Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Young Tycoons

Photo by Noni Carroll
Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Spooky Duck Productions present THE YOUNG TYCOONS - A Ruthless Comedy, by CJ Johnson at the Eternity Playhouse. Season: 16th May - 15th June.

THE YOUNG TYCOONS by CJ Johnson, Directed by Michael Pigott, has arrived at the Eternity Playhouse, for its third Sydney season. Originally seen at the Darlinghurst Theatre in 2005, with a return season in 2006, the play is set in 2003. The Writer and Director in their program note:
We have not re-set the play in the present - it could not exist now, precisely because of how much it is set then - but we've given it a polish, using time's passage to inspire a few new cutting barbs. After all, truth is very often even funnier than fiction.
Based loosely around the 'shenanigans' of two of the prominent business families of Australia, THE YOUNG TYCOONS, when first performed, probably carried the comic audacity of the 'currentness' of the episodes, and satiric caricatures, and, even, may have had the vigorous wallop of the shock of the audacity of it all - one may have enjoyed, the 'naughtiness' of the slimly veiled disguises given to reality, in the families of the text: The House of Vogler and The House of Warburton. That was then, 2005-06.

Nowadays, however, in 2014, with the recent, regular, commercial television dramatic impersonations of these families, these figures now have a kind of popular secular hagiology (much like the jingoistic Ned Kelly mystique) that have caused some of us to give them a kind of benign nod of admiring approval, similar to the established regard the Americans have for their 'Robber Barons' of old, who now have reputations of Social Benevolence through gifts to Education and Cultural Institutions. (N.B. the recent promise of monies to the Arts, from an excellent Aussie family, the Packer's - the government very pleased, no doubt, to see this level of philanthrophy from the "rich" - my inner cynic presumes it is tax deductible, and nothing to do with Barangaroo). Time, indeed, has misted the satiric targets of this play and their machinations with glycerined lenses. And, truly, the recent 'bogan' wrestle/boxing match, between two business men, on the Bondi Beach front, could not be funnier than anything concocted for our satiric stages - and, after all, someone once said, in some context: "all the world's a stage".

So, it is "the few new cutting barbs" (and they are very few and not, particularly, barbed) that scored the biggest sly laughs on the night I saw this production - e.g. the last scene, on a waterfront wharf where our two young tycoons look at the potential of development of that site! Given this play was announced to be part of this season at the Eternity Theatre over 12 months ago, the relative lack of updating of the material, was a kind of surprise - it's not as if the play extant is 'genius' or even a "Ruthless Comedy" as it's sub-title suggests - ruthless, in definition in the Aussie Macquarie dictionary being: 'without pity or compassion; pitiless; merciless'. THE YOUNG TYCOONS, is hardly any of that: genius or pitiless or merciless, and truth/fiction, indeed, 8 years later, may not be, necessarily funnier.

THE YOUNG TYCOONS is, relatively, a relic of comedy of the recent past, in this contemporary outing at the Eternity Playhouse. There is a lightweight and undemanding comic veneer to the evening, delivered by a terrific team of actors with, I noted, a little nod of comment (perhaps imposed by the skill of the actors) to the misoginistic atmospheres apparent around this high flying world. It is a mildly amusing way to spend some money and time, if you have it to spare. The structure of the writing, of short sharp scenes, introduced with projected titles of guidance as to what we will witness, accompanied with a comfortable and witty score by Murray Jackson, feels rather like the scenario of a screenplay than a play for the theatre. The actual necessity of the many stagings of much furniture, for all those many scenes, and thence the numerous needs of entrances and exits, through the only two doors of the widely designed set wall (Katja Handt), interrupts the accumulative rhythm of the performance, and diminishes the accuracy of the necessary music of comic timing. The secret of good comedy is all in the timing, I read somewhere.

Briallen Clarke, as Kylie Strauss, is especially fine in her work; Paige Gardiner, as Sally Kilmarten, fleshes out her woman with a sly comic eye and a sympathetic wisdom; Gabrielle Scawthorn, as Sherilyn Moss, creates a two dimensional woman out of a pencil thin observation by Mr Johnson - all three of the female actors, indeed, demonstrate a creative inventiveness that give the writing more depth and character than is there on the page, I suspect. Congratulations! While James Lugton, Laurence Coy, John Turnbull, still finding their securities of rhythm, on the night I saw the production, also had a clear understanding of what was required of them in the landscape of the material. All of the ensemble are empathetically integrated to keep the play pulsing with some comic energy, sometimes over and above the offers of the source writing. Edmund Lembke-Hogan gives an over-the-top caricature of puppy-dog dimwittedness, as Kim Vogler; Andrew Cutcliffe, firmly grounded in handsome smooth realities, as Trevor Warburton; and Terry Serio, as Donald Mayes, a kind of honest but grubby Aide de Camp to the House of Warburton, shuffles and shrugs in an ill fitting suit to some effect.

Part of the Mission Statement of the Darlinghurst Theatre in the program notes:
Every Darlinghurst Theatre Company production brings together a new team of outstanding artists, who present their unique artistic vision and perspectives on theatre and Life. We offer artists freedom to stage their own work and tell the stories they want to tell. This allows us to create a diverse season of innovative and exceptional theatre, and ultimately a fresh experience for our patrons each and every visit. 
The Darlingurst Theatre Company having just presented at the Eternity Playhouse, the fourth season of THE GIGLI CONCERT, and now the third season of THE YOUNG TYCOONS (in Sydney), for their 2014 season, hardly seems to be "innovative" or "fresh". ALL MY SONS and FALSETTOS gave proof and promise of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company and their mission, vision, in service to the Sydney theatre scene. There must be plays and productions galore, available to the artistic 'gatekeepers' to curate their season from, or, is it an embrace of the the corporate 'Mortein' philosophy: "When you're on a good thing, stick to it",  that has driven such recent 'conservative' choices to occupy this new theatre space?


Monday, May 26, 2014

Scenes from an Execution

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Tooth and Sinew in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO) presents SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION by Howard Barker at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, Sydney. Season:13th May - 31st May.

SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION is a play from Howard Barker, written, originally, as a Radio Play in 1984, starring Glenda Jackson as Galactia, and was staged in 1990 at the Almeida Theatre, London, with Ms Jackson creating the role again. The play was presented in 2012 at the National Theatre of Great Britain, with Fiona Shaw, and there was a production presented at the Belvoir Theatre, years ago, with Lindy Davies. The role of Galactia, a painter (fictitious) of decided views, is a favourite of powerful actors.
"I don't know what I want to say, and I don't care if you listen or not." – Howard Barker. 
He does care, though, that he is performed. Such, that in 1988 he created his own performance company, The Wrestling School. He first play appeared in 1970, CHEEK, and he is still writing: A WOUNDED KNIFE, in 2009. In this "International" city, Sydney, this hub of theatre culture, we have rarely seen Mr Barker's works, outside University Society's productions. In fact, other than the above Belvoir production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, VICTORY (1983) is the only other professional production of his work we have seen. That was at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in 2004, when Judy Davis, both directed and starred with Colin Friels - the production, probably, urged through her want, need, will.  It was a triumph. The New Theatre, in Newtown, has a record of presenting Mr Barker's work: THE HANG OF THE GAOL(1983), THE LOVE OF A GOOD MAN (1978), NO END OF BLAME (1981) and VICTORY(1983), as well. In Adelaide, the Brink Theatre were (are) strong advocates of his work.

His plays deal, generally, with violence, sexuality, the desire for power and human motivation. Famously, Mr Barker called his body of work: The Theatre of Catastrophe - writing that presented a tragic theatre forcing us to recognise our differences. He does not necessarily write to comfort an audience, he will not write to sentimentalise our weaknesses or glamorise inertia. He is drawn to the paradoxical and fascinated by contradiction. Lusty and Fierce. In performance his plays are, usually, a challenge to an audience, early, with confronting images and language, and if you have not got up and left, then you must be ready and willing to engage in an uncompromising vision of what the theatre should be, as it examines the world we live through, and in. I recommend that you stay, for what he has to say is, usually, extremely stimulating and is expressed with great poetical beauty:
"I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech, in a non-naturalistic way; it's speculative.
The writing can be a thrill for the actor, it, requiring great rigour, great discipline and great daring, and ultimately, needs from all of us in the theatre space, great exposures of our 'self' - and if one is prepared to do that, be courageous, both the performer and audience, will find his theatre experiences a revelatory and exuberant space to have been participant in.

This production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Old Fitzroy Theatre is Directed by James Hilliard, a young director, who appears to have some sophisticated love of language and plays of ideas. He has presented in this theatre, in the past year, a double-banger season of KING LEAR and MEASURE FOR MEASURE; and WITTENBERG. He has the ability to clarify his complicated texts with his actors to give the audience a usually, more than less, cogent experience. His 'academic' deconstruction of the writing technicalities and his ability to stage it are extremely promising. This production has those virtues. What Mr Hilliard does not have, yet, as yet, is the skill to guide and harness his actors to fit their skills and inclinations to serve the play well. He seems to lack sophisticated 'language' to assist his actors to serviceable performances. They seem to be left to their own devices, so, it appears, those that can 'swim', do, those that can't, 'drown'.

In this production, Mark Lee, as Urgentino, and Jeremy Waters, as Carpeta, especially, have grasped the technical 'nettles' of this playwright and balanced it with the contemporary naturalisms of humanity to give the characters a comfort of flesh and blood, that we, the audience can all identify with, and care about. Their balance to the needs of Mr Barker's play, of body and mind, is embodied skilfully. Lynden Jones, with smaller opportunity, also impresses. But, Lucy Miller, as Galactia, our protagonist, our heroine, has only technical facilities of verbal skill, and lacks, in this work, the balancing force of the human frailties of the necessary lust and 'feminist' fierceness. It, mostly, becomes a demonstration of "sound and fury signifying nothing". In the latter act, in the darkness of the prison scenes, it became a fierce bellow of howling noise - unintelligible. To not have the ownership and revelation of the sexual grounding, grind, and desire of this woman, alongside her intellectual convictions and power, is to turn this famous role into a 'talking head' with no human 'guts', and ultimately undermines this production's, this play's possible potential as a completely satisfying evening in the theatre. Unfortunately, the other actors, mostly, are fairly inexperienced, and are challenged by the double whammy of primed skills and heightened controlled truth telling. The demands that Howard Barker requires for his writing cannot be met, consistently by all, and so, this production withers the play's impact.

There was also, for me,  a visible mis-step with the 'bourgeoise' design of this production (Andrea Spinoza) of wooden, empty picture frames, picturesquely hung about the space as if in a 19th century gallery, or residence, as a concept of a Venetian 16th century army barracks, doubling as an artist's studio (1571). (The idea looked familiar to the tidiness of Mr Hilliard's WITTENBURG). Too, the costuming (Christine Bennett), for example, of an artist at work on the scaffolding of a huge wall painting of the recording of the bloody Battle of Lepanto is of 'Disney Land' cleanliness - it does not assist credibility, or location veracities, for the arguments of the play to have contextual power or clarity. The Lighting Design, by Ben Brockman; the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson serve the production well.

The pertinent relevance of the principal debate of this play, as the Australian Federal Minister for the Arts, the Honourable George Brandis, writes to the Australia Council about future guidelines to grant applications for artists questioning the ethics of patrons, could not be more pregnant. Should Galactia's painting of the Battle of Lepanto be propaganda for a state at war, or rather, the telling of a savage truth? A question that, one wonders, Ben Quilty may have recently experienced as the official Australian war artist to Afghanistan. Mr Hilliar in his program notes:
Who is the artist responsible too? Is she responsible to the patron who is paying for the work, in this case the state? Does she have social responsibility to give the people what they want? Is there a political responsibility? Or is she responsible only to her own sense of truth?" 
In this play, Galactia answers forcefully. Ben Quilty did as well, with his AFTER AFGHANISTAN exhibition, in my estimation. (check out his website.)

 Howard Barker, when talking to the press before the 2012 National Theatre production, disowned this play's quality, more or less, and recommended VICTORY (1983) and THE EUROPEANS (1987), as superior. Don't believe him, completely. (THE CASTLE (1985), is one of my other favourites, as well.) This production of SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Old Fitz, fails to hold our attention rigorously, to a play, and playwright (rarely seen in Sydney) that deserves our attention. But, if you are unfamiliar, with Mr Barker's writing, it may just be worth the difficulties of performance. The high level of intelligence, language and argument are refreshing to deal with. More presentations of theatre texts such as this may attract those flocking to lectures of ideas at Writer's Festivals and otherwise. Bringing the audience back to our theatres as venues of dangerous and stimulating ideas, as well as hubs of entertainment - now, that may be a contemporary 'innovation'.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Neil Gooding productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present, TRUTH, BEAUTY AND A PICTURE OF YOU. Music and Lyrics by Tim Freedman. Book by Alex Broun and Tim Freedman. Based on an idea by Alex Broun. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Points Point, Sydney.

"Truth, beauty and a picture of you", is a new Australian Musical using the songs of Tim Freedman, a member of the Australian band, The Whitlams. In 2008-2009, a compilation album of the same name was released, and the principal plot of this musical has some real life parallels in incident, to the actual history/career of the group. The Book is by Alex Broun and Tim Freedman.

Neil Gooding and the Hayes Theatre Co have not stinted in the presentational values of this production. The highly distinctive standard of the production values of the two previous revivals of two American (Broadway) shows: SWEET CHARITY and THE DROWSY CHAPERONE - the first works presented by this exciting addition to the Sydney performance arts scene, are maintained here. The Set Design by James Brown, and the contemporary Costume Design by Cassandra Pascoli, create a visual density of atmosphere for the many locations of the story line, and locality (Newtown), well. The theatrical and effective lighting by Richard Neville is an enormous asset to creating the right illusion of the world of the play, and the Band Leader, Andrew Warboys, in his very unique and superior manner, leads a vigorous and exciting sound with his collaborators: Jackie Barnes, Konrad Ball, Kuki Tipoki and Daniel Maher. They give great support to the actor/singer/performers: Ian Stenlake as Anton, Scott Irwin as Charlie, Toby Francis as Stewie (and Barman / Busker / Lola), Ross Chisari as Tom, and Erica Lovell as Beatrice.

The book by Alex Broun and Tim Freedman is fairly mundane in its plotting, methods, and dialogue depths. The intermingling of the story of a country boy, Tom, on a 'mission' in Newtown, to connect up with the band personnel, that once his father belonged to, meeting and finding a love interest (Beatrice), whilst finding unravelling, theatrical 'melodramatic' truths of the past and present, holds no surprises or compelling interest for the audience. However much verite there is in the relationship between the 'real life' basis of the story and this theatrical invention, it stumbles in its lack of thoughtful conception of delivery. One casts one's mind back to another 'Juke Box' type musical, JERSEY BOYS, to find a model of its kind - soon to be released as a film, directed by Clint Eastwood!! The virtual, linear telling of the story combined with fairly shallow textual dialogue, create, for the actors, a difficult task to give the characters and the situations any palpable depths of truth. The one dimensional writing is not helped by Mr Gooding, who as Director, seems to dwell on the 'dramas' of the moments of the story telling, and has his actors motivating and 'wallowing' in the dialogue reveals, between the cueing of the dialogue, which really only provides opportunities for the writing to be more exposed in its banalities. The dramatic pacing of the Book needs attention, for the audience, on all occasions, are far ahead of the character's realisations, moment to moment, and so it was difficult to stay in a suspension of belief - one found oneself back in the theatre, waiting for the action to move forward, too often, rather than 'lost' in the dramatic journey of the story being told.

The actors are at their best in the music opportunities of the show. The quality of the writing of the Lyrics and the Music by Tim Freedman permits the actors to connect without strain to the narrative of the story. Mr Stenlake is electrifying, from the first instant at the key board of the 'Band' and in the further performing commitments of the musical chances he has. Mr Irwin, too, is modestly best in character when connected to the music, whilst Mr Chisari makes another good impression, this time in a very different genre style of musical (last seen, hilariously, in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE), sensitively supported by Ms Lovell in their musical interactions.

I missed the pop music of the 'nineties and early this century - I was somewhere else, it seems - and so was learning the language of The Whitlams output, sitting in the theatre in Potts Point. Others in the audience were in states of recognition and happily connected to the musical material. Clearly, this musical crammed with some 19 music credit/song titles, thrills the fan base, but for someone like myself, however, I was only, mostly, superficially engaged - I moved to the music in my seat, but I could not hold a tune from the show or, really, quote a lyric afterwards.

"Truth, beauty and a picture of you", as it stands in development, is for the fans, especially. But supporting this new work, and this production, a flowering of the work, so far, 5 years into development, in one of the most difficult and fraught (and expensive) genres in the performing arts, is an important part of the creative process and I encourage all the audience of the last two shows to get along and help with your response in shaping the work, to its next stages of exploration. It needs the same feed back as the other bigger show STRICTLY BALLROOM requires, to move on. So, give it a go.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Parramatta Girls

Riverside Productions present PARRAMATTA GIRLS by Alana Valentine in the Lennox Theatre at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.

PARRAMATTA GIRLS is an Australian play written in 2007 by Alana Valentine, and first performed at the the Belvoir Theatre, directed by Wesley Enoch. The play concerns eight inmates returning to an Institution for a reunion after some forty years. That the Institution was the now infamous Girls Training Centre (GTS) at Parramatta, and that the play was a sensation of revelation in 2007 that was timely and important and necessary (check out my observations of an Australian cultural favourite, DIMBOOLA), despite the Institution being closed for some thirty odd years, tells of our willingness to suffer collective amnesia over 'difficult" matters of our past. That it is now being revived at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, not too far from the still standing institutional building, during the time of the daily reports coming from the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, registers the pertinence of this play and the tragedies of our so-called contemporary 'civilisation', in 2014.

The performance of this play, the other evening, made me think: What is happening in our Institutions, today, the 8th of May? (The 17th of May?) What is happening in our elected Government's Refugee Camps? Is there still, today, Institutional Abuse in Australia - sexual, physical or psychological - which I as a citizen, of this country, blithely, close my eyes too? The Parramatta GTS Institution only closed in 1974. I was earning a living as a young actor, conducting community workshops a few hundred yards up from the GTS (amongst, other things), and was totally oblivious to the ills of what was about me (had I simply believed the 'propaganda' of the authorities of the time? Do I now remember reading of the riots in the daily evening newspapers: THE SUN and THE DAILY MIRROR, and by reading it in the papers, believe without hesitation, that what I read must be true?) More urgently, I am asking: "Just what am I not attending too today, 'in my own backyard'?" History not repeating itself, but humankind. Me. Myself. This thinking provoked by one of the virtues of theatre at its best: enlightenments, contentions to consider, deal with. Personal assessments of my positions and responsibilities in my society. Self confrontations, while I sip my tea, eat my lamingtons!

One may be shocked, scandalised at the Boko Haram kidnapping, led by Abubakma Shekau, of 276 schoolgirls, in Chibok, in remote northeastern Nigeria (April,14th), and the threat that they be sold into slavery, and regard, judge it, as a barbaric act. That it is far away, I might think is fortunate, and not really any of my concern. Phew! And yet, I still permit, by my silence, our own continued shocking behaviours from our own Institutions, right 'next door'. I wondered, "Did our Indigenous families suffer kidnapping and allowed to be 'sold' into a kind of 'slavery'? Did the children of the 'poor' similarly feel that their children were 'kidnapped' and sold into 'slavery' in our institutions? Mmm?". Pushing a parallel too far, some might say! We can be, should be, just as shocked with the current revelations of our trusted Institutions behaviours around us today, that the Royal Commission 'discovers', uncovers, and the PARRAMATTA GIRLS play, by Ms Valentine, should be a flash point of reminder of our responsibilities.

Alana Valentine built this play from a verbatim resource: interviews, consultations, conversations of some thirty former inmates of Girls Training School (GTS) Parramatta. This play, says Ms Valentine in her notes to this production:
is not a documentary. It is not legal evidence. It is not biography or autobiography. It is a play about the nature of memory and the triumph of a community. ... 
 This play records the experiences of young girls, women, and the abuse that they suffered at the hands of their authorities, and from themselves, in the desperate fight to survive. It tells us of the scars and living nightmares of the aftermath of such incarceration and the burden of carrying the physical and mental-emotional scars of such a life, long afterwards. It, fortunately, tells us of the growth and journeys of some of the women who have managed, despite the suffering, to find ways and means to create a safe and optimistic life for themselves and those about them. It is a play that tells of horrors but also, relievedly, of survival. But, of course, it hints at some who did not, and have not survived in healthful tact. Ms Valentine in the introduction by Rosalie Higson in the Currency Press play text publication (2007) tells us:
A lot of (the women) lack self-confidence, have self-esteem issues They've internalised the idea that they're a bad girl and will never do any good. Some women have certainly risen above what they were handed, and we love stories like that, but a lot of them haven't; they are still very damaged. 
This production of this play by Tanya Goldberg, carries its heart of respect a little too much on its sleeve to be devastating. It tends to sugar-coat the situations of the text with acting that is a touch, too romantically nostalgic and empathetic and lacks - some more, some less - the fuller cauterising realism of the truths of the origins of the writing: true horrors, incredible cruelty, savage and intentional ignorance and tremendous injustice. The redemption of the story told is a little too favoured with the choices in this production. Again, our community is allowed to passively watch, exalt in the ultimate redemptions and survival, too easily. This production gives us room, indeed, for some tears and true regretful sadnesses, but I am not sure if there is real anger provoked, or contemporary consciences aroused about the still living, breathing world about us now. I feel sure that PARRAMATTA GIRLS was not only written for us to sincerely empathise with the characters of the play, and learn of the past 'sins of our fathers', our institutions, but also to gather pause about today, now, and the injustices about us.
[Ms Valentine] warmly acknowledge(s) the ongoing support and my inestimable esteem for former inmate Bonney Djuric who I continue to work with as part of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project, a team striving to preserve and interpret the GTS and other sites of historical significance nearby as sites of conscience for all future Australians.
This production of this play needs to be a more vigorous cite of conscience and less a nostalgic trip back in memory and celebration of the survivors if it is truly, to create Ms Valentine's studied but impassioned work. Ms Valentine goes on in her Writer's note:
Most of all I thank the women who trusted me with their stories for the play's creation, you lived this story with your time and your bodies and I never forget it for a minute.
With their time and their bodies. Their bodies and minds, indeed. And still do so, today. When Ms Djuric, seated as a living witness to this storytelling of some of her and her companions stories in our very theatre, was invited to stand and be introduced, a wave of respect and empathy was sincerely, authentically generated as we took her in and applauded (what, her courage? her survival?) - it was a moment not at all experienced in the performance. Authenticity.

For me, the first act of this production suffered from a dramatic becalming, a nostalgic ennui, so that, at the interval, I had a faint mood of bemusement as to the real purpose of the writing/the performance. Fortunately, the second act shifted up in its gearing and dramatic intentions and a sense of lives, memories being viscerally embodied at some real expense of craft revelation from the actor's possession of the character's realities claimed me for a subjective loss in the truths - I was gradually persuaded. Anni Finsterer, as Melanie, merely in her presence gives a blast of truth and embodiment; Tessa Rose, as Marlene stalks out our attention in her re-telling of the rebellion led on the roof; whilst Vanessa Downing, too, had a story that I wanted to know more of - radiating a kind of curious mystery. The other actors: Christine Anu, Holly Austin, Annie Byron, Sharni McDermott and Sandy Gore gave sympathetic representations of their women, but for me, mostly, were actors giving a fine ensemble display, than risking giving us the living, breathing survivors of a terrible place and time.

Ms Goldberg has staged the play hesitantly, the 'wrong' side of gentle and awkward conventionalities, that robbed the material of its flesh and blood, life and death edge (the marching of the girls seemed forced and unconvincing and repeated once too many times). The clumsy set design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller of bland stylised walls with only one practical entrance, decoratively lit with over-emphatic light patterns (Verity Hampson) and clumsily carried on and off furnitures, prevented us from engaging with the aesthetics of PARRAMATTA GIRLS other than in old fashioned theatrical terms - it seemed to be, most of all, out of scale in the small space of the Lennox Theatre.

I had never seen PARRAMATTA GIRLS before. Watching here in Parramatta, I respected it and came to understand its importance. I took a young Tongan-Australian woman, she, on her second ever visit to a theatre, and she was stunningly shocked at the story, learning something of her local area's history, her adopted country's history. She was moved, shifted. A further proof of the importance of the theatre experience, I think.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company present EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY by Declan Greene at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney.

EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY is a new Australian play by Declan Greene. Mr Greene is a theatre maker from Melbourne and we have met his work before, through the productions of Sisters Grimm, and his co-artist Ash Flanders (he, who we will see, independently, as well, as the Belvoir's Hedda Gabler, in the months to come): LITTLE MERCY we saw at the STC, and SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, which the Griffin Independent presented last year, at this same theatre, the SBW Theatre.

The characters have no names, they are anonymously, Female and Male. She's a nurse (Andrea Gibbs) in her forties, husband 'dangerous' and mostly absent, children, consequently, out-of-control, trapped in a loop of catastrophic credit card debt. He's in IT (Steve Rogers), also, in the middle of his age journey, living in a dysfunctional marriage and a distressing job - soon to be 'sacked' - and is trapped in a loop of porn-trawling to give some spark to his existence (he, it is, who downloads eight gigabytes of hardcore pornography, at work!!!) They, in the first beat of the play describe themselves as, "fat, stupid, boring and ugly: pathetic." They retreat, later in the scene from those verbal 'downers', and subsequently, find some positives about themselves, taking themselves to a place where they admit to what they are: "I know what I am. I know my limitations. I don't hold any illusions at all. I don't dream of a lot for myself" but, do yearn for "Just someone. Just someone. Just someone, please. Just someone. Someone to ... " These two meet on-line. They co-ordinate a meeting, and embark on a short adventure that, mostly, could be described as desperate.

EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY is a bleak tale of contemporary societal disconnect. It tells us of the tragedy of the contemporary human condition where money and sex, facilitated, conveniently, by primitive artificial 'intelligences', can dominate our lives. (The movie, TRANSCENDENCE is a warning of what might evolve - I loved it). It refracts the knowledge that these people have no apparent connection to any moral or ethical protections. It is, for some, a devastating view of our times and condition. It is, sadly, not a surprise for most of us.

Mr Greene's observations are told through one of the contemporary modes of story telling, of which I have tired, mostly, direct conversation to the audience - written like a descriptive novel, and instead of it being in book form, where my imagination can take fuller flight, is embodied for us by the actors, who act out the narrative for us, much more prescriptively. The Director, Lee Lewis, last year directed a two-hander by Van Badham: THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS, and this play is extremely similar in writing form and performance needs (although, the actors required then, were decidedly more on the 'fantasy' side of their physical representation than here!)

The two actors of EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY, Ms Gibbs and Mr Rogers, give wonderful, winning performances. Ms Gibbs, an actor based, it seems, in Perth (this is the first time I have met her), is at ease with this material and has a whimsical, humorous point-of-view of her "nurse", and one watches her create some sense of 'hope' for better times for the life being led by her character, and when in the last lines of the play she asks us "Not to make fun of her.", one, truly, does not wish to - she has struck, summarily, an empathetic chord in all of us. Ms Gibbs has won us over, despite the bleak 'grunge' of her nurse's circumstances. Mr Rogers, always reliable and watchable, with this role reveals, leisurely, his mesmeric qualities of humanity, and from the tragic, desperate banalities of his "IT man", too, constructs a figure of empathetic tragedy - one cannot condemn him, or deride this "IT man", however criminal, or stupidly addicted, he is - such is the powerful warmth and intelligence of this actor.

The two actors, in a metaphoric stroke, after having revealed the characters so nakedly, psychologically to us, do so, physically, in the final scene of the play: "remove their clothes. Until they stand by the end, completely naked." This is no hardcore gesture of pornography but a theatrical demonstration of a recognisable picture of the fragility of all mankind: there, but for the grace of God, go I, perhaps! (I have removed all the mirrors in my house, bar the small one, above the shaving sink). These two actors, courageously, reveal all, for us, indeed. The 'music' between these two actors, and that they create with us, defies us not to be moved by their physical 'sacrifice' for Mr Greene's play, and Ms Lewis' production, in the cause of defying us to not have some 'hope', some desperate hope, for these characters, against all our better knowledgements.

Ms Lewis in her program notes tells us; "There have been a handful of plays which I have felt compelled to direct. This is one of them." Whatever that chord of compulsion was, it shows in all the loving details that she has, lavished on this work: the set design, by Marg Horwell, of dreary vertical white-slated blinds, which sometimes become a computer screen sending a message of 'ironic' "Happiness!"- complete with familiar sound cues - framed by soft plushy (if cheap) carpet that covers the stage floor, on which are two practical chairs, only; lit with warmth sensibility by Matthew Marshall, and subtly supported by the background score of Composer, Rachael Dease, which all conspire to ease us into the bleak lives and world of these characters, so as to not to judge them, but to seduce us into a state of understanding, if not admiration.

At a short length of only some 75 minutes or so, more or less, EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY is a not too difficult a night in the theatre, despite, for some, that alarming title, and the "fame/infamy" of the writer's other work. Declan Greene is definitely a writer to support. Let us hope the Griffin have commissioned him further and that we get to see his next work sooner rather than later.

An enthusiastic audience member, a friend, was excited by the potential of this writer and was impressed with his perspicuity, and astonished that he had produced this work at the, relatively, youthful age of 29. I reminded her that Polly Stenham had written THAT FACE at the age of nineteen (she has written the same play, unfortunately, twice again, under other titles), and that Edward Albee, a better role model for what I perceive, Mr Greene's talents may be, had written THE ZOO STORY (1958) at the age of 30 , and is an enduring classic of timeless energy. Let us hope Mr Greene is a reader of other writer's work (I suspect, it is a rarity among a lot of our young playwrights), and has a reading list, so that he may take some inspiration from the present living Masters (of either sex) in the English language pantheon of the theatre (debatable, for sure).

When EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY had finished, unusually, I sat in my seat for a little time, and thought, staring at the empty stage, wished, that a man and a woman and a goat called Sylvia had appeared to cauterise my soul, my life, or some sort of fiercer Greene equivalent had been there on the SBW stage. It didn't, and I wasn't cauterised. But, I thought, maybe Mr Greene does have that capacity, which is why, perhaps, I was still on my bench seat. Struck, temporarily paralysed, with hope. Then again Australia, generally, has such a small history of visionary, metaphysical writing. Mr Greene in all his work, that I have so far seen, writes from the point of a view of an attentive and sensitive 'outsider' to the dominant culture, much like Mr Albee (check out THE AMERICAN DREAM, or, even more relevantly, TINY ALICE, to see what I hope is here. If, only, I was a Tiresias, eh?) Reading Mr Greene's newspaper interviews in preparation for this production, and attending to him speak on the Griffin website, I was impressed with his sensibilities. Let us hope he has the right encouragement to expand into the realm of greater possibilities in the worlds of his future writing.

Good writing (even if I am over the form!)
Content of the play? A little too boring, not provocative enough, or arresting enough, for me.
Very sure, good, direction and production supports.
Really, terrific acting.

The Griffin giving us JUMP FOR JORDAN and this work, toiling well for the Australian writer and audience, I think.

Be warned, if you expect acts of hardcore pornography, you may want to claim false advertising, and get your money back to get a new raincoat!

Friday, May 9, 2014

His Mother's Voice

Photo by Tessa Tran
ATYP Selects Season presents HIS MOTHER'S VOICE by Justin Fleming in a world premiere production produced by John Harrison, and presented by bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, at atyp at the Wharf 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

A new Australian play having its world premiere down at the Wharf Theatre is being presented by an Independent Company, bAKEHOUSE, in association with the ATYP Selects Season (previously known as Under the Wharf): HIS MOTHER'S VOICE, by veteran Australian playwright, Justin Fleming.

The pleasure of seeing a company of 12 actors on stage, almost continually, was a bonus, but that 10 of the 12 actors were of Asian descent was even more exciting. Following on from my experience down in the ATYP Theatre, in the last week or so, when I attended a performance from the Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) that featured actors and stories from the multi-cultural "Capital" of Sydney, Fairfield, in their production IN THIS FAIRFIELD, something seems to be 'a happening' in the thinking of the 'gatekeepers' of the stories that are being selected and told on our stages, at least down here underneath the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), by the ATYP artistic leaders.

HIS MOTHER'S VOICE tells the story of a mother, Yang Jia (Renee Lim) and her son, Qian Liu (Harry Tseng), and her need to pass on the gift of music to that son (in this instance, western classical piano music). The play is a familiar narrative - I recalled FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE (1993), and one wag likened it to a version of Li Cunxin's MAO'S LAST DANCER (2003), about a piano player, instead of a ballet dancer - and it is true that it takes place, mainly, in the period of the Cultural Revolution with all of its cruelties and abhorrences, and is, likewise, based on the inspiration of a true story, concerning, in this case, a winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition in the mid 1980's (so Mr Fleming tells us). Mr Fleming has researched, meticulously, into the Chinese culture, and finds 'wisdoms' and social customs of that culture to tantalisingly reveal, meshing them against and with the pragmatic interactions of an Australian Foreign Affairs operative, Alex Felden (Michael Gooley), and his daughter, Emma Felden (Dannielle Jackson) during those delicate political times (when are political times not delicate?) Mr Fleming's writing strikes the chords of relative comfortability in its formulation and I was reminded of the 'safety' virtues of an English playwright/screen writer, Ronald Harwood with plays (also films) like TAKING SIDES (1995), QUARTET (1999), or a film such as THE PIANIST (2002) - they have the virtue of being what some call, 'well-made'. HIS MOTHER'S VOICE is strong in its narrative, but the characters are principally, functionary to that, and do not have either in the writing, or, in this case, in the acting, much sophisticated sub-text. This latter observation may be a point of direction, of course.

Ms Millar takes hold of the text and utilises her actors in efficient and fluid staging. Both, the simple design of the space for the many locations of the story telling (Set Design by Suzanne Millar and John Harrison) and the costume needs (Sonia McAlpine) are well thought-through and enhanced with the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Page. All the actors play the thrust of their functionary needs with great commitment, if with not much insight to psychological complication: Harry Tseng, John Gomez Goodway, Monica Sayers, Dannielle Jackson make clear impact, whilst Renee Lee, as the titled character, the Mother, despite her relative neglect both in the writing and staging towards the latter end of the play, gives a most pleasing performance.

The Director of this production, Suzanne Millar, writes in her program notes:

Theatre in Sydney is predominantly white, often middle class and sometimes conservative. we at bAKEHOUSE had the incredible opportunity of producing a work that looked and sounded different. This play is written with the possibility of doubles, a smart move by the writer with an eye on the economies of theatre companies, both large and small. But in the auditions we met this great big group of outstanding actors, both established and emerging. And we decided to cast as many actors as we could.
We have ended up with a cast of 12 actors, ten from Asian backgrounds. And we wanted to say to audiences that this is not unusual. That all over Sydney there are actors with diverse and interesting heritages, all accomplished, all committed and professional, and keen to work. ... We can say: this is here. This is Australia. Sydney. This is not a Chinese Story. Or a music story. Or a story of the Cultural Revolution, or Mao or communist China. It is an Australian story. This is us.'
That bAKEHOUSE has embraced this policy of cast inclusion is of great importance to the 'landscape' of our theatre scene. That they have staged this work by Mr Fleming is, also, important - a tireless playwright in a bleak world of opportunity for Australian writers, even one as well credentialed as he. A NIGHT IN RANGOON by Katie Pollock, produced by the New Theatre in 2011, was a production filled, principally, with an Asian Company and besides the Chinese theatre, Cathay Playhouse (DE LING AND THE EMPRESS CI LI; PALACE OF DESIRE) one rarely finds the Asian actor at work, in central positions, in the theatre, to be seen and appreciated. Why not a production of Louis Nowra's PRECIOUS WOMAN -  with an Asian Company of actors? - an undervalued play, I reckon.

I enjoyed the evening on many levels and was invested in the story, familiar as it felt, told by all, led by Mr Fleming. One can only hope that sooner rather than later the Australian/Asian playwrights will be seen and heard to tell us the contemporary stories of their lives in and around us. The Australian writer/director, Tony Ayres - of an Australian/Chinese inheritance - has made a huge contribution to the Australian culture in many areas -film, television, theatre - and, who will ever forget the story and impact of his film THE HOME SONG STORIES (2007). William Yang, too. has found a way to be seen, and an audience, through persistence, patience and much resilience - and, of course artistic sensibilities and integrities.

These artists are not alone out there, and we need to find the way to bring all our multi-cultures stories to the fore.( (Closes May the 17th.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

ACO presents Haydn and Italian Cello

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present HAYDN and ITALIAN CELLO in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) led by Richard Tognetti with Giovanni Sollima, as the guest cellist and composer, presented a generous concert of music.

The concert began with Ancient Airs and dances: Suite No.3 by Ottorino Respighi (1932). The four short works that make up this Suite are based on works from the 16th and 17th century, but re-interpreted, through Respighi, "a child of the Romantic age" and, so, although none of the melodies are altered and all the harmonies are authentic, "the textures,colour, dynamics and articulation are all his own." In my musical ignorance, I know the composer only through the Roman influenced works of the Pines, Fountains and Festivals. It was a special and arresting delight to hear this work.

To follow, were two works which featured the cello. The guest artist for this program of music was the Italian cellist and composer, Giovanni Sollima. Firstly, the Cello Concerto No.3 in Gmajor, G.480. composed by Luigi Boccherini(1770), a work that requires a virtuosic courage. Mr Sollima ,seemed to play at a 'demonic' possession: the speed, the accuracy and the passion looked as if he had been 'touched by fire' - a craftsman of extraordinary skill availability, combined with an artistic sensibility that provoked marvelling.

And, as marvellous as that performance was it was surpassed with the rendition of his own composition: L.B. Files (2007). It is written in four movements. Mr Sollima has composed a work dedicated to Luigi Boccherini:
"... I chose a simple narrative form, almost a micro-dramatisation for a film or a story. The life of Boccherini, an Italian from Luca who emigrated to Spain and ended his days in absolute poverty; I like his unrestrained curiosity and his ability to adopt and mix shapes, techniques and contrasting styles (from the Flamenco to the Zarzuela, from the Fandango to the harsh sounds 'sul ponte' to imitations of birds, etc). ..." 
In the first movement, Mr Sollima, stood and carried his cello around the stage, whilst continuing to play, a kind of 'dance', the sound projecting out into the auditorium from a moving, changing dimension, that created a dis-orienting, but, mesmerising tension with the orchestra and the audience's reception of the music. The third movement used pre-recorded spoken text from the diary of Giacomo Casanova about the nature of the fandango, whilst the last movement quoted a melody sung by the late African musician, Gilbert Diop Abdourahmane. Mr Sollima continued the phenomenal commitment to the virtuosities of his inspired playing: it was undoubtedly a contemporary and thrilling work and performance. Unforgettable, really. Inspiring, for me.

After the interval, Mr Sollima and the ACO gave the Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1 (composed 1761-65) by Franz Joseph Haydn. In the program notes by James Cuddeford we are told:
"The exact number of the concertos that Haydn composed during his long career (b.1732-d.1809) ... is not certain. Many are now lost, though we know of their existence due to the composer noting them in his own catalogue of works. The Cello Concerto in C major was also presumed lost until the parts were discovered in the Prague National Museum as recently as 1961. ... (Haydn's) thorough knowledge of the cello's capabilities and range of expression is clearly evident throughout the C major Concerto. The famous finale contains extended periods of brilliant upper-register passagework that emphasise the physical and virtuosic nature of the cellist's performance. Contrastingly, the central slow movement has the character of an Italian operatic aria, complete with a sustained introductory note from the soloist that traditionally displays vocal, or in this case, bow, control." 
Mr Sollima continued the impression of his passion and skill. Oddly, after the first half of the concert, this work, and the String Quartet in F minor by Giuseppe Verdi (Composed 1873), which concluded the program, were in the concert experience for me, anti-climatic in affect. The order of playing seemed, uncharacteristically to the general expertise of the ACO programming, mistaken, in its aural build and reward.

Still, a concert of note. I was grateful to have Mr Tognetti back on stage. With due respect to the other leaders of the orchestra, I noted a disciplined thrill from his leadership of this combination of ACO musicians, that is not always, otherwise present, without him. Bravo.