Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Measure for Measure, and The Servant of Two Masters

Photograph by Zelko Nedic

Sport For Jove Theatre co. presents MEASURE FOR MEASURE, by William Shakespeare and THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, by Carlo Goldoni. Bella Vista Farm, 8 - 30 December. Laura Shakespeare Festival, Everglades Gardens 14 - 30, January.

With this year adaptations of Shakespeare's MEASURE FOR MEASURE and Carlo Goldoni's THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, Sport For Jove (SFJ) present their ninth summer season at Bella Vista Farm, and in Leura, in the Everglades Gardens.

Lizzie Schebesta, the Director of MEASURE FOR MEASURE, declares in her program notes to be 'an unashamedly feminist theatre maker and will frack my way into a play to bring out its female voice.' So with excision of text - even a whole sub-plot and several characters - and much re-writing, with a Design concept (Sallyanne Facer) that liberally borrows from contemporary television imagery: THE HANDMAID'S TALE, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, (WENTWORTH), this company have re-gendered some characters (e.g. Claudio becomes Claudia; the Viennese prison, all, a female penitentiary), to help justify the final solution to one of the famous 'problems' of the play: the marriage proposal from the principal protagonist, Duke Vincentio, to the novitiate nun, Isabella, by having Isabella snatching the Duke's proclamation microphone and sharing the last famous speech.

It seemed to my companions and I on the Opening Night that none of this adaptive 'fracking' seemed to be strong or radical enough to win us, convincingly, to this feminist theatre maker's reading of this importantly ultra-naturalistic 'modern' take of a corrupt governmental system (Monarchist/Fascistic) observed by Shakespeare in the late Elizabethan world where no-one, male or female, is either black or white in the vice or virtue stakes, but are dwelling rather in the humanistic 'grey' areas of perception where all are nicely 'drawn' through an Overdone lens. The observation and moral critique is unreservedly fierce - it was in Elizabethan terms and still is today, making it one of the more regularly contemporaneously revived plays from the Shakespeare canon. (Erroneously, I have heard that MEASURE FOR MEASURE is rarely seen - well, I can talk of six Sydney productions including the Cheek By Jowl production as part of last year's Sydney Festival (in Russian) - which was very fascinating.)

This questionably contemporary 'fracking' for political statement for SFJ pales in its attempt when one looks at, say, Charles Marowitz's version of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (much reviled, by the way). I would wish that what Ms Schebesta and her company have wrought was more radical in its re-writing (adaptation), had more courage, to win us to her argument, with this play as its foundation, since she lacks, she says, no shame. Go for it - this version seemed timid - shallow?

On Opening Night, maybe, the literature adaptation and the Design flourishes of the production were slightly premature in its reveal to an audience (costumes, a mess), and so in performance was made  to be opaque, for it seemed that the company of performers had not quite settled into the characters or rhythm of the production. Not all finding the surety of technique either vocally or physically to deliver Outdoor Shakespeare and handle seamlessly the many scene changes and help us find sense to the musical decisions of a popular culture soundtrack that may have needed a foreknowledge of the original to have thematic affect. The production intents were blurred in focus. The play, if you were able to hold attention, shockingly relevant and disturbing.

'I will proclaim you (as a sexual predator)', says Isabella, to Angelo.
'Who will believe you?', answers the male power broker.

Yalin Ozucelik, as Duke Vincentio, stood head and shoulder above the other actors in his handling of the space, play, production and audience on the night, although his idiosyncratic take of the infamously difficult role of the Duke with his machinations was not easily interpreted for full appreciation, without more consistent surrounding support. Janine Watson playing the re-genedered Claudio as Claudia was bold though not partnered well enough by Clauida Ware's Isabella, to bring the the famous prison scene, at the centre of this play- some say some of the best of Shakespeare's writing - to brilliance of clarity or appreciation. Adele Quero, in her brief work as Mariana, was a great relief of perceptive interpretative demands, with a calm inner centre and knowledge on how to deliver for the audience.

The following week, Sport for Jove presented a production of the well known THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, by Carlo Goldoni (1746), adapted freely, and Directed, by George Banders and Francesca Savige. Now this play, too, is a regular work seen in Sydney, the last time, hilariously adapted by the National Theatre of Great Britain as ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS.

My observation as to the wholehearted success of this production of this play, as compared to the MEASURE FOR MEASURE, was that, here, the adaptation of the original play seemed to be a carefree and more radically daring one, with all involved gleefully engaged in the 'inventions'  and popular culture references - not just in their bits but with a fine sense of the whole construct of the madness of Goldoni's' world, and secure knowledge of how their bits fitted together to make this comedy work like a well oiled clock. This company, essentially the same one that was engaged with the previous week's Shakespeare, seemed to be cocksure of what they were doing and technically had a 'handle' on to how to convey their gifts and hard work to the audience in this outdoor space.

George Zhao as the madcap servant Truffaldino, has an innate charm and physical dexterity capable of seducing any audience to empathy to his character's dilemmas. Whilst the promise I saw in Adele Querol's Mariana, last week, is brought to admirable fruition, as Beatrice, in her double act as male impersonator, supported goofily by Andrew Hearle, as Florindo. Whilst Gabriel Fancourt is an able 'idiot', Silvio Lombardi, in pursuit of his love Smeraldina. The other comedy is oiled by the exaggerations and fine judgements of Yalin Ozucelik, as Pantalone. But, the ensemble concentration and its awareness of how this  production is meant to work is what keeps the energy smooth and pointedly funny.

The Design of this show by Sallyanne Facer, especially, the costuming, is more spot-on than last week, and the widely referenced music choices are much more useful in holding the show together under the Sound Design of Tegan Nichols. The Lighting of both shows was wonderfully versatile in difficult circumstances made to order by Matt Cox.

Another Summer Season from Sport For Jove - one hilarious and silly, one still developing to find its balance, and darker in intent.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Christmas Carol

Lies, Lies And Propaganda, in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co. presents A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Melissa Lee Speyer, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. 14-24 December.

This is a version of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL that is so opposite the Belvoir delight of a few years ago that a proper regard of the company title that is presenting this new work at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT): Lies, Lies and Propaganda, ought to be fully digested before considering taking your children.

The writer, Melissa Lee Speyer, along with her Director, Michael Dean, and probably the full team of collaborators (including Assistant Director, Jasper Garner Gore),  have taken the genius of Dickens: his framework and characters, and given a contemporary twist to this telling of the well loved story fully informed by the events of this year, this annus horribilis, 2017 - you know of what I am referencing -urgh!

Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future is presented to this Ebenezer Scrooge (Bobbie-Jean Henning) with a great deal of sauce/source whose ingredients are mostly satirical, cynical and, especially by the time we get to Christmas Future, bleak and very, very uncomfortable - and not far from the possible consequences of those 'someones' with power and access to a 'button' having had a tantrum. This is a piece of 'propaganda' that only the most aware might want as part of their Christmas carolling and bonhomie.

For this 'black' take of the story there is a black and white costume themed design, with shades of grey, fluidly managed in the space, with some tight choreographic Direction from Mr Dean, (Lighting Design by Christopher Page), and song supported by a live sound accompaniment by Miles Elkington, that is a major influence to the affect of the production - a live improvised urgency.

The actors vary in skills with their contribution but all with a uniform well drilled, committed zeal: Aslam Abdus-Samad, Dymphna Carew, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Jacqueline Marriott, Monica Sayers, Bishanyia Vincent and Michael Yore. The stalwart strengths in the work that continually arrest attention coming from Ms Henning, Ms. Sayers and Mr Elkington.

This is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, for the jaded and dejectedly concerned members of our community - and there should be many of you out there that ought to enjoy this work very much.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Vertical Dreaming

Red Line presents, Andrew Henry's VERTICAL DREAMING, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo. 5-15 December.

Andrew Henry - an actor/artist - has, from a very personal experience of depression, curated a dream of a vertical kind: a digging down and up into the psyche, using some found poetry, adjusted, sometimes, for his own 'truth', with 'the simple goal that this encourages others to talk and share and understand that it is ok not to be ok. ... That it is normal, and you are not alone.'

Mr Henry informs us in the program notes, that this work has been inspired by the following texts particularly:
AUDIOBOOK, by Neil Hilborn.
LETTER to a new crush, by Sean Patrick Mulroy.
RULES for a functioning alcoholic, by Shane Hawley.
PASSON , by Michael Lee.
These contemporary poems found in a book at a mental health clinic were an initial inspiration to a search and revelation. Deeply committed and emotionally naked, transformed into an incandescent speak, Andrew Henry uses poetry and songs, with the support of a music quartet - Lenore Munro, Paul Prespitino, Matt Ralph and Simon Rippingale - to take his audience into a conversation about the conscious rigours of a vulnerability that may trigger a feeling of worthlessness that sometimes poses, aggressively, the question: "What is it all for?"

All art, whatever its form, comes from the daring artist's need to express themselves through self revelation. Art never comes when it is spurred by an escape mechanism from self or life.  It demands that you tell a truth and not pretend. To work as an artist requires the ability to recognise what you know as the truth within you that will illuminate the task you have at hand, and then to have the courage to use it. To work as an artist, at the highest level, requires an accepted fragility and risk intensive choice. It is difficult enough to admit to knowing yourself and it takes real courage to reveal it.

(To name a few great artists at work that I embrace with care: Beethoven and his "Eroica" and "Ninth Symphony", Michelangelo's "David", Jeffrey Smart's paintings, Shakespeare's "Hamlet", Nureyev and Fonteyn's dancing, Olivier's "Othello", Hanya Yanagihara'a novel, A Little Life, all the film company of "Moonlight", and recently, locally, Ivan Donato in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, or Ursula Yovich in BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS. - all of these works of art have caused me to weep with a recognition; there are others, believe me, as well.)

Great art can come when the artist dares to cut through nakedly to the edge of the abyss, the pit, the void and point it out, tell of it, and utilise it, as a tool to be possessed by, to be touched by lightning, to guide the rest of us to an assurance on how to live our life. (Chekhov, O'Neill, Miller, Shostakovich). Too, to help us, his witnesses, to draw the courage to endure our travails, both good and difficult. An artist has to dare at the edge of personal comfort, sometimes safety, to give the audience, the viewer, the listener a mirror to see themselves and to be given the knowledge that they are not alone and that it is okay to be not okay. That to be human is okay and that, perhaps, 'feelings', harnessed by 'reason', is the formula to balance. One, of course, need not to be an artist to explore the outer edges of depression - one simply has to be human.

In Andrew Henry's VERTICAL DREAMING, he gives us that gift. Feeling, balanced by the reasoning of the 'poet', in verse and song. The experience is short, only 50 minutes long, but is a balm for hurt minds and is of a generous proportion in all ways. Alexander Berlage has lit the show and Directed Mr Henry, in this intimate space, to an expression of some importance. Mr Henry's courage is great, the experience thought filled - shattering - for some, an assurance.

Bluebeard's Castle

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE, with Bach and Brahms, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House. November 29. December 1 and 2.

BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE is one of a concert item from three B's of the music world: Brahms, Bach and Bartok. Besides the initial B as a common denominator/cue for this concert it is also a presentation of three works that involves the human voice supported by an orchestra.

The first work was from Johannes Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Op.53 with mezzo soprano, Michelle DeYoung and Men of the Opera Australia Chorus. A leader in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, Brahms wrote this work as a wedding gift to Julia Schumann, it being, it seems, a gesture of his own undeclared love for her. The text is from one of Goethe's "Wanderer Odes". I do not appreciate the work of Brahms and probably need a guide to assist me to him. This work, even though I have read of its high regard, did not really move me or hold my interest.

To follow was a work from our second B, Johann Sebastian Bach: Ich habe genug - Cantata, BWV B2. Baritone, David Greco was the soloist with the orchestra. Bach is one of my delights. The Saint Matthew Passion one of my all time favourite pieces of music. This work was composed in February of 1727 for the Feast of the Purification.

From the program notes, by Gordon Kalton Williams "the text of the Cantata No 82 is connected with the words of Simeon which are interpreted as: 'after the Saviour has appeared, man can die peacefully, putting his trust in the act of Christ's redemption.' The music is of the usual hypnotic pleasure from Bach, featuring, as well, the oboe in a beguiling central place in the music.

Having just read a new book of history: THE DARKENING AGE - The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, by British historian, Catherine Nixey, I was particularly alert to the text of this work and when the voice reaches the final verse I could not help but whisper to my companion, despite my love of the music, that it was a further repetitive recitation of Christianity as A Death Cult, for the life on earth is one of misery and the more misery I have here on earth, the greater my joy in the other world with God. So hurry up death!:
I long for my death,
I wish it would come soon
Then will I be freed
From earthly bonds of misery.
Rather a joy of life I reckon, which gratefully, the music of Bach nearly always gives me.

After the interval break Conductor, David Robertson, with a huge orchestra led the featured international singers, bass, John Relyea (Duke Bluebeard) and mezzo soprano, Michelle DeYoung (Judith), into a concert performance of Bela Bartok's Opera in one act: BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE.

Using the story written by Charles Perrault, in 1697, 'Barbe bleu', Bela Bartok in 1911 with a libretto by Bela Balazs (influenced by the Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck and his libretto for Paul Dukas' ARIANE ET BARBE-BLEU), wrote a psychological study of male-female relationships and the elusive quest for a beloved. Bartok's treatment of the story is not that of a wife slayer as in the original Perrault story, but of man searching for a soul-mate of equal standing that will not lead to destruction of the psyche of one or the other, or both. In a letter to his mother in 1903, Bartok wrote:

I prophesy, I have a foreknowledge, that this spiritual loneliness is to be my destiny, I look about me in search of the ideal companion, and yet I am fully aware that it is a vain quest 
(The musical motifs for each of the four wives of Bluebeard contain musical allusions to works dedicated to his own former loves; the first to Felicitas Fabian, Bartok's first love, the second to his beloved Stefi Geyer, the third to Irmy Jurkovics. Judith is, of course, Marta Ziegler, to whom it was dedicated: what a wedding present!)
Seven doors within the castle are opened, by Judith, one by one, to reveal the nature of Duke Bluebeard. He, beside her, takes her into a deeper and deeper revelation of his inner self which she, like the three other brides, fails to grasp - her fear of what she sees preventing her to truly understand what it is the Duke needs - intimacy that is soul deep - Judith joins the other wives in a chamber of memories, while, he, the Duke, recedes where "henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness, darkness.'

The music of this great small work is powerful (and lush) in its radiating orchestrations and full of the foreboding ratcheting tensions of the need of the doomed quest. John Relyea with his powerful bass sound and dignity of stance developed the tension of the work with great dramatic construct leading Ms DeYoung's Judith through the challenges of each of the rooms. It was a fabulous journey, from Mr Relyea, Ms DeYoung and David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The opera a tremendous concert experience in the theatre.


The Old 505 Theatre Company present KNOTS, created by Gareth Boylan, Kerri Glasscock and Michael Pigott, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown. 5 December - 17 December.

KNOTS is a new Australian play, created by Gareth Boylan, Kerri Glasscock and Michael Pigott. It is, apparently, the third instalment of a trilogy which began in 2014 with TWELFTH DAWN, followed by SEEN UNSEEN, in 2015.

At a late stage in this nearly 90 minute play we are, amusingly, told that art does not necessarily have to have meaning. KNOTS self-devised by this company has an arresting text that keeps one curious and in a state of deliberation in trying to undo its knots. What it is discussing, illuminating, unfortunately, has no real clarity despite much literary invention and some staging images with the usage of simple and very spare properties of furniture and costume delineation, and the practise, occasionally, of a tentative stylistic physical language.

My gist of the experience is:
1. Of the juxtaposition of banal everyday conversations alongside scientific jargon and space-time travel/journey intimations into the future.
2. Of some observations of the results of earthly climatic-change degradations and a kind of Planet of the Apes - the original - re-discovery of an emerging culture, from that cataclysm (this time not apes but of the species homo sapiens surviving.)
 3. Of digressions into other popular culture images of a Tom Cruise chuckle that intimate our casual habit to cartoon our cultural dilemmas instead of truly regarding and attempting to deal with them.

Frankly, I don't know, really.

I am as mystified today as I write this as I was while watching KNOTS. So I have taken away from the theatre little meaning, mostly opaque befuddlement. And unfortunately, there was not much Art, as the craft of the performers appeared, relatively, underemployed, under projected.

For, I was further distracted in being present with this company, as I contemplated a recent production, by Clockfire Theatre, in this same space, that tackled a similarly dense set of ideas (but about patriarchy): THE NATURAL CONSERVATORIUM FOR WISE WOMEN, that, too, had a very literary text, but had an extraordinary invented physical language to help engage us. What was wonderful was the sorting needed during that performance to solve what was going on elucidated by a confident and a remarkable skills set of well primed vocal and physical instrument utility. In KNOTS, the vocal work of this company has no such clarity of effort (support), and the physical skills were of a very loose commitment - lacking definition and discipline of intent. There was a naturalistic carelessness in both craft areas that tended to help throw-away the text. Word was not clarified by the action, or the action clarified by the word. Content rich, communicative form poor.

The company of actors are: Giles Gartrell-Mills (Gerry and Jerry), Kerri Glasscock (Woman) and Michael Pigott (Man and Coffee Man), Directed by fellow Devisor, Gareth Boylan.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Barbara And The Camp Dogs

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir and Vicki Gordon Music Productions present BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, in the Upstairs Belvoir, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 2-23 December.

"Now let in the love", are the final words of the song of this new Australian play (with music): BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, co-written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine.

It is an irresistible invitation and love is what permeated the tremendous reception that the audience gave this performance/this play. In between the opening song which begins with the lyrics: "Look at the sun and do not even flinch" and this final invitation, we have met two sisters, Barbara (Ursula Yovich) and Rene (Elaine Crombie), songsters, and have been taken on a journey from the city back to country and family - to Katherine, in the Northern Territory, to their mother and Joseph (Troy Brady). It has heart and deep, deep soul. It is riotously funny and empathetically sad. It deals with the politics of family and of the nation.

Barbara: You got your phone?
Rene: Why?
Barbara: You might want to record this, 'cause it's only going to happen once.
Rene: Whatever it is, Barbara, it's too late.
Barbara: I love you, Rene. You're my sister and you've looked after me.
Rene: ...
Barbara: I love you. I love mum. And I'm sorry I wasn't here. I'm sorry for letting you go through that alone. I wish I could go back and ... I'm sorry Rene.
Rene: Yeah. Well, I know that right now, in the moment, you really mean it Barbara. I'm just over in the moment, especially in your moment. But I'm grateful you've said it.
Barbara: (with a shrug) Okay. ...

Barbara:  ...  She screams. 
You hate us 'cause we're black or pity us 'cause we're black. Which is worse? You whitefellas have an infection that makes you think that I am really different. Shit, You get crazy with hatred or crazy with guilt, one minute we're more real and the next we're primitive natives. This is the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world. Because at the heart of this country is theft, and now the whole place crouches, waiting, calculating about when it is going to be stolen back from them. Because nobody fears being thieved from as much as a pack of thieves, a gang, a group. A nation. And I understand theft. Of community, of culture, of language, of family. Belonging. I wanted to belong somewhere, and I never belonged here. And I think of Mum Tanya, of my dad, of my brother Joseph. I mostly think of Mum Jill in that hospital, waiting, thinking I don't care.
This play began after a meeting between writer Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich at an Awards after-party. In the euphoria and disinhibiting atmosphere of that time and space, Alana met an alter-ego of Ursula's called 'Barbara'. From the program notes:
Barbara was pissed off, ramped up, foul-mouthed, shamelessly sexual, flirtatious, and dangerous. ... She was wild-eyed, hip shaking, loud-laughing and brilliant good fun. ... a version of First Nations female power to conjure stereotype-busting magic with.
That was in 2008. Then in 2010 Vicki Gordon (one of the co-producers of this production) began managing Ursula's music career and encouraged Alana to work together with Ursula for a show for 'Barbara'. That was seven years ago and like all good things that are given time to gestate we have Barbara on stage that launches the audience into a revelatory, confronting, raucous, wonderful, releasing act of LOVE.

Barbara is angry. Barbara because of that anger is a very difficult person to know, to be with. The reason for that anger is what you need to wait for the play to tell you about - no spoilers here. It is in that anger that her sister, Rene, has had to find a way to love in a mine-field of behavioural difficulties, laid out by her sister. It is astonishing to witness her generous nature in the blast furnace of Barbara's injured temperament. But, that anger is also the source of Barbara's and Rene's artistry as songwriters and singers. There is loving delicate insight and pain in the lyrics. There is pain and spectacular love in the music. There is, best of all, an astounding pain and love in the voices of these two artists and brother, Joseph, late in the play.

In the play form around the musical elements there are insightful look-ins into the family culture of our indigenous sisters and their family. Her sister, Rene, is part of Barbara's Musical Act and the co-dependent knowledge that siblings have, permits a rapport of uninhibited verbal interactions that only bound-'refugees' in a hostile world trying to survive can have. It is hilarious and an insight into a culture of support that I last saw in Kylie Coolwell's play of 2015 - THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, and was an assurance of the goodness that shines through and can survive with simple but meaningful acts of kindness. In this play those acts of kindness from Rene balance and brave-out the heat of Barbara's acts of anger. Good is defined by small but generous gestures of kindness.

Ursula Yovich, co-wrote this work with Alana Valentine, and together they have created Barbara, a character that permits Ms Yovich to unleash her gifts with open-hearted and fearless conviction - singing and acting. This is Ms Yovich clear-eyed and raw, at her very best, uninhibited by another writer's character and is released with a firm trust in the material of the play, and with her magnificent musical gifts, celebrated in a naked spotlight of soaring beauty, telling a necessary story. Recently, Ms Yovich created another Barbara in Katherine Thomson's play DIVING FOR PEARLS, and, undoubtedly, it was good work, but this performance is in a glorious stratosphere way beyond anything we saw on the SBW stage.

 I remember Ms Yovich in Neil Armfield's production of THE SECRET RIVER and watched her struggle, struggle well, but still in a struggle to find complete conviction with her responsibilities until, towards the play's end, she came forward and sang a lament of grief for her Indigenous ancestors that lifted the atmosphere of the production into a profound statement of horror and bloody murder, transcending the banal world of colonial Sydney, of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, into a place of universal transcendence and insight to the agony of the human that has less power of force, facing down the ruthless needs of colonisation. The fate of many indigenous populations around the world in the history of European exploration and invasion were spoken of then. So, here, Ms Yovich with her tailored character of Barbara, has a identification/personalisation that permits a rawness of truths that are similarly profound.

Balancing this performance is a wonder of generosity of insight in the creation of Rene by Elaine Crombie. I am less familiar with this actor's work but am in awe of the sensitivity, patience and instinctive grace that she brings to Rene. The writing is good but Ms Crombie seems to radiate a natural quality of goodness and endless love (one of her character's favourite songs - that Barbara won't let her ever sing). The quality of acting is wonderful and the musical gifts she has as a singer is not shaded beside that of Ms Yovich. The voices are an empathetic joining of comfortable artists, inspired by the urgency of what they have to say.

The late entrance of the character, Joseph, introduces us to a third vocalist of heartfelt crafting and revelatory soul reflection. This is Troy Brady, who up to that entrance has been the 'roadie' of this story endowing every entrance and task with a character rich persona that though nearly invisible is a life force of quiet contribution to the sensibility of the tone of the production.

It is in the musical offers by songwriters, Alana Valentine, Ursula Yovich and Adm Ventoura, with small contributions from Vicki Gordon (Tick Sister), Merenia Gillies (Chained to You) and James Warwick Shipton (Pieces), under the Musical Direction of Jessica Dunn (bass guitar) with Michelle Vincent (drums) and Debbie Yap (lead guitar), who are the play's band: THE CAMP DOGS, that may throw out a challenge for Best Australian Musical to MURIEL'S WEDDING, now at the Sydney Theatre Company - very different in genre but immensely, overwhelmingly, effective in the auditorium - no small achievement from Sound Design, by Steve Toulmin, I'm sure. The presence of the band is sexy and thrilling, their presence heating up the venue with a delectable energy and developing an appetite, from us, for a wanting of more.

That energy is transcribed to us, is part of the seduction of Stephen Curtis' pub design, especially, with that gaudy pub carpet and golden and crimson velveteen furniture (that accommodates an on-stage audience), and a few tricks to take us into a yacht-gig on the harbour, or on a road trip to the outback of country on a motor bike with a hot hack, lit with panache (and a subtle beauty) by Karen Norris, to keep us in permanent thrall to the unravelling of the story. The Costume Design by Chloe Greaves is another subtle contributor to the affect of this production - the sari moments unforgettable.

A I recollected when watching A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE recently, great experiences come from the source of the writer (the writer in my personal mantra is GOD), in that case it was Arthur Miller, in this case, Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, which then with the right talent in all areas, can create a spectacular experience in the theatre (or cinema). It is a near miracle of accident when it all clicks, and thankfully, it happens often enough for us who go to the theatre regularly, and repeatedly, to encourage us to seek it out. Rare but it does happen. And here it IS. And not to try and get a ticket would suggest a kind of wilful madness on your part, if you love the theatre, despite the rock band, which might give you hesitation - or not - it is assuredly a tender rock and soul ballad yearning. Do go.

So, last, but definitely not least, one must acknowledge the 'invisible' work of the Director Leticia Caceres with BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS. It is great work, and great, no less, because of its egoless invisibility. And as I peruse what other offers Ms Caceres has given us at Belvoir: THE DROVER'S WIFE, MORTIDO, MISS JULIE and THE DARK ROOM, one must come to conclude that there is some remarkable talent here. The great seamless and 'invisible' work, on the Upstairs Belvoir stage is the sign, for me, of a true artist, not flaunting her gifts, which are, nevertheless, intrinsically, the essential 'glue' and impetus for BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS to BE. To exist transcendently as an entertaining and important night in the theatre. The performance she has coaxed from these players (particularly, I noticed, with the dual role that Mr Brady gives) is magical.

With THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, and last year's THE DROVER'S WIFE , BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS have lifted, for me, the indigenous experience into brilliant theatre of tremendous cultural importance for all of contemporary Australia. Congratulations Belvoir, it seems that there is recovery of reputation going on. This year, HIR, GHOSTS, ATLANTIS, and now this. No argument against that, really. I've been having a grateful time. I should tell you all that I have bought tickets for friends for Christmas and am going again. Now there is a palpable gesture to my conviction about this production. Yes?

My final thought last night as I went home was: here is a more radical screen musical that will sit quite comfortably and in a very challenging way with THE SAPPHIRES. Anyone?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Muriel's Wedding

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Sydney Theatre Company presents A Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures Production, MURIEL'S WEDDING - The Musical. Book by PJ Hogan. Music and Lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Based on the Motion Picture by PJ Hogan, with songs by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Stig Anderson, originally written for ABBA. At the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

Well, here it is, a new Australian musical. It is based on the film of MURIEL'S WEDDING of 1994, an iconic, quirky, favourite of the nation. At its centre is a misfit, Muriel, who embarks on finding a life, an identity, away from the 'closed' world of her upbringing in Porpoise Spit, by hook or by crook - and that there is much 'crook' embraced by Muriel to follow her 'dream' in the schemata of the story, seems, in the eyes of most Australians, in the tradition of the unconditional support of the 'underdog', instanced, for example, in the holographic 'beat-up' of Ned Kelly, is neither here nor there. It is the survival of the larrikin that wins the hearts of its audience, for she, despite all she does, has a heart, ultimately.

Too, the satiric eye that examines the 'cruelty' of the suburbs and the tawdry lives of the Heslop family hits a mark that tells us a truth masked by a 'fairy tale' where 'revenge' happens - a tit-for-tat series of unkindnesses, and yet still, strangely, inspite of all the 'criminality', humanity can triumph. This comic satire is balanced by a grim and often savage critique of an Australian culture.

(MURIEL, the film, was written and directed by PJ Hogan and Produced by Jocelyn Moorhouse, and one recalls the 2015 film, THE DRESSMAKER, written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan and we see again the same visionary quirkiness of Australian culture, ruthlessly exposed, by these artists. It might account for the mixed reception to the later film - in time we may all come to 'understand' it, for there is, yet again, some contentious meat to 'swallow'.)

So, striking that balance with a musical version of this film was a tremendous risk, and it was when PJ Hogan was granted the job-wish of adapting his own screenplay to create the book for The Musical, and securing the permission from ABBA to be able to use some of their songs - essential to the success of the film - that the green light to go ahead was given.

MURIEL'S WEDDING - The Musical, is a terrific success.


1. The Book by PJ Hogan. This being its first outing it is amazingly successful. There are some structural weaknesses, especially in the first half of the first half, but the second act is a wonderful blend of storytelling gliding through the comic and tragic journey with a wonderfully balanced confidence. The integration of the ABBA material is wonderfully done and the extending and altering of the story lines and updating of the period setting to present day does in no way intrude on the memories of the film, it simply gives the audience in the theatre new ownership through closer 'lived' recognitions - we all have an iPhone and we all have 'selfies'!

2. The Music and Lyrics. Firstly, thank you ABBA. Then secondly, thanks to the brilliance of the Lyrics and the accompanying music by the team, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. The lyrics are clever - not Sondheim BUT, so smart - funny and character apt, with a musical score that is just as character quirky-witty. Enriched with the orchestrations and arrangements by Issac Hayward (additional Music, as well). There is a seamless shift from the famous ABBA to the new score.

3. The Set and Costume Design by Gabriella Tylesova. The Design look of this production and the Technical genius in gaining its fluidity for performance is totally remarkable. The Glossy Primary colours that backdrop the other design features of the work are perfect in their capture of elements of the Australian personality and are exhilarating and subtly uplifting for relaxed ownership by the audience.  The Harbour Bridge and The Sydney Opera House just look glorious.  Go, Amazing Sydney. This work is so, so wonderful. (Video Design, all those iPhones around the proscenium, by David Bergman)

4. The Lighting Design by Trent Suidgeest does all it needs to do without pulling focus. It is no small feat.

5. The Direction by Simon Phillips is assured and serves fluidly the unfolding of the complications of this very extraordinarily difficult genre of theatre, utilising Ms Tylesova's Design vision impeccably. Like the Book weaknesses, in time, the few false overstepping into visual-action 'vulgarities' can be tempered - perhaps, being not sure of the tone to win an audience some temptations have been given in to - I reckon, not necessary! Trust the writing. The comedy is more razor sharp than pier-end!

6.The Choreography by Andrew Hallsworth is bright, crisp and seamless in whisking the work, the songs and music along.

7. The Casting:

Muriel is a crucial part of the jigsaw. A young unknown, Maggie McKenna, has seized the opportunity with focused √©lan and stamina galore. The singing is strong and the acting grows more confident as the story unfolds. It is in the first half - and it might be in the writing - that doesn't quite win the audience over. Or, is it that the audience, so enamoured of the original Muriel, has got to learn to accept a new 'version' before surrendering - it took a little time to come on board completely (or is it the so-called Target dress in the Cocktail scene that looks just a little too good, for us to buy this is our  Muriel the Dag?)

Rhonda Epinstall in the hands of Madeline Jones, from the moment she first appears, picks up the show and has us eating out of her hand and 'buying' the show without any more hesitations. The acting is spot on and her singing voice is tremendous.

Gary Sweet, as Bill Heslop has a good go at the iconic creation made indelible by Bill Hunter, in the film, and surprises with his singing offers. Justine Clarke playing Mum, Betty Heslop, gives a 'musical theatre' performance and is disappointing in not really containing, deeply, the tragic element of the woman. I was surprised (and disappointed). Fortunately, the 'figure' drawn by PJ Hogan still hits home with great power.

The rest of the company, and that includes Helen Dallimore who features as Deidre Chambers (What a coincidence) and Ben Bennett, as loyal love interest, Brice Nobes, are startlingly alert and seemed to be very pleased to be part of this production. I noted, Briallen Clarke - who as Joanie Heslop, gets to do: "You're terrible Muriel", a number of times, Hilary Cole (who I notice is understudy for Muriel - now, that I would like to see), Jamie Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Aaron Tsindos - the ABBA impersonators, and Christie Whelan Browne - Tania, the narcissist from hell. Boy, does everybody work hard!!! Watch closely and you will see each and everyone of them re-incarnated from featured actor to chorus, to featured actor and back to another chorus. Backstage must be a 'riot' of organisation. Costume and wigs etc 'flying' this way and that, I bet. They sure do earn their money. Rehearsing the understudies is going to take some figuring out.

Weaknesses: Not many.

I saw this show with a packed audience of 'oldies' at a matinee and they simply loved all of it. They accepted the confession of Alexander Shkuratov, the Olympic swimmer (Stephen Madsen), Muriel's first husband, "I am the gay" with embracing warmth and laughter. It was only a week since the Same Sex Marriage result and I got a little teary at the love that was palpable for this figure in the theatre.

There is little not to like in this show and I recommend that you buy a ticket and have a very good time.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Gripping Shostakovitch

Sydney Symphony Orchestra present GRIPPING SHOSTAKOVITCH, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House. 15 November, 17 November and 18 November.

I was taken to the GRIPPING SHOSTAKOVITCH concert by a dear friend. It was made up by the Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major, Op.107 and the mighty, gripping, Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op.65, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House.

I am a relative 'babe in the woods' in my knowledge of music. However, I have, in my blissful ignorance, come to believe that Shostakovich is the GREAT composer of the last century - well, at least, he is my favourite, and I attend concerts of his music whenever possible.

I had never heard the Cello Concerto before and the soloist was a youthful German musician, Daniel Muller-Schott. Composed in the era of Nikita Krushchev, in July, 1959, this work, inspired by Prokofiev's Symphony to Denisov, was dedicated to the cellist virtuoso of the period, Mstislav Rostropovich, and given its premiere in October of the same year with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, under the directorship of Maestro Mravinsky. In just under a month the work had its first foreign performance in November with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

The Concerto is in four movements, the final three played without a break. The third movement - an extended Cadenza - is essentially a link between the slow movement and the final and has the feeling of an improvisation for the virtuosic cellist who plays solo, and demands a dazzling array of technique 'in the most rapid runs and double stops punctuated by still pizzicato stops.' Daniel Muller-Schott was breathtakingly daring in the playing. (He has a lot of 'bouncy' hair, that helped illustrate the demand on the artist to produce this work.) He was rapturously received by the audience.

After the break a very large orchestra assembled for the Eighth Symphony. Some regard this work as Shostakovich's finest symphony in traditional terms. It is expansive and full of emotional 'tug'. It was completed in 1943 following the decisive Battle of Stalingrad and, for a time, bore the subtitle 'Stalingrad'. Under the severe leadership of Stalin the symphony was criticised for its lack of jubilant affirmation, called rather, 'bleak', and was effectively banned. For Shostakovich, and indeed for the Russian people, the war would indeed hold no real triumph; the persecution of the population intensified under Stalin during the conclusion of the war and in the post war-era; survival would have to do. The breadth of this musical vision is overwhelming and conductor Ashkenazy was in firm and thrilling control.

I have always been interested in the survival on this artist who elected to stay and work in Russia under such great artistic duress and personal criticism, and the original controversies concerning the 'politics' of the composer have intrigued me, as much as it has many others. Reading Julian Barnes' novel, of last year: THE NOISE OF TIME, which focuses on the pressures endured by Shostakovich under Soviet rule, and the convenient synchronistic timing of my reading the great novel LIFE AND FATE, by Vasily Grossman, set, mostly, during the siege of Stalingrad, while hearing this performance live in the Concert Hall, I could not help but reflect on how lucky it is that I live in such a country as Australia, how safe it is - it feels - I flinched at my images of the present day Middle East,  and maybe a little too out-of-touch with my own country's attitude to the Manus Island refugees - it did, however, bring home to me more vividly the 'miraculous' life and courage of this composer and I could only wonder in awe at the tenacity and genius of his spirit and ability. Living in a Totalitarian State greased by fear, surrounded by paranoia, and then hurled into the heat of a world destroying war would not be conducive to live through/in. Create in! What 'real' problems do I have to do deal with?  Oh, come on, Really?

This was truly a wonder filled night in the theatre of the Concert Hall. Humbling, indeed.

Virgins and Cowboys

Photo by Ashley de Prazer

Motherboard Productions and Griffin Independent present, VIRGINS AND COWBOYS, by Morgan Rose, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 30 November - 16 December.

VIRGINS AND COWBOYS, is a new Australian play by Morgan Rose. This production was first presented in Melbourne from the Theatre Works season - the original cast in situ.

In the first section of this play three 'Cowboys' are sitting, ostensibly - since they seem to be talking directly to us, as well - around a table with some beers in their suburban home and are talking to Sam (Kieran Law) about his on-line conversations with two Virgins: Lane, who is 19 (Penny Harpham), and Steph, who is 29 (Katrina Cornwell), giving him advice, warnings, and whatever. All these people seem to be suffering from fear of rejection and a low self-esteem - is it a cultural commonality? We, later, witness some of these on-line conversations, and then meet them - Sam with Lane and Steph -  both on separate first dates with Sam. Both dates are an awkward interaction in the flesh - is it the norm for the internet generation?

One of the Cowboys, Dale (George Lingard), eventually scores Steph and while 'Cowboy' Kieran (James Deeth) eventually finds self discovery is his thing, 'Cowboy' Sam persists with young Lane.

This very interesting, funny play, in its second scene, spins out into the random consequences of these  Virgins and Cowboys with their personal 'philosophies'/needs, having been urged by their ambitions - pathetic, ordinary, or otherwise - to the black smoky void of the possibilities of the unravelling of their consequent lives in an unpredictable universe.

Sex, exercise, well meaning 'greenie' vigilance, pregnancy and death are the travails for Steph and Dale. Self exploration/knowledge in India and South America, with the 'hip' indulgences, in between, of the fads of the gym, yoga and even pilates, gives or not, Kieran a kind of validation for his existence. While Sam negotiates some understanding with the growth to maturity of Lane in a slow, slow game of 'beach-ball catch and bounce' in their pathetic journey.

Ultimately, the writer, Morgan Rose, and the Director, Dave Sleswick, has Sam standing on the stage alone - the others having exited into the 'wings' - surrounded by the vapours of the universe in a warm light, seemingly staring into an abyss and contemplating the life force that we are biologically geared for by nature to enact. We have come into the world alone and we will go out of this world alone, are they saying? Life, says one of the German philosophers, is that spark between one void and another. Is it will or fate that shapes our destinies?

This is a very engaging play and is quite thrilling in its theatrical language exploits - verbal and physical. Most unusual - a little touch of Lally Katz in the night, but very different. The play beautifully observes the world of a certain 'generational' experience it seems - much like the world I had seen the other night in Kate Tempest's WASTED, with less overt poetic versification - and amusingly reduces it to gentle pin-pricks of satire that are SO spot-on, and then glancing into the deep and eternal contemplation of what is life for and is it worth it all with its basic ordinary animal urges for sex. How civilised are we, really? How different from the other animal species, are we? What a bugger that we have the brain capacity to imagine and reason.

All the Design elements are economic and thoughtfully 'clever', Set and Costume, by Yvette Turnbull, with sympathetic and detailed Lighting, by Lisa Mibus - it all looks good - with a very cogent and supportive contribution from the Sound Design of Liam Burton. It is all of a whole.

The performances seem to have evolved from the inspiration of the text and fits each of the ensemble relaxedly, comfortably, supported I suspect from some physical and game-playing improvisational exercises which produces a particular stylistic language of non-naturalistic communication. It is intriguing - surreal - and, ultimately, rewarding. I wished, however, the actors were not so naturalistic in energy, for there was a kind of uniform out-of-body sameness that flattened the energy of the writer's enquiries. I wondered what the individualistic super-presence of each of the actors would have done to the experience of this wide-ranging investigation into the meaning of our lives - ordinary though they appear. What would have the heightened energy of each artist in a life or death performance - especially as the material is so urgent - given to the audience - I reckon a more breathlessness to face the reality of what is it all for?

I notice that Ms Morgan's latest play: "desert, 6.29pm", has just opened to excited acknowledgement in the Red Stitch season In Melbourne. I'd be keen to see where she is going.

VIRGINS AND COWBOYS, then, I found a stimulating and satisfying time in the SBW Theatre. If you are up for an esoteric evening of perhaps, befuddlement, then go. Re-assuredly go, but with all your sensors alert - give in and enjoy.


Photo by Robert Catto

The Kings Collective, presents, WASTED, by Kate Tempest, at the Old Factory, Marrickville. 1 - 9 December.

Kate Tempest is a British Poet, Performance Artist, Playwright and Novelist, a dynamic artist (slam-poetry) who has - is - speaking for a generation trying to find the way-to-survive in the modern world through a disillusioned lens. Her passions were ignited as a young woman and flashed into perspective, she has said, when the London March (and others) against the Iraq War, in which millions of people participated, was ignored, and made no difference to the World Governments' direction - disillusionment colours her work, although hope is her objective.

WASTED is her first play, written in 2013. There followed: GLASSHOUSE and HOPELESSLY DEVOTED, in 2014.

WASTED concerns itself with three young (twenties?) friends, Ted (David Harrison), Charlotte (Eliza Scott) and Danny (Jack Crumlin) meeting to memorialise the early death of Tony, one of the old gang. Using Direct Choral kinda poetry rap (with microphones), interspersed with acted vignettes of monologues and scenes between each other, we meet them in parks, raves and the cafes of South London, as they struggle with the meaning and worth of their life choices, as real adulthood responsibilities and ageing stares them in the face, while all the time getting wasted with the old euphoria of drugs and alcohol. Wasted, wasting and, maybe, will be a waste.

The language used by Kate Tempest reveals astute and crisp observations of the circumstances from these character's journey through life, with a growing self-conscious awareness of what the future is steadfastly, inexorably, will, is, demanding of them, with the vital energy of the here-and-now, of a generation disillusioned by the mores of the world they have inherited.

Backed by a throbbing Sound Design by Tegan Nicholls, and a simple Set Design by Tyler Ray Hawkins, enhanced immeasurably by a virtuosic Lighting Design of the 'Rave' kind, by Nick Fry, this performance can whisk one away to a place of awe and a necessary contemplation of the WHO AM I? WHERE AM I? WHAT AM I DOING? - despite its obvious rough 'budgetary' edges.

The performance are tight and focused. David Harrison, as the more aware (straighter) suited, survivor of their times, Ted, grows stronger and stronger throughout the time he shares with us to become almost incandescent with a fully possessed ownership of Ted - he is, nearly, totally, amazing. Jack Crumlin has all the observational quirks of this loser musician swamped in the drug escape of his life style/choices and handles the text with clarity and an actorly identification - not quite all the way lost in his man. Too, Eliza Scott knows of whom she does speaks - that for Charlotte real life, work, responsibility is challenging - although, I wished that she, technically, was just a little more energetic and pacy in her thought processes and slam-poetry delivery. (I did see this production at its one and only preview, not its Opening Night).

Elsie Edgerton-Till, the Director, has her 'hands' firmly on the wheel of this play and has drawn from all the artists involved a devoted love for what they are doing for us, with a demonstrable need to serve the author, Kate Tempest, respectfully and well.

I could not help but remember, whilst sitting in the Old Factory Theatre, the poet/playwright/actor of a slightly earlier time: Steven Berkoff, and his street poems in quasi Elizabethan/Jacobean verse from the 'toughs' of the London of the late '70's, early '80's: EAST (1975), GREEK (1980), DECADENCE (1981) and WEST (1983).

I, also, recalled that Omar Musa, our own Slam Poet/Novelist, has just released his latest book of Poetry: MILLEFIORI, which Kate Tempest has reviewed: "Omar Musa writes hard, beautiful poems about things that are true." The by-lne for this new book tells us: "We know the world is a horror story but its also got love notes in the margin".

WASTED is an energetic production worth catching by all, but speaking, especially, to Ms Tempest's generation (she is 32).

Taking Steps

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, TAKING STEPS, by Alan Ayckbourn, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 23 November - 13 January.

The Alan Ayckbourn play TAKING STEPS, written in 1979, the twenty-fourth opus from his 'genius' (now having completed some 79 plays, the last one - so far - called ROUNDELAY, in 2014), is part of a faithful commitment of The Ensemble Theatre to his work and underlines the entertainment value that he inevitably delivers for audiences.

There is usually some 'challenge' that the writer has given himself, for the audience's delectation, in all of his plays, and in the instance of TAKING STEPS, Mr Ayckbourn has presented a three story house in which the action takes place but has insisted that it all take place on the one flat plane. Originally the play was created for a total in-the-round space, and I guess the Ensemble stage with its three sided auditorium is nearly that. (The Ensemble began as a theatre in-the -round). Director, Mark Kilmurry along with his Designer, Anna Gardiner, have created a three story space, with furniture for three different rooms to allow the action to simultaneously take place - the furniture for the three rooms and all the props are all there even if the impression is one of it being a bit overcrowded for the action to be able to happen, especially as the six actors negotiate it all. (Lighting Design is by Scott Allan.)

The sterling actors do manage it brilliantly, even with the feet of the audience on the stage in the front row being an extra 'live' hazard each night! The actor's, also, create with a running visual 'gag' the climbing up-and-down of two sets of invisible stairs (forwards and backwards!), that culminates, once the audience has caught on to the 'trick', in a participatory endowment by the audience to the comedy of the Ayckbourn construct - it adds to the visual juxtaposition a great deal of the comic possibilities, - laughter - which is part of the great tradition of farce on stage.

The play is set in an old Victorian house called THE PINES - an ex-bordello - supposedly haunted by a ghost that Roland (Peter Kowitz) has decided to buy and repair as a nest for his latest wife, 'a Dancer', Elizabeth (Christa Nicola). She is in despair, after only three months with this arrangement and as the play begins is packing her stuff and insisting that her brother, Mark (Simon London) help her escape before Roland returns. Of course Mark has his own dilemmas with his prospective partnership with Kitty (Emma Harvie), his ex-fiance, who jilted him in the honeymoon hotel, who has just returned, reluctantly, after an exploratory jaunt in Europe alone, that ended in disaster. She is accommodated, briefly, of course, in this house unbeknownst to any one else, by ever hopeful Mark. What Mark hasn't quite grasped is that he is a very boring man who has the effect of putting people he is talking to, to sleep! To complicate matters further, the representative of the law firm for the selling of the property, Tristram (Drew Livingstone), a verbally inept communicator and extraordinarily shy (naive) gentle man, has arrived unannounced alongside the dodgy local builder, Leslie (Andrew Tighe), accoutremented in full motorcycle gear - helmet and all - desperate to get a contract signed for repair work to ensure his family are not driven to penury.

This is a situation comedy with each of the characters with typical comic characteristics that we can identify and expectantly anticipate will lead to 'disasters'. The problem with TAKING STEPS, is that it takes nearly 75 minutes to get to the Situation (thunder and lightening and all) with all of the characters in the house (at last) without enough wit (verbal and visual) that usually accompanies the material , by Mr Ackybourn, to get to that place in time. The second act, similarly, leisurely, unwinds the comic crashes where in the end character characteristics becomes more the focus than the tiresome situation.

This is not one of Mr Ayckbourn's better plays. One titters, one hopes for more - occasionally there is a guffaw - but, to be honest, one needs a great deal of patience for a decent pay-off. This had nothing to do with the Direction, which is meticulous in its charting of the journey, nor to do with any of the performance which are expert, but with the writing. In the vast canon of Mr Ayckbourn's work, there are, there must be, better scripts to tackle. There are.

What is the reward in this night in the theatre are the performances of all the actors. There is such confidence in the fully realised characters with all of their 'eccentricities' embraced and embedded for the trick of all comedy playing : the importance of being earnest.

The standout performance is that of Drew Livingstone, who does not miss a beat with the magic of his comic opportunities with impeccable thought-filled timing and total extended belief in everything that happens to his poor Tristram.

Too, Simon London, with the difficult character trait of being the most boring man-in-the- world, carries Mark with the unconscious ignorant/joie-de-vivre of a British Rank Organisation star, such as Dirk Bogarde, say, in the Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, Doctor at Large films of the 1950's - handsome charm galore - one wishes Mark was not such an ignoramus of his true situation.

The two veterans in the production, Peter Kowitz, as a bluff alcoholic thoughtless 'bully', and Andrew Tighe, as a slightly inept human being, carry it all off with aplomb and effrontery. The two women, Christa Nicola and Emma Harvie, convince us well of their characters' ineptitudes and pull off the early burgeoning of a 'feminist' rebellion statement by Mr Ayckbourn as their 'worms turn' for freedom, from these men, at the play's end, or not!

TAKING STEPS, a low voltage comic night out, meticulously rendered by all. Pleasant if not vital.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

High Fidelity

Photo by Robert Catto

Highway Run Productions and Neil Gooding Productions and the Hayes Theatre, present HIGH FIDELITY, Lyrics by Amanda Green, Music by Tom Kitt, Book by David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby and the Touchstone Pictures Film. At the Hayes Theatre Greenknowe Ave, Kings Cross. November 22 - December 17.

HIGH FIDELITY is a musical of 2006, a famous Broadway flop (set in Brooklyn). It is based on the novel of 1995, by Nick Hornby (set in London), and the film of 2000, Directed by Stephen Frears, and starring John Cusack (set in Chicago).

It charts the growth of, principally, an emotionally stunted Rob (Toby Francis). He owns a record store for specialised 'nerds' having given up his successful DJ-ing gigs. A boy-man that refuses to grow up, surrounded by similarly dim boy/men: Barry (Joe Kosky) and Dick (Dash Kruck), none of them able to commit to any relationship. This show begins with the exit of Rob's latest 'failure', Laura (Teagan Wouters), he, haunted by past women he let go: Anna (Jenni Little), Marie (Erin Clare), Penny (Madison Hegarty) Sarah (Denise Devlin) and Jackie (Bronte Florian). Says the Director Neil Gooding:
... this is not always pretty. Our leading character is charming (and deceitful), insecure (yet arrogant), apathetic (yet inspirational), loving (yet fickle), complex (yet irritatingly closed), hurt (and hurtful).
The good news is that Toby Francis gives a wonderfully 'tortured' central performance and uses the intelligent, witty lyrics by Amanda Green, and the Book, by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire, to have us care for Rob and all his excruciating male thick 'headedness' through all his irritating behavioural choices. It is a dynamic demand which he fulfills with extraordinary stamina and a keen sense of acting detail.

The music is by Tom Kitt, who wrote NEXT TO NORMAL, and is of the pop-rock cacophonous kind. I kept hearing the Green Day musical, AMERICAN IDIOT, and now understand why, when I read that Mr Kitt was a part of that Broadway hit, too, in his duties as Musical Supervisor and Orchestrator. This production is under the musical control of Andrew Worboys and it is acoustically, 'crash-bang' on. Sound Designer is Nick Walker.

In this scaled down for the Hayes Theatre production which is brilliantly served by Production Designer, Lauren Peters, with a vivid and intellingtly alert Lighting Design by Alex Berlage, Mr Gooding has created an evening with terrific choreography from Cameron Mitchell, who together have created performances from all that have a perceptible aura of truth in the music theatre genre. There is no weak acting link here in this close-up theatre space (this includes Zoe Gertz, Nicholas Christo, Matthew Predny and Alex Jeans). Plus, they are blessed with singing skills that are zinging.

HIGH FIDELITY is really well done and that has to do, mainly, with the emphasis/focus placed on the characters and the relationships that drive the story. I had a really good and appreciative time. The music is not to my taste but I enjoyed this show more than I did the Broadway productions of NEXT TO NORMAL and AMERICAN IDIOT which are composed in the same musical 'zone'. This production has a humanity as well as 'noise'.

Night Slows Down

Photo by Ross Waldron

Don't Look Away and bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company present, NIGHT SLOWS DOWN, A new play by Phillip James Rouse, at the King's Cross Theatre (KXT), in the King's Cross Hotel. November 17 - December 9.

NIGHT SLOWS DOWN, is a new Australian play, by Phillip James Rouse.

It is an ambitious play, with a flashback set of scenes interpolated into the forward action of the narrative, that attempts to illustrate the modern political world where the Nationalistic/Fascist tendencies of a government can lead to overwrought and misconceived expressions of power, as in the case in this play, the building of an architectural 'monument' as urban renewal that results in death and destruction. Where ideological needs of Image of Power over rides ethical and moral (practical) boundaries.

It is in the using of the power struggle between siblings, Seth (Andre de Vanny) and Sharon (Danielle King), with her partner, Martin (Johnny Nasser) as a pawn to the circumstances, that Mr Rouse, propels his story. The domestic in the universal. Sharon is an engineer coerced by her brother to supervise a government project. He wants swift result to enhance his career, and is deaf to her urgent protests of his time recklessness and risks to safety in his insistence of action. The vehemence of Seth's need and 'violent' usage of his sister is sprung from the turning point of the disinheritance of Seth from their father's will! It struck me his passion seemed brashly disproportionate and a pathetic well spring for the whole action of this 75 minute play.

Mr de Vanny, gives a performance of committed energy, whilst Ms King seemed less sure of her character's trajectory, with a tendency to overplay the emotional tropes of the character, in consequence. While Mr Nasser gives an opaque execution of his character's place in the thematics of the story - is that, I wondered, because of the writing? Besides been written by Mr Rouse he is also the Director.

The Design, by Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt solves the traverse problems with skill and is lit by Sian James-Holland, while the Sound Design, also by Mr Rouse, is fairly 'grandiose' in its affects.

Mr Rouse in his project notes concludes: 'I won't tell you what to think or do about anything this play covers. I simply hope you are moved.' 

The Merchant of Venice

Photo by Prudence Upton

Bell Shakespeare present THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, in the Playhouse Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. Until 26 November.

I went to see this Bell Shakespeare production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, on the favourable 'word-of-mouth' I had, mostly, received from friends, who, like me, had had a very dispiriting experience with their production of OTHELLO***, last year, and, of course, because of my continuing interest in this very vexing play.


Says Norrie Epstein in his book THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE:
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE  is a troubling play. At the end, you may not know whether you've seen a tragedy or a comedy, a love story or a tale of hate. In its infinite ambiguity, it is quintessential Shakespeare. No sooner have you reached one conclusion about the play than it's immediately contradicted in the next scene - or line. (1)

Ostensibly, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is the story of the friendship of an unselfish Venetian merchant (Antonio) for a charming young gentleman (Bassiano) who is in love with a beautiful heiress (Portia); of the noble sacrifice that the friend is on the point of making when nearly brought to disaster by a vile Jew (Shylock); of the transformation of the lovely lady (Portia) into lawyer and logician (Balthazar) just in the nick of time and her administration to the villain of a dose of his own medicine. (2)
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE is traditionally situated as a Romantic Comedy in the Shakespearean canon, but it is the tragedy of the sub-plot of Shylock (Mitchell Butel), the Jewish money usurer, that dominates the proceedings in most contemporary productions. And yet Shylock appears in only five of the twenty scenes of the play.

Anne-Louis Sarks has edited, slimmed the play down - for a cast of ten - (and startlingly re-written, especially, provocatively, the ending!!!), and in that process has emphasised the anti-semiticism of the Christian characters. Certainly, in this production, the anti-semitic prejudice of Antonio (Jo Turner) and the supporting behaviour from his 'bro' follow-the-leader gang: Bassanio (Damien Strouthos), Gratiano (Anthony Taufa) and even Lorenzo (Shiv Palekar) is featured in forward and underlined energy and, too, after the thwarting of the pound of flesh contract, the ruthless pursuit of Portia as the lawyer, Balthazar, in the legal destruction of Shylock, contradicting her (Christian) avocation of the value of mercy, but a few minutes before, is revealed as a devastatingly cruel and forensic reading of the Law:
Tarry , Jew;
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,-
If it be prov'd against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party against the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half of his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, thou stand'st;
For it appears by manifest proceeding,
That indirectly, and directly too,
Thou has contrived against the very life
Of the defendant; and thou has incurr'd
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the duke.
Which allows the revengeful Merchant Antonio to obliterate the human, Shylock, further:
So please my lord the Duke, and all the court,
To quit the fine for one half of his goods;
I am content, so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
Two things provided more, - that for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possess'd
Upon his son Lorenzo and his daughter.
In this production he is humiliatingly stripped by the 'gang' of merchants of his tzizit and yarmulke.

"Anti-semitism can take many forms - from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will, to murderous pogroms. [... ] Anti-semitism can be met with in the market and in the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, in the soul of an old man and in the games children play in the yard. Anti-semitism has been as strong in the age of atomic reactors and computers as in the age of oil-lamps, sailing boats and spinning wheels." (3).

This faith, the Christian faith, lately, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, divided into the Protestant and Roman Catholic conduits, had become a weapon for secular power, and despite preaching peace (and mercy) was violent, ruthless and intolerant to all who deviated from that 'one true faith'. And, once it had attained the status of the religion of State - empire - did, with its zealous 'priests' and congregation, set about to destroy all others. This was even more powerfully strengthened by Shakespeare in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by choosing the Jewish faith to attack as it was infamously paralleled with the successful skills of that part of that community in the money lending world - a success that evoked much envy and suspicion.

Inside this Romantic Comedy of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, which is essentially about money - the borrowing and lending of ducats and the fortune of a rich heiress, Portia's - the doctrines and practice of the Jewish faith are pitted against those of the Christian faith (and since it is set in Venice is it the Catholic Christian faith?), and Ms Sarks seems to be taking a very decided show in sorting Shakespeare's intentions.

In the program notes we are told:
Religious tensions were high, and Jewish people were openly persecuted. One grievance the Christians felt most egregiously was the Jewish practice of Usury - the lending of money for interest - which was forbidden under Christian doctrine, and viewed by them as morally wrong. In 1578 Phillip Caesar lablelled Usurers thusly: "thei are likened to poysoned serpentes, to mad Dogges, to greedie Wormes, to Wolues, Beares, and to other rauening beasts." It is through this lens that Shakespeare's Venetian Christians viewed the Jews.(...)
This heightened conceptual 'take' by Ms Sarks to the play is provocative and intriguing - a strength of interest - and it is set in a very handsome, and deceptively simple (touring) Design by Michael Hankin (another remarkable Design - what a prolifically exciting Designer he is). The production takes a kind of post-modern meta-theatre bent, in that the actors are all present on the stage throughout the performance, even unto the dressing and undressing for their very many changes, in modern dress - we are definitely in a theatre.

I think what any production of any play requires to be successful is 1. the telling of a story with  2. recognisable (not just relatable) characters with a clear, and 3. in the case of Shakespeare especially, a love of words, of language.

By the time I saw the production, which was in the last week of a very long tour, what we were given, in the Playhouse, was a clear storyline but with characters that were mostly driven by function rather than flesh and blood dimensions; by characters of a modern 'hipster' sensibility of humour and meanness, both in the world of Venice and the spoilt space of inherited money in Belmont; with, in this production, an emphatic use of actor ownership through 'personalisation' i.e. the drawing of the characters from a heightened exposure of the personalities of the actors (the work of Jacob Warner, as Launcelot, for instance, mostly deliberate watch-me-be-funny-now-acting, and as clever as it may have been in its re-writing and improvisations etc, for myself, was undermining to the seriousness of the trajectory of the play as written). These characters definitely belonged to an accessible contemporary world, even down to the two principal female characters playing in bare-feet with bodies that seemed to be responding to the events of the play simply as themselves with little to no transfer and imaginative development of a 'script extraction' and 'research observation' of the status/ clues of these people in Shakespeare's world when adapted to this modern world.

Damien Strouthos, as Bassanio, seemed to straddle the double demand of the 'modern' Director's need and the original Writer's intent most consistently, with Felicity McKay, in the smaller role of Jessica, fulfilling a duty to both responsibilities well. Mr Turner lacked consistent vocal/verse power, depending more on emotional colouring to reveal Antonio's predicament (with a bathetic shading of the homo-erotic attraction to Bassanio) than the use of text as argument. Mitchell Butel began brilliantly as Shylock, in the first scene physically primed and psychologically complex, promising much to come, but disintegrated to a blurring of text with excessive emotional declaration and physical reaction that distracted from the words of Shakespeare's arguments as the play journeyed on - unfortunately, signalling and overwrought pathos in the last part of the famous trial scene - showing us what to feel, rather than allowing us to endow the situation from our responses to the character and his situation. But what was more difficult (and egregious) was the throw away use of the finely wrought poetry of Shakespeare's verse by Catherine Davies, as Nerissa, and especially, by Jessica Tovey, as Portia - revealing, mostly, girls who just want to have fun, instead of two of the cleverest and sophisticated women written by Shakespeare.

For me, it was the generalised use of text, the lack of relish of the word by word construct of the language of Shakespeare's poetry, and the preference to utilise and permit, undisciplined personalised physical responses as character guides to tell this story, that undermined the power of the original play, in fact, ultimately, undermined the concept of this production.

It was, however, a better night in the theatre than the Bell OTHELLO, last year. But it is interesting to look back to the Sport For Jove production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE as a point of comparison.


  1. THE FRIENDLY SHAKESPEARE, by Norrie Epstein. Penguin Books. 1993.
  2. THE MEANING OF SHAKESPEARE, by Harold C. Goddard. The University of Chicago Press. 1951.
  3. LIFE AND FATE - a novel, by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian ZHIZN I SUDA, by Robert Chandler. Vintage Books, London. 2006.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Caretaker

Throwingshade Theatre Company presents THE CARETAKER, by Harold Pinter, at the Actors Pulse Theatre, Redfern, November 22 - December 2.

It seems a while since we have seen a play by Harold Pinter. Oh, no, there was the Sydney Theatre Company's NO MAN'S LAND and more recently, BETRAYAL at the Ensemble Theatre. It is THE CARETAKER (1959) that we have not seen for a while. This play is one of the earliest of his successes along with THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1957) and THE HOMECOMING (1964) that propelled Pinter into the pantheon of one of the British greats. 'That he occupies a position as a modern classic is illustrated by his name entering the language as an adjective used to describe a particular atmosphere and environment in drama: "Pinteresque"', informs the program notes to this production by its Director, Courtney Powell.

In this small but comfortable playing space, Ms Powell has contrived a modern rendering of the play, divesting it of the overstated, usual, shackles of the reputation of the writer as 'an absurdist' and instead emphasises the basic humanity of real people marginalised by poverty and education who still have aspirations for a good life. At its heart, THE CARETAKER is a character study, an observation of three men in a house, two of them brothers: psychologically damaged Aston (Andrew Langcake) and 'bovver-boy' Mick (Alex Bryant-Smith), and an invited homeless man, Davies (Nicholas Papademetriou), struggling to find connection, identification and a sense of 'belonging'. There is, in a series of scenes, little plot but much mystery as the characters gradually reveal their strength and weaknesses, that evolves into a senseless power struggle in a deprived world. There is in the watching of the play a growing sense of a sinister tension that gratefully dissipates by the play's end.

One can see the truth of Pinter's observation of a community he knows in the nineteen-fifties in a recovering blitzed London, squatting in their damaged homes with a collection of found and hoarded objects/debris. But what Ms Powell does with this production is make, through the gentle work with her actors, bring us a world that feels unsettlingly contemporary and close by, reflecting the divide of the Australian-Sydney moneyed classes, the have and the have-nots, with an insidious resonance.

The performances of these actors are scaled for this space with a naturalistic intent in an abstracted white set, by Natalie Hughes. Mr Papademetriou draws a quietly detailed perplexity of experience of reactive defence with his creation of Davies, whilst Mr Bryant-Smith's Mick is mysteriously a physical threat and menace, that fortunately reveals itself as more bravado than intended action. Mr Langcake, as the damaged electric-shock victim, is uncannily distressing in the passivity, the 'flatness' of his choices as Aston - it is a very interesting (and daring) reading of the character.

This production is a modest offer but a very satisfying experience. A great play, a classic play, I believe, is always proved by the elasticity of interpretation made plausible and possible. Throwingshade Theatre Company have done that with this production of THE CARETAKER..

Sunday, November 26, 2017


Photo by Prudence Upton

Midnight Feast presents, CHRYSALIS,  a self-devised work, written by Stephen Sewell, Emily Dash and Warwick Allsopp, in The Studio, at the Sydney Opera House. Thursday, November 16 and Friday, November 17, 2017.

CHRYSALIS is a work devised from the stories and world of a group of actors with disabilities. The Company, Midnight Feast, was inspired by Glenn Turnbull, a profoundly physically disabled man, and his interest in why 'people routinely ignore him' and by 'a social media video posted by Glenn's sister Hayley expressing her heartbreak and frustration after a doctor questioned the sense in undertaking a medical procedure, which Glenn needed desperately, citing his current 'quality of life'.

Glenn, then, appears on stage, and we are taken into an imaginary journey that he has, whilst passing through difficult treatment in a world of reality, and another world of his own invention. This includes a 'bully' paramedic, nursing staff and doctors, as well as cockroaches, maggots, flies, a tarantula, Guardian Angels, an Angel of Death, an Angel of Peace, and even a sexy pole dancer! (She had brunette hair which was especially pleasing to Glenn, it seemed!) These 'characters' are created by a group of actors of varying disability shadowed by a group of enabled actors who support and coach throughout the action of Glenn's dream/nightmare world, seamlessly.

The production is Directed by Kylie Harris (also Artistic Director of the Company), assisted by Nick Lewis, with an imaginative, colourful and witty set of Designs (especially costume) by Lisa Mimmochi (assistance: Annie Winter and Brianna Harris),  enhanced by the Lighting Design of Christopher Page. There is a vivid Musical support, as well, Composed by Robin Gist, played live.

Most of the principal writing originates from one of the performers, Emily Dash (who delivers a simply moving poem towards the end of the play), and has been co-ordinated by Warwick Allsopp (clearly, a driving energy of the project), with input from Stephen Sewell. The effect of the performance is astonishing in its inspiration and requires no condescension to rate as a wonderful hour or so spent in the theatre. The dedication, commitment and skill of all involved has been thoughtfully integrated into creating an absorbing entry for an audience to 'see' the world through the experience of some truly remarkable people, through Glenn'a eyes.

I thought it important to record in my Theatre Diary the other artists involved: Sarah Armstrong, Frankie Bouchier, Jude Bowler, Georgia Cooper, Mark Defy, Nick Gell, Erica Halvorsen, Mark Inwood, Odile Le Clezio, Nick Lewis, Emily Marks, Robert Mockler, Paul Mulgrew, Heath Ramsay, Nina Salece and Jess Vandrempt, and also to acknowledge, to quote from the program, "The most EPIC personal care support team EVER: Enola Valencia, Tina Watson, Lena Mafoa and Kate Walker.

'MIDNIGHT FEAST - theatre that unites, exists for the sole purpose of creating new opportunities for performance artists living with significant disabilities to train and work as artists in a professional capacity.'

Important to know.