Saturday, April 30, 2016


Photo by Prudence Upton
Sydney Theatre Company presents DISGRACED, by Ayad Akhtar, in Wharf 1, at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Hickson Rd.,Walsh Bay, 16 April - 4 June, 2016.

DISGRACED is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar.

DISGRACED, is the typical well made American play that I talked about in my Diary entry about THE WHALE. A small cast of five in a single setting with a subtly disguised exposition that introduces the protagonists with their differences and backgrounds.

  1. Emily (Sophie Ross), a middle aged white woman, a practising, ambitious 'figurative' artist - painter, politically naive and sexually duplicitous, married to
  2. Amir (Sachin Joab), a Pakastani with an adoptive Indian surname, an apostate Muslim, who has a career in Law, on the point of a possible partnership in his Firm. 
  3. Abe (Shiv Palekar), a nephew of Amir's who has become part of a radicalised Muslim youth movement, he is practising his faith, who seeks legal advice from Amir for a religious leader of his acquaintance, in 'trouble' with the American authorities. 
  4. Issac (Glenn Hazeldine), an art curator from the Whitney Art Museum, a non-practising Jew, having had a recent affair with Emily, as well as sponsoring her into a new exhibition of contemporary art with a Middle eastern influence, but married to… 
  5. Jory (Paula Arundel), an African-American lawyer from a working class background, in the same Firm as Amir, she, in competition with him for the same position for partnership.

Mr Ahktar sets the well oiled dramaturgical wheels in motion and brings the four adults together for a dinner party in Amir's swanky apartment that explodes into revelations of firstly, hot button issues of race and Islamaphobia, and secondly, the melodrama of sexual peccadilloes between friends exposed. It is this wonderfully crafted dinner party scene that lifts this play into a contemporary 'must see experience' recommendation, for it is breathtakingly 'in-yer-face' and  genuinely (thrillingly) shocking. I imagine it was triply so, in the theatre in New York, and may have been the frisson that scored it the Pulitzer Prize - for, otherwise, it is an utterly conventional dramaturgical construct - '4-square' structural lines of plotting and character - not that I am underestimating the level of difficulty to achieve that 'glory': if only some more of our Australian writers had that proficiency at their finger tips, I reckon!

The whole play is given in a one act format of 90 minutes. The acting from all five is well prepared, if a little tentative at times - technical time styling seeming to hamper clearer character 'arc' revelations. The most comfortable actor seemed to be Mr Palekar, who was making his professional stage debut. But then, he was not involved in the necessary, and demanding, discipline of the orchestrated musical structure of the writing in the big dinner scene. It is extremely difficult to achieve, especially as the audience will subtly alter that rhythmical structure from night to night: it is knife-edge, in-the-moment stuff for the actor. Practice with audience will relieve the tentativeness of the performance I saw, and will free up the nightly necessary improvisations of timing with that new actor/character everynight: us, the audience. (One of the thrilling elements of a live performance for an actor.)

The Design, by Elizabeth Gadsby (Set and Costumes), of a contemporary New York apartment is extremely spacious, if appearing to be architecturally awkward, allowing for a Lighting Design, by Damien Cooper, with all that window, to do his job easily. Director, Sarah Goodes, manages the actors well, though electing to feature the several scene changes, into a puzzling set of choreographed 'interludes' (dances?), - one of them, the last, almost 4 minutes long! - involving the actors in a prop changing  and costume changing 'ritual' in front of the audience, accompanied by a Composition of, what I felt was a too indulged 'Orientalist' Middle Eastern flavoured sound, from a usually more reliable, Steve Francis, was odd. Just why this mis-step of judgement on Ms Gooodes' part has happened I cannot tell (but then, perhaps, it was a forced pragmatic solution for a company [the STC] that, perhaps, has no budget for assistant stage management to do the task, otherwise?) The longeurs between scenes were not a useful ratchet to maintain the dramatic tensions of the music of the play 'score' written by Mr Akhtar. The actors had to 'rev' the gears of the play into action from an idling state each time it recommenced out of the scene changes, the audience having been suspended in an inertia of dramatic inaction, patiently waiting for the rudimentaries of Design/Directorial problems that the writing has 'proposed', to be technically- laboriously - solved.

The STC have two plays, KING CHARLES III and DISGRACED, playing in its theatres at the moment. Two texts addressing Hot Button issues - amazing.  One is English. One is American. (There is as well HAY FEVER over in the tourist haven, the Sydney Opera House.) Thank goodness for their curation in the season - I feel as if I am being treated as an adult living in the BIG world of DRAMA. Ideas to challenge me, to think about, in a communal space! For, it does concern me that our Australian playwrights do not seem to be much moved or interested  with the 'hot', difficult and very pressing issues we find ourselves in the midst of. There are so many important issues, ripe for interrogation, right? So: "Writers find, and observe/research characters, and give them a dinner party, at least, to discuss our Issues. Please!" It was with a heavy heart that the night before at Carriageworks I sat amongst a Sydney audience in raptures over a 50 minute monologue about an unnamed, troubled body-double for a third rate actor called Kane: that was LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT - a disappointment of urgent substance, indeed.

DISGRACED, is worth seeing. Interesting that there are other productions of the same play happening this year in some of our other cities. It was the most produced play in the United States last year. Recommended if you want to feel you are in a major theatre company in Australia and still, yet, part of an international ethical debate. The debate began, with this play, in 2013, but three years later, in 2016, I can assure you, it is still relevant.

No need to wait for the Sydney Writer's Festival to be stimulated. Join the debate provocations at DISGRACED, in the Wharf 1 Theatre.

Lake Dissapointment

Photo by Laura Scrivano
Carriageworks presents, LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, by Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott, in Bay 17, Carriageworks, Redfern, 20 - 23 April, 2016.

We sit in the cavernous Bay 17 and face a huge black-curtained void. When the performance commences we are confronted, quite closely, with a suited figure, in a specific, intimate kind of light, in a wide-armed gesture standing on a raised, small mirrored-floor oblong. The figure (Luke Mullins), with a visible face-microphone assisting, begins in an intimate sotto voce (with pronounced sibilant 'ss's'), a 50 minute conversation with his 'self'. This nameless figure reveals his job as that of a body double for a film actor, Kane - an actor of second/third tier suspense thrillers, adventures e.g. "Briefcase Bomb 2" (straight to DVD, we are told) - standing in for the cinematographer and director's needs to capture a 'hand' picking up a cup from a saucer; a 'hand' picking up a brief case; a 'body' walking slowly across a space; a 'body' standing in the middle of a lake with a wide armed gesture while a helicopter captures a very, very wide, distanced shot, over and over again.

In his meditations as his distanced, metaphorically 'cut-up' body, is been minutely captured in 'filmed' action, we learn of his delusional obsession with Kane and of his skewed belief in his own self importance and function as an 'artist'. Gradually, Kane's absence from the film set and his ultimate no-show, undermines this narcissist's identity, as he realises that without Kane he is 'a nothing' - like Frankenstein's monster, a man made up of 'parts', and never quite whole. In a panic he flees into the back of the void, which unravels and strips back as the huge draped curtains of the space fold back to leave him a small isolated figure - a figure of absolutely no importance, a small figure on the horizon, who without Kane does not really need to exist - we watch him shrinking. Perhaps, even disappearing? We have been a silent witness to the collapse of an ego (without even a name) and its ultimate disappointment.

LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT has been a long time writing collaboration between, Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott.

Mr Philpott has a record of playwriting and, for me, his outstanding hallmark, besides the usual social-realist gritty worlds he immerses us in (BISON, SILENT DISCO, TRUCK STOP, M.ROCK), is his poetic bent as a writer, his careful construct of words, of the rhythms of language, that makes, what reads like prose, poetry. COLDER (2006), an earlier work, is a dark 'poem', an examination, reflection, of the disappearance of a young man, without trace. Thematically this is the thin but recognisable connection to this work, LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, for me. This monologue's major strength is Mr Philpott's usual wonderfully wrought language/text.

On the other hand, LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT is Mr Mullins first writing credit. There is, however, a familiar (similar) thematic content emphasis here, to Mr Mullins' past performance work, as he seems to re-explore the self-obsessed artist, in the writing here, and in the performance choices, that is an echo of his Tom Wingfield character in Eamon's Flack's take on Tennessee Williams', THE GLASS MENAGERIE, where there was a pain-staking, precious, obsession in filming, videoing, added to the subtext of that play's scenario; and further back when we recall his Thom Pain character in the Will Eno monologue: THOM PAIN (based on nothing) - ironically, that being a monologue where the character talks himself in to a some body, unlike this character that talks himself into no body, no one, nothing! - we can grasp a pattern of content, of influence.

The general audience applauded. The critics have lapped it up. "A must see." A "must be brought back again!" I, it seems, am an almost lone contrarian, for at the completion of this performance I sat and was confronted with the question of "WHO CARES?" I asked my theatre companion for that night, and they too, were bewildered. So, not quite alone.

I admired the form and skill of the writing but wearied of its content, or rather its lack of interesting substance. The intense and calculated external physicality of the actor was impressive (how fit is he?) amazing! I was struck by the bravura of the production choices made by the Director, Janice Muller, along with her Designer, Michael Hankin, and his assistant, Charlie Davis, assisted by Matt Cox's Lighting Design. I was, however, disappointed with the musical Composition/Sound Design of James Brown, thinking it to be filmic b-grade sentimentalised huffing and puffing. His score for TANGI WAI, last year was so brilliant, I expected more. I was reviled away from the text, by the whole of the execution of the Directorial and Designer offers which were, theatrically, way-over-the-top - grandiose, vulgar, for me - considering the banality of the content statement. Pretty and inventive distractions.

What had I been watching? I had witnessed at a grand scale the end of a 'superfluous man' - and I could not understand why I should care? Or, was that the point? That this was an enormous supercilious gesture by the creators, that was essentially only an impressive package, an audacious use of design and pyrotechnics, all impressive externals, all style, with no real substance? That the joke was that they believed we could be manipulated and swept away with what was only a highly decorative wisp, a thread of a nihilistic joke, about an almost disembodied figure, supposedly looking at 'the fragility of identity and its existence in the gap between inside and outside ...', and that they (and we) were ' exploring how you can communicate pieces of information from a completely subjective point of view'? That we could be as delusional as the figure in the play about the importance of this content. That this, even, was Art?

I wanted to shout that the production clothing had no substance of any importance to cover; that it was tedious; that it was a shocking waste of effort on most counts. If it ever returns, and it seems to me, it is problematic that it will, just on the extreme budgetary demand that it would make, but if ever it does, you might want to see it, to join a discussion. LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, is palled, when standing beside other work I have seen similarly, lavishly, presented at Carriageworks, such as the afore mentioned TANGI WAI by Victoria Hunt, or SUPERPOSITION, by Ryoji Ikeda. Those works had both, substance-content and production values of a pyrotechnical flourish that extended, expanded, the observer, the participator, into seeing the world afresh, from a richly clear new perspective, giving one hope and faith in mankind and his inventiveness.

I keep hearing an echo of a derogatory view of the Oscar Wilde's, "Art for Art's Sake" musing, which I had read recently, where Art was seen by some to be without any significance, where purpose in Art is cast aside for the sake of mild leisure, where Art is simply feeding off Art, because this is what, I think, I felt in the experiencing of LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT. That it was a leisurely joke in the disguise of 'arty' production affects.

It was a tremendous disappointment (and, retrospectively, frivolous theatre) particularly since the work of Lachlan Philpott usually embraces muscularly what Robert Brustein wrote in an essay called, The Theatre of Revolt (1991): "Art should extend beyond itself to become an act of ethical reform, influencing public opinion, public action and public contribution ..."  LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT was a disappointment on these counts. For, what usually occupies Mr Philpott in his play's content is a mission for care and understanding of the people on the fringes of society and their ways of behaving for survival. I did not feel any need to assist the nameless monologist of LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT, thinking he had no real life to need to pay attention too. This work was a great seduction to the 'dark side' where art is simply a self-indulgent game focused on the external stunning production wrappings.

Just what is wrong with playwriting in Australia? Why is it, mostly, so removed from the pulse, concerns of our real lives? Does anyone else care?

Hay Fever

Sydney Theatre Company presents Noel Coward's HAY FEVER, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House, 11 April - 21 May, 2016.

Noel Coward, at the age of 25, wrote and starred in THE VORTEX, opening in December in 1924, which settled into a long London run. Sheridan Morley tells us in his biography of Noel Coward, A TALENT TO AMUSE:
On the principle that success breeds other successes, once THE VORTEX was an established hit both HAY FEVER and FALLEN ANGELS, which had previously been turned down by every management in London, went into rapid production; by June of 1925 Noel had all three and ON WITH THE DANCE (a revue) running simultaneously in the West End. [1]
Said Coward, "Success took me to her bosom like a maternal boa constrictor." Indeed, it seems, he had a talent to amuse. The Bright Young Things of The Twenties found a crystallisation of the vast social changes initiated in the First World War in work like Coward's and embraced it with a care-free release. HAY FEVER played for 337 performances in its opening season.

It, along with PRIVATE LIVES, FALLEN ANGELS and BLITHE SPIRIT have been the most revived of all of Coward's work. HAY FEVER was the play that Sir Laurence Olivier selected as part of his 1964 National Theatre Company season, reviving an interest in Coward's output and recognising it as one of the twentieth century comic classics. Coward himself directed the production, recalling the style of the period and understanding
"the elliptical twin-level technique which he had first perfected ... the technique of having a character say one thing while thinking and meaning something entirely different. [1]
As Coward says: "Small talk, a lot of small talk, with other thoughts going on behind."

The amateur theatre has it as one of its favourites, wholly underestimating, warned Coward, the enormous difficulty of finding the right tone to keep the work afloat. The last time I saw HAY FEVER, the New Theatre gave it a fair rendition.

All comedy is hard. Of all the genres to act, comedy is the hardest, because it demands, absolutely primed technical skills and a need for a 'real' truth - the importance of being earnest! The kind of comedy that Noel Coward excelled in is what is known as 'artificial comedy', where the chief concern of  the playwright is the external manners of a given period which, though superficial, do deeply affect behaviour. It needs the lightest touch at the most detached point of view, for they deal with        externals.

           "There are technically two kinds of comedy: one that lies in the witty line, the other that is in the situation or the characters. For the first, it can be, that only clear delivery of the author's words are necessary (hmmm, Kevin?). For the second, to ensure laughter it is essential to tell the TRUTH, and in comedy it demands an exaggerate, a doubling, perhaps, of the amount of belief than you need for drama. It requires you to believe in things (given circumstances) that are, mostly, ridiculous, and, so the actor must work extra hard to create credible belief in his or her character's perspective." (2)

 HAY FEVER demands all of the above, for not only is Coward a master of the witty line (of Myra): 'She goes about using sex as a sort of shrimping net'; he, also, is an astute observer of part of the society of post World War I, in the Glittering Twenties and has proved, ultimately, that as the play was presented around the English speaking world, over nearly a century now, it depicted highly recognisable character types that were not just unique to the English world of a particular time - but to a universal, timeless one.

On visiting America on the transfer of his theatre revue, LONDON CALLING, to New York, in 1923:

              "Coward made friends with Laurette Taylor, her husband Hartley Manners, and their unusual family. Laurette's husband was an extremely conservative man, Laurette, very theatrical, never hesitated to unsheathe her scathing wit and uninhibited humour. The family liked to play parlour games and Dwight and Marguerite, children by Laurette's first husband, would frequently argue about game rules with their mother and step-father. These regular battles would result in the family members stalemating and retreating upstairs to their separate quarters. From a guest's point of view, this made for a very bizarre situation, but for a budding playwright, perfect fodder. " (3)

Coward was said to have written the work in three days. The origin of the family-types of the play have been further speculated about to others, of course! Originally called ORANGES AND LEMONS, one can sense the sweet and sour of the content of the play and the characters' relationships.

HAY FEVER is based upon a real family and their eccentric dealings with their friends and guests and, maybe, given an exaggeration, a detached affectionate poetic licence, to amuse his audiences. Instead of the New York family we have an English family in the English countryside: Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell), and her husband, David Bliss (Tony Lewellyn-Jones), and their two children, Simon (Tom Conroy) and Sorel (Harriet Dyer) who have invited, unbeknownst to each other, a guest for the weekend: Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville), Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson), Richard Greatheam (Alan Dukes) and Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke), greeted by the overburdened housekeeper, Clara (Genevieve Lemon).

I was very entertained by Imara Savage's Direction of this play. And this was despite it being far from my expectant treatment of the play. For, I have such an affection for the usual thin and brittle but light and superficial glance at this vision of life by Coward; at the usual witty (but deceptive), character shallowness that sparkles on the surface of the water (text), requiring a comic acting stylisation of a delicate, and sad to say rare kind from our contemporary actors - view the Maggie Smith/Anthony Nicholls rendition of the Myra/David act one scene, on the DVD of the National Theatre 50th Anniversary Celebration, to see what I mean. I have never really been so concerned with the depths underneath Mr Coward's play, being more often than not hypnotised into a rapture at the skilful, symmetrical, audacity of the writing and its, often, shockingly rude, but sophisticated, wit. I must admit, that the acting was often less than felicitous, in other productions, but the humour was distracting enough to placate my chagrin (I do recall Alice Livingstone in the New Theatre production, the last, before this, I've seen, who hit those notes so perfectly - voice/body/attitude - that I 'bought' the whole of the production, even with its other obvious flaws!).

Ms Savage has focused her attention to the observation of real people: character in recognisably real circumstances and situations, and let the comic writing reveal itself, relatively, as a secondary concern. In doing so the production has found a way for a contemporary audience to accept the 'exaggerated ridiculousness' of the plot and characters, and appreciate it as an hilarious entertainment. The 'style' Ms Savage has found allows for a more ready substitution of situational comedy performances (seen regularly in superior TV series - e.g. ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS), than aiming at the more difficult and rare 'airy' artificial comic style usually needed to execute this kind of work well. I last saw this high 'style' in New York, in 1996, with a company led by Frank Langella in Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER, dreamingly, flawlessly, skilful in that rarefied world of playing. Is that skill and 'style' being lost by our contemporary practitioners in Australia?

Dextrously, Ms Savage has, with her Designer, Alicia Clements (Set and Costume) produced a look, on the stage, that seems to cover a visual sensibility rooted in our subconscious memories of what-we-may-remember of a deteriorating country house of ye-olde-English world - think of the house in the Merchant/Ivory 1992 masterful adaptation for film of E.M. Forster's HOWARD'S END, Designed by-the-way, by Australian Luciana Arrighi - and placing furniture and properties (a bath tub used as a centre piece in the 'lounging' furniture, for instance) around the decoration that covers several decades of 'trendy' 'quirky' interior design of different fashionable tastes, and adding costume choices that could, over the visual styles, subtly, come, individually, from any of the last nine decades since the play first appeared. All lit, charmingly, by Trent Suidgeest. The 'rain' effect in the orchard garden out the back of the house, also 'plugged' us into a belief of 'realism' - a 'neat' trick. The Sound Design by Max Lyandvert was not necessarily conducive to the 'temperature' of the material and the use of an Amy Winehouse lip-synch by Judith, was, I felt, a step too far, in good judgement - it clanged, a false note, for me, even if some found it hilarious.

Ms Savage working with Heather Mitchell, as Judith Bliss, in the centre of her production (as it is, relentlessly, wonderfully, in the writing - the role requires a great virtuoso) gains a performance that is rooted both in a truth reality which we can all recognise without too much of a stretch, but also reveals a sublime technique of body, and especially voice, of the 'old school' of high-style playing -  such that, one suspects she could make the reading of 'the Albanian telephone book' an hilarious stand-up act - vocal work: volume, pace and relished tonal range, masterfully under control to devastatingly immaculate affect. With comic methods employed from across the last century, each actor makes the 'ridiculous' characters work. The visual range of the comic techniques employed by the actors are book-ended by Ms Mitchell, sitting so brilliantly in the period high-style of what-I-believe is more authentically 1920's, to the more contemporary exaggerated situational character form of Harriet Dyer, impersonating, say a kind of female version of character from THE YOUNG ONES, creating a very modern 'gen'-Y self-centred narcissist in her construct of Sorel Bliss. Mr Stokes, as Simon, warms up to his role with a nod to the élan of Ms Mitchell's probing of the verbal and physical style, while Mr Dukes, as Greatham, has the physical tempo and internal wit of a great diplomatist (Chaplinesque/Tati?), and carries it effortlessly for many a visual joke, as does Ms Clarke, as the most innocent dupe, and almost speechless guest, Jackie Coryton. Mr Lewellyn-Jones reminds us with his bumbling, fussy, fuzzy thinking David Bliss, why his long ago creation of Norman in Ayckbourn's THE NORMAN CONQUESTS (Now there are some plays to see again!) in the late 1970's, was such an indelible endearing comic performance.

HAY FEVER expresses Coward's equivocal attitude to Bohemian freedom and sexual candour, and in this production at the Drama Theatre, in the Sydney Opera House, is a surprise and a delight in a very modern 'working', created without disrespect, by Imara Savage, and her creative 'team'. The 'horrid' memory of the bumbling modern take of Belvoir's PRIVATE LIVES, by Noel Coward, is almost erased by this STC production.

P.S. I have always advised that when working on Coward to think of Edward Albee. When working on Albee think of Noel Coward. So, I found, whilst researching this diary entry this gratifying piece of info. Edward Albee was such a fan of Noel Coward's work that there were plans in the 1960's for an American management to have Edward Albee direct three of the plays on Broadway - it never happened, unfortunately, but Albee did write a wonderful preface for a paperback re-print of some of the early plays:
Mr Coward writes dialogue as well as any man going; it is seemingly effortless, surprising in the most wonderfully surprising places and 'true' - very, very, true. He is, as well, a dramatic mountain goat; his plays are made better than most - but not in the sense of the superimposed paste job of form, but from within: order more than form. And Mr Coward's subjects - like ways we kid ourselves - have not, unless my mind has been turned inward too long, gone out of date ... his work has a very good chance of being with us for a long, long time.
So say I.

N.B. References

  1. Sheridan Morley - 1969 - A TALENT TO AMUSE - William Heinemann Ltd.
  2. Athene Seyler, Stephen Haggard, 2013, (Ed. Robert Barton), THE CRAFT OF COMEDY, Routledge.
  3. Joseph Morella & George Mazzei, 1995, GENIUS & LUST, THE CREATIVE AND SEXUAL LIVES OF COLE PORTER AND NOEL COWARD, Carroll 7 Graf Publishers.
Recommended Reading
  1. Alan Jenkins, 1974, THE TWENTIES, William Heinemann Ltd.
  2. Ron Marasco, 2007, NOTES TO AN ACTOR, Ivan R. Dee Inc.
  3. Michael Billington - 2015 - THE 101 GREATEST PLAYS FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT - Faber & Faber.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Good People

Ensemble Theatre presents, GOOD PEOPLE, by David Lindsay-Abaire, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 7 April - 21 May, 2016.

GOOD PEOPLE, by David Lindsay-Abaire was first performed in 2013 for the Manhattan Theatre Club, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, on Broadway, New York and was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, The Horton Foote Prize, The Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, and two Tony nominations. It follows on from his previous play RABBIT HOLE, which among other prizes won the Pulitzer Prize. GOOD PEOPLE sustains the quality of writing exhibited in his other work and is given a very good production at the Ensemble Theatre, for Sydney audiences, under the controlled Direction of Mark Kilmurry.

Margaret Walsh - "Mar-Gee" - (Tara Morice) is a working class survivor from Southie in Boston (remember the world of Johnny Depp's recent film, BLACK MASS.) She is a single mother, with an intellectually disabled adult daughter, Joycey, whose idea of a night out is a visit to the local Bingo hall with friends - hoping to win some cash - because her monthly paycheck just covers her month's bills. She has just lost her job as a 'check-out chick' at the local supermarket, because of habitual tardiness, and so faces eviction and is scrambling for a break. Some of the Good People, her neighbourhood girlfriends, Dottie (Gael Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) recommend that she contact an old 'flame' of her's, Mike (Christopher Stollery), who having left Southie has become a Doctor - 'a reproductive endocrinologist' -and has recently returned and is living in up-market Chesnut Hill, and may be able to give her a job.

"Mar-Gee" being a Good Person, too, though not accepting the truth of a cancellation of a party at Chesnut Hill, makes an inconvenient visit to the home of Mike and meets his wife, Kate, (Zindzi Okenyo), an African-American academic. The unconscious jealousies and frustrations of "Mar-Gee's" life opportunities boil over in an interaction with this fragile couple, who are coping with a sick child and, perhaps, a delicate marriage, and consciously reveals secrets and, maybe, lies, that may destroy the fabric of this 'lace-curtain Irish' Mike's life.

The dilemma of the play is the question of the level of consciousness in 'Mar-Gee's' and her friends' verbal and physical actions. The play examines what means of survival are available for a class who have next to nothing and are searching for the way to that promised American Dream, and who are struggling, as the Willy Loman family did several generations before, and by necessity have to shift loyalties and make behavioural choices with cunning agility to sustain their unshakeable hopes for that promised, better future. There are definitely times in this play, when "Mar-Gee" and her circle are reprehensible and the last people you want to know and or engage with. We are certainly challenged about our own lives, with the wily writing of Mr Lindsay-Abaire: Can we honestly, 'judge' these Good People?

Says Mr Lindsay-Abaire, in interview:
We have this myth that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything. It's not a very American thing to say, but I don't think that's true. It's true for a lot of people, but you need other things to succeed. You need luck, you need opportunity, and you need the life skills to recognise what an opportunity is.
The performances of this production are of a high order with all the actors relishing the opportunities that Mr Linsay-Abaire has given them, for all the characters are written in an intriguingly complex manner - no-one and no event that happens in this play are in the cliched mode of the usual storytelling, despite the familiar circumstances. The characters in the play have the audience's loyalties shifting as we try to find (unconsciously, perhaps) the character that we can wholeheartedly identify with and give our undiluted empathy too. There is one and it comes unexpectedly to us in the actions of Stevie (Drew Livingston), someone that we may have not much noticed but who we can really call, at the play's end, a Good People.

Mr Stollery and Ms Okenyo (at last in a role on a Sydney stage, that permits this actor to reveal her complexity of gifts), give dextrously excellent performances, and along with Ms Morice - in great form -, blister the production with a thrilling trio-entanglement in the major scene of the second act. The writing is crisp, witty and marvellously observed and structured, giving a thrilling word-by-word experience for an enthralled, and sometimes, to-be-appalled, audience.

The Set Design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, is one of the best I have seen in this small space. It has a fluidity and integral, organic, aesthetic that seems to seamlessly move from the location demands, one to the other, of the play, with minimal effort. Ross Graham, reveals his creative gifts, working within a much smaller scale than much of his other good work of late (AN INDEX OF METALS), and has created a terrifically empathetic Lighting Design of atmospheric support.

GOOD PEOPLE is really good writing, supported by a really good production, all round.


Monday, April 18, 2016

The Original Grease

Seymour Centre presents, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre's Production of THE ORIGINAL GREASE, Book, Music and Lyrics, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, City Rd. Chippendale, April 6 - May 7, 2016.

THE ORIGINAL GREASE is a return, from the Broadway and 1978 film "bubble-gum" version of GREASE, to the roots of the original invention of the writers, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Its reconstruction was made in 2010 via a collaboration with PJ Papparelli of the American Theatre Company in Chicago and GREASE author Jim Jacobs. Director, Jay James-Moody writes in the program, that the show  "…was conceived as an authentic rock 'n' roll-infused teen drama that depicted the gangs of Chicago's rough, working class northwest side. They smoked, drank, swore and had sex - only occasionally with rubbers from a vending machine. ... THE ORIGINAL GREASE is grimy. The characters are sexist and racist without malice, but as products of their time and upbringing."

So, in the changes, here, in the Reginald, we get a language that is cruder, maybe more real, both in the content dialogue and lyrics to the music. We get some new songs to replace some of the ones we know as part of the GREASE that has become 'the word'. The experience becomes a win some, lose some occasion.

There is a band of six musicians, and the 17 members of the acting company all get a solo song (I think), along with chorus tasks. It is a nearly 3 hour show. Everybody sings well. Everybody dances really well. The choreography by Simone Salle is inventive, highly energetic and wonderfully executed. The acting, however, is not always consistently good enough and becomes the show's weakest link for the audience to be able to sustain a high interest, in this episodic work. This show has a company of performers ranging from veterans (two of them) to recent graduates from institutions such as the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAPPA), the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) - a lot of them - even one from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) - some of them making their debut performances, some still presently students studying their music theatre course. In fact this show sometimes feels like a graduating show at one of those schools. Nothing wrong with that and maybe that is just an impression urged because of the necessary youthfulness of the cast.

I liked most of the singing, the acapella songs, not always successful. Performances I noted were Coral Mercer-Jones as Rizzo (if sometimes, too Musical Theatre sharp-edged); Daniella Mirels, as a delightfully believable Frenchy; Temujin Tera, as Kenickie; Ric Herbet, in a number of vignette guest spots, but, especially sharp, as the Radio Voice - impersonation, voice and body super fun.

Everything is done well by the usual Squabblogic team: The Direction in the ever capable hands of Jay James-Moody; The Musical Direction, by Benjamin Kiehne (not his usual standard); Brendan Hay, Designing the costumes with great panache; and the usual visual flair of Georgia Hopkins with a wide open set, surrounded by a painted wall of a pleasing easeful 'aesthetic arrest', with an inventive set of rolling platforms, that can double as many things, that create an ample fluidity to the events of the needs of the many locations of the story. The Lighting Design, by Mikey Rice has the flexibility required, but the Sound design, by Jessica James-Moody, with everyone 'miked', does not facilitate an ease for the audience to locate who is speaking or who is singing, often for several beats - it is a tiresome effect. One wonders, in this small space, what the real difference would be without it. It does not allow for easy suspension of belief. It is, in this production, a de-focusing agent.

THE ORIGINAL GREASE is for musical theatre geeks, I guess, much like Squabblogic's choice with TRIASSIC PARQ. One can take in this show and have good time, but it is not an essential one to catch if you have other choices for your time, especially if you're a 'non-geek' musical theatre experience 'collector'.

The Peasant Prince

Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Monkey Baa presents, THE PEASANT PRINCE, by Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry, based on the children's book, by Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Darling Harbour, 9-20 April.

THE PEASANT PRINCE, is an adaptation, in book form of Li Cunxin's MAO'S LAST DANCER, for children, and has served as the inspiration for the Monkey Baa Theatre Company to bring to life on the stage.

It is a rudimentary 'rags to riches' story, of a kind of 'fairytale' journey of a young Chinese boy from a backwoods Chinese village, in 'classic' Mao time - propaganda and all - to the city of Bejing, where he is trained as a classical ballet dancer, who has the further good 'fate' to travel to the West, the United States to the Houston Ballet Company, to experience the opportunities it can offer to his life's destiny.

An all Australian/Asian Company of actors: Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez Goodway and Edric Hong, with many character impersonations, tell the story with charm and engaging personality. The young audience I saw the play with, were engrossed and entertained - especially the young balletomanes, who exercised the barre work with the actors in their seats.

Michael Hankin, has created a large rectangular screen in a handsome wooden frame that allows for the projection of many video images, illustrating the world of Chairman Mao's China, Designed by David Bergman, that does much in holding the storytelling in fluid and comprehensible action. Daryl Wallis' music score does much, as well, to support the material and the movement sequences, created by Danielle Micich.

Altogether this is, ultimately, a production that has the charm of design and simple direction of the acting to get it through some cliche storytelling. The story is being told for very young children, and it seems, is sufficient. enough for some. But, when one compares the recent film subject matter of children's entertainment (INSIDE OUT,  ZOOTOPIA) the content of this work and the way it is told may be underestimating the 'sophistication' of its audience.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

King Charles III

Sydney Theatre Company and Adshel present the Almeida Theatre production, KING CHARLES III, by Mike Bartlett, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. 31 March - 30 April.

In the program notes from the author of KING CHARLES III, Mike Bartlett:
The idea of KING CHARLES III arrived in my head with the form and content very clear, and inextricably linked. It would be a play about the moment Charles takes the throne, and how his conscience would lead him to refuse to sign a bill into law. An epic royal family drama, dealing with power and national constitution, was the content, and therefore the form had to be Shakespearean. It would need five acts, quite possibly a subplot, but most worryingly, the majority would have to be in verse.
The play was commissioned by Rupert Goold, for Headlong, but ended up as part of his Artistic Directorship at the Almeida Theatre, opening there in April, 2014, to be followed by a transfer season to Wyndham's Theatre on the West End in September 2014, opening on Broadway in November, 2015. Three years later it is on a Sydney stage. It was worth the wait.

The political dilemma at the heart of this play is as an important an issue in contemporary times (Australia) as any I can think of: Freedom of the Press (Communication). That Mr Bartlett singles this out is of great relevancy in any Democracy in the face of a kind of 'fascistic ' tendency of our governing bodies that prevails in the management of the new 24 hour news cycle, through 'censorship' and threat of embodied law of prosecution and punishment. This is not a British concern alone, I reckon, ask the farm holders fighting the threat of 'fracking' and coal mining on our very own country properties, or any would-be whistle blower working in our corporate/government bodies who see unfairness and illegalities as part of the 'system' and fear to reveal the wrongs they know: to exercise their right (moral responsibility) to warn, to bring attention to unethical, outrageous and/or criminal behaviour and practices. This play's content has its finger on the pulse of our present age, no matter its origin of country.

Add, the artistic challenge of the conceit to write a play in a fantasised near-future in 'Jacobethan' English (iambic pentameters, et all), with all of the familiar modes of that era's dramatic structure conventions: predicting ghosts, Kings in a spiral of a tangle for accession and deposition, with a comic subplot with relevant thematic support to the main dilemma, and it makes it breathtaking in its audacity, giving the play both depth and substance. It is an intellectual bonus (but is not a necessity to enjoy the play) to recall the Shakespearean echoes of plays such as Richard II, the Henry IV's and even Macbeth. The wit and the vivacity of the writing takes it into a stratosphere of a stimulant - tonic - worth taking, and in the relative boring desert of our, particularly, recent Australian writers' achievements, a not to be missed event. Especially, if you love the theatre and believe it is a 'relevant form' that not only can entertain but may help to make a society better.

What was the last comparable Australian play presented with such explorative courage of contemporary issue ,accompanied with real wit (cheek) of writing skill? "Is there one at all?", I try to recall. The last time I experienced this level of intellectual excitement accompanied by the audacity of witty writing, from an Australian may have been the premiere season of Stephen Sewell's 2003 play: MYTH, PROPAGANDA AND DISASTER IN NAZI GERMANY AND CONTEMPORARY AMERICA (for me, even the title brings a smile of anticipation of a good time). Have you any other offers to add?

This is the fourth production of Rupert Goold's that I have seen (the others being: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, ENRON- the New York production, and THE EFFECT - at the National Theatre) and it is the most restrained in its directorial delivery and he serves this play well. A fixed surround of a towering classic bricked wall with a central raised rectangle on the centre stage, upon which the spare furniture for the different locations are brought on and off for the action of the play, Designed by Tom Scutt. Similarly, the contemporary costuming is economic, emblematic, in its choices. The lighting Design, by Jon Clark, is pragmatic in its efficiency with warmths of a period candle lighting to connect us to the past even in this future world. The Composition of the production, by Jocelyn Pook, is the least pleasing element of the Design 'package' in its recall, for me, and falling short of, a welcome homage to the sounds of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass.

Robert Powell, new to the role of Charles, (it was created originally, by Tim Piggot-Smith - this is a world-touring production) acquits himself with growing stature as the play progresses to an extremely moving denouement. I wished for a slightly faster tempo to make me 'chase' the delights of Mr Bartlett's writing. Mr Powell's care with the verse sometimes a trifle laborious - we waited for the next word instead of having to chase it. Whilst, Tim Treloar as Mr Evans, the leader of the Government, is outstanding in his presence and energetic vocal and physical focus in his part to the arguments and plotting of the play. Too, I enjoyed the power and subtlety of Ben Righton, as William, and enjoyed the borderline 'joke' constructed about the character of Harry, by Richard Glaves, nicely counterbalanced by his embraced gravity to a sense of duty and rejection of his heart's yearnings, in the final capitulation to the requirements of 'the firm'- the family, in the final scenes.

But it is the relative high standard of the ensemble that is worth attending too: Jennifer Bryden (Kate), Dominic Jephcott (James Reiss), Lucy Phelps (Jess), Carolyn Pickles (Camilla), Giles Taylor (Mr Stevens), Beatrice Walker, Paul Westwood and Geoffrey Lumb (particularly) in a variety of roles. Note, none of them, apparently, using artificial voice projection - electronic microphones - to deliver their text (although, there are some dead acoustic spots in this 'notorious' theatre still, with or without artificial support), which appear to be a consistent necessity/unfortunate habit/need, for our contemporary Australian artists working on this stage. (I remarked that it is the quality and consistent voice training of the British actor that has been part of the positive evidence, presented and debated, in the American Monthly magazines and internet, last year, as to why they are making such inroads into their successful casting in American film (e.g. SELMA) - their strength in Voice production and characterisation over their American counterparts winning them opportunity. I believe that this part of the craft is often neglected by the Australian actor - a few exceptions proving the rule.)

KING CHARLES III, by Mike Bartlett, won the Olivier Award in 2015 for Best New Play, and Michael Billington, theatre writer and critic, includes it as one of the 101 GREATEST PLAYS from Antiquity to the Present:
I have chosen Mike Bartlett's KING CHARLES III not because I think it is a timeless masterpiece but because I believe it raises, with stylish wit and verbal élan, serious questions about the future of Britain and the nature of good governance. Shaw once said that A DOLL'S HOUSE would be forgotten when A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was still being performed but that it would have done 'more work in the world'. In fact, Ibsen's play has achieved classic status, but Shaw's idea that drama can be judged by its capacity to shape and mould opinion strikes me as perfectly valid.
This play, I believe, using Britain as a lens to see through, is just as valid in asking serious questions about the future of Australia and the nature of good governance of our country. This is not a Monarchist play, one way or the other, but a serious one using the monarchy and its constitutional powers, as a means that ought to urge us to look more carefully at the governing of ourselves delivered to us through the decisions of the many levels of our elected governments, Local, State and Federal. It appears as a warning for us, as a constituency, to be vigilant to the convenient passing of controls, out of our 'hands' as a citizenry, to the law makers and their lobbyists - leaders of corporations and corporations themselves - laden with donations of monetary support.

KING CHARLES III, is an audacious entertainment with the glorious 'brains' of provocation. Mike Bartlett is a writer we ought to take note of: EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON (2010) - 'an epic play about climate change, corporate corruption and fathers and children' is another play, of his, worth knowing. The likelihood of seeing it, however, in Sydney, is fairly remote, I reckon, unless the Amateur theatre, maybe at the New in Newtown, can secure the rights, as they did, surprisingly, for Jez Butterworth's JERUSALEM (2009), another prize-winning play.

See KING CHARLES III, while you can - it is worth your time, undoubtedly. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Griffin Theatre Company presents, REPLAY, by Phillip Kavanagh, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, 2 April - 7 May.

Memory. The tricks of memory. I have recollections of what I believe to be 'turning points'/'defining moments' in my life and each time I replay them, either, mentally or verbally, both in speech and writing, they subtly change - more or less. If that 'point'/'moment' was between two of us, or more, each of us remember it differently, if sometimes, not at all. It is the Rashomon Effect (the Kurosawa film) - where a victim is raped and it is witnessed by a third. The Victim, the Rapist and the hidden Witness can each replay what they remember, what was the truth of the event and, surprisingly, each has a different memory, different focuses of detail, a different truth. What is truth?

What really happened in my past? Is that an authentic memory? Or, has it been embroidered to suit the circumstances of my replaying it? It has changed depending on whom I am replaying it too, and for what reason. When I enjoyed the relative promiscuous life of a single person, being able to 'invent' who I was, who I had become, to each new partner, post coitus, or pre-, sometimes weekly, was an adventure - a literary adventure! - for that story of the replay of my life was adjusted, unconsciously, mostly, ( I want you to believe) to achieve what I wanted to do to, with, that person - scare them off or to keep them close.

This is what this new Australian play, REPLAY, by Phillip Kavanagh, caused me to recollect.

Says Philip Kavanagh in his Program notes:
Memory is the key to who we are. Our identity is shaped by the events of our past - our triumphs and our failures, our happiness and sorrow, our pride and regret. But the past is malleable, our memories are constantly reconstructed, and we don't truly remember the major events that shape us, but remember remembering them.
In writing REPLAY, I was driven by the paradox of how our fallible memories can possibly culminate when we are tasked with remembering collectively. How do we form a cohesive record of our shared past? Who holds the power in this remembering? And what happens if we choose to remember things differently.                                                
So why did I feel: Engrossed? Confused? Perplexed? Those three words, mostly, encapsulate my response to this production, directed by Lee Lewis.

 Engrossed fully by the committed and good acting from Anthony Gooley, Jack Finsterer and new comer, Alfie Gledhill, as three brothers replaying their lives and collective memories, in the very personal world of a family.

Confused by the very simple (over simple?) and sparse dialogue writing between the brothers, and that then introduced characters, other than the brothers, played by the same actors, without much demarcation. ("Why?", I pondered.)

Perplexed, when the play finished - I felt that the 'mystery' of the play had not been elucidated. I was so perplexed that I even went so far as to read the text to help me solve my nonplussed state, in fear that I had missed something, that I had failed to 'read' something, while in the theatre, missed a 'guide' pointing to a catharsis!

Further, from a later paragraph in the Writer's Notes, that I have quoted above:
The family unit is used as an exploration of how these ideas play out on a personal level (check.), and as an allegory for how larger groups form records of their past. (uh?) As a nation, say, how we remember our past has profound implications for our present and our future. (uh?)  How is it still our collective choice that January 26 is a day of national celebration? How is our relationship to ongoing wars informed by our annual invocation of the ANZAC spirit? If we can challenge the way we shape these past events, through the manner of their communal remembrance, we might be able to forge very different present identities for ourselves, leading to very different futures. 

So, that is what I missed in this production - the guiding point to see this play as more than a family mis-remembrance and reconstruct of memory, but also as an 'allegory', representative of a nation's mis-remembrance and reconstruction? Of the celebration of January 26, Australia Day, for instance? Or of war and ANZAC Day? That this play was meant to be, also, an allegorical challenge to those accepted notions? Is that why I felt perplexed, an absence of catharsis, at the play's end?

And you know, when I studiously read the play, post-performance, I still missed the allegorical guide points - it was still a play only about a family of three brothers replaying three different versions of a shared memory. Ms Lewis, who Directed, says in her Notes to the production:
There is a gentleness in this play that does not so much interrogate as examine, that does not expose but reveal. Generationally, Phil has grown up in a world where deconstruction is the norm - it stands to reason that this new age of writers will seek to build as their revolution.
And that may be the mission of both Mr Kavanagh and Ms Lewis "to build", to "re-construct", a nation after so much "deconstruction", and I, too, believe it is part of the responsibility of the Arts, not just to reflect society or criticise it or satirise it, but to make it. However, that is not a clearly expressed ambition in the text of REPLAY as it stands, either in the writing, or the production. It may be an intention expressed in the Notes to the Production by the Writer and the Director, but the play we watched told a personal family story - and not of a nation's story in any allegorical guise, that I could grasp. Is it a wishful thinking on the part of the Writer and Director, in the 'invigorating conversations over these past three years' in the development of this play, "dreaming what the play could be"? - merely a shared memory?

The Design is a straight forward comfortable room Designed by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, that shifts locations principally, through the dramatic and dynamic Lighting Design of Benjamin Brockman. The Sound Design by Daryl Wallis is clever in its intimation of rewound tape sounds to accommodate the replay of memory - inventive and supportive as usual, not to be underestimated in its value to the production.

REPLAY, at the SBW Stables Theatre for the Griffin Theatre Company, introduces a writer of promise and one is 'baited' to see what he produces next.  But REPLAY, is only a partially realised intention of Mr Kavanagh's and Ms Lewis' Notes in my experience. I keep remembering my first experience of  Harold Pinter's OLD TIMES, and of Kate, Anna and Deeley, and wonder if I was just as perplexed at its ending. These two plays are working in similar territory with their content, but have very different skills in delivering it.

REPLAY, puzzling, but worth a look, I reckon.

Saturday, April 9, 2016


Photo by Helen White
Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents SAVAGES, by Patricia Cornelius, at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, 1 April - 1 May.

SAVAGES, is a play by Patricia Cornelius, that premiered in Melbourne in 2013, and now, finally, reaches a Sydney audience at the Eternity Playhouse. Ms Cornelius is a multi-award winning author and her work is rarely seen in this city. The last time, professionally, was a production of THE CALL, on the SBW Stables stage, for the Griffin Theatre Company. (SLUT, was seen as part of the Sydney Fringe, last year.)
Macquarie Dictionary: savage  1. wild or rugged. 2. uncivilized; barbarous. 3. rude, boorish; 4. fierce, ferocious, or crude; untamed. 5. enraged or furiously angry, as a person. 6. an uncivilized human being. 7. a fierce, brutal or cruel person. 8. to assail violently; maul.
Four men board a ship for a cruise: "the holiday of a lifetime." On boarding, they promise to leave their 'emotional baggage' behind: disintegrating (disintegrated) family relationships, and collapsing job circumstances - a life of disadvantage and overwhelming, 'drowning', disillusion. Four men starting off again, on a ship, full of excitement with the hopeful expectation of creating a new life, even for a short time, where all their dreams will be renewed and fulfilled. To love and be loved, at least, as they know it.

It does not begin well when they find their cabin cramped and claustrophobic below the water-line, deep in the bowels of the ship. Their sense of the promise of the cruise into a life that would be more - richer, rewarding - soon shifts into a spiral of a feeling of being cheated, as nothing meets their wants, needs. (They get what they can afford, for sure.) Fuelled with alcohol, drugs and a growing anger, encouraged by being in the safety of numbers - a pack - and empowered with their gratifying practised hierarchy of power and group-disparagement, they transpose from the civil human into the wild animal - wild 'dogs'. This is a play about that kind of masculinity that mutates into most of its dangerous traits: rage, violence, misogyny and an unconscious but lacerating self-loathing.

With all the scandals of footballers' group sex exposes and the memory of the horror of a highly publicized tragic event on a cruise ship ticking away, one can approach this play with some trepidation. I did. And truly, it moves into a very uncomfortable experience, but it is one that does not just expose (or condemn) some of the behaviours of men but makes some attempt to help us to understand them. Ms Cornelius' body of work has focused on the world of the Working Class and the 'frustrations' of the limitations that society may burden, handicap, that class with.

In SAVAGES each of her men, Runt (Thomas Campbell), George (Troy Harrison), Rabbit (Josef Ber) and Craze (Yure Covich), reveal insights into their life experiences and inner life, we learn something of the motivation - the why - that their tribal mentality, given certain circumstances, can escalate into 'wild', 'barbarous', 'boorish', 'ferocious', 'enraged', 'uncivilized', 'brutal' behaviour. And although, there is an opportunity to smile, even laugh, at the naivety of these men's dreams during the early part of the play, a visceral insidious feeling of mounting fear and growing disgust registers deeply within the 'pit' of our clenching stomachs. Class and gender is thematically, fiercely, under the microscope.

The play is written in a stylised but simple poetic form, and in this heightened manner permits us an entry to the performance of the work in a relatively detached position that the powerful 'melodramatic' realism of Gordon Graham's THE BOYS does not permit, and one is grateful that SAVAGES finishes on the edge of the potential of the pressure explosion into savagery, rather than taking us into it.

For, although the play may call to mind the transgressive sex tragedies of recent times, it is not a recreation of those particular people or events. This play is not a mirror of that. Inevitably, I think, our memory may take us there, but that is not the real interest of Ms Cornelius, for this play sits solidly within the context of the 'body' of her work which is, largely, an examination of the world of the 'cheated' of our society, which began with her contributions to the famous: WHO'S AFRAID OF THE WORKING CLASS? (1998) and her 'mission' is to have us take note of the consequences of neglect or ignorance of our fellow citizens. She invites us to not judge these men, but to begin to understand them, and, certainly, not to excuse or forgive them. SAVAGES is a play that reminds me of Maxim Gorky's THE LOWER DEPTHS! - savage, indeed.

There is great will and commitment from this tight ensemble of actors, although the interrogation of the need to speak the text with a more heightened style has not been sufficiently investigated by the Director, Tim Roseman, with these actors - i.e. a technical and imaginative ownership of the carefully crafted language, a word by word clarity, within the musicality of the form structure, and one that is personalised and not so generalised - whose neglect seems to have been compensated  by him with an over vigorous, dense, physical expression, where the 'actions'/choreography sometimes appears to be a kind of substitute for the lack of language 'accuracies' that would have been more than enough to communicate the play to us. (Julia Cotton, Movement Director.)

The Set Design by Jeremy Allen, is a metaphoric intimation to a cruise ship and has a Lighting Design by Sian James-Holland that creates the atmospheres of the journey of the men, accompanied by a detailed, supportive Sound Design and Composition by Nate Edmondson.

SAVAGES is a confronting work and worth experiencing for its theatricality. But most of all for Ms Cornelius' skill in the writing. And one wishes that Mr Roseman had helped us more to appreciate, the truth of what he notes in the program (as contentious as that may be):
There's no one in Australia who can use language like Patricia Cornelius, with such deceptive simplicity masking a landscape of intricacies and wonders.
The action suiting the word, not the word obfuscated by the action.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Playhouse Creatures

pigeonhole theatre presents, PLAYHOUSE CREATURES, by April De Angelis, at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, 31 March - 9 April.

PLAYHOUSE CREATURES is a play written by April De Angelis in 1993. It has not, to my memory, been presented in Sydney (or elsewhere), except at NIDA as a training exercise, directed by Tony Knight. It is a wonder that it hasn't and a kind of further indictment of the culture we have lived through, (even with a woman leading our major theatre companies, the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) and the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) through the nineties and into the naughties). With another stirring of our consciousness to the struggle for women to be heard on our stages and screens, personified, of late, in Sydney, by the formation of WITS (Women in Theatre and Screeen), this play's appearance at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, as the first production of a new theatre company: pigeonhole theatre, the creation of Liz Bradley, Jordan Best and Karen Vickery, is a shot of robust curating that deserves attention. It is of interest that Ms De Angelis began her career as an actor with A Monstrous Regiment of Women Theatre Company, a ground breaking company of the 1970's. It's history would be worth studying.

The play concerns the experience resulting from the permission of women to appear on stage for the first time ever, in 1669, during the Restoration reign of King Charles II with the Thomas Bettterton Theatre Company. It "focuses on five of the most famous, including Nell Gwynn and Mary Bettereton, to provide a moving and often comic account of the precarious lives of Restoration actresses; curiosities, sex objects, or professional artists?" Ms De Angelis makes no apologies for her female gaze on this history, even her feminist inclinations as an artist, and "so the play is contemporary in tone and preoccupations but adheres closely to the lives and struggles of the English actresses, if not always constrained by historical accuracy." (From the program notes) Ms De Angelis explores the female experience and explores the contrast between the ideals of feminism and the practice of it with this play, something we saw in her play, JUMPY, last year, at the STC.

The actors of this production have a disparate range of skills but under the Direction of Jordan Best, create a moving ensemble of integrated storytellers, that focused intently on the lives (and politics) of the women in the play, such that one was induced to a state of a belief and immersion of a deep empathetic concern. All five commit with passion and a sensibility to the bigger mission of the writer. Emma Wood (Mrs Marshall), Jenny Roberts (Mrs Farley), Amy Dunham (Nell Gwynn), play with a certain sense of the trajectory of the artists' stories, while Karen Vickery seizes the wealth of the writing, and the opportunity of much Shakespearean verse, to make a veritable 'feast' of Mrs Betterton's talents and sad arc, underlining the cruelty of Time. Ms Vickery gives great barnstorming readings to her Cleopatra and the Dark Lady (Lady Macbeth) and provides much intelligent wit and insight to the human dilemma as an ageing female actor, as provided by Ms De Angelis over the journey of the play. Ms Vickery is beautifully counterbalanced with a quick witted comic timing from Liz Bradley as Doll Common, the wily backstage management to the women of the Company. All these roles are gifts of creation from Ms De Angelis and these actors make a confident grasp of what they have been given to tell with the authentic, but not ironic, sense of a self-knowledge of the gender discrimination in our society.

The production values are variable but simply pragmatic within an obvious restricted budget: Set by Christiane Nowak; Costume by Anne Kay; Lighting by Kelly McGannon; including a largely filmic Composition of a score with a live cello accompaniment, sometimes a little over-heated, by Matthew Webster.

PLAYHOUSE CREATURES is a moving evening in the theatre not just for its emotional and historical content but, particularly, because of its pertinent but gentle observation that the role of women in the theatre may not have much changed since 1669, and celebrates that these pioneers, whatever their ultimate experience was, could say with pride: "But we spoke, and we was the first..."

This world has been introduced to us from another point of view in Stephen Jeffery's THE LIBERTINE (the actor's experience being that of Elizabeth Barry), and in the film STAGE BEAUTY, with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes, Directed by Richard Eyre, in 2004.

PLAYHOUSE CREATURES, an important debut by this company and with a play that deserves exposure in Sydney. If not a great play a very astute, timely and good play. One hopes Canberra takes note. Pam Gems is another playwright generally ignored in Sydney's repertoire as well: STANLEY, more than worth seeing. Maybe that could be the next for pigeonhole theatre?  Believe it or not, it would be a premiere for that play in Sydney (Australia?!), as well! - another, of what I call,'  'femalist' rather than feminist, ignored by our 'gatekeepers' of what Sydney audiences should, can see. A kind of tragic 'scandal' really.

P.S. AADA, another training school has also produced the play. Andrew Davidson, Directed it.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

National Theatre presents MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, by August Wilson, in the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, U.K.

August Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays spanning the 20th century, often referred to as the Pittsburg Cycle, of which MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, is the second, written in 1984. He was born in 1945 and died in 2005. The plays form a kind of fever chart of the trauma of slavery. Their historical trajectory takes African-Americans through their transition from property to personhood - 'a profound articulation of the Black Tradition'. I have been fortunate to have seen many of these plays, having worked in the USA, and because of the African-American population of the cast in all of the plays, the likelihood of seeing them in Australia is very small, and is, in my estimation, a great loss to us, as they are remarkable stories articulated brilliantly by characters of shining passions of humanity. I have always felt the cultural reference, understanding, for me, of these texts, was an identification to the similarities to the Irish playwrights such as Sean O'Casey and John Millington Synge, even the plays of Australian Peter Kenna, especially THE SLAUGHTER OF ST. TERESA'S DAY (1959) and A HARD GOD (1974).

This production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM at the National Theatre, is the second, the first produced in 1989. Many of the other plays have appeared at the company and, of course, in London, elsewhere.

Ma Rainey, an actual figure of Jazz history, was "a short, dark-skinned, wild-haired bi-sexual woman who chose to  record a rough-house dance number, her version of the 'Black Bottom', at a Paramount session in Chicago, early in December 1927." [1]  It concentrates on the interaction between the passionately rancorous performers, arguing through the new developments of jazz as a recording genre, but also has a powerfully subtle observation of the harsh racism of a white-run recording company prepared to make economic rationalist decisions to make money from these gloriously talented but fiercely discriminated members of American society. Ma Rainey was known as 'The Paramount Wildcat', the 'Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues'.

On a two tiered Design, by Ultz, of the recording studio and a subterranean band room, the drama unfolds with carefully ratcheted tension and a glorious humour, laced with a hot breathed sexuality. All of the performers give wonderfully observed people, each with individual musical and political points of view, that pugnaciously round on each other, leading to a tragic ending. Lucian Msamati (Toledo), Giles Terera (Slow Drag), Clint Dyer (Cutler), and especially, O-T Fagbenle (Levee), in a stunningly moving portrait of an out-of-control trumpet player, punch out the politics and humour with a sense of veracity that vibrates with the pathos of a truly frustrated humanity. Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) wields her sexual appetites with proprietorial ownership of the ingenue Dussie Mae (Tamara Laurance) and power entitlements in her insistent introduction of her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Tunji Lucas, in a gorgeously created characterisation) to a solo role on the record in the recording session.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is an absorbing and compelling production, Directed with expert detail and sympathetic cultural heartbeats, by Dominic Cooke. I observed that Mr Cooke also Directed my favourite production in my last visit to London: the Martin Crimp play, IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM has deservedly been nominated in the Best Revival category in the 2016 Olivier Awards. Let us hope it is part of the National Theatre Broadcasts, a not-to-be-missed event, if it is. Keep an eye out. It may be the only way, other than by visiting the USA or the UK to ever see August Wilson's great contribution to Dramatic Literature.

1.From the Program Notes: Ma Rainey & The Blues, by Paul Oliver.

P.S. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM was the winner of the Olivier Award for Best Revival. (April 3. 2016).