Friday, June 24, 2016


Brilliant Adventures in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, presents STRAIGHT by D.C. Moore, adapted from the film HUMPDAY, by Lynn Shelton, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel, June 16 - July 2.

STRAIGHT is a play by British playwright, D.C. Moore, based on the 2009 film HUMPDAY, by Lynn Shelton. Lewis (Simon London) and Morgan (Madeline Jones) own a one room apartment in London, bought at the pointy-end of the market and consider whether they can begin a family. Before anything transpires in that Direction, Waldorf (Sean Hawkins) arrives, dangling his dick through the letter box of the front door and camps with them in a progressive over-stay. He, temperamentally, is a wild-child adventurer, maybe, coming to some conclusion with that persona, and after picking-up a hippy dope smoker, Steph (Danielle Cormack), introduces her to his straight-laced Uni-buddy and after, a puff more, or two, he proposes an 'art' project, where the two men-buddies, will perform for camera, sex, together.

We watch in the penultimate scene of this nearly two hour, one act play, a slow approachment between the two men in a rented luxurious hotel room. The scene has them negotiating how to do "IT" - to have sex together. We watch the slow removal of clothing, one piece at a time, a slow strip-tease, down to underwear, a big hug, and then a kiss, that grows, perhaps, more passionate as they tongue it out. Mmm? What ultimately happens is never shown. We have been baited into a very voyeuristic entanglement. Straight or gay? What are these men? Does it matter? Well, maybe, we need to consider the reaction of Lewis' wife, Morgan, before deciding absolutely about that.

The production is slow and made to be a slightly too excruciating sexual conundrum. Essentially,  STRAIGHT feels like a contemporary comedy of manners, that is yearning to be unleashed at a comic speed. The Director, Shane Bosher, however, seems to want to raise, for a languorous discussion, a more serious and uncomfortable, socially conscious set of questions with the material.

Certainly, talking to others, after the performance, one's own sexual comfort with this material will affect your reaction. If you identify as 'Straight' the play might be a confronting night in the theatre - could I do it with my best mate!? Especially uncomfortable if you are there with your girlfriend - would I let her know!? And even more especially uncomfortable, if you both turned up to this show without any inkling of what the play might be about - WTF?  If 'gay', you might want to shout out, part way through the lengthy hotel scene: "Turn down the lights, or off, and get into bed and get on with it, for God's sake."

The script felt like a screenplay, played far too slowly. One wondered why you would want to put it on the stage. Ultimately, I did't think it justified my time usage, or the use of the talent on stage.

Mr Hawkins, as Waldorf, is slightly over-pitched, especially as Mr London, as Lewis, is very comfortable with the naturalistic (slow) choices forced upon him. Perhaps, Mr Hawkins was slightly chaffing-at-the-bit and over-compensating with the possible alternative to the style and speed of the written text. Ms Jones is a little generalised in her offers and not as clear about her character's evolving dilemma as could be dramatically effective. Ms Cormack appears in only one scene and tends to play tv-acting details that have much more to do with creating for her self with little conscious flexibility in her playing with the other actors to develop the arc of the scene or the story. The character, and the playing of it, does not help the suspicion that Steph, dramaturgically, is superfluous to the needs of the story.

I had an equivocal experience with this production and the play. I would rather have seen the film - at least I could turn it off if I had wanted. Perhaps, the 2006, John Cameron Mitchell film, SHORTBUS, on stage, would be more relevant, I thought, as I walked down the stairs from the theatre, in Kings Cross.Turn it into a play - I dare you.

Go see what you think, there could be some lively debate whether 'straight' or 'gay' (too binary?) especially after a drink (or puff) or two!


Photo by Keith Saunders
Opera Australia presents CARMEN, an opera in four acts by Georges Bizet, Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy after the novella by Prosper Merimee, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. June 16 - August 12, 2016.

This is a new production of CARMEN, by John Bell for Opera Australia (OA), opening the 2016 Winter Season. A major event , then.

I had had, as a kid, a copy of an old 78 recording of Lawrence Tibbett, singing his 'swaggering' Escamillo's Toreador Song - played ad nauseam , according to my siblings, again and again (the other side of the recording was of the Te Deum from TOSCA, too, played again and again). My first opera theatre CARMEN was a revival of the famous 1972 Metropolitan Opera production, made immortally famous (perhaps), but, definitely, unforgettable - securely, burnt into my theatrical musings (museum) - because of the spectacular and 'outrageous' Design and Lighting by Josef Svoboda.

CARMEN JONES, the 1954 musical film, was probably the first time I was able to contextualise the Toreador song. But, now, in 2016, I have many, many wisps of impression of the opera, floating through my memory banks from many, many productions, theatrical and cinematic.  Its revival is so common, lying in the repertory of most opera companies, sitting securely in the famous trio of assured money makers for the opera, the so-called ABC: AIDA, BOHEME, CARMEN. Certainly, our Australian company has counted on all three of those operas to re-charge its monied coffers (it seems), played ad nauseam, according to some of my friends of opera. This is the third production under the auspices of OA in the last eight years. The exciting and sexually charged productions Directed, firstly, by Francesca Zambello - seen in 2008 and revived as late as 2014 - and, secondly, for the Handa Opera on Harbour Summer productions, in 2013, by Gale Edwards, both, hardly able to be forgotten.

So, just why we needed a new production of CARMEN does not sit easily with my attempt to rationalise the Opera Australia's protests of 'poverty'. Surely, I rationalise, the money expended on this new CARMEN, could, ought to have been allocated for a new Australian Opera (at least in budgetary considerations). It does sit, oddly, weirdly, in my estimation, to note, that it was the State Opera of South Australia  (budgeting, relatively, on the 'smell -of-an oily-rag') that premiered a new Australian Opera, CLOUDSTREET, by George Palmer, in May, this year - which I saw in workshop in Sydney in 2013 - shaped, guided, Directed by Gale Edwards (one of the most consistent Directors of big money makers for OA: the often, nationally seen LA BOHEME, for one; as well as her highly praised SALOME). I understand that OA has not shown any interest in presenting CLOUDSTREET, this enthusiastically received work to their audiences. A tragedy, really, for opera audiences around the country - as it is likely that OA would be the only company that could do this. The money spent on this new CARMEN could surely have introduced this (any!) new Australian work as an investment for its future. The OA revives regularly, Ms Edwards' productions noting their appeal to their audiences: LA BOHEME, annually, it seems, and next year her CARMEN on the harbour (is it true that she has not been asked, to even re-stage it? Even though she actually lives in Sydney?). Don't you think, to bring CLOUDSTREET, an adaptation of one of Australia's literary favourites, a 'child' of Ms Edwards' known genius to their audiences would surely be a 'no-brainer' for the OA, looking for not only artistic (and historic) credibility, and possibly, a money-maker (philistinism, creeping necessarily in) for Mr Hassall (Chief Executive), Mr Terracini (Artistic Director) and the Board of Directors, of OA led by Chairman, David Mortimer? Surely?

Ms Zambello's and Ms Edwards' CARMEN were what Mr Bell's isn't: steaming with the vitality of the siren calls, scents of sexual attraction, of the 'dreaded' life force of our biology, - high-lighted in the writings of the nineteenth  century philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche - of events of a visceral disturbance. Mr Bell's CARMEN is staged well, professionally. Competently, safely and clearly. But is, in  production comparison, to the two women and their passion for the story and music, a relatively generalised and cool (intellectually cold) staging of the Bizet temperament, with symbolic gestural and emblematic imagery, that is in experience, 'representative', rather than 'passionately visceral', to thrill and disturb us. There is, surely, nothing so primal as SEX and DEATH? And CARMEN is that if nothing else. The sexual tension generated in this new production of CARMEN, this opera, a forerunner of the 'verismo' movement of the late nineteenth century - 1875  (read portrayals of normal people - middle or lower class) - which caused an initial baulking to recognising the brilliance of this work, is made, mostly, by the greatly familiar and exotic  score by Bizet, and, ultimately (thankfully) in the late passionate commitment to the singing of the Don Jose (Yonghoon Lee) and the Carmen (Clementine Margaine). This production is experienced as an intellectual solution by an experienced stager, and  his collaborators, of theatre work, but not as a thrilling sexual identification with the material. There is a little pleasure in this production but it is certainly not visceral. There is a loss, here, with this CARMEN, especially, after the Zambello and Edwards' offers.

No intellectual justification and execution that this production can make in setting this work in an imagined Cuba, to help bring a contemporary relevance, to engage us with the story, can be made, especially, as a substitution for a production and performers that should generate a truth of a real 'living' experience of this extraordinary (sexually iconic) story.

The initial setting Design by Michael Scott-Mitchell of a rundown roller-doored Spanish square is impressive in its realistic re-creation. (An infamous commercial musical appropriation of the famous Toreador Song, which we, of a certain generation can sing, came flooding back to me). It, however, became boring to view as the background for each of the other locations for the other three acts, no matter the set dressings provided - an unstable food van  (Act Two) and a 'put-put' truck that makes a slow exit, trailing smoke (Act Three) - some of that detail.

Similarly, the costume solution, by Teresa Negroponte, for all but the soldiers, are startling, but ultimately garish and 'ugly' in their crowded and regular reappearance - they are visually of value as impact in spectacularly diminishing terms over the night's viewing. One hardly feels sexual heat in any of the choices. This is especially true in the dressing of Ms Margaine as Carmen, who looks like a blowsy 'spinster' with late aspirations for sex, throwing herself at anything with a pulse - the last act costume being some redemption of elegance for the actor/singer if not for the reality of the story's needs. The choices for Carmen are, especially, difficult to balance with the Design choices for the sexy costuming of Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercedes (Margaret Trubiano), who, unfortunately, surround, closely their Carmen.The visual contrasts are not complimentary for this Carmen. And how is it that Micaela has only one costume and only one pair of shoes - even to climb the mountain to the gypsy camp?! For me, another neglect of detail of Design.

The Choreography, by Kelley Abbey, has been contemporarily contextualised as a Cuban possibility, and are a major feature of the production, attempting to generate as much sexual heat as possible in a terribly unsexy visual Design. That the choreography, as wonderful as it is, sometimes has the cumulative affect of the finesse and energy for show numbers in a casino show on the Gold Coast, with the addition of some four or five kids break-dancing streetwise as an entertainment bonus, is no fault of Ms Abbey. They have been, urgently, exposed by the Director as far down stage on the awkwardly Set Design front wedge of floor space, as often as possible - it is very 'in-yer-face'.

The consistently successful part of the night is the music made by the orchestra under the baton of Conductor, Andrea Molino, and the singing. Ms Margaine gives a thrilling, if too careful, range of efforts to the demands of Bizet, but it is the ultimate passionate vocal lift-off that Mr Lee made in the final act that was the pay-off for those of us who stayed after the interval. Natalie Aroyan sang Micaela well enough, if dramatically, dully - no balancing power of 'virtue' to Carmen represented in this performance! Adrian Tamburini makes a very good impression with his singing and acting of Zuniga. But, there could not have been a less felicitous choice of the Escamillo (Michael Honeyman), who does not really have the vocal heft to claim the Toreador Song (where are you Mr Tibbett? - ah, my childhood expectation), or any visible sexual charisma at all to be a rival for Carmen's attentions. Mr Lee - sexual charisma and ability to sing thrillingly his Bizet responsibilities - won hands down in both areas, and it certainly dulled the night for us further, as one could not logically comprehend Carmen's shift of choice, from this Don Jose to that Escamillo.

There is nothing really wrong about this production of CARMEN by OA, except its utter safeness, and one can see similar achievements in other provincial opera houses around the world, I am sure. It is just that this production, since it is replacing two other recent CARMEN productions by the OA, which were superior in all ways, is a great disappointment and an apparent waste of valuable resources of the company. So distancing was it, that while, on stage, another man murdered another woman brutally, the contemporary issue of violence against women was able to have some space in my consciousness while watching it. Recently, having been engaged in debate with the social, sexual relevance of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, and its justification for being presented in the contemporary theatre, with many suggesting it should not be presented - that there was no justification for showing such violence- one could not help ruminate how little repertoire of classic opera could be presented if the brutalisation of women became a reason to not present the work on the opera stages. Maybe, we can see the death knell of the Opera as a relevant cultural contributor, while we watch productions of this calibre, which are so, relatively, a disengaging experience of the genre. Emotional response so diminished that cool intellectulisations can come into very active play on many fields of contention.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Block Universe

Cross Pollinate Productions and Old 505 Theatre present THE BLOCK UNIVERSE (or so it goes), by Sam O'Sullivan, at the Old 505 Theatre, Level 1, 5 Eliza St, Newtown, 7 June - 25 June.

The Block Universe is a theory about time: This moment. This moment that you are in right now, reading [this blog]. This moment has always happened, will always happen, will always be about to happen and is happening simultaneously with every moment in the history of Time.

This is the idea at the centre of this new Australian play, by first-time writer, Sam O'Sullivan, and that idea seems to have excited, sparked him to write. Mr O'Sullivan is in a zealous need to proselytize this concept in his search to find stories (books) that, today, make sense to him, and hopefully us. His character Andrew, working temporarily in a library, tells us they
Gave me perspective. Hope Courage. That's what books can do. What any story, in any form, can do. If you can distill a complex, beautiful idea into a story and help people understand it, help them connect with it, use it, I think that's worth doing. Slaughter House Five is a satirical novel. I know that. But when I read it, it made me see something as fundamental as Time from a completely new perspective.
This is what Mr O'Sullivan is hoping to provoke us to do: to see Time, differently.

Two characters, a young Australian, Andrew (Jacob Warner) - a dreamer, a searcher - meets an Estonian, Kristina, (Briallen Clarke) - a pragmatic adventurer - and they engage in a romantic interlude. We participate, as observers, in this story. The chronology of the relationship, revealed to us during the course of the play in many short scenes, has been shuffled and so is presented as an out-of-order time puzzle, illustrating, perhaps, the idea of the Block Universe theory of Time: the past, present and the future are happening and will always be about to happen. The romantic story between these two mis-fits is charming, and beautifully played by Mr Warner and, especially, Ms Clarke - revealing Kristina's tenderness and vulnerability within her pragmatic and emotionally logical carapace. The puzzle is, relatively, easy to sort out.

The problem with the play, as it is experienced at the moment, is that the scientific theory is sometimes too, obviously, the propelling urgency of Mr O'Sullivan's wants, with the integration of the 'two' dramaturgical streams of the play not really intertwined subtly enough. CONSTELLATIONS, a play by Nick Payne (incidentally, Mr O'Sullivan performed in it in Sydney), is a wonderful example of the genre - too, Mr Payne's INCOGNITO. The acting of the love-story in THE BLOCK UNIVERSE is the solid core of this production and so, the most successful part of the writing. Mr O'Sullivan, relatively, fails to distill his inspiration of Time theory into the love story. We are too aware of the 'engine' of the creative spark from Mr O'Sullivan.

Dominic Mercer, has Directed the actors with a gentle sensibility. However, the collaboration with his Set Designer, Isabel Hudson, is less felicitous, the long wooden shelf too solid, too 'heavy' in the evocation of the principal idea of Time (and the immense universe that earth - our existence - participates in). The Lighting Design by Alex Berlage, too, and perhaps, because of the ' block-lump' of the Set has no quality of the ethereal perspective of intangible time to lift us into a more spiritual embrace of the possible miracles of the world around us.

THE BLOCK UNIVERSE (or so it goes), is another new Australian play (see BRIGHT THOSE CLAWS THAT MAR THE FLESH) that adventures into subjects of some sophistication and is very, very welcome, to my regular calendar of theatre going. Go look, see. The two performances of Mr Warner and Clarke are, also, worth catching.

Inner Voices

Photo by Ross Waldron
Don't Look Away in association with Red Line Productions present INNER VOICES, by Louis Nowra, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral, Wooloomooloo, 15 June - 9 July, 2016.

INNER VOICES is one of Louis Nowra's early plays (1977). It is a 'speculation' around the  determination of the Guards in organising the succession to the Russian throne. In 1764, Ivan, (Ivan VI),  a rival to Catherine the Great, has been locked as a child in a prison cell, and is, in this play, propelled to a position of Rule through the ambitions of some greedy power brokers, Mirovich and Leo, who become, ultimately, superseded, Pygmalion-like, by their protege.

This production by DON'T LOOK AWAY, a production company dedicated to the reviving and re-invigorating lost Australian plays, is especially good looking. The Design elements: Set Design, by Anna Gardiner; Costume Design by Martelle Hunt; Lighting Design by Sian James-Holland is first rate. Too, all the performances in this company, are disciplined and thoroughly committed to a mission to give this play for an audience in 2016. There is a sense that Phil Rouse, the Director, has given a real 'burl' to re-invigorate this play.

Damien Strouthros, as Ivan, gives a virtuosic performance of transformation from 'idiot' to tyrant. Anthony Gooley manages a grotesque sketch of political opportunism and physical disability, as the rapacious and fattening Mirovich, with theatrical wit (and costume). The theatrical intelligence and wicked instinct as comic, in a role that is almost mute of the servant, Petya, from Annie Byron is amazingly wonderful. Emily Goddard playing a duo, the women, Princess Ali and Baby Face is fresh and accurate in her explorations, whilst Nicholas Papademetriou, Francesca Savige and Julian Garner play at their tasks with a professional bravura that sweeps the work forward with an energy that hardly allows the audience to wonder, who or what is happening, or the logics of it all.

In truth, the production, the acting and the sleight of hand of the Director is so compelling that one nearly can overlook the under-developed content of the play itself. This is clearly an early work of a new writer for the theatre. The interest, essentially, in this revival of INNER VOICES, is to perceive the seedlings of the principal thematics and character of the works to come: VISIONS (1979), BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1980), THE PRECIOUS WOMAN (1981), even COSI (1992). The work as presented here, has the glimmerings of the grotesque fairy story and the suffering and confusion of the human, the vulnerable (the child), and that need to escape privation: to seek the solace of distance - physical or psychic - a fantasy for the Cheated - all core pre-occupations of Mr Nowra's early work. INNER VOICES, is an apprentice work and can not bear too much scrutiny in its constructs.

Down at the Old Fiztroy Theatre, INNER VOICES, has the glamour of  gorgeous wrappings of production and the thrill of a stylish and energetic commitment to acting prowess. It has been, indeed, truly re-invigorated, even if its revival, by DON'T LOOK AWAY, with this full force of professional skill, is, really, an extraordinary extravagance, of time and effort, relative to its novice dramaturgical qualities.

(After watching INNER VOICES, one feels an urge to review the Werner Herzog film: THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974) or  The Francois Traffaut, L'ENFANT SAUVAGE (1969). And, of course, the ultimate fantasy was the story of Mowgli in THE JUNGLE BOOK, by Rudyard Kipling. For me, these stories touch on some childhood dreamscapes - tapping into some powerful mythic ether. The Alexandre Dumas, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK have similar pleasant memory thrills.)

Bright Those Claws That Mar The Flesh

Michael McStay and Red Line productions present, BRIGHT THOSE CLAWS THAT MAR THE FLESH, by Michael McStay, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Wooloomooloo. A late night production (9.30pm). 31 May - 11 June.

BRIGHT THOSE CLAWS THAT MAR THE FLESH, is a new Australian play by Michael McStay. Mr McStay also Directs. Bertin Brotowski (Sam Trotman) is preparing a space for a meeting of people in need of counsel. A silent, staring figure, Leda Swan (Hayley Sullivan) is already waiting. Edmundia Dante (Zoe Jensen), a knight errant, arrives and is followed by Orson Rubb (Nick Masters), Tabitha Mendaciad (Meg McGlinchey), Rexion Mustyorvsky (Sam Devenport), Arrestis Mock (Jack Angwin) and Euclid (Laurence Rosier-Staines).

This is the third or fourth play that I have seen by this young writer. All of the works reveal a complicated and well-read young artist with a need, a burning passion, to express his very sophisticated vision of the world that has influenced and shaped him. The works are intellectually dense and full of 'quotations' from a superior mind. The problem is that most of the plays seem to present characters that are merely 'riffs' of the author's latest obsession, and although there is some attempt - small - to attach them to a dramaturgical form, the characters are mostly mouthpieces of witty and clever life-propaganda, but not harnessed to any clear spine of journey for an audience to grapple and identify with. The work, becomes then, I find, on my own part, superficially received, and though, generally, entertaining is enormously frustrating. I cannot find the satisfaction of developed characters or story to keep me determined and agile enough to investigate deeply, or, to want to. This play, too, became tiring and bewildering. "Stop the world I want to get off."

In the first moments of BRIGHT THOSE CLAWS THAT MAR THE FLESH, are an aural clue, -quote - from Mozart's DON GIOVANNI, when he is about to be dragged down to hell by the Commendatore  - So, I wondered later, is this counsel meeting, being prepared by Mr Brotowski, a metaphor for a way-station - limbo, purgatory - of judgement to a heaven or hell, to which, the motif from Mozart's Requiem will launch us, one by one, at its end? Further, are the names of the characters a given reference from Mr McStay, for me to be able to read a code to enlightenment?

Mr McStay, as Director, has inspired some electric commitment from his company of actors.The actors, during the performance, give the appearance of knowing, mostly, who, when and where they are and what is happening, and in this kind of contemporary Monty Python 'fuck you' wit found a playing manner of some style and collective empathetic ensemble. The fierce intellectual timing of phrase is mostly accompanied by a physical delineation of economic discipline. Ms Jensen is clean and clear in her deportment of Edmundia Dante, and appears to be as fresh with energy, at the end of this marathon task as she did on her first appearance - amazing. Nick Masters, too, in a robust creation of a very rotund Orson Rubb, is arresting. Two impersonation of actors, of an era long past (egotistical matinees stars) are amusingly brought to life by Ms McGlinchey and, especially, Mr Devenport. Mr Trotman, in a relatively thankless role, does well to attempt to stay in the logical 'swim' of contribution, whilst the other actors struggle with their tasks, that demand more technique than they seem to have at hand at the moment - enthusiasm is not enough of a substitute for prepared detail and precision.

The production is working on a shoe-string budget within the confines of another production's Design boundaries, (HOWIE THE ROOKIE), especially Lighting, but has Sound Design, by Thomas Moore, that gives some relief, of at least, recognition, in the thicket - 'forest' - obfuscation, of the text.

It is exciting and encouraging to see a new Australian work and writer exploring thematics and concerns of what appears to be of some high intellectual curiosity. However, as yet, the basic dramaturgical skills on how to engage an audience, and to keep that audience attentive and 'thrilled' is still an elusive element of the production experience of Mr McStays' works.

Having an independent Director, to question and challenge the writer, insisting on clarity of purpose, might help. Reading some of the intellectual role models of this daring area of playtelling, from the past and the present, might also illuminate a path to clarity. I recommend, at least, Tom Stoppard: ARCADIA, THE INVENTION OF LOVE, and especially, the trilogy, THE COAST OF UTOPIA (plays concerning the Russian Thinkers, pre revolution), let alone, suggesting that that overproduced ROSENCRATZ AND GUILDERNSTERN ARE DEAD, could be a good start.

Congratulations to Red Line for curating such an interesting writer.

P.S. "Bright those claws that mar the flesh", is a quotation from the Sylvia Plath poem, PURSUIT. Is that,  Mr McStay, pertinent, for us to know?  Mmmmm. Smoke and Mirrors!

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Great Fire

Photo by Brett Boardman
Belvoir presents THE GREAT FIRE, by Kit Brookman, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, 6 April - 8 May.

I saw this production weeks ago, towards the end of its run.

My impression of the play was that of an ambitious but lumbering four-act play in the mode of Chekhov. It reminded me, mostly, in Australian terms, of Alex Buzo's BIG RIVER (1985) - another big family saga, set in a big rambling house on the Murrumbidgee/Murray River basin, based on the history of the writer's own family but set toward the end of the nineteenth century - incidentally, never performed professionally in Sydney (I, particularly, like it). The similarity to Mr Buzo's play is that Mr Brookman's play, is set in a big rambling house in the Adelaide Hills, peopled with actors, playwrights and other artists much like the writer and his family. Both playwrights, then, drawing on personal knowledge to sketch their interests and develop their 'poetic licence' - just the usual creative process, of course. The Chekhov connection, in the general tenor, is that of any of Chekhov's plays, but more especially, most likely, that of THE CHERRY ORCHARD - there, too, as in THE GREAT FIRE, family and friends gather, discussing personal stuff, intermingled with 'arty' stuff and some political stuff, furnaced with the imminent selling of the family home.

The memory of Mr Brookman's family home and those days and people are THE GREAT FIRE's major strength but, also, its weakness. If it is his family, the characters on the page, and certainly in the playing, are sketchily drawn with mostly external observations of personality and conversation and casual physicalities serving the material, with little internal exposures. I felt the writer knew who these people were and knew a lot about their backstories - their past - the reasons for the way they are and what they want, but failed to put it on the page for the actors and audience to grasp. This is where Chekhov shows us the way to do that and why all his plays have on the page clues for the actor to endow imaginatively, to create a whole life for their character - Chekhov gives the artists and audience their character's past, their present and their future, in what, appears, on the surface of the writing, to be banal and meaningless conversations.

Mr Brookman's characters, on the page, and certainly in the fleshing out by these actors, exist just in the present and lack real dramatic dimension, of a past or an aspirational future, the writing having no room for irony or ambiguity of motivation - no syntactical space for sub-textual invention. Mr Brookman's characters speak their stuff with little provided authorial thought opportunities. They become, relatively, just talking heads with superficial motivations and concerns. They talk and talk and talk but reveal very little. The 'politics' of the characters, for instance - pressing many of the hot button issues of today - are, generally, in the writing baldy contrived to be spoken, and come out of the mouths of his characters almost out of character - one feels the writer in striving for contemporary relevance, has shown himself. Alex's outburst in Act Four is awkward and overwritten although it touches on 'worthy' concerns of some of us Australians of a certain moneyed class:
Thank you for building this house that Lily and and Michael live in like penitents, thank you for instilling us with this idea that poverty is noble, telling us how organic vegetables really do taste better and that they're so much better for the environment, how amazing Japan is, well you can afford it! ... And you've polluted and ruined the planet, but we're the ones who'll have to suffer, we'll be the ones who have to dig the human race out of that particular hole, if we can, doing our best to keep things less completely catastrophic! That's the best margin we can aim for! And you think that our generation has a disproportionate send of entitlement?!
The actors had created some flesh and blood people, wonderfully, despite the very shallow writing. That we were entertained at all was due to the quality of the performers that the Director, Eamon Flack, had got together: Peter Carroll, Sandy Gore, Lynette Curren, Genevieve Picot, Geoff Morrell, Eden Falk, Yalin Ozucelik, Shelly Lauman, Sarah Armanious and Marcus McKenzie. The more vintage (years) the actual actor had around her or his 'belt', the more successful the creation was, I felt - due, mostly, I suspect, to their experience with a lot of Australian writing, which has given them the skills, the ability, to create without many authorial details on the page to back it up.

The writing in THE GREAT FIRE reminded me very much of the difficulty of Alex Buzo's repertoire for contemporary production (e.g. ROOTED-1974; CORALIE LANSDOWNE SAYS, NO -1975), he knew who his people were in his plays, and they worked best, originally and successfully, because the actors knew who the role models were, too - because it is rarely on the page of his text, in much, or any depth - he wrote, mostly, satiric observations, hung on the knowledge of a 'real' personage that one had to know to bring to life. So, too, this is true of Mr Brookman's play I suspect. Meet his family and you might get a clearer cluing from close observation of who and what and why his characters are, than from the writing in the text.

For, the best performance, on the night I saw the production, was that of Marcus McKenzie as the youngest son of the family, Tom. Tom had a secret. Tom was more than what he said or did. Tom was intriguing, something BIG was going on, the depression, merely, a symptom. I wondered if my response to Tom was because I suspected that Mr McKenzie was basing his offer on a close study of the writer, himself, and that I thought I recognised some of the verbal, vocal and physical traits of Mr Brookman in Mr McKenzie's work, and so was able endow from a knowledge of the writer, through acquaintance, that I endowed a depth to the characterisation to Tom, that was not written on the page, but vividly created/re-created by the actor.

This production showed good actors keeping an underdeveloped text afloat, just. I had seen, the same week, as this production, an appalling production of the David Mamet adaptation of Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD at the New Theatre, Directed by Clemence Williams (a recent graduate of the Director's course at NIDA) and saw a great play glowing still above the ineptitude of the artists involved (not all, there were two or three exceptions of integrity and insight) and wished that these good actors at the Belvoir had the honed Chekhovian source material to reward their valiant gifts. There is nothing more demoralising than for an actor having to 'flog' a dead horse with all his present gifts, whether it be New Australian material, or else! Just how many drafts and development workshops had THE GREAT FIRE been put through? Not enough, I'd say. And yet Mr Flack and his artistic advisers at Belvoir had thought that it was the best of the new Australian writing available for Belvoir to present and for us to relish.

On May 3, Lachlan Philpott, an established Australian playwright (COLDER, SILENT DISCO, TRUCK STOP, LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT) wrote an opinion column in the Sydney Morning Herald, titled: "Shakespeare's hour upon the stage is up, give him a break" opining the regular productions of Shakespeare's work in Sydney theatre, suggesting that there is too much and that a five year moratorium/rest ought to be declared before we see another one.
Shakespeare is everywhere and Australian playwrights are not. ... Five years will allow space for other living writers to flourish in the gaping holes his absence leaves.
If THE GREAT FIRE is representative of the realisation of new Australian work, in 2016, might I suggest as well as Mr Philpott's five year moratorium on the production of Shakespeare, that every new work have a five year development plan of drafting and workshop before we see it on a professional stage. Both ideas are preposterous but if THE GREAT FIRE, as it was revealed, is the best new Australian work that Belvoir can find, something is wrong, and something needs to change. We have a point of agreement Mr Philpott.

Clearly, Mr Brookman has the eyes and ears of the Artistic Management honchos - the gate-keepers - of various companies in Sydney, for last year we also saw his woeful A RABBIT FOR KIM JONG-IL at the Griffin. Had the Belvoir management not seen that work and not become more scrupulous, more demanding about the preparation of THE GREAT FIRE? Undoubtedly, I believe there is potential in this work and I was certainly enamoured with Mr Brookman's play, SMALL AND TIRED but much more drafting and workshopping ought to be have been provided. And I should say, tell Mr Philpott, that I would rather see a Sport For Jove production of THE TAMIMG OF THE SHREW, again, than either THE GREAT FIRE or LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT ever again! And if I had to encourage a young audience to attend the theatre I would rather that they saw the intellectual liveliness and theatrical skill of Damien Ryan's Shakespeare than any recent Australian play, bar Andrew Bovell's THE SECRET RIVER and Kylie Coolwell's BATTLE OF WATERLOO - but then most of the kids I know who should and would have relished those stories couldn't afford it.

The Design of the Set by Michael Hankin was mostly satisfactory, open and spacious, but had a poorly executed solution, almost an afterthought, to the change of location for the last act - lazy? The contemporary clothing was executed well by Jennifer Irwin. Damien Cooper is always a boon to any production he Designs the Lighting for, and the Composition and Sound Design, by Steve Francis, was sufficient to keep all in the world of a fire summer in the Adelaide Hills.

Mr Flack gives us TWELTH NIGHT, next, a Shakespeare - who should we alert that that Dead White Male has claimed another stage time with a very good play?

With irony and a reluctant sense of cynicism I should report that "THE GREAT FIRE" was originally commissioned by Belvoir in association with ArtsNSW through the NSW Philip Parsons Fellowship for Emerging Playwrights (previously the Young Playwright's Award).


Sydney Opera House in association with Showwork present, HEATHERS - The Musical. Book, Music and Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film by Daniel Waters, in The Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera HOUSE, 8 June - 26 June, 2016.

HEATHERS - The Musical by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the 1990 film, written by Daniel Waters, and starring 16 year old Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was a complete surprise for me. I had never seen the cult film set in the grossness of 1980's fashion with all the horrors of American High School behaviours of bullying, sexual harassment, alcohol, drug abuse and suicide and murder rampantly magnified into an over-the-top subversive, and thoroughly 'nasty' piece of comic satire, with an in-yer-face morality, completely 'modern' and strictly alternative. To think that the Squabbalogic production of the THE ORIGINAL GREASE was thought to be a rough and ready musical theatre reality of some daring! NOT, after watching HEATHERS, for sure.

The Book and the Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe, especially, are arresting in their daringly out-there sweep. The cruelty, viciousness and just straight-out dire nature of the material, the what some of have called 'darkness' of the material, does not seem too far beyond the reality of the real world but is so far from the usual 'naughty-naughty' reality of film or musical theatre culture that it takes one's breath away in a bracing blast of fresh air of unflinching hyper-reality, so that laughter and cautious recognition is really the only response that one can have - unless you have grown up in a completely cotton-wooled environment. The over-the-top twists and turns of the story may be too many to completely believe could all happen in the one place but if the work is an intense choosing of many episodes from many locations, then Westerburg High is not, unfortunately, too far fetched. This is the way it is for the bullied, I can assure you.

Hilary Cole, as Veronica Sawyer, the voyager, our voyager, through the rough and tumble of the high school student politics at Westerburg, charts a clear and thoughtfully prepared trajectory, for the audience to identify and experience the ups-and-downs of the 'battlefield' of this peculiarity. The interior life, created for Veronica, is active and startlingly clear alongside the in-the-moment- responses of the literal happenings - Ms Cole's acting 'chops' matched by a wonderful vocal instrument of great subtly, power and range of expression highlights this performance as one to treasure to have witnessed. Ms Cole, made an impression in CARRIE, THE MUSICAL, and continues to grow impeccably from offer to offer. Keep an eye out for her next outing.

Great support, too, comes from Lucy Maunder, as Heather Chandler, leading her 'gang' (and later spectrally haunting Veronica): Rebecca Hetherington (Heather McNamara) and Hannah Fredericksen (Heather Duke). Stephen Madsen seems to be channeling a psychotic Neo (THE MATRIX) and grows into an impassioned force of 'harm' as J.D. While Vincent Hopper (Ram Sweeney), and especially the lithesome Jacob Ambrose (Kurt Kelly), score wonderful moments of unforgettable 'evil' and hilarity, no less as the sons, but also as their fathers, when they get to perform the unforgettably 'wicked', My Dead Gay Son. Special note should be made of Lauren McKenna in the contrasting dual role of school 'victim', Martha, and the 'kooky' hippie-schoolteacher with all of the latest 'speak therapy' at hand, Mrs Fleming. It is a clever doubling, that is daring in its combination and is wonderfully managed with the professional cool of a very skilful artist. In fact, this production is stacked with some very exciting talent.

All the company are committed to the 'selling' of this production and are 'drilled' with meticulous care in not only the vital choreography (Cameron Mitchell) but also in the swift shifting of Design features of the set to create the many and varied locations of the story. Emma Vine has Set Designed a spacious area for the action of the play to take off with ease with a keen eye for the broad detail necessary to locate for the audience the world and tone of the work. Angela White as had some fun in re-creating the period look of the '80's in all of its glorious grotesqueness - no one will want to keep these costumes after the show ends! Gavan Swift creates the Lighting to help focus the events of the play.

All of this is Directed by Trevor Ashley, in his debut as Director. He manages it with great aplomb. His experience as one of Australia's leading Musical Theatre/Cabaret stars, counts in his impeccable judgement about how far to underline the already outrageous material. It is the restraint that he has employed that is striking and his comprehension that the 'speed' of the production is the primary element that keeps this work breathlessly acceptable - we have no time to judge the inappropriateness or otherwise of the details of the Book and the Lyrics. It is a triumph of 'good taste' - who would have thought? - I cannot really forget Mr Ashley's cabaret show FAT SWAN when I write that! Although, one should never forget Mr Ashley's near genius in his creation: I'M EVERY WOMAN, which I saw, too, at the Sydney Opera House. Amazing night!

Bev Kennedy manages the propulsion of the Music score and supports the performers well. There is reasonable balance with the Sound design by Evan Drill, particularly as the speed and 'noise' of the musical demands is constant. It is the Music score, that although it carries the show, becomes simply a backing to the lyrics and the drama/comedy of the story, and, to my ears, not sufficiently interesting to carry away afterwards. It is the impression I have of this 'rock' genre of Musical Theatre, that it is fairly generic in its structures and comes to all sound the same with the same patterns of musical construct. In this case with HEATHERS, it is the lyric originality that one delights in and takes away as the memorable aspect of the performance. I do wish the songs , however, were more tuneful so that I could whistle a new happy tune throughout my new day. What is it that a rock Musical like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, has that I can conjure up some of its tunes, all these years later, even when the lyrics have vanished? I wish that there was more, here, of whatever it is that JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR had. Tunes? (the old protest, I guess).

HEATHERS, in The Playhouse, is a confronting but wickedly astringent time in the theatre. The bullying and sexual harassment in some of our own educational institutions are drawn into a spotlight of cause and effect for us to contemplate. If you are easily shocked - don't go. But if you are stimulated by a courageous and an unblinking look at elements of contemporary life that we would rather not recognise or remember, then it will be both an education and, thankfully, an entertainment.

A surprise that was worth facing the chaos of the VIVID Festival horror to get to.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

All My Sons

Sydney Theatre Company and UBS present, ALL MY SONS, by Arthur Miller, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay, 4 June - 9 July, 2016.

This Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production is the second presentation of the great Arthur Miller's play, ALL MY SONS, last seen in Sydney two years ago. The last was seen as the premiere play production for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the then new Eternity Theatre, Directed by Iain Sinclair.

The pertinence of this play dealing with the challenges of a man and the ethical decisions that he may have to make between his ideals and the pragmatics of business, in this instance, in the pursuit of the American Dream, in a culture driven by the necessities of the practice of Capitalism, is always with us. In Sydney the demands of Development (Big Business - Government), under the three word slogan of Innovation and Progress ("Jobs and Growth") is at the centre of concerns for some of the electorate as the Federal Election looms upon us and is part of a noisy 'revolution' from individuals and ordinary families in the suburbs. Stella Adler, the actress and well known teacher, once said that the great theme of ALL MY SONS was 'business v's civilisation'. It is an irony, to note, that the sponsor with the Sydney Theatre Company for this production of Mr Miller's warning, concerning the de-humnaisation of the ordinary citizen in the face of the necessities of capitalism is UBS (The United Bank of Switzerland) - a finance company, a bank! - and is been presented in the Roslyn PACKER Theatre - the family developers of Barangaroo! The pertinence of the issues at the centre of this play for the STC and its present Board may/must be interesting to extrapolate upon and contemplate when reviewing the recent loss of Jonathan Church, after only a 7 month occupation of his contract, and especially when reviewing the reasons, officially given by that Board, and otherwise, reported! It is interesting to note that according to the FBI file on Miller, ALL MY SONS was "party-line propaganda", and within a decade Miller was to be called to face the House Un-Amarican Activities Committee (HUAC), under the Direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Miller was a thorn in the flesh of the status quo of business and government, it seems (and he - that 'pinko' had married America's sweetheart, Marilyn Monroe, of course.

ALL MY SONS was written by Arthur Miller in 1947, and was, as far as he was concerned, a last-ditch effort to establish himself as a professional New York playwright. In 1943, he had won the Theatre Guild National Award for his, THE MAN WHO HAD ALL THE LUCK, but it had closed after only four performances on its Broadway production.

In Enoch Brater's book: A PLAYWRIGHT'S LIFE AND WORK, we can read:
"I wanted to bring life of the streets into the theatre", the playwright noted, 'so you could tell it to a man on a train and he would get it.' Set in the late 1940's, in pre-suburban and pre-luxurious America, when there were no fences, the play appeared at the very moment when the country, victorious in war after defeating fascism in Europe and imperialism in Japan, was 'feeling good about itself.' The play refused to let its audience forget the ugly side of recent events it seemed all to willing to 'sweep under the rug'. Despite the play's critical acclaim, the reaction to ALL MY SONS, Miller remembers, 'was mostly ferocious'. ... In his introduction to the COLLECTED PLAYS, published in 1957, Miller wrote that 'the spectacle of human sacrifice in contrast with aggrandisement is a sharp and heartbreaking one.' During World War II 'war-profiteering wasn't meant to be going on,' Miller said. 'Everyone knew it was going on, but it wasn't supposed to be happening.' In ALL MY SONS, however, to, use one of the playwright's favourite phrases, 'the chickens come home to roost' [1]
After reading a newspaper article giving an account of the Wright Aeronautics Corporation of Ohio placing "Passed" tags on defective plane engines after bribing corrupt army inspectors, and burdened with the presence of his brother Kermit, a returned war veteran, struggling with the consequences of participating in the theatre of war, and observing the corruption of his own country on his return, Miller said "The truth was blinding".

The Keller family of ALL MY SONS, have been living a lie, and Miller used the conventions of the family play, the recognisable domestic framework, with all the aspirations of home, hearth, marriage, family and neighbourhood, to study the much wider universe of the 'family of man'. Chris Keller, the son, in uncovering the domestic tragedy of the death of his brother in a war time flying incident, also uncovers his father's culpability, through economic greed and deceit, in the death of 22 pilots in Southeast Asia, who were, Joe Keller comes to admit, in fact all of his sons, too. Then, too, further guilt is revealed in the heinous avoidance of his crime, when Joe Keller is shown to have allowed a family friend and neighbour to take the major responsibility for the action. An American family unwinds and explodes with gunshot, after responsibility is accepted.

Miller's task to write a play domestic in scale, both anecdotal and particular, and yet one that has wider symbolism, and even mythic scope, is incorporated within the literary inspiration of Miller's dramaturgical 'loves': the plays of Ibsen and the Greek tragedies. As in Ibsen the characters in this play have already made a pact with their uneasy past, the major events have already taken place and we get to watch the relentless unfolding of the consequences of the choices that the characters have already made, just as we have, once, watched the unfolding of the consequences of events past on the family of Oedipus Rex - messengers, letters and all!

John Howard presents Joe Keller, as a figure already declining and slipping into a benign kind of second childhood, his lumbering interaction with the local child of the neighbourhood cluing us - just like all 'robber barons' of industry, trying to retrieve their reputations with late actions of, what to them are, relatively, kind trivialities - who with the gentle but growing forceful confrontation from his returned war-hero son, Chris, reveals his true nature, when cornered with truths, a true nature that has the instinctive reflex force of a ruthless capitalist 'Citizen Kane', that concludes in suicide as his only possible escape - in this case, unlike the Ibsen Hedda Gabler suicide, one of little honour but true to his moral compass, one of emblematic cowardice and expediency.

The two figures that bring the shadow of truth to the backyard of this family, Chris Keller (Chris Ryan) and Anne Deever (Eryn Jean Norville), who ultimately force the paying of 'dues' for past actions are generally revealed here with some emotional intensities, although, the objective clarity of the construct of Miller's characters' actions are sometimes alarmingly buried in the subjective emotional behaviours of the two actors, and often the technical execution of the great moments are mismanaged or misjudged by these two artists, who seem to move about the generous space of this Design, under the permission of the Director Kip Williams, too distractedly, when standing their ground to deal with the moment - the emotional and intellectual point of Miller's writing - would have created an impact of far greater import. This is true of the vocal work as well, which in the case of Mr Ryan is, mostly, in a narrow vocal range choice (and, usually shouted) - the emotions getting the better of his expression for affect (odd, knowing of his musical training) and causing strain, which, unfortunately, is obvious, too, in the 'cracked' sound of Ms Norville in her crucial moments. The effect of the word-sounds from these two actors results in too much emotional demonstration and not quite enough intellectual rigour in importing Miller's pivotal points. I did admire, generally - generally -  both performances, especially Mr Ryan's, that seemed to have let go of his need to entertain his audience which I had noticed, gratingly, in much of his recent offers. (THE PRESENT, CYRANO DE BERGERAC)

In a relatively small role, that of George Deever, who carries, dramaturgically, the catalyst force , function, of the revealer of the malignant central truths of the Keller family, Josh McConville, arrives in the middle act with all the coiled ferocity of moral and personal injury with an energy of technical bravura harnessing the cyclonic emotions of his character within the container of Miller's writing, the dreadful backstory of his family's tragedy, that of his father's fate at the hands of Joe. This is a great performance, making George's raw and moral outrage palpable, and demands empathetic endowments from his audience, for George, and his family, without demonstrating one iota over the necessary emotional content. This actor's truthful personalisation of emotion being used to tell the Miller story without gratuitous or excessive demonstration of the emotional state of the character. An object lesson of what I believe is good craft acting.

The best work, however, comes from Robyn Nevin, as the self-deceiving and emotional flagellant, Kate Keller. This role demands an emotional construct of gradual revelation and the intellectual control the actor must technically manage needs to be forensic and yet real. Ms Nevin from her first entrance, builds in the clues, physical and vocal, to allow us to be subsumed into the tempest of Kate's dilemmas. Ms Nevin begins modestly but adds layer after layer, from speech to speech, scene to scene, to create a great journey of a truly tragic figure - a contemporary Jocasta, trapped in the 'rules' and expectancies of her time. A good woman leading the life she was given to live as best she can while facing off 'evils' of social corruption that have invaded her love life and her family life, the life of an American family - through the time of the Great Depression, a War, and now a prosperous Peace, escorted through it by a 'bloody'-minded, ruthless moral coward whom she has loved, who has provided for her the benefits of the American Dream, of capitalism, at the cost of her own great moral turpitude and exposed personal cowardice, that has resulted in the loss of the lives of other mother's sons. The letter from her own son, the terrible consequence of her own inaction, for those other mothers' sons, and settling for God and superstitious horoscopes to act as her surrogate gauge for personal responsibility, is fate demanding reciprocation writ large for her own abrogation of conflict and confrontation - she took the easy path, closed her eyes and staggered on, and now, must pay. Her tragedy is echoed in the coming grief of Linda in Miller's next play DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Arthur Miller loved his long-suffering mother - it is writ large in all of his great works.

Anita Hegh (Sue Bayliss), Bert Labonte (Dr Jim Bayliss), John Leary (Frank Lubey), Contessa Treffone (Lydia Lubey) and young Toby Challenor (Burt) play the neighbours, painting in a 'chorus' of information about the ordinariness and banal needs of man in the 'everydayness' of a comatose society. All are clear, clean and informative, given a few occasions to give a comic relief to sometimes help relieve the weighty tone of the tragedy of the main event of the family Keller and Deever.

This is a clear and controlled production by Kip Williams, mostly without his usual gratuitous installation-art conceits – although he can't quite quell his authorial urges and still wants to remind us that he is there to impress us with visual imagery and dramatic action. Hence, Set Designer, Alice Babidge, has given us a cut-out, flat surface, black-board house with cut-out window shaped holes looking into a sparsely decorated interior. We are faced then with, essentially, a black background wall with small warm coloured holes, a copious large black floor and stylised black wing walls with swinging black doors for exits, that give us, visually, a world of nothing - a void. It is, then, this void, I presume, meant to be interpreted as a metaphor!? There is even a set of stairs across the entire front of the stage down to the audience floor level, that simply break the fourth wall, that does not acquire much meaning - Mr Williams even has the little boy, Burt, exit through the auditorium that adds no great dramaturgical meaning or benefit to his storytelling - no one else does - it seems incongruous and an unnecessary costing to budget.

It occurred to me as I sat there that this Design was really only a black version of Ms Babidge's, set solution to the THE PRESENT, which was grey. It, also, occurred to me that this was the theatre where the Stepppenwolf AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, was guested by the STC, that gave us a set, a house, that gave the audience a world to understand the play by - that there was a world to support the play and develop its impact. The dramatic power of this ALL My SONS, I reckon, is diminished by the abstracted visual conceit of the Designer and Director. Worse, Ms Nevin's great opportunities in the final moments of the play are undermined by the commanded Directorial 'pyrotechnicals' of raising the facades of his set solution to bring on stage the image of the suicide, Joe Keller, slumped in a chair on a skeletal back railed platform at the top of the revealed house stairs. It felt almost as sacrilegious as Simon Stone's constructed death of Willy Loman in his production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN - ignoring the Greek (Miller's) tradition of leaving the 'carnage' off-stage - had Willy Loman gassing himself in his car, instead of driving at speed into a wall - and worse, it reminded me that Mr Stone had also, cut Linda's famous grave side scene - which I felt Mr Williams had done, to a lesser extent, but with the same effect, to Ms Nevin's last moments, as Kate, in this production of ALL MY SONS, with the distracting of focus, by raising of the walls of his house Design. Directorial gratuitousness, and at the least, as well, ungracious care about the meticulous work of Ms Nevin and Mr Miller.

The costumes by Ms Babidge, are again her usual emblematic and economic choices, with a lot of the action bare-footed (metaphoric, I guess), with wigs that seemed to be caricatures of a fashion/period statement . The Lighting by Nick Schlieper is 'epic-abstract' in Design, tending to darkness. The score by Max Lyandvert, relatively, sparse, but effective, resultantly.

ALL MY SONS is a lesser play in construction and logics, when compared to the following canon of Arthur Miller's coming repertoire. It is, and always has been, for me, an example of a play of a great playwright in apprentice mode. DEATH OF A SALESMAN is soon to follow. The growth in expertness is astonishing. This is not to undermine the emotional power of this play as writ, for it is this production's greatest asset, that, and the acting commitments from this cast. The Darlinghurst Theatre production does not pale under the STC contribution to the play's reputation. They were both tremendous emotional tales - the source material and the skill of the writer triumphed on both occasions.This writer justifies my belief that in the performing arts of all genres the writing is the foundation and guarantee of quality production. The writer is GOD. In the beginning was the Word, and our job is to make that Word flesh.


  1. Enoch Brater. - 2005 - A PLAYWRIGHT'S LIFE AND WORK - Thomas & Hudson..


  • Christopher Bigsby - 1990 - ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY - Methuen Drama.
  • Christopher Bigsby - 2008 - ARTHUR MILLER - Wiedenfeld & Nicholson.


Photo by Amanda James
National Theatre of Parramatta presents, STOLEN, by Jane Harrison, in the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 2 June - 17 June.

STOLEN, by Jane Harrison, had its original premiere some 18 years ago in 1998. I had not seen (or read) the play before. It is the story of five 'victims' of the Stolen generation. It's potency is undeniable and is shaming. Memories from the RABBIT PROOF FENCE, the 2002 film by Philip Noyce, kept returning to me during this performance.

The play and its original setting has been re-thought by the Director, Vicki Van Hout and she has co-designed it with Imogen Ross, to give it a 'surrealistic' treatment that allows it to become a kind of dream – a song cycle, led by the character of Ruby. Says Ms Van Hout:
STOLEN - At its core is a provocation to the importance of acting with humanity. STOLEN follows the lives of five characters who have been affected by careless governance, from its leaders down to the smallest common denominator, the individuals who enforced this predicament upon them.
The production invites us to surrender to the story-telling skills of Ms Van Hout, her choreographic background, and it is her theatrical modes of invention, especially evident in the movement (dance) work, that gradually introduces one to a sense of aesthetic arrest that overcomes the lack of clarity in the actual spoken text by her performers. Two of the five: Henrietta Baird (Shirley), Berthalia Selina Reuben (Ruby) come from a dance background - NAISDA (as does Ms Van Hout) with little or no skills vocally for the theatre; Kerri Simpson has been mostly working in television and while having striking physical presence, too, has difficulty in holding up his verbal responsibilities; while the other two: Matthew Cooper (Jimmy) and Matilda Brown (Ann) are relatively recent graduates from Acting schools and do best. Collectively, their ability to clearly use the text of Ms Harrison to tell the story, fails, and they give most of us, who may be unfamiliar with the play, only a 'gist' of what is at stake, what is happening and why it is. One gets a sense of the horror of it, the tragedy of it, but only in a generalised and heavily endowed way from our empathy and gathering shame.

Production values in Lighting and Video Design (Toby K) and Music Composition and Sound Design (Phil Downing) were a great contributing factor to the atmosphere of the project.

I found the experience of the production gradually affective as the evening went on and of much more value, as an audience member, than the last production of the National Theatre of Parramatta, SWALLOW. STOLEN felt to be a more propitious choice for the company and its stated aims. I could understand the reason for its inclusion in this inaugural season, and schools studying the play may get most from this production. Pre-knowledge of the play will help one's ability to read the performance work of the company.

It was very interesting to have seen, the night before, the opening episode of CLEVERMAN on ABC television and to observe the progress in the story telling of the Indigenous story. To see the arc from 'victim' grief here in STOLEN to the revelation of living in an urban environment in BATTLE OF WATERLOO, last year, to the contemporary invention of an Indigenous Superhero in CLEVERMAN is exciting and encouraging. It places STOLEN in a cultural context and shines a light onto its importance in that history. It serves, too, as Ms Van Hout says in her program notes: "... as a reminder how not to act and as a reminder that young lives are the adults of the future.' The politics of CLEVERMAN reverberates in the content of STOLEN in the modern context of the refugee and the 'quarantining' of a community.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Literati

Griffin Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare present THE LITERATI, by Justin Fleming after Moliere's LES FEMMES SAVANTES, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 27 May- 16 July.

THE LITERATI, is an adaptation by Australian writer Justin Fleming, of Moliere's LES FEMMES SAVANTES, presented in a co-production by Bell Shakespeare - a company dedicated to texts of classic heritage - and the Griffin Theatre Company - Sydney's company dedicated to present new Australian work.

Moliere was the stage name of Jean Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673), an actor, and the author of a series of comedies that has some regard him as one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western Literature. The French King, Louis XIV, the 'Sun King', became the sponsor of the Moliere company, which became the Troupe du Roi (The King's Troupe), playing in the Theatre du Palais-Royal. The plays are comedies that dared to critique, satirise, the excesses of his society. The audiences responded with alacrity to the outrage of the perceptive lampooning of the hypocrisies of the society, and the company weathered, with the personal protection of the King, the attacks and wrath of the targeted bureaucratic/bourgeois authorities. The best of a prolific output are probably, THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (1662), TARTUFFE (1664), THE MISANTHROPE (1666), THE MISER (1668) and THE IMAGINARY INVALID (1673).

Justin Fleming is a veteran Australian writer with plays of his own, including: THE COBRA (1982), HAROLD IN ITALY (1989), BURNT PIANO (1998), HIS MOTHER'S VOICE (2008), as well as commissioned translations of Moliere's works: THE HYPOCRITE or TARTUFFE (2006), THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES (2008), and now THE LITERATI (2016).

Lee Lewis, the Director of THE LITERATI, Directed for Bell Shakespeare, the Justin Fleming adaptation of THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, and Peter Evans, the new Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare, Directed Mr Fleming's TARTUFFE, for the Bell company and earlier for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), in the not too distant past. This joint production, then, a natural and familiar fit, for both Artistic Directors and Companies, after its work out at a reading for The Lysicrates Prize, Directed by Gale Edwards in 2015, revealed its potential in front of an audience.

Ms Lewis in her Director's Notes tells us that Mr Fleming
... has become an Australian adaptor, interpreter, suggester and massager of Moliere's original works to such an extent that, while remaining faithful to Moliere's structures and stories, he is creating Australian versions that speak directly to an Australian audience about our own foibles here and now. These are not versions written for a relationship with a French audience. These are not versions that belong on the British stage or The American stage. They belong here.
And true to form, THE LITERATI, has all the hallmarks of the other two adaptations of Moliere's works from the pen (computer?) of Mr Fleming: an intricacy of rhyming couplets and an outrageous proficiency of good old 'ocker' vocabulary, in his 'Aussie' contemporary conceit of the original, that is often audacious in its usage and forces a comic response that is as much a resultant 'shock' - shock of the new? - as it is of wit. The plot concerns, as usual, the thwarted marriage aspirations of a young lady of family, by her family that is caught up in the pretensions of a particular extreme. In the case of THE LITERATI: the literary obsessions and excesses of the women of the family and their unreasonable and deluded adoration of a poet, in this version 'ockerfied' in nomenclature as Tristan Tosser (the level of comic invention, signalled).

The performance is in two acts over a two hour and twenty minute length (including interval), and in truth, one begins to weary of the literary ploys of the adaptation, and one wonders, as well, if it is because the source concerns of LES FEMMES SAVANTES, are relatively trivial for us, including the parental approval for marriage, and hence may lack the heft to sustain our interest over its length. Stand this play alongside TARTUFFE, a play dealing with religious hypocrisy, and it pales in contemporary significance (though, if it had opened a week or two earlier, before or during the Sydney Writers Festival, and it may - just - have had some more relevance as a joke of such extension).

The original has some 13 characters to create the circumstances of the comedy. In Mr Fleming's adaptation he has reduced (and combined) Moliere's needs to make up a cast of 9 to suit his dramaturgical needs, and then has, with the Director, Ms Lewis, made it possible that 4 of the 5 actors play double roles: Philomela/Vadius - a combined 'invented' character (Caroline Brazier), Amanda/Attorney (Kate Mulvany), Christopher/Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould), Juliet/Martina (Miranda Tapsell). - while, the poet, Tristan Tosser, is the only responsibility of the 5th performer, Gareth Davies.

This doubling has some comic repercussions, calling on the actors for a lively versatility and a tremendous olympian energy of focus and discipline. Mr Oxenbould makes his double task a joy of invention and mines a conscious sense of the in-joke for his audience, with his task culminating in an hilarious 'cap-on, cap-off' delineation of character to sustain a conversation between his two men whilst dextrously managing the revolve floor of the production design. Ms Brazier does next best with her hair-raising timings for entrances and exits, with a dialect definition, accompanied with a waft of shawl or jacket and spectacles (or not) for her double duty. Whilst, Ms Tapsell makes heavy weather of her double, being significantly, less convincing as Juliet, the thwarted bride-to-be, her principal responsibility - standing in a white frilly dress with her hands always in a 'stylised' position with her usual and recognisable wide or crinkle-eyed demeanour to charm us (or not) while reciting the text, it, becoming more and more, calamitously, an obstacle to/for her task, whereas, on the other hand, being absolutely comfortable and winning with her sensible, grounded servant/termagant, Martina - which is, unfortunately, a less crucial role in the dramaturgy of this play's function, for Martina was genuinely funny, in contrast to her Juliet. Ms Mulvany, in her doubling act, is principally occupied with Amanda, the elder, unhappy daughter of the house, and has created a focused full force (loud) comic caricature of unceasing energy, that propels Mr Fleming's machinery unflaggingly forward, if a little colourlessly - it being a relatively, strident two-note offer - it lacks nuance or truthful empathy (truthful revelations), and becomes exhaustedly predictable in comic choice and less and less engaging from entrance to entrance, beyond the well drawn repeated physical charcteristics and theatrical energy. Ms Mulvany's Attorney, her other task, is brief and is as efficiently defined as her Amanda.

This task of doubling has some comic possibilities and the company strives fairly successfully to achieve them, but one wonders if a cast of 9 actors, with nine different physical energies and imaginative offers, instead of just 5, would have relieved some of the growing tediousness of the 'playing' length of the work (it reminded me of my concerns with the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Caryl Churchill's LOVE AND INFORMATION, last year). Either give us a full cast of nine actors (probably, one of the reasons that the Bell Shakespeare's production of TARTUFFE was a much more rewarding night in the theatre was the number of different energies of a much larger casting), or edit the play text down to a more succinct and less exposing 90 minutes.

That this is a co-production between two 'funded' companies, the Bell Shakespeare and the Griffin, one wonders: is it that their combined budget resources prohibits such a casting possibility? Is it that we have 3 actors paid by Bell, 2 actors paid by Griffin? Or....? Together, is it that they could only afford 5 actors? I believe this production is relatively 'crippled' in its success because of the limited casting choice by the two producing companies. If, it is true that economics is the 'fly-in-the-ointment' reasoning of the choice that Mr Fleming has given in providing the opportunity of double casting, maybe some re-writing, editing, could have solved the problem of the diminishing 'returns' in the comic experience of the evening, over 140, or so, minutes.

The Design, which includes a small revolve is heavily weighted in visual terms and keeps the work a little earth-bound and clumsy for the actors to negotiate (Sophie Fletcher) - let alone the audience's safety issues to get to one's seats - and the Lighting Design (Verity Hampson) is simply serviceable. The Music Composition by Max Lambert and Roger Lock - a kind of 'rich' period-sound tunefulness and orchestration, matched with some comic mood underlinings, it works very well. The costumes are contemporary-practical in their production's need for quick transformations.

THE LITERATI satire has jokes of all kinds for most of us, just not for all of us, at the same time. I particularly chortled, early, to one of Christopher's speeches to his daughter, Amanda, about the proliferation and pretensions of writer's:
They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;
With so many people writing, it's a wonder there's anyone to read them.
And there are people who cannot write, re-writing writers who could
And giving us appalling versions of works that used to be good.
And there are some ingenious non-writers, of whom I'm sure you've heard,
Who can adapt a foreign writer, in whose language they don't know a word.
The writer and proffered suitor of the piece has been adapted to be called Tristan Tosser, and Gareth Davies preens and poses with a performer's relish for what I, belatedly, guessed to be closely observed mimicry, and it is wickedly hilarious to watch his 'schtick' - for we have seen most of these comic offers before - and when there is a hint that it is maybe only a stone's throw from a loving set of physical and vocal quotations based around a once, for some, over present artistic collaborator of the recent Belvoir team famous for his adaptation of other people's plays, it has a special pithiness.

Ms Lewis has a vision for this work but one wonders whether her choice to slow down the music of her 'score' - Mr Flemings adaptation - to lay in emotional 'depths' to some of the characters and scenes is the right one. The comedy of Moliere and of Mr Fleming seems to be hard-nosed satiric caricature with the human animal exaggerated in his stubborn stupidity, with the clinical eye of a forensic scientist and has a 'rage' rather than a 'compassion' fuelling the tools of the exercise. The play seems to work best when it has the consistent energy and rapidity of the many, many notes of a Rossini score rather than the lugubrious weight of a sentimental Verdi score. When the musical tempo slackens in this production to find the 'human' depths of the characters and situations it loosens and lose's its comic speed and allows us too much time to consider the constraints of the form of the writing style and stops us from breathlessly trying to keep up with the outrageousness of Mr Fleming's inventions and gives us time to dwell on the artificial constructs and 'judge' them, to its detriment - we suspend our belief, and that can be very dangerous for a farce of words and situation - after all, we have been taught, the laughter is all in the timing.

Still, the audience I was with, mostly, enjoyed it, for many and varied reasons - I did too but got tired of it two thirds of the way through. I'd wished it was braver, rougher, rawer. (What if Steven Berkoff had got into it?- DECADENCE?!) One wonders what the commissioning of, say, the Australian Slam Poet and Novelist (HERE COME THE DOGS), Omar Musa, could do with an adaptation of Moliere, (or, even a play of his own), looking at the society, world, we are living in. One admires Mr Fleming's language dexterity but one wonders whether his Australianess in his 'ocker' language and joke-territory, its 'mode', is of a yester-year and more conventional than otherwise, with hardly a finger on the pulse of the contemporary hip-verbal idiom and situations.

Let us commission Mr Musa to write an Australian work with a political and literary explosiveness for TODAY? I wonder what we could have - a work as arresting as say, the American sensation, HAMILTON!?