Monday, March 23, 2015

This House Is Mine

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents a Milk Crate Theatre Production, the World Premiere of THIS HOUSE IS MINE, by Maree Freeman at the Eternity Playhouse.

THIS HOUSE IS MINE, by Maree Freeman, is new Australian work. Ms Freeman is CEO/Artistic Director of Milk Crate Theatre, Playwright and producer of THIS HOUSE IS MINE.

From her notes in the program:
Milk Crate Theatre works by, with and for our community of artists who have experienced homelessness and social marginalisation. ... it is vitally important to acknowledge the community context from which this work springs.
The process of creating THIS HOUSE IS MINE began with conversations around the complex issues surrounding homelessness which led to the theme of mental health and the mind.
We held a number of creative developments where Milk Crate Theatre Ensemble (which is made up of the community) created characters, storylines, situations and provocations that would all form part of the evolution of a story and a script and we began experimenting with video projection content as a way to enhance our storytelling and provide an intimate insight into the minds of the characters on the stage. 
We then recruited two teams from the Ensemble to take the work into production, one to conceptualise and create video content (interviews) and another to provide detailed feedback on the script in development and ultimately take the work into production as performers.
With a working script, Paige Rattray took charge to Direct the production, guide and teach the 'actors' of the Ensemble and build and shape for an audience, incorporating the Video elements seamlessly, to produce a tight coherent arc and journey for the project. What I experienced with this production was a surrendering of my critical faculties as I was drawn absorbingly into the world of the characters that were created by these beautifully committed non-actors (except, guest performer, Contessa Treffone). There was a clear endowable sense of the real lives and predicaments of these people, and what I particularly enjoyed was the simple presentation of the symptoms of 'mental illness' - people who are experiencing mental and emotional distress - and the consequences of it on the lives of those people and those around them without dramatic overstatement. The performance was not only an insight, an elucidation, into a world that is, relatively, removed from me and mine, and one that I would normally avoid, but also a gateway to appreciate the humanity and suffering that these individuals, outside so called 'normal' behaviour endure, presented for me, without judgements.

There is no way to estimate the level of difficulty to package this work while watching, but in retrospective contemplation, one can only admire the achievements, the efforts, from all the artists, that has resulted is such easeful watching and useful 'education' that THIS HOUSE IS MINE delivers. Kudos of congratulation then to Ms Freeman for the organisation, editing of the explored material into this script, and to the Director, Ms Rattray, who have made a remarkable work. Sean Bacon, the Video Design Consultant, with the Video Artist, Sarah Emery, have collaborated to create a fully scaled set of beautifully abstracted images over shifting screens and back-curtain, accompanied by edited interviews of some of the 'creative' participants of the Ensemble, on a small television screen. This is accompanied by a complex Sound Design by Tom Hogan, surrounding a simple and pragmatic Set Design and Costumes, by Hugh O'Connor, in a Lighting Design, by Ross Graham, sympathetic in the quest to keep the audience involved, absorbed.

This Milk Crate production: a verbatim theatre performed by actual people from the discussion and rehearsal ensemble: Rach Williams, Fabiola Meza, Chris Barwick, Veronica Flynn, Matthias Nudl, and John McDonnell. The internal world of the live characters captured on video, the artists were: Joasia Redestowicz, Gordon Broomham, Graeme Buttriss, Michael Wilson, Lisa Griffiths, Kate Gale, Kerrie Marshall (some fifty or so other individuals contributed to the project, in total, as well).

I always know that a work in the theatre has absorbed me when I find myself 'lost' imaginatively in the world and experiences of the story. This happened to me at the Eternity Playhouse the other evening. Congratulations and much admiration to all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When The Rain Stops Falling

New Theatre presents, WHEN THE RIAN STOPS FALLING, by Andrew Bovell, at the New Theatre, King St., Newtown. 17 March - 18 April, 2015.

This production of Andrew Bovell's WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, at the New Theatre left me in a gratified mood of semi-euphoria. I saw the original Brink Theatre production in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House, in 2009, and rated it has one of the great experiences of new Australian writing I had had for a long time. Seeing the New Theatre's more modest production does not diminish that memory in any way, and more than enhances my impression that this is a great Australian play.

Photo by Bob Seary

It was the play that knocks one happily into a state of awe. Although woven around the death of a child and pedophilia, the effects of Alzheimer's disease and the serious issue of climate change, the structure, the thematic connections to the mysteries of time, myths and universalities of the history of the human species is what impresses one and leaves one in a state of wonder, from the moment of a fish falling from the heavens at a character's feet, in Alice Springs, to its gentle ending.

The original Brink Theatre production was meticulously prepared by some great practising artists and the long 'gestation' of that work is, partly, what gave the original production its depth of power and wonder. More modestly, the New Theatre production, under the respectful guidance of a young Director, Rachel Chant, with some sterling Set Design By Tom Bannerman, (Set/Costume Design, Martelle Hunt) supported by the growing powers of the recently very busy Lighting designer, Benjamin Brockman, and the, similarly, prolific Sound Designer Composer, Nate Edmondson (a score much more effective than the recent offer of CARESS/ACHE), assisted by Alistair Wallace, triumphs.

The actors are uniformly strong in the good sense and restrained integrity of the characterisations and careful and clear storytelling: David Woodland, Helen Tonkin, Renae Small, Peter McAllum, Olivia Brown, Hailey McQueen and Tom Conroy. A beautifully sensitised ensemble of actors.

After a time of relative disappointment in my theatre going experiences, of late, this production lifted some of my gloom and 'dread' of going, and I can confidently recommend reward in seeing it. On the night I attended, many people had not seen the original production and did not know the play, or had only read it. It is their discovery of a great Australian play in this respectful and dedicated production that, generally, pleased, if not, thrilled them.

If you have seen the play it is worth being re-engaged. If you are unacquainted with WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, and you love the theatre, this is a gentle but heart-stopping, life enhamncing must see.

Do go.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Faust (an opera in five acts by Charles-Francois Gounod)

Opera Australia present FAUST, an Opera in five acts by Charles-Francois Gounod. Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, after Michel Carre's FAUST ET MARGUERITE (1850) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's FAUST, Part 1. In the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

I have not, of late, attended Opera Australia (OA). The choice of work presented, by that company, seems to be repetitive with not enough variety of repertoire, or interesting singers, to attract me, considering the cost outlay. The last live opera I attended was in New York, where I attended a performance of Shostakovitch's THE NOSE, a work that I thought I would never see in the Australian repertoire, and so, a must. I, also, had the good fortune to attend a performance of the contemporary opera, ANNA NICOLE, music by Mark Anthony Turnage, libretto by Richard Thomas, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Besides ANNA NICOLE being extremely rewarding, I also participated in a piece of history, sad as it may be, of being present at the closing night of the production, and the last performance of the New York City Opera. 

Most of my opera appetite, in the last few years, has been satisfied via the broadcasts of performances from The New York Metropolitan Opera at my local cinema. Again, my choice is usually those operas that one has never seen in Australia, or ever likely too, or of rarely performed composers or works (e.g. The 'Ring' Cycle - the last Directed for the Met in 2013, by Robert Lepage! Not to be missed), or productions featuring outstanding singers. At approximately $27.00 a ticket, to see one of the great opera companies, with great singers and exciting, innovative productions, it is value for money that I cannot pass over or recommend too eagerly.

FAUST, the opera by Gounod, first presented in 1859, in Paris, has always been a source of interest for me. Undoubtedly, that interest began in front of our family's black and white television in the late 1950's while watching the 1936 film, SAN FRANCISCO, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey and Jeanette MacDonald (Directed by Woody Van Dyke). Besides, the awesome earthquake (it still is today when re-watching) the plot hinges on the tug-of-war for the career opportunities of an opera singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) working in that city of sin (!), San Francisco, and the 'soul' of "Blackie" Norton (Clark Gable). This plot mechanism permits the MGM studio to present the singing voice of their box-office star, Ms MacDonald, who besides singing some bar-room melodies in the Paradise saloon run by "Blackie", gets to sing two sequences from classical opera in the new Tivoli Opera House on Market Street. One is from Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, and the other is from Gounod's FAUST. I have never forgotten it, and still relish the rousing sequence when I re-watch this great classic film.

FAUST is one of the great Grand Operas from a by-gone era. Its five act settings, its enormous cast of chorus, extras and dancers, the sheer scale of the work, does make it a work of prohibitive cost in this day and age. FAUST was once one of the staples of the repertoire of Opera Houses around the world, a sure popular draw that could stand, and does when done,stand beside the economic sureties of the modern ABC box-office works: AIDA, BOHEME and CARMEN. - just look at the present season of the OA. FAUST was the first production for the New York Metropolitan Opera - the Met - (1883) and was performed so regularly that the Met  is sometimes described as the 'house that Faust built'.

A philosopher, Faust barters his soul with Mephistopheles in exchange for, not power or wealth, but youth. (At my age, as my body deteriorates and does not do, easily, what I want it to do, reflexively, I can understand Faust's bargain, a little, I can assure you - I certainly agree, with Shaw when he says that youth is wasted on the young, now adays, as I glance around me!) He ravishes Marguerite, who after being condemned for the killing of her illegitimate child, is finally forgiven and transported to heaven, whilst Faust must keep his bargain with Mephistopheles.

The Opera Australia has produced this work before, last time it was Directed by Ian Judge, in 2001, and I found the opera, then, gripping in a highly adapted version - I saw it twice. This production is based on a borrow from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Opera de Monte-Carlo, Opera de Lilie, and Fondazione Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, Trieste,and was first performed at Covent Garden on 11 June, 2004. It was Directed by Sir David McVicar (Revival Director, Bruno Ravella) with an English Design team: Set Design by Charles Edwards; Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Original Lighting by Paule Constable (Lighting realised here by Gary Dooley); Choreography by Michael Keegan-Dolan (Revival Choreographer, Daphne Strothmann). The Conductor that prepared this production was Guillaume Tourniaire, although, Anthony Legge was in charge at my performance.

As you can imagine the Designs for the grand stage of Covent Garden have had to be (drastically?) adapted to fit into the limitations of the Joan Sutherland Theatre and consequently are a tad squashed and probably not as 'beautiful' in affect as there, though still, relatively, impressive. The setting has been shifted to the period of composition - 1859 - that of the end of the reign of Napoleon III, Second Empire France, rather than the Germany of Goethe's 1500's. The melodrama of the Victorian time suits the story dynamics just as well and the struggle for the 'soul' of man between church and state just as palpable. Religion and moral duty and the consequences of abandoning those values is the lesson of the piece.

What made the spending of my limited funds a choice I indulged in, was the rumour of the high quality of the singing from the principals and chorus of this production. Those rumours were true. Beautifully, true. Every one of the principals were great to listen too, and the acting from a relatively, youthful 9and aesthetically attractive cast), was believable and embraceable. Michael Fabriano (Faust) captured one immediately with his first sound contribution and maintained the excited vibration he created in the listener throughout the long demands of the work. Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Mephistopheles) gave a sterling singing performance and an acting performance of some wry restraint - he was not required to remove his clothing, in this production!; Nicole Car (Marguerite) gave a thrilling and easeful performance, a rising star of the Opera Australia company, indeed, - a joy to listen to and watch; Giorgio Caodure (Valentin) created a believable and creditable performance in the role as Marguerite's religiously righteous brother, singing and looking good; Anna Dowsley (Siebel) created the 'trouser' role with singing of great beauty and a more than satisfactory characterisation; while Dominica Matthews (Marthe) sang and played a 'blowsy' widow with some distinction; Richard Anderson (Wagner) too, sang to match those he supported. This was a flawless ensemble.

Matched then with the Chorus of Singers (Chorus Master, Anthony Hunt. Assistant Chorus Master, Thomas Johnson) and the presence of a meticulously inspired set of acrobats and dancers, using the inventive and witty Choreography of Michael Keegan-Dolan - the Artistic Director of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, whose work we have seen in Sydney Festival programs: GISELLE - the three hours of performance was extremely rewarding. This production is now 11 years away from its conception and that some of the contemporary artistic gestures of 2004, in the adaptation of the opera by Mr McVicar, were, now, sometimes just a little strained, has to do with the passing of time than there original surety, probably, then. 11 years is long time in fashionable surface adaptive choices, it seems.

After the performance I caught up with an acquaintance I had not seen for years in the theatre foyer - an avid opera goer - he had seen the original production at Covent Garden - and had seen this Sydney version, already, five times, with tickets for the last two performances. He was not alone in his appetite and admiration for, I was introduced to two other opera goers who similarly had seen this production as many times, and one Melbourne Opera goer who had flown up, especially for the afternoon. These 'fanatics' were thrilled and thought this production was some compensation for what they generally regarded as a boringly curated season of works for 2015. They confessed tentative hopes for the Verdi DON CARLOS, up-coming in the Winter Season, both in Sydney and Melbourne. So do I. I saw it on screen from the MET at the Chauvel, a few years ago, and look forward to it, immensely. I hope the rumours of its singing will be 'siren' enough for me to spend up again for the OA experience.

FAUST was a treat. Worth, both my money and TIME.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Freak Winds

Photo by Tim Levy

Red Lines Productions present, FREAK WINDS, by Marshall Napier, at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, March 11 -29.

FREAK WINDS by Marshall Napier is having a revival production at the Old Fitz, where it was first presented in 1999. Mr Napier has written it, Directed it and Starred in it, again.

An insurance salesman, Harry Crumb (Ben O'Toole) is 'blitzing' the district for his company: Argyle, selling a new product to the local denizens. A freak wind blows Harry to the apartment-house of Ernest (Marshall Napier), seeking shelter, after his car has been crushed by an oak tree, and with the closing of the front door finds himself in an accelerating 'time' of danger in a very atmospherically damp cellar, permeated with an odd sense/smell of something rotting.

Called a "Gothic thriller" this present production reveals the work, instead, as a comic 'schlock-horror' journey of a definite B-grade feel. Think, the SAW films, especially the first one, SAW (2004), directed by James Wan. The script, or production, of FREAK WINDS, has none of the subtleties, of say, Ira Levin's ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), which, for me, is the apogee of this genre, and has none of the cleverness, of DEATHTRAP (also, by Ira Levin),  soon to be seen at The Eternity Playhouse.

The writing is standard genre structure and works best in the opening sequences of act one, as played by Mr Marshall and Mr O'Toole. The imaginative vocal energy and sound of these two actors, at a compelling velocity of delivery, keeps one's attention on the given circumstances of each of the characters with nary an opportunity to begin to consider the excesses or ridiculousnesses of it all. One's focus is swept along with the sheer believable, imaginative energetic commitment of both men, particularly, Mr O'Toole's, Harry. The speed and sound accuracies of word usage to build tension and imagery from both actors is a joy to get lost in.

It is with the entry of Myra in a wheel chair, Ernest's pretty but crippled daughter, that the production, and the play, loses its grip of us. Ms Bamford, as Myra, does not have the same imaginative and conviction of vocal powers to match those of her fellow players, and there develops a kind of becalming in the delivery of the word tension in the text and atmosphere of the play. The audience is thus permitted time to ponder the inconsistencies and clumsiness of the textual and staging oddities. Ms Bamford shows us an actor at work rather than a character in full flight. We are brought back to the Old Fitz Theatre stage instead of in the cellar of this odd family pairing of creepy father and daughter with weird designs on the hapless visitor.

The writing in the second act of the play seems, in the experience of it, weaker, and one becomes less and less involved and more an more aware of the frailties of it all.  Mr Marshall, as writer, breaking the second half of the play, into a number of scenes, especially for the build to the ultimate climax of the piece, weakens our ability to maintain any mounting belief to, and in, the last schlock action and imaged thrill of physical terror. It is, rather, an anti-climatic fizz.

Set Design by Lisa Mimmocchi creates a pungent sense of reality, although the revealed visual shocks are not as shocking as they could be. The lighting by Alexander Berlage up until these reveals, supports the horror layerings, as does the Sound Design, by Nate Edmondson.

FREAK WINDS, in this contemporary production does not hold up either as a Gothic thriller experience, or even a schlock-horror jaunt, to keep us truly satisfied. The legend of this play, of which one has been re-galed in the pre-publicity press, does not get re-enforced with this outing at the Old Fitz this time round, I'm sad to report. Mr O'Toole's work is arresting in its detail and confidence and the reason to attend.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents CARESS/ACHE by Suzie Miller at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney, 27 February - 11 April.

CARESS/ACHE is a new Australian play by Suzie Miller that has had a, relatively, long gestation. Ms Miller thanks the National Theatre in London for a studio development and the Griffin Theatre Company, and mentions Marion Potts, Liam Steele Choreographer and to Steven Hoggett, and Scott Graham (both of Frantic Assembly UK), Caleb Lewis, and Camilla Rountree for dramaturgy.

In her own words Ms Miller tells us:
CARESS/ACHE is a work that has been many years in the writing and will always be a piece that I am immensely connected to. In the lead up to the 2005 execution of young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore following a conviction for drug trafficking, the Singaporean government asserted its rule that the young man could not be hugged (or hug) his desperate mother before his death. ... Grappling with idea(s) such as these took me on a journey about what touch is in its many forms - an innate sensory element and expression of love and desire, its intense power for cruelty and abuse, and how interweaved such things can be. So too was I exploring the notion of being 'touched' by moments, poetry and art. The stories in this play are an attempt to follow these threads.
This is an extremely ambitious play, especially in terms of structure, and in this production has five actors playing multiple roles who appear and disappear in the interwoven action of the scenario. A scenario that reminded me of the complexities of the story telling in such a film as BABEL(2006), or Andrew Bovell's play, SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1996).

On an all too familiar (for Sydney audiences) antiseptic white set (Set and Costume Design, Sophie Fletcher) with a gleaming steel ambulatory hospital table that later transforms/reveals a bath tub full of water, the names of the characters are projected onto the walls to keep us au fait with who is who, from story incident to story incident, along with some selected written interpolations informing us about the biological (and otherwise) sensations connected to 'touch' e.g.
Some human receptors are enclosed in a capsule of connective tissue. They react to light touch and are located in the skin of lips, eyelids, external genitals and nipples. It is due to these special receptors that these areas of the body are particularly sensitive.
There are two promising political points of interest 'touched' by the writer in this play (Ms Miller was once, interestingly for me, a Human Rights lawyer) that of the aforementioned Singaporean 'cruelty' (represented by Peter and Alice), and the other, that of the story of a young woman, Arezu (it means Hope, we are told several times!), the daughter of two Teheran-Iranian refugees, who wishes to return to the country of her parents and her other language, against the pleas of those parents.

However, both of these interests are, in my experience of the play, 'buried' in the larger and over-written scenarios of a doctor with post traumatic stress disorder (Mark) who cannot bear to be touched, as the consequence of a tragedy in an operating theatre, and his wife (Libby), who is uncomprehending of the possible depths of his emotional plight. Next, of a young woman (Saskia) who refuses to be touched, traumatically dislodged from 'sanity', by the betrayal of her writer/poet husband (Cameron) with another woman. Next again, of two women (Cate and Belinda) working in a phone sex enterprise.

The play depending on your sympathies, can sit then, somewhere between a moving telling of tragic events, which an enthusiastic audience seemed to applaud at the conclusion of the performance I attended, or a soft porn bore with a heavy sauce of sentimentality, camouflaging two political piquancies. The latter became my stance, by the end of it all.

Let's look at some of the writing between Mark, the Doctor and his wife who has, in this scene, invaded his operating theatre:

Libby: Mark, you lost a patient,
It happens to surgeons all the time,
It's part of the job. /
Mark: No!
Libby: You're not fucking God. /
Mark: I'm working.
Libby: -
Mark: I'll be home later.
Libby: -
Mark: I need you to go.
Libby: -
Mark: Get out.
Libby: It's pathetic.
Mark: I said get out.
Mark goes to push her. So close, he stops himself. 
Libby: Go on then. 
She pushes herself up against him. Hard and rough. 
Libby: Come on, grab my arm-
            Touch my skin, go on, feel it,
            feel the heat of me. 
Her skin, her flesh, her smell, her sex. 
He recoils and retreats. 
Libby: Go on -
            Put your hands on me,
            hit me, scratch me, feel the pulse of me. 
She goes to grab his hand and put it on her heart, but he pulls away, roughly, afraid. 
She suddenly realises what the issue is. 
Libby: Oh, my God -
           You can't -"

Duh! At last, I thought.

Next, in over-long sequences, involving the doubly betrayed Saskia ( although she never gets to, or even mention the other perpetrator of her 'breakdown', the other woman), which in its staged execution has ultimately contrived to have the guilty husband either naked or semi-naked on stage for long periods, his wife verbally, relentlessly, emotionally abuses him with demands such as the following quote - and this is a conclusion of a five page scene where nothing much else, but abuse from Saskia against her husband has happened. It is played in an emotional state of self-pitying 'rage':

... Saskia: Did you suck her nipples into your mouth, your tongue lingering over them, latch onto them like a fucking baby? Did YOU? Did you stick your hard fucking 'big' cock between her breasts, did she gasp and moan and look at you with that 'come to me, baby' look? Did she? Did You? Did you fuck her from behind, or on top? Up against the wall, over the bed. Did you? Did you do all that?
Cameron: No, no, NO, NO!
Of Course not.
I would never do that stuff-
Saskia: You just lay with her and
you stuck your cock in her,
is that it? 
      Cameron blank. 
Saskia: Answer me. 
       He nods. 
       She physically and emotionally slumps. 
Saskia: God. Really? You really did?
You did that? 
Saskia: I feel sick.
 (She got her answer at last, I relievedly breathed, after 5 pages of build-up!)
This follows from an earlier sequence that had me asking, whilst squirming with embarrassment: Where was the blue pen of the dramaturgs? In reply to Saskia's question of when did the betrayal happen, he tells her on the night of his recent poetry book launch, to which she says: 
Saskia: Your book launch-?
But I was there-?
All our friends-
Oh God.
I left early so one of us would show up at YOUR fucking autistic nephew's end-of-year concert.
So HE would feel supported!

OMG, I thought, that is a bit over-the-top, as a manipulating circumstance. Don't you think? Clearly, others didn't!

Maybe, instead, just simply: I left early. Or: I left early to attend your nephew's concert. At least take out the highly emotive 'autistic' description?
Get the blue pencil, for god's sake.

Need I quote some of the interchanges between the sex workers to further illustrate the influence of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, the 2011 E L James popular novel sensation on our playwriting culture, at the Griffin Theatre Company, and what may has been supposed as what a sophisticated theatre audience might require to have a satisfying night out?
NO, definitely not.
The interchanges with the sex workers and their 'clients" occupies some time in the text - chortle, chortle. Popcorn theatre! Co-incidentally, the film version of the James novel opened in Sydney the same week as this play premiered! Where to spend your time and money? In the theatre, or the cinema?

Buried in this welter of what I can only describe as live soft-porn were two interesting contemporary issues, but even when they did emerge in the scheme of things, they were then swamped, more often than not, with a mawkish sentimentality that made the effect of the writing and production risible. For instance, the slow motioning hug at the end of the play between the desperate mother of the executed son and the doctor who up till now couldn't bear to be touched, with a background of music soundtrack swelling - that had underscored, unremittingly, the whole of the play, like a B-grade movie score. It was as if the Director, Anthony Skuse, hadn't trusted the scene (the play) or that it could, possibly, work without the directional music cueing and extended 'choreography'.

I can report that a number of the audience were weeping, and one wonders just how influential the co-incidental daily news stress concerning the Indonesian Government's stand around the two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and their imminent execution, weighed into the emotions of some of the audience. I held my ground against the invitation to indulge my emotions. Present day politics have steeled me as a cynic around manipulation - especially when it is as 'vulgar' and 'over-egged' as it is here. A hard hearted adamant I can be, on occasion - especially when I believe that 'over-kill' is going on.

The actors acquit themselves fairly well and it seemed, on the night I attended, with a very committed emotional belief in the play. Best was Sabryna Te'o with her intellectual integrity to the opportunities in the writing managing a believability that was never questionable in the heat of any of the demands made of her by the writer and the director. So, too, Zoe Carides, as Alice, especially. Gary Clementson demonstrated subtle control as the abused husband, Cameron, and the courageous, Peter in the later scenes.

Unfortunately, Ian Stenlake, either through nerves or some other experience, lost me in his his first, long establishing speech. I could not gather or follow what Mark was doing or saying except as general emotional gist.The work became better focused at the latter end of the play. While Helen Christinson, seemed relentlessly savage without any redeeming creative touches as Saskia to help us to care for her situation at all, and I found my sympathies moving more and more to the besieged husband, especially as played by a very empathetic Mr Clementson. Whether this was the force of the writing or the actor/directorial choices, I could not really discern. Too, I felt that Ms Christinson's characterisation of the other woman/wife, Libby, was essentially the same woman, psychologically. Who to blame? The writer? The actor?

I sat in the SBW Stables and began to stew, again, over the opening play of this present Griffin Theatre season, THE UNSPOKEN WORD IS 'JOE', and pondered why the heroine of that play was so similar in psychology to both the wives in CARESS/ACHE. Now, I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I, as a regular theatre goer, felt the anger and savagery of all three of these recent new creations in this new Australian writing, and found that the rage, relatively, unexplained by the writers - these women just were merciless in the pursuit of their needs. Narcissism? Cultural Revenge Rage? What? How to understand these women with empathy? This was true of my response to the written female lead, Nakkiah, in Nakkiah Lui's KILL THE MESSENGER (soon will write up my response), at the Belvoir last month. (I note, Ms Lui, like Ms Miller, from a background of law, the precinct, historically, of the male psyche - is that a clue?)

What is going on? Is it just me? I have recently had the great pleasure of reading, for my book club, Mary McCarthy's feminist novel, THE GROUP (1963), and was deeply moved by the insight into the psychology of the female. The sophistication, variety and empathy was rewardingly impressive. As a man I found it was country that I was glad to have discovered in such insightful, witty writing, crafted with such passionate control. True, as well, I am wrestling with the writing of Edward Albee (THE LADY FROM DUBQUE), Donald Margulies (TIME STANDS STILL), Lanford Wilson (5th of JULY), Wendy Wasserstein (THE HEIDI CHRONICLES), and find the women in those plays so rounded in their standpoints in their various texts, in contrast to these recent three Australian plays. They are: Rounded. Balanced. And explained in complex colourings.

I read, as well, an interesting article, by Elizabeth Farrelly, in Thursday's Sydney Morning Herald (March 12, 2015): Time to redefine the feminist movement. Much of it jumped out at me and excited my 'brain'. Late in her article she propositioned:
... what if constructedness is wrong, and gender is at least partly innate? What if men and women are fundamentally different, but not in the simple binary way this is usually meant? What if the differences can be descriptive without being prescriptive? It seems useful at this point, to speak not of male and female persons, but of male and female thinking. These are not just different, but opposite. 
Male-type thinking is focused, solution-oriented, object-centred, externalising and atomistic. Female-type thinking is broad, discursive, empathetic, receptive, experiential and rational. ...
What of these new fictional women in this contemporary Australian stage literature? They seemed in the action of the above Australian texts to be more in the male thinking domain proposed by Ms Farrelly. I'll keep an eye on it and wonder more, I guess.

Mr Skuse has thrown much invention into this production and despite what I believe to be over statement in many areas he is able to keep most of the audience on board with the writing in this play. I am a fan and supporter of Mr Skuse's work, and Suzie Miller, too, though I am less familiar with her, and so I feel a little touchy about my response to this performance - although I have read other articles that were also a little underwhelmed. When faced with this dilemma this week past it was a comfort to read in an essay by Stanley Weintraub on the work of George Bernard Shaw, edited by Michael Holroyd:
Shaw was never to be satisfied, as literary critic, art critic, music critic or theatre critic, with the work of an artist who was performing at less than his potential. As he put it in a music column in 1890: 
... A criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb. ...
There is, of course, some hyperbole from Mr Shaw there, and I embrace it cautiously, publicly, with a keen sense of 'humour'. I hope you all do too.

See CARESS/ACHE for yourself and debate.


  1. Weintraub, S. 1979, In the Picture Galleries in THE GENIUS OF SHAW ed. Michael Holroyd, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Austin, Texas. 
  2. Farrelly, E. 2015, Time to Redefine the Feminist Movement, in The Sydney Morning Herald - Thursday, 12th March.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Man of La Mancha

Photo by Michael Francis

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre's Production of MAN OF LA MANCHA. A Musical Drama by Dale Wasserman. Music by Mitch Leigh. Lyrics by Joe Darion. At the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. February 25 - March 21, 2015.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre company, apparently - and this production re-enforces such an observation - the most consistent producer of musical theatre in Sydney, at the moment, have now created a revival of the 1965, Tony Award winning Musical Drama (not Comedy), MAN OF LA MANCHA - it was the recipient of 5 Tony Awards. It is very well done. The Director of this company, Jay James-Moody, has done much credit to this work. I cannot think of another Director as capable as he in this genre, and with the illustrious Tony Sheldon in the central role, one could not think of a twosome more likely to succeed at it.

The Set Design element, by Simon Greer, perfectly, atmospherically, creates an environment that serves the dual story telling realities - one in a prison supervised by the Spanish Inquisition where Miguel Cervantes awaits interrogation, the other in the fanciful world of Don Quixote: a play, an improvisation, staged by Cervantes with the other prisoners, to win back his prized possessions (perhaps, including the unpublished novel of the adventures of Don Quixote) confiscated by them. Not only is the production well served by the Design, but also the Reginald Theatre space - transformed into a workable collaborative 'tardis' allowing one, for once, to lose oneself imaginatively in the story - not a usual experience in this patently difficult space. This may have something to do with the terrific Lighting Design of Benjamin Brockman - an extremely busy artist at the moment, his work is all over the place, in Sydney, this February. The costumes are mostly, similarly, believable, even if the costumes of the Moorish Dance, and later, the Knight of The Mirrors, were a little over-the-top (OTT!), and rather, really, really useful for the upcoming Mardi Gras Parade -  they are grotesquely hilarious! Costume Design is by Brendan Hay (he also performs in the production).

Musically the show is led by Paul Geddes with his own arrangement of the score, that has the company of actors playing a variety of instruments around the edges of the raked platform of the set. Everybody plays something, from an accordion, or a piano to an egg shaker! It works very well. This is aided by the wonderful and ingeniously consistent contribution from the Sound Designer Jessica James-Moody, that blends the instrument noises well to the singing and spoken voices of the actors. Worth her weight in GOLD, considering the difficult sound experiences one can more often than not have at the Hayes Theatre and its sound woes.

MAN OF LA MANCHA is choreographically made by Ross Chisari - he also plays Sancho Panza (and the bugle) - he may have had two too many 'jobs' to pull any one of them well enough off. When this production was announced I was extremely apprehensive as to how the (in)famous Rape of Aldonza dance, would be handled, considering the times we live in (I note it is not listed in the Musical Numbers in the program). The offer from Squabbologic is extremely confronting - as this dance, always, historically, has been - but even more so in this experience of it, with the memory of only four days before of the brilliant Q&A session on ABC television discussing Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women, the panel led by the Australian of the Year, the courageous and astoundingly rational, Rosie Batty. I am sure the artistic problem was discussed, but is it a mis-step of choice? What are the alternatives? I found it an uncomfortable and de-railing moral dilemma - I found it difficult to suspend my inner moral argument about it, during and after, to re-enter the production wholly.

The Ensemble singing was terrific and, individually, I enjoyed the bravura of Marika Aubrey, as Aldonza; the sureness of Glenn Hill, as Padre Perez and the wonder of the outrageous offers of Stephen Anderson, especially, as the Housekeeper.

Could one think of a more likely musical theatre actor in Australia to take on and pull off the demands of the double of Cervantes/Don Quixote, especially as the actor has to produce one of the great songs of the musical theatre: The Quest (The Impossible Dream), than Tony Sheldon? Probably, not. I certainly can't. In the Squabbologic production, Mr Sheldon's Cervantes has great dignity and the right gravitas to grasp one swiftly into the conceit of the Book by Dale Wasserman, but I felt there was a mis-judgement of 'tone' in his creation of the other part of this role, Don Quixote, which appeared to be one of an inexperienced actor (Cervantes) pretending a tentative old man 'dodderer', a man who never truly enters into the innocent majesty of the idealism of this Knight Errant on the plains of La Mancha, one who truly believes, without reservation, all of his adventures. I believe that Cervantes is a better actor than Mr Sheldon believes him to be. This Don Quixote never appeared to be truly invested in the imaginative world of the Knight - it was a pretended game. This choice may have justified the kind of 'song-spiel' that Mr Sheldon chooses for much of his heavy vibrato singing - a tentative dodderer - but it removes most of the power of the character, Don Quixote, and the morality of the fable of MAN OF LA MANCHA. I did see, many times, the production presented in Sydney, in 1967, with Charles West as the Don, and the memory is of the 'Man'/Don Quixote completely lost in the ideals of his imagined adventures, who was shocked into a reality that became a madness when shaken 'awake' by his family and the Doctor. Even the 'abhorrent' film (1972), with Peter O'Toole, succeeds in this creative difference, and this production's choice marred my full appreciation of Mr Sheldon's quest. I was not moved, and the Cervantes exit to face the Inquisition lost its moral power, as I never really believed in his character of Don Quixote.

This MAN OF LA MANCHA at the Seymour Centre, then, though flawed for me, but, still,  is, as withh all the SQuabbologic productions I have seen, worth seeing.

The musical, MAN OF LA MANCHA, began in an Off-Broadway space, not unlike the Reginald. It was plucked and re-vamped for the Great White Way of Broadway and ran for 2,328 performances. It has been revived there some four other times. The last time in 2002.

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

Brevity Theatre Co in association with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival presents, VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, by Charles Busch, at the Kings Cross Hotel, Level 5.  Feb 25th - 7th March.

Brevity Theatre Co with the blessing of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival for 2015 have, according to the Director's notes, by Samantha Young, with her collaborators: programmed, procreated, pillaged and performed VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, because Charles Busch, the writer said they could. This play is not unfamiliar to Sydney audiences - we have caught it before.

Whatever liberties this company have taken with Mr Busch's play, "one of the longest running plays in Off-broadway history", this production works best when the campy, but still 'hip' original text is at full bore. A loose mouthed litany of the usual campy dialogue that one has come to expect from Mr Busch (we saw a wonderful production of PSYCHO BEACH PARTY in 2012), of the rivalries between a couple of vampires that have lived on until the 1920's, and in the Hollywood movie making precinct, which  serves as the juicy 'bloodline' of the play. There are, too, some original songs by Composer and Musical Director, Matthew Predny that hit and miss the mark, variously - the Lyrics by Mr Predny, Ms Young and Eliza Reilly. The Scenic and Lighting Design are by Benjamin Brockman and is mostly, ambitiously successful, considering the 'awful' space he has to work in, while the Costuming, by Anthony Spinaze, is inventive and fun.

The company of actors Jamie Collette, Nicholas Gell, Pollyanna Nowicki, Olivia O'Flynn, and especially Skyler Ellis and Eliza Reilly are all having as much fun as the difficult space they are working in permits them. The show is blessedly short and leaves one amused despite the very difficult, uncomfortable audience space we are seated in - it seems to me to be a cabaret space rather than a practical theatre/play space. The performance must have something going for it for us not to notice, too much, the staging complexities and difficulties on Level 5 at the Kings Cross Hotel.

This production is a bit of rollicking fun, essentially, intelligently, well done. After the full hit of this team's chaotic mayhem, may I recommend that you borrow, Jim Jarmusch's 2013 film, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, for a very sophisticated vampire story, set today, in the cutting edge underground music scene of Detroit and beyond, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and John Hurt! Boy, is it sophisticatedly funny.

Queen Bette

G.bod Theatre, The Old 505 Theatre and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival presents: QUEEN BETTE, devised by Peter Mountford and Jeanette Cronin, from an original idea by Peter Mountford, at the Old 505 Theatre, Hibernian House, Elizabeth St, Central Railway. 25 February to 15 March, 2015.

QUEEN BETTE at the Old 505 Theatre is a delight and I recommend it, especially to the fans of Bette Davis and, as well, to those of you interested in the 'mysteries' that spawn such a prodigious talent which has been captured forever on film.

QUEEN BETTE is a one hour, one woman show devised by Peter Mountford and Jeanette Cronin focusing on the career of one of the great actors and cult figures of the American cinema. What compounds the delight, the pleasure of this performance, is the dignified respect that both the devisors have given to this woman as artist. None of the usual, expected 'camperies' of the cult legend, vocal and physical mannerisms armed with the (in)famous quotations from her films and life, are indulged (there are enough trace triggers to memory to keep the fans happy, though) and instead, we receive an enlightening insight into the artistic/mechanisms' of the artist at work, and exemplars of the sacrifices of the obsessive drive of any true and successful 'genius'. There have been, therefore, necessarily, exclusions of the life and legend - so QUEEN BETTE, is a selective impressionistic take, that re-enforces the artist temperament of Ms Davis over some of the personal dilemmas of her 'dramatic' force of life journey.

So, the text is beautifully constructed in its very focused interests (I understand 90% of it is directly the 'voice' of Bette Davis, mined from research of books (e.g. THE LONELY LIFE, by Bette Davis - 1962) and interviews!). Add, the deeply committed and impeccably observed artistry of Ms Cronin, who possesses, more often than not, an uncanny 'look' of the original actor, and an amazing transportive and satisfying hour can be had.

I grew up in the 1950's and television was the sensation of recreational home life, and Bette Davis' (and others, of course) became stars once again, as we were privileged to watch broadcasts of movies from the decades before - with commercials. In black and white (especially, the luminous cinema-photography of the Warner Brothers Studio films) I remember sitting in the thrall of the great 'melodramas' of the so-called Golden Hollywood era. I remember, particularly, the tear-jerkers of Ms Davis: JEZEBEL (1938), DARK VICTORY (1939), THE OLD MAID (1939), ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO (1940), THE LETTER (1940) and NOW, VOYAGER (1942). I recall, fondly, all of us, my family, crying away in the climactic moments of the film/stories and denying we were doing so - Dad, as well - and relishing the exhilaration of a sated catharsis. Bette Davis was indeed, the Queen of my cinema heroines. Later, in my film going appreciation, films such as THE LITTLE FOXES (1941), ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), even WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? - which, by the way I re-visited only recently, with friends - began to be added to the pantheon of my idolatory of this artist.

The text of this show uses the conceit of Ms Davis' impersonation of Elizabeth I in two films: THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939) and THE VIRGIN QUEEN (1950) - two not so great films of hers - as the well-spring of the mechanism of the play, but, also, travels into many of the others, as a source of personal revelation for us to embrace.

For fans of Bette Davis, QUEEN BETTE, is a must. For others interested in the source of the creative 'energies' of a great artist, too, QUEEN BETTE, is a worth while indulgence.

P.S. By way of explanation of my absence from blogging last month, I was ill with a Summer Flu and my wifi was down. Now that all is finding an equilibrium, I have decided to blog backwards, so that the current performances that I have seen can be covered. Though, I do not consider my writing as a "selling" mechanism, but, rather, a 'telling" one. Still, I should keep the current work in front of my readers, in case it triggers an impulse to go to the theatre. Thanks for your indulgence.