Sunday, August 30, 2015

ACO: Brahms Symphony No.3 and Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present Brahms 3, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, at the Sydney City Recital Hall, Angel Place, 18 Aug - 22 Aug.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) in its biggest formation this year, brought some 50 musicians onto the stage. The sound is full and electric. The concert began with an exuberantly passionate 'reading' of the Overture from the opera, THE MAGIC FLUTE, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791). The experience was surprising and arousing taken with a speed that had me hearing the work as if it were the first time. The dramatics of the scoring were delivered with a near perfect clarity and contrast - I was compelled to sit up and listen to the infectious propulsion of it all.

To follow was a playing of Mozart's SINFONIA CONCERTANTE in E - flat, K.364 (1779). With the orchestra, a zesty play-off between the violin and the viola is the feature of the work. Richard Tognetti, on violin, and Christopher Moore, on viola, recreating the demands of this work that they first performed in 2009, delivered the music as a kind of duelling between string instruments that caused me to reminisce about the archetypal thrill of the 'Duelling Banjoes' in that amazing film, DELIVERANCE (1972). Ha. Not that there is any sound scoring of any similarity but rather in this performance, the competitive joy between the two soloists was evident and a thrill to witness, both, as an aural experience as well as a visual one. The two players seemed to benefit and enjoy the proximity of their physical closeness and the stimulation of Mozart's music. There was often a daring of each other, and the taking of the risk of a 'glorious failure', that merely demonstrated the ultimate trust in the equal mindfulness of the love of playing, making music, that these two musicians, obviously share. So much so, that I was brought to many gulps of joy through tears and/or tears through laughter of excitement. A session of music making that left one on a 'high' of adrenalin buzz. Amazing. Thrilling.

After the interval, Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 (1883), by Johannes Brahms. I have never heard much of Brahms and certainly not this Symphony. It began with a dramatic crash of 'sound' compelling attention and immersing one into the journey. The scale, size, of the ACO orchestra created a sonic interest where force became the propelling element. Contrasted with the second movement Andante, the work revealed the truth of the program quotation by Gordon Kerry:
... it is a work that essays many emotional states in a highly dramatic fashion, and leads to a conclusion of great peace.

The concert was a great experience. Once again, the ACO gave a rewarding reason to be with them.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jump First, Ask Later

JUMP FIRST ASK LATER - PARKOUR FROM THE STREETS OF FAIRFEILD, Produced and Presented by Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) and Force Majeure, at the Fairfield School of Arts, 19-29 August, 2015, a World Premiere.

Some Fairfield youth have explored and practised as individuals and, latterly, as an ensemble: The Dauntless Movement Company (DMC), to present a wide range of street physical engagements: B-Boying, Parkour, Free running, Hip-hop dancing, Tricking, a variety of martial arts, calisthenics, and acrobatics. In JUMP FIRST ASK LATER, six individuals, all founding members of DMC: Joseph Carbone, Johnny Do, Patrick Uy, Justin Kilic, Natalie Siri and Jimmy James Pham, all but one "born and bred" in Fairfield (the other from Bankstown), tell us of their background stories and of their entrance into this physical world. They talk of it as part of a street/park activity, that gradually cohered into a mutual 24/7 mind and body pre-occupation that they developed as a kind of 'tribal' identification - they did it for fun; it occupied them and kept their minds busy (distracted) in a positive, happy way.

Two years ago the Powerhouse Youth Theatre invited this loose collective into a project that partnered them with one of Australia's leading dance theatre companies: Force Majeure. Two developmental, artistic residencies, one of two weeks, the other of five weeks, led by Byron Perry, has resulted in this astonishing work. Astonishing, many-fold, but particularly because of its theatrical sophistication and the physical skill and bravado (emotional, as well) artistry of all the participants. It is an entirely recommended experience for all ages. Inspiration plus. Exhilarating.

This group of young people have honed their fearless crafts into a breathtaking kind of artistry, by themselves, over years, and now, in collaboration, with Mr Perry at Fairfield Youth Theatre, have produced a dance work, reminiscent in form, of some of the work of the great DV8 company: TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU (2008); CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS (2011). Says Choreographer Byron Perry in his Director's Notes:
This work is an onstage documentary about a group of six individuals from Fairfield in Western Sydney, and their shared love of movement. ... It is as much a story about urban movement practises and the freeing and the unifying power of movement as it is an exploration of the lives of the people involved. ... it is a reminder of how important our connection to place and to each other really are.
The commitment to their street-inspired 'culture', the physical movement forms, and the development and disciplines of their skills is evident in the intensity and expertise of their performances. JUMP FIRST ASK LATER, begins with the group introducing to us a round of exercises as a kind of 'warm-up', and then, unobtrusively, segues into taking us on a journey into their worlds, both the public art form they are inventing, and the 'private' contextual motivations they individually have, to persist with it. Each of the artists get to show their 'best' tricks, and each subsume, integrate, their 'tricks' and skills into a series of ensemble pieces that are breathtaking to watch.

My favourite was the comic physical construct of a computer game by the 'gang', and, here, the subtle but decisive skills of the AV Design of Sean Bacon, combined with the witty and beautifully judged contribution of the Sound Design of Luke Smiles, creates an unforgettable theatrical memory. It may have been, as well, that the floor of the Fairfield School of Arts, bounces and springs back at us, as the artists swing on the pseudo monkey-bar construct at the back of the shallow stage, onto the wooden blocks, to land in full flight in front of us, so that the audience's seats bounce back in 'a cause and affect' conversation with them - a thrilling visceral inter-active buzz in our own bodies that connects us in/to the action, and may create the delusion, as it did, momentarily, often, that I, too, was doing Parkour (I wish), with them.

This is an amazing work. This is not just a good community project outcome. This is a terrific piece and time in the theatre. Get yourself out there to Fairfield. Take yourselves, your children (of all ages) and be made very, very happy.

This is a DON'T MISS.

P.S. The theatre, The Fairfield School of Arts, is just around the corner from the Fairfield Railway Station, and there are terrific Iraqi Restaurants,  and others, to eat, or have a coffee and cake at, before the performance. The show is just sixty minutes long. One wished it was longer. But then, of course, I was only watching, not expending my physical energies in these remarkable acts of love in the pursuit of FUN.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Flame Peas

A Late Night Show, FLAME PEAS, by Philippe Klaus, Nicole Shostak, and Griffin Blumer, at the Old Fitz Theatre, under the auspices of Red Line productions, 4 August -15 August.

What has happened at the Old Fitz under the management of Red Line Productions is beside producing, presenting, a show at 7.30pm - the Main Event - a series of Late Shows have been curated - variously, 9 - 9.30pm, usually 40-45 minutes in length. This late night showing has attracted and allowed young companies and independent artists to use the space as a place for development of new work of all different genre, (besides the short one act play). BLONDE POISON was the last Main Event, and in the last two weeks, a young group of artists: Philippe Klaus, Nicole Shostak and Griffin Blumer, have written and performed in a piece of musical theatre/cabaret called, FLAME PEAS.

This work has developed from a short sketch created at a drama school - WAAPA. Says the card publicity blurb:
In a remote Western Australian shithole, Danut (Philippe Kraus), an illegal immigrant, and Valencia (Nicole Shostak), a local girl masquerading as a Spanish chanteuse, dream of becoming cabaret pop stars. They have one chance to impress a famous Sydney talent scout (Griffin Blumer) with a lucrative contract with the New South Wales Leagues Club Association. FLAME PEAS is a light-heartedly depressing musical meditation on failed artists everywhere.

This work has all the promise of an entertaining 'gig'. At the moment one of the performers/writers, Griffin Blumer, is also Directing the work, and really, the show needs an outside eye to take it to a little more rigorous place in its evolving. It is at the moment a 'baggy' collection of characters with a stereo-typical journey that with some astute tightening and enforced skill disciplines, could take off into a surreal stratosphere of comic dimension. Mr Klaus, who plays Danu, gives us a terrific deadpan/depressed Russian 'dude', with an hilarious virtuosity on an electric keyboard - from classical to avant-garde experimentations. Ms Shostak creates the singing chanteuse who travels from competent to amazing, which is not always imbued with a consistent focus of energy effort, while Mr Blumer, plays the talent scout with a broad palette of obviousness. This work has ambition, and while, yet, it has none of the class of say, The Coen Brothers' take on a failed artist: INSIDE LLWEYN LEWIS (2013), with Oscar Issacs, it has potential.

This programming of this Late Night spot at the Old Fitz has flowered with some promise and a couple of the better (provocative) nights out in the theatre, so far this year:  DOLORES; THIS BOY'S IN LOVE; CLEANSED IN BLOOD; THE ISHMAEL CLUB.

Late Night Shows (9 - 9.30pm) worth checking out, with a beer or whatever, at the Old Fitz.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra - Dancing with the Devil

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, DANCING WITH THE DEVIL, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House, 12 August - 14 & 15 August, 2015.

This concert given by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO), conducted by James Gaffigan, had the title: DANCING WITH THE DEVIL.

The first offer was the Ballet music from Act III of Verdi's MACBETH (c.1864). The witches of the opera conjure the imagery of the Devil and the sound composed for the French version of the opera was for the dance around the cauldron of spells. Almost twenty years after the original premiere of the work, Verdi had taken the view that after the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, that the witches were the next most important protagonists, and wrote a ballet for them, for the Paris debut. That seemed the only connection to the other two offers of this concert, and like my reception to the Opera Australia's production of DON CARLOS, I felt the experience of the music as dated and fairly unexciting.

The other two works, the first, Sergei Rachmaninoff's RHAPSODY ON A THEME OF PAGANINI
(1934), for piano and orchestra, and the other: Dimitri Shostakovich's SYMPHONY No.5 (1937), belong to another century and another nationality: Russian. Whilst listening to these two works I observed that the contrast of mood and compositional sources between these two men could not have been more contextually diverse. I pondered, whilst hearing the 'dreamy' Romanticisms of the Rachmaninoff work, that that composer had written it in the relative safety of the USA, after leaving Russia, in 1917, the year of the revolution, and despite the contextual discomforts of the collapse of the economy - the Great Depression - and the ominous signs of the German politics of 1934, wrote with such airy pleasure and a kind of optimism. On the other hand, Shostakovitch had stayed in Russia after the revolution, and was living through the economic disasters and artistic purges of Stalin, in what History has dubbed: The Great Terror. After having put aside his Fourth Symphony for fear of a negative response from his "Masters" and possible disgrace and punishment (Shostakovitch took to sleeping in the hallway of his apartment so as not to disturb his family when the NVKD [the predecessor of the KGB] arrived to arrest him), he wrote - only three years after the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody - the Fifth Symphony, a work which reflected, at least externally, some say, the ideals of the Socialist Realism dictates of the Stalinist regime - the Symphony's heroic but dark sounds moved the audience, at its premiere, to tears and a 40 minutes ovation.

The Rhapsody by Rachmaninoff (the Rach-Pag) is a set of 24 variations on a theme by 19th-century violin virtuoso Paganini, for piano. Kirill Gerstein, a Russian born American pianist, was the soloist for this concert. Philip Sametz, in the program notes, tells us:
The work has wit, charm shapeliness, a clear sense of colour, strong rhythmic impetus and a dashing, suitably fiendish solo part that translates Paganini's legendary virtuosity into a completely different musical context.
The 'legendary' virtuosity of Paganini had been surmised to have come from a 'pact with the devil' - a suspicion of his audience in the nineteenth century. Mr Gerstein's playing had the same keen virtuosity, intense, delicate, loud and soft - his 'pact with the devil' re-enforced for us, his appreciative audience, by a left handed solo work as encore - startlingly rich in sound and true feeling. The famous melody of the 18th Variation in the Rhapsody had hit home, transporting one to a zone of inclination to a lush, luxurious dream of fulfilled romance.

I am a lover of Shostakovitch's work. I need to confess. THE FIFTH SYMPHONY, a four movement work, captures my imagination and sense of reflection on a country's history with deep feeling - a passionate, thrilled sadness - the contemporary Putin reign is, too, simply recalled when hearing this work (and other). The controversy as to the intention of the composer, whether the work is 'an artist's response to just criticism', that fitted the requirements of the Government - "a piece of mandatory optimism and Soviet propaganda", or, the late 20th century view "that Shostakovitch was a secret dissident, encoding anti-soviet 'messages' in his music, including the Fifth Symphony", makes no real difference to the visceral response I have to the dynamics of the scoring of the orchestral sounds. Gordon Kerry in his notes in the SSO program - citing Alex Ross:
The notes, in any case, remain the same. The symphony still ends fortissimo, in D major, and it still brings audiences to their feet.
Sitting behind the orchestra, just behind the percussion, watching Maestro Gaffigan, I was captured completely by the visceral 'noises' of the orchestra with a kind of excitement, pulsed through with a thorough kind of fear, of the era/life it was written in and the one I live in. Shostakovitch and his DANCE WITH THE DEVIL, Stalin, still goes on, under another name.

This was a terrific concert. I was very happy to have heard it, indeed, despite premonitions of the future. Art a mirror to my world views. Yikes!

The Women


The New Theatre present THE WOMEN, by Clare Boothe Luce, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown, 11 August - 12 September.

THE WOMEN, by Clare Boothe Luce is a tart comic satire written in 1936. Its famous gimmick is that only women feature in the casting - in the original play some 130 roles - and is a play concerned with the indulged class of the Manhattan rich and their servants, in their homes/apartments/beauty parlours, and inevitably, in the capital city for divorce: Reno.

The film, made in1939, Directed by George Cukor, is a comic classic stuffed with great stars of the period - Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine etc. - and is, for some, a capital 'C' Camp-Classic - it has a 8.0/10 rating for great films on the net  (forget the recent horrible, 2008, re-make).

In the foyer, before the performance, I supposed the reason to do it, today, is to give the women in this city the opportunity to hold the stage without a man to be seen - and, so, at the New Theatre some 18 women get to strut their stuff.  The risks in curating the work is in the number of period settings, and costume demands; finding  the skills for the famous old-Broadway tradition of the ensemble comic hijink fluidities of style, that are needed to keep the work afloat for today's audience; and with its demand for a large character driven company of actors that can be wielded into performances that can make a delicate bravura judgement  between truth of character and satirical caricature, comic gestures and sentimental melodrama.

 This play represents a tradition of playing that certainly gets very little exercise in this city. Any company, having the courage, the guts, the balls (!) to attempt THE WOMEN, by Ms Luce, is certainly setting itself a most wonderful, terrifying risk of failing.

The great surprise, then, is that the Director, Deborah Jones, at the New Theatre, has achieved a considerable success with this production. There is a lightness of assured touch from all the artists and the production flies by in a swift two hour forty minutes (including interval). Within the boundaries of the budgets of this theatre organisation, there is some good work: Set Designer, John Cervenka, uses a central revolve platform to shift the scenic action with taste and speed (one wished the Sound Design was more accurate to mood and, dare I say, lifted in volume, to segue the changes with more energy) - the overall look, is a low key Arc Deco decoration, of subtle colour, with minimal furniture and properties. The costumes which are, necessarily, many and varied, have been sourced and made with some elegant solution by the Costume Coordinator, Alexandra Plim. Congratulations. The actors manage to wear the costumed 'looks' and 'make-up' with some convincing, and when needs be, glamorous flair.

It would be invidious of me to focus too much on individual performance, for the ensemble  of actors, its combination and coordination, is the principal victory and pleasure of the night - the TEAM (the backstage heroes, as well). The principal players, Helen Stuart (Mary Haines), Jess Loudon (Sylvia Fowler), Emma Louise (Edith Potter) - despite that horrid, horrid wig! - and Eleanor Ryan (Crystal Allen) acquit themselves well. Though, too, could draw attention to Joy Miller, Vola Vandere and young Jade Potts, and especially, Sandy Velini who has a series of wickedly observed and comically astute creations.

This production shows off an almost lost genius of a great period of American theatre writing, and comic acting disciplines - ensemble and individual. Think of the great Kaufmann and Hart works: ONCE IN A LIFETIME (1930); YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1936); THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1939) - we haven't seen them in years - or the great one: THE FRONT PAGE (1928), by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  Sydney saw THE FRONT PAGE years ago, in the 1972 National Theatre touring production, at the now destroyed Her Majesty's Theatre, near Central Railway (in an 'Old' NIDA student production, as well, since then). The last production of this scale and comic flair, Sydney has seen, professionally, was, I suppose, another National Theatre touring production: ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS (2011), by Richard Bean, an adaptation of Goldoni's 1743 masterpiece, A SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS. The scale of design and the size of casting (see my blog on LOVE AND INFORMATION) does seem to prohibit the artistic vision of our major company,  the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), when one looks back over its recent track record (look at blog of CYRANO DE BERGERAC). We depend in Sydney, then, on the daring Co-op and Amateur theatre companies to produce this high scale work from the past, that are an important and entertaining part of our theatre going heritage, that is otherwise 'buried' and avoided by our major theatre company. Our contemporary writers discouraged to write in that scale - even to dream at that scale - comic or dramatic, it seems.

THE WOMEN, at the New Theatre, is then an unexpected production treat - flawed, but not diminished in its gifts for us. To see the satirical comedy/sexual politics of the period (still relevant today), along with the opportunity for the women of our profession to have wonderful roles to solve, are two good reasons for this active Socialist Theatre to curate the work. I guess. Role Equality for Women - Yes - just trying to placate the Ghosts of the Past that founded this important theatre space.

Surrender and have fun. It can only get better with an appreciative audience.

To do this play well is no small feat.  Go.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Don Carlos

Opera Australia presents DON CARLOS. An Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi,  Libretto by Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle, based on the dramatic poem Don Carlos, Infant von Spaniel by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1787) and on the play Phillipe II, roi d'Espagne by Eugene Cormon (1846). Libretto of the four-act version revised by Camille de Locle. Performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, July-August, 2015.

Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLOS. It is a Grand Opera. It is not often performed. I first saw it, searching for new experiences, on screen at an Opera Broadcast, starring Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu (I think) and liked it a lot. I happen to love the Schiller play, in the adaptation by Mike Poulton (2005), as well. So, encouraged by good notices and interviews (specifically with Director, Elijah Moshinsky), for the Opera Australia production in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House, I spend $175.00 (for not even the best seats!), $20.00 on a program, and a $5.00 'tax'/surcharge/whatever, demanded by the Sydney Opera House Trust to buy a ticket - "Don't want to." "No ticket!" Total = $200.00.

Before the performance, in the program, I read, in Director, Moshinsky's notes: "Many critics regard DON CARLOS to be Verdi's masterpiece. ..." Or, in the accompanying article by Phillip Sametz: Powerful, Lofty And Epic - Verdi's Don Carlos: "To put the case simply: DON CARLOS is one of Verdi's greatest operas. ..."  One was expectant of much.

So, if Verdi's DON CARLOS is a masterpiece, it was not discernible in the stagnant, moribund showing on the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage, the other evening. Picturesque it was, no doubt. The Design by Paul Brown, huge in its theatrical gestures at magnificence, but the physical action clumsily staged, particularly, in the first half, especially, with the the auto-da-fe episode - absolutely ridiculous - in its attempted visual dramatics. In the program we are told that this production is Opera Australia's biggest since the Ring Cycle. BIG it is, and handsome, but on the tiny stage in Sydney it looked, stupid, dinky, and worse, it was boring in its clumsy action.

Or, is it that the production first seen in 1999, now 16 years old, and the aesthetic qualities of the original visual concepts are now too, too over-blown for contemporary taste - technology has move on considerably in those 16 years - and/or the stage space is just proportionally to small for it to work?

At the interval, the idea that this work represented a masterpiece by Verdi had me asking and discussing with a friend: "Then, is Verdi, 'dead' artistically for contemporary audiences? What we just endured was terrible." One knows, from having lived a relatively long time, that artistic works, can go in and out of fashion, and may be, I contemplate, Verdi is on the outer edges of the unfashionable 'cosmic' belt.  Although, I know I can always enjoy, his LA TRAVIATA (1852), and even the silliness of the plot devices in RIGOLETTO (1851) can be overcome because of the music. And AIDA (1871), recently heard in the magnificent Gale Edwards' Handa Opera production, what ever the commercial uglinesses of the sound devices to deliver it, certainly revealed music and plot of some possible genius. A contemporary integration of craft and artistic vision on an almost 150 year old work of Verdi by Ms Edwards in almost impossible circumstances, a hit, a palpable hit (as it was with her oft repeated LA BOHEME, and her SALOME for Opera Australia.) So, what of this stricken production of DON CARLOS?

DON CARLOS has had a recent showing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York,  Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and a review by Anthony Tommasini (March 31, 2015), begins, "A solid cast with no weak links and a probing conductor. That's what it takes, even more than superlative individual performances, for the profundity of Verdi's DON CARLOS to come through. ..." I know not enough about the influence of the conductor on performance, in this case, Andrea Licata, to comment here, but I would add the profundity of the work also requires some major contribution from the Director. For, in the  production in Sydney, the singers produced, generally, outstanding ensemble and individual performances, and the staging of the second-half scenes of the opera which demand a more intimate and uncluttered hand, were so much more arresting than the first half - we could actually hear the 'musics' without visual distractions of grandiosity of set solutions, and woeful crowd control.

Ferruccio Furlanetto gave an achingly beautiful rendition of the searching self-examination that Philip II, has in the scene in the Escorial Palace. Joined by Daniel Sumegi, as the Grand Inquisitor, in duet, a thrilling and engaging musical feast was had. This  followed by superb singing from Latonia Moore, as Elizabeth de Valois - outstanding artistry present, in all ways, as she demonstrated with her thrilling performance in AIDA - and a glowering, glowing  musical contribution from Milijana Nikolic, as the repentant, Princess Eboli. In the following prison scene, Diego Torre, as Don Carlos, and especially, Jose Carbo, as Rodrigo, too, gave great singing.

This opera is just so stupidly plotted, for a contemporary audience, that a superb production, as well as musical performances, is truly necessary to have the audience make a commitment to suspended disbelief and to go with it. Love, STARK love, in the extreme expressed permutations of Obsessive, Passionate, Unrequited and Jealous, dominated in conscience by a tyrannical religious government - represented in the body of the Grand Inquisitor -  and the perfectly ridiculous solution of a ghostly figure arriving to give a resolution to all the dilemmas of the plot - is so poorly solved by the Director, in this production, that it caused a risible response from all of us. The dramatic mechanisms of this 1787/1884 story require a better production than this 16 year old one can for Sydney audiences  in August, 2015.

Committing my time to the Italian four act version, and my money to do it, was a risk, and I did take it on, on my own volition, so can take responsibility for my part in the performance, as an audience member (no real regrets), but I do want to protest about Opera Australia's role in all this. Yikes! Just where is the contemporary integrity of a Director like Gale Edwards to save us from this laborious production, when you need her?

 Bye, bye 4 hours of my life. Bye, bye, bye, $200.00 of my hard earned money. C'est la vie.

N.B. the Revival Director is credited as Roger Press. What his task was with this production presentation, I am not sure. I understood that Mr Moshinsky was here to personally supervise its re-staging

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Love and Information

Sydney Theatre Company presents A Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre production, LOVE AND INFORMATION, by Caryl Churchill, in the Wharf 1 Theatre, Pier 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 9 July - 15 August.

LOVE AND INFORMATION is a 2012 play by Caryl Churchill. Caryl Churchill is one of the most interesting contemporary playwrights and has always been a leader in investigating literary playwriting 'form' and unafraid to examine the social/political context of the world she lives in and writes for. Her provocative gaze came to blazing focus as far back as 1976 with her LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE (revived, in 2015, at the National Theatre, in London), and includes famous plays such as: CLOUD NINE (1979), TOP GIRLS (1982) SERIOUS MONEY (1987), FAR AWAY (2000) and A NUMBER (2002).

From the program notes by Director, Kip Williams:
The play is written in seven sections, each containing seven scenes, save for the final section, which has an eighth scene that Churchill titles 'Final Scene'. Churchill stipulates that each of the seven sections must be played in order, but that the seven scenes within each section can be played in any sequence. Further to this, she offers ten scenes at the end of the script titled 'Depression', of which any number can be inserted into the play at any point. 
The rule here is that the production must use at least one 'Depression' scene. In addition she provides sixteen scenes titled 'Random', of which any can occur at any point in the production, but none of which is compulsory. Thus any given production of LOVE AND INFORMATION will contain somewhere between 51-76 scenes. At the time of writing, our production has used 70 of them. 
To offer the theatre maker even more freedom, Churchill stipulates neither specific context nor character for her scenes. Each scene of the play is given a title followed by dialogue that is entirely unallocated to any character. Who is speaking this dialogue, how many people are speaking the dialogue, and where this conversation is taking place is entirely up to the theatre makers. The scope of the potential is liberating in its endlessness.
It is an opportunity that Mr Williams, with Designer, David Fleischer, seize with relish. On a gloss white box set with several entrance ways, a collection of rectangular boxes, similarly gloss white, are jostled around the play space, in each of the (many) scenes to jig-saw out arrangements for the actors to create environments and 'play' in. The Lighting from Paul Jackson creates the temperatures of the scene contexts with a dramatic use of, mostly, stark primary colours, easily laid on the glowing white foundation of the design base look. The company of actors have divided the dialogue amongst themselves with the Director, and thus have created, for this production, the unique necessities of the famous Stanislavskian demands of the 'Given Circumstances' of Who they are, Where they are and When it is happening (literally and emotionally). This is then assisted by costume changes (many) and a selection of properties (many) to help the audience visualise the theatrical offers given by these actors, into an understandable context, to help to 'read' the chosen theatrical clues, from the company of artists to make sense of the action and intentions of Ms Churchill, which are further underlined by the 'staked' wants/needs of the characters in the textual scenarios.

What you can gather from the above is that this production, any production, of Ms Churchill's play, LOVE AND INFORMATION, will be unique. No production of the play will ever be the same. Scenarios arrived at in this production for the unallocated dialogues will not be seen in any other production of the play. (By the way, this is not a unique offer from a playwright, we have seen it, for instance, in variations, in productions of Martin Crimp's ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE (1997), and Mark Ravenhill's POOL (NO WATER) (2006).

To further the possibilities of the play, any number of actors can be employed for the work. In the original production for the Royal Court Theatre some 16 actors were harnessed for the division of the text and possibilities of characters, to deliver Ms Churchill's love and information. In Sydney, The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and the Malthouse Theatre, from Melbourne - it is a joint production - can only supply 8 actors in total: Marco Chiappi, Harry Greenwood, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Zahra Newman, Anthony Taufa, Alison Whyte and Ursula Yovitch.


Why is this so? Is it that each of these companies can only find the resources for 4 actors each to deliver this work? It seems to be perfectly odd to me, especially considering that in the past three months since the middle of May, only 15 actors have appeared on the STC stages. Firstly, 7 actors in BATTLE OF WATERLOO in early June, after a two week gap of any production at all (Writer's Festival, occupying all our stages?), and now LOVE AND INFORMATION - 4 actors on the STC stage from Sydney, and 4 supported by Malthouse, I presume. In total, the Sydney Theatre Company have employed 11 actors on stage over a near three month period. Is that right? I merely ask for information, with respectful love. It becomes particularly galling whilst working with actors on an almost daily basis, in a class situation, to see how few actors get to appear on the STC stages, and then to count the number of staff - administrative and otherwise - who are credited in the back of the STC program (cost $10.00), and presumably are either full or part-time staff = 134, without counting the Education Artists and the Casual and Seasonal Staff, that are listed!! Weird, don't you think? That so few actors get to do plays on the principal stages, and, yet, there is so large a behind-the-stage staff.

To contrast, it is always startling (causing much inner grief, too) to see at the conclusion of the NATIONAL THEATRE BROADCASTS, at my local cinema, the number of actors who take a curtain call, compared to the paltry line-ups at the STC - one of our biggest Producer's of the Performing Arts in Australia. It must limit the choice of play we get to see at the STC to small cast plays, or heavily edited classics, and this in the touted 'Arts Precinct' of Sydney, eh?. What is it that the British Companies do to be able to manage the large number of actors they employ? Or, How do they do it at all, considering their Governments' diminishing support for the Performing Arts up-front? I ask, what does a country like Germany do, to have such a thriving culture. What does, Berlin, for instance, do, to manage its Art Precincts at such a high, in the sense of standard, and dense, in the sense of repertoire and number of artists employed (listen to, or read the recent Joanna Murray-Smith talk on Radio National podcast from the recent Playwrighting Conference in Adelaide).

P.S. Maybe Jonathan Church can let us in to the British secrets for our actor-starved productions at the STC, particularly, now that he is the NEW BOSS. ??? ??? We can only live in hope.

Anyway, back to the production at STC:

This co-production of LOVE AND INFORMATION, then, with only 8 actors (who are undoubtedly gifted), for the 70 scenes and 100 characters, have I reckon, an insurmountable problem of creativity, the problem of sustaining interest in the work for an audience, by having to provide a vast versatile variety of characters. The 8 actors, here, given the task of having to create approximately, 12-13 different life-forces each, some within a 30 second time frame, and to 'gallop' off into the wings of the stage, (to a throbbing , whisking, urging 'pop' Sound Composition by The Sweats) to don another convincing persona, take on, with a kind of artistic bravery, an undoubted phenomenal ask from Director, Mr Williams, and his Designer, Mr Fleischer (and the STC and Malthouse). It appeared, by what transpired, to be a very difficult thing to do, and both actor and audience were gradually sapped of the energy of collusion needed to keep the work suspended in real interest, throughout the whole of the work/play.

I had read the play and was extremely looking forward to the production. The sense of our overloaded world of information and the speed at which our daily interactions are, generally, made, and Ms Churchill's incisive, witty, political astuteness as to the dangers to our capacities as human beings to sustain love, to even, ignite love, in our frenzied media-driven world, was a theme of overwhelming and urgent relevancy, for me - Ms Churchill with her astringent, usual creative finger on the pulse of our contemporary dilemmas and courage in 'pushing' theatrical formulas.

However, my experience of the production, was to be enraptured for the first 30 minutes or so, to be gradually subsumed into an aching tedium with a loss of a caring focus for the valiant work of this small team of actors, as they changed costume and carried different props, and, perforce, began to repeat their imaginative and inventive resources to try to realise their many responsibilities. The means that they could conjure, became very 'limited' in their repetition, by the excessive demands being made on so few. There is a limit even to these actors resources to convince me and maintain my interest over some 100 characters in total. By the end of the production I was more attentive to the box arrangements of the Design, by the actors  - much time in rehearsal must have been spent in planning the 'ballet' of the box choreography (no stage management in view to do the job, just the actors?!), and marvelled, objectively, at the costume and prop changes and the speed that that required - I was in a kind of wonder at the actors' athletic ability and that they still had the focus to practice their gift, the reason they were employed, I presume: that is, to act. It was, all, then, unfortunately, at the expense of Ms Churchill's dramaturgical meaning and construction. I did not lose myself in the offers of Mr Williams' production - always the ultimate bench mark for me. 16 actors would have been better? 12 may be sufficient? 8? Definitely, not - it's stretching the possibility of success too far, for my hard earned money.

Some fine work by the actors but hardly consistent in quality of offer. Was it fatigue, seemingly, shifting their disciplines into sloppiness? Mr Williams has a penchant for imagery - an installation-artist's inclination, no matter the drama of the text - and some coup-de-theatre were made, some attempted, most recalling the work of other imagists such as Robert Wilson (EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH), or Robert Lepage (LYPSYNCH), (e.g. the graveyard with the falling snow, umbrellas and roses - recalling, for me, the fourth act of OUR TOWN or Tarantino's KILL BILL), that had captured the essence of remembered images, but had not honed the required discipline from his artists to indelibly deliver them, at least on the afternoon I saw the work. The actors not able to maintain the precision of movement to sustain those visions, beyond the trigged recall to another creator's work.

In summary: LOVE AND INFORMATION in Wharf 1 at the STC: visually sumptuous production values, with too few actors to gain a consistent quality of sharp edge to reveal Ms Churchill's terrific play.

But then, even the original production at the Royal Court, had its critics, wearying with the number of scenes, and contesting that some of it worked and had an impact, and some of it didn't. I found the first thirty minutes arresting, and then drifted in and out with my concentration, longing, ultimately, for it to end. It was only a running time of 90 odd minutes. Odd?

N.B the photograph accompanying this Diary entry. 7 actors out of 8 moving the Design Settings. 1 actor actually acting - 1 out of 8. STC has no stage-crew, either? At least none in view. Interesting, eh? Hmmmm.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Bleeding Tree

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents The World Premiere of THE BLEEDING TREE, by Angus Cerini, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 31 July - 5 September.

- With a bullet hole through your neck, numbskull of yours never looked so fine.
- Rest in peace Daddy numbskull.
- Ta ta Daddy ya sick bundle of shit.
- Bye bye Daddy you misery heap of shit. [...]
- Girls, I think your father is dead.
- I knocked his knees out.
- I conked his head.
- I shot that house-clown in the neck.
So begins THE BLEEDING TREE, by Angus Cerini. With a power-house trio of actors: Paula Arundell, Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds, Lee Lewis, the Director, takes hold of this contemporary gothic tale of self defence and revenge and hurls it out into the world onto the SBW Stage with a fearsome sense of this is a truth you all may have only dreamt about in the unconscious swirls of your deepest, darkest nightmares, but for some is a wish fulfilment of a lifesaving confrontation. Exaggerated, you think. Not for some, for sure.  Spousal Abuse, in our contemporary society, at all the social levels of our so-called civilisation, is being dragged out into the light for our conscious gaze, and though we wince, and prefer to avoid acknowledging that it is a much more commonplace possibility than we want, we have to surrender to the old aphorism: where there is smoke, there is fire!

THE BLEEDING TREE, is a story told for now, and it sounds and feels like the darkest of the Grimm Brothers tales, and in its writing, is as grotesquely beautiful as Angela Carter (e.g. THE BLOODY CHAMBER) at her glittering and haunting best in her twists on the canon of fairytales as lessons for contemplative observation and caution. It comes from the lair of a dry dirt town in rural Australia, a WOLF CREEK, perhaps (without the TRUE DETECTIVE or TOP OF THE LAKE allure of a distant locale like Louisiana or beautiful New Zealand, that had us thrilled but feeling safe in our lounge rooms), that makes this tale anything but fantastical and fabular, but frighteningly real and pulsingly present. Mr Cerini writes in the form of "a murder ballad", a story theatre form, a poetic narration of the action, to be spoken by three actors who find the right words from the treasure of his 'poem' for their impersonations as his Storytellers and identified Characters.

The play begins with the murder, and so the only issue left is: how to dispose of the body. Surprisingly, the women find the neighbours, the townsfolk, in sympathy with their plight and who, all, assist a cover-up (is it out of collective guilt for their previous inaction?). The body is strung up on the bleeding tree and allowed to rot and be eaten - and we, the audience are taken to a vivid word world of an unruly unconscious grotesquerie shimmering, shivering, with a weird, highly sensual celebration of revenge, decay, and a very rough execution of order being restored. It does not have the restorative glow of the Elizabethan the first, world perspective, that is, a struggling Christian one, but it is certainly reflective of the Elizabethan the second world experience, one of the simplicity of the shattered Christian check and balances of our very own moralities. It is one, perhaps, in theatre literature history terms, that is more Jacobean than Elizabethan. Bloody and decadent in the truth and necessities of the animal reflexes of our present desperate times.

Paula Arundell has been given a role that reveals all of her glowering power of imagination, emotional range and sheer bloody honesty - a courage to reveal an imaginative life that can translate and transcend into a truthful exposure of the darkest depths of human suffering. What was Ms Arundell channeling for us when she ignited into unforgettable moments of incandescence revealing a life grief of venting pain when the postie copper Stevens arrives at the house?
- Ya wanna say something Stevens is it? You want to say something now is it you? All the times you see you knew. His hands like fucking hammers, his fists like molten rain, his fucking mouth and his violence always been the same. But what do you do Stevens? What do you and all them menfolk do? Ya let him. Ya let him do what he do. Ya let him do what he do cos it's not your business is it Stevens. None of yours is it man. Don't stick your bloody nose into anybody else's business that the authorised plan? 
Whatever it is, it is a most extraordinary gift from an extraordinary actor for us groundlings, us ordinary folk. It is, truly, a wonder, an Elizabethan/Jacobean  wonder. (What would her Mother Courage have been?) Ms Arundell has been a star performer on our stages for years, in mostly, secondary tasks, but now has been given, by Ms Lewis, an opportunity to show us how bright a Sun she is. Let us now be rewarded with further opportunities of her gifts, please.

And surrounding this performance are two shattering ones by Shari Sebbens, growing in stature with every task she has been given (BATTLE OF WATERLOO), still, but deep in the plumbing of her emotional dilemmas; and a relative newcomer to our stages, an exciting Airlie Dodd - her character  young, unpredictable and tortured by her fears. There is a contagious fever of daring and simpatico between these three actors that is breathlessly thrilling to witness.

Part of the danger in/of the performance, we absorb, might be because of our unconscious sense of the knife-edge danger these actors maybe experiencing performing on this monstrously precipitous Set Design by Renee Mulder. This design may be decorated, strewn with a period pattern of wall-paper/lino flowers but it looks anything but safe, and we hold our breath for the actors, even unconsciously, as they negotiate its constant scariness of possible injury. The design, then, does work as an inter-active visceral embodiment of danger for the audience, and the dramatic schemata of Verity Hampson's Lighting must be acknowledged as another creative power of this production to that end, along with the haunting, moving Composition, Sound Design of Steve Toulmin.

Lee Lewis has worked with this writing in fine detail, and mounts the tension of the story arc with a laser-like craftsmanship to serve the revelation of the beauty of Mr Cerini's exotic linguistics and 'musical' score. It appears to be a labor of love, and it is an undoubted gift, a reward for her audience.

THE BLEEDING TREE, was the 2014 Griffin Award playwrighting winner. In this production one can truly appreciate its deserving.

Grotesquely beautiful. Morally cauterising. Glorious artistic daring from all.


Thursday, August 6, 2015


Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Riverside Theatres presents A Riverside Production, SHELLSHOCK by Justin Fleming, at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 30 July - 8 August.

Shellshock is a new Australian work, by Justin Fleming, having its World Premiere at Parramatta. The play was commissioned by Riverside in 2013 to be part of the ANZAC Centenary in 2015.

In the Writer's notes in the program, Mr Fleming, tells us that it was the Director, Wayne Harrison, who gave him
a snippet of fact to ignite the process (of writing): a soldier took home a baby tortoise from Gallipoli in 1915 and that tortoise is still alive. After confirming this snippet online, I began to build an elaborate fiction.
What gave Mr Fleming more security for his fiction was an alert to a painting by the famous British artist, Stanley Spencer, THE RESURRECTION OF THE SOLDIERS, at the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which has an extraordinary detail of a soldier calmly stroking a small tortoise.

The play begins with a shellshocked Australian soldier, Matthew Lindsay, in a hospital after the Gallipoli landings, during World War I, enquiring about his mate, Herman, who had been with him in battle. One hundred years later we find ourselves on a family property in the outback country of Australia with the relatives of that soldier: Matthew's grandson, Jack Lindsay (Jack Finsterer), Jack's son, Tom (Benson Jack Anthony) and the matriarch, June (Sandy Gore). Young Tom has the care of part of the family inheritance, an animal brought from Gallipoli, a tortoise called, Herman. A news story, inadvertently, brings international attention to the tortoise, and the Turkish Government despatches an animal repatriation agent, Adlie Goymen (Francesca Savige) to retrieve the animal and to have it passed back to Turkey as part of the ANZAC  Centenary celebrations, to demonstrate the Peace and Co-operation between the two nations. The complications, government and family, become the drama/content of the play, and are told to us through a narrator, a necessary shape shifter, a man of many parts (Yalin Ozucelik).

Inside a beautiful Design by Anna Gardiner, that features rustic , 'bush' furnishings, with a period-framed centre screen, which is used to project documentation footage and other information, and as a 'face' for the enchanting rod-puppetry of some of the story-telling, these five actors deliver story of gentle sentiment and growing tensions. The target audience, for the playwright, is that of young adolescents and on the day I attended the play wooed that audience with great ease and pleasure - genuine laughter and absorption and tensed expectation around the twists and turns of Mr Fleming's narrative. Too, the adults had a very pleasing time. The recognition of the truisms around computer and iPhone technology and the 'hip' vernacularisms of young Tom scored, especially, high response from all parties present. Cute!

I felt the writing, sometimes, to be a trifle overstuffed with literary allusions and educative facts (however interesting) that kept one a trifle distanced, as they say in Brecht-land, 'verfrendungseffecked' away, from the full arc of the emotional narrative. The ballast to this distraction, however, was the simple, understated work from all the company of actors, guided by the very firm and reliable Direction of Mr Harrison, within this  old-fashioned architecture and mechanisms of theatrical storytelling. Young Mr Anthony, as Tom, with his very winning, assured self, replete with a knowing sense of humour kept one invested in the many 'problems' of the character: the death of his mum, the burgeoning relationship of his grieving father with the 'envoy' from Turkey, the political feistiness of his anti-war grandmother, the 'ignorance' difficulties of the language and communication 'modes' of the young, that the adults have with him, and the loss, tracking and adventures to the looking for, and finding of Herman, across the world - are all kept alert and balanced. I, too, especially, enjoyed the relaxed clarity of the work from Ms Savige,as Adile, a romantic possibility with a duplicitous need, and the bewildered but charming charisma of Mr Finsterer, as Jack.

The support contribution from Matthew Marshall and his Lighting Design; Nate Edmondson with his Sound Design; Sue Wallace with her puppet creation and performance (rod and mechanistic Herman); Martin Kinnane with the Projection Design and the Original Music by Joseph Tawadros (featuring the Oud) are of an exemplary order.

SHELLSHOCK, has been written on commission for a young audience, by Riverside Theatre, Produced by Camilla Rountree. I expect and hope the production has a life, for it is charming, educative and good theatre. My audience ate it up and swallowed it whole, with empathetic relish. Forget Harry Potter and his team of mates, my audience had moved onto Tom and Herman as their new heroes of theatrical idolatry. If it were a book too, it would sell like hot-cakes, I reckon. Mr Fleming???


Glorious Thing Theatre Co presents, METAFOUR. Four Short Plays By Samuel Beckett, at the Pact Theatre, Erskineville, 30th July - 8th August.

METAFOUR is a collection of four short plays by Samuel Beckett: COME AND GO (1965), ROCKABY (1980), QUAD (1981), and CATASTROPHE (1981), presented by a young company of artists, from the Glorious Thing Theatre Co. The artists Aslam Abdus-Samad, Bodelle de Ronde, Victoria Greiner, Sophie Littler, Pollyanna Nowicki and Gideon Payten-Griffiths, have been Directed by Erica J. Brennan.

The program is about 60 minutes in length and the material is, mostly, a showing of a late development in Beckett's oeuvre, that had moved further and further into a minimalist aesthetic. Away from the word verbosity of the novels - that he wrote - to a compactness of expression that did eschew not only words-text, but, ultimately, movement itself. Just an image! Stripped to such a minimalist offer, reduced form, of authorial vision, any artist, attempting to present these works, needs a vivd and disciplined intellectual interrogation, with the added service of a consummate control of the skills needed to find an efficient and simple vocal and physical expression of the 'plays', to reveal the deep inner origin of the intentions of the author. To have a successful simplicity in any art form requires a craft control of much finesse.

The most successful element of this exercise by Glorious Thing Theatre Co is the Design by Victor Kalka - a, seemingly, vast white-grey stained bleakness of floor space with a crumbling platform of concrete to one side. The properties employed, chosen, are purposeful and apt in these circumstances. The costumes, mostly, an elegant sufficiency (though the four coloured 'pillow-slip-like condoms' that were worn by the company in the non-verbal, QUAD, required, possibly, more budget to achieve their intention). The Lighting Design, by Alex Torney, had some pleasing aesthetic achievements. Too, the Sound Design by Thomas Brennan was, mostly, a great relief, to have in the experience.

Physically, these actors have begun to utilise the methods and theories of the Tadashi Suzuki Method of Actor Training, (Toga, Toyama, Japan), to explore some of this material. That they are beginners of this method, is evident. The movement we saw onstage is approximate in its discipline delivery and lacks the elegance of comport of 'style' to persuade an audience to think beyond the oddness of it all - which became, necessarily, for some, a rather 'boring' experience and a meaningless use of time. Too, the text in the works is sparse, and at one stage, just disembodied voices. The words, the sounds of those words, become the tool with which the audience must 'read' the work - their ears must become eyes, as well. To be challenged with such succinctness requires, then, voices that have, necessarily, more skill access than the ability to deliver ordinary conversation, information. There is, I believe, a need to be able to present the complexity of the profound philosophic observation of the few words that Beckett gives, with an instrument capable of real, resonant force. None of these artists have the requisite basic skills, body or voice, to create the profundity that these works need to make positive impact.

To witness the aspiration of this company and not be 'bored' is to, perhaps, admire them for their ambition - I was never 'bored'. But METAFOUR at the Pact Theatre, is merely an aspiration created by an inspiration engendered by one of the most formidable theatre makers of the last century. One of my personal wishes when I go to the theatre is see work that "Fails Gloriously" - this is what I witnessed on my night at the Pact Theatre with METAFOUR: a glorious failure. There is no doubt that this company has the chutzpa of ambition which with better skills will allow them to achieve their aspirations. My faith, some might say blind faith, in the serious integrity of Glorious Thing Theatre Co, was illustrated, for me, in their sincere taking of their curtain call  - it had a kind of grace and proudful modesty.

Monday, August 3, 2015

ACO: A French Celebration

Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present, A FRENCH CELEBRATION, with Susan Graham, in the City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney. 11 July - 22 July.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) presented, A FRENCH CELEBRATION, with Susan Graham. This was a concert of a true chamber size: six instruments

What was revelatory, for me, was the beauty of the music of Maurice Ravel, especially, as revealed in the PIANO TRIO IN A MINOR (1914-15). Composed while working in the ambulance corps of the French army at the beginning of World War I, the Program Notes by Martin Buzacott, tells us;
It is easy to assume that the work reflects the anxieties of the loyal patriot on the eve of battle, but it is not specifically programmatic. Besides representing the full maturity of Ravel's 'impressionist' period (influenced by the formal clarity of Mozart, the rhythms and dissonances of modern jazz), the trio also reflects its composer's fascination with the music of Asia. ... Ravel assimilated all these influences into a distinctive, exotic musical language ...
 On the piano guest artist, Christian Ihle Hadland, from Norway, was accompanied in this four-movement work by Timo-Veikko Valve, on cello, and Christopher Moore on his viola. The gentle diaphanous sounds, the Asian influences, were delicately transcendant. Contrarily, the Ravel work, with guest American soprano, Susan Graham: Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme (1913), was neither arresting or interesting enough, for a musical philistine, such as myself.

Likewise the Ottorino Respighi , IL TRAMONTO (1913), held no transfixing concentration for myself. Says Natalie Shea:
il tramonto is what is called a poemetto lyric, a 'little lyric poem', a setting of Roberto Ascoli's translation into Italian of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem The Sunset.
I have never engaged with the work of Respighi comfortably: THE PINES OF ROME, THE FOUNTAINS OF ROME etc. never really, holding my attention.

To follow was a work by Cesar Franck, PIANO QUINTET IN F MINOR (1879). A three movement work, the sounds were of a very unfamiliar kind. Franck was an organist and the music for the piano here is organ-like. Mr Hadland again took charge of what, for some, is a very formidable piece to play (with an added difficulty of the huge range of the hand span required to solve the work). The 'weirdness' of sound (or was it the unfamiliarity of Franck?), and the actual piece, held one in a state of concentration and mesmerism to its end. I was fascinated by it.

I had taken as a guest, a friend for whom classical concert is a rarity. I had warned that the program might be a little difficult (esoteric) for a beginner to appreciate, but I was relieved to know at the concert end at how suspended in time my guest had been. She had no idea of the passing of the time and was surprised at how much time had passed, and of the joy that she had had in listening and watching this true chamber orchestra - she was keen to follow the experience up. Victory, once again, to the brilliance of the ACO and its programming..

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield
Darlinghurst Theatre Company, proudly supported by The Stafford Morgan Family, present DETROIT, by Lisa D'Amour, at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, 17 July - 16 August.

American playwright, Lisa D'Amour wrote DETROIT in 2010 for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, which was awarded to CLYBOURNE PARK, by Bruce Norris.

The play is set in the backyards of two next-door-neighbours, in the first 'ring' of suburbia, now, and, although, the play is called DETROIT it could be, says the writer, any mid-size city in the US of A. Houses built in the 1950's (you know the kind, the Australian Housing Commission provided them, too - my mum and dad's house), that had five models that you could choose from, in the post-World War II optimism of the American Dream. An introductory quotation in the play text from Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times in October, 1997, illuminates the present environment of the play:
Plywood has a lifetime of forty years. Over time, the glue that holds the plywood together dries up. Then, walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.
 Life, too, can unglue, buckle, and pop, and loosens us up over time.

Mary (Lisa Chappell) and Ben (Ed Wightman) live in one of the houses, their economic stability, rocky, at best, Ben having lost his job, and is in the planning of a new (if fantastic) self-driven one, while Mary struggles unhappily with hers, making alcohol a comfort to 'survive'. Next door, Sharon (Claire Lovering) and Kenny (James O'Connell), have just moved in, and seem to have no strong support about them, belatedly, we discover, that they are refugees from a drug rehabilitation centre. Being neighbourly, Mary invites the newcomers to a barbecue. In a number of scenes we move from one backyard to another as these bereft and nearly rudderless individuals (all) reach out for human contact and recognition. All these people have lives and they all have secrets from each other:
"This is awesome" says Sharon, "It is so awesome. I mean, who invites their neighbours over for dinner anymore. ... Neighbours. I mean why is that word still in the dictionary? It's archaic - am I saying the right word? Because you don't need to talk to your neighbours anymore. I mean does anyone borrow a cup of sugar anymore? No, you drive to the twenty-four-hour grocery."
These characters give more than a cup of sugar to each other, in the context of the world of the play, and the grinding desperation of a DETROIT reality, the reality of the hand-to-mouth circumstances of these neighbours, reveals in excruciating comic observation the feckless miasma that these otherwise decent human beings are in and takes us to a conflagration of lives that is tragic in the real sense of the celebratory animal need for connexion. An ordinary painful instinctual reach for nature, for animal pods of comfort with each other, in revolt to the enforced duties of 'civilisation' in the customised modern world and its 'rules'.

Ms D'Amour with the compassion and cruelly wry eye of a Chekhov has written a play of Stanislavskian truth. The plot is subtle, the characters recognisable, the observations tough and the moral (meaning) cauterising. It is as funny as it is pain filled. It is as accurate a portrait of the growing, contemporary poor as one can bear. That the play is American does not blunt its resonant social meanings for us Australians. This 'first ring' of suburbia and its denizens is in as urgent a need and desolation, here, In Australia, as it is in the USA. Just look around - the ominous signs in/of our present financial world simply combusts our feelings of the fear of what seems to be, for the acute, a slow spiralling to disaster - to a real sense of the metaphoric 'homelessness' of our present civilised human species. Has the promised dream of Capitalism failed us? How can we continue to live, survive, with dignity?

This is a very good play and the actors give performances of admirable compassion and care. The comic pain and the painfully comic. What this production, of Ms D'Amour's play lacks, is the careful attention to the Chekhovian detail of the world it is set in. Ross McGregor, the Director, brings the meat to the barbecue but does not cook it. The time it takes to cook the meat, the consequential sensory additions of the sound and smell of the backyard sharing is not presented. The dense instructions to the sounds , from the writer, of the environment of the play (Composer & Sound Designer, Jeremy Silver), disappears after the interludes of scene change, instead, of remaining subtly present throughout the play. This production of the play sits in a theatre absolutely obviously (Set and Costume Design, by Tobhiyah Stone Feller) and not in the reality of the world that Ms D'Amour indicates is possible - and if it did, it would create, the kind of imaginative magic an audience needs to gently build the very essence of theatre - atmospheric belief in the world of the play.

Mr McGregor seems to feel the need to entertain his audience with laughter and rushes the opportunities of the atmospheres of the play, and the actors' opportunities to reveal character (see my OF MICE AND MEN observations), rather than to allow the audience to discover what kind of play it really is, with the slow reveal of a world we naturally recognise, because we come from it - we know the smell of barbecue, we know the sound of air-conditioners.  He spoon-feeds the comedy with his actors' performances, instead of allowing us to endow at the speed of Chekhov's/D'Amour's eye. This production does not really settle down or find deep impact until the second half, after the interval, with the hilarious outrageousness of the 'primitive' rave of the couples, and the sobering arrival of a figure from the past, Frank (Ronald Falk).

Mr Falk's belated entrance (giving a wonderful performance. Doesn't one miss the quality of his experience in the present day casting choices of our major companies? - YES!), to the world of the play has an affecting depth of powerful resonance as his Frank tells us:
I lived around the corner for twenty-nine years. ... They were magic times. Kids running ragged everywhere, skinning their knees, catching beetles. Lemonade stands. All the fathers pulling into the driveways at five-thirty sharp in their Belvederes, their Furies. Kids running up to their arms. Our arms.
But this 'golden times' memory has, from Mr Falk, a pained self-delusional tone and later, when he continues:
I mean, not everyone was living this life. It was 1968. But the whole country wasn't hippies. Most of us were just living like this."
Mr Falk delivers Frank's speech, as if to convince himself of that truth, as much as Mary and Ben, and us, his listeners. Most of us, in the Eternity Theatre, living a life like this - delusional? Just what, I asked myself, "Do I see, feel, around me?  How many of us are delusional about the prosperity of our society to protect ourselves from sadness, from a despair of our culture, local, Australian and Internationally?"

 DETROIT, then, a good play with good acting. Worth seeing. Go.

Blonde Poison

Photo by Marnya Rothe
Producer Adam Liberman in association with Red Line Productions present, BLONDE POISON, by Gail Louw, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Wolloomooloo,  28 July - 15 August.

BLONDE POISON, is a one woman monologue/play, by Gail Louw, based on a book: ONE WOMAN'S TRUE TALE OF EVIL, BETRAYAL, AND SURVIVAL IN HITLER'S BERLIN, by journalist, Peter Wyden (1992).

Stella Goldschag was an exceptionally beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed Jewish girl growing up in Berlin during the rise of Hitler's Nazi party. Stella passed as an Ayran because of her looks and had forged identity papers, prepared by a famous forger of such documents, Guenther Rogoff. Inevitably, as the goal of a Jew-free Berlin in the 1940's was pursued by the Nazi Party, she and her family were arrested. Stella was savagely beaten and tortured by the Nazi's in attempt to find Rogoff, but she was unable to assist. Eventually, her torturers offered her the safety of her parents and her own life if she became a 'greifer' - a 'catcher' - a catcher of Jews, known as 'U-boats', living in the city. She agreed. However, even when the Nazi's betrayed her and sent her parents to Theresienstadt, Stella continued her role as a catcher, and to live comfortably in a small apartment with her own papers and a revolver. It is estimated that she betrayed 600 - 3,000 people - the Germans called her Blonde Poison or the Blonde Ghost. A daughter from one of her many sexual liaisons was taken from her at four months. Captured by the Russians at the end of the war she was put on trial and condemned to 10 years hard labour in various camps. On her return to Germany, she was again condemned to 10 years imprisonment, which was commuted. Stella searched for her daughter but on finding her was rejected and repudiated for her history. What guilt did Stella carry? What was her suffering as a survivor and how did she manage it? Did she?

The play is set in a seedy West Berlin apartment, when Stella is in her early seventies and is awaiting an ex-schoolfriend, ex-admirer, now journalist to interview her (Peter Wyden, the author of the book?) Told, almost, directly  to us we gather the facts of her life and we hear of her own anti-semitism, her musical ambitions and the family's inability to secure exit visas out of Germany, her sexual confidence and promiscuities, and of her ultimate aberrant thrill at her role as a 'catcher' and her inability to withdraw from the tasks which she had taken up (I heard from MACBETH: "I am stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er"). We the audience are shown the fine line between the altruism of her attempts to save her parents and then the difficult facts of her own self-interest for survival that followed their death. Most pertinently we are made to think deeply about the moral dilemma when one asks oneself: "What would I do to save my loved ones, my parents? To save myself?" - a question that a program such as the SBS series GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM asks us to contemplate today, perhaps.

BLONDE POISON, is Directed with grace and an elegance of detail by Jennifer Hagan. The Lighting, by Matthew Tunchon, is both atmospheric and narrative driven, giving support to the unravelling drama of the complex moral crises, and is well assisted by a restrained but accurately redolent Sound Design by Jeremy Silver. The Set Design, by Derrick Cox, for me, was over decorated/stuffed with unwarranted details and was/became a slight distraction - if I may say so, the distressed back wall and the essential practical props would have been more than enough.

Belinda Giblin, gives an astonishing concentrated, impeccable, 90 minute tour de force, as Stella Goldschag. With an accomplished Berlin-Jewish dialect, accompanied by a disciplined physical control and a compelling, startling beauty, that transfixes one, enthrals and attracts one, so that it seems, much like the original woman was said to be capable of (based on photographs, I have seen of her), one is seduced from outright condemnation of the choices that her character makes. Sex is a powerful, allure, poison for some of us. Ms Giblin embodies an observation made of the real Stella Goldschag, "That there were many Eves but she was the serpent." Beware.

One was absorbed and drawn by the fascinating moral quandaries presented by this performance by Ms Giblin, and the adaptation, by Gail Louw with her, slightly overwritten play, BLONDE POISON. 

Do see for yourself. 

 Red Line and The Old Fitz have made a switch of tone from the many recent high octane (male) works they have presented, and it is the content that this work offers that is worth embracing and contemplating. The work of these two artists, Ms Hagan and Ms Giblin is astonishingly considered and accomplished, whilst dealing with Ms Louw's provocative writing - a feminine perspective of history and its attendant moral dilemmas. As relevant, sadly, now as it was then.