Saturday, August 30, 2014

ACO presents Steven Osborne in Recital

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) presents STEVEN OSBORNE in RECITAL at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 23 August.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) presented a one-off concert by Steven Osborne, playing the Olivier Messiaen 1944 composition for piano, VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT-JESUS.

This concert is the first real highlight of my performance year in 2014 - and, yikes, it is already the end of August! Fingers crossed for the rest of our calendar, eh?

My acquaintance with the work of Olivier Messiaen is, relatively, limited. I have heard some of his work - don't ask me what ! My little knowledge of his work is filtered through an understanding of his vigilant Roman Catholicism and love of Bird Song. VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT-JESUS is made up of twenty movements for piano, of different lengths, each with a contemplative title: Gaze of the Father; Gaze of the Cross; Gaze of the Spirit of Joy; Gaze of the Prophets; Gaze of the Church etc. They are usually played in groups of five with a short rest between each. Mr Osborne played all with no break at all - a muscular, an Herculean performance, indeed.

This solo performance began at 7.30pm and was completed almost two an a quarter hours later. It is, measurably, a long 'time'. However, I must confess that experientially this 'time' in the Verbrugghen Hall with Messiaen and Osborne flew by as "... a full and interesting content can put wings to the hours...", giving one the observational opportunity to sense all the changes in the music in the midst of its duration, of 'time' both as flowing and persisting, and of recurrence in continuity. The tensions of potential, and kinetic stillness, and pause. Of rushing, rattling pell mells of calamitous recklessness. Of crashing and concussed noises reverberating the instrument as if it was possessed of an orchestral spectrum. Of fading crescendos to nothings of nothingnesses. Of delicate trills and notes. Of all the musical variations, that produced a kind of awesomeness - AWE - that was unique, odd, powerful, disconcerting, challenging, mesmerising, and inspiring. It was Inspired. I was inspired.

In my ignorant reveries, during this concert, because of my small  knowledge of the history of music, or the theories of music, or the innovations of music, and Olivier Messiaen's place in it, my 'journey' with Messiaen and Osborne was, instead, imaginatively sprung and transported, entirely from my pre-noting of the year of composition.

Noting that it was in the time of Nazi occupation, in Vichy Paris, and that Messiaen had been freed from a prisoner-of-war camp, in May 1941, and shortly after repatriation, started teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, where one of his first students was a brilliant 17-year old pianist, Yvonne Loriod - Ms Loriod was to become a leading exponent of his music, the first to play this work (and his second wife -1961). The Allies invaded France in April, 1944. Paris was liberated in the summer of 1944. VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT-JESUS was composed rapidly between March and September, 1944 - the spring and summer of 1944 - as the allies moved forward to the city.

So, whilst listening, I became engaged with the dimensions of the piano sounds - truly piano and forte - and conjured the realities of a war zone, of the times of battle noise and catastrophe, of fear and confrontation with death, that was contrasted with the times of stillness, pregnant tensions, and the gentle, pleasing optimisms made, perhaps, by nature's fauna - birds - re-claimings of the aural spaces in the in-between respites from the human violent collisions. The sounds created for me, vivid cinematic images of the realities of the times of the composition, with hardly a "gaze" of religious contemplation of a God and the wonder of that invention, but rather of the stupidities and terrors of animal man. (The Middle East and the Ukraine were raised in my imaginative mixture!) Interestingly, I later read that Messiaen was an experiencer of synasthesia - i.e. perceptions of colours when he heard certain musical chords - for the images I conjured were in colours, not in the more familiar black and white documentary format! I am not usually, a 'synasthetic'. (I, too, heard echoes of Debussy, suggestions of remembered Shostakovich, and the jazz rhythms of say, Gershwin - I recalled music by Toru Takemitsu, in my CD collection).

The performance by Steven Osborne was one of muscular athleticism and control, mentally focused laser-like in its pursuit of accuracies and feeling. Breathtaking technique harnessing explosive passions - big and little. The sheer physical demonstrations of the usage of the whole of his body (and spirit) were enthralling and majestically daunting to watch, a theatrical tour de force. The hypnotic performance energies and technique displays - shoulders, arms, hands and fingers/ legs, feet (on pedals) - combined with my imaginative cinematic imagery made for a night where time was intensely experienced with welts and caresses of sound, juxtaposed with silences, and was fleeted away into a kind of loss of a time perspective. I don't believe that I have ever listened so well before, for so long a measurable time.

I was truly startled that I had been transported away, for over 2 hours, from the concert hall. In the pause at the end of the music, the sound of outdoor, outside, fireworks penetrated the acoustics of this auditorium and my consciousness. It was those sounds that brought me back to my reality: sitting in a seat in the Verbrugghen Hall, in Sydney.

The ACO's presentation of Steven Osborne in Recital, playing VINGT REGARDS DE L'ENFANT-JESUS, has become one of the treasured gifts of my theatre going.

And, thanks.

My only depression, for the night, was to look around at the conclusion of the concert and be forced to ask: Why was the Verbrugghen Hall not bursting at the seams with audience? It was Sydney, I guessed, as I moved back into the foyer of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and I supposed they were out watching the free fireworks at Darling Harbour, or something. Football? TV? Go figure. There has to be more music lovers, lovers of exceptional experiences, than us few in the Verbrugghen Hall, in Sydney, does there not? Sadly, it seemed not.

(P.S. I must acknowledge the page turner of the music - whoever she is - and her focused contribution to the choreography of my experience - it would be remiss of me not to do so, for in my joyful recall, she is there).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Intimate Letters

AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA (ACO) in association with Bell Shakespeare presents INTIMATE LETTERS at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. 24 August, Sydney Opera House, 26 - 30th August at City Recital Hall, Angel Place.

The Australian Chamber orchestra (ACO) with Bell Shakespeare presented a program of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bedrich Smetana, and Leos Janacek, accompanied by the reading of some letters from the composers, which contextualised the writing of the compositions. The orchestra lead by Guest Director and Violin, Gordan Nikolic.

Sixteen year old Mozart composed Divertimento in F major, K. 138 (1772). Composed, for four separate string parts - first violin, second violin, viola and unspecified 'bass' - it could be played by one instrument of each as a quartet, or, as in this instance, by a string band. The three movements are recognisably the light, attractive Mozartian sound that always seems to call up, for me, the feelings of youth and optimism. A letter, read by Ella Scott Lynch, from Mozart to his sister, at the time of this composition, registers the banal, childish and playful personality of this musical prodigy, in astonishing contrast to the sophistication of his musical composition, and recalls quite vividly, the spirited invention, by Peter Shaffer, of Mozart in his play, AMADEUS (1979).

The next work, String Quartet No.1 in F minor, Z meho Zivota (From my Life) - 1876, was introduced by a letter from the Czech, Smetana, telling us of his diagnosed profound and permanent deafness, complicated with "a terrifying non-physical sound world of constant 'shriekings, whistles and ghastly bawling inside his head'," read by Marshall Napier. The music was a wonderfully moving work. Beautiful.

After the interval, the Leos Janacek String Quartet No.2 Listy duverne (Intimate letters) - 1928. In 1917, at the age of 63, Janacek, conceived 'a passionate friendship' for a 25 year old woman Kamilla Stosslova. In over 700 letters over the next 10 years a correspondence was carried out - the obsession never was permitted to go beyond that of 'a chivalrous devotion'. Introducing the work and between each of the four movements, letters of devotion and deflection were read by the actors - from Janacek, expressing "a friendship as necessary to my life as air or water." and that "It is just as well that it is only I who am infatuated". From Kamilla, ambiguous and sometimes playful rejections and/or encouragements.

The letters read in this concert, were only a slightly interesting accompaniment to the music, and at best, simply, contextualised the human motivation behind the compositions. (Well, the Mozart letter, really did not even do that!) That the readings selected, particularly in the Janacek performance, interfered with the experiential musical flow of the four movements, raised the question of their usefulness, except as a novelty exercise: distracting us from the hearing of the musical invention, ingenuities, rather than a qualitative asset to the experience. Really, if I wanted to know more about the composer, or the music, reading it in a program, at my leisure, would have been my preferred option. (Particularly, as the ACO do not charge for the program notes). The readings from the actors were pleasantly competent: Ms Scott Lynch, animated and sprightly, if a little over emphatic textually; Mr Marshall adequately weighted, but slightly, absent. - a 'flat' reader. The perfunctory staging by Director, Peter Evans, and assistant, Susanna Dowling, seemed unnecessary, and ultimately, boringly predictable in its choreography.

The Smetana, gave the concert, great beauty.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wolf Lullaby

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre present WOLF LULLABY by Hilary Bell at the New Theatre, Newtown. 19th August - 13th September.

WOLF LULLABY was written by Australian writer, Hilary Bell in 1996.

The play deals with the unheard cries of a little child, Lizzie Gael, living in the country regions of Tasmania. A neglected child, from a broken relationship, 'act-outs' her emotional unsettledness, with some behavioural transgressions, misread or ignored, by the authorities, which, ultimately, culminates in the murder of a young child. Ms Bell, charts in a collection of scenes these events, and the consequences, aftermath, for the survivors of such a 'terrible' deed in a straight forward, chronological narrative manner, with the magical world of a wolf, that haunts the little girl, Lizzie, in her alternate, imaginative world, included. There is some small discussion around Nature versus Nurture, recalling, for me, faint memories of the character of Rhoda, and her mother, from the 1954 novel, THE BAD SEED by William March (dramatised, by Maxwell Anderson - 1954; and adapted for screen, directed by Mervyn LeRoy - 1958). Is there such a thing as evil; an "evil child"?

In her later work, Ms Bell reveals a fascination that sits real life stories alongside the liminal world of children's folk tales and stories, and the shadows of some of the creatures of those worlds that occupy them. WOLF LULLABY, an early work, introduces that creative obsession, which is to follow in her later work, e.g. THE SPLINTER.

WOLF LULLABY feels, in 2014, oversimplified and outdated,  and under researched - regarding the motivations and consequences of all involved: for instance, the police interview and investigations appear, uncomfortably, improper in practice; and the psychological 'sanctuaries', opportunities, for the family, and each of the individuals, on offer in our contemporary world has certainly moved forward, since 1996.

Gitta Sereny in her book, CRIES UNHEARD, published in 1998, concerning the case of Mary Bell, who, in 1968, with another young girl, murdered two young boys in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the UK, offers a much more sophisticated examination of the evolving circumstances/world of the 'child killer', than Ms Bell attempts here. (This was Ms Sereny's second book concerning that case. The first: IN THE CASE OF MARY BELL was published in 1972.) And, although, different in structure, the Dennis Kelly play DNA (2007), dealing with children who kill, was a much more satisfactory investigation/dramatisation.

In the contemporary limitations of the writing, Emma Louse, as a first-time Director, has created a competent production. It did hold us in a respectful attention - but, then, the disturbing subject matter demands, at least, that. All of the design elements, the Set Design, by Alan Walpole; Lighting by Heidi Brosnan; the joint Sound Design by Chelsea Reed and Alexander Tweedale, while functional appear just a trifle 'over weighted'. The performances from Maryellen George (Lizzie Gael), Lucy Miller (Angela Gael), David Woodland (Warren Gael), and Peter McAllum (Sergeant Ray Armstrong) are solid, if not complexly motivated or played.


Gitta Sereny, 1998, Cries Unheard - Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Keep Everything

Photography by Jeff Busby

Performance Space and Mobile States present Chunky Move's KEEP EVERYTHING at Carriageworks, Redfern, Sydney. 13 August - 16 August.

Chunky Move is a Melbourne based contemporary dance company lead by Anouk van Dijk. KEEP EVERYTHING was part of the 2013 Next Move commission, and is a new work by Director and Choreographer, Antony Hamilton.

The program notes tells us that:
this work has been developed intuitively with little editing and the result is a stream of consciousness style of dance which shows that, sometimes, it's important to keep everything.
Or, arguably, not. Three dancers, Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe, heroically and inventively blend spoken word, improvised movement and repetition for nearly an hour duration, to the thumping score by Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes. The visual aesthetic is enhanced with voluminous theatre smoke, and the lighting design of Benjamin Cisterne, and a simple AV Design of synchronised lights on a white floor by Robin Fox.

Supposedly, KEEP EVERYTHING, "traces human development from primates to robots and back again." It may do, if one was able to care. Certainly, the athleticism and the concentrated synchronisation of the dancers is impressive. But, essentially, the endurance feat was what amazed me and caused me to applaud. The work itself was too extended, repetitive and, perhaps, too respectful in presenting everybody's contribution to the task. While being polite to the artists, it was accumulatively tiresome for the audience - having to watch the installation light show on the clouds of theatre smoke, of the AV lights, synchronised to the sound beats became more than a trifle boring, too soon, the dancers, presumably, resting/catching breath, in the shrouded background. With an edit of some 10-15 minutes this work might capture the imagination, but in this form it allows a restless mind to move on to other things - like, for instance, how cold the auditorium was.

KEEP EVERYTHING, a striking physical feat from the dancers, over-wrapped in displayed design elements.


Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst. 8 August - 7 September.

CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne, directed by Anthony Skuse at the Eternity Playhouse, is just the kind of play and production that we have been awaiting to happen in this new space, after an inaugural season of repeats and unsatisfactory productions. A new work. A challenging work. A well written, well directed and well acted evening in the theatre.

The Play is the Thing, I always say.

And, firstly, CONSTELLATIONS is an astonishing PLAY. It concerns the meeting of Roland (Sam O'Sullivan) and Marianne (Emma Palmer) at a barbecue, and then traces their relationship through to its  near end. It has a classic rom-com 'spine', with a very powerful, funny and, ultimately, emotional wallop. Add, some stimulating science theory and demonstration, and a provocative and enlightening time can be had.

Roland is a beekeeper - a fairly ordinary, but charming, happy bloke. Marianne is a scientist investigating, amongst other things, string theory and the idea of the 'multiverse'. This text, playing for about 80, or so minutes, introduces the meeting and subsequent journeys of these two people, and examples string theory, which, works not on the idea of time as linear (as we know it), but as a possibility of loops. Thus, for example, that first barbecue encounter, in the play, is played for us in many different versions: word changes, misapprehensions, tone etc that can, does, all lead to different possibilities - an idea of a "... hypothetical set of possible universes (including the historical universe we consistently experience) that together comprise everything that exists and can exist ..." It is an intriguing experience to sit in a theatre in Sydney, and be asked to THINK - grapple with scientific theories of some import; entomological observations of bees - whilst, because of the repetitions of the possibles in the given events of the play, we become deeply emotionally attached to Roland and Marianne. Our 'objective' brain and our 'subjective' brain simultaneously integrated to a wonder filled catharsis.

Secondly, the two performances of the two actors, Mr O'Sullivan and Ms Palmer are an exemplar of technical prowess and interdependent empathy. Ms Palmer riding through the many 'games' of possibilities with Mr O'Sullivan, also, then, takes on impeccably and seamlessly the verbal and thinking symptoms of an encroaching illness, expressive aphasia, that Marianne discovers she is suffering from. It is a focused and disciplined tour de force from Ms Palmer, beautifully supported and counter-pointed by Mr O'Sullivan. Worth catching, sharing.

Thirdly, Mr Skuse, in his careful approach to the complexities of the writer, has created with his Designer, Gez Xavier Mansfield, a simple raked floor space, whilst stripping back the stage area to the actual building's 'sacred' remnants, which gives the play an imaginative boost into the realm of the constellations of the wonders of the universe. Sara Swerksky's lighting is luminous and deft in creating the illusions of time changes, leaps and repeats of action. Marty Jamieson's simple sound design, too, assists us in adjusting to the textual 'games' - although the Overture (from, The Barber of Seville- 1816) seemed a little too bombastic for what was to come.

Several weeks ago while talking of EVERY SECOND, also, presented here in this theatre, I alluded to the great and intelligent writing happening around the world and opined the output of our Australian repertoire that the 'gatekeepers' are letting through onto our stages. Nick Payne is one of many of the new voices from elsewhere. His new play INCOGNITO, too, is a stunner, as is, apparently, his 45 minute monologue, presented at the Royal Court, in July: THE ART OF DYING. That the Independent Theatre scene is finding and presenting play scripts of such quality, in productions of such integrity, is a growing power and alternative choice for Sydney audiences, to the major, funded companies, and their less satisfactory play choices and productions.

Do not miss this play.

Go early, for it is, truly, worth a second visit.

Intricate, intellectually stimulating and moving.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Joan, Again

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey
subtlenuance in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company presents JOAN, AGAIN at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo. 5 - 23 August.

JOAN, AGAIN is a new Australian work by Paul Gilchrist.

Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; she convinced the French hierarchy, at the age of 16, to permit her to lead an army against the English invaders; she defeated the English at Orleans; she arranged the crowning of King Charles the Seventh, in the Cathedral at Rheims, heralding (in hindsight) the uniting of the French as a Nation; she was, subsequently, captured and imprisoned by the English, and was duly prosecuted for heresy, witchcraft and sorcery, at Rouen in 1431, and burnt at the stake. She was only 19 years old at her death and famous throughout Western Europe! Burnt says G.B. Shaw ".. essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption ... there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable."

The writer of JOAN, AGAIN, Paul Gilchrist, tells us that in the twenty years following the death of Joan, "... there were at least four impostors who claimed to be her." This play is a fictional invention about a young woman who claims to be Joan. The effect that this Joan has on the lives of the people of a small village, highlighting their weaknesses, prejudices and need to believe, to bear their lives, is the principal action of the play, and suggests that the reputation of the real Joan makes unbearability of her reappearance, rather than her being miraculous, a saint, the more likely option of opinion.

Mr Gilchrist has written a play for nine actors and all of the roles have some generosity of opportunity to want to play - he writes for actors - and have a variety of contrasting recognisable type. The play has  some wit and beginnings of intriguing argument. Indeed, it has some potential, and kept my attention with the awakening in me of a slight pleasure of remembrance of the well made play of a little time past, say a Rattigan, Anouilh or Harwood. However, Mr Gilchrist needs a tougher dramaturgical guide, as the writing often gets distracted from its core ideas to indulge character, comedy and the writer's poetic penchant. If the writing were to have a stronger edit to issue and argument, a keener shaping of character development and consequence, the play could have a possibility of a further life.

This subtlenuance production directed by the writer, however, requires, a tougher third eye, and certainly a more experienced cast. The acting is very varied in skill. Too many of the company merely recite the text as a kind of generalised memory demonstration, with no three dimensional creation of a back story or life force - so, the weaknesses in the dramaturgy of the writing is more nakedly revealed. The production is crippled by these weakest links no matter the effort by the more experienced performers.

Interesting but not compelling.

Mr Kolpert

Photography by Gez Xavier Mansfield

pantsguys Productions and atyp Selects presents MR KOLPERT by David Gieselmann, translated by David Tushingham, at the atyp studio, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

MR KOLPERT by David Gieselmann, translated by David Tushingham is a black comedy written in 2000, from Germany.

A couple Ralph Droht (Tim Reuben) and Sarah Kenner (Claire Lovering) live in a sparely furnished apartment, so spare, in this production, that it has only one door(!) - which did cause some architectural problems for the audience, trying to sort out the front door from the living room, bathroom, internal apartment doors etc - ignoring the writer's, Mr Gieselmann's instructions - and features a large, supposedly, antique trunk (Set and Costume Design is by Antoinette Barboutis -from experience, I've found, that ignoring and or altering a writer's floorplan and demands, especially for comedy, even more especially, for farce, is done at great risk and courts an imminent disaster.) They have invited Edith Mole (Paige Gardiner) and Bastian Mole (Garth Holcombe) over for dinner, but have no food in the house. They decide that buying in pizza will do, since the reason for having the guests over, is to have them as 'entertainment' - in a kind of 'get the guest' game like Martha and George's games in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?. They, indeed, welcome their guests with:
"Come in. We've loads of room. There's nothing here but a dead body." 
Now, there is a welcoming entrance line! The dead body may be in the trunk! - the Patrick Hamilton play, ROPE, with its Nietzsche UBERMENSCH (Superman) theories comes to mind. This trunk, however, emanates loud knocking noises, so, is there a live body in the trunk?

We never get to solve the knocking, for we later discover the trunk is empty, and the body of Mr Kolpert, is, instead, in the refrigerator! Surreal black comedy/or, supernatural noises, then? Comic word games involving numbers and an hilarious pizza-ordering routine. The watching of the bloody murdering of three people, one, accompanied with an 'horrific' cannibalistic 'ballet' and pop song lip-syncing - boy, Mr Tarantino and his RESERVOIR DOGS have a lot to answer for, homage is sometimes just too gratuitous! don't you think?  Then, the ultimate sight of three naked living, breathing bodies.The 'magic' hokum of shifts into mysterious UV-lighting (Lighting Design by Benjamin Brockman), and add directed mayhem from this production, performed in 2D, by most of the actors, and one is bludgeoned, forced to ask: WHY?

Why has pantsguys thought this is a play we need to see? Why am I sitting here at atyp, watching this production of this play, in 2014? First seen in 2003, in a production for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), directed by Benedict Andrews, this production feels, strangely, outmoded, outdated. The world of theatre, cinema, home x-box games, in fact, real life-live contemporary atrocities, have continued to surpass the dramaturgy of this play. The experience of this production caused me to think the only reason pantsguys had to to perform MR KOLPERT was because they can and they want to. That they want to is in the proof that this pudding-production exists. That they can, is debatable.

The moral of the play is, perhaps, that our society has reached an evolving state of numbness, where such bloody games have become a 'normal' part of our society - accepted by us, as unshockingly normal, and are now, simply, an hilarious black-comic entertainment. That stripped naked we are just vulnerable animals, capable of really silly, extreme things - ha,ha! (Interesting, I thought, that in the play text, Mr Gieselmann has the perpetrators of all this 'post modern' behaviour not only naked but "weeping" at the end - this group of actors did not finish that way. Naked, yes - shock and horror! - despite the banality of the over usage of that metaphor in recent Sydney theatre presentations - e.g. EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY - but not weeping). If the intellectual seriousness of this writing had been a more apparent spine for the choices of this production there may have been a more palatable balance to the offers from this team of artists. The laughs seemed to be the principal focus of the actors actions and really were not often enough to ever sustain one's care or interest.

James Dalton, who seems to have a morbid obsession with stage blood and gore - A BUTCHER OF DISTINCTION, a much more interesting excursion into this territory by him - directs MR KOLPERT, so that Mr Holcombe seems to overpitch; Ms Gardiner overplay; Mr Reuben, underplay, and Ms Lovering, and Eden Lacey, as The Pizza Man, to play, relatively, well - he gives the most satisfying performance of the night, he seems to bring dimension to his creation - a human being, not a cartooned, shallow caricature. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the corpse of Mr Kolpert, impersonated by Tom Christopherson, came to life, and was seen to assist his delivery into the trunk, undermining the gruesome efforts of his bloody body paint, that indicated his demise.

I did not have a good time watching this production. So bemused was I, that I borrowed the play text to try to discover why. However, I did not enjoy reading the play either, so maybe this work is just not my cup of tea. There is apparent and considerable effort going on here from all the artists, but too no arrest of my aesthetic. Some of you might find otherwise. Take a chance and debate it. I did enjoy the nonsense of Mr Gieselmann's THE PIGEONS, up at the Griffin a few years back.

So, hmmmm?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Four Places

Photo by Richard Farland
Outhouse Theatre Company presents FOUR PLACES by Joel Drake Johnson at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst. 29 July -10 August.

This chamber play, FOUR PLACES, by American writer, Joel Drake Johnson, is a subtly moving comic-tragedy about family and all of its secret lives. That of the four places at a restaurant luncheon: A daughter, Ellen (Amanda Stephens Lee), a son, Warren (Jeremy Waters), a mother, Peggy (Kim Hilllas) and the absent centre of need, the father - not seen or heard, but the catalyst of the subject matter of the play. We get to know the secret lives (motivations) of each, and, also, the collective secret of a family with all of its ways and means to survive as a unit gradually revealed.

The family, especially in the American theatre repertoire, is a core 'tool' for the examination of a nation's concerns: O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Albee's A DELICATE BALANCE, Shepard's BURIED CHILD, for instance. In Mr Johnson's play he shows us a family with limited time to resolve its patterns, perhaps, tell, reveal  its secrets - it is a play about a family looking to endings.

The performances by this company, including that of Briony Williams, as the restaurant hostess, are delicately plotted, under the steady guidance of the Director, Nicholas Hope. The secrets of this play gradually are heaped upon us to bring us to a place of fretting poignancy, a contemplative place of deep feelings, that may bring guilts and/or a sense of urgency about oneself and one's own family history and its secrets. Ms Hillas, at the centre of the play - I have not seen her before - gives a fairly impressive central performance, humorous, waspish, caring, bitter, exhausted, distressed - a portrait of a bewildered soul. Whilst the anxieties of her children are also brought into focus, with Mr Waters, especially, clear in his progress through a painful arc of character journey.

The Set design by Tom Bannerman is a small miracle of ingenuity and apt function - a small revolve floor in the Tap gallery space - amazing. It needs to be seen to be believed. It is sensitively lit by Rachel Smith and supported with a subtle sound design by Peter Neville.

At only ninety minutes without interval, this is a gem of a play by a writer we have not seen before and worth the time to meet and get to know. FOUR PLACES has "a big, beating, bloody heart at its core" and one which all of us will recognise whether we like it or not.

Do go.


Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Bell Shakespeare presents TARTUFFE, The Hypocrite, by Moliere, in a New Version, by Justin Fleming, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 26 July -23 August.

TARTUFFE - The Hypocrite is a New Version of the Moliere play (1664) by Australian playwright, Justin Fleming, which was first presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) in 2008, as THE HYPOCRITE. It is now to be seen, presented by The Bell Shakespeare Company, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. Peter Evans, Co-Artistic Director of the Bell Company, once again directs, and this production, maybe, even better!

Firstly, and gleefully, this version of the text is a sensationally Aussie vulgarism of  style and vocabulary, and even verse structures, that still seems to have all the bright aptness of Moliere - I am no expert, of course - the Miles Malleson version (1960), the American translator, Richard Wilbur (1963), and the Signet Classic version by Donald M. Frame (2000) are what I have known before. I was caught laughing, often, out loud - as much for the comedy, as for the effect of the sheer audacity/surprises of some of the literary constructions crafted by Mr Fleming. I really, truly enjoyed myself very much. I was surprised, for Moliere has not always been 'my cup of tea' , although I, too, enjoyed Mr Fleming's version of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES by the Bell Shakespeare Company, in 2012.

All kudos, then, to Mr Fleming, indeed. A double congratulations.

The Set Design by Anna Cordingley, sweeps across the entire width of the Drama Theatre stage, providing a background of decaying, gaudy walls of red and gold. In the front is a collection of oversized furniture: an huge armoire, that on the opening of its large doors reveals, consecutively, wittily, various locations/settings for the action of the play; a toppled clock case - it provides a hiding place to over hear things; and a gigantic wheeled Chesterfield couch, that seats almost all the company at once! The 'look' provides a context for this production that has a foot in an inferred historic time and in its present pulse (the joke of the App screen was a trifle over-stated and over stayed its welcome). The costumes are, all, a clever mix of then and now, too - mostly, now (Kate Aubrey, is credited as an assistant to Ms Cordingley in the Design of this production). Lighting is by Paul Jackson, and the Composer is Kelly Ryall, who moves things along with a pastiche of the classic with some modern noises!

From the first scene when Jennifer Hagan, as pious Aunt Pernelle, in elegant full length evening dress and cloak strides onto the stage and bewitches us with her verbal dexterity and wit, her sense of timing, magnificent, decorated with physical gestures of some mastery to assist our comprehension to the word play, and more especially, conducting us, teaching us to give us, subliminally, a firm foundation to hear, it seems miraculously, the structures of Mr Fleming's writer's forms, we are, then, handed by her to each of the company who, too, have a practiced delight and relished skill for all the language circumlocutions, sparks and 'spurs': Robert Jago (Cleante), Kate Mulvany (Dorine), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Charlie Garber (Damis), Sean O'Shea (Orgon), Helen Dallimore (Elmire), Tom Hobbs (Valere), and Leon Ford (Tartuffe). Support, too, from Russell Smith and Scott Witt in smaller contributions.

Ms Mulvany, as Dorine, delights in the traditional 'naughty' servant role with comic assurances, both, verbally and physically; Sean O'Shea, as the duped Master of the House, brings gentle comedy and a kind of pathos to Orgon's simplicity of belief; whilst, Leon Ford is both elegant and eloquently equipped to reveal the cleverly duplicitous social and religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, who has an insatiable appetite for personal aggrandisement both of a personal and capitalist kind - the sexual grotesqueries of Tartuffe's attempted seduction of Elmire are both oddly alluring and, yet, repulsive, all, at the same time. Ms Dallimore is a match to Mr Ford, in her contributions to this climatic episode of exposure - an hilarious triumph, for both actors. But, in truth, all make a remarkable dextrous ensemble. This is the strongest casting of a Bell production for some time - it gave us a splendid night. (N.B. This production will be only seen in Sydney - maybe a reason for its strong casting - no tour!).)

I hold reservations with the function of Mr Witt's blithely supercilious, tedious 'clown' with candle, employed by Mr Evans, to cover scene changes, and did feel, that to play the 'deus ex machina', the God in the machine - the Figure of Judgement, in the climatic episode of the play - Mr Witt ought to have had the crowning verbal weight and power of a god - but, it was not to be, so the text and the crowning comedy of Mr Fleming's jokey homage to Shakespeare was, mostly, diffused and lost - best if Mr Bell had, himself, taken it on, (I wonder if Laurence would have?) for the production/play point to succeed - a god indeed?

The hypocrisy that Moliere dared to expose in the court theatre of Louis XIV, so offended so many of his powerful enemies, that the play was banned from performance for many years. I felt that Moliere's play had still terrible relevance in the Drama Theatre, in a week where we have had the publishing of HE WHO MUST BE OBEID ( Kate McClymont and Linton Besser - Random House); and the taking of the boat refugees to Nauru, via Australia; a truly shocking submission to Gillian Triggs of the Human Rights Commission as to the medical conditions provided for children under our care; let alone our elected government's policies concerning the unemployed and poor of our community - led by declared Christian faithfuls as Federal Government Ministers of responsibility, led, as some wag had told me, by 2 bishops, an abbot(t), and educated Jesuit men. The family of Orgon is so enmeshed in the machinations of Tartuffe, in this cauterising comic fiction, that only the theatrical intervention of the 'deus ex machina' can clean up the mess and save Orgon and his family from total ruin - I wondered what can save our mess, our conscience and reputations in our, only, too real world - a Godly intervention, ha, ha! - Not bloody likely. A war, perhaps?! (Tomorrow is August 4th - 100 years since the start of the War to End All Wars.)

This TARTUFFE from the Bell Company is a wonderful and timely presentation, and despite the knowledge that you may be made more aware that our own values are being right-royally 'tartuffed', the outrageousness of this version of Moliere's play is a must to be caught. Its pertinence appreciated.

Highly recommended. Don't miss it.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Every Second

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Michael Sieders presents EVERY SECOND by Vanessa Bates at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, 27 June - 27 July.

In June, 2010, the Writer/Director double of Vanessa Bates and Shannon Murphy brought us PORN.CAKE, and have now collaborated to present a new play: EVERY SECOND. PORN.CAKE was a comic 'meringue', its success benefitting enormously from the energy that can be combusted  around and in the small space of the SBW Stables - it was able, in there, to be comically fun and seductive, (durable) despite the slightness of the content pre-occupation. EVERY SECOND has had its premiere production, in Sydney, in the new, much more open, proscenium arch design, of the 200 seat, Eternity Playhouse. This play and production, then, in this much larger space does not, unfortunately, seduce us quite so easily, if at all.

EVERY SECOND concerns itself with two married couples who make close acquaintance during the trauma of IVF treatment. Jen (Georgina Symes) and Bill (Glen Hazeldine), a couple in their early to mid forties, and Meg (Julia Ohannessian) and Bill (Simon Corfield), in their mid-to-late thirties, who have turned to the miracles of medical science to have a baby, their own nature driven biological resources not having been able to create one. One couple succeeds (with twins) and the other, not.

The traumas of this modern medical intervention, are the background to Ms Bates' play, which is rather, preoccupied and passionately interested in a kind of comic burlesquing - verbal and physical - of the realities of the complicated psychic and physical trials and tribulations (humiliations, indignities) of the medical intrusions and methods of IVF treatment, for a certain privileged class of Australians.

We watch a couple, twice, demonstrably, lengthily, (comically?) have sexual intercourse, (with side comments about his mother, spoiling the action!) in the pursuit of the fertilizing of an egg with sperm; we, even, are treated to a dance diversion, a ballet of the battle of the sperm, the actors in costumes, by Rita Carmody, reminiscent of Woody Allen's 1972 film, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, in their race to scoring a bulls eye with an egg, choreographed by Sam Chester, to a mock ballet score treatment, by Composer/Sound Designer, Tiernan Cross. Indeed, Mr Cross' score is a useful provocation (of a film score density) to the lightweight TV sit-com nature of the material - it does much to permit the audience to endure the 'fluffy' treatment around some of the serious modern experiences of IVF patients: infidelity, a marriage crack-up and re-approachment, a night club 'rampage', a debate around the acquiring of a dog or cat as a stand-by substitute whilst waiting for the medical 'miracle', with just the right pertinent jokey tone of tongue-firmly-in-cheek - very TV's MODERN FAMILY, I thought.

However, whether the set design, of what looked like a homage, token, to the post revolutionary set design of the Russian Constructivists (particularly, Viktor Shestakov) - a movement that asserted that 'the machine is more like an animate object organism ... (that) today's machines are far more alive than the people who build them' (1) - an ironic design statement about the mechanical 'tools' of artificial insemination, perhaps? from Designer, Andy McDonell - with his stunted wooden spirals mirrored on the Eternity Theatre stage, is useful or not to the fluid movement of the actors in the production, is debatable.  (Certainly, these actors proved themselves very agile in the darkness). Verity Hampson, works with the complications of this design and solves admirably, the necessary task of focusing the lighting, for the audiences to attend to the action of the actors in the otherwise wide open space of this theatre.

I saw this production at its penultimate performance. Mr Hazeldine, as usual, gave a sophisticated and detailed reading of his responsibilities, and despite his relatively underwritten role, and the comic tone  of the direction by Ms Murphy - entertain the audience at all other costs - still emanated a kind of sad truth to Bill's position. His craft skills measured the theatre requirements and shaped the effort to communicate the 'clues' of his performance well. What the other actors, generally lacked, was a consistent vocal energy dynamic, and clear physical offers, for comic communication, or otherwise, to consistently arrest our attention. It was difficult to attend to them, care for them, as they played  as if they were performing for a television camera instead of in a large theatre. No real precision of consistent craft going on. Dull. However, to be fair, the play did score some sporadic laughter on the night I saw it - the reference to Zumba dance classes scoring the loudest response!

I pondered, during the performance, as I tired of the experience, what the opportunity this subject matter offered, albeit, to a fairly limited audience concern - the rich, comfortable middle-class, who deserve  to have whatever they want because they can. I DESERVE IT, DARLING. Ms Murphy quotes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, "We have to get personal with each other, its about you and me, our stuff, our stories ... because we're talking about life, and we're trying to make art out of that life, we're trying to get at the truth of something, of each other." Well, of a few of us at least: "one in thirty three children are IVF babies, in Australia."

I was curious, then :
  1. Why did these partners, especially, the women, want a baby? Why was it so important for them? The motivation for artificial intervention of such extreme and expensive options was not discussed.  Were there not real risks for Jen to participate? Not discussed. Why had Jen and Bill waited so long? Not discussed. 
  2. What about the enormous cost of IVF.? In my research, it begins somewhere around, approximately, $10,000 a go! - Only the rich can afford it, it seems.Not discussed.
  3. What about the option of surrogacy - weird, to have this alternative method excluded, I thought. No discussion.
  4. There was never a mention of adoption as another alternative - weirder still. No discussion. There was a discussion about a dog or cat substitution. OMG!
Talking to a friend recently, I mentioned young British writers that write of contemporary issues - in both comic and serious mode:
Lucy Prebble - ENRON and THE EFFECT.
Lucy Kirkwood - CHIMERICA (The Olivier Award for Best New Play, 2013).
and I wondered, where are the equivalent Australian writers of similar quality?

Do they exist? Are they around?

Vanessa Bates has undoubted talent, but dramaturgically, for me, seems to produce work of little content sophistication. Are our playwrights simply reflecting their audiences demands? Or, director's tastes, or ...... what? I am, honestly, frankly bewildered. So much navel gazing going on in our theatres with our writers and directors, artistic 'gate keepers' - no outward gaze onto/into the real world. Thank goodness I have access to a good theatre library - I know the art form lives!!!! Even thrives.
Elsewhere, alack.
Oh, well!
Mine is not to reason why, I guess.
Grin and bear/bare it.

EVERY SECOND, is from the Director's notes, "a play about love ... a play about science" but my experience of the production, was of a comedy of limited, superficial interest. Lucy Prebble's play, THE EFFECT, on the other hand, is a play about love, about science. Check out the differences, even despite, the problems with the STC production.

1. Russian and Soviet Theatre - Konstantin Rudnitsky. Thomas & Hudson - 1988.