Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Brevity Theatre Company in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company presents the Sydney Premiere of WITTENBURG by David Davalos at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo.

It is 1517, and Hamlet (Alexander Butt) has returned, for a tennis tournament, to his university at Wittenburg, from a summer vacation in Poland where he has been studying astronomy with "One Doctor Nikolai Copernik ..." and is facing a spiritual dilemma based around new ideas, theories, that the earth moves around the sun, and not as his church (the good old Roman one) has taught him, that the sun moves around the earth! Enter two of his tutors: John Faustus, M.D., J.D., Ph.D, a Doctor (David Woodland), who is considering marriage to Helen (Lana Kershaw), at last - he is troubled by this inclination; and Rev.Fr. Martin Luther, D.D., a professor and confessor (Nick Curnow) - who is also troubled, and mightily, with his church's selling of indulgences, through the agency of a Dominican huckster, John Tetzel ! These two tutors, beside struggling with their own concerns, begin a verbal battle to secure the loyalty of their pupil, Hamlet. Faustus for his mind, Luther for his soul.

WITTENBURG by David Davalos (2008), then, as you can surmise from the above, is a literary conceit that gleefully mixes fact and fiction to play an intellectual game of havoc around the battle of Reason versus Faith, and of the human/animal dominance of each man's individual selfish obsessions (Helen and the Church). One quickly assumes the remembrance to plays such as Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD  and TRAVESTIES which play similar games with familiar figures of fact and fiction. Indeed, Mr Davalos admits that Shakespeare, Shaw and Stoppard are his idols. For those of us who enjoy such flattering games of broad, literary, intellectual comedy, WITTENBURG at the Old Fitzroy Theatre is a happy night - mostly.

In his program notes, the Director, Richard Hilliard asks:
Do we go for a full period piece? How much should we highlight the historical and literary references ... ? Do we go mainly for the comedy, highlighting the impossibility of these characters interacting in the first place. In the end, I believe the simplest choices are always the best, and so we're simply playing for the truth. The truth of these characters, what they believe, what they desire. ...
The outcome is, then, that Mr Hilliard's production sits in a white, abstract contemporary post-modernist design of quite some attraction and useful flexibility (Benjamin Brockman - he, also, has created the Lighting Design), and costumed his actors in contemporary clothing - not at all distractedly, rather, well conceived, and there are enough other anachronisms to justify the choice - and has guided his principal cast to give a well grasped and lucid clarity to the arguments, earnestnesses and jokes of the text. However, he seems to have settled for his actors to be mostly 'talking heads', rather, than what he suggests in the above note: "simply playing for truth" - creating 'truthful' characters of real flesh and blood (it is, of course, the real difficulty for directors and actors, with most of Shaw and the early Stoppard plays as well, to find real flesh and blood gambolling in the witty agendas of these writers. Alas, so it seems, in this instance, with Mr Davalos' work in this production by Mr Hilliard.

Mr Woodland is best in striving for a balance of 'brain and heart' in his crafting, although he could pay a little more attention to the detail of his diction: "would chu" for "would you", and very few "- ing's" at the end of those words that had them! - niggling of me, I know, but it did become a focus of some of my concentration, a distraction - and his three musical numbers seem more Mr Woodland showing-off his ukulele skills than John Faustus entertaining in the local pub in a context of the world of the play. Mr Curnow and Butt falter at experiential  revelations of truth in many of their crucial moments, and palpably 'act' (fake) their opportunities, and push us, the audience, into objective positions of detached acting 'judgements', forcing us outside the necessary theatrical suspension of disbelief. Whilst Ms Kershaw, on the other hand, wants to make an emotional meal in indulged self-affection in most of her work, especially that of Helen and Mary, ignoring the intellectual tempo of delivery required by the writer, to succeed.

So, the play's the thing.

WITTENBURG is good fun. If you are up for a flattering mind game to connecting your own literary knowledge to the cleverness of Mr Davalos, a la Stoppard, this is a good-old-romp to indulge in. I did enjoy myself, especially, in the first half, but, gradually, tired of its breezy jokiness in the second half, because I had not been engaged by any real, subjective, identification with the characters to sustain my interest. Too much talking-headery going on. (A fault of the direction, not the writing.)

Mr Davalos' other two plays: DARKFALL (2001) uses Milton's PARADISE LOST and the Bible to spring his creativity; while DAEDALUS (2002) is a fantasia concerning Leonardo da Vinci, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and Niccolo Machiavelli, other, it seems, collages of characters, time and ideas. David Davalos is worth keeping track of, I reckon.

 Howard Shapiro of the Philadelphia Inquirer quipped, of WITTENBURG: "Finally - a decent Presbyterian Reform Comedy."

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