Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shane Warne The Musical

Photo: Shane Warne The Musical - Eddie Perfect


Conception for this Musical began, says Eddie Perfect in his program introduction, in 2006. How time has moved and shaken the “world”. In Sydney, after the recent, persistent NRL scandals, the swimming court cases and much else in many sports, even the Olympics, the hero worshipping of our sporting stars is a little, maybe, politically incorrect. In May, 2009, a musical celebration of the life of Shane Warne might be a little bit “icky”. Well, this was what my companion and I laughed about as we sipped our drinks in the foyer in anticipation. We wondered what sort of spin Mr Perfect might put on it all. Of course, we were there not because of Shane Warne but because we were fans of Eddie Perfect. Both of us having hilarious and affronted and confronting memories of THE BIG CON and DRINK PEPSI BITCH. We were abuzz.

The first shock was to discover how conventional the work was in all of the usual constructions of the bio-musical. We expected something else from the iconoclast Mr Perfect. Straight down the pitch of tradition, Along the lines of… "Hi mum.... I played AFL.... I was unmotivated.... I love junk food.... Thanks mum..... AIS here I come (It’s a bit regimented (Nazi!) here and maybe just a little bit gay etc).... etc.... to, Hi girlfriend... Will you be my wife?... La, laa, la, la!!..... MUCH LATER.... Mum, What have you given me? I’m in trouble again...... I know I’m vain..... I am a text addict..... divorce... lament.... etc , etc.” Despite the familiarity of the structure, it is the acerbic wit of the lyrics of the songs that kick in and keep you on side. And despite the funk of my deep chest infection, I was moved to laughter a great deal, (causing painful coughing- much to the alarm of people to my left and in front and in the back of me (Swine Flu?!!), once, our ears had adjusted to the difficult sound mixing in the space. The clarity of the lyrics was a wee bit of a problem some times- a pity as this is why we were there, the astonishing and audaciously inappropriateness of Mr Perfects wicked, wicker word smithing.

There is much to celebrate here, if not the life of Shane Warne. How could you not want to celebrate Eddie Perfect? Firstly he has written this piece, both writer and composer. This is an achievement of some merit... a really entertaining Australian Musical. Not often do we get to see one of these at such full bore. Then there is Eddie Perfect the performer. There were times that Mr Perfect seemed to be giving 150% and sustaining that energy output with impeccable control for long stretches of consecutive time. This performer seemed to be volting himself into a place of great personal risk to give us a jolting and exhilarating experience. Last week, in my diary chat about Ashkenazy conducting some Russian composers, I talked about the necessity for any great performance to have an ownership of the work/character-- a powerful need of personalisation – identification; to draw upon own truths to utilise in the imaginative steps to creating character and telling the truth moment to moment. I don’t know how near the character traits of the performer, Mr Perfect, is to Mr Warne, but the passionate commitment that is on stage is startlingly overwhelming. One is swept away with a tsunami of belief and wonder. There is no way that you can ignore that “gift” that he gives one.

Then, there is an entire ensemble, including the musicians which, on Sunday, gave ,it seemed to us, all of their souls. Is Mike McLeish a star of the first order, in musical theatre? I’d have to say yes. And yes again. Based on the KEATING performance and now this work YES, YES, YES!!!!!! Then what of Jolyon James with that incredible voice and the dynamic performance of Indian John in the My Name is John number? – a star. Both Sally Bourne and Rosemarie Harris give great emotional dynamics to their roles. This is a team of performers who gave their collective all on Sunday, worth every cent we paid, even if you liked nothing else. My companion and I were chuffed and faced the world after the show with smiles and an exhilarated optimism.

We didn’t like the set much. The costumes were, maybe, necessarily (all of those quick changes), a little too pragmatic and not “glamorous” enough for a musical, we thought.... but ultimately, we felt, it didn’t matter. The lighting (Damien Cooper) was “event lighting” and good. The Choreography was often funny/clever, especially the AIS song stuff; sometimes a little scrappy. The strong hand of Neil Armfield in shaping, pacing and staging the piece was evident and, as usual, of a whole. Whatever he touches, at the moment, there is great artistic integrity, subtly woven into the package. Whether the package be Opera, play, film or a musical!!!! He is worth celebrating.

I understand the show has cut short it’s run in Sydney. It may be the political correctness hoodoo haunting the inappropriateness of celebrating sports heroes that is preventing people from buying tickets, but, my companion and I felt that this was worth seeing. The celebration of Australian Musical Theatre talent and the nurturing of this very difficult genre is worth every cent, here, at a very difficult venue, for this work. There are performances here that you will bench mark as references of quality of the genre and enough wit to keep you occupied if you remain attentive.

We were glad we went, we decided, in our taxi, home. We have encouraged others to get along there before it is too late - even our taxi driver, who was Indian and loved cricket. (We know he will love musicals as well... well he loves Bollywood he told us.)

Playing now until 31 May. Book online or call 02 9550 3666.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Beyond The Neck

Photo: Beyond The Neck - Anita Hegh

B SHARP and BAMBINA BORRACHA productions present BEYOND THE NECK by Tom Holloway at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

Last year the Griffin presented Tom Holloway’s DON’T SAY THE WORDS and I believed that this was a very exciting new writer for the Australian audience. This play BEYOND THE NECK confirms that impression. Mr Holloway is a Tasmanian and was 17 when the terrible shootings by Martin Bryant at Port Arthur happened. Ten years after the event in September, 2007 this play was presented in both Hobart and Launceston to great acclaim. The community trauma runs deep and this play was a very important event. The fact that the power of the subject matter and the trauma of the incident, even on my unconscious suppression, rose to the surface, in my experience of this play, last Thursday, in the small Downstairs space, emphasises its universal resonances. This play is for all of us.

It tells of four people who, ten years after the incident, find themselves on a tour of the Port Arthur Tourist site. Memories and grief and fantasies are triggered and the disparate individuals find themselves, as do we, united in a strength of confrontation and consoling. Tom Holloway in the play script talks of the writing of the piece. Initially reading verbatim plays and having interviewed many, many people, he felt that that form did not have the required room for “journeys and drama.” So he devised a piece of theatre that “…is perhaps closer to a musical quartet than to a straight play. It is a piece where rhythm and timbre play vital roles, perhaps equally as important as characterisation and narrative structure.” He goes on to say; “The actors in this play have two main functions. The first is to voice the story of each of their characters and the second is to work as a broken chorus in support of each other’s journey.”

Under the Direction of Iain Sinclair, the four actors are terrifically focused and attuned to each other, and he delicately, with the use of his music composer, makes the piece, a quintet. Anita Hegh is controlled and brimming with the pressure of withheld grief. Still, highly traumatised 3: A Woman, is full of generosity, warmth and compassion for others while tough on herself. It is a performance of mature strength. Anna Houston as 2: A Girl,17 years old, is marvellous in her shifts and struggles as a rebellious, difficult and emotionally desperate, bereft young woman, attempting to come to terms with the death of her father and the aftermath on her family relationships. It is a deeply tragic telling. Lex Marinos as 4: A Man, 75 years old, who was actually at the site on the day of the shootings, struggling to live a normal life after such a near miss and witnessing, is embracably pathetic in the character’s stoic journey in the play. A hero, of a kind. Much to be admired and comforted. Jamie Croft as 1: a boy, 7 years old, (not even born when the event occurred) is impressive with the abandon of a young kid, who is acting out a trauma of abandonment accidentally inflicted by his parents, and has resulted in the invention of an imaginary friend called (ominously) “Michael” that encourages him to kill a dog with his cricket bat, and on the tour of this day triggers a joke that causes, unwittingly, the wellspring of horror for the other characters in the play. Some more careful shaping of the ebullient energy of the actor to give the text clearer room to impact on the audience, and not just the generalised characterisation of the “young boy” would, I believe, enhance and clarify the production further.

The simple set design by Luke Ede of ten sandstone blocks in the black space is anchoring to the Port Arthur site and the lighting by Matt Cox supports the shifts of mood and spaces well. Steve Toulmin is the composer and plays his piano score live, moody and supportive, it is an un-intrusive. He completes a quintet of instruments to explicate the play.

The performance I attended was moving, gentle and unsettling and yet oddly consoling as well. The form of the writing requires attention and results in an alert experience. This is theatre of a memorable kind. Difficult but human to its core.

Playing now unttil 31 May. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Call

Photo: The Call - Josh McConville

A GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY Sydney Premiere: THE CALL by Patricia Cornelius at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

THE CALL by Patricia Cornelius, first produced by the Melbourne Workers Theatre and FULL TILT at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne in late 2007, concerns principally the story of four young people, uninspired by their education who are “disgorged” into a series of jobs in their local community, that are available and maybe, for some, soul destroying: in a battery hen farm (chicken pluckers); an mdf board factory; a meat rendering plant. In between earning a living the usual escapades of youth: of drugs, alcohol, fast driving, fast sex leading to pregnancy and marriage ensue .

The main characters are Gary (Josh McConville), Denise (Sarah Becker), Chunk (Chris Ryan), and Aldo (Hazem Shammas), all in their 20’s. Denise, at the beginning of the play begins with the dreams of escape with overseas adventures and becomes trapped in her place of origin with pregnancy, marriage and babies. The arc of her life in a spiral of depression and hopelessness. Chunk, a feckless youth who has the brains but not the courage to even contemplate escape, unhappy enough to not to challenge his “fate”. Aldo, caught in the boredom of life, becomes beguiled and trapped by the dependency on harder and harder drugs, ultimately “lost”. And finally, Gary, who moves through all of the horrors of his life environment “trap” with these companions but hears “a Call” that gives some rescuing shape or meaning to his life: the call of Islam and the Moslem faith.

Mid-way through the play: “GARY: I thought when I grew up everything would be a lot clearer, that it would make sense, all kind of come together. I’d know what I was doing, what was my purpose. Meaning. I wanted that. I felt sure, I was positive in fact, that when I became a man, I’d have that.” At the end of the play: “GARY: If I think of what I was like, of that man, Gary…… He knew…… He sensed there was something else. When he looked at the moon and it was full, when he touched something fine, when he heard a bird call. He sensed there was something more. I promised to be open to new adventures…… I opened my mind and soul to Islam. Allah will keep me safe…… I’m not ashamed of fighting for what I believe in…… To believe so completely in something that it’s worth dying for, that’s all a man could want for…”. This is the story of many young people, as the testimonies of some of the World Youth Day, last year in Sydney, realised before my astonished eyes - ( I too, in my youth embraced my faith, "Catholicism", in a similarly passionate and maybe naïve way). This particular story could be the story of a David Hicks, but not just he, and not just Islam. The Call is been searched for and the Trekkies or The Force be With You brigade or the Bikie Clubs are just as fanatical and embraced. As is much else. [Better education, maybe, is the key?]

Lee Lewis (the Director) has gathered together a team that is top class. All the elements in this production seem to serve the vision of the play. The writer suggests that the scenes move “quickly and unnaturally from space to space. The suggestion of space is a more satisfying conceit.” The Set and Costume designers Colleen Reeks & William Bobbie Stewart have solved the story telling demands elegantly and simply. The Set, a simple stepped central silver metalled block in a black walled and floored box. On the walls a set of gleaming metal meat hooks. Usually, I find the aesthetic vision of Ms Lewis’ Set Designs, with her artists, tend to dominate the play, but here, all is beautifully, aesthetically and theatrically attuned. It is exciting. All fits. The Lighting by Luiz Pampolha, adds both beauty and service to the story, unencumbered. The Costumes support the simplicity of the set and lighting design by being both amazingly practical and particular in conveying the setting and story. The tiny colour details perceptively skillful. The Sound score by Stefan Gregory is a highly successful and invigorating element to the production journey - most impressive.

All of the actors give a wonderful individual and ensemble shape to their tasks. The car ride sequence of the second scene captures and sets a tone of thrilling theatrics. The actors play many different characters as well as their principal roles. Sarah Becker creates a terrific arc for the “inspired” but ultimately, biologically trapped Denise. Her body language aided by astute costuming is particularly artful. Denise’s fearful prediction in the early scenes in the play: “…I’m going to shrivel up, I’m going to rot, I’m going to become a fat-arsed slob…” are manifested in the journey before our very eyes. (Perhaps, on the night I saw, a little too much over whelming emotion in the last scene with Gary, the clarity of the text momentarily blurred.) Hazem Shammas in all of his tasks is clear and switched on. The decline of Aldo demarcated accurately. Chris Ryan, who I have seen in three different roles this past year (THE HYPOCRITE, in Melbourne, and recently in CONCUSSION, for the GRIFFIN) adds another solid and sensitive performance, that is very subtle and “modest”, in a good way, to the production as Chunk. His story is also heart-breaking for its pathos. Josh McConville serves the leading role of Gary with all the imaginative flair and sensitive invention that it demands, and maybe more so. (Is this Gary just a little too deep, too intelligent for the character’s journey?) The baby - bundle scene is beautifully created and is a highlight of the performance, as is the very difficult speech of the "dream of the Silk Road" later in the play.

The momentum of Ms Lewis’s Direction is exhilarating. But, I felt the writing, somewhere about the meat-rendering plant sequence, seemed to lose its way. It felt to be a redundant scene. The play seemed to become becalmed. The journey of Gary had been clear until the laying out of the “small prayer mat” and the performance of the ritual of the Islamic prayer came as a surprise that I did not feel I had been sufficiently prepared for. I knew the plotting of the play, and had been, therefore, unconsciously conscious of where we were going but still found this part of the play construction puzzling and a little unsatisfactory. Ultimately the first fifty minutes of this seventy-five minute play were totally engrossing, the last section undermined by the writing. Still this was a very good night at the theatre.

Playing now until 6 June. Book online or call 02 8002 4772.

Before the performance of THE CALL this night, we were given the opportunity to see and hear a short ten minute play, SPIN by Kamarra Bell-Wykes, one of the resident playwrights in development This is presumably connected to a combined writer’s project called THE FATES which is scheduled for the end of the year. Deborah Kennedy and Bruce Spence read, under the direction of Cristabel Sved, a very simple and charmingly sentimental narrative of a love affair and passing of time to death, with a washing machine as its metaphor.

By the bye: Just a moan. The program was scheduled for 7pm. It did not begin until 7.18pm. With the added bonus of SPIN, it meant a performance that was scheduled to finish at 8.15 did not conclude until 8.55pm. The need to forgo satisfactory food before the performance led to a late night hasty gobble after 9pm. (Scrambling from work.) I mention this because this is not the first time that this company has gone up late, once even, it cancelled, due to computer difficulties - at least I ate well that night, despite waiting till at least 7.30 to be told of the cancellation. As the company has moved it’s timing of performance forward, which I do not mind, at least have the respect and consideration to be prompt, as plans around this demand have been made. Let us into the auditorium before the start time, say five or ten minutes before seven, and things might be reasonable.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Russian Tribute

Picture: Sasha Rozhdestvensky

Sydney Symphony; 2009 Season, Great Classics. RUSSIAN TRIBUTE. At the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

Music is not my field of expertise, however it is part of my theatre going diary. Hence…

This program called RUSSIAN TRIBUTE has the Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op.99 by Dmitri Shostakovich (my favourite composer {at this time}) followed by Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The violin soloist is Russian: Sasha Rozhdestvensky and the conductor is Russian: Vladimir Ashkenazy. Russians playing and interpreting Russian. Blissful expectations. And so it was.

I bought my ticket on the day and whilst in the waiting queue, a tourist, whose friend had taken ill, asked if I would like to buy a ticket. It was in the choir stalls (In which I had hoped to sit) and so bought it from her and avoided the Opera House “tax” to attend performances in their theatres. I was pleased to have circumvented that imposition to my finances.

I very much like to sit behind the orchestra to watch the Conductor at work. The music is also very immediate, right in front of you and extremely present even if the sound reception is back to front, in that the percussion is right THERE(!!!) with the strings behind and facing the wrong way. The percussion is very exciting in Shostakovitch, usually, and the Pictures at an Exhibition is very “noisy”. I had never heard the Violin Concerto before. The opening movement is a meditative and sombre exploration, a Nocturne that allowed me to fully absorb an introduction to the violinist’s interplay with the orchestra. The following movement the Scherzo, is one of those thrilling pell-mell explosions of cacophony of orchestral sounds that is a hallmark of most of my experiences of the Shostakovitch oeuvre. "Malignant, demonic, prickly" is a description given to it.

(To digress: in the interval speaking to some friends, who knew of this blog, in reply to a question, I confessed my knowledge of music was simply built from listening and reading and talking with more learned people about it, and then was asked what I would write and I replied about the “theatre” of it, of the experience. Well, with all due respect to an unfortunate patron in the Concert Hall, I had a very Hitchcockian episode during this movement. Intent on the thrill of the sounds with the xylophone and drums etc clinking and banging with the others in the band, and absorbed in the passions of Ashkenazy guiding the orchestra through the piece, I was distracted by two white coated ushers in a direct visual collision with my focus, in the front section of the upper part of the seats, the front circle, moving, in what appeared to be slow motion to the centre of the seating to assist an incapacitated concertgoer. As the ushers passed the seats, audience members were required to stand and then on their passing, sit again. rising and sitting. The ill patron often having to rest, holding the other patrons in an arrested state of “a semi recumbent posture”, once able, moved on again. It took quite some time. But the vivid impassioned actions and noise of the orchestra and conductor were in such contrast to the slow enactment of "rescue" in the circle seats that it was like watching one of those great staged moments in Hitchcock. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH or TORN CURTAIN!!! – ahh the drama, the theatre of concert going!!!)

Back to the Concerto…The third movement, the Passacaglia, "is unapologetically baleful.” It winds into a cadenza for the soloist that is truly bravura to hear and to watch. Sasha Rozhdestvensky was great. Without pause, the orchestra crashed into the final movement the Burlesque. Apparently begun in composition in 1947, after an intimidating decree on artistic demands of the Party, Shostakovitch withheld the appearance of the score until 1955 when Stalin was safely embalmed. "It was initially given the opus number 77 but when published appeared as Op. 99." In the program notes: “It would be fair to say that it’s Russian-born musicians who are best-placed to understand and interpret this music, to get under its skin. These are musicians such as Ashkenazy, who were there when this music was premiered and who directly experienced the world of “impossible circumstances it mirrors.” One of the keys to theatrical authenticity for any artist, and one I believe to be essential, is “personalisation”. The personal ownership through “life” identification through either first or second hand experiences. The apparent “knowledge”, at so many levels of entry, that Ashkenazy brings to this music is a handsome insight and reveals a depth to the sounds and collective sweep of the score that I, personally, find breathtaking.

Vladimir Ashkenazy began is career internationally as a renowned piano player. Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed by Mussorgsky as a piano work. Ashkenazy knew this work intimately from that place of introduction and learning. The most well known orchestral adaptation of this piano score is by Ravel. The colours of the scoring are, apparently, very “French”. “...and so he (Ashkenazy) writes, 'I developed my own personal vision of how the piece should sound when transported from the piano to the larger canvas of the symphony orchestra…… I have been guided by the deeper undercurrents of this predominately dark-coloured piece. In other words. I have tried to work from within the music rather from without …'." The direction is marked from the first notes of Ashkenazy’s orchestrations: The Ravel begins the first Promenade with one trumpet, Ashkenazy uses three trumpets!!! As the very familiar piece unfurls, one "giggles" with the scoring and playing of The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and overwhelmed and moved to tears with the feeling and majesty of The Great Gate of Kiev. It was a very wonderful hearing of a familiar piece of music.

What also was wonderful was to sit in the choir stalls facing Ashkenazy and capture all of the passion, control, intelligence and generosity of a great artist expressed by all the endearing idiosyncrasies of a performer lost in the joy of creating. The left hand tucked under his armpit, the pointed finger resting on his chin, the tweaking of his left ear, the gentle pointing and turning of the score pages in front of him.

After a very long applause, outside in the beauty of the Utzon building, surrounded by the Sydney harbour and the flushed audience I overheard a fellow journeyman say to her friend “What a treat!” Indeed. WHAT A TREAT. Thank you. Ashkenazy, Rozhdestvensky,and the Sydney Symphony, and of course the composers.

N.B. All quotations are from the published notes in the concert’s program.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ghost Quarters - First Dream of the Opium Confessions


On Friday night venturing into the Carriageworks enclave was a very daunting but thriving experience. The huge foyer of the Carriage works was abuzz with an indoor evening market. On top of that, all the possible performing spaces were in use, including the foyer: a series of local “popular music” performers. It was both disconcerting to have to deal with the excited crowds and yet happifying to be in the Carriageworks space so alive. Wending one’s way, to be on time, to the space of your designated performance was quite an effort. De Quincey Co presented GHOST QUARTERS – The first dream of the Opium Confessions. It is a solo performance work by Tess de Quincey based around impressions from the works of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). The most famous of these: CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH LOTUS – EATER, form a spring board for a collaborative "enquiry into the writings" of De Quincey, which cover quite an extensive range of interests and forms. In an interview in The Australian newspaper Ms De Quincey speculates about the possible heritage of origin between herself and the writer.(There is a very occupying photo installation by Mayu Kanamori, in the foyer of the space, where the image of Thomas is gradually translated into the image of Tess de Quincey, and back.) Joan Goodall, a writer of psychological thrillers, and critical works about theatre (including STAGE PRESENCE (2008) which has been shortlisted for Theatre Book Award in London.) has acted as Writer and Dramaturg on the project. A text covering Thomas de Quincey’s young sojourn in the Welsh and English country side and later his living in a sympathetic friend’s (Brunell) London residence in Soho with a single wretched servant girl, who was fearful of ghosts in one of the rooms of the residence; plus excursions into his opium taking (originally for pain relief) and onto touching some of other writings such as his essay MURDER CONSIDERED AS ONE OF THE FINE ARTS (1827), has been scripted and then prepared in an inventive stream of consciousness recorded by the Sound Designer Ian Stevenson with overlapped (and other sophisticated techniques) to form an aural background to the journey of the piece. Knowledge of Thomas De Quincey (or a quick reading of the program notes are useful to have for relatively easy comprehension of the experience.)

The room has the audience seated on chairs around the perimeter of the space. Eight translucent long oblong swathes of gauze hang from the roof, on which images (Sam James), of trees, country side, later urban interiors, chandeliers etc, are projected onto and through the cloth onto the walls behind. The lighting (Travis Hodgson) is suitably atmospheric and careful to take care of the projected images for our delectation.

I was fortunate to sit in the space around the wall where I could observe the dance of Ms de Quincey in detail. Others less felicitously sat may not have had the same fascinating experience as I. The dance technique that the De Quincey Co have been exploring for the past “several decades… is based in BODY WEATHER which is a contemporary dance training founded in Japan by butoh dancer Min Tanaka, melding Asian and Western practices and thought.” I have attended several different works by the company over the last years. It is, then, truly fascinating to be able to observe the leading mentor and artist of this work “style” in a solo performance, so as to closely and undistractingly be able to see the Mistress (Master) explicating an ideal of the form. It has been interesting to watch the Company at work with the disciples but it is always valuable, and was in this instance, to see the originating force in display of the technique. I was, personally, engrossed in the performance. More for the opportunity of watching the unadulterated commitment and original "movement language" that Ms de Quincey has evolved than in the piece itself. In a highly stylised movement-dance technique of very slow evolving whole body gesture and movement, the figure of the “hero” of the piece, accompanied by the sound track and scape, moves through a journey of vividly committed intent. The images are projected and relieved on the body as well as it moves through the space on its journey. The face lit by a hand held light also emphasises a possession or type of madness. Perplexing and yet absorbing.

The combination of the other collaborators seems to be harmonious in its intentions for GHOST QUARTERS and yet it is all not yet completely comprehensible in one sitting. However, provoking enough, to urge me to hunt out some of the writings of Thomas De Quincey. In the program it suggests that this work “forms a part of THE OPIUM CONFESSIONS, (which) is an overreaching enquiry into the writings of Thomas De Quincey.” I look forward to seeing the other episodes to continue the curious investigation of what Thomas calls “a brilliant year of water… set as it were, and insulated, in the gloomy umbrage of opium.”

N.B. : Quotations are from the program notes and Selections From De Quincey, edited by A.H.R. BALL. Ginn and Company Ltd. (1932)

Thursday, May 14, 2009


HARLOS PRODUCTIONS present HAMLET at the Bondi Pavilion.

HAMLET directed by David Ritchie for Harlos Productions has a small company of 8 actors playing, in a well edited text, a number of responsibilities. There are two scheduled actors to play Hamlet; Angela Bauer and Damien Ryan. This is a very lucid and slow unwinding of the text. It’s energy is gently expositional and ideal for students studying the play. I attended a performance of Damien Ryan as Hamlet. The performance is intelligent and clear. Re-assuring. There is great personable charm but it is a little too "held", controlled, and lacks the dramatic urgency of "discovery". Each moment and speech is "presented", rather than experienced as an expression of the needs of the dramatic moment of the events of the story and so lacks the vital energy that may lead to an audience’s transportation into the world of Denmark, where a ghostly figure has appeared demanding revenge for a most foul crime: regicide.

All of the actors are well prepared and assured and clear, it is just that the production lacks theatrical urgency. The best moments, for what I was looking for in the evening’s storytelling, occurred between Hamlet and Gertrude in the bedroom scene. Gertraud Ingeborg had an urgency and desperation about her character’s problems, and seemed to confront Damien Ryan with some real options to deal with. Another kind of vital life ignited, briefly, on the stage: the passionate dilemma between a mother and son in times of great stress.

The setting of the play in "an imaginary Denmark" with the contemporary right/neo-Nazi iconography does not seem to impact too much on the production and the choice of costume (Ailsa Paterson) should, as in the STC production of THE CRUCIBLE, encourage much discussion among the target audience as to its usefulness.

This is the third production that I have recently seen that have had young audiences as their principal target. The students who attend any of these production seem to me to be well served and will have quite a lot of stimulation to their studies. The RICHARD III at CarriageWorks is, as well, quite outstanding theatre for any audience.

Now playing until 30 May. Book by phone: 02 9958 8525, fax: 02 9357 6853 or email:

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Crucible

Photo by Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Co. STC ED presents THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller at Wharf 2.

This play is, according to Mr Miller in his many interviews, the most performed of his plays. Published and first performed in 1953, during the height of the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, it still burns with relevance in 2009. When the Deputy-Governor, Danforth in the third act of the play speaking to one of his examinees, Francis Nurse, (in this production, Giles Corey, played by Peter Carroll) says, "But you must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it. I hope you will be one of those." The hackles of disturbed memory of very recent history stand up.

This is a production from the education wing of the STC. Some twenty one roles have been re-distributed for a cast of ten. There is much fodder for discussion for the students (and other audience). Does this play have contemporary relevance? If so, does the abstracted setting (Simone Romaniuk) of a contemporary looking wall, made up of seemingly caged squares of paper (reminding me very much of some of the contemporary art installations of Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro - although they use found objects) behind a raised red carpeted geometrical floor, work? What does it do to support or clarify the play? Does the contemporary costuming, similarly, support, clarify or obfuscate access to the meaning of the play? Could it still have had impact in the period it was set in, the Puritan world of Salem in 1692? Does the setting of the play in a hybrid religious world, using Australian accents, and thereby locating it in a contemporary and local world of a kind of extreme fanaticism help the understanding of the play? Do you think it is overstated? Do you think it is a distraction? Do the choices of design and location suggest an insecurity about the strength of the play? Is the distancing effect, used by Mr Miller in 1953, by setting it in a past time, 1692, in the stage directions of his text no longer a valid choice? Compare and discuss the recent design choices of the film of THE CRUCIBLE with Joan Allen and Daniel Day-Lewis.

The Director, Tanya Goldberg, guides her mightily taxed cast through the sense of the play with some admirable clarity. The might of the writing is a great support. Marta Dusseldorp (Elizabeth Proctor) and Joe Manning (John Proctor) after an insecure opening to the second act, where a supposedly wintry household, is undermined by the glowing colours of costume and lighting, build with the mastery of Mr Miller to a suitably compelling last act.

For me, the best work came from Peter Carroll as an irascible member of the village, shocked into fear when his accusations have such terrible consequences. There is a grasp for the mordant humour by Mr Carroll that leavens the performance of the play with a variety of response. (The possibility of ironic comedy.) The focused energy of the textual usage by Angus King (Reverend Parris) kicks the first act into a desperate and hysterical urgency that grabs one's attention and holds it there despite some of the melodramatic choices of other members of the cast.

The most remarkable acting comes from Lynette Curran who in the space of twenty minutes, due to the multiple casting demands of the production, appears as Tituba, Mercy Lewis and Rebecca Nurse in act one. Each one of these creations is accurate in a very refined discipline. Vocally the clarity of intention unequivocable. The audacity of having Ms Curran play a black servant form Barbados, to be followed by the impersonation of a very young teenage girl "bewitched" by the power of sudden recognition of stature is fully sustained by her in a breathtaking speed of only minutes. The creation of Rebecca Nurse that rapidly follows, is such that whenever she appears and speaks, attention must be paid by the audience - there is no escaping her urgent demands of you. The respect for Rebecca's wisdom in the first act, the empathy that she wrung from me in the final tragic act, when with four short speeches she elucidates the dignity and power of goodness as exemplified by Arthur Miller's writing, is truly worth savouring. She gives meaning and strength to the dilemma of the Proctors in the scene with her.

Two dogs and nineteen men and women were hanged for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. The consequences of the investigating committee led by Eugene McCarthy, in the 1940's-1950's, in the USA have not been fully explicated. (The Woody Allen film THE FRONT with Zero Mostel was my first conscience indication of the tragedies.) The contemporary ramifications of recent history are still swirling around us. THE CRUCIBLE is a great play that resonates, staggeringly, still. This production for schools is a very useful tool for education debate. It is an admirable experience for any theatre going attendee, as well.

Playing now until 30 May. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Richard III

Theatre Trailer by Preview Play

Siren Theatre Co and MAKEbeLIVE productions present….. RICHARD III by William Shakespeare.

Walking down towards us, his captive audience, both Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Thomas Campbell, one and the same person, comes to a halt in a spotlight, contemplates us and then begins “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York…” We listen and watch with anticipatory excitement and foreknowledge (most of us, of this play, this night) and accept the invitation to watch a most sensational story of treachery, and evil personified, unravel for our delight. We are invited to join, complicity, in the roller coaster machinations of a great villains’ deeds, witnessing and certainly savouring the daring and cunning. It can be a vicarious thrill.

“King Richard III, the only English ruler since the Norman Conquest to have been killed in battle, is the only one to have become a legend. That legend, first due to Sir Thomas More and then to Shakespeare, is of the lame and twisted hunchback whose misshapen body reflects the evil heart within it. To satisfy his own all-consuming ambition, he murders the royal saint King Henry VI and the latter’s son Edward Prince of Wales, seduces Edward’s Lady Anne while her husband’s body is still warm, engineers the death of his own brother Clarence and finally disposes of his two child nephews – one of them the rightful King of England – in the Tower of London. He quite probably poisons his wife, and would most certainly have married his niece had he not been persuaded that public opinion would never stand for it.” The ends invariably justified means, to capture and to ensure a ruler’s authority, “no crime was too unspeakable, no treachery too abhorrent.” Machiavelli’s Prince speaks and acts.

It is Richard’s performance that dazzles us. “The element of this serious moral farce, even in a play that must be called a tragedy, is never far from the surface. Without the wit and humour that ironically plays round Richard and the wit and self-mockery he himself exhibits, he would merely be a monster, and no more interesting than any other. We cannot avoid being interested, however, in the complexity of mind, the energy and self-awareness evidenced by his self-mockery, particularly when our point of view at the beginning of the play is inevitably controlled by the attitude he, as a sort of impresario, suggests. At the end we cannot avoid feeling a sense of loss at the death and despair of someone so much more remarkable and self-aware than any other character……… Richard (sees) through the pretence and the pretensions of the people among whom (he moves), and reveals that high words often conceal low motives. For this to be effective as a stage device, of course, some complicity with the audience in point of view has to be assumed; and that complicity is established by the soliloquy that opens Richard III.” It is in the sprezzatura, the easy, confident grace, in the élan in his villainy and a delighted mastery of the roles he chooses to play that we surrender to. He is the hero of his own play to himself: “I am myself alone.” He comes forward and begins, “Now is the winter of our discontent….” And quickly, curiously and wickedly delightfully we follow and join him……

Kate Gaul has seen what others have, but then has gone the extra distance, taken a gamble and cast a young actor of remarkable gifts and promise, Thomas Campbell, and given him rein to pursue the delicious and fiendish opportunity of exploring the role of Richard III. He does so admirably and wholeheartedly. Her act of faith is not undermined. This is not to say that in another few years, given that he is invited to actively continue to develop his craft and art form, when he re-creates this role, that it would be even more impressive with maturing skills and that it will still be more interesting to see. This is a powerfully interesting young actor. He has wit, intelligence, a divine sense of theatricality, a wickedness of daring that is keenly necessary to arrest an audience from the doldrums of the relative perfunctory labouring of others, and makes for unexpected choices which are treasures to hold onto. Mr Campbell has a growing command of his vocal instrument with a glare of precision and a delighted and growing accuracy about the vocabulary of his texts and a gorgeous relish of it: every syllable, word, phrase and sentence of them. The applied concentration is awesome in the delivery of the verse of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and is joyously balanced with a detailed ability to listen actively to the offers of his fellow actors/characters and express it as a gift to the attentive audience to propel the narrative. All this is not to say that this is a flawless performance. Physically, there are still things to harness, to develop, but it is a real, sensationally live one. Sparks of eloquence crackle from him. I had a glimpse of a Charles Laughton re-incarnation: Intuitive, incisive, fearlessly insightful and cruel. But alive in the joyful act of creating. Transcending himself to be someone else, vividly.

The director Kate Gaul has gathered six actors, Thomas Campbell, Holly Austin, Robert Jago, Catherine Terracini, Anthony Weir and Genevieve Mooy and with a cleverly edited script thrown them into a playground of invention where extraordinary possibilities of expressive storytelling was permitted to be explored and enjoyed. All of these actors, create for the audience, using minimal props, furniture, but with intricately designed functional and descriptive costume (Kate Shanahan) each playing multiple roles, in the time honoured footsteps of the Shared Experience company (UK) a breathless succession of characters without confusion and with thrilling impetus. The handling of the Elizabethan text (1592-early Shakespeare) is very good indeed, by all of the performers. It is as clear as a bell. All of these actors are wondrously committed to their tasks, each others tasks and the empathetic interaction of them, with a need to infect the audience both with that commitment and knowledge of the story. A team of actors being wrought to combine their crafts for our and Shakespeare’s delectation. An embryonic ensemble. How exciting if they could build on what they have found and what they are brewing.

There is no set. There is a large empty space surrounded by a collection of wooden chairs and storage points for prop and costume changes. The actors in the two hours of non stop traffic never leave the stage. The moody and almost balletic (side towers) lighting by Dave Bergman is impressive. (Although, once again I complain that sometimes the director and designer have erred on atmosphere and beautiful pictures rather than LIGHTING the actors faces so that we can read accurately without strain, the story the actors are detailing for us! Is it that the director and designer, from having nurtured the performance from day one of rehearsal forget that the audience is seeing it all for only the first time and are learning to register, what they know from familiarity and so go blithely into underlit or shadowed glooms? I merely ask for information.) The composition and sound design of Daryl Wallis is always accurately present to either underline or propel the story and atmosphere of the narrative. Like all good soundscapes only impinging when it should be. Going about its contributions subtly when need be.

This is a telling of The Tragedy of Richard III that is straight forward. It seems to be targeted at the first time audience specifically. It is almost unadorned with interpretative or relevancy agenda. This I appreciate and yet I longed for a point of view that was more engaging. I was enhanced by the clarity, the theatrical solutions of the production by Ms Gaul, the thrill and joy of the performances, the sheer brilliance of the dramatist and poet that is a young expanding Shakespeare…. And yet…. Yet/MMMM?

There is one other performance in this company that I should like to talk about. That is the performance of Genevieve Mooy. Ms Mooy plays three roles: Queen Margaret, Catesby, Duchess of York. [I spoke to her briefly after the performance and expressed my appreciation of her work. She replied, “Why not? Kate invited us to play and I loved it. I just cut lose and played. It is rare to have that gift to play in such rich material.” (Something like that. The quote is my impression not necessarily verbatim.)] Ms Mooy’s performance as mad Queen Margaret is bravura acting that is rarely engaged in by Australian actors. A fierce and brilliant physical gift is unleashed alongside a vocal relish and emotional passion that relishes the opportunity that Shakespeare has given her. Act One Scene Three, Margaret crazed with grief and rage, blasts Richard and curses him with prophetic retribution on the House of York. The vitriolic power of it is breathtaking and it is something that all of us would love to have said in the heat of temper: “Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me. / If heaven have any grievous plague in store / Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee, / O let them keep it till thy sins be ripe / And then hurl down their indignations / On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace!? The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! / Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends! / No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / unless it be while some tormenting dream / Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils! / Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog! / Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity / The slave of nature and the son of hell! / Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb! / Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins! / thou rag of horror!..” With all the fine expertise of a relishing craftsman, Ms Mooy takes every opportunity in the role and speeches to the hilt. A round of applause almost ensued, but Richard’s wicked tricky reply cut it out for us and her. Later the physicalisation and satiric edge of Ms Mooy’s impersonation of William Catesby in this production is wicked, witty provocation of our belief. It’s daring is worth the embracement of it. I did... The Duchess of York is less impressive but still stockpiled with insight and aplomb.

It is very interesting watching the acting styles of Ms Mooy alongside that of a relatively younger performer like Mr Campbell. The histrionic, flamboyant and yet carefully modulated choices of Ms Mooy represent a school of acting that the younger actor should observe. It is an inheritance from the school of Olivier and the other English greats, no less than Maggie Smith or Judi Dench at their most galvanised and captured on film for us to cherish. Then, too, Ms Mooy could take on some of the intellectual coolness and pensive restraint of the supercharged Mr Campbell. There is a blend of “contemporary” thoughtful hesitation mixed with the temptation to bravura balanced by a brain engaged with the language and argument and not swamped with emotional out pouring. Thinking, not allowing the natural emotional response to dominate. In every moment of Mr Campbell’s activity this is so. (This is where Ms Mooy’s Duchess of York slightly errs - the emotional content muddies the text and thoughts.) This maybe from the school of Daniel Day Lewis - a great of the contemporary cinema who pushes the boundaries of expected cinema acting into daring and expansion of incredible credibility. Who dares not to believe him? Who is not overwhelmed by his offerings? Only dullards are not.

It is one of the joys of watching the contemporary actors at work. When the living history of acting styles stand side by side and one can see the legitimate passing of the baton. Even more thrilling when each generation learns from the other. This is where the combustion of live performance enhances the theatre going experience.

So, although for those of us who are very familiar with the play of Richard III, the performance may lack a point of view that is challenging, the other intentions of Ms Gaul and her fellow artist in attempting to find a thrilling contemporary method to deliver this material is very, very enjoyable. There is no ersatz storytelling here.

Playing now until May 16 at CarriageWorks, Bay 20. Book online or call 1300 732 038.


Sydney Theatre presents A VESTURPORT AND LYRIC HAMMERSMITH PRODUCTION: METAMORPHOSIS by Franz Kafka. Adapted and Directed by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson at the Sydney Theatre.

Franz Kafka wrote this short story in 1912. He was 29. He was dead at the age of 40. This work along with The TRIAL and maybe THE CASTLE have had a fascination for intellectuals, so much so that there is a word: Kafkaesque in the English dictionary – “( of a situation, atmosphere etc) impenetrably oppressive, nightmarish, in a manner characteristic of the fictional world of Franz Kafka.” This version of the story concerns a bourgeois family of four. A father (Ingvar E Sigurdsson), a mother (Edda Arnljotsdottir), a son (Bjorn Thors) and a daughter (Unnur Osp Stefansdottir.) {There are also two outsiders that cause alarm when visiting the family, played by Jonathan McGuinness.} The son finds himself to be different, and so marginalised in his contemplation of the world that he sees himself as a minority. An inferiority complex has developed and when we meet him he has begun a metamorphosis into an insect in the attic bedroom of his home. His family is puzzled and shocked. Only the daughter has any level of compassion but even she becomes worn out by the demands and presence of her strange creature brother. The conventions and expectations of the middleclass that the family feels necessary to maintain, causes them to deflect and ultimately reject the son in the attic that is so different. Casual neglect and then persecution and ultimately the sacrifice of the brother is the only way for the family to survive in the “real world”. They leave him and they escape to a landscape of idealistic flowering while the son dies in the isolation of his self, and the family’s making. Something hideous to eschew if one wishes to progress happily.

Kafka, autobiographically, experienced these feelings intensely as an individual. Spiritually and especially physically, so the biographers tell us. All of us who have felt to be the other, the unique, the different, the marginalised, identify with the sense that the world of conventional behaviour looks at us as if we were of another species. Their will and judgement changes us, marginalises us so that they can survive without concern. We become, like in Kafka’s story, an insect, easily, without conscience, expendable. In 1912 this was a relatively hidden truth. Now in 2009 it is an accepted fact. Recent history rife with examples of the most numerous kind. Of the most stupendous cataclysm to whole sections of our human brothers and sisters.

So, in 2009 this subject matter and story is not anything new. It is a reminder but it is not a revelation. The horror of it has been experienced first hand, often, recently, in both history and in the fictions of the many modes of storytelling of our civilization. The most sensational memory of this story was in the telling of it by Steven Berkoff and his company a few years back. This new adaptation by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson, according to the program notes, comes at it in an investigation that from Mr Farr, is intellectual, and from Mr Gardarsson one that is physical. Both of them working in tandem as the Directors.

We have a Set design (Borkur Jonsson) of two levels. Downstairs is a depressingly accurate evocation of a well used middle class home. A dining room slightly decrepit but well lived in. Naturalism of the highest order. Connecting to an upper level is a realistic staircase that opens up into a room that is skewed visually so that the bedroom floor, with the bed attached, is on the horizontal plane-wall. We see the bed suspended and Gregor Samsa on it, facing us. The design surprise is a delight and it holds our concentration fully. Later, another world reveals itself as the back wall disappears and a weird garden of odd attraction harbours the surviving family. It is eerie and not altogether comforting.

The very conventional text adaptation by Mr Farr is delivered in a fairly unconventional, intense set of stylised choices. The vocal work has a cartoon, exaggerated form of delivery, with loud enunciations and slightly intoned (sung) effects. This is all accompanied by a very robust physical life by all the actors. Highly energised and contained-dance like in its concentration and explication. There is a formal physical vocabulary that we learn and come to anticipate and appreciate. The naturalism of the set is counter-pointed by the peculiarity of the vocal and physical life of the production. The physical demands of Mr Thors as Gregor are fairly athletic and breathtaking in their demands – a range of skills that demand much strength and controlled subtlety. The stylisation is at first highly attractive but in a 90 minute, no interval performance they do not develop or gather complexity. The affect reaches a plateau of familiarity and the dramatic and even curiosity attention wanes and becomes becalmed. The story telling lacks accumulative tension and dramatically stays trapped within the playing choices of the production. It becomes oddly distancing. As the story is not new and the characters relatively static in their emotional development there is little to experience but an objective appreciation of the skills of the actors.

There was much to watch but the cumulative experience was one of admiration rather than exhilaration.