Friday, September 28, 2012


Tamarama Rock Surfers and Fat Boy Dancing present WRECKING by Dan Giovannoni at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

WRECKING by Dan Giovannoni is a new Australian play that deals with two groups of people, from widely different social opportunities, living next to each other in the same approximate spaces - perhaps, somewhere like Sydney's Wooloomooloo (the play was inspired by a true event).

A dentist, Miles (Matt Hopkins) and his civic-minded wife, Alana (Kimberly Hews) are living in a renovated terrace, and nearby are two 'floating' lost souls living on the streets, Ned (Paul Blenheim) and Lexie (Amanda McGregor), who may have the Matthew Talbot organisation as their principal resource. The play attempts to suggest might what happen, if, instead of ignoring each other, and stepping around each other, which is the social norm, that there is an interaction between these people of diverse backgrounds. Miles, particularly, becomes entangled with the heavily pregnant Lexie. Lexie is co-dependently attached to Ned. Alana becomes defensive of her 'territory', her home and husband, and employs a thug,Van (Peter Maple) to 'clean-up' the area.

The play sometimes seems to become over elaborate (e.g.the sexual appetite of Alana), in the mechanisms of its plot motivations, and became becalmed. It does not move easily or clearly forward - and does not have enough of the poetic compensations, of say the beautiful opening monologue of Ned's, to allow for these languors to be satisfying. For, there is some beautiful writing, and this is especially true, in the text given to Ned, a lost boy, living through casual sex and drugs, with imaginings and fantasies of mermen. The opening monologue is rapturously attractive and surreal in its ability to engage one. I felt some real excitement with the first ten minutes of the play and was only re-captured, now and again, with the same intensity. Some examination of the structural 'tools' could streamline the work more consistently.

Paul Blenheim as Ned, is outstanding in his performance and Amanda McGregor intensely engaged in the feral creation of Lexie. Too, Peter Maple, has an ease with his, generally unrewarding, underwritten, role, as Van. Mr Hopkins and Ms Hews have some difficulty in bringing the middle class couple of Miles and Alana fully alive, the relationship between the couple does not seem to be clear and I am not able to discern whether it is the writing or the slightly under-focused acting. Mr Giovannoni clearly has a more successful imaginative invention with the underprivileged characters.

Owen Phillips has designed a beautiful set as background (a miniature sculpture of a highway flyover), whilst leaving the small acting space flexible with an economy of properties. The lighting design (Sara Swersky) and the sound design (Nate Edmondson) are adequate, but Gin Savage is not very subtle in the shifting of emphasis with her light and sound choices and they seemed to draw attention to themselves.

The experience of WRECKING is interesting and of promise, some of the writing beautifully poetic, but, ultimately the production is uneven in its effect.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Lunch Hour

Siren Theatre Co in partnership with The Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents THE LUNCH HOUR by Chris Aronsten at the Darlinghurst Theatre.

THE LUNCH HOUR by Chris Aronsten is a wildly ambitious play. It begins as pell mell farce with characters, initially perceived as possible satiric types that move into the second act of the work to a dark psychological critique of a most challenging kind, to finally launch into one of the bleakest music theatre climaxes that I have seen since the last production of Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS.

Six struggling artists who in the languors of their careers work in a call centre. This call centre being (tres cruel on the writer's part!)) a booking office for theatre performance. The real business work of the call centre, supervised by Martin (Gerry Sont) is subverted with theatre games and competitions, especially with the group writing of a play for a prize. Each individual (and, one pair) participate in writing different sections, to be collated and submitted. They do this with great invention but dismal output. Their shenanigans taking more priority than commitment to product. Their denigration of their boss Martin being a well spring of collective motivation.

The second act begins with the revelation that Martin has also written a play and won the prize. Worse, the workers discover it is an observation of themselves, their quirks, shortcomings stacked with penetrating insights. That, perhaps, the safety of the call centre may be the world of their ambitions, their cocoon from outright failure, as each is shown to be, in various ways, the subverters of their own dreams. A bitter pill indeed. A "bitterer" pill as it was penned by the much denigrated boss -"Daddy" Martin.

Mr Aronsten earlier this year presented another work of his own, MALICE TOWARDS NONE. It was made up of three separate monologues. All of them representing societal 'refuse', societal losers. The work was painfully real and the performances, especially of the first two pieces piercingly, frighteningly real. The characters could have walked in from the streets of Wooloomooloo onto the Old Fitz stage and just started talking. Mr Aronsten's writerly focus on the losers of this world is accurate and maybe, in this case of THE LUNCH HOUR, a bone too close for  some comfort zones. It is a bleak assessment of a world that many may have known, still know. It is a tough play for certain members of the audience.

The Director, Kate Gaul, has affiliations with this writer, having produced another of his plays, THE HUMAN RESOURCES, a few years ago, and she has brought her considerable talent to bear on this work. The technical comprehension of farce as a form and an equal talent for the revelation of the 'pathetic' dramatic psychology of character, and an embrace of the musical theatre form, are all on exhibit here. There is simple but detailed Design work from Charlie Dugdale, enhanced by Luiz Pampolha's Lighting. The Composer/arranger, Darryl Wallis has created a wonderful aural world and the chaos of the physical world is wonderfully managed by Fight Choreographer, Diego Retamales and Dance Choreography by Kirby Burgess + Ash Bee. Considering the farce apparatus needed to bring this work to a clockwork precision, perhaps, the Stage Manager Elizabeth Rogers should get a mention as well - a whizz with all those sound cues!

Unfortunately, the performance itself does not quite work. The first act requires a pell mell of farcical action, that has very little ease from a created real world to help us, the audience to acclimatise and assimilate. Angela Bauer (Catherine), seems to be preoccupied with technical comedy and does not help us realise the world of the play or its style. It is over-acted and, at my performance, forced. I believe that comedy is the hardest of the forms to bring off, and that the importance of being earnest to be the key : terribly serious in needs, is the primary task and duty. Being funny, or commenting on what should be funny is not useful. The other actors, Branden Christine (Fran), Briallen Clarke (Felicity), Shaun Rennie (Chris), Sonny Vrebac (Simon) along with Mr Sont and later, Bali Padda (Ali) all are successful, or, not, to various degrees and at different times. The first act then is as an experience quite disconcerting and puzzling. What is Happening? What is real? What is Funny? So much is going on and none of it has a ring of real truth. Style over truth. Technical drill dominating lived character truths.The second act has a stiller and more controlled centre and the background and exposition of character is exposed to us in a more comprehensible manner. One is gradually drawn to a state of empathy.

This year we have had some brave and interesting explorations in satiric farce by our local writers : PORN.CAKEA HOAX and now this work. The skills for all the artists are very demanding and THE LUNCH HOUR does not have the acting experience to pull off the kind of derring-do required to introduce us to the world 'speeds' of the play and sustain a believability for the audience. The world and people of this play come from a view of the world that is dark and tough as Alan Ayckbourn at his darkest and cruelest, THE REVENGER'S COMEDIES, for example.

THE LUNCH HOUR is an ambitious play and production. If you have the patience to return after the interval, this production does begin to reward you. See what you think.


Carriageworks and The 18th Biennale of Sydney present CESNA, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Bjorn Schmelzer, Rosas and graindelavoix.

CESNA is the second part of a dance diptych, the first being EN ATTENDANT, realised by Anne Teresa Keersmaeker with her dance company Rosas and Belgian artists Michel Francois and Ann Veronica Jessens at Carriageworks.

Both pieces were originally performed in the open air, EN ATTENDANT in gathering twilight into darkness, CESNA, on the other hand, is danced in a re-creation of the start of the day as the light begins to arrive, here in Sydney, through the gradual addition of fluorescent colour in the huge indoor venue of Bay21 - from one small row of three light bars hung high in the front of the performing area, to eleven rows of nine. Beginning in a barely perceptible lighting state, a naked male figure runs to the middle of the performance area, almost, into the laps of the front row audience, and begins a series of 'howled' responses to a distant 'fluted' instrument. Raw. Raucous. And unmelodic. Gradually, in the dimness, the troupe of dancers arrive and in various groupings, their footfall is heard in syncopated noises, more clearly, than the dancers are seen. Singing commences and all the troupe, sing, dance and create visual art of an astoundingly absorbing kind as the light grows more and more brightly. Man coming from the dark into the, a, light?

What ensues is an exploration by the company, "of the fluency between art, dance, and music, in this case Ars Subtilior : a complex, intellectual form of polyphonic music from the 14th century based on dissonance and contrast. Drawing a parallel between the time in which Ars Subtilior developed on the ruins of the Church, when the social, political and religious pillars of the medieval society were literally plagued, and our time of unrest and upheaval, with a set of choices we face, the performance(s) cast doubt on our physicality and ultimately our mortality."

The work for me, significantly, has been presented as part of the 18th Sydney Biennale. The experience of the work is one that is more movement than dance and the shapes, patterns, groupings and execution, combined with the singing of this very spare music, around a large white chalked circle, is one that required a patience to succeed to get the most from. The durational aspect of the work (it is almost1 hour 45 minutes) becomes part of its power and mesmerising immersion. No patience, no will to participate, the rejection of the work for not being an entertainment, may lead to your focused disaffection and, even, by some, a need to leave.

I am at present engaged in working on Shaw's SAINT JOAN and as part of my preparation have just read Barbara W. Tuchman's great history A DISTANT MIRROR - The calamitous 14th Century (Penguin Books,1978),it written as a mirrored reflection of the twentieth century, as well as THE TIME TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND by Ian Mortimer (Vintage Books,2009) and could not help, with the Belgian artists reference and the music, but relate all of my recent knowledge : the Black Death-plague, the warring armies, the desolated populations and the religious iconography, to this work. And although Bruegel is painting two centuries later, I had flashes of image remembrances that helped me give meaning to the abstractions in front of me, and sustained my focus to a position of rapt appreciation and endurance. (Echoes from the 2011 film THE MILL AND THE CROSS, a Polish-Swedish work by Lech Majewski with Rutger Hauer, seen at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, kept coming back to me).

Co-incidence of study, then, may have helped me enter into an ancient European cultural reflection of our times. For an Australian audience it could have been, as it was for some, a very challenging experience. I loved it. The weaving together of an indigenous history of European man, made relevant for today, as a mirrored meditation about today. It was an experience of tremendous and rarefied beauty for me : the combination of music, movement and images. (Contemporary costume moving from blacks to splashes of colour, shirts and shoes by Anne-Catherine Kunz. Sceneography, using the assets of the actual carriageworks space by Ann Veronica Janssens, with the opening of the back doors and lighting the surviving machinery in the depths of the building.)

Others, Jill Sykes, for instance, in the Sydney Morning Herald can talk more learnedly about the dance/movement aspect of the work. I had a deeply reflective and stimulated time.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Cirque Du Soleil present OVO, under the Grand Chapiteau in the Showring at the Entertainment Quarter, Sydney.

OVO is the 25th production of the Cirque Du Soleil. "OVO takes you through a day in the life of the insects. A non-stop riot of energy and movement, the show is a headlong rush into a colourful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work, crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for love." If you are looking for a reference to the world of this show, think ANTZ, the 1998 Dreamworks Animation, as I, delightfully, did, and you are on your way. That is the super wrapping, visual pleasure, surrounding a spectacular array of physical skills and craft of a super disciplined and gifted kind. A sophisticated circus of pure and immaculate production.

The performers were spectacular, but, what knocks me out and leaves me green with envy, fulminating with want, is the combination of all of the creative elements of this entertainment that is so thorough, seamless and efficient with such high calibre vision and uber-professionalism. The integration of all these complicated and complex energies are simply breathtaking and worth taking pause to admire and appreciate. Not just the performers and performances, then, but the technical feats, (like the arrival of the stage machinery, that facilitates the trampoline act at the end of the show), going constantly on around it, propelling OVO forward with not a heart beat lost.

Writer/Director/and Choreographer, Deborah Colker and the Director of the Creation, Chantal Tremblay have marshaled and synthesised a team of wonderful artists for OVO: Gringo Cardia, Set and Props Designer; Liz Vandal, Costume Designer; Julie Begin, Make-up Designer; Eric Champoux, Lighting Designer; Berna Ceppas, Musical director; Jonathan Deans, Sound Designer; Fred Gerard, Acrobatic Equipment and Rigging Designer; Phillipe Aubertin, Acrobatic Performance Designer; and Benoit Mathieu, Production Manager.

With all of this support, the performing artists and the demonstration of their dedication and craft/artistry seemed apparently easy, and required real after thought from me, to fully appreciate the wonder of these 'magic' human beings. 12 different 'acts' from juggling, a huge mixture of aerial feats, contortionists, and trampolining, provide entertainment and wonder of the highest order – and I mustn't forget the clownish antics as well, that are interwoven into a narrative trail to take us from act to act.

Each of you will have your favorites and mine were the ANTS with their foot juggling; FIREFLY and his Diabolo juggling ricks (Tony Freebourg); a simply amazing and dazzling performance in a marvelous costume in an act called CREATURA (Lee Brearley); Spiderman Slack Wire (Julaiti Ailati) and the ultimate act of the night CRICKETS, a trampoline and wall act - CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON eat your heart out, this live act conquers the impression of my memory of the physical feats in that movie, hands down. Nothing like real live art, is there? When the risks are taken and they dare to fail gloriously, much is, then, experienced. The intensity of the moments, unbelievably lived by us, the audience. Our hearts literally in our mouths, willing the spectacle to keep going without flaw or crash. Danger IS so attractive, is it not? Catharsis, galore. Loved it. A kid again with the eye of an adult. Blissful.

The Costume design is spectacular, both beauty and function. The Choreography, the movement of all the elements, technical as well as artistically, is wonderful - a magnificent feat. The music and the sound design, especially, remarkable in its ability to transport us into a focused immersion of constant delight.

This is my first visit to CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, and I can thoroughly recommend it. It is a great respite of wonderment, and a great way to take pause in this hectic and sometimes awfully confronting world. Go. I can guarantee, for all but the most jaded amongst us, this is a delight for your family and for YOU.

I just read a marvelous review of the latest THEATRE DU SOLEIL (not, CIRQUE DU SOLEL) work under the guidance of Ariane Mnouchkine: LES NAUFRAGES DU FOL ESPOIR. Please can we see her again soon? I saw THE FLOOD DRUMMERS in the Royal Hall of Industries (RHI) at the Entertainment Quarters a few years ago, and last night I was flooded with memories of the high artistic integrity and craftsmanship, of that company, too, as I walked past the RHI to the bus from OVO. Or, is our re-current refugee solution a political obstacle, too insuperable for the facilitation of a visit? The Tampa incident was around then. Madame Mnouchkine was quite outspoken. Ah, well, save the cents, off to Paris or where ever else that company is touring, I guess. The review was of a performance in Edinburgh.

Monday, September 10, 2012

I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard

Tamarama Rock Surfers Theatre Company present I WANT TO SLEEP WITH TOM STOPPARD - a new play by Toby Schmitz at the Bondi pavilion, at Bondi Beach.

I WANT TO SLEEP WITH TOM STOPPARD is the latest play by Toby Schmitz - yes, that actor we read about in both the two major papers two weekends ago, who is about to impersonate Elyot Chase in Noel Coward's super erudite comic masterpiece PRIVATE LIVES for our delectation and, I hope, delicious appreciation. Mr Schmitz has also being writing for many, many years now, and he is pretty good at it. The last play I saw of his was CAPTURE THE FLAG and it was, as a play, fairly interesting. I have seen two different productions.

Rumour has it that, and, this may just be publicity 'pump', that Mr Stoppard himself, knows of this play, well, at least its title, and, was grateful that it was not: I WAS PUT TO SLEEP BY TOM STOPPARD. I can guarantee that you will not be put to sleep with this production of Mr Schmitz's play, although if you like the theatre, and, or, go regularly, the experience will be more wakeful than otherwise.

This play concerns a young actor, Luke, (Tom Stokes) who has invited his latest girlfriend, an older actress, Sarah (Caroline Brazier), the star of his last work engagement, to dinner with his parents, Jackie (Wendy Strehlow), a woman at crisis point in her 'wifely' situation and Tom (Andrew McFarlane), a self absorbed professional - a dentist - and naval history-model nerd!

The play is set mostly in the kitchen/dining room around the dinner meal and copious bottles of wine but, also, upstairs in the attic-model room. The format is that of a classic middle class comedy of manners. The experience will conjure David Williamson at his comic best, Alan Ayckbourn at his wittiest satiric best, or more contemporaneously, Yasmina Reza, the French 'genius' of this genre, last represented on the Sydney stages by that razor/reza edged, French version of THE SLAP called GOD OF CARNAGE - also a recent Polanski directed film.

Cultural discussion of the value or importance of the theatre, mixed, inter woven, interlaced, with the more animal sexual inclinations and lives of these people and their extended family, occupies us for most of the night. The first half is particularly scintillating and the knowledge that Mr Schmitz has of the theatre, and its value, aided, and, probably abetted by the dinner conversations of his extended 'families' - theatrical and otherwise,  make for a listen and laugh fest.

All of the performances are wonderful. Wendy Stehlow's Jackie, recognisably brittle - a woman taut and ready to detonate witheringly, she will either grow or explode, this space cannot be ignored any longer; Andrew McFarlane as Tom, blithely arrogant and outrageously opinionated, giving a performance of subtly cruel observation with elan and elegance that the man may not deserve, but is enhancing to the comic touches of the writing; Tom Stokes as Luke, young, naive and deliciously self deceived and finally, moving; and Caroline Brazier, as Sarah, a mature 'gorgon' of the theatre - not to be challenged or trifled with, especially about her ART - giving a performance that might in Australian performance legend or fable, come to rival, for those of us who know, Bette Davis in her film performances as Regina Giddens in THE LITTLE FOXES, or, better still as Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE. Every musculature of body, voice, brain and emotion is coiled for devastating affect, by Madame Brazier: to reveal a lived life of theatre frustration, of lack of recognition for her art form, mafnificently unleashed in Sarah, as representative for herself and all of her "sisters" of the art, for our delight. Mr Schmitz tells us that Sarah had her genesis in "…the many actresses I have had the benefit to know, and in my twin desires to write a complex character who keeps shedding layers, and an unashamedly explosive femme fatale for one of them to play'' and he has done it.

Directed fluidly by Leland Kean, designed well if, necessarily frugally, perforce of budget restraints, by Natalie Hughes & Vanessa Hughes, but basked in the glow of Luiz Pampolha's lighting and wrapped wittily in the sound design of Jeremy Silver, this Independent Theatre production sits beside other recent representatives  : THE SEAFARER, PUNK ROCK , as well worth your patronage and give the major houses something to regard seriously as real alternative Bang for your Bucks.

A good night at the theatre, especially for theatre addicts who can appreciate the 'camp' of it.
I enjoyed myself immensely.

Although, I should say, I prefer the subject matter and intentions of CAPTURE THE FLAG to this. But, both plays are wonderful in their genre-specificity. Mr Schmitz, indeed, a real man for all seasons, ah, skills?

I look forward to Mr Schmitz's furore, when he tackles the big world around us, other than theatre and sex, or theatre, or sex. Mr Stoppard has written like this (perhaps the theatrical trickery of THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND),  and then progressed to darker and more complex witteries. I hope Mr Schmitz does indeed sleep with Mr Stoppard, perchance to dream, in the stratospheres of Mr Stoppard's other worlds. In the meantime, see this.

The Sea Project

Meredith Penman and Iain Sinclair - Photography by John Feely

ARTHUR and Griffin Independent present THE SEA PROJECT by Elise Hearst at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

THE SEA PROJECT is the second play by Elise Hearst that I have seen. The first was DIRTYLAND and it was produced by the same artistic team, ARTHUR - (at least, Director Paige Rattray; Designer, David Fleischer; Lighting Designer, Ross Graham), but at the New Theatre under THE SPARE ROOM project initiated by that company (now, already, sadly, a little defunct). THE SEA PROJECT, like DIRTYLAND, deals with the middle European emigration story, particularly after the events of the Second World War.

Eva (Meredith Penman) is discovered, naked on a remote beach, and scooped up in the sturdy arms of Bob (Iain Sinclair) to the safety of that iconically ordinary Australian man's home - a really, gently ordinary man's home - straightforward, uncomplicated, open and trusting, and able to provide a life without complicating questions. This home feels remote from the rest of the land, indeed, remote definitely in time, as well. This is a boat story but one from a near, but, now, romantic history-time.

Eva has no remembrance of how she got to this beach, or of any of her background at all, except her name, faintly found. She has a missing finger, a symbol of some trauma in her background ...? Gradually, Eva builds a trusting life with Bob, and another mysterious figure, a boy, Samuel (Travis Cardona), who collects the debris thrown up from the ocean on the beach front, keeping a good inventory, count, of it all. Eva's past begins to be submerged further and further, and it, in this idyllic place, becomes less and less of consequence, until one day a man, Maciek (Justin Cotta) turns up. He recognises Eva and he knows of her past and begins to present and demand that it be acknowledged. Bits of it, the joyous (music and dance) as well as the horrific (bullets in heads and a lost finger) are gradually pieced together for Eva, and a climax leading to a torn decision, is demanded of her.

There is under the auspices of Ms Rattray, Mr Fleischer and Mr Graham, a beautiful visual aesthetic - a mirrored floor with careful attention to furniture and properties additions, that takes the images to unfathomable depths, lit for atmospherics of some arrest. There is also from Ms Rattray an encouragement for the actors to play, in what I would describe as a 'hyper-real' style. The physical and vocal efforts of the actors are highly committed, not exaggerated, but certainly larger than naturalism, as we are usually used to, in the 'kitchen sink' traditions of some of our great theatre. Here, there is a kind of striking energy that has a laser like focus in its intention (maybe, it comes from an Anne Bogart influence?).

This style suits the European characters of Eva and Maciek particularly well. Mr Cotta, as Maciek, striving and achieving a physical dance-like fluidity of some elegance and beauty, whilst, vocally and facially counterpointing with suggested menace, maybe malice, perhaps just a European desperation, seemed to succeed, for me, best in this 'hyper-realist' mode - it, mind you, sometimes, hangs delicately on the edge of being over-the-top, but, never does, go there. Ms Penman, on the other hand seems to be in performance super conscious of the style, and its technique seems to dominate the effort of the actor, for in contrast to Mr Cotta, physically, Ms Penman's work is full of tense muscularity, with no sense of the relaxed usage, that we need to believe unreservedly for her characterisation in this staged world to succeed, and, vocally the words are 'spat' out in energetic 'bullet' sprays with little sense of the usage of range, even volume, for contrasted build and effect. The word by word sense of revelation in the text of story and character becomes, relatively, lost, in the applied effort of stylistic focus. It becomes flatly similar in sound and ultimately exhausting to watch and audit.

Mr Sinclair, as Bob, a kind of image of the apotheosis of uncomplicated Australian security, and Mr Cardona as the enigmatic presence of the welcomer to this land, beach, Samuel, are contrastingly, gently focused and delightfully laconic in the energy of their performance choices. This is the second performance by Mr Cotta (SYNCOPATION) and Mr Sinclair (THE HIGHWAY CROSSING) I have seen this year and they have been quite memorable, on both occasions. Mr Cardona was last seen here at the Griffin in SAVAGE RIVER and the impression he gave then, is re-visited here - of note.

Ms Hearst's play, and the storytelling tools that Ms Rattray uses, are like in their previous collaboration, DIRTYLAND, still, too obtuse for me to comfortably read, in the experience of the performance - its intentions, or even its narrative journey. It sometimes seems too deliberately opaque, and the subsequent, possible, emotional power of the story is subverted, by my having to give too much intellectual, objective consideration, to solving what is happening in front of me. For, Eva is a wonderful reminder of the startling, and humbling stories of the immigrant people about me, who have contributed to my culture and way of living, often too subtly for me to remark. I wished that I could have empathised more clearly and easily with her in the theatre.

One of the affects of knowing of Ruth, the heroine in Anna Funder's novel, ALL THAT I AM, makes me more appreciative of the women and men about me in my shopping malls in Bondi Junction - I wonder what stories of their youth they could tell me, if I dared ask. What dangers, what risks they had to flee as refugees to the safety of Australia. I pay attention to my Vietnamese friends and their families more avidly and sympathetically. I connect to the contemporary dilemma of the 'Boat People' of Iraq and Afghanistan more assiduously, I can assure you. Eva, of THE SEA PROJECT, could have more readily done that for me as well, but the writing does not allow such easy comprehension. I was hampered, as well, by the live music content of Tom Hogan, both the sound and the volume, and I sometimes wished that the lighting was less 'picture-making' and more sensible to showing us, clearly, what was going on.

"Turn down the sound and lift the lighting", a friend of mine in the audience summed up their night!
I believe it was more than that.

Hilary Bell: THE SPLINTER; Kendall Feaver: THE HIDING PLACE; Jane Bodie : RIDE; and now Elise Hearst : THE SEA PROJECT, compile an interesting set of plays, all in a row, to absorb in the Australian theatre writing context, here in Sydney. Interesting, indeed.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


The Old 505 Theatre presents RIDE by Jane Bodie at the Old 505 Theatre space, Hibernian House, Elizabeth St Central Railway.

Two livers of life, a 'he' and a 'she', wake up in the same bed, no knowing how they met, where they met, when they met, who each other are, and what or why they wanted, to get into this bed, or, even did they do IT! These two young culture representatives, perhaps, of the binge obliterators of real life, as they know it, and that we have been reading about in our newspapers (especially Monday mornings), wake up, and over the day that follows take us on a gentle probing into trying to jigsaw the puzzle together. It finishes with a recognition that 'he' offered 'she' a RIDE home and at last they introduce themselves as Joe (Michael Pigott) and Elizabeth (Kerri Glasscock).

It is directed by Gareth Boylan, a little too simply, with not enough variations of pace, or encouragement to emotional range and attached 'truth' to the journey. Mr Pigott gives a gentle, soft edged touch to the bewildered host of this situation. There is an air of empathetic charismatics that is an inherent part of the persona of this actor that works well and allows us to identify his character's fragility. Ms Glasscock is reliable, but tends to be 'acting' and does not really achieve a complete embodiment of the woman she is impersonating. The work is intellectually and technically 'mapped', but, the performance shifts and developments are not truly organically connected. In this intimate space, the performance skill, in this kind of play, must be scrupulously "real" - for in this tiny space we can see the characters, in a kind of cinematic close-up, and the ability for us to be lost in the verisimilitude of the playing is essential, otherwise a subjective disconnect happens, and we watch a little to objectively - disengaged.

Ms Bodie's play is a beautiful piece of writing in a very 'middle-of-the-road' kind of way and the audience was able to easily identify the commonalities with their lives, and were amused with this human recognition of the RIDE that these two characters take. Last year, Ms Bodie gave us THIS YEAR'S ASHES, up at the Griffin theatre and this play feels like a preparatory exploration for it.

RIDE is easy to enjoy and a sort of 'rom-com' for the near to be married, or just married individuals, who may be reminiscing about times nearly gone, or now gone, because of THE vow.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Yard

Captivate and Shaun Parker and Company presents THE YARD, at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.

THE YARD is a dance work created by Shaun Parker and Company along with Captivate. Shaun Parker and Company are well known to us, especially because of HAPPY AS LARRY (Seymour Centre) - a work I especially liked. Captivate, on the other hand, is new to me. It is "the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta's creative and performing arts initiative for students in Western Sydney primary and secondary Catholic schools." NINE participating schools make up the cast of this show - from Rooty Hill, Hassall Grove, Marayong, Mount Druitt, Blacktown, South Windsor, Glenmore Park, Dundas, Emu Plains.

Supposedly, using the William Golding, LORD OF THE FLIES as inspiration, THE YARD explores the interaction of youth in the playground. Using the natural interests and skills of these students, Shaun Parker has fused a work that is as powerful in full flight as it is in the stillness of the individuals and collective on the stage. "Break dance, locking, popping, tutting, krumping, and jerk forms of dance found on the streets and in the school yards, of Western Sydney" combined with the sporting physical prowess of the basket baller, soccer player, martial artist and the idiosyncratic skills of some of the artists ,such as a "balancer", are all incorporated into a totally exhilarating and amazing experience. A Production with a shape and entity.

What is devastatingly exciting, is to see the commitment of these non-dancers and, best, the multi-cultural range of artists on the stage. African, Asian of many countries and Caucasians as well all explode in a spectacle that one only dreams about, to be seen on the Sydney stages, except in Festival events. Here, in the west, at Riverside, under the curating skills of Robert Love and Company, this theatre is leading with the invitation and maybe, empowerment, of the full breadth of a community make-up. Better still it doesn't feel like a token deal, either, it feels rooted and organic, an expression of the culture of the schools, the area, the West of Sydney. What Riverside Theatres can represent for a community. Participate, collaborate with.

The sophistication of this work is not just the physical dynamics of groups of energetic dancers or the whole collective energy, blowing out into the audience, though, it is irresistible, but, even more palpably,when the single dancer and, or, body of dancers just stand and pose for us. The centred stillness, the radiating confidence of identity and comfortability of the expressed right to be in that place in front of us is honest, raw and a propitious symbol of a complex theatre future. All power to them.

Much credit to Mr Parker. The simple setting and the effective lighting combined with a spot on eye for costume design - school uniforms, I assumed - all motivated to move by an absolutely inspired, detailed pumping composition by NIck Wales leaves one in an ecstatic state. I want a CD copy, please.

I had got up at 6am, went to a Currency Press Breakfast, to hear the inspirational Penny Chapman talk in the Tea Room in the QVB about film and television production in Australia; caught the train to Campbelltown, where I am, at present, an "Artist-in -Residence" with the Campbelltown Arts centre, working with some amazing adults with disability to build a performance, with several other centres in the outer fringe - it was their 'Olympics' and I participated in the relay and egg-and-spoon race (lost both, no medal for me) - before getting down to rehearsal; caught the train back to Granville and then out to Parramatta to see this show. I had to organise my rehearsals by iPhone for my production of Shaw's SAINT JOAN, on the train, for the community theatre of the Genesians - a psychic balancing act - I hoped Joan was helping- she was; deal with a bloody-faced victim of physical abuse in the park across from the Riverside Theatres, washing his dripping hands and phone on his blood smeared white hoodie, as I had time to spare, disturbing my Book Club duty: THE SONG OF ACHILLES, and holding my tension in, as a police car with siren blaring passed us by - my bloodied friend was very tense indeed, until the car disappeared; watching the Channel Nine 6pm News in the Sebel Hotel foyer, before being flooded with what seemed like an entire visiting high school of athletes, before having a pizza at the Church St Restaurant enclave. I was tired (!)  as I collected my ticket at 7pm for the showing. THE YARD enlivened me tremendously. Inspiration for living in 2012, indeed. After the performance I walked with a spring in my step to Parramatta station and caught the train with connections back to Bondi Junction; Patroclus and Achilles set off for Troy, Iphigenia having been sacrificed by Agamemnon for the winds from the Gods; a bus to Coogee and walk down the hill, home, where I bubbled enthusiastically about THE YARD, the young artists (kids), Shaun Parker and Nick Wales. A day well spent.It was approximately.10pm. I had a cup of tea, Some news on television and so to bed.

Again, a day well spent. All it takes is art like THE YARD and I feel I can do anything.

The Hiding Place

atyp Under the Wharf and The Night Whisperer present, THE HIDING PLACE by Kendall Feaver at the atyp Theatre Wharf 4, Hickson Rd.

Isn't it a wonderful thing, and an awful human trait, that, sometimes, when expectations are not so enthusiastic (even low), and still one makes room in one's life for supporting an endeavour, one encounters an experience that is highly, surprisingly, stimulating? One feels so rewarded from that low base of expectation that the tidal flow of pleasure is immense. Or, appears so. The adrenalin rush is so warming. The disinclined effort is rewarded. I am so glad that I overcame my slothful impulse to just stay at home. For, so it was for me last Saturday when I made my way to the atyp Theatre down at Wharf 4 at Hickson Rd. It was cold, I was tired (six hours, wrestling [pleasurably, I assure you] with George Bernard Shaw and his SAINT JOAN). It was a new play by a fledgling company with no track record (yet). But! But, but,but,but ... It did have some young artist's of my acquaintance and they had got off their 'thumbs', and adventured into the terrible waters of self start. The disease of the artist, the need to create is insatiable and won't be appeased - only deep unhappiness can seep through those of us who surrender to inertia. Bitterness can be so debilitating and, ultimately, insidiously so self demeaning. Up, they have struggled to create and present. Up I got, despite the cold, to be, well, surprised.

THE HIDING PLACE is a new Australian play by a writer I have never encountered before, Kendall Feaver. She has begun to track up a very fine grounding of development and in the program is described as "an emerging playwright." On the basis of this one play, I reckon, she has emerged. I was fairly impressed. It is very sophisticated in character. It is very sophisticated in plot structuring. It is very sophisticated in its thematics and poetic heritage. It is, best of all, full of a love for language and its usage, to serve an astounding appetite for complex searching. It feels to be a play deeply lived, felt, stuffed with compassion for the people in her world invention, and with an urgent will to be heard.

From the program:
The unsteady line between folklore and accepted creed has always fascinated me. Both fable and parable are markedly similar as tools for moral instruction and both contain some inherent contradictions. Their terrible violence is masked by the most beautiful of words; they promise a place of safety by creating something to fear; and whether the stories involve a wicked stepmother, a hungry wolf, a plague of locusts or a global flood, they are all reliant on the credulous minds of children to prosper. - Kendall Feaver.
Two families, one of two women, one of two men. Both families dysfunctioning - we would judge, if we were not enchanted : dysfunctional. The children meet through a window crossing, and a journey of learning and growing begins. The adults don't really have much journey to willingly take- although they do have one, indeed, they do. It is the children who move from the fables, parables and rules of the worlds that they have inherited and may, one hopes, make a brave new world. The parallel between the play world and the world of THE NIGHT WHISPERERS , the young company who has produced this show, seems immeshed.

Standing behind the magic of Ms Feaver's vision is a young designer, Gez Xavier Mansfield, who has had a prolific artistic time since graduating from design school last year (including his contribution to the recent great production of PUNK ROCK), with a beautiful, immersive set of written dreams on white, hanging papers, of aspirations and inspirations, billowing gently in the breeze of the air's movement, flanked on either side by two real yet redolent rooms of the practical world - one decaying, one pragmatic and lifeless-of this day. Supporting this imagery is another young artist, Sara Swersky, who has enhanced the magic of it all with delicate and supernatural intimations, with an inspired lighting design. Then, to wrap it all in a world of awe, is the aural contribution by another young artist Nate Edmondson who has created a sound composition and design of tremendous detail and beauty. (Mr Edmonson is prolific too, and this work along with his contributions to THE SEAFARER and THE HIGHWAY CROSSING, this year, must set a benchmark for excellence in creative voicing of textual developments and thematic motifs in his playwright's writings, with Sound Designs involving scrupulous script analysis - rare indeed today, in my experience in recent theatre going.)

The actors, all give dedicated performances, and serve the text well, Phillipe Klaus as Patrick, clear, uncluttered and affecting. Michele Durman delicately weaving her way through a role of great challenge. Paul Hooper, a little unhelped by the staging, is impressive as Ross, the lost father, whilst Abi Rayment as the Nana, carer, Mae, is not, as yet, as secure in her journey.

The director in charge of all this is also young, Kai Raisbeck, and he ought to be pleased with the risks and dedication that he has revealed and aroused in his team. What is especially interesting is that Mr Raisbeck has a sense of the importance of tempo, of the possibility in the depth of stillness, of near silences, to communicate, to allow an audience to endow. He has not attempted to make his directorial finger prints glow all over the production, he has, rather, done what any good director ought to do, attempted to illuminate the writing and the writer's intents :the content and craft. Not comment and twist the text, to misinform to some other pre-occupation of his own. (Quell surprise? I think).

All of this was done in a two and half week process. It is a stamp of the fever of these young NIGHT WHISPERERS that this much good work was achieved. I was enchanted and left with an ethereal sense of the lacuna, especially as the harbour was lapping under and around us under a near full moon, of the mysterious dimensions of our worlds, the fable and the parable and reality, the inside, the outside, the real and the unreal, the tangible and the intangible forces that shape us. This work is gloriously promising and goes hand in hand, though they are different in objective experiencing, with THE SPLINTER by Hilary Bell upstairs in the STC Wharf 1 theatre.

Don't be slothful. Here is some future to support that you will be glad to have done. I hope, you will. I am.

All these young artists are arresting, none more so than the writer, Kendall Feaver - keep an eye out- although she is off next week to begin a Masters in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths, University of London. Let's hope she gets back here. I reckon we need her.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Splinter

Helen Thomson and Julia Ohannessian in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Splinter. Photographer: Brett Boardman.

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE SPLINTER by Hilary Bell at Wharf 1. (Hickson St.)

THE SPLINTER concerns a Father (Erik Thomson) and a Mother (Helen Thomson) who after a nine month agony of the 'missingness' of their only child, a little girl, suddenly find her returned. There is no explanation, no restorative story to fill in the nine month gap - just the physical presence of the little girl. She cannot speak. She cannot tell of her nine month absence. She just is. Is present. Her presence becomes catalyst for breakdown.For after the initial joy of the little girl's return the Father and the Mother splinter in their response to the presence of their child. The Father becomes, gradually, certain that this little girl is not their child. His child. Mother is less definite, less certain of her husbands belief. Father becomes obsessional in his belief and the tensions between the couple grow and grow and the little child remains mute.

Hilary Bell's text of this play is relatively spare. The scenes are short. The scenes take us on a roller coaster of emotional attenuation. The passing of time, off stage, between the staged scenes are where the drama happens.We witness the mounting sign posts of a growing illness and splintering. Tensions are turned, are screwed.

Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW, apparently was the beginning of the source of this story. However, it seemed to me that, rather, the play adaptation by William Archibald, or, more especially, because of the visual solutions of this production by Sarah Goodes and designer Renee Mulder, that the Jack Clayton filmed adaptation, THE INNOCENTS (1961), with Deborah Kerr, became a keystone to the collaborators of this scenario.

The interesting experience of this production is not just the scenes as they unravel but the manner, the form, the method, various storytelling traditions that have been incorporated, collaborated with, to stage this production. Ms Mulder has created an open space with a central double window frame fronted by a billowing curtain (it magically folds and disappears in front of our eyes, at one point) - and it has, along with the lighting (Damien Cooper) and an immersive but subtle music composition (Emily Maguire) and sound design (Steve Francis), a spooky atmospheric power. Ms Mulder has grounded the play in a large old fashioned patterned carpet of dull colourings with carefully selected old "yellowing - autumunal" feeling furniture, reflected in the carpet choice. In the program Ms Mulder says she tried with her design,"... to tread between inside and outside, landscape and mindscape, reality and fantasy." She has succeeded admirably.

Added to this visual cleverness then, Ms Goodes has introduced puppetry (Alice Osborne) as a tool to represent the returned child. Several puppets of different scale are used and they are handled by two actors. The puppets, as with most puppets, can become mesmerizing points of endowed emotions when well owned and held.Horribly, fascinatingly real. The actors/pupeteers (Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley) are dressed in clothing of different period oddities and are not merely the manipulators or life force of these 'child/dolls' but, at different times, become spectral witnesses, in their eerie presences, of the events of the couples' splintering. They seem to haunt the play, assisted by the lighting and sound, much like the ghosts, apparitions, in the Deborah Kerr film, of Mis Jessel and Peter Quint.

Mr Thomson begins the text with a 'glib' forward vocal energy that suggested a 'style' rather than a truth. However, it paid dividends cumulatively, as the play built to its climax. I became swept up in the rush of the overwhelming speed of the uttered but suppressed symtoms of illness, spilling and pooling and then seeping to disaster. I liked the choice better, later, than, earlier. Ms Thomson on the other hand, carries a double emotional wallop, not only the grief for her lost daughter and her return, but, also the growing sense of the loss of her husband, as well. Her performance, for me, sits more comfortably as an 'idea' of the woman's journey, rather than a really experienced emotional one. I never quite believe her. The voice sits high in the body and into the head, and never really radiates from the central core of her 'guts' or diaphragm, where the emotions sit - the centre of the instrument. The body, thus, is not vulnerable to the necessary enrgetic means of expression. It becomes locked and not dispersive throughout. Musical range to express the variations of perception,  plus the character's physical response were limited in the performance, I saw. Volume and speed are the principal tools. It becomes a little limited in its effectiveness and stressed for the wrong reasons. Those of the actor, not the character.

Ms Ohannessian and Worsley are best as the unemcumbered forces in the spirit world of this play. Ms Ohannessian has a more seamless identity with the puppets than Ms Worsley who does not quite disappear beside her puppet duties.The puppets here only glimmer with promise as to their possible ability to contribute to the story catalystic atmospherics. In this area of the production, not quite enough familiarity with the puppet collaboration is present. When one recollects the puppetry work from My Darling Patricia in their work AFRICA in Wharf 2 last year, or, in almost any of their productions, one can discern the dramatic differences of impact. And wait till you see the puppetry in WARHORSE (you have booked haven't you?).

What is rewarding about this production is the seeing of a play by Ms Bell on the mainstage in Sydney. Other than WOLF LULLABY, I have never seen her work. Reading some of her other plays, I always feel a quirky fascination with the extraordinary, a kind of Tim Burton imagination. There is always that liminal sense in her imagined work of the real world immeshed with the magic of the fairy folk tale and the biblical stories of our faiths - and it is of a meshing that is not always benign. Tempting to explore, for us dreamers. In having Sarah Goodes bring this vision to the stage from the page, Ms Bell has a good and inspired 'servant'.

See what you think.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Death of a Salesman

Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir St Theatre presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller in the Upstairs Theatre.

Dear Diary,

I saw this production by Simon Stone of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller, several weeks ago.

I have struggled with my response. I have put it off, and off, and off. For, there were somethings that I enjoyed, and yet, I was very discontented. Ultimately, very, very frustrated and unhappy.

It seems that I have only written negative responses to recent work in the two major companies,'houses', in Sydney. Especially, work concentrated about the recent flurry, nay storm, of the utilising of other writers' work and reputations, to present, I suppose, what someone feels is a more relevant , and so, in most cases, an overtly, Australianised 'version' of the original, by re-writing, editing or completely 'highjacking' the original (I thought just doing it with Australian artists, through our own cultural circumstances, would have Australianised it enough). THE WILD DUCKSTRANGE INTERLUDE,  FACE TO FACE, GROSS UND KLEINTHE WHITE GUARDTHE DUCHESS OF MALFI, and, wearily, others. Too surprising and dispiriting, in number, to recollect. It is especially unsettling when I feel it is only me that feels negative, partially, if not wholly, at least, about the recent trend. The norm of contemporary theatre in Sydney of late.

However, last Friday evening whilst waiting to go into a theatre,to see a new Australian play, I had a casual conversation with one of Australia's emerging, emerged, young, contemporary playwrights (one I have considerable belief in) and he expressed a comfort with the production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Belvoir. That,was, enough. It was a necessary, sufficient catalyst for me to just settle down and write. Many of my regular readers have been enquiring as to my reticence and non-comment on the Belvoir production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (still it has taken another week to do!).

So, back to the chase: "No matter", the young writer said, that he knew that the final scene, the Epilogue, written by Mr Miller as the ultimate intention of the original artist's artistic vision, had been entirely removed from this production. What that Epilogue did dramaturgically for Mr Miller we did not discuss, and how its absence may have slewed the writer's intentions also did not get aired. A noisy foyer was not the place for sensible or comfortable discussion.I did wonder what liberties I could make with this writer's work before he became discomforted with my 'tinkerings'. Maybe, changing key causal events, misrepresenting or diluting or just removing aspects of the prose and poetic storytelling structure, would be agreeable to him and I could still use the title and have his nomenclature as the author and it would be OK! Get me a pen or a delete button!!

I chaffed a little.

However, I asked, "Tell me, can you remember how Willy died?" I was told, by this writer, that Willy died by gassing himself in the body of his car. And, indeed, if you saw the Belvoir production of this play that is how he died. I mentioned that that was not Miller's choice. That in fact, Miller had Willy drive off at full speed, suggesting through the storytelling, that Willy Loman killed himself by driving at high speed and crashing - an altogether different poetic construct, than the one at Belvoir - a construct, that was more than poetic, I believe, but necessarily logical to the dramaturgical want of Miller for Willy, to give the surviving Loman family the benefits of his Insurance Policy. Maybe, like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, with her pistol, in the face of societal judgement of dishonour, Willy chose, the gesture of suicide, as a kind of 'heroic' gesture to maintain his dignity in the machinations of the conventions of the society he lived in? I wonder, then, did Willy die for naught in this production? After all, it is clearly a suicide with the elaborately taped window and equipment as evidence, and would the Insurance Company cough up? Or, maybe this new vision of Willy's gesture, by this company, is simply an underlining of the premise mentioned in the Belvoir electronic program notes (no hard copies available, the night I attended!), that Willy is a loser. The Insurance Company would not pay up and so the gesture was an ultimate act of a real loser, in this case a true-blue Aussie loser: the DEATH OF OF A REAL LOSER, by Simon Stone. But, hey, the designed (Ralph Myers) final image was striking, don't you think? Willy enveloped in gassy smoke, beautifully lit (Nick Schlieper) with the calls of Linda to bring Willy to bed, "Willy, you coming up?", that could be heard, pathetically, coming from their off-stage bedroom (- strange that she or any of her family did not hear the car engine, idling away, downstairs in the garage, especially as they knew of Willy's plans, and come to investigate).

The writer was surprised about the Miller choice, or, appeared to me, to be.

I was chaffed, and sadly moved. I had to go into the theatre to see the new Aussie play. The writer went over to some other young artists to have drinks at the new hip bar at the end of the STC wharf complex, with its white tiles and signs to DRINK or EAT. Boy, was it 'going off' and it was only 8 o'clock. It seemed not many of the customers were heading into the play! Odd? Not really when you look closer at the demographic of the crowd. When the play finished, the bar was still 'raging', DRINKing or EATing, or, both DRINKing and EATting. I saw some of the artists still there and waved as I left. No use looking for the young writer as he hadn't seen the new Australian play yet and so conversation would be limited. He had said that he would try to get to see it, soon.We can talk about it, next time we meet, I guess. And ask about the drink and food at the Wharf Bar, too.

Now, if this highly respected writer, one would assume a literate reader of his craft, did not know that this famous and great play had been so drastically re-configured, re-written, just how many of the ordinary audience also believed that Willy Loman had killed himself by gassing himself in Arthur Miller's "version" of DEATH OF A SALESMAN? A literary untruth. A dramatic licence of some licence, I thought. I may be wrong, of course and just an old fuddy duddy. Not 'hip' enough to go with the cultural colonisation of other people's work, to make it comprehensible, relevant, for the contemporary, 'indigenous' and maybe, stupid, Sydney audience (what? they can't read metaphor in the theatre? They manage it in their living rooms on television and at most cinema excursions to do the adjustments to relevancy, it seems, considering the reported Box Office returns of most O.S. TV programs and films). The audience I saw it with, generally, were highly receptive to this production, or performance, and most of them, it seems, believe that they have seen Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. All or most, I guess, believe that Willy died by carbon monoxide gas and not a high speed crash. All or most of them, I guess, do not know of Linda's bewilderment as the final statement of the Arthur Miller play' "... Why did you ever do that?... Why did you do it? I search, and I search, and I can't understand it, Willy. ..." It had been excised.

I have come across a series of essays by Arthur Miller himself : The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, edited and introduced by Robert A Martin, published by Methuen in 1999. One is entitled: ON ADAPTATIONS. It is talking specifically about the adaptation of great classics for television. But there is some relevance here to the recent habit of the Sydney theatre, two main houses.

Here are one or two, (actually, 6) quotes:

"Only one thing is lost by 'digesting' great works, and it is possibly the main thing, namely, the depth of the experience one might find in the originals" ( arguably, hello, STRANGE INTERLUDE).
 "We are breaking the continuity of culture by passing on its masterpieces through mutilated distortions." (arguably hello, THE DUCHESS OF MALFI).
"As it is, nothing less than a deception is being carried on, a private act of misinformation and miseducation". ( arguably, and, especially as it is a school literary text for study - there were several schools in the audience I saw it with, accounting for some of the sell-out, no seat available, I imagine - hello, DEATH OF A SALESMAN). 
"Worse than utter ignorance is the knowledge that is not knowledge but its shadow. (arguably,hello, the supposed Shakespearean,THE WAR OF THE ROSES *)
 "After all, those who are knowledgeable enough to adapt classics are to that degree in charge of then for the moment, so to speak, and are as responsible as a librarian who tears out half the pages of a work in order to get more busy people to read it. The justification that half (or, less of it) is better than nothing does not hold when one knows the humanizing power of the originals. You cannot digest a real work of art because it is digested in the first place; it is the ultimate distillation of the author's vision by definition." (Hello, THE WILD DUCK).
"Failing this, the digests of such works ought not to bear their original titles any more than a diluted beer or perfume can be sold with the brand name of the manufacturer who makes the real thing. The integrity of a masterpiece is at least equal to that of a can of beans." (All of the above, and, others too numerous to name, hello, a lot....!)

The integrity of masterpieces is worth more than a can of beans. I would have thought that, too. The Beethoven Ninth Symphony, without the Ode To Joy movement, because I feel it is out of kilter with the feeling of these distraught times - it is more meaningful without it - its very absence is more meaningful to Beethoven's intentions, today, than with it! Is it then the Ninth Symphony? Is it Beethoven? At the Belvoir did we see Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK? Or, THE WILD DUCK, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, after Ibsen? Or, is it "DUCK VARIATIONS" by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan, or, as I have heard from another, THE LAME DUCK? Choose a title to help make the most money at the box office. Discuss, Which title would you choose and say why. Can you think of a better?

This is just my "artist's" opinion, but I do believe that, along with Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS (I only know it, regrettably, in translation), Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN ranks up there as two of the greatest achievements in the theatre of the last century, (of any century, dare I?) - They are in my experience masterpieces of playwrighting.

The published text of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, his approved version of his play, created with the collaboration of all the other artists of the 1949 production, and copywrighted by him and his Estate, is a blueprint for all of us to solve, involved artists and paying audience, and take into our life resources for living. The timeless and universal power of this play is on record throughout theatre world history since its original conception. Simply google the relevant codes.

The fact that the audience I saw this production with was pleased, proves that even in this mutilated version of the play, artistically, misinforming the audience of Mr Miller's choices, it is great enough to survive, and has a potency of enormous power. One wonders what could have been achieved here at Belvoir, with the talent available, if Arthur Miller's published text was honoured at Belvoir with a 'closer' reading of the potential of that text. Without the need to re-rite or just omit other clues, directions. It is recognised as a great dramatic masterpiece as it was written and published, still today all around the world, except,it seems,here, at Belvoir. Who needs to re-write it, to tell a story relevant for the Sydney audience?

The Ensemble Theatre proved the power of the original a few years ago with their production at the Seymour Centre with Sean Taylor, Jackie Weaver, Anthony Gooley and Sam O'Sullivan. **** Here in Sydney, I remember the Old Tote version (1970) with Ben Gabriel, Betty Lucas; and the Nimrod version at the Seymour Centre with Warren Mitchell, Judi Farr, Mel Gibson. The Dustin Hoffman film and the Frederick March film, are also in my memory banks.This Belvoir stage production is the first time that I was not moved to tears - it was first time that I did not have a personal catharsis. This production was denied the epic scale of the writing and was reduced, mostly, to a slight, though intense, reading. A symphony reduced to a tone poem.There was no slap here, just a pointing.

From the text: "A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling us of grass and trees and the horizon.
Before us is the SALESMAN'S house...."

This production: No music to start with, that I recall (Composer and Sound Design, Stefan Gregory).
Before us: a black walled and floored void with a white, Australian made Ford Falcon situated  (Set Design, Ralph Myers).

There is actually a detailed one and a half page description of Arthur Miller and his team's vision for the setting of the play, that had evolved from the textual analysis of the play as written, and, although Mr Miller's initial conception was that the play was to be performed on a bare stage with three raised platforms, this is the final decision which he found worked best for his art." Jo Mielziner took the platforms and designed an environment around them that was romantic and dreamlike yet at the same time lower middle-class. His set, in a word, was an emblem of Willy's intense longing for the promises of the past, with which indeed the present state of his mind is always conflicting, and it was thus a both a lyrical design and a dramatic one. ... Jo was stretching reality in parallel with the script." (2).

The house and the paying of its mortgage is the central driving energy of Willy (Colin Friels) and Linda (Genevieve Lemon) Loman's life. The tragic reverberation of this core drive is echoed in Linda's last speech at the grave (cut from this production): "Willy, I made the last payment on the house today. Today dear. And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear ( FREE AND CLEAR, a title of the play that Miller toyed with for a while, by the way )...We're free... We're free..." The house ownership is the tangible goal of the attainment of the American Dream. Given that Mr Stone has set his production in Australia, accents and all,(though keeping the written anchoring American locations), the dream of house ownership seems to me even more potent a resonance. Why, then, the car? - I read an interesting review of the new French film HOLY MOTORS, it set in a car, noting that the new Cronenberg : COSMOPOLIS was also set in a car. Maybe, suggested the reviewer, the car is the new generation aspired dream!! The home, house, ownership even more crushing or impossible, today, while the car is still accessible?! That there is no house and the surrounding pressure of development image around them in this production, as suggested by the original creative team, reduces the impact of the literary text as dramatic action on this stage, for me. Having only a car on the stage was I thought overstating the suicide weapon imagery, a bit like having a giant gun as the only setting for Hedda Gabler. "The play grew from simple images. From a little frame house on a street of little frame houses, which had once been loud with the noise of growing boys, and then was empty and silent and finally occupied by strangers. Strangers who could not know the conquistadorial joy Willy and his boys had once (when they) re-shingled the roof. Now it was quiet in the house, and the wrong people in the beds." (1). The house is a constant image for the attaining of the American Dream in their dramatic literature. The Steppenwolf , AUGUST : OSAGE COUNTY, wonderfully so in the Sydney Theatre a few years ago. Check out O'Neill's LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT; Williams'  CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?; Shepards' BURIED CHILD ; Bruce Norris' CLYDEBOURNE PARK; Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES; etc, etc. for location. In Australian terms think SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, A HARD GOD, BIG RIVER, DON'S PARTY, ANGELA'S ASHES; THIS YEAR'S ASHES ; etc etc. A car, then, in a black void? I just don't think it has the same resonance, do you? Especially as the expression of the American or Austrlian Dream, do you?

I included the flute reference, because it is used by Miller as a re-curring sound motif throughout the play and has a significant connection to Willy's absent father, who made flutes and sold them, (the fear of children's abandonment/betrayal by fathers, is a recurring theme in Mr Stone's chosen work - Hamlet next year, I hear). That this important sound cue to the 'music' of Miller's play is not used weakens the emotional impact of the work. See where the 'Flute' is included as one of the dramatic voices of the scenes in the play and hear, imaginatively, the resonance that Mr Miller was attempting to awaken in the audience."It represents betrayal, for his father had deserted his boys, and his brother Ben had deserted Willy, going in search first of that father and then success at any price." (2). It is absent in this production and it lessens the dramatics of the play's experience, I reckon.

For me, however, the choice that diminished the experience of this play production, is, in the acting style adopted by most of the cast under the direction of Mr Stone. There are two actors, one of them being Colin Friels, who seems to have the imaginative measure and consistent focus on the 'operatic' scale of the performance requirements for this expressionistic memory play. Blazey Best, too, in smaller supporting roles, and, so, not really text time-wise, therefore, able to make a great contributing influence to the play-acting style, has the instinct and commitment to the scale of the writing.

The whole of the play is told in a 24 hour span and it is the final culminating day in the life of Willy Loman. All the voices in this play are the voice of Willy Loman as he attempts to come to terms with what he feels is a life that has failed to measure up to societal success. It comes from an" image greater than hunger or thirst, a need to leave a thumbprint somewhere on the world. A need for immortality, and by admitting it, the knowing that one has inscribed one's name on a cake of ice on a hot July day".(1). The play was originally to be called THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD, it takes place inside Willy's head, and time and place, present and past, swirl around him in contradictory juxtapositions, arguing, accusing, confessing, admitting, blaming himself for this failure. It comes from "the endless, convoluted discussions, wonderments, arguments, belittlements, encouragements, fiery resolutions, abdications, returns, partings, voyages out and voyages back, tremendous opportunities and small, squeaking denouements - and all in the kitchen now occupied by strangers who cannot hear what the walls are saying." (1).This is what Mr Miller has put on the stage in a form that is still revolutionary today and hardly matched again in recent dramatic literature. A play acted out in the protagonists mind/head. What we come to know is that Willy's tragedy is not within himself, but, in the societal conventions and the pressures that that brings to bear on him - and instead of turning the glare of the tortured search for failure on himself,better an examination of the trigger and trajectory for the American Dream, that has the dollar bill marked with "In God We Trust", and has kept him in gauging his worth, ought to have been at the centre of his tremendous focus. The system taught to achieve the American Dream is the problem, not the individual in it.

This then is a central character not in a naturalistic or realistic state but one in a heightened analytic form of expressionism, of self-examination. While watching the famous bedroom scene between Biff (Patrick Brammall) and Happy (Hamish Michael) in act one, I observed a kind of style of acting that was, sort of, 'glib' naturalism , a kind of cinematic approach to the delivery of the scene. Casual and throw away, as in life likeness. It was as if the actors were working out their private fate through their role, and the idea of communicating the meaning of the play was the last thing that might occur to them. ("In the Actors Studio, despite denials, the actor is told that the text is really the framework for his emotions; I've heard actors change the order of lines in my work and tell me that the lines are only, so to speak, the libretto for the music—that the actor is the main force that the audience is watching and that the playwright is his servant. They are told that the analysis of the text, and the rhythm of the text, the verbal texture, is of no importance whatever."(1)). It is the championing of reducing the writer's text to the actor's life scale instead of expanding the actor's imaginative powers to the scale of the writer, the writing, the "music". It is, to my mind, the perfect indulgence of the actor as creative (emotional) narcissist by a director. This is the mode that Mr Stone has directed his actors to. His designers as well. Downscaling. This is what I detected in most of the work of the other actors. A style of performance that was at odds with what is written. If music was attached to this 'libretto', I believe, it is 'opera' and not a lesser musical form that it demands. In my estimation, this investigation, if it is a conscious one, of a contemporary acting stage style, a Belvoir consciousness, by Mr Stone, (certainly, the design experience at Belvoir seems to be conscious), it is only possible if the intentions of some of his writers are dismantled. The best thing about THE WILD DUCK was the acting - and then the original play was hardly present. The relatively poor acting in the leading role of STRANGE INTERLUDE could salvage neither the other actors or the writer,in that case, and, this is true, as well, of FACE TO FACE. It worked admirably in the new Australian work of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH - a conventional structure and style, no matter the design and directing packaging.

Now this "Method" of acting works well in the movies, as the close-up can capture the detail of psychological gesture and storytelling, that, on stage, needs a more expansive commitment of expression - a mode that is of a more heightened and courageous scale. It is a necessity to be courageous, because most contemporary actors feel that BIG is wrong. It is wrong for them because it feels unnatural, and definitely, strange. And strange is scary. I say, "Gird your loins". Fear not failure : "We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, And we'll not fail." At least, if you are to fail, Fail Gloriously. For, unnatural to the inexperienced stage actor can mean untruthful. Rather the director ought to be encouraging the scale to see what happens. In the case of DEATH OF A SALESMAN what would be found, would be, from my experience of other productions of this play, the right mode of expression for the work. And, with that comes the overwhelming power of the play. Heightened truths of, at,  a magnificent scale.That power is the primal energy of the human soul, tapped by Arthur Miller, with his knowledge and admiration of the heritage of the Greek Theatre form. This is startlingly needed in the execution of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, if the true epic power of the work is too land. I will dare to say in any play of Mr Miller's, it is needed. The theatre, the stage, was his playing field. He always pushed the conventions of theatre form in every play he wrote, in the tradition of all the so-called mainstream greats of the American theatre canon : O'Neill, Williams, Albee, Shepard, Mamet, Guare. No simple naturalism there, ever. (Well, nearly).

The operatic scale, required for this work is what Mr Friels delivered every moment of his performance. In this production, Mr Friels never left the stage, he was present for all of Willy's mind's inventions, and, on observing him at the back of the stage, or, on the sides, as he witnessed Willy's imagined journey of life resolving, there was an emanation of focused storytelling energy of enormous ferocity from this Willy (Friels), that attempted to compensate, I thought, for the relatively dulled imaginings of the other actors' offers of theatrical expression. The other actors were, relatively, playing in a film life reality, and, so, perforce, despite the yearnings of Mr Friels to take the text to the stratospheric realms it requires, this Willy could only be read as a result, as a character in pathological breakdown. A man in a psychological and physical breakdown, an animal breakdown, and not in search of the existential answers, to satisfy his basic humanities, the belief that he is of worth, worthy, that he has done some good to immortalise himself - no matter the humble impact on the world stage - that his son can remember and respect him, give him honour at his  graveside. (These longings may be too altruistic for the Aussie bloke , too intellectual for the average Aussie bloke of this production? Had we best deny the scale and remove the funeral, then?)  In this production  the required energy comes from a man who is out to fight the closing 'fates' and so the first image of  Willy, is that of a snappy dresser, (costumes, Alice Babidge) an excited charmer, 'a scrapper', a cousin to Roo and Barney from the cane fields, not the defeated, weary, barely able to carry his salesman's cases, that Arthur Miller has written. A man that is about to call it quits and search painfully for the reasons for his defeat.

Arthur Miller talks of the performance of Frederick March in the first film of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1952), and even though March was considered for the leading man in the original stage production (he turned it down) and was an actor that he admired, Miller thought that the very conventions of the naturalism of film made everything in the film to be played against 'real'/natural locations and so it became a naturalistic story reeled out in a real world instead of the psychic mental projections of a panicked man. The text had to be shifted to respectful encounters between conforming human beings in public places. So, Willy could only be viewed in this realism "as a psycho, all but completely out of control with next to no grip on reality.... it was predictable in the extreme." (3.) The dramatic tension of Willy's memories was partly demolished by the naturalistic acting of the other actors, the horror was lost- and the drama became, relatively, narrative. Though not as drastic as that performance, Mr Friels has to struggle with the naturalistic, cinematic scaled responses of the other actors in this black box space, and the stature of the dramatic dilemma in the play is undermined to a more ordinary one, no matter the fluidity of the time and place storytelling. Mr Miller was still in charge of that.

It is this lack of sophistication on the part of the other acting style and technique that dominates the production that forces an unconvincing climax to the production. "The motor that drives the play is the relationship between father and son, the need of the former to pass on his false values if he is to retain a sense of his own significance, and the need of the latter to cut himself free. Biff returns not in search of success but in an attempt to save his father's life. The problem is that if he seeks to do so by bolstering Willy's illusions he will do so at the price of his own peace of mind. For Willy to survive, his son must stay, if he is to assuage his guilt." (4). In the climatic conflict between Biff and Willy, the response of Mr Brammall, as Biff, to his dramatic opportunities was to emotionalise the text to tell us of the journey of the scene, it became a shout with no real control over the information in the lines, the speech content. The emotions flooded the text instead of the text been clearly floated by the 'objective' logic of articulating that story, and the audience were not invited to endow the scene with any cathartic input, but rather admire the emotional state of Mr Brammall's acting. This emotional lack of control, on the night I saw it, forced Mr Friels to balance it with returned noise as well, and the exquisite pain of Willy's lifetime of striving for the dignity of simply being human and loved teetered on independent manufactured moments. The scene, almost collapsed for me. The skill and the determination of Mr Friels to re-capture our belief, us as witnesses of the great ploy of the play and take us to Willy's gathering astonishment of the love that his son is revealing to him was Herculean in its finesse, and despite a wan sense of being 'tricked', 'wooed' , by the naked technique of an actor, one jumped with him into the belief of the joyful tragedy of Willy's new knowledge, that Mr Friels was showing us, that leads Willy to the heroic deed of suicide for the honour and provision of his family (much like Ibsen's Hedda's final gesture to her society) and the dignity of his memory for Biff, especially. I capitulated, in a state of awe for Mr Friels' passionate commitment to the craft of the actor, that, sometimes can create art. Rather than being in the 'subjective' catharsis of the predicament of Willy, with Mr Friels and his artistry-craft.

So, I was not moved to tears, as this play has almost always drawn from me before.This production lacked the veracity and truthfulness of the Miller scale. The Greek Theatre heritage of Miller's artistic dreaming and sweat was absent in this production. The Ibsen agenda mechanisms were diluted with under-staked objective commitments to the arguments of the play and submitting to delivering 'animal' emotional states instead. Who knows, maybe, with the epilogue and Linda's final speeches I could have had a catharsis to give me the hope for our community and surviving in our social structures, in Sydney, in 2012. Unusually, Mr Stone removed the Miller Epilogue. Unusual, because Mr Stone usually adds one, e.g. THE WILD DUCK. The gathering of the extended family around the coffin of the Belvoir image of the car seemed an opportunity strangely and willfully missed. A funeral service is still a ritual, is it not in contemporary society, in Sydney, in 2012, as it is universally, isn't it?

This was a poor textual reading of a masterpiece. The play still made its mark and for its first time viewers they may have had a great experience. Certainly, the performance of Mr Friels was one to remember. That of an actor giving his all to a great playwright whatever else was going on about him (or ,not). And, whatever else, Mr Stone has, it is theatrical chutzpah. Someone else thinks so too, four major productions in one year is a big number of bites of the small theatrical apple in this city. Others are starving and want to know, how does he do it? How does he do it?


  1. The Theatre Essays of ARTHUR MILLER. Edited and introduced by Robert A Martin with a new foreword by ARTHUR MILLER. METHUEN, 1999. First published in 1978, The Viking Press and Penguin Books.
  2. ARTHUR MILLER 19915-1962 by Christopher Bigsby. Weidenfeld & Nicolson - 2008.
  3. TIMEBENDS by Arthur Miller.Methuen -1987.
  4. ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY. Edited by Christopher Bigsby. Methuen Drama in association with THE ARTHUR MILLER CENTRE FOR AMERICAN STUDIES - 1990.
  6. DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller -Penguin Plays - 1949 (re-published 1961).