Monday, September 28, 2009

The Only Child

THE HAYLOFT PROJECT and B SHARP present THE ONLY CHILD at Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

THE ONLY CHILD by Simon Stone and Thomas Henning is a new play inspired by Henrik Ibsen's LITTLE EYOLF. The text was devised with The Hayloft Project cast: Gareth Davies, Shelly Lauman, Anne-Louise Sarks & Tom Wren.

I read in the pre-publicity press (The Sydney Morning Herald?) that Simon Stone one day, a recently married man, having some obstacles with his partner, was, while bathing in his tub at home was reading Ibsen's LITTLE EYOLF. At some point, whilst still soaking, it appears that he had an Eureka(!) moment and grasped that he had found the idea for his new work: an adaptation of the Ibsen play for contemporary times.

There are some very good scenes and speeches in this play, indeed. There are also some very beautiful visual images - like the opening one when we enter the theatre: A wooden raised platform on which a white, old style bathtub,supported on golden claws, off centre, is being filled with a steady shower of steaming water. A space with a bath or a room with only a bath or as the characters in the play call it "the bathroom". Set Design (Claude Marcos). The lighting Design here in these moments, and throughout the production, is also striking (Teegan Lee). Accompanied by some beautifully chosen music (Sound Designer, Composer not credited). The production details are exemplary.

Simon Stone, not only co-writer but also the Director, in his program notes: "This play was written while we were rehearsing. As the actors responded to Ibsen's original characters, Thomas (Henning) and I responded in turn with scenes, which they then responded to, and so on and so forth until we have what we are watching tonight." Earlier, Mr Stone says: "This play is probably still Ibsen's. The preoccupation with sex and death is his. The horrible scrambling attack- counter-attack of a confused grieving couple is his. Some of the essential plot points are Ibsen's....".

Inspired by Ibsen, then, and within the context of his own life and those of his actors, a play evolved. The nomenclature of the characters from the source has been mostly kept (Although Borgheim as become Henrik). In Ibsen's play an unhappily married couple, Rita and Alfred experience the loss of their only child, a child that had been crippled through their own neglect whilst in the throws of eager sex. They confront each other with a terrifying guilt on the death of Eyolf with the aid of Asta, a half -sister to Alfred and a friend of the family, Borgheim (Henrik in this adaptation). Bitter recriminations that lead to secrets that rupture all their worlds and a necessary adaptation to new life goals and values ensues. It has a savagery that recalls Strindberg's DANCE OF DEATH. THE ONLY CHILD follows a similar narrative.

This text seems to me to have great potential.

The production, as I saw it, on Friday night, did not. It seems that the actors ownership of the devised script has led them to a passionate mode of expression that mostly lent itself to indulgences. The decibel level for three quarters of the 90 minutes was so relentlessly unpleasant that it was difficult to participate in the unfurling of the intriguing story. In truth, my ears afterward were aching, as if I had been standing beside a tower of speakers at a rave party. It is a small space. Volume seemed to be the principal vocal technique of these actors. (Come to think of it, The Hayloft Project: SPRING AWAKENING, in the same venue, had a similar aural assault on the ears. It must be part of the standard artistic hallmarks of the company.) The decibel level seemed to be a substitute for subtlety. A delivery style of rapid exchange between most of the characters became a dominant stylistic stamp, it was so wonderfully drilled that sense was loss, the content of the line secondary. Style overrode content for me. Directorially, the use of the bathtub became a metaphoric gimmick. A static image that lost its virility with the passing of time. (How many plays are going to be set in bathrooms in Sydney theatre? This must be my 5th or 6th (or more) in the last two years. There employment by directors and designers as metaphor have had their used by date, used up, surely, now,hopefully?). The nakedness of the actors became a tiresome and accumulatively tedious ploy - the daring of it became benign amusement as contemplation of individual anatomy helped pass the time.

All the actors are clearly performers of some skill and passion but the performances did not allow me to appreciate their potential. The relative vocal control of Ms Sarks rendered her work the most empathetic on this night. The most puzzling performance was given by Gareth Davies as Hendrik who seemed bent on playing for comic affect which often undermined the dramatic impact of his textual function. It seemed to me that this was a rehearsal experiment that amused in its exploration of the boundaries of the characters possibilities, but has been allowed to be indulgently maintained in the choices of the production, at what I could gather, at dramatic expense to the scheme of the dramaturgy.

It is Hendrik, sitting on the side of the bath, towards the end of the play that says "It is cruel and juvenile". That is what I thought summed up the night for me. "Cruel" to my ears, I felt as if I had been physically assaulted. And the denouement of this play "juvenile" in its happy ending. That after such grief and bitterness to believe that this couple, Rita and Alfred, could comfort each other and survive is definitely a young romantic's conclusion to the realities of life. Wishful thinking in the tub of Mr Stone's Eureka moment? Mr Ibsen got it right in LITTLE EYOLF, though together, they are apart. In contemporary times, in which this play is set, the statistical likelihood of this marriage staying together is very remote.

Some of the audience found this a funny experience. In fact the Director, Simon Stone, who was present on the night I attended, filming the performance, found it hilarious and was its biggest fan, especially the shenanigans of the comically deft Mr Davies. This is the second work of Mr Stone's we have seen at Belvoir this year. The first was THE PROMISE - a production that I thought only dealt with part of the potential of the play. There seems to be an intellectual enthusiasm present in this director's work but it is lambasted with an adrenalin urgency for cleverness that supersedes detail and care. Ms Sved with her production of Martin Crimp's DEALING WITH CLAIR or Ms Mackereth's work on Falk Richter's UNDER ICE, both at The Stables, were productions that also had intellectual enthusiasm but also intellectual RIGOUR and detailed care, that attempted to serve the writer to achieve audience clarity and a good night in the theatre. It is ironic that the director of this production, has, for me, undermined his own writing achievements with such directorial self-indulgence. (Simple staging difficulties for instance prevented me from seeing the final speeches of Rita.)

May be for you but not for me. I have friends who saw it on opening night and loved it. The Sydney Morning Herald critic did too. Make up your own mind. THE HAYLOFT PROJECT from Melbourne have garnered accolades and I, as yet, cannot see why. I wish that I could.

Playing now until 11 October.
For more information or to book click here.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sydney Theatre Company and UBS Investment Bank present A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams at the Sydney Theatre.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams directed by Liv Ullmann and starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois has been the most highly anticipated theatre event of the year here in Sydney. After the Sydney season it travels internationally onto an American tour to Washington and Brooklyn (New York).

On entering the theatre Liv Ullmann and her Set Designer (Ralph Myers) have made interesting choices for their production of the play. The set is thrust as far forward as is practicable to the front of the stage (it may have been for an acoustical solution to this notoriously difficult space, as much as for interpretative visual art!!!) and two thirds of the enormous proscenium arch space is a confrontation with a kind of brutalist ‘concrete’ wall. It dominates the space with a masculine grey weight. The weight and domination of this wall is perceptibly different, depending where you are seated. In the stalls it looms above you and can be made peripheral, with concentration. However, in the circle it is a permanent conscious presence.

Cut into this wall in the bottom left hand corner of the wall is a very large tenement - like window, which allows us to see into an upstairs apartment (the Hubbel family, the owners of this building, live there). It is lit (Lighting design by Nick Schlieper) in colours that resonate with the Edward Hopper palette schemes (there is a visual reference in the program: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, 1952). The room, through the window, can be narrowly seen into or is masked off with a Holland blind. Scaling steeply from the floor of the stage up to the level of the window, on the same side, is a kind of precipitous stair or fire escape ladder on which characters sit and or climb.

Across the whole width of the lower third of the space, at ground level there is a large, when lit, pink apartment, (made up in detail of a kitchen and bedroom and an entrance to a bathroom, the furniture crude and in poor shape.) It has windows into the kitchen but more strategically on two walls of the curtained bedroom. The light, in the plan of the design throughout the play comes from the outside through these apertures in the moody colours of the Hopper painting references (also a Danish inspiration, Vilhelm Hammershoi). Visually the masculine weight of this enormous wall presses down onto the pink “vagina” of the woman’s domain, the home, and contains it. No light from any sky around the edges, just this massive, weighty, dark monolith on this flattened, pink space. A tremendous statement is made.

It is interesting, in that, the tone of the look of this production has been moved away from the Tennessee Williams vision, which in my other experiences of the play, and in Mr Williams’ description in his text, incorporate the sense of “the houses (of the district, which) are mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables to the entrances.... where the sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay.” Clearly, the original conceptual design by the writer is in support of the feminine story: "white"... "rickety"... "galleries"... "quaintly ornamented gables"... "sky peculiarly tender blue"... "turquoise"..... "lyricism"... "gracefully" It may be in Mr Williams’ mind, a kind of metaphor for the Blanche character and supports the principal narrative journey of the play, that of Blanche DuBois and her descent from a place of precarious but disguised decay, on her entrance, to an insensate and exposed collapse at it’s end. Mr Williams has written a play where the central concern is Blanche, the woman. Historically, with the machismo fulminations of Marlon Brando, and his legendary, nay, now mythical performance as Stanley Kowalski, the play has been culturally hi-jacked. Some of the expectations of the audience have dramatically shifted the play to the man, and although the driving engine to the great moments of the play may be Stanley’s, the tragedy is Blanche’s. This design seems to confirm the cultural - memory misappraisal of the intention of the writer.

However, with the casting of Cate Blanchett in the role of Blannche DuBois the vision of Mr Williams is firmly in place: at the centre of the play. Ms Blanchett has the gift of a great strategist and the "campaign" plans for the construction of her performance in the playing of the play, as they unfurl are truly, skilfully demarcated. Equipped with an intelligent, calibrated technique that is available and vulnerable to every one of her considered choices and then the whims of the "in the moment" impulse, the journey she takes her audience on, is thrilling and awful – as in full of awe. This role is regarded by some as the equivalent of the Hamlet challenge. The journey of Blanche DuBois from her first entrance as indicated by Mr Williams "Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a jaunty bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district" to her exit supported by the Doctor, holding tightly to his arm and speaking her heart breaking final lines: "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." - dressed to a stripped back "nakedness", of pathetic underwear (slip) and no mask of make up and drenched showered hair, scalded to the core, is an unforgettable one.

Blanche, the actress, with her trunk of costumes and jewellery, is ready for every occasion except the last one. The costume design by Tess Schofield is an accurate and supportive character delineation of the fall and fall and the revelation after revelation of the spiralling Blanche, especially in the bath plug hole pull of the last act. Each detail of the clothing appears to be carefully thought out – the chaos of the last scenes magnificently telling of the growing "mess" of the psychological disintegration. The public persona being stripped to the character’s inner needs, gradually, revealing the naked tragic flaws.

It is interesting, if you come to this play with knowledge, for the memories and expectations built from other experiences of the play flit past one as a puzzling accumulation of seemingly non- events. Ms Blanchett surprises one with the choice of the key moments. The great Scene IV “Ape” speech; the Scene IV “He was a boy…” speech; the Scene IX “Yes, a big spider...” and others are delivered in a manner that catches one off balance. So familiar is one of the usual readings (whether it be the embedded cultural memory of the Vivien Leigh film performance or additionally) Ms Blanchett’s readings are sometimes over before it’s familiarity triggers in your memory. The daring of the reading is that it is not built around the pyrotechnics of the usual “great moments” but that that it is woven into a tapestry that only hits you with the immensity of its skill at the end of the performance. It is never one moment, it is ultimately the whole body of the living life on stage that Ms Blanchett builds, that moves you. This is no star turn it is a thoroughly lived experience whose impact is the whole not the pieces. It is only in the last scene of the play that you become aware of the greatness of the tragedy that has just been re-created for you. The pathetic wreck of a woman, guided past the familiars of the Elysian Fields tenement, is starkly placed against the initial entrance of Blanche prophetically telling a neighbour “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields”.

Stella, (Robin McLeavy), Blanche’s sister, the besotted, sexually appetited wife of Stanley Kowalski is played well, with the difficult tension that the character carries in the play, of one of desire for her husband and one of loyalty to her sister. Ms McLeavy balances it with the cool of a juggler finding the "Magdalene" moments and the tangled "Virgin Mary" moments and attempting to keep her two personas open to the right support mechanisms to husband and sister, without harming them or her relationships to them, while trying to keep her own self in tact. The great moments of the end of the play is enhanced unbearably with Stella sobbing with baby in arms, trapped with her new life and having to sever the old one with her sister.

The surprise performance of the night comes from Tim Richards (see JUST MACBETH) as Harold Mitchell [Mitch]. A surprise because it has all the delicate masculinity of a vulnerable and desperate man/lover who playing, may be his last hand for marriage, is so horribly deflated when he confronts Blanche with what Stanley has told him, that, at this performance, was almost to painful to endure. The melodrama of Mitch’s “You lied to me, Blanche.” and “Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.” followed by Blanche’s pathetic reply “Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart....” caused tears to fall. (Mind you, a suspicion crossed my mind as we learn that Mitch still lives with his mum and works out at the gym!!! Poor Blanche, may be she has a magnet for that kind of man? An older Grey boy. Or am I being just to cynical?)

The major driver of this tragedy is Stanley Kowalski played by Joel Edgerton. There is a brooding masculine power in his presence and the sense of his antagonism to the invader of his home, Blanche, is palpable. But it is curiously non-sexual. It is rather territorial and cool. It is as if he wants no other object of attention but himself. Mr Edgerton has developed a magnificent body for this role (as glamorous as Mr Jackman’s in the Baz Luhrman film, AUSTRALIA) but it is, oddly, anachronistic. It has all the attraction of a buffed gym body of 2009 and carries with it an air of narcissism, a self love. A homo-eroticism that asks to be looked at but not enjoyed. I did not feel any sexual chemistry between him and Stella and no real sexual tension with Blanche. There was a kind of swaggering insularity that demanded adoration rather than that of an animal - a sub-human who brought the raw meat home and bred with rapacious enthusiasm and unfettered instinct. Ms Ullmann in the staging of an interpolation to the schemata of Mr Williams, of the aftermath of the rape (or otherwise) of Scene X, by lighting with delicate artistry the prone naked body of Stanley, the skin and muscles gleaming, unconscious to his deed on the bed with a Blanche seated, back to us on the upper edge of the bed, seems to find the sculptured naked body of her actor irresistible. Ms Ullmann and Mr Edgerton have created a living sculptured body as mesmerizing as Michelangelo’s DAVID. A work of art. This Stanley is not a force of destruction but one of beauty. This is no elemental force like the Hurricane Katrina sweeping in on New Orleans. Ms Ullmann puts it in full view to be adored. It is glamorous in its perfection and is contemporary in its attractive aesthetics, in its apparent perfection. The beast is shown as a beauty and the victim is shielded from us. Later we see him as triumphant and unrepentant, we see Blanche as unhinged and mad and depending on the kindness of strangers to survive. (What to make of it?)

Ms Blanchett has at her control an armoury of skills that must be daunting, and hopefully thrilling, for those she works with. Her physical skills are amazingly detailed and flexible. Her voice is powerful and capable of the most beautiful tonal range control to draw us into the very nerve centre of her character. On stage in this production she has no equal. None of her co-stars have, independently, the same fire power or craft dexterity. Mr Edgerton both physically and vocally is limited in the possibility of his expression. Robyn McLeavy similarly is overshadowed. Such is the skill of the leading lady that sometimes her sheer virtuosity, in contrast to those on stage around her, appears to be technical, cool and too judged. Her ability draws attention to itself and it is only in the second act when the vertiginous spiral of events that affect Blanche comes speedily one after the other, and Ms Blanchett is the one with the foot on the accelerator of the forward action of the play, that there is a submerging of the actor into character, because it is all her and she does not need the energies of the other actors to create, she is able, because of the textual responsibilities that Mr Williams has built into the dramatic construction of the role, to ignite and stay blazing from one scene to the next, and gives off so much creative energy to her fellow players that they too take off in the slip stream of her power. The ensemble acting in the first act seemed, to me, relatively cold – it seemed to lack the throbbing humidity of the “sweaty” language intimations of the Tennessee Williams’ world of New Orleans. In the gathering prominence of the writer’s focus on the crash of Blanche in the second act, the atmosphere of the production began to coalesce more densely, more steamingly.

In my view the greatest moment of Ms Blanchett’s career is in the film of NOTES ON A SCANDAL with Judi Dench. It occurs towards the end of the film in the scene on the footpath, where her character is besieged by the press. The emotional explosion in that scene is still resonating for me in its power and truthfulness. Cate had lost it. In the first ELIZABETH film, she was magnificent but harnessed with a calculated technique, in this scene, it was raw. Working with great performers increases one’s own possibilities. They give you obstacles, that, to reach your character’s needs, you must expand to win. Working opposite the undoubted greatness of Ms Dench may have lead Cate to that moment of greatness in the afore mentioned film. Working with the accumulative greatness of Tennessee Williams in the structure of his great playwrighting in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE seems to have similarly challenged and unleashed Ms Blanchett into the necessary heights of the second act of the play. It is retrospectively stunning.

It is one of my theories as to why the Sydney Theatre Acting Company did not necessarily grow to greatness (although occasionally great things happened.). There were too many guest overseas directors who were impressed with what these virtually new artists (to them) gave them and so did not press them, but which they and we knew was there usual bag of tricks. They stayed marooned in their present gifts and were never challenged to greater or more varied choices. We loved them but got bored with them for they too regularly did not surprise us. We knew what their choices were likely to be. So here, Ms Ullmann has collected a great cast of actors from top to bottom, their collective resumes are impressive, but lack of familiarity of the actors gifts (tricks) as not inspired her to push them beyond what they have given her. There is a uniform quality but it lacks what Anne Bogart calls “irimi”, that is the life and death moment of each moment. It is not always played at the emotional stakes that it could possibly bare. All the actors should be playing whatever they have as if they were the centre of the play, but instead there is a politely generous handing of the scene to the leading actors, well the leading lady at least. Ms Blanchett shows us in the latter act just how much this masterpiece can cope with – the grandness of the scale of choices possible. If all the company were firing at that level of inspiration or encouraged to, where would the production have arrived at?

This production at the moment teeters on possibility. But it is a little too “naturalistic” and contained. Some of the audience have felt that the production is not adventurous. And I tend to agree. But it is rather in expanding the choices that have been made rather than any radical new deconstruction. (There is no need of a radical deconstruction, such as was hinted at by the description of Mr Benedict Andrew’s recent German production in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article – Elissa Blake). This production just feels undercooked. What it lacks is courage from all the company. (Exclude the Costume Design.) It lacks a close reading of Mr Williams instructions. Instructions not only, but importantly, in his production descriptions, but even in the cry of his major character, Blanche: "I don’t want realism, I want magic." I WANT MAGIC. It is instructive to read the program notes of the Lighting Designer (Nick Schlieper) and Sound Designer (Paul Charlier) and see the surreal use of these voices that Mr Williams was striving for (even with the relative primitiveness of the equipment available in 1947). The play as envisaged by Mr Williams yearns to break the naturalistic mode of the type of playing and production of the theatre of its time. (As did Arthur Miller in his creation DEATH OF A SALESMAN). But both plays have often been lumbered with a "period naturalism" too often. So here. If Mr Schlieper and Mr Charlier had followed even more precipitously Mr Williams desire, What Dali images could have been wrought to support Blanche’s visions in the last scene? What more subjective/psychological support could the Sound have given to the experience of the play? (The sound design for me was to often, for me, merely, a compendium of music of the period, rather than an integral sound/voice of the play.)

A very interesting essay: SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES by Dr Jonathan Miller, poses the question on how to approach the great classics of the theatre as if they were newly written. How to look at them with new eyes, without the burden of the history of other productions and performances. Simon McBurney in a recent interview in the American Theatre magazine (Carol Rocamora. Dec. 08), talking about his recent production of ALL MY SONS in New York, instructs about the need to read closely the instructions of the writer. In the reading of Mr Miller’s instructions, McBurney found the keys to the Geek scale of the piece, releasing it from the naturalistic readings of the past. Read Mr Williams’ instructions closer and this play, A STREEETCAR NAMED DESIRE, this production, could be released from the shackles of a performance style that is mostly anchored about the past, into what is possible for today, to give us the full affect of the writer’s conception in 2009.

Then he talks about "reality in the theatre is created by actors" by the scale of the imaginary conception and execution by the actor. He talks of the highly stylized form of Kabuki Theatre and its ability to move an audience, as one, to move it to a moment of communal weeping. "The emotion of the moment is real, - it’s heightened, it’s extreme, but it is completely real. Reality in the theatre is created by actors, and it occurs only at that moment – which is why you will find actors saying “we had a good night” or “oh, tonight wasn’t so good.” What actors really mean is that they have found that point of communication, so you can have a great production and you can see it and it won’t mean anything to you at all if this moment of connection between and actors and audience doesn’t happen.” The communication each night between the actor and the audience, different each night, is what makes theatre and distinguishes it from film and video. It is the courage to take the audience on a new journey rather than a familiar one. It is possible with the great plays. The great plays are timeless and have the movement in them to infinite choices. (Some more than others, of course.) This production has a leader in the vision and performance possibilities exampled by Ms Blanchett but there is a hesitancy from all of the others. Ms Ullmann fails to urge the whole company to follow the leader.

On the two performances I have attended, at the curtain call, many of the audience have been moved to give the company a standing ovation. For me it suggests, no matter my carping, that this production has created a great theatrical event for those there. “It’s the audience who creates theatre. It’s an imaginative act on the part of the audience. And that is theatre’s appeal, and that’s why theatre continues..... So in the theatre, what (one does) is to create the language to communicate with the audience on that night in that moment.” (– Mr McBurney.) This witnessed response is in stark contrast to the general reaction of the audience, I attended with, at say, THE WAR OF THE ROSES, earlier in the year - flight by many throughout the performance – no waiting, even politely, for the ending. Certainly, there was ovation from some of us as well for THE WAR OF THE ROSES, but it had not found the universal language to communicate with all of the audience on that night, no matter what the critic awards tell us.

The Sydney Theatre Company in announcing it’s 2010 Season includes many Classics and seems to recognise the needs of its audiences. The right language will be found to communicate these, I hope, and the movement into a contemporary expression of these chosen plays will be found for All the audience and critics alike. All it requires is a close and respectful reading of these mostly great writers: O’Neil; Wilder; Shepard; Chekhov, for instance. All it takes is courage and the recognition of leadership. And RESPECT for the writer. The centre, the causal of all the ingenious energy that creates a theatre experience.

This season is sold out, but go to the theatre and see what may become possible – the magic of returns etc.

Playing now until 17 October.

For more information click here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Women in Theatre

From the moderator: "There has been a recent explosion in the blogosphere in response to Company B's 2010 season launch and the lack of women represented as writers and directors...
As a response, here is an excerpt from Kevin's review of UNDER ICE which was posted a week before the event..."

Just a note. This is the second work by Kellie Mackereth I have seen this year. Both have been highly satisfying. It is interesting to see the number of women directors been given a ‘guernsey’ at the Griffin in contrast to similar like minded Theatre Companies in Sydney. I will name, Cristabel Sved, Tanya Goldberg, Shannon Murphy, Lee Lewis, Kate Gaul (Forgive me if I have left you out?) as striving and highly accomplished artists in this city. It is puzzling to see the male director often been given opportunity with less satisfying track records. I don’t believe in them and us but some equality of opportunity would be less worrying to observe. With the Companies about to announce their seasons both main house and otherwise, one hopes for a more enlightened spread of talent opportunity. Once upon a time I remember the women artists complaining of the so called “Gay Mafia” conspiracy that prevented opportunity and recognition, now rumour has it, that it is the "hetro-boys club" now, that holds sway. Is this true, in this day and age???

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cosi fan tutte

Opera Australia presents Cosi fan tutte (the School for Lovers). Opera in Two Acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. English translation by Jeremy Sams.

Cosi fan tutti (The School for Lovers) by Mozart and da Ponte, (English translation by Jeremy Sams) is Directed by Jim Sharman.

From the erudite notes in the Opera Australia program by Antony Ernst (2009) "The operas written by Mozart to the libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte are usually regarded as the pinnacle of operatic achievement... Certainly The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni Figaro, and Cosi fan tutti are extraordinary... In Cosi, a puckish philosopher wagers two younger friends that their belief in the unconditional fidelity of their fiancées is unfounded. In a classically balanced charade he sets each to wooing the other’s lady, using methods which are quite emotionally unscrupulous. When the young men succeed, he calls time on the charade, leaving the couples to contemplate what they may or may not have proven about themselves and each other. At the heart of the opera lies the fact that it deals with the personal moral sphere and the nature of happiness and attraction. It’s a theme which strikes very deeply into what people believe about themselves and each other, at what they’d like to believe and what they fear. Romantic comedies are so popular because they reassure these fears – they assuage loneliness, doubt and misunderstanding. Cosi raises the spectre of all three...... Since it was written however, audiences, performers and directors alike have often struggled with Cosi’s very simple proposition of established relationships.... that it is possible to be in love with someone, attracted to someone else and to act upon that attraction."

Under the guidance of Conductor Simon Hewett the speed of the overture is a pell mell chase that is breathlessly exciting. The Singing from the six principals is, from my experience of opera going, very good. Tiffany Speight (Despina), Sian Pendry (Dorabella) Rachelle Durkin (Fiordiligi), Jose Carbo (Don Alfonso), Shane Lowrencev (Guglielmo) and Henry Choo (Ferrando). All of the singers have the youthful élan and support of the conductor to do almost everything that the director envisages and still sing well. Henry Choo is especially pleasing in his beautiful elegiac solos. Enchanting.

The production artists - Director: Jim Sharman; Set Designer: Ralph Myers; Costume Designer: Gabriela Tylesova; Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper; Choreographer: Joshua Consadine; Video Producer: Mic Gruchy.

Listening to Jim Sharman on the Radio National Music Show the other Saturday morning he talked of rescuing the Opera from the overburdening traditions of the Vienna eighteenth century kitsch traditions that have weighed the opera down, in his opinion, in accessibility around the world throughout the ages. Unfortunately it seems to me that Mr Sharman has simply removed one kind of burdening for another. His intellectual thoughtfulness has resulted in a cogitation of the opera that is expressed with many offers of artistic flourish that flatly seems to state that, despite what Mr Sharman says, he simply does not trust the genius of Mozart’s score or da Ponte’s libretto (Jeremy Sams).

At almost every opportunity the set, costumes, video production, lighting or the choreographic movement of the singers is engaged in attempting to explain or keep us entertained or spoon fed with a very educated deconstruction of the meaning of the piece. It is a baffling calamity of business. For example two enormous nearly opaque curtains are dragged open and shut interminably throughout the very long evening - especially the back one. Just what is the why or wherefore of the activity and the raison d’être of the cueing of the action , a white suited gentleman or woman walking the curtains, is beyond me and so wearying that I was prepared to hire a hit man from the Underbelly world of Sydney to stop it. How many times? (The actor at the back was certainly the busiest member of the cast.)

The wedding conceit to bookend the piece and then a procession of guests that silently intrude as witnesses around a wedding table all night, seemed paltry and mindlessly tedious in its celebration; the simply over gratuitous presence of a bizarre "garden" of costumed chorus to impersonate flowers, for instance, in the second act, presented a surreal brain teaser: What is it? What are they? Were they necessary? (Besides what did that 2 or 3 minute entrance - exit cost?) I was told what they were post performance. The gaudy-jokey costumes and lame business e.g. the gym training session of the opening of the opera; the daringly unflattering swimming costumes of the two female leads on sun lounges, the many coloured collections of mounds of confetti that served theatrically many different services for the singers: water, magic potions etc; to be topped by a very busy live video broadcast on to the back curtain wall during the singing, grossly magnified to gargantuan size the tonsils and other features of the singers; overburdened the opera with so much distraction that one longed for the quite elegant, classically respectful, deeply moving simpleness of the old Goran Jarvefelt and Carl Oberle production that used to be in the repertory.

That was my first experience of the opera and I can remember the dignity of the human experiment and lessons that Mozart and da Ponte gave us without any of the clutter of the overly detailed febrile interpretations of almost every moment of the opera that Mr Sharman has invented for us. Just let them stand there and sing and act beautifully. The Opera and its impact was in the simple unencumbered expression of the truth of the human dilemma of the seeming rivalry of love and lust, greatly moving and greatly overwhelming. I remember the piercing beauty of the simple but heightened intelligence of the production with great clarity. The Opera can work. It does not need the tricks or whims of this tiresome production. By the end of the night, or really well before it was near ending, Mr Sharman and his artistic team had given us so much to deal with that intellectually and sensationally we were drunk and almost at the point of unconsciousness. So busy is this work that Mozart does not survive. The ‘buffo’ of it is overwrought and not able to sustain us as entertainment even.

This opera is considered as one of "the pinnacles of operatic achievement". This is hardly discernible in this production by Mr Sharman, that seems to want to bury the work with the stamp of the artistic interpreters. It like the taxing production of last year’s Handel opera ORLANDO, it suffers from the heavy hand of a director’s and designer’s vision. The music is secondary to the effort. Fortunately the conductor Simon Hewett is strong enough in his contribution to give some pleasure.

Playing now until 29 October.
For more information or to book click here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

one long night in the land of Nod

floogle in association with The Tamarama Rock Surfers presents ONE LONG NIGHT IN THE LAND OF NOD at the Old Fitzroy.

This is the second play by Duncan Graham that we have seen in Sydney this year. The first was OLLIE AND THE MINOTAUR (2008) at the Downstairs Belvoir. This is a short, one hour, one act play concerned with sibling rivalry (See THE LONESOME WEST) between brothers Aaron (Patrick Graham) and Kane (Chris Pitman), set on some crumbling family ‘farm’. The two brothers are at opposite poles of sophistication and needs. Kane is a university trained business man, Aaron is the stay at home and intellectually less astute brother, prone to emotionally driven acts of violence. The drama between them is intense and harnessed and endured only by their blood relationship. It ultimately concerns the inheritance of property and murder. Familiar territory and themes.

The Director, Iain Sinclair, has elicited very visceral and highly committed, full throttle testosterone charged performances from both these actors. The energy between these actors, contained within the small space of the Old Fitzroy, can sometimes be felt, in the auditorium, as a kind of assault. The pace of the exchanges are powerful and overlap at bewildering speeds and then are contrasted, nicely, with some quieter introspective moments. (The writer, Duncan Graham is very even handed with the textual responsibilities, even, giving each character a monologual opportunity of reflection or expiation of history [a moment to act, for each of the actors, the justification of characters actions or provide an insight into character motivation - you know, those Academy Award kind of Speech moments.) The acting, although admirable for the technical virtuosity, sometimes floats on the superficial effect of forceful energy and too often making it a substitute for interior depth. A pause, a breath, a thought, an opportunity for the audience to endow a clue to the meanings "under the line", or on the syntax, as well as on "top of the line" would have helped a better attachment to character and narrative for my experience.

[Giving the characters names like Aaron and Kane, the writer seems to be reaching to some deeper mythical level of universality. My cultural references were that Cain (same sound as Kane) was the first murderer i.e. the murderer of his brother Abel.) Yet, in this play it is Aaron that takes that role on in the function of the play, so, I was distracted in trying to sort out the red-herring of the writer in his character’s nomenclature. Aaron, is essentially a brother to Moses and a side kick to him and not demarcated in a very dramatically clear way in the bible and certainly has no connection to Cain. It was de-railing and ultimately not important.]

The play written in 2005, has the feel of the territory and energies of a Sam Shepard experience- brotherly rivalry and identifications. (CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS; BURIED CHILD; TRUE WEST; A LIE OF THE MIND) The dialogue structures and issues similar in their reaching. But what Shepard has in his “sibling plays” (All his plays) is also black humour that helps the bearing and suspension of the inherent dramatic ploys and tensions. The comedy defuses the tensions and helps the ratcheting of it up, over the performance, in those plays, it takes away the predictability of it - it surprises us - those plays have edge. (Eugene O’Neil does not have the comedy but has a better grasp of his mythical usage in the revelations of his characters over the playing time of the play (DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, for instance). Mr Graham’s play lacks either of those tools and so it becomes a little relentless and far too predictable to sustain, even over this short length, without longueurs. The play shows the promise of the writer and with experience and dramaturgical strengthening Mr Graham could evolve into a writer of some interest with his obvious gift of the Australian vernacular - that clear, if not consistently obscene, Aussie voice. (“Fuck, fuck fuck” - nearly as many per page as THE WIRE, now being screened on ABC TV I suspect.)

The Design by Victoria Lamb, a mixture between real kitchen surrounded by an impressionistic "rabbit proof fence" creates with the lighting (Matt Cox) a very imaginative space for the play to work in – certainly for the audience and I presume the actors. The Sound Design is very direct and little to simplistic in its decisions. The long odd sounds evolving into a Gothic like scream a little to clichéd and do not measure up to the other design elements.

A play that reveals promise but, for me, too relentless in its methods.

Playing now until 3 October.

For more information or to book click here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Lonesome West

Arts Asia Pacific in association with B Sharp present THE LONESOME WEST BY Martin McDonagh at the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

Martin McDonagh an English/Irish playwright has been a darling of the theatre going public for some time now. THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, A SKULL OF CONNEMARA, THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE and last year, upstairs at Belvoir, THE PILLOWMAN, have had successful airings and even revivals in the Sydney Theatre landscape. This is the first time that I have seen THE LONESOME WEST.

It has all the hallmark attractions of this writer. Well written characters in extreme, exaggerated melodramatic situations of personal rivalries - sometimes politically motivated, that erupt in outrageous, audacious conversations and juxtapositions of dramatic needs, with a tension of the unpredictable possibility of violence, ever present and evolving, ratcheting up insidiously, sometimes to explosions of real horror or devolving into relief making restraints. Very Hitchcock, and very, very Tarantino. (See INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or even McDonagh’s own recent film, IN BRUGES to see the expert comic/fear dimensions of the work as writers and directors.)

This production is directed by Peter Carstairs, a film maker, who is making his debut as a theatre director. Mr Carstairs’ film, SEPTEMBER, completed in 2007 (both writer and director) had a brief appearance on the Australian screen. I really liked it. Dealing with the racism of a past era in the state of Western Australia, it was told gently with elegiac and atmospheric images with the sense of Chekhov observations and pacing and gentle almost uneventful narrative turns. The film maker Terence Mallick was brought to mind as a possible influence. Beautiful, slow exposures to landscape and contrasted fixtures, whether houses, vehicles or people, in it. The pacing of this play production is slow and unfortunately consistent in its rhythmic scoring. The conversations are naturalistic and mostly plotted with “long” expositions of pausal motivations by the actors, sitting in an Art Director’s physicality. It has, for my experience in the theatre, the same expositional skills of Mr Carstairs’ material in the rendering of SEPTEMBER. A Chekhovian effect. Maybe, a more contrasted variation of pace in the different episodes would have had me more riveted to the situation. The pacing became becalming and too predictable. The look: romantic impoverishment.

On the front page of the program there is a quote from a review of an English production from The Sunday Times: “....brutal and savagely funny.” The story concerns the sibling rivalry of two bored and unmotivated young men in a boring village that has a history of murder and suicide. (The television series Midsomer Murders has a record, similar, of murderous actions.) If these two siblings, now adults, at least in age, are typical of the village, the statistics of the deaths in this locality is understandable. The portrayal of the two brothers, in this production, Coleman (Toby Schmitz) and Valene (Travis Cotton) however, hardly have the energetic possibility, within the directorial boundaries of the pacing, of BRUTAL or SAVAGE, rather, my impression was PETULANT and CHILDISH. Funny they still certainly were, for Mr McDonagh has a very adept skill which is almost fool proof in delivering the laughs. We certainly laughed. But the inherent violence of the situation was under cooked and the gathering, prescient dangers of the hostility between the brothers never really moved into a place that one can believe will result in bloody mayhem. It is just a silly childish game of dare with the consequences been predictably defused. Coleman does not at all look and feel psychopathic. And Valene does not ever appear to be an equal to the possibility of violence that his brother, textually has. The subplot between the priest, Father Welsh (Ryan Johnson) and Girleen (Sibylla Budd) is also underplayed.

Toby Schmitz, within the limitations of what I think is the direction is, as always, impressive, if not appearing a little tired. Travis Cotton is too often aware of the comic possibilities of this character’s situation and tends to reach, knowingly, for laughter rather than the truth of the bitter rivalry, and so defuses belief of the central conflict and the possibility of danger. Ryan Johnson has deeply felt intimations to the tragedy of his character but not the sophisticated expressive skills to deliver them accurately for audience clarity, for endowing and empathising. The expressionistic clues he gives us are too small, almost cinematic in their expression. The best performance comes from Sibylla Budd, who utterly transforms herself, with the assistance of heavy eye-liner make up (I did notice she had removed it for the curtain call, and the contrast of character, beside the magic of the character energy she had summoned to embody the poor pathetic, yearning Gileen, was palpable. There was Ms Budd taking a curtain call for the work of Girleen.)

Jacob Nash, Set Designer, has, with his usual eye for the essential details, presented a design solution that is impressive but also with a finesse of a fashionably distressed look dominated by a huge crucifix that has the possibility to be bought as an object of Art. There is no sense of the misery of the reality of this miserable environment that the characters inhabit, that, maybe, part of the influence of depression and hopelessness of the boys and community of this village in the lonesome west of Ireland, but rather an attractive advertising art design for a jean commercial say, Diesel. Look at the street magazine VICE MAGAZINE for the trend. Interestingly the film director, Terence Mallick, whom I associate with the work of Mr Carstairs in his film SEPTEMBER was also a prolific TV commercial maker.) The Lighting Design (Sian James-Holland) is sufficient and the Sound Design and Composition by Geoffrey Russell is effective and in its brevity, beautiful. The opening sound promised more than what was delivered in the production. Entrancing and atmospheric.

Most of the audience had a very funny time, but I did feel that only half of the possibility of the play was delivered. It seems to me that the Australian productions of most of Mr McDonagh’s work that I have seen, seem to emphasise his Irish characters as stock theatrical comic creations, instead of the ugly, fierce and unpredictably dangerous “folks” of their history. Study IN BRUGES and see McDonagh’s intent. It is hilariously funny but also politically wise in its tough observation of a culture that is self perpetuating in its own violent self destruction. It is hilarious but also senseless behaviour. This is why Mr McDonagh is revered. He has written a new play that will soon premiere in New York. I had feared that we had lost him to the cinema. But he will be back. I hope that whoever presents the next work goes beyond the Henry Lawson vision of the larky Irish character and goes beneath to the subterranean concerns of the writer.

For more information click here.

Under Ice

Spiky Red Things and the Griffin Independent present UNDER ICE by Falk Richter. Translated by David Tushingham at the SBW Stables Theatre.

UNDER ICE was written by Falk Richter (and translated by David Tushingham) in 2004 (and) “is the second play of a four-part play cycle by Falk Richter titled THE SYSTEM: [Electronic City (2002); Seven Seconds/In God We Trust (2003); Hotel Palestine.]. His inspiration for the cycle came in response to Germany’s chancellor Schrooder, justifying his support for the war in Afghanistan by saying, "We are defending our way of living there in this war." So Richter began to ask questions; What actually is our way of living, how do we organize our lives in the West, what are our ethics, our beliefs, how do we think we achieve happiness, how do we structure our work, our market, and our media – and why do we need to defend it by waging war against Afghanistan?” (from program Notes.)

In UNDER ICE, as part of the quartet of THE SYSTEM, Richter looks at “the ideology of the business world’ as he believes that “it is becoming the main ideological force of Western society….. (and that he) was observing how everybody in every part of our society (also in the arts and theatre) is shaping their lives according to this idea of the market and efficiency…”

This is a powerfully written piece; the translation has power the power of a translated language in poetry – it is riveting; all the performances Terry Serio, Jason Langley, Adam Booth and a cameo appearance by a young boy/actor Paris Change are mostly amazing for their committed clarity and skillful use of the technical crafts of the actor; the beautiful black and silver/grey Design of Melanie Paul (also the costuming); a truly clever and integrated Sound design and Composition (extremely sensitive to the moments of the play) by Rosie Chase; extraordinarily sensitive and supporting Digital Design by Mathew Mackereth (a narrow twin sided video screen, high above the action of the actors with a constant intriguing pattern of real letters and visual abstractions in hues of black, grey and white); and a supporting and non-distracting Lighting Design by Nicholas Higgins; and a complex and imaginative choreographic sequence by Craig Maguire, especially in such a small space. The Director Kellie Mackereth is master/mistress of all of these impeccable elements, for which she is the originator of choice and the guiding hand, as director, and has a fine eye for the nuanced details of the text and attempts to solve the stylistic problems of the “form” of the writing with brio and intelligence.


I found the experiencing of the play as theatre frustrating, exhausting and often irritating. Three men have interspersed monologues which they talk/lecture to the audience. There is no interaction between the characters. It is just them and us. It felt as if I was been given a didactic lecture from a very intelligent point of view (one which I agree with by the way - especially considering the hostile environment that the Arts exist in general in this country since the Dawkins Report in 1988, and recently, more obviously, the hostile battle of the practice based/vocational training courses (e.g.; UWS, VCA two of many) and their struggle to fit into a University Corporate Model that does not seem to really know, or if they do, understand, the intricacies of the historically founded and proven methods of teaching and the nurturing and incubated patterns of varying growths of development of the young artists in their care. {A recognised world wide experience of practice.} The promise of outcomes and outputs are hard to predict and require enormous trust and patience to be forthcoming. The ability to fail gloriously respected as part of the process towards outcomes. Corporate Models seem to demand clear and unequivocal deadlines to justify the efficacy of the money spent. Factory results on factory trajectories or bye-bye student, staff, course, institution. “Shaping their lives according to this idea of the market and efficiency.” The continued cry that the Arts can’t seem, or see the need, to change their habits. Rather it could be put that the Corporations and/or Economic Rationalists of Governments are unable to value or change their system to embrace the most human of endeavours- the chronicling of the issues of civilizations.). [Excuse the rant!!!?] What I longed for was a G.B. Shaw or a Brechtian or Barker or even a Hare debate (when they are writing at their best) within the construction of character, possibly plot/narrative and especially humour that could humanise the play’s pre-occupations in an easier form.

The sense that we as a culture have moved to create a world where the corporatizing and commodifying of our institutions that have a gleaming, 'sexy' exterior, harnessed to profit and efficiency as model representations to the world as success, at the expense of the respect and regard of the human element is frightening in the perceptible truth of it around us today. The vision of a man having the dream/vision of a car and television moving through the landscape on a date, while the human, who created the world, (Frankenstein) watches from the inside, forcing him to jump through the gleaming, sexy, well spun glass box, in protest or need to stay sane, from a twenty story building, screaming in space, where no-one will hear, to land under ice, is a pathetic and desperate reality for some of us. It reminds you of the horrible nightmare of the struggle between man kind and the computer Hal in Kubrick’s SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001.

Despite my experiential struggle in the actual theatre, the subsequent ruminations have been lasting and invigorating and maybe I should just learn to endure the pain to gain contemporary commentary of the state of our world. Maybe the very form of UNDER ICE and the clear human heart beat and deeply felt conviction of the writer, perceptible to me as audience is a perfect corollary to the argument of the play. It was a stimulating experience, and possibly, one that will last.

Just a note. This is the second work by Kellie Mackereth I have seen this year. Both have been highly satisfying. It is interesting to see the number of women directors been given a ‘guernsey’ at the Griffin in contrast to similar like minded Theatre Companies in Sydney. I will name, Cristabel Sved, Tanya Goldberg, Shannon Murphy, Lee Lewis, Kate Gaul (Forgive me if I have left you out?) as striving and highly accomplished artists in this city. It is puzzling to see the male director often been given opportunity with less satisfying track records. I don’t believe in them and us but some equality of opportunity would be less worrying to observe. With the Companies about to announce their seasons both main house and otherwise, one hopes for a more enlightened spread of talent opportunity. Once upon a time I remember the women artists complaining of the so called "Gay Mafia" conspiracy that prevented opportunity and recognition, now rumour has it, that it is the "hetro-boys club" now, that holds sway. Is this true, in this day and age???

For more information on UNDER ICE click here.

Tour Five: Marwood

Australian Chamber Orchestra present Tour Five; Marwood, Mozart & Mendelssohn. Guest Director Anthony Marwood at Angel Place Sydney.

Guest Director, Anthony Marwood, of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, has chosen a very exciting program ranging form Mozart’s (1776) and Mendelssohn’s (1822-1824) work to contemporary compositions by Golijov, Kinsella, Vine and a recently commissioned Transcription of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor for Violin by Orlando Jopling. The music choices span history and the principal effect is one of joy ,surprise, apprised virtuosity, of both The Orchestra and Mr Marwood, and an elegant statement about the timelessness of good music, well played.

The program notes tell us “Mozart insured himself against the excessive reverence of posterity by seeing to it that we could never take him entirely seriously. Just when we’re standing in awe of his sublime genius, he turns around to reveal his whimsical sense of humour.” The Serenade in D major, K239, Serenata notturna , composed in 1776 –two years before the Colony of Sydney was founded - begins in fairly recognisable Mozartian form, with “a majestic march (setting) up the usual instrumental texture over simple harmonies”. The second movement the Menuetto similarly is joyfully "full of high spirits and exuberant charm.... He darts between different characters, from a mock heroic Adagio in the Baroque manner to vigorous country dance tunes; high art, low art." Mozart decrees a "dramatic pause" and in this contemporary rendering the soloists of the quartet, Anthony Marwood, Helena Rathbone, Christopher Moore and Maxime Bibeau, are given opportunity to improvise. The cheeky one-upmanship of the performers, especially the wry humour of Mr Moore, caused a great deal of pleasure and laughter. There then followed a drum solo (Brian Nixon) and it too gives a further audacious tone to the event and the sunshine of the youthful Mozart delighting in shocking and playing with the expectations of his audience sprang the performance into good humoured expectation. The playing was delightful.

The next piece was an Australian premiere of Irish composer John Kinsella’s Prelude and Toccata for string orchestra. It is "a dazzling, virtuoso piece;" apparently "extremely difficult technically." Anthony Marwood tells us: "It’s very fast, kind of whispering, flying around the instruments in the most spectacular way, but because it is hushed and whispered it has an intoxicating effect. By no means is it all quiet…" The orchestrated arrangement is very theatrically thrilling to observe and the vivacity and the obvious technical feats that are being executed are breathtakingly admirable. The challenge is great and the Chamber Orchestra responded vividly and sonically, brilliantly. (The score has a kind of a visual journey because of the intriguing combinations of sounds and speeds that suggest a Hitchcock film, it is very tantalising to hear.) Again great fun.

There followed the Mendelssohn String Symphony [Sinfonia] No. 12 in G minor. For family home performances Mendelssohn was encouraged by his father to compose and between 1822 and 1824 he composed 13 sinfonias. "(And) while these works remained practically unknown until relatively recently, they display the emerging voice of the brilliant 14-year-old composer." The shock for the journey-man in music experience, like myself, is that the Mozart piece was composed by him at the age of 20 and this very vigorous Sinfonia by a 14-year-old!!!!! I am flabbergasted with awe and wonder. And a great deal of envy. I never did conquer the recorder and I gave up the guitar fairly quickly. (Just too much practice was needed.)

After the interval we heard a short piece, commissioned for the celebration of the Richard Tognetti 20th Anniversary leadership of the Orchestra, called XX. by Carl Vine.

Next, Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in A minor (after Schumann’s own transcription of his Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129; arranged for violin, strings and timpani by Orlando Jopling.) Orlando Jopling’s arrangement of Schumann’s Cello Concerto was commissioned by Anthony Marwood , the Irish Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and premiered by the ICO, with Marwood as soloist, in April 2009.This is the piece that we have been waiting for. Mr Marwood gives an exacting and brilliant performance of the thrilling demands of the composition. Mr Marwood becomes possessed by the music and transforms physically, in front of our eyes, immersed in every pulsing, gliding, piercingly beautiful challenge. It is a magic thing to watch and hear. One is swept away with the intense virtuosity and spirit of a musician who is not just playing the music but is embodied by it. The Aco was transported as well into inspired support.

The final work Last Round (1996) by Osvaldo Goljov is in honour of the memory of Astor Piazzolla, the last great tango composer. The passion and deliberate chaos of noise and rhythm capture the sexual dilemmas of the culture of Argentina. It is an interesting after thought to the concert, oddly, a cooler of the temperature of the night so afr.. After the stratospheric travel in the Schumann, one needed an earthing interlude before exiting the Hall into the real world. At least I did.

The programming once again was provocative, delightful and extending. I had a great time.

For more information click here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

This Kind of Ruckus

Performance Space and version 1.0 present THIS KIND OF RUCKUS in Bay 20 at CarriageWorks.

In the program notes David Williams, Chief Executive Officer of version 1.0, Producer of this performance, one of the devisers and actual performers tells us “THIS KIND OF RUCKUS is a performance about power, control and violence in intimate relationships. The work explores sexual violence in a range of spheres – from the realm of the domestic, to the judicial system, to the media and popular cultural attitudes, to the recent spate of sexual assault scandals in the sporting arena.” It could be a forbidding engagement in the theatre, however, as difficult and as dark as this material may be, the work presented is intriguing, engrossing and demonstrates more than admirably, version 1.0’s objective, which is to present “innovative political performance.”

Five performers: Danielle Antaki, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan, Kym Vercoe, and David Williams separately enter the space in front of a black curtain and each characteristically, idiosyncratically strike a pose with red, paper pom-poms like a chorus of cheer leaders. After a whispered count of three, they choreographically spin into a synchronised seated position and one of the company (Kym Vercoe) begins a frightening narrative, re-calling, the events of two women, who, in the course of one hot summer night in Sydney, find themselves in the middle of two different ‘rescues’ of two other women in the midst of dangerous, aggressive street violence. The twists and turns of the story are excruciating in both the cliché and then surprises, ending with the police leaning in on them through the front window of their car, in a subliminally (or not) intimidating manner, recognisable to all of us citizens as a familiar scenario (either from real life memory, [heaven help us] or our fictional take-in of popular television available almost every night, and film stories), and toying with the possibility of the endangerment of their own personal freedom as a consequence of their act of good samaritanism. To intervene, twice foolish!!!! Ms Vercoe is a consummate story teller and the vocal and physical commitment to every detail of her monologue is brilliant in a shimmering charge of focused energy. There is no way that any of us in the audience can be distracted from her vivid telling. It seizes one by the scruff of one’s bourgeois complacency as a theatre goer having just sat in my seat after a drink and casual chat with friends about the inanities of one’s day and urges, demands attention from us to an area of societal behaviour that is often pushed, uncomfortably, away by us, to the consciousness of the social worker or police. With this means, the company has us in a mesmerized spell of acute attention.

The curtain retracts and reveals a silver, perforated wall of square patterns, echoed in the floor in front of it, bordered by the black and yellow tape of a recognisable code demarcating ‘incident’, that warns us that this is a crime scene. On this crime scene floor various scenarios, illustrating the subject matter, outlined above, take place. On either side of the space stand two large tables burdened in an uncountable number of glasses and cans of alcohol, and a garbage receptacle to collect the swiftly emptied containers. The performers using a variety of performance techniques: dance, repeated physical gestures, text – both monologue and interactive duologues, example the myriad of instances of the cultural possibilities of the eruption of violent behaviour. The writing in THIS KIND OF RUCKUS is even handed. Neither sex dominates as victim or predator. As well, the physical abuse is just as well balanced with the preponderance of the more subtle psychological abuse. The exampled scenario between a male and female partnership undergoing a therapy session, is wonderfully, politically and deftly constructed to shift the empathies of the audience from one of the participants to the other. The cycle of cause and affect and the dreadful pattern of the behaviour is underlined in a brilliantly slow-burn kind of way. The attempts to expose the motivations of the perpetrators and victims are tantalising and confronting in their details.

Above the performers on a large screen, video images, some pre-filmed and reproduced are intermixed with projected live action both in real time and delayed time, sometimes slow-motion images. In black and white, sometimes veiled through a red filter passing across the pictures, the images are startling, and from where I sat, never distracting, but always, when I chose to look, connected to the action of the performers. Sean Bacon is the Video Artist and this work adds to an impressive artistic input to other work of his that I have seen here at performance space (THE BLAND PROJECT). Accompanied by a dynamically ‘pumping’ sound design by Gail Priest all of the ingredients of this performance are tremendously effective. The aesthetics in the method of performance never overrides the political intent of the piece. All the choices both dramaturgically and artistically are of a whole. The work itself and the performance carries some whack. It is hard not to be awakened to a very acute dilemma in our civilized culture. Ironic, isn’t it? that the theatrical event of the year opened this same week at the Sydney Theatre Company A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. A play that deals with physical and psychological abuse of the most violent kind, ending in rape and mental illness, albeit in the most poetic of writing. Alongside each other these two theatrical events sit dramatically as observations of our inherent human nature and our complicit behaviour in its continuance.

David Williams brings up the relevancy of the examination of the subject matter in his program notes: “Didn’t ‘70’s feminist theatre comprehensively address sexual violence? Does this work need to be revisited by version 1.0?” and then answers it himself, “Looking in the newspaper on a daily basis, with the ever-multiplying number of awful events, has demonstrated the urgent need for performance to return to these themes.” Mr Williams believes “That our performance works opens up spaces for public conversation, and hope(s) that you will join us for a conversation in the foyer after the show.” Unfortunately he suggests that that conversation should “preferably (happen) after a strong drink or two.” After the visible insidious influence that alcohol has on the behaviour we have just observed it was not a very healthy or sensible urging. Maybe the Influence of that legal drug, alcohol, should be the next subject examined by this excellent company of politically charged artists. Our animal genetic structures, as Mr Darwin demonstrated, evolves not revolutionises. It evolves very, very slowly.

Matthew Johns: It caused all parties enormous pain and embarrassment. Um, for me personally it has put my family through enormous anguish and embarrassment and has once again {sic} and for that I’m just, I can’t say sorry enough. There were no charges laid. But there has been a lot f pain and embarrassment to a lot of people.

Paul Vautin: Alright mate, well said. Alright,let’s get on with the show.

The football codes have moved on into the final competition phase – I hope you all enjoy them!!!! If you are not interested in the sport of it all, then, I recommend the performance space and version 1.0 production of THIS KIND OF RUCKUS.

Playing now until 12 September.
For more information or to book click here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bad Jazz

Darlinghurst Theatre Company & square the circle present BAD JAZZ by Robert Farquhar at the Darlinghurst Theatre Co.

Robert Farquhar the writer of BAD JAZZ says he began with the title and then tried to find a play to fit it. On reading an article about a real actress and her explanation to her partner about the requirement of her, as an artist, to have a real act of fellatio with her fellow artist every night as part of her performance he had found an anchoring idea. (Real and Acting!!!!!! Where is the line? The dilemma of the actor and his relationships professionally and personally. The staged world and the real world!!!!! Which one am I in??? EHHHHHH???) Mr Farquhar, then, in response to attending a production of STITCHING by established writer Antony Neilson (See THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA) and finding it to be “one of the silliest, most bourgeois evenings in a theatre I’ve ever been party to........ started writing the rest of the play (i.e. BAD JAZZ) as a sort of response to that theatrical experience.” Anthony Skuse in his program notes suggests that his last play choice at Darlinghurst Theatre: pool (no water) by Mark Ravenhill, “seems to be (the type of play Mr Farquhar) was railing against”. Mr Skuse, further says, that plays about theatre, “(have) distinguished antecedents: from Calderon’s GREAT THEATRE OF THE WORLD and Corneille’s THE THEATRICAL ILLUSION to Pirandello’s SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR and HENRY IV. These plays" Mr Skuse goes on, "all raise questions that transcend the immediate worlds of actors and the theatre..... (that) Farquhar’s contrapuntal writing style with its staccato rhythms and the heightened naturalism that slips into improvisation could wear either hats.” If only BAD JAZZ approached those quoted ideals.

Unfortunately, the experience of Mr Farquhar’s play, that I had last night, was that of an extended undergraduate revue sketch, both “funny and intelligent”, but, as time passed, progressively repetitive and especially tedious in its stretched final moments of grandiosity of insight. If only the play had the profundity of the above mentioned plays or any of the passion of say the films A DOUBLE LIFE with Ronald Coleman or Ang Lee’s disturbingly political, recent film LUST, CAUTION, that deal with the creative artists struggle to keep the objective brain in proper proportion to the subjective brain. That need, through craft, for a possession to seem to take place, rather than actually take place. For, if real possession does take place, maybe, you will land a radio/prop on the head of another actor and cancel a performance or you may strangle your leading actress or you may fall in love with your enemy. Mr Farquhar does not have that depth of concern. The dominant urge seems to be, to be funny, and to out play these other writer’s of his generation, maybe: Ravenhill, Marber, Crimp etc at their well received and respected work. BAD JAZZ clever as it is, is too long and fails to achieve that level of concerned artistry. It is ultimately shallow in its objectives. Who really cares about this artistic dilemma other than other artists? And in this play the only person that genuinely had my empathy was the non-theatrical one, Ben, the boyfriend. The rest of them seemed to be selfish, grossly immature and boring. Just like the characters in films like AMERICAN PIE and in almost any Adam Sandler oeuvre. (Silly and juvenile: sex and the instruments of sex as genuinely shocking experience. Oh, Really? A Dildo is still funny?)

What is terrific is the robust and theatrically inventive direction (Anthony Skuse) that keeps this play moving at a galloping pace and inspiring really outrageously brave performances from most of the actors. Remarkable work from Lisa Griffiths (Natasha), swiftly funny and always in the dangerous moment of discovery on stage. The performance has the presence to help you suspend your objections to the writing. Similarly, but less experienced, is the work of Anthony Di Placido (Danny). Ben Wood in the smaller responsibility as Ben, the boyfriend, is also an impressive and persuasive presence in his real world character. The direction of the play, however overall, tends to be raucous and often unnecessarily noisy in a “in-yer- face” kind of way. Maybe, now, old fashionably bourgeois. A kind of derriere-gard as opposed to avant-gard. What with most of the humour, both in the writing and stage imagery, tongue in cheek, but too often, perhaps, tongue in bum–cheeks. It takes a lot to shock us now-a-days. The control of all the elements do not always balance out and can be overwhelming in their effect. Distracting rather than complimenting. The sound (Jeremy Silver) just a little too deliberately noisy and uncomfortable. The lighting is excellent in its theatrical choices and theatre smartness, (the moving poles of spot lights for example.) The last time I was in this theatre (THE JUNGLE), I remarked that I thought it was a particularly difficult space to design for. The team of Brad Clark and Alex Sommer, seem to have made every difficulty an advantage in the conceptual design flow of the action of the play with just the right judgement of furniture or prop choice to reveal location and tell story. The costumes are an enormous success because I never noticed them as design.

If you have a penchant for a raucous, sex/bad language dilemma of the artist as person or character in the moment of creativity and the possible consequences of it then this production almost covers the difficulties of the writing. There are some good laughs but it does wear a bit thin as the night goes on. Some of you, like I, might believe it to be "one of the silliest, most bourgeois evenings in the theatre I’ve been party to" for some time.

Playing now until 12 September.
For more information or to book click here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Leigh Warren and Dancers presents SEVEN at the Parade Theatres, Sydney.

"Leigh Warren is a choreographer and Artistic Director of multi award winning contemporary dance company Leigh Warren & Dancers." Mr Warren in his program note writes of his work SEVEN: "Working with writers has been very rewarding and brought a fresh new impetus to both the creation and performance of this piece. While the narrative of Snow White has provided the framework for the choreography, it is the personalities of the dwarfs, their relationships, their points of view and how they relate to one another in this extreme family situation, that I am exploring. I begin by introducing them as they morph from dwarf to frog to human to happy ever after, it is the subject of love’s labyrinth that has been the driving force behind each scene… (a list of some 16 scenes)… Love has been described as many things but whatever it may be, it appears to ebb and flow like the tides. It is a state of being and depending on your orientation, triggered by an individual sense of beauty or pheromone response – invisible, in comprehensible – which is what makes it so fascinating to us all.”

How all these ideas coalesce, for an audience, in this dance is the problem. It is not communicated in any clear manner. The conceptual dramaturgy of this piece is, I believe, sprawling and flawed. The artistic tools and judgements in the creation is just as jumbled as the artistic objectives of the dramaturgy. The set design (Dan Potra) of a divided, smashed and jagged mirror, surrounded by a white, plastic bevelled frame, internally lit by florescent tubes, split, across the back of the dance space like book frames, with a drooping ragged creased cloth, on which live video of the dancers is projected, interpolated with filmed sequences of actors being the “face of the mirror’” (Mirror, Mirror on the wall…Etc.) hung between. The floor is a scratch patterned image, subject to colour alterations, mostly light green is a dominating image in the steeply raked auditorium. (The Lighting & video designer, Nic Mollison). {The Lighting of the dancers the most successful element of the event.} It becomes a feature that ultimately is dispiriting to constantly ’deal with’ aesthetically. There are seven miniature beds spread about the space, each with a dreary tube of light hanging above them, lit, seemingly at whim, which lift into the air dripping with what could be either branches, weeds or moss when suspended. (They make several take-offs and landings.) The dancers in green ‘hoodies’ decorated with fringing or patches, enter, like a caterpillar, all bent at the waist and leaning on each other: 14 legs (and 14 arms!!!!!) These “hoodies’ are later removed, but the costumes of individual contemporary urban wear and grunge that are revealed are not very inspiring to look at. (Original Costumier; India Flint; additional costumes Leigh Warren.)

The choreography of these dancers both in concert and in varying groupings of solo, duet and trio, seem to spring from the boundaries of the dancers and are subsequently, very limited in their expression, although within this limitation competent. The feel is of a dance school’s graduation concert. It is very boring to watch over the playing time of 1 hour and 5 minutes. Repetitive and dull.

Accompanying and interspersed in the dance, the performers are required to mime pre-recorded dialogue of the most banal observations [it seems of their own], tedious to take in and hindered, particularly, by a recording standard that sounds if it has been recorded in somebody’s bathroom. (Probably the dance studio??) The sound is often inaudible and the voice/sounds have not been adjusted technically. (Voice Overs: Craig Behenna and Hew Parham.) As well, sadly, the performers have not had much, if any, direction in the dramatic communication of their verbal responses. It is a jumble of noise and verbal clarity, and whatever the weight of the voice over component to the success of the communication of the thematics of the conception, they are virtually a lost cause in performance. The music is mostly simple and mindless background (Composers Ian Moorhead and Adam Synott in association with Sacha Budinski) and apart from an uncredited series of American croon tunes, (which because of the professional recording values evident in hearing, highlights with unflattering comparison the sound production values of the Voice Over material) accompanying several of the danced scenes, is not a very useful or enlightening source to the comprehension of the piece. [Some text for the performance has been drawn from the play SPEAKING IN TONGUES and the film LANTANA by Andrew Bovell. (The only song credited, there were many more: IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND (Rodgers and Hart) used by permission of Warner/Chappell Music Australia Pty Ltd.]

In a week that begins the Sydney Opera House’s SPRING DANCE program, it was not a very auspicious introduction to the Leigh Warren & Dancers. Extremely, extremely disappointing.

For more information click here.