Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Witches

Photo by Mark Nolan

Griffin Theatre Company presents THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl, adapted for the stage by David Wood, re-imagined by Lucas Jervies, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 24 Sept - 5 Oct.

THE WITCHES, is an adaptation (re-imagining) of David Wood's play (1983), which is an adaption of the famous Roald Dahl story. The David Wood play written for 10 actors and 15 or so extras, puppets etc has been reduced to just one actor, Guy Edmonds, by Director, Lucas Jervies and Dramaturg, Chris Summers (with permission one presumes). This version began as a graduating exercise for Mr Jervies as part of his course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 2013, and since has been seen in Melbourne, at the Malthouse, and now at the Griffin SBW Stables theatre, as part of a brief school holiday event.

Mr Edmonds with no costume changes and a minimum of props, transforms himself vocally and physically into nine characters. It is a remarkable tour de force of invention and stamina, and the performance is the reason to attend the production. The adaptation in the pell mell of the action gets itself into a bit of a muddle, and the narrative gets a little elusive on occasions. I had to go to the book, afterwards, to decipher what happened - I only had the gist of what was happening. Visibly, the young audience, opposite me, moved from hypnotised excitement into, midway, a kind of bewildered state, and only were brought back to the space with the delightful surprise appearance of the whirring mechanical white mice.The whizz-bangery of the startling Mr Edmonds went a long way in instilling and keeping some kind of attention for the young audience, even when the story became befuddled. Mr Jervies' background is from the world of dance and movement, and that is the strength of his directing skills with Mr Edmonds - for, on the other hand, the literary clarity, storytelling, needs more careful detailing. Not having read this scrpt adaptation I cannot tell if it is in the writing, or the plotting in the direction. Still, at only 45 minutes or less in length, it is a durable experience.

It seems, a terrible thing to admit, but I had no Roald Dahl stories as part of my formative years. My childhood literary world was comprised of Enid Blyton,  mostly, The Mystery books, and The Famous Five; and Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle; besides the Aesops Fables, Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Bible Stories (the parables of the New Testament) and, of course, the Walt Disney animations : Snow White, and the scary Pinocchio, for instance, and the live actor adaptations : Old Yeller, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and especially those with Hayley Mills - sigh! - Pollyanna, The Moon-Spinners.

I realise, now that Mr Dahl has had an enormous affect on generations of children with his books (and now film adaptions - which were not always pleasing to him) such as JAMES AND THE GIGANTIC PEACH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, FANTASTIC MR FOX, BGF and MATILDA. For a new comer, Mr Dahl's non-political correctness (in THE WITCHES, the declarations around women, for instance), black comedy (on torture), and refusal to give 'happy endings' (In THE WITCHES, not restoring the boy from the spell of being a mouse), are all quite startling and, ummm, (dare I say) refreshing. This anarchic streak, obviously, an appealing tone for the growing young. No-one, no adult, not one of the women patrons at the Griffin production seemed to take offence at the 'political incorrectness' of some of this text, though, THE WITCHES has been banned from book shelves elsewhere due to perceived misogyny, and is listed as Number 22 out of 100 of most frequently challenged books, reported by The American Library Association.

Golly, gosh, THE WITCHES, a banned book. Is this an example of our cultural unconscious misogyny? Is it ok, then, for young boys, to hear this material without comment?  Is it ok for young girls to hear this material without comment? Hmmm? The mums and dads in the audience seemed fairly comfortable with it all. If it's in fun, it is ok? Just wondering ... seemed fairly 'Elizabethan' to me, very Salem-like to me, but, then, I was bought up, as I told you, partly, by the author of NODDY and his 'racist' friends, and Mr Loftings' books that were stuffed with mutual conversations with animals!!! - how would I know the answers to the above questions? I love Ms Blyton, especially- wouldn't have got through my childhood without her, I can assure you.

That this production of THE WITCHES, at the Griffin has added performances to its schedule, because of its popularity, and that it had a sellout season down in Melbourne, tells me that Children's theatre is wanted. I have never understood why the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has not followed the example of the National Theatre of Great Britain with their spectacular, no expense spared, Christmas adaptations e.g. WAR HORSE (yes, developed for young adult entertainment! - what a commitment, and what an outcome for the audiences, and for the coffers of the National Theatre!!!), HIS DARKER MATERIALS, NATION. To be horribly pragmatic, besides, filling a need for children's entertainment, it is surely a strategy to develop a future audience. Belvoir has dabbled in this area ( e.g. THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING, PETER PAN), and now Griffin. In my experience, years ago at the Q Theatre, out in Penrith, in my days of yore, our 'kids' shows often, built a monetary resource for our production schedule in the coming year - the shows were a not bad economic/budgetary investment.

Despite my reservations about the adaptation and/or direction of THE WITCHES, this is worth a visit with and for the audience's of the future. And besides, Mr Edmonds' performance is one of the dynamic wonders of this year's season so far. Go.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gruesome Playground Injuries

The King Collective present Lepidoptera: An Exploration of Youth as part of Sydney Fringe 2014: GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES by Rajiv Joseph at the Downstairs Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst. 23-28 September.

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (October, 2009), by American playwright, Rajiv Joseph is the third play of The King Collective Sydney Fringe 2014, contribution. It is written for two characters: Kayleen (Megan McGlinchey) and Doug (Aaron Glenane), and spread over the course of thirty years, from their age of 8 to 38, in eight scenes, but not in chronological order. We observe them flitting in and out of each others lives at key moments of physical distress. Both, Kayleen and Doug, have a propensity for physical injury, sometimes accidental, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes self-inflicted - signs to express, perhaps, metaphorically, for us, vulnerability. I say, perhaps, for the writing, although, sensitive, sometimes delicate, lacked consistent dramatic development, narrative or clear motivation of the character's behaviours in this production. Maybe, the 'card-shuffle' chronology of the scenes, skipping back and forth over/in time, did not assist me to understand the journey, or dramatic point of the play, easily?

Mr Joseph instructs:
All the transitions between the scenes should be done by the actors, and their changing of the scene should be leisurely. Costume changes should occur on the stage. There is no need to hide any of this work from the audience. We should especially see Doug's dressing of his wounds, or the application of the necessary make-up that represents his injuries. The lengths of the transitions signify and allow for large passages of time in the lives of the characters. ...
Since, in the traverse-styled staging of this production, by Anthony Gooley, these costume and make-up transitions were staged in the opposite off-stage corners of the space, and not always visible for all the audience, and not dramatically lit to guide our attention, to read for dramatic meaning - they became, for me,then, interludes to endure, instead of an integrated part of the dramatic storytelling construct. Mr Gooley, and his actors needed to spend more time in choreographing these long scene change processes, for in action they were, indeed, only "leisurely" - painfully leisurely, despite the sometimes witty musical accompaniment. This play, as written, has eight scenes of vocal interaction, and then seven purposeful scenes of choreographed costume and make-up mime to 'indicate' "the passage of time in the lives of the characters". (In this production, nine costume changes, adding the scene one prior dressing, and end of play, part, undressing). Both demands did not have the same attention. The play is only some 90 minutes long without interval, and became a feat of extended time endurance - it felt longer than it was. (One ended by inventing background lives for some of the audience seated opposite, while one waited).

Mr Glenane has an innate sense of spontaneity, and is equipped with a highly physical and quirky, impulsive energy, that demanded our empathetic attention. Doug was a puzzle but authentic - alive. His mental and physical progression to deterioration over time was at least slightly demarcated. Whilst, Ms McGlinchey, on the other hand, gave us sincere, but, studied actor's craftsmanship, all expert externals, full of contrived actor's characteristics - 'tics' - for her Kayleen, and failed to motivate the action of her story to reveal the sub-textual justifications of the events of the play - and though, having a good timbre to the voice, lacked a vocally expressive range to detail her character's journey: from scene to scene it sounded the same with no tonal developments to the possible dramatic variations of the scenes. Whether, aged 8 or 38, over the 30 year arc of the play's journey, McGlinchey sounded and moved like a youngish 24 year old - the only concession to difference, and not including the 'gruesome' physical and mental injuries incurred from scene to scene, as an actor at work, was the costume changes! The work had no forward energy, or accumulation of crafted storytelling awareness, it being focused, rather, on a generalised 'psychological'character impression, rather than character revealed through action and time. For me, Ms McGlinchey was far more present than any transcendence to the experience of the life force that was Kayleen. Repetitive, from scene to scene.

Rajiv Joseph was nominated for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his play BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGDAD ZOO (May, 2009), starring on Broadway, Robin Williams. This was despite, thoroughly mixed critical reviews. NEXT TO NORMAL, (soon to be seen at the Hayes Theatre - January) - won the Prize that year, controversially - it's form, a musical was the issue, not its dramatic power.

The King Collective artistic support team for this production: Tyler Hawkins for Design - Set and costume. Lighting by Toby Knyvett. Sound Design by David Stalley, David Couri and Philip Orr, had an integrity of vision that was a positive asset to the production. Mr Gooley made a, generally, impressive debut as Director of this production. Having seen two of the three offers of this Collective, the other being, THIS IS OUR YOUTH, it seems to me that they have demonstrated a clear integrity, considered artistic strategies, and a sense of mission that excites one to anticipate their future work. Well done.

It is a marvellous thing to have the Tap Gallery in Sydney, to permit such adventuresome ambition to be presented. Well done, too - always room for improvement no doubt, for any of us who have worked there, attended there, but, in the meantime, an indispensable 'icon' of opportunity, for the fledgling lives of some of our young, and experienced artists, looking for spaces to maintain practice and exposure.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Is Our Youth

The Kings Collective present "Lepidoptera: An exploration of Youth" as part of Sydney Fringe 2014. THIS IS OUR YOUTH by Kenneth Lonergan, at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst. 16-21 September.

Lepidoptera: an order of insects comprising the butterflies and moths - which in the adult state have four membranous wings, more or less covered with scales. This new Independent Theatre collective: The Kings Collective have as their core Collectives: David Harrison, Tyler Hawkins, Jai Higgs, Cecelia Peters, Scott Lee, Georgia Scott, and Megan McGlinchey.

Mission Statement:
We are young. We are tired of being small and being alone. We are tired of technology. We are thirsty for life and communication. Life means everything and it is all we have. We don't want to be cool. We don't want to be vague, cut-off, indifferent. We are deeply wounded and we are strong. We are passionate, we are brave, we are heartfelt, and we are sincere. We are human and we are here to tell our stories. 
The King Collective is a newly formed collective of young artists who aspire to change the face of the Australian Arts landscape, to be a force of nature that is unparalleled in both work ethic and passion and to inspire the next generation of artists to do the same. 
We aim to create brave, detailed, honest work and tell profound stories of human experience. We aim to challenge our audience, to bring them hope, compassion and joy and to make them feel less alone.

The King Collective have, as part of the Sydney Fringe 2014 curated and produced three plays - each with a one week season - at the Downstairs Tap Gallery space. They are not anything, if not, ambitious and do demonstrate a feet-on-the-ground work ethic and passion, indeed. Their first production was OUT OF GAS ON LOVERS LEAP, by Mark St Germain (9-14 September); followed by THIS IS OUR YOUTH, by Kenneth Lonergan (16-21 September); and next, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, by Rajiv Joseph (23-28 September).

THIS IS OUR YOUTH (1993), by Kenneth Lonergan, is not short of production exposures in Sydney - it has three juicy roles for three young people. The last I remember was a high profile casting with American actors, Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin, supported by Emily Barclay, at the Sydney Opera House. The play, this year, produced earlier at Stepppenwolf, Chicago, with these men in charge of their roles, has now, just, transferred onto Broadway, New York - the first time it has been on the Big White Way.

This modest production, in the relative impromptu Downstairs Tap Gallery space, is fairly impressive - no need to go to Broadway to see THIS IS OUR YOUTH well done. Earlier this year, I directed, upstairs, here, at Tap Gallery, Mr Lonergan's, LOBBY HERO (1996), and learnt of the skill and humanity of this  American playwright/film maker, and watched audiences respond to the comedy, and poignant moral dilemmas woven throughout the ever complexing script. This play, an earlier work, is a really wonderful piece of writing too, and concerns three young people: Dennis Ziegler - 21 - (Joshua Brennan) - "a dark cult god of high school", on the edge of the slide to a real world he might not like - a busy drug dealer and user. Warren Straub -19 - (Scott Lee) - 'a strange barking dog of a kid with large tracts of thoughtfulness in his personality", who has just deserted from home and his violent father, taking some $15,000 that does not belong to him, and a suitcase of his precious childhood objects collection. He takes drugs, too. He is interested in Jessica. Jessica Goldman - 19 - (Georgia Scott) - "a very nervous girl, who, despite her prickliness is basically friendly and definitely interested in Warren ..." She takes drugs, as well.

The play is set in 1982, in a studio apartment on the Upper West Side of New York, belonging to Dennis, courtesy of his absent parents - in this production, designed by Tyler Hawkins, definitely low rental and drug scuzzed - a mess of distracted living. The recently elected President is Ronald Regan, and the winds of the "greed is good" Gordon Gekko era (film, WALL STREET, 1987) have just begun to shift the landscape of life for these privileged white Jewish kids, and we get to watch over a 48 hour period some defining moments, those amazing moments when an adolescent begins that miraculous metamorphosis from adolescent-'kid' to 'adult'. BOYHOOD - Lepidopteran-like, indeed.

Mr Lonergan's writing has a surface ease and joy for any actor to want to play with. Its language, sounds, to-the-ear, and feels, in-the-mouth, authentic, both, in its vocabulary and word order, and in the genuine feel of the musical rhythms, sign posted by the syntactical deliberations and clues of instruction from Mr Lonergan, and are a glittering attraction. It is, also, a deceptive camouflage. This writing allows the spry and easily satisfied actor to work on the grandstanding genius of the literacy of the writing for the characters, and one can certainly deliver an arresting good time for all of us. However, spending time below the surface 'gleams', the opportunities to ring the subtle life forces of change that the character is growing too, changing with, with incisive insights and sensitive guidance under the watchful eye of a patient director, one can take this work to grand depths of life-lived familiarities of truths, of all our lives - most of us were young once, Right? The Director of this production, Dan Eady, has marshalled his team through the assets of THIS IS OUR YOUTH with some alacrity.

Mr Lee as Warren, delivers a performance of some remarkable skill, and in the intimacy of this space is able to reveal a subtle journey of growth and learning, through all the hoops of the character's trajectory, with a cinematic performance detail. It is a fairly breathtaking crafting, and a heartbreaking series of motivational reveals, going on there - simply expressed, but painfully, deeply experienced. The internal life of Warren, matching, beat by beat, the external 'glamour' of the wit/intelligence of the external mask of Warren, Mr Lee consummately orchestrates. 'Warren', was created in the original productions by Mark Ruffalo, a member of Mr Lonergan's every artistic output. His performance in the film, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, (with Laura Linney) - is one of my cinematic performance highlights - and Mr Lee fulfils my expectations of this character, with the startling breadth of creative knowledge that Ruffalo brings to rebellious Terry, in that film - no small compliment. I last saw Mr Lee in the John Patrick Shanley play, THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW, in the Upstairs Tap Gallery space, late last year, and was similarly impressed - but with this work, am fairly blown away with admiration at his complexity and delicacy, and managed skill basics. Worth following his next offers, whatever they may be.

Too, Ms Scott, playing Jessica, manages to reveal the deeply unnerving undercurrents of this fragile young girl, while presenting the mask of indifference, and on-the-other-hand, defensive judgements, as its protecting skin. The scene between Warren and Jessica in the first act of this production of the  play is a gem of tender reveal, both actors in a relaxed simpatico, 'reading' each other, seemingly with great confidence, delicately, 'feeding' their mutual creativity in beautifully improvised, 'happening' moments, taking Warren and Jessica through the horrible shoals of adolescent courtship, and out the door to the Pent House Suite of the Plaza Hotel - there goes some of that $15,000. Totally rewarding to watch.

"What you're like now has nothing to do with what you're going to be like. Like right now you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you're gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be. You'll definitely be a completely different person. Everything you think will be different, and the way you act, and all your most passionately held beliefs are going to be completely different, and its really depressing. Because it just basically invalidates whoever you are right now. You know what I mean? It just makes your whole self at any given point in your life seem so completely dismissable. So it's like, what is the point?"

'Like the last year of high school, I suddenly realised that all those weird kids I grew up with were like well on their way to becoming really weird adults. And it was pretty scary, you know? Like you see a crazy kid, and you realise, he's never going to grow out of it. He's a fucked-up crazy kid and he's just gonna be a fucked-up crazy adult with like a ruined life."

Mr Brennan's Dennis, gives an energetic and frenetic impression of the weird fucked-up kid realising, in the actual face-up to an actual drug overdose death of a 'friend', that he might just be one of those weird fucked-up adults. The difficulty of this play for the actors is too keep the objective head of the actor 'tuned' in to the accuracies required by Mr Lonergan's writing, and still presenting a subjective frenzied set of drug states belonging to the truths of the character to reap a complete audience reward. The pyrotechnic management, the technical control, by Mr Brennan is finely tuned, however self-consciously so, and resultedly, and in contrast to the other two performers, his inner life, the life force of character motivations, causes and affects, of Dennis' self, are not so completely available to us - even attached.  The ego of the actor is never completely submerged to serve the character - and, although Mr Brennan's work is impressive, it is relatively surface, and, in this present company, it rings a little, contrastedly, hollow.

In its modest scale, in this intimate space, The Kings Collective have justified, to me, their ambition. Even if not all the treasures: the verbal comedy, the plunging emotional turning points and metaphors are brought to the audience's attention, consistently. This was one of my more enjoyable nights at the theatre this year. I did not see their first production last week, but look forward to this week's, despite the title of the play: GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES.

Mr Lonergan's Pulitzer nominated play THE WAVERLEY GALLERY (1999), is a very personal evocation of the mental demise of a loved one. THE STARRY MESSENGER was written in 2009. News that a new film, with Matt Damon, is due to begin shooting - excellent.

P.S. A complaint to the The Kings Collective. Please, please Give your  WRITERS, the source of your inspiration, bio-graphical space. You had two pages of wasted space in your program and NO writers' background. No writer, no play. In the beginning was the word etc, etc.......

Four Dogs and Bone

Photo by Katy Green-Loughrey

Brief Candle Productions in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO), as part of Sydney Fringe 2014, presents, FOUR DOGS AND A BONE by John Patrick Shanley, at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo. 16 - 27 September.

FOUR DOGS AND A BONE is a short four scene satire about the Hollywood movie machine from 1993. It has two 'mean' ambitious actresses, one calculatingly 'ditzy', the other 'ageing', pitched against each other; and two mendacious, stupid and/or greedy production guys, one the money guy, the other the writer guy, all chewing the bone for fame and money. Four dogs - Brenda (Melinda Dransfield); Collette (Amanda Collins); Bradley (Sonny Vrebac) and Victor (Paul Gerrard), and a bone - the movie. (Could it be Mr Shanley's 1990 'epic', JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, that is the source of inspiration?! He has been involved with nine of them.)

Satire is hard. The last show here, the political satire, THE GOD OF HELL, by Sam Shepard is a case of point. Deliberate comic satire is harder, still. Ask the company who dared to play with Christopher Durang and his WHY TORTURE IS WRONG AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM at the New Theatre, earlier this year. It either works from the start, or, it never will. This production doesn't, really, get off the ground, and it never worked - at least, at the Old Fitz, on opening night.

The look and movement/staging by Kate Gaul, is the best thing about this production: a very engaging pop-hip-design in primary colours - bright yellow and dazzle blue - (no designer acknowledged), and lit with some attractive elan by Benjamin Brockman, with some perky music cues. For, the actors labour, really labour, to get the machine of Mr Shanley's play off the ground. Mr Vrebac knows what is needed but struggles to lift the work into gear, and as he is only one wheel on this four wheeled 'vehicle', fails to do so.

The other three have created comic characters, some more/some less well, but have not developed them to serve the action of the writing. The character is their task, it seems. The playing of the play is not their thing. However, Basic Acting Class Technique 101 should have told them that what the character 'says' and 'does' in the 'given circumstances' they find themselves in, reveals the character, and that an externalised collection of inventive characteristics and costume is not enough. There is no story-telling going on here, so, no sense of calculated passionate need/objective at all to reveal the characters in action. There is no basic craft work going. The character appearances they've created are the sum total of their effort - boring for us audience, once you've got it, and we get it the second after they each arrived. This short play still went on for nearly 70 minutes. (70 x 6o is 4,200 seconds left approx.) If there is no real connection between the actors, or, to the machinations/mechanisation's of the writer, boredom, nay, petrification, sets in.

The last play I saw of Mr Shanley's was a production of THE DREAMER EXAMINES HIS PILLOW, at the Tap Gallery, late last year, and was pleasantly surprised. That play is difficult, too. The acting, there, was, however, first rate. Mr Shanley needs that support to succeed with this trifle of a play and maybe he had it when this play premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993, for it ran there for 230 performances!

FOUR DOGS AND A BONE at the Old Fitz, for friends and family only, I think.


Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios.

Reginald Season 2014. Slip of the Tongue presents EUROPE by Michael Gow, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, in Chippendale. 10 - 27 September.

Michael Gow has written some 15 plays for the Australian repertoire and I believe he is one of the more interesting and consistent contributors to our performing arts culture. My favourites: THE KID (1983); AWAY (1986); EUROPE (1987); SWEET PHOEBE (1994); and TOY SYMPHONY (2007). This year Belvoir premiered his latest, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY. I confess, AWAY is one of my three top favourite (sentimental) Australian plays, alongside Ray Lawler's, THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL (1959) and Peter Kenna's A HARD GOD (1973).

EUROPE can be a vigorous and exciting entanglement. It begins back stage, in a European theatre, between a young, naive, Australian, Douglas (Andrew Henry), and an accomplished European actress, Barbara (Pippa Grandison), coming off-stage after a performance as Hedda Gabler, a year after a 'torrid' week of sexual entanglement, somewhere, at an Australian Arts Festival tour. Douglas is besotted and has become a backpacking 'stalker' - having saved his money and bought an air ticket to Europe, wanting to pick up where they left off. Barbara is bewildered and a busy professional actor sustaining her career, who has, decidedly, moved on with her life, and barely, has recall of who Douglas even is.

Over five, or so scenes, in a 75 minute one act form, a comic mismatch between New World and Old World values; between the 'spring' expectations of a young Aussie male, and the more mature 'autumnal' flutters of a European theatre aristocrat,  an odd couple 'love story', unfolds. Naivety and iconoclastic energies meets sophistication and tradition. Star struck delusions meet earth bound practicalities. And to make it a little more complicated: each inclines for the other, at different times; each spurns the other, at different times - a Scarlett and Rhett repeat, perhaps? - ne'er the twain shall meet?

In 1986, with the Hawke Government having passed the Australia Act "eliminating the remaining possibilities for the UK Government to legislate with effect in Australia",  the tortured identity of the Australian and their relationship with Europe was a hot topic - a debate among the generations: between the traditionalists and the hopefuls of a new world, independent, Australian identity, was in the 'air'. So, contextually, in 1986, the first performance production, in this heat of historical change, the play had a fast, furious, and serious satiric edginess. One was left in a state of punch drunked delirium with Mr Gow's apt political cheekiness. This contemporary production, at the Reginald, by James Beach, has emphasis on the love story, and presents us with a decidedly relaxed tempo and a very broad tone to the comedy, with character rather than satire scoring the body of the laughs. It is more soapy 'rom-com' than satiric debate. Whether you prefer your comedy ladled with honey-drawn romantics, or comedy fast and catch-it-if-you-can wit, will dictate your response to this production.

In a 'heavy' visual design by Andrea Espinoza the production is unnecessarily 'grounded' and halted with luxurious scene changes and music cuing, with the lighting (Benjamin Brockman), misted with theatre haze, adding a mellowed Technicolor 'humour' to the events of the play. The acting, within the directorial guidance of this contemporary reading of the play, is accomplished if, a trifle too actorly, lacking real wit and sophistication, and leaning more towards 'goofy' physical comic schtick, than a bias to the intellectual verbal feast that Mr Gow, has put on the page. Mr Henry seems to be playing a young 'gauche', 'tricking' his actor's offers with 'characteristics' to indicate character, rather than just trusting his own presence and accurate speaking of the text as enough for us to be onside with Douglas. Certainly, the wreath of vine leaves of victory on his brow, in the last scene, recharging the Hedda Gabler references from the play's first scene, were not deserving to be there, if Ejlert Lovborg's 'genius' was the signalled intention - and especially, since we all know what happened to Ejlert, don't we?* Whilst, Ms Grandison is, sometimes, for me, just too obviously enjoying her performance, so Barbara, sometimes, disappeared.  I did, then, have time to ponder the possible quality of Barbara's Hedda Gabler.

Others, enjoyed the work of the actors and the production, it seemed - maybe, it's just that I have a context for the text of this play, from the heady times of 1986, and would you believe, still think that the satire of EUROPE is still mightily relevant today, and has the need for the same passionate knife-edge of delivery of yore. (In the near future, Old Europe reaching back to present day Australia: Buckingham Palace making, our Team Australia leader, with the touch of a ceremonial sword: Sir Tony Abbott, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle, with an official residence in Walmer Castle - following in the footsteps of dear Old Sir Robert! Who was it that revived the Lord and Lady thing, recently? A cunning plan.)

EUROPE, still a favourite of mine from the pen of Mr Gow. Go see for yourself.

*Ejlert suffered a fatal bullet wound to the stomach!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Love Bites

Wooden Horse Productions Proudly Presents LOVE BITES. Music by Peter Rutherford. Lyrics by James Millar. At the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point. September 10 - October 6.

LOVE BITES, is an Australian musical that was first presented at the Seymour Centre in 2009. Music by Peter Rutherford with Lyrics by James Millar. It is, generally, a light weight song cycle with the double entendre title being justified in the course of the show: Love can bite both ways.

The four performers: Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie, create and sing an array of characters in the first half of the show, experiencing the first bite of love, and subsequently, in the second half, detailing the consequences. Some of the consequences are amusing, some sad, some hilarious, some just totally outrageous. The serial nature of the song cycle construction from act one into act two, works out in a very rewarding way, and each of you will have your favourite couple and narrative. The singers all get their spot piece to reveal their gifts, and all blend, seamlessly, into an ensemble with the appearance of simple joy - their rapport with one another, infectious in their desire to give us the gift of a good time.

The Music score by Mr Rutherford covers the field of musical sounds from a homage to Stephen Sondheim to the catchy pop tune and everything in between, and is enhanced with the often, very witty words of Mr Millar. Altogether, impressive. The Direction by Troy Alexander is fairly fluid, aided by two tiny twin revolves on a black gloss rectangled, raised stage. Settings by Lauren Peters and costumes by Becky-Dee Trevenen are expertly managed in what is a very busy show for all - the backstage crew can be seen flitting hurriedly behind the revolves, too. Choreography, by Ellen Simpson is sometimes fussy and a little too literal. The biggest problem, for me, on my night, was the over projection of the sound volume, by John McCutcheon, Sound Designer, which sometimes 'hurt', and made the orchestra led by Musical Director, Steven Kreamer, not our favourite part of the experience.

This show is of a cabaret style and one for the musical theatre lover, especially. There are enough of you out there who will enjoy yourselves very much.


Belvoir presents, NORA, by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, after A DOLL'S HOUSE, by Henrik Ibsen, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 13 August - 14 September.

This is a new Australian work written, jointly, by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, after, or, seemingly, instigated by reflections on A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen. To diarise this new work, it might be more useful to ignore the Ibsen original (for a while), and just regard what we saw on stage. This is a two act play (with a 30 minute interval - to facilitate a scene change - modern times at Belvoir - the bar probably made a killing!) I attended a performance over a month ago, and had not really found the way to respond to the offer/the writing/the production. So, here then, are My Memory Impressions, and disquiet, and consequent disquisition.

ACT ONE: The production is set in 2014 in a bourgeois home of an aspirational lower class (though, distinctly white collar) Australian family. The Setting (Set Design by Marg Horwell) gives a partly realised furnishing of two bedrooms (parent's and children's), a minimal impression of a working kitchen, bathroom, and living room - there are NO design layers to show it as a lived in environment, instead, it impresses as a sterile space without the stamp of any of the people who live in it - no visual personality, distinction, of anyone in the house. The principal design concept was to present the internal walls of this house as metal frame-works - no walls or doors. I came to the conclusion that this is an intended as a 'cage' metaphor. That all of this is pulled down for a completely different look in the second act, is explanation for that extraordinarily long interval - not the bar profiteering.

Inside this cage is a family: Nora Helmer (Blazey Best), her husband, Torvald Helmer (Damien Ryan) and children, Emmy (either, Indianna Gregg or Ava Strybosch), and John (either, Toby Challenor or Finn Dauphinee). All of this family are caged, all trapped, all flitting (oops, sorry that's Miss Julie), squirrelling through the usual activities of a contemporary family.

Nora appears to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown, robotically responding to her family appropriately, when required, and when alone, indulging in a blankness, with outbursts of weeping. I wondered, as her two children appeared to be of school age, what she did all day? Mope and cry? The house was so spare, housekeeping hardly seemed an issue. She had no modern media visible - it looked like a "cult" house, you know, The Brotherhood, The Exclusive Brethren, or something like that - so no outside-world distractions at all: no Oprah, Dr Phil, Judge Judy, When The World Turns, or whatever is the contemporary daytime television equivalent diversion for her to absorb the psycho-babble, to, perhaps, give some salve to her emotional state. In fact, I saw no books or social media equipment present, except the headphones belonging to her daughter? Was there a telephone? Did she own a mobile phone or computer to text or email? Had this Nora no internet savvy at all? Was there even a magazine? Had Nora no friends to come to visit her? No friends to visit, coffee with, talk about stuff, and to see that she was in personal difficulties, unwell, to offer advice? Had she no relatives she could visit, or, who might visit her, who would see her depressed state and offer aid? No spiritual advisor to turn to? Did she not know that there were social services available in 2014, to assist her? We later discover that she has 'squirrelled' away in savings some $9,000 odd dollars - why did she just not reach out for therapy, herself - visit a psychologist or psychiatrist? Perhaps, just medicate? Why didn't she tell her husband of her difficulty, and ask him to attend family counselling with her?

Was this supposed to be set in August, 2014?

Now, I know of many women (and men) on the social, cultural and economic fringes of our world, who are unable to do any of this, even today, but none in the 'given circumstances' which Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks have written for this family and asked us to observe. The world that this Nora lives in, that the writers have given us, and for us to believe that she could not have found a solution other than the one she makes, the same one the famous Nora made in 1879, demands a fairly amazing suspension of disbelief. It is, after all, 2014!

Ms Sarks in her program notes tells us:
In 2014 Nora is a different woman. She's older. She's educated. She's forged her own career and sacrificed it. She's aware of her rights. She has far more power and freedom than Ibsen's Nora.

And yet she finds herself, in Ms Sarks' production, in 2014, in a relatively comfortable monetary circumstance, and trapped! And unlike the original Nora, she has not committed any criminal act, such as forgery and theft. Her principal act, that we learn of, was to marry Torvald without truly loving him, and have children - not a criminal act, in the order of Ibsen's Nora, but, maybe, a very serious moral one. (Ibsen's Nora, in the recent Adam Cook production emphasised the mutual love, a powerful sensual love attraction between wife and husband, as played by Matilda Ridgeway and Douglas Hansell) This Nora's trap appears to be her choosing of marriage and motherhood over a professional career, and then, finds it was a mistake, and becomes unhappy - is it a kind of contemporary personal narcism, that she is suffering from, now? She has simply followed the dictates of her class in the conventional world, and got married, consummated her vows, and has produced children. She has done what society expected, and yet feels, what: cheated? unfulfilled? frustrated? with what has transpired? Did she not see the role models about her to warn her? Maybe, if she had used her 'education' to observe, rationalise and choose a life, exerted her 'rights', chose to use her 'power' and 'freedom' as a thinking human being, she could have made another choice? She did not, and apparently without any coercion, except social convention, made a choice (no doubt the wedding event had all the proper trappings and gifts), and subsequently appears to be experiencing a severe case of depression, post natal or otherwise - eight years of it ! "I should be happy, I deserve it, darling, don't I? What should I do? I know, I'll leave everything behind and find 'freedom'". That is my memory impression of this 2014 Nora, in this Belvoir production.

In the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, this is a different Nora, indeed to Ibsen's. She is older - but not wiser, it seems. She is educated - not that she has demonstrated much about what she knows, in what we learn of her history, or in the action of the play. She's had begun a career, and sacrificed it - not that that is discussed in the first act, and when alluded to in the second act, turns out to be a delusional impression of achievement, and, so, not much of a realistic sacrifice. She is aware of her rights - but does not take advantage of their use. She has more power and freedom, and, yet, does not use them, with reason. This Nora's conclusive decision, in her dilemma, in 2014, is the same as Ibsen's Nora in 1879, and Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks has not shown us why that is so, convincingly enough, in this play, that that is the only choice she could have made, as Ibsen had done in his play.

"How does that happen?" asks Ms Sarks in her notes, that Nora makes the same choice. I really don't know, and that's why I've come to see the production of this new play, and for my money, and precious time, Ms Sarks as Director and writer, with her co-writer, have not done so. Instead, they just show us a figure already in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in which she appears to wallow. Now, I, fundamentally, agree that nothing much has changed, and that is why the recent production of Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE by Adam Cook, for the Sport For Jove company, at the Seymour Centre, was so modern and horribly relevant : a production, unadulterated in its period and intentions - so piercingly clear. This new work unfortunately adds nothing to supersede the modernity of the original.

Ms Best's performance, in this first act, given the text, began in the middle of a breakdown mode and stayed there. Static. There was no dramatic development. It was simply a demonstration of an already arrived at self involved pre-occupation, of a woman who happened to be called Nora Helmer, in 2014, with too much time on her hands, and too insulated a point-of-view, that was too overtly, a morbid one. I was reminded of Anne Bancroft's brilliant performance of a housewife in despair and breakdown, Jo Armitage, (for which she won the Cannes Best Actress Award) in the Jack Clayton/Harold Pinter, 1962 adaptation of Penelope Mortimer's amazing novel, THE PUMPKIN EATER (1954), in which she revealed her character's layers of skin peeling away under the duress of marriage, motherhood, (and monogamy) - a kind of involutional depression. Ms Best with this text opportunities, and direction, perforce gave us a fixed mask of despair with no subsequent reveal or incident cause - no under the skin revelations, just a one dimensional blazing surface tension. When this Nora, in modern dress (Costume Design by Mel Page), walked out the door at the end of act one, a conclusion we knew that was to be, (although there was, notably, no door slam, that could echo down the coming centuries), one did not really care. Knowing that there was another act to come I thought, "Thank god", now we might get on with the reason for writing, directing, acting, and the designing of this production.

During the interval, oddly, I was really concerned, curious, as what was to happen to Torvald and the children. For, her husband, Torvald, in a subtly structured performance from Mr Ryan, appeared no less than Nora to be trapped in this cage of domesticity, and worse, trapped, just as truly, in a second cage, that of the Corporate world - of a demanding hierarchal social complexity - whilst attempting to ensure his duty, responsibility, to provide for his family. Such is the demand on Torvald, that he appears to be pre-occupied, constantly online and at work, even while at home. He, too, is isolated and simply robotic in his response to the demands of a family life, unthinkingly responding as best he can on both fronts of his life. He neither sees his wife's catatonic state, or his personal neglect of his wife and family, or of himself and his perilous state as a human being. We sense some of Torvald's outside life pressures that may have taken him to this deadened place, and have empathy - unlike the Nora, who has not had that opportunity to do so, because of the underwriting.

Surely, it is the system that they live in, in the social contract of the world about them that they,mindlessly, have surrendered to: CAPITALISM, that has them trapped in this cage of necessitous aspiration? The children, Emmy and John, are innocents being trained, indoctrinated by these parents, members of a 'Stepford' world (1972 film), to become the children from The Village of The Damned (1960 film). They will become what they know: their parents, and the zombies of the New Age - on the Hamster Wheel of the conventions of the world that has been built by their forebears. This is what Ibsen was writing about, in varying ways, in all his plays - not feminism or patriarchal chauvinism (he said so) - but of the crippling social conventions of marriage and parenting and monogamy, that our society, through antiquated religious beliefs and tribal survival strategies/laws have constructed for everyman - female or male - so as to sustain, to preserve, what they have built through the centuries, and what we call civilisation. Heroes for Ibsen were not preservers of the system but iconoclasts who dared to confront it. That Nora and Hedda are women, simply underlines Ibsen's belief, that everyman - everyman, human - can be a hero. Women, even, as equally as men, as Brand or Thomas Stockman, before them.

My recollection and impressions from ACT TWO: The setting now is that of an open kitchen area (well, a tap and an electric kettle that works!) backing a living area with a lounge, that unfolds into a bed, a chair and little side table, a lamp (?) This belongs to Helen (Linda Cropper), a work acquaintance of Nora's. Ms Cropper gave a marvellous performance, considering the slightness of the writing offered her - a true miracle of creativity. Helen is an older figure, whom Nora admired in the office, the place of Nora's time distanced, but fantasised career opportunities. (Thoughts that this remembrance of Nora's for Helen, had a hint of a same sex attraction, crossed my mind - could that be Nora's real problem? An unrequited, unrecognised sexual identity crisis?) They were not particularly close, but Nora has held her in high esteem, and in this present crisis in her life, vacating from her family, seeks her out, discovers her address across the other side of this city, and just turns up, out of the blue (excuse the unintended pun) and much to Helen's disquieted surprise, for she has had no connection with her for some eight or so years. Helen seems to be progressively through the scene, puzzled, surprised, startled, bewildered, bemused, tentative, and/but reluctantly, co-operative and supportive, emotionally generous, to this relative stranger. For Nora's, distress is, palpably, obvious, as it has always been to all of us, except to her husband and family (and friends!) . "Come in", she invites.

We observe Helen at home at work with laptop and documents, and the arrival of Nora at her door. We watch Helen invite this relative stranger into the apartment/house. She makes her tea - we wait for the kettle to boil, durationally - later, an alcoholic drink, or two. We overhear Helen fending off the offer of a romantic visit from a gentlemen friend on the telephone, and her setting up a future date/meeting; we hear of her retirement from the workplace - a much changed workplace from the one Nora remembers  - the place where Nora and she had become acquainted and Nora asks to return to; we learn of Helen's choice to leave her career at that office, to care for her dying son - for whom she had much feeling, and, now, is still grieving for.

Thus, we, with Nora, learn of a contemporary woman, who in her life in 2014, has managed to have it all, a career and a family - independence and sex. Of Helen, a woman using her 'education', awareness of 'rights', and 'powers', 'freedoms' to choose to live her life, well. An all that was, undoubtedly, negotiated, that has pros and cons for her, benefits and trials, but, essentially, one that has been a fulfilling one. As Nora expresses her naivety and reveals, unconsciously, her depressed obsessions about how the world works and functions, of the difficulties she has with her lot in life, Helen, literally, 'rolls her eyes' in surprise and wonder. Helen offers Nora a bed for the night - we watch the pair of them make the bed - with another, is it an avant-garde durational experiment? - and urges her to think about her choices, her actions. Nora lies alone in bed and in the dark conjures the figure of her daughter, Emmy, into her presence. There is an exchange between them, but, to be honest, I have no idea what transpired. When Nora lay on the bed in the dark, I almost took the cue to succumb to Morpheus, along with her, but in a separate dream state - my own morphia, of escape. All I noticed was that her younger son, John, was not conjured/present with his sister - and neither was Torvald. Hmmmm!

This is where, I thought, the play/the production ought to have begun with this present second act - after the famous re-enactment, echo, of the door exit. I thought how interesting it would be, to see, with a new second act, after this revelation of the successful negotiating of Helen's life as a role model, not only what Nora had done, but, What Nora Did Next. Let's see her ten years after this night of Nora's crisis in action, at Helen's place. Ten years after leaving her family and re-acquainting with Helen. What could she become? What has she become?

NO, that is not Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks concern. Rather, it was the further interminable acting out of Nora's depressive state, for, what seemed like, ever more. So what these writer's were about, had become, for me a distant concern, I was disconnected from any of the incidents of the play, by this time, and much like my experience of the Belvoir co-artistic director's, Adena Jacob's adaptation of HEDDA GABLER, a month or so ago, I couldn't have cared less, except for the deep regret of the loss of my precious time, in this theatre, again. My fellow audience's response was tepid in its appreciation. Some had even gotten up and left during the second act - it was during the bed making, I think - even, after waiting around in the foyer in that long interval, unlike others who had, opportunely, fled - emptied seats beside me. (Is that why some shows don't have intervals - so we can't escape without displaying, what some would believe to be rudeness. We are so bourgeois with our politeness, aren't we? Not, all. Oh, how I,  admire them. Iconoclasts, indeed - Ibsen would have admired them.)

I don't know what state the playwriting was in, what draft the program selectors at Belvoir read when they scheduled this play, or whether it was only an idea (like reportedly, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR), or a partly prepared text, but I began to ponder, question, during the performance, just how much of NORA was completed and was not written during the process of the production rehearsal. It felt to be a relatively unexplored possibility in the watching of it, a first, or early draft - ideas thrown up, but not thought through, or tried, tested, explored, argued about, rejected or accepted with passion. What rigour was given the project? How hot got the hot house of this creative invention? Over how much time? Ms Sarks has given us, in these past two years, as a co-writer and director  (and actress, Ms Best) modern versions of women with troubles with 'hubby': the solution was for Medea to kill off the kids with cordial to spite Jason; Nora, to desert the kids for what she regards as a living death with Torvald; and next year from Ms Sarks we will have the children, Elektra and Orestes, reversing that trend, and, instead, getting in first, and murdering their mother, after she has dispatched their father. Revenge for Medea's progeny and for little Emmy and John, perhaps? So then, next year, a matricide. Is there a Freudian pattern being worked out here from Ms Sarks, or, is it just a co-incidence of subject concerns? Are these productions 'a talking cure' for the writer/director? Or, something that a contemporary, subscription audience, parents and children, the Belvoir artistic gatekeepers feel we need to come to, once a year? Contemporary family dysfunction and unhappy solutions? Ha. I don't know, I'm just being desperate, here, to understand, and, I do wish the end result was better on this once highly anticipated, famous stage, so that I wouldn't notice the repetitions.

Hurrah, for Mr Ryan. Double Hurrah, for Ms Cropper. Otherwise, NORA, at Belvoir, would have been an absolutely tiresome time - some thought, an unbearable one. It has been, as Mr Myers keeps telling us, a great season, this year, at Belvoir: OEDIPUS SCHMOEDIPUS; THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR; HEDDA GABLER; NORA; OEDIPUS… Really?

And, what's most interesting, apparently, is that they are all 'new Australian plays'. Just with other people's famous literary titles, or characters, or plots. THE WIZARD OF OZ - Belvoir,  wizards of Aussie new plays, indeed.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

The God of Hell

Mophead Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO) present THE GOD OF HELL, A play by Sam Shepard at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo. 26 August - 13 September

THE GOD OF HELL is a work written by American, Sam Shepard, in 2004.

The God of Hell, in Roman mythology is the ruler of the infernal regions, he is called Pluto. Pluto is also a famous Disney character. The irony of the significance of the twin 'ownership' appellation is fodder for Mr Shepard's cri de coeur, in this play.

Mr Shepard, along with writer's such as Lanford Wilson (see BOOK OF DAYS), John Guare and Edward Albee, was part of the New York, Off-Off-Broadway Theatre Movement, in the Greenwich and East Village areas of New York, in the 1960's, fascinating counter-culture audiences with frenetic poetic theatre abstracts driven, it would seem, in hind sight, with the drug-culture energy and 'visions' of the young, in defiance and protest to the status quo of the political and cultural USA mainstream. Mr Shepard's short one act plays such as ICARUS'S MOTHER (1965); RED CROSS (1966); THE UNSEEN HAND (1969), (and many others), need to be contextualised very much to the time of their writing, a time of chaos, where the idealism of youth, as Shepard himself has said, was out to lunch,  "... so out to lunch in the face of realities... ". For, it was the time of the war in Vietnam that was shaping everything, said Mr Shepard:
Vietnam was the fulcrum behind it all, and there couldn't have been a more serious, a more serious deadly anger. [1]
Cooling down, perhaps, and looking for structure for his imaginative and poetic voice, he escaped the 'insanity' of the American zeitgeist and in 1971 went to London, where he became part of the Fringe movement there: THE TOOTH OF CRIME (1972), GEOGRAPHY OF A HORSE DREAMER (1974), the one act ACTION (1975), are some of the plays written and presented.

Returning to the USA, his work became focused on an exploration of the American family, and the disaster of the concept that The American Dream had had on his fellow Americans, joining the usual pre-occupation of all the great American playwrights over its cultural history. Mr Shepard had matured, remarkably, into a powerful, dramatically realistic (Gothic surrealism; symbolism, pumping as well) writer of unforgettable full length plays: CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1977); BURIED CHILD (1978) - Pulitzer Prize in 1979; TRUE WEST (1980) - by some regarded as the 'family trilogy'- growing into FOOL FOR LOVE (1983), and THE LIE OF THE MIND (1985) - some say, making a 'quintet' of related plays. Now, in 2014, as we look back at the output of Sam Shepard, this latter collection of plays can be seen, certainly, as the apogee of this writer's trajectory.

Besides his work as an actor, sometimes as a film director, short story writer, and the revival of some of these mid-career plays on Broadway, itself, (facilitating some re-writng of the original texts -e.g. BURIED CHILD, and not, to my mind, always for the better) Mr Shepard has since 1985, lamentably, for his passionate supporters, only penned nine new plays - nine plays in twenty eight years! And they, relatively, have been received as lesser achievements, depleted in their energy, vision, and poetics. In Leslie A Wade's essay/chapter: SHEPARD IN THE 1990's, in the Cambridge Companion to Sam Shepard (2002), he writes
Though his past achievements remains unquestioned, magnified in some quarters, Shepard's fall from grace has not gone unnoticed. [it is], as if Shepard has wilfully spurned the role of Great American Playwright, that he has eased himself into an emeritus mode. [1]
Shepard's STATE OF SHOCK, is an antiwar play, written in 1991, in response to the 'public euphoria' around the success of the Gulf War. It is subtitled 'a vaudeville nightmare' and its tone, tipping into a cartoon satire mode, comes from 'an acute outrage' of Shepard's, at that war and the masculinist codes that instigated and celebrated it. The play is forthright in its indictment of militaristic enterprise and nationalistic allegiance. The response to the work, critically and otherwise, was decidedly tepid, from all, except the die-hard fans of the writer - those of us wanting to will him back to his earlier days of 'greatness'.

His play output, in this new century, has not changed much of that estimation. THE GOD OF HELL, written in 2004, can be contextualised, to the American Government's response to 9/11, and the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the later revelations of torture and prisoner abuse of suspected terrorists in Abu Ghraib - the fascism of Republican America - and not , what the overstated Director's notes of Rodney Fisher, suggest, pointing to the recent agribusiness policies of the USA, and particularising the practice of 'fracking'. Indeed, Mr Shepard instructs that one of the characters, who is being electronically tortured appear "Wearing a black Hood", referencing an iconic image of the War on Terror, and ignored by Mr Fisher, in this production!

Shepard's anger at the War on Terror, this lived-through context, is the principal driving force of this play, an echo of that youthful heritage of almost fifty years ago, 'a serious anger' - and this one act (three scene play), has some of the strengths and weaknesses of that 1960's work. This play, like the STATE OF SHOCK play, is, artistically, minor Shepard, where, arguably, the intent (his anger) overwhelms his famous power of poetic construction and character. For new comers to the legend of the writing reputation of Sam Shepard, THE GOD OF HELL, will be, mostly, a puzzle, a disappointment, as to why he is so highly reputed. There are glimmers of the past, but they are decidedly, feint. (his purpose, is, of course different, and could account for what some may count as a diminution of writerly form and quality.)

I'm a fan of Mr Shepard's work, having seen BURIED CHILD, in San Francisco, at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) way back in 1980 (I directed its first Australian production at the National Institute of DramaticArt (NIDA), in 1984), and then sat in at final dress rehearsals of the first production of FOOL FOR LOVE (1983), at the Magic Theatre, in San Francisco, nearby Mr Shepard, with Ed Harris and Kathy Baker, on stage, bruised and broken (from the intensity of the playing). I was disappointed reading THE GOD OF HELL, ages ago, and this production down at the Old Fitz, has not convinced me otherwise. I am, nevertheless, grateful to see it off the page and on the stage.

The promise of some reliable insight to a production of this play, begins with one's entrance to the theatre. Mr Fisher, has taken on the responsibility of Designer, as well as Director, and we are given an amazingly detailed realisation of a Midwestern farmhouse (even, more especially, as this is an Independent Theatre production, working within a limited budget, no doubt). It is cluttered with all the paraphernalia of the history of a long lived in house in the American heartlands, with the hobby of indoor plants overwhelming the rooms, winter bound, bleakly lit, its presbyterian austerity and 'livingness' palpable. (Lighting Design, by Ryan Shuker.) Think Jack Twist's (Jake Gyllenhaal) parents home in the later scenes in the Ang Lee film, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005).

If only, then, that the detail envisioned by Mr Fisher, had continued in its fastidiousness, so that the stove worked better, and that the cooking of that breakfast bacon, with all its potential crackling pop and sizzle, had been added, more vividly, for the success of Shepard's usual complex poetics. Then, the classic Shepard onomatopoeic soundscape of 'real' sounds (along with the dripping plants, and distant cow mooing) - an instinctive residue from his musical background as a drummer, timpanist - part of his craft as a dramatist, part of his atmospheric dramatic toolkit, may have been revealed. Too, the olfactory 'given circumstances' of the 'reeking' bacon could have rendered the reality more convincingly, to help to disarm us to willingly, imaginatively, enter the world of the play.

This play should move from hyper-realism demands, progressively, to a kind of fiendish "Pinteresque' menace (perhaps the influence of his time in London?) and, further, onto a surreal/gothic spectrum. The play, metaphorically, begins on Earth, and finishes on Pluto, with this God of Hell, in a terrifying world of both Roman, and in American terms, of Disney proportions! This Set Design, then, is a good beginning. Most productions of Shepard that I have seen here in Australia have, generally, been 'fast and loose' with this writer's creative imaging instructions in his text - it is interesting, to note the number of times Shepard has directed his own plays. Watching him at work in the Magic Theatre as Director of FOOL FOR LOVE, in 1983, was to watch his meticulous and fierce visual eye creating an intentional effect for his audience, even before the play began in action, and this included the organisation of the architecture of the space (windows, doors etc), the organisation of the furniture, to a precise angle, for the audience's subliminal absorption (sculptural), and colour (like a master painter), as accurately expressed as any of his spoken text, scoring.

Lights up on Emma in blue terry-cloth bathrobe, slippers, moving methodically back and forth from the kitchen sink, where she fills a yellow plastic pitcher (N.B. colour clues) with water and carries it to the plants. She waters the plants and returns to fill pitcher, then she repeats the process. Frank, her husband, sits on the couch with pair of work boots in his lap, greasing them with mink oil. It's a while before they speak.
These are classic Shepard choreographic instructions. Mr Fisher does not seem to have had the courage/patience to extend the 'dance' to the repetitive demands that Shepard is asking for: "It's a while before they speak". Vanessa Downing, who gives an outstanding performance as Emma, moves through the tasks of the writer with the kind of habitual routine of the 'isolated', a weary 'truth' fighting off the winter blues in an unwelcome environment, creating life against all odds, though, perhaps, unconsciously drowning it - a pioneer settler in the heartbreaking heartland of a wintery Wisconsin (although, the watering pitcher never seems to have the weight of water, ever, for Ms Downing to deal with! - no matter the overstated sound tap statement of filling it - Sound Design by Max Lyandvert).

On the other hand, Tony Poli, as Frank, does not oil his boots, he, instead, appears to be 'acting' the oiling of the boots - it has absolutely, no reality. This stylistic dichotomy, between Ms Downing and Mr Poli, directed by Mr Fisher, undermines the conception of Shepard's world. If Frank is already well on his way to a metaphoric outer planet, perhaps Pluto, by 'pretending' to clean his boots with a kind of 'spaced out' demeanour, without us ever having seen him as an "earthling" beside his wife, then, it is here, right at the start, that this production begins to become unstuck. This Frank, indeed, does not appear to be just a patriot/farmer (albeit, a comatose to the real world) living a peaceful life in the country with his cattle stock - but an entirely peculiar being. Mr Poli's performance lacks truth, and has no arc, of any kind, and is difficult, subsequently, to believe, or to watch - the character's journey is brief (so disappointing, when one remembers his work in BANG, a few years ago).

In the basement of this house there is a guest, a friend of Frank's - there has been some re-write here by Mr Fisher, to justify the casting of a significantly younger actor, adjusting, arbitrarily, the character of Graig Haynes (Jake Lyall), to being the son of a friend of Frank's, instead of the friend of Frank - who is afflicted with a contamination, that emanates a blue flash of light when he is touched. Unfortunately, in this production, on opening night, that surreal affect was not consistently presented. Mr Shepard's construct: shimmering weirdness and menace, thereby, undermined!

The play introduces a sinister younger figure, into the landscape and community of the Wisconsin heartland, a grinning Mr Welch (Ben McIvor), dressed
in a dark suit with American flag pin in his lapel, short cropped hair, crisp white shirt, red tie, attache case in one hand ... with a large cookie dangling in the other, in the shape of an American flag, with red, white, and blue frosting ... .
That the character of Haynes, in this production, is not of the same generation as the patriots of the heartland of the USA, Emma and Frank, and instead, the same as Mr Welch, the invasive fascistic, American government agent, unbalances the intent of Shepard's symbolism in his text.

Neither, Mr Lyall, or McIvor, (along, with the aforementioned Mr Poli) display the 'depth' of characterisation necessary, based on the satiric 'backstory' of Mr Shepard's intent, to bring proper clarity, or weight to the function/tasks of the writing style of THE GOD OF HELL. This playwriting is not reflective of the more iconic writing of the quintet of plays of the late '70's and early '80's, and demands a different creative state for entry, than that, that they, relatively, superficially, supply. Certainly, these actors demonstrate a sense of devotion to Mr Shepard, but give, essentially, a shallow conception and performance in this modern "fractured fairytale / fable" of angry 'cartooned' protest. Only Ms Downing seems to have the measure of the style and intellectual gameplay that Shepard is pursuing here - her performance is what holds one's attention to what is otherwise, a misconception of the play and its purpose.

With Our Prime Minister's Team Australia response to the I.S. crisis, and the ratcheting up of the Terrorism Alert from medium to high, recommended by ASIO, and with Mr Abbott, saying, as explanation:
I want to stress that this does not mean that a terror attack is imminent. We have no specific intelligence of particular plots. ... and that 'a modest public information campaign' would begin in the coming weeks ... 
and that a hotline had been opened up for the public to report any suspicious activity, suggests a parallel coincidence of circumstance, in Australia, today, reflecting the subject matter of Shepard's THE GOD OF HELL : Governmental Fear Mongering. This play could have had a prescient power in contemporary production if the focus of its intent had been more accurate. (Watching this play by Sam Shepard, one was reminded of the savage emotional response of Stephen Sewell to the War on Terror : MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA (2003), and wished that it was that that Mophead had chosen to do, instead.)

This, THE GOD OF HELL, at the Old Fitz is, both, minor in the writing expectation for Shepard aficionado's, and in production, an unexpected misfire from Mr Fisher. A disappointment.

The cambridge Companion to SAM SHEPARD. Edited by Matthew Riudane.  Cambridge University Press - 2002.

Unholy Ghosts

Photo by Danielle Lyonne

Griffin Independent and White Box Theatre present UNHOLY GHOSTS by Campion Decent, at the SBW Stables, Theatre, Kings Cross. 27 August - 20 September.

UNHOLY GHOSTS is a new Australian play from Campion Decent. It was the winner of the Rodney Seaborn Playwright's Award in 2012.
.. (UNHOLY GHOSTS) tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss. Yet it stands as a representation of a story that visits us all in one way or another at some point in our lives. It was written from a space of grief in an attempt to honour yet complicate the past, mourn productively in the present, and to sight the future. My hope is that from this space arrives a portrait of life in all its messy truth and comic madness ... 
- Campion Decent
The Son (James Lugton), waits on a red carpeted stage, seated before an old fashioned travelling trunk with some remnants of a past time still present, for the audience to arrive. He then talks to us and conjures into life -, as does Tom Wingfield in Tennessee Williams', THE GLASS MENAGERIE - 'memories' of his family, his sister, his Mother (Anna Volska), and his Father (Robert Alexander). These 'memories' are nostalgic, humorous and sometimes rancorous, and, probably, filtered through a romantic poetic licence and the needful space of time. These parents, mismatched and hostile, though Roman Catholic have separated; a sister has died, tragically; and the Son carries a triple burden of being Catholic, Gay (with two kids - how modern), and a Writer - an artist!

UNHOLY GHOSTS is a pleasant delight, and recalled, for me, other similar Australian works: A HARD GOD by Peter Kenna (1973); A HAPPY AND HOLY OCCASION by John O'Donoghue (1976), and A FATHER WE LOVED ON A BEACH BY THE SEA by Stephen Sewell (1978).

Kim Hardwick (whose production of BANG***, was one of the best of that year, 2010, and whose work is not seen regularly enough) has created another fluid and sensitive production, supported by a Production Design by Martin Kinnane - particularly, the Lighting - and a Composition/Sound Design by Michael Huxley. Ms Hardwick's performers are insightful and delicate in their storytelling. It is a pleasure to watch Ms Volska, relishing the flamboyance of the theatrical strategies of her character - Ms Volska has been too long absent from the stage; Mr Alexander broaches an irascible and difficult man - as created by the Son - with wit, stringency and a steady and controlled 'good taste'; while Mr Lugton makes an impression of some attraction as the Son, that is some of the best work we have seen from him.

The play could be edited further, and seemed to have more 'endings' than Melba farewells - the sentiment of the play, the journey, had been nicely etched well before the play finished, and the final, "We are family" tag, replete with disco music and bubbles 'forever blowing', was alarmingly unnecessary, and, distractingly, sat as a didacticism of a distinctly agit-prop nature. Bring out the blue pencil.

UNHOLY GHOSTS, gentle and pleasing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Photo by Tracey Schramm

Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) present SUGARLAND in the ATYP Studio, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay. 27th August - 13 September.

SUGARLAND is a new Australian play, written by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair. Directed by Fraser Corfield and David Page.
In 2011, ATYP began a series of residences in the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Over the following two years, playwrights Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair spent two months in this unique place. The aim was to create a story that would allow people around the country to gain a personal understanding of what life is like growing up in remote Australia. ... SUGARLAND was presented to the community of Katherine before opening at Darwin Festival.
Now, it is showing at ATYP Studio, in urban Sydney, and well worth catching.

What is interesting about this work is the content of the play which is truly 'shattering' - remember the Warwick Thornton, 2009 film, SAMSON AND DELILA. For, otherwise, the form of the writing is conventional; the directing merely straightforward in its shaping and guidance; and the performance skills of the participants, ranging from dance backgrounds, to informal and formal acting training, produces a level of visceral impact that is, only, charmingly disarming - while, on the other hand, it does allow us, as the audience, to a cumulative immersion of identification and empathy, as we become familiar with the characters. The evolved natural comfort in the acting and the ensemble work of the performers is a gentle strength, with the writing content, to reveal, what is essentially an agit-prop theatre-in-education work.

Hunter Page-Lochard, recently seen in BROTHERS WRECK, as Jimmy, is the most secure of the actors, giving dimension and generous support to the production, particularly to Dubs Yunupingu, as Nina, the narrator, a relative novice to 'acting'. Narek Arman, as a more-than-less assimilated Iraqi refugee, Aaron; Elena Foreman, as Erica, a dislocated and disturbed school girl from the local RAAF Base, Trindal; and Michael Cameron as 'white-boy' Charles (also, doubling as an Indigenous youth) give a kind of naturalness to the events of the story that has no self-consciousness, or judgemental values about it. Rachael Coopes, one of the writers, plays the only adult in the text, Penny, the over burdened, governmental 'foot-soldier' social worker, attempting to balance, frustratingly, Katherine realities with out-of-touch policy realities dictated from Canberra, to support the youth under her jurisdiction.

The play's content focuses on the young of Katherine, a selection of school-aged teenagers, and the 'culture' that they live in (there are some 30 different ethnic groups/nationalities living together in Katherine; the highest percentage of homelessness in Katherine is found among the population between the age of 12-18). It shows the day to day survival behaviours of these 'kids' as they wield their way through the social, multi-cultural, bureaucratic, and climatic obstacles/ pressures of living in a remote community such as Katherine. That what we see is 'shocking' to some of our sensibilities (mine, at least), and yet in the world of the characters, is just a part of the 'normal' choices necessary to endure, is where the tension of the content of this play strikes an amazing chord of confrontation and learning, and makes it an essential reason to see SUGARLAND.

Episodes of drug and alcohol abuse, truancy from school, demonstrations of 'sniffing', 'choking', 'cutting', the reported dysfunctional family backgrounds - with evidence of the physical abuse, forcing extreme behavioural choices, such as deliberate pregnancy to find a place of rescue - governmental ineptitudes, are all mixed with the pop culture of music-rap and dance (there is a featured singing contest driving part of the narrative - realistically handled!), and the other normalities of swimming and sunning and teased-filled interactions of the hormonal young. The strength of the experience of SUGARLAND is in the integrated 'normalness' of it all, for these young people.

The Design elements: Set, Jacob Nash; Lighting, Juz McGuire; Costume, Ruby Langton-Batty, were simply, but attractively accommodating for the demands of touring (the black glossed floor, covered with saw dust/brown dirt (?) - just a little too art directed, considering the realities of the material of the play, I thought). The Sound Design, by Guy Webster, is especially useful to the cultural accessibility of the production's experience.

Much like the Richard Linklater, 2014 film, BOYHOOD, where the dramas of growing-up in a particular environment is simply told without the usual dramatic crisis events or judgements and moral 'rightings' - rather as, this is life; and the experience of the culture revelations in Omar Musa's astounding new Australian novel, HERE COMES THE DOGS (2014), where the shock of the realities and the apparent community social acceptance of these realities are both cauterising, and yet mesmerising, thrilling, to be witness to, in what otherwise are, sometimes, sanitised mediums, is what, also, makes SUGARLAND, a kind of must see. A contemporary trio of cultural contributions of timely observations and moral questings.

The young members of the audience I saw SUGARLAND with were 'stoked' at its truthfulness, no matter the social discomfort, perhaps, from their teachers - this play reflected some of their realities, indeed. No 'helicoptering' protection from truths, going on here, but, instead, an uncensored mirror to our world, their world- so much content for discussion in the classroom, for sure.

ATYP, last presenting, M.ROCK, and, IN THIS FAIRFIELD, earlier this year, indeed, have curated a program that is really 'cooking' in 2014. I recommend a visit to SUGARLAND. I felt it a much more authentic experience (no less important, though) than the recent, BROTHERS WRECK. The fable story told by Nina to conclude this production is worth listening to, and, after pondering, taking to one's heart and contribute to action.

SUGARLAND: Contemporary agit-prop/ theatre-in-education, par excellence.