Sunday, November 27, 2011
small things productions and Riverside Parramatta ("true west theatre") present, FOUR DEATHS IN THE LIFE OF RONALDO ABOK by Ian Meadows, in the Rafferty's Theatre at Riverside, Parramatta.
FOUR DEATHS IN THE LIFE OF RONALDO ABOK by Ian Meadows is the third production of a new program in its first season, under the banner of "true west theatre", experiencing theatre work created in Western Sydney, by artists from that community.
Ian Meadows and Adam Booth and their company: "small things productions", have been working with the Southern Sudanese community in the outer Western suburbs of Sydney. "The goal of this theatre project became to bring some of the journeys of the community (the Southern Sudanese) and its individuals to the stage. To dispel the myths and create a cultural bridge that only storytelling can achieve, fostering understanding through a recognition of another's hopes fears and joys. Sharing the common dreams and desires we all hold dear regardless of ethnicity, colour, location or wealth …After months of workshops sharing stories, thoughts, song, dance and culture (and plenty of time debating African politics and the finer points of the Dinka language!) we (they) emerged with this."
Ronaldo (Johnson Ngor) is studying screen writing and has presented his tutor (Adam Booth) with a derivative version of a Bruce Lee Kung Fu, adventure. Ronaldo is advised to begin again and to reflect on his own life and try to tell that story. As Ronaldo takes on that advice and we, then, are engaged with his extended Sydney family and their 'adventures' and daily confrontations.
We go to a cinema workplace where Ronaldo meets fellow employee, Rachel (Amer Achiek) and begins a courtship that is humorously found to be within traditional expectations and a modern modem. Rachel is a modern girl!!! The course of true love may not run easy for Ronaldo! Ronaldo, also, has an aunt, Mary (Awek Akech), with several children and a sick relative, Atem (Abraham Ajok), in hospital. In this world we are told of the journeys through a war torn and inhospitable landscape to refugee camps to the Australian day to day interactions. The "epic journeys (that) pitted these people against searing hot deserts, frightened locals, government planes and bombs, militia on horseback, famine, thirst and hostile wild animals". It is these stories that brings home the amazing heroics and resilience of these people who we, now, see in our everyday lives around us, either in the living flesh or through the media, and have no inkling of what they know and have survived of the world.
It gave me pause and made me humble in my awakening and appreciation of other people's life journeys as part of my human landscape of "rubbing shoulders". Of people, who now I am sharing my life journey with, this afternoon, in Parramatta. The contextual humour around a minor car accident where Mary attempts to find the other Australian driver's 'baby', which she is hysterically grieving over, only to find that she is grieving her car wreck not an actual baby, highlights the obfuscations of language and cultural values that is part of the everyday obstacles for these refugees. It is an incident both funny but also culturally embarrassing, for me.
This simple and direct storytelling framework and content by Ian Meadows in FOUR DEATHS IN THE LIFE OF RONALDO ABOK, is forceful because of its unsophisticated and straight forward tone of massaged verbatim extrapolations. It is the accumulated minute ordinariness of the telling knowledge of this world experience, by people we come to appreciate as extraordinary survivors of the worst that man can do to each other, that gives the work a dignity and an expansive human embrace however naive the technical gifts of the performers.
The technical support of the Sounds design and audio-visual work by Steve Toulmin, is a seamless and vitally intricate part of the artistic whole. Similarly the modest Lighting design by Tegan Lee. The presence of Wendy Strehlow working as an actor/facilitator, alongside Mr Booth, to assist the Sudanese performers in telling the main thrust of the experience is a pleasure to watch, as they modestly serve and enthusiastically support from the witness chairs on the side of the stage. This is an example of the many roles and responsibilities that true artists in the theatre can engage in. I was very proud, indeed.
Simple, direct, entertaining and enlightening. Could there be a more important use of the theatre skills of all involved? From the reaction of the audience I saw this with, NO. All our lives had grown, positively, it seemed.
Congratulations to all involved and to the Riverside True West initiative - a theatre culture involved and serving its community.
Monday, November 21, 2011
POSTS IN THE PADDOCK presented by My Darling Patricia, produced by Marguerite Pepper Productions in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts for Performance Space, Carriageworks, as part of the EXCHANGE season.
POSTS IN THE PADDOCK is a profoundly moving experience.
This is the fourth production by My Darling Patricia that I have attended, the others were: POLITELY SAVAGE (2007), NIGHT GARDEN (2009) and AFRICA (2011). Since that first encounter in 2007, with POLITELY SAVAGE at the old Performance Space, I have always anticipated the work with high expectations. All original work, from concept, writing and form exploration, across multi-media usage and exploration, drawing on a wide input of craftsmen and artists from a wide source of disciplines, the works have always been investigations/viewpoints from a highly idiosyncratic set of imaginations, with the highest sense of cultural concern and contemporary integrity. The works always seem to reflect long and deep preparation and a truly collaborative and patient process of finding the best means to tell the story, to communicate the concerns of the artists for both an enlightening and entertaining journey for the audience present to witness.
The initiating artist of POSTS IN THE PADDOCK, Clare Britton, a foundation member of the company, visited the property of her extended family (the O'Brien's) and came across posts in a paddock. One hundred and eleven years ago, relatives of Ms Britton "were murdered by Aboriginal Bushranger, Jimmy Governor, on (this) property in the Hunter Valley. Known as the Breelong Blacks, Jimmy and his brother were on the run for 99 days - the longest manhunt in Australian History. He was executed in 1901."
The work on "POSTS IN THE PADDOCK began with six women sitting at a table together for a week in 2008, discussing the events involving Jimmy Governor and the O'Brien family in 1900. That week, Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor introduced My Darling Patricia to the notion of Didirri - deep listening". This concept of Didirri is the guiding influence to the form of this work for the audience.
Three of the performers, Clare Britton, Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor and LeRoy Parsons have personal histories and connections to the principal characters in this story and it is partly this that infects the work with a sweet melancholy and a sense of a holistic healing through bi-cultural comprehensions.The present generation of both sides of this story look back together at the tragic events of their entwined families and ancestors' story heritages.
One of the very interesting developments, for me, in this past year has been to witness the new approach to the thematics in Australian Aboriginal storytelling on our stages. If you read my blog account of WINDMILL BABY, you will see part of my personal concerns. That NAMATJIRA, BULLY BEEF STEW, BELONG and BLOODLAND have recently begun a theatrical dialogue with Sydney audiences that reflect a growing maturity and spread of storytelling concerns is now crowned with this production of POSTS IN THE PADDOCK.
This is part of the post-apology movement of cultural reconciliation. Lily Shearer, the Cultural Collaborator to this project says: for we that have "inherited 223 years of the IRA (Invasion, Removal and Assimilation), the journey that the POSTS IN THE PADDOCK process (takes) us on is truly healing of spirit, land and families. (That) to reflect on histories of the past together truly demonstrates reconciliation at work in a community, not as a Government directive, but as a human need for (mutual) forgiveness to move forward for a better Australia".
This work begins by inviting the audience to the POSTS INSTALLATION (Design, Fiona Foley collaborating with Clare Britton). We enter into a darkened space onto a black soft flooring and see some erect glowing posts, illuminated internally, reminiscent of Tim Storrier's signature burning fences and ropes. We are surrounded by an environmental soundscape of bush noises, and on approaching each of the posts we, further, hear them 'speak' - recorded stories and interviews, that acquaint us with the possible identity of these disappearing, decaying 'emblems' of a history (Editing, composition,arrangement and Programming by Declan Kelly). This natural returning to the earth of these posts, when given these verbal accretions of murder, grief and loss, through the recorded messages, gather in this artistic remembrance - a pronouncement that "this has happened" and attention can and should be given.
We are gently guided to our seats in the auditorium and the posts glow, now further away, behind a gauze scrim. In front, simple sets of dry grass vegetation create a sense of the virgin land. Trees stand upright in the soil. Indigenous inhabitants, gather and hunt across the land (Set Design:Clare Britton collaborating with Bryony Anderson). Woman (Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor) and Man (LeRoy Parsons). Some white settlers arrive on the land (Clare Britton and a wonderfully silent, Sam Routledge) and begin to shift its profile with the dressing of the Aboriginal people and engaging them in the felling of the trees and creating tall wooden fences and a gate from the timber. All of this done in dumb show and gently mimed activity. It is done deliberately and calmly, the changes efficient and seemingly irresistibly inevitable. This may be Didirri - deep listening, in action. Onto the scrim are projected images of a house (Video Design, Sam James) dominating the landscape on a hill. The empathetic Lighting (Chris Twyman) and a wonderfully apt and 'dense' Sound Design (Phil Downing) envelope the project with atmospherics and contexts leading to a deeply immersive imaginative engagement.
Diary accounts are read or spoken. The mean-spirited cruelties and culturally misguided and misunderstood interactions between the inhabitants are acted in a disarmingly naive style. There is no real acting going on here, just gentle impressions of possibly real people recollecting their lives, casually. The point is made that the murders were probably unplanned and unexpected. There is a simple sense of quietly accrued pains and acts of petty behaviour that accidentally boil over to unsophisticated catastrophe. It is all told in a performance manner deliberately under energised, nontheatrical.
Countering this 'acting' style are demonstrated theatrical skills of a highly sophisticated kind: sculptures, painting, shadow and hand puppetry and film. A Shadow Film (Sam James) using stick puppets and voiced, projected onto a hessian bag hanging over the gate is surprisingly entrancing and the tool for the showing of the climatic,dramatic tragedy of the events. This disarming counterpointing of the melodramatics of the history with these collaborative craftmanships of childlike creativity is where the deliberate choices of pacing and image accumulations gain the shocking power of emotional involvement that draws one in unknowingly and embracingly.
Take the final gestured images invented by this company. It seems the story has ended, we prepare to thank the company, but then in modern dress, the actors carry on a kitchen table, down to the front of the space and they place chairs carefully around it and they begin to sit as if to converse, but, instead the lights fade. Here is where the project began, people sitting at a table telling a story to each other - a cultural circle has completed.
We applauded the company, they shuffled off, the house lights rose and then on a back screen - a slide show - a visual diary/record of the actual site and meetings of this company on its preparatory learning together many years ago - 2 to 3 years ago - is shown to us. One is drawn even deeper into the experience of POSTS IN THE PADDOCK, for these images reflect a shared curiosity and sense of joy, trust and brother/sisterhood that bound all these artists together and have, consequently, wrapped us up in their story telling embrace.
Before the performance, I was standing in the foyer studying a beautiful and childlike painted and annotated map arecording of the district that the events of this Governor and O'Brien family saga took place. I was introduced to Halcyon Macleod, the director of this project. Looking tired and slightly harassed, (artistically harassed, that is), she expressed anxiety about the project.
At the end of the evening in the theatre, myself and several friends waited in the foyer, hoping to catch her. For I wished, as did my companions, to set her anxiety at rest, in my own small way, and tell her that I thought POSTS IN THE PADDOCK was a gentle piece of captivating theatrical 'genius'.
A suitable development of My Darling Patricia's commitment. A distinctly unique company with the vision and patience of real artists.And that this will be a pinnacle moment of accomplishment in their history.
It seemed the personal stakes of the creators in this story of their families had made such specificity, culturally universal for the audience. Wonderful. POSTS IN THE PADDOCK, a wonder.
It will tour to Melbourne. It may be seen again in Sydney. I should wish it was, for it is great.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
God's Ear - Trailer from Anne Brito on Vimeo.
Pursued by a Bear and The Reginald Theatre, The Seymour Centre present GOD'S EAR by Jenny Schwartz in the Downstairs Theatre at the The Seymour Centre, Sydney.
A week, and I have read the very satisfactory new Jeffery Eugenides novel THE MARRIAGE PLOT. Began Gillian Mears' FOAL'S BREAD. Re-read Kenneth Lonnergan's LOBBY HERO - 2001, (The New York times having suggested that it may be the best American play of the first decade of the millennium); David Hare's and Howard Brenton's play PRAVDA - 1984, because the principal character has shadows of Rupert Murdoch, that might make it topical to revive today; SERIOUS MONEY by Caryl Churchill, because I thought the money issues may be still relevant today as we follow the path the history of the 1929 Crash has left for us - beware 2012 ! (but I found too difficult to read - gave up, again!!); and prior to attending the production, re-read Harold Pinter's, NO MAN'S LAND.
And why do I write the above? Because, besides the drudgery, mostly, of newsprint and magazines, it has been a week indulging in language. Well written, deliberate use of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters or scenes or acts of plays. Especially, constructions of word symphonies in the case of the playwright. For, in the playwriting, not only is it the choice and considered order of the words for meaning, it is also for the effect of the cadence of choice of the words for the sound and music effects of communication, beautifully orchestrated with deliberate signals to efforts, speed, rhythms and eloquent silences, for the actor and his voice, that is part of the amazement, when close reading (just as it is in reading poetry).
The power of the master playwrights in pursuit of the laying out of a kind of musical score, a proposition of organised argument, that the poets of the theatre toil over for the director and actor to humbly, solve and complete, with action for an audience in the theatre, maybe part of the wonder that Shakespeare wondered, when he wrote, "What a piece of work is man". And, although, I do not suggest that any of the above works are Masterpieces of the Ideal Play, they are examples of a great tradition and honourable objective of the craftsmanship of the writer of plays.
After a long Saturday of friendly, extended relationship chores, it was with some trepidation that I travelled to the Seymour Centre to attend the theatre. Trepidation because I was tired and knew nothing of this play or anything much of this artistic team and there was a double-bill of Kubrick films on Channel 22.
GOD'S EAR by a young American playwright, Jenny Schwartz, turned out to be an invigorating literary bath - immersive. One, more delightful because it was unexpected. perhaps, and like a bath, the experience became a little tepid by degrees, as the ninety odd minutes passed by, but still exciting to attend to, to discover.
A married couple have lost a child. The play deals with the aftermath that that event has had on them and the surviving sibling. A story, a theme that is not unfamiliar to any regular theatre goer. The David Lindsay - Abaire 2007 play, RABBIT HOLE, filmed with Nicole Kidman this year, being one recent parallel story. But what distinguishes this telling is the startling linguistic inventions of Ms Schwartz in her telling. The grief of this kind of tragedy, may perhaps defy the use of real language to fathom. So she suggests, mostly, convincingly. The grief of these three people, Mel (Natasha Beaumont), Ted (Julian Garner) and their very young daughter, Lanie (Victoria Greiner) is such that language for them has become a tangle of doggerel expressions, utilising rhymes, "catch phrases, banal chatter, non sequitors, puns and cliches", lists and lists of seeming stream-of-consciousness connections. The language spills out of them as if to obfuscate the deep, deep despair of the loss. It makes a noise to cover the empty possibility of all enveloping silence. Long, long streams of noise, for, on the other hand, a silence of hopelessness may never cease its hold.
"His pupils are unreactive, they said.
He doesn't withdraw from pain, they said.
The next two hours will be critical.
Or was it crucial?
Or was it critical?
Or was it crucial?
He's in critical condition, they said.
Survival, they said.
His chances of survival.
They said, low."
"And you'll swoop down and save the day.
And I'll bend over backwards and light up the room.
And we'll thank God.
And God will bless America.
And with God as as our witness we'll never be starving again.
And the fog will lift.
And we'll see eye to eye.
And the cows will come home.
And we'll dance cheek to cheek."
With such language it is not surprising to read that Edward Albee, the American Master Playwright would say of GOD'S EAR: "a provocative, adventuresome, beautifully written play." But it is not only in the language but, too, in the surrealistic interpolations of imaginary characters: The Toothfairy (Gael Ballantyne), a Transvestite Stewardess and GI Joe (Kieran Foster), and two free-fall drug (alcohol) assisted beings: Guy (Cameron Knight) and Lenora (Helen O'Leary), areas of exploration that Mr Albee has gamboled in, often and richly.
In a sculptural white set of low walled curves (Jo Lewis) contrasted with colour of stark bleached blues and crispness of colour definition with the lighting (Matt Cox), dressed in clean, clear and crisp costume (again, Jo Lewis) the actors manage the text with admirable accuracy and clarity. The surmounting of this text is no mean feat and it was thrilling to hear it delivered at such musical capacities: Pitch, Pace and Volume. And sense. The technical demands are fiendish indeed. Jonathan Wald, the director has taken great care with the language challenges, and drilled these performers well.
But such is the verbal gymnastics that the high stylistic achievements of the company sometimes supercede the emotional variety. Mr Garner gives a superlative performance in balancing the cerebral necessities of the language demands with the deep emotional pain of Ted and its creeping journey during the storytelling. His arc of storytelling is subtle, but, clearly delineated. On the other hand, although impressive, Ms Beaumont while circumnavigating her way through Ms Swartz's verbiage, pitches her emotional life staggeringly deep at the outset of the play and hammers at it relentlessly, too consistently, with little variation, throughout the night. Her character's journey does not progress much and it is tiresome for the audience to have no release, to have no other emotional observation to make of Mel. Her character is in stasis for most of the night.
This lack of shading by Ms Beaumont, gives Ms O'Leary as the crazy drunk, Lenora, no competition in winning the audience's empathies, as the other major female character and the relief is palpable in the long last act scene, that she shares with Mr Garner. Similarly the comic work of Mr Foster in both his incarnations are first rate in relief contrasts. Mr Knight is intriguing as Guy.
The music, the singing side of the production does not really gel and needs more development. The sound design by Steve Toulmin is suitably ethereal, music-box like and edgy in the field of stream-of-conscious dream scape of the play.
GOD'S EAR is a pleasurable surprise, especially for those of us who love language and hearing actors relishing of it. The play's subject matter is 'heavy' as some may say, and may give you pause. But I had a more than satisfactory evening, although the brain got more massaging than the heart. This balance that Ms Swartz demands is a mean feat to achieve with this remarkably difficult text but worth catching and worth noting.
Monday, November 14, 2011
ArtsLab 11 Performance season SLOW REVEAL - Six New Works In a Timely Fashion. The Shopfront Contemporary Arts and Performance program at Shopfront Theatre, Carlton, Sydney. SLOW REVEAL - Six New Works In a Timely Fashion are part of this year's Shopfront's 5th Artslab season. The new Artistic Director, Caitlin Newton-Broad tells us "from ArtsLab's pilot residency in 2007, this is an intensive program for emerging artists to engage with their own work and also to practice within a community arts co-operative, at every level. I was lucky to work closely with these six young artists this year on Shopfront's integrated project, MACHINE ATLAS and have observed their solo process as each person has travelled from April to November, committing upwards of 20 hours per week to be on site, in research, development and rehearsal". This is indeed a generous residency both in time and opportunity. One to be cherished for its vision and commitment.
This year Erica J Brennan, Grant Moxom, Lucy Watson, Bernice Ong, Rachel Weiner and Rachel Roberts have concluded the laboratory of artistic and craft exploration with performance work for an audience under the directorship of MIchael Pigott, supported by the Shopfront team and some highly esteemed mentors: Tom Bannerman, Barbara Campbell, Katja Handt, Sam Hawker, Stephen Hawker, Jeff Khan, Rowan Marchingo, Chris Ryan, Yana Taylor and Siobhan Waterhouse. I take the effort to name the project participants to underline the high degree of professional mentoring that this program has been supported with.
Liberty to explore and the honour given to the process of art creation seems to be the primary element of the ArtsLab program. The performances, or to use the 'ugly' or cultural anathematic terminology of our corporate funders: OUTPUTS, of this exploration vary in the success that they have in the audience interaction, and although important, is, in the scheme of things, but a small part of the objective of the residency.
The most fascinating work presented, was THE SPACE HAS BEEN LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK created by Grant Moxom. Using volunteers from the audience (and himself) as performers, with personal mp3 players strapped to the arms of the participants and head sets, this 8 person ensemble, incorporate individual, but simultaneous journeys. Movement, choral and solo, spoken text (Shakespeare's MACBETH) is enacted and much else. The volunteers present to the watching audience, as they follow the directions of the individually timed commands, a performance that appears to be improvised both in physical and verbal patterns. Mr Moxom, a near graduate in a Psychology and Performance degree at NSW University says, "Throughout this process I have been examining the tropes of theatre and habits of people in order to generate a theatrical experience with the illusion of true spontaneity while maintaining a precise choreography of action." This he does amusingly, intelligently, with clarity and technical prowess - Mr Moxom, worth taking note of to follow his development in this interactive form. I am curious to know, What next?
Rachel Weiner's project is called HOMUNCULUS and sets out to explore "the areas of movement, light, sound, text and texture, to examine the world through the eyes of a curious and inquisitive one-and-a-half year old child". This piece revealed a wide movement vocabulary and was expressed by Ms Weiner in an absorbing and technical proficiency. The sound/music scape by Ben Garrard was a very useful element in the work. Whether this was an expression of a young girl called Gladys or not, did not seem to be of much concern to the continuity of the work. On that level it lacked consistency and clarity. As a movement/dance piece it was interesting, independent, of those terms: a successful movement/ dance work and not contextually, necessarily, the study of a one-and-a- half year old child.
Erica J. Brennan presented a work: A FEAT INCOMPLETE with fellow performance artist/actor, David Buckley. In two separate areas, Ms Brennan, dressed in a slightly archaic fashion with her head crowned with a set of large 'horns' - Minotaur like - and scooping water from a jar in a space of black desolation with a heap of coal dust that sprouts talking mushrooms, stands beside, in a parallel contemporary room space, a hip young 'scientist' (red jeans and trendy vest and black rimmed glasses), Mr Buckley, who with algebraic formulations and recordings on tape, attempt to illustrate the vital "compulsion to create a true and resonate story". In her artist's notes, Ms Brennan, extrapolates, it is an "attempt to record themselves in time and space...; to say with total clarity 'I am here' and have stories to tell". It is told, unfortunately, with a near total lack of communicative clarity. It is the performance craft, of Ms Brennan, that fails the project and undermines the intellectual conceits. Mr Buckley is decidedly more fascinating and holds the performance elements together. However, the objective 'what' of the piece has no clarity or clear support on 'how' to achieve that, with an audience. A lot of ideas that have not been shaped for audience entry. Have I had other, clearer explorations of this idea? Yes. Does this, at this time, add to my extension of this idea? No.
Bernice Ong has created a performance-installation called REQUIEM: an immersive performance space which we are invited to enter through a white clothed tunnel. A chequer board floor, white walls and roof; a tower of seven flickering static video screens, with occasional dying cockroach images gyrating to death, opposite to which, in a white metal- framed room, a white faced Ms Ong cleans her teeth and sucks white liquid and then languorously conducts with a violin bow a recording of part of Mozart's Requiem in D Minor. There is no dramatic impact to this work and its ideas are absorbed within the first few minutes of arriving in the space. The work lacks persuasive inclusions and is static and lacking in journey curiosity.
I commented to a fellow audience member, that the most famous monologist, Alan Bennett (TALKING HEADS) mostly (he has recorded one, himself, true) has famous artists/ actors deliver them - Maggie Smith, Aileen Atkins, Julie Walters amongst many.
Lucy Watson has written a monologue, SLIPPING, which she also delivers. Ms Watson accompanies her written text with a dexterous movement duet with a large, blue suitcase. The director has crafted a visually attractive set of lighting cues and James Brown, the Sound Designer, has created an intriguing sound scape. The difficulty with the piece as performance art for me was that the movement did not seem to clarify the text and the text did not clarify the movement, they mutually were a distraction to the other. Choice: Do I close my eyes and listen or do I just watch and close my ears to the spoken word? As I debated with myself, the text became buried in the offers of too much activity. Who knows what was written/spoken?
The last piece, EATER by Rachel Roberts, was presented in beautiful images but the inability of the performer to engage me in the sound of the spoken language, let alone in any musical cadence of supportive "music" of the voice to communicate the ideas and narrative of the text left me wallowing in frustration and irritation. Just how much of this work's preparation, was concerned with the actual speaking of the text? However long it took to write, the performance craft of speaking the monologue needed more attention or an artist of some vocal renown: Maggie Smith or......??....
Process is the major task in this residency and the audience interaction, a brief three nights (including a preview), would have clued these artists to the necessary difference between the theoretical and performance demands of the works and what the next steps are to continue to develop the work.
Applications are now open for Artslab 12 - applications close on the 7th December, 2011; contact Saskia on email@example.com
A cultural initiative of some seriousness and success.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
New Theatre presents WOMEN, POWER and CULTURE at the New Theatre, Newtown.
The New Theatre is the longest continuous running theatre in Sydney. This company has a long and important place in the theatre culture of Sydney (if not in Australia, with its fellow companies in other capitals, under the banner of the New Theatre).
"We dared a group of Sydney's leading and emerging female playwrights to tell the stories that lie behind the triumphs and struggles that mark women's contribution to our political, social and cultural life. It's amazing to think that it's taken Australian women 109 years to get from casting the first vote to nailing the top job. So, how far have we really come." With this flyer blurb the New Theatre organised some eleven female writer's to offer a program and found eight women directors and forty-four actors to participate, supported by an amazing team of volunteers.
Louise Fischer, the present Artistic Director of the new Theatre, says, "I got the idea from a project I'd read about at Tricycle Theatre in London where female playwrights explored the role of women in power and politics from both an historical and contemporary perspective. This was a perfect starting for a season of new works by Australian women and an excellent way to develop our committment to new writing which has been championed through programs like BRAND SPANKING NEW, ART IS A WEAPON and NEW DIRECTIONS."
In two programs called THEN and NOW, Katie Pollock, Vanessa Bates, Verity Laughton, Kathryn Yuen, Gina Schien, Suzie Miller, Van Badham, Maxine Mellor, Zoe Hogan, Danielle Maas and Alana Valentine responded to the idea and energy of the instigators.
I saw the program NOW and as with all such omnibus programming the work varied in quality in all ways. The writing, the directing, the acting all revealed a wide and wild standard or quality, but the sheer energetic vision that all the participants had committed to was some compensation.
Alana Valentine's THE SEX ACT, directed by Augusta Supple, impressed me most. The research material (verbatim) on the subject of the history of the Discrimination Act has been woven well into a theatrical frame work that made it all sit together in both an informative and theatrical experience. That an actress of such quality as Odile le Clezio gave her time and talent to the project is a signifyer of belief of the importance of this programming vision, for me.
Van Badham gave us I THINK THE INTERVIEW WENT WELL MUM, and,although way below parr in quality, relative to other work of her's, the second half had a wicked sketch concerning the pitch of a production to an artistic panel of a theatre company, thinly veiled and satirically easy to identify, that ought to be seen by a wider audience - cheeky, wicked and probably (tragically) too true. The comic vision of Ms Badham, with proper discipline, could be a very useful voice in the contemporary theatre scene, it has the shock of the unvarnished truth.
The vision of WOMEN, POWER and CULTURE, the energy of it, is not extinguished by the 'poverty' of the production values. One can offer patience when one experiences such enthusiastic passions from all involved. That this amateur company, the New Theatre, can organise this on an oily rag budget, and bring and engage such a force of concerned artists, the Sydney Theatre Company's recent program MONEY SHOTS is even more paltry in its achievements.
Well conceived and, relatively, well done.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Performance Space presents BARGAIN GARDEN with Theatre Katanka and Ensemble Offspring in Track 5, Carriageworks.
Carlos Gomes, the director and conceiver of this project tells us:
This performance installation seeks to examine the urge we all share 'to have it all', and to explore how we use 'stuff' to present our identities. We wanted to investigate the process by which objects transform us into fashion icons, experts, gods and goddesses, equipped for any eventuality. All this, despite the high environmental price. We sought to examine the techniques of marketing and product promotion in this consumer's paradise, and to reflect upon why we respond to these techniques and to what costs.We all entered a promenade space. Two white ramps, at either end of the space are set with live mannequins, with the heads covered in bags that declare a SALE is imminent. Another raised platform has the Ensemble Offspring (Claire Edwards and Jason Noble) armed with their instruments - a vital part of the experience. A third platform has a cube that can be lifted to reveal character and objects and also to act as a screen for projection of video/photographic support (Heidrun Lohr) - not always clear and or integrated to thematics.
This installation work reveals stunning visual costumes, wittily constructed by the artists from found objects. There is much changing and parading of many, many costumes, and accompanied with the live music of the ensemble it has a breathtaking absorption. The promenade aspect of the performance by the audience is not always useful or comfortable for the appreciation of the creativity of the costume design and probably needs to be further investigated in another life time of this installation. For, the costume artistry is the element that makes BARGAIN GARDEN special.
The political intentions, observations of the conception of BARGAIN GARDEN tends to become swamped and defused, lost, in all the busyness of the creations and our pursuit of a good position to see them well. This became a fashion parade of wit and beauty and the underlining intention of societal criticism, indicated in the program, is underplayed in focus and undermined in the experience. I remember the costume parade in Fellini's ROMA and the raised platform of the fashion runway with seated observers, allowed both the wit and the comment to exist together.
The actual text by Katia Molino and Carlos Gomez is fairly obvious, banal, and simply presents the "ideas'" without the verbal dazzling that the imagery has given us. It lacks rigour in content, style and edit. In a time when THE GRUEN TRANSFER and THE HAMSTER WHEEL dominate our satiric and critical views of contemporary society, there needs to be more effort to sustain the rhetorical/textual quality required to match the visual from Theatre Katanka. Language and its targeted usage is not their strong point.
In the program notes some quotations:
We are a species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things ...and we are surrounded by stuff. Perhaps we should just resign ourselves to riding a spiral of consumption until the day we get buried alive beneath it all."
- John Naish, ENOUGH.
...quite literally, 'we are what we buy'. We are the brands we consume. Shopping and consuming are not an aspect of behaviour but define the meaning of life."
- Benjamin R. Barber, CONSUMED.
Literally, the BARGAIN GARDEN intention was left to the program notes/essay. I read it in the bus home. "OH, I see..." Duh!... Often the sadness of attending the art gallery is that the work cannot be perceived or appreciated by looking. One has to read the post-modernist essay on a wall or program to begin to deconstruct and then untangle the offers. (Drives me crazy!)
The performance lacked any real depth of targeting and appeared to have decided to let the look do it all. Unfortunately, it couldn't. The costumes were too fantastically wonderful to take us into any of the above comment. The artistry of couture dominating all. The cultural battlements will have to wait.
Vivienne Westwood eat your heart out.
Pedro Collective in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company presents SPROUT by Jessica Bellamy at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
SPROUT by Jessica Bellamy is a short play of speculative fiction, occupied with a future world that has been destroyed, drought plaqued, wind blown and is clinging to the careful nurturing of seeds into 'sprouts'. Sprouts that become plants, a frog and a human. A bleak dystopian world of grim survival.
A woman (Ashley Ricardo) carefully protects seedlings in jars, spooning water into the jarred soil that progressively grow into plants, whilst contemplating her own body, as it experiences pregnancy. A man (Fayassal Bazzi) haunts her and 'hungrily' waits for fruition of his 'planted' seed. A teenage boy (Sam O'Sullivan) watches the evolutionary progress of a tadpole in a basin of water, a young girl (Matilda Ridgway) watches possessively beside him, and she bleeds into her possibility of seed growing. A chance of further survival of the human race. In the meanwhile in this seared and blustery landscape the sounds of poetic civilisation are occasionally wafted to them across the airwaves through a depleting battery radio by The Weatherman (Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE gave me imaginative references for this world).
This is a very unusual play and gives signs that not all Australian playwrights are immured in the naturalism of our entertainments. Ms Bellamy writes in a poetic language of half remembered vocabulary. The communicated language has the difficulty of an idiosyncratic word connect and sound logic.One must work hard to catch on. The audience has to learn the new patterns of communication much like one does in the world of the Droogs in Anthony Burgess' A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. There is reward but it is an arduous task. - not for the feint hearted. Ms Bellamy challenges one and does not give much in the way of plot or character, it is, I concluded, a sustained poetic metaphor, more focused on the language of the writing than in the usual theatre clarities.
All the actors are clearly devoted to the text and have found a world of logic through their invented sub textual thought to speak it all (remember it !) That they are preoccupied with that task of clarity of communication, the energy of the actors/characters is mostly brightly verbally superficial, an earnestness of clarifying vocal gesture.
And although the director, Gin Savage, has helped the actors solve the expression of the spoken text, the world that these characters live in does not seem to impinge on them in any deep way. The melancholy, the loss of a functional world, the desperation of survival, the emotional or physical shock of the circumstances does not resonate with much complexity. So, for me, the experience was cerebral and not at all concerning. I felt I was with actors dealing with a script rather than with people concerned with a desperate future and the necessary and precarious nurturing of surviving sprouts.
SPROUT then is for a cognoscente. I found it a fascinating challenge and the poetic gift of Ms Bellamy is indeed, rich. If this voice can find a way to help the audience to surrender faster, earlier, learn, tune in, there is, here, a new playwright of immense difference. Ms Bellamy, a playwriting pioneer or simply a poet, stumbling into this form? Time will tell. It did for Dorothy Hewett, and it was a travail of persistence on her part for the rest of us to catch on.She did, we did.
The Old Fitzroy seems to be on a better path with the risk of this production than the boring cliche of, say, BOXING DAY, a couple of weeks ago. If you enjoy a challenge and perhaps the excitement of finding a sophisticated new voice that you can witness grow, then the sprout of Jessica Bellamy's vision may be worth catching.
Sydney Theatre Company, Adelaide Festival and Allens Arthur Robinson in association with Bangarra Dance Theatre present BLOODLAND, concept by Stephen Page; story by Kathy Balngayngu, Stephen Page and Wayne Blair at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney.
BLOOODLAND is performed in Yolngu language and pidgin English. Instigated by Andrew Upton & Kate Blanchett in conversation with Stephen Page from Bangarra Dance Theatre, this work flowed from Mr Page's connection to North East Arnhem land - a community which has been a constant source of inspiration for his work.
Kathy Balngayngu Marika and Djakapurra Munyarryun, two cultural consultants from this community have worked with Bangarra Dance Company and Stephen Page in earlier works and with the collaboration of Wayne Blair have spent some eighteen months in conversation to develop this story and production. They were determined "to tell a story that was not a piece of nostalgia or a piece of white guilt, but (to be) black on black and directly related to the community today."
It is this that struck me mesmerically during my experience of the performance last week. The first image is of an animal-spirit (dog?) crawling across the black gloss floor, scrawled with chalky white tracks left as a record of the mining equipment, digging, taking and leaving (Set Design, Peter England), and sniffing to a leaning telegraph pole from which a single cable, high up, fuses and colours into sparks with hint of flame and deadliness. The full circle of the story will unfold the truth of this deadliness. The animal scurries into the enfolding "Long Grass", a hiding place, a sacred place, a secret place. Next, an aboriginal woman, Cherish (Ursula Yovich), crazy with energy runs into the space out of the forest with a blue plastic bag and raves in a repetitive mantra while tipping onto the floor, spilling, a cache of mobile phones. The image juxtapositions strange, meddlesome, curious.This world of the 21st century rubbing, eroding a culture, "the world's oldest living culture, stretching back over 40,000 years'', with the vivid custodians of this world standing with one foot in both worlds, flinching, blinking, that is making 'marvellous' and frightening demands on them, is the crux of the experience of this performance.
"BLOODLAND is about two families living in remote communities and their frustration at being in two different worlds in the 21st century. They cling to traditional cultural heritage whilst engaging with the benefits of western society. But with the poisons of alcohol and drugs, economic disadvantage and social dysfunction, these families face many dilemmas."
With the strange combination of the language sounds of these people (no sub-titles) and the elegant rituals of community life enacted with such consistent, leisurely demeanour, dance like, accompanied by a sensitive soundtrack that includes traditional songs from the Munyarryun clan (Composer & Sound Designer, Steve Francis) and a beautiful shifting lighting design by Damien Cooper, highlighting the subtle modern and yet timeless feel of the costumes (Costume design, Jennifer Irwin) a spell of focused absorption and a gathering care concern is spun. I became concentrated and moved. The contemporary satirical contrasts of the intrusive white corporate culture, jarring, but a necessary counterpoint. Dilemmas, indeed. I was reminded of the experience of the 2006 Rolf de Heer and Peter Djirirr film TEN CANOES. And like the film journey, BLOODLAND gives an insight into this culture and its worldly struggles as a gift. Most of the performers are not 'professional actors' and it is a major part of its guiless achievement of impact. It reveals itself without 'drama', although it is full of it - the inevitable melodrama that real life can become when presented on the stage. For the record one should name all the performers (Elaine Crombie, Rarriwuy Hick, Rhimi Johnson Page, Kathy Balngayngu Marika, Noelene Marika, Djakapurra Munyarryun, David Page, Hunter Page Lochard, Kelton Pell, Tessa Rose, Meyne Wyatt and Ursula Yovich) for I feel that along with NAMATJIRA, from bigHaRT last year at Belvoir and the recent Andrea James production of BULLY BEEF STEW at the PACT Theatre, Indigenous theatre has been growing into a very positive part of the Australian storytelling fabric. Its form and content stretching and surprising.
I thought this was an achievement and I was gratefully surprised by my absorption and education. Should be seen by as many of you with a sense of theatre as politics, theatre as enlightenment.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Belvoir presents SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL by Ray Lawler at the Belvoir St Theatre.
This may be a bit of a ramble as my disappointment with the Belvoir production of the "DOLL" mixed with my nostalgic hagiolatry about that play, has caused me some confusion on how to respond. And what I am about to write may cast me further into the shadows, as a relic from the old days, a Troglodyte of the Naturalism School of Play Writing, but my biography gives me some justification.
My three favourite Australian plays are: THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL by Ray Lawler (1955); A HARD GOD by Peter Kenna (1971); and AWAY by Michael Gow (1986). The significance of "the Doll" in 1955 I could not experience first hand but the wallop of the theatrical, cultural and personal impact of the other two plays, I did have, as I watched then in their premiere performances, firstly, as a young Australian and, secondly, as a young Australian artist in the fledgling days of my career. All three plays sit deeply in my emotional psyche. All three plays present a world and characters that I had real life access too. All three plays really reflected my own life to me, through extended family histories, that were nearly mirror perfect in details. It was both shocking and thrilling to sit in a theatre and see it. They have always brought tears from me when sitting in the dark watching these plays, because they did record for me family histories and memories, and was like sharing moments of family stories and photo albums around the heat of Christmas tables at the annual lunch and dinner gathering at my granny's home, years and years ago.
NOSTALGIA: longing and desire for home, family and friends, or the past. From the Greek nostos - a return to home.
THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL I have seen many, many times both in amateur and professional productions (I myself have directed it twice). It has never failed to elate me. My uncles were not cane cutters but they were shearers on seasonal call, with families stranded in the suburbs of Sydney, as a result of the Great Depression. My uncles were not called 'Barney' or 'Roo' but they were called 'Bonza' and 'Red'. My aunts were not called Olive or Pearl but were called Bernice and Beryl, although, there was a Nancy - she too was a bit of a book-worm "widgie'" like Lawler's Nance. My gran was not Emma but Cassie. Like Cathy, us kids had nick names like "Bubba", mine was, depending on the time of day, "Spic an' Span" or "Spike" (I won't tell you why).
The house was not a terrace with an overgrown garden in Carlton, Melbourne, but a dingy flat in Brook Street, Coogee, Sydney, and the Brown Nurses' vacant lot next door was enough of a jungle greenery for our adventures. We sometimes sang around the piano (pianola) but it was, mostly, a house of weekend card games broken only by the races, that is the Trots, the Dogs or the Horses, and meal times. It was the house from which us kids had to go down to the Coogee Bay Hotel and call out into the tiled bars that dinner was ready and Mum said that they had better come now, and then help, dad and our uncles up the hill after the six o'clock swill. Otherwise, they might have just lolled at the beach til the re-opening ("Those bloody barmaids.") at seven. None of us family kids liked it when that happened - the ladies of the family were pretty tough about such stuff. They had slaved over the hot stove and dinner would go cold and the language would become sinful, for nothing could be wasted - there would be a family brawl and lots of ugly teasing until the kitchen table was cleared away and the card table set up, so that the magic of the 52 card deck and euchre became the family pacifier, and the relatives and friends settled down and played for money, good humouredly, but deadly, seriously - there were griefs to settle in this card playing as well as winning of money.
This Belvoir production by Neil Armfield did not move me. Did not elate me. And what I may have gained from Belvoir's production did not adequately compensate me with a redolent experience of the play as new and or as a transcendent memory to treasure. And if I was struck positively by a few moments in the production, they had more to do with the power of Mr Lawler's textual architecture than in any of the visual obfuscations of this use of the "dear old Belvoir corner" by Mr Myers and Armfield.
The characters appeared lost on a 'paddock' - open space, summoning vast distances for the characters, with echoing hollow noises, to cross, to even attempt to connect with each other ("a wide brown land"?) physically, let alone emotionally intelligently. The space lacked ordered, familiar, environmental anchors of furnished details of props and other things to give comfortable context, and, so, not provided with the necessary physical intimacy of a lived in space, with history of the sixteen years surrounding it, the space looked like a clearing of the room before eviction - pre-empting the course of the story-drama.
It looked like, felt like, the fourth act room of Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD, where the old nursery room has been packed up before demolition. And this might have rung true for the last minutes of Mr Lawler's play, but the "DOLL" actually begins, as in Act One of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, where everything is in tact, barely, I grant it, but the orchard has not yet been sold and possibilities of sustaining a way of life are tantalisingly within reach, and certainly as act one of the "DOLL" begins, the seasons of the dolls are not ended either and there is a hope from Olive that they may sustain for longer as well, different with Pearl, but essentially, hopefully, the same. (NB the echo of the Chekhovian broken string moment from THE CHERRY ORCHARD, again, in the dying moments of Mr Allan Johns' discordant music score at the crash of the piano. This text is more Ibsen (agenda melodrama) than Chekhov (subtextual inner life drama). THE CHERRY ORCHARD became an overdrawn reference for me.)
This design had visually concluded the journey of the play on our arrival in the theatre, before the action had began and, consequently, had little suspenseful place to go because of its pre-empting of the narrative. The comfort of the house, the rooms, the time had been de-constructured, already. The Doll seasons were at an end and a new world was centrifugally throwing it all away. The dining room table and chairs became a symbol of family and humanity,glowing nostalgical, but, forlornly, in the warmth of Damien Cooper's lighting, in the centre of the space, registering the past.
The design pushed me into a place of puzzlement. The design offers, offered me, from my first entrance into the theatre, a pre-occupying interpretative dilemma. I was objectively engaged, for I was not sure, am still not sure, what the intentions were. This new reading of this classic play, this historically, Subsequent Performance (1), was already on shaky ground for me. My brain not my heart to the fore.
In the Director's notes, Neil Armfield says:
…With any classic, the audience brings a set of expectations, perhaps born of memory, of familiarity, which sits with them in the theatre. What distinguished those Belvoir productions was the intention to reveal the work as if it was the first time. To make it feel like a new play. Hot off the page. To make the audience forget their expectations and receive the work afresh.
Apart from (hopefully) clarity of interpretation and the power and detail of the performances, the space, the dear old Belvoir corner, has so much to do with that.There was a time when the company had so little money and resources, that the essential question any set designer had to answer was: ' What colour will we paint the walls?' The asymmetrical energy of the theatre is a strong frame for any story, a stage for any character to command.
With Shakespeare and Sewell and White perhaps, writing as they did in a more self-consciously poetic or expressionistic mode, the abstraction of our amphitheatre provides a natural platform. But with the detailed rooms in which Ibsen and Chekhov and Lawler have set their stories, a balance must be found between the architectural force of the Belvoir corner and the structural demands of the text. As always, the golden rule is, you can do anything as long as the audience understands.
I could not "understand" the design.
I could not "understand" the design solutions for the telling of this story in 2011, and it seemed to me that the revealed architectural force of the Belvoir corner did not serve the structural demands of Mr Lawler's text. Those walls and floor, albeit swathed in carpet and behind glass, though they were, may have, with the Simon Stone configuration of the Ibsen text of THE WILD DUCK, earlier this year done this. But, it was virtually a new text, a glancing plundering of the original, and so had new textual structural demands and hence the possibility of re-conceived new design offers of a supportive kind for the 2011 production,in contrast to the necessities of the actual Ibsen world. (certainly the design's "architectural solution" (Ralph Myers) to an intact text by Benedict Andrews of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL, failed. Even at the possibility to see all the play production for a lot of the audience. The basic artistic responsibility).
Whereas, the presently presented text of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, is not a radical appropriation of the original, (Good Heavens the writer is present - 90 odd, by the way, need to respect the writer, (if only Mr Albee had caught a plane for his Belvoir WHO''S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? what architectural changes would we have had to undo,I wonder). This "DOLL" has had a few minor amendments by the living and present writer and, so still seems structurally to demand for interpretative clarity, a faithfulness to the original concept, its naturalistic world, to work fully.
Ralph Myers has designed a huge open factory/loft space a space that the present generation might find the ideal space to live in (in 2011). It is broad and spacious. Really, cavernous (see the ABC '7:30 Report' footage of it here). In the centre of the floor an old solid dining room/kitchen table sits with some utensils in preparation for the scene upcoming, on it, with four practical kitchen chairs surrounding it, on a rough untreated wooden floor, with gleaming dark varnished edges, where, imaginatively, I surmise, once upon a time, carpeting had not reached (we had it in our house, as well.) The immensely high walls of the actual theatre space are doubling for the living room of Lawler's imagination, and are a stained, discoloured pink / tangerine. The decoration of sixteen seasons of dolls and other presents are sparsely hung around. It looks sparse because of the scale of the open room walls. One had to look hard to find this famous accretion demanded by the writer's direction and a necessary 'naturalistic' source of dramatic action and symbol in the play. There are two long staircases ascending, one to the upper stories of this loft apartment with iron railings, the other, the actual theatre stairs on the western wall, apparently leading us next door, incongruously, upstairs.
As if the table and kitchen chairs had been the centre point, all the other furniture feels as if, that the room, when spun on that axis, has all, perforce of the centrifugal force, slid to the walls: the heavy three seated deco - lounge couch, little table, the piano with shell and other decorations on top and in the famous "dear old Belvoir corner" a working tapped sink basin and set of drawers and cupboard are stacked.
Above this sink is one of the fascinations of this production: a window has been punched into the actual theatre wall and behind beautifully lit and naturally wafting curtains, one can see the real world: depending on where you are seated, the terrace houses descending down Belvoir Street to Elizabeth Street or the contemporary traffic coming up Clisdell Street, beside the Housing Commission Towers. On the Sunday afternoon I saw it the daylight time setting sun giving a natural aura to this portal to 2011.
The deconstructed room, its empty scale and echo, and oddly placed furnishings and decorations, the architectural aberrations of the stair cases, the window onto the actual street and present time, the curiosity of the placement, even presence, of the working kitchen sink, the physical geography location of the "Bubba" house, the strange placement of the kitchen from which the cooking of breakfast bacon, wafted naturalistically into the auditorium, all, were strange clues to assimilate into an easy understanding of the intentions for this production.
Add the beautiful design, construction and immaculate condition of the COSTUMES (Dale Ferguson) these characters wear, note, not CLOTHES but COSTUMES, (question: How much money does Bubba earn behind the perfume counter at Woolworths? Her costumes, especially the New Year Eve's frock, wreak of money and fashion and hardly the income of Bubba or of Aunty Maureen and Aunty Dee, her maiden aunt carer's) and further conundrums of design intention accumulate from this team. It is as if all these characters are in a retrospective design exercise for a fashion study, at the National Art School Fashion School or the design course at NIDA or UTS, than real live working class people in the summer of 1953.
Add the focused warmth of the lighting by Mr Cooper, Edward Hopper memories flitted in and out of my consciousness, and of the expressionistic shadows of the characters thrown, regularly up on the walls and what, I pondered, am I asked to unconsciously absorb or add to the play?
Hmm. Intellectual objectification leading to emotional detachment. Bewildering visual contextualisations distracting the sensitive (the pedantic) from the detail of the story narrative and emotional connections of the characters of the house. Images rather than textual content become the memory of this production. The prevailing contemporary supremacy of the visual over the aural culture in Sydney Theatre, trumping the art of the playwright, once again.What we have is a visual Art Installation work animated with text. Here the artist, unlike in a museum, has his viewers trapped in a space under the pretext that we are watching a contemporary storytelling of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. This installation is observed for nearly three hours, with interval. In a museum or gallery the average is, what, two minutes?
It occurs to me, as well, that this design is a very useful solution, perhaps for the stylised adaptation of the opera version of this play, (the Australian Opera, next door, should view), a famous platform of Mr Armfield's and Myer's career, but as for a telling of the play in the theatre, even a self-regarded avant-garde theatre platform, that Belvoir as taken on as a signifier of its mantle in the Sydney Theatre scape of late, it failed for me.
I was, Dear Diary, vastly disappointed. It was lucky that this was not a new play for, if I were seeing it for the first time, as some of my young friends were, I might wonder why, other than the important historical context of its writing in Australian Dramatic literature terms, why this play holds such a classic, iconic power for past audiences. The textual import was reduced by the visual designs.
I felt that the interpretation of the characters offered by Mr Armfield and "the power and detail of performances' given by the actors were all, too often, too broad and of an inconsistent mixture of style and truthfulness. Helen Thompson, as Pearl Cunningham, provides a very comically observed characterisation and has mined the opportunities for gags wherever possible. It is a comic delight, and as always totally seductive as a revelation of the performer (see IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY) but it is essentially in the gentle mode of a Barry Humphries barb with little of his compassion for the circumstances of the life and times of the woman. It is an externalised comic caricature of the woman - an unfair rendering, in my remembered context, of a woman of her time, of that time, and so in 2011 has become a suitable target for a condescending period value judgement and satire. No. Out of respect to the Pearl's I know, knew, NO, NO, NO. There were in the final moments of this performance, interacting with Olive, an attempt to reveal an emotional centre to this Pearl by Ms Thompson, but it was too late to signify with truthful meaning what had been ridiculed, and it was not sufficient to retrieve a creation of Pearl that I could not engage or believe in.
This is true of the over drawn characterisation of Bubba by Yael Stone who seemed in an effort to overcome the function of the character by the writer, that is the representative of the future, perhaps, as well, in an attempt to match the overblown costumes she was given to wear, expanded her physical expression to a set of tensions of observable excess, instead of simplifying and revealing the inner life of the girl who transforms from infantalised toy to seen person by Dowd in a beautiful simple piece of writing by Mr Lawler in the second act and re-iterates thematically, for us, in the third act: "He asked me. ... Asked me. Sent you out of the room and asked me. And he didn't call me Bub or - kid. He wanted to know my real name, and that is what he called me." A moment that all of us can, similarly, reference, recall, as a major turning point in our own emotional developments.
Robyn Nevin, as Emma Leech, (take note of the surname) gives another power house performance but for my taste outside the presence of the other actors. It seemed to move through all the gestures and demands of the role like clock work, and it was a performance, for me, that could have been transposed to any other production around the country, the world, without it been affected by the input of any of the other actors. It is gleaming with the precision of a seasoned professional but it is also weighed down with a formulaic and contrived emotional moment to moment rendition, it has a brittleness about all the emotional moments that appeals to the head, in admiring the actor's craft, but does not enter the subjective embrace of one's heart. It is brusque. Playing the old bag with a heart of gold a little too literally, for there was no real heart, here, pumping with a lived life of struggle and perhaps guilt, just 'gold'.Grandma in Ruth Park's'trilogy beginning with THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) registers strongly with my construction of Emma Leech.
I, in 2011, long for an Emma to register clearly for the audience that EMMA is Olive's mother. They belong by birthright to the family of Leech. This mother has grown this child in the womb and nurtured her all of her life: Olive Leech, this woman in her late thirties, and has provided and condoned, infantalised this off-spring actively over all this time in this one place. Olive lives this lifestyle with the active collusion of her mother.This is not just Olive's tragedy alone, but, deeply, also, Emma's bequeathed inheritance. This sense of the human ruthlessness, fragility or guile of Emma as the mother succour/guide, has never been truly explicated for me. We prefer, still, the historic reading of this character,it seems, of say Ethel Gabriel, immortalised in the Hollywood film or that other favourite, Ruth Cracknell. It needs to be interrogated anew. The sense of this character's true self as a conniving survivor is best registered in the last moments of the second of the Doll Trilogy, OTHER TIMES, where after a failed furore into the black market of ill gotten profit: Emma struggles in a move out of the chair but lapses back and sits staring ahead into the fading light. Just what does she see at the end of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL and how culpable might she be?
Steve Le Marquand, as Roo (Reuben) Webber, has all the physical heft of the character and all the surface bravado of this faded roustabout. What we don't have is the cane cutter who has had his life intruded upon by the long campaigning of the Second World war. A campaign that amazingly covers "Service in the Middle East, Palestine to Alamein -.... service in Pacific areas, New Guniea through to Tarakan (the battle of Borneo -1945)."- campaign zones of major trauma. Some of Roo's behaviour, in a contemporary reading of this play must surely register a combat-stress disorder.
The devoted relationship of Roo (the held infantalising of his real name Reuben) with his friend Barney, where he has denied his own advancement in the army to stay 'wedded' to the fortunes of his mate so that they can remain together. The last moments of the play where Roo after the rejection of his wedding proposal to Olive, feels his "strength ebbing from him, and slowly subsides to sag down on the piano stool. (For) something breaks deep within him, but there is no outward sign, he is too inarticulate for the release of tears." and with the comfort of his mate's hand on his shoulder and a signal to go,"lurches, swaying, to his feet, and with Barney as a sheperding companion, they leave the house." reveals a bond that has been forged through hardship and a mutual dependency. Together. At the last, together, as they have always been through peace and war. 'Wedded' in life, still. In this, for me, there is a powerful homo-erotic tension of the legendary Australian mateship echoing in this last moment. An undeveloped issue from this 1955 play, that has gathered with references to the Homeric/Roman gladiator gathering of the eagle in the dust, which in my mind is worth underlining in a production in 2011.
Mr Le Marquand with his suitably Aussie growl and swagger touches all of the key external outlining of Roo, but, for my money fudges the great "breaking" moment in the true climax of the play. A great actor will recognise and courageously release the personalisation from his own life to reveal the truth of the character. Roo and Mr Le Maquand need to be one in this moment for it to hit home for the audience. This actor, on the day I saw it, did not, he went through a surface calibration but took no risk of exposure of his self for his art. It was a moment lost and diminished the possible impact of the play.
This emotional denial by Mr Le Marquand was relatively true throughout most of this performance of the play. Even the emotional content between Olive was relatively squibbed. There is no real sexual chemistry or even loving respect emanating from most of the exchanges that Roo has with Olive (an unspoken misogny?) The closest this Roo comes to loving is with Emma in the offer of the loan of fifty quid.
Thus Susie Porter, as Olive, who would have seemed a natural to succeed in revealing all of the capacities of this sad life, has a very difficult task. Ms Porter does it by herself. There is no authentic support coming from Ms Thompason, Ms Nevin or Mr Le Marquand and so in the towering moments when Olive begs for her life to be given back to her at the end of the play, none of the actors have had the emotional life to equal or support her and, in desperation, Ms Porter pushes herself against the back wall of the set and stares tearfully at the floor and seems to create from her own imaginative life all that she needs to give us the full sense of the tragic crisis in Olive's experience. Ms Porter against great odds attempts to give a full reading of the role, but it is difficult for it to be great by one self. Good, yes, great no. Ms Porter is admirable against many odds, that includes the cavernous set.
The best performance in this production, for me, comes from Dan Wylie as Barney Ibbot. There is in this actor an accessible range to the open experience of the human condition in almost everything I have seen him give. Film as well. Going as far back as his charismatic work in CLOUDSTREET, Mr Wylie does not baulk or seem inhibited in identifying himself with his characters. He shapes and adapts his own self to reveal the container of the character that the writer has given him to bring to life. Of course, some of his work is better than other. But the life of Barney is wholly within his grasp and there is a delicious relish of the comedy, tragedy and melodrama of this man. Barney's sense of his own worth measured up against his mate Roo is modest and fully realised without petty envy or jealousy. He accepts his role as Roo's clown. Mr Wylie knows the Barney in himself and appears effortlessly to share him with us. He does not miss any opportunity to give us and the other actor's a fully formed three dimensional creation.
TJ Power in the small but vital role of the new man of the moment, Johnnie Dowd, gives a convincing and arresting performance.
This production fails for me. Why? The acting ensemble is not in useful sync. The interpretations sometimes vulgar and superficial. Each respectably good, craftwise, but not of a whole. All the deign elements seem to provide more obstacles to my entry to this production than accommodation. I believe that the jettisoning of the naturalistic form that the writing and its period demands creates flaws in its storytelling ability, even for a hip 2011 audience. The impact of the play is stunted and tends to be cerebral rather than emotional. And the emotional content is where the play still maintains its grasp on the audience. And it does, still, at Belvoir, despite the packaging of this production, for its greatness lies in its human identification of the human quest for the secret to eternal youth, which we all contemplate.And in a culture where the 'baby boomers' seek an "amortalist" life style through mastery of their aging bodies, this play should have a lesson that all should heed.
Or, maybe my own quest for times nostalgic, my seeking for home, family and friends, the past, prevents me from gaining from this production of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. For me, it became an interesting cogitation of intention of the artistic team but not a great event in my theatre going life.