Tuesday, July 30, 2013

ACO Tour Five: Barefoot Fiddler

Photo by Marco Borggreve

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). Tour Five: BAREFOOT FIDDLER: Patricia Kopatchinskaja in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja is known as the Barefoot Fiddler, because she is bare-footed when she plays her violin, and on this tour is the guest artist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, (ACO), and, as with her stint with the orchestra in July 2010 is the Director of the program and lead violinist. It is as physically dynamic as last time and just as musically thrilling. Ms Kopatchinskaja has organised for this visit, a program to utilise the individual solo talents of the orchestra, and the generosity of her vision and respect for the orchestra, of spreading the opportunities of playing throughout the concert performance, pays off with inspired work from all. The camaraderie between this guest artist and the orchestra itself was self evident in the sheer concentration and joyful exchanges, by all, during the performance, from beginning to end.

The concert, Ms Kopatchinskaja has curated begins with Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K.546. This was composed in 1788, just as the Sydney colony at Circular Quay was been founded - makes me, contextually, agog - time, place and such! I had no familiarity with the music. Not a great work, but one that had, in my terms (within my limited musical knowledge), a possibility to be a cinematic/theatrical score. The fugue musical emphasis made me think of the Kubrick choices in a film such as BARRY LYNDON. I enjoyed it immensely. It was a pleasant warm-up to the afternoon.

The Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, BMV 1064 composed by Johann Sebastian Bach c.1730 featured, besides Ms Kopatchinskaja, Helena Rathbone, Principal Second Violin of the ACO, Rebecca Chan, a core member of the ACO since 2010, and the orchestra, including the harpischord. In fact the surviving 'original' music for this work was a Concerto in C major for three harpsichords but musicologists have researched and felt that the possibility of it having developed, over time, into a work for three violins, by Mozart is probable. This performance is using a reconstruction of the score undertaken by Wilfred Fischer for the New Bach Edition.

What is so thrilling is watching Ms Kopatchinskaja playing in her bare feet, almost dancing (thank goodness she is in bare feet otherwise a kind of flamenco sound might take over the concert musics), and using her bow like a fencing tool as she plays up to the other members of the orchestra, and I do mean kind of literally, challenging them to a fencing competition with bows, and seeing the 'challenged' and enthused artists 'riposting' in turn, whether they are standing or sitting - encouraging each other to higher levels of commitment and energetic inspiration. I began to watch the feet of all the artists and realised that the whole body involvement in the playing came from all, all their feet "danced", but Mademoiselle's, particularly - so, bare feet, not an affectation but a noise lessener, perhaps. Ha, ha! The speed of the playing and the ACO craftsmen's artistic accuracy of playing is so dare-devil in its pursuit, that the feeling that one is caught in a jet stream of a vertiginous draft made of music is overwhelming in its excitement. Plunging into its vortex is a blessing - a salve in this usual harsh world.

After the interval, the Principal Double Bass, Maxime Bibeau, introduced the latest addition to the orchestra's instrument collection. Made by Gasparo di Salo in Brescia, Italy, in the late 16th Century, it is over 430 years of age. The wood at the front came from a tree already aged at least two and a half centuries, making parts of the instrument around 700 years old.The sound we heard as Mr Bibeau played a short solo has immense power, wonderful depth and richness of sound. I felt is was the sound equivalent to a very dark, red wine of the highest quality: smooth, deep and robust. It was amusing to see the tall and lengthy Mr Bibeau (those hands and fingers!) almost enveloped by the scale of the instrument: Who was playing who? Mr Bibeau it, or, It playing Mr Bibeau? Certainly, the instrument, the di Salo, in scale, impressed one with a sense of maturity and weight and a more than equal presence beside the human.

A Concerto for Strings, Op.33 by Alberto Ginastera (1965), an Argentinian composer, followed. I was more impressed with the playing then with the music.

What followed, however, the Violin Concerto in D Minor for violin and string orchestra, composed in 1822 by Felix Mendelssohn, was altogether, a wonder. Who knew that Mendelssohn was such a 'modernist' adventurer? (this question comes from my ill informed background in music.) I was arrested and made to sit bolt up-right and alert to every moment of this concerto. The wisdom of Ms Kopatchinskaja's choice in music was rewarded with the solo parts undertaken by her, and followed, just as brilliantly, by Tiem-Viekko Valve (Cello), Helena Rathbone (Violin), Christopher Moore (Viola) and Maxime Bibeau (Bass), pushing the orchestra to higher demands of accuracy and speed in the playing of this entirely fascinating piece of music. Do apprehend that Mendelssohn is mostly known to me through the music of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM - it appears to me now, on hearing this work, a very, very ignorant platform, indeed. The Concerto was so stunning in its daring, to my ears, both the composition and the playing, that I wept at the comparative less daring of the writing in my field of practice, the theatre. More amazing is the fact that Mendelssohn wrote this when he was 14 years old!!! Way back then.

Two encores followed: a jokey, delightful 'jig' played by a dancing Barefoot Fiddler and Viola player, Mr Moor; and, lastly, the full orchestra gave us a piece by Astor Piazzolla, a pupil of Mr Ginastera. Irresistible.

Ms Kopatchinskaja led the orchestra with her idiosyncratically held violin, high above her head, in bare feet, off stage to cheering and grateful applause. A conquering musical 'hero' and 'army'. Music, the victor.

In all, a very inspiring and educational, enlightening concert. I have come to expect nothing less from this orchestra. Make a point of going - concerts are at Angel Place in Sydney this week, including a 1.30pm on Friday. It will make your day, your week, your month, until the next month, when the ACO, will return to give us something else to ponder.

The Jewel in the Crown of Sydney's Performing Artists: the Australian Chamber Orchestra - without question.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


Griffin Theatre Company presents The Sydney Premiere of BEACHED by Melissa Bubnic at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

BEACHED is a new play by Melissa Bubnic. It concerns the making of a Reality Television program (Producer: Arka Das) that covers the 235 day countdown to a gastric bypass operation for a young man, Arty, or Arthur Arthur (Blake Davis), who is disabled by obesity - an 18 year old boy weighing 400 kilograms, "the world's fattest teenager" - and his efforts on that journey, including a Pathways to Work officer's intervention, Louise (Kate Mulvany), so that Arty "can get me work so mum (Jojo /Joanne: Gia Carides) and me can't have disability any more."

The play is described on the back cover of the Currency Press publication: "Unapologetically satiric, BEACHED is also the moving story of a man imprisoned in his own body. It lays bare the mercenary nature of reality TV, and turns the microscope on society's insatiable appetite for human misery."

Satire is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as: "a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which vices, abuses, follies etc., are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule".

The literary scorn, derision and ridicule used for the satirical expose of the cruelties of the production of Reality Television in BEACHED is efficiently done, if without much intellectual rigour - I simply contrast and compare BEACHED with what I believe is the apex of the satirical examination of Reality Television: NETWORK written by Paddy Chayefsky and made into a film in 1976, directed by Sidney Lumet (starring Faye Dunaway,William Holden, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall.) Much is wanting in this work by Ms Bubnic, in that comparison with NETWORK - check it out, to see what I mean.

Where Chayefsky uses an actual television network and its commercial company to satirise as its subject matter, Ms Bubnic has chosen a Reality Television show that uses the subject matter of obesity, particularly, youth and obesity. That the breadth of subject matter available to build a satire of reality television around is so immense - talent shows, cooking shows or even Big Brother - and decide obesity will be the support "act", as the focus of BEACHED's satirical 'artistry' seems a very deliberate choice. We all know that obesity, or any 'food' issue, is a contemporary concern of some urgency and sensitivity, and, one that, we, generally, understand is not a vice, abuse or folly, and needs, truly, a careful and responsible usage. In fact the Director of this production, Shannon Murphy, relates a personal story of connection to the tragedy of obesity touching her life, and suggests it was one of the catalysts to move her to present this work. Ms Murphy goes on to say: "I revere Melissa Bubnic for her ability to write pop culture plays that truly explore the times we live in. ...". Now, this is where I found an insurmountable obstacle to appreciating or valuing BEACHED. The words "pop culture" leaped out at me whilst watching this play. It may be a more than apt example of the values of our "pop" culture than was appreciated by Ms Murphy.

The characters in this play are all extreme theatrical reductions, of the real world people concerned, to pencil thin caricature. The mother, with an authorial reduction, of her name Joanne, to the caricaturing diminution, Jojo, is demonised as a "feeder" (quoted as a fascination for the director) of her child's dilemma, because of her own unhappiness and desperate need not to let her only man, Arty, desert her, like her husband, Arty's father, did. This motivation revealed by Ms Bubnic as the driving force of the creation of this situation seems to me an unforgivable piece of pop-psycho-babble of the most simplistic kind (recently, I read where Glenn Close regrets enormously her reading of her character (Alex Forrest) in FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) in the light of present day health revelations concerning psychiatric illness, and more importantly, because of personal confrontations within her own extended family of this kind of illness of the psyche). Ms Carides, as Jojo, does what she can, almost heroically, to counterbalance the authorial simplifications of this human being, but is not able to, essentially, because of the writers' heavy-handed dramaturgy.

Louise (later her nomenclature is diminished to Lulu), the health facilitator to assist Arty, in finding the motivational means to begin and sustain, a health rescue plan, so as to, possibly, help him become an independent, normal member of society, with a job, is a creation of such wretched, self-imposed and exaggerated insecurities (compounded by Ms Mulvany's own choices as an actor), that lead Louise to fall in love and have a physical relationship with Arty, seem so preposterous and legally, ethically unlikely that one gasps at the poverty of thought that has gone into the dramaturgy in creating her as a viable truth. "Would this young woman, as presented in this production, be employed in the active 'fields' of disability health ?" I ask. Not likely, I suspect, based on my recent experiences - a referral for mental health assistance, rather, would be my diagnosis, based, simply on her self presentation, let alone on her observable behavioural traits revealed in her conversations - their unprovoked carelessness and lack of appropriateness would surely be a warning sign to her employers? This woman is not fit for the job, she is given.

Then, the choice of Blake Davis, a pleasantly handsome young man with impeccable glowing skin and hair, presented in a 'trendy' cut, (the actor's public appearance in the foyer after the performance is exactly the same as Arty's - neither looking ill - though Arty as suffered two heart attacks!), sitting in a fat suit costume, a huge bean bag, without any studied sense of the reality of this illness, disability - physical or psychological - seems to me a "Hollywood" theatrical romantic gesture, by the director and Costume Designer - not credited in the program - that plays into the "pop" culture image embraced by the world we live in. (You know the one that has a PRETTY WOMAN as Cinderella, instead of a sex worker? - total shtick - BEACHED's version of a pulp fiction, instead of a night at the opera, as in the above film, has the two ingenues, dancing with the stars - Fred and Ginger-like!). That the writer and director then have, in this production, in the ultimate scene of the play, a thin and charmingly attractive young man, (Arty, a further name diminutive), standing in front of us, without any of the 'scars' of the operation been shown, physical or mental, is such an untruthful climax, that anger is all that I could summon - for I had removed myself, in my seat, from watching with involvement, this travesty of real tragedy, a long time before it finished. Please view the performance captured by Darlene Coates (a non-actor, actually morbidly obese) in the film WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (1993) to understand my lack of ability to suspend disbelief to 'buy' into this play or production (That film also starring Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis, directed by Lesse Hallstrom, and written by Peter Hedges). That some of the audience felt themselves "well entertained" or the play "as nourishing a night out as one would wish for", maybe, is where the satire most comfortably sits? In the audience's response!

Ms Bubnic tells us in her writer's notes in the program-play publication:

We hate fat people. I mean, we REALLY hate fat people. If you want to cut someone down, you don't call them a 'tall fuck', or a 'poorly dressed fuck' when 'you fat fuck' will do.
The extraordinary number of TV docos focusing on super morbid obesity capitalises on this hatred. We know its wrong to laugh at freaks so we dress up the content as 'medical interest' ...

And, it seemed to me that in choosing to focus on obesity as the subject matter for this satire of Reality Television, an opportunism of the same kind of salacious belittlement and disrespect, supposedly the territory of the reality television world, was mired in the text of this play. The number of laughs beached by Ms Bubnic throughout the entire play around "fat" are far too prevalent to be necessary, it begins in the very first speech ("squirming watermelon", "beluga whale"), and even on the last pages continues, " Arty secretly sucking up a liquidised McHappy meal ...", and when the exaggerations and caricature are presented so grotesquely, relentlessly, throughout the play, rather than with an objective observation, examination of the reality of the people suffering from this disability, motive of the writer for so many 'jokes' must be questioned. The prurience of many of the jokes are so offensive (take the speeches of Dr. Finkelstein and the character Dan Ryder (read the speeches and note the name), played with diabolical relish by Mr Das, on pages 17 and 40 of the script, (I refuse to quote them, to put their ugliness into the blogosphere), that I am not sure whether this play should be just regarded as another primary example of the 'meaness' of the 'pop' world that we have cultivated. We know it is wrong to laugh at freaks so why not dress this work up as a social satire of 'Reality Television'.

I wanted to call out during the performance to the writer, the director and to many of the audience who consistently found the jokes funny, a version of the famous line from THE ELEPHANT MAN (film 1980): "I am not an animal" and adapt it too "He is not an animal", "He, (they), are not a joke". The play, for me, was a 'pop' culture romance: when ever something serious marks a presence, kill it with a mean-minded joke and/or reach for theatrical sentimentality/romance. BEACHED, appeared to me as a mean appropriation of real lives of tragedy for ... for what purpose?.....??? ... I could not fathom. For me, the characters in this play are not regarded with sympathy, or understanding, but, with scorn, derision and ridicule. There seems to be a choice with this Griffin Theatre Company choice of play and production, to be taking a low road to entertainment rather than a high road of principle.

In 2012 I worked for 6 months with a number of groups of people across a range of disabilities. My world changed with an admiration for the people I met struggling as best they can with their disability. My world was enhanced by standing beside and watching the health carers and their staff, working daily with these people of disability with courage, perseverance, humour and devotion to a higher plane of behaviour than my own. I was humbled in meeting and watching the parents of these adults of disability, observing not only their devoted duty but their seemingly bottomless well of love for their children, which is a 24 hour/7 days a week commitment. To watch this superficial and mean world on stage was simply an experiencing, for me of a sad grief for so many of my heroes, newly met, so misrepresented and so thinly explicated. I was relieved that I had not invited, accompanied, any of my acquaintances with 'food' issues to sit beside me at the SBW Stables Theatre. The poster phrase: "DON'T DIS MY DISABILITY' was clearly visible to me throughout this entire production.

So, maybe I am over reacting, too sensitive, have no sense of humour. But, the final staggering gesture from this production and company was to retire downstairs to the foyer, after the performance to be offered fried chicken and plain and sugar iced donuts as a supper. Who on earth thought that this was an appropriate thing to do considering the material of the play we had just seen? It was, for me, simply a confirmation of the shallow and cheap jokiness of the whole enterprise of BEACHED. It represented to me the trivialising with a 'pop' culture joke, a world of great need of understanding.

Was there any moral compass present in anyone working on this production? Or, is mine just haywire?

That this play won the Patrick White Playwright's Award in 2010 (considering the towering morality of Mr White's work, he must be turning in his grave), and shortlisted for the 2011 Griffin Award, leaves me very, very distraught about my Australian literary culture. That it was used in the Education Program by the Melbourne Theatre Company, in April this year, leaves me aghast. There is, undoubtedly, a very good sense of Ms Bubnic's skill in structure and form, but BEACHED, for me, does not reveal any real sensitivity or appropriate concern about content, or the 'manipulation' of that content, to tell her story, to make its satiric point. Maybe BEACHED is the result of where the technical skill of form is judged to be the ultimate quality of literary work, rather than its content - post-modernist education strikes again - some, read it as cultural progress.

The production seemed to have more thought put into the idea of capturing the set and methods of a reality television show, than the actual content of the material. James Browne has designed a 'glitzy' setting and believable backdrops for the interview scenes with real aplomb. Ms Murphy, who is at the moment studying at film school, handles a two/three camera shoot of the work, slung on a movable scaffold designed by Mr Browne, with confidence. That nearly half of this stage work at the SBW Stables theatre is best seen on the two small monitor screens, either side of the stage, because interviews are mostly held off-stage, or, at awkwardly positioned places, and that some of the principal confrontations are blocked by camera-holders filming those said scenes, made me wonder if I had come to a theatre or a TV studio, as an audience, to monitor  a show surrounded, now and again, by live action. That wonder, I guess, is another post modern concern -a further advance on our cultural expressions, in the theatre, it seems. As usual, the lighting by Verity Hampson does more than one thought possible in this space. - remarkably dependable and inspired an artist.

I was most uncomfortable for most of this play and production. So, check Jason Blake's, Eight Nights a Week, and Diana Simmonds', Stage Noise blog sites for a different reaction, and then make up your own mind, for I, certainly, seem to be in a minority in my response.

I remarked to a writer friend, that I tremble at a possible satiric play based around Vladimir's Putin's Gay Solution Policy, next year, somewhere in Sydney. Maybe, we'll have a pile of "fat faggot" jokes. A double banger!!! Kapoom! All in a satirical vein, of course.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Soiree Sforza

Ken Unsworth in collaboration with Australian Dance Artists presents SOIReE SFORZA, at the Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, Sydney.

ART: the production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance (Macquarie Dictionary). I observe, even in this world today, there are some people that are 'cursed' with a need to make Art. They have been always 'cursed', and that 'curse' drives them on and on. It seems, relentlessly. For them that 'curse' has been a blessing - and they pursue it at all expense, and they would say, no expense too great.

SOIReE SFORZA is an evening of sculpture and dance, presented by Ken Unsworth in collaboration with Australian Dance Artists. Mr Unsworth, born in 1931, has practised his 'curse' as an Artist: Installation; Performance; Draughtsman; Sculptor and Painter and still is. The performers of the Australian Dance Artists: Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Choreographic collaborator, Norman Hall - collectively, perhaps, represent a two hundred and fifty year history of the joy of the 'curse' of dancing.

In a converted studio art space, a 'little theatre' with a raised stage, complete with a small revolve, has been created. Even original church pew seats, have been lovingly converted to a gently increased height, one small row after another (three, in total) to organise an invited and small audience to share in the musings and artistic endeavours of these 'cursed'.

Nine offerings, solos, duets, trios and quartets have been thoughtfully curated, complete with, sometimes complex sculptural supports, sometimes just elaborate costume, but always with exquisite physical expression of movement, springing deeply, organically from the souls and spirits of all these artists. The intimacy of this 'magical' and lovingly prepared space and work gives us, the privileged audience, a gift of an unforgettable experience.

A drawn black curtain winches back and it begins with Mr Unsworth, in black, with his long glossy, white hair combed wizard-like from his scalp, seated at a Grand piano, 'playing' Franz Listz's: Concerto Study No39. He sits back and the face of the keyboard collapses and a 'spirit' (Anca Frankenhauser) spills forth from the body of the instrument, trailing a red velvet dress-train that seems to unwind from an infinite source. In a pool of light, seated on the floor, Ms Frankenhauser, to the accompaniment to J.H. Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata, takes us into a filigree of arm, hand and finger entrancement, a spell - her inner life, her charisma, charm and especially wit, glows from within in, and later, in whatever she does: INNER LIFE, sets the tone to a powerful and mesmerizing performance. Mr Philips engages us with a transfixing 'dance' with two white box 'sculptural' oblongs whilst turning inside the spiral of the revolve accompanied by Philip Glass' Echorus: SHAPE SHIFTER. Mr Harding-Irmer hangs upside down in a beautiful red sculptural square in a black circle, suspended in the air, defying gravity and creating physical patterns of a breathtaking and daring beauty supported by some music by Gustav Mahler, Symphony No3 in D Minor, O Mensch: RED SQUARE. Ms Barling surrounded by three revolving, full length mirrors, to the music of Tony Gould, Tickling the Moon, bedazzles us with her corporal, and its spinning reflections: ANGLES OF VISION.

Duets of real wit, Bianca and Cecilia - two sisters joined and trapped with a rope of hair Rapunzel-like; two men, one suspended from the roof by his ankles dancing head to head with a brother, exist beside danced quartets of sophisticated and elegant courtly dances and of astute social comment and subtle mind games. It finishes, irreverently, but pointedly, with a descending skeleton puppet, to the lid of the returned grand piano, moving, dancing in the smoke and mists of 'time', covering a musical interlude using an arc from Mozart's Andante, Piano Sonata in B Major, to Tom Waites singing Down in the Hole.

Two years ago this company of 'cursed' artists presented a similar evening of generous artistry on Cockatoo Island: AS I CROSSED THE BRIDGE OF DREAMS, and the privilege of witnessing these possessed older artists bewitched by their lifetime need to express their 'curse', once again, this time in such an intimacy of space, was something beautiful, appealing and of more than ordinary significance. Modest but blessed with the humanity of the tireless pursuit to create art for the benefit and advantage of others, not to be easily forgotten.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when alteration finds,
or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering Bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height is taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief and hours and
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd. 
 - Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI.

Thank God for these tireless lovers of ART. SOIReE SFORZA, a blessing from these artists at an expense too marvellous to be thought through by us, too closely.


P.S.Costumes by Emma Kingsbury, and Lighting by Eddi GoodFellow.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I'm Your Man

Presented by Performance Space and Mobile States: I'M YOUR MAN at Carriageworks. A Belvoir production, created by Roslyn Oades.

I'M YOUR MAN Created and Directed by Roslyn Oades, is the final part of a headphone-verbatim trilogy, STORIES OF LOVE AND HATE and FAST CARS AND TRACTOR ENGINES, being the predecessors. This work explores the world of a boxing gym. Ms Oades has set out to investigate courage within the context of specific sociopolitical worlds, and even the titles of the previous work gives you some perspective of the fields of play she has revealed - all to critical success.

The specific world of this work began to take form for Ms Oades, some ten years ago in an East London gym, and, later, whilst working with her longtime collaborator, Mohammed Ahmed, here in Bankstown, Sydney (where this work was first developed at BYDS), she discovered his passion for boxing. In 2010 a local featherweight fighter, Billy 'The Kid' Dib, co-operated by allowing Ms Oades' team to follow him over an 18-month period. During this period a world of a dedicated, passionate kind revealed itself in the lives of, mostly, working class aspirants, who trained relentlessly with a dream to achieve something for themselves, their fans, and, as they succeeded, the bigger community - "the sounds, the rhythms, the discipline, the community" of the boxing gym became a wonder. In all, some seven professional boxers (Legends) tell their stories: Billy 'The Kid' Dib, Wale "Lucky Boy' Omotoso, Gus Mercurio, Jeff Fenech - 'The Marrickville Mauler', Tony Mundine and Wally Carr and CJ, the original London inspiration for Ms Oades.

The headphone-verbatim technique, used by the company, is a process that Ms Oades has employed since 2001. Interviewing her subjects on tape over a long period, the audio-script is configured (Script Dramaturg, Raimondo Cortese) and, then the actors, wearing headphones are prompted by the actual voices of their character (Sound Designer, Bob Scott). So, not only do the actors speak the actual vocabulary of the source material, they also have the unique dialect and quality of the speech pattern of each individual: thought hesitations, emphasis, pitch, pace and volume, etc. Instead of the written syntax, that any good author employs to reveal the character on the page - sadly (criminally) often ignored or not acknowledged by some actors - these actors, using this technique, have aural cuing for the oral delivery, which reveals the character in wonderful detail. Add the observed physical life related to activity etc and a kind of persuasive truth appears. It is a fascinating experience, and such is the comfort of familiarity that the performers have in this production, that the headphones 'disappear' as part of the by-product of our belief we can endow them with. Like the puppets in WARHORSE, the mechanics and accoutrements of the theatrical 'conjuring' becomes 'invisible' (this technique was seen last year during the Parramasala Festival in a work THE TROUBLE WITH ASIAN MEN presented by a visiting British Company, Tamasha, as well).

The performers, Mohammed Ahmad, Billy McPherson, Katia Molino, Justin Rosniak and John Shrimpton are extremely adept in the translations of character, to stage character. The production is set in a wonderfully realistic neighbourhood-like boxing gym (Neil Simpson - Set and Lighting Design), and on entering the theatre the whiff of 'Dencorub' helps one, sensorily, locate oneself in this world immediately. The cluttered, archetypal set dressing, a bonus for those of us who have ever participated in those worlds - posters and all. On our arrival, in the theatre space, 'circuit' training is in action, and throughout the entire performance these actors are put through a very exhausting routine, and one thing for sure, these actors will be fit from their daily performance 'workout'.

One leaves the theatre with an admiration for the characters and the sincerity of their aspirations and the connections that they have forged within the worlds they exist in. One is also impressed by the authenticity of the performers in their creative tasks, even if I wished there were more moments of stillness made by the director, to allow us to endow the characters with their optimistic, aspirational "lower depths", within their range of 'rascality' and gentle dignity. One caught it fleetingly and wished for more opportunity to observe quietly "the vulnerability of these big-hearted warriors: inspiring individuals who burn bright and fall hard." It is a world not often caught in the theatre and it is moving to see it treated by Ms Oades and her collaborators with such respect and admiration, for us.

I'M YOUR MAN is on a tour made possible by Performing Lines for Mobile States. It is travelling to Perth, Mandurah, Adelaide, Hobart, Darwin, Brisbane, Melbourne, Wodonga and finally, back in Sydney, at Parramatta.

Worth catching. Encourage your friends, elsewhere, not to miss it.

The Light Box

Fat Boy Dancing and we do not happen present, THE LIGHT BOX by Natalia Savvides at 107 Projects - 107 Refern St, Redfern.

Natalie Savvides is an emerging Australian playwright and she writes to us in the program:
THE LIGHT BOX is a play inspired by my research into the experiences of women in colonial asylums. As the play grew over the course of two developments led by James Dalton, the characters seemed to take on lives of their own, and more fantastical elements emerged. When a man made of spoons and a toucan walked onto the page, and a cruise ship docked in the Panama Canal, I began to realise the play was taking on a new form.
The language, the form and the characters in this strange dream-like/nightmare-like journey are especially arresting. The images conjured by Set and Costume Designer, Dylan Tonkin, encourages us to be transported into a world that is delicate and magical in its affect: hanging, white cut-out birds in flight - both passive and aggressive in frozen expressions - drift up and down around us - and the appearance of a character made of spoons with the jangling dissonance of that possibility, or, of a vast black-winged 'toucan', are wonderfully realised.

The company of actors are present, when we arrive in the space, and stay all the time, so we are witness to the many changes of place and costume and it has been integrated, seamlessly, into the action of the production by Mr Dalton, as part of the audience's participation, commitment, to the storytelling. This directorial technique invites our empathy. The simple, colour-filled lighting design by Benjamin Brockman adds to the magic-realism of the experience, supported by a very superior and beautifully atmospheric composition/sound track by Nate Edmundson. Its detail is wonderous.

But, for me, the inspiration and aspiration of the work was undone by the vocal work of the actors: they're failing to reveal the text and story with any insightful craftsmanship of voice - it appeared to be very under-supervised by Mr Dalton. Of the four actors, only Dean Mason (Cleaner/Toucan) seemed to have the measure of the dangerously resonant sound reverberation of the room/theatre, and the only one who had seemed to deal with the language provided by Ms Saavides with the proper regard for a word by word savouring to reveal the information in the line with the proper poetics of sound, to help us invest in the full hour of the work. It is an ironic virtue for Mr Mason as  his character is in the least need for the poetics.

Stephanie King (Annie/Lesley) and Tom Christophersen ( Spoons/Lenny/Cyril) carry the responsibility of several vital characters and the speed and volume with which they execute the words, and the emotional layering on/of the words, in their performance, often buries the possibility of clarity of most, of what I suppose, is, revelatory content: add truly superficial characterisations and almost insurmountable obstacles for my, and other audience members, engagement results. After the curtain call there was much befuddled discussion. Neither, Ms King nor Mr Christophersen, seem to have the technical awareness to deliver the demands of the writing that Ms Savvides has/is evolving.

 Hannah Barlow (Ethel), differently, but similarly, fails to use the articulation of her work to project the character in her charge - an internal acting of mood dominates her choices - soulfully physical in gesture and it, in this language based creation, is the strongest impression of her characterisation - her language/text usage is too secondary to her communications skills for this work.

Accumulatively, then, belief, even understanding what was happening, despite the visual atmospherics of the production, were kept at bay.

If this presentation at 107 Projects is just one more step, and not the last, in the evolution of a THE LIGHT BOX, much potential is shown. The flaws in the acting, at the moment, prevent the other creative inputs to transcend into an immersive experience in the theatre, as yet.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The River Eats

Presented by Performance Space THE RIVER EATS - Justin Shoulder and Collaborators, at Carriageworks, Redfern.

THE RIVER EATS is a performance art piece created by Justin Shoulder and Collaborators. This work is a further development on a project explored and presented at Melbourne's 2012 Next Wave Festival. Here, at Carriageworks it is part of their month-long Show Off Season. Mr Shoulder according to the program notes is:
a multi-disciplinary artist. His interest lies in the creation and dissemination of urban mythologies. These stories are realized physically in the construction of full-body highly sculptural 'Fantastic Creature' avatars he inhabits in live performance. Shoulder also makes video and photographic works that extend on the universe of these creatures.
Certainly, the extraordinary costumes are the creations that I have appreciated and become excited about in past work that I have seen from Mr Shoulder, and in THE RIVER EATS, these magnificent manifestations are the primary "wow" factor of the 70 minute performance, they are outstanding in imagination and craftsmanship. THE RIVER EATS supposedly "charts the journey of Pinky - an over caffeinated, attention-deficient demon whose identity is undergoing a fantastic metamorphosis." From the eccentric and 'beautiful' Pinky persona to the black and white camouflage of a huge butterfly/moth, one is left in a state of wonder at the visual impact of this work.

The Collaborators to this non-stop work include Nick Wales whose wall of sound power-electronics sound design, and incidental electronic "plink, plonks", drove the work spectacularly, leaving one with a sense experience, of not just hearing, but responding with body vibrations caused by the sound waves/patterns that one can only express, as it diminishes, as "INTENSE"! The effect was of an envelopment in a deeply dense and 'piercing' surround sound. Add the Lighting and Video Design by Toby K and Video and VFX by Rebecca Segh on a beautiful and simple set design that permits a kind of seamless journey - swivel centre wall and floor decoration - and the sensual immersion in the experience, could be, for some, overwhelming. It was for me, if, some of my fellow audience had reservations.

The gently implied environmental politics of the work (Dramaturgy by Jeff Stein) is a little too light on, and/or obfuscated in the dazzling visual and aural offers, to take seriously or clearly, and the actual performance work of Mr Shoulder needs much more physical skill/discipline for it not to distract us: for instance, the long opening sequence of Pinky chasing the light and "applause" does not have the accuracy of body that it calls for and so prevents us from being subjectively seduced into the work of the persona; the later long sequence in the extraordinary costume creation of the final mutant-metamorphosis, again, suffers from lack of physical 'accuracy and 'tightness' - it seemed to lack stamina - the performer tiring and the physical repetition of expressions sagging, as it went on and on.

THE RIVER EATS is a work of great imaginative conception with a team of collaborators of outstanding potential, and it is, undoubtedly, a work that is an important commitment to a wider ranging approach (different) to the theatre usually seen in Sydney, as a contemporary expression of the world we live in. One looks forward to see the next work with more honed performance skill from Justin Shoulder and Collaborators.

Exciting to see.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Top Girls

Photograph by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill at the New Theatre, Newtown.

I have always regarded the writer as the God in the theatre from which all other creative efforts are inspired. The better the writer the more support all the other artists have to proceed to build a quality experience for an audience. When the writer is respected and examined to provide the superstructure for the production, trusting the writer's clues and resisting their own 're-writing' need to personally 'fingerprint' the original work, a good time is more likely to be arrived at than otherwise. I suspect, the Belvoir St production of ANGELS IN AMERICA and the Sydney Theatre Company's THE MAIDS are as successful as they are, because of the respect that all the artists have give the text as given by the writer.

Listening and watching TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill then, at the New Theatre, the other evening was a great pleasure, indeed. One felt the underpinning security of the genius of Ms Churchill through the 'adventure' of her daring content and form mastery. Three acts, two intervals, playing with time, examining the role of women in society - historically and contemporaneously (originally,1982) - challenging oppositional social and political conditions in witty, empathetic and, best of all, musical language and form - shape - the experience is stimulating and comfortable.

Director, Alice Livingstone has cast strongly and encouraged a secure ensemble of playing from her players. They all, except Julia Billington, create several roles. Ms Billington as the high flying, 'Thatcherite' of the play, Marlene, is beautifully counterpointed by Sarah Aubrey's Joyce (a welcome return to the theatre, I reckon) in the masterful last act. Ms Aubrey also turns her creativity to two other sure creations, Pope Joan and pathetic Mrs Kidd. But all the performers find great moments of performance: Bishanyia Vincent scores twice, in her daring casting as Lady Nijo, but tops that work in an absolutely wonderful reading of a gorgeously revealing and satirical monologue as Win in the Employment Agency of the second act - Ms Vincent's presence very striking, indeed; Cheryl Ward leads beautifully, musically her fellow actors in the immensely difficult writing of act one as Isabella Bird; and in one of four tasks, Maeve MacGregor creates a perfectly conceived 12 year old, Kit - delightful, totally entrancing; Ainslie McGlynn and Claudia Barrie support strongly with their work and focus in their 'double' acts.

I thought the costume design by Gina Rose Drew was wonderfully achieved, although the set was truly gruesome - a significant weakness in the judgement of Ms Livingstone's otherwise steady vision for this play. Sara Swersky gave generous support with a very demanding lighting scheme. The music choices resonating the period of the play are fun and focusing - Ashley Walker.

TOP GIRLS is an early play of Ms Churchill, following CLOUD NINE (1979), and she is still, actively, writing - born in 1938. She has been loyal to her feminist themes and ideas and they have been a guiding principle to all her work, pivotal, although a wider sense of social observation and critique has grown to be a further Hallmark to her ouevre, along with definite and challenging explorations of form. A MOUTHFUL OF BIRDS (1986) was the first really challenging form exploration, followed by SERIOUS MONEY (1987), and then works such as FAR AWAY (2000), A NUMBER (2002), DRUNK ENOUGH TO SAY I LOVE YOU? (2006) and the latest, LOVE AND INFORMATION (2012) featuring 100 characters for 15 actors in some some 50 scenes, some only 25 seconds long, all of which appear unconnected until all the 'mosaic' of her vision have been laid, is where she has pushed the horizons of writing for the theatre. She is regarded as one of the great perceptors of the world and its 'politics' and daring innovator in contemporary theatre writing  - a model to be emulated.

Sitting in my audience were many young writers. Some of them very promising, indeed. Some of them very interesting and thought provoking women. I hope watching the skill and provoking content of Ms Churchill's play has inspired them - for we need their point-of-view, vitally.

TOP GIRLS is more than worth catching. After seeing three women in THE MAIDS giving shattering performances, it is really exciting to see these six women strut their potential as well.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Maids

Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, in a New English Language Translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton at the Sydney Theatre.

I attended a performance of THE MAIDS ( LES BONNES -1946) by Jean Genet, last Saturday, matinee (6th July), late into the season, and watched three of the best performances by actors I have ever seen. A sublime ensemble.

A big, big call, Kevin. Consider, what you are saying. I have. I am.

Thus ...... At the first curtain call, I actually lifted my hands in the air above my head. I shouted, "Bravo" several times. On the second, and last curtain call, I did the same, again, even more enthusiastically, "Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!", and even stamped my feet on the wooden floors.

Two of the great creators on film, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert displayed on stage, live, a phenomena of talent, skill, courage and self sacrifice - and I mean that literally - that was awe inspiring. Add to that, a young talented neophyte to the demands of thespis, Elizabeth Debicki, clearly inspired to greatness by her fellows, and you have an afternoon in the theatre that will be the bench mark in my experience in the theatre, so far (for, I hope it is only the penultimate one and not yet the ultimate. I am not yet ready not to go on hoping for more - I am insatiable for my addiction - the theatre. Greedy, like a child. I know I have been to a heaven with this performance, but I hope for other glimpses, if not visits, and a stay!).

Cate Blanchett (Claire) came commandingly on stage (as usual), Isabelle Huppert (Solange), joined her (Ms Huppert's presence highly anticipated by me, an adoring fan, since Michael Cimino's under appreciated film, HEAVEN'S GATE - 1980), and each provoked drama, laughter and pure, pure cheek, intelligence and daring, from each other and from us. Each relishing the playing by the other- and I do mean 'playing'. The performance just kept moving higher and higher in its performative trajectory and 'stakes': exhilarating, bracing - I felt I might need a seat belt to keep me stabilised. Somewhere, mid-way, perhaps, in this production, Elizabeth Debicki (The Mistress) swept onto the stage, and amazingly, added heat to the scenario that simply challenged Ms Blanchett and Huppert, and they her, to even higher states of playing - there was no dimming of the energy. This was stratospheric stuff, I was witnessing. Ms Debicki left and floating in the kind of hallucinogenic space of the latter scenes in the Kubrick film: SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001, both Ms Blanchett, and especially, Ms Huppert, in her monologue to the audience, took us to even higher, transcendent places of a heady, almost oxygen-free atmosphere of ecstasy that became profoundly moving and demanding.

What was demanded of me? A consideration of my existentialisms and the despair that that can sometimes give me, which was profoundly mixed, with the ecstatic adrenalin of the thrill of being alive with, even in my relative dotage, a prospect of a future, of some kind, obviously, in my post-Catholic indoctrination, beyond my understanding. That state of wondering in that demand, has not, a week later, really, left me. This is the power of the theatre. This is the power when one is blessed to be in the presence of great craftsmen. This is the power of experiencing that rare thing called art - something of more than ordinary significance.

Wow, how over the top is that?

I have never liked THE MAIDS. I have seen countless productions of the play. A play with three long roles for women is rare and so, certainly, going to be done, and often. It is also a one act play and requires only one set - relatively inexpensive. I have seen it played with all women. I have seen it with two men and one woman. I have seen it with two women and one man. I have seen it played with three men. The play, in performance, had never worked. I have read it many times. I read it again, recently, in the only translation I could find by Bernard Frechtman from 1953, (published by Faber and Faber). I found it, still, impenetrable. Maybe it was the labouring over trying to make the text work that always bogged down the play in production and even in reading it, burying it in futile efforts? In preparation to seeing the Sydney Theatre Company production I watched the American Film Theatre, 1974 version (again), with Glenda Jackson (Solange), Susannah York (Claire) and Vivien Merchant (The Mistress), hoping to find some enlightenment - I did not, unfortunately - it simply confirmed my prejudice towards the play and the author Jean Genet, himself. I have been flummoxed by THE MAIDS, and frustrated to appreciate the work, and irritated by my ignorance to do so, and/or, by the perpetuated ridiculous status of the work.The fact that it was still existing in the repertoire.

Genet's biography has been approximated by himself and the doubts about its veracity have always been a tantalising conversation of conjecture. His radical positions in life, personally, socially and politically have always provoked dimensions of debate of fervent support or hostile contempt. I have always swung either side of two or three points of a fetid neutrality about him, depending on my own life situations when taking him on. Alexander Hay, one of my mentors, had known him in person and was a staunch supporter and anecdotally paralyzed us with imaginative visions of that familiarity - it may account for the NIDA production of THE BALCONY in 1971 in which I performed (amongst others, Kris McQuade, Tony Llwellyn-Jones and John Walton), and Mr Hay directed. I was, thus, introduced to Genet's work through study preparation and I read as a vulnerable, young man OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS (1942), THE THIEF'S JOURNAL (1949), QUERELLE OF BREST (1947) and his first play DEATHWATCH (1944). Subsequently, in 1974, Lindsay Kemp brought his company into residence in Sydney at the New Arts Cinema Glebe, incredibly, otherwise called VALHALLA where he presented his outrageously startling (for me) stage performance of FLOWERS, based around Genet's novel (also, a version of Oscar Wilde's, SALOME). Later one of Mr Kemp's Australian artists, Michael Matou, developed similar works in Australia and, of course, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film QUERELLE (1982) was released and further heated up my viewpoint around Genet. Later, in 1988, Jim Sharman directed THE SCREENS at NIDA and I was led to further befuddlement about my appreciation of this writer.

In my angriest response to THE MAIDS, I was prepared to read the work, as intended by Genet to be played by an all male cast, as an elaborate charade about sexual role play, involving homosexual, sado-masochistic games in humiliations, both vocal and physical, in dress-up in someone's elaborate apartment or decorated 'dungeon'. I had, by then, recognised that this was a pastime of some in my intimate world. I had, after all, been part of solving the Madam's brothel in THE BALCONY - I was enlightened by anecdotal sessions which led to research explorations. I came to read THE MAIDS, possibly, as Genet venting his spleen on the bourgeois audiences willing to spend money and, more importantly, lengthy intellectual inquiry as to the meaning etc. etc. I imagined Genet laughing up his sleeve at us spending money and time, wasting money and time, on disquisitions concerning our efforts to stage his work and its appreciation.

Recently, however I came across an account of Genet on assignment for ESQUIRE magazine to cover the Democratic Convention in 1968, in Chicago, in the United States, where, only recently, his work had been released from a censorship ban. Richard Seaver in his memoir, THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT (2012) reveals such an intriguing take on the insights, machinations and activities of Genet that I had to re-evaluate my thoughts about him - to take a more informed pick: A man dubbed by the American State Department as "undesirable" (when the FBI file on Genet was released it ran to more than five hundred pages) or, that by the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre as "Saint Genet". I needed to re-regard Monsieur Genet, perhaps, with more than my emotional vacillations (insecurities).

Considering the early verifiable history of Genet, in and out of prison through out most of his early life, and that he grew up in France, throughout the terrible struggles of that country, 1910 is his birth year, and especially dealing, first hand, with Post World War One Europe, with the subsequent Nazi occupation of Paris and France, and the duplicitous Vichy government, and the response of the French citizenry to some of the population on its liberation, Genet's vital sense of the need to celebrate the beauty of the marginalised, the minorities, the beauty of the lowly, the Beauty of Misery: The Cheated, became more profound than ever. Sartre in his play Man Without Shadows (Mort Sans Sepultures -1944) causes for debate that:
…the meaning of man's life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged (free will) man has to make true meaning himself, has to commit to a role in this world, has to commit to freedom
Claire and Solange, two maids (brought to 'life' in 1946), two powerless and disregarded women in their desperate need to be, perhaps, a human, find opportunity to create roles in a fantasy world, to commit to a role in their world, that will make true meaning for themselves, that will give them human dignity, and a presence in the world that will be regarded and not invisible. That it, ultimately, requires one to murder the willing other, and then the first to face the possibility of execution or life long imprisonment, seems an act of heroic kindness on both their parts for each other (it is the least they can do for each other, considering their circumstances) and a statement of free will, freedom. That their spittle can be pearls of beauty in the light of day becomes a metaphor of challenging conception. The shock of the liberation that Ibsen gave Nora or, an even more precise parallel, Hedda, to society is the same shock that Genet delivers to us in this play, with the free willed choices of Claire and Solange. This came to me watching these three actors penetrating and illuminating the great text that they had been given. It was the first time I had grasped the play.

The adaptation and translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, of THE MAIDS for this production, is then, a revelation, a freeing from the burden of the Frechtman, Faber and Faber 60 year old version. (I had admired Mr Andrew's version of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL as well, if not the production of his own text). The direction of this production by Benedict Andrews, as well, seems to be freeing himself from too many intellectual impositions on the text, (excepting the live video broadcasting (Sean Bacon), as someone said "Lots of televisual and not enough dramaturgy" - one had to decide whether to watch the play 'live' or via the slightly delayed projected images where the mouthing did not match the received sound), and allowing the writing to be revealed through the super gifts of his actors.

The Set Design by Alice Babidge is beautiful in its breadth of space, the sheer excess of it - a huge, white carpeted, glass walled/mirrored space, draped along the back wall with a whole range of costume, couturier dress and furs, shoes - furnished in large luxurious assortments of lounge and chairs, table - the period: anytime, really, dated simply by its superfluity of wealth - a kind of smothering in money's material advantages. The lighting by Nick Schlieper augments that kind of claustrophobic sumptuousness with the eerie tones and placements of Oren Ambarchi's compositions and sound design, pressing that oppression further. The costumes are resplendent and amusing (except for the unsightly battery storage projecting through the behind of The Mistress's dress - all the actors are assisted with body microphones, this theatre, notorious for its acoustic problems.).

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert are gloriously matched. Both, fiercely intelligent, mordantly witty, physically adept (one is struck with awe at the flexibility of Ms Huppert), able to shift from broad comedy to self-deprecating humour to penetrating dramatics in a fraction of a milli-second, with the terrifying ability to cause us to look into the abyss of despair with Claire and Solange, and take stock of our own nearness to the edge of it that we can be, we have been, and will, likely, be again. To have us raucously laughing, mightily disturbed and piteously shaken - sometimes instantly, minutely, consecutively. Both 'playing' the game of performing live with each other, and more especially with us, the audience - we are not ignored, we are a useful source of their energetic offers for feeding their game triggers - their performing habit is avariciously inclusive. Inventing, and not just 'being' the characters but 'becoming' the characters - milli-second by milli-second. It is like watching live that famous Marcel Duchamp painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase" - their acting so detailed in the spaces between speaking and moving, that they appear to be fractured into many beings in the milli-seconds that we perceive them in. Watch Ms Blanchett in her channelling of Ms Debicki's The Mistress in perfect mimic as Claire - outrageous and truly pathetic. Watch the electric bravado of Ms Huppert's monologue and be prepared for the piercing stare out into the spheres of Solange's choices in her despondent world, on that centre stage chair. Because of the accented English of Ms Huppert, the need to focus one self on her is a reward of detail. What is not caught in sound is delivered with the combination of lively physics and a glorious intelligence. No less is the broadness of Ms Blanchett's Australian English a challenge, it catches one in a sudden awareness, and helps us locate the world of Genet's play here in Sydney. This world is no less French than it is Australian.

When the towering beauty of Ms Debicki enters, with a frightening visual reference to a Paris Hiltonesque hauteur, sun glasses and sensibilities, one gasps at the speed and daring of her youth when she takes the 'baton' from these two legends of acting and has them chase her - the other two relish the chase, the demands that she gives them. Performance stamina is required by all -it is breathtaking.

I used to hate THE MAIDS. I could not locate the art of Jean Genet. But, this production makes the old adage: "You can't teach old dogs new tricks", to be a fallacy. I have seen the light.

Writer, Adaptors, Designers, Actors and the Director of THE MAIDS illustrate a genius that is rarely achieved. I was excited to see it and I am grateful to have done so. This is a splendid high point in the Sydney Theatre Company production history. Here is the production that should tour the world.



  2. THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, from the French by Bernard Frechtman - Faber and Faber, 1953.
  3. THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT by Richard Seaver - Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York -2012.
  4. THE CHEATED by Louis Nowra - Angus and Robertson Publishers - 1979.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Twelfth Dawn

The Old 505 Theatre presents THE TWELFTH DAWN, devised and performed by Gareth Boylan, Kerri Glasscock and Michael Pigott.

THE TWELFTH DAWN is a new work devised by Gareth Boylan, Kerrie Glasscock and Michael Pigott. This work began, for these artists, with a discussion around David Malouf's novel, RANSOM, which was inspired by the last chapter of Homer's THE ILLIAD. It tells of the journey of the grief stricken Trojan king, Priam, recovering the body of his son, Hector, from the possession of the Greek victor, Achilles. It tells of the rage, pride and grief experienced by all in this great story, with humanity and a profound insight. One of the strands and themes of this source material has occupied these artists, that of the relationship between parents and children, and grief.

These three creators have worked together before, and they obviously benefit from the safety of that prior knowledge. Developing both a vocal text, some of it extremely beautiful, and investigating a physical choreography to tell their story, (reminiscent of the recent physical investigations of say, Kate Champion: e.g. FOOD or Frantic Assembly, e.g. STOCKHOLM) THE TWELFTH DAWN evolves with a delicate and mesmerising weave of mystery around a contemporary, domestic story, that gradually unravels to a deeply moving reveal and resolution.

A stage manager (Gareth Boylan), sets a naked stage with furniture and begins, in the tradition of a chorus, or, of later usage, a Thornton Wilder Stage Manger figure reminiscent of his OUR TOWN, to give introduction and comment to the story. He is a constant presence and contributor to the telling of the story, directly to us, the audience. We meet a couple, Kerrie Glasscock and Michael Pigott, obviously in some emotional state of relationship dysfunction, and they, through dance/movement and spoken text, explicate their predicament. I remarked in my recent entry concerning Bell Shakespeare's PHEDRE by Jean Racine, of how elemental the Greek stories, myths, seem to be ingrained in our human psyches and even today reach into our 'souls' with profound ease and meaning. THE TWELFTH DAWN is further proof of that distant and constant presence. The work is beautifully conceived and constructed. 

The problem at Theatre 505 is that in transferring their investigation into performance, a director's hand needed to be more vitally present. For, none of these creating artists appear to have the requisite skills, or, a director's disciplinary eye to guide, to turn the writing into the transcendent experience that it offers. Mr Boylan does not have the vocal or acting skills to bring the necessary clarity and gravity to his tasks, which are crucial, central, to the received work, for the audience - he tells us in the program notes that this is his first show in twelve years - it shows, and is, unfortunately, an undermining influence, a distraction, it is difficult to be immersed in the story. The physical skills of Ms Glasscock and Mr Pigott need the caring hand of a choreographer and more expertise (fitness) to fulfil the ambition of its inclusion to the structure of the work, to lift it to be the invisible tool of seamless storytelling it aspires to be. The relative awkwardness of both artists undermines these possibilities. The presence of a director may, further, have assisted the play's story, by guiding Ms Glasscock to lessening the textual emotional life that she tends to use to gild the language of her speeches. For instance, in the last speech, it had a tendency to swamp and drown the words' sense. It became a cathartic experience for the actor but left me, on the night I attended, relatively, mystified as to why. The material that these divisors have created is of great potential, the performance, however, lessen its impact. 

THE TWELFTH DAWN, in a different production, might prove to be a very interesting asset to the new Australian writing of this year. I was excited by its potential. Go, see for yourself. The audience, I was with, seemed to be moved by it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Say Hello First

Cupboard Love and Sydney Independent Theatre Company present SAY HELLO FIRST developed by Danielle Maas and Joe Kernahan at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

SAY HELLO FIRST is a devised 'verbatim' work (it felt as if it were heavily re-constructed from verbatim, perhaps?) by the two performers, Danielle Maas and Joe Kernahan, directed by Jason Langley. The two artists, "together, armed with a recording device and the urge to know why,(...) set out to interview twenty guys from Dani's life, and on the way discover: The Rules." The rules to courting, modern courting, one presumes. The premise of the work has some familiarity, and I recalled, while watching it, Neil LaBute's 2005 play, SOME GIRL(S) - different, but it rang a bell.

Beginning good humouredly, in the format of lightening size sketches, we are mildly entertained with a fairly familiar style of middle-of-the-road sit-com (sketch) comedy. Both the performers are attractive and charming, but have not quite enough of the skill requirements for swift shape shifting either physically, vocally or internally, so all the characters they conjure, are vague approximations of other people, that, mostly, appear to be Ms Maas and Mr Kernahan, pretending for us, to be someone else, in a good natured way. It kind of works, with some fair indulgence from us.

There are two halves, one 40 minutes the other, an hour. Late in the second half, maybe, for some, too late in the second half, the writing descends into a kind of serious profile, and we begin to realise that this 'verbatim'-play has been developed to explicate the journey of the 'real' Ms. Maas into a "Heart of Darkness" climax. This research project, this delving into her love-lorn past, now rehearsed, and now being performed, has in this late instant, shattered her with a grim, despairing reality check: a stare into a life of  future loneliness. This is, after, all that facetious comedy, a serious piece. Oh, really? (Mr LaBute's play is more disturbing, more exacting, I fondly, remember).

In the program notes there is a quote from Martin Crimp: "We need to feel what we're seeing is real. It isn't just acting. It's actually far more exacting than acting" (ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE.) The difficulty of finding our, the audience's, entrance to the tone of this work, is that the performers are quite definitely performing, albeit attractively and charmingly, but definitely not for real, not ever. Ms Maas and Mr Kernahan are not displaying a penchant for anything, but, acting. Acting, indeed, with a capital A - not ever does the work offered by these actors, even when they discover personal betrayals and combust into angers, or even at the end, when they are taking separate curtain calls, appear to be anything but "Acting" and, absolutely, certainly, never real - Ms Maas does not convince us of her despair (check out Isabelle Huppert in THE MAIDS, to see and believe a look into despair on stage). Neither she nor Mr Kernahan convince me, make me feel, that what they are doing is anymore exacting than acting. There is no real life catharsis happening here - it is all scripted and, mostly, unconvincing in the playing of it. Watch John Cassevetes' film OPENING NIGHT, starring, his wife, Gena Rowlnads, to see how that double frisson from comedy to real life drama works, or, view the 1948 classic, A DOUBLE LIFE with Ronald Coleman, where a fictional life blurs horribly into real life tragedy - (MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, anyone?) - or, just learn a little more of the chutzpah of that unique company NATURE THEATRE OF OKLAHOMA who visited in 2009 with their show NO DICE, for the Sydney Festival. (check out the blog.)

Despite my carping (harping), this is a marvellous premise for a work. And Ms Maas follows on, in conceptual daring, from her earlier work COUNTRY MATTERS, if a little, in content and performance style, too depressingly conventional, to provoke us, as she did last time. This work fails at the Old Fitz in its goal mostly because the performers have not the courage to strip down to what their ambitions set out to do. Their director has not been able to tempt them to 'fail gloriously', in getting them to risk, to do something more than an 'act' a truth, AND, rather BE the truth - for that is very exacting and very, very difficult to do, indeed.

The production values are high, thanks to Sean Minahan, Set and Costume Design, Alex Berlage, Lighting Design, with AV by Stephen Penn.

Do go to see this work, as even in this performance format it is, lightly, entertaining, but especially because Ms Maas is at the beginning of the development of a unique talent with a very interesting point-of-view of our world through her own life's patterns, and if she can persist may make a starling contribution to new Australian writing and, possibly, performance. You will remember, "I saw her way, way back in 2013 and she was even interesting then." I saw her, even further back, in September, 2011, and SAY HELLO FIRST, in 2013, still interests me in Ms Maas. Just take it in for its ambitions. So there!

The ambition of this program joke, falls most certainly on the second of the choices in this production:


Bangarra Dance Theatre Australia present BLAK in the Drama Theatre, in the Sydney Opera House.

This year I have seen and been rewarded with some great dance experiences. The Paris Opera GISELLEBIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS from the New Zealand company, Mau; 'G' from the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) and the Nederlands Dans Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. These were highlights of some of my theatre going this year, which has had much to enjoy. I have always thought well of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and have been particularly admiring of the contemporary bias in the stories that the company have begun to crystallise for us in recent works: BELONG, for instance.

BLAK was a 75 minute program made of three pieces: SCAR, Concept, Direction and Choreography by Daniel Riley McKinley with the male dancers; YEARNING, Concept, Direction and Choreography by Stephen Page with the female dancers; and KEEPERS, Concept, Direction by Stephen Page with Choreography by Stephen Page and Daniel Riley McKinley and the dancers.

The Design work: the Set by Jacob Nash, the Costumes by Luke Ede, the lighting by Matt Cox were outstanding in creating a look and mood for these works. The presentational qualities had a contemporary sheen, gloss, 'magazine'-like gleam - certainly good-looking. Coupled with the throbbing and very likable cross over music scores - high grade techno and indigenous sounds - by Paul Mac and David Page, the material visual and aural qualities, were outstanding.

The thematics in the dance material were contemporary in their concept and had some yearning for social comment and political clout - admirable. However, the actual dancing was of a hugely variable standard. On the evening my friends and I saw BLAK, it seemed  that the female members of the company had a tighter grasp of the choreography and a more disciplined approach to the execution of it - they seemed to have clearer commitment to the storytelling in the movement/choreography: the opening sequence to YEARNING, BIRTH had a simple ownership, and dance skill of the concentrated joy to perform, and, to perform well.

The male dancers in the first piece, SCAR, seemed to have an approximate of what they were attempting to deliver, both, in movement and 'philosophy' - the work can only be as strong as its weakest link - there were too many of those weak links, in too many areas in the dance, to keep the work arresting or even interesting. The male dancers did not seem to have as clear a sense of ensemble as the female ensemble did, rather, a kind of competitive egotism was present.

 I know that comparisons can be odious, and the aesthetic tools and objectives, skills, may have many variables in cultural aesthetics, but any comparison of the approach that the New Zealand Company, the contemporary dance theatre: Mau, had to their dance presentation, let alone the relative sophistication of their dramaturgy and the dancers commitment and demonstration of skills to those overarching ideas, gives one pause, and, to give any but a critical viewpoint of this program, BLAK, is impossible.

The final piece, KEEPERS, with the full company, seemed poorly disciplined and repetitive in its movement/choreographic ideas, haphazard in its connection from one section to the next and clumsy in its spatial uses for effect, it often appeared cramped and clumsy - the dancers 'walking through it'. One began to wonder whether the crepuscular lighting states, that tended to make moving drama from, and of, the design assets by Mr Nash, were purposeful choices, by the artistic team, to throw the dancers into relatively secondary roles, for some of the time.

Bangarra is a full time dance company and this work, BLAK, did not seem to reflect the opportunity of development of skill and disciplines of technique to justify that privilege. When compared to the presentational skills of The Australian Dance Theatre, Mau, and the recent work from The Nederlands DansTheatre, in this work, Bangarra Dance Theatre appeared, sadly, wanting. The movement work was extremely disappointing, the intellectual rigour tending to the old 'sentimental' narrative, and, for me, seemed a step back, in what I have otherwise observed as a gradual upward trajectory in dance and dramaturgical pursuits over more recent work.


Seymour Centre in association with Sport For Jove Theatre present OTHELLO by William Shakespeare in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre.

OTHELLO is one of the great tragedies in the Shakespearean canon. It is not often shown on the professional stage in Australia, although I have seen several productions in Drama schools (in the past few years) and, of course, in the United States. There are many films including, the Orson Welles and Michael MacLiammoir (1952), the National Theatre production with Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay (1964); Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins (1983) and the Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Brannagh (1995). (Verdi's operatic version, OTELLO, is also available.)

This tragedy is not about kings or queens but rather soldiers - ordinary men, in domestic and private struggles, the actions of the story will not affect the universe, even the great state. It is about a single emotion: sexual jealousy and results in a (sordid) crime of passion. It deals with "a charming man without a conscience" - a kind of psychopath - Iago, who maliciously acts upon the naive, romantic soldier of men, his general, Othello, resulting in, essentially, an interior drama: the collapse of Othello's psyche. The role of Iago is a tightly wrought 'ride' with a villain, who confronts and beguiles the audience with his schemes in a language that is "colloquial, obscene and knowing" - mostly written as prose. We watch as Othello falls dupe to his friend's persuasions, we hear him protest and stagger in ornate and formal speeches of eloquent poetry - mostly, written in verse. It demands as, the above casting in film suggests, actors of some equal power. Sport For Jove's production of OTHELLO does not have that mutual support.

Damien Ryan, as Iago, has a vision and energy, a skill with the language and the emotional requirements to pitch the machinations, intellectual and otherwise, of this character to great effect.There is, unfortunately, no equivalent artistic force of expressed vision to counter this work by this actor, in this production, for the survival of the drama of the play. He is virtually throwing his offers to the wind. There is no doubt that the company of actors have an intelligent grasp on what they are saying, for the spoken text has a clear comprehension, but it is all to no avail, as most of the cast have not the real courage of the emotional ownership of their responsibilities, or, apparently, any direction to guide them to a more truthful experience of those emotions, beneath the text, in their moments of utterance. The time in the theatre dwindles to an under expressed recitation of the words on the page, from most of the company, and, at three and a half hours in length, it needed more than that to sustain, even, one's indulgent eye and ear. One did not gain much more from seeing this production live on stage, than one would have had by watching the film, or, reading it at home.

Other than in the work of Mr Ryan this production, directed by Matt Edgerton seems essentially under-cast, in too many instances, mis-cast (a catastrophic conclusion with only eight actors engaged), and/or under-directed. Ivan Donato constantly thwarted the lofty poetry of Othello and resisted the emotional 'madnesses' of his language, and, truly Othello's downfall has to be measured not so much by what happens to him but what happens to his language and its vocal expression - under-seized, under-flourished, as it is here, the play founders without proper balance to the despicable pressures coming from Iago. It is difficult to fear this descent, that this Othello takes. There is no heat in this production.

The Design, by Marissa Dale-Johnson, in contemporary dress and set, a beautifully tiled pool of water, flooding the stage, and suitably lit with the dark shadows needed for these Shakespearean schemings, by Matt Cox, are the other two assets , beside Mr Ryan, of this production.

The school audience I saw it with, sat quietly, and uttered only laughter at moments, and seemed to be dutifully respectful to the actors, rather than truly engaged or moved by the story in any visceral way.

The present National Theatre of Great Britain production is to be screened in the coming months. The press for the modern dress production by Nicholas Hytner has been, glowing. The contrast of experience will be interesting to experience.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Bell Shakespeare presents PHEDRE by Jean Racine, in a new version by Ted Hughes, in the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House.

PHEDRE by Jean Racine. The body of the story in this play has its origins from the time of the fountainhead of the flowering of Athens and its peoples, the fifth century BCE, who were describing a totally new conception of human life, and showed, for the first time, what the human mind was for. "The Greek legacy", says Peter Watson in his book, Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud, "is the greatest the world has yet known. " Amongst the works of philosophers and artists of other kinds, during this experiment of a new governance, three great tragedians have left some record of their minds' thoughts in the theatre: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.In the play HIPPOLYTUS (428 BC) by Euripides, Phaedra first appears.

Later, the Roman poet, Seneca, around 50 AD, during the tumultuous governments of Caligula and Nero, wrote a work with PHAEDRA, as his title and the centre of his pre-occupation. PHEDRE by Jean Racine was written in 1677, during the reign of Louis IV, the Sun King, in the time of an assertion of a way of government that was challenging in the surety of its probity for a steady future. It was the last of his great plays, and is regarded by most critics as the greatest of them. (Pierre Corneille and Moliere were two other writer's in this period of French history - a 'wealthy' time for the theatre arts, indeed). Originally, Racine had called his work PHEDRE ET HIPPOLYTE, but in its second printing ten years later, it became simply, PHEDRE. In 1996, Sarah Kane wrote PHAEDRA'S LOVE - in it, Hippolytus is at the centre of the text.

It is a marvellous promise of excitement to see this play. And when sitting in the theatre, hearing this text, one is reminded of the deeply buried need, recognition, of the power that tragic tales have on the formulation of our own lives and their dilemmas. How one longs to see THE GREEKS, and their iconic plays: e.g. Aeschylus' AGAMEMNON; Sophocles' OEDIPUS REX; Euripides' MEDEA. One forgets that need, until one sees/reads once again, the raw humanities of the stories' unrelenting exposures of that animal part of us, struggling to have the "other", that is so necessary to our every thought, to every fibre of our present existence, to be satisfied, to the point of lunatic exhaustion, even - cultural taboo or not - whether it be stranger or family - mother, father, brother, sister (or, even Mr Albee, a goat!!). These plays express such a primal part of our DNA, our biological imperative to survive, the need to procreate, to employ that appetite that is most necessary: sexual congress, transferred in our 'romantic' consciousness as love, and expose the all imposing consequences when it becomes unbalanced in our behavioural needs. Sexual desire wearing the face of romantic attraction. Love, for the lovers, so gripping in any context, but so terrifying when in the shadows of the territory of the forbidden. A kind of madness, leading to an inevitable torturous death. The relative safety of our removed voyeurism in the theatre, in watching these perversions, in watching others of our kind being reckless and punished, is a guilty pleasure and exhilarating thrill - there, but for the grace of the gods, go I.

This French classic of 1677, in the brawny tooling of the English poet, Ted Hughes, 1998, gives us the fascinating love torture of Phedre, Hippolytus, Theseus, Aricia, Oenone and Theramene in an English language translation/adaptation that is directly understandable and uncluttered, almost colloquial, eschewing the more usual romantic gallantry of some of the other English translating of Racine, and though, perhaps, lacking some of the niceties of the original twelve-syllable French Alexandrine, and "lingering on metaphor and imagery relating to animals and monsters", gives us, on hearing it, a more visceral heft in the theatre. The language, then, is thrilling in its clarity and richness, and the plotting, the turning points of the narrative telling (this is Racine, of course), are weighed and weighty, with a kind of immaculate 'timing' that draws one willingly into witnessing the vortex of self destruction that all the characters bring onto themselves. We , observers willingly enter into that remorseless appetite of the gaping, stained mouth of that ugly vortex - desperate love - it, daring us to an unconscious delight in partaking in the vertigo of sex/love's malignant causes, even to the horrible consequence.

This company of actors: Catherine McClements, Marco Chiappi, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Abby Earl, Julie Forsyth, Bert LeBonte, Olivia Monticciolo and  Caroline Lee, are well drilled in the clarity of the speech, clear, they know accurately where they are in the story in the language - intelligent. The opening sequence of this production of embodied brains and voices, is an impressive "Stand and deliver" or, in this case, from some, sit and deliver. Direct operatic-like delivery.

However, as the production begins to physically move, some of the voices/bodies are too young. Others deliberately too laid back in understatement. They are clear, but, with not enough strength, vocal charisma, in expressing Mr Hughes powerful imagery - the sounds belying the power of the words, the language, the true ownership to convince us. Some others become entangled in the personalized emotional response and let their bodies and faces, all external show, twist and fit, making the physical choices the principal offer for us to interpret at the expense of the words and the language sense. Others, surrender to their feelings and ultimately bury the language altogether into a kind of purring motor engine growling - noise, and not intelligible communication of information. It was, then, a mixed journey of dwindling returns for the audience as the story unraveled. The greater part of the text lost in lack of instrument clarity and ownership. Emotions overriding the words. Ultimately, for me, the play was better read than heard.

Catherine McClements as Phedre plumbs her emotional depths to touch the agony of the possibilities of this unfortunate woman. But what we see is another version of Ms McClements, giving, with different words, a repeat performance of her Martha from WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Martha and Phedre are inter- changeable - the naked core being the tremendous presence of Ms McClements. Undoubtedly, a brave revelation of Ms McClements' inner life - her courage is phenomenal - but, in result it is not defined with any differences of context of the differing circumstances/worlds of the plays. It is not a Phedre we see and hear onstage, but an openly vulnerable Melbourne actress. This is a distinctly modern woman assisted by the designer, Anna Cordingley, with all of the costume accouterments of today, including perilously high heels. This performance has none of the given circumstances of the kingdom of Troezen but rather that of a high heeled brunette 'Barbie-doll’ - rich, spoilt, self indulgent. The interior life of this Phedre is narrow, self absorbed. There was no sense of being stalked, hunted, haunted by gods. No sense of the burden of her family's destiny. No dignity in her suffering. No sense of the melancholy of a family doomed, to a fated and inevitable tragedy. One was not moved by this victim of the gods, one was, ultimately, irritated and switched off, by a kind of self-lacerating indulgence. (A simple case for an exorcist, I would have thought).

 Peter Evans, the Director, has not captured the epic scalings of this 336 year old classic, there are no echoes of the 2400 years of the origin of this attempted understanding of the human condition. Relentlessly contemporary in all the choices the production stayed earth bound and became distressingly incomprehensible in those terms. (Present day life would not have endured this Phedre, even in Melbourne, she would be in care - why do I think of Princess Diana, when I say that?) Designed by Anna Cordingley in the colours of a cold blue moon in what looked like a tiled hallway with a collapsed roof, decaying and precipitous, an awkward transitional room, it lacked majesty, authority - autumn leaves blowing in the street. The lighting gloomy and without ever a hint of the revenging glare of the sun - not even at Phedre's death (Paul Jackson) - with the modern visceralities of the sound composition by Kelly Ryall being the only truly moving instrument employed to grip the audience.

A disappointing production of a great text, a great story. One earnestly wished it was otherwise.