Monday, December 10, 2012

Signs of Life

Heather Mitchell, George Shevtsov, Aaron Pedersen and Pauline Whyman in Signs of Life. Photography by Lisa Tomasetti.

Sydney Theatre Company, Black Swan State Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present SIGNS OF LIFE by Tim Winton, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

Tim Winton is a great, celebrated, Australian novelist. Beginning in 1981 with his inaugural book, AN OPEN SWIMMER, winning the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. He has won an unprecedented four Miles Franklin Awards and nominated twice for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction (1995 - THE RIDERS; 2002 - DIRT MUSIC).

He has had two of his novels adapted, by others, for the theatre : THAT EYE, THE SKY (also, a film) and CLOUDSTREET (also, a television mini-series). SIGNS OF LIFE is the second play that he has written, the first we have seen in Sydney. AFTER RISING WATER (2011), was produced by Black Swan and the Melbourne Theatre Company and seen in Perth and Melbourne.

Taking a character, Georgie (Heather Mitchell), from his novel, DIRT MUSIC, Mr Winton continues her story. Georgie, haunted by the ghostly presence of her husband, Lu Fox (George Shevtsov), has the sanctuary of her grieving, the homestead, invaded by an indigenous brother and sister, Bender (Aaron Pedersen) and Mona (Pauline Whyman). All are in search of place, of belonging, perhaps identity. Maybe , here in this landscape they will find it. each of them. The interaction between them, especially Bender and Georgie, is the concern of the play. There is some beautiful writing, and the over all impression is one of a sense of the enormous spirituality of the Australian landscape - a landscape with a dried up river bed reminiscent of a large skeleton of a dinosaur - old in time, in layers and layers of time, waiting to embrace, absorb, this new era of life, these people. Indeed, these characters are floundering for some anchoring identity of belonging, and collectively they may find it in the ancient 'music' of this place, this land.

The principal problem, for me, was that the 'pearls' of the short scenes did not have a string of action of continuity, that is necessary for the 'reader' of the play in the theatre. The writer, or the director, Kate Cherry, had not found the way to bring the pieces into a fluid whole of embodied action. The entrance and exit of the characters seemed clumsy, (especially those of Lu - sliding onto the stage through a split in the back drop of the set), and not knitted to the possible musical construction of the play. I thought that the play in the Drama Theatre was on a stage too big for it. Too wide. The setting (Zoe Atkinson) too detailed, too specific visually, and skewed off centre in an uncomfortable staging. The text had the musicality of a string quartet, a chamber orchestra, playing beautiful language, for the listener to endow and imagine. The play is a chamber play and was harmed by the breadth of this theatrical space. The imagery to be invested by the audience to make the play live is in the language, the rhythms in the gaps between the scenes, they needing the same simplicity as the speaking of the poetics. It could almost have the staging simplicity of a radio play. A play for voices (UNDER MILK WOOD?).

Listening, (and watching), I had the memories of the great poetics/themes of Eugene O'Neill and some of his plays. The speech, here, of the sea and the great cliffs of the West Australian coast reminded me of the hypnotic magic of Edmund's speeches of his sea voyages from LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. The landscape and the characters in SIGNS OF LIFE triggered memories of DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, of humans stumbling, staggering in a landscape of dirt and dry dust, under the canopy of the stars, echoing the resonant search of the Greek myths of yore, for these Australian indigenous. Tim Winton seems to be searching for the affirmation of a world bigger than the palpable one around us in this play. He is, perhaps, trying to find the spiritual space of the nation, for our times. This is the magnetic pull of his novels and I believe it is here in this play, too, but not in this production.

Ms Mitchell gives a great performance, feeling and breathing the scale of Mr Winton's vision, with an ownership of great passion and concentration, body, voice and 'soul' engaged. Aaron Pedersen, too, has intimations of that power, and is physically and vocally convincing, he is best when working with Ms Mitchell - he is, however crippled with a final badly directed moment with a kite, that had a poetic possibility, but is not resolved the way it probably ought to be by the director. It is almost risible, and undercuts the ending of the play, and some of Mr Pedersen's Bender's impact. Ms Whyman has moments of conviction but lacks consistency of truthfulness and Mr Shevtsov's performance as the ghost of Lu Fox does not seem to have a consistency of a reality - is he a spirit or his he alive? - the emotional action and involvement seemed unsuitable for a ghost and confused me.

SIGNS OF LIFE has only potential in this production. It is not fully expedited - the possibilities not kinetic at all.

I look forward to more theatre work from Tim Winton.

P.S. $84, concession (including the 'tax' of $5 taken by the Sydney Opera House Trust to pay to see the Sydney Theatre production in the Drama Theatre, even though I was at the box office in working hours and with cash. If I couldn't pay it, would I be prevented from attending the play? Would the STC lose the income? How do the STC feel about this demand, this 'tax' on attending their work at the Opera House? Do they lose custom?).
$10 for the program.
$3.50 for a coffee before the show.
A total of $97.50 for an afternoon matinee.

Is it possible for many of us to go to the theatre, at this rate?
Certainly this house occupation, audience attendance, may have been only just over half full. I am being positive, here.
We will have to discriminate more rigorously about what we see. Others are, it seems.
This production was approximately 80 minutes long. More than $1 a minute!
What a philistine, I am, eh?
But, I do like the theatre, I do. I want to see as much as possible.
Oh, well.

The Last Five Years

The Arts Centre Gold Coast in collaboration with Golden Apple Theatrical Productions presents THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown, in The Space at the Gold Coast Arts Centre.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS is written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. The original production was nominated for a number of awards and garnered two Drama Desk Awards in 2002 for Book and Lyrics after its short run in the Minetta Lane Theatre, an Off-Broadway space. Mr Brown won, in 1999, the Tony Award for Best Original Score for PARADE - his first show.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS concerns Cathy (Lucy McIntosh) and Jamie (Tyler Burness). The conceit of the construction is that the two protagonists tell/sing of their relationship over five years, from meeting to separation (divorce?). Cathy's story is told backwards from the break-up, and, Jamie's is told chronologically forward, from their first meeting. Each of the character's sing mostly solo and only once in duet, on their wedding day. It is moving but not sentimental. The work is serious and rings of lived truths.

Performed without interval (approximately, 85 minutes), it is a very demanding work for the singers. The style of music covers "pop, jazz, klezmer, latin, rock, and folk". It requires not only alert and agile singing, it insists, if, it is to work, on "acting chops' of a fairly high order. Fortunately, both these performers, Ms McIntosh and Mr Burness, at the Gold Coast Arts Centre, have both. Mr Burness, often, particularly subtle and revelatory in his storytelling choices.

The Directors of the production, Cilla Scott and Adam King, have created a fluid scene movement and the many changes of time and location are handled deftly, clearly, with a minimum of fuss; the actor/singers, cared for with thoughtful details of staging and direction. The lighting (Anthony Lee) is swift and useful (if, a little under rehearsed), but, sophisticated in its ambitions. The Sound Designer and Technician (David Rushton) keeps a well balanced sound from the singers and the orchestra.

This young orchestra of nine musicians was led dexterously by Matt Dennett. The orchestrations of the score were revealed to be as much a character to the performance, the story subtleties, as the actors are. Having only heard the score of this musical theatre piece with piano before, the orchestrations of Mr Brown are very impressive, indeed. Mr Dennett seems, to me, a fairly interesting talent. Both, he and Ms Scott, have a resume of success, and it ought to continue, with encouraged opportunity.

This is the debut of Golden Apple Theatrical Productions. It is a very auspicious beginning and worth catching. The Gold Coast Arts Centre have found 'gold' in their collaboration and support of this company. The local community ought to flock to it. It is a very rewarding evening.

What did I expect to find up here on the Gold Coast? Certainly, not a theatrical experience as sophisticated as this.(My Sydney, 'arrogance' revealed!!!)

But, DO GO.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Psycho Beach Party

Little Ones Theatre in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers present PSYCHO BEACH PARTY by Charles Busch at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach.

Look, PSYCHO BEACH PARTY by Charles Busch, at present to be seen at the Bondi Pavilion, is just, great, great FUN. For most of the 'folk' I know well, a show not to be missed. I mean if you want big laughs and a show that reeks with an expertise of gleefully wicked innocence and glad bags of high style, than, this is a must see.


I know I went crazy for the Belvoir's take on THYESTES, directed by Simon Stone at Carriageworks in January (I did), and some of you found/thought I had gone completely over the top, well, I feel the same about this show, but ,of course, differently. This is silly exhilaration, not 'f.....ed up' exhilaration - there's no blood to start with, and I think you could take your kids. I, of course don't have any kids, so, I could be wrong.

This show was once called GIDGET GOES PSYCHO, and "Theatre-in Limbo", unlike a certain theatre company, which I won't name, thought that maybe there might be some 'copyright problems" and changed it to PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. Oh, well they do work in New York, not remote Sydney, you know, so they had to be careful and do the right thing. Mr Busch and his companion in art, Ken Elliott, sprung from watching, perhaps too many times the phenomena of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello Beach Party movies - six of them made between 1963 and 1965! - including, and here is a clue to the show at the Pavilion: MUSCLE BEACH PARTY and BEACH PARTY BINGO; and the TV show GIDGET, put together a new show to replace, in 1987, there long running hit, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, on Off-Broadway.

Says Chicklet, the heroine of our show, who happens to channel multiple personalities - think, THREE FACES OF EVE, 1957 (Joanne Woodward) or SYBIL,1971 (Sally Fields), and don't forget THE BAD SEED, 1956 (directed by Mervyn LeRoy), to get the psycho-thriller pop culture vibe - to her man Kanaka, a Beach Surf Board Hunk:

"I think we understand each other very well. I know what you fantasize about, I know what you dream about and I'm going to give it to you in spades. Now I want you to go into town and buy yourself a slave collar and a garter belt and a pair of black silk stockings. Spike heels will complete the ensemble and then my darling Kanaka, I'm going to shave all that man fur off and you'll look just like the little boy that you are.'

You get the picture? John Waters (and Divine) can eat their hearts out, this week. So, can early Pedro (Almodovar, that is). Why re-run those tired old movies you know by heart, at home, when you can watch this show LIVE?

L. I. V. E. - LIVE.

"VAMPIRE LESBIANS of SODOM, one of the longest-running plays in Off-Broadway history, PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, and THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE have earned Charles Busch renown for his ability to weave popular culture, wicked camp humour, and biting social satire into unusual and uproarious theatre. Busch has been acclaimed as the premiere drag star of the American theatre, and his work has earned the Outer Critics' John Gassner Award for Playwrighting and a Drama Desk Award for Best Play nomination. He has been called a "first-class satirist and farceur" (Mimi Kramer, The New Yorker). THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE also received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2001.

Now, I should add that I have seen other attempts to bring Mr Busch's work to the stage and they have been , generally, disastrous. It is very, very difficult 'stuff' to pull off. The stylistic sensibility needs to be very special indeed. This company, Little Ones, led by the Director, Stephen Nicolazzo (the recent showing of the Singaporean play: SEX, VIOLENCE, BLOOD, GORE at the Old Fitz, briefly, this year, was, from what I have read of it, an intimation of Mr Nicolazzo's talent) has everything perfectly gauged for a wonderful time. They know how to rev this stuff into a scintillating style. Let's hope they can keep it that way.

The set design (Owen Phillips): floor, walls, columns in leopard print carpet, the furniture dressed that way as well, including the beach umbrella; costumes with wit to die for, including lots of leopard print (Eugyeene Teh and Tessa Pitt); the Lighting (Katie Sfetkidis) and Sound design (Nate Edmondson); plus, choreography that punches out all the style humour of the time, and, danced magnificently, is a great credit to Kurt Phelan, are all tops.

All the acting company (ALL OF THEM) are amazingly taut and spot on, playing as an amazing clock work team: Kevin Kiernan Molloy - a sexy muscle Star Cat -the 'kick sand in my face', please!! beach boy fantasy flirting with Zoe Boesen  as Marvel Ann - thrillingly chilled or a bitch, depending on your moment to moment P.O.V. ..., yes, really!; Paul Blenheim (so good in WRECKING recently at the Old Fitz) as Provoloney and Tom Dent (Is it his real name?) as Yoyo - two boys, who will be two men, who, in a blink of time, right in front of your eyes, will really be into each other!!, good mates and true, they will be surprised, you won't be (see photograph above); Ash Flanders as Chicklet- truly outstanding - channeling many personalities (particularly, Ann Bowman) but "who learns that each of the various roles she plays in life are all part of one being, and that they only make her stronger.."; Amanda McGregor  as Mrs Forest - Chicklet's mother, who is really, fraughtly whacky - relentlessly trying to find her real role in life; Genevieve Giuffre (Berdine) - the nerdy, admirable, loyal, wise, best friend to Chicklet; Peter Paltos (Kanaka) - the king-cool-dude of the beach; and Caitlin Adams (Bettina Barnes) - the movie queen of all b-movie queens, who you'll get to love, in the end,  just as you do the Baroness (The great Eleanor Parker) in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I promise.

All of them are special. But, my special one is Ms Giuffre and her Berdine, round shouldered, stooped, google-(goggled?)-eyed but whip smart. So, I think I should just relate her last diary entry for us to you, from the show, to whet your appetite some more:

"Life is sure whacky. Here Chicklet and I were best friends and I never really knew her. If I don't know her, can I ever truly know anyone? Star Cat thinks science can tell us everything, and Bettina says if she feels things, they're true. Oh, sweet, lonely Schopenhauer and crazy ole Nietzsche and dear, committed Jean-Paul, all of you searching and never settling for an easy answer to life's eternal puzzlement. I hereby vow to carry on your never-ending quest. I know that my true calling is to be a novelist and devote my life to exploring the fathomless possibilities of the human comedy. ..."

This is some of the smarts of this show.... exploring fathomless possibilities of the human comedy....

Recommended. Highly. Congratulations Mr Nicolazzo and the team.

P.S. Dear Little Ones, my one peeve , and one of my constant ones,  is that in your program notes you have no biography of the genesis of your great production : THE WRITER, Mr Charles Busch. Not fair. Maybe, not nice?!
I say, The Writer is the God, if not GOD: "In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh".
 Can you fix it? Give him his due.

Monday, December 3, 2012

ACO: Russian Visions

Australian Chamber Orchestra presents Tour Seven: RUSSIAN VISIONS in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House.

Can I say that, for me, almost every time I leave a concert given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I feel as if I have been especially privileged. I go tirelessly to the theatre (Drama) to have an experience of transcending excellence. It rarely happens. Maybe, because it is the field in which I have toiled, and that I am too knowing, too demanding, whereas, in the world of music making, I am simply an audience, and, so find so much to admire in the artistry, dedication and in the playing by this orchestra.

This concert RUSSIAN VISIONS with the guest piano player, Steve Osborne, and later, trumpet player, David Elton, left me in a heightened state of being, glad to be alive. Grateful to be alive. How lucky am I?

The highlight, for me, was the Shostakovitch Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op 35 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (1933). It is a piece I have on disc. I was introduced to it by the San Francisco Orchestra, years ago. Or, come to think more, was it part of a San Francisco Ballet program?. Whatever, it is a treasure to me. It is a piece that I find exhilarating, and, when played with daring, absolutely thrilling. I went to this concert not knowing what I was to hear, so, when this very familiar piece began to reveal itself, I lifted my attention to high concentration. The reward was spectacular. I was lucky, I was seated close to the concert platform - the physical playing by all was not only an aural, but, a physically visceral experience, too. Mr Osborne a demon of passion at the piano, and Mr Elton immaculate with his sound making, and seemingly, effortlessly, taking up the challenge of the piano playing tempo. Watching the string players engage, one could see the excitement that Mr Osborne was throwing out to them all. The simple joy on my part, to watch such lovers of their craft, so in unison, was art of great significance. I need to declare a bias for the music of Shostakovitch.

The significance of the variety of delicacy of the playing, especially by Mr Osborne, in the many offers by Sergei Prokofiev in his work Visions fugitives, Op 22 (1915-1917) (arr. Barshai/Tognetti), played as the first item of the concert, became apparent clearly, after the bombast of the Shostakovitch Concerto. It is a typical pleasure of the Sydney Chamber Orchestra choice and organisation of repertoire that such realisations occur, cumulatively. It makes one feel clever and deeply respected. Trust us says the orchestra, the program is more than any one part, it is, rather the sum of the whole.

In the second half, a short work by Shostakovitch, Two Pieces for String Octet, Op 11 (1924-25), was followed by a lush and enveloping romantic 'bath' in a realisation for string orchestra of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Op 70 (1890). The finale bang and speed of the piece lifted one to float from the hall into the real world outside. I think my feet were on the ground. I know my spirit was flying around and above me.

Thanks, greatness is awe inspiring. I recommend the Australian Chamber Orchestra as a guaranteed source of life enhancement. I have rarely been disappointed. Certainly not with this concert.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hollywood Ending

Arts Radar, Theatre503 and Griffin Independent present RAPID WRITE: HOLLYWOOD ENDING or, How A Washed up Director Made a Crappy Movie that Almost Destroyed the World by CJ Johnson at SBW Stables Theatre, Griffin, Kings Cross.

In HOLLYWOOD ENDING, Don (Terry Serio) is a filmmaker of pornography, a director at the 'lower' end of the Hollywood industry. He has ambitions, as all who work creatively do, to make a work that is 'great'. Amy (Briallen Clarke) is a film producer working with Randy (Blake Erickson), a writer. They have a project with a small budget that they wish to be made before the election date of the next President. It is a small window of time. Their ambitions may be for more than 'artistic' greatness. They decide to offer Don the responsibility. Don sees this as his chance. Don engages his daughter, Laura (Caroline Craig), to come on board as the first-assistant. Laura is skeptical of her father as a person, and becomes even more skeptical, and more alarmed as the project reveals itself, more apparently. Jerry (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a designer, a creative facilitator, who has often worked with Don.

Most of the play deals with the hazards of movie making, or especially, how a washed up director ended up making a crappy movie.  The play is an expose (satire?) where the compromise of money, time and the creative vision undermines the aspirations of the participators.  It is, on this level tightly written, sometimes amusing, but, a very familiar journey. A comic strip of character and action.

There is, however, a darker weave within this story. Gradually, we get to see that HOLLYWOOD ENDING might be a light veiling, revealing the making of a film resembling the recent YouTube sensation, INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS. A sensation of woeful art that caused, almost, a major international incident of incendiary proportions. Riots around the world, in the CBD of Sydney, even (16th September), protested the work.

These consequences and the possible motivation behind this film seem to me to be the really interesting subject matter of the play. Unfortunately, this play ends, when it makes this clear or clearer. The second last scene of the play between Don and his aggravated daughter, Laura, gets to the 'meat' of a possible play, that may have had some real social concern. Add the last scene of the play between Don and Amy and the diabolical underpinnings of the event of the play become appetising. The play ends where it really should have begun, I reckon.The interesting subject matter  became the tag of our night in the theatre, rather than the substance of the writing. The comic 'piss take' of the film making process, is not all that original or interesting. I came out asking: Who Cares? Who cares about the history of the making of any film, mediocre or otherwise? But, the debate arising from the characters Laura and Amy with Don, in those last scenes, I would like to get to terms with, to hear more of. Even, the psychological characterisation of Don and his dealing with temptation in mediocrity would be more arresting.

The idea of this project, RAPID WRITE, is an attempt to create a play from "page to stage in 8 weeks." CJ Johnson, the writer tells us: "Tim Roseman (Director of this production and the new Artistic Director of Playwriting Australia), who pioneered the RAPID WRITE program at his Theatre503 in London, says that it was borne out of the frustration that plays tended to take at least two years to hit the stage, by which time, if they were about topical issues, they had lost their urgency, their pungency. Plays borne out of RAPID WRITE hit the stage nine weeks after their inspiring incident, whatever they might be."

HOLLYWOOD ENDING, as it is, lacks, "urgency', lacks "pungency". So, is eight or nine weeks too long for this process, if you want topicality? It seems so, if this is typical of the writing that comes from this challenge. This play, inspired by INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS and the furore it caused, is, of course, long past its incendiary topicality (not, of course, in the bigger moral picture of concern). Too, the election of the American President is of no real vital topicality today - we know the result! Is it  a sign of the frenzied speed and appetites of the media crazy era we live in?

Now, on the Friday night I saw the play, maybe, my topical concern was:the bikie-'war' shootings in the suburbs of Sydney; the Australian Indigenous issues; the Climate Change Debate; the Sexual Abuse Scandals; Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church, local and international; the present demolishing of the dignity of the Federal Parliamentary system, and a respect for the democratic process, Abbott, Bishop V's Gillard; the Obeid family saga and State Government corruption.; Mr O'Farrell, Packer and a casino. These were topics of interest for me as HOLLYWOOD ENDING was told on Friday night. The INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS film, long past my immediate, topical concern, and the history of making a crappy film is much to familiar a story, no matter how lively the telling, to hold me in a spell of rapt bewitchment.

Though, lively, the telling is. It is a very tight production. The direction by Mr Roseman is impressive - the skills of keeping these short scenes moving, the spiffy set design by Rita Carmody and the Lighting by Hartley T A Kemp are arresting. The writing, within its field of play, is good too. It just lacks any real interest, for others, other than artists, perhaps!? Mr Roseman has also encouraged an acting bravura from this company, that keeps the piece from wearying us with its familiarity. The acting is exciting - however, throwing  up a very recognisable pattern, in my history of theatre going with new Australian plays, where, the actors, sometimes, have to do much more for the writer than the writer offers the actor. Mr Serio, a tireless backbone to the piece,  a desperate man facing  the fatal Faustian offer of eternal fame (life) or oblivion, supported wittily with a performance from Mr Erickson as a total creative 'dumb-ass', and Mr Llwellyn-Jones as a sanguine survivor in a familiar world of mediocrity and compromise. Ms Craig hits her mark in her last scene confronting her father, and Ms Clarke reveals, cumulatively, a malevolent force of some power - ice-blonde cool, neat and dangerous. Her last scene - Kapow!

HOLLYWOOD ENDING is well done but, ultimately, shallow. The parameters of the project may be too limiting!? The last scenes of this play triggered off memories of Stephen Sewell's MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA, only, in the sense, of course, of the darkening conspiracies intimated by CJ Johnson here. I would have liked to wander into that scape. Suggested,here, but, not delivered.

Fun, but..... so what?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Stories From The West Side

Riverside Theatres and Actors Centre Australia present STORIES FROM THE WEST SIDE in the Raffles Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.

Last year we saw STORIES FROM THE WAYSIDE at the Wayside Theatre space. It was presented by past graduates of the Actors Centre Australia (ACA) under the direction of Dean Carey. This year this interview/observation work - a kind of verbatim theatre - has been used as an exercise for  the second year course of study and developed from the pattern of the first Wayside stories experience to become STORIES OF THE WEST SIDE, also by Dean Carey. Sponsored, it seems, by the Riverside Theatre, it is the third exercise of the 'true west theatre' commissioning process of telling stories from the local areas.

The 20 strong canvas of monologue creations is arresting for its breadth of the human experience. We meet a wide spectrum of people who tell us of their lives, good and bad, within the frame work of some deliberate questions posed by the actors. It is a student exercise and the quality of life vibrance and depth of ownership varies hugely, although, all are absorbing revelations.

I particularly liked the character creations of Ryan Carter, Jeremy Ghali,  and especially the work of  Haley Sullivan, Ford Sarhan and Caeley Wesson. Ms Sullivan's subject, coincidently, is a personal acquaintance, of my own (B.), and there was some shock in the recognition in the re-creation, as it was magnificently accurate both in its externalisations - body, dialect and all - and in sophistication of the inner life philosophy and energy. Alternately, Mr Sarhan's creation is based on a deeply isolated life in crisis, in the lower depths of our civilisation. It is desperately frightening and a reason to grieve for some of our youth. The choice of character on the part of Mr Sarhan is amazing for its courage to explore it, and, his courage to engage and embrace it. It is humanly observed without judgement and delivered with objective accuracy and with a palpable beating heart of empathy. A chilling thrill. Ms Wesson, creates a beautifully observed and explored Somalian woman of indomitable spirit and optimistic energies.Her story is inspiring, the performance powerful.

These are indeed, STORIES FROM THE WEST SIDE. They could reflect any culture anywhere, too. Do go (although, the length is prescribed by it being a student acting exercise and everyone gets a go, fairly. A trifle repetitive and, hence, feels long - two and a half hours).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Greening of Grace

Wildie Creative Enterprises presents THE GREENING OF GRACE by William Zappa at Theatre 19 (formerly the Darlinghurst Theatre).

THE GREENING OF GRACE has William Zappa, one of Sydney's great actors, writing.(Not for the first time, WINTER'S DISCONTENT of course).  He joins a collective of other actors, who, this year have written for the theatre: Toby Schmitz (I WANT TO SLEEP WITH TOM STOPPARD) and Ian Meadows (BETWEEN TWO WAVES). All of them well. It is interesting to note that Mr Meadows and Mr Zappa have both tackled the calamitous and controversial contemporary social issue of Climate Change. Good to see the present big-world issues in conversation on our stages.

The play concerns, chiefly, Grace (Maggie Blinco). She is defined in the play by her revealed relationships: to her feisty anti-class, anti-wealth warrior husband, Derrick (Don Reid), recently deceased; her self pre-occupied daughter, Jane (Wendy Strehlow), struggling to find her 'identity' again after divorce, unruly progeny and a new wealthy, muscular-Christian husband, Phillip; to an emerging, endearing concerned eco-activist of the modern era, her grandson, Tim (Nigel Turner-Carroll), and an aggressive intruder/stranger who has violated her sensibilities to a make or break choice for survival.

Inspired by a real life heroine, Florence Holway, Mr Zappa has created a character who finds survival in the investment of her life energies into the embracing of attempting to redress the dangers approaching our planet. Replacing dogmas, religious or secular, with a commitment to the power of creation - whether it is God or Science.

The play in form, slips between the present and the past, from direct monologue to the audience, to conventional scene writing between characters, and dumb show - a particularly beautiful silent interlude concerning Grace and the intimation of the great loss of one's partner, is staggeringly moving for its eloquence - one longed for more of them. The production and the acting slips easily from one form to the other.

There is 'political' debate about many contemporary social and personal issues - all seeming relevant to me - but they are not always broached in subtle dramatic 'veilings', but, still, always with wit and compassionate humanity. There is still some evidence of the writer's naked need to express his urgent, exigent climate concerns. However, what is true of some of Mr Zappa's writing is also evident in that of Mr Meadows' as well in his recent work at the Griffin: BETWEEN TWO WAVES. Despite an overtness to the principal thematic in both these plays they are very,very, appealing. IN THE GREENING OF GRACE, the relationships are intense and real. Very, very untidy and not resolved - life-like. It is one of the strengths of the evening.

The other is the verisimilitude of the acting. Ms Strehlow, following on from her taut wife in I WANT TO SLEEP WITH TOM STOPPARD, gives another complex reading of an unhappy woman searching for an inner peace, painfully floundering but persistently searching, striking out at most and blinding herself to other stuff to cope. Mr Turner-Carroll, sympathetically creates a modern young man, a poet/scientist of a familiar ilk, growing up before our eyes, sorting out the personal relationships of family within 'bigger picture' eco-politics. Its simple directness is enhanced with a glowing and palpable heart beat. Seemingly effortless.Technically flawless.

But the particular joy for me was to see two of the more senior members of the acting profession in Sydney, Mr Reid and Ms Blinco creating from the source of Mr Zappa's writing, life forces of such technical richness, along with the obvious joy of creating, performing. Mr Reid has an irascible, old Aussie bloke of implacable Aussie social prejudices to create, and manages to bring a faceted prism of simple core humanity to an archetype. We have seen this kind of man before, often on stage, and certainly in life, but within the honed skills of this actor he is welcomed with, from me, a kind of relieved recognition - as if meeting one's long lost grand dad - I know "the old bastard" - I venture we all do!

Ms Blinco, gives, as the evening winds on, a very detailed and identified woman of kindness, fortitude and strength in her Grace. There seems to be a combusting nakedness of self-revelation from Ms Blinco and she brings it to bare with daring in her exploration of this remarkable character. When is it Mr Zappa's Grace? When is it Ms Blinco? It is a fascinating act of bravery that is going on. Uncanny to watch the in and out's of theatrical possession. And, what one shouldn't forget is that this is a mammoth role, demanding in its length, let alone in the emotional charting of its journey that would tax any actor of any age. Ms Blinco tells me this is the biggest role she has ever been given opportunity, in her long career, to share - and she is relishing it. It is an admirable thing to witness - this performance. Sure, it has nervous waverings, now and again, but Ms Blinco, quietly takes stock, settles again, and sweeps you up, out of any of your momentary disbeliefs, and the concerns of Grace become ours.Winningly deep.

This performance was not just the greening of the character Grace, but also a treasured observation of the graceful ageing of two of our senior artists, greening in front of our eyes with the vital sap of the need to continue to create. Mr Zappa has written this work and understands about writing for an actor. Mr Zappa has cast and directed this work and understands, caressingly, how to coax his actors into acting, that is not just "being" but "becoming', moment to moment. In a recent interview, Judi Dench denies any want to retire, and certainly her opportunity to act is great. For me, to see the work of Mr Reid and Ms Blinco, here, gave me similar aspirations for many of the actors 'waiting in the wings', who similarly do not want retirement but opportunity.

Apparently, in  English pop culture, it has been coined, that to be 'denched' is to be cool (James Bond 'M' cool). In Australian vernacular it might be, shall we coin, "blincoed"!? Or, has Jacki Weaver stolen the march, and to be cool in Australian terms, is to be "weavered"? Another, veteran of the Australian theatre, making a mark in the animal kingdom of the performing arts of late!

The design elements are relatively modest but are enough to give security of belief.

I have become a little rhapsodic about my night in the theatre with this play, but on the night I saw it there were, may be 12 of us, one dear asleep, and, not quietly - the actor's didn't hear, thank goodness - and I believe it deserves some appreciative attention. The Independent Theatre scene once again being daring and truly collaborative. On our night, magical and majestic. Get along and see for yourself. Expect simplicity and vitality and urgent social debate.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The School for Wives

Bell Shakespeare presents THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES - a Comedy by Moliere in The Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.

THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (1642) was written by Moliere for performance at the French Court of King Louis XIV (the Sun King) who was the patron of Moliere's company of actors. TARTUFFE (1664); THE MISANTHROPE (1666); and THE IMAGINARY INVALID (1673), were to follow, as the acknowledged masterpieces, amongst other works. Moliere is considered the author of some of the most popular comedies in all theatrical history. The major obstacle to the success of these plays in English is, usually, for me, the translation. For this production, the Bell Shakespeare have used a new version by Justin Fleming.

From the notes by Mr Fleming in the program:
We are lucky with the French - almost everything translates, and most of it directly. For the first stage of the process, I went to Moliere's original French verse, and did a literal translation, line by line. For the next stage, the challenge was to find the rhythm and the rhyme which sits comfortably with contemporary Australian English, while keeping the sense of the original.
I was lucky to see and hear Mr Fleming's version of TARTUFFE called THE HYPOCRITE, for the Melbourne Theatre Company, a few years ago, and have to say this translation/adaptation of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES is just as mirthfully successful. Outrageous Australian vernacular and daring comic rhythms and rhymes, keep one delightfully alert and surprised. Mr Fleming's work is the big star attraction of this production.

There are other 'stars', however, as well.

For, Lee Lewis, the Director, has also matched the translator's daring-do with a shift of the time zones for the play to Paris of the 1920's, and, with Designer, Marg Horwell, has created a visual style connected with the silent film era, inspired, perhaps, by last year's Academy Award Best Picture, THE ARTIST. Of course, it, 'wickedly', fits well the general trademark look of most of Ms Lewis' work - black and white (!) - although, there are wonderful 'splotches' of vivid colour in costumes, and selected visual images, projected onto the screens of the set, that are felicitously beautiful. This aesthetic of the design choices are enhanced with a very thoughtful and well prepared production - its conceits all serving the satiric comedy of Moliere, effortlessly.

The Moliere playing style is a very difficult thing to accomplish. The work of the playwright comes at the historical turning point/shift where the very physical (and mask) style of playing comedy, inherited from commedia dell 'arte tradition, was being shifted by Moliere, to a greater balance with textual satire. The style, thus, demanding both physical and vocal clarity. It is a fine and difficult task. Incorporating the physicalities of twenties silent movie physical traditions at one extreme - substituting, mostly, the 'commedia' traditions - and contemporary relaxations on the other, the Movement Director of this production, Penny Baron, has achieved an elegance and restraint of body to keep this production of the play moving forward with, mostly, unobfuscated direction. It is a delight. A musical score by Kelly Ryall, played live by Mark Jones (mostly,piano and percussion), and accompanying the action on the stage alertly, is a considered part of the victory of the production. It is sympathetic and clever to the action of the playing,and the speaking.The movement suits the words, the words suit the movement.

At the matinee performance I attended, Damien Richardson gave a wonderful performance as our ridiculous protagonist, Arnolde (usually played by John Adams). I had seen Mr Richardson in THE WATER CARRIERS at the Melbourne Theatre Company and had been impressed with his work, and, although he has the 'physical shambles' of a Walter Matthau 'type' and not the ideal 'lengthy elegance' for what I believe this role requires, he acquitted the task demands astonishingly well.

Meyne Wyatt as the hero/ingenue type, Horace, established, further, his promising ability as an actor of the first rank (THE BROTHERS SIZE; SILENT DISCO). The lanky physicalities and body alertness (eye brow action galore!) were equally, a gift for the audience to absorb, along with his intelligent textual dexterity. Add, the growing sense of presence, watchability, and what more could one want. It is a performance of cheek and charm and confident ease.

Harriet Dyer creating the unfortunate innocent, the 'victim' of Arnolde's ridiculousness, Agnes, is so true to the core 'characteristics' of the Moliere satire that with her slightly, crossed eyed appeals to the audience, she grows a performance that is delightfully amusing and empathetic. One sees the origins of Margery Pinchwife, THE COUNTRY WIFE, in Wycherley's Restoration play of 1675, here, in Ms Dyer's work, on Moliere's heroine.The ambiguity of her actions are tantalising in their offers. (Once or twice signalling a little vulgarity!)

With these three central performances, Ms Lewis has anchored her production very, very securely. The rest of the casting is just as assured, Andrew Johnston, Alexandra Aldrich and Jonathan Elsom. Anna McCrossin-Owen, the vocal coach, has developed a mode of playing that works well to deliver the text with the physical demand of the playing style and the production idiosyncrasies. A blessing from Bell Shakespeare after the recent experience of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, for instance.

This production is in the last week of a lengthy tour, and it still sparkled with a gentle comic ease, aesthetic elegance and witty intellectualisms, explored by Ms Lewis, in all areas of the art and crafts of the theatre, in a sophisticated contextual depth of insight for a contemporary Australian audience. Here, at last, is an Australian adaptation of a classic play that has the ring of an authentic Australian 'voice' for today in 2012. It has intelligence, wit and most importantly, respect, for the original writer and play.

I am not usually a Moliere fan. Clearly, however, I have become one. Perhaps, it is through the work of Justin Fleming and his vigorous translation and adaptations.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Trouble with Asian Men

Australian Festival Of South Asian Arts, PARRAMASALA, present Tamasha's THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN, created by Sudha Bhuchar, Kristine Landon-Smith and Louise Wallinger at Jubilee Hall, the Town Hall, Parramatta.
UK theatre company Tamasha bring their critically acclaimed smash hit THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN to Parramasala. Taken from verbatim interviews from UK men, this hilarious, insightful piece looks behind closed doors to reveal the real Asian male experience. Are they mummy's boys or macho men? Powerbrokers or metrosexuals? All will be revealed...
So, says the blurb in the Parramasala 2012 Festival Guide.

Beware. The title of this play is, in Australian terms, misleading, as a member of my audience pointed out in the preliminary to the performance hosted by one of the UK actors, Amit Sharma: Asian Men in Australia usually refers, vernacularly,that is, in the verbatim, to men from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malayasia, Japan, etc. not to men from India. Indian men, here, in Australia, are usually described as Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi men as from Pakistani, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Not regarded, verbatim as Asian men. At least that is my impression, having lived here, mostly, in Sydney, all my life.

This work was first performed in 2005. Its "critical acclaim" may have been, firstly because of its timeliness – seven years ago! (The Kumar's have been on TV since, even here in Australia, so most of what we learn, here, is both superseded and superfluous), and, secondly, because of its location of research (?!), the UK. Maybe, one needs to be from the UK of seven years ago to find the material "hilarious". Maybe, one needs to be really stupid to find any of this material "insightful". THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN is, it is a dated, banal and alien work, except, perhaps, to the local expat's who may catch it, and sentimentalise, and is hardly worth the effort to import all the way from the UK, for many of the rest of us.

Tamasha means 'commotion', creating a stir. If one cares to read the news item on artsHub Australia: Not As Asian As It Sounds, this production, from Tamasha, courtesy, supported, by the Arts Council England, might just be the cause of a bit of a further commotion.

Tamasha is an award-winning theatre company which has played a key role in driving the crossover of Asian culture into the British mainstream. The company was founded in 1989 by director Kristine Landon-smith and actor/playwright Sudha Bhuchar.
Successes like EAST IS EAST, STRICTLY DANDIA and THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN have won acclaim from audiences and critics alike. 
The company usually investigates personal stories of cultural difference and connection as rich and radical sources for theatre, nurturing today's unknown talent to become tomorrow's leading artists by delivering bespoke training and tangible professional opportunities with its Tamasha Training Artists (TDA) programme.

On a bare platform stage with three chairs, three actors, two UK guests: Amit Sharma and Niall Ray and a local Aussie-American John Shrimpton (this role will be played variously, by other local guests), sit on three 'found' chairs, dressed as themselves in, I supposed, their own 'verbatim' street clothes, no design attached, in a cursory lighting state. This is a No-Frills production. Except, for the sound tapes, I mean, NO FRILLS. It is a deliberate "not theatre experience" (except it is, of course!). The Jubilee Hall, the performance venue, has no air conditioning and is barely adapted for the needs of the audience. It took me back to the late seventies when most theatres did not have many comforts. Not a pleasant memory to experience. Summer is on its way- humidity, plus!

The 'gimmick' of this work is that the verbatim interviews have been recorded and in what is called Headphone-Verbatim (Playback-Verbatim), developed by British Director, Mark Wing Davey, in which the actors, with head sets on their ears, speak the lines with the recorded voices, with all the pauses, inflexions etc. in tact. (Sound Design, Mike Furness). It is a form that we in Sydney are very familiar with. Urban Theatre Project and Roslyn Oades, for example, has developed many works using this process for some time now: FAST CARS & TRACTOR ENGINES (2005), STORIES OF LOVE AND HATE (2008), I'M YOUR MAN (2012) ). John Shrimpton who has worked with the Urban Theatre Project is quite accomplished with the demands of the presentation, and quite the most impressive of the three actors: comfortable with himself and the material and the audience that is hearing it -as banal as the material may be. The other two actors, though no less skilful, appear to be sorting out a response to the work from an Australian audience, that is not quite, perhaps, what they are used to in the UK - not quite as hilarious as they may be used too?!.

What we do discover here in this set of verbatim interviews is essentially, that South Asian Men are really mummy's boys and they have an arrogance that some may think is macho, others, just emotional retardation/immaturity. If you need other insights or sources of hilarity into this culture, this is not the show for you. After the visit by DV8 with their show CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS, last year, also from the UK, also using Verbatim techniques, THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN may appear to be neither "rich" nor in the least way "radical" - a more middle-class, bourgeois evening you could not find. Unlike the DV8 experience, this audience scattered home with no reason at all to  gather and talk about any of the "hilarious" and "insightful" text, "rich" or "radical" Tamasha theatre production techniques! in the foyer.

There are 35 characters in this work. 12 of them are women. That the cast is made up of three men, with no woman on stage, may be as telling a piece of 'radical' theatre in 2012 as I could argue, from this experience. No way in Australia today, I would imagine, I hope, would anyone dare to present this casting. Ms Landon-Smith, who is of Australian origin, has been away from this country too long it seems- completely out of touch with the Australian performing arts culture and its practice. Did any of the organisers of this Festival see this work, or, as it is in print, I have a copy, read it, before inviting it to this Festival? Rather, I suggest, give the money budgeted for this presentation, transport (return air fares to UK for at least three I imagine!), accommodation and all, and commission a local company to develop an Australian/South Asian contemporary, more relevant work. That this "critically acclaimed" production in the UK can get away with this casting and material, in 2012, tells you something about the culture over there, perhaps? Of the management culture of Parramasala? There is, as THE AUSTRALIAN reported yesterday, (November, 8th) in their Arts pages, "new content from research conducted in Western Sydney", included in this performance. This additional research has been procured by Drew Fairley, and that it is only three interviews, and from a limited resource of friends of the company does seem to me, to overstate the claim in the newspaper: "...research conducted in Western Sydney"! Research?!!! "Spin, baby, spin". It is palpable rubbish. A fob to the organisers and supporters of the importation of this production? MMMM?

Kristine Landon-Smith, the director of this work is also holding workshops for you to "discover all there is to know about 'verbatim theatre'". If you can't make it, just check out, Urban Theatre Projects or talk to the award winning Australian playwright, Alana Valentine, who has specialised in this work for a very long time. They might be able to also tell you all that there is discover about, 'verbatim theatre' in an up-to-date Australian cultural context.

THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN is a shocker, and a bit of an embarrassment to be seen as part of a very important cultural development and head -lined in the more advantageous time, 7.30pm. On the other hand, you might want to catch Ansuya Nathan in her show that follows in the same uncomfortable venue, Jubilee Hall at 9.00 pm: LONG LIVE THE KING.

Long Live The King

Australian Festival of South Asian Arts, PARRAMASALA, presents LONG LIVE THE KING written and performed by Ansuya Nathan, at Jubilee Hall, the Town Hall, Parramatta.

LONG LIVE THE KING is a solo performance piece written and performed by Australian actress Ansuya Nathan. It tells the story of Ms Nathan's parents and their emigration to Adelaide from India to begin a new life. It concerns the pre-birth and birth of a baby girl and the parallel fascination with the mother's, Meena's, obsession with The King, Elvis Presley, and his music - what a nirvana it did provide!!!
August 16, 1977 - a momentous day. The King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley, dies and a young Indian couple touches down in Australia, Adelaide ... these two seemingly unrelated events are brought together in a funny, poignant and powerful tale of motherhood, music and migration...
The writing in this work is easy (if, occasionally a little over-written) and fluid. It demands that the actor shift from one character to another swiftly, of both sexes, of many ages and of different race. Ms Nathan achieves this with aplomb and great charm and skill. The differences of characterisation is sometimes merely by a gesture of body and/or voice intonation. Other times, it is a costume and wig change, on stage, and does involve impersonation of the King himself. There is humour, pathos and wisdom and a little music in the work and its execution.

On the same basic stage that THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN, is performed on, under the direction of Guy Materson, with a myriad of light and sound cues, Ms Nathan, transforms the space and takes us vitally to all the worlds and people that she conjures up to tell her tale. LONG LIVE THE KING is an affecting tale because it is so personal, and must, does reflect, some of the complications of being a stranger in a new land. An ideal find for this South Asian Festival in Parramatta. As is Ms Nathan, with her abundance of skills, intelligence and theatrical charm.

Here, the organisers have got it right. An authentic Australian talent of South Asian heritage talking for and to her cultures. It is a most satisfying hour. Even the humid venue disappeared. Time stood still. Although, the extra effort for the performer, in this relatively hostile venue, must be part of the cost of the effort.

LONG LIVE THE KING, worth the 9 o'clock start. Wait. Go and be charmed.


Fiona Boidi and Kate McBride in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre present FALLOUT by Maree Freeman at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo.

FALLOUT. This is a new play by Maree Freeman. Last year we saw Ms Freeman's PICTURES OF BRIGHT LIGHTS at the Bondi Pavilion (May, 2011). 

I didn't comprehend much of this play in this production.

The publicity card tells us:
In a sealed off room, strewn with broken toys and dress up clothes, the final frontier to freedom must be conquered. Alpha (Gabriel Fancourt), Bravo (Lizzie Schebesta), Charlie (Amanda McGregor) and Delta (Michele Durman) are four teenagers trapped within this world. With no intervention, they must create their own rules as they try to learn what pleases them who watch them.
 From the writer's notes in the Program:

As children we possess such a natural sensitivity that is so highly attuned to the world and people around us. We can feel everything and sometimes emotions are so strong that they feel like they sit physically in our bodies. With 'Fallout' I'm interested in the idea that as we grow up we seem to learn how to compartmentalize these feelings; we learn how to disengage and distance ourselves from the violence and human suffering that we are confronted with. Is this a natural reaction to stress? A coping or survival mechanism? An inherited norm? Or a choice that each individual makes to feel that they belong? 
'Fallout' is a play that speculates around this moment of individual choice for four young people as they are asked to abandon childish notions of empathy to find, in the world of the play, something more acceptable, sustainable and adult. It is an examination of the personal struggle inherent in this choice and the corruption of innocence that follows…

Kip Williams the Director of FALLOUT, worked intensely with Ms Freeman in the development of the work.

From the Director's notes in the program:
In 'Fallout' Maree employs her unique imagination in capturing that liminal moment where a child teeters on the edge of adulthood. In doing so, she does away with our contemporary compartmentalised thinking on this transition as being one of the stages of childhood, tweendom, teendom and young adulthood. Instead, she locates something more essential, presenting childhood and adulthood as two separate universes, and showing the shift between them as a single moment of initiation or loss of innocence.
 For the four characters in the play, their quest for freedom echoes our own desire for acceptance in an adult world. The transition they seek comes with inevitable changes, and it is the nature of these changes that Fallout is most fascinated with. At its heart, Fallout burrows towards an understanding of what happens to a child's empathy as it shifts from a place of unquestioned sensitivity to one of emotional restraint.
The lengths the characters in Fallout will go to in order to earn their release are brutal and ultimately deeply heartbreaking. This is not a piece that pulls any punches. It talks to ideas about how we cope with the suffering in the world around us in order to survive.
When we entered the Old Fitzroy theatre we saw a beautiful architectural design (Adrienn Lord). The floor of the space has been slightly raised and the surface covered with a generous depth of black soil and front edged with a white border. Some sturdy, white column/blocks with indented tops to allow the soil to appear further, stand on one side, intruding into the space, to be used, not only as places to conceal the characters, but as stairs to the upper 'mezzanine' roof, where there is an old abandoned couch, a refuge for the 'children' of the play. Around the space are some toys/dolls smudged and grimed with the dirt. The white back wall of the stage space can glow in the atmospheric lighting of Nicholas Rayment. Visually the costumes (Adrienn Lord) of the children are dirty, except for the new arrival, Delta, who appears in a clean white dress. This dress is besmirched and degraded progressively during the action of the play. This design has, to my mind, the positive aesthetics of an Art Installation in a gallery, which has included live performers. Is the text necessary for this installation? Does this installation elucidate the play and the above aspirations of the writer and the director?

I noted that Mr Williams with another designer, Emma Kingsbury, had last year in one of the NIDA theatres come to a startling, similar solution to the presentation for The Sydney Chamber Opera of I HAVE HAD ENOUGH. A dirt covered stage with performers in white clothing that gradually became filthy during the actions of the play (- no chocolate cake, here, though). Clearly, Mr Williams saw a direct correlation to the thematics and action of the two works and felt that this visual installation conception was useful for FALLOUT as well as, generally, the other work. Unfortunately, for me, the design choices in FALLOUT were as obfuscating to story clarity as that similar design was for I HAVE HAD ENOUGH… (I also noted this 'fussy' visual tendency in Mr Williams' work for the Sydney Theatre Company this year with UNDER MILK WOOD). I was attempting to make sense of this design within the action of the play. It did not seem to compliment the play.I became lost. It did not seem to make a 'whole'. It was a distraction.

My experiences of the writing of Ms Freeman's plays PICTURES OF BRIGHT LIGHTS and FALLOUT are, to be taken into a very poetical but abstracted, lateral expression. It requires, of me, an intense concentration, as the style of the work is extremely idiosyncratic - not often met in the Sydney Theatre experience. I need, not only to pay attention whilst there, but also seem to require a 'debrief', of a sort, after. I need time after, (not a bad thing), to grapple with the material. I kept thinking of the many puzzles of the theatre work of Caryl Churchill, particularly the later work e.g. FAR AWAY (2000) and A NUMBER (2002) (I understand that Ms Churchill's latest, LOVE AND INFORMATION is similarly challenging), whilst watching this work. It is linguistically and stylistically challenging. Because of this 'challenge' I suspect the acting style needs to be careful, and, focused on the objective, word by word disentangling. It needs a kind of inviting attentiveness. It needs to place an audience into an objectively curious place. Listen and you will learn.

In this production, by Mr Williams, there seemed to be an encouragement of the playing to heightened emotional states, to be lived and expressed by the performers, in a kind of frenzied hysteria (- it was from the get-go!) It resulted in acting that was very shouted and disengaging in communication. It muddied, alarmingly, my ability to hear the text. It pushed me away from the material. I could read that these characters were in a stressful world where, being 'alive' or 'dead' was at stake, clearly. What I couldn't discern, because, either the writing is too opaque or the acting too subjectively emotional, or, both, was why. Why? Why are these people behaving like this? What are they saying? What is happening? I was not able to listen and learn. I, rather, had to defend myself from the emotional battering and withdraw - sadly, a lot.

Mr Fancourt, as Alpha, was the one actor that I was able, relatively, to center myself with, to hear and begin to comprehend. Ms Schebesta, and McGregor were whirlwinds of emotional content, sometimes pink with effortful expression, with little textual clarity. An impenetrable patina of emotional extremes, vocally and physically, prevented any deeper understanding. Ms Durman, arriving a little later in the play, attempted to ground the work, but, faced with the 'acting offers' of the other two women, was soon swept up into the 'hurricane' temperament of the acting 'style' - the dirtier her dress became, the less control, Ms Durman had, and, consequently, the less interesting the character became.

One wonders if this alienation effect, this hyper-noisy acting was what Mr Williams was seeking. To offend us. If it was it was at the expense of Ms Freeman's play. This welter of incomprehensible noise and emotion, underlined, later in the play, with a gesture to the theatre of cruelty of yesteryear, with a gruesome moment of the visual and, particularly, aural, crunching of the fingers/bones of one character by another were truly moments of squirming in one's seat. One was aware that one was in a theatre. Here, the sound design by Nate Edmondson, including this finger crunch, was outstanding, in its moment to moment attention (2012, a busy, prolific, year for Mr Edmondson),

In the quoted program notes above there is an academic clarity of the intentions of the writer from both these collaborators, Ms Freeman and Mr Williams and, whether they were too close to the material, or not, the physical embodiment of those intentions on the Old Fitzroy stage, on the night I saw it, were not at all apprehensible. The design aesthetics, the control of the acting (or, the encouragement of the 'style'), the 'affects' of production by Mr Williams, seem to come from an exploration of theatre history notions and seem to be imposed on the material, instead of organically evolving from the material. I would be interested to see another production of the play that is written, to be able to judge this suspicion more accurately. To hear the play that Ms Freeman has written.

When waiting to enter the Old Fitz theatre, by myself, a group of strangers/friends, each with glasses of beer and/or spirits, wines, gathered behind me and warned me that they had heard the play was a bit on the heavy side, and that I should get some fortification. As I was leaving, they said, "We warned you." I don't think the fortification would have made it easier.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Australia Day

Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and Allens present AUSTRALIA DAY by Jonathan Biggins In the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

AUSTRALIA DAY by Jonathan Biggins is an amusing, 'comic-strip' sketch scenario, a "softly' satirical comment on contemporary Aussie social and political mores that we, the audience, recognise as part of our daily lives, involving some classic, characteristic, Aussie types, whom we, also, recognise.

Transfer your knowledge of the commedia dell'arte or the Moliere character 'types' to the Aussie milieu. The highly prejudiced but heart of gold irascible hard nut: Wally (Peter Kowitz); the smooth, handsome political operator with a smarmy hint of 'corruption' around his wholesomeness: Brian (Geoff Morrell); the do-gooder moraliser that has not, when push comes to shove, the spine of their own principles: Helen (Alison Whyte); the dim witted but 'salt of the earth' practical person who always muddles through: Marie (Valerie Bader); the token 'I can take whatever you throw at me' outsider and still have a determinate fate about survival: Chester (Kaeng Chan); and the non-protesting 'work horse' who endures all because he is a good bloke of simple honesty, and, trusts that that will keep him from harm, in good stead: Robert (David James).

All these characters are a comfort of easy recognition for us, and Mr Biggins has added some small clich├ęs of back story to flesh them out beyond the 'revue' types that he usually gives us (the famous "Wharf Revues"). On the afternoon I saw the show, the mostly, elderly audience, enjoyed themselves immensely, although some about me were critical that the show was just a little too politely incorrect. They wanted it tougher.

The very real sets of the school staff room and the inside of the central Australia Day tent by Richard Roberts were fun. Technically, Lighting Design (Niklas Pajanti) and Sound Design (David Franzke) were clear in their support of the enterprise. Richard Cottrell has directed the performances seamlessly with a great eye for detail and discipline. It is clockwork perfect with just the right gentleness of overstatement, necessary for this kind of work.

AUSTRALIA DAY, then, a harmless charming time in the theatre. Without the expertise of Mr Cottrell around this play, what a shambles it could have been. It's flimsiness is deceptively hidden with Mr Cottrell's skills and his direction of the actors, all good, particularly Mr James (although, there seemed from Mr Morrell, sometimes a lack of concentration and complete commitment, at my performance, that caused much actors' mirth on the stage, to my elderly audience's bewilderment).

Richard Cottrell in his program note says that "Jonathan (Biggins) is asking us to look at ourselves and think about what we see." He then goes on to quote from Ben Jonson in his prologue to EVERYMAN IN HIS HUMOUR:
But deeds and language such as men do use
And persons such as Comedy would choose
When she would show an image of the times
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
The Cottrell/Biggins partnership at the Sydney Theatre Company began with TRAVESTIES, by Tom Stoppard, and one longs to see that level of task challenge again. Still, Mr Cottrell has stooped and conquered as AUSTRALIA DAY works on many pleasant levels, not the least of which was, I laughed out loud, quite a few times.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A View From Moving Windows

true west theatre presents A VIEW FROM MOVING WINDOWS at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta

In September 2010, I saw on one afternoon, several offerings from some young Australian writers, entitled STORIES FROM THE 428, curated by Augusta Supple. Writers sat on the 428 bus route and wrote short sketches/plays, reflecting an experience of that Circular Quay to Marrickville/Canterbury ride. Actors were found, and Directors rounded up and produced at the Sidetrack theatre.

A VIEW FROM MOVING WINDOWS, began for the writers as a train journey from Central Station to Parramatta. Similarly, as in the 428 enterprise, they were commissioned by Augusta Supple, in this case, to write some work of no more than 7 minutes in length. Actors were found, but in a more sophisticated choice, Augusta Supple has directed all of this work herself, and had a relatively experienced technical team to support her, including: Set Designer, Sian James-Holland - excellent; Lighting Designer, Marissa Dale-Johnson- sophisticated; Composer, Jeremy Silver and choreographer, Cloe Fournier. In this case the writers varied in experience from new to tried and well known: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Jessica Bellamy, John AD Fraser, Noelle Janaczewska, Nick Parsons, Teik-Kim Pok, Emrys Quin and Alison Rooke. The venue was up at the Riverside Theatres as part of their true west, New Writing project for 2012.

The increase of ambition and the upward trajectory of the artistic inputs to this project paid off wonderfully. Augusta Supple, a tireless and inspired, nay, passionate creator and supporter of New Australian writing has solicited some more consistently good writing from within a very difficult parameter of stricture - 7 minutes or less. It is a very short time. What can a writer put on the page that will lift onto the stage? Character, plot,theme; monologue, duologue, sketch, poem,prose, lyric and song? A play? Just what form to tackle it in? And then, how to turn it over to other people, actors, and others in the artistic team, to perform and shape it within their gifts and intellectual insights and spirit for life and the world!

Complicated, challenging and harder than what Ms Supple makes it look. All power to Ms Supple then for finding and then 'herding' all these talents together and encouraging an audience to participate in the reflection of their lives and witnessing an expressive permanent token of their evolving, emerging Australian cultures.

I enjoyed the work of Nick Parsons, THE CARRIAGE; interested in the work by Vanessa Bates, THIS TRAIN- MONKEYS and THIS TRAIN (especially as I had seen her play PORN.CAKEat the Griffin in June), although I would have liked a 'blue' pen to edit some of it - even in her short time allotment, Ms Bates can go on a bit....; and, particularly curious at what Teik-Kim Pok might do with a larger brief, some time, as I found his short large cast work, HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, THE UNRESTRICTED EDITION, in form, fairly adventurous. Mind, I know Mr Pok from his performance work for many Performance Space projects, where experimental form is part and parcel of the event, more often than less.

That all the actors are professionals, young and otherwise, earning their stripes and maintaining their skills with this work (done, no doubt without payment), and with such commitment to the writer and to Ms Supple is a credit to them all. I checked my program and took note especially of Alex Bryant-Smith, Helen O'Leary, Craig Meneaud, IIdiko Susany, Damian Sommerland and Peter Maple.

One wonders if any of the guardians from the 'pointy-end' of our performing art companies, say, The Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir, spent 90 minutes out at Parramatta to look over this grass roots exercise? I would like to think they would have done, between staging a Private Lives(1930) and preparing a new version of a Strindberg, written in 1888 or dwelling on THE MAIDS (1947), as an Australian story for Sydney audiences in 2013. I wonder if there is an authentic Australian Coward or Strindberg or Genet here in this battery of talent that Ms Supple has/is nurturing for the future? Those of us who saw this project, as modest as it may be, could venture an opinion at least.

It is intersting to see that Ms Supple had spotted and/or encouraged with performance opportunity, the Assistant Director of Belvoir's 1930 play, PRIVATE LIVES, Kit Brookman. His play in the 428 series, BETHLEHEM, was of some note.

A VIEW FROM MOVING WINDOWS completes its performances on Saturday.

For full biographies and information about the artists on this project, please head to: