Thursday, January 29, 2009


KATONA JOZSEF THEATRE and the SYDNEY FESTIVAL present IVANOV by Anton Chekhov at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

IVANOV (1887) was written before the famous four great plays (The Seagull; Uncle Vanya; Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard) that are a regular part of the International repertory. Three earlier plays exist: Platanov; The Wood Demon and then Ivanov. Ivanov is generally regarded as a play that was a part of the apprenticeship of the great writer, Chekhov. But Mr David Hare in his introduction to his translation / adaptation (1997 for the Almeida Theatre) suggests "that we are overlooking something really valuable if we regard the brilliant sport, the rogue play, IVANOV, simply as a staging-post of a writer on his way to great things." The later plays are a re-action against the commercial theatre writing of the time and the structure of the well prepared melodrama. Chekhov in the case of IVANOV, Hare goes on to say, "wrote one exceptionally good melodrama."

"Originally drafted in only two weeks the play uses monologue and direct address. It features a hero who makes conspicuously long speeches. It satirizes Russian society in much broader strokes than those Chekhov later favoured. But what entitles us to think these techniques are not deliberate, and, in their way, just as skilfully deployed as the more muted strategies Chekhov later adopted? Unless we can see that Ivanov is not a lesser play but simply “different” to the rest of his work, then we will miss the versatility of a playwright who can still surprise us by the variety of his styles, and, what’s more, one whose vigour and directness in this extraordinary outing also cast light on the plays which follow.”

Chekhov had written farcical / comic sketches and short plays for the theatre: eg The Bear; The Proposal; The Wedding, being examples of some of the best known. The humour and exaggerated behaviour of the characters in these plays show us this robust Chekhov. In the Ivanov text we see him use quite "orthodox melodramatic conventions - each act climaxes with what he called 'a punch on the nose' - to tackle hotly contemporary themes (anti-Semitism) and 'dramatizing a conflict inside himself in a way which is both deeply felt and funny.' The dominating theme is honesty…. The play’s defining argument is between a young doctor (Lvov) who thinks that honesty is to do with blurting out offensive truths, and the more sensitive central character (Ivanov) who insists, with a wisdom which is notably pre-Freudian, that no one can acquire honesty unless they also have self-knowledge to examine their own motives…. Chekhov leaves us to work out for ourselves whether honesty consists in judging others, or in refusing to judge them." (In a more dramatic form Ibsen investigates this dilemma in the positions of Gregers and Ekdal in THE WILD DUCK 1884.)

The Katona Josef Theatre is Hungary’s best known theatre company - a public theatre, supported mainly by the City of Budapest The director, Tamas Ascher, "has uprooted the play from its usual setting amongst the fading Russian bourgeoisie, and planted it firmly within Hungary’s ascendant peasant classes of the 1960’s" The setting (Zsolt Khell) looks like a decaying communal building, the central image is that of the communal hall: decaying, rundown, stacked with cheap, pragmatically strong furniture and lit with the cold white fierceness of naked fluorescent light. The roof leaks and there is a shallow pool of water on the floor. Tamas describes the stage setting as "a perfect description of the 'inner' setting, Ivanov’s soul. Ivanov is in a perspectiveless, depressive situation." The design works smoothly for the various acts, with a simple re-arrangement of the furniture and the simple addition of decoration. (Birthday streamers etc). Lighting by Tamas Banyai. The clothing is 60’s but useful and clear in its intention and observational satiric wit. The music atmospheric and at other times sometimes subliminally effective. (Marton Kovacs.)

The acting by the company is surprisingly “throw away” in its spontaneity. Refreshing in its approach. It is neither ponderous nor reverential. When it is good it appears effortless, this is especially so in the more dramatic confrontations of the inhabitants of the play. However, I felt the comedy, especially in the second act, was contrived and too studied for me to participate unselfconsciously with the company. The ensemble are masterfully in sympathy with each other, but on the afternoon I attended, the work was a little too well oiled, the inner life of the characters seemed to be absent. The act two gathering was “milked” for the comedy and did not have the organic flow of “the hilarity of the observed dreary Soviet provincialism of 1960’s Hungary.” It tended to give the impression of having been played too many times before. There was no real concentrated internal imaginative life, just old externalisations of hollow comedy. False notes, such as the final confrontation between the father Lebedhev (Zoltan Bezeredi) and the daughter Sasha (Adel Jordan), when they finally argued under the table, stretched the credulity of the truthfulness of the situation and lifted the scene into a stratosphere of actors going just too far in a rehearsal choice. It had no logical attachment to the truth of the circumstances that we were witnessing that afternoon, other than the possibility of eliciting laughter from the audience at its extreme visual comic absurdity. Time and again the unattached “gags” of the stage-business distracted from a veracity. The interval seemed to have settled the company, for the second half was a far more rewarding experience.

On the other hand I loved the conception of this production as an extension and usage of the famous "vaudeville" sketches style of early Chekhov and was fully prepared to run with it as a way of doing this famously "difficult" play. It certainly, as Mr Hare suggests, illuminates the “farcical”, possibilities of the often neglected satire and humour of THE SEAGULL and THE CHERRY ORCHARD. The act three party of The Cherry Orchard scene suddenly opened up to me in a way that I desire to see it tried: Chekhov said his plays were comedies and this work by the Katona Jozef Theatre showed me a glimmer of how it might be done. It is the incredible balancing act of the full commitment to both the tragedy and the comedy in these works that require a vision and bravery from the usual approach to the plays, that is rare. Maybe this production once had it but on Monday it erred into a lack of comic truthfulness; “the importance of being earnest” with the comedy was absent. (Some of the company looked as if they may have had too much Sydney sun. Sunstroke. Perhaps!!) The balance of the comedy observation with the knowledge of the tragedy was askew. The drama won my belief unequivocally.The comedy grew to depress me for its contrivance in the playing.

I admired the work of Erno Feteke as Ivanov very much. The long monologue was wonderfully solved and played. The wonderful scene between Anna Petrovna (IIdiko Toth ) and Ivanov was thrilling in the dimensions and passions and subtleties. Ervin Nagy (Borkin), physically free and clear; Gabor Mate (Shabelsky) tenderly moving and pathetic; Zoltan Rajkai (Lvov), although I felt the centrality of his balance to the core of the argument of the play had been marginalised in this production, was full of human integrity and fraility. His passionate “blindness”, too sad to contemplate in a contemporary world of fundamentalists at war with each other.

Ivanov is now on my list of interest. Prior to this I had tended to dismiss it as a young writer’s failure, now it appears a task worth solving. It appears as a challenge worth investigating. This reveals the strength of this wonderful Festival Production.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Matthew Herbert Big Band

Photo by Eva Vermandel

SYDNEY FESTIVAL present MATTHEW HERBERT BIG BAND at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

“Matthew Herbert is one of electronic music’s most versatile and prolific figureheads.” At a desk downstage centre he has all the gadgetry necessary to sample the sounds around him and process into the sound mix, that is being collaboratively created by a Big Band, Some 16 instrumentalists – trumpets, trombones, saxophones, piano, bass and drums - and a soloist singer. Dressed in a very beautiful set of tails he twists and twiddles with his electronic knobs and jauntily dances to the music. It is a very engaging performance. The sound is big and the brass is exciting but the songs are ultimately bland. The orchestra (with 12 Australian musicians) are wonderfully committed to the experience, led by Peter Wraight Not one of the songs tunefully stay in the brain. One longed for a familiar big band tune just so that I could gauge more accurately what Mr Herbert was doing. The singer Eska Mtungwazi is ebullient in her presentation but unfortunately the lyrics were mostly inaudible and her contribution was just another musical sound competing with the orchestra and Matthew Herbert’s wizardry.

The audience were very enthusiastic and there were many encores. I was underwhelmed by the experience. But still pleased to hear such a Big Band concoction.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Fool's Paradise - Photo by Erin Baiano


“Morphoses / The Wheeldon
Company is a new, dynamic ballet company founded in 2007 by Christopher Wheeldon and Lourdes Lopez. The Company, is based in New York and London, has as its mission to broaden the scope of classical ballet by emphasising innovation and fostering creativity through collaboration……. In calling the company Morphoses, Wheeldon underlined his emphasis on versatility and the ability to change shape, implying the magical power of transformation……. All Wheeldon wanted to do was create works for a loose group of some of the world’s best dancers, hired season by season from New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet and other companies.”…. (so that) constant mobility and cultural hybridity are facts of life.”

For The Sydney season the dancers are drawn from a wide source of talent. There are 5 dancers from The Australian Ballet
as well as companies such as The Washington Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and others. There is also a live orchestra.

The first work of the program
was COMMEDIA, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Costumes by Isabel Toledo. Set Design by Ruben Toledo. This piece was commissioned by New York City Centre and Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 2008. It was created with an eye to this years’ celebration of the Ballet Russes. The score was originally created for PULCINELLA for Ballet Russes. Mr Wheeldon in his little introduction before the performance told us that this work is in homage to that company and that “by looking back, they could look forward.” The relative look of the set (until the framing Commedia images were flown out, much too late for my taste) was more a look back then much look forward. The work made up of many duets and other configurations of the company of eight dancers, showed only the promise of the work’s possibilities. I read the dancers performances as relatively hesitant and cautious. It seemed to lack the panache and security that the details of the choreography required. Caution and care were the hallmarks of the execution. It lacked confidence and ease. It revealed the dancers at work and lacked the spontaneity of unequivocal surety. We were always in the “present” of the created step instead of the forward action of evolution into the next moment, future. It was earth bound. The problem seemed to me a lack of real knowledge of the ensemble “parts”. After the bench mark of PARIS OPERA BALLET COMPANY from two years ago, the brilliance of a true company ensemble finish certainly is one of the measurements that I carry with me when I attend the dance. This was not evident in this dance at my performance and so diminished the impact of the possibility of Mr Wheeldon’s choreography.

The duet by choreographer William Forsythe, SLINGERLAND PAS DEUX, danced by Celine Cassone and Edward Liang was similarly disappointing. The experience I have of Mr Forsythe’s work, with other companies has always had the hallmark of FLIGHT. I nearly always equate his work with requiring the dexterity of a Humming Bird in flight. This felt to me as if two dancers were still learning about each other and the work lacked adroitness and finesse. (Maybe it is the orchestra, that lacked brio. It made up of a “pick up” core. (Music by Gavin Bryars.) Conducted by Paul Kildea.

After the interval another duet. DISTANT VOICES choreographed by Edward Liang. Music by Tomaso Albinoni. Costumes by Marc Zappone. Danced by Robert Curran and Sija Schandorff. This work had much more surety about its partnership interactions and was a relative pleasure to witness.

The last work FOOL’S PARADISE by Christopher Wheeldon. Music by Joby Talbot. Costumes by Narciso Rodriguez. Lighting by Penny Jacobus. This was, for me, the most confidently danced. The combinations
of the nine dancers, the variation of shapes and figures of the organised geometrical shapes, enhanced by extended arm and leg stretches were nearly mesmeric in their execution. In this performance there was a truer exhibition of the talent of the choreographer and the dancers.

It is a big risk to have a “pick up” of dancers. A company style and the revelation of a choreographer’s style is built on confident knowledge of your co-creators and a familiarity of trust. This performance lacked that sense. I have seen several examples of Mr Wheeldon’s work at the San Francisco Ballet, the New York City Ballet and The Australian Ballet over the years and am an enthusiastic fan of his output. I encouraged several friends to attend this program and have had some need to justify my enthusiasm based on this showing. Disappointing. Terribly disappointing as this was the major dance offer in the Festival. Even more so after the thrill of the Opening Night exhibition of dance in Martin Place.

Ah, well, that is what Festivals are about. The opportunity to take risk.

Playing now until 1 February. Book online or call 1300 888 412.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Smile Off Your Face

Photo: Virginie Schreyen

ONTROEREND GOED and the Sydney Festival present THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE at the Pilgrim Theatre.

OTROEREND GOED is a theatre performance group from Ghent. The name of the group roughly translates as Feel Estate. the "Feel" part is very apt for this show.

When you arrive you are, sat one by one, into a wheelchair, your eyes are blindfolded, and you hands are lightly but firmly bound with rope at the wrists. You are then wheeled - individually, separately - behind a door and curtain and guided through a set of experiences. Deprived of sight your other senses: hearing, touch, smell and taste are heightened. This very individual and personal performance concerns just you, the individual, and the creators. It is a game of trust. The more willing you can surrender to the partners of your journey the more you will probably gain from it. You are permitted to indulge your imagination. You are able to explore "your pleasures, fears, desires and memories." TRUST.

It is not right to reveal the details of the journey. I can report that when I was released from my wheelchair in the foyer, I laughed and laughed and laughed. I was slightly delirious with the fun (audacity) of the piece. Depending on the sophistication of your life experiences, after reading the comments of previous audience participants, the piece can affect you from as wide a range of response as ecstatic to deeply profound. Some people moved to tears etc.The smile was still on my face and stayed there for many hours afterwards. When thinking back on it, the dimples return...... I wrote in the comment book, see if you can identify me. This work is very simple in its thesis but totally unique and fun to do. Go, if you can get a booking.

This work won the FRINGE AWARD for BEST THEATRE in Adelaide, 2008.

Playing now until 1 February. Book online or call 02 9007 0007.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No Dice

No Dice - Photo by Peter Nigrini


Firstly, this is a show that was only $25 a ticket.

Secondly, it was according to my booking agent sold out.
Thirdly, this meant I had to rise at 5.45 am to get myself to Martin Place and wait for the TIX FOR NEXT TO NIX booth to open at 8am.
Fourthly, as you can tell I got tickets.
And now... Fifthly this is the best show I have seen in this festival so far.

NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA. The odd name for this company comes from a quote from AMERIKA by Franz Kafka. They are actually a New York based performance group formed in1995 under the direction of the founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. Both trained at Dartmouth. Mr Liska studied further with Richard Foreman and Ms Copper went on to work at La Ma Ma. After several false starts in their career journeys they came back to the theatre. Their work began as re-makers of classic dramatic literature: Chekhov, Shakespeare etc, but finally began to create new material of their own. The company is very physical in its approach. The piece prior to this, "POETICS; a ballet brut", was apparently a movement based work constructed by gestures decided upon and then dictated by the random throw of a dice. It was exploring John Cage's ideas of Chance in Art.

The source of NO DICE was from 70 hours of taped phone conversations Mr Liska conducted with friends, relatives and the cast about their jobs and personal problems. Conversations about the demands of boring office work, dieting, dinner theatre, the Moscow Cats Theatre, SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001, etc. Instead of memorizing the text, the cast acts out the conversations while listening to the original recordings from iPods in each performers ear. The conversations do not necessarily have a sequential order but it is the job of the actor to make a connection. There is no story guide in the heard conversations necessarily, the work "prefers to let the audience form its own narratives out of trivial, meandering conversations." Sometimes the conversations overlap and the natural linguistics of real conversation is captured with all of the pauses, laughs, repeats of words and sentences etc. It is the language of everyday conversation. Just how odd is it when allowed to be heard under such scrutiny in the theatre? How funny is it? The actors are required to be "in the moment", their presence is extremely alert: "They're thinking." The accents they use are very exaggerated, it seems, and they are many and varied, connected to the originator of the taped conversation. Just how exaggerated are real people when studied so closely? How funny are we, if we could minutely find the time to observe ourselves?

The actors have also developed a vocabulary of physical gestures and movement that are weird. (Anne Bogart and Viewpoints??!!) Unlike "POETICS" where the movement choices were dictated by the throw of a dice, NO DICE movements "were put together using a deck of cards with each suit representing a different set of movements-one set inspired by disco moves, another by the gestures made by Mr Liska's non-english-speaking mother as she was trying to tell a story to the non-slovak-speaking cast." Whether this is true or not is conjectural. Supposedly this was originally an 11 hour show - Mr Liska says maybe not. He says it is 4 hours long, but that isn't true either, it is only 3 and a half hours. A clock on the back wall of the setting keeps us informed of how much we have seen and how much is left to go. It all goes to create Myth. Myth is of interest to this company.

The cast of seven are dressed in inappropriate and amateur costumes. Anne Gridley in very tight high riding male black shorts with a string shouldered singlet and a truly ghastly copper coloured longish wig. Zachary Oberzan in jeans, no shirt, a cowboy hat and a fake moustache that definitely has a life of its own. Robert M. Johanson in jeans - ill fitting and short in the leg, a yellow long sleeved shirt, to be stained darkly by sweat, a multi-stringed necklace, a pair of no lens heavy black-framed glasses that have on either arm a long black hassidic curl attached, whilst on his head is a three cornered pirate hat. The other cast members are also erratically and idiosyncratically dressed, as if they have a clothes trunk and dived into it and thrown it on for fun and disguise. A mad delirious escapist dress-up game.

The performance in Sydney takes place at the Abraham Mott Hall in Miller's Point, a Community Hall, and much as it was found is it used. No set design here (apparently!!) This is a community theatre?!! The lighting is the fluorescents available in the space (to be truthful there is a small bank of white theatrical support) (The design is by Peter Nigrini) The audience are mostly lit equally in the fluorescent spell. There is no division here of who is performing. Them or us. The sound is created by one of the performers, gingerly at an electronic keyboard - it is the one tune over and over again. Sometimes ominous and otherworldly, sometimes melodramatic and eerie. A piece of recorded Satie is also beautifully, appropriately used.

In the first act the exaggerated physical language both in the body and facial muscularity, combined with the weirdly exaggerated accents and, at first, the random order of the taped conversations and their interaction, make it disconcertingly difficult to know how to respond. Ultimately one laughs. One plays a game of comedy with the cast and sometimes they respond to your laughter with a direct stare. It is not hostile, rather I had the impression of a startled animal looking for validation and reassurance. An intimacy was unspokenly attached, or was I just projecting. Empathetically giving my own life-love to strangers to help make their lives ok. My own world of growing up in outer Sydney suburbia and visions of my family and the extended family floated back at me. The material although funny begins, because the actors are so in earnest in their delivery, despite the extraordinary mode of expression, to reflect a sense of the ordinary person who has aspirations and dreams but no real ability or sense how to break away from their lives, to fulfill aspirations. They are unable or just plain content with their limitations, accepting them as their lot in life. The ordinary divinely created person who are at constant but failed attempts to explain the world in language of the everyday. Whilst talking of a dinner theatre experience that one of the characters has seen, a pertinent and poignant sentence seizes my attention and compassion as well as my humour: "the actors try really hard but, uh, will never achieve greatness - they achieve a very friendly mediocrity". A VERY FRIENDLY MEDIOCRITY. (One of my great fears, I acknowledge to myself.) This is a world I know. The actors in front of me are playing unselfconsciously members of my family who I grieve for, (what bourgeois arrogance, I think now) but there is such valiant humanity in their jaunty world: speaking, moving dressing and enjoying their habitat (the fluorescent, community hall) with a seemingly content level of acceptance and just as I begin to become melancholy, the lights become theatrically artificial and in a spot light appears a suburban vision of my "mother" or "Mrs Cowley" next door, on their way to a dance class at the local tech night school, in a bouffant coiffed look, crowned by some peacock feathers, in an emerald green cocktail dress who gives a monologue in what seems to be her own voice, of her dream in life, which is just, once, to have in life, a dramatic entrance in a spectacular manner and outfit. Just to only make an entrance, there is no necessity even to have lines, just that one moment of being the centre of attention. I begin to recognise the lady who made me my ham sandwich with mustard before the show in the improvised foyer of this community hall. She has this dream. The lady helping out in the "tuck shop"has this dream. A pause in the action. The lights crash back to fluorescents, one of the characters runs out the crash door exit into the visible real world outside, waving their hands in the air, in the sense of a cartoon character in distress. The cartoon character in the real world!!! Me, real in a cartoon world. The company then begin a dance of such ludicrous gesture and choreography, like the inspired jigs of Shakespeare's clowns, may have been, that I am rescued from pity (even self pity) and go happily to the foyer, after an address for money support from the actors to buy sandwiches, or drinks or tee-shirts to help raise funds for the Nature Theatre. Life and fiction. A joke or true?

After interval and a short interaction with the director, the actors re-appear. The material begins at the same level of commitment and understanding. But subtly, tonally the playing changes. A growing sense of melodrama of afternoon television reality begins to permeate the expression. Scenes and speeches from the first half repeat, but this time one of the other characters is speaking that particular text. Meaning changes, the world of my reading the material begins to be altered. I have to re-think the context and consequences of these conversations. As in THE FAITH HEALER the layering of the texts become vital and moving. New contexts give me new knowledge and perspective. The actors begin to remove their crazy costume, the vocal and physical exaggerations are pared back, and gently some of the actors come into the audience and squat down beside one of us and begins to talk quietly and calmly and gradually one realises that all the actors are speaking in unison the same re-assuring speech. The ordinary person-character, this now "glorious" created suburbanite has given me their life-love advice to assure me. An unreal character speaks to me a real person!!!? One on one communication. I have been valued and individualised. I have been given an importance by these very ordinary people who I had even laughed at. Even pitied. Of course what a splendid person my "mother was. Was Mrs Cowley" - here is there entrance, their moment in the centre and of course it is selfless, it is an act of generosity, of caring. The actors move back to the stage and sit to the side. The lights dim and a scroll of the text is projected onto the back wall accompanied by the two voices of the recorded conversation, between the director and his mother -- We are shown the humble origins of all this creativity -- the human voice in halting, real conversation, mother and son...... There is no laughter at the revelations of the conversation now, just a feeling of respect and humility as we overhear the confidences and aspirations of a mother telling her son of a recent night of dancing, one in a wheelchair, her partner standing beside the chair and ecstatically sharing abandonment in some bar or club or Community Hall!! A simple theatrical gesture that strips back the theatrics of the performance even further to the origins of its observations. A truly brilliant 3 or 5 minutes in a performance that once sometimes looked like organised mayhem but now reveals a real method to its madness. A significant journey. And once again they begin a jig, a dance of life. It is as if Zorba has inspired these people. The dance is not Greek but it has a tribal joy of reckless abandonment that transcends into comfortable joy and confidence about being in the world. No matter how disappointing it may be.

The performers especially the remarkable Anne Gridley, Zachary Oberzan, Robert M. Johanson are wonderfully supported by Jarid Rychtarik and Kristin Worrall (virtually mute observers, although Ms Worral is the musician), assisted by appearances by the conceivers and directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. The precision of the diction, movement expression and timing is extraordinary. Here is a company where skills are highly employed and valued. It certainly has a class of technique superior to a lot of the so called avant garde theatre that I usually see.

Conceptually daring and brilliantly executed The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma "knows how to inspire a willing suspension of linearality." Unafraid to seriously address the multiple levels of everyday disappointments. Unafraid to use the theories of theatre history's thinkers and adapt it to what a contemporary audience can bear. Respect for the audience but challenging them to have to work just as hard as the company. This is a successful completion of the circle of creative experience, where both sides of the theatre space are mutually engaged and rewarded. There is no ego here, it is the full fledged generosity of a shared experience.

If you didn't catch this production you missed an experience of some note. Thank you Sydney Festival.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Faith Healer

Faith Healer - Sydney Festival 2009 - Photo by Trent O'Donnell

GATE THEATRE DUBLIN and the SYDNEY FESTIVAL 2009 present A Celebration of the Work of Brian Friel: FAITH HEALER at the Parade Theatre.

FAITH HEALER is the first of three plays that, at the invitation of the Sydney Festival, the Gate Theatre Dublin are presenting as a celebration of the work of Brian Friel, Irish playwright, celebrating, this January, his 80th year. This was the company that two years ago, in the same venue, presented a season of Beckett plays. Brian Friel is one of the great living playwrights in my reading and viewing experience. I would include with this play: LOVERS; TRANSLATIONS; DANCING AT LUGHNASA as repertoire that will stay with us for as long as there are actors, theatres and audiences. Other work is no less worth exploring.

THE FAITH HEALER was written in 1979 and has become an international classic. "The play consists of four monologues. The first and the last are spoken by Frank, the faith healer, the second by Grace, his wife, and the third by Teddy, Frank's promotional warm-up man." Each of these people have lived lives finely interconnected over the past - "Oh, years and years -" as they travelled, together, around the fringes of Scotland, Wales and England, finally, in the end, turning to Ireland, a return to home for Frank. They have lived a squalid life of theatrical skimping and brinkmanship, barely able to maintain a decent living, promoting and "performing" acts of faith healing. Sometimes it worked but most times not. This life they lead is one that they have "launched themselves into a, life compounded of squalor, fantasy and occasional transcendence."

Each of these stories invoke the great gift of the story teller. Brian Friel at his masterful best. Each one of these monologues totally enthralling. Whimsical, sad, funny, exhilarating, nerve wracking and in the end profoundly moving. Each of the characters have different memories of the same events. - "the unbelievably fickle nature of memory." Memory created to fit the needs of who the characters want to be remembered as. After each character has spoken, as they speak, the truth of the events that they have in common are altered, our knowledge of the events take on a new, different perspective." The astonishing concrete and and exact flood of images that build up through the interwoven accounts of Frank, Grace and Teddy are inconsistent, yet convey a terrible authenticity. If the facts are disputed, the emotional accuracy rings violently true." One is profoundly shaken and moved during, and accumulatively at the end with Frank finding peace and transcendence, moving to a terrifying choice where he knows at last: "At long last I was renouncing chance."

Here is a play and production that is almost the antithesis of THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Here the tools of a playwright are exercised: words, action, silence. For this playwright (and director) words are at the core of the theatre. Words that are shaped in order and rhythm, to be spoken by an actor to an audience. Words that are meant to be liberated for the audience, words for public utterance to proclaim a wisdom. A commune of language for the imagination and the emotions of each individual audience member to identify with and measure their life. The experience of the play, for me, was a faith healing: it gave me a confidence about being human. It felt quietly dignified to be who I am. Strange magic. A great act of faith given to me.

The playwright in the program notes places the Actor as the next essential for the experience of the theatre. He writes for the actor, who needs to be scrupulous with the text, who can intuit the actor's self in the writer's words and the characteristics of the character and through trust and skill be suffused in them: "so that they will finally emerge neither quite what the author wrote, nor what the actor is, but a new identity that draws from the essence of both."

Owen Roe as Frank, Ingrid Craigie as Grace and Kim Durham as Teddy are such actors. The understated unease of Frank, a shaman and a liar with a magical way with words is deeply attractive but deeply troubling. Grace is dignified and defiant in the tortured life choices she has made and we lean a wary hand to her but withhold with a fear of injuring her with touch. Teddy is belovedly rascally and devoted and reliable and foolishly in love with a great deal of his squalid world - an optimism that infects us with hope for survival however bare or paltry it may appear to us to be. These actors give us this, with confidence, delicacy and great understated skill. Wonderful to hear and watch. There is something tribally basic about the writing and the playing - a simple relatively unadorned trust in the power of using words to tell a story. Just that and us.

The director, Robin Lefevre, (who many years ago directed Martin Shaw and Angela Punch-Mcgregor in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the old Her Majesty's many years ago) has with his designers, (Design, Liz Ascroft; Lighting, James McConnell; Music and Sound, Rebecca O'Mara) kept a restrained guidance on the proceedings and reveals the jewel, that is this play.

This is a deceptively simple play that carries a great impact. Do go. A production that puts the words first and reveres the actors and respects the audience.

Playing now until 1 February. Book online or call Ticketek on 1300 888 412.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The War Of The Roses

The Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival 2009 present THE WAR OF THE ROSES, Part 1 & Part 2 by William Shakespeare adapted by Tom Wright & Benedict Andrews at the Sydney Theatre.

Before we talk of the present production under the title THE WAR OF THE ROSES there will be a preamble of information that I think is relevant. ( Skip forward if you wish.)

Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies or eight plays chronicling a turbulent 88 years of English History (from the 1380's to the 1480's) covering the reigns of English monarchs from that of Richard II to that of Richard III. They comprise RICHARD II, HENRY IV PARTS I and II and HENRY V; Then HENRY VI PARTS I, II AND III AND RICHARD III.

Last year THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY after a two and a half year preparation presented all eight of these plays under the title of This England - The Histories, in history's chronological order. It meant, to see all plays, it required 22 hours of performance,four days of theatre. And this approach to Shakespeare's history plays is not new. In 1964 John Barton and Peter Hall did them all (that is only the Henry VI 's and Richard III) in two days as THE WAR OF THE ROSES. (A 10 hour version was adapted for television.) "It was mind-blowingly original. The directors took outrageous liberties with the texts to fuse the grand design together. They rewrote and reshaped Shakespeare. (Barton added over a thousand lines of dialogue.) Creative vandalism; great theatre."

"The idea that the two tetralogies compose distinct epic designs, or Henriads, is a critical commonplace. Shakespeare clearly saw the outline of two large structures as he penned the eight plays. It's also self-evident that the plays are chronologically and thematically coherent." "Shakespeare based his history plays on various sources, drawing upon everything from medieval chronicles and Tudor propaganda to romances and rumours.... His primary source of information was Raphael Holinshed,whose CHRONICLES published in 1586-1587, comprised a complete history of the English-speaking world." "It is important to emphasise that this is Shakespeare's interpretation of the events of English history with a heavy dramatic licence and a nod to his royal patron, Elizabeth Tudor, the granddaughter of the victorious Henry VII" (Richmond from the Richard III play.) History was shaped to fit the demands of the new era, the propaganda machine for Elizabeth Tudor. Most people know Richard III as a hunchback villain from Shakespeare's play rather than the real Richard, who by all accounts was rather a nice man. Because he was viewed as an enemy to the Tudor line, Shakespeare had to present Richard as a truly Machiavellian villain and his conqueror, Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Richmond, as England's glorious saviour. Creative historical vandalism; great theatre. The historian, John Julius Norwich, reminds us "Shakespeare was not an historian; he was a dramatist. The play was the thing." And he needed to make a living.

"But the histories go beyond pomp and circumstance and are more than propaganda. They pose serious philosophical questions that go straight to the heart of Elizabethan political life: What is the best way to educate a prince?..... What is the proper way to rule?..... Is the king divinely appointed? And, most important, is it ever morally right to kill a bad king?..... Machiavelli's treatise on statecraft, THE PRINCE, written in 1513..... was not an abstract study by a scholar removed from the sources of power but an introduction to realpolitik by a real statesman who knew the world too well. "Politics," he wrote, "have no relation to morals."..... Machiavelli asserted that the achievement of political power necessitated unscrupulous methods and that the ethical man was an ineffectual ruler. It didn't matter what a prince did behind the scenes; he only had to make sure that he APPEARED honourable....Machiavelli's cold appraisal of government and power had the same cataclysmic effect on the Elizabethans that Darwin's ON THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES had on the Victorians..... During the Renaissance the medieval image of the Devil was replaced by the Machiavel.... According to one count,the Machiavel appeared more than four hundred times on the Elizabethan stage...... Machiavelli's ideas influence almost every ruler Shakespeare created: Richard III sums up Machiavelli's moral isolationism when he says "I am myself alone ." And Henry Bolingbroke is referred to as "this vile politician"..... To use the critic A.P.Rossiter's phrase, the histories are about "the survival of the slickest."

"Shakespeare is generally considered a conservative, but one with irony and compassion. His plays are seen as either subversive or elitist.... he confirms and doubts, both at once, which is what makes the plays multifaceted and challenging. His views are sometimes reverent, sometimes cynical...... Despite Shakespeare's understanding of the dangers of power and his fascination with Machiavelli's pragmatic view of kingship, in his plays and tragedies, the king is God's vicar on earth. Regicide could only lead to anarchy,the annihilation of cosmic and domestic order." Restoration to kingship, to God's anointed, was how equilibrium and peace could be achieved. Whether this was Shakespeare's belief or necessity in the age of censorship remains unknown.

Now, before we look at this new play and production THE WAR OF THE ROES by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews adapted from Shakespeare just one more interesting fact should be pointed out. "Shakespeare wrote the tetralogies in reverse historical sequence. The first (the three Henry VI plays and Richard III ) was composed between 1588 and the early 1590's. It is early, rough-edged Shakespeare. The second (Richard II, and the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V) dates from between 1595 and 1599. It represents the dramatist at the height of his artistic power. The 1590's was a decade in which Shakespeare became Shakespeare." Putting the plays, then, in the right historical order (Richard II to Richard III), you put them in the wrong artistic order. "The audience could have an eerie feeling that Shakespeare is going off. Losing his touch, as he moves through time."

So, extremely subjectively, I shall try to recall my response to the all day performance of THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Then, I will try to grapple with the aftermath, my aftermath, of it.

Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews have spent some time on this collaboration. The event was announced over a year ago,so at least, a year, if not longer, in preparation. Mr Andrews and his company of artists have had 15 weeks of rehearsal. Nearly all of the artists have worked with Mr Andrews before. There was probably a language of familiarity. Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies are two invited guest collaborators. All of this augurs well.

I understand, it is approximately 22 hours of Shakespearean text that has been reduced, de-constructed, to a little more than one third of the original, to 8 hours. I approach the experience believing it not to be Shakespeare but rather a new play adapted on the source material of the 8 plays, and as Shakespeare did for the Elizabethans, make a work relevant for a Sydney (Australian) audience in 2009. The plays should have more than pomp and circumstance and propaganda. They should pose philosophical questions or at least propositions that will go straight to the heart of what it is to be identified as an Australian today, living in the modern world. And how to live in it well.

I have come to regard Mr Wright as one of Australia's most interesting (and prolific) playwrights. Mr Andrews, I am less sure of, having never really understood the many experiences of his creativity that I have, still, voluntarily, witnessed. (The most interesting and successful for me being his work with this same company of actors (the STC Actors Company), on his "Big Brother version of THE SEASON OF SARSAPARILLA in 2007. It is, then, with a mixed apprehension that I sit in my seat.

The proscenium is curtained in black cloth. The lights dimmed. The curtain rose on a magnificent vista of the full stage. Centre stage, down front, sitting on a chair is Cate Blanchett,who we know is playing the King, Richard II. She is dressed in cream slacks and long sleeved blouse, shoes, her hair worn casually and long with a golden crown upon her head. Scattered in poses, to almost the full depth and breadth of the stage, around this seated figure are 8 other actors, facing front, all dressed in various clothing of the contemporary world. Raining down from the tower above the stage are three curtains of gold leaf in a beautifully heavy and steadily consistent fall. It rains and rains. It is either representing a Golden Age of order with the anointed King on his throne, or, I cogitate, a symbol of decadence, the wasteful display of wealth. I am able to drink it in, savour and admire the beauty of the picture created by director and designers. (Set: Robert Cousins; Costumes: Alice Babidge; Lighting: Nick Schlieper.) I review my experience, for no one moves and no one speaks for some considerable theatrical time. From a purely emotional response I am taken, over the time I am given, to a cerebral contemplation. I am looking at Art. What is real is not what is happening on stage but my experience of consciousness of being in the theatre looking at an artistic vision. Aesthetic distancing is in motion

Finally,someone speaks. But it is formal. The actors all speak, at different times, but they do not move. They are just voices, all but disembodied (for, we can see them),their physical instrument does not engage except in concentrated stillness. They talk directly out to us. It is difficult to follow the text for it takes sometime to learn to identify who is talking (let alone who they are representing) for all of the actors are "miked" and as a result, the sound is coming, from all of them, from the same technical speakers hung in the auditorium, and out of habit, my eye and ear co-ordination takes some time to form a new way of attending to the play, I keep looking to the speaker and then searching the faces of the scattered actors to discover who is talking (more aesthetic distancing perhaps?), but fortunately, I studied this text in High School and so have a gist of the truncated machinations of a bored and spoiled prince acting out petulantly with some of his subjects, plunging himself into a precarious state of subject rebellion, for one of them, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert Menzies) is a powerful and ambitious subject and will not brook the losing of all his rightful inheritance. It is like watching a radio play, and it goes on and on for maybe 45 minutes. The only movement being the falling gold glitter, creating the optical illusion of a moving floor, and the restless leashed in physicality of Ms Blanchett, expressing itself
accumulatively with the crossing and uncrossing of her right leg over her left and the impatient right ankle circling the foot on its apparently flexible hinge.

Mr Gaden as John of Gaunt does gently physically interact with Mr Menzies at last, with a turn to face him, maybe a hand on shoulder, and finally moves to lie on the ground after the delivery of one of the most famous speeches in the play. "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle...." and dies, to be covered, deeply, by the falling leaf. (Occasionally, I laugh at the hazard of the falling glitter, for often it gets into the mouths of the actors, sometimes before they speak, sometimes while they speak (I guess it is an unintended example of further aesthetic distancing? - it works!!!!)

At last. The King under threat from the rebel Bolingbroke removes the crown and lays it on the ground and retreats to the back wall where he lolls. The rain of gold flickers to a halt. The sound of leaf blowers commences (an occasion of nervous laughter from some of the audience in response to such an iconic Australian gesture and noise) and both actors and stage crew move about the stage and sweep the gold debris into a big heap against the back wall of the otherwise empty stage, upon which Cate Blanchett sits with the crown in her hands in contemplation. This picture, too, has beauty, both physical and intellectual.

The actors have their full instruments at last, permissibly, available to them. They move, they interact, they engage the poetry of the second half of the act (truncated,though it be) and Ms Blanchett and Mr Menzies engage in a blazing and beautiful poetic battle of wills. At last. The Shakespearean text is allowed to have its full expressive possibilities given by the whole instrument of the actor. And it is given principally by two masterful musicians of communication.

This is especially so from Ms Blanchett. Here is a beautiful figure and face, both readily obedient to her every command, supplemented by a meticulous and ironic brain and supported by a mellifluous musical voice. These are rare gifts even individually for an actor/artist but here they are all present in one miraculous package, and when in full flight there is no aesthetic distancing but a high dive and surrender, from me, to the reality of being in the presence of an Artist that transcends either just the emotional, or the cerebral experience of each moment, and sweeps you into a place where all is simultaneous enlightenment and feeling. This is a thrill. This is why one goes to the theatre, in the hope of having such an experience. Here is an Art. Here is ART. All of the actors in this company have these gifts to varying degrees of communication but what distinguishes Ms Blanchett is her uniform mastery and control of all the elements of the actor's craft. And what distinguishes her most, is physical presence. Her body even in repose is electric and resonating with a psychic depth that demands attention. When in action it is simply expressed, and no matter the scale of action, there is a magnitude of meaning: deadly serious, highly amusing and every other note in between. Elegant, economic and weighted. Balletic, gymnastic and radiantly still.

The ticket price is worth just the witnessing of this last hour of the first act. My precious time given here in this theatre will balance all of my other recent thwarted experiences in the search for transcendence. For me it is a rare opportunity to see a great artist on an Australian stage. It is like the blessing I had when Joan Sutherland entered from the preposterous gazebo setting of her first heroine in Offenbach's THE TALES OF HOFFMAN and sang live in front of me. How did she do it? How does she do it? It seems effortless and I am so happy. Why? In both cases, the experience in the moment are not at all bombast or histrionic. In reflection it is all so unremarkable, but in retrospect one is definitely left with the impression of having experienced something great. It was a similar remembrance that I have had a few other times: Glenda Jackson in her performance of Hedda; Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. Unimpressed while watching, staggered at the completion of the play. I believe I have seen something great I remember recalling. So here. So, with Ms Blanchett in this journey of a king from an arrogant, self-dramatizing, self infatuated man to one who is genuinely moving and tragic. Whatever the theatrical theoretical explorations (maybe a stab at Artaudian Theory ??) Mr Andrews may have been exploring in the first hour, this last hour when Ms Blanchett was unleashed from her chair is great theatre. Mr Menzies is never better than in his interaction here with Ms Blanchett.

So, interval came and I was relatively excited, even though I knew that Richard II was dead and I wouldn't get to see Ms Blanchett until much later that night, for whatever else she had done, she had reacquainted me with the dazzling poetry of Shakespeare's Richard II and more is to come. I know the next two plays. More Shakespeare, mmmmm, bliss.

Part One, Act Two: This is Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. These plays are part of Shakespeare's later output as an artist and the textual poetry is highly regarded by critics. The play is famous for its comedy and the complex characterisation of Falstaff. Some regard Falstaff as Shakespeare's greatest comic figure. Some, that Falstaff is Shakespeare's greatest human. The Henry IV plays take up most of this two hour traffic on the stage.

"The title HENRY IV is somewhat misleading. Henry is rarely on stage, and at times he seems to exist solely as a peg upon which to hang the more interesting tale of Prince Henry (Prince Hal) and Falstaff. HENRY IV is ostensibly about Henry's struggle to maintain the throne against the Percys, the clan that helped him to attain it in RICHARD II. But the play centres on Prince Hal (Ewen Leslie) and his development from jokester into king. Two plots, one comic and one serious, are represented, respectively, by Falstaff (John Gaden) and the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap and by King Henry (Robert Menzies) and the court at Westminster. Hal is the hinge upon which the two swing back and forth.... in HENRY IV PART I, Hal grows up when he kills Hotspur (Luke Mullins) in his father's cause, and in PART II he truly becomes a king when he banishes Falstaff." ("Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.")

In this adaptation of the text by Mr Wright and Mr Andrews the texts have been shrunk principally to only four of the original Dramatis Personae: King Henry IV, Falstaff, Prince Hal and Hotspur. (Of course there are other actors who fill the function of smoothing out the textual elisions but they are of relatively little import, other than convenience for the writer's/director's intents). But what Mr Andrews does do, is create and introduce a major presence on the stage as a palpable influence and "character" to the action of this play: a Musician. This musician (Stefan Gregory) during the reveal of the action of the play accompanies, sometimes confronts, and even for long stretches even dominate the other characters. The music of the musician becomes another "language" to that of the actors (and Shakespeare). It becomes a presence, maybe the presence, for the audience to attend to, to interpret the play.

When the curtain rises on the stage it is empty except for the musician upstage right (the audience's point of view) (the director's intention is indelibly flagged) with his back to us, with his amplifier and other necessary paraphernalia, which includes a guitar which he manipulates to create sound/noise. It is the first "voice" to speak. (Sound design by Max Lyandvert.)

The confrontation between Hal and Hotspur is mostly reduced to dumbshow, that is, physical action and metaphoric animal mime, to represent, in substitute, much of their poetry. The relationship with Falstaff has some of its poetic exchanges in tact but even here the relationship is graphically presented in physicalites, often substituting the written language. Mr Andrews goes so far as to represent the intimacy of the debauchery between this old man, Falstaff and the young Prince in an extended "head job" (oral Sex) given by the prince to his friend. (This is indeed a "modern" interpretation and reasonable, but may be overstatement.) It is regrettable as well that the teeming life of the other companions of the Boar's Head Tavern (Doll Tearsheet and especially Mistress Quickly etc.) has been excised for the intentions of the new play, because much of the famous comedy of the play is also excised. There is little humour in this world, it is one of unrelieved decadence. It is as if Mr Andrews believes "that text (has) been a tyrant over meaning, and advocate(s), instead for a theatre (and a story telling mode) made up of a unique language (the musical accompaniment and "mime"), halfw ay between gesture and thought." Shakespeare is abandoned and Artaud embraced.

Both Mr Gaden and Mr Menzies give valiant renditions of what is left of the originals. Mr Leslie is likewise strong in his effort for communicable clarity. Unfortunately, Mr Mullins, because of the editing, loses out in making a clear mark as Hotspur. I, personally was waiting for one of them to demand of the Musician's input: less maybe more. It became for me an agony of presence, of experience. Truly a Theatre of Cruelty.

So, it was a blessed relief when a ruched curtain fell across the width of the proscenium, and the music silenced. This began a 20 minute, or so, truncation of HENRY V. HENRY V is the only history play that doesn't revolve around the seizure of the crown. But Mr Wright and Andrew's in pursuant of their gradually revealing intentions, brilliantly reduce the text to a series of careful interchanges of the poetry of Shakespeare's famous figure of the Chorus (Different representatives of the company) and the major speeches of Henry V (Ewen Leslie). The emphasis of our two contemporary writers is to underline both textually and graphically that Henry V is not a perfect man. A flawed man, one who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants, a ruthless war machine, "a leader who orders his men to cut their prisoner's throats in violation of the medieval war code." "...If I begin the battery once again, / I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur / Till in her ashes she lie buried. /The gates of mercy shall all be shut up; / And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart- / In liberty of bloody hand shall range / With conscience wide as hell: mowing like grass / Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants...... The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; / Your fathers taken by the silver beards, / And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls; / Your naked infants spitted on spikes, / Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused / Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry / At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen." The textual remains in this adaptation underlines this horror of the necessities of a leader in the brutality of war. Each of the textual choices for Henry are juxtaposed with speeches from the Chorus which famously invite us to imagine with him the setting of the play. We are invited to be complicit with this ruthless carnage.

Visually, Henry apppears at first naked from the waist up, drenched in glistening sweat with the crown upon his head; then on his next entrance covered in shiny black streams of mud or oil; and next with the rivers of blood layered and streaming down the torso. Layerings of the cost of victory. The lighting helps it to gleam and shine heroically in its sheen.

Next we are taken to the wooing of the french princess Katherine (Luke Mullins) by this bloodied soldier. It is chilling in this production's telling. At the back of the stage, Katherine is dressed by her servants, delicately,in a summer dress (contemporary), while downstage dripping with the physical cost of war, in halting French and English, the two progenitors of the royal line attempt to come to terms for marriage. It is astonishingly poignant and simultaneously dreadful. The figure of their loins appears, Henry VI. But it does not feel to be a time of rejoicing. The curtain falls.

This is altogether an impresssive section of the production. I quietly note it is when the poetry of Shakespeare is once again (as in RICHARD II ) placed upfront and centre,unencumbered by extraneous sound and alternative "directorial language" that power and clarity are achieved by this production team. Once again the heart and the brain are engaged. Congratulations to Mr Leslie and the Chorus speakers and to the fragile delicacy of Mr Mullins as Katherine.

A two hour dinner break.

Part Two, Act One. This act of the production comprises the HENRY VI plays Part I, II,and III. These plays are the earliest written in the cycle and are regarded as primitive in the writing, in comparison to what we have so far experienced. It is rarely seen in its entirety. "The plot is a sweeping panorama; there are no heroes just a succession of characters who temporarily hold centre stage and then quickly depart."

From the marriage between Henry V and Katherine, one hoped that out of that match would come the ultimate perfect King. But it doesn't happen. Eighteen months later Henry is dead. He leaves a baby son as a King, a child he has never seen and the nation declines. Rival factions broil for power. The two sides meet in the Temple garden, and in symbolic action pluck white and red roses that prophesies the Wars of the Roses: "....this brawl today, / grown to this faction in the Temple Garden, / Shall send between the red and the white / A thousand to death and deadly night." What follows is a parade of battles and death. Hennry VI (Eden Falk) is weak and ill, his wife Margaret of Anjou (Marta Dusseldorp) is forced to arm herself for her family's survival in an alliance with Suffolk ( Steve Le Marquand ). The House of York begins an internecine battle within its own ranks for power, whilst fighting the Lancastrians, and gradually "a unique voice begins to take shape, which speaks out loud and bold:
"Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, And cry "Content!" to that which grieves my heart, And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, And frame my face to all occasions." It is the voice of Richard Of Gloucester (Pamela Rabe), who ultimately becomes Ricahrd III.

The curtain rises and we see downstage in an otherwise empty pace, across the width of the stage, a broad oblong shaped box,its sides marked by flourescent tubes which the actors negotiate with various gymnastic techniques to step over to enter and exit. Scattered within the box are plastic flowers of various kinds and colours; a large industrial sized, yellow, clearly marked bag of plain flour, and bottles of red liquid.

Most of the text of these three plays has been expurgated and in its place there is the merest verbal guide to the events of the story. Augmenting the text is, mostly, once again, a dumb show of physical gestures. In this case each of the assassinations, murders or deaths in battle are ritualized. In each case the perpetrator of the "demise" finds the bottle of red liquid (symbolising blood), ingests it into their mouth and then sprays it over the face and body of the "victim". Then they would go to the large industrial sized yellow bag of plain flour, take a handful and throw it over the victim (symbolising ....???). There are many, many deaths in this 80-90 minute sequence of the play "....a thousand to death..." was prophesied at the Temple garden and the ritual action is continued over and over and over and over again. Ad Nauseam. I lost count (I think I became unconscious at some point.) This seemed to be "a proposal (of) a theatre in which violent physical images (would ) crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectataor....a theatre that would induce a trance..." Unfortunately I was not susceptible to the hypnoses and instead became, in stages, slightly intrigued, followed by exasperated, bored, irritated and ultimately bemused at the persistent exaggeration of the direction. (I felt that considering the number of sprayed blood and thrown flour turns there were, that the time taken by this ritual, may have taken, if I had had a stop watch, at least 30 minutes of the stage action, it might have been more interesting to have had some of that time substituted by the re-interpolation of some of Shakespeare's abandoned text for the actors to "spray" and "throw" at each other.) My consciousness as an audience member gave me permission to disassociate from the performance and take on these musings as well as a growing sense of the cruelty I had inflicted on my body to ask it to sit for so long in this seat. Self inflicted masochism. Masochism.

What of the offers that the actors were making? I have no memory except an admiration for their committment and stamina in doing it. Who could care, since the actors in my experience of Act One of Part Two, had been reduced / deconstructed to puppets of the director's vision. Their individual gifts, talents and strengths had been blanded an blended to the service of the director. The point seemed to be to underline the stupid repetition of foolishness of man kind. The point was grasped early in the proceedings but it was re-iterated for what seemed forever. (If this had not been in the 5th and 6th hour of my experience, I may have had a different view, but since I had weathered a great deal of Mr Andrews intentions thus far, I had gathered his methods and lost patience.) At last Richard of Gloucester "takes it upon himself to murder HenryVI,.... Margaret is banished. Edward IV and his "painted queen" Elizabeth begin their reign; the Yorkists have prevailed. Interval.

I staggered to the foyer, to the water cooler. I do not notice much excitement from my fellow members of the audience. I see several groups of them leave the theatre, never to return. I consider such a choice. But I return to my seat. Masochism is rampant. (Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess.)

The lights dim to blackness. The curtain rises on a vision by this artistic team of the world of Shakespeare's English History plays, deconstructed to a children's play ground. A metal slippery slide, a push-me spin me merry-go-round, a two seater set of swings and a tightly constructed metal set of monkey bars. As in the very first act, we have a rain of glitter, this time black (ash) that cascades from the skies for most of the performance time left. A reductio ad abursurdum, a banality of cerebral construction. I find it breath taking in its boldness.

The principal character of this act is Richard of Gloucester (Pamela Rabe) who in due course of the action is crowned Richard III and then is confronted with a "rebel" army led by the Earl Of Richmond (Luke Mullins) and is unkinged by death on the battlefield of Bosworth. Richmond is to become Henry VII, the grandfather of Elizabeth, the Tudor monarch, one of Shakespeare's patrons. Who we engage with here, in harmony with the physical vision of this world, is a slatternly trailer trash dressed brat (Memories of Amanda Plummer from a Quentin Tarantino film come to me) from the television reality show called Brat Camp who seems to be in desperate need of a Super Nanny to bring her into line. However, her physical and verbal abuses and humiliations ,which end in directed murder, go on unabated and we watch a pre-pubescent female psychopath in full rampage with no conscience and unfortunately little humour, to become the boss or queen of the playground. She wears a tiara. A school bully to be reckoned with. The hair, wig, reminds of Dee Dee Ramone and the photographs in the newspapers remind one another of pop star: Chrissie Amphlett from the Divinyls, and I hoped that Richard would sing something about the fine line between pleasure and pain (she didn't). ( I bet if Barrie Kosky had been directing this work he would, but Benedict is no fun. No fun ever.) The most interesting sequence in this act is to watch the struggle between Richard and Lady Anne (Cate Blanchett), to observe the techniques of both these actors in close comparison.

Pamela Rabe as this "monstrous clown" relishes the choices of interpretation that she and her director have invented and discovered and they are played to the hilt. Much courage and risk is embraced. It is a matter of taste whether you buy into it or not. I was too battered by the all day experience to do so. I recommend to attend the two halves with a considerable time break.

So, what have the writers, Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews wrought for us in Sydney in a Festival Season in 2009. Mr Wright following on from his recent adaptation of THE WOMEN OF TROY presents us with another play from the Theatre of Despair, another play of relentless moral nihilism. Nothing much else. This time it takes 8 hours to get the message instead of the less than two hours of TROY. Much of what makes Shakespeare great:the language, is erased to achieve a tale that tells us once again that the world is, excuse my language,a "fucked up" place. "Oh Horror. Oh Horror." In its place we have a deconstruction to mostly physical pantomime and repeated rituals of mind numbing obviousness.

In the program notes Monsieur Michel Foucault is quoted as saying "The role of history will.... be to show that laws deceive, that kings wear masks, that power creates illusions, and that historians tell lies." Machiavelli told the Medieval world (Shakespeare learnt it from him, one presumes). My favourite is Joseph Conrad who after writing THE HEART OF DARKNESS, observed, "Man is a vicious animal. His viciousness must be organised. Crime is a necessary condition of organised existence. Society is fundamentally criminal-or it would not exist.... For myself, I look at the future from the depths of a very dark past, and I find I am allowed nothing but fidelity to an absolutely lost cause, to an idea without a future."

To get to the Sydney Theatre today, I turned off my television, from news of the Gaza "WAR". Iraq. Afghanistan. States of War in Africa, South America, the Russias, India and Pakistan. And elsewhere. Even for instance here: The troubled Three Ms estate (ironically Shakespearean: Macbeth, Macduff and Malcolm Ways) at Rosemeadow in south western Sydney. As I write this I can see a photograph in front of me of three of our democratically elected "kings", one a President, and two Prime Ministers. One of these our ex- Prime Minister receiving the Medal of Freedom, "for his efforts as an ally in fighting terrorism". I hardly need an 8 hour reminder of the world as "a fucked-up place." What I would like my experience in the theatre to be as well, in this 8 hours, is some guidance as to how to live optimistically in this world. How to continue to commit and contribute to society with some sense of hope that man may, just may, evolve from the moral devolution that history tells us of, into something better. That, as a letter writer to the editor of the SMH today tells us (19th Jan.) in relation to the story telling responsibilities of Hollywood "We need to be reminded even in Hollywood's often grotesque manner, that the human spirit, morality and love cannot be completely extinguished by even the monstrous abominations that can be committed." If you erase the poetry from the plays you might also be erasing the hopeful proof that man has other more redeeming skills than bloody, cyclic murder.

This is another production directed by Mr Andrews that I have paid good money for. I, willingly, elect, to attend his work, I am genuinely interested in the work. But my growing conclusion is that Mr Andrews sees himself as an auteur without responsibilities to his audience. He seems to me to be anti-theatre. Definitely, my view is, he seems to be anti-writer. The deconstructions of Chekov, Calderon, Albee and several other of Shakespeare's works: Julius Caesar, A Midsummer's Night Dream have been for me simply a vandalism of other people's art to serve some vision of his own. It seems to me work designed for a cerebral elite that implies indifference even hostility, to his ordinary audience. An artist cultivating his own alienation, a common theme of Aestheticism, Decadence, and Symbolism prompting a continuing rejection of bourgeoisie taste and morality. Now, in theory, there may be nothing wrong with that, but in practice it has resulted in a lot of experiences in the theatre, for me, of unadulterated agony. It is a pity that he continues to use these Temples of
Bourgeois Culture, subsidised by the very people he seems to want to be cruel too. At least other theorists set up their own companies to prove their conceptions of Art: Meyerhold, Brecht, Grotowski etc. (Artaud never put his theories to the test himself, or couldn't, and sadly after a long battle with drug taking spent the last 12 years of his life in an Asylum.)

In this conception of THE WAR OF THE ROSES, I see a vandalism of Shakespeare and an attempt to explore the theories of Artaud as applied to these texts. I am basically affronted by the title page of the program where we are told that this is THE WAR OF THE ROSES (which of course, Shakespeare never set out to write, and, this play is much more than that as it also covers Richard II and The HenryIV's Part 1 and 2. Not historically part of the War of The Roses - dramatic licence.) Part 1 and part 2 by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. I would be happier if it were: THE WAR OF THE ROSES, Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews from the plays of Shakespeare. Pedantic, I know but crucial to my expectations if I were just an ordinary theatre goer. I have an inkling into what I am going to see. A play by two contemporary writers using the work of Shakespeare as a springboard.

The last observation that I would like to make is that I feel that Mr Andrews is also anti-actor. The practice of this production requires a stamina and committment from this company, who I think are in the best vocal and imaginative form they have been in since THE LOST ECHO. I observed for instance Ms McMahon in the first act of Part One standing upstage on a single spot for almost one hour and three quarters. She neither moved or spoke. Finally she walked (tottered??!!) downstage for eight or nine steps, spoke eight or ten lines and exited. This is a remarkable feat of concentration and I feel it should be noted. But it is an act of Cruelty on the part of the Director. There are many other instances of herculean commitment from this team of actors. It seems this set of actors have been placed into a "trance" by the mesmerist "Benno". At least Barrie Kosky generally performs every night with his company and experiences the arduous demands that he makes along with his team. I would like to invite / dare Mr Andrews to similarly commit himself to the rigours of his theoretical practice. On stage in dumb show for at least Act One of Part One. Maybe the whole time. He could alternate with Mr Le Marquand in the carrying of actors and props in the last Act - seemingly his only acting responsibility for the last two hours.

In summary, I enjoyed the last hour of Act One Part One. I enjoyed the 20 minute adaptation of Henry V at the end of the second act of Part One. I enjoyed the scene between Richard III and Lady Anne in the beginning of act two Of Part Two. This new Australian play will probably never be seen again. Go if you want a continuity of the development of the theatre as an art form in Sydney. If it is a comprehensible or entertaining or inspiring night in the theatre don't go. If you want to see a great actress then you must see Act One of Part One: Cate Blanchett is a miracle. The Gate Theatre Dublin's FAITH HEALER or the brilliant production of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's NO DICE are highly recommended other choices.

Sorry for taking so much space, but this is an important piece of Sydney Theatre History. Least of all because it marks the last performances of The Sydney Actors Company.

Playing now until 14 February. Book online or call 02 9250 1777

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Vincent River

Hot Seat, ROAR Theatre and 2SER in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers present the Australian Premiere of VINCENT RIVER by Philip Ridley at The Old Fitzroy Theatre.

Philip Ridley a playwright, film maker, children's novelist and artist/photographer in an interview was asked about a scrapbook collection of photographs of his that is famously "notorious". Mr Ridley comments that there are "more severed heads than pansies.... more severed heads than kittens in boots" in it. Mr Ridley's most famous and notorious play is MERCURY FUR, which had a season several years ago at the SBW Stables Theatre, is a terrifying picture of a world where drugs, violence and sex, and death as sex is for sale in London, maybe in the near future, or is it now? (A snuff play where children are involved.) Mr Ridley pulls no punches about the diseased world or the possibilities of the diseased world about him. A quote in the program to this production from the producing company is: "To censor nothing is an act of love." Time Out magazine is quoted elsewhere as saying: "Ridley is a singular writer.....and the creator of some of the most peculiar grotesque and compelling British plays (and films) of the last several years." Since MERCURY FUR there has appeared LEAVES OF GLASS (2007) and PIRANHA HEIGHTS (2008) in the theatre.

VINCENT RIVER was written in 2000, so it is relatively an old play in his oeuvre. It deals with the meeting of a 53 year old mother, Anita (Elaine Hudson) and a 16 year old boy, Davey (Beejan Olfat) who in grief reveal, gradually, the mutual origin of it: the gay bashing/murder of Vincent River. This play seems to me a promising beginning for the writer and certainly when you read his consequent material you see how quickly and how darkly confident he became.

This duologue is a long expositional reveal of the histories of these two people and the journeys that they had, to get to this meeting. While the writing is poetically beautiful in places it does not have textually, the dramatic impetus to keep one's attention at a totally thrilling level. It is a bit rather like novel writing. So, what needs to be supplied is acting that provides the subtextual needs and discoveries and dilemmas. The under surface of the "desperation" of these two people needs to be powerful. Unfortunately this does not happen.

The Director, Jonathan Wald, has with the Designers (Set:Tom Bannerman; Costume: OTTO Continuum) created a world of brown cardboard boxes (the walls and the furniture) and it has a warmth about it that is comfortable and poses "metaphor" where it is not needed. In fact it opposes the set and lighting guides by the writer, that asks for a harsher more real world of dislocation and cruel revealing white light. These people become exposed nakedly in the desperation for want of love and closure in a cruel world and the character of Anita, in the writer's text, is left alone and facing a bleak world, bereft not relieved. This production with the Set, Costume, Lighting (Matt Schubach) and Sound (Steve Toulmin) (The sound introducing sentimental orchestral relief from the coruscating possibility of the horror of the characters revelations, distracting us from the discomfort that Mr Ridley is searching for.) has a softening middle class edge. The play is set in the "battlefields" of East London. A working class environment of struggle, sexual and racial violence and poverty. There is little room for the bourgeoisie comforts here. There is in this production's visual and sound values a romantic sentimentality that goes against what Mr Ridley is revealing. (Look to his later plays to see the world he knows.)

This, then, is reflected in the choices that the director and actors have made in their creation of Anita and Davey. The dialects are not accurate or tough enough. They are moderated and take away most of the authenticity of the harsh world of the location of the play. Both the sounds and the rhythms needed the cadence and tempo of the "class" to take us to the pugnacious survivors "sound" of the play's location. It needed us to be taken to an aurally challenging place. It needed to disconcert us and challenge us to look at a world that was not within our comfort zone. (A viewing of Mr Ridley's film THE KRAYS would have given a clue to what was necessary.)

Mr Ridley in his description of Anita talks of her look (and attitude, perhaps) "half brassy, half classy." Certainly Anita is aspirational and maybe the tragedy which confronts her at the lonely stand at the end of the play is her recognition of her need to be "classy" (despite her "brassy" inclinations), and her smothering behaviour with Vincent, to use him to achieve this in the face of her parents and neighbours sneering acknowledgements of her dreams, had forced her son to a world that she tellingly regards as "sordid" but which Davey corrects, as reported in the newspaper, as "secret". Miss Hudson certainly as the instincts for "the classy" elements of the character but is stretched to find "the brassy". It is this imbalance in character choice that skews the play into middle class comforts.Miss Hudson plays to reveal the character as pitiable and so strives to win our empathy instead of a tougher revelation of a flawed and damaged individual who faintly recognises, maybe her culpability in this tragedy. A Medea mother, not a saintly mother. Mr Ridley knows this woman intimately and the character of the "blinded" mother appears in his later texts (Liz in LEAVES OF GLASS) with a clear-eyed and unsentimental accuracy. In what appears to be insecurity in the playing of some of the scenes Miss Hudson displays physical tensions and moments of frozen dead eyed stares that presumably we are meant to plumb for meaning. Instead I found them as stylistically incongruous and puzzling. Where was the director to guide this usually instinctually clever actress away from these creative expressions?

Mr Olfat, similarly, is too comfortably middle class and educated for this boy. The 16 year old that Mr Ridley asks for does not appear here. Mr Olfat looks older and comfortably educated (the costume does not help) and so some of the visual innocence and the consequential uncomfortable sexual "ugliness" of interaction that occurs with Anita does not have the power it ought. And Mr Ridley is notorious for this unflinching juxtaposition of the real situations that humanity sometimes finds itself in, in its search for recognition and validation. In the opening sequences Mr Olfat is "acting" rather than simply "being". Trusting himself more by playing simpler may have been better. However, Mr Olfat's handling of the long speeches, particularly the long story at the end of the play, is extremely engaged and alive with imaginative detail. It is beautifully delivered. Unfortunately, in terms of the play, it seems to be too much Mr Olfat and not enough Davey. Too much life knowledge at play, rather than a relatively fledgling youth at the beginning of a dangerous life adventure which he realises only as he verbalises the tragic events that results in the horrific beating and murder of Vincent River. The connections are too knowing and relished by the actor and not sufficiently translated into character experiencing. The verbal and emotional range, though rich, tends to sit in a middle area and the boundaries of both the technical instrument and the emotional range lacks exploration. It sits too comfortably.

The Director, Mr Wald has opted for a safer set of artistic choices than those indicated by the writer, and thereby, in my experience of Mr Ridley's work, avoided the tough time we should have had in the theatre. This is a palatable night in the theatre instead of the confronting and difficult one written on the page. There are too many "pansies....or kittens in boots" and not enough "severed heads" in this production. Too much "censoring" (or muting) of the "love" in this text. So if you want your theatre easy, here it is. And despite the fact that this is an early play of Mr Ridley and not the full throttle horror of say MERCURY FUR, it does have the potential to stir an audience to a state of uncomfortable outrage instead of easy acceptance.

The turning point of this play is a vicious gay bashing and murder of a human being. One, on exiting The Old Fitz, does not feel outraged enough. Check out DV8's TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU for outrage and much else over this issue.

Playing now until 31 January. Book online or call 1300 GET TIX (438 849).