Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Winter's Tale

Bell Shakespeare present THE WINTER'S TALE by William Shakespeare in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.

Shall I simply write the bare and naked facts of my experience in the theatre: it was good, it was bad; I liked it, I hated it, or, should I try to give an analysis of why I felt that way?

THE WINTER'S TALE by William Shakespeare was written in the reign of James I, the Jacobean era. With PERICLES (1607-8), CYMBELINE (1609-10) , THE WINTER'S TALE (1610-11) and THE TEMPEST (1611) we enter the period of Shakespeare's Tragicomic Romances
... from PERICLES which is loosely plotted, to THE TEMPEST, which is one of the most tightly structured plays, the middle-aged dramatist realises the final vision of his art. All the great Shakespearean themes come together at the end: theatrical illusion and its relation to life, the conflict between appearances and reality, the discovery of the self, the capacity of art to transform terror into beauty, and the power of love to heal. ... Fantastical, superficial, artificial, improbable, impressionistic, inferior, miraculous, boring – or the best: no one can agree on the merits of Shakespeare. The eminently reasonable Dr. Johnson dismissed them as foolish, and they are. But, in the words of the playwright Dennis Potter, they are "sweetly foolish." 
So says Norrie Epstein in his book, The Friendly Shakespeare [1]

Growing up in the 1950's and 60's in Sydney, the only Shakespeare I ever saw was 'potted' Shakespeare by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust - once. A MACBETH at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney (it was a school play text for our Leaving Certificate - and, by the way, was the scene of a near riot by us, the audience, when the murderer of Lady Macduff's child cried out: "What, you egg..." - a thunder of foot stamping and hoots of mockery with the tympani of hurled Jaffa lollies spraying around the auditorium like bullets - ouch! The Old Tote production of KING LEAR in one of the University of NSW converted lecture theatres, with, as I remember, Ron Graham, the King and Jennifer West, one of the awful daughters/sisters - I remember begging for Cordelia to breathe for the old man - I loved it and cried buckets; and the John Gregg, HAMLET - not nearly as affecting, I thought. The Genesian Theatre, had as well treated me to a KING LEAR; a potted version of the HENRY IV plays called BANISH PLUMP JACK - adapted by Shakespearean fanatic and 'genius' Margaret Reineck; and a RICHARD II, starring Peter Carroll, he, just having returned from his voice studies in London. Also a musical version of TWELFTH NIGHT called YOUR OWN THING, at the Philip Theatre, Elizabeth Street, in March 1969, with Bryan Davies (a teen music idol), Lynn Rogers, Bunny Gibson and Lois Ramsey.

The first, truly great Shakespeare that I ever saw was a visit from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), with the John Barton, TWELFTH NIGHT, and the Trevor Nunn, THE WINTER'S TALE, with Judi Dench, Elizabeth Spriggs, Richard Pasco, Barrie Ingham and Donald Sinden, at the old Theatre Royal, in March 1970 - I was a student at National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) , and we were given free tickets in the God's, the second balcony Dress Circle - way up stairs in the top balcony, at the back, and those seats were barely padded wooden boxes, and on other occasions, had been torture, but, on those two nights (of TWELFTH NIGHT and THE WINTER'S TALE) I remember being paralysed, not with discomfort, but with a kind of rapture that I have, forever, sought since. Three hours, or so, of a theatrical nirvana, a suspension in time, of time, it was an out of body experience. A turning point in my life. I have indelible memories of both productions but, particularly, THE WINTER'S TALE.

Three friends, comfortable and trusting in their relationships: husband to wife, wife to husband, 'brother' to 'brother', 'sister' to 'brother', are exploded and destroyed, swiftly, with a kind of 'brain snap' of jealousy, that all but the husband, a King of Sicilia, Leontes (Myles Pollard), the most powerful participant in this triangle, know is unfounded. It has swift and catastrophic repercussions; the 'brother', Polixenes (Dorian Nkono), also a King, but of Bohemia, is forced to flee, unceremoniously - he does so with the aid of Camillo (Philip Dodd), a trusted aid of Leontes, who perforce of his choice is exiled; a pregnant Princess of Russia/wife/'sister'/Queen, Hermione (Helen Thomson), is imprisoned and accused a strumpet by her husband/King; a girl child is born, and is taken from Hermione, and ordered to be abandoned in a desert place by Antigonus (Terry Serio); a public trial ensues where Hermione defends her honour, and is, ultimately, declared innocent by the Oracle of Delphi, which the King had commissioned to arbitrate for him, but in his 'madness', rejects. Apollo causes retribution against the King: his young son, Mamillius (Rory Potter), dies of grief and we are told that Hermione herself, too, has died, that information delivered by her servant, Paulina (Michelle Doake). The King in shock regrets all and retires to repentance. Meanwhile, Antigonus leaves the child in the desert of Bohemia (it introduces one of the most startling stage directions ever written: " Exit, pursued by a bear"!); the baby is found by two shepherds (Myles Pollard, Justin Smith) who name her Perdita (Liana Cornell) and adopt her.

Act IV finds us at a holiday celebration, some sixteen years later in Bohemia. There is much flirtation, courting, singing and dancing, not least of which is led by a wily 'thief', Autolycus (Terry Serio) . Florizel (Felix Jozeps), the son of Poloxines, has fallen in love with Perdita, not knowing her true origin, and is discovered by his furious father, and Camillo. Both are forbidden to communicate more, and Perdita and the shepherds, her adoptive family, are threatened with punishments and death. Camillo advises Florizel to flee with Perdita to Sicilia. They do so with the assistance of Autolycus who suspects there is reward possible from such a deed well done.

Act V finds us back in Sicilia where a penitent Leontes greets the fleeing couple. The chasing Polixines, we are told, is reacquainted with Leontes, and Perdita is revealed as his long lost daughter, which permits the wedding plans to be made. Perdita hearing of a marvellous statue, just newly completed, of the likeness of her mother requests to see it. Led by Paulina, all the court attend, where a 'miracle' of reconciliation is made when that statue comes back to life. KIng/husband to Queen/wife; 'brother' to 'brother'; 'sister' to 'brother'; father to son and daughter to mother and father; Prince to Princess. A world of order is restored - all is made right.

The language of Shakespeare in THE WINTER'S TALE is complexly challenging and sophisticated in its expression, in this his almost, next to last play (Leontes' famous circumlocutions in Act One, Scene Two, are a tasking process for only the most skilful actor to engage with - thought and words so entangled with precisions of textual demands/instructions/clues, pushed by careening emotions, that they must be harnessed, firmly, to succeed as a 'readable' offer for an audience - a primed marathon of focus and skill must be quivered and ready in the artist's armoury). A new form of stroytelling, the Tragicomic Romance, is explored and elevated to a powerful, poetic, mythical ether at THE WINTER'S TALE ending. Shakespeare, building on from the only partially successful probings into that realm, in the earlier PERICLES and CYMBLELINE . Contemporary relevance will no longer be enough to believe - it will be required to awake one's faith, to be satisfied. The first three acts are swift and clear in the conflicting passions of the storytelling - there is in the writing a heightening of the energy of the events so that we cannot sit comfortably, but must need to gulp breaths of air, to keep up, and to hold it longer than natural during the trial scene, so as not to surrender to deadening shock and dazed disbelief at Leontes' stubborn actions. The fourth act offers respite from the tragedy, but is more than that, and one must concentrate, for it is a complicated romantic pastoral idyl, full of comic and love burdened speech, song and dance, equal to the romances of say, LOVE LABOUR'S LOST or AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT and yet, still and carefully, ringing bells of poetic connectedness to the background of the main events of the world of Leontes and his Queen, previously seen. The fifth act a breathtaking act of fantasy and magic, most of it retold and not seen, to keep in reserve and leading to, with the genius of structured suspense, a reconciliation, in one of the most famous scenes of emotional impact dared by the master writer, Shakespeare - the bringing to life of a statue, retrieving a love that was thought lost, and to give a 'closure' that was thought, till now, impossible.

This is how I now recall The RSC's production of THE WINTER'S TALE from some 44 years ago: it was set in a white box which was the nursery of the Leontes and Hemione Siciilan palace. A huge over-sized rocking horse dominated the space until a whirling cube perspex box, representing Time, came onto the stage. We were then taken through Time of sixteen years, to Bohemia, to a whirlwind of song and laughter, reminiscent of the vital musical energies of the 1960's counter culture and costume - easily accessed and culturally comfortable (the musical HAIR, which was playing in Sydney up at the Metro Theatre, Kings Cross, at the same time, pervaded the aesthetic influences, for me, to read the production intentions and design). Then in gathering drama we were taken back to a sombre world of repentance in the court of Sicilia, that as the action of the writing unfolded became a spiritual redemption of soul of unearthly power and awe. The thesis of Sicilia, contrasted with the antithesis of Bohemia, to be retrieved by the synthesis of both those worlds, consequently, re-enforcing the unity of this play, enhancing them to a majesty of feeling, such indeed, that my world had, literally, changed. For, when the audience gave applause at its conclusion and I descended from the Gods of the Theatre Royal, I felt six or seven feet above the earth of dear old Castlereagh St. Sydney, when reaching it. A universe had been shown to me, beyond my twenty year old worldliness. My view of life and the possibility of expectation was bigger than it had ever been before. The RSC had led me there through a staggering revelation of Shakespeare's storytelling genius. I was ready to watch Fellini, again, feeling, now ready! Bring on 8 and a half (1963); JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (1965) ! I'm ready to re-engage. I thought! "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"!

John Bell's production of THE WINTER'S TALE in the Playhouse, is set in a white, curtained contemporary children's bedroom. (Design by Stephen Curtis. Lighting by Matthew Marshall) And that is, unfortunately, the only coincidence of connection for me - the white colouring of the children's room. This production was a collective disappointment, that, as it proceeded from act to act seemed to be less and less focused and controlled. This production of THE WINTER'S TALE, unlike my first, left me exhausted and more than a little depressed about the quality of the work of the Bell Shakespeare.

In the notes to the program, the Dramaturg for this production, John Kachoyan, although he acknowledges that most scholars "are loath to ascribe autobiographical interpretations to Shakespeare's works, often because the verifiable details of his life are so scarce" goes on to talk of the death of one of Shakespeare's children, Hamnet, in 1596, and that Shakespeare never wrote anything of any grief concerning that loss. He then conjectures that Shakespeare, like his character Constance in KING JOHN is possibly "frantic at the loss of her (his) son ... " and suggests "... It is tempting to see such echoes in THE WINTER'S TALE and to feel for a playwright at the height of his powers who even then, cannot produce such a miracle" -  that he was trying to find a way to do so, and had done so with this play! - some 14 or 15 years after the actual loss.

The greater part of Shakespeare's writing, some 24 other plays, including masterpieces such as: AS YOU LIKE IT, TWELFTH NIGHT, HAMLET, OTHELLO, KING LEAR, MACBETH, are yet to come, after the death of Hamnet, and not one of them ever concerns itself with the loss of a child in any way, and after some scrutiny, it does not seem to me, that THE WINTER'S TALE does, either. (The Bell synopsis in the program of the action of the play does not detect that either.) It is a kind of  presumptuous conceit, is it not?

Mr Kachoyan goes on to say: "But there is hope in this play, and the tantalising idea that Mamillius' place and power in the schema of this world can be re-imagined, drives John Bell's production. Here the play (in this production) becomes an exploration of the power of childhood trauma and dreams that envisions the play's pastoral second half as a restoration of sorts - the grief dream of a child, at once powerful and unstable. John Bell, like Shakespeare, asks: can Mamillius redeem the tale and forgive the king? The answer perhaps is through a child's dream ... ." Of course the obvious flaw in this statement of concept is that this is not Shakespeare's intention in writing THE WINTER'S TALE. Surely, Mr Bell is on his own here, and is not "like Shakespeare" when he asks the above question: "can Mamillius redeem the tale and forgive the king?" If that had been Shakespeare's interest might he have written that play, instead of the one we have? Who knows? Mr Bell, it seems, sees fit to distort this play to those intentions.

This meddling with the play, this need for Mr Bell to make a contemporary story for himself and us, making the play the outpourings of the psychological coping mechanism of a child witnessing an abusive parental relationship and the divorce consequences, inventing a "fairy-tale" of redemption, and seems to ignore what actually happens in the play as writ. Mr Bell and company superimposes a structure that does not unlock something that is truly in the text, but rather distorts it. It is a clumsy, and in the revealed action of this production, an unforged, and inconsistent application of a wilful attempt to appropriate the play text to the Director's imagination, rather than revealing that of the writer's. Mr Bell is in effect re-writing the play, equal it seemed to me, to the dramaturgical shifts that Mr Stone had made with Shakespeare's HAMLET at Belvoir, last year. The effect of the Mamillius dream concept is to narrow Shakespeare's text rather than opening it.  Like Mr Stone's intellectual conceit in fitting Shakespeare's Hamlet to his therapeutic needs, Mr Bell seems to have taken a need to bring a Prospero-like magic wand to this play and imaginatively attempt to explore his contemporary anxieties about emotionally abused children - a considerable contemporary topicality, no doubt. Jan Kott whose book SHAKESPEARE OUR CONTEMPORARY has had a lot of influence over the past fifty years, has often been misunderstood as to what he meant :
What I have intended is not a forced topicality ... Shakespeare does not have to be modernised or brought up to date ... what matters is that through Shakespeare's text we ought to get our own modern experience, anxiety and sensibility.
I believe the anxieties and sensibilities of Shakespeare's text in THE WINTER'S TALE (in any of his texts) are sufficient enough to be given to a contemporary audience without the unnecessary pre-occupation of Mr Bell's personal anxieties and sensibilities coming between us and the writer. Perhaps, rather, the Bell Shakespeare should write their your own play, a different play, if that is the urgent necessity you want to illustrate, talk about - as Charles Marowitz did  in his practice - e.g. THE SHREW, MEASURE FOR MEASURE, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE - in a way that was interesting, if not as timelessly pertinent as the originals..

The recent experience of the London Globe Theatre productions of TWELFE NIGHT and RICHARD III, even the broadcast of OTHELLO, from the National Theatre, where the period was transposed to a contemporay army barracks, was sufficient proof for me, that contemporary Shakespeare does not need the gimmickry of a directorial conceit to make it work today. In those productions the Director and Designer's contributions illuminated Shakespeare, did not obfuscate, diminish or make boring the text. All three productions placed their faith and energy in serving the writer. They trusted in what was written.

However, the major issue of this production, and let us confine ourselves to this production, although arguably, we could parallel some other recent past Bell productions, is the casting by this company.

In John Barton's book Playing Shakespeare, based on the London Weekend Television program of the same name, of some nine episodes, Mr Barton begins by talking out with some actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the observation of the contemporary playing style of Shakespeare which he calls, The Two Traditions: the marrying of the Elizabethan and Modern style.

The Modern style is the inherent heritage of the western tradition that was crystallised by Konstantin Stanislavsky in Moscow at the start of the twentieth century that has, since then, been in a constantly evolving refinement. Instinctively then, contemporary actors, when approaching any text, in this case, Shakespeare's text, apply consciously, unconsciously, the creative habits that have served them in the many other forms of their employment - theatre, film, television - that they have been creating, working in. It is as natural for them to begin there, as natural as breathing, this absorption in 'reading' a text through the influence of Stanislavsky methods. This company of actors in this Bell Shakespeare production, demonstrated a remarkable clarity of meaning gleaned, extracted, from the relatively difficult language construction of THE WINTER'S TALE. They had solved the humanities of the characters, and got on top of the thoughts behind the language expression. No small feat. The clear sightedness that they all had as to the given circumstances and then to the action, objective needs of telling the story were, mostly, apparent. The Modern style at work.

It is the other tradition, the Elizabethan tradition, that tended to be not accessible to all in this THE WINTER'S TALE. This tradition, Mr Barton tells us, is the use of the language and the method of communicating of that to their audience. Living in environments not easily lit, and most of the audience unable to read or write, the oral tradition was the way that most of the audience learnt their stories, whether they be official legal announcements, church sermons or theatrical entertainments. They were literally, an audience, they depended on the spoken language. This language is what author John Barton has called 'heightened language':
Any bit of the text where there are images and metaphors and similes or rich, surprising language" to communicate the descriptive elements of all the text [2] 
The Elizabethan's depended on the spoken word. Their sense of hearing was aided with a much sharper ear. They were 'seeing' with their ears as well as their eyes. Barton again:
It was like food, and they probably used words much more sensually, almost eating words.[2] 
Indeed, eating words, both the speaker and the listener. These words, must be chosen, coined with clear understanding of the intention of the character by the actors, and be relished with vocal colourings to show the 'how' that it is being used, to achieve the objective . It is a word by word thought process acknowledging and using, as well, the editor's given syntax - it requires a heightened imaginative approach to the language and a formidable, flexible vocal technique.

The acting of Shakespeare requires a fine balance between the naturalistic and heightened elements - the marrying of the Modern and Elizabethan style, striking the right balance. The BALANCE.

It seemed to me, that Mr Pollard, as Leontes, was not able to balance the essential needs of the two traditions. Feeling, not thinking dominated his choices. Emotions not crafted choices were his offers to us. The Modern tradition was the easiest for him. He had an intelligent grasp of what he was saying and why, he comprehended the emotional undercurrents of Leontes' dilemma but then allowed himself, at the performance I saw, wallow, egregiously, in them. Perhaps the heightened imagery of the written language and the heightened stakes of the manner required of him to perform the material, broke through his craft skills of discipline. But, whatever the cause, his instrumental technique was limited, the body wracked with visible tensions so that it could barely squeeze out the sense clues, which were further obfuscated with a thrusting head/jaw, (oh, for an Alexander teacher to hold that head still!), which became a substituted method to attempt to emphasise, signal, what he could not communicate with his voice. The dynamic range - the 'musical' notes were shallow, narrow, and they became strangled in the emotional entanglements, the breath of experiencing the generating emotions overwhelming the technical resources required to speak the text with any real language clarity. We had no clear understanding of why this King was in such a physical state, as his textual communication was buried in physical tensions of self indulged emotional generalisations. Mr Pollard knew what was happening to Leontes, but his communication of his 'plotted' emotional journey, really, was essentially for himself. He enjoyed his performance enormously, he seemed to be watching himself and applauding himself in the moment to moment, and did not provide a single thoughtful communication to the audience of what he knew - there were no readable, selected clues for us to observe and endow.We were invited to watch this actor in wracked extremis. He did not appear to have the control of technique to deliver the Elizabethan Tradition of Playing Shakespeare.

Here is a competent modern actor, apparently, without the skills to deliver this heightened material, the other tradition. How did this happen in the Bell Company, where one presumes they have a wide and excited number of actors eager to play with them? to try this role? Leontes is famously a difficult task for any actor and a challenge. Who would not want the chance? Mr Pollard's strengths appear to be: intelligence, pleasing physical dimensions (ideal for television, it seems), and passions, but, from what we witnessed, at the moment, lacks the essential skills, imperative for this heightened expression of work. If our leading character is unable to communicate to us, what will our experience of THE WINTER'S TALE be, but a catch-if-catch-can of the emotional gist of the story, without any of the clarifying language detail of the Elizabethan Tradition to deliver it, or, reveal the poetic language heritage of our culture - surely, a responsibility that the Bell Company have taken as their prideful task in the twenty-first century. With this casting, this production was a failure. How does that happen?

Ms Thomson, as Hermione, handled her text in the modern tradition capably but, too, does not have the vocal equipment to keep the language word by word alive - it was delivered in recited phrases and sentences, paragraphs. Mr Pollard and Ms Thomson chose to work in fairly broad Australian music vowels and tones, so that the King and Queen of Sicilia became Mr and Mrs Five Dock, suburban contemporaries, and so, gave diminished stakes to the drama of the writing. Indicative of the reading from Ms Thomson, under the guidance of Mr Bell, Ms Thomson, in the trial scene, seemed more struck with the painful birthing of her child and the absence of her son, taking a beautiful heart felt illumination, with a heightened naturalistic pause mid-way through her verse lines, into the pain of that loss, rather than moving forward to the cumulative apex of the Elizabethan concern in the actual writing in the speech we were listening to:
... mistake me not – no life – I prize it not a straw, – but for mine honour (which I would set free) ... 
"For mine honour." Her loss of honour, is her principal grief, she says, whatever may be a mother's truth. There is the place, if it is necessary, to take that emotional depth charged pause, not at the loss of her children - which is a very relatively, recent mid-twentieth century concept.

I was acutely aware that both Mr Pollard and Ms Thomson were more vivid and engaged, more convincing for the audience in their storytelling, in the playing with the low status of their other casting as the Old Shepherd and Mopsa in the fourth act. This is where they were comfortable, apparently, not in the high status demands of Leontes and Hermione.

To throw more rudely into contrast the inadequacies of the two leading actors in this production, Michelle Doake, as Paulina, gave a performance of such incisive wit, character, and clarity of voice and body, balancing the Two Traditions with such ease and control that it was an embarrassment of riches and a blatant contrast, that showed what is possible from a modern, prepared artist, and the glories of the Shakespearean tradition of character, story and language. Ms Doake was the only consistent performer of the formidable Two Traditions that John Barton advocates. How is that possible from the Bell Shakespeare Company? Philip Dodd, Felix Jozeps, Justin Smith and sometimes, Dorian Nkono (in the first half of the play - lost for clear judgment choices in the fourth act) had those skills. Terry Serio was handicapped with his clown Autolycus with a music score by Alan Johns that did not feel authentic to his musical skills, or suit the necessary function of the energy needs of the scene (Sound Design by Nate Edmondson).  Liana Cornell was youthfully pleasant as a light weight Perdita, but vocally under attached, while Rory Potter, as the leading character of this production, Mamillius, dressed and bewanded like Harry Potter, was not able to handle the extra responsibilities of TIME with any but a well read recitation of truncated text.

I wonder if the skills of the acting from some of the principals had been 'better' whether I would have dwelt so much on the production 'spring board', 'point-of-view'. For, certainly when Ms Doake was onstage, one became so engaged with the drama of the story, the brilliance of the argument (comic mockery and all), and the marvelling at and in the language, that there was no time for dwelling on the oddity of the concept. One was swept along, and all those issues became wholly secondary to the experience. With Ms Doake in action, there was no time to think about anything but what was happening in front of you, no spare time to nit-pick.

And, after all, I have brought to task some of our musical theatre artists,  (SWEET CHARITY), and I need to be just as rigorous about these actors in heightened, classic text, about the application and preparation of technical skills - which are basically just 'animal' skills that can be trained, practised (and need to be). For these skills are only 'athletic 'muscles' that can be brought to prime optimums, just as the winning sportsman's muscles are, to win the 'game', the gold medal.

Preparation is all. For Playing Shakespeare it must be of an Olympian scale.

This production of THE WINTER'S TALE was a barely adequate approximation of story and, certainly, no benchmark of experience, except for the wrong reasons. I am tense about approximates from our leading companies. With the opportunity to see international companies, even if they are projected broadcasts, they do set a standard of expectation. They also, sadly, offer an alternative way to see the theatre. At $25-$27 a go, the cinema is an attractive alternative, particularly if you are on a budget. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is better than to be part of live performance, but only if the rehearsed production is playing at some kind of real rigour. Not self-indulgence or near enoughs. Even failure if played at a glorious 150% can be thrilling to watch and share. I reckon, find the best writing and simply trust it and bring it to the stage with skilled artists/craftsmen, and you will have an audience. One does not need a gimmick. One does not need television or film stars to attract an audience, one just needs skills that match the demands of the writing and the form it has been written for, and quality, quality, quality will be there. Build it and they will come.

Analysis completed, sort of. There are other things, but, enough is enough.

 I did not have a good time, at Bell Shakespeare. Again.

  1. Norrie Epstein, 1993, The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books.
  2. John Barton, 1984, Playing Shakespeare, Methuen.
  3. Harold C. Goddard, 1951, The Meaning of Shakespeare. Volume 2, University of Chicago Press.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


HILT by Jane Bodie at the Old 505 Theatre, Level 5, 342 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills.

HILT is a chamber play by Jane Bodie in several short scenes.

The play begins with Kate (Alexandra Aldrich), alone on stage, in a small inner city apartment, appearing to be dealing with some deep inner 'core' disturbance. Enter Nick (Sam O'Sullivan), and we are amused with an awkward, clumsy flirtation that ends in sexual consummation. In the next scene we meet Adam (Stephen Multari), who, we discover is Kate's partner. There is an apparent connection between them both, but, it seems to have some slightly fractious edges. Happy couples have no past, while unhappy couples have nothing else. A scene follows where Adam, in the apartment, is seducing a young free spirited woman named Clara (Joanna Downing). Both the seduction scenes are interrupted when the apartment telephone rings several times - it is ignored, by both, by all. It is, we discover, a signal to the apartment occupier that time is concluding. Kate and Adam have a sexual agreement, with strict parameters, permitting an open relationship, of a kind. Like the couple in Pinter's short play, THE LOVER, a very 'modern' arrangement between partners, (but, different), is in action. It, of course, begins to shatter, agreed 'lines in the sand' are crossed, complications develop, and an emotional and inevitable gulf widens, deepens, between Kate and Adam, and separation ensues. Their emotional maturity has been misapprehended. By both. The apartment and the relationship has become a kind of suffocating, strangling claustrophobia. In the last scene, Kate is seen interviewing a buyer for the apartment, Simon (Sam O'Sullivan) - he likes it - it seems he, also, likes her. She has no inkling of that attraction, being, maybe, so introvertedly indulgent, that she cannot see beyond her own self. She is left in the apartment, alone, and presses against the wall, metaphorically, perhaps, trying to break through, out, but instead sinks to the ground. Despair, depression is what she has left. No partner, no apartment! The problem may not be the relationship with Adam, or with the apartment, rather, it may be with herself. Her self.

Ms Bodie's THIS YEAR'S ASHES  seen at the Griffin Theatre in 2011, dealt with a young, single woman coping with living in a small Sydney apartment, coming to terms with grief over the death of a parent, and facing the 'urgency' of a possible burgeoning relationship. Letting go, and moving forward, is it possible? A happy woman has no past, while an unhappy woman has nothing else. Can Ellen unshackle herself from her past and move forward? That wonderful play dealt with  matters of some personal anguish that were masked with the glitter of witty, hilarious dialogue, albeit, dark, maybe, even with cynical finger-prints, but with what, we have, over time, come to recognise as the distinctive voice of Ms Bodie - "brutal, insightful and bitingly funny".

HILT is an earlier play (2003), and was previously presented at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, in 2004. This production of HILT, directed by Dominic Mercer, seems to err with an emphasis of the anguish, grief-depression of Kate, and tends to ignore, more often than not, the humorous, comic mask of the relationship, relationships, present in the conversational banter of all the characters. The tension of the human contrast of tones - the 'inner' core and the 'outer' mask of the characters - the tragic flaw covered, hidden, by coping mechanisms is, relatively, lost in this production performance.

It recalled for me, the famous tension of perception between the director, Stanislavsky with his writer, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov declaring and trying to insist that his plays were comedies not tragedies - that they were observations of life - lives, which despite the deep undertows of the psyches of the characters, were, at least, superficially, optimistically, in pursuit of happy journeys, endings.That exquisite, and all too common dilemma between the private and the public 'face', that vibrating tension, which an audience ought to have privy to, in Ms Bodie's play, too, is mostly absent here. This sense of comedy (irony) in Chekhov's works of the relationships between the sexes -both his plays and his short stories; the sexual ambiguities of personal relationships, the examination of the perils of long time commitment found in Noel Coward's surprisingly, revolutionary comic, bitter sweet exposes of human interaction : e.g. PRIVATE LIVES (1930), DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933), even BLITHE SPIRIT (1941); and the dark comic undertones of Harold Pinter's love-plays are all progenitors of some of the world-weary observations and skills of Jane Bodie. And not to have the subtle contrasts balanced in this production of HILT, undersells the 'genius' of the playwrighting.

Mr O'Sullivan handles it best in his two small, intelligent cameos - the hints of the societal comic edge of Ms Bodie's observations, undulating beneath the surface of the obvious actions of the characters, are pulsating in amusing detail. Psychological subtlety is a commanding strength of Mr O'Sullivan's work - remember, his performance in PUNK ROCK, not long ago. (I did have to read the program to comprehend that Mr O'Sullivan was creating two roles - Nick and Simon - the two characters seemed to be too similar [a writing, or, costuming problem?], such, that I didn't visually discern that difference while watching the play, which led to some confusion, for me, in the action of the concluding scene!). Ms Downing, has the measure of her comic opportunities as Clara, but, of course has a much more obvious path, from the writing, to play in - delightfully pert. Mr Multari's Adam has too much obstacle from the forceful 'dark' reading of Ms Aldrich's Kate to be able to fully realise the efforts of Ms Bodie's comic writing, but does well, despite some of the true grain of the writing having been thwarted. Ms Aldrich is deeply committed to her Kate, but has, for me, limited the possibility of her emotional range choices - the comic opportunities not engaged sufficiently.

The spare white design of the apartment by Karen Wood, could do with many, many, more books, and oddly, in this space, maybe, is a little too large, perceptually. The lighting is cool and atmospheric, useful (Alexander Berlage). The costumes, also, by Ms Wood, are character suitable (with reservations about the dressing of Nick and Simon), however, the solutions required for the regular costume changes inherent in the many swift time change demands of the text have not been solved, and may be the cause for the long scene change interludes, which brake/break the musical action of the drama created/expected by Ms Bodie. The planning about those clothing necessities need more design thought, to facilitate a swifter and seamless musical action. Real clothes are not, necessarily, the solution for HILT's storytelling structure - speed of change seems to be of paramount importance.

Recently, reading conversations between the novelist and screen writer, Michael Ondaatje, and the famous film editor, Walter Murch, I have been made alertly aware of that process: the dramatic edit, and so, on viewing the choices of the freeze frame edit, lighting and musical interludes, and their cueing, made by Mr Mercer, (there is no sound design credit), and although there is often a witty comment in the choice of the music and the lyrics, I felt that they seemed not to build the motion of the storytelling, but rather froze it, and because of the number of them, divorced us from the accumulating energy of the writing and its method of storytelling. Often, the edit and light changes needed to come sooner, and the costume changes made faster, and the music, seemingly, less indulged in its aptness - they seemed pragmatic necessities and sometimes, intellectual decisions, rather than dramatically useful ones.

HILT is, as I have said a chamber play, and it is a work by a very interesting and sophisticated Australian writer. MUSIC, another of Ms Bodie's plays is due at the Griifin Theatre, in April, and like this play, worth acquainting your self with.

Ms Bodie's play is, definitely, the thing, here.

N.B. Reference:
  1. Michael Ondaatje, 2002, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Bloomsbury Publishing

The Pride

Side Pony Productions in association with Rock Surfers present THE PRIDE, an original work devised by Cast and Director at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach.

Zoe Pepper the founder of the Western Australian company Side Pony Productions, and director and co-devisor of this show tells us, in her program notes :
Until about 10,000 years ago lions were the most widespread mammals after humans, living in Africa, Europe, India and the Americas. The starting point for THE PRIDE (as in a pride of lions, or, is it the pride of daddy lion?) came from a fascination with the behaviour of lions. I was taken by the structure and brutality of their social patterns and found disconcerting similarities between human and lion behaviour. We've moved a long way from this initial idea ...
Well, not far enough, really, to make a show of any real interest other than for friends, or, the proud Pepper family, or stoned, drunk, or both - it may be necessary - hipster-types with more money than sense, may, may find it funny, or, perhaps, serious! I mean, putting actors into silly, lion suit one-seys is not enough to keep the rest of us going for an hour and fifteen minutes (was that all it was?)

Concept = lame.

Script built from improvisation = worse than lame. High school stuff, at best. And, that is a very odd, rare, high school, I'm talking about.

Take the first scene: A man dressed in a lion suit (Bruce) walks on stage with a silver, metal bucket. He acknowledges us, the audience, many times. He goes to a table on which several stuffed toys with a likeness to lion cubs sit. He puts the bucket on the floor, below the toys/cubs, which he then pushes into the bucket. They plummet - thud, into an empty bucket (no splash). He picks up the bucket, checking we are watching, goes behind the table, puts the bucket on the table, and then presses his hands into the bucket, seemingly to squash, mash and mangle (maybe, 'drown' the cubs/toys , however, there is no water sound or visual affect) violently, a couple of times. He then picks up the bucket, and nonchalantly ambles off, through a door way.

Should we be amazed or horrified at the likeness of the animal-lion and human behaviour? Now, what are we to make of this? Should we laugh or cry? Was the lion drowning his off-spring? Will have to check with David Attenborough to discover whether  the male lion does that? Or, is it the idea, that it is a male human, who, according to the premise of the program notes is much like this beast in behaviour, has, indeed "disconcerting similarities", is drowning his children? I am not sure that I  have much credence for the idea that Side Pony is conjecturing, here. Proof? Well not in my experience of common human events. Think further, his lioness partner, Linda, does not seem to miss her children. Is she, then, complicit? Is this the normal behaviour of the lion parent and therefore the human? Are these Pride and Human behaviour expressions, demonstrating these "disconcerting similarities", suggesting, we are, all, both, psychopathic killers of our children?

Mmmm, puzzlement. On we go to the next sequence - how to use a telephone recording system, and by the way, demonstrate singing and rhythmic abilities!

We, the audience are onto the concept of THE PRIDE right from the start, and after that first scene just hope, and hope, that there is going to be a surprise development as the clock ticked on and on to that first scene's proffered dilemma. Unfortunately, there isn't one. It's just a joke - a truly-ruly Lame one!

Or, is this it? - ("Ahhhh! OMG. Don't please!") - Is this it? = Mawkishly, Bruce, the daddy lion, grows old, and right at the end, underscored by sad and ominous music (Nathan Nesbit, Composer and Sound Designer), he acquires traits of some of the old: Alzheimer's, and then, after being humiliated by the toughness of the up and coming young lion, strips off his suit to reveal a near naked human being (shocking, oh no!) - just in case we hadn't understood the (laboured) theatrical metaphor, the genius idea of this show. Was that the denouement, the dazzling insight, development? Hey, Side Pony, we got it on the first entrance - 75 minutes ago, for god's sake.

The skills of the performers are not bad: Brendan Ewing as Bruce, the daddy lion; Adriane Daff as Linda, the mommy lion, with cubs and sisters; Russell Leonard as James, the growing-up lion who will become the new daddy lion. (Come to think of it - I'm sure you are onto it, too: King Mufasa could be Bruce - with elements of Scar, the jealous, resentful bits; Queen Sarabi could be Linda; and Simba could be James, the new king of this castle he has been renovating. They all live on Pride Rock!)

Clearly, Mr Ewing has stand-up comic umphhh, even without his guitar and award winning songs - he has ample opportunity to do his schtick! Ms Daff has the submissive and patient second banana (but smarter) role down pat - funny. Is that her schtick - submissive and patient second banana? - if it is so, then not so smart. Pssst- you're been done over by those blokes and Ms Pepper: Where's your special show off bit in the show? Mr Leonard from the program notes we learn, is a "singer, actor, dancer, acrobat whose recent involvement in 'King Kong" the musical won him a 2013 Helpmann Award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement and 2014 Green Room Award current nominee for 'best ensemble' ... " (sic), who was then given the chance to, indeed, demonstrate his special schtick with a lip-synching opportunity, towards the end of the show, engaging his dance, and especially, acrobatic, acrobatic, acrobatic amazements - they were really, really, really good. But, I could not fathom how this interlude fitted the dramaturgical narrative structure of THE PRIDE, organised by Ms Pepper. It just seemed to make the show way longer than necessary.

As the Side Pony site tells us : "good people doing terrible things."

The 'home' of  Bruce and Linda's pride is finally decorated with a large wallpaper blow-up, of a re-production of French painter, Henri Rousseau's REPAS, which features a lion devouring its kill in the down, centre area of the canvass. Henri Rousseau is famous for being a leading member of the post-Impressionist painting movement, the Naive / Primitive school. If only the naive and/or primitive 'school' of theatre creation that is Side Pony had produced something as wonderful as Mr Rousseau's work of Art. It hasn't, neither art, nor even, a plausible entertainment, rather, 75 minutes of fringe theatre hell!

THE PRIDE is the Rock Surfers first offer for the year, 2014. It is almost April, and I thought we had lost them. Last year this company made a significant contribution to the theatre scene in Sydney. This work, that they have curated, associated with, is an ominous awful, retrograde decision.

What'sa happenin', Rock Surfers?

Save your money. Go to the zoo, or rent THE LION KING.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Squabbologic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Company proudly present THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar at the Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, at the Hayes Theatre is another on-target HIT, following on from the sell-out SWEET CHARITY, seen last month. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is, also, another on-target HIT from the Squabbologic Independent Music Theatre, following on from their production, late last year, of CARRIE: The Musical. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is a sure-fire night of delicious 'fluff', impeccably presented with a joie de vivre that is very, very infectious.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE began in Toronto, as a small bridal joke made by some theatre people as a stag party gift for the groom. It was expanded and expanded, played at the Rivoli Theatre, in Toronto, in 1998, was seen by an American Broadway producer, and subsequently opened at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway on May 1st, 2006, where it played for 674 performances and 32 previews, to go on to win 5 Tony Awards, including Best Book (Bob Martin & Don McKellar) and Best Original Score (Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison). From little things big things can grow!

An obsessed musical theatre fan (you know who, among your fiends, oops friends, he/she could be!) greets us in the darkness to invite us to sit with him while he plays for us a rare recording of a now forgotten Broadway musical called THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, starring now forgotten artists. (Drowsy in 1920's prohibition-speak signifies tipsy). He promises us it has a story "and a few good songs that will take me (you) away" - what any good musical should do! This Man in the Chair (Jay James-Moody) sitting in a dingy apartment space (kitchen-dining area), pulls a vinyl recording from its sleeve, and puts it on, giving us detailed information about the all and sundry of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, that, really, only the obsessive would know, and, and REMEMBER (he will, often, through the course of the experience, give us his extensive and loving knowledge - it is not bothersome, often enhancing and amusing). The scratch and crackle of the sound of the needle on the recording nostalgically captures him (us), and suddenly, the music and plot come to life in front of us : costumed, singing, dancing and acting, all in this very ordinary place. The magic of theatre is brought to us, via the refrigerator, kitchen cupboard draws, and the front and back doors of this apartment.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is an affectionate construct/tribute to the musical theatre of the 1920's - the songs are catchy and light-hearted (e.g. Show Off, Toledo Surprise), the characters easily recognised and understood, the story predictable and 'lovely', all with a delicious concoction of singing and dance routines to fulfil our expectations of what a good (old fashioned musical) should be! The illusion of location environment is amusingly solved with two back windows that have images of chandeliers or sky clouds or, etc, changing, to clue us in. The properties that are necessary for the action appear and disappear easily, and by the time an aeroplane has to appear, perforce of plot demands, our imaginative puissance is so engaged, that along with the artists (much like Mickey and Judy could/did), we conjure it with ironing boards as wings, and hair brooms as propellers - sheer delight! Add the history lessons about the traditions and techniques of theatre entertainments - vaudeville routines etc - a very enlightening, invigorating time can be had - lots and lots of easy in-jokes to chortle to. When was your last musical just sheer escapist fun?

The ensemble is truly an ensemble, and are all playing at a meticulous and joyful 100%. Congratulations. I had special delight in the work of Steven Kreamer and Richard Woodhouse, as the Gangsters; Brett O'Neill as Robert, the groom; Ross Chisari as George, the bridal organiser (especially when he tap-dances); and the particular pleasure of Hilary Cole, as the bride, Janet Van De Graf - last I saw her was as Carrie - what a delicious voice and presence she has.

Jay James-Moody plays, consummately, the Man in the Chair, and is also the Director of the show. Well done - he has a real talent to amuse. He, also, apparently, has the ability to attract real talent to him: Clever Scene Design, by Lauren Peters; Great costume magic, by Elizabeth Franklin; Lighting Design, by Sian James-Holland; Amusing and inventive Choreography, by Monique Salle (who also sings and dances as Trix the Aviatrix), and a wonderful music director, Paul Geddes, who with a small group of 5 other musicians give a marvellous live sound to the score, aided and abetted by a truly expert and apt Sound Design, ably cued in performance for maximum effect, by Jessica James-Moody.

I had seen the original on Broadway and kind of remember it. Geoffrey Rush played it in a Melbourne Theatre Company production in 2010, and is producing a film version, starring himself as The Man in the Chair. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is a fun time and maintains, gloriously, for Music Theatre fans especially, the expectations of the SWEET CHARITY production.

Get your tickets immediately - only seats 118 a night! (Closes April 6th.)

Next, is a new Australian Musical, 'Truth, beauty and a picture of you". Music and Lyrics by Tim Freedman (from,The Whitlams), Book by Tim Freedman and Alex Broun. Due May, 9th. Great.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Epicentre Theatre and Emu Productions present DIMBOOLA by Jack Hibberd at the King Street Theatre, Newtown.

I have never seen DIMBOOLA. I was keen, at last, to see the play, and the company were very persistent in inviting me. So.....

I have, of course read DIMBOOLA, and know of it. Written by Jack Hibberd in 1969, it premiered at the famous La Mama Theatre in Melbourne - a 'hot-bed', then, for nurturing the new Australian play. Originally directed by Graeme Blundell, who went on to fame in the seventies starring in a trilogy of filmed sex-comedies : ALVIN PURPLE (1973); ALVIN PURPLE RIDES AGAIN (1974) and MELVIN, SON OF ALVIN (1984). which, like this play, became a 'popular' culture success. Well, the first film, at least.

DIMBOOLA presents a celebration of the wedding of Protestant Morrie McAdam and Catholic Reen Delaney in the Mechanics' Institute Hall in Dimboola, Victoria. The families and friends meet, and through the traditions of the event greet, argue, drink and drink, and brawl in an erupting fog, fug, of alcoholism , and 'tribal' prejudices/rivalries, and, ultimately, drift off home, supposedly, none the worse, in any way, for the experience - a true Australian fairy-tale, perhaps? (No smoking at this event, I noticed.)

The families arrive in the foyer and greet us and share a glass of sweet sherry. There was much noise and recognition going on, then, we were invited into the theatre. The wedding party sat along a bedecked wedding table, and unusually, for the play/production format, we, the audience were sat in the permanent seating banks of the theatre - for, usually the audience are made part of the ceremony and are sat as guests at the 'feast' to interactively be engaged and engage. A live band, the famous "Lionel Driftwood and the Pile Drivers" create some of the aural havoc.

This company of actors are very 'raw' in their skills and tend to compensate with adrenalin driven energy. There is some good costuming (Deborah Warren) and it assists the actors in creating defined personalities, with nicely observed physical choices, leaning decidedly to 'cartooning'. There is much interaction of a believable kind going-on between the characters during the ceremony, but it is the poor handling of the text that lets the show down. Most of it is 'shouted' and not anchored in specifics of action. Essentially, no-one is really talking to anyone, and no one is really listening.  It is, mostly, a recited cacophony of self-absorbed, caricatured noise.

Despite the relative lack of audience participation that is an intended part of the 'charm' of this play by Mr Hibberd, (in fact, reading about the history of the play in production, it has become a stalwart of the theatre-restaurant culture), at only 75-minutes in length, it was interesting enough to keep me in there with this valiant group of young artists - the band helped enormously : Eugene Brown, Aiden Gerstmeier, Matt Blundell, seemingly, led by a very confident Julian Sanchez. What arrested my interest was the dawning recognition of the essence of this work as an example of a 'terrifying' cultural artefact of yesteryear - of 45 years ago! - I became a kind of cultural 'archaeologist', sifting through the time layers of our dramatic literature! - Perhaps, it was the seating arrangements that allowed me to take an objective look at this play, instead of having the usual experience of the play, which was to be seated at tables, as part of the action and so, possibly, more subjectively, viscerally involved.

For instance, the banter (a lot of it), around the 'shenanigans' of the local clergy with young children, all gossiped about, and in period style, laughed at as a routine affair of the community. Times have indeed changed, and the cultural acceptance of such 'rumour', detailed, in the play, certainly helps those of us flabbergasted by the daily revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, to comprehend how it managed to go on without moral outrage and defensive action. The community thought it was fair game for comic comment! - it was 'hilarious'. The question that comes to mind, then, is : "Does this company, led by their Director Darcy Green, still think it is hilarious?" Reading the program notes, it seems so! Considering the evidence of the times about me, it may account for the popularity of the play, and why I have resisted it, mostly unconsciously, for so long - as  much as I have to the cultural 'baggage'  around the filmed 'artefacts' of Alvin Purple.

(The choice of image selected for this production, see above, and on their program cover, also raises a faint stir of discomfort in me, concerning this artistic company's stand around the cultural and generational abuse of alcohol in Australia today, and its consequences - death, addiction and violence, both random and domestic, especially against women and children  - particularly, since the company itself is made up of so many young persons, quite identifiably connected to this social debate.)

Darcy Green, is making his debut as a director and was drawn to this material because "of its hilarious script as well as its strange, complex and tragically Australian characters. ..." (sic). The program tells us that "Darcy is a full time student at UTS where he studies Visual Communications. Darcy also teaches extra curricula drama at St Ignatius College, Riverview." (Mr Abbott's old school, yes?).  Mr Green does, indeed, have a visual talent, for he has some generalised concept of how to stage a play, and build the image of the characters, (if he had a hand with the production advertising imagery, 'Singo' or Clemenger's may have a new talent for their 'stable') but not, as yet, much nuance or sensibility around the use of the language of the text to reveal the play and its intentions for an audience, except as approximations, resulting in only a communication of the gist of the dramatic architecture of the writer. One wonders, as well, has his education encouraged a critical dramaturgical assessment of the material, and its worth, value, to be toiled over by these artists and represented today, on our stages. There is a world of Australian scripts out there, I can vouch for. DIMBOOLA, seems to me, a relic of the past, that is best read, and debated in a cultural, academic essay on the development and representation of the Australian psyche in our playwrighting history.

For me, this play has a 'bogan-larrickinism" that I thought (had wished) we had outgrown as a social organism. Oh, I have forgotten the present broadcasts from the Federal Parliament of Question Time, curtesy of our own ABC, and any number of popular radio (KIIS FM, is it? Sandilands and who....?) and television programs that attract a lot of attention. This material is a kind of propaganda, really, for good old time Australian values. This kind of thinking, on my part, could be read by some as 'very un-Australian'. I'd best be careful. Amen. So be it.

This production is a rough-house raucousness played with undisciplined inexperience, and best approached by family and friends of the company, and those politically aligned to the comic role models it , affectionately, reveals. That is those of us who are relaxed and comfortable with our social and political values. Those of us 'comatosed' by the popular culture that makes no demands of us, other than our blithe enjoyment, and confirmation of our secure belief that all's right in our world of the fair dinkum. To quote Morrie McAdam, the bridegroom of the play: "No worries."

EPICENTRE has announced its next effort, Oscar Wilde's, AN IDEAL HUSBAND, set in contemporary London. I hope the specifics of the writing are going to be more accurately engaged within 'the concept', using the present day cultural politics to inform the directorial choice made by EPICENTRE - and it is not just a gimmick or budget choice - for, Mr Wilde's work, at almost three hours of great literary density, springing from a social urgency, of which Mr Wilde became a notorious victim,  will need more rigour than what has been given to Mr Hibberd's less taxing verbal gymnastics, and intent.

Best of luck.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Noises Off

Photo by Brett Boardman
Sydney Theatre Company and Qantas present NOISES OFF by Michael Frayn, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

NOISES OFF is an entirely delectable farce by Michael Frayn performed with hectic, high spirited impetuous ardour, and impeccable skills, by a deliciously drilled, hilarious team of actors/farceurs, under the assured guidance of Jonathan Biggins. Laughter can be, could be, the tonic de jour, you are seeking, to distract you, even momentarily, from the 'farce' of our present Australian political governings, parliaments, and the awful weighing-up of truly tense international political developments. If you need, and I did, a distraction, from the weary way of the world since man began to repeat himself, then this production by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) may be it, may be worth taking in.

You could do a lot worse.

Apparently, sitting backstage during a performance of THE TWO OF US (1970) - a quartet of one act plays, Mr Frayn had written - while watching Lynne Redgrave and Richard Briers frantically changing costumes as they played five different characters before making calm looking entrances onto the stage proper, the idea of a backstage farce came to him. That idea became a short one-acter: EXITS (1978), which was, for our good fortune, seen by Michael Codren, the British Film and Theatrical producer, who then encouraged Mr Frayn to expand it to a full length piece. In February, 1982, NOISES OFF premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in London, directed by Australian, Michael Balkemore, and then transferred to the Savoy Theatre, in the West End, where it ran for four years. The play, subsequently, opened on Broadway, in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, and played for 553 performances. It has been revived many times in those cities and, of course, seen all over the world. This may be the fourth or fifth production that I have seen of it, in Sydney, over the years. (Two of them at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) - by Adam Cook and Rodney Fisher - in the old NIDA course curricula, when comedy, the most difficult genre of all, was given a full term of study for the artists in training, culminating in a production of a play of daunting challenge - those were the days). Mr Frayn has continued to work on the text, the last time for the 2000 National Theatre production for the Director, Jeremy Sams - there are interesting variations between the 1982 version and the 2000 text, and they mostly are re-writes and tinkerings in the third act.

The play in three acts, records the trials and deteriorating tribulations, over several months, both artistic and personal, of a group of artists, rehearsing and performing a truly silly (fictional) farce called, NOTHING ON, on a provincial tour - think, NO SEX PLEASE, WE'RE BRITISH (1971) by Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriottt , a play condemned by the critics that ran from 1971-1987 to sell out audiences,in London, and you have got it. Act one introduces us to the characters at the final dress rehearsal and is a gently comic 'set-up' for the high farce 'pay-off' of the backstage mayhem, shown to us in act two, almost all in 'dumb show', followed on in the final third act by almost cataclysmic comic chaos at the final performance of the 'tour'.

The vulgar design of this fictional company's production: "Ostar Productions Ltd", is frighteningly, endearingly accurate, created by Gina Boxhall (aka, Mark Thompson). The costumes and wig design by Patsy Hemming (aka, Julie Lynch) are witty and near-gross exaggerations of character comic types and of the 1970's era - no, not at all similar to Michael Wilkinson's AMERICAN HUSTLE gear and wigs, but just as eerily nostalgic, in their own way. The lighting by Rod Wray (aka, Nigel Levings) has all the lush nostalgic tinge of the genre, and the period.

All the ensemble are synchronistically choreographed to within inches of their lives, "accelerating the truth(s)" of the plot of the play: Alan Dukes, Lindsay Farris, Marcus Graham, Danielle King and Tracy Mann. Special mention must be given to the 'warhorse' of this cast, Ron Haddrick, who makes a very welcome and delicious appearance as the old soak, Selsdon Mowbray - his timing, physically, and especially vocally, impeccable - a role model for all to watch to learn some "tricks of the trade" from. Ash Ricardo, playing Brooke Ashton, is as "sexy as all hell" and brings a clever actor's intelligence to incarnate a stock, blonde dimwit with sometimes cross-eyed contact pop-outs for unfailing hilarious reward. Genevieve Lemon playing the stalwart Dotty Otley, carries much of the comic "heavy lifting" of the first act to reap wonderfully deserved laughter in the latter acts - a joy to watch her at work.

While the "star" of this ensemble must be Josh McConville, who creates a character type with not only great affection and humanity (even seeming to make THAT costume appear as clothing, that a "real" person would dare to wear), but who also comes 'armed' with an arsenal of fabulous elastic gymnastic flexibilities, engaging vibrantly with doors and stairs (especially, stairs, and later, sardines!) and many, many juggled props, so much so, that he recalls the beloved physical comics of those silent movie days of yesteryear, that have brought one to floods of tears of joy. One sensed this actor's comic range in the STC production of IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, a year, or so ago, and it is entirely rewarding to see Mr McConville stretched to reveal this level of capacity at not just comedy, but in the very, very demanding world of farce. Consider the range of endeavours that Mr McConville has given us in the past few years: THE BOYS (terrifically frightening - for which he won the 2012 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Actor), THE CALL, STRANGE ATTRACTOR, THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS and even in the relatively small role as Tybalt in ROMEO AND JULIET last year, and one might reflect that here is an actor of an extraordinary range of gifts. It suggests, to me, that the classic roles of the theatre are all worth his relish and talent - one can look forward to them, one hopes.

One can read elsewhere a slight need to intellectually justify or explain this play for being part of the Sydney theatre repertoire, but, really there is no need. NOISES OFF sits at the pinnacle of farcical comedies written in the recent past, (Richard Bean's ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS a recent competitor on the scene), and is an undoubted modern CLASSIC, and to do well, requires masterly degrees of skill and discipline from all the artists. It is an Everest challenge and when conquered is more than a "ton of laughter" avalanche. This production should serve as a benchmark for laugh excellence for some time to come.

 Andrew Upton confesses in his Message in the program:
NOISES OFF is a play that I have never seen and found so difficult to read that it took me three years to get to the end of the script. 
Thank goodness he managed it, and for him to declare, three years after beginning reading: "I think it is a masterclass in comic theatrical writing." - an understatement, for sure?! Mr Frayn, a speaker of Russian, is famous for his still fluid translations of the Chekhov plays, and his adaptation of PLATONOV, known as WILD HONEY,  would be a role, for Mr McConville, to tackle, indeed. (How about a Vershinin or Tuzenbach, or an Oswald?)

"Getting on, getting off" rails the director, Lloyd Dallas."Doors and sardines. That's theatre, that's life.' And, yes," says Benedict Nightingale in his book GREAT MOMENTS IN THE THEATRE:
…almost all Frayn's plays, comic or serious or both, involve our vain attempts to impose or create order and find meaning in a disorderly and maddeningly complex world. COPENHAGEN (1998), which many think his masterpiece, is largely about the inscrutable motives of Heisenberg, discoverer of the uncertainty principle ..." [1] 
Certainly in the present world of 2014, the uncertainty principle is being 'tolled' and felt throughout the land. To plant such thoughts in a parody of a British sex farce called NOTHING ON is quite an achievement, don't you think? Or, let's rather not concern ourselves with too much thinking, and just laugh and laugh our 'blues' away - at least for the few hours of NOISES OFF, down at the Sydney Opera House.

Directing this play is no simple task, and much credit must go to Jonathan Biggins. Congratulations.

Highly Recommended. I loved it.


  1. GREAT MOMENTS IN THE THEATRE by Benedict Nightingale. 2012, Oberon Books, London

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vale James Waites

Photo by Brett Monaghan

James Waites, known to me as Jim, left us on the 12th February, 2014. He swam out to sea at Coogee Beach. Jim had been struggling with ill health for some years.

Jim was an Arts Journalist, famous, to me, for his Theatre criticism. We had met way back in the early 1980's when I asked him, on behalf of John Clark and Elizabeth Butcher, to teach a class for young writers at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), using Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER as a model. He did. We then crossed paths in many different worlds, fleetingly, but always connected, some how.

Jim came back into my life, more apparently, when I began to write this blog. We would meet in theatre foyers and chat. He would write to me and I to him, exchanging emails. He encouraged me, mentored me, agreed and disagreed with me. He 'egged' me on, and I, as if it was necessary, 'egged' him. He was the power-house of courage that has inspired me to, and, in this process.

On Sunday, the 9th of March at the wharf at STC a Memorial event was made. Andrew Upton welcomed us. Christa Hughes and Paul Capsis sang. Some friends, spoke briefly. On James Waites web-page, the speech given by Trish Waites, Jim's sister, can be read. I recommend that you, too, read it.

I want to thank all who looked after Jim. I want to, especially, thank, Augusta Supple.

James was a special guy. He will be missed. I hope to find his courage to inform my future choices.

With love,

Kevin J.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stop Kiss

photograph by Gez Xavier Mansfield

UNLIKELY Productions presents STOP KISS by Diana Son at atyp Wharf 4, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay.

STOP KISS (1998), written by Diana Son is set in New York. The play is principally Callie's story (Olivia Stambouliah) and we watch her negotiate her identity, and, ultimately, her commitment to her humanity. She is a New Yorker working as a News Traffic Reporter for a television company. She has a boyfriend, George (Aaron Tsindos). Sara (Gabrielle Scawthorn), has recently moved to New York from St Louis, after a seven year relationship, her one and only, with Peter (Ben McIvor). Sara is an elementary school teacher in the Bronx. The two women meet and gradually find that they are attracted to each other. Neither is at all sure how to deal with this.

The play, chronologically, is, mostly, an observation of the tentative development of the relationship - it is gentle, funny and awkward. It leads to a kiss, a public kiss. The kiss is, unfortunately, observed and a violent attack is made on them both. One of them is injured, calamitously. The latter part of the play shows us the aftermath, the reaction of all, parents and friends, to the new circumstances of this barely bonded couple, as one of them has acquired disabilities, which may or may not be recovered from. On paper, then, the play can read like a television melodrama, and there is a sense of that, although, Ms Son has shuffled the scenes out of chronological order and we, the audience, know about the consequence of the kiss that should have been stopped, almost from the start of the play, which adds a poignancy and dramatic tension to the fragile encounters of the two young women.

Antony Skuse, as Director, has applied his usual open style production technique, on a bare stage, this time with the audience organised in traverse seating. All the actors are visible, all of the time. whether they are in the scene or not. They, then, are audience with us, and characters, and stage hands, shifting scene and supplying costume, set dressing, musical support: song and/or percussion. It is a fairly fluid design (Gez Xavier Mansfield) with a Lighting Design by Sara Swerksky, and Sound Design by Jed Silver (all three regular collaborators with Mr Skuse), with well choreographed, if sometimes too long, scene changes. This production plays for one hour forty minutes and could use an interval, just, if for no other reason, then to re-vitalise our concentration, in the humid space under the wharf at atyp on those difficult seating banks - it became a little of an endurance test, where objective physical discomfort fought with subjective needs of concentration on the play.

Mr Tsindos, McIvor and Robert Jago give class support, as does Kate Fraser, and especially Suzanne Pereira, both in her role as a supportive neighbour and as the singer to underscore the scene changes. Ms Scawthorne and Ms Stambouliah play the discovering of the mutual attraction with detailed and understated delicacies and lead us to a denouement of pathos that opens the play into an observation of more than a same sex romance blighted by homophobic violence, but too, to the embrace of the sacrifices we can make, when confronted with life's dilemmas, that make us truly human. Callie's journey is inspiring, if unenviable.

Ms Son is a Korean-American from Delaware, and has had a highly successful career in the theatre and television. She has also developed work with carers of the disabled in Los Angeles. Ms Song is not a lesbian, and is herself married with twins, and it is a testament to her talent that all the worlds and actions of the play have such logical and real persuasion, devoid of overt melodrama and sentimentality. Sandra Oh, a friend of Ms Son, was in the original production. I wondered the added effect it would have made to the play as an experience. Ms Son has said that she had not written race specific characters, but one wonders, the extra dimension it would have given the production of the play to have an Asian casting- it then would have crossed into multiple worlds of 'wonder' as in the New York production at the Public Theatre , one not often seen on our Sydney stages: same sex-issues, homophobia and violence, race (not discounting, thoughtlessly the backgound of Ms Stambouliah) and disability, all in the one experience!

Although the Mardi Gras has made this an Official Event, and that season is over, this is a play that goes beyond the purview of the expected audience.

P.S. After seeing STOP KISS, I made a point of catching BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (2013), its French title is THE LIFE OF ADELE - CHAPTERS 1 and 2 , winning the Palm d'Or in Cannes, directed by Abdellatif Kechide, which secured Best Actress Awards for Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. It tells the story of Adele discovering her pathway as a teenager into adult as a bi-sexual woman. There are some obvious and interesting parallels to STOP KISS.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Once in Royal David's City

Photo by by Ellis Parrinder

Belvoir presents, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY by Michael Gow, in the Upstairs Theatre, at the Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills.

ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY by Michael Gow is having its world premiere at the Belvoir St Theatre. Upstairs, not Downstairs, for this new work. It is, indeed, a welcome experience to have a new Australian play without any of the obvious trappings, or artistic reputation, of past writers wreathing its conception and promise, on stage, at Belvoir (the usual 'game' is coming back, it seems, from what one has read, with the Simon Stone upcoming production of Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. How is it billed, After Gogol or ...?).  Michael Gow's reputation as a writer, it seems, is enough of a marketing attraction to create interest for ticket buyers.

This is the first play written by Mr Gow since 2007, the last, another world premiere: TOY SYMPHONY, also at Belvoir. That play/production won many awards: Helpmann Award: Best New Australian Work, 2008, and, for the Sydney Theatre Awards in 2007: Best Main Stage Production, Best Supporting Actress - Monica Maugham, Best New Work, Best Director - Neil Armfield and Best Actor - Richard Roxburgh.

From the blurb on the back of the published text from Currency Press:
Will Drummond is bewildered. All the old certainties are coming apart. When he finds himself sitting by his mother's bedside in a hospital room on the north coast of New South Wales, suddenly he's faced with the mortality of loved ones, faced with the state of the world as it was and as it is right now. Set adrift, Will considers loss and what's left, class and contradiction, and navigating a corporatised and globalised world alone.
In two of Mr Gow's plays, FURIOUS (1991) and TOY SYMPHONY (2007), the central figure is Roland Henning, and there has been some speculation as to the auto-biographical consistencies , especially in the later play, to the writer himself, (the first dictate in a manual to writing, maybe : "Write what you know"). Too, there is a sense of the auto-biography about Will Drummond emanating from this text, even if it were only within the cultural playing field of the 'grumpy old man' syndrome (!). Much of what Mr Drummond says, questions, believes, in ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY seemed to resonate, passionately and humorously, for a certain generation demographic in the audience - many having the visible delineation of the same aging process as the program's photographs of the author at work. Will Drummond could just as interestingly, more interestingly, perhaps, have been another incarnation of Roland Henning - they, both, certainly, among other traits, have the same displayed, uncomfortable, expressions of sexual preferences - or am I just being too politically sensitive? A Trilogy: The Roland Henning plays!

The text is basically an extended monologue ("aria") for the central character, Will Drummond, a theatre director (Brendan Cowell), with only sketched in others-of-his-world, to explicate the dramatisation of some of the situations he encounters in his re-called, enacted, recent life journey. It is the same dramatic/literary conceit employed by Mr Gow in TOY SYMPHONY, without the recipe ingredient of the fantasy figures that Roland conjured up in his dilemma with writer's block. As it was then, with TOY SYMPHONY, there is no real set design required (Set and Lighting Design by Nick Schlieper), but for the functional 'symbols' - representations of necessity - a circular, hand pulled curtain to divide scenes in time, and to allow the pragmatic exit and entrance of furniture - hospital bed, chairs etc. - that are necessary, minimally, for the action to take place - a technique familiar to the Director, Eamon Flack, which was felicitously utilised in his fluid production of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, last year. The actors, are simply, but deftly, costumed with minimal, but telling, changes (sometimes props) to create different character personas as are fleetingly necessary (Costume Design by Mel Page). The actors sit on the upper edges of the stage, sometimes, in a kind of gestural reference to some of the Myerhold and Brecht experiments in presenting theatre -" you are at a play", "you are in a theatre", "we are playing -this is not real", "you see us and we can see you", "think, as well as feel" "watch us watch the play with you" etc. It is, of course a tradition that goes as far back as Shakespeare.

The Chorus in Henry V:
Oh for a muse of fire, that would ascend
the brightest heaven of invention! ...
And let us, ciphers to this great acompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies ...
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts...
... And make imaginary puissance; ..." etc.
 Use our imaginary puissance.

Ah, Suppose!

Welcome. Thanks for coming, I'm in an airport. The stage represents an airport. Out there, say, is the carpark. Over there, the conveyor belt for the luggage. Imagine here a window looking out into the tarmac. I can hear 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" playing. It's Christmas, I'm waiting for someone and I'm thinking about Bertolt Brecht ...
Oh, for a muse of fire, indeed.

The company of supporting actors are, within the limitations of the opportunities in the writing, extremely adept. Immaculate, really. All playing more than one responsibility: Maggie Dence, Tara Morice, Helen Buday, Lech Mackiewicz, Harry Greenwood, Anthony Phelan. But, especially, Helen Morse as Jeannie, Will's mum. Ms Morse kicks off the play with two 'arias' of text with which she creates a life and world of striking 3D dimension and depths - one feels so secure, so comfortable in the technical and imaginative skills, forces, of this actress, that it is cumulatively regretful, as the play moves on, that she spends a lot of the rest of her stage time comatosed in a hospitable bed (even that is arresting!). One longs to see this actress at work more often (who can forget Ms Morse's performance in the recent Fred Schepisi film of Patrick White's novel, THE EYE OF THE STORM, as the tragic Lotte?).

Brendan Cowell, as Will Drummond, has all the energy and athletic drive of a leading actor (so much so, that he, quickly, soaks, literally, the back of his shirt with the sweat of the efforts) as the storyteller of this tale. Along with his actor's intelligence and a growing discipline of craft techniques ( although the voice tends to fray, with the demands asked of it, by Mr Gow, and made on it, by Mr Cowell - "yelling", did I read?), harnessed to clever physical observational characteristics - hands, wrists, for instance. Much is employed, deployed, to perpetrate a man that we can recognise. It is, mostly, impressive.

What it ultimately lacked, as one watched for the reveal, reveals, from this actor, was the inner grief, secret, of the man to be fearlessly shown - those personal moments - that can clue an audience to 'read', to find the depths of the character/the man, and not just have to deal with the surfaces of externalised characteristics, as a key to the truths of the actions. It does require, as I have discussed, in my recent blog on THE LONG WAY HOME, a fearless use of personalisation, raw identification of an actor's truth, to convince us of the core agency driving the character. The cross over contact between the actor and the character, that, with the act of imagination, creates an indelibly great moment(s) for the audience. It requires real courage to give this gift of the sublime 'mystery' of the actor at work - it is a costly offer that the artist is asked to give, but we, as an active role player, a present player/actor in the magic of the theatre give-and take between 'artists', are searching, unconsciously, searching for it.The actor is our surrogate 'expressor' of our own joys and pains - it is to him/her we are relying on, to give us a catharsis to help us learn about living and be able to go on. It is why the theatre and sport are necessary health filled experiences. We 'ordinary', are witnessing the 'extraordinary', the storytellers of our tribe, in this instance of our social culture, to help us to understand: "Why is it so?" Why is life like this? Why? And, I am not alone? Am I?

Ms Morse does it, in the presence of her Jeannie, both her body, and especially her voice, resonating with a deep and complicated inner history of both joys and pains that support her textural givings, devastatingly. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are shockingly consistent with this power of revelation (and not because of the weight losses, was I moved - I don't ethically, understand or agree with those choices - isn't there such a thing as CGI these days?) many, many times in the film, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, (and, up till now, I was never a fan of Mr McConaughey's work. The WOLF OF WALL STREET cameo, is just as interesting). Cate Blanchett does it with her BLUE JASMINE, too.

Mr Gow, even, provides an opportunity, written into the play, towards the end of the last speech: Will, "He stops. Some emotion has taken away his voice. He lets it subside and goes on." At the performance, I saw, this moment was given technically by Mr Cowell, 'acted', it was not a reveal of an actor's known truth. So, I admired the performance, but was not moved by it. Disappointed by it, really. It was a dazzling technical act of bravura, 'physically' effortful, for sure, but always, on the rim, tantalisingly, on the edge, teetering on the possibility of greatness , but, for whatever obstacle was blocking him, he withheld, not plundering into the abyss of an indelible truth. Withheld when it was asked of him by the writer,  and looked for by us : the ultimate sacrifice of the actor, of himself. A self sacrifice - the real self, in that moment - on the altar of Thespis.

Eamon Flack with this work on ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY, re-iterates his growing artistry. More 'power' to him. All in all, though, the play is not representative of this writer at his best. Still, for the regular theatre goer worth seeing, just for that very reason of debatable comparison, and/or to see an authentic, original, new Australian play text at Belvoir. Wholeheartedly welcomed by me.

 The wearying didacticism of Mr Gow's furious Will Drummond, throughout the play, however, evoked from the woman behind me, after Professor Julius Sumner Miller, finished his TV experiment demonstration, at the end of the play and Will re-iterated "Why. Is it so? Thank you for listening." : "Class dismissed." Her friend apologised to her, as we were leaving, for encouraging her to come to see the play. Others, I do report, at the curtain call, felt otherwise.

Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is sub-titled, famously as: A Trivial Comedy for Serious people, a scene of which Mr Gow introduces in one of his episodes in ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY. ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY could be sub-titled: A Serious Comedy for Trivial People.

Tidy Town Of Yhe Year

Photography by Katy Green Loughrey
Produced by 3 Quacks in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company, TIDY TOWN OF THE YEAR, by Andy Leonard, Sarah Hodgetts and Victoria Greiner at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo.

Three 'kids' (forgive me, if inappropriate) in the 'kitchen' of playmaking, at the Old Fitzroy Theatre: Andy Leonard, Sarah Hodgetts and Victoria Greiner, have produced, written, and are performing, in TIDY TOWN OF THE YEAR.

They have taken on the fearsome genre of "black comedy", even more daringly, "black farce." Town rivalry, petty jealousies, cruel behaviour, mistaken identities, revenge tactics, murder, blood, a bulky body bag, packeted body parts, plus a revealed, latterly in the action, new identity, and you have some of the recipe being 'cooked up". Add some pop-culture references that could bring a smile of recognition to your face, a pile of familiar and some lame jokes, which may not. These 'chefs' have the form of the genre pretty well down but need now a sharper 'pencil' to build a firmer and funnier play. This farce has only two doorways, and only one with a door, and that, really, is not enough for comic farce - ever.

It is encouraging to see such faith and hope going on with this young company who have put their money and time where their dreams and aspirations have led them.- the stage at the Old Fitz. They have taken the plunge into the kinetic world of the theatre and, hopefully, are learning a lot about the tasks they are attempting. Assisting them is co-director, Deborah Jones, and the virtually under-known, and under-estimated directorial talent and writer, Sean O'Riordan.

My best advice is listen closely to your audience and take notes every night and discuss volubly, afterwards. Check out, the STC production of NOISES OFF (count the number of doors!) read, and go see Bruce Norris' CLYBOURNE PARK, coming up at the Ensemble Theatre in a few weeks. Have some readings around the lounge room or dining room table with your mates, of some of the works of Georges Feydeau, Ben Travers, Avery Hopwood (a special favourite of mine), Kaufman and Hart, Ben Hecht, Joe Orton, Ray Cooney and the famous White Hall farce teams, Neil Simon and anything by Alan Ayckbourn, discuss, take notes and try again. Rowan Atkinson's Black Adder series is a great inspiration for this kind of work, and you can not only read, but watch that - a great way to spend the coming Autumnal nights into winter. Oh, and Joanna Murray-Smith's THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, is worth a gander as well.

This show is for family and encouraging  friends of the company. However, if you admire the brave spirits of the young and have the time, join the family and encouragers. Go. The 3 Quacks company have delved into a genre where angels usually fear to tread. Thanks for this go. Look forward to the next 'dish'. We need the serious risk takers with Australian writing, who are 'crazed' enough to put up their own money and time for their preferred art form - it's an incurable illness, tell your families and friends.

Full marks for trying..

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Black Diggers

Photo by Jamie Williams

BLACK DIGGERS by Tom Wright presented by Sydney Festival in association with The Balnaves Foundation. A Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival Production, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

I saw BLACK DIGGERS almost two months ago as part of the Sydney Festival. I was so distressed with what I experienced in the Drama Theatre, and yet have such great commitment to the ideals of the project, that how to write about it in a constructive manner became a burdensome issue for me. Now, having seen THE LONG WAY HOME at the Sydney Theatre Company, a clarity from comparison, as freed me a little. So…

BLACK DIGGERS, by Tom Wright, was a World Premiere given as part of the 2014 Sydney Festival. Lieven Bertels, the Sydney Festival Director, in his message in the program notes ($12 for a program) tells us that the festival has over the last two festivals – premiered 23 new Australian works from small scale children's shows and music recitals to fully fledged theatre productions that continue to tour nationally and internationally. He goes on to say: "Of all these, BLACK DIGGERS is perhaps the one I feel strongest personal connection with. It all started at a dinner with Wesley Enoch in the winter of 2011."

 Mr Bertels tells of his knowledge of a young indigenous soldier, Rufus Rigney, a Ngarrindjeri man from Raukkan, who fought in the First World War as an enlisted soldier, killed and buried in a town, quite near his Belgian home, and so, accounts for his "personal connection". Further:
The military speak of a war zone as the 'Theatre of War'. In the arts we have the privilege and the duty to make 'Theatre of Reflection', not just to address the darker pages of our past, such as the colonial-indigenous relations in this nation's history, (maybe, an allusion to last year's triumphant Festival event, THE SECRET RIVER) but also to bring out universal human virtues and to find paths of reconciliation. The latter has become a central goal for Sydney Festival, and the launch of our Reconciliation Plan in July 2013 was an important cornerstone for us. The journey of our BLACK DIGGERS project allowed us to go beyond a mere plan and put some words into action, building cultural awareness and understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories. I feel privileged to have been part of that journey.
Wesley Enoch, the Director, tells us:
One purpose of Indigenous theatre is to write on to the public record neglected or forgotten stories. ... One hundred years ago Indigenous servicemen volunteered to fight for the newly formed country called Australia.Though the constitution of this newest of old countries did not recognise them as citizens, Indigenous men signed up and fought in Palestine, the Somme, Gallipoli, Flanders Fields and every major battlefront during what would be called the Great War. ... Over 1000 Indigenous men fought side by side with their white countrymen and forged bonds that would sow the seeds of the modern reconciliation movement. 
Mr Enoch tells us that the template from post-apartheid South Africa from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was employed, for BLACK DIGGERS, in defining what is TRUTH:
  1. Personal Truth - The thing you believe to be true. 
  2. Social Truth - what a group believe to be true through discussion and debate. 
  3. Forensic Truth - the truth that can be proven through science and records. 
  4. Public Truth - the value of telling the truth for the greater good. 

BLACK DIGGERS reflects on experience of Indigenous people before nationhood; the Enlistment experiences; the Theatre of War; the Return, looking at the expectations and actual treatment of the Indigenous veterans; and the Legacy. Mr Enoch: "BLACK DIGGERS honours the memories of these men and their families ..."

The WHAT and the WHY of the origins of this project , as stated by the two commissioning partners, Mr Bertels (Sydney Festival) and Mr Enoch (Queensland Theatre Company), are undeniably important. And, certainly, it does bring an honourable consciousness of this history of the role of the Indigenous soldiers to this era, and reveals, once again, the embedded racism and seemingly inhuman disregard that the dominant white culture in its Governmental attitudes and practice had towards the original peoples of this country (check out Big hART's 2010, NAMATJIRA). What Mr Bertels talks of as "the privilege and duty" in presenting this project for the Sydney Festival as part of "The Theatre of Reflection" - strikes the right chords of the aspirational and political. What disturbed me while watching this potentially important theatre, then, was not the WHAT and WHY of the project, but, HOW it was done. There could not have been a more incompetent work, that, as it was revealed on the stage, became a transparent missed opportunity for real 'agit-prop' (agitation-propaganda) theatre - BLACK DIGGERS being, in the experience, decidedly, more in the vein of propaganda than agitation - that dwindled in impact, with the unfolding experience of watching, into a less than ordinary, less than captivating T.I.E. (Theatre-in-Education) endurance test.

Seeded two and half years ago, over a winter dinner, in July 2011 - a very long time, for these 'seeds' to grow in theatrical terms (before the ill conceived and presented 2012 Sydney Festival event, I AM EORA, also directed by Wesley Enoch). This work has benefited from the research of Dr David Williams (the former Artistic Director of Version 1.0 - the verbatim theatre company) and the writing experience of Tom Wright (an integral member of the Artistic team at the STC up until 2012). Both these men are of some lauded academic and theatrical experience. Yet what do we have on stage? Some "60 scenes broken into five parts"! 60 scenes!

These 60 scenes are, mostly, clumsily organised 'clumps' of research, that in production are almost lumpen in kinetic affect. There is little theatrical dramaturgy (Dramaturg: Louise Gough) going on here in the performance text to facilitate a sufficiently interesting, engaging through-line of narrative, or character, to allow a sustained concentrated and immersive audience involvement and identification at any real kind of profundity, that the theatre can, usually, give. The material for BLACK DIGGERS has been disappointedly organised to produce a gradual clobbering - with isolated monologues, to-the-front partnered interacted scenes, that may. or may not, have arresting textual interests, revelations, a few songs and back slapping heartiness, entrances and exits of the omnes of men in costume/uniform, accompanied by a Sound Design that attempts to give some circumstances of theatrical 'geography' for the audience to find their bearings - to a state of emotional inertia, if not complete disinterest.

I find it telling that Mr Enoch begins his program notes with: "One purpose of Indigenous theatre is to WRITE on to the public record neglected or forgotten stories", for, it seems to me, that that is all he has achieved with this project, is the WRITING of a public record, for this text has not really begun to solve the manner to present, to an audience in 2014, on a stage, the important ways to bring to our attention, in a cogent and thrilling theatrical form an unforgettable experience. UNFORGETTABLE. Unforgettable as, entertainment, education or a place of ecstasy, it , definitely is not. It is, in truth, mostly, a dull recitation of researched information - verbatim findings.

Let us now remember THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD by Damien Millar, or THE LONG WAY HOME by Daniel Keene, to understand the possibility of how research material from verbatim sources, can be made into cogent and exciting theatre for an audience - maybe, unforgettable. (THE LONG WAY HOME, written by Daniel Keene, researched, written and theatrically organise in less than year! Eighteen months shorter than the BLACK DIGGERS arc of time.)

Let us next recall, possible 'role' models, that similar productions utilising the dramaturgical form of BLACK DIGGERS, that Mr Wright and Enoch have 'wrestled' with, for us: the classic Joan Littlewood, OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! or, an even more recent work, the Sydney Theatre Company's GALLIPOLI directed by Nigel Jamieson (that despite its verbatim origins being so tediously used, was, at the very least, a demonstration of storytelling "How" that could be engaged to present the material, more interestingly than any technique used by BLACK DIGGERS - Mr Wright was part of the STC artistic team at the time of its presentation, 2008, and must have vivid memories of the work - its theatrical difficulties, its strengths and weaknesses). Even the Big hART production of NAMATJIRA, and its use by Scott Rankin, in creating a theatrically viable manner, to shape the 'verbatim' material of the evidence, research, of the subject at the heart of the project, the life of the painter Namatjira, is another 'role' model of technique - and, indeed, perhaps the use of the black-board illustrations employed by that production was the derivative inspiration for Stephen Curtis' Design, here, perhaps?

If the original material gathered by Dr David Williams was developed even further, the models of the traditional war play abound: R.C. Sheriff's 1928 play, JOURNEY'S END; Somerset Maugham's 1932, FOR SERVICES RENDERED; the Australian 1979 play, THE MANUAL OF TRENCH WARFARE by Clem Gorman, even the recent adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel WAR HORSE, in 2007, by Nick Stafford, a combination of Brechtian and 'melodrama' techniques - all plays dealing with the World War 1 experience - are infinitely more affecting then the relatively, lazy construction of the material that is BLACK DIGGERS.

How did we end up with this melange of dreary theatrical dramaturgy/literature? How much focused time was given by these artists, Mr Wright and Enoch, and the Sydney Festival, Mr Bertels, in mentoring this product, getting the playwriting form right? Mr Bertels, after all, feels 'a privilege and duty' to have been part of that journey. Just how much of that journey was the Sydney Festival, other than the co-commissioning and funding' of it, actually involved with? How much duty of care to the aspirations of the Reconciliation Plan of July 2013, of which Mr Bertels says BLACK DIGGERS came to be '"a cornerstone" for the Sydney Festival, was given? Particularly after the I AM EORA production/experience, which was less than successful as an enduring theatrical exercise. There has to be more than talking the talk. There has to be a true walking the walk, surely? The Balnaves Foundation is constantly, actively, supporting these projects, on trust, for good outcomes - if not, occasionally, for a great outcome. If I AM EORA and BLACK DIGGERS are examples of the "cornerstone"(s) of the Reconciliation Action Plan (2013) instituted by the Sydney Festival, then the building for the future has not a very stable or secure quality of material to rest on.

It was, indeed, exciting to see nine Indigenous performers on the stage. The challenge of the raw material, considering the altruistic' 'mission' of the intention of the project - to tell for the first time the 'neglected or forgotten stories" of their forebears - the multitudinous tasks that each was given, was also exciting to apprehend. However the range of experience of the acting company was/is really extremely disparate. The range of their skills, too, extremely, disparate. To assist this selected group of artists to acquit their tasks well, considerable skill by the Director would be needed to be employed. Mr Enoch seems, at best, able to organise the actors on and off the stage and muster them into groupings - moving of bodies, choreography. What he does not seem to be able to do, with his credited Acting Coach, Jason Klarwein, is to use the text, language to direct, guide, assist the actors into creating characters, or even a convincing ownership of the text, beyond a generalised emotional veneer of recited words, that give the audience, only a kind of gist of what is being said and/or the meaning of it, both literal and theatrical. Most of his actors were flailing with no real clarity for the required needs of the material. Most of them recited and pretended their way through the work - sometimes unbearable to watch, let alone believe or engage in.

Guy Simon was the best survivor of the lack of guidance from Mr Enoch and Mr Klarwein. Playing an immense number of responsibilities, it was he that could clearly delineate one offer from the other and also offer a sense of the architecture of his textual responsibilities, resulting in a carefully communicated arc of emotional journey as well as information. The forbidding textual explanation of the causal incidents of World War 1, written by Mr Wright, received a justifiable round of applause - the clarity and sense of the particulars were minutely accurate and communicated to us along with a wry sense of irony by Mr Simon. He seemed to exit as "Mother' in apron, only to immediately return in uniform as "Officer"etc, convincingly. He was a constant standout in every task he had and his sheer, understated stamina of invention should be more highly recognised. Hunter Page-Lochard, young and relatively inexperienced, too, made an impression as did the tentative presence of Eliah Watego. Th next best performance was given by the bugler CPL Ian Stenning with his focused, specific and emotional rendering of the Last Post - without a scintilla of irony.

More experienced actors, Luke Carroll and David Page, even the very exciting and promising talent, Meyne Wyatt, seemed to be simply lost, or just plainly defeated, presenting recitations in generalised emotional states with amateur character-acting characteristics-choices: for instance, an old-man voice for an old man, quavering a superficial sound and gesture as a hopeful aid for clarity, that distracted one away from any sense of the speech or its dramatic impact - clearly in need of hands-on direction.

Set Design was by Stephen Curtis. Costume Design by Ruby Langton-Batty. Lighting Design by Ben Hughes. The Sound Design by Tony Brumpton was the most convincing of these offers elicited by Mr Enoch.

The sheer joy of having this story told, this stark history brought to our attention, by this company, was a worthy event to have witnessed. The audience I saw it with was generous in its applause. I, however could not get beyond the writing and the direction to appreciate the explication - and after a hand clap, or two, to signify the ideals of the project, I left the theatre, quickly, into the foyer. Here, in the foyer, a small exhibition with historical photographs of some of the soldiers, with paragraphs of written information about their origin and war record, gave me more emotional satisfaction, more objective intellectual appreciation of what and why and who these men were then anything that I had witnessed, in an almost two hour theatrical performance. Why and how did that happen?

I have now seen non-actors, performers, tell the story of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in THE LONG WAY HOME, created by the Sydney Theatre Company, and the Australian Defence Force, built from verbatim research and sculpted into a dramatic text by Daniel Keene, expertly directed in all areas, by Stephen Rayne, and had an unforgettable experience in the theatre: Education, Entertainment and Ecstasy, prepared in much less time than BLACK DIGGERS. I have read some generous response to this Festival work. I have hesitated in my response, but felt compelled to diarise my experience as to the quality of the work, and maybe, just maybe, give some pause to the creators of BLACK DIGGERS, and have them really examine/overhaul the scheduled September presentation in Brisbane so that ideals and professional practice can be more wonderfully 'married'. Other than the emotional catharsis of the opportunity that the work can give a concerned audience, this work is extremely disappointing considering the proffered and rewarded experience of the artists at its helm. I was, during the performance, aggravated to a distress of considerable degree, for the loss of a quality result with this vitally important story. For me, the objective aims of Mr Bertels: "the building of cultural awareness and understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories" was grossly fudged with this work. If this was theatre for the forgotten, the wronged, the wounded, the reality of BLACK DIGGERS was a blur of inept communication.

Daniel Keene and Stephen Rayne, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Forces, got it right in much less time than Tom Wright, Wesley Enoch, Lieven Bertels, the Queensland Theatre Company and the Sydney Festival. The question I am asking is, HOW did I one group succeed and the other not?

P.S. I purchased two tickets to this show @ $62 each = $124.00 (I took a friend in anticipated sharing of an important piece of theatre)
One program @ $12
Sydney Opera House's Tax for attending the theatre = $5.00

Total = $149.00