Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mother Courage

Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir presents, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, by Bertolt Brecht. Translation, by Michael Gow. In the Upstairs Theare at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 6 June - 26 July.

Bertolt Brecht was born in 1898 in Bavaria. He was 16 when the First World War, led by Germany, engulfed Europe for the next 4 years. He watched and then experienced the fatal reparation demands on defeated Germany, from the Paris Peace Conference, in 1919, that the victors made, primarily represented, led, by the American President Woodrow Wilson (who also dreamt of the founding of a League of Nations), the English Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (assisted by Winston Churchill and Maynard Keynes), the French leader Georges Clemenceau and Marshall Ferdinand Foch, with, Vittorio Orlando of Italy (Brecht watched the forced creation by the victors of three new countries - Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel - whose troubles haunt us still). He began his theatrical career through the dilemmas of the Weimar Republic attempting to respond to the demands of the Peace Treaty, and then, further, through the times of the rIse of the Nationalist Socialist Party, led by Adolf Hitler. He witnessed the democratic/capitalist leaders of the world and their ability - and will - to ignore the realities of the means that were being used to create, make possible, the German Nazi rise to force in 1933.

Fearing persecution as an artist, Brecht fled to Sweden, and then, in 1941, to the United States, the leading capitalist power of the world. Brecht was a fervent Marxist and Socialist. Living in the United States during the calamity of World War II, he was able to watch the decisions of that country close-up, watching its reluctance to enter the European campaigns against Nazi-fascist aggression, whilst, seemingly, making profit in the selling of armaments to both sides (mirroring its capitalistic enterprise during the early years of the calamity of World War I), until the Pearl Harbour attack, which made it, virtually, impossible for the United States to continue to ignore the resultant horror of the "Human Smoke" that the European war was making, and that the threat of Japanese ambitions in the Pacific was to do. He watched capitalist leaders make decisions that led to unheard of profits for business but which, also, led to an irreparable cost to the human soul and moral values of that nation, of all humanity.

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, was written as a response to Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, whilst Brecht was in self-exile in Sweden, and had a failed performance in 1941, in Zurich. Brecht lived out the war in Hollywood. He returned to Germany in October, 1947, the day after facing the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, being suspected of being a member of the Communist Party, which he had never joined - "a suspect agent of the Soviet government" - and after being invited to Berlin, to the Deutsches Theater, in East Berlin, directed the play, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, in 1949, with Helene Weigal, his wife, creating Anna Fierling (Mother Courage).

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, is a powerful criticism of the capitalist system, of its dehumanising capabilities and the resultant possibilities of a loss of moral balance. It is written by a passionate Marxist/Socialist. It shows how capitalism can bring people (a mother, in this case) to do things completely out of character in order to protect themselves and their business - where the saving of the business preempts all else. His observations of the core causes of  war and of the two catastrophic twentieth century World Wars, and of his fear of a third, a Nuclear one, are deeply embedded in this work.

The action/decisions of recent Australian Governments and their pursuit of trade profits - e.g. the relentless development of coal - "coal is good for humanity" stand, for instance - and their ignoring of economic advice/science concerning climate change - have been made at the expense of their children's futures. Such is the possible accusative power and prescience of Brecht's horribly relevant play for Australian audiences. To Brecht, says Stephen Parker in his great recent biography, BERTOLT BRECHT - A Literary Life:
the achievements of liberal democracy - for example, civil rights and the rule of law - were enjoyed by those with financial and political power but remained  on a purely formal level for ordinary citizens." [1]
A 76 year-old play, set in a war belonging to history of nearly 400 years ago (1618-1648: The Thirty Years War), is as modern and urgent today as it was when first written. Says Mr Flack, in his notes in the program:
The Thirty Years' War was the berserk start of a relentless March of Progress that steadily and violently went on to transform the world. Most of us in the West know this famed Progress (today) by its premium brands: free markets, the secular state, civic society, technological innovation, the rule of law ... the lizard brain of modernity.
However, sadly, with this production at Belvoir of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, Directed by Eamon Flack, there is – I can assure Canberra and their Cultural/Political national guardians – no blatant "lefty lynch mob" at work here, and that no "heads should roll" as a result of the choice of this theatrical critique of capitalism, or this Belvoir production of it. A more blunted, tamed production of the play, by a major company, probably, could not be found. Indeed, most of my audience left the theatre just as relaxed and comfortable about the society it was living in and its governmental 'habits' - that it is electing - as it was when it went into the auditorium, and seemed mostly occupied in foyer discussion afterwards, by the choice of which restaurant they were to eat at and what wine to drink, and to vociferously wonder at the sprightly energy of Robyn Nevin on stage, considering her age, and at the 'magic' of her 'dazzling' make-up employed for this production. For, truthfully, it was probably the draw of the touted talents of Ms Nevin that caused their buying of the tickets to see this play than the famous talents and (in)famous philosophic stand of Bertolt Brecht, or the fame of the rarely staged MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN.

This production was an entertainment of a bourgeois comfort, an anaesthesia, part of a 'bourgeois narcotics trade', given by Mr Flack, starring Robyn Nevin, and, generally, abetted by his company of actors, the plat text not having been penetrated deeply enough with any scrutiny of the content of the play or of Brecht's methodology, because of the sentimental attachments to the plight of the woman Courage and her children, being underlined, here, by the dominant theatre of empathy, hall-marked with a Stanislavskian point-of-theory, of which Brecht, in his time, was in vocal variance. The audience at Belvoir was encouraged to engage in emotional identification with the characters' plight. Indeed, the quotes from Michael Gow's play, ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY***, in the program notes - Mr Gow is also the translator, from the German, of Brecht's play for this company - of Will's final speech concerning the need to "Feel a lot. Huge feelings."  may account for the position taken by Mr Flack, in his composing of the production. This is contrary to the Brechtian mode, which is to have the audience see and understand the cause of Courage's choices pressured from the structure and construct of the capitalist system/society that she, lives in, struggles with - which we are no less inveigled with and by - so as to reveal a social causation beneath surface appearance. To have the audience challenged to think rather than to just feel, so as to learn - the pleasure of learning designed to foster critical intelligence - that might lead to change to the way of the world, from us the audience, to the usual societal engines of action. It was that that MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN was meant to be, the first play representing what has become known as Epic Theatre.

Epic Theatre, the most famous element, of which, is known as the deployment of 'Verfremdung', the term rendered in English over the years as 'alienation', 'estrangement', and 'defamiliarisation' - to 1. help the audience to see the familiar as striking, the normal as amazing - to 2. have the audience to view a figure or situation in a naive way, i.e. in an 'innocent' way, by asking theatre makers, including the audience, to look on dramatic material with fresh eyes, to 3. wonder at what is happening rather than taking it for granted. To 4. have the audience watch actors play-acting a character, making choices within a social context, to 5. make the familiar act of going to the theatre, as an audience, strange: i.e. different to the old methods of the actor 'being' the character and having us believe in an emotional response/state without the complication of thoughtful analysis. To 6. ensure that the whole of the  performance, the storytelling, has a political thrust of thought, and not just an emotional identification and catharsis.

I was surprised (shocked) that in a Radio National (RN) ABC interview with Michael Cathcart (Books and Arts), Mr Flack confessed that he did not know what 'Verfremdung' was, and that he was not particularly curious about it. This, certainly, might make for a contemporary Australian production 'colour', and be in some arguments a legitimate stance, but, for me, simply re-enforces what I believe is a fundamental wrong with our present, general, artistic aesthetic: its lack of intellectual rigour, and worse its lack of curiosity about what has made a work a 'classic', in this instance what has made Brecht's work great, and what can make it one of the peaks of the what is known as the 'Classic' repertoire, today. Mind you even Brecht with the first production of this play began "cautiously introducing the Epic mode in rehearsals" and added "We really need four months of rehearsals." (2). One wonders what rehearsal time, preparation, did this Belvoir company have? Not four months, for sure. Maybe, four weeks?

Imagine the impact of Brecht's own production, in 1949, in a theatre in the rubble of Berlin, with an audience that had witnessed, survived, the destruction of their city - the whole of Europe (some for a second time) - when Mother Courage made her entrance, dragging, with her children, her wagon of commerce and shelter, across the bleak, grey platform of the stage in the supposed circumstances of a thirty year war of over three hundred years ago. And that that audience, the populace of a divided Berlin ruled by occupiers, realised "That nothing (had) been eliminated even when almost everything (had) been destroyed."[1] The emotional outpouring for Courage and her decisions, halted and checked with the emphasis of the alienation of Brecht's pointed direction to the thinking of the why and wherefore of Courage's actions, and interrogating internally, perhaps, how different was it to their recent past history, and even to the present tensions in their own city with the struggles of the British, the Americans and the Russians encamped around them, seeking power, dominance. Mr Parker tells us:
The premiere of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN on 11 January (1949) demonstrated what a force Brecht and Weigal (playing Mother Courage) could be. The public and the critics alike greeted the production with adulation. Brecht's great anti-war statement and Wiegel's stunning lead performance were the stuff of legend, the foundation of Brecht's world-wide post-war fame. The play held up a mirror to an audience who had gone to war for Hitler and supported him to the bitter end. [2]
How could this play then resonate for an Australian audience, since the devastation of war in our country is, mostly, an abstracted experience? Not with too much difficulty, I remember. Certainly, resonance, relevance  was rung in the winter of 1972, in the then, relatively, neglected wreck of the Princess Theatre, in Melbourne, when the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) presented MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. The affect was a great one, a shattering one for us Australians who managed to see it. Joachim Tenschert directed a staging of the original Berliner Ensemble production with Gloria Dawn as Courage, supported by Wendy Hughes, John Wood, Tony Lewellyn-Jones, Frank Thring, Fredrick Parslow and Jennifer Hagan. And later on the minuscule Jane Street Theatre stage (three times smaller, perhaps, than the Belvoir stage), under the auspices of John Clark's NIDA, in 1978,  when Aubrey Mellor directed a memorable, hauntingly experiential production with Kerry Walker as Mother Courage, and included amongst others, Angela Punch-McGregor, Jenee Welsh, John Smythe, Stuart Campbell, Robert Menzies and John Clayton. It, too, set in the bleak period of its history, was a visceral triumph of heart and head. (The relatively recent production at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Directed by Robyn Nevin, and with Pamela Rabe, as Mother Courage, never reached or seemed to understand the Brechtian needs and intentions, if comparisons are made).

On a 'dirty' white painted set, with a  rectangular black space demarcated in one of the corners of the stage, where a piano, props and chairs, (Set Design, by Robert Cousins), with some actors, dressed in a mishmash of contemporary clothing and army uniform - looking as if found in second hand op-shops - are present (Costume Design, by Alice Babidge). The Lighting Design by Benjamin Cisterne completes the visual offer for the presentation of this production - so far, so good. However, when the wagon of Mother Courage appeared, dragged by her children, one was startled to see a mini, solid caravan, painted a dull gloss red with two 'streamers' of coloured light bulbs, bristling, at both ends of the vehicle, and a prop-up-and-out window, in one side of the vehicle, to reveal hung packets of 'junk' items that one might find in a side show alley van, attendant as a fair ground/circus support. It looked as if it was where one could buy hot dogs, and fairy floss. For me, it hailed-back to the Australian vaudevillian stage, in colour and razzle-dazzle, that was a favourite choice of the old Nimrod/Belvoir visual style of the 1980's, led by the artist Martin Sharp: this wagon looked like the Martin Sharp Hot Dog Wagon! That the wagon was virtually 'parked' in the one place for most of the production, it rarely moved, except to another near-by parking position, but for the final lone pull from the lone Mother Courage - Ms Nevin, finding it a little too heavy for her to do much - I kept thinking of my Christmas Holidays up in the Calypso Caravan Park at Yamba, and the caravan sitting on bricks, selling everything from fishing weights to fly and mosquito spray, to Wrigley's chewing gum. Just what world or war zone it was meant to represent was difficult to imagine. It was never a war zone for me - it was a big visual distraction contrasted to the textural information coming from the actors.

Too, I felt the new score to the songs  (Music Composition, by Stefan Gregory), though interesting, was more referenced to the early 1920's Brechtian plays: THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1928),  HAPPY END (1929) and THE RISE AND FALL OF MAHAGONNY (1930) - created by Kurt Weill - than to the post-Weimar music collaboration that Brecht made with Paul Dessau with the original MOTHER COURAGE and other work that followed e.g. THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZCHUAN (1947-48). The psychological seed of creativity, for the two periods, are remarkably different in tone. It is heard in the original scorings. Not at the Belvoir.

One of the Sydney critics, Jason Blake - (Eight Nights A Week) - observed that the production looked as if it were still in the rehearsal room in its visual choices. I concur, and it was dismayingly so in the climatic scene with the drumming and death of Courage's daughter, Kattrin, where instead of being placed on the roof of the wagon, the actor was required to stand on a white plastic chair from the local hardware store, in front of the Red Wagon, and thus undercutting the impact of the image that Brecht had so carefully organised in his famous ARRANGEMENTS - of the 'fabel'.

The acting from this company: Paula Arundell (outstanding), Tom Conroy, Lena Cruz, Michael McStay, Alex Menglet, Arky Michael (his usual fully-fledged commitment - outstanding ,too), Anthony Phelan (focused integrity), Richard Pyros, Hazem Shammas and Emele Ugavule, is the stuff of energised commitment to the production directions of Mr Flack.

Ms Nevin, as Mother Courage, is admirable in the sheer energetic force of her presence on stage, and is, initially riveting in that affect, (particularly with her make-up), but lacks, as the play proceeds, much variety of choice in the work, the journey, and confrontations that Mother Courage has, and seemed to give, rather, a clock-work effort of a taut technical control where the general tone of the performance was a ' kind of air of diffidence' (maybe what Mr Flack and Ms Nevin understood was the 'Verfremdung' effect), with an  indifference to the contributions of the other actors - an appearance of an actor in a focused isolation, barrelling, relentlessly, through the play. A hands-on-hips stance and intimidating, no-nonsense glare, basilisk-like - have we seen that before? - dominating the pictorial choices of her woman. Ms Nevin's brand-traits, again, on stage, are too much and, yet, I believe, not enough for the variety of reveal - deep personalisation - that taking on Mother Courage demands. The energy required for the role seemed to absorb most of Ms Nevin's creative output and focus. Ms Nevin herself expressed her nervousness of being 'too old' for the role in a Belvoir pre-show video - for it is a role that demands much of one, not only in artistic construct, but in sheer animal stamina. Ms Nevin's Mother Courage was rather a kind of Grandmother Courage and one regrets that actors such as Susan Prior, Paula Arundell and Anita Hegh were not pulling the waggon (well, a wagon of another look), across the fields of war,  for their art and craft deserved the exercise that Ms Nevin had claimed -  we will have to wait, as usual, a long time to see our next production of this great play, and so the loss of seeing the actors that, today, belong to the generational age of Brecht's character, and deserve the challenge, must be borne. Sometimes one feels (perhaps, ungenerously) there is a box-tick of the Great Roles that Ms Nevin, is attempting to cover and conquer while she can: Hecuba - tick; Mary Tyrone - tick; Madame Ranyevskaya - tick; Queen Lear - tick; Mother Courage - tick, whether it is appropriate or not (can one think of another actor of Ms Nevin's age that could have played the role?) One hopes that The Lady of the Camellias, or Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind - the Musical version, is not to come, on that tick-box list! - if there is one.

All in all I was not bored by this production but I felt that the Directorial hand was in charge of a Chekhov play (with music) rather than a Brecht play. It gave one confidence about Mr Flack's next effort which will be IVANOV - an early melodrama from the Chekhovian canon. This production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN was, compared, to my other experiences of this play, a disappointing one. I felt that the context of the origins of this text were not sufficiently thought through and solved for an Australian audience in 2015. The play seemed to be read from the 'relaxed and comfortable' bourgeois of Sydney, and was interrogated so superficially, that an audience could only be puzzled as to why this play is regarded as one of the most famous plays of Brecht's, and one of  the greatest of the 20th Century. It reminded me of my despair over the CHILDREN OF THE SUN production at the STC, last year - a play of much less reputation, of course.

This production has now gone from the stage and sits in the ephemera of all our memory. What one remembers is so personal - built from one's experienced interaction with life. With life with all of its permutations - fictional and factional.


  1. Parker, Stephen, 2014, BERTOLT BRECHT - A Literary Life, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama
  2. Barnett, David, 2015, BRECHT IN PRACTICE. Theatre, Theory and Performance, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Pulse Group Theatre presents GRACE, by Craig Wright, at The Actor's Pulse Studios, 103 Regent St Redfern, 7 - 26 July.

Take Note all: GRACE is the first production in a new theatre on the Sydney scene: Pulse Group Theatre.

GRACE was written in 2004, and had its Broadway debut in 2012. It is written by Craig Wright, an American playwright not seen in Sydney before, (he has written many plays), whereas his television writing in SIX FEET UNDER and BROTHERS AND SISTERS, we, possibly, may have.

GRACE introduces us to Steve (Joseph Addabbo) and Sara (Nikki Waterhouse) two members of a religious 'cult' who have come from Minnesota to Florida to spread the 'Word', and open a chain of motels called "SONRISE" using the logo, "Where would Jesus stay?" Steve is waiting for his principal business partner to bank the $9 million to get the building started. Living next door is an ex-NASA researcher, Sam (Jeremy Shadlow), who has had a tragic accident, killing his fiancee, and damaging his face. He is an atheist.  Steve zealously attempts to bring Sam to the 'Way', the spirituality of the love of Jesus, whilst Sara following the Christian ethic of 'loving thy neighbour' does just that in a gently physical way. When Steve's partner fails to come-up with the money and he finds himself, personally, liable to the banks, and discovers that his wife has deserted him for the atheist/scientist, the collapse of the two cornerstones of his personal faith: Capitalism and Christianity, explodes his world, and he falls from GRACE, murdering the two faithless ones and himself.

"Is there a God?" "Is there such a thing as the benevolent oversight of a higher power?" These two (for some of us) bluff questions are asked in a cleverly gentle manner with a wickedly subtle black humour by Mr Craig, and the play, in performance, is surprisingly easy. There are some theatrics in the use of time - we begin the play with the murders and then have a re-wind effect to take us on the journey to explain how we got there, (this 'trick' is employed several times). The language of the play is full of ironies and observations of real life that constantly cause chuckles of identification - the authorial use of telephone monologues, to point out the frustrations of modern life devices, e.g. the Internet, are 'terribly' funny familiar. Add a pest exterminator, Karl (Dudley Hogarth), who turns up in the scenario of the play at fortuitous moments, (is he otherworldly?) full of wry observations and a fulsome personal history of the loss of his family in the Nazi holocaust, and the overarching, possible, belief in a benevolent power gets a severe shaking.

The production, in this new theatre space, Directed by Billy Milionis, is beautifully controlled and gently articulated. The setting of the play is handsomely appointed (no Designer signified), with the one room being used for both apartments so that the characters' entwining/isolation is, amusingly, counterpointed. The acting from all four of the actors is, mostly, extremely enticing and the human dimensions, pain and craving of their characters is exceptionally believable. Mr Shadlow, as Sam, has an internal registering of his character's pain that carefully releases under the soft 'love' that Ms Waterhouse conveys with aching gentility - the playing between these two actors is beautiful to watch unfold. Mr Hogarth, as Karl, has all the twinkle of a man who knows more than he should and who wants to temper the anguish of others around him. Mr Addabbo is mostly, convincing, but plays Steve with a kind of frenetic energy that seems to cost him, the actor, personally enormously (he appeared to be overcome with a dizziness, in his curtain call from the passion of his playing.) It reminded me of having seen him in action before, in GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, where he, demonstrated an overwrought commitment to the task of playing, to, sometimes, the expense of the character's life on the stage.

The Pulse Group Theatre is a new space that the Artistic Director of The Actor's Pulse, Billy Milionis, has opened up as an alternative space for the Co-op movement in Sydney. The recent loss of the Tap Gallery and further back, the Downstairs Belvoir space, as a place to play at reasonable cost, has thrown the opportunity for young artists to practice their skills into a kind of fraught chaos.This theatre is extremely comfortable and appears to be around the same capacity as The Old Fitz, with a small but useful stage area, at a location easily got to. Worth enquiring about with great thanks to the Actor's Pulse.

GRACE is a very creditable debut. The play fascinating, the production fairly impressive, in all ways. Keep an eye out for future work.

War Crimes

Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) in partnership with Pilot Theatre, from York Theatre Royal, present, WAR CRIMES, by Angela Betzien, at the ATYP Theatre, at the Wharf, Hickson Rd, 15 July - 1 August.

Angela Betzien's play, WAR CRIMES, won the 2012 Kit Denton Fellowship and the Queensland Literary Award for Playwriting. It's staging in Sydney by the Australian Theatre for Young people (ATYP) down at the Hickson Rd Wharf, is in partnership with Pilot Theatre from York Theatre Royal
made possible through the support of the European Union Cultural Fund as part of a project connecting 6 companies and 3 continents - all discussing issues of migration and immigration and its impact on young people in particular.
Alex Evans, a Director, Facilitator and Visual Artist based in London, has worked with an all Australian group of young female actors to bring the work to life.

The play concerns, mostly, five hormonal girls in a country town shifting through that period-in-life from rebellious school girl to young teenager-adulthood, interacting with a small town's cultural and sexual prejudices/politics It examines attitudes to social-economic deprivation, race, sexual differences, violence and nationalism. In this one act 80-minute play all of the young actors play multiple roles, of all ages and both sexes - there is a sense of a rough and tumble urgency in the playing and the material spirals on and on in many scenes with a kind of contemporary short concentration span in length and a language that is of the 'younger' generational type - hip, shorthand and blunt. Some truly terrible things happen to the girls in this play and the consequences are mostly handled as internalised traumas, absorbed by the characters in a very relatively 'such is life' acceptance. There is very little public or social impact of the events explored here. This is an interesting play but whether it covers the above stated brief of the International program is one to ponder.

Lara (Jane Watt) is a stubbornly immature leader of one of the 'townie' girl packs, Ricky (Holly Foster) is the gormless follower of whoever is leading, whilst Jade (Charlotte Hazzard) is metamorphosing into somebody with a dawning sense of the responsibility of conscience and difference, much to the chagrin (and jealousy) of the other group members. For, Jade after being deserted in a dance club by her friends with some army boys out for fun, and taking off to the local beach with them, subsequently sees the local Iraqi refugee girl, Ishtar (Odetta Quinn), and the sexually diverse Jordan (Hannah Cox) for more than the possible victims of spite and anger, that was her usual response to those kind of individuals who were outsiders to her narrow 'white' world.

Ms Cox, creates a character of deep foreboding and nervous trust issues with great care. Ms Hazzard travails the complications of the demanding issues encountered by Jade with a craftsman-like control and delivers a gradual coming-of-age journey for us. The others, too, play well with what are essentially less psychologically complex demands. All, under the behest, of Mr Evans, shift shapes, with a generalised in-yer-face energy that does not always keep the audience sure of where they are in the story or clearly what is happening. The Movement Coach, Tia Jordan, does not find stillness much to highlight the changes of the tone of the work: physical energy is not always enough to sustain interest. Too much plot, too many characters, too much unfocused energy, perhaps? The backdrop and set by Emma Reyes is not remarkable but is assisted much, by the lighting of Alex Berlage. Tom Hogan in his Sound Design keeps it all moving.

ATYP brings us another Australian play, and it is good to see a company of five women carrying the stage, after the presentation of the all men company of A TOWN NAMED WAR BOY last May.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Canterbury Tales

THE CANTERBURY TALES, created by Constantine Costi, James Vaughan, Michael Costi, at the New Theatre, King St Newtown, 15 July - August 1.

If, when you see this show's name – THE CANTERBURY TALES –  and you think of Chaucer (1343-1400): the father of the English language; the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, with Royal Patronage from Edward III, Richard II and even Henry IV, forget it.

If you think of the 1968 musical version, too, forget it (anyway I've been told, great book, now dated music and lyrics).

If you think it is some inspiration based around the Pasolini, 1972 film, part of the trilogy that he made along with  Boccaccio's THE DECAMERON (1971) and THE ARABIAN NIGHTS (1974), forget it.

If you imagine that this, THE CANTERBURY TALES, is made up from tales of the Rugby League Bulldogs, Canterbury-Bankstown football club - because there has to be some eye-and-ear-popping tales out there, surely? - even if they are out of 'school', I have to 'tale' you, again, forget it!

What is this then at the New Theatre? A hijack of a famous title to catch your attention in the vein of Belvoir and their THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR curation of last year, to attract your attention and buy tickets? Could be.

However, unlike the Belvoir THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, there is some residue of the original inspiration on the stage, for we do begin the evening with truncated tellings, with hand puppetry, of two of the Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale and the Summoner's Tale. There is even an attempt to tell some of it in Middle English! What then transpires is the transporting of the show into a kind of lame 1960's Tonight Show, led by an incompetent host, with old-fashioned clip board, introducing us to a series of variety acts. Four camera men appear, and broadcast onto four screen monitors above the front 'arch' of the stage, four other points-of-view, beside one's own, to attend to what is happening. You could choose where to concentrate your gaze, in this modern mediated world. I, mostly, elected to 'edit' my own view with an attentive preference to watch the show as a theatre project, other than through some other intervening editorial eye on a screen. Others watched the screens and so the audience was often in a fractured (sometimes bewildered) appreciation. There would be eruptions of laughter that did not necessarily correspond to what the 'naked' eye was apprehending, but on direction to one of the screen monitors would find justification, as when, for instance, a live image of a stupefied, bored stager was captured and 'focused-on', staring (drooling) completely absent-mindedly, into space at the centre-stage action.

Besides a principal company: Ryan Carter, John Grinston, Sarah Jane Kelly, Zoe Jensen, Andrew Lindqvist, Marty O'Neill and Danielle Stamoulos, who have worked, improvised, with the Creators and devisors of this project over  several months: Constantine Costi, James Vaughan, Michael Costi, to form the bulk of the superstructure and content of the 'TALES', some other Performers from the Community of Sydney have been shuffled into the evening. A totally amazing Yoyo wizard, Brandon Vu, beguiles us with a ten minute-or-so expert (and comic) stint to a classical music track; a magician, Dale Trueman with spiel and a 'scroll'; a hypnotist, called Etienne, who attempts to demonstrate his skills via Skype (!); two street corner spruikers, the first, Mark Avery, who talked, on my night, at least, of the necessity of not buying into the present day culture of the need to succeed, and so avoiding the Pass Or Fail test, while the other, Steve Maxwell - in a  period Top Hat and black Dress Coat - talked, in this instance, of the horrible entitlement of politicians, as exposed by Bronwyn Bishop, of late (although, Steve, insisted on calling her Julie Bishop - not to worry, the Abbott knows the truth and differences between these two Bishops, I guess).

The 'conceit' of this production, it seems to me, springs from the premise of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, where some pilgrim's resting in local inns on the way to Canterbury Cathedral spontaneously tell stories from life to amuse the others. So, here, the Directors have pilgrim's in the midst of their contemporary lives, not in an inn but a theatre, simply telling tales from their daily 'adventures', showing us their 'special' vaudevillian-like skills, IF they have any. John Grinston and Marty O'Neill, for instance, give an hilarious Orton/Pinteresque/Monty Python verbal duet of two ordinary Aussie blokes (guys) jabbering away for some (amusing) time, simply to pass that time, about nothing, while behind them a sinuous dancer, Sarah Jane Kelly, tap dancers and poses, with the four-strong camera crew capturing what they like for the screen.

The pell mell pettiness that occupies so much of our daily life consciousness (or comatose unconsciousness) combined with our degraded vernacular language, along with the tawdry 'empowerment' that the community has been endowed with: that we are all artists (whether we have Craft skills, or not) are the intellectual highlights of these artists' focus and 'missionary' efforts to gently expose. It is, for example, a very precious observation when one of the camera men decides to turn the camera around onto himself to create a video-'selfie' on the monitor, while he sings centre-stage, acapella, an Italian operatic aria - contemporary narcissism at its most egregious and hilarious! This show is full of deliberate chaos and mediocrity - the Host Kirin J Callinan/Roy Molloy, is an abundant packet of hopelessness that epitomises what some of us suspect the present DIY culture encourages and celebrates - the Voice, Talent programs, the Cooking shows, the Home Renovation shows etc, etc etc, ad infinitum. It all leads, cumulatively, to a surreal arrival of two inflatable sharks, guided electronically into the auditorium above the audiences head.

Help. HEEEELP! Ha, ha.

Although this production of THE CANTERBURY TALES is very rough-and-ready, one understands this iteration, at the New Theatre, of these offers, is the first workshopping in public of the 'conceit', so it flops and flays, runs and staggers, hits and misses to be (delightfully) all over the place, but it has, as a fuel, some  improvisationary zest of a real deliberateness of style and manic chutzpa (The Marx Brothers, are you channeling?) Well done. The brazenly committed performances of all the company certainly reveals a confidence in the Creators and their off-the-wall intentions. I was reminded of the fabulous company, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, that has performed at the Sydney Festival and the Melbourne Arts Festival: NO DICE in 2009; LIFE AND TIME. EPISODES 1-4, in 2013 - and I love them a lot.

Constantine Costi (and his brother, Michael) came onto my theatre-going radar in 2012 when I saw a production of his THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at the Genesian Theatre. I was surprised and dazzled by the concept of his production (as well as the skill he showed in eliciting verbal dexterities from a fairly diverse company of actors) - it had a game show-talent show format for the Portia love casket stuff and a glitzy parody of Fellini territories (not, I've since gathered, an original idea). Both 'pastures'  of creativity seem to be a 'core' inspiration for his work. Subsequently, Mr Costi has studied, and although, the next work of his talent I saw, slightly derailed my faith in him, with an over-stuffed adventure/production of a one-act Shaw joke - THE SHEWING-UP OF BLANCO POSNET - his vivid, weird imagination, his love of language and his people skills, theatrical intelligence (and love), promise much. We shall see. The balance of imaginative 'flares' with a discipline to text with a sensitive appreciation of capturing an audience, is an act that needs constant vigilance.

This is a madness - a provocatove tonic de jour for some of us.

This work seems, to me, especially relevant, with the Sydney Fringe about to, again, descend upon us, in September. An event that certainly encourages all to be public artists - whether skilled, talented, or not - and we , generally trust, that friends and family will support and 'love' them, whatever they've done.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015



Two Peas present, EDMOND, by David Mamet, at Theatre 505, Hibernian House, 342 Elizabeth St. Central Railway, Surry Hills. 15 - 26 July.

EDMOND was written by David Mamet, in 1982. GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS came later, in 1984.

The play is written in a one act mode but with 23 scenes. It begins with Edmond, a white white collar worker having his fortune read. He leaves the shop and leaves his wife and proceeds on a journey, a Pilgrim's journey, through the decrepitude of the New York landscape of the late 70's - early 80's, meeting his fate in a spiral of diminishing returns until murder and imprisonment and sexual degradation takes him to a place, a few years later, where his cultural prejudices have been subdued enough for him to share a cigarette with his companion in prison, kiss him, and sleep beside him, even if he is black. The play is an uncompromising descent into hell for any turbo-charged white male (and others) and Mamet risks much in writing Edmond in such a powerful way.

This production by Two Peas has only four actors playing all the roles. Oleg Pupovac presents a charming 'host' as Edmond and persuades us to pay attention to what happens to him, subtly holding our empathy even through the worst of his personality and his adventures. Such it is that we are made criminal too, for having participated with Edmond, witnessing him - it is a kind of devil seduction. Mr Pupovac manages it well. Tara Clark, Cheyne Fynn, Naomi Livingstone, play all the other characters, and it is quite a challenge: some of the characters succeed, some of them don't. Some of them are a surprise, some of them are repeats from the one we've seen before. Hey, they give it a go! (It is much like the problem with the budget-conscience casting of the STC Caryl Churchill LOVE AND INFORMATION - too many roles for too few actors to sustain originality or with consistent conviction).

The set design is quaintly thought out for this space, and though it crowds, allows the hectic changes to happen with a minimum of fuss. Director Glen Hamilton has kept the actors under a choreographed leash but, relatively, neglects the control-freak necessities of the attention to detail of the writing by David Mamet. It needs much more edge and ferocity, precision to every comma, to justify the horror roller coaster ride of Mr Mamet's creation.

Says the hand-out bill from this company: "Perhaps Mamet's most divisive play, you will either love or hate Edmond, but you will never forget him."

Knowing the play well, I was dreading the experience of seeing it again. I have to admit that I was quite able to endure it - the production is 'relatively, a 'soft' take on the material. A brave choice bravely done. Up to you to take it on.

There is a film version with William H. Macy as Edmond (2005). It was not necessarily a critical success - it is a tough experience.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Little Baghdad: Let's Party Like It's 620 B.C.

Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) in association with STARTTS, present, LITTLE BAGHDAD: LET'S PARTY LIKE IT'S 620BC, at the Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Fairfield, 11th and 12 July.

LITTLE BAGHDAD: LET'S PARTY LIKE IT'S 620BC, was presented by Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) in association with STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors.) It is a festival developed in collaboration with Fairfield's Iraqi community. Hosted by Layla and Firas Naji, it is the second iteration of Little Baghdad, bringing together artists, community members and first time visitors to Fairfield in a unique celebration of the Iraqi-Australian experience.

A friend and I went on Sunday. Bus, train, and bus again, because of track work. It was the beginning of winter as I remember it as a kid. Thank goodness I had wrapped up well in my new duffle coat, hat and scarf. But once in the venue nothing but warmth on all levels of meaning.

There were Dominoes and card games, there was a video on display alongside a durational painting work by Ali Hamidi, some installations by Nicole Barakat, Sean Bacon, Cigdem Aydemir and the Undrawing the Line cooperative. One could get one's name transcribed in the sand by an Akkadian and Assyrian scribe (Oliver Slewa - "The Assyrianologist" and assistants).

There was a dance performance by Welyam Geylana and Bhenji Ra. A (brief) lecture (wished for more) on the history of Iraq and Baghdad and of the community living in Fairfield by Oliver Slewa - in real life he is a practicing solicitor - an active member of Assyrian Youth organisations, associations and religious institutions. Three Slam Poems performed for us by Reewan Al-Mahana. The screening of a commissioned film '1001 NIGHTS IN FAIRFIELD' which told stories of refugees here in Fairfield, by Zanny Begg, featuring the Choir of Love. There was a folk dance group that performed for us accompanied by Bashar Hanna and the Choir of Love, live - we were invited to join in. Finally, there was an Iraqi Hachaa performed by Tania Hanan. Accompanying all of this over the three hours was Iraqi food and tea - delicious - prepared by The Parent's Cafe. A group in cultural dress taking great care of us - it has many activities immersed in the culture of Fairfield.

We had a very absorbing time. We had hoped that the Food Safari was going to tip us off on where to get the authentic variety of food. Unfortunately, too much of Fairfield was closed (it being Sunday) for it to happen - next time. However, we were directed and we found a wonderful restaurant and we ate the most amazing meats and very simply dressed salad, with tea, in a gorgeously simple but authentic like environment.

This work was shared with a constant buzz from the locals in Iraqi dress, excited with all the events, and inclusive with us who were visiting. Karen Therese is the Artistic Director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre, and this is the second 'adventure' I have made out to Fairfield to learn and share with a part of my community in Sydney that otherwise I would never know how to meet. Ms Therese first came to my attention out at Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2008, when I saw a performance piece that she had developed with part of that community called, THE RIOT ACT. It was sensational - one's senses were stimulated, stirred and shaken. Not ever forgotten. One wished that it could have been seen by more people. At the moment Ms Therese is also one of the Studio Artists at the Griffin Theatre and there may be a work that PTY and Griffin will share next year. It is in this Community work that one can see the value of ART as a tool for communication for the health of a people, of a nation. Pioneers like Karen Therese (and there are many others) need our support, appreciation and curiosity for what they are doing at Fairfield and elsewhere. It is invaluable - beyond the tick-boxing values of corporation and government organisations.

Thanks to you all for an immersive afternoon.

Of Mice and Men

Photo by Marnya Rothe
The Seymour Centre and Sport for Jove present, OF MICE AND MEN, by John Steinbeck, at the Reginald Theatre, The Seymour Centre, Chippendale, July 14 - August 1.

OF MICE AND MEN, is an adaptation for the theatre of a 1937 novella of the same name, both written by John Steinbeck. The original production won Best Play in 1938 from the New York Drama Critics Award, and since has been adapted many times for other mediums - radio, television, opera and twice for the cinema: 1939, with Burgess Meredith as George Milton, and Lon Chaney Jnr as Lennie Small; 1992, with Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. Recently, the play was revived for the New York stage with James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie - it was screened as part of the National Theatre Broadcasts around Australia. It tells the story of two bindlestiffs - misplaced migrant ranch workers in California during the era of the Great Depression. (THE GRAPES OF WRATH is another Steinbeck book - greater, I believe - that deals with this great natural disaster and the people caught up in it.)

Sport for Jove, under the Direction of Iain Sinclair have mounted a more than handsome production of this great text. The Design, by Michael Hankin, of a dirt floored weathered wood bunk house, interleaved with supporting poles, with paling slatted details and furniture for beds, is assisted in creating a patina of poverty and struggle with the atmospheric lighting of Sian James-Holland. The subtle Sound Design by Nate Edmondson adds, and carefully impinges on our consciousness to give depth of reality to the world of the play. The costumes, also, by Mr Hankin, with assistance from Georgia Hopkins, are highly personalised for each of the characters and have a veracity that is achingly sad in its beauty of detail. Mr Hankin, as with his recent work on DEATHTRAP, in great form.

What furthers the convincing aesthetics of this production is the wonder of the casting of the actors - all appear stunningly right and 'real' for the time and place of the play's circumstances. Add to that, a quality of performance, both individually and ensemble, and a truly great night in the theatre can be had. Andrew Henry, playing Lennie, creates a figure of such pathetic innocence that the inevitable wind of the mechanisms of tragedy become almost unbearable to anticipate and watch - physically, vocally and emotionally the judgement of the choices by this actor are worth the cost of your ticket alone. Supported by Anthony Gooley, playing George, Lennie's guardian and friend, there is revealed a simpatico of the creative energies of these two actors, and it is touchingly powerful, all the more because it is a rarity to see on our stages. Andre de Vanny, as the restless and insecure Curley, makes a special mark with his characterisation whilst all else: Laurence Coy, Christopher Stollery, Anna Houston, Charles Allen, John McNeill, Tom Stokes and Terry Serio (who also creates atmosphere with his guitar) are true and grounded in the storytelling responsibilities that they give.

Mr Sinclair, his work last seen in Sydney being the ill-starred production of MOJO, for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), has lovingly created a production of much deliberate detail of acting and musical pacing of the 'score' of the playwright. He lets the play breathe, take its time. He has the courage to allow the action of the play to develop in the gaps between the words, and the speeches, scenes, of Steinbeck's two act play. The opportunity, then, is unconsciously afforded the audience to endow and identify the characters and the situations they find themselves in, and this permitted opportunity to create with the actors becomes a huge part of the success of the journey in the storytelling. The audience become actively complicit in the events on the stage - we viscerally have been induced to care very personally - the tragedy is ours as well.

Sport for Jove, under the Artistic Directorship of Damien Ryan, once again demonstrates the triumph that great care and a love of the theatre has, as an essential part of our culture, our family humanity. The innate necessity we have as a species to tell stories to explain the world about us. To assure us that we are not alone in this world. It is a company willing to share around that medium's responsibilities to create the work with equal value. It seems all the collaborators, in this work, have been given equal opportunity and respect to make a contribution to the production, and daringly, invite the audience to be part of that creativity. The writer appears to be in a god-like centrality to the inspiration of the company. Respected, not used. Not ever abused. Where other organisations in Sydney have veered off the path of audience appreciation and artistic respect, Sport for Jove consistently presents work that is innovative and yet accessible. Loving and loved. Rewarding. Rewarding for the audience and it seems for the artists.

Spend your money wisely and go to the Reginald to see the best work on stage in Sydney at the moment.

Interesting that the Seymour Centre has housed the two most exciting, consistent Performing companies under its roof: Sport for Jove and Squabbalogic - more power to their recognition. It would be great for the funding bodies to view their record and support, don't you think? GROUNDED in the Reginald season, this year, is certainly the next best thing I have seen in the theatre this year so far.

The writing in this play is a master class of plot construction and character development. One leant into the ear of a friend watching during the tremendous applause of thanks at the conclusion of this performance and said: "I wonder how many of our young Australian playwrights have read this play?" Whatever one might debate about the content of the play (which, for me, is humanistically a triumph of values, always relevant), the CRAFT is fundamental and not often seen enough in our contemporary playwriting. Mr Sinclair is an associate artist and resident dramaturg for Playwriting Australia, I hope he has encouraged his would-be craftsmen and women/artists to see this play and to read it. To read the masters of the past, to study the masters of the past, and so stand on the shoulders of their greatness. Build from those who have gone before - they have made, believe it or not, invented 'the wheel' already!

P.S. There is in this production a real dog on the stage. I note, amused, that many other commentators of this production have made mention of it. Here is mine. The reality of this dog, gave me an unequivocal entrance point to believe in what I was watching, what was going on. This dog was all that the other characters said it was - smelly and old - method acting at its best!? It was, I am sure, the live duck in THE WILD DUCK at Belvoir, even behind that glass box, a few years ago - truly convicted it was a bewildered duck, I thought - that helped me embrace that production, and why, perhaps, I didn't buy into THE DAPTO CHASER at the SBW Stables as much as others - a mimed dog is no emotional substitute for the real thing, I reckon. Something serious to ponder. I am sure the necessity of a live sheep in Sam Shepard's CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, is hindrance to its been seen regularly, if at all. I shudder to imagine what we may see in the upcoming Edward Albee's THE GOAT or WHO IS SYLVIA?

Ha, ha.

The Ishmael Club

bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company in association with Red Line Productions presents THE ISHMAEL CLUB, by Bill Garner and Sue Gore, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, 8 July - 18 July.

THE ISHMAEL CLUB by Bill Garner and Sue Gore, is an Australian play from Melbourne. The Ishmael Club was a bohemian pledge made by a group of intoxicated young Melbourne artists in the early years of the last century, (there was a mention of Louis Esson, Australian Playwright and Dreamer of an Australian National Theatre, that arrested my attention early in the play). The play was inspired by a 1906 photograph of Norm and Bill and his brothers in the authors' backyard in St Kilda.

Ishmael, according to Brewer's Dictionary of Myth and Fable, was an outcast:
And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against everyman, and every man's hand against him.  – Genesis XVI, 12.
From the program notes by the writers:
Our Ishmael bohemians are self-proclaimed outsiders with a dismissive regard for 'suburbanites' (the bourgeois) familiar to us today. In the play Norm argues for the superiority of the great male artist over women and everyone else. It is an absolute commitment to 'higher art', a self-defining position for which he will sacrifice everything. As a member of the Ishmael Club, Bill, too, is an elitist - but he is also a serious socialist, a lover of the mob. And he insists that Ruby deserves respect as an artist.
What was best about this play, for me, was to realise that the artist called Norm was a portrait of Norman Lindsay - the artist arguing art for art's sake; that Ruby was the artist Ruby Lind - sister to Norman and wife of Bill; and that Bill was Will Dyson - an internationally famous political artist (cartoonist) working consistently with/for art as a tool for political change, who found solace ( and grief) in the traditions of the 'suburbanites' i.e.marriage and family and thus a double 'rub' to the ideals/prejudices of Norm.

I knew nothing of Will Dyson and so am now the richer for the play's introduction (I have, consequently researched him further). I knew nothing, too, of Ruby Lind - a female artist, a victim of her time's prejudices towards women and talent. And I learned more of Norman Lindsay and his cruel 'zealotry' than I wanted to know (once having played Lindsay, aeons ago, in an ABC television program about J.F. Archibald, the editor of The Bulletin. Yes, he of the Archibald Art Prize and the Hyde Park fountain.)

The production working within the set of the Old Fitz theatre's main show (MEN) is Directed by Suzanne Millar of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company. The extra setting details seem unnecessary and are mostly unconvincing for the many places the text takes us to. And unfortunately, the Director has permitted her actors to mistake energy and loud noise as the primary means of communication which off-sides some of the audience's ability to enter, empathise, with the goings-on of the authors' intentions.

Richard Hilliar, is best, and his Bill, eventually, in the action of the play, is able to capture our sympathies, abetted by the work of Amy Scott-Smith as Ruby, in a relatively underwritten task. Jasper Garner Gore as Norman is an austere figure wracked by jealousy, wrath and a heightened sense of betrayal underlining his selfish social and personal hypocrisies. The performance tends to be 'heady' and one longs for an insight into a vulnerable 'backstory' and so becomes, exists, in performance, a touch two-dimensionally. Katrina Rautenberg, playing Mrs Maggia, has a chorus like function that mostly eludes her and our belief - more help from the Director may have assisted.

THE ISHMAEL CLUB, less a play than a creative doco in the hands of this company. It was, apparently, nominated for six Green Room Awards in Melbourne. One could not see that kind of Kudos in this production. Ms Millar must bear the differences, it seems. It was the documentary interest that has made this work a gain for me to have seen.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Dapto Chaser

Apocalypse Theatre Company and Griffin Independent presents, THE DAPTO CHASER, by Mary Rachel Brown, at the SBW Theatre, Kings Cross, Sydney, 1-25 July.

THE DAPTO CHASER is a new Australian play by Mary Rachel Brown. It was commissioned by Illawarra's Merrigong Theatre Company, in 2011. Dapto, a suburb of Wollongong, has a 'famous' greyhound race track. The play concerns a family, the Sinclair's, and their greyhound connections, ambitions and dreams.

Horse racing is known as the Sports of Kings - presumably relating to the cost to engage in such a sport. The racing of dogs, greyhounds, is, mainly, in Australia, the domain of the 'working man', offering the 'competitor-minded poor' with the possibility, the dream of finding wealth through its practice. The Sinclair family: Errol (Danny Adcock), Jimmy (Jamie Oxenbould) and Cess (Richard Sydenham) have, at last, found a dog of promise, 'A Boy Named Sue', and have lavished care, a kind of love, to the pursuit of that nirvana, hope. Errol dies and the two sons discover that the family is in deep debt - literally their fortunes have 'gone to the dogs' - not even enough money to bury dead dad, and that their only prospect to do so is to sell their dog to the family nemesis, Arnold Penny (Noel Hodda), one of the officials (stewards) of the local track. The play is about family, money, gambling, addiction, dogs and the desperation of poverty.

Says Ms Brown:
I don't believe in the old adage about only writing what you know about. I think you should find out what you're interested in and write what you care about. What got me was the sense of family and loyalty among these men and women to each other to the sport and to their dogs (although there are no women in the play - but, 4 men and an invisible dog). When you line that up with the pressure of gambling and the financial high stakes, you have the potential for real drama." [1]. She headed to the Dapto Greyhound Racing Club : "I hung out there for a few weeks. I drank with them and gambled with them. People would ask, why are you a woman, writing a play about this world? But for me, it really was a unique experience. Just being a woman in my late 30's, hanging with a bunch of old blokes who weren't my relatives. How often does a girl get to do that? It was really fun. [1]
The play is a relative routine melodrama in structure, peopled with some cliched observations of these men in a fairly contrived set of situations. The dialogue is redolent with 'ockerisms of Aussie' speech that sounded self-conscious in its striving for veracity and comedy. It may have needed more than 'a few weeks' for Ms Brown to have captured the vocabulary and musicalities of the community she was meeting and studying.

The production, on the other hand, has some sincere and affectionate layerings from all of the actors, all creatively 'dressing' these caricatures with the trappings of real people (the inventive courage of the Australian actor at work with a text that I felt was not really accurate, 'true'), with Mr Oxenbould, particularly, arresting, in a beautifully controlled 'character' performance of some dimension as put upon Jimmy. The actors, here, making a very fine and necessary contribution for the success of the production.The Director, Glynn Nicholas, says he is a pedant for mime, and has the dog of the play, 'a vital fifth character', mimed by the actors to bring it to life - it became, for me, a little over-imposed a 'trick', and an uncomfortable distraction in the realities of all else in the look of this production, for the Design, both Set and Costume, by Georgia Hopkins, had the power of the 'truth' of suburban poverty - the worn carpet and the dirty chair - that kept me inside the evening in the theatre. (Mr Hopkins has made a substantial and consistent Design input to her work on the Sydney scene, I note her work on the recent, THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA and BOOK OF DAYS.) The bleak Lighting Design by Toby Knyvett adding greatly to the affect.

I am out of step with most of the reaction to THE DAPTO CHASER, and I recommend that you check out Stage Noise with Diana Simmonds or Eight Nights a Week, from Jason Blake, to get the enthusiastic point-of-view. I was hugely disappointed and only a little engaged with the play, but then my mother's family, Irish-Australian dreamers, were greyhound dog owners, and I, as a kid, was part of the training regime of my Uncles' dogs - I even remember travelling to Richmond, Dapto and Bulli in the back of the 'shaggin' waggon' with the dogs, to race and train, after a long night/morning of washing taxis at a garage in Bondi Junction. We never had a  good enough dog that ever got us to Wentworth Park. My Uncle's dogs never made any money but we had lots of dog 'friends'. The recent scandals concerning the training of the dogs, in the Greyhound Racing Industry, have a very long history of action. I remember.

Go, see THE DAPTO CHASER and judge for yourself.


1. "Greyhound comedy goes to the dogs." Interview article, by Elissa Blake - Sydney Morning Herald, July 3, 2015.

Monday, July 6, 2015


Photo by Keith Saunders 

Pinchgut Opera present BAJAZET, by Antonio Vivaldi (1735), at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, 4, 5, 7 & 8 July, 2015.

Pinchgut Opera presents, BAJAZET, an Italian Opera, music by Antonio Vivaldi, Libretto by Agostino Piovene, first performed in Verona in 1735. This is this opera's first performance in the Southern Hemisphere. Pinchgut Opera, a Sydney company, have since 2008, presented Baroque Opera at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place. This is the second year that it has presented two productions in a year. BAJAZET, is the first of 2015, and in December, Andre Gretry's L'AMANT JALOUS (The Jealous Lover) will be given.

The plot of BAJAZET, is, generally, today, a contemporary nonsense, but its concerns are of the familiar pressures of sex, love, power and social status and rule its activities and the concerns of the libretto. It seems nothing core has fundamentally changed in human interactions, and so give, even in this archaic form, some 'contemporary' grasps for us to engage with its dramatic thrusts. It is the music sounds that we essentially, are there for, anyway, isn't it? Though, despite the contemporary silliness of the dramatic convolutions, the performances, Directed by Thomas De Mallet Burgess, do build to some intensity as the work proceeds. Mr De Mallet Burgess, even with some gratuitous and overstated sexual 'games' (Irene and Tamerlano consummating on a table top!), moves the work, generally, with some elegance and discreet skill - the stage performers: Luke Middlebrook, Kathleen Coghill, and Blake Feltis, and the Lighting by Matthew Marshall manages to keep the work focused and fluid in a pleasingly forward manner - the opera is never static or dull. More attention to the details of period custom (especially social status and manners of the chosen period) would, I feel, give the production a tidier and tighter tension, that would be more useful for the storytelling, than the present 'impulse' work of the singer/actors. Set in another period other than that of the original, the Design of Set and Costume by Alicia Clements, with assistance from Elizabeth Gadsby, supports our belief in the action on the stage.

However, the quintessential reason to attend BAJAZET is to hear the music and the singing. It is an exciting, occupying triumph of refined musicality. The work is played in two acts here, rather than in the original three act construct. The Conductor, Erin Helyard, has a muscular but sweeping delicacy of control of the score and draws from the Orchestra of the Antipodes, employing many period instruments to refine the sound of the score and to 'pitch' it truer to the 'authentic' that the modern instruments could not do, is a brilliant engaging experience from start to finish. The disciplined response of his orchestra strikes one from the first moment and is maintained thrillingly for almost three hours of total thraldom. The score in the hands and skill of these musicians seems to grow and develop with gathering sophistication and impact and has many, many moments of exquisite beauty.

Pinchgut Opera has assembled a marvellous cast for this production and under the nurturing and tutelage of Mr Helyard rise to transporting heights of the communication of music - 'the art or science of combining vocal and instrument sounds of orchestra to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion'. Christopher Lowrey, an American counter tenor, sings the villain of the piece, Tamelano, with emotional and sexual physical swagger, and is balanced by the thrilling and mature stature and fully embodied sound of mezzo soprano, Helen Sherman, singing Irene, the scorned Princess of Trebisond. The 'toys' (goodies) of the piece, Asteria, sung by Emily Edmonds, and Andronico, sung by counter tenor, Russell Harcourt, give as good as they get, and musically more than hold their ground in the dramatics of the score. While Hadleigh Adams, as Bajazet, adds an unusual sound as a bass baritone in the Baroque Opera repertoire, and creates a figure of torment and heroism of some masculine power. Sara Macliver, as Idaspe, an unrequited and undeclared aspirant for the love of Andronico, seizes the attention and admiration of the audience with her blossoming soprano reaches. All in all, as aria after aria is sung, the quality of the singing seems to grow and grow in prowess and musical passion. There are no languors.

This early opera is not for the beginner usually, but my companion was hearing only his fifth opera ever, and certainly his first Baroque Opera, and was held spellbound in the wonder of this new world that he was being introduced to. The time, he said, collapsed into euneirophrenia - a peace of mind after a pleasant dream - and he was amazed that he had spent so long a period of time, immersed, with such concentration. Music as therapy-  nothing new to those of us who seek it out - music, that is.

I urge you all to seek out BAJAZET and keep attention for that later December season of the French work, L'AMANT JALOUS. PInchgut Opera does not receive any Government Funding and is dependent on the audience to continue its practice - this company, on the display of last night (and other works, I have seen) is one of the 'Gems' of the Sydney Arts Scene and ought not to be missed, or lost.

This opera is known as a pasticcio - it was common practice to compile arias from other composers with one's own work for an opera. In this case there are some six arias 'filched' from other composers of the time: Germiniano Giacomelli, Johann Adolf Hasse and Riccardo Broschi. In BAJAZET Vivaldi has composed the arias of the 'good' characters and used other composers for the 'villains'. For instance, the most famous aria (Cecilia Bartoli has given it attention) : Sposa, son disprezzato (I am wife and I am scorned), sung by the villainous character, Irene, is by Germiniano Giacometti, from his opera La Merope (1734). Vivaldi, the youngest son of a poor family was entered into the priesthood, as was the custom, and began to compose for the female music ensemble of the Ospendale della Pieta - an orphanage. He became a famous musician, violinist, travelled and worked in the Royal Court of Vienna, but with his patronage lost in the turmoils of European politics, returned to Italy and became a composer of opera but died a pauper. His work was virtually re-discovered in the early twentieth century, when some of his scores were found amongst the work of Bach. The Four Seasons, is his most famous work, and today he is regarded as one of the greatest of Baroque composers. He was known as 'The Red Priest', presumably, for the colour of his hair - there is a play by Canadian, Mieko Ouchi, of that title, that was interesting to read for background. His nick name may not have been for his hair colour. Certainly, the sexual politics of BAJAZET might suggest personal experiences and preoccupations, might they not?

Avenue Q

LCW presents, Avenue Q - The Musical, at the Enmore Theatre, Enmore Rd, Enmore, 2 July - 15 July.

AVENUE Q, Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks, Book by Jeff Whitney, based on the original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks, is back in Sydney, under the banner of a new Production Company: Luke Wesley and LCW, at the Enmore Theatre, for a very short stay. I recommend that you go. The 'blues' of the day will spin away for the time that you spend in the theatre, for sure.

First seen in the USA in March, 2003, Off-Broadway, it moved onto Broadway in October of that year and stayed for 2,534 performances. It won three Tony Awards - including Best Musical - and, after closing in September, 2009 on Broadway, re-opened a month later in another Off-Broadway space: The New World Stages, and is still going! This is a show that audiences love, love, love. This LCW incarnation of AVENUE Q is not the first production of this musical seen in Sydney. If you haven't seen it, go, and if you have seen it, go again, This time it is Directed by Jo Turner (he recently gave us another old Broadway hit, DEATHTRAP), and it is just as charming, topical, and abrasively funny, as ever.

The show has three human characters and eleven puppet characters, and is set in Avenue Q, a not-so-smart part of New York city with a neighbourhood of young fledgling adults finding their way in the real world. There are more than shadows of Sesame Street in this show - although there is no claim of similarity - both in setting and characters. The whip-smart Book and Lyrics deal with the time of generational growth that these characters, having moved from childhood, when and where they were told they were "special ' and "you can do anything", to the adulthood reality of a need to look for a "purpose",  imbued with the slow dawning that maybe: "It sucks to be Me".  A metaphor between the Sesame make-believe world of childhood fancy and that of the Avenue Q reality. Most of us have had that surprising jolt, journey.

Jo Turner, in his program notes tells us; "...Q feels every bit as fresh, contemporary and funny as it must have in 2003". I saw the show in 2003, on Broadway, and I can confirm that what Mr Turner has said is true of the Enmore stage adventure. The show in its own inimical way deals with racism (Everyone's a little bit racist), Pornography (The internet is for porn), adulthood (What to do with a BA in English), homosexuality (If you were gay; My girlfriend who lives in Canada) and Schadenfreude (Schadenfreude), indeed, the full breadth of early adulthood experience - watch out for the alcohol drinking contest with Long Island Teas followed by very active puppet sex in  Princeton's apartment with Kate, later (You can be as loud as the hell you want), an idea coming from two characters (my favourites) The Bad Idea Bears!

This show is for adults. It is no surprise to note that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, the creators of the musical THE BOOK OF MORMON, have drafted Robert Lopez, the conceptualiser and lyricist of this show, as a co-writer of book and lyrics for their's. (THE BOOK OF MORMON is opening in Australia in 2017 - a full six - six years - after the Broadway showing began! Don't you feel Australia is in the vortex of the here-and-now that the rest of the world is in? NOT. Where, oh, where is the Harry M. Miller of these days? Maybe, Mr Wesley and LCW?).

The puppet actors are visible manipulators of the puppet character and it is part of the creative 'magic' of the show that we participate in this suspension of 'disbelief' to make the show work. The show in that way is inter-active - ha! This company of performers are great, and tireless. Matthew Predny, as Princeton and Rod, is terrific, Madeline Jones, as Kate Monster and Lucy T Slut, equally impressive, and boy, can they sing. But all of this team are in tune with the spirit of the show in an amazing way. Justin Smith (a human, Brian), Nicholas Richard (Nicky, Trekkie), Rowena Vilar (as human, Christmas Eve), Shauntelle Benjamin (a human, Gary Coleman), Julia Dray (Mrs T, Girl Bad Idea Bear) Owen Little (Boy, and Bad Idea Bear), Kimberly Hodgson (Nightmare Kate) and Riley Sutton (Nightmare Princeton and Newcomer.)

Leading the band, playing this Tony Award winning score, is Shannon Brown, with all the canny confidence that the lanky brashness and charmingly melodic music score, allows.  The Enmore Theatre is not necessarily a comfortable stage space for a musical, but the Set and Costuming controlled by Cat Raven is enough to assist our engagement, although the Lighting by Ross Graham is not always amenable. Puppets are by Promotechnics and are seductive, brought to life by the company of actors, with Puppetry and Movement Director, Alice Osborne, in charge.

A really guaranteed fun night out. It will give your winter night a beautiful glow of pleasure and more than a few laugh-out-loud memories. Go, I reckon. There are two ice cream parlours near by, worth hunting out, too - a fitting topper to the fun of AVENUE Q.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Egarr and The Golden Age

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present EGARR AND THE GOLDEN AGE, at the Concert Hall, in the Sydney Opera House.

Richard Egarr has been the Music Director of the Ancient Academy of Music since 2006 and is, for a second time, the guest artist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). The sheer ebullient joy, the irrepressible spirit, that Mr Eagarr radiates to the orchestra and audience combined with a keen love of music, especially in his area of expertise, was an added bonus to the expectant pleasure of being at an ACO concert once again. One never leaves an ACO concert in any mood but exaltation, so it was with this concert of The Golden Age, the last of this Australian tour, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House.

Mr Egarr began with a selection of short pieces from Henry Purcell's THE FAIRY QUEEN, some of the 'incidental music' he wrote to accompany Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, in 1692. To some, it beguiles one into a deep memory of Englishness, to those hearing it for the first time it could be a gossamer revelation of gentle beauty. I remember way back in 1971(?), hearing and seeing this work presented musically, in full form, by Roger Covell with his orchestra and singers, with the play staged by Aubrey Mellor, using the second year National Institute of Dramatic Arts (Angela Punch and Andrew McFarlane, two of the actors),on the campus of the University of New South Wales.

To follow was a short work (5 minutes) by William Lawes: FANTASY [No.1] from Consort Set in 6 parts in C major (c. 1635-41). It is a complex and relatively dour piece, written for the Caroline court. For most of the audience it was an introduction to a new composer, that Charles I, on hearing of his death on the battlefield, at the Siege of Chester, named him "the Father of Musik', which was part of the delight of Mr Egarr who has declared: "It is one of my absolute desert-island pieces ... it is sublime, complex, passionate and utterly English." The contrast between the Purcell post-Cromwell work, and this pre-Cromwellian work, could not have had more starkness for the ear and our sensibility.

To finish the first half of the concert we heard  CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN IN A MINOR, BWV1041 (c. 1717-23) From the program notes: "In this conventionally three-movement, Venetian-type concerto, the central movement is flanked by two fast outer movements. ..." The violin solo part was taken by Satu Vanska exquisitely, and she seemed to be channeling the inspiration of the composer directly, with a profound and transformative physicalisation in the 'feeling' of her way through the music. The second movement:Un poco Adagio, her playing was a sublime thing. It was a most wonderful thing to participate with - to hear.

After the interval two works by Joseph Haydn. The first was CONCERTO FOR KEYBOARD IN D MINOR, Hob.XVIII:11 (c.1780-3?) On a period pianoforte (the work could be played on harpsichord as well), Mr Egarr gave a captivating performance. The piano sounds were immensely diminuendo, soft and graceful to the ear. Two oboes and two valveless horns were part of the orchestration - giving a sense of period and authenticity to the sounds. Influenced by the then fashion for Hungarian Gypsy music, it was written for the Esterhazy court of Vienna. Sitting in the Concert Hall, listening to such complicated and sophisticated music around the corner, and up the street, within walking distance of where the first fleet under the command of Governor Philip had - a little time after the composition of this work for the Austrian Empire - its primitive buildings, tents and convict settlement. One is struck by the contrasts of culture and the idiosyncrasies of time, through time. It is a wonder! (this work was made more arresting after, a short, amusing introduction to the period keyboard, the second of the concert, and its 'tricks', from an amused but informative Mr Egarr.)

To finish: SYMPHONY NO.44 IN E MINOR, HOB.I:44 'TRAUERSINFONIE' (c. 1771?). Mr Eagarr introduced this work as ' a head-banger' of its period and invited us to 'Hold onto our seats.' "It is," from the program notes by Anthony Cane, " in many ways the crowning achievement among many intense and stormy works Haydn wrote as he approached middle age. ... ." It is has been conveniently labelled one of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) compositions (nothing to do with the literature movement known under this banner - it came a little later.)

As an encore, after a tumultuous and warm 'strum' of applause Mr Eagarr and the brilliantly alert and 'happy' ACO gave an encore of some Mozart. The buzz of satisfaction murmured throughout the Hall and into the foyer, and out onto the street as we moved down to Circular Quay, where once in 1788 The First Settlement landed, was loud and joyous. In amongst that 'present time' and 'past time' contemplation I wondered when first did this primitive colony hear the Haydn for the first time.

Thanks to The ACO, again. Life can be sometimes great, in these tense times, in 2015. Music, that magic mode.