Thursday, September 26, 2013
Roundabout Theatre Company presents the Old Vic production of THE WINSLOW BOY by Terence Rattigan at the American Airlines Theatre, 42nd Street, New York.
This production of Terence Rattigan's THE WINSLOW BOY was originally seen at the Old Vic in London last year, directed by Lindsay Posner. In the Roundabout Theatre Company's production, Mr Posner once again directs, utilising the London designs for Costume and Set by Peter McIntosh. The acting company is all new. The play has not been revived on Broadway since its original production in 1947. There have been two films made from the material - the Anthony Asquith version of 1948 (Robert Donat, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Margaret Leighton); and the 1999 version directed by (surprise, surprise!) David Mamet (Jeremy Northam, Nigel Hawthorne and Rebecca Pidgeon).
THE WINSLOW BOY is based on an actual case concerning a young boy, Arthur Arder-Slee, accused of petty theft, and without any consultation with family, was dismissed by the Osborne Naval College in 1908. The conventions of the times would have condemned this young man to an irreparable loss of reputation and probable social advancement. Sure of his son's innocence the father pursued the matter to the highest authorities employing the best advocates possible, to clear his young son's and family honour, invoking that Right must be Done.
Terence Rattigan took liberties with the actual facts and produced a four act play that still has at its centre the high moral grounds of the rights of any individual to justice, but encases it within the turmoil of an ordinary family in the midst of sweeping and speedy technological changes and consequent changes in social value contexts: moving from the values of the staid Queen Victoria era into the new conventions of the profligate Edward - the political slide into the First World War growing, in a rush to catastrophe.
The Winslow family is led by a conservative but open-minded father, Arthur (Roger Rees), his wife being a conventional woman of the period, Grace (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The eldest is Catherine (Charlotte Parry) a young progressive intellectual, a suffragette, actively working for women's rights. Her suitors are relatively conventional men of the times, John Watherstone (Chandler Williams), a man of the military, and Desmond Curry (Michael Cumpsty), a solicitor representing the family. Dickie Winslow (Zachary Booth) a distracted bright young thing studying at Oxford, but more interested in the 'bunny hop', is the elder brother to Ronnie Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) the 14 year old at the centre of the furore of the play.There is a faithful maid to the family,Violet (Henny Russell) and a leading legal figure, Sir Robert Morton (Alessandro Nivola) who takes on the authoritarian machine of the status quo of the Government and the Navy, motivated by political career kudos, a sense of justice, and, perhaps a twinge of the heart!
The structure of this play by Terence Rattigan is a model of its time: four acts with the conventions of the well made play, with efficient expositionary techniques applied to plot and character, with each act rising to an exciting cliff hanger climax. What it has, as well, is a deeply and cleverly embedded grave moral discussion/debate, propelled by the principal plot and the many intricate sub-plots 'oiled' with gentle humour and family melodrama. THE WINSLOW BOY is, indeed, a text book guide to the writing of the well made play and ought to be a reference for all exploring the possibility of writing for the theatre (or screen). Michael Billington, the London theatre critic, in his book STATE OF THE NATION: BRITISH THEATRE SINCE 1945 (2007), highly appraises the work of Rattigan and regards, retrospectively, his valuable, under-appreciated and estimated skill and contribution to the social debate of his time.
Watching this play the other evening one could comprehend why it has re-appeared in the two international English speaking centres of the theatre as art, at this time in our history, for, for all of its period conventions, it still is stirringly relevant and moving. As Arthur Winslow drives his principled action to the central attention of his societal betters, he gradually places undue health pressures on himself with disintegrating consequences to the welfare of his family, almost to ruin. Even, the cynical professional politician and lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, makes a surprising choice in the turmoils of this striving for right.
Is principled action doomed to fail in a society under the spell of a profit oriented market? Do the circumstances, today, force a defender of truth and transparency to intemperate demagogy? What use it to be right when you haven't got the power? What choices do you make? Do you make the choice to do 'good' for yourself? Or, do you make the 'smart' choice for yourself? Does one assuage, neglect one's conscience, to maintain societal position and survival? Does truth and honour have value? Is Might or prevailing custom always Right? These are the questions that Arthur Winslow must agonisingly confront and take the consequence of making a principled choice. They are, surely, questions terribly relevant for us today. I sat there asking myself, "What would I do?", and was moved with the role model that this play gave us to contemplate, in 2013.
There are great central performances from Ms Parry as Catherine - a role, surely, to interest any actor with ambition -focused, intelligent and deeply wise; Chandler Williams as the conventional dupe to custom, John Watherstone and especially Spencer Davis Milford as Ronnie at the cause and centre of the storm- the work is impressively secure and true. Mr Nivola as Sir Robert Morton grows in concentrated power, progressively, in his tasks. His first major scene, the interrogation, not yet as true as the later work.
Roger Rees presents the quibbling, choleric patriarch, Arthur, with for me, an overarching sense of the climax of the play too early, instead of the scene by scene development of the disappointments and triumphs of the arc of the journey written. Rattigan has not written a character that can be much liked, he is formidable, testy, touchy, cranky in his journey to physical demise, and it is only in the climax of the play that we can, should, fully appreciate and forgive him for his steadfast sacrifice of himself and his family. Note that Rattigan's most famous character, Crocker-Harris in the 1948, THE BROWNING VERSION, too, is not a man to necessarily come to love, too soon in the play - it is, as in this play, the peeling of the 'onion layers' that has us ultimately recognising a man of substance against all the usual measures of expectation. These are the kind of heroes that Mr Rattigan cherished. In this production the physical energy of the impulses of Mr Rees in his technique, explode out of him, and appeared, sometimes, at odds with what the story's character's physical decline demands. It sometimes appeared, to me, to be an exhibition of this actor's demonstration of his formidable skills as a craftsman, than an ownership and identification of and within the character. Ms Mastrantonio, too, falls to reveal, as actor, her opportunities that Rattigan has given her. Instead of living the life of the woman, Grace, mired in the conventions of a time past - the performance choices sometimes incline to indicate, for the audience, the emotional temper of the character and the scene instead of breathing it, being it. Undoubted flaws from these strong actors, but not completely derailing to the Rattigan impact.
THE WINSLOW BOY is, in form, a very conventional play - with, even in 2013, no harm done to its entertainment value, I can assure you - solid, witty and human. It's social and political message is timeless, and, I felt in the audience on Broadway in New York, in 2013, timely, considering what is happening in Washington at the moment, let alone with my own qualms concerning my own democratically elected government in Canberra.
Theatre as not just entertainment, but a provocation to concern over our civilisation and its contemporary trajectory.
This was a "preview" performance.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Siren Theatre Company presents PENELOPE by Enda Walsh at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst.
Siren Theatre Company under the direction of Kate Gaul is presenting PENELOPE by Enda Walsh. In March, last year, Ms Gaul presented THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM at the Griffin Theatre , also by Mr Walsh, and I presume Ms Gaul is simply following the old adage that when you are onto a good thing stick to it.
PENELOPE is another wonderful example of the Irish storytellers ability to spin the English language into fabulous concoctions of delight. This time Mr Walsh stretches into the world of Homer's Odyssey (in the tradition of another Irishman, James Joyce, perhaps), and in this particular case, into the last chapter of the Homer book where the suitors to Odysseus' (Ulysses) wife, Penelope, propel themselves into a desperate pitch of devotion to win her before her husband returns. Here, Mr Walsh has four desperate, desperately ageing men, undressed in swimming attire - truly, physically, underscoring one of the pathetic themes of the play, Time Is Tragedy, with challenging ocular clarity - at the bottom of a drained swimming pool barbecuing sausages in 33 degree heat. Each in turn, using the habits and skill of their humanity, or not, besiege the cloistered Penelope, for her favours. Each of them, Burns (Thomas Campbell), Quinn (Nicholas Hope), Dunne (Arky Michael) and Fitz (Philip Dodd) inimitably use language to impress. Penelope (Branden Christine), ravishingly dressed in gold, appears, but never speaks. Does she choose, or, has Odysseus thwarted all, with his unexpected return?
All the performances are able to deliver the tasks set by Enda Walsh with splendid clarity and poetic languishing. The quicksilver physical and verbal energy of Mr Michael is especially tantalising; Mr Campbell exerts on his language usage an astounding ability to sustain the double whammy of the information in the line and the powerful emotions of his character's predicaments - a very model of a young contemporary actor, truly, on top of his craft balances; Mr Hope is mercurial in his machinations, and Mr Dodd, is hilariously languid and pompous with all he does - which allows such surprise in the latter of the unwinding of his suit to Penelope.
Co-designers, Kate Gaul and Tom Bannerman have re-configured the space at the Tap Gallery into a traverse - audience on either side of the action - and within the limits of this unusual space, much is achieved with that decision, with intimate and shared experience being a demand for 'naked' participation from the audience. Fortunately, the playwriting is deliciously challenging and beautiful - it is not for the tired-of-mind but for the active participant. Sound Composition and design by Daryl Wallis creates an affective surround for the action and emotional narrative of the play.
The company for some odd reason did not elect to use the poetic dialect of the writer's music and I do believe some cadence and its magic is probably lost (remember, the poetry loss with the Belvoir decision in the recent CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF to, similarly work in the Australian soundscape.) I, personally, found the poetic allusion to Homer and his men and the welter of vocabulary of Mr Walsh's play, not persuasive to the Australian barbecue scenarios of my life time that the dialect work of these characters/actors were personalising for me, and so i was deflected and distracted from complete absorption. Mr Walsh is, I am sure, also, using the play as a metaphor in discussing and spotlighting the politics of the historic 'troubles' of the recent and present Irish past - the 2008 film HUNGER written by Mr Walsh, dealing with the final days of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands - suggests a very passionate consciousness of those politics in the expressive content of his work. I believe the play loses some of its real power with the extraction of the contextual Irish sound and placing it in the world of an Australian experience that I cannot parallel, with the same intellectual and emotional force.
Despite those big distractions, the writing, the acting and the staging/direction of the play is a very welcome experience, when so much of the work we have, going on about us, is so conceptually and verbally banal and dull.
The Tap Gallery has this year hosted two of Sydney's most arresting experiences in theatre going this year.: THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adly Guirgis being the other.
Recommend. Do go.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
NIDA Independent and The Follies Company presents A SIGN OF THE TIMES in The Parade Studio, at the NIDA PARADE THEATRES.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES is a monologue written and directed by S.L. Helper and performed by Scott Irwin. A Man, once a lecturer of literature, is now working on a road construction site, employed as the man with the Stop/Slow 'lolly-pop' sign. In the first half he tells us of the death of his son Brockie, from cancer, and the depressive 'spin' that he has had, which has resulted in his wife, Hilda, and daughter, Casey, leave him, to settle in Canberra. The Man gives ruminations on the existential questions, that we have recently shared in Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, and soon, will again, with Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT.
After the interval, we discover that the climatic moment of the first half resulted in The Man's death under the wheels of a huge truck, and is now in "Another Place" and "A Forest". Now, 'dead', our Man, continues on his ruminations of life, death, existence, and the death of his son from cancer, and the desertion of Hilda and Casey to Canberra, and the confession of a homo-erotic impasse with a best mate (!) , illuminating, perhaps, further, the desertion to Canberra by Hilda and Casey etc. etc. ( Good grief! This is the second work that I have met in the last week (THE GRIEF PARLOUR), trusting us to believe in an after-life! What is in the air of our times, then? What is this sign of the times?)
There is no set design, bar three standing black flats and some practical props - in fact, there is no designer attributed. The lighting by Sian James-Holland is sufficient, with haze effects - I guess for ethereal affect. The best part of this work is the complicated (but not well integrated - volume and timing-wise) sound design by Darrin Verhagen.
Mr Helper has, undoubtedly, laboured over this work as the writer and director. Mr Irwin gives a solid performance of the material. But A SIGN OF THE TIMES is, ultimately, a very sentimental, maudlin work with huge swathes of literary pretensions, including, quotes (sometimes extensive) from works by Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and T.S. Eliot and a singing of the traditional folk song Greensleeves. I found it tedious and extremely indulgent - particularly, since it included a 15 minute interval.
Mr Helper quotes from the T.S.Eliot poem THE HOLLOW MEN and I couldn't help but be amused by the ironic suitability of it as a critique of this work:
Between the idea* my capitalisation
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
FALLS THE SHADOW* ...
Between the conception
And the creation
between the emotion
And the response
FALLS THE SHADOW* ...
Falls a shadow, indeed.
This work has no bang, rather, a tedious whimper.
I attended because of my very positive impression of Mr Helper's work on his production of the American play, last year, SYNCOPATION.
Why, oh why has NIDA INDEPENDENT given this work the space and time for production? I recently attended a NIDA student production in this very space called ESTHER, written and directed by Michael McStay, a third year acting student, with student actors, that deserved the advantages of this opportunity. With all its weaknesses it stood head and shoulders over this work in potential.
NIDA INDEPENDENT keeps its record of poorly-curated work in tact: I KNOW THERE'S A LOT OF NOISE OUTSIDE BUT YOU HAVE TO CLOSE YOUR EYES - March, 2013; SET - a whodunit soap-opera - May, 2013 (I was unable to attend SHOPPING AND F***KING).
"Excellence and Innovation" as usual, under the NIDA INDEPENDENT banner.
Check it out for yourself – hopefully, contradict my response.
TRUE WEST THEATRE PRESENTS THE GRIEF PARLOUR by Clockfire Theatre at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.
THE GRIEF PARLOUR is a new work devised by Clockfire Theatre Company - a creative ensemble – this work includes the three core members of the group, who have been producing work over the past year or so, and last year had a residency at the Old 505 Theatre in Surry Hills: Emily Ayoub, Gareth Rickards and Kate Worsley. For this project, exceptionally, they invited two other actors in: Roderic Byrnes and Anna Martin; a Writer: Jessica Bellamy; a Director, Jo Turner; and a Composer, Ben Pierpoint. The Lighting Design is by Sara Swesky.
The project began as investigation of "death and grief", two "inevitable experiences we all must face." In front of three hinged (wall-papered) screens we meet the employees of a funeral parlour. Three of the staff are quite simply 'quirky' in their interactions: the celebrating of a 'birth' day in the 'death' parlour; the exploration of sex attraction in the morgue are gentle Chekhovian juxtapositions of pleasant humour. The text by Ms Bellamy is deftly and succinctly brief in establishing the characters and the events, aided by wonderfully comic creations of character by the actors: Mr Byrnes, Ms Ayoub and Worsley, a delight. (The text has none of the satirical sharpness of the 'grief parlour' novel, by Evelyn Waugh: THE LOVED ONE (1948) or any of the shock of the subsequent Tony Richardson film (1965), sadly.) A young couple arrive to make funeral arrangements and we discover that it is for one of them - and a surreal journey unfolds for the 'dead' one (Ms Martin) who is escorted by a benign figure (Ms Worsley) to another realm (?) whilst the other (Mr Rickards) learns to deal with the loss. The soft quirky humour of the grief parlour is intertwined with the vivid and wondrous other space incorporating the journey of the 'soul'. The fantastical concoction of this other, and dominant story, in this telling, requires one to either believe in an after-life, or , to allow the whimsical explorations be part of a playful fantasia of invention. It was not difficult to do either: to confirm one's faith or to play make-believe.
Both the leader of this company, Emily Ayoub and the Director of this production, Jo Turner, trained at the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School in Paris and apply in their creativity for the whimsical world of this production, a technique employing three hinged screens (paravents), where the "dead" one is escorted through a long journey, illustrated with mime skills and gestures, around, behind and in-front-of the shifting, gliding screens. Language is scattered throughout , sometimes in dadaistic bursts, interspersed with the quirky 'real' world of the grief parlour. Strange figures appear and disappear (Ms Ayoub, Mr Byrnes) and all to a gently driving music composition of piano and violin by Mr Pierpoint, (influences of Philip Glass). The lighting is complex and creates the shifting worlds atmospherically. It is seductively intriguing.
The performance is a delight, although the enchanting technique of the work - the use of the paravents - may have preoccupied the creators a little to much at the expense of a deeper, more complex reveal of their initial creative impulse of investigation: death and grief. A case of the pleasure of the form exploration dominating/distracting the artists from a richer content revelation.
Despite the relative lightweight look at death and grief that we are given, there is a kind of 'gallic' charm to the work as a kind of whimsical fantasia, in both worlds. I was charmed, amused and do recommend a visit.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Can You See Me? Theatre present NIGHTBOOK in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House.
Can You See Me? Theatre is a company of actors with cerebral palsy working with some able bodied actors under the Artistic Direction of Kylie Harris and Chrissie Koltai.
NIGHTBOOK is a physical realisation of the dreamscapes of the participants: Georgia Cooper, David Ellis, Christopher Leonard, Ian Mitchell, Robert Mockler, Virginia Redenbach, Gavin Ryan, Glen Turnbull and Sarah Wood. In parts of NIGHTBOOK, for instance, Sarah yearns for a holiday in Fiji, Glenn rejects his lover, Robbie is in a nightmare and survives to live his dream of playing, spectacularly, for the Manly Rugby League team. There, too, were scary dreams, ballets and operas! Each of the participants have contributed conceptually to the content of this play and perform in creating a surreal experience of dreams of all kinds. Christopher Leonard's love of books is the well-spring of the shape of the work.
Using movement and voice: prose and poem, song and music, and choreography/dance, marvellously, in wheel chairs, the work was a coherent joy to watch. This work is all the more striking as it is an expression of the artists and has been shaped by Ms Koltai and Harris without any external artistic imposition of political impulses, or otherwise, of the facilitators. One is, relatively, watching the creative ideas of the cerebral palsy artists been facilitated without any vagaries of the able bodied artists needing to make a statement - they have 'submitted' to be the servants to the dreamscapes of these incredible Can You See me? Theatre artists.
Those actors/creators/facilitators were assisted by Warwick Allsopp, Ryan Bennett, Jeremy Burtenshaw,Tim Cole, Sophie Cook and Odile Le Clezio with great sensitivity and a generous creative spirit. With musical accompaniment by Robin Gist, and an atmospheric lighting design by Chris Page on an exquisite set, with especially,a beautiful and apt costume design by Emma Kingsbury - detailed, humourous and magically distinctive for each.
NIGHTBOOK was an inspiration of talent, commitment and extraordinary discipline, all these artists gave a funny, moving and breathtaking gift to the audience. Laughter and tears evoked with ease and clarity.
'Disability' is one of the buzz words of government and opposition policy and there seems to be some movement in bringing these minorities in our world to some proper place of opportunity and respected support. The Cerebral Palsy Alliance, with Rob White as its Chief Executive Officer, has found the means to fund this extraordinary event, the second one, having presented CIRCUMSPECTO last year, and he and his organisation ought to be extremely proud, indeed, to see their vision and faith in these artists so wonderfully embodied. (There was no direct Government support with funding for this work, I understand). One can only presume that the right authorities attended this extraordinary performance and found the inspiration to ensure that it continues, and that the future appreciation of the importance of this work is not just politically correct 'hot air', but, is a sincere commitment to the health of all our society. It is apparent, the significance of this performance had given to all of the performers, and, I can speak for the audience, too - there was much excitement and love in the foyer afterwards, where each of the artists, as they appeared, were individually rewarded with further applause. NIGHTBOOK, a model of Arts and Health in positive action together.
Truly, beautiful and life enhancing.
If you see only my physical self then who do you see?
Who am I if my body is not acceptable to society?
If I am not seen beyond my physical form, how can you see me?
- Kylie Harris.
Christopher Frederick Leonard, one of the actors with cerebral palsy (the book professor, in the fez):
If an ordinary dream is just someone eating a bowl of cereal, the cereal bowl would have to have wings for it to be a dream.A bowl of cereal took flight in front of our eyes - amazing!
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
|Photo by Jack Toohey|
Arthur and Griffin Independent present the Sydney premiere of RETURN TO EARTH by Lally Katz, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.
Lally Katz wrote RETURN TO EARTH in 2006. Arthur and Griffin Independent have joined forces to bring this play to a Sydney stage. SMASHED was the last play by Ms Katz to be seen on the SBW Stables stage. This play has a similar ethereal feel about it in its story telling. One is never quite sure about what is happening (!) or where we are been taken.
Into a black void/space - a bare stage - Alice (Shari Sebbens) is greeted by her mother, Wendy (Wendy Strehlow), welcomed home, joined by her father, Cleveland (Laurence Coy). These 'new age' parents are relieved and overjoyed to have her back with them. It seems Alice (aka Erica) has been, strangely, absent, and, progressively, through the play she meets up with other people in her extended family life: brother, Tom (Ben Barber); his little daughter, Catta (Scarlett Waters), in need of a kidney transplant; her best friend Jeanie (Catherine Terracini) and a loner/town mechanic/fisherman Theo (Yuri Covich). Alice cannot clearly explain where she has been or what has happened to her, but, as a familiar reality begins to slowly envelop her, she is, metaphorically, perhaps, 'returned to earth' and we find a kind of realism of the melodramas of life: births and deaths, friendship loses and gains, cups of tea and flowers in vases, reveal themselves, represented, by the stage gradually being crowded with the appearance of a kitchen table and chairs complete with a 'folksy' patchwork cloth and the accouterments of a suburban home (Set Design by ARTHUR - advised by David Fleischer; Costume Design by Emma Kingsbury).
The story telling by Ms Katz is oblique and one needs patience, otherwise restlessness of attention can set in. Some of my audience were flummoxed by the lack of narrative surety. I was willing to work through the journey, mostly, because the acting by all the company was enchanting, and Paige Rattray seems to be so purposeful with every one of her directorial choices that I was 'commanded' to respond to the commitment of all the artists (Lighting by Ross Graham; Composer, Tom Hogan). They appeared to be so sure of where they were and what was happening that I was prepared to surrender to the moment by moment 'adventure' of the evening. I suspended my usual earthing needs.
The play finished. We sat in our seat and queried: Were the 'hippy' parents growing their own herbal remedies, experimenting in drug trips, and was Alice/Erica recovering from just such an indulgence - a bad trip? Did this Alice fall down a "hole" into a Wonderland? Was Erica/Alice kidnapped by aliens? Do we have to worry that we have a "Rosemary's Baby" wrapped in swaddling? Blah, blah, blah.
Or, is it all just a load of codswallop?
Ms Katz tells unique stories in unique ways. Hers is, generally, an odd ball voice in our present theatre writing (which made NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH such a simple surprise!) and you will either love it or not. Certainly, with this ensemble of performers you will not hate it.
My companion preferred SMASHED. I, on the other hand, preferred RETURN TO EARTH. Both seen at the SBW Stables Theatre. Go see for yourself.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
This is the third production of MISS JULIE that I have seen in Sydney this year. The first, an adaptation of the 1888, August Strindberg play, by Cristabel Sved and Kate Box at the Darlinghurst Theatre in October last year. The other, in March this year, using the 'classic' 1964, Michael Meyer translation of the play. Interestingly, I am aware (and read, two of them) of three other recent, high profile versions of this text, internationally. MIES JULIE, adapted by Yael Farber, set on Freedom Day, in 2012, in post-apartheid South Africa - one of the arresting contemporary tensions is in the casting of a black actor as Jean to the white, wealthy, Julie. From the Schaubuhne Theatre, under the direction of the avant garde explorer, English Director, Katie Mitchell, FRAULIEN JULIE, which, using camera techniques, looks at the story unravelling through the eyes of Kristine, making the financée of Jean, the centre of the story. In Los Angeles, in March, Neil LaBute presented his examination of the play and shifted the location to pre-Stockmarket Crash, in 1929, in New York. There is, apparently, something about this great play that urges, this classic of naturalism, to be adapted for our times (my favourite adaptation is still the 2003, Patrick Marber: AFTER MISS JULIE).
Miss Julie at Belvoir is a new play, by Simon Stone, much like the texts/productions above, using the structure and characters of the original as a frame work, for his own cultural exploration of the Australian psyche. Mr Stone has broken this one act play into two separate acts and shifted his location to that of Australia - a cool, white, chic architecturally, spare, modern working kitchen and a cheap motel room (Set Design, Robert Cousins; Costume Design, Tess Schofield) - and to the present time. Miss Julie (Taylor Ferguson) has been infantilised and become a 16 year old, (in contrast to the mature woman of the original), daughter of a single parent, an absent father, a powerful politician (her feminist mother having committed suicide), bursting with unexplored hormonal sexual inclinations, with all the arrogant psychology of the materially rich, but emotionally neglected child - a first cousin, indeed, to the young women examined in the recent Sofia Coppola film, THE BLING RING. A rampant tease, of Lolita proportions, plus the willingness to exert the power that wealth can give. Jean (Brendan Cowell) has become the gofer, chauffeur, visible gun-toting body guard, to this young woman. This Jean an ill educated and delusional social aspirant, equipped with a spreading, hulking physical decline and the sexual confidence of a balding middle aged predator - his greatest attraction, his sex, on the verge of extinction - is apparently, desperately restless in his needs - is Miss Julie the last opportunity for Jean's juvenile ambitions to be achieved? Christine (Blazey Best), Jean's fiancee is the patient realist to Jean, and the cook and house keeper for the Julie in her household. A dutiful employee, content, if not happy, with her circumstances - but at least they are her own - she has made and accepted them.
The play works as a sexual thriller, where our cultural cringe at the sexual dance between the inappropriate pairing of this young Julie with the grotesquely ambitious Jean is underlined by the sexual preening of the male against the, relatively, innocent ripening of the young female. The tension of sexual taboo is what creates enormous frisson, thrill, for the audience - the explicit nudity, of the second act, directed by Leticia Caceres, with the showcase reveal/display of the genitals of Jean (causing a vocal response from my audience "Oh, My god!") including, then, centre stage, a bending over, to giving us the arse end view of Jean, ratchets up the wholly fascinating attraction/revulsion of the watching of the aged nakedness of Jean, and of Miss Julie's youthful response to it all (looking for daddy-father?) The Belvoir audience become complicit voyeurs in this primary cultural transgression.(Does the experience of this thrill justify this new work by Mr Stone and his appropriation of August Strindberg's name and title of play? Whatever, using the famous progenitor is undoubtedly a good marketing ploy/ publicity tool at the box office.) It is a confronting moral tendentiousness that this production offers to us theatre goers to, ultimately, deal with (in more ways than one!) Does it recall the audience confrontations that Mr Stone set up in his very theatrical production of THYESTES, using the source material of the Roman poet, Seneca, a few years ago? Is it to much of a stretch to include his production of BAAL, Brecht's text, in this dramaturgical familiarity of in-yet-face artistry?
Coincidently, down at the atyp, at present, a play written by a 17 year old, Anya Reiss, SPUR OF THE MOMENT, deals with a similar situation and creates the same tension - neglectful adult figures and an inappropriate sexual behaviour between a 13 year old girl and a 21 year old man. The physical age differences are closer and less glaring in their contrast (and there is no nudity), but the psychological immaturity of the male figure and the biological urgings of the female, is shockingly similar and just as culpable. The juvenile writer, Ms Reiss, squibs, ultimately, on the possible consequences to such behaviour, and defuses, over simply, the resolution of the situation. Mr Stone's MISS JULIE, does not do that, and it seems to count, a little, on our knowledge of the original play by Strindberg, as Julie finds Jean's gun and begins a choreographed debate with it, in the motel climax to the play. The tension to the ending of this production is shocking and double edged in its contemporary moral resolution - a very youthful 'Tarantino' destination.
The performances are good. Ms Ferguson, making her stage debut, finds the range of this emotionally disabled young woman, from the innocent, gentle kitten to the clawed and vicious panther - the fittest, the best equipped, will continue to survive against the less prepared - and the ambiguity of the insights of the character and her actions are wonderfully, clearly demarcated throughout the unravelling of the narrative. Mr Cowell seems to inhabit this menace of stupid cruelty and opportunism with convincing physical choices, and psychologically, smoothly, moves the character choices to inevitable, excruciating fatalities, in front of us (this was as impressive, for me, as Mr Cowell's work in the film NOISE, was, a few years ago). Ms Best has the least opportunity in this production to reveal a fully rounded character and is not as complex in her choices as she often can be - I was, vaguely, surprised, disappointed with what I was given to read.
This use of Strindberg's creation, MISS JULIE, by Mr Stone is interesting in it's narrowness of pre-occupation considering the richness of themes in the original. This MISS JULIE is, on the night I attended, reduced to a kind of sexual thriller, that I have not experienced since the Sam Peckinpah film of STRAW DOGS (1971) or Scorsese's CAPE FEAR 1991 (or even the J.Lee Thompson 1962 original). It is, on those terms, not a bad night out for an R-rated entertainment. I don't believe it is a very deep investigation of the original offers of the Strindberg. Two aberrantly behaved, emotionally juvenile men, the father (by implication) and the body guard, Jean, confront, in the battle of the sexes, two clever manipulative women, Christine and Julie, is a possible summary of this production of the play material offered by Mr Stone. When reading the MIES JULIE by Yael Farber, set in contemporary South Africa, even the Neil LaBute American version, one is captured by the reflection of the complexities of those cultures using the framework and interests of the original play. Just what the rest of the world might read from the pre-occupation of Mr Stone and Ms Caeres of the state of the Australian culture, psyche, as represented by this new play, and production, is of tantalising interest to me.
P.S. I wished the slow naturalism of the original had been really extended further by Ms Caceres, and I certainly loved the work of the Sound Designer, The Sweats.
Saturday, September 7, 2013
Rock Surfers Theatre Company presents EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS. A Spectacle by Toby Schmitz at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Bondi Beach.
At the curtain call at the end of the performance, of EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS - A Spectacle by Toby Schmitz, spread across the entire width of that notoriously difficult Bondi Pavilion stage (a Cinerama width of a stage), and spilling off into the auditorium, even - over 20 actors took many bows - it was an opening night. The sheer scale of that vision of human effort and commitment, elicited from me, a deep, deep admiration and gratefulness for the enterprising risk and belief from all those people, and the backstage artists, the writer and director, and the Artistic Management of the Rock Surfers Theatre Company. Whether the work was a success or a comparative failure, this was new Australian work that had dared to "Fail Gloriously". Uncompromisingly. And I was excited, in a kind of state of awe. Sadly, in Sydney Theatre, this is an unusual gesture of striving for, and expression of a confidence in, the future of the performing arts in the 'straight' theatre companies, (the recent musical ventures DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, could count as epic risk by Australian artists, could they? - at least in production if not in source material - both American).
One of the major Australian theatrical memories of this year, for me, is THE SECRET RIVER, which had, unusually, for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Sydney's principal artistic company and theatrical employer, a large company of actors - 20 actors or more (?) - representing the Indigenous and Colonial characters in that adaptation of the Grenville novel. The producers of that production were the Sydney Theatre Company and The Sydney Festival and Allens (the production travelled around other parts of Australia, including the Canberra Centenary Celebrations and the Perth Festival, which may also have contributed to its financial costings.) On the other hand, the Rock Surfers Theatre Company are an Independent company and have none of the scale of that financial aid to complete such a visionary scale as the STC had, and in fact, have, depend, on a lot of "free" and generous substitution (support) by the actual artists themselves to bring this work to an audience. Like THE SECRET RIVER, EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS, is a new Australian work, unlike THE SECRET RIVER, EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS is a wholly, newly conceived Australian work, not aided by the source material of a highly esteemed novel, engendering interest and an eager audience. EMPIRE was of unknown quality, in every way. The risk of it, then, was/is enormous. It is a miracle of faith, hope and (especially) charity from all these artists involved, that this Spectacle has arrived.
Name me an Australian company that has commissioned, and then staged a brand new work at such a scale in the past few years? It seems, to me, that what the Artistic Directorship of Rock Surfers Theatre Company has done, is set a precedent and a challenge to the artistic 'gate-keepers' of the performing arts, in Sydney, if not nationally, to dare to think, even, just once a year, to encourage a vision of creativity of some/such breadth.
I presume the Australia Council is taking note!!! That the Minister for the Arts, whoever he or she may be (after Saturday the 7th of September), is being apprised of this venture, made to observe this remarkable 'risk' and example, that these Australian artists at the Rock Surfers have made.
It is difficult enough for the funded theatre companies in Australia to invest, even, in previously proven large scale works from other sources - Will we ever see Stoppard's THE COAST OF UTOPIA, a cast of thirty or more in three plays over nine hours- whatever the content? Not likely. What about the political satire of Bruce Norris, the recent Royal Court production, THE LOW ROAD? Not likely. How about THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING by Stephen Sewell - a cast of only 16? Is the Michael Boddy, Old Tote play of 1974, THE CRADLE OF HERCULES able to be, worthy to be, re-visited? Not likely, whatever the literary merits or historical importance, might be, the cast is, too, of considerable scale. (who has actually read it of late, to peruse its usefulness as part of the contemporary repertoire? I hate to hazard an answer to that question from the literary guardians of our major theatre companies). And yet, Sydney is, crazy enough to think of itself as a leading world city, doesn't it? I believe if Premier Joseph Cahill and his government in 1957 had not selected the Jorn Utzon design for what is now known as the Sydney Opera House, and had it built, against great opposition, now regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, Sydney would have no real cultural identity of interest or credence internationally. Certainly, not based on our performing arts record/creativity.
In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday, August 30, in the Shortlist section (P5) by Elissa Blake titled, "Sailing into the darkness", Toby Schmitz, the writer of EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS and the director, Leland Kean (also Artistic Director of the Rock Surfers Theatre Company) spoke to her about the play:
On one level, Schmitz says EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS is a murder mystery."The set-up is deliberately Agatha Christie," he says, "It's an ocean liner on its way to New York in 1925, there's a serial killer, a dogged, not-to-competent policeman, and a lot of suspects.But the ship is more than just a glamorous background for a serial killer plot. It also serves as a giant floating metaphor for Australia's post-colonial history…
"We started to wonder if you could talk about Australian history [on stage] and some of the horrible things that occurred, without making it some horrible outback play about a massacre in a creek bed ... And more than that, could you make it fun to watch?"The idea of a play set aboard a ship - "a nation adrift" - took hold ...
It's certainly the biggest thing I've ever directed ... It's a wonderful showcase for the actors of Sydney and it's been great to take the shackles off ... It goes from drawing room comedy to high farce, to thriller, to Gothic horror, and I've been pulling out every theatrical trick I know.The ambitions of the above statements are wonderfully exciting, but in the experience of it, there is, in fact, just too much going on. Too many genre (the exasperating 'blood and gore', and the world's end scenario of the final scenes, just a little too over the top - OTP - stretching it to too many genres! [was that a glimpse of the SAW Australian movies genre at the end!!]), too much wit, both sophisticated and banal - a la Maugham/Priestly/Coward/Rattigan/Stoppard - and too many characters, for the audience to get a grasp of what is happening, comfortably.
The deliciously simple introduction of character by Agatha Christie in all of her work, instanced in the recent stage production of THE MOUSETRAP, or easily observed in the formula in films such as MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS or, a little more pertinently (we're on a ship!), MURDER ON THE NILE - the ability to introduce characters with a pencil thin but accurate drawing, one that is so cliched representative, that we know who they are from a deep recognition, is fluffed in the playwriting here. There is not enough clear demarcation in any introduction that allows us to settle who is who, and who is related to who, and how, before Mr Schmitz sets out on his many, further complicated tacks of dramaturgy. Ms Christie, of course, moves into the simple plotting of the murder(s) in clear and direct ways - the dialogue sparsely, but accurately, serving character revelation and the murder plot with comedy of a very obvious kind. The hunt for the perpetrator(s) is usually built about a specific and clear examination of motive. I wonder if Mr Schmitz ever wrote a preliminary murder mystery version around the dramaturgical structure of the Christie model before exploring the rest of his interests? To appropriate a familiar formula, it helps to be absolutely immersed in its technical where and why fores.
The ironic/satirical metaphors of Australian (or Empire) history using the ship, Empress of Australia, adrift idea, is not clear enough in development, in performance. The first murder of the Bengali (off stage) triggered, for me, memories of the great trilogy by Jan (James) Morris called PAX BRITANNICA (1968-78) - the story of the decline and fall of the British Empire from the accession to the throne by Queen Victoria to the death of Churchill - and with the presence of an Asian servant on ship, treated with such dismissive racism, and the national identification of the next murder victim, one thought that the plot was going to swing through the colonies, as metaphor, and that perhaps the chickens of conquest would be coming home to roost. None of the nation adrift in "horrible things" was drawn together clearly enough for the audience to parallel the events on board ship with the greater or familiarly known world.
Mr Schmitz has immersed himself in much of the sociological, social conditions and vernacular tics/habits of the 'teens/twenties and captures them with great elan. Not only is it often witty but it is also cuttingly cruel and resonant in period value content. It is however too clever, too smart, and there is too much of it - dense with it - so much so, that it, it seems to me, distracts from simple plot thrust, and the audience can sometimes feel becalmed in clever, but, ultimately, gratuitous wit. Narrative thrust and audience coherence becomes adrift - lost. (There is a reference in Mr Schmitz's play to there being a rough crossing - and, I, alerted, remembered Tom Stoppard's ROUGH CROSSING, a verbally over complicated adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's play PLAY AT THE CASTLE set on a ship, the SS Italian Castle (there is mention of two other cruise ships as well the SS Dodo (not Dada, Dodo), and Emu!) I wonder if Mr Schmitz was too aware and impressed with the wit of the Stoppard play?)
Character dominates in the playing of the writing, and this large company of actors acquit themselves astonishingly well, considering the lack of relationship clarity in the writing for the audience. Nathan Lovejoy as Mr Richard Civil-Lowe Cavendish (Dick) is superlative in his wittily debonair ease. If one needed to find an actor for the Maugham/Priestly/Coward /Rattigan/Stoppard milieu, one need go no further. Intelligence, vocal ease, physical dexterity and a devilish sense of humour combine to bring this character and performance to the top of the many offers on display in this production. It may be the reason to see this show (this is just the latest of one of his many superb creations for the theatre: WAY TO HEAVEN; THIS YEAR'S ASHES and several Bell Shakespeare cameos). Fayssal Bazzi as the American gangster, Jacob 'Bang' Reiby, too, is impressive and captures the right period shading to every part of his creation. Among the others, Duncan Felllows (Inspector Archie Daniels); Ella Scott Lynch (Mrs Nicole Hertz Hollingsworth), James Lugton (Reverend Daglish (Vicar)/ Captain Price), Phil Spencer (Palmer) and Uli Latukefu (Oliver) stand out.
The leading role, Mr Frey, is carried by Anthony Gooley. Frey is introduced to us in an opening solo speech, and reveals himself as Dada poet - and that, later, we discover he is also a World War One veteran, possibly, suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, may account for the absurdist nature of this character's terrible journey, and his poetry. Frey carries the same burden of weight in the writing of EMPIRE, that Rochester in THE LIBERTINE did, that Mr Gooley also shouldered a few years ago in that production. Unfortunately, Mr Gooley does not have the support to build his portrait of Frey from Mr Schmitz's writing in the same way that Stephen Jeffreys gave him in the other play, to completely pull it off. Frey is the spine of the play, but he is never left to reflect for us, and rather we find him committing bizarre acts in front of us that come without real preparation and we are ultimately not able or even interested in empathising with him. I feel the problem is in the writing, for, Mr Gooley is focused and tireless with his every opportunity.
The Design elements, Costume and Set by James Browne has real bravado and aptness, especially the costume solutions, and for so many actors. The lighting, by Luiz Pampolha, has the period glow and texture that creates belief in the place and time of the play. Jed Silver creates the ship board circumstances with sure sea reverberations in his Sound Design.
I think the play is, at the moment, a glorious 'mess'. But it is one of such unusual daring and cheek in this dreary day and age, 2013, the age of 'corporate' economy driven decisions and political correctness, that has fostered such conservatism in our theatre ambitions, that to see EMPIRE: TERROR OF THE HIGH SEAS, will bring back a sense of the hopeful fun and dedication in going to the theatre that was the invigorating rush Sydney had with the beginning of the old Nimrod up at Nimrod street - BIGGLES, FLASH JIM VAUX! (Ah, the tricky rememberance glows of nostalgia. I remember it was fun and it did have an edge of danger. I swear, on my life.) The look of this show is attractive, and the acting, by all, has expertness and an agreeable air of dedicated and delighted, warm ensemble - not seen by me, since, or reminiscent of, say, the 'Golden' era of the George Ogilvie, Old Tote production of TRELAWNY OF THE 'WELLS' (1970's?); or, at the Nimrod, John Bell's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1980's?), at Belvoir; or the Sydney Theatre Company/Australian Opera, Richard Wherrett production, THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1980's).
Go to EMPIRE: TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS at the Bondi Pavilion Theatre and feel the inspiration of the Rock Surfers Theatre Company's daring. I prepare you, warn you, it is going to be a 'rough crossing', not all of it will please you, but it is worth the effort, I assure you. It's time, now, more than ever, that this kind of courageous fool-hardiness, explored by very talented and seasoned artists returned to the Sydney theatre scene, and was joined by a curious and collaborative audience, to complete that circle of adventure. We need it. Certainly, (ha), IT'S TIME!
One hopes this is only the first incarnation of this new play by the darling of the Sydney extant theatre scene: Toby Schmitz, actor and writer, extraordinaire. Spreading his talents between three Sydney companies must be consuming of his time. Let's hope the writer can return to the work with the time he has to spare, in between acting, in his very busy schedule, to keep creating, refining this Empire!
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) present: SPUR OF THE MOMENT by Anya Reiss at the atyp Studio 1, The Wharf, Hickson Rd.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT was written by a young British playwright, Anya Reiss at the age of 17. Now 20 years old, Ms Reiss was a guest of the company at the Opening Night performance (she must have found our winter evening, oddly, recognisable as a British summer night, which she had just left behind). Ms Reiss found her voice through the Royal Court Theatre's Young Writers' Programme - the same programme that developed the work of Polly Stenham: THAT FACE and TUSK TUSK; both these plays, too, finding their way onto Sydney stages.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT examines a middle class family in a marriage and financial crisis that has resulted in the audible emotional fracturing between the parents, one that Nick Evans (Felix Williamson) and Vicki Evans (Zoe Carides) pursue uninhibitedly, indulgently, with little regard to the effect that that may have on their 12, soon-to-be 13 year old daughter, Delilah (Holly Fraser). Bad parenting is one of the focuses of the play and it throws, provocatively, attention to the delicate dangers of Delilah's child/adolescent shift, when proper attention, duty of care, is not given to her world, bombarded as it is, by a contemporary sexualized culture of inappropriate behaviours, and family disintegration.
The play begins with Delilah and her friends, Emma G (Simone Cheuanghane), Naomi (Madeline Clunies-Ross) and Emma M (Antonia Lewin) in school uniform, "bumping and grinding" out the latest pop song, in her bedroom, the walls of which are dominated by posters of the latest teenage heroes - in this instance, and it may mark the dating of the play, one is of Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter mode (The TWILIGHT series and HUNGER GAMES surely have superseded poor Harry already?!) In between songs the girls discuss attraction to the 21 year old stranger/boarder, ominously, called Daniel (Joshua Brennan), in the next-door bedroom awaiting his girl friend, Leonie Fowler (Lucy Coleman), on a visit. Delilah professes a burgeoning relationship - much to the breathless excitement and taunting disbelief of her friends. This heating sexual time-bomb situation, alongside distracted parents, and as the play develops, the revelation that this Daniel has none of the honour ethics of the fictional hero, 'Harry', impersonated by Danny Radcliffe, leads to another serious crisis for the young heroine. Delilah attempting to understand her changing emotional life projects an infatuation into a 'love', needing to be expressed physically, onto Daniel, that becomes a series of inappropriate interactions escalating to threats of a criminal exposure and blackmail. This young person's dilemma threatens to become a very contemporary social disaster - that it does not do so, is one of the weaknesses in the development of the dramatic text - for the play reaches for an unsatisfactory avoiding of consequences dramatic solution (an editing pencil to the repetitive arguments from the parents would not have gone astray, either).
This is a solid, conventional play, standing in an immaculately designed (and built) naturalistic, detailed set, of two levels - the upper being two bedrooms and hallway, with a functioning kitchen and living space at ground level (Designer, Adrienn Lord). The lighting by Benjamin Cisterne serves the conventions of the writing well. Played and directed (Fraser Corfield) straight-forwardly in a, mostly, successful naturalistic mode, Ms Fraser, Mr Brennan, Ms Carides, and in smaller contributions the young girls, especially Ms Cheuanghane, are exemplary. Mr Williamson seems to be a little less surefooted about the mode of performance 'style' to strike as the father. There is a sense of comic parody in his creation of Nick, that seems to lessen the dramatics of the narrative - whether this comic inclination is a deliberate choice to undercut the melodramatics of the written text or not, it appears, sometimes, overly played. The company have been coached in a British dialect sound fairly convincingly by Natasha McNamara.
Although the subject matter reaches to a serious universal cultural dilemma and is importantly relevant to this Australian company of young actors and audience, and, is well done, I found the programming of SPUR OF THE MOMENT as the 50th Anniversary production for atyp more than a little disappointing, and retrograde, particularly when one knows of the very strong component of the atyp activity is in developing new Australian writing - THE VOICES PROJECT 2013 - OUT OF PLACE, for instance. An Australian writer with an Australian company of collaborative artists, perhaps, in a less conventional dramatic form, would have been a more remarkable event to celebrate the unusual survival of fifty years of an Australian cultural icon, the Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) - more courage, less convention in choice, I would have hoped for. Something along the lines of their 2008 work VX 18504, perhaps? Dare I suggest work like THE RIOT ACT (check my blog) or SILENT DISCO, TRUCK STOP, both by Lachlan Philpott, might have been other possibilities? Australian and 'in-yer-face' contemporary!? SPUR OF THE MOMENT felt a safe choice, old fashioned and much, much too MOR - middle of the road.
Monday, September 2, 2013
Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company present STORM BOY by Colin Thiele. Adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway in Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Hickson Rd.
STORM BOY is a joint production of the Sydney Theatre Company and the Perth company, Barking Gecko Theatre. Directed by John Sheedy from a commissioned adaptation by Tom Holloway, of the 1964 children's novel by Colin Thiele. A film was made in 1976 by the South Australian Film Commission (SAFC) and Channel 7. It won the Best Film Award from the Australian Film Institute (AFI) in 1977, and starred Greg Rowe, Peter Cummins and David Gulpilil. This is the second stage adaptation, The Bell Shakespeare toured a production in 1996.
A classic children's novel, a favourite for young and old, had its reputation enhanced with the film and seems to be one of the markers of an Australian education-cultural identification for all generations. I saw a performance on a 'school night', a Thursday, and it was packed with, exactly that, generations of all ages. The following night I happened to be at the Wharf again, and as the theatre bells were ringing, it looked as if another full house was going in - another excited mixture of adults and children. If box office is a signal of success, then, this production seems to have found a cord/ rung a chord - to/of the cash registers (whatever that sound may be today- an internet 'buzz', perhaps?).
It is extremely heartening to see these younger people attending the theatre, and hopefully the experience will be a memorable and defining one for them, for they are the potential audience of the future. The recent National Theatre production of WARHORSE, presented at the Lyric Theatre here in Sydney, began life in 2007 as a Christmas holiday production for children and is still playing to packed houses in London and around the world.(the annual Christmas production at the National Theatre has included an adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy HIS DARKER MATERIALS - a two play, six hour extravaganza; and an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel NATION. These productions are given all-out commitment by the company, there is no expense or effort spared).
One of the most striking features of attending the theatre in Great Britain is to see the range age of attentive audiences in the theatre. Last January, the West End Globe productions of TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III at the Apollo Theatre; the Complicite production of THE MASTER and MARGARITA, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov (and it was 195 minutes long!) at the Barbican; even, the Royal Court's production of IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS by Martin Crimp, a whacky 'Christmas play', was crowded with young audiences - adolescents, in this case, if not children. It seems if you do it they will come. Or, is it a cultural thing? A British phenomenon?
So. STORM BOY a great book. A great film. And in this instance we have a terrific adaptation by Tom Holloway that is succinct in its narrative and characterisation whilst still allowing room for audience potential endowment of deep nostalgic affections and/or emotions. It moves forward simply and clearly. The Design of the set by Michael Scott-Mitchell is dominated by an architectural shape, sculptural in impact: one could project the wind and sea eroded cliff face of the sea shore of the Coorong National Park on to the imagery, or, the spooky bones of a giant whale beached, long in the past, on the shore. The properties of the boat, ropes et al allow romantically charged memories and endowments to support the story. It is beautiful in concept,and simply, compactly 'tourable' in execution.The Lighting Designer, Damien Cooper creates moody pictures suggesting the environment that can be beautiful, both, of the severe and serene kind. Accompanied by a Sound Design by Kingsley Reeve, of crashing sea sounds and thunderous storm effects and a hauntingly spare piano score, the whole of the aesthetic choices causes one to almost smell the salt air and the tingling of all that rawness of the remoteness of the setting.
The crowning part of the show's aesthetic achievement, however, are the puppets created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton (Aboutface Productions) under the direction of Peter Wilson: puppets of pelicans, pelican puppets: Mr Proud, Mr Ponder, and the well loved, Mr Percival, from hatchlings to adults and in different actions, flying on the wind, or running amusingly around the ground. They are enchanting, the children around me and across from me, curious, wide eyed and, ultimately, delighted. The production employs two indigenous actors to embody the puppetry and the 'spirit' of the pelicans: Shaka Cook and Michael Smith, and their work physically and emotively, their presence along with the skills and self-identification with the pelican birds, truly spell binds the work into the dream inheritance of the land of the aboriginal Australian. It is palpably powerful. Full of magic and "awesomeness".
Mr Sheedy concludes in his program notes, "For my own part, my vision is to introduce this classic Australian story to a new generation, to literally bring these beautiful characters to life ... " Unfortunately, in the present casting that does not happen. None of the human characters in this production are life-like at all. The young actor playing STORM BOY, at the performance I attended, Joshua Challenor, gave a very unsophisticated performance and did not demonstrate any ability to tell the story other than as an unconnected reciter of text with an adept technical alertness to hearing his cues. This is, I grant only a child actor, in his first exposure on the professional stage, but it seems that Mr Sheedy and/or the other actors have not been able to nuance any truth or complexity from him in his performance. As one of two young people cast in this role, one presumes he is one of the two best young actors, in all of Sydney, that Mr Sheedy and the STC could find available for this pivotal role. (The alternate actor is Rory Potter and I wonder what his commitment maybe, as he won the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer for his performance in MEDEA). Mr Challenor does not engage us at all - we look and listen, but, do not see or hear anything below the surface of delivery. We are untouched, not ever engaged. The young men in front of me accumulatively restless and bored.
Trevor Jamieson as Fingerbone Bill, is best when his own personality can be freely revealed, but as an actor, immersed in character, really talking to and being affected by the other actors, he does not appear to be very comfortable or at ease. Mr Jamieson is a winning personality but does not have much complexity, depth or insight into the dramaturgy of the character. In this case his winning presence is not enough for the play to work - one recalls, particularly, his contribution to Big hART's NAMATJIRA, a few years ago, and THE SECRET RIVER earlier this year, and wonder what maybe the problem that prevents Mr Jamieson to have similar ownership and belief in Fingerbone Bill. The same is true of Peter O'Brien as the damaged father figure, Hideaway Tom. He has the rugged good looks and pungency of a loner, but draws, barely, a pencil thin outline to the character's story and inner psychological journey and does not demonstrate any ability to engage the other actors into the sphere of the world of the play.
What we have, on the night I saw the production, are the three principal actors, in three isolated worlds, reciting text automatically, into the void of the theatre space, to give us, only, a continuity of narrative. There is no real connection between any of the actors and so a complete disconnect from the power of the human developments of the wonderfully wise Storm Boy and BIll and Tom of the novel and the film. It is, relatively, a very unsatisfying experience. The work that Mr Sheedy has been able to elicit from these actors to bring "these beautiful characters to life" fails completely. Without the mesmerizing presence of Mr Smith and Mr Cook and the puppetry that they splendidly execute, STORM BOY, in Wharf 1 at the STC, would have been a completely disappointing exercise. It is truly a shame, for all the other elements are primed for collaborative impact, especially, the will of collaboration from the expectant audience. One can feel that excitement drain during the performance time. Dwindle to polite applause and, it mostly, for the pelican puppets and their enablers.
Belvoir with their children's production of THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING and PETER PAN struck, mostly, a balance of transporting delight for both child and adult. STORM BOY could have that in another production, another time.
I am sorry to report this as my experience of STORM BOY at the STC, but then NATION at the National Theatre was also a disappointment - you can't always win. What is the next offer, I wonder.