Sunday, June 30, 2013

Angels in America

Belvoir presents ANGELS IN AMERICA - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches. Part Two: Perestroika. At the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills.

ANGELS IN AMERICA - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner is an almost six hour play written in two separate parts: Part One: Millennium Approaches (1990); Part Two: Perestroika (1993). The Belvoir Theatre Company are presenting both parts of this play, directed by Eamon Flack. It is a truly marvelous experience. Both plays are simply, still, twenty years later, astounding writing. The company of actors (eight of them) are giving wonderful performances. The director and the design team, all of them, have created a place and spaces for the play to be revealed untrammeled, in its human observations, filtered through the mind of Mr Kushner with all of his restless urgencies and questings. This is a deeply affecting production and I encourage all of you to see it.

It is 20 years, since the original appearance of these two plays. Hardly believable, is it? Both of them stand-up to the scrutiny of those passing years, and shockingly, still, stand relevantly powerful in all of their many facets. It is dramatic, it is farcical, it is melodramatic, it is comic, it is a soap opera, it is an epic, it is religious, it is philosophic, it is hallucinogenic, it is surreal, it is entertaining, it is challenging, it is moving, it is depressing, it is optimistic. It is just GREAT. Or, as Ben Brantley comments in the New York Times in his review of the Signature Theatre's revival in 2010 (28th October): "The received wisdom about Mr Kushner is that he is a great playwright. This production reminds us that he is also a good one, which as far as satisfying nights at the theatre are concerned, may be more important." I concur with this having seen the Belvoir production.

Mr Kushner:
MILLENNIUM APPROACHES has a taut, efficient narrative, and I've never seen any need to change it. In this edition it's substantially the same play that was first published nearly twenty years ago, although as the result on the work of both parts of ANGELS for the Signature Theatre's 2010 revival a few minor alterations were made to it. 
Far more significantly, I discovered in PERESTROIKA what I believe to be a missing thread in its narrative, the substructural space for which, I realised, I'd laid in long before I knew how to make use of it. In this version with a little help from my friends and a very long preview period, the thread has been woven in. I won't specify to which moments I'm referring, because calling attention to it would undermine the effort to integrate the new material. Of course there are two other versions of PERESTROIKA in print, and anyone with sufficient time and interest can make comparisons, but most people have better things to do with their time. Life, after all, is shorter than we think.
I saw these two plays on two separate dates. A Wednesday night, and then, two and a half weeks later, on a Saturday night. After the First Part; MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, which was very familiar, having seen several other productions of it, and, although my guest and I were impressed, generally, with this production, the appearance of the Angel, at the conclusion of Part One, rather than the anticipated terrifying, Spielbergian vision in "unearthly light, spreading great opalescent gray-silver wings" with a CRASH through a cascading roof of plaster, shuddering the building, descending into the room and floating above the bed; at Belvoir, it was visually on the par with my local church Nativity Angel (circa.1955) with shabby wing span, hardly wider than the shoulders of the actor, with a home made costume made from white sheets and dressing gown cord, climbing onto and standing on a short metal ladder from the local hardware store, BUNNINGS! (see the above photograph!). It did not inspire, necessarily, an overwhelming need to see Part Two. The impactful epic element of the production was missed by us, immensely. We were let down. We chatted as we walked to the bus in the rain: "Part Two is also, (was), the more difficult and disjointed half, the writing not so clear, good, - was it worth a further three and half hours?" - so hesitation, about coming back. Time and money!

I did. My guest did not. I am glad I did, it was a stunning continuation and I have encouraged my friend to catch up with the rest of Mr Kushner's revised vision. I am not sure whether it was that the First Part, because of its familiarity, had seemed to have lost some of its rage, its potency, and, although 'good', was not necessary viewing, any longer, that infected our deliberations. I remembered sitting in the auditorium down at the Wharf 1, in the early '90's literally terrified in my seat, sitting among an audience that may have been checking their 'dark freckles' as sign of illness, as I was; recollecting visits that I had made to St Vincent's Hospital, watching friends begin, and take the journey to death; dredging up the visits that I had avoided - too cowardly to face (I lived, both, in San Francisco and Sydney at this time, it was an overwhelming time - particularly if one was working in the Arts); and, on this recent Wednesday night found myself watching a little more objectively, historically, and so a little more, remotely. For me, this play was never a fiction it was a mirror to my life and it had been shattering, my life and the mirror. On that Wednesday night, It seemed not so, anymore. (Further thoughts: I may also have had the smugness of a survivor; and, or, the guilt of a survivor as well, two weeks ago.)

Part Two, PERESTROIKA, I had, I think, only seen once before, and it was, from memory, fairly underprepared as a production when I saw it at the Wharf, and, so, was underwhelming in its focus, and, I did not have any necessary or visceral memories of it. I don't think I had even read it since then, either. So, on Saturday night, the strength of the new writing, the extraordinary passion of the acting and the laser-like concentration of the production seized and gripped me in that first act with such power that I was shaken into excavating deep pools of denial of my own behavior, causing the bubbling up of a kind of rage, crying excitedly but quietly in my seat, because many of us, sitting a little complacently in the theatre, believe that this epidemic, known as AIDS is over - which, it kind of is, for us Western middle-class white people, who have the drug regime available and affordable - knowing that Africa, South America, China, India are being ravaged by this bio-logical catastrophe and further by capitalism in the guise of unco-operative international drug companies! Thousands upon thousands of humans are dying. Still exhausting, awful deaths.Today.

The world of ANGELS IN AMERICA, Mr Kushner told us, in 1993:
"...The world howls without; it is at this moment a very terrible world–what the first character in PERESTROIKA calls an 'inevident welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity."   
 I bemoan our ignoring of that. In 2013 Mr Kushner can still give us the same information and the final speech of Prior that concludes the play, still starkly true:

"This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
 Bye now.
 You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: MORE LIFE.
The Great Work begins."
These words seem more relevant, more urgent than before. The Great Work still is beginning for most of the world. How slow is change? How long will it take for the great work to be achieved? That the reported story by Nick O'Malley in the Friday, 28th June, 2013 Sydney Morning Herald (p.15) of "Gay couples win landmark case" seems even more important than ever. My friends in the USA think so. Know so. They will not be secret any more. They will have equal rights as citizens of that country. Perhaps, some other Angel has landed in America? or, have my friends and I celebrated too soon? - the anti-angel is still fiercely present.

The politics in this play, as you can read, stirs me mightily. The sheer audacity of the writing is  motivating, inspiring. It is truly, as the title tells us: a fantasia - a literary work that is not curbed by any fixed plan (well, at least in imaginary conception, there was later deliberate detail shaping, as well!). The worlds that Mr Kushner bounces to and from: the Jewish faith and the beliefs of their prophets; the Mormon faith and it's beliefs; the world of race discrimination, in instance, the African-American experience; the homosexual world, its beliefs, its practices and hierarchies; the world of government politics - the past and the present (Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg and Ronald Regan, for instance); the philosophies of Karl Marx and the faces of capitalism; the story of love between bisexual and homosexual couples; the despair of rejection; the delusions, illusions of hallucinogenic drugs - illegal and legal ones, is staggering. The range of the comic and dramatic prisms which Mr Kushner employs to keep the action of his message moving forward is thrilling in its daring. It steps into the shoes of one of Mr Kushner's playwriting heroes: Bertold Brecht - and except for the lack of songs and music - uses the Brechtian intentions and skills, wholeheartedly. It reveals Mr Kushner's belief in "... the power of the theatre to teach and heal through compassion, through shared agony. ..." [1] offering a critical consciousness for his audience, how to look at the world, to see it with a double vision - that, which is on the stage, and what is in the 'real' world, that has been captured, refracted back to us in this darkened space of a theatre.

Unapologetically, Mr Kushner has talked of his love of language and while admiring the economy of the Beckettian school in deliberated sparseness, prefers that of another of his heroes, Herman Melville: "He (Melville) is very, very great, as deep as deep can be, vast, capable of unnerving insight ..." and is not hesitant to explore divergent paths from his main road of literary intent. Someone who is "nuts" about language and models: " why use one word when there are six! …pushing language by over clarifying, by over emphasising and sometimes by pulling in obscurities - towards a nonrational or superrational mysticality, towards music" [1] - continuing to explore and play with the structure of language.

Some random, and I do mean RANDOM, as there is so much 'treasure' here, instances in point:
Roy: ... What the fuck do you think this is, Sunday School?
Joe: No, but Roy this is . . .
Roy: This is . . . this is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movements and blood-red meat–this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive. And you think you're . . . What? Above what? Dead! In the clouds! You're on earth, goddammit! Plant a foot, stay a while.
I'm sick. They smell I'm weak. They want blood this time. I must have eyes in Justice. In Justice you will protect me.

Harper: ... I feel like shit but I've never felt more alive. I've finally found the secret of all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That's what makes people migrate, build things. Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love. Because I don't think God loves His people any better than Joe loved me.The string was cut, and off he went.
I have to go now. I'm ready to lose him. Armed with the truth. He's got a sweet hollow center, but he's the nothing man.
I hope you come back. Look at this place. Can you imagine spending eternity here?
Prior: It's supposed to look like San Francisco.
Harper: (Looking around) Ugh.
Prior: Oh but the real San Francisco, on earth, is unspeakably beautiful.
Harper: Unspeakable Beauty.
That's something I would like to see.


Antarctica (yes, Antarctica, for real): I I I I do not weep for them, I I I I weep for vexation of the Blank Spaces, I weep for Dancing Light, for the irremediable wastage of Fossils Fuels, Old Blood of the Globe spilled wantonly or burned and jettisoned into the Crystal Air, I I I I delight in their suffering, I I I I will never relent, let them reap the harvest of . . .

I mean, is that, not just outrageous, but, also, beautiful expression?!! And there is nearly six hours of it. How, contemporaneously rare to have such language float out at us? A kind of literary music. Both poetic, and totally, totally cogent, with the pulse of the urgent present - it sounds real, it is understandable - heightened, muscular, intrinsic, for sure - but it has the ease of naturalness, of truth, and, of beauty. Even when read, let alone when faithfully spoken, it is of "Unspeakable beauty." Voluptuous and bejewelled language (can you believe it, there is an operatic version of this play?)

Eamon Flack is the director of this production, and he is Associate Director - New Projects at Belvoir. Somehow, he has convinced his other artistic associates to reverse what seemed to be a 'policy' at Belvoir (witness STRANGE INTERLUDE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, PRIVATE LIVES, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) and assured them that there is no need to make ANGELS IN AMERICA more accessible for the Sydney audience by using an Australian dialect or even re-writing the material, (with or without permission of the writer or their representatives), changing location or any other artistic shenanigan and, instead, simply attempt to explore what the writer offers on the page, and truly discover for us, with us, and trusting us, that audience, that we will find through the joint experience of the performance, why this play, as writ, is a modern classic of the world stage.

With a throw in-the-air of silver glitter, perhaps, Mr Flack has ventured where the Belvoir has not ventured for some time with its choices of titles from the classic canon of recent Western Dramatic Literature (by the way, good marketing to keep the original titles and author names attached). And guess what? He and his company of actors and the other artists have produced for Belvoir a truly great night in the theatre. Theatre, where the writer seems to be in the driving seat. For, it seemed to me that Mr Flack has guided his actors meticulously through the text and attempted to solve the issues, explore the difficulties and joys of making Mr Kushner's words, flesh. (American Dialect Coach, Paige Walker-Carlton). The production has the energy of a missionary zeal. And, I mean, on many levels of mission. For, relievedly, even more painstakingly, the text seems to have been 'close-read' with the syntax and creative spaces between the words, properly dealt with, and, made actIon.

In interview Mr Kushner talks of his meticulous writing habit (he spent over five years writing these two plays):
The choice of formatting is important. Writing a play is like writing a poem - it matters where the line break happens. A great critic of poetry, like Helen Vendler, reads not just the words but the spaces in a poem. Punctuation marks in a play are as powerful as they are in poems. 'PLEASE BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION.' I always tell my playwrighting students that these choices are critically important. Even tiny choices. Is it "James, colon, line of dialogue, Mary, colon, line of dialogue," or, is the character name centred above the line? Is the character name underlined? not underlined? Capitalized? Is the script single spaced? These decisions will have an impact on the way a play is read and on the way it is performed. Each playwright has his or her way of doing things, BUT the choices matter. A play is both a score for a kinetic event and its literature. [1].

This is what this playwright is saying about his work. No less other great writers, for I have read elsewhere: Oscar Wilde deliberated for a day to replace that comma with a full stop. Evelyn Waugh spent the day etc. etc. etc. These great artists have spent time deliberating on such 'musical' clues to their work, and it is the performing artists responsibility to deal with those clues to the music of the character and the pulsing sweep of the narrative, not to ignore and override them. Or, worse, to be ignorant of them.

Look at the meticulous published text (even the layout is fascinating) of these plays published by Theatre Communications Group, to understand the care that Mr Kushner has taken.  G. B. Shaw, supervised the publication of all his plays and there is much information to be mined to understand and play Shaw in the close reading of his texts. Tom Stoppard, once in conversation, explained that he travels the world to nurture other productions of his work [this was on the occasion of the American Conservatory Theatre's first production of ARCADIA] to preserve "the clarity of utterance" of his text, the words and the syntax. The vocabulary and the music. And he (the writer with the director) did make tiny alterations, mostly to find the American rhythm for some small passages that otherwise were not translating musically, felicitously enough for the comic health of his play in San Francisco, as compared to the London audience's comprehension -it is a kind of translating, from an English-English, to an American-English, from one English form to another - interesting n'est pas?)

When one looks at the script of PRIVATE LIVES that Belvoir began rehearsal work with, with all the syntax and other instructions removed, (it is available on line, I believe) one can see the difficulties, if one respects the writer, it must bring, to honor the writer, if half of his guiding text is missing. In extremis, it is like taking the music note from the song and just leaving the words. The poet's words without Mozart's music. Oscar Hammerstein’s words without Richard Rogers music . One would like to read the adaptation of MISS JULIE that Simon Stone has made and see whether the syntax and other clues of his will be removed before rehearsal, or, whether the whole vision of Mr Stone's conception will be honored - syntax and descriptions of action, vocabulary and music, song and  physical 'choreography'. Thankfully, Mr Flack sees the benefits of a 'close-reading' of the author’s text, in this case, Tony Kushner, and accepting the challenge of finding the embodiment of these ideas on the page with his cast to present ANGELS IN AMERICA as best we Australians in 2013 can do through our own unique cultural prism. It is that that makes this Belvoir production an Australian reading and production, not the cavalier re-writing or approximate appropriating of the text, we, as an audience, have recently, usually, borne.

All eight members of this cast are giving wonderful performances, and considering the gap of time I had in seeing the company at work, between Part One and Part Two, I felt the work had become more embodied and free in its expression over that time. The confidence of characterization and storytelling was immensely more secure. There is great reward in seeing the whole play, naturally, to take in the scope of the storytelling of the writer, but, as well, in seeing this small company of actors bloom inventively under the length and pressure of the writer's demands over the epic arc of the nearly six hours. It is in the cumulative second play that one begins to admire the work of Paula Arundell and Robyn Nevin in their many roles and responsibilities, (although, I could not hear Ms Nevin's Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz in the beginning of the First Part, nor understand at all, because of the low volume and the bafflement of the actor's chosen characteristics obfuscating clear meaning in her creation of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, at the start of Part Two - both offers very vexing, indeed - especially, since both characters kicked off the two halves, it was like missing, perhaps, the first line of a sonnet, it took some time to catch on to the rest of the act, and, especially because of the relative clarity of the rest of Ms Nevin's work). Amber McMahon as Harper grew in stature in the second half. Her first half did not seem to have the right balance of fragility, delicacy that I had come to expect, had read in that role. Harper's gathering strength was wonderfully charted, communicated in Part Two. Marcus Graham, seems to be giving a reading of Roy Cohn that is strikingly different from that usually received, the choices here are of Roy Cohn as a kind of benign father figure to Joe and not the "polestar of human evil, he's like the worst human being who ever lived, he isn't human even, he's . . . " and I felt it did unbalance the play, especially in Part One where I felt if there isn't the DEVIL on stage there cannot be an ANGEL. Whatever?, the performance is still, cumulatively, well drawn if not terrifying - of terror.

The opening act of Part Two was where I switched on to Luke Mullins as Prior Walter. I had resisted his too careful work in the first part. It seemed too self-conscious, deliberate, organized - actorly objectivity. But it was in the wrestling with the Angel and Belize in the course of that magnificent first act of PERESTROIKA, that, then, he stopped being so careful, perhaps so cerebral, as an actor, and burst the boundaries of good taste and control, and exploded with visceral energies and desperate passions into a totally possessed character. I was won and on board for most of the rest of the play's journey. Deobia Oparei, repeating the creation of Belize, which he explored nearly twenty years ago down at the STC in the Michael Gow production, has honed the shaping of the performance beautifully: funny, camp, gay, wise, intelligent, emotionally powerful, physically threatening, naturally nurturing and a victor over victimisation, the double whammy of being black and gay in America -the true hero in the cast of characters - the great human being of the play. I thought that the Second Scene in Act Three of MILLENNIUM APPROACHES with Louis was electrifying, and it, and Mr Oparei took us to empathetic and intellectual perceptual heights in Part Two.

Ashley Zuckerman as Joseph Porter Pitt or more familiarly, Joe, the Mormon, gives a great performance of human conflict, one that requires Joe to struggle between being strategic, substantive and ethical. The dilemmas are heartbreaking and Mr Zuckerman seems to have, for me, at least, that capability of deep thoughtfulness and great vulnerability, combined with a strong masculine presence. The character, as created by Mr Zuckerman, carries the guilt of the audience in its dealing with its own prejudices, how we live with them, and act them out. That he is defeated by stupid compromise to 'traditions' and traditional thinking, systems - in the end a reluctant fundamentalist - is a statement of many of our own positions, maybe, unless we have the courage and capacity of an angel, perhaps, to change? This performance appears to have the spine of what may be Mr Zuckerman's own personalized qualities, for I remember being aesthetically arrested by his Orlando in the Belvoir, AS YOU LIKE IT a few years ago and was similarly moved and empathetic - I was made to pay close attention. An actor's actor at work, maybe.

Mitchell Butel as Louis Ironson gives the performance of the play. Louis, the 'thinking' conflicted theorist of the play, trying to fit his intellectual theories into the patently obvious failure of life as lived in all its spheres, to try to match them in their theoretical idealised ways. To see, and, especially, hear Mr Butel's Louis debate them, is like jumping onto a roller-coaster ride, being 'shit scared' and yet being sure that it will all work out well at the end, in the end. He will bring us to safety if we join him, Mr Butel assures us. Mr Butel has always been impressive and is a genuine triple threat as actor, singer and dancer, as his CV demonstrates, and here in ANGELS IN AMERICA brings all those disciplines, graces, and clarity of those skills, bearing great emotional depth, vulnerability, and a mighty direct zeal of passion to the Kushner creation/objective, with such secure speed of thought and speech and physical action, that the time in the theatre feels unlaboured, which it otherwise can with a lesser actor, in this kind of role. The complexities of those debates which Louis holds throughout the play with the other characters are so deftly tuned to this actor's instrument, so, passionate, and so clear, and so stimulating, that exhaustion on our part is never given an opportunity to be felt. Mr Butel seems to be inspired. His vocal patterns and physical expressions fit the tasks and he certainly inspires his other players, for the games they play with him in their scenes are scintillating, seem to catch fire with clarifying illumination and we reap the reward of great acting: total understanding, active time consumption and emotional contentments.

Despite my recently grown abhorrence of the public tiled space, walls and floor, being used to contain a play, again in Sydney, here, Michael Hankin has found a way to make this aesthetic choice represent what? - a bathroom, an operating theatre, a morgue? - and be useful with that imagery, thematically. It is, as well, in its yellowish gleaming tinge, an aptly open space that allows the bringing on of props and furniture easily, even breeezily, to keep the story propelled. The envelope-post box shaped, white curtained space on one of the walls is amusingly, highly theatrical and effective in keeping the action moving and delectably, teasingly rewarding. (I sat on the right bank - audience p.o.v -.the first show and did not appreciate the set design as wonderfully as when I sat in the left bank of seats on the second night - it works at different variants of success depending on your seating position, it seems.) Costumes (and make-ups, I presume), by Mel Page were perfect for their function and ability to quick change - except for that most disappointing Angel. Lighting: dynamic and flexible from Niklas Pajanti, assisted in their presentational effects, by a Music Composition of a huge range of musical style interludes by Alan John, organized in the space by a further affective Sound Design by Steve Francis. Mr Flack deputed with rousing skill the scene changes by the stage management and all the company of actors, allowing the Brechtian penchant to show all the strings in the creation of this magic, show. The audience and this wonderful company of artists thought and felt as one on this long journey. Mr Flack does not seem to have made a choice, except that Angel, wrong footedly. Congratulations, indeed.

Belvoir delivers, at last, a production that few should find debatable in its merits (Meyerhold would find that, a reason to think the production a failure, believing the equally divided opinion, fore and against, denoted a theatrical desirability and preference). I believe this is a good production of a great play. Such, that I have always placed Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS as my favorite play of the twentieth century, with DEATH OF A SALESMAN following it. This production of the whole of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, has given me reason to displace Arthur Miller's play to third position. Serious change indeed!

Just to balance the ballast of my pleasure, I thought I should just finish my diary entry with a contrary point of view of the play (if not this production). From Lee Siegel of The New Republic:
ANGELS IN AMERICA is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay and about AIDS, no one - and I mean no one - is going to call ANGELS IN AMERICA the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is. [2].

Get to Belvoir to postulate, formulate your point of view. I guarantee you will have one angelic/hell of a time.

P.S. If you like this text, make sure you catch LINCOLN, again - adapted by Mr Kushner and just the very title of his latest long play :THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, sounds similarly provocative, don't you think? Bring it on.

N.B. References are quoted from the Belvoir Program Notes.
Quotes from the play are from the ANGELS IN AMERICA, Parts One and Two text, published by Theatre Communications Group - 1992-1993 and 1992-1994, respectively.


  1. The Paris Review: Interviews, Tony Kushner, The Art of Theatre, No.16. Interviewed by Catherine Steindler.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ballet Revolucion

ATA Allstar Artists Pty Ltd, The Woodland Production Company, Michael Brenner and the BB Group GmbH present BALLET REVOLUCION at the State Theatre Sydney.

BALLET REVOLUCION, a collection of young, robust, excitable and exciting dancers from Cuba were here in 2011, and now burst, once again, onto the State Theatre stage. The company brings to us a collection of dances and dancers showing us the heritage of dance 'contagion' from Cuba that stems from a fusion of classical ballet, modern and folkloric dance. The main facility for training in the arts in Cuba, according to the program notes, is the Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), founded in 1961 - and their graduates populate the country's leading dance companies. (The first ballet company, the Ballet Alicia Alonso was only founded in 1948).

 One of the dancers, Lianett Rodriguez Gonzalez, says in interview: "I relate the show to a big tropical smoothie where every fruit (i.e. dancer) is vital for the final result". The night feels like an highly organised episode of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. Each of these amazing young dancers have honed a unique style of their own as an expression of their own personalities, their skills and training. Individually they are very impressive. Jesus Elias Almenares, Juan Carlos Hernandez Osma, Moises Leon Noriega, Lianett Rodriguez Gonzalez Jenny Sosa Martinez and Odeymis Torres Perez, pop out for me, in memory. In unison the company are a dynamic explosion of individual energies with only a vague sense of a corps de ballet discipline - infectious, cheeky and inviting. It has the feel of an exuberant street carnival, festival and crazy nightclub scene.

The dance, is accompanied by a driving and 'thrilling' live band led by Osmar Salazar Hernandez. Trumpet, electric guitars, piano and keyboard with drums, supported further with congas and percussion, play arrangements of popular and folkloric music: Cuban, modern Latin American and number one RnB hits (Purple Rain, She Bangs etc.), even a quotation from Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez (1939). Kristin Hosein and Weston Foster are the vocalists, to top up the effect of the sound.

Choreography is by Aaron Cash and Roclan Gonzalez Chavez, the costume design by Jorge Gonzalez. The audience was pumped and gave rapt applause and were eager for more at the end of the two hour show. The dancers are generous in their energies, charm and skillful physicalities and deserve all the reward that the noise from the audience gave.

This is dance that is movement and personality, and a night that leaves you a little high and wanting to dance oneself. Fun, sexy, infectious. Even on a wet, winter night.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

This Is Where You Live

Photo by Peter Greig

Just Visiting and Griffin Independent present the World Premiere of THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE by Vivienne Walshe at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

THIS IS WHERE YOU LIVE is the Winner of the 2012 Griffin Award by Vivienne Walshe, directed by Francesca Smith, leader of the independent theatre company, Just Visiting. This is the inaugural production for this company and the World Premiere of the play. This company has been working on this project since 2006 when it was part of the Australian National Playwright's Conference.

It arrived "as a conventional narrative-based 4 character drama" and has now been shaped into a two handed poetic drama. It has the shape and form of many a recent, new, independent work, for small companies or ... In fact, the recent Griffin Company production THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS by Van Badham, is one such. It is a form that I have begun to find very tedious, indeed. It usually has two characters (sometimes, three or four) using heightened, poetic language ( to quote myself), " using 'novelistic ' techniques, (with) the actors describing events, (then) offering observations as characters, as well as employing 'mimicry' as the actual characters in interaction - stepping from one form of address to the other, directly, seamlessly, to us, the audience". It is, was, in Australian theatre terms, perhaps, a post-modernistic dare that has become, through over use and wear, no longer truly fashionable or even, effective. It can kind of irritate and bore. In fact the conventional narrative-based 4 character drama, the way this play first appeared in 2006, may be the new cutting edge, it is so rare a form to see on our stages.

So, when THIS IS WHERE YOU LIVE began the other evening with the arrival of an actress on a stark black walled, floored space, with no other design element (imagined by Fiona Crombie), clutching the wall, hippie-aesthetically, a hand-by-hand, claw-by-claw gesture, as she arrived, my heart sank. This character Chloe (Ava Torch - formerly known as Amie McKenna) began a long monologue about her socially disabled family and her days at school where she dwells at the moment, as an impermanent, crippled with polio and suffering from dyslexia, attempting to keep her head above water, weighed down with a family history of grave deprivation, cheeking her teacher and the other students as a way to impress, and finding sex drawings in the loo, arresting,

"Oh, no," I thought to myself. It was a little more highly staked than that, as I had brought an American theatre director, a colleague of mine from my American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) days and had hoped he would have a good time and be impressed with a new Australian play. It was more like, "OH,NO!!!!" and painfully suppressed - I almost injured myself, internally.

Another character called Chris (Yalin Ozucelik), entered, and he too made contact with us with the same technique of description of surroundings, of others, and especially of Chloe. He is the class room oddity, bright, but physically immature, the nerdy outsider, and worse, the son of the teacher in the room. It is bad when in a moment of unguarded anger he calls out, "DAD", the rest of the classroom is onto it with pernicious glee. Poor, Mr Chris. However, the cumulative impact of Ms Torch's character and that of Mr Ozucelik had begun to invite me in.

 It was not now,"Oh, no", but, "Well, what else?" I became, reluctantly, curious. As time moved on, I became engaged and then engrossed and then committed, then protective and then moved and finally entranced. I, and, I am pleased to report, my guest, had had an almost identical experience (we talked over dinner, later). Despite my prejudices I had been won over and had had a very beautiful experience. I, we, applauded, generously.

Why? Well.

1. The writing by Ms Walshe is delicately beautiful, full of weird and wonderful observations and points of view. Surprises - truthfully banal ones that rang refreshingly clear because of their uncluttered cliche imageries. Stuff from my childhood, it seemed, and that of many a famous coming-of-age novel that I have gorged myself with in times past. The Australian author, Sonya Hatnett and her novels for adolescents, say, BUTTERFLY - a recent book club read; JASPER JONES by Craig Silvey and even, the great American classic, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD by Harper Lee came flooding back to me,in the Griffin space, to support me, imaginatively, through this play. High praise, indeed.The narrative of the attempted 'coupling' of this pair of young adolescent misfits was quite decidedly recognisable and delightfully, innocently doomed, but, always full of hope. One hoped against the hopeless, for Chloe and Chris. They make an impression and I still care for them. The quality of the writing is quite simply wonderful and graspable and unpretentious.

2. Ms Smith the director has decided to cast two very much older actors in the roles of these two barely, teenaged characters. It was an inspired choice. The nuance of these fractured and 'old souls', Chloe and Chris, bred from discontent and unhappy ground, are redolent in the bodies, imagination and life experiences of Ms McKenna ( I can't go on using her cabaret nom-de-plume) and Mr Ozucelik. Both these actors know these lives and can handle them with deep memory, love and very apparent care. There is no guessing here. No adolescent inexperience., from more age appropriate casting. The knowledge of their own long gone adolescence glows within these actors, exists, shinning in them. That they are also two very accomplished artists with voices of poetic range with the ability to have us see what they see, to feel what they feel, to know what they know, is more creative power to them. They also have a sense of wisdom and humour, that is an undercoat of support for the drama of some of the story. Not a single vocal gesture is undervalued or under delivered. Physically, (except, for me, that awful entrance of Chloe's), is overdone or exaggerated. They simply allow themselves to be imaginatively 'possessed" - neither young nor cliched with characteristics. ThesE actors simply are, rippling with imaginative effect and affect.

3. Ms Smith, the director has, mostly, made herself invisible. She simply works to let the work, which she has nurtured for nearly 7 years, show. It always does, I reckon. I know it does. When one creates for others, with others in mind, not oneself and one's own ego, then beauty can arrive, transcend for the audience, in the simple act of storytelling. Untrammeled and loved and joyfully given. Take note of the music score by Marty Jamieson and the delicacy of its entrances. The costumes are just a little too costumed, too neat, especially considering Clohe's background - too well fitting. The lighting is too simple and not subtle enough in this space.

So, here I am reversing my prejudices for Ms Walshe's THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE. To quote the author of the moment, F. Scott Fitzgerald, from a little short story, THE CRACK-UP: " ... The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. ..." In recommending this play I know I am functioning. Well.

 I think that this is the best new Australian play, writing, I have seen this year, so far. This Griffin writing prizewinner is deserving. Congratulations all.


Robot vs Art

Rock Surfers present ROBOTS VS ART by Travis Cotton, at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Bondi Beach.

Apparently, Travis Cotton got the idea for this play, ROBOT VS ART from a picture of two robots performing the first ever robot actor play. It occurred in Japan, in 2009. I don't think Mr Cotton ever saw the play, just the picture. One of Stephen Fry's top 100 inventions was that endearing little Japanese robot dog - I saw it, co-incidentally, the night before this play, on television. It was cute, but, not very sophisticated. There had also been a news item concerning the use of robots in hospitals to deliver bedding etc. Again, not too sophisticated.

From the foyer card:
In the not-so-distant future when robots start thinking for themselves, they decree that planet earth will not survive unless humans are destroyed, (now that is an interesting subject for expansion). So they execute most of humanity and send the rest to slavery in underground mines.
But when Executive Bot (Simon Maiden) writes a play (called ZINC), Giles, a human director (Daniel Fredericksen), is sent up from the mines in the hope that robots will be able to calculate the formula of art. But because Executive Bot can't feel, he can't enjoy art. So he makes a deal with Giles: if Giles is capable of putting on a play that can make robots feel, Executive Bot will let him live; if he can't he will be executed in front of his cast: Claw Bot, (played by Paul David Goddard) and Fembot (played by Natasha Jacobs).
The performances are endearing and amusing. Mr Fredericksen, distinctly admirable in being able to keep a straight face and chart a believable trajectory across the journey of the material, amidst the aplomb of the robot actors - although, I felt I did detect a lot of actorly 'feeling' going on from them, which kind of defeated, for the pedantic, the object of Executive Bot's need. The robots were expressing some amount of feeling already! They seemed to feel quite a bit when reaching for that Chain! Mr Maiden was especially arresting in his discipline and textual handling as Executive Bot. The production values are a little light-on (set design by Matthew Rainey, no costume design credited) and the organisation of scene changes still in need of more economy, a trifle time consuming, halting the flow of the story too often. The Lighting by Claire Springett is sufficient for the action and the sound a useful accompaniment by Mark Farrell. Directed by the writer, Mr Cotton, it is very tightly held, disciplined.

ROBOT VS ART is fairly superficial in its comic investigations and a little too often, "theatre-industry" heavy in its comic diversions, but tantalisingly, occasionally, announces an interesting premise for debate. Sadly, however, there is little or no follow through, never really getting down to any real plumbing of them. It likes the sit-com structure of a 'luv'-plot more (a bit one-sided, I would've thought, considering the 'keel' of the plot).

It is a mildly amusing night at the theatre - it is a one-joke concept, extended for too long a time. Like the real robots I saw on TV: cute but not too sophisticated. Where is DAVID (Michael Fassbender) from PROMETHEUS when you need him? Oh, so sophisticated and sexy as well! Now let's begin there with the robots and I reckon art may be found.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Nederlands Dans Theater

Photo by Joris-Jan Bos

Sydney Opera House and Etihad Airways present NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

The Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT) presented four dances last week at the Sydney Opera House: SWEET DREAMS, SARABANDE, SH-BOOM !, and SHOOT THE MOON. One could not wish for a better night at the theatre. Every element of the works: dancers, choreography, costume, setting, lighting, music-sound, the programming, achieved such an integrated standard of excellence, a transporting experience of both beauty and intellectual puzzle, such a grasp of what it is to be human, that one could quite easily let this be the last thing one need ever see. One could die, for one was in a kind of 'heaven'. As you can read, I loved it.

Having seen the company two years ago in Melbourne I eagerly awaited the opportunity to see the company again and had urged many of my friends to attend, as well. Not I or any of my friends regretted the time given this time in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. (Although the limited (TINY!) stage width was not a plus for the works. They appeared cramped. Compare the luxuriance of the Victorian Arts Centre where I last saw this company - there is no flattering comparison, I'm afraid).

Jiri Kylian, a former Artistic Director OF THE NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER (1975-1999), choreographed a series of six dances known as his Black and White ballets, "so named for the uniformity of the settings and costumes" and in this short season at the Sydney Opera House by NDT we saw two of them: SWEET DREAMS and SARABANDE, both choreographed in 1990. Both these works are danced without an interval, one leading to the other, making a double observation of the complexities of being human. Separate works but connected.

SWEET DREAMS uses the image of the apple - Eve's apple, perhaps - and so a symbol of temptation and guilt. In isolated and varying spots of dramatic lighting shapes covering, at various times, the entire stage, the dancers entwine, stretch and reach into provocative, sometimes absurd, terse statements of 'truths' that, so Mr Kylian says, "make us realise how thin the wall between despair and laughter is" in the human expression of acts of love. Using the moody music of Anton Weber's Six pieces for orchestra, opus 6b (1928) and inspired by the mysterious ambiguity of the world in Franz Kafka writings, the beautiful imagery and physicalities of the work entrances one into an absorbed observation and speculation. Both the wonder of the intellect and an eager subjective warmth of awe in the beauty of the work, provokes sweet dreams from us about our existence - the why and wherefores! the possible joys and fears!!

 Beginning with 'a magic trick' of an apple tossed from a mysterious shape across the proscenium and, marvellously, caught,on the other side, to other images of delighting 'weirdness', such as the steeply raked platform with an upside down dancer spread-eagled, moodily lit, seemingly, defying gravity, surviving a cascade of falling apples, one is amused and puzzled and sent on a questing for meaning. A stimulation that is never satisfied, for just as one provocation is offered and one begins to cogitate in pursuit of knowledge, solution, one is offered another, and needs to abandon the 'hunt' on the present puzzle, and move to the next, lest one misses something. So delicious is it, that one desires to see the work again, to quench the appetites for solving, knowing and indulging in the wealth of stimuli (check out my look at the Australian Ballet's program VANGUARD and my response to Kylian's BELLA FIGURA).

With a pause, in darkness, we sit suspended in the breathless mystery of what we have just seen, to be, then, as SARABANDE, the second work unfolds, visually confronted, with the dawning of the lighting, on six complex period dresses/costume - perhaps, that of the court of King Philip II of Spain - 1539 being the originating date of the Sarabande - " a frivolous and indecent dance often performed by men in woman's clothes" - standing with no figure inside them. Six male dancers appear in boxes of square/oblong light, in costume that gradually disappears over the length of the work, to give the appearance of teasing near nakedness. Mr Kylian says: "One of the starting points for my choreography actually stems from the "Genesis" the "Book of Job": 'Man born of a woman is few of days, and full of trouble. He comes like a flower, and is cut down. He disappears like a shadow, and does not last.' Well yes, this choreography deals with the male element within our genetic make-up: Men with their aggression, vulnerability, sense of respect, sexuality, importance, uselessness and outright idiocy ... " (-men with their pants around their ankles!).

And that is what we see, as the dresses rise into the air, men, underneath them, born of woman, physically, gloriously expressed by bodies of athletic beauty, lit glowingly in romantic colours, highlighting the contour of their body gift. The dance physicalities are accompanied by the men making 'live' sounds that are distorted (original sound design by Dick Heuff), like primitive man, noisily finding the mechanisms for speech, contrasted with the heavenly, interpolation of parts of the J.S. Bach, Sarabande from partita Nr.2 for solo violin in d-minor (BMW 1004). This startling, though familiar, contrast of man's primitive noisy self, alongside one of the heights of man's possibility for sublimity with sound, in the work of Bach, is finally declared achingly, beautifully, in an extended quotation of the music and dance of some sophisticated human elegance, at the end. We are challenged with this work, as with SWEET DREAMS, to climb over the obstacles of the multifarious offers of gesture, both, visual and oral, to "discover a little corner within our souls which was hidden from our consciousness until now ..."

This is contemporary European Dance, where the brain is tantalised along with the joy of the witnessing of artistic beauties of bodies in movement, integrated with the complications of thoughtful use of sound and all the other crafts and arts that make dance, a great experience (GREAT, as in distinguished; of much consequence; important). Last year we were, us Sydney-ites, similarly, challenged (differently, of course) with CESNA by Anne Teresade Keersmaeler and Rosas at Carriageworks. Too, with Gary Stewart's BE YOUR SELF by Australian Dance Theatre (ADT). On the other hand, I declare, The Sydney Dance Company lacks this kind of intellectual rigour, and, in my experience, continually disappoints - it has no philosophy or observations to share on the complexities of being alive and human in the world - it simply moves, and admittedly, in its last season, very well indeed, but it has no underpinnings of a philosophic gaze for us to be amazed, enlightened, to help us untangle ourselves and live through. Just to look and admire. Superficial.

Jiri Kylian has recently embargoed all of his works from been performed by The Nederlands Dans Theater for the next three years. At first, the present Artistic Director, Paul Lightfoot, was shocked, but "now sees the change as an opportunity to innovate - to 'fill the empty space with something new. Kylian does not punish us but challenges us".

The second half of this program gave us two works by the present artistic leaders of the company: Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon. SH-BOOM! and SHOOT THE MOON, both, a joint collaboration. It is pleasing to see the quality of these works and note the heritage of the Nederlands style both in their intellectual approach and choreographic form, deeply embedded, and built from, to create these works. There is no throwing out of 'the baby' with these new leaders but clearly, a sign that these choreographers, artistic leaders, are going to stand on the shoulders of their forebears and grow by grafting their own skills and visions upon the very excellence of the past - a lesson that many of our "innovative" institutions could maturely comprehend. Innovation does not mean 'start again', ever. Throw out the bath water but keep the 'baby' for goodness sake!

SH-BOOM! is a delightful divertissement, using music from the 1940's-50's, mostly of the jazzy kind: e.g. Stan Freeburg, The Mills Brothers, Vera Lynn. Interludes, sketches of dance are wittily executed, both ironic and straight-out humorous. My favourites were the naked "fan dance", executed fully naked (Cesar Faria Fernandes) and with a copper pot rather than a fan, lit by a chorus of four black garbed girls with searching torch lights -teasing, funny, SEXY! - a stretchy twang of his appendage to cap the movement to a heady, literal blackout  of light - indeed, cheekily sexy; the "Sixty seconds got together", sequence; and, of course, the entirely embracing and seductive sight and sound of the finale, SH-BOOM ! by the company of 10 dancers. We all were all humming that tune for, at least, the entire interval break. Intelligently programmed for the night's degustation of dance. SH-BOOM ! some slight , light hearted distractions surrounded by thought provocations and considerations in the rest of the program. A welcome change of pace.

SHOOT THE MOON driven - a major element of the experience of the dance - by the music of Philip Glass: Movement II from the Third Concerto for piano and orchestra, situated on a design of three revolving rooms, with selected scenes filmed live, on screens suspended above the action of the dancers, (never gratuitous but wholly integrated into the dramaturgy of the work), expresses the hidden emotions within ourselves. It tells of the yearning inter-connectedness between our fellow 'travellers' and of the, perhaps, unavoidable, continuing genetic - physical, emotional and spiritual - heritage of one generation to another. Our forebears - ourselves! Revoving rooms with windows and doors, creating entrances and exits to further rooms with windows and doors to exit and enter from, again, around and around. Danced with emotional intelligence and commitment and exquisite physical skills and meaning by Danielle Rowe, Parvaneh Scharafali, Roger Van der Poel, Medhi Walerski, Brett Conway, supported by Silas Henriksen, Joe Ole Olstad, Spenser Theberge rotating the walls, we are permitted with the pulsing beauty of the Glass composition to impose our own lives, needs, onto the work, to reach a kind of exhausting wringing of emotional identification that is personal and vulnerable in its experience. It is cathartic and costly, but, transcending in its humaness, its pulsing beauty.

Both of these post-Kylian works for the NDT are equal to the other piece of their's that I saw in Melbourne: SILENT SCREEN (2005) and that of Crystal Pite and her choreography of THE SECOND PERSON (2007). This company seems to be robust in the obvious health  and wealth of its repertoire.

In this Sydney program, each work, built on the affect of the prior other, creating a complete and exhausting, but, exhilarating thrill, and a possessive occupation of powerful presence within the audience bodies. It was, in result, a priceless gift given to us by the NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER. When one left the theatre one was not the same person that one was, when entering. One was a better human on our exit though the doors. It was a night at the theatre that was truly translating. A kind of excellence made flesh by them for us to take home.

P.S. For History's sake:

SWEET DREAMS, staged by Lorraine Blouin.
SARABANDE, staged by Stefan Zeromski.
Light: Jiri Kylian (concept), Joop Coboort (realisation).
Decor : Jiri Kylian.
Costumes: Joke Vissser.

SH-BOOM! assistant to the choreographers, Lorraine Blouin.
Light: Tom Bevoort.
Decor: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot.
Costumes: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot (realization costumes:Joke Visser, Hermien Hollander)

SHOOT THE MOON assistant to the choreographers, Anders Helstrom.
Light: Tom Bevoort.
Decor & costumes: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot (realization: Joke Visser, Hermien Hollander)
Live camera: Bert Coenen, Rupert Tookey.

Monday, June 17, 2013

ACO Tour Four - ACO2

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), Tour Four - Tognetti presents ACO2

ACO2 was formed in 2005, and is a part of the Emerging Artists Program created by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). It is made up of young artists working closely with the artists of the ACO cohort, being mentored and coached by them. ACO2 perform and tour as a separate entity around the country. This program is the first presentation of this second orchestra with members of the ACO on a national subscription tour. For history's sake: the young artists are: Benjamin Caddy, William Clark, Peter Clark, Monique Lapins, Lachlan O'Donnell, Michael Dahlenburg, Anna Pokorny, Josef Bisits, Liisa Pallandi, and Thibaud Pavolic-Hobba. The orchestra is further supplemented by Carissa Klopoushak, Ike See and Neal Peres Da Costa. Five members of the ACO, Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone, Aiko Goto, Timo-Veikko Valve and Christopher Moore lead the ensemble with a guest artist, the cellist, Daniel Muller-Schott.

What a shattering - in a good way - experience for these emerging artists to be in rehearsal and performance on the same concert platform as one of the most remarkable orchestra's in Australia, led with such passion and concentration by Richard Tognetti. What is even more remarkable and surely must be an added inspirational experience for them, is to observe the preparation and performances given by Daniel Muller-Schott, at so close-hand a position.

Mr Muller-Schott played the Vivaldi Concerto for two cellos in G Minor, RV531 with inspirational focus and form with Mr.Valve. It is one of my favourite pieces and the energetic drive, fierceness of attention and articulation by both men was breathtakingly thrilling. Later, Mr Muller-Schott gave a deeply felt, rendition of the three songs of Ernest Bloch's FROM JEWISH LIFE (1924). Originally composed for piano and cello, the arrangement we heard with the orchestra, and featuring the cello of Mr Muller-Schott, was commissioned by Steven Isserlis from Christopher Palmer in 1990. The 'yiddish' lament and melancholy was striking in its sombre depths and Mr Muller-Schott, himself, seemed to be truly immersed and moved by the playing. I, certainly, was. To tears.

The concert began with a work by Einojuhani Rautavaara, a Finnish composer: The Fiddlers (1952) and finished with Bela Bartok's DIVERTIMENTO (1939). The Bartok is made of three movements fast-slow-fast - a link to the Baroque concerto grosso of the Vivaldi and Handel given earlier in this concert ( Vivaldi's Concerto for cello in G major, RV413 and Handel's Concerto grosso in A major Op.6 No.11 (1739)). The composition of the Divertimento was made in the pervasive gloom of pre-war Europe. The two outer movements beginning with folk song quotations soon move into darker contemplations, whilst the second movement, the Molto Adagio, is particularly ominous and stuttering with oppressive musical expressions of premonition of great distress - "a classic piece of Bartok 'night-music'". War broke out the following month.

Stravinsky's Concerto in D major (1946), was commissioned after World War II and held, it seemed to me, some of the after shock of such carnage. The driving musical pulsating, echoing THE RITE OF SPRING (1913), was an exciting element of this work, a "virtual perpetual motion". So inspirational is it that Jerome Robbins used it for his ballet scenario, THE CAGE (1951) - he thought it to be "terribly driven and compelled", harrowing.

A very satisfying concert, as per usual. It was courageous to present these young players amongst such illustrious company. None more so than Mr Tognetti, and, in this concert, with the absolutely transporting passions, devotions and interpretive skills of Daniel Muller-Schott. The zest and beauty of the Haydn encore was a kind of genius from the fingers and bow of this artist.

Worth catching at Angel Place this week and next. There is a 1.30pm concert on Friday. I just might try to go again. Rewarding.

War Horse

The National Theatre of Great Britain and Global Creatures present WAR HORSE, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, at the Lyric Theatre, Star Casino, Sydney.

I saw WAR HORSE in London in January, 2010 (please read the earlier blog as well - for a fuller appreciation, of this great work).

WAR HORSE from the National Theatre of Great Britain is a shining example of what is possible when a theatre organisation has clear and broad concepts of what a theatre company can do for its community. WAR HORSE was building on the success of, among others, HIS DARK MATERIALS and CORAM BOY, previous holiday shows for young adult audiences. When one is re-acquainted with the scale of this wonderful production, the remarkable collaboration of the directors,(especially) designers, writers, actors, musicians, stage management, and of course the puppeteers; and, further, consider the long development plan of over 18 months, when they improvised and experimented with all the elements for the final physical (and spiritual) production, the shadow of comparison of the will and input of the major Australian companies, to produce work of such scale, is a deep and dark one indeed. (Belvoir's recent  productions for children, THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING and PETER PAN, were of some note - if extremely modest in design ambitions - their space an obstacle, no doubt). The National Theatre kind of visionary scale for the magic of the theatre, is not even embraced by the Australian companies for their present adult audiences - remember the STC's PYGMALION - let alone for their future audiences, the young.

I sat with young Sydney (Australian) children, adolescents and other adults, in the Lyric Theatre, (at a casino !!!) and could imagine the mighty impact such thoughtfully wrought, generously conceived and thrilling theatrical gestures were having on the lucky attendants. That they were in a state of awe and wept cathartically to the journey of Joey (and Albert) and Topthorn was able to be witnessed about me in abundance. They will never forget the few hours spent with this National Theatre production of WAR HORSE. Undoubtedly, a landmark memory for most.

This company is made up, fully, of  Australian artists, directed by Drew Barr. The play itself, since I saw it in London, as had some adaptations, trimmings, changes textually and production-wise, but is essentially - if not quite as affecting - the same one I saw in the New London Theatre (it is still playing there - nearly four years later!!!). The stage here seems to be narrower (Sydney's largest?) and some of the spectacle is slightly squashed - the cavalry charge, for instance (or, is it just my fertile memory, deceiving me?). The art, video work was much more astonishingly apparent at this experience: Rae Smith. Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer and Lysander Ashton for 59 Productions.

The Australian actors generally account for the play well, if there seems to be an odd sense of a 'declamatory' acting style - a shouting vaguely across the void, instead of directing, actually talking, and more importantly, affecting, wanting to communicate and change the person, persons, to whom they are playing with. Whether it is the inexperience that the company of actors have to playing at such scale , or otherwise - tell me of a recent Australian production that demanded such skill or practice - or not, is a question I am still pondering. In what is essentially a company storytelling style - Brechtian, in a presentational kind, rather than in deep characterisations - I was left with good impressions by James Bell, Cody Fern, Natasha Herbert and Andrew Tighe.

My first professional theatre experience was of a musical, OLIVER (I remember, Tony Sheldon [Oliver], Toni Lammond [Nancy] and Andrew Sharp [the Artful Dodger]) at the old Theatre Royal in Castlereagh Street, with its billowing red velvet curtain. I had spent some of my university scholarship money -17 shillings and sixpence for a stalls seat - (mum was not happy) and skipped some lecture to see it (I didn't tell her that!). I saw it as a young adult (17) at a Wednesday matinee, ran home, and got some more money to see it again, that evening (I didn't tell mum straight away) - I was captured by the muses and have been entranced ever since, looking and hoping for a repeat of one of the great moments in my life. I have had them again, of course, and WAR HORSE is one of the more recent one's. I am certain that some of the young ones seeing WAR HORSE, will similarly be infected with the need to go to the theatre again. This magnificent production by the National Theatre is, undoubtedly, a canny investment in the development of future audiences. For sure.

If you have not seen it, if you have not taken your beloved children, then, you will have missed a gift that would be, in my estimation, one of the 'wealthiest' gifts you could have given, both yourself and your loved ones. A creation that explores the possibilities of theatre making in its most imaginative and human dimensions. Storytelling that affects the heart and the conscience.

A few weeks left in Sydney, before going on to Brisbane.

P.S. The film by Steven Spielberg is a dismal experience in comparison to the live event, I can assure you.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kraftwerk: The Catalogue - Tour De France

Vivid Live at the Sydney Opera House presents KRAFTWERK: THE CATALOGUE 12345678 TOUR DE FRANCE (2013) in the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

Somehow I got through the seventies and eighties without ever knowing KRAFTWERK existed, or even what it was. Kraft made cheese, didn't it? So what is KRAFTWERK? In the seventies and eighties they may have impinged into edges of my reality: AUTOBAHN and THE MODEL, perhaps, even COMPUTER LOVE registered in my life experiences. THE MODEL, definitely. How that happened, I do not know, or, I can't remember, or, I won't tell - repressed motivations, denials. I have always held a kind of hazy idea that KRAFTEWERK were a quartet of lifeless individuals standing behind some electronic music gizmos making fairly bland computer-robotic-like noises that made the electronic geeks of my world go into some form of catatonic effusion. Foamings, perhaps?!

Recently, whilst travelling in London, my companion and I heard that KRAFTWERK were to give a series of concerts at the Tate Modern. They had done so at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011. The concerts, in London, were to be given, however, after we had returned home to Sydney. We were disappointed. My companion is a fan, and, I have had an education in my latter time to be more open and adventurous in my musical aesthetics. I have learnt to "HEAR" with more sensitivities and less judgement: a whole wonderful world of appreciation of electronic, minimalistic and contemporary endeavours.

These endeavours have opened up, ranging from using cellophane being scrunched, scraped over microphones, or, piano wires twanged, twisted or, tortured with tweezers to elicit waves of sound that were scalding to some of my senses - this exampled at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, seemed to give it status, veracity as music; or, computer musicians sitting hunched in one of those weird, breathless vacuums of Impermanent Audio in the very grungy Hibernian House in Elizabeth Street, with just the white light of the computer screen showing the hoodie-clad 'artist' twiddling with his 'thing', whilst beaney-headed, scarfed and bearded disciples, with their awed mistresses holding hands, swigging on the brown-papered bottles or cans of liquid, joyfully looked up to the roof, with each 'blip','blap', 'plink', 'plonk' and 'eeeergh!' from the computer/machine ,as if waiting, invocating "The Claw" (a 'god', from TOY STORY1) to come down and take them to a heaven of ecstasy; to an embrace of even more sophistications of contemporary noises /sounds/music, say, of John Cage, Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, Tan Dun, Arvo Part. So, no longer just Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart or Tchaikovsky (Shostakovich) and their ilk. No longer just Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Lerner and Lowe, Rogers and Hammerstein and their ilk - although, Kurt Weill was there for what I thought was attractive weirdness (Sondheim, too?). The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Dianna Ross and Michael Jackson, my music appreciations had, significantly, expanded in the zero's of the new millennium! Hmmm!

That KRAFTWERK was to be in Sydney was an excitement to rejoice over. Living in Sydney, we had to join the 'bidding' for the opportunity to attend a concert and, fortunately, unlike many of our friends, received seats. Ours were for the TOUR DE FRANCE - A CELEBRATION on the last night of their eight concerts.This was the last concert at 9.30pm on a Monday. The Joan Sutherland Theatre was filled with, clearly, adoring fans. Monday night at 9.30pm!!!!!, really.

The only original member of the group, Ralph Hutter led Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Griffenhagen onto a beautifully designed set - four podiums spread across the proscenium space carrying electronic equipment -  then created a two hour concert of selections from the KARFTWERK repertoire. Besides the music which employs modern technology to create what some call "techno pop" - a minamalistic and strictly electronic, creating a kind of industrial sound with driving repetitive rhythms and simple catchy tunes using a computer software (vocoder) for the 'singing' of lyrics - there is, also, a highly sophisticated use of visual elements: back projected slides and films and 3D graphics - synchronised with the music. The imaging is simply amazing. Wearing the old fashioned 3D glasses, the imagery was the best use of that technology I have ever experienced. Gasps of wonder and spooked disbelief, sometimes erupted from the audience. The sound using multi-diffused speakers around the theatre auditorium, was also the best quality sound I have ever heard. Surround sound of great depth and pleasure. The combination of this aural and visual excellence was a sustaining energy, even, for someone like myself, who was, essentially, hearing a lot of this material for the first time.

The lyrics, simple as they are, were most arresting for me when exploring political territory of their 'stuff'. The RADIO ACTIVITY material, with the contemporary adaptation to include Fukishima, for instance. The music has an ambiguity of appeal: it contains, in reception, a kind of gentle celebration and yet 'knowing caution' about the modern world alienation of the human and the rise of robot and computer dependencies. Cool, clean and weird. Memories of 'Hal' from SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001, along with 'David' from PROMETHEUS, kept my body prickling with a little twinge of, dare I say, incipient fear?

Mr Hutter has talked about KRAFTWERK's influences, and they bestride the breadth of say, Karlheinz Stockhausen at one end of the spectrum, and The Beach Boys, at the other. This classic sophistication and the simply expressed joyous, the intellectual and the visceral inputs of these two sets of artists, may account for the longevity of this groups' work. Brains and heart. Responsibility and celebration.

I had, we all had, a very satisfying night. Kraftwerk can be translated as 'power station' and that is what the night was. Great, gentle escapism with a slightly unsettling 'message'.

Monday, June 3, 2013

R & J

Expression Dance Company and Queensland Performing Arts Centre presents Natalie Weir's R and J, at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta.

After attending contemporary dance programs, VANGUARD and G I travelled out to Parramatta to see the Queensland based company, Expressions Dance Company, on its tour around Australia with Natalie Weir's R & J.

This is work inspired by the Romeo and Juliet romance. It is not a dance or ballet of those lover's story. It is rather three short scenes set across three different eras. The choreography of each act: PASSION, ROMANCE and DEVOTION, is basically a duet, intruded briefly by a third character. The movement is mostly sculptural entwinements, gymnastics and untidy mime set to, what I found to be, a disconcerting contemporary, "jazzy" score by John Babbage and pre-recorded by Topolgy Music. The third piece was the most interesting, witty, if predictable in narrative form, but relatively, well executed.

The above video clip of this work, makes one question if the exhaustion of the tour had taken some of the physical vitality and emotional commitment away from the dancers? Is there enough technical supervision of the work on tour? Does having the pre-recorded music reduce the impetus of the dancers? For, the performance, I saw, at Parramatta, did not, create, leave the same impression as the video clip!

The company of dancers were Michelle Barnett, Benjamin Chapman, Thomas Gundry Greenfield, Elise May, Shannon Mclean and Jack Ziesing. The set design was by Bruce McKinven, lighting by David Walters.

The company included, but have not acknowledged, the use of a group of young dancers (local dance studios?) to move/act as extras in the first two pieces - a trifle lifeless and dull- (under rehearsed?)

I was not overly enthused by these works, as danced, performed, on the night I saw them, particularly, after the excitement and disciplines, skills of G and VANGUARD.


Forget Me Not

Belvoir with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse presents FORGET ME NOT by Tom Holloway, at the Belvoir St Upstairs Theatre.

FORGET ME NOT is new play by Tom Holloway, it, having been commissioned, jointly, by Belvoir and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse. This play has its origins in the tragic history of child migration. The origins began in Great Britain in 1618 and concerned the colony of Virginia. The last child migration party arrived in Australia in 1970. The reality was that children as young as three were removed from their homes. Many children were removed without their parents knowledge or consent. Most of the children were told that they were orphans and that their parents were dead. They were promised of life with plenty of oranges and sunshine. Many experienced degrading physical, sexual and emotional abuse. "Well known charities such as Barnardos, along with the Church of England, the Methodist Church, The Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, played major roles". In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia.

 In 1986 Margaret Humphreys, whilst working as a Nottinghamshire social worker, "received a letter from a woman who claimed that at the age of four she was shipped to a children's home in Australia, and now wanted help to find her parents, or any member of her family in Great Britain". Astonishing facts of history were revealed, including: 130,000 children were removed and sent across the world of the British Empire, Commonwealth. The Child Migrants Trust was established in 1987 to investigate and assist similar cases.

The Director of FORGET ME NOT, Anthea Williams, began working with the Liverpool Everyman on a joint project with the Belvoir in 2011 …"Innocently, Ms Williams was asked: "Do you think Australian audiences will have thought about stolen children more or less than English audiences?" How tragic to have to explain that taking children from their families and communities is one of our national stories."

Sally (Mandy McElhinney), the daughter of Gerry (Colin Moody), in her attempt to unravel, for her father, the origins of his desperate and violent social behaviour, calls upon an investigative social worker, Mark (Oscar Redding) who traces Gerry's origins back to Great Britain and finds a Mrs Mary Connor (Eileen O'Brien), an estranged mother. The tragic circumstances of bureaucratic action on ignorant and innocent lives is the storytelling of this play by Tom Holloway. Gerry and Sally under the guidance of Mark travel to visit Mary. Unfortunately, a tragic fate intervenes, and Gerry is left only with a pile of unposted letters to 'talk' with his mother, Mary, with.

Tom Holloway is a consistently challenging and inventive writer: BEYOND THE NECK (2007); DON'T SAY THE WORDS(2009); AND NO MORE SHALL WE PART (2011) have been seen in Sydney. The work is not at all linear, it has what Mr Holloway calls aspects of 'post dramatic' writing - this is a movement away from direct story telling and is often fragmented and experimental in its form. One has to be alert and almost in need of a cryptic nature to discern the work. Challenging then, but, exciting if you put the work in, I reckon.

In her program notes, Ms Williams writes:
In FORGET ME NOT time and place collapse, and ultimately Tom (Holloway) has created a play that is structured by Gerry's internal journey and his growing understanding about his past, rather than a linear journey across sea and land. ...
Like, but slightly different, and not as complicatedly, to the play structure of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, this play happens in the head space of Gerry, and chronologically, in old fashioned linear time, as much as it does for Willy Loman. The scenes in each of these time line spaces are shuffled together and it is the audience that has to put the pieces into order. It is a jigsaw puzzle that requires the audience to be alert to the writing clues and the directorial guidance through the maze. The solving has the kind of anachronistic thrill that the time plays of J.B Priestly had/have on his audience - DANGEROUS CORNER (1932); I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE (1937); and, famously, AN INSPECTOR CALLS (1946) - disconcerting at first, but, satisfying in the detecting and unravelling.

Ms Williams has had Dan Potra with his set design, create a small revolving space, furnished with room fittings of a 'fifties' style, neat, with faded working class, affordable tastes, which serves for both homes, the one in Australia for Sally and Gerry, and, the other in Great Britain for Mary Connor and 'visiting' Gerry. The first arresting task is for the audience to puzzle out this solution, for, there is no adjustment to the furnishings for each location, just a change of light (Matthew Marshall), as Gerry deals with Sally at home, and then, Mary in her home. It is just a simple revolve to give a different point-of-view, it seems.

The costuming, again by Mr Potra, is of simple working class statements, except for the appearance of Mary, who has a, relatively, idealised hair coiffure - it appears too genteel, kind of oddly fantastic. The commencement of Act two, when social worker, Mark, visits Mary for the first time and we meet Mary in her home, we see a weak, sick exhausted woman with an oxygen tank trolley and mask with hair stickily plastered to her skull shape. When, next, Gerry is with Mary, the hair is back to the original extravagant look. There are two "Mary's" ! We ultimately find that one is a delusional projection on the part of Gerry, who, having arrived in Great Britain too late, instead of meeting Mary, can only attend her funeral, and have a life-time of unsent letters as his long sought 'conversation' with Mary, his mother. Mr Holloway's writing and Ms Williams' direction reveal all in the last moments of the play.

Ms Williams' has elicited wonderful performances from all the cast. Ms McElhinney is tough and yet compassionate, and develops a journey of growing empathy for Sally's brutal father, as she discovers the tragic circumstances of his life. Mr Redding is remarkable in the subtle detailing of the social worker, Mark, and creates an insightful public servant - professional but sorely 'touched', by what must be a too regular work journey - he is not jaded or numbed with the regular patterns of the social and personal tragedies he must assist in.

Colin Moody uses his dominating physical presence to present a simmering force of volatile rage - a person to avoid - and yet engage us with a curiosity to understand it. On the night I saw this performance there was sometimes a telegraphing of the states of 'suffering' that did not have the complete appearance of a living pain - it was slightly, remotely demonstrated - mostly devastating and frightening, but, not always 'true'. This was contrasted by the consistent and understated solving of the dilemma that Ms O'Brien has , as Mary, with having to play an imagined persona (by Gerry) and then reveal the reality of a disintegrated life force given a hope of reconciliation at the last possible stroke of her time. The economy and clarity of Ms O'Brien's work was masterful indeed.

The long process of preparation by Anthea Wiliams on the development of this production shows positively in its presentation, and matches the promise of her work on Matthew Whittet's OLD MAN, last year in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre.

FORGET ME NOT was one of the better nights I have had at Belvoir for some time.