Sunday, March 27, 2011

Missing the Bus to David Jones


In October, 2009 Theatre Kantanka presented MISSING THE BUS TO DAVID JONES at Performance Space in the Carriageworks. I remarked that this was a work of some importance. Other critics, concurred. I lamented that the work may not have the audiences it deserved and, so, am heartened and encouraged that Performing Lines has taken it aboard in its producing endeavours. That the Seymour centre have curated it as part of their season is highly laudable. I hope it attracts an audience.

This remarkable and incisively relevant collaboration, envisioned and conceived by director Carlos Gomes, deals with the growing needs of an ageing community. It focuses on the inhabitants and carers of a care facility, that, in its promotional material suggests it is ' cutting edge' in quality. The 'clients', their families and the staff are all represented by six versatile performers/devisors: Valerie Berry, Rosie Lalevich, Phillip Mills, Katia Molina, Kym Vercoe and Michael Denka. (Mr Denka re-creating, seemingly seamlessly, a role originally contributed by Arky Michael). The activities of the facility are caringly explicated by the company who all spent much time in site specific research and observation. "Most of the verbal text is from those people we met in facilities we visited." It has a ring of authenticity. The physical body distortions, extreme, but also painstakingly and heartbreakingly authentic.

In seeing this work again, the gained perspective is in the subtle and sensitive care that the company have chosen to illustrate the world that, although at this time is "someone else's reality", but, given the whirlygig of time, my possible future. In lesser hands this work could have been uncomfortably "in yer face". For instance, the episode of the incontinence of the aged gently integrated with an exercise ball game with a large see through balloon, that only latterly has the handprints of a "brown" accident. In other, lesser hands it could have developed as an insidious vulgar laugh. The dressing of a patient from the nakedness in a shower to a street credence, is handled with proper respect and gentle pathos - which for me, underscored more powerfully, in its almost Brechtian appropriated imagery, its delicacy in communication. Time and again the dramaturgy by Annette Tesoriero is assured in its skill of communication. The truly beautiful pathetic waiting for the bus to David Jones, the iconic image of this production, totally memorable in the embodiments of character by Katia Molino and Valerie Berry.

The use of the video projections (Joanne Saad) in this bigger space seemed to be more impactful. The delightful, nostalgic music sound track (The Anniversary Waltz, for instance) full of generational resonances (Nick Wishart).

The duration of the performance moves quickly by. The audience about me this time, in the York Theatre, of a generation who have cared for parents and friends already and perceive their future closely to them, reflected in the stage time and place. Their reaction was gentle, amused and entirely, it seemed to me, by the applause, grateful. Care for the future of the aged, of which we will all be part of, intimately and lovingly explored. No embarrassments just gentle truths.

I encourage you to take your family of all generations. It will awaken a subject not always publicly aired, is rather delicately avoided or mocked. This beautiful production could open the doors to personal preparation and political action to ensure the final stages of life are respected, comfortable and normal. Performing Lines must find it difficult to "sell" this show. More credit to them for engaging in it. The choice of the work to me, represents vision and responsibility to our community. Better this than the recent Arts Projects Australia production: LITTLE GEM, that that organisation thought, relevant or useful to tour the country.


The Brothers Size


In 2005 the great African American writer August Wilson died. He had written what is now known as THE PITTSBURG CYCLE. Ten plays that trace the history of an extended family through the last century. It is a formidable body of work. We, in Australia, still, have not seen any of these plays on our stages - a cultural hole and loss of some estimation. In 2006 a young African-American writer (almost 31) had his first play IN THE RED AND BROWN WATER work shopped at the Yale School of Drama. Since then, two other plays, THE BROTHERS SIZE and MARCUS: OR THE SECRET OF SWEET have been work-shopped and then produced across the United States (THE BROTHERS SIZE was nominated for an Olivier Award in London). The three plays together form a trilogy under the title THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS.

"McCraney's lush and gorgeous triptych - surely the greatest piece of American writing by an American playwright under the age of thirty in a generation or more - smolders." - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune.

Of THE BROTHER / SISTER PLAYS, David Rooney of Variety writes, "These are spiritual works that thrum with vitality, told in vigorous language that folds together slangy vernacular with bursts of haunting poetry. If there's an heir to August Wilson, the gifted McCraney may be on his way to claiming that title." Further, Ben Brantley of the New York Times, "McCraney writes with a passion and urgency that can't be faked, in a style that invests ordinary lives with the grandeur of ancient gods. Watching these plays, you experience the excited wonder that comes from witnessing something rare in the theatre : a new , authentically original vision."

This production at the Griffin Theatre does confirm the heralding of this new exciting talent of universal impact.

"Mr McCraney was raised in the projects of Miami, with family members who battled drug addiction. His mother died from an AIDS-related illness at the age of 40. He's described the world of the theatre as a 'lifeline' out of the poverty that dominated his upbringing. "I was trying to master and understand the socio-economics and drug addiction that was destroying my own family, and I did not have a way to express the confusion or the small joys that were evident", McCraney said. "Theatre, as well as dance and music, allowed me the ability to put those larger questions into a form that, at least, ordered them into a more beautiful chaos. That's all we ever really want in life, right? To feel like we can for a moment order the chaos into something manageable, or at least perceptible." (1).

THE BROTHERS SIZE is the middle play of the trilogy and, fortunately, it is not necessary to know the other plays. Imara Savage, the director, found this play and pursued the rights to do it in Sydney. Then she found three Australian actors, Indigenous-Australian Meyne Wyatt (Oshoosi Size); Tongan-Australian Anthony Taufa (Elegba); and of African-American heritage Marcus Johnson (Ogun Size), all recent graduates of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

In a black space, of an entirely appropriate and elegant minimalism (Designer, David Fleischer) with just a floor encircled with a grate that allows blue light to emanate, and a beautiful lighting design in a smoky haze by Verity Hampson, the three physically impressive actors (Movement, Daniella Lacob), move/ dance a prologue opening song to the live accompaniment of musician/ composer, Miriam Lieberman, on two percussive African drums. An impressive and vital detail of production.

The language of the text has the actors speak the instructions of the physical action, i.e. "Ogun Size enters" or "Ogun Size is left alone. Without his brother. The music plays in the background." as well as the poetic / prose of character interaction: arias of vivid poetry and dialogue. The technique provides an invitation by the writer and the actors, to the audience, to participate creatively and intimately with the artists, to bring this experience to life. It works spectacularly, throughout, in the mouths of these actors and climaxes in a joint reminisce, through music and song, between the two brothers (Otis Redding's TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS), that is a community celebration in nostalgic warmth of familial connection, that, as an audience is hard to resist participating in. These brothers of Mr McCraney's imagination have made us their family, too, by this point in the play. Their plight, our family's plight. The emotional identification is high. The play dramatises the relationship responsibilities between brothers: Ogun, running his auto shop, having found a destiny and surety in the contemporary world of San Pere, Louisiana, near the Bayou, and his younger brother Oshoosi, just returned from prison and with a predilection for trouble. The world, events and relationships of this play by Mr McCraney become subtly of our time and place but atmospherically of an ancestral tribal inheritance. The Yoruba culture of West Africa, Nigeria, is reflected in the names of the characters and the music of the score and the haunting sound design by Caitlin Porter. An embracement of another universe is possible with resonances for our own Australian lives.

That we have not seen any of August Wilson's work in Australia has to do, mostly, I presume, with the pragmatics of not having a numerous Australian cast of respectful heritage (The cast of Mr Wilson's plays are often large). That Ms Savage has found a play that requires only three colour-specific actors and that the actors are at hand in Sydney, and more than competent for the challenge of this text, is a gift for Sydney audiences. To have this young writer's work intertwined into our cultural lives is a boon of some importance.

A gentle but important moment in Sydney theatre history is taking place in the SBW STABLES THEATRE with this production. Australian actors of colour are finding authentic connection and identification to this text and characters. Lee Lewis was present at the performance I attended and her thought provoking Currency House essay: Cross Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre, of a few years ago, popped into my head. The fact that three recent NIDA graduates were investigating this play was exciting indeed (as I mentioned in my blog on SPEAKING IN TONGUES, I could cast Louis Nowra's play, set in China, THE PRECIOUS WOMAN with Australian Chinese actors right now, as well. Worth considering?).

Meyne Wyatt, a 2010 graduate from NIDA, makes a spectacular professional debut. His performance of the innocent, naïve and trouble prone Oshoosi is one to savour. The contemporary speed of this actor's image making leaps, is matched by a dexterity of fearless technical proficiency. The instincts of body and voice, almost harnessed, to tell the story well. Mr Wyatt is in charge of his scenes and this play, and, as his confidence grew, after some conscious hesitation of confidence gaining in the first few scenes, transcended into a passionate and detailed revelation of a contemporary youth, a youth of needs, who has the lack of patience to deserve the right to have them. What he wants is an entitlement of living, not an earned achievement. This throws Oshoosi into the cauldron of societal conflict and from which his older brother Ogun, may be his only respite for survival.

Marcus Johnson, A NIDA graduate of 2005, carries his African American heritage onto this stage with growing passionate conviction and the revelation of a life lived. Nervously, the actor finds his feet of confidence and arrives securely, in the dramatic climax of the play, of Ogun's confession of his sacrifice for his brother, who, once again, has let him down, finishing in an invocation of a grief stricken litany: "You fucked up you fucked up you fucked up you.........You fucked up." and, on the night I saw it, it was a theatrical highlight of identification and raw exposure that is searing to witness and tear making.

Anthony Taufa, a 2009 NIDA graduate, creates a physically sinuous and desperately "sweet" character of Elegba, the catalyst to the crisis of the play. The physical presence is dominating and, when absolutely focused, the vocal power and precision, scalpel-like in its affect on the events of the story.

This steady policy of the NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF DRAMATIC ART, reflected also in the work of the other actor training institutes throughout Australia, of training the immensely diverse multi-cultural make-up of our nation, is providing the resources, gradually, for an expansion into a truly representative International repertoire of our present times, for Australian audiences. Perhaps the exciting contemporary British playwright, Roy Williams, may be seen here. Even productions of August Wilson's THE PITTSBURG CYCLE, or parts thereof !!!???

Imara Savage and her collaborators have introduced a contemporary American writer of beauty and original vision and deserve congratulations. Do go. Although, a young company of fledgling actors a striking début indeed. Mr McCraney can have his confidence in giving this young team the responsibility of introducing his work to Sydney, well rewarded.

1. Article in the Sydney Star Observer: FINDING ORDER AMID THE CHAOS by Nick Bond.

I should as well declare, in the context of this review, that I am at present a member of the teaching staff at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) - Kevin Jackson.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Shape of Things

pantsguys Productions & atyp Under the Wharf present THE SHAPE OF THINGS by Neil Labute at atyp, Wharf 4.

THE SHAPE OF THINGS by Neil Labute, I have seen, maybe, in three other productions in Sydney. Like Patrick Marber's CLOSER, it seems to have an attraction for young actors and directors, a generational cultural resonance, that they want to have the opportunity to explore. Or, is it simpler, economic pragmatics: a small cast of young actors with roles they can connect to easily! I asked some of the pantsguys Production team why this Labute again and not one of his other non-performed plays for Sydney? "It is a school text", was the reply. A reasonable and strategic answer, especially if it does build their coffers, by having a needy paying audience who will come along, so that they can do other more adventuresome work - even if it were another Labute that we haven't yet seen: SOME GIRL(S) (2005), REASONS TO BE PRETTY (2008) or the latest, IN A FOREST, DARK AND DEEP (2011). This new company's first production being another Labute play: AUTOBAHN (2003). Aiming to be the Sydney Labute Company? You could do worse.

This production directed by Sam Haft is fairly engaging. I, despite my familiarity with the play was once again arrested and provoked. The essential argument as to what are the moral boundaries of art for its creators and creations? What are those responsibilities? When is art, art? When is it not? was explored anew on my bus ride home with my guest. Is the central protagonist of the artist more reprehensible because it is woman? MMMM? Many other bones of contention, as well, were aired.

A nerdy young man, Adam (Tim Reuben) studying literature at a small provincial university/college comes across a young artist about to commit an act of vandalism in a museum gallery with a can of spray paint, Evelyn (Rebecca Martin), who is in her final year of graduate study preparing an "installation thingy" for her thesis exams. Unbeknownst to Adam, he becomes the subject of her art project and during, what he believes to be a courtship and love affair, has things about himself re-shaped. He shifts from the nerd into what the magazines, that we all read, have qualified as a more desirable figure. Adam's friends, Jenny (Cat Dibley) and Phillip (Graeme McRae) take note and are also changed and challenged by his "Gregor Samsa" metamorphosis.

It is an insidiously creepy play. It is discomforting. It is challenging. It may be as Mr Haft asserts," a modern American classic". Certainly, despite my familiarity, it still resonated provocatively.

Made up of two acts of short scenes, the puzzlement of the controlling behaviour of Evelyn and the supine behaviour of Adam becomes a fascination and the final two scenes one of utter moral dilemma and horror. This is still so, for me, even knowing the play and not been able to be surprised by it, as some of the audience were.

The text then is cleverly wrought and the acting and direction of this production, despite a clumsy and a time consuming scene changing set design (Tom Petty) is tight and mostly convincing. I thought the actors were believable as impersonators of the textual demands, but I was not completely persuaded that these characters had a life when not on the stage in front of us. The back story of each of these people a little thin, their motivations relatively superficial or not presented. It sometimes felt like talking arguments rather than life forces with real human feelings. The character of Jenny the exception, which simply threw the others characters up in contrast. The motivations of this Evelyn are a mystery, a shadow of inconclusiveness. The psychology of Phillip lacked depth. Adam, a little too earnest, and considering his course of study, and the number of literary and film culture references, a little too naive for too long?

While debating this play by Labute with an artist friend I was told that the Evelyn character has a famous true-life model. A quick perusal of her Wikipedia listing suggested to me that Mr Labute knows of her, and with dramatic licence of course, has not only for this play, but, for the premise of others, SOMEGIRL(S) , for instance, created other literary debates. The fact that Evelyn may be really out there, underlines my fear and sometimes loathing of going into the MCA and its international equivalents.

A play and production at atyp worth knowing for further fetid worries. Good theatre.

Julius Caesar

New Theatre presents JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare.

Anthony Skuse is a director of some skill. His work in Sydney has been consistently impressive: BUG and REFERENCES TO SALVADOR DALI MAKE ME HOT at the Griffin Theatre, for instance.

This Julius Caesar at the New Theatre has some truly beautiful visual aesthetics. The lighting by Matt Cox is astounding for its atmospheric control and sense of narrative detailing. On the large black stage space, flooded with haze, the focus of light is centred on a small square, centre stage, into which the actors enter in full light or peripherally. Around the edges of this principle action-place, light appears and disappears and the shadow of conspiracy in the relative darkness is the dramatic effect. The sometimes semi-clad actors with casual battered wardrobe is contemporary in inspiration (Costume, Casandra Pascoli) and underline the masculine energy of the play and gives it a sexuality that is palpable.

Along with this visual flair, Mr Skuse has adapted and directed the play with theatrical invention and integrity. The final, usual confusing act of civil war on the Plains of Phillipi, in Shakespeare's text, cleverly and clearly delineated with a flourish of inherited absorption of past masters, that he makes his own. A still almost choral reading of the text and action. These are the virtues of this production. Looking at the images created on this stage and the control organised by the director and lighting designer reminded me of recent video paintings of Bill Viola e.g. LOVE/DEATH and THE TRISTAN PROJECT) - both transfixing.

This production mounted with a school audience in mind, that may be studying this text, fails in every other way, not only for the students, but also for the ordinary audience, who without pre-knowledge of this text, might find it a very difficult experience to comprehend. Character and narrative fail to be revealed. The inexperienced vocal skills/aesthetics of most of this cast is not of a quality that permits communicating clarity of storytelling and certainly not the poetic gift of the English language of Shakespeare's world.

Kurt Phelan (Cassius) certainly, uniquely in this production, has a firm hand on his responsibilities and reveals an urgent energetic sense of controlled character revelation and narrative shaping. Shameer Birges (Brutus) speaks well but does not yet have control of this text to demarcate intellectually, clearly or accurately, the character's needs or motivations. This Brutus an insecure reciter of lines. Kipan Rothbury (Casca) lacks any real skill vocally and substitutes energetic nasal bluster for storytelling. Petr Vackar (Mark Antony), has the appearance of a Hollywood warrior, but as yet, no skill to speak this poetry or argue the arguments, other than with the strains of an actor using English as a second language. It is not intelligible, let alone useful in dramatic story telling. Mark Langham (Caesar) muscles his way through the text and errs into energetic pitch and volume as a substitute for character delineation. In lesser roles, Mark Dessaix (Lucius) and Suzanne Pereira (Portia) make impressions.

If only one of the five character pillars of the arguments of the play, Cassius, is being rendered anywhere near technical proficiency, this production of Shakespeare's THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR is doomed.

None of the usual discussions around interpretive choices by this artistic team in presenting and solving this play through the intricacies of the poetics can be offered up. The visual aesthetics and the perceived gifts of Mr Skuse are obliterated by the choice of the artists given the responsibility and opportunity to explore this play for audiences. For this Mr Skuse may have had to sacrifice some of his visual choices for vocal and verbal aesthetics. Without voices, sensitive and flexible for speaking the great challenges of the greatest playwright in the English language, the play and production cannot succeed.

A discouraging night.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Little Gem


LITTLE GEM was premiered at the 2008 Dublin Fringe and won a number of prizes, including Best New Play. It subsequently went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award and toured to The Flea Theatre in New York in 2009.It also won the Best Theatre Script awarded by the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild.

This modest touring production (Directed by Paul Meade) presented by ARTS PROJECTS AUSTRALIA has been doing some of the arts circuit in Australia. A simple back painted wall on which, occasionally, some images are projected, three chairs, a lamp stand and an oblong of carpet, three actors dressed for today, and you have a very budget conscious production, sitting sedately in the relative vastness of the stage space. Great for touring: will fit in most spaces, little setup, the lighting is rudimentary, and relatively cheap.

Three very competent actors, Birdy Beaman (Amber), Neilí Conroy (Lorraine) and especially Anita Reeves (Kay) play three generations of women in one family (it takes a while to tune your ears to the Irish dialect). In three interconnecting, interleaved monologues they recount the times of their lives, about the passing of Gem (James), Kay’s husband and the arrival of Little Gem, Amber’s baby. Death, birth, marriages. Courtships, sex and condoms, a penchant for alcohol and, yes, vibrators, are covered.

That this is written by a woman, Elaine Murphy, and that three women make the entire cast is of interest to me. But unlike the Sarah Ruhl’s play “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”, the emphasis here is definitely on folksy charm, and has very little politics, even of a gentle kind. Coming out of contemporary Ireland, wrecked by the Global Financial Collapse, this work definitely feels like a cosy anaesthetic, a coma inducing respite for its first audiences: the Irish. Charming, comforting sentimentality of the lovely blarney kind. The kind of story telling writing we have in the plays of say, Peter Kenna: A HARD GOD and especially THE SLAUGHTER OF ST. THERESA’S DAY. Still, even in the Seymour Centre, Sydney, it was enough for most of this audience, with quite a number of Irish expatriates in the house, judging by the pre-show and post-show conversation lilts.

It is a satisfying but definitely thin night in the theatre. That this play, which is hardly a play (virtually three monologues, no interaction with each other for these characters, it feels more like a radio script) was awarded Best Play by the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild tells us something of the state of playwriting in Ireland (where is Brian Friel?) and makes what is happening here in Sydney creditable. It could probably, read just as satisfyingly, as a short novel.

If you want a nostalgically easy night in the theatre or are of Irish heritage and you have the money and time, why not? Otherwise watch your telly and the soaps in the comfort of your own home - just as reassuring and restful.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Men Without Shadows

HOBO COLLECTIVE presents MEN WITHOUT SHADOWS by Jean-Paul Satre, translation by Kitty Black in the Parade Studio, Kensington.

MEN WITHOUT SHADOWS (MORTS SANS SEPULTURES) was written by Jean-Paul Satre in 1946. The play is set in 1944 and concerns the capture of five french resistors after a failed action against the Vichy-occupying forces. Awaiting interview by their capturers these young people discuss what they will or won't do or say under the pressure of torture. The three interrogators, similarly, discuss throughout the proceedings what pressures they should apply.

Satre's philosophic musings and theories are aired throughout the proceedings: "The meaning of man's life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged (free will), man has to make this meaning himself, has to commit himself to a role in this world, has to commit his freedom...". All these people, in this play, will give meaning to their lives through the choice of what they do or say on this day of testing. They will commit to a role in this world: hero or coward.

In this production, produced by a fledgling company of young artists, the HOBO COLLECTIVE, under the Direction of Hendrick Elstein, John Turnbull playing Landrieu, the senior leader of the government forces, gives the most complex performance of the evening. The philosophic underpinnings of his character is subtly and deftly embodied in a composed and detailed naturalistic characterisation. The demands and struggles of his conscience are expressed in a passionate physical and emotional mask. The humanity of Landrieu's dilemma in all of its ambiguities is movingly communicated. He is neither admirable or totally despicable, but his actions give a meaning to his life.

It is Mr Turnbull's performance that throws into relief the relative problem of the other actors' work. The arguments, intellectual intentions of Satre's play are the principal pre-occupation of the rest of the company. This debate is more or less clear, but not always, throughout the playing time

The reality of the situation that Satre has constructed about this discussion: the torture, murders and rapes, the given circumstances of the situation, are so superficially acknowledged by the prisoner actors that a coolness and disengagement with the possible power of the play becomes the consequent experience of the night. That Sorbier (Carl Batchelor) returns from torture that we have heard being brutally inflicted, muffled screams down the hall way, without visible consequences of any import; that Lucie (Tami Sussman) returns to the classroom after rape and torture without revealed physical or psychological consequences of any communicated clues (it was a surprise to learn later that this is what Lucie had experienced at the hands of the interrogators); that the breaking of the wrist of Henri (Sam O'Sullivan) in front of our eyes has such little force of crunching bones and aggravated nerves, reduces the action of the play to an artificial philosophic disquisition. Drama is substituted for intellectual discussion. One is relatively unmoved by what transpires in the play. In these modern days of war and civil war, that should not be so.

The simple design (Jasmine Christie) set in an abandoned school, serves as two spaces, one for the prisoners and one for the captors. The lighting, one room dim and one bright, is the principle demarcation, of the difference. That the captors space is the brighter lit maybe some reason why this part of the play had more identification and impact. The lighting in the prisoner's space was so low that it was not easy to identify them or empathise.

The production is neat and moves smoothly forward. However, it lacks human drama. It respects Satre the philosopher but diminishes the Satre dramatist.

Don Parties On

Rachael Healey & Associates present the Melbourne Theatre Company production of DON PARTIES ON by David Williamson at the Sydney Theatre.

David Williamson’s latest play DON PARTIES ON returns to some of his beloved characters of some forty years ago.

DON’S PARTY (1971) was set on the evening of the 1969 Federal election. It concerns a group of young affluent friends, all with their personal, social and political achievements and aspirations on display. It is a splendid evocation of some aspects of the Australian culture of the period. It is full of personal hopes and collapses, of celebrations and despondency, of vulgar appetites and expectant ‘visions’ of a great future. It came at a major turning point in the development of the Australian identity (even of Australian Theatre culture).

Gough Whitlam was soon to cause an explosion of activity that boosted the morale of the country in a way that had not happened before. The future’s potential was exciting and invited daring. Similarly, David Williamson and his plays led the way into an explosion of activity that boosted the morale of the country that had not happened before. The future’s potential was exciting and invited daring. These parallels are keen in my visceral memory of living through that time. Don’s Party and the plays to follow had the galvanising wallop, for the audience, of the pleasure of seeing the Australian character on stage, in a relatively unbridled way. They were bracing and exciting evenings in the theatre, (in the recent revival from the Melbourne Theatre Company, still arresting and provocative.) of recognition. The plays were speaking to us, of us, for us. Over forty years later, a David Williamson play is still an event of fearful expectancy.

DON PARTIES ON is set on the evening of the latest Federal election, 2010. The world aspirations of Don’s hopefuls of 1969 has borne its fruits. Not all of it palatable. Not a lot of it of the quality that had been expected. Not all of it worthy of celebration. There is a pall of stinking sadness over this party. The sense of failure, even mediocrity permeates the celebrations of this night. Immaturity, shallowness and just straight –out pathetic behaviour dominates the action of the night, still. The soundtrack of the seventies, featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival, a banner sound for some of these characters, played before and during the production, sounds, in sonic terms, ‘tinny’ and thin (Sound, Russell Goldsmith). So do the lives of these characters. It is ultimately a night of mournful melancholia we witness. Not just for the election result of 2010 but for the sad life achievements of this group of Australians. Of a generation, I winced. Mr Williamson talks of his fondness of Michael Apted’s documentary series of SEVEN-UP, which chronicles the lives of a group of seven year olds every seven years into middle-age. The result is both pathetic and bathetic. So Don’s friends are now, too – the history we learn is not pretty.
Despite this despondent revelation, the audience still, on the night I attended the theatre, identified and accepted the shenanigans of this group of people, that seem to represent a generational cross-section of familiar life models/roles. The audience roared with laughter and applauded the final exits of some of these characters. Genuine affection and regard was given to the characters. This play works for a lot of the audience.

William Shakespeare wrote some thirty eight plays. Henrick Ibsen wrote twenty seven plays. George Bernard Shaw wrote over forty plays. Arthur Miller, thirty five plays. Alan Ayckbourn has written some seventy five plays. Neil Simon some thirty four plays. David Hare and David Mamet some twenty seven plays, each. Tom Stoppard some thirty eight plays. And David Williamson some thirty four plays. Some, including David Williamson, have written screenplays as well (in fact George Bernard Shaw received an Oscar in 1938 for PYGMALION!).

Some of each of these playwright’s plays are very good. Some are good. Some are not so good. Not all of them are good. I have thought that David Williamson’s THE DEPARTMENT, TRAVELLING NORTH, THE CLUB, AFTER THE BALL, FACE TO FACE, possibly, very good (these choices are very subjective, of course). DON PARTIES ON, struck me as part of the third category, not so good.

In DON PARTIES ON I found the characters not very profoundly motivated, in fact, sometimes, just mouthing political and philosophical ideas that did not seem to be genuine to them, however genuine they may be from the hand/mouth of Mr Williamson, himself. I found a lot of the comedy denigrating one line putdowns, of both sides of politics, both cultural and personal : infantile and mean, not of much wit or sophistication. Sometimes the text felt like a set of sketch review jokes, slung onto a slim narrative, without the relief of the musical input of, say, the Wharf Revue crowd to give acceptable ‘cover’. The melodrama of these people’s lives superficially sketched and observed : hardly credible, except as ghosts of DON’S PARTY, or as pop culture generalisations of new, younger generations. The later escalation into physical farce, with the arrival of a new character Roberta (Nikki Shields), an impossible leap to believe, despite the cartoon drawing that Sue Jones invested in the characterisation of her character, Jenny, earlier in the play, that may have been a signal to genre-bending. There were, for me, just too many genres at work and I felt they were clumsily wrought together. This work, however amusing for most of my audience was, for me, just not up to the standard, I had often delighted in. I was bored and wearied.

The compounding difficulty with this production (Director, Robyn Nevin) of the play, however, was the widely divergent skills of the actors in handling this kind of material. Gary McDonald (Don) and Robert Grub (Mal) are expert hands in this field of writing. Diane Craig (Helen) and Tracy Mann (Kath) are also old hands at creating plausible characters from this kind of material. All four of them sufficient, and, often, more than. But the others were variable from less competent to not competent. Several of these actors did not have the technical skills to handle this writer, who is formidable in his technical demands, when in top form. When not, as, I feel in this case, the craft techniques of the actors are even more essential. It is surprising to some to catch this skill need, for the technical demands in the best of Mr Williamson, are subtly intricate and are only consciously encountered when actually dealing with it on the rehearsal floor. It necessarily requires artists with primed technical machinery – like a top musician, equivalent to the density of craft skill that the Australian Chamber Orchestra reveal in their consistent concert practice. It seemed to me that errors in casting highlighted the problems of the writing. And while Dale Ferguson has designed another meticulous set of impressive naturalistic detail (Daniel Keene’s, LIFE WITHOUT ME), it is of such an enormous theatrical scale, bigger than the floor plan of the biggest McMansion you could imagine, that to convey the content of the text, let alone deliver the rhythmical score of Mr Williamson, it demands actors with craft and art of enormous experience. Not all of this cast could deliver, consistently, if at all.

A play with writing flaws, embodied by some actors without the technical proficiencies to solve the text demands and the difficulties of the set design and then the idiosyncratic venue sound problems is going to have some difficulties in achieving consistent excellence. One would believe that the Melbourne Theatre Company could choose almost freely the artists required for this task. Certainly, Robyn Nevin, one of Mr Williamson’s regular and great artists, interpreting his work over the last forty years as an actress, would know the demands, difficulties and requirements. Who, then cast this production? A puzzle?

When I added up the cost of my outing: $89 for the ticket, $10 for the program, $17 for dinner, $4 for a soft drink and a $37 taxi fare home I was more than a little miffed. Total: $157. I had taken out $200 at Circular Quay on my walk to the theatre to buy my tickets and almost consumed it all. What percentage of my weekly wage? One of my readers asked at the end of my blog on “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” if the cost, which I had also cited, was worth it. I have to say yes, in that case. But this case, not. Now, the cost is simply a self inflicted decision, that I incurred, out of interest (and loyalty) to the work of Mr Williamson. And I do not at the bottom of my heart, resent what I have done, but it is an object lesson that the theatre industry needs to take into account when programming , curating work for the audience. Too many consistently inert choices and one begins to find that the audience has to discriminate more assiduously where their limited funds go.

On my $37 trip home, however, I had one of those completely charming occurrences. My driver a burly, overweight, over the middle-age mark, Aussie from Dapto (now living and working in Sydney) asked me what I had seen. Some of my unhappiness was spilled out to him. I told him that many in the audience had had a great time. He said well some of those “mug punters” got their money’s worth and were happy for having gone. Yep, indeed, I agreed. He then went on tell me of having a girlfriend who had asked him to go to the theatre. It was to HOLDING THE MAN, at the Opera House. She told him it was about AIDS and gay guys. He was not pleased and encouraged her to go with someone else. She persisted. He acquiesced. He said at the interval he had had a great laugh. At the end of the play, he had been embarrassed as to where to look when the lights had come up in the auditorium for he had been weeping for some time. It had been a totally unexpected moving and forceful experience. I thought, wow, just another “mug punter” going to the theatre and having a life changing experience. Maybe, that was true for some of my audience that night. My taxi driver’s story was worth the cost of my night, for if I hadn’t gone to DON PARTIES ON on that night, my faith in the theatre might not have been so shaken and then so confidently restored. These things happen for good reason.

Sometimes those of us in the know of the art and craft of the theatre should look beyond the problems and appreciate exactly what DON PARTIES ON does for the ordinary “mug punter”. After all, as James Waites, mentions on his blog, the Australian theatre in all ways have benefited from the voice that Mr Williamson has found and tapped over the last forty year and just like Mr Shakespeare, or Shaw, or Miller, or… whoever, sometimes you get it more right than others.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

Sydney Theatre Company present: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl, in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

“If Henrik Ibsen and Oscar Wilde had decided to collaborate on a post-modern drawing-room comedy, the hotsy-totsy twosome surely would have turned out something very much like Sarah Ruhl’s genuinely hysterical new work,” (Theatremania).

This is a quote from the Sydney Theatre Company’s advertisement for the show. It is a delightfully pitched idea, and I tend to agree with it.

Sarah Ruhl is one of the new American writers making a splash, through dint of hard work, not only in the USA, but around the world. I believe this is the first of her works to make it onto the stage in Sydney (?). Her other plays, for instance: THE CLEAN ROOM, PASSION PLAY, DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE, are usually much more ‘complicated’ in their writing styles and conceptualisation and appear to be a little more daunting for the other theatre-makers and ,maybe for the casual theatre-goer. The “Next Room, or the vibrator play”, is not in its construction or linear journey at all unusual, and presents on the page, no comprehensible problems. This may be why this is the first of her plays been seen in Sydney.

This play was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, originating at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and playing on Broadway in 2009. Pamela Rabe has directed for the Sydney Theatre Company, a sumptuously loving and detailed production of a delicious comedy with some female politics of the most interesting and arresting kind (certainly, if you are male, for sure).

Set in the United States at the introduction of electricity into the home, it seems, sometime in 1902, (around the time of the electrocution of Topsy, a Coney Island elephant, with high voltage AC current – a fact mentioned several times in the play!). The location of the action of the play takes place in a double space of a waiting/drawing room of a doctor’s surgery and the doctor’s surgery. This doctor, Dr. Givings (David Roberts), has developed a scientific interest in the curing of ‘hysteria’ in women (occasionally men) and has a speciality treatment using the latest electrified vibrator. It is effective and fast (3 minutes being the usual time for the paroxysm of relief for the patient. When that fails the older method of manual manipulation might be employed – it can take quite a considerable time, up to 3 hours!) The Set Designer, Tracy Grant Lord, has created a beautifully articulated design. Its details of the Victorian period seem to be pleasingly comfortable and just right in the drawing room. The demands of the text for the re-creation of the cumbersome, electrical vibrator mechanisms of the surgery must have provided much fun and research in the Sydney Theatre Company’s property making department for they are both fascinating and formidable in their appearance and workings (at least the sound is convincing of actuality)

Yes!, we do get to see them used. Quite often. Firstly, man to woman. Later, woman to woman. Then, man to man (using a special vibrator called the ‘Chattanooga’). This is all done in real time. That it is not in the least offensive for the audience, quite the contrary, it is the cause of much hilarity, is a testament to the clever scientific approach that Ms Ruhl has introduced in her scenario, along with the seriousness of the doctor, nursing staff and patients in their Victorian pursuit of cure and good health. Being of the 2011 audience, we are a little more knowing then the characters themselves, about what is happening. It is audaciously amusing, for us. Ms Ruhl in her writer’s notes explains her method: “As the nineteenth century doctors were discreet, so is the play; much of the action takes place under a clean white sheet. As I wrote and researched the play, I was interested in the radical or wilful innocence about sexuality, on the part of both doctors and patients.” It is the silence about the sexual life of the human animal that this society maintained that is expressed and examined here, and there are some very interesting observations of various matters that are delightfully brought to our attention that are gently revelatory, and in my experience, not really mentioned in the theatre before.

Dressed (and undressed) impeccably in Victorian garb (Costume Design, Tracy Grant Lord), Mr Daldry (Marshall Napier) escorts his wife, Sabrina Daldry (Helen Thomson) to Dr Givings surgery for treatment of her extreme symptoms of hysteria. That the good doctor along with his expert nurse, Annie (Mandy McElhinney) go about this treatment in such a matter-of-fact, scientific manner and bring such obvious relief to the patient, it makes the doctor’s wife, Catherine Givings (Jacqueline McKenzie) extremely curious as to what is going on in the next room. Catherine, a new mother, is clearly, to the audience, suffering from a case of post-natal depression and manifests a growing hysterical illness, which her good husband, in his devotion to his pursuit of science fails to detect, is, in fact, ‘blind’ to his near and dearest’s symptoms. The companionship and growing combined interest in the treatment that Catherine and Sabrina develop, causes many wonderful ‘curiosity’ driven discussions and interviews, facilitated by the presence, also, of a professional wet nurse, Elizabeth (Sara Zwasgobani) and, later, a sophisticated artist-patient, Leo Irving (Josh McConville). Much illuminating and amusing subject matter is covered.

The cast, is mostly, exemplary.

Jacqueline McKenzie gives a performance of great comic and dramatic subtlety. Alive to every second of her opportunities, Ms McKenzie walks a tight rope of delicate and pathetic observation of a woman desperate for communication and openness in her world, especially from her frustratingly Victorian-male husband. Torvald, Nora’s husband in Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, appears in contrast to Givings, a sentient being of measureless empathy. That Catherine, achieves relief, in a deeply moving climax of vulnerability at the end of the play, not through a dance of a hectic tarantella, but through the coaxing of the making of a snow angel, naked, outdoors, with her partner, tells much of the skill that Ms McKenzie has used to take us there, to this moment, that was supremely satisfactory, if, otherwise, possibly, over-the-top. In my last blog on Belvoir’s THE WILD DUCK, I wrote a long diatribe of what I perceive as contemporary development in acting styles in the theatre, and Ms McKenzie gives an example of that acting style that is vital, thrilling and immensely occupying. A great performance illustrating her ‘mastery’ of her art form.

Ms Thomson in her comic creation of Sabrina Daldry is subtle and clever, easily up to the height of success that she revealed, two seasons ago in the Yesmina Reza’s GOD OF CARNAGE in this same theatre. In contrast, to the techniques of Ms McKenzie, there is a knowingness of style that she makes aware of, that separates the two performances in technique, both rewarding, but noticeably different. Mr Roberts is remarkable in his discipline to play within the needs of the “straight-man” role of Dr Givings, that the comedy requires. Similarly with the work demands of Ms McElhinney as the quietly practical nurse, Annie, of the manipulative skills she must sometimes engage with. Mr McConville is also amusing if not always sure whether to play it straight or underline the potential laughs – he, more often than not elects for the laugh. I wonder, if minutely, at the expense of a more fully comprehensible and empathetic character. Ms McElhinney has a better balance.

The Lighting design by Hartley T A Kemp is immensely complex (although, there were several remarkable operational errors at our performance) and has pleasing pictures, especially in the last “snow angel” sequence where with the addition of the compositional score of Iain Grandage creates a transcendently moving conclusion to the play. Mr Grandage’s work a positive advantage to the efficacy of the production.

Pamela Rabe has created a complex, sensitive, beautiful and satisfying production and experience with all the ingredients she has chosen and wrought for Ms Ruhl’s play. The accumulative confidence witnessed, back in her work on THE SERPENTS TEETH and ELLING, both, for this company, several years ago, paying off with this material and production. Just how important it is to have a woman’s/female voice on our stages in terms of the possible breadth of the theatre experience, in 2011, can be perceived here in the Drama Theatre. Ms Ruhl’ world perception is unique, amongst too much recent repertoire. That a woman has so handsomely and delicately taken interpretative charge of this playwright’s play can also not be undervalued. On the night I saw it, maybe two thirds of the audience were women and the pleasure that they expressed with the material on stage was as interesting to me as to when, several years ago, I attended at the American Conservatory Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s MA RAINEY’S BLACKBOTTOM with an audience ninety percent African-American. The attention and thrill expressed by that San Franciscan audience in seeing their culture so knowingly written and performed on the stage, was as palpable as the audience response in the Drama Theatre for Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room or the vibrator play”. Not that the women were the only enthusiastic respondents. The whole of the audience were seduced and rapturous. Amused by the first act and then moved by the second.

This, at last, is a highly satisfactory experience from the Sydney Theatre Company.


1. The $10 program from the STC is almost worth the information value this time round. Despite printing errors, an improvement.

2. The Sydney Opera House is still charging a service fee of $5 for me to buy my ticket at their Box Office, before the show, with cash! Total cost for my ticket then: $94. If the production had been in the Company’s own theatre, maybe, I could have afforded a cup of coffee!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Wild Duck

Belvoir presents THE WILD DUCK by Simon Stone with Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen in the Upstairs Theatre.

THE WILD DUCK written by Simon Stone, also the Director, with Chris Ryan, after Henrik Ibsen’s play (1884) of the same name, is a new contemporary Australian play.

This adaptation and re-writing, like Mr Stone’s other Ibsen inspired play (with Thomas Henning), THE ONLY CHILD (from Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF), as texts, presage a very good night in the theatre. Both of these texts are very interesting. This one better than the other, I felt. And while, if one is a committed Ibsenite, there are many things to ponder and discuss in the choices that Mr Stone and Ryan have made, using the original text as inspiration, this new play stands on its own.

It looks at a contemporary marriage and the forces it must confront when someone feels that all truths should be revealed and must be faced, if we as people are to build solid and ‘good’ lives. The righteous ‘do-gooder’ who determinedly wishes to be judge and whistle blower for the good of all. In this case Gregers Werle who “has come to believe that it is his mission to tell people ‘rock bottom’ truths about themselves and that by doing so he will liberate or at least lighten the burden of those who dwell in error.” The ensuing tragedy, in this version (as the original,in its way, did in its time) asks us, in a world where ‘political correctness’ and litigious contemporary extremities are pursued for personal beliefs at the expense of others, often blithely innocent and content with their lives and doing no social harm, just what is useful or good to tell. Is it justifiable to take away the life-lie from the average man (woman) and destroy their happiness? How much truth does one need to tell? Are some truths better kept quiet? Is the old Russian proverb “Truth is good but happiness is better” worth considering?

The fourteen characters in the original have been reduced to just six. Werle (John Gaden), Gina (Anita Hegh), Hjalmar (Ewen Leslie), Hedwig (Eloise Mignon), Ekdal (Anthony Phelan), Gregers (Toby Schmitz). These six characters carry most of the weight of the original, and sometimes, in this version, perforce of the original plot, themes and symbols, which Mr Stone and Ryan play with, more or less. This is, in the mood of the Ibsen, THE WILD DUCK, a tragi-comedy and a gloriously thrilling, sophisticated, soap opera, melodrama. Beside me, the other night, some young women gasped and involuntarily raised their hands to their faces at the gradual revelation of the possible parentage of the young Hedwig. Shocked and excited. Mr Ibsen would have been pleased.

What is told are the circumstances of an ordinary contemporary family. We see them running a small family business, helping out with the school home work of their only child and pottering around with the older parent and his odd, old hobbies (a wild life sanctuary in the attic!), all innocently happy (highly, contemporaneously identifiable), being invaded with the unhappiness of a bourgeois, richer family and the unfortunate remnants of connected past spheres of influence, tainting and ultimately destroying the ordinary family with a tragedy of Classical Greek Theatre proportions. A gun shot rings out, that like Nora’s door slam at the end of THE DOLL’S HOUSE, will reverberate well after the play’s end in both the fictional world of the Ekdals and the real world of the audience.

Played in a black walled set (Set Design, Ralph Myers) with black carpet, surrounded, in front, by glass walls, the audience are invited to look at the unfolding dramas of these characters in a precise linear order (each scene is introduced with a very specific day and time note-clock, above the set), as if scientifically studying in a terrarium, the activities of pet animals. These animals/humans are dressed in ordinary, recognizable day to day clothes (Costume, Tess Schofield) and because of the highly theatrical glass walls, which at first appeared, to me, to be a barrier between us and what was happening, and the magnification of the actor’s voices, using microphones (visible on the side of their faces), a hyper real theatrical concentration slowly evolved as I/we the audience, watched the actors at work.

That we are watching the characters shift scene location without realistic set changes, but with carefully chosen props, to help give identity to the worlds of the scenes, (school satchels, lap tops, gym packing bags, a live duck! in real water, a practical shooting hunter's rifle that is fired at us) it is as if we are in, what is, in the film industry, called a blue/green screen space, (in this case, literally, a black-screen space). In this space the actors act out their scenarios with say, a dinosaur attack, (think JURASSIC PARK), which is supplied by computer generated images (CGI) later. In the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, instead of CGI, our own imaginations supply the set dressings of the locations and it is definitely part of the thrill of the performance. Mostly, on my part, at least, an unconscious one. The audience is definitely, if it is to have a good time, invited to actively participate, not just as watchers, but, as creatives. This is, of course, what we always do when we are swept away by a production, whether it is set dressed or not, but in this case it is more subtly demanded. The unconscious work we do, helps us to suspend our disbeliefs or judgements about the play’s content or melodrama, because we are asked to participate viscerally and so are partly responsible for the imaginative experience and its relative vividness. Our commitment heightens our involvement. Theatre!

The major difference in the success of this Ibsen appropriation that Mr Stone has made, in contrast to the earlier work, THE ONLY CHILD, is the quality of the acting. (Although, as said, the writing I feel is better,tighter.)All six of these actors are marvellous to watch in this almost cinematic naturalism/realism, aided by the artificial communication of not only the text but the breathing of the actors through the head-microphones. Such is the projection of sound (Sound Designer and Composer, Stefan Gregory) that the lubricity of the noise of the kiss is very raw to experience, uncomfortable, almost, in its intimacy.
James Waites in his two blogs on THE WILD DUCK and SPEAKING IN TONGUES talks particularly about the contemporary acting styles appearing on our stages. In discussing a production of TENDER a few years ago I remarked about the evolutionary changes perceptible in the acting given by two actresses of different generations, Kate Box and Heather Mitchell:

“The two women characters are particularly outstandingly written and played. The wife, Sarah (Kate Box) is played with a masterly sense of the whole arc of the journey well under a craftsman’s control. The performance has the breathless sense (most of the time) of being experienced anew in front of your eyes. It is contemporary acting at a most breathless reality, (one holds one’s breath in anticipation of the next possibility), a sense that it is happening for the first time in front of your eyes: NOW. The technical feats of the vocal work are admirable: the use of both volume and pitch to guide you through the delicacies of the sometimes heightened poetic reality of the writing are marvellous. It is powerful in its whole affect. The mother figure, Yvonne (Heather Mitchell) is played with great emotional wallop. One is slightly overwhelmed at first at the “histrionic” emotional entrance that the actress brings right at the beginning of the revelation of the character, but as each scene unfolds the careful and sensitive artistry of thought through choices eases the first uncertain response that I had to the acting. ... For me, it is interesting to observe the generational differences to acting that these two actresses have to their work. The quietly evolving acceptable expression of how to tell the story is, if you watch closely subtly different. Both are wonderful but the results are contrasted delicately, significantly. One is listen, receive, respond. The other is in action, gently and expressively, all the time. One is more cinematic than the other. One is more theatrical than the other. If you look at a film like PICNIC one can see the evolution of acting for screen in front of your eyes, starkly. On one extreme, you can witness Rosalind Russell giving a “theatrically “ histrionic “chew the scenery” style of performance, in contrast to the Strasberg “method” of Kim Novak, where it seems little is happening, it is all sub-textual. (Arguably). Bridging these two contrasts is William Holden utilising both approaches as required. Here is a history lesson in acting styles and evolution captured in the time capsule of a Hollywood film. I reckon you can see it here in these two remarkable performances in TENDER.”

Here in the Belvoir production of THE WILD DUCK you will see most of these actors in the new cinematic/theatrical naturalism.

This ‘new’ form of acting for the theatre asks that each actor play their work as if they are the centre of the universe. What I call the ‘Sun Practice’. Every character should play the scene as if they are the energy force, the centre of the play (the text responsibilities will ultimately clarify the storytelling). It is not a dynamic life pattern we are asked to believe in unless every actor from the maid/waiter up to the king/queen are pursuing their needs passionately. Otherwise the scene can have a pre-destined look of recitations. The waiter does not hand the scene over to the king by merely serving the drinks. The waiter has a goal to achieve in the opportunity he has in serving drinks to the king and he had best pursue that passionately for that opportunity may not happen again. The subtle sub-textual ‘obstacles’ of personal need that the waiter offers the king, will affect the king and cause his intentions to lift a notch in pursuit of his unique needs and so the scene comes alive in a much more heightened way. What happens in the play is what the writer has written but the underpinning of the sub-textual life is much more vital. As in life we all play out our needs/ wants from an ‘I’ centre, and we take in what other people do and say according to how useful it is to us in achieving what we want. We seize the opportunities that others give us to accelerate our goals. In the older generation of acting it was mostly: “your turn, now, my turn, now yours etc” One ‘did’ and the other one ‘listened’, each in turn. While that still happens, what is now happening, additionally, is that, as in life, all the characters pursue their objectives passionately, all the time. So, that now there is overlapping and simultaneous dialogue and physical action, as well as the single clarity of line that we are all familiar with. What in the older generation was an organisation of focus for the audience by the actors and director, as each character took their turn in the story telling revelations and looked real, now, happen simultaneously. There is a plethora of offers, of information, all happening at once. The audience has now to choose where they are looking and what they are hearing. Their empathy for each character will filter their concentrations. This is, let me reassure you, subtly refined organisationally by the actors /director/writer, but gives the appearance, once again, of natural behaviour. This elision of action (vocal and physical) on stage is possible because of the unconscious absorption skills our culture as acquired as a result of cinema and the speedier cognitive modern media gadgets. We the audience can read a scene faster than in past times because of the unconscious training we have acquired from our new life habits. The clues and our ability to read them are there now in greater less edited (though, still edited) detail. We are much more participatory in how the storytelling informs us and each of us can have more divergent absorptions.

This is what we are witnessing with the acting from most of the company of THE WILD DUCK (to a lesser extent in SPEAKING IN TONGUES). Add the production sleights of hands: the short vignettes of most of the writing in the scenes of THE WILD DUCK are played at blistering, complex, communicating speeds by the actors, overlapping and simultaneous speaking, both, vocally and physically, and, then, in the scene black outs, the audience is kept abreast of the tempo by being swept further into continuous speed with a brisk classical score and later a blasting of heavy metal dysfunction that keeps them aloft with the forward energy of the unfolding events. The ultimate, almost operatic scoring of choral triumph, in the scene before last, almost trumps the recent daring of underlining contemporary melodrama in the histrionic Tilda Swinton epic I AM LOVE (a directorial gestural hoot!). The lighting of the early family scenes in warm colours, suddenly switch to blaring, glaring flourescents at the shocking revelation scene only to move back to a half warm, half flourescent state for the aftermath (Lighting, Niklas Pajanti). Theatrical 3D in surround sound!

All praise to these daring artists.

The subtle game playing by Mr Schmitz in his character's past love revelations to poor Hjalmar, is shockingly dense with its levels of glittering intentions. The missionary zeal of a disappointed and disaffected human being is horrifying to observe as he spins his truths for the world to accept, careless as to the consequences. The confused cognizance of Mr Leslie as Hjalmar is heartbreaking. The helter skelter of the scenes of confrontation between Mr Leslie and Ms Hegh, later in the play, are breathtaking. The depth of raw feeling that Mr Phelan exposes in his long monologue of regrets is grief making to hear. That Eloise Mignon, arguably, the other wild duck of the play is totally believable as Hedwig and grippingly pathetic, that the subtle corruption of Werle played by John Gaden is insidiously casual and attractive, all make for a good night in the theatre a surety.

But the key element for me was the presence of a “wild” duck on stage. Its vulnerability and the joy in a later scene where it is stood in an aquarium of water, where, during the action of the scene it ducks and dips into the water, is where the production acquires a true tenderness and the symbol that Ibsen has worked through his play is taken literally by Stone and Ryan and naturalistically manifested in front of us for powerful identification and ownership by the audience – a kind of masterstroke of empathetic emotional persuasion.

In finishing my response I did feel that Mr Schmitz’s character Gregers, is not fully revealed, in the writing. Perhaps his position in the play is lost or becomes unanchored with the excision of Doctor Relling from the original, someone who pinpoints and pins Gregers in the Ibsen. Another scene or…?

Further, James Waites in his extensive writing on this production, (see his blog connection) views the new ending to the play as being a strength. I, on the other hand, felt that it was gratuitous and mawkish. That the conventions of the evening were erased with it happening outside of the glass box was also a convention let down that diminished its impact. The gunshot and all the ambiguity that raced through one’s mind when it rang out, was where I thought the play should end. The ambiguity of what happened was tantalising. Having a coda explanation of so much as an attached scene was too defining and managerial. Like the ending to THE ONLY CHILD, Mr Stone reveals his romantic inclinations again. The modern statistics about the collapse of personal relationships as a consequence of such tragedy, especially the death of a child, tell us that it is unlikely that they will survive. Ibsen was tougher on our society. On himself. The play was finished in an utterly conventional way, it left nothing to be discussed after in the foyer, except, what a good night in the theatre we had had.

I, and my close audience, loved it. See it.


IBSEN, a biography by Michael Meyer. Dobleday & Company, 1971.

IBSEN. A Critical Study by John Northam. Cambridge University Press,1973.

IBSEN by Harold Clurman. Collier Books,1977.