetus and urgency to his work. Ben Ager, as Paulet, attempts a rounded and sympathetic portrayal, as does Julie Hudspeth as Hanna Kennedy, the nurse to Mary. Their textual attack is clean and unadorned with emotional baggage. Clarity of narrative intent, allowing us to endow the emotional life instead of having it exhibited to us. The text is primary. The feelings are secondary. Bravo!

Kate Raison, as Mary Stuart, seems to me way out of her depth. The lack of vocal colour and support from her very first speech "Hanna control yourself. What’s happened?" causes one to have misgivings about what is to follow. But then, in her second speech, "Hanna the jewels did not make the queen. Calm down……….." when the spoken word "calm" has such a broadly composed Australian vowel, one heart sinks. (Let alone the "i" sound in words like "night" and much else) I was jettisoned from the suspension of my disbelief immediately. I began to muse that maybe this is the production being rehearsed at the Women’s Convict Prison on the Penrith plains of the colony, as a sequel to The STC’s present production of THE CONVICT OPERA. So distracted was I by the sounds coming from Ms Raison, rather than try to stay with the events unfolding I began to puzzle over the choice of the dialect. "It is not English" I thought. "It is not French." "After all Mary was educated in France, (and the director permits Alan Dukes to attempt a French sound [poorly] for his impersonation of Bellievre, why not encourage Kate Raison to do the same.)" "It is stridently Australian." "Surely", I carped to myself, "Dialect is just a skill. It can be learnt." (Albeit at some real effort.) Hmmmmmm!!! Physically, the choices are naturalistic and seem to be that of the actress attempting to express the logic of her text by conducting us through it with illustratively, pointed fingers. But worse, she tends to gabble emotionally over her text. There is no argued logic from this Queen, rather an outpouring of generalised, romanticised emotional states. The balance of the play is lost. Greta Scacchi, carefully and wittily guides us through her material and in reply, from Ms Raison, there is only a scattergun of emotional excess. The fact that Ms Raison and her director has (a small detail) permitted this queen to be barefooted throughout the majority of her responsibility (the meeting of the two Queens at Fotheringhay, and later in the ultimate scene leading to her execution) suggests a naturalistic diminishing of the status of this royal personage to fit the life and size of this rather contemporary Australian actress. Ms Raison has some intelligence and certainly the instincts and obviously the ambition for this role but does not have, on the performance I attended, the necessary skills for this much famed role in this much famed play, (first penned in 1800) that requires a kind of acting style and vocal and physical discipline that is not met by this actress. If there is no believable Mary in MARY STUART there is no drama and there is, alas, almost no play.

The other actors in this production do not offer any stature to their text or characters, generally. Jonathan Prescott, in the best of the male roles in the play, Mortimer, throws away every one of his opportunities in a pell-mell of exigent emotion. His declaration of love to Mary after the meeting of the two queens in the third act was so exasperatingly hysterical that one could not follow what was happening as indicated by the words of Mr Oswald/Schiller. We grasped his state by a demonstration of physical action, a rush on stage, with his coat undone to reveal a naked upper torso (almost causing laughter, at its obvious intention of communication, from some of the audience. Note, he took his curtain call dressed, with the under shirt on, so it was a choice). In the text Mr Oswald indicates "His whole appearance suggests a strong, passionate mood", later "Looking at her with glowing eyes", later again "With unsteady look, indicating quiet madness" and later still "Approaching her with open arms". Twice Mr Oswald indicates that Mary avoids him by "Stepping back." Not, "Lay back and roll on the ground." But what we witness, is an actor literally rolling with the Queen of Scotland on the ground in a rapacious urge. It is too ridiculous to believe, in the context of the life of the play and who these people are. However, it is indicative of the careless direction to the text by Mr Kilmurry throughout the performance. This may have been a suitable improvisation in the rehearsal stages of the work, to discover the boundaries of possibilities, but once investigated the "Given Circumstances" of the period and manners of the world of the play should have been taken into consideration. Goodness knows what the spirit of Mr Hayes Gordon is making of this work in the auditorium named in his honour.

Mr Dukes, given the very demanding task of impersonating four characters (almost asking a super human feat) makes the wearing of spectacles a delineation for one of his people. The choice is poor. Where were the Director and Designer to help? The role of Davidson was trivialised in this production and in the dramatic construct of the piece, Davidson is pivotal to the revealing of Elizabeth’s machinations and predicament, Mr Dukes flounders in his overall responsibility through no real fault of his own. Mr Dickson, as Dudley, Lord Leicester, appeared tired. Mr Ross as Talbot, perfunctory. Both thumb nail sketches. Functions, not people with things at stake, in a great world of importance to the destiny of world events. Distressingly disappointing. Here is where the greatness of the play lies. All the characters have much at stake. The decisions these characters make will affect world events, profoundly, and every one of them have the possibility to create a different direction for the fate of the world to move in. ALL the characters have the possibility to move and shake the world. There are very few "Functionaries" here in this world as Schiller/Oswald have written. And yet Mr Kilmurry has not urged that from his players.

This is indulgent work at the expense of the playwrights, and then subsequently to the audience’s appreciation as to why this text is regarded so highly in the world of Great Theatre tradition. Just to ask these two questions (there are many others) of Mr Kilmurry: What are the "politics" that are being debated? (Themes etc). What is the poetry as explicated by Mr Oswald of Schiller’s original work? This, you will not have an opportunity to experience in this production. It is simply an emotional, quasi-romantic response to the great story and myths around these two queens and history. Absolutely no intellectual rigour or guidance for his actors based on a close dramaturgical reading of the play.

The Set design (Nicholas Dare) has a large black wall, framed by two curving bricked arches. On these walls are three burning contemporary looking torches. The floor, which ,depending where you are seated is of some visual importance, is a poorly painted pattern of a wooden/stone floor. The Lighting (Nicholas Higgins) is pragmatic and lacks any imaginative atmospherics of any invention. The sound (Daryl Wallis) has, once again depending where you are seated, an over emphatic drone with some mood and atmospheric offers to guide us to the emotions one should be feeling in the scene, much like the old Warner Brother’s scores to their films of the forties. (THE VIRGIN QUEEN.) The costumes (Julie Lynch) are dominated by a wonderful creation for Elizabeth (Greta Scacchi). It is impressive. However, it looks as if the rest of the cast had no budget left to dress them. Mostly graded in black, the designs are not useful if they were meant to support the drama. The Costume for Mr Prescott is simple in its execution but has a crazy decorated ribbon about his thigh, that no matter how authentic its origins may have been, is simply risible. Mr Mitchell struggles to gives a believable performance in the costume he is asked to wear, and it speaks volumes of his general success, because his costume looks as if he were in an ill fitting dressing gown, accessorised with some paltry decoration, from a pantomime, and a fob watch, suitable for a down at heel aristocrat from the novels of Dickens, rather than the court of Elizabeth the First.

All of the above artists have responded to the vision of Mr Kilmurry. So, I must hold him responsible for what I see on stage and trust (unfortunately) that everything we have paid to witness is the result of a considered choice from this Director and Producing Company. The look of this work takes me back to the halcyon days of the sixties when the theatre opportunities for an audience in Sydney were either at the Independent Theatre, The Ensemble Theatre, The New Theatre or the Genesian Theatre. The Old Tote still in its first faltering steps. The Genesian Theatre (which still functions down there 420 Kent Street) did its productions as keen amateurs with sets and costumes, lighting and sound in a completely inventive and often anachronistic embarrassment of inventive poverty. I am reminded of those "glorious" days from what Mr Kilmurry has allowed on stage Fusty. Fusty. Fusty. Now, as the Ensemble Company has reached to such an ambitious scale as to choose to do this play to celebrate its 50 years of history, (way out of its usual character) it ought to take into account the minimum necessities to do this play well, for a contemporary audience in 2008. The decision is simple. Can we do this play well? Or do we choose something else? More money or a different vision of it? A different venue as with THE DEATH OFA SALESMAN? Or a different play?

When one looks at the Ensemble season for 2009 of ten plays, one is struck that Mr Kilmurry is directing three of the productions, in fact the first three, and then has also written and will direct another and also star in a fifth. Half of this company’s season!!!!! Half of the season !!!!!! One hopes the investment that the Ensemble has made in this talent will be rewarded with a more considered effort then MARY STUART.

This play is worth attending, just to hear it out loud, and although, based on my experience of this production, I cannot recommend a great night in the theatre, you will be able to see the glimmering of a great work and why it is held in such high regard internationally and attracts the talents of actresses of the calibre of Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter (The two Queens in the original Oswald production in 2005). You will also have the opportunity of seeing Ms Scacchi, live, in a brave and considered piece of artistry, at work, despite most else.

I need to state that I saw this production in preview. I would be interested to know what changes may have evolved over the preview season. Let me know.

Playing now until 6 December. Book online or call 02 9929 0644.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Convict's Opera

Sydney Theatre Company and Out Of Joint present THE CONVICT’S OPERA by Stephen Jeffreys adapted from THE BEGGAR’S OPERA by John Gay at the Sydney Theatre.

I attended this production late in its season. I had read and been told a lot of things about this production. None of them encouraging. And it did prove to be a very dispiriting night in the theatre.

It had nothing to do with the performances .

In fact, I should like to begin by congratulating the Actors of this company for a great show of professionalism. Valiantly giving committed and cheerful performances in what could only be a disheartening project. The theatre auditorium, fairly empty and those of us there, generally responding supportedly, but in a bewildered manner. Peter Cousens, in fact gave a really remarkable performance, both his Lockit and Eddie Cosgrove are detailed and lively and when he has a great speech to give, he transported us into a pulsing, poetic, imaginative world. Under any circumstance this was outstanding work. Similarly, I should like to compliment Glenn Butcher and Catherine Russell and Karina Fernandez. The energy and focus and efforts to engage us were object lessons of the actors’ craft and inspiration at work. Actors that sing very well, act convincingly, move beautifully, some, playing instruments to create an orchestra live on stage. Much to admire. I feel as if I sound a little as if I am scrambling for something positive to say. In truth I am not. I thought the work of the Acting company (and no doubt the back stage crew, in support as well) was worth talking about.

The problem seems to be the origins of the idea for the play. The play is about the journey of a convict transport ship on its journey from England to the colony in Australia. We travel with this ship to the different ports of call and experience the exigencies of such a voyage, such as being becalmed in the doldrums of nature, celebrations on crossing the equator, storms, threatened mutiny and the liaisons of crew and convicts etc. The conceit at the centre of the play is that while making this journey the Captain of the ship has had the idea that the convicts should rehearse a production of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA to be presented at the voyage end. So the play is cast, the rehearsals begin, the voyage is undertaken. It all unravels. Inevitably the lives of the convicts and the characters of the material become entwined etc. Some of the convicts have their lives elevated and enhanced by being involved in the creation of art. And finally humanity triumphs and in this production we all take inspiration from the wide azure blue of the great sky space of Australia.(ie the big blue sky cloth at the STC lit beautifully by Nick Schlieper.)

Now, if this sounds familiar, it may be because the play OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD by Timberlake Wertenbaker (based on the novel, The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally) has very similar intentions. And in fact this was directed by Max Stafford–Clark for the Royal Court and “transported” memorably to the STC for a season, nearly 20 years ago. It was, as Mr Stafford-Clark reminds us in his program notes, a memorable experience. (Mr Stafford-Clark also mentions Robert Hughes’ THE FATAL SHORE as an inspiration. I hope he read the more recent COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES by Thomas Keneally too. It seems to me a more cogent contemporary development on the story of our history.

On paper, the combination of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA, a writer of the skill of Stephen Jefferys (THE LIBERTINE, THE CLINK and last year’s interesting THE ART OF WAR) and the famous and prodigious reputation of Max Stafford-Clark looks a promising investment. However something has gone wrong. The mixing of the John Gay world and the world of Stephen Jeffreys never seem to match in quality. The Gay wins hands down for veracity and insight. The Jeffreys often sounds pompous and just a little condescending in its social message, too didactic, too transparent in its intentions. The writing only occasionally flashes the brilliance of his usual density of thought, character and language (THE LIBERTINE). The mixing of the original Ballad Opera score with contemporary popular culture tunes such as SAILING, I WANT TO BE STRAIGHT, THOSE WERE THE DAYS etc, whilst initially amusing, in the end seem an increasingly desperate measure to keep the work alive by giving the audience a culture fix they can recognise. The techniques employed by the director to tell the story feel very familiar, even, in this manifestation contrived, and lack the creative energy to keep it disguised.

The space, the Sydney Theatre, just feels to big for this project. The Set (Dale Ferguson) whilst it is practical appears to be overblown (the scale of the space is the problem!!!????). Costumes (Tess Schofield) are witty but they too run out of means to keep us from being bored with them. (We become obsessed with the make of jeans.) The lighting, as usual, from Mr Schlieper is impressive.

It is a moribund night in the theatre.

The fact that this production is travelling to London, especially after the critical debacle over RIFLEMIND, does not augur well for the Company’s artistic reputation internationally. Oh well. We cast the die and these are the consequences. No one sets out to make bad work. What will be, will be.

Playing now until 25 October. Book online or call 02 9250 177.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blowing Whistles

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Focus Theatre present BLOWING WHISTLES by Matthew Todd.

BLOWING WHISTLES is an English play by Matthew Todd skilfully adapted to the local Sydney scene by Alice Livingstone and Pete Nettell. This is a revival of a production of this play after a successful season at the B Sharp venue at Belvoir during the 2008 Mardi Gras festivities last February. The post card blurb suggests that “straight and gay audiences alike will relate to this comedy”. Certainly the gay audience will embrace it. They did last night.

The play’s main story deals with two men, Nigel (Lindsay Moss) and Jamie ( Neil Phipps) on the night of their 10th Anniversary, which in this version of the play happens to co-incide with the Mardi Gras Parade and Party, as a couple coming to terms with the generational growing pains of a relationship as it moves into a necessarily more mature understanding. Moving from the hedonistic life style of relative youth to the facing up to the passing of time and a feeling of a need for a new value system to rest their life choices on. One of them is 37, the other 32. One of them is growing up the other is not. It leads to a fairly melodramatic but realistic duel of wills and expressions of angst.

The other part of the play is the catalyst for this confrontation. It concerns a young, 17 year old gay/"bi-curious" man, Mark (Lachlan Mantell) who is trying to find out what it is to be gay and how to behave or navigate oneself into this marginalised world. He is of the generation that uses the internet to find his education and sex. He has, of course, no educational mentors or instruction and no history to support him in his forays and they result in the usual experiences of the ignorant beginner, fraught with wrong and dangerous moves. (See Alan Ball’s TOWELHEAD at the movies, to see a heterosexual version of this dilemma). This for me was the most interesting stream in the play. Covering an area of experience of the younger generation and the difficulties they face in a world where material values are prevalently paramount to their self esteem and the internet as an easier relationship than that of a human face to face contact. The confusion between love and sex is the same dilemma for all three men, but for the young man it is also connected to the appearances of money: an apartment, an “audi” etc as also valuable goals. He pleads for love but he craves security of another kind as well. His confusion is truly pathetic in its proper meaning (arousing pity through sadness). Neither of these older men really know how to help, their own emotional immaturity still a barrier to looking outside themselves. The proper assistance to this young boy (surrogate son) may have been a way to grow but they are not able to deal with that as yet. This stream of the text could bear more examination. (note I feel Tommy Murphy’s play, STRANGERS IN BETWEEN, from a few years back at The Griffin/Stables dealt with this world fairly well and could be looked at again profitably.)

The writing in this play is mostly a mix between the broad camp comedy quips of say THE GOLDEN GIRLS and the soap opera sentimentality of, say, DYNASTY (both 80’s Television). However, if you enjoyed QUEER AS FOLK you will love this as well. This is very M.O.R. (MIDDLE OF THE ROAD).

The acting is generally competent and certainly sincere, especially Mr Phipps, and it is ultimately absorbingly believable. (The work of Mr Mantell is curiously disturbing in its naturalism and I would need to see him in other work before I could recognise his "acting" talent. It should be taken as a compliment that I found it very real and in no way theatrical.) The Direction is straight forward and serves the text (Pete Nettell and Alice Livingstone.) The Set (from Ikea) and graphic designs (Wayne Harris) are serviceable. Straight forwardly pragmatic.

This is Community Art at its most necessary. For any marginalised section of a community it is essential that these stories are told and that are told in a public space with a lot of people. The cathartic therapy that one feels as a result of this hugely shared experience is a necessity for a healthy community. One could feel the recognition and confrontation, comedy and relief palpably in the theatre throughout the performance. Last year, for the gay community, it was Tommy Murphy’s HOLDING THE MAN. It seemed to run forever all over the country. There is an appetite and need for this kind of play as the Belvoir seems to have found with its telling of the Indigenous story for a section of the Sydney community. In San Francisco there is a small community theatre called THE NEW CONSERVATORY, on the corner of Van Ness and Market Street, which programs, year round, only gay plays and/or material. In fact this is where HOLDING THE MAN had its American debut last year. I am not suggesting the need for a similar year-round company but just touting the value of such available experiences. The bigger community had/has David Williamson and cathartically used to get “its rocks off” with him. The gay community have Tommy Murphy, although there may be a shift in his direction if SATURN’S RETURN is a guide, targeting of the metrosexual generation “Y”.

I would prefer if the Focus Theatre continue this gay market target to see Christopher Shinn and/or more Mark Ravenhill. Both of these writers have a bigger world view within their gay lens that would be/could be highly appreciated by this area of the community and the larger homogenous one. They have a more astringent theatrical vocabulary than Mr Todd and certainly less sentimental. In both of these writers cases, very modern and real reflections of the society we live in. Pleased though I am to have seen this, this time round.

Good luck with the season. I agree with the above post card blurb: the gay audience will love this, but just ensure your straight friends are ready. There is in the foyer a warning to language, nudity and sex scenes. (I wonder whether the nudity and sex in this production borders on sexploitation.) As one of the characters in the play suggests these warnings may ensure a full house.

Playing now until 15 November. Book online or call 02 8356 9987.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sid's Waltzing Masquerade


This is the final work of the Sydney Dance Company in 2008. An intermediary year of three choreographers working with the dancers whilst in the hiatus of searching for a new Artistic leader. I personally feel the company has benefited much from the input and experience of the three guest choreographers: Meryl Tankard, Rafael Bonachela and now Aszure Barton.

This work has the feel of a deliberate choice that is as opposite to The Bonachela as possible. The Bonachela 360 Degrees was bombastically contemporary in every area of creativity. It’s stature has grown for me over time and is even further appreciated after this work. If the Bonachela was an example of the trend of contemporary Brutalism in performance art, then this work is Fairy Floss.

The stage area has been converted, Designed, (Gerard Manion) into a proscenium style space, even with a red velvet front curtain. The work has a pre-blurb in the program “SID’S WALTZING MASQUERADE IS A ROUSIN’, CAROUSIN’ ADVENTURE OF A GUY & HIS GANG… IT’S GOING TO BE HEAVEN.” The work begins with Bradley Chatfield been flown in from the flies, (presumably the GUY) in front of the curtain, on a chair, lip synching, sometimes to a song. He gets out of the chair and after a preamble dance, the curtains peel open to a drearily designed space. It has the dance wings on either side and has a full width rising staircase from off prompt to prompt (probably going to heaven.) across the back. They are very high risers and they are, like the wing maskers, black. After the imaginative use of all the elements of set design in the Bonachela work (Set pieces and digital and film techniques, this work looks as if it has suffered, as it seems it has had no budget to execute, even well. The floor is a white tarquet. If the set is to be so ugly and really, antithetical, to the spirit of the work, one presumes that the lighting will compensate and create the atmosphere of what seems to be a work that is intended as an end of year frolic of fun, in contrast to the rest of the season. Unfortunately, Trudy Dalgleish fails to keep us delighted with lighting, that is only sporadically interesting or beautiful. The costumes by a “fashionista” Michelle Jank are truly disastrous. Not only are they ugly on the dancers, particularly for the women, but they do not look as if they are very conducive to dance in. The male costumes are just unimaginative and dreary. The program notes tells us that Michelle Jank is attempting her first foray into costume design. (and they should be read to be believed that this is not some glossy magazine hype of a fashion figure rather than notes of a serious artist of the theatre. I paid $15 dollars to read such aggravating twaddle and spin. I could have bought a novel for that price or a better informed fashion magazine. What are the Marketing and/or the Publicity people doing in allowing this to be part of the statement on the work? Or is it doing what they want, some kind of groovy fame by association with a trendy fashion industry figure? How COOL is this company to have Michelle Jank design our costumes!!!! The photographs throughout the Program look like a fashion spread for Michelle Janks’ clothing, for I found it hard to recognise a single costume on stage from the images in the program, except for the men, maybe. I could list of a number of theatre/dance designers that would be very interested to work for this prestigious company.) The Sound design (George Gorga) is mostly just recordings of other people’s work and engineered for the space. In contrast to the dynamic invention of a similar task in the Bonachela work it is very uninspired and underwhelming. The program notes suggest that this combination of Design team “would produce a remarkable fusion of design ideas.” Well, it is remarkable, chiefly, for its aesthetic failure.

So all in all Ms Barton does not seem to have as a creative handle on all the elements of the theatre as it was, amazingly so, from Mr Bonachela. It was a comparative disappointment.

Now I am no expert, but what about the dance? Well, my impression is that Ms Barton has worked with each of the dancers and has “become fascinated with the history and inner life and eccentricities of the artists……I am,” Ms Barton states, “striving to bring their talents forward” Well, if slapping each other over the head, putting your fist in your mouth (which might be a suitable image for this work), or discovering the physical peculiarities of the dancers, such as an ability to rotate one’s head extraordinarily above one’s shoulders and repeating that gesture ad-nauseam, is bringing these dancers talents to the fore, it may not be enough. The work seemed to be made up of bits and pieces that ended up being itsy bitsy and added up to fairy floss. The work was almost an hour long and maybe there was a twenty minute piece here. The choreography began well with a Spring feel of breadth and width and cheeky naughtiness, the music seemed to be fun and promising in its choices, but gradually the work was ground down to repetitions and humour that was progressively tiresome because it was repetitive. The music, finally, just a collated list of somebodies favourite tunes. There did not seem to be any strong choreographic structure to the piece, just “lets do this next”. It led to stops and restarts. There was no evolution of form or narrative or anything much. I was bored by the end. The woman behind me refused even to applause. Her companion, and later I, berated her to at least acknowledge the effort of the dancers work.

Well, the dancers were at least athletic and displayed stamina. But mostly the work was fairly undisciplined and lacked care (again in contrast to the focus and committed effort of the last work). Now, Chen Wen may be a find, but unless somebody takes him to task and suggest that his speed and what looks like Peking opera acrobatics are not enough, that bodyline and dance finish might be included in the execution, then the audience may soon tire of him – a flash of surprise but not much to sustain us beyond that. There is no artistic care just ego flair in my reaction to Mr Wen’s offers. I did enjoy the work of Reed Luplau very much, but, still, enthusiasm or carelessness was also present that detracted from the overall impression. The guest artist and assistant to Ms Barton, Ian Robinson, was also interesting to watch. Maybe it is difficult to ensure the quality of the dancing if you are also featured as a dancer in the work?

This work if re-designed (scrap the set and especially the costumes) and refined to a twenty minute piece, might result in a great support divertissement to the contemporary thrill of 360Degrees, if the company toured this work. Otherwise thanks for the promise of a “ROUSIN’,CAROUSIN’ ADVENTURE”. It is a pity it didn’t work out this time. Certainly it was well short of your target: HEAVEN.

The Overture Series in the foyer of the CARRIAGEWORKS by Reed Luplau called GO was certainly more interesting and promising than the last one by Shaun Parker. The solo dances, duets, trios and quartets were choreographically evolving and involving. The dancers were well used. The biggest problem is the height of the platform that the piece was executed on. It was too low for a standing audience. Most of us had only obstructed views. Mr Luplau certainly should feel encouraged by his work effort.

Playing now until 25 October. Book online or call Ticketmaster on 136100.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just Macbeth!


To quote from the publicity postcard: "Bell Shakespeare’s JUST MACBETH! By Andy Griffiths is a really silly version of Shakespeare’s great big gory tragedy starring Andy, Lisa, Danny, and (yuck!) Jen from the JUST TRICKING!, JUST STUPID!, JUST SHOCKING! books. It’s got six funny but tragic actors, a garden gnome, and a severed head that talks Shakespearean. Plus, there are witches, WIZZ FIZZ, ghosts, girl germs, and weird Elizabethan things like soliloquies and sharp swords and other things beginning with S. An hilarious and irreverent take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, JUST MACBETH! will have you and your family in stitches!"

Now, for once, I would say all that publicity spin is accurate and more so. I had a really delightful time at the performance of JUST MACBETH! last Saturday. A full house of kids and myself and their parents and/or relatives!!!!!! Not since watching a production of Ken Cambell’s hilarious kid’s piece OLD KING COLE have I had such an unrestrained response to broad comedy. Entertainment plus.

Andy Griffiths, a highly successful (nationally and internationally) and prize winning author of children’s literature under commission to The Bell Shakespeare Company, under the Direction of Wayne Harrison, has written a play where six young kids explore in their English class MACBETH. Using the irreverent humour of the books, Griffiths has found a way to tell the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and some of the tricks of the literature forms in the play, to introduce the audience to Shakespeare. It is entirely triumphant. The classroom humour of the books and the marrying with usage of the Shakespeare text is wonderfully blended and as clear as a bell. Educationally, the objective ought to have been achieved abundantly. The young audience were in raptures of laughter and shock, and attentive and absorbed in the story telling of the original play. The moral questions were all suitably dealt with and a very good time was had by all if you register the applause and the buzz of the audience afterwards. It was certainly one of the best occasions I have had at a Bell Company production for some time. (See Hamlet.)

This is the second production of Wayne Harrison’s I have seen this year, CODGERS being the other. The same assured hand that guided us through the writing of Don Reid takes the wheel in this very difficult territory of Spoof and Respect. The text is wonderfully balanced, the Set and Costumes (Pip Runicman) wonderfully suited and useful, supported by Sound that is witty and great fun (Tony David Cray) and Lighting (Martin Kinnane) that is robustly comically bright to serve the material and atmospheres of the piece. Mr Harrison’s adeptness in casting and his firm but sensitive management of the actors represents a skill that younger director’s, still learning the “trade” ,should observe. He provokes outrageous choices but has the great gift, that a Director of this sort of material requires in abundance, tasteful restraint. It is often demented in its comedy but it always has a sense of deliberation. Mr Harrison knows he has two hours of play here and he never lets his cast and audience get out of control and so we are guided and sustained through both those hours with a freshness that gives us the resources to endure the comic potential of the entire play. I felt as excited at the end as I was at the beginning and his young audience stayed with the play with an undying appetite and an eager expectation of the next moment, no matter how hard they had laughed the moment before. The young audience’s concentration was palpable. This is comic skill of a high order.

The Company of six actors are all to be admired for their sense of wit, skill and stamina. This work is no easy task. Rhiannon Owen, Mark Owen-Taylor, Pippa Grandison, John Leary, Tim Richards, and Patrick Brammall are all masterful in their concentration and commitment to the play. There greatest skill is their unselfconsciousness in the playing of kids of an age considerably their junior. It is their considerable belief in that area of their characterisations that captures the audience of all ages and takes us effortlessly into the world of the play. Not ever, do I feel condescension or judgement, these actors are who the play tells us they are, from the deliriously silly fun of making a witches potion in a blender, to the conversations with the garden gnome playing Macduff, to the bare bum exposure in heaven where everything is good and possible, to the quoting of the Shakespearean text, especially Patrick Brammall’s moving (relatively) handling of the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” soliloquy, I felt respected and secure.

John Leary is the most robustly coarse of our actors in this production. Coarse, as a compliment to his vaudevillian inclinations. He is required to play a multiplicity of roles and all of them are expertly handled including Jen’s Other Friend, Lennox and brilliantly, NURSE- a wonderful recreation of a look alike Barbara Windsor in the CARRY ON DOCTOR series of films, which both the adults in the audience and the kids relished immensely, hopefully, for different reasons.

Patrick Brammall, in the leading role responsibility of Andy / Macbeth, threads his way expertly through the demands of crazy farce to the serious task of leading us through a lot of the Shakespearean text. He has both the naughtiness of Andy and the intelligence and balance to play Macbeth and truly "educate" the young audience. His Stamina is breathtaking in its resource. An heroic presence.

Next, I would like to talk about Tim Richards who plays Danny /Banquo. Here is an actor that I have had the opportunity to watch over many years. Mr Richards sense of comedy is a joy to behold. He has the gift to commit to the most outrageous choice and yet withhold with delicate comic restraint so that comedy and empathy are all endowed on his offers, by his audience. He has the qualities of a mixture of Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin. Physically, he has the precision of a great dancer - one of the distinctions that Chaplin had as a creator. He makes you laugh and yet he strikes such chords of deep humanity that you could follow the famous Chekhovian instruction of “laughing through tears” of recognition, in response to his offers. He has a comic dignity that given greater opportunity is worth nurturing. His "bum" moment and his gliding across the stage on his skate board exit is heavenly! and a gem in my recent bench marks of going to the theatre.

This is a highly recommended experience for all ages.

Playing now until 26 October. Book online
or call 02 9351 7940.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Makropulos Secret

Opera Australia presents THE MAKROPULOS SECRET. An Opera in three acts by Leos Janacek. Libretto by the composer, after Karel Capek’s comedy (1922).The Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Makropulos. Greek. Secrets. Crete. “Vanitas… ashes and dust.” Lawyers. Intestate will. Prima Donna. Opera. Magic. Madness. Suicide. Sex. Beauty. Potion. Hieronymous!!! (What an excitingly thrilling name.) Eternal life. Mystery. Words that to me conjure melodrama. These were the promise of an exciting and intriguing night in the theatre and they all appear in THE MAKRPULOS SECRET by Janacek.

I had never seen this Opera before. I went to a Dress rehearsal on Saturday and was so moved, excited that I went again on Opening night. This is a revival of Neil Armfield’s 1996 production. The Design is by Carl Friedrich Oberle. The Lighting Design by Nigel Levings. The Conductor is Richard Hickox. This artistic team are in great inspiration for this work. All the areas of Design and Direction are elegant, unfussy, clean and clear in their intention and execution.

The Set design, a large, raked, wooden floor surrounded by off white, cream walls that are scaled upwards into the theatre flys .The lower third clean rendering; the middle third scratched and scraped; the upper third once again clean, arcing upstage from the left hand side (with an entrance passage), across the stage into the wings on the opposite side. The other wall on our right, a severe curve of clean rendering which on curtain rise in the Overture has a large roman numeral clock projected onto it in a spinning fashion (it later comes to rest as the action begins.) Down the right hand proscenium a chalk board with patterns of chalked numerals. This design serves as the basic space for all three acts and three locations: The office of the lawyer Dr Kolenaty; (A beautifully sculpted human tableau of waiting customers.) On the stage of a theatre, post performance; In a hotel suite. The changes are served economically and beautifully with furniture and prop changes. This Design has the same clarity and genius that the Opera Australia have received from Mr Oberle in other work that was given with Goran Jarvefelt in their Mozart explorations in time past. It is clean and along with the lighting “refreshing” and stimulating to the eye and to the subsequent feeling for the production. One never tires of the look. The Costume Design is similarly simple but perfect in its details of communication.

This is a simple but immaculately conceived production by Neil Armfield. It is so clear in its storytelling. It is serious, funny, expressionistic, fantastic and many other moods when it needs to be and serves every moment compellingly. Could there be a better result?

The performances dramatically are confident, clear and incisive. From a kind of naturalism to an expressionistic melodrama of the kind opera theatrics can embrace with brio and daring. The work of Cheryl Barker as the central figure of Emilia Marty is outstanding. The control, poise wit and sense of drama is masterfully embodied. The singing, in my humble layman’s experience, is superlative the control, of what I understand to be a very difficult role, the stamina and power never falters. The intelligence of the creation of character supports all the musical demands. The agonising weary journey of Emilia Marty is brilliantly given.

All of the artists, in fact are exceptional in their work: Kaneen Breen. Catherine Carby. Peter Wedd. Andrew Collis. John Pringle. Jacqueline Dark. Shane Lowrency. Andrew Goodwin. Robert Gard. Domincia Matthews. Dinah Shearing. It is all of the cast that I have listed and it is a signal as to the detailed preparation that Mr Armfield has given his company. It is good acting .Special mention must be made of Robert Gard and John Pringle. Both these artists have had a long history with the company. In my experience of them over a very long time I have always regarded them as being wonderful singer /actors. Mr Gard is startling always with his sense of detail to character. Observe here ,his wonderful second act creation of the old rouĂ© Hauk-Sendorf. The detail of him carefully brushing his character’s “comb over” when approaching his “love” is exquisite in its communication. His sheer pleasure in just simply being able to perform is worth the price of your ticket. John Pringle brings to Jaroslav Prus elegance, dignity and expression of personal guilt and tragedy with simple economy. As always. (note also the presence of Dinah Shearing as Emilia Marty Incarnate at the end of the opera. Ms Shearing is one of the legendary contributors to the Australian Theatre . Her Performance in LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT long cherished, along with much else. Ms Shearing's contribution has all the anguish and human weariness embodied simply and movingly.)

This work uses the Karel Capek, comedy (1922) as the basis for the libretto . (Capek’s most famous play is THE INSECT PLAY.) The Opera deals with the possibility of the creation of a potion that enables humans to live forever. (How fascinating to recall only to two weeks ago, an interview on the Andrew Denton, ENOUGH ROPE with the controversial Australian Philosopher/Scientist, Julian Savulescu at Oxford, suggesting that Science with its genetic studies is not too far from finding a cure for all diseases and suggests further, that Aging is the next frontier to conquer and of its possibility. Living Forever!!! The Makropulos Secret.) The exploration of Time and Eternal Life was a preoccupation with writers and playwrights of the time (As it is today: David Lynch etc). Shaw (Back To Methusaleh); Priestley (Time and the Conways and others); Pirandello (Enrico IV and others.); Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth) H.G. Wells (The Time Machine and others) The Makropulos Secret exposed, during the course of a legal wrangle over a will, reveals a warning through the personal agony of Emilia Marty, that we should be careful for what we wish for. Being Human for 339 years can actually de-humanise one. It is an agony to see mankind repeating its follies. There may be more joy in our short life span where hope for change to better ends can be possible. To witness history at such an extent may “freeze” you to a heartlessness, an inhumanity. This is quite a challenging proposition for a contemporary audience. Or for some a blessed relief. That this is so wonderfully delivered in this production is very transfixing.

Music is not my area of expertise. And, I understand that some Opera goers may want more melody in their evenings in the theatre but this 80 year old work when played, listened to and acted and directed so clearly becomes a major character. The score/orchestra become a character, it reveals theme, narrative and commentary. It’s functions are many. The Janacek score is Music drama and is brilliant in its conception. (One is made to laugh at musical phrasings that comment on the action.)

Along with Neil Armfield’s production of BILLY BUDD, I have had two entirely satisfying evenings in the theatre. As music drama,transcending. It is undoubtedly demanding, and I may prefer a Wagner performance, but for Opera lovers this is worth attending. Witnessing Cheryl Barker’s performance is worth being able to say in the future “You should have seen that.” It will be a bench mark of achievement that I have had the great good fortune to witness twice.

I felt that THE MAKROPULOS SECRET as near a perfect night in the theatre as one can have at the Opera.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Women of Troy

Sydney Theatre Company present THE WOMEN OF TROY by Euripides adapted by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright, at Wharf 1.

On entering the theatre, one encounters the seats swathed in white dust covers. (You are also provided with a history of the Trojan war and the events leading up to the play, neatly printed out for your perusal on your seat.) The stage is lit with fluorescents. Stark, cool unattractive reality. (Lighting by Damian Cooper.) Along the entire back wall of the raised theatre stage there is a huge jigsaw of wooden and metal lockers which you might find in a very old gymnasium dressing room. They are either stacked horizontally or vertically, some with doors but most not. It is of a vast cinemascope width. All the pieces are second or third hand or reverse garbage finds. Down one seam in the structure there seeps a liquid like sump oil that puddles out onto part of the upstage acting area. Decrepit, ruined, functional, reclaimed. (Set and Costume design by Alice Babidge.) Julio Iglesias on a looped tape is recorded singing a glimpse of lyrics concerning “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Round and round it repeats and repeats and repeats.. It has the aural pitch of satiric kitsch and has the affect of quietly driving one crazy.. (Sound design by David Gilfillan). The forestage is a cheap and nasty blue carpet bedraggled, in areas severely worn and stained. Stained with what? Our imaginations target the likelihoods: vomit, piss, excrement, blood and fear. This is a contemporary world in some war zone. A functionary, dressed in civilian clothes (mercenaries??) with a lower half faced protective plastic mask walks across the stage purposely. The auditorium lights dim and the live musician who has arrived at the piano in front of the stage prepares (Daryl Wallis).

On a hand pulled goods trolley a hooded figure dressed in the jewels and robes of a queen is precariously rolled centre stage. The figure is lifted onto a pedestal that is only an old brown cardboard box (No marble plinth for her.). The attendant removes the jewellery, the blue trained robe, the full length court dress, penultimately the sparkling tiara and finally the black hood. Beneath is the fragile grey haired Queen of Troy in her under garments. (Robyn Nevin). (This, the reversal of the famous Brechtian device of dressing the Pope in GALILEO.) Here we see an iconic figure, the queen, revealed as a frail old woman. Someone like ourselves: a human. Soon she is joined by a hooded chorus of three other women of Troy, all once more in underwear, besmirched with blood and/or bruising, some trailing electrical attachments to their ankles. This then is a prison or holding base that resonates with the images of Abu Ghraib.

Our contemporary world is present……. and yet, it feels dated. The force of the imagery has not the impact it once may have had. It feels like History. The images so often recycled in our life encounters, that they now merely register as true but are relatively unaffecting. As imagery that only remotely emotionally engages us. (What with Climate Change issues and the threatening Economic (stock market) collapse of the world this imagery is further down our needs of urgency. A tragic observation to make.)

The production proceeds. All the performers are miked. The sound is clear but the intervention of technology between the characters and the audience seems to distance and dehumanise their spoken story. There is a distancing in the experience. I observe and listen. I am engaged in an objective place: my head, not yet my heart (my soul) my emotions. I understand but I don’t experience feelings. The speeches that Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright have fashioned from the original Euripides are powerful and image packed, yet it seems to be documentation – further distancing me. The lighting moves from the crude ugliness of the fluorescent reality to more theatrical states and colours. I become aware of the relative romantic surface gleam to sections of the performance and note the contrasts. The chorus sing but they sing anachronistically Opera, folk and cabaret/burlesque popular songs (Bizet, Mozart., Slovenian folk, "oh when your smiling" etc.) and they usually sing these pieces of popular music to counter balance ugly imagery. It is, I reflect, an often used theatrical device: To contrast the visual and the aural experience to make it easier for us to absorb. However, I am aware of the technique and I recognise it as a usual one in the theatrical armoury of Barrie Kosky’s work. The Sound scape of kitsch music choices (on a baby grand piano) and the familiar but banal sound scape of ordinary, bored life (unanswered telephone ringing, muffled, muted conversations etc ) and the artaudian application of the surround of exploding live gunshots around the auditorium and even under the seating, so that not only noise but the reverberation of the shot air vibrates my seating, is a technique I recognise. Again, my alienation from the events of the play continue and my focus on the means of communication employed by the director becomes more paramount to my experience. The physical violence is token. It is choreographed. The offered theatrical gesture of "danced" violence: physical abuse and rape, again distance me into a state of pretend. This is a representation, it is not real. My response is objectively intellectual.

Maybe, after the 8 hours of THE LOST ECHO (which I saw three times) (and much else of his other work) I have become inured to the production hallmarks of this director. The blurring of theatre genres, the usual toilet/gross settings, the cast near nude or dressed in underwear sporting blood or excrement or vomit, the oppositional use of the misery of beauty or the beauty of misery imagery, his penchant for beautiful classic music accompaniments to scenes of horror, his kitschy embracing of some popular music as humour and satiric observations etc. So, what is most shocking to me and surprising to me is that this is the first time I have had no surprises from a Barrie Kosky production. I have not been challenged. I have seen all these gestures before and they appear “Old Hat”. His theatre is usually full of confronting and clarifying demands at least in the technique he uses to tell his stories. But THE WOMEN OF TROY lacks that thrill. He seems to be repeating himself and it feels unsatisfactory. Particularly, since as Tom Wright his text collaborator tells us, that the approach to the writing has been "very much about reductionism." and this text of Euripides has been reduced, truncated to a very deliberate function and since my theatrical attention was objectively more and more engaged in the directorial style of aesthetic distancing, a richer verbal text may have balanced this. By richer I mean more density (For I truly admire the poetry of the adaptation) but it has been reduced too far for my need to attach to identify with the tragedy. By the end of the performance I and many others in the audience had been left in a place of “numbness”, “cool objectivity”, ”anaesthesia”. We applauded politely, patiently.

Of the cast, Robyn Nevin is marvellous in her handling of the great textual arias she has been provided with, especially with the opening and closing speeches. I felt the “sacking of Troy” speech was maybe a little to self consciously modulated, articulated. (Here, is a case in point of where I would argue that the vocal timbre and vulnerable emotional life of this actress would have had the double impact of sense AND emotion with her natural voice communicating to us rather than with the micro-phoned sound.) (To digress for a moment. A few years ago I attended a concert given by the great chanteuse Barbara Cooke. She sang most of her concert miked. But for her encores she “unplugged”. The difference in experiencing this artist was that miked we sat back and listened. “Unplugged” we leant forward and worked with her. We had to engage instead of having the sound given to us. In a documentary on the Broadway Theatre several of the stars of The Golden Age of Broadway suggest the demise of the American Musical began when the artist was assisted with technology. The audience just did not have to give as much to the performance and the performer had less to risk.) Melita Jurisic playing Cassandra, Andromache and Helen is particularly mesmerizing as the possessed, zombie eyed madwoman, Cassandra (White contacts in her eyes!!!!). The chorus of women Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van de Zandt and Jennifer Vuletic are concentrated and great in their contribution, especially, (along with Ms Nevin who reveals herself as a surprisingly good singer, both solo and chorus), in the Slovenian folk song episode.

So this is an interesting night in the theatre. Most of all, because, to be becalmed in the Theatre of Mr Kosky to a relative state of boredom is fairly unique in my extensive experience of his work. There is much to take from this production. The acting and musical input is outstanding, however, much like my response to the Belvoir production of
ANTIGONE earlier this year I feel that the Greek Theatre repertoire has not been given the powerful chance that is inherent in these formative expressions of Western Cultures struggle to understand itself. In the original these “powerless women Of Troy gain in moral stature what they cannot achieve in actual power”. These Trojan Women of Mr Kosky and Mr Wright look more like pathetic victims of war.

The great dignity of these victims of war is greatly communicated in a film presently screening near you.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR. Go and see it. I defy you not to be stunned and paralysed with the last ten minutes. And this is animated film!!!!

Playing now until 26 October. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.