Monday, November 30, 2009


Bareboards Productions in association with B Sharp presents the Australian Premiere of: BLISS, written by Olivier Choiniere and translated by Caryl Churchill, at the Downstairs Belvoir.

BLISS written by a Quebecois, Olivier Choiniere, and translated by Caryl Churchill in 2008, is set in a supermarket (an accurately depressingly realistic design by Justin Nardella - other play works by this writer have been site specific [Mr Choiniere's own company: L'Activite] and the Designer and Director (Shannon Murphy) seem to have taken their design inspiration from that fact - it is truly, wonderfully accurate!!!) and concerns mostly the fantasy of one of the young staff members, Isabelle (Krew Boylan), who in her boredom fantasises about a possible life role with her celebrity idol, Celine Dion (her image being on the cover of a magazine in the market she works at, sparking her inventions). Three other staff members become useful imaginative agents for the fantasy of this pathetic young woman. Each of them have their job function: Manager (Simon Corfield), Cosmetics (Libby Fleming) and Display (Matt Hardie) printed on an identity badge, (backwards !!!!) on their uniforms/costumes. On cue they become tools for different roles in the obssessional imaginary world that Isabelle creates for herself, partaking in the real life tragedy and celebrity worship of Celine Dion.

The subject matter of the writer, of a young culturally impoverished being taking flights of fancy, out of boredom, using other more seemingly glamorous lives, as a substitute for their own desolate world, is hardly new territory in the theatre or recent film. Nor is the form of writing - (note as recently as UNDER ICE, Falk Richter, in the Sydney Theatre go-round). None of these characters actually interact - it is mostly third hand narration to the audience and is a kind of therapy technique of abreaction, (which was introduced to me by Dr Dysart in his treatment of the horse blinder Alan Strang in EQUUS in the "dark ages" of the seventies - Peter Schaeffer). The actors narrate the events whilst illustrating them. All of the acting, in this production, tends to reach for the comedy (satiric!!!) and are generally entertaining in an untidy kind of way. Ms Boylan switches on to a deeper connection to her character's plight towards the end of the play and begins to move us, but it is quite a considerable wait into the proceedings.

The choreography of Johanna Puglisi is one of the more focusing energies of the production. The Lighting Design by Verity Hampson is her usual inventive and aesthetic self (high quality) while Steve Toulmin's Composition and Sound Design is simply pragmatic.

The evening was, for most of the audience, kind of fun, but I could hardly begin to comprehend the reason to produce this play. There was nothing much being said anew and really no new way of saying it. The acting and directing, generally sufficient but not transporting. The fact that Caryl Churchill had translated it, the only point of curiosity for me. Unfortunately, it still is. (Ms Churchill has personal history with Canada, the only obvious reason I can decipher for her to do it.)

I have recently read M.J. Hyland's novel THIS IS HOW. It, like this play, is told through the narration of the protagonist, in that case, Patrick Oxtoby. The imaginative demands and responsibility that that makes on the reader is demanding on all sorts of levels. The level of care and concern for the character I was imagining through the prompting of the writer, I found very daunting to do. In this play, then, a similar technique is meted out but with the imaginative work being further presented by actors. I did not feel that the work that the director asked of her actors was interesting enough for me to engage with. My reading of the play had a bigger affect on me. So, I am curious to ponder how could the work of the actor could be more useful for the theatre experience of this play. A more stylised approach, a more physically detailed and disciplined technique to the manner of the imaginative creations of Isabelle? To have a more direct contrast between the opening naturalism of the opening of the supermarket, as per this production, to demarcate the real life world and the world of fantasy? An element of magic was missing for me that would have lifted this well worn thematic territory and literary style out of the ordinary and familiar. Is that it?

I felt that here was an opportunity only half grasped. Adequately sufficient. It was not altogether an experience of BLISS.

For more information click here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Progress and Melancholy

Babka presents PROGRESS AND MELANCHOLY at fortyfive downstairs, Flinders St, Melbourne.

PROGRESS AND MELANCHOLY is "A new physical theatre work based on Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD. " Using the skeleton framework of Chekhov's play and some of the functions of some of his characters, six actors/dancers and a musician: Todd Macdonald, Nadja Kostich, Majid Shokor, Christophe Le Tellier, Paea Leach, Sara Black and Ernie Gruner, under the direction of Bagryana Popov, explore "people's behaviour during a time of upheaval.... depict(ing) profound social change and disorientation...... to impart a sense of the transience of all things."

The actors use text from the play, loosely, and with dance/movement, delicately and beautifully sketch the events of the four acts of this great play. Although they use their own names the actors generally represent the widely human dilemma of the Chekhov characters: Lopakhin, Gayev, Trofimov, Anya, Varya and Lyuba. The principal events are sketched in and the "crisis" of each of the acts are more or less represented e.g. the Lopakhin development plans, the wastrel inclinations of Lyubov (She is treated fairly romantically), the childishness and foolishness of Gayev, the political and divided loyalties of the young Trofimov and Anya, the pathos of abandonment of the sister/'servant' Varya.

Added, occasionally, are other texts of a more contemporary political/monetary/trade observation (eg the iron ore and coal ships off the coast of Newcastle, interpolation). It seems to be a kind of fop to justify the piece as a more pertinent exercise for our times. However, I felt, the substance of this added material, by being so specific, seems to undermine the breadth of the human observation of the original and the possible first urgings of this creative team, and rather diminishes the impact of the original intentions which the title of the piece suggests: an observation of progress and the melancholy that that throws up as part of the eternal human condition.

For, the acting is generally very moving and the choreography of the "dance" is, both, very impressive in its craftsmanship and especially in its expression and execution. Images, for example, of rolling coins and the laying on the beautiful wooden floor and the pathetic yearnings by Gayev and Lyubov are cogent and often powerfully simple in their presentation. Trusting the deconstruction of this play, accompanied by a body language of such accuracy and grace, without the overt and not fully dramaturgically "fitted" contemporary political points of view, with a less hasty cut down of the relevant, thematically, events of the last act, for instance, may have even more artistic and satisfying impact and memories for the audience. As the piece stands,when I saw it , the contemporary attempts of social relevancy seemed an unnecessary intrusion on the title of the piece. (Dramaturg: Maryanne Lynch)

The director, Bagryana Popov, has with her Design Consultant (Adrienne Chisholm) opened up and used the space cleanly and with refreshingly bare breadth. The columns, the beautiful period windows and the wooden floor of the actual space resonate the Ranyevskaya Estate beautifully. The lit artificial trees, outside the space and seen through the windows are, initially, potent symbols. Their extinguishing of the "orchard" was unsatisfactory (probably budgetary restraints) and the absence of the axe blows of the last symbols of Chekhov's original I sadly missed. The costuming, elegantly representative of character and practical,for the dance, all at once. The Soundscape and the use sometimes of a live musician are subtly blended into the action of the whole. (Musical Director: Elissa Goodrich)

I was a guest of the company at a final dress rehearsal of this piece. The urgent replacement of one of the performers was seamlessly integrated even at this late stage without, for me, much distraction.

On the whole I was refreshed and stimulated by the vision and execution of the work. Chekhov , even Stanislavsky and Dantchenko, may have been pleased, too.

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Strange Attractor

Griffin Theatre Company present World Premiere of STRANGE ATTRACTOR by Sue Smith at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

This play is set "in a railway construction camp..... inland from Port Hedland, Western Australia in the "wet mess" - a featureless space with tables and a bar. The working personnel wear identical uniforms covered "in the red dust of the desert." (Design by Jo Briscoe. Lighting by Bernie Tan. Sound Designer and Composer, Steve Francis).

The play's action is told in one act, 17 scenes, and uses a simple split time mechanism (the present and a few weeks ago) to tell of the investigation by a Company Officer (Colin played by Darren Gilshenan) into the death of the Safety Officer (Gus played by Sandy Winton) during a severe cyclonic storm: "a good man in a bad place." It tells of a cover up, by all concerned, that allows the reputation of a good man to be impugned to cover the stupid actions of a selfish and drunken group of people who thereby avoid responsibility and the consequences of that complicit decision. Better the livelihood of the living then the honour of the dead. (Very Ibsen like in its moral dilemma.)

This new work by Sue Smith, a writer honoured, principally for her Television scripts: BASTARD BOYS, THE LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL and BRIDES OF CHRIST [co-written], still has that sense about it. Television, of a decade or so ago.

The characters in the play seem to me to have a thumb line drawing of functional caricature, that in the visual medium of television might be camouflaged more circumspectly in the reality of the immensity of the actual location. But, here, in a tiny theatre space, the Stables Theatre, they are too broadly written with patches of purple prose that are difficult to believe are coming from the mouths of these supposedly, rough and ready, real men and women: "There are places on this planet humans aren't meant to be...... Clinging to sanity on the edge of the precipice. A little cosmic joke. The fates giggling behind their hands when they put the most precious, the most elemental of substances in the most inhospitable of places...... I know that at two in the afternoon the sun's a ball of hate. The world out there's like a medieval vision of hell. And sometimes the very dirt under your boots feels like it's throbbing with loneliness..." An actor might be thrilled to have such text to say but believing the real world speaking it in these circumstances was hard to do. The very dirt throbbing with loneliness!!!!!

Combined with this 'poetic' prose, the Director (Nick Marchand) has permitted some acting that is cliche and melodramatic - hyperbolic in its expression and erring on an indicated truth rather than the actual experiencing of it - truth. In the actual scale of this theatre space it was, for me, often "over the top" and distracting - drawing attention to its effects and displacing the possibility of my belief in the world they were trying to create. (Either too much vocal or physical affects or just too much theatrical energy that blurred the action.)

On the other hand the work of Darren Gilshenan as the Company Investigator, Colin Murray, was grounded and finely judged for scene by scene, and finally accumulative effect in his part of the story telling. This performance along with Mr Gilshenans performance in ELLLING continues to ímpress the range of this fine actor.From the delicate and intricate comedy in ELLING to the understated strength of will and growing moral outrage and menace in this strangely old fashioned play and character structure. (Mr Gilshsenan's Directing skills at the 2009 Coogee Festival in February, THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, was also evidence of a growing master of his crafts) Similarly, Ivan Donato impresses in his smaller supporting role of Chilli - the Chilean barman, trying to forge a possible life of rescue for his third world family, especially in his outburst of defence of his own actions in scene eight. An understated truth emanating from a subtext of motivation from the action of the situation and attached to the other characters as both cause and influencing the action on their plight, plainly and movingly.

I saw this work some time ago and have since read the play again. From the enthusiasm of some of my friends I may have had higher expectations of this production and play than I should have gone in with. I found the afternoon very old fashioned and with two exceptions overwrought. It was disturbing for the wrong reasons. I hope I am not being, just contrary. Disappointing.

For more information click here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


MAKEbeLIVE Productions, Tamarama Rock Surfers and FBi radio present CuBBYHOuSE, Devised and Performed by Holly Austin and Adriano Cappelletta. At the Old Fitzroy.

This is a joyous and really beautiful, silly night of escapism in the theatre. It ought to resonate in the hearts and lungs of a lot of you out there, especially if you are a regular theatre goer.

The contemporary material and even the re-addressing of some of the Classics we have seen this year (or any theatrical season) keep us truly alert to the depressing state of world events and personal journeys of some of our fellow travellers. It is sometimes, if you go to the theatre a lot, after seeing, consecutively, one truthful but overwhelmingly “lurid” observation of the tragedies of living in 2009, so disheartening and dispiriting, that to close oneself up in the “cave” of one’s own dwelling may seem the best option to cope. Now, along comes this disarmingly charming work by two young “clowns” and you learn, perhaps, that there are enough of us out there to weather the “burdens” of life and keep a light shining. Reminiscent, in effect, of the imported British Company, HOIPOLLOI’s work, FLOATING, shown at the Sydney Opera House in March, one can leave the theatre space, invigorated and re-charged with the health of being ALIVE and pleased to be alive by returning to the infantilised worlds of our imagination of yesterday.

When I was little, I had a cubbyhouse under our house and it was where I played, mostly with my siblings, and a lot, by myself. I am sure, I hope, as children, we all had a cubbyhouse where the world of our imaginings took us to vaster and greater worlds then that of our environment. Worlds of gigantic possibilities were lived and explored in – it was a happy time - I loved it. It competed with going to the “pictures” at the Randwick Ritz. Holly Austin and Adriano Cappelletta, as adults, have built a cubbyhouse at the Old Fitzroy and have invited us, as adults, to come and play with them. The freewheeling invention of the imaginary twists and turns and jumps and leaps of the all possible imaginary worlds of two unfettered, fertile and febrile actors/clowns like Ms Austin and Mr Cappelletta is an ecstatic “Luna Park” ride – “JUST FOR FUN”- that is simply joyous to surrender to and PLAY in.

In a beautifully, but simply, painted set design by Pip Runciman, that of a faded playroom – with some spider webbed and dust covered bicycles in an attic - in appealing primary colours, handsomely illustrated and lit by a very empathetic lighting design by Verity Hampson (A champion again!!); equipped with some simple ‘sound machine’ inventions and instruments (Sound Designers Holly Austin & Tobias Gilbert), Ms Austin & Mr Cappelletta, using their imaginations and finely tuned instruments of vocal and comic dexterity, transports one (Me and you) on a series of appealing and hilarious adventures. The imaginative inventions that they invite us to play in is, gloriously, at their urging, but, entirely, of one’s own will to participate. Just as it was with the HOIPOLLOI experience, if you want to play then you will have a great time. If you don’t you won’t. The playfulness of one own’s commitment is the crowning pleasure of many such pleasures, of this opportunity to revisit that world that we once had as children, that as adults, burdened with all our other overt responsibilities, we have been taught to suppress. “GROW UP, FOR GOODNESS SAKE.” For A guilt free indulgence of your inner child here is an experience worth taking.

It is exciting to see these two resourceful actors explore the joy of performing. Ms Austin recently seen as Lady Anne in RICHARD III at CarriageWorks; and Mr Cappelletta, a Sydney Theatre Critics (2006) award winner for his performance as Rodolpho in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, are no slouches with the dramatic side of their talent and amplify here, with this devised and performed invention, the range of most great comic actors. It is mostly usual for the great comics to have the capacity to be tragic, it is not always possible for the great tragedians to be comic. (Reading the biographies of a luminary like Laurence Olivier is a case in point. Contrasted with the biography of Bert Lahr, there is room for contemplation of this observation.) There is much humour here in this production (Directed by Jo Turner), but we should be warned against the superficial definition of comedy as something that merely makes us laugh. "I cannot help thinking that to identify comedy with laughter is to begin at the wrong end of the stick….. The truth is that just as the emotions evoked by tragedy are too complex to be merely sad, so comedy is too complex to be merely funny" (L.J.Potts.) Both of these young artists have the capacity to make us laugh explosively out loud, chuckle delightedly, grin pleasantly and smile personally. They also can take moments in this work when they feel deeply and look movingly into the abyss of the chaos in which we live and yet indicate an optimistic feeling about the possibility of safety and even joy, of being alive, and consequently move us deeply with little details that cause real “human life-feeling”, a sense of vitality or “felt life”. CuBBYHOuSE both delights and moves you.

Trained at NIDA, together, these two artists (and others in their year of study - Connie Chang’s Cabaret Roadshow, another outcome of their invention), blessed with the inspiration of master teacher’s such as Keith Bain, Julia Cotton and Lynne Pierse (These artists certainly deserve the recognition of their selfless devotion and skill out side the walls of the NIDA Institutuion) have with the help of further scholarship funding, worked with renowned acting/“clown” teachers Phillippe Gaulier (Mr Cappelletta); Pierre Byland and Julien Cottereau (Ms Austin). Home they come and in their own personal struggle as young artists in Australia to find out, within the difficulties of their profession here, “Who am I?” “ Who do I want to be?”, while dealing with the rejections, audition after audition (just a normal part of the profession), have invented a work that goes beyond their own artists dilemma and in their inspiration help others “confront…. the choices about what they want to be.” In a newspaper article (Sydney Morning Herald –Metro [November 6 -12, 2009] the two artists go on to say “...It has taught {me} to have fun, something professional actors sometimes forget to do… It reminded us about what we like about performing – that simple thing of dressing up and pretending to be someone else.” I can assure you, that although you won’t dress up, unless you do so before hand, (and why not do it?) you will have the pleasure of pretending again, and loving it.

Unusual programming again from The TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS. THE BOUGAINVILLE PHOTOPLAY PROJECT, just finished a season, at the Old Fitz, was an introduction to a form of theatre that is not usually seen by many theatre goers outside of Performance Space, in Sydney (proper) or Festival events. So, this deliriously delicious work, sits, outside the expected. Congratulations to the artistic vision of that company. Festival and Touring bodies take note.

Just to let you know that this is just not this "reek(ing) old man in a nursing home" [see Comments in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW]. He is not alone in his response I would love to quote from XPress in the Tamarama Rock Surfers Season Brochure: “Whether you’re looking to reconnect with your inner child or just disconnect from adulthood, CuBBYHOuSE will have your imagination in overdrive.” Go, Go Go!

(For those that don’t know, I may need to declare since I have mentioned NIDA, that I am a teacher of acting at NIDA and other organisations both in Australia and Internationally.)

Playing now until 21 November.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Taming Of The Shrew

Bell Shakespeare presents THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare at the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.

“[T]he last scene is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility. No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth. Therefore the play, though still worthy of a complete and efficient representation, would need, even at that, some apology.” - George Bernard Shaw, 1897.

My first consciousness of this play is the endearing photograph of Laurence Olivier as Kate in almost every biography of that great actor. The Zefferelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is a lasting visual memory pleasure. There was a version by the Old Tote Theatre Company at the old Parade Theatre. (The actors elude my memory, at this time, but I remember it was with in the Golden Era of productions (of my Memories) in the early ‘70’s.) The version by Charles Marowitz I remember seeing at the Studio at the Sydney Opera House with Elaine Hudson and Stuart Campbell and being shocked and divided. The most recent professional production I saw was at Walnut Creek in the out skirts of the environs of San Francisco. This last production, I attended, with trepidations about the play itself and its political viability in the contemporary sexual politics, especially in the liberties of a fabulous San Francisco. The experience, however turned out to be one of pleasure - so much of the play was genuinely funny and amusing – a comedy/farce. The ending still had its contemporary problems but the overall impression was one of surprised delight at the play’s humour.

The play presented in this season by the Bell Shakespeare was a welcome anticipation. The joy of the comedy, I remembered, and the dilemma of the “politics” intrigued me. That it was to be played by an entire “regiment” of women whetted more the interest. Particularly when I knew the cast list: Sandy Gore, Judi Farr, Vanessa Downing, Wendy Strehlow, Jeanette Cronin, Anna Huston, Beth Aubrey, Emily Rose Brennan, Lotte St Clair, Luisa Hastings Edge, Ksenja Logos. Now, some of these actors I know better than others but, as it was when I anticipated the cast of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, it was with a sense of joy that so many women were being employed and we were to see their gifts and talents on stage. Some of them scarcely seen in recent times - much to our loss. The performances were mostly valiant and fun to see. Ms Gore, Farr, Downing, Strehlow, wily in their clever offers and presence, stabilising a concept of the play that was essentially bewildering. Of the other actors Ms Edge (Lucentio) was particularly amusing and convincing. The steadfastness and integrity of Ms Aubrey (Hortensio) admirable.

I had prepared myself well with a research background to approach this production and the Bell program notes were, as well, very informative. My response to the production, Directed by Marion Potts and Designed by Anna Tregloan, however makes any of that superfluous. The set design, in “a wedding reception center or a gentleman’s club” was so depressing in visual terms and so clumsy in its furniture lay out, with a clock puzzlingly stuck on a fixed moment in time (featured in its lighting design ( Paul Jackson)), that it was easy, but still dismaying, to switch off. Almost completely. Add a sequence when the play moves to Verona, the estate of Petruchio, that is similarly, visually stunted, but serviced by, I guess, visual imagery references to the recent “Stepford Wives” film, in the servant’s striking pastel dresses and hats, (while humming the tune of A MAN AND A WOMAN), and one might begin to wonder what I had ate before the performance to cause such discomfort. Further, add the karaoke scene divisions, sung by different members of the cast, that seemed to have had more thought put into their choice than any other textual offer made by the director and “suicide” might have been a contemplation.(Composer / Sound Max Lyandvert).

In the production credits there is no Voice or Text coach. The resultant work is self evident. As in recent past productions by this company the vocal work is so disconnected to the joys of the heightened text, music and poetry, that it is ominous to observe that most of the laughter in the performance I saw came as a result of physical comedy or from interpolated contemporary expressions such as Ms Brennan’s “Fuck this” whilst sweeping cups and other debris from an upstage corner ( Upstaged!!) in the midst of the famous/infamous last speech by Kate, that was, interestingly, been delivered "straight" by Ms St Clair, quite well. (i.e. It was clear and had some music of the poetry). The noise of this spoken performance was almost unbearable.

To say that this was a dispiriting night in the theatre is an understatement. That I and many about me were bored, unarguable. My experience of the Bell Shakespeare this year has not been good. Neither Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare has been vocally served well. In fact the Bard has not had a good year in Sydney all round except for the Siren Theatre and MAKE beLIVE production of Richard III by Kate Gaul in May at CarriageWorks. What is the outstanding difference, in my mind? That the text was been spoken to serve the audiences enjoyment and intellectual stimulation: Clear sense and the "music" of the poetry and prose at CarriageWorks by Ms Gaul’s company.

A permanent Voice/Speech coach would be, I reckon, a help to the Bell Company. (Cut down on your set and costume budgets and find the funds for this very necessary, self evidently in this years output-let alone last year’s HAMLET, artist.)

The imposition of auteur/concept onto the play is only a further obfuscation to the experience, if the actors are not better prepared for the communication of the language demands/complications of this great playwright. Having recently watched the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, at the Chauvel Cinema, it is not concept that retards clarity, for in the National Theatre’s work, there was much intellectual rigour and skill in the concept that the director contextualised her production in. What was a great experience , was to hear the language dealt with such insight, passion and just plain great clarity and respectful use of the poetic constructions, supported by technique being clarified by the conceptual choices!!!! None of the SHREW Company seem to me lack technique or training, just disciplined guidance. If I were in the Bell Company, I might suggest that the need for a permanent Vocal Coach would supersede the need for a Fight Director – credited in almost every production of the Bell Company.

“Tips for coping with old age, retirement and ungrateful children” is the Bell Shakespeare marketing ploy for Shakespeare’s great tragedy KING LEAR!!!!!!!!!

“The sort of thing that can happen when a man looks a little too much like his sister”, the contemporary marketing packaging for TWELFTH NIGHT!!!!! (I thought, if you have, had, read the play, if you were going down this marketing path, the slogan should be “The sort of thing that can happen when a woman looks a little like her brother”. The fact that the casting in the program supplied is Brent Hill and not an actress, unless it is to be an all male cast, odd, too. The play’s central character is Viola not Sebastian, isn’t it?

Alarm bells of trivialisation ring loud in my head. Disrespect thunders in my guts. Then, of course, I don’t necessarily understand the need for such stuff, this branding and marketing, mostly, because I have always understood if the Product is consistently good/great, it is probably not necessary to stoop to such banalities. It is REPUTATION that is all, is it not? (Somewhere in Othello, it says so.) The BELL SHAKESPEARE “brand” should stand by itself. Enough time has passed for the formidable expectation of quality that the Brand: RSC has, should reverberate the Bell Shakespeare product too, ought it not?

Above, Shaw spoke of an apology. Here, for different reasons, if Mr Shakespeare were alive it might also be still deserving – but to him, not from him.

Playing now until 21 November at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse.
For more information or to book click here.