Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alice and Alan's Adventures In Wonderland

Blancmange Productions and Slide Cabaret present ALICE AND ALAN'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. A New Australian Musical at Slide, Oxford Street, Sydney.

ALICE AND ALAN'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND presented at Slide Cabaret venue is "a new 3 act Australian musical, fantastic erotic comedy, served up with a superb 3 course degustation dinner."

Slide, is a very beautifully appointed venue. The food served with this musical entertainment was good and the staff could not be more helpful and pleasant to make this theatre-restaurant type experience easy and pleasurable.

ALICE AND ALAN'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND is unfortunately not very good. The writing (Book and Lyrics: Steve McGrath) is lacking in real coherency and clarity of story telling logic, and works at a low level of low comedy of puerile double entendre and plain vulgarity that makes the writers of, say, the old television show, ARE YOU BEING SERVED? seem like Tom Stoppard in comparison. When commenting on another new musical last year, EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY, I said if the writing does not meet criteria of real possibility, than no other artist who becomes involved with the project can redeem the effort. The writing is the initiating bedrock and tool: if no good, no show. Don't go ahead. Just don't.

The music by Peter Aoun, (thirteen songs), is generic in form and is presented with a pre-recorded synthesised "band in a box" sound. Most of the artists are singers. Some better than others, but all of them have an enthusiasm about that work that makes one wish they had better material. The choreography by Anouska Reid is basic and serves the music as best it can considering the limitations of the performing space and the hugely varying skills of the performers. What were the other artists thinking when they came on board? The opportunity to have a chance to perform is not enough reason to risk exposure of this kind, if you really want to be taken seriously.

The acting by nearly everyone is poor and the book which is already struggling to make an impact, has little chance, with the characters being barely embodied recitations of learnt lines by hapless performers who have been barely placed on stage by the director (Danielle O'Keefe). Unfortunately Ms Jenni Little playing Alice, and the leading role, has no stage presence or dramatic skills or technique at all (her singing is OK). Andrew Wang as Alan the co-lead, though more substantial in presence is still pallid. If your leading characters lack communicative credibility and oomph, you and we, the audience, are in trouble. Alice and Alan are in "no land" at all. There is no wonder to be had here. Ray Chong Nee works hard as the Mad Hatter and Martelle Hammer as Cheshire Cat has personality and a raspy voice of some note.

Furthermore, there is no sense of a connected ensemble that has any idea of who they are or how they relate to each other. It is a matter for each artist to sink or swim, to drown or survive, as best they can. So, when the experienced cabaret/drag performer Hugh Monroe appears as the Red Queen, it is a relief, in that there is some directional sense to his work and some high energy "campery" that at least, in a panto dame kind of way (think Mrs Slocombe from ARE YOU BEING SERVED? in a musical and with very good drag costumes, a lot of them, impeccably accomplished) puts some comprehensible zest into the goings-on. Even if he looks as if he is compensating desperately for all the others and simply devouring them in the effort to prevent performance humiliation. SO much energy. Mr Monroe has definitely decided, as he has committed himself to this material, that he will swim, like Ian Thorpe as only dreamt of. It is a wonder that he didn't sing I WILL SURVIVE as part of the show.

This musical, "conceived and produced by Steve Carnell" is simply with the best will, a misguided effort, at worst, awful.

I am in a very invidious position in that I and a friend were invited as guests to this performance and I don't want to be ungrateful. The venue is great. The food was good. The good will in the room from all was palpable, but this was simply the worst experience I have had in the theatre for a while. The kind of experience that I can usually predict and avoid.

I was not sure whether I should even 'blog' this work as I only had negative responses to most of the theatrical effort and I do want to support the time and good will of the artists, all artists - what they do is not easy to do and there is so little reward. But, on discussion with colleagues I have, to reflect a growing frustration as to the lack of good quality bench marking of the Mardi Gras season entertainments. This work, although not part of Mardi Gras, has been directed to be shown "during Mardi Gras. 2011" and is aimed at that market. That it and the double bill at the Darlinghurst Theatre, JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY and GORGEOUS BASTARDS are so poor in their overall judgement as to what is acceptable writing standard and fare for a paying audience (there is no lack of production budget standard, in ALICE AND ALAN… indeed the costumes and make-ups are good, Anna Gardiner and Niki Simpson) that it needs to be remarked upon and somehow, the Mardi Gras committee ought to be more responsible.

My blog on CANNIBAL, suggested a personal feeling that some care and maturity had begun to appear in the Mardi Gras programming. CANARY at the New Theatre, a theatre company with no financial backing has managed to curate a Mardi Gras themed play (although, it is not only a Mardi Gras themed play), of real quality and importance. It is aided, of course, with quality writing. There is the key and the starting point for the possibility of a quality production: the WRITING. If the Mardi Gras even perused the material before supporting the productions in their Mardi Gras Season Guide some quality standard could be applied and then even the 'other' opportunists to the festival might also need to lift their game.

Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND stories have been plundered regularly since their original conception. Broadway, at the end of March, has a new Frank Wiildhorn musical opening called WONDERLAND. I hope it has more success than ALICE AND ALAN'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Mr Wildhorn has had three musicals on Broadway, JEKYLL AND HYDE, THE CIVIL WAR and THE SCARLETT PIMPERNEL and those productions accumulated a loss of 20 million dollars. It is not an easy form to create and solve. I hope Blancmange Productions. and Slide do not have similar losses.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes from Underground

Sydney Chamber Opera presents NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Jack Symonds and Pierce Wilcox at the Cell Block Theatre, National Art School, Darlinghurst.

SYDNEY CHAMBER OPERA, a new presence in Sydney. NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, a new work.

Sydney Chamber Opera has been formed by some young musicians to provide opportunity for the interested artists to have a resource and source to pursue the opera form. They wish to prevent the opera from becoming a heritage art form. They wish to make opera a vital part of contemporary life being stimulated by the youth who have the passion for the form for all the community. New music, new challenge, new life.

The Artistic Director is Louis Carrick. The Music Director is Jack Symonds. SCENES FROM UNDERGROUND is an Opera in one act by Jack Symonds. Libretto by Pierce Wilcox, after Dostoevsky.

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1864. The work is in two parts. It is written as handwritten notes of an unnamed man who has abandoned the world and fled to a symbolic underground. The first part of Dostoevsky's vision is a rambling digression on the state of humanity. The second part deals with an oppressive memory. It is an extremely difficult work to read and comprehend.

Pierce Wilcox, the librettist has passionately adapted the work as two interleaved conversations. It is the libretto that at the moment, tends to hold the work in a static dramatic place. The conversation/arguments sung and sur-titled seem to repeat themselves to no real dramatic progress. The consequence is a disconnection from the performance. I think an edit of some 30 minutes would strengthen the experience (but what and how?). At the moment the work is of some 90 minutes duration.

I was impressed by the musical composition of Jack Symonds. The variety within the orchestration was arresting and was often the centre of my attention. Just what would be lost musically, if libretto edits were made would require painful choices, but for the benefit of the work as a living organism for the ambitions of the Opera Company, it would probably be worth considering. A future presentation would, of such a provocative and interesting work, benefit from such pain.

For other than the rambling disquisition of the two characters, Aboveground (Mitchell Riley) and Underground (Morgan Pearse), this production by Sydney Chamber Opera, directed by Netta Yashchin was impressive. Set Design by Charlotte Lane, of a decrepit wooden staircase, and the post-modernist presence of a derelict pool table, that doubled as a bed and the writing desk nesting on a sea of paper was imaginatively invented and constructed within the very difficult space of the Cell Block Theatre (he modish use of portable toilet seats instead of chairs was a minor distracting excess of the need for making an auteur/directorial statement that finally seemed gratuitous). The appearance of the bust of a golden horse was a magnificent sight. That the lighting by Charles Coy was inventively atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing is an understatement of achievement, observing the practical difficulties of the space.

The costumes by Julia Young were also well conceived and seemed, despite the modernist inclinations, suitable to the overall aesthetic conception guided by Ms Yashchin. They fitted the moments and did not distract from the opera but rather securely placed the characters in both the past and the present. They made the work relevant for the time, 2011 and enhanced the experience.

The chorus of dancers (Choreography, Dymphna Carew) were used well, to further the clarification to the action of the unfolding story between the two protagonists, as were the speaking actors.

Mr Symonds and Mr Pearse were a focused and dynamic pairing. The dynamics of the individual character and the clear conflicting interaction of both were well demarcated and sustained. The singing revealed two strong and pleasing voices negotiating the scoring with control and a strong sense of the dramatics, both text and music. Anna Yun as Liza, the Prostitute and Nicole Thompson as Liza, The Madam played their less complicated dramatic roles seductively and well. Ms Yun managing to create pathos within the stereotypical literary fantasy of the men. The scoring for their voices seemed, sometimes self-conscious in striving for a musical affect (technical prowess) rather than assertive dramatic accuracy. Sonics over drama.

The orchestra conducted by Jack Symonds played well with keen devotion and sense of mood and appropriate support for the singers in this space. The sounds and orchestral sensitivities were rich, loved and passionately communicated. They were true believers in the score and the performance.

Here then, is a debut of a new work in an art form of famously formidable difficulties. The presentation was delivered without much fanfare but should be celebrated for its achievement. For the achievements of all these young artists deserves attention and support without condescension. It was an intriguing time spent in the theatre and one that I found engrossing, challenging and exciting. That this new company presented a new work was brave and certainly nailed their colours to the artistic mast and flew the flag of daring. Their next work is of a familiar work, Janacek's A CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN. Opera Australia has presented this work well, and often, I am curious as to what stamp that this new company can give the work that would justify, such a replication of repertoire.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jane Austin's Guide to Pornography & Gorgeous Bastard

Out Cast Theatre in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY & GORGEOUS BASTARD at the Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney.

JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY & GORGEOUS BASTARD is written, designed and directed by Steve Dawson (Who is in charge, here?) and produced by Adrian Corbett. Mr Dawson has had 44 of his plays produced. His plays have been performed in New York, Chicago, Edinburgh, London and across Australia. Out Cast Theatre, the program claims, is "Australia's longest running GLBTIQ theatre". There is advertising for an extensive 2011 season. Write it and they will come!

"Out Cast has a history of high camp productions." These two one act plays support that claim. "Camp" in a very old fashioned way, for sure. It is almost as if gay and lesbian politics has passed this company by since the seventies.

GORGEOUS BASTARD concerns the meeting of three men at a wedding reception who have all had a "vivid" relationship with the groom. All three of the characters are gay types that are instantly recognisable and the humour depends on that ready identification, served with lashings of one liners - hit and miss, both the comedy writing and the timing. Direct audience monologue and inter cut scenes are the structure (the writer has some difficulty finding believable reasons to get characters on and off stage, it seems). It is the type of comedy some of you may remember from The Golden Girls, except this is decidedly bluer and crueller. There is a thread of misogyny and maudlin, even bitter envy of happy couples, that surface every now and again in the scenarios. These "queens" have a bee sting that could shrivel you, or inflame you, or at least leave a bad taste in the mouth. They are not 'politically correct' all the time. Although the situation and the humour is predictable, most of the acting, especially the work of Todd Morgan as Tom is fun enough to keep one, surprisingly engaged to stay on for the second half (there was much nervous "fluffing" of text (?) Was the surprise the ingredient?

JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY written in 2006 concerns a writer, Brett (Brett Whittingham) in the throes of writer's block. He has studied Jane Austen at university extensively and summons her as a mentor to solve his problem. He asks her how to write a play about love, for he declares he knows nothing about that. In turn he proposes to teach her about sex and the art of writing pornography for he believes she knows nothing of it. Write what you know, being the mantra justification.

Mr Dawson has created some very wonderful scenes and speeches for Ms Austen and Nathan Butler, impersonating the great author, is very convincing and restrained. In fact some of the scenes between Jane and Brett deserve more attention and development from the writer, for the debate sometimes became quite moving and interesting. Unfortunately, Mr Dawson does not trust his burgeoning instincts and reverts to habit, which in the case of this play ends up to be extremely puerile and in the last twenty minutes of the play unbearably self-conscious, sentimental and plain self-indulgent. The emotional claptrap that the director insists that the actors play in real melodramatic time is excruciatingly difficult to watch.

This is a Sydney Mardi Gras themed production. Horses for courses. Some will take to it, some won't. The record of Out Cast Theatre, as we are informed in the program ($5!!!) , is extensive and they actively promote a 2011 season, so there is an audience for this kind of writing out there.

I was, personally, surprised to find it curated in the Darlinghurst Theatre season. Nothing more sophisticated on offer? Hmm?

(Like the CANNIBAL advertising, the Graphic Poster Art for this production is a gross act of false advertising. Sulk!!! Is that what is wrong with me? Naw, not really).


PACT Centre for Emerging Artists and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras present CANNIBAL at the Pact Space, Erskineville.

CANNIBAL presented by PACT and curated as part of the Mardi Gras Performing Arts in the 2011 Guide is an interesting sign of the new vision of the committee responsible. For this work is not about glitz or partying, rather it is ART. That Matthew Day was also part of the QUEER THINKING day at the Seymour Centre, where some of the "queer world's most remarkable academic and creative talent" presented a day of talks and discussions is another sign of the maturing of the Mardi Gras program. Mr Day led or "provoked" a panel discussion on queer thinking as physical action called LET ME HEAR YOUR BODY TALK. Brains as well as glamour. Innovative thought as well as frivolous action. Political relevancies as well as fun. That Peter Tatchell "one of the world's most controversial and influential LGBTI and human rights activists", gave the key note speech following the launch of the Mardi Gras on Saturday night is, I think, significant.

"CANNIBAL is the second installment in TRILOGY, (Matthew) Day's solo series, which explores the body as a site of infinite potential and constant transformation. THOUSANDS, the first work in the series premièred at Next Wave Festival, 2010, and was presented by PACT as part of the Sydney Festival."

In white walls and floor expanse, lit by even, intense open white light (Lighting by Travis Hodgson) accompanied by a gradual tonally rising 'sub-woofer" like growl (Sound Design by James Brown) Matthew Day stands two-thirds into the space from the audience edge, centre stage with his back angled at us. He is dressed in white shoes and white ankle-biter socks, white tailored shorts and short sleeved, high necked shirt (shiny material) with short white gloves on his hands. Any naked body parts are hairless and well tanned; his hair short back and sides bleached yellow to match the similarly bleached eyebrows.

Small muscle movements grow into barely twitching buttock movement. Slowly the body becomes engaged in small repetitive but radiating movements. From this relatively fixed standing position, gradually, the body begins to move across the space - diagonally, up and down and across to both sides. It is a 30 minute marathon of constant small movement.

"Enduring time and invisible forces" The fierce and gruelling concentration of the performer is visible and the audience become fascinated and then admiring, perhaps , of what is going on. This is ART. Art in the form of performance/dance/ movement. This feels like the words of someone's,( Mr Day's?), Master's thesis being investigated in the reality of the flesh. This is definitely not entertainment.

If you have been seduced by the blurb in the Mardi Gras Guide and had imaginative fancies provoked by the accompanying photograph you might be bored and feel ripped off. If you are "in-the-know" it could be an intriguing exercise of observation of a developing art practice.

I am "in-the-know"… in the PACT courtyard, before the performance, whilst cooling down, I observed the usual Performance Space Sydney movement/dance/art 'mafia' arriving and greeting and cooing. Interesting to see this scene outside of the Carriageworks, Performance Space. I cogitated as I sat there, is this the new P-Space? Has PACT become the venue of choice? Mr Day has presented both pieces of his work here. Certainly, the rumours of the difficulty of being a 'client' in Carriageworks and the "Corporate" necessities of that big organisation being an antagonist to the art workers have been growing in chorus whispers (I look forward to seeing what Carriageworks new CEO Lisa Havillah can do to shift this situation). Where is the Cleveland Street HOME that encouraged the experimentation of the performing artists of Sydney? Here at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists?


This became an art experience of endurance, both for the artist and the audience. The audience applauded seriously and generously. Interesting as an art journey, amazing as part of the Mardi Gras program.

Doctor Zhivago

John Frost, Anita Waxman/Alexis Productions, Tom Dokton, Latitude Link Inc., Power Arts, Chun-Soo Shin, Corcoran Productions, The Pelican Group and John Frost in association with Jane Bergere, Roger Coleman, Dave Copley, Tom McInerney, David Mirvish, Mindy and Bob Rich, Yandow/Papa/HIC present Anthony Warlow in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO - A New Musical at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney.

It is interesting that in the title page of the program, as quoted above, all of the producers present: Anthony Warlow.

Anthony Warlow. In Doctor Zhivago - a New Musical. This then is the presentation of Anthony Warlow. And in the program notes the composer, Lucy Simon, tells us that Anthony Warlow came into her collaborator's lives "not unlike the angel Gabriel. ... Fifteen years ago, I came to Australia for the opening of the musical, THE SECRET GARDEN, which John Frost (Frosty) was producing, starring Anthony Warlow as Archibald Craven. I melted at the sound of Anthony's voice. Could there be any voice more beautiful, and he was singing my music! At that time, creating a musical of Doctor Zhivago was only a glimmer in my mind, but the first thing I said when I went to Anthony's dressing room after the performance was, 'If I ever have the chance to write the musical of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, you are my Zhivago'." Such is how some careers are made.

There is no mistaking that there is, indeed, a devoted audience, at least, here, in Australia for Anthony Warlow as well, not just the idolatrous Ms Simon. Prior to the performance I attended, stories had hit the press about a leg injury suffered by Mr Warlow, that required him to rest for some of the preview performances. Some of the audience were vociferously disappointed with the announcement of the understudy (Anton Berezin). On our night, Mr Des McAnuff, the Director , himself, appeared on stage, and along with other information about the pleasure and excitement he and his collaborators had in presenting this New Musical for us in Sydney, he announced that, Mr Warlow, was appearing tonight. Some of the audience cheered with expectation. The curtain call at the end of the performance was also greeted with a standing ovation by some of the audience for Mr Warlow, limp and all, and, indeed, this production company had presented Mr Warlow well. What of the New Musical-DOCTOR ZHIVAGO?

Recently while talking and responding to another new musical, being shown at the Darlinghurst Theatre: OPEN FOR INSPECTION – THE REAL ESTATE MUSICAL, by two young local and ambitious talents, Tim Bosanquet and Lucy Egger, I briefly alluded to the immense task that it is to develop and present new work, but particularly the long and difficult path that the Musical genre entails. OPEN FOR INSPECTION has barely, metaphorically, begun to "crawl" in its long development curve (If it ever proceeds further). DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is at least in its "walking" stage.

Mr McAnuff tells us of the history of this work so far,"We have gone through two readings in New York and London, done a workshop and staged a full production of an earlier version at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. (Mr McAnuff was the Artistic director there for many years). ... John Frost, our Australian colleague who produced my first Broadway show BIG RIVER here in Australia and Lucy Simon's SECRET GARDEN has partnered with Anita Waxman to provide what I hope will be the next vital step forward at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney where we are unveiling our latest canvas." What might be the future aspirations after the Australian working production? Maybe another North American production that will have eyes on the prize of Broadway and the West End. Only time will tell. Already ten years in the making the toil to find the formula for success is active and alert.

Boris Pasternak was a Russian poet of immense fame. Born in 1890 and living through one of the most volatile periods of Russian history: Revolution, Civil War, World Wars, the tyranny of Stalin and the State's crushing hand on the arts, he died in 1960. His poetry was only known in the Russian until after his death. But besides his own work he was a prolific translator of other country's literary works.(Pasternak's adaptation of HAMLET was used as the basis of the famous Grigori Kozinstev's 1963 film starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky. It also has a score by Shostakovitch. The film is a personal favourite of mine.) He only wrote one novel and that was DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. It was banned in Russia but was 'smuggled' out of Russia and published in 1958 to great acclaim, in an English version by Max Hayward and Manya Harai. ( There have been other translations since.) The publication of this novel in the West was a great political scandal that was further compounded when in 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and was forced by his Government to decline it. The Cold War was insidious in its sideshows of power wielding and jostling, and merciless to the 'little people' caught in its grinding wheels and international point scoring.

The novel is regarded by some as one of the great novels of the last century:
"One of the great events in man's literary and moral history"- Edmund Wilson.
"DOCTOR ZHIVAGO seems to me to be a work of genius, and its appearance a literary and moral event without parallel in our day."- Isaiah Berlin,Sunday Times.

"... [belongs] to that small group of novels by which all others are ultimately judged.'- Frank Kermode, Spectator.

The cover description of the novel published in 1988 by Collins Harvill says “DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is one of the world's great novels, evoking the whole experience of Russia during the first half of this century. It is a vast panorama of a country in the throes of the most radical revolution in history, seen through the life of Yuri Zhivago, physician and poet, who must come to terms both with the new world and with the man bitter experience has made him, torn between the love of two women".

The novel, itself, is not an easy read and perhaps like Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE not always completed. It is the film by David Lean produced by Carlo Ponti for MGM in 1965 that is the reason for Zhivago being a part of the psyche of the West. It won five Academy Awards, was critically dismissed but was an enormous popular and box office success. Omar Sharif, famous for his performance in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, as Zhivago, and Julie Christie as Lara became the iconic love images of that generation. Imagined always with Lara's theme, pop song: "Somewhere My Love", composed by Maurice Jarré, floating in the memory ethers.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – A New Musical, is a musical that attempts to translate, in its form, a very heightened and dramatic historically significant novel. True, this novel does tell a love story that three men have for one woman. And of two women for one man. But it is set against and immersed in one of the great apocalyptic times of the 20th century - the Russian Revolution and Civil War. The historian, Orlando Figes, describes this time as A People's Tragedy and throughout Pasternak's novel, the revolution is seen not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies, but as a human event made up of complicated individual tragedies. The Bulgakov plays FLIGHT (recently presented by Nida) and THE WHITE GUARD (soon to be seen at the Sydney Theatre Company, in the new adaptation by Andrew Upton) reveal this world in theatrical terms of uncompromising brutality and horror.

In contrast this Musical work reduces the source material of Pasternak to a banal love story with cartoon strokes and caricatures of history. Rumpity-tump orchestration FORWARD MARCH FOR THE CZAR has the tin soldier frailty of the comic parody instead of bloody sacrifice. In the song where Zhivago returns to his Moscow home to find it requisitioned by the Soviet, to have the two authority figures dance (Choreographer, Kelly Devine) a one legged heel-toe action is to undermine the significance of the episode. It made one think how possibly could this most bourgeois of the performing art forms tell the story of this great socialist- realist work. It does not succeed in this attempt, as yet.

Lucy Simon, the composer of the score to this work, says, "I have always have had a very personal feeling about Pasternak's novel and a tremendous respect for the David Lean film". Indeed, the Book for this musical by Michael Weller follows the screenplay of Robert Bolt fairly closely and is very brisk in its execution and captures the major and minor events of the narrative at such a speed that the characters barely have time to be established. The characters are mostly just named and are pencil thin or card board cut outs in their introduction and development. They are recognised by what they do, as to whether we should view them as the "goodie" or "baddie'' of the piece. I use such terminology as the musical-book is almost a cartooned caricature of the source material. It was my pre-knowledge that allowed me to sort out what was happening. Others, who did not know the film, the younger generation about me, were sometimes lost and confused.

The lyrics by Michael Korrie & Amy Powers and the music were ultimately banal and lacked any real memorable moments. The general experience for me was that of what I would call Broadway bland and the lack of any sustained Russian sound either melodically or in the orchestration was a cause for wonder. The fact that, I, at home later, reading the program notes, was humming musical numbers from another musical did not report well of my experience.

The problem is either that the writing is not developed enough, or the acting was not good enough. Or both. The singing by the principal performers was strong. Undoubtedly, Mr Warlow has a fabulous voice but the acting was not at all good, neither from him or the others. Presentational and truly superficially engaged emotionally, the affect of it was : it was very difficult to stay attached to the characters and what was happening in the story. Martin Crewes as Pasha/Strelnikov, gave the most convincing work as an actor, but when having to play against others who are barely mouthing the text at any convincing level of staked emotional truth, it would be difficult to sustain. It sometimes was. The later scenes between Zhivago and Lara (Lucy Maunder) were dramatically perfunctory and almost risible from a discerning audience's viewpoint. Empty melodrama. So, both, the writing and the acting are not good enough. The fact that Zhivago was a poet was thematically underdeveloped and was a surprise when in the last moments of the play the scrolling of poetry across the proscenium space appeared. The connection of the man to the great natural phenomena of Russia was not apparent - one of the great achievements of the Lean film.

This is a working production and the design elements for such a massive landscape of sites for the story telling have been simply created by Michael Scott-Mitchell with two perspective, architectural frame works in which to sit furniture (fairly casual in their design look) or an abstract moving platform (representing the trains). The first act has a frame with balanced rows of columns on either side of the stage. They move in and out to the sides. The second act has brick wall frames and white arches. They are pragmatic and simple solutions for what looks like a limited budget for such an ambitious work. The most intriguing and promising element of the design was the video and image projections. When used, the affect seemed to provide aesthetically supportive solutions to the problematics of the vast scale and locations of the scene settings. The images were powerful and easily communicated the status of the war and the affects of it.

The costumes (Teresa Negroponte) are generally more interesting for the female cast; the men's costumes don't appear to have the attention that they need. The wigs are not very attractive, Mr Warlow looking decidedly dodgy and hardly the romantic figure the work needs.

This is a company of 30 players who are extremely busy in the character and ensemble work demanded of them. Their commitment and discipline exemplary. What Mr McAnuff has achieved is an efficient staging of the work but he does not appear to have been able to direct the work as closely as it needs. Dramatically it is very superficial. The acting needs more attention. It undermines all the ambition. Famously, Trevor Nunn in the production of the adaptation of Victor Hugo's great novel LES MISERABLES, spent immense efforts in directing, minutely, all of the chorus/ensemble players as well as the principals. The scale that DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is created on requires the same meticulousness in the theatre, to have the impactful credence that is desired. Time, the great tyrant of creativity, I guess.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is a great novel. Maybe the musical theatre is the wrong form/genre for the telling of this story. Maybe it is an opera. WAR AND PEACE is an opera by Sergei Prokofiev. That work and form matches the source material. Some one remarked to me, if you are going to adapt a novel for the music theatre choose a less famous or literary one. Ms Simon's last success was The Secret Garden from a relatively minor children's novel. It apparently worked: 700 odd performances on Broadway and productions around the world.

We live in interesting times. This week the Royal Opera House premiered a commissioned work on the life of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith by Mark-Anthony Turnage. It has received accolades from the critics. My prejudices would have thought the musical theatre was a better choice for the life of Anna Nicole Smith. (LEGALLY BLONDE, 2?) So what do I know? And maybe I am just a literary snob?

As Mr McAnuff says in his final paragraph in the program: “The most important step of all is yet to be taken and that step belongs to you. Without an audience all of our work would be for naught...” Despite my response, I am only one. Who knows there may be many who are swept away with this new musical and all this work will be properly rewarded.

ACO with Teddy Tahu Rhodes

Australian Chamber Orchestra present: Tour One – TEDDY TAHU RHODES at the Sydney Opera House.

Songs with and without words.

The Mahler Adagietto (from Symphony No.5.) (1902), familiar to those of us who remember the Visconti film DEATH IN VENICE was our first offering in this concert. It is a beautiful and melancholic experience.

Whether it was written as a wordless love declaration by Gustav Mahler to his future wife, or is related more to the sombre setting of a Ruckert poem, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden recommend” (1901):

I have lost touch with the world where I once wasted too much of my time…
for I am truly dead to the world…
and repose in tranquil realms.

This composition is truly “…a masterpiece of emotion intensely felt and yet restrained in expression.” (Henry-Louis de La Grange.) The lingering strings punctuated with harp arpeggios blissfully float the imagination and the tempo of the day to a place of contemplation.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, Op.35bis, (1925) were conceived as songs to be sung without words. They were transposed into violin works and orchestrated by Joseph Swenson and this is what we heard. The works were pleasant but I felt no more than curiosities.

Another orchestral work Birthday Piece for RRB (1986) was a way to introduce the first of set of songs given by the guest artist, Teddy Tahu Rhodes. SONGS BEFORE SLEEP by Richard Rodney Bennett – a collection of six poems, all taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes commissioned by BBC 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2002-2003. The lyrics are quite surprising and not, altogether, the rhymes or sentiments you may remember as a child. Like the Grimm’s Brothers stories, often full of images and warnings that are not in, say, the ‘Disney’ tradition we have become used too. Mr Rhodes had charming fun with these works and boyishly used his charismatic presence to win his audience. The voice was characteristically warm and resonant. Sexy! TWINKLE, Twinkle Little Star, being the most captivating of the songs. Beethoven’s song cycle : “An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98.”, regarded as the first offering of this genre of work (1816), ever was sung in German, the experience was easy. Mr Rhodes sang with a seeming deeper connection to this material than the Bennett. I wondered, however, whether the imaginative engagement of a character/role in the opera world gave Mr Rhodes a more secure imaginative leash to create in, for this concert Mr Rhodes was , in my experience of him, less engaged, and although musically still ravishing was not so immersed in the performance: more formal, less embodied. More technical, less imaginative.

Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.3 in D major,Op.44,No.1 (1838)was the last all orchestra work of the concert.

The first concert of the season from the ACO, a good concert not a great one.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sticks & Stones

The On Reel presents STICKS & STONES by Jay Duncan at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Going to the theatre can be, sometimes, such a surprising and unexpected adventure. Take last Saturday night, for instance.

On a balmy but drenched and drizzling night I found my way down Palmer Street, just down from Oxford Street, but before the Burton Street corner and climbed up a steep and old-fashioned clad stairwell. It does feel so seventies grunge and properly seedy. At the top the stairs, two very casually dressed but very fashionable looking young men, took my money, but did not have tickets or programs to give me, just a flyer for the show.

I have often been to this venue, but for those of you who have not, you will then enter a "holding bay" that is stacked with non de script, very used furniture, covering, as your flesh sensitises, the feel of a squat house, with lounges, tables and mixed chairs, surrounded, on two walls with bookcases of very old second-hand books, which are for sale, by the way, and faced on a third wall with an old butcher's glass display case that has chocolates, corn chips and other manufactured confectioneries displayed in it. You can also have a glass of wine or some beer or, on some nights an espresso coffee. That will depend on the competency of the wait staff who look like they have just awoken, Rip Van Winkle like, from a four decade sleep. The competency varies I have found.

If you are lucky (?), there is in a large space, white room, off a centre doorway on the fourth wall of the "holding bay" where sometimes there is an art display. Tonight there is. Some fairly primitive, framed and unframed paintings, mostly of horses or zebras. Other specimens of zoology are attempted as well. There is a portrait as well. They, too, are for sale. There is a catalogue with prices.

This could be a discouraging, destabilising atmosphere for some theatregoers, but it does have a feint charm if you squint, fondly reminisce and are generous. On this occasion worth doing.

On time, despite the fact that the working clock on the wall behind the butcher's display case is literally a half hour behind the actual time, a bell was rung and we entered a long narrow passage, hung, with presumably, relics of other exhibitions of unsold paintings, accompanied by an atmospheric surround sound. The theatre space is a small rectangular shape with seats, made up of throw outs from both, old theatres and cinemas, probably local, that you can recall once occupying elsewhere.

The action of the play begins immediately. It takes place against two black walls and a black floor. There are three orange stack chairs and in a corner and old water cooler on a shabby prop plinth. It has white plastic cups. Clearly this company is working on a shoestring budget. In the looming darkness, before the lights go down we can see a male figure in tradesman's navy blue singlet and shorts, coloured football socks but only one boot (Paul Hooper), with his back to us, reciting re-assurances to himself as the noisey soundtrack (Sound Design by Nick Tsirimokos) reaches a crescendo and another actor in grubby jeans, shirt and greasy hair (Jay Duncan), stumbles and falls into a corner of the space.

What now ensues is an engrossing sixty two minute performance of a new Australian work by a first time writer, Jay Duncan. Two men, who, at first appear to be disconnected, find themselves in a waiting room and are pitched against each other by a disembodied voice, and find that fate has delivered them to this space to illuminate their fate filled last moments, so that they are never left wondering about what happened to them so suddenly in the world. They discover they have much in common, this gay sex worker and this carpenter/father of two. A young man is disputed 'property' for both. That they are both dead is the prompter of searching for truths. Each history informs the other.

What I resisted early about the cliché of world and character of this set up in the play was quickly brushed aside as the committed urgency of the two performances and some of the viewpoints and/or circumstances in the text aroused my curiosity and completely arrested my subjective attention. The atmosphere of concentration of the audience became palpable and a very thrilling experience was had – more thrilling perhaps, because it was unexpected.

Mr Duncan and Mr Hooper give full support to each other in the work and the characters that each has drawn are fully motivated and alive. Passionately convicted. The Director, Gabriel Dean Fancourt has honed, guided and urged this work and workers into a visceral experience that is worthwhile catching. It is beautifully staged and conducted with a musicians ear to tempo. Actors committed to communicating to their audience. Fast and gripping.

Mr Duncan, acting in his own play, has written a very arresting first play. He says he has three or four others: this is his first produced work. If this text is indicative of the talent, he is certainly worth a further gander.

Do go for the trip back in time at the venue and for a very good night in the theatre. Recommended. A new Australian play and talents worth noting.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Sydney Theatre Company presents BEFORE/AFTER by Roland Schimmelpfennig. Translated from the German by Dr Marlene Norst at Wharf 2.

51 scenes in 4 weeks and Schimmelpfennig's infinitely interpretable text.
One hotel room, 8 performers, 39 characters, 41 costumes, 40 props, 110 light bulbs, 17 metre-wide projections, 2 palm-sized cameras, 3 mics, 2 lamps, 2 chairs, 1 porter's trolley, 1 piano and a bed.
A state of mind, a galaxy. Affairs, fears of mortality. Surreality, pornography, a creature from another world.
The distance between molecules …and stars in the universe, insignificant. 2 workmen lifting ladders into outer-space, a kiss
…And an extraordinary team with a huge net of talents to haul this enormous kaleidoscopic piece out of our imagination and into the theatre in - did I mention - just 4 weeks…!

Program notes from the Director of the play, Christabel Sved.

A cast of actors: Annie Byron, Justin Stewart Cotta, Zindzi Okenyo, Johanna Puglisi, Richard Pyros, Graeme Rhodes, Sophie Ross and Tahki Saul. And all the actors are valiant, sometimes magnificent, in their efforts of "hauling" this text for the Director onto the stage for an audience.

Justin Nardella, the Designer has produced a stunning looking set. The Wharf 2 stage floor is an ocean/pool of black gloss paint - glistening and reflecting, giving an illusion of fathomless depths - perhaps a metaphor for the material of this text? Fathomless. On this floor, occasionally, an oblong shape and graph crossed set of white lines reveal themselves - appear and disappear. A metaphor, too? A map that appears to give us bearings on this black consciousness of gloss paint, only to disappear again? Tauntingly map-less? Ms Sved tell us 110 light bulbs hang above the set and spill over the audience – they light and dim. We see and then we don't see? Metaphor again? Clarity focuses and then fades? Who knows? There is a beautifully made king sized bed, one that one would find in a first class hotel, fluffed with white doona and pillows that progressively, on the journey through this play, end up a ruin, a mess - from the promise of dreams to a reality of nightmare? Still more metaphor? Could be.

The Lighting and Audio Visual design by Verity Hampson is highly ‘aesthetised’ in style, and provides much comfort: clever in directing our focus to the action, obliterating the mechanisms and machinations of the performers as they dress and undress into the 41 costumes. Max Lyandvert’s Sound Design subtly underlines, and occasionally subverts, or otherwise, the activities of the action of the play. Johanna Puglisi choreographs the physicality and dance, perhaps even the staging of the activities. Sometimes weird, sometimes weirdly appropriate.

Despite the fact that there is no interval, one is never, in the nearly two hours of forced occupation of the theatre, bored (by the bye, to not have an interval is smart, no easy possibility of exit is given. Some audience, a few seats up my row, became quite restless, they left with an uneasy clatter. We had also been given a free beer before the show, it had to be had before the show, it was not available after the show – some needed it after, I could tell as I surveyed the foyer afterwards. Come to think of it, the alcoholic relaxant, too, might have been a ploy to subdue us? To keep us in our seats, unless the toilet became an urgent need. Perhaps that's why they left. They didn't come back, though.)

So, one may be bewildered, befuddled and bellicose but never quite bored. For there is a commitment and a sense of mission about the actors and other contributors that keeps one present and active in attempting to gather “what the fuck” is this all about. Their confident action made me to want to get it. They believed in what they were doing, so to make an effort, as audience, is demanded.

Is it meant to have shape? Is it meant to have meaning? What am I to understand? What am I to take home? Should I feel nourished with this preoccupation of my precious and limited time? Like a contemporary gallery room at the MCA or at the Biennale Cockatoo Island site, strewn with what looks like discarded "life objects”, am I entrapped in this space with this king sized bed and meant to comprehend something that will enhance my life? Give me confidence about the plight of my worlds? In one of the scenes I remember hearing "We are not alone." We are confronted with a "Boyg" like organism that seems to envelop, swallow, chew and spit out the humanity that the actors have impersonated. People undress a lot. Sex is promised. A woman over seventy begins the events of the play and tells across the landscape of the night, perhaps, of the last encounter of her life - a violent interaction with a violent husband, besides memories of aunts and childhood. She is also the last event of the play. Pieces of brief interleaved stories of ordinary humanity are interspersed with insect specimen jars, an organism, a map of the universe and much else.

I was intrigued but never transported. I was alerted but never inspired. What I can't resolve is whether it is the fault of the writing, its structure and too briefly interrupted diversions? Or, is it that Ms Sved and her wonderful team in only 4 weeks rehearsal have only just begun to get on top of the material and the structure that they have inventively clad the text with, so that they have not yet had the time to properly technically rehearse their production superstructure, let alone refine and point to the profundity of what they have all wrought, for an audience's enlightenment? The source, that is the writer, and this antipodean team of collaborators attempting to comprehend and translate this European, this German worldview, this Schiller prize winning writer's take and form of the world, need more time? I think so. I saw a performance late in the opening week, and despite the very mixed response that I had read and heard, about the press night, had a relatively good time. Was the company with the passing of more time securing a clarity and rhythm? If so, will this committed work solve the communication problems of this work more and more easily and clearly for the audience?. There is a week to go. Do go and let me know.

An actress friend of mine, who has just returned to domicile in Sydney after living in Perth for sometime, after the performance commented that in the number of times that she has attended theatre in the Wharf 2, the company of actors always performed in their underwear. Is that de rigueur? she enquired. I simply replied at least this time it was clean underwear – no shit, piss, vomit or blood. And, after all, this was contemporary German repertoire that seemed, at least in the Australian productions, and the Australian directors based in Germany productions, visiting home, always made a requirement for our appreciation of the drama of the plays (relievedly, there were no paper party crowns in this production) and as part of the NEXT STAGES curation it was a practice of late, more common than not. Once upon a time in theatre history there had been tennis rackets and tea sets, boaters and gloves. And according to the Spectrum interview this morning by Elissa Blake in the Sydney Morning Herald, soon we will see seven or so actors without even underwear in Simon Stone's production of Brecht's BAAL for the Sydney Theatre Company - the" Next Stage", I guess.

There is nothing, it seems, like a Schimmelpfennig play to lead one to philosophic musings.I have seen in Sydney his ARABIAN NIGHTS and PUSH UP. Seen ARABIAN NIGHTS in two different productions that mainly failed, but loved PUSH UP. BEFORE / AFTER with the microphone rendering of the text felt like a novel being read aloud. In fact, now that I cogitate, maybe, I have enjoyed reading the plays more than in seeing them staged. Ah, curious. Maybe, I need to go to Germany to grasp the true virtues of this writer's fame. For, so far, in the Sydney productions it is all an elusive mystery.

This company of artists have not yet "hauled" this enormous kaleidoscopic piece of their imaginations fully into the theatre.

Mulan: Chongqing Acrobatic Art Troupe

AUSFENG presents MULAN. Acrobatic Show performed by CHONGQING ACROBATIC ART TROUPE OF CHINA at the State Theatre, Sydney.

"Chongqing Acrobatic Art Troupe is one of the most famous acrobatic troupes in China and the oldest local acrobatic troupe since the establishment of the People's Republic of China. It has become renowned around the world."

For those of us that have grown bored with the format and formula of Cirque de Soleil (but certainly not its remarkable performers) this troupe from the People's Republic of China brings an old fashioned (and unintentionally naive) entertainment of amazing acrobatic, gymnastic skills in the guise of a 'book' structure around the adventures of a Chinese mythical figure, Mulan, a young girl who joined the army in place of her father (Walt Disney has a very cute cartoon version).

The book structure is unnecessary for one's enjoyment, but a scene cover for the new technical set ups for the next action. Balancing acts, juggling, flying and ribbon silks, drumming, hoop diving and more are all athletically and breathlessly exhibited by this young troupe of well drilled and expert artists. The old fashioned costumes, the gaudy lighting and the unsophisticated mix of taped orchestral and popular tune scores, are disarmingly charming for their lack of pretension and a welcome relief from the Cirque de Soleil brand of overkill: lame wit and splashed money that tour around the country like a movable Westfield trap of self contained entertainment.

The professional 'genius' of these physical artists mixed with the nostalgic, tawdry production values took me back to the old Royal Easter Show Side Shows and even better, to when Bullen's Circus (not Wirth's) pitched its tents locally in the vacant lot just down the street from us and we starry eyed and awed watched, probably, less gifted artists balance, swing and hang about us. There is no saw dust in the glorious State Theatre but, you know, I could smell it. I had eaten Sushi for dinner before the show but wished, during the show, for Pluto Pups and Fairy Floss.

I had a great night. So did the young kids about me. It finished at 9.15pm and they were all awake. I bet you they were still awake at midnight-excited and preparing to dream of running away with the Chinese Troupe from Chongqing. Bullen's Circus was always in danger of stow aways in North Ryde (I just loved the elephants and that poor lonely camel).

Take yourself and your young friends for a good old fashioned, honest to goodness, good time of real skill without all that boring and repetitive frippery from those French Canadian behemoths of shows with those awful names and silly images.

Speaking In Tongues

Griffin Theatre Presents SPEAKING IN TONGUES by Andrew Bovell at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES was first presented for the Griffin Theatre Company in 1996, directed by Ros Horin. The play became a success both nationally and internationally. Since that time the text was adapted for the screen as LANTANA and in 2001 won seven Australian Film Industry (AFI) Awards. This production by Sam Strong is a part of the Griffin’s 2011 season and part of a plan by that company to look back and revive plays from the past of the Australian repertoire.

This production gives the audience a gift to re-engage with a very good and interesting play. It has the strength of a 'thriller' plot that unravels with easily identifiable people who are caught up in familiar contemporary relationship dramas framed by the greater movements of time and coincidences that the authorial, omnipresent writer makes his audience privilege too, with carefully plotted revelations that, cumulatively, may have the satisfaction for an audience who get a kick out of solving a complex jigsaw puzzle. Or not. This jigsaw, however, has considerable emotional punch.

Mr Bovell says "SPEAKING IN TONGUES is about the right and wrong of emotional conduct. It's about contracts being broken between intimates while deep bonds are forged between strangers. It maps an emotional landscape typified by a sense of disconnection and a shifting moral code....It is driven by a sense of mystery".

The play is written with nine characters for four actors. It is written in three parts and has, for its time in Australian writing, gestures of non-linear exploration and in verbal overlapping and synchronisation that Sam Strong, the present director, remembers as "being bowled over by". He goes on to say that he "hadn't seen anything like it before (and) found it exhilarating.." To the occasional or novice theatre goer this may still be the case, and one will either be "exhilarated" or bewildered, frustrated by the form. But to the regular theatre goer the form now seems only too familiar, it having being (created?) explored and taken up regularly by the contemporary European avant-garde (especially the German writing, of which we have seen a preponderantly unbalanced amount of in Sydney in the past few years: N.B. the Roland Schimmelpfennig at the STC New Stages program at present) and extensively developed further by other Australian writers like Tom Holloway (LOVE ME TENDER) and Lachlan Philpott (COLDER). Such as been the exploration and experiment in writing form that this play feels oddly dated, old fashioned.

It is, however, Mr Bovell's "sense for our all too human vulnerabilities, contradictions and complexities (that) makes this piece ...timeless." SPEAKING IN TONGUES indicates the recurring thematic preoccupations of this writer: of child sexual abuse and its far-reaching tendrils of pain, revealed by the author's game playing with the 'tidal' rhythms of time and the possible fateful interconnections that made the 2009, WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, such a masterful experience (both the writing and a devoted production).

After a shaky and too technically pre-occupied reading of the tricky overlapping and synchronised 'choral' demands of the first scene this company of actors gradually settled into a deeply committed and growing sense of ownership, embodiment, of the character's lives and dilemmas. Christopher Stollery, Caroline Craig, Andy Rodoreda and Lucy Bell all growing progressively securer with the ensemble trust of playing with and off each other as the Opening night progressed.

Ms Bell as Jane in the first part gives a memorable decline into self-absorbed grief, and then creates in the second and third parts a tenderly ferocious vulnerability as the panicked therapist Valerie, that is the fulcrum of the 'body' mystery of the play. Andy Rodoreda also impresses with his turn with three characters, especially the morally ambiguous John.

The Set Design by Dayna Morrissey is dominated by black, both glossy and flat. It has all of the defensive urban edge of bourgeois tidiness and expensive magazine art direction, that is unsettlingly disturbed with a small coup de theatre, with the opening of a panel into the reflected wilds of nature and the bush (jungle). The Lighting by Danny Pettingill, especially the particular and atmospheric second half is a beautiful abettor to the production envelopment. I felt that the Sound Design (by Composer, Steve Francis), was occasionally overwhelming, drawing too much attention to itself, and sometimes obfuscating the textual action.

The experience of the evening was overall rewarding, the story telling and the character creating is assured, and will grow even more comfortable. Mr Strong has a clear and devoted vision of the play and its strengths. I felt there was sometimes an erring in the consistent need to rush the tempo of the work. Gentle pauses and/or permissions for hesitations in the actions of the actors may have given the audience more time to absorb and identify the characters problems and frailties. I note it because Ms Bell has a great moment in the first act, when, Jane, alone on stage, catches herself in the reflecting glass of the set, I felt a growing gasp of empathy in that reflection but it was cut short by the technicalities of the scene shift and I was taken to an objective observation of a near miss of total affect, instead of the subjective immersion into the character's journey. With time the tempo breaths may extend for the contrast of rhythmic emotional counter-point.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES, then, is a very good night in the theatre. For those that only know the film, LANTANA, it will be an interesting experience to piece their memories of the more linear screenplay with the unique opportunities a writer has when creating, working in the theatre. A relative jigsaw puzzle of form as well as the familiar melodrama thriller of an apparent crime and police investigation.

The Griffin policy of re-visiting the Australian repertoire is invaluable in attempting to establish a tangible sense of the heritage of Australian Dramatic Literature. More of it the better. So many good plays that had both good and flawed original productions are crying out to be revealed and found again. Alma de Groen's RIVERS OF CHINA or better still, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. Dorothy Hewett's THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY - a flawed but quintessential Sydney play.

Whoops, only women's voices so far (!!!) in my wish list.

How about, then, on a bigger stage, Louis Nowra's THE PRECIOUS WOMAN (I know we could cast it fully with Australian/Chinese actors. Now, there would be a sign of cultural maturing, indeed). Louis Esson's MOTHER AND SON -I've only seen twice, at NIDA, in my theatre going life, never professionally. What would you like to see, instead of another Tennessee revival of THE GLASS MENAGERIE or a not so good David Hare? I am sure we all have a little list. I have a big list. Let the powers that be know.

The Imperial Bells in Concert

Chinese New Year Festival 2011 presents THE IMPERIAL BELLS in Concert at the Sydney Town Hall.

Nine rows of nine lanterns hung on either side of a Chinese New Year banner for 2011. Behind, is the gloriously restored Baroque-looking organ. Two cultures present and meeting in an exchange of art and ideals, for in the foreground is a one third replica of the imperial bells, also called Bianzhong, and they have a history dating back 3600 years, and like the Western organ in our western music heritage, have played an important part in China’s ritual and court music. Hung on a wooden frame this set of chime bells, of different sizes, are waiting to be struck by mallet. Anticipation was high.

This concert arranged and organized by the Hubei Province People’s Government, the Cultural Department of Hubei Province, the Consulate-General, the Embassy and the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China presented the Hubei Chime Bells Orchestra, formed by this collection of bronze chime bells and a Chinese folk orchestra (part of the Hubei Province Opera and dance Theatre), conducted by HONG Xia. The range and sound of the instruments, tantalising and fascinating to see and hear.

The program was diverse and extremely entertaining and illustrative of the Chinese cultural inheritance with some nods to the absorption of gentle Western influence as well. The large orchestra played a range of music and it appeared most engaged and thrilling, especially in the second to last piece, announced by our hostess as a suite from the Red Guard Opera, Hong Lake Capricio. The orchestra were visibly disciplined and communicated electrically with a guest soprano soloist, supported by the male orchestra members responding in vocal chorus, as well. The excitement of this work was communicated. I remembered seeing such an opera performance in Shanghai and thought it would be exciting to see again, this longing, triggered by this performance. Demonstrating their Western musical knowledge the orchestra also accompanied two Chinese opera singers in a rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s Brindisi from LA TRAVIATA, arranged by Nie Zhiyong. Mr Zhiyong also arranged a version of Waltzing Matilda for the orchestra. They also accompanied ZHANG Hongyang, who played his large traditional bamboo flute in two extraordinarily dexterous displays of his skill and mastery of the instrument.

The highlight, for me, was the traditional Hubei Changyang folk song: BEAUTIFUL SISTER, performed by the TU-MIAO COUSINS GROUP (Wang Aiming, Wang Aihua, Zhang Mingxia, Wu Juan in stunning Tu and Miao folk costume. The unusual sounds and harmonic interleaving were mesmerizing to hear.

The concert was less than 90 minutes and it was beautifully arranged and presented. Brevity being the soul of wit, the choice and presentation of the music was elegant and swift. Less may have been more. Elegant sufficiency’s. A stimulating encounter with China through its musical arts.

Much thanks for the opportunity to hear and see such beauty.

Friday, February 4, 2011


NEW THEATRE present the Australian première of CANARY by Jonathan Harvey.

CANARY by Jonathan Harvey premièred last year in Liverpool and subsequently at the Hampstead Theatre in London in May 2010. Jonathan Harvey probably came to most people’s attention with his play, turned film, BEAUTIFUL THING. This was followed by other plays and a television series called BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and cult comedy series called GIMME GIMME GIMME.

Coming back to the theatre, Mr Harvey has written an epic decade covering journey of some parts of Gay British history. Beginning in 1961 and spanning time ‘til now, Mr Harvey has us follow the story of a family history and its chequered interaction in dealing with the gay experience. We begin in a time when to be gay was criminal and regarded as a curable illness. It was a cause of shame and was best denied and hidden – a career destroyer if exposed. The book-ended story of Tom, his wife Ellie, and a friend called Billy, chronicles the travails of denial and the consequences to his family and friends as the superstructure of the narrative. The play finishes today with the outing of a public figure, Tom (again) who, at last, has the wherewithal to reveal truths – too late, but better late than never. Maybe.

The play begins in a ‘travesty’, of the moral activist Mary Whitehouse and the occasion of her founding of the Festival of Light and then into naturalistic but very sprightly, lightly satiric scenes of family meetings, merging into cruel drama and emotional melodrama of arrest, illness and regret and betrayal, interspersed with a surreal journey by a female figure that whirls across time on a magic carpet – all in all, a range of theatrical form and style. The play jumps back and forth in time and a small company of eight actors play a variety of roles (24) and ages. Sometimes the formula rings memories of Tony Kushner’s remarkable and genre creating work ANGELS IN AMERICA (20years old this year – how time flies, a revival please!) sub-titled a Gay Fantasia. This work by Mr Harvey has aspirations of gay fantasia certainly, but not the depth of philosophical reach and ambition of ANGELS. Too familialst and narrowly satiric in its political vision. It still has virtue and punch, just on a smaller scale.

The story of how the actions of denial of one’s true self, the sins of our fathers, can have devastating consequences on the self and the generations to come, entertainingly, if, sometimes, confusedly unravels. Tom in denying himself and betraying his friend finds the karma of justice ultimately targeting him, relentlessly, like the no longer poised furies, but the winds of activated destruction. We meet in this text across time, Mary Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher, we have mention of cultural figures like Cliff Richard and the musical, LES MISERABLES, the miners’ strike of the seventies. We watch the horror of aversion therapy, the joy of a night out in HEAVEN under the arches, the slow decline of a delightfully gay political activist from HIV/Aids, and the instruction to educate the youth of today to history so that they can appreciate the sacrifices of the times before to secure their rights and to honour the difficult past. Sometimes the weight of the ambition of the work is too huge.

When reading the play I was not easily convinced of its clarity. The television writing form that Mr Harvey has successfully embraced, latterly in his career, sometimes makes demands of the audience watching this play that are little taxing, without the technical short cuts and expertise of that TV medium. However, the Director, Nick Curnow has made a very good fist of guiding us, mostly, through the many difficulties of style and time and place jumps. He takes us with his creative team fairly successfully through the maze. Tom Bannerman, creates simple but blissful decisions in his design solution on what looks like a limited budget. The lighting by Spiros Hristias is atmospheric and useful. The sound design sometimes errs into sentimentality, which the play does not need. Do ensure that you attend with your wits about you and do give the play its full length – this production almost succeeds in giving an homogenous whole. The cast are generally committed and focused and solid in the telling of the story. One senses a growing ensemble of mission. I enjoyed the work especially of Conrad le Bron as Billy and the difficult task that Caleb Alloway as Mickey has tried to solve. Peter McAllum and Alice Livingstone are stalwart and pillars of conviction in their tasks.

“Guilt,” says Arthur Miller, “supplies pain without the need to act and the humiliation of contrition; by feeling guilt, in short, we weaken the need to change our lives.” Tom in this play finds the reality of this and finally chooses an action over the choice of guilt. Let us hope he finds freedom at last and that he feels right in this world.

Peter Tatchell, the Gay Rights Activist, who is visiting Sydney as part of Mardi Gras, 2011, has told us, “Women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights. We are the canaries in the mine”.

CANARY could or should be an interesting experience for all as part of the 2011 Mardi Gras.

Food Chain

Sydney Festival 2011 present FOOD CHAIN. Gavin Webber & Grayson Millwood (Animal farm Collective) At the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre.

Having seen the two last works of Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood under the company banner of Splintergroup: LAWN and ROADKILL, I was duly attracted to see this work as well. FOOD CHAIN is a new work commissioned from an invitation Physical Virus Collective (pvc) in Freiburg, Germany.

“We wanted to explore the idea of animals experimenting on humans, viewing them like a David Attenborough nature documentary in reverse. And with this perspective we wanted to ponder how much ‘animal’ is left in these human beings”. The animals here are the brown bears. – two of them – beautifully realised in costume design by Moritz Muller. He is also responsible for the set design that has a substantial tree that is used athletically by the troupe throughout the piece and especially in a long and graceful slow motion “pole/tree trunk” dance at the end of the piece.

Unfortunately, like the other two pieces the work is both engrossing and sometimes boring. The work evolves like a nightmare dream state that crosses in and out of the fringes of our unconscious/ conscious contemporary cultural adventures, fears and sexual longings – a long erotic dance by one of the performers with the draped head of a hairy bear particularly mesmerizing in its Freudian alarm bells. But just as true, other sequences, seemed underdeveloped and/or too long. Like the ROADKILL experience, artistic editing would have given the work more consistent focus and easily more coherence to the joins from explored idea to idea.

It is however, the wackiness of most of the scenarios that does keeps one attentive, alongside a total absorption in the truly amazing physical techniques of the performers: Kate Harman, Grayson Millwood, Gabrielle Nankivell, Tommy Noonan, Joshua Thomson and Gavin Webber.

The soundscape and design by Luke Smiles is a strong ally to the work.

Like their other work, fascinating and tantalising, but, still unruly and poorly constructed as a whole. Still I am glad to have invested in the night out and I certainly encouraged other friends who like physical theatre with an edge of spookiness and sexual teasing to go. I hope the company refine this work to a more stream-lined perfection. I would love to see it again and look forward to their next exploration.

P.S. I felt this Sydney Festival 2011 lacked any real status as an event of great worth this year. The brochure offerings were not very exciting or inviting. The pieces I chose to see were satisfactory, but has my world rocked or changed from the availability of it being here in Sydney?: NO. Past years have. No need to stay in Sydney or get back to it for the January break if this program represents the highlights of World Cultural Events. The Sydney Biennial was a hundred times more provocative and thrilling. I went twice for two days. Pity about this year’s Festival program – ah, well I read a lot instead and saved some money.


Sydney Festival in association with Arts Projects Australia presents ENTITY from the Wayne McGregor/Random Dance at the Sydney Theatre.

The Australian Ballet performed Wayne McGregor’s DYAD, 1909 (the program CONCORD – December, 2009). I enjoyed it very much but thought that some of the intricacy of the choreography was beyond some of the classic dancer’s competency, that night. So I was very keen to see this work made on and for this collection of dancers. Dancers from his own company Random Dance. The recent screening on ABC television of the December 2009, UK Southbank arts documentary, looking intensely at the Wayne McGregor work, was also provocatively interesting.

In 2006 Wayne McGregor was appointed the Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, the first modern dance maker to be given that the post in the company’s history. Mr McGregor’s company came into focus in the 1990’s and the defining features of his work were “the unique quality of his vocabulary. This had its origins in McGregor’s own long, lean and supple physique and in his body’s ability to register movement with peculiar sharpness and speed; at one extreme McGregor’s dancing was a jangle of tiny fractured angles, at the other it was a whirl of seemingly boneless fluidity.” Watching the documentary where Mr McGregor, in his process with dancers, demonstrates his ideas, is to gather the inkling of his creative impulses.

Alongside the physical impulses is also an intellectual fascination with science and technology and the connection between how the body and the mind interact: over the past ten years he and his company have been experimenting with cognitive scientists who study this interaction. Such was the ‘fascination’ that in 2002 it “led him to set up a research project entitled CHOREOGRAPHY and COGNITION with a team of neuroscientists; the project was backed by a fellowship at the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge university.” His work beginning with AtaXia (2004) was the first integrated sign of this interest.

ENTITY created in 2010 continues these physical explorations. The permutations of solo and various group dynamics danced by the company over a very athletic sixty minute time frame gathers in impact slowly, the stamina of the company accompanied by a surging sound design jointly made by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins with visual set design ‘tricks’ using digital video design imagery by Ravi Deepres gradually draws one’s interest to a place of aesthetic appreciation and, maybe, surrender. “Part of the attraction to the work and by definition the repulsion for some is the actual physical vocabulary the dancers execute, with its often abrupt, distorted, torsioned movement that seems alien to the body.” Mr McGregor says in a quoted interview in the Festival program notes “…But dysfunctional, damaged traumatised bodies have always interested me a lot, precisely because they are not stereotyped.” And “Learning to understand the beauty of the “other” body language is something I consider very important to appreciating the work. For this you have to be open to a body misbehaving, a body not obeying the conventional rules of dancing and for some this is too far an aesthetic stretch.”

In truth, for me, the physical expression of the company was sometimes a vision of a company with determinedly ‘Cockeresque’ movement aesthetics (i.e. of the singer Joe Cocker, who incidentally has concert dates coming up in Sydney). A particular dancer, Antoine Vereecken, continually catching my eye and confirming this impression. Beside this unfamiliar persistence in shape dynamics from all the company throughout the work there were flashes of classic hand and feet finish and some more familiar echoes of the beauty line of dance as we have mostly experienced and embodied in our mind’s memory. Our usual inherited anticipation. It is then a matter of an individual’s attraction or repulsion and I experienced both, but gradually was seduced to place of appreciation if not liking.

The dance is abstract and at first remote in its patterns and it was ultimately the relentless action and the physical stamina of the choreography and the dancers that encouraged me to applaud with some satisfaction. Talking to contemporary dancers, afterwards, not all were enamoured of the work and some even downright forthright in their displeasure. I am not sophisticated enough in this area of art to enter the debates that I heard about me, except to admit that I cumulatively enjoyed the experience.

A true festival experience, then – argument and debate for and against the quality of the exploration and its dramaturgy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Diary of a Madman

Belvoir presents THE DIARY OF A MADMAN by Nikolai Gogol adapted by David Holman with Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush in the Upstairs Theatre.

My friends and I had organised ourselves and waited for five hours to hopefully get tickets to see this show. We were able to buy our tickets but not until ten minutes before curtain. We became increasingly anxious and excited as the clock ticked forward. Then we were called to the ticket office. It had been a very pleasant afternoon in the Belvoir foyer waiting and chatting to perfect strangers who were similarly patient and expectant, and whether we got in or not, the day had not been wasted.

We got great seats.

Just before the lights out, two young men struggled across our legs to the seats next to us and leant eagerly forward towards the stage as the stage lights went down. In the interval, impressed by their attentiveness and the fact that they like us had sought out their tickets in the same way, I asked what they were doing there. It was a glorious Sydney summer day / night and it was school holidays. They told us that they were studying theatre criticism as part of their High School curricula and had selected this work to complete some study and to see Geoffrey Rush. Again impressed, I asked what school did they attend. They replied: Newington. I asked if they had been part of the audience from Newington that had attended BANG, my favourite show last year, Downstairs. It turned out that we had all been there together, on the same night. Is this school doing something right? I pondered, hopefully.

"What a coincidence!" I remarked.

At the end of the performance I asked how had they experienced it. They were almost speechless in amazement. I, from the great dottage of my world weary experience of a life time of theatre going, said to them, that in the time to come they would be able to tell their children that they can remember when they had seen Geoffrey Rush In THE DIARY OF A MADMAN as a benchmark of witnessed great artistry. It would be rare for them to see an artist, so beautifully, giving a performance of such flawless skill, humour and passion. Just plain old-fashioned passion for performing for a live audience. The personal sacrifice of a great artist, burning himself up both psychologically, and especially, physically, to tell the truths of Gogol's Madman, Aksentii Poprishchin, just for us that night in the Belvoir Theatre space..

I have mused to myself, it is like the recorded memory some others have written about and I have jealously read, of, say, that performance of Sarah Bernhardt that they had seen or that performance by Nureyev and Fonteyn,or Joan Sutherland in 'Lucia..' etc.

This performance, too, will in time become a legendary one. Surely? Those two young high school boys near the beginning of their theatre going lives will have a memory of a 'Holy Grail' moment in the theatre that will haunt their expectations every time they go to the theatre in the future and will drive them to return and return to it, in the possibility of a matching bath in greatness. Rare. Rare indeed. But worth chasing.

Those of us who have seen Geoffrey Rush in this season of DIARY …are very fortunate indeed. Watching this work in the theatre and going to the 'pictures' to see THE KING'S SPEECH with Geoffrey Rush again giving a flawlessly judged and executed performance, for a completely different performing medium, is to see an actor in TOP form. Surely the two pieces of work represent some pinnacle of achievement for this man. I jolly well think so.

From the very first off-stage line and clattering noise down the proposed stairwell of an apartment in St Petersburg in early nineteenth century Russia, Mr Rush presents a man in a spiralling journey arc into madness. At first pathetically comic, moving through a vivid and intensely calibrated descent to the wretched, wrenching drama of Poprishchin madness, there is not a moment of uncared for expression either vocally or physically by Mr Rush that does not unobtrusively capture and seduce one to belief, empathy and emotional commitment for a fellow human being.

The intelligence of the performance and the mastery of the actor's instrument is stupendous to behold. The greatest joy, of many, is the physical command. A moment to be relished, is the moment when as an audience, one is suddenly aware that one of the water drip pans on the floor has become an accidental shoe for this man. The greatness of this ridiculously funny image is that you neither see the set up or subsequently the slip out. It is expertly seamless in execution and invisibly sewn into the technical armoury of this great clown. Mr Rush trained early in his career with Jacques Lecoq and there has always being ample evidence of this mentorship / training in his expertise. It seems, to my eye, over the years, an essential and early entry point of creative energy in the work of this performer (a sideline is to quote Geoffrey Rush also honouring the influence of the great Australian Movement Teacher, Keith Bain, in the recently published book on that man's work and contribution to the Australian acting proffesion [1] ). Mr Rush's body is a powerhouse tool of expression matched with his intelligent insights to character and vocal control. It is also hallmarked with an apparent sense of improvisational freshness that sometimes crashes pleasantly through the fourth wall of the space and acknowledges the audience as an accomplice to the evening's possibilities of fun and compassion.

The collusion Mr Rush has had with his costume designer, Tess Schofield, is detailed and remarkable in defining the character and his journey. But the visual triumph of the image design, certainly has to be the wig stylist's work, Kylie Clarke. The intricacy of the detail red hair zones, alongside the fine wafts of the hairs as Poprishchin moves about the stage, pathetically add as telling signatures to the decline of the man (sacrilegiously, I should mention that often the late Ruth Cracknell, came to mind, in some of the imagery captured by Mr Rush).

The Set design by Catherine Martin, of a low ceiling attic in garish red , green and yellows is exactly right, abetted to full effect by the lighting of Mark Shelton.

This work is not a solo piece however and the contribution of Yael Stone, in its limited textual opportunities is matched to the intensity and detail of her partner, Mr Rush. The girlish love struck innocent, Tuovi, is delightfully moving; the doll ideal of Poprishchin's devotion, Sophia is delicately embodied and the truly dreadful horror of Tatiana in the mad house, is devastating in her wordless presence.

But, further, the work is not a duet either, for the performance presence and subtle contribution of the two live musicians, Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim are also vital in the comic underlining and capitalising of moments. The music score by Alan Johns intricate, sophisticated and engaging.

To admire all this work is to compliment Neil Armfield, the Director, who has accomplished the gathering and marrying of all these great elements with such subtlety, that it is invisible in its crafting - surely a compliment that some of our director auteurs could consider in their pursuit of theatre presentation - the seeming absence of the directors hand/siganture IS Mr Armfields siganture, in his theatre and his opera work. He lets the work and the workers speak to the audience untrammelled by the intellectual convolutions of theatre art theory. Nothing boring or extraneous here.

The text principally by David Holman, but influenced by Mr Armfield and Rush is a fairly straight forward rendering of the short story by Nickolai Gogol. Written in 1836, at the same time as his famous play, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, there is an uncanny prescience in the mapping of Porishchin's journey into madness, when one reads that Gogol himself was driven by obsession into madness, religious mania and death within ten years. The life in this play of this obsessive and deluded clerk reminds one of the works of Kafka (THE TRIAL, METAMORPHOSIS) and of the late Sarah Kane. The tragedy of the possible psychic paths of humanity keeps on and on, whatever scientific discoveries occur. The constant facts of the fragility of humanity as animal is humbling to experience and when in the hands of inspired artists strangely life affirming.

Those of you who did not get to see this work missed a great event in Sydney theatre experiences. This production moves on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music soon and I recommend not to be missed. The ticket price here in Sydney $56.00. The worth priceless.

At the performance of UNCLE VANYA that I attended, Mr Rush did too, sitting a few rows before me. How I longed as that evening wore on, with all due respect to Mr Roxburgh, the winner of the Sydney Theatre's Critics Award for Best performance by an actor in 2010 in that role, that Mr Rush had also been a member of that cast. The vagaries and dreams of the theatre makers and audience. Still to have both of these casts on Sydney stages at the same time is a testament to the toiling of the arts and artists in this tiny, relatively, country of theatre goers. A festival of Australian artists.


[1] KEITH BAIN ON MOVEMENT. Edited by Michael Campbell. Currency House, 2010.