Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Day In The Death of Joe Egg

A Critical Stages and White Box Theatre production of A DAY in the DEATH of JOE EGG by Peter Nichols at the Seymour Centre, Sydney.

A DAY in the DEATH of JOE EGG was written by Peter Nichols in 1967. It has twice been made into film, the first with Alan bates and Janet Suzman in 1970 (released in 1972).

In the program notes:
"A WORD FROM THE WRITER. This is an edited extract from Diaries 1969 - 1977 by Peter Nichols, published by Nick Hern Books.
July 17th 1969: 'Poor Abo (Abigail), our parcel of damaged goods, lives on, despite repeated promises. The doctor who delivered her has never spoken to us from that day to this. The Euthanasia Bill which I supported, was defeated in the Lords and the Times rejoiced. Our next-door neighbour, Doctor Alan Norton - in his book New Dimensions in Medicine - agrees. In person he told me it would do no more harm than good to alter the vague conditions in which doctors are able to help the dying out of their misery.

All right, I argued, but it's in places like Hortham (Abigail's residential hospital) that one looks for courage and mercy from the outside world.

What's easier than to sweep those poor idiots under the carpet and forget them?

By sustaining such lives, society is relieved of the guilt of their deaths...

'May 11th 1971: Notice in the Times column of Births, Marriages and Deaths
Nichols, Abigail, eldest daughter of Peter and Thelma, at Hortham Hospital, Bristol. Funeral Friday, Canford cemetry: Family flowers only. Donations, if required, to the hospital.'"

This play has us meet in the first act, the husband and wife, Bri (Jonathan Gavin ) and Shiela (Julia Davis) and they in much detail describe to us the circumstances of their lives, the history and the day to day negotiations with their daughter Joe (Sophie Webb), who suffers from cebebral palsy. We meet this loving couple at a time of great strain, especially for Bri. Such is the stress that in the subsequent act he contemplates the murder of his child and his own disappearance.

The debate around Enthuasia has been escalated in the parliament of our Federal Government in Canberra this very day, Friday 29th October,2010. A more pregnant moment could not have been found for the co-incidence, for me, to witness this play again. At the conclusion of this performance, a middle-aged woman applauded, and as she did in the interval, vocally shouted "Thank you" to the company of actors. "Thank You. Thank You.''

Whilst the subject matter is one of great substance, and looming propinquity for me, the form, which Peter Nichols uses to involve and communicate, is one that despite the fact the play is some 43 years old, is still of surprising daring and immediately disarming. He smashes the fourth wall and Bri demonstrates his skills as a high school teacher practising his disciplinary routine: "Hands on heads", directly to us, a stand-up comic routine. Later, Mr Nichols has the characters talk to us directly as a double act, stepping in and out of the world of the play and into ours. He has the principal characters deliver intimate and excruciating details in the manner of vaudeville sketches, lectures and gossip.

In the second act in a gathering whirl of near farcical action and timing, other characters monolgue to us and partake in the escalating scenes of the unreal stress in and about the world that is Joe Egg's. The overbearingly helpful 'liberal-minded' friend, Freddie (Drew Fairley), his wife, Pam (Katrina Retallick) calmly explaining her creepy feeling of disquietitude about being about such 'weirdies'' as the young Joe Egg and the indefatigable Grace, the grandmother (Genevieve Mooy), who knits cardigans and generally clucks disapprovingly of the genetic structures of other families, conveniently deleting references to her own tree!!!!

Coming from the personal tragedy and dilemma of the author Peter Nichols this is a significant achievement in the writing. Informative, confrontational, emotional and very very funny. The bravura of the honesty and the clever form structure of the playscript still is mightily impressive.

Kim Hardwick has directed the company with great aplomb. The performance I saw was one coming to the end of a longish tour and it sometimes felt a little clockwork. Mr Gavin tended to rush the text and would go for the exaggerated 'boom' for differentiation of effect. One was not really invited on side with the quirks of Bri and so subsequently one did not come to care or identify with and for him and so one was not quite moved. It lacked the warmth and depth, and quandry of the character and failed to convince us to understand Bri's final choices and actions. In contrast, Ms Davis was a securing anchor to the affairs of the play. Her understated and ballasting act to the extremities of Mr Gavin were remarkable indeed and the growing troubles enveloping Shiela were solved with persistent gravity and pertinent pain and understanding.

Mr Fairly and Ms Retallick were both robust and three dimensional in awkward roles erring in the satirical arrows of the writing a little to the possibility of caricature. Ms Mooy gave a deliciously wicked and stylish cameo of comic deftness with the right dab of pathos as Grace. Grace, indeed.

The design (Alexandra Sommer) was practical in its opaque decorated walls that served the mounting physical farce well. The costumes accurate and telling. The Sound composition (Phillip Scott), especially for the opening of the second act more than a trifle over the top!!

Despite a sense of a trifle 'weariness' in the playing' this was a very meaningful re-connection to a seriously important play. Both the subject matter and the form.

In the seventies, Mr Nichols with his plays THE NATIONAL HEALTH, FORGET- ME - NOT- LANE and PRIVATES ON PARADE kept his audiences dazzled, amused and thinking. I thoroughly recommend his Diaries and auto-biography, if you love the theatre and all of its going's-on.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Promise

Sydney Institute TAFE: EORA COLLEGE in conjunction with PACT, Centre for Emerging Artists presents THE PROMISE - A Musical Drama by Jadah Milroy , original score by Dalmazio Babare at the Pact Theatre, Erskineville.

On Saturday (23rd October) it was gratifying to read that THE SAPPHIRES, a musical featuring, mainly, an Indigenous cast has got a gig in London at the Barbican. NAMATJIRA is gracing the stage at Belvoir to great appreciation. I attended a graduation show from the Eora College, a play with music (rather than a Musical). This was another kind of musical by other aspiring indigenous artists and I thought it important to record the endeavour. “Eora is a vibrant, community focused education centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.”

In the program notes Liza-Mare Syron, the director says: “THE PROMISE is a musical drama written by Jadah Milroy Plieter. I found it amongst the Australian Script Centre’s collection. Jadah wrote this play during her own studies at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. The score is written by then VCA music student Dalmazio Barbare (Ms Syron is herself a graduate from the VCA Acting course) …THE PROMISE is a story of Vikala, a young woman whose husband is lost at war. She has remained pregnant for three years awaiting his return. During this time Vikala is kept medicated in an institution” This play tells of a medicated escape dream where “she escapes one night in search of her family into the underworld. There she meets an assortment of lost and tortured souls. THE PROMISE is a psychological journey towards redemption.”

If you are familiar with Guillermo del Toro’s film PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) and the fantastic dreamscape of that young heroine’s world you will have some inkling of the fascinating, bizarre imaginary landscape of the young , medicated aboriginal woman in this work. Images and references from THE WIZARD OF OZ, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Grimm’s fairytales and a wealthy concoction from the animal-tokens, dream worlds of the Aboriginal cultures loom out at you both in impressively designed costume and make-up’s (Ali Whiteford), set design and video/sound artistry (Jaqueline Mills). The director (Ms Syron) has urged the actors into a highly stylised vocal and physical characterisation (assisted by the movement choreography of Victoria Hunt) and the musical interludes and songs are pre-recorded and interestingly orchestrated. The work of the performers is large and ‘grotesque’ in contrast to the distraught and questing Vikala.

The world of this play is very impressive in it’s surreality (the eye video creation on the wall reminded me of the Dali invention for the Hitchcock dream sequence in SPELLBOUND) and although most of the artists are ‘emerging’ and not fully developed, the artistic integrity and ambition of the work places another valuable facet to the other indigenous work that I have seen in Sydney this year and thus deserves, for history’s sake, if for no other reason, registering.

Congratulations all, especially Ms Syron in finding and then daring to explore this work. The performances concluded on Saturday night.


Branch Nebula present SWEAT as part of the Live Live season at Performance Space, Carriageworks, Redfern.

Branch Nebula presents SWEAT with the co-creators Lee Wilson (Director) and Mirabelle Wouters (Design) and Performers, Devisors, Choreographers: Claudia Escobar, Erwin Fenis, Ali Khadhim, Marie Palomares, Ahilan Ratnamohan, with Noiscian and live Sound by Hirofumi Uchino.

"SWEAT is a darkly humorous work that takes its audience into the world of those who do the dirty work. It uses parkour, Bboying, football, noise art and dance." (The noise art of Mr Uchino, being for me, the most impressive element of the show). This work uses text and a set of theatrical interactions that require the audience to actively participate.

INTERACTION!!!- A contemporary buzz word (still) that helps to legitimize some works of art.

There is no seating and the audience are, after been ushered into an empty space by the theatre workers of Carriageworks, cajoled to exit and re-enter the space 'faster' by one of the performers. After re-entering we are asked to undress and dress a performer for ‘work’ we watch the rest of the company fill the space with their equipment for ‘work’ -sound desk, portable lighting equipment, etc, their necessary tools (they are assisted by a real crew of theatre technicians who, ironically, do most of the ‘dirty work’); we watch the company dressed in impeccably clean and iconic working uniforms perform dance impressions of cleaners at work, gloves, aprons, hair nets, spray disinfectants, (empty) bucket and mops; we are divided into groups and sat on the floor and we watch demonstrations of these artists special skills, e.g. dance, Bboying, football and martial arts, each in turn, presumably the human facet of these ‘workers’; some of us are given chairs to represent a mock fashion parade audience of these 'workers' turning their cleaning equipment into faux couture of the cleaning class and cat walking it to choreographed dance; some of us are asked to be guests at a restaurant and be served a quasi meal (whilst covered in protective plastic) which ends with one of the wait servers rolling naked in the food and drink on the table. We are then ‘forgiven’ by each of the performers in turn, for some supposed thought transgressions that we may have participated in, while attending to the performance of SWEAT.

The performers are charming, skilful in their specialities and attractive in action. But the sum total of the political statement was, relative to the artifice of the work, puny and not very demanding. I have not seen the other work of this company and so am not fully acquainted to their commitment to the politics they are engaging in here. From their website I understand that their work exists in the “Cultural, theatrical, dance and contemporary/experimental” mode using a “diverse cultural expression …to apotheosize (or to deify) the cultural energies” such as “kickboxing, wrestling, speedways, video arcades, BMX competition...” All this is undoubtedly true in Sweat as well, but I do note that the word ‘political’ is not part of any of their statements.

In fact I was mostly bewildered by what, for me, was a series of mixed messages of what I was experiencing. Dance or ‘political’ statements/observations? In the program under the Rules/ Guidelines/ Instructions we are told “Don't worry - it will all make sense later”. And it was in discussion afterwards and in the reading of further notes in the program, that I was able to clarify some of the serious intent of the work. Quotes from authorities as recent as 6th October, 2010, from the The Age newspaper under the heading “Kirner Goes in to Bat for Big Hotels' Underclass” by Jason Dowling put some light onto the puzzle I had felt.

There is a great deal of form/method in SWEAT but the content lacks real or consistent clarity. The performance surely should register for an audience, standing by itself - it ought to be communicated whole, independently? One of its aims should be to be a gift for an audience, so that they can know and feel without further explanation. The direction should have aimed for all of us to have got the work as one, together, or not? It is tiresome and, I have become less and less patient of art that requires me to read a statement of intent, beside the work, to fully comprehend what I am viewing.

It is here then that I find the dramaturgy (John Baylis) to be inadequate in its shaping and underlining the many ‘ideas’ of expression that have probably evolved out of the research, and development phase of the work supervised by Martin del Amo, Deborah Pollard and David Williams. A great deal of physical material seems to be available, which has been strung onto a collection of flimsy political objectives. The work seems to suffer under too much divide between the natural gifts of the performers, their art and their commitment to the work’s political agendas.

This is a worthy “experiment” and may develop, with more rigour, into a more impactful work. Less art, more matter, clearer shape, emphasis and consistent commitment.

Living in Australia, in my cultural ivory tower, I need this work to raise my political consciousness as to the fair economic status of others in my community. Living in California for some time it was so evident that it was a constant issue for my conscience. Each morning and afternoon I greet the cleaning staff of my building work place and notice the cultural origin of that work force. Just what is their wage? Is their home pay adequate to the task that they do?

For some, SWEAT was clear. But then they had experienced that work place world intently and knew of its inequities personally. I do not have that first hand knowledge.

The power of politically charged hybrid forms like THE RIOT ACT out at Campbelltown Arts Centre or version.1.0’s THIS KIND OF RUCKUS or Theatre Kantanka’s MISSING THE BUS TO DAVID JONES last year have left indelible impressions of form and content striking the right balance for maximum impact.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Occasionally Creative presents CONTRACTIONS by Mike Bartlett at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Mike Bartlett is a young new British voice (b. 1980) who has just had a major breakthrough at the National Theatre this August, 2010, with a play called EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON. Enthusiastic reviews about a play concerning the environmental condition of the planet. Up till then his work has been small but intense plays at the Royal Court. CONTRACTIONS is a re-write of a radio play, called LOVE CONTRACTS. Is this his debut in Sydney?

This is an intense 60 minute two hander – a black comedy. The comedy erupts, mostly, out of its outrageous, audacity of a scenario. Beginning in an ordinary way and subtly escalating to workplace terror and horror. Two women in a corporate office situation. This corporation has a policy handbook and set of contracts for its staff that is minute in its personal concern (and invasion). Every aspect of control over ‘output’ of the staff to achieve the corporation goals is documented and scrutinised and signed off on. Definitions of romance and sexual relationships become a threatening and frightening weapon of management. Secrecy and unfeeling automaton response is de rigueur. Fear, gobbledegook language, and emotional bullying – the blunt tools of control. A contemporary version of the world of Orwell’s 1984 screwed to a level that is way, way over the top but feasibly possible. The audience rippled uncomfortably with recognition and gasped at the demands made by the Manager (Sarah Loxley) on her employee Emma (Viviana Delgado) and laughed at the next increasing, incremental control screw that was just this side of absurd. It is all awfully possible. Those of us inside the contemporary world of Corporate and Government compliance requirements recognise the language and situations all too familiarly. It is an anxiety comedy. Well written.

This company directed by Christine Greenough are comfortable and clear. Ms Loxton, reptilian in her control, unafraid to play the corporate monster to the hilt. Trousered and jacketed and anal in every aspect of her dominion: space, tools and staff. Viviana Delgado begins femininely in dress and cardigan and progressively moves to end in a trousered appearance – beaten into the cog in the corporate wheel that turns everything to profit, a facsimile of the corporate model presented by example in the Manager. The Design is the best that I have seen in this space, white grey and gleaming steel furniture and venetian blinds. The lighting, within the limitations of the equipment, well employed.

A very short season by the Occasional Creative Company - a company of professionals dedicated to find the opportunities to create in and about their ‘real’ lives of responsibilities. Extremely creditable work, exposing a very interesting writer to and for Sydney audiences.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Our Town

SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY presents Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

I saw OUR TOWN in the highly celebrated off-Broadway production in New York earlier this year directed by David Cromer (closed September 12th after 566 performances - a record, at the 199 seat Barrow Street Theatre). A few years ago I saw a production by Lee Lewis at the NEW THEATRE . It has been a part of my consciousness from my early youth. So, sitting in the Drama Theatre the other night I wondered what would my experience be.

The scale of the New York production gave the appearance of a community theatre version in the equivalent of a local School of Arts, it even had a large cast of 21 or so. That the Sydney Theatre Company production was prepared for a distancing, letter box shaped, proscenium arch and an obvious theatre design, no matter how understated, the lighting gave it away, and a much smaller cast of only 14 actors, was, initially disorienting. Theatrical, in contrast, to the realism of the other. But within minutes of the disarming simplicity of the opening of the Stage Manger’s (Darren Gilshenan) conversation with us, I was comfortably, warmly present. This is indeed a great play. No matter the number of times I have seen it or however recent it was, it still has that ability to create the ever elusive quality that we long for: ‘magic’. Transcendent belief occurs.

Thornton Wilder, in the old Penguin edition (1958) of a collection of three of his full length plays: OUR TOWN; THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH; THE MATCHMAKER tells us, “OUR TOWN is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante’s PURGATORY). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and space. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are ‘hundreds’, ‘thousands’ and ‘millions’. Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents – what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live? Each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification –in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when she revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chair and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind –not in things, not in ’scenery’. Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

“It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The minute daily ordinariness is the drama of this play. The recognition is so easy and the task that Mr Wilder gives us by stripping his stage of scenery and props, is, for us to fill in the novelistic details with our own imaginations, our own memories, our own lives. In every seat in the theatre there is a different Our Town flashing in each individual theatre-goers mind (if you are there of your own volition, I supposed.) The daily rise, the daily footfall of the denizens of the town, milkman and paper boy, the church going, the choir practice, the baseball games, the town drunk, the town gossip and other eccentrics, the familiar marriage games of give and take between the sexes, the birthdays, the milk shop sundae, the courting, the weddings and ultimately the dying, the graveyard, the cycle of our ordinary lives are given to us by the delicate threading of the Stage Manager to embroider a cloth that becomes a portrait of our town. My life, your life, everybody’s life in all times.

Mr Wilder takes us on an exploration of the “cosmic in the commonplace”.

One of my indelible memories of this play from a production way, way back in my life, maybe the Genesian Theatre in the sixties, is of the crowd/procession of large, unfurled, black umbrellas at the funeral in Act three. The ominous beauty strikes such a welling of compassion and sorrow for the frailties of the human condition that the soul is forever touched. Still and forever. In this production the grouping arranged by the Director, Iain Sinclair recaptures that discovery. That Mr Sinclair and , indeed, Mr Cromer of the recent American production, take liberties with the staging of this last great act by creating a coup de theatre, (against the instructions of Mr Wilder as per the above paragraph) in introducing a fully composed set (Pip Runciman) and costume design (Jennifer Irwin) of an early twentieth century household, on Emily’s requested visit as a spirit to her parents house, is forgivable, in that the interpolation has necessary chutzpah (!), that creates great emotional wallops of impact and does not blur the intended experience of Mr Wilder, if not, otherwise, over complicating it (Mr Cromer’s version wins, for it also had the smell of coffee and bacon and eggs- aromatic impulses that further flooded the memory tunnels). Both productions have made other re-writings, some less or more successful, depending on one’s prejudices.

The company of actors led indefatigably by Mr Gilshenan are an ensemble of equal vision and effort. A lot of these actors have appeared in other work by Mr Sinclair and the company feel of trust in each other and the director was palpable. I loved the Mrs Soames of Toni Scanlan, the steadiness and subtlety of Christopher Stollery’s Dr. Gibbs and the journey of Maeve Dermody as Emily Webb particularly. Ms Dermody, who I have seen in other work directed by Mr Sinclair seems to have found a confident space to expand her instincts in in the Drama Theatre. It worked seductively and convincingly.

The lighting of Mr Schlieper was sometimes a tad to orange/warm but illustrative and supportive of the production. Steve Toulimin acting as a period ‘foley’ sound artist in the wings captured a sense of playful invention that supported the score of Paul Charlier.

All of this work under the intelligent, considered and faithful vision and guidance by Mr Sinclair gives OUR TOWN the great respect it deserves to breathe and reveal the qualities that make it a classic of the American theatre, if not world theatre. It is a Pulitzer Prize Winner. If only the production team working on Eugene O’Neill’s A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT had been as trustful earlier in the season. Mr Sinclair has developed a reputation for his dramaturgical rigour with the writers he works with, and the quality of the work he produces as must see theatre is proof of the dedication (THE SEED, BEYOND THE NECK, KILLER JOE, HURLY BURLY, LORD OF THE FLIES).

James Waites regards TOT MUM as the chronological closure to the great arc of American theatre in The Sydney Theatre Company’s season this year but I count it as an Australian text, hybrid it may be. Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST will be the book end clincher for me. I have high expectations of it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fool For Love

B Sharp presents FOOL FOR LOVE by Sam Shepard in the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre.

For me, Edward Albee, David Mamet and Sam Shepard are the three outstanding, living, American writers. There are others, but the recent contemporary past seems to place them in high regard nationally and internationally. Sam Shepard, oddly, though, seems to be relatively under represented in professional production here in Australia, and, again, relatively, exists as a ‘cult’ figure in the ‘underworld’ of Australian performance history rather than as an artist of the first rank. FOOL FOR LOVE has never been represented in the subsidised repertoire in Sydney theatre.

FOOL FOR LOVE was first presented in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre in 1983 with Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, directed By Mr Shepard himself. The Magic Theatre was the original home of quite a number of the first productions of the Shepard oeuvre. FOOL FOR LOVE followed directly on from the last of his ‘family’ trilogy, TRUE WEST (1980), which we will see at the Sydney Theatre in a few weeks. The other two works of that trilogy being: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1977), I don’t remember a professional production in Sydney; and BURIED CHILD (1978), seen at Belvoir Theatre a few seasons ago.

What has always impressed me about Mr Shepard’s work is the surreal imaginings of his worlds, the poetic/prose and musical bravura of the writing in support of that mighty ‘masculinity’ of his world’s visions. Both the poetry and the music superb in the reading of, and, particularly, in the sound and acting of.

TRUE WEST, simplistically, is an explosive examination of the bifurcation of the male personality of the writer, Sam Shepard. Austin and Lee, two brothers, one an artist the other a ‘cowboy’, beginning a reunion on the opposite sides of the accepted behaviour rules, who gradually meet in the centre of contest, and end in the other one's shoes. Mr Shepard looking at the divide in his yearnings, the ARTIST: writer, actor, director, musician and the AMERICAN COWBOY: the ute, the spurs, lasso and the horse float, open air. The female characters in these plays are mostly symbolic and, relatively dramaturgically, mere ‘tools’ to the fierce examination of the male psyche and the titanic struggle of the fathers and sons relationships that preoccupy this writer - still.

FOOL FOR LOVE comes directly after TRUE WEST, and it comes ‘burning’ out of his evolving life experiences. During the filming of FRANCES (1982) Mr Shepard fell in love with Jessica Lange, subsequently marrying her. In 1993, Shepard in an interview talks of his work of the mid-eighties been influenced by feminism, “to the extent that ‘there was a period of time when there was a kind of awareness happening about the female side of things. Not necessarily women but just the female force in nature becoming more interesting to people. And it became more and more interesting to me because of how that female thing relates to being a man…as a man what it is like to embrace the female part of yourself that you historically damaged for one reason or another.” The play, FOOL FOR LOVE, Mr Shepard said, “came out of falling in love. It’s such a dumb-founding experience. In one way you wouldn’t trade it for the world. In another way it’s absolute hell. More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in the man to manifest.”

FOOL FOR LOVE then to me, seems a further examination of the bifurcation of the Shepard psyche, but now into the female and male parts of his artist self. ”In this case, the important split is between the aspects of his creativity that Shepard identifies as male and female forces.” May (Emma Jackson) and Eddie (Justin Stewart Cotta) struggling for a way to find ease with each other as one. The male and female Sam Shepard, as artist. Is it possible? Or will it be a constant pull and tear away from the fatal attraction of the co-joined siblings? His ending is a prediction of his reality, to the subsequent writings, for never again does he write for the female side of him as sympathetically. May is almost unique in his creations. Like Eddie, maybe the Sam hunts the Countess of his appetite and May wanders his psychic plain looking for fulfilment that is still unrequited and The Old Man’s sins haunt him still. We are what we are - our ancestors immortal in us.

Imara Savage in her presentation and direction of FOOL FOR LOVE, gives an interesting production of a play but not the one that Mr Shepard has written. The domestication of the two major characters in an over realistic design both actual and metaphorically; the removal of the father figure away from the central conflict onto another level/sphere distanced from the major action in a corner of the auditorium, and the pacification of the violent, noisy, sexual muscularity of the slamming between all three into a kind of wimpy girl escape for May from an overweening narcissism of Eddie, from the burdensome provenance of the influence of The Old Man (Terry Serio), incapacitates the power of the Shepard play and substitutes ,instead, a novelisitic/ soap opera melodrama. Well done on those terms but not Mr Shepard’s.

Sam Shepard in his instructions to guide the creative artists asks for a linoleum floor, no rugs. A single cast iron four-poster bed, off centre. A formica top, metal table with two worn chairs, down left stage. Green plaster walls and a picture window framed by dirty, long, green plastic curtains. Doors to a bathroom and outside world. A space at stage level for a rocking chair covered in an old worn grey and black horse blanket. Much else, including a symbolic picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall. This design (Michael Hankin) then, has a fully carpeted floor. A large double bed, dominating the centre of the stage. No table, no chairs. Smudged white walls. A space for The Old Man remote from the stage, with no rocking chair but rather a stool with the sound equipment for a guitar strumming effects and Country and Western Singer. An almost opposite set of choices that do not take into account the reason for Mr Shepard’s particularities. The fact that this Downstairs space is not easy to do this play in, therefore insists that creativity needs to be employed. It has been a whole substitution of other ideas, instead of applied invention, that mostly diminish the intentions of the author.

Mr Shepard asks that “the doors be amplified with microphones and a bass drum be hidden in the frame so that each time an actor slams it, the door booms loud and long”. The resultant sound violence of these instructions should be ‘criminal’ and frightening. The power of the noise underlines the masculine violence of the world of this play. To substitute it with the strumming of guitar chords, remotely, from speakers does not in any way convey this affect. That The Old Man figure is described thus” he has a straggly red beard, wears an old stained, ”open-road” Stetson hat, a sun bleached, dark quilted jacket with the stuffing coming out at the elbows, beat up, dark Western boots, an old vest and a pale green shirt” and substitute the costume and the function of the character with the look of a neat and clean Country and Western music man is completely subversive to the tension of the critical relationship between the two major protagonists and the audiences comprehension as to this man’s importance to the central problem of these two characters.

With this large double bed centre stage with a tiny fringe area around the bed, Ms Savage has Eddie sprawled on it on his back, preening his sexuality while May walks around the periphery of the space tentatively. The actual text asks for the two characters to stalk each other around the edges of the set, the walls reverberating, possibly with ever increasing tensions. The cat and mouse tension of this ‘game’ becoming wracked and fraught with apprehension of danger and also comedy. No such thing is possible here. Masculine activities loaded with threat: the grinding pattern of the resin into the glove; the deconstruction and cleaning of the rifle weapon; the lassoing of the chairs etc are all undermined by being excluded or diminished in the possible action in the designed space.

The Greek-gothic possibility of the play is reduced – the production scale here is motel bathroom sink. This play is not about an ordinary brother and sister. This is a play about the incestuous combustion of two fatally attracted siblings, burning up with desire for each other and the opposite need to submit to propriety as well – almost impossible. That the sins of the father, haunt them is the weight of the drama of the play. That the father figure in this production sits high and remote, playing production composed songs (Terry Serio) that are not of Mr Shepard’s invention, distant from the action of the play instead down there beside them, cajoling and confronting them, weakens the intensity of the passions. This is not just May and Eddie , they have the scale of Electra and Orestes. This is not just the struggle to avoid sex but a battle with the Furies of Fate, sirening them to a dreaded destiny urged and witnessed by a Zeus like figure. This does not happen in the Downstairs Theatre.

Ms Jackson as May tries fiercely, within the constraints of the production, to burnish a sense of the Shepardesque quandaries -she is admirable but frustrated. Mr Cotta seems to be involved wholly with the maleness of Eddie and not much interested in the power of his female reflection, May, and the battle between his other half, as outlined by Mr Shepard. Some self indulgence, here. Mr Serio is completely incapacitated by the directorial and design decisions to represent The Old Man as conceived by Shepard, but does well with what he has been encouraged to explore. The best performance with a real sense of his function and character veracity, in accordance with the text as written, is Alan Flower as the not so hapless Martin. Honest and mere mortal beside these two powers.

I have never seen Shepard performed at the levels of intensity that I have had in the United States. The immensity of the passions, the thrills of the violence, the outrageous humour and the glorious poetry never reach full fruition here. Maybe this is why he is rarely performed in Australia- we just don’t get him. And yet the themes and the settings of the plays are not dissimilar to an Australian context. I have been fortunate to see Gary Sinise and John Malkovitch in TRUE WEST at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York - overwhelmingly energised and comically pulverising, and a devastating production of BURIED CHILD at the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco. I also attended rehearsals, in the last week, of the original production of FOOL FOR LOVE in February,1983. It was sexy, frightening and funny. It had the impact of Greek Drama.

I observed firsthand the particularities of the set and sound instructions of Mr Shepard, now found in his published text. And, boy, was he tyrannically particular, right down to the actual angle of the chairs. I also used to pass his ute with the horse float parked in the Presidio, greet a cowboy in boots, patterned shirt and Stetson hat in the theatre and see him transform and watch a maestro of his art coax the poetry of his score out of the artists he had attracted. That Mr Ed Harris had a broken forearm and Ms Kathy Baker was covered in bruises was testament to the magnificent battle that unleashed itself in the possession that Eddie and May demanded of them. Spectacular ownership and high stakes.

The production for B Sharp is OK theatre but not Sam Shepard’s play. Comfortable not confronting

Quotes come from The Cambridge Companion To SAM SHEPARD, edited by Matthew Roudane. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Bump Projects in association with the Sydney Roller Derby League, presents BLOODBATH at the Horden Pavillion.

"BLOODBATH is a collaborative distributed artwork by Bump Projects in association with the Sydney Roller Derby League. BLOODBATH features five artists with recognised track works in new media, data visualisation, mediated performance and work with embodiment and violence. In the Horden Pavillion, Sydney, at an all girl flat track roller derby game, sensors on the helmets of players feed data to the five artworks, generating digital elaborations of the moves and collisions on track."

The five artists Linda Dement, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Kate Richards, Francesca da Rimini and Sarah Waterson have programmed the data equipment to achieve various impacts live on screen. The equipment was set up for the first match between 'trainer' teams: The Pistola Cholas V's The Smackdown Sallies. Only some of the players were 'hooked up' for art. On screens set up beside the scoreboard above the commentary box the work was explored for us all to see to varying degrees of success. The impact as art in the environment of the 'track' with the fans was unhappily minimal. It was not easily apparent to ascertain what was going on. So as an Artworks pilgrimage the session was mostly a perusal of the potential of the investigation not yet fully kinetic. Underwhelming as yet.

Obstensibly then to view the Artwork BLOODBATH, I was also, obviously, to my friends, and a whole bunch of us went, obviously there, for the Roller Derby. Winter Saturday afternoons at home in time past (the sixties) with my mum and sisters, with home made donuts, (the stink of oil was great to inhale, and retrospectively, I missed it on Saturday night!), watching the American Roller Derby League matches on Television (sponsored by Nock and Kirby's featuring Joe the Gadgetman) was what I went to nostalgically to imbibe in.

The first match was tame and for 'trainers'. The second match of the Double Header between THE ASSASSINS, The Sydney Team and VICE CITY ROLLERS, the Canberra Team, with names like Apollonia Thunderpussy, Trippy Longstockings, Bambi Von Smash'er, and my two personal heroines: Cassatrophic and Short Stop was nail bitingly thrilling. These girls are out to play and to win. Courage, guts and tactics galore. Best because it was a close near draw score for the whole of the night. Theatre sports. The four or five thousand fans, including, especially us, had an artful and totally interactive time, "GO Canberra" and despite losing, just, to the Sydney team it was worth it. My nostalgic need was quenched and more parlously, my appetite wetted. I want to go again.

I won't need the five artists to give me the excuse, but I'll be happy to go to BLOODBATH 2 just to see the artworks evolving and to cheer for the teams and those fabulous girls.

Saturday night entertainment that had me up on my feet cheering, 'GO, CASSA, GO." " GET HER SHORT STOP, GET HER" YEAH!!!!!

WWW.SYDNEYROLLERDERBY.COM NEXT ONE IN NEWCASTLE, 20th November, might see ya. I'll get to the theatre soon enough, again.

"GO Benedict, GO". "GO Cate, GO " Yeah!!!!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Pigeons

Pearly Productions and Griffin Independent present THE PIGEONS by David Gieselmann at the SBW Stables Theatre.

A German comedy seems to some of us an oxymoron. But one would have to be a moron not to have a few good laughs at THE PIGEONS by David Giselmann at the SBW Stables. This is the English language premiere.

A short 65 minute character driven farce the translation by Maja Zade is truly hilarious. Farce is difficult. Verbal farce is even more difficult to sustain. But what Mr Giselmann has managed is to succinctly put nine characters in the same space in two locations, quickly reveal the comic flaw in each of the characters (e.g. a psychiatrist who cannot remember one patient from another, a pathological office bully, a wife who longs and is desperately determined to live in Italy) and then at breakneck speed have them all meet and collide in mounting frenzied needs resulting in accumulating misunderstandings and identity chaos.

In a simple and neat design that encapsulates a carpeted living room and office location, the eight actors dressed in contemporary clothing, but in a trendy conceit of bare feet (why?), (Designer, Renee Mulder) wait on stage, for the audience to arrive and then at breakneck speed begin a hurtling non-stop verbal welter race of comedy. Like Satre's famous play NO EXIT, the Director Sarah Giles suggests our extended social groups are our hell, which we are trapped to endure. There are no exits in this production, just a retreat to the black wall.

The cast has been well staged and drilled for speed, if not subtleties of characterisation. A fine team of actors: Lyn Pierse, Laurence Coy, Tom Stokes, Ashley Ricardo, Garth Holcombe, Fayssal Bazzi, Paige Gardiner and Clare Blumer. However, not all the characterisations were believable. Some actors were still erring on achieving the craft mechanics of the verbal style and pace demanded by the director. Sometimes the action of comic technique dominated the night over truthfulness of character recovery and/or insight. I saw actors at work, sometimes.

I, too, had difficulties with the sound volume of the production. It began at a loud volume and perforce of the action of the verbal hijinx just continued to get louder. The accumulative volume of the cast ricocheted uncomfortably around that tiny space. The character, Natalie Voss (Ashley Ricardo) suffers from an uncontrollable temper, which is expressed by enraged shouting. There is some difficulty for this actress if the other actors find that shouting is also their response to their character's dilemmas. It means that Ms Voss/Ricardo must just get louder. The noise level made it uncomfortable for me to truly enjoy the production. It, of course, could just have been opening night jitters.

Laurence Coy as the catalyst to the events of the play, Robert Bertrand, wanting to disappear; Garth Holcombe as the paranoid deputy office manager, Holger Voss, suffering from corporate office bullying and his angry, angry shouting wife, Natalie, played brilliantly by Ashley Ricardo; and the constantly bewildered absent minded psychiatrist, Dr Eric Asendorf, played by Fayssal Bazzi lead confidently, the rest of the company and the audience a riotous and merry dance indeed.

It is a relief to go to the theatre and be handed the possibility of a jolly good, non-stop laugh. Relatively rare these days. Where is Mr Ayckbourne on our stages? Dare I dream of some mindless bourgeois, but damned funny fare from someone like Feydeau?

I should declare that inside this comedy, THE PIGEONS, there are, still, some serious social issues been bandied about, but in a very sweetly coated form.

How surprising, then, to have a comic play from a German playwright, who is embedded in the Schaubuhne theatre in Berlin, where several of our prolific young directors have taken their inspiration, which we have witnessed over the last few years, here, and found the work to be mostly, dour, humourless and earnest.
More power to Mr Giselmann and to his English translator, Maja Zade then.

When THE PIGEONS opened at the Schaubuhne last year, the BERLINER ZEITUNG wrote: "We have just experienced the funniest evening in the theatre this season." It is debatable in the Sydney scheme of things but I suggest you give it an airing. Just be ready for the volume.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Andrew Kay & Associates presents COMPLEXIONS Contemporary Ballet at the PARADE THEATRE,Kensington.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet was co-founded in 1994 by dancer Desmond Richardson and choreographer Dwight Rhoden, former members of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Complexions is a New York based company. "The company's foremost innovation is that dance should be about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them. Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world - and all its constituent cultures- as an interrelated whole."

In a three-act formula this company of 17 dancers (including Desmond Richardson, Fouding Artistic Co-Director) presents a very generous and exhausting evening of ballet/dance.

All of the works reveal the choreography of Dwight Rhoden. Act One is a company work MOON OVER JUPITER. Act two presents three smaller works: MOODY BOOTY BLUES for five dancers, GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, a solo performed by Desmond Richardson and ON HOLIDAY a sextet. Act Three, RISE, a company work to the music of U2.

The most satisfying experience was the smaller work in the second act. Each of the dancers revealed in quick solos and other combinations demonstrating their strengths in dance technique, personality and sexuality – the solo dance by Mr Richardson particularly impressive for its physical beauty and constructions.

The sixteen dancers of the ensemble are of diverse training backgrounds, physical types, heights, shapes and sizes. All of them very exciting dancers in their own right. This combination of the stylistic contrasts of the dancers and choreographic solutions were at first intriguing, but progressively less engaging.

What was mostly unsatisfying was the inability of the company to dance as an ensemble. The inaccuracies of timing by the individual dancers often presented a blurred vision of action (I was reminded of Marcel Duchamps' cubist painting NUDE DESCENDING A STAITCASE). The few times where there was complete synchronisation was a respite of beauty. But there were not enough of these happy felicitations, and the act one and act three works grew tedious and dull. The discipline of ensemble was not sympatico - maybe too many 'individuals' in temperament and dance training styles for this amount of emphasis on ensemble choreography?

Too much of Mr Rhoden's work in the one program gave an emphasis that highlighted repeated gestures of physical expressions. The visual resources became predictable and ultimately dull. Initial fresh impressions smothered by the continuum. The energy and the skill of the dancers did not compensate for the repeated and ill disciplined imagery. Disconnection ensued.

There was no set design compensation for the eyes. The costume design by Christine Darch, mostly, and DM Design were models of empathetic apparel for the dancers and the movement. The Sydney Dance Company could well observe. The tour lighting rig and design by Michael Korsch inventive and flexible in support of the dance.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to attend the ballet/dance Broadway work of Twyla Tharp: COME FLY AWAY, and still carry the memories of that work, that far outstrip those on offer from Complexion Contemporary Ballet. Not least the ensemble dance work choreographed and disciplined by Ms Tharp and the amazing costume designs of Katherine Roth.

The audience was very appreciative of the performance by the Complexions Contemporary Ballet and were roused by the last work, suitably called RISE, to the music pounding of U2.

Friday, October 8, 2010

ACO Tour Six: Viennese Masters


The Australian Chamber Orchestra returning home after a two continent international tour, present a program of ‘chamber’ music with a small collection of eight musicians. Richard Tognetti (violin), Satu Vanska (violin), Christopher Moore (viola), Timo-Veikko Valve (Cello), Maxime Bibeau (double bass), and guests Craig Hill (clarinet), Darryl Poulsen (horn) and Jane Gower (bassoon). In variations of the musicians’ presence the works played were Schubert (arr.Graham Ross), Rondo Brilliante,D895 (Composed 1827; arranged for solo violin and septet 2010); Beethoven, Septet in E flat major,Op.20 (Composed 1799); and Brahms: Clarinet Qunintet in B minor, Op 115 (Composed 1891).

This was a very sophisticated concert. One that was especially wonderful for the real aficionado’s of music. The rapturous attention of the audience for all three pieces that was captured by the orchestra, was remarkable. This is music “that was valued above all for its perceived intrinsic, purely ‘musical’, qualities … it strove to be elevated, refined, and sublime, conveying aesthetic values” …an “exemplary form of serious music”. In the program notes Peter Tregar explains the origin of the term ‘chamber music’. “The term has its origin in descriptions of music written for performance under domestic circumstances or in a drawing-room or ‘chamber’ before an audience of a limited size…” He goes on to say “Today, however, chamber music is rarely heard (perhaps lamentably) in such circumstances, and even in early 19th century Vienna it was becoming increasingly common to hear chamber works such as string quartets and piano trios as part of public subscription concerts. It is more accurate, then, to define chamber music as first and foremost a type of music that is composed using intimate musical resources but with high aesthetic ambition. Above all, chamber music that uses the possibility of close dialogue between a small number of solo instruments to foreground the importance of ‘pure’ musical argument.”

The “high aesthetic ambition” of this concert had its apotheosis in the performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. The intensely gentle textual arrangement of musical interplay between the scored notes was visibly personified by the glorious interaction between the players. The subtle support to the guest clarinet amongst the family of the ‘brothers and sisters’ of the ACO orchestra was an assuring body and instrument language that lifted the experience of listening to a stratosphere of delicate rarity. My eyes equipped my ears to listen. What I could see helped me to hear accurately. There was “a close dialogue” between instruments that allowed me to be an active part of the observation of ‘musical argument’. Now, I am fairly, relatively, ignorant about music and despite the lofty ambition of the chamber music genre, I became entranced and transfixed.

The Schumann was an appetiser or, in my case, ‘the trainer’, the teacher, to how to listen to this kind of music. The Beethoven, that followed, continued my learning habits and quelled me to pay attention. I could see and hear the Beethoven musical arguments. It was a lesson that gave me the proper entrance for the Brahms, which was, in my experience, sublimely played.

The use of the copies of ‘period’ instruments by the three guests was a bonus. The sound that they created amongst the strings was curious and deeply melancholic to my sensibilities. Craig Hill and his clarinet playing – gratifying to hear.

This concert was a tough one for me, the music, a little too rarefied in form, but as usual, the rewards that I reaped from the musicianship of this orchestra took me to places that expanded my presence in the world. The Pitt St block and the Martin Place precinct always have such a ‘romantic’ aura when I leave the ACO concerts, no matter the weather. The street cleaners, hosing down the plaza, never meant more in metaphor for me. A ‘drug’ worth the time and money spent to experience.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

De Ling & Empress Dowager Ci Xi

CATHAY PLAYHOUSE present DE LING & EMPRESS DOWAGER CI XI by HE Ji-Ping at the Tom Mann Theatre, Surry Hills.

The CATHAY PLAYHOUSE is a mostly non-professional theatre organisation (95%). I decided to write about my experience with this company because it represents a part of our community that does not have much exposure or encouragement outside its own cultural population. According to their mission statement as presented in the program notes, CATHAY PLAYHOUSE aims to present exceptional Mandarin drama as a way to promote Chinese culture as a part of Australia’s Multi-cultural society. More movingly its Vision statement is: “To diffuse art and guard our dreams.”

Forty-two participants including the cast of performers and the backstage crew. Twenty administration staff to support the project, and from the photographs of each, presented in the program, essentially a very young and vital collection of dedicated individuals. Congratulations.

DE LING & EMPRESS DOWAGER CI XI by He JI-Ping is an historical/domestic/epic set in the Court of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and Emperor Guang Xu. This is in the time just before the ascendancy of the child Pu Yi, the puppet Emperor for the Japanese, before the final collapse of the Manchu Dynasty, who most of us would recall from the Bertolucci feature film, THE LAST EMPEREOR (1987). So, the Boxer Rebellion and another film feature 55 Days At Peking (1963, Flora Robson as the Dowager, Robert Helpmann, Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven) may guide you to placing the context. Hollywood ever useful!!!!

Like the last mentioned film the writing is based on fact but has a strong emphasis on the romantic fictionalising of the events. In this case it tells the story of the return of De Ling and her family, from a European ambassadorial assignment/tour, and her consequential influence on the court, especially on the Empress Dowager. The principle theme, in the big historical arena, is the struggle to incorporate the modern world into the thinking and actions of the Qing Court in the face of an entrenched and complex traditional structure within the Forbidden City. This is the function of the De Ling character to quarrel and outwit the young Empress and the eunuch functionaries to lead China to a successful and open future. The secondary theme, and the melodramatic one, that we are all familiar with in the telling of these stories as entertainment, is the underlying personal angst of the Empress Dowager in having to sacrifice her personal life for the public persona (remember the recent Cate Blanchett creation in the two Elizabeth I films?) The lesson that we learn is that Wealth or Power are no compensation if there is no Love as well. Love is the truest possession.

I decided to record this experience because I was asked to sit for three and a quarter hours, without intermission, and watch a play unravel in Mandarin, with a sub-titled screen, and I did not get bored. I AND MY COMPANION DID NOT GET BORED!!!! I did not even feel the least bit restless and was essentially enthralled by the melodramatic machinations of the many characters in the court. I sat with an attention that I could not necessarily, continuously muster in THE WAR OF THE ROSES, for instance. True, these were stock characters, familiar to both film and theatre audiences, as was the plotting devices, but all the more welcoming because the plot organisation set up one’s appetites for the inevitable confrontations with this knowledge lodged in your cultural experiences before hand. It was a very enjoyable night in the theatre – one that I would have endured again. More so then some of the recent work that I have had to experience in the professional theatre.

Like the recent AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY or the Melbourne Theatre Company’s RICHARD III this was an engaging time, well spent. The glow of a well-told story wreathed us as we staggered to our taxi.

Looking at some of the response I have had to the Sydney Theatre Company’s presentation of THE TRIAL, it seems attention should be considered to the offered repertoire. Variety is important.

The acting in the company was mostly of a high order. Especially Eugenia LIANG Kun-Yan as the Empress Dowager, dignity and grief and power right through to the curtain call; SK ZHANG Shi-Kai; Adam SUN Qiao; Gordon GUO Zi-Qing; Cameo LOU Yun; Lucy HUANG Qian-Yun as De Ling and delightfully Shirley SONG Xue-Ni as the flustering cook/servant. Many others to mention as well. The Design elements, specially the costumes and the furniture/props were excellent in establishing the many changes in location (Gordon GUO Zi-Qing, also one of the actors).

The credit for the success of the evening must go to the director WANG Hui-Li. Graduating from the Shanghai Theatre Academy China in 1957, Ms WANG Hui-Li arrived in Australia in 1989 and established ‘Sydney Australian Chinese Children Playhouse’ in 1994. She has worked with the CATHAY PLAYHOUSE since 2005. This is a very assured and highly skilled story-teller.

In a week when one is enlightened by NAMATJIRA, and SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH-EAST the joy of meeting another part of the multi-cultural fabric of our art’s community and having a very satisfactory night, that became more than one of duty and respect, was a gift.

Last week I also attended the MacDonald High School’s production of the full length ballet DON QUIXOTE out at Riverside, Parramatta and also had a good time.


Seven Kilometres North-East

VERSION 1.0 INC. in association with TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS present "seven kilometres north-east", devised and performed by Kym Vercoe at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

The writer and performer of "seven kilometres north-east", Kym Vercoe, tells a story that comes from her love of travel "more particularly, my love of travelling in the Balkans, and more particularly still, in Bosnia."

Ms Vercoe tells us of visiting a small city, Visegrad, in the Republika Srpska, and being mesmerized by the beauty of the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, the Ottoman Bridge, built in 1571, over the river Drina, between the east and west, in 2008. Needing accommodation, checking out her guidebook, it suggested that the Visegrad Vlas Spa Resort, seven kilometres north-east is the best option. It is modest but comfortabe and was a relaxing choice. Coffee, cigarettes, conversations and slivovitz galore.

Later on returning home, she discovers that the Spa Resort was once notorious as a prison for the torture, rape and killing of many women in the terrible wars of the 1990's and that the bridge had been a site for a genocidal murder of local citizens, their bodies being thrown into the swiftly moving river.

Returning to the Balkans, Ms Vercoe attempts to investigate the truths of this history. Denial, silence was the response mostly met. This performance built from verbatim notes of interviews, guidebooks, War Crime Reports, quotes from the Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andric, the video images filmed by the artist herself, using music of the country, is a typical construct of theatre practice that Version 1.0 has made vigorously famous. This product is different to the other work of this company in that it feels to be a very personal odyssey of and for Ms Vercoe.

Ms Vercoe is her usual vivaciously intelligent self, physically and vocally in charge of her material and draws us into her sphere of pre-occupation effortlessly. Wonderfully assisted by the Video Artist, Sean Bacon, who projects the home made images of Ms Vercoe's onto the small theatre's back wall and onto the symbolic washing hanging on the clothes lines of the village people, designed cunningly above the floor space, who, thus, it suggests, simply go about ordinary lives in an historically extraordinary place.

The lighting (Emma Lockhart-Wilson) is sufficient to focus the many devisings of Ms Vercoe as she creates activity to assist our attention to her story: the making and sharing of coffee over a mini heating Bunsen burner, the illustration of the famous bridge drawn dexterously with coffee grains, the frenzied, bewildered, sometimes faltering dance imitation of an elder citizen, amongst others. All of it haunted by the live performance of Sladjana Hodzic (former conductor of Sarajevo City Choir) singing songs in the language of the region.

The shock and the zeal of Ms Vercoe's experience is truly palpable and she is, mostly, in control of her emotions. The questions that she asks herself, us, perforce of the witnessing of the performance, that are posed in some of the promotional material for the play:

1." Is it wrong to smother its (Visegrad) horrific past in order to move forward and survive?"

2. "And what are our responsibilities as tourists?" hang in the air.

Ms Vercoe talks of the notion of Thanatourism (from the Greek word Death and uses Gallipoli and the former Nazi death camps as examples.) It seemed to me that this small city Visegrad and Resort had attempted to not trade on its awful history but rather on its present natural beauty. To remember this horror, even to memorialise it might draw the thana-tourist rather than the tourist, which Ms Vercoe was on her first visit. The first question is answered. Yes, in this instance, it seems.

So on to her second question: what is her responsibility as an educated tourist? That is the problem. Ms Vercoe's personal sense of grief or outrage and her need to make public what that community has decided to place in denial and amnesia to survive becomes by her telling this story public and to the conscious fore. Is that proper, fair, or even her business?

Having seen NAMATJIRA the night before at Belvoir, and the gained sense of shameful history that the bureaucracy of Australia had burdened him, an Aboriginal man, with, I could not help but reflect and wonder that the Old Fitzroy Theatre standing in the suburb of Woollomooloo, that we were sitting in, might have a history of possible murder, genocide, torture and rape. What is this building's history? What is this ground and/or surrounding ground's history? Has it been ‘un-memorialised’ to allow the city to move on and survive? Rather as an outsider in the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina researching their history, maybe investigating our history would be more pertinent, and this question that Ms Vercoe poses, more relevant.

The fearful observation that haunted me when I walked into the Pantheon in Rome and the power of the ghosts or spirits of the building's history struck me with trepidation as no other building has. If these walls could speak, what would they tell me? As for the 9/11 site or the Nazi camps of Europe I have just declined to visit though conscious of their existence and their meaning. So, probably the whole of the Balkans, I would not visit, no matter their fabled beauty and hospitality, which Ms Vercoe is clearly besotted with and aesthetically drawn too.

This is where, although impressed with the usual methods and techniques of the company VERSION1.0, and the gifts of Ms Vercoe, I felt that this work was too personal (and too long) to give it the usual powerful distancing that VERSION 1.0 usually achieves. The very personal, and soon to be repeated, at Belvoir in November, THE BOUGAINVILLE PHOTOPLAY PROJECT by Paul Dwyer, presented in this theatre last year, had more accumulative power and residual consequence in my political post performance ruminations than "seven kilometres north-east."

As usual, provocative, and still, some of the best contemporary political theatre been made in Sydney (Australia). I recommend it with reservations. Discussion should happen in the bar afterwards, at the very least.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Belvoir and Big hART present NAMATJIRA by Scott Rankin at the Belvoir St Theatre.

Scott Rankin is both Writer and Co-Director (with Wayne Blair) of NAMATJIRA. He is also the Creative director of Big hART. Belvoir audiences had the experience of this company’s work in the 2008 Sydney Festival co-presentation of NGAPARTJI NGAPARTJI.

James Waites in his program notes for this production tells us that “Big hART is an unusual company. It creates works across Australia, usually several projects in varying stages of development at the same time. It has a very flat structure, with a pool of dedicated creatives and technicians to draw from. And it works with marginalised communities: wherever they are and whomever they might be. In Tasmania, it has included single mothers, and boys who drive cars too fast …” and in the case of the production THIS IS LIVING, working with 300 elderly people in an isolated community. Big hART is a company that works integrally with the community that it is engaged with. Indeed of a seminal nature. Such, that NAMATJIRA, the staged work, is only part of the interaction. "So, working together with a broad range of organisations and groups associated with Namatjira country, story and community, Namatjira is a multilayered project that will run into the future. It is a creative community development process; a new Australian theatrical work; a contemporary watercolour exhibition by Namatjira's descendants (At Birrung Gallery, Woolloomooloo and Damien Minton Annex Gallery, Surry Hills, September - October); trips to paint 'on country'; a documentary process; and a contribution to social policy discussion around the vital role of Aboriginal art centres."

This work at Belvoir, then, is part of a bigger initiative with wider ranging objectives then just telling the "whitefella" audience in the city the story of the great Australian artist Namatjira, who happens to be also a great iconic figure in the huge canvas of the Aboriginal story and its integral and parallel contribution to who we all are as Australians in 2010.

The story telling in the dramaturgical structure of the writing is almost childlike in its clarity. It is virtually a chronological monologue of the life of Namatjira, interspersed with duologal interactions with other figures, with additional contemporary asides, jokes and satirical observations and interplay. Simple historical, sociological, political story telling that renders the life of this man into an educative lesson that is inspirational, gob-smackingly horrifying, hysterically funny, and heart-warmingly moving, without sentimentality or overt didacticism.

Besides the knowledge of the bountiful life of the man and the tragic and ignorant (shameful) interactions with the white bureaucracy, what this work reveals is the possibilities of the selfless great human bond that open minded human beings can have with each other to the benefit of themselves and the community about them, both in the immediate present and the future for generations to come. The revelation that the general 'goodness' that such faithful, charitable and hopeful relationships like that of Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee can permit, create and gift, as exemplary behaviour, a society, is life confirming. This is the second work that Scott Rankin and the performer/actor Trevor Jamieson have brought to Sydney at Belvoir and it seems to me the bond between these two men/artists is as valuable to the Australian community as that, that they tell us about, in this work. Awe inspiring.

Personally, it focused the real daily dilemma of the Aboriginal artist and his/her conflicting responsibilities of being part of two cultures and the struggle to honour both and all their demands at the one time. Certainly it underlined their unspoken conflicts that arise during their interactions. What, I, as a generally ignorant Anglo-Celtic person/artist have misapprehended and judged as unacceptable behaviour, now demands pause and consideration. This work then, though simply written, is invaluable for the insights into the cultural complications of the actions of these fellow brothers and sisters, that otherwise may have remained shrouded and misunderstood. It stands beside Rolf de Heer's film TEN CANOES, for me, both, in cultural impact and strength of vision. SAMSON AND DELILAH as well, differently, but similarly.

First, the production sensitivities that Mr Rankin and Blair have wrapt around this presentation are marvellous. The delicate 'tribal' negotiations to permit this story even to be told needs to be acknowledged. Thanks to the Namatjira family and the Ntaria people around Alice Springs (Hermannsburg Mission). Thanks to the family of Rex Battarbee.

The visual beauty of the chalked 'ghostly' backdrop on the black back-walls of the stage space, created and still evolving during the show by the descendants of Albert Namatjira, is both aesthetically and spiritually humbling, disarming in its impact. The layered polished, levered wooden landscape sculpture that Genevieve Dugard has created, centre of the stage, is also a work of 'art' and serves, in its mechanics, many levels of engagement. Costumes by Tess Schofield are beautiful and very clever, especially in creating, simply, the many guises that the actor, Derek Lynch, has to impersonate. Nigel Levings completes these visual aesthetics with a lighting design of exceptional artistry.

The music composition and live performance (almost imperceptible) by Genevieve Lacey is haunting and always apt, accompanied by a Sound design by Jim Atkins that is hugely atmospheric.

Secondarily, the performers: Trevor Jamieson is the central raconteur. Good looks and charisma in bucket loads is also abetted by ease in simply drawn characterisations — physical and vocal adjustments —and the ability to seamlessly, un-flappably slip in and out of time zones, people and places as all natural story tellers seem to have the ability to do, without losing us, nary a false step. It is a very dexterous skill.

Assisting charmingly to the telling is a young shameless shape shifter,Derek Lynch, who glories in the impersonation in 'drag' both male and female, with a range of figures as variant as a local stockman to Albert's wife through to the young Queen Elizabeth II. He is amusing and also musically very useful and affecting.

That the experience works so well is due much to Mr Rankin with the assistance of his co-director Mr Blair.

In one extremity of my own anticipation of the work I may have approached the Belvoir Theatre with a sense of cynicism about what I was about to see. Despite, (or perhaps, because of) the direct simplicity of the actual text, I left the theatre with what renowned English critic, Michael Billington requires from good theatre going, the three E's: Entertainment, Enlightenment and Ecstasy. The most valuable of them, for me, on this occasion being, ENLIGHTENMENT.

Catch it with your children and grandchildren - our culture is better off for Big hART's endeavours, if this production counts as evidence.

Satisfying is it not, to have the THE NEW ABORIGINAL & TORRES STRAIT ISLANDERS GALLERIES opening the same week at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra?

ART is still important then?