Monday, January 25, 2010

Legally Blonde

Sonia Friedman Productions, Robert G. Bartner, Ambassador Theatre Group, Bud Martin, Adam Zotovich, Jamie Hendry Productions and Act Productions in association with MGM ON STAGE, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber present LEGALLY BLONDE, The Musical. Music and Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin; Book by Heather Hach. Based on the novel "Legally Blonde"by Amanda Brown and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture at the Savoy Theatre, London.

As the lyrics in the opening song of this musical goes, "Omigod You Guys, Omigod You Guys" just look at the list, above, of producers that needs to be in line to get a musical on. OHMYGOD!!!!!! It had better work.

OK. After the shows that I have blogged from my London visit whose general tenor is SERIOUS, and because I had seen a scene from the musical featuring the court room scene: "There! Right There!" and loving it ("Is he European or Gay?"), I thought it important to see at least one West End musical. Really important. I felt it my duty to at least balance out my theatrical time in London with a demonstration of a broad palate of taste. I don't want to give the impression of being a terribly SERIOUS guy with no sense of fun. And as this show is also the newest "cab off the rank" and therefore, still pretty perky in it's energy, I felt sure that I would have a decent time.

And guess what?

It was more than a decent time. It is really fun. Although there is not a single song that one can hum 10 minutes after leaving the theatre, although the story of a legally blonde gal who decides to get her man by doing a law degree at Harvard Law School and succeeding with the support of the sisterhood of lots of other women, but score a better man, is ridiculously stupid, the show has enough silly and predictable jokes and bouncy choreography (Jerry Mitchell, also the Director), colourful Set (David Rockwell) and Costumes (Gregg Barnes), COLOUR AND MOVEMENT galore, to help one to suspend one's disbelief and have a really great two and a bit hours in the theatre. Certainly the very young audience about me, who whooped and screamed, literally, with delight indicated that they, Ohmygod, just loved it. OHMYGOD so did I.

Sheridan Smith as Elle Woods is super. Jill Halfpenny as second banana character, the beauty parlour creative, Paulette Buonufonte, with the passion for the Irish is a scene stealer. Aoife Mulholland as the Fitness Expert is hilarious. The men, Duncan James, Alex Gaumond and an old Dr WHO refugee, Peter Davison fulfill all the book and musical requirements with the right capacity of ease and varying degrees of sexual appeal for their characters. The support team of singer/actor/dancers are all, at this time, giving all their unbridled, disciplined selves to entertaining us.

I hear that this show was a surprise hit on Broadway and I can't see why this perfectly harmless but delicious fluff should not be in London as well. It even has two live dogs on stage, on cue. OHHHHHH.

Now will this get to Sydney and the rest of Australia? Why not? It is a great sorbet of fun in an unhappy world.

The Power of Yes

The National Theatre presents THE POWER OF YES by David Hare in the Lyttelton Auditorium of the National Theatre, London.

"In retrospect it is fair to say that the idea that banks could manage risk was a total illusion?"

"Capitalism works when greed and fear are in the correct balance. This time they got out of balance. Too much greed, not enough fear."

"It's like a ship which you're being told is in apple-pie order, the decks are cleaned, the metal is burnished, the only thing nobody mentions, it's being driven at full speed towards an iceberg."

On September 15, 2008, Capitalism came to a grinding halt. The National Theatre asked David Hare to investigate, urgently, and write a work that sought to find out what happened. He tried to find out the answer to the Queen's question to the London School of Economics: "Why did nobody see it coming?"

Following on from the success of the verbatim texts of Mr Hare: STUFF HAPPENS and THE PERMANENT WAY, David Hare met with many of the key players from the financial world and in September, 2009 delivered for audiences THE POWER OF YES. Another verbatim play, this one with 20 actors playing over 30 or so roles, to, as the sub-title to the printed text tells us, have "A dramatist seek to understand the financial crisis."

"If it's a play, it's a Greek tragedy. You're going along in a dream, and then the Furies arrive and boy, do they wake you up."

"I think the whole thing as a Shakespearean tragedy, and like all great tragedies it ends with bodies all over the stage."

On the full breadth and depth of the Lyttelton stage (Set Design, Bob Crowley), bare of all furniture and props, a gleaming reflective floor that mirrors the figures haunting this text (Lighting,Paule Constable), backed by several screens, hanging across the fly space of the stage, that are constantly shifting and glowing with supporting Video & Projection designs (Jon Driscoll with Gemma Carrington) of moving and still images, graphs, quotes and figures, a large group of actors, beautifully dressed, displaying understated wealth, enter and begin a dialogue with a character known as The Author, (David Hare, presumably) (Anthony Calf). The author interviews, chats, interrogates always curiously, sometimes calmly, clearly, amusedly, sometimes confusedly, frustratedly and even angrily, principal figures and observers of the unraveling of our market system. Mr Calf is a marvelous guide to the journey of the play. An immaculate elucidator of the process that Mr Hare has ordered for us, to try to give us some insight and clarity to this contemporary dilemma, catastrophe. In fact, all of the actors respond to their tasks with real authority and exude a confidence that helps us stay in the "swim" of the evening.

The play concludes with a marvelously witty short interlude, in the only furnished scene, in a private dining room,superbly luxurious, in a penthouse suite over looking Central Park owned by George Soros, a hedge fund manager and philanthropist (Bruce Myers), where The Author and Mr Soros talk of Alan Greenspan, who allegedly is in the thrall of Ayn Rand and believes in "creative destruction" and in explanation of his position, (positions) says, "The benefits of the market are so great that you have to live with the price." To which Soros replies, after losing a billion dollars, which annoyed him greatly(!), "Yes, but Alan, the people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits."

The play is almost two hours long and played without interval and although, admittedly, any finance data or maths above the ordinary citizens daily needs (milk, bread, bus ticket and the infrastructure bills) are a bafflement to me, I was totally engrossed (occasional panics) with a fluid and beautifully paced production (Director, Angus Jackson). Dense with information and peppered with well balanced humour the evening was absorbing with stimulating and provocative information. Part of the ease, for comprehension, in the case of THE POWER OF YES, in contrast to STUFF HAPPENS, for me, was, that most of the real figures represented on the stage were strangers and so unlike the appearance of world stage characters of STUFF HAPPENS (Bush, Blair Rice etc), I was not distracted by the actor's imitative observations of real people characteristics and could stay wholly focused on the textual revelations and logic.

This is a terrific production of a dense and disturbing investigative inquiry.

Standing alongside the text ENRON by Lucy Prebble, the production by Headlong and the Royal Court, reopening in January in the London West End (Director Rupert Goold), the London audience has enough material to argue the perceptions of the Financial Crisis, over the supper table or well into the night in bed. I did. Both these texts are prime examples of the power of theatre and the social responsibilities that the art form can have for its community. Greek Theatre in action in 2010.

"Our system for regulating markets and prosecuting market crime is completely broken. If you mug someone in the market and you are caught, the chances are you will go to prison. In recent years, mugging someone out of their savings or their pension would probably earn you a yacht....
Let's have fewer terrorism acts, fewer laws attacking our right to speak frankly and freely. Let's stop filling our prisons with junkies, inadequates and the mentally deranged. How apposite in 2009 to have, instead, a few more laws to confront the clever people who have done their best to steal our economy." - Sir Ken McDonald. Director of Public Prosecutions 2003-2008. (UK)

"If you want good security, hire a thief." - Financial recruiter, explaining why disgraced bankers are being offered new jobs.

As we see the banks and corporations rewarding today, in January, 2010, their high flyers, for their achievements, this is theatre that informs the greater public in ways that might move them to action.

Belvoir is presenting this text later in the year in Sydney, directed by Sam Strong.

War Horse

in association with HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY presents WAR HORSE based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo. Adapted by Nick Stafford. At the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London.

WAR HORSE was first presented at the National Theatre, Southbank, in the Olivier Theatre in October in 2007. Revived in September 2008.Opened at the New London Theatre in March 2009. When I was purchasing my tickets for the performance I saw in January, 2010, the man in front of me was purchasing a "family" booking for September, 2010!!!!! This Production has what those in the business call "legs". I will now tell you why.

HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY are a South African based company founded in 1981,"by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Two of the co-founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, continue to run the company." They created shows for children and toured South Africa collaborating with Theatre directors and other Artists (eg: Barney Simon, co-founder of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg (STARSBRITEL) William Kentridge (FAUSTUS IN AFRICA). A world reputation based on international tours grew." In 2000, Handspring created THE CHIMP PROJECT, depicting the rehabilitation of a tame chimpanzee into the wild. This was the first of three productions with animals as central characters. It was followed by TALL HORSE, with the Malian puppet company, Sogolon, which focuses on the gift of a giraffe by the Pasha of Egypt to the King of France in 1827. WAR HORSE is the third".

Tom Morris, director of WAR HORSE, (with Marianne Elliot), saw a performance of THE CHIMP PROJECT at the Barbican and apparently fell in love with a hyena puppet-character. He subsequently made contact with the company and began a search for a project that the National Theatre and Handspring could collaborate on. It was in this pursuit that Mr Morris came across Michael Morpurgo's novel for children called WAR HORSE.

Michael Morpurgo is a highly respected and honoured writer of over 100 children's books. (As well as a co-founder, with his wife, of a charity: Farms for City Children). "I was in the pub, The Duke of York (in Iddesleigh, Devon). "Are you writing another book Michael?" said the old man sitting opposite me by the fire, cradling his pint. I told him that I'd come across an old painting of a cavalry charge in the First World War. The British cavalry were charging up a hill towards the German position, one or two horses already caught up on the barbed wire. I was trying, I told him, to write the story of the First World War through the eyes of a horse. "I was there in 1916," the old man told me, his eyes filling with tears. "I was there with the horses too." He talked on for hours about the horse he'd loved and left behind at the end of the war, how the old horse had been sold off to the French butchers for meat........ How to tell such a story? I had to find a way that didn't take sides. So I conceived the notion I might write the story of the First World war as seen through a horse's eyes, a horse that would be reared on a Devon farm, by the forebears of the village people people I knew, a horse that is sold off the farm to go to the front as a British cavalry horse, is captured by the Germans and used to pull ambulances and guns, winters on a French farm. It would be the horse's eye view of the universal suffering of that dreadful war in which ten million people died, and unknown millions of horses."

Persuaded by Tom Morris of the possibility of adapting the novel for the stage, Mr Morpurgo realising the difference in the literary forms, allowed under commission from the National Theatre, Nick Stafford, to attempt the task. A series of workshops, both textually and physically began.

There is a fascinating documentary about the production history of WAR HORSE available (Extras - particularly engrossing, as well, on the DVD). It tells of the laborious process of exploration of the design (Rae Smith), puppet design & fabrication (Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler). The actor/company exploration of the Movement & Horse Choreography (Toby Sedgewick) and Sound/Voice work (Kate Godfrey, Jeanette Nalson). It seems to me, it is the intensity and support of this preparation that has arrived at a wonderful theatrical experience. I must add it is in ALL the areas of the artistic and craft inputs that combine holistically to create a unique experience. The Drawings (Rae Smith) and Video Designers (Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty-Nine Productions), Lighting Designer (Paul Constable), an extraordinarily apt and moving Music Score (Adrian Sutton) and Songmaker (John Tams), and Sound Design (Christopher Shutt).

However, the key element to the success of this production, for me, are the absolutely astonishing puppet creations. Ten horses in all, (besides other animals), but, particularly, the two principal puppets bringing to life, JOEY, our hero and TOPTHORN, his companion. Three actors, manipulate these two creations of Mr Jones and Kohler (assisted by Craig Leo and Mervyn Millar). Their roles are divided between what is demarcated as the "head", "heart" and "hind". (NB Twelve puppeteers play Joey and Topthorn in rotation.) The miracle of these life sized puppets is that the magic wrought by these actors make/cause their presence to disappear and in the intricate details of these creations, a perfect suspension of disbelief occurs and the empathy that seemed to pour out of me for these "horse-characters", that were real, during the performance, was replicated by my companions and the audience about me of all ages, children and adults.

The stage is a very broad oval thrust, painted in Vorticist (British art movement, eg Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska), grey, camouflage patterns, that are sensitive to the lighting patterns of Mr Constable to create the farm lands of Devon and the war zones of France. The stage is surrounded by huge black surrounds, from which, the huge creations of the team arrive to delight and frighten. Above the stage is a 25-metre wide projection screen, shaped like a ripped page from a sketchbook, (one of the principal human characters, Captain Nicholls, keeps a sketch record of his experiences, from his first vision of JOEY, galloping in the fields of Devon, to the rigours of the battlefields of France). It becomes the visual locator of the many environments of the story. Still Images covering a range of drawing styles, partnered by Video images create a very dense visual background to the experience of the play, mostly black and white, occasionally some muted colour. All of the images are wonderfully supported by a similarly dense and stimulating sound design and music score. The actual physical setting props, for the Narracott house etc, are simply represented by door frames and door.

The style of playing is that of a large Brechtian type ensemble, the actors playing a variety of characters with a variety of responsibilities, that are mostly representative. The character development is simplistic with a greater emphasis on the narrative and the use of 'type'. Albert (Robert Emms) the original owner of JOEY and then the German soldier, Kavallerie Hauptmann Friedrich Muller (Patrick O'Kane), who finds and adopts JOEY on the battlefields of France, are the two humans that I made most attachment too. It IS the story of JOEY and TOPTHORN and the puppets that the three actors of each creation manipulate into life, that seduce the empathy and identification of the viewer. The apparent truthfulness of the movements of the horses, its gait in different states of movement, the extraordinary sensitivity of the leg and hoof movement combined with the astonishing life likeness of the neck and head and ears of the "horses" combined the vocal "dialogue"(the horses do not speak human text) of the horse developed by the actors, are totally absorbing. It is the subtle impression of the horse "Breathing" that is at the core of our suspension of disbelief. Miraculous.

From the flight of birds around the sky of the Devon countryside (I have to confess I blubbered with excitement at this first instance of puppet magic), the voyage of the ships across the Channel, the horrific charge of the British Cavalry Brigade into the German machine guns and barbed wire of the battlefields in France, to the terrifying entrance of a World War One tank menacing the environment of the battlefields, and the torturous entanglement of JOEY in the barbed wire and the near miss of the penultimate meeting with Albert and JOEY in the aftermath of the war, the imagination of the audience is in a full creative state of a visceral heart pounding kind. The great performance, then, of the evening, is that of each of the audience members, and, ultimately, the collective of all in the New London Theatre. The theatrical skill of this National Theatre enterprise, in engaging and maintaining our concentration and commitment, is breathtaking in its capacity. Literally, BREATHTAKING, taking our cues from the "horses" themselves. This is great theatre. I defy anyone not to be impressed.

On this wintry night out on the streets,in London, my companions and I registered our joy and wonder and smiled at our shedding of tears during the journey of human and animal lives and the horrors of war we had just witnessed. Nostalgically, I recalled my attachment to Black Beauty and Ginger in the Anna Sewell novel as a child. I recalled MY FRIEND FLICKA. Now as an adult, I, and to my pleasure, my companions, have two more heroes JOEY and TOPTHORN to include in our equine dreams.

I have heard rumours that this production may tour to Australia - (on what stage with the breadth and revolve could be utilised, worries me) and if it does DO NOT MISS: WAR HORSE.

(By the way, HANDSPRING PUPPET COMPANY have already toured to Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane in past years. Unlucky Sydney and Melbourne. Unlucky me.)

(PS : I had recently watched, with the gadgetry of 3D, AVATAR. Although impressed for a time with the technical achievements, the computer generated images finally were only computer generated images. The underdevelopment of the characters and the simplistic narrative and dumbed-downed politics of the piece, surfaced in my concentration during the watching of the film. There was no emotional attachment or any real caring for the characters or story or, even in the, pathetically,prophetically sad politics of the film.

After the WAR HORSE experience, in the theatre, I could not help to wonder at the differences of effect that the experience in the cinema and the theatre had given me. WAR HORSE will be a high water mark of experience on all levels. Character, narrative and politics. AVATAR will disappear as a minor event, as time and progress in the medium subsume the technical amazements [CGI] of AVATAR, takes place. The human element of joint invention and belief in the theatre triumphed.)

For more information click here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


RED. A New Play by John Logan. Presented at the Donmar Warehouse.

This is a play for two actors, lasting approximately 100 minutes, without interval, by American, John Logan - (eg. Theatre: NEVER THE SINNER and film: THE AVIATOR, GLADIATOR, etc). It is set in Mark Rothko's studio at 220 Bowery, New York, during 1958 and 1959. A young man/artist, Ken (Eddie Redmayne) is employed to be an assistant/'dog's body to the artist Rothko (Alfred Molina). The job/role/challenge is accepted by the young man and the play charts the learning process of both men in the two years covered in the play.The significance of the time setting of the play is that it is in the period of Rothko's commission from the architects Philip Johnson and Mies der Rohe, who are designing the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. In this building, a restaurant called the Four Seasons, is planned and they have chosen Rorhko to paint a series of murals for the walls, for $35,000 (Think, approximately $2 million in today's currency).

A young apprentice and a blustering, opinionated intellectual/art practitioner in close circumstance. In gradual combat? The play could easily have just being a platform for the writer to quote or mouth off a whole lot of "Rothkoisms" about art and creativity to a pupil and reveal the usual gradual growth, of Ken, into a Pygmalion figure:

ROTHKO: You ever read Nietzsche? THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY?

KEN: No.

ROTHKO: You call yourself an artist? One can't discuss Pollock without it. One can't discuss anything without it. What do they teach you in art school now?

KEN: I -

ROTHKO: You ever read Freud?

KEN: No -


KEN: Well -

ROTHKO: Bryon? Wordsworth? Aeschylus? Turgenev? Sophocles? Schopenhauer? Shakespeare? HAMLET? At least HAMLET, please God! Quote me HAMLET right now.

KEN: 'To be or not to be, that is the question.'

ROTHKO: Is that the question?

KEN: I don't know.

ROTHKO: You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy.Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment. You cannot be an ARTIST until you are civilized. You cannot be CIVILIZED until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world. To surmount the past, you must know the past.

There is more like this throughout the play, but, fortunately, Mr Logan has written a young man with brains and courage and spunk and the play develops into a fierce battle of becoming equals. It is bristling with ideas and illuminating debate in it's five scenes. It also reveals the human passions of both the protagonists and we do come to care for these two figures, not just admire the intellectual jousting. It is a most satisfying experience. (Enough for me to hunt out the text for my library.)

But what makes the experience of this play outstanding is the production by Michael Grandage who with his Designer Christopher Oram have created, in the Donmar space, a palpably real working artist's studio. Mr Oram has created on the outer fringes of the stage space a realistic 'pile up' of the bric-a-brac of the artists mess: Sinks, buckets, paints, cloths, brushes, cleaning jars, furniture, debris, so convincing that one could almost smell the room. Famously, the Rothko working space is bereft of natural light and the lighting is craftily scaled to allow Rothko to see his murals as the 'pulsating' light source of the room. The Lighting Designer, Neil Austin, exemplary in his effects. No more so than when the ugly fluorescent is switched on and the contrast is startlingly vivid of the artistic aspirations of the artist and the necessity of his will. We long for the restoration to the febrile gloom of the living cave that is Rothko's creative space - it is with gratitude, when it happens, that we exhale our held breath of wincing visual shock.

But it is not only the Designer's dressing of the periphery that is memorable, it is what he and Mr Grandage have invented in the action of the play. On the back wall of the central space huge 'glowing' half finished and/or finished canvasses are stacked (What fun Mr Oram and his assistants must have had to create the density of this output - it is very convincing) and in the pre-play moments, hung from pulleys high in the roof, hangs the latest work in creation. A brooding Mark Rothko, in chair, cigarette in hand, eyes it off, meditates.

Mr Grandage and Mr Oram have the actors lower and unbuckle, from the pulley system, the canvasses, move and replace them with others, usually to the powerful foreground sound of Classical music. (Sound Design and Composition, Adam Cork). We see Ken making frames, we see him stretch a canvas, we see both of the men mix and create the paint colours in buckets and in an astounding theatrical sequence we see both these artists, together, to a Gluck aria, prime a canvas with fat brushes. Swathes of "red" - plum coloured paint, splat out over the white canvas, and, when finished hangs glowering in an invitation to the imagination of the viewer, of the Greek Tragedy potential of it all - " to be about despair, doom, entropy, the void and oblivion.... freighted with potential significance." The Gluck, the lighting, the glowering canvas in the dim of the studio, and the now heavily red splattered, drenched artists, bodies heaving and sucking breath with the effort of the work, slightly swaying with dripping brushes, puddling slightly in pools of what could be blood, could represent any of the assassins of the canon of the Greek Theatre classics. Theatrical magic of a totally thrilling kind.

It is this creating of a working studio harnessed to powerful metaphorical images that lifts an interesting text into a high culture experience. The depth of concept by Mr Grandage and his team and the convincing integrity of every choice is entirely satisfying.

Besides my own personal opportunity to spend time in an actual artist's working studio, the Scorsese sequence LIFE LESSONS (with Nick Nolte) in the NEW YORK STORIES film and the 2002 Ed Harris bio of Jackson Pollock in POLLOCK are the nearest I have seen a replication of the energy of such live spaces. In the witnessing of the priming of the canvas in this production the feeling of the possible ecstasy of the primal forces of creativity are given to a theatre audience. That sequence alone is worth the ticket price.

The performances of the two actors are highly charged and primed. Mr Molina gives a performance that displays the ego and arrogance of this painter with relentless power, he also gives, beneath the tiger/peacock displays of temperament, the artist's uncertainties in his own vision and the insecurities that the rising new generation of artist (Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol) is confronting him with. The premonition of the choice of suicide, as a solution to the dilemma, that is presented to us, late in the play, is shocking and deeply moving in it's execution by Mr Molina and Mr Grandage.

But just as interesting and ultimately powerful is the edgy and feisty temperament of the "apprentice", as Mr Redmayne uncoils it through the spine of the text, culminating in a stunningly satisfying confronting and personally challenging attack on the foundations of the Rothko testaments in the last scene of the play. Mr Redmayne is a young actor of some conviction.

The artist "fires"his assistant:

KEN: Why?

ROTHKO: Because I'm sick of you -

KEN: Bullshit -



ROTHKO: Listen, kid, you don't need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life..... This is a place for doomed old men..... You need to get OUT THERE now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off.... MAKE THEM LOOK........ Make something new.

Certainly, reading that, on the page, here, it sounds the usual cliche for the end of an educating story, but it is no less true and in this production it has the weight of a great lesson for life, in a theatrical production and acting of the highest skill and integrity.

Seeing Rothko paintings in books in reproduction baffled my appreciation. Seeing some of the work in the New York Museum of Modern Art was truly another thing. I seek out his work, now, to take it in. This play only adds to the appreciation.

I made a clear effort to get to this theatre on my holiday in London. As a reader of the world theatre scene, the Donmar Warehouse, which is, indeed, a tiny space, has acquired, in recent years, a reputation of enormous influence. It is an enormous influence. Earlier Sam Mendes and now Michael Grandage as Artistic Directors have garnered a powerful position in the English speaking world for this company. It is a lesson, that not Size or Scale but Talent, Skill and Vision, Persistence and Patience will reap standards and reward.

For more information click here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Pitman Painters

The National Theatre presents a co- production between the National Theatre, London and Live Theatre, Newcastle; THE PITMAN PAINTERS by Lee Hall. Inspired by a book by William Feaver, In the Lyttelton Theatre.

Live Theatre, Newcastle Upon Tyne was founded in 1973. "The company has defined itself as a 'new writing theatre' whose mission has been inspired by a quest to understand and interpret the social history and identity of the region it serves and to examine the issues and events that affect its people. This has created a profound well of source material and an astonishing array of stories; often personal and set against large historical, social and political backdrops that, despite their specific locality, are universal in their significance. THE PITMAN PAINTERS and Lee Hall are prime examples of this policy.......... Live Theatre's most recent transformation took the form of a five million pound (UK) redevelopment, re-opening in September 2007 with the first performance of THE PITMAN PAINTERS."

The National Theatre welcomed the original production in the Cottlesloe Theatre in May 2008. It was revived in the Lyttelton Theatre January 2009; second NT revival in September 2009 before a Uk and Ireland tour. The principal cast is unchanged since the premiere. It is certainly an impressive performance record.

I had read the play early in 2009 and found it to be a very inspiring text to engage with. Having the opportunity of seeing it performed with the original cast was an exciting expectation. There was no disappointment. The author is most recognisable to theatre goers as a result of his screenplay of BILLY ELLIOT and the later adaptation as BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL, [music by Elton John]. (Some may know another of his plays, COOKING WITH ELVIS).

The play concerns the true life story of a group of Yorkshire miner's in the 1934 who organised their local Workers Education Association to have a class on art appreciation to move on from Geology, Evolution, and other such topics. Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Armstrong College Newcastle (then part of Durham University), was seconded to this task. After a considerable trying first class where he had presented a lantern/slide show of details of the art in the Sistine Chapel, and realising that there was no point in doing so to an audience completely unversed in art, decided that the men should try making images of their own. "Lyon started them on lino cuts, reasoning that the business of gouging lines in resistant material would suit manual workers. And then a breakthrough: he and the class came to an understanding. Given a subject ('Deluge', say, or 'The Hermit'), each member would do a painting accordingly, to be discussed the following week. All at once Tuesday evenings became the focus of life outside of work. The Group flourished. Word of it spread to Newcastle and beyond." It became known as PITMAN PAINTERS: THE ASHINGTON GROUP. Today the works are permanently hung at Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Ashington, Northumberland and are world renowned. "Seeing by doing. Doing by seeing".

Lee Hall says, "Some things in my play are untrue... the most obvious untruth is that there were only five members of the group. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the real story is that there was at least thirty people in the first register alone. My main characters - George, Harry, Jimmy and Oliver are based on their historical namesakes but inevitably bear aspects of other members of the group...... all of the pictures each character paints were in fact done by their historical namesakes, and perhaps more surprisingly virtually all of the events of the play are based on the truth." What struck Mr Hall most was that these ordinary working men found a means of expressing themselves and despite "the scantest of educations (came to write) knowledgeably about Cezanne and Picasso, and were ardent devotees of Turner, Ruskin and Blake....... fearless souls, confident to talk as equals to the best minds of their day."

What impresses Mr Hall is not only the physical achievements of these extraordinary men/miners/painters, but, also, their understanding of what it is that is gained in participating in the making of art other than financial gain. Further, what interests Mr Hall, is the group's avowed "unprofessional" status.

"The idea that art is somehow a commodity, that culture is something one consumes rather than takes part in, is, of course a very modern notion. The idea that an artist is someone who makes things to be bought and sold is part of this ideological shift and it is important to remind ourselves that art might indeed mean something more than this. That the group chose to make art both central to their lives but removed from the 'economy' of the art world seems very significant."

"Quite clearly the Working Classes of the early part of last century were aspirational about High Art. They not only felt entitled, but felt a duty to take part in the best that life has to offer in terms of art and culture. That fifty years later I could write BILLY ELLIOT, a story about the incomprehension of a mining community towards a similar aspirant to High Culture, seems to me some sort of index of a political and cultural failure. despite the advances in education and the blossoming of the welfare state, somehow we have failed to 'democratize' the riches of culture."

This then becomes the major dilemma of the play, in the climatic scenes of the second act, for the most successful or promising artist of the group, Oliver Kilbourn (Trevor Fox), is offered a stipend to be a 'professional' artist by an admiring patron, Helen Sutherland (Phillipa Wilson). His art is an expression of his daily life. It is vital to his work. To not to work as a miner may undermine his art? To practice as an artist only, might divorce the inspiration? What is valuable? The community? The art?

The action of the play follows the Tuesday classes that the Miner's Union has arranged with Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly) and moves to other locations as the reputation of the group expands. We have swift character presentations and then a series of scenes that are full of witty, earthy and piercing discussions of art and the movement/styles of the times of the play; the artistic connection of the art to the miner's lives and the manner in which they interpret their weekly tasks , 'Deluge', 'The Hermit' etc. The work is full of arresting argument and dilemma. Funny, serious and enormously intelligent.

The Director, Max Roberts, along with the Designer, Gary McCann have a realistic creation of the hall of the painters 'studio' augmented with pragmatic pull down screens on which the paintings of the artists are projected for long and witty analysis for the audience. [Lighting Design, Douglas Kuhrt.] To facilitate the scene changes the Sound Designer, Martin Hodgson, has created a thoroughly energetic soundscape of the miners daily work machinery etc to propel us forward to the next debate. The cacophony of the sound bridges are exhilarating and keeps one afloat with stimulation.The contrast of the worlds of this group of men are keenly delivered to us. Other locations, the home of Helen Sutherland, the studio of Ben Nicholson, London and Edinburgh etc are simply and quickly achieved. Economy and speed, the essence of the design movement of the piece.

What was wonderful on the night I saw the play, was the lively performances. The acting was "in the moment" and all the characters in action, not only 'physically', but especially in 'thought', all the time. Wherever one's eye travelled on the stage there was vital story telling going on. The capacity to register the listening (sub textual) dialogue of all the characters was thrilling to participate with as an audience. It was simply a wonderful demonstration of the actor's skills, to see this level of concentration and active commitment to the play, despite the fact that they have been engaged in performing this production since 2007. Nothing seemed 'acted', it felt extraordinarily improvised.

Trevor Fox played the principal role of Oliver Kilbourn (covering for an indisposed Christopher Connel). His work was a live set of restrained but energetic processes, bursting with possibilities of choice. Ian Kelly as the class outsider but enabler, the art master, Robert Lyon, was also impressive. The whole company complimented each other and the work . Deka Walmsley, David Whitaker, Brian Lonsdale, Michael Hodgson, Lisa McGrillis, Phillipa Wilson and Simon Markey. A masterful ensemble.

I did not simply applaud the performance, I was moved to call "Bravo" several times. It was a very exciting night in the theatre. After the two previous, relatively disappointing, National Theatre experiences, THE HABIT OF ART and NATION, this production clearly demonstrated the strengths of the National Theatre as an entity. Bravo, indeed.

*All quotes are from the National Theatre program. Lee Hall and William Feaver.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


The National Theatre presents NATION based on a novel by Terry Pratchett adapted by Mark Ravenhill in the Olivier Theatre.

Over the past few years the National Theatre has had a program that has invested in the development of plays for young audiences and especially for the festive season of Christmas. Among them: HIS DARK MATERIALS, based on the Phillip Pullman trilogy of novels; WAR HORSE, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and now NATION based on the novel by Terry Pratchett.

This adaptation was given to Mark Ravenhill. An interesting choice, as we know his work (MOTHER CLAP'S MOLLY HOUSE, SHOPPING AND FUCKING and pool (no water), is very astringent, to say the least. Never less than challenging. I went with some anticipation. And so it is disappointing to report that the play is, indeed, a very bland time in the theatre. The task of adaptation is a very difficult thing to pull off. No-one will ever be completely happy and so it is with this. The novel may be just too BIG in many too many ways and it seemed to me while sitting there that it had become just one more staged scene after another scene, in a rudimentary and faithful narrative response. The story seemed to lack tension, the characters any in-depth development or real live interaction. There was no vital (sexual) chemistry with any one on stage. It was a long narrative with no one or too much to care about.

This is odd because the play has a mighty event of a huge tsunami that overwhelms a sailing ship and its passengers,only a few surviving, among them a girl called Daphne (Emily Taaffe) and her parrot, Milton (Jason Thorpe) and the destruction of some island cultures. Mr Prachett says he "began with an image, of Mau, [an island boy/man] (Gary Carr), standing on the beach in the chilly rain and screaming at the gods..... I wrote a book about an angry boy on the beach, and it became a book about a boy and a girl and a parrot, and about how people tend to be very similar to other people once you get past a few insignificant differences." In the year of Darwinian celebrations, cross pollinated with the need for world changes in how we as humans can interact with nature this story seemed ripe for pertinancy. Certainly the program notes were teasingly full of allusions and ideas that one could hardly wait to deal with in the production. But instead the play tended to reveal one more narrative melo-drama or cultural "sentimentality" in a very superficial way.

The Director, Melly Still has with her creative team, especially the Projection Designers (Jon Driscoll & Gemma Carrington) and the Lighting Designer (Paul Anderson), made some many splendid moments of theatrical magic: the tsunami wave overwhelming the ship and the consequent spillage into the depths of the ocean of the crew and passengers; the fierce struggle in the long boat between Mau and Cox and the red blood drenching into the ocean heralding the arrival of the shark; the beautiful puppetry of the "dancing" dolphins. The puppetry (Yvonne Stone) was, for me, all, fascinating, bewitching and moving. The music composition (Paul Arditti) or, at least, the orchestrations were not very successful in helping me stay in a place of island belief (the piano introductions, almost always distressing me.)

A very large company of actors played, sang and danced with great commitment and energy, swapping in and out of costumes (Dinah Collin) and responsibilities with great elan. Their energy, mostly, compensating for the relative lack of complex story telling or character development in the script. Gary Carr and Emily Taaffe as the heroes kept us engaged; Paul Chahidi as the villainous Cox fleshed out the psychosis of his character as best he could; the presence,dignity/integrity and economy of acting choices enhanced the work of David Ajala (Milo), Craig Stein (Pilu) and especially Bhasker Patel (Mau's father).

To be bold, as the Upton children mature, maybe we will see the Sydney Theatre Company giving out commission for similar production/play works for the Summer Holiday period in Sydney. I remember a time when the Old Tote Theatre Company and The Sydney Theatre Company were producing every Christmas/New Year break a production that was, at least, family oriented if not specifically for children (-much the preferred option). Certainly the London audience in the large Olivier Auditorium attending Nation, and over in the West End, New London Theatre where WAR HORSE has transferred for a very extended season, is filled with all aged customers, enthralled by the theatre going opportunity. It is a very vital audience for the future of the theatre. Grandparents, parents and children engaged in magic making with skilled storytellers and illusionists.

The Habit of Art

The NATIONAL THEATRE presents a World Premiere THE HABIT OF ART a new play by Alan Bennett in the Lyttelton Theatre.

Five years after the extraordinary hit, THE HISTORY BOYS, that toured the world, including Sydney at The Sydney Theatre, Alan Bennett has once again teamed up with Director, Nicholas Hytner, and now presents us with A HABIT OF ART.

The play is set in a rehearsal room and we observe a first run-through with sound, of a new play called CALIBAN'S DAY on a mock up set, with all the props and furniture, workable doors etc - an extremely elaborate set up indeed. (Designer, Bob Crowley). The director is away and the proceedings that we witness occur under the auspices of the Stage manager, Kay (Frances De La Tour) with the youngish playwright in attendance, Neil ( Elliot Levey).

CALIBAN'S DAY concerns a fictitious meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. (Both these men had worked together early in their careers. Auden had written the libretti for Benjamin Britten's BALLADS OF HEROES (1939) and PAUL BUNYAN (1949).) But "Neil's" play is set late in these men's lives when Auden is Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Britten is in the process of preparing DEATH IN VENICE. This visit by Britten is the first the men have had for a very long time and for Auden it represents the possibility of a new, great creative work. For Britten it is the restless anxiety of the creative act that causes him to call in on the poet - he has a libretto but is not sure that it will do. Can Auden help? Could he make suggestions? Witnessing this meeting is a reporter from BBC Radio, Humphrey Carpenter, (He is an actual bio-grapher of both Auden and Britten [Tolkien,too]), who is at one point mistaken by Auden as his rent boy, come to provide a service - a blow job!!! Carpenter is saved from too much explanation by the arrival of the actual rent boy, Stuart.

This cast of characters in the play in rehearsal allows these men to talk of the difficulties of the habit of art and the different perspectives of the practice of homosexuality.

The play that surrounds this play, Alan Bennett's The HABIT OF ART has Fitz (WH Auden) [Richard Griffiths], Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) [Adrian Scarborough], Tim (Stuart) [Stephen Wright] and laterly with a late entrance, Henry (Benjamin Britten) [Alex Jennings] rehearse and break the performance to challenge the writer and stage manager, to argue and discuss the machinations of the script and the realities of the scenarios in the context of their own lives. Life reflecting art. Life being gorged and revealed by the artists to create the art of Caliban's Day. The absolute monstrousness of the habit of art.

The text is full of the usual jokes, humour, wisdoms and observations that we have come to appreciate from Mr Bennett. The set up of the play which I have attempted to outline, provides for a very complex, but easily followed, pathway to a very pleasant night's entertainment. The play besides talking of the art of poetry and music, also engages in conversattion about the habits of the art of acting.

It is a very in-joke of an evening that is shared here by Mr Bennett for the regular theatre goer. It actually gets very specific (and, maybe narrows the scope of appeal) when the play engages in some very parochial self referencing and coziness, when we get the stage manager, Kay, reminiscing about the actual history of the National Theatre and some of it's previous Artistic Directors. It got a little tiresome.

This is all done very well. The design is impeccable,if nothing more than close reality, the directing safely assured, and the acting very comfortable - maybe a little too comfortable. Richard Griffiths, apparently replacing Michael Gambon in rehearsal at late notice, was efficiently entertaining - more of what we have seen before, since the character in THE HISTORY BOYS was more interesting and there was quite a lot of PIE IN THE SKY - FOUR SERIES!!!!!); Alex jennings, strung a little too tight for my belief; Frances De La Tour doing her usual dry, sly comedy as only she can. In fact the most interesting work came from Stephen Wright as Tim (Stuart). maybe because he was not familiar. Although, in my estimation of the script, the company, mostly, had very little to play with in terms of character or tension.On the night I saw it, it was all just a little too "cute", for a cultural foreigner, to truly embrace. I felt I got to know very little new about these "great" artists. I felt that I got to know more about Alan Bennett than I needed to know. I got bored.

As this is one of the play's that are being broadcast around the world from the National Theatre Season, you will be able to make up your own mind at the Chauvel or Cremorne Orpheum Cinemas sometime in February.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Mysteries: Genesis

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE RESIDENTS in THE MYSTERIES: GENESIS. A new version by Hilary Bell & Lally Katz.

The Residents are the Sydney Theatre Company's new permanent ensemble of players: Alice Ansara, Cameron Goodall, Ursula Mills, Julia Ohannessian, Zindzi Okenyo, Richard Pyros, Sophie Ross, Tahki Saul and Brett Stiller. The Residents "with the exploration, shaping and fine-tuning of new works as a guiding objective... provide an invaluable resource to playwrights and directors..."

THE MYSTERIES: GENESIS is a new version of some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible (Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) by Hilary Bell and Lally Katz. What is very interesting and exciting is to have these stories: ADAM, EVE; CAIN, ABEL; and NOAH'S ARK to be re-assessed and re-told by two women in 2009. In my research, THE NEW ILLUSTRATED COMPANION TO THE BIBLE ( J.R. Porter - 2003) tells us that "In recent times, biblical scholars have tended to concentrate on the purpose and background of the Pentateuch in its final form...... they have emphasised that the final editors were attempting to convey a message tailored to the needs, hopes, and fears of people of their own time. The Pentateuch may be viewed as aiming to encourage and warn Jewish exiles faced with the challenge of returning to the Promised Land, and its themes can be seen as providing a program for the restoration of Israel." The material of the Bible has, then, always been a kind of tool to explain the present.

"Än attempt to convey a message tailored to the needs, hopes, and fears of people" of our time, 2009? (To asssure the religious, the question as to whether the material is true or false is not a concern to this project. Rather it is fascinating to see how these stories are still useful to us. The bible is definitely alive not dead, in this enactment, in search of our understanding of who we are or might be, now.) What are these two writers saying, explaining, telling us? Much discussion followed after, with my theatre going companions. Interesting that this essentially patriarchal book is being addressed by two women? Further, even more interesting to the outcome, is to have three men, then, direct this work for the STC. Matthew Lutton (EDEN); Andrew Upton (AFTER THE FALL); Tom Wright (THE ARK). More discussion followed on!! (Provocative that the Residents acting company are made up of 5 women and 4 men.)

It was a very provocative and stirring night in the theatre. I had known these stories from my Catholic childhood. In Primary school we had a text book dedicated to Bible History stories (It was big and fat and it is one of those books I wished I still had) and whole classes of enthralling reading with illustrations to further stimulate one's imagination. Of course, then, there were all those old Hollywood movies especially the Cecil B. De Mille sagas ,including THE TEN COMANDMENTS, which I saw at the Prince Edward Cinema in Elizabeth St (one of my first early treasured memories!!!) And later, the Dino De Laurentis/John Houston THE BIBLE, kitsch but still interesting, covering the essential Genesis stories, including the three above. So I went into this evening with quite a background. (Hollywood and other wise). Where as, my companion, did not know these stories at all. (Different cultural background, generation etc.) At the first interval, after the Adam and Eve story, I was slightly unhappy about what we had seen but my companion was fascinated and intrigued. Entertained. I was encouraged to let go of my literal reception of the stories and began to read the night as if it were all new.

Matthew Lutton, who directs ADAM, EVE, written by Lally Katz, has memories of his childhood vision of his Garden Of Eden as a place of snow, white snow. And indeed, the Set and Costume Designer, Alice Babidge, does create that for Mr Lutton and us. After a starting vision of GOD (Richard Pyros), in the play's prologuue, naked, creating the world and then a startling creation of Lucifer and his fall from grace - a beautifully lit (Lighting design by Paul Jackson) casacde of dirt, filthing the naked body of the actor (Brett Stiller), a crew empties a snow square on to the stage, an apple hangs from the roof. Adam (Cameron Goodall) is created and after interplay with a white Penguin (Zindzi Okenyo) one of God's creatures, God creates Eve (Sophie Ross) to keep Adam company. A tempter of Eve, a female version of Lucifer (Alice Ansara), leads Eve to taste of the forbidden apple of the Tree of Knowledge, and terribly, bloodily the innocence of the garden of Eden is lost, Adam and Eve discover their nakedness and they kill the penguin for covering and the blighted history of man begins.

The best of this act is in the brilliant design images that Mr Lutton and Ms Babidge have created for us. It often has the experience of a live installation art piece. Stunning in its imagery. Image after image, picture after picture engaged me in a totally hypnotic way. The text however did not have the same impinging power. It did not seem to have found its performance tone. Much of it was proclaimed. It lacked identity. Rather it had a symbolic impact. The better textual work, therefore, came from Mr Pyros and Stiller in the prologue, which was indeed mostly monolgal and godly instructions of creation and struggle. So, at this first interval there was a visual history of the project but in terms of the written word it lacked lucidness and clarity of purpose. I longed to read it, to give it more perspective, particularly as it was indeed a re-telling, a re-configuring of the story as I knew it. The directing emphasis to textual clairty seemed to need more address.

The second act, CAIN, ABEL directed by Andrew Upton, written by Hilary Bell dealt with the arrival of Death, in all its forms, among fallen man. Murder, suicide, old age. This act was played out by the actors on an emptied stage space occupied by most of the audience in promenade style (Some, did sit up stairs on the perimeter of the balcony). The characters acted their drama in our midst, in song and spoken text. We were moved, and shifted our portable positions to glimpse and observe, sometimes close up and some times only as aural intercourse acoss the crowded space. We were part of this world of preying Death but as invisible spectators, like ghosts, men and women possibly already passed. The novelty of the staging was disarming, and the final sung poems/hymns in amongst us, in stereophonic sound, was magnificently transporting. Once again, I would love to grapple more with the text - I would love to read it for clarity's sake. It was a "feeling" journey rather than a balanced one of textual objectivity and subjective experience. (It may have been different in affect on the remote balcony seats, above around the perimeter?) Ms Babidge, even here, in this audience engagement in the space created with her spare tawdry crepe paper and deflated balloons and pink flourescent lights, the right mood. The costuming, contemporary and brief, was apt.

The third act, NOAH'S ARK directed by Tom Wright, written by both writers was the most clear textually in performance action. On top of a pile of mattresses, Noah (Tahki Saul) contemplates and interacts with an unseen God who prepares him for the Great Deluge of the world of sinful mankind. Emzara, Noah's wife (Alice Ansara), finds his preoccupation disturbing. Mr Wright tells us that Lallly Katz "has imagined a different Noah, one who is seen through a different prism of febrile twentieth - century cults. To the world Noah seemed as insane as Charles Manson. The only problem was that Noah was right. God was talking to him." This imagery of the cult figure is re-inforced with the sons of Noah, in the bible stories, been replaced by daughters, and there is a tinge of incest that hangs over the storytelling relationships with the women in this version of the story. It felt odd and yet contemporaneously right. Much of this was due to the careful reading that Mr Wright got from Mr Saul as Noah. Much of the tension of the story was held charmingly and compellingly by Mr Saul.

The physical designs of the production were memorable. The Sound Design by Kingsley Reeve was also a great input to the magic of the event of the Mysteries.

Just how are these artists taking these old stories to interpret this world? In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS ( December 18th-20th), Geoff Gallop quotes the Australian academic and social commentator, Richard Eckersley, "The young have picked up on the failure of modern society to offer meaning for today and hope for the future." and that "we live in a society where we skate over the surface of things. We prefer simplicity to complexity in the way we consider our needs and the ways we organise our collective lives..... We know there is a deeper reality to our make-up as individuals but its complexity frightens us." In this enterprise from the Sydney Theatre Company and with the apt generation of the Residents, some serious exploration seems to be being pursued. In this crisis of "Climate Change" and its possible consequences it is apt to look at the creation stories of the bible and see the world and tasks that "God" had set man. The sad history and then the destruction of the Deluge, came with the promise that "he won't destroy the world again, if, in return, humans obey strictures regarding their relationship to the natural world, and their consumption of it." So with our careful actions to regain an equilibrium with the natural world we could be saved? That is what "God" has promised Noah, is it not?

Is this the challenge of this work? If so, the text needs to be freed a little more from the imagery of the productions to speak with more lucidity. But this was a very interesting and multi-faceted night in the theatre. Good stuff to finish my Sydney year of theatre going on.