Saturday, August 18, 2012

Face to Face

Sydney Theatre Company Presents FACE TO FACE. A Film by Ingmar Bergman, adapted for the stage by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone at the Sydney Theatre.

Program notes:
From The Artistic Directors
The idea for FACE TO FACE was brought to us last year by Simon Stone. He is a massive fan of Ingmar Bergman and this is probably the only Bergman film that he hasn't seen. In fact, none of us have seen it to this day. This is a deliberate decision because of course Ingmar Bergman was bound to have done a terrific job and it would be impossible not to be influenced by his version of events.
Simon is a very exciting director who has a wonderful sense of theatre that is at once totally believable and strangely abstracted, fluid and musical. These seemed to us, when reading the screenplay, the perfect qualities to bring to the adaptation and theatricalisation of this story. He was very keen to cast Kerry Fox as Jenny so we sent her the screenplay and, thankfully, she immediately saw past its particular cinematic form to the potential play at its heart.
Had film never been invented, Ingmar Bergman would have been a great Scandinavian dramatist of equal significance to Ibsen and Strindberg. Because screenplays only get made once they do not enjoy the scrutiny of many directors, many productions, many audiences, and so their reinventability is overshadowed by their cinematic imprisonment. It is therefore wonderful to create a theatrical text that may one day get used again, reinvented and reinvestigated out of this simple but powerful dramatic proposition.
We hope you enjoy the show.
 Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett.

I didn't.
My companion didn't.
Not many people I spoke to after, in the foyer, did either.

I went because it was to be inspired by a Bergman script. I went, as the above program note suggested, to see  a stage adaptation of an artist as luminous in his writing as fellow Scandinavians, Strindberg and Ibsen. I went because Kerry Fox, on film, is an interesting actor. I was curious to see her live.

From THE AUSTRALIAN, Thursday, July 26, 2012, an interview with Simon Stone and Andrew Upton, by Matthew Westwood:

 ... As a playwright, Upton has written original dramas, but much of his work seen at STC and elsewhere have been adaptations, such as his versions of HEDDA GABLER and UNCLE VANYA. (checkout my post on THE DUCHESS OF MALFI - final paragraphs - to see the list of some of Mr Stone's adaptations).
That makes Upton and Stone a formidable pair of theatre-tinkerers, given Stone has a liberal attitude to the text. He is not some dogmatist for whom the playwright's written word is sacrosanct; theatre lives on the stage, not the page.
"When it comes to theatre, I don't think theatre texts have any literary value, he says.
"I'm with you," Upton says.
It may be symptomatic of such a position that they are unaware of the pronunciation of the name of the the central character in FACE TO FACE. They call her Jenny, in the Australian-English way, wheras in the Swedish film it is pronounced "Yenni" with a soft "J".
"Is she called Yenni in the film?" Upton asks.
It's not they haven't had the opportunity to see it : before meeting them at the Wharf theatre, this writer watched the DVD of FACE TO FACE, on loan from the company's publicity office. Rather, it's that Stone and Upton have elected not to see it.
"You want to avoid unnecessary influence," Upton says,"(Bergman) will make solutions to the problems that the work proposes. You want to find your own way to do it.

Now, if I was having a dinner party, (wherever), and had Mr Stone, Upton and Bergman as guests, who would I want to talk about FACE TO FACE with, do you think? Whose problem solving would be of most interest?

Which one is regarded as a genius?

For, as far as problem solving goes, based around the Bergman screenplay, by Mr Stone and Upton:

  • When did you last see a show with only furniture in a black box, wheeled on and off by stage crew? 
  • When did you last see a white box, lit with blaring blue/white forensic colour? (Set and Lighting Design by Nick Schlieper).
  • When did you last see a glass wall between you and the actors, requiring them to be microphoned?
  • When did you last see said box, fly up into the 'heavens', and hover just above the actors?
  • When did you last see a set of mono-chromatic costumes looking like our own clothes? (Costume Design by Alice Babidge).
  • When did you last see a good film actress attempt to play a leading role in the theatre, and not quite get there? (The film, by the way, starred Liv Ullmann, and she was nominated for the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for Best Actress, 1976).
  • When did you last see some actors more often used as set or furniture movers in a performance than actually acting?
  • Is the choice of this Sydney Theatre scale the wise choice for this work? The intimacy of the journey content and the possibilities of the acting could be better achieved in say, Wharf 1, better, Yes? Or, No? Or, was it just for the possibilities of the design pyrotechnics, that guided the choice of venue?

  • Now, do any of you remember either of the STC's production of Alan Ayckbourn's A WOMAN IN MIND (two of them, indeed), or, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA by Anthony Neilson (other plays concerning the mental breakdown of a member of the female sex)? Familiar territory, yes? The Neilson play, especially interesting and contemporary. I had forgotten GROSS UND KLEIN - Lotte's journey as well.
  • So, when were you last bored in the theatre, with a grave sense of deja vu? A deja vu of content and production design techniques?
  • I wonder, do you think this production might be registering an artistic fatigue on the part of Mr Stone? FACE TO FACE is the fourth major production of his we have seen this year: THYESTES, STRANGE INTERLUDE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN. An olympian output, indeed. Exhausting.

I recommend that you hire a copy of Julie Andrews film STAR, (I, actually own one !) based on the career of Gertrude Lawrence, and cut to Scene 42, to the musical psychoanalyst nightmare,THE SAGA OF JENNY (yes, she is Jenny, as well), from the Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin musical, THE LADY IN THE DARK, for a light entree into the genre tone of this FACE TO FACE adaptation. Lightweight and accessible.

Then, hire or purchase the Ingmar Bergman film (I bought it at TITLE on Crown St for $35.00). When I got home from the performance at the Sydney Theatre, I watched the film. There had to be more to this famous screenplay than what we saw in 90 odd minutes of playwriting adaptation, surely? There just had to be. The film is some 136 minutes long. And this is adapted from a 4 hour television production !

There was something more. Wonderfully more. In the real sense of, wonder = to marvel at; to be excited by what is a strange and surprising viewpoint; to a feeling of surprised or puzzled interest, tinged with a wide-eyed admiration.

The film is a genuine expression of a genius concerned with the observation of the loneliness of mankind and the bravery of man, in the figure of Jenny, a psychiatrist, in the midst of a breakdown, that brings her face to face with herself, and with her intellectual/emotional wrestling with the contemplation of the big issues of love and death, in the midst of trying to live through her life choices, resulting in the final realisation, that "love surrounds everything, even death". It is harrowing but majesterial in its ability to move one.

This adaptation of the Bergman screenplay by Simon Stone and Andrew Upton diminishes the ambitions and successes of the Bergman creativity. There is much excising of character and situations and observations. Where Mr Stone and Upton seemed to be occupied with design wonders and theatrics, of a black and white kind, Mr Bergman focused on complex storytelling and intimacies. The saga of Jenny was reflected through parallel stories of other characters' stories - the film has a density of experience in its telling. Every design and theatrical gesture, in the film, were integral to the development of Jenny's and her extended world's story, not a demonstration of directorial cleverness. Content and theme relevancies in the film, were of resonant universal vibrations and observances, incorporating an almost religious breadth of vision. The Bergman original, in the Mr Upton & Stone, is reduced to the relative banalities of a virtual linear narrative of breakdown and dream, without any great dimensional power or sense of awe. Essentially, in my experience, simply linear. Almost, a "reductio ad absurdum". The direct comparison of the hospital dream sequence in the film and here on the Sydney Theatre stage, for example, reveals the contrasting imaginations and theatrics of the writers and directors of these two different FACE TO FACE experiences. The Bergman integrities are richer, deeper, demandingly confronting, and ultimately humbling, in a virtuosic way. One embraces the condition of being human in the face of the world we exist in, face to face. One is not bored with simplistic representations and surface acting, that, comparatively, I experienced, in the theatre.

Compare and contrast for yourself.

Why would I not choose to see Bergman's solutions over those of Mr Stone and Upton? I have. I have watched the film twice this week, so blown away by the greatness of the film, and the performances, was I. If you can still choose, I do not believe there is any life gain in attending to the Sydney Theatre Company production. Indeed, Simon Stone and Andrew Upton, these two "theatre-tinkerers" have created a grim piece of hackery that does not add to, or, even tell anywhere near the profundity of the Bergman. Bergman has done, as Cate and Andrew have predicted , in their Artistic Director's notes, "a terrific job". And, for certain, the two contemporary artists , here in Sydney, were not influenced by any of the choices of the genius, writer-directer, Ingmar Bergman. They had not the same imaginative scope, it seems. More's the pity, I reckon.

Why do it then? Because, they can, I guess.

 So why see it, then, at the theatre, when the film is so much better in every way, and is available, in your own living room?  You can, you know.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Blood Pressure

Bodysnatchers in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company presents BLOOD PRESSURE by Mark Rogers at the Old Fitz.

BLOOD PRESSURE is a new play by Mark Rogers. It is a very ambitious work, and almost works. Mr Rogers and his director, Sanja Simic have collaborated on an intense work. The subject matter concerning two siblings, brothers, one who can play the piano, the other suffering through a terminal illness.

The love of language usage is joyfully obvious, if occasionally a little overwrought, and the play sometimes stands still for too long, a little indulgent, and the ending not as dramatically impactful (maybe the staging?) as it could be, but it is of such resonant promise that attention ought, should, be paid.

Michael: I'm not telling you how to live, but that you should.


Adam: I'm not a coward, I'm tired.

Wade Briggs as Adam, and Alexander Millwood as Michael, give astonishing performances. Their sensibilities and craft interdependence finally honed and comfortable. The casting is remarkable and one is left asking how real is real? The acting is, often, uncomfortably, moving.

The design collaboration (Set Realisers, Damian Griffin and Clare Spillman) is simple, the lighting (Toby Knyvett) and sound (Tegan Nicholls) effective.

For some audience members this could be a very difficult subject matter to witness, but the ambitious craft and art of this young team, is worth the braving of it.

From the Director's Note:
Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds a duel citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
- Susan Sontag, in Illness as metaphor.


The Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company, back on track. Independent Theatre showing the way, again. Modest, but, arresting, Worth catching as was THE SEAFARER and PUNK ROCK.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Cathay Playhouse present THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu at the Tom Mann Theatre, Surry Hills.

Cathay Playhouse is a Chinese theatre company that have just completed nine years of presentation in the city of Sydney. I attended, two years ago a performance of DI LING and EMPRESS DOWAGER CI XI by HE Ji-Ping, and was charmed and impressed. Firstly by the play, performed in Chinese with sub-titles, and, secondarily with the passion of the collective of, mostly, young artists, committed to the production, on stage, backstage and front-of-house.

This year the company presented THUNDERSTORM by Cao Yu. I knew of it, vaguely, having read it when very young, and was mighty curious. Again, it was presented in Chinese with sub-titles. This play, written in 1933, first performed in 1935 in Jinan and with other productions quickly following in Shanghai and Tokyo, introduced Cao Yu as an important theatre writer at the beginning of an important moment in Chinese theatre. Cao Yu was born in 1910 and died in 1996, a career and life covering an amazing era in Chinese history. He was an active member of his theatre community throughout that long life when he could (Cultural Revolution and all - I cannot imagine his experiences, considering the general bourgeois tenor of his work).

THUNDERSTORM is influenced in form and subject matter by Western writers that were part of the University study of the period. Cao Yu was 23 years old when he wrote this play. The Greek writers, Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Eugene O'Neill, and, very strikingly, Henrik Ibsen are apparent in this work and others: SUNRISE - 1936; THE WILDERNESS - 1937.

The play concerns the tragic consequences of two families, one high caste and the other of the servant class, becoming embroiled in mutual sexual attraction and the hypocritical behaviour engendered consequently, with secrets and emotional angst, part of the societal construct of the time and period, obfuscating simple human needs. The play is stacked with coincidence and steeped in melodramatic incident , the most shocking being the revelation of unsuspected incestuous contact. The play became a "success de scandal" because of this subject matter and has been criticised over its clumsy dramatic structure. And, true, it is burdened with one too many revelations in a very swift (short) time frame, but it did strike me, remarkably as dense (and stunning) as Ibsen's GHOSTS, and I was impressed with the sub-plot political critique it offered concerning the struggle between the workers and management - very Gorky-like.

To see this Chinese play of the 1930's, written during the War Lord period of unrest, before the invasion by Japan in1937, for the first time, was a re-kindling of the revelation to me of the inter-connectedness of the world's cultures and the fascination of seeing how each of the worlds, in this case East and West, were affected by each other and have grown and benefited from those encounters. I was engrossed with this kind of wonder, whilst at the same time impressed by the dense, if over burdened plotting, by the young Cao Yu.

I was, too, struck by the mostly Chinese audience, I saw the production with, who found some of the writer's affects essentially humorous and was curious as to whether it was a kind of gasping shock or contemporary cynicism. Which it is, I haven't being able to decide. For there was a reverence and a sense of suppressed excitement about the ritual of the performance, I think, that gave this audience a kind of emanating rapt glow in watching this work in their own language, and a sense of depth and prideful ownership. It was a privilege to be part of the witnessing of the performance.

It was, then, a very complicated experience for me, but highly valued. I enjoyed the Cathay Playhouse performance enormously, as I did two years ago.

The design elements (Set, Sherry GAO Xing; Lighting, Bob Xi Bing) were relatively simple, although I noted that the Sound Design (Sharon LIU Shang-Shang) was especially evocative and dramatically cogent. The Director, Wang Hui-Li has managed to draw performances of some sophistication from all of this small cast : SK Zhang; La Ba; Denise Ye; Lucy Huang; Gordon Guo; Adam Sun; Evan Gong; Dennis Wang. The characterisations and the aplomb with which the actors handled the dramatic revelations of the writer were impressive because of the embodied belief and disciplines. I enjoyed the class distinctions and the sophistication of the theatrical 'drawing' of that by the cast, especially Adam Sung as Lu Gui; Gordon Guo, who, as the tragically enmeshed elder brother, Zhou Ping, was impressive and was well contrasted by Evan Gong in the gauche innocence of his character, Zhang Chong, the younger brother.

The play was adapted for film by Zhang Yimou in 2006, and set in the Imperial Court of the Tang Dynasty: CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. I must hunt it out.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi [a.k.a. Hellbent]

photo by Rush

The Bell Shakespeare Company present THE DUCHESS OF MALFI in The Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House.

The Bell Shakespeare Company presents THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, the cast and collaborators handout and list in the actual program, announces.

It is odd that those "announcements", even the cover page of the actual program, does not register the actual writers' names: Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper. No mention of the writer of the original play is claimed or made in the advertising, either (although, the theatre program is an exemplar of historical research of background to the John Webster play and Webster and the Jacobean period - not many buy or can afford the program, I venture to observe). For, in truth the Bell Shakespeare did not present John Webster's play THE DUCHESS OF MALFI - of Jacobean historical theatre fame but a contemporary adaptation titled, HELLBENT by Hugh Colman & Ailsa Piper. It was originally presented in 2006 at the Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne, under the HELLBENT title - and so had some integrity of presentation. Is this not a case, then in Sydney, of product misrepresentation? Call in the authorities!! What is the integrity of this misrepresentation? 

HELLBENT by Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper. From their notes in the program: 
In adapting THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, we wanted to capture a sense we had of some 'essence' that the piece held, so often obscured by its unwieldy plot and length and the array of less interesting characters. ... ...   our focus came more and more to a narrative point, the closer one gets to power, the more difficult it becomes to resist corruption.
This they admit changed, skewed the plot of the original to a more political reading, underlining the character of Bosola, the low caste thug, which began to interest them most.The original play with some 18 characters became a play with 6 characters. From a running time of usually 3 hours to 1 hour and 45 minutes. THE DUCHESS OF MALFI reduced by our major Classic Company to HELLBENT; not our major Classic Company expanded to the challenge of the original play. An audience underestimated, spoon fed, instead of respected and challenged. HELLBENT is "a chamber piece", they admit.

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, is based on a true story, history, first published in Bandello's NOVELLE in 1554, and was translated into English, apparently with much embellishment, by William Painter in 1567. The play was first presented in the winter of 1613/14 by the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre. It is not estimated by the literary or theatrical critics as a masterpiece, but it is the best regarded play in the John Webster canon. It is a Jacobean tragedy, a Gothic thriller of grotesque stature that dares in all of its grisly twists and turns, to tip into comedy - deep black comedy. 

It has lines that jump out at one with wicked and memorable craft and poetic shape and remarkable imagery :

"A politician is the devil's quilted anvil; he fashions all sins on him, and the blows are never heard." 
"I have this night digg'd up a mandrake. And I  am grown mad with't." 
"We are merely the stars' tennis balls."
"Pull down heaven upon me." 

and language that has occasional Shakespearean flights :
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut with
Diamonds? or to be smothered with cassia?
Or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange, geometric hinges,
You may open them both ways ... 
Tell my brothers, that I perceive death, now I am well awake, 
Best gift is they can give me, or I can take."

It, also, reveals at the near centre of the play's world, a unique heroine in this period of writing, The Duchess of Malfi (curiously she has no other name), a naturally sensuous woman and spirited feminist way ahead of her time, who has an arc of emotions from gentle humorous tenderness in her love for her servant, Antonio, to a raging despair within the machinations of her vengeful brothers, to a courageous gravity, nobility, in the face of a violent death, by strangulation at the hands of a thug. The Duchess of Malfi is a singular role in the Jacobean canon and like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, is one that any actress, of any ambition, should seek out. 

People this play further with a twin brother, Ferdinand, who lustfully lingers over his sister and descends into possessive psychopathy with symptoms of lycanthropy, a howling madness; and, further, another brother, a Cardinal gleefully steeped in raunchy lust and espionage, a cold concupiscence; and add at the dead centre of this corrupting world, a criminal, life assassin, thinking-thug, Bosola, a servant to the courtly brothers, a thug who develops a conscience, through the horrors of the incidents of the play, in which he is an active bloody participant.

The play is an English vision of an Italianate city-state, dripping with the impressions of the works of Seneca and Machiavelli, imagined from the disquietude of the corrupt court of James I - the so-called Jacobean Period. There is much gross ingredient in the recipe of this text, so that, one, has, a play of plump blood-pudding richness - stuffed with chilling stock schlock, that matches any creation of the contemporary horror film industry. Name a contemporary work in any medium, with a plot and set of characters more diabolical, if you can.

 Webster, thought T.S.Eliot, "...was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin; ..." I love what Susannah Clapp, writing in the Observer, about the recent Old Vic production in London of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI (March-June, 2012), starring Eve Best, says: " John Webster was for Bernard Shaw the "Tussuad laureate" : a playwright of waxy gore. Today he can look like the Damien Hirst dramatist. Hirst's diamond-studded skull could be an emblem for THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, in which glitter covers corruption and whose memorably shining lines - "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young" - greet a garrotting."

And further from Rupert Brooke: "A play of Webster's is full of  the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots. Maggots are what the inhabitants of this universe most suggest and resemble. The sight of their fever is only alleviated by the permanent calm, unfriendly summits and darkness of the background of death and gloom. For that is equally a part of Webster's universe. Human beings are writhing grubs in an immense night. And the night is without stars or moon. But it has a certain quietude in its darkness; but not very much." 

HELLBENT , the adaptation, is, for whatever its virtues are, in experience, in contrast, indeed, a chamber piece; a cleaned-up, diminished version of the play, a bit Charles and Mary Lamb-like, for children; a version that could be published by Reader's Digest easy reading library. Nothing too offensive here, it is barely titivating for the anxious.

The production by John Bell as director is efficient and cool. The set (Stephen Curtis) is on a shallow, triangular black carpeted and walled pattern with invisible door clad entrances, ranged down the set sides, so narrow in aperture, that most of the cast were forced to walk sideways to get in and out. A black clad tube tunnel hung down from the 'flys' of the stage in the central place with the inner, a well, lit bluish/white, aimed onto a white circular ottoman/pouffe centre-stage, the only furniture, that pulsed with a sterile glow (lighting, Hartley T A Kemp). It has the feel of an Anish Kapoor design: coolly, post-modern, frozen in a trim lined tidiness, lacking any air of decadence, of Gothic danger, or sumptuous extremities - no maggots or writhing grubs here- instead, neat, tightly controlled, recently vacuumed, dirt free atmospherics. The opposite to the Mediterranean/Latin pulse of the real play, rather, here, a kind of Scandinavian severity of black minimalism. 

The costumes, too, a stylised relaxed modern dress - dark colours flushed a little with silver or a startling religious pink. This Duchess in lounge clothes of an ordinary, wealthy, young woman, of no formality or status, just casual comfort - lounge gear. This, probably provoked by the adaptors " being struck by the contemporary resonances, which in turn encouraged (them) to remove the references to time and place that lock (the play) into the past. Finally removing the titles of inherent status, to reinforce the contemporaneity." From my experience of this production, it reduced the world to a contemporary neutrality without rank or real wealth, taking away a lot of the power of the Jacobean savagery, and storytelling point, undermining the purpose of the reflecting mirror of the world in THE DUCHESS OF MALFI. There was little visible evidence of corrupting wealth and immense power of any scale, rather, instead, a tasteful extravagance in a narrow range of an upper middle class, living comfortably in a privileged 'gated' community, ruling itself with 'tough' body corporate consequences for bad behaviour. Much like the recent Sport For Jove HAMLET* the world of the staged play was too ordinary to have the weighted impact of the original and, hence the play and its intended affect was gravely diminished.

The acting is executed to reveal generalized emotional states springing from sentence and paragraphed well-springs, rather than argument from specific word to word comprehension and build from delicate syntactical observation for clarity. Most of the actors lacked any real specific imaginative possession of the language and it was rendered to us in dull musical note-range and restraints. It was lacking in keenness of perception and was mostly hollow sounds/noises, rather than verbal images supporting ideas and expressed with true 'seeing' eyes, through the voice. My ears could not see, what the actors were meaning, were attempting to communicate. It was a general cacophony of emotional exhibition. Actors were reciting, without thought, laboriously, through the magnificent complications of the Webster text.

The production opens with Ben Wood as thug, Bosola, standing centre stage and begins the journey of the Colman & Piper devolving. Bosola, in the original, too, evolves as the central interest in the play . As Diana Simmonds in  her Stage Noise blog, tells us, Mr Wood is,"a striking presence, a golden bear in stature, a salt of the earth, roughly spoken but loyal servant". Mr Wood's Bosola's invitation to play with him, as audience, is very seductive indeed, and then he opens his mouth and there is a rough spoken, salt of the earth Australian, a vocal flatness and broadness, with no real musical instinct for the verse or deep imaginative skill in word usage or vocal flexibility to sustain our interest in what he has to say. The play staggers and labours, whenever he is on stage. Sluggish, tedious, producing ennui instead of excitement. Intelligent thinking through the lines, on the lines is substituted by emotional growlings of attenuated meaning of words and sentence structures. It is mostly unpleasant noise. He is the central character. What chance had the play, then?

 In a different way but similarly, Sean O'Shea insinuates his luscious hair and lithesome physicalities in substitution for accurate or imaginative word ownership or line readings. Gross slitherings, slatherings and slurrings of emotion. Matthew Moore as the innocent hero Antonio, seems altogether out of his comfort zone. David Whitney as The Cardinal makes more impact and clarity with his bare bum showing (literally, giving us the arse!) than he did with consistent textual flourish - although there is some shine, sometimes, there as well, truth to tell. The best of the men.

Lucy Bell, as the Duchess of Malfi, alone, seems to be intelligently able to use her vocal machinery to illuminate the text, although her physical squirming and disquiets are a mighty distraction, almost in competition to her verbal wittery. Physical semaphoring of emotional states. A magnificent opportunity dwindled, for, Ms Bell has the gift to deliver this role exquisitely. It just did not happen here. Potential only.

Sexy clothing and daring crutch work, does not make an interesting enough Julia (mashed up from two characters in the original, Cariola and the Cardinal's Mistress - interesting achievement by the adaptors) and Lucia Mastrantone lives more memorably for her physical allures then her verbal ones, tight leather forever. Heave with a sigh!

The Bell production was a disaster to sit through. Genuinely depressing. In fact, I had seen a Red Stitch performance in 2006, of HELLBENT, and may have had a better time with it there, without the Bell Shakespeare reputation expectations. HELLBENT, was well suited to the ambitions of the theatrical adventurers in Melbourne, in their old tiny space, and it was a valiant, if not fully successful presentation. But the leading Classic Company, Bell Shakespeare, at the Sydney Opera House seems to be in a very alarming state, if this production is representative of the best it can do. In no area of creativity and in no perceivable way did this production rise to any International standard or interest. I felt as distressed and angry as I did watching Opera Australia's production of Die tote Stadt. I had often to wince and close my ears.

It was with great bewilderment then, and unpleasant surprise, to read a par in the Sydney Morning Herald (smh) 24 HOURS, The Arts Diary column last week, concerning Performance where "Professional actors who want to extend their Shakespearean skills can tap into the accumulated experience of the country's pre-eminent Shakespeare company. For the first time, Bell Shakespeare is running actor training courses, ... ... including voice and movement (what, NIDA, doesn't do it anymore? Or, not well, enough? Probably, too old fashioned for them? WAPPA,VCA, QUT, either?). There will be a graduate stream for recent acting graduates or early career actors, and a master series for more experienced actors looking to sharpen their skills and work on Shakespeare's plays in greater detail." Let us hope the first enrolments are four or five of the six actors who toiled through THE DUCHESS OF MALFI. Let us hope that are not the role models, exemplar. Or, the teachers.

Bell Shakespeare the "pre-eminent Shakespeare company". Be careful when you believe your own publicity. I reckon, Sport For Jove are pretty lively and imminent, if not yet eminent, in the area of Shakespeare production.

No, no good. No fun at all. Just depression.

P.S. : Why, then did the  Bell company feel the need to re-title the adaptation from HELLBENT to THE DUCHESS OF MALFI ? It seems the company, in common with the recent artistic management at Belvoir practice, do feel able to appropriate the name of a famous play and author's reputation, and having adapted the original text, presumably, sell more tickets, based on the fame of the originals, and 'trick' or 'dupe' the unwary to attend what should have been an interesting presentation of a great 'curiosity' of dramatic literature that has never, in my life time, been presented on the professional stage in Sydney (e.g. I have seen THE WILD DUCK, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI in University and Amateur and Drama School productions, only. Never, ever, STRANGE INTERLUDE, still, despite the Belvoir program announcements). 

The fact that Sydney audiences have not seen the intentions of the writing of other great hallmarks of theatre history, although they believe they have (and loved the play and the writer, they saw, I understand ), for example: Edward Albee's WHO'S AFARID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? 'mangled' by Benedict Andrews, and, likewise his treatment of Chekov's THE SEAGULL, not to mention the scuttled text of Botho Strausss' GROSS UND KIND; Simon Stone's appropriation of Ibsen's, THE WILD DUCK, O'Neill's, STRANGE INTERLUDE, and Arthur Miller's, DEATH OF A SALESMAN; and now Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI by John Bell. Is there a conspiracy, a kind of dumbing down, parochial trick being played on the trusting subscriber, and otherwise, audience? The history books will have these titles recorded, cursorily, as having been produced, seen in Sydney, that 'vibrant' cultural world centre (?!) , but  at a closer read, examination find the actual content covered by these titles was not shown, revealed. "Wow, to have seen: THE WILD DUCK, STRANGE INTERLUDE, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI", future generations may read. - Not!!!  I cannot see why in the case of Bell that they didn't use the title HELLBENT, except, I suspect for ease of selling the show for box office purposes.  Do I understand the reasoning behind a similar conscious choice by Belvoir to call Simon Stone's play of Ibsen's text THE WILD DUCK ,THE WILD DUCK when clearly it wasn't - Why not DUCK VARIATIONS ?- (oops, a Mamet play)? After all, he did call his adaptation of Ibsen's LITTLE EYOLF, THE ONLY CHILD, an original title (Did it sell? It was only in the Downstairs venue). Why not call STRANGE INTERLUDE, 'INTERLUDE' by Simon Stone' or DEATH OF A SALESMAN , 'SALESMAN -the LOSER' by Simon Stone'?

I re-iterate: Was the choice based around falsely selling tickets to a famous play title and author's reputation, and in several cases, including the name of a must see actor, make a sell out killing at the box office, and then, willy-nilly, reduce the original writer's expression of life to the adaptor's psychological  response to the world he lives in, to the expression urges of the adaptor, writer, whatever different couch he might be occupying??

What of the up coming PRIVATE LIVES? - it seems that Ralph Myers, I have it on authority, he said so last Sunday at the Sunday Belvoir Forum I understand, that the text he is working with is not the work of the writer Noel Coward but an adaptation by an anonymous stage manager - and therefore he has licence to ignore any 'incidentals' in the published text, and supersede the writer and just follow whatever whim he wants. He does have it on written authority from the present publishers, doesn't he, that the text he has is an adulterated writer's work? The presentation of Agatha Christie's THE MOUSETRAP, did not seem the need to adapt the play to sell seats.It was allowed to stand on its own merits - and guess what? It did and shone AND entertained an audience, as well. 

Sydney an International Centre of The Performing Arts?

I don't think, so. Reduce the Tall Poppies of Dramatic Literature to something the Sydney audience can understand - their own backyard. What? What none of us comprehend foreign ( I include the the films from USA and Great Britain _English speaking) films or novels or television programs.?And the Aussie film does so well, with it's familiar landscape and Aussie sound., doesn't it? That's why, I suppose we have such great reality TV shows. Big Brother, again.

Enough, for now.

Oh, by the way, the Sydney Opera House is still charging us a 'tax' of $5 to buy a ticket at their own box office with cash. A good lurk- I have no receipt for that extra 5 bucks. Just how much a year do they make on this demand, I wonder? If I refused to pay it, does that mean I don't get to see the show. Does Bell know this? Why isn't it in the ticket price? I wouldn't be affronted then and would blithely hand it over. Better all round - the staff wouldn't cop any wrath at all then. A case that ignorance of my being charged, would be a kind of bliss, for the staff and myself, I guess.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quiet Companions and Bryce is Right

New Theatre present QUIET COMPANIONS and the BRYCE is RIGHT at the New Theatre, Newtown.

QUIET COMPANIONS is a partly improvised playlet set in, supposedly, the Victorian Era.  This is "a show that begins with a delightfully wicked twosome playing private games (that) slowly descends into an exploration of the dark, psychological country that lies beneath."  According to Marko Mustac the creator, director and one of the performers of this exercise in the theatre, the other being Lyn Pierce, he hopes that "unlike most improvised shows this is a serious piece: it is not meant to be funny ... It references absurdist theatre , post-modernism, a dash of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, whilst being steeped  in the fin de siecle  world of Oscar Wilde and the darker aspects of power and sexuality from the bible. Satan even gets a run, albeit in disguise." (Oh, really!)

Unfortunately, neither of the performers are steeped in anything like the world of Oscar Wilde - their improvised dialogue never ventured into the vocabulary of the period or to any of the divine verbal wit of Mr Wilde and others of his literary or social, political time - the performance revealed, in fact,  no real research of Victorian society and its mores, of any real kind; nor of the other mentioned references for the piece, the Absurdists, the Post-Modernists or any of the theories of Artaud, let alone the world of Freud or Marx quoted in the program.

So, the performance quickly descended  (ascended, depending on your point of view) into a set of well known games by Viola Spolin to inspire improvisational techniques. The resultant improvised text was, then, contemporary vernacular with a less than expert way with words of wit as weaponry, no "dandy" tradition here, resulting in QUIET COMPANIONS being fairly superficial in its intended aims. It, rather, quickly, moved into a set of typical exercises of comic ridiculousness, that may be part of a collection of a 3 minute Theatre Sports game sequence. If the work was not intended to be funny, then more research into the intended world of Victorian England would help, a deeper preparation of the characters and their relationship history and a less steady instinct for comic one-up-manship ought to be part of the discipline of the showing. Research and discipline.

Certainly, the audience sought laughter and once that was scented by the performers they went for broke. It seemed their insecurity with their preparation allowed the familiar safety of the actors' comic game personas to take over, only, too willingly. It was either that, or, a gigantic lack of courage. It was silly and funny, often, and well done, on that familiar 'playing field'. For, there is a largesse in the comic of Ms Pierce and Mr Mustac as there is a paltriness in their sense of what is motivated drama in QUIET COMPANIONS. The music improvisations by Bryce Halliday at the piano were the highlight of any sincere cleverness. 

The companion piece to this Double Bill, the BRYCE is RIGHT, was a cabaret solo act by Bryce Halliday using a Hutchins Piano and other electrical gadgetry for effect  Young Bryce Halliday, a recent graduate (2011) of the Music course at The Australian Institute of Music (AIM), has a pleasant personality but his show is a more than clear demonstration that any performer is only as good as the quality of the writing. Songs, music and lyrics and the patter around them, are fairly lame and unkempt in their theatrical structures. Friends and family may have the patience to endure this, but for some of us, it felt like an interminable 'conversation' with a not very interesting social observer or thinker, and a fledgling musical performer. Some of us were longing for an exit. Respect and politeness  kept us there. We had recently been entertained by Barry Humphries in EAT, PRAY, LAUGH! and had some kind of recent benchmark, even considering Mr Halliday's youthfulness, to relate too. Mr Halliday should also note, that when one gives an earnest performance of a famous ballad such as, IF EVER I SHOULD LEAVE YOU, from the 1959 Lerner and Lowe musical CAMELOT, one had best be able to give a thoroughly prepared and peerless rendition, to justify its inclusion in the act. Parody it was, embarrassingly, not.

The performance revealed the youthful fearlessness of this ambitious singer/performer, Bryce Halliday but not much else to advantage his dreams. Precocity is not enough, I'm afraid.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pork Stilletto

Garnet Productions in Association with Tamarama Rock Surfers presents Allsopp and Henderson's PORK STILETTO at the Old Fitz.

PORK STILETTO is the latest concoction written and performed by Warwick Allsopp and Tamlyn Henderson. Previous work includes, A PORTHOLE into the MINDS of the VANQUISHED and THE JINGLISTS.

Two ambitious and young psychologists begin researching sexual fetishes. That they become involved in 'field work' that leads them into 'immersive' experiences spells out ventures that become adventures they never anticipated. That the research turns into something else other than an objective thesis, becomes the source of much black comedy with very tongue-in-cheek thrills.Mr Allsopp and Henderson are aided and abetted by Louisa Mignone and Briallen Clarke.

Beginning with a very alluring soundtrack of a sado-masochistic movie thriller (perhaps), we watch a young woman being grabbed, chased, clawed and ultimately dragged into what one suspects, imagines, is a hell, with just an arm waving for help, as a trapdoor is slammed down on top of the disappearing hand/finger tips! The show, only 75 minutes long, finishes in much the same way, except, this time, (surprise, surprise) with a different female victim - what no men stupid enough to fall into this scenario? Lots and lots of "…isms", "…ilias" and "…phobias" are delightfully, amusingly explored in the two psychologists' studies, which become a source of attention to two detectives investigating a 'cold case' of murder, known in the files as, Pork Stiletto.

Everything that happens has a macabre veneer that can create a thrilled squirm and giggle. I laughed out loud often. This little show has an intense vigour, a quasi comic-seriousness about it - that is part of the fun - and a very slick presentation, directed wickedly by Iain Sinclair. I enjoyed myself immensely. I think. Much more adventurous and titillating then the Old Fitz show last year in a kind of similar territory: TRAPTURE.

I recommend it for the thrill seekers who can plant  their tongue firmly in their cheek. A must to see if this 'theatre date' is a first date. Much will be revealed and decisions on whether there will be a second date will be quickly known.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Cloudstreet the Opera present a Workshop Showing of CLOUDSTREET : THE OPERA by George Palmer at Carriageworks

CLOUDSTREET, the Tim Winton novel. CLOUDSTREET, the stage play by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo. CLOUDSTREET, the mini-series for television. And, now CLOUDSTREET : THE OPERA, libretto and music by George Palmer.

On Saturday morning, last, the 28th of July, 2012, just to record accurately for posterity's sake, at 11 am, I went to Carriageworks, Track 7, on invitation from some friends, to see the result of a 12 day workshop of act one, of this very 'young' project, it, attempting to find a way to organise the material from the page to the stage for the first time.

Gale Edwards is the director. Simon Kenway the Music Director. Together, with them,16, 'youngish' singers/actors have bravely helped shape this material into a presentation. It is mightily impressive.

Beginning from absolute scratch this company, with a musician and minimum crew have moulded a coherent first step, in what Sondheim calls: "putting it together". Cutting, pasting, re-writing, relearning, staging, re-staging, even lighting (Christopher Snape); and re-lighting and re-staging, again; re-writing libretto and music, again and again; perforce, then, adjusting orchestration, shifting order, re-learning song, re-blocking movement, re-motivating character, and, all in 12 days. A miracle.

The story of the Lamb and Pickles family in Perth is well known, embedded in our psyches as part of our recent literary and cultural history (unless, forgive me, you have been living under a rock).The libretto and music by Mr Palmer is extremely exciting and a wonderful expression of Mr Winton's touchstone of Australian authenticity. The libretto, feels true and sharp, the music simple but intricate, beautiful - in parts, breathtakingly moving (Fish and Quick on the river sequence, for instance). Even in this first, raw, stretching into possibilities in Track 7 : tender and gentle. Funny and tragic.

It worked because of the sturdy super structure of the novel, plots and characters, and the inspiration of Mr Palmer's music, and the sheer love and commitment of all the company present. Such love has to be requited and the audience, somewhat surprised at the quality of the presentation, gave it back, with a loud response of applause. This is what it might feel like to be at the beginning of something that could burgeon into greatness.

Ms Edwards is in love with the piece. Mr Kenway, too, it seems. Both realise that this is a first step but, given support for further intense development, I believe I witnessed - what luck - the birth of a potential classic. A true Australian Folk Opera. I kept been swept to the memories of the PORGY AND BESS folk opera world and felt the same kind of identification power, here, in this story and people, pulsing through the morning. I felt, this is my, our, story. It felt like an embracing hug from my mum and dad's world. It felt good to be Australian - I had a living heritage of storytelling. Of being part of a universal need to remember OUR stories (I hope it does not sound too parochial?) On reflection - Who cares? - The CLOUDSTREET story is connected to some true centre, some true heart of mine, undoubtedly. This opera, simply confirmed it, wonderfully.

Whether, the ultimate home of the piece is in hands of the commercial musical theatre, or an Opera Company, I reckon attention should be made. This is an important potential.

Gale Edwards, achieved in 12 days, with her company, a very impressive morning. I wondered just what is her genius, for, whatever it is, Mr Palmer could not have been better served. This company of young artists were, indeed, inspired.

P.S. In the search for the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, based on this work alone, one would have to include Gale Edwards as a leading candidate.

But, then, her experience and her 'genius' might be a handicap for the 'hipsters' of our present cultural milieu. She knows too much. She has a wealth of knowledge. A respect for tradition. A muscular vision for the future. She has a deeply embedded context of the Australian Performing Arts Culture. She has a vibrant International context for the Performing Arts. Perhaps, way to threatening for the youngsters, dominating out there. And our Corporate Boards?

Back to CLOUDSTREET : THE OPERA , just for history, a list of the artists involved last Saturday:

Lurelle Alefounder = Dolly.
Dora Armannsdottir = Red.
Keara Donohoe = Elaine.
Simon Gleeson = Fish. (Outstanding, by the way !!!!)
Simon Halligan = Chub.
Pascal Herington = Lon.
David Hidden = Quick. (Terrific).
Jessica Hitchcock = Spirit Girl 2.
Michaela Leisk = Rose. (Terrific).
Kathryn McCusker = Oriel.
Barry Ryan = Sam (Impressive).
Ariya Sawadivong = Spirit Girl 1.
Taryn Srhoj = Spirit Girl 3.
Javier Vilarino = Ted.
Byron Warson = Lester.(Impressive).
Amanda Windred = Hattie.

Stephen Moylan = Stage Manager.
Christopher Snape = Lighting.
Jonathon Palmer = Sound engineer.
Choclate Fish = Film crew.

In awe.

Punk Rock

Pantsguys Productions and atyp Under the wharf present the Australian Premiere of
Punk Rock Trailer 2012 from Kathy Luu on Vimeo.

PUNK ROCK by Simon Stephens at the atyp Theatre Wharf 4 Hickson Rd.

PUNK ROCK by Simon Stephens, produced by Pantsguys Productions as part of atyp Under the Wharf season is the best evening I have had at the theatre this year. Go.

Simon Stephens is a British playwright that I have admired for some time. The fact that he has never appeared on any of our major stages in Australia, except by a German company as part of an Arts festival (PORNOGRAPHY, 2007), is an astounding, astonishing fact. Most, if not all of his plays are set in Stockport, Greater Manchester. But that city is simply a metaphoric setting for the universal dilemmas of our contemporary world. In this suburb, in regional Great Britain, is the contemporary human world. I was first drawn to his prize winning writing with ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD (2005). The Griffin Independent gave us HERONS (2001) a few years back; some one up there, has also presented MOTORTOWN (2006) as well; PORT (2O02) was presented in a severely edited version last year at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), as a graduating production for some of its students - the play's power and music diminished dramatically by the elisions. THREE KINGDOMS (2011) is his latest work. BLUEBIRD (1998), his first, still waiting to be done, in Sydney.

PUNK ROCK was first performed in London, in 2009. It is set in Stockport.It is set in a private public school for the advantaged. It is set in a library. Eight, final year students, hormones buzzing, are preparing for trials for final exams. The personal pressures are enormous, if, hidden beneath the social veneers of the students. Success at these exams represent escape from provincial Stockport, some fantasising about Cambridge or Oxford as destinations to aim for. Because these students are privileged does not exclude them from the buffets of life from family histories and expectations. Does not exclude them from the pressures of the world of sex and intellectual jealousies and envies. It does not exclude them from the pressure of institution and peer bullying. Does not exclude them from grotesque imaginings and fancies. Does not exclude them from delusional wants. Does not protect them from the conventions, inventions, and fractures of an ever evolving world.

Anthony Skuse has directed this production with meticulous and sophisticated care. The text has been managed with close and accurate reading. Every word and phrase counting, it seemed, to reveal in the sentence structures, character, circumstances, plot and thematics without pointed, obvious directorial dictate. No Director's finger prints all over this work.The writer at the centre of the enterprise. Much honour is given Mr Stephens and it pays off in spades. The detailed drawing of the subtle character development and the weighty screwing up of naturalistic tension throughout the scene storytelling is spellbinding and cumulatively awesome.

Mr Skuse, has, with his usual skill (see, LORD OF THE FLIES), drawn from this company of actors, Gabriel Fancourt, Paul Hooper, Darcie Irwin Simpson, Madeline Jones, Owen Little, Rebecca Martin, Graeme McRae, Clement Mills and Sam O'Sullivan, truly, creatively disciplined performances. Each actor demarcates their creation with psychological insight and a deceptively simple delineation of physical individuality and at the same time a sensitive antenna of ensemble delicacy and awareness that collectively convinces of the truthful, reality of this story.

Mr O'Sullivan, as William Carlisle, is mesmerising in his intrinsically clever revelations of character, steady with the contradictions and delicate in the signalling of danger. His scenes with Ms Simpson, as Lily Cahill, are enormously empathetically concentrated by both. The naturalness of both is disconcerting - their ease with the intimacy of the characters' developments almost embarrassing to watch. The 'stupid' behaviour of a sexually unsure Bennett (Mr McRae) is edgy and rife with unpredictability, the actor at ease with his gangly physicalities, and assured about what he is telling us, moment to moment. Mr Fancourt draws a sensitive, diversely amusing and intellectually confident young man, Chadwick Meade, despite the pressures of bullying going on about him. Mr Little (Nicholas Chapman) and Ms Jones (Cissy Franks) draw power from smaller roles.

The set design (Gez Xavier Mansfield) is stripped to efficient necessities - pragmatic rather than atmospheric : study tables and plastic chairs with a table of books, all, on a shabby carpet. The lighting, fluorescent, bright and merciless, supported by some small theatrics for colour (Sara Swersky), and the costumes of school uniform add to the bleak reality of school. Dialect work by Linda Nicholls-Gidley adds authenticity and conviction to the world of the play - no need to localise. The sound design a little too heavy handed- too 'punk' and not very useful in the story or even atmospheric development.

All of Mr Stephens' plays deal with the pressures of the modern world on the individual. In Stockport, in whatever play you might choose of his, an individual driven to psychopathic actions, arise. Here, in the classroom of PUNK ROCK too, a dreadful thing happens. Even amongst these so called advantaged young adults. Indeed, food for thought.

CHADWICK: Human beings are pathetic. Everything human beings do finishes up bad in the end. Everything good human beings ever make is built on something monstrous. Nothing lasts. We certainly won't. We could have made something really extraordinary and we won't. We've been around one hundred thousand years. We'll have died out before the next two hundred. You know what we've got to look forward to? You know what will define the next two hundred years? Religions will become brutalised; crime rates will become hysterical; everybody will become addicted to Internet sex; suicide will become fashionable; there'll be famine; there'll be floods; there'll be fires in the major cities of the Western world. Our education systems will become battered. Our health systems unsustainable; our police forces unmanageable; our governments corrupt. There'll be open brutality in the streets; there'll be nuclear war; massive depletion of resources on every level; insanely increasing third-world population. It's happening already. It's happening now. Thousands die every summer from floods in the Indian monsoon season. Africans from Senegal wash up on the beaches of the Mediterranean and get looked after by guilty liberal holidaymakers. Somalians wait in hostels in Malta or prison islands north of Australia. Hundreds die of heat or fire every year in Paris.Or California. or Athens. The oceans will rise. The cities will flood. The power stations will flood. Airports will flood. Species will vanish for ever. Including ours. So if you think I'm worried by you calling me names, Bennett, you little, little boy, you are fucking kidding yourself.
 BENNETT: Blimey.
That's a bit bleak, Chadwick. 
CISSY: I don't believe that.
CHADWICK: You should do. 
CISSY: We can educate each other.
CHADWICK: We don't.
CISSY: We can change things.
CHADWICK: We can't.

From the mouths of children.

Bleak, but a good and relevant play. I sat in the atyp theatre, with an almost paralyzed audience, holding our breath, in 'tribal' concentration, in a cold space beneath the theatres belonging to the Sydney Theatre Company and wondered why that company had showing THE HISTRIONIC by Thomas Bernhard and not this play. What relevance did THE HISTRIONIC have, that trumped this play in the curating decisions for Sydney theatre goers, I wondered.

PUNK ROCK is a good play, inspirationally directed, wonderfully acted by a young fledgling company of young professionals, really showing the major companies in this city, what should be done and how to do it. Don't miss it. What, with this and THE SEAFARER at the Darlinghurst, the Independent Theatre scene shows the way, like a beacon, that has been, relatively lost with the bigger subsidised so-called leaders of the Performing Arts. In this city, at least.

P.S. : At a running time of two and a quarter hours without interval, beginning on time would be a good idea.
An interval would even be better. 7.30 till 10pm is a stretch of the bladder, let alone concentration, (the bladder can become quite a distraction) no matter what age you are.

An interesting debate in the pages of the magazine STAGE WHISPERS : An Interval or not an Interval, has been in discussion.
Our endorphins (when you see the play you'll get the reference) would create a better reception to the evening, having been relieved, I can assure you, pantsguys. Discuss.