Friday, January 29, 2016

The Golden Age

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Sydney Theatre Company presents THE GOLDEN AGE, by Louis Nowra, at the Wharf 1 Thearte, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.  19 Jan - 20 Feb.

THE GOLDEN AGE, by Louis Nowra was published in 1985. The first production was given at the Playbox Theatre in Melbourne, Directed by Rex Cramphorn. I first saw the play in a NIDA production by Neil Armfield with Richard Roxburgh, as Francis - it was a truly memorable production.

I have had, always, a 'romance' about the early work of Louis Nowra.

In the late 1970's a group of artists, including myself, had taken the Lunchtime Theatre, the Q Theatre, out to Penrith and began a full time theatre company. To do that, as 'core' members of the company, we gave-up our agents and practiced exclusively in the Western outskirts of Sydney, to establish that company without the 'temptation' of the profession to distract us (mostly based in Sydney). Part of that 'temptation' for me was the work of Louis Nowra: his first play was INNER VOICES (1977) and it concerned the son of Catherine the Great who had been imprisoned without real connection to the world. VISIONS (1979) set in South American jungles, in the past, during the overthrow of a tyrannical government. Then, a trio of French stories, a translation/adaptation of Dumas fils' THE LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS (1979), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1980), and CYRANO DE BERGERAC (1980). There followed an adaptation of Wedekind's LULU (1981), THE PRECIOUS WOMAN (1981) - a play set in the nineteen-twenties during upheavals led by competing war lord's in China - and his first Australian setting INSIDE THE ISLAND (1981). My romance was built about this consistent Australian writer who wrote plays set outside Australia and not just in 'domestic' Australian culture - an Australian writer with an international 'setting' vision, one not, relievedly, in the Australian bedroom,or 'bar room'! - a positive rarity.

THE GOLDEN AGE, in 1985, embraced a genre of Australian Literature: the Tasmanian Gothic, in this case the finding of the remnants of a lost group of white settlers in the wilds of Tasmania, with a derivative language and 'culture' all their own, in a degenerative biological state, who are forced to re-engage with civilisation and, consequently, die-out under medical supervision. The connections and paralleling to the International War of 1939-45, and some of the 'policies' of the Nazi regime, gave the play a metaphorical dimension that was striking to myself, in those long ago days of my relative naivety of the History and Behaviour of our species. Too, the literary references to The Greeks with a rehearsal of Euripides' IPHIGENIA IN TAURIS, opening the play, and a presentation of a KING LEAR (LEIR), by the lost 'tribe' with a happy ending, also gave it, for me, allure - romance. This play had all the thematics of Nowra's fascination with the 'underdog', the 'Cheated', of our civilisations and was disturbingly (1985) subversive.

For me, Louis Nowra lost his edge when he began writing semi-autobiographical plays such as SUMMER OF THE ALIENS (1992) and COSI (1992). He became less interesting and more like the 'pack'.

So, it was with much anticipation and expectation that I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) production, by Kip Williams, of this play. I do believe Sydney has seen this play professionally before - Nimrod or Belvoir? Who Directed it? Who was in it? I can find no reference to it - and the Sydney critic's have been delighted, all-round, with the finding of this, in their words, this Great Australian play! Not seen for some 32 years!!!!

I am an admirer of the directorial potential of Mr William's but have often found his very visual approach, distracting to the clarity of the writer's text. This production of THE GOLDEN AGE, however, for me, was, at last, a synthesis of his own visual proclivities with the original text on the page. This is a fairly accurate textual rendition of Mr Nowra's gift, enhanced with the beauty of Mr William's eye for picturesque imagery. The Set Design, by David Fleischer, which consists, originally, simply of a heaped hill of dirt, in a surround of white washed walls, is transformed in the action of the play, to stimulate the imagination of the audience throughout the action of this near three hour play, with selected details - e.g. the placements of 'spears of steel' over its horizon to form the 'hospital/prison' of the 'tribe' - and is gorgeously, brilliantly, lit by Damien Cooper to create for us a world of visual splendours that epitomise and emphasise, for us, the tragedy of the story. The play consists of many, many short scenes and they could be a derailing, destabilising influence to the kinetic forward movement of the story, but Mr William's has found in the Sound Composition and Sound Design of Max Lyandvert a beautiful and enveloping surround that holds the play and its complexities in an embrace that aurally bridges the sensations of the scenes into a smooth and containing arc of experience. This score by Mr Lyandvert is startling in its conception and execution.

As in the original plan of the writer, nine actors, in this case - Rarriwuy Hick, Remy Hii, Brandon McClelland, Robert Menzies, Liam Nunan, Zindzi Okenyo, Sarah Pierse, Anthony Taufa, Ursula Yovich - play all 18 roles, some with intricate and swift costume changes. The company of actors are from diverse cultural backgrounds (representing the multi-cultural possibilities in casting, at last, in Sydney) and may, for some audience members provide, at first, a confusion of identification of who is who and how are they connected. For some, an adjustment of the simple usual visual perception will require an 'intellectual' energy to, for instance, grasp that Ms Yovich, an Australian Indigenous actor, is creating the white 'aristocratic' matriarch of the Hobart society, Elizabeth Archer, and that Mr Hii, is her 'aristocratic' son, Peter Archer, whose father, William Archer, is played by Robert Menzies. But, sometimes, this cross cultural casting can create wonderful and arresting identifications of metaphoric resonances, particularly, say in the casting of Ms Hick, an Australian Indigenous actor, as Betsheb, a white survivor of the 'tribe'.

All the company give focused and concentrated performances, some more successful at one role over another. Ms Hicks gives an outstanding performance as Betsheb, so does Mr McClelland as the working class, bridge engineer, Francis. Mr Nunan, as the disabled Stef is remarkable in the 'twisted' physical conjuring of this life-force, whilst Ms Peirse, as "Queenie" Ayre, the leader of this lost tribe, signals her abilities as an actor, especially when one casts one's mind back to her last performance in Sydney, as Patricia Highsmith, in SWITZERLAND. Mr Menzies in the dual role of Dr. William Archer and then, Melorne, senior male of the lost tribe, too, demonstrates his versatility.

The affect of this production and all of its elements engages one with the pre-occupations of Louis Nowra with a clarity and strange beauty that deserves the attention of the Sydney audiences. It will cause some conversation and debate, not least, sometimes, about a kind of underdeveloped thematic eloquence in the writing itself. But it is the scope and striving artistic vision that Mr Nowra sought in the 1980's Australia that at last can be appreciated for its daring and courage. This production, by Kip Williams, serves the writer well. It is a good play if not a great one. It is definitely a great production of a neglected Australian play. And, there are many more out there, I suspect. Good plays lost by bad production. Name some others.

Do see.

P.S. By coincidence, last year, I visited the Greek Temple built by Lady Franklin, the wife of one of Tasmania's early Governors, in what then may have been the 'bush' edges of Hobart city - fascinating - now used, occasionally as an Art exhibition space. I thought of Mrs Archer and her theatre enterprises, and had photographs taken of me as a 'blinded' Oedipus making an entrance through the columned portico!

N.B. I have a personal aspiration to see, what I think is the best of these plays by Mr Nowra, THE PRECIOUS WOMAN, set In China, played by an Australian/Asian company of actors. I think it is time. I'll do it, if no-one else will! I know that I can cast it. I have a dream! Ha, ha.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Thomas Murray and The Upside Down River

Photo by Robert Catto

Stone Soup and Griffin Independent present, THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER, by Reg Cribb, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 13 - 30 January, 2016.

THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER is a new play by Reg Cribb. Mr Cribb has created plays and screen works at a highly consistent rate. Last year, being at the creative centre of the award winning Australian film, LAST CAB TO DARWIN, based on his 2003 play. This new play seems to me the most ambitious project to date: a kind of poetic metaphor telling the story of a 'domestic' trio of childhood friends who in living life have struck a time of turbulent 'drought' with their love for each other, and like the corrupted and befouled Murray Darling River, struggling to exist in an eco-drought, even as a six inch 'dribble', reveals its 'debris', relics, and scars of history.

The sexual taboos of adultery, incest, interracial relationships are wrestled in with those of a ruthless murdering genocide and pitilessly stupid destruction of an eco-system. The story of the destruction of 'the' world, both civilised (so-called) and natural, under the restless journey of the dominant species of the planet, the homosapiens. The poetical themes of the play are immense and cauterising. The writing has been laboured with great care by the writer and has an abundance of layering and connective imagery (over abundance, some might question). So Ibsen-like is it in its deliberate connective tissues (textual lay-by's) that unless it is carried by acting of a very sophisticated kind it could appear over obvious and turgid (much like Ibsen can be when misdirected!)

This production by Chris Bendall has a complex raked floor, trap-doored vision, by Set and Costume Designer, Dann Barber, with an odd draw-back theatre curtain as a backdrop, attempting to give scale, and location diversity, to a play that needs a greater space than the SBW Stables Theatre can facilitate. Something is achieved towards this illusion and it is the complex and beautiful work of Lighting Designer, Alexander Berlage, that does much, to acquit that artistic ambition. Too, the spare but atmospheric Sound Design by Kingsley Reeves adds to the impact of the desired suspension of disbelief, with quite a collage of sound resources, including original guitar compositions by Brenden Dodds.

Mr Bendall, however, does not know how to stage the physical journey of process through the provided landscape, for his principal character, Thomas, over his actual river journey, besides an up and down and around the set edges directed movement, and even more especially, when the staged movement enters into the surreal mind-state of Thomas, that conjures, amongst other things, Janice, the long dead 5 year-old sister, of his love, Lucy, into a lurid sex-'dance', choreographed in a cramped space in an over long exposition of a kind of madness - we know the dramaturgical inferences, we get them very quickly and one wants to shout: "Just get on with it". This post- modernist dance interlude (a la, say, Kate Champion or Frantic Assembly) is a complete failure and derails any tension that had been developing in the final sections of the play. Monotonous and unwarranted, and on reflection more than a little uncomfortable to contemplate: a dead girl and only 5! in a sexual conjugality of some 'steaminess' with a much older man. No choreographer is credited.

The best acting comes from the more experienced (veterans) of the company, Nicholas Papademetriou, and most especially, Vanessa Downing, who each create three character/caricatures to serve the canvas of Mr Cribb's story, with an acute sense of observation and restraint in selection of craft effects - vocal, physical and comic - to achieve maximum impact, without drawing too much attention to the writer's pencil thin envisioning of them on paper. Bjorn Stewart, as the indigenous 'wheel' to the principal triangular love story has the charm and the heft for the young William, but does not seem to have much of a craftsman's 'handle' on how to deliver the abusive parent, Lester, as a contrasted figure.

Grant Cartwright carries the biggest 'weight' of the writing as the 'hero' of the story, Thomas Murray, and unfortunately impersonates the narrative of the character's journey without, seemingly, sufficient skills to develop the internal 'life' of the protagonist, Thomas, or illuminate the metaphorical poetics of Mr Cribb's writing, opting, rather, for superficial 'huffing' and 'puffing' emotionalities, and expressing the language of the play without much 'musical' sophistication. - generalisations apparent; really, it's a lack of word by word, identification, ownership and crafting of construction. While Francesca Savige, as the female centre of the main plot, Lucy, gives as best she can, playing crucial scenes without much support from Mr Cartwright. This work contrasts most singularly with her performance in last year's SHELLSHOCK, out at Parramatta Riverside.

THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER, is a very arresting text, not successfully showcased, in this production from the Stone Soup company, for me. The issues and the poetics of this play are wonderfully ambitious and deserve to be an important part of our national conversation. Says Reg Cribb in his Writer's Notes: "Even in this supposedly enlightened era, we live in a culture of collective amnesia ... we don't want to believe there is a price to be paid for living in the Lucky Country." The play was originally commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It was not presented by them.

The big news Hollywood film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, THE REVENANT, reveals a history of an invasion of country and the consequences for all, especially the indigenous population, and, it seems, at last, becoming part of a Nation's conversation. That nation is the USA. What next for Australia? Rohan Wilson's two great Australian novels: THE ROVING PARTY (2011) and TO NAME THOSE LOST (2014), two Tasmanian stories, that ought to be front and centre of our nation's conversation, I reckon. Too controversial? Too powerful? Hmmmm.

Go, read for yourself to see what I mean.

Go see, THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER by Reg Cribb, and see why the play, if not this production, is important and worth knowing.

P.S. from the program notes: This Equity Approved Showcase Production is performed by professional actors and creative artists. For this season the performers and the creatives are unwaged.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Looking back on 2015

2015 was a fairly testy and testing time in the theatre for me. Not much happened to arrest my attention until late in the year. It had been fairly dire. Belvoir with very few exceptions, awful. The Sydney Theatre Company (STC) very hit and miss - lots of miss. The Griffin mostly ordinary and the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, too, all 'over the shop' as they say. I took some conscious solace by attending some Music stuff just to get an injection of above average standard. Oh, well.

(Hey Guys,
This is numbered for convenience not for preferential listing.

Best New Australian Writing:
  1. BOYS WILL BE BOYS, by Melissa Bubnic. Directed by Paige Rattray at the Wharf for the STC. Cheeky provocation about the BOYS world, played by an all female cast.
  2. A TOWN CALLED WAR BOY, by Ross Mueller. Directed by Fraser Corfield for the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) at the NSW State Library. A little play that commemorated the ANZAC experience that I thought was beautifully made from actual resources of Anzac soldiers in the NSW Library collection. It was great to see new work from Mr Mueller onstage.
  3. BATTLE OF WATERLOO, by Kylie Coolwell. Directed by Sarah Goodes for the STC at the Wharf Theatre. This play was the contemporary Indigenous play that I had been waiting for. It has a reality grip of a true authenticity of inner city contemporary life, written with love and amazing skill, for a first play. A classic to be - old fashioned structure spilling with vibrant life.Great to see.
  4. THE BLEEDING TREE, by Angus Cerini. Directed by Lee Lewis for the Griffin Theatre, A poetically cauterising work bristling with the consequence of ignored physical and psychological abuse. The imagery is glorious in its graphic details. A poem, short story form.
  5. DEAD TIME, by Fleur Beaupert at 107 Projects, Redfern. Directed by Fleur Beauport. A verbatim text examining the scandal of the Australian Government's abuse of Dr Mohamed Haneef. This play reminded me of the French Dreyfus Affair/Scandal (1894-1906) and I shuddered that the Australian Haneef Affair/Scandal has been so, conveniently buried/forgotten. This play was created and played by all with a passion for justice.  Doctor Mohamed Haneef: A subject for a major play/film, of some sought, I would have thought. A revival of this work, at least, so it can be seen and contemplated by many more in our comfortable society.
  6. MORTIDO, by Angela Betzien at Belvoir Theatre. Directed by Leticia Caceres. A dark work mostly set in Sydney with its cocaine habit/market. Raw truths mixed with a magic realism of a drug haze. Truly contemporary. Very exciting. Colin Friels giving the Best performance of the year, supported wonderfully by Tom Conroy and David Valencia. Is this my favourite new Australian play? ....?

 Other works I am glad I saw:
  1. REFLECTIONS ON GALLIPOLI. Presented by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO). Music, with dramatic readings and visuals led by Richard Tognetti and Directed by Neil Armfield.
  2. HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA, by Jose Rivera. Directed by Anthony Skuse for Mophead Productions in association with Red Line, at the Old Fitz Theatre. A stirring drama of an immigrant family in the USA coming to terms with the clash and influence of 'cultures' - old and new - in a family. Wonderfully directed,with an empathetic ensemble cast : Stephen Multari, Christian Charisiou, David Soncin, Nicholas Papademetriou, Deborah Galanos, Eloise Snape and Ronny Jon Paul Mouawai. Set by Georgia Hopkins, Lighting by Chris Page. Music by Alistair Wallace. Moving.
  3. GROUNDED, by George Brant. Directed by Kristen Von Bibra for Red Stitch, presented in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. This was a one person monologue delivered by a magnificent Kate Cole supported by production values of the highest order. The immaculate discipline of the show was breath taking. Its content heartbreaking and shocking. I had to swallow my prejudice against monologue as good theatre, indeed.
  4. OF MICE AND MEN, by John Steinbeck. Directed by Iain Sinclair for Sport For Jove in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. A truly great production with a wonderful cast led with a top knotch performance from Andrew Henry, as Lenny, with a great ensemble cast: Anthony Gooley, Andre de Vany, Laurence Coy, Christopher Stollery, Anna Houston, Charles Allen, John McNeil, Tom Stokes and Terry Serio. Set Design by Michael Hankin. Lighting, by Sian James-Holland. Sound Design, by Nate Edmundson.
  5. TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, by Richard Wagner. A concert version with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) led by David Robertson. A Great experience.
  6. JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER, A Dance work presented by Powerhouse Youth Theatre in association with Force Majeure in the School of Arts Hall, Fairfield. A work utilising the gifts of a local group of young 'artists' and their street honed skills of many contemporary styles of movement, organised into a kind of biographical/ verbatim show by Byron Perry. Video design by Sean Bacon. Sound design by Luke Smiles. The performers: Joseph Carbone, Johnny Do, Patrick Uy, Justin Kilic, Natalie Siri and Jimmy James Pham.The great news is that this work will be presented in 2016 at the Sydney Opera House. Don't miss it.
  7. SUPERPOSITION, by Ryoji Ikeda. A computer generated Sound and Light show about science. Mind blowing, even to my illiterate science/mathematic brain. A gift to have had the opportunity to experience. Presented by Carriageworks.
  8. THE ALIENS, by Annie Baker.  Presented by Outhouse Theatre Co in association with Red Line at the Old Fitz Theatre. A newish American writer creating hyper-real texts of intense observation of us - us, humans. The production was less than the play, but the play still shone.
  9. THE BEAUTY OF EIGHT. Presented by Taikoz in the York Theatre, Seymour Centre. This Australian music company dedicated to a Japanese tradition of drumming and wind instruments led an hypnotic journey with Ian Cleworth and Riley Lee, bewitching us all. Inspiring.
  10. RIDE and FOREPLAY, by Jane Bodie. Directed by Anthony Skuse at the Eternity Playhouse. It is so important to see the work of our established playwrights. These two one-act pieces, from an earlier time in Ms Bodie's career, demonstrated, revealed, the range and depth of her writing. Just why she has not her latest work shown in Sydney is a mystery to me. If we don't support by exposure our 'established' writers how do we expect to have a literary canon of any depth? It is why David Williamson is still around. It is why Nowra, Buzo, Hewett etc are 'stars' of our cultural 'history'. The Performing Arts Profession supported them in past times by ensuring their work was produced - both great and not so great work was seen, for sure, but that is what it is all about isn't it? Risk taking with talent? Old as well as new? Lachlan Philpott not shown on a Sydney stage this year! Why Not? That was why I felt relief to see a work (though small) of Ross Mueller from ATYP this year. Where is the new work of Stephen Sewell, for god's sake? (Is it any wonder they write for film or Television, at least it is relatively 'lucrative'. Is it? Writer's do have to eat, have families, 'do bleed', etc, you know.) Where is Joanna Murray Smith's work? There are so many plays of her's that have never seen the light of day in Sydney - why not? Encourage the young writers for sure, but, keep the 'established' writers in front of us and 'grow' their contributions. Practice makes perfect. Look at some of the 'horrors' supported at Belvoir this year as new writing - most of it seemed to be  second or third draft auteurism of the most awful kind. Awful because it forgot that there was an audience that they were writing for, and that were paying for their opportunity to do so, in good faith - not all of us are going to continue to invest with our 'good faith', subscription, in those writers/directors unless we are considered in their formula of creative output. The audience pay to witness the outcome!
  11. ENGLISH ECCENTRICS, an Opera by Australian, Malcolm Williamson, rarely performed, presented by students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, directed with clarity and wit by Kate Gaul. This was a discovery worth repeating - someone, please.
  12. A PROPERTY OF THE CLAN, by Nick Enright. A theatre-in-education (TIE) play presented by Don't Look Now and Blancmange Productions. Directed by Phil Rouse with an ensemble cast of dedicated excellence under very trying circumstances: George Banders, Megan Drury, Samantha Young and Jack Starkey. Disturbing. Still.
  13. TANGI WAI - The Cry of Water, a dance/movement work created by Victoria Hunt with a brilliant Lighting/video contribution by Fausto Brusamolino and Boris Bagattini, and an absolutely great Sound Design by James Brown. Presented by Carriageworks. A very exciting, immersive work.
  14. AN INDEX OF METALS, by Fausto Romitelli. Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring under the Musical Direction of Jack Symonds. The work is a concert piece with video images that had an 'opera' production created by Kip Williams on top of it, discarding the video artists' work. The Opera was not interesting. The music was thrilling. The Lighting by Ross Graham, monumental.  Presented by Carriageworks.
  15. 20 : 21, a trilogy of ballet from the Australian Ballet. Symphony in Three Movements, choreography by Balanchine, Music by Stravinsky; In the Upper Room, Choreography by Twyla Tharp. Music, by Philip Glass. But most striking was new work FILIGREE AND SHADOWS, Choreography by Tim Harbour. Set Design by Kevin Ho. Lighting, by Benjamin Cisterne. Sound Composition by 48Nord - Ulrich Muller and Siegfried Rosssert. The sum total of the work was a greatness. The dancing was propelling, compelling. The work thrilling.
  16. AUDRA MCDONALD SINGS BROADWAY, presented and with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO). I was gifted/taken to this show and it was the most inspiring night in the theatre I have had for some time. Ms McDonald is a craftsman of genius, and artist of the highest standing. I cried with envy, joy and amazement for most of it - so there.
  17. KING LEAR, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Neil Armfield  for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, with a towering performance from Geoffrey Rush as Lear of the highest order, supported with another by Helen Buday and Mark Winter Leonard. Lear is a big show and not all of it was of a whole, when I saw it, BUT, it was a magnificent achievement, haunting one still.
  18. VIOLET, a musical presented by Blue Saint Productions at the Hayes Theatre. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Book and Lyrics, by Brian Crowley. Impeccably Directed by Mitchell Butel. A great cast: Damian Bermingham, Barry Conrad, Steve Danielson, Sam Dodemaide, Kate Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez, Dash Kruck, Genevieve Lemon, Elenoa Rokobaro and Luisa Serofani. A roof raising time. Lucy Bermingham as Musical Director keeping the show taut and shimmering.
  19. MISTERMAN, by Enda Walsh. Presented by Siren Theatre Co in association with Red Line at the Old Fitz Theatre. Directed by Kate Gaul. A one person monologue. Irish, to boot. And I had to eat my prejudices again, it was an immense night in the theatre. Cage rattling in its seamless ferociousness. A wonderful example of Ms Gaul in passionate pursuit of telling a story.
  20. Basel Chamber Orchestra, presented by the ACO with a guest Cellist Sol Gabetta. Besides Bartok and Saint-Saens, the orchestra introduced two contemporary works: META ARCA by Swiss composer, Heinz Holliger and a work that Ms Gabetta commissioned, by Latvian, Peteris Vasks called Cello Concerto No.2 Presence. Mesmerising. Held breaths.
Performances I relished:
  1. Robert Rhode, as Doctor Mohamed Haneef, in DEAD TIME, by Fleur Beaupert, at 107 Projects, Redfern.
  2. Huw Higginson in THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE, by Aidan Fennessey, at the Griffin Theatre. This was simply confirmation of the greatness of his work seen at the Griffin last year. Why don't we see him more often?
  3. Brandon McClelland in A TOWN NAMED WAR BOYS for ATYP, and in THE PRESENT for the STC
  4. Luke Carroll and Shari Sebbens in BATTLE OF WATERLOO, at the STC. Great performances, great sympatico between them.
  5. Paula Arundell in THE BLEEDING TREE, one of the best performances of this year. Supported well by Shari Sebbens and Airlie Dodds at the Griffin. An amazing Ensemble.
  6. Kate Cole in GROUNDED, at the Reginald. As much as I loathe the monologue performance - this was a great one.
  7. Kate Box in DOLORES at the Old Fitz. Great work of great detail.
  8. Tom Campbell in MISTERMAN at the Old Fitz. Terrifying. 
  9. Andrew Henry as Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN. A wonderful physical transformation created with a sustained concentration of a most admirable intensity.
  10. Belinda Giblin In BLONDE POISON at the old Fitz. Another monologue where I had to forgo my prejudices. Horrifyingly attractive.
  11. James Bell as the innocent, Evan, in THE ALIENS, at the Old Fitz.
  12. Matthew Backer as Ariel in Bell Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, and as a member of the company of ORLANDO for the STC.
  13. George Banders in A PROPERTY OF THE CLAN.
  14. Josh McConville in Bell Shakespeare's HAMLET. A spectaular marathon of talent and commitment.
  15. Taylor Ferguson ( a force of vibrating creativity) and Lucy Goleby in Nick Enright's GOOD WORKS, at The Eternity Playhouse.
  16. Geoffrey Rush as KING LEAR - a Great Performance - for the STC. Helen Buday, as Goneril and Mark Leonard Winter as Edgar/Mad Tom.
  17. Audra McDonald in concert with the SSO. Genius. Not kidding.
  18. Sol Gabetta, Guest Cellist with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, presented by the ACO. An artist destined for legendary status, I reckon.
  19. Sam Dodemaide in VIOLET at the Hayes Theatre. It takes courage to play a difficult (unpleasant) character in a musical and not be tempted to want to be liked by taking 'cutesy' choices to be so - a habit of so many artists in the musical theatre genre, who should know better. Remarkably sustained craft that paid off "in spades". Courage and gifts galore.
  20. Lucy Bermingham, Musical Director of VIOLET. Taut and thrilling work, to my ear.
  21. Genevieve Lemon, giving a tour de force commitment to a number of small roles and chorus responsibilities that simply 'blew one's head off' with her creative comic insights and energy in VIOLET - one of a kind.
  22. Amy Lehpamer as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. One could not wish for more. Wonderful.
  23. John Bell in IVANOV at Belvoir Theatre. Dazzling bravura.
  24. Colin Friels in MORTIDO, the best performance of the year, I reckon. 4 characters he loved and honed for us. Wow. He made the complicated look simple.
Designs I noticed:
  2. Georgia Hopkins for Set Design, THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA and MINUSONESISTER (and much else).
  3. Renee Mulder for Set Design, BATTLE OF WATERLOO and THE BLEEDING TREE.
  4. Verity Hampson's, Lighting Design BATTLE OF WATERLOO and THE BLEEDING TREE, and much else. A jewel in the Sydney crown of talent.
  5. Matthew Adey's Visual Design on GROUNDED. Sound Design by Elizabeth Drake - amazing.
  6. Kate Gaul's Design for MISTERMAN.
  7. Michael Hankin for Set Design for OF MICE AND MEN. Lighting by Sian James-Holland. Sound Design by Nate Edmundson.
  8. Sound Design by Luke Smiles on JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER.
  9. Lighting Design by Ross Graham for AN INDEX OF METALS and VIOLET.
  10. Lighting Design for TANGI WAI by Fausto Brusamolino and Boris Bagattini. 
  11. A monumental Sound Design and Composition by James Brown for TANGI WAI. You need to hear it to believe it.
  12. Sound composition and Design by 48NORD: Ulrich Muller and Siegfried Rosssert for FILIGREE AND SHADOWS for the Australian Ballet.
Direction I noticed:
  • Fleur Beaupert for DEAD TIME.
  • Paige Rattray for BOYS WILL BE BOYS.
  • Fraser Corfield for A TOWN CALLED WAR BOYS.
  • Sarah Goodes for BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
  • Lee Lewis for THE BLEEDING TREE.
  • Kristen Von Bibra for GROUNDED.
  • Iain Sinclair for OF MICE AND MEN.
  • Jennifer Hagan for BLONDE POISON.
  • Byron Perry for JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER.
  • Phil Rouse for A PROPERTY OF THE CLAN.
  • Victoria Hunt for TANGI WAI.
  • Tim Harbour for FILIGREE AN SHADOWS.
  • Mitchell Butel for VIOLET. 
To Finish:

Perhaps, the MOST important event in the Performing Arts in 2015, in Sydney (Australia), was the creation of WITS - Women In Theatre and Screen. A movement to actively engage women at the forefront of our city's artistic endeavours. Congratulations to the founders of this entity who decided 'enough was enough'. Things have to change. I hope they (we) find the way to sustain the pressure and leadership. Action not just debate. Doing, not just talking.

Here's to a Happy New Year for 2016!

Arms and the Man

Sydney Theatre Company presents ARMS AND THE MAN, by George Bernard Shaw in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, 13 September - 31st October, 2015.

This is a catch-up diary entry for ARMS AND THE MAN. It was seen in September/October for goodness sake!

I am always keen to see the work of G.B. Shaw on stage. I do count his work as some of my favourite: HEARTBREAK HOUSE, SAINT JOAN, MAN AND SUPERMAN, MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, MISALLIANCE even THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE, THE DOCTOR'S DILEMMA, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, are want to see's. Maybe even YOU NEVER CAN TELL and MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION. And I do hope to see - long to see - before I die, BACK TO METHUSELAH. Now there's a collection of plays that our post-modernist textual game-players should browse - you know who you are. I mean in that over 100 page, double-columned volume of 5-parts in my collection, such a  remarkably prescient vision of mankind is explored. E.G. Part II: THE GOSPEL OF THE BROTHERS BARNABAS, expedites with biting wit the political activities of our present governments over the dilly-dallying of action over such things as, perhaps, by inference, Climate Change; while PART V:  AS FAR AS THOUGHT CAN REACH is scarily prescient to those of us who identify with the He- and She-Ancients of the play (just youthful floating brains, floating around, having shuffled off the decaying flesh! - Shaw and H.G. Wells and science fiction as prediction!)  I have seen a production of this work. It was at NIDA with Alexander Hay guiding some students  through this amazing work, tears and years ago. It was quite long. Painful, perhaps by the minute, but Glorious by the many, many hours.

ARMS AND THE MAN is one of Shaw's early plays, published usually in a collection known as PLAYS PLEASANT (Others include: CANDIDA, THE MAN OF DESTINY, YOU NEVER CAN TELL) and has a residual fame for me, mostly connected to the reviews of performances by Lawrence Olivier and Ralph Richardson as the two protagonists in a famous production long, long ago, last century.  This play was written in 1894 or so, in the era of a burgeoning British Empire of subjugated colonies and bloody warfare - all for Queen and Country, Commerce and Religion. Contrary to the derring-do of other writers of this period - Rudyard Kipling or H. Rider Haggard, for instance - G.B. Shaw as a Socialist activist was in abhorrence of such exploits and exploitation. ARMS AND THE MAN deals with the circumstances of a real war - a distant Bulgarian one, sufficiently distant from British realities to make it seem a cartoon Ruritanian one, for his audience, that permitted Shaw to satirise the horrors of war and romantic love which, then, because of the play's controversial attitude to the romantification of war was, probably, enough of a shock-of-the-new (how dare he? isn't it bold?) for it, a production of it, to be appreciated and made triumphant. Apparently, on the Opening night, when Shaw stepped before the curtain to take his demanded bow he observed a patron giving a loud 'Boo!' "My dear fellow', he exclaimed, "I quite agree with you, but what are we against so many?" Shaw in a letter to Henry Arthur Jones, another writer (playwright) of the period - one I think, oddly neglected - confessed some eight months later that he knew the whole affair was 'a ghastly failure'.

Today, this play's then controversial content is not outrageous enough to encourage laughter at its audacity, as it was probably then - for it is no longer audacious, it is mostly a familiar observation about the stupidity of war, if not, habit-wise a fully ingested one - war, war wherever we look. Still! This comedy is essentially, now, a romantic comedy. One about a "Chocolate" soldier, a "fantastic" soldier, and an in-training 'soldier' of the marriage game, a "sexy" young woman , who with her getting of wisdom, learns to employ the ammunition of the romantic stakes of flirtation as tactic for victory. It is a tale from the nursery, a fairy tale, a folk tale, a family entertainment, a pantomime, a kind of Punch-and-Judy show, now.

So, in the Drama Theatre the Sydney Theatre Company give us, under the guidance of Director, Richard Cotterell – a silly – and in the Designs of Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set) and Julie Lynch (Costumes) – a 'pretty', nay, an extravagantly 'pretty' – production of a contemporaneously boring play. It is no fault of Mr Cotterell's to be sure, he does the best he can. It is rather the curating of THIS Shaw play in 2015, by Artistic Director, Andrew Upton and his advisors, that is at fault. As I have indicated, if you are wanting to present a Shaw Play there are many to choose from, and as you can tell, this is one that I can hardly understand, or justify a reason for it to be put on at all, in our day and age, by a professional theatre company. Is it the economy of a small cast - 8 players, only - that facilitated its presentation? Its showing certainly does not bolster the reputation of Mr Shaw as an important and wittily relevant artist - which, as we recently witnessed with the National Theatre (UK) Broadcast of MAN AND SUPERMAN (starring Ralph Fiennes), is an undoubted fact. Why not curate that amazing play, and with a good production, enhance and do justice to Mr Shaw's reputation. I take personal umbrage that G.B. Shaw's reputation as a pertinent and 'contemporary' playwright is being traduced by the presentation of such a dated and therefore 'silly' example of his work. The artistic leaders of the Sydney Theatre Company ought to know better, don't you think?

Mitchell Butel, as Captain Bluntschli, gave an immaculately clock-work low comedy vaudeville turn of great charm. Andrea Demetriades, as Raina Petkoff, gave an,oddly" (knowing her usual incisive instinctual approach to text) a 'too modern' TV- sitcom edge to her responsibilities, but, thankfully, still, with her usual winning charms. While Charlie Cousins, as Major Sergius Saranoff, was more than a little out of his depth, especially with the absence of a vocal instrument, it having, here, little range and/or flexibility for the musical demands of Mr Shaw's writing and comic élan. He never appeared to be on top of the requirements of the stylistic demands of the writing, always, seemingly, anxiously striving for it. Shaw demands artists with all their skills primed, if not over-primed, for their responsibilities and 'duties'.

There was knowing and stalwart support from veterans of this kind of work and style from William Zappa, as Major Paul Petkoff, and Deborah Kennedy, as the cunning 'war veteran' of the marriage game strategies, Catherine Petkoff. The sub-plot, where most of the comic and assiduous class politics of Shaw is posited, was expedited by Brandon Burke, as Nikola and Olivia Rose, as Louka in a fairly muted manner - it lacked edge, punch, wit.

All in all, this ARMS AND THE MAN, was exceedingly silly, extravagantly 'pretty', and arduously, intellectually dull to sit through. Though, there was enough vaudeville to gain a chuckle or two, or three - appropriate to Shaw, or not.