Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Berlin 2013: Sommergaste (Summerfolk) AND Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of Mahagonny)

SUMMERFOLK (Sommergaste) by Maxim Gorky presented at the Schaubhne am lehniner Platz, Berlin.

THE RISE AND FALL OF MAHAGONNY (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) - an Opera with orchestra in two Acts by Kurt Weill. Text by Bertolt Brecht, at the Komische Opera, Berlin.

This is a very late blog.

Dear Diary. I travelled to Berlin for the very first time, over a year ago, on my way to a Christmas In Sweden - a farm near Gothenburg - it snowed, yay!

Whilst in Berlin, beside the art immersion, not only of the Ishtar Gate variety - staggering - but going to a remote 'gallery' in Kreutzberg to see two costumes that Peaches had worn - whatever! - the artist's explanation in a long scree on the wall, in English, was an essay that I soon meandered from in a kind of delirium, but was rewarded by my fellow travellers and pop fans, who had almost dragged me there, with several delicious creamy cocktails at a bar nearby, followed by a delicious Turkish dinner - I resolved - when these two girlfriends of intrepid instincts - they are at present cycling from London to Sydney on self-made Bamboo Bikes - 8 months down, 10 to go - they are at present in Kazakhstan, yes, on bicycles in the snow! - no kidding, check out their web site BAMBOO ODYSSEY - went home to London - to attend the Schaubuhne, just to go to the 'horses' mouth', so to speak, to see the source of some of the recent influences on some of our young directors, that have been practicing in Sydney, first hand.

I was lucky, besides other work in that one week, I could attend one of seven offers in their repertoire -yes, one of SEVEN. Berlin daily, weekly, theatre repertoire is vast and amazing, I opted for a play I knew in English and had the choice between Maxim Gorky's SUMMERFOLK or Bertolt Brecht's THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN. The foyer photographs of the Brecht looked forbiddingly too raucously adapted , you know, micro-phones, sweat and awful costume, and I only knew the play from reading and one long ago performance. I have directed SUMMERFOLK, twice, and so, thought I could at least follow it, and the foyer photographs appeared to be a little more period - it gave out vibes of a more intelligible evening.

This play usually has a company of some twenty odd characters, this production had decidedly reduced numbers and, it seemed to be heavily adapted. Written in 1904 the play by Maxim Gorky is a reply, of a kind, to Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD. It concerns a group of summer folk, bourgeoisie, at their 'gated' summer dachas, debating, not too deeply, wholly theoretically, idealistically on the social conditions, philosophy of the times. Particularly, the Theatre season magazine tells us that this production concerns:
A group of intellectuals (who) are bored while on summer holidays. Lawyer wife Varvara has never felt desire for her bland husband Basov. She projects her secret longing onto the writer Shalimov - and is harshly disappointed. Only her brother Vlas has managed to escape his dreary existence aided by the cynicism and love for the much older doctor, Marja.
Regie by Alvis Hermanis. A spectacularly detailed set design of a ruined house, in the action of being repossessed by nature, covered in creeping moss, weeds and uncared for trees. The invention of the humans, broken and in a state of decay. It is a wonderful design and execution of design - the realism is disturbingly pre-occupying, by Kristine Jurjane. She is also responsible for the costumes. The Lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky supported the reality of the images of the design. Running almost three hours, in German, I found myself getting the sketch of remembrance of the play I know, but little of the details of directorial point-of-view. Some of the choices were odd to decipher and I was constantly in search of narrative connection from what I knew the play to be about, and its construction, with what was being enacted, represented for me. The acting was superb. I had a companion who had never read the play, does not speak German, who had an almost completely tedious time - except, there was a Labrador roaming the set all of the night, and its performance, plus the details of the set design, kept him, mostly, occupied. I know the film of the very famous Peter Stein production of this play, for this company, in 1974, and this production appeared to be antithetical to that work. Revolution, Mr Gorky, from the new bourgeoisie, perhaps.

I had hoped to see THE CHERRY ORCHARD at the Berliner Ensemble, but illness had cancelled the production, for my available night. Instead, then, I elected to attend a performance of THE RISE AND FALL OF MAHAGONNY (1930) - a work by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill at Barry Kosky's theatre, the Komische Opera. I know THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1929) well, having understudied for the Old Tote Company in the opening season at the Sydney Opera House, directed by Jim Sharman, and had performed in Brecht/Weill HAPPY END (1928) at the Q Theatre in 1980 for Doreen Warburton. I had also seen the Richard Wherrett production for the Australian Opera in 1982. This production is in modern dress and has a wonderfully flexible design utilising the entire stage space. Revealing itself as an empty black box that becomes cluttered with the many scenes of the work. It is a moral fable concerning unregulated money and law that leads to chaos and anarchy - a reflection of conditions in Germany at the time. What I found very interesting was an appreciation of the no nonsense approach to the performance by these actor/singers. I am not able to elucidate more clearly or credit the artists involved as I am not able to translate the German program !!!! All I can add is that I had a fairly impressive time. Learnt some.

The Komische Opera Theatre is a very beautiful building. It has, externally, a very modern facade, but inside. has very impressive interiors, of Neo-Baroque style. Built in 1892, designed by two Viennese architects, it has housed the Komische Opera since World War II. It is one of the three leading Opera Companies in Berlin and specialises, mostly in light opera. Barry Kosky's latest production of THE MAGIC FLUTE, had just opened, but not playing during the time I was there. Bummer.

There seems to be no other Industry in Berlin except ART. I do recommend a visit. I wish to return.

The Master and Margarita

Complicite and Simon McBurney present THE MASTER AND MARGARITA adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov by Simon McBurney, the Company and Edward Kemp,  at the Barbican Theatre, London.

The Complicite theatre company led by Simon McBurney has toured to Australia many times. The last time was with A DISAPPEARING NUMBER seen at the Sydney Theatre. It was a thrilling experience. I saw it twice. One day following another. Amazing. Technically innovative and story wise transporting and wonderfully moving. Finding that this company's adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA had returned to London for a repeat season at the Barbican caused me to wait in line for two and a half hours to gain tickets to what was a sell-out season.

The novel by Bulgakov is an immense, and to most of us, my reading friends, at least, a puzzling experience. I confess I have never finished it, after many attempts to do so. The novel was written between 1928 and 1940, as Richard Peaver writes in the production notes in the program: "... abandoned, taken up again, burned, resurrected, recast and revised many times." during the darkest decades in the 20th Century in Russia. "... The successive changes in his (Bulgakov's) work on the novel, his changing evaluations of the book and its characters, reflect events in his life and his deepening grasp of what was at stake in the struggle. ..." Bulgakov's last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death at the age of 49. He, they never believed it would be published. However, a first part was published in a monthly magazine, MOSKVA, in November, 1966, causing a sensation. The second part in January, 1967. First published as novel, later on, in 1967, but definitively in a so-called "canonical" version in 1989, prepared by Lydia Yanovskaya. Its original appearance caused amazement firstly, because most people believed that the major works of Bulgakov were already in existence, including THE WHITE GUARD, and when this novel did appear in publication, it was hailed as a major achievement, not just the scraps of the author's note books! Secondarily,
... there were the qualities of the novel itself - its formal originality, the devastating satire of Soviet life, and of Soviet literary life in particular, its 'theatrical' rendering of the Great Terror of the thirties (Stalin and his regime), the audacity of its portrayal of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, not to mention Satan. But, above all, the novel breathed an air of freedom, artistic and spiritual, which had become rare indeed, (and) not only in Soviet Russia. ... aphorisms from the novel, oft quoted: "Manuscripts don't burn" and " Cowardice is the only sin" seem to express an absolute trust in the triumph of poetry, imagination, the free word, over terror and oppression, and could thus become a watchword for the intelligentsia. ... The publication of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was taken as a proof of the assertion. ... To portray that experience with such candour required another sort of freedom and a love for something more than 'culture'. ...

Set in 1930's Moscow, Part One begins with the appearance of Satan and his retinue of characters wreaking havoc and particularly targeting the literary elite, represented as The Master, an embittered author, who the persecuted poet, Ivan Ponyrev, meets in an asylum. Another strand is set in the time of the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus the Nazarene. Pilate identifies with Jesus and reluctantly resigns himself to the execution of Jesus. Part Two introduces the mistress of the Master, Margarita, who meets Satan and becomes a witch with supernatural powers, and after practicing some of the powers, such as an ability to fly, co-hosts with Satan the great Spring Ball. She receives a reward from Satan and claims back the Master to live in peace but not in light - they are condemned to live in limbo not deserving the glories of heaven nor the punishments of hell, whereas Pontius Pilate is released from hell to travel to heaven. This is a very simplified summary (I think). The novel contrasts good/evil; innocence/guilt; courage/cowardice; love/lust (sexuality).

The performance created by Complicite is approximately 195 minutes long with one interval. The Director is Simon McBurney; the Set Design by Es Devlin; Costumes by Christina Cunningham; Lighting by Paul Anderson; Sound by Gareth Fry; Video by Finn Ross; 3D Animation by Luke Halls (Third Company Ltd); Puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre. All of these artists make spectacular contributions in attempting to bring clarity to this immense undertaking. But it is too 'busy', too 'unwieldily" to assist - it, rather adds up to confusing and obfuscating the adaptation, annihilating it to a kind of objective tedium (maybe, the source material is that already?).

The actors give sterling commitment to the developed scenario, and maybe, understand, believe, that they are making a clear narrative and/or metaphoric swathe of communication through the Bulgakov original for the audience, and certainly, their apparent certainty, indicates that. Paul Rhys was The Master. Susan Lynch was Margarita (I liked her a lot - and, not because she was, mostly, naked). Toby Sedgwick, Ajay Naidu and a puppet sharing the responsibility of the Woland role (Satan). Tim McMullan as Pontius Pilate. Cesar Sarachu as Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus) and Robert Luckay as Judas.

Alas, I was lost and left behind in the experience of the performance. The work became a feat of technological creation to be objectively admired, overriding any humanity that the source material may have been able to elicit from me. Mind you, you do have my earlier confession that I have never been able to finish a reading of the novel, and, so, may find the material just unappealing, unreachable for/to my soul. This was not the case with the last project of Complicite that I saw: A DISAPPEARING NUMBER, and, so, I was disappointed. I felt hollowed out, exhausted and frustrated, full of awe for the technical achievements but empty around What It May Have Been About.

The great thing was, despite the length of the work and the density of the material in all its offers, the audience I sat among, and there were many, many young school students, were attentive and absorbed. Respectful and quiet. Maybe it is just me and this Bulgakov work. But, then my two companions, one with me, another attending a different night, on my encouragement, were similarly bewildered and disappointed. You can't get them all, I guess. You can't win them all, I guess. The journey is the thing, I guess. Although, when the goal is 'rung' too, it is a better thing to have endured.

I have read several other adaptations and seen two other versions. There are over 20 versions recorded in google, so someone thinks this work is important and translatable to the stage. I have yet to be persuaded.

P.S. At the Saatchi Gallery there was an exhibition of New Art From Russia. There was photographic work by Sergei Vasiliev from his work of tattoo designs on the bodies of prisoners; some photographs by Vikenti Nilin from his From the Neighbours Series 1993-present; and examples from the 413 photograph collection of Boris Mikhailov, Case History 1997-98 - "Fifteen years on, it is still a startling chronicle of the extremities of life on the  streets for suddenly destitute members of society - the abandoned working class, young and old, chronically poor, and newly homeless individuals who fell through the cracks of a system now without a net, failed by the promises of Perestroika and capitalism. A carnival of desperate characters whether under the influence, lost or larking about, his Goya-like players put a face to the anonymous despair of a public ideology gone bankrupt. It is one of the most frank documents of the human condition in times of desperation" - from the catalogue entry BREAKING THE ICE: MOSCOW ART 1960-80'S.

This exhibition, particularly the black and white photographs were a disturbing experience for me, that seemed to ricochet in/around my mind while watching THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. Tragic and ominous.

Privates on Parade

Michael Grandage Company presents PRIVATES ON PARADE - a play by Peter Nichols. Music by Denis King at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.

Peter Nichols was born in 1927 and is still writing for the theatre. His first play in 1967 was the devastating comic tragedy A DAY IN THE DEATH OF JOE EGG, presenting a young couple dealing with their disabled daughter, affectionately nicknamed, Joe Egg - the auto-biographical details from the writer's life brilliantly, shockingly resonant still today. It is an audacious and relevant work, as pertinent today as it was then, as daring in form today as it was then - much to admire. Other great success followed with THE NATIONAL HEALTH (1969) at the National Theatre ( a scene was recently featured, re-created, as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of that company, broadcast around the world last month. I was part of the Royal Queensland Theatre Company production in Brisbane in early 1973, with Carol Burns, Douglas Hedge and a young Geoffrey Rush, directed by the then Artistic Director, Alan Edwards - I believe that that may have been its only production - strange, as it is an immensely interesting political work couched in an hilariously comic conceit). FORGET-ME-NOT LANE followed (1971) - presented, later by the Old Tote Theatre Company, with Drew Forsythe and Ruth Cracknell, I remember. Mr Nichols' next great success was PRIVATES ON PARADE (1977) for the Royal Shakespeare Company. (This enormously successful play was first presented at the Q Theatre in Sydney during their early history in the early 1980's (?) under the enlightened Artistic Direction of the great theatre pioneer, Doreen Warburton - it starred Robert Davis and Laura Gabriel amongst others, designed by Arthur Dicks, maybe Directed by him as well. It is part of the upcoming season at the New Theatre - it's second presentation there, I believe). Mr Nichols has continued to write for the theatre, in fact, his last play LINGUA FRANCA was presented at the Finborough Theatre, London, in 2010. Michael Blakemore, the Australian director,working in the UK most of his life, had a hand with most of the original productions above - read his latest book, STAGE BLOOD, for the details of the relationship and the productions. Mr Nichols has his own memoir: FEELING YOU' RE BEHIND, as well.

This production at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, was the first of a season of five plays given by the new Michael Grandage Company, following his long Artistic leadership at the Donmar Warehouse in London (2002-2012) and the Sheffield Theatres (2000-05). The other plays included John Logan's new play, PETER AND ALICE (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw), Martin McDonnagh's THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Daniel Radcliffe), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Sheridan Smith and David Williams) and HENRY V (Jude Law).

On a spectacularly detailed set design by Christopher Oram (also the Costumes), Mr Grandage, leads a naive Private Steven Flowers (Joseph Timms) into an introduction to the fictitious SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit South East Asia) on tour in Singapore and later, Malaya. Made up of a group of misfits, it is lead by an outrageous Terri Dennis (Simon Russell Beale). This play has, as is the case of A DAY IN THE LIFE OF JOE EGG, some biographical origins for Peter Nichols, his war time experience with ENSA (Entertainment National Service Association). It is a political mirror to the era and certainly had, with its original production in 1977, a contemporary sting. It was able to, satirically, investigate the ethical politics of the late British Empire and its representatives, and create a sensation by featuring this troupe of army entertainers peopled, principally, by Gay Men (there was even a flash of naked bums!) The contemporary political ramifications of both 'thrusts' of the play, in 1977, were audacious and mightily relevant. The success of the play and the production led by Dennis Quilley registered a clarion call for an open, 'modern' discussion of these issues and began a reassessment (perhaps) of where the United Kingdom stood in the modern world on these historical poltical and social issues.

 One can glimmer why the play was not taken up by the major companies in Australia, the conservatism so entrenched over both these issues then (now?) and had to wait for the socialist and progressive leanings of a leader like Ms Warburton to take it on for Sydney - in Penrith, mind you - she having a direct heritage to the Joan Littlewood Company and it's political-social concerns of the minorities in society. (Shame is it not, that no one in Sydney (Australia) has taken up Joan Littlewood's OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! as part of their season programs to commemorate the disaster of World War I? - maybe, later, during the next centenary of four long years marking war horror, 2014 - 2018, it will appear on our stages to place war in the never changing context of human greed and stupidity).

So, back to PRIVATES ON PARADE, with the election of Margaret Thatcher a few years later (1979) and the initial onslaught of the AIDS virus pandemic (1981) in the Gay Community, the sweep of openness indicated by the presence and success of this play, may have been quashed, and even the title of the play may have become to risqué .

This production is an entertainment with the actual play 'creaking' in its twists and observations, and being revealed as somewhat dated in terms of its relevance, because of the central position of the 'grander' issues at the core of Mr Nichol's focus. Certainly, the critique of the politics of Empire in this play is now very faint and a trifle embarrassing (as an Australian colonial 'boy', watching this, maybe) - the final image that Mr Grandage gives this production, where the two Asian characters, Cheng (Sadao Ueda) and Lee (Chris Chan) who have been present, mostly, as ignored and oppressed servants to the British, assume a posture of power (projecting into the future), as the troupe boards a boat back to 'old Blighty', is limp and feels tacked on, and hardly a redress for their underused and abused presence during the rest of the play - it is, of course an accident of the shift in history, of the times, for the play is, after all, is, 36 years old! - a lot of "water under the bridge" has passed - read, perhaps David Hare's masterpiece, PLENTY to feel some acceptable critique of Empire. (In passing, I wonder about the relevancy of THE NATIONAL HEALTH by Mr Nichols. I suspect that that play is still dreadfully on target in its political gaze, and still is gloriously funny in the 'wrappings' of its comic formulations. It would be great to see it). The gay issues of this 36 year old play, their concerns and presentation, are no longer shocking, and so, too out-distanced by time and custom in 2013 to be still so.

The company of actors were of a high order. Joseph Timms as Steven Flowers, a great 'guide' to the world of the play and its contents; Angus Wright as Major Giles Flack, representing the British 'missionary' zeal of the time; and, especially John Marquez as the swinging bisexual, Corporal Len Bonny. But the great reason to see this production is to witness Simon Russell Beale as the Gay Commander of the entertainment troupe, Terri Dennis.

 Once again, it has been so long since I had been to London, like my lack of first hand knowledge of the remarkable Mark Rylance (see, TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III), I had never seen Mr Beale in the flesh. The leading 'actor' of this troupe, Mr Dennis, is in command of all the major impersonations of the musical numbers of the production: Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda appear in the ample flesh of Mr Beale with impeccable panache and beauty of lavish costume and make-up design. But it is the Noel Coward quotations at the beginning of Act Two: COULD YOU PLEASE INFORM US that is a true knock-out. This Terri Dennis is a faultless, irreproachable creation of a thoroughly gay gentlemen, of a certain type in the theatre, that I knew so well from times not long past , and still, now and again, in times so very, very present. What Mr Beale managed to do was to give the character remarkable depth and passionate humanity behind the glittering and witty facade. The lightening quick subtleties of 'gay' vocal innuendo and contrast of 'straight talking', with the technical command of the facial and body changes, suggestibilities, are astonishing, making this performance the 'saviour' of the production of this once daring play, and the reason to attend to it. In the much changed world of 2013, there is no 'dating' of great art and the acting by Mr Beale was great ART. And to be savoured, relished.

See what you think about the play in February at the New Theatre. Entertaining, no doubt, but straining for relevancy today, I think. We shall see and hope to be proved wrong.

I saw this production in early January this year.

Twelfe Night and Richard III

Sonia Friedman Productions in association with Shakespeare Road productions, 1001 Nights, Bob Bartner and Norman Tulchin, Rupert Gavin, Adam Blanshay present Shakespeare's Globe's productions of TWELFE NIGHT (OR, WHAT YOU WILL) and The Tragedie of KING RICHARD THE THIRD at the Apollo Theatre, the West End, London.

I saw both these productions earlier in the year in London.

On this recent weekend (last one in December, 2013) I read of several productions that are currently packing them in, in the London theatres. Actors, who happen to be also film and television stars and are drawing not only 'bums onto seats' in sell out performances, but also critics to reach for superlatives. David Tennant is playing the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company's RICHARD II (1595-96) at the Barbican; Jude Law is giving HENRY V (1599) for the Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End; and Tom Hiddleston is a remarkable CORIOLANUS at the Donmar Warehouse in Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS (1609). Leading actors giving outings to three works of Shakespeare, and making a case for Shakespeare to be the most successful writer in 2013!!!!!  Shakespeare our contemporary, indeed. And from what one can gather, the play texts are at the centre of the performances' raison d'etre, told by Actors, guided by Directors. Writer, actor, director: the way it should be. The text at the centre of the experiences: clear, unadorned, passionate storytelling. No gimmickry from director or designer - a simple, and so the critics tell us, revelation and complete trust in the words, the 'musical' language of the author. If only, this year's Sydney Shakespeare had had the same trust in the writer and the actors.

Last year in the West End TWELFE NIGHT, Or what you will (1599-1601), in repertoire with The Tragedie of RICHARD THE THIRD (1592) was transported from the Shakespeare Globe to the Apollo Theatre (these productions are now in an extended season in New York at the Belsaco Theatre). Mark Rylance was leading this company in both productions. I had heard of Mr Rylance, but had never seen him. Friends who had (in JERUSALEM and other plays) had encouraged me to make sure I did see him if he were performing, in anything - even in something as odd as the revival of a rather 'dodgy' (in my estimation) French farce BOEING-BOEING (1962) in 2007. My travelling companion gave the OK to book for TWELFE NIGHT as he could not bear the idea of sitting through another RICHARD III. So I did. We did. At the interval of the TWELFE NIGHT, my companion leaned in and said, we must see the RICHARD. With a skipping (and relieved) heart, we did, a few nights later. Both of these productions were luminous and illuminating . They gave evidence of what it is to be human and truly alive with a simple direct trust in the words and language of the author's play to tell their stories, and an extraordinary feast of really good acting by all, led by a most remarkable Mr Rylance, and clearly, but, subtly directed, by Tim Carroll.

Director Tim Carroll, for both productions, has striven to find a manner to stage the plays as authentically as possible. To begin with he is using and all male company. Next, the program notes tell us:
Before they had their own indoor theatre space at the Blackfriars, Shakespeare and his fellow players performed not only at the outdoor playhouses, the Theatre and the Globe, but also indoors in the great halls of the aristocracy, the lawyer's' Inns of the Court and the university stages.
The setting we have created on the stage at the Apollo is based on such a hall, with an oak screen spanning its width and the kind of 'standings' that were temporarily erected for audiences attending performances in such spaces. Our screen is based on one that still exists in the hall at Wadham College, Oxford University.
There are side galleries, on the actual stage to accommodate audience, and the 'standings' include an upper musical balcony to accommodate the live orchestra - six instrumentalists on each show between them cover a staggering array of rauschpfeifes, cornets, sackbutts, shawms (or 'hoyboys'), recorders, lute, cittern, theorbo, hurdy gurdy, pipe and tabour.
To match the use of original materials in the stage environment, the clothing for these productions has been made from materials as close as possible to those available in London during the 1590s and 1600s i.e. linens, silks, wools and leathers. We sourced alum-tawed deerskins from Montana, USA, hand woven silk velvet and fine linens from Genoa, Italy, and beautifully finished 'moreen' (watered worsted cloth) from Lancashire, England. Every performer is wearing a linen garment next to the skin - shirts for those playing men and smocks for those playing women. Over these linens they wear all the layers of of clothing customary in contemporary dress of the late 16th and 17th centuries. For the women, these generally consist of a 'farthingale' (either a padded role or a series of hoops of cane stitched into an under-petticoat to support the outer skin of the gown), a silk petticoat, a "pair of bodies' (corset) stiffened with synthetic baleen strips, a gown, neck and wrist ruffs, a girdle, silk stockings and garters. In addition to these items Mark Rylance, as the Countess Olivia in TWELFE NIGHT, wears a silk veil, a Countess's coronet, a lace hat, a wire rebato, (a ruff support), a pair of white gloves decorated with black bugle beads, a black silk velvet cloak and an embroidered forepart at various times in the play." The Designer is Jenny Tiramani. The artisans involved in the making of these costumes number anything from 10 to 20. "In the case of Cesario and Sebastian in TWELFE NIGHT, a tailor and stitcher made their doublets and hose while another tailor made their cloaks, both decorated by loop-manipulated silk braids from a fourth person. A seamstress made their shirts, yet another their linen collar bands and cuffs (an embroiderer having worked them and a bobbin lace maker produced their decorative edgings). Their purses and sword harnesses were made by a leather worker, along with their glove hands, to which were embroidered silk glove cuffs from yet another maker. A further maker produced their silk-covered buttons. Together with their shoe maker, milliner, tassel maker, and the maker of their identical silk wigs and stocking knitter a total of 16 people collaborated on their clothing and accessories.
The daily maintenance of the costumes is intensive and this includes the helping of the performers to dress:
The fastenings are only those used in the Shakespearean period - there are no zips, no velcro or elastic, but only hooks and eyes, buttons, pins, laces and strings - and there is an element of arranging the garments symmetrically and gracefully on the wearer that requires a good eye.
On entering the theatre, on the stage, are some of the actors preparing vocally and physically, some of these actors, as well, are being dressed from undergarments to the almost finished details, by technical crew. In amongst this intense activity, on the stage, pre-show, some of the musicians create musical antics as if they were street entertainers, singing, dancing, playing, whilst some of the audience is being ushered to their side-bank seating. There is a hustle and bustle, an exciting, infectious buzz coming from the stage. The candle chandeliers are lit, and to signal the beginning of the performance are raised, with a fanfare summoning our focus, anciently blaring its period sounds with these original instruments, from the now balconied orchestra.

Twelfe Night was intelligently and amusingly given to us. The all male casting was a wonderful proposition to a modern audience. The play, in its schematic machinations, already has a deal of cross-dressing going on and so to see it as first presented, in Shakespeare's world's legalities - no women permitted onstage - gave even more challenge and delight to decode and embrace new facets of the comedy and the drama in 2013. Paul Chahidi playing Maria to the hilt of cheeky female 'wickedness' is both outrageously funny, but also, poignant in and around 'her' relationship with Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley). Whilst Johnny Flynn playing precisely and concisely within a very startling vocal range and pattern, captures a delicate and moving Cesario/Viola double - charming, vulnerable, perplexed and frustrated with love-lorness in a 'forbidding' disguise - the complicated love duet between Cesario and the Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan) - Act Two Scene four - has never been so moving and so complex in the problems that they present for us as a sympathetic audience to experience, and the lay-by of comedy they set up for us for the final act revelation, is glorious.

But this is topped with an outrageously measured/judged performance by Mark Rylance as the Countess Olivia. White-faced and seeming to be gliding on rollers, so smooth are her perambulations, around the space, not only is the phrasing and 'thinking' of the text astonishing in its intricate details but the female delicacies of movement and 'clowning' push envelopes of characterisation and farcical range to their limits without ever spilling into vulgarity. This an Olivia to be cherished with all the comic-empathetic-tragic griefs full on.

The entire company is remarkable. And one must register the simple and delicious Malvolio created by Stephen Fry (guest artist), for this is not a personality performance (or one of celebrity recognition), but an intimate and true characterisation of true sensible duty and pathetic delusion, that is cruelly extended beyond reasonable victimisation by the others in the household of the Countess. One laughs but one is also moved. (see, above clip - it has been filmed in the Globe Theatre and not on the Apollo stage).

TWELFE NIGHT written between the great love comedy AS YOU LIKE IT (1600) and, perhaps, the world's greatest play HAMLET (1600) has elements of both those plays. It is, says Norrrie Epstein in his book Friendly Shakespeare: "... both manic and elegiac. It is festive but also skirts madness, despair, sexual ambiguity and cruelty." The Royal Shakespeare Company tour in March,1970 at the old theatre Royal, with Judi Dench as Cesario/Viola, Donald Sinden as Malvolio, with Lisa Harrow as Olivia and Richard Pasco as Orsino, has been devastatingly eclipsed as the bench mark of indelible markings on my brain for this play.

This company, then, returns on alternate nights with a performance of The Tragedie of RICHARD THE THIRD. Again all, all this remarkably focused and disciplined company, who are apparently, evidently enjoying "acting" for us, are so clear in their careful thinking and speaking of the text (in iambic pentameter - yes, even thinking in iambic pentameter!) and so physically dexterous in supporting the poetries/poetics of the play, that I, after regarding the very many productions of the play I have seen, say that I have never heard so much of it before, and appreciated so much of it before, across the huge sweep of the moods of the play - comic, tragic, ironic, pathetic - and being confronted with so much shocking copings of bloody and murderous serialism.

The actors creating Lady Anne (Johnny Flynn), Duchess of York (James Garnon - who also plays Richmond), and a simply superb Queen Elizabeth (Samuel Barnett), are brilliant in their magnetic and concentrated presences - the Elizabeth/Richard scene is thrilling in its audacities and staggering psychological strategic turn-abouts.

All, however good, are, however, standing in the shadow of Mark Rylance as the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, who first appearing as a friendly and slightly old uncle-friend, balding and untidy, seeming to be tending to doddery forgetfulness, with a wry and gently wicked sense of humour (flirting with the audience gallery on the stage about him), with a frozen, shortened arm and hand dangling slightly ostentatiously before us from his shoulder, across his doublet chest, almost showing as a decoration of "honour", gradually, as he gains more and more power, reveals the full brute force of a paranoid psychopath of ruthless and relentless ferocity. This Richard's calculation and cold, cold manipulations is shocking and 'scary' to observe. One's blood freezes watching this Richard, observing some of the daring that Mr Rylance creates in his characterisation, we are magnetically transfixed by the deftness of this painterly embroidering by this artist. For, at the interval to this Richard, I was, I confess, merely contented but not fully enamoured with what had transpired, but when Mr Rylance returned after the break, and had finished daubing the full canvas of his portrait of Shakespeare's man, I was left gasping with amazement, full of shock and awe. His wiping of the eyes, salted tear-filled on the face of his throne-seated and stunned to paralysis Queen Anne, as he outlines her coming murder and his proposed new marriage, whilst licking the drops from his spidery fingers is 'sick' in the absolute old and modern meaning: sick. This sounds completely over-the-top, and so I recommend that you Google or You-Tube Mr Rylance and capture some of what, in the flesh, is even more gob-smackingly brilliant.

The Direction by Tim Carroll is deft. The complicated stagings of the war scenes in Richard are beautifully solved, for instance. The comic complications of TWELFE NIGHT are flawlessly staged. All the work is of a whole, and immersively complete. If these productions ever tour down-under do not miss (the TWELFE NIGHT has been screened in selected cinemas here, already. It is purchasable, as well).

The Globe finishes each of these productions with a dance, a jig. The live orchestra and all the company join in. These endings are choreographed elaborately and extremely generously (Sian Williams) - no mere sop to an audience of comic humour, but rather an extended coda to the evenings, that sweep one up into a recognition of the majesty of of the magic of the playing we have witnessed, and act as a transport back to the world we live in - enlivened and pulsing with the satisfied cycle of great storytelling, to allow us to continue our own life-stories as we now leave the the theatre, with optimism and new courage. If beauty is that suspended-time glimpse, that begins after the first apprehension of the 'reality' of actors arriving and dressing on the stage, and holds us suspended in a jointly shared imaginary place/world, of impossibly attractive spaces, until we rise to exit through the doors into the new 'reality' of Shaftsbury Avenue and a winter night, hours later in time, but  seemingly an instance in experiencing, then it is a gift that only a few, performers give us. And here were two nights of great BEAUTY.

 A quintessence.


Friday, December 27, 2013

The Australia Quartet, Ken Unsworth Studio

Ken Unsworth Studio presents the Australian Quartet.

I was invited to the Ken Unsworth Studio in Belmont St in Alexandria to attend the launching of a new configuration of the Australia Quartet. Belmont! Alexandria! With an applied imagination: two romantic titles, I think. And at the Ken Unsworth studio, he has created an intimate little performance space, and as I listened to this concert, caused me to reflect, to remember the soiree scenes in films like Visconti's L'INNOCENTE and THE LEOPARD. If we were all dressed differently I could have believed I was in such a private space and listening to a concert of a private and personal kind. Sitting quietly with friends to a live orchestra, attentive and heated, and knowing refreshments were to follow (there being no air conditioning - days of yore, came flooding back to me - I have always felt, and do believe, that the Arts took off properly in Australia (Sydney) when the venues had air conditioning. Remember the opera at the Elizabethan Theatre, Newtown? My first was DER ROSENKAVALIER, followed by TURANDOT in the 'gods'. My, was it hot! - breaking out into Wilson Street and Erskineville Rd through the crash doors of the theatre, into the cooler Sydney summer air, (it was cooler, only as a relative experience) and off to the Newtown pubs for refreshment, during those long scene change intervals, was a great and welcome relief!).

The new Australia Quartet: Rebecca Chan, violn; James Wannan, viola; Thomas Rann, cello; Evgeny Ukhanov, piano, played nervously but confidently, with perspiring brows, the labour of their passions translating into a transporting experience. In 1785, Franz Anton Hoffmeister commissioned Mozart to write three piano quartets. The first was regarded as too difficult (the piano was a new instrument at that time) and he was relieved of his further obligation. Mozart disregarded the decision and proceeded with composing, nine months later, the work we heard tonight, Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat major. K493. This was followed by Gabriel Faure's Piano Quartet in G-minor. Op 45 (1886). After the summery felicitations of the Mozart, the opening of the Faure was startlingly tempestuous. A new beginning for the Australia Quartet and a privilege to attend, so close, and so closely to their accomplished playing.

I know little of music technique but enjoyed the new Australia Quartet immensely.

 I did with this concert, very much. Best wishes.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

Unpathed Theatre Company presents THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW by John Patrick Shanley at the Tap Gallery.

In the hurly burly of Christmas and end of year 'madness', some work in the theatre gets overlooked. This, now closed, production of an early John Patrick Shanley play, THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW (1985), at the Tap Gallery produced by a new Independent Company, Unpathed Theatre Company, is such a one. Most of us could pinpoint other Shanley works: DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA (1983) - a favourite of young actors into emotional angsty, violent relationships, and, so, of course, often resurrected for the thrill of tackling those pyro-technics (more often than not coming to grief) - FOUR DOGS AND A BONE (1993), similarly embraced, by some, and, of course, DOUBT (2004), both in the the theatre and in the cinema (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman - 2008). The 1987 movie, MOONSTRUCK, starring Cher and Nicholas Cage, which won Mr Shanley an Academy Award, also sits in the memory banks of some of us. Mr Shanley has a very large catalogue of work in theatre, film and television and was given, in 2009, the Writer's Guild of America, 2009 Lifetime Achievement in Writing.

When asked to attend THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW, I approached it in a state of mind filled with trepidation about having to watch an over heightened Italian-Irish clash of temperaments in a war between the sexes of a kind of sadomasochistic colouration (horrible flashbacks to sitting through too many scenes from DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA, for sure). And this is what I did see - well, a version of it, to be sure. However, the acting, directed by a newcomer Vashti Pontaks was of a very high order. Ainslie Clouston, as Donna, appeared in a striking physical dynamic, with a dialect of stunning accuracy that created an immediate believability and identification to a character in psychological and emotional crisis, matched by an equally mesmeric and beautifully detailed, physical and vocal, performance of her lost young man Tommy, played by Scott Lee. Balancing the relatively naive world view of these two youngsters, Donna and Tommy, Mr Shanley, introduces a father figure, speaking from a life well-lived, handing on the hard earned wisdom of that life, Dad, played by Peter McAllum. All three actors give very clear and empathetic, but, not overtly indulged performances that caught one up into a maelstrom of sexually palpable whirlwinds of debate around reasonable fears of personal relationship dangers struggling with powerful instinctive, biological attractions/needs. The debate by Mr Shanley is verbally dense and emotionally heated and cannot bear any relaxation in the tensions of the human urgency of its dilemmas. The energy of this company never flagged in the pathways and obstacles that Mr Shanley had given them and so, the experience in the theatre was, indeed, compulsive viewing.

There is great economy in the simple two room set design by Tom Bannerman, rich in its suggestiveness of location, supplying only a single lounge chair as furniture, which forced the actors into a heightened style of delivery, almost operatic in its 'play to the front(s)' stylisation, lifting the material from naturalism and into a kind of surreal world of dreamers. Joshua Vozzo, the Lighting Designer, created, supportively, the visual intentions of Mr Bannerman and his Director, Ms Pontaks. Well done by him, considering the limitations of the space, whilst Jed Silver has created, made, a very exciting and sensitively suggestive Sound Design, propelling us into a constant state of immersion - an excellent contribution.

THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW belongs to that American tradition of playwrighting that sits in the plump cushions of the Freudian/Jungian couch - you might be able to name other psych practitioners of more recent cogency! - for us dreamers to examine our pillow on/in; a kind of staged public psychological therapy session, where the writer with flourishing poetic licence seems to be writing very definitely from 'what HE knows'.  One feels that someone (everyone) is "in treatment", even us the audience/fellow dreamers! The personalised trauma of the language in this play, identified by these actors (although I do think the play is funnier than they delivered) and played in this heightened style, becomes a kind of glorious poetry that did give the play a balloon of majestic and potent importance. What appeared to be an angsty plebeian, cultural struggle between the sexes, on the page, became, through the impassioned ownership of the language of these characters by these actors in action, a vehicle to lift the play, on the stage, to an elevated perception of the human condition, and its expectant pursuit for happiness forced by pre-destined biological needs (glimpses of Shaw's MAN AND SUPERMAN: Anne Whitefield and Jack Tanner recreated in very modern form as Donna and Tommy), despite evidence that it is a Sisyphean task of frustrating effort and probable failure: the human race may, indeed, be propagated, but not, necessarily, without a constant cost of pathetic pain to the consummators. Gently guileful , generously gutsy.

I could not help but remember the David Rabe masterpiece, HURLY BURLY (1984), that appears to be about the banal world of the stupidly spoilt of Los Angeles, but through careful metaphor grows, in the theatre (when played uncut and closely to the written intentions of the writer), into a play of major stature of overwhelming power (I have never seen a good production of this play that revealed its strengths, in Sydney). THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW, seems, in this production, to be a work of similar impressiveness. One wonders what other 'treasures' Mr Shanley may have given us that have similar transcendence. As well, I recollected his fellow American writers of this period: John Guare and Christopher Durang - (all three of Catholic upbringing, it seems -very interesting!) not often seen in Sydney, and when presented, are usually, unfortunately, poorly - what treasures do they have to give? There are many Edward Albee plays sitting around that I reckon should be examined in performance, by the way.

So this production, almost, missed (by me) at the Tap Gallery, with virtually unheralded artists in all the areas of creativity, gave me a fillip, I think, to conclude my theatre going year, with an energetic bang that explains the reason and beauty I keep going to those theatre spaces. Discovering some very interesting artists and causing me to take more seriously the work, at least the early work, of John Patrick Shanley, was a Christmas present of some surprise. There may be some real reason, other than sentiment and longevity, for the American Writer's Guild's Award in 2009 to be given to Mr Shanley ( - I am such a cynic! MOONSTRUCK/DOUBT have always been to 'neat' in their  writing to completely win me.) So, glad I went. Can hardly wait to read more of Mr Shanley's work, or see it ,,,

THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW, THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH A HAT and PENELOPE all seen at the Tap Gallery, this year, and, ALL, giving the Sydney theatre experience a boost of quality.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Waiting For Godot

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Qantas present WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett at the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay.

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett is regarded as one of the most important plays of the last century.

Here is a little history: Samuel Beckett was born in 1906, in Dublin. He was educated at Trinity in Dublin, majoring in French and Italian, graduating with a BA in 1927, and an MA in 1931. He taught English in Paris and became, intimately, acquainted with James Joyce and his circle, sometimes, even reading aloud for Joyce, as Joyce's sight failed him. In 1938, he published a novel MURPHY (written in English). He stayed in Paris after war was declared in 1939, and became a member of the French Resistance in Paris, and was forced to flee, in 1942, to Unoccupied France until the end of the war. The novel MOLLOY, and another, MALONE MEURT (DIES) were published in 1951. Richard Seaver, an American working for a French literary magazine MERLIN, in Paris, after accidentally, but fortuitously, coming across both these works, 'introduced' Beckett to the public, puzzled as to why he was not better known, (from his memoir, THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT, edited by his wife, Jeannette Seaver) :
What impressed me most was the deadpan humour, the self-doubt, the self deprecation layered on a bed of rock-hard erudition, worn gossamer light. At the same time from book to book there was a successful stripping away of the extraneous: what had sometimes glittered but cluttered in MURPHY had virtually disappeared in MOLLOY and MALONE. The movement seemed inexorably toward minimalism, perhaps ultimately towards silence.
 ...Is it possible for Mr Beckett to progress further without succumbing to the incomplete incoherence of inarticulate sound, to the silence of nothingness where mud and Molloy, where object and being, are not only contiguous but one? Mr Beckett's next book, announced for publication early this winter, will have to reply. Perhaps the name is significant. It is called L'INNOMMABLE - THE UNNAMABLE. (1).
What prescience from Mr Seaver! Before the new novel appeared, Mr Seaver came across several short stories, SUITE and L'EXPULSE (THE EXPELLED), and then was alerted by a young budding actress, Delphine Seyrig, to the probability that Roger Blin, an actor/director, one of her close friends, was directing a play by Monsieur Beckett,
... either a long play entitled ELEUTHERIA or (a) shorter one WAITING FOR GODOT (EN ATTTENDANT GODOT), a portion of which we had heard the year before at the French radio's Club d' Essai. More likely the latter play, she said, because it had fewer actors and would be far less expensive to produce. ... (1. p.32). (P.S. It was an inheritance of Ms Seyrig's that actually bank-rolled the production!)
Richard Seaver:
... posters on the Left Bank announced that a play by Samuel Beckett, EN ATTENDANT GODOT ... was scheduled to open in early January (the 5th of January,1953) at the Theatre de Babylone ... Roger Blin directed the production and played Pozzo (which Beckett had written with him in mind.) .. So I went alone, and when I say alone, I am close to literal, for there could not have been more than a dozen souls in the audience. As the play progressed, I realised I was in the presence of something special, the likes of which I had never read or witnessed. And that included the plays of two other playwrights fresh on the scene of the Paris theatre, the Romanian Eugene Ionesco (LES CHAISES, LA LECON) and, a Russian, Arthur Adamov (LA GRANDE ET LA PETITE MANOEUVRE), both of whom, like Beckett, were writing in French. ... Two or three weeks later I invited a friend (his future wife Jeannette) to see the play with me. That night the audience had more than doubled, a good sign, but scarcely enough ... Thirty-some, if memory serves. At the curtain, the applause was scattered, hesitant at best. When the lights came up, half the audience had already left, and several of the remaining heads were shaking, either in disbelief or in disappointment... How did my friend like it? She was stunned, fascinated. but she professed not to understand much of the play's inner meaning. How did she know that it had a deeper meaning? Oh, of that she was sure. 'Aren't we all waiting for Godot,' she said, 'whoever or whatever that might be? I found it funny and sad at the same time. Isn't it maybe about how often useless it is to hope? And yet they come back night after night, which means they haven't entirely given up hope? ... Didn't you have the feeling that Vladimir and Estragon had been waiting not just for those two days but FOREVER? ... 'You didn't live through the war here,' she went on, 'but you tell me Mr Beckett did. I doubt he could have written this play if he had not suffered the German occupation.' Why? I asked. 'Well one reading might be - and I'm obviously wrong - that Pozzo is the Germans and Lucky is us the French, don't you think? They too had a leash around our neck, they beat us and killed us for no reason at all, they made us sing and dance to their tune, were as cruel and senseless as Pozzo is. Then, in the second act, Pozzo is laid low, blinded, just as the Germans were in 1945 and later. Just a thought. I'm being far too literal, I know, for this play's universal. I'd like to know what you think?' (1 - p.162).

(See blog on Satre's MEN WITHOUT SHADOWS***; Genet's THE MAIDS***)

Cross the Channel to London to Peter Hall in 1955, (from an interview with Richard Eyre):
I was running the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. ... I went into my little cupboard office and found a script which said "WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett'" and a letter from Donald Albery, who was a West End impresario. It said, 'I don't know whether you know this play: it's on in Paris in a seventy-five-seat theatre, and it's been on for some time; it's very highly regarded. No one will do it in the West End, no director will touch it (Peter Brook had turned it down, for instance), and every actor has turned it down. I've seen some of your work, at the Arts theatre, and I liked it, so I wonder whether you would like to do it.' So with a sense that I was certainly at the very end of a queue, I looked at it. I'd vaguely heard of Beckett; I hadn't read a word of him; I hadn't seen the play in Paris, but I'd heard of it. And I read it. I won't say that I said to myself: this is the major play of the mid-century and it's a turning point in drama, but I did find it startlingly original. First of all that it turned waiting into something dramatic. Second, that waiting becomes a metaphor for living. What are we actually living for, what are we waiting for, will something come, will Godot come, will something come to explain why we're here and what we're doing. And I found it terribly funny, and I also found it genuine, poetic drama. ... The cast was Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Daneman, Peter Bull and Timothy Bateson. ... "the play opened in late August or September (actually the 3rd August) in 1955. The first night was full of cheers and counter cheers.When Estragon said: 'Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful", an English voice said, 'Hear, hear!' ... They were absolutely baffled, a lot of them, but half the people said: this is it, this is what we have been waiting for. And the press was equally divided. ... on the level of what it brought to theatre, I think it nailed the colours again to the old mast of theatre: that theatre is a place of imagination and of metaphor and of contradiction. It is the Shakespeare mast to me. It also says that there is no active theatre without the tension between the form of the writing, the form of the creation, and the emotion that the actor is trying to express. Whether it's Shakespeare's iambic pentameters or whether it's Beckett's very precise, beautiful cadenced prose, it has a rhythm and an actuality. I would advance the theory that GODOT is the masterpiece of the mid-century, certainly way, way way more important than (Osborne's) LOOK BACK IN ANGER. (Harold Pinter agreed: Osborne merely stirred things up - didn't really change anything, simply touching the nerve endings of the complacent theatre world and society.) And GODOT is still there now as a great play and will remain so because it has metaphorical richness which makes one think of Shakespeare. If you want to think of GODOT as a play about politics, it's there. If you want to think GODOT as a play about relations, intimate relations between man and woman, or man and man, or friend and friend like an early version of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, it's there." It emancipated a whole generation from naturalism: "I don't think Harold (Pinter) - or Tom (Stoppard) - would have written the way they did write- -or at all, had it not been for Beckett." (2-p.47-48). 
(Now, I know I could not have said anything that Mr Hall said any better, and so, humbly, forgive my lengthy quoting, please.)

Now, come down to Australia: The first production was at the Arrow Theatre in Melbourne in September, 1957 with Barry Humphries as Estragon and Peter O'Shaughnessy as Vladimir (1957 - someone's finger on the international pulse of theatre adventuring!), it toured to the Sydney Independent Theatre in May, 1958. I have seen many productions both professional and amateur - universities, love it - one set, five actors, just as Delphine Seyrig predicted, it's likely to be done, as it is so inexpensive to mount - a tree and a rock! - as is the other inexpensive perennial favourite, THE MAIDS. (I played Pozzo, in 1965, when 17 at Alexander Mackie Teachers College! - we had no idea what we were doing, I had no idea what I was doing, for sure! - a precocious and, definitely, naive Catholic school boy). Mel Gibson as Estragon with Geoffrey Rush as Vladimir, John Clayton as Pozzo and Robert Menzies as Lucky, for NIDA Jane St, in 1979, directed by George Whaley. John Gaden and Max Cullen directed by Neil Armfield at Belvoir. Ian McKellen and Roger Rees at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, and now Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir. One way or another there are those of us sitting in the Sydney Theatre, who have, been in the play, directed the play or, at least, seen this play many, many times before, and so bring some insight/prejudices to it, and others who are experiencing it for a first time, accompanied with all of its illustrious history, or not. There are those of us who have seen it in intimate venues such as the tiny Jane St Theatre in Randwick, and now in this, relatively huge venue - no real intimacy here - the scale dimensions of the Sydney Theatre (896 seats) a long way from the Parisian Theatre de Babylone (75 seats!) or the Arts Theatre of London, some sixty years ago.

Certainly, on the night I attended this production by Andrew Upton, the audience, mostly, had a rollicking time, and applauded generously. Whether they found the play sad, insightful and/or metaphorical as well, I was not able to ascertain. To some I hope. To some, I hope it was more than the comic skill and acting finesse of this fine company that rewarded the production, for indeed, the acting by this company was of a very impressive standard. Five wonderful ensemble performances, Richard Roxburgh (Estragon), Hugo Weaving (Valdimir), Philip Quast (Pozzo), Luke Mullins (Lucky) and on my night, young Otis Pavlovic (Boy), the sensibilities between them was palpable.

The comic rapport between Mr Roxburgh and Weaving was the source of much of the laughter in this production, often extended to the exhaustion of audience response - the physical 'clowning' garnishes, maybe, sometimes, overwhelming the textual core of the work. The physical invention sometimes appearing to be the object of the playing in this material, directed by Mr Upton. (breaking out of the fourth wall, over the stage edge of the proscenium, seemed to be a deliberate crowd pleasing choice - it had little other logic). Mr Weaving sounded as if he were giving a too reverential,"classical" approach to Vladimir - stately, weighty, with a heightened sonority, that placed the character, aurally, into a kind of aspic jelly - of a character we have met many times before. This was in contrast to the delightful irreverence that the more lively and plastic, and seemingly, spontaneous effects of Mr Roxburgh's performance were making. He seemed to be genuinely moving towards a more personal realisation of the inner mechanisms of Estragon - it had more of a contemporaneous investigation of the possibilities of creating the character anew. It was, for me, an Australian 'nose-snook' at the usual received performances of this character - it felt fresh and challenging, no museum feel at all.

Mr Mullins as Lucky, tops a year of wonderful offers of stagecraft and invention in Sydney this year: LITTLE MERCY, ANGELS IN AMERICA, SMALL AND TIRED. His creative invention and absolutely non-stop twitches of life result in an arresting but overactive performance. Seated in the circle, looking down onto the stage, Mr Mullins was constantly drawing attention to his presence - I wondered if, for the sake of the clarity of the text, if a little less invention would have been better. Mr Quast made an impactful entrance as Pozzo but unlike Mr Mullins seemed to disappear in stage effect over the night, while Mr Pavlovic gave his two short scenes with streamlined innocence, and was genuinely impressive as a result.

Originally Tamas Asher was to direct this production, but was not able to fulfil the engagement, and what we see at the Sydney Theatre is a play written by an Irishman in France (the play was originally written in French and was re-worked in English by Beckett, himself) in a production conceived by two Hungarians - including the Set Designer, Zsolt Khell - directed by an Australian, Andrew Upton, assisted by Mr Asher's Hungarian assistant, now Mr Upton's Assistant, Anna Lengyel, with an Australian cast. Indeed, a multi-cultural product.

The very imposing Set Design of a slewed and ruined, red theatre proscenium arch, lined with small dead light globes, set against the theatre's actual arch; an ashen grey, moon-like tessellated floor, with black full and half walls holding ruined water heaters and broken electrical boxes, dominated by a dead looking tree with branch (that latterly sprouts green leaves) and a large scattering of blackened narrow tree stumps, plus a box-like rock, had no clear architectural logic or metaphorical statement for me, and certainly resonated as a middle-European cultural look, at odds with an Australian response to this play, expected by me, from the Sydney Theatre Company. The simple stage directions from Mr Beckett for the play's setting seemed to be entirely, unnecessarily, superseded. Mr Beckett was often very unhappy with the productions of his plays.

Of the original English production, Peter Woodthorpe (in the STC program notes), tells us when Beckett visited the London Criterion Theatre transfer from the Arts Theatre
...There was a beautiful smile and he just said, 'Bloody marvellous!" And he held me. But he disliked the production. He told me he disliked it, so there you are. He hated the set with the walk-on. Three walk-ons. ... Peter hall hadn't trusted the play and had commissioned a set. ... 
Of the later German (Berlin) production, which had good reviews, Beckett said "I wish I hadn't gone ... the direction was all wrong." and though he added, "If the Germans had listened to me they'd have emptied the theatre far faster, I can assure you.". ... Within a few short years later, (he) would become deeply engaged in the details of each production, attend the rehearsals of virtually all his plays, often in essence becoming the director, and who in subsequently printed editions would indicate minute detail the stage directions to be followed meticulously."  !!! - (1. p.210). 
I wonder what Beckett would have made of this set design. The lighting Design by Nick Schlieper, the spare Sound Design by Max Lyandvert and the Costuming by Alice Babidge were an asset to the instructions and intentions of the textual demands.

There did not seem, for me, much point to this production of WAITING FOR GODOT, having come to know the play so well over time. The anticipated pleasure of watching Mr Weaving and Roxburgh (two of Australia's leading actors), and what they could/would bring to this play, was the reason I spent my money to see it. I had hoped that the revival of this oft-played work would also offer, from these two interesting actors, an insight to it that would be of vital interest for an Australian audience today. In a limited season of play choices at the STC, I could see no reason, otherwise, to revive this work, seen so recently at the Sydney Opera House, with an illustrious English Company of Actors (now playing in New York - Patrick Stewart replacing Roger Rees, seen in the Sydney production). Sadly, other than a continuing appreciation of the clowning skills of these two performers, seen so wonderfully in the previous Asher production of Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA, (from the program notes, it was, apparently, the original inspiration to create this production) this production is no longer a radical confrontation, either in form or matter. Is it, that we may be so familiar with the play now, that without the comic clowning around the text, as the body of the performance, it finally becomes quite boring - maybe unplayably boring as an enlightening, confronting text? If you have never seen it, or if you have, maybe, only once or twice, or not for a long time, it may have impact. Already, ROSENCRATZ AND GUILDENSTERN, or some of the works of Harold Pinter (NO MAN'S LAND) may have more cultural credence, interest and viability today? In this production only Mr Roxburgh's performance seems to be the one attempting to live today, on an Australian stage, illuminating the text, and not beatifically representing GODOT as a classic, or, as an opportunity to clown. Should we just give the play a rest and either write a new play for these two actors, or find another text to highlight their empathetic chemistry - Mamet's A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, perhaps? (Slight but full of actorly opportunity to entertain us.)

This is a very entertaining production of an undoubted important and influential play coming from the middle of the last century. It is a great play, that may need a performance rest. Academically, of interest, kinetically worn out?

From Michael Blakemore's new book, STAGE BLOOD:
Authentic memory - that precipitate of facts suspended in a volatile element of feeling - must always be a little different for anyone who works in the theatre. Stage performance is so transient that all we have left of the work we most believed in are these traces of recall. ...This encounter, all the more fervent for being private, is one that later in our careers we will sometimes regret as an infection we had the misfortune to contract, but at other, better times see as a kind of apostolic succession, going back to Garrick and to Shakespeare, and perhaps much further back to Aeschylus and beyond, to the first storyteller who ever stood in front of a random group of people, tamed them into becoming an audience, and then, little by little, began to induce them something akin to awe, so that they forgot their personal concerns and collectively began to see the world around them and their own place in it in a new and unexpected way. Every good performance, every good production is simply another link in that long chain, of which we are part and on which we are dependent, because it connects us to belief. (3. p.343)
Each of us have our response to a performance, and I hope this production of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT at the STC, gave some of its audience this perception of the power of theatre: "a connection to belief" - so eloquently expressed by Mr Blakemore in his new book: STAGE BLOOD. A recommended read for Christmas, for all theatre goers.

References and Notes :

  1. THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT, by Richard Seaver, 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York,.
  2. TALKING THEATRE Interviews with Theatre People, by Richard Eyre, 2009 (paperback, 2011) Nick Hern Books, London, 
  3. STAGE BLOOD Five tempestuous Years in the Early Life of the National Theatre, by Michael Blakemore, 2013, Faber and Faber.
  4. Companion to Theatre in Australia - Philip Parsons, General Editor. Currency Press - 1995.
  5. NIDA by John Clark. Focus Publishing Pty Ltd. - 2003
  6. A very unusually  informative program presented by the Sydney Theatre Company = $10.00. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Jazz Inspirations: Thibaudet play Gershwin

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, JAZZ INSPIRATIONS: Thibaudet plays Gershwin in the Convert Hall at the Sydney Opera House.

Wanting some music in my life, again, and reading publicity around the pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and enamoured with the composers Dmitri Shotsakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, and curious about the classic symphonic work of George Gershwin, who I know mostly as a popular song maker of the 'twenties and 'thirties of the last century – I went to this concert at the Sydney Opera House.

I have a conscious appreciation of my being a kind of Russophile, (dangerously imperilled by present history - Putin, and his government, - I am terribly conflicted about promoting the culture), and so this all Russian Concert was attractive to me. All Russian in the sense that Gershwin was born Jacob Gershovitz, son to Russian Jewish emigrants, in 1898, brought up in Brooklyn, in the United States of America.

Shostakovitch as a young man played accompaniment to film performances and was famous as a rapid and accurate sight reader of music. He, also, had an insatiable musical curiosity and had become fascinated by the jazz music idioms that began to infiltrate the dance band music in the Capitol cities - despite the fact that it was regarded with suspicion and hostility, in the Soviet Union power echelons, as a residue of bourgeois culture and decadence. In 1934, Shostakovich agreed to participate in a jazz-commission whose declared aim was to raise the level of Soviet jazz from popular 'cafe' music to music with a professional status. A competition was organised in Leningrad, and to encourage others Shostakovitch wrote his three movement JAZZ SUITE NO.1. This short eight minute, or so, piece written for eleven instrumentalists, was the first piece played by the Sydney Symphony at this concert. It hardly corresponds to the accepted understanding of jazz but has a brilliance and wit reflecting the exuberance and decadence of the 1920's; some of the driving orchestration recalls the 'musical-push' of Kurt Weill works: THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1928), THE RISE AND FALL OF MAHOGANY (1930). The use of an Hawaiian guitar (in this performance, a banjo was substituted) is hilarious and a wonderful pleasure to experience in this delightfully playful composition. I had heard it before and had, in my relative ignorance, anticipated the Piano Concerto No 1, one of my favourite musical compositions. Whatever the immediate disappointment, it was ameliorated with the playing by the Symphony orchestra of this smaller work.

The second item of the concert was the George Gershwin Piano Concerto in F, written in 1925. The Concerto featured the luminous artistry of Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In three movements, the musical melodies and rhythms are redolent with the throb of the city traffic of the great American cities (particularly, in my imagination, as I listened, I recalled the documentary footage of the twenties and thirties New York traffic.) I sat behind the orchestra and was able to enjoy the physical efforts and cuing of the guest conductor, James Gaffigan. Gershwin had written it for Paul Whitman's big band, and the symphonic arrangement, that we heard, was extremely robust in its sound. Interestingly, Thibaudet has made a recording of the work using the original Big Band scoring, and not the full symphony orchestra one. That Gershwin died so young, aged 39, in 1937, not long after the premiering of his last major work, the folk-opera PORGY AND BESS, does give one a keen speculation concerning what may have been achieved if it had been otherwise, for this Concerto is an exciting excursion into this 'classic' musical expression. Mr Thibaudet gave an encore of an orchestral arrangement: Variations on "I Got Rhythm".

After the interval Maestro Gaffigan led the orchestra in a rendition of Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No.5 in B flat, OP 100. Written in Russia and premiered in January,1945, it became a symbol of the change in the struggle in the war, as the Russian troops expelled the German invaders into a retreat from their country - if the cannon-fire was announcing the turn of the war's tide, the symphony announced a new beginning - even with Stalin still in control. Written in four movements, the sounds are heroic and stirring - the sheer body of the "noise", the shifts of tempo, and its variation of the forces in use, not always predictable, kept one attentive - gripped. The hyperbole of a fellow student of Prokofiev, Nicholas Stonimsky, writing a description of the Fifth Symphony encapsulates the emotional affect of the work: of the last climatic moments:
…an apotheosis, marked by an ovation of trumpets, an irresistible advance of trombones, and the brandished oriflamme of horns reinforced by a cotillion of drums, and nailed down by a triumphant beat of the bass drum.
One can feel the shakes and blasting of the might of the mechanics of warfare, in Mr Storimensky's description and certainly from the Prokofiev score.

A rewarding evening in the Concert Hall.

Ticket = $74.00
Tax for buying a ticket at the Box Office in Cash, imposed by the Opera House Trust = $5.00.
If you don't pay up, I guess one doesn't get in.
Program FREE!!! Thanks Sydney Symphony.

Total = $79.00.

P.S. Cheerfully, walking down the hill to home, after the bus ride from the concert , I, idly, calculated that the Sydney Opera House Trust must earn something between $4 to $6 million dollars a year with this tax on the performance going public! Is there an official statement of record of the amount of income that we all contribute too, with this "tax', with every purchase we make, over the counter?
Just curious.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Vere [Faith]

Sydney Theatre Company presents a Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia production of VERE [FAITH] by John Doyle in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

VERE [FAITH] is John Doyle's second play, THE PIG IRON PEOPLE, which the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presented in 2008, being the first. Says Andrew Upton, the Artistic Director of the STC: John Doyle
... has shaped a play that finds the intersection between theatre, science and morality. The here and now of the stage, the four-dimensional fields and particles of physics, the slippages and illusions of dementia. It all boils down to time and space - how they are bound together and how swiftly they can undo us. ...
The opening gambit of the play is an end-of-term lecture from Vere (Paul Blackwell) to his university class where the range of the possibilities of the human brain in its application to solve and invent everything from the stone-axe to The Standard Model of Physics - even up to the hunt for the Higgs- bosun (the God Particle) - is introduced. This scene (prologue) that seemed to promise much to come - the writing, stimulating, comprehensible - unfortunately proves to be the best writing of the night, by far. The play then moves into a shared university office - properly dingy and probably true - where Vere is informed that he has a 'galloping' form of dementia whose onset is irresistible and speedy, and that his amazing thinking - memory scientific capacity - will be destroyed, with all else - as then, staff and students, arrive for Christmas drinks and a farewell, to the same professor, Vere, to his anticipated, imminent journey to Switzerland to be part of a great research procedure. He does not tell them of his diagnosis and that the likelihood of his ability to travel may be limited, if not cancelled. There follows much under-graduate banter with the drinks - laughter, under the shadow of decline, for us in the audience, to observe. The second act takes us to the family environment, a few months later, where on an occasion to celebrate a coming marriage union, we observe that Vere is now succumbing to the aggressive symptoms of his illness - lucid for some moments, not, in others - mistaking the guests for others, and fearlessly exhibiting his polymath perceptions willy-nilly to the comfort and discomfort of some, or all. His son debating the pro's and con's of Science versus God with the prospective in-laws. Frustrating entanglements of logic etc. occur. Vere, when all of have gone, suicides.

The text has in its layers, debate around empirical science versus religious faith in helping civilisation to find the rules for morality; the position of beetroot in our dietetic social history; and some other things such as dementia and suicide, which may confront some of the audience quite precipitously. Mr Doyle's script is 'brave' in the endeavours to bring this material to our communal attention, but, then, is rather glib in the arguments, and in the representatives he uses to argue the opposing viewpoints - e.g. rabid Christian fundamentalists with such ignorant bias represented, in this text, by the characters of Reverend Roger (played dangerously on the edge of parody by Geoff Morrell and thus compounding the ridiculousness of this serious 'debate'), and his wife, Katherine, played by Rebecca Massey (who, on the other hand, attempts a real empathetic "reading", which, considering the source material, is fairly ingenious). Neither of these characters seem, dramaturgically, balanced (a straw dog offer!) beside the more sophisticated representation, argument resources of Vere. There is a strong tendency for Mr Doyle to find jokes rather than a real discussion of the seriousness of the issues he alludes to by puerile punning and lame jokiness, wrapped in caricatured representations and expected role playing, to set up the comedy - this is more vaudeville, stand-up, than black comedy or farce, or serious debate, and, ultimately, proves to be a comfortable let-off-the-hook and shallow experience. It was, simply, for me, an assortment of 'galoots', rampaging, verbally, over issues of serious contemporary concerns.

It is for some others, moving, and I did see some handkerchiefs dabbing eyes at the conclusion of the performance, and I can vouch that personal histories and fears can make it so - but, for me, the work squibs on the seriousness of its subject matter and avoids real interrogation that ought to make this work's ambitions more confronting considering their contemporary importance. The audience I sat with were, mostly, on the wise side of fifty, have either confronted Dementia in their own family, or, extended family connections, or, are now having to regard, seriously, their personal issues about their own quality of life and the choices to be made about it. When one reflects back to the recent Palme d'Or and Foreign Language Academy Award winner, Michael Haneke's film, AMOUR (2012), starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert - a film that deals with disability and suicide in the aged, one can only regret the opportunity missed by this playwright. That euthanasia does not get even a glimpse of mention in this play, appeared, to me, to be odd, if not a profound error, considering the subject material exposed, supposedly examined, and the demographic of the audience likely to see it.

It is a much more interesting work than THE PIG IRON PEOPLE, but, still, reveals, reflects the difference that a television script might allow and be rewarded, considering the prizewinning background of Mr Doyle, that a play in the theatre, will not.

In my Diary entry for SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, I do regard the quality of the writing as the most important element in any enterprise, and of my despair when actors are, relatively, required to invent (create) characters that are not on the page, finding, instead, mouthpieces and caricatures of "sit-com types", to facilitate a series of silly jokes, flirting around serious subject matter potential - actors having to create silk purses out of a pig's ear, is what I called it. Matthew Gregan displays some real skill with his act one character Mike, but has an up-hill battle to do much with underwritten Michael in the second. Geoff Morrell barely resists, and only just, his usual penchant for satiric heavy-handedness as the Vice Chancellor, Ralph, and almost gives into it as  Reverend Roger, in the second act, - avoiding it with only one hair's breath away from an out-right surrender to comic twinkle - neither of his men appear anything more than thin representatives of a skewed authorial point-of-view, ponderously, a comic one. Yalin Ozucelik is not able to find a reality-'keel' for Simon in act one, but entirely succeeds with the overburdened son/father Scott, in act two. Ksenja Logos makes a bland impression with two bland characters (maybe not her fault), while Matilda Bailey misfires completely with both her tasks, she does not differentiate one caricature from the other, except with comic-strip externals of costume and poor, over loud voice work - irritating and unreal. It is Rebecca Massey that makes a hit with both her women, Kate and Katherine,  finding some dimension to their reality and gave, for me, the most consistent performance of the production. Paul Blackwell, as Vere, has a comfortable ease with his physical characterisation and inhabits it with consummate skill - he kept reminding me of Richard Gill, the Australian music conductor - but vocally seemed unable to, comfortably, find a matching truthfulness. I thought there was an over empathetic colouring going-on and was puzzled whether the vocal choices were a deliberate characterisation which sat above an anchored ownership of his text, a kind of 'singing' - revealing  a lofty eccentric, a kind of 'high priest', pontificating with, and at, knowledge as a recitation sound choice to deliver regurgitated information - a quality sometimes revealed by totally obsessed individuals: think Cardinal Pell and his 'sound' or Judge Michael Kirby and his, perhaps.

Set Design by Pip Runciman is efficient with a very strange choice of two walls of doors that indicate a promise of farce in the second act - it never arrives (doors have been an obsession for Ms Runciman this year, if the Bell Shakespeare THE COMEDY OF ERRORS set design is recalled). Renee Mulder has designed the costumes well and the lighting design by Nigel Levings fulfills a brief of atmosphere and visibility, whilst the Composition by Steve Francis appeared to be a trifle over stated in its references to a 'spirituality'. Sarah Goodes, the Director, has crafted a very good job of keeping this play afloat, and like the work by Richard Cotterell on Jonathan Biggin's play AUSTRALIA DAY last year does much to camouflage the weaknesses of this text.

This is essentially a play aimed at the middle-of-the-road audience. It acknowledges, rightly and bravely, issues that are of vital importance to that community, but, then, essentially, merely trifles with them. Both, the issues and the audience. Now, when the STC presents Lucy Prebbles' THE EFFECT next year, a play that I admire enormously, creating a moral debate around contemporary health issues, some of you who read me, might begin to comprehend why I am so disappointed with this play.

Others had an uplifting time - I was simply distressed by it all, not just with having to consciously deal with personal issues about dementia and its terrors, but, also with the playwriting. Of this new Australian play, presented by two of the major theatre company's of our nation, as one of the BEST in 2013, and therefore deserving of production in major auditoriums.

Heaven, help me. Us.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Sydney Theatre Company presents MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell in Wharf 2 , Hickson Road.

Machinal, the play by Sophie Treadwell, was first produced on Broadway in 1928. Ms Treadwell was an investigative journalist and writer. This play was inspired, loosely based, on an actual murder case celebre of the period, that of Ruth Snyder. Ruth Snyder was convicted for the murder of her husband, and along with her lover, was executed at Sing Sing Prison - she was the first woman to be executed in the electric chair, since 1899. The case was a newspaper sensation and became historically infamous with the publication of a photograph in the New York Daily News, of Ruth Snyder being actually electrocuted. The play premiered eight months after the execution.

For this production of MACHINAL, the Director, Imara Savage, has trimmed and cut the original play to succinctly fit her needs: 
paring it back to the bare essentials ... to ask questions about the female experience, social responsibility and the right of each individual to self-determination. 
The original play demands were made up by 17male and 10 female characters. Ms Savage has, at the STC, a company of only 8 actors! 

(I noted in the program:
The rights to Sophie Treadwell's works are owned by the Roman Catholic Church of Tucson, a Corporation Sole, from whom production rights must be obtained. 
I wonder are the owners aware of the alterations, and have approved them, since giving the rights?)

An anti-realist movement in the arts, exemplified by the films of the German Expressionists: Robert Wiene's THE CABINET OF CALIGARI (1920) and F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU (1923), was boldly taken up and explored by some American Dramatists in the 1920's: e.g. THE HAIRY APE by Eugene O'Neill (1922) and THE ADDING MACHINE by Elmer Rice (1923). Sophie Treadwell's  MACHINAL, is another, that Michael Patterson describes as: 
a powerful Expressionist treatment of a woman whose crime appears almost justified. The clamour of contemporary technology, the routines of urban life, and, above all, the oppression of her gender, drive her to make her futile bid for freedom and fulfilment. [1] 
The character,  Helen Jones, travels through a seres of 'stations' (an office, a flat, a hotel, a hospital, a speakeasy, a furnished room, a drawing room, a courtroom, a prison.) with characters devoid of individual psychology, revealed by symbolic or non-realistic dialogue, exploring the alienation of the individual in a world of technology and capital.

An inventive and spare, economic, set and costume design by David Fleischer - this is , for me, the best work he has created this year, in fact, since the last time he was in this space with LITTLE MERCY. Maybe discipline of budget unlocks his abilities to their best imaginative and theatrical resources! - collaborating with a brilliant Lighting design and execution by Verity Hampson - this, too, matches the invention and skill of her work on LITTLE MERCY -  although, I believe her work in many theatres across Sydney this year is nearly always exemplary. Steve Francis, Composer and Sound Designer adds an indelible and appropriate invention to the soundtrack of this world - it creates, both, cues for imaginative invention of the architectural spaces of the 'stations', and also, powerful aural abstractions of atmosphere and emotion. All the above design elements are astoundingly effective to the intentions of the writer.

The company of 8 actors: Robert Alexander, Matthew Backer, Brandon Burke, Ivan Donato, Katie Macdonald, Terry Serio,Wendy Strehlow and Harriet Dyer are almost immaculate in all their tasks. Their highly stylised and disciplined physical and vocal work grabs us viscerally with the sheer concentration of assuredness of an in-tune ensemble from the very first scene. The demarcation of the company's many characters is thrillingly, pin-point accurate, and has no 'fat' of indulgence - clear, passionate identifiable portraits of story telling action and needs. E.g., the population of the office of the first scene: Stenographer, a high heeled pink pertness by Mr Alexnder; 'wacko'-hip Filing Clerk by Mr Backer; the friendly office gossip Telephone Girl by Katie MacDonald; and Adding Clerk by Terry Serio are a chorus that surround the smarmy Boss, Mr Jones - a brilliantly astute creation by Brandon Burke - and the heroine of MACHINAL, the submissive good girl, Helen Jones played by Harriet Dyer, seize us in the very first scene with breathtaking panache. In the second scene, Wendy Strehlow's Mother in disciplined postures of activity (around the peeling of a potato)  reveals a complex set of strategies to dominate her daughter; Ivan Donato as The Lover in the central scene, is sublime in the masculine manipulations of his sex to seduce and court Helen Jones. Mr Donato and Ms Dyer create a duet of theatre that is mesmerising in its delicate beauty, both, in its simmering, musical sexuality, and muscular physical sub-texts. (Worth the cost of the ticket, alone!) The speakeasy scene, too, has the sure hand of every artist involved - designers, actors, director - in creating a world of rich imagination and variety: the setting, lighting and orchestration and skill of the actors sketch economically and brilliantly a reality and atmosphere of a 'twenties seedy bar straight out of the Time-Life photographs and/or paintings (say, Edward Hopper) of the period.  It is impressive work.

Harriet Dyer, carrying the weight of the protagonist through every scene, is astounding, for most of the night. Her vocal and physical work is supported by adept and rich inner thoughts: the nervousness, the confusion, the revulsion, the romance, the terror, and the wily trajectories of Helen's external and internal reactions and intentions are a feast of detailed accuracy and creative economy.What resources of knowledge Ms Dyer must employ to bring Helen Jones to life for us is a confronting 'magic' for us to respect. It is a remarkable performance of stamina , if, nothing else - and, there is much else to appreciate. 

It has been a year of wonderful performances from the women of the theatre this year: e.g. Helen Thomson (MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION); Angela Lansbury (DRIVING MISS DAISY); Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debecki (THE MAIDS), Susan Prior (SMALL AND TIRED); Eryn Jean Norvill (ROMEO AND JULIET); Cherry Jones (THE GLASS MENAGERIE): Anastasia Hille (THE EFFECT). Ms Dyer's, Helen Jones, is, up there on my list, beside them, too.

The production is some 90-minutes long without interval, and I did detect a loss of concentration from us, the audience, during the Court Scene - was it the length of the act? Should we have been given an interval? Or, has the method of the direction to sustain our commitment not completely solved the artificial abstraction of the choral speaking of the court characters in that penultimate scene? Is it the disappointing costuming of the legal fraternity that undermines, throws  our concentration?  I felt the performance began to derail here - restless stirrings and slumping in seats, I observed. And then, what followed in the ultimate scene, where the director and the actor seemed to display, for me, too tellingly, their empathic political sense of outrage for the 'justice' meted out to Helen Jones, and collaboratively tipped, the performance into a shouted emotional 'sentimentality', breaking the fine control of the Brechtian 'distancing effect' that they had maintained so skilfully for the rest of the production. We were been told what to feel, in those moments, instead of being invited to continue to endow the truths of the play with our own empathies. - the catharsis of the major event of the play was experienced by the actor  and we, the audience, relatively, watched the result  of the action, rather than being an active part of it's invention.

Still, this is a very fine production of a very provocative and interesting period play - I thoroughly recommend you try to see it (it finishes on December 7th). At a cost of only $30 plus a gold coin for the program, a bargain, indeed.

P.S.  It is a pity that the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) revival of MACHINAL, this neglected play by this, mostly, unknown female writer, does not feel it appropriate to print a biography of the playwright in the program. There is an extensive note from the Director, Ms Savage, who points out the remarkable place, she feels, the writer has in theatrical dramaturgy, with admiring enthusiasm (and manages to refer to Sophie Treadwell only as Treadwell), alongside a Program note of her own career, as well as all the other Creatives of this production. However, there is, evidentially, no space for the WRITER or her history to be recorded in this program!  Is it really a wonder that women artists are left-out-of-history still, when this can happen? There is a biographical note pinned to the notice board downstairs on the way to the toilet, or, the bar, I noticed!!!

Now, I mention it only in passing, and just for history's sake, but this company do not use American dialects, despite the particular vocabulary, and geographical references, and, of course, the  reference to the electric chair - an American manner of execution, the climatic imagery of the play - not an Australian method of execution or image, I think. ( I know, I know: "Whatever, Kevin J!") And, I imagined, that the actors are micro-phoned,  with all but one of the actors having an electronic device centred visibly on their forehead like a caste mark (Indian bindi) for robots in a world of machines for MACHINAL, as a contemporary visual statement of ironic humour. And, since the theatre speakers delivering this microphoned sound seem to be sat on the back walls, it was quite disconcerting to SEE the actor in one position (Brandon Burke, for instance in the first scene, at the severe left of the stage, in the doorway), but HEAR  his voice coming from a completely different direction - where is one been directed to throw one's attention since, instinctively, (since, primitive times as hunters/gatherers) we travel our animal focuses to the direction of the sound to help us to see as well hear, clearly? (A Post Modern technique of deconstruction, I expect? : (Whatever, Kevin.") Ah, well another gesture of the vagaries of contemporary craft in pursuit of art!?

Do not miss. Go.


  1. The Oxford Dictionary of Plays by Michael Patterson. Oxford University Press - 2005.