Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Distressing Scenario

A DISTRESSING SCENARIO. A Double Bill by post & version 1.0 for B Sharp in the Downstairs Theatre.

A DISTRESSING SCENARIO is in two parts presented by two companies.

Part One: EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS IN ONE HOUR by post. The Devisers/Performers are Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose. Two of the many conceits of this show is that it was prepared in 4 weeks (meeting when they could), and that they took a deliberate decision not to explore or research the background of the topic at all except from their own sketchy, suburban understanding. "We think it has become a show about us trying to understand something that we can't understand, and communicating what it is we 'reckon' happened".

Deliberately dressed in terrible clothes with exactly matching red high heeled shoes these hapless young Australian women throw together as many cultural references and ignorances as possible to comically reflect what may be a satiric observation of themselves and their family and friends attempting to explain the Global Financial Crisis. It finishes after 50 minutes in a binge drinking spree where the intellectual denseness of these people is further befuddled in an alcoholic fug of stupefying dimensions.

That these artists have got together and spent, obviously, enthusiastic energies on this project, when they could, is undoubted and all power to them, but this comic piss-take needs much more rigour. About 35 minutes of this material could be edited out. The jokes lose their punch and credibility very quickly - we get it five or ten minutes in and patiently wait for progress and enlightenment. Instead we have repetition and increasing banalities and low sketch comic turns that lack the technical skills, and in one case, concentration to pull them off. The best element of this showing is surely the carpentry of, is it Zoe? The blackboard is ingenious compared to all of the other offers of this work. The wit and intricacy of the mechanisms worth recording.

A 15 minute hit, I reckon could be salvaged, with some rigour to this applied theatre exercise.Brevity is the soul of wit.

A 50 minute agony, truly a distressing scenario, for all the wrong reasons - none of them to do with the object of their exploration: the GFC, with "Granny Mae" or "Colonel Sanders".

A case where ignorance did not create enough sustained bliss.

Part Two: "THE MARKET IS NOT FUNCTIONING PROPERLY" by version 1.0. The Devisers/Performers are Jane Phegan and Kym Vercoe. These two artists have created with a dedicated and experienced team: Director, David Williams; Video Artist, Sean Bacon; Sound Artist, Paul Prestipino; Lighting Designer, Frank Mainoo; Movement Consultant, Martin del Amo and others, a clever and instructional response to the Global Financial Crisis. Witty and frightening.

The text developed by this team has everything presented to the audience: spoken language, props, dance and movement, video image and sound track without a single superfluous choice. All of the choices appear to have been explored, refined, edited to such integrated clear precision that the 30 minute length flies by and is truly a distressing scenario of some critical moment.

The physical and vocal commitment and skill of Ms Phegan and Vercoe are devastating in their precise execution. Every gesture is packed with a density of committed intelligence and meaning and the accumulative image of a nation of spenders binging on champagne, spraying the audience with expensive capitalism packs a breathtaking slap in the face. Awesome professionalism of dedicated technical skills.

This is a gem of a work.

The contrast in the intellectual preparation of these two works and the technical skills of the artists in their chosen modes of expression could not be more dramatically demarcated and contrasted. The celebration of the contemporary movement of what I understand is "the aesthetics of failure" as demonstrated by post, near enough is never good enough, and that of excellence by version 1.0 could not be so closely observed.

A mixed evening of depression and exaltation.

Angela's Kitchen

Griffin Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of ANGELA'S KITCHEN by Paul Capsis and Julian Meyrick at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

Paul Capsis has written, with dramaturgical shaping by Hilary Bell, a remembering of his maternal grandmother in this play ANGELA'S KITCHEN. It feels to me like a dreaming of memories and the resultant text itself is very simplistic both in its structure and idiom.

In contrast to this relatively naive writing, the work is framed within a very sophisticated conceptual design by Louise McCarthy, coaxed and guided by the director, Julian Meyrick. Lit beautifully and sympathetically by Verity Hampson - an artist of a growing and consistent contributions to the worlds we are seeing on Sydney stages.

Indeed, the visual aesthetics are an enormously seductive force to the contextual understanding of the performance. Using a spare and simple set of furniture objects and properties, and a set of clothing and shoes that are part of our daily unconscious as costume, gentle Brechtian titles projected onto the theatre walls order our responses to the developing narrative and are further wrapped in images of Malta and other environs that urge our imaginings to couch and expand the events more vividly in our experience of the performance.

However, the real reason for the acceptance of ANGELA'S KITCHEN as a transcendingly memorable night in the theatre is the beauty of Mr Capsis' sense of love for his subject, Angela, and need to tell this story. Beginning in an extremely naturalistic, straight-forward mode of simply acting as narrator, and passing through more gradual modes of sophisticated theatrical techniques, he finishes in an emotional place of a deeply cathartic self exposure. The last moments when Mr Capsis stalls his exit and looks back at the folded kitchen table that was the centre of Angela's world, the exemplary craftsmanship of this artist, nakedly reveals for the audience both the objective command of his instrument as a tool for the clear mutual expression of the narrative 'journey' but also the powerful and courageous subjective revelation of his own emotional 'feelings' / life to pierce our senses and give us the great gift of human compassion and grief" (this reminded me of the great gift that Mr Capsis gives to us in the mode he is more famous for, in his "Cabaret" performances- mesmerizing courage and ruthless truth-telling, at great expenditure of his own passionate identification). Here it is again - daring indeed - pure naked artistry).

What was also powerful to observe in the SBW Stables Theatre, where we can see each other across the stage space, was the audience, who clearly also had recent histories of the migrant experience in Australia. The brickbats and bouquets of it. Much memory, much feeling, much pleasure in the gains,and, even in the losses of that journey, were palpable during and overwhelmingly, accumulatively, at the end, in the very warm curtain call of thanks that was given Paul Capsis. Clearly this work had great meaning and impact for the captured audience present the night I attended. Maltese or otherwise.

So, ANGELA'S KITCHEN another confirming power of the theatre as a living and irreplaceable part of a civilised society.The community sensation of a shared experience strengthened all of us present and the harmonizing and homogeneous understanding of those about us was reflected in the eye exchanges and polite courtesies to each other as we clambered down the vertiginous wooden steps of the old stables converted theatre space. The theatre is not dead, even, and especially, in this world of email and mobile phone. The aligned breath of the community sitting in the same darkened space sharing this particular story of Paul Capsis and his grandmother, Angela, was one that was able to be universal and a kind of reflection of our own little journeys/stories.

I believe ANGELA'S KITCHEN is to tour around Australia.

Go for the simple story and you will surely come away with a greater sense of the whole of the human experience of love for each other in a genuinely heightened and humbling manner. A Gift from this modest team of theatre makers, of great value.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Grimm Tales

Queensland Theatre Company presents GRIMM TALES. Adapted by Carol Ann Duffy. Dramatised by Tim Supple. Including stories from both GRIMM TALES and MORE GRIMM TALES, At the Cremorne Theatre,QPAC, Brisbane.

Seven actors and three musicians under the direction of Michael Futcher using the adapted (Carol Ann Duffy) and dramatised (Tim Supple) versions of both GRIMM TALES (1994) and MORE GRIMM TALES (1997) created an enjoyable night in the theatre for all ages.

The original stories collected and published by the Brothers Grimm (3 volumes) from the oral heritage of the peoples in and around Frankfurt and of specifically traditional German legend have along with the 17th century Parisian Charles Perrault and Danish Hans Christian Andersen been the early source of many children's early excursions into literature that served them well as both entertainment and moral fables. The stories have been adopted and adapted by many others over time (Walt Disney, especially) changing to suit the needs and cultures they were being told for and to.

In this version by The Queensland Theatre Company nine stories are acted out for us from familiar stories such as Hansel and Gretel, Ashputtel (we know as Cinderella), and Snow White to the less familiar (to me) stories of The Magic Table, The Gold Donkey and Cudgel in the Sack.

The stories here have all the signature literary marks of the form (so that the experience of so many became a little wearying in the repetitive stylistic formulations) told as mostly spoken narrative, acted out by the company and there is, mostly, only a little empathetic identification for character. Unlike the Disney versions there is little sentimental ownership for the listener. The narrative and the moral being the paramount objective.

The cruelty of some of the stories has not been censored by the adaptors and it is astringently interesting to have the step-sisters in Ashputtel self mutilate themselves and to have, firstly the right eye and then the left eye plucked out by birds, as we see them in beggar sacks with walking sticks blindly clambering off into the gathering twilight. There is something disturbing (in this age of well publicised teenage self harmers) to watch Rumplestilskin, in being tricked by the peasant girl now Princess, from his rightful reward from the bargain drawn between them, tear himself in two - in this production, holding his disengaged bloody left leg in the air. The children at my performance were both aghast at and relishing the horror of it (then, of course, the body count and the malevolent deaths and mutilations in the latest film HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 along with the home x-box games probably played by this generation are much worse). Nothing much as changed in preparing our children for life.

Michael Futcher moved the stories swiftly, encouraging great facility and efficiency from the actors. Ultimately, as the night wore on I felt the direction was a little heavy handed and conservative (literal), encumbered by design choices in sets and costumes (Greg Clarke) that, though aesthetically pleasing, were over elaborate and explanatory and so lessened the opportunity for the actors and audience to participate in the story telling by self imagining and endowing the narrative text with more individual invention. The Duck in the Hansel and Gretal story, imaginatively created and physically, delicately embodied by Scott Witt was what I longed for more of, from the actors. Just the actor and physical and vocal clues to guide us to participating more actively, imaginatively. Too much was shown or demonstrated for us in this theatre - a fairly filmic solution, done so much more freely and charmingly by Disney, for instance. Although, this did not impede the general reception to the performance.

The lighting by David Walters was an especially inventive and beautiful element in the illusions of the moods and narratives. The Snow White episode especially memorable. The live presence of the three musicians using a wide variety of instruments was also a very enhancing ingredient.

It was fun and pleasurable to watch the children sometimes agog with the wonder of how things were done in front of their eyes, for instance, the return of Grandma and Little Red Cap, from the bowels of the wolf. It was enjoyable to have them clap and/or beat out he rhythms of the music with their heads and bodies, sometimes completely unconsciously. That the theatre held them in such pleasurable awe is another nail to the "theatre is dead" spruikers and they gave me reason alone to relax and enjoy myself along with them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

West Side Story

Michael Brenner for BR Promotion GMBH, Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, The Bartner group, Norman Tulchin, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions & David Atkins Enterprises present WEST SIDE STORY at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

LAURENTS, BERNSTEIN, SONDHEIM, ROBBINS, four greats of the American Musical Theatre.

Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and WEST SIDE STORY. Five reasons for one's heart to skip beats with anticipation on entering not just the auditorium of the theatre but just, even, into the foyer.

And this revival production directed by Joey McKneely; Musical Supervision and Direction by Donald Chan; Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely; Set Design by Paul Gallis; Costume Design by Renate Schmitzer; Sound Design by Rick Clarke and Lighting Design by Peter Hals delivers in still spine rippling waves of pleasure.

That this company of performers are good rather than great does not diminish the pleasure of this experience but rather baits the appetite to yearn to see it in a stellar casting - if that is ever possible. For all of the elements of the original production are of such a ' fantastic' (meant as "incredibly great"), sublime potency that magic is inevitably possible when all drawn together. The 1961 film is a remarkable case in point - projected onto the big screen with full symphonic volume it has, still, great kick and punch - all of those elements expertly drawn together by another 'genius', the film director, Robert Wise.

This famous musical uses the Shakespeare ROMEO AND JULIET as inspiration but translates it into American contemporary terms (1950's) so that it becomes the story of two star-crossed lovers from ethnically opposed street gangs, The Jets and The Sharks. It replaces the power figures of the Prince and family with that of the police and alters the ending to only the death of Tony (Romeo) and to the heart-breaking monologue of Maria (Juliet), alive, and pleading for civilised understanding and perhaps tribal reconciliation. Wheras," ROMEO AND JULIET is conceived as a Liebestod, WEST SIDE STORY is a social document" (Norris Houghton). This is still its great power as an emotional experience in the theatre, both hauntingly Shakespearean and yet achingly, tragically, of our times, Arthur Laurent.

"WEST SIDE STORY appropriated the substance of a European classic even as it updated and Americanized it, yet changed its meaning utterly by replacing the courtly society of the original with a contemporary society rent by urban anxiety, underclass rivalry, and ethnic hatred". Arthur Laurents "wrote a drama that moved swiftly and not without humour towards its tragic end. It was muscular and unusually lean ... For Shakespeare's characters were inescapably verbal creatures while WEST SIDE STORY's teen-age toughs were hard pressed to put their feelings into words. Laurents gave them a jargon (a slanguage!) of their own, but their instinctive mode of communicating was less verbal than it was geared to the senses and above all physical." (1)

The greatest ingredient of this enterprise, for me, is the score by Leonard Bernstein. From the first great blaring, pulsing notes of the opening ballet to the orchestral exit music blasting, after the curtain call (how can one exit/lleave one's seat while this orchestra under the guidance of Musical Director and Conductor, Vanessa Scammell, plays thrillingly on, with great vigour, now, that it is just the musicians in unleashed spotlight, is beyond me? I was pinioned with awe to my seat by the sheer vivacity of the music sounds and energy of the musicians), one is grabbed and held breathlessly with excitement, anxiety and ultimately grief. The throbbing chords of the finale over the body of Tony as it is carried, jerks the tears out of one, physically, forcibly.

"Bernstein wrote a score that caught the teenagers' alienation and restlessness in a musical language of angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, and cross-rhythms. It was a language new to Broadway and he filtered it through a variety of contemporary styles - from neo-classic Stravinsky ( "A Boy Like That") to Latin ("The Dance at the Gym") to modern jazz ("Cool") - but in ways still accessible to listeners more attuned to the traditional to the sounds of show music." (1). That this score filled with music and lyrics that are part of one's own subliminal vernacular: SOMETHING'S COMING; MARIA; TONIGHT; AMERICA; I FEEL PRETTY; SOMEWHERE; GEE, OFFICER KPUPKE, always awakened when the music indicates, is testament to creativity that is truly great. The combination of music that was dance, music theatre scoring and operatic demands, reflects the ambition and achievement of this score. That Bernstein "…also knew when not to set a lyric to music - even one meant for the dramatic climax of the show where music was expected" as at the lament of Maria over the body of Tony, is further proof of Mr Bernstein's capacity. I tried to set it very bitterly, understated, swift. "I tried giving all the material to the orchestra and having her sing an obbligato throughout. I tried a version that sounded just like a Puccini aria, which we really did not need. I never got past six bars with it. I never had an experience like that. Everything sounded wrong. [And so] I made a difficult, painfully but surgically clean decision not to set it at all'." (1)

That "Bernstein further unified his score by continuing where most Broadway composers normally left off and writing his own dance music. And with five ballets and several smaller choreographed numbers in the show, there was much dance music to write."
And this is where the next genius enters: Jerome Robbins. What struck me powerfully the other night, was the physical storytelling and the huge amount of it that often substituted verbal altercation, to move the story on.

"Robbins had conceived WEST SIDE STORY in the spirit of the ballet - one with a story, dialogue, and songs - a ballet d'action. In addition, Robbins presided over the execution of WEST SIDE STORY as both choreographer of the show and its director... Robbin's double function had far-flung consequences. In hiring performers, for example, he did not cast separately for actors, a singing chorus, and a chorus of dancers, as was customary, but for dancers who could do it all: dance, sing and act. This enabled him to realize a production concept that blurred the boundaries between what was acted and what was danced so that the narrative of the show might proceed by moving freely between musical and non-musical staging. Everything was so fluidly staged and in such a constant state of stylistic motion, in fact, that there were few clearly defined moments in WEST SIDE STORY when physical action could be said to stop and danced movement to begin... 'The opening is musical: half-danced, half-mimed' the script now reads. 'It is primarily a condensation of the growing rivalry between two teen-age gangs'. Thus, before an intelligible sentence has been uttered onstage, or a phrase of music sung, dance conveyed the show's dramatic action with Robbin's choreography stylizing streetwise moves and gestures to show the rivalry develop… And so the show proceeded throughout, in ever shifting balances and combinations of theatricalizing modes: ballet, film, play, musical comedy, opera" (1) "What made Jerry's (Robbins) touch individual and so brilliant were his humour and his use of dance to express emotion. He would not choreograph dance as dance, he had to know what the dancing was about." (2).

This was revolutionary and, of course, makes this musical a taxing chore to cast every time it is re-staged. The demands for all of the performers are hugely difficult and truly demands the almost fabled "creature" of the theatre, the Triple Threat: that is, the actor, singer, dancer, with all three skills equal to the highest of standards. They are truly, in my experience as an audience, extremely RARE. Usually two of the skills, whatever the mix, but hardly ever the three.This is true of most of this company. Two skills and a laggard, sometimes too obvious, third.

So we come to the last of these great collaborators, Stephen Sondheim. Famously Sondheim is very disparaging of most of this work, in this his first Broadway musical. He began with Bernstein as co-lyricist and "immediate causes for disagreement were the lyrics Bernstein had already written". Says Sondheim "He wrote a lyric for a tune,' I Have a Love.' His lyric was - it's hard for me to do with a straight face -' Once in your life, only once in your life/Comes a flash of fire and light.' Wait for it! 'And there stands your love/ The harvest of your years.' That was his idea of poetry."(2). Bernstein's purple passages of language were an embarrassment and always a struggle to overcome.

Arthur Laurents talks of the work method of Sondheim: "Using only the outline, Lenny wrote bits of lyrics as well as sketches of music without waiting for the first scene to be written. Not Steve. I always wrote ahead and he waited because before Stephen Sondheim wrote a lyric, he had to know the characters, their diction, the situation. That known, he wrote lyrics that could be sung only by the characters they were written for at that moment - one of the many reasons he is unsurpassed as a lyricist." (3).

Today, nearly sixty years on, the lyrics of this show are part of one's vernacular and the words of most of the songs spring immediately to the tongue when the music triggers the memory. Both entwined indelibly into the psyche of any musical theatre goer. The wit and passion of the lyrics: AMERICA; GEE OFFICER KRUPKE; MARIA; SOMEWHERE unforgettable.

"The happy result of the collaboration on WEST SIDE STORY owed as much to the nature of the collaboration as to the talents it comprised We enjoyed being together: we liked each other...We admired, we challenged each other, we respected each other's opinion as well as each other’s work." (3). A lesson for all aspiring creators. If you read the many and varied accounts of the creation of this work this is the general gist of the working relationships. True, there are many anecdotes of struggle and angst as well! Worth it, if this is the result.

This revival production is encased in new designs. The original scenic art by Oliver Smith has been replaced by Paul Gallis' selection of photographs of period New York, towering majestically over all, on the back cyclorama, framed by two large hinged walls of skeletal tenement walls and fire escapes, that sit on the sides or dominate across the stage to support the scenes. The lighting is dramatic and always persuasively accurate in creating the shifting moods of the narrative. The fluid movement of the story is served well by the ingenuity of the design. The costumes are contemporary and have a freshness about them that may slightly undermine the socio-economic reality of the world of the characters. Slightly too 'pop' to be believable or anchoring in real references for the world of the play- a little too scenic art for my taste.

The performances by the company are energised and fully concentrated. I felt the supporting work in the adult roles were outstanding in their small opportunities. Frank Garfield as Doc anchoring the world of the gang, Jets, remarkably, and drawing a fine line of judgement with the sentimentality of the scenes. Berynn Schwerdt in a brief cameo as Glad Hand also hits the mark with the accuracy and insight to his character. I also was impressed with the singing and acting of Julie Goodwin as Maria and the vivacious attack and energy of Alinta Chidzey as Anita. The duet, A BOY LIKE THAT/I HAVE A LOVE between Maria and Anita outstanding. The AMERICA song and dance especially memorable.

A recent feast of musicals for me. MARY POPPINS and HAIRSPAY, two shows I can and have highly recommended. However, when one meets and experiences WEST SIDE STORY one appreciates the greatness of collaborative genius and are placed in an admiring appreciation of the comparative quality of achievement. WEST SIDE STORY is over sixty years old and will never date in any of its outstanding qualities and will remain a benchmark for all who work in that genre of the theatre to aspire too.

Timeless and great.

Notes from:
1. SHOWTIME by Larry Stempel. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
2. STEPHEN SONDHEIM by Meryle Secrest. Alfred A. Knopf,Inc, 1998.
3. ORIGINAL STORY by Arthur Laurents. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
4. LEONARD BERNSTEIN by Humphrey Burton. Doubleday, 1994.
5. The theatre program notes.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Paul Dainty, Dainty Consolidated Entertainment & Joel Pearlman, Roadshow Live present HAIRSPRAY at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne.

Two quotes found in the program:

"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind". Dr. Seuss.

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the bad people but the silence over that by the good people". Martin Luther King Jnr.

These two men, Dr Seuss and Dr King, and their quotes encapsulate the joy and the serious intent of this absolutely fun show, HAIRSPRAY. Based on the 1988 film by John Waters in the midst of his career mainstream metamorphosis, this adaptation into a Broadway musical form: Book by Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan; Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Scott Whittman, Marc Shaiman, is a zing zang, two and a half hour romp of mad cap fun with a very timeless and important moral fable to make our lives better.

At the end of this performance all the audience were singing and dancing, - the Princess Theatre stall floor boards were undulating under the expressive explosions - and I was glad to witness and can say to all the boring naysayers of contemporary theatre culture that the theatre is not dead. All ages, all sexes, all, ALL of us were wholeheartedly responding in thanks for a terrific night out in a live venue. WHEEEE!!! The theatre is not dead.

HAIRSPRAY set in a provincial American city called Baltimore tells us "that we are all special, we are all different and we should all embrace and celebrate those differences". And "Underlying Hairspray's music, dance, humour, petticoats and 60's kitsch is a cry for tolerance and a real heart".

Tracy Turnblad (Jaz Flowers) is a burgeoning teenage girl with all of the aspirations of a pop and dance besotted adorer of the local television pop music show: "WZTT's, THE CORNY COLLINS SHOW", who sees only the potential of all people and in her optimistic slipstream leads a whole city into real cultural confrontation and revolution. Motormouth Maybelle's anthem with the company ,"I Know Where I've Been", backed with images of the Civil Rights marches is wonderfully moving in the show's penultimate climax.

Ms Flowers is delightful and carries the show admirably, abetted by a strongly cast set of characters: led by Trevor Ashley (adorable), Grant Piro, Scott Irwin, Marney McQueen (wickedly winning), Jack Chambers (dazzling dancer and not too bad crooner!!), Esther Hannaford and Renee Armstrong, Cle Morgan, Tevin Campbell and the indefatigably witty Gary Scale (each Authority Figure astringently, acidly, joyously drawn). To back these are small, tight musical theatre character creations by all the company that has a dancing energy that is thrilling and infectious to watch (Choreography, Jason Coleman). The musical direction by Stephen Amos driven for thrills.

The best accolades however must be given to the Director, David Atkins who has led an inspired production team to the dizzy heights of theatre cartoon wizardry that leaves one time warped into the past and to the future, both at once. The images blazingly, garishly (positive sense), nostalgically familiar with a contemporary design technique of now and the future.

Set Design is by Eamon D'Arcy; Costumes & Wig Designer, Janet Hine; Lighting by Trudy Dalgleish.

However, it is the Digital artistry conjured by Mr Atkins from his creative team that is marvellously impressive. On several screens across the proscenium space, static and animated images, supporting and developing the many scenes of the play action are bedazzling to behold. Interaction with the images also lift the wizardy even higher. The live action interplay between Mr Ashley and Mr Piro during the "Timeless to Me" segment is kitch and winning in all of it's sentimental gesture and is simply one instance of the cleverness of the technique explored in this production (I find it amusing, that this interaction with live and animated images was made famous in the original MARY POPPINS film and is hardly explored in the Disney stage version of the musical - birds flying out of the St Paul's Cathedral FEED THE BIRDS episode, the only featured image I can recall). Whereas here, just up the street in Melbourne, it is put to great effect on the HAIRSPRAY stage, live.)

Theatre magic of the highest order and wonder. Robert Klaesi (Creative Director Digital Content); Tracey Taylor (Producer Digital Content); Frantz Kantor (Graphic Illustrator) and Digital Pulse (Motion Graphics & Digital Effects).

That this production company and director was granted permission to create HAIRSPRAY as an entirely original entity here in Melbourne, for the Australian audiences, must please the licensing parents in the USA enormously, for it is a fairly amazing and successful result. After the disaster of just such an opportunity granted to the Sydney Theatre Company's production of SPRING AWAKENING, earlier this year, it might be continued in the future of Australian productions. LEGALLY BLONDE - perhaps?

Congratulations to all for a terrifically energising experience. Worth the money, I reckoned. The show is coming to Sydney, in March I believe. Welcome Mr Ashley, Flowers, Atkins and all I say.

Tracy Turnblad forever.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Tell-Tale Heart

MALTHOUSE THEATRE presents THE TELL-TALE HEART adapted by Barrie Kosky at the Merlyn Theatre, The CUB Malthouse.

"This production of THE TELL-TALE HEART is based on Schauspielhaus Vienna's 2004 production, DAS VERRATERISCHE HERZ, which was conceived and directed by Barrie Kosky and performed by Martin Niedermair in German. This production is performed in English, and was reconceived with the original artists, premiering at The CUB Malthouse for the Melbourne International Arts Theatre 2007. It has since been performed at Edinburgh International Festival 2008 & Sydney Festival 2009" This return season at the Merlyn Theatre has been directed by Michael Kantor with all of the original artists, except for the replacement of Barrie Kosky at the piano by Michael Kieran Harvey.

This is the first time that I have seen this work.

The performance begins with the audience seated in front of a framed oblong space filled with the glow of a red curtain. The lights dim to darkness. There is an absence of sound. Then the drawing of the mechanisms of the curtains intrude, in the darkness, with the intensity of focused purpose. Silence. Extended Silence. More Tension.

Suddenly an old recording of a calypso version of the lyrics of I Could Have Danced All Night from MY FAIR LADY crashes in. A female voice singing joyously the whole of the song. A Barrie Kosky joke. A typical Kosky musical jest: :
" ... I'll never know what made it so exciting;
Why all at once my heart took flight.I only know when he
began to dance with me I could have danced,
danced, danced all night. ..."

"My heart took flight." resounds in my head. Unfortunately my heart kept on at its natural pace. My brain went on flights of fancy. I ruminated on the sophistication of Barrie Kosky. The auteur was front and centre of my consciousness. I had been apprised of the journey's unpredictability?

Silence. Darkness. Gradually, a miracle of images are sculpted with light, as it slowly dances in the stillness, around the head, face, then body of the actor Martin Niedermair, who is caught mid flight on a dizzying, vertiginous staircase, scaled in breathtaking perspective from ground to the upper height of the proscenium arch into the reaches of the theatre's fly tower.

Dressed in a contemporary grey suit jacket and trousers; blue, opened neck, long sleeved, cuffed shirt but bare-footed, Mr Neidermair, equipped with the intrusive appearance of a micro-phone resting down the side of his face, holds breathlessly our attention. At last he begins the famous story in accented English.

With halting phrasing, often breaking up the sense of the English text, to allow the demonstration of flickering nervous twitches across the pallid face and lubricious licking of lips, our story- teller takes us on an account of his obsession with an old man neighbour and his filmed eye, that provokes him to murder, dismemberment and disposal under the floor boards; and foolish showings off to an alerted constabulary. Where his own psyche gradually gives way to the beat, beat of the tell-tale heart thumping from under the floor into the night and cause his revelatory confession to the law.

Interpolated into the story are some selections of music, Bach, Purcell and Wolf , played on a piano, solo, and sometimes accompanying lyrics, sung ecstatically and mesmerizingly by Mr Neidermair.

The Set design is strikingly beautiful (Anna Tregloan) and the light-scape, with, seemingly, an infinite calibration of delicacy, is astonishing in it's mood shifting skill (Paul Jackson). Mr Neidermair shifts about this staircase to create installations of image and with each new picture arrests our attention.

Mark Fisher in the program notes tell us that the inspiration for this production came to Mr Kosky “ever since coming across Steven Berkoff''s version in the mid-1980's. Kosky felt there was room to expand it beyond Berkoff's half an hour. This is a highly concentrated hour of terror: it is 60 minutes of nail-biting tension. Some people find it terrifying, some people find it macabre; and some of it is quite funny, as horror should be.”

Unfortunately this was not my experience. I was kept at arm distance from the theatrical intentions of the work. Whether it was the disjointed verbalisation of the text, or the de-humanising mechanism of the micro-phoned speech or the sometimes distracting musical interludes that did not necessarily continue to construct terror, or a sense of the macabre or even humour, I still haven't concluded. Whether it was the beautiful, disembodied precision of the piano by Mr Harvey that rendered the music lifeless and cold, I cannot tell. The usual cabaret brio of Mr Kosky at the piano accompanying his works was missing. Maybe the passionate electric energy of Kosky sweating creatively, seemingly improvisational over the keyboard was the absent element? There was an intellectual precision about this piece of art, this night. Undeniably the aesthetics were, as usual, with Mr Kosky's work admirable.

On ABC Radio National several Sunday morning's ago, I heard Humphrey Bower read this same story and the dramatic impact of the music of the writing of Poe was thrilling. It was simply the accurate reading of the text, just the language impinging on my imagination with the gathering accumulation of my undistracted focus, and together, the reader and I, the listener, experienced the full power of Edward Allen Poe's genius. The deconstruction, abstraction and invention of Mr Kosky in his version of this tale seemed not to ignite my imaginings in the same way.

I know that I may be the only nay sayer about this work, but perhaps the six years of this production's life is too long, or the absence of the originator at the keyboard undermines the intentions. Mr Fisher further quotes Mr Kosky and his belief that a work should only live as long as it gets better and stronger "like wine."

Barrie Kosky has created great theatre. His brilliant POPPEA based around the Monteverdi opera, also displaying the gifts of Martin Niedermair, which I saw in Sydney last year, was a more than an exciting afternoon in the theatre. Perhaps I just have caught this work too late in it's life? Alison Croggon's blog review was what urged me to catch it. Read her response it is quite ecstatic. Such is art. Thank goodness.

Mary Poppins

DISNEY and CAMERON MACKINTOSH present MARY POPPINS, based on the stories of P.L.Travers and the Walt Disney Film at Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne.

The Mary Poppins film was made in 1964.It appeared at the cusp of my entering the bigger world of university, when I became a super sophisticate (Oh, yeah- embarrassing to recall! Forgive me, friends?)

The school holidays of my earlier life were filled with, usually, two movie going experiences: the latest Jerry Lewis film (CINDERFELLA, lives excruciatingly in my memory bank) and the Walt Disney latest: OLD YELLER and THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, two of my fondest memories. Although, any starring Hayley Mills: POLLYANNA, THE PARENT TRAP and a personal favourite THE MOON SPINNERS were also gratifyingly embraced. That Julie Andrews was in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, I saw 16 times at the Mayfair Cinema in Castlereagh Street, and the star of MARY POPPINS, was the only reason that I condescended to see, out of my burgeoning sophistication, this Disney film. I went by myself and never ever told any of my fellow students – my embarrassing secret adventure.

The mix of live action and animation was fairly novel and relatively, a marvel, I remember. I remember judging the songs by the Sherman Brothers as OK Not as good as Rogers and Hammerstein, of course. FEED THE BIRDS, the best; CHIM CHIM CHER-EE, catchy; SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIIALIDOCIOUS, fun but stupid! Julie Andrews was good, but not as good as she was as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Dick Van Dyke just way too over the top and jolly - unbelievable.

So, going to the theatre to see the stage version was going to be a test of my pretended lack of enthusiasm for musical theatre. It cost $132.00. I was determined that I would give it a fair go. J row centre, aisle seat. Good. But it was almost the cost of a ticket to THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO down in the Melbourne Arts Centre. And that production is (was) great .A considered toss up.

This show has all the Disney efficiency (Director, Richard Eyre) and whizz-bangery (Scenic and Costume Design - the touring production, adapted from the original, Bob Crowley) that you could desire. And , true to it's roots, it is an old fashioned musical with lots of Book (Julian Fellowes), Songs and Music (Original Music and Lyrics by Robert M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. New Songs and Additional Music and Lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) and best of all, lots and lots of dancing (Choreography by Matthew Bourne).

The cleanliness of the mechanisms of the design and the precision of the dancing, singing and acting delivers a kind of coolness to the presentation. That the character of Mary Poppins (Verity Hunt-Ballard) in this rendition of the P.L. Travers stories leans more to the original conception of a colder and slightly intimidating figure, rather than the strict but 'twinkling' governess of Ms Andrews in the movie, also keeps one at an empathetic distance. (Ms Hunt-Ballard must long to smile - in fact, when she does at last, and I mean almost at last, it is worth the reservation, just). Although I do prefer the Julie Andrews presence of wickedness and sense of fun-(The best thing about the ill fated musical film, STAR, is Ms Andrews sense of play in the great stagings of the musical numbers).

It took me right up to the middle of the second half and the show stopping dancing of the STEP IN TIME interlude to completely surrender and go: "OK, this is good". By the end I thought, "This is well worth the money spent". I was happy and added MARY POPPINS to my pleasant memories of theatre going beside the alternative choice of the night: Opera Australia and Neil Armfield's sublime production of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO.

I thought that Matt Lee as Bert was terrific, especially when he was dancing - he does a lot of it- marginally less terrific when he was singing and much less so when he was performing as an actor- not very charming or winning except in a kind of calculated way, too much technique, not enough truthful heart- a kind of out of body experience. Dick van Dyke, then, is a star and from memory, despite his cockney approximation, better. I know comparisons are odious but...$132.00 is $132.00.

On the night I saw it Philip Quast as Mr Banks, did not appear to be fully present and a trifle effortful in everything but his usual good singing qualities, it was a bit throw away in action. Also Marina Prior as Mrs Banks appeared to be distracted and not fully happy in her characterisation or performance.

I missed the clever and subtle work that David Tomlinson delivered in the film to Mr Banks- he had a journey of growth as the neglectful but dutiful Edwardian father that Mr Quast never seemed to fully demarcate. Mr Quast began Mr Banks flustered and became only slightly discombobulated - shirt hanging out of his trousers - before finding his 'Disney' way to warm hearted father figure. The story telling by Mr Quast appears,relatively, shallow in explication.

Similarly, I missed the political spikiness of the Edwardian suffragette that Glynis Johns enthusiased for us in the film. Ms Prior's character is a more harassed and incompetent housewife of the old fashioned image of helpless woman kind - a strand of her hair astrew to iconise her state of flusteredness - a kind of political throwback. Not entirely Ms Prior's fault as the new songs and maybe the changes in the writing may have some basis for the disappointment in the performance. I did miss the song SISTER SUFFRAGETTES, mightily.

On the other hand, the work by Sally-Anne Upton (Mrs Brill) and Christopher Rickerby (Robertson Ay), although of a 'classic' musical theatre genre, were energised and fun -they lifted the 'game' of the performance with limited 'stock' character types, with all of their limited opportunities with real imagined invention.

However, the beautiful energy and brio of Judi Connelli as Miss Andrew, the wicked bully governess, a new character to the story, was best of all. Finely drawn characteristics tumble across her face and body almost word by word. It is so detailed and accurate that Ms Connelli's Miss Andrew deserves, perhaps, a musical all of her own - like the good and bad sisters in WICKED finally were given, escaping from under Dorothy and her friends shadow in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mr Schwartz take note. Here is musical theatre acting that sets a benchmark of commitment to her paying audience.

The children were terrific. I think they were, at my performance, Zoe Gousmett and especially pleasing, Kade Hughes.

So, a good time eventuates by the end of the show. Coolness evaporates into wonder as Mary exits magically across and over the audience. "AWESOME", some young soul gulped beside me, and at almost two and three quarter hours, good value for money, I guarantee. My secret adolescent adventure relived, but live on stage.


Life Without Me

Melbourne Theatre Company in association with Melbourne International Arts Festival presents LIFE WITHOUT ME by Daniel Keene in the Sumner Theatre, Melbourne.

Being a Sydney-ite I have had a relatively limited experience of Daniel Keene's work. However, the work, that I have seen, has always attracted my attention, and the reputation talked about in the program notes as 'some sort of poet of the streets' seems to be a good summary of my appreciation. With, the, generally, marginal characters that people his work, the poetry of his vison, expressed in his texts, is always subtle but beguiling. The pain and agonies of a lot of his creations achieve a dignity and focus that in a peculiar way have always had me regard them, similarly, but differently, to the experience of the peopled world of, say, Genet.

"Who are the characters in my plays? They are mostly people without privilege, who have no 'position' no power. Why do I choose to create characters like this? Because I want them to bring nothing with them, to have no biography, to create nothing to begin with. I want to create characters in my plays to live moment to moment in front of our eyes (they can do nothing else) and to reveal what is within them (They have nothing else to reveal)." – Daniel Keene in interview with Stephane Muh and Christine Bouvier.

"Over a thirty-year career, he has won most of Australia's major playwriting awards, some multiple times. Yet he has remained inexplicably marginalised, produced and commissioned by smaller companies and festivals, but, until recently, overlooked by the mainstream." It was somewhat of a surprise to discover that LIFE WITHOUT ME is the first production by the Melbourne Theatre Company, (commissioned almost three years ago) of this quintessential Melbourne writer."In Melbourne, his home town, Keene's reputation is founded on the Keene /Taylor Theatre Project, his acclaimed collaboration beginning in the nineties on a series of small-scale, often site-specific works with director Ariette Taylor and an ensemble of actors".

The Sydney Theatre Company presented Mr Keene's THE SERPENT'S TEETH, a diptych of two one act plays: CITIZENS and SOLDIERS a year or so ago in The Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. This was, in my experience, a marvellous, monumental piece of Australian writing, that was the best of that year. The scope of it's vision and the achingly poignant observations of the universal condition of mankind in contemporary times, pregnant with humbling contemporary relevance.

LIFE WITHOUT ME, then, was a grave disappointment. In the program notes to the play: "... If you don't know who you are and you don't know where you're headed, you might find yourself spiralling in ever-tightening circles until you come to rest in a non-descript part of town in a crummy two-star hotel, where the service is churlish, the lift doesn't work, the toast is burnt and the pot plants set off your allergies. Yet, keep your expectations low, and, who knows? - you might be pleasantly surprised by how everything works out". I was indeed surprised but in a wearying, dispirited way.

In an impeccable design recreation of a two star hotel foyer, teetering on the edge of a fall into decrepitude (Dale Ferguson) given the momentary coming of passing time and disappearing managerial energy, seven beings find themselves in, what the program discusses and discourses endlessly about, a 'salle des pas perdus' or in blunt literal translation: a room of lost steps (the poetic implications ring resoundingly).Why they are there is just the trifling windy accident of fate, we observe in the action of the production. Why they stay or why some of them can't leave, became, over the long length of this work, less and less engaging until I felt, why don't I just get up and scream or leave? Trapped like the characters in this fairly familiar territory of existential angst, with a faintly Australian timbre, I respectfully endured.

No exit for these people and no exit for me. The program notes indicate some sources of inspiration for the writer's creation: Feydeayu (if only), Ionesco, Arrabel, Lewis Carrol, Thoreau, Erving Goffman and Satre. And the play echoes, derivatively, more or less all of the aforementioned –throw Beckett into the mix as well. I did not feel that I needed to see this play. None of my apprehensions of life or my ability to observe through my looking glass at life, were enlightened or expanded. Other than the weight of a wearied exhaustion, I left the theatre less, not more, the same being.

The comedy in the foyer of the hotel that Mr Keene talks about in the program notes, does not really materialise – hardly more than a chuckle of recognition, from most of us, I saw it on a night in the last week of performance - and "underneath (the) serious questions, moments and situations" that were happening mostly, on awkwardly designed black holes of balconies, high in the proscenium spaces, difficult to participate comfortably with, if, like me you were seated in the front section of the theatre, that declined in performance, into almost maudlin sentimentality of familiar middle-aged romantic and youthful angst.

Maybe the play had too much time to gestate, and/or maybe the dramaturgy and the acting had too much respect for the writer to see the emerging work with less than a positive critical eye. Who knows, but the creative team? Certainly the result, on my night in the theatre was a considerable disappointment. Better that the Company had staged THE SERPENT'S TEETH, taking advantage of this marvellous theatre space and stage, I reckoned, on contemplation on my walk back to my hotel.

The company of actors were patient and generous with the material and the directing aid of Peter Evans given to them. I enjoyed especially the work of Robert Menzies (Nigel), tirelessly inventive in an attempt to keep the play and production buoyant; and the clarity and directness of Benedict Hardie (Tom), it had an uncluttered freshness about it that was a respite from the generally effortful work about him. I admired Deidre Rubenstein (Alice Jarvie), valiant until drawn into the sphere of the mannered and sentimental offers of her romantic partner in writing, Brian Lipson (Roy Williams) - an unexpected experience for me, of an actor I have mostly enjoyed.

There is some talk of the growing reputation and production of Mr Keene's work in Europe, particularly France. That he is not unique in this is reflected in the European and American opportunities of other writers, say for example, Timothy Daly (Kafka's Dances), a Sydney writer, as well. The gradual development of the Austarlian writer in the international arena has been happening and in the age of the new media, let us hope, more so. Prophets sometimes require the foreign recognition to be more fully recognised in their own towns.