Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Looking back on 2016

2016 was a disappointing year at the theatre in Sydney. Most of the Good Work came from the independent co-op productions and theatres. The Sydney Theatre Company just seems to be consistently artistically rudderless and moribund (is it driven, led, by Corporate visionaries or by artists? Money or art? Bums-on-seats rather than genuine artistic risk, exploration? Who are the dominant Board members? Bankers, Administrators or Artists? Be interesting to talk to Jonathan Church, don't you think?)  Belvoir appears to be in some dynamic of flux with a balanced mixture of hits and misses - a gradual return to consistency in output and a regard for its long-suffering audience, led by Eamon Flack. Griffin, both, the Main Company and Independent productions were extremely wayward and 'pumped' rather than of 'authentic' substance. The Ensemble Theatre consistent with their conservative but reliable curation with the new Artistic leadership. The Darlinghurst Theatre fairly middle-of-the-road and a little underwhelming - dull - in what they present. Looking at my personal experience of the year it seems to me that the Old Fitz, a 60 seat theatre (!) is doing the most consistently interesting work, followed by Sport For Jove at the Seymour Centre. Both of those companies, by-the-way, doing it with the Good Grace of the Artists who do it unwaged. Why?  Because they NEED to, to continue to believe that they are artists. It can only get better, can't it?


It's true isn't it? Every theatre company in Australia has commissions and development opportunities for new Australian writing. The major drama schools are doing it, for god's sake! Even the Co-op companies are doing it - look at next year's season at the Old Fitz, for instance. There are organisations committed to just that, the development of New Australian Plays, and nothing else. There seems to be a big 'industry', every year out there for New Australian plays. The funding for the new Australian Play industry seems to be enormous. For one's company to be funded, it would be a requirement, I suspect, even if unofficially, to plan a new Australian program or include a new work to gain a sympathetic 'ear' to score some monetary help. True or False?

So, where are the plays, then? I mean they don't have to be 'great'. Just being 'good' would be a starter, I reckon.

When one remembers, say, THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, which in 2015, won the Griffin Playwriting Award and was produced by them this year, and, say, THE GREAT FIRE, produced this year at Belvoir, or LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT at Carriageworks as a new Australian play, can one really believe that they are three of the BEST works that the Playwriting Industry in Australia can come up with, that the Gate-Keepers of those producing companies approve and believe we should see? Forget the productions, I mean just read the published texts. Really? Three of the Best? I wasn't convinced. From my conversations, with others, not many were. Should we mention THE BEAST - another new Australian work supported by a Commercial management! - what did they see in that work, to spend their own money? Oh horror, horror, horror. As Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW says: "The Horror."
  1. 80 MINUTES NO INTERVAL, by Travis Cotton. A comic play of much exhilaration with some great performances. Not perfect but really worth seeing again. One hopes to see it produced anew. Seen at the Old Fitz early in the year.
  2. SAVAGES by Patricia Cornelius. Ms Cornelius is a writer with a savage and angry eye. There is not much compromise going on for an audience's 'comfort' - a fierce but poetic truth-teller.This is a one-act play. Seen at the Eternity Theatre. Last year saw her play SLUT***at the New Theatre (this year it was produced at the Eternity Theatre. 
  3. THE BLOCK UNIVERSE, by Sam O'Sullivan. Matching 'intellectual' material with a love story this is a debut play by Mr O'Sullivan and it was a relief to be 'invited' into the material content of the writer's interests. Seen at Old 505 Theatre.
  4. e-baby by Jane Cafarella. A kind of docu-drama about the trials of Surrogacy well told. Entertainment and enlightenment, in an easy dosage. Seen at the Ensemble Theatre.
  5. THE DROVER'S WIFE, by Leah Purcell. A contemporary take on of the Henry Lawson short story told thrillingly with an iconoclastic 'hammer' telling of the savagery of life for all,  through a particular indigenous lens. The best new play of the year, I reckon, not necessarily served with the writer also playing the lead role. Look forward to another production to test its impression. Seen at Belvoir St.
  6. FLOOD, by Chris Isaacs. A play from Western Australia. One would hope we get to see more of this writer's work here in Sydney. Seen at the Old 505 Theatre.
  7. Damien Ryan's adaptation of Sophocles' ANTIGONE - A relevant and respectful text based on the classic play (mostly).

  1. THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, by Stephen Sewell. An epic play that revealed its strengths despite its Direction and also its flaws. A play that doesn't quite escape the shackles of the 80's, its period of writing. Blue pencil, re-shaping?! Just great to have the opportunity to see again. They don't write them like that anymore. At Belvoir.
  2. 4 MINUTES, 12 SECONDS, by James Fritz. A British play from 2013 with its finger on social 'ethics' and the personal corruption of our times. At the Old Fitz.
  3. JOURNEY'S END, by R.C. Sheriff. An 'oldie' but a play that grows in stature as time passes, when it has a good production and commitment from the actors. The horrors of war still relevant. Seen at ATYP.
  4. ANTIGONE, an adaptation of Sophocles' play by Damien Ryan, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre.
  5. THE FAITH HEALER, by Brian Friel. Every element of this production was of the highest value: Writer, Director, Design, Acting. Seen at Belvoir St. 
  6.  THE LOVE FOR THREE ORANGES, the Prokofiev Opera revived by Opera Australia, this year. Cheeky, weird and provocative. Wonderful.
  7. ALADDIN, the stupid but entertaining spectacle from Disney. I had such a good time,

  1. Sarah Snook and Ralph Fiennes in THE MASTER BUILDER at the Old Vic. Ms Snook challenging her famous co-lead for every moment on stage to tell the Ibsen play.
  2. Russell Kiefel, Genevieve Lemon and Andrew Henry in THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING.
  3. Lindasy Barrett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in the Royal Court production of ESCAPED ALONE, by Caryl Churchill.
  4. Keith Agius in THE WHALE, by Samuel D. Hunter, at the Old Fitz.
  5. Patrick Cullen as soldier in BULLY BOY, by Sandi Toksvig at the Blue Moon.
  6. Ensemble of a London production of RED VELVET, by Lolita Chakrabarti, led by Adrian Lester.
  7. Heather Mitchell in HAY FEVER for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC).
  8. Briallen Clarke in HAY FEVER (STC) and THE BLOCK UNIVERSE, at Old 505.
  9. Danielle King in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW for Sport For Jove, and 4 MINUTES, 12 SECONDS at the Old Fitz.
  10. Elijah Williams for BLACK JESUS, by Anders Lustgarten, at The Kings Cross Hotel and in the Sport For Jove production of ANTIGONE.
  11. Taylor Ferguson in BELLEVILLE at the Old Fitz. Fearless performance.
  12. Simon London in STRAIGHT by D.C. Moore at the Kings Cross Hotel.
  13. Hilary Cole, in the Musical HEATHERS in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House.
  14. Josh McConville and Robyn Nevin in ALL MY SONS for the STC.
  15. Ben Mortley in THOSE WHO FALL IN LOVE LIKE ANCHORS DROPPED UPON THE OCEAN FLOOR, by Finegan Kruckemeyer, at SBW Stables Theatre for Griffin Independent.
  16. Paula Arundell surviving brilliantly as Hippolyta/Titania in the STC's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
  17. Jeanette Cronin in LETTERS TO LINDY, by Alana Valentine, at the Seymour Centre.
  18. Marta Dusseldorp playing magnificently despite complex production obstacles in GLORIA***, by Benedict Andrews, for the Griffin Company at the SBW Stables Theatre.
  19. Belinda Giblin as Olympia in THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, for the Griffin, at the SBW Stables Theatre.
  20. Mark Coles Smith, Benedict Hardie and Tony Cogin in THE DROVER'S WIFE, by Leah Purcell, at Belvoir.
  21. Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Pip Miller in THE FAITH HEALER, by Brian Friels, at Belvoir.
  22. David Woods with skill and committed integrity in A FLEA IN HER EAR, for the STC.
  23. Jonny Hawkins making an impressive comic debut in RELATIVELY SPEAKING, at the Ensemble Theatre.

  1. ANNA GARDINER, Set Design, Martelle Hunt, Costume Design, Sian James-Holland, Lighting, for INNER VOICES, at the Old Fitz.
  2. Brian Thomson, Set Design and Emma Vine, Costume design for the THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, for the Griffin in the SBW Stables Theatre.
  3. Georgia Hopkins, Set Design, Daniel Learmont, Costume Design and Alex Berlage, Lighting Design for THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, at the Old Fitz.
  4. Brian Thomson, Set Design and Tess Schofield, Costume Design, Verity Hampson for Lighting Design for THE FAITH HEALER, at Belvoir.
  5. Isabel Hudson, Set Design, for THE SHADOW BOX, at the Old Fitz.

  1. PHIL ROUSE for INNER VOICES at the Old Fitz.
  3. JUDY DAVIS for THE FAITH HEALER, at Belvoir.
  4. KIM HARDWICK for THE SHADOW BOX at the Old Fitz.

  1. HUSBANDS AND SONS, by D.H, Lawrence, adapted by Ben Power and Marianne Elliott, for the National Theatre, London.
  2. ESCAPED ALONE, by Caryl Churchill, at the Royal Court, London.
  3. KING CHARLES III , by Mike Bartlett, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney.
  4. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, by August Wilson, at the National Theatre, London.
  5. THE KING AND I, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, in the Lincoln Center Theater, at the Vivian Beaumont.
  6. A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, by Arthur Miller, at the Lyceum Theatre, Broadway, New York.
  7. SOMETHING ROTTEN - A Musical at the St. James Theater, on Broadway, New York.
  8. FUN HOME - A Musical at the Circle In the Square, Broadway, New York.

  1. LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, by Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott, at Carriageworks. Design style triumphs over content substance.
  2. THE GREAT FIRE, by Kit Brookman, at Belvoir. How many drafts did this text have? Not enough.
  3. Bell Shakespeare's OTHELLO - it toured nationally! This was the best production that the famous Bell Shakespeare could put together? Maybe, some serious discussion ought to be going on at Board level, don't you think?
  4. Both Simon Phillips' productions, THE BEAST and A FLEA IN HER EAR, at the Sydney Opera House. Grotesque decisions on stage.
  5. Almost everything that the National Theatre of Parramatta produced: SWALLOW; STOLEN; THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE. The exception being WHO SPEAKS FOR ME.
P.S. For history's sake I directed Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS, for Sport For Jove, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre: Sydney critics nominated:
PAIGE GARDINER as Best Actress in an Independent Production. (Masha).
TOM CAMPBELL, as Best Supporting actor for an Independent Production. (Andrey).
GEORGIA HOPKINS, Best Set Design for an Independent Production.
EMMA VINE, Best Costume Design for an Independent Production.
          NOEL HODDA was nominated for a Glug Award as Best supporting actor. (Chebutikhin).

I would like to declare my thanks to the ensemble of artists' for that production. I had a 'dream' time working with them all.

Thanks to my readers. Let's hope 2017 is prosperous and safe for all of us.

Kevin J.

5 More movies, December 2016 Dancer, The Fencer, The Founder, Elle, Rogue One ..

My movie glut continues…

1. DANCER. A documentary film originating in the United Kingdom. Teaching acting, one of the primary questions I ask my students is "What will you give up to get what you want?" Sergei Polunin born in the Ukraine appeared, even as a baby, to have a gifted body. And, this film poses and even more startling question: "What will the family (poor) give up to get what they want/need for their son?" Father goes to Portugal, grandmother goes to Greece to find work to pay for the fees necessary to promote their son's career - there is no work in the Ukraine. Mother cares for him and 'plots' his progress. They realise that Polunin, if he is to achieve, needs to go to the best ballet school, and so find themselves in London at The Royal Ballet School. So prodigious a talent and so passionate an artist-in-training Polunin is promoted through the ranks of the School and then Company to become the youngest ever Principal Dancer. He is hailed as the greatest dancer of his time. Trouble begins when his mother has to leave him in London because of Visa problems. Then, later his parents divorce. The beauty of his talent is evident throughout the film as we watch a young man sacrificing all for his art, then imploding with the pressure of a demanding art form and trying to discover who he is, himself. With the reason for his driven mania for dance perfection, his family, in breakup, he, at the age of 21, walks away from it all trying to find a path to justify his life and seek, maybe, sanity. The ending of this work is moving as he returns to Russia and finally permits his family to see him dance - he has never allowed then too, since childhood - he feared their scrutiny. A reconciliation and a return to childhood roots, seems to encourage him to consider re-engagement. This is a documentary film using footage from all of his young life and career. The promise as a child is staggering and the quality of his work professionally is astonishing. This is a very interesting documentary film, its ending not yet known, he is still so young. Though not as satisfying as AMY with its exhausting examination of 'genius' DANCER is, especially for dancers, and artists of any discipline, a must see. It is a film by Steven Cantor.

2. THE FENCER. This is a Finnish-Estonian-German co-production Directed by Finnish Klaus Haro. It is set in Estonia in 1953 when Russia led by Stalin occupied the country after World War II. A teacher arrives in a small Estonian city/town, Haapsalu, and as sports master introduces the children to the practice of Fencing. The problem is that The Fencer has a history that the Communist Principal feels it is his duty to reveal to the authorities. This is a well told but familiar story line of the inspiration of children and the tensions of living under a tyranny told in 'classic' cinematic form. Beautifully done, the film still has a feeling of plodding along - you get there before the story does, tiresome. Being Australian one can be cynical about the familiar story and the way it is told and acted, but one can intuit from what is unspoken, the scars of the Estonian experience, for that audience today. The country did not gain its independence from Russia until 1991. And Putin is sniffing around the edges, today. The Estonian actors Mart Avandi, as the Fencer; Hendrik Toompere, as the jealous Headmaster and 'toady' to the Russians; Lembit Ulfsak as the victim of persecution; and Ursula Ratasepp, as the romantic interest, are quietly impressive, if, unsurprising.

3. THE FOUNDER. This is an American film, Directed by John Lee Hancock (SAVING MR BANKS - 2013; THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN - 2016). This is a true American story. It concerns the rise of a failed salesman late in his career, Ray Kroc, who sees the franchise potential of a hamburger operation developed by naive brothers, Mac and Dick McDonald, in San Bernadino, California, in the 1950's. Michael Keaton takes the lead and gives a tightly economic performance - often in close-up - of manic ambition. The McDonalds and Kroc are all Republicans, and here we have representatives of the good and the bad pursuit of the American Dream through the processes of Capitalism. What I took from the film was the difference of pursuit: where one is an altruism and 'scientific' inspiration and the other a manipulative, unethical and dishonest inspiration, and though legal, is despicable. The film does not take a stand one way or the other. It simply tells the story step-by-step of this successful American man who founded the world-wide billion dollar phenomenon we know as McDonalds with its Golden Arches. It taught me the truth of the old aphorism never to trust the smile of a Krocodile (or is it tears?). Placed beside David O. Russell's JOY from earlier this year where Jennifer Lawrence became the true boss of her family and enterprise - every American Dream for riches is possible if you have the gumption to persist, and the recent HELL AND HIGH WATER, Directed by David Mackenzie, and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, where the Banks and their practises are given a drubbing by the long-suffering poor, the US of A maybe at war with itself, its symptoms emanating, amazingly, from those Hollywood offices of film as business. Interesting politics, all three, and efficiently done. If you are a 'political' , they are all worth watching. Hold off the despair, if you can.

4. ELLE. A French film from Dutch Director Paul Verhoeven (ROBOT) an Isabelle Huppert comedy/psychological thriller spearing with satirical elegance, the hypocrisies of the individual and the world ('that we are sentenced to solitude in our own skins') as we unravel in a desperate need to survive, to win. What you see on the surface is not all there is. The Janus face that we all wear - beware. This is a wonderfully intelligent film (maybe, a trifle too long) based on a book: OH, by Philippe Djian. All the performances are great, especially the intriguing Laurent Lafitte, led by one of the great actors of our time Isabelle Huppert. If you thought she was provocative in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001), wait till you see this. Isabelle Huppert, who I have loved since HEAVEN'S GATE (1980), gives a great performance: Michele Leblanc carries a psychic scar that permeates the whole of her life. She is a successful CEO of a video game business that produces work verging on the edge of graphic sexual violence. Michele is raped.
But this film is not about the rape it is about much much more complex things than that. The rape is the startling catalyst for edge of the seat viewing. This is about game playing to survive, and who isn't playing to survive? ELLE is one of the best films I have seen this year, if not the BEST. Mr Verhoeven tells that he tried to get it made in America but could not. Thank God he was forced to take it to Europe for otherwise we most probably would have had a BASIC INSTINCT thriller instead of this sophisticated psychological social masterpiece. I yearn now to see BLACK BOOK (2006) again, and must find and see SHOWGIRLS (I never saw it …believed the reviews - what a sucker!). But surely, a Director of such intelligence and skill can't have got it so wrong - I read that there has been a critical re-appraisal of that film. It just shows you the prurient personality of the American gate-keepers, perhaps?And my gullibility. Do not miss.

5. ROGUE ONE - A STAR WARS STORY. In case you think I am a trifle 'arty' in my film viewing I took myself off to see the latest instalment of the STAR WARS stuff, Directed by Gareth Edwards (GODZILLA - 2014). This is pretty good, if still, ultimately, numbing to sit through - one becomes more and more admiring rather than involved. It is all so predictable and formulaic and really only those "dyed-in-the wool'" Star Wars tragics could be constantly excited by the story line and the development of the characters. But, with such an excellent cast, who all give truly committed performances in this bit of space-junk: Felicity Jones (THE INVISIBLE WOMAN), Diego Luna, Ben Mendlesohn, Mads Mikkelson, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen (Diversity in casting!) combined with the best CGI available with its imaginative aesthetic beauty, it is worth the price of a ticket. By the way, what do you all think: is Forest Whitaker just one of the worst OTT (Over-the-top) actors on screen? Thank goodness his character gets done-in kind of early in the film. I always watch him telegraph, grossly, everything he has thought about the character he is playing - and I mean EVERYTHING - erghk! Someone likes him, it seems. He has been in a lot, lately, Go, if you have to.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Babes In The Woods

Photo by Edwina Pickles
Don't Look Away in association with Redline Productions present BABES IN THE WOODS: Australian Purity Defil'd, by Phil Rouse, based on the good works of Tom Wright, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo, 13th December - 21st January.

BABES IN THE WOODS: Australian Purity Defil'd is a new musical comedy work in the knock-about vein of the traditional Christmas panto, but, in an Aussie style. A very Aussie style. Drought, ghosts/convicts, mine shafts, bushfires, secret rivers and occasional awful foul language. There are some illuminated signs to cue us, the audience, to APPLAUSE; BOO and HISS; to call LOOK BEHIND YOU; or to call, and this was my favourite, GET ON WITH IT. We were all given brown paper bags of cabbage (not garbage) to throw at the performers when we wanted to. AND, there is lots and lots of tinsel and whip-smart costuming, the Set and Costume, by Martelle Hunt, aided and abetted by suitable 'blingy' Lighting from Sian James-Holland.

We have cross dressed characters of both sexes and lots and lots of dumb gags (throw your cabbage) and lots and lots of quasi-vaudeville routines (Get on with it), lots and lots of songs (with not enough singers), and lots and lots of ripe political ribaldry as well (some of it quite smart, too). The five actors, Annie Byron (the delicious baddie, Aunt Avericia)), Sean Hawkins ( the sexually objectified and thick-head hero, Jack with some sad 'gay' jokes), Gabriel Fancourt (a very winning [clever] 'drag' heroine, Phyllis), Alex Malone (the female foul mouthed Babe, Ruby), IIdiko Susany (the moustachioed, mullet-quiffed male Babe, Robbie) and Eliza Reilly (with a double act: Flapgerkin - a talking emu and a spot-on Angel of White Privilege).

All of this is backed up with a live soundtrack from Composer Phillipe Klaus. It is Directed with a sure hand by Phil Rouse who has also Written and Produced the show. The only issue is really the sound balance. What with the electric piano which is miked-to-buggery non-stop and the performers not miked at all, not everything written is caught by the audience. It's wit is often drowned in noise.

Still, this is just an end-of-year piece of raucous buffoonery best swallowed with swigs of your favourite beverage and the bon-homie of the end of year celebrations, enhanced by the need to obliterate, at least for 70 minutes, the annus horribilis that 2016 has been, and dim, even if only momentarily, the fearful prospect of the aftermath of a propitious event on the 20th January, 2017, somewhere in the US of A. Sound the trumpets and let's hope the walls of civilisation don't fall down, Joshua. Was that a cue to BOO and HISS? Where way to the Brexit?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

7 Films… Nocturnal Animals, Fantastic Beasts, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Mahana, I Daniel Blake, The Hunger.

Hi everyone

There have been no plays on my calendar for the past few weeks, so I indulged in a film-going binge. Just for change I thought I would just sum up some of my experiences.

I am not suggesting that I am a film critic (yet) but some of us have missed Margaret and David as a guide, so here is a quick flick from me about what I have seen. Maybe you'll go see.

1. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS - This is the Tom Ford follow up to his A SINGLE MAN. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not as satisfying. Beautiful to look at, always. A great score. Good performances from all. Amy Adams giving another performance of charismatic depth on the screen for you to puzzle through,as she did in ARRIVAL, earlier this spring. Jake Gyllenhaal is good, as usual, (though not as good as he was in NIGHTCRAWLER). Michael Shannon amazing, again. Laura Linney, in a tiny role, mesmerising as usual, what a great actor - you have to look well to pick her - I had to. While the good looks and gifts of the 'bad boys' of the plot of the film of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Karl Glusman is such that it is often hard to look away from the 'scary' bits of the story, making it kind of what? -"torture-porn", someone suggested to me. Certainly some of my friends have argued the opening credit images might be just "misogynistic porn". I reckon it is the basis of a good after movie debate among friends. I had a very good time. Recommend.

2. FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. If you're a Harry Potter fan this film might do. I found it inert. My attention wandered over and over again. Bored.Bored. Bored. Aren't you over such gross CGI now? I am. Eddie Redmayne has been type-cast in the Hollywood tradition of when on a good thing stick to it, as the 'fragile human being' again (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and THE DANISH GIRL) and he is really a much more interesting actor than that - hated all that shy cringing in the corner stuff - ehhh! Best in it was Dan Fogler as the American non-magic person, Jakob. Of course there was a little compensation in getting to see Colin Farrell's eye-brows - always worth the ticket! What about Johnny "lower-depths" in that cameo? - tired of that performance, too.

3. HACKSAW RIDGE. Went to this film reluctantly. I knew I was being shockingly manipulated with all that 'goody-goody' set-up stuff featuring Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffith, in that first half, but Mel Gibson is such a great storyteller that I was drawn in to the whole thing during those 'gob-smacking' and brutally 'ugly' battle scenes. Technically, how amazing is that stuff? I admit I had a little 'cry' or two. Mr Garfield impressed me so much in last year's film 99 HOMES, that I found his work in this a little challenging to believe and looking at the trailer for Scorsese's latest SILENCE - he looks a worry again. Maybe 99 HOMES was a fluke?! Loved catching all those Australian actors popping up all over the place in cameo appearances - taught a lot of them - how proud! Luke Bracey impressed me, while Vince Vaughn just convinced me further that he just can't act? - all that unconvincing stuff from him during the first half training/bullying sequences. HACKSAW RIDGE, ok.

4. LA LA LAND. Well, this is the follow-up film from Damien Chazelle, who pressed some buttons with his last, WHIPLASH, last year. This is a musical. Song and Dance. It features Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone - both gorgeous - and not many others at all - no sub-plots. Neither of them look as if they can really sing-and-dance (but, I reckon that 'flexed' at the wrist hand of Ryan Gosling in the big number will become an iconic gesture - code to nostalgic joy as we remember this film in years to come), for if you remember the images of people singing and dancing in, say, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, it looked as if that cast could sing-and-dance and were doing it spontaneously on screen - for real. It seemed to me that these performers were 'singing' along to a pre-recorded sound take, obviously - just slightly out of sync: "are you lagging or are you rushing?" I wanted to ask.  It made no difference really, the stars' personable charm and chemistry covers up any nagging quandaries. There is a lot of nostalgia and multi-film references going-off all through the film that can only give one further pleasure as a film-buff, if you pay attention. This is a musical that will surprise you in its storytelling twists-and-turns. Listen to the references to the great classic, CASABLANCA, and remember how that central romance worked out and you will anticipate where you might end up in LA LA LAND. I loved it. Amelie with Audrey Tatou was my last truly romantic treasure, and this is the next. A great date movie.

5. MAHANA. A New Zealand (NZ) film from the Director of ONCE WERE WARRIORS, Lee Tamahari. This is based on a novel from one of the great NZ writers: Witi Ihimaera (he was also one of the producers). Two families with adjacent sheep farms in 1960's work out the 'psychic-scar' of their joint existence during the course of this story of a young 'circuit-breaker' called Simeon and his maturing 'battle' with his Grandfather, in the film's 'third act'. It is a home spun tale and is just as manipulative as HACKSAW RIDGE, but has so much charm, gentle wit and grace, that you just go with it, with no qualms at all. I just surrendered. The countryside is so beautiful and the cinematography by Ginny Loane is so captivating, that if it weren't for the recent earthquakes, one might go to live over there immediately. Temuera Morrison is a commanding anchor to the film, as the district tyrant; Nancy Bruning full of dignity as grandma and Akuhata Keefe is winning as Simeon. On-the-side I would say the acting overall, except for Mr Morrison, is a bit shaky - thank goodness they weren't given long speeches to sustain - but the sincerity of all their effort and the visual handsomeness of it all is very, very seductive. I recommend this film as an honest feel good old-fashioned experience.

6. I, DANIEL BLAKE. This is a Ken Loach film. It deals with an ill out-of-work carpenter negotiating his way through the labyrinthine 'terrors' of government bureaucracy in trying to just survive - live. Included in this story is that of a young single mother. Like the Dardenne Brothers film TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT it covers the plight of the 'working poor' of contemporary society. I recognised many of the issues of the film, being of a certain generation, and often wanted to leave the cinema, as it was a very painful truth-telling, but stuck it out and found it an extremely rewarding experience. Dave Johns , as Daniel Blake, carries the documentary style of playing with humbling vulnerability and is balanced by the work of Hayley Squires, as the other major protagonist. A copy of this film should be sent to every politician in every level of government and the public service. All of you should champion this film as a necessary social observation that ought to be a game changer as to how we confront the necessary negotiation that the growing gap between the 'rich' and 'poor' of our society, reveals. It is horribly moving. In the culture of our present working revolution and the need for jobs this is a must see. Fearfully predictive. Thank God I am old and not facing the future of my young friends and their families.

7. THE HUNGER. Now, I saw this at a Birthday party after the food at my host's home. So, not exactly at the movies. BUT, this is an arty Vampire film beautifully designed with a  glacial pace. It paid off to be patient. Some, having to be very patient. I loved it. I have been affected by it - I can recall some of the visuals vividly.  Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie (encased in many, many make-up jobs of gradual decay) are the featured players - all wonderful. There is full on lesbian stuff going-on. What did they make of it in 1983? Tremblingly controversial, I imagine. Still, fairly startling and daring. Directed by Tony Scott (brother of Ridley Scott), you know it is an old film because of the amount of cigarette smoking that goes on - unbelievable. I know this is a retro-flick but I thought after watching it, it could comfortably stand beside Jim Jarmusch's recent, 2014, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - delicious Tida Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and John Hurt; The Swedish, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, from Tomas Alfredson in 2008; and the Great classic Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY, 1968. Pull it out, or up load, depending upon your equipment. Sit back and have a thrilling but sophisticated time. I guarantee.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Lighten Up

Bali Padda and Griffin Independent present, LIGHTEN UP, by Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 30 November - 17 December.

LIGHTEN UP, is a new Australian work from actor/writer Nicholas Brown and Stand/up comedian/writer Sam McCool. It is their first play/work as writers.

The origin of this play seems to have been a personal one for Mr Brown who after graduating from acting school (NIDA - 2000) found that the industry that he was trying to work in was practising, subtly, 'systemic racism'. So, as far back as 2005, he began to write this work trying to put his experience into some kind of public perspective. It began as a film idea but has gradually transmogrified into a play. What he found while writing, amongst other things, was a therapeutic watershed for himself that "helped [him] to embrace his mixed-race heritage": that of an Australian Indian heritage (he later went to India to play some lead roles in the Indian/Bollywood films SEDITION, PRATICHHAYA, LOVE YOU TO DEATH and KITES.)

From Mr Brown's notes in the program:
I decided to to make my story about an Anglo-Indian man with major identity issues falling in love with an Indigenous Australian woman who helps him come to terms with his skin colour. In 2012 after several years and many incarnations I approached comedian Sam McCool to co-write the story with me (he, too, is of Australian Indian heritage) as I knew the play's themes were heavy and that the only way to address that touchy subject was through comedy. LIGHTEN UP became a cross cultural comedy ...
Mr McCool in his notes writes:
In writing LIGHTEN UP, our focus was always telling an original 'Aussie' story, set amongst the multicultural suburban landscape both Nick and I were raised in, yet one which tackles head-on the complex issues of racism, prejudice, identity, career, ambitions, life, the after-life and destiny. .... The story is essentially a romantic comedy, impacted by the clash of cultures surrounding each character. It highlights the challenges for individuals trying to discover their sense of purpose and true identity in our modern culturally complex world, beyond what we were brought up to believe.
LIGHTEN UP, as it is on the SBW stage, is all of those things. I found the work engaging and funny despite the feeling that the performances were still, mostly 'works-in-progress', as is the text itself - some first night line 'fluffing' going on, suggesting recent re-writng uncertainties revealing themselves. The script has the structural foibles of a screenplay - a need for lots of actors - requiring three actors having to play not only a principal role but a scatter-gun of others. Bishanyia Vincent plays not only Janelle, the Aussie girlfriend, but some seven other characters. Ms Vincent manages to create a comic character of some note as Janelle but also convinces with astute choice of cliche gesture other identities to keep the play robustly flowing (I suspect with the scrutiny of Magda Szubanski's repertoire). I reckon the costume changes going on for these actors are worth noting as part of the intricate difficulties of the production. Julie Goss, has a triptych of characters, making the most of the Merle Oberon with exotic élan. Too, Mr McCool, besides his Indian film director, Anil, larks his way with four other characterisations, as best he can.

The genre is that of a romantic farce played at break-neck speed stacked with comic characters and cliches and jokes of a Marx Brothers/Monty Python type and rapidity, with a meaningful political undertow. The actors coping with 'heroic' costume changes and with the short swift structure of sketch-length scenes have not yet got it all under control in this space. Volume, pitch and the right pacing of the vocal demands still not completely harnessed for the best result. It is, as they say, all in the timing, especially with this kind of writing. Although, how far they will be able to solve this problem is in question in a Design space by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, that is all brick wall and wooden floor (no absorbent soft surfaces), that creates a reflective sound echo chamber that does not assist the clarity of all that is said - I did, however, like the cheekiness of the Design colour palette. Perhaps, as the company finds its rhythm and begins to land their jokes on the audience and are able to listen to their response, before moving on, it will reveal all the work's kinetic possibilities - which I believe are significant.

The contrast of sophistication of the comic writing and the balance between the comic and heart felt truths in LIGHTEN UP seem much more developed, more assuredly handled here, than in the Griffin prize wining play THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, which we last saw on the SBW stage. One wonders if the Griffin main stage management ever thought that this work was worthy of main stage care, rather than leaving it to an Independent company to bring it to life. For, it seems to be more astute in its comic political genre writing than THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, which supposedly had a concern about Climate Change - I wonder what Ms Edwards would have made of this text after watching her valiant attempt to find the way for Mr Carleton's play.

Mr Brown playing the role he wrote for himself, John Green, acquits himself well. While Katie Beckett, as Sandy, has a personable charm, she appears to be slightly out of her depth here, unsure as to when it is and where she is, in its playing stylistics. Vivienne Garrett, as Bronwyn, the mother figure, who is denying her heritage (her colour), has to find a balance to a character that could become the 'villain' of the piece. This, she mostly (nearly) manages - a scene to explicate her back story, earlier, would assist the problem, I reckon - dramaturg take note. Sam McCool, the other writer, has wit and energy in the many incarnations he has responsibility for, but it is that of a stand-up comedian rather than that of an actor - he has the disquietening habit, whilst in the mid-flow of his scene, to 'checking' the audience out, out of character. Perhaps, it is just inexperience and the habit of the stand-up comedian?

Shane Anthony is the Director and one hopes he continues to settle the production down as he hears the audience respond to the work and guides it to a clearer, landed experience. Mr Anthony has acted as Dramaturg to this development but has not found the attendant disciplines for staging this incredibly clever but difficult work. Comedy is hard but farce as we have seen in Sydney in this past month - A FLEA IN HER EAR, RELATIVELY SPEAKING, is even harder. It requires expertness in technique (solved with stricter casting) and lots and lots of TIME to get it right.

It is the way the 'politics' of the work is handled by Mr Brown and McCool in the torrent of the farcical comic elements that makes this play worth championing. Even if it is naive it has a pungency in it's revealing. It is not angry, it is human. This work has the passion of authenticity that reflects the lived experience of both these writers' lives - their Australian Indian experience. That they still have a sense of humour about it all is why the work is especially arresting. It has a cultural generosity. It is a look at other Australians' lives through a lens that is refreshing and necessary. It has a similar mixture of the recent Australian romantic comedy film, unINDIAN. There is 'something' in the air, perhaps. A maturing of an industry?!!!

John: Mum, please tell the truth. Where are we from?
Pause. MERLE comforts BRONWYN.
Bronwyn: I wasn't born in England, John. Neither was your father. I came here in the seventies. From Bombay.
John: Mumbai.
Bronwyn: I'll always remember it as Bombay. Your father and I are ... Anglo-Indian. Just like Englebert Humperdinck, Cliff Richards, Merle Oberon.
John: So many lies, mum. Why?
Bronwyn: When I arrived here, I had a funny accent and people made fun of me. I met your father. He'd experienced the same sort of thing. We wanted to assimilate. We both had white skin. Especially your father, and we decided to ... to move on. My mother told me when I was growing up that she was British and her mother did and her mother did too, even though we were all born in India. Same with your father's family. We're a mixture. Once India got back its independence from the British, we struggled. We were all messed up for being mixed up. Colonialism has a lot to answer for.

LIGHTEN UP, has the potential to develop into a work of much accomplishment. The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has picked up the Griffin production of Angus Cerini's THE BLEEDING TREE, for the coming year of plays. It is an accomplished work, both the writing and the production. The STC have bought in a full proven package. One wonders if they would take LIGHTEN UP on and develop it further - I think they should. Someone should. In the meantime give it a look, for even with all of its rough edges it is a better night in the theatre than other stuff that is vying for your time and money.

Friday, December 2, 2016


Red Line presents, RESPLENDENCE, by Angus Cerini, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo, November 29 – December 10th, (late-night show, 10pm start).

All you theatre goers in Sydney should respond to the name of this writer Angus Cerini, for it was he who wrote the terrifyingly wonderful THE BLEEDING TREE up at the SBW Theatre for the Griffin Company, in 2015, which has been curated by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) as part of their season next year.

Written in verse this is a one person monologue of a very Melbournian angst - the play was first presented as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company's (MTC) NEON Festival in 2014 - it is a kind of "Night in the Life of a Loser" and won the Louis Esson Prize, in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.

'Every night.
Every night it's the very same thing.
Very same thing.

No room for wondering who or what you might be.
Just one never ending, ceaseless bending of time that nevertheless sways.

And that my small friend sitting here amongst the voices from the grave is where the sermon has to end.'

This production is Directed by Nathan Lovejoy (he has also prepared the Sound Design), with actor James O'Connell. The production features the Actor and the Director at the expense of the clarity of the text. There is much sound and fury (emotional and physical demonstration) going on here, from Mr O'Connell and lots of Lighting and Sound, too, courtesy of Mr Lovejoy, and unfortunately, it is at the expense of the writer who is definitely no idiot telling this tale. After reading the text I believe Mr Cerini is as sure here in his writing as he was with the prize winning THE BLEEDING TREE.

In any performance the text should be at the centre, the primary objective of the communication. In this production it has the tertiary position. Actor is in primary position. Director, with his Lighting and Sound plot, secondary.

There is a devoted energy being given on this stage by these artists. But RESPLENDENCE is a much better play than this production permits us to share.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Relatively Speaking

Photo by Clare Hawley
The Ensemble theatre presents, RELATIVELY SPEAKING, by Alan Ayckbourn, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 18 November - 14 January, 2017.

RELATIVELY SPEAKING, by Alan Ayckbourn, was his first big commercial hit, in1967. It had a cast that included Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and introduced Richard Briers to the London West End. The play, originally called MEETING MY FATHER, came out of the 'revolutionary' era of the English Swinging Sixties with all its entertainment taboo explorations into drugs, sex and rock 'n roll, - think of films such as TOM JONES (1963), THE KNACK, AND HOW TO GET RID OF IT (1965), GEORGY GIRL (1966), to recollect the sprit of the times - and deals with the miscommunications and mistaking of two bourgeois couples, one ensconced, in what appears to be a comfortable but bored marriage, and the other couple about to launch themselves into that daring 'adventure'. The sexual hypocrisies of the human animal in the frame of the conventions of marriage are exposed in the guise of light weight comedy. RELATIVELY SPEAKING being the first example of the stealth of the steel fist of Mr Ayckbourn disguised in a soft glove, that became the typical 'weaponary' of his coruscating social politics. This method was employed in all of his seventy-odd  plays, the soft guise of middle class comedy allowing sly observations of the cruelties of the prison we celebrate as happy domesticity. It is that unflinching wit, that has made his plays distinctive and some of them modern comic classics: THE NORMAN CONQUESTS, BEDROOM FARCE, A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL, SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS etc, etc.

One can genuinely laugh at the clever and witty convolutions of this foursome even some fifty years after RELATIVELY SPEAKING's first production, nothing much has changed in the domestic landscape of our lives it seems. One can only guess at the frisson of daring that some of the characters and situations in this play must have generated in its original audience - perhaps, shocked them - which, today, feels not only dated but 'politically' kind of 'icky'!

On an ingenious Set solution to a naturalistic two scene Design demand, created by Hugh O'Connor, Director, Mark Kilmurry, confidently guides his cast through the material with an unerring warm comic sensibility. Blessed with the very good casting of actors who have a sure technique to solve the challenges of the writing and a bravura - courage - for the comic essentials of this rather light weight material, the audience can have a very good time. - it did at my performance. There is not much to this play to startle you today, except its rich comic observation and peerless construction (one hopes that our young Australian writers study Mr Ayckbourn's writing form as a guide for their own creations), and if you want to 'park' your self in the theatre, as a summer distraction, holiday treat, and want to have a comfortable and very pleasant evening, you could do no better, in Sydney at the moment. And, that is counting the Sydney Theatre Company's lamentable go at a French farce, A FLEA IN HER EAR and their enervating American 'satire' SPEED THE PLOW.

Tracy Mann (Shiela), David Whitney (Philip), Emma Palmer (Ginny) and Jonny Hawkins (Greg) are wonderful together and play with their personable strengths and alert collaborative 'team' instincts to bring this play to a bubbly and infectious life - no small feat. All these characters are flesh and bone creations in their hands. Mr Hawkins, a recent graduate from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), introduces himself into the Sydney theatre landscape with all the comic assurance and panache of a seasoned performer. He is a delight. There is not a moment on stage when he does not exist as the naive and charming 'hero' of the piece. One cares empathetically for his Greg, and, perhaps, even fears for his future well being in this world of domestic 'relative' speaking.

The Ensemble have curated the work of Mr Ayckbourn on a regular basis. I have seen here, ABSENT FRIENDS, NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH. It is sensible of this company to know that when they are onto a good thing to stick to it. It is pity that the Ensemble theatre has not the dimensional facilities to present the later and greater work of this great playwright. Still there are many a gem waiting in the wings. Like the Belvoir's recent production of THE FAITH HEALER, when the all round quality of all the artists of the enterprise are as expert as these artists are, the surety of success is incredibly enhanced - the fateful element of the unavoidable 'chance' of failure is considerably reduced with the astute choice of artist

Go, have some silly fun. For some of us, it will be bitter/sweet fun.

Summer Rain

Photo by Chris Lundie
New Theatre presents SUMMER RAIN. Book and Lyrics, by Nick Enright. Music and arrangements, by Terence Clarke. At the New Theatre, King St, Newtown, 15 November - 17 December.

SUMMER RAIN, is an Australian musical, Book and Lyrics by Nick Enright, Music by Terence Clarke, which was commissioned by the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1983, under the auspices of John Clark. It was written as a graduating play for the Third Year class and was Directed by Gale Edwards (at the start of her fabulous career in this genre. Who knew she would graduate into this Musical Theatre world internationally, trusted by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber?!) Some of that class of 17 included Helen Buday, Dean Carey, Lynn Pierse, Fiona Press, Ritchie Singer, Gregory Stone, Karen Vickery, Steven Vidler - a stellar year. Writing a play for a group of young actors in training meant that the structure of the story, the events of the play, the number of storylines that it had to bear was predicated by the need to give all the actors an opportunity to 'show' themselves. Too many characters, too much needing to happen, bent the product to an unconventional and not, wholly, satisfactory musical theatre experience. Since, editing it down, extracting, diminishing, even losing characters and plot lines, adapting it to present a more acceptable 'classic' construct for the commercial musical has required some occupying time for the companies and artists that have since presented the work. It was presented by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in 1989 and 2004, also by the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), in 1997. This shrinking of the characters and plot lines was always SUMMER RAIN' s main stage problem, and watching it again the other night at the New Theatre it still, relatively, is.

I had seen the original show and of course the STC showing. So, it was with some pre-knowledge and trepidation I went along. I had a perfectly charming night. The play is set in 1945 and concerns the arrival of a show-business family, the Slocum's, into the country town of Turnaround Creek, a place that they had once visited some years ago. The plot of the piece involves the interaction of the actors and the townies, in that present time with the ghosts of the past haunting. SUMMER RAIN has the cliche events of the musical of this era (Hollywood/Broadway influence) and a range of very familiar character types (CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA, here we come!)

What displaces the boredom of the familiarity whilst watching, is in the world of the play, if, especially, if, you are of a certain age/generation - it, a very probable fiction - that creates, nostalgically, a usage of Aussie lingo that has the ring of another time of rhyming humour and with enough references to an authentic Australian experience post World War II - returned displaced soldiers, the gossip and 'love' frustrations of a little town lingering on the point of economic collapse, facing up to the hardship of the Australian drought, hoping for a summer rain to regenerate it all - hitting all the right 'buttons' of human reassurance. The principal strength of the writing is in its subversive humour that undercuts - just - its urges to spill into a sentimentality, keeping it kind of 'real' - or, as 'real' as any musical of this type can be. It exemplifies the very typical traits of all of Mr Enright's writing - thoroughly white and middle class and unchallengingly comfortable with itself and the world it lives in, occupied by the catholic personal/'sexual' hic-cups of a domestic small country town life.

The production, Directed and Choreographed by Trent Kidd, Designed attractively and wittily by Mason Brown (Set and Costume) - such efficient scene-shifting changes (don't know about that organ, though, as an accompaniment to the town sing-a-long!) - bounces along with a crisp clean confidence, unfussy and unlaboured in any of its telling. The Choreography is 'bright' and confidently executed. Great credit must go to all in the company who (mostly) can sing and dance well and create characters of enough flesh and blood to help us recognise and care for them and their story.

Jacqui Rae Moloney (Ruby Slocum) Brett O'Neil (Bryce Barclay/Red Farrell), Nat Jobe (Clarrie Nugent), Catty Hamilton (Joy Slocum), and the dramatic love-triangle handled deftly by Tom Handley (Johnny Slocum), Anna Freeland (Peg Hartigan) and David Hooley (Mick Hartigan) lead us happily through the permutations of it all. I especially responded to the characterisation of Mr Hooley, in his moody, brooding depiction of a man coping with the shock of war and injury and feelings of inadequacey, and welcomed Andrew Sharp (Harold Slocum) back to a Sydney stage, after almost 30 years, with his elegant but tawdry stage blooded victim of the theatre-illness - the need to perform at all costs - resonant with a period veneer of glibness and yet possessed of a heart when the crucible of life demanded it of him. Lawrence Coy gives us, with surety, the unhappy Barry Doyle, the pivot to the 'mystery' of the plot.

Despite the papered cracks of the adaptation of the Book material, that shows, especially in the second act, it is the witty, disarming 'iconic' sounding lyrics of the songs, and the music and arrangements written by Terence Clarke that lifts this work into a pleasant and resonating experience. An experience that appears to be authentic and yet we know is a romantic construct."The Casuarina Tree", a song, an instance to my point, having all the qualities to make us feel a sense of warmth and belonging and longing for that 'other' time. For, although the play was written in 1983 it feels as if it is a classic of the forties or fifties - and, yet, we know that there is no Australian repertoire to distinguish it as a period classic of that time. Mr Clarke's music is the magic making in the moments of living through this production.SUMMER RAIN is a 90's invention that sits comfortably in a remembered (Broadway/Hollywood) past with the idealism of the Aussie cliche that keeps us relaxed and comfortable - a White Australia with all the oversimplified values of a relatively easy (fictional?) past whose main dilemma was coping with the intense natural travails of Australia's 'bloody' awful climate - drought and bushfires. For there is no other bloody politics here, it seems, (no Indigenous or migrant story here) just this invented, cosy nostalgia for the melodrama of love matching for the re-generation of family and family values - the concern of every decent Australian, right? Right?

The Band under the Direction of Tim Cunniffe supports the show and sets the clean tempo of the production - a real and subtle pleasure.

I had a very good time and I can recommend it very easily. A Christmas present for the romantic Aussie that is in some of us.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Faith Healer

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, THE FAITH HEALER, by Brian Friel, in the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills, 26 October - 27 November.

The lights faded to black. The play, THE FAITH HEALER, was finished. The stage lighting came back up and it was a kind of surprise, shock, wonder, when on the furniture-empty raised platform, surrounded by a panorama of painted tumultuous clouds, only three actors stood there to take the curtain call. Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Pip Miller. They looked so few on that, what appeared to be now, very spare space. For in the previous two hours I had been taken away into a crowded world of people and places, vivd, vital and spellbinding - however squalid and sad. It was, on reflection, my imaginative forces that had been conjured, coaxed into 'action' by these three actors to have a 'world' swirling in front of me, to have what the Chorus in HENRY V asks for: "a Muse of Fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention". We had three Muses of Fire, in front of us, inventing heavenly.

These three actors had displayed their remarkable talent as storytellers - the very definition of what an actor is: a Story Teller (as distinguished from the other kind of 'actor', the demonstrator of emotional states, which we more often than not, are plagued with, witnesses of). How wonderful, it was, to sit in a theatre again and have a text - play - not tampered, adapted, re-written or re-located, from an experienced, even, great writer, Brian Friel. A Design from four great Australian artists: Brian Thomson (Set), Tess Schofield (Costume), Verity Hampson (Lighting), Paul Charlier (Composer and Sound Designer), led by one of the greatly gifted Australian artists, Judy Davis, as their Director.

It is, relatively, rare to have such a team of excellence across all areas of the creative forces together on a Sydney stage (a notion that I understood Jonathan Church had remarked upon on responding to the Sydney Theatre scene - in case you have forgotten, he, who withdrew, suddenly, from the Artistic Directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company, before he really began, not so long ago.) And, I reckon, the Companies of Sydney should take note of the years of experience involved with this production and why its 'chance' of succeeding was enhanced with the gathering together of this calibre of artist. Certainly, we, the audience, felt safe, from the first 'beat' of the performance and became entranced, enmeshed, in an experience that had no sense of time passing - it flashed past, in the security of its all-round expertness.

THE FAITH HEALER is comprised of four monologues, two by Frank, the Faith Healer, an itinerant performer (conman?) of acts of healing around the fringes of the United Kingdom - acts that are either 'momentous' or 'absurd' - and one by each of the other characters, Grace, his wife/mistress, and Teddy, his manager. Each of these characters give a testimony of shared events calling into question, subtly, what we have just heard before. The recall of the events of the play are different in their details. The play is a memory play, but of three memories of the same events, memories that are highly 'personalised', so that the end result of the 'adventure' of THE FAITH HEALER, teaches us that our own memories and stories, perhaps, are revealed, terribly, to be versions of truth that are different from our siblings, friends, for us to be able to continue forward. A reflection that sits with all of us for every part of our lives. A truth that spotlights our human frailty and connection. A striking positive truth.

What is at the centre of this production is the use of language, the love of the word. It begins with the writer and is embraced exquisitely by these actors under the meticulous care of Ms Davis. Stephen Rae, an actor, talking of Brian Friel quoted him saying:
It's all in the language, he said to me. The play, I asked? The theatre? The whole thing, he said. 
This transcendent truth was evident in the experience of this production. On leaving the theatre the world I am living in had been put into a perspective that permitted it to be accepted with a curious, even if small, optimism. The tragedy of these three people as told by Mr Friel and performed by these actors was a 'message' of the possibility to believe in the common frail thread of 'being' that allows one to 'continue on', even if it is, at best, wearily. The catharsis of tragedy can be elevating. Weird but true. In our present era of political turmoil, the production, the play, became an 'olive branch' that encouraged the virtue of faith. This experience of Friel's THE FAITH HEALER, indeed, in itself, a faith healer.

If you didn't get to see this production you have missed something that demonstrated why the theatre is a relevant form in 2016 and the justification for its sustainability in the future. When dedicated artists, like these, all, share a vision, we all can find a way to go on, to continue to be just human with all our strengths and weaknesses. Effort will be valued. Does count.

"At the end of any night's experience in the theatre, all that any writer can hope for is that maybe one dozen people have been moved ever so much or ever so slightly, and that the course of their lives may be enriched or altered by a very fine degree. I don't believe for one second that a dramatist is going to change the face of the earth." - Brian Friel.

Gate Theatre Dublin's production of THE FAITH HEALER  was seen as part of the Sydney Festival in 2009. Its affect was viable then, too.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Speed the Plow

Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present SPEED - THE - PLOW, by David Mamet, in The Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay, 8 November - 17 December.

SPEED - THE - PLOW, by David Mamet was written in 1988 and starred Madonna in its first outing.

Act One: It concerns two lowly-runged 'goers' in the Hollywood hierarchy trying to get further up the ladder with the power to 'green light' the production of films. Charlie Fox (Lachy Hulme) brings to his ambitious friend/ally, the corporation favoured Bobby Gould (Damon Herriman), a deal for a Prison film with hot action man, Dougie Brown, attached. This Prison film might be the one, the project that will propel them into a higher place of regard and influence. Pitch it they will to one of the Top Guys. Whilst talking, Karen (Rose Byrne) a temporary secretary, brings in the coffee. When she leaves a bet evolves between the two excited men, for $500, whether Bobby can get Karen to bed! After Charlie leaves, Bobby goes into action, asking Karen to read a book about Radiation, called THE BRIDGE, and to give him a report as to whether there is a possible film in the subject matter, that evening, at his home! She agrees!!

Act Two: Later that evening at Bobby's place, Karen, with book-marked novel, sprawls on the carpet, drinking 'bubbly', and begins to persuade Bobby that there is important film potential in the book and he should green light it. They talk, they crawl and sprawl on the carpet, they drink more 'bubbly'.

Act Three: Next day Bobby tells Charlie that he wants to do 'good' and announces a change of mind and that he will drop the Prison film and champion the Radiation film. Charlie is aghast. Charlie questions Karen and she admits that, yes, indeed Bobby and she had gone to bed. That she had sex as a bargaining tool for her ambition. Bobby is bewildered. Shocked. Apparently, out-manoeuvred by a woman!!  The book is thrown out the door. Karen is exiled into the wilderness, through the same door. Charlie is victorious, The Prison film will be pitched. Although, he will be light of $500, after all Bobby did score Karen. A bet is a bet - business, a buck is a buck.

Says Mr Mamet in an article for The New York Times, DRAMA THAT BRINGS HOME THE BACON: '
I wrote [SPEED - THE - PLOW] some 20 years ago, when I knew little of Hollywood. I lived in the East and would go out there three times a year for a day or two, and sit in Hollywood with some director or producer or studio head, and talk about some project we would not make, and the thing was pretty clear: the movies were an industry, staffed by craven business types interested in only making a buck. ... But what about High Art?  ... I believe that the business of America is business, and the aim of drama is to put tushies in the seats; and the best way to do that is to write a ripping yarn, with a bunch of sex, some nifty plot twists and a lot of snappy dialogue. If you are looking for such, I suggest SPEED - THE - PLOW.
This is a ninety-minute three-act chamber piece with the signature ingredients of the Mamet play - 'a ripping yarn, a bunch of sex, some plot twists and a lot of snappy dialogue' in the mode of what has become known as 'Mamet-speak'. And business is business. Cast a celebrity/actress in the role, Madonna, and business will be even better. So they thought in 1988.

The choice of this play by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), then, must have some merit in their belief that the text has all the hallmarks of a typical Mamet play and, so, worth producing. And the casting of a celebrity/actress, in this case, Rose Byrne, following the lead of the original production with  'the aim of drama [being] to put tushies in the seats' will make business - good business.

I have alway regarded SPEED - THE - PLOW as minor Mamet.  I would go so far as to say, second-tier Mamet. And, almost 30 years after its first production I would also say dated Mamet - a satirical cartoon, of its time, that has lost much of its punch today. Too much has gone on in the world, especially of late, to believe that there is any zeitgeist frisson going on here with this Hollywood fable of male misbehaviour - mendacity - to make it a must see for Sydney audiences, in 2016.

Why has this play been even considered for production by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in 2016? If it is as a star vehicle for guest artist, Rose Byrne, who plays Karen in this production - and she acquits herself well enough - who has been front-and-centre in all the publicity, it does not offer her much opportunity to be seen - tested - to star. Does the audience get their money's worth, in this opportunity to watch Ms Byrne?  Undoubtedly, the role of Karen is the catalyst to the dilemma of Bobby and his mate Charlie in the play but Karen's stage time is fairly sparse, limited and  is of secondary importance to that of the men in the action of the play.

Mr Uptown's debut production for the STC - was it 2008? - was the one-act REUNION (1976) by David Mamet, and there is, I propose, some reflection of the Mamet model of character - both male and female - and language efforts in Mr Upton's one and only original play for the STC, RIFLEMIND (2007), which I re-read recently, to believe Mamet to be a special inspiration. So it could be called 'neat' for Mr Upton to finish his Artistic Directorship at the STC with a Mamet as he had begun with one - a circle complete. David Mamet does not, generally, have a record of interest for female characters in his plays and if Mamet was the chosen playwright, because of Mr Upton's predilection, appreciation, for the writer:  SPEED - THE - PLOW has been "a favourite modern play for me and many writers ... a fabulous bit of writing" says Mr Upton in the program note, it seems a biased/odd choice when considering it as a vehicle to showcase Ms Byrne. It does not really give ample opportunity for the showcasing of Ms Byrne. Surely, Mamet's OLEANNA (1992) - seen at the STC with Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett - or, the BOSTON MARRIAGE (1999), with three interesting female characters - a difficult play, never seen in Sydney in a major production - would have justified the hype/selling point about the publicity of seeing Ms Byrne. Carol, in OLEANNA would have been a worthy challenge for Ms Byrne and we would have seen more of her onstage, and any of the roles in BOSTON MARRIAGE would have provided a better exposure. A pity then that it is only Karen that we get to see her 'wrestling' with. Some audience may feel cheated.

Mr Herriman, is the actor in this company with a terrific track history (experience) in the theatre, and he acquits himself in the central role with some pluck, the early verbal sparring and Mamet music pinging well. Mr Hulme has the physical size - hulk -  to impersonate a bullying Hollywood hack convincingly, and comes into some power in the last haranguing episode of the third Act - at least with noise and physical presence if not much nuance of language (the fight sequence lacked conviction). And, as earlier mentioned, Ms Byrne, with not much theatre experience, creates a delicate and cinematic detail and presence on this stage that has some of the hallmarks of her ironic and subversive wit and intelligence, that we have relished in films such as BRIDESMAIDS, SPY and the BAD NEIGHBOURS series.

David Fleischer, Designer, given the difficult task of creating two sets for this chamber play in the relative vacuum of the Roslyn Packer stage is economical in his visual tropes, though the principal problem that he creates for the production for Mr Upton is the length of dead stage time he makes in his architectural solution to the play, with scene changes in the darkened auditorium that are immensely long. The production suffers from the lack of the gathering momentum of the satiric efforts of the writing that requires sustained energy to keep it afloat -to help it rise to a souffl√©-like climax of comedy. To accommodate this Design  the actors are required to rewind the energy of the writing after each act-break instead of cresting on what has gone before. It becomes a kind of Sisyphean task for the actors and is no asset to the audience's continued involvement. This management, balancing, of Mr Fleschier's visual flair with the dramaturgical needs of the writing was a flaw with other work of his that we have seen in other collaborations he has had with Mr Upton: e.g. FURY, TRAVELLING NORTH, for instance. Mr Fleischer's offer/solution, with Mr Upton was, relatively, deadly to this production's efforts.

SPEED - THE - PLOW seems to be lost in the BIG space of the Roslyn Packer Theatre and would have been better suited in a smaller venue, and may have avoided some of the critical scrutiny the production and play have received. But then it would not have had the potential of reaping good business with all those 'tushies' in the seats, making the buck that Mamet talks about above. I don't believe any of the artists involved with this production benefit from the pragmatics of the choice of this theatre to play in. I don't believe the audience benefit from this choice of the business management of the STC, either.

Art or Business? Business or Art? Which rules? Charlie or Karen? Karen or Charlie?


A Door Ajar

A DOOR AjAR 11 November - 19 November 2016 Blue Mountains from Theatre Trailers on Vimeo.

Fairmont Resort and Weatherboard Theatre present, A DOOR AjAR, by Dale Turner, in the Auditorium of The Fairmont Resort, Leura. 11 Nov - 19 Nov.

In 2013, I saw a production of a new Australian play, THE WESTLANDS, by Dale Turner, at The Parramatta Riverside Theatres and was wonderfully 'bowled over' (read my blog). It was a play about the Western areas of Sydney and its peoples. Written in a form reminiscent of Dylan Thomas' UNDER MILKWOOD: a verse play. It was presented by Weatherboard Theatre Company, and a program, now defunct, due to lack of funding, known as True West.

Weatherboard Theatre Company, based in the Blue Mountains area, is a collective of professional performing artists, who have found a 'collaborator' in the Schwartz Family and the Fairmont Resort who have provided a space for them to present this work. There was sponsorship from Blue Mountains Companies and business as well. The 'conceit' of the work is to present a play in the form of a radio broadcast, complete with suitable advertisements, which, humorously, give credit to those 'angels'.

A DOOR AjAR, is another verse play by Mr Turner, coming from research and interviews with members of the Blue Mountains community. There is overlap in time from somewhere after the First World War to not so long ago, the structure of the play moving through a non-linear recollection. We have memories of the train ride from steam train to the 'Fish' and 'Chips', of the weather with its snow and ice, of its heat and fires, of the people and their lives, of gossip and history and of 'characters' from a wide range of the local society (sadly, no indigenous history.) Those in my audience who were denizens of the Blue Mountains seemed , especially, connected and amused.

Shane Porteous, Tiriel Mora, Claire Jones, Maureen (Maudie) Green, Duncan Wass and Eliza Logan created, from readings, the many voices of the play and participated in the creation of the sound effects of the worlds conjured. Rebecca Daniel played her violin movingly, tunefully, for atmosphere and an aural reach to facilitate nostalgic recollection. Directed by Michael Pigott there were, also, selected projected visual images, organised by Laura Turner, sourced from the Blue Mountains City Library. (On the night I attended some 'difficulties' with the venue made that part of the work inoperable, alas.) Set and, especially, the costumes, warmly lit, anchored the performance into a ready state of comfort and restful recognition.

Mr Turner, as it was with THE WESTLANDS, reveals a sure and theatrically expert technique in the creation of this work. His writing is witty, musical and richly diverse in its econmic evocation of time, place and people. Seeing some of the writing on the Sydney stages: Griffin, Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, I can only wonder at the lack of interest that those companies looking for new Australian plays have given Mr Turner.

One hopes that Weatherboard and Mr Turner can continue to work way out there in the West of Sydney. Thanks must be given to the Fairmont Resort. One hopes there is a theatrical future for all three of the collaborating organisations.

The Shadow Box

Photograph by Robert Catto
Dino Dimitriades and Red Line Productions present, THE SHADOW BOX, by Michael Cristofer, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomooloo, 15 Nov - 10 Dec.

THE SHADOW BOX, by Michael Cristofer, is concerned with three persons in the terminal stage of a cancer illness, and the strains (collateral damage) it has on the families coping with that reality.

This production has a beautiful visual aesthetic created by Designer, Isabel Hudson, who simplifies the more naturalistic demands of the original concept, and is assisted by a haze lighting Design by Martin Kinnane that manages a consistent elegance of presentation during this longish play in this intimate space. Director, Kim Hardwick, has also drawn wonderfully detailed 'naturalistic' performances from all of her actors that invites identifying empathy and consistent concentration with these characters in dreadful and all to human emotional places. Mark Lee (Joe), Jeanette Cronin (Maggie), Simon Thomson (Steve); Tim McGarry (Brian), Kate Raison (Beverly), Anthony Gooley (Mark); Fiona Press (Felicity), Ella Prince (Agnes) and Jason Blair-West (The Interviewer.)

The Play was written in 1977 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The problem for the production of THE SHADOW BOX is that the writing, in 2016, seems ponderously melodramatic, and despite its reaching for insights of philosophic worthiness, has today, a sense of 'milking' the situation with the American Hallmark Channel movie predilection for sentimentality and honourable intentions. It is a strain to bear with it all, especially, when occasionally the actors cross into a little 'histrionic' choice for emotional unloading - which the writer seems to invite. I need to say it was, generally, handled well by all but every now and then...!

This production has an exquisite look and a company of actors of empathy and skill (Ms Press especially impressive in her dour consistency of character ) but in material, that considering its subject matter, feels a trifle dated in its methods of creating a distinctive night in the theatre. Edward Albee in his play, THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE, written in 1980, only 3 years later, demonstrates why he is a great playwright when, he too, tackles the issue of cancer/illness on the stage. No melodramatics there. Lots of shattering naked truths. Much comedy, believe it or not. And much philosophy, as well as the human terror.

THE SHADOW BOX will require your personal judgement about how a night in the theatre with illness can be spent.

N.B. There was no biographical notes about the writer, Michael Cristofer. All others recorded BUT not the writer - the source of all this hard work. It happens a lot in the Sydney Theatre scene. The Darlinghurst Company not acknowledging David Mamet, for instance.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Life In The Theatre

Photography by Helen White

Darlinghurst Theatre Company present, A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, by David Mamet, at the Eternity Theatre, Burton St, Darlinghurst, 4 Nov-4 Dec.

A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, by David Mamet, is an early play, 1977 and, considerably, out of the usual area and style of his more well known genre - of the 'Mamet-speak' with macho, foulmouthed men squabbling over the way to make money, epitomised in his famous Pulitzer Prize winning, GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, of 1984, his Chicago real estate play.

A LIFE IN THE THEATRE was written as a paean to his short-lived days as a young actor in a repertory company, perhaps. Two actors, one old and experienced, Robert (John Gaden), and one young and new to the 'business', John (Akos Armont), in some 18 short scenes, both back stage and sometimes on, chart the journeys of the professional actor, one trailing off in his 'blaze', the other, at the start of his 'blaze'. The New Yorker declared when the play was first shown:
Mr Mamet has written - in gentle ridicule; in jokes, broad and tiny;and in comedy, high and low - a love letter to the theatre.
That is what this production emanates. It is in the writing - the source of it all - and in the sensibility that the actors at the Eternity Theatre bring lovingly to the performance under the sentimental but savvy, romantic guidance of Director, Helen Dallimore. It is a lovely time in the theatre, especially, if you know of it - one of the 'luvvies' - and the rapport between Mr Gaden and Mr Armont is palpable - they appear to relish each others company with great regard. Design is by Hugh O'Connor (the costume needs are many!), Lighting is by Christopher Page and there is a rather charming and clever Sound Design by Jeremy Silver, that is a very successful cover (distraction) during the many costume changes for the actors that we get to view - ahh, the hectic life in the theatre. (Special note should be made of the contribution that Sunil Chandra, as Assistant Stage Manager, makes to the smooth running of the many costume and prop changes during this very busy show.)

A LIFE IN THE THEATRE, as we aforementioned, probably, had its genesis in Mr Mamet's experience as a young actor, just as GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, probably, had its origins in his brief 'career', as a youngster, in a Real Estate office. I would wish that this 'memory' hagiographic was a little more acerbic - ALL ABOUT EVE, like - and with the verbal dexterity and more realistic toughness of GLENGARRY. Some others of us, on the other hand, may be grateful that it is what it is. Really grateful.

P.S. Watching Mr Gaden in this work set in a theatre, one was taken back to when he and others, in a "Golden Age" at the Old Tote Theatre Company, was part of George Oglivie's production of Arthur 'Wing' Pinero's love letter to the theatre known as TRELAWNY OF THE 'WELLS'. It has a large cast and not likely to be revived, although, it should be, with the right Director - I stress, the right Director! It is interesting to note that Patrick Marber - he, of CLOSER fame - has adapted TRELAWNY for the Donmar Warehouse as recently as 2013. It Directed by Joe Wright - he of the films ATONEMENT and the wonderful ANNA KARENINA. Some thought he was not the right Director for the production. One must be careful, mustn't one, for what one wishes for, for nostalgia's sake. I am still recovering from the Sydney Theatre Company's production of A FLEA IN HER EAR.

N.B. There was no biographical notes about the author of the play. I find it alarming the originator of all this work, THE WRITER, is not properly acknowledged. Director, Actors, Designers and Crew, ALL, but not the Writer.

Next Fall

Boyslikeme present NEXT FALL, by Geoffrey Nauffts, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, 26th October to 19th November.

NEXT FALL, by Geoffrey Nauffts, is a play with gay themes concerning an Odd Couple: a closeted Christian man, Luke (Alex Ewan) living in partnership with an atheist, Adam (Darrin Redgate) and all the conundrums socially, politically, emotionally that that 'arrangement' might throw up. Especially, when Luke in a coma in hospital after an accident, results in his 'blood' family and his 'tribal' family to meeting up for the first time.

I saw NEXT FALL in production on Broadway, in New York, in 2010 and found it a fairly lightweight sit-com. The Direction had the performers highlight the cliche of the character 'types' and played to its audience for the laughs (of which there were many) and the syrupy sentimentalisms of the situation (of which there were many, as well.) I was irritated with the 'glitzy' comic/sentimental manipulations of it all and, in a 'snobbish' way, aghast at the American audience buying into it with such alacrity. I had seen an off-Broadway production of THE TEMPERAMENTALS, by John Marans, at the New World Stages and had found in this work a gay-themed production of tremendous integrity and inspiration, that I wished the audiences attending NEXT FALL were getting. The contrast of method of aspiration was significant. The difference in inspiration, too, was significant.

I was invited by the producers of this production at the Seymour Centre to go see. I was reluctant. So, it is interesting to report that despite the modest production values (in contrast to the Broadway effort), I found NEXT FALL, as an experience, a little more palatable. My 'date' for the performance was very moved and pleased to have seen it. The company of actors, Victoria Greiner (Holly), Mark James Dessaix (Brandon), Mary-Anne Halpin (Arlene), Cormac Costelllo (Butch), and the aforementioned, Mr Redgate and Ewan, under the Direction of Andy Leonard, playing in the intimate space at the Reginald Theatre, have created characters, that though still cliche in the writer's conception, have been fleshed out more 'naturalistically' and convey a simple honesty and vulnerability with the human and political 'issues' front-and-centre rather than 'hammering' the comedy/sentiment of the writing.

I, particularly, was impressed with the performance of Mr Ewan as the Gay Christian, giving Luke a naivety to the position he had taken in being able to ignore the full ethical dilemmas of his beliefs, using a charm offensive to over ride too deep an interrogation of them from everybody. Too, the small scale honesty, fragility, of Ms Halpin, as Luke's mother, was tremendously moving.

This production of NEXT FALL is a light entertainment Directed and played with a simple and heart warming integrity. It finishes this Saturday.