Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Raw Hide, Eliza Ocana and the atyp's Under the Wharf Program presents ALASKA by D.C. Moore .

ALASKA is a first play by English writer, D.C. Moore. It concerns a young group of people finding their way in the contemporary world, either as drop outs from university or in preparation for university. They are working at a job to pay the rent and buy the food: The front of house staff at the local cinema complex. The jobs are not taxing and fairly menial. Not much to aspire too, despite the 'corporate' trappings to help give the employees some sense of worth.

Their lives consist mostly of routine work and clubbing and with that comes the sexual and political context of the environment. Each of these young people, the product of their advantages or disadvantages.

Frank (Matthew Hyde) is the protagonist of this story. He is a young man thinking superficially, finding himself using the bible as a source of life style and simply adopting lazy 'racist' propaganda as the mission of his otherwise undirected life. The thinking is silly but all the more dangerous because of Frank's necessity to believe it, to give himself a focus to be 'alive'.

Frank appears as a kind of 'loser' and we see him dealing, pathetically, with an unrequited love interest in the shape of Emma (Hannah Levien); a flattering but unwanted crush from a young gay workmate, Chris (Andre Jewson); and the rise and rise of upwardly socially mobile daughter of a Pakistani heritage, Mamta (Kristy Best).

The gathering density of the text by Mr Moore is intriguing in its finely paced revelations, and the tension surrounding Frank grows perceptibly uncomfortably throughout the journey of the play. That Frank, finally, is revealed as a chronic liar as well as all else, throws the empathy of the play into confusion as we leave the theatre. Frank is decidedly unwell and whether it is his own disposition or the lack of environmental inspiration, is left for us to contemplate. Nature or nurture?

The writing is subtle and we see the prejudices of young people revealed, from careless unthinking jokes to intense arguments of racial propaganda, from all sides. Janice Muller has directed the actors well and in an absolutely no-frills production manages to suggest the actual and intellectual poverty of the world that these young people exist in (the fact that they work in a cinema and do not talk of the film being shown is telling - no cultural guidance there it seems!).The future seems threatening if these young people are to be the voters of the new world orders in a democratic society.

Matthew Hyde is very interesting in his realistic reading of confused Frank. The other actors are very accurate and compelling in their creations (Johann Walraven in a tiny role is generous indeed in his commitment to the project as Adam).

This is the second show that I have seen down here at ATYP, Under the Wharf. BRONTE being the other. Both the plays have been rewarding and interesting to see and the acting has also been very rewarding to witness – young artists finding the means and grabbing the opportunities to practice their crafts. It is disheartening to find the audience size to be relatively depleted. For while the production values are not lavish (the venue has noise problems, too) the writing, direction and acting has been extremely satisfactory.

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, are keen to have the Hickson Road precinct of their company known as a live arts hub. To encourage, in kind, if in no other way, this fledgling effort just under their feet, literally, would strengthen their 'vision performance index' for sure. Do keep an eye out for the work happening down under the wharf. What with the product upstairs, this program, so far, as been a stimulating addition.

Monday, August 30, 2010

August: Osage County

Sydney Theatre Company and The Sydney Morning Herald present AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY by Tracy Letts at the Sydney Theatre.

"All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" thus begins Leo Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA, and he ought to have known!

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has us meet the Weston family in a large rambling country house outside Pawhusta, Oklahoma, sixty miles north-west of Tulsa, and boy, are they unhappy! Over three and a half hours we watch the unique unhappiness of this family unravel in front of us. It sure is a roller coaster ride of shock and horror delivered in a sugar coating of deliberate comic audacity of truth telling that most of us wish we had the daring to engage in at the dutiful Family Home gatherings at Christmas and other 'tribal' ceremonies: christenings, birthdays, marriages and funerals. That we don't do so, makes this play experience cathartic indeed, for, the Weston family, under these circumstances, do.

The Patriarch, Beverly (Chelcie Ross), ups and disappears and dies after the first scene, thus requiring a gathering of the immediate family, for a funeral. The Matriarch, Violet (Deanna Dunagan); their Eldest Daughter, Barbara (Amy Morton); Husband, Bill (Jeff Perry); and daughter, Jean (Molly Hanson). The Middle Daughter, Ivy Weston (Sally Murphy); The Youngest Daughter, Karen Weston (Mariann Mayberry); and fiance, Steve (Gary Cole). Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed); her husband, Charlie (Paul Vincent O'Connor); and son Little Charles (Gary Wilmes), all arrive.

Matriarch, Violet is a prescription drug addict and she has a lot to unload and with the permissiveness of her addiction it comes in barrage shootings of her family. The skeletons of a family history are pulled out of the closet and rattled vigorously for all to either wincingly remember, repeat or discover, and certainly, endure.

The patriarch, Beverly Weston quotes T.S.Eliot, the first words of the play, "Life is very long". The melodrama of the long lives of this entwined family and it's extended world, the Sheriff, Deon Gilbeau ( Troy West) and the newly employed housekeeper, a local American Indian, Johnna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero) are revealed in twists and turns of bravura comic writing of great skill.

The production from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, within a detailed and impressive house design by Todd Rosenthal, costumed authentically by Anna Kuzmanic, features a beautiful ensemble of actors and acting that never misses a beat of its timing and, mostly, does not stray from truthful and wonderfully realised "naturalistic" creations of character. That the work is secure and assured is recognised by the Sydney audience who attach themselves to the drama/comedy of this family with rapturous pleasure. Gasps of shock and explosive guffaws of laughter echo around the auditorium continuously throughout the long night and the final applause on the curtain call was thunderous and grateful for a great night in the theatre.

Nothing wrong with naturalism as presented here by this Chicago based company. It is still the anchoring form experience of the ordinary theatre going public. However efficacious it might be to have the explorations of form by some contemporary writers and auteurs among our directors, this 'old fashioned' form of storytelling packs a wallop both as comedy and drama, still. The general public seem to have the Sydney Theatre packed to the rafters and excited by the experience. Word of mouth about this play is great. Get a ticket if you can.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company was formed in 1976. This was an actor driven conglomeration and is still so today. Mr Perry one of the founding members, on tour here, playing Bill Fordham, says it began with a group of actors trying to ensure work for themselves by giving themselves opportunities to act. It began with 9 actors including, now theatre and film luminaries, Joan Allen, John Malkovitch, Gary Sinise, and now has some 43 actors on its roster. It produces up to 14 productions each year in three Chicago theatre spaces. It is interesting to see the list of names in the program. It's very enlightening to see the cross pollinated responsibilities of the retinue. That Tracy Letts the writer of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, is also a regular actor for the company and Mr Perry sometimes director/teacher with the company as is Ms Morton, may indicate the strength of this company's survival technique. The valued commitment and cultural memory of the founders cherished and enhanced with continuous input from the zeitgeist of evolving talents and gifts, and the challenge of new members.

I have had the opportunity of seeing this company at work over several decades. TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard with Mr Malkovitch and Sinise at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York and a few years ago the adaptation of the Steinbeck novel THE GRAPES OF WRATH on Broadway. Our companies could do well to study the survival integrities of this company that has permitted it to sustain its existence and also achieve excellence in its output over the last thirty odd years.

The standout performance in this production comes from Amy Morton as Barbara, the eldest daughter, who gradually finds herself embattled, being webbed back into the family house with all the responsibilities of the carer of the dwindling Violet, and facing the growing and awful sense of horror, as her husband and child abandon her, there, that Nancy Friday's book MY MOTHER MYSELF is the ultimate fate she will inherit. Ms Morton scales the journey of the character with great finesse and elegance of judgement.

Deanna Dunagan creates Violet as feisty, indomitably powerful and unpredictably dangerous, a loose cannon of careening lethalness. This is a classic bravura performance, that has the textual support to make it the 'showy' part. It is in very expert hands. Ms Reed as Mattie Fae, similarly wrests the most out of her opportunities, as a comic diversion in the writing, if not always able to retrieve the pathos of the confrontation with Mattie Fae's life choices and husband in the third act to compelling depths.

It is a woman's play- they are the centre of the machinations of this work. Mr Letts has written the play with the principal roles for the women, and all rise to the gifts given them by this in-house writer expertly and lovingly. The opening scene of act three features a wonderful trio for the three sisters expanded later to a quartet with the addition of Violet, is one of the highlights of the writing and playing.

The supporting roles are uncharacteristically handed out to the men. The roles, although relatively secondary, are all played with great integrity and effect. The solidity and dignity of Mr O'Connor as Charlie, the loyal but exhausted bewilderment of Mr Perry as Bill, the sleazy creepiness of Steve by Mr Cole are exemplars of ensemble playing.

This is a very good play. That the New York Times calls it "...The most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years" however seems to me a fairly potent statement about the lesser quality of work that Broadway now sees on its stages.

Christopher Bigsby in an article written for the National Theatre,London, performances of this production, and re-printed here in the Sydney Theatre program begins "The family - according to Ronald Regan, the country's only divorced President, and head of a dysfunctional one himself - lies at the heart of the American experience. In a Christmas address, in 1988, he insisted that it was 'the nucleus of civilization'. In a State of the Union address it became 'the moral core of our society,' that brought Americans together as one people. Perversely, America's playwrights have lined up to cast their contrary votes."

So when AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is placed beside some of the great family plays of the American theatre of the past: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, A DELICATE BALANCE, BURIED CHILD, substance or the depth of it appears to be lacking.

The first two acts of this play are marvellous in the skill of the character revelations, the shock and awe of the wonderful placement of the comedy, the smooth and deliciously 'thrilling' plotting of the storytelling, but it seems to lack the potency of cultural depth. It is a boulevard comedy of audacious manners - nothing much more or less. Focused, over familiarly, on the pot boiling techniques of soap opera television writing. Entertainment not much more. I was very disappointed in that daring second interval.

It is not until the third act that the play begins to elevate into anything like a reverberating cultural reflection. Almost, too belatedly for me.

Then, Barbara begins to ruminate on the tragedy of the so called 'Greatest Generation' of which Violet and Beverly are representatives: "Greatest Generation, my ass. Are they really considering ALL the generations? Maybe there are some generations from the IRON AGE that could compete."

Ivy laments "I can't perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We're all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more."

Barbara, quoting her father " 'You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a shithole'. And I think now maybe he was talking about something else, something more specific, something more personal to him...this house? This family? His marriage? Himself? I don't know. But there was something sad in his voice - or no, not sad, he always sounded sad - something more hopeless than that. As if it had already happened. As if whatever was disappearing had already disappeared. As if it was too late. As if it was already over. And no one saw it go. This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. (Beat) Dissipation is actually worse than cataclysm."

And sitting in the attic room, visually hovering over this pathetic household, sits Johnna Monevata or Youngbird - a survivor of the original American Indian tribe of these Plains - the Cheyenne. Employed to care for this disintegrating family in this century old dilapidating house, in the last image of the play, Youngbird holds the deserted Violet's head, and rocks her singing "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends..." while Violet recites " and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone…"

Comparatively, in my estimation of the writing of the past family plays, above, this play does not have the consistency of vision or depth of writing skills. Then again, I am not an American experiencing the country about me as reflected in the arts of the time.

A young American man and his father now living in Australia, who both attended a performance here in Sydney, expressed a sense of mourning when they left the theatre. A mourning for the smashed dream of the country of the play's origin. Their former home. Mr Perry at a question and answer session, here in Sydney, reflected that that is the perceived affect that has gradually wreathed around the work. Originally a simple fictional memory extrapolation of his family, Mr Letts has, perhaps, unconsciously, then, touched a little deeper.

This gave me pause.

However on my recent sojourn in the United States, the new theatre that I saw was collectively underwhelming ( Particularly in contrast to the London theatre experience earlier in the year). A play on Broadway, NEXT FALL, was spoken of as one of the best of this season - sad to think that this was so. Truly then a time to mourn. What a lament if we did not see it go. The writing in the theatre. What a lament if we keep crediting writing that disappoints on quality.

Mr Albee, when next?

Again, reflect further, Kevin. The latest Australian family drama GWEN IN PURGATORY, now at Belvoir St., hardly matches the writing of this play by Mr Letts.

What should I be mourning? What?

Indeed, what?

Do not miss the opportunity of seeing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Every family member will feel appreciated.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sydney Symphony European Tour Farewell Concert

Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the present a Benefit Concert at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall: EUROPEAN TOUR FAREWELL CONCERT.

The Sydney Symphony, as I write this, are on their way to a two week, eight city, nine concert tour of Europe. Five and a half tons of musical luggage, sixty-five flight cases (on Emirates) to be in Italy for a performance at the Stresa Festival on Sunday (29th August).

Last night there was a Benefit Concert for the orchestra. Three big pieces of music conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The first work was an Australian score by Peter Sculthorpe, MEMENTO MORI (‘Remember that you must die’). Written in 1993, this work is part of Mr Sculthorpe’s “fascination with the landscape and sounds of Australia and the Asia-Pacific region and has led to a number of Sculthorpe’s works being influenced by geographical and historical events.” This work specifically inspired by the problems facing the historical inhabitants of Easter Island. It is an environmentally focused score, the music is non-dramatic reflecting “a state of no-desire, and desolation and loneliness before the sombre face of the Pacific ocean”. It reveals itself intentionally, by Mr Sculthorpe, in what he describes as ‘music of regret’ – a complex admixture of regret and anger. It is meditative and demands held breath concentration to experience the nuances of the instrumentation. Peter Sculthorpe was present for the playing and appeared on stage to the audience applause. I always find it inestimably moving to have the composer present at concert, so it was here. Three Australian composers will have work of theirs played on this tour.

The Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat,Op.73 (Emperor) by Ludwig van Beethoven was the following piece. For me this work has long memories. It was, along with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, my first memory of crying in response to the magic and fathomless personal stirrings of music. Some house, somewhere in Kogarah, as a youth, my life changed deeply, mysteriously. John Chen was the pianist. It was his first concert engagement with the Sydney Symphony. Mr Chen’s career “was launched in 2004 when, aged 18, he became the youngest-ever winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition”. Now in the fledgling stage of his professional career, he is also “ completing a doctorate in piano performance at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles”. Under the guidance of Mr Ashkenazy, Mr Chen played with delicacy and what appeared to me to a deftly light touch. The sound was gentle and fluid. Variation of key hitting powers was what I missed. The stridency of the music was not as moving as I remember or require it. Still it is and was an impressive debut with the orchestra.

After the interval, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s MANFRED – SYMPHONY after Byron, Op.58 became the main event. An enormous orchestra was necessary including the Concert Hall organ. Based on a poem by Byron that concerns the anguish of Manfred who wanders in the Swiss alpine region, opining his incestuous longings for his sister, Astrate, and the musical illusions to waterfalls, rainbows and a fairy, and ultimately to redemption, the score has all the dramatic/melodramatic passions, frustrations, tenderness and bitterness of Tchaikovsky at his best, personal, torturous self. Seven months was devoted by Tcahiovsky to this score, the subject, program-matter urged upon him by fellow Russian, Balakirev, after the Frenchman Berlioz pleaded ill health and old age prevented him from embarking on such an enterprise.” You must of course make an effort” urged Balakirev.

In reply Tchaikovsky, with “ tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I could perhaps MAKE AN EFFORT, as you put it, and wring from myself a series of mildly interesting episodes, in which you would find conventionally gloomy music to reflect Manfred’s hopeless disillusionment, and lots of glittering instrumental sparks in the Alpine fairy scherzo, with the sun rising in the high register of the violins, and Manfred dying amid the pianissimo trombones. I could dress all this up with piquant harmonic curiosities, and submit it to the world under the portentous title: MANFRED SYMPHONIE D’APRES, etc. I might even win a dash of praise for this child of my musical loins. But such work doesn’t interest me.”

“Toward the end of his labours, in August 1885, he confessed that ‘the symphony is emerging on a huge scale, complex, serious, taking up all my time, utterly exhausting me; but an inner voice tells me that I do not labour in vain, that this will turn out to be perhaps the best of my symphonic works.” The Manfred symphony was well enough received when first performed under Erdmannsdorfer in March 1886. Since, the symphony has not had a very exposed career, “and indeed MANFRED is longer and inhabits a sound world more lavish than any of his other symphonies; it calls for an unusually large orchestra and playing of exceptional virtuosity”, and the “Pathetique’ may have surpassed it.

It seemed to me that Mr Ashkenazy and the orchestra were especially primed for the playing of this score, this night. Focus, love and care emanated from the concert platform. Lush , lavish and violent emotions of great musical fluidity and articulation swept the hall, and I was way back in the hall – a long way to reach, in this notoriously acoustically difficult hall. The Manfred theme crashed on me, through me, and the nightmare film by Ken Russell, THE MUSIC LOVER, flashed back into my body memory, with Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky and Glenda Jackson as his unhappy wife, Nina, been shaken in the train carriage on their honeymoon journey, she, naked, covered in champagne, blood, food and sweat Oh, horror. Delightful horror!

The organist (David Drury) sat way up in his eyrie and I waited, anticipated. Teasingly, the pipes ‘immolated’ right at, in, the finale. Wham!! A terrific finish to a farewell concert. Glorious music and music making give life such a fillip.

Bon Voyage and thanks. See and hear you in September.

All quotes from the program notes by Peter Sametz, and TCHAIKOVSKY – A Biography by Anthony Holden, Random House,1995.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents WOYZECK, written by Georg Buchner, translated by Carl Richard Mueller. At the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St.

WOYZECK by Georg Buchner (1836-37) has a reputation of some standing and is more often than not, met, as a regularly performed piece in most university theatre societies. How much of this standing is academic appreciation, with hindsight, and how much of it is in the witnessing of it as engaging performance is my problem with the piece. I have never had an experience with this text that has been engrossing or given me the sense that this is a ‘masterpiece’ as some claim in the theatre. The opera by Alban Berg, under the direction of Barrie Kosky, was the nearest I have ever come to a satisfying theatrical experience of this source material by Buchner. Similarly, the other work, DANTON’S DEATH has rarely succeeded in the theatre for me, and I have only once had the opportunity of seeing the comedy, LEONICE AND LENA - which is only remembered now as an interesting addition to my knowledge of the author’s small output- an academic diversion.( By the by, the opera LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK by Shostakovich and the novel and stage versions of Jaroslav Hasek’s novel THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK are two other works, with similar resonances to WOYZECK that have always being easier for me to absorb and appreciate).

In The Oxford Dictionary of Plays – Michael Patterson about Woyzeck:

“It is one of the tragedies of world drama that one of the greatest playwrights, acknowledged by writers as diverse as Artaud and Brecht to be the father of modern theatre, died at the age of 23, leaving only DANTON’S DEATH, a comedy LEONCE and LENA and this unfinished masterpiece. WOYZECK is remarkable in many respects. Its episodic structure formed a model for the fragmentary, kaleidoscopic depiction of reality beloved of modernist theatre. Its terse, highly charged poetic language showed how effective minimal dialogue can be. Above all focusing a tragedy on a simple working-class figure opened up the possibility, especially for naturalist drama later in the century, of showing that ordinary people could be something more than comic characters. The play lay for decades as a neglected fragment, and even its title was initially misread as WOZZECK ( as in the Alban Berg’s opera of 1925). It is uncertain how Buchner intended to order the scenes and to end the play, whether with Woyzeck’s suicide (as in the opera) or with his trial (as in the historical case on which the play is based).”

All this is great historical referencing, and all probably true, but as it was left, how theatrically, as a living organism in the theatre space with an audience, is it viable?

Woyzeck is a man in poverty in every sense of application. He is a soldier seconded to his Captain, who physically and mentally abuses him in the course of his duties. To earn extra money Woyzeck has volunteered to act as a guinea pig for scientific experiments by an obsessive Doctor – his body becomes an abused container, he eats only peas for three months! He begins to suffer from hearing ‘voices’. He needs the extra money to support his common law wife, Marie, and child. Marie finds solace in her circumstances with other men and Woyzeck observes her betrayal with the Drum Major whom he confronts and, subsequently, is beaten mercilessly. Woyzeck takes Marie into the forest and brutally murders/daggers her and returns to the tavern of the town and joins in an ecstatic dance where he is questioned about the blood on his body.

“What is man?” “The world is out of order” Two phrases that sit with me from this production of the text.

This production by Netta Yashchin is handsome indeed. David Fleischer, the designer for both set and costumes, has cleaned the theatre space with a freshly painted black back wall and an attractive patterned floor design held to the floor with gleaming and symmetric arrangements of metal studs. It is beautifully lit (Ross Graham) both atmospherically and aesthetically in a permanent softening haze effect for the many changes of scene. The props are minimal, army metal ration cans, a chair and bottles. The costumes are a thoughtful and ‘elegant’ contemporary ‘fashionista’ collection that establish the characters in this post- modern construct of the world of the play. It is comfortable and richly articulated. Maybe erring too much in the sense of controlled art direction, for the play to really come into any kind of affront – this is a pleasant world to be in – it is the intent?

Ms Yashchin has employed a composer (Tom Hogan) and with a live band (Alexandra Spence, clarinet; Grant Arthur, banjo; Marcus Whale, saxophone) explicates a very evocative score, accompanied by recorded sound effects, as well. The score interpolates contemporary pop and folk songs, fittingly and often humorously. Accompanying this live music are several dance performers (Rory Nagle-Runciman, Jessica Joseph-McDermott) who add “movement, gesture and multilayered metaphor” which is the “style and language of this work”. (Production?) The dancers are sinuous and ‘sexy’ in their tasks. Ms Yashchin has, apparently, deliberately chosen very handsome and attractive actors and the visual aesthetics, are both post-modern and surreal in their affect- for instance, a procession of actors in black, full floor length tulle netting over other diversely costumed figures, parade around the space with oranges in hands being squeezed and proffered to the audience, and book end the production!? The glossy magazine look of the production is enhanced with the ‘sex’ of the performers and the fission of blood dripping, pouring, and later, pooling during the performance.

The ensemble cast is very engaging not only in their physical diversity but also with their textual skills. Michael Piggott (Woyzeck), Zahra Newman (Marie), Fayssal Bazzi lead the ensemble well. The early sequences of this production arrested my attention and I felt at last that here was a production of WOYZECK that might standout from my usual unattached engagement with this play. However, in this eighty-minute production – it did get to feel much longer - somewhere about the second Doctors sequence, the performing lost its impetus.

Acting, story telling, can be reduced, sometimes, in definition, to the need for the actors to passionately pursue their objectives. In this kind of fragmented short scene structure the necessity for the actors to be clear about what the audience must absorb and the means to achieve that in each compartmentalised time zone - scene, is imperative. Tell us what is happening, clearly, with the gathering stakes of an accumulative linear yarn. Instead, in this production – initially clear and communicative energies dwindled into presenting visual images of what came to be droned and static art installations. The pictures were pretty, but the dramatic imperative of a traumatised man, being driven by terrifying circumstances, to what logically appear to be an inevitable set of tragic actions became comatosed, becalmed. It all seemed to be, latterly, in contrast to the first half of this production, a series of visual gems necklaced on a string that had no purposed function other than the aesthetics. For example, when we came to the ’dance of the bloodied hands and arms’ at the tavern (it reminded me of the Vampire disco scene in the beginning of BLADE with Wesley Snipes-1998) it seemed to be an imposed artistic picture that did not fluidly come from the preceding scenes or actions, neither visually or musically. It seemed an imposed stylistic choice overriding the narrative cohesion, in how to get to it and use it. Somewhere in this production the inner pacing and tempo controls got lost – and with it, me, as an attentive audience member. Maybe, the production just ran out of technical rehearsal time? One began to feel, here was a directorial vision that began in its obsession to the images of the design production, to conceal, rather than continue to reveal the play and its societal critique for this 2010 audience.

What began enthrallingly with the dance in the theatre foyer and invitation to witness the tale of Woyzeck, the ordinary soldier, became dull and wearing. Buchner’s WOYZECK , again, in my experience, simply an academic, dramaturgical, precocious wonder. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the visual voice of Ms Yashchin is astonishing but her story telling skills are not yet equal. What with a week into the production, some attention could have made adjustments if they were thought necessary.

Maybe, there was no need felt. I, sadly, beg to differ. It plays until the 29th of August.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Winter's Discontent

William Zappa in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Co. present WINTER’S DISCONTENT written and performed by William Zappa at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

One of the influential books, among many, on my view of the actor is a 1987 publication called THE WAY OF THE ACTOR, subtitled “The Path to Knowledge & Power” by Brian Bates (Shambhala). Brian Bates is a psychologist who spent seven years researching the psychology of acting with students of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He went on to be a Director of the Medical Psychology Project at the Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, England.

“All so called ‘primitive’ societies have at their head important people with special powers. These people have the ability to transform themselves in public performance from their normal personality into somebody or something else: a god or an animal, ancient ancestor or representation of a spirit. Their crucial role in society is to transcend the barriers of their own identity, follow a path to personal knowledge, and in dramatic performance, to lead their audiences into ritual journeys into their own psyches. They are mystics, magical seers and creators of visions.” Today, still, the actor is that ’vessel’ for the audience. “The actor connects with, and apprehends past experiences in an intuitive way (and) the inner material is employed in breathing life into a character or role”. A character or role that enlightens and hopefully enlivens us to the complexity and wonder of our selves. Then, added to this :“We are all actors. Every day we play a number of roles with varying degrees of skill and commitment. Our stage moves from home to car and train, work place, restaurants, shops, parties and public settings of all kinds…We reveal parts of ourselves and conceal others to fit the demands of the situation.”

WINTER’S DISCONTENT written and performed by William Zappa is an illuminating and emotional experience, an unmissable experience. For, Mr Zappa reveals the actor as craftsman- artist, which is the extraordinary, and the everyman which is, us, him, and what we often mistake as ordinary, both in the one entity. What this work shows us, who usually sit and watch our storytellers, is the dilemma and inner conflicts of the successful storytellers in our world. And Mr Zappa, certainly, is one of Australia’s great storytellers, I modestly suggest.

Firstly, the magical power of the prepared gift of the talented performer is revealingly shown to us in this wonderful monologue. Winter (William Zappa) arrives in his dressing room and prepares himself for a performance of a play based on the Victor Hugo character Thenardier from the novel LES MISERABLES, not the musical. We witness his physical and vocal ‘warming up’. We watch him make up. We watch him disrobe and dress in costume. We watch an external transformation. Magic, in front of our eyes. But better and more startlingly, the magic of willing possession is witnessed by us, we watch Winter breathe in and relax into the shamanistic state of the allowed possession of Winter’s body, into this Thenardier. Periodically we see, miraculously, Winter breathe out and dispossess, exorcise the spirit of his imaginative powers that have formulated Thenardier, back to the man, Winter, and then back again- at will. This is a behind the scenes look at the creative tools of the actor in action in the act of creation. It is doubly amazing because it is not just Winter and Thenardier we are privileged in watching, but the originator of this, for Mr Zappa, both as writer and actor begins to surface into our consciousness as well. Three spirits, three mystic beings, three creations of a visionary.

Secondly, what Mr Zappa does, in the person of Winter, is let us become credent to the personal problems of the everyday man, actor – horrible confrontations with the finality of mortality and the consequences of his own story’s appetites and activities that has wrought the circumstances for that fate to unfurl. The struggle between the power of his gift as actor, as Thenardier, and his failure in his real life role as ‘father’ – a gift he begins to doubt, almost despair of. The struggle to embrace the conflict between his responsibilities as an actor, both, as a storyteller and in life, become the grief of the work. A pregnant dilemma for us all, in greater and lesser degrees of consciousness. Actors all.

The writer, Mr Zappa, tells us in his brief program note, that this work “is not autobiographical, although some of the events referred to are based on my own experiences as an actor.”
Based on my first observation of the Tommy Murphy play GWEN IN PURGATORY: Advice to writers. Write what you know. The subsequent musings and then personal projections of mine, since watching this play and performance, churns over and over, just what is autobiographical and what is not? The third level of this brave and accomplished work worms into my self examination. I have been led by this work into my own psyche. The work of the actor has been done. The baton is in my hands.

Mr Zappa is assisted by the modest and generous support of Jeanette Cronin on stage. The Design (Set; Imogen Keen; Lighting; Gillian Schwab) is simple and adequate. The original director credited is Maeliosa Stafford.

I cannot recommend this work too highly. For those of you who are in awe of the magic and tools of the artist, unmissable. If you are a fan of good acting and writing, even more reason not to miss it. If you believe that Mr Zappa has made great contributions to your theatre going life, then have it confirmed by attending. It is a shockingly short season – just two weeks. (The work has had other outings but this is the first opportunity I have had of catching it).

Here is a play that The NSW literary prize givers should not ignore (along with BANG). And let us hope the Sydney Theatre Company and their ilk around Australia take note. If not, the Festival honchos, both National and International, should take note of a very, to say the least, arresting talent (!) Last year I was in awe of Kathryn Hunter’s turn in KAFKA’S MONKEY at the Sydney Theatre Company. I am similarly moved by this work. Ms Hunter has even being nominated for a Helpmann Award. Let us hope Mr Zappa has the same honour (?) next year.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker)

Opera Australia presents La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker). Opera in two acts by Vincent Bellini. Libretto by Felice Romani, after Scribe’s scenario for Jean-Pierre Aumer’s ballet La Somnambule, ou L’arrivee d’un nouveau seigneur (1827)

This is my second opera of Vincenzo Bellini. The first was I Capueleti e I Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montague’s), presented by Opera Australia last year and in the chronological journey of the composer’s output, La Sonnambula is the direct follow up. First performed on the 6th March, 1831 at the Teatro Carcano, Milan.

The story is based on a ballet by Scribe and concerns the sleepwalking of a young betrothed girl, Amina (Lorina Gore), who in one of her walks , just before her wedding day, arrives in the bedroom at an inn, where the Count Rodolfo (Stephen Bennett) is in residence. Gallantly, without waking her, the Count puts her to bed and leaves. Unfortunately a scheming rival to Amina, Lisa (Amy Wilkinson), finds her and reports it to the community and the jealous Elvino (Aldo Di Toro), a wealthy landowner and the affianced gentleman, emotionally breaks up the wedding plans and proposes to another. Scandal. It does, you will be pleased to read, end happily for Amina - if marrying an emotionally shallow ‘infant’ behoves happiness. It is, after all, an opera of the Romantic period. If you attend this opera for a good story than this is not for you. This story utterly belongs to its period and is more than silly. No production, postmodern or otherwise (!!) would make it believable. The recent broadcast production from the Metropolitan Opera in New York valiantly tried to make it work.

The Setting by Richard Roberts is an attractive wooden slatted box, painted with a “chocolate box” pattern that represents a mountain-scape in Switzerland. Centre stage is a raked floor-boarded square that revolves, around and, tiresomely, around. Furniture is put and taken off the square, for the different locations. The walls of the box can retreat into the wings and we can, variously, see a vision of candles in the first act and for the last act a large representation of the local mill wheel, in this case, attractively spinning.. It is an attractive design. The costumes also by Mr Roberts are ‘period’ (transposed to 1900s) and are pretty opera costumes. Unfortunately, Mr Roberts is not blessed with a consistently clever Lighting Designer (Matt Scott) and a preponderance of distracting shadows are evident most of the time on the walls of the set and even on the proscenium arch of the stage. There is no logic to the lighting plot either and one finally surrenders to the conclusion that the theatrical picture atmospherics, when they are achieved, sometimes, is enough. There were, indeed, some very pretty pictures.

These choices, one presumes, were part of the Director’s aesthetic (Julie Edwardson). What Ms Edwardson has managed to do is move her cast, chorus and all, around the space. It is a very busy traffic (The revolve, as well, does spin and spin, did I mention that?). What Ms Edwardson has not managed, at all, is to guide or motivate her principals and chorus into any sense of attempting to act the roles except in an archaic pencil thin superficiality. For example, the communicative arsenal of jealousy that Mr Aldo Di Toro has access to is extremely limited and in the end, woefully amusing. Some advice or psychological guidance may have helped the performer. Most of the singers have the good grace or sense to simply walk about and stand to the front and sing with feeling. A contemporary audience that is not a regular opera goer might find the style of the acting under the behest of this director, risible and very off putting.

However, the real reason to attend this opera at all is to hear the singing and enjoy the music. La Sonnambula was an enormous success in its day and has been part of the repertoire of the world’s opera houses in recent times, principally because Richard Bonynge championed it to service the wonderful miracle of the voice of Joan Sutherland. Listen to the recordings and you will grasp the spectacle of the great potential of Bellini as a transporting experience.

Mr Bonynge, too, has prepared, musically, this production, although at this performance (Monday, August 9th) it was conducted by Anthony Legge. Also, the role of Amina was sung by Lorina Gore and not Emma Matthews, the bill boarded star. The singing by Ms Gore was very impressive and demonstrated the value of the opportunity to hear this score in the theatre. The beauty of the writing of Bellini was transfixing and Ms Gore , mostly, had one enthralled with a kind of awe of the athletic requirements of this kind of repertoire, combined with a passion of feeling in the singing. Stephen Bennett was also impressive as also, in a smaller role, was Andrew Jones (Alessio). Amy Wilkinson did not seem quite as comfortable. Mr Di Toro sang well but not necessarily as expressively as might be possible.

Not much theatre. Not much drama. But beautiful singing and music. Know why you are going and a very rewarding evening can be had.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gwen in Purgatory

Company B Belvoir and La Boite Theatre Company present GWEN IN PURGATORY by Tommy Murphy at Belvoir St. Theatre.

Advice for every writer: Write what you know.

In the program notes from Tommy Murphy: “Memory is like writing a play. After about a year of writing, something clicked in the story and I was surprised to discover that much of the play is in fact underpinned by disputed memories. Perhaps this is a likely conflict in a family, among people who may have opposing interpretations of their shared history and shared identity. The voices in this play stem from people I know and love but as soon as they found their way to the page they were characters bending according to dramatic impulses and artistic imperatives. Now that they reach the stage, the characters are merely impressions of those inspiring people. A play is a rectified account of life.”

Set today in the outer sprawl of Queanbeyan, near Canberra, on a new housing estate, determinedly self sufficient 90 year old Gwen (Melissa Jaffer) has just moved into a new, it looks enormous, house, ‘beige-peachy’, stock fittings with convenient washable tile floor, surrounded by unpacked boxes of her property (Set Design, Stephen Curtis), awaiting an inaugural blessing from the Catholic priest, a Nigerian, Father Ezekiel (Pacharo Mzembe). Some of her family visit to check her progress: her son, Laurie (Grant Dodwell), a scrabbling and slightly dim deal maker of local council scale, and daughter, Peg (Sue Ingleton), a nurse (Chekhov’s Varya?) who is trying to escape the overwhelming family dedicated duty of the helpful, compliant sibling, and a grandson, Daniel (Nathaniel Dean), crippled psychologically by the consequences of absent parenting. Costumes helping creating these characters by Bruce McKinven, spot on in the details.

This razor-astute but gently expressed comedy of manners in the suburbs of Australia has the audience identifying the characters and either, sequentially, owning or disowning them; embracing or pushing them out of arms distance, stepping cautiously away, as the politics of familial histories and social responsibilities and economic values bubble and burst in this witnessed state of purgatory in the contemporary everyday of this Australian family’s life (PACKED TO THE RAFTERS!!). Obviously, by the end of the play, it is everyone’s lives this play has touched on, for much humour and ‘horror’ has been experienced by us, all. The empathetic journey with the characters changes for the observer dramatically throughout the play. From one to another we endow our empathy. Much laughter and horrible recognition. The audience is never quite sure who is the villain or the hero in this journey. Like all families the “opposing interpretations of their shared history” comes to cast shadows over previously accepted facts. Alliances shift. Mr Murphy’s identification in his writing of this family is truly known.

The performances by this company of actors has honed, and are still honing, an ensemble of alive sensibilities. They seem to be alert to all the elements of the characterisations of each other as they unfold in front of us – all the senses acutely aware, and reading the breathing intricacies of each other’s offers in the moment, and building a subtle living web of consequences. Each ‘instrument’ is primed, and collectively, the reading of the ‘musical score’ that Mr Murphy has written, as directed by Neil Armfield, is gorgeously humming – a chamber quintet of a first rate orchestra. No mean feat. It seems to me that Mr Murphy’s writing requires the actor’s toolbox of Stanislavski preparation for character and the musical skills of a first rate orchestra. Listening and playing the right ‘notes’ and shifting tempo and volumes collaboratively. Like the demands of a David Williamson text, looking deceptively easy in action, but fiendishly demanding in practice. This might appear, superficially, for the dilettante, but is, in actuality, demanding of the best of the professional artist.

Ms Jaffer is spectacular in her assessment and explication of this tough old gal, Gwen - as self determined a will in this suburban land as Lady Bracknell has in her milieu. Ms Ingelton deeply pathetic and moving as put upon, door matted Peg. Mr Dean is thorough and captivating in his creation of the pathetic underachiever and sadly ‘good’ but dim Daniel - the physical characteristics bravely accurate and yet craftily harnessed. Both Mr Mzembe and Mr Dodwell are generous in the depth of the playing of roles that are, relatively, underwritten and under complicated. Their achievement in filling out their opportunities admirable. (Father Ezekiel’s Mother’s journey to Lagos, mentioned often in the text, seems strangely unfinished or under developed - a red herring for my curiosity).

So, style is the primary victor in this project. For although the subject matter is easily recognisable and dear to all of our experiences, and amusing to attend to, the content, ultimately, does not always dig deep enough or punch hard enough. The final image of Gwen in a spotlight of frozen purgatory (Chekhov’s final entombed image of Feers?), with the ringing of alarm around her and us seems strangely imposed, rather than the accumulated revelation of the human predicament of Gwen. For, besides, Gwen has gradually revealed herself not just as an ailing soul or victim but someone with the same human manipulative genetics that Regina Giddens has in Lillian Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES. Gwen is no saint, and she demonstrates in the action of the play that she will use what ever influence and tactic she needs to achieve her own comfort and safety - her own objectives are pursued as selfishly, ruthlessly as the others - a car and a family carer in this newly acquired house. Being 90 has not dimmed this survivor’s armoury, rather it is part of her disguised weaponry. It is Peg, like Birdie, in the above mentioned play, that is the wreck, pulled between her own survival as an individual and the weight of familial duty, because of the family’s machinations for self aggrandisement and satisfaction. Will Peg get to heaven or be condemned to hell? This appeared to me to be poor Peg’s Purgatory and the title of the play, therefore cruelly ironic. OR am I just over identifying?

The blurb at the back of the printed text tells us: “Written specially for Company B Belvoir, GWEN IN PURGATORY is Tommy Murphy’s brilliant existential comedy about an African missionary in the wilderness of Australian suburbia.” However in the text being played at the moment on the stage at Upstairs Belvoir the idea of an African Catholic Missionary in the midst of the wilderness of a contemporary Australian family is still mostly only an idea, an unmassaged image. He IS in the wilderness but Father Ezekiel is simply a peripheral observer of the family drama and has little or no impact to the action of the drama. He adds little to the apprehension of the terrible family drama evolving in these times, except as a passive witness. Whatever culture or race this figure might have been makes little difference to the action of this story. Neither in the writing or the staging does Father Ezekiel become central to the experience of the audience. I had thought that the cultural presence of this new member of the Australian society was going to assist us to see through a looking glass darkly the world of this white, suburban, Christian (Catholic) family and give us a contemporary perspective of some challenge. This was not to be. I felt the presence of this Nigerian priest was somewhat a token image rather than an illuminating dramatic tool. The number of priests of seeming African background (based on my apprehension of their surnames, only) that Mr Murphy thanks in the program suggested to me that there would be a more complicated point of view from this very unique presence in Australian dramatic literature.

These are carping musings that I and others, who have seen the play, have contemplated and discussed, and, I think, worth airing, for Mr Murphy is one of the interesting writers of his generation. There is a consistency of striving vision in his output, and he does get his plays on in the major companies regularly. There is a popular response to the work.

Although, not as insightful or as incisive as Jonathan Gavin’s BANG, about the multi-cultural lives of our evolving Australian society and the consequences of this plastic melding, which was presented in the B Sharp program downstairs in June, this is a terrific night in the theatre. A serious look at Us that is still painfully Chekhovian in its comic realities. One does laugh through tears.

Handel Coronation

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra present HANDEL CORONATION at the City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is celebrating its 21st Birthday. It also paid tribute to Ken Tribe “our dear friend and patron of the Orchestra, who passed away last week at the grand age of 96”. Music by Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel were represented by music for choir.

The first work was Suite from Abdelazar, or the Moor’s Revenge, Z 570 by Purcell. Music arranged from the incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play, written in 1695 (Behn was one of the first professional female writers in England, THE ROVER, her most revived play). The Suite is pleasant enough but not absorbing. The recognition from the Rondeau second movement of the theme used by Benjamin Britten in his YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA was a welcome fillip to the experience.

The Brandenburg Choir appeared on stage for the second work: Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary, Come ye sons of art, away, Z 323. Four of the choir sang the solo roles: soprano, Siobhan Stagg; alto, Tim Chung; tenor, Andrei Laptev and bass, Ashley Giles. All four were impressive and the clarity of enunciation was remarkable. The trumpetless duet “Sound the trumpet’ sung by two of the soloists was especially enjoyable. The choir was impeccable in its responsibilities.

After the interval, Concerto a due cori, No2,HWV 333 by Handel. The featured Baroque Horns were a treat to hear as were the recorder and oboe contributions. The featured work of Handel’s Anthems for the Coronation of King George II; No1, Zadok the Priest, HWV 258 and then NO 3, The King Shall Rejoice, HWV 260 were thrilling. The impact of the choir was dynamic and meticulous. The unblurred accuracy of the articulation of the choir was amazing. The affect was one of awe and joy.

Paul Dyer has created a performance of precision and feeling. Some find this type of music in too large a quantity a trifle “boring”. I enjoyed the concert and the variety of selection immensely. To quote from one of the Anthems; “Alleluia. Amen.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kiss of The Spider Woman - The Musical

Gaiety Theatre and Power Arts present KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN – The Musical. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Terrence McNally. Based on the novel by Manuel Puig. At the Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney.

On entering the relatively, small space of the Darlinghurst Theatre, the small company of performers, 11 in total, including 4 musicians, are on stage. Tuning, revising their instrumentation, pacing, glancing at the audience as we trickled in, nervously interacting with themselves, exiting and entering an upstage door, but mostly ‘imprisoned’ in the space and, finally, as the lights lowered in the auditorium, grouping for the show’s musical prologue. I felt a little like the aristocrats gathering for the performance of the persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in the asylum of Charenton as performed by the inmates – uncomfortable, very, slightly, Brechtian!!! A bourgeoisie audience out for an evening’s entertainment about the political atrocities of very recent history in musical form.

KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, The Musical (1992) is based on a novel by Manuel Puig, concerning the incarceration of a sexual offender and a political prisoner in a maximum security prison, set against the Dirty War in Argentina (1976 -1983) sparked by the dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla. This novel became a play and finally a Hollywood film starring William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga (1985). Molina (James Lee), an openly gay prisoner and convicted pederast, is forced to spy and inform to the authorities, about a socialist/Marxist political prisoner, Valentin (Frank Hansen). To pass the time and distract from the conditions of their reality, Molina indulges in the vivid re-telling of the movies of his youth which feature Aurora (Alexis Fishman).

This is a very impressive production. The Set (David Fleischman) and Costume Design (Teresa Negroponte), along with a particularly beautiful and accurate Lighting Design (Jack Horton) is very convincing and aesthetically arresting, with all the right values for the grimness of the story within the boundaries of a musical. The invention of the moveable stairs and ‘gurney’-like platforms is extremely clever and inventively used by the Director/Choreographer (Stephen Colyer). A revolve -stage is created for great affect!!! The choreography, within the space limitations is very well done.

The adaptation of this full scale musical, (which I saw with Chita Rivera on tour in San Francisco in 1993) to this pared–back, pocket size is admirably achieved. The musical orchestrations led by Craig Renshaw with Michael Huxley, Dave Manuel and Oliver Simpson is extremely well done and beautifully balanced with and against the un-mic’ed voices of the company (Sound Design, Jeremy Silver). The atmospheric prison soundscape ominously grounding to the real world of the play. The singing of the company is mostly impressive. The quality of the singing by Mr Hansen is especially thrilling. No less impressively Ms Fishman, not only sings the femme fatale of Molina’s imagination, Aurora and The Spider Woman but also the lover of Valentin, Marta. Jennifer White as Molina’s Mother also makes a mark. The beautiful quartet DEAR ONE, early in Act One, is probably the most impressive musical invention and explicated performance of the night.

This production is very worth while seeing and then clamouring for more of the same. This ‘potted’ version of a musical which we might not otherwise see in Sydney or Australia is a very interesting addition to the variety of theatre genre available in the Sydney scene. An altogether exciting enterprise. The recent monthly one off versions of so-called ‘forgotten’ musicals at this same venue also worth catching. I remember the reviews that I used to read as a boy of the Menzies Hotel Theatre Restaurant ‘potted’ musicals and longed to see- alas too young. Was Nancye Hayes a star in these productions? I think so. Certainly, Hayes Gordon, the legendary director/actor/teacher of the Ensemble Theatre was one of the regular creators, from memory.

THE KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN is ultimately a work that is a lesser achievement in the Kander and Ebb repertoire, for example, CABARET and CHICAGO, and it skates sometimes on the edge of show-biz bad taste ( e.g. The Morphine Tango) that both the other shows, with their political, satirical edge manage, with much better artistic judgement. Other than the weakness in the book adaptation of the novel and the less inventive musical inspirations of Kander and Ebb the flaw of this production is the acting by the principals. Mr Lee, especially (The Oscar winning performance of William Hurt as Molina is still very resonant). It is ‘classically’ bad musical theatre presentation, substituting signalled emotional sentimentalities and melodramatic pretence, where more truthful experienced expression would strike the audience with the grim realities of the terrible cruelties and crimes, both psychological and physical, that we are asked to witness and believe in the world of the play. The truer the grim lives are, the more remarkable and moving the contrast to the Molina escape fantasises of Aurora and the Spider Woman will be. The balance is out of kilter, for the dramatics are not believable.

Keep an eye out for the future work of Mr Colyer and his very laudable team in this genre area, do.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sydney Theatre Company in association with Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland present LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill at the Sydney Theatre.

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill is claimed, by some, to be the great American play, and certainly from my engagement with this play many times in the theatre and in the cinematic form with Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson (reduced as it is), the affect has always inclined me to think so. This long naturalistic work winding through one day into the night with this Irish-American family, the Tyrone's, in late summer, August,
1912, has had the transfixing fascination of the rawness of the recognition of the human condition in the common experience for us all, of the family and it's formative hold on us.

Written in 1941 but published posthumously this great work was dedicated to Mr O'Neill's wife, Carlotta.

For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary.
Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play - write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.
These twelve years, Beloved One,have been a Journey into Light - into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!

Tao House
July 22, 1941

It seems to me that the tears and blood of this unashamedly autobiographical play can wring recognising echoes in me and despite the pain, it, too, can lead me through a long journey into light - into love. My own mother, father and siblings always arise in my consciousness. Deep reflection and pondering of them are the consequences of this experience and they seem closer after this journey, and I hope that they can pity, understand and forgive me, as well (I am of Irish-Australian descent).

The play is long. It is, indeed a long day's journey into night. It's length, of course, is it's major strength and for full authorial power ought to be respected.

I came to this production late in the season. The word of mouth was mixed and I attended with some trepidation. All in all the long length, I was still engrossed in the play but for the first time not moved by the ultimate entry of the haunted and haunting Mary. Strangely, it was a distanced observation, an intellectual summary of the tragedy of a family.

However, the interesting thing for me was the stylistic differences that the American participators brought to the work that was so contrasted with the Australian artists.

On the night I attended, the performance of William Hurt was magnificent (give or take some blurring consonants and smudged articulation) and the long remembrance and explanation of Tyrone's family history in the long Act Four duo with Edmund (Luke Mullins) was as moving and humanly revelatory as any I have had in the theatre. There then followed the cauterising ramblings of Jamie (Todd Van Voris), and the compassionate identification that the actor brought to the text was scouring and painful in it's raw expression and affect. These two men knew Tyrone senior and Jamie as well as they know their own family. Indeed, my impression was that these two actors brought an endowment of personal knowledge and were playing their 'cultural' grandparents. Relatives. Relatives of the great American family and they demonstrated a needful gesture in exercising and exorcising these creations of Mr O'Neill. The impact brought to mind the climactic moments in two other American family tragedies DEATH OF A SALESMAN and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
On the other hand, Ms Nevin's performance, as Mary, was brilliantly detailed in it's 'theatrical' offers, the disintergration of the woman during this long painful day and the re-embracement with her addiction was calculated in all of its external expressions with the keen eye of a craftsman and the forensic eye of a scientist/doctor. The petty and venal obsessions of the wrecked woman compulsively harping over the mean and cheap life that she believes her husband has given her, the focused chief motivation for her situation, highlighted compulsively by Ms Nevin. The grief of the loss of the child, Eugene, did not seem to motivate her dilemma a quarter as much. The cruelty to her Edmund not acknowledged except as a self justification for her tragic later choices in life. Self-centered and toweringly isolated from the family. Calculated and cool, manipulative and now irretrievably lost. It missed the real inner ache and pain and the warmth of a romantic would be nun, later infatuated girl, disillusioned woman and grieving mother. The outer pain of the arthritis and self-dramatised humiliating house surroundings more motivating than maybe the emotional woundings of her own human weaknesses, life experiences and the deep centred causes.

Mr Mullins as Edmund seemed ill at ease and pursued the 'concept' of a misunderstood poet and presented a generalised fey sense of the life experience of a shipman and hard core drinker. It was an intellectual conceptualisation with no real experiencing of the great emotional journey. Presented not suffered. Presnted not truly felt. Not truly engaged or connected to the rest of the family. Physically the work seemed disengaged from the authentic body of the 'adventurer' Edmund demanded of himself. It was difficult to experience as an audience the high spots of his sea memories but as self-conscious poetic meanderings of an actor of life - a pretender.

Concept of the characterisations rather than the actual identification of the deep flesh and blood, heart and soul of the Tyrone family seemed to define the Australian actors commitment to these great dramatic figures of naturalistic examination that was looking for understanding and forgiveness. Looking and giving objectified judgements of these 'cultural' types? Ms Nevin and Mr Mullins failed to engage my empathy and asked rather that I observe and judge these people as pathetic. The deepening journey of this family into the claustrophobia of the fog and the family's heart of darkness was spread, finally, across the stage in unconnected modules and left barely breathing or alive, relatively, on a gurney in an autopsy room.

Surely Mr Upton is too blame?

The alarming misconception of this production, however, must be the intellectual intrusions that the Director (Andrew Upton) and perforce his Designer (Michael Scott -Mitchell) seemed to impose on this play. Both these artists seemed to deem it necessary that their mark be brought to the consciousness of the audience. This was not a production with five artists/actors (Emily Russell as Cathleen) but of seven contributing active performers: the Designer and the Director partaking in the action of the play.

In the detailed directions of Mr O'Neill, he conjures for the setting to nurture his family to life, a description of an authentic summer cottage of the period. Loving and telling details of the house interior are described. Books and bookshelves of great literature encase the furniture and the family that move and sit here. The house as a living organism, well used and fading, with an unused chandelier above a table surrounded by four chairs, 'three of them wicker armchairs, the fourth (at right end of the table) a varnished oak rocker with leather bottom."

The play begins in morning sunshine at 8.30am.The second act has no direct light but a haziness. The third act has "an early dusk, due to the fog which has rolled in from the Sound and is like a white curtain drawn down outside the windows." The fourth act is around midnight only the reading light in the living room is lighted." Outside the windows the walls of fog appears denser than ever." It seems to me that the writer is closing in the room to a claustrophobic choke - from bright day to a 'gothic' night.

Mr Scott-Mitchell, rather, has a set of dirty grey
abstraction/constructivist shapes jutting across the horizon of the set, extending in a declining angle from left to right, deep into the wings of the stage space with a token three window wall facing us on the left, with a dominating painted wall papered wing wall on the side. The furniture is reduced to a small table and two chairs (four actors onstage talking a lot, hmmm, two of them left to, directorially intentionally, move about the space like dodgem cars avoiding collisions) no books, and a theatre ghost light (metaphor?) with walls that progressively, from act to act, expand the space, until ultimately, spaciously, it is full size(!)- a veritable football field (?). This long day's journey's night rather than closing in, opens up. The lighting similarly brightens up. Conclusively the designer and the director has us looking at a family spread across the space, each isolated and able to be scrutinized in the clear light of day - instead of gloom and fog- the intellectual intrusion of these choices are coolers for the emotional impact and sentiment of the play, altogether. You are definitely in a theatre and observing, not lost in an imaginative world where you have suspended disbelief and are emotionally identifying and endowing the action of the events of the long day's journey into night.

This has already been clearly signalled from the moment of entering the space of the auditorium, because the framing proscenium arch is painted ochre-red in clear contrast to the grey-blues of most of the rest of the set. Proscenium arch=theatre!! Even more occularly deliberate is, along with the expanding walls, the skewing of the arch during the act changes, that finally is set at a significant angle to the audience.

We are watching a play says Mr Scott-Mitchell, in cahoots no doubt with Mr Upton. This is a theatre not real life. This is not naturalism, this is what? Meyerholdism? Postmodernism, the death-of-the-humanist-subject....? Even in the program notes there is no elucidation of the director's intentions stylistically, just an interview titled 'HEAVENLY DAYS' that is 'hazy' in what it is saying, and other poetry quotes from Nietzsche, Auden, and Shelley (Ozymandias !!) ? What, another drug-induced dream??? Certainly no clarity of Mr Upton's intentions in serving the writer or interpreting the play for an Australian audience in this way in 2010.

For worse, Mr Upton then directs the actors around this virtually chairless and expanding set space without any real textual clarity. Movement often for movements sake (a movement Advisor is credited: John Bolton) or sometimes it seems, actors just trying to find some way of surviving as focus points of character for the storytelling - trying to maintain some kind of narrative and character clarity for the audience. None of it serving much intentional tension in unfolding Mr O'Neill. Mr Upton and Mr Scott-Mitchell are two artists who refuse to be invisible supporters or clarifiers to the writers intentions but rather active participators in every moment of a play of their own devising.

Instead of the coaxing talent of the designer to create and conjure the world of Mr O'Neill, to draw us into an imaginative reality and atmosphere — we have statements of thoughts/interpretations from Mr Scott -Mitchell, that often intrude and obfuscate the intention of the writer.

Instead of a Director intent on drawing performances from the actors to reveal the life of Mr O'Neill's play and characters, and drawing us into a subjective identification with the naturalistic intentions, we find ourselves dealing with puzzling and inconsistent directorial choices that reveal the backstage areas, progressively wider and wider, with the actors resting in full view; we have the fourth wall window in act one (first half of the production) with the characters viewing the garden through what seems to be an enormous window and have the actors go out to the hedge in front but vocally throw their lines from the upstage and backstage wings- no theatrical logic at work here. We have even the exit and re-entrance of one of the characters into the body of the house supposedly into the same garden area. Alert, alert you are in a theatre: Look the actor is in our dimension, in our emotional space, in our real time, So how does this enhance the experience of this great play? Not much. The fact that the play survives is a mark of its greatness. Mr Max Lyandvert's sound is surely a positive contributor as is the Costume design of Tess Schofield. Nick Schlieper works within the demands of the director and designer shiningly, as usual.

Eugene O'Neill was born in New York City in 1888 and died in Boston in 1953.he studied at Princeton and Harvard; in 1926 he received an Honorary degree from Yale. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1920,1922,1928 and 1957-the first ever granted posthumously and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
Someday, Australia may see some of the other work: THE ICEMAN COMETH or the family comedy, AH,WILDERNESS!

More American work with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY coming up next. All Americans doing all Americans. We shall see, Eh?