Saturday, February 27, 2010

Orestes 2.0

ORESTES 2.0 by Charles Mee. Presented by CRY HAVOC & GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT at the Griffin/Stables Theatre.

In the experience of my American life, in the theatre (over there), three of the most challenging writers that I saw and were memorable (for one reason or another!) were works by Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman and Charles Mee. All three write in structures and forms that we, in Australia, hardly ever see explored by our own writers or on our own stages.

Although, Richard Foreman has had several outings over the past few years in Sydney (including: my head is a sledgehammer; Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty!), I have never seen a Mac Wellman here or even ventured (and having seen his work in San Francisco, it is a venture), and I have only seen one Charles Mee piece, and that was at NIDA : “Big LOVE” , directed by Lee Lewis a few years ago.

Charles Mee is an historian of some note and Charles Mee, in his other guise: the playwright “has sought not so much to explain historical events as to show the inattentiveness of those who make history.” (Refer to THE MARCH OF FOLLY by Barbara Tuchman). With ORESTES 2.0 Mr Mee has taken the story of Orestes and Electra and the aftermath of the Trojan Wars from the text of Euripides as an inspiration, and Mr Mee offers "a devastating portrait of cultural and social life in Regan’s America." In the preface to the published collection of some of his plays, HISTORY PLAYS (1998) Mr Mee writes: "I don’t write political plays in the usual sense of the term, but I write out of the belief that we are creatures of our history and our culture and gender and politics – that our beings and actions arise from that complex of influences and forces and motivations, that our lives are richer and more complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation. So I try in my work to get past traditional forms of psychological realism, to bring to the frame of the plays material from history, philosophy, insanity, inattention, distractedness, judicial theory, sudden violent passion, lyricism, The NATIONAL ENQUIRER, nostalgia, longing , aspiration, literary criticism, anguish, confusion, inability."

He goes onto say, "I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world." ORESTES 2.0 is all of the above on the page.

When reading the play, recently, I thought, as a result of my having seen his work staged before that it would be textually more difficult to comprehend than had so far being my experience of Mr Mee. But, happily, I found the text lucid and exciting, but, warningly, challenging. I was pleased that I was reading the play because the demands of Mr Mee, in his indications for direction, presented a set of problems that would need careful and detailed solving as a director. For instance, during the “trial” scene Mr Mee asks for “two levels of text, one in the foreground, one in the background, sometimes SIMULTANEOUSLY.” He goes on to give more elaborate direction. He presents the foreground text spoken by the trio of nurses and then he gives us the ‘Patients’ dialogue, and again later the “trial” text. How on earth does one orchestrate this? Simultaneously? The dramaturgical idea, intellectually reasoning it, is understandable. BUT. How does one stage it for an audience to participate with clarity? At the performance of ORESTES, that I attended as produced by CRY HAVOC under the direction of Kate Revz, I and many of my fellow audience "jumped ship" and "switched off" in this episode (if we hadn’t already, as it this sequence happens, latterly, in the play). It was an incomprehensible jangle of noise and even the dramaturgical sense of this being the Jangle of the Modern Media Bombardment of our contemporary lives, where the important competes and sometimes is drowned by the banal was not delivered to the audience. And most of us didn’t care.

Decisions by the director and designer (Costume & Set: Lucilla Smith) to have on the stage a pink and white distressed room with a filthy and broken gold framed bed, and astro turf and a half rolled carpet with a target design, in contrast to the original Mee concept: "a palatial white Newport – style or Palm Beach –style house"; to change the location of the set, in an interval not requested by Mr Mee who sees his work as a one act play, to white curtains and a stained floor but leave the bed present and central, unmoved; to have the character Tyndareus appear as a man with a television screen for a head, which the actor has to support with his hands, and have the text delivered via a pre-recorded video on the TV screen and thus obfuscate the comprehensibility of text and force the other actors in the scene to passive viewers instead of interactive participants; to have another actor who when able, as indicated by the writer, to break the bonds of a taped mouth to speak and then inflict upon the actor the necessity of a stutter and breakup of the text into a disconnected word by word delivery, (which even with my eyes closed, to help me focus, I could not decipher) cause both inaudibility and incomprehensibility of the text, seem to be, although intellectually "An idea" and feasible , practically and theatrically, disastrous. The desire to gild the lily that is Mr Mee’s play with the "genius" of the designer and director overwhelms the play as written. The play, as written, is already "broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, career into each other, smash up, veer of in sickening turns" without the director, designer and actors doing so as well. A plausible rehearsal process but a self-defeating demonstration in performance.

The talent of these artists is palpable but there seems to be a mistaken idea that risk taking and daring is enough raison d’être to present this work, this way. That, they seem to think that energy, whether it be PUSHED or not is the most suitable choice for communication. A play stacked with intellectual ideas and argument that is swamped by feeling, emotions so that the cool headed sensibility of a commentator (the writer) of history and mankind, Mr Mee, in the present era, is undermined. Mr Mee’s text is brave, daring and contentious enough with its own demands, let alone the extra layers of other febrile imaginations. CRY HAVOC is the company’s proud name. Its mission statement in the back of the program proclaims "CRY HAVOC is a revolutionary new theatre co-operative of emerging practitioners committed to the daring re-working of great classic texts for the contemporary stage. CRY HAVOC works in the pursuit of fearless interpretation, collaboration & re-birth of well known canonical texts of the human experience. We believe the canon shouldn’t just collect dust on bookshelves but bridge the gap between our theatrical past & our precarious future. Standing on the shoulders of the great. Developed by break through artists."

In the unfurling of this production this ambitious company definitely do CRY out: Pay Attention. And according to the definition of HAVOC in my Oxford Dictionary: "1. widespread destruction. 2 great confusion or disorder" are havocking. However it is hard to stand on the shoulders of the great, if in the scramble to climb up there, you demolish the edifice (the writer and his writing) that is the source of the "fearless re-working."

I am writing this not out of anger but grief that such enthusiastic ambition and obvious full blooded commitment, which I totally honour and wish to encourage, does not have yet the temperance of discipline and respect. Respect for the writer.

As to the undoubted talent on stage special mention must be made to Ivan Donato as John (once again impressing with theatrical intelligence and skill and judgement… that mighty word JUDGEMENT); Andrea Demetriades as William (supporting, admirably, her nomination for the 2010 Greenroom Awards as Best Supporting Actress, with clear centred work); Guy Edmonds, in a free and commanding performance as Orestes (the most impressive I have seen from him); Anthony Gooley as Pylades (when unencumbered with ‘acting’ twitches) and Elan Zavelsky in the doubling of Nurse2 and the Phrygian.

In an interview in the Metro of The Sydney Morning Herald (Feb 2- 18 2010) Kate Revz is quoted "You cant go: 'Oh let’s be dangerous.' But you do know when you’re being safe.... The minute you feel it’s safe or domestic…. you have to say: 'OK, what else could we do in this moment? How can we deliver that line so that it shakes people?'" Predicated to that should the question and demand on the solution to that moment is: "And make it communicable to the audience?" So that they are still with us and can be shaken.

I look forward to their "Next Up, Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS." In my opinion, the world’s greatest play (no pressure). Hayloft in Melbourne, last year notoriously now had a go, so with hope but trepidation, I pray it goes well with CRY HAVOC, with all the respect that Mr Chekhov carries and demands.

Playing now until 13 March.
For more information or to book click here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kevin of Arabia

Hello, it's the moderator Pearly Productions here. While this blog is normally reserved strictly for Kevin's reviews, we couldn't help but post this picture from the RAA website to give everyone a chuckle. It was originally spotted as a bill poster advert in Adelaide.

I have confirmed that it is NOT Kevin... and he is wondering why he wasn't paid for this gig... It's even more amusing because "Lawrence of Arabia" happens to be Kevin's favourite film character of all time!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Focus Theatre in association with B sharp present BENT by Martin Sherman.

The theme of the 2010 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras is The History of the World. BENT in my estimation, along with Mart Crowley's THE BOYS IN THE BAND and Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA are the three most significant Gay themed plays of the last century. All three had an enormous impact on the history of the gay and lesbian communities and to the greater community.

BENT first appeared off-Broadway in 1978. In 1979 a production, starring Ian McKellen and Tom Bell opened in London. In 1980 the play was produced on Broadway with Richard Gere. It was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. The great John Tasker directed the original Sydney production with John Hargraves. (He also directed the original Australian cast of THE BOYS IN THE BAND for Harry M. Miller with John Krummel.) The play and the writing has credentials.

"The Nazi war against Germany's homosexuals, to be properly understood, must be seen against the backdrop of the terrible tensions and social traumas that were to cause the collapse of the Weimar Republic. For the severe economic depression, widespread unemployment, galloping inflation, and bitter civil strife that were to engulf Germany in the wake of World War 1 also consigned the country's small but vigorous homosexual rights movement to oblivion. That movement, which began around the turn of the century, would reach its peak in the early 1920s, under the remarkable leadership of Dr Magnus Hirschfield..... He was convinced that homosexuals constituted a biologically distinct gender - a human being between male and female" - a third sex. Hirschfield repeatedly tried to reform Germany's laws, particularly the notorious Paragraph 175, enacted in 1871: "A male who indulges in criminally indecent activities with another male or who allows himself to participate in such activities will be punished with jail." Consumed by a kind of missionary zeal, Hirschfield wrote nearly, over the course of his life (1868 - 1935) nearly two hundred titles, books, pamphlets and polemics."

"During the Weimar Republic, the homosexual subculture had managed an uneasy coexistence with the larger heterosexual society surrounding it..... The average gay man could live unnoticed and undisturbed unless, as so often happened, he fell victim to police entrapment or blackmail..... But the sexual tolerance so often associated with the Weimar Republic (made famous by Christopher Isherwood's novels GOODBYE TO BERLIN, the source for CABARET) began to rapidly disappear as rapidly as Germany's economy began to crumble." (Lesbians were not legislated against.) The years from 1929 to the end of the Weimar Republic were years of mounting tensions. The Brown shirts, or SA, under the leadership of Ernst Roehm, who was himself homosexual "fell into rivalry with Heinrich Himmler's Black Shirts, or the SS."

It all came to a head on "The Night of the Long Knives" - the popular phrase for the bloodbath that began on June 28 and lasted to July 3, 1934, when Himmler under orders from Hitler stormed into the "Brown House" and arrested Roehm, finally executing him, and a reign of terror began against the homosexual community. Murder, arrest and relegation to prisons, which in the Nazi campaign against the "decadent" of all kinds quickly became over crowded, and ultimately to concentration camps. Dachau, near Munich, was opened by Himmler in March 1933 to exterminate Jews, antifascist, gypsies and homosexuals. Every prisoner was to be treated with fanatical hatred as an enemy of the state, based around a "Brutality Training Academy" indoctrination for the guards, welding the newly born Order of the Death's Head into a fanatical gang of bullies, imbued with hatred towards the charges they regarded as subhuman."

This then is the time of the events in the play BENT. Set between 1934 and 1936 (long before the actual war, 1939 - in PeaceTimes!!!) it concerns a spoilt and emotionally disturbed civilian called Max (Radek Jonak) and his struggle to accept himself as a homosexual whilst experiencing the basest of treatments under the hands of the Nazi regime. He witnesses the maltreatment of friends and 'lovers', even murder, he submits to the raping of a warm corpse to prove his heterosexuality and doing 'deals' manages to secure a yellow Jewish star as his prison garb badge rather than despised Pink Triangle of the homosexual, and then whilst enduring the most mundane duties as a prisoner in Dachau finds a searing proof of his inclinations in a relationship with another prisoner, Horst (Sam Haft) which engages in sex of the imagination.

Beginning in a Berlin apartment and then nightclub, chased by the Nazi regime, attempting to secure exit papers and finally living in a forest with other hunted humans, Max is captured and taken by train to the Dachau concentration Camp. All of these locations are masterfully designed with great impact and cleverness by Tom Bannerman. (Other than the second act set of the rock quarry - a little unsettling for its neatness and echoes of a Japanese zen rock garden.) The lighting design by Luiz Pampolha is also nuanced and a cause for wonder in the tiny Downstairs space.

The best performances are given by Walter Grkovic as Greta and especially the Captain at Dachau (although the singing/miming of the cabaret number STREETS OF BERLIN, almost derails the production); John Turnbull especially in a beautifully drawn characterisation of Uncle Freddy; and Sam Haft as Horst. The early scenes in act one sensitive and craftily immaculate in the drawing of the relationship with Max.

Unfortunately Mr Jonak in the leading role as Max, having to replace with little time preparation, Wil Traval, is not always believable in the journey of the character. It is, at the moment a relatively superficial enactment of the huge demands of this monumentally tragic and complex role. Mr Jonak gets us through, admirably, the narrative of the play at the moment but almost always fudges the emotional requirements of the role. This is understandable but it undermines the production and ultimately the impact of the play. Mr Haft handles the long second act, which is a duet between the two actors with great generosity and skill, supporting with empathy the offers of Mr Jonak to keep the narrative gripping and the production afloat. His Horst is moving.

Last year Focus brought to B Sharp BISON and NATURAL BORN HOOKER as part of the Mardi Gras inputs. This production benefits from the quality of the writing and Pete Nettell, (Director) honours the text and the intentions of the writer without any extraneous Directorial flourishes and with his creatives, and despite the loss of his leading actor, give a creditable night in the theatre.

BENT is culturally for the Gay and Lesbian community a landmark play that helped their community and the greater community to re-evaluate the manner in which they looked at history and the terrible prejudice and criminal persecution that the homosexual suffered beside the more well known treatment of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and other minorities. Daily repression and persecution of the homosexual continues around the world and not only in the third world but presently and hatefully in our very own first world institutions and governments. We need to be constantly vigilant and I urge all of you to witness this play to honour the history of your predecessors and memorialise and commemorate. Take our young men and women to give aspiration and inspiration.

I sat with several Jewish friends, one who is also gay, and the performance had necessarily then, an extra impact on me . Both these friends lost family and know personally survivors of this time in human history. Really not so long ago. Art and Life. Life and Art meeting meaningfully.

Quotes in this response to the production come from THE PINK TRIANGLE: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant. Henry Holt and Company - 1986. NB Six years after the American Broadway production of BENT.

Playing now until 14 March.
For more information or to book click here.

Six Quick Chicks

SIX QUICK CHICKS @ RAVAL, The Macquarie Hotel, Level 1, 42 Wentworth Ave, Surry Hills.

SIX QUICK CHICKS is a cabaret/burlesque company of rotating artists. In this new, very well appointed venue RAVAL at the Macquarie Hotel six chicks present a show that is full of brave quirky talents. A 'hostess' introduces a series of guests during her 'cooking' show. The guests, this night, were single 'stand-up' comic acts of various and contrasting exaggerated eccentricities.

This form of entertainment is one of absolute risk and skill. RISK. ABSOLUTE. I can tell you, I'd never do it - for whatever the skill level, and this line up is stacked with it, courage and resilience is the major asset required in this Art Form. Depending on the temperament of the audience, each performance, the artist either hits target or misses. If you hit, there is probably no more glorious ride. If you miss there is definitely no more agonising crash.

On Thursday night it was a mixture of both. Fortunately most targets were HITS, if not quite centre for full score, every time. The line up of artists were not all individually known to me and their web site is way behind being in the present tense. So here are three of these artists I know: Vashti Hughes, Lucy Suze Taylor and Celia Curtis. (Sorry to the other chicks that I can't list you.) Celia Curtis in her manifestation as 'Maxie' is a standout.

This show plays next Thursday @ RAVAL and then on March 4 @ SLIDE. Fun and daring for all.

For more information or to book for the March 4 @ SLIDE show click here.

Tour One: Tognetti's Mozart

Australian Chamber Orchestra, ACO, present's Tour One: Tognetti's Mozart at the Angel Place Concert Hall.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra augmented by "period" instruments, oboe, bassoon and horn gave a refreshing concert of four composers. All the works bar the Mozart being "firsts" for the orchestra.

Schubert: Quartet Movement (Quartettsatz) in C minor,D703 ( 1820). Later Haydn: Symphony No. 46 in B major (1772).

The Schubert is the surviving sections, introduction and coda, of the unfinished Twelfth String Quartet. The work has 'a clear autobiographical program' of a love affair that was unable to be fulfilled because of economics and the loss to another, by the lady's arranged marriage by her family. The music has a passionate energy contrasted with a lyrical, "feminine" melody, loss and sadness.

The Haydn Symphony No 46 in B major written in 1776, "is the only substantial surviving work by Haydn in that key - B major was unusual for the time, and is one of the many hallmarks stamped onto the symphony that underlines its 'Sturm and Drang' (storm and stress) nature..... Haydn's aim is to present dramatic music that is by turns tempestuous, quirky, and humorous." Hearing the work for the first time was an adventure of surprise and necessary alertness, engaged in the twists and of the unpredictability of the composition - musical ideas.

The first special pleasure, for me, at this concert, however was firstly the 'juvenile' quirkiness of the Violin Concerto No 4 in D major, K218 by Mozart. It was written when the composer was just 19, one of four written "between June and December 1775" and it has the freshness and palpable cheekiness of youth. Written as a violin concerto for himself - "I played as if I was the finest fiddler in Europe."- it has the sound of a young man teasing his betters with brilliance. Richard Tognetti in his playing of the score had all the aural and even, visual joy of a young man finding his 'stride' as a composer - sometimes sounding "capricious", "eccentric" and maybe even "wilful". Certainly both the playing and the performance by Mr Tognetti caused smiles and even laughter at its insouciant humour and joy. Why is it when I hear Mozart's music that one's nature is nearly always persuaded to a light-weighted sense of freedom and possibility? All is coloured with the breath of optimism on hearing it.

The ultimate pleasure of the night however was the arrangement by Richard Tognetti of Edvard Greig's String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 ( Composed 1877-8), for the Australian Chamber Orchestra. "Greig lived in an important time in his country's (Norway) history. Norway's four-hundred-year union with Denmark had ceased in 1814, just thirty years before Greig was born." After his schooling in Germany, on returning to Bergen, his home town, Greig became curious about the Norwegian culture through an acquaintance with Ole Bull: "He played for me the trollish Norwegian melodies that so strongly fascinated me, and awakened the desire to have them as the basis for my own melodies. He opened my eyes to the beauty and originality in Norwegian music. Through him I became acquainted with many forgotten folk songs, and above all, with my own nature."

This score was written after the music he wrote for Ibsen's epic play PEER GYNT (1874), and I could not help but respond to the echoes of the Troll King's Hall Of the Mountain KIng in this work. Having had many connections to the Peer Gynt score since childhood, the sounds of this arrangement recalled all the thrills and memories of Greig and Ibsen's worlds, in dramatic literature. It is true that the String Quartet "startles the listener with its Nordic boldness - 'trollish' cavorting." The impassioned playing of the orchestra was infectiousness and engrossing. Greig said that it "strives towards breadth, soaring flight and, above all, resonance for the instruments." And so it did, gloriously.

Just a note for the usually impeccable orchestra. There were absences from the usual personnel for the orchestra and some many new faces. I was a little surprised at the dress and general physical presentation of the orchestra, in Angel Place which was a little 'tawdry' in contrast to its usual fresh appearance. I pondered if we were in a European or New York, American Concert Hall, tonight, 16th February, 2010, just how much care about the look of the orchestra would have been attended too? Quite considerable I reckon. It was a distraction. Always distressing to see excellence slide(!!), don't you think?

NB quotes in this blog from the free, yes FREE, program notes of the concert. (Thank you, ACO and presumably Vanguard Investments.)

For more information click here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

That Face

Company B Belvoir presents THAT FACE by Polly Stenham at Belvoir St Theatre.

One of the major centres for contemporary writing, “ a new writing powerhouse”, in the UK is the Royal Court. In all of its manifestations, it has been, for a very long time. My memory of my History of Theatre lectures, as a student, take me back to G.B. Shaw and Harley Granville Barker dreams of a National Theatre and this building. Certainly the John Osborne LOOK BACK IN ANGER ‘bomb’ resonated from there (1957) and changed what was, then, newly acceptable on our stages. From drawing rooms to a kitchen sink. Its history of new writing and production is deservedly great. (Premieres by Churchill, Stoppard, Arden, Hampton, Feehily, Bean, Pinter, Beckett, Ionesco, Bond, Butterworth, Crimp, Hare, Kane, Mamet, McDonagh, Stephens, Tucker Green, Soyinka, Gilman, Shinn, Harris, Walsh, Sigarev, Prebble, (Roy) Williams, Butler among others!!!!)

The Artistic Director (since 2007) Dominic Cooke, when taking the helm of the Royal Court "promised to take us from the theatre’s usual council estates to the purlieus of the bourgeoisie" – "he thinks the denizens of SW1 ( The theatre’s London address) have spent too much time goggling the poor, and that they should have a goggle at their well-heeled selves." Perhaps the Belvoir think so too. Almost three years after its World premiere (April, 2007) and one year after its Australian Premiere in Brisbane (The Queensland Theatre Company), Polly Stenham’s THAT FACE is on show in Sydney.

This is a very strong first play. Interesting and compelling. Made more ‘remarkable’ by the relative youthfulness of its author, Ms Stenham. She wrote this when she was 19. But no matter the age of the writer, the perspicacity of the vision of the world that the play reveals and the skill that is present in the writing, this is a play speaking about a place of our times, well.

This is not some grungy world of disaffected, addicted, angry, adrift outer or inner urbanites but of a well off middle class contemporary family- any of our leafy suburbs of money would do – a family in the aftermath of divorce and “abandoned” first family with all of the possible attendant emotional adjustments, mal or otherwise. On an off white/grey box set of leaning “stage” walls, the four locations of the play are stylistically scattered about the stage with the central area dominated by a large bed, with a glass chandelier suspended, refracting light, in the back corner, signifying wealth(?) (Set Design: Brian Thomson), the principal arena of action.

We begin the play in a boarding school dorm where the teenage head of dorm, Izzy (Krew Boylan), and her deputy, Mia (Emily Barclay) are interrogating (hazing?) one of the younger “dorm sisters’’, Alice (Laura Hopkinson) about her wearing of a religious symbol. It turns into a school disaster when we discover that to calm the victim Mia has drugged the girl with “fifty mills” of her mother’s prescription sleeping pills. Hospital and discovery is inevitable. Parents will be notified. They are. We move to the central bed where two bodies lie in what could be a post coital sleep. The female, Martha (Susie Porter), stirs and goes off for coffee. The male, a man/boy, (definitely an object of Germaine Greer’s essay observations) Henry (Kenji Fitzgerald), awakes. Gradually we discover this is a mother and son pairing and that the relationship between parent and sibling is oddly, terribly reversed. Martha is an addicted alcoholic, pill popper. Henry a school absconder carer, (with dreams of being an artist) who has undertaken the role of "parent" for the mother. Enter the expelled Mia and a subtle battle between the mother and daughter over the possession and welfare of Henry unravels. Mia succeeds in taking Henry away, even for a momentary period of time, and even destroys an explanation note that Henry had written to ease Martha’s distress. This results in Martha responding with tantrum and petty revenge. The bedroom becomes a distressed zone of collateral damage (cut up clothes and alcohol debris) and climatically the father, ex-husband, Hugh (Marcus Graham) arrives after an emergency flight from Hong Kong. Dad with an open cheque book "solves" the emergencies, the least of which is the departure of Martha to psychiatric care and Henry, damaged but free of the burden of parenthood.

"A lady can't be taken away. A lady must have dignity. A lady must go..... herself. If I don't go, they'll take me. To a bad place. I won't be able to see you. And I want to see you. I want to see that face. My baby's face...."

Here is a play written by a young woman, about her parent's generation, looking at what may be a sample of the social consequences of the libertarianism of the sixties. It is a serious treatment of the parental relationships satirised by Jennifer Saunders in her television series ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. But this work is serious in its tenor, although even here, there is much black and subversive humour. It may reflect the consequences of a generation of adults who in pursuit of the "corporate" drive for materialistic success have lost the gift of empathy and sympathy for other humans other than themselves. That the care even of their own off spring is a secondary activity, to their own comfort gratification. The absent, cheque book toting father, Hugh, in the rising to closure of the final pages of the play says to his bereft, emotionally overburdened son, in the presence of his daughter: "You did what you could Henry. You're a good boy - (Sighs) to bad parents...."

This production (Director, Lee Lewis) on opening night, was nervous and sometimes a little askew in tempo and energy communication, but the play and the work of the artistic team was generally strong and supported by the artistic integrity of all.

Susie Porter as Martha is most wonderful in all of the demanding tasks of the spiky, wrecked Martha. The thoughtful, deeply subterranean pain of the woman, along with the wilfully adopted tactics of manipulation of all around her to sustain her selfish but desperate needs, are drawn with great delicacy, insight and instrument skill. On television Ms Porter has again and again demonstrated the sensibility of a great actress. It is wonderful to see her challenged in the theatre, live, (after such thankless opportunities, where her gifts were hardly put to the test: RIFLEMIND, for example.) and one is eager for her to be continued to be employed in the theatre so that the full potential of her gifts are stretched and witnessed. Marcus Graham in a belated entrance in the last third of the play impresses once again with a thoughtful, calibrated set of choices that are subsumed into a mixture that causes both rejection and growing empathy as the play devolves for the recalcitrant father figure, Hugh.

In his professional debut in Sydney, Kenji Fitzgerald is not daunted by the emotional scale and depth of Henry's formidable journey, proposed by Ms Stenham, and, as time passes it should grow more certain and more composed. The playing between Ms Porter and Mr Fitzgerald in their long emotionally fraught scenes is fascinating to appreciate. In tune and in support of each other, delicatedly, concentratedly. Ms Barclay gives a tremendous cinematic performance in its details but like her work in the recent David Hare play, GETHSEMANE, lacks the communication skills for the space she is working in. (I was in H row, high up on the side.)

The lighting (Designer, Verity Hampson), was as usual deft and subtle in its dramatic support of the production.The costume design by Alice Babidge requires special attention for its astuteness and clarity of support to the production. This is great work, I mean great.

This is for me, the best work that I have seen from Lee Lewis as Director.

However, I did feel, especially in the scenes when the younger actors were the scene creators, that there was a striving for a "real" stylistic creative expression in contrast say to a "theatrical" mode of stylistic expression which resulted, for me, in a diminishing of energy and clarity and a feeling of being engaged and disengaged with the playing of the text, in those early scenes. (Ms Lewis has similarly explored this sensibility in last year's production of Sigarev's LADYBIRD in the B Sharp season to varying degrees of success, for me. [Kristine Langdon-Smith similarly advocated this realistic style in her production of EAST IS EAST at NIDA last year. It was so real that it was like watching paint dry and not always telling its story to the audience, sometimes inaudible in its fashioning - poor writer - reality is generally boring to watch unfold.] Life works in the real world, theatrical life works in the theatre. Even the cinema is composed to look and sound like life. But it is never real as in documentary - see how long you stay with Andy Warhol's fixed camera films. American afternoon soap opera is the nearest to real life tempo I have endured on Television, and one knows how boring that can be, except to the almost comatosed!!) It is not as radical an exploration of real life as theatre as the Melbourne RANTERS THEATRE (The Cortese brothers) experiments, which we saw, part of, last year at the Griffin, in their production HOLIDAY, but it seems to me a conscious experiment on the part of Ms Lewis. I am not convinced of its merit, particularly in the writing of Ms Stenham [I am, similarly, not certain that translating the text to Australian sounds is a gain or necessary. In the program note by Alyssa McDonald from the Weekend Australian 23-24 January 2010: "But she (Polly Stenham) points out that while her style takes its cues from American theatre, the play's content, in particular 'all the class stuff' is particularly English."]

In that same program note Ms Stenham talks of the American theatre influences: Tennessee Williams [She mentions A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE particularly, and there are some shadows of the Blanche predicament, but I feel that SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER is more relevant a reference. The battle of Mrs Venables and Catherine Holly for Sebastian resonates with the Martha and Mia struggle for Henry.] and Edward Albee. Now both these American writers, to play successfully, require a heightened theatrical reality to succeed. Not real. It was pregnant for me, that with the entrance of Mr Graham (using a fairly "plummy'' dialect in contrast to the other actors) in the latter section of the play, that he and Ms Porter inflammed the acting expression into what I felt was the right level of firey theatricality. The performance began to vividly resonate both in its drama and its comedy more. The early scenes with just the young actors seemed to miss the comedy and the mounting "melodrama" of their situations.

It may of course may have been just nerves on opening night and relative inexperience on the part of the younger performers that I gained this impression of style exploration. It will be interesting to see this production again later in the season to test these ruminations.

To go back to the opening of this impression of THAT FACE and my rambling on the Royal Court, Polly Stenham was a member of the Young Writer's Program (YPG) writer's group in 2005. That the nurturing of her prodigality has resulted in this amazingly startling work (now followed up with a second play TUSK TUSK - to be seen later this year in Sydney) at such a young age is a reason for envy of the health and wisdom of such support.

This week the new organisation Playwriting Australia has just finished a National Play Festival in Brisbane. NIDA has begun a more engaged (2010) Writing course under the aegis of Jane Bodie. With The Sydney Theatre Company's convening and sustaining of its young company THE RESIDENTS, the primary and causal work of the writer may be getting the right and necessary development attention it needs. (This is a Sydney perspective - Melbourne and the other cities have developments engaged as well.) We look forward for a more sophisticated and in-depth development for the writer.

Playing now until 14 March.
For more information or to book click here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Double Exposure

B Sharp present SUMMER COMEDY & CABARET. CRE8ION presents DOUBLE EXPOSURE, in the Downstairs Space at Belvoir Theatre.

DOUBLE EXPOSURE is part of a triple bill of Comedy and cabaret offerings that play on alternate nights in the Downstairs Theatre until the 14th February. The brochure for this show says "Two strange men, two strange minds, one big night of stand up comedy." The first half of the program features Marty Murphy in HAPPY AND CLEAN, directed by Tommy Murphy. Marty Murphy, dressed in a period pin striped suit and shiny black shoes, with a white handkerchief tucked, necessarily in the suit pocket, and very neat hair, "takes us on a surreal journey as he reveals how he became a B-grade movie director with three-act tendencies who writes an action thriller set on a turkey farm. This comic experience has Murphy playing his own straight man to over twenty-five other characters." The elegant and deceptively, mildly energized performance by Mr Murphy is not only highly skillful in the most delightful way but also gently and accumulatively funny. The narrative is all consuming and the lightning switches from one beautifully economic characterisation, both vocally and physically, to another and back again, is deceptively simple and hugely, a cause for amazement. This is a fifty minute monologue that is highly original and amusing not only for the cumulative absurdity of the narrative but for all the delicious people we meet through the skills of Mr Murphy. We all had our favourites but all of them are lovable and, frighteningly, recognisable. Gentle but satisfying laughter.

After the interval, Flacco goes BEYOND THE PALE. Flacco entertains us as he prepares his material for a performance that never eventuates for us to witness. In a very peculiar long coat of unique design and button structure with a period grey Bogart hat, Flacco begins a routine of comedy that swiftly disarms the defences of the audience. I found myself in response to the comedy offers of Flacco expressing my joy in loud, LOUD guffaws, we all did. This is a marvellous performance of such consummate skill that it needs to be celebrated. The audience with me in the Downstairs space were also dangerously silly and noisy with their comedy responses. A surprise guest joined Flacco (The Sandman) and a raw set of political lampooning followed that had the exciting sense of improvisation and real bite.

This season has a few performances left in its shared triple bill and I reckon you would be mad not to try to see it. Two strikingly different techniques to elicit the health of a nation through a bloody good laugh in this intimate venue is well worth cancelling everything else to see. We loved it. Playing: Fri, 5th Feb (8.15 pm); Tues, 9th Feb (7pm); Weds 10th Feb (8.15pm).

For more information or to book click here.

Oedipus Rex & Symphony of Psalms

Sydney Festival, 2010 presents OEDIPUS REX & SYMPHONY OF PSALMS by Igor Stravinsky with the Sydney Symphony and Sydney Philharmonic Choirs in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

I need to declare that I do not have any expertise in this field other than as an enthralled attendee at selected music concerts. I do not go to the concert hall as a matter of course but as a dilettante who either knows the work well or wishes to explore the composer or artists and their contribution.

I do hold Stravinsky high on my curiosity chart and am not greatly sophisticated in the range of his composition. Most of his scores that I have "with me" are the usual ballet scores. In the last year the Australian Ballet gave us PETRUSHKA and FIREBIRD, in its FIREBIRD AND OTHER LEGENDS program, last April. The hearing of the score was the greater part off that evening's offering. I had never heard these Stravinsky scores live and never seen, live, the work of Mr Sellars, so was drawn to spend and attend.

Oedipus Rex is an opera-oratorio after Sophocles by Igor Stavinsky scored for orchestra, speaker, soloists and a male choir. The original libretto, based on Sophocles tragedy was written by Jean Cocteau and then translated into Latin, although the speakers text is given in the language of the audience. The first performance was given in May, 1927, in Paris.

This production is Directed by Peter Sellars and is a re-staging of the Los Angeles Philharmonic production (2009) with the singing cast mostly in tact. Roderick Dixon (Oedipus), Ryan McKinny (Creon, Messenge, Tiresias), Daniel Montenegro (Sheperd) joined here by Yvonne Kenny (Jocasta) and Paula Arundell as the narrator (Antigone - very broadly Australian in its very intense rendition), and Elma Kris as a dancer/mute (Ismene). The Sydney Philharmonia Choir, male section (under the direction of Brett Weymark) and the Sydney Symphony conducted by Joana Carneiro.

The flat stall section in front of the concert platform is where the orchestra is sat. On the concert platform a six foot platform stands, on which sculptures, (Ethoipian: Elias Sime- mostly elaborate furniture [thrones] are sat to be used by the performers. Beneath, on the actual concert platform the male chorus gather to comment on the action. Mr Sellars has the choir engaged in busily elaborate sign language during the singing. They are dressed in jeans and a variety of blue shirts/T-shirts - a contemporary image of blokes around the back yard. The principal cast are also dressed for today, except Jocasta. (Costume Design: Dunya Ramicova.) It is sparingly lit. (James F. Ingalls.)

The singing and the musical contribution of the orchestra is powerfully effective. The staging by Mr Sellars is less than inspiring.

After the interval the full choir, male and female, now casually dressed but with green shirts, circle the orchestra and still using signed language signals sing the Symphony of Psalms. The staging of this concert work, which has church liturgical revelations and relations, continues the story of Oedipus in dumb show above on the concert platform. The juxtaposition of the two intentions of Greek tragedy and Christian lament/ praise 'to the Glory of God" is oddly compatible.

The singing of both pieces was sublime and truly a satisfying experience. The musical excellence did not need, in my estimation, the vision of Mr Sellars' staging. Indeed sometimes it was a distraction - certainly the costume solutions were disconcerting. Bravo to the conductor Joana Carneiro and the Choir director, Brett Weymark.

There were fears that this Festival offering was not selling. At a top price of $189 plus a booking 'tax' by the House to make it totally $194, one can quite understand why.

For more information click here.

Programs, get your programs!

The following excerpt is pulled from the HAPPY AS LARRY blog:

These programs are not the only inadequate programs. And at least they are free. Unless you can afford the $10 for the STC shows, [$12 for the more “elaborate” programs of the Festival – dramaturgically, generally, poor in comparison to the London experience] and many people can’t and won’t pay it, the artists remain virtually unknown, unless you gather around the poster on the wall in the foyer. You and a couple of hundred as you exit!!!!! Surely a handout on each seat or for the interested as they enter, would be useful? Why the actor’s Agents or Union have not insisted that at least program recognition was given to their artists in this hand out form, when the artists are generally undercompensated for their craft and passion I can’t understand!(?) And I mean for all the CREATIVES not just the ACTOR/PERFORMER.

In London the programs at the National are 3 pound each, in Australian terms, approx $6. SIX DOLLARS, not TEN or TWELVE. They are chock a block with biog and photographs and illuminating articles and essays supporting the appreciation of the performance. Someone should take dramaturgical responsibility for the $10 STC program to justify the audience’s purchase. Belvoir leaves the STC program policy for dead. The Opera and Ballet are overpriced at $15. (Of course, who knows what the House is taxing that service to the public. The ushers selling the programs are as probably as overburdened as those who are in the Box Office, as I am still being asked to pay FIVE DOLLARS on top of the ticket price to attend the Sydney Opera House programs despite the fact that it is me, present, at the box office with cash in hand!!!!!!!!

Happy As Larry

Sydney Festival 2010 present HAPPY AS LARRY, Shaun Parker & Company at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney.

Like, but, unlike Michael Keegan-Dolan of Fabulous Beast who brought us GISELLE, Shaun Parker is credited as Director (as is Mr Keegan-Dolan) and then, Choreographer (not claimed by Keegan-Dolan). However it seemed to me that both these artists begin their work in a similar way. Select collaborators and from their uniqueness, their (gifts) develop a work from their range of possibilities and skills, predicated by the Director’s idea or “dream”. In the case of Mr Keegan-Dolan, this Festival, Giselle; in the case of Mr Parker, this Festival, Happiness.

The mixed company of what Mr Parker calls in the program: Performers/Devisers: Matt Cornell, Dean Cross, Ghenoa Gela, Josh Mu, Marnie Palomares, Harriet Ritchie, Miranda Wheen, Paul White and Lee Wilson and not: Dancers, is reflected in the observable (i.e. to the untrained eye [mine]) wide variety of physical shapes and types that we see in the line up of the Performers across the stage, and then during the performance itself, we see a unique physical quality of each of the Devisers mixed with a common ease of unified movement of great competency when required from them all. From the super human and super beauty of Paul White, a known dancer of memorable work over the past few years to a roller skater. It is this visual aesthetic of people, that, mostly, look just like us (dress like us) and yet do and create extraordinary “physical stuff” and interest, that we ordinary people can’t do, that Mr Parker utilises, and is a fairly interesting constant in the work (THIS SHOW IS ABOUT PEOPLE- 2007) and maybe the initial magic ingredient that draws one into the experience.

HAPPY AS LARRY is certainly the work of Mr Parker’s that I have most enjoyed.

On the black, well lit stage (Lighting Designer: Luiz Pampolha) a large rectangle of a black shape, which we later observe as moveable and pivotal, and the home for the performers for most of the show, is being chalked by a figure with naïve drawings, beneath arches of multi-coloured balloons (Set Design: Adam Gardnir). After the auditorium lighting dims a figure of a young girl comes and stands at the opposite end of the chalker and begins a gradual simple laugh that over five or so minutes escalates into a seductive, infectious invitation to join her in the expression of ‘content’, maybe, ‘happiness’. Then the Music score begins (Composers : Nick Wales and Bree Van Reyk), and the performers arrive and in a series of duos, trios etc and ensembles over 70 odd minutes, reveal a series of interactions in the living and/or pursuit of happiness.

In the program, Shaun Parker talks “About the Process” where he confesses to “thoughts of happiness” and that he “had become startlingly aware that people around (him) were perplexed by the elusive nature of happiness and its possibilities.” Which resulted in the question “Do we know how to be happy anymore?” Mr Parker talks of the integration of the basic Enneagram system of personality with modern psychological knowledge as espoused by Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo as the “spring-board for (their) investigation into the concept of happiness.” Nine personality types are described; The Perfectionist, the Seducer, the Performer, the Tragic Romantic, The Observer, the Devil’s Advocate, the Optimist, the Boss and the Mediator. These investigations around these types being the beginning of the devising for the project. Little of the clarity of definition of the Enneagram types remain in the work. (Not that it matters.) The Dramaturg on this project, Veronica Neave in her program note says: “ Happiness is our most singular human pursuit. It is seemingly so conditional, randomly regulated by external influences. Through the theatrical glasses of objectivity we see how absurd, futile, complex and perplexing our efforts are to hold onto something that is so elusive yet is as available to us as air.” This, for me, melancholic note of the human condition, is the feeling that one takes away from the performance. That happiness is elusive and just like Voltaire’s hero Candide we are all in a futile striving for happiness in what we must convince ourselves “the best of all possible worlds” and more or less fail to achieve. That the striving for it is the thing. The celebration of the ‘failing’ journeys/pursuits of each of these characters is what gives us optimism over a general melancholic situation. The pursuit is all.

Watching the episodes that Mr Parker and his Performers have selected is an easy task of wonder and appreciation. The individual gifts of the Performers are mesmerizing and individual enough to keep one delighted and then the subsuming of the eccentricities for the choreographing of ensemble energies of ‘dance’ are expert enough to be exhilarating. The work has a feel of a refreshing dousing of cool water on a hot and humid day. You leave, the theatre feeling optimistic, despite the difficulty, that we can be happy as Larry, at least for a time. Mr Parker acknowledges “As in all my works, the performers, composers, designers, dramaturg and creative producer are fundamental to the creation of the final production, their creative minds driving the vision alongside my own.”

The Design elements serve the project well. The most powerful and beautiful contribution, other than the performers, seemed to me the remarkable composition of Nic Wales and Bree Van Reyk. Crossing from sometimes the basic “plink plonk” of rhythmic based electronica to violin solos and embodied “sweeping” orchestral arrangements, this score is immersive in its contact with and propulsion of the experience for the performers and audience alike. The contribution of this score was illustrated for me vividly in one of the later sequences, where a basketball is spun on the finger of one of the devisers for quite a considerable time. In itself a little boring after the wonder of the skill wears off, but because of the beautiful depth of the musical accompaniment began to translate into a “spacey” cosmic episode, that became dimensionally emotionally moving. [I felt good while watching it- elated.] Like all good soundtracks the music composition or design effects are, in the theatre, for me, the most powerful unifying element of a production (sometimes it is a conscious experience, others it is unconscious, necessarily.). This score approached an ideal of interaction, support and leadership to the whole of the theatrical experience in the theatre. Some congratulations must go to the Sound Consultant, Kevin Davidson, for this was one of the most felicitous sound experiences I have had in the theatre for some time. (The Soundtrack album is available through Sandcastle/iTunes.)

Jill Sykes in the Sydney Morning Herald, reviewing HAPPY AS LARRY at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, where it had its World Premiere, wrote that the work was maybe too long and could still be edited. It seems some of that process had occurred before the Seymour season, but still even more could go, I reckon. It felt a little too long and just didn’t know how to end. But it is a fillip of happiness underlined by a human sense of the melancholic futility of it all. Happiness still worth pursuing in what is for us the best of possible worlds: a Sydney summer.

PS: Other than Paul White I was not able to identify individual performers. I would have liked too. But the program had no photograph or biographical information, so they remain invisible and incognito, other than to the cognoscenti. Shame in this case as much to admire individually.

For more information click here.

NB: These programs are not the only inadequate programs. And at least they are free. Unless you can afford the $10 for the STC shows, [$12 for the more “elaborate” programs of the Festival – dramaturgically, generally, poor in comparison to the London experience] and many people can’t and won’t pay it, the artists remain virtually unknown, unless you gather around the poster on the wall in the foyer. You and a couple of hundred as you exit!!!!! Surely a handout on each seat or for the interested as they enter, would be useful? Why the actor’s Agents or Union have not insisted that at least program recognition was given to their artists in this hand out form, when the artists are generally undercompensated for their craft and passion I can’t understand!(?) And I mean for all the CREATIVES not just the ACTOR/PERFORMER.

In London the programs at the National are 3 pound each, in Australian terms, approx $6. SIX DOLLARS, not TEN or TWELVE. They are chock a block with biog and photographs and illuminating articles and essays supporting the appreciation of the performance. Someone should take dramaturgical responsibility for the $10 STC program to justify the audience’s purchase. Belvoir leaves the STC program policy for dead. The Opera and Ballet are overpriced at $15. (Of course, who knows what the House is taxing that service to the public. The ushers selling the programs are as probably as overburdened as those who are in the Box Office, as I am still being asked to pay FIVE DOLLARS on top of the ticket price to attend the Sydney Opera House programs despite the fact that it is me, present, at the box office with cash in hand!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Sydney Festival presents a co-production between Chichester Festival Theatre and Headlong SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by Luigi Pirandello in a new version by Rupert Goold & Ben Power in the York Theatre, Seymour Centre.

Written in 1921 and first performed in Rome in the Teatro Valle. “SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR” is a classic of modernism, a fundamentally subversive moment in the history of modern theatre. Its self conscious setting – an open stage prepared for rehearsal (of another Pirandello play THE RULES OF THE GAME) – its fragmented narrative, confusing time levels and radical issues (the details of the family life of The Characters with its disruption, adultery, prostitution, illegitimacy, nudity and potential incest) caused an uproar at its first night... in Rome: supporters of the playwright and their opponents came to blows - at the end Pirandello and his daughter had to leave hastily by the stage door.

"In the original, at the commencement of the rehearsal six characters appear in the theatre and beg the Producer to help them find, with the aid of his acting company, an author for their story. They lament that they have been realised by an author but now abandoned ‘It’s true, I would go, would go and tempt him, time after time, in his gloomy study just as it was growing dark, when he was sitting quietly in an armchair not even bothering to switch a light on but leaving the shadows to fill the room: the shadows were swarming with us, we had come to tempt him.’ To tempt him to write the narrative of these characters. For the Producer to become the Author." Pirandello “explores the relationship between appearance and reality, the mask and the face, permanence and flux.” “This is the best known of Pirandello’s plays (Henry IV (Enrico IV) another favourite - my favourite), and it still stands, as one of drama’s most original and profound meditations on the nature of the theatrical process.”

Although this production has not resulted in members of the audience engaging in “fisty cuffs” and no one has had to leave hastily by the stage door there has been quite a lot of emotional discussion, for or against the experience.

In this "new version" (Rupert Goold & Ben Power) the characters interrupt the editing discussion in an abandoned suite of rooms, post modernist grunge or reality(?) (Design, Miriam Buether) that are doubling as a "studio" for a documentary drama involving a dying boy selecting to suicide (euthanise) in a clinic in Denmark. (The ephemera of Hamlet and the famous rules of the Dogme films (Lars Von Trier) swim into the mix.) What is real? What is dramatised? The ethical issues of the manipulation of real and re-enacted images to create the video/film becomes central to the events. As clever as all that layering is, on top of what is an already multi-layered original, led to a fairly mind boggling afternoon in the theatre.

Having the opportunity to read this new version it is still a very dense text to decipher, even with the luxury of time which allows re-reads etc. Whatever the relative clarity of the written text may be, and that is relative, the playing in this production, I felt was highly professional, but in this instance, this afternoon, was not detailed enough in its communication skills to elucidate and carry me and most of the audience through the "hoops" of all of the original and new conceits of this new writing. It was a bombast of histrionics that rather distracted us from the finesse of the plotting and arguments and instead defied us to keep up rather than assisting us in becoming clever and comprehending with them of the curiosities of Mr Pirandello, Goold and Power.

Mr Ian McDiarmid as The Father and Ms Denise Gough as The Stepdaughter, although amazingly dazzling in their virtuosic choices were mostly connected only to those and were relatively glib in their primary task of taking the audience with them through this intricate and multi layered puzzle of a production. The other principal role of the Producer played by Catherine McCormack was sometimes technically inaudible and narrow in its emotional range: fraught and then downright panicked, and, so I felt I was often on a disabled ship without compass or life raft on a turbulent ocean of ideas and possibilities. The rest of the company were there in support, and, of them I particularly enjoyed Jake Harders (Cameraman/Theatre Maker) and Robin Pearce (editor).They had a presence and a relationship with us, the audience, they seemed to care that we were there. This production was first given in June 2008 and may have suffered, this afternoon, with the wear of repetition? Some members of the audience found it altogether too much and left in the interval.

Those of us that stayed had a further set of puzzles to contend with, in the second act, but in my personal experience, found a newly invented fourth act, with all of its in-jokes and self referencing, amusing. Would Pirandello have coped with this extrapolation of his text? Since he spent some time of his life attempting to turn his play into a film script and probably would have explored all this realm of the new news media - documentary, given it existed for him, he would, I imagine, enjoyed it. Who is to know?

A version of a famous 1921 classic for a new century in 2010. To quote from an introduction to a 1979 translation of the original by the translator John Linstrum: "Time acts upon a translation in a way that it does not upon the original, so that a translation made a quarter of a century ago might almost be as distant from us as the original itself and in criticising the effectiveness of the play we may find ourselves judging and reacting to a translation and not the work that is translated. The modernisation of a translation is not only acceptable but necessary in order to preserve a sense of the freshness as language itself changes. An original work possesses a natural elasticity of language that allows it to accommodate these changes more easily than a translation which is inevitably limited by attempts to be both lucid and faithful to an original." Adaptation is important but the extremity of it and still call the play SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR (or HAMLET, HAMLET) seems to have become a bone of contention for some of the audiences. It was not Pirandello (It was not Hamlet) some have lamented.

Like the expectancy that an audience may have had about Fabulous Beast's production of GISELLE, if you went expecting a faithful rendition of the original (with fond memories of the Rodney Fisher production for the Sydney Theatre Company, years ago) then you were to be disappointed or as some have felt, duped and consequently, outraged. (Mind you there was sufficient information for you to make a considered guess as to what you might experience.)

This production entitled SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR was a new work: "Updated and recontextualised in this vertiginous new version by Rupert Goold & Ben Power, it becomes a dark parable for a media-obsessed age and exhilarating exploration of how we define art, ourselves and 'reality' in the twenty-first century." - so the blurb on the back of the printed playscript goes. The British press were not uncritical of this work and were mostly admiring of the idea of the production but found it wanting or over indulgent in its exploration. Stimulating but over the top: this is the summary of my reaction. I have not made up my mind if it was the text and production or the acting of it on the day I saw it?

The Sydney Festival, curated by Lindy Hume, has provoked argument which I believe ought to be some of its objective. A feast of art that awakens healthy discussion and challenges. Money and time spent on confrontation and growth as well as verification and comfort. This production certainly provoked me to many hours of investigation of my response and that of others. And I have had a great time re-reading the play and this new version and it causes me to call out for a production of Pirandello's Enrico IV. (I last saw it At The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and loved it with all of its difficulties - great to see it again, especially with this production still fresh in mind.)

NB Quotes are sourced from the program notes in The Sydney Festival program; the 1979 Methuen translation of SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by John Linstrum.

For more information click here.


Sydney Festival present GISELLE from the Company FABULOUS BEAST led by Director, Michael Keegan-Dolan at CarriageWorks Bay 17.

The first performance of GISELLE took place in June 1841 at the Paris Opera. It was conceived by the poet, author Theophile Gautier, inspired by Heinrich Heine's work, De l 'Állemange, where he came across a passage concerning "the snow white wilis (spirits of jilted brides) who walz pitilessly the whole night long" and lure and dance to death any who come their way during their dark haunting of the night. The music was sketched in 8 days and scored in 3 weeks by Adolphe Adam. Carlotta Grisi was the first Giselle.

Giselle, a frail young peasant girl,has a besotted village suitor, Hilarion. But a prince, Albrecht, chances to see her and disguises himself and woos her. She falls in love. Hilarion in a pique of jealousy reveals to her the origin of her lover and she suffers a shock that kills her. Later, Hilarion visits at night the grave of Giselle and is met and entranced by the wilis of the cemetery and is danced to death. Albrecht too, approaches the grave site but Giselle protects him from the walz of the wilis until the sun rises and he is saved from Hilarion's fate. She fated to the world of the wilis.

The ballet was a great success. "Giselle offered an escape to the world of mystery, beauty, danger and death, a vision that stirred the blood of poetic as well as prosaic imaginations." However, "What secures its place (still) in the apex of romantic ballets is that in place of the usual happy ending, in which virtue is rewarded, a tragic death followed by a ghostly resurrection is substituted.

This then is the Classic Ballet.

This version has been created by a contemporary company called FABULOUS BEAST. To quote from the Festival program in an essay by Manchan Magan: "Who is Fabulous Beast? They are a dance theatre company, which can mean anything from the play-thing of an ego-maniacal director, to a way of branding uneven work under a saleable name, or a haven of relative stability for wandering dancers. In the case of Fabulous Beast the dance theatre company is a way of being in the world, an ethos that infuses the minds and bodies of the members of the company. They are a community of diverse performers from five continents who are based all around the world, but who gather together in a cowshed in the Irish midlands to develop performances under the guidance of Michael Keegan-Dolan, a pure-hearted, fearless and visionary choreographer."

The work they produce is theatrical in that it is rich in the hybrid of form that they engage in: The spoken word- text of the actor's realm. The physical dance techniques of the variously trained dancers: Classical or otherwise. Two of this company of Giselle, for instance, are not even dancers. One works as a narrator, exclusively, perched on top of a telegraph-like pole as Tommy McCreedy, Giselle's father (Bill Lengfelder). He is an actor. The other an actor/mover, Nurse Mary, trained at Ecole Jacques Lecoq, Paris. (Mikel Murfi.) Another, who plays Bridget Mulrooney, (Angelo Simimmo) has a double gift of dance acumen and an impressive falsetto voice. "Whether the performers are acting (Most using English as their second language, impressively) , singing or clowning, they do so with grace, intensity and (the) integrity of physically-trained, body aware performers." The combination of the juxtapositional concepts of dance and theatre in this performance of Giselle, are the most successful meld that I have experienced. Usually, for me, when dancers speak, it appears to me that not enough time had been given in rehearsal to give the dancers confidence to do so - this is not the case here, I was not distracted out of the performance with unconfident vocalisations.

This GISELLE, premiered in Dublin in 2003. It is part of a trilogy of works whose primary concern "are the strains and struggles of the human condition, and a secondary theme running through them is the reaction to the radical social upheaval being experienced in the Irish midlands as a result of new prosperity (Now, in 2010 in doubt as a result of the recent collapse of the Money centres about the world), foreign inward migration, shifting sexual mores, erosion of religion and increasing reliance on medicine..... They take on the hypocrisy of modern society; yet there is always a hint of redemption."

To expect the romantic version of Giselle is to lead to disappointment. The first act of this theatre piece has a great deal of dialogue and it reveals the cruel and bleak world of this village in text as blackly mean and funny as you might find in a play by Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Lonesome West). 11 performers and only 2 women. Men role play women in dresses. The cruelty and ugliness of this world seems to be doubly compounded. The Irish world does not appear in glamorous terms. Michael Keegan-Dolan, in an artist's talk after the performance I attended, talked of the landscape of the site of his company's practice as hostile, flat, barren and wet. Very wet. This is reflected in the imagery of the creative team. The spare setting, a bare stage with a stark vertical telegraph pole initially silhouetted against a pale back cloth, the dour costume colours, (Sophie Charalambous), the lighting (Adam Silverman), the music covering a wide range of pleasant, sometimes tuneful but also uncomfortable aural composition (Philip Feeney) all conspire to create a world of prejudice, petty meanness and depression with occasion bright energies attempting to emerge. The sound of the line dance, the red shirts and skirt and some jaunty hats. The only female performer for most of the piece is the Giselle (Daphne Strothmann) and the weight of the ugly world forces her to an asthmatic wheeze. It is a relief when in this world of abuse, Albrecht (a stranger to this village), "a bisexual line dancing teacher from Bratislava" (Milos Galko) shows some level of kindness to her. Following the libretto of the classic ballet however, treachery occurs and Giselle dies.

As the work gathers action, the spoken dialogue gradually disappears and the principal mode of expression is through the dance movement. There is no choreographer credited in this work, rather Mr Keegan-Dolan is credited as Director. In his artist's talk he talked of his creative process which always began with images. From this he watches his dancers/actors move and builds from their unique body language. Or he sets tasks, for instance, the line dancing comes from the research of the Milos Galko (Albrecht) and Vladislav Soltys (Fat Mary), and so it is a mixture of the American line dance with these two dancers heritage shinning through, Slovak folk dance - entirely original. Built from the dancers, and Mr Keegan-Dolan's close watching and "dreaming", the work result, Mr Keegan-Dolan believes, comes from the spirit of the artist seeking a way to express his dramatic impulses, from the inside of his collaborators, and has an energetic spirit of truth that a mirror watching form perfectionist might never achieve. To my eyes this led to a dance style that was liberated and infectious in the ensemble and individual forms of various combinations, if a little rough. This dance style seems to me a less formal expression of dance techniques, classical or otherwise and rather a life like surge of a physical life force. Infectious.

The second half of the work moves to the graveyard of the village and the wilis (Emmanuel Obeys, Neil Paris, Alex Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier) of this Irish village appear in ghostly white costume and flour white bodies. Ropes drop from the roof and the dancers begin a ballet of flying and entwined spinning.Beautiful and breathtaking in its execution. Hilarion (Michael Dolan) visits the graveside and is greeted and danced to death by the wilis. Albrecht appears and is saved by Giselle from that fate. The last image of the piece is of Giselle attempting to defy gravity and escape into the skies, but inevitably no matter what height she manages, she returns to earth, destined to haunt the village of her tragedy. The final moments of the music score by Mr Feeney incorporates the dying romantic musical motifs from the original Adolphe Adam GISELLE. I found it immensely moving. It had a similar affect on me as the glorious similar gesture in Australia Dance Theatre's BIRDBRAIN, where the music motif and a visual image of one of the great interpreter's of Odette/Odile appeared to join the contemporary work to the inspiration of history of SWAN LAKE.

There seems to be some dissension about this work among Sydney Festival goers. I loved it. Fabulous Beast has been described as "one of the most daring and highly original dance theatre companies in the world". GISELLE, Itself was nominated for the Olivier Award in 2003. I felt it was deserving of such honour and certainly as a theatre company of such hybrid skill applications, the best dance focused theatre company that I have had the pleasure of watching. Their last work was THE RITES OF SPRING. Interesting to ponder what they wrought from
the sources of this famous "modernity".

For more information click here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Book of Everything

Company B Belvoir and Kim Carpenter's Theatre of Image present THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING. The Play. Adapted by Richard Tulloch from the Novel by Guus Kuljer.

A few weeks ago writing about WAR HORSE and NATION, two projects that the National Theatre in London developed, with young audiences in mind , I "boldly" suggested that perhaps the STC could begin to be more enterprising in that area with the special commissioning of such like work for Sydney over our long festive summer break.

Well, blow me down, there was I at the Belvoir on Saturday afternoon (after fearing I wouldn't get a ticket - it was so booked up. I even offered to buy standing room!!!) with an audience of Children of All Ages and Kinds having one of the most Exquisite and Best times in Sydney Theatre for a long time. And, of course my memory was jogged, that Belvoir had commissioned with the Sydney Festival (I think) THE ADVENTURES OF SNUGGLEPOT & CUDDLEPIE at the Theatre Royal a few years ago. ( Not so good, I remember.)

Richard Tulloch, himself, a well established and honoured writer (sometimes performer), has written for Theatre of Image under commission before (eg THE HAPPY PRINCE). He writes in the program notes: " When I read THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, I loved it (too). It is remarkable how a slim book can say so much about the difficult topics of facing fear and violence, finding strength and happiness, and questioning religious beliefs. These themes may not be the usual stuff of children's entertainment, but (Guus) Kuijer never shies away from complexity. Like all the best writers for young people, he trusts them to do some thinking...... I don't know the details of Kuijer's childhood, but I know he was born during the war (World War Two), grew up in a religious family and that, like Thomas, he gradually came to question the ethics of stories in the bible....... Children do think about these things...... If it is appropriate to tell children these stories, and I'm sure it is, we should encourage them to consider when and why they were written, to question how they relate to their own lives and to form their own opinions about their meaning."

The Novel author himself says: "I can't remember that God was ever a topic of conversation for us children. I mean in the street when there were no adults around. That is remarkable, when you consider our lives were saturated with GOD..... But in the street, that whole pious world disappeared over the horizon. We were cowboys or indians, Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, cops and robbers, never Jesus."

"My father heartily looked forward to the second coming, and prayed regularly and fervently, 'Come Lord Jesus, come soon!' And I remember as a child I thought, 'Yes, but not until after my birthday.' "

"I can't remember any child who saw anything in the return of Christ, because to look forward to that is to look down on the life that we have here on earth. Our prayer was always 'Stay where you are Lord Jesus, and don't move!' Children love life, you know, and so they should." - Guus Kuijer from "Why Children Play Cowboys, But Never Jesus."

(It is with this observation that I reflect back on my own fifties childhood and recognise the games played by Mr Kuijer and his friends, especially cowboys and indians, to which I would add the Roman saga of Christians being eaten by lions in the Coliseum and Montezuma and the Aztecs, making human sacrifices, pulling out the pumping heart of victims dripping with blood, in the half finished foundations of the new housing commission houses about us in the North Ryde neighbourhood. (The movies and black and white television, the source of our Hollywood History of the World, inflamming our imaginations and spontaneously created by all us kids in the half developed Australian suburbs-bush, market gardens and new fibro houses!!) Like Mr Kuijer, Jesus, didn't appear in our games, but not because his story didn't awake our imaginations but because we had been strictly taught that it was a SIN to even say his name out loud, except in prayer. So no Jesus stories except in school and church. Mind you Ramses and Moses would appear. The technicolour world of Cecil B De Mille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS insisting on being brought to life. Yul Brynner and Charleston Heston. Anne Baxter quoted by us gamsters: "Moses, Moses, Moses!" around the green statue of some Egyptian god made out of an old blanket, standing, wrapped around a broom handle on fruit crates).

In a space painted ultramarine blue, always creating a timeless feeling of infinity, Kim Carpenter has designed and built "a large copy of Thomas's book, THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, standing upstage centre. Pages (are) turned during the performance to reveal naively painted representations of each of the different locations." These illustrations are simply enchanting, (Some of them are reproduced in the Currency Press copy of the play - recommended as a steal, at $10 each) and were alluringly suggestive to my imagination to embrace the world on stage as my reality. It is a wonderful Design solution, because the "naive" rendering of the paintings are so contrasting and yet so compatible to the sometimes harsh and violent actions of the play that the within the balance of fantasy and reality there was a creative choice for the watcher. If the atmosphere of the action on stage became to tense in the narrative, and Peter Carroll as Father is formidable to encounter indeed, emotional relief can be found in regarding the fantastic environs that Mr Carpenter has created.

The costume designs, again by Mr Carpenter, are magical and apt (eg the vision of the local "witch", Mrs van Amersfoort (Julie Forsyth) , in every detail from foot to face makeup and hair, is inspired. The dyed hair of Mr Carroll to create this Father truly, cruelly accurate in its essence to inspire austerity and accompanying fear.)

The lighting design by Nigel Levings is so beautiful and often so ravishing to the eye, in the design environs of Mr Carpenter, that to freeze frame the action to give more time to contemplate the images became a real desire. The Music Composition by Ian Grandage - he is also the versatile live musician - along with the Sound Design of Steve Francis is also a major element in the experience of this production: JOY.

The cast have created characters that fully live and are carried home, indelibly, in the memory. The Choreography by Julia Cotton and her guidance to some of the physical solutions of detail of character are both perceptible craft and invisible accouterments for the actors. A delight.

Matthew Whittet (Thomas) following on from his performance of SILVER in Downstairs this year, simply compounds for us to appreciate, his enormous skill and appeal, not only as character but as artist. Physical, vocal and spiritually, too. He has a charismatic essence that all of us KIDS in the audience wanted to identify with. Objectively watching the actor at work is also inspiring.

Julie Forsyth is overwhelmingly warm and delicious, our fantasy adult figure/saviour - also has that special spiritual transcendence for me as a performer. Alison Bell playing the mean big sister to the hilt, who becomes, most unexpectedly, our heroine of defiance, is wonderful. Yael Stone, a little too absent from our stages this year, after her terrific year, last year, is gorgeous as the girl with a leather leg with the squeak, Eliza. Peter Carroll creates unswervingly a fearful and yet oddly pitiable figure as the Father and contrasts this demeanor of his actor's psyche with the immensely funny Bumbiter. Deborah Kennedy a pants wearing, eccentric, bicycling aunty, a wish fulfillment of the relative, we all want (or had). John Leary as Thomas' personal empathetic vision of Jesus is subtle, funny and wisely human.

Neil Armfield the Director of this work, creates a seamlessly comfortable production, where the actors talk and engage with us as actors, fellow-conspirators (The Frog Plague!!) speak as narrators and transform into blissfully beautiful people that we all want to be our friends to play with. Every element is almost perfect.

Maybe smaller in production scale than NATION or WAR HORSE at The National Theatre in London, THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING is a young person's production, like those other two, that is a great theatre experience for all of us kids (no matter the chronological age) in the Belvoir Theatre. Every individual involved has a gift and all of them have been given the opportunity to use those gifts WELL for the story telling to the "tribe" each day, in that magical space. Their utilised treasures of gift, talent and spirit are a boon for us lesser mortals to translate into highly imaginative creatures, too.

I hope the production has an extensive life after the season here. Do go when you can. Highly recommended.

For more information click here.