Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Little Dog Laughed

Ensemble Theatre present THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED by Douglas Carter Beane at the Ensemble Theatre.

This is the second play by Douglas Carter Beane we have seen in Sydney this year. AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN was presented at the Darlinghurst Theatre as part of the background to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festivities in February. The principal characters in this play are also entangled with the plight of being homosexual and in the world, or edge of it, as a celebrity, and the difficulties that that fact may make for the individuals. The characters here include a hard-driving Hollywood agent (Diane, a lesbian) [Alexandra Fowler], her budding screen idol client (Mitchell, a “wants to come out of the closet” homosexual) [James Millar], a sexy young drifter (Alex, a bi-sexual {in this performance, a slightly intellectually impaired individual} rent boy) [Lindsay Farris], and a needy girlfriend (Ellen, hetero-sexual who becomes pregnant!) [Alexa Ashton.]

Mr Beane has the gift of the gay, glib “gab”. A kind of reckless, cynical satirical eye, and, based on the two plays of his I have seen this year, a sneaking admiration for the shallow world he writes about. He has a way with the quip that made the television series THE GOLDEN GIRLS a cultish hit. eg.1. Ellen: "Alex save me from the remains of what was no doubt once a decent club. The publicist said I was on the list and now that I see who else is on the list I want my name taken off the list." 2. Diane: "Do you hate me? Is that it? The way I suppose all gay men hate women unless they’re in a black-and-white movie and suffering majestically." This is funny, I confess, that I laughed some (especially at the stuff of Ms Fowler’s character), it’s just that it is in such abundance that it is wearying and there is very little substance of the production of this play to give it ballast. All four of these characters are, in the end, quite despicable human beings motivated from the basest of needs: greed and power. And what is worse they all triumph without impunity.

This play was nominated for a Tony (Antoinette Perry Award, New York, Broadway) in 2006, the first production opening in November, 2006. Here are some of the notices (Quoted from the published text.):
"Theatergoers have cause to rejoice. Devastatingly funny, with dizzy, irresistible writing that brings down the house." - THE NEW YORK TIMES.
"A fun evening, full of wit and wisdom." - THE NEW YORK POST.
"Big fun and an out-and-out delight…. Don’t be surprised after seeing it that you giggle in your dreams." THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS.
"Audiences no doubt will be tickled by the satire’s risqué humour and hint of topicality… Clever and funny quick-witted dialogue." - VARIETY. (Interesting that these reviews were before the devastating challenge to the GREED IS GOOD philosophy with the crash of the money markets around the world.)

However, the Sydney press have similarly been encouraging, which is why I went. (Some were admiring the Ensemble choosing this play for their subscription season - so risky - it is, sadly, in Sydney in 2009 – still risky. Only one third or less of the theatre capacity was filled.) However , my experience, generally, on Tuesday evening ended up being very dispiriting. Ms Fowler as the agent, Diane, was best. After an audible “Warm-up to speed” in the early part of the play (several textual mistakes and corrections, extempore), she found her stride and drove with ferocious energy through a fairly difficult role (having lots of direct conversation to the audience and, harder, lengthy telephone calls [in other words playing and responding to imaginary figures that we never get to see]), managing to keep the play afloat-pushing and attempting to push the other actors into gear and to “playing” with her in the interactions she has with them.

The problem with the other performances seemed to emanate from the work of Mr Farris. Mr Farris, as Alex, is the fulcrum to the other characters choices, and needs to be affecting the other character’s lives in a fairly passionate way. Mr Farris is, however, giving a pre-packaged conception of an actor’s creation in defiance of what ever else the other actors are doing or the audience is observing. It is both vocally (an extremely, consistently annoying, vocal character lilt) and physically mannered in the most extraordinary way, drawing attention to the actor’s choices. He has no narrative drive just character revelation within the constructs of the actor’s creativity - forget the writer’s input!!!! He seems to be playing a suffering, misunderstood, perhaps intellectually impaired adolescent with a heart of gold, a martyr saint, Saint Alex. However, one of the most interesting clues from the writer, for me, when I read the play, was after the trick, Mitchell, falls asleep, Alex robs him of his money and cigarettes, goes to leave but then stays “Sits across from the sleeping john, lights the cigarette and stares at this man. With the coolness of a surgeon.” WITH THE COOLNESS OF A SURGEON. Is Alex a calculating grifter / grafter or the victim of circumstances? He finishes with a $10,00 cheque and an easy exit from all the complications!!! Mr Farris has a very consistent IDEA of his character but is not in action with the clues of a close reading of the story of the writer. He forgets that character is the sum total of what Alex says and does in the pursuit of his goals (in Stanislavskian jargon, objectives), not what he demonstrates creatively. (Is there a better play here at work than just the glib comedy? It is what I felt about the production of AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN as well. Have the Directors fallen for the Camp Humour and ignored the very astute social observation and criticism? Both qualities would make a very satisfying night in the theatre.) Mr Farris ignores not just the writer but ignores the other actor’s characters contributions as well. As a result Mr Millar is forced into playing in another play, where he appears to have to play both parts in his scenes. He ends up playing in the style of musical theatre genre - earnest, and mostly externalised, one expected that Mitchell was about to burst into song at the end of some of his speeches. Ms Ashton on the other hand plays her work as if it were a television soap script. It has all the homework of an insightful actor but not many of the skills of the commercial comedy that she is playing in – a limp body and poor comic timing, the speeches delivered naturalistically, full of pauses and considerations having to, generally, like Mr Millar, to play the scene she in, by herself.

The director, Andrew Doyle, has not managed to find a way, in the rehearsal time, for all of his talented actors to play collaboratively in the style and manner of the writing or to connect to each other. Four actors playing in four different types of plays - only Ms Fowler showing the way. The Set Design (Anna Ilic) is practically solved and is not an impediment (the odd thing is that across the back wall there is a photographic cityscape that looks, to me, more like Los Angeles than the city, that all but, perhaps 5% of the play takes place in: New York - strange error of detail!!?) Costumes and Lighting (Bernie Tan) are serviceable. There is no Sound design, mostly just the soundtracks from Hollywood movies. (e.g. HIGH SOCIETY, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S)

At the cost of $54 plus a $4 handling charge this was a fairly luke-warm performance of what, in this production, looks like a fairly flimsy comedy that needs all the discipline of finely tuned artists it can find to pull it, consistently, off. This Tuesday night, 28th July, it didn’t.

The Financial Review on the 27th July, 2009 in an article by Katrina Stickland about the Theatre Box Office tells us: “Box-office takings for the live performing arts, including musicals, concerts, theatre, opera and dance, slumped nearly 14 per cent last year, suggesting the arts have not escaped tighter discretionary spending.…. Total box-office revenue fell 13.6 per cent, from $1.23 billion in 2007 to $1.06 billion in 2008, the lowest level since 2005….. Consumers have not been given much financial incentive to wash away their woes. The average ticket price shot up 16 per cent to $76.60 last year. That’s the biggest price rise since the surveys began in 2004, highlighting the extra pressure on companies to make up for revenue lost in other areas such as sponsorship and philanthropy.” Attention to quality details needs to be vigilantly demanded, and practised, otherwise I spend my money elsewhere and with greater discretion. Pity that, as I actually love going to the theatre in all of its forms - both comforting and challenging. All it needs to be is. WELL DONE.

Playing now until 15 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Promise

Company B present THE PROMISE. Original play by Alexi Arbuzov. New Version by Nick Dear. Based on the translation by Ariadne Nicolaeff. At the Belvoir Theatre.

THE PROMISE by Alexi Arbuzov was first published in 1965 and had an English stage production in November, 1966 at the Oxford Playhouse transferring into London the following year. The cast was a stellar young company; Judi Dench, Ian McShane, Ian McKellen. Mr McKellen (as Leonidik) won Most Promising New Actor for the performance. “Ancient” history, but indicates one of the reasons to do this play. It covers some Russian History, beginning in March to May in 1942; through to March to May in 1946 and finally December 1959 and in 3 acts over 12 scenes, over that 15 years, we trace the relationship of three young Soviet youths. To a Russian audience, I imagine, the history of the settings are truly significant and the telling of this story would be particularly deep in its resonances. To us, in Australia, without true cultural memories of these moments in history, the story could easily be simply a soap opera journey of the relationships between the young people. The reason to do this play today then, seems, principally, to be, to reveal the potential and kinetic skills of the three actors. To see good acting. Simon Stone, the director, has cast well. These three actors, mostly, deserve watching and, ultimately, thanking positively. Alison Bell (Lika), Ewen Leslie (Marat) and Chris Ryan (Leonidik).

The play begins with a sixteen young old girl, Lika, sheltering in an almost deserted apartment building during a sensational early time in the siege of Leningrad and the return of the eighteen year old resident, Marat. Over two early scenes the besieged develop a relationship over two weeks only to have a third person, seek refuge, Leonidik. The new arrival adds complications to the developing relationship and the rest of the play shows us the dynamic growths, as they distort and evolve in unpredictable ways through Soviet history.

In this production, as it was when I saw it, the first scenes in act one between Lika and Marat were rushed and tended to be shouted. They had speed and energy but little time for registering and reflecting the layerings of growing knowledge and evolving subtleties of the interactions and developments of the characters. When Leonidik burst in and collapsed, a shift in the playing style began, but it was not until the second act (which begins with Lika and Leonidik, in a mirroring two scenes to the first act, between Lika and Marat) that a mostly satisfactory style was found and sustained thanks to the control of Mr Ryan. As Mr Stone writes, in a very good Director’s Note in the program, in connection to Russian dramatic literature, “from Gogol and Ostrovsky to Chekhov and Gorky.... These plays are about time and longing: yearning for a better future, regret for an unrealised past, confusion at how to live in the present moment.” The connection to Chekhov and perhaps the greatest TIME journey, THE THREES SISTERS, is evident, and as the program note tells us: “In one evening we witness half a lifetime.”

It is the relative failure of the early acting in the first act to give time to the sub-textual growths, the Chekhov/Stanislavsky psychological realism technique, that caused a disconcerting and uncomfortable appreciation of the early scenes of the play. Both English versions of the play, first by Nicolaeff and then Dear are syntactically written in very specific short sentence structures with ellipses and pauses indicated. The sub-textual opportunities in the syntax to create and reveal the evolving states of the characters in the first act are ignored and rushed over. There is a lot of speed (and shouting) but not enough detail. What good acting is (especially necessary in Chekhov), is packed with Detail at Speed. So, if you rush the syntax or worse do not acknowledge it you lose the sub-textual clarities. Alison Bell has a tendency to play at a brash level of coarse ballsiness, (There is also a habit of vocal technique which soft pedals the early words in a sentence structure and then a PUNCH of the key word. It is a technique that is evident by its heavy repetitive usage - she tends to shriek, bang or trumpet the key words and takes us outside the character, habitually) accompanied by a raucous and ugly habit of laughter to cover the emotional growths (evident in the work she gave us in RABBIT last year at the Wharf), and in the early scenes, Ewen Leslie falls into line with her and rushes text back at her. Substituting theatrical energy for taking the acknowledgments of subtle truths. The play, consequently, seems to be pallid and thin. However, with the entrance of Chris Ryan into the equation, despite the hurrying of his first big speech, he subsequently gives reflective cues to what is happening, and the others in the company begin to relax and similarly attend and register. Up until his entrance there has been a lot of “action” but little “active listening”. The listeners in any scene is the guide for the audience as to how to behave, respond, and if it is not given time to be expressed and absorbed by the audience, the play is just a superficial explication of information which could just as easily be read. (Why go to the theatre, then?)

Chris Ryan gives a wonderful performance, and as the play develops, especially in the last act, Mr Leslie comes up to the plate and gives a very moving reading that matches Mr Ryan’s insight and truth. All three are wonderful actors. Mr Ryan tells the sub-textual truth subtly and accompanied by clear narrative accuracy, all of the time, at every opportunity, he is in action all the time he is on stage. Watching him alone could give you a vivid sense of the play’s journey. Mr Leslie reveals his strengths as the production unravels, and grows stronger and clearer as the play progresses. Ms Bell is a highly theatrical performer and tends to play the theatrical truths with bravado but nearly almost always hesitates from going deeper and revealing real personalised experiences of the truth of the moment- we see a very good actor at work, not necessarily a real life force that we are prepared to believe in the context of the given circumstances of the play - actor not character. From the conversations I have had with other witnesses to the production, and certainly reading other reviews, it is clear that these performances are being enhanced and densely calibrated as the season continues. Be patient with the first act, come back after the second interval and you will, possibly, have a very satisfying experience in the theatre. I did.

After the wildly provocative deconstruction of Wedekind’s SPRING AWAKENING, downstairs in the B Sharp space, last year, and reading about the very ,apparently, contentious contribution to a project in Melbourne called 3XSISTERS (see Theatre Notes-Alison Croggon’s blog) that Mr Stone has directed, I had some apprehension as to his approach to this play. Gratefully, he gave it the respect it demands and in my estimation showed an exciting potential to future work .- (not that I didn’t think SPRING AWAKENING revealed potential, just a fear of a lack of disciplined judgement when it came to an author’s work and intention.) The Set Design and the investigative explorations that Adam Gardiner talks about in the program was thorough and although the final choices are not entirely successful, it is very ( I reckon where you are seated, may make re-action different) arresting. A parquet, revolving square floor, bare essentially of properties (until the last act), with accumulating furniture and props on the flat along a back wall was ,from where I was seated, an idea of merit. (If you were seated opposite the back wall, then the central raised square may have been an obstacle to your picture, in the story telling and may have been an obstructive, puzzling choice.) The Costume choices (Mel Page) lacked the depth of detail that the scenes seemed to require. Their story telling was underdeveloped with inaccurate details (The costume of Leonidik, Marat and Lika did not, for instance, in the first act seem to reflect the temperature hardships of the below zero temperatures of the given circumstances hence some of the Drama of the act was lost – the dilemma of the characters not imaginatively expanded.) The Lighting Design was very picturesque (Niklas Pajanti) and the Sound Composition was very collusive in creating the right affect, avoiding sentimentality but supporting the emotional states. (Although the sound design of the act one explosions seemed to be underdeveloped and lacked reality.)

What I felt lacking was the Russian politics of the very specific Time indications of the scenes indicated by the writer. Act one didn’t reveal or absorb the worst of the siege in the acting journey through the time indications of the writer’s guide lines, hunger and danger and death (4,ooo dead in the month of March alone of hunger!!!) the stress, wear and tear of the siege on the behaviour of these characters not sufficiently drawn - the end of the act physically needs to register not only the emotional exhaustion but the real physical possibility of extinction. The specifics of the 1946 date, where victory in war was shadowed by the re-turning tyranny of Stalin, as he reasserted his control with the fear of death or imprisonment-The First of May celebration outside the window. - Who are WE? The dominating question of the act - What did we fight for? Disillusionment overwhelming the characters as the act unwinds – the horror of Hiroshima even brought to centre stage, what is mankind? What have we as soldiers done, (Read Anthony Beevor’s BERLIN) to create a world that seems bent on permanent prison. Is this what we have de-humanised ourselves for? Next, just what is the specific purpose of Mr Arbuzov’s decision to set act three so specifically in December, 1959? Mr Stone does not seem able to bring this to bear on the playing of the act. The given circumstances of the political world that this personal story is told within is under investigated. For instance the zealous belief of any Communist in the time of Stalin in declaring the belief and practice that there is no personal life for a good comrade, throws the personal love triangle of these characters on the stage into enormous conflict and helps clarify some of the choices of the turn of events made by these young people. There is definite strain in the motivations of these characters that is not fully evolved. Reading 900 DAYS.THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD by Harrison E. Salisbury certainly prepared me for a more bleak and desperate world than the one we saw. Similarly, Simon Montefiore’s STALIN:THE COURT OF THE RED CZAR and even his recent novel SASHENKA give a wretched insight into the struggle of the ordinary person into the behavioural patterns of a human in the iron clasp of cruel political power tyranny. "I have served Comrade Stalin and the Party with absolute fervour all my adult life. So has my wife Sashenka. However, if the party demands… I remain in my heart devoted to the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin personally: I have committed grave sins and crimes. If I face the Supreme Measure of Punishment, I shall gladly die a Bolshevik with the name of Stalin reverently on my lips. Long live the Party. Long live Stalin!" The need under threat of death to reject any personal needs that did not serve the Soviet is not really present as a vital element in this production. The Russians that I have spoken to about this play regard it highly as a true expression of the tragedy of the people of the Soviet. This play, within the censorship of the period it was written, subtly explores this. In the context of the Big Picture of the politics of the time.

Later this year Mr Stone is presenting downstairs at B Sharp THE ONLY CHILD, an adaptation of Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF. Which way will he tread? SPRING AWAKENING or THE PROMISE. Let us hope that the continuous evolution of this very interesting director keeps his audience contented with his visions.

Playing now until 23 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

TrioZ - Tour 3: Pathos and Pleasure

Selby and Friends present TRIOZ - Ensemble in Residence: City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney. Tour Three PATHOS AND PLEASURE.

I attended my first concert by the TRIOZE Ensemble. It is made up of Kathy Selby, Piano; Niki Vasilakis, Violin; Emma-Jane Murphy, Cello. As I have mentioned before I merely diarise my experience as this is not my field of expertise. I went to the concert because of the programming, Arvo Part and Kats-Chernin being points of fascination and admiration for me.

On the night I attended the order of the material began with Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s piece; The Spirit and the Maiden. This is Ms Kats-Chernin’s third piano trio, this one completed in 2004. It is built around a re-constructed Russian folk story and in the printed program each of the three movements has an episode. It is, recognisably, music of this composer and as I am a fan, had all the usual pleasing thrusting energy and syncopated notes that is underlined with a smooth melodic undertow. Its at once gently sprinkled at you and yet flowing around you. Short and stimulating.

This was followed by Johannes Brahms: Piano trio No3 in C minor, Op.101. As in the last musical note I wrote for the ACO Concert: Great Romantics, I confessed no great understanding or appreciation for this composer. However the first two movements of this piece arrested my attention and took me to a sustained place of curiosity. It was not to last, and in the last two sections, my mind began to wander. It was not the playing, simply, the music does not hold me.

After the interval a short but glorious work by Arvo Part: “Mozart-Adagio”- for violin, cello and piano (arranged from the Mozart Piano Sonata in F Major, K.280). This “was written in 1992 as a memorial to the Russian violinist Oleg Kagan, one of the composer’s close friends. It was also composed to fulfil a commission from the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson piano trio” The music has all of the simple signal externals of the composer: “This arrangement begins with harmonies that sound bell-like and underline Part’s philosophy:” I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” Interwoven into the mostly, faithful homage to Mozart, are silences. They are so pregnant with space-wonder, that one holds one’s breath. The final minute is divine in its organisation and placement. This is why I attended this concert. Arvo Part is my favourite contemporary composer.

The last piece, Bedrich Smetana’s Trio in G minor for piano, violin and cello, Op15. Smetana is known as the “Father of Czech Music.” In the nationalistic cultural fervour of this nation this composer holds an inspirational place. I had never heard the work before and its energy and tempo contrasts, melancholic and restless, captured me and exhilarated.

This is the first time I had heard the TRIOZ Ensemble. Each of the players impressed me both individually and as ensemble. Intellectual rigour and a love of the music. They do not quite have the dramatic/theatrical tensions of the ACO Ensemble - a little too held or a little academic in their presentation - particularly in the rests between the movements - but well worth catching and supporting. As the rapport with the audience’s develop, their obvious passion for the music might lead them to a more shared passion in their playing, with the urgent need to express and share it more viscerally as a more holistic experience - not just the intellectual one. Immaculate but slightly dry.

For more information click here.

P.S. The program notes were/are excellent for a philistine such as myself, particularly the historic contexts which immediately, imaginatively extended my care when listening. I had had a terrible sequence of theatre experiences in this last few weeks and the music concert was a positive palate cleanser. Music does soothe. More of it, I think.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Poor Boy

Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company & Qantas by arrangement with Poor Boy Enterprises Pty Ltd & Llegup Pty Ltd present POOR BOY – A Play With Songs by Matt Cameron and Tim Finn at the Sydney Theatre.

The most astounding thing about POOR BOY is that the Artistic Directors of both the Melbourne Theatre Company (Simon Phillips) and the Sydney Theatre Company (Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett) believed that this play represents the best in new Australian writing and that it deserved a major production. The fact that the January, 2009 production in Melbourne received very wan reviews and no real development has gone on, seemingly with the text, since then, its presentation in Sydney in this form, many months later, seems very disappointing. Just how serious are we about the development of good plays, I wonder? My afternoon at the theatre was excruciating in almost every way.

The Set Design by Iain McDonald, Costume Design by Adrienne Chisholm and the Lighting, Nick Schlieper, were three features of the performance that one could enjoy. Romantic, skeletal set with stairs and metal banisters with gauze walls, that became transparent, imprinted with a beautiful design of William Morris-like wall paper, weathered wooden floors, with an aesthetically detailed cloud backcloth covering the width of the enormous stage, gorgeously lit with romantic contrasts of the blue of the sea and the warmth of the sun – caressingly calming and redolent with wistful memories of a sea side holiday house of one’s romantic backhood. (The elevator platform for the band with a masking blind seemed to me an excessive design budget touch. Could some of that money be spent on a between season re-development project? Well, no matter the quality of the essential product, it at least looks good, eh?)

The cast is made up of actors that can act, actors that can sing and one or two of them that are known to be able to do both. Linda Cropper (Viv) does well as an actor that can sing (who knew?) (she gets most of the I HOPE I NEVER song that I recognised from my youth- “they don’t come more iconic than this’’ says Matt Cameron in the program notes) and does remarkably well in both departments. Matthew Newton (re-creating a role premiered by Guy Pearce in Melbourne) as the spirit/ghost adult, Danny, is very deft at the singing and in making the acting of a very difficult role relatively believable - it is a very sensibly and sensitively judged performance. Greg Stone (Sol) does well both as a singer and actor, until, the enactment of the denouement of the play (maybe it defies playing –I had to close my eyes – it was all the elements that were painful: the writing and the acting of it, so excruciating. Mr Stone had turn upstage to sustain the moment). Matt Dyktynski (Miles) sings well but finds it hard not to sing his spoken text as well, avoiding the finishing of ideas (or objectives) in the lines he has, and, steadfastly, is unable to reveal any inner truths - the character is a serial sex addict who, in the writing, is not explained or dealt with in any way except as a slightly sympathetic victim of being a second sibling. Sara Gleeson (Sadie) has a good go at acting and singing a very confused young girl/woman (– a Lolita by the sea) (another whinging second sibling) but ends up confusing the audience as well in what to make of her. Abi Tucker (Clare) has little to act but sings deeply. Unfortunately, Sarah Peirse, as Ruth, the grieving mother, a major character in the story, gives a truly uninvolved performance of superficial externalisations both physically and vocally. The spoken text, mouthed and expressed merely to give information with not an inkling of truthful characterisation or sense of evolving journey. Demonstrating emotional states and forgetting to just simply tell the story so that we can endow the feelings. So, that we can have the catharsis of the character’s journey discovery instead of being told what it is. One can only assume she has been cast for her singing ability, which I barely remember. The young boy actor, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke (Jem), was perfunctorily guided through his paces.

The writing of this piece by Matt Cameron is very difficult to take seriously as playwriting, maybe poetry, but when this poetry is uttered on the stage, as it is by this company, directed by Mr Phillips, it is almost too portentous and pretentious to take seriously: A plane thunders overhead, Sadie and Miles kiss passionately. Sadie: "Do you think they heard us?" Miles: "Living under a flight path has its advantages." Sadie gazes up at the sky. Sadie: "They get close don’t they? Like a bird of prey descending, claws poised to pluck you from the nest" Miles : "If only." IF ONLY, I groaned. Or again... Viv: "Where did he go? The boy we loved who loved us in return…?" Sol: "He always had a thousand-yard stare on him." Viv: "Wonder where he got that from." Sol: "The horizon never let a man down.". There is much, much more like that. On reading the text I can’t quite work out whether it is the writing or the directed acting style that undermines the performance. The melodrama of it all is audacious in its predictability. Danny (short for Daniel, in case you don’t get it): "I remember (Whilst wearing a Zebra mask) walking on the dark keys of the zebra crossing, the black notes, sharps and flats, till I stood in the middle of the road, cloaked in fog, and I saw the dull glow of the headlights, feline eyes fixed upon me, the lion bearing down on its faithless prey, and I waited….. I waited for that car to come…. 'Daniel into the lion’s den…..' (Silence). Forgive me." OOOOOHHH!!!! Of course, one of the added ingredients is the fact that the two Danny’s wear a zebra mask as well, at different times, connecting us to the actual physical source of all this much ado, of two accidents on a Zebra road crossing!!!! We also have a rain of silver glitter to mark the ending moments of the play at the back of the stage accompanied by a musical crescendo!!!

The songs of Tim Finn all sounded the same to me and I, despite the fact that the show was all painfully micro-phoned, can not recall a lyric except the iconic I HOPE I NEVER. The orchestrations are all too crashingly-boring similar to distinguish them, one from the other, for me. Maybe it has something to do with the observation that Simon Phillips makes in the Director’s notes to the published text: "POOR BOY is an unusual if not unique hybrid. Its songs don’t develop plot or character as they would in a conventional musical, nor do they offer an objective or ethical overview in the style of Brecht." The character of all the songs are the expression of one character, then, that of the composer, Tim Finn, and so they are remarkably unhelpful either for the characters in Matt Cameron’s play, since it is the one character voice all night, as per his recordings, the essential Tim Finn, or in any story telling-narrative extension. Mr Phillips goes on: "Rather they sit both outside and deeply inside the action, as if their oblique connection to the specifics of the plot gives us a window into the deepest internal monologues of the characters, voiced in appropriately poetic language of the soul." Since most of the acting is not entirely rooted in complex characterisation supported by internal monologues, let alone deep internal monologues, this fails to appear as well. To finish Mr Phillips eloquence in the notes: "This seems entirely appropriate to a work so essentially concerned with the mysteries of the human spirit and its potential astral transmogrification…… But while its form and premise are navigating theatrical and spiritual frontiers, its heart and soul are in a universally recognisable harbour. Above all it remains a simple and moving testimony to the human quest for family and belonging. Unsinkable." The portentous expectation of these written notes (Written before rehearsals began) as expressed by Mr Phillips is only wishful thinking. Certainly, in execution, on Wednesday afternoon, July 22nd, at the Sydney Theatre it was. Clearly, as is Mr Cameron, Simon Phillips is a big fan of Tim Finn. (So must Mr Upton and Ms. Blanchett). For the rest of us who don’t really know Mr Finn’s work intimately, it is a fairly dull and painful couple of hours. In my case, this play was far from "unsinkable", it sank like a Sol’s boat, the Neptune into a very deep "abyss".

In the program notes, there is a wonderful telling of the story of SWARNLATA: A young Indian girl who remembers in vivid detail another life, geography and history. A re-incarnated soul. The two families in this story, strangers to each other, as are the families in POOR BOY, reveal a maturity and spirituality that is admirable for its good sense and human dignity in working out the ‘miracle’ of this young girl’s fate. One wished this play had a similar feel. This vision in Australian terms seems to be not poor boy, but impoverished.

I read James Waites blog about this work and although I have reservations about the production of THE CITY across the road, I can only agree with him, it is, relatively, a play of genius. Good writers have to be at the centre of the performing arts. And time needs to be given for the nurturing of them. Last Year’s THE PIG IRON PEOPLE by John Doyle had the same feel of lack of nurturing.

Playing now until 1 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Jungle

Darlinghurst Theatre Company
& Drowned 8 Productions present THE JUNGLE by Louis Nowra.

Louis Nowra wrote this play and it premiered at The Sydney Theatre Company in 1995. In the program notes to this production Mr Nowra talks of this piece as an “intimate epic” and of “using a small cast to play many characters over a large spectrum of society.” 9 actors play some 29 characters over a sprawling three and a half hours in some sixteen scenes. In THE JUNGLE there are quite a collection of characters living in the Darlinghurst/Kings Cross area, “this is a world of, straights, gays, the wealthy, the underclass, the aids virus, users and the desperate…” However, the “large spectrum of society” that Mr Nowra speaks about is very narrow indeed in this epic!!!! Having many friends in this area, I have often been a dinner or luncheon guest, and even just walking to the railway station to get home after this performance, I know, and encountered quite a collection of people who are much more diverse, in all the ways that our society can be, than the set of people that dominate the stage of THE JUNGLE. It seems that Mr Nowra has a very limited set of acquaintances that live in this ‘Jungle’ and feels a need to write about. The choice of characters are very Tarantino PULP FICTION, the definite underclass, misfit or marginalized. In 1976 Mr Nowra published a photographic essay book (of which I have a copy) called THE BEAUTY OF MISERY. It is an interesting ‘essay’ and has indicated the viewpoint, for me, that Mr Nowra has been preoccupied with most of his career. Both, the physically and socially deprived and/or deformed and the beauty of their misery. This epic is stuffed with them, not a “normal” person to be seen that is not either gay or drug addled. It is indeed a tiresome group of people that he writes about relentlessly in THE JUNGLE. Tiresome, mostly because it is a relentless-three and a half hours of it. There is no contrasted world and this production renders the final scene titled in the text: HERE COMES THE SUN as a pretentious and lame conceit, attempting to lift this world into a place of beauty, probably because he regards them as human, flawed but human. They probably are, but, not in this manifestation of them.

To be honest there were some scenes that I found interesting; the first scene after interval THE PRICE OF PRAYER is an example. (I became engrossed in the problems of Nicolae and Sean). I felt that there was some good writing in the scenes concerning Cynthia, an international touring pop has-been, although the character and the situations are immensely over familiar. Is it the writing or is it just an over ambitious project by the director (Alex Galeazzi)? It is the Direction. The ponderous direction of the opening two scenes (A bad 'girl' bubby scene – a throwback to the principal character in Mr Nowra’s first play VOICES, perhaps - the wild child, and an horrendously dated Aids virus scene between father and son.) derail the opportunity for the audience to even begin to engage with the piece. This is compounded further with the director not able to find the right tones for characterisation from his actors. There is wit in the writing and with more close direction we might find it communicated to us. The actors just seemed panicked, unable to find timing or delivery. The audience I saw it with were befuddled and bemused, unsure how to behave. (A great number had sorted that out at the interval and did not return.)

The actors are valiant in their efforts to keep the work afloat. They need to be, I guess, as they have to turn up and do it every night. (I noticed Mr Galeazzi was not present – oh, the burden of the actor, the show goes on no matter the comfort or confidence zone that they may have about the “canvas” they are showing the paying audience – the director and other creatives can stay home and forget it.) Mr Galeazzi does not seem to be able to guide some of his actors to better calibrations of their instincts and techniques. The best work comes from Ivan Donato (surely one of the most talented young actors trying to get his break in Sydney - THE AGE OF CONSENT and CHERRY SMOKE, just two recent instances of his gift and talent), Emma Palmer, Kelly Butler and very intriguing work from Gianluigi Carelli (new to me). The other actors are variable, but the most prolifically questionable has to be the decisions made by Anthony Gooley and Mr Galeazzi in the creation of his characters: The two "gay" characters, Vince and Tim, are so grotesquely conceived as caricatures and /or cartoons, that the undoubtedly clever physical gifts of the actor as a mimic are ridiculously risible if we are meant to believe them as real people. (I defy either the actor or director to show me a real live Tim in the form they have invented. If the Vince creation had a more recognisable inner life, I might buy him, but, at the moment it is simply an externalised piece of aggressive homo-phobia. Mr Galeazzi talks of his recent project ANGELS IN AMERICA and in that, the writing of Belize, also a nurse /carer, is similar, but in all the incarnations I have ever seen of this Kushner character I have never seen anything but a great admiration for the person no matter what his expressive eccentricities. I believe there is similar potential in Vince. Mr Gooley, gave, last year a very creditable reading of Biff in the Ensemble’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, so, I lay most of the blame at the director’s feet.)

This has to follow on to the design elements. Nothing, not set (Charli Dugdale) – surely the Darlinghurst stage as many unique problems and they need to be dealt with earnestly), costume (Aasa Neeme), lighting (Jack Horton) or sound (Panos Couros) are very conducive to a good night in the theatre. They are mostly ugly and not useful in the suspension of one’s belief. Mr Galeazzi either needed more time or budget or both. But then, of course, he agreed to do the gig. No-one else to blame.

Bravo to the actors. Keep working together, and time and conscientiousness may help solve the problems that the rehearsal obviously hasn’t. It was a little dismaying to see a half apologetic curtain call. We wanted to thank you no matter what the experience you felt you had given us, otherwise, we would have left at the interval as well. Bravo.

Playing now until 8 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Photo - Marcus Graham - Pericles

Bell Shakespeare present PERICLES in Association with TAIKOZ. The Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Norrie Epstein in his book THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE in his discussion of the Tragicomic Romances begins: “Fantastical, superficial, artificial, improbable, impressionistic, inferior, miraculous, boring – or the best: no one can agree on the merits of Shakespeare’s romances. The eminently reasonable Dr. Johnson dismissed them as foolish, and they are. But, in the words of the playwright Dennis Potter, they are “sweetly foolish”. With PERICLES, CYMBELINE, THE WINTER’S TALE, and THE TEMPEST we enter Shakespeare’s final period…… All the great Shakespearean themes come together at the end: theatrical illusion and its relation to life, the conflict between appearance and reality, the discovery of the self, the capacity of art to transform terror into beauty, and the power of love to heal.”

In my experience of these plays the magic improbabilities of the reconciliations of THE WINTER’S TALE (the finding of a lost daughter and a statue of a dead wife coming to life!!!!!), all the coincidences of the storytelling of CYMBELINE and the joyous restoration of Imogen and Posthumus and the Roman brothers are risible but magical and energizing. (THE TEMPEST is the play that I most resist as yet in my play going experience.) In the many, many productions of PERICLES that I have seen, going as far back as Rex Cramphorne’s in the seventies/eighties, and around the world, in the UK and the USA, I am inevitably moved by the famous last act: the restoration of Pericles to his wife, Thaisa, and his daughter Marina. So, too, in the Bell Shakespeare I was transported to tears and a soft spot of being human and relishing and indulging my emotional capacities. John Bell (the Director), in his program notes believes that in these restorations Shakespeare was “Inspired… to some of his greatest poetry. The meeting of Pericles and Marina is unsurpassed in his work”, he says. Certainly, in this production, when the director allows the writer and the actor to take centre stage it works transportingly.

The historians believe that Shakespeare had little to do with the writing of the first two acts and in the compelling story telling of the final acts, when the words are powerful enough to hold our attention, this production is best. Thank goodness for Shakespeare then, and thank God for John Gaden, a miraculous commander of all his responsibilities, incisive intelligence and verbal skills illuminating with narrative clarity all he spoke (as Gower / Simonides / Cerimon) and to the pulsing risks that Marcus Graham as Pericles took with his creativity, the emotional heights and verse speaking, matching each other in an heroic style that was interesting in its expression, mainly because other contemporary actors do not often take flight into such unconventional but in this case laudable heights of emotion or expression. Beside Mr Graham, the simple and direct and centred reading of Andrea Demetriades as Marina was delicately and purely rendered and serenely complimented the offers of this Prince of Tyre at these magical restorations. Most of the other acting was underlined with a strenuous effort to speak both the sense clearly and technically. The craftsmanship of the actors hardly unleashed into transformative action, it was generally ugly to hear and mostly effortful. Laboured and earthbound. As in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of THE ALCHEMIST the sounds of this company is nowhere near matching the demands of the writing or its style. The heightened language images and the demands of the form, generally, defeat the company.

The Bell Shakespeare in working in association with TAIKOZ on this production may have locked themselves into a series of decisions that I found, calamitous. TAIKOZ ,an important and wonderful Australian group of musicians have developed a reputation for their artistry in independence and collaborations. However, in this case, as in the collaboration that the company had with Meryl Tankard, a few Sydney Festival’s ago, on KAIDAN: A GHOST STORY, in this very same theatre, their presence seemed to demand that they be used. In both cases, maybe, too excessively. As well as this, the sound of the music is derived from Japanese traditions and the drumming and the shakuhachi, is overwhelmingly Asian. This seems to have influenced the Design decisions (Julie Lynch) and the look of the costumes and set were decidedly and very oddly, very Asian, and yet this work is most emphatically, in text and location in the Southwestern Asia of the Mediterranean, in the time of early western civilizations. The look of the designs both set and especially costume are luridly ludicrous and the lighting (Gavan Swift) garish in their transformations. The physical movement (Gavin Robins) is precious (the walking out backwards drawing attention to itself), and, on the night I attended, scrappy and unconvincing, much like the early text of Act One and Two of this play. ( The movement, maybe, was an attempt to cover the frailty of the writing.) It is all, magnificently, a puzzlement. And very disconcerting. One is truly grateful for the simple choice of trusting the writer and the two principal actors of the last Act. No Music, and no costumery and a simple white/blue lighting state to support the verisimilitude of the moments.

The audience I was with applauded immensely. The schools were surprised. The purists should keep away.

Playing in Sydney now until 1 August.
Playing in Melbourne 6 - 22 August at the Arts Centre, Playhouse.
For more information or to book click here.

N.B. I caught public transport to the Opera House. I paid cash for my ticket. I paid $60 for my Bell Shakespeare ticket. On the ticket it was $60.00. But on my receipt butt it was $65.00. I was, as usual, charged by the Opera House Trust $5.00 for purchasing in person, in cash at approximately 7pm, half hour before the performance, a ticket and the need to sit in a theatre that they have already rented at cost to the production company. A double dip? Is this an extra tax for those of us who wish to patronise the arts in this venue on top of what I already pay in my revenue donation through taxation? Do the renting companies know of this extra cost to their patrons who attend their work in this building? Do the rentees regard the possibility that I might not attend because of this behaviour? Would they consider using another venue to prevent their customer from being financially penalized to see their work or are they collusive with the renters? Do they get a percentage? Is this just a rip off of the Sydney patron or the innocent tourist who ignorantly just want to see anything at this world famous site? A $5.00 rip off of every customer must be lucrative for the trust. Would the trust reveal its weekly revenue skim off? I strenuously object to this unexplained practice.

I should confess that I have boycotted all but the really necessary performances at the Opera House and warn my friends of the outrageous taxation. If a show can be seen in another convenient venue I do. So what was once a free perusal of risk taking attending in their own programs, I generally now ignore all the brochures sent to me endlessly by the House. So should we all until a satisfactory explanation is given.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Photo - Alice Parkinson and Conrad Coleby - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

ARTS RADAR in association with B Sharp present the world premiere of LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK by Robert Couch, adapted from the novella by Nickolai Leskov in the Downstairs Theatre.

Robert Couch and Joseph Couch have taken the 1864 novella by Nikolai Leskov and have adapted and staged it for a 2009 audience. This is a famous story made more famous by the Shostakovitch Opera which we have seen in Sydney this year from the Australian Opera. This version is fairly truthful to the structure of the major events of the original. A straight forward and affectionate version. (An act of romantic admiration that has a vanity project feel about it.) It is the novella subjected to a fairly ordinary play transformation into another form. It is simply a retelling of the narrative that feels like a screenplay: little textual sinuosity with a dependency on sub-textual explication. Robert Couch’s version is polite and seemly; all the sex off stage and/or dressed. The Shostakovitch version has much more power and sexual tension (aided and abetted by a fabulous sexy and witty score) and Joseph Couch’s production is fairly pedestrian in its dealing and staging of the turmoil of the narrative and hardly bares comparison with the searing, confronting production of Francesca Zambello for the Opera Company. Odd to see this timidity, about this text, by this acting company at the usually brave, out-there B Sharp Downstairs Theatre. (Remember the Wedekind offer last year, SPRING AWAKENING – for all of it’s ‘horrors’, at least viscerally provocative with a very committed point of view.) It almost feels as if the antique age of this original novella requires, for a contemporary audience, a shielding from the repugnant experiences of the characters. It feels like an early twentieth century writing mode (say 1950’s) for a nineteenth century story in the twenty first century. It is essentially boring, except for those of us who, either, have not read the novella or seen the opera. As an overlap audience, as I am, I was shocked at the lack of real drama, confrontation or point of view. Its relevancy for our time, other than the possibility of a great story is lacking. The new acquaintances to the story might find it interesting but the audience I was with, in the interval, I overheard, had got the predictability of the unravelling of the narrative and were way ahead of the playwright - a BBC /ABC Sunday afternoon TV version. Why did they want to do it? WHY? What is the purpose of this use of time and space in the B Sharp program? Beyond me .

The design elements do not presage much expectation: the Set (Esther Couch), a grey tiled floor and a paint washed wall focused with a bizarre detail of an Italianate portrait of the Catholic Virgin Mary with a flaming heart, that was/is familiar in every contemporary Australian/Irish Catholic school. (I had one exactly the same on my little altar in my bedroom as devotion – set beside a similar one of Christ.) A Russian Orthodox image could not be found? Or is it a post-modernist affliction- set up by the director? It is a lit focused gesture of attention throughout most of the first act and as the production wends on, simply becomes a gnawing pedantic, on my part, annoyance. The furniture is a mixture of miscellaneous, found, mid-twentieth century table and non-descript chairs and stool. It is accompanied by Russian Church choirs and bells and folk music (Stefan Gregory), even with the Katerina singing, triumphantly, a folk song in Russian. So where are we? The Costume design (Alia Parker) and the props looks as if they have been found in a reject St. Vincent’s donation bin; its wherefore or why lacks any real clarity. The poverty of design vision and care is dispiriting. What decisions have been made to serve the clarity of the story or the characters? I found not much. When is it, what time period? Oh, maybe in all of history, except the original period of the story (as there is no reference): more post-modernist leanings?!!! Truly poverty stricken in vision, or invention or budget? Which one? The Lighting by Verity Hampson is, as usual, of a suitable quality.

The acting elicited from this cast is mostly two dimensional and relentlessly repetitive. The two leading characters played by Alice Parkinson (Katerina) and Conrad Coleby (Sergei) have very little writing to support any real depth of characterisation. (It is present in the novella surely? - It is.) This Katerina comes across as a passive, still waters run deep, psychopath- nothing more. Sergei as a stupid victim of sex projection. It is fortunate that both of these actors are so comely in their appearance, as that is the principal sustaining reason to stay connected to the piece. The personal charisma of the actors, not those of the characters. It looks and feels like afternoon soap opera writing and casting and performing. As the rest of the cast play multiple roles and are similarly thin in the depth of their renditions this must be a deliberate decision by Mr Couch. (The resumes of these actors in the program suggest that they are experienced and oft employed professionals.) The puzzlement of Mr Couch’s intentions are highlighted by the off putting choice of the Virgin Mary print (as mentioned) and the touch of the Colombine spots of pink rouge on the cheek bones of Katerina in the first act. It is supported by full glamorous make up choices by Amy Kersey and Edwina Ritchard in the long stylized (lazily, by movement coach, Peter Furness), episodes of the long walk to Siberia in the second half of the production. Glamorous trip or, again, ironic post-modernism obfuscation? The point in the visual choices are.....?

If you like story telling at the level of Charles and Mary Lamb and their delightful and harmless renditions of Shakespeare’s plays, even the horrid ones, then this adaptation and staging of LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK is for you. The reduction of the fierceness of this story and its psychological investigation by this company is Disney like at it’s most careless and disrespectful. The modern relevant, confronting contemporary theatre version you can catch at the Australian Opera in a few seasons time, perhaps. When it comes back to the repertory.

Playing now until 26th July.
For more information or to book click here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The City

Photo - Belinda McClory - The City

Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 2 present THE CITY by Martin Crimp. Presented by arrangement with the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre.

Maybe written as a companion piece to Mr Crimp’s play THE COUNTRY (2000), THE CITY (2008) concerns a young couple, Clair (Belinda McClory) and Christopher (Colin Moody) living in a city under the contemporary pressures of job insecurity, and the influence of a world full of war, torture and terrorism, of all kinds – close at hand and far away. It reveals a world of the fracturing social block of ‘marriage’ and the residual inheritance that the children are dealing with – unfinished ‘music’.

The play begins ordinarily enough with the husband asking the wife simply “How was your day?” Clair replies and takes us to amazing and disturbing incidents concerning a meeting with a stranger at Waterloo station called Mohammed who tells her of torture he has suffered and the abduction of his child by his sister-in law. Ordinary lives obtruded by the extraordinary. “How was your day?” In a following scene, a neighbour, Jenny (Anita Hegh), a nurse comes to ostensibly complain about the noise of the couple’s children, keeping her awake, an everyday problem possibility, but digresses into the harrowing telling of her husband’s experiences as a doctor in the army in a war zone in the drain pipes of another city. Later, again, we meet Christopher with a little girl (his daughter?) (Georgia Bowery), dressed in a nurse’s uniform identical to that of Jenny, the neighbour, who recites some very ‘blue’ limericks. (Where are the “Henson” police?). In the last scene we meet her again, again, identically dressed as Jenny, in a different outfit, including precipitous pink high, high heels, climbing to a baby grand piano where she attempts to play music. The little girl falters and tries again. And again – unfinished music. Before this final image we learn, Pirandello-like, that none of this is necessarily real. It all may be the creative writing of Clair in her diary as she tries to cope, her profession being that of a translator – she flees to attempting to create her own world. To create a city. To translate her experiences into a fictional order, but the diary finishes as unfinished musing – an unfinished tune. A feeling of desolation, of been unsettled, anxious could be the final take away of this piece.

Benedict Andrews (the Director) and the Set Designer (Ralph Myers) have created a black carpeted proscenium breadth of seven ungainly high steps, which the actors clamber upon with difficulty and unsafely (metaphor, perhaps!!). The lighting by Nick Schlieper dependently warm and comforting and atmospheric, the Sound (Alan John) mostly apparent in lengthy blackouts of urban noise and foot sounds, soothing in identification. The costumes by Fiona Crombie beautifully controlled and telling in their details. The acting style that is demanded by the set design choice is a heightened naturalistic creation that is then warped and delivered mostly out front and at a demanding speed. (The London production some 80-90 minutes in contrast to the 60 odd minutes at Wharf 2.) The character’s interaction with each other is rare and supposed. We, the audience have a reading of the play that is a bit like a staged radio play. (Act one of THE WAR OF THE ROSES!!!!!). In fact if you close your eyes the impact of the play may be much the same with your eyes open. Physically or image wise not much, other than the costume design, is useful. The writing is mostly absorbingly interesting. I am not sure, in this production, whether it is good playwrighting? It is a fairly arid, and event wise, dull evening in the theatre. I feel, having read the play, that I gained no new knowledge by having given an evening at the theatre to experience it again.

The acting by the three adult performers is as good as one expects of these performers within the givens of the directing demands. In fact it is the presence of these actors that mostly drew me to the play. It is the presence of the actors that sustains one’s interest throughout the piece. (Belinda McClory and Colin Moody last year in THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD and Anita Hegh in KILLER JOE and BEYOND THE NECK gave performances worth savouring.) (NB that the young actor, on the night I attended, was mostly, except for the limericks, inaudible, particularly when facing to the sides. Is there some coaching given to these young people to prepare them for each night? It did not seem very professional or with any real sense of duty of care to the paying audience. “What did she say?” – “I don’t know.” “What?” And on it went.... etc, etc.)

A few years ago, I saw a wonderful production of ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE by John Sheedy, one of Martin Crimp’s great experiments in theatre and form and was so stimulated that I went several times and took friends. As we left the theatre we were handed cards advertising DEALING WITH CLAIR, another Martin Crimp (a twenty one year old venture, with the major character also called Clair.) up at the Griffin later this month. I’m not sure whether this was wise as there were many unhappy people in the crush to the exit mumbling and grumbling about that “bloody awful play.” In this production of THE CITY we had the experience of a chamber play of little consequence. No-ones life will be the poorer for not having seen it. Read it and you may feel it should have a consequence.

Playing now until August 9th.
For more information or to book click here.

Monday, July 6, 2009


Photo - Lachy Hulme & Darren Gilshenan - Elling

Sydney Theatre Company
in association with the Ambassador Theatre group presents ELLING, based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen. Stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Peter Naess. Translated by Nicholas Norris. Adapted by Simon Bent. At Wharf 1.

ELLING, as you can read (above) comes to us through a very numerous set of creative hands: writers, translators and adaptors, (the screen play of the novel, which was the first of three films based on the books, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign film in 2002, was also an important source of Mr Bent’s contribution). It is a slight, feel good time in the theatre.

It concerns two patients from a mental institution who are placed into the community in government accommodation as a means to “empowerment”. This program, by the Norwegian government, “places great emphasis on those integrated back into society living a normal life, promoting independence, improved living conditions and involvement in everyday life.” Simon Bent, the final adaptor, says “my aim (was) to tread the fine line of tragi-comedy”..... not to ridicule or make figures of fun or “become mawkishly sentimental”. This is true of the play we witness. Mr Bent goes on to say, “It’s a classic double act, Laurel and Hardy, Vladimir and Estragon, the odd couple of the world of social services.” The key comparison in this production would be that between Felix and Oscar in Neil Simon’s classic THE ODD COUPLE. (Hardly, Vladimir or Estragon.)

Directed by Pamela Rabe it is well staged. Scene tempos seem to be fairly similar and the play sometimes flags in maintaining sustained interest, especially in the second half. Some scenes seem to be directed in an isolated way, e.g. the poetry performances, and become tour de force of stand up comedy without real integration to the thematics of the play - satirical gems and hilarious, but do not add much forward thrust in the story telling. Glenn Hazeldine, Frank Whitten and especially Yael Stone, in a series of cameo characterisations, give great support to the two principals.

Darren Gilshenan creates a wonderful characterisation of Ellling with deft comic skills and timing and a clear actor’s insight into the psychological motivations and makeup of the character.It has details from an observation of a life lived outside what we see on the stage. He brings a life-force onto the stage and fills in a back-story with more than competent joy and real physical and vocal skills serving a vision of the man. The history and aspirations of Elling “with his mad precise logic but always glimmer of truth” are clearly present and indelibly drawn. Mr Gilshenan’s Elling is a very moving and gently comic creation.

On the other hand Lachy Hulme as Kjell, although successful in the playing of the scenes moment to moment, lacks real depth. The performance is full of charm and we the audience are seduced in the moment but he never seems to enter the role and fill it out. Mr Hulme seems content with what he says and does, as the writer dictates, with no insight or resource to expand the rest of the character’s life. The narrative developments of the beautiful match box house, equipped with lighting, which Kjell builds, and the fact that he has the mechanical skill to repair a motor car seem to be random ‘miracles’ since the characterisation presented by Mr Hulme has not prepared us for those turns. Sex, mostly masturbatory, and food seem to be Kjell’s only interests. The motor skills or interests of the man are never prepared for. The performance is full of a comics tricks that are clever and rewarding but ultimately shallow. Simon Bent speculates that this couple has the potential to be a classic double like Laurel and Hardy, I would add Abbot and Costello or George Burns and Gracie Fields, but in this case we have only one of the couple (Mr Gilshenan), with the depth of human observation to fill out what makes these other classic pairings immortal. It is a let down and a clue maybe to why this production does not elevate into a wholly successful experience. Why it doesn’t transcend the writing.

The Costume design by Tess Schofield was as usual, inventive and witty. The lighting by Nick Schlieper, subtle in its contribution, as was the sound design by Max Lyandvert (At last, the source of the sound, a radio, being used to be the place of origin for the cue. {see THE DUEL}). The Set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell was relatively subdued (TRAVESTIES) and clever, although, maybe just a little over inventive in the slide box revelations, and expressive of a budget to burn. (Let’s save some money and hire an actor!!!) (Was it really necessary to have such a detailed observation of the urinals, for example? Would an image have been just as affective for these design ideas in the play, contextually.?

If the object of the choice of play was to give the audience a feel good experience this was our experience at the performance I attended, if slightly flawed. If it was to enlighten us about the difficulty of these people’s lives maybe texts by Joe Penhall are more observant and enlightening. Still, what is of especial interest in this production is the pleasure of the quality of work of Darren Gilshenan and worth the cost of the ticket. Otherwise the film is pretty good and cheaper.

Playing now until 18 July.
For more information or to book click here.