Friday, July 30, 2010


atyp Under the Wharf & Illyria Productions presents BRONTE by Polly Teale at atyp Studio1 at the Wharf Pier, Walsh Bay.

For all the bibliophiles and lovers of reading out there, and certainly the Sydney Writer’s Festival signifies that there are many, then this play, BRONTE by Polly Teale is a must. In recent times Sydney audiences have had the opportunity of seeing Polly Teale’s production of AFTER MRS ROCHESTER, partly an adaptation of Jean Rhys’ novel WIDE SARGASSO SEA. Writing for an English Company SHARED EXPERIENCE, Ms Teale has adapted JANE EYRE and with this play, BRONTE, finishes an exploration into this wild, passionate, Victorian Yorkshire world.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte. How is it possible that three Victorian spinsters, living in isolation on the Yorkshire moors, could have written some of the most passionate fiction of all time? JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL for instance? This is the question that this very muscular play investigates and teases out for us. The language of this text is packed with letters written by the women and quotations from the novels.

Charlotte to the poet Robert Southey, who has written concerning the literary ambitions of the sisters of which, true to the period he has been dis-encouraging: “Sir, I cannot rest until I have answered your letter. I felt only shame and regret that I have ventured to trouble you …a painful heat rose to my face when I thought of the quires of paper I had covered with what once gave me so much delight but which was now only a source of confusion …I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print. If the wish should arise I’ll look to Southey’s letter and suppress it.” What relish there is in the reading and the sounds of writing of this kind. As a boy, WUTHERING HEIGHTS was included in our high school readings.

Recently, after wallowing in the Hollywood version of JANE EYRE for years, I read the actual novel, and I was shocked at the robustness of the heroine (mad, bad and, maybe dangerous to actually know - I am glad a century and a half prevented me from making personal acquaintance - too much for me I fear!) and drenched, stimulatingly, with the circumlocution of the period language and its constructions. THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, similarly a further thrilling extension into the Bronte psyche was eagerly devoured by me. If the above quotation awakes in you a yearning and a thrill for passionate language then this play is for you. My appetite was pleasured, indeed.

Six young Australian actors, with a young excited and skilful team of fellow support artists, all acquainted with the educational memory of the Bronte oeuvre, in broad Australian dialect personalise the story of the Bronte sisters and their brother, Branwell, and the trajectory of their isolated Yorkshire Moors’ lives that were illuminated with an unusual education and bursting with fervid, and for the Victorians, sometimes fetid imaginations. Imaginations. The language here as far from the SMS/Twitter codes of contemporary life as you could wish. Glorious.

The production built by Paige Rattray is robust and tightly wrought. There is an original tussle with the SHARED EXPERIENCE ‘form’ of presentation but it is entirely respectful, and solved with the highest integrity within the limitations of the production budget and skills. Sometimes it is a bit raucous (loud) and rough but it is always consistent and committed. Using the heritage wooden construct of the theatre environment with just a simple long oblong wooden table and mountains of books, dressed in sober contemporary dress (Costume designer, Michael Hankin), these six actors, all recent graduates of Sydney acting schools, throw themselves into a loving act of storytelling. I was ultimately moved by the Charlotte/Bell Nicholls relationship and felt that the women and the men of this family had been brought to life, and the undercurrent of the psychic needs of these extraordinary people had been explicated to a point of needing to know more. I need to find time to read the many biographies.

Cooper George Amai, Laura Francis, Elizabeth Heaney, Ashley Richardson, and especially Kip Rothbury in a charismatic blaze of recklessness as Branwell, and Jennifer Williams in what feels like a fierce and loving identification as Charlotte, warts and all, are well worth catching as an ensemble.

It has a week to go. Book lovers, especially Brontephiles or Victorians should catch it (The actual handling of the ‘real’ books may require some of you to forbear, patiently and forgive, as I did).

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Sydney Symphony presents ENERGY AUSTRALIA MASTER SERIES: BEETHOVEN 5: FATE KNOCKS at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.

Contemporary orchestral music usually arouses my attention (Don’t I long to hear another Tan Dun performance with the Orchestra !) and so I got myself to the Monday night, 7pm concert, by the thin skin of my delicate timing- ZOOM in a bus from the suburbs and a 6pm work finish with the addition of a bustling walk to the box office (my Cholesterol walk! - my doctor may be pleased). Highly curious about the John Adams piece I thought the balance of the program, a Chopin Concerto would be graceful and restful, combined with a familiar “war horse” the Beethoven 5th would make for a reliable night of music.

The John Adams, DOCTOR ATOMIC SYMPHONY is adapted from the DOCTOR ATOMIC opera (San Francisco Opera – 2005). The Opera was shown here in Sydney as part of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series in 2008 -09 (?). This arrangement of the opera score (March, 2007) was taken from the overture, various interludes, and orchestral settings were made of arias like the Oppenheimer’s signature “Batter My Heart” (a John Donne poem). Originally arranged as a 45-minute score it has since been revised by Adams to just 25 minutes. It was premiered by the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and, as here, conducted by David Robertson.

The Symphony begins with a brass blaring and the timpani counting – it leads to “a blasted vacuum of rhythm”. The percussion section for the orchestra is immense. In fact the orchestra requirements are very large, indeed. A great deal of noise making is possible. I don’t know but the task of re-configuring material from one genre style to another must be immensely fraught with very taxing decisions, almost like the dilemma of translation/adaptation of literature. The impact of the music was one that was a mushy muddle of hodge-podgery. An opera score wrestled into a 25 minute construct that must necessarily have very different means of actioning its objectives. It seemed to lack coherence for me and largely indecipherable as an experience. It literally wafted above my head and only clamoured insistently for my attention with the pounding of the timpani, supposedly demonstrating “the enormous abyss between the humanity of the inventor and the inhumanity of the invention”. The opera reveals this great thematic endeavour. This Symphony is less successful at communicating this, for me. The huge, perhaps humanising, string section lost in the cacophony of stridency of the other instruments.

In a break between presentations the orchestral cohort shrank and the conductor, David Robertson, re-entered with a strikingly tall and large figure of a man, mature, Garrick Ohlsson, to the Grand Piano that had been centred on the concert platform. The program notes inform us that Mr Ohlsson, is a highly credentialed piano player, “regarded as one of the leading exponents of the music of Chopin (commanding) an enormous repertoire, ranging from Haydn to Mozart to works of the 21st Century”. Ohlsson is quoted as saying that he and Chopin are a strange pair, “Chopin never weighed more than 100 pounds, endured fragile health and loathed playing in public. I share none of these qualities.”

The Piano Concerto No.2 in F Minor, Op.21 was the program choice. I had never heard it before. Mr Robertson coaxed the supporting orchestra to a felicitous sound that allowed the wondrously seductive playing of Mr Olsson to radiate beautifully. The whole of the piano playing was ecstatic making, but for me the Second movement was particularly rapturous. Poignant. Breathlessly delicate and transfixing. The maturity of the musician emanated skill, sensitivity, knowledge and a great sense of seeming to be in a constant spontaneous choice of the configuration of the notes as they cascaded in communication to us. All in all, Mr Olsson had grace. Has grace. The grace of the accumulated wisdom of a practiced artist enjoying the opportunity to do what he loves. The personality of this older artist subsumed and exemplified in the exquisite joy of simply playing ‘spiritually’ the inspiration of Chopin and his music. The music was all. The humility of Mr Ohlsson as a ‘tool’ for Chopin was a joy to watch. A pleasure to hear.

After the interval the orchestra, seeming smaller still, prepared to play one of the great, momentous stalwarts of the Symphonic repertoire: Symphony No.5 in C minor,Op.67 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beginning with the most famous four notes in all music. I had heard this work many times. However, it was the first time that I had been fully charged and occupied by its composition. The Conductor, David Robertson shaped this work so dexterously for me that I was mostly in a suspended state of delight and expectancy. It was a bravura feat of music making and impressive from the get go to the final notes.

This was a concert of pleasure. What drew me, the Adams work, was the least satisfactory, but the honey trap of that bait introduced me to a Concerto played by an artist of rarity, Mr Olsson, and then the re-impression and insight into a great work by Beethoven. Most satisfactory.

Beside me sat a young man of 7-8 years of age, attending with his mum and dad and younger brother. The Adams piece despite the striking timpani and rhythm was not interesting enough to distract him from his book: BUSH BOYS by James Tierney. The book was neglected entirely for the Chopin – it had his undivided attention, the chapter of BUILDING A CAMP was held in abatement. The Beethoven was a three way struggle between the Beethoven, the book (the camp only partly constructed, I imagined!) and Morpheus. Morpheus won. However, his younger brother who came with no book and was, maybe 3 or 4 , was mesmerized by all three pieces. Musician and audience of the future, one hopes. Thanks mum and dad.

Friday, July 23, 2010

talc and Two Gates

subtlenuance presents talc & TWO GATES, Two plays of Redemption at the Tap Gallery, Sydney.

The company called subtlenuance in the program notes declares it “is dedicated to theatre that is ambitious, independent, challenging and engaging. Our focus is the production of original work; work that is physically exciting, emotionally enthralling, and intellectually stimulating. We believe theatre is a forum for many voices. For this reason, it is an art form especially suited to both the exploration and creation of subtlety and nuance. Through these two qualities our world becomes richer.”

Paul Gilchrist and Daniela Giorgi are the founders of this fledgling company. In this instance Ms Giorgi has written TALC and Mr Gilchrist has written TWO GATES. Mr Gilchrist has also directed both projects.

TALC concerns the relationship between Kate (Jo Richards) and Sam (Lucas Connolly) from living together to engagement to house buying to marriage proposal. Sam is, generally, an optimistic realist with all the conventional aspirations of the young heterosexual, whilst Kate is a pessimistic idealist with maudlin obsessive tendencies. This is not a happy, “lets fall in love – get married together” story. As the play unravels it appears that Kate is depressed by infantile fantastic extrapolations of her world and her responsibilities in it – The $12,000 diamond engagement ring on her finger is a “blood” diamond and guilt seeps in…! It becomes apparent that she is in real need of therapy. An infatuated Sam has to deal with a partner with issues out of the ordinary, and must face a dilemma of having to decide to support or abandon her. The play finishes altruistically if not conclusively or convincingly- redemption (?).

TWO GATES is a monologue concerning a naïve, hedonistic and newly graduated female Australian University student, (Heidi Lupprian) who recalls her first journey out of the country, in comic detail, and in a spontaneous drunken/drugged gesture after a night out in a London club finds herself in Poland confronting the reality of a World War II Concentration Camp memorial- the abyss (of the real, bigger world) opens before her and maybe “within her” – redemption (?).

Both plays are relatively interesting if not clichéd in the ground they cover. Talc is 75 minutes long and would benefit from editing. Much of the play indulges in repetition and does not necessarily move forward with real pertinent gain, from scene to scene. The character of Kate becomes tiresome in her infantile behaviour and arguments and Sam becomes stalemated into accommodating her needs from a simple but deep infatuation that is hard to justify from the action of the play. TWO GATES has sometimes clever observations, wittily expressed, but the overall monologue is not very original and one soon guesses the journey – it too, could benefit from editing (either, or both, in the writing or the acting).

The acting talents are adequate if modest in their skills. The production qualities are rudimentary (Design, Emma Vine) in a fairly prescribed space and budget. The sincerity is undoubted.

This is true of the whole enterprise and much is to be admired, in the dedication of the subtlenuance Company. These productions, however, are limited and modest in their appeal. Hopefully the company continues to find “the courage not to turn away” and continues on its ambitious and sincere mission. From small things, great oak trees grow.

Like a Fish Bone

Sydney Theatre Company and Griffin Theatre Company present LIKE A FISHBONE: An Argument and an Architectural Model by Anthony Weigh, at Wharf 1.

LIKE A FISHBONE: An Argument and an Architectural Model, has The Architect (Marta Dusseldorp) with her Intern (Aimee Horne) about to take a model of their latest project to a presentation meeting to her commissioners when a strange woman, The Mother (Anita Hegh) arrives unexpectedly in the office. Thus we have the model.

The Mother is (unaccountably) blind and wet (it is raining). She has been ‘visited’ and spoken to by her daughter, who was killed in a tragic school shooting – she is dead. The Mother is a fundamentalist believer in God and does not want the model that the Architect has proposed as the memorial. She wants, and so does her daughter, she says, something that may inspire her to understanding her GOD and substantiate her belief, her faith- religious hocus-pocus (?) The Architect is a divorced career woman with a son, who lives with the ex-husband, the father – not her. She is ‘corporate’ and a non- believer. She wants “Simply to…to create a…a context Yes? A context for people to have their OWN experience of the site. We’re simply presenting people with the facts, the truth of what happened and allowing them” to have an experience, “a collective experience for the wider public. A context” – corporate, post-modernist gobbledegook (?) Hence we have the argument.

In the program notes, the author, Anthony Weigh talks of an reading a comment from of a grieving woman at the World Trade Centre site. He mentions Richard Dawkins and his book THE GOD DELUSION; Christopher Hitchens’ book GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING and the writings of the philosopher/novelist Phillip Pullman and his railing against the ‘indoctrination’ of children by the churches of the world. This Argument, then, that transpires in the play, although it touches and begins to engage on big issues, becomes a very emotional one, one that results and concludes with a very ‘animal’, physical and violent wrestle to the ground for the possession of the model, between the two women. Emotions overtake the debate. Reason and logic dissipate (Attacking and wrestling a blind woman!), it is fairly glib. I feared that the obstinate window (a metaphor?), cause for some heartache for the Architect throughout the action of the play, would magically open at last-awful metaphor. The ending scene seemed gratuitous and a trite melodramatic – singing to the son over the telephone a song from the Wizard of OZ – this corporate woman has a heart too!!! Really.

But the evening in the theatre is enthralling because the performances by the actors, particularly Ms Dusseldorp, are vivid and passionate in their details and crafting. Ms Dusseldorp, at last, out from under, what I observed as the confining casting in the Sydney Actors Company, has a role that permits the full expression of her considerable talent. The shift and changes from second to second are immensely detailed and totally occupying. The speed with which she dares us to follow her through the dilemmas and desperation of her ‘argument’ are disarming of our objective assessment of the writing and absorbing to observe. In fact none of the actors give pause for disengagement with disbelief and when the hour and ten is over one is flushed with a satisfactory theatrical experience. An all to rare experience, in contemporary Sydney Theatre. Ms Hegh grows with righteous passion to an almost incandescent rage. Ms Horne is both correctly functional and comic, always, however, a real person – one came to worry about the waiting taxis with/for her.

Jacob Nash’s Set Design a black gloss set of oblongs with white edges is elegant and easy to be with. The Lighting Design from Verity Hampson is as excellent as ever - the weeping rain maybe a little over the top. Costumes by Bruce Mc Kinven apt, except the all important shared coat - ugly. Tim Maddock’s control is present .

So a good night in the theatre even if the playwriting is not as challenging as the premise and possibilities.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barefoot Fiddler

The Australian Chamber Orchestra presents Tour Five, BAREFOOT FIDDLER at Angel Place Recital Hall, Sydney.

‘The Barefoot Fiddler’, is an alias for Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Guest Director with The Australian Chamber Orchestra and Lead Violin for this program. The hallmarks of Ms Kopatchinskaja’s musical interests are evident simply in the variety of choice of her Directorship for this concert. From a transcription for a string ensemble of Heinreich Schutz’s last work (1671), “German Magnificat, SWV494” to an Australian première of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s Violin Concerto No.2, “Four Serious Songs” (2006); Sandor Veress’ “Four Transylvanian Dances” (1944/49); Australian Elena Kats-Chernin’s composition “Zoom and Zip” (1997); Joseph Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in G major [Hob.VII:4] (C.1761); and finally Antonio Vivaldi’s “La Tempesta di Mare” Concerto in E flat for violin, Op.8 No.5, RV253”.

But more even more interesting is her approach to the work. In bare feet Ms Kopatchinskaja leads the Concert and plays her violin in a very embodied, physical manner. Mostly hunched over with a curved back, she appears to be possessed by the very vibrations of the sounds, and expressively responds, particularly facially, to the notes of the scores. She snorts, stamps her feet and mouths her responses to the experience around her. Like a mischievous troll or gremlin she alternately scowls and smiles, totally possessed by the work she is engaged in. A “wildcat” in action.

In an interview in the program notes (Clemency Burton-Hill, 2010) Ms Kopatchinskaja in talking of the program says “I think we need all these elements: the animalistic music of folklore, the modern music for inspiration and fantasy, the classical to be the architecture and hold it all together.” The pressing beauty of the Mansurian, the pell mell escapade of the Veress, the contrasted zest of the Kats–Chernin ; the cheek of the Haydn reading and finally the exuberant liberties of the Vivaldi covered all of the quoted aspirations. “In some ways I feel I am unteachable, I always have to find my own way, with my own mistakes. I don’t feel so much the heavy weight of tradition; I’m not in a corset! I use the tradition to find the inspiration of creation. It’s not a cage.” It is this second to last phrase “I use the tradition (the architecture) to find the inspiration of a creation” that propelled me into a total surrender to her vision and treatment of these works. Her respect, regard for the music, that is the structure for her choices, that are very often surprising and to some traditionalists maybe challenging, that keeps one tantalised with her offers. That the musician is not more important than the music is the virtue of her performance. Sharing her idiosyncratic inspirations from the score and in the playing of her violin, the appearance of transcendent spontaneity and its infection of the Australian Chamber Orchestra is what triumphs.

This is my first engagement with Ms Kopatchinskaja and unlike, what I perceive, as ego driven eccentricities of, say Nigel Kennedy and his violin, I am not wearied or driven to objecting to the musician’s output or the manner in which she exudes her passions. In repeated experiences I may, but at present I look forward to hear more of her live contributions to my appreciation of the modern, folk and extending classic readings. It was a very exciting concert.

Sometimes too much continued energetic effort from all, more wafting gentleness, to contrast, would have been good, as it was accumulatively very exhausting. My empathy went to all on the stage in my applause. Bravo. Again.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians

A COUPLE OF POOR, POLISH-SPEAKING ROMANIANS by Dorota Maslowska. Translated by Benjamin Paloff. Adapted by Lisa Goldman and Paul Sirett. Produced by Pete Nettell and Alice Livingstone for Focus Theatre, in association with Newtown Theatre.

A desperate couple, Parcha (Neil Phipps) and Dzina (Mairead Berne), claiming to be poor, Polish-speaking Romanians, hijack and kidnap a driver (Kim Knuckey) and his car, trying to get "home". They harass him in a most intimidating way and in growing 'middle class' hysteria the driver concedes to their demands.Later they abandon the car and driver, unaccountably rewarding him with a large sum of money. The couple find a bar and attempt to seek aid from the staff and owners (Sandy Velini, Cheryl Ward and John Keightley) - but they are mocked and rejected. Back on the road's margin they manage to hitch a ride with a vodka-swigging woman driver (Cheryl Ward) and end up taking refuge with an old man (John Keightley) in a run down house. Here the play ends and our two protagonists face the realities of their selves.

The couple are dressed in clothing of great poverty and distress. Both have mouthfuls of what look like rotten teeth. However, through the journey, Parcha gradually, in explanation, reduces the 'rotten teeth' to teeth covered in marzipan, to teeth covered in marker pen. Progressively the audience come to realise that these are two 'ravers', refugees from a costume party whose theme was "extreme poverty: rats, scabs and scroungers", high as kites, dressed as two poor, Polish speaking Romanians, attempting to get 'home'.

The journey across this landscape of the new Poland is one that is vivid in a highly critical and, occasionally, surreal-absurdist imagination with a penchant for cruel comic situations. The picture painted is one of impoverishment in both the material and spiritual realms of the human condition, where greed, racism, paranoia and entrenched selfishness reign supreme. Ms Maslowska, in this translation (Benjamin Paloff) and adaptation (Lisa Golman and Paul Sirett) for the Soho Theatre (March, 2008) , has a great ear for the comic and confronting but the direction of the play by Alice Livingstone seems to be over-pitched and focused on the caricature/cartoonishness of the situations and characters. A kind of ungrounded hysteria and a foreknowledge that the play is a black shaggy dog adventure seems to influence the direction and place the actors in what appear to be unmotivated realities, and rather a satiric revue sketch in a cabaret form. It all appears to be a trifle too self conscious and becomes a frenetic rant and exhibition of stylistic tricks. By the time we reach the tragic last moments of this play I had been disengaged/befuddled for quite some time and witnessed the end in a bewildered state of not really caring. Or even understanding. The 'joke' of the play had not been set up accurately for most of the audience in this production for it to have meaningful power.

Dorota Maslowska is a young Polish novelist who has made quite an impressive entrance in that field. This introduction to her playwriting is interesting, although, if this is typical, of the tone of the novels as well, one is not sure if it is just a rebellious youthful 'spray' at her culture or a serious critique.

All the actors within the limits of the directorial vision acquit themselves with aplomb. Skill and discipline. Mr. Phipps was particularly arresting, the clarity of wit in the text was delivered consistently and with great, but, controlled energy -even when it felt stylistically over played. Ms Berne attempts to find the justification for her character's final moments, but it is a bit of a battle for her, as it gets lost in the distracting plethora of offers that Ms Livingstone encourages from the other performers.

The Set Design by Gemma-Lark Johnson is simple and grim with a piled heap of used car tyres braced behind a buckled road barrier, giving us the sense of the 'road-movie' structure of the play, in a blackened, depressed landscape of floor and walls. The cars are simply four chairs and a hand held steering wheel, a simple but effective solution. The costumes (Alice Livingstone) are witty and apt. The Lighting Design by Teegan Lee is particularly good considering the limited resources apparent.

It is always interesting to meet a new playwright. It is accumulatively interesting to meet a contemporary writer from Eastern Europe. That it is also a female voice, certainly raises the curiosity and value.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I'm Every Woman

Sydney Opera House present TREVOR ASHLEY in "I'M EVERY WOMAN", at the Studio venue.


This will be a rave. Trevor Ashley in a spectacular cabaret performance with a number of wigs and a few costume changes delivers musical impressions of twelve divas that he has loved all his life.

He has a most wonderful voice full of remarkable flexibility, power and range. To compliment that he has the skill, intelligence and wit to use it well to entertain you, and to stun you into belief into the 'channelling' of these women's talents and spirit.

With a glamorous make-up, in front of his audience ,at a stage mirror, he simply changes wigs to 'become' these individuals. Occasionally he adjusts a costume with additional pieces (or completely changes), again all in front of you, so that one witnesses the theatrical magic of the performer being possessed - With the simple 'breathing in' of the character’s life force Mr Ashley then permits himself to translate/transmute and find the physical container/characteristics that are icons of identification for us to suspend disbelief and embrace the vision in front of us. It is a powerful trick of acting.

The highlight is the creation that is Shirley Bassey. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER release one into a world of astonishment with Mr Ashley. But his following rendition of AS LONG AS HE NEEDS ME is simply moving- I wept with admiration and jealousy at Mr Ashley's talent. Perfectly wicked creations of Carol Channing, Whitney Houston, Bonnie Tyler and Lady Gaga balance out the love he pours into Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli from the Carnegie Hall Concert album among others.

In a cleverly scripted personal chat about himself, which highlights the contrast of his artistry, Mr Ashley invites you to share with him in his own journey from young boy at home at the youth theatre company Shopfront in the Sydney suburb of Carlton (where he first met Paul Capsis - 25 years of shared history- imagine!) to now. Beautifully he confesses or rather confides that his own persona when he walks the streets renders him invisible but with the power of his theatrical flare he can be "Fabulous". Indeed he is. FABULOUS.

The supporting four piece band led by Andrew Worboys is acutely and accurately adjusted for maximum impact in this space. Mr Dean Bryant has directed this production into a joyful celebration of Mr AShley, his talents and his respectful loves.

Along with Paul Capsis, Iota, Eddie Perfect and now Trevor Ashley there is an amazing cabaret/singer scene that can headline for me and have my presence at their command. Mr Ashley has been cast in the forthcoming production of HAIRSPRAY so we may not see this work from him for a while. But keep him in your list to see if you didn't this time round.


dirty butterfly

flour sugar tea-Tales & Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents, dirty butterfly by Debbie Tucker Green in the Downstairs Theatre.

dirty butterfly is a 55 minute, two scene play concerning domestic violence. Written in 2003 by British writer Debbie Tucker Green, her first produced play (Soho Theatre Company), of British-Jamaican decent it introduced a writer with some poetic gifts and a social/political agenda. Sydney has already seen a later play by Ms Green: STONING MARY at the Griffin Theatre in June, 2008.

This play concerns three characters living in different apartments that unfortunately ‘leak’ noise. Amelia (Sara Zwangobani) and Jason (Dorian Nkomo) are neighbours to Jo (Zoe Houghton) and they witness, through hearing, the abusive relationship between Jo and her partner next door. Each of them respond differently, Amelia in a “flight’ state moves to a downstairs couch to sleep, Jason in an ‘enticed’ state puts his ear to the wall to catch the nuances. Jo in a ‘paralysed’ state, remains in the room, in the bed, subjected to abuse. Neither of the witnesses do or feel empowered to intervene, to aid Jo. Can Jo,even, help herself?

The first scene set in a spare, open space of matted flooring with a painted brick wall is written in fragmentary overlapping stream of consciousness speeches by the three characters. Each discoursing about the predicament in a colloquial sounding poetic construction. One is drawn to the language by its poetic-demotic beauty and yet repulsed, made anxious by the hopeless content. Our empathy for the people is discovered in the moments of utterance of beautiful ’music’ in clever developments and shifts, gradually.

The second scene in a clinical white floored, silver metalled, chaired restaurant introduces a real time meeting between the reluctant Amelia and the distressed (perhaps) dying Jo. It is shocking to watch in this relatively realistic world, but gradually, also irritating as no help is sought and we all finish in a state of limbo with no resolution as the lights fade to the beaten and bleeding Jo finishing “This morning ent had nuthin to offer up, y’know? It started off shit – y’know? - and it doesn’t finish yet and I can’t wait for the afternoon to come….I can’t wait….sshh.” Can’t wait for what? The grim future of Jo’s life or the end of it?

Wayne Blair directs his three actors very tightly and well within a simple but effective design, (Set and Costumes by Ms Negroponte). Ms Houghton and Mr Nkono were especially complex and moving. This is a small production where difficult issues are wrapped in a beautiful language technique and clear direction. The complicity of the enduring and witnessing of all types of violence without giving aid is part of our everyday dilemma in lots of different ways. The play demands a response. There is no easy or strict response for me, and like the play, I am in an unresolved state. It is not enjoyable but is, ultimately, in reflection, a resonant one. I am both discomforted and uncomfortable.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Gruffalo

Christine Dunstan Productions presents Tall Stories Production of THE GRUFFALO. The magical musical adaptation of the award-winning book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler at the Seymour Centre.

It is school holidays in Sydney. I was invited to a performance of this adaptation of the children's book THE GRUFFALO. It was a wet day but the auditorium was packed and stacked out with an excited horde of young theatre-goers and some presiding adults.

All were apparent fans of this book for when the play began they were captivated by the adventures of the MOUSE (Crystal Hegedis) looking for nuts in the dark forest, where she encounters a fox, an owl and a snake (The Predators, Stephen Anderson), who all seek to have her for lunch. Fortunately, Mouse has an imagination and invents a friend called The Gruffalo (Simon Van Der Stap) who scares away the predators.

The adaptation (Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell of Tall Stories) is a model for children's entertainment. It includes music and lyrics (Jon Fiber and Olivia Jacobs) and great and many opportunities for audience interaction, including a thrilling romp through the audience by the Gruffalo that has become more real than the others. We can really reach out and touch him!

The actors directed by Olivia Jacobs (Assistant Director, Stephen Colyer) on a delightful and pragmatic set (Isla Shaw) are genuinely true to the characters with a 'little 'eye to the adults to keep us all entertained. Amazingly fresh and honest performances.

But best of all is to sit with the hordes of the entranced and voiciferous audience. They loved it. I was brought to much laughter and even, a little, to tears. Sitting next to me was another adult who spoke to me about LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, which she had seen the night before. She had brought along her grand children to this piece of magic, cultivating the audiences of the future with her own love and devotion to the theatre. Soon they to may see Mr O'Neill - faster than one can blink. Time is swift.

I have heard cynics talk of the demise of the audience sitting in dark spaces watching actors at play. Today I had palpable proof that will not be so, anytime soon.

If you have children, do take them. Even if you don't, recapture the joys of your early theatre going. Highly recommended.

Measure for Measure

Company B Belvoir presents MEASURE FOR MEASURE, written by William Shakespeare. Adapted & Directed by Benedict Andrews, for the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St.

From Benedict Andrews' Director's notes in the programme:
A PLAY OF MIRRORS. MEASURE FOR MEASURE is my third Shakespeare staging concerned with the mechanics of power. JULIUS CAESAR (2005) dealt with the theatrics of government, and THE WAR OF THE ROSES (2009) raised the spectres of sovereign power which haunt our concept of society. MEASURE FOR MEASURE looks into the ‘very nerves of state’ where the economies of desire and law interlock.

This MEASURE FOR MEASURE is set in a society much like ours - where pornography has become mainstream, where sex tapes of celebrities are public fodder, where politicians speak in the name of God, where everything is numbered and consumable, where all private lives are under constant surveillance - a control society.

Like Simon Phillips in his recent adaptation of Shakespeare's RICHARD III for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Mr Andrews sets his production in a recognisable contemporary world. This setting (Set Design: Ralph Myers) looks like a second-string hotel room that has a featured glass walled bathroom to be viewed from the large sized bed (shower, wash sink, mirror and toilet on a tiled floor surface),which, possibly, throws it into the realm of a specialised brothel room - Mistress Overdone's Brothel Conveniences (?!) - two walls of the room are surrounded by a retractable curtain, which does retract to allow us to voyeuristically observe all the activities that take place in there. It is on a revolve that spins about, at different rates of speed, to allow different scenes/rooms to be set up and then acted out in (a setting, indeed, for Genet's famous brothel, THE BALCONY).

The costumes (Dale Ferguson) are ordinary day wear of the time: suits, collar and ties for the government figures, modern religious dress for the nuns and friars, white collar casual working class attire for the office figures, police uniforms and the scungy street wear of the lower levels of the 'underbelly' class of the brothel/street worlds which one might engage within Kings Cross, in Sydney.

This transposition is quickly grasped by the audience and easily accepted. Added to this, Mr Andrews introduces the world of CCTV with hidden cameras behind the bathroom mirror and from the ceiling that projects observational images onto two large screens on either side of the theatre auditorium which simultaneously captures the action in the room (similar to Mr Andrews' 'Big Brother' video affects in his THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA). This metaphor of the 'pornography' capture and privacy invasion for the contemporary world of MEASURE FOR MEASURE is instantly communicated.

But further complication to this idea is suggested by the addition of a live video camera team, taken by the actors when not in character, that captures for the wall screens, close up and hand held invasions of the characters lives. Is it a layer where the characters/actors are narcissistically filming themselves in an intense exercise of intimacy for the audience to get ‘up close and personal’? To come to the cinematic closeness of the moments of moral decisions? To.....? I was in a dilemma of comprehending this extra step to the ideas of the production.

This was for me the easiest of Mr Andrews' adaptations of the classics to observe and absorb. There was, in retrospect, two productions being explored and experienced.

The first, which is an adapted reading of Shakespeare's text was a relative success. In Mr Andrews' adaptation, most of the low comedy of the play has been removed. The comic scenes between Escalus (Frank Whitten), the Provost (Steve Rodgers) and the brothel world of Pompey (Arky Michael), Elbow (Ashley Lyons), Mistress Overdone (Helen Thompson) and Froth (completely excised) and that of the prison with Abhorson (Ashley Lyons) and Barnadine (Colin Moody) is truncated and reduced to mere functional need of the director's intentions.

The focus-intention is on the moral dilemmas of the principal characters of the play: Angelo (Damon Gameau), Claudio (Chris Ryan) and Isabella (Robin McLeavy) brought on by the strange vicissitudes and consequent behaviour of the ruler of this city of Vienna, the Duke Vincentio (Robert Menzies), and further the ‘fantastic’ Lucio (Toby Schmitz), and compliant Mariana (Helen Thompson).

Note: the following paragraphs quote extensively from Norrie Epstein’s “Friendly Shakespeare” Penguin Books, 1993…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE along with ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, TROILUS AND CRESSIDA are often termed the “problem plays”. “Although grouped with the comedies (of Shakespeare) in the First Folio, they are pungent satires on human vice, sexuality, folly and greed.” What we call ‘black comedies’, “because they make us laugh at what we would normally find distasteful.” As the low life comedy of the Pompey - Mistress Overdone- Elbow world has been taken away, this production focuses on the realism and “explicit portrayal of infidelity, sexual dishonesty, and civic corruption” amongst the ‘ruling’ and middle class, and with clinical detachment reveals the more unsavoury side of our human nature. Shakespeare offers no clear-cut answers to the social problems he presents in these plays. In fact, they mostly finish without resolution. So is it here with MEASURE FOR MEASURE. The final marriage proposal by the Duke famously, notoriously problematic. “The atmosphere of these plays (the so-called problem plays) is naturalistic, lacking the transcendent good humour of comedy and the cosmic redemption of tragedy.”

In this production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE the setting is crassly wordly and profane. The world is starkly realistic, the interpolated (and lengthy) scene of the ‘trashing’ of Abhorson, with shit and blood, and then the room/cell (recollection of scenes from the Steve McQueen film HUNGER and Nicholas Wilding Refn film BRONSON came flooding back; although Mr Moody, for my money, was no comparison to the Tom Hardy character) a case in point; "there is no magical Illyria or Forest of Arden here. The Vienna of MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a portrait of urban blight, a place where officials are no different to the underworld of pimps, whores, and thieves." But "finally, though the play depicts an amoral world, (it) is not lacking in moral standards. By exposing some of the worst of human existence, it holds a corrective mirror up to our (recognisable) vices and like all satires, (it) is tacitly based upon a moral ideal, which though it exists in theory is consistently ignored in practice."

Mr Andrews in his notes to the production concludes, he “love(s) (the play) for the problems it poses - formally and theatrically and especially morally. It's a scathing and relentless inquiry into questions of law and transgression, of authority and desire, of death and justice.(He) considers it a psycho-sexual-political-thriller for our times.” This he mostly deliver: “A look into the ‘very nerves of state’ where the economies of desire and law interlock.”

Shakespeare and all the cast are triumphant here. ALL the cast (however underused, except as camera crew).

Mr Menzies, Ryan, Schmitz, Gameau, Ms Thompson and McLeavy are especially erudite in the textual clarity of their responsibilities (although, all are assisted with attached microphones).

The second production concerns the use of a hand-held video camera used by the cast to capture images that are constantly relayed onto the two large screens, one either side of the auditorium (Video Designer & Operator, Sean Bacon). The play is told twice. One actual and one mediated through the eye of the camera. In my experience of the performance, having purchased a ticket that sat me in the front row of the central block of the theatre, neither the actual or the mediated performance was satisfactory. Physically it was difficult, twisting either way to catch the images, let alone dramatically, experientially.

For instance, the great central scene of the play between Isabella and her brother Claudio (Act III, Scene 1), on which the play turns, rich in its poetry and shifting argument, was actually staged in a dark corner of the bathroom of the set, the lighting to the room having been turned off, both characters crouched low to the ground, with another actor masking bodily, holding a video camera close to the faces of the protagonists with a special blue light switched on at the camera lens. To be able to participate with the scene in its urgent and pregnant moments, it was necessary to watch the images on the screen that had been doctored to give the impression of a low budget scratchy image that recalled the urgency of most of the feature film THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) - a quasi documentary. Choosing between watching the masked actual performance or the mediated stylised images up on the walls, became a distancing and unsatisfactory task. The actors having to mediate and express the dilemmas of the play either for camera or theatre. The heightened language and action reduced to small screen-scale dimensions. The play lost out. The actors lost out and I, the audience, lost out. Ultimately. Unlike the contemporary world found by the Company in Melbourne for their take of RICHARD III - where the acting choices fulfilled the theatrical thrill possible in the Shakespearean text whilst balanced neatly in the vibe of the now world.

Later, the long and convoluted fifth act of the play was played with a camera crew of actors, often standing in front of the actors attempting to explicate the plays unravelling. It was like being an observer of a film set. The close up images on the screens were hand held and 'jumpy', not always clear for the dramatic moments (David Stratton would have been apoplectic!).

These are just two instances where the exploration that Mr Andrews was making with this sometimes dominating experiment in vision obfuscated or diminished the dramatic potential of the material of the play as a theatre work.

Just what was the purpose of it? Many more questions could be posed. Cynically, my last one might be: Was it simply just the urge of a frustrated would-be film-maker?

There is in the program a long (12 columns,6 pages) academic essay by Giorgio Agamben, THE FACE. Mr Agamben is a contemporary Italian Philosopher. If the essay is present to help me to comprehend the wherewithal of the video technique exploration by the director or any other aspect of the production, it needs to be written in an English that is plainer. I have made several attempts at it and sadly, humiliatingly gave up. I am not alone, I have been told.

All in all then, the play does survive, mostly due to the expertise of the actors. I speak from a very complicated association of this "problem" play. I have seen this play many times, John Bell's production in the early seventies at Nimrod Street with Garry McDonald, Michael Long and Anna Volska; Richard Brooks production at the Q Theatre out at Penrith in the late seventies; Rex Cramphorn's in the eighties (he had several goes); and also productions by Richard Cotterell and Aubrey Mellor. Maybe the filtering through this knowledge kept me able in attending to the choices of the actors at Belvoir St.

These adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, RICHARD III and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, by two of Australia's leading directors, Simon Phillips and Benedict Andrews have been interesting journeys this year. One was a near masterpiece, the other an obfuscated experiment, both spinning on a revolve, a whirligig in time. Soon the Bell Shakespeare will give us a TWELFTH NIGHT. More to savour from this great contemporary playwright - the most produced playwright of the year!

Norrie Epstein, ‘Friendly Shakespeare’, (1993) Penguin Books, New York, 1993.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


CAGELING presented by THE RABBLE at Carriageworks, Sydney.

THE RABBLE re-imagine Federico Garcia Lorca's classic text 'THE HOUSE OF BERNARD ALBA'.

From the program notes: "A NOTE ON THE CONTEXT. Lorca leaves the following instruction at the beginning of THE HOUSE OF BENRNADA ALBA: The poet advises that these three acts are intended as a photographic documentary. We have taken these instructions and produced CAGELING - an exploration of repression, gender, sexuality and grief. The premise of the original play remains: our family will mourn for eight years, no weeping is allowed..."

Further :"A NOTE ON CONTENT. Our process is collaborative: the shape and content of CAGELING has been informed by a number of sources. Lorca's text is the undercurrent - a poetic force that has sculpted all that you see and hear.We have also used several poems by Ana Rosetti… The Philomela and Procne text from Ovid has been freely adapted by Dan Spielman."

In the 'hazed' Bay 20 space at Carriageworks (the usual performing space for the Performance Space’s projects) lit quietly, we were ushered around the bare brown wood backside casing of a 'cage', that when we were seated in the steep banking of seats could view as three white walls, the back one with a wide ,high oblong window, the other two with no exits, while the front was a complex of panelled perspex. Inside this box- cage were five (the play has ten female roles – really two hundred and ten women ,if one followed the directions of Lorca – with the male presence an outside and invisible pressure!!) figures in women's black mourning clothing, either bare faced or with white handkerchief coverings, seated or standing around white painted furniture - chairs , a white painted tin trunk.

Mostly, whilst the audience entered, and for some time after, no movement occurred, except for a gently wafted black fan in the hands of one of the figures. A soundscape of ringing bells pealed out around the space. The five figures were made up by three women and two men. Daniel Schlusser - bald and clean shaved in a waist trimming black ensemble, the "Bernada Alba " figure; Mary Helen Sassman as Augustias; Dana Miltens as Magdalena; Jayne Tuttle as Amelia; Pier Carthew - scruffy haired and bearded younger male, as the youngest daughter Adela. Carefully, agonisingly one of the performers moved to a microphone stand and the flourescent lighting flickered into a state, the bells stopped pealing and the performance began.

I attended the performance with three friends who had just come from the 2010 Biennale of Sydney exhibits at Cockatoo Island etc. (One traveling up from Adelaide). I took them to this performance in the spirit of that confronting , interesting contemporary art project, hoping that it would provide a 'topper' to the art filled days that they had indulged in.(Fortunately, the LIQUID ARCHITECTURE program at the Eugene Gossens Auditorium did that for my guests the following night).

I was the only one amongst us with any prior knowledge or experience of the Lorca play. I could wend my way through the one hour twenty minute performance with some sustained, ultimately waning interest but with a great deal of objective endowing of the events in the 'cage'. A great deal of hard work that cumulatively did not add up to much original enlightenment about the human condition, any sort of entertainment and, absolutely, with no ecstasy.

My friend, an artist in his own right, familiar with ‘live art’ and new media, but with no knowledge of the play, the poetry of Rosetti or the Ovid work, found it tedious and actually fell asleep: "The most tedious theatre experience" he had ever had. My other friend who had flown up from Adelaide for an art feast, herself an amateur artist of wide interests, could not comprehend any of the activity and could not divine any relevance for herself, of the material or the experience - indeed, when Mr Schlusser stood on his head and allowed his dress to fall from his lower torso to reveal his naked sex organs for several minutes in contrast to the black undies of the female performers, spread-eagled against the back wall, she sighed, "So what? Ho hum." "Still", she said " it was interesting to see, just to plumb and verify the possible highs and lows of art experience" Dame Edna would probably have said worse. Sir Les would have been befuddled. Either dumbfounded or vociferous. A fourth acquaintance, a lecturer in performance at one of our universities, asked at the end of the applause if she could be excused and quickly vanished, off into the night, without comment.

THE RABBLE, a Melbourne based company, last presented in Sydney at Carriageworks, SALOME. Some of the company were involved in MANNA at the Sydney Theatre Company. It seems to me that, as interesting as the collaborative process may have been for these artists and no doubt, however great the textual inspirations of Wilde and Lorca and Dan Spielman may be, this is still work that is at an indulgent rehearsal 'draft' and needs more time for working before being presented so elaborately to the public.

There are images of interest and sometimes beauty presented here but they were few and derivative. (The bloody mouths and then the tongue thrown and stuck to the perspex wall - Mr Kosky , Mr Wright , Mr Andrews et al have been at that for some numbing time now, here in Sydney. (Directors and Designers are Emma Valente, Kate Davis,) The score by M. Davis was the one beautifully sustained contribution of the night (although it had to compete with the Carriageworks WINTERLAND function noise leaking into the space, most of the night).

Mr Schlusser had a vital physical presence and movement skill and commitment that because of its expertise contrasted with the virtual lack of physical presence/charisma of any of the other performers. None of them compensated satisfactorily, either, with verbal or acting contributions of any impact I am sad to observe. So dynamically efficient was Mr Schlusser's performance that it had an element of zealatory that drew attention to itself in a distracting way (this included his curtain call demeanor as well).

Just what the piece was contributing to my understanding of living in Sydney in 2010, other than the obvious knowledge of the original text, which I could endow the performance with, was not apparent. It's relevance to the audience was obfuscated with an indulgence in 'form' and ineptness in skill. Unrefined inspiration.

I recently attended a performance by the Wooster Company in New York, NORTH ATLANTIC, and although the content of the play/performance was dated, the performance skills and the design wizardry of the actors/company were so startlingly brilliant that the experience was a zestful one. THE RABBLE for all of its aspirations, which are admirable, do need to hone the basic instrument tools and technique before venturing into public performance of their explorative collaborations. As well, the dramaturgy needs to be more rigorous.

Like the recent visit to Sydney of the Pacitti Company at Performance Space at Carriageworks with their work FINALE, (also using a classic text as inspiration, Zola's THERESE RAQUIN) my hopeful aspirations for this kind of necessary and brave work (especially within the Australian context) was sadly unrequited.

The best of this work has also being three of my best theatre going experiences; LA FURA DELS BAUS : SUZ/O/SUZ (way back) and a year ago as part of the Sydney Festival: THE NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA'S, NO DICE and An Australian venture THE BLAND PROJECT at Performance Space in 2008.

At the end of the program notes end there is a list of thanks to supporters, for "THE RABBLE are unfunded and rely on goodwill, generosity and hard work." It is why I attend their work when I can.