Friday, May 29, 2015

The Wizard of Oz

Belvoir presents, THE WIZARD OF OZ, after L. Frank Baum, in the Belvoir St Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, May 2 - May 31.

THE  WIZARD OF OZ, is Directed by Adena Jacobs, following on from her HEDDA GABLER 'investigation - interrogation" last year for the Belvoir audience. This is not an adaption of the novel, or even of the famous film.

From the program notes:
Jacobs stark re-imagining of L. Frank Baum's narrative masterpiece (1900) is an abstract theatrical poem about innocence, grief and the terror of growing up. The production is not a stage adaption of the novel, rather Jacobs conjures the striking symbols at the heart of THE WIZARD OF OZ: the trauma of exile, rites of passage, and the all-consuming desire to be someone else, and reimagines them into an immersive, surreal, dream-like fantasia.
These program notes were, possibly, written well before this work was completed and seems to be in expectation of some high hopes for the finished product. For in the reimagining of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and in finding the ways to execute those re-imaginings, the experience of the work, for the most of us I was with, was not 'immersive' rather, elusive; was not 'surreal', rather puerile; not 'dream-like', but rather sophomoric, soporifically nightmarish but without doubt, a 'fantasia' composition of different forms and styles.

Indeed, one does need to know, or have, some working knowledge of these American books and film (Ms Jacobs', HEDDA was inspired, by the U.S. of A, as well - her Hedda was living there, wasn't she?), or not much of this Australian production would speak too clearly to you. One of my friends had no references for anything she was watching, not having read the book(s) or seen the film, or the musical, or even WICKED! And even then, I assured her, I, who knew the film fairly well and have seen WICKED, could recognise the characters in broad terms, but could not make much of the narrative or the symbols. "What was it about when the Tin Man was raping Dorothy in the corner of the light box in the upstage corner?" - I couldn't explain. There is virtually no spoken text or 'poetry', although there are one or two recognisable songs which were more than a trifle anachronistic for Mr Baum's Land of Oz - though beautifully sung, theatrically sung, by Paul Capsis (the Lion). His singing the only real 'grace' of the performance.

I guessed, for my companions, later in the foyer, as we exasperatedly tried to gather our experience into a coherent beginning for conversation, that the production was an investigation-interrogation of what it was for Ms Jacobs and/or her collaborators to grow up in the awful world of their personal environments, the bourgeois world of Australia (OZ?), in a world of fraudulent wizards - where nothing is what it appears to be but rather some foul, gothic, grim, deceptive, z-grade horror place (there was a feint hope that we were heading to that TV/SBS prison series called OZ , when an apparent 'dominatrix' and 'slave' began a mildly interesting S&M scene - but no, alas, not much happened to sustain one's interest - just shades of grey.) From the musical interludes, text, offered us, I surmised, and suggested to our foyer gathering as we headed for the doors, what we were been told was: Dorothy was taught that somewhere over a rainbow, life might be happier, and so she is always chasing rainbows and discovers in episodes of 'terror' that nothing is what it seems, and further, the lesson life teaches, for women, is that only YOU can make the world seem right/bright. Is that It? Wow, I hadn't ever thought of life like that before THE WIZARD OF OZ! - some of my companions had, and said if that is what this production was about, it was fairly lame. Each to his own, I guess.

The dinner we had up in Crown St, after, was less an opaque experience. What our senses could not absorb in the theatre was subsumed by the sensual theatre of recognisably good nourishment - real food. Our senses awakened our unconscious. We all loved it - loving what we were digesting and agreeing it was nurturing.

Over dinner, one of us, in a fit of giggles brought on, presumably by the glass of wine she had, suggested that the Department of Social Services ought to have being called to help those poor artists from their childhood, adolescence and, perhaps, adulthood, to aid them in their seemingly continuous cyclic wheel of depressive experiences of being a woman in this relentless, time to infinity, orbit of the earth. Cruel, cold and lacking any kind of human empathy, or thing known as 'love' - poor people, we agreed. No progress in sight at all for those female psyches it seemed - for the production ended where it had started (and the re-start looked to be alarmingly imminent again) - ahh, no! Fortunately, the Director called a halt to it all after an hour or so. This therapeutic abreaction of these artist's psyche was really a bore for the most part. Banal (pronounced, 'bay-nahl' not 'bar-nahl', in this case, please) at best.

I was attracted at the start, the atmospheric tension created with the stillness and light, and especially sound - the later shakuhachi sounds reminding one of the scores for Kurosawa's RAN and KAGEMUSHA. Epic!- was a tangible curiosity. That the production's storytelling did not unfold much further in interest, after some fifteen minutes in, forced me to cogitate and conclude that Ms Jacobs may have spent too much time attending theatre on the fringes of the Berlin Performing Art world, some years ago - the clues: the vitrine glass box with exhibit in it (in this case, a dog. No, not a Duck, different Belvoir show. Oh, Toto, perhaps? Though a different breed of dog from what I remembered of the film), the underwear and nudity (semi, but all beige, beige, grandmother beige), the 'persona' masks, the microphone drop from the roof, and those zippy Brechtian curtains whisking across the stage on those diagonal wires. One of my favourite bits, I must confess, the 'swish', clatter of the curtains, especially the red velvet Judy Garland like-ones, in this show.

That the program notes suggests that
In approaching performance in this way the production joins a long line of image based artistic expression from Romeo Castellucci's well known avant garde company Societas Raffaello Sanzio, ... to Robert Wilson ... and even our own Barrie Kosky
…Tells much of the delusional aspiration going on here. Not in any moment, did this work, this production reveal either in content or form: a high quality of technique of Light and Sound, of Theatre Design (Set or Costume), of acting mastery of body expression, or of an original or even coherent conception or statement by the writers-storytellers-improvisors-directors - that could connect this work to a line of worthiness to the above artists (let alone Ariane Mnouchkine or Robert Lepage, both left out by these artists as possible inspiration), except as admiring imitators. "Go, git way back to the end of that line." Way, way back. The now retired MY DARLING PATRICIA company has done this kind of work, oh, so much better, and with much more unique innovation of artistry: NIGHT GARDEN, AFRICA, for instance. (Now there is a company that should be deserving of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), by Brandis.)

THE WIZARD OF OZ, as it is on the Belvoir stage, is probably a reasonable outcome for an exploration of the source material, that may have taken place over the four or five weeks (that many?) of the available rehearsal time (observed, with excitement, by John McCallum, according to the notes in the program). But that short, tepid time for the construction of the work and then the technical divining in the theatre is a paltry one for one to achieve results beyond that of a first draft workshop, surely?  The 'wizards of Oz' behind this work were, indeed, not much different than the fraudulent Wizard of OZ in the movie - but at least he had put on a good show - a yellow brick and all, for us to be able to follow! If this work had been shown as part of a process of development at Performance Space, one could look more easily at what my friends had subscribed for/to, what I had paid for, without growing rancour and resignation.

Time, ah, Time. Time is the finite enemy of the creative artist. This work suffers from the lack and/or good use of what of it, they had.

Money may be the other enemy. It is difficult to be succinct and beautiful without money.

And, as one of my subscriber friends to Belvoir said, after this show, the third one in a row that had frustrated him at Belvoir, maybe Mr Brandis is on to something. For they were thinking after this year, it will be either the Griffin or The Eternity that will score their subscription support.

The Composition and Sound Design, by Max Lyandvert was what held this work together. Paul Capsis, and the anticipation that he might break out into more song is what kept one in one's seat. If only he had.

Next, Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. We are all holding our breath, and believing in Eamon Flack (praying for him - no pressure, sir, no pressure), the Director, who has rewarded us, mostly, at Belvoir, in these recent dreadful years, with quality respite in his ANGELS IN AMERICA, and THE GLASS MENAGERIE.

The Merchant of Venice

The Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove present, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, in the York Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 22 May - 30 May.

Sport For Jove present Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, at the Seymour Centre, Directed by Richard Cottrell. This play, once a popular choice, is rarely played, professionally, today in Australia - as with THE TAMING OF THE SHREW - and so I looked forward to this production with much curiosity. To prepare myself, I re-read the play, and pulled out of my book collection, John Gross' SHYLOCK - Four Hundred Years in The Life of A Legend (1992), and actually read (devoured) it - it is a mighty read, I promise you. I also watched The National Theatre film of Trevor Nunn's, 2000 production, with Henry Goodman's award winning performance of Shylock - a production of studied contemporary complexities, set in the 1930's, as is the setting of Mr Cottrell's Sport For Jove production. Mr Cottrell's take on this play for us, is as different as chalk is from cheese, to Mr Nunn's.

The Sport For Jove gives us a clean, clear reading of the text without any Director's obfuscations of modern tinkering or overt theoretical concerns. No distractions for the audience from the intentions of Shakespeare's play. The actors are, relatively, 'naked', having the openness of pure text rather than any disguise in intellectual 'conceit' of setting, or character reading. They give us a straight forward reading of the play within the expected genre of a romantic comedy as its raison d'etre.

Says Mr Cottrell in his program notes:
The play has an undeniable dark side but it is a comedy - with Shakespeare, tragedy ends in death, comedy ends in marriage. All his comedies conclude in weddings: there is a happy ending in the union of two people who love each other.
In THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, there are no deaths and three couples are united in marriage.

It has always been an interesting conundrum for me to find THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (1596-98), regarded, listed, as one of Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies. Under this heading it lies alongside THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1590), LOVE LABOUR'S LOST (1593), A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (1595-96), THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (1597), MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1598), TWELFTH NIGHT (1599-1601) and AS YOU LIKE IT (1600). Today, I see this play as a Problem Play - alongside, ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (1602-4), TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (1602) and MEASURE FOR MEASURE (1603-4).

At school we studied (in the fifties and sixties) Shakespeare's RICHARD II (1592), HENRY V (1599), HAMLET (1600), and MACBETH (1606). Not, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. However, part of my ex-curricular reading, one of my other excursions as a school kid, was THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, RICHARD III (1592) and OTHELLO (1604), and of course the boring (then) A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, as well. At least, that is how I remember my Shakespearean schoolboy education. The Merchant was a part of my reading, probably because there were lots and lots of copies of it lying around the school library, and the Portia speech about Mercy, and the Shylock speech about Jews, too, having eyes, hands, organs, dimensions etc like the rest of us, were a regular part of the Speech and Eisteddfod competitions that I had to attend and endure, listen to. I, of course, had never met or even seen a Jew, as far as I knew, in my part of the country (as I, similarly, had never met or seen an Indigenous Aboriginal, ever) and only understood the idea of a Jew as an exotic and past time thing, although the trials of the Nazi criminals were beginning to percolate into my consciousness - especially the trial of someone called Eichman, and so mysteriously infiltrating me with an inkling of the recent tribulations of the Jewish Europeans. (Australia the isolated, the ignorant, huh?) The play, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, then, seemed to be about a court case and the forfeit of a pound of flesh. About money lent and money forfeited, not a romantic comedy, love or marriage.

To have only this periphery connection to this play was probably, I am surmising, a hangover from the era prior to my decade of birth. As John Gross notes in his book "SHYLOCK. Four Hundred Years In The Life Of A Legend":
Writing in 1936, John Middleton Murry bracketed THE MERCHANT OF VENICE with HAMLET as the two most enduringly popular works in the Shakespeare canon. Theatre-critics in the twenties and thirties sometimes announced that they were tired of the play, but they were in the minority: it continued to attract producers and audiences alike. Between 1918 and 1939 there were nine separate productions in Stratford-upon-Avon, ten in the West End of London and ten at the old Vic. [1] 
A prolific text! John Gross, again:
Some nine million Jews lived in the European countries that fell under Nazi rule during the second world war; around six million of them were murdered. As the full enormity of what had happened sank in, Shylock (a Jew) became a much more problematic character. The problems he raised were still of the same kind as they had been before, but they had grown altogether more disturbing.[1] 
Since 1945, this play has had a changed and more delicate history. The substance of the play, its 'mood' has essentially, over the past 400 odd years, changed from Comical to Tragical, particularly in the aftermath of the last 86 years.

The earliest printed text of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the first Quarto of 1600. On the title page the play is described as
'The most excellent Historie of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. With the extreame crueltie of Shylock the Jewe towards sayd Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and obtayning of Portia by a choyse of three chests.' 
This play for the Elizabethan audience was essentially a romantic comedy seen as the travails of Bassanio in pursuit of Portia, the heiress of Belmont, for his wife, and of Portia, who has sometimes to ensnare her man, from her eyes thrown him 'fair speechless messages'. That is what will happen and it will occupy them both obsessively to that end, for the audience's entertainment. A character called Shylock, a Jew, a usurer, is one of the obstacles to that end, and he was introduced to the audience as an exotic, a foolish villain that no matter his vehemence, hate and power, motivated by the pursuit of revenge against Antonio, the Christian Merchant of Venice and will be defeated, humiliated, so that Bassanio and Portia may marry, and then mercifully save Shylock from eternal damnation by forcibly converting him to the one true faith, Christianity. All's well that ends well for all.

Mr Cottrell tells us:
Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans would have never seen a Jew - they had been banished from England in 1298 and not re-admitted until 1648. Some 300 years. Jewish people had become creatures of legend, bugaboos to frighten naughty children, wicked infidels who hated Christians and went about poisoning their water, kidnapping their children and using their blood to make Passover biscuits, ruining them if they could.' 
Convenient fictions of terror, of blame, to keep the people submissive. Their superstitious imaginations led into riots of fear and reactive persecutions.

As well, there had been a public trial and execution in 1593-94 of Queen Elizabeth's physician, the Portuguese born Rodrigo Lopez, who was accused of trying to poison her - a trumped-up charge, urged by his enemy, the Earl of Essex - achieved with a stressing in the prosecution case that Lopez was a Jew - 'worse than Judas himself'. (Judas, the Apostle who had betrayed Jesus.) The case caused an immense public sensation. Lopez was publicly 'drawn and quartered' on Tyburn Hill. The people's popular monarch threatened with death of poisoning by a Jew!

Too, Christopher Marlowe had written for the theatre in 1589, THE JEW OF MALTA, a great popular success, such that it was revived in 1594 and 1596 - the year of The Merchant's debut - telling the story of the Jew, Barabas, whose career, in the play "is one of unbroken infamy. He cheats, robs, betrays, murders, poisons an entire nunnery" and finishes by tumbling into a cauldron of boiling oil. It was a sensation for the popular imagination - a very good reason for the savvy and commercial playwright, Shakespeare, to put a Jew, Shylock, into the centre of his romance/comedy, as an interfering menace to the course of true love. The audience would, celebrate, delight in the defeat of such a villain and the triumph of Christian feminine virtue as demonstrated by the disguised, feisty Portia. (Incidentally, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), at Stratford-upon-Avon, are presenting both plays in their present season - oh, if only the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) had such visionary daring, leadership; see my blog CYRANO DE BERGERAC about 'Classics' not seen - THE JEW OF MALTA or Marlowe's TAMBURLAINE (1587-88), DOCTOR FAUSTUS (C.1589 OR, 1593) would be welcome, an event, a challenge.)

The great problem with Shylock is, of course, that Shakespeare being Shakespeare could not just write a caricature of villainy. Shakespeare, according to the great Shakespearean scholar, Harold Bloom, in his book: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN (1998), was the first writer to write characters of true human complexity. And what has been writ for Shylock, this Jew, certainly, is the creation of a three dimensional human being - with not only villainous flaws, but other better qualities as well. As time has worn itself on, this option, to present more than the Elizabethan villain, as become a part of the interest, dilemma of the production of this play. What will be offered to us with this characterisation of Shylock? (If the Australian performing culture was more fruitful, this would be a definite curiosity for a regular theatre goer, for most, however, just finding the opportunity to see a staging of the play - discovering the narrative and meeting the characters for the first time is all that they can do). For, once the villain, Shylock, is fleshed out with some empathy, the other characters, written as, relatively, virtuous, become necessarily a more complex and, perhaps, a less likable romantic-comic set of people, motivated by more than just the machinations of a simple formulaic rom-com genre.

Charles Macklin in 1741, began the mode of change. (The play had been rarely, revived, performed, up until this time after the closing of the theatres in the 1600's.) The great popular change of appreciation, for Shylock, was of course, arguably, Henry Irving's creation, that began its exploration in 1879, at the Lyceum Theatre in London. From John Gross' book: "Irving's most important decision was to portray him (Shylock) as a victim, even in his villainy: 'The tendency of the play is undoubtedly to show that the worst passions of human nature are nurtured by undeserved persecution and obloquy. I look upon Shylock as the type of a persecuted race; almost the only gentleman in the play, and the most ill-used." (1- p.128) So right down through the history of this play to today the great struggle and debate over how to play Shylock has dominated the Romantic Comedy origin of the text.

Mr Cotterell, colluding with John Turnbull, as Shylock, presents us with a brusque business man, seeking determinedly the rigour of law, justice. It is motivated by the tragic flaw of revenge against Antonio (and, perhaps, the loss of his daughter, Jessica), and is no less tragic than the pursuance of the revenge that Hamlet has. Maybe, less so, since there is no death-heap of humanity, here, at the end of this play - just a humiliated litigant - in modern terms, a persecuted litigant:
I pray you, give me leave to go from hence:
I am not well; send me the deed after me
And I will sign it.                                                    
Why did he pursue his action?

          You'll ask me why I rather choose to have
           A weight of carrion flesh than to receive
           Three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that -
           But say it is my humour: is it answered?
           What if my house be troubled by a rat,
           And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats
           To have it baned? What, are you answered yet?
           Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
           Some that are mad if they behold a cat;
           And others when the bagpipe sings i'the nose
           Cannot contain their urine: for affection
           Masters oft passion, sways it to the mood
           Of what it likes or loathes. Now for your answer:
           As there is no firm reason to be rendered
           Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
           Why he a harmless necessary cat,
           Why he a woollen bagpipe, but of force
            Must yield to such inevitable shame
            As to offend, himself being offended:
            So I can give no reason, nor will I not,
            More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
            I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
            A losing suit against him. Are you answered?

Simply, because:

          I hate him for he is a Christian;
          But more than that, in low simplicity.
          He lends out money gratis, and brings down
          The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

Mr Turnbull, brings to the stage of this production a zest, an energy of laser-like focus, an in-depth concentration, to all that Shylock has to say and do. Vocally it is clear and relished, physically complimentary and precise, informed by an actor's intellectual rigour blasted and basted in the simple joy of having such a role to play. This performance is informed not only by the text, and perhaps the experience and wisdom of his Director, Mr Cotterell, but also with a witty and informed, and so immersed background to the world of the character and its performance history - all of Mr Turnbull's choices are assurances of considered craft and knowledgable judgements.

For me, Chris Stalley, as Bassanio has an energy and clarity that, though less experienced than Mr Turnbull's, brings a life to the text and his scenes that promise thrill. When together, the two men Mr Turnbull and Stalley,  ignited the stage. I enjoyed, too, the careful surety of Jonathan Elsom in all his offers (The Duke, Old Gobbo, Prince of Arragon), the confident and warm reading by Jason Kos of Lorenzo, and the pertinent humour of Erica Lovell, as Nerissa. Of Lizzie Schebesta, as our Portia, there is intelligence and clarity, but, I saw only a scene to scene playing, no back story of the heiress, the intellect, the debator, the yearning lover, simply the 'now' of each scene. I could not ascertain a past to this Portia that explained her present or her future in the play. It was all just 'now' and not accumulative, in cool contrast, to the journey of her, protagonists, Shylock and Bassanio. I read a cool heart, a clever tactician. A woman who understands the lure of money and gets what she thinks she wants - Bassanio - with not much emotional cost.

The Set Design, by Anna Gardiner, is a simple amber art-deco type screen of opaque glass sat on a parquetry floor (Lucilla Smith). The Lighting is serviceable (Sian James-Holland), and the Sound Design, particular, atmospheric in its choices of song (David Stalley).

It is interesting to having Sport For Jove stripped to the needs of the written text without any other production play/conceit going on to distract and/or inform us (although there has been some editing of events  in the play - elements of Jessica's story, for instance). It certainly reveals the strengths of the actors for good or not.

Later, this year, the company are presenting Christopher Marlowe's EDWARD II (1592). The curation of the season is aesthetically pleasing, I reckon. Plays, both, worth seeing.


  1. Gross, J. SHYLOCK. Four Hundred Years In The Life Of A Legend, Vintage - 1992.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Cyrano De Bergerac

Photo by Brett Boardman
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presents, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, by Edmond Rostand. Adapted by Andrew Upton. Translated by Marion Potts. At the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay, 11 Nov - 20 Dec, 2014.

This is a catch-up blog.

This production of Edmond Rostand's famous, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, has been adapted, a second time by Andrew Upton, who also happens to be the Director of this production, (the first adaptation being from a translation from the French, by Marion Potts), assisted according to the program notes, by Kip Williams. Both, recently, collaborated on CHILDREN OF THE SUN, Maxim Gorky's play.

This version of 'CYRANO' is stripped down. Horribly stripped down.

HORROR: disgust; great dismay; bad or mischievous.

Take your pick.

Says Kip Williams in his program note for the production, CONSTANTLY ADAPTING:
True to Edmond Rostand's original, Andrew's (Upton) earlier version tended to resolve each event or conflict before moving on to the next. This neatly episodic style has been largely unpicked over the past month, and we now often find a character entering to progress the narrative whilst we are still at the height of the previous event's climax. The result is a suspension of resolution that propels us further forward into the story.
This need for resolution for each of the acts, episodes - each act being a kind of mini-play of itself:

  1. A Performance (theatre, back-stage) at the Hotel de Bourgogne.
  2. The Bakery of the Poets.
  3. A Square in the Old Marais.
  4. The Post occupied by the Company of Carbon De Castel-Jaloux at the Siege of Arras.
  5. The Park of the Convent of the Ladies of the Cross, Paris.

in the original Rostand text is, of course, one of the celebrated achievements of the play. To remove them, to cross-fade, to telescope, to simplify them is, perhaps, equivalent to chipping off the 'private parts' of the Michelangelo sculpture of David - a contemporary defacement?!

Mr Williams states: "We also identified a pattern of characters declaiming their state of mind. We have asked ourselves, "What can be communicated without being stated?".

So, to do just that, let's  remove most of the text from the secondary characters, for example, among many others: Ragueneau, Duenna, Christian, Le Bret, De Quiche. And what does one have left, relatively, on the stage, then? Why, 'cardboard thin cut-outs' of characters in costume, instead of the detailed human characters that are part of the celebrated 'colour' of the writing of this famous poem-play by Rostand - 'real' lives in 'real' worlds in each of the acts. All that is left, in this new adaptation, are shallow narrative functionaries, who have no 'minds', at all, to 'declaim' - no character, either then, just a spare function to facilitate the narrative. Pity the actors who having accepted these famous roles written by Rostand, finding themselves instead with disemboweled pencil-thin caricatures, from Mr Upton and Williams.

How devastated (angry) must the actors have been at the cuts to the famous acting opportunities, this, 'stripped' text gave them? I mean, for instance for the STC to publicise, with featured articles in the press, the casting of Julia Zemiro in the play - a well loved icon of television, besides her credentialed   background in the theatre -  and then to cut most of what Rostand had written for her character seems to be a bit criminal, to me. I, certainly, felt short-changed in my expectation of seeing her at work on stage. Ms Zemiro having more than a passing acquaintance to the French language ought to have been screaming: "Merde! Oh, Merde!", holding the original text up to her Director's eyes, and arguing a case for re-instatement of her character's text, underlining the famed dramaturgical pertinence of her role as Roxane's Duenna, to the play.  So, I reckon, should the other actors for the pertinence of their characters. (But then, Mr Upton is the 'Boss' of the largest theatre company in Australia, the largest professional employer, so it may have not have been politic to do so, if one wanted to be regarded as a 'good' member of an ensemble - and no 'problem' (let's discuss this, negotiate this) - with an eye to future employment.)

What with the cuts to the famous Nose speech of Cyrano in act one and the removal, entirely, of the equally famous Moon speeches in act three (with de Quiche), revealing the humour and wit complexity of Cyrano, and bye-the way, the celebrated poetry of the play, it seemed to me to be a further confirmation of a sense of the desecration of a highly regarded masterpiece. That this is the third production of CYRANO DE BERGERAC at the STC, one would have thought it was still regarded highly by the present company leaders, for it to be staged again, yes? So, if it's not 'broken' why fix it? And if is 'broken' what justification can we have to do it three times? I've got a list of classics, I would love to see, that have never been done.

Mr Williams: "In the same vein, we have sought to streamline the plot - pruning subplots, whilst allowing narrative information to unfold at a quicker rate. Consequently, the CYRANO we have fashioned over the past month has a quicker rhythm and drive." 

That this audience who may not know the play, who have never seen it before, because of the 'artistic' decisions by both these adaptors/directors, Mr Upton and Williams, to have 'a quicker rhythm and drive', by removing 'sub-plots', 'narrative information', they will never know that Christian and Roxane got married in the third act, seems, to me, an unforgivable decision. The audience were 'robbed'. They were robbed. Robbed of a crucial dramaturgical thrust to the romantic tragedy - diluting the emotional stakes in the storytelling, for the audience. The marriage of Christian and Roxane removed, cut from the play for this production of CYRANO! CUT THE WEDDING of Christian and Roxane!! Stupid, don't you think? Barbaric, I reckon. (Contemporary images of the relics at Palmyra and the imminent threat of their destruction pop into my head, as I write this. A bit over-the-top, Kevin, isn't it? Ask the French what they might think, of the removal of the marriage of Roxane and Christian.)

Mr Williams, again: "And, finally, we have reconfigured the structure of the fifth act to allow Cyrano and Roxane to be alone on stage for the final moment of the play." 

That the death of Cyrano is merely an intimate and personal moment reduced to just those two is, of course, a necessary action for these adaptors/directors, considering that the other characters - in this instance, in the original,  Ragueneau and Le Bret - have been so reduced elsewhere in the text to mere functionaries, that their responses in the celebrated death scene of the fifth act, written by Edmond Rostand, to magnify the emotional impact of Cyrano's end - had to be an absolute imperative, a necessary expediency and expungement. To have them witness to the death of Cyrano, in this adaption, would have not made dramaturgical sense or pertinent presences. That Mr Upton and Williams had also trimmed the writing for the Sisters Marguerite and Marthe (more edits to Ms Zemiro's promised 'job'), in the beginning of the act, demonstrates further the emotional inhibitions (constipation?) of these two artists. These are, I believe, disgraceful cuts to this famed Romantic drama. That the major theatre company in Sydney, the STC, felt that they were necessary has me questioning this company's  responsibility to the writer of the play that they chose to revive. To revive a Classic, and favourite Masterpiece, and then destroy the appreciated reasons for its classicism and mastery, and popularity, is delinquent. (Children of the Sun, again!) The celebrated achievements of CYRANO DE BERGERAC by Edmond Rostand, as Dramatic literature, have been destroyed for the audiences attending this production.

Add: If the leading company cannot afford the celebrated design demands of the five different acts, made by Rostand. If the company cannot afford all the costumes of the characters in the play (e.g. Roxane's mourning clothes in Act Five - a white dress (from Act Four, some few years before (white on a battle field?) - YES, in this Design, white for safety in a war zone and later, mourning.) If the company cannot afford the hiring of the number of actors required to reveal the glory of this play (e.g. there was no disguising that Bruce Spence (and some of the others) was a most incongruous nun in the fifth act procession - it had to be a Monty Python costume gesture/joke, surely? What, an Aussie, piss-take, larrikin joke, wasn't it?)  I reckon, if these 'ifs' cannot be achieved, DON'T DO IT. The Set Design (Alice Babidge) was dire in its paucity of achievement - a 'genius' solution, however, in its obvious budget restraints. The STC on this large Sydney Theatre stage - remember the Design solutions to their PYGMALION? A virtual empty stage - do not seem to have the budgets to fulfil the demands of the playwright, or, they have very perverted ideas about what is acceptable contemporary envisioning. I can tell you the audience was not happy with the PYGMALION look. Nor, with this look, whatever the critics say. It was not, did not look like, contemporary theatre visual innovation to me, just paltry budgeting.

After all, this is the third production of this play presented by the STC, in living memory. (And we had been given another, highly lauded production by Sport For Jove, earlier in the year.) And, having seen all three from the STC, one can only say that there has been a disrespectful disintegration of theatrical integrity by this company in their production and artistic achievements and responsibility to the writer, Rostand, and to the audience of this play with this production. I smiled internally, recently, when a critic talked of the 'faithful' adaptations and/or directorial achievements of Mr Upton, when talking of a recent production at the STC. (Was it CHILDREN OF THE SUN, or ENDGAME?) Where is Richard Wherrett's ghost, and why is it not haunting this tawdry effort by Mr Upton and Williams? Or were there some ghostly remnants of his Costume Designer's clothes on that stage, mocking us with memories of what are now 'old times'? It seems, Golden Times. Indeed.

Richard Roxbrugh won Best Actor for his work as Cyrano De Bergerac, from the Sydney Critics, in early 2015. I did think it was a cruel joke, to have the featured photograph accompanying the review of this production in the Sydney Morning Herald (see above): that of Mr Roxburgh, as Cyrano, beside Yalin Ozucelik, as Le Bret, Cyrano's best friend. Mr Ozucelik had won Best Actor in an Independent Theatre Production (Sport For Jove) for his performance as Cyrano, in the year before, 2013. According to most who saw both productions, the performances were not in the same sphere of Best. I cannot fathom why Mr Roxburgh was awarded it considering some of the qualities of the other nominees and their performances (I noticed this production was not nominated in any other of the categories). Having major and famous speeches removed from his task, whatever the reason, does not help Mr Roxburgh's case, in my estimation. He began well, excitingly so, but then appeared to tire in act three and did not really recover, to be, finally, indulgently incoherent in the famous death scene of act five - emotional twaddle overriding the poetry of the writing. "What was he saying?" Text, in my appreciation of good theatre acting, should be the primary focus, not demonstrations of emotional states.

Despite the diminishing of the writing of de Guiche, Josh McConville, managed to create a figure of some stature. Mr Whitney, as the Poet-Cook Ragueneau, valiant, despite his lack of opportunities. No-one else at all really, could or did make an impression of favour. (Poor, Mr Ozucelik as Le Bret, relatively devoiced in his opportunities, reduced to a 'mime' of reaction, or removed from the stage-action. My theatrical heart reached out to the actor.)

Now, despite all this unhappiness with the decisions of this production and my consequent seething with depression during most of the performance, I have to confess I did drop a tear or two at its end. This was proof of the greatness of the story of this play. Even the pencil thin storyline, relatively left in this adaption, can be moving. (Has the STC alerted the Disney company as to the cuts it could adapt for them?) How awash, I would, could have been if I had seen a decent production of the play as written? How awash might I have been if the translation/adaptation had had some integrity other than, perhaps, an economic  requirement for 'quickness', 'speed'.

Maybe, my tears came from a recall of the STC production that Richard Wherrett had made, and was moved anew? Maybe, it was the memory of John Bell as Cyrano, and so, was moved? Maybe it was the memory of Helen Morse as Roxane, all wreathed in black mourning, with the delicate dropping of the autumnal leaves about her and, so, was moved? Maybe, it was the tragic flaws and beauty of Andrew McFarland's Christian, that I remember, and was moved? Or the wicked comedy and wit, pathos of Peter Whitford as Ragueneau? Or was I moved to tears by the present work of the STC's Artistic Director and his assistant, moved to tears from some other urging? Grief? Anger? Pity? Despair?

From an essay introducing Edmond Rostand and CYRANO DE BERGERAC, in John Gassner's, A TREASURY OF THE THEATRE Vol. 2 (1935):
Rostand's masterpiece, Cyrano de Bergerac, is subtitled a "Heroic Comedy", and the combination of the adjective and the noun is descriptive not only of this play but of its authors unique power in the theatre. To compose romantic drama successfully in the machine age requires unusual endowment and considerable tact. Rostand was able to blend romantic action and lyricism with humour, and the result was a brief renewal of romanticism on the European continent.
Mr Upton has not achieved any of this, on this continent-island of Australia, either in this adaptation, or in his lazy direction of Edmond Rostand's famous play.

Dead Time

Photograph by Phyllis Wong
Lace Balloon presents, DEAD TIME, Written and Directed by Fleur Beaupert, at 107 Projects, 107 Redfern Street, Redfern, 20 - 29 May, Wednesday to Friday (8pm).

DEAD TIME, is a new Australian play, by Fleur Beaupert, Devised by Paul Armstrong, (Kailah Cabanas), Lara lightfoot, Abi Rayment, Robert Rhode, Melissa Kathryn Rose, Eleni Schumacher and Barton Williams.

DEAD TIME has been built from verbatim and interview transcripts concerning the case of Dr Mohamed Haneef, wrongly accused, arrested and held without charge for the longest period on record in this country under the 'dead time' provisions in the Commonwealth Crimes Act for investigating a terrorism offence. The legalities and its 'nicieties' and not so nice 'niceties', the hysterical spin of the media and of the politically expedient Government and its various men and ministers of action, especially, Kevin Andrews and his determined but wrong-headed justification of his pursuit of a clearly innocent man, and the growth of the principles of a lawyer, Peter Russo, are all spotlighted and addressed. One experiences bewilderment, disbelief and a simmering anger at the exampling of the exposition of the Social Dominance Orientation Theory, that may be an explanation of our Government's continued 'shocking' behaviours (check out this story on New Matilda…)

The writing is crisp and clear, expertly collated, and the directing inventive, daring and extremely admirable. Ms Beaupert has elicited terrifically confident performances from all the actors, especially Robert Rhode playing Dr Haneef - it is a performance of such relaxed naturalness and complexity in its responses to the nightmare of wrongful accusation, that one can imagine that only Alfred Hitchcock would have dared to invent a like one for one of his paranoia psychological studies. The films NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), or THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934,1956), spring to mind.

In the tradition of Version 1.0, but better, and in reminiscence of Milk Crate Theatre's THIS HOUSE IS MINE, seen earlier this year, DEAD TIME deserves your time. Ms Beaupert, is clearly an artist of interest for those of us who like to be lucidly confronted/alerted to the world we live in. Both her Writing and her Direction in this production presage such a statement. She has more than a talent to amuse.

 Go see. It has limited performances, but try and catch it.

P.S. The Queensland MP and solicitor Peter Russo, who represented Dr Haneef, is attending the final performance on May 29 for a post-show discussion with Fleur Beaupert.

The House on the Lake

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents, THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE, by Aidan Fennessey, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 15 May - 20 June.

THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE, written by Aiden Fennessey, is presented by the  Griffin Theatre Company, after its premiere, a year ago, at the Black Swan State Theatre Company, in Perth. A new Australian play.

THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE is a 90 minute, one act play. A psychological thriller, where David (Huw Higginson) seemingly suffering from anterograde amnesia, is coaxed back to health through a series of interviews by a forensic psychologist, Alice (Jeanette Cronin). What is gradually remembered, connected, produces a result that neither of the participants anticipate. This is an old fashioned structure and familiar experience (the 2000 film, by Christopher Nolan, MEMENTO, comes to mind), but still makes for a very engrossing and absorbing night in the theatre. It does not have the melodramatic bangs and surprises, or tongue-in-cheek comedy of the recent production of DEATHTRAP, but does have intriguing, twisting labyrinthine plotting that demands attention and intellectual engagement. Time in the theatre passes quickly, enthrallingly.

THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE,  is performed with relish and entwined concentration by Mr Higginson - you may remember his remarkable performance last year in the Griffin Independent production: ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD, a performance, for me, that was one of the best of the year - and gives, here, another of equal quality, with Jeanette Cronin (QUEEN BETTE; TELL ME AGAIN).

Director, Kim Hardwick produces an 'elegantly' styled production with great confidence and an invisible control - no trendy Director's tricks (fingerprints) here, just clarity to the kind of play she is in charge of and an artist's modesty in controlling its unfolding - remember her production of BANG - why do we not see her at work more often in Sydney? I ask, merely, for information. Lighting by Martin Kinnane and Design by Stephen Curtis are simple background for the events of the play, enhanced with a beautiful Composition of Music and Sound Design, by Kelly Ryall.

This is a play and production that invites you to attend to it and rewards you with a satisfying old fashioned contentment to a story well told, with deliciously primed artistry from all. Entertainment assured.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Unknown Soldier

Photography by Heidrun Lohr
A Monkey Baa Theatre Company production, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, by Sandra Eldridge, at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre. Terrace 3 / 1-25 Harbour Street, Sydney, 18 May - 22 May.

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, is a new Australian play, to honour the Centenary of WW1, written by Monkey Baa Co-Creative Director Sandra Eldridge. Monkey Baa Theatre Company, founded in 1997, has been adapting Australia's most well-loved stories for young people (aged 3-18), staging and touring them around the country, working with schools, arts and children's organisations across remote, regional, rural and metropolitan Australia. THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, is the first original play, produced by Money Baa, a new direction for the organisation.

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER is a double story. In the present time, a young boy, Charlie, is staying with his Aunt Angela, whilst his mum cares for his father, a soldier, recently returned from the war in Afghanistan, who is suffering from post traumatic emotional adjustments. Charlie, eagerly plays computer war games but becomes distracted with a trunk from the attic in which he finds a collection of letters and other memorabilia from a soldier who was engaged in the battle of Fromelle, in the fields of France, a century ago. His curiosity, aroused, using his computer skills, he and his aunt research and investigate the reality of the letter's world - which is abreacted for us, and so, introduce us to Albert, the WW1 soldier, and a mother/nurse, Grace.

There is a familiarity about the structure and story, but, Director, Matt Edgerton, with support from Set and Costume Designer, Anna Gardiner, subtly lit by Max Cox, has beautifully evoked this story with gentle and clear concept, coaxing the two actors: Felix Johnson and Sandra Eldridge, into simply told performances. The direct, simple clarity of this production has emotional impact, manifested by a particularly vivid and complex Sound Design, by David Stalley - the Sound is a third 'character' in this story, and allows us to immerse in both the worlds/stories, with imaginative ease.

55-minutes in length, THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER,  for both the children and the adults in the audience I was with, was an involving story that kept us in a thrall of emotional and educational learning. Connecting the tragedy of the World War 1 experiences and arcing it to our present, participatory war zones, e.g. Afghanistan, and the tragedy of loss and the living violence that our veterans suffer around us today, is particularly apt, and gives us, as it does young Charlie, in the story, pause, to the romantic embracing of the 'games of war' on our television, cinema screens and computers. This gentle play respectful of the past gently brings -places - our consciousness to the present.

James Brown, a former Australian Army officer, today working as the Military Fellow at the Lowy Institute, in his recent book: ANZAC'S LONG SHADOW (2014), tells, asks us:
A century ago we got it wrong. We sent thousands of young Australians on a military operation that was barely more than a disaster. It's right that a hundred years later we should feel strongly about that. But have we got our remembrance right? What lessons haven't we learned about war, and what might be the cost of our Anzac obsession?
In this play, Ms Eldridge, gently poses that idea to her audience, and, maybe, invites us to contemplate, with respect and compassion, the plight of our present day soldier and veteran. Young Charlie in this play has begun a very important journey in respect to his dad and war, by its conclusion. Last year's Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and (more importantly) co-production with the Australian Defence Force (ADF), THE LONG WAY HOME, began this exposure-conversation powerfully.

Monkey Baa, with THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, fulfils its brief magnificently for their young audience, the adults of the future. Lest We Forget. We will, should remember them.

Monkey Baa and the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) - A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY -two of the cornerstones for the future of the Australian theatre. Lest we forget, Mr Brandis.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The House of Ramon Iglesia

Photography by Clare Hawley

Mophead Productions presents, THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA, by Jose Rivera, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cnr Cathedral and Dowling St, Woolloomooloo, May 12 - June 6.

Director Anthony Skuse and Mophead Productions introduced this writer, Jose Rivera, in 2009, when he gave us REFERENCES TO SALVADOR DALI MAKE ME HOT (2000), at the Griffin.

THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA (1983) is Mr Rivera's first play and has all the hallmarks of an auto-biographical/poetic licensed work. Javier (Stephen Multari) is the eldest son of three brothers, the others: Julio (Christian Charisiou) and Charlie (David Soncin), of Pureto Rican parents, Ramon (Nicholas Papademetriou) and Dolores (Deborah Galanos), who have emigrated to Holbrook, Long Island, in the  United States. Javier has found the new country bountiful and an opportunity for change, and except for Julio who has joined the army, the other family members have lingerings for the old country. The tensions of old culture vying with new culture, and the cultural educational 'rubbings' within the family politics are the subject matter of the play. It is a family drama and has all the trappings of that genre: quarrels, laughter and tears with the added ingredient, here, of a volatile and, relatively, exotic temperament.

The play has a fairly familiar structure and concern, but it is a well observed and written work - there is much to feel safe with and enjoy (one wishes that there were as many creditable first plays from our young Australian writers as this!). Working with such a superior text, Mr Skuse has found his deft hand again, after the recent less certain work with PLATONOV and CARESS/ACHE, and has guided his company of actors into a robust and exciting set of performances that sweep one up and into the world of the play. One became quite emotionally involved/lost in the world of the play and the dilemmas of the people. At 110 minutes without interval it is a slight physical challenge.

Mr Papademetriou and Ms Galanos create a rich world with their tasks, and are supported by Mr Multari, Charisiou and Soncin in three beautifully demarcated performances as the sons. Add the commitment and skill of Eloise Snape, as the American girlfriend, with a 'golden heart', Caroline, and the local land-developer, Nick Calla, played by Ronny Jon Paul Mouawad, and a dynamic ensemble of storytellers display passion, humour and pathos.

The Design, by Georgia Hopkins, on a raised platform stage is stripped to the necessary, and with Mr Skuse, has solved elegantly, fluidly, the choreography to shift the locations, visibly, as part of the forward energy of the work. Chris Page, with his Lighting Design, manages to create true scenic atmospheres. This is, further, assisted by a particularly rousing and apt selection of music by Sound Designer, Alistair Wallace, that keeps the cultural rhythms of the family background pulsing throughout.

All in all, THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA  is a more than pleasant time in the theatre, and for those of us looking for a good story, well told, and well acted by a very rewarding set of artists, you can be assured of value and satisfaction.

Do go.

The Independent Theatre scene seems to understand what an audience might want as part of its diet (for tougher stuff check out, SHIVERED). And, as the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has virtually closed down its public performances until after the Writer's Festival, for a week or so, (I imagine, though, that the administration is still at work, paid work - poor artists, indeed), and then, with just one production, BATTLE OF WATERLOO, in the month of June, 1st - 27th June (three weeks only with 7 actors), THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA, at the Old Fitz Theatre, curated by Red Line Productions, is more than a viable choice to search out.

 What is this with the STC virtually on a SEVEN week 'holiday" mid-year? Seems odd, does it not, that the major subsidised theatre company in Sydney has only one work to show for THREE of SEVEN weeks? Did this happen last year, too? Weird, don't you think?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Boys Will Be Boys

Photo by Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presents, BOYS WILL BE BOYS, by Melissa Bubnic, in the Wharf 2 Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay. April 18- 16 May.

BOYS WILL BE BOYS, by Melissa Bubnic, is a new Australian play. Set in the work spaces/play spaces of a WOLF OF WALL STREET- like, money-making company somewhere in Australia, this one act play has five female actors playing all the characters, male and female - some in formal suited attire, some, sometimes, in next-to-nothing, but all in high heeled stilettos. Says the Director, Paige Rattray: "We're used to seeing men behaving badly. We know that play. What we're not used to seeing is despicable women behaving like men. That's what this play is about."

On reflection, and I did see this production on its opening night, I was provocatively challenged by this work. I found it quite refreshing, to have contemporary gender politics treated on stage with vigorous intellectual interrogation and satire without the kind of reactive 'rage' that I have experienced otherwise this year: THE UNSPOKEN WORD IS 'JOE', and even, CARESS/ACHE. (Was it because it was without the hysteric sexual male-betrayal card as the motor-spring of the thematic preoccupation.) BOYS WILL BE BOYS, because of its sophistication of interest and staged stylistic cheekiness, required some time to digest, especially as that first night was obviously fraught with nerves, for there were blemishes in the accuracy of some of the performances on the stage, that did distract one, even undermine one's attention.

The gender preoccupation and the money world at Wharf 2 put me in mind of the writer Caryl Churchill, and of two of her works particularly: CLOUD NINE (1979), and SERIOUS MONEY (1987). Not least because of the seriousness of her ideas but also for the sense of her perceptive, intelligent comedy. SERIOUS MONEY is not too important a reference, but still a reference, for though BOYS WILL BE BOYS is set in the world of money, the stock market, that is not this play's principal focus. That element is really just the chosen environmental field of action, it seemed to me, because of its heightened, (in)famous reputation for high testosterone male 'bad' behaviour, where angels of the female psyche, may fear to tread. CLOUD NINE, on the other hand, is a more interesting reference, as it uses cross-gender dressing too, and has been called, "a farce about sexual politics" whilst looking at the colonial/imperialist history of the United Kingdom. BOYS WILL BE BOYS, is, too, a farce (cabaret) about sexual politics and rather looks at a kind of gender 'imperialism' that a woman, in our time, still, in 2015, has to deal with. That to be a winner in the ferocious cut-throat world on the floor of the working capitalist machine, a woman might have to make a personal sacrifice of part of her 'self'. That that world will demand that she, if she wants to win, take actions that are not always legal or moral, and so requiring (maybe) a kind of divesting of some of the female psyche and replace it with an adoption of some of the male behavioural profile. (How applicable this question is for all women who succeed in this field, especially with the present world female figures who have high profile there, is an interesting discussion I have had with some of my women friends whilst talking about this play.)

In BOYS WILL BE BOYS, it seems the question: "What do I have to give up to get what I want?", Astrid (Danielle Cormack) the 'war veteran' of this world, has had to ask herself. It's what she also poses, demands, of her 'apprentice' Prya (Sophia Roberts) to answer, as well. Prya's reluctant reaction to this injunction tilts Astrid to face what she has done to her 'self', what she has given up to be a success. The isolation that she further receives from her female companion, Isabelle (Meredith Penman), causes Astrid, to have to consider, more complexly, the value of her 'rewards' for her chosen career path. "Is it a success when personal happiness is absent? ", we are asked.

The best performances, on my night, came from Tina Bursill, playing the 'Top Man', Arthur, with dynamic and fearless relish, taking real theatrical pleasure with all the opportunities of her other tasks - spell-binding, breathlessly  hilarious; Zindzi Okenyo (Harrison/Jean-Pierre,and the dancer!) bristling with intelligence and integrity, theatrical and otherwise, with all the challenges given her; and newcomer, Sophia Roberts who draws, with subtle skills, a perceptible arc for Prya, a contemporary, young feisty woman, feeling out the grounds of her chosen profession and rankling and challenging the status quo in the face of much negative 'heat' in the crucible of the money-making industry.

Danielle Cormack has the role of a life time, the character of Astrid, who rarely leaves the stage, requiring her to seamlessly cross over into the demanding two styles of the writing: the woman of the satirical "naturalism" of the world of 'business', one venal and one divine (romantic), plus that of a cabaret commentator, through song, revealing some of Astrid's inner self. It is quite a demand. Looking strikingly glamorous in a tailored white pants suit, stalking the stage in vertiginous spiky black stilettos, Ms Cormack, on opening night, delivered a physical shiver of some pleasure for some of the audience. The award winning television artist delivered a visual impact we were all familiar with, and that it was, this time, live, was an added satisfaction. My own fascination with Ms Cormack, however, diminished swiftly, and relatively continuously throughout the performance, as her vocal instrument lacked real power of consistent intelligent communication. Her voice sounded injured (sore) and created, in action, a kind of approximation of intention during the night with Ms Bubnic's writing - never really hitting it technically with the peerless clarity, that the story and satirical intentions seemed to demand. So, as well, the 'husky' singing voice lacking accuracy, clarity and confidence, undermined the impact of the cabaret section of the play, despite the sassy physical presence.

The Director, Paige Rattray, in the program notes, talking to Imara Savage tells us of Astrid "... You can tell she is from the school of hard-knocks. She's learnt the hard way. She's learnt by doing. She's brutal. She's a brutal, brutal woman. She thinks to succeed she needs to act like a man. ..." Ms Cormack never truly delivers 'a brutal, brutal woman', not even 'a brutal' one, and baulks from truly 'acting like a man', as there is a tendency for her to soften some of the blows that Astrid could strike in the text Ms Bubnic has written. Add the relative 'wishy-washy' approach to the action of Isabella played by Ms Penman that defocuses the power of that character's function in the writing, the purposeful contrast of the three points of view of the Astrid persona are not sufficiently demarcated, they are not 'rich' enough in embodied contrast.

Still, the integrity of Ms Bubnic's writing with the bravery of Ms Rattray's solutions to the challenges of the script makes for a sufficiently interesting and intriguing night. The Design, by David Fleischer, is flexible for the many location demands of the writing, but hardly suggests the environment of a top flight monetary business. A white box with a poorly painted portrait of 'Arthur', a low suspended 'off-the-plan' ceiling with fluorescent lighting, looks and feels like a suburban office of a loan shark with pretensions - having had a recent visit to the upper floors of Deutschebank building in Sydney and into the office of one of the wealth making companies housed there, nothing of that luxury, good taste, pleasure, and the insidious pressure of that world, is struck with this vision of Mr Fleischer's.

 BOYS WILL BE BOYS, is an arresting piece of writing from Ms Bubnic (I was so disappointed with BEACHED) and combined with the bravery of Ms Rattray's solutions to the challenges of the script, and the ensemble collaboration from the five women in the company, a very interesting night in the theatre, and, after, in discussion at home, is assured.

Go. See what you think.


Photo by Marya Rothe

Mad March Hare Theatre Company presents, SHIVERED, by Philip Ridley, at the Pact Theatre, 107 Railway Parade, Erskineville. May 9 - May 30.

SHIVERED (2012), by Philip Ridley, continues his ferocious gaze over the dysfunctional contemporary world: THE PITCHFORK DISNEY (1991), VINCENT RIVER (2000), MERCURY FUR (2005), LEAVES OF GLASS (2007), PIRANHA  HEIGHTS (2008). Although Mr Ridley is writing of the United Kingdom, it is not difficult to realise the parallels legitimate to our own environment.

SHIVERED is set in a fictional, collapsed industrial town, Draylingstowe, where poison from a car factory has disfigured and killed children; where unemployment has thrown its inhabitants into chaos; where refuge is found in the National Service and danger in Iraq; where solace is found with drugs and the digital tools of new media - misused, misunderstood or not; where beheadings, murder, suicide, and extra-curricular and violent sex is on the 'menu' for the normal possibilities of escape.

The play in a series of jumbled, shivered scenes (we begin with scene 5, next is scene 12, and the last is scene 6. There are 17 scenes) present interwoven journeys of two families surviving the fracturing of their dreams with forensic confrontations of danger and ugliness. Says Alec, the elder son of one of the families, a resting veteran of the savage war in Iraq:
This place - it's over, Dad. I'm not talking about fucking Draylingstowe! Jesus! Your mind - it's so fucking ... small. I'm talking about EVERYTHING, Dad. ALL of us. This thing we call our fucking way of life. It's in the death throes. Don't you see that? It's kicking and grasping and struggling - but there's no more air. It's over. We're like ... like dinosaurs bedazzled by all the pretty lights in the sky, too fucking stupid to realise it's a comet getting closer and closer ... - And this way of life ... this is what you want me to come back to, eh? This fucking  ... terminal illness - You'd rather I was here than back out there (in Iraq)?
Mr Ridley, who is also a favourite writer of children's fiction, for us adults balances the clouds of despair covering this dying civilisation, with these people of Draylingstowe seeking and finding belief in another world, and whether it is in the alien (UFO) world of dad, Mikey, and son Ryan, or that of the faith of Evie - the 'healer', her companion Gordy, late of the circus-fair, and of her son, Jack, it is a hope. HOPE. And, maybe the catastrophe that Alec, above, sees is simply an 'illusory contour'- i.e. " When we see several things - lights like this - and your eye sort of ... makes connections. Joins them up. See unifying shapes where there are none. ..."

Well, Dad he lit the fireworks. He told me 'Stand back, Ryan! Fireworks can be dangerous, son!' So I stood back. ... Then, Bang! The whole sky explodes with colour. So bright. The fireworks light up all the whole hill. And ... I look up and ... I see them. ... They've left the safety of their ships and they're flying in and out of the fireworks ... They're weaving in and out of the sparkling fire ... Their wings are bright gold ... And I start to feel so calm and ... peaceful. Like everything's going to be okay. I feel so happy. I start to laugh. Because I realise the aliens - they're talking to - Talking to me with feelings inside my head. They're saying, 'You are safe ... you are safe ... ' I shout up to them, 'I am ... I am ... I am ...' 
'Illusory contour' or not, it gives Ryan hope.

As in the amazing recent film MOMMY, by Xavier Dolan (2014), a film that charts a mother surviving with her son who has a severe ADHD illness, and the recent SBS Documentary, STRUGGLE STREET, despite the trauma of life, the prospect of the resilience of the human being does spawn hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. The power of this play is that. That message. I found it comforting, and the experience of this play/production rewarding.

This production mounted by Mad March Hare Theatre Company, a young Independent Co-op company, at the Pact Theatre, have adventurously attempted to realise this formidable message in this wonderful but taxing play. On a raised all-white, distressed environmental set, that stands in for different locations, daringly lit in fluorescent colours of startling glare, this Production Design is by the artistically prolific Benjamin Brockman. Jed Silver provides a Sound Design of tremendous affect and variety. Director, Claudia Barrie, assisted by Garth Holcombe, have guided the acting company: Josh Anderson, Joseph Del Rio, Rhonda Doyle, Libby Fleming, Andrew Johnston, Brendan Miles and Liam Nuan, to energetic and committed performances (though having a breathless, just 'falling-over-the-line' kind of feeling to it) that keeps one engaged to solve the format of the structure of the work, which is a jigsaw of narrative and emotional tension. The puzzling of the jigsaw keeps us, the audience, from too subjective a response to the distress of the world of these characters, and has us other than just 'feeling' our way through the journey, but 'thinking' our way through it, as well.

SHIVERED is a difficult but stimulating experience - one that looks at our present world with a steely clear sightedness but with compassion and hope. One wishes that the principal companies in Sydney, occasionally, revealed such enterprise, and delivered a similar, a relative, quality of work (considering their funding aid), as this. Despite the modesty of their resources, Mad March at the Pact Theatre, gives me a feeling of being part of the contemporary world dilemma and debate, something that neither the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir have done for some real time. It seems the Poor but Independent sector of the Sydney Theatre scene has a finger on the living pulse of the world and its dramatic literature. Thanks to all those working to do so in the 'wilds' of Erskenville.

Mr Ridley has three poetic quotations at the beginning of the text, that highlights his vision as an artist:
I can be happy in what you call the dark but which, to me, is golden .... - Helen Keller 
We plough the dust of stars and drink the universe in a glass of rain. - Ihab Hassan 
.. time is the fire in which we burn. - Delmore Schwartz


Rock Surfers Theatre Company present, ANIMAL/PEOPLE, in the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach. 29 April - 16 May.

ANIMAL /PEOPLE, is a new play by Brooke Robinson. It is made up of two 'short-story' monologues addressed to the audience, that finally, interact at its end. The subject matter of the material is not necessarily of a very interesting nature and, though, explored with some detail, lacks any aesthetic arrest: husband/wife/son/dog/accident/ extended feelings of guilt ... ...

On the night I attended there were only 11 of us, watching. The two actors, Georgia Adamson and Martin Crewes, were valiant in their performance, but not without fluffed verbal entrances and 'untidiness', undermining one's admiration of their work, and distracting one from the concentration of involvement. Working in an abstracted Design by Dylan Tonkin, with over-worked but atmospheric lighting by Benjamin Brockman, and supported with a Sound Design by James Brown and Tom Hogan, Directed by James Dalton, the necessary exchange of attention between audience and performers failed to ignite.

The contemporary monologue 'fever' in the theatre in Sydney is boringly common. It requires an approach of disciplined imagination and execution from all the artists for it to work. I was captivated in this 'dreaded' mode of performance with GROUNDED - an 80 minute solo performance impeccably and energetically given and conceived. The contrast in the giving and receiving of these two works could not be more telling.

Still, thanks.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Blue Italian / Nil by Sea

Photos by Zorica Purlija

Peter Fray presents, BLUE ITALIAN and NIL BY SEA, by Katie Pollock, at the Leichhardt Town Hall, Sydney. April 29 - May 17, 2015.

BLUE ITALIAN and NIL BY SEA are two new short plays by Katie Pollock. The evening is short, less than an hour, total. One enters the space by a side door from a bleak, small, fluorescent-lit foyer of the Leichhardt Town Hall and walk through some local council (LMC) yellow and black road block tools on the floor flat, with the blinking battery lights indicating caution. The light is dim and the seating is of single chairs, on the floor flat too - this making, I observed, difficulty of viewing for some audience when the action of the players has them sitting at the near feet of the front row. It is an improvised space in a period (historic) town hall that has an old fashioned raised stage empty and glooming at the other far end of the room - intercepted, to access, by the improvised technical desk of the lighting and sound artists. The Director, Rachel Chant, has with the Production Designer, Benjamin Brockman taken an 'experimental' decision to display the 'action' of the production on the flat. It creates more communication problems than successes.

Ms Pollock's two short plays are 'poems' of description spoken to us by four actors - there is little interaction of the dramatic kind between characters. BLUE ITALIAN (originally a radio play [ABC] - in fact, both plays feel as if they are for radio rather than the stage) follows a young 'adventurer' into a wide-eyed tourist journey into a country with bewildering obstacles of different culture and politics, paralleled with the 'adventures' of a new immigrant adjusting to another world she has come to live in, where the family Blue Italian dinner-set is gradually shattered. In NIL BY SEA, we are told of the discovery of a body that has fallen from the sky, from the wheel cavity of a plane coming in to land - the only remnant of the body now just a bloody dint in the ground.

These plays reveal a collection of beautiful images and juxtapositions of ideas, and deal gently, cleverly, with contemporary issues of cultural misunderstanding and the consequential needful adjustments in our society/world, or tangentially, with the Australian Governments' policies around refugees who attempt to reach these shores by desperate means causing some desperate consequences. The content of Ms Pollock's work is always arresting and politically alert (A QUIET NIGHT IN RANGOON).

Unfortunately, the Director Ms Chant has worked with a physical coach, David Jackson, to develop a movement pattern/'dance' with the actors to incessantly obfuscate the text. What, I imagine, was hoped to be a clarifying physical element to the production has turned into an almighty distraction from the text: Imagine an actor delivering face front to the audience 'poetic' text whilst stylistically removing a long sleeved black sweater, pulling it over the face and dragging it through the arms, revealing the naked upper torso in tantalising glimpses of beauty, only to have the sweater pulled back into order to thwart a complete gawk at the naked flesh, and then have the whole of the physicality repeated, whilst the actor continues delivering Ms Pollock's writing. How much of the text do you think one might hear, while this 'ballet' continues? How much might one grasp? How does the double focus of language and disconnected physical explication help? Which does the audience focus on with this double theatrical offer, made by Ms Chant and Mr Jackson?  What if the actor just stood still and delivered to us a direct communication, the language of the play? How much more would we apprehend, I wonder? The annoying intrusion, attention grabbing, choice by Ms Chant, is repeated in different ways throughout the whole of the work, at the expense of the clarity of Ms Pollocks' plays, and seemed cumulatively, untrusting of those plays and felt pretentious in its action. Arty and boring.

The actors, Jennie Dibley, Nat Jobe, Alex Malone and Sarah Meacham, in dim lighting with occasional clumsy spot lighting, cope moderately well but not in any way that truly holds one's attention or attachment. The Sound Design by Tom Hogan is a restfully successful element.

The location of Leichhardt Town Hall being on a flight path, the passing planes, overhead to the venue, coming into land at Kingsford Smith airport, heard and then glimpsed, poetically, through one of the Hall's windows at the back of the setting, became a focus of my attention in my seat, as Ms Pollock's plays became shrouded by the movement distractions of the director. It became a long hour in the theatre.

BLUE ITALIAN & NILS BY SEA are part of a cultural program called Site and Sound, a project made possible by funding from Leichhardt Council. Yes, the same council featured in the 1996 documentary, RATS IN THE RANKS. Time happens, I suppose.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Town Named War Boy

Photo by Tracey Schramm
ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People) and the State Library of New South Wales present, A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY, by Ross Mueller, in the auditorium at the State Library, Macquarie Street, 29 April - 9 May.

A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY, is a new Australian play by Ross Mueller. Inspired by diaries of young World War 1 veterans, kept in the State Library of New South Wales' collection, Mr Mueller has crafted a play inventing a counselling session between an ex-soldier and a psychiatrist, to facilitate a travel back to the events of recruitment, training and actual warfare of four young men, Snow (Joshua Brennan), John (Simon Croker), Tom (Brandon McClelland and Huddo (Edward McKenna).

The production is in a setting by Adrienn Lord, that looks like one of those wonderful dioramas in the National War Museum in Canberra (recently renovated), 'telling' the stories of the campaigns. The animated images, on this stage, combined with the very effective lighting by Emma Lockhart-Wilson and the accompanying Composition by Steve Francis, and Sound Design by Alistair Wallace make for a very simple imaginative immersion into the world that the writer has conjured. The writing is impressive: tight, compactly elegant, understated and yet highly sophisticated. This maybe be the best New Australian work I've seen this year.

The Director, Fraser Corfield, has guided clear performances from the four young men in the cast. The ensemble, on this tiny stage is 'knitted' together with easy mutual empathy, creating collectively, cumulatively, a bond between the audience and themselves that is strong but not sentimental - a danger in other projects that we have seen in this year of ANZAC commemoration. Each of the written, and now embodied characters, are distinctly drawn, and it is the common, innocently simple camaraderie of the group that leaves a lasting impression. There is no jingoism in this script, inspired by the actual diaries of participants, but rather a gentle telling of the human dilemma of being in the experience, in the midst of what was thought to be 'a big Boys Own Adventure Story for King and Country' that became a 'hell' of the realities of bloody, muddy, senseless warfare.

Mr McClellend playing the double of the Doctor and Tom, creates a further impression of the insightful delicacy and understated depth of his imaginative creativity (remember M.ROCK, last year) - there is a presence in his work that has a kind of unfathomable but tantalising impact, it carries and element of 'mystery' that commands attention: intelligence, emotional connection and complexities, and yet expressed with extraordinary simplicity. Mr Croker as the sensitive artist and youngest innocent abroad, John, captures one's empathy quickly with a gorgeous openness of playing (assisted by wonderfully "lanky' hair!) - it is John that is the character we identify with easiest and journey with. Mr McKenna, as Huddo, plays with a sophistication of actor's insight that lifts this possibly comic stock character into the realm of a decent and caring man whom we come to admire and rely upon - beneath the jokey 'bravado' is a loyal and complicated human - Huddo's loss to the tragedies of war is all the more devastating, not just because of its understated handling in the writing, but because of the qualities Mr McKenna has drawn for us to induce the caring we, as an audience, have endowed on him - it becomes a very personal tragedy. Mr Brennan, playing the survivor of the boy/men, Snow, suffering from the anxieties of the experience on his return home (post traumatic stress), moves between the aftermath and the journey of war with clear sighted ease. However, the performance lacks the same level of emotional complexity and rather is a servant of objective storytelling function - it does not reveal much connected emotional inner life to the trauma of the man - and so, it is more difficult for us to have any true, or relative empathy, as compared to the other characters, for Snow's experience - it is a tendency of 'style' that I have observed before in the work of Mr Brennan: THIS IS OUR YOUTH and M.ROCK, last year - reliable, two dimensional and internally cool.

A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY is another work from Mr Fraser as Director, during his Artistic Direction of ATYP, that has lifted the quality of work, particularly new Australian work at ATYP, to be an anticipatory event in our diary of Sydney theatre going - SUGARLAND and M.ROCK last year, for instance. This production of this very fine play by Ross Mueller is having a short season at the State Library auditorium, but is worth catching. If it tours, let us hope it shows again in Sydney, proper, for not only is it a play that commemorates the Centenary of the ANZAC story with due dignity and integrity, it is a very fine piece of theatre literature that will be relevant beyond this event - the humanity of the characters drawn, and the craftsmanship of Mr Mueller, is exemplary. We need to see more of his artistry, on our stages, CONSTRUCTION OF THE HUMAN HEART and CONCUSSION, two other works of skill, worth seeing again, I reckon.

The school audience that I watched this production with were rapt, and 'wrapt-up' in its tragic clarity. Concentrated, moved and exhilarated. The best of theatre for young people. (As well as for the rest of us.)

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Photo by Andrew Bott
Seymour Centre, Red Stitch and The United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney present, GROUNDED, by George Brant, in the Reginald Theatre, City Rd Chippendale, May 1st - 16th.

GROUNDED, by George Brant, performed by Kate Cole at the Reginald Theatre, SHOULD NOT BE MISSED.

An exhilarated female Top Gun flies her own plane, her 'Tiger",  striking down the enemy, begins a relationship with an ordinary but love-smitten man, becomes pregnant, is required to stop flying, has a girl child, Sam, and later returns to the Air Force as part of "The Chair Force" in caravans in the desert of Nevada, within driving distance of Las Vegas, in what she calls "The Bermuda Triangle" for pilots, manning, remotely, drones, above the battle fields of the Middle East, becoming "an eye in the sky" to smite the "guilty".  The intensity of the 12-hour, 7-days a week pattern, the required operational secrecy and the constant staring at the grey screen with her team for days and days, searching for an image of what could be a target, where, they alerted, as "god" can kill the "prophets", only to stay to see, hovering above, the consequences of the remotely pressed button, then to return home in her white car back across the desert, past the pyramid (hotel) in the Las Vegas emptiness, to her saddened but adoring husband and Sam with her pink Pegasus ponies, "exhausts" our heroine. Now, locked in a concrete cell, to preserve the secret of the drones in the desert and its devastating  remote warfare, she remembers all, just for us,  in a never stopped monologue of grief and guilt.

From the thrill of the BLUE, to the PINK of motherhood, to the chill of the GREY, George Brant has written a compelling and disturbing monologue. The disintegration of a single human is a parallel for the further disintegration of the morality of the methods of modern warfare. It makes for empathetic viewing and forces concepts of our own culpability for such stories to be a truth of how we, in the West can go on living the  relative lives of the blessed.

In a powerful feat of concentration and actor's courage, Kate Cole, grasps us and holds us suspended through great dynamics of voice, body, imagination and experienced emotions, to take us on an unforgettable, beautifully nuanced journey. It is a magnificent performance. Eighty remarkable minutes. Guided by Director, Kirsten Von Bibra, in a claustrophobic cell shape, accompanied by smart situational lighting (just, sometimes a little James Turrell - amazing), the Visual Design is by Matthew Adey, and brilliantly supported by one of the best Composition/Sound Designs for the theatre of my recent experience, by Elizabeth Drake.

This Red Stitch production from Melbourne must be seen. It will change your life. The Season is brief. The theatre is small. BOOK NOW.

Ms Cole's performance and this production of this writing justifies my relentless search for the great live experience in the theatre. This work balances out the many, many disappointments of one's theatre going addiction. GROUNDED is a hit, a palpable hit.


A production with Anne Hathaway has recently opened at the Public Theatre in New York.


Photo by Rupert Reid
Red Lines Productions presents, DOLORES, by Edward Allan Baker, at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Cathedral and Dowling St, Woolloomooloo. 28 April - 9 May.

DOLORES (1986), is a one act play written by American, Edward Allan Baker. He says: "I write about people born to brick and asphalt, who don't have bad days, they have bad years." A 'social realist' then. And, based on this experience, in spades.

Sandra (Jannine Watson) in her working class home, in Providence, Rhode Island, is having her weekly sojourn, alone with her self to indulge her simple needs, while husband and children are visiting the in-laws. On this occasion, Dolores (Kate Box), one of her sisters, the entirely dysfunctional one, arrives with a black-eye and a desperate fear that her husband is on her trail for further violence. Sandra, resisting, at first, harbour towards Dolores, gives in, and together, they gradually reveal in their search for some understanding and succour to the concrete of their lives, a sibling respect and warmth that could be a source for change. Too late, unfortunately, for one of them, for the hard circumstances of their lives has overtaken one of them to an irretrievable social disaster. The contemporary social highlighted discussion, awareness, about violence towards women in our societal structures, is at the centre of this work.

This is a play of great intensity with all the packed detail of a world well known to the writer. Only 40 minutes long, one feels that one has had an immersive experience of character, narrative and emotion, by its end. An entirely vivid and satisfying time, despite its human suffering. On the set of ORPHANS (the third play I've seen on this one set, with, of course, some detail augmentations), Ms Watson and Box create two women, two sisters, with remarkable empathy. These two women, like the three men in ORPHANS, are roles to be prized by actors - and that Ms Watson and Box do so is the great gift of the night, and that they do that while telling a comprehensible story, is one up on the boys in the main time slot (when I saw it, early in the season).

Particularly, Ms Box, who creates a woman of shifting graduations of needs with consumate, passionate detail and ease. Voice, body, intelligence and emotional accessibility all serving this artist's impulses to create Dolores. This is a performance that is verging on the edge of greatness. There was no Director to the production, and it is the element missing that may have lifted the production, performances, to a refined calibre of clarity, and further depths. If one has been in doubt to the potential of this artist, Ms Box, recall, amongst much else: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE BUSINESS, and see that she has been showing us IT for several years now, in striking kinetic examples on our stages - let alone the subtle influence of her presence in ABC Television's RAKE, or the underestimated Aussie film, A LITTLE DEATH (2014) - the film has its problems, sure (editing of story lines?), BUT, come on, it has a sophistication beyond most of what we usually get from our Australian comedy film writers and actors.

DOLORES is a precious gem of a show. It plays at 9.45pm at night. But, also, has a Saturday matinee at 2pm and on Sundays at 7.30pm. If you love acting and the theatre, get yourself there. If you are up to it, catch both: ORPHANS (for the macho male hit) followed by DOLORES (for the dimensional female hit), add, a not too bad meal from the newly teamed chefs in the Old Fitz kitchen, and a beer, or whatever: for me, a vodka-tonic with lime, please. A good and satisfying night out and all in the one place. And as they might say in either of the worlds of these two plays: "F..k the rain problems off."

The Old Fitz and Red Line Productions reaching out to the theatre going audience - you will get your bang for your hard earned bucks. You will feel that your precious time (and money) has been well spent.