Monday, November 26, 2012

Stories From The West Side

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Greening of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The School for Wives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Trouble with Asian Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live The King

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Australia Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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