Tuesday, April 27, 2010



The concert featured the Orchestra with guest artists ; Sara Macliver, Soprano; Fiona Campbell, Mezzo Soprano; Andrew Staples, Tenor and Matthew Brook, Bass.

The first half of the concert featured : Dimitri Shostakovich –Elegy and Polka. J.S. Bach – Missa Brevis in G minor BWV235. Arvo Part – Summa. Arnold Schoenberg – Litany from String Quartet No.2. The pieces were not played consecutively as listed, but rather the six parts of the Bach Mass were interleaved with the other works. Each piece was counterpointed in an unusual context that kept me fascinated with the differences and similarities of objectives and techniques of the musicians. It was an altogether stimulating experience. This contextual placement of old and new music is a familiar experience for me. Michael Tilson Thomas and his orchestra the San Francisco Symphony, has attracted and astounded me with similar learned connections at several of his concert performances. Mr Tognetti introduced with commentary his program order before playing, as does Mr Thomas, and it was an informative entrance for my appreciation to the pieces and added piquancy to the listening.

The second half of the concert consisted of again J.S. Bach – Motet den Herrn BWV230. Diana Burrell – Das Meer, das so gross und weit ist, da wimmelt’s ohne Zahl, grosse und kleine Tiere. J.S. Bach – Cantata : Wo gehest du hin? BWV166.

So much Bach. So much bliss on this night. The concert justified the statement in the program notes : “J.S. Bach is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, of all composers.” The soloists were sublime in the rendering of their tasks. A very interesting essay in the program by Michael Stevens: ONE VOICE PER PART? offered much to consider about the way we hear Bach choral pieces. One voice per part seemed on this occasion a welcome and clarifying manner of performing the pieces, particularly the Missa Brevis, in the first half.

The Diana Burrell piece was challenging, and on only one hearing, the least easy to appreciate. Not to say that I didn't love hearing it.

Another great night in a concert hall from the ACO.

Monday, April 26, 2010


A Steady Lads & Christine Dunstan production. CODGERS by Don Reid at the Seymour Centre, Sydney.

18 months ago I saw the original production of CODGERS at the Riverside Theatres. I waxed lyrically over the cast that brought to life a fairly old fashioned and conventionally structured play. A type of play not favoured by the powers that be in 2010. The players, a team of veterans of the Australian Theatre, gave an afternoon of entertainment and gentle moral enlightenment that, however, for me, transcended any reserves about the play.

This new production that is in the midst of a National Tour has been re-cast. Four of the originals still are, delightfully “playing up”: Ronald Falk, as outrageously, wickedly delicious as before; Ron Haddrick, if anything better, and dare I say even more energised and accurate with his characterisation (Where is his fountain of youth? I want some of what he is having); Edwin Hodgeman now gives an even more wily performance, that for its delicacy of choices, steals acting honours for me; and Jon Lam, who seems to be more blithely simple, that on second viewing, must be practising a technique of a superior kind. New comers Russell Newman as Patrick Guiness and Shane Porteous as Rod Dean are sufficient but not yet matching the kind of cheekiness of playing of either the former actors.

Russell Newman has not found the depth of ownership to this man and gives a surface, presentational reading to the stock opportunities of the writing, rendering the material to appear caricature. While Shane Porteous in his performance in general and especially in the big speech of the second act displays a penchant for sentimentality that the writing is already overweighted with. It seems it must be underplayed and anchored in a truth of character revelation to be fully palatable in this day and sophistication. Still, both are adequate and on the night, mostly, got away with the bonhommie of this group of men, still learning about life and making startling adjustments to it as they confront secrets and lies of the codgers they thought they knew.

The Design of both Set (Nicholas Dare) and Lighting (Nicholas Higgins) have not benefited from the need to tour as both have been simplified and are not necessarily as interesting or successful as out at Riverside. The lighting is not as sympathetic as before and I miss the devastatingly funny lead in, from upstairs of the Gym, of Mr Falk, in the revelatory moments of the second act.

This is a delightful way to pass the time. The acting is, mostly, a joy to watch and Wayne Harrison as Director, has a steady hand on the proceedings. I have been spoilt and have memories of a different chemistry in the original casting. However, if you haven't seen these men on stage for a while, do go, for when you see them in action you will recall what they have given us in our lifetimes and wonder why we don't get to see them more regularly in Sydney.

Don Reid threatens us with a play called BIDDIES. The possible casting opportunities are tantalising to consider and or wish. "I have a little list", to quote a very old fashioned little operetta. Do you? I am sure Mr Reid would be happy to know what they are. As might his producers.


Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST by Naomi Iizuka at the Roda Theatre.

The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) system takes me from San Francisco, and the Geary Theatre, across the Bay to Berkeley in 30 odd minutes. A homeless man helps me to negotiate the ticketing system at Powell St Station, as there is no other human about to assist an easily intimidated techno-phobe. He gratefully accepts my tip as thanks. If only he knew how thankful I am to him.

I have not seen the new Berkeley Repertory theatre, the Roda, (now 4 years old) and am keen to see it. It is a very pragmatic, modern space. It looks as if it has been designed from the stage functions out (a good thing). The auditorium is simple but comfortably available for the easy and friendly interaction between players and audience. A very good plus. It does not have the glow or dignity of the Geary but seems to be pregnant with the promise that, with the performance, will come the necessary magic of the theatre to fill it with tangible glow and warmth.

Unfortunately there are not many members of the audience at this early Sunday evening. The promised glow and warmth is tepid. The play we see is a world premiere of a work by a Japanese/American writer Naomi Iizuka. CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST. It is performed without interval.

The play has a triptych structure. Firstly, it is set in period Japan (1870's -1880's) mostly in a photographer's studio, Andrew Farsari's (Bruce McKenzie) in Yokohama, where an American woman tourist, Isabel Hewitt (Kate Eastwood Norris), the wife of an entrepreneur, Edmund Hewitt (Danny Wolohan), is attempting to sate her appetite for the erotic exotic world that was stirred in her on viewing her father's souvenir collection of the famous Yokohama photographs back home in the USA. Ms Hewitt arrives at the studio, without an appointment, to see a tattooed sitter in a stage setting with the photographer, and her fate may be sealed. She consequently, after several other visits and debates, disappears without a trace.

The second part of the triptych is in contemporary Japan, set mostly in a hotel bar where an Art Teacher/Collector, Dimitri Mendelssohn (Also, Bruce McKenzie) attempts to negotiate to purchase a collection of these now more famous and desirable photographs - now erotic exotic art, through the intermediary of a sexy translator, Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim) from a dealer, Hiro (Johnny Yu). The third section is back in history with Ms Hewitt and Mr Farsari. Truth and image seems to be at the heart of the debate of the writing. What is real? etc.

The set design (Mimi Lien) is a black box with sliding panels that reveal different areas, often supported visually with slide images or video projections (Leah Gelpe). The costume design (Annie Smart) covers both historical periods well and includes a very exotic two piece, full body suit. A body stocking made of light flexible material with the Meiji-era tattoo designs printed directly onto it. Very, very tantalisingly realistic and provocative. Other than this illusory tattoo suit, most of the design lacks impact or invitation to participate imaginatively, freely. It looks mostly clumsy and ugly. (Lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. Sound by Bray Poor). The set changes are noisy and too pragmatically operated to suspend my disbelief to the mechanics of it all.

With my consciousness of the “strings being pulled”, on the night I attended, the writer's intentions were relatively obfuscated. The scenes did not, for me, add up to a clear whole. What the play was saying was not easy to gather. A collection of bits with no satisfactory whole, at the end. The applause of a sparse house was slow and muted – maybe puzzled? Even reading the program notes on the return BART trip or having Googled the show, later, I am no clearer.

The acting, under the direction of Les Waters, was hyper unreal from the principals, Ms Norris and Mr McKenzie. They seemed to work in a declamatory style, “stand and deliver”, presentational and disconnected from any inner life or turmoil of a character's dilemma. The direct speeches to the house were similarly, stylistically delivered at us. Unattached to a real need. It was most disconcerting and bewildering. Whereas Ms Lim and Mr Wu in their principal characters had an accessibility and need for empathy which we yielded, gratefully at last. The audience was relieved to be to engaged with.

A new play, then, that in this production/performance, failed to communicate to me, but fleetingly and unsatisfactorily.

The recent history of BERKELEY REP, in the Bay Area, is in clear contrast to the recent AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER. In the past 13 years the Rep has had 13 plays transfer to New York. 6 of them to Broadway- I should think no mean feat. The most recent being AMERICAN IDIOT, a punk-rock musical, based on the music of a local band called Green Day. It opened to mostly good reviews this week, (April 17th. I saw it on the next part of my trip to the USA, will blog it, in due time). I mention it only to highlight even further my unrest and unease with the A.C.T. trajectory. And even though I felt this production and work were a communicable failure on the night I saw it, the vibration of the material on view was resonant with a theatrical zeal and vision for the future of theatre as an expressive and necessary expression of the culture of its community. The reported response to company research that the Managing Director, Susie Medak, gives in her Prologue in the program certainly verifies this. Unlike the museum deadness of VIGIL in the Geary Theatre. A starker contrast I could not have found.

Although the AURORA Company, next store to the Berkeley Rep had a production of Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN on and I had heard of some note. My appetite was wetted. If time did not take me away. Oh, well.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


A.C.T.: American Conservatory Theater presents VIGIL written and directed by Morris Panych at the Geary Theatre, San Francisco.

The American Conservatory Theater is the American theatre company that I have seen most often in my US life. It goes back to the late seventies (I think) when my very first American production ever was BURIED CHILD with a standout performance by Larry Hecht as Tilden. A memorable experience, I suppose, for the authenticity of the performance qualities and because of the writing (Pulitzer Prize 1979), and especially the quality of the acting, as individuals and, most impressively, as an ensemble company of artists, add, the pregnant reciprocation of love and loyalty that the community of audience emanated in the physical witnessing of the work. Here was a theatre company that was enriched by its patrons as much as its artists. This was when the American Conservatory was still inspired vigorously by the great foundation leadership of William Ball (although he had moved on). Edward Hastings led the company before, and briefly, after an earthquake. Then came the appointment of Artistic Director, Carey Perloff (19 years, this year), the reconstruction and re-opening of the Geary Theatre (1996); an insidious loss of most of the original company of performing artists over time; a move of its administration and its then, internationally famous, Conservatory school to Grant Street (Now reduced to an intake of only 8 students a year !!!) and the creation in 2001, of a new core company of actors (5 or 6, perhaps). The program notes tell us the “AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER nurtures the art of live theatre through dynamic productions, intensive actor training in the conservatory, and an ongoing dialogue with its community.”

So, it is sad to report that within a gorgeously restored theatre building, comfortable and glowing with promise, what is going on, on the stage, behind the gold gilt of the proscenium arch is what Peter Brook in THE EMPTY SPACE might call “Dead Theatre”. As the Prince of Morocco says in the MERCHANT OF VENICE, “All that glisters is not gold”.

VIGIL by Morris Panych, a much honoured Canadian writer, is a very nice, little play. But hardly worthy to be strutted on this illustrious stage. A two-hander, between a psychologically depressed under achiever, essentially a loser, or ‘an awkward social misfit’, Kemp (Marco Barricelli), who in refuge from a boring life as a lowly functionary in a bank, in response to a summons by letter, attempts to find respite in the home of an aunt, Grace (Olympia Dukakis), a silently dying, almost bedridden old woman. (In the major revelation of the play, this may not even be his aunt. Rather, the real aunt withered to death at a window across the way, which Kemp has had the opportunity to report upon in the play. Inept even in his act of opportunism!!! And what it tells us of the old lady, who, either, is a vile ‘user’ pretending the ‘blood ‘ relationship to have care or is suffering from Alzheimer’s, is not very attractive. Indeed, either of these choices in the ‘airy’ given circumstances of the writing does not reveal the community of family or society too well either, does it?!! )

The structure of the play is made up of many, many, many short scenes some as short as 30 seconds, none much longer than 3 minutes with very pleasant interludes of Sound Design (Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe – in fact, the best contribution to the night). Because the old lady is, maybe, in a mentally insecure place, she barely speaks (maybe 12 speeches) so that Kemp in ruminations and mindless chatter and observations of street life, is virtually in monologue for nearly, with interval, a hundred minutes. But so venal and banal is this character, in action and intellectual capacity and objective –the demise of this old lady (in fact, in one scene, he has built an euthanasia machine to carry out his needs - hopelessly inept, of course, when put into action, but the source of some mindless and contextually, unbelievable comedy, “Ha, Ha, Ha” ), that it is a perfect agony to endure, despite the television sit-com, occasional genius quality of joke, mostly stylistically, dealing with line reversals, that become as tiresome as any stylistic repetition can be, over this length of time. E.g. “Let’s not talk about anything depressing, alright? …Do you want to be cremated?” says Kemp to a mute old lady, scoffing pudding. The mechanism of the writing, once is amusing, twice is just acceptable, thrice is a bore. (The pudding eating is amusing, but who cleans it up, when it has passed through the body? No real details of the dying and extinction of the human animal is ever alluded too in this opportunistic shallowness. Strange?)The writing is decidedly on the escapist embrace of really desperate realities (these realities not to far from our own lives), a joke, lots of them, rather than a serious debate.

After having to negotiate myself past an onslaught of genuine beggars and the homeless on the streets of San Francisco to get to this theatre, even, almost at its doors, the humour of the core dilemma of the play and direction was not one that I could accept fully without feeling despicable for doing so. The quote above of “ an ongoing dialogue with its community” in the program note looks decidedly bourgeois in the light of the real world surrounding this jewel of a theatre. One felt that it is a “Let them eat cake” demeanour, from the inhabitants of this artistic co-hort and its supporters. Some of the talk about this play in San Francisco has been about the timely appropriateness of the issues of the circumstances of the play: a deserted and ill old woman, and the need for care. What with the aging population and the need to have a Health action plan in readiness, this could not be a more challenging matter to deal with in the theatre today in the US of A. Especially, since, in the audience I saw it with, most of us were on the verge of extinction, give it a year or two or so…The play also has a younger generation that seems to be motivated by selfish personal gain rather than genuine human compassion for others – a further opportunity to develop real issue in text.

In an article by Kim Blackwell called MORRIS PANYCH ON VIGIL, Blackwell says “But don’t expect VIGIL or any Panych play to be a political comment. In VIGIL don’t expect to find a searing condemnation of the health care system in this country or a cry to families to care for their aging family members” (won’t the Republicans/conservatives of the audience be relieved?). Besides, writes Panych, “there is so much political messaging going on in the theatre right now.” So, I suppose Mr Panych feels it is not a necessary brief for himself. But, surely that is exactly what we need our theatre to be. Ms Perloff has a penchant for the value of the Greek origins of theatre, where the play was/is used as a tool to discuss vital issues of the community. To help us to make a choice on how to live for the greater good. To choose this play because it is funny is not enough, I would venture to say, in any theatre organisation in 2010. Let alone the Flagship Company of San Francisco. It is dismaying to visit this wonderful company of yore, and to have to witness, contemporaneously, the demise of artistic standards to such a parlous quality. Compare my first play visit to my last. BURIED CHILD / VIGIL. ???? (If culture can be used as a reference point for the state of the union, the quality of the company, what are the differences between the revelations of BURIED CHILD to that of VIGIL? Where is the United States today? Where is the American Theatre Company today, as reflected in this work?) There has to be better writing and comedy than this to curate in a season (Only seven choices, next year only six!!????) To quote the program notes again: “Today, A.C.T. is recognized nationally for its groundbreaking productions of classical works and bold explorations of contemporary writing.” If this production choice and explication reflects the state of this company’s “groundbreaking” work or “bold explorations of contemporary writing”, it is indeed, delusional. The Artistic team needs to work harder.

“Since the reopening of the Geary Theatre …in 1996, A.C.T. has enjoyed a remarkable period of audience expansion and financial stability.” Some intimations of suspicion might surround the “financial stability” affirmation when one observes and notices that there is one less production being planned for next year and that the Conservatory training program is in a precipitate decline of numbers (repeat, down to 8 artists –in –training per year!!!) Do read the hyperbole concerning the Conservatory Training Program in the page 3 notes (that were probably written some years ago) and the number of empty seats in the performance. Further, A.C.T. has hardly developed artistic values, of late, of any real significance in the Bay area or at all nationally. Where is the local playwright/playwrights that this Artistic administration has nurtured to speak to, of and for the local community and its concerns? In nineteen years A.C. T. has not been able to find one such writer to chronicle the trials, tribulations and triumphs of this vibrant and influential culture? (Whoops, they are about to take on a musical version of TALES OF THE CITY based on Armistead Maupin’s chronicling of some of the lives of denizens of a long, sadly past San Francisco world? Nostalgia to keep the citizens comatosed, (if any good, it might also do some financial good for the company) instead of dealing with the present realities of the day surrounding and challenging them?) How about a consistent Californian voice or voices? California is (was?) the 5th largest world economy, is it not? Its economic and technological impact is (was?) certainly great, why not its cultural impact? This culture’s voice does not exist? No ‘Euripides’, no ‘Sophocles’, here, I fear. It seems to me bizarre that this is so. While questioning the cultural nurturing, where has the role model company of artists that gathered around Bill Ball and made their home in San Francisco and that made a major contribution to the life pulse of this cultural city gone? Why has it not being nurtured? A collection of artists that lived the life of the city and its politics alongside their audience. Each knew each other, and each, in my first experience in the Geary Theatre, of BURIED CHILD, nurtured and identified with each other in the art that was offered as performance in that ‘sacred space’. Stand this company’s achievements beside the Chicago Company STEPPENWOLF over the last nineteen /twenty years and embarrassment should be the dominating emotion.

What is the rationale for the appearance of VIGIL on this stage? I would, in growing cynicism, suggest for economic reasons. It is cosy to suggest that this is a vehicle, “a perfect way to reunite our favourite couple, Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis” (speak for yourself, not for me), but, if we put our heads together, better vehicles might be found. (Repeat: Artistic body, just work harder.) This play is a good choice because, it only has two actors (although the expense of having two guest artists, needing to be accommodated etc for the length of the rehearsal/run in San Francisco, must at least be equivalent to the hiring of a local set of artists and therefore give the company a larger cast and, also, increase the possible repertory of play choice. It seems to me that there are local artists who are similarly “favourites” of the audience.) So, two actors; the writer and director all in one, pre-packaged production (Morris Panych); the Set and Costume Design, pre-packaged (Ken Mac Donald); Lighting Design, pre-packaged; Sound Designers, pre-packaged (Meg Roe and Alessandro Juliani). This Canadian import is a probably a cheaper proposition than otherwise. This is cool pragmatic economic rationalism. One can see, perhaps why there have been thirty productions of this work. Nothing wrong with that if the imported work and production is of quality, within the expectations of a leading theatre company in contemporary United States. It is, sadly, not. (Why the artistic industry is not crying “FOUL”, that not a single San Franciscan artist is employed in the above categories, might also suggest why this theatre company is not as rigorous as it ought to be in its responsibilities to the mission statements of the management.)

While both Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis give impeccable ‘professional’ performances, the acting is simply, proficiently, technical in its receiving. Highly distinguished externalisations with no intimation of soul, depth or real humanity, REAL humanity (they simply lacked commedia masks to complete their expertise), cartoons. The moment when Kemp realises that he may have been in the wrong house, looking after the wrong old lady, is a text book lesson from Mr Baricelli in comic technique, in how to technically milk the laughs out of the moment. It hardly was Kemp experiencing the reality of his discovery (Watch me act. Forget the story. Watch Mr Baricelli, not, appreciate the situation of KEMP.) It did not have any other shading of humanity: shame, guilt, bafflement or what ever else… Ms Dukakis, relieved from not having to remember more than 12 or so lines, the role demands that she mime her way through the dilemmas of the character. Acutely deft physically, she wrings a whole series of cod responses and physical mugging that Lucille Ball has demonstrated for us in endless repeats of I LOVE LUCY. Here is a clown’s performance with nothing but stock sentimental responses to sustain her character’s journey. It is shallow and demands of us only admiration of skills. Do not look for subtlety or shading of pathos or struggle or anything much other than underscoring another laugh. This is hardly acting of great impact. It is responsible and routine. Maybe the material is the problem. Certainly it has to be the directing. These are two interesting artists and they have been permitted ‘to phone in’ their performances. Dire, dispiriting and probably lauded by this artistic management. Depressing, dull and horrible to watch as an audience. This director has no real ability to make demands of these performers, or if he has, then his demands as Director are as superficial as his observations of humanity as a writer. Clever but mendaciously surface.

To be truthful, a lot of the audience laughed. Of course, there is a great weight of advantage to have “our favourites’” performing for us. We generally ask little of them. I think my favourite aunt and uncle give delighting and amusing renditions of SOME ENCHANTED EVENING around our piano at home, family gives great credit and accommodation of standards, to each other. But I am not of this family, I am an external visitor who is here to be rewarded for my time spent with an experience that at best would be entertaining, enlightening and full of ecstasy. None of these things happened. It was like being at a love fest, at the local community theatre in the suburbs of a provincial town. It certainly makes San Francisco appear to be artistically a pleasant, uncritical, contented, little, provincial city, if this is what it celebrates as good theatre.

Why have I gone on so much? Because I care for an Institution that was once great, that now has sunk to a bathetic, artistically moribund shadow of its former great and influential self. When did it slip to this level of mediocrity? Over time. But, just as surely as the Titanic sank, this ship, based on this instance, is sinking.

I felt encouraged to express my grief by an article that I read in the New York Times several weeks ago. It intimated a criticism of the Artistic leadership that I, and many others have wanted to shout from rooftops for years. I have seen no reply, no discussion and on asking concerned individuals, just nervous acknowledgement. I suppose, because it is a small artistic community and survival of professional careers depends on being compliant and shut up, nothing has been really shouted, just murmured. I have nothing to lose, directly, except the loss of a great source of inspiration. Maybe, if I had been in town to see the PHAEDRA or THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE, I would not feel so disturbed. Maybe VIGIL is just a commercial aberration of misjudged economic rationalism. Tell me so. (It is not what I have heard.)

Here in Australia we must be wary of the over corporate approach to managing art. Money and mercenary success to the exclusion of the flesh and blood sweat that is the consequence of imaginative belief, that to fail gloriously, is more exciting then achieving dully; of passionate risks over dull product, bean counting certainties of accountants. The economic rationalisation of the arts, our training institutions, our performing arts organisations will be the wreck of our culture and our civilizing history unless we remain vigilant and vocal. The American Conservatory Theatre and my life engagement with it requires me to cry out warning for caution, in Sydney. Nurture with artists not accountants. BURIED CHILD began my affair with this company, VIGIL may have ended it. Oh, woe. One could not have a more tragic trajectory of standard.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Vasily Petrenko conducts Grieg and Shostakovich

presents Vasily Petrenko conducting Shostakovich, Symphony No.8 in C minor, Opus 65 at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

So, I have snatched a two week break in the USA. My first stop is San Francisco, where I have many work connections to re-acquaint with, it has been three years, and, both, they and I are passing too quickly through TIME, not to catch and celebrate life with them. On April 3rd, my birthday, some friends take me for dinner at the Foreign Cinema Restaurant in the Mission district. The dinner booking is at 6.30pm!!! We finish a terrific meal, early. They ask what I would like to do. I confess that I had read that the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony was playing tonight and I wondered if they could drop me off at the Davies Hall over on Van Ness to see if I could catch it. They, graciously, agree to let me go. In a very sporty car I was whisked off. Get into the Hall Box Office just as the interval is concluding and buy a Rush Ticket :$20. Great seat. I have missed the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 16 played by Simon Trpceski, but am in time for the Shostakovich Symphony.

Tall, slim and elfin-handsome, Vasily Petrenko, this 34 year old Russian musician commanded, and sensitively, with a fearless and deeply felt artistry, constructed an experience of piercing humanity with the San Francisco Orchestra in this performance of the 8th Symphony. The Seventh (The Leningrad) and the Eighth Symphonies are known as the War Symphonies. The Eighth was written in the summer of 1943 at the Ivanovo Home for Composer’s, presented in September to the Committee on Arts of the USSR Council, and officially sanctioned, was performed in November of that year ,conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky with the State Symphony Orchestra, part of a Festival of Music to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet Union. Writing of the Eighth Symphony shortly before its first performance, Shostakovich was disarmingly cool about its intent. “It has no clearly defined subject-matter, it reflects my thoughts and emotions. There are many inner conflicts, dramatic and tragic...but its general tone is optimistic and life-asserting.” Later he added : “This work was an attempt at expressing the people’s experiences, at reflecting the grim tragedy of war. My Symphony is an epitome of those hard times..” In freer times,1979, in his MEMOIRS (TESTIMONY – as told to Solomon Volkov), Shostakovich claims that the Eighth Symphony is his Requiem: "It cannot simply be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s invasion… I was thinking of other enemies of humanity… Nowadays people like to recall the Post-war period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine till Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin…I haven’t forgotten the pre-war years. That is what all my symphonies, beginning with the fourth, are about."

Indeed, written in five movements, the overwhelming experience for me was one of a deep and dense dream of agitated perturbation, brooding, and full of whirlpools of despair shafted and propelled with brutal, invasive outbursts of disturbing violent nightmare. The first long movement: Adagio-Allegro-Adagio, “the heart of the symphony”, was coaxed by Maestro Petrenko to striking effect, creating an “anguished assertion of the soul”. Tears flowed from me at the sheer audacious expression of the soul, manipulated by the composition of the music and the conducting and playing of the platform artists. There is emotional restraint, poignant for its tensions, transformed by vicious climactic outbursts of savage intensity. The marches of the second and third movements are relentless and ugly, swaggering with a kind of mock grandeur. The third movement, especially, was driven forward with the irresistible propulsion of perpetual movement, and one is caught in an accumulative slipstream of music, hurled, finally, and exploded into and by, a fury of drumming and shattering dissonance. I was left breathless and creatively apprehensive. The fourth movement : Largo, a passacaglia, with the motive repeating twelve times : The fluttering flutes and muted, plucked strings in the middle of the movement, eerie moments of strange and unsettling communication. The final movement of this Symphony, written in the middle of the war, 1943, Shostakovich, later, referred to it as “an attempt to look into the future, into the post-war epoch. Life is beautiful. Everything evil and ugly will disappear; the beautiful will triumph.” But this is not altogether convincing in the music and at best the hope is timorous, the coda trailing off into an extensive stretch of pianissimo strings. Stretched to an almost inaudible but palpable vibration, of what? Peaceful Dream? Hope? Cataclysm? Or Nothingness? The strident nightmare of confronting despair and helplessness of the Eighth Symphony is finally dispersed rather than resolved. The future (in 1943) hangs in the ether of possibilities… in war torn Russia with either Hitler or Stalin as your master survivor, a future with not much joy to anticipate, I imagine.

This was a splendid performance. The acoustics of the Davies Hall, now fabulous in their clarity and resonance. I also was a guest at a concert given by the CARNEGIE MELLON PHILARMONIC. (A student orchestra ) at Carnegie Hall in New York, later in the month. Here the acoustic qualities of the auditorium were magnificent (or seemed to be) and it made me wonder at the dullness and the lethargic quality that generally the Sydney Symphony,and others, labour under in the Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall. Are they difficult acoustics? If so, when will the bullet be bitten to close the Hall and do something. I remember, anecdotally, that the Davies Hall in San Francisco when completed was found to have short comings in sound quality and the “powers that be” closed the auditorium and found and enacted solutions. It was probably hard to do on many different fronts, not least expense and pride, but whatever, the experience of this Eighth Symphony in this Hall was vital with forces of music as part of a nature driven force, that had all the possibilities of contrast that nature has at its beckoning. A birthday present to be cherished.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Vs Macbeth

Sydney Theatre Company and The Border Project in Association with the Adelaide Festival of Arts present VS MACBETH (Most of it) by William Shakespeare at the STC Wharf2.

On entering the theatre, a warning sign on computer screens hanging from the front lighting bar, on the sides, tell us to prepare to play Chinese Whispers. The first that was passed along my row of seats was “THIS PLAY IS CURSED.” This was indeed a prescient warning for what followed.

This is a collaboration with an Adelaide based company The Border Project and the Sydney Theatre Company via The Residents. (It played in Adelaide during the recent Adelaide Festival Season.) Both are driven by young artists and both have similar mission statements of exploring new ways of communicating to a wide audience through the means of the theatre. "The Border project has had an on going investigation into using popular forms as a device to take audiences into unfamiliar, unique and experimental territory." This company were guests as part of the STC New Stages last year where they presented, HIGHWAY ROCK ‘N ROLL DISASTER. “The Residents are nine actors employed full-time by Sydney Theatre Company with a focus on the development of theatre... with the exploration, shaping and fine-tuning of new works as a guiding objective...” If this is an example of the quality of the object of both these mission statements then they need to be more rigorous with their next project. They failed not only my generation (old theatre goers - “old farts”, perhaps) but those about me of the target generation, “our generation”, were less than enthralled. Disconnection from this work may drive them back to the “traditional theatre” that The Border Project seem to wish to subsume.

VS MACBETH in its hype during rehearsal was about the melding of the superstitious history of the productions of MACBETH over recollected, anecdotal history with a telling of the play. What we get is mostly a two hour performance of the Shakespeare play with incidental reminders and jokes of the accidents of time past and recent. Incidental is the optional word. Any of the "incidents" are cursory and under dramatised. After a while they are submerged into the action of playing a very straight forward reading of the text. It is as if just doing the play was time consuming enough, let alone really investigating the other idea and interpolating it into the work. It was incredibly dull. So what to talk about? The fall of the lighting bar is spectacular, in a very controlled fashion. Little else of real instance occurs further in that stream of the production.

So, the playing by the company of Shakespeare’s play (Most of It) is what is left. It is a very competent reading, generally, but not much else. Cameron Goodall (a founding member of The Border Project and also The Residents – is that the connection for the raison d’etre of this production?) plays Macbeth with the panache of an intelligent enthusiast. (The explosions of his vocal plosives, B’s T’s D’s [and sometimes his she’s and f’s] especially his P’s, however, are so pronounced as to be remarkably mannered and irritating, that I wondered if this was part of a running gag of the production. Amber McMahon, from The Border Project company, gave a clear but uninteresting rendition of Lady Macbeth. (lots of South Australian ‘A’s” and “I’s”.) Takhi Saul gave a ridiculous reading of Duncan, flippant and mildly ‘camp’, whilst doubling a very passionate Macduff. Brett Stiller does some impressive work in a cut down version of Banquo. Richard Pyros as Malcolm/Murderer, confirms a favourable impression made in THE MYSTERIES. But the sleeper of performances in this production is Zindzi Okenyo as Lady MacDuff. Her reading is transcendently clear, and moving. Tremulous with all the compassion of a witness and victim of tyranny. Subtly, her understated integrity, shone in her work in THE MYSTERIES, as well. I believe someone worth watching in the future. The other members of the company gave perfunctory performances with such under energised use of the language of the text and lazy sounds of Australian broad vernacular, that one could not help but recall the first Chinese Whisper and statement from this production: THIS PLAY IS CURSED.

All the design elements were pragmatic and hardly conducive to helping us, as an audience, to attend to the work (Director and Co-Set Designer, Sam Haren; Costume designer/Associate Designer, Melissa Page; Co-Set Designer, Matthew Kneale; Lighting Designer, Govin Ruben; and Composer/ Sound, David Heinrich; Video Artist, Richard Back.)

All the resources of these two companies, time ,talent and money, appeared to me, to be squandered on ineptness. Whatever it cost the companies to produce I and others have spent our money, to our cost, to be rewarded so terribly, flippantly.

The Darlinghurst Theatre, stepping way out of character, in terms of its usual programming has a MACBETH opening soon. Please lift the curse.

For more information click here.

New Creations

SYDNEY DANCE COMPANY presents 2010 Season: NEW CREATIONS at the Sydney Theatre.

The Sydney Dance Company begin there new season in Sydney with two world premieres: Adam Linder's ARE WE THAT WE ARE and Rafael Bonachela's 6 BREATHS.

Adam Linder is a young Australian born dancer/choreographer invited from Berlin, where he is now in residence, as a guest artist for this opening 2010 season. "According to Mr Linder, ARE WE THAT WE ARE is a physical exploration of altered states of consciousness within human experience. Embodying arcane states of otherness, the work investigates mysticism and spirituality, rapture and trance, psychedelia and sexuality, to expose realms of awareness beneath the everyday reality. By illuminating the potential of the body to transcend the conscious self, we are asked to question what lies beyond ordinary rational awareness."

We would/could possibly question "stuff", as above, if the dance work had any real clarity of vision to communicate. Otherwise all the above hyperbole is just twaddle and gobbledygook. The dramaturgy/text (Sally Schonfield) is so superficial as to render the work intellectually, to which it has pretensions, silly. Silly. Silly.

The choreography which, initially, is ground hugging, is mostly physical contortions and sculptural arrangements of entwined grostequeries, buzzed by a flying lighting bar of intense colours (Nick Schlieper). My recent visit to Paris awoke me to the terrors of the gargoyle decorating its many buildings and the sculpture rooms in the Louvre and British Museum to the splendid three dimensional bodies in space - which one can walk around and view in a passionate interaction, that the flatness of the paintings (thrilling, though some of them, many, of them are) can't. Some of Mr Linder's work has the effect of 'sculpture vivant'- tortured and alive. Later, we move into standing and kicking etc but the costume design of Jordan Askill has added to the jean and t-shirt or singlet, for a sequence, a set of ridiculously amusing head dresses that fail to convince one of anything, except a vision of a high school version of perhaps A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (the fairies, perhaps).

"The piece is constructed as a journey through this series of altered states, Linder tells... "One is a primal, trans-induced ritual. Another is the altered state within sexual union - the dissolution of self within the union of two beings - which is related to the chemical potency in the body for sexual otherness. I also take a look at the hallucinatory visual element of an altered state and explore the myriad of images and references and transfigurations that can happen within a hallucination; as well as the collective unconscious and collective experience." Maybe a handful of drugs could be handed out to the audience to help us grasp this in the work. That the final images have the seven dancers appear with six balloons tied around their wrists moving in amongst themselves to a gradually entangled set of strings is almost risible. It is, on our night, with my bewildered audience. Bits of the dance work were interesting, but, as a whole, considerably underwhelming and tiresome.

Comparatively, the work of the Artistic Director of the company, Rafael Bonachela, 6 BREATHS, is riveting. Beginning, with what is becoming a hallmark of this choreographer's aesthetic, a Video Art spectacle (Tim Richardson) of the breath of nature shaping a huge head sculpture that coalesces and disintegrates - in the final sequence adding the figure of a female in a dance pose much like, or is, the "branding" advertising image seen around Sydney public spaces for this work. That this is the most satisfying element of 6 BREATHS is not very encouraging.

A commissioned score from Ezio Bosso, in six sections, of piano and six cellos, is the result of a collaboration with Mr Bonachela. Sometimes beautiful but mostly unremarkable. The choreography has a feel of old ideas re-configured. The other works of Mr Bonachela reverberate in my memory as I watch this piece. The fact that there is no set (for either work), throws enormous focus and responsibility onto the choreographic images. There is no distraction from the choreography. The work must stand and fall on the movement.

The costumes by a fashion designer, Josh Goot, a simple 'designer' singlet top, and all dancers,wearing a short uni-sex skirt with a repeated imaging of elements of the video breath winds of "leaves" covering black underwear,is functional but not arresting.

This company of 12 dancers dance, mostly, dedicatedly and well, although the big groups are sometimes messy to look at. But all in all a big disappointment. The work is unmistakeably contemporary territory but lacks real variety to maintain one's excitement or interest. The dancers have such potential but choreographically seem to be asked to work in very limited expressive modes.

See for yourself. I personally would rather have seen HAPPY AS LARRY, again.

Quotes are from the program and an interview with Adam Linder in SX by Garrett Bithell.

Playing now until April 10.
For more information or to book click here.