Saturday, September 7, 2013

Empire: Terror on the High Seas

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 ...

Leland Kean:
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!

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