Thursday, August 4, 2011
NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH by Lally Katz, a new Australian play, bears a dedication in the printed text and program to Anna Bosnjak and Robyn Nevin.
In Ms Katz’s notes to the program she tells us of her encounter with a neighbour, an Hungarian woman, and then of “The next two years (that she) spent constantly with Anna. Often seven days a week, all day and into the night we would talk. We shared everything together. She showed me her memories and the world. I asked her advice on men. She weighed me. I washed her dog. We went on errands together. We talked constantly on the phone. Anna’s world became bigger than my world. Her memories became more real than my present. But through it, she led me to becoming the adult woman that I was meant to be.”
Ms Katz also tells us that “In 2007 I had a great conversation in a theatre foyer with Robyn Nevin, during which we discussed the possibility of my writing her a play. I asked her, “What should the character be like?’ Robyn responded, ‘Tough and funny.’”
So, two years later and more, with consultation and collaboration with Robyn Nevin, Eamon Flack, Annette Madden, Julian Meyrick, and finally Simon Stone, we have this play and production. This sounds a healthier process than the approach to Belvoir’s commissioned project THE BUSINESS, which we saw earlier this year, especially for the writer and the writing.
The experience of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH in the theatre is one that is enchantingly disarming, charming, and definitely warm-hearted. In one of the last scenes of the play, Ana (Anna Bosnjak?) and her friends, Catherine (“Kitty-kitty”: Catherine=cat=Katz=Kitty-kitty?) and Milova attend a screening of the movie MAMMA MIA and Ana declares, “Oh, very artistical! She – the Streep - she is very artistical! …Very artistical, the MAMMA MIA.” This production is also “very artistical”. All the elements have been carefully crafted to give us a lovely time in the theatre.
The set and costume design (Dale Ferguson), the lighting (Damien Cooper), the sound design & live music composition (Stefan Gregory) are all artistically woven into the fabric of a very respectful and delicately whimsical story of refugees and generational history lessons that surround us all in our neighborhoods. We watch, meet and have time move through us and around us, we change, we grow, we learn and ultimately die. I later, cynically, wondered whether the death of one of the characters after watching MAMMA MIA was meant to be an earnest euthanasia tip, much like the choices available to the inhabitants in the sci-fi film SOLYENT GREEN - ”Watch a movie of choice and die happy!?
The Set design is deceptively simple. A dark, thick-piled carpeted space, walls and floors, pads the sound and insulates and concentrates the possibility of audience invention. The same technique that Mr Stone engaged us in with his design solution on THE WILD DUCK (without the glass walls, thankfully, and how much more comfortable is it to enter this production without the glass barrier?), no visible clues or ‘signed’ location, except with poignant choice of props (Wheelie-bins with yellow lids), and our own imaginations will endow the environments of the play from our own lives. We, as an audience become the living creators/observers of the inhabitants of this empty and comfortable space. We become imaginatively creative and complicit. We have an emotional state and stake, evolving, in the experience. To not to accept the invitation to ‘play’, to disown the ‘game’ maybe to disown ourselves - a harsh inner critic, indeed. Subtle, eh? Unlike the reality of Patrick White’s scenario for THE SEASON AT SARSPARILLA where everything is shown - we are invited here by Mr Ferguson to become our own art director of the neighborhood locations and all else.
A large revolve stage sits cunningly in the carpet and is employed to whisk us off to many another place in the play. A bit like being, suddenly, on a ‘magic carpet’. Our imaginations fly off, for instance: aided by chair arrangements to ride a tram in Budapest or sit in a doctor’s office in the city of Mary St. Mr Stone has used this apparatus before (THE PROMISE), but not as successfully.
The lighting by Mr Cooper is also a crucial and potent tool for our imaginations: Time of day, interior and exterior locations, and grotesque Grimm fairy tale shadows on the carpeted walls, help us to create worlds and emotional tensions. The imaginative story telling of Ana become projected into our consciousness as the images invented with Mr Cooper’s tricks of lighting, conjure, for me, amongst others, connections to the little girl’s fantasy life in Guillermo del Torro’s PAN’S LABRYINTH (2006)- The little red riding hood, the Parishka, of Ana’s first husband comes to life in the forest with Artur, a serial killer, of her memories. The Cooper invention powerful in leading me to identify my own fears and imaginings as part of the journey.
The music composition and live playing by Mr Gregory is a useful element, too. Although it flickers perilously close, sometimes, to sentimentality and kitsch. That it does not quite tread into that zone reflects a very sensitive sense of fine judgement. A delicate act.
There is in this production of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH clever invitations to a sense of a cosy, amateur community theatre invention. We build the set with the lighting and props, independently and together imaginatively; the twee little joke of the piano player moving from the piano, and it still plays ! – warm rapprochement invited, we laugh knowingly – we know how it is done, though it was at first, a trick – it did indeed, catch us out, ha-ha; the piano player/composer, Stefan Gregory, is introduced as an actor as well, a slightly wooden and embarrassed performer who 'will do his best' for us - more communal embrace as we accept the offer, from this 'amateur' actor more or less, depending on your personal belief systems, as there are a large number of 'tiny' roles he must create; the use of very familiar everyday occurrences, that we all meet regularly: diabetes, the WEST WING tv series, youth suicide, cancer, the cancer wig, the Sarah Palin put downs, the eating disorder, the depressive delusions – seeing and hearing people that are dead, the dirty nappies in our emptied wheelie bin, the stupid but loyal ethnic friend, the relentlessly barking dog of our neighbourhood, the pop film MAMMA MIA, which some of us can’t admit to our friends that we have seen etc, etc. All this makes for a very easy and coy accessible night in the theatre’s world. We recognise it, we know it as of our time, our lives. A kind of folk play.
But best of all is the delicious love poem of a creation by Lally Katz of Ana. Blunt, honest, broken accented English accompanied by mangled ‘foreigner’ language construction, which causes us to cringe and/or laugh at the clever but screw-ball logic of the expressions. She is sometimes unaccountably mean, judgemental and determined. But she is also wise and world weary with memories that she can re-call and utilise to create lessons for present day survival. The horrors of war become useful tools for others to absorb and learn to live from, faithfully. Tough and funny. We all have at least one real connection to this icon-type, yes?
Robyn Nevin is astonishing in her characterisation. The immersion of Ms Nevin into the very sinews of Ana is so complete and depth filled that one almost weeps with the density of this artist’s expressive gifts. A long practiced career (the program recollects that Ms Nevin was in the first graduating class at NIDA in 1960- a 51 year span!) and we can see the benefits Ms Nevin can reap for us, as a result of that constancy of practice over the years, the intensity of work over recent years, particularly. There is something great in this performance that, however good her work as Hecuba or Ranyevskaya or even Mary Tyrone might have been, has to do with the actor’s comfortability and ready recognition of the ordinary, suburban Australian woman/battler and her uncanny ability to shape shift into it: The Australian woman who meets the odds of the unfair world straight on and unashamedly battles it, without giving quarter, to naybody, male or female. Some critics have recollected in Ms Nevin’s Ana, her Ms Docker, but more interesting and redolent, for me, are my fond memories of her creation of the pragmatic, fearless but passionate, Ms Imogen Parrot in Pinero’s TRELAWNY OF THE ‘WELLS’ way back in the golden times of the George Ogilvie, Old Tote production (Ms Parrot , an actress, becomes a theatre manager; who knew how much like life that performance was to be? I suspect Ms Nevin, may have). This is a performance to relish.
Standing beside her, however, is Kris McQuade’s sublime creation of Milova, a Serbian neighbour who doggedly offers her friendship to Ana, who regards her offers as dangerous and suspicious, but who finally triumphs with her acts of devotion and unremitting patience with reward, only, for it disappear, too, quickly. Everything about Ms McQuade’s creation is meticulous and apparently selfless in her counterpointing to the creative offers of Ms Nevin. Here, are two actors so finely attuned to each other, that, besides their own actions to create character, they have a trust to allow the other actor to define their character as well. The great signs of craft and art in these two very different women are marvellous. Mr Ferguson has also aided Ms McQuade magnificently, with a costume design that complements everything the actress needs to complete her incarnation. Ms McQuade is just as incisive and nifty with her other responsibilities as well. What a handsome man she makes!
Heather Mitchell is devoted and fine in her responsibilities with intelligent understatement doing the job for her. Ian Meadows, simple and direct with his degrees of required and differently scaled realities in his tasks. Both actors exemplary in their judgements and support.
Charlie Garber as Ken, for me, is the most insecure in his ability to immerse himself and refrain from commenting on the role. The role and the play cannot bear objectivity. It must always be subjective expression, an exposure of the actor’s life-force as well –or at least appear to be. However, in defence of Mr Garber’s problem, Ms Katz has given him a frightfully difficult task, for it is here in this relationship with Ken and Catherine, played by Megan Holloway, that Lally Katz as fudged the writing with not enough information, complex scenes, to make the relationship a really real one – one that I knew about. As it is played at the moment the writing does not offer clues for us to see or feel beyond the surfaces of the offered actions. He says this, he does that; she says this, she does that. They say this, they do that, together Why? ?? I was disappointedly interested.
Ms Katz has let her fondness for her Ana and perhaps Robyn Nevin, dominate the principal transformative journey that appears to be the spine of the play, Catherine’s. Catherine’s two year delusion about her dead friend, her symptoms of a food disorder, especially her need for Ana as a respite in her life are never satisfactorily clarified, explored or resolved. They just are. The ending, between Ken and Catherine, is glib and seems to be curtailed. It also reveals a weakness in the dramaturgical instincts of Mr Stone, who, as in THE WILD DUCK adaptation, (THE ONLY CHILD, as well?) encourages a scene that explains, overstates too simplistically, in this case, the future of the surviving pair – Ken returning with a box of his stuff, a joke or two, a successful Roadshow production offer for his film – future success, and a return to watching WEST WING!! "We’re in the life" agree Ken and Catherine. Well, a kind of life.
In fact, on further idle musing, I suspect that there is in Mr Stone, an essentially Victorian sensibility about his heroines. I came to realise, a few years ago, that every feisty, amazing female protagonist in Victorian literature, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Diana of the 'Crossways', all of them (I read some 15 novels all in a row), who have been challenging for four hundred odd pages, all have to end up either dead, married, mad or in a nunnery. The status quo must be maintained for that society, no matter how thrilling, attractive and exciting the woman has been. Two of our heroines in this neighbourhood end up dead and one looks like they are going to safely marry her off. The other woman surviving is Milova, the quiet, submissive, willing victim of unkindness and rough usage. She like Ana's dog just keeps coming back for more rejection. A bourgeois ending for our community, sentimental and tidy. Nothing much, it seems, has changed! Kill the ladies off or safely marry them off, to prevent pending madness, in Catherine’s case, perhaps. Keep Milova treading the tread mill of disappointment and no reward - it is a cruel prediction for this woman, one of the 'good'of the play.
Megan Hollloway as Catherine, the author’s character of identification, plays the material with a very subtle absorbed and gentle input – to watch and support around the buffeting energy of Ana, the function of the role is maintained with great generosity and care, however, Catherine as a life force is underwhelming and does not visibly develop much at all in the arc of the play. For instance, I was surprised as to the source of her mysterious phone calls and wished that the suicided friend and eating disorder had being further elaborated on. Almost zilch. Strange.
As Lally Katz had collaborated with Yael Stone in the STC production of FRANKENSTEIN (as had Ralph Myers) and was, indeed, Ms Katz’s 'monster', I wondered whether she had ever seen the script. Considering what Ms Stone created as the servant, romantic fantasy and madwoman in last year’s production of THE DIARY OF A MADMAN, with Geoffrey Rush, I wonder what might have arisen with the present text. Is it the actor or the writing? I reckon it is in the writing – needs more, a little more embellishment. Ms Stone was, of course, down in Melbourne in another Katz play: A GOLEM STORY. Interesting to see what she would have done with Catherine. The compare and contrast, exciting.
What is ultimately surprising about this evening is the text of Ms Katz. It is tender, gentle and filled with observed and appreciated love. The form is interesting: a lot of very short scenes, short scenes, not many long ones; lots and lots of locations, indoor and out door, and some 30 characters. Very, very assured in production. It could almost be a television or film screenplay in this form. And certainly it has the general community appeal for its subject matter, story and emotional landscape. A good soap opera, that with the quality of acting that we, mostly, see on the Belvoir stage, could produce a lovely M.O.R. (middle of the road) box-office rater. Give PACKED TO THE RAFTERS a run for the ratings in the same time slot.When you read the other work, mostly produced in Melbourne, of Ms Katz, you experience a crazy and very challenging mind and theatre worker in an out-there zone. NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH is so conventional that I am afraid that Alison Croggon, the Melbourne blogger, if she came up to see this work, might be terribly shocked, and along with the conventional, (but theatrical) direction of Mr Stone, also, a refugee from Melbourne (Hayloft) declare that Sydney has reduced these Melbourne artists to …..?, What? Conventional crowd pleasers? Sydney.Yikes!!! Beware its disease, you Batmaniacs - no - Melbournians.
It is also interesting that in Sydney we have had our writers placing older characters in the spotlight. Tommy Murphy’s GWEN IN PURGATORY; Paul Capsis’ ANGELA’S TABLE; and, slightly further back, John Doyle’s Kurt in THE PIG IRON PEOPLE. When I place Ana alongside Gwen I see why Ana is a little too romantically conceived for me and works best in the homage world of Angela. Kurt, of, course, is in a stratosphere of his own – scary!
Ms Katz is writing from the world she knows and it is lovingly done and appreciated. But I just felt during the performance that we are all still, in the theatre (television/film) a little too euro-centric in our contemporary story telling. We are a multi-cultural country and we often brag about that! (at my NSW University bus stop, it is often hard to see a single Caucasian or European student in the long, long queue – modern Australia). I have just had an interesting time with a friend’s older relative who is Vietnamese, but has lived here for some time: any writer want a contemporary story? Amazing. Mr Murphy introduced a black African priest into GWEN IN PUTAGTORY but didn’t do much with him. I wait for the Afghan, Iraq, African, or God help us, our Somalian/Australian refugee stories to reach our spaces. To be part of our contemporary neighbourhood watch. In fact at the New Theatre there is a play called A QUIET NIGHT IN RANGOON by Katie Pollock, soon to open. The cast publicity photograph is mostly Asian in appearance, how exciting. I thought, here may be a contemporary story for us diverse Australians to see. I’ll let you know.
NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH is a very, very well done conventional night in the theatre. And it has a neighbourhood, community, resonance, reassurance. Knowingly tough and funny, truly safe and easy. I had a good time. Especially watching Robyn Nevin and Kris McQuade. They are not to be missed.