Monday, June 27, 2011

The Seagull

THE SEAGULL - a Comedy in Four Acts by Anton Chekkhov in a version by Benedict Andrews in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St. Theatre.

VICTORY by Howard Barker was the last time that Judy Davis was on stage in Sydney. It was to see her that I bought my tickets to attend THE SEAGULL at Belvoir. To be able to watch Ms Davis on stage again, is too thrilling an opportunity to miss. A lot of other people have felt the same. The season was sold out - all but standing room - for weeks before the opening. Some of my friends bought their tickets despite the fact that it was another Chekhov play, the recent Sydney Theatre Company production of UNCLE VANYA having flummoxed their expectations of value for money and thought the play "boring' despite the stellar cast. Some of my friends bought their tickets despite the caution they felt about having to see another production by Benedict Andrews. THE WAR OF THE ROSES and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF still aggravating their gonads and much else. They were all going because of Ms Davis, despite Chekhov and Andrews. The gift of seeing her at work again, live - too rare an opportunity to miss.

A summary of my response to the performance is : I was quite excited by Act One. A little becalmed with the Second Act. After the interval, Act Three, a little irritated. Act Four, entirely depressed. I have been struggling with my response. Most of the reviews I have read have been 'pleased' to 'ecstatic. I have had to consider and search, research my disappointment. So what will follow will be a long, maybe 'dry', response, but since this play is a major work, with an outstanding cast and a highly esteemed director, worth doing. Continue on if you wish.

Dear Theatre Going Diary,

Firstly, the version by Benedict Andrews – this is based around a literal translation by Karen Vickery accompanied by 'thorough' footnotes. Ms Vickery was also responsible for the literal text on which Belvoir's production THE BUSINESS by Jonathan Gavin that was built, and based on Gorky’s play VASSA ZHELEZNOVA.

I have over time worked on and around some twenty or so versions of THE SEAGULL. My furthest reading is a 1927 version of TWO PLAYS by ANTON TCHEKHOF by George Calderon for Jonathan Cape. My nostalgic favourite, because it was my first introduction to Chekhov as an amateur actor, is the version by Elisaveta Fen for Penguin Books of Chekhov's plays, and the only one readily available in bulk for years and years. My favourite working text, however, has been Pam Gem's version (1994) for the National Theatre with Judi Dench as Irina Arkadina. Tom Stoppard has had a go (1997) for the Old Vic with Felicity Kendall, I love it's literary values; Martin Crimp's version for the National Theatre (2006) with Juliet Stevenson, directed by the controversial director Katie Mitchell; and Christopher Hampton's (2007) which Kate Gaul and Siren Theatre Company presented at Sidetrack last year with Zoe Carides, this, originally, for the Royal Court with Kristen Scott-Thomas - it toured to New York, veru successfully. The most famous Australian version is by Aubrey Mellor and Robert Dessaix, also created for Belvoir St in 1988 - much too admire in that, still.

Mr Andrews states that his version "has sought to remain entirely faithful to the spirit of Chekhov's thought and the speech processes of his characters" and with "…a particular milieu of the staging, contemporary Australia, a fibro shack along the coast" in mind. Mr Andrews goes on to say "Although the inflection of my version is distinctly Australian, I have maintained simplified Russian character names and places. The adopted world of the play might be imagined as simultaneously Russia then and Australia now - an overlapping, impossible time/place that only exists in the temporary, suspended world of theatre". One might say, an explanatory foot in both camps, and find the use of the word MIGHT in "might be imagined" as careful, and agree with the 'overlapping time/place "as being 'impossible". Impossible for some even, in the theatre of today, at Belvoir.

I, mostly, loved this version. It has a mighty muscular use of familiar vernacular and does maintain, in my reading, of many versions (oh, woe is me, I cannot read the original), the speech processes of Chekhov's characters. The transpositions are very witty indeed and often. Take the wonderful version of Konstantin's moans to his uncle, Sorin in Act One about his mother, the actress - perfectly apt and funny. " ... Nice things are to only be said about her. Only she should have articles and editorials written about her. Only she should win awards. We should all still be talking about her Nora, her Blanche, the time she played Hamlet. Because she's stuck out here, she's bored and shitty, and it's all our fault. Suddenly we are all against her - evidence of which is supplied by her numerology and her horoscopes. The junk she wastes her money on. Doesn't make her any kinder, any less stingy. I know for a fact she's got zillions stashed away but ask her for a loan and she has a nervous breakdown... " Clever.

There are, though, unsubtle shiftings to political contemporary urgings. For instance, the play text of Konstantin Treplov's play within the play, performed by Nina, has been extended into a climate change alarum, that pushes way beyond Chekhov's famous political delicacies. "... I am the song you cannot hear. I am the night of the world. I am the coming storm. I will repair the damaged DNA, heal the mutated cells. Listen! I am speaking to YOU. You who made every word a lie. Listen! Hear the rattle? Hear him coming? Crossing the plain. Hear him. RATTLE. I HEAR THE SICK FUCK RATTLE. ..." This liberty declares this Kostia as a fanatic (maybe a bit unhinged), emotionally infantile and worse, a bad writer - none of which Chekhov and his text could be uncouthly be accused of. Chekhov was more subtle, more ambiguous than that - to push a particular political agenda or unambiguously state an opinion about a person's qualities. He avoided writing opportunities for judgements on his characters - that is the deliciously titanic struggle that all actors have in attempting to create his men and women - no matter the size of their presence in his plays. Their human ambiguity, inconsistencies. Even Natasha in THREE SISTERS is not as aggressively written as Mr Andrews' Kostantin.

But, Mr Andrews takes none of the Shakespearean and literary liberties of Mr Stoppard or his playing with other discarded draft experiments, e.g. the presence of Sorin, asleep, in the last Nina - Kostia scene in Act Four. And, surely, of late, the most radical version is that of Martin Crimp who with his director Ms Mitchell, reduced the exposition, and cut the asides and soliloquies, and in the setting for Act One gives it an 180-degree rotation, so that the actors don't look upstage towards the lake, they look out towards the auditorium and so, in effect, removed all the outdoor locations, even moving the croquet lawn of Act Two into the same Act Four location. Mr Andrews is, relatively, sedate, with THE SEAGULL, particularly when you recall his slicing and dicing of Shakespeare in THE WAR OF THE ROSES for the Sydney Theatre Company. Amongst much else, HENRY V became a small collection of some of the major soliloquies and Installation Art tableaus: Henry covered in sweat, then in blood, and then in post-modern imagery, of oil. Henry's oil spoils from war!!! (Iraq, Iraq, Iraq was the echo).

I feel that the text as it is published is a first rate contemporary version, generally. The problem with this production seems to lie in the inability for the director, Mr Andrews, to put onto the stage the text he has authored. For on the page there is very little controversy, excepting perhaps the stage direction in the beginning of act four. From Sharon Marie Carnicke's famously accurate and meticulous reading of the original, 4 PLAYS AND 3 JOKES by CHEKHOV (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/ Cambridge, 2009):

"Two years pass between the Third and Fourth Acts. A drawing room in Sorin's house, which Treplev has turned into a study. To the right and left, doors leading to other interior rooms. A glass door opening out onto the terrace. Aside from the usual drawing-room furniture, there is a desk in the corner, a Turkish divan and a cupboard stand near the door. There are books on the shelves of the cupboard and on the chairs. Evening. One lamp with a shade is lit. The leaves of the trees and the howling of the wind in the chimney can be heard. The watchman is tapping".

Mr Andrews version:

"Two years pass between the third and fourth acts. A lounge room in the house, now used by Konstantin as a workroom. Evening. Wind. Ash falls on the garden".

It is the falling ash that grabs you when you watch the play, here is boorishness, if not controversy - but more of that later.

After the text let us look at the next thing one encounters with this production: the Design. From Mr Andrews' program notes: "In considering Belvoir's 2011 season, Ralph (Myers) and I had been looking for a play in which the theatre reflects on theatre. This is a moment of generational change in Australian theatre - the shift from Neil (Armfield) to Ralph is part of that. In Ralph's first year as Artistic Director I wanted to reflect on the task and craft and impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience? "

If you click onto the James Waites’ blog post on THE SEAGULL, there is a photographic image of the design solution that Mr Andrews and Mr Myers arrived at for this hybrid Russian/Australian transposition of the Chekhov play. In fact, the angle of the photograph is a replica, almost, of my view of the stage, in the seat that I was allocated. It is an architectural depiction of a fibro holiday house that may be found around parts of coastal Australia. Certainly some of the writers on this production have had resonant responses of memories of their own holidays and gushed with approval. I, too, can recall recent sojourns to the Bay of Plenty, not far from Huskinson, on the south coast of New South Wales - a flimsy kit house , furnished with flimsy, almost disposable furniture, it all works, but, it is oh so cheap - the Bay of Plenty house, that is. I was kind of shocked at this visual transposition of the Chekhov original but gradually imagined that this represented a kind of outhouse of the Sorin property with the main "farm" house off stage up to the right somewhere, not to distant - in the direction that the cast entered from and exited too. This arid location design finding a "new formula” to sit this production in. NEW FORM is one of the principal themes desired by the artists, that is the writers of Chekhov's play, especially Kostia.

The white fibro house scaled along the two walls of the Belvoir stage and roofed, sitting on what I presume is a barren, white concreted surface is a lovely replica for the nostalgic amongst us, it seems. The Australianess of it is recognisable and along with the vernacular transposition of the text a very neat companion of invention. It brings to mind the urban design for Mr Andrews very successful imaging of Patrick White's THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA, a few years back at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for the Sydney Theatre Company. These two setting designs are relations of a genetic image of some people's Australia. It has, from the response to it, powerful connections for some of the audience.

However, if Mr Andrews and Mr Myers are reflecting on the task and CRAFT of theatre making with the responsibility of taking and allowing the contemporary audience to, maybe, (to quote Star Trek) “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before", then a design that, literally prevents a third or more of the audience from seeing the action of the play in its long and important fourth act displays a lack of basic theatre craftsmanship that the master of this stage and the use of it, their predecessor and the originator of their acknowledged heritage, Neil Armfield, would never have made.

I know, (check out the photograph, again, on the James Waites blog) that those of us seated on the right hand bank of the theatre seating, (direction from the audience point of view. I was G 45-46, I think. Two from the end) could not view any of the a crucial action of the fourth act played in the long wall kitchen/lounge space in the L-shape configuration of Chekhov's converted study that these two new leaders of theatre innovation, had crafted for us. Well, to be more accurate, I could see into the kitchen, opposite me on the shorter wall, but, not any of the character action in the other section of that space. And what I have learned is that some of the audience seated on the left hand bank were also, because of architectural features of walls and supports etc were not able, as well, to see all of the action in that space. So, it would seem to me, only those of the centre block seats got to see all of the production.

Where were these other critics/bloggers, who are so enamoured of this production, seated? If this is the level of theatre craft that these two artists are taking us too and that we can expect in the future, then I will want to see a design plan before purchasing my tickets so that I can benefit from the "brilliant" conception of these two new leaders of the theatre, in seats that take in the whole action of the production. For whom was this production prepared ? The centre block patrons, while the others, more or less, were subsidising the cost of this production with limited view seats? I was not warned that this was to be my experience. Limited view. Is this the stated task and craft of theatre making that Mr Andrews talks of? Is the resulting design solution caused by inexperience of the space, ignorance of basic design needs (ensuring that the paying audience can see the production) or arrogance, unconscious or otherwise? You can see, one of the reasons for my reaction to the fourth act of this production: I couldn't see it, all of it.

But to go from a particular hardship of these artistic choices, for me, as a paying audience member, what I particularly observed that was absent from these design solutions was landscape. Nature and landscape are important elements and thematics in Chekhov's conceptions of all of his later plays.

Chekhov has set the first act outdoors on a summer night with a deliberately placed rising moon, over the landscape of a lake, that Kostia has timed for in his new form production scenario of "real life", his play. He actually engages nature for design effect, and also presumably lighting effect, as was common in the nineteenth century in organising outdoor events- the moon's calendar was important. The sense of art connected to the real world was part of Kostia's vision and crucial for the impact of his new art. The moon rising over a lake. Time moving and speeding by, nature harnessed by the artist for metaphoric, design and story-telling intentions. An alternative to the out-moded conceptions that Kostia so despises "There's a room with three walls, illuminated by artificial light.." A view of fibro, concrete, a painted backcloth and neon signage telling it is "real life" seems to me, to quote Mr Andrews' Konstantin, "sentimental, self-congratulatory shit masquerading as reality. Or second hand ideas dressed up as cutting fucking edge." I thought, at last Mr Andrews had a sense of humour and along with his perspex box for the Kostia play, in act one, and having Nina on Microphone , throwing flour, and then confetti ash over herself , he was giving a piss-take version of his usual signature devices. Sadly, by the time I got to act four, maybe he and and Mr Myers were serious about all that hokum, as hilarious as the self-referencing amusement may be.

The second act of this production is set on a concrete floor with white reflecting fibro, (Lighting: Damien Cooper, with the biggest lighting rigg I have ever seen in a theatre this size in Australia- to what affect was too subtle for me to catch, lifting the summer heat , no doubt for these sun catching characters in the Andrews production instead of the croquet lawn of the estate house of the original. What is the design intention? Is there a consideration of the hostility of the glare and blare of the Australian climate with man, who, in an attempt to utilising it, is being 'cooked' by it, as an alternative to the Russian Chekhov game playing lawn of cool discussion of health tips and De Maupassant? What was Chekhov's intention, I wonder? Is there a metaphor in the Myer's design that we should be reading? In the Chekhov, there is.

The third act, in this production is part indoors, the kitchen, and outdoors in the open air of the concrete yard. Chekhov has it in a dining room? Again, what are the deliberations of Chekhov in his usual careful visual design metaphors, to those of Myers and Andrews? Not clear to me. Oh, there is an amusing, if self-consciously actorly bit of business of having Masha eat cornflakes with vodka in the glass perspex box- best use it, again, (we can’t seem to get it off stage and it probably cost a bomb) - utilising the microphone to interact again!

Then we get to the great act of this play which Chekhov has set in a transposed room, a drawing room converted to a writer's study, for Kostia, sheltering from a winter storm of wind and rain. In Mr Andrews' production we have a holiday shack with doors that can't close, still in summer, with ash now falling on the concrete, unremarked about by the characters in the play (A bush fire or what? A magic-realist reference ?) The program text tells us that there is wind, but on the night I saw it, there was no wind, just a becalmed straight fall of ash from the real life theatre roof. Is it just lazy repeated imaging by the director, from THE WAR OF THE ROSES, which, comparatively had, at least, contextual references within that production design and made sense of it ? It might have made sense, here, too, if the text in the new Andrews' Kostia play could be heard more accurately, with careful direction organisation by the director, as per author, over the cacophonous noise of its performance: bellowing microphoned screams from Nina accompanied by flour and ash throwing, and reckless control of the boxes' four wheels and dense smoke guns smothering the action of the players, and screeching sound from the avant-gard sound artist Yakov (heart beats interactively created by bio-sensors - hilarious!). Again, the landscape of nature, a feature of Chekov ignored by the two creatives and silly tricks and tics extrapolated instead. I surmise they have made an alternative metaphor choice for their Australian transposition, what it is, is, however difficult to decipher.

But the major design flaw, if one is still playing Chekhov, is to have the room that Kostia shoots himself on stage, in full view of the audience. Here, Mr Andrews has him enter the room, which is centre stage, against the wall, in full view of the audience, and piles mattresses across the window in dramatic preparation for his suicide. This is a direct contradiction of Chekhov's exploration of new theatre form by taking the climax of the play, the suicide of Kostia, off stage, into a deliberately anti-melodramatic statement. Indirect inference rather than the old fashioned manners of the stage, of direct action, was Chekhov's dramatic ‘new form’ gesture. Finishing the play in pianissimo instead of forte. What has Benedict Andrews intended with this statement of forte configuration: creating an old fashioned TV soap opera? I don't know.

By this time, on the night of my experience of this production, I just couldn't be bothered to attempt to muse on it. I had got to such a low of nit picking that I was attempting to make sense of the flowers that Polina had torn apart and thrown to the floor in the kitchen in act two, that were still on the floor, supposedly two years later in the same room, in act four ? The director has made careful choices about what the audience see, didn't he?

I was trying to solve the probability that the microphone in the perspex box of the first act play, two years later, having sat in the open air, presumably, was still in working order and connected to a sound-system, for Masha to play with. I became utterly bewildered by the arbitrary entrance of the gleaming neon signs, in this cutting edge version of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL, announcing REAL LIFE as if it had only been two hours, not two years, since we had last seen them.

Wait. I guess in my real life in the theatre that was exactly so. Is that what Mr Andrews was saying? HA, HA. We are all in our real life experience watching a real live play in the upstairs Belvoir theatre with two walls and "pretending to be real- pretending to eat, drink, walk, talk, love - wear jackets…" so that "we want to scream: STOP. STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME FEEL YOUR FAKE FEELINGS. STOP TRYING TO TRICK ME. STOP TREATING ME LIKE A CHILD. YOUR REALITY IS NOT MY REALITY. YOUR DEAD WORLD IS NOT MY WORLD." Is that the directorial intention?

I was trying to work out why the Nina and Kostia scene in act four was staged with Kostia standing in the entrance of the vomitory in relative darkness at some distance from Nina, who stood centre stage with intensifying lighting changes, reciting her famous, "I am a seagull" speeches as a self affecting monologue instead of a cauterising duologue with Kostia, that leads directly to such catastrophic consequences at the fast approaching end of the play. This, too, was one of Chekhov's explorations of new form: of diminishing the theatrical convention of direct monologues in contemporary plays in a way to recreate real life.

I was trying to work out why Mr Andrews had not begun to deal with Chekhov's very specific, and famous instruction which is in his very own version of the play, to wit: "He (Kostia) destroys his notebooks and writing. Two minutes of this" and, instead, simply have Kostia close his laptop and move to the suicide room. Surely I thought, if you want to ignore one of the most famous moments of the real life in Chekhov's play you at least delete all your stored modern media files by putting the laptop in a bucket of water or by filling the available kitchen sink with water and destroying it, by immersing it - that might take two minutes and you still could fulfil both the Chekhov Russian moment and the Andrews contemporary Australian moment of rushing to visible self-destruction.

In this production there are four performances that withstand the inconsistent hand of the direction of this production of a new version of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL.

Judy Davis, as the actress/mother, Irina Arkadina, is miraculous in her burning integrity to the writing of Chekhov and in her struggle with the production direction by Mr Andrews. Ms Davis honours, incongruously well, both demands on her skills. She is so simple in her subtleties of deeply considered and wonderfully expressive nuances of character contradictions and revelations, that they could be missed if you are not paying attention. So minutely complex, and yet writ large, are they to catch. The humour and the tragedy of a self-aware narcissist struggling with the ravages of fleeting time is positively splendid. Immensely entertaining and psychologically incisive. She often has no support of complex reaction from her other actors to show all the range of this woman's behaviour. That Ms Davies still finds a way to do that is a demonstration of command of great technique and invention, and ensemble generosity, for she does not expose what she does not, is not, receiving from others.

Billie Brown too, as Dr Dorn, masterfully steers his way through the new contemporary references in this version of the play and yet holds firmly onto a conception of the character in his expression that is highly conscious of the needs of the Russian Chekhov character. Subtle and deep. Anita Hegh, in the lesser opportunities of Polina provided by Chekhov, too, creates a life force that has a sense of journey and destiny though the time of the play. John Gaden, as Sorin, also makes a mark despite the relative superficiality of the other players, a mark of his experience and wisdom from the practice of his craft.

Of the other actors, who in their careers, especially in other mediums, have demonstrated great skills, there is a lack of real nuance of character. They generally play what is on the page without much depth of a considered life force outside the chosen moments that Chekhov has considered to select for them. The great challenge of creating a two year journey between act three and act four of THE SEAGULL is the real test of the actors who venture into this play to create. How to bring that time passing and to communicate it expressively is the challenge and requires a discipline of creativity and invention of much sophistication. Sometimes the other actors, here, appear to be playing a concept of character and it is sometimes at the expense of the life force that Chekhov has observed through his time scheme and provided subtle clues for creation.

Emily Barclay playing Masha, dressed by Dale Ferguson, as a fashionably coutured black 'goth' in tottering high heels, seems much too worldly and knowing to stay willingly on this farm. Why this theatrical and emotionally intelligent woman does not simply pack her bags, as played by Ms Barclay, get in her father's ute and drive to Sydney instead of marrying the thick headed, spectacle-wearing bore of a pedant clown, Semyon Medvedenko (Gareth Davies) is way beyond me. Is it that she is a hopeless (insert drug of choice) addict? A concept of character is embraced but two years and marriage and pregnancy and motherhood and alcoholic despair hardly seems to have touched her by the end of the play. Besides, the acting choices that Ms Barclay gives us here, there is very little sub-textual justification or explanation of what she thinks is happening to Masha.

Dylan Young as Konstantin Treplev, is possible to believe in the first act. Brash, naive and immature in all his relationships. In the second act he comes in wet after shooting a seagull, and then presumably seeking it in the nearby lake (a remarkable clean shot is Kostia, that bird has not a mark on it - no blood, nothing, almost pristine, didn't even appear to be wet, unlike the shooter?!) - a melodramatic gesture by Mr Young. In act three Mr Young struggles to capture the vulnerability with his mother, not a hint of the complex, possibly Oedipal psyche - simply a sulking, jealous young boy, hardly the expelled university man of the first act. He has not developed any relationship with the other men in the play, neither of his champions, Sorin or Dorn or his love and literary rival, Trigorin, and, in this performance, features as an insecure and psychologically wet puppy with no sense of explaining his obsession for Nina or the two years passing - no sense of the moderately, successful published author of some public note. In fact he is, two years later, wearing the same clothes. Who finishes as the shot seagull, in Chekhov's play? This performance, relatively, diminishes the central focus that he should have, alongside the Nina developments.

Maeve Dermody as Nina, did not appear to have any complex sense, either, of this ambitious and heroic woman. Abused and traduced, struggling through the rough of the real world, it is Nina that will survive and possibly rise above her silly provincial immaturities. No suicide for her, but healthy battle with enhancing life. Real life will enhance the nature of the woman not destroy it. Nina says so in the famous last act and we see her regrets, frustrations but ability to move forward and on. She has found the way to use life to create for the theatre. The sense of the arc of the character as created in the moments on stage by Ms Dermody lacks the indirect revelations of the unwritten sub-textual demands of this writer. ‘What I say and do is enough’, it seemed to me, was the approach taken by Ms Dermody. It is not, for a successful Chekhov performance, a more richly and imagined, invented biography of a life force is necessary to bring the full potential of the character to life for the audience.. Again, a conceptual view that is too simplistic in its expression on the stage.

David Wenham, on film and television has the capacity to overwhelm one with an attractive charismatic power. But his performance of the writer, love interest, Aleksei Trigorin, is lack lustre and, frankly, underwhelmingly boring. The great exposition of the process of the creative intrigues of being a writer in act two, was delivered in such a comatose automaton of seated energy, that it passed by without a single original or impressive mark. The internal needs of the character have to find a mode of expression for the stage- some clues to the complexities must be signalled. There are no cameras for close ups to reveal the inner life - the theatre requires another technique. Chekhov demands another technique, hence the Stanislavsky explorations into acting with the Moscow Art Theatre Company.

In fact if Mr Andrews wanted to continue his experiments of camera usage to tell the stories in his productions on stage, THE SEASON AT SARSPARILLA and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, then, this production with such a propensity of film actors could have, probably benefited from the continuation of such concepts. The great scene of act three left Ms Davis, unfairly, with all of the heavy lifting, in fact, her set scenes of character revelation, that with her son, Kostia and then with her wayward lover, Trigorin, required her too almost play both the other parts, so under-charged appeared the other two actors.

My conversations with other audience members over the past two weeks have generally reflected disappointment and puzzlement, for the press have been, once again, extremely impressed by this production. I cannot see it. There is initial exhilaration with the audacity of Mr Andrews' version of this great play. There is some exhilaration, or nostalgia splurge from the setting. I wonder if it is just the exhilaration of philistine vulgarity, that I experienced?

When reading the press responses and blog posts on this production, it gives me pause over the legendary productions of others, similarly lauded. I am been led to doubt the critical response that I have absorbed over people like Peter Stein, and Peter Brook, for example. The opening song of the musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS: “I Read it in the Papers, Didn' you, It Must be True”, rings, in my head. What should I believe? The experience of myself or the press. Am I really so out of step with what theatre is? Whither goes the contemporary theatre? Is it relevant to me? I hope so. You know, dear diary, I know so.

I can see a production by Mr Andrews with a number of his usual flourishes, but there is a careless attention to Chekhov, even to the respect of the authorship of this version of the text - his own work. How much control or sense of detail is present in this work? It is undoubtedly full of ideas but they are not disciplined in their execution or consistently detailed with the text. Some of the actors seem to be floundering in solving the directorial dilemmas - they appear as obstacles, obfuscations to clarity in the hands of some of these actors. Those actors with more experience in this kind of dramatic literature and form of expression seem to have found their way. Others with less knowledge or experience, do not seem to have done so, and are less than what they could be with a director that could help actors solve problems of choice.

THE SEAGULL is a grave disappointment. It is so wonderful to see Ms Davis on stage. If only she had asked for Aubrey Mellor to direct her in this play, or George Oglivie. Benedict Andrews, for me, does not know what he wants to do with this play or doesn't have the maturity of form or skill for working with with actors to do it justice. A few years ago I saw a production by Thomas Ostermeir of Tennessee Williams A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. What was great about that production was the intellectual liberties that Mr Ostermier had taken coupled with real skills of staging, an apparent rapport with his actors and a heightened respect for the writer and his objectives and intentions - this was a production of a mature artist. Mr Andrews does not have all of these qualities in hand in this production of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL.

  1. The SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Benedict Andrews. Currency Press, 2011.
  2. The SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Martin Crimp. Faber and Faber, 2006.
  3. CHEKHOV: 4 PLAYS & 3 JOKES, Sharon Marie Carnicke, 2009.
  4. THE BREAKING STRING - THE PLAYS OF ANTON CHEKHOV, Maurice Valery. Oxford University Press, 1966.
  5. CHEKHOV'S PLAYS - AN OPENING INTO ETERNITY, Richard Gilman. Yale University Press, 1995.
  6. LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE, Vladimir Nabokov. Picador, 1982.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Coming World

Two Birds One Stone in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents THE COMING WORLD by Christopher Shinn.

THE COMING WORLD is a relatively early play by young American playwright Christopher Shinn. The Darlinghurst Theatre Company have also presented another of his works, DYING CITY  a few years back. His latest play, PICKED  has just had a rapturous response from the press and public in New York this past April/ May. Mr Shinn is a playwright worth getting to know. (OTHER PEOPLE, WHAT DIDN'T HAPPEN and WHERE DO WE LIVE).

A young woman, Dora (Cheree Cassidy) finds herself dealing inadequately, with twin brothers, Ed and Ty (Ian Meadows), one a hyped drug-dependent, enmeshed in the webs of low-life crime, the other an independent but 'lost' young man.

Constructed beautifully, in several intense scenes over a short sixty minutes, the play unravels in halting, haunting conversations, counterpointed with pauses and silences, that demand - you - the audience, fill in thought gaps and endow emotional compassion. But with care - for these people may or may not be worthy of your responses. The emotive sound scape by David Heinrich, subtly urges caution with its rich atmospheres, on the outer edges of your consciousness, almost another character.

Caroline Craig, directing this play subtly and with detailed passion, has cleverly cast two attractive young actors: Ms Cassidy and Mr Meadows (two WAAPA Graduates). They trap you with the appeal of their physical presence and one gives empathetically to Dora and Ed/Ty with ready ease. But, as well, these are two wonderfully gifted actors, and they give both independently and as a finely tuned duo, nuanced and hyper-delicate readings to these bruised and confused people. It is a pleasure to watch the trust and surety between these two actors - one feels remarkably safe in their dynamic artistry.

Charlotte Lane has created a simple but effective design lit moodily by Jack Audas-Preston.

So, at last, a good play, more than well acted, supported, with integrity, by the other artists, guided by a director who is moved to reveal the writer's story and intentions without drawing attention to herself. This production has been created to include the audience in a creative participation. The reward is great indeed.


Monday, June 13, 2011


Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in Association with Andrew KAY and Liza MCLEAN presents HAUNTED by Edna O'Brien in the Playhouse Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Edna O'Brien is an esteemed novelist who also writes for the theatre. A few years ago her play VIRGINIA with Ruth Cracknell and Jennifer Hagan (on the life and writings of Virginia Woolf) had a great success around Australia. HAUNTED is a 'small' gem of a play, redolent with language, images and observations of life of some ordinary people, who, in her hands become, momentarily, extraordinary.

"With my plays ... I imagine a place where my characters get born and with HAUNTED I first conceived of a room not in the hub of the metropolis of London, but on the outskirts, on the fringes, that physical metier reflecting the life and the aspirations of the three characters. I have always being interested in outsiders. They are yearners, their dreaming the conveyance to 'the topless towers of Ilium'".

Mr Berry (Niall Buggy) living in an apartment is haunted by two women of his past. His wife, Mrs Berry (Brenda Blethyn) who works in a doll making factory, and a young woman, Hazel (Beth Cooke),who earns her living modestly giving elocution lessons and working a small street market stall of second hand clothes. The complications that a dishonest but yearning old man gives himself and his wife becomes a gentle but multiplying anxiety for the audience.

Ms O'Brien explores love, conjuring her own great way with words and dexterously sewing text from Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill. Love binding these characters together and setting them apart, "contriving their different dances against an existential loneliness", (I recalled the novels of Anita Brookner, as well).

"In an essay on literature, Vladimir Nabokov says there are three points from which we may judge a writer, as storyteller, teacher or enchanter, but that it is the enchanter that makes for greatness". With HAUNTED, Ms O'Brien has made a claim for greatness - small, modest, but great. The text is a balm of gentle rich joys. Of literature, for certain.

Niall Buggy at the centre of this triangle, has the skills of "an actor", and as I remarked the last time I saw him, in the Sydney Festival presentation of Brian Friel's AFTERPLAY,(January, 2009) as a member of the Gate Theatre, it is an old fashioned style that draws attention to the act of 'pretending' rather than 'being' the character. But in the case of Mr Berry in HAUNTED it seems to fit, with less objection, and especially in the scenes with Ms Blethyn, it rises to an empathetic partnership that transcends my lack of belief. Ms Cooke as Hazel, the unwitting 'Lolita' of his fancies, does well, bringing a bewildered simpleness and innocence to the character.

Brenda Blethyn, too, has an approach to the work on stage that has, mostly, a contrived reality, but in her case it is loaded with gradually dripping buckets of warm humanity that spills into emotional explosions of anger and rage and then spectacularly, deep grieving, for Mrs Berry's human dilemma. Ms Blethyn gives of herself, wholly in the great dramatic opportunities in the latter scenes of the play, where, in contrast, she has restrained herself earlier in dealing with the deliberately flamboyant poetic text of Ms O'Brien: "Fetch me a chair, 'ere I faint" etc. And it is this deft contrast that catches one off-guard, surprises, and forces real respect from one while watching, and I admired her skill in drawing me in to unexpected responses of great empathy. A little, indeed, in retrospect, awestruck. I believe I was witness to great acting from a very clever practitioner.

This over-rich confection of a text by Ms O'Brien scintillates as a theatre going experience because there is much experienced integrity supporting and moulding it, with a very sensitive guiding hand from the director, Braham Murray, and a beautiful towering sea-green set design by Simon Higlett, aided by a delicate and apt video-projection design by Jack James supported by the composition of Akintayo Akinbode (Sound design by Peter Rice).

All the artistic team contribute responsibly to the ultimate success of the evening, which, cumulatively, is of a first-rate kind.

This is writing to imbibe richly in, and a performance from Brenda Blethyn you should make sure you see to put in the gentle treasures of other theatrical memories of worth.

A short season, so, be quick.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Chester Productions and the Tamarama Rock Surfers present ROPE by Patrick Hamilton at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre.

ROPE by Patrick Hamilton is a 1929 thriller, made memorably into a film by Alfred Hitchcock (1948). Although, Hamilton himself claimed it was nothing more than “a De Quincey-ish essay in the macabre” and it may have lost some of its flesh-creeping power, it can be ,if, done with meticulous style and respect a very good and maybe, thought provoking time in the theatre. In 2009, the Almeida Theatre in London revived it stylishly and it was uniformly received with enthusiastic response by the critics and audience (it was that company’s Christmas gift to the season – an antidote to the usual fare, available). It is a well written play, of its genre, with poetic flights of fancy, witty observations of the vapidness of the society it existed in, a moral debate of some import to the times (ours, too), written, in hindsight, perceptibly, exactly between the two World Wars of the last century, with terrific roles for actors to play with.

ROPE is a fictional adaptation of one of the great crimes of the Roaring 'Twenties decade – a tabloid and court-room sensation of the period, nationally and internationally. In Chicago in 1924, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb killed fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Highly intelligent sons of wealthy families they were afforded a defence lawyer of great stature, Clarence Darrow, who, while admitting their guilt pleaded eloquently against capital punishment, which the general public, whipped up by the press of the time, was baying for. One of the sensations and incongruous twists of the crime was the principal motivation of the perpetrators which was the living out of a perverse reading of Nietzsche’s theory of the UBERMENSCH (THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA). UBERMENSCH – The Superman – who Leopold and Loeb envisioned to be aloof to the petty concerns of mankind. That he lives in a realm that transcends the body politic, above humanity. That he feels no obligation to be limited by the social, religious, and moral conventions of his contemporaries. Their paltry laws and ethics pale to insignificance before him. Hence, a thrill kill to confront the society, to test their worthiness of this ideal (the two killers were 18 and 19 years old). Some of the world’s elite, no less so than in Europe, in Weimar Germany, for instance, thought about the responsibility of such ubermensch powers. Brecht’s BAAL may have glinted with this attractive 'preciousness', as well.

Patrick Hamilton wrote another famous play of the period, GASLIGHT, (1944 film with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, directed by George Cukor), was also esteemed by the likes of Graham Greene and J.B. Priestly as a novelist. HANGOVER SQUARE, THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE and a remarkable, but bleak trilogy: THE WEST PIER (1952); MR STIMPSON AND MR.GORSE (1953); and UNKNOWN ASSAILANT (1955) also known and published under the title THE GORSE TRILOGY (1992) are lesser known today, probably because of the dark subject matter. Graham Greene regarded THE WEST PIER, the best book about Brighton that he knew of, until his own BRIGHTON ROCK, perhaps?

This palaver of mine is to underline the fact that I don’t believe ROPE is necessarily just a trivial exercise of gothic melodrama or period kitsch. Writing for the stage in the United Kingdom under the demands of the censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain, Mr Hamilton adapted the original American source material to English circumstances and introduced a World War 1 veteran, the character of Rupert Cadell, to discuss and debate the moral values of the killing in war, paralleling the ethics of the two young thrill seekers alongside that of nations. Couched in a popular genre of the murder thriller/ melodrama of the period it registered ideas without difficulty from the conventions of the status quo and the general public, as the sabre rattling between the nations of Europe were beginning again.

The bare bones of the play: two young men living in a luxurious first floor apartment in Mayfair, murder a friend of theirs in their lounge room, hide the body in a chest and receive invited guests, including relatives of the dead boy, for early evening drinks, to test their ubermensch qualities.

The Chester Productions and Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Iain Sinclair, begins with a “spoofy” pre-recorded instruction from the stage management to turn off our mobiles etc. It was received by the audience as hootingly funny, after which, a dramatic (but wonderful) compositional pastiche of thriller/Hitchcockian musical themes crashed in (no composer credited). The audience uncertain of the intentions of this, took their cue from the prior voice over. The audience, had been wrong footed, and were, I supposed, unsure from then on, whether this production was serious in its directorial intentions or not. Some laughed at the extremities of the playing choices believing them to be intentionally funny, some attempted to hold onto their underlying period history to add to the growing tension.

That the two young murderers Brandon (Anthony Gee) and Granillo (Anthony Gooley) are dressed in clothing so wrong for the period, especially the rubber soled shoes, (Set and Costume Design, Luke Ede; Assistant to Costume, Marissa Dale Johnson) and do not demonstrate the physical and vocal class of the luxurious Mayfair society that they purportedly are of, undermines, further, the confidence of the audience’s belief in the seriousness of this production. Let alone the terrible management by the actors of the prop alcohol, the whiskey decanter, empty long before the script intimates, in the playing of the real time unravelling of the play. That Sarah Snook (Leila Arden) and Gig Clarke (Kenneth Raglan) are so winningly embodied in the period manners and culture and so damn straight about it in their confident playing, standing and playing in scenes with these two other actors, only further places the audience’s belief system with one foot in campy spoof land and the other in deadly earnest truthfulness. This is a shame, for though, in the first two acts of the play the two leading men do not have the physical or vocal ‘chops’ of the play’s world, when they do get to the dramatic last act, Mr Gee, especially, demonstrates that he can play the dramatic stuff with much believable conviction. After the tentatively ‘torn’ responses of the audience to the developments and characters of the first two acts there was in the thrilling climax to the play in the third act concentrated, gripped attention.

This has to do with a naturalistic and beautifully judged cameo performance contributed by Bob Baines as the father of the dead boy, Sir Johnstone Kentley, unwitting to the horror in the chest, and then, mostly, by a towering piece of bravura acting by Josh Quong Tart as Rupert Cadell, the wise, cynical, crippled war veteran who instinctively detects the vibrations of a cruel inhumanity emanating from his hosts. Character depth and empathetic insight expressed with daring, and not often seen, on Australian stages, courage of technical choices, by Mr Quong Tart brings a veracity of truthfulness and seriousness to all that he has to do and say, so much so, that he confronts and converts the unsure in the audience, as to the tenor of the play’s power. A pin drop could be heard in the auditorium in the last twenty minutes of the play and even in his contributions to the earlier acts.

This production, probably lacks the budget access to give this play its deserved details, here, but if you can overlook that, you will have a very interesting time. The Set and properties are piecemeal, the lighting is atmospheric but not particularly good (Matt Cox), and the Sound Design is very unconvincing (Emily MaGuire). But this is a well written play and is an exemplar of its kind, with some actors, deliciously, flaunting the opportunity to act.

The Leopold and Loeb story has been used as well, in a 1956 novel by Meyer Levin called COMPULSION, also made into a film in 1959 starring Orson Welles, and again in 1997 in an award winning play by the Academy Award winning screen writer John Logan (GLADIATOR): NEVER THE SINNER - well worth a look.

This is the centenary year of the birth of Terence Rattigan, and a feast of his plays have been revived in the present London theatre season. FLARE PATH and CAUSE CELEBRE two of them and certainly not the equal of say, THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY, SEPARATE TABLES and a recently unearthed piece AFTER THE DANCE. All have resonances beyond the “Aunt Edna” milieu’s that he is reviled for. In fact AFTER THE DANCE, created at the National Theatre, last year, has been called a masterpiece of cultural observation and writing. Similarly, when you look past the comic superficialities, which are distractingly alluring, of Noel Coward’s HAYFEVER, DESIGN FOR LIVING, PRESENT LAUGHTER and the great PRIVATE LIVES, one can divine acerbic observations and bitter truths of the cultural times that may have been sugar coated to escape the vigilant, but not necessarily keen, beady eyes of the Lord Chamberlain and his pencil. Recently I read an Emlyn Williams play called ACCORD, and was shocked at most of its contemporaneities.

It is a shame that there is sometimes a snobbery about these writers and others like them for there is a treasure trove there for the present audience that is as rich as the Restoration Play greats, without the difficulties of a dense language expression. Entertaining, moralistic (in a positive sense) and great roles for actors to play. Just let the plays speak for themselves and respect and capture the style of the times and the three E’s: Entertainment, Enlightenment and Ecstasy might return to our theatres. Where is Mr Cotterell or Mr Fisher to bring these plays to life? Waiting, I dare say, for an invitation from the leading companies to ask them to contribute their knowledgeable where-with-all to our culture.

Although Mr Sinclair’s production is not as could be, it is worth a visit and certainly something to ponder when thinking of the writing for the theatre today.

P.S. I should declare that many years ago I played Granillo in collusion with the great Peter Whitford as my Brandon and the just as great John Krummel as Rupert Cadell. Anna Marie Winchester and the gorgeous Joan Bruce was there as well. This was out at the long, long missed Marian Street Theatre at Killara (the building is still there. Can't we reclaim it or something? The North Side needs more than Glen Street, Yes?) It was run by Peter Collingwood and was quietly referred to, because of the luminous theatricality of many of the productions and plays and casts, as the TEMPLE OF CAMP. Those were the days. Lest we forget.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tooth of Crime

Arts Radar in association with atyp Under the Wharf present TOOTH OF CRIME by Sam Shepard at atyp Theatre, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Sydney.

TOOTH OF CRIME at atyp is the third Sam Shepard play we have seen in Sydney in the last year. FOOL FOR LOVE, Downstairs Belvoir and TRUE WEST for the Sydney Theatre Company being the other two.

Sam Shepard: "First off let me tell you that I don't want to be a playwright, I want to be a rock and roll star. I want that understood right off. I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end." [1].

Sam Shepard has written around fifty plays. He has won numerous Obies, including one for THE TOOTH OF CRIME, a Pulitzer Prize for the original BURIED CHILD (1979), and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play for A LIE OF THE MIND (1985).

Shepard came to the theatre through a series of fortunate connections.His early one act plays first produced at the then new Off-Off-Broadway venues: the Genesis, La Ma Ma, Playwrights Unit, and Caffe Cino, and attracted the attention of the British critic Kenneth Tynan, when he was putting together his risque revue OH, CALCUTTA (1969). THE ROCK GARDEN (1969) was included as the final scene. The success of the surreal texts of plays like ICARUS'S MOTHER (1965), RED CROSS (1966), THE UNSEEN HAND (1969), and culminating in COWBOY MOUTH (1971), which he wrote with Patti Smith, led him to travel to England to live, to pursue a career as a rock star.

For Shepard was simply following the aspirational dream of young American's growing up in the 1960's. "Rock 'n' Roll was the heartbeat of American youth in the 1960's, and Sam Shepard felt the pulse." [1]. "Seven of his last nine plays had included a rock band on stage in some form ... Shepard himself played drums and occasionally guitar with many of those bands. He was an accomplished percussionist and had recorded two albums with the folk-rock band the HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS. He had also been commissioned to write a screenplay for the Rolling Stones." [2].

Shepard reserved the highest honour for rock-and roll "in the pantheon of pop culture mythology ... Shepard's work in the late 1960's and early 70's demonstrates a search, on his part, for a genealogy of American myth and, particularly, an archetypal character who was both outlaw and messiah, and who spoke to a contemporary youth audience. ... That search culminated with what is broadly considered Shepard's pop mythic masterwork, THE TOOTH OF CRIME, and with the modern-day tragic hero of that play, Hoss." It premièred in London in 1971. "Hoss is part gangster, part racecar driver, and a rock star through and through. His mysterious profession, known only as 'the game,' is populated with 'hit men, astrologers, disc jockeys, souped-up cars and rock and roll music.'" [2].

THE TOOTH OF CRIME in a production by Richard Schechner by the Performance Group in 1973 had the critics warm to it, to the epic feel of the conflict between the outlaw rocker Hoss and the empty stylist, Crow, "seeing this as a serious play, despite its humour, the New York Times reviewer, Clive Barnes, called it 'splendidly provocative' and felt its 'mythic subject' held tantalizing implications among the play's 'depths and layers'" [3].

A rock star of declining influence, Hoss, broods in anguish and greets the arrival of the new, Crow. A challenge for supremacy, both verbal and sung, is engaged in. One shoots himself in defeat, one clambers to the throne to preside.

The last time I saw this play was way back in the first years of the Nimrod St Theatre at the Stables with, among others, Reg Livermore. I remember being puzzled and disappointed by it then and this new production by David Harmon does not dispel that puzzlement or disappointment. Mr Harmon claims that "TOOTH OF CRIME is a gift piece for any director to be given the opportunity to grapple with and it's been high on my wish list for years." Be careful for what you wish for. This production is not very clear in its story telling and defeats the audience from engaging with the writing of Shepard. It is a failure.

The design by Adrienn Lord, both costumes and set , are very attractive indeed. Accompanied by a beautiful and sympathetic lighting design by Richard Whitehouse, the setting promise much. Unfortunately, in action this installation art-like set of a fenced off garden of large rocks, bridged in the first act by a thrust of a wooden pier path and in the second act by a marooned island-square of wooden timber, becomes a physical and ultimately aural obstacle in serving the actors to easily negotiate to tell the story. A high backed, red throne like chair, stepped by a heap of rubber car tyres at the back of the floor space, gives a breath taking height scale and makes good usage of this theatre space, but little assistance to the clarity of the spoken text. The costumes are also spectacularly fanciful and image-driven but ultimately, especially, for example, in the case of Crow, the antagonist in the action of the play, a further physical obstacle.

It is here the problems begin, where design concept/look is all, and practicality secondary.

The leading character of Hoss, the declining rock star, the neurotic desperate narcissist is impersonated by a wonderfully gifted actor, Akos Armont, who unfortunately treads a line between "genius" and gross indulgency in his playing. Indulgence triumphs and obfuscates his grand concept of the character. The lack of judgement around the acting 'tics' of his characterisation, the excessive breaking up of the "poetry" of the Shepard text and the inaudibility around the songs makes for a dis-engaging experience that is cumulatively wearing and wearying.

This lack of control must also be laid at the feet of the director who in his program notes recognises that there is "something thrilling about the writing of Sam Shepard. There's a musicality to the rhythms, an electricity that hums between the lines." So, the fact that the audience cannot hear the text clearly or experience the hum between the lines, because of the unyielding, distracting quirks of Mr Armont is partly his failure to direct, accurately, the actor's out-pourings for the desired textual sympathy.

The battle between Hoss and the new revolutionary music figure, Crow, that is promised in a cliff hanger hesitancy before the interval is a fizzer, as the actor Steve Toulmin has none of the skills or charisma that are needed to create the exciting frisson of challenge and warfare between the two rock stars. Mr Toulmin's vocal skills with spoken text lack conviction and the lyrics in the songs are muffled and lost. A physical uncomfortableness is also evident and the power of the rising new force, in the play, is not palpable.There is no conflict, no drama.

Paige Gardiner as the female figure of support, Becky, and the ultimate property of the court ruler, lacks projection and real power in this space to have the impact necessary. The more impressive work comes from Daniel O'Leary as Cheyenne, he delivers his song beautifully, and quietly creates a character of contrast to the fulminations of Hoss. Also impressive, in small but effective roles, was Martelle Hammer as the sooth-sayer, Meera, and Matthew Hardie as the deejay, Ruido Ran.

All of the actors play instruments and percussion (Ms Gardiner, impressive with a trombone amongst other skills). The Composer and Sound Designer, Basil Hogios, has not yet found the balance necessary for the lyrics to be heard, or is it the problem of the space itself?

This work by Sam Shepard is notoriously hard to "pull off". That this company has had a go is admirable but it needs much more skill and discipline to rope this monster than we have here at atyp - at least at the performance I attended. Plays about revolution, challenging the status quo, perennially attract the young artist, the complexity of the vision of the writers are often overlooked in the excitement of the possibility.

In 1996 a revised version of the play was made by Sam Shepard: THE TOOTH OF CRIME (SECOND DANCE) for the SIGNATURE THEATRE COMPANY.


1. Don Shewey, “SAM SHEPARD”, p. 47. Dell Press, New York, 1985.

2. David J. Rose, "SAM SHEPARD AS MUSICAL EXPERIMENTER" in "THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO SAM SHEPARD", edited by Matthew Routane, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

3. Susan C. W. Abbotson, "SAM SHEPARD: A BIBLIOGRAPHIC ESSAY AND PRODUCTION OVERVIEW" in "THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO SAM SHEPARD", edited by Matthew Routane, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Kiss

Belvoir presents THE KISS by Guy De Maupassant, Peter Goldsworthy, Kate Chopin and Anton Chekhov in the Downstairs Theatre.

THE KISS directed by Susanna Dowling, is a staged reading of four short stories, unedited for the stage, by Guy De Maupassant, Peter Goldsworthy, Kate Chopin and Anton Chekhov. What all the stories have in common is the action of a kiss. “They (the writers) reveal a kiss to be a marker of something changing forever; a transgression; a boundary crossed; a door opened…. Each story has a strong sense of foreboding of what comes after the kiss – regret, compromise, disillusion, pain, a loss of innocence.”

The four actors, Catherine Davies, Rita Kalnejais, Yalin Ozucelik and Steve Rodgers and Ms Dowling have collaborated on a form for sharing the spoken text and inventing, sometimes, very imaginative physical interactions to accompany the spoken word for the purpose of illustration of these short stories for the audience.

The most successful rendering in the dramatising, within the short story literary form, is that of the Peter Goldsworthy kiss. Telling of two young men’s drunken bravura which results in their entrapment in a water tank and their ultimate demise, the employment of two harnesses that suspends the two male actors, so that they can give physical conviction to their floatation and swimming in water is vivid and visceral. Drama convincingly created and the result was a remarkably complicit audience participation. Mr Rodgers and Ozucelik especially convincing in the telling of this tragic tale.

The other stories suffer in their production mostly from theatrical physical inventions that while ‘cute’ and 'fun' hardly rises above that of early exercises in a drama school first year training program. For instance, the multiplicity of event and characters of both sexes in the Chekhov (the last in the program) as well as the narrator’s voice in various moods of observation, necessitates invention from these actors, make-up and costume choices that are ludicrous to the mood of the story – so much so, that Ms Davies and Kalnejais often found it so amusing, that they broke the spell of their creativity by laughing at their and the other actors ridiculous choices, and caused the audience to suspend their belief in the confection of the task. Besides, this story was on the lengthy side and the actors seemed to find it hard to keep the audience engaged over its length- it was placed last in the evening’s program. In a three-quarter round seating pattern it is sometimes difficult not to see the audience members nodding off or checking their watches.

The Kate Chopin offer was brief and unfortunately thrown-off by the actors with not as much focus as it may have deserved.

Ms Dowling writes in the program “Our aim is to use the poetry and the rhythm of the words to propel us through the stories, rather than hold us back. The actors are part-protagonists, part-narrators, part-subconscious – using their voices, their bodies and each other to bring the stories to life.” The bodies of the actors were, by-and-large, usefully engaged in the tasks needed for the success of the exercise, and their undoubted enjoyment and trust of each other was, mostly, visible to the eye. What was, alarmingly, not present for some of these actors was a vocal instrument of ease of flexibility and range, to “use the poetry and rhythm of the words to propel us through the stories”.

I would have felt that the quality of voice would be a major, if not the major pre-requisite, for undertaking this task. Both Ms Davies and Kalnejais, whilst having the actor’s innate imaginative and emotional impulses for the moments in the stories seem to not have the necessary vocal techniques for the accurate, let alone beauty of expression, that is required to keep the audience engaged in this word heavy and alien dramatic usage of words and rhythms. There is a greater burden on the actor’s vocal technique, apparently necessary, in this literature form, to present it on stage sustainably. If the audience closed its eyes it is akin, or should have been, to listening to a radio play. (In some instances, even accuracy: “Whatcha” for “what you” or “wena” for “went to”. Simple consonant accuracy replaced by emotional posturing – irritating.)

Thus, the responsibility that Ms Kalnejais had as a soloist in the Guy De Maupassant story was charming in its coy visual sensuality: twirling the collar ribbon of her blouse around her fingers (Design, Luke Ede) lowering her head and glancing up beguilingly with her eyes, but was undermined by her vocal work that was accumulatively distracting in its poor execution.

George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION came to mind as I watched THE KISS. Some engagement and arrangement with a “Henry Higgins” might have been useful to enhance the success of THE KISS, for as it stood, it was an oral and aural disappointment. The entertainment value thus, undermined, enormously. As I recently heard Orson Welles, on a You Tube interview quoting Stanislavsky, “la voix, la voix, toujours la voix.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer


Tim Watts is the star of this show. He is a star. He is totally, totally winning and his show is totally, totally charming. He is the performer, deviser, director, producer, puppeteer and animator of this show and he pulls all these tasks off totally, totally wonderfully. I can only urge you to go.

Using computer graphics and moving images and wonderful puppet creations, funny voices, a reasonably played ukulele and a soundtrack including sounds innocently and, for me, nostalgically like Human League's 'ELECTRIC DREAMS', Mr Watts tells the story of the hero, Alvin Sputnik, that conjures up feelings of good vibrations and bitter-sweet melancholy.

The ice cap has melted, the islands and world cities have been flooded. Alvin's wife dies and in search of her spirit that has plunged into the depths, he volunteers to attempt a rescue of the human population, maybe at the risk of his own life. An eco-play for young people it is an experience that no adult should miss.

For the whole population of all ages, I promise you, you will be positively delighted and invigorated. A hit at the last Sydney Festival, in a short season schedule, you'd be crazy not to go and take all of your friends. They will owe you big time.

You can also catch this show at Campbelltown Arts Centre (NSW) on Thursday 14th June (7pm), and Wednesday 15th June (10am and 1pm). Check the Weeping Spoon website for more tour dates.

Capture the Flag

A Critical Stages & Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company production CAPTURE THE FLAG by Toby Schmitz at Riversides Theatre, Parramatta.

This is one of several plays by Toby Schmitz. Yes, the actor. A man of many gifted talents. CAPTURE THE FLAG is a re-mounting of the production seen at the Old Fitzroy Theatre a couple of years ago.

The handsome design elements: Set design by Genevieve Dugard and Leland Kean; Costume design by Lisa Walpole; Lighting design by Luiz Pampolha (restricted by the need of a lengthy tour, I’m sure); and the Sound design by Jeremy Silver, are all revived beautifully. With the atmospheric details of the set, the addition of Mr Silver’s Sound Design must be the most detailed and technically imaginative that we have heard, over recent times (where this element of contemporary theatre-making has expanded dramatically) as a passionate contribution to the story-telling.

Three of the actors, Tom Stokes, Sam O’Sullivan and Sophie Webb are new to the production.

Robin Goldsworthy is re-creating his performance, in the central role, as Albert for the company. It is unfortunate that this other original performance element is the weak, if not wholly distracting part of the experience of the production in the theatre, now. Whether the habit of playing this role and/or no recent firm guidance from the Director, Toby Schmitz, has permitted this actor to ‘wring’ every emotional moment from his task, so that it is a demonstration of emotional states with no accurate story-telling content that explains the verbally overwrought and tortured soul that is Mr Goldsworthy’s Albert, is an uncomfortable puzzle. For I have no memory of Mr Goldsworthy being so over stated in the Old Fitz offer from a few years ago. Such is the performance, which inadvertently seems to draw attention to the actor’s acting, what the play is about now, is immensely distorted and hence, obfuscated.

“What is this play about?”, I was asked by some audience members as we left the theatre. On the program front cover we are told that CAPTURE THE FLAG is “A play about history and our children, warfare and freewill.” Not so, at Riverside the other afternoon. It had become a play about the excruciating agonies of Robin Goldsworthy as Albert. About the actor.

In contrast, Tom Stokes as Karl, the other principal protagonist in the writing, is clearly and accurately focused and gives the audience the information of the text, given circumstances and objectives, to allow us to enter creatively to endow the character and the situation with the emotional dilemmas.It is a teriffic performance. To this end the sensitive drawing of character by Sam O’Sullivan as the youngest in this dreadful trio of lost boys is also magnificent support in its accuracy and restraint. Both these actors, truly valiant in attempting to give the production balance and some truth and meaning. They almost succeed. Ms Webb as Mathilde speaks the text with some story clarity.

I remember Mr Schmitz’s play at the Old Fitz with some good impression but now it is lost. The ephemeral element of live performance could not be more clearly demonstrated than here in the relative contrast and comparisons of the two productions. It is only one element, in my experience, last Saturday, that is awry, but it is central and unfortunately, catastrophically seismic in its affect on the play and the audience’s experience of it.


BAAL by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright. A co–production of Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Melbourne at the Wharf 1 Theatre.

If one cares to check out the Alison Croggon'S THEATRE NOTES blog, you'll notice an amazing 107 comments following her review of BAAL at the Malthouse Theatre (it even drew James Waites into the fray – and he hadn’t even seen it, as of that time!) It was (is) an interesting commotion to follow, and it certainly whetted my appetite to see the work, although, with all the pre-show publicity etc. , it appeared that it would demand of me an act of courage to go. An act of courage only in the sense that another unhappy view of ‘man’ on a Sydney stage, again, would be depressingly redundant and, of late, too regularly familiar. Tiresome.

I had come to the point where I was (am) tired of being told in the theatre, over and over, that the present state of man and the world is hopelessly ‘fucked’. What I have being gradually longing for from my theatre going experiences, is a message on how to live through or change that.

This depressing statement is no longer enough, unless I also was given some formula to move forward with this observation and to find a way to live, well, into my future. I feared that BAAL would just be another nihilist re-iteration of so much writing for the theatre of late.

That Tom Wright was an author of this work, along with Simon Stone, did not bode well. That Mr Wright’s writing is often beautiful is not disputed here - the poetic quotes of the songs from this version of the play in the [free!] STC program is testament to that. If read in parallel with the Eyre Methuen 1979 versions by Peter Tegel – a positive appreciation of Mr Wright's work is inevitable. But it has dwelt, now, it seems, over time, ponderously on the dark weight of self-destructive existence. For,THE ODYSSEY, THE LOST ECHO, THE WOMEN OF TROY and THE WAR OF THE ROSES were long and searching observations. Their sheer weight, in all ways, along with other writers appearing on our stages, have been pushing me to an indigestible surfeit, that have led me to a kind of dread, maybe depression, about attending the theatre.

How wonderful to just go to John Bell’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and simply have a celebration of what man can achieve, Shakespeare and his poetic wit, or, to attend the Martin Fröst's Clarinet concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – a reason to live.

That Simon Stone was going to give us a cast of naked men and women so that it can help solve his “bi-polar response” to this play by Brecht sounded unappetitising, at the least, considering the number of naked bodies that I would have preferred never to have seen in my long and wearied life. Clothes maketh the man, I have, in my mirror-less home, come to embrace as a truth of some impactful force. And, alas, my experience of this production had me declaring to myself during the experience, that this much discussed production, play, was like the emperor, in the fable, without clothes, indeed. This play is revealed as a young man’s early juvenile (talented) effort at writing in response to his life and circumstances.

“BAAL is the first of four full-length plays (the others being DRUMS IN THE NIGHT, IN THE JUNGLE OF THE CITIES and THE LIFE OF EDWARD II OF ENGLAND) which Brecht wrote in Bavaria before moving to Berlin in the autumn of 1924. In spring 1918, when he began work on the first of them he was just twenty…”. He re-worked BAAL over the coming years whilst living in a society of which he had many mis-givings. How the German people would survive, and how he himself would survive, with a sense of the weight of the Treaty of Versailles and its demands, topped with the gathering gloom of the Great Depression in Europe and galloping inflation, as the whole world awoke to the social and economic post-trauma of the nightmare that had being World War I. The war to end wars.

BAAL, it seems, has never really been a success on the rare opportunities it has had in production, even in Germany itself.

From the Prologue to the 1926 version: “This dramatic biography shows the life of the man Baal as it took place in the first part of the century. You see before you Baal the abnormality trying to come to terms with the twentieth- century world. Baal the relative man, Baal the passive genius, the whole phenomenon of Baal from his first appearance among civilized beings up to his horrific end, with his unprecedented consumption of ladies of high degree, in his dealings with his fellow-humans. This creature’s life was one of sensational immorality…”. From the end of the Prologue to the 1918 version “… the play is the story neither of a single incident or of many, but of a life. Originally it was called ‘Baal eats! Baal dances!! Baal is transfigured!!!’” [GW Schriften zum Theatre, p.954-5].

From Tom Wright: “ At first glance, BAAL is a simple narrative: a man is feted by his lovers of art, who admire his talent and hope some of his charisma and energy might rub off on them. But he rejects their advances, seeking a romantic ideal of an authentic life. He takes to the road, living ‘underground’, pursuing something, fleeing from something. And with him come others, people who fall through the cracks in the middle class and, perhaps from curiosity, wander into the darkness… He’s sometimes described as hedonistic, or driven by the pleasure principle. But he’s more than that; his callous treatment of those around him indicates he’s destructive, a dark force … And in the end he’s a genius, alone on a mattress. A genius whatever that is”.

In this production, Baal is not just a poet but a rock star. We meet him brooding over a computer making electronic noises (Composer and Sound Designer Stefan Gregory) where, in an abandoned looking white-walled space, from other parts of a party pumping away off stage, he becomes surrounded by a group of women in cocktail dresses and heels (Costume Design: Mel Page), champagne glasses in hand. They preen and compete. They fawn, he reacts, he attracts, he selects, he repulses, he abuses. Others arrive, men, now, as well, and they too are attracted and compete, they too are selected, repulsed, and abused. They sit on a mattress , some of them dressed, some of them partly dressed, some of them naked ,except for their shoes, to hear this Baal sing, in a posy singing voice (reminiscent of a poor imitation of Tom Waites) - unfortunately burying the text’s clarity along the way. Attending this noise in the yellow mustard lighting of the stage (Set and Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper) none of the crowd are attractive and are entirely non-sexual. (I reach back into my memory banks to the playful raunch of the film SHORT BUS (a film by John Cameron Mitchell) to imagine the proposed milieu presented in this production – memories of laptop sound-art concerts at Hibernian House, in Elizabeth St near Central railway, for similar groupie gatherings to hear poets of electronic music, stir as well.) This production fails in its realities, these are merely staged theatrical pretences: Sex… (if only! Not an erect or even stirring penis among them); Drugs (only alcohol and most of that poured over the stage – really? …no spiffs, heroin or cocaine?); and Rock n’ Roll, courtesy of Mr Gregory.

The most memorable and real event of this production is the spectacular wall collapse-scene change, a waft of wind momentarily stirs us into some interest, followed by two 2000 litres of re-cycled 'water-wise' rain (thanks STC for the program notes, and assurance), drizzled over a black floor, endlessly, and incredibly nosily for most of the rest of the play – requiring the actors to shout their texts to be heard. Not that that came to matter much to us in the audience, at least from Row F, at the back.Mr Wright's text lost to us to hear and make identification with.

On the night I attended, the company of actors seemed to have withdrawn from communicating to the audience and rather, gave solace to each other, and surely, here, I thought, in the acting style engaged in, the glass walls of Belvoir’s THE WILD DUCK or WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF would have been more suitable. We and they could have been more completely isolated from each other, truly alienated. I, and I’m assuming from the tepid applause – the rest of the audience that night – were unengaged and unconcerned. For whom had this performance been given? I wondered. We and they had merely survived an almost interminable 63 minutes of non-communication. Mr Stone suggests in his program note: “By presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential. BAAL is a nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct. It carries the cult of the individual to its inevitable lonely outcome.” No catharsis experienced by me from the play but certainly from this frustrating production revelations of my psychological potential poured forth and Mr Stone may or may not take some comfort from the lonely outcome of a dwindling audience response to the work, for it is there that BAAL hits its target. Anti-social non-communication, no circle of exhange of content. It did have “ an inevitable lonely outcome” - the actors inside the prism of their creation. The genius alone on a mattress. We, alone in the auditorium. A tragedy. A travesty?Genius? Whatever that is? I longed for it.

I sat there with others, after the applause for the actors work, bewildered, not angry, not passionately emotional, not anything at all. This work added nothing to my life experience. This theatre experience, was horribly empty and worse than dull.

Musing on the bus home, later I remembered some speeches from Johanna Murray-Smith’s play RAPTURE (2002). From Dan, a middle-class Melbournite:

“Actually, one of the great pleasures of getting older has been the acknowledgement that I despise artists… I used to pretend to believe in them, as some insecure confirmation that I was a cultivated sort of person, you know, as if a fondness for a woman who slathers herself in chocolate sauce then wraps herself in barbed wire as some kind of lyrical comment on the holocaust, would define me as NOT a philistine. But I’ve come to the conclusion that art, by and large, IS vulgarity. While people are starving and locked up in detention centres and children are blown up by suicide bombers…..”.

Now, I do not despise artists at all, but I have been pushed to an extremis, so some of Dan I recognise in myself, in my growing reaction to the tedious overblown statements that the new 'installation-art' Directors and Designers have asked me to engage in on too regular a basis. How about a good play, well acted and well directed and designed so that the audience is left alone, to solve the work, without the sleight of hand being shown so obviously, in this kind of post-modern abstraction of refining, defining intellectualisms.

Oh, for variety of taste in our theatre spaces!

A question: a translation or an adaptation of Brecht’s BAAL, by Mr Stone and Wright?

And now for my truly PHILISTINE moan. I paid $81 for this 63 minutes of theatre. I feel disheartened and maybe, really, robbed. Now that moan is not just about my money but especially my time. Cate, Andrew, how can you look us regular playgoers “in the face”?(At least the program was free instead of the usual $10 or $12.)

N.B. Quotes are either from the STC program or Bertolt Brecht. Baal translated by Peter Tegel, edited by John Willett and Ralph Mannheim – Eyre Methuen, 1979.