Sunday, March 27, 2016

Unfinished Works


bontom presents UNFINISHED WORKS, by Thomas De Angelis, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. March 24 - 2 April.

UNFINISHED WORKS is a new play by Thomas De Angelis. In 2014 he presented his play, THE WORST KEPT SECRETS, also at the Reginald Theatre, under the auspices of his own production company, bontom.

In the promotional material for this play we are told that UNFINISHED WORKS will deliver
an incisive portrayal of contemporary Sydney and its culture, explor(ing) the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of our life's work. Famous artist Frank Ralco (Lucy Goleby) is a woman who has never separated her life from her art. Wildly successful, she has a reputation that precedes her. When Frank finds herself creatively blocked and unable to paint, she begins to worry that her entire body of work has been meaningless, and her life pointless. To top it all off - some of her work has just been stolen. When Frank meets university student and aspiring artist Isabel (Contessa Treffone), they hatch a plan to test the power of their art, and in the process change the course of their lives.
The play presents (intimates) a clash between Commerce and Art and the consequent ethical struggles.  It presents a crisis of Artistic confidence. It presents a generational clash of life expectations between parents and children. It presents a same sex relationship between two women. It presents the veniality and superficiality of some of the art managers/agents.

The real problem, however with the play, even if those subjects are of vital importance to you as  an incisive portrait of Sydney - is that the development of any of these presentations is glacial in its narrative, agonisingly repetitious in its dramaturgical plotting (I know what you are saying, get on with it, please), and represented by one dimensional characters (that the actors stretch to inhabit as at least two dimensional characterisations, thank god!) And so, if none of those pre-occupations of Mr De Angelis are much in your concern to spend an inordinate time with, they being so insular and bourgeois in their attention, you will probably not give a 'brass razoo', to do so. I couldn't have given 'a you know what' by the end of it, I had become so wearied.

 Respect for the artists at toil in front of one kept one well behaved.

The people of the play are so, so familiar. One sees them on Australian television consistently. They are boring there and they are even more boring in the Reginald Theatre. And the problem here is that one can't switch channels or turn it off, we are 'trapped' in the theatre, and 'horror of horrors', the production authors have decided we will have no interval and so keep us 'prisoners' for the whole of the two hour event. We have no civilized choice, but to sit and persist, and squirm and 'boil'.

Now what is important, what is a defining moment, or turning point for any of us is a relative thing. The horror of a war image can be as defining for one individual, as the kiss between two women may be to another. So, what Mr De Angelis has decided is important for him and believes is a necessary thing for us to think about, and that that thought will change our life, is his life's experience and own expectation and is, so, okay. It just may not be as important to us as it is to him.  However, his job is to make us think so, so that we can feel empathy and perhaps have catharsis with/for his people, which he fails to do.

Chekhov, similarly, wrote plays that seem to be about nothing and are full of repetition and discussion. The difference is that Chekov was a keen, forensic observer of his fellow humans, and came to understand them and their sense of 'mortality' in the big universal scheme of things, and he, in his writing, not only gave us clues to WHO these people were, WHERE they were, WHEN it was, especially in terms of the 'emotional' stakes of the moments in the story, but was especially clear about WHAT they wanted, and particularly accurate in telling us WHY they wanted it  - their deep psychological motivations - and of the many various ways (the HOW) that his people tried to get it. The difference in the writing skills between Chekhov and Mr De Angelis is that this young writer writes his people with very little insight into their motivations and has only a superficial sense of their complex 'given circumstances' and simply shows his characters saying and doing what he has observed and padded out. He has not created three dimensional beings, they are simply a thumbnail sketch of superficially observed types. Insight into their Past so that in their PRESENT we can see their desired FUTURE is not provided. There is virtually no sub-text in UNFINISHED WORKS, just surface behaviour.

It was epitomized for me when late in the play a character (Isabel) brings out an actual copy of the day's Sydney Daily Telegraph that had on its front page a graphic image of the recent Brussels terrorist atrocity with a heading statement: CAPITAL CARNAGE, and made no reference at all to the bigger world crisis (one wonders why that image is brought on stage - it probably hadn't been even thought through, or was an accident of fate), and proceeds to work through the defining moment of his character's plot - a review of a painting. But that single image and journalistic heading of two words: CAPITAL CARNAGE, held more contemporary incision than the two hours of waffle that Mr De Angelis thought would be of interest to an audience - that would cause my world to change.  My world gaze was definitely not concerned with the artistic block of Frank the painter, the sexual burgeoning of Isabel with a woman, or the pangs and difficulties of modern day parenting and social ethics in a moneyed competitive world - let alone the drug habit of Jimmy, the agent, which is treated as an opportunity for some blasé joking. Mr De Angelis hadn't found the way in his writing to make any of that a concern. The idea of Brussels and terrorism, introduced on to the stage by the Director Clemence Williams, was of much greater import, and it seemed to me, of more urgency, than any of Mr De Angelis' people and their predicaments in his play.

The actors, Lucy Goleby, Deborah Galanos, Rhett Walton and especially Contessa Treffone give valiant 'flesh and blood' to their characterisations, cursorily written by Mr De Angelis, and create 'miracles' of acting technique to sustain that work throughout the moribund movement of the narrative plotting of the author. (How many times have we seen Australian actors keeping afloat a new Australian play?- I did enough of it as an actor in my day, too many times. I have knowledge. Ms Galanos has done, of late, much to 'support' new Australian writers. She must have been indeed grateful for THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIA, by Jose Riveria, early last year, where character and story offered the opportunity to truly reveal her gifts.) Kyle Kazmarzik, as the artist's agent, Jimmy Gunning, gives a performance that does not much escape from his program admitted admiration of Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, both it seems in their comic-stand-up times (routines), not their filmed character acting, for there is not much of the latter from Mr Kazmarzik, here - the immediate laugh is the object of his creation, too often.

I saw THE WORST KEPT SECRETS, the last work produced by Mr De Angelis, and thought he had some promise as a writer, especially in the devising of dialogue. (In fact, the opening speech of this play is extremely arresting and I became excited to be engaged further - alas, that was the best of the writing.) His ear for dialogue is still his principal strength. That Mr De Angelis has just spent a year studying playwriting at NIDA under the aegis of Stephen Sewell is hardly marked here. Nothing much as developed or changed in his approach, either to subject matter, dramaturgical construction or character observation, despite that year of study. How could that be?

The Direction by Ms Williams is practical and pragmatic, well done, considering her material. And the Set Design by Charlie Davis is, too, practical and pragmatic, if not arid in the extreme - it looked like untreated ply wood neatly engineered to fit the space, scattered with the barest furniture needs. There is no Lighting Designer credited and the Sound Design by Hedon (Hugh O'Brien) is mostly a selection of suitable 'pop' music.

The objectives for writing UNFINISHED WORKS stated by Mr De Angelis in the program notes are altruistic indeed:
I just want to write stories that get an audience thinking. I don't care for parables or agit -prop, but I know that language can be used to move people and change things. I just want my plays to give you the chance to think in a way you've never thought before. I'd just like to have an hour and a half of your time to have a small effect on you.
I certainly had enough time to think while watching this play but I'm sure the things I thought and wanted changed, after doing so, are not the things Mr De Angelis wished for. I had not thought like that before, so vehemently, and I had to give, and politely gave, perforce, not an hour and a half of my time but two hours of it to Mr De Angelis. The effect of his writing was profound indeed.

This is a production presented at risk, as all art is, by a young self funded company. See it if you want to support enterprise in a very fledgling endeavour. There is, to my mind, no other reason to attend.

I recommend these plays to Mr De Angelis and to you:

ART, by Yasmina Reza (1994), a play about Art and Commerce.

STANLEY, by Pam Gems (1996), a play about the trials and tribulations of the artist and the intendant 'collateral damage' to his family and friends.

RED, by John Logan (2009), a play about the creative process and crisis of the artist.


The Blind Giant is Dancing

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, by Stephen Sewell, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Surry Hills, 17 February - 20 March.

The primitive but stirring sound of a muted metal instrument (it, probably, a manufactured electric source) heralding the entrance of the participants to commence action on the Belvoir stage promised an heroic approach to this epic 1983, political/religious family saga, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, by Stephen Sewell. I was flattered to be presented with the dense muscularity of the ideas in the language of the play - it has been so long since I have been enthused by an Australian text with challenging ideas/debate, a basic of the best kind of theatre - that I leaned into the play, in my seat, and despite, the relative casual vocal skills and efforts of the actors I paid attention to the convolutions of Mr Sewell's mixture of family, religion, brand-politics, political manoeuvring and ethics, with a kind of anticipant thrill.

True, the play is long, and, sadly, actually came to feel long - one wished for the 'blue pen' to be further wielded -  so that, one gradually sat back, and had one's appetite diminished for the work, out of exhaustion, but, mostly, out of an accumulative frustration at Directorial decisions (tonal) and acting inadequacies (skills). The longer you are on view the more likely the audience's critical 'eye' will come into play. That is prevented, only by the highest quality of performance, that will keep one suspended in a subjective 'bath of joy': e.g. anything I have seen by Mnouchkine, some of her work 6 hours long! - never a glimmer of distraction from me, whilst watching. Mr Flack's work with Mr Sewell's play intimated only a promise of that possibility.

Eamon Flack as the Director, seems to be enamoured with the cinematic medium, rather than the very different demands of the theatre, and here, on the Belvoir stage, as he did with his production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, indulges that trait. (I wish he would indulge his [obvious] theatricality for the medium he is working in.) This artistic exploration/pre-occupation is present in his making this text seem filmically naturalistic - performances of intense but small scale intimacy - and emphasized it consistently: for example, by allowing the late scenes of seduction, between Rose (Zahra Newman) and Allen (Dan Spielman), to be played so softly (and, perhaps, 'truthfully') that  micro-phoned projected voices were required to communicate it to the audience (the Sound Design uncomfortably, disconcertedly, different, drawing attention to the technical sleight of hand) and encouraging other actors - e.g. Ramon (Ivan Donato) - to speak the play as if it were a real life occurrence, (instead of sounding and looking LIKE 'real life' - at stage scale), so that in many instances, we had only audible sounds/noises coming from the actors that intimated an emotional state, rather than a giving of the information of the line, for us to be able to understand, and so endow the emotional iterations, that were, otherwise being demonstrated for us, and for us to be able to, at least, grasp the 'arguments' of the play - the thoughts as well as the feelings of the characters. (With this filmic style of playing on the stage, Mr Flack could have helped us, further, by having sur-titles for us to comprehend what was the cause of the emotional outpourings, since, often, we couldn't hear with unequivocal clarity what was been said.)

The Directorial style was consistently a directed subjective/naturalistic focus instead of disciplined objective/storytelling focus for the theatre. Time and time again the drama of the play fell to the floor at the ends of speeches, either spoken too softly, or gabbled in sentence length without any real vocal technique clarity of word by word construction, and most times not utilising the clues - 'commands' - of the writer's syntax accurately, to tell the 'story' of the play. 'Feeling' not 'thinking' the principal mode of the actor's choices in performance.

We experienced naturalism (realism?) dominating the manner of the storytelling in this production where I believe Shakespearean epic could be, should be its reach, its tone. I thought, after watching the production, even the title of the play in its choice of heightened poetry: THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, is a clue to the production scale. The more experienced actors of the company, especially, Russell Kiefel and Genevieve Lemon, had no such blindness, blemish, and made a more gigantic impression in the schemata of the production, as a result, and had the play ignite, using the particular (a barbecue) to illuminate the universal context - to make the ordinary (small) into an infinite - the echoes of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN's Willy and Linda Loman were intimated in their husband and wife, Doug and Eileen Fitzgerald. As no less, I felt an envisioned heightened scale of acting in the carefully drawn and subtle creation by Andrew Henry of the younger brother Bruce, growing from feckless idiot in short shorts to a questing hero of conscience and honour in compensating contrast to his brother's Allen's descent (a Malcolm contrasting Macbeth, perhaps?).

Especially after the satiric and nostalgic family scenes of the second act, the scale of this play began to push at me in its possible conception and explain my relative boredom with what was been offered. I began to feel the epic nature of the tragedy of this play. This play is not just about the strangulation of religious/church rituals and prejudices enmeshed, further, in the dynamics of Capital and its Corporate Beasts sooked onto our democratic institutions and ideals - epic though that is - but even more powerfully, of the Shakespearean scaled tragedy of an individual of this society, a possible GIANT of idealised principle - religious and political - brought low through the gradual succumbing to the insatiable disease of the everyman human animal: greed for power. Power at any cost, ultimately, leading to a lonely seat on the throne of government - a corrupt place where the need for absolutism, to survive, corrupts unfailingly. Like many of Shakespeare's great tragic characters - Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear (name them) - Allen Fitzgerald, begins the play as a man of some honour and behavioural ethics - a conscience ridden struggling human honour, to be sure - that progressively, in the battering course of the world that he lives and battles in, becomes diminished, to be what he once was fighting against and despised most - a leader, soaked by and in the bleeding wounds of his lost principles, alone and grippingly paranoid - a figure as terrible as Ivan the Terrible in the Eisenstein film! - a figure (and performance) of scale.

The naturalistic scale and habits of the contemporary, popular, filmic tone appreciated by Mr Flack has led him into Directing, I think, Mr Spielman into playing an ordinary man living out choices, to having a fall from ethical behaviour, instead of the Hero with a Tragic Flaw, having a spectacular descent into a kind of modern madness. Creating a monumental tale/fable of caution for us all. This production had no Blind Giant Dancing. It kept reminding me of the relative failure of epic tone displayed in Mr Flack's production of MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, last year. A deliberate pulling of the theatrical demands of Brecht down to a contemporary film and television 'melodrama' scale.

The acting of the company at Belvoir, in general, was good, but except for the aforementioned Mr Kiefel, Ms Lemon and Mr Henry, had no glimmer of greatness.  What has tantalised me about attending the theatre again, was the opportunity in London of seeing acting from most of the actors there, played at a thrilling capacity for heightened stakes, each challenging the other to an engaged energy of concentration and skill that was viscerally, thrillingly projected into the theatre, no matter where you sat. Acting that made even ordinary material - RED VELVET- easy to sit through, because of the passion of their playing with very articulate instruments of craft - voice and body. It takes courage and most of all Skills in a primed state for usage to do so. Mr Sewell's plays can bear it, they are built heroically, it seems to me, for artistic courage, heightened stakes and highly prepared and available skills - I believe his plays require all three elements, ferociously.

Mr Sewell's consistent writing habits, evidenced in his play texts, have all three elements and the artists working on them need to compliment - match - that inspiration. But the Australian inclination to 'kitchen sink' style, or fashionably, to melodramatic TV and Film scale - intimate and real - is what we mostly see here. Really, last year, from memory, Geoffrey Rush in KING LEAR, Colin Friels in MORTIDO were the only actors prepared to buck the boring flavour/favour of our genteel tastes and attempt to thrill an audience with acting at a theatrical (and believable) scale. It was disheartening and interesting to see a performer such as Yael Stone, as Louise, the isolated Jewish wife, who we have known to ignite and project indelible characterisations on the Belvoir stage in the past, reducing her choices to such a dull expression of action, that did seem to me to require, perhaps, a camera to capture, the possibility of her internal truths of her character. Similarly, Mr Spielman, in a reductive mode, for one can remember what we have seen him deliver under the direction of Mr Kosky, in the past (THE LOST ECHO).

Ivan Donato, as Ramon, played at an internalised impassioned state of communication - but in Row H you could barely hear him; Zahra Newman's Rose seemed to only want sex from Allen - its telegraphed need, blinding us to any other perceptible option/motivation for her character's action; Geoff Morrell appeared to be re-playing some of his television characterisations; Emma Jackson with three roles overplaying or underplaying to distinguish them; Ben Wood brought some real interest to one of his roles but showed, relatively, little interest or invention in his other tasks; Michael Denka making an impression with the little he had to do - a Mafioso energy of threat - one wanted to see more of him.

The Design, both Set and Costume, by Dale Ferguson was clean and stimulating. The dark green walled surround stage, bare, except for a large L.E.D.screen, centrally placed, that illuminated the space with sometimes blinding light, which resulted in an Artaud discomfort effect, and sometimes with Brechtian like titles of scene location etc. It was a contemporary (if not expensive) stroke. Lighting Design, by Verity Hampson. Pieces of furniture were brought on as required with precision, leaving some actors seated in the background hovering, sometimes watching, sometimes representing participants of the action, Meyerhold-like. The Sound Composition by Steve Toulmin was the element that seemed to understand the epic/timeless scale of Mr Sewell's story best, it was consistently thrilling, it continuously heralding an epic scale of production that was consistently not met in the Directorial or Acting offers that followed.

I was glad to have seen this play, despite the limitations of this production. It gives one a jolt of memory that there were once 'warriors' writing for our culture, our country, that cared about the bigger moral issues of our times. It also signals, perhaps, the reason for our increasing disillusionment with our present day writers (or at least the writers that the Company artistic 'gatekeepers' - Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Belvoir - are prepared to produce), who write so consistently and ordinarily about domestic trivialities with so few points of view  - family melodrama and deflective shallow comedy: the Belvoir piss-take style with a play like Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, or the STC's production of Gorky's CHILDREN OF THE SUN, not long ago.

I was a guest of some regular Belvoir subscribers and they were, they said, frankly bored by the production, not finding enough clarity to give them cause for a three hour engagement. The discussion after the performance, on the outside pavement, was wan and moved quickly onto other things. Mr Sewell's plays are written with social and political combat in mind. We all ought to have been charged with argument one way or the other, about something. We weren't.

Says the 'blurb' on the back of the text/program sold at the the theatre:
THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING is an angry and tender depiction of an idealist, Allen Fitzgerald, who becomes so embroiled in a party power struggle that he loses sight of what's at stake. When it premiered in 1983, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING felt like a sharp slap in the face. Now, in an age of ICAC, Union Credit cards, speculative housing bubbles, a pulverised working class and vapid leadership in the 21st century, this Australian classic has lost none of its brute force.
Certainly the play has this intimation of its power, this production did not - it is all a matter of courage and skill really. The other artists need to reflect and meet the courage and vision of the writer. This production had no sense of "brute force" - BRUTE FORCE!

It would be an event to see what Stephen Sewell is writing for the theatre for today, would it not? I am sure his passion for the ideals of society, and his desire to awaken us, one way or the other, have not tempered. I think I know enough actors that feel the same way and have the courage to do him proud. I think I do.

Friday, March 25, 2016

That Eye The Sky

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents THAT EYE, THE SKY adapted by Richard Roxburgh and Justin Monjo, from the novel by Tim Winton, at the New Theatre, Newtown. 15 March - 15 April, 2016.

From the hand bill for this production at the New Theatre, of an adaption, by Richard Roxburgh and Justin Monjo, of Tim Winton's 1986 novel, THAT EYE, THE SKY:
In a small Western Australian town 13 year-old Ort Flack is coming to terms with terrible changes in his world.
His father lies paralysed in a coma, his older sister is consumed by hate, his grandma exists in a fog of dementia and his once carefree mother can't cope.
Then a mysterious stranger appears and bewitches them all.
 Tim Winton's novel about a young boy's experiences of love, loss, faith and family has been adapted into an evocative theatrical experience infused with humour, spirituality and humanity.
The original adaptation by Mr Roxburgh and Monjo has now been further adapted (with permission, I assume) by the Director of this production, David Burrowes. Mr Burrowes, reports the program notes: is a graduate of the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (Batchelor of Digital Media) and the National Institute of Dramatic Art - NIDA (Master of Fine Arts, Directing):
His practice is centred around the later theories of Stanislavsky, specifically Active Analysis, and his post-graduate thesis sought to articulate a directing methodology and rehearsal practice specific to narrative screen content grounded in this practice. ...
The first act of this production, seems to me, so full of an indulgent exploration/pursuit of the rehearsal methodology theory of Mr Burrowes' recent study that the play, the storytelling of the material, written by Mr Roxburgh and Monjo, has been jettisoned as a secondary interest. We are offered some half-baked conceptual 'installation-art' images: for instance, a rectangular light box that is mechanically and clumsily hoisted throughout the act, bringing the production to a stand still to accommodate its movements; two wheel chairs in which are sat two grey mannequin dolls, one with a tape recorded voice machine strapped to it that represents grandma that 'squawks' out noise that I supposed was text (essential or not, who knows?), and another, a silent one, that represents the paralyzed father - by the time we have sorted out what (who) they represent we seem to have missed dialogue and action that may have given us something to be involved with; we are given actors who move across the stage in stylised patterns of movement and who also climb the back-walled setting, speaking the text with hardly any commitment to talk to each other, or to communicate comprehensibly to the audience, a narrative.

The play, as received by the audience with this production, is, especially in the first act, progressively, a thorough incomprehensible 'mess', lacking any graspable clarity. Nor can we even give awe to the 'Directorial' conceits, for they have no clarity of raison d'être, of meaning either, and are, to boot,  poorly executed. It seems that Mr Burrowes has had a lot of theory in his Master's degree of Directing from NIDA, but not much practise of it.

Last year Mr Burrowes Directed a production of the great comic classic THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for the New Theatre, and I found it so crowded with the  attentions (and intentions) of an aspiring auteur bent on dismembering the original via, I guess, a lot of 'theory', that I left at the interval. Mr Burrowes, it seemed, thought that he could make contributions to enhance the Sheridan original. He didn't, and any laughter that he may have got from his audience, and there was some, - mostly sycophantic - was at the expense of the classic wit, character and plotting of the Sheridan masterwork. It was like watching the petulant destruction of an art work by vandals, and the only reason to have done so seemed to be,  because they could - for nothing presented by that company in the first act, at least, justified what was being wrought. One wonders if they could have, if they wished, given the play a production, as writ and so reveal the reason for its Classic classification in the canon of dramatic literature? (It is a very difficult task to do that in itself, let alone dicker with it.) Michael Billington lists THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, in his recent book, The 101 Greatest Plays From Antiquity to the Present (2015). One can, of course, debate that honour.

I came back into the theatre after the interval of THAT EYE, THE SKY, out of some loyalty to all of the artists, who have, obviously, toiled, and because of a faint but pleasant memory of the original production of 1994. I believe it is important to nurture the young artists of the future, and I applaud the New Theatre management for doing so, but I wonder if a 'workshop production' of these 'visionary' explorations of theory would serve the opportunity for the Director more efficaciously, validly, especially for his reputation with an audience. The curating of last year's THE CANTERBURY TALES, at the New Theatre, a work Conceived and Directed by Constantine Costi, James Vaughan and Michael Costi, and presented as a 'workshop production' seemed to be the right way to serve these young artists. Exposure as a MainStage Production of THAT EYE, THE SKY, does not seem to serve anybody's reputation well - and least of all, the writers, including Mr Winton. When practice has caught up to theory, then perhaps, present the exploration as MainStage fare.  New Theatre is capable of producing worthwhile work (TOP GIRLS, SWEENEY TODD), but the unreliable standard of care, the inconsistency of its quality of product, as supervised by the Artistic Management, make it a very hit or miss experience, and does not incline one to attend that theatre with indefatigable loyalty - time is too precious and there is so much else to do.

Joel Horwood, as Ort, does the best he can with the Directorial demands made on him, and certainly the second act of this production is less clogged with Directorial inspiration to thwart the actor, so that his story does become more apparent. This actor can, it seems, 'swim' and so successfully gets, respectably, to the other end of the 'pool'. All of the other actors try to 'swim' but do not surmount the difficulties of Mr Burrowes' vision, sufficiently, to get to the end of the 'pool' with clarity. Certainly, they do not seem to have had much care from their Director on what is working and what is not  and so, to continue the metaphor, 'drown'. One wonders, does the Directorial Masters Degree at NIDA give the participants sufficient opportunities to practice that vital skill? How to assist an actor. How many arcs of storytelling, either complete one act or full length plays, do these Masters of Fine Arts - Directing, have? Do they work with professional actors or just students - case of 'the blind leading the blind'? It is not apparent that they have much experience of staging a play based on the result in this work or in last year's work, by Mr Burrowes. The Sound Composition by Hugo Smart and Dean Barry Revell is the best of the artistic contributions in this production, it having a contemporary energy and startling effect to create a wonder of the world of Ort and the stars in his sky. Benjamin Brockman has lit the show with some beautiful effects but has not always illuminated the action Directed by Mr Burrowes.

THAT EYE, THE SKY, at the New Theatre, is not a very successful production. One had to make do with the memory of the original production by Burning House, in a church hall in Darlinghurst as part of the 1994 Sydney Festival, starring Hugo Weaving, Susan Prior, Celia Ireland, Steve Rodgers and David Wenham. Those were the days.

Of course, one can read the novel for about the same expense as the ticket at the New Theatre.Your choice!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Escaped Alone


The Royal Court Theatre presents ESCAPED ALONE, by Caryl Churchill, in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London, 21 January - 8 March, 2016.

An elderly woman, a Mrs Jarrett (Lindsay Barrett), looks at us and says: "I'm walking down the street and there's a door in the fence and inside are three women I've seen before." and she goes in. So, we spend an hour with three old, comfortable friends, Sally (Deborah Findlay), Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson) and a neighbour on a summer afternoon on a small grassed backyard lawn having tea in rickety chairs.

Caryl Churchill's new play, ESCAPED ALONE, introduces us into the everyday conversation of four women who have lived a life, they are in their 70's, and have 'wonderful-bizarro' stories to recollect and ruminate upon, whilst living and quietly coping with the changing world about them. Sally has a detailed phobia about cats that possesses her and helps distract her. Lena suffers from depression - maybe agoraphobia - that possesses her and helps distract her. Vi who spent six years in prison for murdering her abusive husband in their kitchen, is now coping with the real horror of the incident, of having lost contact with her son - a circumstance that possesses her and distracts her. While Mrs Jarrett with the outward appearance of the acceptance of the ageing process - "two new hips" - reveals, simply: "Terrible Rage terrible rage terrible rage terrible rage terrible rage..... " She is not distracted at all. They all chatter relatively peacefully without overt rancour, and they even have a reminiscing interlude when they spontaneously sing a pop song from their days of youth (Da Do Run Run - 1963, Crystals). Nostalgic. Charming. Delightful.

All of this takes place in a hyper real suburban backyard, Designed by Miriam Buether, lit with a changing daylight intensity by Peter Mumford. It has the feel of a comfortable theatrical presentation of a reality, that is so hyper that it is obviously not real - and like the conversation of the women has the sub-conscious effect of a vibrating tension of dis-ease.

Between each of the eight overheard episodes of tea and sympathy, Mrs Jarrett steps down onto the edge of the stage and backed with a visual void of infinite blackness, framed by a glowing rectangular of orange light bulbs, tells us, directly and unaffectedly, of a cataclysmic imagining of a world of the future:
Fire broke out in ten places at once. Four cases of arson by children and politicians, three of spontaneous combustion of the markets, two of sunshine, one supposed by believers to be a punishment by God for gender dysphoria. It swept through saplings, petrol stations, prisons, dryads and books. Fires were lit to stop the fires and consumed squirrels, firefighters and shoppers. Cars sped from one furnace to another. Houses exploded. Some shot flaming swans, some shot their children. Finally the wind drove the fire to the ocean, where salt water made survivors faint. The blackened area was declared a separate country with zero population, zero growth and zero politics. Charred stumps were salvaged for art and biscuits.
This gorgeous prose/poetry of a relentlessly grim imagery, cascades from Ms Churchill through Mrs Jarrett in a winning matter of fact way, mixing environmental disasters, evolving grotesqueries of biology and everyday familiar details of a world far more intriguing and frightening than anything that the apocalyptic film BLADE RUNNER, had ever imagined or intimated a possibility. But then that film's graphic imagery was made in 1982. Ms Churchill's play is of now, 2016. Time and man's abuse of the planet has moved on. 34 years. Only 34 years.

Mrs Jarrett having had her tea and camaraderie with her neighbours, stands up and says to her neighbours: "I like it here" (Afternoons like this). Then she steps out to the edge of the stage and says to us: "And then I said thanks for the tea and I went home."

This play and this production, Directed by James Macdonald, is beguilingly subtle, brilliantly acted by all four of the women. It all felt, as an experience, straightforward and easy, but in its immediate aftermath devastating and enormously disconcerting. The dark punch of a dystopian future of real terror lit quietly a fear and a rage, a terrible rage. The impact of watching these four aged and marinated-by-life women sitting in a backyard just like mine  - all recognisable from my own life - gently, laterally, bringing tea and catastrophe into my consciousness, had me transported into a place of real wonder.

A black, fear filled, fearful comic jewel. And, still, I felt that I had had a miraculous time in the theatre.  A quiet sense of a kind of happiness despite the weighty sadness of the future. Ms Churchill just seems to get better and better.

'I only am escaped alone to tell thee.'  Book of Job. Moby Dick.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

80 Minutes No Interval

Photo by Rupert Reid
Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions  present 80 MINUTES NO INTERVAL, by Travis Cotton, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Wooloomooloo, 11 March - 9 April.

One of my mantras has been when working in the theatre: "The writer is God." I have always held the writer in the highest esteem, especially the playwright, and in my working as an Actor, Director or Teacher of Acting, I have always applied a kind of 'forensic fanaticism' to the writer's words and clues, including the syntax and even the lay out on the printed page, to decipher the possibilities that the writer has given to the performing artists in their attempting to embody his/her ideas. The black marks on the white page, if the writer is good, has given you everything you need to create character and tell the story. It is a musical score that benefits from a 'close' reading. It is why when working with actors I always encourage them to work with the BEST writers for they have done most of the work for one - one just needs the tools, the creative habit and patience to extract it.

How difficult is it to write? How difficult is it to write a play? Very difficult, I have come to understand. On watching this new Australian play, 80 MINUTES NO INTERVAL, by Travis Cotton, I couldn't help these ideas entering my head. And even more precisely, I was asking myself: "How difficult is it to write a comedy?" Given the failure rate of that genre, that one endures in the theatre (and especially on Australian Television), I would say enormously difficult.

Mr Cotton's new play is simply a wonder. The plotting is surprising, the jokes are rapid fire (and often very smart), the characters are hilarious and the twist to his tale extraordinarily beautiful. But Mr Cotton has also Directed it and employed a variety of comic techniques that cross over into many genres and reaps laughter for not only the aptness of the styles in use but also because of the audacity and detailed discipline of their execution with his hardworking actors (Movement by Scott Witt). Given that the last play I saw of Mr Cotton's was ROBOTS VS ART, which he also Directed, and remembering how tight I thought that was, while not much liking the playwriting itself, 80 MINUTES NO INTERVAL, is quite a considerable leap forward.

Louis (Ryan Johnson) is a failed writer who makes a living as a Theatre Critic. His life, we discover, has a curse upon it and he is doomed to not do well. His newspaper editor has found a Red Box that runs on an algorithm to write perfect reviews and so sacks him. His girlfriend, Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) is tired of his ineptness and his hesitation of living a normal life as husband and father with a normal job. Her comic rant on the theatre that she has endured with him is a masterpiece of comic satire, delivered by Ms Harbridge with a 'killer' comic skill. His parents, played with a withering comic eye by Mr Goldsworthy and Ms Harbridge, want their investment property back and need him to pay his back-rent, and to vacate, forthwith. He finds an editor at last, Dan Kurtz (Mr Goldsworthy), interested in publishing his latest novella, but only after changes, and that is when fate really turns to 'shit'.  But despite the horrors of a twenty year jail term for a crime he did not commit he still has kept writing. Only hours after leaving jail, carrying his hand written plays, he takes a romantic u-turn into a flower shop, and then ... !

Ms Harbridge, Mr Goldsworthy play a number of persona with true comic aplomb. Jacob Allen is wryly amusing as a professional waiter, and Julia Rorke gives a performance as Mathilde, the flower shop girl, that is either wonderfully crafted naivety or horribly inexperienced performing - I couldn't divine which it was, and one couldn't help but think of some of the actresses Charlie Chaplin used for his heroines, to great effect: e.g. Virginia Cherrill in CITY LIGHTS (1931), and she too works in a florist shop. Whichever it is, it is a fascinating stroke of genius from Mr Cotton in the casting of this young woman, for it works in the most tender way. Mr Cotton's hero, Louis, the straight adventurer of this tale, is sustained with a gifted generosity of the dead-pan by Ryan Johnson - a quiet and attractive performance.

Georgia Hopkins is the Production Designer and pulls a wonderful surprise in the latter part of the play after presenting a fairly austere and pragmatic look to the early sequences of the play. Here she is aided and abetted by Ross Graham with his early strict lighting palette that blooms into astonishing beauty with Ms Hopkins' coup de theatre. Hamish Michael has Composed (with Hue Blanes) and created a Sound Design of tremendous intricacy and wit, such that it becomes as important a comic element as the actors' contribution - sections of the play are sustained with just the wizardry of the sound. A tremendous feat.

Mr Cotton has written and Directed a very marvellous work, a surprisingly original black-comic whimsy that dazzles as much as it delights. I thoroughly recommend attendance. Of course, comedy is the hardest theatre form because it will always be a matter of taste (and mood) - I loved it and hope that you might too. Certainly,  here is a playwright that has been persisting for yonks around the fringes of our theatre world and I believe with this work deserves a break out into the Big Time. Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company take a look. Please.

Mr Cotton in his Director's Notes says in the concluding paragraph:

                "Most importantly, thanks to my family in Melbourne for supporting me to come up here and put on this show. It means the world to me."

I should assure his family that 80 MINUTES NO INTERVAL, gives me confidence in the determination and fidelity of this writer, and their support, considering the pleasure I had, means, if I may say so, the world to me, too. So, thanks for your faith and trust in Travis Cotton.

Go see, immediately.

The Whale


Red Line presents THE WHALE, by Samuel D. Hunter, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St Wooloomooloo. 4 Feb - 4 March.

THE WHALE, written by American writer, Samuel D. Hunter in 2012, has all of the ingredients of a classically constructed play - it ticks all (most) of the boxes of 'good', audience-friendly playwriting, tried and still true. A realist environment we all know; characters (we might nearly know) with complicated back stories; enough contemporary issues that we can, relatively, associate with: morbid obesity, religious tyranny and its corroding influence, sexual taboos, gay (bi-sexual) family, adolescent angst; and a prospect of an imminent death which provides a hook to develop a dramatic tension with a growing emotional sentimentality (which could result in tears before curtain call); plus, references to a bigger world other than the living room of this everyday home, allowing us to draw a connection to the metaphysical aspirations of our imaginative species, in this case through the invention of the Old Testament story of Noah and the Whale, and Herman Melville's revered MOBY DICK, to help us feel a spiritual dimension - to be able to feel happiness through great sadness.

This kind of writing can win you prizes in the US of A. This play did: the Drama Desk Award in 2013 and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding play.

In a cramped and filthy room we meet 'indulgent' Charlie (Keith Agius), a supposed 600 pound man - 'a monster' he is called - marooned, beached, in his domestic space, making a living as an on-line teacher of literature,  while eating his way to death, who is visited by his carer, Liz (Meredith Penman), who may be his food enabler, as well;  a young Mormon, Elder Thomson (Alex Beaumont), who becomes a 'detective' for Charlie's greatest mystery concerning his gay partner, Alan, who starved his way to death after a visit to the local Mormon church; Ellie, his here-to-fore estranged high school daughter full of 'rage' over her neglect; and Mary (Hannah Waterman), his ex-wife guiltily seeking 'forgiveness' for her hostile, but understandable, reaction to her, their, marriage break-up. All of this unfolds while we observe the growing physical demise of our hero, ultimately dying, but only after all the problems of the human relationships of the play appear to have been resolved well - a fiction, indeed, of life. But then that is what popular storytelling does, as Oscar Wilde told us: "The Good end happily and the Bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

The acting from all the company is very good, especially Keith Agius, inside a remarkable 'fat suit' (although, hardly on the scale of a 600 pound man), who creates a beautifully detailed human being with the nuances of a considerable range of response to convince any audience to hand over their empathy. This may be the best work that I have seen from Mr Agius - very impressive. Ms Waterman, in a brief scene, captures the wife, Mary, and her diverse complexities with a piercing eloquence. Ms Bayliss hits the hormonal petulance and bad behaviour of teenage Ellie, with clear ownership but does not seek much outside that in terms of fleshing out ,what could be in the writing, a tendency to caricature. Mr Beauman, as bewildered, lost Elder Thomson, has the charm of youth and an innocence that captures our favour and disarms our concerns about the writing. While Ms Penman, as Liz,  has the most difficult role in the play, having to find the balance between a sympathetic carer of Charlie, who sometimes, as well, reveals a cruelty, both verbal and physical - Liz's responses need more complexity of conflict to be fully understood. Ms Penman does a very creditable job, to assist.

The Design, by Charlie Davis, is grimly realistic, and confronted with many short scenes, the Director, Shane Anthony, has with Composer, Basil Hogios and Sound Designer, Katelyn Shaw, created an environment for the audience to stay engaged with the movement of the 'melodrama' of the play in an emotionally attached way, if not in a too 'Hollywood' manipulative manner - the last orchestrated moments of 'miracle', for instance.

I sat with my audience members at the Old Fitz, and was able to quell my objective struggle with this highly accomplished American writing and enjoy the admirable commitment of all the other artists involved. The play, for me, has all of the qualities of the too 'neat' American play that gives the audience a sentimental journey of great 'syrupy' comfort -"Despite all, all's well with the world", "Life is like a box of chocolates..." etc. Can you believe that this is one of my objections to John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT, as well? Watching, becoming involved with THE WHALE, I couldn't help creepily feeling the obvious but pleasant 'smugness' that I always feel radiate from plays like DOUBT and DRIVING MISS DAISY. I was unabashedly content with my experience but, on the other hand, felt suspiciously manipulated and a little spiritually 'grubby' as I left the Old Fitz. Weird, eh? Weirder because around me there was sufficient evidence for me to see that a lot of my fellow audience were deeply moved, with no such thoughts.

Give me Albee, Miller, Williams, Annie Baker, even Beth Henley. What about Therese Rebeck? Tougher,  pragmatic observers of the human experience. THE WHALE: Satisfying. Satisfactory, but hardly cutting edge. Horses for Courses, as they say.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bully Boy


A Night of Play presents BULLY BOY, by Sandi Toksvig, at the Blood Moon Theatre at The World Bar, Bayswater Rd., Kings Cross. 10 March - 26 March.

BULLY BOY is the nickname belonging to a group of British soldiers assigned to the war in Afghanistan. It concerns the investigation of an 'incident' in the heat of war, where a mother and son were killed during a skirmish - the 8 year-old boy thrown down a well, where he drowned - 'collateral damage'.

BULLY BOY, written in 2011, by Sandi Toksvig, is a play for two actors. Over the course of the play, Major Oscar Hadley (Jaymie Knight), interrogates Private Edward Clark (Patrick Cullen), a survivor of the incident. The play explores the dynamic between the two men over the time of the investigation and contrasts the official/public relationship between Major Oscar Hadley and Private Edward Clark, and the private one between, Hadley and "Eddie". The rigour of army law and ethics versus' the compassionate knowledge of the unpredictable possibility of human behaviour under duress. The nature of war and the personal cost to the participants in it, is the play's central concern.

BULLY BOY is made up of many short scenes, juggling through various time placements and locations, both in Afghanistan and Britain, re-iterating a point-of-view that we have seen on our small stages over recent time, regularly. This production is Directed by Deborah Mulhall and is similarly thematically connected to her work at the New Theatre last year: BRITANNIA WAVES THE RULES, by Gareth Farr - a much better play (Simon Stephens', MOTORTOWN in my opinion, being the best of this genre that we have seen in Sydney).

Patrick Cullen gives a very focused performance and an arresting vital dilemma to the young, barely, out of his teens Eddie, creating a clarity of intention physically, with a verbal skill, including a very comfortable use of dialect, with confident bravura. His playing energy and theatrical intelligence does much to keep the production afloat. Whilst Mr Knight does not demonstrate a mastery of the vocal skill needed to handle his textual responsibilities with ease and is very lapse with his dialect precision, losing the tensions necessary for his half of the play - he has an intellectual knowing of the man, a 'close' study of the physical handicaps of Hadley, but not enough kinetic skill to sustain the requirements of the drama of the play.

This new company, A Night of Play, tells us in their program note:
It is important, I think, that theatre makes us question our moral framework. Equally important, it should engage us.
 This production of BULLY BOY, particularly through the work of Mr Cullen, helps us to examine our 'moral framework' even if we are not, consistently, engaged.

Red Velvet

Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Fiery Angel and Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company present The Tricycle Theatre Production of RED VELVET, by Lolita Chakrabarti, at The Garrick, West End, London, UK.

RED VELVET is a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti that has already had a season in London at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012 (2014) and later at St Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2014. Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company has included the production Directed by Indhu Rabasingham and starring Adrian Lester into their season of plays.

The play tells of part of the career of an African/American actor, Ira Aldridge, in the middle years of the 1800's. Specifically of his British debut at Covent Garden, with the Edmund Kean Company, in 1833, in the role of Othello.

RED VELVET is bookended with a fraught scene between an older Aldridge, as he prepares for a performance of a 'white face' King Lear, and a reporter, seeking the reason for his lack of English opportunities since that first engagement. Testily, Aldridge takes us back in time and we observe what the impact of Aldridge's intense acting style had on the stage traditions of the era. We watch the relative 'naturalism' that Aldridge brings to his performance in contrast to the 'semaphored' vocal and physical techniques of the style of performing of the 1800's - and of his attempts to teach the suspicious and resistant others a new way. As well we learn of the shock of the audience at a black actor interacting with a white actress, Ellen Tree, in the tragic role of Desdemona on the stage of Covent Garden. Of how racial prejudices and slurs, compounded by the rising political tensions in the London world where the 'Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire' (August, 1833), was in debate in the Parliament, were the accepted manners of the times.

Essentially, the play is a familiar back-stage melodrama, that has had its political intents nuanced with the hindsight of the contemporary lens/gaze, by author, Ms Chakrabarti. We can watch the raw mess of the period  and its social and political prejudices with a comfortable belief that our society has moved on. Or, has it? We can breathe in with shock at the verbal vulgarities of the period, and be amused at the 'histrionic' form of performance of the Kean Theatre Company, that has been 'created' by the company of actors under the guidance of the Director, Ms Rabasingham. It is a fine bourgeois entertainment.

The material/content of RED VELVET is well enough 'packaged' but it survives our scrutiny, and claims our patience, because of the thrilling commitment of the performers. The acting is better than the play. To begin, it is worth the time and money to observe Adrian Lester, who carries a charismatic presence of great physical elegance and ease along with a vocal instrument of liquid mellowness and power, informed by a high intelligence, presenting a reading of the text with a purposeful clarity and vision of the dignity and talent of Ira Aldridge: Aldridge commanding and demanding with the temerity and arrogance of a self belief in his talent confronting the conventions of the time. His pursuit of his artistry despite the hostile personal politics surrounding him attempting to obstruct him.

The production is not a lone star turn, Emun Elliott, as the Manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, Pierre Laporte, gives a brilliantly vigorous and balanced performance, as does Mark Edel-Hunt, as the bewildered and culturally prejudiced, Charles Kean. Charlotte Lucas, as Ellen Tree; Caroline Martin, in a double as the troublesome reporter, Halina Wozniak, and as Ira Aldridge's wife, Margaret, too, make a mark. The other supporting players are immaculate in their contributions. Everything is vigorously telling in its offered choices for the audience.

The Design of a backstage and stage space, by Tom Piper, like his costumes, have the selected ease of part period/contemporary auras and are of a simple enough statement for us to endow, conjure, imaginatively, the worlds of the playwright's intentions. Lighting is by Oliver Fenwick. The Sound Design by Paul Arditti. Composition by Paul Englishby.

Adrian Lester has ben nominated as Best Actor for the 2016 Olivier Awards. Well deserved.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Hangmen

Photo by Alastair Muir
Robert Fox, Matthew Byam Shaw for Playful Productions and Royal Court Theatre Productions present, the Royal Court production of HANGMEN, by Martin McDonagh, at the Wyndham's Theatre, in the West End, London, U.K. (closes 5 March)

HANGMAN, by Martin McDonagh, has transferred from the Royal Court Theatre for a limited season at the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End.  It has been Directed by Matthew Dunster. It has been some time since we have seen a new play from Mr McDonagh. His last play was A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, seen on Broadway in 2010. He seemed to have 'sworn off' the theatre form and decided to create film instead, which he did with, IN BRUGES (2008) and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012). I liked them both.

HANGMEN begins at an execution by hanging in a prison in Britain in 1963, just prior to its abolition in 1965. It is being led by Harry (David Morrissey), the second best hangman of the time, under the shadow rivalry with Pierpont - the number one (John Hodgkinson). Harry implacably carries out his duty inspite and despite the prisoner, Hennessy (Josef Davies) claiming, with growing pathetic hysteria, his innocence. The writing is both graphically horrifying and blackly hilarious and is shockingly ended with the jolting of the weighted body of Hennessy plunging through the trapdoor with a twang and a thud.

The whole of the cream and green walled realistic prison setting of the first scene rises into the flies of the theatre to reveal another set of stark realism, a grim updated Victorian wood panelled bar in a pub in Oldham in the North of England (Design by Anna Fleischsle), owned and run by the now retired Harry, his wife Alice (Sally Rogers), with their frumpy teenage daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James). In the smoky fug of this space we meet a group of men, alcoholic and moribund to varying degrees of decay as specimens of the human. All indulge in an awe of their host, and are sycophantic in their humour, lugubriously, watching intruders such as a local newspaper journalist searching for a story from Harry concerning his past career. The text is steeped in the petty ignorances and prejudices of the period - signalled  with unconsciously racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks. The contemporary audience found them all familiarly amusing. How times have changed, eh?

The plot u-turns and twists, grow with the usual McDonagh skill with the old fashioned play-construction of the melodramatic – which has been part of the lunatic pleasure we have had with his past works, softening, perhaps, their violence and politics: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (1996), THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE (2001), THE PILLOWMAN (2003) - when into the mix of these self-contented cronies, a visitor, a mysterious stranger from the south arrives, and while ostentatiously flirting with Alice and Shirley, laconically reading the newspaper, smoking and drinking, he casually provokes Harry into a growing sense of alarm about his secure provincial status quo. This is Mooney (Johnny Flynn giving a very good performance), a hip, hair tousled blonde, whose reasons to be there insidiously grows to a mounting suspicion and terror, culminating in the discovery of Shirley's disappearance and the untimely absence of the Visitor.

There is in the character drawing of these men, with the mundanity of their verbal exchanges, vestiges of the working class tensions and comedy of some of Harold Pinter's crims. And it is in the frightened and panicked gestures of these men towards Mooney, as the climax of the play unfurls, that the humour of an Ortonesque kind escalates into the black farce of the slowly strangling victim squirming behind a curtain as Pierpont, the number one Hangmen, arrives, and in a brilliantly funny and long harangue, verbally admonishes Harry about his delusions of his past standing in his now extinct profession, stirred by the article that the newspaper man had secured.

In the play program notes, Patrick Lonergan, writes:
In the world today, almost 40 nations are still using the death penalty. In most countries, you can be executed for only two crimes: murder and treason. But in a small number of places, the state is willing to kill you for other reasons too. Being gay, for example, Or committing adultery. Or practising witchcraft.
The death penalty has its supporters, of course. Fifty years after capital punishment was abolished in the UK, survey after survey shows that a majority of voters here favour its re-introduction, especially for such offences as child abuse or terrorism - despite the fact that we've seen repeated evidence of people wrongfully convicted of capital crimes, here and around the world.
And indeed, at the heart of positive attitudes to the death penalty lies a fundamental incoherence: killing someone, we're told, is so severe a crime against our society that the only way to avenge it is ... by killing someone.
This is Mr McDonagh's first play set in England. And, perhaps like the motivation that Mr McDonagh claims caused him to write the bloody THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE, HANGMEN comes from his continued sense of 'pacifist rage' that believes that violence is abhorrent. Whatever the motivation, I felt that despite the usual immaculate storytelling skill of plot and character and the outrageous humour of this writer, the work lacked the famed powerful and subversive sting of his usual political critique and was, essentially, a 'minor' work. That impression may have been, also, because I felt the company of actors had arrived, in performance, at too formulaic a pattern of playing the play, and were, consequently, underwhelming in the stakes of it all. A bit of 'a walk through' for me, a little too comfortably theatrically stretched in their offers to be a completely satisfactory evening: Playing to a familiar pattern of performance with the audience, instead of a living re-newed exploration of the possibilities of the storytelling as it happens.

As I walked down Charring Cross Road to the Wyndham's Theatre, to see HANGMEN, I glanced to my left, and I saw the lighted signage for Agatha Christie's THE MOUSETRAP, at the St Martin's Theatre, which has played continuously in London since 1952. After the performance of HANGMEN, I couldn't help but ruminate that Mr McDonagh's play was a 2015 version of Christie's very successful genre. Mooney, too, had the classic echo of Emlyn William's invention of Danny in his 1935 play, NIGHT MUST FALLS.

Emlyn Williams, Agatha Christie, Joe Orton, Harold Pinter and now Martin McDonagh. A roll of honour, in the field of entertainment, indeed!

Space Cats

Photo by Andre Vasquez

Brevity Theatre and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival presents, SPACE CATS - an Intergalactic Feline Musical, by Samantha Young, at The Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St. Newtown.

SPACE CATS - an Intergalactic Feline Musical at the Old 505 Theatre in Newtown has been Written and Directed by, and co-stars, Samantha Young.

It begins in Russia in 1957 with the launching of the first dog, Laika (Graeme Mcrae), into space. This 'rocket' however, unlike the real satellite of history, crash lands onto a planet made up of 4 cats and many, many glitter balls. There is a sad-sack self deprecating tabby cat living in a bin (Samantha Young) who pleads relentlessly for our empathy, there are two male slave cats, who reveal their true sexuality during the  show - guess what it is? Don't think their costuming is a clue! (Jonny Hawkins, Gautier Pavlovic-Hobba) - serving a dominating 'Red Queen' cat (Eliza Reilly) who has killed off everybody else and has a particular virulently anti-gay demeanour, who decides she wants to have sex with Laika - the Russian dog!  - the biological likelihood of that may be countered, in logic, by the author's revelation of the Red Queen's desperation, or sheer craziness. There are songs and lots of choreography. The piece is as silly as that may sound. It's 'deeper' dramaturgical purpose promotes the societal need to accept 'the other', especially gays, and suggests there is no rancour necessary towards the minorities if we just "Let it be, Let it be, let it be."

The Design, and especially the Lighting by Benjamin Brockman is colourful and an active energy in keeping the production afloat. He does more than his fair share to help keep our attention. There are some good songs from Composer and Musical Director, Matthew Predny (with help from Emele Ugavale with one contribution), sung best by Ms Young and Mr Mcrae. The Choreography, by Matt Cornell, tries much but sometimes looks as if it is too difficult for some of the performers - out of time and falling. There is one 'awful' performance (with some self-amused breakout giggling), two barely competent performances, a 'good' performance, and an outstanding one, particularly considering all the circumstances of this play and production - and that is given by Mr Mcrae, who sustains his dog-act in a beautifully moving portrait of bewilderment and good sense.

A fellow audience member remarked, after the event of the performance, that it felt odd that in a 2016 production of a play which promotes toleration and gay rights that the hero of the story is a Russian - Mr Putin will be pleased, even if the LGBTI population of Russia may be perturbed! We were perturbed, and pondered if this was a deliberate intellectual ploy by the writer, and if it was, what was her intention, or, was it just ignorance of the Gay world and its present persecution. We thought of the insensitive or ignorant Sam Smith acceptance speech at the Academy Award ceremony last Sunday? Curious. Amnesia or deliberate ignorance seems to be a virulent contemporary plague!

Brevity Theatre Company, and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, last year, presented VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM, and had at least some remnants of the writing of Charles Busch to sustain interest and credulity over its indulgent playing time. Ms Young, who was responsible for that production, has concocted, here, as Writer, Director and Co-Star, a work with all the external trappings of a glamourous design  and an indulgence to musical tastes, with no real dramaturgical skill: taking an important and sensitive social issue of discrimination and intolerance, with a pastiche of the famous Musical CATS, (even joking with the famous 'green eyes' image) and then creating a banal, 'kitchy', wrong-headed, stupidity. I should report that there were some around me that whooped it up.

There are so many other shows that are part of the 2016 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival that the only audience, I reckon, that need to see SPACE CATS are those family and friends who have an emotional loyalty to the performers. That they have so devotedly given so much time to presenting this work, should have, at least, that acknowledgment. But Why and How did this work get to this stage at The Old 505 without someone giving advice about its qualities, I am gob-smacked. Having just had a visit to some of the theatre capitals of the English speaking world and seen a variety of work, I can't be as indulgent toward this work, as I might otherwise have been. Quality standards have been set.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ladies Day

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents The World Premiere of LADIES DAY, by Alana Valentine, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 5 Feb - 26 March.

So, when LADIES DAY, by Alana Valentine, concluded the other evening, at the Griffin, my guest and I discussed: "What was the play about?"

Says the Director, Darren Yap:
LADIES DAY is an important, honest and confronting play. It's not only an intelligent piece about people living on the margins who don't often get a chance  to tell their stories, but it also hits you in the gut. For me the stories of men not being able to 'come out' as gay because of their upbringing or culture - or older men who will die never 'coming out' to their friends as 'homosexual' (it will be their secret) saddens me because it has been my journey too. Also it is a great night in the theatre! 
Alana has taken her interviews and crafted them into an intricate, entertaining story. And as some of these characters are based on real interviews it makes us responsible to honour these characters which is a great motivation. ... Any new work is an honour and a challenge. You want to find the perfect communion between the story and the audience. The perfect balance between the intellect and the soul where we ultimately will feel something deeply . ...
What is especially pleasing about this work is the emotional rawness and complications of the characters' explanations of their pain and its sources - the personal and the cultural inhibitions. The issues of physical and psychological discrimination and abuse, bullying (male rape, for instance) not only from the world at large, but from within the 'gay community' itself, is an enlightening and profoundly important exposure and conversation. That the writing by Ms Valentine of her four characters is so 'full-on' and staggeringly visceral can make, for some, a very rewarding night in the theatre. Its politic is very, very, welcome. That the Griffin has taken LADIES DAY on, whether it be just a gesture to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras season or not, is a sign of a toughening of responsibility as to the content of the work that goes beyond 'entertainment' on this important stage. Last year's production of THE BLEEDING TREE and its vivid societal concerns are continued with the 'weightiness' of this work.

Ms Valentine is a prize winning playwright with a body of work that reflects a social conscience and sense of responsibility to her 'worlds' that is, significantly, of a wide interest: PARRAMATTA GIRLS (2007) - a play from the survivors of a notorious state-run girl's care home; RUN RABBIT RUN (2004) - a play about the political actions of working class supporters of a football club under threat of expulsion from major competition, both seen at Belvoir, for instance. HEAD FULL OF LOVE (2012), a play concerned with Indigenous health that consequently helped raise some $60,000 donation for kidney dialysis machines in Alice Springs, give an indication of the seriousness of her commitment. The work Ms Valentine does is one of intense research, living with, interviewing and recording actual individuals. Its methodology has been given the nomenclature of 'verbatim theatre', and ensures at the very least, a powerful veracity.

Ms Valentine, in her program notes, tells us:
LADIES DAY has benefitted from the generous self-disclosure of men who identify as homosexual living in Broome, elsewhere in the Kimberly and also in the Northern territory, especially Darwin and Katherine.
What she further writes seems to me a significant part of the agenda/thematic concern of this work/play and is very oddly and conspicuously ignored by the Director, Mr Yap, which, I think, provoked my companion's and my question at the end of the performance: "What was the play about?" For, though the content of the men's interactions is front-and-centre and is, as Mr Yap tells us - important, honest and confronting - the big  issue of the play is surely the artistic dilemma of the writer involved with this kind of personally intense research, this verbatim research, and then the necessity for the writer in having to 'massage' it, organise it, with dramatic (poetic) licence to a theatrical form. 'Bending' the actual verbatim recordings for dramatic impact.

Back to Ms Valentine's notes:
Given my own sustained relationship with the GLBTI communities of Sydney (and elsewhere) it would be fair to say that much of my life has contributed to the portraits of the characters in the drama. The line between truth and fiction is one which audiences themselves must draw. My sincere contract with the audience for LADIES DAY is hope this work is no less true for being an artifice of conflations, amalgamations and combinations of stories from real life.
There are three principal male characters in this play: Mike (Wade Briggs), Liam (Matthew Backer) and Rodney (Elan Zavelsky), which are likely, as Ms Valentine 'confesses', conflations of many men and their stories - each of these characters, an artifice, a fictional construct. Her other major character is that of Lorena (Lucia Mastrantone), a playwright researching and interviewing these men on 'location' - finding verbatim. We discover it is a tough, wild assignment, which is then thrown into disarray when Lorena is confronted with the admittance by two of the men that some of their testament to her has been fictional. At first outraged she, later, reflects upon her own manipulation of the 'verbatim' truths, she employs, to conflate, amalgamate and combine, to make a palatable drama for an audience in her method of creation. Have these men fantasised some of their 'verbatim' to be able to 'massage' it into a bearable experience - a theatrical licence take? Just as she does in her methodology? One is drawn to ask, if the men are 'fictional constructs', conflations, of many research subjects made by Ms Valentine, how much is Lorena a 'fictional construct', a conflation of other writers? Or is Lorena simply a mask for Ms Valentine's own wrestle with her work methods? Tantalising, yes? Is Lorena, the person she has 'met', at last, that allows her to speak some of her own verbatim story?

Lorena in the second scene of the play, concludes a long speech about the hardest things she has ever done. She prioritises to two - the first is masturbation on request from a stranger, the second is including herself in her own play (a writer's indulgence - 'masturbation'!). The tantalising dramatic tease of this introduced idea is: is Lorena a persona representing the actual author Alana Valentine? Is it the core play within a play, within the play?

Says Lorena, the playwright in LADIES DAY:
So the second hardest thing I have ever done is this, include myself in my own play. Because I am better at telling other's people's stories. At least I'm more comfortable. I know that for every artist it's always about yourself even when it is someone else, but just for the moment, ignoring the universal theme line and facing the fact that I am placing myself in my own play, this story of a writer going to Broome and what happens to her is the second hardest thing I have ever done. Because it is just like the (first) hardest thing I have ever done, just so personal. 
Where we really live, what whispers to us, what haunts us, what helps us, what drives us. People can't always talk about that straight out. Can't always put it into words. 
And then, just sometimes, you meet someone who can. But not the way you expect.

Is Lorena Ms Valentine's unexpected someone who can help her speak about the 'conscience', well spring of her work, her work form? Her own digital rape in a public swimming pool? Is it a truth? And whose is it? Which writer are we hearing? Lorena or Alana? Daring stuff, both subjectively and objectively to put into the public space in the theatre. Kind of thrilling, I reckon - the challenge to consider the nakedness of the workings of the creative artist and their 'moral' responsibilities - in this case, the writer's.

This huge dilemma of Lorena's (Alana?) is the centre of this play, I reckon, but not this production, sadly. It seems to me from the program notes of Mr Yap's, quoted at the start of this Diary entry, that he has been distracted from the main 'game' of the play because of his own identification with the material: that it has hit him in 'the gut' and 'saddens' him because the intense plight of these men on the page has been 'my journey too.' - it has too much personal 'soul'. Subjective response rising above the objective dramaturgical observation of the writing. We are invited to watch only a partly realised play - a very personalised one of Mr Yap's - and not the real core of Ms Valentine's concern/truth questing, in LADIES DAY.

Yet, what Mr Yap has achieved in drawing such fine performances from his actor's is more than worth seeing. Mr Zavelsky is especially impressive in the sensitive and skillful 'handling' of Rodney's long speech about the transition from the young beauty to the older man, as is his wonderful contrast to the the 'stunted' villainy' of John. Too, Ms Mastrantone, gives a fully committed 'shape-shifting' between Lorena and the female police officer, Therese - the focused contrast electric in its control. If Ms Mastrantone had been able to explore the 'writer's dilemma' more overtly, and Lorena be something more than a dramaturgical function for the exposition of the men's story, one wonders what could have been unleashed, for on the evidence of her performance, not much is beyond her means - it certainly would have placed Lorena's speech of rape, delivered with spellbinding tension and growing horror by Ms Mastrantone, in a clearer and intriguing, purposeful dramatic light. Mr Backer is as good as usual, but seems, less vivid in his creation than some of his other recent work (THE TEMPEST). His rendering of a love song of sexual longing at the end of scene 16: 'I can't breathe for thinking about your mouth ...' was - and it is, oddly, stylistically, the only song of its kind in the show - relatively muffled in articulation and expression of truth. While Mr Briggs, especially when the play begins, employs 'noise' to create Mike, and tends not to employ much nuance of word usage and vocal range to reveal the 'grief' and 'rage' of this handsome man/boy. Big energy textual generalisations tend to flatten out the performance and, really, is not sufficient to engage our empathy. The performance settled but was not altogether of a whole.

The musical scoring of some songs by Max Lambert (associate composer, Roger Lock) mostly, missed the mark, were indulgent and often seemed to be nothing more than 'covers' for the clumsy scene shifting of furniture and costume change, that the Design of James Browne encumbered the action of the play with. Neither the music nor the lyrics of the songs moved the play forward, and appeared to be more a gesture of cabaret-entertainment than necessary dramaturgy. There relentless inclusion seemed to attempt  to justify Mr Yap's notes where he says the play is, "Also a great night in the theatre! ... an entertainment." At 100 minutes in length, without interval, this production could have been edited - I reckon the songs could go. I mean, however entertaining the acappella rendition of the opening song maybe, the lyrics appear, in retrospect, not very accurate to what follows:
The queers in Broome are quite ill-groomed,
the gays in Broome are fat,
They've left the scenery city life
To wear a wide-brimmed hat.
The queers in Broome are coupled up,
They renovate and work,
You might get propositioned by
the hotel front desk clerk.
The core concerns of LADIES DAY are far more urgent than  the content of that welcome song to country, Broome country, however charmingly, energetically sung.

LADIES DAY, is a very interesting play. I found the production thwarting but still had a very arresting time in the theatre.