Monday, December 14, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM by William Shakespeare in the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

In his program notes Eamon Flack says he “suspects there’s a production of [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] in Sydney every few months”. It is in fact, for me, the fourth production that I have seen this year. In all my theatre going life it may be the Shakespearean play that I have seen most often. In the case of this production Mr Flack and his company of fellow artists set themselves “the task….. to try to shrink the play’s form for the Downstairs Theatre while maintaining the size of its spirit…… We’ve embraced the spirit of Shakespeare’s play and therefore not the letter.” Indeed, I felt for the most part that was the case.

In the tiny space, the Designer (Alistair Watts) has provided a raised oblong platform on which a sward of green grass grows – weeds and all. Along the back wall a series of varying backdrops are revealed to take us to different moods, if not, also, locations for the play – from a shimmering silver curtain to a reflective mirror like wall, amongst several. The lighting (Chris Page) is flexible and adaptable to all the demands of the production. The costumes are simple and useful in identifying the different groups in the play and are clever in their simple statements of character changes – the choices are bold and we adapt and accept them. Sometimes we are deeply amused by them in the simple solution – the sticky tape applied to the face of the actor playing the double of Puck and Bottom (Charlie Garber) , for instance. The Design conception and solutions are deceptively enchanting in their devising and execution.

Even more spellbinding is the beautiful verse speaking – tonally played with for range emphasis (not just volume) and intelligent imaging and shaping at a speed that exhilarates the listener to make us listen to the poetry of this play, that is at once so familiar and yet, here, in this work, mostly, minted anew. I heard text and ideas that I had not known to be there before or I had forgot (probably the latter, yes....[I muse].... definitely, the latter.) The storytelling is therefore crisp and forces a need to grasp quickly to keep up. It was a terrifically immersive experience, for the most part. Katherine Cullen as Titania/Hippolyta, Kit Brookman, in a surprising casting as Hermia, are especially pleasing in this daunting task. (An aside: Mr Brookman’s casting, ironic, particularly as this theatre building has recently been quivering with the debate about the lack of female artists representation in all aspects of this theatre company’s work- doubly ironic, as I understood Mr Brookman was particularly perspicacious in his statistical analysis of the above dilemma, then, that he be usurping a role that in recent history is generally played by a member of the female sex is…bold, indeed!!!) Indeed it is unfair, perhaps, to single these two artists out, but, I do so because they were the most consistent in the fearlessly intelligent articulation of Shakespeare’s words and the dedicated propelling of the dream forward. All of the actors demonstrated this skill with great facility but some were indulgent in the physical expressions of their tasks and to me tended to “drop the ball” with the primary task of telling the story and indulged in overt comic shtick that halted the play and asked us to suspend our curiosity over the adventure and to admire the seemingly infinite invention of the “comically" adept. This is where Gareth Davies strayed from his good work, often, in the doubling of Demetrius/ Francis Flute – (This be in the Mechanical’s Interlude.) The temptation was often in need of discipline. Others were similarly tempted (Mr Garber) but were relatively tempered. The mechanical’s play of PYRAMUS AND THISBE is so famous (and infamous) for its comic treasures that to find a way to do it without covering old ground is formidable. To do it without the giving in to the temptation to “milk" it, a challenge. The discoveries here were not as interesting as some of the other sections of the play that Mr Flack had guided us to contemplate. Interpolations of contemporary pop music and vernacular in other parts of the production were for the most part aptly obtruded - no injury here.

Interestingly, overall, I felt that Mr Flack was going to say something arrestingly new about the play with his production, for it had some early striking textual clarity and shape, but somewhere it seemed to derail and move to the robust hi-jinx of the play’s usual elements. This was disappointing, for there were intimations that the company had ideas fermenting, that were more than just an “occasion [at] the beginning of Summer, 2009, in Surry Hills, with all its hunt for pleasure and craving for innocence and wondering loveless souls and instinct for entertainment.” For A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents a complex series of worlds that rub up against each other and interact with each other – “homely and realistic characters are placed within a fantastic, almost surrealistic, plot; the lowest level of society mixes with the highest; prosaic speech is uttered along with sublime poetry; and the supernatural, the human, and the bestial worlds comingle. And, like a dream, this dramatic fairy tale initially appears to be a trivial diversion that bears little connection to our waking lives. Yet, upon closer examination, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM reveals in disguised form, deep truths about our hidden emotional truths.”

My history for this play is long. I remember seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company tour or the famous Peter Brook production!!! A “grey” version with grotesque “fairies” in Munich sits for ever in my head. If this were the first time you had seen this play this might be a very pleasant memory to treasure, but for me, after an initial promise, it retreated to just another version with singular treasures sitting beside familiar tricks. Teasing in its promise and mixed skills. But then as Bottom says :”I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.” It is or can be a tricky piece to do anew.

NB references are from the Notes of the program by Eamon Flack, the 1999 reprint of the Arden Shakespeare edition and The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein.

Playing now until 20 December.
For more information or to book click here.

Sydney Ghost Stories

Picture This Productions and Stories Like These in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers present the world premiere of SYDNEY GHOST STORIES at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

Six Australian writers: Toby Schmitz, Lachlan Philpott, Verity Laughton, Tobsha Learner, Rebecca Clarke and Stephen Sewell. Four Directors: Dean Carey, Anthony Skuse, Katy Alexander, Glenn Fraser. Six actors: Jamie Irvine, Jamie McGregor, Joe Manning, Jennefa Soldatic, Catherine Terracini and Matthew Walker. Collectively this team have organised a night that "began as a bare-bones show for the bare stage. [They] chose ghost stories as a way to get back to the basics of storytelling - sittting 'round the campfire' in a dark theatre. A number of the finest playwrights in Sydney were approached and asked to conjure up supernatural tales set in their own city." They did.

The best thing about the night is to have this group of writers on a Sydney stage before the year is out. Thank the companies for their enterprise and, I imagine, audacity for asking them. Except for Mr Philpott (BISON) none of these writers have been represented on our stages this year. And although the works are mostly only 10 to 15 minutes long it is always intriguing to engage with these artists even at this modesty. I especially enjoyed BLACK WEDDING by Tobsha Learner and ACT 2 by Stephen Sewell, although all of the work is worth catching.

My biggest disappointment was that the ghost stories were not ghostly enough. In fact the most viscerally thrilling bit was the INTRO delivered by Jamie McGregor (The text has no author acknowledged). After Mr McGregor had done the usual palaver of welcoming us to the Old Fitz and thanking us for supporting independent theatre etc, etc. there was an introduction concerning the history of this old hotel, in which the theatre exists, and of the ghosts present in the building. Events and people long past and long dead connected to the Old Fitzroy Hotel and Woolloomloo were talked about - it became too spooky to remain comfortable. (Even a deceased actor friend of mine was mentioned as a ghostly presence in the theatre - I had a few uncomfortable moments, I can assure you.) There followed the story of this company of artists, in the dark of the theatre, as part of their rehearsal process, holding a seance with an expert supervising, and, the consequent commotion, and it was enough to have one slightly breathless and more than fascinatingly transfixed for the evening. I was sucked in and primed for more. Mr McGregor was tremendous in setting the tone. Vocally and with timing that held suspense long enough to draw us in. Stares into empty spaces just behind our heads etc. Unfortunately, the atmosphere never quite reached that state again.

The tales are expertly written but I came to think they were weird stories rather than ghost stories (although they all dealt with ghosts) and felt they were more like a collection of tales from the TWILIGHT ZONE. They tended to be intellectual teasers and a bit a wanky rather than visceral and scary. Mr McGregor with his INTRO had set such a tone of anticipatory scariness that what followed was, disappointingly, never as thrilling.

Except for Mr McGregor none of the rest of the acting under the guidance of these directors found that level of spookiness. I always felt safe and undisturbed by these tales. A kind of cool disaffected connection was the principal affect, where the observation of the tales seemed to be enough for these actors rather than the subjective experiencing of the events.

The setting (Andrew Bowden) of black and white newspaper collages and blow ups somehow seemed to ground the possibilities of the stories to simply strange reality rather than other dimensions of a spirit world. The music chosen (Braedy Neal), of contemporary popular raucousness was not conducive to the tone of Ghost Stories (although some of the effects were interesting). The mood created by the sound connections between plays was wordly and seemed to pump us into rock concert mode instead of gripping us with tensions. Each break became a rest of recognisable pop culture rather than a possible turning of the screw. The Lighting (Matt Cox), from my seat, seemed to be underlit and rather than creating atmosphere, was frustrating.

Still, this is a very generous night in the theatre and it is a pleasure to re-acquaint with these writers, while we wait for them to find their work on mainstage again. What a great idea as well, SYDNEY GHOST STORIES!!!!!! On Radio National this past week on Movies Talk Back there was a discussion about the horror movie genre and why it never really goes away. In my theatre going memory I treasure the staging of THE INNOCENTS (a version of Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW) I saw as a teenager, and rather than just ghost stories but thrillers like DIAL M FOR MURDER and WAIT UNTIL DARK and been scared out of my wits. It, being live on stage made it all the more scary. A new contemporary go at this genre for us Mr Sewell? Mr Schmitz? Ms Learner? Ms laughton? Ms Clarke? Mr Philpott? Come on gals and guys a little bit of contemporary bravura like THE BELLS on stage might be a pleasure for all of those vampire, zombie fans out there. Live, rather than a cinematic experience. What about it?
Come on Stephen King keeps at it. And he is both popular and rich. It might be more fun than HAPPY DAYS. I dare you all.

Playing now until 20 December.
For more information or to book click here.

Happy Days

Company B presents a Malthouse Melbourne production HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett at the Belvoir St Theatre.

Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland in 1906. He subsequently lived through the terrible events of the 20th Century: the Irish “problems”, World War I, the boom years of the post war “Roaring Twenties”, the Great Depression, World War II and as a consequence of living in Paris, experiencing the Nazi German invasion, (Beckett said he “preferred France at war to Ireland in peace”), fighting in the French Resistance until forced to return to Ireland. He returned to France in 1947 and lived through the volatility of the European recovery and politics with the growing threat of Nuclear weapons and possible war and world holocaust. Living into the ’fifties Beckett (he died in 1989) wrote prolifically then: three novels and what some people regard as his greatest plays EN ATTENDANT GODOT or WAITING FOR GODOT (1953), ENDGAME (1957), KRAPP’S LAST TAPE (1958) and HAPPY DAYS (1960). The sense of a post nuclear holocaust future hangs over these plays. The nihilism of these plays was manifested necessarily through the given circumstances of the world environment he lived through.

In HAPPY DAYS, “the last of this quartet, Winnie (Julie Forsyth), a buxom blonde of about fifty’ awoken by a bell, lives her life buried up to her breasts, (in this production up to her waist),” chatting gaily… pulling objects from her handbag, including a revolver, brushes her teeth and hair,” takes medicine and converses with her husband, Willie (Peter Carroll), who reads items from an old newspaper and stares at pornographic postcards. Later, when she is awoken again by a bell, she is buried up to her neck, unable to even move her head, but still continues her chatter and is delighted when Willie suddenly appears, ‘dressed to kill’ in morning coat and top hat. He gropes towards her (and the revolver). In the final moments, the bell rings again and they stare at each other as the light fades.

In the Oxford Dictionary of Plays (Edited by Michael Patterson, 2005) while talking of WAITING FOR GODOT, (1953) it says "What made WAITING FOR GODOT the supreme classic is its blend of humour and tragic insight, its uncompromising minimalism, its perfect structure, and its dazzling poetic prose". ENDGAME (1957) followed : "Beckett (succeeded) in creating a beautifully written, tense drama in which almost nothing happens, a drama that offers a relentlessly bleak image of the end of humanity. At least in WAITING FOR GODOT there was some hope of redemption, even if illusory. Here there was none." (KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, “uncharacteristically explores the personal value of love for a person in contrast to the determination to be a writer and deals with a “little” picture rather than the greater existential world view of the previous two plays – a rueful comment on his own troubled relationships with women). With HAPPY DAYS (1960) he returns to the bigger issues and “the difference is that, while Hamm and Clov (ENDGAME) suffer from their awareness of the end of human civilization, Winnie remains buoyantly optimistic about her dreadful existence, which makes the play both funnier and more poignant.” Happy days, happy days, oh, happy days is a repeated mantra throughout the play. No matter the limitations of the life one leads there is the recognition, perhaps, that we live in happy days.

It is interesting to read the program notes of the artists: Director, Michael Kantor: “The task has been to scratch and beaver away until the luminous simplicity of Beckett’s masterpiece shines through”. Lighting Designer, Paul Jackson: “This endless light is perverse and punitive – eternity imagined as endless exposure, timelessness the antithesis of peaceful repose”. Set and Costume Designer, Anna Cordingley: "The first note on the first page of HAPPY DAYS is ‘Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound’. In supplementary texts Beckett specifies an acridity; a barrenness with the ‘starkest simplicity’". Simplicity. Endless light, endless exposure. Barrenness.

And, yet, the Set and Costume design we meet on the exposed stage is of a sky blue rouched circular curtain, that unfurls to reveal a bonfire, blackened triangular pile of what looks like broken wooden planks and other useless and discarded charred objects, sitting on a base of coal coloured pellets. Above, from which the curtain track is hung, a discoloured amber pattern of deco abstract designs as if in a cinema, glows. The costume design for Winnie has photographic references to Susan Hayward and Myna Loy (amongst three), and is in actuality, a pink evening gown of some sophistication, plunging from the shoulders in a V-neck cut to the d√©colletage of Winnie’s breasts. On her dressed hair a tiny pin - pill shaped hat, surmounted by a feather ‘fascinator’, sits. A necklace around her neck. Of Willie’s look, the references are of Maurice Chevalier and Fred Astaire (amongst three) in dress tails, in reality, here, not the traditional elegant black but rather a powder pink-white outfit – music hall parody(?) accompanied by a parody of a moustache that sits on the upper lip. The lighting has a ceiling above the "bonfire", a pattern of theatrical multi-bulbed design. There are many changing and shadowed and bright states throughout the performance – giving a sense of movement- with an intensity of brightness, occasionally, above Winnie. There is also a complicated soundtrack of old musical theatre (vaudeville) tunes (“Leaning on the Lamp post…” etc… in the pre-show and interval, that moves to a finale of Doris Day crooning Que sera sera as we exit.) balanced by explosions, bells, and sirens of alarm. A background of ominous hum-rumble supports the scenario throughout.. (Sound Designer, Russell Goldsmith.) The actors are also, (sadly,) miked. The humanity of the naked voice, the experience of exposure to fragile humanity being a key to this play, undermined through the more technical and mechanical assistance. All of the design choices were puzzling and, for me, such a distraction from the bluntness and confrontational bareness of the original that it felt like extraneous frou-frou. Distracting from the minimalist intensity of the vision of Beckett. Almost as if the play needed colour and movement of the senses to be palatable. The playwrights intentions not trusted, even obfuscated.

Julie Forsythe gives a marvellous performance under restraining choices. The high vocal register that Ms Forsythe’s Winnie works in, limits the range of expression and lacks power and is rather that of a kewpie doll boop de boop “it” girl quality. On a number of occasions there are phrases and sentences that come down into a centred and warmer sound and suddenly real presence radiates and a focus of substance is gripped by the audience. Sydney theatre audiences have not seen Ms Forsythe as often as we would like, but even within that limited exposure there is an affectionate rapport (almost legendary) for her, always ready to embrace her offers and gifts. We still do, here in HAPPY DAYS, but in limited gratification. Here, it is the deep charisma of the inner life of the actor that enchants us, but in my reaction to the performance on the night that I attended, the depth of the humanity has been undermined with the technical choice of the range of vocal expression chosen and the distancing micro-phoned sound of the human voice. The deeper notes that come to us fleetingly are frustrating intimations of the possibility of another dimension of this Winnie. The appearances of Willie are mostly an idea of the symbol or metaphor of the figure Beckett has written. More idea than flesh and blood.

My first experience of Beckett was as a University student when in 1965 I was cast as Pozzo in WAITING FOR GODOT. (Weren’t, in reflection, we modern?) I had no idea, we had no idea what we were doing or what the play was about but it was a buzz to do. Forty years on we are not puzzled anymore. Knowledge and time has helped to comprehend the ambitions of the plays. The style, the form, the content is familiar. So, forty four years later I have to confess that I find Samuel Beckett’s work interesting theatrical literature but boring theatre. I know for some, this is a declaration of a high philistine order, but in my general experience of the canon of this author in the theatre, it is the ideas that fascinate rather than the performances I have seen.

It probably requires an order of acting style that I have rarely found when watching them. As Maryanne Lynch , the production dramaturg, mentions “there are 150 pauses in Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS.” It is followed by a quote from Fiona Shaw who created Winnie for the National Theatre, the pauses: “each has no meaning unless it is filled with imagination, tension or thought.’’ It is the force of the unspoken action of the pause, as much as the spoken words, that needs to be balanced with intensity of “imagination”, “thought”, and importantly “tension” in the writer’s work (crucial to Chekhov, O’Neill, Albee, Pinter, Mamet, Shepard and many others). I believe that the pauses need to be held dangerously long to permit the audience to deal with them and then be involved in the creative act of endowing the space of the time with our own personal imaginative thoughts, held in the tension of our own breathing life force, so that we have a shared catharsis with the character/actor in the moment. We become subjectively active in the pause. It demands daring and patience on the part of the actor and director– a passion to engage an audience and ravenously challenge them to participate with the imaginary forces of the thought pause, and risk failing gloriously. Last night I was not invited in enough. Pauses seemed rushed. Admittedly, we were, indeed, a tough house. Only a third or less of the auditorium filled (less after the interval) and the emptiness of the space may have hindered our unconscious compliance to respond actively to the actors. Maybe, the actors were unconsciously impatient with us and hurried?????

My best experience of Beckett was Ralph Fiennes’ performance of FIRST LOVE at the Sydney Festival a few years ago. In memory, it had a stillness and a technical accuracy and √©lan, a coiled tension, that introduced me, in the pauses, to the depths of the world of the character in the language that was both spoken and, daringly, unspoken - the emotional abysses of the space of a shared breath and vision of the world.

Julie Forsythe was terrific and I am glad to have caught the performance but my Beckettian prejudice has not been moved. Literature not performance art, yet, for me. And, last night, while outside in the big civilized world attempts to deal with “climate disaster and capitalism’s teetering” in Copenhagen staggered on, the creeping image of Winnie being buried or drowned by the rising tide of the charcoaled coloured design was indeed resonant and sobering. (Note the story of Climate Challenge confronting Tuvalu and the other Pacific nations is on page 10 of the Sydney Morning Herald. Page 10 today, Friday 11th December.) Timely work. Not nuclear threat any more, but still man made. Happy days. Indeed. Happy days, oh, happy days.

For more information click here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Freddy Kempf Plays Tchaikovsky

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra: Maestro Series presents Freddy Kempf Plays Tchaikovsky at the QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane.

This was my first hearing of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. It was also my first visit to the QPAC Concert Hall.

The program began with Peter Sculthorpe’s EARTH CRY, in celebration of his 80th birthday. Originally written in 1988, the version played for this concert was a revised score, prepared in 1999. In the original Sculthorpe wrote "perhaps we now need to attune ourselves to this continent, to listen to the cry of the earth, as the aborigines have done for many thousand of years."…. "The new version is in two linked sections" the first is ritualistic, its melody and accompaniment suggesting Aboriginal chant and the landscape itself. The second, in its broad melodiousness, brings the material of the first section to its consummation…." A soloist, didjeridu player, Harold Wilson, played with the orchestra, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, to weave the haunting indigenous impulses of the work to great affect.

The compositions that followed were composed by two Russians, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. It struck me while listening to this concert how marvellous the sound of the didjeridu and the Sculthorpe composition was, and listening to all three composers use the authentic musical expression of their indigenous people transposed and organised into the "high" culture of the symphony orchestra by these magicians, was inspiring. The haunting sound of the Aboriginal ‘folk’ instrument capturing a truth in the concert hall as moving as the usage that the two Russians employ in 'speaking' for their indigenous folk cultures, with their Western instruments, in two well known classic expressions of music. This may have been an even more moving experience of this work that was infected by my identification of the growing knowledge of the Aboriginal people and the cry of the Earth of Australia as the multi-national earth miners move into the banner of the age: Waste and Greed, in Western Australia. The sadness that this music registered with me was magnified with these reflections. How prescient our artists can be.

Next, the guest piano soloist, young British musician Freddy Kempf (born 1977), played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which despite its early rejection by the original dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein, has come to epitomise the romantic piano concerto. Certainly for me this score has a long history in my aural experiences. My first engagement with it, not in the concert hall, but as the featured sound track of some Hollywood film. (Probably, many!!! [?]) The restless, attacking piano music pitched against and with the orchestra has always held me in its thralls. Tonight this work was just as satisfying, although I felt both the orchestra and the playing by Mr Kempf were a little too conservative or safe in their expression. I was left in a nostalgic haze of faintly remembered, glimpsed, black and white movie images, rather than the electric present tense of arresting commitment in the hall, at the piano, beside the live orchestra. Still, it is still thrilling to hear the Concerto live. There is no substitute for the live experience. Freddy Kempf returned to the stage, after many calls by the audience, to play, blissfully, a piano piece by Liszt. It was very beautiful.

Maestro Fritzsch, spoke to us of his special affection for the Stravinsky score: Le Sacre du printemps. THE RITE OF SPRING. Written in 1913, and first presented in Paris, as an accompaniment to a ballet for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo by Nijinsky, the work has always been a source of riot and controversy. The composer asserted "repeatedly (…) that he wrote THE RITE OF SPRING in order 'to send everyone' in his Russian past, Tsar, family, instructors, 'to hell'." This year I have heard the scores of PETRUSHKA and FIREBIRD, accompanying the work of the Australian Ballet. So, it was interesting to hear this longer work by Stravinsky, without the distraction of the dance. The sounds are just as mysterious as the other works, and I believe, of idiosyncratically authentic Russian indigenous origins. The colours of the Bakst theatre designs always swim into my head when I hear the score. Like the Sculthorpe at the beginning of the concert where the sound conjured the Australian ethos for me, there is something totally arresting in the sounds of THE RITE OF SPRING, that for me register a Russian temperament. Shimmering with the possibility of mood and violent contrapuntal juxtapositions. The orchestration in concert is not only thrilling to hear but fascinating to watch. The very large orchestra erupting in different spaces on the concert hall floor, at the behest of the conductor in respect of Stravinsky’s demand in his score. The past sonically connected to the present. Off the pages of yesteryear, into the present players hands to our vitally alive ears and hearts. Authentic truths never age, are always contemporary with emotion and meaning. The winding meanderings of the score contrasted with the pulsing rhythms, still, no matter how many times one has heard the music, still surprising and shocking. Mr Fritzsch told us of the riot that literally ensued the first hearing of this work. I wondered where that passion of expression by audiences had gone to. I hardly hear of such eruptions occurring any longer in any form of the Arts. Just what would cause such a response today? I wondered.

To this concert, the Brisbane audience in a half filled hall, applauded and called generously. Stamping their feet enthusiastically. All three pieces.

Toy Symphony

Queensland Theatre Company & State Theatre Company of South Australia present TOY SYMPHONY by Michael Gow at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane.

TOY SYMPHONY by Michael Gow, glows in my memory from the Belvoir, Company B, production under the direction of Neil Armfield and the luminous performance of Richard Roxburgh as Roland Henning in 2007. So, I was very excited to get to see the play again in a new production. This one under the direction of a relatively new, young director, of growing reputation: Geordie Brookman and with Chris Pitman, a, as before, relatively, young actor seen recently and regularly on our stages.

Two more different experiences of this play, I could not have had. The strength of the writing is reinforced with the different approaches to the text by these directors. Not qualified to declare “greatness” on writers, I do feel, however, after seeing this play again, that it has a possibility of being so, at least, in the Australian canon. The memory of the original production at Belvoir was that of a tour de force of interpretative energy by Richard Roxburgh in a brightly lit space with support from characters and caricatures to humorously examine an artist’s identity and creative problem. It is the dominating joyous explosion of Mr Roxburgh’s relish of the textual opportunities of the character written by Mr Gow, that became a cause celebre in the Sydney Theatre season, that I mostly recall. (Even Mr Roxburgh’s curtain call was boiling with ebullience.) It was hard to get a seat, once the word of mouth spread about, to see this work. Besides, the performance of Mr Roxburgh, I do have memories of the actual play that were more than mildly disturbing, but, these were swept away by the sheer bravura of the performance and production.

Mr Armfield’s production, he, being almost a similarly aged peer of the writer, along with the leading man, I remember, had the gentle nostalgic wryness of older men looking back at their lives, to a time that may have been the cradle of their own creative impulses and the responsible moments for their fateful life choices. There was recognition, warmth, sadness, humour, undoubtedly fear as well, but it all had an air of generous understanding of the predicament of the protagonist, Roland Henning. For although the play deals with the critical experience, for a writer, of “writer’s block” and the disturbing repercussions of that difficulty on that artist’s life, the play was an examination of that awful crisis, involving the terrible confrontation of his (Roland Henning) life habits and experiences through the guided hands of a therapist, that were not always flattering to the robe of civilization that a writer, any artist, might publically wear. This production still had an optimism. It may have been ironic, on reflection, but when one left the theatre then, there was a definite feel good about the time we had just spent together, in the foyer.

The play dealt with, maybe truly, for the ordinary person, a series of incidents that are socially reprehensible behaviours, and the second act is unblenching in its stark look at the black soul of this artist: his conscious use of his sexuality to gain comfort and resource; his hopeless dependence on drugs, illustrated by his uncontrolled recognition of that need of that aid for his successful creative recovery, forcing him to behaviour of emotional blackmail of his ‘dealer’ in a ghastly showdown of nerve using a man’s family happiness as the hostage for ugly gain; the false celebration of the writer finding his innocent creative roots through the imbibing of his drug of favour and flavour to kick start him into the realm of being able to imaginatively manifest (as he did when young), firstly, the school teacher, Mrs Walkham, who was perhaps the fertile inspiration for his burgeoning talent ,and then, secondarily, a glorious performance of his first play, once banned, the TOY SYMPHONY and, thirdly, to ultimately bring to life the figure of Anton Chekhov, to some of us the world’s greatest playwright. This second act of the play had, for me and most of the audience about me, in the original production, an air of all’s well that ends well. There was no critical analysis of the ends that justified this writer’s means of creative impulse. I felt later, in my righteous way, that the lesson or role model that Mr Henning may have been for his audience was a weakness in the play and had been not properly dealt with in the original production. But it was probably for me an admiration of the gifts of the actor that skewed my appreciation of the darkness of this amazingly stark portrait of an artist in crisis.

This joint production by the Queensland Theatre Company and the State Company of South Australia by Geordie Brookman has no such bravura performance to distract us from the play. The Set design (Jonathon Oxlade), a banal and depressing dark wooded office/room with a few windows and doors sets the relatively sombre mood of this production. The “cubbyholes” of tricks to spring on the audience for surprise entrances and exits, deftly hidden. The Lighting (Nigel Levings) is both stark and fluorescent cold and when necessary, invitingly warm to signal the respite of imagination as well. The clothing/costume is simply pragmatic and necessarily ingenious, sometimes, in the quick change demands of the invention of the writer. The Composition and Sound Design (Brett Collery) serves the shifts in mood and location unobtrusively.

What Mr Brookman and Mr Pitman bring to this play is a merciless seriousness. This is a very “dark night of the soul” production. In contrast to the original creators, mentioned above, this is a very “generation Y” point of view of this text. And it is illuminating for it. No shared re-remembered vision of happier, golden times. Just a gloomy but healthy look at the present and probable future - “We are Fucked and the future is fucked!!!!” In this production the path taken by Mr Pitman and his director with Roland Henning, is one of relentless exposure to the realistic behaviour patterns of a psychologically ill soul. There is little sense of humour or even ironic nostalgia for this journey in the play. The suffering of the writer, here, is real and almost too painful to endure. (Almost of a REQUIEM OF A DREAM intensity) and at the conclusion of the performance a pervading atmosphere of pessimism permeates. (Like his imagined heroes, Alexander the Great, St Joan or Scott of the Antarctic a miserable ending is likely for Roland Henning - for the future of a drug addiction is not a promising one in the long turn.) Unlike the other production, this production shares the storytelling responsibilities more evenly amongst the other actors. Each seem to have a telling moment in the sun. Lizzy Falkland, Barbara Lowing, Daniel Mulvihill, Ed Wrightman. This production feels more like an ensemble effort rather than that of a star turn. In the original, the role of the therapist appeared under developed and not properly realised, here, Nina (Lizzy Falkland) feels more fleshed out (still, in my experience, improbable but...), the apparitions of Mr Henning (Alexander the Great, St. Joan’s executioner, Scott of the Antarctic, more centred and impactful, not just caricatured comic strip figures, good for a laugh, nostalgic jokes. Mrs Walkman (Barbara Lowing) was less a remembered figure of innocent and whimsical goodness but more a concerned teacher with a sense of vocation. Daniel Muvihill, particularly as Nick and the Young Boy, was revealing of a depth of writing that was not necessarily available in the original production.

The accumulation of this directorial magnifying glass on the tragedy of this man is ultimately agonisingly cauterising in the flagellating second act. The scenes so relentlessly excoriating of the depths that a desperate soul might descend to, to survive, so grotesque that it is a moral exposure and maybe warning that one takes away from this production with a weary burden much like what the original Greek audience may have had on witnessing Oedipus for the first time. (More meaningful, now, in 2009 than even 2007, when Waste and Greed have revealed themselves as the possible title of this chapter/age in the history books. Much like I had after a particularly inspired lecture by the missionaries of the Catholic Church at the Parish Retreats - one felt guilty but relieved that we had been enlightened in time to save our own actions from such sorrows and results. (Oh, foolish one.)

What I have come to realise in this production of TOY SYMPHONY is the fierce courage of Michael Gow as a writer. There is a saying that to succeed as a writer you need to write what you know. What Mr Gow may or may not know, personally, about the behaviour of Mr Henning, this alter ego, who also appears in another of Mr Gow’s plays FURIOUS, as the main character in a similarly ruthless examination of a man in action, (and there are allusions to other works of Mr Gow and Mr Henning that are identifiably identical - the reference to a lost dog play and the existence of SWEET PHOBE), there is enough tantalising cross referencing from the writer to character to keep one entirely alert and mesmerized with ghoulish reflections of the possibility of biography – when and where!!! If true. Thematically, we have been warned of the serious intentions and occupations of this playwright right from the beginning of his writing career. THE KID, Mr Gow’s first play, a warning of an apocalypse, using Wagner’s DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN as a musical support(!!!!!); even to his choice of adaptation THE FORTUNES OF RICHARD MAHONY, an investigation of a man disintegrating into madness. (Maybe, AWAY, one of my favourite Australian plays, distracted me away from the real gaze of Mr Gow - my own family connections were so amazingly reflected as to make it both spooky and nostalgic – through Gwen (my mother – I thought. It was pretty tough!!!) . What ever, this production by Mr Brookman, made me re-examine what was already a "glowing memory" and to re-estimate the quality of the playwrighting in TOY SYMPHONY, and take the last act, terrifyingly intentional, to help me appreciate more intently the magnificent courage of the writing.

Both productions of this play have a legitimate bench mark in my theatre going experience. Both differently balanced but both worthy of cherishing. Both productions may have imbalances: The original, too dominated by nostalgia and a bravura performance; the latter with a lack of ironic humour (which the apparition of Chekhov might have indicated to this director and actor in softening some of their choices). But, as I observed in my ruminations on A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, “The great plays are timeless and have the movement in them to infinite choices (some more than others).” So here in this recent work by Michael Gow the interpretative variety is stimulating, and with another Director approaching the text with respect, I look forward to a new reading of TOY SYMPHONY. (Sadly, not probable in our theatre culture.)

Playing in Queensland until the 12 December. To book click here.

Playing in South Australia from 28 January - 14 February 2010. To book click here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


The Australian Ballet present CONCORD at the Sydney Opera House.

I personally love Dance. I look forward to going as a respite from words and actors and acting of which I see quite a lot. I see the dance as a relief and delicious rest at seeing another affecting expression of the human condition. Music and bodies launched into spaces in ways that I could not personally contemplate doing. Gaining images that expand my perception of the world around me, help me to perhaps envisage differently. I didn’t see my first ballet/dance company until my early 20’s ( A touring company: The Winnipeg Dance or Ballet Company) and I have always being enamoured (and jealous of the skill, until I learnt of the arduousness of the life demands of this form of Art). I particularly enjoy the non-book form. CONCORD then promised a satisfying diversion for me.

This program, first presented in Melbourne in August and then in Sydney in November, consisted of three works by very exciting contemporary choreographers.

The first work POR VOS MUERO (For thee I die) by Nacho Duato. This particular work was presented at the Sydney Festival two years ago by the Choreographer with the Compania Nacional de Danza at the Lyric Theatre. “Nacho Duato was inspired by the old Spanish music of the 15th and 16th centuries and the beautiful verses of the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega. (The music and the poetry {in Spanish} was pre-recorded, spoken by Miguel Bose.)This is a beautiful seamless work made up of different combinations of dancers, reflecting the many moods of the musical choices, from court dance to religious and folk dance modes. The Lyric Theatre stage, where I first encountered this work, has a scale and size to it that gave my first experience of this work a breathless majesty and a sense of the Spanish pageantry of the Romantic Golden Age of Spain – or what I imagined it would have been. Here, on the Opera Theatre stage, comparatively, the work was still beautiful but did not have the same breadth of space and therefore power of imaginative expression. The Set Design (Nacho Duato) that was limited to a back wall and a red-hung curtain appeared less impressive then in the first incarnation of my experience of the dance. The costumes (Nacho Duato [ in co-operation with Ismael Aznar] ) were as visually stimulating as ever. All in all it was a more than satisfying opening to the evening.

The middle of the program was SCUOLA DI BALLO. The choreography by Alexi Ratmansky after Leonide Massine, based on Carlo Goldini’s, five act comedy. The Music by Luigi Boccherini arranged by Jean Francaix. The Costume and Set Design by Hugh Coleman. The Lighting Design by Rachel Burke.

The ”classroom ballet” has a generous history in the repertoire and is usually comic in its intentions. Often, in my experience of this kind of work, the humour becomes a little awkward to sustain without pressing credulity, except for the die hard balletomanes who love every “funny” gesture. At this performance I was won over for all of the time – the dancing and the character acting (Commedia style) was terrific. This ballet is based on the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo version of Leonid Massine from 1930. From the Australian Ballet program essay by Valerie Lawson: "Now, Russian choreographer and former Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet Alexi Ratmansky, a great admirer of Massine, has created a new Scuola di ballo. He loves the storytelling aspect of Massine’s ballets, recognising that ‘his style is very deeply connected to the dramatic traditions of the Bolshoi Theatre. Massine used the three main aspects of dance in the theatre: Classical ballet steps; folk and character dancing; and mime and grotesque… all combined’". The intricate requirements on the dancers with the "classical ballet steps", organised by Mr Ratmansky, appeared, to me, particularly demanding ( I am no expert, I must confess). The speed and detail required in the technique seemed to be formidably challenging. Certainly the dancing on the night I saw it, was concentrated and full of finesse. The combination of the character drawings required by the dancer/actor and the "jokes" in this ballet asks for a control and expertise that requires courage and tips into bravura, when embraced, to pull off consistently. The whole company earned the reception that the ballet received – it was danced at a knife edge and was relatively thrilling as a result. Ben Davis, Lana Jones, Laura Tong, Damien Welch, Andrew Killian, Matthew Donnelly and Daniel Gaudiello were impressive in the accuracy and the mad cap pell mell of the ballet. It is a little rude to single people out for it does require a fierce Ensemble concentration to work – that was evident from all. I thought this was a great "tiny" work –one that I would gladly watch again and again, when danced as well as this. However, the beautiful Designs by Hugh Coleman suffer, like the previous work, at the relative cramped space of the stage. I should like to catch the dance on the breadth of the Melbourne Arts Centre State Theatre or at the Lyric Theatre here in Sydney.

The final work on this program was DYAD 1929, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Music by Steve Reich. The Set Design concept by Wayne McGregor and Lucy Carter; Lighting also by Lucy Carter and the Costume Design by Moritz Junge is very contemporary abstract. For a while it felt that the Sydney Dance Company had entered to share the program. A white back wall and floor with nine widely placed rows of black polka dots trailing from the height of the wall and across the floor towards the audience and an almost stage width yellow fluorescent tube lighting boom that descends and ascends during the dance, support flamboyantly but "cool" (in both the artistic and vernacular sense) looking costumes. The choreography is very geometric in its patterns and partnering of the dozen dancers. Exacting . I felt that some of these dancers were very technically comfortable with this work and others slightly less so. It didn’t hold my attention as grippingly as the Ratmansky work. I don’t believe it has to do with the very different approaches to choreography but rather the varying concentrated ease and confidence of the dancers in this more abstracted mode of physical expression. (Indeed, two of the dancers fell during the execution of the work. – There was also a fall in the first work (?))

I enjoyed myself enormously and had felt my time and money well spent. Thanks.