Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Violent Outburst That Drew Me To You

Siren Theatre Co and Griffin Independent, in association with InPlay Arts, present THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU by Finegan Kruckemeyer, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU by Finegan Kruckemeyer. Mr Kruckemeyer is a writer domiciled in Tasmania and has written some "70 commercial plays performed on five continents. ... In 2014, eighteen works are, or will be, presented in seven countries…", and this is the first play of his that I have seen! Most of his plays are written with children and young adults in mind - this is not an excuse of mine, just an explanation of my ignorance of an apparent, prolific Australian playwright. I had known of him before, had rumour of his work, but never seen his work. This is the second showing of this play in Sydney. THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU is a commission between Siren Theatre Co and Mudlark Theatre (Tasmania). The first production (2013) was supported by Riverside Theatres, out at Parramatta, through their visionary program, TRUE WEST - now, tragically, no longer funded, and so is, presently, defunct!

THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU is Directed by Kate Gaul, in a robust and delightfully resourceful, inventive and inspiring manner. Music, song, dance, shadow puppets, dazzling costume aesthetics, juggling props, and an energetic, clever company of five actors release the story of 16 year old, Connor (Michael Cutrupi) and his bad, bad humour. Connor is angry with everybody, everything - ANGRY, ANGRY, ANGRY - nobody, nothing can comfort him, and so bad is his temper, he resorts to physical violence, and knocks his best friend unconscious with a punch. His parents decide that he needs to find a way to cool down and take him to the forest to their shack, and supply him with food and equipment for a week, and leave him. In this forest he meets a young woman, Lotte (shared in performance by Emily Ayoub, Renee Heys, Natalia Ladyko). She, too, is angry, and is in an even worse place, temper-wise. Together, slowly, they begin to communicate, and begin to unravel their behaviour, or, at least, seem to.

Made for young adults this is a good place to be with your offsprings, it is an entertainment that can, should, provoke fruitful conversation between the generations. Mr Cutrupi gives a controlled but impressively robust performance as Connor - there is no sentimentality, there is no condescension, he is just an uncompromising "bad arse", that learns something about himself of value. The other performers, Ms Ayoub, Heys, Ladyko and Mr Anthony Weir create all of the other characters to serve his journey. They serve Ms Gaul, with a tight discipline, tirelessly, impeccably.

The bag of theatrical 'tricks' that Ms Gaul brings to the production of this play is full of magic and brio. Colour and Movement, Colour and more Movement, galore. Everybody of every age will find themselves distracted and immersed. The Music Score and Sound design by Daryl Wallis is especially beautiful, apt and core to the success of the work - the interplay of the music/sound integrated to the action of the players is impressive - a delight - and when harnessed to songs, and dance (Choreography by Ash Bee) is irresistible. The Lighting by Hartley T A Kemp, too, has individualistic presence, that brightens the stage pictures and 'tricks', highlighting the attractive Production Design of Jasmine Christie.

If all Mr Kruckemeyer's plays have this level of production and loving devotion, one can understand the reputation which has made him such an International success. For this production behoves some savvy writing for young audiences, indeed.

Ms Gaul, with recent outstanding work: THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM and PENELOPE, pulls it off again with THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU. This production in as distinctive a departure in style from her other work, as anything you could have imagined, and such is it, that it draws from me - a hard-hearted adamant - a kind of open mouthed admiration, that's why I had that fun(ny) look on my face during most of the show - those sitting opposite could see it, and though hard to admit, also, a kind of tinge of 'jealousy' at her derring-do! Just what does what one have to do to get a 'gig' with one of the major companies in Sydney? It seems to me, just on the record of these three works, and there are others of note, that she knows what to do to get it working to serve the playwright and the audience.

Well, mine is not to reason why, I guess.
Just go and see for yourself. It is school holiday time, you can take the family..

Monday, June 23, 2014

Kandahar Gate

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) present KANDAHAR GATE, by Stephen Sewell, in The Parade Theatre, Kensington. 17th-21thJune, 23rd-24th June.

KANDAHAR GATE is a new Australian play by Stephen Sewell. Mr Sewell, at present is the Head of Writing at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), and this play and production is part of the training productions for the third year courses of 2014. I don't usually comment on productions in Acting Schools, but not to mention the advent of this play, especially for historical record, would be a cultural remiss.

Stephen Sewell was (is) one of the movers and shakers in the Australian theatre world. His plays when produced were always an event not to be missed, so one could partake in the fierce debates as to their relative merits, or otherwise. He was uncompromising in his subject matter and method (oh, the length of the works, some bemoaned), and a theatre company and audience, alike, knew that controversy would undoubtedly follow each of his efforts: THE FATHER WE LOVED ON A BEACH BY THE SEA (1978); TRAITORS (1979); THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING (1982); WELCOME TO THE BRIGHT WORLD (1983); DREAMS IN AN EMPTY CITY (1986). That decade of writing, especially, in hindsight, an artistic phenomenon. Other works followed, mostly, produced in Melbourne, and some film and television projects (including, the film of THE BOYS -1998 - based on the play, by Gordon Graham) distracted him from the stage. Then the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the United States of America, Australia and other allies, as members of the Coalition of the Willing, began what they called a War on Terror, and drew Mr Sewell back to the theatre with a blistering writer's response, a satirical-drama: MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA, in 2003. Some call this his masterpiece. Certainly, it is an 'earthquake' of a play (I have still to see a production that matches the material). IT JUST STOPPED (2006); THREE FURIES: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF FRANCIS BACON (2005) and THE GATES OF EGYPT (2007) have followed. Two novels: ANIMAL KINGDOM - based, on the film (2010), and BABYLON (2011), are out and about.

Now, KANDAHAR GATE, once again, a title that demands attention with its 'aroma' of topicality, was commissioned by NIDA, and the recent war in Afghanistan and the fate of two young men in Australia's involvement in it, is the subject matter at the core of this short (90 minute) exercise. Using the inspiration of the Akira Kurosawa film of 1950, RASHOMON, where its principle characters are often "... unable to distinguish reality from illusion, truth from falsehood, and love from hate ..."(1), Mr Sewell explores similar themes. Two boy/men, Gunner (Jack Ellis) and Jacko (Govinda Roser), who have grown-up together, marooned in a lifestyle of aching boredom and unemployment, see an advantage in the army wage, and perhaps 'adventure', to enlist, and to become, truly "an Australian". There is no other motivation, except, perhaps a simmering machismo attraction to each other. The 'adventure' in the deserts of Afghanistan, ends in a suicide on the battle scene, and a consequent cover-up enquiry by the protective Australian Army authorities - these are great Australian soldiers with no need to recognise them as just humans, incarcerated in both personal and public rings of hell, and this story will be recorded, our way, with honour, for they are all, all honourable men, so sayeth the army.

I was drawn to parallel the story of Gunner and Jacko, while watching KANDAHAR GATE, with the imagery of Australia's cherished memory of its 'bloody birth' on the fields of World War I, and could detect character reflections back to the famous Peter Weir film GALLIPOLI, written by David Williamson (1981), in the men/boy mates of Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson), and further to the two boy/men mates in Clem Gorman's play, A MANUAL OF TRENCH WARFARE (1979), with its themes of sex and violence intertwined in the macho heat of warfare. For, the ANZAC is central to how we think about our military identity. Further, the BREAKER MORANT film of 1980, co-written by Bruce Beresford, and the original playwright, Kenneth G. Ross, with its theme of Army obfuscations and bent usage and banishment of truth, (although, dealing with the Boer War) came to the surface of my consciousness, too, in this very vivid contemporary concern by Mr Sewell.

This play bravely confronts the illusion we Australians may have about the glory of war, especially in the 'thrill' of the ANZAC Centenary celebrations coming-up, and I do believe the above connections are deliberate undertows to Mr Sewell's intent, which is to attempt to force some conversation (and information) concerning our present condition of contemporary war knowledge and our 'romantic' celebration of wars past, still. Says Mr Sewell in his program notes:
Australia's involvement in the war of Afghanistan has been the longest and according to the war journalist, Chris Masters, least reported conflict in Australian history where news of any sort has been so successfully controlled that very few Australians are even aware of our involvement except for the occasional report of the violence in which forty Australians have died, 256 been wounded, an untold number of Afghanis, including children, killed.
And that, just last week, the Guardian On-line News reported a deliberate loss of recent Australian soldiers' documentation of war incidents in Afghanistan, by the Australian Army, throws the mantle of prescience onto Mr Sewell's playwriting schemata - "... a policy that one general refers to as 'contrived secrecy' (that) stops soldiers from telling their stories while still in uniform." (2)  I do recommend James Brown's, ANZAC'S LONG SHADOW - The Cost of Our National Obsession, as a source of contemplation. (I believe and hope, without cynicism, the Australian Army's recent collaboration with the Sydney Theatre Company on THE LONG WAY HOME is, perhaps a move to 'open up', to assist the veterans who are alive, returned and recovering physically, emotionally and psychically). As usual, Mr Sewell invites us to have a conversation of some social, political and cultural significance with this play - one that may not be a convenient one. Of inconvenient truths, at the least.

Directed by Jeff Janisheski, on a vast, impressive design of desert sands, right across the huge Parade Theatre stage (Set Design by student, Charles Davis - what was the expense of this extravagancy? Was it really necessary for this work? Will Mr Davis ever have such advantage again, considering the age of severe budgetary austerity in the real world, he will soon enter), the major problem for audience comprehension of all the major ideas/conceits of his vision, of imagined (weird apparitions of, what I suspect to be Japanese-inspired masked figures, spooking down the tunnel of the metal container!) and real worlds; and stage-plotting the busy cross juxtapositions of time and place, (those back stage costume changes are epic, I understand [Costume design, student, Emma Vine] - the back-stage crew, also students, deserve applause for managing, while not forgetting the actors 'heroics' with their 'gallop' behind the scenes whilst undressing and re-dressing to enter collected and focused on their acting tasks) is the casting of only six actors over some nine roles. The sorting out of who is who, when, became an obstacle for fluidity and clarity during the performance, to the extent that only an after show discussion could solve it, if one was inclined to do so. The actors: Matthew Predny, Georgia Wilkinson-Derums, Duncan Ragg, Xanthe Page and particularly, Govinda Roser and Jack Ellis acquit themselves admirably, and the scene text work, coached by Hamish Pritchard, is taut and convincing, assisted by microphone techniques.

KANDAHAR GATE, with casting of the nine roles, one per actor, and to be not so swamped by Production Design demands, to assist the fluidity and clarity of the text, I hope, will find another life on a major theatre stage in Sydney. For Mr Sewell, despite, a tendency to over extend sex indulgences (real or imagined action?!!) mixes the individual human dilemma in the overwhelming river of man's tendency to repetitive, catastrophic carnage to powerful effect.

Like the important conversation opened by Jada Alberts in her play, BROTHERS WRECK, about youth suicide, Mr Sewell opens the conversation on the human cost of war and the hidden reality of it's affect on our brothers, sisters, families and friends, and on our present ethical and moral value systems. "The gap between our soldiers and the society they serve is a chasm." (2). Ignorance is bliss, it seems.

  1. Peter Cowie, "Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema", Rizzoli, New York, 2011.
  2. James Brown, "Anzac's Long Shadow - The Cost of Our National Obsession", Redback, 2014.


Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) present, M.ROCK, by Lachlan Philpott, at the Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay. 12th June - 28th June.

M.ROCK is a new play by Lachlan Philpott. Commissioned by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and co-presented by the Sydney Theatre Company. Mr Philpott is, in my experience, the most interesting of the 'new' contemporary Australian writers. For those of us who have closely followed Mr Philpott's work, M.ROCK, is a very surprising and pleasing change of content and tone, from his other recent major works: COLDER (2007), SILENT DISCO (2009) and TRUCK STOP (2012).

COLDER is a fierce experience of grief for an unaccounted loss of a son, and the ruins endured by family and friends as his memory, over ruthless time, becomes colder and colder, with no forthcoming explanation or proof of his fate. Time, and the authorities, unable to give to the concerned, what society may call, 'closure'.

SILENT DISCO and TRUCK STOP are, famously, powerful and painful evocations of some of our Australian youth - uncompromising, in the telling of harsh and confronting truths, which, as social documentations, alone, are severe to witness and accept. Mr Philpott's work, then, in content, is not a necessarily easy night of entertainment.

However, balancing (and contrasting) that rawness of contemporary social observation, is Mr Philpott's poetic language in construct and tone, which produces writing of great beauty. He has, so far, given us the 'ugliness' of some real lives but then, has wrapped it in poetic language suspended in a compositional rhythmic control of some painstaking artistry. Its beauty and delicacy is in stark and wonderful contrast to the naturalistic content of his worlds of interest. The Cheated, Mr Philpott's Cheated, are given language of some 'angelic' contemporary rarity. The beauty of misery, and the misery of beauty is his challenging tension, for audiences. A welcome and flattering tension, worth having and savouring, in our contemporary Australian theatre.

Mr Philpott's work is no walk in the park to present, no easy task to solve in the theatre, for it requires great care and discipline from his directors - who must almost be orchestral symphonic conductors (genius) to be able to release its full potential; and the actors need to be rich in the 'Two Traditions', of say, contemporary Shakespeare: actors steeped in the contemporary disciplines of the western theatre insights of Stanislavsky (contemporary psychology), and gifted with the verbal wealth and love of language, with vocal instruments of a high order of dextrousness . Mr Philpott, bestrides like a contemporary artistic colossus: one leg in a stark reality, the other, in the relish of heightened language, as dramatic literature, as poetry. Elizabethan/Jacobean in its style and content?!

 Who else writes like this artist in Australia?

M.ROCK is a change of content, and a change in tone, and although seeded in Mr Philpott's usual lower suburban world, it moves and blossoms into a fairytale adventure, quest, inhabited and contrasted, with female protagonists, one young, Tracey (Clementine Mills), and one older, Mabel (Valerie Bader). Tracey, just finishing school and before beginning a study of nursing, takes a six week adventure into the bigger world. She gets lost, she disappears. Mabel shifts out of her comfortable, boring, expected, mature-age life, and 'sleuths' after her. First, into the wilds of Africa, and then into the wilds of Berlin - alone. First, into the rhythmic drumming of Africa - Mabel learns to drum - and then into the immersive sound complexities of the dance clubs of Berlin - Mabel learns to DJ!.

Says Fraser Corfield, Director of this play (and Artistic Director of ATYP):
... I've wanted to commission a play that explores the relationship between young adults and their grandparents (two generations that are increasingly disconnected) for a very long time. ... Lachlan's beautifully original and refreshingly comic play intertwines the coming-of-age tales of two generations in search of a meaning of life. In the process, it forces us to examine our preconceptions about the way different ages should behave. And it does it in a way that honours both generations. It's that combination that makes this play unique.
Mr Philpott, poetically, takes us on this journey, sometimes with simplistic rhyming couplets but mostly with just gorgeous lyric-type 'rapping' text. Charming is the word most useful to describe the experience of this play. Charmed we become. Charmed by the Philpott language, and the tantalising music DJ'ing, (Sound Design, Stereogamous: Composition with Paul Mac), by Jonny Seymour. Like the bewitching, mythological Piper of Hamelin, they have us dancing, grooving, and losing, loosing ourselves into following the 'fairytale' adventures of our two women. The audience I sat with, a mixture of young adults and older STC subscribers, were blissed out with the experience, and were 'horrified' or 'thrilled' - dependent on the age point-of-view, which made the experience even more enjoyable, to be in - by the destiny of granny, Mabel, as she discovers that age is no barrier to living one's life on new tracks of derring-do, and discovering, doing it robustly, is the only way to do it. Love is, indeed, in the air with the sounds of music.

The mode of story telling is by a company of actors, two, Ms Bader and Ms Mills, playing the principle protagonists, Tracey and Mabel, while the other three: Joshua Brennan, Madeline Jones and Brandon McClelland, casually play chorus-like in multi-jobbing the many, many other roles and tasks of the adventures of the play - a change of hat, a juggling of a prop, a gentle shift in dialect - all of it having a faint flavour of 'children' in a rumpus room of 'toys' playing at make-believe. None of it really, real, all of it, a lark of imaginative, improvised flights of theatrical game-playing. Its stylistic casualness is its sophistication.

Ms Bader (Mabel), warms to her task and blossoms into a role-play that those of a certain generation will fantasise about adopting as a choice opposing the present government's policy of pensioner 'punching' (at least for a while), although, I thought she sentimentalised her climatic moment of assertion (staged poorly,weirdly by Mr Corfield, in an awkward stage position, for some of us in that wide letter-box space of Wharf 2). Ms Mills (Tracey) was physically convincing and can be a delightful presence, but, as yet, has not the charismatic or vocal presence (or dense skill) to absolutely conquer, the verbal demands of the play (vocal range) in this theatre space to win us unconditionally - her last speech bewilderingly anti-climatic. While the chorus trio, on the other hand, are tirelessly creative, and are a great source of amusement and arrest: Ms Jones' Berlin artist; Mr Brennan's wittily contrived companion, Berlin artist - fake beard and all - and his glorious mother-figure - hand bag and all; and the enigmatic, sexually suave Messerschmidt-nomenclatured DJ, created with a beautifully judged refinement of understatement by Mr Mc Clelland, are just a few of the Dramatis Personae that they conjure swiftly, endearingly in the vast, fast moving storytelling of 75 minutes.

Adrienn Lord has designed the Set and Costumes (props!); Benjamin Cisterne the Lighting.

As I was hitting the pavement of Hickson Road in the company of Jonny Seymour, a crowd of eight or nine, middle-aged patrons, of both sexes, turned to him and greeted him with wide smiles and open-hearted pleasure, beaming and gushing with the satisfaction of the performance like children, again - one is only as old as one feels! And it seemed they felt born again. It was a rare moment for me to witness - they were like stage door Johnny's of old. Jonny tells me, that all the audiences, young and old, all, leave the theatre in a state of ecstasy - and that is not the famous drug-state, he is talking about, I feel sure, but the more rare, theatre drug-state of transported satiety. The season is sold-out, they tell me. Surely, word-of-mouth will give one of these companies cause, that have presented the production, to extend, re-present ,open it up, to a wider audience in the near future.

M.ROCK is a welcome change of pace by Mr Philpott, but a further confirmation of his maturing and immense talent - just as the famous publicity blurb of MGM had told us, surprisingly: "GARBO LAUGHS !!!" (for her film NINOTCHKA - 1939), now we, too, can say: PHILPOTT LAUGHS!!! - What a surprise, eh?

 Mr Philpott is the inaugural Australian Playwright Fulbright Scholar and will soon travel to the USA and create a new play for the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco - my old stamping ground. He is under commission here, his bi-og. tells us - so, let us hope we don't lose him. SILENT DISCO has recently been developed as a screenplay with the support of Screen Australia.

Demand a ticket. Take your entire family. M.ROCK a contemporary fairytale for all ages. Listen to the music of our times and tune in to the universe, we are told, in the play. If music be the food of love, then, here it is on stage. Go.

 ATYP seems to be having a golden season of 'hits' this year.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brothers Wreck

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents BROTHERS WRECK by Jada Alberts at the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 28th May - 22nd June.

BROTHERS WRECK by Jada Alberts is a new Australian play. A new work from a new writer. This is Ms Alberts' first play. It is an accomplished work, even despite, its well honed formulaic, some might say, old fashioned, structure and style. More kudos to it, I reckon. The concentrated attention and appreciation that the audience I sat with, demonstrated the power of a comprehensible, well told story, that has a perceptible beginning, middle and an end - which is, in today's theatre not always 'cool', it being definitely, so 'old school', and so is, sometimes, purposely shunned. That the expressive simplicity of that 'comfortable' story telling mode allowed the audience an entrance to easy belief and immersive experiential loss in the characters and events of the play, such, that their laughter, and in some cases tears came freely and unguardedly, is a very positive reason to champion the form. But, there is more than form to congratulate here.

The content, too, is strong. This play set in Darwin, deals with suicide. Youth suicide. To be even more specific: Indigenous youth suicide. More interestingly, that it deals, dwells, in the aftermath of such tragedy: the affects on the family, friends, and community, in surviving such an event, brings a potency to this work, that all of us have probably had to work through - through several different degrees of separation. For this play does not end with a suicide but rather begins with one. Suicide is a tragedy of immense power, in itself. But, its consequences, too, are an experience for all of the survivors, of deep pain, a kind of unfathomable, bottomless pain. Ms Alberts, talks of a particular kind of tragedy, of our contemporary times, that has some urgent social, cultural and political need for observation and discussion - and that it is shared in the communal experience of the theatre with our fellow brothers, sisters, families, enhances, perhaps, immeasurably, its value as a tool for conversation.

It is a very personal conversation that Ms Alberts as opened up for us, invited us to partake in:
Since the age of 17 I have felt the deaths of others through suicide. I lost someone, my brother lost someone else, my mother and father too. Then it was my cousins, my extended family, talks of attempts and self-harm. As the years have passed, death in my community through suicide seems to have gathered momentum. The statistics reflect this almost precisely. Suicide in Indigenous communities is on the rise. Youth suicide in the Northern Territory is three-and-a-half times higher than the national average, and the Indigenous suicide rates are amongst the highest in the world. Every 10 minutes an Australian attempts suicide; every four (4) hours someone succeeds. Of particular note is the phenomenon known as suicide contagion or clustering.
She goes on to say:

          I hope we can talk about it carefully, love each other unconditionally and direct the right help to                   those at risk. One play can't do that, but hopefully it can contribute to a bigger conversation that could.

The situation BROTHERS WRECK, brings us to, in the ultra-naturalistic mode of the writing, is the discovery of a suicide (off stage), and for the rest of the 75 minutes or so, of a family attempting to deal with the aftermath, the wreck of a brother's act, and especially the serious depression (wreck) of Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard), and gently promulgates the necessary healthful need for all of us to converse and share the individual journeys we all must have to find a way to continue, usefully, forward. So that, amongst much else, 'contagion suicide' can be especially avoided.

The Director, Leah Purcell, has conjured well with her creative team: Dale Ferguson, Set and Costume Designer, a practical and atmospheric space in the tropics of Darwin - concrete and metal and a flight of wooden stairs - with costumes that suggest, exhaustingly, the humidity of the weather; and abetted with a wonderful atmospheric, shifting (beautiful) Lighting Design by Luiz Pampolha; and a 'torrentially' apt Sound Design, by Brendan O'Brien.

Hunter Page-Lochard as his brother's wreck, Rueben, gives a performance that is mesmerising in its intensity of internalised pain, ache. It is his physicality (inherited probably from his dance background (training) with Bangarra Dance Theatre) that arrests one's attention and speaks to us so eloquently. It is exciting to watch his other skills slowly growing to match that physical gift and discipline. BLOODLAND was where I first noticed his work, and I was impressed with his acumen and growing verbal sensibility, in his contribution in the recent BLACK DIGGERS, despite the many other obstacles of the work itself. His developing vocal strengths, and sense of judgement in presenting the 'experienced' clues that the writer has offered him, to an audience, to tell his character's story, grows, perceptibly, from experience to experience.

Too, Bjorn Stewart (Jarrod), with his natural, humanistic warmth is a constant support to the production's depths of family history; Cramer Cain (David) as the social worker, the outsider, makes an impressively strong and complex contribution to the play, in a role that is the least sophisticated in its writing offers. Rarriwuy Hick, from, Gods of Wheat Street, (Adele), gives a strongly actioned but, relatively, only an inch deep experienced, sister and partner; whilst Lisa Flanagan (Petra), brings a hurricane force of energy to her character's needs if no real depth-charged experiential truth -she  tended to show us, to demonstrate the actions of the character's necessities - mostly, surfaces.

It is the impassioned writing, the deeply committed ensemble of the actors to the story, and the brusquely managed tempo of the clearly envisioned production, that sweeps one along and permits one to celebrate, in the experience in the theatre space, with the rest of audience, an achievement of pertinence, for today, in Sydney's theatre going calendar in 2014. BROTHERS WRECK, a small play that resonates in its present timeliness.

Next, at Belvoir we are to see an adaptation of a classic text: HEDDA GABLER, by Henrik Ibsen, one of the great writers of the theatre, prepared, too, to converse on pertinent social critiques, and it is, perhaps, not co-incidental, that it, too, deals with a suicide. One of the most famous in Dramatic Literature - it shocked the world in 1889. It still can, and does. Let us hope Ms Alberts' future texts maintain her acute social conscience and sense of cultural responsibility, and easy mode of attracting and holding our attention in the 'sacred' spaces of our theatres.

Monday, June 16, 2014

National Play Festival

Playwriting Australia in association with Carriageworks presents NATIONAL PLAY FESTIVAL at Carriageworks.

As I had mentioned at the end of my last blog, Dear Diary: The National Play Festival. A four day festival: 12th-15th June.

It began with a Keynote Address by Andrew Bovell entitled, HAROLD PINTER AT THE IVY. Here is a link to the speech and I thoroughly recommend that you read and/or watch it. Like the Harold Pinter Nobel Prize Lecture (2005), (which is also on google, and definitely worth knowing), Mr Bovell's speech is an impassioned, and ethically argued provocation to all the writers, artists, of Australia. A must for us all.

Play readings of plays in development included:

THIEVES by Kathryn Ash, directed by Corey McMahon.
MORTIDO by Anglea Betzien, directed by Leticia Caceres.
MOTHS by Michele Lee, directed by Lee Lewis.
SAMSON by Julia-Rose Lewis, directed by Tim Roseman.
SONGRITES, created by Casey Donovan, Troy Brady and Abe Wright, directed by David Williams.
SAVAGE by Jane Bodie, directed by Sarah Giles.
THE WEIGHT OF SILK ON SKIN by Huzir Sulaiman, directed by Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman.

Public Talks:

PLAYWRIGHT FOR PRESIDENT - Five playwrights were given the microphone to pitch "about one thing, big or small, that they would like to change to make the world - and as a result our art - better". Stephen Sewell, Angela Betzien, Michele Lee, Michael Gow and Tommy Murphy, chaired by Tim Roseman, spoke, discussed and answered questions from the panel and the audience.

IN THEIR WORDS, a panel of actors spoke of their experiences creating roles in new plays. Chaired by John McCallum, it included Kate Box, John Gaden, Leah Purcell and Dan Wylie.

There was also a special Playwrights' Program given:

PLAYWRITING MASTERCLASSES, with Michael Gow and Joanna Murray-Smith.
PLAYWRIGHTS'OPEN SPACE, a planned discussion of things that matter to playwrights. (!)
PLAY: RELAY, "A multi-skilled, tag-team masterclass in the craft of playwriting, led by Jane Bodie, Mary Rachel Brown, Caleb Lewis, Debra Oswald and Lachlan Philpott.

I attended some of the Friday sessions.

Firstly, the PLAYWRIGHT FOR PRESIDENT, Public Talk, which was, in the experience of it, fundamentally disappointing, in the lack of vigilance, demonstrated by these writers, to seize the opportunity, to publicly speak out.

Mr Sewell did best with a broad choice of subject matter in his inimitable loaded 'comic' manner. He commented that in today's (political) world, satire has been eclipsed by real life. He touched on the Indigenous Question, and on the concept that Democracy was something more than leaders chosen by Media Barons - a concept, he thought, that may be a dangerous idea!

Angela Betzien, newly arrived to live in Sydney, from Melbourne, spoke extremely eloquently, armed with detailed statistics, about Housing Issues, both ownership and rental. As 'President' this would be at the top of her agenda for reform. Ms Betzien quoted Cuba as a possible role model, before more recent relaxation of civil codes, as a solution. The speech had the feeling of a very personal point-of-view, pre-occupation. That recent move to Sydney was clearly fraught (is still fraught ?) with housing difficulties, and seemed to overwhelm any other issue in her world view of need for change, as Australia's 'President'.

Michele Lee, as 'President' gave a very "I"-centred, need-to-entertain, comic list of 20 things, confusedly connected, I think, with vegetarianism! Hmmm ?!!! ( I recommend Ms Lee might attempt to find and read some G.B. Shaw pamphlets on vegetarianism).

Michael Gow gave a fairly subjective satirical list of reforms that, like his recent play, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY touched on the discomforts of living in our contemporary times, especially, it seemed, if you are an artist. All this 'President's' decrees would make life easier for some of us. It was amusing, for some, delivered for us, as I detected, with a kind of 'grand old man' of the theatre hauteur - wearied, but not, as yet, completely spent. Still, even now, present, on some field of 'battle'.  With a curmudgeon-like mask, of course.

Tommy Murphy gave up a fairly broad 'catholic' brush to his concerns as 'President', particularly, in pursuit of "fairness" in our present society. It did not have, in tone, a very 'pointy' thrust.

A discussion followed, dwelling on the idea of anger, social anger, as a fuel for writers, and whether the younger generation had much of it. We were assured that they had it, and that it did fuel them. One came away from the hour session, faintly amused, but, sincerely, longing for the confidence and passion that the inspiration of the Keynote Speaker, Andrew Bovell or Harold Pinter had given, in their opportunities. Both Mr Bovell and Mr Pinter would be my preferred Playwright for President - but, then, they did have more time to speak.

I, then, listened to a reading of MOTHS, by Michele Lee. I was particularly interested, as the play had been recommended to me after a performance of HIS MOTHER'S VOICE (by Justin Fleming), as a new play of interest, concerning the contemporary Australian-Asian experience. Mr Roseman, when he introduced the play, indicated, that as a text, it had had a most rigorous and significant recent development, (changes) during the preparation week. Certainly, the end result, using the 'play within a play' formula, was, mostly, a relatively confused melange of ideas and character. It seemed to have no 'spine' to its journey, and not really clear about what it was trying to say. Too much 'verbatim' source and not enough metamorphosing into a play text of clarity. As yet.

Next: SAMSON by Julia-Rose Lewis, has, sometimes, a poetic touch, and brings to us four young Australian teenagers in the turbulence of, maybe, their first grief of the loss of a friend. It captures some sense of the 'speak' of this Aussie generation but when compared to the work of fellow Australian, Lachlan Philpott, seems a trifle over 'genteel'/polite. Certainly, next to the muscularities of, say, Dennis Kelly, who writes of characters of a similar age, it is pallid, indeed, in all ways. Often character conversation/revelation is over-indulged at the expense of expedient and urgent storytelling. The audience, generally, was way ahead of the characters in story positioning and, frankly, the 'kids' are not that interesting - too familiar as types. However, Ms Lewis, has a 'poetic voice' that our theatre could have more of.

The program as you can see, ticked all the  correct 'cultural boxes' of our time's concerns, quite safely. Thank goodness for Mr Bovell. Still, a day well spent. The conversations between 'gigs' were great to have. Then, back to the Sydney Film Festival, and, at home, some books, fiction and non-fiction. Other portals of expressive means to help focus my response to the world about us in, often, more challenging ways than the theatre seems to want, able, to embrace, based on this one day experience at the National Play Festival.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why Torture is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them

The New Theatre present WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, by Christiopher Durang at the New Theatre, Newtown, 3rd - 28th June.

Luella, a mother, sweet, somewhat befuddled woman says somewhere in the comic chaos of Christopher Durang's, WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOLPE WHO LOVE THEM:

          "You know I don't really know what normal is. That's one of the reasons I go to the theatre. To learn that.  ... Normal. Its such a conundrum for me."

Go to the New Theatre and see if you can find normal. I dare you.

Christopher Durang is an American writer of, usually, outrageous and absurd comedies. In the Australian experience of his work, perhaps, SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU (1979) might be the most familiar of his works. Although, on our University campuses, BEYOND THERAPY (1981) and LAUGHING WILD (1987) have made the stages fairly regularly, I remember. Last year, his play VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play - it starred Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce. The New Theatre are presenting WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, which was first produced at the Public Theatre in New York, in 2009.

Mr Durang, like his fellow American writer, Nicky Silver - e.g. FAT MAN IN SKIRTS (1989) PTERODACTYLS (1993) and THE LYONS (2011), write with such a crazy vision and a sense of free association, that one can feel shell shocked or terrorised after the experience of watching (even reading them!) WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM, may have you believe that Mr Durang is, to use the title of one of his plays, Beyond Therapy - or, alternatively, his writing may be seen, experienced, by he and us, as a kind of therapy! Healthful and helpful, indeed!?

Here is the blurb from the New Theatre show card :
Felicity wakes after a drunken blackout to find she is married to a stranger called Zamir who makes Osama Bin Laden look like a moderate. 
Is her new husband a terrorist? Is her father's seemingly innocuous butterfly collection a front for his involvement in the shadow government? Is her mother insane or just a harmless, if obsessive, theatre buff? And what's with the minister who directs porn, the government operative with malfunctioning underwear and the agent who impersonates cartoon characters? Felicity's world is plunging into crisis and Homeland Security never looked so insecure."
Now weather that, and you might feel at the end of it, in more than a little bit of agitated psychic 'turmoil'. One of my friend's in the audience mentioned to me that she could hardly wait to get a copy of the play so that she could underline the many, many social issues (comments) touched on by Mr Durang during this hectic evening - she is, by the way, one of the surviving members of the New Theatre's stalwart 'social revolutionaries' of the 1950's-60's, - a Communist even - and so was thrilled with the subject matters of this play. It is, says the Show Card: "A provocative and hilarious satire on the cults of violence and paranoia generated by the twisted logic at the heart of the US 'War on Terror'." The Variety review is quoted: "Comedic napalm ... unnervingly true and cathartic." One does wonder if the play is too much for our comatose Australian audiences to comprehend, too US centred (New York centred) , too American for us to absorb, but, I felt , along with my friend, perhaps, in the present miasmas of our own government's projected programs and retreats, maybe, just maybe, it has some referencing pertinences.

Whatever! The Director, Melita Rowston, has bravely chosen and tackled this work, and she has found a way through the 'free associations' of the writing, and it is clever, both in content and in form, to keep us all, for most of the time, on board. Certainly, she has managed her company of actors very well indeed, and they all give sterling, focused and concentrated service to the work. It would not be an easy task. Ainslie McGlynn and Terry Karabelas, right from the beginning, find the right balance of truth and mayhem to the characters they play, Felicity and Zamir, and maintain them, steadfastly, throughout, to give us, the audience, a firm rudder, a map, to guide us through the thickets of the satiric targets and forays into writerly time games. Two comic gems, from different modes of style, Peter Astridge as a frightening cartoon of frenzied ideologically driven madness, Leonard, the father figure; and the stylistically grounded 'illness' of a non-coping, ultimately, comically pathetic mother figure, Luella, played by Alice Livingstone, delight one throughout. Each, in their text demanded manner, providing comedy of a highly sophisticated kind. Mr Durang reminds us that the "War on Terror" can begin at home with every family, not just Over There! Add Romy Bartz's turn with falling underwear, exquisitely timed, plus the contributions of Ryan Gibson, and Annie Schofield (though, her Looney Tunes characterisation could have some more clarity), and a good and provocative time can be had, if, a trifle exhausting, by the end.

The play finishes with the voice of the Maitre'd singing:

          Dancing in the dark, dancing in the dark
          Dancing in the dark . . .

as the three couples dance together into the diminishing light.

In the current State and Federal political and social landscape, do I feel as if I am dancing in the dark? Maybe. Certainly I can feel as zany as some of the characters in Mr Durang's play. Which one, I won't confess too, even under torture. Mr Durang in his Introduction to the published collected works, WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM and Other Politcal Plays (Grove Press, New York - 2012) says:

          I had great fun writing it (this play), and I feel it is ebullient rather than angry or depressing.  It is definitely a political play.

WHY TORTURE IS WRONG, AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM by Christopher Durang, at the New Theatre is, for those of us who like our theatre to be intellectually arresting (challenging), as well as entertaining,(and while we wait for our Australian playwrights to find their voices beyond the bedroom and sex), worth catching, even with this production's flaws (especially, the visual ones!) Us beggars can't be choosers.

Meanwhile, at the Bondi Pavilion THE BOAT PEOPLE is a new Australian play of some (small) 'spine' and is, too, worth catching, if the above attracts your interest.

And by the way, this week, 12th-15th June, Playwriting Australia are presenting the NATIONAL PLAY FESTIVAL at Carriageworks. It might be worth a look at, just to observe what our writers are writing about. Bleak times, historically, so they tell me, are often times of artistic flourishings. One can only hope.

The Boat People

THE BOAT PEOPLE by Benedict Hardie. A Black Comedy. A co-production from The Hayloft Project and Rock Surfers Theatre Company at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach, 29th May - 21 June.

THE BOAT PEOPLE is a new Australian play, in an hundred minute one act form. Devised by a team of artists: Holly Austin, Emily Rose Brennan, William Erimya, Benedict Hardie, Luke Joseph Ryan, Phil Spencer and Susie Youseff.

There is the glint of light on water - silver, gleaming (Lighting by Verity Hampson). A little later, standing high, in a glass bedecked apartment (Set Design by Michael Hankin), a woman of middle-eastern appearance, looks out mesmerised, by what is, possibly, an ocean view. She is disturbed? Bewitched? Unsettled? Perplexed? Disordered? Certainly, she looks pre-occupied.

Two food entrepreneurs, Sarah (Susie Youseff) and Karl (William Erimya), have built a chain of trendy and highly successful food restaurants in Australia, "Seraphina", and are about to launch into a new and daring development incorporating the local casino. What is of public interest, and the principal angle of the 'glory' of this success, is that both Sarah and Karl were once, not too long before, 'Boat People'. The profile of this sky-rocketing company has attracted the eye of the news magazines and newspapers, not only because of their culinary and financial success, but also because of the cheeky and non-politically correct techniques of selling their foods to attract their customers: using the social, emotional and political atmospheres about 'Boat People', brazenly (and, for some, insensitively), to coin some very provocative and arrestingly spun catch phrases, to create a menu and publicity text to excite that custom. There is, too, Sarah and Karl's charitable work in the world of refugees, a bonus public interest angle, to be sure, but, probably, of secondary concern. And whether it is the 15% of the margin of profit as claimed, or just 10%, becomes a cloud of contention during an interview with Melanie (Emily Rose Brennan), a journalist, at the luxurious beachside home of these two 'stars'. The product of this interview never eventuates, however, for a further storm cloud of concern, is raised when it is suggested that Sarah's boat story may have serious leaks of untruth! Melanie, we learn later, was hit with an 'avalanche' of lawyers to prevent any story, publishing.

 A few years later, we meet Sarah as she launches a career into politics. Amending their differences, Melanie becomes the spin strategist for Sarah's election campaign, and they aim, deliciously, for the highest office in the land. The ultimate success for a Boat Person, it seems. (That two of our recent Prime Ministers arrived on these shores as children to Ten Pound 'Boat People' from the post-war United Kingdom, gives this story-telling, a not unlikely scenario.)

Benedict Hardie, the Writer and Director of this new work tells us:
.. I wrote a comedy. ... (and) As we near the end of rehearsals I vacillate between judging this play as very funny, timidly ambiguous, delightfully original, and flagrantly offensive. What I hope you will see is a satirical snapshot of Australia ... It is not a play about an issue, rather, it is a single narrative response to the society I live in." 
Best that an audience discover their own impression of the work, themselves. I found it sometimes funny, not too ambiguous, kind of original, and not at all offensive - flagrant or otherwise. I did, however,  find it dramatic, and a little bit moving as well. And, what is commendable is that this play was written and staged, by an Australian writer and fellow artists, responding to important questions raised in the society they live in, in a state of ethical alarm - a relative rarity of the past year or so on our stages.

What Mr Hardie has written, undoubtedly, are two very powerful female characters, driving the drama and comedy of THE BOAT PEOPLE in a no-nonsense manner. Sarah's actions appear to be inspired by the traits of Connie Corleone, the Lady Macbeth figure of THE GODFATHER Part III saga: a shrewd manipulative business operator, who is totally appreciative of her good fortunes, in this case in landing in Australia, and the opportunities it offers. Melanie, a savvy career woman, finds she can adapt her skills and instincts to the aspirations of a grateful ex-refugee, and harnesses her energies to guide Sarah to the summit of power - it appears to be a tonic of pure testosterone for her. The men in the play are, relatively, ciphers, enamoured with Sarah. One, Karl, a closed off 'genius' at financial administration, too innocent to judge others, and probably a 'real' boat person; the other, Shane (Luke Joseph Ryan), a relaxed and comfortable sporty 'dumb-dumb' Aussie, ignorant of the 'good life' he was born into, and provide, in the play's writing, with the former, some emotional effects, and the latter, simplistic satirical highlights.

Ms Youseff creates a frighteningly determined individual as Sarah, and balances it with sophisticated undertows of vulnerabilities, and when playing with Ms Brennan's Melanie, who gives a well drawn arc of fierce ambition, creates an absorbing 'drama'. Both actors give highly admirable performances. The comedy, on the other hand, is mostly written in the writer's concepts of the male characters, and unfortunately, neither of the performers, Mr Erimya or Mr Ryan, have the ability to create and sustain characterisations of any comprehensible depth to match the women - no actor's instincts of insight of character depth, both preferring to be, and allowed to be, instead, simply show men. So, we have cardboard caricatures standing beside real characters, and there, is the weakness in this production: the comic shallowness, in the playing, of Karl and Shane. Mr Hardie does not seem to have the directing skills to solve the inadequacies of his casting.

In summary, Mr Hardie makes an impression as a fledgling writer of some interest. He does not make a similar impression with his directing skills. I, however, still, found the night intriguing, and one of promise. It is, with all its flaws, an interesting work for our times. It felt as if the artists behind THE BOAT PEOPLE were consciously alert to their responsibilities and opportunities as storytellers, in and for contemporary Australia, and were prepared to take risks to exercise that democratic right. That they (relatively) fail, was of little account, for me, after witnessing the trying misuse of the responsibilities and opportunities of Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR as a springboard to create a new Australian work at Belvoir, last month.

Make an effort to see THE BOAT PEOPLE. It is, I believe, worth the effort to encourage these artists, with your support.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Three Jerks

Photo by Bill Reda
Sydney Writer's Festival and Sweatshop: Writing and Society Research Centre (University of Western Sydney) presents THREE JERKS, created by Michael Mohammed Ahmad at Wharf 2 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company.

From the flyer to the show:
It is Sydney 2000. Year of the Olympic Games. A string of gang rapes take place across the western suburbs. The perpetrators are identified as muslims, arabs, middle-easterns and westies. Their victims are identified as non-muslim aussie pigs. The crimes divide Australia. A leb, a wog and a bogan emerge. They are writers. They tell their story. They don't care that no one wants to hear it because they are three jerks.
On to the Wharf 2 Theatre stage the three actors, dressed idiosyncratically, individually in 'suits' enter, and locate behind three microphones and podiums. The text created by Michael Mohammed Ahmed, in performance, when spoken (read) reveals itself as an epic poem about the lives and the casual social 'politics' of these three men. The language has the argot of the sub-city of Sydney, Bankstown, enhanced with the peculiar vowel shapes and fascinating musical rhythms that are tantalising for us audience, in their oral expression. Listening to the reading, this language reminded me of the effects achieved by Steven Berkoff in plays such as EAST (1975), GREEK (1980), DECADENCE (1981), and the dialectic authenticities of the cultural sounds of his protagonists. THREE JERKS, certainly, has the similar thrill of a kind of aural authenticity that could take one into the worlds of these men, easily.

Michael Polites carries the performance best. There is a surety and confidence in his vocal delivery that allows us, with his accompanying organic gesturing, to see with our ears, the nuances of his character's environment and position in the worlds revealed. Luke Carman, on the other hand, delivers his task at a break-neck speed, and often trips himself up in the communication, literally, and leaves us far behind his vocalised journey - he is engaged with a speed delivery and not a communication of clarity, and one receives, only, a gist of his character and his story. Mr Ahmed has too much earnestness and too much care to seduce us, to convince us of his character. A sense of nervousness intruded on two of the performances and undermined the latent power of the writing as a unique expression of a world that we have not truly heard before, except by proxy with the worlds, works, of Christos Tsiolkas, for instance: LOADED (1995); DEAD EUROPE (2006) and THE SLAP (2009) - the subsequent films as well.

Directed by Roslyn Oades, THREE JERKS, has the feel of early development as performance and writing. Ms Oades other work, including the recently seen, I'M YOUR MAN (with Mr Ahmed) has developed an insight and authentic power. With more development, THREE JERKS may grow further.
It has been a great month or so, to hear and see new work, in the theatre, from our under-represented multi-cultural artists.