Monday, October 31, 2016


Photo by Daniel Boud
Bell Shakespeare presents, OTHELLO, by William Shakespeare, in the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House, 24 October - 4 December.

OTHELLO is a riveting play. A play concerning the plot of a man who outwardly seems a charming man - a flower external that has a serpent beneath. Of a man who has no conscience at all. A man who takes the witnessing audience into his confidence and shows us a duplicity so heinous, wicked and clever that we cannot look away. It is Iago and we step willingly onto the roller-coaster of his doings and as we do with the character of Richard III we are beguiled by his cruel skills. Maybe there is a vicarious admiration at the sheer boldness of it all? No-one but he and we can see the web of catastrophe he weaves around the others in the world of the play and he, a master conjuror, knows that we are helpless in our viewing, for we cannot stop the action even as he shows his sleights-of-hand with his victims. The play's visceral hold is unique - a sado-masochistic fascination. The reason, the motivation of Iago for his deeds not the least of the fascination that enthrals us.

At the end of the play:
Othello: Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he has thus ensnared my soul and body?
Iago: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know;
From this time forth I never will speak word.
Fascinating frustration!

This play is not about lofty figures of kings and queens, this play's tragedy is a domestic family one, and so, relatively, relatable to our own lives. It is hard for us to dismiss the fate of Othello as too preposterous, because it stems from sexual jealousy, an emotion that has touched a nerve in almost everyone of us and we suspect, know, if not from startling first-hand experiences then from closely witnessed second-hand ones, that it is a powerful propellant for outrageous behaviour that can lead to actions of tremendous extreme, to that of even murderous revenge. Shakespeare in this play presents a relentless mono-focus on this green-eyed jealousy, there is no relief from the main concern with subplot or comic character to divert us from its inevitable climax. We careen alongside Iago, our 'host', as his tricks ensnare the innocent and create a rising horror around him. The climax is terrible to watch.

This Bell Shakespeare company of players, under the Direction of Peter Evans, have been able to sustain the narrative cataclysm of this play. One can leave the theatre with a great admiration of the work, of the playwright, even if this production does not match its emotional potential. Mr Evans has constructed a solid production of straight-forward storytelling with some conceptual flourishes of staging, that bristles with determined discipline from all the actors - school audiences should be well pleased with this production. Clarity of story, character and language is available for the attentive. Set in a claustrophobic green velvet columned cavern, Design by Michael Hankin, enhanced in its growing malevolence by the lighting of Paul Jackson, nine actors in a nondescript but contemporary dress, with a slightly edited script, relate the drama with a competent ease. This showing in Sydney is the last of a 5 month tour.

Yalin Ozucelik, as Iago, is the driving force of this production. Clear, clean and focused with an ease and steady grasp of the unfolding machinations of his man, Mr Ozucelik makes a villain of Iago of cool precision. His textual intelligence is served vocally with wit and a nimble body response that speaks accurately the language to support what is going on. Action suiting word, word suiting action. It is the integrity of this actor's choices and his brisk seemingly effortless contribution that is the spine of this production. What keeps it afloat.

Bell has chosen one of their Players, who has toured to schools, particularly, for them, Ray Chong Nee, as Othello. He has a physical presence and masculinity of some confidence (although, perhaps too young considering the information in the text - of his soldierly campaigns and of 'an old black ram ... tupping your white ewe") and has a distinguishing sound in the delivery of his speeches that sets him aside from the others on the stage - a kind of deliberate enunciation with not much emotional colour - a soldier's, a warrior-general's sound of pragmatic control and separation. This Othello humanising, in the first half, only in the presence and especially when in physical contact with his Desdemona - it always seemed as he took her by the hand to lead her from the stage to 'bed', that he showed his 'boyish' delight of his fortunate chance of another kind of 'life'. Of a romantic idealist with a trusting nature, with little knowledge of sin, placing all his faith in his Desdemona and so that when she falls in his eyes (he deceived by Iago), his entire world falls with her. Mr Nee's characterisation serves the first half of the production well. Unfortunately, as Othello falls into an oblivion of jealous passion, when the heightened language of the writer demands an emotional identification and expression of deep tragedy, Mr Chong Nee, either through inexperience or lack of courage, or both, plays at demonstrating, indicating, the 'journey' that Othello is suffering rather than experiencing what is happening as explored in the language of Shakespeare. Failing to express it with the requisite belief that can give the audience the full cathartic tragedy of the man and the play, this production cooled in the second half and one was able to sit outside the happenings on the stage in an objective state - relatively, emotionally, disengaged. The impact of the treacherous machinations of Iago diminished by an Othello, tentative to embrace the demands of the writing and the wherewithal to own what he must do.

Elizabeth Nabben gives a well spoken and intelligent reading of Desdemona as a 'good woman' but has little of the firmness of purpose, the strength of courage that Shakespeare has given her textually - rebuffing her father's rights, for instance - her sexuality relatively unexplored. Michael Wahr, as Cassio, mostly, fulfils the function of character, but not create one. Edmund Lempke-Hogan gives us a one dimensional wealthy village oaf as Roderigo - function but not arresting motivation. James Lugton in two small but vital roles as Brabantio and Lodovico does what he can to flesh out his men. While Alice Keohavong playing Bianca and other supporting ensemble drew some attention to her potential.

This Bell Shakespeare production cannot lift into the passionate poetics of the writing principally because of the unevenness of the casting in the production. They, generally, speak well, they have a sense of the story and language but show little interrogatory flair for the expression of the complexity of their characters. The characters lack the variety of human traits. The efficiency of the storytelling does not compensate for the lack of character motivation that a modern audience expects, or, the emotional poetics that the playwright demands.

It seems Mr Evans has the capacity of intellectualised conception and the skill of arrangement for staging but not the skill in casting. After the choice of play it is surely in the gift of the Director, his responsibility, to be able to choose the actors that can achieve the potential of the play and production. This is not evident here. With a reduced cast of nine for this play and some editing to accommodate that decision, this company of actors do not consistently demonstrate the skills to deliver the 'goods'. Is it that a tour of 5 months prohibits a more open casting? That that time demand is the inhibition for Bell's major showcase productions? This production should serve a need for school audiences to see and hear the text but as adult theatre this production fails to impress against comparison with the league of the leading international companies. One cannot help but recall the National Theatre Broadcast of the National Theatre production of Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (2013) to comprehend the glaring gap of achievement of this Bell Shakespeare. It is significant. Very significant.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Turquoise Elephant

Photo by Brett Broardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, by Stephen Carleton, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 14 October - 26 November.

THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT by Stephen Carleton, says the back of the Currency Press play/program publication, is a 'shockingly black, black, black political farce' about Climate Change, which won the 2015 Griffin Theatre Award.

According to Yuval Noah Harai, the author of HOMO DEUS, Humankind has locked itself into a double race. We champion and feel compelled to speed up the pace of scientific progress and economic growth while also staying one leap ahead of ecological disaster. The good news has been that for some hundreds of years we have enjoyed a growing economy without having been prey to ecological meltdown on a grand scale. We have, so far, managed to pull through. But who knows if science can, in the future, simultaneously save the economy from freezing and the ecology from boiling.

Of course an ecological collapse will have different consequences for the different strata of us humans, for when  it strikes (or if, says some! ...  ?) the poor will suffer more than the rich. We talk a lot about global warming but in practice we are unwilling to make serious economic, social or political sacrifices to stop the catastrophe. Our presidents, ministers and CEOs (the rich) are willing to take a gamble, a risk, that it won't happen on their watch, or not, at least, in their personal futures, so delay enacting what they know and have discussed should be done. Besides, perhaps, they believe, science will come up with a 'hi-tech Noah's Ark', at least for the rich, who will most likely be able to afford it, while the poor drown. The poor will never be able to board that Noah's Ark.

Why aren't the poor, then, protesting? Because they know that they will bear the cost of economic stagnation, for in the capitalist world the lives of the poor only improves when the economy grows. Protecting the environment is a very nice idea but the pragmatics of economic aggrandisement on one hand, or survival, on the other, trump action (Who said Trump?) And it is a long way off, isn't it? At least generations, if not a century or two? And so, as Tony Abbott has declared: Coal is still King for Australia.

Stephen Carleton in his program notes tells us that he wrote this play, watching the continuing global warming disaster reports and seeing that rather than galvanising 'us' into action, we just seem to do more and more nothing and that we are doing it on a grander and grander scale - we prefer to deny it. He hopes that his play, THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT, will spur us to ask what is to be done and who should do it.

Mr Carleton has created two rich old women (filthy rich grotesques!) living with their niece in an elaborate 'fortress' of luxury, overseeing the plight of a rancorous and rebellious poor, outside their triple glazed windows - the temperature down there in a Sydney, 'sometime in the near future', is some 50 degrees.

Firstly, there is Augusta (Maggie Dence) - a member of a rich ruling class, who takes a political stand of denial of human responsibility for the environmental events outside her window and will 'govern' from that point-of-view and propagate that it is just the normal course of nature moving into a new cycle towards an 'Ice Age'.

Secondly, there is Olympia (Belinda Giblin), her sister, just as rich, who sees the ecological cataclysm of the planet as a kind of exciting tourism opportunity, a source of entertainment which she must witness, flying (boating) around the world to watch the extinction of the planet's wonders at the different and many crucial moments.

Then, there is the niece, Basra (Olivia Rose), also moderately, independently, rich, and the inheritor-to-be of all her aunts' monies, who has not left this 'fortress' of artificial environment for years, but writes a blog about all that she sees of the gathering evidence of the environmental meltdown with a naive conscience and perception - a woman of lots and lots of words but of no actions.

Visi/Vika (Catherine Davies), identical twins - which nobody knows or suspects  (least of all the audience) - works as new hired help for this family but is a plant for the radical environmental activists called The Cultural Front of Environmental Preservation. These twins are to infiltrate and create havoc in this bastion of wealth and power.

The last character is Jeff Cleveland (Julian Garner), a scientist/entrepreneur with all the gifts of an 'Elmer Gantry' figure who arrives looking for investors to build his environmental dome in the desert for the survivors of the collapse of the planet (Mr Harari's rich and 'hi-tech Noah's Ark?)

We also meet via a video link a Masked Figure (iOTA) who spouts (shouts) threatening and dire diatribes. He is the spokesman of The Cultural Front of Environmental Action - and looks like a version of Krusty, the Clown from the Simpsons. He intrudes on the live action of the play to report the end of it all, matching natural meltdowns with terrorist acts against the 'system'.

Finally, we have the spectral image of an elephant - the elephant of Climate change - a turquoise elephant, that sheds a tear, that comes to haunt them, us, all.

THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT has a sextet of vivid satiric representatives of some of the current players in the present real world. People that we already know, that we can recognise beneath the Design and Directorial labourings of this production. The problem with the play is that that is, really, its entire content: 'Here they are. Let's lambast them with grotesquery. Now, hold on, laugh some more, because here they are again saying funnier things, and occasionally, even doing funny things.' They repeatedly spout grotesqueries of their lives that just re-enforcers their obvious identities. They do not spout, however, debate, discussion, or intellectual grappling with the economic, social or political dilemmas of the situation. The play just tells us in an exaggerated manner that there is a problem and here are some of the 'actors' in this problem, and whoops, there is that elephant again!

The content is for the most part pseudo-intellectual and is more pre-occupied in the laughs it can create around these people and their 'type' than with any insights/debate/or interrogation of how to solve the problems. They see the turquoise elephant in the room, over the 90 minutes or so, several times, but never ever engage with it.

Saying that it is there - "look"- is not enough for an audience in October, 2016. It is what most of us are doing desperately everyday ourselves, pointing to the elephant - "look" - when we confront/contemplate our governments. Mr Carleton is telling us something we already know, and I don't know if 90 minutes of repeated comedy tactics, no matter how diverting or inventive, is sufficient to sustain real interest, especially if you care about the issue and have seen the elephant yourself.

The writing is witty - dwelling mostly in the sphere of witty-camp: i.e a sort of outrageous one-up-manship comedy - mostly clever 'gags', of a juvenile sensibility, with few intelligent interactions aiming for serious contemplation/conversation (oh, for a Mr Stoppard). THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT became a tiresome and frustrating experience: 'No meat, all potatoes'

This play, on paper, ticks some boxes of interest that could justify, for some, its award and production:

  1. It deals with the greatest 'moral problem' of our time: Climate Change. How it deals with it is not significant - it mentions it often  enough - tick.
  2. It has a cast of 4 women, one man and a masked figure - tick
  3. The masked figure can be pre-recorded - saves on a weekly wage - tick.
  4. One of the women talks (briefly) of a middle-eastern heritage and has observed torture (not white), named wittily, Basra (get it) - tick.
  5. It is kind of funny and should entertain, distract, the 'bums-on-seats - tick.

And if one can get one of the genius of flagrant style to Direct and a team of like-minded artists, we can dazzle with avant-garde panache if not with stimulating, thoughtful content. A 'bread and circus' type entertainment: 'Let's do it.'

For, in Sydney, FORM or STYLE more often than not, trumps CONTENT. (Who said Trump, again?) Flash and dash will bewilder the audience into not too close a look at what it is they are watching. Climate Change is a hot issue, it can look trendy - it will be, must be, then, cutting edge! How in touch with the zeitgeist will I feel at the Griffin SBW Stables Theatre, afterwards, eh? As well, it is not at all confronting just mostly poking fun - a good night out.

So, what this play has been gifted with (thank god) is a spectacular theatrical sleight-of-hand by the Production creators led by Gale Edwards, as Director, giving a robust over-the-top theatrical cover (distraction) for the action/content of the play; Brian Thomson, as Set Designer, seducing us with an impeccably glamorous, gleaming look (sort of retro-80's); Emma Vine, as Costume Designer, dazzling us with a parade of wigs and dress of seemingly Eiko Ishioka inspiration (Bram Stoker's DRACULA); Verity Hampson, with wizardry, in control of the Lighting and Audiovisual Design; Jeremy Silver, in charge of the Sound Design; and, lastly, a Videographer named Xanon Murphy!(no program bio!)

It has, too, two actors, a remarkably adept and winning Ms Giblin and Mr Garner, who have the requisite consistency of skills and style to make this play work as comic. They have the capacity to create inklings of a reality to 'ground' their characters and are then able with impressive timing and imaginative joie de vivre bloat them into believable presences, for all of their stage time - both, seem to have the Ab-Fab (or, even Fawlty Towers) capacities to take us confidently into the stratospheres of Mr Carleton and Ms Edwards' Monty Python-like world. The other actors are less convincing or less consistent or both, unfortunately.

A major flaw is the videography of the Masked Figure. It is always difficult to have to pre-record and then slip it into the stream of the playing of a live performance. The captured material cannot be adjusted to the audience or the other players, in the actual performance, and so does not always have the feel that it is in the same play. The tone, the manic progression of the performance elicited from iOTA seems overblown and sits unconvincingly, and worse, often unintelligibly, within the frame work of the live action. One ponders, "What if it had been done live? What would its impact have been?" Reading the script revealed some of its relevance, missed in the viewing of it.

(For me, this Masked Figure represents a manifestation of an environmental activist that seems fairly misconceived as to the kind of temperament and serious consideration that the men and women that I have met as environmental activists have generally displayed - certainly, those with a 'terrorist' bent would have been detected and quickly weeded out. An 'activist' and a 'terrorist' are of very different sensibilities - and, probably, that contention, will hold even in a catastrophic 'sometime in the near future'. One could have taken real offence.)

When the moment comes for us to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, we have all mostly, so far, preferred growth. Consequently this is the world and crisis we live in and with now. Mr Carleton tells what we already know and I don't believe this play has shown us anything of much originality so as to spur us into considering what to do next and who should do it, as he had hoped. What he has done, for some, is create a set of distracting laughs from the issue.

Impressed by the politics of Eugene Ionesco's RHINOCEROS was what inspired Mr Carleton to write THE TURQUOISE ELEPHANT. Unfortunately, for Mr Carleton and us, this Turquoise Elephant is no Rhinoceros. Ms Edwards with her imagination for 'smoke and gloss-gleam' has camouflaged and deflected as best she can the paucity of the content of this play (It is essentially an extended revue sketch). What she has done is kind of miraculous. What could she do with a great play? For goodness sake, someone, give her one.

Oh, my.

Go if you want.


1. Yuval Noah Harari - HOMO DEUS  - A Brief History of Tomorrow - 2015 - Harvill Secker, London.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Photo by Clare Hawley

The Ensemble Theatre presents, e-baby, by Jane Cafarella, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, 13 October - 13 November.

e-baby is a new Australian play by Jane Cafarella, for two women, seen first in Melbourne, last year. The play charts a surrogacy pregnancy.

We first meet Catherine (Danielle Carter), a 46 year-old, ex-pat Australian, living the 'dream' as a high-flying lawyer based in London, with a practice in New York, who after trying with her architect husband for eleven years to have a child through IVF treatment and failing, decides that her need to have a child of her own, will be, now, perforce, through a surrogacy plan and action. Money is no obstacle for this privileged couple. Time and 'old eggs' are the issue.

In her lawyer mode Catherine seeks out a state where surrogacy is legal and settles on Massachusetts. Here she sifts through a collection of volunteers on-line, offered by an agency, and selects Nellie (Gabrielle Scawthorn), from Boston, a white 'working class' woman. Nellie is the healthy mother of two children who delights in the gift of motherhood but because of economics (education expense prospects), she and her husband have decided that they cannot afford more of their own. Catherine arrives at their first meeting armed with a formidable contract to fulfil and manage her desire. Nellie arrives at that same meeting with a formidable fecundity and sense of her God-given powers and responsibility to the creation of new life - the money might help as well!

The action of the play covers 16 months from 2015 to the present day. We meet the women in their almost daily contact through the wonders of the internet: iPhone, computer and the immediacy of Skype. We watch the blog that Nellie sets-up to record and share her experience: NELLIE'S BELLY. Too, we become privy to the ultrasound of regular check-ups as the fertilised egg(s) grow, and some quasi-scientific imagery that carries us through the many scene changes. The production Design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller is simply stark and open, featuring, principally, a spacious curved back wall onto which the electronic 'gimmickry' of the modern age can throw its images in magnified clarities for the audience to engage and learn from. The AV Design, by Christopher Page, is excellent. Sound Design is by Daniel Nixon.

This play gives a gentle education to those of us who may not know much of the process and intricacies of surrogacy: legal, medical and, in this instance, the personal inter-active emotional journeys of Catherine and Nellie as they experience the ups-and-downs of it all. There is a quiet tension in the developing of the situation between these two women of such contrasting backgrounds, which results in an empathetic endowing and audience identification with the complications of it all. One finds oneself wishing and hoping for the best for the women and the surrogate child.

The journey is not straightforward, at all. The writing is assured in its selection of its revealed focus of details and is expertly (breezily) Directed by Nadia Tass. The play is very audience friendly and, maybe, lacks real enquiring depths or confrontations surrounding the issues that arise - it has the lightness of a gentle Neil Simon approach (a comic tinge of THE ODD COUPLE), amongst all of the fraught possibilities of the law, medicine and personal dependencies on this delicate mine-field of modern science and child birth. The debates and confrontation, the ethics of this new-world field that one may want, are for a different, another, play.

It is the performances by Ms Carter and Ms Scawthorn that are so personably secure, so empathetically contrasted, drawn with humour as well as head-butting ideological battlements that, essentially, keeps at bay too much carping about the relative suspense-comedy that we are given. The actors are a disarming and charming coupling. They draw us irresistibly into the situation that the Playwright and Director offers and, cumulatively, one is well satisfied with an entertainment that is cathartic as well as, lightly, educational.

I guess we have known plays about the trauma of child birth in the past. Two years ago we saw EVERY SECOND, by Vanessa Bates, concerning the difficulties of IVF treatment. e-baby takes us into the next choice: surrogacy. I suppose, soon, we may also, look at the other option: adoption.

I had a very satisfying experience. I recommend the journey.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Photo by Clare Hawley

Mophead Productions in association with Red Line Productions present, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, translated by David Tushingham, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Wooloomooloo. 11 October - 12 November.

The writer of THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, made 40 feature length films, 2 Television film series, 3 short films, 4 video productions, 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays, and gave 36 acting roles in his own and others' films. He worked as well as author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor and theatre manager. Openly homosexual, he married twice. He was accused variously by detractors of being anti-communist, male chauvinist, anti-semitic and even anti-gay! His well documented violent, sado-maschistic life style contrasted with his films that as often as not, also, demonstrated a deep sensitivity to social misfits and a hatred of institutionalised violence. He died in 1982, at the age of only 37, from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. A prodigy? A profligate?

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, in this newish translation by David Tushingham (including some topical updates?), tells of the story of a successful fashion designer, Petra Von Kant (Sara Wiseman), who despite her professional achievements and standing, does not have an accompanying personal happiness (Fassbinder: writing from life for his art?!) Her professional success has routed her temperament to one that demonstrates itself as professionally manipulative, personally narcissistic and sadistic, where, it seems, the gaining of her 'power' has corrupted her absolutely. With her adoring secretary, Marlene (Matilda Ridgeway), who has become her enabler as a co-dependent 'gimp' (the willing acceptor of every verbal and physical humiliation as an act of devotion/love), Petra meets, through an old friend of the fashion industry, Sidonie (Eloise Snape), a young woman called Karin (Taylor Ferguson), who bedazzles her into a vulnerable self-indulgent pursuit of a same sex relationship - Petra has had two marriages. Besotted, shot through by Eros, Petra becomes the 'victim' of the whims of working class Katrin and is spectacularly distraught when she is, ultimately, deserted. Neither her daughter, Gabrielle (Mia Rorris), or her mother, Valerie (Judith Gibson), can completely calm her and so she turns to Marlene for succour, but it, too, is too little, too late.

This moral 'fable' of sexual hysteria - cautionary tale -  (of a Greek Mythological scale, it seems to me), is directed by Shane Bosser as a naturalistic melodrama, played at a sedate pace, in glamorous, gorgeous circumstances. Georgia Hopkins, the Set Designer, has made the small Old Fitz stage into a deceptively capacious 'Aladdin's' cavern: an all black surround with mirrored walls, on the sides, that reflect back to each other, widening the perceptual depth of the acting space, with chase-light fittings, scurrying around the edges of the floor and fixed furnishings to give a contemporary post-modern theatre vibe to the work, which with flash camera effects between scenes of posed models, facilitated by the lighting design of Alex Berlage, to have the artificiality of the tempestuous emotional indulgences of Petra's world established. Add the meticulous and beautiful Costuming, by Daniel Learmont, that visually reflects the glamour of a retro-feel for the 50's and 60's of Hollywood, and it, too, reverberates with artificiality. Against which, the acting style reached for by Mr Bosser, with his actors, stands in stark contrast: a naturalism of overplayed emotionalities. Fassbinder was enamoured, indeed, by the women's films of Douglas Sirk (e.g. ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS [1955], IMITATION OF LIFE [1959] , etc, etc) but, in all of that turbulent stylistic 'lushness' of all the elements of design, Sirk always counterbalanced with the skill and management of the acting style. Here, however, that balance between the contemporary 'cool lushness'/formality of the Design stylistics, seem to be at odds with the exaggerated (hollow) Acting stylistics, Directed by Mr Bosser.

The acting style led and demonstrated by Ms Wiseman seems stilted, histrionic, with pre-conceived 'heavyweight' decisions. Ms Wiseman in the central role of Petra - the character never leaves the stage - seems to be played completely externally and painfully naturalistically (the late soliloquy, in the writing, is very difficult to experience - it is so self-affecting, that the actor's indulgences are a very discomforting 'display' to witness). It is as if the actor believes she is, simply, the only 'tool' of the writer to tell this story - the performance seems to be, a conceptualised construct of every moment of the character's journey and it happens (will happen) no matter what influence the other actors, as characters, are meant to evince on the action of the scene with her. It is as if Ms Wiseman is acting in an enclosed bubble. Ms Wiseman is in control of what is happening no matter that there are other characters telling stories as part of the process and that there is an active listener, the audience, too, wanting to be regarded in the storytelling. It is as if we are not meant to be part of this imaginative journey with her or that we are meant to have catharsis with her, but that we are simply watchers/admirers of the 'agony' of Petra as created by Ms Wiseman.

Ms Ferguson, as Katrin, has the most difficult obstacle to create drama on the stage as the principal antagonist, in the writing, against the protagonist, Petra, for nothing that she offers to Ms Wiseman has any affect and nothing is directed towards her from Ms Wiseman to affect her development in the scene. Ms Ferguson is left isolated on stage with no communicative exchange going-on between the characters to assist her storytelling with clarity. Ms Ferguson has demonstrated to us in recent work here, in this theatre (BELLEVILLE) and elsewhere, recently, GOOD WORKS, at the Darlinghurst Theatre, and way back in her debut in Sydney, MISS JULIE, for Belvoir, that she is no slouch in the acting department - she is no slouch here either, its just that Petra does not ever really hear or see Katrin except as a cue that it is her turn to speak and move again according to a pre-supposed 'plan'.

This is true, unfortunately, for all the other actors as well (though the veteran, Ms Gibson, from NZ, seems to defy the lack of offers in her small stage time), they are treated by Ms Wiseman, as if they were mannequins in the fashionable environment of this fashion design studio. This version of Petra Von Kant has devolved into a one woman show, where neither physical action nor vocal inflection or truthful in-the-moment experiencing-ownership - occurs the whole of the 90 minutes, between the leading player and the other supports. There is no real life happening on the stage. It is (was) at my performance, a performance of the play that was dead on delivery.

Ms Ridgeway playing Marlene, the mute 'lackey' of Petra's - does not require any attention from Ms Wiseman, for her role is told through 're-action' rather than a give-and-take of 'action', and so is able to independently create an impression of some satiric storytelling arc and mark.

After the 'rough' contemporary politics of the recent LOOK BACK IN ANGER, here at the Old Fitz, I had looked, expectedly, with some interest, as to how this famous bit of writing would hold up on the stage, in 2016 (besides it having six roles for women, which is always good to see). For, at the time - 1972 - THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, was the subject of controversy from sections of the community: lesbians and feminists accused Fassbinder of misogny (in that the play was presenting women complicit in their oppression). He was accused of being homophobic and  sexist. Since, we had seen recently another successful female character, Gloria in GLORIA, burn out into an hysterical set of behaviours, up at the Griffin, what I saw here was another example, written by a man, of another woman crashing hysterically in the firmament of life in an epic centre stage self-made cataclysm. Is there more to Fassbinder's play (film) than that? This production at the Old Fitz does not say so.

More importantly, I ask for information, are there no plays telling of successful women who do not crash and burn?

ACO: Vivaldi and Bach

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) present Richard Tognetti ACO Soloists: Vivaldi & Bach, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House, Sunday, 16 October.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) under the title of Baroque on this Sunday concert gave performance of works by Vivaldi and Bach, featuring soloists from the orchestra cohort: Richard Tognetti (Violin), Satu Vanska (Violin), Ilya Isakovich (Violin), Maja Savnik (Violin), Nicole Divall (Violin)and Timo-Viekkko Valve (Cello), and a guest, Genevieve Lacey on Recorder.

The orchestral Suite No.1 in C major, BWV1066 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was the opening piece of this concert featuring Ms Lacey on her recorder. Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) work, Concerto for Two Violins and Violoncello in D Minor, RV565 followed. Two other works by Vivaldi: Cello Concerto in E Minor, RV409 and Concerto for Four Violins in D Major, RV549 were given after the interval with the concert concluding with the Bach Orchestral Suite No.2 in B Minor, BWV1067. The final work featured the virtuosic performance of Ms Lacey that was mesmeric in its skill and concentration.

So much Baroque sound.!

It is always a pleasant experience highlighted by my sense of the 'mathematics' of the compositions and the 'games' of the composers in the tasks that they pose for the musicians. The ensemble must needs be alert and empathetic to each other and it is the thrill of the seemingly flawless interaction between the artists that releases a sense of excitement and gratification on hearing it and seeing it played live. The 'daring' of it, the 'cheek' of it is always a bonus. Such detail at speed!

In the program notes we were told that 'the orchestra will play on gut strings'. We were also introduced to a new cello, a 1729 Giuseppe Guarneri fillies Andreae a gift to the orchestra from Peter Weiss.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Journey's End

Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates, present, JOURNEY'S END, by R.C. Sheriff, at the ATYP Studio, Wharf 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, 15 - 22 October.

Last year the Sydney Theatre and Music companies gave respect to the Centenary of the tragic events of Gallipoli Cove, during World War I, that has become the ANZAC tradition, with Commemorative performances. That terrible war began in August, 1914 and continued through to November, 1918. So, it is more than fitting that in 2016, we should be reminded that those commemorations of last year are just as urgently relevant today. That war of a century ago, has still many terrible events to be remembered and commemorated. And, for another two years - how long it was! The Western Front in France, concentrated for the British around Ypres and the Somme, became the stalemate zone of the war. The Battle of the Somme still ranks as the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. In 142 days between July and November 1916, 1.2 million men were killed or wounded.

JOURNEY'S END, written in 1928, by a war veteran of the Western front, R.C. Sheriff, is set in a support or 'cover' trench, in a Dugout, on the front line, for British officers - 'a stinking world of sticky, trickling earth'. It concerns the lives and deaths of a Division of soldiers, over several days, in the heated action of the war. I have seen this play several times before and although it concerns itself, principally, with the officer class of the British Army, and so has sometimes been criticised at its appearance as a class-ridden drama and thought to be somewhat dated - the compassionate and knowing observations of the pure humanity of the men of the story, coping with the stress and deprivation in a war zone, seems to supersede any skepticism one might have about the relevance or effectiveness of the thematics and story of JOURNEY'S END. Rather, it seems to me that the play has grown in stature as the years and many, many wars have passed and enveloped us. The contemporary images created by the Sport For Jove production of the two and a half thousand year old play, ANTIGONE, concerning a war between brothers in defence of ancient Thebes, sat uncomfortably familiar to me in the theatre setting in the ATYP Studio, for this other more 'modern' war.

Samantha Young, the Director of this production, has sensibly created as naturalistic a vision of the world of the play with her Designers: Production (Set and Costume), Isabel Hudson; Lighting, Christopher Page; Sound Design, Alistair Wallace; as feasible within, likely, a small budget and the necessities of a war uniform and different era reality. Ms Hudson has created a world to support the action of the play, very successfully - no mean feat (although, I thought mud and dust was 'undervalued' and the war sounds of battle - particularly in the first half, seemed to be on a 'loop' regularity that undermined my belief of it's reality).

Too, Ms Young has drawn some detailed and disciplined performances from all of her actors - the ensemble scenes having a veracity about them that never flagged. Of the principal characters, Jack Crumlin, as Stanhope, gives a mighty shape and truth to the collapsing officer-in-charge, with no indulgences and enormous empathetic compassion; with Sam O'Sullivan creating a reality of characteristics for Osborne that gives a perspective of 'depth' to the world of the play - dialect and all; while Alex Chalwell is convincingly naive as the young 'romantic' officer, Raleigh, just come to participate with his 'school-boy' patriotic duty. However, all the company give committed and convincing work to the play and its terrible sentiments: Aaron Tsindos (Trotter), Michael Wood (Hibbert), David Mason (Mason), Govinda Roser (McArthur), Patrick Cullen (Broughton), George Kemp (the Colonel) Luke Carson (Hardy/Crooks), Alex Beauman (German Soldier/Smith) and Oliver Crump (Rose).

This is a very good production of a devastatingly human play. Its relevance is as powerful in 2016, as it was, undoubtedly, in 1928, where it played for almost two years in the London West End.

By the end of that war 64,238,000 men had been mobilised. 8,501,000 had been killed. 21,189,000 had been wounded.

As the Centenary of that war continues may commemoration of the experiences and legacies of that war be visited -Lest We Forget. Joan Littlewood's legendary OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR; FOR SERVICES RENDERED, by Somerset Maugham, soon?


Who Speaks for Me?

National Theatre of Parramatta and Performance 4a present, WHO SPEAKS FOR ME? devised from community memories by Annette Shun Wah and William Yang. 12 Oct - 15 Oct.

WHO SPEAKS FOR ME? is a theatre production that has been Devised and Directed by Annette Shun Wah and William Yang.

Three families now living in Australia having come relatively, recently from three different countries and cultures, tell multi-generational experiences of their origin and of the families' assimilation into this new country which has now become their home.

Simply standing in the spotlight, in front of standing microphones, at the side of a large screen where photographs recollecting their life journey  are projected, these three families: one from Bhutan - Ly Heang Seang, Vanna Seang; one from Vietnam - Ba Quoc Viet, Sophie To, William Uy Vule; and the last from Cambodia - Puspa Lal Acharya, Chandra Acharya, tell us, from a prepared (and edited) script with a straight forward simplicity and extraordinary vulnerability, which is often very moving, sometimes comic, too, of their histories. There is no manipulation of emotions going on in this performance, just the exposure of naked truths.

This is verbatim theatre delivered by the actual people, not actors, and like the recent Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) productions: JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER and, particularly, TRIBUNAL, it creates a piercingly revelatory affect to hear such remarkable stories of survival, in both their original country, and then in Australia - their refuge. By being able to put an individual human body and face, just like one's own, to the often 'horrendous' circumstances of these people's lives, an overwhelming sense of wonder suffuses one, and self-reflection arises: 'Could I have maintained my faith, hope and dignity to achieve, against great odds, what these people have achieved?'  For them it seems to be just something that they have done. For the audience, for me, it is realising that what could be 'read' as an impossible and exaggerated fiction, especially, if it were told as a play, or as a film, - my cynicism, ever-present! - is neither impossible nor an exaggeration, for truth is stranger than fiction. WHO SPEAKS FOR ME? is evidence of that 'wonder'.

Congratulations to these performers: grandparents, parents and their grown-up children - their courage, not only because of their story, but by being willing to present this story to us, live, is an inspiration. Thanks to Annette Shun Wah and William Yang and Performance 4a, and, at last from the National Theatre of Parramatta, for a production that in its content and level of professional presentation creates an almost 90 minute experience in the theatre that seemed to be of no temporal length at all - it was delicately spellbinding, absorbing, illuminating.

One hopes this production has the opportunity to be seen elsewhere.


Photo by Marnya Rothe
Sport For Jove (SFJ) and The Seymour Centre present, Sophocles' ANTIGONE, in a new adaptation by Damien Ryan, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Oct. 6 - 22. In the Canberra Theatre Centre 27 - 29 October. Riverside Theatres Parramatta 9 -12 November.

In the foyer one is posed a question to consider before entering the ANTIGONE theatre: "HOW DO THE UNWRITTEN LAWS OF PERSONAL CONSCIENCE SURVIVE WHEN SET AGAINST THE LAWS OF A SOCIETY AND A NATION?"  Something to ponder in 2016.

Sophocles' play ANTIGONE, was written c. 441 BC in Athens. In it the sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other in a battle over their inheritance. Eteocles died defending the city of Thebes, and so is granted an honourable burial while Polynieces is forbidden such a gesture by the order of the new ruler, Creon. Antigone, a sister to both dead soldiers, defies the decree of law to honour religious tradition, and elects to bury the rotting corpse of her brother. She is punished with live entombment for her act. Haemon, the son of Creon, who was to marry Antigone, pleads for her life, and on hearing of her suicide, too, kills himself. Eurydice, Haemon's mother and wife of Creon, on hearing of the double tragedy elects to suicide as well. Creon is left to grieve his personal loss, continuing the curse of the House of Laius, begun with the Oedipus tragedy.

The evolving tradition of the Greek theatre saw the 5th Century BC, flower into what some regard as a 'Golden Age' socially, culturally and politically, with the art and theatre linked to the action of the newly embraced practice of democracy. Democracy was a recent development of the Athenian city-state where the tyranny of an individual had before dominated. The 'theatre' was a public space where moral principles were able to be presented and debated to become an essential tool of that democracy. It was regarded as civic duty for the audience to attend the theatre, it underlining the active role that the citizens of the state were to engage in to create a civilisation expressing, possibly, its mutual humanity.

Damien Ryan has adapted the play of ANTIGONE, for Sport For Jove (SFJ), to present a contemporary view of the details of the original play, and with ease has found a way for today's audience to recognise and identify the parallels to their own world, even though some thousands of years apart - highlighting the tragedy of our species, the Sapien, who has long had the knowledge on the 'right' way to live but, apparently, not the will of enlightened action to do so. Sophocles and ANTIGONE offered a way to live in 441 BC, in the new democracy of Athens. Mr Ryan and his ANTIGONE offers a contemporary exposition for us to regard on how we still elect to live in 2016 AD, in the contemporary democracy of Australia.

The Costuming of the production is of today and the Setting (both, by, Melanie Liertz) with a Lighting Design by Matt Cox, conjures, disturbingly, images of the war in today's Middle East - it, looking like destroyed buildings translated from images seen on our television, tonight, of the Middle East conflict - of Aleppo, for instance. It is Directed with assured deliberation by Damian Ryan and Terry Karebelas.

In this adaptation of ANTIGONE, the predicament of a sister been forbidden to bury a brother, and her decision in defiance of a law, that represents the state's power, is vividly presented as an everyday human conflict and empathy, and is a vital live and sensitive issue of conscience - particularly when Mr Ryan introduces the title of 'terrorist' for Polyneices, and talks of democracy that may be coming 'tomorrow' - are we still ruled by tyranny? - the clash between the two viewpoints of political expediency versus humanity is at the clear centre of this experience.

The adaptation remains faithful to the original play we know, although, there is an extension of emphasis in the shorter second act where Mr Ryan and Karebelas highlight the grief of a father, Creon, for his son, Haemon, with a physical set of images recalling a kind of pieta (with instead of the mother and son, rather, featuring a father and son), that seemed, to me, to shift the emphasis from the tragedy of Antigone and her defiance. The second act did not seem to have the same steady clarity of message that the first act had.

The ensemble of actors gathered by Sport For Jove for ANTIGONE is strong throughout, all of them harnessed with the keen sense of the ambition of the production and has the focused commitment to deliver the intentions with passionate energy. The clash between Antigone and Creon is vigorously created by William Zappa and Andrea Demetriades, the argument of their differing points-of-view having a clarity and manipulative intellectual and emotional power enough, to provoke one to see the logics of either argument - we moved from one side of the argument to the other. Joseph Del Re, as Haemon, has a particularly thrilling debate with Mr Zappa, and Deborah Galanos, as Eurydice, has a marvellously powerful scene of despair (and courage) in the late part of the play. Whilst Anna Volksa, as the blind Tiresias, gives a finely judged performance of wit and cynical insight, tantalising the audience to pay strict attention to all her utterances. Janine Watson, as the soldier/Sentry provides, further, in Mr Ryan's adaptation of the play, some comic relief with an expert energy and sharpness of
intelligence. Louisa Mignone (Ismene), Fiona Press (Chorus Leader), Thomas Royce-Hampton (who also provides tympani accompaniment), Marie Kamara and Elijah Williams make contributions of detail and impact.

ANTIGONE reflects and confirms the muscular and intelligent consistency of Sport For Jove, who, whether it is the adaptation of the older Classics: ANTIGONE and THE TAMING OF THE THE SHREW, for instance; or straight forward revival of contemporary classics: OF MICE AND MEN, or AWAY; or contemporary translation: THREE SISTERS; they create relevant, contemporary new Australian plays/productions for their audiences without gimmick and with respectful integrity for the original and its writer's intent.

It has been a long time since I have seen an attempt to stage a Greek play on one of our main stages. The last, in Sydney, I can recall is that of the Old Tote, in 1970, when it presented Tyronne Guthrie's production of OEDIPUS, with Costume and Mask by Yoshi Tosa - it, an indelible memory of the primal power of that theatre form.

Make sure you catch this work. Who knows when we may see another 'Greek'? Then, again, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has had a habit of taking its lead from Sport For Jove in its choice of programming : last year, it took a lead from the prize winning curation from SFJ with CYRANO DE BERGERAC; and their new season has taken the cue from two of this year's works from SFJ: AWAY and THREE SISTERS. There are leaders and there are followers.

It is great to see that this production is touring, try to catch it. It may be a 'civic duty' particularly relevant in Canberra!?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

IL Tabarro

ProdSoc (The Production Society) and Beaches Productions presents, IL TABARRO, by Giacomo Puccini, at Alfie's Kitchen, Newtown, 6-9 October.

On a recent Saturday afternoon , after browsing for an hour or two in a bookshop, we were trudging through the wilds (wiles) of Newtown and then along Enmore Rd, deciding to have an ice cream and tea at the Turkish Hakiki Ice Cream Parlour, to then turn right into Wilford Street, past some groovy and hidden bars and graffiti walls and small cottages and then around another corner to Gladstone St, where one found a series of newish apartments facing the Old Flour Mill development, to finally come across a collection of old, smallish warehouse buildings, opposite the principal Sydney railway track, to find Alfie's Kitchen - only, usually, an eight minute or so  walk from Newtown Station. Out the front of Alfie's a canvas framed shelter housed a trestle table behind which sat three youths (in their twenties I estimate) - a gal and two guys - who cheerfully welcomed us, checked off our booking and then point us to some scattered chairs in the concrete driveway, where we met a young man called Constantine Costi (Con, to his friends), who cheerfully chats to us whilst we wait for some 17 orchestral musicians, a conductor, and six singers to get ready for a performance of Giacomo Puccini's one act opera IL TABARRO, inside the warehouse. One of my fellow audience, tells of his pre-performance journey into the space to find the bathroom, and of how friendly everyone was as they prepared and pointed him to his destination after a little chat - the hubbub of adrenalin charged energy and bonhomie and instrument tuning and dressing up. All of this in the back streets of Enmore at ten minutes to four on a Saturday afternoon! How amazing! How egalitarian are the arts. But then this is the bustling bohemian inner west at its best, perhaps!

IL TABARRO (the Cloak) is the first part of IL TRITTICO - three one act operas first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, in 1918. J. Walker McSpadden, in his1926 edition of Opera Synopses provides the following summary of the work:
This grim little opera has a Parisian setting, but the story of two men and one woman, ending with the murder of the lover by the husband, is entirely independent of background. The music is grimly passionate and remarkable for dramatic strength.
Noting Mr McSpadden's suggestion that the story is entirely independent of background, I supposed all these tragic events could happen, this very afternoon in one of the backyards, in the backstreets of Enmore, that I had just promenaded through, for real. The Director, Constantine Costi, has thought so, and adjusted the setting, costume and action of Puccini's opera to contemporary times.

Inside a warehouse space, with a gloss reddish/brown concrete floor, some raked seating of rudimentary chairs has been set out (maybe 40-50 seats). We take our seats and to our right is an enclosed one story office suite, that has the capacity to seat the orchestra above us on its roof (just how did they get that harp up there?, I wondered). The main 'stage' floor before us has a white delivery van, to which some of the characters load some meat during the action of our story.  Costume and Set Design by Isabella Andronos. Lighting Design by Nicholas Fry. What is remarkable about this production is that Mr Costi has found not only singers that can do 'justice' to this musical material but are physically, aesthetically realistically right-looking for the characters (although their ages have been lowered - instead of fifty-odd they appear to be in their thirties). Daniel Macey sang Michele, the husband; Geoffrey Knight, the lover, Luigi; Alex Sefton, the work mate and happily married, Talpa. His wife, Frugola, was sung by Jermaine Chou, whilst Blake Parham sang factory worker, Tinca. The tumultous wife/lover, heroine, of the piece was sung by Rebecca Claire Moret.

The acting performances Directed by Mr Costi were ultra-naturalistic and all the dramatic adjustments to this new period and location were entirely believable and seamlessly engaged. The singing was extremely impressive from all, with Mr Macey in the final part of the impassioned opera extremely moving. Ms Moret was extremely truthful in creating the 'melodramatic's' of the scenario -the 'internal' conflicts richly, subtly, explored. The sound balance in this intimate and pragmatically real space was remarkably achieved by the Conductor, Luke Spicer, guiding his orchestra with clean control. All elements were musically confidently prepared. The necessary musical sympathies were married to the dramatic necessities wonderfully. What is normally, on the operatic stage, sometimes described as Grand Guignol, in this carefully conceived production is a capture of the famed verismo style that Puccini is famed for.

Applause, congratulations, out into the afternoon daylight - it was only now a daylight saving 5pm - the crashing of the passing train, the sight and sound of an incoming plane for landing at Kingsford Smith, the jostling and early afternoon carousel of some customers - both men and women - coming from a 'hidden' bar in the graffiti covered wall spaces of the lane way, with the cooling spring wind of October, and, ultimately, the traffic rush of Enmore Road brought us back to the reality of our Saturday in 2016, slowly. The experience of an opera so lovingly prepared and performed, dealing with such passionate extremities of human behaviour, -the human/animal/bio-logical confusion between love and lust - had enveloped our imagination and feelings so fully that the adrenalin pleasure of the experience only gradually disappeared. We ate mussels and a cheese desert at a nearby Turkish restaurant before heading off to a performance of ANTIGONE - a "high-art" day out!

Mr Costi last year presented an eccentric, but also, wonderfully conceived, experiment in theatre last year called CANTERBURY TALES. Since, he has had an interlude of secondment with Barrie Kosky at his Berlin opera house and has worked with Opera Australia as a 'support' artist. I reckon he is someone to nurture and keep an eye on. This enterprising and successful production of IL TABARRO is a sign of an artist who has 'dreams' of ambition and the will to find the way to practise them. How else do you mount a production of a Puccini opera with a cast of six and an orchestra, counting the conductor of 18? Then again, as I mentioned his friends call Constantine: Con. He has the ability to beg, borrow and 'steal' - to con (perhaps) others to help create his dreams. It is exciting to declare that the result of all that, necessary 'conning', is definitively no con, for the experience of the production was more than highly pleasing - it was kind of suburban miracle. Opera in the backstreets of Enmore at 4 pm on a Saturday afternoon - who would have thunk?

Do Something Else

Photo by Michael Pigott

Laura Turner and Old 505 Theatre, present DO SOMETHING ELSE, Devised by Cloe Fournier, Ryuichi Fujimura, Brigid Vidler and Michael Pigott, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St. Newtown, 4 October - 22 October.

DO SOMETHING ELSE is a new work Devised by two dancers Cloe Fournier and Ryuichi Fujimura and sculptor/theatre maker Bridget Vidler with Director Michael Pigott. Says Mr Pigott:
I was interested in seeing if you could make theatre that emulates thought processes, the different ways that we deal with material within our own minds; dreams, memory, the voices of doubt or excitement - the clarity of an image that emerges from all the white noise ...
After watching the performance, I ask, is this the substance of this experience: While we are dong what we are doing, just what ARE we also thinking in a stream of unconsciousness? What lodges in our consciousness, and what does not? That the actual, perceptible narrative of our lives is that that the world sees but there is so much more to our inner narrative which only I know, and then know it, perhaps, only vaguely (unless I discipline my consciousness)?


These four artists come from four different art disciplines and putting them together and wrestling with what turns up produces
a fractured dreamscape of overlapping forms. Where meaning and narrative emerge from the collision between imagery, movement, text and the manipulation of the space of the performers. 
It is a fascinating premise and, certainly, the text and its structure has a provocation. It is, in my experience of it, however, a fairly dry and academic 75 minutes in the theatre. It cumulatively feels like a 'performance art' thesis paper put on the stage. Whilst the intellectual concept and distillation of the 'workshopped' investigation has some overall conviction it is the expression of it -  finding the form to show us their content reckonings - from the artists themselves, that prevents the work from taking hold to support a visceral engagement in any way, other than as an intellectual vagary - ('mind-fuck').

Mr Pigott in his brief notes in the program hand-out tells us:
This is a devised piece of work that has been shaped by the performers and I over a series of workshops during the past year. The most interesting thing about working in this way is that it allows you to explore the connection between form and content and to experiment with ideas around the connection between form and content - about trying to articulate an idea through the way in which it is presented.
So, it was, for me, essentially, the failure of these artists to 'articulate' the idea through finding a consistently 'theatrical' way/form, using their combined skills to express the content, that prevented the work from possibly taking imaginative flight and into the realm of cogency or excitement to be a witness of.

When Ms Fournier and Mr Fujimura engage, in what I imagine are the strengths of their dance/movement trainings and practise, they become articulate artists - one is compelled and one is delighted, awed, to pay attention. That those occasions were, relatively, scattered, and only a small part of the performance expression by them, highlighted, for me, a technical skill weakness to the ambitions of the production. That the physical life was not always examined or presented in all the opportunities of the stage time was a disappointment - there was a tendency for ordinary naturalistic gesture both physically and vocally that did not assist, support our necessary attention to the heightened intellectualisations of the text offers. There did not seem to be a 'discipline' of physical expression for all the work. Certainly, there was little vocal 'discipline' going on , from any of the performers, other than their natural, ordinary selves. The actions, body or voice did not suit, support or compel our focus to the textual investigation.

The subject matter of DO SOMETHING ELSE is a very challenging task to attempt to communicate and I sense that there has been some collaborative and intellectually dense preparation - hours and hours in the conversations to the conceptualisation, distillation and exploration of what ideas to explicate, and how to communicate these ideas. What I do not see is a similar preparation to consequently hone the physical skills and, from all, vocal skills, to deliver the material. The text is a 'particular' language expression. The 'animal' skills of the actors do not, generally, prepare us for this or assist us to engage consistently with that 'particularity' - which is quite demanding.

To be vulgar, artistically, the conversation I have had in discussing this work (and this ambitious performance merely brought it to a focus point - a 'boiling point') is to wonder how many hours, alongside the intellectual shaping of the work, were spent in finding the total physical language/form of expression for this task? How many hours were spent in preparing the vocal flexibilities and needs for the language/form communication necessary for this 'heightened' text stylisation? I argued with my companion, the ideal work schedule would be, at least, 4 hours of text prep, and at least 4 hours of body/physical prep, and 4 hours at least of vocal skill alerting. How near am I in hoping the DO SOMETHING ELSE workshops over the past year was spent in that kind of time allotted scheduling? Probably, way off - and sadly, it is, in my observation, the basic 'animal' and stylistic skills that are more often than not not practised in the preparation for performance of this kind of work (I believe , unfortunately, from most of my fellow performing artists, no matter what genre that are working in!)

The inter-disciplinary requirements and respect and preparation of those skills to accurately elucidate the content of the performance is what has distinguished the work of Victoria Hunt - COPPER PROMISES, TANGI WAI; My Darling Patricia - AFRICA, NIGHT GARDEN; the New Zealand Company, Mau - BIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS. The skills were rigorously attended too. I remember with vividness the performance of Tadeus Kantor's THE DEAD CLASS, many years ago - a performance art piece of intricate intellectual propositions - where the physical expression of each of the artists involved was always being generated from an organic and common 'life force ' of disciplined and decided technique from the word go. Each gesture, each sound, word sentence, had been honed to an exactitude of expression of meaning and intent. One was not able to look away as everything offered on stage was deliberate and informative. Active choices devised. Robert Wilson, Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Le Page are other pursuers of this kind of form - it is, alarmingly, a time consuming process. But necessary to achieve clarity of objective.

DO SOMETHING ELSE, while admittedly, far more developed dramaturgically, than The National Theatre of Parramatta's production of THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE gave me a similar experience. It is in workshop mode. One wonders if this work needs nearly three weeks of exposure? It needs much more preparation in the way to express the highly investigated textual result for the general audience to grasp what you they are saying. The experiment for the form that Mr Pigott is searching for with his collaborators has not yet been found to clarify the content of their intellectual preoccupation.

DO SOMETHING ELSE at present at Old 505 is a workshop iteration of their ambition. One presumes that this is not the end point of all the work so far investigated and unless you are particularly curious, you have to decide whether you choose to do something else, than go. Mind you, some in my audience, seemed to get it.


Friday, October 7, 2016

The Cartographer's Curse

Photo by Eric Berry

National Theatre of Parramatta and Third Space Productions present THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE, in the Lennox Theatre at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, 5 - 8 October.

Paula Abood the Director of this project says in her note in the program:
THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE clears a space for Arab Australians artists, thinkers and performers to create a show that means to decolonise time through a dynamic re-imagining of a subjugated past that has powerfully shaped our shackled presence. As Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi affirms, 'History is not merely a search for knowledge. It is also a search for understanding;and the house of understanding has many mansions' (1989).
Unfortunately, this work as revealed to the audience last evening, whilst sounding academically interesting (with elegant design of program cover image) – did not succeed in the struggle from the page to the stage in the theatre, to give the audience much, or any, 'understanding'. The writing attempts poetry and history, and seems to be trying to reveal the poetics of a culture alongside a history lesson with some sardonic post-modernist asides. The result is a confusion of communication, with the inexpert performances of the actors, a further (enormous) obstacle to clarity.

This script frames a familiar Spielberg/Disney-like soap opera story of a family  - father, daughter, son - that becomes divided by politics and war, within the big-picture of the infamous secret Great Game of the Cartographical division of the Middle East during World War I between Britain and France, that became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That is, I am supposing, the substance of THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE. That that is not evidently clear in this performance has defeated the whole purpose of this opportunity of showing us 'the subjugated past' that has led to the 'shackled presence' of Arab history, that is carried as part of the heritage of some of the immigrant families that have come to Australia. Fellow Australians of today.

It is interesting to note that there is no Writer named for this project - a Director, a Dramaturg (Barry Gamba), but no Writer!

Peter Frankcopan, a British historian in his recent book THE SILK ROADS (2015) writes:
In a series of meetings in the second half of 1915 and at the start of 1916, Sir Mark Sykes, an over-confident (British) MP who had the ear of Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, and Francois Georges-Picot, an uppity French diplomat, divvied up the region. A line was agreed by the two men, which stretched from Acre (in the far north that is now Israel) north-eastwards as far as the frontier with Persia. The French would be left to their own devices in Syria and Lebanon, the British to theirs - in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Suez.
Dividing up the spoils in this way was dangerous, especially as the public assurances to the leaders and people of Arabia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, from these European powers, had promised sovereignty and independence - a recognition of their separate national conditions. "It was all bad", wrote Edward House, President Wilson's foreign policy adviser, the French and the British are making the Middle East "a breeding place for future war." The natural assets of these countries were too necessary for the continuation of the European nations ambitions/power, not to want. In 2016, a century later, we are all still enduring the catastrophes set in motion by those politicians/buisness men in the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement was where the "Curse" becomes, in hindsight, indelibly vivid.

Historian, John Man, writes in his book, SALADIN:
During the First World War European powers fought across Muslim lands, and then imposed themselves in a final burst of imperialism - no crusade, but comparable in the exercise of power and influence. From Lawrence of Arabia's dream of Arab independence sprang kingdoms that were new colonies, under the thumbs of Britain and France and Britain's protege, Palestine. Islam remained divided, theologically by its sects, strategically by its new borders. No wonder that Arabs hoped for a new resurrection, a new Saladin who would unite all Arabs, perhaps even all Muslims.
All of this is a great and inspiring resource for theatrical resolution. Unfortunately, none of the intelligence or passion of the concept is imparted in this production. The best part of it is the live music played by Mohammd Lelo, on his Qanan, and the supporting historical news film clips that are projected onto the back walls. The performances are all inadequate in terms of the vocal storytelling skills required here - although the Parkour skills of Ali Kadhim are relievedly distracting, if not entirely integrated to the storytelling. The Director, Ms Abood, whilst appearing to be a skilled academic in her Directorial ambitions (quoting Kafka in the program!)  does not appear to have mastered the pragmatically basic staging skills required for the task - beyond that of a novice.

The Directorial choices of the Directorate of the National Theatre of Parramatta, (Paula Abood, Wayne Harrison AM, S. Shakthidharan, Annettte Shun Wah) have been the weak link in all their projects in this inaugural year of the company - SWALLOW, STOLEN. This work, for instance, has been hardly developed beyond that of a first draft workshop state - certainly, it is not ready for an audience, and beyond the natural respect for the concept, effort and courage of this company - the seeds of their ambition - can one give much else to the performers and the performance. One did not leave the theatre enlightened, enhanced, or even entertained. (Has there been a professional mentor, overseeing this project?) There is a germ of an idea here and one that I was excited to see examined by artists from the Arabic-Australian community. It was all, sadly, a tremendous disappointment.


Coincidently, I have had a recent engagement with the circumstances of this history, hence my excitement and my disappointment with THE CARTOGRAPHER'S CURSE.

Might I recommend a good read:

1. Scott Anderson. LAWRENCE IN ARABIA - 2013. Doubleday.

2. Peter Frankopan. THE SILK ROADS - 2015. Bloomsbury.

3. John Man. SALADIN. The Life,The Legend and The Islamic Empire - 2015. Corgi Books.

Of Magic and Madness

Sydney Conservatorium of Music presents the Verbrugghen Ensemble, in Verrbrugghen Hall, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Tuesday 4th October.

OF MAGIC AND MADNESS is the final concert of the inaugural season of the Verbrugghen Ensemble. The Ensemble is in residence at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is made up of internationally acclaimed soloists and orchestral musicians, most of whom are faculty members of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is Directed by Conductor, John Lynch.

This concert consisted of the presentation of work from the last half of the last century and a World Premiere by Australian composer, Matthew Hindson.

Firstly, the World Premiere of Australian composer, Matthew Hindson's, THIS YEAR'S APOCALYPSE (2016). Mr Hindson has taken ideas of the ever present sense of contemporary world apocalypse and large scale disaster and shaped them musically. Intriguingly he says:
I have graphed the numbers of nuclear weapons on the planet combined with the number of HIV infections across the planet and converted the shape into a series of notes. This forms the basis of much of the harmony in the piece, the intention being that it may be suitably terrifying.
The work breaks straight into a bracing crash of urgent contemporary 'noises' and pursues that passion with a pattern using groups of instruments, beside the employment of the entire unit to transport us to an unsettling place of 'jangle' and to an uncomfortable meditation. There is an extraordinary virtuosic solo for the Horn, played by David Thompson, as well as a percussion interlude from Daryl Pratt, that drew attention to the thematics of Mr Hindson's composition as well as to the gifts of those two performers. Says Mr Hindson: "The human race is still with us. And hopefully despite humanity's compulsion with the possibility of ceasing to exist, we will continue." Some of the madness of the concert's title.

What followed was SEXTETO MISTICO, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a Brazilian composer. John Lynch, the Artistic Director of the Verbrugghen Ensemble tells us that Villa-Lobos' "music is a rich tapestry drawing on influences from the traditional Western art music, popular and jazz styles (and) the native music of Brazil." This work was first made in 1917, but became lost and was recreated from memory in 1955, by the composer, late in his career. It is we are told, "Unique within his output, the lovely combination of woodwind, string and percussion timbres creates an otherworldly soundscape." This represents the 'magic' of the title of the concert - the qualities of the Brazilian jungle. The sextet included guest artist, Vladimir Gorbach, on guitar, along with Louise Johnson and her harp.

This year, British composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, died at the age of 81 after a remarkable and prolific contribution to the contemporary music world. I first came to notice his work on the soundtrack of Ken Russell's 1971 film THE DEVILS, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's THE DEVILS OF LOUDON. His score was performed by his regular collaborators:The Fires of London (previously known as the Pierrot Players). I know of other works of the composer but not heard enough of them live, I think. So, I was enticed and excited to attend this performance of EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING. It is a sung monodrama on text by Australian poet Randolph Snow, based on the words of King George III. It premiered on 22 April, 1969.

At this concert, six instrumentalists and baritone, Simon Lobelson, created an unforgettable performance, staged and Directed by Kate Gaul. The vocal demands - range - made on the singer are huge and one was constantly astonished by the concentration and passionate vocal control that Mr Lobelson demonstrated whilst 'throwing' himself into a sustained and truthfully dramatic physical performance of this work of some 30 odd minutes of a man, a king, gone mad.

Making a dramatic appearance on the balconies around the Verbrugghen Hall and trailing down in a hospital period dressing gown with a late eighteenth century wig, the impact of the seven soliloquy-poems, sometimes transposed in sound into an hysterical 'gibberish' of madness, and at othertimes recited with empathetic clarity, one was gripped by a growing sympathy of sheer terror and compassion. The acting performance by Mr Lobelson was tremendous. I was amazed with the duet dance between the king and the flautist while she played (Emma Sholl), shocked when the 'King' snatched the violin from the player and brought to tears of a transcendent dramatic awe in the smashing of that instrument on the stage. (Music and man 'smashed'.) The madness of King George III was delivered as grand tragedy with an intense human sadness, for the recognised frailties of being a human. The ensemble were brilliant in the virtuosity required to support the singer and one must compliment the violinist, Andrew Haverton, who looked on aghast as the 'King' smashed his instrument - extraordinarily convincing and, too, sustained.

Last year Ms Gaul Directed a performance of Australian Malcolm Williamsons' ENGLISH ECCENTRICS (1964), for the Conservatorium, and, too, made a work of impact. A musical and dramatic impact, and as well, as with the presentation of EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING, a valuable historical impact. The Conservatorium of Music, bringing to our attention works of such rewarding experiencing.

The music selection by Verbrugghen Ensemble leader, John Lynch, was exemplary in its demands. There was only one performance - how lucky was I, were we, who saw and heard it on Tuesday evening.

With thanks.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Drover's Wife

Belvoir in association with Oombarra productions present THE DROVER'S WIFE, by Leah Purcell, in the Upstairs Theatre, in the Belvoir St Theatre. 21 September - 16 October.

THE DROVER'S WIFE by Leah Purcell, is a new Australian play.

Henry Lawson's short story, THE DROVER'S WIFE, was a reading that most of us of a certain generation had at school. Ms Purcell in her program notes tells us that it was a part of her growing up, a personal and familiar story shared with her by her mother, regularly, such that at the last line: I would stop her and say. "Mother, I won't ever go a drovin".

The Bulletin magazine had sent Lawson out west to see country Australia and in July, 1892, published this story. It told the urban readers of the real circumstances of country life - it is a stark, fearsome and bleak observation. This was when the magazine had set up the famous Bulletin Debate, and pitched the romantic Australian poet 'Banjo' Patterson against the realistic, poetic writings of Henry Lawson. Where Patterson extolled and romanticised the heroism of the country and its denizens, Lawson told of the other difficult realistic side. It was a revelation and one which gave respect to those pioneers without that romantic 'jingoism' wrapped about it. (There was no winner to the Debate, but it is interesting that Patterson replaced Lawson on the back of the Australian ten dollar note - and more interesting (ironic) that Mary Gilmore, who rejected the marriage offers of Lawson, is on the other side!).

What Ms Purcell has done is to appropriate this iconic title and write her own story with a specific 'political' intention in mind. She uses a quote from Henry Lawson, himself, to introduce her play:"It is quite time that our children were taught a little more about their country for shame's sake." Ms Purcell sets her play in 1893 ... Alpine country, southern New South Wales. It is she says: "An Australian western for the stage."

The play in some 100 minutes packs in a horrific sequence of events, with a literary necessity of a poetic licence with time, that reveals a more stark, fiercer and bleaker but absolutely real version of life in the outback of colonial Australia than even Henry Lawson observed. Taking Alfred Hitchcock's quote (paraphrased) "That drama (film, theatre) is life with all the boring bits taken out." Ms Purcell, inspired, she said by the HBO series DEADWOOD and the Quentin Tarantino DJANGO UNCHAINED, and 'the history of her grandfather's personal papers and the recorded history that was documented by people of authority at this time', has put a highly improbable speedily successive set of cataclysms of event on stage, that are compacted over a three day spacing in her storytelling, covering revelations of shock that resonate as truths that we have all 'known' of (suspected) but never spoken of, (at least on stage), that further illustrate many of the current dilemmas of trauma for our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Like Kylie Coolwell's THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, of last year - which is set, rather, in contemporary Sydney - THE DROVER'S WIFE, for me, represents a moving forward of the Australian Indigenous story in our Dramatic Literature that represents a flowering of courage and truth. Ms Purcell in her program notes tells us:
In one of my earlier drafts, I wasn't happy with the ending and my partner said, 'If we blackfellas can't tell the truth of our history, then who can?' This opened the floodgates, and I wrote like I was riding a wild brumby in the Alpine country, and no apology for the rough ride. 
The story events in this play are indeed, for some, a confronting experience and accumulatively could be hard to watch, to look at, but, it is vital stuff and vital writing. If you felt that THE SECRET RIVER was a ground breaking and culturally maturing flowering, check THE DROVER'S WIFE out (it is of a more modest production value, but content wise is expansive).

We have, of course, had this kind of story given to us in such film's as Rolf de Heer's THE TRACKER (2002), and even more fiercely in THE PROPOSITION (2005), a film by John Hillcoat (Ms Purcell had a small role in that), but they were, generally, under appreciated, even, perhaps, ignored. Rohan Wilson has written two terrifying novels: THE ROVING PARTY (2011), and TO NAME THOSE LOST (2014), which reveals scarifying events of our collective history.

It is the content that is vital and the successful part of the writing in THE DROVER'S WIFE (some of the prose/poetry, as well), for the structure itself has a timeline and set of coincidences, that could stretch incredulity into a possible disengagement with the experience. It is, perhaps, then, the raw shock of the play's truths, combined with the Direction of Leticia Caceres that, mostly, covers those insecurities, and keeps one attentive, for she guides this 100 minutes, without interval, with the same sureness for suspense that she revealed last year with MORTIDO (although, the Sound Composition, Design, by THE SWEATS, sometimes overstates its presence - why did I keep thinking of Nick Cave's work in THE PROPOSITION?). Here, Ms Caceres' has invited Stephen Curtis to Design the Set and Tess Schofield, the costume, both having created the visuals for THE SECRET RIVER so successfully. I found the costuming brilliant, whilst the setting itself did not seem to tell me of an Alpine setting but rather that of a Drysdale  outback painting of dust and dry. Lighting by Verity Hampson does much to propel the tensions (gothic?) elements of the story plotting.

Mark Coles Smith, as Yadaka (he was the leading support actor in LAST CAB TO DARWIN), grounds his performance work with a truthfulness and dignity, gravity - imbued with a necessarily muted charisma. Benedict Hardie creates a trio of characters with frightening conviction, each uniquely defined and memorable - arresting work. Too, Tony Cogin with a duo of ugly men, strikes uncompromising menace and 'evil' for us. Will McDonald, as the young son, Danny, has the physical dynamic to have us give him empathy, although, his work, sometimes, sits superficially as 'reported' work rather than experienced truth.

This is, for me, a problem with Ms Purcell's work as well. Her performance is adequate in that it signals with all the right semaphoring of the body and voice, the journey, but lacks authentic experiential, in-the-moment belief. It is all indicated not 'lived'. It is 'acted' and not 'happening'. For instance, the pregnancy, the aftermath, was not consistently believable and a great deal of the physical life was not sustained or marked for empathetic endowing. Brusque, efficient, clean, sometimes rushed - the Scene Four story of the killing of the bulllock, unintelligible recitation, no thoughts. It seemed the writer has more courage than the actor, at least at this performance. The climatic solilioquy of Scene Eight  finishing in a protracted 'wailing' was embraced as opportunity for an actor, rather than as revelation of a character's journey. Demonstrated with not much authentic, organic motivation. I wished that the Drover's Wife had had some of the courage of conviction that the antagonist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Tarantino's other, more recent Western: THE HATEFUL EIGHT had. Such was my imagination alienated, that I wondered whether a younger actor, too, would have made more sense of the story -  to the pregnancy, the swift 'recovery', the growing physical and emotional attraction to the young indigenous intruder. I guess it is hard to hand over a role that one has written, especially such a great one - but the age, for me, was a distraction and was slightly discomforting in the developing relationships in the play. Still, I am out-of-step with others on this and it ought not discourage you from the experience of the production.

THE DROVER'S WIFE, is an important piece of writing. Harrowing. Timely. There is more to put onstage for 'debate' and exposure, as Warren Mundine has made clear in his call for action on Community violence, today, in instance in Alice Springs.THE DROVER'S WIFE is a demonstration of the power of Art.

Go see.

Seven Impossible Pieces

Australian Dance Artists in association with Ken Unsworth, presents SEVEN IMPOSSIBLE PIECES, in the Ken Unsworth Studio, in Alexandria. October 1, 2, 3 4, & 6,  2016.

SEVEN IMPOSSIBLE PIECES has an original score by Jonathan Cooper. Seven pieces written for six musicians - solo, duets trios etc. Jonathan Copper plays piano and Harmonium; Claire Edwardes, side drum; Genevieve Lang, harp; Jason Nobel, bass & clarinet; James Nightingale, soprano saxophone; James Wannan, viola. To these 'impossible pieces' the Australian Dance Artists: Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip with Creative Collaborator Norman Hall have Choreographed dance. Ken Unsworth has provided Set pieces, whilst the costuming was Designed by Emma Kingsbury.

Australian Dance Artists was founded in 1995 and is made up of a collective of mature dancers. They have worked in collaboration with Ken Unsworth for many of those years. This is the fourth production of their's that I have seen.

Just an hour long this work sits inside a white box space that is dramatically lit by Roderick van Gelder and augmented with ingeniously Designed properties by Mr Unsworth - beautiful - that also, sometimes, become an inter-active pragmatic 'performer'. There is often an impish wit to this imput.

This program gives a focus to the dance/movement: each artist give a solo, there are two duets and, ultimately, an ensemble piece with a piano/washing machine. Seven pieces! The costuming by Ms Kingsbury is elegant and dance savvy and gives empathetic visual dimension to the choreography. With the combining contributions of all the artists involved, they deliver, especially, arrived at images of distracting beauty.

There is a choreographic simplicity and directness to this work that provides for an elegant and satisfying experience. SEVEN IMPOSSIBLE PIECES, another gentle contribution to the fabric of the Sydney Performing Art scene.