Monday, December 29, 2014

A Christmas Carol

Photo by by Brett Boardman
Belvoir presents, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, adapted by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, in The Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 8 November - 24 December.

In the United States, where I have spent many a Christmas, the two perennial theatre offers were the Tchaikovsky two-act ballet, THE NUTCRACKER, at the Opera House, and a play adaption of Charles Dickens', A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I have seen several different versions of the Dickens novella staged, and the two at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), in San Francisco, umpteen times - it has become a cultural tradition at the ACT, with generations of family going every year - it is a certain box-office bonanza for that company. The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, is this year, presenting it for the fortieth consecutive year!

There are many film versions: the 1951, SCROOGE (known in the USA as, A CHRISTMAS CAROL) with Alastair Sims, regarded as the best, by many; the Jim Carrey/Disney version (2OO9), a respectable alternative; while we can choose as well to watch with the assistance of our new media technologies: A JETSON CHRISTMAS (1985), BLACKADDER'S CHRISTMAS (1988), THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992), with Michael Caine as Scrooge, a SESAME STREET, CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006), with Oscar the Grouch, as Scrooge, a DOCTOR WHO: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2010), and another starring THE SMURFS (2013). Of course, knowing a hit-cult figure, Walt Disney, created Donald Duck's irascible Uncle Scrooge, with the traits of the Dickens' hero hilariously promulgated and thwarted; and the Looney Tune creators have two versions of their own, one of them starring Yosemite Sam as Scrooge! The first filmed version goes back to SCROOGE, or MARLEY'S GHOST, filmed in Great Britain in 1901. Someone out there loves this story, no matter who is telling it and how - there is even a recent fashionable Zombie themed version!

Written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, in only six weeks, and sell published, it is a work that strikes the sentiments of all who engage with it. It has become the favourite Christmas story for over 171 years.

It is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (Robert Menzies), a successful but miserly London business man, who after a typical day of practising an acquired skill of anti-social capitalism to all and sundry, stranger and family, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his long deceased partner-in-business, Jacob Marley (Peter Carroll), who has been condemned to drag the heavy chains of 'his crimes', for all time. Marley gives warning to Scrooge that this, too, will be his fate, unless he heeds the scenes that the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivan Donato), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kate Box), and the Ghost of Christmas Future will show him.

Biographer, Peter Ackroyd, suggests that, as a result of childhood sufferings, Dickens had a preoccupation with money and it was…
only in fiction such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL that it came to the fore. Miserliness as vice. Generosity as virtue. How people obtain money. How people exert power over others because of money. How money can be an aspect of cruelty. How money can destroy a family. How the want of money is oppressive. How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation. And, central to A CHRISTMAS CAROL, how the experiences of childhood can lead ineluctably to miserliness itself. [1]
Co-adaptor Benedict Hardie, says:
At the centre of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a man who has suffered neglect, failed at love, sought to avoid pain, and hardened into an indelible archetype. We tend to think of Ebenezer Scrooge in his capacity as miser par excellence and nothing more, but the full story encourages us to understand his journey; how he became who he is, and the obstacles he needs to overcome to attain salvation. [2]
Belvoir has succeeded well with this production. It is blessed with a casting of eight actors with an exuberance and empathy to tell this story - a more perfect set of actors to create this telling of the story to be a joyous and tear inducing experience would be hard to find: Kate Box, Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, Robert Menzies, Steve Rogers, Miranda Tapsell, and Ursula Yovich. I understand that they have had a genuine contribution in the fashioning of this text and production, finding themselves inspired directly from the original novella, which they returned to during rehearsals, more often than not. Anne-Louise Sarks, Director and co-adaptor, tells us of their "generosity and humour." It shows, glowingly.

Mr Menzies, as Scrooge, creates a character of experiential truth throughout the arc of the journey of the story, and captures the pathos beating in the Dickensian original, for our stage, with real insight and ownership - have I seen him better? Not for some time, I reckon. It is a totally winning performance. Ms Box is the most joyous, warm hearted, innocent and rambunctiously witty Ghost of Christmas Present that you will probably ever see. A blithe spirit indeed, at one stage, scoffing as much food as possible at the Cratchit Christmas table invisibly, and unnoticed by all, but us, for our amusement - assisted, by the way, with a wonderful cheeky costume by Mel Page. Whilst, Steve Rodgers serves up an immaculate Bob Crachit, capturing his basic human goodness and patient good humour, under stress at the office with Scrooge, and in his joy with his family: wife, children,and especially with sickly but 'divine', Tiny Tim (Ms Tapsell).

The eight actors people the entire play population impeccably, with multiple role playing, incorporating miraculous costume changes, that become a subliminal source of extra wonder for those of us who know more about the technicalities of production than others in the beguiled audience. The hard work of the performance tasks in this production are hidden in the benign presence, from all, of wanting to share the Christmas spirit of this tale with all of us. "God Bless Us, Every One!"

The Set Design, by Michael Hankin, a black raked raised floor, with a central oblong floor piece that raises to be a bed, falls to be a grave, surrounded by other trapdoors that reveal surprise after surprise, with a seeming never ending fall of snow, is a 'magic' conception. Whilst the Costuming by Mel Page in quasi-contemporary inspirations, give an impression of all times, gloriously imagined and 'miraculously' constructed for the ease of the company in its many duties. The Lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne, has narrative sense and beautiful effects. Much of the belief systems triggered in us for this production has been wrapped in the Sound Composition and Design by Stefan Gregory.

Ms Sarks and her team have achieved much to please us. The ensemble have created and play within a deep respect for  the original work and its social environs and conventions, speaking in a contemporary Australian-English that never draws attention to its adaptive choices. As well, the actors shy not away from the sentiment of the characters and the events of the story: the belief in the supernatural is not 'camped-up', the human frailties and joys not overtipped into sentimentality - it all has the appearance of truths brusquely embraced with an open sense of affectionate humour with no actorly or directed self-indulgence or comment. This production, maybe, was the best experience of this story that I have ever had.

The Belvoir foyer and Upstairs Theatre had the buzz, feel, of an excited and rapturous audience, that, for me, recalled days of yore, when this company was, always, a reason to love theatre as a craft and art. The return to form by the Belvoir Company with a uniquely Australian production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL was a very welcome Christmas gift. More of this and one may excuse, perhaps, Ms Sarks for her NORA, earlier this year.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL was, indeed, a memorable thing. I hope you, too, saw it.


  1. DICKENS by Peter Ackroyd, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
  2. A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Belvoir Program.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Crucible

Photography by Seiya Taguchi

Sport For Jove present, THE CRUCIBLE, by Arthur Miller, as part of the 6th annual Sydney Hills Shakespeare in the Park and Leura Shakespeare Festival, at Bella Vista Farm. December 5 - 30. January 10 -25, at Leura Everglades.

But you must understand, Sir, that a man is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, a precise time - we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God's grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not the light will surely praise it. I hope that you be one of those. (Act Three. Danforth)
Sitting in the old wooden 'barn', one of the heritage buildings, situated on the farm of Bella Vista, it was an enthralling experience to watch Sport For Jove's atmospheric production of Arthur Miller's great play, THE CRUCIBLE (1953). But, it was with the above speech given by the character, Deputy Governor Danforth, overseer to the trials in Salem of 1692, that one was jolted (I was) out of the relatively safe theatrical mode of watching a contrived 'faction' unravel at a literary distance, and to have one's heart quickened to a sense of the relevance of this work, a work living in this company of  actors, in our very presence, wracking our every sense with titanic contemporary parallels, compounding for most of us, after the Martin Place siege, and the recent release of the CIA torture documents in the USA, the dread of living in our own days, in 2014. This production, Directed by Damien Ryan, realises the mighty potential of this formidable monument of Dramatic Literature, and shakes us to the core of our morality, our recently heightened knowledge of our own mortality, to challenge us, with speed, to examine our ethical beliefs, and how they fit our daily actions.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller, written after a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, and his reading of the archive records of the witch-hunt, seemed to have found the parallels that were eerily precise to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), happening at the time in Washington. From Christopher Bigsby's biography called ARTHUR MILLER:
In both 1692 and 1952 confession and betrayal were the necessary price for inclusion in the body politic. The purging of supposed private guilt was a required public gesture. The Devil was abroad, and salvation lay in informing. Friends and neighbours were to offer one another up if their own innocence was to be affirmed." [1] 
The parallels drawn in Marion Starkey's book, THE DEVIL IN MASSACHUSETTS (1949), which Miller had read, gave him further impetus to write the play. Driven, besides, by the imbroglio of his personal affairs: the involvement of friends and colleagues in the HUAC 'trials', Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb, for instance; and his personal relationship with Marilyn Monroe (Abigail Williams?) and, his wife, Mary Slattery (Elizabeth Proctor?), the play takes on an urgency and necessity of great creative/psychological forces.

What is amazingly affecting with this Sport For Jove production is the committed passion that the entire company give to this play. Not only in the intellectual integrity and insight of the conception of the production, and virtuosic staging, on a three-sided stage, by Mr Ryan (do read his program notes), but, also, with the visual interpretations and application of imaginative skills in fitting the 'look' of the production to the rural circumstances of the particulars of the Bella Vista environs by Designer Anna Gardiner, both, with Setting and quasi-period Costume solutions of convincing acumen, and the subtle atmospherics of the Lighting by Sian James-Holland - no small feat in this 'outdoor' challenge. The Sound Design, from David Stalley is also a marvel to, retrospectively, apprehend.

Says Mr Ryan in his program notes:
The Rights Agreement available to us from the Miller estate does not allow us to even consider the updating or contemporizing of the play's setting or events, but hopefully we don't need to. I have felt no desire to. It is already a contemporary play, deliberately set in a highly specific historical context and asking the audience to find the parallels and reflections themselves. ...
 I hope it was not just the Rights Agreement that gave him pause. To re-assure Mr Ryan, there was, indeed, no need. A great play never needs 'updating or contemporizing' to be made relevant for an audience, I think. That is why it is a 'classic' - it exists, itself, still, as a relevant 'document' of our humanity, no matter the time it is re-created. It was, and is, on its own merits, for all times! One just needs to work harder with the source material, and its interpreters, to realise that - to put the talent selected to bring it to life in a crucible, and direct the 'heat' of craft-rigour and inspiration to burn away the 'fat' of the distractions of the text, to reveal the 'heart-muscle' of the literary work. Sport For Jove has earlier demonstrated that understanding with its recent production of Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE. I, personally, wish that this Company was just as brave with its Shakespeare as well. The Play is the Thing. The visual or verbal choices/obfuscations, of some contemporary production, can be, a little condescending to the intelligence of the audience, and has a tendency to 'dumb-down' the inspiration, the impulse, of why one wishes to produce or experience the play. There was, I presume, when the artists first read the black print on the white page, in finding the play to produce, no 'updating or contemporizing' choices communicating the feast of the play, just the plain, unadulterated text. Trust that text, and embody it as writ, I say. I beg. Lesser material, go for it. But why do lesser material with so much else available to try to bring to life?

From top to bottom, in the casting, there is not a weak link in this production. What is especially remarkable is the depth of talent through the life generations of the actual actors. From dexterous veterans, some with convincing life weathered physicalities, that add real credence to the veracity of the world of the production/play: Annie Byron (Rebecca Nurse), Alan Faulkner (Francis Nurse), John Keightley (Giles Corey), Philip Dodd (Deputy Governor Hawthorne), Wendy Strehlow (Anna Putnam/Sarah Good), Jonathan Mill (Thomas Putnam), Christopher Tomkinson (Judge Hawthorn); to the middling career 'ground': Matt Edgerton (Reverend Samuel Parris), Suzanne Periera (Tituba), Lizzie Schebesta (Abigail Williams), Matilda Ridgeway (Mary Warren), Anthony Gooley (Reverend John Hale), Julian Garner (John Proctor), Georgia Adamson (Elizabeth Proctor), Richard Hilliar (Marshall Herrick); to the relatively fledgling cast members: Emma Chelsey (Betty Parris), Michelle McKenzie (Mercy Lewis), Adele Querol (Susanna Wallcot), Lucy Heffernan (Lizzie Hubberd), and Chris Stalley (Ezekiel Cheever).

Ms Schebesta and Mr Garner create a sexual heat and physical roughness of corrupting, convincing power, whilst Ms Adamson, the third point of the play's human triangle, is stalwart in her bewildered responses to her husband's betrayal, growing in status as the play unwinds its narrative. Mr Garner, develops the arc of his central responsibility as Proctor, skilfully, unleashing its full power of torn conscience and reason, to be mightily moving, in the last act of the play. Support from Mr Edgerton, Gooley and Ms Ridgeway is strong in the tasks that Mr Miller has given them. There is, as I have said, not a weak link - the detail and honesty of Mr Stalley in his, relatively, small task as the court documenter, Cheever, is indicative of the achievement of all.

I believe that the responsibility of the actor is basically three-fold:

  1. To tell the story of the play. 
  2. To create character that we believe - to tell personalised truths, for us to identify and own, with them. 
  3. To reveal the language of the play - the joys, wonder of English. 
So my carp, if I must have one, with this production, is that the word by word argument development of the characters in the play is often given as full-sentence emotionally sweeping generalisations, giving us, the audience, only, relatively, opaque gists of the narrative journey, and a clouded appreciation of the poetical writing of the language of the world and times that Mr Miller has, studiously created. There is great beauty in the language choice and construct in THE CRUCIBLE that is often swamped with the emotional imperative of this company (Robert Bolt's, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, and Stephen Jeffreys' THE LIBERTINE (brilliantly given by Sport For Jove, once upon a time) are other examples of studious anthropological creation of a language invention, of Shakespearean audacity). However, I venture, that it is true of all the writing of Mr Miller's work - and that it appears to be so naturalistic is its trap.  DEATH OF A SALESMAN, is another instance, often, of the underestimation of  Miller's writerly dexterity - for although the naturalistic 'appearance' is true, there is much poetry in the play prose of this great writer. It is why his plays stand as classic, for all the elements, narrative, character and language are part of his artistic tool-box, constant super structure. It is in the detail of the actor's craft, with the language verbalising, the objective-thought control of the artist with the word by word construct, that needs to be employed with rigour, and to deny, patiently and laboriously, the easy impulse to reveal the experience of the play with emotional indulgence, rather than in the clear logic of the language order, syntax and all, that will do credit to the 'genius' of the author. With that attention, I can assure, the latent humour, which is an important element in so weighty a moral allegory as THE CRUCIBLE, will be revealed, and will balance and enrich the experience of the play. Contrast and comic 'outlets' through the Miller ironic language underlining will undoubtedly deepen the affect of the play and production.

The famous production of this play for the Sydney Theatre Company, in1991, Directed by Richard Wherrett, was, and, for myself, is, proof of the benefit of such discipline. From the autobiography by Mr Wherrett, THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN:
The detail of (the) moments, moment built on moment, unit on unit, scene on scene, are what gives a performance the conviction of truth, the taste of belief, the illusion of reality: are what give it richness and texture. And while they should be the actor's responsibility-there is rarely enough time for the director to attend to every detailed moment in rehearsal-they still lie within the realm of the director-actor relationship. [2]
THE CRUCIBLE is Arthur Miller's most produced play, worldwide.

Miller's own speculations on the reasons for the play's longevity:
I have wondered if one of the reasons the play continues like this is its symbolic unleashing of the spectre of order's fragility. When certainties evaporate with each dawn, the unknowable is always around the corner. We know how much depends on mere trust and good faith and a certain respect for the human person, and how easily breached these are. And we know as well how close to the edge we live and how weak we really are and how quickly swept by fear the mass of us become ... It is also, I suppose, that the play reaffirms the ultimate power of courage and clarity of the mind whose ultimate fruit is liberty. [1]
Further to the Wherrett production:
At the end of one performance, a Saturday evening in July 1992 (a revival of the production from the year prior) John Howard as Proctor stepped forward and silenced the enthusiastic response. His speech was brief. He simply reminded the audience that three hundred years ago to the day, the sweet and dignified, wise and compassionate Rebecca Nurse had been hanged for witchcraft.The audience froze in horror. Perhaps not all of them were aware that the events of the play were true. But this quiet recollection of one tragic victim certainly jolted them into a chilling understanding of the facts. [2]
Our jolt and chill, at the Sport For Jove production, maybe, the psychic wounds, cast by the recent Martin Place tragedy, and the supposed deeply believed motivations of such an act.

Sport For Jove has given us another thrilling and pertinent theatre experience to absorb. An Independent Company with consistent quality achievements that deserves support from all areas. THE CRUCIBLE plays, in repertoire, with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, at Bella Vista, till the end of this month, and then at The Leura Everglades, for most of January, 2015.

Do go.


Before the play proper, Mr Ryan has created  a prelude: an Installation/Set of Tableau vivant, of groupings of the denizens of Salem in the old farm house. It is startling in its capture of the claustrophobia of the zealotry of a Puritanical faith and the inner hostility that is bred with the 'violence' of such a proscriptive hegemonic way of life.

We catch through a window, a doorway, as we walked through the house, girls running off; we followed them, and from a distance, watched the slave woman, Tituba, lead the girls to an alternative  way, celebration, of life, with semi-naked dancing, singing and whooping to a frenzied  drumming,  from the burdens of a fetid sexuality and natural exuberance for a life, groping for release from, it seemed,  the human/animal needs of over-ripe lubricious young bodies, and spirits.

The deadly consequences of such indulgence we watched unleashed back in the barn as the play proper began.

  1. ARTHUR MILLER 1915-1962, by Christopher Bigsby, Widenfeld and Nicolson, 2008.
  2. THE FLOOR OF HEAVEN, My Life in the Theatre, by Richard Wherrett. Sceptre, 2000.
Recommended reading:
  1. ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY, edited by Christopher Bigsby, Methuen Drama, 1990.
  2. READING LIKE A WRITER, by Francine Prose, Harper Collins, 2006.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Photo by James Morgan
Daniel Sparrow productions presents, RUPERT, by David Williamson, at the Theatre Royal, King St, Sydney, 28 November to 21 December, 2014.

David Williamson's RUPERT, is his 46th play (a 47th play, CRUISE CONTROL, premiered at the Ensemble Theatre this year). He has had, in fact, nine productions* of his work in Sydney, this year. A most prolific and well seen Australian playwright. Indeed.

RUPERT, the play had its origins, as a commissioned work from the Melbourne Theatre Company, under an invitation of the Artistic Director, Brett Sheedy, and premiered in late August, 2013, in Melbourne, and then travelled to Washington for the World Stages International Theatre Festival in March, 2014. It seemed the play could not find a theatre or co-producer in Sydney, and it looked as if it would not be seen here, at all. Then a London based producer Daniel Sparrow (of Australian origin) took it on, with a plan to transferring this new production to the West End and the UK.

In a two and a half hour stretch, a cast of 10 actors - playing some sixty characters, between them - present a tabloid-cabaret style review of the rise and fall (?) and life of Rupert Murdoch (there is some music and some dancing). It is, in the experience of it, a well written powerpoint resume of this life without,  however, a penetrating point-of-view, or in-depth exploration of the psychological motivation. We come to understand that it is not money that interests this Rupert, but power and influence. That he has a ruthless pursuit of objective, uncomplicated by much personal need for the human foibles of the ordinary man.

David Williamson in his program notes tells us:
Brett (Sheedy) and I decided early on that whatever personal views I held on Rupert's world view, they shouldn't, as far as possible, influence the way the story is told. A left-wing playwright lacerating right-wing thinking has been a staple of theatre for so long now it's become predictable and predictability is the death of good theatre. ...

The play had to be about the character of Rupert much as his family and achievements. And what better way than to give Rupert the freedom to run his own show. A kind of Rupert Cabaret, in which he invites the audience to sit down and listen to the real story of his life, not the story peddled by lefty, inner city, latte sipping acai berry eating critics. Rupert stars in and has cast his own show. ...
Those arriving at the theatre hoping to find that the playwright has supplied a counter argument to every assertion that Rupert makes will be disappointed. This is Rupert's show. ... 
There are two Ruperts in this play: the older played by James Cromwell, and the younger, played by Guy Edmonds, "who he admits might be a tad more charismatic and handsome than people remember him". The interaction between the two characters is easily enjoyed through the empathetic work of the two actors, with many skills, besides speculated tongue-in-cheek vaudeville technique. It is Mr Cromwell, playing the 'ring-master' Rupert, who anchors this production and play, magnificently. His authority, his presence, his elegance, his bristling intelligence, dominates the production, and us, the audience, effortlessly. The last time I watched the brilliant Mr Cromwell was at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco, where he played the older A.E. Houseman to a younger self, in the Tom Stoppard masterpiece, THE INVENTION OF LOVE. This play still not seen in Sydney, of course. What with a cast of 21 male and 1 female actor, and a complicated design demand, it is not likely to be considered by any of our major companies, no matter its theatrical brilliance Too, costly? Perhaps? Too, smart? Hmmm?

The rest of the population of this play is tackled by the other eight actors, whipping in and our of costume and wig, creating iconic walks, gestures and sounds to capture for our quick recognition the real life people that, in some cases have only flitted across our eyes in newsreels or documentary (they, sometimes, were having to shift scenery and properties, as well!): Danielle Cormack, Glenn Hazeldine, Jane Phelan, Bert LaBonte, Scott Sheridan, Haiha Lee, Jane Turner and Ben Wood. Scoring most often and hilariously is Mr Hazeldine and Mr Sheridan in some 14 incarnations each! The others have hits and misses. One wished that the Director, Lee Lewis, (or, Choreographer, Andrew Holdsworth) had spent more time with the actors in developing more that the shallow, cartoon outline of some of the impersonations, and had demanded, from these Australian actors, a more informed back-story and a cleaner, sharper vocal and physical edge to the work - it was sometimes a little ragged in detail and consistency.

TIME, of course, or the lack of it, is often the bane of the artists in preparing their work, and despite, which one it it may be in this particular - lack of it, I intuit - this production by Ms Lewis is a spectacular achievement, especially in its conception as a huge Brechtian hybrid of that playwright/director's (Bertolt Brecht) epic and cabaret invention. Stephen Curtis, the Set, Costume and AV Designer, has realised a huge task with practical nous and clean aesthetics - I note the, almost, trademark shades of black and white in the colour palate of Ms Lewis' vision. The Lighting, by Niklas Pajanti; and the work of Composer, Orchestrator and Sound Designer, Kelly Ryall, both re-enforce that vision.

For Mr Williamson there are, he has told us in interview, some resonances of the scale of Shakespeare's RICHARD III in the life of Rupert - not as physically bloody, of course - and the charm of both these inventions Richard and Rupert, carries us a long way, in each of their own opus, to non-judgementally enjoy their history. And, in the final moments of RUPERT, Mr Cromwell, Ms lewis and Mr Willliamson bring a thrilling, ominous chill to this relatively, lightweight telling of the life of one of the most powerful contemporary figures of influence and power, when this Rupert having led us superficially, but with charm and self-deprecating humour, through his life, steps down-stage, centre-,stage and leers out at us, in a final direct and complicit conversation, and concludes, that whatever has transpired, whatever the recent scandal of his existence that threatened his 'empire', that he is still here: "I AM STILL HERE. I AM STILL HERE." The memory of Brecht's creation, THE RISE AND FALL OF ARTURO UI, a parody of Adolf Hitler, leapt up, and out at me, and echoed the final sentiment of that work: "The bitch that bore him is in heat again." An ominous and sad warning, both. One left the theatre a little more sober than one may have felt when enjoying the interval refreshment.

Watching , again recently, the DVD of the National Theatre's celebration of its 50 years at work, one of the sequences had Ralph Fiennes playing a character, a South African media mogul called, Lambert Le Roux (originally, famously created by Anthony Hopkins), from David Hare and Howard Brenton's 1985 play, PRAVDA. It is a satire of journalism and particularly the media 'baron' Rupert Murdoch. It is a bracing, funny and fearsome work. It steps not back from the ugly of this world. Not seen in Sydney, of course, except at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) directed, by Tony Knight, in its heyday, with Colin Moody showing his devastating promise for fearless confrontation in his work, even then. I wish, that now that we have had the relatively harmless sweetener, of Mr Williamson's RUPERT, one of the companies in Sydney could give us the bitter, but delicious pill of PRAVDA. Any chance? Anyone game enough?

*The Williamson plays, in production this year:

1. TRAVELLING NORTH (1979), The STC production.
2. WHEN DAD MARRIED FURY, Parramatta Tour by HIT.

The Jack Manning Trilogy, produced by the Ensemble Theatre at Chatswood.

3. FACE TO FACE (2000)

6. CRUISE CONTROL (2014), Ensemble Theatre
7. THE REMOVALISTS (1971), Rock Surfers Theatre Company
8. EMERALD CITY (1987), Griffin Theatre Co.
9. RUPERT (2014) Daniel Sparrow Productions

Amazing, eh?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Absent Friends

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey
Ensemble Theatre presents, ABSENT FRIENDS, by Alan Ayckbourn, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. Dec 4 - Jan 24.

An evening with Alan Ayckbourn is one that one can look forward too, generally, with anticipatory pleasure, and the Ensemble Theatre has taken a very sensible shine to presenting his challenging and comic work for us at least once a year - last year, NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH - this season, it is ABSENT FRIENDS.

ABSENT FRIENDS written in 1974, is one of those comedies of his that shares the laser-like observational skill of Anton Chekhov, whilst wielding the doctorly scalpel of a "good doctor" with a withering psychological accuracy. If the accuracies cause 'blood' to spill for you, or not, will depend on what you are prepared to recognise about yourself, your relationships, and/or those of your friends about you. Whatever those exposures of truth for you may be, the audience I was with at the EnsembleTheatre the other night, found enormous opportunity for much laughter, and, as well, some anguished side-long glances at their partners and friends beside them.

A group of married friends, all, we will gather, unhappily married, have gathered to console one of their old friends, Colin (Darren Gilshenan), not married, but, in bereavement at the loss of his girlfriend, Carol. To offer this condolence to a friend of suspect respect, maybe a welcome distraction for these unhappy people from their own situation. As this night of emotional devastation unravels we may begin to admit that Colin is the lucky one, that fate has intervened, for if the marriages of his hosts are anything to go by, the death of his fiancee was a blessing in disguise.

Typical of Mr Ayckbourn, the lives of his lower middle class 'friends' are being crushed under the weight of disillusionment and the boredom of legal 'bondage' - marriage. A state that some anthropologists claim as unnatural, and Mr Ibsen has railed against, conventionally controversially, in such plays as A DOLL'S HOUSE. Diana (Michelle Doake) and Paul (Richard Sydenham) are in a precarious state of desperate emotional implosion - their wearied and silent acceptance of each other's faults and 'sins' weighing heavily on their existence. The mismatched temperaments of sulky and aggravated Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan), and bewildered, inadequate, cuckolded John (Brian Meegan) are an open sore of deliberate irritations - on stage, the pram with baby, a symbol of their entwined entrapping bond. Whilst Marge, (Queenie Van de Zandt) reveals her interdependence and fretful co-dependence with an invisible (offstage) hypochondriacal husband, Gordon, who may well be her baby substitute, as her marriage bonding, so far, as had no offspring - her helpfulness and preoccupations symptoms of distraction for other considerations. Into all of this comes Colin, an unctuous, blithely social myopic. Seeing nothing and no-one beyond his own experiences and wants, needs.

The world of this play is bleak, a middle class wasteland - illustrated well, by the purposely, 'naff' '70's Set Design and Costumes, by Anna Gardiner (Costume co-ordinator, Catherine Capolupo) - but for all that, too humanely observed and so cleverly explicated by Mr Ayckbourn, that laughter becomes a sedative to our growing anxiety for these people, a kind of healing balm for all of us in the audience. We, after, may question why we laughed, but laugh we did, and laugh you shall, despite yourself.

Mr Gilshenan, as Colin, reveals the right balance of bon-homie, of a man with the unconscious smugness of good fortune to be, still, a single man, and because of his tragedy (Carol's drowning) the centre of empathetic attention; Mr Meegan finding the idiosyncratic ticks of a socially 'drowning' man, impressing, as he did in NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, last year, with his skills and clear insight into the world of Mr Ayckbourn's intentions; and Ms Van De Zandt, a triumph of pathos and comic 'covers' giving the most satisfactory performance on the stage with all of her crafted comic business, and deep well of owned emotional grief for the life of Marge - tender, clever, beautifully sustained.

Director, Mark Kilmurry, tends to overreach the comic direction of Mr Ayckbourn's play, in this naturalistic, observational comedy, by directing, the usually assured Ms Doake, and consequently, Mr Sydenham, into overstated emotional farce - the whooping cry of Diana, and prolonged laughter-hysteria of Paul, too much for comfortable belief and acceptance. The psychological underpinnings and the social structure of the work requires more Chekhov and less Durang, in approach. This work felt 'pushed', deliberately guided to hysteria, where comic grief, felt-fathoms of sadness, would be a better explication - motivated for both wife and husband from a true bottomless despair. Ms Sullivan is  only superficially funny in each scene and seems to count on Mr Ayckbourn to do all her work for her, and does not help us understand Evelyn's unhappiness (her motivational subtext), or why she bears it out, it seems, to the edge of a cold-blooded doom - she just does.

Mr Ayckbourn's ABSENT FRIENDS, though written 40 years ago, is pathetically relevant, and enhances undoubtedly, the growing reputation of this still living and prolific playwright, as a timeless master. Like his friend and mutual admirer, Harold Pinter, a genius of classic invention and human sympathy.

Do go.

Tell Me Again

Eye of the Storm and Old 505 presents, TELL ME AGAIN, by Jeanette Cronin, at the Old 505 Theatre, Hibernian House, Level 5, 342 Elizabeth St, Central Railway, December 3 - 21, 2014.

TELL ME AGAIN by Jeanette Cronin is a new Australian play. It chronicles the relationship between Her (Jeanette Cronin) and Him (James Lugton). It is written in many, many short scenes (some, merely seconds long!) and in a cryptic, elliptical manner. In the program notes we read:
What if Memory and Dream fell in love, and left you stranded in a vortex of uncertainty, spiked with just enough clues to drag you deeper into corridors of familiar doors with no handles.
And, yes, there is, often, in this work, some tantalising familiarity of relationship 'dropped' for us - we do recognise some things: the corridors and the absence of handles to get out of them - in a higgledy-piggledy order. And, so, we attempt, while watching and listening, to impose order, in a kind of bewildered, but not irritated state, on what we are watching and hearing to decipher what is fact, what is fiction. We try to fit pieces of the puzzle into the jigsawed scene structure. Do we have the right pieces and are they from this puzzle? It is a pleasure to try to sort it out.

The writing by first time play author, Jeanette Cronin, is fascinating, and has the literary echoes, for me, of Harold Pinter (The Lover, Old Times etc) and Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice etc.) - two authors not to be blinked at and, to boot, gorgeous to listen to. So, also, here, thanks Ms Cronin. Add, to the creativity, staging by Michael Pigott (moonlighting, whilst performing in the STC, CYRANO DE BERGERAC - how does he do it?) and there is a visual coding/cluing, I think, of some highly sophisticated choreography going on - the taking off and putting on of clothing, all part of it. The production is further enhanced by some beautiful Lighting (especially for this tiny space) and Sound Design (no accreditation made, except that of Mr Pigott as Production Designer.)

Topping this are the two very arresting performances, with Jeanette Cronin, gliding, galloping, through the hoops of her own writerly obstacles with a kind of assured and secure rapture of absolute confidence for what is happening and where and when it is happening (as the writer of the play ought to be, I suppose) whilst Mr Lugton gives one of those truly centred and collected performances - a contrasted match for all the brittle emotions of his stage partner.

Do I know what was going on? Maybe. Did I find the doubts, confusion , a hindrance to the sixty minute occupation of my time? No, definitely not.

Welcome, to Ms Cronin's other talent as a writer. One hopes it is not the last time we witness it. We have known her acting talent for some time and, nearly, always, are grateful for having been gifted it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Legend of King O'Malley

Photo by Afshar Hodar
Don't Look Away with AAI and Seymour Centre present, THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 26 Nov-13 Dec.

THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, was written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, in 1970. This production comes from a Melbourne based company, Don't Look Away, that last year presented ROOTED, by Alex Buzo, both directed by Phil Rouse.

The play was written for NIDA/Jane St.

A synthesis from the history of NIDA, by John Clark: Jane St was an innovation set up by Robert Quentin (Professor), who had founded, with others, the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), in 1959, and then the professional theatre company known as The Old Tote Theatre Company, in 1963, both, on the campus of the New South Wales University. In the mid-sixties, Mr Quentin observed:
In Australia only a few plays from overseas are seen, and the long process of try-out adjustment and improvement by which their excellence was obtained is readily forgotten. Australian writers are often damned because they do not achieve in one step what overseas writers have accomplished in many. We must have a theatre whose aim is the development of work in progress, not immediate exploitation."[1] 
He found a tiny chapel (church), and with a small grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation, up in a Jane St, near the horse racing sale yards on Barker St, Randwick (I think the building, now a private residence, still exists). He had it hastily painted, white, and with a seating capacity of 80, of old cinema seats, opened in July, 1966, with the Tony Morphett play, I'VE COME ABOUT THE ASSASSINATION. The plays were, generally, new Australian works performed by young NIDA graduates, members of the Advanced Course. John Clark writes:
The idea was to have a theatre where new Australian plays could be tried out at minimum cost. If they were poorly received, no harm was done; if successful they could be transferred to the Old Tote or to a commercial venue.[1]
In his account of this time, John Clark - an Australian theatre visionary and practitioner - on becoming Director of NIDA in 1969, (while Robin Lovejoy took the helm Of The Old Tote Theatre Company), with Elizabeth Butcher, describes how he…reactivated Jane Street and the annual seasons of new Australian plays became an important part of the theatrical calendar until the owners sold the building in 1981 (between 1966 and 1981, some 28 Australian plays were produced). ... In 1970 John Clark (of Tasmanian origin) read a biography of the legendary Australian politician, King O'Malley. He suggested to Michael Boddy (then teaching History of Theatre at NIDA) and John Bell (who had just recently returned to Australia, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the UK, and appointed Head of Acting, at NIDA, by John Clark), that there might be a play in O'Malley's story. Bob Ellis came in as a writer, and the play was hastily written (I remember several joke books, scattered around the rehearsal theatre space, which were being plundered for some of the act two parliamentary material) and rehearsed over two weeks. It opened at the Jane St Theatre on 11 June 1970, and moved to the Old Tote's Parade Theatre, at the end of their main season (where your's truly was dragooned, with fellow first year NIDA actors, as part of a marching troupe in a red one-piece costumed life-savers swim suit, with red and yellow striped cap, carrying a beach safety reel, across the back of the stage, in an expanded act one finale) and toured Australia for over a year (we, thankfully, didn't!)

The original company of actors were: William Yang, Rex Cramphorn, Nick Lathouris, Terry O'Brien, John Paramour, Robyn Nevin, David Cameron, Kate Fitzpatrick and Gillian Jones. John Bell Directed and Janet Dawson (Michael Boddy's, wife) with Sue Lloyd, Designed.The choreography by Keith Bain. It was as a result of this production that John Bell and Ken Horler founded the NImrod Theatre, in an old stables in Nimrod St, Kings Cross (now the home of the Griffin Theatre Co), and opened on December 2nd, 1970, with a show called, BIGGLES. The iconoclastic early work of Nimrod was greatly influenced by the O'Malley experience, and, in another artistic direction, several of this acting company, led by Rex Cramphorn, founded the Performance Syndicate, that explored, re-thought, the classic repertoire. THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, original production cohort is legendary for more than itself. It became the spring-source and energy for new Australian playwriting, and as an approach to the theatre craft of putting on a play, that became uniquely Australian. This 'revolution' in the performing arts, came on the cusp of great political change, with the election of Gough Whitlam,  in 1971, which was to be a further game changing power to the ARTS.

The short development time of the original production was compensated by the talent and enthusiasms of the original artists. The production was conceived as a rough and ready, "shambling, rollicking entertainment, a fantasia on the exotic life of the Federal politician King O'Malley". [2] It is incredible to contemplate the 'wealth' of the talents involved in that O'MALLEY when one adds the memory of the performance preamble: Greeting the audience in the winter June evenings, were burning fires in ten-gallon metal barrels, and a group of young second year NIDA actors, costumed as hocus, (very feral) side show performers at a 'spiritual' tent gathering: a snake charmer with an actual python snake around her shoulders; a half-man/half woman; seedy clowns and a sexy, meet and greet MC. Some of the student actors being the likes of Pamela Stephenson, Vivienne Garrett, Wendy Hughes, John Hargreaves - who all became leaders in the performing arts, in the ,then, not to distant future.

So, for some of us, then, gathering, the other night, at the Seymour Centre, this play had that 'Golden Era' memory haze about it (true or otherwise) and was full of anticipatory anxiety as to how that 'flimsy' but influential, important, work was going to stand up. John Paramour, the original O"Malley was there, as was Bob Ellis, one of the writers. Lots of yarn-telling of the experience of this seminal work's debut was going on - and maybe , you would have had to have been up at Jane St, or down at the old Parade Theatre, in 1970, to appreciate the excitement of, and, about it. In 1970, it, confidently was, partly, that the possibility, of the dream of Louis Esson's National Theatre, an Australian Theatre, was at last, being born. (And that is not forgetting the influence of La Mama, in Carlton, Melbourne, as well.)

In the hush of the dingy Reginald foyer, being shared with another event in the room next door, we were let into the theatre, and on a stage with a painted striped tent backdrop (Designers, Daniel Harvey and Zoe Rouse), we were overwhelmed by a group of gospel singers in white shiny dress singing out, beating out, with a high octane energy, song, accompanied by an accomplished piano player, Tom Pitts,  There was mic-amplified sound and it was overwhelming (Sound Design, Simon Moy), a little shattering. What was once, (ah, Golden era), a vaudevillian, music hall, burlesque rendition of a grubby spiritual tent meeting somewhere in the boon-docks of the US of A, at the turn of the last century (see, the evangelical tent meeting in the TV series, TRUE DETECTIVE, to get an image), was now a kind of glitzy American Broadway Musical Theatre piece in action (Sondheim's ASSASSINS, sprang to mind). It is a generational interpretation, of course, and Mr Pitts, has composed a whole new score (the original musical interludes, were mostly acappella, of traditional tunes e.g. Shall We Gather at the River etc, with tambourines), and it was a bit like watching the glitzy choices made by, Rob Marshall, in 2002 , for the film CHICAGO: a little more than over the top of the reality of the circumstances of the truths - either, the real life ones, or the original theatre production ones.

The energy of the performers, the slickness of this production: music, singing, choreography, acting. costume and setting, all good in themselves, was dominated by an overwhelming earnestness of tone, and lacked what I think is essential to O'MALLEY, irony. The ironic eye view, through the Australian 'lens' perspective, on the religious hokum, of O'Malley or, O'MALLEY, and that of his American 'brothers and sitters', plus the almost unbelievable events of his Act One life adventures in getting to Australia, was absent from this company's work. It was told with a wink-wink melodramatic flourish but not with the trademark Aussie tongue-in-cheek. Very, very Earnest, was it, all. The speed, and the Sound Designed Noise, of the production in that first half drowned out any real possibility of, audience-wise, getting on board, or even really comprehending what was going on. At the interval, the old guys and gals of yesterday-yore, were curiously asking, how much of the text had been 'tinkered' with, as they couldn't recognise the play that they, admittedly, distantly remembered - not much, if any (except the songs), at all.  New comers to it were more than a little bewildered at what they were watching and were asking why THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY held such an important place in Australian Theatre history.

The second act was better (still noisy - hey, guys, its a small venue!) The writing and the satire is more comprehensible in the playing - the mirror image of the O'Malley Federal Parliament behaviour for our present chaotic experience of the last five or six years in Canberra, could not be sharper. The issue of the personal conscience vote and the danger of exercising it in a 'party' dominated institution could not be more prophetic, in the demonstrated consequences incurred by King O'Malley, for our present independent politicians, and the 'party'-identities trapped. Still topical, then.

The company is simply listed in the program without role appellation and is: Oliver Coleman, James Cook, Brianagh Curran, Alex Duncan, Matt Hickey, Andrew Iles, Tara Rankine, Jess Tanner. All are enthusiastic and work very, very earnestly. with lots of energy perspiration going on.

Unfortunately, the legend of THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, and the honour of its place in the canonical history of Australian theatre, will not be explicated, for any who catch this production. Context, and the research to place it in a contextually meaningful manner for contemporary times, needs more contemplation, and, maybe, less physically committed effort- the laid-back energy of the Aussie larrikin of "she'll be right, mate" might be a helpful one to consider, as a contrasting tempo.

Question. "Is this play a musical, or, a play with music?"

  1. John Clark, 2003, "NIDA", University of New South Wales
  2. John West, 1978, "Theatre in Australia", Cassell

Recommended reading:
  1. Philip Parsons (ed.), 1995, "Companion to Theatre in Australia", Currency Press.
  2. Richard Wherrett, 2000, "The Floor of Heaven", Sceptre.