Tuesday, April 26, 2011

As You Like It

SIREN THEATRE CO presents AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare in Bay20 Carriageworks, Sydney.

AS YOU LIKE IT begins at court where Dukes have usurped Dukes, brothers have fought brother, and daughters are separated from families and become 'sisters' to unite and run off into exile. All end in the Forest of Arden. This mythical version of Arden - "a sylvan sanatorium for the political exiled, the lovelorn, and assorted undesirables...it's topography being a fantastical mixture of flora and fauna, including snakes, lions, and palm trees." It is where magic and the balm of nature gives room for goodness and humanity to seed, grow and bloom.

This is a play of affairs of the heart. Love. Of loves that ends in marriages (four of them!) and the choice to live a life of contemplation, "converted from the world...". Harmony is re-established and a ritual fertility dance concludes the journey. AS YOU LIKE IT along with TWELFTH NIGHT and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is one of Shakespeare's greatest comedies.

The diversity of characters and the opportunity that that gives Shakespeare to explore the ploys and wit of loves pursuit through a range of class and intelligence is a rich gold mine of romantic comedy argument and quotes:

"O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful, and yet again wonderful, and after that out of all whooping!"

"O coz, coz,coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love."

"Sell when you can, you are not for all markets."

Shakespeare in his invention to prevent a night of all cloying romance also gives us Jacques, a solitary voice in this play of pairings who emits a steady stream of mocking commentary that undercuts almost every idealistic thought or act. Melancholy Jacques who "can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs". Melancholy Jacques that gives the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech where life, from birth to death, is described in terms of bodily functions and physical disintegration and warns that every part of life is a brief scene in a larger drama: "All the world's a stage....". It is he who warns that far from being the capstone of existence, love is a passing whim. Add to this one of the lovers, Touchstone, who true to his name tests the mettle of every person he meets with blistering comment and argument: "We that are true lovers run into strange capers; but as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly." A cynic, to relish, however tedious he may appear.

Kate Gaul as producer and director of AS YOU LIKE IT, follows on from her other Siren Theatre Co productions of classics, RICHARD III and THE SEAGULL. This production is much more ambitious then either of the other two and with a company of ten actors, mostly playing multiple roles and other responsibilities (magic tricks, singing and dancing), along with two musicians (Daryl Wallis, Composer/piano and David Manuel, percussion) has created an epic and musically expansive exploration of the landscape of Shakespeare's play.

The company of actors demonstrate a wide difference of skill and experience with this kind of text and play and, unfortunately, it hampers the full flowering of the ideas of the production. Still, along with the vocal coach (Natasha McNamara), Ms Gaul, has coaxed some delightful clarities of textual interplay and illuminations of text. And as the production moves on in its playing time, it finds an equilibrium of mode that allows the play's genius to be revealed and appreciated. Given time the players may find even more means to relax and open the treasures of the play for the audience. Mostly there is technical effort in the speaking of the text and physical embodiment, ownership, is not as usefully communicative as it could be (mind you, the multiple tasks of costume and make up changes that all of the company are required to do, and often, may have been distracting and a cause of tension and unsureness). The production, as yet, is not all of a piece. The look is motley, indeed (no set designer named).

Ms Gaul has demonstrated a fearless vision and determination to present work of breadth and adventure with her own company, SIREN, and at her own expense. Her work on RICHARD III (2009) with a small company of dedicated actors promised a development of ensemble and textual interrogation that was worth looking forward to see develop. That only one of her RICHARD III company is in this production is a disappointment. THE SEAGULL ensemble, as well, is totally different. This is the difficulty when the resources to maintain and develop an ensemble is not possible and for Ms Gaul it must be indeed galling (no pun intended) to have to teach from the start every time she launches a new creative project.

In the politics of theatre companies and the choice of artists given the opportunity to work and flourish, historically, not just in Sydney, one has seen some talent, unaccountably under rewarded and invested in, and so no real chance to flourish. In recent observation, I would suggest that Kate Gaul and Anthony Skuse, both brave and tireless (so far) toilers in the theatre, have slipped between the cracks or have mis-timed their presence, and need to be given opportunity alongside the younger 'hotshots'' of the moment.

Both the recent JULIUS CAESAR at the New Theatre, directed by Mr Skuse and now Ms Gaul's AS YOU LIKE IT at Carriageworks are worth recording. The work of these two directors is intelligently informed in the texts dramaturgical possibilities - depth- not much superficiality there. Close textual reading, galore. They appear to be steeped in the larger trends and history of international production fashions and styles and have the rare capacity to select and abrogate, integrate their own vision and skills into fabricating work of interest and originality. That they are, relatively, hampered by not having regular, reliable or experienced artists to work collaboratively with, must be, at some point, heartrendingly distressing. Like Sisyphus they keep having to roll that rock up from the bottom every time.

If I had the where-with-all, I'd give these artist a go. They have earned their opportunities and I believe we could find over time, these two artists, could give the Sydney scene some depth to counter the emotional enthusiasms of some of the badged, under experienced artists that have been, maybe, promoted too soon to our main stages. Besides these two artists, I am sure that there are others, as well.

It is with gratitude that I find Richard Cotterell will have some work of his on at the Sydney Theatre Company later this year. How are he and other artists of such credible ability not represented in the artistic enterprises of our times, on a more regular basis? Their experience would be incredible for some of our artists to benefit from. Why are so many relatively, untried, but names -usually actors- international and local, taking precedence in directorial responsibilities at the Sydney Theatre Company? The Australian penchant for the new with such discursive regard and usage for the elder artist in this country is flabbergasting and reflects the immaturity of our culture.

Look at the world creative scene and show me another culture so dismissive of the wisdom and experience of its great and older artists. We should be standing on the shoulders of our elders. They have seen and can help us see. The wheel will, possibly, not have to be re-invented.

AS YOU LIKE IT is a great play. This production does not blight that greatness. To hear the language is some reward in itself, considering the literary quality of most new work we hear on our stages. And Kate Gaul is worth attending too. Her body of work, in its preparation, vision and courage is collectively rewarding.


1.Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being- Ted Hughes. Faber And Faber 1993.

2.Friendly Shakespeare - Norrie Epstein. Penguin 1993.

3. The Complete Works Of Shakespeare-Illustrated. Avenel Books. New York 1975.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Belvoir presents CUT by Duncan Graham in the Belvoir St. Downstairs Theatre.

This is the third piece of writing by Duncan Graham that I have seen, in Sydney: OLLIE and the MINOTAUR (Downstairs Belvoir St, 2009) and ONE LONG NIGHT IN THE LAND OF NOD (Old Fitzroy,2009), being the other two.

This production, CUT, is certainly the most satisfactory experience of this writer's work that I have had. The artistic collaboration of all of the artists involved, have worked to create a fully rounded gem of performance art- a dramatic monologue.

The space in which the actor, Anita Hegh, moves, is as dark a space as the venue allows: totally black. The lighting design by Danny Pettingill is thus, and necessarily, a complex and densely cued atmospheric palette, that results in some fairly barely perceptible images of this woman as she travels across the stage. We see her mostly haloed, darkly, in haze, and through to fuller visions, to the other extreme, shot with the shock of single strobe glares, that assault the senses of the audience into a visceral recoil and response. It is an intricate 'choreography' with the other artists and audience and is intensely purposeful from moment to moment in the telling of this story.

The short fifty minute monologue also has the actress attached to a microphone. What began, for me, as gimmick, quickly suffuses into a very affective tool (Composer and Sound Design by Ekrem Mulayim). The actor's voice is treated live: pitch-shifted to create dramatic mood shifts and even characterisation developments (reverting to childhood memories etc). The co-ordination of the sound patterns and composition, distortions and volume are harnessed to the lighting effects as well. The integration of these elements was tight, and dramatically striking. Gasps of electronically captured 'live' sounds are attached to shocking blue/white strobe. Sight and aural sensibilities pledged to and for dramatic impact.

The director, Sarah John has created, technically, painstakingly, a marvellous technical apparatus to propel her writer's story. The tools employed by Ms John reminded of the recent performance of the Kosky, THE TELL TALE HEART (here, more rewardingly) or even more repletetedly of Marie Brassard's JIMMY, which was seen at the Opera House Studio a few years ago. It is, however, the craft and art of the actor Anita Hegh that is the ultimate ingredient, accounting for the success of this work.

Anita Hegh, recently giving Sydney audiences a body of work of some outstanding performances, THE WILD DUCK, OUR TOWN, LIKE A FISHBONE, BEYOND THE NECK, and KILLER JOE, here, demonstrates her masterly control of her technical instrument, body and voice, and the transcendence of that technique to a striking creation of a woman in distress.

Duncan Graham’s notes, in the program, spout on and on about: Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Aeschylus, Francis Bacon. He concludes: "I hope CUT offers a view of transgression and its mythopoeic beauty; and bears witness of the terrible ambitions of the human spirit: returning the fact of modern life back ' to the nervous system in a more violent way”.

But what Ms Hegh has created, dressed in a taut airline attendant uniform, name badge et al, was the excruciating opportunity to watch a panicked woman in the course of a 24hour daily routine, struggle in the midst of a nervous breakdown to hold herself together. The overwhelming banality of her professional routine, accompanied by her surfeited preoccupation with crime stories of all kinds - literature and television, culminates in an advanced paranoid conjecture of the world around her, throwing her into a fantasy of stalking and vicious killing. All, thankfully,in the mind. The twist is that this woman turns the expected tables of the genre traditions and is the "cutter" of the thread of life, herself, becoming out of necessity Atropos - the third and most fearsome of the Fates, to some imagined predator (a feminist statement, indeed).

The control, concentration and skill of Ms Hegh is most of the wonderment of this production (the vocal technique and discipline required for this microphoned act is astounding). The excellence of this actor at work is what holds all of the ingredients in place: light, sound and possibly the text. The fact that not all of us are certain of what is happening urges one to need to read the text to properly value it, but as the Director Ms John states "…we've aimed to create not a play as such, but an experience; a kind of mindscape... an experience that draws only what is necessary - the absolutely essential images - out of the theatre-dark in the hope that this offers an audience greater imaginative space…" and this is certainly what she and all the collaborators have achieved.

My unsureness of the text comes from some of the distracting elements of the lighting and sound which sometimes shifts the focus of the viewer to the technical organisations, instead of staying wholly within the narrative/ story twists and turns. For instance, the live pitch shifting of Ms Hegh's voice during the childhood fish memory sequence, was a pre-occupying concentration of watching the lips move and hearing the slightly delayed reproduced affected voice quality through the auditorium speakers. These techniques, then, have both assets and problems.

A few years ago I saw Ms Hegh give a marvellous performance in an adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic short story THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (1892) at the Store Room/Malthouse in Melbourne (some critics claim a feminist statement, too, although as CUT could be catergorised, usually Gothic and/ or horror). The detail of her performance of another woman in mental collapse was devastatingly articulated and was not assisted at all by technical gadgetry. Completely "unplugged" and resultedly more, in my estimation, vulnerably human. I wonder, as did the Sydney Morning Herald critic, Jason Blake, at just what is the dramatic gain in all this technical media wizardry explored in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre?

The actor in my experience of her talent seemed to be enough. Just the actor un-enhanced, onstage telling the writer's story. Maybe Mr Graham's play would be clearer as well. Now that is, in our present times in some of the explorations in Sydney Theatre, a radical idea. Actors centre stage with the writer as the source of the inspiration. Untramelled. Unencumbered. No director or designer hand in view.

Still, I have no hesitation in recommending that this production of CUT, to interested theatre goers as an essential experience. There is reward, and, definite room for discussion afterwards.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


ARTHUR and THE SPARE ROOM present DIRTYLAND by Elise Hearst at the New Theatre, Newtown.

"THE SPARE ROOM is an exciting new development on the independent theatre scene in Sydney. THE SPARE ROOM facilitates co-production between New Theatre and independent companies, providing a platform for the creation of challenging and stimulating contemporary performance by both emerging and established artists.”

ARTHUR (a theatre company), is the inaugural partner of this enterprise. ARTHUR, has a company brief, which you can find on Facebook. Too full of too much whimsical persiflage to seriously quote here. DIRTYLAND by Elise Hearst, is a new Australian play and is the first offer of this most welcome development from the New Theatre: THE SPARE ROOM. Three other partnerships are to follow.

DIRTYLAND is, in my experience of it, mostly opaque and ends being a fairly bewildering night in the theatre that ultimately can be summed up as, mysterious.

From the clues of the words written by Ms Hearst and spoken by the actors, and the visuals organised by the Director, Paige Rattray, and her designers: Set and Costume, David Fleischer; Lighting, Ross Graham; and Sound Design, Joseph Nizeti, we are given a landscape that can most easily be read as dreamscape, like a James Gleeson painting.

We arrive to a floor of brown dirt generously scattered, inches deep, within a black box walled space, lit warmly, upon which is placed a tilted set of beige/off cream, waist high, kitchen cupboards of the late fifties Housing Commission style; a Formica table of similar vintage and some kitchen chairs. A filthy single mattress is sprawled on a perimeter heap of dirt to one side, with a small table and reading lamp and what looks like a crystalline fungus decoratively growing or oozing on the dirt mound. On the opposite side is a white peacock fanned wicker chair on which is ensconced a blowsy, over-blown female figure, indecorously, legs askew, in a white night dress, fanning herself and flouncing like a succubus seeking attention, and promising delights. Gradually, in the haunting, hazed lighting we observe other "middle-aged" women dressed in post World War Two fashions, make up and hair, menacingly present, looking desperately bereft, out, at the audience. There is a Gothic feel to the imagery and a recognisably contemporary vampiric hunger to their gazes.

The play begins and a young girl, Anya (Megan Holloway), costumed in jeans and mid-rift tied checkered shirt, reminiscent of Daisy Mae (nee Scragg) Yokum from the Al Capp LIL ABNER cartoon or the more recent BEVERLY HILLBILLIES' Elly May, tells us, in a broad Australian accent, that this play is about a tooth and exists in a town where half the population has murdered the other half, we subtly notice that there are no full grown men present, only two young adolescent boys.

The imagery of iconic Australian rural horror films such as THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS, MAD MAX, the recent WOLF CREEK, with all their pent up anxieties comes to mind. QUACK, and all its comic absurities, seen last year at the Griffin Theatre, is recalled and a Gothic excitement is quickened in the expectations for this night. Sadly, Ms Hearst has more serious intentions and the writing does not take us there.

Anya, with a rotting tooth seeks to leave the town for the city to find a dentist, with her boyfriend, Moses (Marcus McKenzie) and brother, Harry (Gabriel Fancourt) who, also, are attempting to leave the town to form a rock band. But the other women led principally by Aviva (Lucy Miller), the incestuously inclined mother of Harry, thwart the youth from leaving, employing even sexual seduction to bind the youngsters to the female camp in this skewed world, where human bones lie near the surface of this dirty land.

The text meanders through this scenario, for seventy odd minutes, in search of mirrors and includes much metaphor, but, along with the production, provides few cogent clues for the audience to find an anchoring of location for the thrust of the story, or its purpose, however poetic or surreal the intention maybe, to have clarity or meaning.

Lucy Miller as the mother figure, Aviva, and especially Mr McKenzie as Moses exert a convincing sense that they have a clear knowledge of what their characters are doing and want. I was engaged by them., excited to attend to them. Frustratingly, however, we are none the wiser, but one feels inclined to stay, to solve the situations they present, because of their conviction in their shared scenes. Mr Fancourt, who does the next best, has a powerful imaginative physical energy, but his story telling is too inconsistent in focus to maintain our concentration and faith.

Netta Yashchin, as an older, bewildered and grieving prisoner of this town, Mrs Brown, also plays with an engaged physical conviction but with an uneven vocal inflexion that does not use the text accurately. It tends to be used for emotional intonation than for language clarity and purpose and one is left with the impression that Mrs Brown appears to have escaped as a crazed old belle from a southern gothic Tennessee Willliams' play and wandered into a foreign Australian landscape, wistfully calling for her long dead “Mr Brown, Mr Brown...”. An eccentric performance, acted to the other performers rather than with them. The character acts on a different plain of conviction and appears oblivious to the effect about her and if this is the dramaturgical purpose, it has not had, as yet, the integration to the rest of the production to be part of the story telling mechanism. It is odd and distracting.

The writer, Elise Hearst plays Renya, and although she has an idea of the character (she did write it) does not have all the vocal skills necessary to make the necessary impact. This is what I felt about Ms Holloway's work as well – the vocal effort was not equal to the others about her and so Anya loses the central position that she ought to hold. Tami Sussman has been given a fairly underwritten task as Frieda and/or the director has not successfully found the way to highlight or explain her presence in the play to any significant effect. I suspect that Freida is a pivotal character in the writer's mind.

Maybe, it is, partly, the lack of integrated directorial control over the differing acting styles/ skills employed by the company that causes the blurring of the intentions of the writer and the play.But given what one hears and sees on the stage, the night I attended, the work is mostly, as I said at the start, mysterious. The visual content is haunting and some of the staging imagery is still present with me but, what it is about, what happens, remains a grave uncertainty.

Curiously, the last production that I saw in this wonderful space was Anthony Skuse's JULIUS CAESAR, and it is the imagery of that production, that sits in my remembrance most clearly. Is there some idiosyncrasy of this space that can command visual focus deftly, but demands very expert and consistent technical vocal skills from the actors, to deliver the text? The JULIUS CAESAR was relatively blighted with poor vocal technique, and here, once again it is the variable vocal skills that seem to make the major differences in the success of the performances and so, ultimately, maybe the play. Theatre spaces each have their gifts and failures.Their own tricks. This space is wonderful to work in but not an easy one, from my remembered experience. It needs to be respected and focused. It makes demands of the actors before it will give over to the audience.

Before attending DIRTYLAND, I went to the launch of the new season of work for Performance Space: UNEASY FUTURES. It is a curated program of discussion, exhibition and performance over the next month. Wandering through the exhibition and then, subsequently, reading at home the attendant season brochure, I became aware that these program notes were sometimes necessary for me to comprehend what I had seen. The works did not speak clearly for themselves.

On getting home from DIRTYLAND and perusing the program and notes I was struck by the WRITER'S NOTE to her play. What is revealed there, as to the source and inspiration for this play, came as some surprise. On reflection, if I had had some of that clue, before the play, I wondered what sense I would have made of it. My interpreting of my experience would have had more directorial focus? I may have found clues to help me attach and read the work more deeply? Who knows? But the "reading" of this text, in performance, by this creative team, either vocally or visually, did not illuminate the possibilities of the Writer's Note. At this performance, my first 'read' of the play, I was left bereft of clarity and mystified. Is it then, that the writer, director, designers and actors were full of knowledge but did not re-think this conception clearly enough to endow the audience with the necessary clues in their work, for us, on first viewing, to perceive the intention of the work ? They made assumptions about the work, because of informed preparation and discussion, that were not actually clearly delineated in the writing and /or production at The Spare Room? Or is it the basic problem of the writing? Too much metaphor and not enough plain story telling? I understand that the audience I saw the production with was only the second one it had had. Not enough previews or time to reveal the problems of writing and production to solve them, perhaps?

DIRTYLAND is not alone and even Ross Mueller's ZEBRA, at the STC, similarly lacked the dramaturgical attachment to the great Financial Crisis of 2009, I found in the program notes, afterwards, that may have justified the production.. And the STC are the top of the tree in Sydney, aren't they? The resources immense, comparatively to solve such problems.

It is terrific to have this new theatre opportunity for this work under the behest of ARTHUR, a THEATRE COMPANY and THE SPARE ROOM. The NEW THEATRE has moved onto and into the Sydney Theatre scene with a new vision. Without it we may never had seen this play at all. The right to fail is the paramount need for creative development in any human endeavour,as long as we learn and build from it. My personal mantra is: fail gloriously. Great to have the learning opportunity.

What do you make of it?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fools Island

TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS THEATRE COMPANY present FOOLS ISLAND by Darren Gilshenan & Chris Harris at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Bondi Beach.

The principal creative force for FOOLS ISLAND, Darren Gilshenan: "So here is what I think …Theatre is its own delicious creature, full of symbol, metaphoric imagination and collaboration, it is bland when it is literal. It offers us a unique experience to explore an intimate relationship with a live audience. My aim was to challenge myself as a performer and utilise a wide skill set of performance qualities by creating a piece of theatre full of opposites; Physical performance and Shakespeare. Ridiculous comedy and dark tragedy. This is a festival show that aims to delight people visually, emotionally and aurally. It is about the extremes within us all...."

Since graduating from The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), way back in time, in 1988, Mr Gilshenan has built up a body of work that is impressive and diverse in all mediums. In the past two or three years, Mr Gilshenan has appeared regularly on Sydney stages and has made an indelible mark of regular excellence. His apprentice days are well over and what we have witnessed, of late, is the flowering of an artist with hard earned gifts and developed talent. An actor to appreciate. An artist of dedication and seriousness.

The sheer joy of his work for the Bell Shakespeare culminated in him winning a Helpmann Award for Best Actor in 2004, for his performance in THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. However, I watched his work as a member of the ensemble of Bell's RICHARD III, a few years ago and was impressed to believe in the quality of his work in that production. A dramatic actor of delicious judgement had arrived, and seemed to me, in my preference, to rival his comic exploits as Truffaldino in the Goldoni play.

FOOLS ISLAND, a work written by Darren Gilshenan and Chris Harris embraces the two amazing skills that Mr Gilshenan has honed over his career: his physical penchant for comedy of the most dexterous kind and his embodied love of Shakespeare. The body and the voice. His twin loves has led him to a study of Shakespeare's clowns and his own contemporary scenario has incorporated them in the tradition of centuries, for Sydney audiences at the Bondi Pavilion.

FOOLS ISLAND is set on a tiny island in the middle of a great ocean (Set and Costume Design, Jasmine Christie) on which there grows a single palm tree. Hurled to the beach from a mighty asteroid we find a flattened body that gradually gains a consciousness and investigates, like the evolutionary cartoons we may have watched as kids, the gradual growth of the organism crawling from the seas, to grow into, over time, a standing human, that acquires a voice, as it perceives and mimics similar creatures in the auditorium universe about him, and develops a language that has the beauty and pith of William Shakespeare.

The surprise for the audience is that from this asteroid, not one, but, two figures have arrived: one called Gooden and one called Badden. These two opposites like Edgar and Edmund of Shakespeare's KING LEAR, find themselves rivals. The events of the scenario around a 'heroine' become crazily diabolical, full of much mirth and tinged with the sadness of contentious sibling spirits. The presence of two opposites allows Mr Gilshenan to explore, for our delectation, a range of physical comedy that is deliriously funny and underpinned with the beauty/wisdom of the texts of some of Shakespeare's Clowns (and otherwise).

What Mr Gilshanan has is a comic sense that is expressed in a body and face of great flexibility. Recently, I watched Charlie Chaplin's great film MODERN TIMES and, the other night, in the theatre, recognised some of that inheritance in the work of Mr Gilshenan. Whether both of these gentlemen developed these gifts or whether they were born with them is a point to debate, but, certainly, I can remember, Mr Gilshenan, in 1986, give an hilarious performance of the whole of Anton Chekhov''s THE SEAGULL - all of the characters, in ten minutes! Maybe, he was born with this gift, for, he was very young then.

While the scenario of Mr Gilshenan and Mr Harris is not yet wholly integrated, it serves as no distraction to the experience of this evening in the theatre. Jo Turner, the director; Max Cox, the lighting designer; and especially the live sound design and performance by Rose Turtle Ertler, accompanying the actions of Mr Gilshenan with sonic wit and skill, contribute flawlessly to the work. All deserve praise to them for this delight.

The TAMARAMA ROCK SURFERS THEATRE COMPANY have expanded away from the Old Fitzroy in Darlinghurst in to the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, with, I hope, support from the Waverley Council (The Old Fitz is still in full occupation, as well).

Could a city have two theatre destinations of more magisterial beauty then the Sydney Opera House and now the Bondi Pav? Nature everywhere. Beautiful nature. Standing on the board-walk of the Opera house is breathtaking at whatever time of day, and, similarly, standing on the balcony of the Bondi Pav, being seduced by the Bondi ocean breakers and the sea breeze and odour is as entrancing and beautiful. The young crowd of theatre goers mixed with the old guys and gals, and happily launched the season for 2011 at the Bondi Pavilion.

FOOLS ISLAND is a show for adults and children. Mr Gilshanan is worth cherishing as a permanent memory of your theatre going. Take the family and welcome a new venture in an old venue and, I trust, develop a relationship with a new/old jewel in the Sydney theatre going experience.

Best of good fortune.


Sydney Theatre Company presents ZEBRA by Ross Mueller at the Wharf 1, Hickson Road.

The design for ZEBRA, a new play by Ross Mueller, has been created by David McKay whose background experience has been mainly in film production design. On stage is a meticulous re-creation of an American bar, THE BIG HOUSE, in some part of New York city. It is mostly convincing and the most amazing element is the window that looks out onto the outside entrance stairway to the bar, which has the most convincing winter outdoor, daylight lighting effect (Lighting Designer, Damien Cooper), aided with continuous, gently falling snow, that I have ever seen in the theatre. It became a source of distraction and comfort during the performance. Something to wonder , muse about.

The performances by Bryan Brown, Colin Friels and Nadine Garner have the smooth self assurance of artists with a long pedigree in performance.

After a nineteen year absence from the theatre, I last saw Mr Brown in RAINDANCERS by Karin Mainwaring, in this same theatre, Mr Brown has the ease and charisma necessary for Jimmy, a failed Australian entrepreneur, of West Coast real estate, come to meet his young finance's father, with what might be mixed motives fuelled by love and or greed. The role is not particularly demanding of Mr Brown's dramatic resources and he made it appear, comfortably, a relative walk in the park. Totally charming and believable.

Colin Friels, who only occasionally, now, treads the boards,(more's the pity for us, the audience), last seen on stage, vividly memorable, both in VICTORY by Howard Barker (2004) and before, COPHENHAGEN by Michael Frayn, gives a beautifully nuanced investigation of Larry. Larry is an American business man of some judgement, comfortable and secure, having weathered the battering of the recent Global Financial Crisis (GFC), but who has not had the successful insights to maintain a personal life of equanimity. His daughter is estranged and divorce has been a feature of his other personal entanglements. He, Larry, is waiting to meet the prospective husband of his daughter / "mare".

We have two old Zebra adults, Jimmy and Larry, circling each other, to create and/ or maintain their 'harem' with greeting and challenging rituals in THE BIG HOUSE bar.

Mr Friels is an object lesson in acting expertise. The measured control of his instrument usage is rewarding to watch as he reveals his portrait of this fading alpha male. The vocal placement and mounting energy focus is thoroughly at the actor's service, complimented with physical details and clear purpose of objective. The energy of his life-force is in potential coils of excited restraint and is gradually revealed though the disrobing to fight club dress. The generous availability in the give and take with his fellow players, to create not only his own character, but, also the defining gestures for the other actors to define their tasks, is quite admirable and all young actors ought to catch Mr Friels' performance to see what it means to be part of an ensemble.

Nadine Garner, playing the bar owner, bar keep, Robinson, whose craft I know, only, from her recent television work (City Homicide), is completely a match for the two powerhouse men she finds herself 'sparring' with. Robinson matches fearlessly the demands of her customers and may be the more consummate, of the three business 'men', for she ultimately finds a solution to her bankrupt business situation that she can accommodate without too much inconvenience to her conscience or life style. Feisty, intelligent and canny. A match, indeed, for Jimmy and Larry. The 'mare' has a possible assurance of a future. with one of these 'zebra' bucks.

Lee Lewis, the director, then, has organised all of the elements available to her with expertise and artistic sensitivity. The Sound design by Paul Charlier, particularly the New York outside scape, convincing. The audio visual design by Shane Johnson also accurately grounding in effect to create the veracity of the world of the play, as is the costume work of Julie Lynch (what a pleasure to see Ms Lynch capture a wholly naturalistic world so convincingly).

Why, then, does the experience of ZEBRA appear to be a relative waste of time and effort?

Ross Mueller's last play, CONCUSSION, seen at Wharf 2 in 2009, was in my estimation of the new Australian writing of that year, the best new Australian play I saw in Sydney. It had character, plot and sub-text . It had wit, subtlety and social relevance. It was confronting and stimulating. It was alarming and not only worth seeing (despite a flawed production) but worth reading.

ZEBRA's text has the fast paced and wittily constructed language and speeches, peppered with one liners and clever 'musical' craftsmanship that CONCUSSION revels in. What it does not have is the depth of social observation and satirical skewering that the earlier play so cleverly incorporated. Or, if it does, this production does not have the edge or insight to deliver it to the audience. I have not read the play but I suspect that it is the writing that does not deliver in the same way as CONCUSSION. For, no matter how informative the program notes are of the global financial circumstances that occurred world wide, prior to where "ZEBRA begins at 10am on Sunday 11 January,2009",or, of the writer's personal note, telling us of the genesis of this idea for the play in a New York bar in January, 2009 while watching a football game, if it is not attached to the play at viewing, with clearer dramaturgical pointing , ZEBRA is simply a made for television soap / melodrama of no real import except the opportunity to watch three terrific actors in a more than competent production.

Or, maybe the set design window created by Mr McKay,in abettance with Mr Cooper's lighting and Mr Charlier's sound scape distracted me from the subtlety of the writing ?

Maybe, Mr Mueller was writing this play with an idea to an American production rather than an Australian one. His success there as writer so far would be tempting for him to consider that: a New York Dramatists Award in 2008 for CONCUSSION. Certainly, the American location, three characters and light weight, general issues of money bankruptcy, middle aged sexual rivalries between older alpha males around two young 'mares', against the visceral background of living in New York through the economic crisis around them, would lend itself to be, possibly, taken up there. But even the jaded New York or American audience may find the construct of this work just a trifle too old fashioned now. Although Zebra is well made, the formulation has the feel of the fustiness of the rule book of Playwrighting 101, 1950 or so, not 2011, and certainly not as the next play written by the writer of CONCUSSION who revealed such political and literary astuteness in his construct.

Go, for everything else but the play. Disappointing.