Sunday, November 30, 2014

Children of the Sun

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Colonial Trust First State Global Asset Management presents, CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky, in a new version by Andrew Upton, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 17 September - 18 October.


Dear Diary,

I did not have a good time with this production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN, at the Drama Theatre. It seemed to me to be more a play adapted from a Feydeau classic, than a play by Gorky. I can't decipher who is responsible, The Adaptor: Andrew Upton, or the Director, Kip Williams.

The best things were the look of the show: The Set Design, by David Fleischer. Especially, the Costume Design, by Renee Mulder. The Lighting Design, by Damien Cooper. This element of the production, the look, the image, is the element that the Director, Kip Williams, generally, is good at (sort of). Visual concept is his strength. Most else is subservient to that. It's a kind of Installation art with moving figures.

The only actor, for me, that survived the Directorial guidance was the amazing Justine Clarke, playing Yelena.

All else, a relative disaster.
I was going bonkers in my seat.

Read on, if you want.

It has taken six weeks to write and I do tend to rave on a bit. I'm sorry. It is only an expression of appreciative passion

"BONKERS" - Macquarie Dictionary (the Aussie one) = CRAZY. Oxford Dictionary (the Pommy one) = MAD; CRAZY.

During the Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton, under commission, from the Royal National Theatre, London, in 2013, which has been further adapted by Andrew Upton for the STC - for reasons of economics, I presume, for despite the large grant that the STC company receives to support the Performing Artists on the stages, and the HUGE administration staff in their offices, the STC, under the Artistic Direction of Andrew Upton, to give the Sydney audience the opportunity to have this play, his latest playwriting, says he had to reduce 14 important roles (16 roles in the original) down to 12 - several of the characters cry out something like, "They are going bonkers." or "I am going bonkers." Well, during this production, Directed by Kip Williams, in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, from my F Row seat, centre, I wanted to shout "I am going bonkers. You are making me f..king bonkers" (another vocab choice by the adaptor, Mr Upton, for a few of the characters, under stress, during the play's scenarios). "Help me!! Help me!!!", I internalised, not wanting to be rude, a disturbance. I was being driven CRAZY, MAD, BONKERS, by this production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN.

It seemed to me that I was watching a production of a Gorky play as if it was one of the early Chekhov one act vaudeville- sketch-cartoon-exagerrations, such as THE PROPOSAL, or THE BEAR (1888-9). There is a note in the program notes about the brief relationship between Gorky and Chekhov, but as writers their core intentions, are as different as chalk is to cheese. And so, although Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov knew each other, personally (briefly), their writing styles and objectives were very different, indeed. True, as another program essay, Becoming Gorky: Story Teller, Playwright, Activist, by Cynthia Marsh, tells us:
They were in conversation and correspondence during 1900 while Chekhov was writIng THREE SISTERS and Gorky was working on his first two plays. As a result, their plays engaged in a dialogue on the stage of the MAT (Moscow Art Theatre). Chekhov took some of Gorky's ideas to task in THREE SISTERS (1901). He then responded to the answers Gorky gave in THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902), in his own final play THE CHERRY ORCHARD of 1904. Gorky's SUMMERFOLK, later in 1904, begins where Chekhov finishes. [1] 
I believe the style of the writing comes from two different urges. One was dominated with gentle, humanist, ironic observation, that is the Chekhov; the other by blatant Marxist Social Realism, with a deliberate political agenda, that is the Gorky. In fact Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko in his memoir "My Life in the Russian Theatre" notes that the first production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, in St Petersburg, "was unequivocally satirical, with little sympathy for the character(s)" and was unanimously condemned. [2]. And, this seems to be the playing tone taken by Mr Williams, flaunted for us, in this present production for the STC. Nemirovitch-Dantchenko elaborates:

           However much the events of 1905 (Bloody Sunday) might have hardened (Gorky's) views, Gorky's initial conception of Protasov (for instance) was far more sympathetic. Originally, he planned to write a play called 'The Astronomer' in collaboration with Leonid Andreev (another Russian writer of the period.) It owed its inspiration to the words of the German astronomer, Herman Klein (1884-1914) : "When Raphael was painting his Sistine Madonna, when Newton was contemplating the             law of gravity, when Spinoza was writing his Ethics and Goethe his Faust, the sun was at work on all of them. All of us, geniuses and mere mortals, strong and weak, emperors and beggars, all of us are children of the sun." [2]

Protasov was conceived to be played as a visionary akin to other heroes in the MAT repertoire of the time, with the subtle heroics of Stockman from Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (1882) or Astrov, in UNCLE VANYA." Not, as both Mr Upton and Mr Williams seem to believe, that the children of the sun are "a group of over-indulged kidults." That Protassov is a 'kidult'!? Gorky had much more regard for mankind and saw them, all, as individuals pursuing their idealistic and/or needful passions, under the sun, that nurtures/blinds us all, all equally.

So, I thought I was going BONKERS, in the Opera House.

Alexi Maximovich Peshkov was born in 1868 into a family with a small cloth-dying business, who had a prior history as barge-towers on the Volga river. Unlike Chekhov, who was born in 1860, into a bourgeois family whose father was a grocer, and whose antecedents had been serfs on the land - they had bought their freedom.  In 1879, Maxim became an orphan and was brought up by a violently abusive grandfather, and doting grandmother. Unlike Anton, who had a violent father but a loving mother, and siblings: a devoted sister (Masha) and two brothers. Both men had life confrontations: in 1887, Maxim attempted suicide, with a gun. In 1885-6 Anton was diagnosed with tuberculosis - he virtually, kept it a secret. Maxim spent 5 years trudging through the lower world of the Russian Empire, taking on many varied jobs. Unlike Anton who graduated from university as a doctor. Maxim became a journalist for regional newspapers, reporting on the inequities of Russian life from the bottom strata of society, graduating to a collection of ESSAYS AND STORIES (1898), which he wrote less as an aesthetic practice than as a moral and political act. Unlike Anton, who began writing comic sketches and short stories of fiction for profit and public entertainments, to support himself and his family. Alexi Maximovitch Peshkov adopted the pseudonym of Maxim Gorky, 'gorky' meaning, bitter (sometimes translated as grief). Unlike Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov who became famous, simply, as Anton Chekhov. Gorky aligned himself politically with the Marxist Socialist-Democratic movement and was jailed or exiled for his political agitation, often. Unlike Anton Chekhov who did not, publicly, affiliate with any political movement and suffered no jail term or persecution. Maxim Gorky wrote novels, short stories and plays in the socialist realist method as a political activist. Unlike Chekhov, who, while abhorring the social and political conditions of his country, wrote observational stories of the human condition and became more pre-occupied with writing as a stylist than a social activist - perhaps, the greatest writer of short stories - and an innovator of the play form and characterisation along with, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and Stanislavsky, at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Gorky did have his first plays produced under the aegis of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT): THE PHILISTINES or SMUG PEOPLE (1901), THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902) and SUMMERFOLK (1904), after an introduction from Anton Chekhov to Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and, subsequently, Konstantin Stanislavsky. Chekhov wrote, particularly, for the MAT company of actors: UNCLE VANYA (1899), THREE SISTERS (1901) and THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1904). Chekhov died in 1904, six months after the premiere of THE CHERRY ORCHARD - he never witnessed revolution, only gathering unrest. Maxim Gorky lived until 1938 and was witness and participant in both the revolutions - 1905 and 1917 - becoming a comrade to both Lenin and Stalin. Chekhov had a doctor's empathetic view of his fellow citizens. Gorky had a revolutionist's assertiveness, urging his fellow citizens for change, to change - even using violent change. Chekhov with his diagnosed illness was unsure of his future and seemed to embrace the irony of the life/death cycle as a humanist, some might say, near sentimentalist. Gorky fired by political ideology envisaged a sure future that he could be part of, and embraced in his writings and actions, the 'handbooks' of revolution. Chekhov came to observe life, Gorky participated and shaped life. Chekhov is remembered as a writer, a great writer. Some believe, it is Gorky the Man, defined by his political activities in the pre- and post-revolution eras, that is more impressive, than Gorky the Writer, and the reason for his longevity in history.

Gorky, in 1905, had become disaffected from the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), after disagreements with Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, and gave the premiere performance of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, to Vera Komissarzhevskaya (the first Nina in THE SEAGULL) and her company at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Gorky had written it while a political prisoner in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress, as a result of his "drafted proclamation condemning Nicholas II as a murderer and calling for 'a struggle against the autocracy'" [2] following the Tsarist's troops slaughter of demonstrators at the infamous Bloody Sunday rally, in January, 1905 - almost a year before the first aborted revolution. The play opened in St Petersburg twelve days before the Moscow production, which was given "only on the assurance that Nemirovitch-Dantchenko would be restrained from distorting the text." [2] Gorky had, in fact, lost interest with the play and was now concerned deeply with the revolutionary mood of both cities. The populace were incensed when the Tsar proclaimed the Constitution on the 17th October and "it became clear that the reactionaries would never reconcile themselves with it and that the so-called "Black Hundreds would be let loose to do their worst." [2] The first performance, in Moscow, of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, was given on the 24th October, 1905. The Tsar's supporters saw the Moscow Art Theatre as a hot-bed of revolutionaries, epitomised by the writer Gorky, and the actual audience on that first night ended in panic and near riot when they mistook the staged protest conclusion of the last act of the play as a reality - it was perceived by a jittery audience that an actual take-over of the theatre/stage was taking place, with guns held by reactionaries, the so-called Black Hundreds:
The stage-manager's assistant had the curtain rung down. ... When calm was restored the performance continued, but the theatre had been emptied of more than half its audience. (It played, courageously, for a further 21 performances during that Autumn). The first revolution - the December revolution of 1905 - was approaching. The public stubbornly refrained from play-going. ... On December 11 we were rehearsing ... and made the most incredible exertions neither to hear nor give heed to the reports of occurrences in the Square of Triumph we went on rehearsing until shots were heard under the very windows of the theatre and the theatre yard was invaded. ... Then began the long gloomy days ... There was martial law ... The Art Theatre was silent. [2]

THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN disappeared from the repertoire.

The adaptation, by Andrew Upton, of Gorky's play for the Royal National Theatre (Faber and Faber - 2013) is aggressively contemporary in much of its language choices that more than occasionally jangles one's comprehension with its bold anachronisms.The tendency to satirise the characters instead of maintaining the Gorky empathy for these people is necessarily a modern lens fracture (as in a fractured fairy tale, perhaps!) that does not reveal Gorky's sensibilities and intentions. The further adaptation of the English version for this Australian production at the STC has, for instance, a conflation of three characters into one - thereby removing some of the children of the sun, the representatives of the local working class peasantry, who are as self-obssessed as the principal characters - they are all children of the sun, equally culpable in the eyes of Gorky. What is best in the adaptation, is the decision to overlap the dialogue. Thereby, Mr Upton's changes have a contemporary freshness that supersedes the verbal (and sometimes structural) heaviness of the 1973, Moura Budberg (one of Gorky's wives) published version, but, for me, does not quite have the clarity, fluency and Gorky intention, found in the Penguin 1988 version by Kitty Hunter-Blair and Jeremy Brooks, commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In this production of Gorky/Upton's CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Kip Williams, Helen Thomson, playing the desperately lost Melaniya, and Hamish Michael, playing the artist, Vageen, give outstanding performances. Both these actors, particularly, Ms Thomson, demonstrate their remarkable comic skills. Both, demonstrate almost incomparable clowning skills on this occasion. The audience I was with, found themselves laughing often, and loudly. However, both performances were, for me, a disaster of choice by these two actors and director, as they were exhibiting, demonstrating them in, altogether, the wrong play. If this were one of the burlesques of Chekhov: THE PROPOSAL or THE BEAR, for instance; or one of the more frantic Feydeau French farces, one of the one-acters e.g. BABY WON'T SHIT (1910), or, full length, A FLEA IN HER EAR (1906), or any contemporary farce: BOEING, BOEING, or a Franca Rame-Dario Fo, for example, nothing else could have been more appropriate, but not in THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN.

THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN is a play by Maxim Gorky, no matter any liberties taken by Mr Upton. Gorky's cannon of work is written in a serious social realist style. He is writing from close observation of the living world about him. Gorky wrote from a point-of-view that was empathetic to his fellow 'comrades' and, most importantly, from a lived comprehension for the given circumstances and motivations of his fellow citizens without judgement or satirical exaggeration. He was, rather, a super sensitive, observer, critic of the political and social circumstances that inhibited his fellow Russian citizens from experiencing justice and true liberty. He knew change must come.

His theatrical inspiration was the work of the contemporary Russian writers for the stage, Ostrovsky, (Tolstoy), and the early major Chekhov, and not from Gogol and his masterpiece, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR (1836). Not in any of his plays : THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902) , SUMMERFOLK (1904), PHILISTINES (1905), ENEMIES (1906), VASSA ZHELEZNOVA (1910), or some of his other literature: THE MOTHER (1906); THE LIFE OF A USELESS MAN (1907); his autobiographies: MY CHILDHOOD (1913-14) ; MY APPRENTICESHIP (1916); MY UNIVERSITIES (1923); or FRAGMENTS FROM MY DIARY (1940) -  published posthumously and translated by Moura Budberg - have I come across any figure of observation writ as boldly and cartoony as the two performances given by Ms Thomson and Mr Michael in this production of the Gorky play. Nor, any character, as childishly comic, as some of the other performances.

For, most of the other performances, in Mr Williams' production, too, tended to 'represent' the characters, instead of revealing investigated experiential truths of the given circumstances of these men and women of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia. For, Gorky did not grow up and trudge the Russian Czardom and believe it was funny! He knew suffering, first hand. He knew pain, personally. He knew sorrow, personally. He knew injustice, personally. He knew of it from the core of his life experiences. And, the bigger picture of social and political movements of his past, and present, and future were his focused literary concerns. He did not write of it as satire. He did not write of it as comic. He was a revolutionary. He wrote to change the world. He wrote with little humour. He wrote from a long-time, festering anger, and demands for political change.

This Sydney Theatre Company production is/was created by Australian artists, seemingly, not  alert, or even imaginatively engaged, with any empathy, for the origins of Gorky's Russian peoples and concerns, and were, rather, creating, as Australians of 2014, a CHILDREN OF THE RELAXED AND COMFORTABLE. A production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN where all of Gorky's urgent concerns are made to appear ridiculous, funny, a satiric lampoon of humanity. It, created from a cultural experience that cares nothing, not even from studied secondary resources, of suffering and persecution, and the yearning that provokes the possibility of one's own death for demanding, claiming basic human rights. It comes from artists who seem to have no imagination or the courage to own such truths. From a culture where our societal crises are laughable and are, seemingly, easily brushed aside or, even worse ignored, denied. Artists in ignorance or denial of local and world dilemmas. Kidults, indeed. Blind, and protected from life realities, with a comic (missionary) zeal to protect us- their comrades/audience - from seeing them either.

To be fair:

Are we being warned, with the production of this text that "You'll laugh on the other side of your face, soon enough."? " Ignore our parable and you'll be sorry."? 

Well, (let me think) .... No, no (thinking further) ... Oh, Oh, Oh, (is it a penny dropping, Kevin?), could this possibly be what Mr Upton has written in this adaptation of the original Gorky? Could this possibly be what Mr Williams has Directed?

Well ... if so, no ... NO ... no, not with my audience, who laughed loudly and applauded satisfactorily, and seemed to leave with no serious contemplation: "there but for the grace of god, and living in the lucky country, good old Australia, go I." 

 No, it had been definitely, a lovely afternoon's distraction, entertainment. "Let's have a cool pinot gris and look at that fabulous, harbour view." No serious paralleling of the play to their comfortable lives, for sure.


 Well, (then let Kevin's dropping penny become a bullet) if that is so, the Adaptor and Director do Gorky's name an injustice, and totally mis-led me as to what to expect in the Drama Theatre. Gorky was the writer wasn't he? It said so on the title page. Then where was Gorky's intended play?

The last Gorky play to be seen in Sydney, professionally, was an adaptation by Jonathan Gavin, of Gorky's fierce, VASSA ZHELEZNOVA, re-titled, THE BUSINESS, and it, too, suffered from the comic leanings of the Australian theatre artist when confronted with serious, difficult statements of social behaviours and injustice. Satire, comic release, became its atmosphere to weather the savagery of the original. This relaxed and comfortable approach to real world issues, on our stages, may have had its apotheosis, in the shocking usage of Gogol's great satire, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, at Belvoir this year, by Simon Stone, that reduced the action and intentions of that critical work of the Romanov dynasty, to that of Aussie actors having a 'hissy-fit' because their ambitions have been thwarted by the no-show of a director! Hipster Gorky, Hipster Gogol and now Hipster Gorky, again! KIDULTS, all! CHILDREN OF THE AUSSIE SUN in an idyllic playground, a toy shop of STC privileges and resources. Play, play, laugh, laugh away your woes. Keep fiddling while Rome burns.

That all three plays are Russian, I wonder, is it an example of art imitating life, an artistic 'shirt fronting' of Putin (Russia), by these artists, in solidarity with our eloquent leader and his Team Australia?

Toby Truslove, as Protasov, the scientist, appeared to have no sense of the study of Chemistry, or the belief in the ideological soundness and future value of his work - it was the new societal transformative science of the age. Rather we saw a comic representation of an amateur dabbling in scientific investigation who was also a social dimwit, entirely devoid of any virtues that one could comprehend to justify why his wife, Yelena (Justine Clarke), stayed with him. - except, perhaps, his youthful looks! - be careful they are fleeting! We were given a deliberate cartoon reading to fit the Adaptor and Director's view that the society presented in this play was made up of 'kidults', which was preposterously, re-enforced with the last image in this production where, Mr Truslove's Protasov fell to his knees crying for his Nanny, in response to the riot surrounding his home and laboratory. It is an ending entirely forced by Mr Upton - not remotely what Gorky had written or intended. Mr Truslove's metier seemed more comfortable in his satirical work in the recent ABC comedy UTOPIA, than here, in the realist observation of Gorky's metaphoric children.

The performances truest to the Gorky ideas were those from the actors with roles that had been textually (or, in stage time) shrunken by Mr Upton and Williams, and they did seem to glimmer, it seemed to me, with their true dramaturgical function, but had not the production traction to enforce what they understood Gorky was about: Valerie Bader as the Nanny/housekeeper; Yure Kovich, saddled with the difficulty of representing as one man, three characters and ideas written by Gorky, as Yegor; Julia Ohannessian as Avdotya, the long-suffering peasant servant.

Jacqueline Mckenzie, usually such an insightful (and reliable actor) in her creation of Liza (the "Cassandra" of the author's voice), had reduced Liza to an hysteric (I longed to inform, shout out to Liza, that there was a cure for such behaviour investigated by her avatar, Ms Mckenzie, in Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM, or THE VIBRATOR PLAY), an hysteric of personal disfunction rather than the clairvoyant of the greater social inequities, injustices that was driving her bigger world to inevitable upheaval, even revolution, and hence, her psychological stress and her uneaseful behaviour. Liza's 'hysteria' should be motivated, created, not from personal dilemmas, but by a super sensitive intuition to the social/worldly dilemmas. Liza, is a character type that appears as a core tool in the dramaturgy of much of Gorky's play literature, not reiterated here by either actor, or, her Director.

Puzzling, was one's wrestle with the story/function of the character, Boris, which Chris Ryan gave us. But, then, Mr Ryan did not have much help from some of the performances about him that should, under better circumstances, have helped to define Boris more (e.g. his relationship to his sister, Melaniya - the over-the-top Ms Thomson, a difficult offer to utilise well; or to Protasov - the befuddled Mr Truslove, a relative comic flummery, of not much substance to build with.) In an ensemble play all the pieces need to be on the same page of style and intention, one can't do it by oneself. So, unusually, the work of Mr Ryan was, relatively, invisible of function or intention. Of the other actors: James Bell, Jay Laga'aia, Contessa Trefone, all gave what they could in the hurly burly of the farcical tone that Mr Williams seemed to be driving for, so that often, what was left of the Gorky 'pull' in this adaptation, left them suspended in the space between two very different stools/schools of intention.

So, it is was with some amazement, and great admiration that Justine Clarke, as Yelena, the object of many affections in the play, managed, particularly in the final act of the play, to create a sustaining and credible human being serving Maxim Gorky well. Ms Clarke is a remarkable actor, indeed.

THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN is a good play, and even in this adaptation and production one could apprehend that. But, it is not Gorky's best by any means. I would have thought that with a statistic that reveals that 2.7 million Australians are living below the poverty line, today, that Gorky's masterpiece, THE LOWER DEPTHS, might be a more relevant play to present. (it hasn't been seen in Sydney since the Old Tote Company presented it in 1977, Directed by Liviu Culei. It winning the National Critic's Award for that year.) There has never been a professional production of SUMMERFOLK, in Sydney (Australia?) Gorky's other great play - but then, it has a cast of some 23, not likely to be attempted by the best subsidised company in Australia, too costly, and, I guess, we have, conveniently, available a ready made adaptation of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by our Artistic Director, commissioned for another city, a different country. A city by the way, relatively, well versed in the works of Gorky, and so has a context for the play, the adaptation and the production. I suppose we couldn't commission new versions of these better and more relevant plays for Sydney, could we?

Oh, well, at least we can say we saw it, a play called CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky. However, you will be surprised when you read a contemporary translation of the original, you will be wondering "What did I, actually, see?" Sadly, we saw a reflection of an Australian culture that celebrates its good geographical luck, to be so far away from the heat of history (except when those boats kept/keep, arriving.) From a culture that can comfortably satirise other's difficulties and ignore the plight of refugees, contemporary revolutions and the collateral effects of such.

Have a laugh. Have another pinot gris, and don't disturb yourself. Maybe, the  'kidults' will grow into adults. Here's hoping.

N.B. : Ticket Cost = $84.00 (concession)
          Sydney Opera House Trust Ticket Tax = $5.00. Although bought in person with cash on the day!
          Program = $10.00

          Total = $99.00.

I have not included refreshment or my Bus fares. I saw it at a matinee, so a taxi wasn't necessary.


  1. Sydney Theatre Company Program, Children of the Sun, 2014.
  2. My Life in the Russian Theatre, by Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko. Translated by John Cournos, London, Geoffrey Bles - 1936.


  1. The Moscow Arts Theatre Letters, selected, edited and translated with a commentary by Jean Benedetti, Methuen Drama, 1991.
  2. Stanislavski - A Biography, by Jean Benedetti. Methuen Drama - 1988.
  3. A Triptych from the Russian Theatre: The Komissarzhevskys, by Victor Borovsky. Hurst and Company, London, 2001.
  4. Gorky - A Biography, by Henri Troyat, translated from the French by Lowell Blair, Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1989.
  5. Gorky's Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences, translated, edited, and introduced by Donald Fanger, Yale University Press, 2008.
  6. Anton Chekhov - A Life, by Donald Rayfield. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.
  7. A People's Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891 - 1924, by Orlando Figes. Penguin Books - 1996.
  8. Natasha's Dance, A Cultural History of  Russia, by Orlando Figes. Penguin Books - 2002.

The Fox and the Freedom Fighters

Performance Space present, THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS, co-written by Alana Valentine and Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, in Bay 20, at Carriageworks, Redfern. 13-22 November.

THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS is a new Australian work, co-written by Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor and Alana Valentine.

Charles "Chicka" Dixon was a leading Indigenous activist. Born in 1928, his role as activist began to find focus during the preparation of the 1967 Australia Referendum, that amended the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them; and, among much else, in 1970, he organised the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern; he was a co-founder of the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972; travelled with an Indigenous delegation to China; was of interest to the authorities at ASIO. I knew him as an occasional guest at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, when he was invited by John Clark, the then Director of the Institution, to meet (and educate) the young artists of the future. He was always an inspirational talker, robust in sprit and knock-em-out frankness. I learnt never to miss the opportunity to meet and hear him. He passed in 2010. His career to fight for basic human rights and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People is truly awesome, in the proper sense of that word, or, as his people, today, might say "truly deadly."

Two members of Mr Dixon's family, Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, daughter, and granddaughter, Nadeena Dixon, in 2012, having gathered a mountainous collection of research material about their hero-figure, their elder, their father, grandfather, began searching for a way to organise a performance piece to celebrate Chicka's contribution to Indigenous history, Australian history. They were joined in that process, in Track 8, Carriageworks, by the International prizewinning playwright, Alana Valentine (the latest prize being the 2014, BBC International Radio Writing Competition, for THE RAVEN) who while working with them asked, "What were you doing while Chicka was changing the world?"

That, became the shaping catalyst to THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS. They, at first, did not believe that anyone would be interested in the family's story, but through the progressive support workshops at Performance Space, discovered, that the mingling of Chicka's achievements, with their own, was something that the audience wanted to hear, as it is noted in the program, that
…people did want to hear our version, did want to understand what the costs, what the experience, what the sacrifices were for the family of (this) in-demand social activist. ... (So) THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS is the story of an inestimably great man, a visionary hero and social pioneer. (but also) We hope that the unique perspective of hearing that story from his descendants makes it shockingly real and achingly profound, a vivid insight into the human cost of the freedoms and self-determination that were so hard won.
The over-arching theme to this work can be summed up in the words of Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor:
Don't you for a minute think that there isn't a cost to every single moment of this fight for freedom. It doesn't come without a cost.
Director, Liza-Mare Syron, (Brian Syron, now, there is another name that our cultural memories should recall) has staged and wrought, gently, but with true assurance, from archival film and images, and contemporary interview with the actors (Film Makers and Editors: Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini), a verbal, verbatim telling with these two artists, of the lived and remembered history of the era of Chicka Dixon's world - all of it, ALL, not just the politically important historical parts, but the intimate, personal parts, as well. It is interwoven with song (Nadeena Dixon in transfixing voice), the experience disguised in the ambience of what, dramaturgically, appears to be a simple chat with the guests, the acknowledged audience, in their living room, home. There is much humour, sadness, nostalgia, gripping facts, pride and power in the cumulative 'education' that these women give the audience.

The naive community-theatrical skills of the performers is buoyed by the sheer greatness of their authenticity. One is drawn into a mesmeric trance of understanding, compassion and admiration of their courage to have lived their lives, and now to, simply, tell the unadorned truth of the human cost that activism for change can demand, and at the same time, respecting and mightily honouring their father - a figure, who, contemporaneously is barely remembered in the consciousness of our Australian identity - in 1983, after all, Charles "Chicka" Dixon was named the first Aboriginal of the Year. Who remembers, except the family? One day, maybe, he may be celebrated in memory within our historical context as interestingly, and as significant, important, as say, Gandi is to his people, as Martin Luther King is to his. THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS is a work from our Indigenous sisters that catches one agape, at its pure honesty and unadorned truths. One is truly moved and enhanced.

THE FOX ANDTHE FREEDOM FIGHTERS, should be seen around the country, perhaps, around the world. One hopes that the major gatekeepers of our Theatre culture have it in its support and must present lists. Hope that the Balnaves Foundation have absorbed this play and production. Hope that the theatre artist, speech maker, essay writer and Indigenous culture champion, Wesley Enoch, made the effort to see this work, especially after his disappointing, but well meaning production, BLACK DIGGERS, that is doing the Festival circuit in Australia. Much thanks to the women artists who have created this work: Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, Nadeena Dixon, Alana Valentine, and Liza-Mare Syron. Support from Neil Simpson (Lighting), Phil Downing (Composer and Sound Design) and co-Designers, Nadeena Dixon and Clare Britton. Performance Space, too, take a bow.

This is a small but beautifully naked work of truths.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Worst Kept Secrets

Bontom Proudctions presents, THE WORST KEPT SECRETS, by Thomas De Angelis, at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale.

THE WORST KEPT SECRETS, is a new Australian play, by a newish writer, Thomas De Angelis. His other play, JACK KILLED JACK was written in 2012, as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. I am going to write fulsomely about this small production, because I believe there is some playwriting promise, here. It is too rare not to agonise over.

A husband and wife political team, he, now, an ex-State Premier, George Steeper (Rhett Walton), and his behind-the-scenes mover-and-shaker, Annie, (Sonia Todd), besides, having a rancorously volatile personal relationship, find that they are shaping up for a 'race' for a public persona renewal as leaders on an influential advisory committee. They have two sons who have fled the 'battle' zone of their parents relationship to create their own lives: Joseph, a modestly achieving fledgling lawyer (Sam Boneham), who has an ambitious journalist girlfriend, Rosie (Lauren Pegus) - who is having an opportunistic secret 'affair' with George, whilst 'fishing' to write his memoir - and Henry (Matthew Morrow), the spoilt 'wastrel'-son, finding study too boring and is instead dealing, very lucratively, in hard drugs, whilst juggling a girlfriend (Paige Leacey) who is wanting more from him than he is prepared to give to their relationship. The play is, mostly, set in the comfortable home of the parents.

As you can read, the characters, the social milieu, and the bourgeois concerns and resultant conflicts, of the play, are familiar ones for an Australian audience, and any number of playwrights can be conjured to have being a likely role model for this young playwright's inspiration. And, the one that springs, mostly, to mind, is that of the Grand Master himself, David Williamson. If that is so, Mr De Angelis proves himself a diligent and talented apprentice. He has the security of character, form and structure, down pat, with enough social 'zinger' dialogue going, to keep an audience moderately entertained.

Promising, indeed, although, just how funny is hard drug dealing? And, how likely is it that it is not an issue that ought to be a threat to the futures of his parents, two politicians, pursuing public office? Why does Mr De Angelis introduce that aspect of character and plot and not explore it? It is there just for laughs, it seems, as it had no dramatic influence to the storytelling, and logically, ought to have, don't you think? For it is, otherwise, a de-railing McGuffin, for the audience, that is fairly suspect in a (writer's) ethical intention. Mr De Angelis is a graduate with an Arts/Law degree, so I thought he would know, how serious a factor Henry's life choice would be in this 24 hour news cycle world that is a relevant and 'scary' factor in contemporary Australian life! Certainly, Annie Steeper, Henry, the Drug Dealer's mum, would be, should be, very alarmed about the possible consequences to her ambitions. Let alone Dad, the ex-Premier's future. Hmm!

My big "beef' with the writing, however, is that, the petty personal lives of the characters are at the forefront of the entertainment with the political setting simply a background, as per usual, of most Australian material of this kind - check out the recent Aussie television program PARTY TRICKS, to see what I mean. Cumulatively, culturally then, for me, THE WORST KEPT SECRETS is relatively, predictably, boring in its content and packaging - cliched - making one long for, even more urgently, for an Australian play (Television screenplay) that had the politics in the forefront of our attention, with the personal stuff, in the background. Might I recommend to Mr De Angelis, the series from Denmark called, BORGEN (2011, 2012, 2013), as a more interesting writing masterwork to emulate, to demarcate a difference as a writer on the Australian scene?

Mr De Angelis, besides writing this work, is, also, one of the co- founders of the producing company, BONTOM (Sam Boneham, one of the actors, being the other), for this project - good on them, both, very enterprising and daring - and, also, the Director of the play. Mr De Angelis in his writer's notes talks of his "excellent experience (which was) full of creative collaboration" in putting this production together. I might, then, recommend, further, to Mr De Angelis, that having another collaborator, such as an independent Director, might have been an advantage. I think, there were, perhaps, one, if not, two, too many 'caps' on his head, for the production of this play to reach its potential.

Mr Walton and Ms Todd bring intelligent and experienced judgement and skill to the characters, and with Mr Boneham, capture the stylistic naturalisms necessary to make this genre-material writing work. Their performances are very credible, indeed. Ms Leacey, in a small role does, too. These actors know what kind of play that they are in.

Unfortunately, both, Ms Pegus and Mr Morrow, under the Direction of Mr De Angelis, although demonstrating an intellectual grasp of the material, play in a representational style of performance that is, mostly, comic superficialities and vulgar indications of a revue sketch kind, telegraphing the character and plot points, constantly, and pull the play out of the stability of its, apparent genre, in opposition to that presented by Ms Todd, Mr Walton and Boneham. That Mr De Angelis, allows this to happen, and, also, then pushes the play into a physical 'farcical' expression at its climax, are judgement errors of style, that he, as Director (or, writer?), had not prepared us for. Another collaborator, a third or fourth eye, may have been useful, advantageous, to the production.

If Mr De Angelis looks at the hysteria that the American social and political satirists, Nicky Silver (e.g. PTERODACTYLS -1993; THE LYONS - 2011) and Christopher Durang (BEYOND THERAPY - 1981; WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM), can engender from the beginning base of naturalism, he will find models of expertise for what he might have been directing/writing, if, the Williamson/Buzo style were not it.

The Design of the work by Ashley Bell, was simply two full width curtain hangs, one light coloured, one dark (one, badly hung), and minimal furniture and properties - one piece, an ugly, dark poo-coloured cabinet, sat centre stage - an eyesore, indeed - that did not in any way suggest the likely affluence of the people in the play. It demonstrated careless or lazy detailing. It needed more collaborative discussion! The Lighting has no collaborator acknowledged, and was useful if not really designed; the Sound Design by James Anthony-Couples was perfunctory and not very technically sophisticated.

The sum of all this is, is that I was impressed with Mr De Angelis as the writer, but based on this experience in the theatre, I want to encourage, on his next production-enterprise with BONTOM, to collaborate more widely, for luck, that he mentions in his notes, has little to do with quality of result.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sweeney Todd

Photo by Bob Seary
New Theatre presents SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Libretto by Hugh Wheeler, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown, 18 November to 20 December.

This New Theatre production of SWEENEY TODD is worth catching.

This is the fifth live production of SWEENEY TODD, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller, that I have seen. It is the fourth production of it that I have seen in Sydney. I first saw it In New York with the original cast, in 1979, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Directed by Harold Prince. And, of course, I have watched the George Hearn, Angela Lansbury PBS television recording (1982) many, many times, and the Movie version, with Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter (2007).

Says the composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, in his 2010 book titled: FINISHING THE HAT:
The music that dominated my childhood was neither show music nor classical repertoire, ... I liked theatre but I loved movies. ... My particular favourites were romantic melodramas and suspense pieces like CASABLANCA and the Hitchcock movies of the period, movies in which the music was as important to the storytelling as the actors were. For me, the apotheosis of these melodramas was HANGOVER SQUARE, an Edwardian thriller (1945. Director, John Brahm) ... The music was by Bernard Herrman and it was (and is) an astonishing score ...
At this same time I was falling under the influence of Oscar Hammerstein and becoming increasingly interested in theatre songs, but it wasn't until thirty years later that these two passions coincided. It happened in 1973, when in London I chanced to see Christopher Bond's version of the nineteenth-century potboiler, SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (at Joan Littlewood's Stratford East Theatre). Although it was played primarily as a comedy , with pub songs interspersed between scenes, it immediately struck me as material for a musical horror story, one which would be sung-through but which would be held together by ceaseless underscoring that would keep an audience in suspense and maybe even scare the hell out of them. It would, in fact, be my tribute to Bernard Herrman and HANGOVER SQUARE. Given my antipathy toward opera - impatience with it, really - I was determined that the piece would be constructed mainly of song forms: something between a musical and a ballad opera, like CARMEN, only with less recitative, if any. ... 
SWEENEY TODD has been called by people who care about categories, everything from an opera to a song cycle. When pressed, I have referred to it as a dark operetta, but just as all baggage comes with labels, so all labels come with baggage. 'Opera' implies endless stentorian singing; 'operetta' implies gleeful choirs of peasants dancing in the town squares; 'opera-bouffe' implies hilarious (in intent, at least) complications of mistaken identity; 'musical comedy' implies showbiz pizazz and blindingly bright energy; 'musical play' implies musical comedy that isn't funny. So where does that leave SWEENEY? 
'Dark operetta' is the closest I can come, but that's as much a misnomer as any of the others. What SWEENEY TODD really is is a movie for the stage. 
Most of the musicals I've been connected with have been received at first with extreme reactions, both good and bad, the barometer leaning towards the negative ... None, however, elicited the extravagant accolades and contemptuous rage that SWEENEY TODD did ... (it) was a resounding commercial failure both on Broadway and in the West End, the latter reception a particularly disheartening one to me, since I had written the show as my love letter to London, a city I treasure above all except New York. But over the years, considering the number of performances it's had in stock, schools and opera houses, it has turned out to be one of the most popular shows in my canon of collaborations alongside WEST SIDE STORY, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and INTO THE WOODS - four shows which prove that if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they'll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre and idiosyncratic it may be. [1]
SWEENEY TOOD opened, on Broadway, in the Uris Theatre (2,000 seats) on March 1, 1979. Closed, June 29, 1980. Total performances, 557.

Meryle Secrest in her book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (1998):
'A triumph of audacious theatricalism',' one critic wrote after the show opened. 'In sheer ambition and size, there's never been a bigger show on Broadway', said another. 'Total theatre, a brilliant concept and a shattering experience,' said a third.'There has been no musical as dark, savage and shocking as Stephen Soundheim's SWEENEY TODD in sixty years.' ... Richard Eder, writing for the New York Times, found the work's musical and dramatic achievements so multifaceted that they almost defied adequate praise: 'There is more of artistic energy, creative personality and plain excitement in SWEENEY TODD than in a dozen average musicals,' he wrote. He admired the way Sondheim and Prince had taken 'this set of rattletrap fireworks' and turned it into 'a glittering, dangerous weapon.' ... If the Prince-Sondheim collaboration had seemed on occasion to venture further into the realm of experimentation than Broadway reviewers wanted to go, this was not the case with SWEENEY TODD. They almost vied to find superlatives for the daring involved in the choice of subject matter, the effectiveness of Prince's direction, the admirable qualities of the acting, the wit of Sondheim's lyrics and the brilliance of his music.
... and, although it still lost money, (it) did repay more than half the investment. More important, by general agreement, it was the crowning achievement of the Sondheim-Prince collaboration. SWEENEY TODD won eleven Drama Desk Awards, The Drama Critics' Circle Award for best musical and eight Tony Awards, including that of best musical. There was one more encomium that Sondheim particularly valued, however, and it came from Jule Styne (GYPSY, FUNNY GIRL). He remarked, 'I think the most unbelievable job of music writing, and I say this with deep reverence and envy ... is SWEENEY TODD [2]

So, now, what of this New Theatre production?

This Sweeney Todd was an unexpected musical thrill. Its unexpectedness, may be, part of its success. The fact that this modest fringe theatre organisation, The New Theatre, has proven that 'a mouse can roar' with some great accomplishment, with one of the most famously difficult and revered works in the Musical Theatre canon, and was a rewarding and unexpected surprise, is a wonder. It engendered, on Opening Night, a level of hushed concentration and a growing pleasure from an entranced audience throughout the performance. Collectively, the audience took a deep breath when the Musical Director, Liam Kemp, began, on his electric organ, the famous musical thematics of the Sondheim score, and we seemed to hold that breath for the length of the long first act of SWEENEY, willing, and then simply relishing success. The blast of the piercing factory whistle sound propelled the audience, imaginatively, into the world of the work, and kept us there.

The Director, Giles Gartrell-Mills, has gathered around him a committed and talented company of artists and then led with a firmly disciplined and clear vision to wrest this complicated and challenging piece, onto the New Theatre stage. It is more than a creditable rendition of this great work.

The original production by Harold Prince was frame-worked by an enormous set, resembling an Industrial Victorian factory (it was, in fact, parts of some old foundries found in Rhode Island). Mr Prince, attempted to contextualise the melodrama of the text - which he found a little "hard to live with"- into the real world of the Industrial Revolution which he believed had dehumanised British Society.That choice did, in my estimation, overwhelm the work with unnecessary scale. I thought then, this work could succeed just as comfortably as a Chamber operetta with its focus more scaled to the human drama. (Much as I thought the recent musical psychological drama, NEXT TO NORMAL was given an overblown, over-produced production on Broadway.)

Using the modest resources of the New Theatre, Mr Gartrell-Mills, strips the space of the performing area and utilises the 'geography' of the largish black box stage, even to the backstage entrance door, for intelligent dramatic effect. Three, wheeled, architectural stage pieces - not unlike some of the original production 'machines' - (no Set Designer credited) are utilised around the space, pushed and pulled by an ever present chorus of "Londoners", to create the diverse environments of the book requirements,stipulated by Hugh Wheeler. The technical difficulties, that some of the scenes demand (the barber chair and equipment to the pie making basement, for instance), have been modestly, and unapologetically, solved, with a simplicity that demands the audience to endow, with an imaginative complicity of wishful want for a successful telling of the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. That we obey, and do so, is a credit to Mr Gartrell-Mills, but also to his company of performers who gave, unstintingly, an honouring to their Director's conception, and to their faith in the genius of Mr Sondheim. The New Theatre's design concept places the emphasis clearly on the people of the story - the setting, merely a backdrop, to the consuming passions of Sweeney. The Lighting Design, dark and suitably gloomy, given the resources of the venue, is splendidly achieved, by Liam O'Keefe. The Costume Design, by Brodie Simpson, is believeable, if not always accurate (e.g. the Beadle).

Fundamental, absolutely fundamental, to the success of this production, is the musical accompaniment and preparation by the Musical Director, Liam Kemp. Considering the musical purpose and influences that Mr Sondheim tells us of (above), that he saw the Christopher Bond source material " as a musical horror story ... held together by (a) ceaseless underscoring", one was startled to see an "orchestra" of only three players, situated in a back corner of the stage area: Anastasya Lonergan, on violin; Laura MacKinnon, on Bass; and the Musical Director, Mr Kemp, on piano and organ. In my experience of this performance I cannot remember hearing anything but a full orchestration - weird, I know, but, never, not ever, was I conscious of any inadequacy in the musical support (perhaps, I was supplying it from my memory of the recorded score?) Mr Kemp should have bloodied fingers after each of the performances, for, his tireless contribution to the production is astounding. His arrangement of the score, simply mind-boggling, for its seeming completeness, and undoubted success. On top of that, his preparation of the cast, and the selection of his voices for this ensemble is impeccable. In the full throated sung opening to SWEENEY: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, this chorus of voices created a thrilling security and glorious sound, that, like the trumpets of Joshua that felled the walls of Jericho, felled any doubts that this production of SWEENEY TODD might be worth attending to. Beside some of the Principals' voices within the ensemble, the amazing sound from individuals within that ensemble that I could distinguish, e.g. Daisy Cousins, Joel Paszkowski, was, musically, 'angelic'.

(The voices are not assisted with electronic microphones - they are 'unplugged' - oh, wonder of wonders. Is that why there is an intimacy of contact/contract between these performers and the audience I sat with? We both leant into each other in a subtle empathy of creation? Rather than the relative physical 'abuse' of broadcasted sound/noise which we have sometimes experienced elsewhere, causing us to withhold ourselves subjectively to the storytelling, because of a conscious/unconscious concern of injury?)

Outstanding vocal work came from Byron Watson as Judge Turpin (which included, the sometimes excised JOHANNA, the flagellation song); Courtney Glass as the Beggar Woman; and marvellously, Josh Anderson, as Anthony Hope - whose acting skill was also a definite advantage to help us to enter his character's journey. Aimee Timmins, cross-gendered as Tobias Ragg (not always intelligible), Jamie Leigh Johnson, as Johanna; Simon Ward, as Beadle Bamford; and Michael Jones, as Adolfo Pirelli, give dedicated and 'joyful' support.

Justin Cotta, as Sweeney Todd (Benjamin Barker), is a glowering and frightening presence, who draws a creditable dramatic journey of a man in tremendous grief at the injustice that his family has suffered, plunging into the frustration, despair and ultimate madness of the need, hunger, for revenge:
There's a hole in the world
Like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world
Inhabit it ...
And despite the bloody serial killing with the silver shine of his friends, the barber's razors, sparking ruby glints in the dark, and the Jacobean pile-up of corpses, in the basement, and the reddened glow of the smoking pie-oven, Mr Cotta draws some compassionate understanding from the audience as he cradles the dead Lucy in his arms, near the story's end. No small feat. Mr Cotta's acting skill compensates enough for a sometimes underpowered vocal sound (the range not always comfortable?) that sometimes buries the clarity of his lyrics.

Lucy Miller, is truly comfortable in the presentational skills of a choreographed and sung character, as Mrs Lovett, and has all the energy and comic sense of the potentials of the role's opportunity. She seizes them with relish and accuracy.

That the Act One closing song, and famous comic, A LITTLE PRIEST, does not really achieve its full comedy and dramaturgical function is a minor flaw in the overall scheme of this production. It felt over choreographed (Trent Kidd) and distracting to the real focus of the song: the famous lyrics. Critically, Mr Gartrell-Mills could spend, now, some more time in soliciting a more realistic style to some of the 'acting' interludes in his production. They occasionally jar with a superficial sense of representational choice rather than true experiencing. Spoken, recited, rather than motivated.

In Sydney, what with the brilliant work of the Squabbalogic musical productions: CARRIE,  THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, and the contribution of the Hayes Theatre in Darlinghurst, we have had a stellar year of musical offers, beyond the usually tired full scale work of our commercial gatekeepers in the big theatres. This SWEENEY TODD, at the New Theatre, continues the pleasure of this very difficult and expensive genre, this year.

The SWEENEY company are an outstanding ensembe much to the credit of Mr Gartrell-Mills, and most especially to Liam Kemp, who serves the genius of Stephen Sondheim, well. Hearing this work again, experiencing this work again, solidifies further, for me, why I regard Mr Sondheim as the greatest living writer in this genre, today.

Do go.


  1. Stephen Sondheim, 2010, Finishing the Hat, Virgin Books
  2. Meryle Secrest, 1998, Stephen Sondheim - A Life, Alfred A. Knof, New York

Recommended Reading:

  • Larry Stempel, 2010, Showtime, W.W. Norton and Co. New York, London

Saturday, November 22, 2014


PACT centre for emerging artists present TROJANS By Team Mess at the Pact Theatre, Eskernville. 14-15, 20-22 Nov.

TROJANS by Team MESS, courtesy of the Curators Groundwork (Amelia Wallin & Maria White) for the Tiny Stadiums Festival, 2014.
Hi! Team MESS is the collaborative output of a group of young-ish artists. As a collective we play with conventions, rituals and spectacles of popular culture and everyday life to stage theatre events that close the distance between the work and the viewer and open up a shared space of experience, exchange and narrative possibility. ... Each project (over the past six years) is made by revelling in a process of trying, failing, failing again, failing better...
This work is based on Team MESS' readings around Mexican soap operas that are made so tightly, that the actors perform for camera, and live broadcast, with a radio mic in their ears, repeating lines given to them from off-screen, and interpreting any other instruction (presumably stuff like, Now Dance). Team MESS have built a 'green-screen box' with a bar and some stools. Titles and commercials have been pre-recorded, and are edited into the breaks (Technical Director, Rob Hughes) that occur during the shoot in front of the live audience - us - we being rallied by two 'fluffers' (Natalie Randall and Malcolm Whitaker) to keep us attentive. Four actors ("Brett Johnson and a cast of thousands 'on call' ") enact the text written, on the night I attended, by Annaliese Constable, (each night a different writer), and we can witness the work, both, live onstage, and on the CGI-affected image on hanging monitors.

The technical stuff is, relatively, well prepared - although, they were short a body mic, and we had the painful experience of having actors attempting to pass the mic and battery - the full caboodle of equipment - from one to the other, with the result that the speaker often had just handed the mic away, and got it back as the other actor required it!!!!! If this was an intentional joke (it didn't appear to be), it was NOT funny, just tiresome.

The live stuff was a TOTAL M-E-S-S!!!! Firstly, the script was banal. It was, truly, TERRIBLE. Secondarily, the actors had no skills or feel for the 'idea' and ought to! Should - should - at least know what the task they are about to present is and, then, can meet the basic technical needs of that task - you know, like, to be able to speak, like, clearly, using the body mic, like!. But, then, I am not in 'The Theatre of Failure' philosophic embrace - if, there is, Heaven, help us, such a thing in the ambiances of our contemporary theories of creative states. I don't appreciate the need to "fail, fail again, fail better." "Failing Gloriously", is more  my mantra - and failing not because of lack of skill or preparation, but, because of the risks inherent in the given task/form.

This was the first night, and BOY! did they, as the above introduction suggests, fail. The "revelling", in this project's case, looked strained. Let's hope they are failing better each time they do it - they've got five go's at it. I had, and do not have, any inclination to see if that is so. This is recommended only to friends and, maybe, warned family. I encourage glorious failure, but this, unfortunately, was not that kind of failure.

In the program notes Team MESS tell us:
A colleague recently described us as being "allergic to content", and maybe that is true. At the time of writing this, two days before opening, we don't even have a show. We look forward to what happens between this projected idea and its realisation, and hope you enjoy how it unfolds. 
 Well, on opening night, two days later, their allergy to "content" was more than self-evident, and they still did not have a show, and I for one could only, politely, watch this 'catastrophe' unfold. I felt like a regular Trojan. In my Brewers Dictionary of PHRASE AND FABLE:
He is a regular TROJAN: A fine fellow, with courage and spirit, who works very hard, usually at some uncongenial task, indeed, doing more than was expected of him. 
In this event - it was the audience who were cast as the TROJANS of Team Mess' project.

This was the first event of this year's TIDY STADIUM Festival - I hope it has not set the benchmark for the coming two weeks.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

ACO: Marwood's Serenade

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present MARWOOD'S SERENADE, as part of the National Concert Season, 2014, at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. Other Sydney dates: Angel Place - 22 Nov at 7pm; 25 Nov at 8pm. Sydney Opera House: 30 Nov - 2pm.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) under the Direction of the Internationally renowned Violinist, Anthony Marwood, give a concert of musical treats. Says Mr Marwood:
We've chosen a huge treat of a programme. Stravinsky's brittle and brilliant writing contrasts with Dvorak's lush and joyful outpouring ; and there is George Enescu, whose musical voice is slowly but surely being rediscovered in the concert hall.
The first two pieces are works for easy listening.

The Igor Stravinsky Divertimento, was composed in 1934, arranged here, by James Ledger, from two different versions of this concert piece, one for orchestra and one for violin and piano. Its origin is from a commission for a ballet. For the resulting one-act ballet, LA BAISER DE LA FEE (THE FAIRY'S KISS), Stravinsky derived and adapted material from mostly lesser-known songs and piano music by Tchaikovsky, and this gentle nostalgic-sounding piece uses approximately half of the music in the larger work. Stravinsky "re-worked much of the music, added transitions, and composed some portions of the score from scratch." Following straight on was the Antonin Dvorak, Serenade for Strings in E major, Op.22 composed in 1875. In five sections the music is "Elegant, charming, and easy on the ear." Like the Stravinsky before, it was a work that was not too taxing or, to my experience, too remarkable. Both, pleasant.

It was after the interval that Anthony Marwood, introduced us to a work of immense sophistication and intellectual and emotional reward, and probably, nay definitely, the raison d'ĂȘtre for the concert choices. The relative easy listening and, perhaps, playing, of the first two works, was a warm-up preparation for what was to be undertaken next. The Romanian composer, George Enescu's Octet for Strings in C major, Op.7 was composed in 1900. Written originally for eight individual players - four violins and pairs of violas and cellos - here, it is arranged for a full string orchestra, "with certain singing parts [to] be entrusted to soloists". Mr Marwood in a note in the program tells us:
Enscu's mighty and sensuous Octet, written when he was eighteen years old, is perhaps a deliberate challenge to that iconic work of Felix Mendelssohn. Enscu's masterpiece is much longer and more complex, and combines astonishing contrapuntal brilliance with the grand sweep of a tone poem. It is one of the most technically difficult works in the repertoire to play and the ride is thrilling.
And, that, it was. The four movements are played without a pause to form one enormous sonata-form structure. The attentive music cuing, signalling, and sensitive reading from all the players with each other, in delivering the many combination of instruments, from solo to the whole orchestra, was as dramatic a feat to watch as was the actual hearing impact of the music. The performance of this work was exhilarating on so many sensory levels, enough, indeed, to rouse the spirit to what Mr Marwood promised: "a thrilling ride."

Bravo. And, again, Bravo.

The Enscu Octet, arranged for a full orchestra, and led by Anthony Marwood, a wonderful reason to attend the concert.


Claire Lovering in association with The Old 505 Theatre presents, RIVER, written by Claire Lovering, at The Theatre 505, Hibernian House, Level 5, 342 Elizabeth St, Central Railway. 18Nov - 23 Nov.

RIVER, written and performed by Claire Lovering began its life
as a ten minute monologue at a Rocksurfers' Cut and Paste in May 2014 that became a one-hour performance that premiered at the Rocksurfers' Bondi Feast Festival in July 2014. It has since been rewritten and dramaturged under the guidance of Sarah Giles for this season at The Old 505 Theatre."
It is travelling to Perth and Adelaide next year.

River is a quiet and lonely, not too bright young woman living a very ordinary life on the edge of poverty. But, her life, for her, is full of wonder. Wonders that includes the pleasure of a perfect Vegemite spreading on toast, a scone and cuppa tea, and a sharing of the delight, with an older man called Harry, in the cafeteria of Woolies in George St, at a pink Laminex table top and fake leather booth-seating, of a meticulously made (almost scientific in its preparation) potato crisp sandwich. RIVER is a little play about ordinary pleasures with ordinary folk in very ordinary places.

This work, quietly observed and nurtured, is delivered by Ms Lovering with gentle, delicate unconditional love. It underlines the Dickensian observation: That every human creature is constituted to be a profound mystery and secret. We, merely, have to look, really look, and we will see and come to value them.

Tender, warm. Small and modest. Short and amiable.

Design Consultant, Alicia Clement, subtle lighting, by Benjamin Brockman. Terrific Sound Design, by Nate Edmondson. Workshopping, by Sarah Giles.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Platonov (adapted by Anthony Skuse)

Mophead, Catnip Productions and ATYP Selects present PLATONOV, written by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Anthony Skuse, at ATYP Studio, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay. 5 Nov - 22 Nov.

PLATONOV, is the earliest extant play of the great Russian short story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov. From Donald Rayfield's ANTON CHEKHOV - A LIFE:
Anton published nothing in spring 1881: perhaps he was writing his first surviving play, a monstrous melodrama usually known by the name of its main protagonist, Platonov (other titles: FATHERLESS; THE PLAY WITHOUT A TITLE). Misha (a brother of Chekhov) recalled copying out the whole text twice, and handing it to the actress Ermolova. She rejected it, and Anton never took up the manuscript again (it was published nearly twenty years after his death). To perform it would take five hours; it is full of cliches and provincialisms. Yet Platonov is a blueprint for Chekhovian drama: a decaying estate is to be auctioned and nobody can save it. Even the mine shafts making ominous noises under the steppe anticipate The Cherry Orchard. The hero, like Uncle Vanya, believes he could have been a Hamlet or Christopher Columbus and spends his energies on pointless love affairs. The doctor fails to forestall a suicide. The play lacks stagecraft, brevity and wit, but its absurdities and its mood of doom, its allusions to other writers from Shakespeare to Sacher-Masoch make it recognisable as Chekhov's work. It also proved that Chekhov could write seriously and at length. [1]
I have known the play, in different versions, for some time. My first acquaintance being that, of the Royal Court Theatre's version (text only), in 1960, unlikely as that may seem, entitled, DON JUAN IN THE RUSSIAN MANNER, that had the urbane Rex Harrison as Platonov. Next acquaintance was seeing the great Russian film Director, Nikita Mikhailkov's, AN UNFINISHED PIECE FOR A PLAYER PIANO (1976) - which is an adaption from the play with some short stories. (Mikhailkov has, also, in his film DARK EYES (1987), further adapted Chekhov - in that instance, the short story, THE LADY WITH THE LAP DOG, with Marcello Mastoriani. BURNT BY THE SUN (1994), is his most famous film, and won both the Cannes Award and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language, of that year. It is, as are the other mentioned films, a wonderful reference for the acting style that best serves the Chekhov canon - definitely required viewing when approaching the play works of Chekhov, I reckon! The ensemble work is breathtaking). Next, is the wonderful Michael Frayn, National Theatre adaptation, WILD HONEY (1984) which edits the unwieldily Chekhov original into a Don Juan black-comic farce - it starred Ian McKellen. Belvoir St presented it at the Seymour Centre. In 1990, Trevor Griffiths adapted the Mikhailkov film for the National Theatre in a play called, PIANO. (And David Hare tackled the original, in 2001, for the Almeida Theatre.)

The play was first performed in a cut and rewritten version in Germany in 1928; for the first time in Russia, in 1957 (!) - it has been performed since, often, by the major Russian companies (and elsewhere) - a particularly famous production, partly set in water, by Lev Dodin at the Maly Theatre. In Australia The Hayloft Project, under the Direction of Simon Stone, gave a version, set in a pool of water: CHEKHOV RE-CUT: PLATONOV, in 2008.

Anthony Skuse's adaptation, and direction of PLATONOV, is based on the text translation, by Laurence Senelick, from his 2006, "The Complete Plays, by Anton Chekhov" (a very accurate, some who know, say, the most accurate translations around) and has emphasised the melodramatic Chekhov traits that foreshadow the pre-occupations of the later, great plays. It seems the girth of the original material does allow broadly different editings to con-figure both a melodrama point of view, or a farcical take, depending on the mood of the adaptors. Mr Skuse, and the actors, began a two week workshop examination of the play at the start of the year:
…the idea was to give ourselves the luxury of investigating the work without the obligation of a production. ... Later in the year we spent another week working with the same group of actors. Everyone was excited by the material and keen to tackle the full work. ... The original twenty characters have been reduced to fourteen. Time and place are sketched very lightly. [2]
Indeed, the setting for this production (Design by Anthony Skuse) is an empty, long space, horizontally scattered with two dozen, or so, chairs, with a few benches on the fringes, on a transverse stage, so that the audience, face the action and each other, on either side. The characters are all dressed in modern dress. It has all the now familiar 'Skuse' traits of production style, with all the actors present all of the time, if not in action, then, in sight of the audience, watching the performance with them, the atmospherics aided by a little song, acappella style (Suzanne Periera). The Design concept is mostly aided, to help narrative contingencies, by the Lighting changes and effects (e.g. the train) by Chris Page, and Sound (although, inconsistently) by Alistair Wallace. No problem, really, but time and place are sketched very lightly.

Unfortunately, this is true of the acting as well: "sketched very lightly." The action of the actors, at my performance, seemed to be concerned only with what transpires in the script, on the stage, as it occurs. To do that, these actors appear to be only personalizing the needful emotional circumstances from their own lives, to attempt to reveal the truths of the characters, in the staged moments, and, unfortunately, do so with very little depth or courage. They work, mostly, from a narrow shelf of their own truths - consequently, there is not much to see that tells the audience, clues the audience, to the deep pains and/or joys of these men and women - the actors baulk, block, deep self-exploration and revelation and, so, give half-hearted, relatively superficial, intellectualised, indications as substitute. Representations of pain, joy grief, shock etc, not experiences of it. It is not enough. Really!

Add, that few of the actors seem to have built a bio-graphical background to the world of the characters, either, so they appear, (even if in modern dress, they should have a complex biography), strangely vacant creations- no life force, no accumulated history, that then, perforce, demands that these characters say and do what they say or do, in the moment, then, and terribly, then. There are no heightened life stakes to much of this work, which as story-tellers in the compressed life mode of dramatic literature, is 'violently' required. 150%.

 The lightly sketched approach to the creation of these individual characters, by this company, does not, therefore, allow much sophistication of observation for the audience, let alone much comprehension as to the relationship history of them all. Who is who, and how is each related to the other? What are they saying, doing, to each other, and especially, why? Chekhov developed, and demonstrated, even with this first, this relatively, juvenile play, his strong observational skill, and ability to present the sub-text of character, and their sub-textual relationships to each other with the clues of his text - it is that skill that attracted Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, of the fledgling Moscow Art Theatre to him, after knowing Chekhov's next play, IVANOV(1887), to be their principal company writer. Mr Skuse's company of actors seemed to barely know the surface of their character's wants, whys and wherefores, let alone the complex bio-graphical well springs of their actions and relationships.

It is undoubtedly, a difficult ask, to get 14 actors together, consistently, for a co-op production (getting more than 3 together, in my experience, can be, is a juggle). One wonders how often all fourteen of these actors were able to work collectively in the development of this early work of Chekhov's. It appeared, manifestly, at my performance, not enough. Maybe, the luxury of investigating the work without the obligation of a production was the correct conceptual modus operandi. This presentation was more a work-shoppping in an early progress incarnation, than a solution, for an audience to absorb. For Chekhov, of all writers, needs time and a depth of approach.

Suzanne Periera, as the fascinating Anna Petrovna; Sam Trotman as Sergei; and especially, Graeme McRae as Nikolai, and Dorje Swallow as Osip, with principal tasks, do relatively well; while the sheer integrity of presence from Gary Clementson, as Profiri, and Jason Perini, as Burov gave some substance to the background of the world of the play.

Platonov, at the ATYP studio, is then a curiosity, for some theatre goers. Especially, for admirers of Anton Chekhov. It is not for all.

Odd, isn't it, the synchronisity… The Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in a version of this play, adapted by Andrew Upton, now called, THE PRESENT, with Richard Roxburgh, probably, as Platonov, and Cate Blanchett, as Anna Petrovna, is due, as part of next year's STC season. Much like the co-incidence of two recent CYRANO DE BERGERAC'S. One from Sport For Jove, earlier this year, and tonight (15th Nov), the other from the STC.


  1. ANTON CHEKHOV. A Life. by Donald Rayfield. Henry Holt and Company, New York - 1998.
  2. Program Note from the Director - Anthony Skuse.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Way Things Work

Rock Surfers Theatre Company presents THE WAY THINGS WORK by Aiden Fennessy, at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach. 5 Nov - 29 Nov.

THE WAY THINGS WORK, is a new Australian play, by Aiden Fennessy. Mr Fennessy in his program notes says :
The genesis of the idea came from the proliferation of corruption allegations and their various outcomes not only through every tier of government but from the private sector, the fourth estate, and other major cultural bodies, top to bottom. It's the ever widening gap between 'plausible deniability' and what you could term 'command responsibility'
Two actors, Nicholas Papademetriou and Ashley Lyons, in three scenes, play a different duo of men in each: firstly, men of government; then, men of private business; and then men involved in law 'enforcement', at the near bottom of the chain of 'command'. At the core of the issue in the three scenes, is a contract for a road tunnel (sound familiar), and the standard of the concrete used, to manage the costs! Mr Fennessy reveals, that the way things work, is the opportune employment of corruption to get things done, at all levels of 'enterprise'.

In the present worlds of government, and, particularly, in the after 'smell' of the ICAC sensations, this play is a ripely topical meditation. The comedy is one of recognition at the blatancy of the truths of these men and their situated manoeuvres. One can only be left aghast, and so, what Mr Fennessy gives us, is the opportunity to laugh - it is all one can do, really, for the more things change the more they stay the same, it seems.

 It is interesting that one of the thanks given by Mr Fennessy in his preparation of the script, is to Kate McClymont, the prize winning, investigative journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald whose signature quote is: "There always will be evil, and it's our job not to look away."

Leland Kean has Directed the play as smart, provocative and funny. Although, the writing gets off off to a slow start - requiring the actors to 'clown' about, too much - especially the persona played by Mr Papademetriou - it, gradually, finds it's rhythm and tone, to give the audience plenty of reward. One does become absorbed and amused. Such, that the last of the scenarios gathers one into a sexual edginess, that while being extremely disquietening, is also, absolutely, a recognisable possibility. It has the repulse/attract energy of good theatre. Mr Papademetriou and Lyons create well together, playing within a 'cell' of a modern architectural look, known as "distressed", designed, cannily, by Mr Kean and lit dramatically, almost abstractly, by Luiz Pampolha.

This is the last production from Mr Kean, who has guided Rock Surfers Theatre for the last decade or so, as Artistic Director and CEO. The commitment he has made to new Australian writing is one of unfathomable worth. Grateful Thanks.

Worth catching.

Bondi Beach is magic, even seen from the veranda of this theatre at the Bondi Pavilion, and this play will give you a renewed appreciation of our relative good fortune to be living here, especially, for our 'freedoms' to be able to talk about our close world and its society - the good, along with the evil, and that this is THE WAY, some, THINGS WORK. Now, and forever?

(Hello, Australia and FIFA!!!! Was there a Wheat Board issue?)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Sydney Theatre Company (STC), by special arrangement with Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, presents the Co-World Production of SWITZERLAND, by Joanna Murray-Smith, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House, 3 Nov - 20 Dec.

SWITZERLAND is a new play by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. It was originally commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse, in Los Angeles, and will be seen there in 2015. This production by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) is by special arrangement with that LA company. Ms Murray-Smith has had many of her plays performed around the world, and has been translated into dozens of languages, and even been touted in US Variety as "Australia's foremost female playwright".

SWITZERLAND is made up of three scenes over one act (about, 1hour 40 minutes) for two characters: Patricia (Sarah Pierse) and Edward (Eamon Farren). Patricia is an American novelist/short story writer, living in Switzerland. Edward is a representative of her publishing firm seeking a signed contract from her, for a new book - a previous representative, after an alarming circumstance, having failed to do so. Patricia seems to be in a deep entropy of writer's block, and Edward proceeds to attempt to revitalise and encourage the writer to creativity.

In SWITZERLAND, Ms Murray-Smith borrows heavily from the life history of the famous American novelist/short-story writer, Patricia Highsmith. In Ms Highsmith's extensive repertoire, the most famous are likely to be a series of novels known as, The Ripliad, that is, five novels featuring the character Tom Ripley: the first, THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, written in 1955; the last, RIPLEY UNDER WATER, written not long before her death, in 1991. Her first novel STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1950) was, famously, made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, in 1951. However, the most successful translation from the Highsmith page to the silver screen was probably the 1999 film, by Anthony Minghella, of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett (there is, also, a French version, PLEIN SOLEIL (1960), starring Alain Delon). Recently, THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY (2014), with Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Issacs has appeared, and a version of her second novel, THE PRICE OF SALT (1952) (or, CAROL), written under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan (the subject matter is lesbian themed), with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is due in 2015 (Knowing THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, will make entry to the games of SWITZERLAND, easier).

Her publisher, Otto, Penzier has said:
She may have been one of the dozen best short-story writers of the 20th Century, and she may have been one of the dozen most disagreeable and mean-spirited
Graham Greene called her a poet of apprehension. Her friends called her pathologically stingy, neurotic, horrible. These points of view are amplified, by Ms Murray-Smith, gloriously, in SWITZERLAND. The 'wickedness' of this woman's tongue, combined with a collection of socially, inconvenient politically-incorrect prejudices, which she did not censor for acceptability, brings a bracing night to the circumstances of this play, in the theatre. Her own sense of her talent, which was marginalised by her American peers and critics, but, upheld by the more (erudite) Europeans, highlighted by the French Ministry of Culture's award to her, in 1990, with the Chevalier dans L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, only justified her bitterness towards her own country, and the reason for her choice for living in "neutral" Switzerland. Add to this the clever adoption, by Ms Murray-Smith, of the creeping and subtle tensions that belong to the literature stylistics of most of Ms Highsmith's novel writing, with her acute observation of the behaviour of the human animal, particularly those of a dangerous bent, and a superior comic thriller, called SWITZERLAND, is to be had.

But more than this, and this is what I believe makes this play a highly sophisticated pleasure, possibly, in Australian dramatic literature terms, a great one, is Ms Murray-Smith's investigation, revelation of what, maybe necessary for great artists to experience in order to create. In Patricia's journey in SWITZERLAND, there is a kind of metamorphosis from a Dr Jekyll to that of a powerful Mr Hyde; the permission for one persona, one of our alter ego's, as a creative being, to be exorcised, to allow a possession by another, so that great art can be made. Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN (2010) sprang to mind in the thrilling, concluding moments of this play.

Sarah Pierse's Patricia ranges around this stage with the hunchbacked-gripping of the gathering challenge of the lack of time that a fatal illness throws into focus, illuminated by a mind of fearless and fearful insight into the darkest possibilities of man, spewing sparkling verbal cruelties as only the rich can disperse jewels, displaying Patricia's overpowering melancholy that she could lay in an eternity of mediocrity, unless she writes once more and bring her greatest achievement, Tom, back to lfe, to be one of the immortals in the continuous world of appreciated literature. This is a concentrated performance that seems to be inspired to do honour to the fascinating energies of both, Ms Highsmith and Murray-Smith. The best of Ms Pierse's performances that I have seen.

Eamon Farren, begins as an Edward and finishes as a Tom. From an innocuous callow youth, in a kindred appearance to hiking gear, to a self-consciously callous youth, in a beautiful long-sleeved, billowing yellow shirt with a tucked-in silk cravat. It is a subtly calibrated, graduated, performance of remarkable skill, and gives to this, relatively, young actor, the role: Grand, that he has been stalking, with all of his recent remarkable contributions, as a supporting artist, to so much of his other work in Sydney theatre: MOJO, ROMEO AND JULIET, MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, BABYTEETH. Here, with SWITZERLAND, he has been given the breadth and license of great contemporary writing with a character with a thrilling trajectory, and he wastes not a moment of opportunity with all his talent and gifts, to make a significant mark on the Drama Theatre stage.

Sarah Goodes, too, matures her talent here, with an almost impeccable vision and control over the source material she has taken on - her production of Hilary Bell's SPLINTER, her instincts for the 'supernatural', to spook us, is recalled to mind. For her collaboration with her actors has all the hallmarks of an Hitchcockian disciple, guiding the pair to unique creations and seamlessly joining their energies to the perfect concentrated ensemble of mutuality of effect. Combining, then, the beautiful and realistic set, Designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell across the full width of the Drama Theatre stage; atmospherically sensitive Lighting by Nick Schlieper, causing, even the spectral reflections in the window glasses a sense of omniscience; aided by Composer and Sound Designer Steve Francis and his sinisterly apt score, we have a production of a rare and consistent quality.

This production gives the play all the symptoms for a successful American career, at least. If not, elsewhere, as well.  Ms Murray-Smith has already graced the stage on Broadway and London with her play HONOUR, in 1998 and 2003/2006, respectively, This one set location, two actor, psychological thriller, using the life and achievements of an American novelist, Patricia Highsmith, called SWITZERLAND, may, very well be her next one.

I was in a thrall of excitement during, and after this performance, and urge you all to see it.

I might, if I can save up the shekels, go to see it again. A very, very good time in the theatre. The best in 2014, perhaps?

Go see.

P.S. and N.B. : However, do check to see if the STC, like Belvoir, have begun DYNAMIC PRICING. What is that? Well, on the Belvoir website, we are told: "Ticket prices can be dynamically adjusted, either up or down, on a small number of tickets, based on real-time market demand, and without notice. Prices listed below account for the majority of tickets but please contact Box Office for current prices on all tickets available."

Prices can go either up or down based on real-time market demand! And without notice! So, if the show is in high demand, then let's 'gouge' some more money out of the ticket buyers, is that it? The Government subsidised not-for profit theatre companies, Open for business, indeed!!!! Did the STC engage in this practice with their production of MACBETH? I have no doubt that SWITZERLAND will go into high demand - I wondered which way the price of tickets would go, up or down, if the Belvoir had produced it? Is the STC, too, open for business? On a similar track? And, will the in-demand ticket prices go, up or down? Any sports bettors or TAB betting members out there? What would be the odds for either choice?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Emerald City

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents EMERALD CITY by David Williamson at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 17 Oct - 6 Dec.

EMERALD CITY was written by David Williamson in 1987. It is, basically, a satirical comedy, about the, then, Australian Film and Publishing Industries. The cities of Sydney and Melbourne are secondary targets of interest for the writer. Mr Williamson seems to be writing from what he knows - it is tempting to read into it, elements of Mr Williamson's biography - and if one does so, it, consequently, must have given some audacious heft to the comedy, for the audience, in the 'eighties. Today, in 2014, not so much so, perhaps.

A Screenwriter, Colin Rogers (Mitchell Butel) and his wife Kate (Lucy Bell), a publisher, decamp from Melbourne to the Emerald City, Sydney, with their family. Colin has been managed by Agent, Elaine Ross (Jennifer Hagan), but finds that his vision for his work is diverging from hers, and joins up with a 'flashy' go-getter, Mike McCord (Ben Winspear) to write and self-produce their own projects. They look for the money support from a commerce-wise, businessman, Malcolm Bennett (Gareth Yuen). Mike has a sexy girlfriend, Helen Davey (Kelly Paterniti), who is part of the alluring temptations of this Emerald City - poor Colin.

The play shows its age with what now sometimes feels to be overwritten didacticism in its satirical intentions and, maybe, is not as funny as it was, because the consequences of the greed and power games played-out, by these characters at the centre of the play's concerns, are what we are dealing with, socially, now, in a world where to be open for business by any means, at the cost of one's own, now smudged ethical lines, is acceptably normal, and so, too blatant to contemplate, to be able to raise a laugh about without moral pain. Sometimes a vintage wine can turn to vinegar. All that glittered in 1987 is, indeed, not gold, or glittering, in 2014.

Other problems exist in this production, for me, which undermine, easy access to the comedy of the piece. Mr Butel, as Colin, an actor I have admired a lot (ANGELS IN AMERICA), seems to be uncomfortably mis-cast here, and creates a whirlwind of distracting energy as substitute for character substance and truth. Mr Butel, resolvedly, resorts to some very risky comic gesturing and vocalisations that, to me, seemed to be out of the realm of the play's genre, in another comic sphere, altogether. Mr Winspear draws a fairly pencil thin characterisation as Mike, using, inexplicably, a forced 'voice' sound, as the core stroke of his creating, that forces the reception of his character, as, mostly, an unbelievable caricature - Mr Winspear took over the playing of this role from an indisposed Marcus Graham at very short notice, and some leeway of understanding can be made, although I saw EMERALD CITY, some three weeks into the season, and was disappointed with the lightweight choices. If the two principal men/characters, are, relatively, 'crippled', the play will have an even more difficult trajectory for success.

Ms Bell as Kate, has the right observational measures of her character and the stylistic masteries, necessary, for the success of her portrayal in the play. Her work is an object lesson of insightful assuredness to the demands made by Mr Williamson: truth, plus style, and all in a balance of expressive scale. Ms Hagan, too, has the dry wit of it, both with text and characterisation clues, while both Ms Paterniti and Mr Yuen, in supporting roles, demonstrate, further, what Mr Wiilamson needs to succeed: a clean sighted instinct for the truth of the characters and their function in the writing, with an uncluttered execution of the stylistic needs, highlighted by pin point line accuracies in delivery.

Lee Lewis, as Director, has invited the painter, Ken Done to create the background feature of a Sydney portrait in his inimitable style, and aided by the Costume and Set Design by Sophie Fletcher, enhanced by the rich and detailed warmth of the Lighting by Luiz Pampolha, sets a visual dazzle that creates a buzz of nostalgic double-takes for scary memories, for those of us that have survived into the present time.

Like the recent THE YOUNG TYCOONS by C.J. Johnson at the Eternity Theatre, satire of a particular time, doesn't always work in a later time. Too much water has passed under the bridge. Your reception may depend on your coming end-of-year, Christmas cheer.