Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Doll's House

Reginald Season 2014: Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove Theatre Company present A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Adam Cook. In the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. 17th July- 2nd August.

Adam Cook, the Director of this Sport For Jove production of A DOLL'S HOUSE, by Henrik Ibsen, in his program note begins:
Every interview I've done about this production has raised the issue of the play's 'relevance' to our contemporary world. To my mind, a classic only survives as a classic because it has remained relevant. In many ways Nora Helmer is a contemporary figure. We read or watch this play and think, well, here is a recognizable character, a recognizable woman. ... Sometimes there's a richer dialogue to be had with our own times if you set the play in its original period, prompting us to wonder if we really treat each other any differently today? Have we evolved in our thinking at all? And as to the question of the play's continued relevance, has any idea relating to our shared humanity ever ceased to exist? There are antiquated, outmoded ideas, for sure, and Ibsen wrote about the destructive power of dead ideas - a lot - but he world is filled with people who still believe them, and who determine and deform lives of others through strict adherence to those ideas, to those 'mind forg'd manacles', to those original and enduring patriarchal default settings. 
Mr Cook claims authorship of this translation of the play and it only occasionally reveals some awkwardnesses in small substitutions of words/language, such as "guts" for "courage", in a loose arrangement for comfortability, for the speaking of the exchanges of the characters, by the actors, that on the whole is not too disconcerting. I do not know, though, whether Mr Cook had access to literal Norwegian advice, or, then, what English texts he used to arrive at his and his company's solutions. He does say "that when we do that (create a new adaptation), we are re-examining every scene, every word, and every moment." This careful scrutiny, 're-examination', of the text is reflected in the detailed care that the actors reveal in the use of the dialogue to tell story and create character. They have, it seems, an intense dramaturgical ownership of the step by step genius of Ibsen's construction in the organisation of the word, phrase, and sentences of their adaptation.

In this production, Mr Cook, 'radically", at least in recent Sydney terms, presents a 'classic' play, Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE, in a design-look related to the time of the play's writing: 1879 -  as best as it can be, within the reach of Sport For Joves' budgetary constraints. Inside the furnishings of the design, with extremely spare property decoration (Hugh O'Connor), and an odd architectural sensibility (lay out) to the house itself, and aided by costumes that seem to be mostly 'found', rather than designed and tailored for the actors/production, there are enough intimations of imaginative provocation for the audience to fill in the detailings of an actual historic room interior and dress of the period (the comparison-look is to view the Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen's GHOSTS, recently broadcast in Sydney cinemas.)

Inside these bare visual intimations, however, Mr Cook guides his company actors to create a very modern display of physical relationship and manners of the period - all, I felt to advantage the production - indeed, the sensuality, sexuality of the relationship between Nora and Torvald Helmer, in the early acts of the play give a surprisingly new depth of reality to this bourgeois marriage, and highlights the extraordinary journey that the heroine, Nora, makes towards her 'shocking' final decision (memories of the domestic relationship interactions in Ingmar Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER [1982] and the recent sensual cinematic adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, ANNA KARENINA, by Joe Wright [2012] surfaced while watching this production). The choice to include the three children in the action of the play onstage, too (despite the grotesque baby substitute), gives a depth to the scale of the family structures that are both the joy and trap that the heroine lives in.

For, Mr Cook has led Matilda Ridgeway, as Nora, with Douglas Hansel as her husband, Torvald, to construct a very believable relationship of physical attraction and, even, carnality. Nora's spoiled role-playing dimension as Torvald's and convention's 'doll', and her excessive hedonistically sensual pleasure in even the eating of forbidden chocolates is deliciously attractive. Add to this Nora's almost necrophiliac flirtations with the dying Dr Rank (Barry French), and her brutal aspersions of Nils Krogstad (Anthony Gooley) as a kind of 'class' entitlement, her over-'girly' confessions with her childhood friend, Kristine Linde (Francesca Savige), and her intimate co-dependency with her servant, Helen (Annie Byron), her childish self-loss in the giddy games with her children, crowned with a passionate whirling of the Italian dance in sextuple timing: the tarantella, in gypsy costume, and we have the possibility to see glitterings, glimmerings of a kind of unconscious sexual sadomasochistic self destruct construct going on in the life of Mrs Helmer. Very modern, indeed. Ibsen invites us to observe the expediency of Nora's monetary illegalities (forging documentation) and the assuaging of her conscience around such pertinent criminal acts with such flimsy emotional justifications as her husband's and father's health, and, today in 2014, in doing so, it served, for me, to parallel the modern equivalent of those wives of the rich and now defunct corporate criminals so that, women like Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and her culpabilities, came to mind!

Caught in the webbing of her own disastrous survival gambols, gambles, only a truly confronting extremity of someone else's behaviour can 'save' this Nora. Torvald, provides that for her, with his desperate, but, conventional response to the reality of his wife's behaviours. Nora, facing the requirements necessary to continue to live on, in the hypocritical worldly construct of her bourgeois world, unlike Hedda Gabler, does not choose suicide, but, rather freedom - a freedom that will be as daring in its living, as Hedda's was in choosing annihilation.

Nora has found herself caught in a structure of decaying/decayed truths. She is at once a victim of her compulsion and yet responsible for choice within that compulsion. She has put on the harness of necessity by allowing social values and bourgeois pleasures to condition her personal values. It is her tragic flaw. Like all of Ibsen's heroes, Nora had entered the trap of her surroundings long before he begins to tell her story, and the consequences, which we observe, have been developing unchecked because unsuspected - until the revelation of Krogstad's letter, and the perfidy and weakness of her husband's responses in those circumstances, awakens her to the need to cleanse herself of her 'slavery' to society's conventions and expectations - she will not surrender her life though, and prepares to re-invent herself, to discover her potential as an alert independent. The fact that Ibsen has chosen a woman to be hero, to become transfigured, is a tribute to his fundamental embracement of the equality of all humanity and the fascination, confidence, he has with all our potential for heroism.

This play, then, is not just a woman slamming the door to the forces of stultifying convention, but a challenge for all human kind, to take hold of this 'nettle' and face the consequences. With, this woman's, Nora's example, set by Ibsen 135 years ago, and played for us by Sport For Jove in period costume and setting, in 2014, this production achieves brilliantly both Ibsen's and Mr Cook's challenge to look at how we, all of us, live today - "What social injustices am I ignoring to continue within my comfortable life advantages?" We have portrayed, for us, clearly, in this production the need for heroism in the life of our own times. To contemplate our own succumbings to expediencies over our own conscience and societal responsibilities - the crossings we make over the 'line in the sand' of our own ethical beliefs, to maintain our own comfortable lifestyle and status quo.

The provocation of this play needs no Belvoir or Sydney Theatre Company production conceits to bring it to startling and pertinent confrontations for the contemporary audience. And in its own modest way, re-enforces, complements the 'political' power of the Almeida Theatre's production of GHOSTS, that I saw last month, and demonstrates, clearly, the genius of the poet and 'philosopher' that is Henrik Ibsen, without auteur complications/obfuscations:  N.B. HEDDA GABLER at Belvoir, blog.

The challenge of Nora for an actor is to convincingly play the 'doll' of the first act of the play and move subtly through the Ibsen demarcations of Nora's journey: through the stages of contenment as mother, wife and sexual being, to panicked guilt, fear, entrapment, and gathering hysteria, to burst through to the wisdom of an enlightened being, to, ultimately, embrace the courage of a socially iconoclastic action. Ms Ridgeway is actively nuanced and takes a clear journey (if, sometimes, a trifle studied) in the first two acts of this production, but comes to a powerful and strong revelation of Nora in her final act confrontation with Torvald, and the societal machinery that had hitherto, entrapped her. Ms Ridgeway, there, then, at last, seems to drop away all of the focused strain of the actor's concentrated craftings , and reveals, a new ease, a kind of naked ownership of Nora and her new stance to life - a personal, courageous, flesh and blood revelation of self - a transfigurement, it seemed, of both character and actor.

Mr Hansel, gives fine support and does not let the play be only a transformation for Nora, but indicates a devastated but learning man - Torvald, too, shall be metamorphosed (transfigured? changed?) with the flight of his wife when this new day dawns. Ms Byron and Savige, Mr Gooley and French complete the controlled opportunities of character and plotting that Ibsen stringently designs, well. Mr Cook has guided all to the clear service of Ibsen's great play. His decision to, primarily, reveal the potential of Ibsen's play and on the necessities of the qualities of the acting of it, delivers for us, an absorbing, should-be-seen, night in the theatre. A kind of oasis in the desert of our main-stream principal company offers, I regretfully, opine.

On the night I attended, it was mostly, a school audience. (Not an easy audience to 'fool' - little convention to their behavioural responses ingrained - they let you know if it is working or not!) The focused and hushed attention was remarkable. How fortunate for these young people to have such a lucid and true performance so early in their theatre going lives. They were genuinely captured, enraptured, if the conversation in the foyer in the interval, and after, was to be believed. It will be a performance in the theatre that should linger in their memories, and to be of use to be able to measure other experiences and their quality, in their future theatre going.

Sport For Jove Theatre Company, in respecting the play serves everyone well: the writer, the other artists involved, and the audience. A DOLL'S HOUSE, a play of timeless relevancy. A production of simple, complex honesty. A classic.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ugly Mugs

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre present the World premiere of UGLY MUGS by Peta Brady, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 18 July - 23 August.

UGLY MUGS, by Peta Brady, arrives in Sydney at the Griffin SBW Stables, from Malthouse Theatre, in Melbourne. The title of the play is the name sex workers use for aggressive clients. It is, also the name of a pamphlet published by the Prostitute Collective of Victoria (now RHED) that has been in existence since 1986. Ms Brady in her program notes:
Street-based sex work is illegal in Victoria. This anomaly in the law creates barriers between police and the street-based sex workers, who are hence less likely to report violent clients (known as 'mugs'). It strips street-based sex workers of the legal rights that others, in different occupations, take for granted, and leaves the community more vulnerable.
Ms Brady, besides writing and acting, has, also, worked, in a long-standing commitment, as an outreach worker with this community, and has a complex understanding of the world of which she writes in this play.

A doctor, Doc, (Steve Le Marquand) wheels a morgue gurney onto the stage with a dead Working Girl (Peta Brady) laid out on it. The doctor begins an examination of the body. Matter of factly, without any of the gadgetry of the CSI television shows we know, including, my favourite, SILENT WITNESS, details are recorded. One of the conceits of the writing is that this corpse is no silent witness and, actually, begins the play with a description of her last encounter with an ugly mug. Verbal interplay between the Doc and the Working Girl follows. From the interior of her single surviving black boot, the doctor extracts a copy of a grassroots pamphlet: UGLY MUGS. It has recorded first hand descriptions and warnings for the street sex workers on clients to identify and avoid. This part of the play reveals scientific observations that are co-related to a particular mug, traced through the pamphlet, that leads to evidence and, perhaps, to a justice for this victim of violence on the street.

Running parallel, is another story that tells of a gauche and slightly violent encounter between a young boy, the Son (Harry Boland), and a tough Footy Girl at the beginnings of her delusion of the easy money gained through street sex (Sara West), in the same park where a murder has taken place, that he has observed. As well we observe his consequential, co-incidental, circumstantial incrimination over that dead woman - our, previously met, Working Girl. His Mum (Peta Brady) attempts to make sense of his arrested predicament, and to give assistance and reassurance to her Son in the local police prison cell.

Purchasing the theatre program, one receives a pre-rehearsal copy of the script, published by Currency Press - ($10 - a deal, indeed). The play, subsequently read, had more impact, and was more impressive than the production of the play, that I watched, under the direction of Marion Potts. The specifics of the vernacular language of the play is entirely believable and impresses with a true sense of authenticity. Too, the 'poetry' in Ms Brady's prose is remarkable - it is a well written, sometimes, beautiful text, despite all the subterranean darknesses of its realities. The writer's work is impressive. But, my experience of the performance was that of a 'flat-lined' text - nearly, for me, DOA - dead, like the major character, the Working Girl, on arrival.

This production has had a season of performances in Melbourne, and I felt there was a comfortability of performance effort, on the night I attended, that gave us more than less, an emotionally generalised, and  approximate 'gist'  of the storytelling. It seemed to be too familiar to the actors, who, generally, played a 'recited' practice of the events of the play, rather than one that was a breathed 'in the moment' discovery, happening. The spoken word, the language, the vehicle of the story was blurred. It lacked, both, 'in the moment' ownership and high stakes, and so was relatively dull in the necessary excitement of the telling. The playing of the production lacked critical urgency, intentional clarity, and unlike the inspirational affect that Ms Potts talks of experiencing with The Malthouse's Associate Writer, Van Badham, of being 'transfixed', 'horrified', "moved', and 'confronted' by their own ignorance of this subject matter, a kind of a sense of the middle class 'worthiness' of the tackling of the subject matter in our theatre, rather than that of being transfixed, horrified, moved or confronted with social outrage was the major communication.

Applause. Down to the foyer. "Well done, now let's get a drink." "What do you think of the Belvoir announcement?"

Mr Boland (this is Mr Boland's stage debut - a huge ask, I reckon) and Ms West tended to use the language of the characters to project a set of generalised emotional states, and allowed that impulse to blur the word by word, phrase by phrase information in the lines. I understood the characters 'feelings' without, necessarily, knowing why they were experiencing them. The text should be the primary objective of the actors if they are storytellers and not re-creators, demonstrators of emotion. The emotions will arrive to support the story, if the information in the line is clear. The audience will endow that emotion from the combined clues of the oral and physical clues that the actors have crafted for us to deal with, interpret. This is evidently clear in the work of Ms Brady, particularly in her creation of the Mum, that has an exactness of owned language and disciplined body cues. Mr Le Marquand, too is remarkable in the effortless ownership of the scenes he creates as the Mug in his interaction with the Son - a potent creation of powerful menace, employing a deep presence and ownership of it - though, less arresting as the Doc, I thought.

There is expert craft in the simple but effective bare grey design of the floor, with grit, surrounded by black walls, by Michael Hankin, the apt costuming as well. The moody, severe atmospherics of 'clouds' of fluorescent tubes in the Lighting Design by Lucy Birkinshaw are also ominous in their effect. The look anticipates a bleakness, and verite, a convincing truthfulness that the performers, on my night, did not deliver.

UGLY MUGS, an arresting script, but one that requires specifics, more precision, in the craft of the acting of it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Effect

Sydney Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) production THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay. 10th July - 16th August.

THE EFFECT, by Lucy Prebbles, I first saw in the original production at the National Theatre, London, in 2012. I have written about it. I, also, was fortunate to catch the ill fated Broadway production of ENRON (2010) also by Lucy Prebbles. Both these plays are challenging examinations in the theatre of very big issues. ENRON has been seen in Sydney at the enterprising New Theatre. The Sydney production of THE EFFECT has been sponsored by The Commonwealth Bank - one can ponder why they didn't agree to sponsor the ENRON play, too - too big to fail! Both these plays are highly researched, and then were organised, to have clarity as debate, and entertainment, by the writer and her present Director of Preference: Rupert Goold, and his company, Headlong. Both ENRON and THE EFFECT were extraordinarily exciting nights in the theatre.

THE EFFECT grapples with the issue of our scientific knowledge of the Brain and how it functions - just how much do we know about that vast 'universe' of the human, that is crammed into our skull? (What a piece of work is man.) It grapples with the contemporary phenomenon of depression - the STC program notes reveals that
in 2013, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report on the health of its 33 member countries. Australia ranked second behind Iceland as the highest prescriber of anti depressants.
So, this play has urgent relevance for us, I reckon. It grapples with the ethics and practice of scientific research in our large pharmaceutical corporations
at the University of Sydney's School of Psychology, in their published findings, they note that 'antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed psychotropic drugs, yet studies suggest that may have only marginal benefit over placebo in mild to moderate depression and may have paradoxical psychiatric side effects, particularly in children and young adults. 
This is countered, if one reads more widely into the state of affairs in a 2012 report from the University of Chicago's Department of Medicine, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. In their research, a longitudinal meta-analysis of several large studies, they found that 'severity was not significantly related to degree of treatment advantage over placebo'. In other words, their results did not support the previous findings that antidepressants show little benefit except for severe depression.
In the UK two opposing views were recently published in The British Medical Journal. So, that this is a subject matter of important contemporary instance, there is no doubt (how arresting was it to read in Thursday's, the 24th July issue of the Sydney Morning Herald (P3):
Paracetemol has been found to be no more effective for back pain than a placebo, a study has found. The findings contradict the first line recommendation of doctors for managing back pain and the packaging advice of paracetemol manufacturers. ... The annual medical bill for back pain is $4.8 billion, according to Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria.
THE EFFECT, finally, also, grapples with one more important and incessant human experience/concept: LOVE. What is love?

What was outstanding in the National Theatre production was the thrill of the debate between the characters of the play (only 4) about these matters. In the interval one was wrapped in conversation about where this play was taking one, and the startling intellectual questions and moral boundaries it demarcated. After the play this debate continued, fiercely combusted, by the play material/text, that demanded one to deliberate. The audience's head was provoked, the heart was stirred. BOTH. The production kept a rigorous measure between those two elements of the writing. Each was balanced and each was integrated. Lamentably, this STC/QTC production 'milks' the heart and barely stirs the head.

For me, THE EFFECT, directed by Sarah Goodes, erred in interpretative emphasis, by seeming to stress, indulgently, the heart/melodrama of the characters' dilemmas - the relative 'sugar coating' of the intent of the play - over the intellectual grappling, debates, that Ms Prebbles had cast before us. Ms Goodes has encouraged her actors, Anna McGahan, as Connie, (quite a deal of distracting facial characteristics- 'tics' - to indicate emotional states) and Mark Leonard Winter, as Tristan, to focus on their roles as tortured 'lovers' (having, as in Tristan and Isolda taken some magic potions, perhaps?!)' so that in the final sections of this production, they, simply, became figures of drug 'victimisation' and social martyrdom, over and above the need to also wrestle, as the 'storytellers' of this play, for the audience's sake, with the posed questions and debate, so cleverly integrated by the writer in her quest for public attention to her core subject concerns. Angie Milliken, as Dr James, gives the clearest balance to her tasks at hand, as the moral dilemmas that her character is faced with are presented in clear, cool intellectual clarity of action, accompanied by a graually revealed human 'heart' emotive in the character's personal journey and struggle with the illness of depression. Eugene Gilfedder as Toby, is only moderately interesting with the 'science ' and the pharmaceutical corporation shades of the play, and tends to appear to be more comfortable with the the melodrama of the emotive stakes.

This production designed in cool colours and reflective gleam to facilitate a subliminal interrogatory feel by Renee Mulder, lacks the further details of furnishings to involve us in the physical journey of the characters, and the Video Design (David Bergman and Renee Mulder) seems to be under prepared in its clinical assistances to keep the audience informed and involved with the intriguing 'medical' elements/evidence of the play's major 'machinery: the clinical trial of drug effectiveness.

THE EFFECT, in Wharf 1, is only partly realised, and is never more than adequate to the play's potential. It is a shame, for this play by Ms Prebbles is timely, and when fully expurgated, is a provocative scourge to one's under-questioned complacencies around the connections between scientific research and big business, and to our continued struggle with the 'calls' of Eros in our human interactions.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hedda Gabler (adapted by Adena Jacobs)

Photo by by Ellis Parrinder

Belvoir presents HEDDA GABLER, adapted by Adena Jacobs, from the play by Henrik Ibsen, at Belvoir St Upstairs Theatre, 28 June - 3 August.

Adena Jacobs has adapted and Directed Henrik Ibsen's great play, HEDDA GABLER (1890), into an 85 minute imagining of actor Ash Flanders playing Hedda that had, some time in her preparation, planning, "suddenly" allowed her to perceive "the poetry of Ibsen's play anew - the yearning of escape, the terror of difference, a person squeezing out of their environment, the paradox of freedom."
Ash Flanders is a Melbourne-based theatre-maker. In 2006 he and Declan Greene (EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY) formed the DIY theatre company Sisters Grimm - together they have written and produced numerous shows including LITTLE MERCY (Sydney Theatre Company), SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN (Theatre Works/Griffin) and THE SOVEREIGN WIFE (NEON Festival - Melbourne Theatre Company), for which Ash won Best Actor at this year's Green Room Awards....  (3)
Why it was Ash Flanders that inspired Ms Jacobs perception, and not someone else, is the mystery, here, for me. I kept asking, as the production 'unspooled': What are the qualities in Mr Flanders that inspired such a choice? Was it a personal insight into the integrity of this artist's life that mirrored Ibsen's Hedda Gabler so powerfully, over and above any woman in this country, and so Ms Jacobs felt was explicitly relevant for her directorial approach, and could be bravely revealed? I began to ask, more especially, as the time and 'offers' (e.g. a naked' Fe-male-ist' Hedda - a vision of a male upper torso, legs and 'disappeared' sexual organs, pressed against a glass window at us) were passed on, is this some kind of 'queer' political, social experiment (statement) been cloaked over this play for our contemporary time? Perhaps, it is. Why and wherefore? To provoke a disquisition on the contemporary pertinence of sexual-gender politics? If so, is this production, then, a GLBTI (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, Inter-sex) claim to this text in 2014, that has superseded the feminist politics of our times? (Although, Ibsen never claimed to argue an exclusivist feminist standpoint). To be a little more mundane, with my curiosity, was it an admiration, by Ms Jacobs, of the technical skills of this artist that she felt would, could, truly illuminate this play for us?

Whatever, I had heard or read about this production, I was prepared, able to, at least, go with the vision, the choice, that Ms Jacobs had made, and was willing to spend the time with her instincts. I attended to the production.

In regard to having been asked about her casting of Mr Flanders, "repeatedly", Ms Jacobs tells us, in her program notes:
This is not the place for explanations, as I hope the production speaks for itself.
It did not, and disappointment with a kind of a 'ruin' of the play was in existence in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir, and an opportunity, of seeing HEDDA GABLER, by Henrik Ibsen, in Sydney, again, thwarted, was the result, for me. This production was, to use some of the 'poetry' of the play's imagery, a messy fatal wound to the stomach, and not one that one could wear a wreath of vine leaves in the hair, for.

As I prepared for this production, Dr Philip Haig Nitschke of the pro-euthanasia group, Exit International, harassed by our contemporary 'authorities', came to mind as I re-read the period authorities' vitriolic response to Henrik Ibsen and his literary propositions in HEDDA GABLER (and his other plays), in 1890 - for it seems, in the contemporary case of Dr Nitschke, in our real lives, nothing much as changed since then. So, for me, regrettably, the casting and editing of this great text, by Ms Jacobs seemed, to distract us, and our 'authorities', in our world, from the devastating debate that Henrik Ibsen gave us 124 years ago. That Ibsen's debate is still raging about us, daily, and yet is not a central part of the response to this production at Belvoir, seems, to me, an example of the obfuscation, of Ms Jacobs' production, and an opportunity missed. For whatever she believes she has replaced that debate with, in her adaptation, it seemed to be tremendously opaque in my experience in the theatre.

(The appropriation of the reputation of Ibsen for Ms Jacobs' adaptation and production, and of the play's title, HEDDDA GABLER, reminded me of this company's recent use of the title of Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, and the foisting upon us, in that case, of a glib piece of comic 'campery' about actors in a "tizzy fit" of career anxiety, instead of the political comic critique that was the basis of the Russian original. I feel, this marketing ploy smacks of a kind of cynical selling strategy, to put bums-on-seats, rather than a responsible telling of our cultural, inherited genius. So much else of the original playwrights' work has been re-written, (jettisoned), why not simply, re-title the production: "Heddy", or "Gabler!"or "That Ibsen Woman." An adaptation of Ibsen's play, by the young British writer, Lucy Kirkwood, in 2008, was simply called, HEDDA. The Trevor Nunn adaptation,1975 production was also called HEDDA. Easily done, I would have thought. Why not at Belvoir? One wonders.)

This production of the play seems to be geographically set by Ms Jacobs, with Ms Jacobs'
... mind wandering towards America. Not the actual country (which is where I grew up as a child) but rather what it represents for the contemporary world, as Athens was to the Ancient Greeks. Through the gaze of the American Dream, Hedda becomes the daughter of the military, living in the gleam of a Hollywood billboard, inheriting the lessons of her forefathers. A fantasy of beauty mingled with destruction.
That the only guide for the audience in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre to this possible location is the California number plates of a parked black period car, and what with all the actors, especially, Mr Flanders, speaking broadly in Australian accents, it makes the above an intellectual posture that she fails to communicate in the action of the production - despite the background television weather broadcast. The Lighting, by Danny Pettingill, is mostly that of mood (Hedda's, I now presume), and hardly that of a Los Angeles skyscape - it is so weirdly dark, or, is that a surrealistic, David Lynch (INLAND EMPIRE not MULHOLLAND DRIVE) touch to the production?

The Set Design itself, by Dayna Morrissey, whose work we last saw in collaboration with Ms Jacobs on the Belvoir/Fraught Outfit production of PERSONA last year, reflects that heritage, and could not have been conceived to provide more difficulties for an audience to engage with the work of the actors. Some of the action of the play - e.g. the vital first expositional moments - is set in a very narrow, raised passage at the back of the stage, glassed in with full frontal windows and glass sliding door, so that all of the action staged up there, and there is some considerable stuff, requires the actors to be assisted by microphones. The architectural scale of this 'room' design is so ridiculously 'small' (so that two actors in passing in the space have to shuffle sideways, to accommodate it), hardly suggests the Hollywood Paradise that Ms Jacobs talks of in her notes. Similarly, other major scenes are set in the cabin/body of the car, windows closed, and also requires the microphone, and blocks any clear eye line vision for most of the audience to see anybody, clearly, in that car. The sound design of these micro-phoned live conversations are disembodied, coming from speakers around the stage (I imagine) and are hard to hear and/or make sense of, with any comfortable clarity. Add, a spa pool, jutting into the next third of the stage, flanked by the parked car, and the actors have even more difficulty to find suitable positions to play their scenes for simple story telling, or any dramatic impact to communicate to the audience.

This 85 minute adaptation has some, albeit, small textual faithfulness of most of the schemata/scenes of the original Ibsen, and when that is more present, the adaptation has most power. The translation, either the literal, or otherwise, has not been acknowledged by Ms Jacobs - can one assume that it is her own, or that of her dramaturge, Luisa Hastings Edge (although her theatre credits are mostly those of an actor) of Ibsen's Norwegian original? The original text by Ibsen is a masterpiece of dramatic construction (see IBSEN: A Critical Study by John Northam): each word, phrase and sentence a building block in creating character, narrative development, and thematic and dramatic action of great precision. Most of all the original is redolent with mordant wit, a startling comedy, considering the seriousness of the premise of the play, a kind of vulgar satiric comedy - and it is an element shockingly absent in this adaptation, which is po-faced in its seriousness of mode.

To substitute the verbal genius of Ibsen, Ms Jacobs gives long passages of mime and stillness, that she hopes will reveal revelatory subtext. For instance, the opening scene has Hedda appear in a one piece swimsuit behind the glass and then come out into the air to languidly stretch out on the side of the spa pool, wired for sound, spied upon by a servant, and we are invited to look, watch, for some length of time. Unfortunately, Ms Jacobs, and her actor Mr Flanders, have not found a way to communicate the purpose of this choice, and try as one might, it was hard to stay active as an audience to endow anything at all, except, possibly her boredom, for we, surely, were - not a good state to be in to begin this journey - there is some time/distance to go! These longeurs of blankness emanate, repetitively, throughout the production, and unfortunately the ennui of Hedda seems never to develop one way or the other - not deeper, not higher, not less, not anything! Mr Flanders and Ms Jacobs can not find the dramatic means to take the audience with them, with their intentions. One, finally, simply watches "a fe-male-ist" in a swim costume, or later, essentially naked, beneath a waist length fur coat, with puzzled 'titilation'.

My first encounter with Ms Jacobs was her company's (Fraught Outfit), stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's great film PERSONA (1966), last year. And it seems to me that this work, HEDDA GABLER, is simply a continuation of that intellectual, academic gaze, wonder/wander, for no real artistic gain. Both in structure and applied techniques, this Hedda as directed, designed and played, could be the twin sister of the PERSONA production - many of the same Melbourne support artists are, similarly, engaged on it. The affect of this performance of Hedda Gabler is a showing, simply, of the outer or public personality (a persona), a surface glossary of guidance, that does not in any way attempt what Ibsen created, an exposure, representation of the inner motivations of an individual to explain the actions, the journey choices, of this woman in her attempt to find meaning in her world. This production has the cumulative affect of a woman in a carefree, careless inertia. Resultantly, one responds, occasionally, gratefully, to the shadows of the Ibsen original left in this text of Ms Jacobs, when they surface, and attempt to push away the creeping soporific tendencies that the production otherwise invites.

I found (find) it amusing to cogitate on the genius of Ingmar Bergman who, gave us a production of originality with his film PERSONA, in 1966, to follow it up with a production of HEDDA GABLER (in Stockholm in 1968), that travelled to London, and then on invitation from the National Theatre of Great Britain, re-created it with English speaking actors starring Maggie Smith, famously giving her Hedda, in 1970. Mr Bergman did not repeat his gestures from PERSONA, in directing Ibsen's play, and certainly approached it as a work, separate from PERSONA, well worth respecting for its contemporary luminosity, and did not feel it necessary to radically adapt it.

Ash Flanders, last seen in Sydney, creating character from the studied and 'honourable' genre of theatre travesty - in collaboration with Declan Greene with LITTLE MERCY - a celebration, and celebrated burlesque of female identity, impersonation, re-creation of iconic gestures of great film actors, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner (and others), to give suggestion of depth to a ludicrous story - does not seem to have here, in this work, any depth of experience, as himself, that he can reveal to suggest the inner life, world, of Hedda Gabler. Without the mask of the personality traits of others, Mr Flanders does not appear to have any dynamic to suggest anything other than the ability to wear costume, hairstyle, wig, and deliver a generalised bored hauteur. Mr Flanders plays Hedda 'straight', no tongue-in-cheek observation here, just a revelation of his inner life, one presumes - so, perhaps, a study of Maggie Smith or Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis or Cate Blanchett may have added edge to his performance! (I wonder if Ms Jacobs had been inspired by Paul Capsis or even Trevor Ashley, two Sydney artists, instead of Mr Flanders, what may we have had?)

 Most lamentably, the vocal work from Mr Flanders lacks any theatrical skill, that is further dramatically compounded when contrasted with the obvious skills of his surrounding supporting cast. His voice has no range or imaginative language dynamic. He does not seem to have the ability to hear the other actor and respond with equal intensity or action. It is a solo performance, played at a temperature well below the energies of the others. No matter what they give to him, (fling at him) nothing returns (it must be what the experience is to hit a tennis ball against a wall of wet wettex for the other actors - nothing bounces back!). The production of the play works best when the other actors get to interact without Hedda present - even, despite, the ruthless editing of their responsibilities by Ms Jacobs and Hastings Edge. Given that the body and vocal offers by Mr Flanders are so limited in range, in communicative skills, little is able to be read by the audience as to the actor's intentions under the guidance of Ms Jacobs inspirational choice.

Marcus Graham, as Brack, makes some affect, so does Lynette Curran, as Aunt Julie, despite the staging handicaps given to her by her Director. Anna Houston, as Thea Elvsted, despite her been locked in the car and later freed, without comment; Oscar Redding, as Eijlert Lovborg, despite his inevitable plunge into the pool - build it and one must use it, I guess; Tim Walter, as Tesman, despite an enormously ruthless edit of Ibsen's protagonist, all give creditable attempts to create character dramatics and motivated story. While the directed creation from Branden Christine, who with her expanded presence, as the maid, Berthe, virtually 'dumb', had one, curiously,wishing that she was Hedda Gabler, as so much seemed to be going on in her 'mimed' moments with Mr Flanders. One wondered, after, if there were political statements going on with the presence of this African-American servant, especially as it is she who discovers the body of Hedda on the roof top of the car (where else would it be staged at Belvoir) and the wisdom of cutting the famed last line of the play: "People don't do that kind of thing". This Hedda was simply an empty spoiled creature who finally shoots herself. Why? The reasons were difficult to discern from the actions of this adaptation and production. This Hedda was bored from the start, and simply meandered to that decision, around the dramas of others, naked beneath her fur coat, with as much passion and reason as the proverbial chicken that had to cross the road - to get to the other side!

The poetry I have always seen, in Ibsen's play, is the spectacle of a human being trapped in a self-webbed set of decisions, in a world that she has willingly, conventionally, participated in - arguably, mistakenly, perhaps, despite her social and educational advantages, and myopically, not been able to see any other way to behave (unlike the other heroine of the play, Thea Elvsted), that finally presents the protagonist, Hedda Gabler, with  a 'freedom act' of choice, a way to preserve her sense of 'honour' with a magnificent, and still, socially 'outrageous' choice of self destruction, suicide. Ibsen wrote this as Hedda's only truth filled action, to escape her personal and public fear of the scandal of being different. One that Ibsen presented, daringly, as one of ultimate courage - a Hero's gesture to preserve the vestiges of her honour. Here, at last, Hedda performs an act of will that is her own - for the actions of the world of the play, as she perceives it, gives her no other choice. To kill oneself is not easy to do, and it is an extreme choice, especially in one who otherwise 'appears' to be advantaged and well. The world cannot believe that people do that kind of thing - especially someone as privileged as Hedda Gabler.

Hedda Gabler's self inflicted bullet to the brain as an honourable/heroic act was as controversial, is, as controversial, as Nora Helmer's slam of the door on her husband and children in, A DOLL'S HOUSE (1879), as is the 'pill in the hand'/euthanasia decision Mrs Alving must make concerning her son, Oswald in, GHOSTS (1881), as the sun, the new day rises. Society trembled with rage at such social conceits from this Norwegian genius of the theatre, Henrik Ibsen. It still does. But not with this production at Belvoir. She shooting herself was a relief for us from frustrated understanding.

Outside the theatre, on the footpath, "What a crock," a Belvoir subscriber and friend, responded to my question on how did he enjoy it. To be honest, enough of my memories of Ibsen were awoken for me, to survive the intellectual muddle of Ms Jacobs and her play. But, now, how I long to see a faithful production of the play, again.

I have had many meeetings with Hedda Gabler over the years, including a production of mine, eons ago, with Patricia East, at the Wayside Theatre. But, my major meeting with Ibsen's Hedda Gabler have been with 1) Maggie Smith; 2) Glenda Jackson; 3) Judy Davis; 4) Cate Blanchett; and now 5) Ash Flanders!

Recently, the West End Theatre Series broadcast in our cinemas, The Almeida Theatre production of GHOSTS, by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted and Directed by Richard Eyre. 90 minutes long, played without interval, set in period. Could one have had a more confronting contemporary experience, debate, from the theatre than this work? Not likely. If only the Belvoir had similar confidence in the great writers, or decided to commission their own contemporary plays without such piratical decisions.


  1. IBSEN. A Critical Study by John Northam. Cambridge UNiversity Press - 1973. 
  2. IBSEN - A BIOGRAPHY by Michael Meyer. 1967-71. 
  3. The Belvoir Program

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book of Days

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents BOOK OF DAYS by Lanford Wilson at the New Theatre., Newtown. 8 July - 9 August.

BOOK OF DAYS (2000) is a late play, the second to last, by American writer, Lanford Wilson. In Sydney, most of you will probably only know his work, BURN THIS (1986), seen at the Sydney Theatre Company with Richard Roxbrough, although other works of his: BALM IN GILEAD (1965); THE HOT L BALTIMORE (1973); FIFTH OF JULY (1978); TALLEY'S FOLLY (1975) have certainly featured at local Drama schools, the latter, at the Ensemble theatre, too, I remember. BOOK OF DAYS is a gentle 'masterpiece' from an American writer of some great beauty, in the twilight of his creativity. Lanford Wilson, at the famous Caffe Cino in New York, was one of the playwrights of the nineteen sixties that established what was to become the Off-off-Broadway theatre movement. John Guare, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee were other artists working beside him. His plays spanned the next four decades, trailing honours and prizes. He died in March, 2011.

For me, what is remarkable and admirable, in this work, is the integration of Lanford Wilson's stylistic heritage, owing much to the "method' approach to work in the American theatre using the Stanislavsky theories. The setting in a small town, Dublin, Missouri, harks back to the Thornton Wilder Grovenor's Corner, and the stylistic liberties and inventions that shape that work is easily recognisable and lovingly engaged, embroidered with, here. The characters are simple people with whom we can identify with little difficulty and come to care for, one way or the other. Funny, sad, frustrated, deceived, hilarious, devious, loved and loving, in fact, with all the traits of that which makes us human.

However, this play of the new century, the 21st, the new millennium, is more than just a gentle, nostalgic recall of events and people in the month of June in small town America. For, it is not nostalgia that Mr Wilson is principally concerned with, but rather, the insidious, pernicious corruption of the political practices of our guiding institutions of the present on our basic human principles, that have up till now, supposedly (uncritically), shaped our civilized moralities.

We meet the principal citizens of this small community, dominated by the richest man in town, Walt Bates, and his family; of the family of his employee at the cheese factory, Len Hoch, and another employee, Earl Hill; of the local religious leader, Reverend Bobby Graves and the Law and Order representative, Sheriff Conroy Atkins, and others. Mr Wilson introduces into the events of the play, a rehearsal of the G.B. Shaw play SAINT JOAN, at the local amateur theatre, as a parallel thematic tool to unfold what becomes the exposure of a local murder (a la Agatha Chrisitie) through the urgent 'inspired' convictions of an awakened citizen, Ruth Hoch, who must pursue her 'voices' to define the difference between right and wrong, even, to an unpleasant conclusion for herself and her family - the fate of many a 'whistleblower', contemporary or otherwise. It is a smooth and delicate sleight of hand, that Mr Wilson employs, which finally encompasses the greater observation of a disenchantment with the moral state of his nation - the United States of America, where the good are comatose or duped, and the bad, taking advantage of most of us, are rewarded. It is, of course, not a phenomenon that is exclusively American, but one of universal clamouring - hello, Australia.

BOOK OF DAYS is beguilingly deceptive and we become, unsuspectingly, woven into the simple needs and recognition of the rights and wrongs of this town, so that our identification is one of palpable shock when we realise: there but for the grace of god, go I. AM I! The play suggests that, maybe, the best road to survival is to close your eyes and let sleeping dogs lie. It provokes the question that fellow writer, Kenneth Lonergan, asks in LOBBY HERO, when two of his characters conclude that play:
Dawn : ... How are you supposed to know if you're right and everybody else is wrong, or if you're just wreckin' your own chances? 
Jeff: I wouldn't know. I never tried to do anything before.
In BOOK OF DAYS, Ruth Hoch, the wife of the cheese maker and Saint Joan in the local little theatre production in Dublin Missouri, decides to do something. The consequences in , Dublin, Missouri, unfortunately, are not surprising to us too, in this country, in this day and age.

Both plays ask us to consider and beware the fudges we make to our moral consciences. How often can we cross the line of our own civilised beliefs? Just how far can one cheat before the whole system will collapse upon us?
William  (from LOBBY HERO): ... My whole life I've told the truth, I always tell the truth. Because I believe in that, OK? You don't worry about if the world is bad or good, because I know Goddam that it is bad. You just do your best and let the chips fall where they may ...
This production of BOOK OF DAYS at the New Theatre led by Director, Elsie Edgerton-Till is finely calibrated - work from a relatively new Director of note, with an exquisite painterly eye for staging. The Design team: Georgia Hopkins on Set - beautiful AND simple - is enhanced by a very sophisticated and supportively sensitive lighting design by Alex Berlage; with an apt and flawless set of costume inspirations by Jacqui Schofield. This company of 12 actors has been moulded into an easy ensemble. All are equal and all capture the style with a presence and understanding of the world of the play with great confidence. Kate Fraser, Alex Norton, Geoff Sirmai, Amelia Cuninghame, Gael Ballantyne, Mark Langham, Jeannie Gee, Simon Davey, Alyssan Russell, Brendan Miles, Kyle Walmsley and Joel Spreadborough.

I recommend a visit.

 Both, BOOK OF DAYS, and the play LOBBY HERO, ought to be seen, read, by our writers, young or old, I'm afraid to dare, as an object lesson in how to tell a story of social purpose that is also a superior entertainment. Having seen the STC's MOJO, one wonders just how widely that company reads, and how do they choose their repertoire for Sydney audiences, when both these plays are around to be found by the Independent Companies. Although, to be fair, the STC are about to present THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble. Let's wait and see what they have made of that remarkable new British play.

The Arrangement

KEN UNSWORTH in collaboration with AUSTRALIAN DANCE ARTISTS and THE SONG COMPANY presents THE ARRANGEMENT in the Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria. July 12 - July 20.

THE ARRANGEMENT has an astounding role call of talent that has been summoned to collaborate on a work of art: Visual, Music and Dance, by Mr Unsworth - the Arts. All, compelled by their artistic longings and disciplines, for those of us, less gifted, relatively, ordinary ones, who are entranced by the gifts of the extraordinary.

Ken Unsworth has collaborated, once again, with the AUSTRALIAN DANCE ARTISTS: Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip (and Norman Hall); but also, this time, with Roland Peelman and THE SONG COMPANY: Clive Birch, Richard Black, Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser, Hannah Fraser and Susannah Lawergren, and have invited composer, Jonathan Cooper, to create a program of song and incidental dance music, using the poetry of A.E Houseman (How Clear, How Lovely Bright, 1936), F.G. Lorca (Gacela Del Amor Despesperado - Desperate Love, 1931-34), W.H. Auden (Law, Like Love - 1939), Barnabe Googe (Out of Sight, Out of Mind - c.1580) and Rainer Maria Rilke ( Immer Wieder - Time and Again - 1914). Mr Peelman, on piano, leads musicians: Ollie Miller (cello), Lamorna Nightingale (flute), Jason Noble (clarinet). This is, then supported by a creative team: Lighting, Eddi Goodfellow; AV Design, Tim Hope; Costume Design, Pamela McGraw; Set Construction by Richard Harrison with Chris Axelsen and Eamonn McLoughlin who also join the stage crew of four - heroes, all: Emma Bedford, Chas Glover, Daniel O'Shea, Annie Winter.

In 2011, Mr Unsworth gave us, AS I CROSSED THE BRIDGE OF DREAMS. In 2013, SOIREE SFORZA. THE ARRANGEMENT, beginning (in my memory) with an AV set of portraits of the Dancers, in profile and out front, projected on to the back wall of the stage space, whirl backwards into the spheres of 'time'. Mr Unsworth, like a Prospero, 'floats' behind a masked 'piano' shape, and presents to us, a tuning fork, that he strikes, and on cue, Mr Peelman and his orchestra, begin the journey created by composer, Jonathan Cooper. A figure is 'exhumed' (a pregnant female) from the bowels of the stage and is floated into the roof above, quietly chanting: "Again. And again. Again and again. ..." ,whilst doing so. Ninety minutes later, we have an image of a body being laid out, interned, on the earth, and then watch (through the magic of Mr Hope and his video imaging), the 'spirit' of the body rise into the air, accompanied by the return of the fecund figure to the bowels of the 'earth', reciting still: "Again. And again. Again and again. ...."

The poetic content of this work, for me, dwelt on the inevitable passing of time and the inevitable crumbling of the corporeal body - the inevitable coming of death, that is surpassed, with human philosophical inventiveness, with the passionate surmise in the resurrection of the human experience in the gifted works of Art, that represent our 'spiritual-self', for all times. In the final sequence of this work, a little child, joyful in his playing on his wooden horse (Trojan, do I ironise?), is watched wistfully by parents, dressed in the white trappings of death, and we feel our faith spring eternal in THE ARRANGEMENT, of again and again, the cycles of nature, and the gift of ART.

This is the most ambitious work conjured by these artists, here, in the studio of Mr Unsworth in Alexandria. The vision of such a thing, the complexities of this vision, staged technically, with all the old practices of yore, with the ingenuities of a stage-craft of engineering, that is wholly wielded by the participation (invention) of the sweat and muscle of the human 'animal', in every area of endeavour, in this space, (bar, the video installations) is a humbling and exhilarating experience to share. Visual artist, constructors and manipulators of that vision, costumier, lighting artist and technicians, poets, director, music composition, instrument playing - both created and human (the voices) - the dancers and choreographers, all achieve an experience of inspiration for those of us watching and who want to continue to create with them.

From my Macquarie Dictionary: "Wonder"
 …a miracle, or miraculous deed or event
 …the emotion excited by what is strange and surprising

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lobby Hero (a journey)

LOBBY HERO by Kenneth Lonergan at the Tap Gallery, 9th -27th July, Tues - Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5pm.

Those of you who read my blog may have noticed a slowness in diarising, of late. Perhaps? It is because I have been rehearsing a play. That is directing one. We need you to come. At the instant of writing, I think it will be not bad. I feel kind of confident. Uh. Um. Phhh! So, PLEASE come. The actors are great and have worked hard and the play by Kenneth Lonergan is terrific.

In one of my long blogs (some say diatribes), the one discussing observations on and about The Sport For Jove productions of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL and TWELFTH NIGHT I brought to your attention that most of the theatre in Sydney is produced in a Co-op manner. Meaning, that most of it is chosen, conceived, rehearsed and presented by artists from their own resources with absolutely no recompense other than the muscular development of their skills by doing, and the joy and love of creating. Practice, if it doesn't make one perfect, at least can make one ready, primed.

April-May, sometime then. Tom Oakley a QUT graduate, who had been taking some classes with me at the Actor's Gym, THE HUB, asked me would I direct him in a play: THE DUMB WAITER by Harold Pinter, at the The Tap Gallery. We had been working on a scene in class. I thought, I should put my crafts aspirations, where my finger tips have been for the last few years.

I said, "Yes." Gulp.

The Tap Gallery gave Tom a date. THE DUMB WAITER was not available. We checked for the rights!!!! - BELIEVE IT OR NOT. Bummer. A two-hander. Funny, scary AND Pinter. Just have to get the Design of the dumb waiter right in the Tap Gallery. It could have been a winner.

"MMMM? Other plays, Tom?"

"IN A FOREST, DARK AND DEEP by Neil LaBute." We had been working on a scene in class.

I re-read it.

"Ahhhh! Fabulous play, but the subject matter is a little full on. Especially in winter at the The Tap Gallery. Is there an audience, that will come to see two brothers dealing with the 'joy' of pedophilia? Imagine, Tom, asking your date to a little night's entertainment in July. A solid drink would be necessary after wards, I guarantee."

"What about BURN THIS by Lanford Wilson. Great play. Four actors - three great roles. one good one, one of them a fabulous role for a woman. I saw the original production in New York with John Malkovitch and Joan Allen. Devastating."

Tom read it. Loved It.

Rights not available. Shite.

Time passing.

"I am a huge fan of Lanford Wilson. Read TALLEY'S FOLLY, Tom. Two hander. One male, one Female. Beautiful, and if we could build an environmental installation set, in the Tap Gallery, it could be magical. Now, that is a date play for July. Romance assured, I reckon."

Tom read it. Loved it. Rights available. BUT.

"But", says Tom, "I don't know whether that is right for me."

"Well, it is your show Tom. Your money. You must be comfortable."

More Time Passes. Tom has a wedding he must go to in Italy - his sister's. Time, tick tocks.

"Have you read LOBBY HERO, Tom? Kenneth Lonergan. He wrote and directed a really great film YOU CAN COUNT ON ME - Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Was nominated and won awards for the writing etc. Great. Last year, his next film, MARGARET with Anna Paquin, with a star-studded cast, was at last released. It, too, great. The play has a cast of three men, one woman. I have a copy. Read it."

He does.

"I like it."

Rights available. OK. PLAY ON.

Next: Casting.

"Dorian Nkono as William. Just saw him recently in THE WINTER'S TALE with Bell Shakespeare. Impressed. I taught him at NIDA - amazing actor, deserves a big break, (not that a co-op is necessarily one, ha, ha!), he played OTHELLO at NIDA: very special, although just, a 'kid', then."

We met up with him at Bondi Junction. He loved the role. Yes, said Tom. We had another actor interested BUT Dorian had something that Tom liked.  I like his remarkable vocal instrument and fluid, expressive body skills on top of his instincts and work ethic.. SOLD.

Tried around for the other role - Bill, the Cop. Blah, blah and blah. I mentioned Jeremy Waters. I had seen him over the last year or so in a whole series of roles in the Co-op scene since his return home from a seven year sojourn in New York. Nominated by the Sydney Critics for his work in JERUSALEM, as Ginger. I think he is just great, and so dynamically right for this role - has real theatrical authority and is a really nice guy. He, also, did some classes with me at THE HUB.

Tom and I met up with him at Bondi Junction, too. He was keen, even though he has a project of his own, FOUR PLACES by Joel Drake Johnson, backing directly up behind us at the Tap. Full on. He was also just about to open in SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION at the Old Fitz. He was keen. So, was Tom. SOLD.

The lady cop?

"Shari Sebbens, an ex-student of mine and a friend, we go to bad movies together (each can blame the other for having gone. It has worked so far, for us) and she wants to do one play a year. The principal companies don't see her, she says. She is 'hot' in the film and TV industry at the moment. Did you see that article about her being the Goddess of Wheat Street? What about THE SAPPHIRES? She is in the Alice at the moment making a comedy series for the ABC. Shall I ask?"

Text to Shari.

"Send me the play", she replies.

We do. We wait. We wait.

"Yes", she says. "Check your agent, Shari." "I need to do a play a year," she says. "I need to keep in trim." Shari is an actress - she's smart, and boy, when inspired has a work ethic to die for. My gosh, she played Isabella for Aubrey Mellor in MEASURE FOR MEASURE, at Drama School, and Cecily in THE IMPORTANCE ... for me, as well. Her range is remarkable.

We wait. She is in. Hurrah, SOLD.

We have a reading of the play, in my lounge room without Shari, she's still filming, I read her part, before Tom goes off to his wedding. I told Shari I was great.

Dorian texts me his ideas and questions. Jeremy asks when do we start? Tom gets back from Italy. We start rehearsal, early June. In my lounge room. The Tap space is not too much larger.

Every day, for several hours, my lounge room is invaded by foul mouthed low lifes - my neighbours love it. "Artists in the building!" Phew!!! Two and a half hours today - then we all spread to work. Four hours today - then spread to work. What about Saturday? Sunday? Can't. Can. Ok. Fit it in. Squeeze it in. Time moves on.

Producer and Publicity person on board: Elise Barton. Great. Some photographs taken - Rupert Reid, an actor, friend of Tom's. Thank god for friends when you are Co-oping.

We have to fit our rehearsals around our work schedules so that we can pay our bills. Tough. We all make monetary sacrifices to do this. For some of us mounting to considerable sums. Tom is using his savings to mount the show. "British Beer Commercials", Tom says. Fortunately, most of the scenes are two handers.

Fortunately, too, not much furniture needed. Or props.

Find a stage manager, Caitlin Chatfield, recent graduate. Quiet, but grows in stature and reliable confidence as we proceed. I greet everybody, every morning with cups of tea and biscuits, after having re-organised my lounge room for our work. Rehearsal finished, fleeing to the bus for work obligations - sometimes re-ordering the room for my partner's sake, sometimes not! Got caught out only once. Thought rehearsal was at 10am. No, they arrived at 8.55. Still in my bed underwear (not attractive) as I opened the door. "Make your own tea." I shower, dress, begin at 9.07. Not too late. LOve the idea of rehearsing in the house - so convenient. Hmmmm?

Secure a colleague from old, Pete Neville, to create the Sound Design. Relief - I know he is so great. He has created many of my productions. And I mean sometimes created them with the finish of his sound designs.

Find Lighting Designer, Rachel Smith. She, too, a recent graduate from drama school, although back at Uni studying. She has an assistant. Nothing too fancy can be done in the space.. Warm colours for lobby. Cold colours for street. Anything else you can do, do please. The desk lamp can it be put on a dimmer? Will check.

No Set Designer yet. Two weeks to go. Ahhhhh. Find a friend to help with costumes. Order some stuff from the US - mail order. Found, if we wanted, that we could purchase this great gun over the net, for $3,000.00! Ha, ha - as if! It even shot hand grenades!

Set Designer found, Christopher Pitcairn - he, too, from NIDA. He's just finished work on a big Musical Design for a Canberra company. We check out the tiny space together at the Tap, in the dark. Can't find the light switch. We have a coffee and cake chat. He's cool. Yes, one of his ancestors was on the ship that spotted Pitcairn - hence the name connection! He attends rehearsal in my lounge room and designs the set on his computer. I mean really cool. Its simple but good. Show the actors. He talks to Tom about money and finding the furniture.

Posters and cards from the printers. Very polished, I think. Handed out to all. Plan for dispersal. We have to hit Social Media - everybody calls their shots: Facebook, Twitter, what have you. (This is why I am writing this. Me, at my most sophisticated new-media self.)

Three weeks down. One to go. We move into rooms at THE HUB. Tidying the four handed scenes. Start to run the acts. This play is beautifully written. We have found an article on the net that floats the proposal that LOBBY HERO is the American play of the first decade of this century. Knocking over AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and others. We are prepared to run with that proposition. Come and see it to debate it with us. I certainly think it has legs to that claim. I've always thought it fascinating. Tremendous.

It is a play about four blue collar strugglers. The every men, the low men (Lomans) of the American Dream. In a lower depth in a lobby in Hell's Kitchen in New York just before the Towers came down. In fact this play opened just before the disaster - maybe that's why it got kinda lost to history. Jeff, William, Bill and Dawn all have aspirations to change the world, but find the world changes them. Inevitably. Almost, irresistibly. They try to tell the truth. The society forces them to inch over their ethical boundaries, even at this level. The aching humanity is quite disturbing. The writing of the dialogue is a minefield of complication for the actors in sorting the author's intentions. The vocabulary is very particular. The syntax - ellipse, pause, silence - forces the actors to think so often, that the performances appear to be spontaneous improvisations of dialogue in action. Hard to learn. Hard to perform. "Is that a pause and ellipse, or, just a pause, or, have you forgotten your lines?" "Don't speak, yet. I'm still acting. This ellipse into a Pause is killing me." "Oh."

Run the play. Oh, my. This play is good. Can we match it? Well we're not doing to badly. It is long. Two and a half hours. Plus an interval. Old School. Mr Lonergan's film MARGARET is 177 minutes long and it doesn't really feel like it. The human dilemmas are so real. True for us as well.  The play can flash by. That's our goal.

Uniforms arrive from the US. Hats not with them. Got the badges. Caught up in customs!!! Yikes.

Run Friday. Good. Pete came in to synchronise his plans for his sound.

Saturday, get graphic photograph, on the net, of Dorian's calf all bloodied and torn up after an accident with a glass coffee table! He'll 'soldier' in for another run Saturday night. Run, rough. All of us slightly dazed by Dorian's courage. Hmm. I run off to a friend's 50th birthday party. Get home. F***K! The Hot Water system has gone bung. "It is F***king winter, man." I begin to sound like the characters in the play.

Sunday, 6th July. Now. Contemplations of the week to come. Work in the morning 9-12 noon. Then:
Move into theatre on Monday afternoon. Venue not available till then. Rachel will set up lights. I will see the furniture etc for the set then, for the first time, though I have approved it on the internet. Pete can't get in to tech. He has a job that he has to do!!! Will have to tech the sound on Tuesday Afternoon. Make the Tuesday night a Dress Rehearsal with a few friends -that we can trust to love us!.Ha.

Wednesday, Preview.

Thursday, Opening NIght.

Some days I just want to kill myself. Other days I have quite a good time. Then - Ellipse - Pause. But, never, a Silence. My brain can't keep silent. Everything whirrs.

This is a modified account of my journey to present this terrific play with these great artists. This is a small insight for all of you who read my blog as to what is going on in this city, outside the major theatre companies to present work for you to see.

Consider the LOBBY HERO as a desirable object of your time over the next few weeks, please.

From 9th July - 27th July. Tues -Sat 7.30pm. Sun 5.00pm at the Tap Gallery . Corner of Palmer and Burton St. Darlinghurst, across the road from the Eternity Theatre.



LOBBY HERO has been developed with the co-operation of THE HUB - the Actor's Gym in City Rd. Chippendale.

Ruby's Wish

Photo by Steven Siewert
MAKEbeLIVE Productions in association with Belvoir presents RUBY'S WISH written by Holly Austin, Adriano Cappelletta and Jo Turner in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, 27th June - 2nd July.

This is a new Australian work from MAKEbeLIVE Productions. We last saw Holly Austin and Adriano Cappelletta in CuBBYHOuSE a few years ago, which like this show, RUBY'S WISH, was directed, by Jo Turner. Add Kate Sherman, and we have a performance team that tell a story inspired by a little girl in a hospital bed, that demonstrates the importance of play and imagination.

A little girl, Ruby, has a wish, but is stuck in a bed in a hospital, and forlornly can see no likelihood of it ever coming true. Her Dad (Adriano Cappelletta), is a fairly pragmatic non-believer in wishes and has little or no imagination, except in the depression of having to pay bills, and unthinkingly squashes Ruby's desire. Enter Dot, a nurse, who in real life is a wordsmith of inappropriateness, but when adopting the guise of a Dr Audio, equipped with a 'magical' jacket that can create worlds and worlds of sounds and music, so that nothing seems impossible - even for Ruby to achieve her deepest wish: a personal concert from her favourite singer in all the world, Katy Perry.

Ms Austin, Mr Cappelletta and Ms Sherman play a multiple number of characters, from floating clouds, a tooth fairy, mop monsters, and narrators, with the sophisticated assistance from Erth Visual and Physical Inc, with Puppetry of a magical order (Puppetry Director, Alice Osborne); a delightful, always shifting Setting and Costumes (Pip Runciman); the usual extraordinary sensitivity, craftsmanship and gorgeousness of Lighting from Verity Hampson; and a seamless Sound Design by Steve Francis. There is enchanting animation from Tim Watts, who, if you remember, made a sensational mark with his own show: THE ADVENTURES OF ALVIN SPUTNIK: DEEP SEA EXPLORER, too.

But most remarkable of all is the custom made six-loop magic jacket that helps Dr Audio create everything, with a finger press of some 'magic' buttons, from a jazz orchestra sound to beat box sensations, made by multitalented composer, designer and gadget-maker Annie McKinnon. It is marvel of 'magic' and it is this 'tool' that abets Ms Austin to transform into a delicately, delightful sprite of humour and imaginative play, with the magic of live 'treated' vocal noises. In contrast, the dour father figure of Mr Cappelletta's takes a journey which frees him into participating and creating the world for Ruby's wish to come true. Core and deliciously supportive is the wise and clever Ms Sherman, guiding this story forward over many, many, complications of development, adapting herself modestly to every task undertaken.

All the team, led by Mr Turner have created a work of much complexity in its deliverance, and one can see the two-year gestation of planning, discussion, experiment, commissioning and writing and rehearsing, coming to a beautiful fruition in the witnessing of the experience. I can vouch that I spilt a few gentle tears, some guffaws and had a full welling of feeling good and, relatively, an optimism about my world, at least while in the bewitching chamber of play and imagination of MAKEbeLIVE's world, that began depressingly, in what looked like a hospital ward.

The vision, the persistence the patience, the commitment, the love and joy of these artists has developed a simple gift for an audience of all ages and is a significant work to the creation of theatre that can inspire all. It's magic lies in the sheer humanity of the story and the hands-on human participation of all the artists in the storytelling and the open hearted invitation for all of us, the audience, to imagine and play with them.

One hopes it will appear on Sydney stages again, soon. Travel the world! It could use their simple, faithful, hopeful joy.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ruthless, The Musical

Photo by Blueprint Studios
Reginald Season 2014, Seymour Centre and The Theatre Division present RUTHLESS, THE MUSICAL. Book and Lyrics by Joel Paley. Music by Marvin Laird. In the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Road, Chippendale, June 19-July 5.

RUTHLESS, The Musical: Book and Lyrics by Joel Paley; Music by Marvin Laird, written in 1992, is one of those off-Broadway (that is New York, as opposed to being off the Sydney Broadway, just down the street to the Seymour Centre) musicals that can become, in a city where musicals are such a BIG part of their theatre diet (financial raison d'ĂȘtre?), a cult hit. It ran at the Players Theatre in New York (199 seat space) for some 342 performances (two of the understudies were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears! Wow! So long ago.)

The play is a kind of spoof / black comedy / self referencing "love-in" musical that, maybe, only musical theatre 'indulgees' could really, truly love. In this show, with an all female cast of 6, of ruthless women with the temperaments of Eve Harrington (one of the many in-jokes) and, THE Lady M.  - with blood on some of their hands, to achieve their ambitions - one of the characters, Lita Encore (Geraldine Turner) sings, I HATE MUSICALS. And the song/lyrics may, indeed, strike a visceral chord in many sitting there in the auditorium.

Now, if you follow my blog, you all should have assayed by now that musicals are my guilty pleasure. But they do have to have more than tongue-in-cheek to keep me totally happy. So, this show tried my patience in the first act, tempted me in the second, but, ultimately, had me nodding in agreement with Ms Encore, the show's theatre critic character, that I hate musicals - most of them, that is, especially of this kind.

The Theatre Division is a new creative organisation, led by Lisa Freshwater and Alistair Thomson, who began a conversation with the Musical Theatre Star (she is to me), Katrina Retallick (e.g. FALSETTOSDIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS; and NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY) and came up with this show as a project she would love to be involved with: RUTHLESS. And the central role of Judy Denmark, has all the teasers for an actress/singer/comedian to want to have a go at. It is the reason to see this production. Ms Retallick is a knock-out in every demand of the production, and then some ... .! Count in the extra joy and pleasure to see Geraldine Turner on stage again - and what a turn she gives in all of her great personal, inimitable style (just how much impact and poised energy does she bring to her milliner's stylish creation, or is it the other way round?) - plus, Caitlin Berry, Jade Gillis (who alternates the child role with Madison Russo), Meredith O'Reilly and Margi De Ferranti, particularly, as Myrna Thorne, and some pleasure can be anticipated.

 In summary, I think everything was ok, except the actual Book, Lyrics and Music - the Show. A pity. Set and Costume Design by Mason Browne, especially the costumes, are terrific; the Choreography by Christopher Horsey, tailored to this small space, is fun; whilst the Musical Direction, on a fairly ordinary score, led by Brad Miller, has control and balance. It is Directed by Lisa Freshwater whose last work I saw was BITTER/SWEET, a new musical in development, in 2010.

What with the Hayes Theatre, the work of Stephen Colyer, and now The Theatre Division, Musical Theatre is present in Sydney, and offering an affordable and production standard challenge to those BIG SHOWS we keep seeing repeating, repeating, and repeating. So, Best Wishes with the coming projects.


Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presents MOJO by Jez Butterworth in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 28th May-5th July.

MOJO by Jez Butterworth, first presented at the Royal Court Theatre, in 1995, has had a recent revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre, in London's West End. When first presented, the play was received as a high octane cocktail of testosterone - of equal combinations of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. It won some theatre prizes. Set in a seedy, struggling nightclub in the Soho sleaze of the late nineteen fifties, the overture to the 'swinging London' fame of yore, perhaps, taking inspiration from the world of the notorious Kray Brothers gang, and their famous club, Esmeralda's Barn, this Atlantic Club, run by Mickey, comes under stress when the other co-runner, Ezra, is found sawn in half, in some barrels in the alley behind the club, and the lead singer of the club's fledgling rock 'n roll band is missing (kidnapped?).

Panic, of gathering degrees, fed by fear and the exaggerations of drugs and alcohol, becomes the focus of the plot of the play. Potts (Josh McConville), Sweets (Ben O'Toole) and Skinny (Eamon Farren), under the guidance of Mickey (Tony Martin), attempt to salvage advantage in the dire circumstances, and slowly become aware of a surprising obstacle, opposition, from one of their own, Baby (Lindsay Farris), who happens to be the son of the dead Ezra, with his slow reveal of the 'possession' of the recaptured sybarite rock star, Silver Johnny (Jeremy Davidson), who they have been grooming as their 'honeypot' for cash and fame.

Mr Butterworth, in this first play of his, reveals his strong literary influence, Harold Pinter, in the content and structure of the work (Pinter actually appeared in a small role in the film of MOJO, directed by the writer in 1997). One can feel the influence of the Pinter early work, particularly: THE DUMB WAITER (1959), THE CARETAKER (1960), THE HOMECOMING (1965), as MOJO reveals its tense comedy and mounting sinister-isms. Suggestion and wordplay, space and speed, in the syntactical complications of the language, are expertly laid out for any production team to decipher and deliver.

Iain Sinclair, the Director of this production, brings Silver Johnny onto the stage to open the show with a rock 'n roll performance (by Jeremy Davidson, and his band the Snowdroppers). This is not how Mr Butterworth's play begins, and it may have been a mis-step on Mr Sinclair's part, for the growing stakes of this story is centred around the charismatic 'talents' of Silver Johnny, and, in the original play, we hear only the final moments, off-stage of the band, and are left with the power of our imagination as to the potential of the talent and sex appeal that causes such havoc and bloody deeds. The Snowdroppers and Mr Davidson, and his relative maturity, are not, possibly, equal to everyone's fantasy of youthful potential (this band was introduced to us as a stage presence in another Sinclair production: KILLER JOE, and must be a favourite of his, for him to bring them in from backstage to centre stage at the STC - the percussionist, Alon Ilsar, has a central role in noisemaking to build the tensions of the story plotting.)

The Set design (Pip Runciman), Costume (David Fleischer) and, especially, the wigs (Lauren A. Proietti) create an atmospheric reality of this past world.

However, what became clear, transpired, in the playing of this production, by this fine team of actors, was on one hand, the creation of totally believable characters, but, on the other hand, no real connection to the parallel attention to the actors' craft, in using the text as 'storytellers', to shape, with objective craft, the mounting and hilarious guide points that the writer has signalled, to tell that story. The directorial guidance to allow the material to score its comedy and to mount the malignant pressures, seemed to be ignored for speed, without relaxed opportunities (thought moments) for the audience to respond, or endow the developments with imaginative inspirations. We were told to 'look' at the play, not invited to 'read' the play for clues so that we could imaginatively participate in it. The disappointment in this production, that I saw late in its season, is surely, partly, the result of the late replacement of the actor Sam Haft with a younger performer, Lindsay Farris, who bravely makes an impression as a psychopathic Baby, but lacks the necessary weighty, present menace of the character, to establish, early in the play, the sensibilities necessary to raise the incidents of the play to the final Jacobean-like horrors - an agonising 'live' spillage of pints and pints of blood, to be, totally, plausible (although, well staged.) Too, the musical rhythms-tempos of this team of actors must have been terrifically altered by the new energy of a very different actor in this key role - although, by the time I saw the production, one could have expected more.

Mr Martin is very effective as Mickey, as is Mr Farren, with a fairly detailed creation of Skinny. Mr McConville has limited success with Potts, best as character, not so successful as the storyteller of the earliest sequences of the play. Perhaps, Mr O'Toole's Sweets, not quite on the demarcated 'ball' of difference in characterisation, is part causal of that  unusual disconnect of Mr McConville's.

So, this production whizzes through the play with some style but not enough thoughtful substance, and there is, if you read the text, in the playwriting, some (little) substance to this play, as well as that style. But, such is the imbalance to flash and dazzle in this production, that many critics and patrons have asked why do this play, at all, as part of the STC repertoire? What relevance has it to a Sydney audience in 2014? Why does Mr Sinclair, or, Mr Upton, believe a group of English low-life punks in a bloody orgy of drugs, sex and grunge in London, in the 1950's would be of delight or interest to a Sydney audience? Australia's appetite for TV's UNDERBELLY?

For, certainly, as demonstrated at the amateur New Theatre, last year, Mr Butterworth has moved onto bigger and better, even universal relevancies: JERUSALEM, for instance. MOJO has had a production here in Sydney before, so why not a production of a more important play of great critical acclaim staged by the leading and best financed Theatre Company in Australia: the STC, such as JERUSALEM? (The leading role, Rooster, one that Richard Roxburgh, a stalwart of the STC, for example, would 'eat' up). Is it just that Mr Upton, who had never read MOJO (some 19 years, after its first famous debut in London) - just "only heard about it" - until Mr Sinclair, "not a man to say no to", according to the program notes, has not, also, read JERUSALEM? Or, is it that one play has a cast of 6 while the other a cast of 14 (I won't tell you which has which! Guess.) - is too big an economic 'problem' for the STC, the leading Sydney theatre company, to consider? It is a constant wonder, is it not, to see the number of actors taking curtain calls on the stages of London that we witness on those Broadcasts to some of our cinemas? How paltry are the companies of the Sydney Theatre productions, eh? Or , Belvoir?

For those of you looking for thrills of a similar order to this MOJO's premise and structure, style, perhaps, Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) - maybe, another influence to Mr Butterworth's MOJO - or, his PULP FICTION (1994). Or, if you want to keep that British taste, though it will be a matter of taste (really), pull out Guy Ritchie's LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1995), or SNATCH (2000), or, ROCKNROLLA (2008). If you want a really more contemporary play of the type - gothic-horror grunge - perhaps a read of THE PITCHFORK DISNEY (1991), MERCURY FUR (2005), or PIRAHNA HEIGHTS by Philip Ridley might suffice.

All of these will cost far less than the cost of a ticket to the STC to see MOJO. I paid $99.00, plus, $10.00 for program. Total=$109.00 !!! Add, transport, for who of us real theatre goers have an Audi, or risk the parking costs/fines? There is no other public transport out of there, but a taxi! - some, $40.00 to my place, after 10pm. Ah well, all you subscribers know that, down at that HUB of ART - you need to be almost a millionaire to go there regularly. Add some dinner.  Maybe, another $40.00. What, a night out at the theatre = $189.00? Lucky, I went alone, I couldn't afford a date. It cost me more to see MOJO than THE GLASSS MENAGERIE in New York! Is that why most of the audience, in Wharf 1 were in the middle-aged and older bracket? No youth could afford the ticket. And who might be most likely attracted to this gothic rock 'n roll grunge show?

Q. "Why did you go then, Kevin, despite your prior knowledge as to the disputed qualities of this production, and the likely cost, that you had gathered from informants, critics, friends and the underground 'gossip' machine?

A. "Because, I love the theatre and want to support it. I liked the casting and was interested in the play  (mostly, because of the interesting reviews of the latest London production).

It can be really testing, to do that, though.  (ellipse). Pause.  (ellipse). "

                    A deep sigh.
                    Rattle of coins in pocket.