Thursday, March 29, 2012


Christ Church St Laurence present the Lenten Concert 2012: MESSIAH by G.F. Handel at Christ Church St Laurence, Railway Square, Sydney.

I once sang in a choir, Handel's ACIS AND GALATEA. I loved it. My family household was not very 'art' conscious at all, but along with L.P. recordings of Mario Lanza (my dad's favorite) we did have highlights from Handel's MESSIAH featuring Joan Sutherland. I recently bought for myself a DVD recording of the MESSIAH featuring Cantillation and Teddy Tahu Rhodes from ABC Classics (2002). I had heard a very stimulating discussion on the Handel work on ABC Radio National during their Summer Season and thought it was time I had the music close at hand. Besides, I love the baroque 'noise'-music very much, as well.

At the same time that I became aware of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE being performed at the Genesian Theatre, scanning the What's On in the  Sydney Morning Herald, I saw that the MESSIAH was to be given at Christ Church St Laurence. A chance to hear it live and in an intimate and ' holy' space. Sunday afternoon at 3pm.

It was moving for me to be seated on two different occasions in two churches in the one weekend. I was brought  up a Catholic and although I am now R.C. (retired catholic), once a Catholic always a Catholic, they say! The Genesian Theatre building dates from 1868 as a Catholic Church, St John the Evangelist, and it has served many functions in its time until 1954 when it became the home of The Genesian Theatre Company which was formed in 1944. The remnants of the church architecture dominates the theatre experience. On the other hand Christ Church St Laurence, part of the Church of England, founded in 1845 is still a functioning  church. I had never been in the building before but was aware of the fame of the Church's choir. The interior of the church is suitably cool and historic in its furnishings. A sense of genteel austerity mixed with ritual celebration. This being a Lenten Concert, the holy images are swathed in purple cloth, awaiting the Easter season and its major celebrations. The Messiah oratorio examines the death and resurrection of the Christ and the text provides a biblical commentary on the significance of Jesus as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.

The Choir of Christ Church St Laurence and The St Laurence Baroque Orchestra presented MESSIAH by G.F. Handel. Amy Corkey(Soprano), Anna Dowsley (alto), Christopher Saunders (tenor), Craig Everingham (bass) under musical director Neil McEwan.

The performance was reverent and steady paced with all the pauses unrushed. I revelled in the sound and the intimacy of the performance even if I did wish that the tempo overall was a little more urgent. The work kind of languished in the respectful approach and seemed to lack the vigour of the urgency of the content. On a few occasions, when the  urgency was taken up e.g. the bass air, "Why do the nations so furiously rage...." it pinpointed my restless with the too leveled tempo telling.

In that place, the Christ Church of St Laurence, with this music, it was a pleasant means to meditate, in the autumnal light through the stained glass windows, on one's own life and the impending sense of mortality, that I feel coming, a little too fast. Is there an after life? This work urges one to desire it was so. Richly so.

Whatever my contemporary logic urges, once a Catholic always a Catholic. I still bless myself when passing a church, just in case God is watching!!!

The Merchant of Venice

Genesian Theatre presents THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare at the Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent St, Sydney.

In the 'dark' week of production at Belvoir, as the Downstairs Theatre is not utilised for outside productions, and so nothing was on in their spaces, and the Sydney Theatre Company had not any 'mainstream' performances in any of their usual venues for three weeks, (the major subsidised company in Sydney not showing work for three weeks - how can that BE?), and as I had seen the Darlinghurst and Griffin shows, when looking at the guide of What's On in the newspaper I came across THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. I had heard that the young director Constantine Costi had recently given a play by Moliere a decent burl - hard to do, I reckon - I thought I would go and look see and catch this work - it meant that I wouldn't have to read the play this year, I could see it. Besides, other than in drama schools, I have never seen this play staged.

"THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is a troubling play. At the end, you may not know whether you've seen a tragedy or a comedy, a love story or a tale of hate. In its infinite ambiguity, it is quintessential Shakespeare. No sooner have you reached one conclusion about the play than it's immediately contradicted in the next scene -or line." [1]

Bassanio (Stephen Lloyd Coombs) borrows three thousand ducats from Shylock (Geoff Sirmai), a Hebrew usurer, and offers Antonio (Andrew Fraser), a Christian merchant as bond. Antonio agrees that if he can't meet the payment, Shylock is entitled to cut a pound of flesh from his side. Later, when Antonio can't pay him back, Shylock demands his due. By the letter of the law, however, if Shylock is to have his pound of flesh he must not have one drop of blood or he will forfeit all. Not possible. Antonio is not cut and Shylock is further punished by the authorities of the Duke of Venice, by the seizing of all his property and seeking his execution unless he converts to Christianity, this seen, in Elizabethan times, as an act of mercy to the otherwise damned Jew, Shylock.

The Jew in Elizabethan times, is the abhorred 'other', the villain (as is the Moor in Othello) and was played with all the exaggerations of a stage-devil's hallmarks of make-up and costume. The Christians seen as the models of lives well lived. Since the Holocaust Shylock has been more often portrayed as "more sinned against than sinned" and the Christian merchants and their society as spoiled, venal and callow. The play is not pro-Jewish, as some would have it, but it's not pro-Christian either. It will all depend on how the director chooses to look at it.

Chronologically, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is written after, LOVE LABOUR'S LOST, ROMEO AND JULIET and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. And although ROMEO AND JULIET is a tragedy it is a romantic one. For what is interesting, given the above breakdown of the more famous part of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, is that it is in the reality of the experience of the play simply a sub-plot to the romantic comedy of the lovers plots: that of Arragon, Morocco, Bassanio and Portia and Lorenzo and Jessica that dominates the principal action. Although the part that Jessica, Shylock's daughter, plays in that romantic comedy connects to the tragedy of her father terribly.

Certainly in this production by Mr Costi it is the "glitzy technicoloured and delirious city" of a 1960's Venice that we are thrown into. Hawaiian shirts and trendy fashions of that period are deliciously created (Costume Designer, Alice Joel) set in a striped back, naked stage of the theatre with some busy light bulb signage spelling out the city's name in a soft focused and warm coloured lighting design (Michael Schell) accompanied by jazzy music and compositions (not credited) and updating of some of the action of the material (the choice of the marriage boxes as a game show). It is a colour version, perhaps of the Fellini LA DOLCE VITA Italy, or, considering the FRUG choreography of this company's parties, a little bit the Italian nightclub from SWEET CHARITY (it, being a parody of the Fellini, if you remember).

The world of this production is at the business end of town, merchants of commerce, whilst gambling on the commodity market, gambolling in the good life of youthful, carefree hedonism, full tilt. The Christian leaders caught up in their romantic pursuits become, in the need to sustain the wealth to live their life style (especially the venal Bassanio who uses both the wealth of his best friend Antonio (unto his pound of flesh) to acquire the wealth [love] of the heiress, Portia) becoming progressively uglier in the actions that they pursue against Shylock. As Shylock is stripped of his dues, at the loss of his daughter, he becomes more strident, more " fundamentalist" in his arguments for revenge, as do the Christians become ruthless "fundamentalists' in their treatment of the Jew. Both using religion as a tool, a disguise for money pursuit. "Is the genteel Gentile any different from that shyster Shylock? The Christian likes money as much as the Jew; he just doesn't care to earn it, preferring instead to borrow or marry it."

The company of actors are comely, enthusiastic and thankfully, uniformly intelligent. Easy to watch and listen too (bar the occasional shouting). Mr Costi has inspired and guided these young performers into a cogent and clear delivery of the Shakespearean text. True, if I wanted to be tougher, the company, including, some of the clunky staging in the larger group scenes by the director, make errors of judgement but they are 'juvenile ' mistakes. There are clear signs of a clever director's eye for detail and shaping of tempo in the production brio.

Geoff Sirmai as Shylock gives a focused and organised reading and is a worthy balance to the others, his adversaries. Stephen Lloyd Coombs, Ray Mainsbridge, Brendan Cain(Lorenzo) and Harriet Gordon Anderson (Jessica) do well. Andrew Fraser in the notoriously difficult role of the Merchant of Venice (Antonio) is playing at something but does not quite make his idea or purpose clear- it falls between a self indulgence and an original take on the part. The vocal hesitations and textual breakup is cumulatively tedious and ultimately frustrating.

This was a pleasure to attend and was an engaging interaction with the text. This theatre was full. I had to wait to see if a ticket was available. I understand the whole season has been a blockbuster. This was not a school audience either, rather, a good cross section of ages.

Mr Costi may be someone to keep an eye on. Perhaps it runs in the family for on the night I saw it, his brother, the Assistant Director, Michael Costi, at short notice, covered for an indisposed member of the cast and gave a very lively, charming and clear performance. In fact charm, intelligence and joy are what this cast exuded for us.

Shakespeare well served.

  1. The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein - Penguin Books 1993.
  2. The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold C. Goddard - The University of Chicago 1951.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest Dragons, and other classic tales, as told by an Octopus

Tin Shed Theatre Company and Deep Sea Astronauts in association with Tamarama Rocks Surfers Theatre Company presents THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

I delayed attending this production directed by Scarlet McGlynn of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf, as Jason Blake in his Sydney Morning Herald review, early March, had suggested that time may improve the experience. I wanted to see it because the title was whimsically attractive to me and Augusta Supple (see her blog) had some regard for Ms Wolf's work, having some sense of her development through a playwriting prism, firstly, OFF THE SHELF, and later, BRAND SPANKING NEW - two development organisations for new writers of the recent past. Since then this work has also had help from a residency at Queen St Studios and at Explicit Manor. "This is the first performance of the entire piece - whipped together in a few months under the guidance of director/producer Scarlet McGlynn."

Three short plays: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DRAGONS, HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS and DANTE'S GLAM ROCK INFERNO make up the evening. Each have their origin of inspiration from classic texts. Octopus (Paul Armstrong) sits resplendently dressed in smoking jacket and cravat in his red velvet armchair holding his pipe, flicking through books that surround him. He chats to us and acts as narrator, as a way of introducing this omnibus of stories. You know the ones. Firstly, says Octopus, "from that old poof" Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; then, from "another old poof", Euripides' HIPPOLYTUS; and lastly from Dante's LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. I guess he is not a poof but a breeder (Mr Wilde, of course was also married and had two children - a homosexual then, or, a bi-sexual?). There is in the writing conceit an honouring of a tradition, of pop culture history, to things like The Monty Python team, especially the wild imaginative and separate meanderings of Terry Gilliam, Fractured Fairy Tales in the cartoon programs of my youth and even to the Pirates of the Caribbean in the imagining of Octopus. Fun and comforting. What Octopus tells us is, however, is that these stories are going to be more than stories but also moral fables about the efficacy of love in different forms.

The first has Algernon (Richard Cox), now a Dragon, devouring the corpse of his hoped to be mother-in-law, Lady Bracknell, whilst talking to that poor lady's nephew, Jack/Earnest (Charlie Falkner) about wooing. Most of the comedy in this early work is scored by that "old poof " Wilde's work - lots of quotation from the original - in this case more than politely nodding to the original author. Ms Wolf except for the absurd situated world and character excesses she has conjured for us, full of intriguing possibilities, offers not many palpable verbal hits of her own.

HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS, is written in hip hop rhythmic poetic code, sometimes accompanied by music (Music Director & Composer, Tim Hill). In Ms Wolf's appropriation of the Euripides, Aphrodite (Kara Boland), the Goddess of love seems to be encouraging a same sex relationship between herself and Atremis (Victoria Griener) the Goddess of the Hunt, who has an unrequited yearning for the chastity vowed Hippolytus (Tim Crewe), both Goddesses wreaking death wounds and havoc on Phaedra (Sarah Hodgetts) and Theseus (Andy Leonard) of the original, in their flirtatious struggles. I wrote "seems" because the technical frailties of some of the actors skills, failed microphone equipment and too loud music from the band hampered verbal clarity. I was often left to guess the events unfolding. The text, that I could hear, had rhythmic skill and some wit.

The final work, DANTE'S GLAM ROCK INFERNO has Virgil (Andy Leonard), as a transvestite, guiding Dante, the poet to Inferno. It is indeed glam rock and owes most of its inspiration to The Rocky Horror Show - Hedwig traditions - song, dance and innuendo. Unfortunately, the music buries the writing text/lyrics. The spoken wit is here carried primarily by Mr Leonard and Crewe who have some technique to their voice work and a practiced sense of timing. What the moral lessons about love that Octopus promised us are, I was not able to deduce from this performance. My curiosity about the potential Ms Wolf's future work is aroused but not much more as this production of her work does not put it at the center of the experience. Visuals jokes, pictures, images more important than the words or their stylistic organisation for comic communication. Ms Wolf from what I could discern has wit and a keen sense of parody, but beyond the comic sketch as a homage to other people's work, not very arresting. There is also a tendency to cheap vulgarisms to cover as comedy when all else is failing - the poofter jokes getting the biggest laughs on the night I attended - and oddly, a leaning to a misogynistic fate for her female characters. All the women in Earnest Dragons are killed and eaten (why one would kill off Lady Bracknell, who Wilde describes as "a Gorgon without being a myth" and the cause of most of the brilliant epigrams, I can't begin to guess). The Goddesses in HIP HOP are fairly uncompromisingly 'ugly' with each other - with the swiveled smooth action hips of Ms Boland being the principal source of humour (she was virtually inaudible). And apart from the transvestite/transgender role played by Mr Leonard, there are no women in the last piece except as servants or chorines that may have come from an American seedy burlesque house, exploited sex objects (I was curious that the company had decided the dialogue was to be spoken in American approximations).

Ms Wolf says in the program, "I started Deep Sea Astronauts to get my friends into festivals for free and bring talented people out of shells into hanging out, to spark the sparks of making. I make work with the idea that anything we do has to be brilliant fun, giving talented people a place to create, collaborate and drink beer. It has worked out pretty well so far." Indeed, they are playing in a pub theatre, but is it free?

The imagined world is tantalising. The Design led by Dylan James Tonkin and assisted by Gemma O'nions and Allegra Holmes is especially atmospheric with the imagery of a dull black and white flocked wallpaper, painted to cover all the walls and floor and works to expand the space of the Old Fitz, with the band of six musicians spread across the upper terrace. The costumes are remarkably witty and detailed and the organising of the quick changes ingenious. The head piece for Octopus is fun as most of the dressings are. Well done. The Lighting Design by Christopher Page is mostly useful as atmospheric "event" states with not much focused details to assist the clarity of the text. Often the actors/singers are in black holes and only faintly visible, the principal characters positioned on the penumbra of the states instead of in it. Considering that Mr Page was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for best lighting design for The Dark Room last year, one is not sure why the lighting of this production is so inappropriate. I'm inclined to attribute this to the inexperience of the actors and/or director rather than Mr Page. Ms McGlynn, the director, has managed to get the design elements and a cast and musicians together (remarkably 16 performers in this small theatre space) but does not really seem to be able to guide a fairly inexperienced company of actors to a sense of language usage to achieve the best from the written word e.g. rhythmic tempo to make the work consistently cogent and funny.

The first play suffers enormously with a sense of mis-timing and the comedy struggles under the holes in the action and re-action, one of the keys to comic technique. Mr Crew and Mr Leonard, with more experience, solve relatively, the interactions of the third play and come out of this production best. The singers are often not featured at all in the lighting design and part of the failure for us to follow/hear what is going on is the gloom that they are in, so we cannot see or 'read' the text of the lyrics - and then add the constant failure of equipment to capture and balance / monitor the sound, and some reason for lack of clarity of the text reveals itself. Ms McGlynn also directed BOXING DAY for the Old Fitz last year and still has the same weaknesses in her work.

Mr Blake had intimated in his review that the work is fairly suggestive of a university breakout, and given that I took his advice and waited to give it time to settle and saw it in the last week of its run, I would suggest nothing much has developed and I take on the same view as his, whatever Ms Supple hopes. How this work was thought to be ready for exposure in one of the few performing spaces available in Sydney is a very provocative question. I don't believe anybody much was served by the airing of this work at this stage of its development. It seemed to be a premature exposure in a theatre house that is of much more sophisticated fare and production.

P.S. The performance was scheduled to begin at 8pm. We were admitted into the venue at 8.07pm and it did not commence until 8.21pm. We were given no explanation. The doors closed after a member of the audience arrived from the bar upstairs with their red wine and beer and nestled into her front bench seat which her friend had kept. I presume that is why we were held up !!!

I made mention of this at the performance of THE HORSES MOUTH which I attended at the Old Fitz last year. Nothing has changed. The actual starting time was almost identical Just what is the starting time at the Old Fitz? 8pm or 8.21pm?

Boring and rude, I reckon.

Friday, March 23, 2012

2 One Another

Sydney Dance Company presents 2 ONE ANOTHER at the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay.

2 ONE ANOTHER is a new work, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela, for the Sydney Dance Company.

This work has all the hallmarks of Mr Bonachela's first major work for this company, 360 Degrees, which was presented in the massive space at Carriageworks. The major difference is the visual scale. 2 ONE ANOTHER is pitched in a more intimate, human scale. The subject explored is that of relationships. The exploration is that of the solo, duo, trio, quartet and so on to the ensemble.

In the Sydney Theatre this new work has been confined/defined by the black masking - width, depth and height. A proscenium width pixilated screen covers the backing space, and although impressive does not dominate or distract from the action of the dance. It has constant imagery and variance of colour and is an alluring invitation to immerse oneself in the work. Tony Assness, is the Production & Costume Designer and also the Creative Director of the Screen Content which was Designed and Produced by Iloura. It is a powerful ingredient to the work (Mr Assness talks specifically about his costume design in the program and I felt it worked least best with the shapeless red, second set - the costume hid the contours of the bodies and often draped in distracting rouche curtain like plunges of material in action). The Lighting Design by Benjamin Cisterne is sympathetically dynamic and frames, focuses the work of the dancers work beautifully. The Music score manipulated by Nick Wales from a diverse extant repertoire, "from new classical music to Renaissance and Baroque landscapes, rich soundscapes and driving electronica" that includes Murcof, Peteris Vasks, original composition by Mr Wales himself, propels the work forward. The score for this production a relief from the work of the usual composer favoured by Mr Bonachela. 2 ONE ANOTHER has all the dazzling tools of popular hi-tech stage event and some contemporary dance company styles.

Mr Bonachela tells us:
I am always fascinated by the interactions between people and as I spend time in the studio with the dancers I can't help but see them as a microcosm of broader human interactions. ... During the creative development phase of 2 ONE ANOTHER I invited poet and writer Samuel Webster into the studio and asked him to write instinctively and with immediacy in response to what he was observing. …From that text, exercises were set as a basis for tasks and explorations for the dancers.
The outcome of the dance/text process is absorbed into the whole and apparent only in an abstracted manner through the inclusion of some of the phrases into the score - (not much of it survives or is clear. There are quotations of Mr Webster's inspiration throughout the FREE program we were given!!).

The dance begins in an exquisite ensemble moment. All the supporting elements of screen, lighting, costume and sound reveal the 16 dancers in a standing configuration in the space. The lighting is low and the movements begin slowly to the understated sounds of the Murcof: "Oort". The company move as one, sway, and begin a gestural exploration resolving itself progressively into full body movement. The design elements are fluid and add to the complexity of the experience. As an audience it had, for me, a transcendent beauty and the adrenalin rush of watching began to pulse. The work proceeded into configurations of the dancers in range of solo, duet, trio etc. The work is close and the explorations are sculptural, grounded.

The work never got more effective then that opening.

I find the Bonachela dance aesthetic one that rarely lifts the dancers into the space. Literally walking flat footed and de-energised to positions from the wings to positions on the floor before launching into a physical dance dynamic. Similarly stopping mid stage and then devolving to a walked exit. This applied energy contrasts seem to disconnect me to the impact of the flow of the piece that in contrast, had a brilliant and relatively engaging, evolving image, light and sound through line . I see the choreography as a series of separate images. There is no energy through line from the dancers- no passing of the baton of revelation and continuity. I feel that I am watching 16 independent dancers, I never feel that they are a spiritual ensemble. Each had their self on show and not deeply subservient to the spirit of the work or presenting a Dance Company - ensemble.

I felt that some dancers gave 100%. Some less. A work is as strong as the weakest link. There were too many half committed gestures for me (even a loss of concentration and a fall). That a dancer like Chen Wen was so dynamic and technically brilliant through the whole of the demands of his choreography always lifted the work of Mr Bonachela into clarity. Mr Wen's work and technical brilliance was the bench mark of excitement for me. One sought him out in the group work. The contrast around him was sometimes starkly significant. Not all the dancers revealed, on the night I attended, a consistent sense of the whole or the driving creative energies of an ensemble. It was still a work in parts. I was not moved by this work. I did not care for anyone or was engaged with any intention of the work.

Hey, I know not enough about dance to be an expert. But I do know that when I saw the Nederlands Dans Theatre 1 in Melbourne last year that I was watching a great company in great choreography. I was so moved that I went twice, on two heart stopping, consecutive nights. I know that The Australian Dance Theatre from Adelaide has never been less than compelling. Twyla Tharp, even on Broadway with a commercial work like COME FLY WITH ME - amazing, dazzling. And although in a different realm of Dance, the visit by The Paris Opera Ballet a few years ago, unforgettable. Now there was an ensemble.

Of many of the reviews of 2 ONE ANOTHER that I have read two reviews, one by Jill Sykes in the Sydney Morning Herald and the other by Deborah Jones in The Australian are contrasting in their response. Both are experts in this performing art expression. I would have to stand behind Ms Jone's response as the one closest to mine. Check them out.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Table of Knowledge

The Table of Knowledge 2011 from version 1.0 on Vimeo.

A version 1.0 and Merrigong Company co-production presented by Carriageworks THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE.

THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE by version 1.0 is the latest production from this company. It works, on its usual terms, very, very well.

It deals with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation in February 2008, into the business of development at Wollongong Council. This work has been co-produced by a Wollongong theatre company: Merrigong and premiered at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong in September of 2011. The season was extended down there and played to enthusiastic audiences. The citizens of Wollongong watching the mirror of their society, their elected custodians, reflected to them in a theatre. In fact one of the principal interrogated figures attended opening night and thought the show was great. He was standing, unbelievably, for council election, once again, in the following weeks (he was not re-elected).

Amazing! Or is it? The sado-masochism of reality television, of public humiliation, has held the majority of our culture in thrall for many years now. This is simply an extension of that, but, in a live, shared, communal environment, is it not? An opportunity to watch what we already know but in an organised, edited theatre package that jocularly tells us of the way of the world, again - a world that we don't really believe concerns us. In the theatre it is amusing and safely distanced from the realities of our own lives. Is it worrying that The Table of Knowledge was not really as interesting or directly concerning as the Table of Fat Cheeses, Fig and Honey provided for us afterwards in the foyer? I devoured the cheeses at that table with an alacrity that I did not experience, necessarily, at the other one, in the theatre.

"version 1.0 is an ensemble of artists who make devised performances that are both political and intensely personal, based on strong research, and that engage with significant political and social issues using innovative theatrical strategies."

This is a verbatim documentary theatre experience that is generally accessible and entertaining. The form of THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE is much the same as most of the other work shown by the company in time past. e.g.  amongst others: THE DISAPPEARANCES PROJECT (2011); THE WAGES OF SPIN (2005-06); and CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident)  (2004). If you are a regular attendee there are no innovative surprises of "contemporary performance and media spectacle" here, just the usual variation of the same well honed practices.

On entering the theatre, one engages with a set of primary coloured screens, which during the process of the journey of the story-telling chiefly become different entwined video documentation images of  car park and passing road traffic and architectural sketch drawings of possible building plan/developments and an aerial view of the beach environs of Wollongong. They are on a kind of repetitive loop - general background rather than of integral importance (video Artist, Sean Bacon). The floor surface has a large geometric primary coloured  demarcation shape on which a table and several chairs sit, spattered with a drop showering of vivid lego building blocks that the acting company can construct to represent building developments. Live camera action is broadcast, now and again, and pre-staged interviewing is juxtaposed to the contemporary practice of dramatic-image making e.g. actors on upturned table and chairs with just their lower torso showing - illustrative effects to underline, enforce (or distract) us from the textual information. The acting styles employed by the performers cross over from documentary-voice like reporting, varying from slightly satiric, slightly whimsical (butter would not melt in my mouth tones), impersonated variations of various cliched character types, to occasional Stanislavskian motivated interactions. The costumes, too, are calculated for theatrical inpact, from sexy tight to corporate or working class kitsch. The presentational form here is not innovative since at least 2004 and has become a little too predictable and boring for us loyalists..

What is unique to each of the projects, however, is the subject matter. In THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE, the researched devolution of the verbatim records of the ICAC investigation in 2008 about corruption in Wollongong have been, as before, in the other projects, edited down to  give us that "accessible and entertaining" time.

We are given a contextual joke to begin the proceedings that this corruption was only possible in a place like Wollongong, only to be painfully reminded that this is just one more of many such cases in the state of N.S.W.: Port Macquarie, Tweed Heads, Strathfield, Leichardt and, my own council, Randwick are several of many mentioned. I remember two State Government interventions into the running of my council because of development scandals, corruption. The fact that building development of unpleasant proportions, extending beyond the limitations of Council declarations, and their stated policy of greening the community, are about to happen next door to me, despite our joint neighbourly protest, makes this production even more pertinent for me. The documentary RATS IN THE RANKS, the ABC television series GRASS ROOTS and even MURIEL'S WEDDING and Bill Hunter's Mayor Heslop shows us how entrenched this behaviour is in the good old Aussie culture, and how much it is accepted as a way of our world. A source of amusement and disaffecting concern.

I guess the choice of this particular scandal in Wollongong, rather than in any of the above cases, has much to do with the central figure in this "Peyton Place"-like scenario, because it happens to be a woman who had the capacity, even with husband and children in tow, to play the on-heat- filly with her sexual favours to the stallions of the story, for advantage, only to be revealed as a  dupe with the perfectly diabolical public humiliation under the spotlight of the witness stand at the investigation. The news media served the details up in lurid  lumps for the hungry general public and there is a kind of re-iteration of the voyeurism, here, that could be reflected as a kind of Greek  tragedy (Medea, Phaedra, Clytemnestra), that only the focused  exposure of the female sex can bring, that is especially tantalising and appetising. We as an audience found it highly amusing, as evident by the whoops of laughter given, as her part in the ridiculous story unfolded.

This does distract from the other central figures here, the straight out criminal greed male merchants, but even more importantly, in our period of culture of Corporate Power and Government Institutions, that seem to be able to do what they want (Bangaroo, where are you?) with the distinct belief that they are doing what they are doing because, in their view, it is the right and best thing to do for the community. No matter the ethical betrayals and fudges that have gone on to do it and the voices that have tried to bring it to public scrutiny. The Mr Oxley character, here, has centre and elevated stage position most of the night, and has the final say in the piece and still stands proud and seemingly blithely aware only of  his innocence and the positive credit of his utopian practices. The corporate verbal spins are awe inspiring. The audience are fondly amused by his behaviour and don't quite have the need to condemn such a hapless Aussie duffer. And, sadly, of course the verbatim information on the consequences to the Mr Oxley is not fully revealed. The march of folly continues, and the prosecution for crimes seem to be slow in being prepared.

It is interesting and important that this project has been tackled, as all the work of version1.0 has been. But, collectively, one can ask of the creations of this company, to what point? The authorities can declare this as a funded example of the liberty of the right for the citizen to speak and show it as an expression of our democracy at work but what exactly does this work achieve, other than a good night out, I wonder? Is saying it enough? I don't know. On the night I attended I was surrounded by an assortment of corporate C.E.O.'s displaying their wealth in shoes and jewellery and impeccable good manners (it was opening night!), and one would hope it might give pause to some of them, but really, what one saw was the continued classic demonstration of the not me, "not-by-my-hands" behaviour, of our clinically certifiable sociopathic leaders, who, meanwhile, indulge us, the powerless underlings to enjoy the bread and circus, to eat our cake (cheese and fig and honey) having enjoyed a kind of cathartic release in the public humiliation of others, so distant from our real lives - the Wollongong Council.

The performers: Angela Bauer, Arky Michael, Yana Taylor, Kym Bercoe and David Williams are exemplary in the docu-drama mode of playing asked of them, but one wishes for a less polite formula of presentation. It does need to be a little more in your face for a revolution to come, I reckon. It is courageous to mention it but not very brave in execution. The version 1.0 project THIS KIND OF RUCKUS (2009-2010), seemed to be stretching this company's creative muscles in an exciting new direction, but there has been a retreat from that offer. The present work has the air of worthiness with a touch of righteousness about it. One has to remember the Nigel Jamieson HONOUR BOUND or LLoyd Newson's DV8 shows TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU or CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS  to channel the outrage that this subject matter should give us - a verbatim of such outrage, combined with an innovative and contemporary theatre practice and media spectacle of some real affective frisson. At the moment version 1.0 seem to be, in form, in a slough of self-content. No boundaries extended, just more of the successful formula. Interesting work, but, essentially, unmoving drollery. Really, The Daily Telegraph tabloid coverage, at the time, was more stirring - it at least had a firmly declared attitude to the facts and story and brayed it  without politeness. Like it or not.

If you don't know this company's work THE TABLE OF KNOWLEDGE is a must see.

If you know version 1.0 from old, only if you have the loyalty, for the experience will be much the same as last time, just a different subject matter, tepidly dealt with.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Paris Letter

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents THE PARIS LETTER by Jon Robin Baitz.

THE PARIS LETTER, an American play written in 2004 by Jon Robin Baitz, is essentially about two men who meet, fatefully, in the 1960's. As young men they meet in the artistic thrall of a bohemian New York lifestyle. They have a sexually-charged, four month long affair. Both, are intensely stirred.

One, Anton, subsequently, moves successfully through a relatively happy life of self acceptance, working in the lower ends of artistic endeavour, culminating in a restaurant of exquisite reputation but carrying a torch for the unrequited love affair of his youth. A torch that leads to diabolical murder - I guess there is truth in the warning, "Beware the woman (man) scorned", especially if it is scorn carried over almost the length of a long life time.

The other, Sandy, guilt struck and dominated by the mores of the period and demands of his father's business, backs away from this sexual inclination, seeks therapy, marries, has a son and becomes relatively rich. He is, however, not released from his longings and after many infatuations and intermittent affairs, finally, disastrously, in late middle age, falls in love with a young man called Burt. Burt is young and reckless and fouls Sandy's business reputation, who in a moment of anger, urges his young lover to kill himself. He does so. Sandy flees his dead lover's disasters, business collapse, his wife, his child and his long time friend, Anton. He flees New york and travels all the way to a seedy part of Paris. He languishes, still. He sends a letter from Paris home. It has a fateful confession that cannot be ignored. Tragedy stalks the events of the  end of the play with all the certainty of a poorly committed Henry James novel scenario.

Like the famous opening scene in Christopher Hampton's THE PHILANTHROPIST, this play begins with a big bang. In this production, by Stephen Colyer, this revolver bang is underplayed and happens bloodless and noiselessly except for some mounting classical music score.  The Fifties Hollywood film director, Douglas Sirk would have loved it. Enacted in flashback and narrative conversation directly to us by unrequited Anton (Peter Cousens), the play reveals itself as a verbally overstuffed sofa, the kind of sofa that  one might find in the upper eschelons of the over-privileged, over designed homes of the comfortably rich of New York. You have seen them in lots and lots of episodes of the original Law and Order television series (or reference the film version of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION !!!). Verbally it is erudite, if fake in its writing details, crammed full of witty cultural references galore. Unfortunately the play wears those references with unrelenting superficiality and a yearning, leaning, for grotesque melodramatics. For whatever else is said and happens in the schematics of the writing of this play, it is hard to accept the bathetic plotting of the last act of this play which involves, melodramatic clashes with male lover, distraught wife, cancer,  mysterious disappearance, final confessions of devoted loves, death and murder. Murder by Quaaludes ground into expensive whiskey! Oh, really...... you want me to swallow as well? Death from Quaalude poisoning may have been easier.

In looking at other reviews of this work on the Google engine, it seems the play escaped too harsh a judgement. Whether this is out of respect to Mr Baitz, a writer of some record (I recently read his new play OTHER DESERT CITIES and liked it. A lot.) or to the notorious acceptance of GAY plays on the American legit stage without too much rigour (see NEXT FALL blog) or to the quality of the acting in the New York production I can't really tell. For the acting would have to be truly dazzling for one not to note the awful writing.

In the production at the Darlinghurst Theatre this is not the case. Writing of this kind cannot bear the weight of pretence and sentimentality that Peter Cousens and Nicholas Papademetriou bring to their characterisations as Anton and Sandy. 

Mr Cousens as the gay-happy Anton is so saccharine prissy in the role, that I suspected this was an audition for an up coming production of a suburban musical theatre effort of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and kept glancing about for the producers. Beginning with the huge double flowered corsage sprouting from the jacket of his costume to the totally inappropriate luggage that Anton takes to Paris, considering his professional background (Flair magazine for God's sake), almost every choice displayed by this actor is an embarrassment of an aberration of the gay man conception. It flits and flirts with a cliched impression of a certain  gay stereotype with hardly a truthful moment of identification or revelation (that he is, also,  a psychopath/murderer is, indeed, a surprise for Mr Cousens, even as he reveals it, I suspect, as it was, certainly, for us - no clue what so ever had prepared us for this melodramatic twist.)

Mr Papademetriou as Sandy is simply out of his depth in attempting to present any complexity to the dilemmas of his man, beyond a stutter and occasional flubbing of dialogue. His emotional life simply demonstrated on the surface without real disturbance or truthful revelation. The only cost to this actor would have been his dire effort to sustain what he does not believe for so long - it would be exhausting. Without the moving performance of Caleb Alloway as the youthful Sandy there would have been no empathy at all for the character or any reason to sustain concentration.

As a duo, it is, then, extremely painful to watch these actors waltzing around the perimeters of the truth of these characters in their conversations during the course of the play and certainly almost unbearable to sit through, in the last emotional declarations of the final scene in Paris. Each actor attempted to outdo each other in pathetic bathos. No-one won. Least of all the audience. The bar was so low.

Susie Lindeman as Katie the wife of Sandy and mother of the young Sandy is hopelessly, vocally underpowered and except for costume changes is the same woman in action. No other attempt at characterisation.Or is that her intention? There is no doubt that Ms Lindeman has an intellectual grasp of the roles and their function but does not display in any of her scenes the technical ability to express them beyond generalized yadda yadda! Damien Sommerland as Young Anton and Burt gives a fair stab at both but fails to make edited choices to have us acting with him. Mr Sommerland simply asks us to admire his work as an actor in a play.

The only actor to make a constant impression at veracity and truthful commitment is Caleb Alloway, particularly in the early scenes with Mr Sommerland's young Anton. That Mr Alloway survives to  create his work, with all that is about him, marks this young actor as, maybe, something special.

Now, there is a quandary here, for Mr Colyer, as director demonstrates, as he has done before (NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY and KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN), instinctive skill and elegance. He has solved the difficulties of the scene changes and moves his actors creditably about the stage. The design solution with Michael Hankin is modest but plausible for the action of the play, even though I felt the whole thing was very under lit (Lighting, Verity Hampson) and the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson, over done and over wrought. Too much, too forward, too notable. His management of his actors especially the more experienced , Mr Cousens, Papademetriou and Ms Lindeman seems to have bought the work unstuck. Who was leading who?

I had a very difficult night in the theatre and was considerably distressed. But better this than last year's Mardi Gras choice of play at the Darlinghurst: JANE AUSTEN'S GUIDE TO PORNOGRAPHY and GORGEOUS BASTARDS. Just.

ACO Tour Two: The Hilliard Ensemble

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present Tour Two: The Hilliard Ensemble at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra in the chimerical secular cathedral of the Concert Hall presented The Hilliard Ensemble in an astute and educative curation of music.

The religious origins of some of the repertoire of the internationally esteemed guests, Sheryngham's "Ah, Gentle Jesu" (Ca. 1500) were highlighted alongside especially commissioned work by Hilliard from a Russian composer, Alexander Raskatov, "Obikhod" (2002 -2003), referencing the traditional liturgical chant books of the Russian Orthodox Church for string orchestra and voices (with a struck bell effect) finishing, without a break, a soulfully beautiful rendition of another commissioned work, sung Capella, from the Estonian, Arvo Part, "Most Holy Mother of God" (2003).

The former consists of five parts and is performed in the old Slovenian language. It is a kind of 'chamber requiem' of 24 minutes duration, taken from texts of the Orthodox requiem mass. The Arvo Part is of great transfixing beauty. In the program notes Alex Ross, an American music critic, says Part  "... has put his finger on something that is almost impossible to put into words - something to do with the power of music to obliterate the rigidities of space and time. One after the other, his chords silence the noise of the self, binding the mind to an eternal present." Based on this performance, true.

In the second half of the program the Gregorian chant and French Medieval settings of "Veni, Creator Spiritus" were interleaved with the Ross Edwards 1993 composition of the same title. Mr Edwards was present and the work was gentle and mesmeric in its religious utterings. The juxtaposition of the Hilliard Ensemble singing the verses of the chant and the two simple movements of the newer work were a great success.

To open the concert Elgar's "Serenade for strings in E minor, Op.20" (1892) gently prepared us for the 'holiness' of the music that was to follow. The concert concluded with "Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, OP. 35a" (1894) by Anton Arensky, a Russian composer rarely heard. The work was in response to the suicide of Tchaikovsky and had a gently but deeply affecting aura of meditation.

This carefully curated concert,highlighting the gifts of the Hilliard Ensemble, was a return to musical pleasures that one can treasure , especially. The ACO back to form after the disappointment of the First Tour of the Company this year. Great and secure, again in anticipation.

The New Electric Ballroom

Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent present the Sydney Premiere of THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM by Enda Walsh at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

The Irish gift of the 'gab' is once more on display in Enda Walsh's THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM at the Griffin Independent Theatre and Siren Theatre Co's Sydney premiere presentation of this play.

Words, words, words. None of these characters are shy with language. Talk, talk and more talk. It is even remarked upon by the characters in the play!!!

In an Irish tradition that harks back to Oscar Wilde, the inimitable Mr George Bernard Shaw (recently, PYGMALION), Synge, O'Casey and of late, Brian Friel, Edna O'Brien (HAUNTED), Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh - at least - these magic storytellers fleet back for us as a memory-bank backup as THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM  flickers into life for us at the Stables Theatre.

Three sisters living in the isolation of a fishing village on the bleak and dashing coast of West Ireland, buffeted by the winds and oceans of the Atlantic recall their sad memories about the mating game that was exemplified for them in the nearby, nearly mythic New Electric Ballroom. Breda (Odile Le Clezio) and Clara (Genevieve Mooy) recollect for their younger sister Ada (Jane Phegan) their preparations, adventures  and disappointments with cake, biscuits and a promise of tea in an attempt to create a successful wooing hope for her with  their regular visitor,the fisherman, Patsy (Justin Smith).

A fairytale story as grim as the Grimm Brother's have spun, or Hans Christian Andersen delivered, as object lessons to life's possibilities, is what Mr Walsh weaves for us, today. Rooted in a backdrop of harsh environmental, black and white photographic reality - the rough seas seen through the open doorway -  it shifts easily into the black walled cave of  these women's world with the gently surreal activity of dressing and making up in the costume of a ballroom, and the sexual destinies imagined and hoped for there, that ultimately elevates, with the recognition of the inevitability of the sadness of the fated destiny of these women, into a kind of metaphysical magic - of powers, beyond our control, that are contrived, (by who or what ?), to test us. Us, through the stories of Breda, Clara and Ada and Patsy.

I began the experience of this play feeling resistant - "…oh, another Irish blarney gab fest" - but through the skill of the writer and the deftly wrought and devoted performances of the actors, and the subtle support of the artistic team: Set design, Tom Bannerman; Lighting Design, Verity Hampson; Composer/Sound Design, Daryl Wallis, under the sensitive and disciplined direction of Kate Gaul, one is seduced into the music of  the text and the wealth of the imagery and the  human anguish for the disappointed souls that Mr Walsh clearly aches for, and loves.

It is a pleasure to see Ms Le Clezio and Mooy working with such rich and extensive gifts and opportunities as this text offers them (as it was in seeing Helen Buday on the stage in BABYTEETH at Belvoir). Their theatrical experience shines through in their connectedness and craftsmanship. Ms Phegan, out of the realm of the devised verbatim world of Version 1.0 (e,g, THIS KIND OF RUCKUS), that one is accustomed to see her in, brings an understated freshness to the tribulations of Ada, the youngest of the sisters. But the most affecting performance is given by Justin Smith, an actor of a disarming presence, accompanied by a delicacy of choice in action with an envious armament of verbal skills, highlighted by a deeply moving and amusing rendition of song. His Patsy is a gentle gem of the art of acting, worth catching.

It is indeed rewarding to see Ms Gaul with a text that she clearly loves, working with a small and select team of actors, that she does not need to teach, reach such persuasive allures. Siren Theatre Co under the proselyting ideals of Ms Gaul has of late, AS YOU LIKE IT for example , worked with a large company of actors to tell her stories. Those companies have not always been as evenly talented or experienced and the work  was thus, sometimes compromised in the desired result. Here, there is no weakness and the integrity and skill of the vision of Ms Gaul shines through.

THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM is worth catching.

This Irish tradition of  playwrighting that, though rooted in realities, can lift into the metaphysical world for contemplation, hardly finds its way onto our stages through the Australian heritage or contemporary practice. Peter Kenna in his imperfect plays,  THE SLAUGHTER OF SAINT TERESA'S DAY and A HARD GOD maybe, is the last of that Australian tradition, of storytelling blarney. Though, come to think of it, Dorothy Hewett has the blarney and metaphysics in spades: from the flawed but experimentally interesting  early play THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME to the masterpiece of THE MAN FROM MUCKINUPIN (I also love THE FIELDS OF HEAVEN).  Jessica Bellamy and her very interesting SPROUTS intimates that possibility. Eloise Hearst (DIRTYLAND) and Maree Freeman (PICTURES OF BRIGHT LIGHTS ) as well. Let us see what happens to their writing. In the mean time the Irish lead the way. Remember TERMINUS by Mark O'Rowe from the Abbey Co last year at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House? Ah, well.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

On The Twentieth Century

NEGLECTED MUSICALS presents ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Music by Cy Coleman at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

"NEGLECTED MUSICALS is a theatre initiative dedicated to presenting musical theatre that's never (or rarely) been seen in Australia. NEGLECTED MUSICALS presents a reading of a chosen show with scripts in hand and with the musical numbers sung through after only a few rehearsals. Neglected musicals are not for profit where the participants are volunteers." - Michelle Guthrie

For Michelle Guthrie, the producer of this company, NEGELECTED MUSICALS is a passion project catapulted and sustained by her love of the Musical Theatre.

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is the sixth presentation by this company and such is its gathering reputation that Ms Guthrie can attract the skills of Director Stuart Maunder, who, under his aegis and influence, has attracted a group of 12 actors who pull off this complex work with a sterling exhibition of professional elan. John Diedrich tackled the flamboyant and outrageous leading role of Oscar Jaffe with enormous confidence and a madly passionate demonstration of finesse. His characterisation enormously pleasing. The singing terrific. Similarly, Katrina Retallick, tackles a fiendishly virtuosic demand as Lily Garland. The music skills of this role are startling and Ms Retallick gives them great feeling and power and reveals a lovely ability to create character in a style of musical that could encourage theatrical bluster, but in her hands, in this rehearsed reading, a poignancy and camp sparkle, both at the same time. All of the company were robust, engaged, witty and present. A daring theatre energy of do-or-die. I especially enjoyed the reliability and musical theatre cleverness of the contributions of Blake Erickson and Jay James-Moody. The stand out performance, however, must go to Luke Byrne, who, as the musical director, played his 'electric' piano tirelessly with great panache and energy, leading and supporting the performing artists with technical nous and great empathy.

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY has a special place in my theatre going history. It was the first professional theatre that I ever saw outside of Australia. I saw the road tour company of this Broadway production in San Francisco with Judy Kaye as Lily, Imogene Coca as Letitia Primrose and, believe it or not, Rock Hudson as Oscar. I remember being surprised by his performance, and amazed. I am not certain if Kevin Kline was still giving his Tony Award winning performance as Bruce Granit - but he may have, for I remember its rendition as one of great physical extravagance that was more about the naughty actor than the function of the character. (It was outrageously camp!, preposterously fun).

This show, an operetta really, with Music by Cy Coleman using the motif of the moving train as the propulsive energy of most of the score, with a Book and Lyrics by two of the wittiest and wickedest writers in this genre, Betty Comden and Adolph Green - mind you they had great material to begin with, as it is an adaptation of an original play by smart and wry Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur from an earlier play by Bruce Millholland. It was, also, a famous contribution to the Hollywood 'screwball comedy' tradition as a film TWENTIETH CENTURY by Howard Hawks, starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard (1934).

The original ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY production had an extravagant scenic design by Robin Wagner and stunning costumes by Florence Klotz. The set design encompassed a train engine, a caboose, and a set of open carriages to carry the action. Why this wonderful musical has never been seen in Australia professionally probably has to do with the expensive demands of the design realisation (I do remember that the Bankstown Musical Society presented this work, years and years ago!!!). This was a Hal Prince production and its "to the hilt" extravagance was part of the panache and glamour of his work at this time. Maybe it was the apex of this period of his career? And although the show had a relatively short run - what with the loss of Madeline Kahn, only two months into its original run, probably affecting the box office - it is simply one of my favourite shows. Great it was to see it and hear it live, again. Thanks.

It is mooted that ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY may have legs next year in New York with Hugh Jackman and Kristin Chenoweth. Worth catching, maybe. This version by NEGLECTED MUSICALS had all of the energy and sense of its style, wit and cleverness which is at the core of this marvellous example of a certain period of Broadway Musical history. Add all the extras and one may have a truly great show. Opera Australia, Mr Maunder? Queensland Opera?