Thursday, September 30, 2010


The Sydney Fringe and Lena Cruz, Lisa Freshwater present BITTER/SWEET by Lisa Freshwater at the Newtown Theatre, Newtown.

BITTER/SWEET is written by Lisa Freshwater featuring Lena Cruz and Nigel Ubrihien and is a collaboration with both these artists.

From the program notes by Lisa Freshwater:
“In 2009 when Lena approached me about collaborating we intended to create a cabaret with a few nice songs and a bit of patter, but over copious cups of tea and conversations we realised we couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. Both Lena and I experienced a death during our birth experiences, although we had known each other for a decade we’d never discussed it, not knowing how to approach the subject…. The next issue was how to turn these stories into an entertaining piece of theatre. When I mentioned our theme to curious colleagues they would politely nod and mumble something about it being interesting or brave, I would defend the theme by saying ‘it’s going to be very funny!”

Ms Freshwater and Cruz with other allies took up the challenge and took the risk. Unfortunately it is the twin aspirations of trying to put out this very traumatic subject matter and also make it ‘funny’ that results in a work that falls, unhappily, between the two stools. Neither of the stools are satisfactorily dealt with and the resultant work, dramaturgically, is a mash up of not always clear objectives or ’pathways’ of communication, and rests confusedly in a heap on the floor. The shape is a mess. It is sometimes a very mystifying experience in terms of content. Including the lament of “So Long as He Needs Me” to a song about the black widow spider eating her partners to a ditty from Anne Boleyn to a most amusing satirical sketch and song and tune about Oprah Winfrey (An original composition THE EMPHATHETIC AGE OF OPRAH – THE OPERA by Nigel Ubrihien), a compass of direction spilt out in sugar and much else, besides brief allusions to ‘’the elephant in the room’- the death of the foetus and/or child.

The staging by Ms Freshwater is elegant. The Set Design by Leonie Evans accompanied by subtle and beautiful lighting by Lucas Paul, and the core costume of a white slack suit and additions to this ‘base’ by Brigette Thorn is tastefully presented. The musical support and acting offered by Mr Ubrihien is, as always ,immaculate – witty and punchy. The musical performance by Ms Cruz is well prepared and has the right scale for the space, the acting and chat/patter work in between not always as true.

As with the other musical work I have seen this month EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY, it is the writing in BITTER/SWEET, especially, in this particular case, the form/structure, that needs much more attention. If the writing is unsure, no matter what else happens, the work will falter. In both cases it does.

I believe a serious revelation of this little discussed topic, even with music, is worth pursuing. But how to make it ‘funny’ as well, maybe asking for a kind of genius that is very rare indeed.

The Four Seasons

Harlos Productions and The Sydney Fringe present THE FOUR SEASONS by Arnold Wesker at the Newtown Theatre, Newtown.

THE FOUR SEASONS by Arnold Wesker is “a classical portrayal of the seasons of love that hovers somewhere between poetry and ballet.” Written in the Sixties it is a departure from the socialist realist writing that had occupied Mr Wesker in this period. THE KITCHEN and THEIR VERY OWN AND GOLDEN CITY sit either side of this play. First performed in 1965 with the then young, Alan Bates and Diane Cilento, Mr Wesker felt that he needed to justify this ‘poem’ to personal love in an Epilogue to his published text: “ Deny plays such as this as a part of socialist literature and you alienate all men and women who need to know and be comforted by the knowledge that they are not alone in their private pain. You can urge mankind to no action by intimidating it with your eternal condemnation of its frailties. THE FOUR SEASONS was written because I believe the absence of love diminishes and distorts all action”.

So, at 1.15pm on a beautiful Spring Sunday, how gorgeous to be outside (?), I rushed to the theatre to sit in the dark and support the Sydney Fringe and the artists who have worked hard to contribute to our lives. How glad I was, that I did. With all of the new writing and/ or the directorial convolutions of some “old’ writing as well, it was a pleasure to sit in the dark and have the language of this formidable writer be expressed. Great ‘food’ in the diminished textual/language menu of late. It was not only a mild surprise but a balm, a gift to my aesthetic nervous system – the memory of good language and just plain theatrical intelligence wafted back. You don’t appreciate what has been absent until it appears again, sometimes eh? Mr Wesker deals with LOVE and the ‘love’ between a woman, Beatrice (Gertraud Ingeborg) and a man, Adam (David Ritchie) using the metaphor chapters of the seasons.

Interestingly, Mr Wesker begins his work in the season of winter. Interestingly, Harlos Productions, then, has cast two performers, who if not yet in the winter of their journeys are in late autumn. First written with “two young people” entering a deserted house, we find two older people already on stage . Curiously the maturity of these two performers added resonance to the poetry/prose of Mr Wesker and his observations. Both of them handled the text lovingly with great ‘ownership’ and integrity and gave more than a pleasant experience to those of us present.

The Director, Tanya Denny has edited the script down, dramatically (This showing lasted maybe only 45- 50 minutes), but there was still a sense of cohesion and flow. Certainly the density of the ‘ingredients’ that we were given was rich enough to sustain and inspire one to find the text and read it all. There is sensitivity and care demonstrable in the work of Ms Denny. It is modestly but thoughtfully designed by Jo Lewis.

In a season of mostly new work and young, ‘new’ artists in the Sydney Fringe it was a gift to have the wealth of experience in both writer and actor, giving inspiration to what the path of practice can give. Ms Ingeborg and Mr Ritchie are tireless artists, who seemingly motivated from the necessity to perform, are perennially active in finding a way to do so and give Sydney-siders ( including, especially young people, through their school productions), a possibility to experience a range of otherwise undiscovered works. This is a mark of appreciation for these two modest but committed artists. It is wonderful to see two ‘older’ artists still in the lists and not deserting the field to the ‘young’ alone. Many Thanks.

Many thanks to The Sydney Fringe as well for the breadth of inclusion.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trial

Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Melbourne and Thin Ice present THE TRIAL adapted by Louise Fox, from the novel by Franz Kafka, at the Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf 1.

THE TRIAL is the third Kafka based theatre experience that the Sydney Theatre Company has presented to us in the last eighteen months : KAFKA’S MONKEY and METAMORPHOSIS being the other two. THE TRIAL adapted by Louise Fox, from the novel by Franz Kafka is a ThinIce, Malthouse Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Company Commission. The last time I met the work of Louise Fox was the commission by The STC in the 2005 Blueprints season, under the direction of Benjamin Winspear, THIS LITTLE PIGGY, an imagined sequel to George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM, at Wharf 2.

THE TRIAL is an unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, it was published in 1924, after the death of the author by Kafka’s friend and literary editor, Max Brod. It tells the story of Josef K., a bank clerk, who on waking on his thirtieth birthday finds himself arrested and later prosecuted for an unspecified crime. The following year escalates into mounting confrontations with a bewildering bureaucracy and it’s servants and temptations. Paranoia seeps into the psyche of Josef K and grows to a farcical state of accumulating bemusement and confusion. It ends on the last day of K’s thirtieth year when two men arrive to execute him. There is no resistance left in the ‘flayed’ object of state pursuit. He dies “like a dog”.

The novel has been adapted, notably before, for the stage, by Steven Berkoff (1970), and on film by Orson Welles (1962) with Anthony Perkins. Louise Fox has adapted her “version” of the story within the theatrical frameworks available to her, with a sharp eye to the times she lives in. The Director, Matthew Lutton has with a cast of seven actors: John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalenjais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael, Igor Sas, and a design team: Set by Claude Marcos; Costume by Alice Babbidge; Lighting by Paul Jackson; Composer: Ash Gibson Greig and Sound Design by Kelly Ryall created an intellectual puzzle and stimulation of the source material.

Following on from the Benedict Andrew’s adaptation/vision of Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE and even some of the thematic streams of Tom Holloway’s LOVE ME TENDER, this work, adaptation, of THE TRIAL, for me, seemed to focus into a present cultural debate: the divide between the world of the Law (Authority – perhaps both secular and religious) and the world of human sexual desire. The battle that an individual may have with the physical fulfilment and further aspirated sexual fantasies and his/her sense of responsibility and guilt about them, today. Desire and guilt, both authorised, manufactured by the authorities – and the resultant dilemma when faced with the public ‘authorities’ of the law and its punitive view of these inclinations. Coupled with a sense of the hypocrisy of the authorities controlling of our lives, suspecting, that what is bad for me is sanctioned/permitted elsewhere- even indulged by the authorities themselves. THE TRIAL another Australian, contemporary examination of a world where pornography under various guises is reflected in the overwhelming ‘raunch’ culture of our environments, encouraged and permitted by the authorities and their ‘profit masters’, and yet condemned. Paranoia leading to despair, being the journey of the everyman, attempting to find some sense, an equilibrium, in his/her world of existence. The carrot and the stick. The carrot and the stick.

We begin with Josef K (Ewen Leslie) in a maroon curtain, draped bedroom, asleep. A pink bra and female underwear panties is seen, suggesting an earlier evening of pleasuring. Two men enter the room and with the swiftly wound tension of a Pinteresque environment or Hitchcockian cold war obsession of paranoia, Josef K is told he is under arrest, but is denied the knowledge of his offence. And thus begins a nightmare journey of remonstrance and further indulgence. Doors open and close, figures enter and exit. Conversations, accusations are exchanged. Arguments, puzzlements and proffered explanations abound. Hopeful solutions turn to failed endeavours and convoluted circumlocutions. Figure after figure role-play, on and on, a whirl of swiftly adjusted masks. The room spins, the chase escalates down back stairs, passageways; sexualised images appear: floggings and even sexual tauntings in schoolgirl clothing. The world expands into the box within a box, unadorned plywood, and there seems to be no exit- no exit, except that of extinction. Josef K is left in his underwear, in a bare box spinning round and round, dripping blood. Ultimately we are left with an empty box, spinning still, with just a pool of blood gleaming on the floor. Round and round the universe spins.

Louise Fox in the program notes records twelve favourite Kafka quotes which include: “#8: Every revolution evaporates and leaves only the slime of a new bureaucracy” and “#9: It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.”

The first scene awoke an excited expectation in me. But progressively throughout the performance it began to ebb away. Intellectually, web spinning, that tended to be played earnestly without a hint of comic comment – it held me in a Brechtian vice of objectivity. Objectivity of not only about content and method but even in contemplation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the performers, while watching them – vocal habits, physical tensions etc. Then, finally John Gaden playing Herr Huld , the Lawyer appeared, and in a wickedly erudite explication of the writing revealed the humour, the irony, the right comic touch to the written text and I was re-engaged (Mr Gaden, then followed up in his usual skilful shape shifting manner, to deliver the intriguing parable of the Priest in the late scenes).

I began to contemplate and have, further, since. One of the intriguing pieces of information in the essay by Dimitris Vardoulakis; KAFKA’S OTHER FREEDOM, in the (as usual – over priced and inadequate) STC program, was: “When Kafka read THE TRIAL to the literary salon he was frequenting in Prague, it was said to be delivered in such a way as to have the entire room in hysterics of laughter. Such was the general mirth that he was unable to complete his reading.”

Ah, was that it? “Hysterics of laughter”. “General mirth”. Where was the humour, tonight? For, the audience I sat with, sat flummoxed by the mad world created by the production. A respectful attention was elicited. Only latterly did we become physically demonstrative with our impatience, get restive, look at our watches, in a long one act performance of the play. Then, entered Mr Gaden as Herr Huld in the latter scene, and, lo and behold, there grew a scattering of laughter from members of the audience, relievedly. An entrance point for the audience’s reception to the work had been indicated and delivered. Mr Gaden was hitting the mark in the writing and guiding us to listen and look at the authorial comedy. For, in hindsight, and on reading the play, afterwards, the rest of the text has a sense of the diabolical comic edge of this world. And certainly the production style had the accumulative trappings of craziness of farce, and yet the resultant acting and directorial hand remained earnest without a hint to the audience to penetrate the façade of the illusion of the po-face of the represented bureaucracy.

I remember, the chaos of Ms Fox’s THIS LITTLE PIGGY, in 2005, and now reflect it was probably not the play but the production that obfuscated the experience. Orwell’s satire expunged in a welter of directorial intellectuality and over-loaded gimmickry. This was true of the Mr Andrews’ production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE that I saw at Belvoir a few months ago. Maybe it is true of Mr Lutton as well, here. There is an earnestness , a cynical and nihilistic point of view that is relentless and mostly unleavened with a potential sense of comic irony or humour. Of how to survive this world without death being the only solution. Is this the necessary baggage of the relative youthfulness of these artists? That the wisdom of age and/or the blessings of incisive genius - the need to find the optimistic educative tools for survival - is the ingredient that has yet to influence these very interesting, relatively imaginative and gifted auteurs? Or is it reflective of a generation of artists representing a world, that is over burdening for them, in which they live?

Yet, the Restoration Artist, struggling in a morally corrupt world, still found the knife of satire and irony in their explosive critiques of their time: the Restoration Comedy. More recently, Joe Orton in his coruscating plays of the swinging sixties of London found the double edge of serious comment and lethal humour:

‘You’re in a madhouse. Unusual behaviour is the order of the day.’
‘Only for patients.’
‘We’ve no privileged class here. It’s democratic lunacy we practice.”

(One looks forward to a senior artist, Richard Cottrell, tackling LOOT, for us next season at the Sydney Theatre Company. If you count his work on TRAVESTIES two seasons ago, one can be hopeful that an object lesson for these younger artists will be revealed. Serious comment and humour, both at once). These plays and playwrights have survived in the theatre – but they need directors with empathy and the incisive humorous capacity to translate for the audience.

This then, is my unhappiness with my night in the theatre: the lack of humour, that palled the texture of the script of Ms Fox. For the Design elements were wonderfully conceived and executed, especially the remarkable Sound design of Mr Ryall. Ewen Leslie, following on from his recent performance as Richard III, in Melbourne, demonstrates once again his ability to lead a company by anchoring it with bravura work, not only inspirationally but also with grounded and strong technical prowess. John Gaden, again, marvellous and generous in all of his creativity and wit.

A welcome text, adding to the dramatic literature been spawned this year. The production, while technically dazzling, lacks the rich comic point of view that it deserves.

Go and see why ‘Kafkaesque’ is part of the lexicon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Every Single Saturday

Kissing Point Productions presents EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY by Joanna Weinberg (Book and Lyrics) at the Parade Space at the NIDA Theatres, Kensington.

EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY is a musical about every single Saturday when a collection of parents attend the soccer game that their children are playing in. We meet four of them: Liz (Melanie De Ferranti), Sandy (Sara Grenfell), Carlo (Geoff Sirmai) and Neil (Matt Young), at the climatic game of the season, the final match for the Trophy, that has the extra emotional weight of a visit by a selector for the state team, scouting for prospects.

In a bare black box space with four white chairs and a baby grand piano (Musical Director: Paul Geddes), nothing more, the performers in a hodge-podge of costume (No Designer is credited) we meet three of the regular sideline attendees and a first time visitor –parent.

Joanna Weinberg is the writer of the Book and the Lyrics of the show and also the Composer. On top of which she is also the Director. This is a labour of love for this artist and her resume in the program tells us of other credits in her creative history. Credit in reaching this stage of development and presentation must be acknowledged. It is no mean feat to present work in the theatre and the Musical Theatre genre is particularly labour intensive and fraught with many, many difficulties. It is a very vulnerable form. It is difficult to achieve – the history of the theatre, let alone the Australian theatre, is littered with the memories of tried adventures that failed, at all levels of the producing ‘angels’, from the Opera Company down, to our recent history, the Kookaburra Company.

“In the beginning was the WORD….”

The writer is the initiator and inspiration of any performance project. No other artist who is added to the project: musician, choreographer, dancer, actor can solve the difficulty of underdeveloped writing. The quality of the writing inspiration is crucial. Unfortunately, this project fails at this critical step –the first one. Nothing that follows can overcome the initial inspiration if it is not of quality. EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY does not achieve the necessary depth in concept of plot, character or integration of social comment ( e.g. weight and beauty issues, class and love issues, parent and child bonding issues, sport versus art issues). The world of this story is cursorily explored by the initiating artist. The musical scoring is, generally, uninspiring- perfunctory and ‘high-schoolishly’ dull. The direction of the piece demonstrates a pragmatic but untheatrical ability to get the actors on and off the stage.

The choreography by Daniella Lacob is illustrative and not very sophisticated in its invention.

The actors, generally, seemed to have had a secure preparation for the score. Ms Grenfell, De Ferranti and Mr Young particularly engaging vocally, but, even in this small space, wired up for sound! The characters as written, that they are required to solve, and have us believe in, are barely sketched clichés. A difficult task for any actor. The acting by these performers, directed by Ms Weinberg, is barely impersonated dialogue, with mechanically conceived choices that add nothing to the humanistic experience of the work.

The ambition is admirable, but this Australian musical production needs more dramaturgical rigour in the writing to even to begin to succeed as quality entertainment or even as a good night out. Joanna Weinberg as Writer of Book and Lyrics, Composer and Director, has taken on a huge task and may need some other creative inputs to offer dramatic tensions to her conceptions, of the sideline behaviour of parents at a soccer match.

“ORDINARY’ is the title of one of the songs in the show. Against my own wishes for the experience, this production is ordinary, or even less than …!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Once Under A Sky

The Sydney Fringe and Cursing the Sea present ONCE UNDER A SKY by Freya Sant, Kate Sherman, Michael Pigott at the Newtown Theatre, Newtown.

Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talk and talk, ruminate and joke about the world, existence and many other passing imponderables as they arise in their conversation in pursuit of meaning, and, perhaps, comforts. Sant, Sherman and Pigott’s May and August, two fisherwomen, in this delicately poetic whimsy ONCE UNDER A SKY, do so as well.

Growing up, one of my deeply embedded cultural inheritances is of Peter and Paul, two fishermen, fishing for the souls of men. Indeed, culturally I find no difficulty in seeing fishermen. Fisherwomen, still, appear to be an oddity, and this takes a little conscious adjustment. Not really difficult of course, but still to be done even, last night in the theatre, and afterwards in contemplation of what I had just experienced. Two fisherwomen, at the seaside casting and fishing in the great ocean: the great “collective unconscious”.

Only the great, and relatively, neglected playwright and poet Dorothy Hewett, for me, touches similar areas of a type of surreal and provocatively poetic reality. ONCE UNDER A SKY has a point of view that is slewed, happily, from a female perspective. The words, the preoccupations, the poetry, the methods, the thought processes and the double expression of them through the movement and speaking have the abundant and ‘different’ expression of the female sensibility. It is a very beguiling journey.

This work has been in development, in many different expressions, over two or three years, on and off, by these artists and is still evolving, apparently, in both content and expression. I could not claim that the work at present has the greatness of the Beckett or the Stoppard but it feels that it has the capacity for more than “immortal longings.” If one of the intentions of The Sydney Fringe curation is about the focus on new work and emerging artists then this is a very interesting contribution.

Freya Sant and Kate Sherman, co-writers with Michael Pigott (the director), are also the performers, and they have engaged in physical skills that serve to communicate alongside and in co-operation with the verbal and intellectual poetics. Ms Sant has the disarming physical qualities of a vast array of technique that includes circus and a mentoring in Body Weather by the De Qunicey Company. The performance persona is warm and charming. Her partner, Kate Sherman, similarly, with a NIDA and Legs On the Wall background brings energy and a raffish good humour and earnest energy, physical and intellectual to her creation. Both actors are vocally at ease with their poetry. The language of the writing is mesmerizing and gently, hauntingly muscular; attention is gathered and held.

Michael Pigott, has immersed himself into the tangible originalities of the works conceptions and objectives. His masculinity not at all intrusive in the tasks. This is the third work that I have seen of Mr Pigott in this last month (WOYZECK and THE DYSFUNCKIONALZ !): prolific then, widely focused but also full of artistic integrity and good judgement.

The work has a short season. I hope the company can find the funding to evolve the project further with a designer etc. A good experience.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stories from the 428

The Sydney Fringe 2010 presents Stories from the 428 at Sidetrack Theatre, Addison Rd Marrickville.

Sydney at the moment is awash with theatrical activity. The Sydney Fringe has curated a robust and busting program of performances around the city. There is too much to see alongside the regular ‘stuff’ and the responsibilities of just making a living. However, yesterday having a Book Club Meeting at the Addison Street Sunday Markets was a treat for us all, and I noticed that Stories from the 428 had a 2pm matinee and I could manage it between a film date at The Randwick Ritz – THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED - worth catching, especially if you have aspirations to be a film maker.

Stories from the 428 is a collection of small anecdotal observations in short play/sketch form, that have been curated from an original commission and season earlier in the year. Augusta Supple was the engineering spirit about the original and now this resultant presentation. A collection of writers rode the 428 bus from Circular Quay to Marrickville/Canterbury in February, and then “within 24 hours they had written scenes, stories, lists and even a song reflecting their experience on the bus”. Ms Supple goes on to say, “Playwrights are our historians, notating and reflecting on who we are here and now. Stories from 428 is a love letter (sometimes tender, sometimes exercising tough love, sometimes awkwardly hilarious) celebrating the bus route and the people who travel on it, our neighbours, our community”. Ten writers, six directors, fourteen actors (on my afternoon), and technical crew of seven have collaborated for this performance – a veritable miracle of organisation, to say the least.

Most of the writing is warm and reflects, it seems, the experience of public transport on this route, for there were many responses of familiar identification from the audience- laughter and wishful willing of ‘soap-opera romances’ to resolve gorgeously. The short plays/sketches are mostly ’cute’ and given the form, I guess, not very challenging: depth of writing or subject matter. Most of the experiences of the matinee were affirming and relatively superficial observations. We left the theatre as we entered it, relaxed and comfortable. Not much meat, lots and lots of gravy. The few pieces that seemed to have “meat”: Bethlehem (Kit Brookman) – a serious rumination on the peculiar city-sisterhood relationship and differences between Marrickville and Bethlehem, and the anarchic sketch of a human bomb on the bus, NO RIDES LEFT (Jasper Marlow), that book end the spoken texts, lost impact with low voltage performance or misguided direction choices. In fact it was in the acting and direction that one felt there was a lack of real care or skill or time in the embodying of the writing.

A pleasant time filler and “…so parochial” as I heard one audience member declare, as he left.

I remember reading the anarchic pleasure and technique that Joe Orton (ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE, LOOT, WHAT THE BUTLER SAW etc) used to take in witnessing conversations on the local London bus routes and re-organising them into trenchant dialogue for his revolutionary output. How one longed for some of that writer’s world view and courage, even re-organising wit, in this afternoon, to balance the ‘Aunt Edna ‘ feel of most of the writing. Opportunities missed or just a reflection of the comfortable lives of these young people, writers?

In fact, after the performance, I caught the 3.43pm 428 Circular Quay back to the city and witnessed a great argument between two sets of passengers just as the bus reached Enmore Road. It was still going through King Street to the Broadway stop - on and off. One set, middle aged, seemingly in response to the other set, elderly women, about the need for human compassion in the world - it became quite thrillingly heated and public.

Life, then, was more challenging than this Art. If only the art at Sidetrack Theatre reflected some of the passion of this vignette of life on the 428 bus!


Sydney Opera House presents a Saddler’s Wells production, SUTRA in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

“Sutra sees one of Europe’s most exciting dancer-choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui unite with Turner prize-winner Antony Gormley, alongside 17 Buddhist monks from the original Shaolin Temple in China, in the first true collaboration between Western artists and the Shaolin Temple.”

In a converted extended stage arrangement, masked behind ugly black curtain cloths in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House ( the arrangement does feel theatrically clumsy and not usefully aesthetic in preparing an audience for the event), a three sided grey cyclorama cloth surrounds the floor space, whilst downstage on a silver/grey box the choreographer/dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and a young child monk play and arrange a collection of miniature box shapes (sculptures). A live orchestra of five musicians are revealed, (Music: Szymon Brzoska) with lighting, as they begin playing, through the gauze of the back cyclorama, and 16 monks entered the space carrying, individually, plywood boxes, resembling coffins. During the event, these boxes are inert partners to and for the monks and are sculpturally choreographed in many different modes ( Visual Creation and Design: Antony Gormley).

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, of Belgian/Moroccan inheritance, was last seen here in Sydney with Akram Khan in ZERO DEGREES (also performed at the Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre). Mr Cherkaoui’s physical skill defies one’s eyes and leaves one in a state of wonder. This invention with Monks from the Shaolin Temple, situated near Denfeng City in the Henan province of China, is mostly a demonstration of the physical prowess of a Martial Art kind. It is beautifully organised with the monks, firstly in grey Buddhist monk’s uniforms and later in contemporary slacks and jacket uniform, hurtling through, what appears to be, exercise patterns and demonstrations of acrobatic majesties that have become familiar to us, particularly from the Chinese Film culture of recent years. Seeing it live is a wonderment.

Antony Gormley, a Turner Prize winning sculptor, recently in Sydney, giving a lecture at the New South Wales Art Gallery, and presenting a work at the Anna Swartz Gallery at Carriageworks, has also had several of his works presented in recent Biennial.( He also has a work that was commissioned for the 50th Anniversary of the Perth Festival, extant in the desert around Menzies –Kalgoorlie, Lake Ballard called INSIDE AUSTRALIA). Mr Gormley has worked with Mr Cherkaoui before. Aesthetically, to temper the boldness of the skill presented by the monks, Gormley and Cherkaoui have organised the choreography around the possibilities of the shapes and levels that can be achieved by using the beautifully crafted boxes. The number, and the aesthetics of the arrangements are arresting. Having been in New York in April (2010), I was able to see the EVENT HORIZON, project of Mr Gormley, where large human figures/figurines were placed around the environment of that city, some on the ground and many on sky scrapper shelves and architectural ends of earlier era buildings. The images of these monks in SUTRA, standing on the boxes end-up, later lying entombed-like in their contemporary clothing, were peculiarly provocative and pleasing and resonated with these other works for me.

The affect of the evening was enthralling but did not have the ’wow’ factor, of this is a “you must not miss.”

Most of it, for me, had to do with the make shift feel of the Concert Hall presentation arrangements and certainly lessened the possible theatrical impact of the experience. The aesthetics of audience preparation, surely, ought to be part of the choosing of the programs that are curated and the ‘right’ spaces to present them in? At $84 a ticket more could have been expected from the producing management, I reckon. The magic of SUTRA had to work hard to win the pleasure of the audience after such an unpleasant welcoming by the venue arrangements.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yellow Moon

White Blackboard in association with B Sharp present YELLOW MOON – The Ballad of Leila and Lee, by David Greig at Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

David Greig is a prolific contemporary Scottish playwright. I have admired his writing for sometime: THE AMERICAN PILOT, DAMASCUS, and a recent work commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, DUNSINANE (Scotland, immediately after the Macbeths, is particularly interesting) and this is a gentle introduction to his work in action, my first. YELLOW MOON – The Ballad of Leila and Lee was commissioned by TAG (Theatre about Glasgow) Theatre Company and premiered in the Citizens’ Theatre , Circle Studio, Glasgow in 2006.

YELLOW MOON concerns the cataclysm of actions and consequences. In this case the ‘innocent’ action of violence that has an immediate consequence of murder and then the subsequent affect on the lives of two young adolescents, Leila and Lee, as they try to make sense of what they have caused, and flee into the Scottish back waters looking for, I guess, ‘sanctuary’, if not a father, as well. That these two young people are also dealing with the awakening of their hormonal, sexual inclinations, by themselves, serves to underline the bewildering world that this generation of human finds themselves in. That their solutions, without adult guidance – are un-stabilising – can be no surprise, even though it is apocalyptically pitiful.

Following on from the two plays by Polly Stenham: THAT FACE and TUSK TUSK seen this year in Sydney, and the Australian phenomenon of the multi award winning novel, JASPER JONES BY Craig Silvey, where children from broken family circumstances attempt to solve their problems without the wisdom or support of adults, the growing theme of the lost childhood and absent (lost) parents in contemporary life keeps mounting in the vernacular of our story tellers and gives me personal pause of concern.

Written for four actors who then collectively tell the story through third person observations and settings, monologue, delivered straight to the audience, and character scenes, it is an exercise for the actors that is demanding. Initially, it is for the audience as well, as we sought out the style and try to absorb the story sign posts. On top of that the director Susanna Dowling has invited the choreographer Johanna Puglisi to develop a physical language to move, motivate and tell the story in co-operation with the written words. It is not quite the technique that we saw presented to us by FRANTIC ASSEMBLY in their work for STOCKHOLM at the Sydney Theatre Company Wharf 1 space this year, but works in a gentler, subtler way. Not so much a feature of the work as, in STOCKHOLM, but rather as an aesthetic support. Ms Puglisi has created a generally pleasing and successful ‘language’ and the actors all handle it with grace, confidence and ease. The marrying of the simultaneous verbal work and the physical is not always in clarity comprehension co-ordination, but mostly, and ultimately, more satisfying than not.

Set and Costume by Irma Calabrese, Lighting by Teegan Lee, and a wonderful compilation of Composition and Sound by Ekrem Mulayim are integrated design elements that are harmonious to the action of the direction and simply and beautifully presented.

The play in its very fast journey is brought to a very moving conclusion. Layla Estasy (Leila) and particularly John Shrimpton (Lee) give performances of these two young people, that are executed in unencumbered directness and sensitive simpleness. The tear down the cheek of Lee in the climactic conclusion to the performance was, perforce, a moment to savour and be moved by. Danielle Cormack (a little textually unstable, on the night I saw it) and Kenneth Moraleda are also very good in the many tasks the writer has given them. At an hour and twenty minutes in length the time speeds by and the conclusion catches one unaware in its accumulative power. It is a very simple and refreshing, if not morally disturbing, night in the theatre.

It is also refreshing to observe the non-racial casting of Mr Shrimpton and Mr Moraleda in this work and white blackboard (the production company) ought to be congratulated and be remarked upon in this interesting choice. It augers well, I hope, that more of this will happen in Sydney and Australia. Many, many talented actors of racial differentiation have found the opportunity to use their gifts and their drama school training, talents, thwarted by antiquated myopia in the casting of performance in this country. More power to the vision and talents of a company such as this. Congratulations. Attention must be paid and changes applied.

Monday, September 13, 2010

tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ!

Flightpath & Radar in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company present The DYSFUNCKSHONALZ by Mike Packer at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

“Punk, anarchy and a mid-life crisis – the paradox of ageing rockers who still think they’ve got it. 30 years ago Billy Abortion’s band mates left him bleeding to death in a foreign hotel room …there are some things that are hard to forgive and forget. But when a credit card company (FREEDOM) offers big bucks to get the band back together to record their latest jingle (based around the DYSFUNCKSHONALS chorus from their only hit song PLASTIC PEOPLE!!!), the other band members are hoping Billy can put the past behind him. They all the need the money and some of them wouldn’t mind another shot at fame, well, notoriety at any rate.”

This is a rambunctious romp of a play.

If, as a writer, you might have some un-PC comments that you might want to air, what better way to help justify them then by having a drunk, drugged and politically inclined set of anarchists, masquerading as a Punk Rock band, as your principal characters. And here they are: Billy Abortion (Graeme Rhodes), Mark Faeces (Michael Long), Louise Gash (Emily Weare) and John Smith (James Lugton). And believe me there are some audacious rants in this play, some concerning 9/11, or rather, “11/9”; the capitalist system, corporations and much else. The sheer shock of some of the material is enough to force a response of comic disbelief from you and there are, as well, some genuinely funny lines. That the writing also has some clumsily, and over written mawkish melodrama (cancer, ageisms, lost loves etc) as well, must be noted, but it does not sink the evening. For, besides the broadsides of comic comment and observations these actors also play some rousing (one way or another), anarchistic music in imitation of the Punk “regime” of thirty odd years ago – almost a rock concert as well. The music written and composed by The Dysfunckshonalz.

What is most attractive about this night in the theatre are the performances.

They all have zest, energy and a witty, and sometimes necessarily delicate, commitment to the material. James Lugton, as John Smith, is especially impressive as the stuttering, permanently, drunk and drugged drummer. His immersive performance, with, I swear the pallor, of an addict, such, that, I felt that I could also smell him, was truly mesmerizing, cleverly created. The other band members are also hilariously multi-skilled in their tasks. Take note of Ms Weare’s convincing burnt-out and dying Louise Gash, giving veracity to some awkward writing by Mr Packer. Abigail Austin as Gina, confronts and holds her own against the group, as the corporate representative for the credit card company attempting to subsume their ‘charisma’ into commercial product.

The design by Katja Handt is very supportive and useful into swift multi-changes of location- the grunge suitably present, ably assisted by Teegan Lee (Lighting) creating atmospheric changes, along with the sound design by Tom Hogan.

Michael Pigott , recently seen as Woyzeck in the Downstairs Belvoir space, directs this work with flare and confidence. Two skills worth watching.

The company and the audience all had a very good time on the night – I did as well. Laughs are certainly available.

Friday, September 10, 2010

NaGL (Not a Good Look)

NaGL (Not a Good Look) written and directed by Lech Mackiewicz, creatively brought to you by mr.tomchuk and Auto Da Fe. Produced by IngJay Productions with support from Factory Space Theatre Company at the TAP Gallery.

Here is another new Australian play.

What marks this work as arresting and worth attending is the cultural prism that the writer and director, Lech Mackiewicz, “a Polish artist immigrant”, brings to this exercise of his view of living in Australia in 2010. At least I found it so - a provocative experience to take on board on several different levels: Content and style at least two of those levels, consciously (in time the subconscious, perhaps).

The Auto Da Fe Theatre Company, one of the producers of this work, was formed in 1987 by Lech Mackiewicz, Jurik Szafjanski (two Polish artist immigrants), Justin Monjo and Jamie Robertson (two NIDA graduates of that year). “Since its inception, the company set out to deliver challenging and entertaining theatre marked by Mackiewicz’s own style and aesthetics that were based on his understanding of theatre”. Mr Mackiewicz and the Assistant Director of this project, Izabella Mackiewicz, both, are graduates of the National State Academy of Theatre in Cracow (Poland). In 1996 Auto Da Fe ceased developing works in Sydney and moved, with Mackiewicz, to Poland where it continued to produce work for the theatre and independent film. And now, “This new incarnation will be known as Teatr Auto Da Fe under the wings of mr.tomchuk –the organisation created in late 2009 by Tom Pelik and Lech Mackiewicz” (all quotes from the program notes).

I quote this history as it is an entrance to appreciating this work: NaGL.

Mr Mackiewicz, then, arrived in Australia in 1987, worked as a performing artist, and in the 90’s returned to Poland. He came back to Australia “in 2002, (and) the Australia I came back to was different to the one I left. NaGL is a result of my observations. This family (in this play) represents a nation, metaphorically speaking, a nation divided yet united”. The family is made up of mother, English woman(?) Grace ( Jennie Dibley); Italian father, Manolo (Keith Alexander); son, Roman (Tom Pelik); and daughter, Vata (Malina Mackiewicz).The play is set in the living room of the family house, filled with the detritus of family living, with amusing touches such as the map of the world and other pictorial decoration, along with bits of furniture, hung upside down. (Set Design: Lech Mackiewicz). The other feature is that a corner of the room is set up as a boxing ring which is presided over by the fifth character of the family, indigenous Uncle Chuk (Billy McPherson), who “is the only one who rightly belongs to this family, but who tries the hardest to earn his place”. Metaphor abounds.

Uncle Chuk welcomes us to “Home”, his and the Eora, and then precedes to introduce the 15, or so scenes, about this contemporary family, as boxing rounds, with Brechtian titles roughly scrawled on brown cardboard. Here, we have a multi-cultural, multi generational family group that muse over the oddities of living together as a family and as individuals. The bemused parents find the daily interactions of family and the interaction with the culturally different world outside, on many levels, daunting and mysterious, and yet survive in the bond of their necessity for each other. It is only in confrontation with the children, who have decided that they all ought to divorce from each other, that a real crisis appears. Uncle Chuk, like a ‘deus ex machina’, occasionally enters into the action of the living room with the parents and attempts to mollify their panic and dilemma.

It is a very ambitious piece of writing. It does not always succeed in maintaining clarity of exposition or development and we often find ourselves wandering into diversionary contemplations of “ life theatre and the mirror” and such like, which have a feel of a type of playwriting form that is either, now, dated – in the usage, I recognise its style, or very culturally idiosyncratic, that is Polish or eastern European. A challenge but, still, arresting – pertinent, if not entertaining…

On top of this, another production layer is added, with the ‘family’ cast, stylistically presented in white face, with blue or ‘lake’ emphasis on lips and eye shadow. The indigenous character remains natural, (except in the last scene, a zinc sun burn white slash, appears). There is a very clear inference to the origin of the training of the artistic leaders of this company, the Polish heritage of acting styles in the production. Mr Pelik (the program does not reveal his training but it looks very thoroughly absorbed from, maybe Krakow?) also presents stylistic mannerisms for character identification that are fascinating. The contemplation forced upon me in deciphering these oddities of production style adding to my experience of the play. Whether it elucidated my comfort in comprehension is something that I am still sorting out (maybe the unconscious is at work and will clarify, in time, the experience).

How fascinating to meet this new Australian work so firmly based in a style of approaching the theatre that is ‘foreign’ to the mainstream Australian manner in writing and direction. Mr Ian Wilding, a relatively recent English immigrant, working with an Australian director (Chris Mead) present a contemporary Australian political theatre work, QUACK, in an Australian tradition - Victorian vaudeville – that is recognisable from the traditions of the Nimrod/Belvoir founders and it is instantly digested. Meeting this piece of contemporary political theatre expressed in another European tradition, Eastern European, coming from newer Australian artists is exciting in its potential and provocation to thought and may need time to be digested fully.

However bemused I may have been at the end of the performance, I was stimulated indeed by the contribution that Auto Da Fe has made to my theatre going. It is creating on the fringe of Sydney Theatre and obviously the budget is that of an “oily rag”, the space itself hauntingly visceral to engage with, depending on taste, one way or the other, but it is testament to the urgency of the need that the ‘real’ artist has, to express their observations of being part of the cultural heritage and debate in Australia in 2010.That the new Teatr Auto Da Fe exists is important and ought to be nourished.

As the program notes, challenging theatre. But worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Beloved Beethoven

Flinders Quartet present BELOVED BEETHOVEN at the Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium.

The Flinders Quartet from Melbourne consist of Erica Kennedy (violin), Matthew Tomkins ( violin), Helen Ireland (viola), Zoe Knighton (cello). The program, BELOVED BEETHOVEN, was an all Beethoven immersion.

To open each half of the program, the Quartet had commissioned from Calvin Bowman two arrangements of movements from Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Piano sonata in A, op.2 no. 2:Largo appassionata and Piano sonata in G, op.79: Andante. Both works were charming and brief, excellently played. The last of the two particularly exquisite. Apparently there is precedent for this piano sonata appropriation to the String quartet, even by Beethoven himself.

The first half of the concert featured String quartet in G, op. 18 no.2. The second half was dominated by String quartet in F, op.59 no.1 (Razumovsky). The Radzumovsky was ,for me , the most arresting of the scores and experience.

The Flinders Quartet played with devoted concentration and with musical passion and, maybe, just a little too much zealotry. Sometimes the playing arrived a little ‘dry’ or pedantically academic. I would love for the performers to invest a little more personality into the playing, both as individuals and as a group. The experience placed me, a relatively ignorant music goer, in an objective state of appreciation of the skill of the works and playing, without any real seduction into the subjective state of feeling. I had an education rather than an enlightenment. The music of the spheres was not always within grasp. The thrill of the note organisation not apparent. Certainly an all Beethoven program content needed something more to arrest and captivate my attention.

The Quartet gave generously and the audience responded well to the concert. Thanks. Music can soothe the savage breast/beast.


GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY presents the World Premier of QUACK by Ian Wilding at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

QUACK. This is not quack as "to utter a cry of a duck or some similar sound" as I kept thinking before I saw the show, but rather, quack as in "an ignorant or fraudulent pretender to medical skill"- ahhhh!

We have Doctor Littlewood (Chris Haywood) who has been practising the transplanting of animal glands into humans, "a very quintessence of remedies" to gain a sexual edge for the recipients. The town boss, local miner baron and entrepreneur and bully, Mr Gunner (Jeanette Cronin), desperately wants this edge to marry, for he wants a son. They decide that a human donor is necessary. They find a possible donor in "The Canary at the mine", young Rodney (Aimee Horne) who has turned up in the surgery to have a wound, a savage bite doctored and has what they both need: two good balls!!! (He has something else as well, that bite is not a good augur!!!).

Of late, there has arrived in town, a Doctor Waterman (Charlie Garber), who in a mere three days has made a reputation for modern ideas and practice that have created cures among some of the population in the town, and who is vigilantly determined to take the town and Doctor Littlewood into the world of new medicine- clean living and diet, lots of water, been in the forefront of his advisement. Zounds, how modern!

Later we find him at a house call. Nancy (Jeanette Cronin) has an indentured 'girl', Fanny (Aimee Horne), who is trying to begin a new life as a writer, elsewhere. Nancy has marriage plans for her and has called the new Doctor to prescribe to subdue the young girl's temperament. Waterman is struck by the qualities that Fanny exudes and persuades her to stay by his side and change the world, create a wonderful future (and maybe something else as well(?) in the town. Fateful persuasion.

The timing of this mission is amiss for unfortunately, outside, an epidemic has exploded and is rampaging through the town. This puzzling epidemic, we, contemporary audience, recognise and diagnose swiftly the symptoms, as those of an infection caused by the passing on, of... the Zombie germ!!!!! The town has become a Zombie town.

Chaos ensues and our characters find themselves besieged, surrounded by the raging populace. News of the death of Gunner and Rodney arrive, the contaminated Littlewood disintegrates spectacularly in front of us, Nancy is grabbed and kidnapped by the 'hostiles', Fanny dies heroically, killed by a rescue party despite her Ned Kelly armour, and only Waterman survives. He prays: "Wet but not drowned. Stabbed but not murdered. Never quite all I was. Oh mother - be proud of me yet. Let there be a sign." A sign appears dramatically, but nervously I thought "Be careful for what you wish for Doctor Waterman" (Tonight as I write, a new government has been formed - oh ominous!).

This is no piece of quackery that Mr Wilding has written or Mr Mead has directed. It is a farce. A verbal and physical farce. One that with attentive concentration can be sometimes sublimely amusing. When was I last dazzled, thus? Maybe with the verbal and visual tomfoolery of Joe Orton and WHAT THE BUTLER SAW. The text is delightfully dense with wit of both the stupid and clever type. The circumlocution of the lubricious loquacity of the characters is great fun to wrestle with. The visual fun and putridness is viscerally squirmy to indulge in - especially if you are in the front row on the right - be warned or (thrilled) and is audacious in its execution.

But do not think that the night is just a mindless fun night of zombie gluttony. The text is littered with political satire and razor sharp observations that keep you bristling with keenness to remember them (The text sells in the foyer as the program - worth having).

In the program notes Mr Wilding observes that QUACK is the first play he has written "while living under a Labour government… So how is a political play under the so-called left different to the others? Well in this instance, it means less anger and more disappointment… (and) I'm beginning to believe politics really is different now… I feel we are living in a time when what we do individually is so much more important than anything that can be achieved in the execution of a political instrument. QUACK then is less a political instrument and more an exploration of disappointment, power struggles, evolution and a call to arms. And the big question - is it familiarity that breeds contempt or are we our own worst enemies - whoever is in charge?" (Interesting stuff, huh? On the momentous 7th of September, 2010, Australia?).

That the last project that the director Chris Mead gave us was THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD by Damian Millar ought to alert you to the fact that this production has a mind that is as sharp and socially responsible as any you may find working in this field at present. So, despite the zombie trappings, I would rather say, because of the trappings, approach this delight with all your senses alert for acerbic commentary on our lives and times at the core of this silliness. A prescription that has a sweet surface to a bitter pill of sore core content. From the program: "And finally QUACK is a zombie play, a play for our times - all of us sometimes feel that we are alone battling soulless, sleepwalking usurpers. and like all good zombie stories it's about the moment when religion, ethics, philosophy and medicine are no longer of any use fighting the scorching reality of human hubris, can't stop the ineluctable dynamism of our collective greed and ignorance." One does feel encouraged about contemporary playwriting in Australia, when you note that Chris Mead is Artistic Director of Play Writing Australia, at present.

The antecedents for the trappings of this political work can be seen from the recent popular culture cults of other mediums. From the deliriously verbal ridiculousness of Rowan Atkins' BLACKADDER (also Richard Curtis and Ben Elton), to the droll fantasies of a gleaming art direction drama of DEADWOOD, with references to the latest Zombie cultishness (SHAUN OF THE DEAD). The characters names hark back to similar usage in the Restoration Comedies of Society - antecedents of a brilliant heritage.

Charlie Garber has at last found a role that stretches his intelligence, wit, skills and talent in comic satire, and a director who has harnessed his proclivities, sometimes for excess, within the container of a brilliantly executed character. And Chris Haywood has the right sensitivities with his inspiring avuncularities in his role as the spirit pickled doctor of the old school, set up to spar with the new man in town for the right to practice, only to find himself gradually exploded.

Jeanette Cronin in a role double duty and sex exchange is marvellously daring in her outrageousness. The audacity of the actors choices are often the wellspring for the laughter although the textual deftness is intelligently and mostly impeccably landed as well.

But the real pleasure of the night in an extremely rich night of comic acting, under the watchful guidance of Mr Mead, is that of Aimee Horne, doubling as the heroine Fanny and the poor dupe Rodney. From her gentle entrance and the witty and moving rendition of the Creedence Clearwater Revival BAD MOON RISING to set up and warn us of the stylistic hi-jinx about to follow (she similarly croons two other superb tunes - to give us pause for breath in the mayhem and pointers to the coming events), to her powerful still centre and intelligence as Fanny, the aspiring short story artist facing the Joan of Arc turbulences of her country and the shy, stupid but affecting ball giver Rodney, Ms Horne announces her talent and gifts. Those of us who know her from her student days at drama school have been waiting patiently for the opportunity to arrive to reveal this presence to the rest of Australia and here it gloriously is. If you spotted her in LIKE A FISHBONE last month at the STC Wharf you may, too, have sensed that something special is here. It was in this theatre, many years ago now, Sydney had the talent of Cate Blanchett revealed to us in KAFKA'S DANCES. This may be another such time of prescient revelation.

The design elements of this production are also something to wonder at. The Set design by William Bobbie Stewart is dazzlingly comforting - beautiful in it's vaudeville nostalgia. That it sits in this space at the Stables brought back welcome memories of the older skylarking of the Old Nimrod days under the raffish aesthetics of John Bell and Larry Eastwood, and heralded an appetite for the events promised, this night, with the varnished wooden floor boards and props, red ruched curtain, and naive paint rendered backdrops of an era fondly resurrected for our delectation. That Mr Stewart also designed these period costumes with all of the attendant calculations of multiple quick changes and the gross tricks of a zombie experience is amazing. And I mean amazing in the Elizabethan or was that Victorian sense? The logistics would have been a nightmare let alone the pleasing visual sensibilities that are achieved.

Lighting by Bernie Tan, beautiful and useful as usual. Both nostalgic and contemporary art directed as per the spoof of the stylisitc steals. The Sound Design and Composition, all complex, atmospheric and witty by David Heinreich.

All in all, I feel that I have been raving. I do encourage you to see this.

On the night I saw the show, I did feel that the production began to run out of puff, and focus in the last twenty minutes or so (Scene 15 on wards). How the company managed to meet all of these challenges in usual rehearsal time is mind disturbing and maybe the ambition of it all needs, needed, more time. I felt that two more actors (ease up the women's burdens - of course, not as much fun perhaps for the actors, but, maybe, more clarity for the audience) would have removed some of the pressure. The climactic moments felt rushed and uncertain - the zombie grave moment an anti-climax that left the audience in a bewildered state of "what was that?”.

BANG, WINTER'S DISCONTENT and now QUACK, not a bad run of home grown Australian writing and production. Something to give prizes too. Maybe a living as well…?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tusk Tusk

Sydney Theatre Company and Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) present TUSK TUSK by Polly Stenham at Wharf 1.

TUSK TUSK (2009) is the second play by Polly Stenham and like her first, THAT FACE, was presented at the Royal Court Theatre. THAT FACE, was presented earlier in the year at Belvoir St. Theatre.

The writing in TUSK TUSK is not as strong or as interesting. In fact it is mostly a re-working of the preoccupations of the first play. The story of a family, in this case, three young children, instead of two, coping with an unstable mother, and absentee father.

Eliot (Miles Szanto), aged nearly 16, with his sister Maggie (Airlie-Jane Dodds), 14, have locked themselves into an apartment surrounded by unpacked boxes caring for their 8 year old sibling, Finn (Zac Ynfante) desperately attempting to survive without drawing the attention of the outside world, waiting for their, gradually revealed, mentally unstable and medicated mother to return, so that they can continue their lives. Visited only by a friend of Eliot's, Cassie (Krew Boylan), the disintegration of the circumstances and psychology of the young family is finally confronted by the arrival of some adult friends of the mother: Katie (Marta Dusseldorp) and Roland (Cameron Stewart).

The play is unwound then, through the children's perspective. Eliot has decided to preserve the family unit at all costs and to prevent the authorities from intruding and splitting the group up into foster care. The many scenes show us the children coping, a little more fracturedly, with each other in the deteriorating circumstances. The writing in these scenes seems to be relatively becalmed and not much dramatically happens. It takes a long time for any positive narrative or direction to evolve. Too much of it has an expositionary mode and impatience sets in ("Get on with it").

In THAT FACE, Ms Stenham has written a fascinating psychological character in the mother figure Martha and sets up an intriguing and ultimately moving emotional struggle with her son, Henry, through the progress of the play's journey. In TUSK TUSK the children's characters have no such inner dimensions either in themselves or in their developing relationships with each other- it is all very surface. Thus this play lacks the enveloping dynamics of conflict and the entrance of the adult figures in the final scene feels contrived and not thoroughly worked through. The ending a most unsatisfactory (and unrealistic) solution.

The strength of the production is that the Director, Shanon Murphy, has elicited very easy and relaxed and attractive performances from her three young principal actors, although, both the leading actors, in appearance are too physically mature for the characters they play, and so, I felt, undermined the real pathos of the situation, which may have substituted and distracted our attention away from the flaws in the writing. Ultimately, both Ms Dodds and Mr Szanto are not able to reveal the depth of truths required in the last scene ,but they are admirable in what they do achieve. Young Mr Ynfante is both charming and disarming. Ms Boylan, in a fairly, dramatically underwritten role, flounders with overstatement and a tendency to comment on the situation and character in substitution, and works in a different playing style to her other younger partners. The character becomes a distraction rather than an addition to the dramatic dynamics.Why has the writer written her and kept her in? Neither the actor or director seem certain. Ms Dusseldorp as Katie brings direction and focus to the action of the play and some agile dimension to a character that, in the writing is overburdened with too many dramaturgical tasks in her brief appearance.

The set design elements (Jacob Nash) lacked architectural logics and so was distracting and the costumes (Bruce McKinven ) remained relatively static in their journey reveal. The Lighting (Verity Hampson) is simply plotted.

This play by Ms Stenham is a huge disappointment, but then, after her spectacular debut with THAT FACE has given herself a benchmark of some quality to exceed. It will be interesting to see what this very young artist gives us next. More time and dramaturgical guidance would, I reckon, be recommended. TUSK TUSK felt like a first play of a promising young writer, rushed on before ready – the fate of many a new Australian play.

TUSK TUSK is another play dealing with the FAMILY. What preponderance of family-focussed plays we in Sydney are having. That this is a very young writer occupying herself, twice, with such fundamental dysfunction at the foundation of our society is alarming. I might recommend a Japanese film NOBODY KNOWS (Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004), that covers similar circumstances but with a much more insightful and horrendous vision. Sad to say, based on a true story.