Monday, June 29, 2009

Steel Magnolias

A BLACKBIRD PRODUCTION: STEEL MAGNOLIAS by Robert Harling at the Seymour Centre.

“In the haven of Truvy’s beauty salon, six very different women come together to share their secrets and bare their souls, throwing in a little neighbourly gossip for good measure. From weddings to divorces, babies to funerals, new beginnings to happy endings, they weather every event in their lives with grace, determination, and perfectly coiffed hair. When tragedy strikes, it is in the familiar comfort of Truvy’s salon where they seek the solace and support that carries them through.” So goes the synopsis in the program notes. This is a fairly well known play, with a great track record of popularity and then translated to film for a similarly successful response. Mr Harling’s other notable work includes THE FIRST WIVES CLUB, THE EVENING STAR and a hilarious if not quite right satire called SOAPDISH. (All films of a certain genre – I should have taken warning!!!)

I had never seen any of this work’s previous incarnations. I came to it “a virgin”. What drew me to this production was the casting, particularly, the chance to see, with due respect, some of the great “war horses” of theatrical talent of my times in the theatre. Especially Jacki Weaver, Jennifer Hagan and Geraldine Turner. Not only was I excited by the prospect of them individually but as a collective team. I anticipated a rollicking and positively ‘naughty’ time of these three hugely talented and gifted actresses strutting their stuff on stage. I was not disappointed by them. It was the play that they had to work with, that unfortunately, shows its old fashioned ‘creakiness’ at almost every turning point in its narrative structure and plotting of ‘homespun’ humour. Afternoon television at its gentlest and most obvious – writing that is of a by gone time –already!!!! Without these three women on stage the play would hardly have been alive. It demands skill of a very special and seasoned type, Ms Weaver, Hagan and Turner have it in bucket loads. (Chutzpah as well.) Supported by Ana Maria Belo, Marian Frizelle and Debra Lawrance (who was especially good, up until her final scene – it needs centring and stillness, in my estimation.), the performances are the reason to go. I should note that the audience, mostly women, seemed to respond empathetically to the piece and were moved, some of them to a few tears, by the journey of the characters.

The costumes by Claire Moloney are very good support for the delineation of character and their journey through the four scenes of the play’s time structure. The details pertinent and witty. The Direction by Darren Yap is efficient, if not very inventive. All in all, the other production values are similarly pragmatic, useful and right, just not very exciting (–a dinosaur of a set that I thought only a museum would show.)

On reflection, I recently commented that Steve Rodgers’ play, SAVAGE RIVER, at the Griffin Stables was old fashioned, but upon encountering STEEL MAGNOLIAS in 2009 one can see the advance of writing and expectations one has grown used to over the passing of time. It is true of last year’s production of CODGERS out at Riverside as well, where the play was not ground breaking in any of its details but had a contemporary discipline and mode of attention grabbing (it too had a cast of great pedigree well worth the effort to see them strutting their stuff: Ron Falk, Ron Haddrick, Teddy Hodgemen, Henry Szeps, Graham Rouse and Jon Lam.)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS is a gentle commercial piece of theatre well done. The producer’s Suzie Franke & Matthew Henderson of BLACKBIRD PRODUCTIONS have “the invaluable support of Playing Australia and Arts Victoria” that “will ensure that many Australians will” see this play “over the coming six months at 30 venues nationally”. Terrific that it is happening. I hope the targeted audience come in droves. It is, as one of the characters say “women’s territory” but I had pleasure in seeing six women on stage getting the opportunity to strut their skills and their love of performing. SIX WOMEN, how amazing is that.

ACO: Tour Three - Great Romantics


In a concert at Angel place I heard a stripped back representation of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a string sextet: Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone, Christopher Moore, Stephen King, Timo-Veikko Valve and Julian Thompson give a performance of Ian Munro’s commissioned piece BLACK IS THE NIGHT as part of the 20th Anniversary celebration of Richard Tognetti’s leadership of the ACO; Brahms’ String Sextet in G, Op.36 [Agathe] and Schoenberg’s TRANSFIGURED NIGHT.

Brahms has not very much interested me. I nearly always imagine myself sitting in a scene either at a colonial concert at Government House in the late 1800’s or in one of those magical soirees in a Visconti film (L’Innocente or Death in Venice) when I hear his chamber work. So, I imaginatively transported myself to such an environment. Watching this close knit group of musicians with their concentrated eye contact to cue each other in the performance was fascinating to observe. The ensemble seemed to be seamless and fully engaged. The music, undoubtedly played well, ( the audience, more learned than I, responded enthusiastically.) flowed over me in a fairly mindless way.

On the other hand, the sublime composition and playing of TRANSFIGURED NIGHT by Arnold Schoenberg, captured me from the first notes. The sounds of this Program Music, telling the story of a walk at night by a man and woman, based around a poem by Richard Dehmel, is delicate and bewitching in it’s composition. Schoenberg wrote,” It does not describe some action or drama but is limited to depicting nature and expressing human feelings…..” The beauty of the sound, especially in the last few minutes was enhanced by the ‘theatrical’ concentration of the sextet of players. This was truly a transfiguring experience this night. I was moved and left in a state of ecstatic awareness. The night I went out into was vibrating with details that the music had alerted me too. Gorgeous.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Savage River

Photo - Savage River - Travis Cardona

Griffin Theatre Company presents a World Premiere of SAVAGE RIVER by Steve Rodgers. A co-production with Melbourne Theatre Company and Tasmanian Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

Savage River is set in a remote area on the west coast of Tasmania; “Hour–north from Zeehan. A ways south of Arthur River. Savage is two hours east..... (and west?) The Republic of South Africa.” Kingsley (Ian Bliss) , a deeply, psychologically, injured man, has fled with his half caste son, Tiger (Travis Cardona) to the wilderness, in an attempt to protect the boy from the prejudices of ‘civilization’. Tiger has been brought up a relatively protected ‘wild child’. Nature and its bountiful gifts are his principal knowledge. Television, The Three Stooges and mid-night movies and cooking shows creating a curiosity for the other world, through an old television set in the camp. Into this world is brought Jude (Peta Sergeant), by Kingsley. She, like him is an injured ‘soul’. The collision and the naive interactions of these fractured characters is the body of the play.

The play is, relievedly, straight forward - an old fashioned “melodrama”. There is no strain to follow the meaning of the play. No puzzle as to who these people are. It is a play that has clear form: two acts, made up of twelve scenes (with an interval – how old fashioned can you be?) with characters that have gentle psychological and narrative progress – building all the time.

The Director, Peter Evans has elicited a naturalistic production. Giving the actors the opportunity to breathe in the spaces between the lines and their situations. It is the acting choices that give a contemporary edge to the witnessing of the piece. Peta Sergeant is oddly uncomfortable to watch, as the pain of the character’s external and internal struggles register painfully, truthfully, across all of her instrument. The anguish and uncertainty of identity is contrasted with the bravado of action in the safety of alcoholic haze or in the ordinary doing of house making (Curtains etc). The tenderness towards the young Tiger and the flailing endeavours to deal with the dangerous Kingsley provide a range of intriguing responses for the audience. They flicker across her face and body like electric shocks. Travis Cardona as the ‘wild child’ held captive in this wilderness paradise treads a pathetic line between the glorious nature of the wisdom of nature in the child and the struggle for a fuller knowledge of the real world, to become a man: it could be the loss of an innocent or the liberating of a spirit- the ambiguity of my response to the character’s journey is challenging. After the confrontation with his father “I’m goin’. To see everythin’. I won’t be chained. I won’t be buried anymore.” And his assurance “I’ll be okay.” buffets with the romantic but maybe tragic image of Tiger standing on his swing above the river, his arms raised like a bird, squawking like a seabird, laughing, “free”. How free when he enters the environs of Zeehan and the bigger world, one wonders? Ian Bliss creates the neurotic and paranoidal danger of an injured man, the rages of frustration and threat of violence, balanced by a final effortful restraint of civilized behaviour. It is full of tension making experiences for the audience. The threat is ugly and the restraint is unexpected. All three characters like the Savage River of the title of the play, register the possibilities of the multi-faceted nature of man; savage and noble.

The Designer, Stephen Curtis, has created a redolently atmospheric bush hut on the black shale and pebbles of a river bank. The Sound design (Kelly Ryall) and especially the beautiful and hauntingly romantic composition, cinematic in dimension (Jed Kurzel), provide great support for the essentially old fashioned story telling .It gives dimension and depth to the experience. The lighting (Daniel Zika) is similarly romantic in it’s support.

It is wonderful to sit beside an audience that registered its pleasure and confidence about having had a shared experience that they had no equivocations about. There was a confident beaming in the faces of the exiting audience. They expressed a joy of the possibility of a world, that with all of it’s problems, still may have solutions that give substance to the simple virtues of hope and charity. Old fashioned but highly satisfying theatre. I recommend it.

Playing now until 18 July. Book online or call 02 8002 4772.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Photo - Whore - Rhiannon Owen
Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents the world premiere of WHORE by Rick Viede, at Belvoir Downstairs. WHORE is a play, in a set of numbered episodes, about two young people that decide that the world of the sex worker is a way to make money and be “interesting”. It covers a familiar trajectory of naive entry to the world and a series of initially benign adventures that gradually disintegrate to ugly confrontations. 

It charts a journey of friendship, comradeship between Sara (Rhiannon Owen) and Tim (Paul-William Mawhinney) as they get to know each other and the world they work in. Certainly there is a deep psychological “authenticity” to the characters as observational types but hardly any real authenticity to sex workers and the sex workers’ world as it exists. The characters mention the Julia Roberts film PRETTY WOMAN and laugh that that world is only a movie. 

The world in this play does not have the feel of reality and is then, only a play, for me. It was the sanitation of the ease of success and the real lack of physical consequences from practicing in this world (where Tim accumulates 5o,ooo pounds in savings from his trade!!!) that did not permit me to enter the play. (I attended the performance with a companion concerned with the issues of this world on a daily basis and she found it mostly unrealistic.).  

Similarly, the thriller element lacked credibility or follow through and I longed to revisit the world of Brad Fraser’s UNIDENTIFIED HUMAN REMAINS AND THE TRUE NATURE OF LOVE of which WHORE felt derivative. The writing has some sense of structure and some dialogue promise but the scenes meander and do not really move the experience forward excitingly. The production Design (Justin Nardella [set] and Jessie Giraud [Costume]) has initial interest but it stays a static image. Gloss black and silver grey, another repeated trend that is, on repetition, a bit under whelming in the theatre going experience in Sydney. 

The AV design is not very inventive and is hard to read - it is of not much impact except as titling to the scenes. The costumes lack gathering details. Sara’s shoes, for instance, stay the same despite her acquiring of wealth-scruffy and not in keeping with the textual development of the character’s success. (A Prada coat and those same old shoes?!!!) It is these details that continually undermine the authenticity of the production. It is all faintly under cared for in accurate detailing. 

 The acting, that also includes Keith Agius and Ben Mortley, is genuinely committed but not complex in its sub-textual development. Mr Mawhinney as Tim, is at first an interesting character to watch but having recently seen him give a reading to a disturbing character in DNA at the Old Fitzroy, the performance’s affects had similar expression. The inner life and it’s journey did not seem fully investigated. This was relatively true of Ms Owen’s work as well – developmentally, there did not seem to be an arc to the journey, clearly delineated. All the character’s experiences seemed to affect only externally, momentarily. Sara was hardly a different person at the end of the play as to what she appeared at the start: World weary but not changed. Her perception of the world still as empty and superficial. WHORE won the 2008 Griffin Award. It will travel to New York for a production at the Summer Play Festival. Playing now until 28 June. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

The Duel

Photo - The Duel - Luke Mullins

SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY AND THINICE PRESENT; THE DUEL, from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky adapted by Tom Wright as part of Next Stage at Wharf 2.

The most interesting and absorbing aspect of this experience was the story telling of Dostoevsky as adapted by Tom Wright. Mid way through the performance I found myself leaning forward and being absorbed by the journey of the text. Otherwise the work was generally disappointing.

Matthew Lutton made a strong impression on me with his work on the Tom Holloway play: DON’T SAY THE WORDS, last year at the Griffin Stables. This production did not fulfill my expectations. The design by Claude Marcos, both Set and Costume were, as Mr Lutton explains, within “a contemporary landscape” for an “abundance of reasons”. However the dirty off white rectangular box with it’s stained white carpet and ‘cheap-jack’ furniture with no exit, with, in this design, a rectangular centre window and blind seemed so familiar from other recent concepts on Sydney stages that it served as an irritation rather than as a support for this particular play. The contemporary poor street clothing design also followed recent trends and lacked impact or usefulness for me. The fluorescent lighting (Damien Cooper) with a colour fault that blinked on and off at moments during the event was also too familiar to have any original statement. The sound design of a mix of music from a wide range of artists, including Donna Summer ( a favourite track!), seemed to follow a pattern of ‘ironic’ usage that was fun but tried before and now tired. (Why the charade of selecting CD’s and putting them into a machine on stage and seemingly to control them from there was continued, when clearly the stage management was in control even to cueing the track entrance and having it broadcast through the theatre speakers was a production detail that continued to baffle me. Was there an existential meaning? Or was it just not thought through?) The cliché feeling of all these “contemporary” elements were rather a distraction than an original take on the play as far as my experience was concerned. (Maybe a “period” look would have been shockingly right? So unexpected!!)

When we entered the theatre the four actors Brian Lipson, Renee McIntosh, Luke Mullins and David Lee Smyth sat or stood around the set in conscious audience mode. Ms McIntosh and Mr Smyth had little to do during the performance other than to fill in as minor characters or narrators voices. The “ambiguity” of their “metaphorical” presence was not transcended by the functional aspects of their responsibilities. The principal responsibilities were carried by Mr Lipson as the Mysterious Visitor and Mr Mullins as Zosima. The performance that Mr Lutton had elicited from Mr Mullins, an actor I have usually admired, was one that had an air of sanctity or sanctimoniousness or intellectual preciousness. It gave off a remote air of holiness and removed it to an “ivory tower” height that seemed to push us away from identifying with the humanness of the journey of the character. While, on the other hand, the wily reading of the Mysterious Visitor by Mr Lipson had all the right shadings of mystery, cheek and awesome wonder. His task was enthralling.

The text was thrilling and Tom Wright has at last found, through invitation of Mr Lutton, a story that at last as a hopeful view of the human spirit. More of it, please.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pure Scenius

PURE SCENIUS part of the Luminous Festival, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

Just for the continuity of my diary.... I attended two of the three concerts as part of Brian Eno’s final event for the recent Luminous Festival. The ‘theatre’ of improvising musicians (presumably within some parameters) was an attractive promise. Certainly the musicians that Mr Eno had gathered were worth attending too. The Necks: pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck were the outstanding "genius" of the night. Individually and collectively. The other artists included Jon Hopkins, Karl Hyde, Leo Abrahams and Brian Eno himself. The riffs and extended variations were mostly absorbing, and, although over the whole of the duration did not lead to many surprises, and had a tendency to repeat themselves, the interplay was engrossing.

Mr Eno’s word play and lyrics, however, felt to me the weakest part of the aural experience. In fact I found them painfully banal and collectively, personally, irritating. A good ‘poet’, rapping with the group would have been an asset. A landscape that acquires a figure is no longer a landscape (DUH!!); observing the facts of what may be in an art gallery and how varied painterly techniques are used on the canvases, or after a gradually rising pitch in the repeated repetition questioning of "What If?" finishes with “The waitress might speak French” (!!!!) or whether it is at all interesting to hear amongst such magical musical offers of the instrumental artists “I saw a woman on the street with a mobile, who, as I passed, I overheard say 'Enjoy your lasagne'” became an objective and gradually, a passionately subjective struggle for me in the event. It was soporific in its totality and unfortunately, dispiriting. I longed for a poet that matched the sophistication of the rest.The other enfeeblement were the video visuals that accompanied the concert. They lacked imagination or any thrill. Merely anaesthetics that kept one dully pacified. Boring and beyond belief considering the company we were in.

One concert would have been enough for me. The second concert was merely more of the same or too similar to me to warrant the time. I paid for two. However, there were many enthusiastic attendees that seemed to be getting exactly what they greatly admired.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Riot Act

Photo by Chris Michaels, 2008

THE RIOT ACT, a new Australian theatre work devised and directed by Karen Therese and produced by Campbelltown Arts Centre, presented at Campbelltown Arts Centre.

THE RIOT ACT has been developed through residencies at Campbelltown Arts Centre 2007-09 and Blacktown Arts Centre 2007. This work was inspired by the media headlines that followed three highly publicised riots in New South Wales (the Redfern Riots in 2002, the Macquarie Fields riots in 2004 [and even more recently again], and the Bidwill riots in 1983.) For the writer and director of this production, Karen Therese, it is the seminal experience of being 9 years old and living in a street “up the road” from what a reporter on 60 minutes was declaring “the worst street in Sydney” that has formed and informed the foundation of this work. In the program note Ms Therese says “growing up in Bidwill in Sydney’s west, shaped who I am as a person and deeply informs my art Practice.” This is evident, abundantly, in the high quality of what she and her team and supporters have achieved in this work. It has the feeling and, for me, the experience of a deeply insightful and “grass rooted” exploration of the realities of the worlds from which these “riots” may have risen. Although different, (certainly budget wise) it reminds me of the impact that HONOUR BOUND had. Both are contemporary agit-prop pieces and both use contemporary theatre practice, i.e. multi-discipline and multi-media, to achieve their objectives, but, for me, the veracity of the life experiences of the creators and particularly the performers make this work a superior and more affective instrument.

The piece has been devised and written over along gestation period (please note my observation and pleas in my WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING by the Brink Company) with exploration with the artists involved and interactive programs in some of the schools of the concerned communities. Led by the writer and director Karen Therese, with dramaturgy by Chris Mead, (Could you have a better pedigree for this work? NB he is the director of last year’s best production and play, for my money, THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD), Multi media design that is Video by Scott Otto Anderson (HONOUR BOUND), that is of great, of both, realistic and poetic impulse and impact. Some of it breathtaking in its aptness and heartrending in its placement in the work. Sound design by Gail Priest/James Brown, overwhelming and yet subtle, too, in its intricacies to the gathering drama and observations of the world of the work. The Design of both Set, set pieces (props) and costume by Mirabelle Wouters and co-designer Lara Thoms are seamless in the veracity that they bring to the work both as a realistic and poetic solution to the demands of the work. The lighting too, Paul Osborne (in what appears to be a very difficult space) both spare and atmospheric. The final, behind the scenes, collaborator, Kathy Coghill, as Movement director, has, with the director, created some outstanding and masterful images that were both searing and beautiful to witness.

Finally, the Performers/ Co-devisors: Matthew Day, Matt Prest, Georgie Read, Leo Tanoi, Latai Taumoepeau have embedded in their performance such a deep, integral understanding and empathy to the world that they are creating, that the truthful enactment of the figures in the landscapes of the series of episodes in the work are both devastatingly “real” and yet, also, subsume into poetic imagery of “accidental” creativity of great beauty and yet didactic punch. There does not appear to be any of the condescending nativity of the “actors” in creating these figures, that I have found so objectionable in some of the recent mainstream work when dealing with the “under-classes”.

On entering the space, we cross a soft floor of cardboard packaging, soft and giving underfoot. A sensual interactive experience that the world I am about to see is not one that I would know. It does not have the necessary certainty of my own grounded life. It is slightly unsettling. One could feel apprehensive. Once seated in a steeply raked auditorium, the setting is sparse – an off white back wall and black side wall. The furniture is plastic any factory “spat-out”- sturdy but cheap and probably of a very limited life span, also spare. The actors entered in uniform or “corporate” clothing. They represent “government” – concerned bodies of authority. Media is present. There follows a brief interlude where, projected on the back wall are research reports about the causes of riots in these districts – charts, percentages, numberless lists. The characters begin to give verbal accounts of the statistical facts and conclusions which, satirically, are never completed as these bureaucrats are constantly drawn away from finishing any speech by the chaos of modern technology, especially the mobile-phone, which constantly creates a hurly burly of business that does not seem to have reason to exist except it’s own pre-occupied sense of importance and activity. Quickly the bureaucrats disappear and we are taken to the location of the “RIOTS”. Media is present. We only ever see the “Authority’’ figures again , through the symbolism of a helicopter rotor sound, pounding down upon us while a spotlight roams the grounds beneath them in an attempt to menace the riots to a standstill. (There is also a talk about the introduction and effectiveness of Taser guns for the police.) Media is present. Authority then is seen as presenting a commissioned report (never fully finished) and then only quelling an outbreak at the crisis of its expression.

After the bureaucracy disappears we are presented several episodes of the observations of these communities. We see people unoccupied. Unemployment, education, as the statistics we were shown, is endemic. We see the boredom: directionless lives of these people who begin in "junk" consumption move into trifling activities that gradually escalate into irritations and then grow in intensity to aggressions and violence, finally erupting into contagious nationless explosions of essentially self harm and property damage. The “helicopter” ominously quells the situation. Authority does not appear in any other way. Then, we begin the cycle of behaviour again with different permutations. Then, it repeats, repeats. This is striking political theatre. But what is also arresting is the aesthetic imagery that the collaborative team have struck in these interludes without apparent “pointing”. Time and time again it is the witnessing of “tableaux- vivants” or installation images of great poignancy that sometimes, fleetingly, and at others, fixedly, sit in the landscape of boredom and distress, that grabs one by the vitals of your humanity and bring you to a place of consciousness and maybe outrage. This work is mostly movement and image based. This hybrid form of performance is very important and exciting. (In fact it is the text based communication that is the least confident in the production and slightly distracting. I had some issue with the final five minutes where the “figures” in the landscape come to a microphone. I felt the texts were aspirationally sentimental and undermined the tone of the piece. I understand, for others, however, it is a cathartic need.) The form of the work permits a universality that reverberates away from the particular to a big picture without a dependency on language.

With all the statistical evidence that the production begins with, what is been done, actually, to save a generation of our tribal brothers and sisters from continuing on this hopeless spiral of despair? If nothing is really done, then, beware what we have wrought. (Surely this is the power of the film SAMSON AND DELILAH, as well?) The dignity of work is essential. "People find identity through work", to quote a contemporary British playwright, Richard Bean, much concerned with this aspect of life, “ their work gives them more than money and a job.”

The fact that Government has created this regional city Gallery, (which is beautiful and also extremely active both artistically and socially, the present exhibition of some of its collection is impressive) is a move in the right direction. But only a beginning. It was interesting to sit beside groups of the community from which this enterprise has come. To see them exit with all the rough chaos of their life environment into the court yard of the venue and stand and react. What they thought, what they gained or lost, I will never know. Maybe nothing, and yet, I know from personal experience, that maybe one of them will have had a germ of vision of another way. This production and this Art Institution has held out a non-judgemental and observational hand. Congratulations.

This work will also perform in early July at Blacktown Arts Centre 2, 3, 4 July. I recommend you attempt to see it. Certainly the Sydney Theatre Company or the Opera House Developmental Wing should see the work and bring it to the attention of the population that only ever see the media eye view of this world. To see this performance, I travelled by train through Redfern, Macquarie Fields and Glenfield. All sites of these “RIOTS”. All within an hour of my own residence. It could have being, for all I have ever really known, on another planet. Shame.

A quote from ‘Notes on writing and the nation’. S Rushdie, from STEP ACROSS THIS LINE: “great writing makes a noise in the mind, the heart.” Mr Rushdie goes on to warn us to beware of the writer that speaks on behalf of etc… “The New Behalfism demands uplift, accentuates the positive, offers stirring moral instruction. It abhors the tragic sense of life. Seeing literature as inescapably political, it substitutes political values for literary values. It is the murderer of thought. Beware!..... In the best writing… a map of nation will also turn out to be a map of the world…… Good writing assumes a frontierless nation. Writers who serve frontiers have become border guards.” This work exemplifies some of the ideals of Mr Rushdie and I hope our audiences and funding bodies, concur.

Playing at the Blacktown Arts Centre, 2 - 4 July. For more information click here or to book call 02 9839 6558.

Friday, June 12, 2009

No Man's Island

Shaman Productions in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers present NO MAN’S ISLAND by Ross Mueller at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

“Two men, trapped in a prison cell as the world goes mad outside. What is there crime? What will it take to set them free?” So goes the promotional material for this play. NO MAN’S ISLAND is an early play by Ross Mueller. CONCUSSION was seen at the Stables/STC Season earlier this year and the developmental growth of the writer is well demarcated when they are compared. This is a mildly interesting work which has promising glimpses of a playwright in the journey-man of his craft.

Set in a prison, simply designed in a narrow swathe of green paint, with two decidedly awful beds, surrounded by strings of barbed wire (Eugyeene Teh), lit schematically by Katie Sfetkidis and supported by a very dense sound track by Steve Toulmin, two prisoners (Andrew Bibby and Simon Bossell find themselves in enforced contact. Who they are, where they are, when is it, what they want and why they want it (five of the six Stanislavsky questions) are relatively unimportant. Stuck on a no man’s land (a prison cell), through conversation, they discover that no man is an island, and rescue and humanity is found through the interdependence, discovered of “getting to know you”. These two men find strength and identity through verbal bonding. An enormous journey is made by the two characters. And although still in prison, at the end, they have found a freedom, amongst themselves. The directing (Travis Green) lacks the vigour of proper stakes in the early part of the play and the two actors, on a cold night to a small audience, seemed to warm up during the performance, but finally found a simpatico of collusion as the play moved on into clearer revelations. Andrew Bibby, particularly strong in the later scenes.

This is an interesting piece of work, principally to see the talent of the writer emerging, and the honest and committed work of the actors.

Playing now until June 27. Book through Moshtix online or call 1300 GET TIX (438 849).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Food Court

LUMINOUS – A FESTIVAL CURATED BY BRIAN ENO presented in partnership with SONY as part of Vivid Sydney: BACK TO BACK THEATRE WITH THE NECKS: FOOD COURT at the Sydney Opera Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

BACK TO BACK THEATRE is a company that has its base in the City of Geelong in Victoria. The company last presented work in the 2007 Sydney Festival: “Small Metal Objects”. In “Small Metal Objects” the company worked in the real space of life (In Sydney at the Circular Quay Ferry, Bus and Train stations. In Melbourne, Flinders Street Station.) This new work is “returning to the 'theatre' proper” i.e. a formal, traditional theatre structure – a stage.

“FOOD COURT was inspired by a conversation overheard, a conversation about food, but really about control and guilt…… Conceived as a vehicle for actors Nicki Holland, Mark Deans and Rita Halabarec, (add Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price.) Food Court’s creation has been fed by the entire Back to Back ensemble.” Text, Direction & Set Design was Bruce Gladwin. (The text developed also by the performers.) Lighting Design, Technical Direction & Production Management by Andrew Livingston – Bluebottle. Animated design by Rhian Hinkley. Costumes by Shio Otani. Music by THE NECKS –Chris Abrahams Piano, Tony Buck Drums, Lloyd Swanton Bass. Sound Design by Hugh Covill.

Improvised, devised, written and performed by the actors and director, it is devastatingly brutal and sad – even more so than usually experienced in the theatre because these actors are from a special marginal group in our society.

The technical imagery: stunning black and white animation manipulation of forest-trees and moody coloured lighting effects viewed through a large opaque wall (on which is projected the text spoken by the actors) is truly beautiful, but, thankfully, it also provides a gratifying distancing to the horrid scenario. Two young girls verbally abusing and bullying and forcing a strip to nakedness of one of their peers, forcing her too dance in front of other witnesses, ending in a physical thrashing and kicking assault, to just a heavily breathing inert body. It is eerily beautiful and repulsive in the same instance. (What would our Prime Minister make of this expression of Art? Or the Bill Henson critics? Or the Chaser War on Everything censors?) A third person finds the victim and expresses his want of sexual needs and an ultimate ambition to make films and “be rich”. The sinister overtones of this expression of our contemporary Australian culture from these actors is full of sadness and despair. It concludes with a rendition by the victim of one of Caliban’s speeches from THE TEMPEST (Act three, Scene two. The scene where Caliban, the “monster” plots with Stephano and Trinculo the murder of Prospero, the burning of his books and the bedding and breeding of a brave “brood” with the enforcing of his daughter, Miranda!!): line 133...

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noise,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me: that when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.”

He asks us to be not afeard, but if this is the world of these people then I am "afeard". Very "afeard". In fact I was at first angry, then despairing and ultimately sad. Sad that if this is the world of these artists, that they have need to show us (and they must) then it is a world that we should be ashamed of. The care we should have for our future generations needs to be examined, rigorously.

(Contextually, I came to this performance after a series of performances where Children have done heinous things. At the Old Fitzroy in Denis Kelly’s DNA, a group of children bully one of their peers, create a scenario that destroys innocent lives and ultimately murder their victim; at the Griffin Stables, Neil LaBute’s THE DISTANCE FROM HERE, where in emotional frustration, another child/man drowns in a Seal pool at the zoo, a baby; and at the Belvoir B Sharp Downstairs space a young woman attempts to insight a friend into a most horrid deed amidst the wreckage of a youth culture in a disabled nation state (LADYBIRD By Sigarev). I had just finished reading THE KINDLY ONES by Jonathan Littell where a whole world of villainy in war is ‘filthily’ told in an absolutely compelling storytelling voice, culminating in a section where children have gone berserk with no moral boundaries, murder and rape (LORD OF THE FLIES multiplied hundredfold); and then embarked on an Australian novel for young people called JASPER JONES by Craig Silvey, which begins with two young teenagers finding a corpse of a young female peer hanging from a tree. The culture of the young in such distress. To then witness these special young actors in a scenario of such sadness was especially provoking of despair. Is this mission of the theatre? It seems so at the moment. Intensely so.

The young actors give a concentrated and intense focus to their work. In the Elizabethan sense it is truly wondrous - of wonder. This is a feat that is, again in the true Elizabethan meaning: terrifying - of terror.

The curtain call on the night I attended had all the pathos of contrast to the production itself. The Necks (having played brilliantly, live, as usual, in support of the actors and scenario) and the young actors gave a call. The natural responses of the artists to this unscripted time was telling and persuasively honest. It highlighted the performance, by contrast, achievement of the actors, if not fully justifying the content of the play for this group, for me. Others in my audience were moved by the “beauty” and some identified with the first hand knowledge of marginalised victimisation. Provocative and grief making.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ruben Guthrie

Photo: Toby Schmitz - Ruben Guthrie

Company B present RUBEN GUTHRIE by Brendan Cowell at the Belvoir Theatre.

Presented last year as part of the B Sharp Season Downstairs this play has had some re-working, new writing and some re-casting. Wayne Blair’s production has got deeper, darker and more pertinent.

Alcoholism and addiction is the thematic subject. In my own neighbourhoods of suburban Sydney and the inner city, the cultural trauma of alcohol abuse, (binge drinking, just one of the symptoms) is almost unavoidable. The consequences both individually and in the wider community are ugly and on the edge of catastrophic.

Ruben Guthrie (Toby Schmitz), is an advertising "thinker" of some renown; the pressures of his work creative environment, his friends and their life styles and tragically the inheritance of family influence coupled with a guilt and fear of personal responsibility failure and a recent romantic relationship breakup, leads him to face his "demons" and seek help in an alcohol recovery program. The play charts the struggles that he has in maintaining his will and capacity to sustain the "battle" to sober equilibrium. It is a difficult and dangerous journey. The cultural demands of Guthrie’s world: personal, family, friends, societal and work are all geared to encourage and prolong his illness without regard for his personal well being.

Brendan Cowell talks frankly about is own "series of ugly BENDERS" and that he wrote the play after "a year of self-imposed sobriety". "Write what you know", is a pertinent influence in the greater body of this text. It is also, thankfully, leavened with wit. There are some wonderfully funny one liners that allow the play to be absorbed without an overwhelming sense of the “battle”, turning the night into a depressing evening in the theatre. It does have the feel of a contemporary “Williamson”: A pertinent contemporary issue balanced with some very accurate “Aussie” humour. Certainly the audience I saw it with were both confronted and entertained. In one moment, when Guthrie is teased into taking a mouthful of alcohol by his mother, there was a palpable wave of concern, and then, when Guthrie, after his mother’s exit, spat the wine out, there was a spontaneous round of applause from some in the audience. Clearly the audience was identifying and supporting the character’s journey. The comedy, well tuned, was a skilfully placed release for the audience – mostly recognising a real life experience that needs attention.

Wayne Blair, along with his designer, Jacob Nash, has simply expanded the original look from the Downstairs production last year. A polished wooden floor, with two vast black-bricked walls carrying shelved gleaming bottles of alcohol. It is magazine “glamorous” and very seductive. With only one piece of furniture the location changes are simply rung in with lighting (Luiz Pampolha) a few props and actor’s belief. The Sound composition and design (Steve Francis) is simple and atmospheric.

The production has expanded well into the bigger space and the acting from the company is uniformally strong. Toni Scanlon and Geoff Morrell adding considerable weight as the parents. The writing is still strongest in the monologual “riffs” that Ruben Guthrie has and Toby Schmitz is just as dynamically thrilling as he was last year with the challenge of the role and there is also a considerable deepening of the emotional “weather”. This is a remarkable feat of stamina and control. Along with the performance in TRAVESTIES earlier this season, Mr Schmitz, keeps fulfilling the promise of excitement for his audiences. Let us hope the challenges he is offered in the future challenge him as well.

A contemporary issue play, well directed and acted, of the old school style - ugly truths leavened with humour.

Playing now until 5 July. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.

Monday, June 1, 2009

When The Rain Stops Falling

Photo: Brink Productions - When The Rain Stops Falling

Sydney Theatre Company and Medina Apartment Hotels present BRINK PRODUCTIONS’: WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING by Andrew Bovell a collaboration with Hossein Valamanesh and Brink Productions.

This is an outstanding theatrical experience. All the theatrical elements have been so entwined that every moment on stage looks as if it is meant to be there. It looks and feels like refinements of choice have gone on. There is no ‘accident’ on stage. All looks considered and thought through and has the air of absolute spontaneity. The work is powerfully integrated by all the artists in the production. It is gripping, mysterious, intriguing, magical, moving and complete.

To quote the writer from the program, “This is a play about human resilience and our need to understand the past in order to go on.... It moves across time, back and forth between London and Australia, between 1959 and 2039 as the stories and secrets of four generations of one family are played out.” It mostly concerns Gabriel Law and Gabrielle York and their extended families. It is written by Andrew Bovell in interchangeable time spaces and worlds; the writing demands your attention. On the night I attended the audience was held from the first marvellous monologue delivered by Neil Pigot, as the first of the Gabriel Yorks’, and even in Sydney at the beginning of it’s coughing season (winter), barely a sound, other than that of palpable concentration and identification was heard for an uninterrupted two and a quarter hours. Laughter was warm and full of pleasure. Tears and shock and discovered connections to the jigsaw puzzle of the play were spread about the auditorium, collectively, by a delighted audience (Did we feel clever or not?) – deep satisfaction was recorded by the applause at the end of the performance and impassioned discussion went on outside as we moved to our transport, home.

Brink Productions based in Adelaide under the Artistic Direction of Chris Drummond states in the program “BRINK creates powerfully imaginative theatre through long-term collaborations with artists and non-artists from different backgrounds.” This project was begun in 2004 with Chris Drummond, Andrew Bovell, Hossein Valamanesh, and Quentin Grant under the title THE EXTINCTION PROJECT. Over the next three and a half years through several stages of development the work evolved into WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING and premiered at the 2008 Adelaide Festival. The first visual images of a beautifully choreographed movement of figures through a three layered scenic solution (Hossein Valamanesh), that is almost dreamscape in effect, accompanied by a live piano score (later augmented more complexly with other instruments and recorded sound and music), (Quentin Grant) gently attracts our attention. Flown design elements and shifting furniture supported with Video Designed images (TheimaGen) and the most seductive and sensitive lighting (Niklas Pajanti) keep arresting our aesthetic curiosity and maintains our focus breathlessly.

The writing full of re-iteration and thematic clarity supported by powerful choreographic imagery by the director is hypnotic in the mysterious and yet familiar outflow of its storytelling. Powerful obvious truths and disturbing predictions of possible, disturbing, future world changes are delicately scattered before our attention and they seep without drama into the psychic absorption and acceptance, recognition of the audience. There is no struggle with the world view that Mr Bovell gives us. (Fish falling from the sky in Alice Springs, for instance.) This playwrighting more than justifies the great excitement of anticipation that Mr Bovell heralded with his early work SPEAKING IN TONGUES.

Chris Drummond (last year, his work on a co-pro with Windmill, THE CLOCKWORK FOREST, a work for children, was presented at the Sydney Theatre - it too, arresting) has gathered a cast of flawless actors into his collaboration: Neil Pigot, Carmel Johnson, Anna Lise Phillips, Paul Blackwell, Kris Mc Quade, Michaela Cantwell, Yalin Ozucelik. All of them full of potent emotional impulse and yet withheld in delicate restraint, all brimming with dramatic fullness and yet not indulging any spillage, until indicated. The tension between the audiences endowment of the acting and their demand for catharsis is thrillingly controlled and rewarding when the ‘rewards’ are finally given. This is theatre where the circle of live performance energies between the artists and the audience is gloriously created. We were all “acting”. “Creating” that night. This was a shared experience. The BRINK production magic was truly alive. It is difficult to point out highlighted moments of acting, for every performer had repeated moments of “glory”. Truly worth savouring. (Every acting student should observe and absorb.)

The beauty and power and integrity of this work from every artist is testament of an organisation like BRINK that have found a way to subsidise long gestation periods for their work. The Government and its Funding bodies should take note of what can be achieved with long-sight and proper planning and development opportunity. In the back of the program Brink states, "Brink has a range of new work in various stages of development including a multi-narrative ensemble work for African and Australian actors and musicians, a devised work with one of Australia’s leading physical theatre companies and a major international collaboration with a London-based theatre company." Let us hope that they are allowed to ripen.

In my mind, these productions : John Bell’s THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, Rodney Fisher’s THE MAN FROM MUKINUPIN, Neil Armfield’s CLOUD STREET, were inspirational and unforgettable Australian dramatic work. WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING is in that list of treasured memories.

Playing now until 20 June. Book online or call 02 9250 9777.