Sunday, August 28, 2016

Look Back In Anger

Photo by John Marmaras
Red Line Productions present, LOOK BACK IN ANGER by John Osborne, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomoolooo, 16 August - 10 September. Belvoir St Theatre season from 13 September - 17 September.

Sixty years ago, in May 1956, LOOK BACK IN ANGER  by John Osborne, was presented by The English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. It has been touted by many that it was the play that 'revolutionised' the English theatre scene of its time and was the major watershed for what followed. Contextually, along with the usual classic revivals, the contemporary writers that dominated the scene, before Osborne's play, were writers such as Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward, Christopher Fry, Emlyn Williams, William Douglas-Home and American T.S. Eliot. All flourishing under the auspices of businessmen like the West End entrepreneur, Hugh 'Binkie' Beaumont. The management that Osborne famously described as the eminence lavande whose 'Binkiedom' was 'the most powerful of the unacceptable faeces of theatrical capitalism.' Beaumont, it was, that presented work that, in the words of Peter Brook, was 'a reaching back to the memory of lost grace.' Otherwise the European writers: Anouilh, Giraudoux along with Cocteau, Camus, Sartre and latterly Genet, Ionesco and Beckett were making a contemporary mark. (WAITING FOR GODOT, had had a production in a small theatre in London in 1955.)

The English critic, Kenneth Tynan, wrote in 1954:
We need plays about cabmen and demigods, plays about warriors, politicians and grocers ... I counsel aggression because as a critic, I had rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist. 
It seems he had had enough of the defining English style in the theatre: emotional understatement, a dry reserve worn lightly, of a national temperament of restraint, and of plays that did not reflect the life of the majority, of the economically depressed, of the young, of a country rebuilding itself after the contingencies of war that had only moved from rationing its food in July of 1954, of a country whose Empire was diminishing in world status to 'simply' become a Commonwealth.

 John Osborne, working as a struggling actor in provincial repertory, wrote in 1953:
The English Theatre isn't merely dying, it's being buried alive to the rattle of Aunt Edna's knitting needles.  
The famous Aunt Edna introduced to the world by Rattigan, as the  nice respectable, middle class, middle-aged maiden lady with time on her hands and money to help her pass it, who found any playwright who displeased her as 'utterly lost.'

In John Osborne and the arrival of LOOK BACK IN ANGER, Tynan, if not Aunt Edna, found  the playwright that he had been waiting for:
I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see LOOK BACK IN ANGER. It is the best young play of its decade.
This singular endorsement thrust the production of this play into the limelight of controversy and a 'must see.' (Even with the proviso that it was 'the best young play of the decade'.) Whatever the content, the working class setting (an ironing board on stage, apparently, drew gasps of 'shock') the theatre-going world of post-war Britain was grateful to shout along with Jimmy Porter, the 'hero' of this play:
Oh heavens, I long for a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm - that's all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! ...  Hallelujah! I'm alive. 
It is here, in this shock of the new - class setting and characters - with a directness of language long absent from the English stage, that LOOK BACK IN ANGER gained its audience and has gained its importance in theatre history - the grenade that irreparably shuddered the English Theatre into the 'modern' era - in the words of John Russell Taylor, the play 'has its inarguable importance as the beginning of a revolution in the British Theatre, and as the central and most immediately influential expression of its time, the mood of the 'angry young man.'

Reading some of the publicity for this production of the play at the Old Fitz the question posed was curious as to why this play wasn't revived more regularly. Many people know of the play, some have read it, but not many have seen it, we were told. Certainly, one can, historically, appreciate the cultural/political importance of this play. One, too, can admire the language of this playwright. It has an enviable (in this day and age of most Australian play writing) range of vocabulary and usage with a sinewy - a muscular - power of a frightening energy and intent. But after watching this production of the play the other evening, the problem with the play for most modern audiences would have to be, surely, the play's content, and thus provide an answer as to why this play is not often seen? It is a play of its times and is definitely 'of an angry young man' and so is in 2016, if not before, culturally and politically limited in appeal and relevance, through, because, of the inevitable passage of time. It is why an Australian play like David Williamson's, THE REMOVALISTS or  Jack Hiberd's, DIMBOOLA have dated, when performed, and depreciated, despite their respected historical reference point in recent Australian playwrighting. Our living social context has changed dramatically. The plays reflect a value system not acceptable today.

For, Jimmy Porter, the central character of LOOK BACK IN ANGER, is a relentlessly bullying, misogynistic 'thug' who dominates the stage action alongside co-dependent 'victims', of both sexes, who offer no opposition to his self-indulgent whining and violence - of a physical and psychological tsunami force and weight. One could not help, while siting in the Old Fitz, but recall and revile again the video-recording from A CURRENT AFFAIR of Salim Mehajer, of last Monday (22 August), threatening his wife and her family, or, synchronistically, having read Mark Dundas Wood's review of Anne Tyler's novel VINEGAR GIRL, which is a modern usage of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, in the Daily Review (24 August, Wednesday), and be drawn back into the embrace of the debate as to the justification of modern productions of that play concerning the relationship of Katherine and Petruchio. The debate around the THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is relevant and combustible still, today, and maybe, that same debate should be more so, around contemporary  productions of A LOOK BACK IN ANGER.

What was Red Line and the two Director's thinking?  It is difficult to sit through this play as a man in 2016, let alone to be a woman in 2016, I would have thought. I found it increasingly uncomfortable throughout the night, and viscerally squirmed with the return of Alison, Jimmy's 'Squirrel' to his 'Bear' at the end of the play, and have to listen to Alison's speech that seemed to be a rip-off from Miss Julie and Strindberg's great play, in her cry to Jimmy:
'Don't you see I am in the mud at last! I'm grovelling! I'm crawling! Oh, God…'
 And to have Jimmy reply as she lies collapsed at his feet:
 ...We'll be together in our bear's cave, and our squirrel's drey, and we'll live on honey and nuts - lots and lots of nuts. And we'll sing songs about ourselves - about warm trees and snug caves, and lying in the sun. And you'll keep those big eyes on my fur, and help me keep my claws in order, because I'm a bit of a soppy, scruffy sort of a bear. And I'll see that you keep that sleek, bushy tail glistening as it should, because you're a very beautiful squirrel, but you're none too bright either, so we've got to be careful. There are cruel traps lying everywhere, just waiting for rather mad, slightly satanic, and very timid animals. Right?' 
To which 'Alison nods' and ultimately 'slides her arms around him'. How interesting it is to compare the last speech of Katherine's in her submission to Petruchio to this of Jimmy's.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER, is regarded as Osborne's most biographical play, and as the Directors note, was born out of his unhappy first marriage, to Pamela Lane - he signed himself 'Teddy' and she 'Nutty' when they wrote to each other! The fact that Osborne was married five times and that his relationships were, mostly, as publicly volatile and disgustingly vehement as that between the characters in this play, as reported in his biography: JOHN OSBORNE, A PATRIOT FOR US, by John Heilpern, it gives one some pause to give a total appreciation of the author and play as a contemporary writer, to 'celebrate' him by staging a production of this play, today. In this production there has been some editing of the text (language and actions and including the excision of one character, The Colonel - with agent's permission, I was told) but the play still is a scarifying example of a cultural/political attitude to women and a 'championing' of a kind of man that even sixty years ago ought to have rung alarms of caution - what charms Osborne must have had, or how desperate the audience was for new writing. The play, it seems to me, is an example, a reference point, today, that demonstrates how far as a civilization we have or have not grown in our mutual respect of gender and our relationship behaviours with each other. (It is arresting to note that the two Directors of this production of Osborne's play, Lizzie Schebesta and Damien Ryan, were also involved with the recent Sport For Jove production of the 'SHREW'. Both productions for 2016. What is the political/cultural reasoning for this double? Ms Schebesta is also one of the co-founders of the Women In Theatre and Screen (WITS) movement in Sydney - a curious choice of play to be working and presenting - I would have thought, considering how the women are treated in this play.)

Osborne himself admitted that LOOK BACK IN ANGER is 'a formal old-fashioned play' and "I daren't pick up a copy ... nowadays. It embarrasses me.' He wrote a sequel, towards the end of his life called DEJAVU, with Jimmy and Cliff still headlining the action. It opened on the 8th May, 1992. It was a failure. (P.S. Barry Humphries had been asked by the author to play Jimmy, and said he was astonished to be asked. He read the play and wrote that he had found it 'as long as three plays, alienating in its rage, with a few too many Aunt Sallies and worryingly un-actable. ...'). The note that DEJAVU was 'alienating in its rage' could be applied to LOOK BACK IN ANGER, I reckon.

This production, at the Old Fitz, has a successful claustrophobic Set Design by Jonathan Hindmarsh, thrust narrowly forward to the audience making the action of the playing by the actors strikingly intimate.(Although with time to kill, while watching the play, and in either of the two intervals, one can question the architecture of the space and its odd window position that is constantly suggesting a vision to street action that does not seem at all possible.) The Costumes by Anna Gardiner, have a palpable feel of tawdry squalor (except the fashion-plate look of Helena's clothes), and the Sound Design by Katelyn Shaw is disconcertingly noisy and right for the play production.

Melissa Bonne (Alison Porter) and Chantelle Jamieson (Helena Charles) are not always convincing with the material and have not found a comfortable manner to invest in the dilemma of these women - victims of self-delusion and a masochistic acceptance of their lot in the world of Jimmy Porter. The actors are in-and-out with their conviction which does not help us to stay engaged with their characters or to endow any real empathy for them. Their conviction with these tasks does seem to struggle - and, probably, no wonder, considering what they are asked to play, to do and say, as Alison and Helena.

Robin Goldsworthy (Cliff Lewis) gives a mostly convincing Welsh accent and seems to underline the homo-erotic possibility between he and Jimmy (suggested from actual biography of the character based on Osborne's best mate at the time, Anthony Creighton, perhaps), although Mr Goldsworthy sometimes succumbs to 'gilding the lily', demonstrating the emotional state of Cliff, by underlining the sentiment of the character or text with sentimental vocal or physical gesture that takes away our belief in his, generally, otherwise, good work - the best of the performances on show at the Old Fitz.

Andrew Henry (Jimmy Porter) gives a full bore energy to the principal and long role but allows that energy to often substitute for what should have a more eloquent organically developed backstory to help us understand where Jimmy's rage and boredom comes from. The performance choices has Jimmy personified, mostly, as childishly manipulating the situation with a delight in verbal grandstanding that seems to demand theatrical applause rather than a true and invested revelation of the character's authentic human need. Mr Henry's Jimmy Porter is a full-on delusional sadomasochistic author of his own ill will and intent, a painfully self-indulgent man/child/teddy-bear. Our empathy for this angry young man is zilch. Not, I suspect, what Mr Osborne intended. This production reveals an answer to this company's question in its pre-show publicity as to why this play LOOK BACK IN ANGER is rarely seen on any stage.

The 'grenade' effect that this famous play had on the world of British Theatre is, historically, incontestable. Its suitability for our times, so as to command a place on a stage in Sydney in 2016 is contestable. Osborne wrote many other plays, many better plays: e.g. THE ENTERTAINER (1957), LUTHER (1961), INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE (1964), A PATRIOT FOR ME (1965), besides an Academy Award winning Screenplay for TOM JONES (1963)  - Directed by Tony Richardson, who also directed the first production of LOOK BACK IN ANGER. Rather that we saw one of those than LOOK BACK IN ANGER.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Photo by Alex Wisser
Powerhouse Youth Theatre and Griffin Theatre Company present TRIBUNAL. Concept by Karen Therese, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 12 - 20 August.

A tribunal is a court of justice. This TRIBUNAL, in the SBW Theatre, does not reach for that definition, rather it facilitates a gathering of tribunes: indigenous peoples and refugees with their empathetic supporters. Tribunes being defined as a person who upholds or defends popular rights, or dare one say in Australia in August 2016, persons who uphold and defend human rights.

TRIBUNAL is a modest but powerful piece of verbatim theatre. The Powerhouse Theatre Company under the aegis of the Artistic Director, Karen Therese, has prepared a collective of Creative Collaborators/Text /and Performers: Paul Dwyer, Katie Green, Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Mahdi Mohammadi, Jawad Yaqoubi and herself to develop 'a play', a piece of theatre, to review the stories of the indigenous population and more especially that of recent refugees.

In the week of The Nauru Files and our Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton's response, this work could not be more relevant. We meet and hear personal stories of experience in a gentle and welcoming format of friendship and respect. It is both engrossing and humbling for we get to meet and hear actual individuals and their remarkable stories. Stories of hope, comedy, sadness and tragedy.

The form/structure of the work is straightforward, open and uncomplicated. On the night I attended members of the audience, late in the timing, were invited to participate and we met, for instance, a social worker, Sarah Coconis, who spoke clearly and quite simply of the emotional violence  perpetrated in Detention Centres, and the complications arising from this trauma. Other audience asked questions and commented from knowledge of their experiences. Invitation to meet and converse after the performance was given and taken.

This project was instigated and developed by Ms Therese during her time and conversations as a 2015 Griffin Studio Artist. It is just one of many works connected to the refugee experience that Ms Therese has facilitated in her home base in Fairfield: LITTLE BAGHDAD: LET'S PARTY LIKE IT'S 620B.C and JUMP FIRST ASK LATER.

The Text Editor (and a performer) Paul Dwyer has shaped a very subtle evening supported with a Sound and Video Design by James Brown of elegant simplicity. All of the participants are easeful and generous, looking and feeling safe in the close SBW Theatre environment.

After writing, this week of the over-the-top satire of THE BEASTby Eddie Perfect and been extremely ambivalent of its ability to deliver a message, and struck stupidly happy by the commercial indulgences of ALADDIN I encourage you to spend time with The Powerhouse Youth Theatre and their important work, TRIBUNAL, in Kings Cross. You will grasp how the theatre can be so diverse in its formulations as I have this week, and in all of those forms entertain the value of the theatre as a jewel of culture for our society's growth and expansion. And above all else, its simple power, to move us, change us.

Do go. Much can depend on it.


Disney Theatrical Productions, under the direction of Thomas Schumacher presents, ALADDIN. Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, Book by Chad Beguelin. Capitol Theatre, Sydney 11 August - 13 November 2016.

The Disney Theatrical Productions arm of the Disney Company have brought to Sydney a spectacle of old fashioned musical theatre in a contemporary (new fashioned) post-modern, popular culture version of a tale of Middle Eastern origin, ALADDIN. Disney had made an animated version of the tale in 1992, and it became a most successful member of the famous Disney Renaissance films which includes BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) and THE LION KING (1994). The theatre show began as a regional theatre production with a book by Chad Beguelin, that grew when the musical maestro Alan Menken became involved and supplied and encouraged the use of material that he and Howard Ashman had created and that had not been used in the animated film.The original concept had been to make a tribute to the old Bob Hope - Bing Crosby 'road pictures' and to celebrate the jazz of the 1930's and '40's (Fats Waller and Cab Calloway). Director and Choreographer, Casey Nicholaw (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, THE BOOK OF MORMON, SOMETHING ROTTEN) took to the ideas and it grew and grew with a comic nod to both those original impulses to open on Broadway in 2015 in the Amsterdam Theatre.

I grew up with the stories of Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the many adventures of Sinbad, the Sailor, told to me, especially, in film versions. I also remember, vividly, the story of Scheherazade and her adventure in the telling of The Thousand and One Nights to the King, Shahryar, to escape her death. I even have a four volume collection of the stories within stories, translated by Powys Mathers (1964) - too dense and prolific to complete reading - Yet! THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), the Alexander Korda/Michael Powell film with young Sabu, was one of my primal memorable experiences in the cinema (the Ritz Randwick, I reckon), and, of course, in many repetitions on television - I own a copy, now! I have, shamefully, to confess, never seen the Disney animated film! (Robin Williams probably scared me off - I'm not a fan).

ALADDIN with all of its mythical, primal 'fumes' from one's childhood is bowdlerized and brazenly, hilariously, translated into the modern idiom (contemporary cultural references - Tim Tams and Wagga Wagga!) inviting the use of theatrical traditions covering classic music hall/vaudeville techniques to the 'lame' rom/com ploys, with stock caricatures (cartoon 'goodies' and 'baddies') with simplistic moral lessons on how to live one's life for the good. But add spectacular good-old full-on dance routines, (including, believe it or not, a Tap Dance - it being a "Shameless" ploy, said Mike Nichols to Mr Nicholaw on opening night on Braodway, approvingly!) of bedazzling Costume (Gregg Barnes) and Set Design (Bob Crowley) and you will be bewitched into having a great time. Further, sprinkle some songs (or is it the production/choreographic tricks that make them work? - the music, I suspect, the consistently weakest element of the show that prevents ALADDIN from being great) for your memory box (Friend Like Me, Prince Ali, A Whole New World), and ALADDIN is an escapist entertainment that should bring a smile and a pump of adrenalin to everybody watching it. Let us hope the company can sustain the nervous energy that we saw on opening night in Sydney throughout the up-coming long season - it thrives on it, and without it ALADDIN might be a 'kitschy' tedium (some of my friends saw the show in New York several months after the opening and pooh-poohed it, as just that!)

ALADDIN is a Broadway Musical in Sydney stuffed with the legendary garishness and PIZZAZ that usually are the reasons for making one's theatrical pilgrimage to New York City. But ALADDIN is now just downtown at the Capitol Theatre - and what you save in air fare to the U.S. of A. can buy you many a return visit ticket, down in local Campbell Street. I'd go again for sure. I escaped the anxious travails of modern living in 2016 and had a fun, fun joyful hour or two - a welcome relief. Laughter, wonder, cheers and standing ovations - what more could one ask for?

All the principals, Ainsley Melham (Aladdin), Arielle Jacobs (Jasmine) Adam Murphy (Jafar), Aljin Abella (Iago), George Henare (Sultan), Adam-Jon Fiorentino, (Kassim), Troy Sussman (Babkak), Robert Tripolino (Omar), and especially, Michael James Scott, in the crowd-pleasing rabble-rousing role as Genie, are terrific. The formulaic demands of the material is stylistically, flawlessly delivered alongside the fulsome athleticism of physical skill and expertise that is demanded for the choreography from all. It is, indeed, the discipline and the joy-filled verve of the whole large Ensemble that gives this show a forward momentum of an olympian energy and wonder that is often lacking in many an Australian big-scale musical. It is tremendously satisfying to see and be part of. Congratulations.

The real stars of this show of course are the Designers. Mr Crowley's Cave is simply breathtaking, the Lighting by Natasha Katz full of tricks of gorgeous flexibility, it topped with a truly thrilling magic carpet ride (Illusion Design by Jim Steinmeier. Special Effects by Jeremy Chernick)), jointly collaborated on. Mr Barnes has created over 300 costumes and I reckon every 'sparkle' in Australia has been used on this production to dazzle you. The spectacle is the tireless Choreography and Direction of Casey Nicholaw - I recently saw his production of SOMETHING ROTTEN, on Broadway, and it further demonstrated Mr Nicholaw's way with old fashioned dance routines packed with amazing forward adrenalin motion. Geoffrey Castles and his orchestra are no slouches either in their exhilarating contribution.

I reckon you should go. Take those kids - they'll fall in love with the excitement of the theatre and have the exuberance of ALADDIN as a benchmark for the rest of their lives.

The Beast

Ambassador Theatre Group Asia Pacific and Red Live present, THE BEAST, by Eddie Perfect, in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, 29 July - 21 August.

THE BEAST, written by Eddie Perfect, began as a project at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013 and has now been taken up by the Ambassador Theatre Group on a commercial run - a rarity in Australia, indeed - which is, at the moment, playing in the Drama Theatre, in the Sydney Opera House. This is a new production and new casting from the original. The publicity blurb on the web-site tells us that THE BEAST is a…
confronting, disturbing and hilarious play that gleefully tears apart middle-class trends, social climbers, foodies and wine-snobs, helicopter parents, self-serving do-goooders and self-righteous gardeners.
There are enough press-button subjects there to make a mark with most audiences of a privileged kind.

Three couples: Simon (Rohan Nichol) and Gen (Christie Whelan Browne), Rob (Toby Truelove) and Sue (Heidi Arena), Baird (Eddie Perfect) and Marge (Alison Bell), having the where-with-all to move from the city to live in a lush country setting in beautifully designed houses, have a dinner party using the meat of a 14 month-old calf, that they bought together and had raised, they believe, as an organically grown specimen. To signify their commitment - they go to witness the killing of their animal, but as the butcher is a no-show, they themselves, butcher the animal so as to keep to their tightly planned schedule for a gourmet feast. To say the least they are amateurs at the task and chaos ensues. Bloody chaos. Later, with beautifully matching wines they celebrate their 'good life' in Simon and Gen's home. But humans being human they cannot leave enough alone and over the mastication and guzzling of the fruits of their wealth, cracks of rivalry, reflecting the virtues of this privileged class: greed, envy, jealousy, covetousness, power dominance, bring an unhappy shroud of darkness and cruelty to the proceedings, culminating in the re-telling and re-enactment of the bloody murder of a man by some of these couples along with confessions of cannibalism!

I have always been a fan of Eddie Perfect (The BIG CON; KEATING! THE MUSICAL; DRINK PEPSI BITCH; SHANE WARNE THE MUSICAL; MISANTHROPOLOGY). His acerbic and ruthlessly outraged critique of some of the world about him (as writer and performer) has often been breathlessly and transfixingly paralysing as a slap-in the -face, a shock of the breaking of a taboo by speaking about it - so shocking that one's only reaction could be laughter. That this effect has happened for me - the permission for myself to laugh at his daring outrageousness - probably has to do with the Cabaret or Musical Theatre form that his work is usually cushioned with. The use of the music, maybe, softening the skewering, the ugliness of the truths that he writes of.

THE BEAST has been promoted as a play - it has no music, songs etc - and the Director, Simon Phillips, believes according to his program notes, that it has "the focus of David Williamson, Alan Ayckbourn or Neil Simon" and has the "iconoclastic extremity" of "Joe Orton, Martin McDonagh or even Ionesco" and asks us to think of Jasmina Reza's plays (ART, GOD OF CARNAGE). My experience of this performance is not so much of a play but, rather, a series of extended satiric sketches played over two and bit hours carried by cartoon caricatures of the type of the family Simpson and their familiars on television. There is little social comedy here in the sense of any of the aforementioned authors and their works, and it seems, to me, an enormous stretch to see it as anything more than social satire of the baldest and boldest writing - all magnified in extremis with no backstory or real plotting that 'a play' demands. Re-iterate: all of the characters are recognisable types in exaggerated circumstances - comic exaggerations with no naturalistic observations of dramatic construction of character-development or plot revelation, mainly mouthing comic zingers and inappropriate observations that are a kind of shock-grenade tactic to spark laughter. It never has a real world or real people to be shaped from. The world we meet in this production is that of a blazingly satiric strip comic. What a pity Marge in this work was married to a Baird, not a Homer!, I thought.

I guess I was less and less amused by THE BEAST in the Drama Theatre, having left the real world out doors, putting aside my concerns with the animal cruelty of the live cattle trade, or the Grey Hound Industry, or the terrorist attacks throughout the world witnessed on television in graphic human collateral damage, or the recent stabbing murders and injuries in the local suburbs of Sydney (even in my once local suburb of Ryde), and hoping to be confronted by the assured steadiness of Mr Perfect's usual balance of comedy and social comment. Rather, we were confronted with a work illustrated with storm showers of blood (especially if you were in the front rows) and a spray of shit, and been served up this material - this extended bloody killing of a calf on the stage, and the continued stabbing of a man - and finding the audience not shocked but laughing as if they had seen nothing so funny, so hilarious, ever, in their lives. I felt that I was, whilst being in the iconic building of the Sydney Opera House, sitting with the privileged in the city Capitol of Panem from the world of THE HUNGER GAMES, instead. The privileged few able to laugh at the brutalities on other species as well as ourselves without responsibility (or any pause from mirth, at all) - the continuation of the world of the laugh-out-loud regular humiliation of so much of our reality television shows. Mr Perfect, says,
I wrote it because I want to call up the worst of us so that we can see ourselves in it, laugh at it, deal with it, roll around in it and emerge relatively unharmed. 
The observation I made of my audience, was that they laughed, but never saw themselves, never dealt with it in any confronting manner, and did roll about in it and, for certain, came out of it relatively unharmed. They had had a good night out, felt good about themselves and questioned not one of the politically incorrect 'cracks' but rather approved of them as funny hilarious, without any second thought of the satiric edge of it at all. In other words the satire seemed to have had no complex reality to give it a knife-blade edge to provoke thought of "What are we laughing about?"  They were probably Texting, Face-booking, or Twittering as they left the theatre to their friends that they ought to see this show - it is SO funny.

The work lacked the turning point, in either the writing or the direction, that may have shocked the audience to take more seriously what Mr Perfect was hinting at: that he "... finds humans embarrassing at best and downright detestable at worst. ... [that] we can justify all manner of ethical, moral and factual contradictions. ... [that, we can see] " a cute baby lamb at a petting zoo is fun one day and food the next. ..." For unlike the work of Williamson, Ayckbourn, Simon, Orton, Reza, perhaps even of Ionesco, this work by Mr Perfect simply encourages the audience to laugh, not think. He has not found the way with THE BEAST to have the audience to have the kind of shattering check to its unbridled response to the material that he has managed in his Cabaret or Musical efforts. I left the theatre extremely dispirited and slightly panicked. The Olympic (Hunger) Games of Rio de Janeiro was waiting for me on my Television and I guess I should ignore the social, cultural and political surrounds to that International event just as most of the audience ignored the social ramifications of that which Mr Perfect and Mr Phillips had served up for us at the Opera House. (Goodness knows what they would make of the Bob Fosse film of the Kander and Ebb's CABARET!)

All the performances are safely comic. Especially the bravura farcical creation of Heidi Arena at one end of the styles evoked by Mr Phillips, to the dry and clever work of Mr Truslove at the other end of the palette board. To me, the only performer who thought she may be in 'a play' and not sketch comedy was Alison Bell, and consequently, her good work appeared odd, in contrast to the others - despite some of her ball-breaking material. Mr Nichol was a consistently unvaried obnoxious antagonist, Ms Whelan Browne two-dimensionally insipidly downtrodden, and Mr Perfect did well enough with an inconsistently written turncoat. While Peter Houghton, in a number of different roles was vulgarly hit and miss with his tasks - particularly, unfortunately, with his role of the Skipper, he just didn't seem to know what notes to strike with it - to find the right tone (maybe this is where the audience was derailed, desensitised?) or is there a problem with the writing?

The Design by Dale Ferguson was a series of portable mobiles, on a black gloss floor, that the actors had to push-drive to create the different settings - they had a very busy night, as did the stage crew in mopping up the fluids and breakages of the action, even with one of the audience helping out by placing glassware back on the stage from the auditorium! All of the mobiles and furnishings are backed by scenic-illustrated, retractable curtains, looking like a-la-kind-of-paintings of a David Hockney 'brushmanship'. This Design was lit with a trendy commercial event  look - it has a kind of wealth gleam - with little human scale intimacy, by Trent Suidgeest. One should mention the Puppet Design and Construction of the fatted calf by Orlando Norrish - very, very Play School, Sesame Street.

THE BEAST, an extended television sketch show, will be a hit for some and not for others. It certainly fits the traditions of the Comedy Festival that emanates from Melbourne that is often on our television menus. Oh, for the sophistication of Ms Reza, the wit and play construct of Orton, the experiments of content, style and formulations of Mr Ayckbourn, the character and situation comedy of Mr Simon, let alone his musical expertise to create a laugh, the sociological and 'musical' accuracy of a lot of Mr Williamson, the political nouse and dramatic construct and character development of Mr McDonagh, - his ability to tell a story with satirical/political edge - or, of the sophisticated absurdity of Ionesco. Even, oh, oh, oh, for Mr Perfect and his usual marriage with music. Next time, perhaps.

Monday, August 8, 2016


Ensemble Theatre presents BETRAYAL, by Harold Pinter, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 16 July - 20 August.

BETRAYAL, by Harold Pinter was written in 1978, and belongs to his great middle period, and along with other works like NO MAN'S LAND (1975) and OLD TIMES , is often characterised as one of his 'memory plays'. Pinter was given the Nobel prize for Literature in 2005.

This play uses reverse chronology, and so the first scene of the play is the chronological end of the story, the last scene of the play is the first chronological event. It begins in a pub in 1977 and then reels back through time to a bedroom in 1968. The characters of Robert (Guy Edmonds) and Emma (Ursula Mills) are married with children. Jerry (Matthew Zeremes), too, is a family man, and a work associate of Robert's in the book publishing trade, has been having an affair with Emma. The revelations of the play and the betrayals that occur, with many people and times, come slowly and painfully. Delicacy of control of the elements, the revelations of the writing, as per usual with a Pinter play, is essential.

So famous is the style and control of the Pinter play that the word 'Pinteresque' has entered our language. The content of the plays centre, often, about the unknown threat, confrontation in a confined space, that is either territorial or more often, the personal tensions of the subconscious. All these threats are subtle and above all else give a puzzle of ambiguity. It is the construct of the psychological endowing that the audience become engaged in - it can be a breathless and nervous experience - and it is that that hallmarks the best productions of Harold Pinter's works and gives one the great satisfaction of having spent your money and time with him. Trying to piece the information together and holding one's breath with a ferocity of the fearful consequence of social horror of the inappropriate - the transgressions of petty dishonesties that accumulate into dangers of emotional conflagration, is one of the major joys of watching a good production of a play by Pinter - a thrill, indeed.

BETRAYAL bubbles up, arises from, in, the middle class world of the British publishing world. The accent is educated, the dialogue edited for effect by the 'combatants', where what is said is not always what is meant, the undertext of the language rich with inference that is open to ambiguous readings. The characters fight duels not with swords, but with well articulated and carefully chosen words and sensitised silences. All great plays are poetic plays shaped within mathematical formulas and, at best, are metaphors for life reflection when meticulously staged. BETRAYAL is regarded as one of the great plays not just of Pinter but in the English language canon. His form is complex and studied, crackling with theatricality, lyrical and funny - his sense of the ridiculous pointedly honed. What lies at the heart of a good Pinteresque production is preserving ambiguity and that can only truly succeed when the creative participants are all sure of what is happening and yet are masking it. - the quintessential British-stiff-uperlip!

So, to this production at the Ensemble Theatre, Directed by Mark Kilmurry. Mr Kilmurry gives his possible success with this demanding play a great obstacle when he elects or allows his company of actors to use an Australian accent - educated (or not). The vocal power of the sounds of the dialogue of Pinter's play, a vital part of its aural poetry and power, gleaming from their milieu for sophisticated effect, have been on the stage at the Ensemble, deflated and flattened into, relatively, limited expressive 'noises': the laconic Aussie vowels and drawled musical rhythms. Pinter with BETRAYAL requires vocal instruments of metallic gleam and precision. It is a palpable loss of quality that it is not delivered here. There is definitely no gain from this indulgence in the Australian sound from these actors. And it is worse when the actors appear to have no real sense of being able to conjure any range of vocal colouring for the usage in the 'combat' of meaning, which should be swathed in tangible vocal ambiguities of pace, volume, tonal range and musicality of rhythm .

The arrangement of words and the construct into this world's language - full of the antithetical understatements of the English upper classes - is precise and the form and rhythm of his lines, should hold the audience in a formal grip as strong as Shakespeare or Beckett. They are the mechanisms of the 'tease' of Pinter's dramatic intentions. All have been meticulously considered. And what makes the work lift out of what is seemingly ordinary exchange and gives emotional power to what might look like mundanity on the page is his use of the Ellipsis, the Beat, the Pause and the Silence. It becomes, when utilised, a very expressive form of dramatic speech. It is where the unarticulated moments are as meaningful as the words themselves. The actors need to be knowing about what they are 'saying' in the 'scoring' of Pinter's music with the unspoken 'language'. On page after page, all four of the non-verbal cues have been given by Pinter. It was difficult, on the Ensemble stage, to read these actor's usage of that writer's directive, and impossible to define what was what - an ellipse, a beat, pause or a silence, and why they were authorially different in intention for the character and the context of the story. "The Beat, the Silences, and the Pauses and the Dots have to be learned and differentiated, and the repetitions of the antithetical phrases have to be pointed and understood" says Peter Hall, the original Director of this play. It is then when the inner life, thought process, is specific and true that we the audience can endow the inner feeling without over statement or revelation from the actor. To play Pinter is to work with a master playwright and it demands more than a cursory investigation and explication.

Mr Edmonds, Ms Mills and Mr Zeremes are all arresting physical types and one is easily able to engage with their look and charm, but unfortunately the look and a shallow read of the play, turn out to be not enough for this production of BETRAYAL to take off into the fabulous realms. The Set Design by Anna Gardiner is required to serve two separate productions (The other being HISTORY OF FALLING THINGS) and so undermines the Pinter aesthetic determination that is as thoroughly thought through as the writing of the text. Not her fault - just a BIG demand. The economy of the Designer's eye - essential props and colour codes - within the limitations of the Ensemble demands is successful.

This production of BETRAYAL serves as an easy way to engage with the text of the play but has not begun to reveal the potential of the play as a superior experience in the theatre. BETRAYAL, betrayed? For some of us, yes. For others, not so.

Go and see for yourself.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Three Sisters - a reflection

Photo by Marnya Rothe
THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov, translated by Karen Vickery, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 28 July-13 August.

Dear Reader,

You may have detected a slight fall off of my Diary reports on theatre experiences of late. My explanation is that I have been engaged in rehearsals for the Sport For Jove production of Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS. It is now playing in the Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre.

It is a piece of serendipitous timing as this 'reflection' happens to be my 1000th entry to my Theatre Diary blog! As someone in Muriel's Wedding says: "What a coincidence!"

Sport For Jove asked whether I would like to direct a production for them, way back in 2013. I met up with Damian Ryan, the Artistic Director, sometime in 2104, and presented him with a list of some 47 plays I would like to direct. He chose from the list Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS. I asked if he were sure. He was. He felt it had been some time since Sydney had seen the play. I was pleased because it is my favourite play from the last century - it first appeared in 1901, at the Moscow Arts Theatre.

I have some 23 different translations of the play, including the Aubrey Mellor and Robert Dessaix 1988 version for Belvoir St. I invited Karen Vickery, a colleague, actor, teacher, writer, friend, a fluent Russian speaker, reader and writer to prepare a new translation. We had worked together before. I believe it is necessary that Australian audiences have a contemporary translation of the other language plays, if possible.

I was conceiving a production set in Russia (Perm -'a provincial backwater') in 1901. The work was to accurately present this recognised masterpiece of the theatre without expurgations or dislocations. We hope by being faithful to the original to reveal the power, the reason for this play's greatness, without compromise or fop to some contemporary 'commercial' demands - '90 minutes/no interval; a cast of no more than 10!'  There were to be no adaptations - just as accurate a translation for our contemporary Australian ears as possible. I wanted the actors to feel that we were creating a brand new Australian play. My principle instruction was that the syntax of the score of the text was as deliberate as Karen intended. The play usually plays at 190 minutes with one 20 minute interval. Ours clocks in at 200 minutes with one 20 minute interval.

(I have always found it 'amusing' as to the wholehearted reception that Sydney audiences gave to the sold-out Russian Maly Company's production of UNCLE VANYA for the Sydney Festival, 2007, despite the facts that it was 240 minutes long and in Russian with sur-titiles - all contemporary commercial no-no's. The play, it seems, was the thing! Whilst the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production, 2012, was mostly appreciated for the 'starry', personality performances of some of the actors and less for the play - 'it was a boring play. Why did they choose that one'?' was an oft heard quote from many of my non-theatre friends who made an effort to see 'our Cate, Richard and Hugo'. I have pointed out to them that the boredom with the play may have been because the STC version was only 150 minutes long. In a simple comparison between the Russian and Sydney productions some 90 minutes of the play seemed to be missing! What was absent? Perhaps, subtext ? Whatever it was, it made a difference to its reception, as a play - thank god for 'our Cate, Richard and Hugo'.)

I auditioned some 167 actors in March, 2016. I was looking for actors that could act, and actors who were, what I called, "Mad Actors" - actors of explorative courage. I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from - I thank all who came to see me. I could have cast the play many times over. All with a unique chemical possibility of exciting exploration. I chose carefully and now you can see the result. Our unique result. Sport For Jove gave me free rein as to whom I could work with. How lucky I have been. Sport For Jove are a marvel - Steven Tait, an absolutely amazing Production 'boss'.

I set up a series of lectures under the banner of THE ANTON PROJECT, for the general public. Speakers were Anthony Skuse (on Anton Chekhov), Maria Lobytsnya (on the history of Late 19th Century Russia), Ken Healey (on the music of the Russian society of the time), Karen Vickery (on Translation) and a Russian folkloric dance class by Wanda Wojtulewicz-Levine, which were held in March, April and May, 2016 in the Sport For Jove studios.

Influenced (all my life) by a long essay by Dr Jonathan Miller, SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES (1986), I wanted all the artists involved to approach the play as if it were an entirely new play. A new Australian play. We would immerse ourselves in the history of the play, the biography of the writer, the social, political and cultural history of the society that first cast this play into the world's consciousness, onto the stages of the world, and through our peculiar combined Australian 'lens' and interpretation of those elements, to create from our unique, personalised and 'learned' response, to explore and discover our team's story for this great play. We have wrestled in detail, in our limited time, with this great work to find our way to have the play to speak to you in 2016.

To attempt THREE SISTERS is, I believe, a theatrical equivalent to climbing Mount Everest. THREE SISTERS, the highest 'peak' on the theatre landscape of endeavour - at least, for me.

We hope we have done well enough.

THREE SISTERS was Anton Chekhov's first play written, in 1901, especially for the Moscow Arts Theatre, run by Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovitch-Danchenko. They had, previously, presented THE SEAGULL (1898) and UNCLE VANYA (1899). Chekhov was, and is, famous for his Short Story writing - a must to have read to appreciate what he was attempting in writing his plays. Chekhov was a doctor and had self-diagnosed his tuberculosis when he was in his late twenties. He, generally, ignored the prognosis. The disease had progressed quite savagely and he was hemorrhaging blood regularly whilst at the task of writing THREE SISTERS in Yalta. He also, incidentally, married Olga Knipper, a leading actor of the Moscow Arts Company, for whom he wrote the role of Masha, at the same time. He died in 1904, after completing his great comedy, THE CHERRY ORCHARD.

As I am particularly indebted to the writings of Orlando Figes, and his two great books: NATASHA'S DANCE and A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY, to gain an insight into the world of Russia., I recommend them to you. Too, the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have informed the work we have undertaken.

Some notes we have had on our rehearsal room walls;
that we are sentenced to solitude in our own skins
to make the small into the infinite
sibling brains - we could say so much to one another with half-words, half-sentences, mere gestures
a great play absorbs the past while intimating the future
no one desires to help another: instead people wish only to dominate and increase their own power
to have an 'absent' state of mind or 'present' state of mind
lovers of truth do not fear stormy or dirty water. What they fear is shallow water
sometimes I imagine everyone has a secret phrase, a deep motif that becomes the central myth of one's life
the real pain of old age, bereavement, out-living one's friends, is the absence of scrutiny - the horror of living the unobserved life
we are more in love with desire than the desired
that there is danger in safety
that time cannot be broken
that the will cannot be willed backwards
we are ruled not by God's desire but by Time's desire
I know that the key to living well is first how to will that which is necessary and then to love what is willed
amor fati - love your fate
to choose what you do - choose your fate, love your fate
to search for truth on the far side of loneliness
we live in constructs of makeshift denials of finiteness
not to pleasure but to painlessness should man aspire
remove the attachments
life is the 'spark' between one void and another void
life is deferred death
nothing matters
if only we knew

The rehearsal process was a joy. Karen Vickery's translation was embraced enthusiastically by us all. It has a muscularity, a directness and a comfortable 'feel' in the mouths and ears of this young Australian company. Karen being a fluent Russian speaker, writer and reader had the advantage of also being an actor - this, I suspect, has been a unique asset for this work. I, personally, feel it is a remarkable translation - and, of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?. (Sport For Jove are publishing this text and it will be soon available).

Janine Watson (Olga), Paige Gardiner (Masha), Zoe Jensen (Irina),Tom Campbell (Andrey), Lauren Richardson (Natasha), Lyn Pierse (Anfisa), Kenneth Moraleda (Kuligin), Noel Hodda (Chebutikhin), Justin Stewart-Cotta (Vershinin), Graeme McCrae (Tuzenbach), Dorje Swallow (Solyony), Michael McStay (Fedotik), Shane Russon (Rode), John Grinston (Ferapont). Some 14 speaking roles which were augmented with some six dedicated and remarkable young artists to play various servants, soldiers, musicians, beggars, written by Chekhov but not often present in professional productions: Matilda Brodie, Richard Cotta, Alexandra Kelly, Anthony Sadler, Mariya Tkachenko,Tamila Tkachenko. All of these artists worked openly and tirelessly to solve our production.

Georgia Hopkins designed and created the Set Design for the four acts of the play (assisted by Angelika Nieweglowski), whilst Emma Vine Designed, found and created the enormous Costume demands (assisted by Hanna Smith). We wanted a realistic look, furniture that did not necessarily match and 'clothing' not costumes. Martin Kinnane Designed the Lighting and Peter Neville Composed the score and Designed the Sound. All of this was remarkably Stage Managed and organised by Aeva O'Dea (assisted by Alexandra Kelly). My assistant was Suzanne Pereira - invaluable and discreet.

The word of mouth response has been encouraging. The critical response, generally, enthusiastic.
I recommend that you browse Dianna Simmonds and her STAGE NOISE response. Also, that of Jason Blake and his EIGHT NIGHTS A WEEK.

I have had a wonderful time. I loved being in a rehearsal room again. I loved working with all these generous artists. I want to do something again, soon.

Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon The Ocean Floor

Jo Norris, Renee Newman and Griffin Independent present THOSE WHO FALL IN LOVE LIKE ANCHORS DROPPED UPON THE OCEAN FLOOR, by Finegan Kruckemeyer, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 20 July - 6 August.

THOSE WHO FALL IN LOVE LIKE ANCHORS DROPPED UPON THE OCEAN FLOOR is just one of 78 commissioned plays by Finegan Kruckemeyer. We saw a production of THE VIOLENT OUTBURST THAT DREW ME TO YOU at the SBW Stables Theatre a few years ago.

THOSE WHO FALL IN LOVE ... is a production from a Perth Company and was first seen there in 2014. This is the second interstate theatre company that the Griffin has hosted this year. AS WE FORGIVE, a play by Tom Holloway, from "Tasmania Performs" was seen in May.

The play has three actors whimsically engaged in five vignettes about the emotion called love. It is cute and sometimes charming, if a little lightweight. Remember the film Amelie (2001) from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, that made Audrey Tautou, a star? If so, then, you will have some of the attempted flavour of the evening. In fact the play begins with a French watch maker, impersonated charmingly with accent, beret and all, by Ben Mortley, who begins talking to us interestingly about TIME and love. That the interesting philosophical musing that begin there is mostly hijacked or buried by more mundane pre-occupations, for example a same sex relationship in a submarine threatened by a paranoid commanding officer (Russian dialects here) is a relative shame. The whimsical 'fluff'  dominates the proceedings and wins out in attempting to sustain our interest.

Mr Mortley charms and wins us with all his duties effortlessly, Renee Newman creates intrigue with her characterisations while the third of the company, Jo Morris, is wispy, whimsical but shows a need to be embraced by the audience just a little too earnestly. The Design, Costume and Set by India Mehta, is simply executed, lit with ease by Chris Connelly and accompanied with Composition and a Sound design by Ben Collins.

THOSE WHO FALL IN LOVE LIKE ANCHORS DROPPED UPON THE OCEAN FLOOR, could be a successful first date ploy. It is only some 70 minutes long. Add dinner, a drink and who knows what might transpire ...!