Monday, April 27, 2015

Vice - Private School Scandal

Photo by Thomas Adams

Emu Productions presents VICE - Private School Scandal. A New play by Melvyn Morrow, at the King Street Theatre, Newtown, April 21 - May 9.

In the present fetid political climate, maybe, overheated by the media in its rush to find 'villains' and 'victims', to entertain our appetites for the moral humiliation of others, with the official exposure and investigation of child abuse in Australian schools and institutions, Melvyn Morrow's new play, VICE - Private School Scandal, attempts to bring some easeful and apt sense to our being more circumspect, and even patient, for that need to blame. Mr Morrow is a highly respected writer in the world of the theatre (Music Theatre and Cabaret, especially), and also has an extensive background in teaching in independent schools in Australia, France and England, and tells us that what he has written here, in this play: "The plot of VICE isn't true but truthful."

Set in the fictional school of St Mark, we are taken into the privy of the running of a private school and some of the personalities that function there. We are invited to look
…through a dark lens at the maze of motivations around the underworld of staff and students. (Where) Common room, classroom, playground, sports field, co-curriculum and even trustee politics can become nastily entwined with individuals' passionate interests, professional ambition and the inevitable personality clashes which fester in institutions. ... 
Every school is a universe of its own, "a complex human network: inspiring, dangerous, contradictory. eccentric, funny, political, toxic ... "

What Mr Morrow delivers is a quagmire of complex motivations for the events that erupt at St Mark's that result into a public scandal concerning the behaviour of students, staff and the managers of the school, around sexual misbehaviour and/or its innuendo. It looks at the little slips that individuals might make in pursuit of 'power' of one kind or another - great or small - that leads them into the crossing of personal, social and cultural boundaries of ethical rightness. Of minor and major choices that accumulatively are, when isolated and considered in the forensic light of an investigation, compromising.

Mr Morrow goes on to say in his note in the published text:
From whatever I've learnt about life and art, I suspect that penumbra is the playwright's most productive playground. If VICE causes controversy, that means audiences are experiencing the layered reality of school life from the participants' viewpoint. Investigative journalists into educational scandals can oversimplify what in special circumstances can be a mess of mixed motives and surprises ... . Truth, like quicksilver, can be slithery. Truth can also be a land mine as well as a lighthouse. There are many twisted strands to the hangman's rope.
Despite the 'ugliness' of the visuals of the Set Design, and the incongruous selection of music for the production, both extremely off-putting, under the Direction of Elaine Hudson, Mr Morrow's text is clearly laid out, and the conundrums that the characters present, as the action of the plot unravels, cause a need for discussion and debate well after the watching of the play. VICE, is a promising, provocative  and stimulating play.

This is despite some problems in the casting. Jess Loudon is best, as Olivia Fox, the new self-conscious 'corporate broom' appointed to the running of the school, to bring it into modern times, the brusque and clumsy catalyst to the exposures, who delivers a feisty and cool presence that energises the action of the performance healthily. Benjamin McCann, as Jasper Cunningham, the adult/child, wielding his youthful sexual charisma for leverage/gain, reveals ultimately the causes of his reckless strategies with a knowing delicacy of 'touch' to bring some empathy for a 'damaged' and vindictive 18 year-old 'child'. Christopher Hamilton, as the school appointed investigator, Ian Prendergast SC, carries his tasks with clear and energetic aplomb. Jonathan Deves, as Quentin Tapley, the old-boy newly elected C.E.O. of the Board of Trustees, appears to be slightly out of his depth in delivering the complexities of the character, whilst Roger Gimblett does not appear to have any comfortable insights into the world or behaviour of the Sports/English teacher, Neil Marshall, and Margi De Ferranti seems to be extremely unsure as to the 'tone' that she needs to invest to have us believe in the Drama Teacher, Rowena Marshall. The weakness in the casting, though significant, does not derail, completely, one's absorption in the dilemmas of the play.

I had an intriguing night at the King Street Theatre despite production short comings, and VICE presents more than an excursion into a 'hot-button' topic. It investigates the foibles of the human when the greed for 'power' consumes one. This play does not condone ever, child sexual assault, but it does attempt to present the 'borders, frontiers and boundaries' of human behaviour with a fascination for all of its complex ambiguities and carelessness, when arrogance - conscious and unconscious -  can motivate, slipstream, actions.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Five Properties of Chainmale

Photo by Simon Cardwell
Arts Radar and Griffin Independent present The World Premiere of FIVE PROPERTIES OF CHAINMALE, by Nicholas Hope, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 15 April - 9 May.

Nicholas Hope is the writer of a new Australian play, FIVE PROPERTIES OF CHAINMALE. He writes in the program notes:
 (It) began with my intention to write a series of thematically connected stories that deal with the concept of male narcissistic personality disorder as a socially applauded ideology.
What we experience, in the SBW Theatre, is a man with two male acolytes who support and transform, to facilitate a MALE through five transitions as a kind of explanation, or apologia, for the misdemeanours and typical behavioural responses of the masculine psyche in 'historically' recognisable situations. In form the play feels like an animated short story, pushing/pulling us along with a little want to explore some philosophical sophistication. The meat of the writerly form is fleshed by the actors in prosy descriptions of things and events, with occasional inter-actional dialogue interludes. If this were a published short story I probably would not have got very far into the reading. It did not draw one's attention too deeply, or for long, for the play's revelations were not new, or necessarily enlightening. The best, dramatically, of the episodes examined, was the next to last, concerning the son of the MALE and alcohol and confrontation with historical 'rape' possibilities - it developed some theatrical tension, at least.

Says, Mr Hope in his current log-line for the play:
There are times when the bizarre comedy of self-justified, self-centred, often cowardly but sometimes brazen small acts of evil and complicity accrue to a level that demands some kind of audit, and a little self-ironic humour.
An arresting log-line promising much. The promise is not kept. Perhaps, having a Director other than the writer might have helped in the rehearsal room? Another 'eye'. Another dramaturgical hand.

Briony Williams, as the only representative of the opposite sex, in this play, does by far and away the most interesting work in this production. Jeremy Waters keeps his head just above 'water' to keep his resume afloat, while, unfortunately, on Opening night, neither Alan Lovell or Dominic McDonald gave flawless performances to help give real clarity to the writing, or the staging.

Chain mail - defined in my oxford dictionary: n. historical armour made of small metal rings linked together. chainmale then is a lovely word-play joke by Mr Hope, and promised some potential cogency of the writer's ambition, but now seems, possibly, the best of the writing to be had.

A disappointment.

Friday, April 24, 2015


Photo by Rupert Reid
Red Lines Productions presents ORPHANS, by Lyle Kessler, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St and Dowling St, Woolloomooloo, 14 April - 9 May 2015.

ORPHANS, is an American play by Lyle Kessler, written in 1983, and first presented in Los Angeles. The only reason, that I could  judge, to produce this text is centred around the opportunity to provide three roles for men with the potential for high testosterone acting. For, the content and the dramaturgy of the play, felt a little laborious to sit through otherwise, today.

Two brothers have grown up orphans in a run down house in the run down suburb of North Philadelphia, essentially bringing themselves up: Treat (Andrew Henry), the elder brother, the 'bread-winner', mostly, via petty crime, and Phillip (Aaron Glenane), the repressed and depressed younger brother, literally and psychologically imprisoned in the house, by his over-protective and loving  brother. One night Treat, who has a tendency to violence, returns to the house with an older, drunken man, Harold (Danny Adcock), with the intention of kidnaping and holding him for ransom. But Harold is not what he seems and the tables are turned, and he manoeuvres the situation like a magician, a Houdini, and comes to 'adopt' these two orphans, and prepares them for a new way of living - almost like a surrogate father. There is a 'shaggy dog' story element to the tale and it has a touch of menace, comedy, and maybe that kind of magic realism that you find in contemporary Irish writers' work, e.g. Tom Murphy (THE GIGLI CONCERT) or Colin McPherson (THE SEAFARER), where a mysterious figure arrives on the scene and changes everything. And not necessarily for the better.

As you may surmise I am not quite clear, in this production, about what or why what happens happens in the narrative of this story, or, even have a sure grasp of the tone of the playing of this text. Anthony Gooley, directing his second major production, (the first, last year being Rajiv Joseph's, GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES), stages the play well, but does not have a clear enough Director's hand on how to guide us to and through the narrative 'hooks' of the writing and so loses the thread of what Mr Kessler is narrating/telling us, and consequently, some of us, his audience. The play narrative becomes swamped with the chutzpa of the actors in a display of their craft for characterisation.

In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, given to Elissa Blake (The  Shortlist - April 17, 2015), Mr Gooley says, "I'd really like it if the audience is spending part of the time trying to work out what the hell it is they're watching." Be careful for what you wish for, for that is what does happen, but for more than "part of the time", maybe, for some of us, most of the time.

The New York Times has described the play as "part absurdest black comedy and part metaphysical melodrama" and "theatre for senses". This production in the small space of the Old Fitz Theatre, in Woolloomooloo, is an explosive pressure-cooker of a sensory threat to violence, so, much more the latter quote: "theatre for the senses" than the former. Andrew Henry discovered the play, he says, whilst studying at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago (2013) - incidentally, Steppenwolf Co. became the creator of a production in 1985, directed by Gary Sinese, which toured Off-Broadway, and then internationally. That production developed the reputation for the then, young Chicago company as a leading exponent of what became known as "rock'n'roll theatre". Interestingly, the play was produced on Broadway last year with Daniel Sullivan directing it, with a distinct shift into a gentler tone, less the violent heft and more the human comedy, and it failed to ignite an audience, playing for only 37 performances, although garnering two Tony nominations for two of the actors. Maybe, taking that lesson, this company's work is a demonstration of young(ish) actors bringing us "rock'n'roll" theatre.

Mr Henry in "falling in love" with this play or, rather, it seems with the acting opportunity of Treat, tends to invest himself too deeply in the playing of the role, indulging it, and, relatively, forgets to be our storyteller. We come to admire his performance as actor, but unfortunately, I feel, at the expense of the writer's narrative and needs. The penultimate scene, with his brother, Phillip, became a barely controlled exhibition of power-in-violence where shouting became the colouring-operative of the spoken words, communicating rage/hurt but none of the text, clearly, for us to understand why he was enraged/hurt - and, too,  made the ultimate moments with his brother, cradled in his arms, overtly sentimental. The actor knew the effect of the writing and played that with a disassociated manipulative control, playing the emotional card rather than the storytelling responsibility - not giving the audience leave to have the catharsis through the opportunity to endow the emotional states of the characters' plights, rather, having those states 'spoon-fed' to them.

Mr Glenane, as Phillip, as he did with his work in GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES, last year, plays creatively with a wonderful sense and control of 'characteristics' that reveal the inner life of his character, and becomes, thankfully, the agent, the touchstone, the ballast to keep the narrative, at least for Phillip apparent, in contrast to the distracting acting pyrotechnics going on about him.

Mr Adcock, playing in immaculate suit, brings a dandy and 'daddy' figure into the picture, and with an indeterminate, but it seems to me an appropriate dialect - anything from Irish to Chicago and some others - with the swagger and wise humour of a James Cagney-esque gangster from the Warner Brothers classics of days of yore. Mr Adcock's work is an engaging and eccentric playing and has, cumulatively, the charm of nostalgia, mystery, and in the end, a kind of grand pathos. Interestingly, Mr Kessler, references the Cagney era of film, having played out on the television in the living room, for Philllip to watch, DEAD END (1937) - which, of course introduces the famous Dead End kids from the Sidney Kingsley Broadway play (1935), i.e. kids without parents, or neglectful ones; and the Errol Flynn classic of 'brotherly' derring-do and sacrifice, in THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936).

The look of the show Designed by Anna Gardiner (with the structure of Lisa Mimmocchi's FREAK WINDS, set design) has the proper feel of poverty and desperation, lit with subtle but telling skill by Matt Cox, and a suitably sensitive mood Sound Design by David Stalley.

So, the energy of the playing certainly gives a respectable bang for your bucks at the Old Fitz and in the youthful tradition of "rock'n'roll theatre" (energy and noise), Red Line Productions ought to have a youthful audience clamouring with an excited awe. I would have loved the storytelling to be better balanced with the 'character' acting. For me, the play was tipped out of balance by the appetite of the actors enjoying the work-out of their acting opportunities. ORPHANS,  is, after all, considered "an actor's play" and in 2015, the reason to do it. I guess.

There is another play called ORPHANS, by Dennis Kelly, in case you find the title ringing little bells of recognition in your theatre knowledge.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Elektra / Orestes

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Belvoir presents, ELEKTRA / ORESTES, by Jada Alberts and Anne-Louise Sarks, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, 14 March - 26 April, 2015.

In less than an hour, Belvoir Theatre, under the Direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, presented her and Jada Alberts, truncated version of two major Greek plays, ELEKTRA and ORESTES. A member of my audience expressed astonishment that this had happened. He wasn't sure, however, whether he had been gypped or not. Still, it was just after nine o'clock as we hit the pavement together and we both agreed we both could get to our homes for the last part of the REDFERN NOW telemovie, before going to bed.

Says Ms Sarks:
ELEKTRA / ORESTES is a play about family. It is a play about grief. And violence, and love and regret. These are themes that will resonate as long as humans are on this earth.
We've brought this play into 2015 and into the family home.
We've placed Elecktra and her long lost brother Orestes in the kitchen. In this production the epic bumps into the domestic, and through that collision we can begin to recognise ourselves inside this extreme story.
One wonders if we wouldn't have recognised ourselves, if this production had been set in the original era, setting and play. I mean, being in a 2015 kitchen and recognising the domestic similarities, (a tap, sink, a juicer, clothing etc.) to my everyday life, didn't necessarily make this story, told by Ms Alberts and Sarks, any more accessible for me. There did not seem to be any logical justification. None of the motives for bringing the play into 2015 and the family home, none of them, made anything that happened in this production at all credible to my daily life experience of modern Australia. Rather than drawing me into a theatrical experience, it kept me out, with a pained, disconnected, objective eye-view.

I just kept 'bumping' into, in this Belvoir domestic setting, into strange questions, whilst sitting in the theatre, as I had become, quickly, disassociated from the action of the play as it enacted, and was reduced to just watching the actors speak and move about the stage. Wondering why in 2015, Klytemnestra (Linda Cropper) had not been arrested for the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, put on trial and jailed? Why was she as free as a lark? What had secured her freedom? I just kept wondering whether ICAC needed to review our police and justice system, in Sydney, Australia? Certainly, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) knew about it, she never shuts-up about it. So did her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills), and Oerstes (Hunter Page-Lochard), for that matter, as we find out, did too. For God's sake, Klytemnestra, admits to the crime. She even confesses the reason: that it was an act of revenge for the murder of her eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Mother's grief, mother's revenge for infanticide, no matter what period in human history, it seems a reasonable motive, even if the resultant extreme action is hard to justify, especially, in this day and age? Isn't it? She would be incarcerated somewhere in our prison system for sure, wouldn't she be?

That Elektra is so furious (jealous?) that her mother had then begun a relationship with Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) while her father was away, and this fact used by her as a scourge to accuse Klytemnestra, to humiliate her, and declaimed, often, as a reason, the reason, for murdering her, and that Klytemnestra, in her own defence, doesn't mention the fact that her husband, Elektra's father, after eight years at war, had returned with a concubine, Cassandra, to live with them - in a modern menage-a-trios - I felt was letting her case for justification of motive down. I mean let's go back to the start of all this suburban mayhem in Sydney, why hadn't Agamemnon been arrested for the murder of his daughter Iphigenia? This is the late 1990's when this began, in a democratic and modern Sydney, isn't it? That's what Ms Sarks wants me to believe. The modern, white, module kitchen, with minimal kitchen gadgets, near empty cupboards, certainly tried to make me believe that it was, it, designed by Ralph Myers, with some trendy minimalist neon writing art on the walls. I mean, why hadn't Agamemnon been at least institutionalised when he, to justify his murderous deed, the killing of Iphigenia, claimed it was a sacrifice to the gods to speed his journey to war? A sacrifice to the gods? Really? What god? What 'cult' was he involved with to sacrifice a human being, let alone his own daughter? Really, in 1997? How did he get away with it? How did he get away, out of the country, with that defence for child-murder? Why wasn't he immediately arrested when he returned?

I was not able to accept and go with the Directorial decision of setting it today, in this adaptation, production, of the ELEKTRA / ORESTES source plays. All Ms Alberts and Sarks had done, beside gutting the poetry and debate of the plays - giving us a Disney-dumbing down of it all - was put the characters in modern dress (Costume Design, Mel Page) in a modern setting, with a few contemporary textual cultural joke-tweaks, without adjusting the circumstances of the original play to a modern milieu of crime and punishment, ethical beliefs - everyday modern law and order procedures. The whole intellectual rigour revealed its self as a fairly superficial effort in its adaptation ploys. It was still the ancient Greek story (without those ancient pranksters, the Greek Gods, around) in mod dress. It made a farce of the original mechanisms of the cultural source of the play and could not be accepted as a truth of contemporary Australia. I could not begin to recognise "ourselves inside this extreme story", as Ms Sarks suggests, I would.

One appreciated even more the achievement of a great writer like Eugene O'Neill and his appropriation of this story in his epic play MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA - Homecoming; The Hunted; The Haunted (1931). All the elements, in the O'Neill, of the original, had been thought through and adjusted to fit the times of the American Civil War and made sense of the possibility of the actions of the play in that era.

Boy, was I further bewildered, confused, at Belvoir, when the Composer and Sound Designer Stefan Gregory, began this version of these famous cultural texts, which he underlined further, during the night, with melodies from a German opera, Richard Wagner's, Der Ring des Nibelungen, 'The Ring Cycle' (1876), as the motifs for this Australian/Greek story! Themes from the score of ZORBA THE GREEK (1964), by Mike Theodorakis, would have been more apt and contemporary, perhaps? What world am I in, German? Greek? Australian?

The dialogue, the words of this play had a pleasing quasi formality about them, if not made to work confidently by many, any, of the actors (Ms Cropper having an intelligent and supported technique to try, but was not consistent enough). Although, on the other hand, the dialogue spoken by Mr Page-Lochard, as Orestes, in the second play, seemed to portray an improvised text of modern jargon and banalities that was a verbal contrast to the rest of the language of the other players, as to make it a very conspicuous and incongruous choice. Brecht used a technique of allowing the actors to personalise some of his classic texts, by transposing it to their daily usage/paraphrasing, to help the actors to familiarise themselves to the 'meaning', but always led them back to the language of the writer - Mike Leigh, Quentin Tarantino, similarly, does so. It seemed to me that Mr Page-Lochard had, explored with Ms Sarks, the personalising/owning of the language intentions, but had not got back to the textual qualities as written, that the others were dealing with. It was very odd, disconcerting, to hear this privileged (though damaged) young man, Orestes, speak in such a stylistically different and socio-economically contrasting manner to the others of this household.

I was taken with the principal writerly conceit of utilising simultaneous action in the two rooms, first in the dining room, and then, courtesy of a revolving stage, in the kitchen - it is an old literary trick - best used, I remember by Alan Ayckbourn in a three play, three room comic epic called THE NORMAN CONQUESTS -Table Manners; Living Together and Round and Round the Garden (1973). The dramaturgical possibility of tension in the second scene, play, of ELEKTRA / ORESTES had enormous potential. However, one felt only the potential of this writers' ploy because this company of actors fudged the commitment, with mostly, indifferent acting, and with five different acting formulations to solve the problems given to them by the writers and director.

Ms Tonkin, as Elektra, was dressed slovenly in tracksuit and hoody, bare-footed and careless to appearance, obviously indulging the privileged life of a spoilt, wealthy woman, demonstrating her boredom, her ennui, with an uncouth, 'moaning', whinging attitude, and flairs/flares of petulant adolescent behaviours. Ms Tonkin compounded that visual image with a use of the text in an extremely generalised emotional blur. There was no care to use the word by word construction of the writing to build Elektra's arguments, to tell the story the writer had given her, happy to, instead, to bawl the text as emotional noise. Was this behaviour of Elektra, or representative of Ms Tonkin's skills? Why was Elektra upset could not be clearly appreciated by the audience who mostly received only approximations of her dialogue to decipher, and through a 'noise-screen', a mess of generalised emotional indulgences.

Ms Mills, so impressive last year in KRYPTONITE, tended to demonstrate the life of Khrysothemis : when she was tired she walked/'acted' tired; when she was thwarted she 'acted' thwarted; when she was illicitly engaged with Aegisthus, she 'acted' illicitly engaged with Aegisthus! It was very making the familiar strange, very Brechtian, very Verfremdung (as they say), shaking us, the audience, out of a passivity or acceptance of the world on the stage. I certainly sat up to watch an actor 'ACT' - it was a very odd set of decisions, that Ms Mills and Sarks, used to reveal the character. I did think it would have been easier just to 'be': tired, thwarted, illicitly engaged, with a belief system that we, the audience, could then endow for her. The work was cartooned and of a completely other-worldly style to the other performers.

Mr Winspear, as Aegisthus, played bored 'playboy' with less interest than was required for us to read into his offered choices, the possibility of a live human being with any stakes in the story/plot. Ms Cropper, as she had done with her work recently at Belvoir, e.g. NORA, played with a sophisticated approach to her character with a skilful language intelligence. However, even she began to falter in effort and seemed to give-up the battle, worn out, perhaps, to finally play with a kind of perfunctory gesture, as she moved centre stage to be shot (melodramatically), as she had had little active support to match her work as the play moved into the Orestes room - it is hard to create a reality all by yourself, especially a reality that Ms Sarks attempted to place in a domestic kitchen, just like our own, in the year 2105, with knives, guns and lots of blood and no telephones!

Mr Page-Lochard, as Orestes, began well in the guise of the Messenger, and initially I felt a tremor of hope that Ms Cropper would at last have a performance to bounce off, play with, unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, Mr Page-Lochard had what sounded like improvised contemporary 'street- talk', dialogue, in the Orestes 'kitchen' act, which did not match or meet the language energy, or stylistic force of his protagonist, Ms Cropper/Klytemnestra, and so, ultimately, failed to really connect with Ms Cropper's offers, and failed to create a bloody vengeful son, or, even a convincing dynamically conscience riven individual. The last scene, staged by Ms Sarks, the murder of Klytemnestra had, for me, a vague hint of the the flair of a bad Douglas Sirk melodrama (with the Lana Turner real life trappings, conjured in my mind), though, really, not enough to have me get on board. The gesture of the Sirk style was timed too late for me to take it as meant. Was it meant? Probably, not. Just me desperate to make some joy from the night.

The Greek dramatists of the original works, left the killings off-stage, leaving it to the imaginations of the audience to invent the chaos and power of murder. Unfortunately, Ms Sarks decided to bring them onto the stage, and Mr Page-Lochard had the very difficult task of bringing a verisimilitude to a stabbing of many, many 'stabs' to an upturned onstage body, under the kitchen sink - and what resulted, with the audience I was with, was a giggle-fest - it reminded me of the famously deliberate Hitchcock gambit in the film TORN CURTAIN (1966), where he had Paul Newman attempt to kill a Russian cold war thug, which was 'demonstrating' for us, just how difficult it was to actually kill someone. It took some time and many methods. I remember the audience in the State Cinema, too, getting the giggles - that, I think, was Hitchcock's intention (watch it with friends, it is amazing), but not necessarily Ms Sarks' intention. The climatic murder of mum with a gun was just as ineptly staged as the first of her lover-boy.

Look, I don't know why the acting from these very highly credentialled actors - and usually, much admired by me - is so disparate and strangely odd. Is it that the play text was not ready for these actors to grapple with early enough for them to begin to safely craft a performance? A unified collaboration? Was the rehearsal effort focused on the writing of the script and exploration of styles, leaving the actors, relatively marooned in their thwarted creativity time? Only the company can dissect what has happened.

The night I attended there was less than a third of a house present to watch this production. The centre block with a sprinkling of a few of us on the sides. Word-of-mouth was out and about, I guess. It was the second show in a row that I had attended with a small audience at Belvoir!! I bought my ticket, oddly, at the invitation of the Sydney Theatre Company, who had noted, I guess, by the shared metadata of my transactions with the Belvoir Theatre, that I had enjoyed KRYPTONITE, with Ursula Mills, and might, similarly, enjoy seeing her again, at Belvoir. I simply had to use the code word of 'Easterbunny', to be able to buy a ticket for only $45.00 instead of the usual, $72.00. I did. Not many others had - what did they know that I didn't? You know I did know, but enjoy the theatre too much not to go, and who knows, I could be surprised. I am sometimes accused of being a contrarian. But like the gentleman I met as we left the theatre wondered if I had been gypped: $45.00 for the ticket, $7.00 for the program, a total of $52.00. The play just under an hour, it was more than a dollar a minute. You know, it just wasn't a quality dollar spend I'm afraid. Gypped then, sir.

Three Greek dramatists: Aeschylus, in his trilogy called THE ORESTIA, treats the Electra and Orestes story in THE LIBATION BEARERS and EUMENIDES (458 BC); Euripides, with his ELECTRA (422 - 416 BC) and ORESTES (408BC); Sophocles in his ELECTRA (c.425 - 410 BC). It would be a treat to see these plays on stage. Being some of the foundation texts of Western culture, it would be great to see, enjoy their relevance, relatively, faithfully, albeit, trusting that I, and the audiences, have the necessary intelligence of perception to relate without dumb-downing the texts and transporting the times, that, in this instance, (as it did with the STC UNCLE VANYA, set in he 1960's Russia, a few years ago) prove to be very superficial textual adjustments to the new period.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kill the Messenger

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir St Theatre, present KILL THE MESSENGER, by Nakkiah Lui, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 14 Feb - 8 March.

This is a catch-up blog.

KILL THE MESSENGER, is the second play presented by Belvoir St Theatre, by Nakkiah Lui. The first was, THIS HEAVEN, presented in 2013.

This is a one act play played on a blank black-box stage (Set Design by Ralph Myers) with a bench along both side walls framing the space, lit with theatrical nous and flair by Kate Sfetkidis, making clear demarcations for narrative location, and Directed well, by Anthea Williams.

Ms Lui has written a play about what she views as an 'injustice' that illustrates embedded, historical, institutional racism from a dominant culture and the effects it has, is having, on the Indigenous population. And that, still, nothing is being done to alter that circumstance. She tells us in her Writer's notes that
As I wrote KILL THE MESSENGER, I really I wanted to see you. I want to see you and I want to talk to you. I want you to hear me and I want you to know you can be heard. I wrote KILL THE MESSENGER for you and I want you to leave and do something. Anything. Please.
Ms Lui introduces us to two stories, one from hearsay and one from a personalised experience and knowing. One concerns an Indigenous sister and brother dealing with the consequences of drug addiction, both past and present. Both these siblings endured and watched an addictive habit destroying their mother, and now Paul (Lasarus Ratuere) is similarly in the closing spiral of addiction and an unrecognised cancer diagnosis whilst being watched by a desperate, seemingly helpless-to-act Harley (Katie Beckett). We watch the conclusion of this story and meet Alex (Matthew Backer), a nurse working in ER at a major institution, a hospital, and the consequence of his response to the problems that Paul presented. This is the hearsay story elaborated by the writer to reveal her premise in classic dramaturgical patterns of show and reveal.

The other story is based around the story of Ms Lui's Nana, who died, after an accident in her neglected home run by the AHO - Aboriginal Housing Office. This is told in a kind of verbatim process by the writer herself, who also 'inhabits' the role of Nakkiah, and so literally tells us the story with documentary video-images of Nana and the family and the house. In her own words, from her own mouth. Ms Lui is both the actual writer and the actor playing the writer. What is true and what is poetic license for the dramaturgy of the play text became for me a paradox and, consequently, I never really, solved my objective response to the piece. Subjectively, I comprehended the message from this messenger, and it was a 'worthy' message, but felt uncomfortably manipulated. One knows and one hears what Ms Lui and this company are saying but, really, what can one do. Get angry, it seems. What can one do? Some answer, some answers, please. Any guide, please, Anything. Please, Ms Lui. Your anger and writing maybe not, is not, I have concluded, enough.

Last year I watched a verbatim play, THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS, by Alana Valentine and Rhonda Dixon-Grosvenor, which was a recollection of an Indigenous activist, 'Chicka' Dixon, that told of the fight against institutionalised racism in this country. It told us, it showed us what could be done to achieve change. It, also, told us of the collateral damage such action may have on the participants and their immediate support and loved ones. Those of us who do not know - ignorant of our joint history - imagine that we must invent the 'wheel'. The 'wheel', believe it or not has been made, as THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS demonstrated last year, and the consequences of making it may be the inhibitor to contemporary action. Who knows? It certainly gave me pause. Recently, I watched the American/British film called SELMA (2014), Directed by Ava DuVernay, Written by Paul Webb, concerning the fateful march for African/American voting rights, led by Martin Luther King Jr, from Selma to Montgomery and of its consequences - both the big-picture and small picture consequences. I was shown a problem and I was shown some actions to change it. Are these two examples of what Ms Lui is searching for? If it is, then, actions such as the above historical choices give us the way for/to change. Both, THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS and SELMA  educated and moved and motivated me to think what would, could, I do for the causes that strike at me. Or, is there another way? Perhaps, the way of Mahatma Gandhi? What do you think, Ms Lui? Is it enough for you to tell me of your personal history, and anger, and for me to have empathy for it and expect me to do something about it, without you having some idea to direct me how to help? Is your personal anger enough, to give me motivation, empathy and the courage? Particularly, the courage. I may feel 'guilt' with you standing in front of me after watching KILL THE MESSENGER, but am left feeling bewildered and impotent about what I should, can, do.

In the Director's Note, Ms Williams tells us:
In KILL THE MESSENGER the political can't be separated from the personal and the institutions this generation has inherited are still killing Indigenous people. While developing this play I liked to think of it as three unfinished stories and a really angry woman. She is angry, but she is also full of heart and wit and passion. ... 
These are without doubt important issues for our nation as a whole. Ms Lui reveals her heart, wit and passion, along with, writ large, very large, her anger.

It is this anger that manipulates the play out of my ability to truly appreciate it beyond the personal pain of the writer/actor. The circular argument/attacks on all and sundry without anybody accepting any responsibility for what is happening is what frustrated me to the message. Writing this play in this tone maybe not a solution. Or, even an invitation, a sufficient urging, to jointly find a solution and put it to action.

As Nakkia says in the final speech in the play:
          ... My thoughts aren't clear and I don't know why bad things happen and how to fix it, but I'm     telling you this ...

Peter,  the boyfriend to Nakkiah, played by Sam O'Sullivan to Nakkiah, played by Nakkiah Lui :
... What I'm saying is, look at it from a different perspective. Try and see some good ... some kind of ... light ... some hope ... in the situation.
Later Nakkiah says directly to the audience as writer/actor (as real person, Nakkiah Lui, too?)
... I'm not telling this to you tonight because I want to. I don't particularly like it. It's been hard and it's truth and it hurts. I'm telling you this because I don't know what else to give you that will make you think about or try and change the life we live - all I have is the truth and this is the most I can give. ...
I felt, by the end of the night, that it was not enough. It was too, self-absorbed, self affected a telling, for my 'habits' to be moved by this theatrical experience. Maybe, the 'sword' is mightier than the pen? Maybe actions speak louder than words? Shall we ask 'Chicka' Dixon? Shall we ask Mr King Jr? Shall we ask Gandhi?

Ms Williams demonstrated for me her gift as a Director (FORGET ME NOT and OLD MAN). The production was fluid and effectively staged. Matthew Backer gave a complex and movingly conflicted performance as Alex, the hospital nurse, with great subtlety, caught between his human compassion and the institutionalised necessities for survival. Too, Sam O'Sullivan in a very difficult role as the foil to an emotionally unstable partner, found a way to gain our empathy and comprehension of the dilemma faced by Peter in his two scenes - that he leaves her, however, was an understandable outcome. Nakkiah Lui, Katie Beckett and Lasarus Rautec were able to give us the surface of what was happening if with not much internal revelation, in the action, as to the why. The history, the specific back-story that would produce such word and action, essentially, lacked sufficient sophistication of playing, technique, as storytellers to really communicate to us, except as speakers/recitors of text.

KILL THE MESSENGER was an interesting experience in the theatre, I was kind of fascinated, intrigued by the form, if not with the treatment of the undoubtedly raw content, although I felt this production was still an early draft of a possibly more interesting play to come. I wondered, just how many drafts there were before this play was curated for the Upstairs Theatre? (Seven, by the first day of rehearsal, I think?) Was there a text to rehearse or a text to be re-written on the first day of official rehearsal? Ideas for a text rather than a mostly finished text? If it were the latter, it could account for some of the acting not having the usual attention that I have seen come from the hands of Ms Williams.

On the first Friday after opening night, I was in a theatre that was only half full. I hope others caught the play later in the short season to be able to debate the issues and the stated objectives and conclusions drawn by the artists below. A play to change what indigenous plays are about? Big claims. I wonder.

Cost $72.00, plus $12 for program/script.


Dream Home

Ensemble Theatre presents DREAM HOME written and directed by David Williamson, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli.

This is a catch-up post. I saw this production in early February.

DREAM HOME, by David Williamson, is a new Australian play. What was interesting, when reading about this play and its conceptual inspiration, was that it appeared to be about the not uncommon problem of new home owners, who after purchasing and moving into what they believe to be a dream home, instead, find it a nightmare, surrounded by neighbours that can make living there a catastrophe, a hell. We all have similar stories in the expanded web of our network of family and friends. Backpackers in Coogee, next door, on limited rental deals, part of my dread dilemma of daily living in my otherwise Dream Home! Mr Williamson mentioned his own family had participated in telling personal journeys of this modern dilemma, and that that had provided an inspiration point.

Paul (Guy Edmonds), an out of work composer and his new, heavily pregnant wife, Dana (Haiha Le), an up-and-coming director of Commercials, have bought and moved into an apartment in a small block of 'flats' in an old style building (Set & Costume Design by Marissa Dale-Johnson). In the living room we watch Guy meet the neighbours:  Sam (Justin Stewart Cotter), a Lebanese/Australian, working as a security entrepreneur - exhibiting all the stereo-typical 'racial' profiling in Mr Williamson's creation: a physical bully, obsessed with sex and a preening self and all of its 'haunting' insecurities, including, notably, his wife, Colette (Libby Monroe), a nearly played-out 'Cougar' on the prowl for an alternative to her husband, who happens to be an ex-partner of Paul's - yikes, what a co-incidence. Henry (Alan Flower), a sexually inadequate married to a sexually insatiable airline worker, Cynthia (Olivia Pigeot), and Wilma (Katrina Foster), a senior with a penchant for kleptomania and the odd suburban scam in the guise of good-neighbourliness.

This is, I understand, in the words of Mr Williamson, 'a light comedy'. And it is light in all ways except for the heavy respect for the demeaning comic cliche. DREAM HOME sounds often, and acts out, relentlessly, as if it were an episode from a seventies television sit-com e.g. MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE (1973 -1976) or its American version 'THREE'S COMPANY' (1977 -1984), or even more sadly, a comic sketch show such as THE BENNY HILL SHOW. For, so badly are the women viewed and motivated by the writer as mechanisms for the comedy in DREAM HOME (though the men, too, are no less antediluvian in their creation) that I often winced with shock that this was what was on show in a theatre in 2015, and was a new play, and being appreciated and laughed with, without much protest. The Ensemble Theatre is built on the waterfront and this production felt, embarrassingly, in the interval, for me, like an end-of-pier waterfront comic postcard from yesteryear - you know the Carry-On movie jokes and caricature drawings. While, I must also add, that the second act, with its many short scenes, seemed to need some urgent structural re-writing. Perhaps, having Mr Williamson also direct his own play did not give him the eye or ear of acute discernment, or the time, to be able to detect and repair the writing.

Best part of the evening was to watch Mr Edmonds, as Paul, more than deftly play with each of the other characters and situations that intruded into his living room, with a tireless energy and a dignified aplomb, to keep the play afloat. It was a highly proficient technical performance suffused with an insightful actor's intelligence (as to Mr Williamson's structural mechanism, I recalled a similar plotting ploy by Simon Gray in his play, OTHERWISE ENGAGED (1975) where a central character, Simon, while attempting to listen to some music (PARSIFAL), is continually interrupted by acquaintances with dilemmas in their lives that they think he can help solve). Mr Edmonds' skill came to a special sense of amazement, for me, especially considering the quality of the writing, in a long and slow-burning comic turn given by Mr Cotta, that allowed Mr Cotta to turn his 'typical' character, provided by Mr Williamson, inside-out, and find the subtextual monologue  to reveal a pathos for his otherwise FAT PIZZA/HOUSOS Sam, 'the leb'. The 'give and take' of nuance between these two actors was a lesson in comic construct and collaboration - making two humans out of textual figures of cliche ridicule.

Ms Foster comes off best in bringing some interest to her lady, Wilma, with comic technique and intelligence to burn, while Ms Le, brought gravitas of some kind of reality to the character, Dana. Ms Pigeot tackling Cynthia has nothing but cliche to keep her afloat - she managed it well, while Ms Munro as Colette, struggled to bring much to the role except the shallow superficiality of the writing.

I understand that the production was half-sold before the production opened on the reputation of Mr Williamson as a writer. I, too, considering the title and the reported premise of the play, and my respect for this giant in the Australian theatre landscape as a writer, had looked forward to the evening. Alas, one just reflected on the past achievements of this writer and came away thinking "How the mighty have fallen". I had, too, memories twigged of the Simon Gray play and wished that I was watching it again.

I guess it is really that old cliche: "Horses for Courses."

Some like it, some can't.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Plot

Photo by Mark Micaleff Photography

Skylight Productions present THE PLOT, written and Produced by Evdoika Katahanas, at the Mantouridion Theatre, Building 36, 142 Addison Rd Marrickville. 13 Feb - 1Mar.

During the month of March I was 'afflicted' with a summer flu, and although I saw some work in the theatre, was not able to diarise. I shall attempt to catch-up.

THE PLOT, is a new Australian play by Evdokia Katahanas, and has its origins in the appreciation of the life of the aged and the observation that 'the measure of a civilised society is how we treat our most vulnerable members'. The location for this play is in a Nursing Home/Care Centre for the Aged. We meet patients wearied with physical and mental deterioration, all with different levels of awareness, and the devoted 'foot soldiers'/nurses, who care for them. We also observe the Corporate organisation and organisers behind the running of the home and the corruption and immoral criminal behaviours that sometimes take advantage of the 'guests' and their families.

There are some character drawings by the writer that are advantaged by the inventive imaginations of the actors and their skills: Deborah Galanos demonstrating a fearless courage in her dual performance as Dora and Frieda; Maggie Blinco, as Daisy. But all the actors, bravely, strut their opportunities no matter the thinness of the writing. Essentially, the play is a structural 'mess' and needs some more time spent dramaturgically in refining the action mechanisms and characterisations. The Director, Sophie Kelly, has created a fluid flow to the text as it stands and keeps the work in motion with a dedicated and committed company. Their value not to be underestimated!

The playwrighting needs to go back to the desk, now that the work has had some breath put into it and been 'workshopped' and tested with an audience, so that the strengths and weaknesses can be sorted out for a richer and more rewarding theatrical experience.

Frame of Mind

Sydney Dance Company (SDC) present FRAME OF MIND in the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

FRAME OF MIND is a double-bill from the Sydney Dance Company: QUINTETT by William Forsythe, and a new work, FRAME OF MIND by Artistic Director of the company, Rafael Bonachella.

QUINTETT, is a dance by William Forsythe, made in 1994, to honour his dying dancer-wife. The work is having its first Australian performance with this company, the significance of the work for five dancers, having special meaning and delicacies for the Choreographer, that permission for its re-creation is sparely given.

In rehearsal clothing the five dancers interact and communicate to the soundtrack of Gavin Bryars' JESUS' BLOOD NEVER FAILED ME - a looped recording of an unaccompanied 'street-singer' with a gradually evolving, gentle orchestral underplay. I, generally, am an enormous admirer of the work of William Forsythe, but whether it was the soporific culmination of the score by Mr Bryars, or other things, I could not, did not engage in the work as others have seem to have done. I lost interest quite easily. Ana Catalina Roman Horcajo and Thomas McManus, both staged the choreography.

On the other hand, FRAME OF MIND, a new work from the Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachella, to three of the tracks from the Kronos Quartet recording of AHEYM by Bryce Dessner, arrested and attracted my appreciation enormously. The Design by Ralph Myers, of a tall, distressed, angled wall, spread diagonally across the stage space, with the second wall featuring a large arched window, is handsome in its presence and frames the action well, although it seems to crowd the space, that has the full company often on stage.  The Costumes, also by Mr Myers were sympathetic to the dance and dancers. A variety of duets etc. are executed by a very finely tuned and athletic company. What I particularly enjoyed was the mostly air-borne choreography of this dance and the synchronistic achievements of the company in some of the demands made on them by Mr Bonachella. This new work is such a departure from what I, generally, perceive of the floor-hugging style of this choreographer, that I was unexpectedly delighted and enthused. It is packed with physical  beauty and action and, on the afternoon, I saw it, enthusiastically danced with focused concentration by all the company. It was received with generous applause from the audience.

It was a joyful, afternoon, diversion.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Reflections on Gallipoli

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) presents REFLECTIONS ON GALLIPOLI, at Sydney City Rectal Hall Angel Place.

One was brought to deep reflective emotions, that culminated in tears, by a programme of music, classical and folk, with words and images in the Angel Place Recital Hall and, I daresay, one will have to look hard and long for a memorial to the tragic action of Gallipoli - this year, 2015, it's Centenary year of remembrance -  that could reach to such heights of  integrity, dignity and human feeling and thought, than this concert brought to us by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), under the musical Direction of Richard Tognetti.

Collaborating with Mr Tognetti and his outstanding orchestra, were Nigel Jamieson as Devisor (his own production: GALLIPOLI, for the Sydney Theatre Company, a great piece of theatre, several years ago, now), Sean Bacon as Video Designer, Matt Cox with his sensitive Lighting Design, Directed seamlessly and sensitively by Neil Armfield, guiding marvellously honest and deeply felt performances from actors, Yalin Ozucelik and Nathaniel Dean - both truly outstanding in their expression and finely judged passion and compassion with the language from the observers and participants in the thick of the battle campaign - and, too, Taryn Fiebig, in song.

There was no anger, bitterness or political angst expressed in this concert but rather a gentle dwelling on the wasteful carnage of all who fought at Gallipoli, the invaders and the defenders, with a verbal and musical detailing that placed layer upon layer the tragedy of MAN and his primitive practices to contemplate. An active melancholia that transubstantiated into swelling prideful appreciation of the sacrifice exampled there, rose within me. A greater, a more intelligent and moving statement concerning the stupidity of war I have not, personally, had so skilfully articulated, for me before.

The music selected was composed by Bela Bartok, Nevit Kodalli, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederick Septimus Kelly, Edward Elgar, and two World Premiere's of commissioned works: SOLILOQUY, and OUR SONS, by Carl Vine. Mixed in the program were some folk song, traditional and composed by Muzaffer Sarisozen and Mehves Hanim. The mixture and choice of the score impeccably ordered and created for a smouldering impact of affect. Whilst the actors were supplied with words that exampled the behaviour of men under awful duress with insight and level headed balance.

The great leader, founding President of the Republic of Turkey, and prior officer, commander of Turkish troops at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wrote:

These heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives - you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

This was the inspiration for Carl Vine's, SOLILOQUY (one of the commissioned works) and was the measure of the humanist tone of this concert: REFLECTIONS ON GALLIPOLI. It was a memorable experience, given, exceptionally, by all. The intimacies and transcendent beauty of Vaughan Williams' THE LARK ASCENDING (Composed in 1914, revised in 1920) could not be surpassed in Mr Tognetti's rendering with his orchestra - unforgettable.