Saturday, August 30, 2008

Civil

LIVEWORKS at the PERFORMANCE SPACE Carriageworks presents CIVIL devised by PACITTI COMPANY (UK).

CIVIL was first created in 1996 as a five person piece but evolved into a solo work for the director Robert Pacitti which he then performed until 2003 when it then was re-committed to Richard Eton (Dicky). Richard Pacitti is a guest artist at the LIVEWORKS Festival for Performance Space over the next two weeks. He is creating with Australian Artists a project: FINALE which will be premiered next Friday the 5th of September for three performances.

Richard Pacitti is the Artistic Director of Pacitti Company and creator of the SPILL Festival Of Performance-London’s premier biennale of experimental theatre and live art. Pacitti in his program notes explains that this piece is now 12 years old and that “the past decade has brought about a great number of changes, not least in the development of performance….” political concerns and technologies. In a forewarning Pacitti states that “whilst CIVIL is not a museum piece aspects of it are undeniably more common place than when it was made….” And this is true. However, it is quite interesting to see one of the progenitors of this world of Performance Art and to trace a line through to the artists of today. All the more exciting it is to anticipate this collaboration that will emerge next weekend. Just where has this artist’s interests and skills grown too?!!!!

CIVIL is a homage to Quentin Crisp."a raconteur who had defied convention all his life." CIVIL began in embryonic form when Pacitti was a child. His parents had a copy of Crisp’s book THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT and it became a source of inspiration when in 1996 he wanted to make a show about disobedience. Pacitti travelled to New York and spent two weeks “hanging out with Crisp.” A work was developed. In 2003 when the show was being revised for Richard Eton as performer they went back and shot more photographs and footage around the famous Chelsea Hotel.

The work is performed on a large white tarquette floor. At the back there is a very large screen onto which black and white photographs and black and white film is projected. The furniture has two solid wooden chairs, a made up queen size futon mattress, a microphone and stand. The props include a knife, a white dead rabbit, a polaroid camera, candles, a bottle of red wine and cork screw. The performer begins semi-naked in jeans and then into white silk pyjamas and then is fully naked. He is for most of the performance. (It becomes so much of the accepted imagery that it is neither distracting nor offensive. Interestingly the performance has an “R” rating. MMMM?) An original Soundtrack, written, performed and recorded by Robert Pacitti accompanies the action of the piece. The sound has music (eg Cohen, Nico’s Chelsea Girl), recorded voice-overs as well as live script.

We begin with a pose by the artist Richard Eton semi-naked holding a lighting fixture as a torch as the Statue of Liberty against a black and white photograph of the New York skyline and it finishes with a fully naked pose as the Statue of Liberty with an empty wine bottle as the torch against a colour photograph of a lurid sunset over New York that features hauntingly the World Trade Twin Towers of the American Empire. In between Eton has dragged a knife over his torso, seemingly gutted the rabbit and daubed his body with fingerprints of blood, poured the wine over his body, foot printed the floor with a trail of fading red wine, and in an almost final gesture drank some of the dregs of the wine. The images are much the clearer communicator. The text is less expertly delivered. It needs more vocal care, precision and active thought to have the same vividness of effect.

The effect of the performance for me was quaintly and conventionally theatrical. One can imagine that the nakedness and the knife blade situated at the anal hole and much else was once quite provocative. Today, I looked on it as a stroll through a time long past, I reconnect to recent work that have had similar objectives, perhaps of obscure political provocations, and appreciated CIVIL as I do when I watch an early art work of Nijinsky or Balanchine. I see here in CIVIL the origins of some of our contemporary experiences by artists at Performance Space and elsewhere. It is satisfying and historically quite a contextualising experience. My curiosity is certainly raised as to Mr Pacitti’s contemporary preoccupations and methods. What does he believe needs to be provoked in 2008? How does he do that in 2008? FINALE is supposedly sprung from a viewing of a BBC2 dramatisation of Zola’s THERESE RAQUIN. Love, Murder. Guilt. HMMMM?

In the mean time there is a wonderful program curated by Fiona Winning the Director of Performance Space over the next two weeks and any of us who are really interested in the width of the possibilities of performance expression should give it a try. The website is PERFORMANCESPACE.COM.AU You can explore the diversity of the events. Some of it is ticketed, some of it is even FREE. It might certainly be more politically interesting than SATURN’S RETURN or BUMMING WITH JANE and this space is an ART a buzz of its own. To be in it is a worth while artistic experience.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bumming With Jane

BUMMING WITH JANE by Tahli Corin. Produced by Tahli Corin and B Sharp at The Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

In the program notes there is the Bumming With Jane poem by Charles Bukowski and a quote from Doris Day.

This play has all the inclinations of the middle class romantic fantastic fawning over the glamorous grunge of Bukowski but with a 9o% feel of the world of Doris Day in its bourgeois sentimentalities (Drunk is romantic. The life of the self disenfranchised is a positive experience especially if you have love to get you through. etc) (Crazy, because even though darling Doris is quoted as saying “The important thing in life is just loving and living.” she always had a great job to permit her to do just that, and for her in great Metro-Goldwyn Mayer style- designers, designers, designers.)

In this play we are presented with two middle class generation "Y" slacker narcissists, Patrick and Jane, who have no jobs and don’t want a job (They keep quitting). One who feels able without conscience to feel ok about allowing oneself to trade sexual relations with a predatory older but richer individual (Beverly, the landlady) for free rent for three years and then feel entitled to live with another individual in the same apartment for two further years, deny the original sexual predator sex and still live rent free. To feel entitled to take advantage of the Government dole rules to indulge in loving sex and bottles and bottles of the legal drug of wine, wine, wine. (Red Wine.) And to be shocked to learn that there are consequences to choices and are bewildered when the landlady finally has them evicted and that Jane is pregnant. DUH, if you don’t pay your rent might you lose your apartment?!!! Double DUH, if you keep quitting your job might you lose the government hand out?!!!!! Triple DUH, if you have lots of sex might you end up pregnant?!!!!!! DUH. DUH. DUH. DUH. YES.

How interesting to meet another generation "Y" play, after
Saturn’s Return last week. Assuredly a different strata of the constituency in almost every way but with the same self absorbed entitled view of living. Where the world will turn to fulfil your central needs ,of course, or where the shiny glam magazines tell us we are been ruled by astronomical and astrological convergences and hence the crisis in our day to day living. No realisation that we set the circumstances into action and the consequences are of our own making. That the great big human world of politics economic and other is what shapes our lives ultimately. Just who am I meant to empathise with in this play?

This is the case of a promising young writer who has written an early draft of an idea and then felt it was time to show it to an audience. When really, in my opinion, it is not ready and needs much more work on Characters, Plot and Thematic Issues and Ideas. (Almost everything needs dramaturgical attention.) It has promise, a quirky introduction of stylistic genres . (Naturalism, Musical Theatre, Direct interaction with the Audience etc) some interesting writing eg. The landlady’s speech early in the play. But, you keep working at it, or put it in the draw and begin anew. It is telling that the writer is the producer. However it is also a recognisable fact that this project would not have seen the lighting in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir unless the Artistic Curators for B Sharp felt that this was a necessary product for us to see – so that the program (at B Sharp) can continue to grow "to hold a unique place in the Australian Theatre landscape…and to tell stories that need to be told up close". This play has had a premature exposure. I hope the writer and the Artistic Company that has worked with the B Sharp production arm have not been too devastated by the very divided response. I know that the gift that the B Sharp Artistic Team gives the successful applicants for the opportunity to play in this space is very competitively sought and I can not fathom the reasoning of this choice except the necessity of having a quota of New Australian work. This, historically, is, of course, one of the "crimes" of the Australian Theatre where good writers with good ideas are thrust onto the stage before proper and satisfactory development has been allowed to happen before production exposure to the paying public. Many a play has disappeared because of this pressure and some more fragile but potentially interesting writers have given up. If this was the best Australian text offered at B Sharp then we are in trouble as a culture and it is in contrast to the Stablemate choices. (COLDER for example.)

It is ironic to contemplate that in the Belvoir building at the moment we could witness the sublime writing of Wajdi Mouawads’ SCORCHED and the premature BUMMING WITH JANE, knowing as well that AN OAK TREE vacated the space to allow this juvenile writing in and amazingly Tony Kushner’s play HOMEBODY/KABUL is to follow. Truly the sublime with the ridiculous. Sadly it is the Australian work that is wanting……………

The young director has collaborated with the writer on this play. It needs more work. The actors are presenting two dimensional portraits of the characters, there is no real revelation going on, mostly showing us, indicating, what is going on and the director has not been able to elicit depth from them. The best collaboration has been with the Set Design (Melanie Paul) and a very interesting Lighting Design (Sophie Kurylowicz) and very simple and pragmatic Soundscape (Rosie Chase).

If BUMMING WITH JANE and SATURN’S RETURN is a reflection of Gen "Y" then there is concern. You know I know it is not a reasonable reflection. Then why is the dramatic literature that is revealing their stories so superficial? Their world turning on what we would find in the Tabloid news sources instead of the news we might find in the serious Broadsheets. The return of the planet of Saturn into our lives instead of war, drug devastation, economic recession or climate change or even just plain corruption (Government or political party rorting) Is it that our young Australian writers can not see any audience and therefore no money or fame output in the consequences of discussing serious matters and the way they shape our lives but can in the commercial interests of the escapist great unwashed? The problematic image for me in BUMMING WITH JANE is when the characters of Jane and then Patrick rock the surrogate "baby" in their arms. The image is an empty glass gherkin jar filled with silver coins. Has this generation sold its humanity and compassion for serious examination for "thirty pieces of silver" in a jar? Is this what they have given birth too? Well, we will soon know more as the SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY prepare for us, from Queensland La Boite’s production of THE NARCISSIST by Stephen Carleton.

This is a Co-Op Production.

Playing now until 7 September 2008. Bookings online or call 02 9699 3444.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vivacious

AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA present VIVACIOUS (Bach, Kurtag, Berg and Vivaldi) at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place.

This is not my skill area. However it is part of my Theatre going life and I just thought for those of you out there who do not go to concerts I should pass on my experience. Concert going for me was boring. I work in the Performing Arts and always felt that I needed visual distraction to keep me focused. I don’t know when, but several years ago, out of a cultural guilt I guess, I thought I should attempt to experience this Art Form. Something happened at one of these attempts and I became hooked. I am discerning and choose to attend those events that I want to hear. It may depend on Composer or Soloist or Orchestra. I don’t just turn up. But I do include Music going as part of my life now.

I believe that one of the few National Treasures that we have in Australia is the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Especially when Richard Tognetti is at the Concert helm. I have had many sublime experiences with this orchestra and I am a great fan.

Last night I attended a Concert without Mr Tognetti at the helm. Alina Ibragimova is the Guest Director and Lead Violin. The featured music was Vivaldi’s THE FOUR SEASONS. The last time I heard this piece in concert was several years ago when Nigel Kennedy rambunctiously stamped his personality all over the score. Truly awful. In contrast, last night I heard a wonderfully delicate and robust reading it had great integrity and vision. It was at times disarmingly tender and fragile, at others rattlingly explosive. It was a great journey of musical explication. Totally transporting and rapturous.

The first half of the program is idiosyncratically fascinating. The Bach and the Kurtag alternating. The Berg new to me. Each piece of Berg, that I take in, draws me to want to hear more of his composing.

Musically, I am just a journeyman with no expertise of it at all. Theatrically I am a relative veteran. If you don’t go to concert and are looking for an experience that may give you a frisson of bliss I recommend this concert and Ms Ibragimova’s leadership of a great orchestra. It has a series of presentations around the nation . Go.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Saturn's Return

SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY present WHARF 2LOUD; SATURN’S RETURN by Tommy Murphy at Wharf 2.

“Write what you know.”


In almost every biography one has read about the great literary figures this "write what you know" is a constant mantra of advice. This is what Mr Murphy has gone on to do so well. Beginning with TROY’S HOUSE a “story of a group of teenagers at the end of their schooling”. STRANGERS IN BETWEEN about a young boy fleeing his home and attempting to discover who he might be in the alien world of a big city: Sydney’s King Cross, and confronting his relationship with his family through the demands of his brother. HOLDING THE MAN, an adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s memoir about two male lovers and their fate in the early year’s of the AIDS epidemic and the effect it had on that community of family and friends. Now, as the writer himself approaches the age of 30, he chronicles for his generation "Y" (and the rest of us) "a major rite of passage" that many astrologers consider "to mark, the 'true beginning' of adulthood, self-evaluation independence, responsibility, ambition, and full maturation." The return of Saturn in our astronomical history occurs approximately every 29.5 years. Astrologically Saturn being “associated with time, challenge, fear, doubt, confusion, difficulty, seriousness, heaviness, unwanted burdens, and hard lessons “as well as some positive things ‘such as structure, significance, accomplishment, reflection, power, prestige, maturity, responsibility and order.”

In SATURN’S RETURN the principal character Zara, in a comfortable long standing relationship with Matt, is dealing unconsciously with the return of Saturn into her astrological chart (he too). At the end of the first scene Zara is confronted with the need to re-evaluate her response to Matt’s declaration of “I love you”. She hesitates. He notices. She denies it. “They kiss. They move towards sex.” But there is “ NOISE. NOISE. NOISE.” It could just be the terrible plumbing in their apartment building (as it is in Schimmelpfennig’s ARABIAN NIGHT,co-incidentally playing at the Stables Theatre) or a metaphor for change, a cleansing coming.

The rest of the play, short five scene episodes, deal with the couple’s journey through this patch of living. It deals mainly with Zara’s decisions and journey, and the consequences on herself and Matt. This is about a couple of “middle class, energetic empowered Sydneysiders.” A hedonistic life of sex drugs and partying has been lived. Matt has just entertained his young nephew with a creative “playschool” game of make believe and building: a rocket ship and uniform; the remains of it lying around. Zara returns home and in the debris of playtime they talk of junkies, plumbing, sexual threesomes, sex on drugs, yoga, candles and petals, bathing together, saving for a house deposit, cancer, dementia, their car (tank, bomb),soundproofing, recycling, pot, Blue Mountains weekend sex idylls, parental divorce, grey nomading: all the concerns of a generation. Generation Y in 2008. The play bends a little with time and realities and ends up back in the playschool of a certain middle class life style where TIME and CHANGE need to be addressed, on a “playschool boat on a “playschool ocean”. Zara makes a decision and steps out of the playschool boat to…??!!! This is a very neat play. It may be just a little too neat but it certainly is a fairly charming and interesting new addition to the cannon of Australia’s dramatic literature.

David Berthold in the AFTERWORD of the printed text gives a very erudite dramaturgical breakdown of the play. As he does in his introduction to the Currency Press Introductions to Tommy Murphy’s two previous plays: STRANGERS IN BETWEEN and HOLDING THE MAN. This is Tommy Murphy’s and David Berthold’s eighth collaboration. It has been almost exclusive. And maybe Mr Berthold should remain the dramaturge and not also the director of the first production of the works because what he and Mr Murphy know about the play is not obvious in the production. (I found it so at the original showing of STRANGERS IN BETWEEN at the Stables years ago.) It is staged but not as carefully directed as it could be. The knowledge that the collaborators have is too second nature for them and so I found the directing in action on the stage makes assumptions about what is clear to them but maybe not to the audience watching it for the first time. The playing of the material is just not careful enough. It tends to skim where it should reveal. It makes too many assumptions of clarity where it is most dense and needs gentler explication.

I found the style of performance that Leeanna Walsman (as Zara) and Matthew Zeremes (as Matt) were playing in, in the first scene, confusing as well. It was on the night I attended fairly actorly. It appeared artificial and I could not discern whether it was deliberate or not. It appeared that they were acting in a representational style. Not that they were Being the characters but rather that were Representing the characters. Were mouthpieces rather than real people. Ms Walsman tended to talk at her fellow actors; her reactions seemed to be contrived and obviously rehearsed. In fact I thought it was robotic. (In Mr Murphy’s diary on the STC website he actually at one stage considered that, as an option: that Zara was a robot! April 16th 2007). Ms Walsman did not think her text to motivate either her verbal or physical responses nor did she really listen to the other actor except for cues, either pre-determined story points or literal cues. The vocal colour was very limited and the pitch and volume stayed in a fairly narrow expressive usage (a consistent over projection, a kind of elocution.). Mr Zeremes seemed bewildered as how to react to her offers. It appeared awkward. This was brought into focus when Socratis Otto appeared as Brendan in the second scene. This actor created a believable human being. Brendan demanded empathy from me. It was not a satiric representational style it was a heightened naturalism. This did not impinge on Ms Walsman’s playing style seemingly blithely unaware of the offers being made to her, however, in contrast Mr Zeremes found an ease and a comparatively less mannered delivery and response in the work with Mr Otto. Something real was in transaction and had a believable cause and affect that I could read as an audience member. I saw this on the play’s second performance and there was an uneasy feel in the audience on how to respond. The actors were not in control of us they were oblivious to our presence.

The set design (Adam Gardnir) looked as if it were executed on a shoe-string budget;some clever surprises built in but essentially it looked cool, bleak and uninviting. The lighting (Luiz Pampolha) was similarly cool. The sound a feel of retro trendy (Basil Hogios) After the recent presentations of GUILT FRAME and MANNA, the Wharf 2Loud program returns to the more conventional work of the STC. Certainly, it is the most accomplished writing I have seen in this space at this stage of development.

“A bewitching playwright of startling originality” says Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Well, bewitching maybe right, but on this outing I wouldn’t claim it as original, unless you mean "created personally by a particular artist". If you mean inventive or novel you are probably pushing it. As an empathetic social observer of a particular strata of the middle class constituency one could say so, of generation “Y” much like David Williamson was, is, for the “baby boomers”. There is the difference. Maybe the originality.

Playing now until 6 September. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Orlando

OPERA AUSTRALIA at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House presents ORLANDO, Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel. Libretto after Carlo Sigismondo Capeci’s L’Orlando, overo la gelosia pazzia set by Domenico Scarlatti, based on Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516).

ORLANDO was first performed on 27th January 1733. This is a new production for Opera Australia. It is sung in Italian with surtitles. Several years ago this company presented one of my favourite nights in the theatre when I attended their production of Handel’s GIULIO CESARE. I remember the original season having a vividly sung, conducted and played performance enhanced with consummately witty and dramatic acting with a set and costume design that was functional, witty and beautiful. It was a sublime night in the theatre. It scored high on my Ecstasy chart for performance. I had been wetted in my appetite for this kind of music by Robert Helpmann’s production of Alcina and have since indulged in it whenever the opportunity appeared. The Pinchgut Opera season in recent Decembers have always been marked in my calendar of “must go”. So SEMELE, THE FAIRY QUEEN, DARDANUS have been recent indulgences.

ORLANDO was on my list for this year’s performances with the OA. Opera seria it seems is a difficult beast to organise for contemporary audiences. Justin Way, the Director of this project sums up the challenge that these works present to opera companies: "As a director of a Handel Opera you tread a fine line. You are caught between people thinking ‘oh this is moving far too slowly, there’s no drama to it’ and the opposite, which is, 'You’re doing too much, why don’t you trust the music?'" I can only agree and sympathise. I would like more trust in the music and when you have good musicians at your service, and singer-musicians that can give good account as operatic actors, as in this case, than less would probably be better.

The singing by all of this small company seemed to me of a high standard and was athletic enough in its demands to keep me enthralled. Such observably difficult demands when expurgated at such a high calibre of skill can only be an admired thrill. (Watching the Athletes of the Bejing Olympic Games offer similar envious pleasures.) The acting, as well, was suitably theatrical-histrionic as to match the complications of the score and the drama of the story. Sonia Prina was wonderfully committed to the dilemma of Orlando: the pull between duty-war glory and love. The strain of choice leading this character to madness. (What a delicious thing to have to act…and so it was!!) The focused concentration to both her tasks were demanding belief from her audience. The other singers supplied all the right semblances for each of the moods of their tasks in the story. Congratulations to Rachelle Durkin, Hye Seoung Kwon (most amusing with her coy innocence and unrequited love aches), Tobias Cole (the trio at the end of the first act transcending)and Richard Alexander.

While one can appreciate some of the difficulties that the contemporary presentation of a 300 year old (almost) Handel opera for the director and the designer this production’s resultant choices are overstated. This team of artists: Justin Way, Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays have collaborated together before. Their choices in the Pinchgut production of THE FAIRY QUEEN, of a few years ago, are repeated here. Just too busy. In the Purcell performance it was just better to close your eyes so that you could hear the music rather than the noise of the visual (and in that case choreographic as well) design.

Here in this design the choices are essentially, mostly a distraction to the music and story of the opera. It is an intellectual hi-jinx to take the Shepherdesses flock and have them fly in from above the action, sometimes singly, sometimes as a duet, even a trio!!! (I think I counted nine at one stage.) To hang about the "heavens" until it is time to take them out again. One at a time, in sets of two or three etc to tedium. Here was a jest (of a juvenile shallowness), the titter of laughter from some of the audience slight and hardly worth the gambit and definitely not worth the expense to the budget for the Opera Company. (Some might claim the expense is decadent considering its artistic effect.)To have a hoary old visual joke of knitting socks directly from the back of the sheep is trying our 21st century sensibilities of what is funny to considerable daring. It is just plain kindergarten. Maybe it was funny, briefly, in the early design meetings, perhaps, but it is so first choice stuff that the director and the designers ought to be have been made, at that stage, to think again. It might be "sophisticated" to have visual references to Magritte in the program, and one can begin to deduce the germ of the flying sheep and it may have looked great in the model box presentation but as a sincere offer of wit, or clarity of the plot of the opera for a contemporary audience, it is lame in practice.

Even the overall period of the design seems to me superficial. Mr Way has “set his own production in the 1940’s, since it is vital for Orlando to be engaged in a just war that absolutely has to be won.” Dressed in what I read as fascistic Italian “black shirt” uniform it hardly suggested “a just war that had to be won.” Mussolini and his ally Hitler fighting a just war in the 1940’s? This seems to be me a fairly cursory choice and ignores the possible cultural/historical resonances for the audience. (Besides the tacky look of the maroon leather uniform of the hero Orlando.) The design tended towards the kitsch for me. Camp. Clever in its technical variations but not really rigorous in its conceptions.

Despite the visual distractions and the longing for a simpler design and trust by the director to the possibilities that if treated seriously and with more focused dramatic rigour and courage the Opera could have had a more devastating and powerful affect in the experience, I was once more, more than pleasantly indulged in the opportunity to hear the work. Musically alive and present. Full of detailed love and care. Many accolades of appreciation to the musical preparation (Tahu Matheson and Andrew Greene) and the conductor Paul Goodwin. For those of us who have been blighted with the love of it this particular sound of music, to war against the production might lead me like Orlando to madness, from possible deprivation of hearing this kind of work by our National Company: Opera Australia. Thanks.


Now playing until 11 September. Book online or call 02 9250 7777.

Arabian Nights

GRIFFIN STABLEMATES AND BOB PRESENTS A PLAY BY ROLAND SCHIMMELPFENNIG at the SBH STABLES THEATRE.

The Arabian Nights that I know from my childhood memories and also from my occasional foray into the ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (Five volumes long) that I have at home, begins with a betrayed husband, a cuckold, the King Shahrayar who in vengeful grief has his first wife beheaded, and then declares that from now on he would marry for one night only and the next morning would order the Vizier to have the Headsman cut off his new wife’s head. For a thousand nights he married and the next day each of the thousand wives would perish. Until only the Vizier’s daughter Sharahrazad and her sister Dinarzad were left in the city. She begged her father to be taken to the King and, along with her sister, listening, began to tell stories. The King became so entranced with her invention that at the rising of the sun he could not bear to have her executed. He needed to know how the story ended. So he stayed her fate until the next day. The King became so captured by her stories that for one thousand and one nights he held off her death, at the end of which time, the King broke down and begged forgiveness of the city for his cruelty and rage and married Sharahrazad.

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play ARABIAN NIGHT set in a ten storey apartment building, is directly concerned with five characters "from the East and the West telling stories of their interweaving fantasies, their crossed paths and conflicting desires on one hot and enchanted summer’s evening." The stories could be real events or growing fantasies, they are sometimes intertwined but are all told separately, they move relentlessly to perplexing crescendos of magic and violence, shattering in their climax. The final instruction of the playwright is "A bottle drops from the flies and smashes on the floor." At the Stables Theatre that happened and it shattered in thousands of pieces before us.

This is the second production of this play that I have seen in Sydney. Along with another of Schimmelpfennig’s plays PUSH UP. This writer is dazzling in his imaginative constructions and like the original Arabian Night Tales, each of these character’s stories move on by themselves, sometimes join another, disconnect, move into other reality planes, and keep us, the audience bewitched, anxious, curious, frustrated, intrigued. None of it is easy. Part of the fascination of the journey in the theatre is the bafflement that the text can throw up at you. Like in a dream, we flit from one place, story, to another place, story and reality without logic, rhyme or reason.

The task for a company in doing this work is to keep the audience engaged, connected. I can imagine when it works it could be a thrilling experience. This did not happen in this production. Like the bottle suspended in the air, this production began with some lucid simplicity of detectable shape but at about the moment the first microphone was introduced, the performance was given some directorial obstacles that compounded the complexities of the play and it was here that the play like the bottle, dropped, and smashed into too many shards and I for one was not able to commit to making a shape of it again. I became disengaged and disconnected.

Eamon Flack in his Directorial debut began simply and well. He has his actors (distressingly dressed in street clothes) sit on five pink folding chairs, with an electric neon light spelling out ARABIAN NIGHT behind their heads. It flashes on and off, sometimes ARABIAN ,sometimes NIGHT, sometimes ARABIAN NIGHT (I began to think there was an intellectual raison d’etre for the flashing. It unfortunately became a centre of my concentration, so distracted did I become in the performance, so desperate for something to keep me occupied.) The actors began their stories, listening to each other, picking up cues from each other like excited children in a story telling class. It was initially very disarming in its simplicity. Alice Ansara was the most beguiling of them. (She was still so, almost to the end.) Elan Zavelsky was interesting for a time. (Until the director had him move off and sit on the steps beside the audience and talk into a microphone (I couldn’t see him) he became a disembodied sound and I couldn’t care anymore.)

At a certain stage the actors started using a microphone (Or two). Some played with a cumbersome microphone stand clumsily. One folded and threw the chairs into the wings. One took off their clothes and indulgently made vowel sounds into the microphone, imagining, I am sure that she was communicating language, a story. Another dressed in the discarded dress of the disrober and then donned an old blonde wig and put on makeup in a terrible botch, then later stood frozen in a grimaced facial expression, forever, almost drooling into the microphone. One sat at an electric piano and played muffled noises. Another was content to give an impression of himself, which I had seen him do in three other productions in this past eighteen months. (And what about the glass of water??? What did it mean???!!!!!!) All this while attempting to communicate a most tantalizingly convoluted text. It became ultimately debilitating. Nothing was of interest. Were the actors misdirected, miscast or just plain indulgent at the behest of the director? In my experience Roland Schimmelpfennig did not survive the night. If he were the King Shahrayar, I am afraid this company of story tellers would have been beheaded at the first rising of the sun. Swiftly. Maybe even earlier.

It may be indicative of the director’s penchant but his program notes talk about Patrick White and John Howard!!! There is never a mention of Roland Schimmelpfennig. The playwright does not even get a direct mention. (This is the third production where the writer has no biographical information in the program. Does not the originator of this evening’s work warrant respect? I’ve always felt that the writer is the primary element of the dramatic theatre. I also assumes there was a translator (maybe David Tushingham???).) Eamon Flack is also the Artistic Associate of Company B and literary manager!!! I hope his writers are paying attention and insist that they are appreciated in the program notes.

This was a disappointing night at the theatre. It was my second attempt to see this production as I was very keen to see the play again as it is very extraordinary in its unfolding and I was hoping to have a “fantastical” journey. The first time the performance was cancelled as a result of failed sound equipment.

This is a Co-Op production.

Playing now until August 23. Book online or call 1300 306 776.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shakespeare's R & J


RIVERSIDE PRODUCTIONS AND PHIL BATHOLS present SHAKESPEARE’S R & J, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Joe Calarco.

“In an exclusive boy’s boarding school, where students are forbidden to read Romeo and Juliet, four students put on a secret production of the play which brings violence, betrayal, lust, love and mortality into their own lives.” This is an all male Romeo and Juliet set in this particular location to capture the sense of “sexual hysteria” that Mr Calarco believes the Shakespeare play, is, in many ways about. The adapter Joe Calarco goes on to say in his notes to his text: “Put those boys in a school where Catholicism reigns, patriarchy rules, and where simply reading Shakespeare is forbidden, and you have a world pulsating with repressed hysteria. This is a play about men. It is about how men interact with other men. Thus it deals with how men view women, sex, sexuality, and violence……..The actors cast are not doing ROMEO AND JULIET. They are doing R & J therefore they are students first and foremost, students who are acting out ROMEO AND JULIET.”In this production I felt that Shakespeare’s R & J was performed primarily as a study aid for schools. The reading of the Shakespeare play is generally first rate. If one were studying the play this production is cogent and engaging. The play that the adapter Mr Calarco has attempted is very much unfocused or neglected. There is a general sweep of staging but a real neglect of the undertow of the adapter’s intention. The directing of the school scenes have a feeling of secondary interest to the Director (Craig Ilott). They have a sense of a musical theatre style of choral presentation without any nuance of the delicate development of the awakening that the boys are having as their exploration of the play continues. They tend to stomp and (worse) shout their way through sequences of the play rather than dealing with the growing dilemma that the performance confronts each of the students, personally, with. For instance the reading of Act two Scene six: “The Wedding”, causes several of the boys to rebel. “But my true love is grown to such excess….” One of them snatches the book away and after a violent chase rips a page from the script and tears it to pieces. Bewildered as how to move the scene forward to its intention: a wedding vow (and the Friar’s fear of an overhasty consummation before the vows, reflected in their love intensity!!), without the Romeo and Juliet text, the students playing Romeo and Juliet improvise two remembered sonnets as substitutes for the torn text and thwart the censoring that the other student had attempted. It is a wonderful moment of discovery, invention and growth for all the boys. A turning point. Mr Ilott has barely staged it let alone explicated it for the audience. Later it was a puzzle for most of the audience, when I saw it last Saturday matinee, as to what was happening when Student 3 and 4 throw Student 1 to the ground punching and kicking him. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had so dominated the directing and the acting that when Joe Calarco’s R&J came bursting through into the play’s action, not enough sense of it could be grasped by the audience.

The Set designed simply by Nicholas Dare: a semi-circle of wooden planks, a trunk with props and four chairs and an amateurishly built shield (suggesting the school’s rehearsal hall??) suspended above the space serves adequately for the play as indicated by the writer. The lighting is, however, rudimentarily atmospheric and not always useful in assisting us to see what is happening between the boys. Colour and shadows dominating the result. The music score is very telling and supportive to the Romeo and Juliet play. Composer is Nick Wales. It is very beautiful and sensitive to the atmosphere of the Shakespeare play but as to the R & J play the writer is fairly clear about his wish for the sounds to be mostly created by the “Boys” and so it seems the director has further undermined the writer’s intention by romanticising or sentimentalising the experience with a score. There is some very simple and beautiful physical moments. eg. The Capulet Ball, danced to a beautiful tune with the four chairs by the actors. The use of the swathe of red cloth for the sword fighting and other inventions are very simple and effective. Sam Chester and Kyle Rowling are accredited for this production contribution.

The actors handle the Shakespeare very well indeed. The other play, the “R & J”, depends on the actors skills to seizing the opportunity when able. Will O’Mahony playing Student 2, who gets to play Juliet, is quite marvellous and affecting. The nuance of his playing is delicate and sensitive. The vocal work is unstrained and clear in his handling of the poetry; the physical choices are never exaggerated for story telling clarity. He has the best sense of the subterranean Calarco play. Ben Gerrard as Student 1, playing a multitude of characters including the Friar, Lady Capulet and Mercutio handles the language and detail of characterisation well. Both Paul-William Mawhinney and Andrew Ryan had either colds or injured voices at the matinee performance and tended to use volume rather than range / pitch to achieve communication. Andrew Ryan has a very powerful and rich inner clown urging his work, however, his physical delineation of the Nurse for example is first choice stuff and with straight forearms and over use of limp wrists too vulgar and unnecessarily camp. Cheap laughs rather than more considered work.

Shakespeare’s play originally written for an all male cast is surprisingly forceful with this all male cast. The strength of the female characters, Juliet, The Nurse and Lady Capulet have a focused energy/power about them in contrast to the usual casting where the roles when played by women are romanticised or sentimentalised. (There is a play by Nicholas Wright: CRESSIDA about the Boy actors of Shakespeare’s period. It is worth a read if you enjoyed this all male ROMEO AND JULIET.)

360 Degrees


SYDNEY DANCE COMPANY in 360 (degrees) in a World Premiere Season at Carriageworks, Sydney.

It has been a few days since I attended this performance. The longer I distance myself from the experience the more I have come to admire it. This was definitely a Contemporary Dance experience. CONTEMPORARY writ large.


In the huge space of the Carriageworks building, and taking some inspiration from the history of the building itself, the performance begins with a cacophonous soundtrack of a Diesel train hauling nosily what seems to be a long transport of carriages. The noise of the engine, the clanging on the tracks and the warning siren of the engine hooting out through the theatre in stereophonic manipulation, crossed faded in and out with helicopter rotors, the modern age of man and his machines are heralded. The rest of the Music for the performance is high tech, across a broad spectrum of styles but dominated with contemporary edge from the lyrical CANTIGA DE AMIGO V: QUATAS SABEDES AMARE (COME, MAIDS WHO LOVE), to the electronic/glitch work of Murcof and the sounds of a group called Foetus playing work composed by J.G.Thirwell that is broadcast at a vibrating level. (Sound Design George Gorga.)

The Production and Costume Design (Tony Assness) and the Lighting Design (Hugh Taranto) are work created by artists that have a vast experience in large events in a wide variety of disciplines. There is a sense of Industrial scale about the work. There is a very large projection screen covering the back wall of the space, wide and tall that projects (from two cameras, seamlessly) huge images some in black and white, some in colour, of billowing clouds, rough ocean waves, goldfish in a bowl, exotic flower blooms/orchids (and other) with finally a sped up hurtle through underground traffic tunnels with their gleaming gloss tiles, latterly warped with digital manipulation that have feint references, for me, of the time warp of some of the Kubrick SPACE ODYSSEY 2001 final journey into time. In front of the screen to start with a two huge mirrors hung at V-shape wedge that gradually open up during the performance towards the wings. The floor is just black tarquette. The lighting is very affective from the cool/cold industrial to blankets of warmth. Isolating spots as well as wide coverage for the dance corps reflected many times over (depending where you are sitting) in the mirrors. This is Event lighting. Vast and Detailed as required. It also interacts with us: intensely glowing and pulsing into the audience auditorium. The costumes begin with voyeuristic flesh coloured skimp, add a long sleeved white open shirt, to a dance suit that may suggest large blue tribal tattoo.

The choreography by guest artist RAFAEL BONACHELA is dynamic. The Sydney Dance Company are Athletes, Gymnasts, Contortionists (body manipulators) Synchronised movers and soloists finally, Contemporary Dancers. Dancers of extraordinary skill and commitment. This is the best that I have seen from this company for some time. Precise and vital. (It was a come down to go home and watch the relative tameness of the Olympic Gymnasts at the Beijing Games.)

The final sequences with the incredible "tunnel" video, the loud (Very) sound of the Foetus tracks that literally vibrated the auditorium, the growing intensity of the choreography turned the work into an interactive experience. It was an almighty visceral shake down. I over heard a few patrons when exiting suggesting that with a few good drugs the experience would definitely have been further enhanced.

While watching it I felt oddly disconnected. It had a coldness about it that had me watching as an objective observer. But, as I mentioned at the top of this, I have become more enamoured of it as time as passed. Admiration for a very sophisticated piece of theatre. I will remember it well.

Prior to the major work there was a small work in what is called THE OVERTURE SERIES: Shaun Parker’s LOVE INSTALLMENT. The choreographer talks of it as "31 hours of investigation of dealing with the topic of love and desire inspired by elements of Euripides Greek myth MEDEA." There was nothing arresting here and the only reference I had to MEDEA while watching the work was reading about it in the program. This was fairly dull. The best part of it was the live music composed and played by Nick Wales, accompanied by Bree Van Reyk. The promenade set of raised platforms in the foyer were a divertissement. As I attended other performances in the building over the past weeks I got to watch this piece three times. It just never got interesting. Neither new or very inventive. Fairly tame and clichéd.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Mathinna


BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE present MATHINNA; A Girl’s Journey Between Two Cultures. At the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Stephen Page, the Artistic Director and Choreographer of this Dance/Drama talks of being “Inspired by a young girl’s journey between two cultures, Mathinna traces the history of a young Aboriginal girl removed from her traditional life, adopted into western colonial society to be ultimately returned to the fragments of her original heritage. Mathinna became the archetype of the “stolen child”. The original idea sprang from the viewing of Mathinna’s portrait by Thomas Bock painted in the nineteenth century. It is in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. It is an affecting painting. It and other sketches of the Indigenous people of Tasmania.

Unfortunately the dramaturgical construct of this piece is much too familiar and although it is a story that needs to be honoured and remembered it covers ground that we have often seen. The structural form is too predictable and lacks a rigorous point of view, it tells us nothing new, it does not add to our knowledge of the experience. There is no "Drama" to the piece either in its familiar subject matter or “How” it is told to us. It is cliché in its dramatic narrative.

What is powerful are most of the other elements. The Dancers are remarkable for their focused discipline and skill. The Choreography is fully embodied right down to the last nerve ending and the passion of the commitment is totally commanding and captivating. The Dance element is securely maintained and the belief, the acting, of the drama in the many different roles that the company portray is very much owned. Whether it be the Tribal figures and Spirits or the Western Antagonists, whether it be as individuals or chorus there was always maintained a veracity of clear, believed story telling. Energized ,disciplined physicalities and alert imaginations.

The principal role of Mathinna is beautifully acted by Elma Kris and her dancing responsibility delicate and moving in its simple execution. Yolande Brown is outstanding in her tasks. But it is the dramatic focus ,and beautiful movement of Patrick Thaiday that captured my attention. There is a presence that is dynamic in its power and insists that you pay attention. A theatrical charisma burns from his eyes and is electrically connected through every muscle and sinew in his dance. The tension in the claws/fingers of the first spirit-lizard to the ghostly apparition spirit in the class room on, above and about the school chair-desk, to the last suspension from the bar and rope startling!!

The Design by Peter England is stunningly appropriate and beautiful. From the first light isolated river stone through to the tangled mass of tree branches "representing the original tribal “nest”", (here the simple choreographed images of tribal activities of spear construction/preparation etc wholly satisfying in their conceived economy) through to the foreign world of the Governor’s family with “its exaggerated scale of oversized black furniture etched with childlike chalk or blackboard scrawlings.” To the final dreadful images of the raped, pillaged, bewildered and deserted Mathinna magnified by large jars of partly filled clear liquids. Real beauty enhanced and expanded in affect by a very expert Lighting Design by Damian Cooper. Illuminative brillance. The Costume Design and Make up by Jennifer Irwin an intrinsic treasure in the mosaic of the visual impact of the piece.

The original score by David Page is disappointing; is over blown. The wind, sea, rocks; the created real sound is where the score works best. It is too overloaded with "electronic synthesised instrumentation." It needs to be simplified, brought back to the natural elements of the world that the piece lives in. The sound needs to be thinned, edited down, it is striving for romantic affect and impinges on the experience . It draws attention to itself in its agonised expressions of emotions.

Nigel Jamieson in his notes to Gallipoli talks about Australia not having many collective mythologies other than the indigenous culture. It is tantalising and thrilling to see the BANGARA COMPANY through its Dance/Theatre work presenting it to us. Here is where its possibilities of uniqueness lie. Bravo. Connecting the contemporary audience “to celebrating living traditions at least 40,000 years old……. blending traditional Aboriginal and Torres Islander history and culture with international contemporary dance to create a uniquely Australian dance language” and experience.

There is one more week of this season left. Experience it for the images and the skill and beauty of this work: MATHINNA.

Book online or call 02 9250 7777.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Billy Elliot


UNIVERSAL PICTURES STAGE ENTERTAINMENT, WORKING TITLE FILMS and OLD VIC PRODUCTIONS present BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL. At the CAPITOL THEATRE Sydney.

BILLY ELLIOT, The Musical is based on the
Universal Pictures/Studio Canal film of the same title. Billy Elliot The musical is set in the North east of England in the tumultuous years of 1984/1985. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Government’s confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers and the torrid events that resulted from a nationwide miner’s strike. Lee Hall the creator of the Book and Lyrics of the show, talks about his own childhood, growing up in Newcastle and discovering through poetry at school that he dreamt of being a writer and "that he decided that he needed to go somewhere that writers went and so I set my heart on Cambridge. And like the Royal Ballet School for (the fictional) Billy Elliot it became my ides of salvation." And so "the basic premise of a young boy discovering a new world of creativity against the background of the harsh realities of the 1980’s was a world I felt very familiar with." This is so evident in what I think is one of the best Books for a musical I have experienced for some time. It is grounded in such lived truths and the fact that a MUSICAL has sprung out of this difficult background makes it an even more baffling and wonderful surprise and pleasure. The film was a great experience and the Musical adaptation of it is just as attractive. The heritage that Lee Hall mentions of Joan Litttlewood and the great Ewan MColl at their Stratford East Theatre, and the 7:84 Theatre Company "of song, folk dance, politics and gritty humour" all "coming together in the proud working class tradition of a good night out" is thrillingly remembered and developed for the 2000 generation.

Stephen Daldry the director of both the film and the Musical play has collected around him a simply wonderful team of collaborators so that the production on stage is flawlessly conceived and executed. The Set design by Ian Macneil gives both the sense of reality for every place the story shifts too but as well as a feeling of "Art". There is in the management of the designed visual images such logical and truthful observation of real life that the designer’s subsequent manipulation of the primary sources profoundly gives a sense of poetry to all of the settings both in Newcastle and in the theatre in London. Similarly the Costume design by Nicky Gillibrand is fascinating for its ordinariness and yet careful selections of look and colour that give the piece that confident belief in the verisimilitude of a real world and at the same time an unconscious confidence as a tool to support the usual “Form” of a musical.

The choreography by Peter Darling is similarly impressive both for its inventiveness and believability. The Finale to act One, with the intertwining of the miners and police riot with the desperate dance of Billy is simply breathtaking in its vision and judgement and execution. The rightness of the masculine gestures, the ingenious use of the props and set and the skill of it as dance is thrilling.

In the Lighting (Rick Fisher), the Design elements and the Choreography there is a sense of cinematic flow, it is seamless. The technical design is clockwork in its precision and almost undetected in its many changes. Stephen Daldry has managed a superb adaptation both conceptually and in practice. There is a great artistic sensibility married to artisan proficiency of a high order.

The musical score by Elton John is the least memorable part of the production.

This production in Sydney has been playing for some time and is nearing its end of season. I felt the adrenalin edge to the performance was not as sharp or thrilling as it ought to be. Too comfortable and a little sense of warming up after a day off. They are all performances of some real skill but just slightly undercooked on the night I attended. Genevieve Lemon, Richard Piper and Justin Smith giving real performances within the conventions of a musical. This night I saw Maureen Andrew as Grandma and thought she gave a truly moving breath to the character. The best performance along with most of the dancers, dancing this night.

Lee Hall talks (and later Jessica Ronane explicates further) that “however good it (The musical) looked on paper and however good the songs sounded on Elton John’s demo, the show depends entirely on finding someone to play Billy Elliot.” Writing Children into any musical must give producers pause (Oliver, Annie) and when they are the leading character and worse when they need to be what the musical theatre call "a triple threat" (Singer, Actor, Dancer) it must be a daring enterprise. We have been regaled by the production’s publicity machine,about the local search and the finding of a young team of artists, their training etc. to play Billy. It is a tall order. On my night Rarmian Newton created the character. There was great proficiency and theatrical charm but most of the choreography was approximate and not finished (there were fleeting moments of perfection but not consistent enough to surrender to. Beauty followed by sloppiness.), the singing voice seemed dangerously under prepared for the evening’s performance, the acting just a little too pat and so there was a dimming at the heart of the Enterprise. This was not Mr Newton’s responsibility alone. For me the performance did not radiate with the joyful energy of a need to do this for the audience tonight. This night. It was very, very good but unfortunately for us, not great. One did not leave the theatre with the full joy of the theatre that this musical has the potential to give. The Resident Director may need to be more attentive.

It is a very costly night out for the audience. They want the best you can give. If the Company value "word of mouth" recommendation then there needs to be more honouring of the work every night.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gallipoli


GALLIPOLI Written and Devised by Nigel Jamieson in association with The STC Actors Company and The Third Year Acting Students Of NIDA. Presented by THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY at The Sydney Theatre.

Several years ago I regarded the best THEATRE company in Australia was
The Australian Opera Company. This was when Moffat Oxenbould was at the helm. The reason I thought of the Opera Company as the best theatre company was because of its daring commitment to new work. The chance of failure was enormous. To commission new work and then to mount it was a great risk and endeavour. Especially an Opera, the costs (Size of cast, chorus, orchestra, set, costumes, crew) let alone the possibility of failure were prohibitive but they had the courage to do it. I saw work such as VOSS, THE EIGHTH WONDER, THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. But the work I mostly remember is THE GOLLUM. This was a Barrie Kosky production and I remember being thrilled and entranced. I was more stubborn in my support because at the performance I attended hundreds (I do mean hundreds) of people just stood up and left mid scene, mid act often unapologetically noisily. Maybe only 150 of us were left at the end. But this was an indication for me of a great theatre company. Not only did the Opera Company produce the ABC of opera (AIDA, BOHEME, CARMEN) to please, and ensure a box office return, but they had the courage to do work that needed to be done, to take the risk of failure upon themselves, to serve the development of the Art Form in Australia. In my argument of my belief I always asked why the major Theatre Companies (STC, MTC, SATC and QTC) had not similarly commissioned a work of scale. A play for 20 or more actors etc. A project of a parallel scale for the “straight theatre”?

So, following the recent vision of the SYDENEY THEATRE COMPANY with its commissions of
THE LOST ECHO and now GALLIPOLI one might at last begin to argue that the best theatre company in Australia is now the STC. Whether they have been successful is not the criteria for my belief, but simply that the company has a vision to commit to large scale Australian work and is prepared to put its resources into the hazard. No one sets out to do bad work. The process and the journey is the important experience for the artists and should be for an interested community. The results of the work will always be unknown but we all hope for the best result. Tchaikovsky and the Ballet Company did when they produced SWAN LAKE. A catastrophic initial reception. Stanislavsky, Danchenko, Chekhov and The Moscow Art Theatre did when they first presented THE SEAGULL. An initial reception so antagonistic that Chekhov almost gave up attempting to write for the theatre and the Moscow Art feared closure.

I believe that the STC production of GALLIPOLI is a great achievement.

Indelible images: The great set piece of the first act, The landing of the Troops on the Beach of Anzac Cove (Almost the entire company, a phalanx of soldiers, each with a large wooden oar rowing to the shore (an image connected to the large triemes of the ancient Greek or Roman fleets, myth and legend, ancient and modern intertwining) this image projected on the back screen, live, at scale; accompanied by a graphic soundscape of enemy defence barrage, minor and major explosions of violated water; then the crazy scaling of the sheer rock face of the beach (With four athletic figures walking straight up walls and falling spectacularly back down to earth. Magnificent flying-rope work by the NIDA students (Under the care of Gavin Robbins)). Lighting that sweeps the soldiers generally and particularly as shells explode and rock the boat and soldiers fall wounded to the floor. The images of the scourge of the flies on and about the bodies of the soldiers (the many hands and fingers flapping around the orifices of the weakened soldiers: their eyes, nose, mouth and ears with a terrifying hum of the busy insects piercing the soundscape). The repeated, reckless assaults by our troops into the line of the enemy (individual soldiers lifted up and ran directly at us to be shot with a shattering sound of rifle shot and gently laid down in convulsing, shuddering twitches confronting us with the fear and horror of the battlefield ). “Bodies” hooked up and lifted to the roof, pouring rain/water onto the soldiers below in their trapdoor trenches, then snow billowing up and blown across the water soaked bodies of the soldiers. The unravelling of the lists of the war dead up into the top of the huge proscenium height, projected onto white papers, column after column, that, with their completed scale looked like pillars of a memorial. The image of the return of a contemporary war dead, superimposed onto the same scrolls (contemporary beret wearing, uniformed troops carrying on their beleaguered shoulders a white coffin draped in an Australian flag, the faces unforgettably grieving). Or the last devastating super imposition of an image of the last survivor of the Gallipoli Campaign at 103 years of age accompanied by the simple voiceover (Peter Carroll) that he had joined up at the age of 16, and now with the hindsight of a long life lived, would never do it again.

Imagine a huge raked, raised platform slanted towards the laps of the audience, ingeniously pock marked with many trapdoors that serve for many purposes including entrances and exits for the living, trenches and graves and pits for the war wounded and dead. See a great perforated metal screen, at the back of the platform, maybe 36 feet high by 24 wide, that when lit from behind has four tiers of acting space for the revelation of narrative enactments of the story (Ship dinner banquets, brothels, hospital wards etc) which also can be projected upon with archival newspaper images/photographs of buildings, maps, people, Theatre Bills, newspaper articles, letters, official documents, archival photographs and film from the period (of the embarkation of troops, the scattered war wounded and dead on the grounds etc). All the locations of action, set in battle grey with all the permutations to piercing white to enveloping black. The Set Design (Nigel Jamieson, Alexandra Sommer, Brad Clark) is a masterpiece of practical flexible function with a great grave beauty and ominous atmosphere. The work of the Video Artist, Antonia Freedman, is overwhelming for its scale and thoughtful relevance. When not explicating or supporting the action of the scene unfurling, live camera action is projected behind the actual performers. The execution of it must have been a logistical nightmare. The lighting by Trudy Dalgleish brilliant in its general and detailed cues must have presented the technicians with a plot of mammoth complication. Pictures of devastating affect were indelibly made by the expertise of judgement and organisation of light. Ms Dalgleish and her crew should take a personal bow for the victory of their endeavour.

The Costume Design, mostly army uniform for 40 actors plus the multitude of other characters: Vaudeville/Music Hall performers, other Armed Forces uniform and civilian costume both of Western and Eastern cultures and societies, adding the complication for quick changes, as this company must play hundreds of different characters or extras throughout the piece, the logistics must be terrific.(I mean terrific as in Terror). That they occur without notice to us in the audience is a triumph of organisation.

Add to this a soundscape of immense scale and affect and a live orchestra (of two very versatile artists) playing an almost unceasing composition/score by Alan John and co-composer Steve Francis and the operatic scale of the enterprise becomes evident.

Conceptually and practically this is a major achievement for any theatre company.

The performers have been welded into a unit of “non-caste” performers. The entire company carry equal responsibility. The STC Company carry most of the text (nearly all) but all the company are on stage for the entire performance. This is truly an ensemble so integrated into the mechanism of the free flow of the work that it is difficult to distinguish the STC Company and the Student, except by the youthfulness of the NIDA participants. (Some may find the youthful look of some of the cast disconcerting, then the realisation that the actual recruited soldiers were often even younger, 15 and 16 year olds, brings a verisimilitude to the performance that gives one pause.)

John Gaden having a featured role as Sir Ian Hamilton gives an outstanding performance. The clarity of his view of the character of the man is measured against the immaculate concentration and accurate skill of the artist. A powerhouse of focused energy that bullies the piece along. Not a single moment of wasted energy. At all times Mr Gaden is present and in charge of the scene/story he is telling. He commands the ensemble and leads with a high order of professionalism. Luke Mullins, new to the STC Ensemble this year, gives further evidence of a growing power and ability to reveal layers of information about character and events in an instant. His Charles Bean, The official Australian Reporter on the scene, displays the dilemma of integrity: the need to fulfil the requirements of a desperate home government trying to maintain support for the war through propaganda and the grief and impulse to tell the truth of the horrors of the battlefield. Marta Dusseldorp continues to impress with her approach to her work. Seeking dimension to her characterisations no matter how little help she gets from the writing. There is always a sense of an artist that is interesting and undeniably reliable. Always a gentle radiating. Ewen Leslie succeeds best as the leader of the Turkish forces, Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, rather than as the Australian Prime Minister, William “Billy” Hughes. There is a stillness of quite confidence and a sense of destiny emanating from Mr Leslie’s handling of the Kemal scenes. Eden Falk gives his best work. The Keith Murdoch role seemed to spark an energy of real clarity of purpose. (Unfortunately there was a moment of lapsed concentration in a key speech). Other members of the STC ensemble were also sometimes a little unfocused in the pell mell of chorus responsibility.


The NIDA contribution is fairly integral to this work and on the several occasions I have attended performance their discipline and focus seems to have relaxed but sharpened. Each visit has seen the young actors responding to the demands of the production in a positively committed way.

Nigel Jamieson has explained his choice of subject, Gallipoli, because he feels that “Australia does not have a lot of collective mythologies” and that “For whatever reason, Gallipoli, seems to have found a unique and seemingly ever growing, place in our culture and society.” Mr John Howard has emphasised that we know our history and Mr Jamieson feels that most Australians know only the bare bones of the myth - “the heroic landing on the wrong beach, the humour and larrikin mateship with which our boys faced hardship and death, making the “ultimate sacrifice””. With meticulous research Mr Jamieson has put together a script that tells in detail the origins of the war, the campaign recruitment, the inter-colonial and personal politics of the country’s involved, the journey of the troops across the world and finally the landing at Gallipoli and the gruesome and extended 8 month campaign that ended in disastrous losses, defeat and withdrawal. Certainly the Play written by Mr Jamieson has considerably expanded my knowledge and given me a deeper appreciation of the tragedies and sacrifices of The ANZAC tradition.

Charles bean is quoted, “You come here and see the job and understand it and get out of your head the nonsense that is written about it. There is horror and beastliness and cowardice and treachery, over all of which the writer anxious to please the public has to throw his cloak. But this is the true side of war. But if I was to put that into print tomorrow the tender Australian public, which only tolerates flattery and in its cheapest form, would howl me out of existence.”

The weakness of the production I believe is the playwriting. I remember coming out at the interval quietly disappointed. There had been too much verbatim information. “As a matter of fact”. “As a matter of fact.” There were too many facts too dryly communicated. A welter of information that is not much attached to speakers or characters that could make me attend for an hour an a half without “resting”. There has not been a development of attachment for me to care too much about what is being dramatised. It has become a bit of a history lesson. Just a trifle, a bit of a bore. It is the HOW the story has been told that compels me to go back in (the stuning visuals and their execution), not the WHAT or WHO or WHY of the drama.

However, by the end of the play I have been touched. There were faster and more affecting images and stories. The horror of the extended campaign became a human struggle for survival and dignity. I was able to attach emotionally, even if the attachment was too an army, a group if not individuals. Maybe to the fate of Ian Hamiliton. John Gaden at his masterful best. This character drew my attention and I followed him through the piece with deliberated care. He just did not come back enough. Too, the Keith Murdoch character gave impetus to the narrative. There was action. A possibility of “rescue”. It seems the tone of the second act had at his base a strong motivation, growing anger and outrage. The first act just did not seem to have a tone.

I thought back to other theatre works of this kind and of course OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR by Theatre Workshop under the direction of Joan Littlewood springs straight to mind. Another anti-war piece is the Tony Richardson film THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE written by Charles Wood. Both of these works have a clear and passionate point of view. Both are savage, satiric, factual, funny, engaging and uncomfortable. Not ever are you bored. The facts are interpolated into character and plot. The point of view of the first act of Gallipoli may not have a powerful enough well spring of need. It is just not passionately engaging. The facts are too cold. Too didactic. The strength of Oh What A Lovely War and The Charge of the Light Brigade are the writing of real characters that one identified with and cared about, one way or the other. Flotsam and jetsam swept up and on the man made tsunami of war. One recognised a human like oneself and one cared, feared and wept. Act one of Gallipoli does not do this as it stands at the moment.

This scale of theatre making I have experienced, sensationally, memorably in the work of THEATRE DU SOLIEL – the Parisian company of Ariane Mnouchkine – here, in Sydney a few years ago as part of the Sydney Festival THE FLOOD DRUMMERS and subsequently as part of the Melbourne Arts Festival, another few years on, the six hour production, LE DERNIER CARAVANSERAIL (ODYSSEES). This is a company that may spend up to 6 to 18 months rehearsing a work with a professional company of up to 30 actors (or more) and a Creative Production team numbering up to the hundred. That they then spend the entire of their season, maybe 2 or 3 years, to continue to perfect the work, is breathtaking. It is amazing to contemplate that Nigel Jamieson and his ad hoc company of 13 professional actors (albeit the permanent STC Actors Company) and a company of 24 student actors and a much smaller support team have achieved this standard of explication. It is to be applauded. The French have a deep investment in the Arts. If only we had a Government and community that would invest in the artistic vision of our artists at a similar level. This kind of work is Olympian in vision, and necessarily demands the preparation of Olympian athletes. How much do our Gold, Silver and Bronze medals cost us? A campaign to encourage the Government to invest even more deeply in preparation for the London Games has begun. (Mr Coates a brilliant tactitian). Maybe we should be lobbying for the funds to take this or some other production to London for the pre-game Arts festival. We have been teased that it would be humiliating to have the British Athletes win more medals than us Ozzies (OI, Oi, Oi!!!) How much more satisfying for our Australian pride to devastate them (those blasted Poms!) with a Theatre Production that could leave them gagging with envy. (OI, OI, OI!!!!) How satisfying it would be to win GOLD, GOLD, GOLD at The National Theatre in London.

GALLIPLOI is a work of much achievement and ought not to be missed. Parents, if for no other reason than this is a good history lesson you should attend with your children. They may even be impressed with the passionate vision of Nigel Jamieson and the challenge that the SYDNEY THEATRE have taken on and take theatre on as a part of their way of life.

When it closes it will be one of those benchmarks of achievement with which you will measure other experiences.

Playing now until 23 August at The Sydney Theatre. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

Codgers


RIVERSIDE PRODUCTIONS AND STEADY LADS present CODGERS by Don Reid. A World Premiere Production at the RIVERSIDE THEATRES at Parramatta.

This is a new play that has been nurtured by the Riverside production arm called BREAKOUT. (Robert Love and Camilla Rountree). It had a workshop season at Riverside last year. The play is set in a suburban gymnasium where are group of old friends, CODGERS, meet, exercise, have a community sing in the sauna and then a follow up chin wag out on the terrace with a cup of coffee and home made savoury biscuits (cheese and chutney). The action of the play passes over several weeks. It is a two act conventionally constructed entertainment with a great deal of warm hearted character driven comedy with a light underpinning of socially conscious observation about tolerance and acceptance of what some of us might call “the other”. For all of its political lightness of touch it is very accurate, touching and relevant and very useful for all of us to consider. It might help us live our lives more easily. It just might. This is more than a modest achievement by Don Reid. It may not be in “FORM” for the more informed cutting edge contemporary playwrights (look at COLDER or DON’T SAY THE WORDS, both recently at the Griffin) but in the audience I sat with on Saturday afternoon this was a thoroughly entertaining, moving and eloquent experience.

And why wouldn’t it be. The pedigree of this production is mind boggling in its richness. Why wouldn’t you get yourself out to wherever this play is performing to see these talented and sublimely experienced artists. This is a cast of some of Sydney’s if not Australia’s GREATS of the theatre. They will likely be too modest to accept me saying so and in the old tradition of the egalitarian Australian no Tall Poppies syndrome, deny it. But here is who they are: Ronald Falk, Ron Haddrick, Edwin Hodgeman, Jon Lam, Graham Rouse, Henri Szeps. Which of you will argue that this line up of talent on the one stage at the same time would not be worth the effort to catch? I can assure you, in Hearts, that it is most assuredly worth it!! I have not so spontaneously and unguardedly laughed so often and so hard in the theatre for a very long time. There is on stage, as one of the characters says “almost five hundred years” of experience. The sheer skill of deriving character laughs simply by pausing momentarily, lifting an eyebrow or gently sighing; making an entrance and do nothing but wear a new costume etc needs to be experienced by a live audience so that they can recollect why the theatre is one of our great heritages. It should be observed by every young actor and actor in training to see what it is to be immaculately attuned to your fellow players but even more importantly to the sensibilities of your audience. The gifts, the knowledge of these players are treasures of the Art Form and ought to be witnessed for your own sakes. A memory that you will carry with you for the rest of your theatre going life, bugger it, for the rest of your life, as an experience that will have enriched you and I reckon will sustain you as well in the hard times of our perilous contemporary world.

Ron Falk, one of the great actors of reaction. He listens and watches and builds his character from the offers the others give him. He demands focus and attention and repays you in gold. Here is one of Australia’s most modest actors. Professional down to the blood pumping through his heart Generous but demanding of excellence. A wicked sense of humour in every moment he creates. For those us in the know, who have watched over his vast contribution to the Sydney Theatre scene, he is what some of us call “An Actor’s Actor.”

Ron Haddrick, one of the Pillars of Sydney Theatre of The Old tote days and its reincarnation the Sydney Theatre Company, in his ability to play the straight man and time his responses, physical and verbal, accompanied by a great but modest humanity is rare to see so consistently delivered. His range of creativity is vast and one can sense it in his every moment on stage.

Edwin Hodgeman, has played more often in Adelaide and Melbourne, but when he has forayed into Sydney he has always created admiration. Here, his delicately created character is both comic and full of pathos. The character on the edge of dementia struggling with his failing powers but still defiantly alive and loyal to his history and his mates. The characters self deprecating knowledge is breathtaking in its skilful skirting of self pity and sentimentality as played by Mr Hodgeman. This performance is the one to watch closely for its exquisite sense of judgement.

Jon Lam is new to me, but his work as the catalyst to define the other codgers depth of humanity is underplayed and in beautiful concert with the other players. Dignity, great good sense and pragmatism in the face of a hostile world. His timing finely tuned, wisely tuned to the other performers. He certainly listens to his audience.

Graham Rouse, another of that modest generation of Aussie blokes who just happens to act. In my mind, forever alive, whenever I think back to his support to the great Gloria Dawn as Herby in GYPSY and even more memorably, in one of my favourite Australian plays, A HARD GOD. Here the backbone of loyalty and the exemplar of “Aussie Manly Love”. Pathos and Comedy. When it is needed, it is there, masterfully and understatedly.

Henri Szeps a much admired artist especially in the theatre as a stalwart of the Ensemble Theatre. I cannot remember Mr Szeps giving a better performance. Here he plays generously and in perfect harmony with his company of players. The compassion that he creates around the dilemma of his mates is worth observing for its tempered choices and execution. Comedy is of course Mother’s milk to him.

Mr Reid has written a script that shares the material among all his characters. Being an actor himself he has not written a small or thankless task. All the tasks are equal and he has ensured that all the roles are rewarding. He has written “private moments” for all of his actors and each of them when it is their turn, relish them with all the qualities that distinguish great actors.

The production is simply and beautifully designed by Nicholas Dare. The Lighting design by Nicholas Higgins is unintrusive and flawless. Last but by no means least the Direction by Wayne Harrison is discreet and marvellously sensitive both to the play and to his artists. Here the greatest skill of a Director is displayed. His ability to cast well. To cast strongly and to gently referee his actors to give justice to the playwright and a great entertainment to his audience.

Parramatta is the demographic centre of Sydney??!!! Maybe it is also a trend setter in theatre going experiences as well!!!

This kind of play has almost disappeared from our stages .There is sometimes a snobbery about material that is so crowd pleasing. Being popular can really upset some of the “artistes”. Rest assured being popular did not upset this audience on Saturday afternoon in Parramatta.

Where is Mr Ayckbourne on our stages, for example? He is still writing, is still funny, is still acerbic. Where is Monsieur Feydeau? For goodness sake where is Mr Cooney? RUN FOR YOUR WIFE with the expertise of artists of this calibre would be a run away hit.

Losing Subscribers?!!!! Maybe a wider curatorial vision of the repertoire of the great theatre heritage of the world and a commitment to all of your audience tastes rather than just the trends of the intellectual cutting edge would be a useful carrot to bring us back to consider going to the theatre regularly. Mind you this stuff is hard to do and maybe through our own neglect of it, not many of us know how to pull it off any more. (The recent production of BOEING BOEING in Melbourne is a case in point. This rather second rate farce has been a great success in the London and New York and I would suggest it has something to do with the skills of the producers and director in casting.)

The cast and crew of CODGERS know what they are doing Please go and learn while you can before another craft and Art form is lost to legend. Learn by attending and then practise, practise, practise.

This production of CODGERS leaves Sydney for a regional tour around mostly country New South Wales. Lucky them. It will be at GLEN STREET, Belrose 9th-20th of September. Maybe someone will find the way to bring it into Sydney proper.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Bland Project


At PERFORMANCE SPACE at CARRIAGEWORKS: THE BLAND PROJECT from GRAVITY RESEARCH INSTITUTE INC directed by Alan Schacher.

To go to the theatre on a Friday night after a week of mentally and emotionally charged work can be a very testing choice. I arrived at Carriageworks a little tired and more than jaded. When I left the Carriageworks after the performance I had been stimulated back to a very alert and maybe even rapturous state of being. Such can be the power of art.

The Bland Project was initially developed in 2006 through a Critical Path residency at the Drill hall. Now after a two year further development it is been performed at Performance Space.


“Performance Space animates Australia’s cultural life by producing and presenting contemporary arts that explore the intersections between performance, visual cultures, new media and sound.” This very exciting work (anything but bland) uses all the above in blissful intersection.

Four performers greet us in a straight line, dressed in identical casual slacks and shoes with a white undershirt and long sleeved buttoned blue shirt, ushering us silently into the performance space with a polite arm gesture and non committed face. (Bland!) They exchange places quietly and shift position in the queue: top of it, gradually passing down to the bottom of it, and then recommencing. We enter the room and take our seats to be confronted with the image of the four invitees still repeating the action we encountered at the entrance way. It takes a little while for me to realise that this is not a live broadcast image but an endlessly looped video that is being projected. The lights dim and the screen retracts into its flown case to reveal a moving screen system on four tracks: a screen a track. They quietly move across the space in a horizontal path, back and forth. During the course of the performance pre-filmed images of the dancer/performers as well as other images, sometimes multiplied thirty-fifty fold are projected onto these screens and on to the huge grey concrete wall of the theatre space behind. Sometimes the image of the artists are videoed live and projected onto the screens and walls whilst the artists move and interact with them. The artists use mirrors and ordinary grey blankets as props.

These performers are fascinating merely in their presence. Four relatively short men: one Japanese (Ryuichi Fujimura), one Malaysian (Teik-Kim Pok) (maybe in their late thirties) and two Caucasians (Ari Ehrlich and Philip Mills) (maybe in their late fifties - early sixties). They are quite aesthetically arresting both as individuals and as a group. Their choreography has been developed in the project by Alan Schacher. It is mostly upper torso and arm work, but not exclusively, both individual and choral. There are many spellbinding sequences: a "ballet" with grey blankets; a fascinating semi-naked upper torso self administered massage that begins exquisitely familiarly, moving from gentle touch to what could be very aggressive and painful nipple pulling (Ari Ehrlich); a diagonally moved quartet of semi naked bodies slapping, or better, playing tympani with their hands on each other. All with the blandest of facial response. It was an engrossing intersection of all the ingredients of this team.

The Video Design and Imagery by Sean Bacon; the subtle and beautiful Sound Design, the composer and musician (electric violoncello) Boris Baberkoff; Sydney Bouhaniche’s Lighting Design is marvellous for its complexity and sheer skill in creating Beauty in and around all the Video needs. There is much to be admired here both aesthetically and pragmatically. Film Maker, Michelle Mahrer; Video Artist/Installation, Sean Bacon; Set Design, Alan Schacher and Sean Bacon; Costume Design, Alan Schacher; Moving Screen System, Russell Emerson; Photographer Mayu Kanamori all make very intelligent contributions to a truly satisfying experience. All the artists biographies are staked with very intimidating backgrounds and ambitions that it, at first, was a little intimidating for me to embrace the night. But there is such a feeling of commitment from all the artistic inputs, and such integrity in execution that all reservations are removed. Whatever the Director’s stated objectives were in the very ‘academic’ program notes this was for me (Quote) “a very transformative experience” (Un quote)!!!!

A highly recommended visit. This is the kind of work that the Sydney Theatre Company has been quietly giving opportunity for their audiences to experience (witness my review of Manna or Guilt Framed) at their home at The Wharf. Maybe their curators could check it out. Or the Sydney Festival. It could be enjoyed by many more than us lucky few this week at Performance Space.