Wednesday, December 30, 2015

King Lear

Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present, KING LEAR, by William Shakespeare at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 28 November - 8 January, 2016.

KING LEAR. Not another HAMLET. KING LEAR. Yippee!

1603. The ancient Virgin Queen is dying and she has tactically avoided naming an heir. The English Government, and hence her people, fear civil war if she has not - a divided kingdom of clamouring claimants. She has lost so many teeth she is difficult to understand and, so, when she lost her speech altogether those that tended her asked her for a sign that if she intended that the King of Scotland, James VI, (a Protestant), the son of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic), was to succeed her. According to the legend we have handed down to us, she reached and touched her head - it was thought it meant she would be succeeded by one who already wore a crown. Just before three o'clock in the morning on the 24 March, 1603, Gloriana passed. At 10 am on March 24 the first proclamation of the new sovereign - which referred firmly 'to the undoubted right' of James to succeed - was read at Whitehall Gate, then by the High Cross in Cheapside an hour later, and finally at the Tower of London, by her chief minister Robert Cecil (the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who had died in 1598).
James the sixth king of Scotland is now by the death of our late Soveraigne, Queen of England of famous memoire, become also our Onely, Lawfull, Lineall and Rightful Liege Lord, James the first of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith.
Official word did not reach Scotland for five days but James, already, was aware, when it did arrive. Robert Carey, Elizabeth's cousin, endeavouring to seek favour with the new regime, on confirmation of Elizabeth's death, bluffing his way through the closed gates of London, and on a sequence of pre-planned horses, left London, between eight and nine on Thursday morning and arrived in Edinburgh on Saturday - despite an accident which bloodied his head, when he was thrown by one of his mounts. He had taken a ring belonging to Lady Scroope, supposedly thrown to him from a window at Richmond by her, a ring that James had once sent her and asked that it be returned to him only when Elizabeth was dead.

From Carey's diary:
The king was newly gone to bed by the time I knocked at the gate. I knelt by him and saluted him with his title, "England, Scotland, France, and Ireland.' He gave me his hand to kiss and bade me welcome. After he had long discoursed of the manner of the Queen's sickness, and of her death, he asked, what letters I had from the Privy Council. I told him None and acquainted him how I narrowly escaped from them. And yet I brought him a blue ring from a Lady that I hoped would give him assurance of the truth I reported. He took it, and looked upon it and said, 'It is enough. I know by this you are a true messenger.
On 15 March 1604, the new royal couple, James and his wife Anne, made procession through the streets of London, from the Tower to Westminster. He was crowned King. The Crown Imperial, that seven-pound marvel of gold, jewels, pearl, English antiquity, and glory, first cast by Henry VII and worn by all successive monarchs was on his head: James I. From MAJESTIE, by David Teems:
Losing little time, in a gesture that was advanced for its time, James called three conferences in 1604. One would end a twenty-year war with Spain (the Somerset House Conference). Another called for the union of Scotland and England. A third was on the matter of religion. His bid for the union didn't take. It was an English parliament and even without the xenophobia, the resistance was too strong and too old. When they denied his request for union, James did what he did often. He ignored them. He then proclaimed himself 'by kingly power and prerogative the name and style of King of Great Britain'. Like the legendary Arthur, he was determined to 'embrace under one name the whole circuit of the island.' He had signets made with the rose and thistle intertwined, the rose of England and the thistle of Scotland. He combined the flags of Scotland and England, the St. Andrew with the St. George, to create what is often called the Union Jack (named for himself), the flag of Great Britain to this day. He had a twenty-shilling gold piece minted that was to be called the Unite. Its motto: Faciam eos in genome nam (I shall make them one nation). [1]
Trailing behind the royal family, in procession, on the day of the coronation, believe it or not, were William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Philips and other actors in their troupe. Going back, gently, in time: James arrived at his palace in Greenwich for the first time on 13 May 1603. Six days later, on 19 May, letters patent were issued making the 'Lord Chamberlain's Men' the 'King's Men.' Within a week of arriving in London in the heat of all his other obligations James the first of England made this patent allowing Shakespeare and his companions to perform as 'well for the recreation of our loving subjects, as for our solace and pleasure when we shall think it good to see them ... within their now usual house called The Globe, as well as all other towns and boroughs in the kingdom.' Actors had enjoyed noble patronage before but never royal. Not until now. And not only that, but they were appointed Grooms of the Chamber, obligated to wear the royal livery - the red doublet, hose,and cloak.  Shakespeare was placed first in the list, by the Master of the Great Wardrobe, for receiving 4 1/2 yards of scarlet cloth for his uniform.  James may have been seeking solace from his 'King's Men' but he was also looking for a vehicle of propaganda to his people and no one could do them Kings like Shakespeare. A new foundation was being laid over an old one.[1]

Jumping forward in time again, four days after his coronation, James addressed his first English parliament and in making his case for Union, drew upon the same stories that Shakespeare had been telling in his plays dealing with the divisive War of the Roses not resolved until Henry VII united the two Houses of Lancaster and York: 'Do we not yet remember, that this kingdom was divided into seven little kingdoms, besides Wales? And is it not the stronger by its union? ... God has made us all one island, compassed with one sea, and of itself by nature so indivisible...'. He climaxed his long speech recasting this political problem as a family one: "What God hath joined then, let no man separate. I am the husband, and all the whole isle is my lawful wife. I am the head, and it is my body. I am the shepherd, and it is my flock. I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable to think that I that am a Christian king under the Gospel, should be a polygamist and husband to two wives.'[1]

James, the first, was serious and Shakespeare and his men had best start to get to work for him, and with the king comparing the challenge of political union to working out family problems it would not be much of a stretch for dramatists to give family crises a political edge. Shakespeare's KING LEAR, beginning with the act of a father dividing a kingdom amongst his family, and then showing some of the heinous, possible consequences to the family royal and to the kingdom at large, itself, maybe some 'fop' to fulfilling his master's intentions - creating the required propaganda. But, of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare did much more than that and created one of the grimmest of tragedies to reverberate in the universe of human consciousness, far beyond the venal (if not also visionary) needs of a mere king and his ambitions.

KING LEAR is hardly fare of good cheer for a Christmas or the start of a New Year night out, in Sydney (or anywhere else). It is, however, a great 'thing' for those of us ruminating on the behaviour of our species, the homo sapiens, at the beginning of a new century of our 'recorded' history, in anticipating the future of us all. Of, even, the planet earth, itself.

To talk of this production I need to say I was fortunate enough to be sitting in D row of the stalls at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. For, when I declared my excitement about what I was watching with friends in the interval and afterwards, it became clear that there was some enormous difficulty for audience in the latter half of the stalls and in the upstairs circle. For those sitting there, the production, the playing, was a bafflement and one of irritating effort - some perforce, just gave up and endured it all, grumpily. They could not hear to follow what was happening, and this is in despite that the company of actors were electronically assisted with personalised radio-mics. In my snobbery, I could insist to ask what preparation had they made to perceive the play - but then, should that be a necessity, rather isn't it a personal penchant, a superfluity of effort to do such a thing? Some do say, have said. Just what is wrong with the Roslyn Packer auditorium? Is there anything wrong with it, besides all those stairs? Its acoustics? I am just asking for information. Anybody have friends (or self) having any difficulty in there?

KING LEAR is a massive phenomenon in of itself - it is a tremendously BIG play of ideas, human idiosyncrasies and human frailties, behaviours. It concerns two families. It deals with the relationships between father and daughters. Fathers and sons. Husbands and wives. States and states. And the personae that serve them and it. We know of all of them, those concerns are in our own lives, too. This play touches us all deeply and knowingly, and often with near unbearable insight.

As well, this production by Neil Armfield and his Designers: Set, Robert Cousins; Costumes, Alice Babidge; Lighting, Nick Schlepper; Music Composition, John Rogers (Simon Baker, Phillip Slater) - even to some Wagnerian Ring Cycle-like brass  - is, also, a massive concept in of itself. This play and this production is not for 'groundlings' just seeking entertainment. Much more, by both play and production, is being asked. I am not sufficient to talk of the strength and weaknesses of Shakespeare's work - I remain in a kind of cowed awe, as per usual. Of Mr Armfield's work, too, I am in awe, although on the opening night, when I saw it, it seemed to be not yet a whole. The actors seemed to be still finding the measure of the space and how to command it with Shakespeare's language and physical biddings for the proficient telling of their part for the play's best impact, within the huge concept, actuality, of the design. The first act a basic black walled box that flies in and out, with a jet engine fan of a storm with heavy rain effects, narrowing down to a 'cave' space, contrasted spectacularly in the second half with a James Turrell-like vacuum of white light hazed space - the interior of a crazed mind?! It seems to me that most productions of Lear lose their bearings in the storm scene - it was here, too, on this night, where the play kinda disappeared in clarities, for a long while - so much going on with Shakespeare's language wafting and warping in the noises of the 'storm' and body-surfing of the mad Tom, in the puddling stage - mad indeed. Some might say, maddening.

Certainly, otherwise, I was fairly pleased that every actor, from the leading figures to the supporting players knew what they meant, and how it fitted into the great scheme of the plotting - word by word and in the immense sweeping verses. The dramaturgical clarity of the theme of Shakespeare's poetics, such as in the use of the word "nothing", and the collective weight of the imaging of the importance of "sight" and "sightlessness" throughout the text, of equivocation, and madness, of villainy and unspeakable violence, and the seething sexual sado-mascochism of friends and foes was easy to appreciate. The production was probably clearer in the rehearsal room without the pyrotechnics of the Set, Costumes, Light and Sound to complicate stuff, I might suppose, guess.

To begin with the best:

Geoffrey Rush was magnificent as Lear. The craft skills were spectacular to be with, the vocal attack and power (though once or thrice, too fast) startling, enhanced by laser-like focus and tactful effort in subsuming the emotional identifications and deeply mined truths in the great arc of the demands of Shakespeare's king/man. Driven with a vision of the role, Mr Rush possessed it with a grip of majestic control, a force of creative craft, ripe for the task, that exposed the ART of being a poor player strutting and fretting on the stage as our surrogate for great confrontations and 'horrible' revelations about humanity at its basest. This was a great performance (from Row D, at least.)

Helen Buday, as Goneril, amazing, every moment of active thought, physical gesture and held presence, bristling with clues beneath its surface calm, decisive and apparently spontaneous in its actions. The speaking of text and mastery of voice immaculate in its euphonic affect to our senses and ears, combined with a listening stillness that was electrifying. It was hard to shift focus from her when she was on stage. Mr Rush was her equal but no-one else much, least of all, Ms Thomson's usual, unsurprising 'sexed-up' reading of her role, Regan.

Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar/Mad Tom, clear in his character construction and off the richter-scale in his daring to deliver to us a contemporary image of goodness and desperation - I have never thrilled to an Edgar before this - such an Edgar! Jacek Koman was the dignified epitome of a loyal and reliable (patient) Kent - steadfast, a stilled eye in the centre of the storm, helpless and/but there when needed. Wade Briggs brought some real sureness and visual sophistication to his many tasks, particularly, the King Of France, but principally Oswald, in the editing of his work in the play script.
Nick Masters, Alan Dukes, Eugene Gilfedder, Colin Moody too, all vital to their contribution to the storytelling.

However, Eryn Jean Norvill was bland, wan, in her 'modish' reading of Cordelia and hardly engendered a presence, let alone an empathy for us to comprehend the unjustness of Cordelia's position and treatment either at the start of the play or at its end.

It is a pity that Mr Armfield edited out the first hundred or so lines to the opening of the play, where Shakespeare introduces the sub-plot of the over-cocky Gloucester and his scheming bastard son, Edmund. For Meyne Wyatt, as Edmund, then had to play to an audience with his first great speech; "Thou, nature, art my goddess ..." (it reminiscent of the Richard III invitation to board his roller-coaster journey of villainy: "Now is the winter of our discontent ... " at the start of that play) without everyone knowing who he was or how he fitted into the jigsaw of the Lear deconstruction of the world with his daughters - for some of us, it was a breathless chase to catch-up, fathom, every time Edmund appeared as to what was going on, and certainly, the uncertainty of an uncomfortable, unsteady, Max Cullen as Gloucester, his father, was no aid to the smoothing of clarity to this most important, textually enhancing sub-plot to its principle one of Lear and his daughters. Mr Wyatt was extremely interesting to wrestle with, with his choices - an original and brave take of the role.

A theatre friend has suggested to me that the opening of any of Shakespeare's plays should not be tampered with. Trust Shakespeare knows what he is doing, he says - I tend, with less knowledge, to agree. The recent Bell Shakespeare, even the Cumberbatch HAMLET, tinkered with that play's opening, dramatic set-up, and undermined the power of the dramaturgy, let alone its theatrical invention, so, too, here with Mr Armfield's tampering with Act 1, Scene 1, of KING LEAR.

This production began with a Marilyn Monroeesque figure, stalking out of the gloom of the black-box set to a micro-phone dead centre on the stage edge and then singing, with consummate cheek, a pastiche of the famous Kennedy Happy Birthday song (words altered to suit a King rather than President) accompanied by a live boom-crash sound, for only, at its end, for this age-haunted figure to pull off her Marilyn coiffured wig, to reveal a white-haired, glittering-eyed mocker, with a Mo-like snigger that brawled out a noise that signified a: "Gotcha" - a great moment in the theatre - I felt, a coup de theatre - that alas, was never topped in its bravura again in this production, and it seems, on reflection, to have been a false start, a false promise of insightful cheek of contemporary style for this King Lear, and was, ultimately, only a superfluity of a vain kind.

This was the introduction to Robyn Nevin's Fool. This production dressed in the television Dynasty/Dallas '80's fashion exaggerations, for the some part, has the Fool played by Ms Nevin at what looks-like, an Aussie second-string 'bookie' bloke, in a 'depression-era', ill fitting three piece suit, with hat - the other-sex doppelgänger of her famous Miss Docker from her performance in Patrick White's THE CHEERY SOUL, aeons ago, or, if you have the memory, her Parliamentarian in THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY (there are extant photographs of that production that connect with an unerring straight-line to this invention.) There is wit and some Music Hall physical niftiness from Ms Nevin with this playing to off-stage band effects, but her vocals are unintelligible, mostly, (it seems the breath support of her voice is weak, the 'guts' of the sound missing - the consonants, however, still pinging through her electronic boosting) and we find ourselves wanly smiling at the physical dexterity instead of wondering at the astuteness of this verbal Fool beside his wilful King. It is the allying of the King with his Fool and their verbal jousting that distinguishes the writing of this revolutionary pairing (a King and a Fool) - and its interdependency of the personal trust and mutual understanding of the two lead actors is essential for an unusually intimate and endearing bond - it seems Richard Burbage and Robert Armin had that. It was not so bonded here, I felt.

 In Shakespeare's Company their first star comedian, Will Kemp, famous for his improvisational and physical style, reminiscently suggested by the work and choice's of Ms Nevin and Mr Armfield with the creation of this Fool, had long since left for a solo career, to be then replaced during the latter time of the King's Men, by Robert Armin, a comic more adept with his sardonic wit than physical dexterity (Touchstone, in AS YOU LIKE IT; Feste, in TWELFTH NIGHT, are other examples of the writing Shakespeare was able to fashion for this actor.) It was the role of the Fool in Lear, a role not conceived by Shakespeare before or after, as James Shapiro in his book: 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, tells us which was 'witty, pathetic, lonely, angry and prophetic in turn, a part rich in its quips and snippets of ballads, and the kind of sharp exchanges for which Armin was famous.' In this production we lose most of the wit of the text in Ms Nevin's weak vocal rendition and without that, part of the power of the tragedy of King Lear is undercut. We have a Will Kemp instead of a Robert Armin in Ms Nevin's contribution to Mr Armfield's KING LEAR. The intimacy of relationship between King and Fool is not fully available for the audience. It is this weakness, combined with the blandness of Ms Norvill's Cordelia, that ultimately injures the production and the power of Mr Rush's creation at its tragic climax. No tears were shed at this production's ending. So different to my first memory of this play way back in the Old Tote days, in the Science Theatre, when Ron Graham as Lear, begged for the feathers to move, with her breath, at the dead Cordelia's lips. I was a student in the back of the "gods" and begged for them to move through my streaming tears.

Shakespeare in the time of James' King's Men, was mostly, it seems, retired from acting on the stage. He was able to spend more time on the preparation and writing of the texts. From the evidence of the plays themselves, that we have, this may be so. As well as KING LEAR, this Jacobethan writer wrote MACBETH (King James had a special interest in witches, witchcraft and necromancy, and the Devil - he had written DAEMONOLOGUE in 1597, a three book  dialogue between an enlightened sage and an eager disciple), and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, in around the period of 1606. All three, perhaps to please the propagandising of King James' political interests and ambitions. Imagine the bounty of a King's reign that had such outlasting literature and stage work as these plays of Shakespeare, and this King's other great commission, the verbal beauty of the KING JAMES BIBLE. Unfortunately, the political unification that James so much wanted was not, officially, recognised until almost a full century later in 1707. The religious harmony he also sought, to bring about a unity among all the divisions of Christianity - English, Calvinist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox - because they shared a common heritage, has never, really, been achieved - a kind of tolerance, only.

It would be good for Mr Turnbull and other Ministers of Australia's Parliament to muse on this heritage of James' reign, and its support of the arts, as they cut into our national arts funding - don't you think?  I heard Sir Simon Rattle talking this morning: "A nation loses its art and culture at its own peril." It seems to me the government needs more than 'number-crunchers'/corporate investors to safeguard and drive our societal policies. The human spirit as well as its flesh needs nurturing, I would have thought.

KING LEAR at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, an event of theatre, whatever its supposed waywardnesses, a must for all theatre lovers to have witnessed. I think you must have it in your memory banks and consciousness. A mighty work mightily tackled. Controversial, for me to say so, some will argue. But, I was seated in D Row! Apparently an advantage to other seating!


  1. David Teems, 2010, Majestie: The King Behind The King James Bible, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.

Recommended further reading:

  1. James Shapiro, 2015, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, Faber and Faber. London.
  2. Antonia Fraser, 1996, Faith and Reason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, Doubleday, New York.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Sound of Music

Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group present, THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Music by Richard Rogers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, suggested by "The Trapp Family Singers" by Maria Augusta Trapp. At the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, 17 December - 22 February, 2016.

Alright, this is the first time that I have ever seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC, live. BUT, when I was 17 going on 18, my brother (a sibling only 18 months younger than I) had seen the movie and loved it. It was the paramount reason for NOT wanting to see it, if he loved it, I wouldn't, the internecine rivalry - we shared a bedroom - was acute. Besides, I otherwise reasoned, a film with children, nuns, Nazi's, scenery and lots of singing was not my cup of tea, and was a too obvious crowd pleaser - and it definitely was not 'cool' to have seen it, among my friends. I resisted and resisted for nearly a year - those were the days when a movie might run for years and years in the one cinema - ahhhhh.

However, one day I received my scholarship monies and skipped some lectures and went to the Mayfair Cinema in Castlereagh St, for a clandestine weekday afternoon screening - the Mayfair was where I had seen SOUTH PACIFIC, by-the-way, six times, when I was even younger, and LOVED it. I went to see Julie and the children, I have to confess, 16 times over a six month period - I can't remember if I passed those lecture classes I skipped! I have, of course, seen the movie many, many more times - it is in my DVD collection, of course - I've even been to the Sing-a-Long version at the State Theatre (not costumed, I have to confess). I am a fan. The Robert Wise movie is just so vivacious, exciting and plainly entertaining - and it is where I suddenly paid attention to Eleanor Parker and became a devotee! - who can ever forget on a balcony of the Von Trapp mansion, leaning on a balustrade, wistfully looking at a sunset, when the Baroness says to Georg, "Some where out there is a girl who will never be a nun" - or something like that - I just loved the complicated way she delivered it to rescue, in my eyes, the Baroness from being the 'baddie' in the love triangle with Georg and Maria, and to let us vent, single mindedly, all our 'hate' against Rolf Gruber (what a traitor), and Herr Zeller and his 'gangsters' for leading the Nazi possession of Austria.

So, at the opening night of the live performance of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, last week, the sheer vivacious energy of the audience in the foyer before the performance augured well for what was going to transpire. This is a touring production and the Set Design, by Robert Jones, has been tailored to accommodate those demands (not least, I guess, the cost of the tickets). The Costumes, also by Robert Jones, created a very good affect, as well, because they seemed to be created, conceived, as real clothing, rather than glamorous costume that often is employed in this genre. Alongside the set imagining this gave us a 'real' world to embrace that contrasted well, gave ballast, to the effervescent musical scoring and lyrics of the show.

Assisted by the fluid  and subtle mechanics of the shifting settings of the Set Design I was struck as to how brisk the storytelling in this book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is. The drive of the narrative and the character developments had no 'fat' of sentimentality and presented a clear trajectory of the narrative with its simple complexities with sure and vibrant, almost brusque  strokes. There is no down time in the Book and it allows, opens up, the luxury of the bursting musical scoring of the songs, that permits a kind of rapturous energy and joie de vivre for  us, all, to indulge in. The realities of the visual are plainly balanced by the unrealities of the beauty of the musical sounds.

The songs are so famous, and are, in this production allowed to be uninhibited joyous celebrations of what I grew up to understanding was required for a blissful night in the Musical Theatre. The act one musical catalogue, alone, is made up of some of my favourite theatre songs, including: The Sound of Music, Maria, My favourite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Climb Every Mountain - a treasure-trove. It certainly gives one pause to consider as to what 'genius' can create in this genre, after sitting through so many so-called 'great' musicals of recent times.

The Direction of the acting based on the 2006 London revival, by Jeremy Sams, here re-directed by Gavin Mitford, is tightly focused and easeful, and the casting of this production is, mostly, wonderful.

Amy Lehpamer, as Maria, is all that one could want. The acting is clean and straight forward, with a sophisticated craft supporting her every moment - beautifully balanced - and is accompanied with a surety of vocal ease and delight with the notes and the words of the Rogers and Hammerstein II demands. There appears to be a simple exaltation of joy emanating from her and with such an apparent comfort of performance, Ms Lehpamer delivers to the audience an opportunity to, unconsciously, implicitly, trust the journey she takes us on - I remember the terrific impression she made on me with her work in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, as the uproarious Christine Colgate, a few years ago.

Contrasting to the brightness of touch of Ms Lephamer, is the operatic soaring of Jacqueline Dark as the Mother Abbess, who spectacularly brings a power of sound and gravitas to the famous Climb Every Mountain that closes the first act. Although, one must acknowledge the full chorus of the Nunnery in their contributions, which are full-bodied and serenely bold in their affect throughout the rendering of the score - I note that Dominica Matthews from Opera Australia, as Sister Berthe, is there as well.

The Children, on my night, were well drilled, both musically and character-wise, and enchanting to watch  - I especially enjoyed Louis Fontaine, as Kurt. Include the well hewn talents of Lorraine Bayley, Philip Dodd, Marina Prior and David James, and the contributions of some relatively new artists, such as Stefanie Jones, Du Toit Bredenkamp and the time in the theatre with this well known piece just flew past.

The only misstep was the casting and contribution from Cameron Daddo, as the Captain Georg Von Trapp. Although, it is only a light weight singing demand - virtually, only Edelweiss - this role does require a weight of presence, along with some acting 'chops' of some power to balance all the 'shenanigans' of the others. After all, the vital narrative spine of the 'tale' is the 'de-frosting' of the widowed Georg under the optimistic brio of Maria and the children, and if it is not 'acted' with some range of clear journey the show can come apart, especially if the Captain's defiance of the Nazi force of order is not truculently struck and followed through with a 'political' conviction. This powerful masculine stance is what, also, makes Georg the 'prize' sought in the love triangle posited in the Book. Mr Daddo does not seem to have anywhere near the Musical Comedy strengths of any of the other actors in this production. (I re-called his contribution to the Australian production of LEGALLY BLONDE and one can only wonder, why or how, he captures these opportunities - someone in the John Frost organisation thinks he can do it and is a box-office draw-card, it seems, for both these shows were [partly] produced by the John Frost Company.) Mr Daddo's performance does not 'sink' the show, but that has more to do with the sweeping energies and conviction of everybody else, and the zestful quality of the production.

The Musical Direction of Luke Hunter with this small (13) but electrically assisted orchestra is strong; the simple choreography originated by Arlene Phillips, and re-produced here by Jonny Bowles is swift, clean and energising.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Capitol Theatre was a terrific night in the theatre. Invigorating and a tonic for these difficult times. I highly recommend it. I had a great time. So did everybody else in the theatre. The love of this THE SOUND OF MUSIC was palpable. Every age group, as we left the theatre,  were smiling, beaming and humming those tunes.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Photo by by Christine Chahoud
The Goods Theatre Company in association with Red Line Productions presents, DROPPED, by Katy Warner, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St Wooloomooloo. 8 December - 20 Decmber, 2015.

DROPPED, is an Australian play first premiered in 2013, at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Katy Warner, the Writer, was responding to the parliamentary decision to allow women to fight on the frontline. "The decision", says the Director, Anthony Skuse, in his program notes:
represented a significant shift; not only in terms of opportunities for women in the military, but more broadly, it challenged conventional notions of female roles.
Two women, A  (Deborah Galanos) and B (Olivia Rose) are waiting somewhere in an active war zone, passing the time waiting for something to happen.

The play is short, less than an hour, and has been mounted by this new company, The Goods Theatre Company, with some elegant panache: The Set Design, by Lisa Mimmocchi, of a tilted circular mound of 'desert soil' is convincing in its reality, and, oddly, in its 'beauty', in the space, assisted well, by the characteristically inventive and 'live', shifting Lighting Design, by Verity Hampson. The Composer, Aidan Roberts, creates an atmosphere, and the Sound Design (not acknowledged) is a very effective element of the experience.

The slow, silent opening gestures of the production, by Mr Skuse, promised much in its naturalistic daring. However, the play itself lacks traction - the writer claims an indebtedness to Samuel Beckett, especially to his WAITING FOR GODOT,  and acknowledges DROPPED as a 'love letter' to him. Unfortunately, the verbal content doesn't measure up to that hero-worship. Nor does it really maintain our interest, with its supposed concern with the female presence being on active duty on the frontline. For, it does not clearly cover content that I felt could not just as interestingly be said, dealt with, by two male soldiers, and be, similarly, possibly challenging for an audience to contemplate - a soldier in combat, woman or man, holding a baby in her or his arms (alive or dead) in an active war zone is a provocative image, it being  a highly charged 'human', rather than a particular, peculiar 'gender' dilemma.

The veracities of the word games, created by the writer, between the two soldiers were not truly acted convincingly. Ms Rose, who besides playing in the production was the instigator of the choice of play, was the most convincing and absorbing of the two, as B. While, Ms Galanos, as A, was 'pushing' and 'acting' - demonstrating -  some of her text requirements, rather than authentically experiencing them. The 'fantasy game' dialogue between the two soldiers needed the acting to be terribly real for the contrast to the reality of the War Zone, to gain grip - to underline that it came from authentic boredom and a desperate grotesque need to maintain a 'sanity' in the realities of modern warfare (check out the film, JARHEAD - 2005, or the documentary RESTREPO - 2010).

This lack of reality was true of the production as well. There were behavioural activities, such as the taking off of the army boots, for instance, that did not have the verisimilitude of soldiers' behaviour in an active war zone;  and that the machine guns, on view, were empty, plastic, weightless toys, easily, carelessly handled by the actors, also prevented the 'drama' of the situation to take hold - one could not, undistractedly, suspend disbelief in what we were watching.

This is a play for the zealous. It has a commendable statement of concern for an audience to observe, to learn about, but the production lacked real depth of experience to have us believe in it, in its present form. It fails to convince us of its lived truths and so fails to arrest our attention with its concerns. DROPPED is highly commendable, but only for its aspirations. GROUNDED, at the Seymour Centre this year, gave a more powerful insight into the possible human conflicts on  being a woman in a war zone.

Grey Gardens

Seymour Centre presents Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre's production of GREY GARDENS. Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Kori. In the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. November 18 - December 12.

I first saw the musical GREY GARDENS  in New York on Broadway in 2007, in the Walter Kerr Theatre. I went, curious to see as to how the documentary film of David and Albert Mayseles' of the same name, had been adapted for the musical theatre. I loved the documentary. (Sight and Sound Magazine rate it the ninth joint best documentary film of all time!) I remember that the reviews (word-of-mouth) for the show were very mixed and although it had won three Tony Awards - two for the principal performers - the vibe around it was just OK, and tickets were easy to get on Times Square.

The first act of the Musical is set in 1941 and is a mostly fictional introduction to the Beale Mother (Big Edie) and the Beale daughter (Little Edie) in their mansion home, and their trials and tribulations over the course of a crucial day with their family, servants and friends - a thwarted marriage opportunity for Little Edie, the BIG event. The second act is set in 1974 and is an adaptation of the documentary, imagining a day-in-the-life of the same two characters in the now run-down Grey Gardens estate in the Georgica neighbourhood of East Hampton. For my time spent in the theatre (and money), I felt, at the Reginald, that one could have just had the second act and be better satisfied. (I honestly thought this true of the Broadway version as well.) The only loss in the Squabbologic production, if we had 'dumped' the first act, would really be, not having seen and heard, Caitlin Berry, singing and acting the ingenue version of Little Edie, with an energetic freshness, despite being caught up in, amidst, a book and music/lyric offer of a wan old-fashioned kind, with a plot and characters that were troublingly, boringly, cliche - this show was Nominated for 10 Tony Awards, believe it or not!

The second act, in the Reginald Theatre, has from Maggie Blinco, as Big Edie, a performance that with an osmotic internalised life force of the original woman, a deftly clarified musical and dramatic surety that gave a great deal of pleasure for us to share in. That performance, alone, was worth the time and money spent at the theatre - JUST. Beth Daley, as Little Edie, on the other hand, had a grasp of the woman from an obvious close study of the documentary, but with not sufficiently accurate vocal sharpness (articulatory skill ) to nail it, either with her dialogue or her songs (read my post on Audra McDonald). The opening song  from Little Edie of Act two: "The Revolutionary Costume For Today" was a blur of sounds with only a guessed gist imparted to the audience of its wit, comedy - this was despite that all the performers had microphone assistance. The song that followed from Ms Blinco: "The Cake I Had" was, comparatively, a revelation of clarity - and, on the night that I went, a relief to hear and comfortably comprehend - a $59.00 expenditure, partly satisfied!

The Set Design for act one, by Simon Greer, is a clunky overweighted and not very well executed living space at the Grey Gardens mansion, supposedly, at its height of glamour - sticky-tape on walls etc, the fake badly painted BROWN baby grand piano, a catastrophe of choice - it could not have been less useful, in that small and close space to help the audience suspend its belief, except as a generous offer to a local amateur theatre company - if you can't afford it, think again about the choice of show, if you are going to maintain a standard of 'quality' reputation. The Design made more sense and worked more appreciatively with the gauze effects of the 'haunted ' second act. 

Costumes, by Brendan Hay, for the first act, similarly, were not of a quality that one as come to expect, from this company - this 1941 setting is supposed to re-create, be, the wealthy extravagant world of a Bouvier-Beale lawyer/financier family. This production lacked any convincing visual truths (those wigs?!), although the Lighting Design was, as per usual, from Benjamin Brockman, good - in this case, a saving 'grace'.

A large Band (orchestra) of nine instrumentalists led by Hayden Barltrop was the Best Element of the night, although, the Sound Design by Jessica James-Moody was, unusually, wayward in its contribution - drawing attention to itself. The choreography, by Shondelle Pratt, was decorative and generally danced well by all the cast who, otherwise, were less than expected, maybe because the material they were toiling with was so turgid. Blake Erickson could not do much more with a truly terribly cliched character, George Gould Strong, a 'type' he has managed to give us before - nothing new, going on there -  whilst the gifts of Simon McLachlan were wasted on what he was required to do, especially as Joe Kennedy.

There was a quality of surety from the Director of the production, Jay James-Moody, throughout, but neither the book, lyrics or music, any of the material was interesting enough to ensure an unadulterated success, and without a stronger, clearer actor in the central role of the Big Edie/Little Edie double of act one and act two, one could not really understand why this particular musical was on show. Like the last show, TRIASSIC PARQ, the selection of the Musical ventures at Squabbalogic seems to be tremendously 'quirky', maybe, a trifle kitsch, sentimental, in its raison d'être, rather than in revealing to us a reason to go to the theatre and admire the Musical Theatre Genre as a contemporary force.

A point of contrast is VIOLET, up at the Hayes Theatre, a Musical Theatre show not to be missed.

P.S. Oh, my gosh, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, this week, coming up.
 Fingers crossed.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sol Gabetta and the Basel Chamber Orchestra

Photo by Uwe Arens

Australian Chamber Orchestra presents Sol Gabetta and the Basel Chamber Orchestra, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House, 29 November, 2015.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) as part of an international exchange has brought the Basel Chamber Orchestra, under the Directorship of Yuki Kasai, to Australia. The ACO will be performing in Switzerland in July next year.

The Basel Chamber Orchestra is one of the most important institutions in the Chamber Music world for the remarkable contribution to the expansion of repertoire, that they have made in its 30 year existence. At this concert we heard a work commissioned in 1938, by the founder of this orchestra, Paul Sacher, for another Basel orchestra: The DIVERTIMENTO FOR STRINGS (1939), by Bela Bartok and another, but more recent commission: META ARCA (2012), by Heinz Holliger. Too, they have travelled to Australia with a guest soloist, cellist, Sol Gabetta, who besides playing the CELLO CONCERTO NO.1 IN A MINOR, OP.33 (1872), by Camille Saint-Saens, also introduced a work commissioned by herself from Peteris Vasks: CELLO CONCERTO NO.2 'PRESENCE' (2012).

The first music of the concert was a work by Bartok, revealing his early career immersion in the folk music of Eastern Europe (and Central Asia and North Africa) but working in traditional Western forms. He was seeking to do this not only because of the position of his country, Hungary, between the East and West, but also as a demonstration of 'universal brotherhood'. We hear the rhythms of dance music blending their way through the piece whilst the second movement was muted almost funereal in its affect - and one cannot ignore the presentiment of war. Soon after this time and work Bartok sailed for the United States, never to return to Europe. He died in 1945.

The great young Cellist, the extraordinary Sol Gabetta, gave a performance of the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, the three movements seeming to be one. The composition gives 'the instrument an excellent opportunity to display its resources without straining after needless virtuosity.' Ms Gabetta, in a flame red full length dress with a halter neck, bejewelled collar, and bare arms made a commanding visual impact and heightened one's observation of the vibrating stillness of her focus and care on her instrument and the sounds she coaxed from it. It was a fascination, an hypnotic command of our concentration, almost 'fiend' like in its musical intensity, that drew us to hear and watch every note of the score that she gave us, as if possessed (in a good way) through her whole body with the spirit of music. Ms Gabetta was a marvel. The audience response was electric.

After the interval we were invited into the contemporary world of composition of Swiss Musician Heinz Holliger. META ARCA is a 9 minute, mini concerto for violin and 13 or 15 string instruments. It explores the 'possibilities of sound emission in string technique - harmonics, alla chitarra (played in the manner of a guitar), the thumb beating against the body of the instrument'. The sounds can be quite ethereal in a very disconcerting way and hovered in the hall with a delectable thrill of a small splash into the modern, an illustration of the 'strains' of our times.

Lastly, Ms Gabetta returned to play for us an extraordinary contemporary work, the CELLO CONCERTO NO.2 'PRESENCE', composed by Latvian, Peteris Vasks, under commission from Ms Gabetta, herself, and first performed in 2012. Vasks has stated that "Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul and that is what I preach in my works.' Ms Gabettto, again seated flame-like centre stage with her instrument, commanded the audience to strict attention with a paralysing but thrilling suspension of kinetic presence, her body and bow poised in a lengthy stillness till she began with a low C played coi legno (with the wood of her bow), the sound of the one odd note shattering the pregnant silence in the vast Concert Hall in the Sydney Opera House, that subsequently, mostly, through tonal alteration increases in sound to form a lengthy cadenza - the orchestra joining to give full rein to an undulating lyricism. The Second movement Allegro moderato seems to be a sparring match between the cello soloist and the rest of the orchestra - it is extraordinary in the technical feats and the resultant unusual combination of sounds in a violent rhythmic dance impression of great intensity. Finally, the work ends with a 12 minute slow movement of immense 'feeling' in sound, it is kind of ecstatically excruciating (in a good sense) in its experience, culminating in a 'sung' verse, hymn-like, from Ms Gabetta as she plays to a subtle and rewarding end. We held our breath at its end until Ms Gabetta released us. The 'religious' capacity of Vasks composition is powerfully moving and the composed, inspired playing by Ms Gabetta gave one the impression that we had been witness to an especially marvellous expression of genius - a modern 'miracle' of the faith in the power of music. Indeed, one should always make a point to seek out this artist for transcendental music making of a most rare kind. I was not just impressed, I was 'converted'.

This guest orchestra from Basel gave us a sense of the living world of music with, in this concert, a work from 1872, France (bolstering the nation after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War), through to the Bartok of 1938, (composed on the edge of the announcement of the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact - later, to be, tragically, broken) and two tremendous expressions of contemporary life strife from 2012, as expressions of man attempting to make sense of the tumultuous world environments - political, cultural and social - that we exist in today, in 2015. Does man have any positive certainty of his future? The Vasks work as played by Ms Gabetta tries to assure us that there is hope.

A great concert from an Orchestra with a sense of the weight of European History inflecting the composed and committed playing by all of its members. There is a ' je ne sais quoi' timbre in this orchestra's sound that is very different to that of our ACO. Whatever it is, it is Shattering. Inspiring. Hopeful. Art and the politics we live in/with, conspiring together to help us believe that good sense will triumph in our world. Hopefully.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Blue Saint Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents, VIOLET. Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley. At the Hayes Theatre, Grennknowe Ave, Potts Point. 27 November - 20 December, 2015.

VIOLET is a Musical based on a short story, The Ugliest Pilgrim, by Doris Betts. It first appeared Off-Broadway in 1997, but was produced on Broadway in 2014. The Book and Lyrics are by Brian Crawley. The Music is by Jeanine Tesori. Some of Ms Tesori's other work includes: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (2000), CAROLINE, OR CHANGE (2004), SHREK THE MUSICAL (2008) and FUN HOME (2015), it winning 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, this year.

Set across the landscape of the 1960's American South, a young woman leaves her home town, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, on a bus, to get to a Faith Healer - preacher - in Tulsa Oklahoma. As a child she has had an accident caused by her father, resulting in an axe-head scar to her face that causes all who see it, to wince. She boards this bus full of bible hope that her physical image will be healed and reflect the beauty of the movie stars and celebrities of her magazine reading. On this 'pilgrimage' she meets up with a number of people - including two soldiers, one white, one black - and has a journey, some 'adventures', that helps her realise that it is not just the outside-look that makes a person. I bet you're saying 'I know this story' - Beauty and a Beast! - well, I promise you, this story has some refined details that will keep you hooked with its twists and turns.

This production of VIOLET, Directed by Mitchell Butel, Musical Direction by Lucy Bermingham is a crack-a-jack ride of the first order. The Book creates a number of characters that are not your cookie-cutter musical norm, they are a relatively complex set of people with contradictions to catch you unawares - just when you've 'pegged' the character as a type you recognise, they do something to make you reconnoitre again.

There are two Violets, the young girl and the grown woman, for the father appears and is a 'ghost' of important substance to them both, and in their story-time-shifts, from the past to the present, the narrative is always propelled forward without a hint of sentimentality. The Dramatic structuring is flawless. The soldiers, Flick, an African American, and Monty, a white, lower officer, hoping to get to Vietnam as a Green Beret, each make a play for Violet on this long bus journey and in a boarding house in Memphis. There are racial tensions of the period bubbling throughout the story and religious/show business chicanery to be exposed. The Book and the Lyrics are a masterclass of seamless storytelling

The musical score by Ms Tesori integrates a number of styles in some 20 songs and 3 reprises, from bluegrass, country and western, soul and gospel, and their placement in the show (an hour and three quarters, without interval) never flags and is apt. There are eleven performers and all of them are given individual opportunities to shine - the Direction by Mr Butel of the actors is detailed, and the Staging of the action, too, is wonderfully managed, seamless-'slick', never ever static, with choreography, by Amy Campbell, that explodes with disciplined energy and a raucous joy - thrilling, electrifying in this small space at the Hayes, infecting the audience to get-on-board and help raise the roof further with a more than ordinary enthusiastic reception, applause. Ms Bermingham manages her orchestra of six with a fabulous sound, assisted with a great Sound Design by Jeremy Silver.

All of this is simply presented in a very practical and attractive Set Design by Simon Greer, opening the small space for action with a framing metaphoric back-drop of the road that the bus must take these people down, situating the many locations with imaginative ease. Props are by Cornelia Cassimatis and are so 'right-on' in their simple detailing for the worlds of the show. It is lit with another flexible and brilliant Design by Ross Graham (AN INDEX OF METALS) - he's 'smoking' at the moment! The period Costumes by Lucetta Stapelton are glorious in their character clarities and in the mastering of quick changes for the very busy team of actors, not forgetting the spectacular wigs by Lauren Proietti that simply 'crown' the affect.

All eleven actors of this remarkable ensemble (who are these people, why haven't I seen them before?) should be noted: Damien Bermingham (Father), Barry Conrad (Flick), Steve Danielson (Monty), Sam Dodemaide (Violet), Katie Elle Reeve (Music Hall Singer), Linden Furnell (Leroy), Ryan Gonzalez (Virgil), Dash Kruck (Preacher), Genevieve Lemon (Mabel/Alice), Elenoa Rokobaro (Lula/Almeta) and Luisa Scrofani (Young Violet). This is, I repeat, a dynamite ensemble.

Ms Dodemaide tackles the complex and unhappy Violet with a depth of uncompromising truthfulness and commitment to a character who travels from a cynical bitterness to a self-revelation of acceptance, with a fluidity and capability, courage, that reveals the dramatics, both in her book responsibilities and with her lyric and musical singing, powerfully. Watch and listen to Ms Dodemaide as she negotiates the arc of Violet's journey through the songs, especially her solos: "Surprised", "Lay Down Your Head", "Look at Me", to the reprise of "Surprised", "Promise Me, Violet" and to the company finale of "Bring Me to Light". One is confronted by Violet, she is a bit more than 'prickly', but one comes to admire her and finally to love her, or, at least, to 'care' for her - this is no normal Musical Theatre heroine. Violet/Ms Dodemaide asks us to understand a deeply wounded psyche in search of a normal peace, on this bus ride from Spruce Pine to Tulsa. The characterisation is supported well by Ms Scrofani, as the young Violet, with no less passion.

Mr Conrad, as Flick, is a handsome find (this is his first stage performance!) with a way with lyrics that will move you deeply -"Let it Sing". Ms Dodemaide and he spark an empathetic chemistry that keeps one hopeful of a happy ending to their characters' 'bumpy' journey, despite the burden of them having to sit in the shadow of their culture's prejudices - he being black and she disfigured.  Mr Danielson, as the other sex interest, Monty, strikes a classic pose of macho, white privilege  with childish appeal to great affect - "Last Time I Came to Memphis".  Mr Bermingham, in a moving creation as the Father persuades us to an emotional back-flip with his beautiful rendition of "That's What I Could Do". While Mr Kruck and Ms Rokobaro burn the space up with their gospel passion - alleluia! - assisted by the Chorus with the infectious "Raise Me Up".

And one cannot, should not forget the amazing Ms Lemon who draws every character she has - character and chorus - with a pencil-fine clarity and a breathtaking sense of timing and wicked observation, besides her utilising well, a singing voice and lyric clarity of ringing character comedy to create a classic dynamic performance to remember. Best because of its outrageous and daring broad refinement. ("Hey", I wonder, "is she a Mamma Rose?" Check out her range on the screen, in THE DRESSMAKER 'filum' - if she has the vocal requirements, I'd cast her, now).

VIOLET is one of those 'little' musicals from the Broadway world, that we often never get to see, and in this production VIOLET is one of the most satisfactory nights I have had in the theatre for a long time - to find a flaw would be difficult. Mr Butel has 'captained' a production that I reckon tops SWEET CHARITY that opened this theatre, a year or so ago, to great acclaim, in all its professionalisms. It scored a tour - so, I reckon should this show. Find the right sized space and it should please many, many people. Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co. make another must see hit in Potts Point.

You will not be disappointed, I promise.
Go, go, go.

N.B. VIOLET is an Equity Approved Co-Op Production and is performed by professional actors/performers. Please note that these brilliant people, this cast, are giving a season of this Musical unwaged. I am so grateful for their passion and skills. They are remarkable.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Photo by by Brett Boardman
Belvoir and State Theatre Company of South Australia present MORTIDO, by Angela Betzien, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills, 11 November - 17 December.

MORTIDO, by Angela Betzien, is a new Australian play co-commissioned by Belvoir and Playwriting Australia and presented as a co-production by the State Theatre of South Australian and Belvoir.

MORTIDO begins with a storytelling by Detective Grubbe, of a Mexican fable about a Madre - a mother, The Boy - her son, and an Old German. Of murder. Of drugs - cocaine. Of a magic potion of cinnamon, garlic, banana, onion, fat, raisins, thyme and Coca-Cola. Of Santa Muerte, Our Lady of Death, and of the 'resurrection' of The Boy as El Gallito - The Little Rooster, who becomes the most fearsome cartel leader in all of Mexico.
And no-one, not even Santa Muerte, could bleed La Madre's hatred of the Old German, he who had slaughtered her son like a pollito in that butcher's shop, so long ago in Mexico. And so began a war that would have no end.
Then the play shifts - BANG - to a home in Woollahra, to a Housing Estate in Surry Hills, to a Liverpool food-court. To Kruezberg, and the 'thumping' Club Berghain, Berlin. To Coroico, Bolivia. To the Ivy Nightclub, Sydney CBD, Penrith, Bondi Junction, Cabramatta, Kings Cross, and, finally, a funeral in Punchbowl. This 'fable' is of our contemporary world - of the Emerald City called Sydney.
Mortido. Do you know what that is, Jimmy? I have it. You have it. ... The death instinct. The desire for self-destruction. ... Freud reckoned love and hate, sex and death are twin impulses. The act of consumption gives life to the consumer but destroys the consumed. ... Existence is an endless cycle of life and death, life and death. But ultimately, the aim of all life is self-destruction. That's mortido, Jimmy.
MORTIDO is a thrilling ride, charged with the audacity of the ambition of Ms Betzien's imagination and research, its mixture of the where and when familiarities of most of its locations, startlingly mixed with the 'magic realisms' of the Central America's cultures, laden with the strange allure that an 'evil' mixed with sexual promise and experience can conjure, and allow, in our own desires. The writing is mesmerising, tantalising us with a safe overview of the consequent sufferings - 'collateral damage' - arising from the craving of the glittering 'other', with imaginative acquaintance to characters and events of a glamorous 'underworld' of the forbidden, which Ms Betzien invites us to watch as it corrosively attaches itself across all generations of 'families' around the world. Family and cocaine as familiar, in this world of ours, as Family and Coca Cola can be.

The Director, Leticia Caceres with Set and Costume Designer, Robert Cousins, have created a flexible space/world that darkly permits the shifting from location to location in the play causing, gradually, the exposure into a 'white'-light dimension, by ripping the flooring away, of the bloody inevitabilities of the hedonistic pursuit of greed and power in complex dimensions- of motido in action, to be, ultimately, smeared bloodily on a white background. Geoff Cobham, Lighting Designer, captures the murky colours of this false world of glamour, accompanied by Composition by THE SWEATS, with a magnificent Sound Design, by Nate Edmondson, that aurally careers around the alluring, confronting spaces and time of the play.

Coiln Friels is superb in this production, playing four characters: the world-wise Detective Grubbe; Christos Lymbious, a Greek/Australian, indebted with a smothering guilt-love for his bed-ridden mother, trying desperately to stay 'straight'; Heinrich Barbie, a German/Bolivian of sinister intentions and Nazi inheritance, and a Serbian/Australian, Bratislav Ackervik, in 'trackies', laconically munching a snack whilst delivering boxes of 'evil'. The wit of Mr Friel's characterisations with beautifully judged economies of 'iconic' gesture for each of his men, delivers a delight of a kind of 'genius', enjoying immensely the latitudes of creation he has been given to 'play' with. There is no repetition of choice going on here, each man, Mr Friels inhabits, or, is possessed by (what you will), is an individual and distinct life force, drawn with 'wicked'/cheeky observations and insight. The sense of the 'fun' that the actor as a craftsmen is having, bubbles beneath a set of absolutely succinct, refined, choices, that should be studied by all 'students' of acting for the relaxed signals, clues, he gives his audience to endow and enjoy. The opening three and a half page monologue is worth the price of the ticket, alone - watching a great actor, apparently, effortlessly, imaging vividly and manipulating his voice for accurate and entertaining storytelling - he has us 'see with our ears' everything - EVERYTHING. It is a rare marvel on Sydney stages - and I mean a MARVEL, in the complete Elizabethan sense of the word. This is a performance given with an understated humility that, fortunately, can't hide the 'greatness' of it.

Is it true that Ms Betzien wrote this work for this actor? If so, scale him up, challenge him even further next time, please. For clearly, Mr Friels relishes what was 'made' for him. It was an exciting joy to share with him.

In the centre of the story fulcrum is a hapless, recovering addict, Jimmy - an addict to drugs and sex - played consummately and cumulatively with a bewildered struggle for survival in the world he is drawn into, by Tom Conroy. He is the pivot of the story and Mr Conroy carries it with clarity and sensitivity (I wish his appearance was grubbier). For Jimmy is pulled between the zeal of Detective Grubbe for the forces of light, and by the opposite dynamic force, of what maybe an illusion of desires, El Gallito, dynamically created with sexual fumings and glittering attraction by David Valencia. His glowerings shimmering with temptation and threatening with a poised promise of delicious violence - it comes, the promise is honoured. Mr Valencia's work, too, is a precise creation, like Mr Friels. These three actors create the atmosphere of the dilemma of the world with immense 'in-the-moment' storytelling tension.

Renato Musolino and Louisa Mignone, as Monte and Scarlet, are the calculating 'villains' of the scenario and are all the more suggestive because of their characters' seemingly casual, blasé obsession for 'life-style' and all its luxuries at anyone else's cost. Their dark superficiality is palpable. The symbol that Ms Betzien places onstage, with the presence of a child, Oliver/Alvaro, works well in its emotional blackmail and engenders an empathetic fear that his presence in such a dark world and space indicates a precarious future for mankind - Toby Challenor, on my day.

MORTIDO, then, maybe the best new Australian work we have seen this year. In the midst of the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) movement in Sydney, I can't help but observe MORTIDO is Written by a woman and Directed by another. Other contenders for this Best of Year accolade: BOYS WILL BE BOYS, at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), earlier this year, Written by Melissa Bubonic, Directed by Paige Rattray (with an all female company); BATTLE OF WATERLOO, also at the STC, Written by Kylie Coolwell and Directed by Sarah Goodes; and THE BLEEDING TREE, although, Written by a man, Angus Cerini, was Directed by Lee Lewis, with an all female company. These four plays no slight contribution, artistically, eh?

One of my fellow theatre goers remarked MORTIDO showed a relentlessly bleak world. I felt that it was, above all else, REAL. I know of some of it first hand. Its Bleakness is integral to its telling of a truth, its warning, that we generally 'wave' away. MORTIDO is the play, on a Sydney stage, that does not deflect our gaze from the disasters of our contemporary living. It is what I have been waiting for from our cultural institutions. A theatre experience that asks us to confront our moral dilemmas. Here it is, with all the theatrical aesthetic values of every element of the production serving this writer's concerns.

Go. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Riff for Keef: The Human Myth

Ocelot Productions and Griffin Independent present the World Premiere of A RIFF ON KEEF : THE HUMAN MYTH, by Benito Di Fonzo, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 25 November - 12 December, 2015.

A RIFF ON KEEF: THE HUMAN MYTH, by Benito Di Fonzo, is the completion of a trilogy concerning major artists: THE CHRONIC ILLS OF ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, AKA BOB DYLAN (A LIE) and LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UN-DUG IN SYDNEY, 1962. Mr Di Fonzo, a journalist - a gatherer of facts - is also a magician who creates 'fantasises' to investigate the 'spirit' of his men and their era:
This is not a biography of the Rolling Stones, or Keith Richards, this is a mythical character - Keef. A fiction created by a combination of my subconscious and my readings on the real thing. It's a riff on the idea of this ancient creature. A comic riff, a mythical riff, a musical riff. Poetry is a form of music, and theatre grew from epic poetry, from storytelling. Tall-story telling in this case, a.k.a. the fine Australian tradition of taking-the-piss. Enjoy in moderation.
I have never been a STONES fan, I was in the other camp, THE BEATLES. So I was never much interested or enamoured with anyone in the Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger, the only one of the band that penetrated my resistance and registered in my psyche - the lips, the hips! So, it has been a puzzlement to me, in very recent times, to have a rather 'notorious' and 'second banana' figure (for me) such as Keith Richards to be hagiographied. His autobiography: A LIFE, by Keith Richards and James Fox, in 2010, has been a best seller and the effect of it has been for the media of all kinds, to re-present to me Mr Richards as a "consummate gentleman". No, really! So, this play was a virtual 'virgin' journey - for me - through the life of Keith Richards (I suppose) through the permission of a riff on a guy called Keef - a human myth.

The play became an Odyssey with this mythical figure, called Keef, in pursuit of his grandfather's Holy Grail: the mythic chord! - which, of course, he finds, ultimately, has always been within himself. We travel through episodes of a hard childhood and parental inspiration, bluesy musical amours such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, into the world of rock 'n roll with lots of distracting and distracted camp-followers, drugs, massive scarves and haze, in hazy, hazy days.

What was best was the 'epic poetry' of Mr Di Fonzo's language, its rhyming slang and poetic hyperboles. For, the spine of Mr Di Fonzo's journey, for an unacquainted patron, such as myself, wandered, wandered and wandered, too long. If you knew who Keef was, there may have been a more cogent map apparent to help one follow the play with more interest. However, the language is deliciously baroque in its vocabulary and structures - a sound-feel as grand as Howard Barker's can be - e.g. VICTORY - 1968, THE CASTLE -1985, - which enforces the colourings and cheek of this Monty Pynthonesque-like invention, or Tales of the Arabian Nights sojourn. Of course, some editing would help to keep one tirelessly delighted. It was a dark pleasure to my ears, if a trifle overdone at times (Oscar Wilde's SALOME, with its carbuncled-jewellery of image, tumbled back, as I listened to this Riff).

Like the play about Lenny Bruce, the company of actors: Branden Christine, Abe Mitchell, Lenore Munro, Terry Serio and Dorje Swallow, all play instruments and create music to take us through some of the episodes, and when that happens the play picks up with an energy that spikes attention, where, otherwise, it tends to float about without forceful direction and some confusions of the identity of the characters. The fact that none of the STONES music is used (because of the cost of Copyright, I presume) is no real impediment to delight in their tune makings, doings, although, perhaps, a little frustrating for the fans. Mr Serio, playing Keef, has much skill and feel, affection, for the music and is impressive in the invented aspect of Keef's musicianship, although, the sustained inner-tempo of his character is tiresomely held - a dramatic poetic-licence to present us with other than a drugged-dream tempo would help one to stay engaged. The other actors create all the other figures in the riff and do so with varying degrees of success with their defining, shifting details. I wished they had had more relish for the language.

It does not feel as if the Director, Lucinda Green, has as firm a conception of the way to deliver the material as she had with the Lenny Bruce play - maybe dazed in an idolatrous feel for the real man and his story. The Set Design by Hugh O'Connor has atmosphere, amusing though it is to see a cast-propelled 'lazy-susan' wheel, circling the characters around the space. The Lighting is by Sian James Holland.

A RIFF ON KEEF: THE HUMAN MYTH, will probably please those in the know of Keith Richards. For the rest of us, if you go, remember the facts have been distilled into a myth about a figure called Keef, and just go with the flow, the float. The language of the writer may be a joy - a rarity of invention on the Aussie stage.