Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mrs Warren's Profession

Sydney Theatre Company presents MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION by George Bernard Shaw In Wharf 1, Hickson Rd.

MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION: A play that intelligently deals with contemporary issues around gender equalities and sex and money.That it was written almost 120 years ago and still is deeply applicable to the social agenda debate, tells us something of the sluggish cruelty of the human being in its capacity to affect proper change. Our embedded prejudices and habitual moral blindness's, such obstacles to human rights!

This play written in 1894 did not have it's first unexpurgated licensed performance in Britain until over thirty years later.This play had subject matters socially controversial, and represented women in a very challenging and, similarly, controversial manner.There was much uproar, especially from the male press of the times.

George Bernard Shaw writes in his preface to his play :
MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION was written in 1894 to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and over working women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together. Indeed all attractive unpropertied women lose money by being infallibly virtuous or contracting marriages that are not more or less venal. If on the large social scale we get what we call vice instead of what we call virtue it is simply because we are paying more for it. No normal woman would be a prostitute if she could better herself by being respectable, nor marry for money if she could afford to marry for love.
 Also I desired to expose the fact that prostitution is not only carried on without organization by individual enterprise in the lodgings of solitary women, each her own mistress as well as every customer's mistress, but organized and exploited as a big international commerce for the profit of capitalists like any other commerce ...
I have spared no pains to make known that my plays are built to induce, not voluptuous reverie but intelligent interest, not romantic rhapsody but humane concern. ... MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is no theorem, but a play of instincts and temperaments in conflict with each other and with a flinty social problem that never yields an inch to mere sentiment. ... 
I simply affirm that MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is a play for women; that it was written for women; that it has been performed and produced mainly through the determination of women that it should be performed and produced (Mr Shaw is talking of the original presentation) ... and not one of these women had any inducement to support it except their belief in the timeliness and the power of the lesson the play teaches. ... 

Andrew Upton, Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, in his message in the play program tells us that:
Sarah (Giles) who recently directed MARRIAGE BLANC for us, is very interested in the social construction of women's roles. This same question of women in society was one of the preoccupations of George Bernard Shaw's work. Sarah in her reading came across MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION which was a play we had never seen (this is the third professional production I have seen in Sydney - the last at the Q Theatre in Penrith, in the 1980's). It leapt off the page with its vigorous ideas and its ruthless scrutiny of men and women and their foibles
…There's no point in programming a play unless you can cast it. Mrs Warren and Helen Thomson seemed a match made in heaven.

So, as Mr Shaw intimates above, in the original presentation, women led the production to the stage, women have led this manifestation of Shaw's genius in this Sydney Theatre Company revival of the play. Ms Giles and Thomson, thank you.

Shaw, born in 1856, was an Irishman, leaving Dublin for London, at the age of 20. An autodidact, he developed the skill of a persuasive orator/speaker, and became, politically, a Socialist, an active member of the Fabian Society (joined it in 1884 and worked beside Beatrice and Sidney Webb). He wrote five unsuccessful novels, including CASHEL BYRON'S PROFESSION and AN UNSOCIAL SOCIALIST; wrote music and theatre criticism for a living, as well as being a pamphleteer and essayist for the causes and many interests that attracted his very active attention: THE QUINTESSENCE OF IBSEN, appeared in 1891. MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, his third play, of over forty-two, followed on from WIDOWER'S HOUSES (1892) and THE PHILANDERER (1893). This play, then, is relatively, a young playwright's 'effort'. His great plays and his hallmark stylistic powers are still to be crystallised: in my estimation, MAN AND SUPERMAN (1903); MAJOR BARBARA (1905 - incidentally, was, amusingly, once entitled ANDREW UNDERSHAFT'S PROFESSION - the critique of capitalism being the connection to Mrs Warren, one supposes); HEARTBREAK HOUSE (1917);and SAINT JOAN (1924). Certainly, his most popular is PYGMALION (1912) - even more esteemed by the general public as the musical, MY FAIR LADY(1956). Shaw was awarded the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature. His wife, Charlotte Shaw died in 1943; he, in 1950 (I was two and a half! I had always thought of him, when I was an ignorant young actor, being a long ago Victorian, and was/am amazed to consider our time, his and mine, on the planet, coincided briefly. Humbling).

The most evident sources of MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION are, 1: de Maupassant's short story, YVETTE (1884), concerning the relationship between a mother and daughter and the profession of prostitution. 2: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's play THE SECOND MRS TANQUERAY (1893), and, "although it differs significantly from Shaw's in that the protagonist is what has been termed a 'fallen woman' or a 'woman-with- a-past', and not a prostitute ... " [1] and that Mrs Tanqueray like many heroines of this period ends by shooting herself (unlike our two Shavian women, here), following a convention of Victorian literature, where those iconoclastic heroines were required to 'bend' to the acceptable behaviour of the period at the conclusion of their stories, by either getting married (Jane Eyre), entering a nunnery or fleeing the country (Lady Emily Trevelyan), entering a 'mad house' (Lady Audley) or dying, either by misadventure (Anna Karenina) or disease (say consumption! Marguerite Gautier)), whereas, reason, Mr Shaw argues, in a biting critical review of the Tanqueray play, (1895) should suggest a more realistic end. 3: THE CENCI by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819, but performed , for the first time in 1886) - "this gothic horror play was contentious because of the portrayal of Beatrice's rape at the hand of her villainous father" [1] - a strong theme of incest on the British stage!!! contentious, indeed - but more obviously connected to MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION "because of the intergenerational struggles between two dynamic personalities and the curse of the elders upon the children." [1]. Which, of course, then, connects to 4: Ibsen's GHOSTS (1881) to Shaw's play, which also has the shadow of incest and similar generational conflicts at its centre.

"In 1869 Emily Davies signed the lease on a house in the small market town of Hitchin, and made history. In years to come, she would be joined by others and would move to larger accommodation in Girton, nearer to the town of Cambridge. But at first there were only five young women in her care: the first women to study a degree course at an English University". [2] Cambridge's Newnham College was founded in 1871, the first women's college at the university. Despite the fact that the women could attend the lectures they were not awarded a degree. These women were part of the movement called THE NEW WOMAN. "At the time, the average female brain was thought to be 150 grams lighter than a man's, and the country's leading doctors warned that if women studied too hard their wombs would wither and die. Almost thirty years later, when the Cambridge Senate held a vote on whether women students should be allowed official membership of the university, there was a full scale riot."  [2]  "For Shaw, society needed to revise the way in which it viewed women as domesticated angels or unholy whores. The 'Woman Question', as it became known, dominated public discussion. ..."  [1] . MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION was one of many plays to join the fray of public debate. Kitty Warren becoming a powerful representative with her daughter, Vivie, as two of the literary heroines/champions of the cause of women's rights.

Shaw framed his socialist arguments within the then regular theatrical means of the late 19th century, of farce and melodrama, sprinkling the sometimes near epigrammatic Shavian witticisms throughout, to leaven and relax his audience into attending to the play's content. "It was patently Shaw's intention to achieve a transference of the horror and shame conventionally associated with the sex-trade (has much changed?) to its normally accepted and respected counterparts in the economic and social organization of society (has much changed?!) ... MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is quite deliberately stagey ... riddled with the conincidences and surprises of farce; and makes its points with all the force of melodrama; ..." [3]. " Man is an animal that laughs; he also possesses faculties of speech and reason more highly developed than in other animals. The observation is older than Aristotle. The curiousness of the combination it recognizes forms the basis of the drama of G.B. Shaw, himself supremely endowed with all three powers : laughter, speech and reason."  [3].

Ms Giles sets this production in a stripped back kind of way and creates a mood representation effect/affect, aided by beautiful lighting states (Nigel Levings) - and the sparing selection of necessary furniture and properties, garden and interior, is reminiscent of period, if not actually period, set in front, for three of the acts, of a rose-pink wall of flowers (set design, Renee Mulder). What is gained in mood and pleasant sensation is not always balanced with the loss of clear storytelling 'stakes'; for example, the act three garden at the Rectory has a political and social context for the story that is lost with just an addition of a small hanging bell in the door like entry in the back flowered wall - in experience, the design as is, is accepted as the first act garden of Vivie's accommodation, by the audience, a very different social space, and contextually lessens the social and symbolic dilemmas of the action. The final act had a solid double writing table in the centre of the revolve covered with the necessary cluttered paraphernalia, but is architecturally awkwardly placed in consideration of the entrance used for the characters in the play. The garden wall has disappeared and we are simply in an island of light with no other design clue to the world, just an abyss of black wall - it is, indeed beautiful, but, clumsy for the physical action of the play.

Each of the scene changes and the opening and closing of the acts of the play have a specially composed score by Max Lyandvert. The music is very atmospheric, matching/supporting the visual direction by Ms Giles to the sensation mood affect of the production. As a composition it has a beautiful 'stand alone' quality - pieces of music to have at home. It does, however, mostly, set a romantic/sentimental tone, a little oppositional to the general cooler intellectualism of the debate, and is quite long, extending the scene changes to a choreography 'danced' by the actors and crew, that did not necessarily maintain the momentum of the play. It seemed that the music composition was the focus of the changes and the physical action was extended to accommodate it, rather than the usual, to be at the efficient need of the physical changes (the first act music change is quite starling in its modernity and is not contiguous with the subsequent sound offers. I quite preferred the direction of the first scene change sound offer - it seemed to contextualise the play more accurately as a contemporary one).

The costumes (Renee Mulder) are generally period but do not seem to register accurately enough the socio-economics of the characters' worlds. There do not seem to be enough changes, especially for the men - poor Praed, for instance, and the lack of detail, for instance, in Vivie's first act costume, and especially the last act costume of Mrs Warren herself, that with the removal of the mantle, looked as if she has come only partly dressed or had hastily dressed - alas, the Merchant/Ivory films, and recently Downton Abbey has set a standard for details!!! (One wonders if the Sydney Theatre Company had the budget to mount this production with six actors and the changes required.)

Beside the thrilling challenge of the play text of Shaw the reason to see this production is to watch a magnificent performance by Helen Thomson as Mrs Kitty Warren. The double life of this woman and the required social pretensions of dialect and gestural behaviour between the "Respectable Kitty" and the "Real Kitty" are dazzlingly engaged in, with moment to moment bravura. The shifts are colossal and almost appear to be anarchic in their presentation, but do have a constructed artistry of careful choice. The passionate reasoning of explanation of Kitty's life behaviours and the emotional devastation of the consequences to her personal life, are plumbed with pitiful accuracy - truly moving and breathtaking in its courage. The balance, that any actor of Shaw must have, of the head and the heart of the character, neither, swamping the other, is expertly judged. Besides the physical restraints, the selection of  the dynamics for the chosen physical and vocal gesture to maintain textural clarity of argument, is astounding. The visual and vocal balance between the coarseness and pretensions of the character are captured unerringly. Ms Thomson engages with the language and uses her vocal range with expertise and relish. (It puts a pause to my reservations of her performance in THE SPLINTER last year).

What Ms Thomson does not have is a sufficiently helpful or challenging opposition from her Vivie. It prevents this Mrs Warren from being truly, frighteningly great. Lizzie Schebesta playing the 'bluestocking' Vivie Warren does not seem to have the measure of the character or the means to reveal her accurately. Ms Schebesta tends to indulge an emotional, even romantic version of a victimised Victorian girl, showing a propensity with choice to stray into, say, the melodrama of an Oscar Wilde ingenue, a Lady Windermere - that character, like Vivie, very young. But, Shaw's Vivie is a young independent woman, brought up without close parental care of either sex, without, even, a mentor of any kind, of any emotional commitment, and, so, had to build, perforce, for herself,  a carapace and accompanying depth of no-nonsense practical self sufficiency - her education at a university level, very rare, excelling in a study of mathematics/numbers, that was thought to be highly improbable and inappropriate for anyone of the female sex to engage in, a symptom of the choice of her disciplinary inclinations for life survival.

Coolly, calculatingly, Vivie applied herself rigorously to study, to win a bet of 50 pound from her mother: "I said flatly it was not worth my while to face the grind ... but I offered to try ... for 50 pound. She closed with me for that, after a little grumbling; and I was better than my bargain. But I wouldn't do it again for that, 200 pound would have been nearer the mark. ... I can make calculations for engineers, electricians, insurance companies, and so on; ... I shall set up chambers in the City, and work at actuarial calculations and conveyancing. Under cover of that I shall do some law, with one eye to the Stock Exchange all the time. I have come down here by myself to read law: not for a holiday. I hate holidays." Very determined, manly occupations, indeed.

Vivie demonstrates her cool logical ability to assess the romantic offers about her, when she sees, firstly, the ridiculous and villainous Sir George Crofts (Martin Jacobs) for the low life he is and rejects his offers of marriage: " ... I am much obliged to you for being so definite and business-like. I quite appreciate the offer: the money, the position, Lady Crofts, and so on. But I think I will say no, if you don't mind. I'd rather not. ... My no is final. I won't go back on it. ... There is no chance of my altering it. ... When I think of the society that tolerates you, and the laws that protect you! ..." Then, onto Frank Gardner (Eamon Farren), her young wastrel wooer, and to Praed (Simon Burke) her aesthete admirer, she gives no quarter: " Mr Praed: once for all, there is no beauty and no romance in life for me. Life is what it is; and I am prepared to take it as it is. ... Sit down ... You both think that I have had an attack of nerves. Not a bit of it. But there are two subjects I want dropped, if you don't mind. One of them (to Frank) is love's young dream in any shape or form; the other (to Praed) is the romance and beauty of life ... You are welcome to any illusions you may have left on those subjects: I have none. If we three are to remain friends, I have to be treated as a woman of business, permanently single (to Frank) and permanently unromantic (to Praed). ... I was sentimental for one moment in my life - beautifully sentimental - by moonlight; ..."

That one sentimental moment, having taken her mother into her arms in the Shavian, deliberately preposterous melodramatic close of Act Two, bathed  in moonlight. Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr Shaw writes:
Mrs Warren: "And you'll be good to your poor old mother for it, won't you?" 
Vivie: "I will dear. (Kissing her) Goodnight." 
Mrs Warren (with unction): "Blessings on my own dearie darling! a mother's blessing!" 
She embraces her daughter protectingly, instinctively looking upward for divine sanction.

The training of Vivie's nature reveals and hardens itself as the world of her mother's fortune is confirmed in Act Four. She has, finally, a powerful sense of self with no care for the late, emotional needs of her mother, despite Kitty's desperate pleadings:
...From this time I go my own way in my own business and among my own friends. And you will go yours. Goodbye. ...Mother you don't at all know the sort of person I am. ... I don't think I am more prejudiced and straight laced than you: I think I'm less. I'm certain I'm less sentimental. ... (but) I am my mother's daughter. I am like you: I must have work, and must make more money than I spend. But my work is not your work, and my way is not your way. We must part. It will not make much difference to us: instead of meeting one another for perhaps a few months in twenty years, we shall never meet: that's all. ... It's no use, mother: I am not to be changed by a few cheap tears and entreaties anymore than you are, I daresay. ... They cost you nothing; and you ask me to give you the peace and quietness of my whole life in exchange for them. What use would my company be to you if you could get it? What have we two in common that would make either of us happy together? ... Now, once and for all, mother, you want a a daughter and Frank wants a wife. I don't want a mother; and I don't want a husband. I have spared neither Frank nor myself in sending him about his business. Do you think I will spare you? ... That is why I am bidding you goodbye now.

And, on her mother's exit, Vivie (matter-of-factly) says "Goodbye." and on the slamming of the door as her mother goes Shaw instructs :
The strain on Vivie's face relaxes; her grave expression breaks up into one of joyous content; her breath goes out in a half sob, half laugh of intense relief. She goes buoyantly to her place at the writing table; pushes the electric lamp out of the way; pulls over a great sheaf of papers; and is in the act of dipping her pen in the ink when she finds Frank's note. She opens it unconcernedly and reads it quickly, giving a little laugh at some quaint turn of expression in it. "And Goodbye, Frank''. She tears the note up and tosses the pieces into the wastepaper basket without a second thought. Then she goes at her work with a plunge, and soon becomes absorbed in its figures.

Ms Schebesta has some of the character, and it is the 'pretty'- feminine part of it, which is not a very big part, in Shaw's conception of Vivie Warren. Ms Schebesta does not easily embrace the cold hard steel of this young lady's upbringing: This New Woman. This is a woman who could soon mount the suffragette barricades, chaining herself to those barricades alongside Mrs Pankhurst! On the night, I attended, the problem in my belief in this Vivie was confirmed undoubtedly in those, above, quoted Shavian directions, being generally ignored. Ms Schebesta grappled with her own sentimentality about the situation and not Vivie's, and so, did not break into "a joyous content", rather a resigned one; when the breath was demanded it underlined the sob over the laugh, sentimental to the last!; she did not move "buoyantly" to the desk as if, at last, able to embrace her actuarial destiny free of any obligation but her own, there was instead a lingering sense of melancholia. Frank's note did not draw "a laugh" and the work was not taken with a "plunge", rather, a little intimation of the burden of the tasks. And certainly, as the revolve spun in a circle to the mournfully long music cue, directed by Ms Giles, Ms Schebesta became wearied and sad in her body language instead of, at last, carefree and perhaps, jubilantly absorbed.

The biggest problem throughout the night, however, was, Ms Schebesta's technical vocal work and lack of enjoyment in the language of Shaw - a love of the words - and the power that they had all on their own. And, if in tackling Shaw there is a lack of that embrace and sense of joy, it can be only less than impressive. For Shaw is, if, nothing else: words, words, words. The contrast between the masterful embrace of the opportunities that Ms Thomson understood Shaw had given Kitty, and her instrument's ability to play the music of the text, was terribly palpable in the two big duet scenes between Vivie and her mother in Act Two and Four. Ms Thomson was required to work doubly hard to get the drama up, and keep it up to an exciting level, time and again. Ms Schebesta unable to speak or think the text with the cool argumentative clarity that Shaw had given her, tended to substitute sentimental emotional life, becoming 'shouty' with a breathless red-faced anger, and, so, no real sense of these two instruments playing musically, harmonically together for the Shavian dexterities and delicacies occurred. Ms Schebesta came in, in reply to Ms Thomson's work and cue, without real listening skills, nearly always under the musical note and energy given to her by Ms Thomson, and fudged/compensated it with emotional blurrings, instead. This tendency was not restricted to her  interaction with Ms Thomson - it was true throughout her engagement with all of her fellow players. Add to this the intellectual generalisation in and about the use of Vivie's language and most of Shaw's brillance becomes, relatively, muffled. There was no sense of word by word structuring for the Shavian arguments -no clear logics, rather, subjective internalisations as substitute - pure emotional instincts responding to all the combative arguments in Vivie's replies. The head/objective craftsmanship not engaged with sufficient balance for the full impact of the written text. Variation of pitch, vocal range, is always a more interesting choice, than volume, but it does require a coolness of the artist's temperament to override the instinctive rising emotional states, it demands an absolute objectivity in craftsmanship to contain the actor - the self - to rather serve the needs of the character, to totally facilitate the writer's conception, than the indulgence in the actor's  emotional response -  which is often gratifying for the actor but to no one else much. When craft is brought to bear on the instinctive passions of the actor and held within the 'container' that the writer has written, art, maybe, sometimes made. Never the other way round. If the emotional forces of the actor break through the writer's container, the result, relatively, is a 'mess' of the writer's aims and technique, and the audience is cheated of the main effort of the miracle of storytelling in the theatre -  the primal  gift of the writer. Listen to Ms Thompson to observe the wonders of it. Ms Schebesta's performance lacked objective skills and indulged in emotional 'escapes'. Ms Thompson manages herself and cuts the cloth that she has, apparently in abundance, emotional and technical resources, to create Kitty Warren as Shaw surely dreamed of.

There was, on the other hand, superb work from Mr Farren as Frank Gardner, capturing the practical and scheming, and, yet, essentially good natured human aspects of a man/wastrel, a young evolving man of his class, still with a wicked sense of fairness and boundaries - he is, as yet, not completely lost in the hypocrisies of the life temptations about him. Frank's words glittered with spiky intelligence and appeared to come with  comfortable ease. Voice, and especially, that relaxed, louche body language embodying this young man was wonderfully thought through by Mr Farren.(Keith Bain, Julia Cotton and Bill Pepper would be pleased.) It is good to see Mr Farren, at last, truly challenged by a great playwright and seeing him rise to that. In this case, unlike Ms Schebesta, the balance of objective instrument control, as a craftsman, was balanced with the careful revelation of a rich, resource filled emotional life. His, Mr Farren's Frank's little duet of flirt with Ms Thomson's Kitty in Act Two, resulting in a very tense sexual kiss was uncomfortably real, in this world of Shaw. The stage noticeably moistened. I am sure Mr Shaw would have been delighted.

It was an unexpected pleasure to see Simon Burke on stage again at the STC. It has been some time. The wit and sense of honest propriety of his Praed was a weight of goodness without cloying,  sensitive and knowing. I was particularly struck by the very expert and intelligently handled work of Martin Jacobs as Crofts. I have not seen this actor before, and look forward to seeing him again. Elegant, witty and generous. Crofts was more than the melodrama villain of the Victorian stage - rather a power to fear and be wary of, and, yet, also, understandable - another man of his times, but lost. Drew Forsythe playing the Reverend Samuel Gardner, Frank's father, and ex-paramour of Ms Kitty, tended to search for his character telling through low music hall hugger mugging. The style was unlike any of the other work of the other actors. It did not succeed in any way and was a puzzlement of directorial advice.

MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION is a play worth seeing. This production works. It is by no means evenly accomplished but it reveals George Bernard Shaw as a playwright for all ages.

P.S. Appro  Ms Giles reading, that has initiated this production, might I suggest reading the playwright Pam Gems. Except for DUSA FISH STAS AND VI (1976) and perhaps PIAF (1978), she has been strangely neglected on our stages in Sydney. I think of her not as a feminist writer, but as a "femalist'. (She passed away only last year.) Ms Gems re-writing of history in her telling of the Swedish queen, QUEEN CHRISTINA (1977) story is interesting; her adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas (fils) CAMILLE (1984), echoes some of the thematics of MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION; while STANLEY (1996) is ostensibly about the painter Stanley Spencer, it is the women in the play that are the subject matter of the thematics. A female playwright, directed by a woman, with great women's roles - amazing to see. Although, Joanna Murray-Smith is at last returning to our Sydney theatre scene.


  1. MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION by Bernard Shaw. New Mermaids edition, Methuen Drama - 2012.
  2. BLUESTOCKINGS by Jane Robinson. Viking an imprint of Penguin Books - 2009.
  3. THE SHAVIAN PLAYGROUND by Margery M. Morgan. Methuen and Co Ltd -1972.
  4. BERNARD SHAW -VOLUME ONE: THE SEARCH FOR LOVE by Michael Holroyd. Chatto and Windus - 1988.
  5. SHAW IN HIS TIME by Ivor Brown. Nelson - 1965.
  6. The Sydney Theatre Program Notes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beautiful Thing

Burley presents BEAUTIFUL THING by Jonathan Harvey in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre.

BEAUTIFUL THING was written by Jonathan Harvey in 1993. He went on to win, the following year, the JOHN WHITING AWARD for that play in 1994. The play has had numerous productions, around the world, for the last 20 years. One can see why this is so, in this devoted production, directed by Brandon Martignago in the Reginald Theatre.

This is an affecting telling of the coming of age, and acceptance, by two young gay boys of their sexual difference - one 15, Jamie (Michael Brindley) and the other 16, Ste (Luke Willing). And though living on a housing estate of low-rise apartments, in an environment of dysfunction and possible danger - single parents, adult alcohol and drug dependency, physical, verbal and emotional abuse and homophobic bullying - these two young boys/men find sanctuary in their own burgeoning sexuality. It is a love story. What is surprising is the simple storytelling and relatively uncomplicated situation these boys find themselves in and that Mr Harvey, affectionately, wraps in comedy. The drama of the underprivileged world is a background to the foreground of this innocent romantic tale.That the flower of love blooms in this environment is a great part of the joy of the watching.

The simple, delicate duet scenes between the boys is ballasted with three other stories of that beautiful thing - love. Young Jamie's mum, Sandra (Amanda Stephens Lee) in her battle to survive and provide, leads with a heart and, finally, head full of optimism and unconditional love. Ms Lee relishes the opportunity of the role, the quick one-line zingers and the humanity of the woman is given a delicious, fully fleshed drawing. Her new and temporary partner, Tony (Andrew Hearle) is also charmingly drawn with deft understatements of characterisation - a very generous performance. Paralleling the boys growth is that of another neighbour, Leah (Stephanie King), a bewildered wild child finding her own way in the dangerous world of her discovered sexuality. Devoted to Mama Cass, of the Mamas & the Papas, the lyrics of her songs become a compass, of sorts, for Leah to find a path through this new world. Ms King seizes her opportunities to play.

Still, the success of the play hinges on the performances of the boys, and Mr Brindley and Mr Wilding manage to find the gangling physicalities of these two boy/men and the broadly innocent love raptures of first infatuation/love without any false expressions of lust or embarrassment. They are totally immersed in the journey of the characters and the audience breathe empathy and hopeful support to their every gentle exploration. The two young women sitting beside me were vocally enraptured and bewitched by every step of Jamie and Ste's relationship. The audience responded enthusiastically and warmly. These two young actors are simply good in their delicate simplicity. All the performances reveal great credit to the guidance of Mr Martignago.

The production is simple and naturalistic, and sits on a solidly recreated landing of a down at heel apartment estate. The costumes reflect, nostalgically, the early 1990's and both are designed by Jasmine Christie. The Lighting design by Benjamin Brockman serves the scene locations admirably, and, what is not to like in the Sound Design by David Stalley when Mama Cass features so often.

This is another Mardi Gras 2013 production and is totally charming. This play in 1993 was undoubtedly a welcome relief to the community, gay or otherwise, in its romantic tone so contrasted to the cauterising and brilliant ANGELS IN AMERICA presented in 1991 & 1992. These two plays lie at opposite tempers of response to the cruel atmosphere of the 1990's, but their quality writing have given them, both, the status of classics.

We saw Mr Harvey's 2010 play, CANARY at the New Theatre, February, 2011 as part of that year's Mardi Gras Festival.

I enjoyed myself very much at BEAUTIFUL THING.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

This Heaven

Photo by Brett Boardman

BELVOIR presents THIS HEAVEN by Nakkiah Lui In the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills.

THIS HEAVEN is a small work (70 minutes) with a big emotional bang from a new voice. The new voice is Nakkiah Lui who is a member of the Dhurag community of Western Sydney - having only the week before seen THE SECRET RIVER at The Sydney Theatre - this, for me, was a stunning co-incidence in the arc of two centuries of tragedy. She is currently finishing her Arts/Laws at the University of NEW SOUTH WALES and was an associate playwright at Belvoir in 2012 and a resident in ATYP's Fresh Ink Playwright Residency, 2010. She is the inaugural recipient of both The Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright's Award and the Australia Council's Dreaming Award. She is currently under commission by Belvoir for her next play, KOORIOKE.

Ms Lui's voice is indeed new and it is an authentic one. Her play is set in Mount Druitt, today - a part of Sydney rarely 'visited' by our dramatic literature and on the floor of 'debate' in our theatres. THIS HEAVEN, accounts the response of a marginalized community to a perceived injustice over the result of a 'death in custody' investigation. The defining of what is law and what is justice, the intellectual clarity of that, when mixed with suspected criminal behaviours from places, positions of authority on both sides, and generations of mutual mistrust and emotional despair, boils over in this play into senseless, anarchic and savage actions of public violence. Perceived injustice is turned into emotional actions of frightening riot - the cruel scope of the injustice shrieking to heaven.

Th intensity of the production directed by Lee Lewis in this very tiny and confined space, Downstairs Belvoir, certainly has a powerful emotional wallop. One leaves the theatre more than a little disturbed. Unlike the long silence after the final moments of THE SECRET RIVER that led to meditative contemplations with the tragic awe of that story, after this performance, one is literally shocked, shaken and stirred to the conscience core - an experience of a deeply visceral kind still rippling well after the return to the world outside. It was an odd thing to observe the meeting in the foyer of the bubbling PETER PAN audience spilling home, rubbing shoulders with the sombre exhausted members of  the THIS HEAVEN audience. The contrast was a reality of some punch.

Though later, I realised, the mighty physical emotional experience in the theatre, had swept away a lot of the logical flaws in the dramaturgy of the writing in the play, that gives one pause, at home,  as to the play's formal writing quality. This is a first play and that of a young writer. It shows.

 Has it been exposed too precipitously on the stage, especially onto such a prized space of showing and audience? A main stage production.

I pondered the structure of relevancies in the play. We are told through recall from the various characters:

  1. There is a contemporary indigenous family, upwardly mobile: father, Robert Gordon and mother, Joan (Tessa Rose), and two children, Sissy (Jada Alberts) and Ducky (Travis Cardonna) living in the Westrern suburb of Sydney, Mount Druitt.
  2. The father is a highly respected and well known identity in the local community.
  3. The mother, a middle class mum working as a public servant as the Aboriginal liaison officer in the local police station, - a well known identity and member of the police station staff.
  4. The daughter, Sissy is only one semester away from attaining her Law degree - as, coincidently, is the author of this play, Ms Lui.
  5. A blind son, Ducky, is frustrated, unable to find work.
  6. We are told  before the play begins the son Ducky, physically blind and also drunk, drove a car, with the respected member of the community, his father Robert, sitting beside him (odd not pondered in the play). The car runs off the road and into a roadside fence.
  7. The police are called to the incident.
  8. The father lies to the police (Odd. Not pondered in the play) and takes responsibility as the driver (to protect is son?).
  9. The two men are taken into custody and escorted to the local police station.
  10. There is an incident in the cells. Police enter the cell to quell the disturbances.
  11. There is noise of physical abuse heard by a young constable, Ryan (Joshua Anderson) coming from the cells. He goes to check.
  12. He is advised to forget the incident and go home early and forget the incident.
  13. The father is found dead, in custody, in the cell. The family are encouraged to trust the law for justice by lawyer, James (Eden Falk).
  14. The investigation into the incident finds the injuries on the body could be the result of the car accident and not necessarily of a 'bashing'.
  15. The presence of the son Ducky in the cell and his evidence of what occurred in the cell is discarded because of his blindness.
  16. The investigation declares that there is not sufficient evidence and/or the ambiguity of it is such, that it will not produce an outcome against the police. No action will be taken - the incident will go no further.
  17. The family is offered compensation of $9,000. (Odd. Is that what would happen, as there is no provable crime, no possible way of proving liability against the state? I am not sure. Struck me as odd.)
  18. Son feels remorse and guilt over his part in allowing his father to take the blame as the driver of the car. He does not dwell on his own reckless action of driving the car, doubly incapacitated, which is the catalyst of the whole 'stream' of events. 
  19. Odd that the Police who would know the high status of the father in the community would risk physically abusing him. Odd, that knowing that he is the husband of one of their own staff, Joan Gordon- the Indigenous Liaison Officer - they would do such a thing.
  20. Odd that the daughter, Sissy, with only one semester from achieving her Law degree did not have the cool of knowledge of the law to have her question her actions and culpability in the organising of the riot. How she could abandon such difficult years of preparation to serve her community as a lawyer? Not dealt with in the play.
  21. Odd that the young police constable, Ryan, does not step up to tell the truth. The systemic pressures being so great as to perpetrate such criminal behaviour. Not pondered too deeply in the play.
  22. That the experienced lawyer is not able to counsel a law student more accurately, and provide legal avenues of action for the family..
Most of these things bothered me in the considered conversations after the performance, not during. I let them pass me by in the torrent of the emotional action of the production. I was swept away without my reason striking up opposition. Some credit, then to Ms Lewis and her company of actors and designers.

So, I ask, should the dramaturgy have been more refined before staging this work? Was the work rushed on to the stage because of political timing rather than a better crafting of the material? Whatever, I only hope that the new commission KOORIOKE is better nurtured and that Ms Lui examines the work more thoroughly, and it is not just a reading after "a night of feverish writing" that compels her to submit it. Because the talent is undoubted and what we have been waiting for - a brave, Indigenous voice telling with the 'inside' insight of the living culture of the urban life of the Indigenous peoples. (the television series REDFERN NOW was, similarly a passionate experience). MS Lui's mixture of the harsh contemporary and stories of Aboriginal myth in the writing was intriguing and beautiful - poetic, with an undeniable authenticity.

Ms Alberts was impressive as the daughter, despite, for me, the lack of reality in her actions, (the choice of Ms Lui - a law student - to write this play rather than throw a Molotov cocktail seems to be the rational action one would expect of Sissy too). Mr Anderson played dimensions of conflict as the police constable, Ryan, and, one felt grounded by Mr Falk's impeccable work as the hapless lawyer, James. Mr Cardonna had a very difficult character to embody, what with physical and a moral blindness, while Ms Rose tended to demonstrate the emotional turmoils rather than experiencing them - appearance of 'pretending' - it did not assist belief or engender tragic veracity from me.

The lighting (Luiz Pampolha) with the claustrophobic haze, abetted with Composition by Steve Francis and Sound Design by Nate Edmondson in the black/box hole with strong silver-metal 'old school' park swing equipment, designed by Sophie Fletcher are all collaborators in this emotionally confronting night in the theatre.

With re-writing and editing this play could possibly be a more durable source of investigation and strike more than an emotional chord in the audience. In the hands of a less assured director this work might fail to ignite and shock because of the many dramaturgical imponderables.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dreams In White

Photo by Brett Boardman

GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY presents the World Premiere of DREAMS IN WHITE by Duncan Graham at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

DREAMS IN WHITE by Duncan Graham is directed confidently by Tanya Goldberg. Her cast comprising Lucy Bell, Mandy McElhinney, Andrew McFarlane, Steve Rodgers in multiple roles and Sara West in a solo requirement, as the young daughter, give performances of great commitment and skill, switching from one persona to another without hesitation, from demand to demand made by the writing. The Design by Teresa Negroponte, of a charcoal grey floor and walls with white opaque screen of sliding door and back drop, and gleams of silver edges, ingeniously stands in for many different locations, assisted by deft lighting by Hartley T A Kemp and supported with a moody and atmospheric sound composition by Kelly Ryall. All the artists bringing this script/play to life are top notch. The best reason to see this performance.

The play itself is not very interesting. The subject matter based on a true life story of a man living through two identities that unravel when mayhem for one of the identities leads to his murder, followed by a subsequent investigation, uncovering the double life, covers very familiar territory. It is not very arresting or handled in a way to make it so by the writer, except as an episode in UNDERBELLY PART VIII, perhaps. Indeed, I felt this territory was covered recently, more interestingly, with social and political integrity and resonating power, in the film ARBITRAGE (2012) - different but much the same premise - , written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki with Richard Gere giving an outstanding performance with support from Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling and Tim Roth.

DREAMS IN WHITE asks: Can anyone really know anyone else? It is about the secret lives of others. The secret lives of our closest. Our own secret life. About the damage the discovery of that secret, other life can have on others.

Mr Duncan announces this theme early, obviously, and too many times. The story information in the scenes repeat over and over again such that the movement of the action of material in the storytelling is more than glacial and the character development almost indiscernible. The cross cutting from the two families, at first confusing, and then tiresome. The secondary , alternate plots, of the house buying, and that of the daughter, almost completely unnecessary. It is a truly static piece. Observed and solved in a gist by the alert, it continues to play on for some considerable time.

 I longed for it to finish, no matter the high quality of acting and daring exposures of character from Ms Bell, Mr Rodgers and McFarlane. I had a good book waiting, calling me, from my satchel under my seat. I was with a friend I had not seen for months -let's go and catch up. DREAMS IN WHITE was not grabbing me in any essential or unique way.

 I mean, do I need to care about some middle class social contrasts, their arrogances, and their sex lives, and adventures to slumming in it?  No.

When all the world is burning up does this subject matter count for much in the big picture of contemporary life? No.

Just how concerned can I be for the consenting sex indulgent who harm themselves? Not much, really.

 Read of it in the tabloids: $2.00. Watch it on commercial television almost every night, for free. No need to go to the theatre for these worlds. Especially, when all we get is: here are some people behaving consensually and these are the consequence. There is no social explanation or moral debate about the subject matter of the play, nor are we led, invited, to ponder one. It just is. It felt to me to be a jigsaw jumbling and nothing else. Titivating crime schlock, with one moment of gothic comic horror - unintentional, I think. I hope. At least I can throw away the newspaper or turn off the TV , if I find the material boring or trite with no point of view of any portent - far to rude to get up and leave the theatre - especially this theatre.

 There is so much else to write about of vital importance for the survival of our civilization. Please read my response to RUST AND BONE and HOLLYWOOD ENDING, two other works produced recently at this theatre.

When one looks at the material that Ms Goldberg has chosen to give us in this theatre before: WAY TO HEAVEN, THE STORY OF MARY MACLANE BY HERSELF, one wonders what she thought was so imperative about DREAMS IN WHITE that impelled her to give it at the Griffin in 2013. Her other work being of such passionate value and importance. If this is the best of the Australian writing available to the Griffin Company, give us some other International work of real meaning and challenge.

Duncan Graham, the Writer, tells us in the program notes, with a lot of other almost impenetrable stuff, that he is "…in search for volatility: a poetic and political theatre that allows the darkness outside the edges of authenticity to disturb our view. To shatter the mirror." If only, I say. The text as we see it did not supply any of those aspirations, for me.

Tanya Goldberg, the director tells us, in her notes to the production, which I can only, in hindsight of the experience of the play and production, judge as an example of  extreme promotional spin, that "This brave, immediate play is a thriller and a meditation, a question and a proposition, a dream-fiction and very, very real."

If only, if only, if only.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Too Old For TV

The Cafe Debris Company in association with Comedy On The Edge presents Brent Thorpe in TOO OLD FOR TV at the LYBRARY (formerly the Shannon Hotel), Abercrombie Street, Chippendale.

Brent Thorpe in blue tee shirt, jeans and red sneakers, nicely cut hair and scrubbed face - just as it should be, having survived though his times - stands in front of the microphone stand and begins, a monologue, a look back at some of the main events of his Gay life with a nostalgic recollection of people and gay geographical locations. It is a lesson in Lost Gay Sydney History, as much as it is a celebration of those people and places. It is funny, whimsical and occasionally political. The warmth and the gratitude for his fortunate life permeates the material and the 'stand-up'.

It is best in the territory of fond recall. The memories he stirs, from the era beginning in the 1960's til now, the high and lows, the humorous and the tragic, the far and near, could be discerned in the comfortable laughter and nodding and shaking heads of his audience. They were pleased and seemed to feel a kind of validation in a private history been spoken in public, out loud. They had much to add, that was left out in Mr Thorpe's recollections, after the performance. They stood in groups remembering and elaborating.

Mr Thorpe, detours, part way in the journey, into an impersonation of a lovely lady in feathered hat,  glittering ear rings and a white fur stole, involved in a radio conversation with Alan. It is much more directly satiric and is familiar material for this genre of performance. It was a digression and as good as it was, it was more wonderful and a relief to come back to the other stuff, the comic history lesson of Mr Thorpe's personal experience.

The work is in an early state of development but I reckon relevant and needed. I recommend the young and especially those who have lived through it all in Sydney, the older, to catch it. Respect, love and gratitude for surviving and adding to the roots of the Gay and Lesbian Community is worth celebrating and encouraging. Pleasing that it is presented in the (a) LYBRARY - a nicely renovated pub with kitchen dinner menu and comfortable outdoor space. A good vibe.

Let us hope the work develops into a grander scale of vision and memory. This is part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival 2013.


Photo by Bob Seary

Another Bright Idea Productions present the Australian premiere of David Earle's POSTNUPTIALS in the Parade Playhouse at the NIDA Theatre complex, Kensington.

POSTNUPTIALS by David Earle is in genre a comic farce. It however has a social agenda attached: "The play explores thematic concerns of gay marriage, heterosexual infidelity, and an individual's quest to challenge parental conditioning, laid down in childhood that at times may inhibit an adult's own choices in life, and perhaps the meeting of true minds and hearts in search for love" - Director's notes.

David Earle is an American (West Coast) writer. POSTNUPTIALS, from what I can gather, has been in development over some time, in several different versions. This one springing from a reaction to the 2008 Californian Proposition 8 (Prop 8) which restricted recognition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. The play feels like an old fashioned television situation-comedy written to please too many people. It is an attempt to write a screwball farce with a gently political edge. It fails.

This production by anotherbrightidea, a new company of interested artists, is not very secure. The style of acting has no consistency of tone and seems to have been left to the floundering efforts of the actors to keep it afloat. Hard to do when the play is a fairly leaky vessel to begin with. Of the acting, no one is in the same play, most of them acting in a bubble of self protection. Michael Harrs is the Director and Set and Costume Designer.

Three actors meet the mark and give more creativity to the play then it deserves. Sam O'Sullivan, as Mark, finds exactly the right style and demeanor to give his very deluded character the souffle energies of fun. The fact that Mr O'Sullivan has no other actor near his conceptual skills and vision in the playing of the work, and still scores laughs, is a credit to his disciplines and theatrical intelligence. Recently, seen in the award winning PUNK ROCK, and a well reviewed performance in A STEADY RAIN at Tap Gallery, this is further credit to his gifts. Someone to watch out for. Henry Elsteen playing Kevin Haney, has the responsibility of the leading character at the centre of this play's dilemma. That he maintains a steady integrity to the demands of the play, despite very little useful support from the other actors about him, is a feat of some sustained courage and theatrical stamina. Ms Tallay Wickham as Marliene Andrews, despite a tendency for the sentimental gesture in her final scene, acquits herself with some potential.

This production is part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival 2013. The three and half hour (or more) production of TORCH SONG TRILOGY at the Darlinghurst Theatre - also, a part of the Mardi Gras Festival 2013 - is a "good bad play" in a very good production. The time flew. It is a better bet for your bucks. In fact, I highly recommend it.

POSTNUTPIALS is "a bad bad play", with an inept production, and felt, definitely, interminably longer than the three and a half hours or so,of TORCH SONG TRILOGY.

Peter Pan

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents PETER PAN by J.M. Barrie Adapted by Tommy Murphy in the Upstairs Theatre.

I have not read PETER PAN in any of the manifestations, by J.B. Barrie, that Tommy Murphy, the present adaptor of this Belvoir production tells us learnedly about, in the program notes. I have not even seen the Walt Disney animated adaptation. I only know it from little snippets on the old Walt Disney show of my growing up, on Sunday nights at 6.30 on Channel 9, watching it in our fibro housing commission in North Ryde. I remember Peter in a costume like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, with hands akimbo on his hips, and Captain Hook with a hook for a hand and a crocodile with the sound of a ticking clock circling his boat. I remember Jiminy Cricket singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" in an impossibly high voice, but never the whole thing. So, this production was my introduction to this take on a famous work by a very interesting Edwardian writer for the stage.

The original is called PETER PAN: The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. It is an international favourite. There were productions in Berlin, Stockholm and London that I saw advertised whilst there over the recent Holiday season. It is usually played in pantomimic fashion (that is, with Peter played by a young girl) with lots of stage tricks that can include real stage flying apparatus, etc - was there are more magical moment than the one where MARY POPPINS flew from the stage across the auditorium? No. I am remembering the awesome gasps from the audience, adult and child, including me, at the performance I saw it happen. OOOHH !!!!
When Wendy, John, and Michael are put to bed each night by their mother Mrs Darling and their nanny Nana the dog, their mother always tells them a bedtime story. Listening to these stories is Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, who returns to Never Land to repeat the stories to the Lost Boys, who were lost when they fell out of their prams. Despite the jealous fairy Tinker Bell, Wendy and Peter become friends. Peter teaches the children to fly, and they all depart for Never Land, where Wendy becomes mother to the Lost Boys and where they have all kinds of adventures, including confrontations with the evil Captain Hook and his pirates. Eventually Peter Pan defeats Hook in a swordfight, and Hook is swallowed by a crocodile. The Darling children return to their relieved parents ... But Peter stays in Never Land, where he will never age.
 The Oxford Dictionary of Plays, Michael patterson, Oxford Press, 2005

Belvoir's stage is a two sided box with a very low roof and no off-stage wing space. No chance to actually fly here and little opportunity for the usual big mechanical tricks of the theatre to do so, but, in compensation, Ralph Myers, the Director has invited us instead to substitute all those usual tricks of stage equipment inventions with the best resource we may have as human beings, our own imaginations. And, it worked.

Robert Cousins has designed a set for this production as a rough and tumble, bogus wood-walled, large open bedroom for the Darling family in the suburb of Surry Hills - we can see the suburban street out through the open window, the curtain rustling to a breeze - in the time matrix of today. It is cluttered with the toys and paraphernalia of a lived in space as interesting, as chaotic as any found in a Spielberg family suburban home - the bedrooms in ET or POLTERGEIST, for instance. Alice Babidge has dressed the company of players in clothing of today, with her usual deft hand at disguising her work into such naturalness that it has no appearance of design at all - a difficult thing to do.

The original play of J. M Barrie demands a cast of 25 actors and it has been reduced to that of 9 by Tommy Murphy: Paula Arundell, Jimi Bani, Gareth Davies, Harriet Dwyer, Charlie Garber, Geraldine Hakewill, Megan Holloway, John Leary and Meyne Wyatt. All but Mr Wyeth, who is our Peter Pan - bursting with energy and whimsical cheek and a knowing sensibility- play multiple roles. The production is such that it looks as if these actors were thrown into, onto, the rehearsal space and told to imaginatively improvise their way, play, through this story, using only the stage furniture, props and costumes to create the adventures. The result, refereed, I presume by Mr Myers, is a children's delight.

There were a delightful set of inventive solutions to the adventure demands that Peter and the children encounter. None more so than the re-connection of the shadow to Peter, the flying, and the creation of the pirate ship and the subsequent swordfight. Lots of children in my audience were full of chortling noises of wonder and outspoken approval. The crocodile was especially a great conjuring success. The demise of Hook an absolute amazement of inventive resourcefulness. Their response was certainly the greater part of the pleasant experience in the theatre for me. For, there were areas where the work stalled and became lumpen for us adults, and no more so than when some of the company were busier entertaining themselves and having tremendous fun with, and for, each other, than keeping us engaged and thrilled. Mr Gabor, Ms Dyer and Mr Davies were particularly self engaged - finding much to giggle at together, leaving us a trifle stranded and having to suspend our imaginations about the story we were inventing with them - like naughty children , indeed, who had not grown up!

Attending the theatre in Sydney can sometimes be a sad and worrying experience, if one thinks of its future. In this case I mean that the age demo-graphics of the audience is much older than I think is sustainable for the theatre to continue to exist (a worried pessimist?). If the young do not have the joy of the live theatre adventure, regularly, will they ever want to go later? (I have not forgotten the Theatre in Education work and companies. Monkey Baa for instance is a treasure. I am talking of the big budgeted experience). It might seem a very arcane and elitist thing to do, to most. Where there is no experience there will be no habit. No habit, no knowledge, no interest. It might mean no live theatre in the future (god forbid!). If lucky, perhaps when the young adult today is deciding to entertain themselves, the theatre might tempt them, just as something different to do, but then, when they look at the cost, will it be value for their money, bang for their bucks? After all, weekly, they can go to the cinema for a fairly inexpensive adventure, in comparison.

It was interesting, dam right encouraging, to see the age ranges in the theatres in Berlin, for instance, when I was there in December. In London, too, I sat amongst a theatre dominated by young adults at a Thursday night, three and three quarter hour performance of an adaptation of Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA - no easy entertainment there, I can advise you - given by Theatre Complicite. The attention in the theatre was driven by a heightened sense of concentration and wonder. Similarly, at the performances of The Globe Theatre's Shakespeare's TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III in The Apollo Theatre on Shaftsbury Ave in London's commercial West End, the audience age demographic was generously spread form youth to me. The atmosphere in the theatre tightly thrilled and packed.

So, it was a relief to read, recently that Brett Sheedy, Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) was aware of this problem and moving to change it, down there. Belvoir has begun a pattern to invite and encourage the young to witness the wonder of well thought out and spare no detail theatre experiences. THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING and now PETER PAN are wonderful examples of what I should hope were a regular possibility. It is odd that the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) have not developed a habit for the young at a sophisticated, designated high end production for young children and adults, over the holiday period. The role model, par excellence, seems to be, The National Theatre of Great Britain, who annually present work for this audience of the young and their always young companions, and, soon, we shall see the high point of that commitment in a touring production of WAR HORSE, here in Sydney. If you haven't caught it in Melbourne, DO NOT MISS IT, if you love the theatre. Take your children as well. It is a magnificent creation of the craft and art of the theatre, and thankfully, it has been a financially rewarding investment for the company, Nationally and Internationally. The commitment has reaped the rewards of vision and effort for that London Company. Could this genre of work not be a considered investment for our Sydney Companies?

Mr Myers and his company succeeded in giving most in the audience an unforgettable experience with PETER PAN. I hope the future plans hold similar adventures - truly, to keep us all young in the magic spaces of the live theatre. For today, with an eye to sustaining that magic into the future.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


NEW THEATRE present MILKMILKLEMONADE by Joshua Conkel at the New Theatre, Newtown.

MILKMILKLEMONADE a play by Joshua Conkel concerns, in essence, the coming-of-age of two young boys, Emory (Mark Dessaix) and Elliot (Kieran Foster) living in the boon-docks of somewhere in America, who are gay and are not sure what that is.

The play is set on a chicken farm. It is run by Nanna (Peter Nettell) - impersonated here as a lady with all the visual 'drag' qualities of kitchy butch: flamboyantly grotesque trappings of wig, make up and costume, who has a certain pragmatic charm and direct simple narrowness of belief and needs. She seems to care for her charge, Emory, but, we have to project that 'tough love' aspiration onto Nanna, for there is no excessive emotional showings from her. It is part of the surreal, imaginative vision of Mr Conkel. For on this farm, young questing Emory (note the heritage nomenclature that Mr Conkel has given his hero - that of the acerbic character in the ground breaking gay play, THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970)), in compensation for his lack of a loving icon to give him guidance, has invented an imaginative avatar to console him, a talking chicken, Linda. And, boy, does he need that creation, to help him try to understand his sexual proclivities and bring the aggressive behaviour of his pyro-maniacal, neighbourhood friend, Elliot, into some kind of perspective. Mr Conkel has also provided us, the audience, fortunately, with an interpreter, to this mayhem, a Lady in a Leotard (Leah Donovan).Whether she actually clarifies or adds to the mayhem, is a question one can debate after the show!

There is a pop culture explosion of props, stage furniture and costume (Set Design, Antoinette Barbouttis; not sure who designed the costumes!) and, amidst the physical staging of the show, a number of robust and highly entertaining dances (including a ribbon dance) bursting out with the effect of a kind of 'firework' experience. Exhilarating, but also kind of SCARY. Scary for they transcend,  all my altered states visual experiences at Mardi Gras, even  my Bad Dog party visual thematics, and they, I can assure you, can be quite scary. These Dancers and the Dances are quite appealing in their ability to bring on a panic of incredulity. A goggle eyed spectacle indeed - delightful. (Sound Design,/Composition by Kent Rowston. Choreography by Angela Blake, assisted by Joel Thomas).

Mr Conkel wrote this play in 2009 and quotes the playwrights Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, Nicky Silver and Christopher Durang as mentors and heroes for his derring-do. Check out their plays and you will understand.

Those writers' work and this work are very difficult to pull off. I mean really hard. The mental and physical 'tone' of those writers and Mr Conkel, requires the right inspiration, delicacy and learnt discipline, for them to work at all.The recent production of Mr Busch's PSYCHO BEACH PARTY at the Bondi Pavilion in December, 2012 was a glittering marvel of a gift for audiences - all the necessities were in place. It was a template for the kind of skills one needs. This company at the New Theatre under the direction of Melita Rowson explore and deliver this material with all the gusto that it requires, but, on the night I saw it, something was awry, slightly amiss (the infamous second night Blues, perhaps?). Being amiss, even, slightly, in this kind of work does not work.

 I saw the potential of this production, but kinetically that potential, on the night I attended, wasn't there. Mr Dessaix and Mr Foster were impressively working their 'buts' off to keep it afloat, ably anchored by the indefatigable Mr Nettell, but something was, definitely, not quite working on Friday night. (Please check the Jason Blake review to get another viewpoint.)

This play has the potential to knock your socks off and explode you with witty political subversiveness. Your response to this production of the play will depend on whether the company are in synchronisation, whether they have it together or not. Take pot luck and cross your fingers for a more disciplined performance than we had. It could excite you in a way that the recent PSYCHO BEACH PARTY did - it has others, on different nights it seems.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Secret River

Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival and Allens present THE SECRET RIVER by Kate Grenville. An adaptation for the stage by Andrew Bovell at the Sydney Theatre.

It is interesting that the lead credits for this production gives the novelist of THE SECRET RIVER (2005), Kate Grenville, that honour - the lead, precedence, and that the work by Andrew Bovell as the adaptor, for this the stage-version of THE SECRET RIVER, is placed secondarily. This is not the usual practice and I read this as verification of the almost universal admiration/affection that this novel and its related works - there is also a prequel: THE LIEUTENANT (2008) and a sequel: SARAH THORNHILL (2012), now known as THE COLONIAL TRILOGY (!), and a non-fiction work SEARCHING FOR THE SECRET RIVER (2005) - have had with the readers of this city (country) and the respect for the originator of this story, that the Sydney Theatre Company wishes to acknowledge. For although this adaptation deals with only some of the novel ( obstensibly beginning at A HUNDRED ACRES.) Ms Grenville, who had no input into the adaptation process, has said that she feels that her voice has been heard and is very pleased with the Bovell/Neil Armfield distillation and focus, on the stage at the Sydney Theatre.

Stephen Curtis, the Set Designer, says he took his cue for his theatre creation from Kate Grenville's character, Thornhill, "who on his first night on the Hawkesbury (River) compares it to his experience of a church ... so big it made his eyes water. He was dizzy, lost in panic ... it was a void into which his very being expanded without finding a boundary, all in the merciless light that blasted down... "

On entering the theatre, on a curved, slightly raked floor, covered in a patina of white dust, lighting patterns and shadows (Lighting Designer, Mark Howett) lead our eyes to the bottom, very lower, part of a great trunk of a tree, (employing the full width of the Sydney Theatre's stage), with folding creases of towering magnificence, pulling our eyes up and up, past the proscenium arch, into the unseeable scale of, necessarily imagined height, up into the heavens of the universe studied by the astronomer, Lieutenant Daniel Rooke (the hero of THE LIEUTENANT, another of Ms Grenville's creations set in early Sydney settlement, the first of three generations of settlers she has written about).

It's painted bark patterns reach up, rather, not like a church, I thought, but, a cathedral structure that is, indeed, dizzying in its projected invitation to imagine. It has the awesome power of nature in all its untrammelled majesty and the metaphor of the huge sacredness of this 'cathedral' space to the original people of this land. It, uncomfortably, for me, signaled the discomfort/outrage of the coming desecration of another civilization's  sacred place. I recollected, as I sat in my seat, my own awe in the depths of Notre Dame in Paris, or in St. Nicholas' church in Ghent, recently. I was intimated to imagine my own spiritual/cultural outrage if they were desecrated by another ignorant or senseless set of 'humans'-strangers (not improbable in our present age, I fear).

In the two downstage crooks of corners on the stage, one is packed with the ad hoc properties of the camp of this usurping Thornhill family of the play, the other, with the musical instruments, dominated by an uncased piano forte - strings naked for plucking -  of the accompanying contemporary musician (Iain Grandage) to use for this story (at times over emphatic and too European for me, too much of a cacophonous piano-bang crashing. John Antill and his Symphonic work, CORROBOREE, (1946) has better connections for me, the timpani more redolent to the Indigenous sound). Mr Curtis has created a great theatrical catalyst for the audience's imaginings (his Sydney Festival design contribution to the major Indigenous Cultural presence in 2012 for I AM EORA at Carriageworks was the best part of that venture). The lighting paraphernalia are nakedly, starkly visible as part of the stylistic technique of including us as storytellers in this production. It distances the pretended realities and simultaneously acknowledges our contemporary presence. We can see the mechanics of the effects!

Mr Grandage, our live musician (and composer) for this story, and Ursula Yovitch (Dhirrumblin), who will become the narrator of the events of this play - a very daring innovation of the adaptors of the novel for the stage, to have an Aboriginal, omnipresent voice trail us through these events - whilst the auditorium lights are still on, enter the stage space, and begin to call the soundscape of birds songs to give further dimension to the visual impact of this new world: "ca chink pee pee pee wheep! Wheep!" gradually giving way to a pre-recorded sound design (Steve Francis) (- all the actors are mic'ed to compensate for this theatre's infamous acoustical problems and is managed well in the performance).

It signals further, as did the design, the playing style elected by the Director, Neil Armfield, as well: the actors, storytellers creating all the effects, 'playing' at many tasks: actors, actors as characters and shape-shifters (as other animal species, for instance), music makers, singers, dancers, prop movers and even audience like us - they, sometimes sitting on benches and chairs in the wings, as witnesses to what they have created. It is a method that subtly invites us to act, imagine and play in the storytelling too, not just as an outside observer but as one of the creators. Our imaginations are called upon and we must play, as well. We are invited to co-create, co-operate, share the experience. It is the relaxed Meyerholdian idea of the shared experience of 'tribal storytelling' - the knowing presence and interaction of the creator and the listener/audience - it is as old, of course, as the meetings around the camp fires in the caves of all our ancestors, around the fire for warmth and protection, and the teaching of how to survive in the world through stories of comfort and confrontation. 

Digression: It was the shared knowledge that the Aboriginal people gave, in the play, to the 'new peoples' of how to make FIRE with the rubbing of sticks, [one of the separating discoveries, ideas, in the evolution of man as a species] that resonated with me, hugely, as to the value of various cultures and the passing of surviving skills, from one tribe to another. And, even further, the irony, here, that it is the 'baby' of the family (out of the mouth of babies) that this gift is passed on to and  from Dick, the son, to William, the father, after the lesson from Ngalamalium, one of the men of the Dharug.

The characters created for the play from the novel, and there are family structure differences, are brought to life with passionate zeal and beautifully nuanced choices of technique by the performers. More commitment one could not ask for. Anita Hegh reveals, once again, the primacy of her gifts and interpretative skills as Sarah (Sal), the mother of the family, conflicted with the present circumstances of the family's opportunities in the Hawkesbury settlement, its hardships, and the nostalgic yearning of a place, back and over there, that may have become romanticised in her selective remembering. Ms Hegh's subtle physical characteristics, employed to round out the character written on the page, are immaculate in choice and usage - a case where the 'picture' of her physical actions are worth a thousand words.

Colin Moody creates Thomas Blackwood, the most contented and, perhaps, wise of the settlers, a natural humanist, with revealing nakedness of action and enlightened instinctive intelligence without a cowering deflection from the character's embrace of the sense of what is right and how best to achieve that for himself and his new family - his toughened goodness, a source of possible hope. On the other hand, we have a truly bloody-minded, deeply convicted self-believer in how to survive in this environment from the fearless Jeremy Simms as Smasher Sullivan - a man of his times, who has been taught by masters on how to win: smash or be smashed, kill if need to or be killed. Uncompromising cruelty wielded with the full power of an evil. Mr Simms' unflinching embrace of this character, represents those (sad to say) rare actors who have no personal vanity in their embodied identification with their character tasks. Sullivan is a titanic force to absorb into one's psyche and Mr Simms inhabits this man and shows him, almost without any saving, redemptive feature - a true actor of courage, awesomely shocking in his powerful envelopment of  darkness.  He sets a benchmark of ugly possession, as near to Josh McConville's creation in last year's production of THE BOYS as one could wish to experience.

Judith McGrath, almost unrecognisable as Mrs Herring, creates a theatrical portrait of the female survivor in the rough of this new world with wit and cheeky warmth, if not a fully immersed truth - it sometimes has a sense of the actor enjoying it too much. It is, however, a remarkable creation, especially when I remember her last real impression on me was as that tough nurse, in television's long running ALL SAINTS, (a core truth, then, with a different carapace?). Dan Henshall, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland all give dedicated performances in a variety of tasks, (kangaroos, mad dogs and mad men - mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday/night sun!), as does Callum McManis as Willie Thornhill, the unhappy, suspicious youngster teenager in the bush.

From the fly leaf of the published novel: 
In 1806 William Thornhill, a man of quick temper and deep feelings, is transported from the slums of London to New South Wales for the term of his natural life. With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in a harsh land he cannot understand. But the colony can turn a convict into a free man. Eight years later Thornhill sails up the Hawkesbury to claim a hundred acres for himself. Aboriginal people already live on that river. And other recent arrivals - Thomas Blackwood, Smasher Sullivan and Mrs Herring - are finding their own ways to respond to them. Thornhill, a man neither better nor worse than most, soon has to make the most difficult choice of his life.

Nathaniel Dean captures this raw and instinctively honest family man, William Thornhill. A man of no education but that that the rough ways of the world has given, who gains an unbelievable opportunity "to take up land", land of a hundred acres to be his own, (a Promised Land)  only to discover that there are 'others' who feel he has instead, "took land". To keep it, to enhance his family's wealth and status, to escape the tyranny of the old civil burdens of Empire habits and decrees, prejudices, he must join, it seems, inevitably, with others, through the force of these historical contexts, to commit a deed of murder, massacre, barbarism. Torn between his ambition and duty and his honour, Thornhill, embarks on a path of destruction, with others, which will deliver his ancestors into a state of an open wounding, of injury. Mr Dean, a powerful physical figure with the mien of a hero, blond (freckled) and blue eyed - in this instance, a classic cultural  (Western) archetype - embodies not only this physical ideal of hero, from whom we expect deliverance to a utopian existence, but whom, today, we realise maybe, anti-hero - and has thrown his 'tribe" into disturbing conscious ambiguities. In close up Mr Dean's face is awash with expressions of conflicted demands, his body twisting tortuously with the strains of making decisions of survival. The psychological complexity of Thornhill and his primitive and innate sense of right and wrong are brilliantly conveyed. It is a performance trembling, blinking with lived realities of anguish and hopes - " a man of quick temper and deep feelings. ... a man neither better nor worse than most. ..." It is an aching lived transporting and possession on the part of Mr Dean to his craftsmanship to ownership of William Thornhill. It is riveting in its concentrated spareness of gesture and seems  inwardly costly to create and sustain. Mr Dean's exhaustion is genuine at the curtain call - it is eloquent to his commitment of, to, purpose.

This is a tragedy of an everyman. Mr Dean's performance illuminates, and causes us to embrace one of the well spring desires of Ms Grenville, and the adaptors in this production, the resonating need of the present generations of the colonial European 'white' community for reconciliation with our Aboriginal ('black') community. Ms Grenville in researching her family history, that of her ancestor Solomon Wiseman (of Wiseman's Ferry fame), found herself confronted with the eyeline and the silent interrogation by an Aboriginal woman on the Harbour Bridge Walk for Reconciliation in the early 2000's that planted the seed in her for a broader investigation and conversation about her family's historical impact on the original land and its occupiers. Ms Grenville was challenged and , fortunately, she acted. So, Ms Grenville's novel is part of a growing discussion to reach for an understanding of who we are: "The work comes of that place where history meets the contemporary need to know the people and nation we are.'' Tom Keneally's THE COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES: The Sydney Experiment (also published in 2005) and the more recent 1835: The Founding of Melbourne & The Conquest of Australia (2011) by James Boyce and the Vogel Prize winner for fiction in 2011, THE ROVING PARTY by Rohan Wilson are further examples of this movement. ) The Sydney Theatre Company felt that this was a story of national significance and that it should/could be told in the theatre. Both literature endeavours, the novel and now this play script, have begun a speaking of some unspeakable historical facts, facts that once faced and owned may bring an ease of understanding and unification, with the acceptance of a responsibility for them and a kind of apology to the original landowners with the expression of a possible plea to help bring some kind of resolution - this play a kind of Talking Cure, then.

And one of the possible resolutions is empathetically placed in this production in the representations of the playing of the innocents. The open interconnection and joy of the children of both sides of this dilemma, the black and white, as they slip and slide across the wetted floor of the stage. It can be powerfully read in the real sense of fun and showing-off both, by the Aboriginal children, Bailey Doomadgee as Garraway, James Slee as Narabi, and the remarkable Rory Potter as Dick Thornhill, the curious, his heart is carried on all our sleeves. (Tom Usher is he alternate actor in this role). In the games we watch on the stage one questions whether the joy is manufactured as part of the 'acted world', or, is it an authentic present-moment of delight expressed by these young boys? The present authenticity is, however, palpable. There is lived there, a unity of shared delights and a way of co-existing as 'brothers'. A place to begin a joint understanding and reconciliation, perhaps. Images that us adults should not forget.

Before moving on I wish to niggle a little: one can sense the honour of responsibility that these actors feel (to be clear, the 'white' actors), emanating, as it does, from them, firstly, as actors deft with craft embedded in character, and, secondarily, I believe, especially, as contemporary citizens of the nation telling a story that they know is important and past its due in telling. There is a sense of muscular, missionary urgency and this sometimes slightly, lightly, for me, unbalanced the historical, contextual truths of motivation of the characters' world. The playing sometimes had a sense of didactic pointing to the hind-sighted misapprehensions and less enlightened codes of conduct/behaviour of the time of the play - mostly unconscious, I'm sure, from the actors - that had, in my viewing, a sense of a judgemental view/explanation, seeking understanding that is more 2013 than 1813. Some of the actors seemed to be asking for pardon for their characters actions. In contrast, say ,to the actor's characters in Quentin Tarantino's film DJANGO UNCHAINED, where the behaviour revealed was the manner of the times, and there was no hint of apology in the  savage performance of their roles.

To adapt this novel for the stage, Mr Bovell and Mr Armfield have taken quite some poetic licence. The Indigenous people of this land, the Dharug, have been created as individuals (with names) and given dialogue to speak, unlike the book. Ms Grenville explained: "I was only able to gesture towards it in the novel." "She did not want to trespass onto a culture she knew little about and therefore couldn't empathise with."  Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre as Artistic Associate to this production (his own work ID, part of BELONG for Bangarra Dance Theatre in August, 2011 and BLOODLAND in November, 2011 for the Sydney Theatre Company are in themselves important productions towards a new Indigenous conversation with the white community) along with Richard Green, a Language Consultant for the Indigenous cast have helped THE SECRET RIVER company negotiate this imposition on the original. I know of some, and can imagine other cultural mores around the representation of the Indigenous peoples (ancestors) and the re-creation and learning of the Dharug language that would have made the whole creative process a delicate and a mighty task for all those directly involved. The company of  Indigenous actors, embracing a wide range of age (and from different Indigenous cultures and, perhaps, language) are movingly convincing as the Dharug people in the play, in their spoken interactions, and reveal a physical grace of natural communication skills  of modesty and clarity in the actioning of their acting demands (their mimetic success is wonderful - sub-titling, sur-titling made redundant): Roy Gordon, (Yalamundi - the elder of the tribe), Ethel-Anne Gundy (Buryia - the female leader of the tribe),Trevor Jamieson (Ngalamalium) and Rhimi Johnson Page (Wangarra/ Branyimala) - tribal warriors, Miranda Tapsell (Gillyagan/Muruli) as young female woman/mother, and the children,at my performance: Bailey Doomadgee (Garraway/ Dulla Djin's child) and James Slee (Narabi) (and otherwise Kamil Ellis). All create a sense of tribe and extended family and an ease with the land and the way to manage it - to reveal in the actions of the script, as in the novel, the practical knowledge that allowed these nomads to triumph over this trying country.

As intimated earlier the boldest adjustment that the theatre team have created, diverging from the novel, is that of handing the narrative voice of this story to that of an Indigenous one. Ursula Yovitch as Dhurrumblin, the narrator, and in the action of the story, also, Dulla Djin, gives a dignity and unifying shape to the work. A mammoth task handled with expert aplomb. Yet, it is here that I felt the most unease. This text, this story/narrative is still that , majorly, of a white 'voice' and this new indigenous 'overview effect' lacked authenticity, had, I felt, a not wholly embodied commitment to the deeper observations and responsibilities of the story. At the performance I attended, the tonal qualities of the spoken word from Ms Yovitch became slightly melodic in an 'empty' kind of way and became blurred into generalised 'sung' sounds instead of information, attitudinised or not, as may have been required by the writer to create maximum effect. For, when Ms Yovitch pitched into her sung grief in the final moments of the production, the vocal efforts focused, and communicated with pin point accuracies the deep understanding and commitment of this tragedy of THE SECRET RIVER and its living consequences. Ms Yovitch was transmuted into a painful truth that was an infection of profound passionate grief for all of us present in the theatre. The contrast of communication in the narration tasks and the singing, was startling in a real heart breaking manner. There, then, I became truly engaged with the narrator,  where before I had been mysteriously uneasy, puzzled and cool.The theatre audience, all of us, were stunned into a long silence by this perfect gesture from Ms Yovitch.

In a letter to Neil Armfield from Ms Yovitch, published with permission in the program, Ms Yovitch expresses her own griefs of the terrible history of our cultural interactions and the consequences to her people and family: "...The content of THE SECRET RIVER is tough and I know it will be emotionally draining. I'm not a trained actor by any means and the only way I know how to work is to feel my way through and most times it's to my detriment. ...The trauma is so deep that we believe our own worthlessness. ... Generational Trauma." The grueling task of re-creation eight performances a week is an Olympian demand and to tell this story from a fragile position was a brave and dedicated aspiration. 

The care that THE SECRET RIVER company realised in bringing this important novel to the stage is no more evident than in the thoughtful and intricate choices and solutions of the costumes by Tess Schofield. The achievement in the designs and execution of the design is in the deft combination of period and contemporary resolution. Some of the Aboriginal cast wear earthy coloured, patterned 'board shorts' - that it is a late observation, by me, in the performance, is a credit to their subtlety. The sensibilities to all involved, actors and audience by the design team is registered in the creation of nude sculptures/costumes for the two actors who are revealed naked in the story. The 'white' settlers are also ingenious in the acceptable improvisations, representations.. " Improvised period and tribal looks are assembled loosely from contemporary elements, with the same relaxed energy that rehearsal clothes are cobbled together, and our whole human river is roughly painted with the wear and tear of life, salt, tar, rich river mud, ochre and mud."-Tess Schofield. The faces are screed with paint and no more startlingly then in the white for the white settlers.

Cumulatively, as usual, the genius of the storytelling skills of the Director Neil Armfield brings this story of THE SECRET RIVER to the theatre,  seemingly effortlessly, and to encourage us to an open conversation of our past and the consequences of it. That the audiences have been so grateful and moved is a marking of the aptness and appropriate timing of its arrival, no matter the deep conservatism of the writing choices by Mr Bovell and Mr Armfield in their collaboration - using the slow scene build of the 'ordinariness' of the people and their daily lives over the two long acts of the play (sometimes too sluggishly, especially in the first act) to draw us inexorably to a pinnacle of breath-holding tragedy. The dialogue of the characters are mirrored approximations of that of the novel. There are no great thinkers or philosophers here, little learnt education, no great ideas amongst these people, their lives weightily dominated by the basic need to ensure food and shelter for one's family - to survive - and, so, the great core of the play, its idea, is a simple one. None of the language gestures of say Arthur Miller's THE CRUCIBLE and its protagonists, we do not have the education of those settlers settling on the frontier of the Americas. Though in the unfolding of the play, this very rudimentary simpleness is enough, and culturally cauterising.

At least it was for the audience I sat with, for it appeared ready to listen and to hear and to be moved . This novel, play and production is an example of what I touched upon in my conversation around the Griffin production of RUST AND BONE and  HOLLYWOOOD ENDINGS. Works that provoke discussion and perhaps change in the perceptions of the world around us. Writers, actors, producers as artist/activists. Mr Armfield is too gentlemanly and perhaps wise to encourage out-right revolution but invites us to a sure river flow of evolution. A gentle point to shocking facts and giving a way to be able to absorb it, in the dark and as a collective - safety in an anonymous number. He is certainly a subtle artist/activist.

I remember in 1972, forty-one years ago, the beginnings of the NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE. I remember the startling Bryan Syron and the warm determined Bob Maza moving his brothers and sisters to the possibility of using the theatre as a way to propel a message to the community. I remember the theatre artist/activists of the original Nimrod Theatre giving opportunity for action on  stage for the Indigenous voice. I remember, especially, The Old Tote Theatre Company (the ancestor of the Sydney Theatre Company) mount a huge production in the Drama theatre at the Sydney Opera House written by Michael Boddy (he, of THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY and BIGGLES ) called THE CRADLE OF HERCULES (1974), directed by George Whaley. It was a chronicle play about Governor Arthur Phillip and Bennelong. I remember it had a large cast of white actors led by John Gaden as Phillip. I remember a contingent of Indigenous actors with large responsibilities of text led by Jack Charles as Bennelong with Zac Martin, Justine Saunders, and amongst others, the young David Gulpilil. 

My memories of these events were stirred while sitting in the Sydney Theatre last Thursday for this performance. I remember the time, it was the second season in the new building by Utzern. I remember our Prime Minister was Gough Whitlam.  He who had been elected with the chant and song of IT'S TIME. I remember it being a time of optimistic futures. I remember it being, especially, a time of hope, of possible reconciliation. I know, yes, unfortunately, I have knowledge and remember that it all dribbled away: optimism and reconciliation. You all know, now, that it has taken almost 41 years to get another company of actors representing the whole of our nation together, black and white, to tell a story that concerns all of us vitally. I hope the enthusiastic and deeply moved audience of last Thursday does not let the impetus of this production dribble away. As well.

I, personally, hope and pray for an Aboriginal overview of the past (perhaps the telling of the Dharug point of view of this story) and, especially, the PRESENT (See my blog on WINDMILL BABY and POSTS IN THE PADDOCK) to be presented. While we have  Scott Rankin and 'bigHART', Stephen Page, Wayne Blair (how amazing a piece of work is the film THE SAPPHIRES - love and mush,  songs and laughter, and BIG big politics? I can hardly wait for the US release to observe the reaction to Mr Blair's and Mr Briggs embracing of Martin Luther King to the Indigenous struggle down under!!!) Andrea James, Rachael Maza, Lisa-Mare Syron,  and others demonstrating their abilities, I expect great things.

What I fervently wish is that the passion, humour, anger, weighted intelligence of the African/American writers take flame as inspiration down here for our Indigenous writers and artists to point more 'violently' to the facts. (I wish I could be sure that our writers knew which writers I am referring to. My experience in the field has made me, sometimes a cynic). And, although it is the work of Quentin Tarantino, I do wish for an Australian work of the inflamming passions of the film DJANGO UNCHAINED: intelligence using satire, wit, compassion and daring to rile, to shake up, the comfortable. 

THE SECRET RIVER  at the Sydney Theatre, may its influence be taken up and be built upon and for longer than the influence of THE CRADLE OF HERCULES proved to have. We thought it was the TIME, then, for change.

What do we care for now, really ... honestly? Look : the closing moments of this production has an emotional and physical projection into the present, from 1813 to 2013. Mr Thornhill -Nathaniel Dean - now dressed in a Country Road checked jacket, blue shirt and biege chinos, sees an Aboriginal man, perhaps a great, great, great, great grandson of Ngalamalium - Trevor Jamieson - squatting by a make shift fire. Dean/Thornhill , looks and sees an unkempt indigenous figure, Jamieson/Nglamalium and moves on.

 Now, for all my tub thumping here and elsewhere, I, now, must confess , that I, walking in Oxford Street near Taylor Square into and along Bourke Street, near the Matthew Talbot Hostel, often see Indigenous sitting, begging on the street. I move on without any act of care. I have walked through the streets of Kings Cross and the "block'', area in Redfern, seen my Aboriginal brothers and sisters and moved on without outward acknowledgement. I saw SAMSON AND DELILAH at the movies, was shocked and have not moved one fibre of me to assist change. I have seen the documentaries of distress from the outback and centre of Australia on my television screen in the comfort of my home and not registered a single action of change. Will I do anything different now after watching THE SECRET RIVER? Will the weeping, stunned audience I sat in and with  in the theatre on Thursday night,  those who stood in ovation , and the others I hear have done regularly, bring in any active effort of change?

..... ? .......?.....?

Three times Peter was asked. Three times he denied.

 This was a production that ought to be a catalyst for enlightenment and healing, or, to quote Clive James from his collection of essays CULTURAL AMNESIA: the "embodiment of the sad truth that beauty begins as a consolation for what can't be mended" - at least.

P.S. A regular plea. It is a shame that there is no biography of Kate Grenville in the program.  It would be proper, don't you think to acknowledge the writer, the originator of this story? The writer of any story!!!! Believe it or not, not everyone has read the book. Not everyone knows who Ms Grenville is and what she has writ.