Friday, October 20, 2017

The Kitchen Sink

Photo by Prudence Upton
Ensemble Theatre presents, THE KITCHEN SINK, by Tom Wells, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 14 October - 18 November.

THE KITCHEN SINK is a British play by Tom Wells, first shown at the Bush Theatre, London, in late 2011.

It is a domestic soap-opera concerning a very ordinary British provincial city family and some of their neighbourhood denizens, all facing life-making turning-points that will initiate necessary change and so the inevitable scary adjustments, be they economic, emotional, social, spiritual, or, all of the former. Changes that will require a leap of faith that will turn out OK. To leap into the dark and trust that the next dimension of the journey will be OK. It will be, will be, OK.

In a realistic meticulously Designed kitchen, by Set Designer, Charles Davis (clever work, indeed, as he has another aesthetic Design on show, on this stage, in this season of repertoire: BUYER AND CELLAR, as well), that includes a kitchen sink, that serves the writer as a metaphor: you know, the sink that has, over its 'life-span' worn out its parts and needs repair or, better, new parts to have a functional future. Wink, nod, prod: just like its owners.

Dad, the life-time career milkman, Martin (Huw Higginson), being made redundant in this modern world - who needs their milk delivered anymore?; Mum, Kath (Hannah Waterman) the home body, who now that the family is grown, experiments with new recipes that are not always appreciated; a gay son, Billy (Ben Hall), who wants to be an artist and happy, despite his penchant for an output of innocent kitsch - a portrait of Dolly Parton with sequins. Which is it to be for Billy: London (and stress) or, his familiar, safe, home ground?; an unhappy daughter, Sophie (Contessa Treffone) invested in martial arts as a career path to assist women and girls in a hostile world, despite her own aggressive social 'feistiness' that may derail those aspirations, unless she seeks help for a secret that she holds too close; and her shy, long suffering wooer, Pete (Duncan Ragg), who has the responsibility of his dying grandma, but also (metaphor alert) is a plumber - you know, someone who can fix kitchen sinks and best of all, loves doing it.

This play in a series of short scene vignettes is a bit like turning on your TV and lazily watching NEIGHBOURS or HOME and AWAY or EASTENDERS, or even, THE BILL (one of my guilty secrets.) It is set in/with a hugely comforting familiar location and subject matter, character types, and like the best of those TV soaps, is fairly well done. It makes no demands of you and is kinda mildly funny and, sub-terrainously, hugely reassuring because you know, beforehand, the punchline for every situation and character development and every family-oriented 'joke' - and you know, as you sit there, somehow intuitively, deep in your soul, to the depth of your reproductive gonads, know, that everything and everybody is sure to turn out alright. It is, as we vaguely recognise, a life lesson for us, the near comatose couch potatoes, to give us confidence to take that 'leap' when the need for change beckons us.

The Director, Shane Bosher, has done a great job in keeping this over familiar material kind of interesting. He does it with the assistance of a terrific Sound Design from Marty Jamieson, keeping the many scene changes charged with propelling distracting energy for our ears, and, a fun, flexible Lighting Design by Alexander Berlage, that, similarly, keeps our eyes occupied during the scene changes to distract us from glum thoughts or conversation with our companions about how ... , you know, you know, how ... this writing, this play is so ... you know, don't you?

Best of all, Mr Bosher achieves much by moving around the space, the cliche characters, of the writer's, by encouraging from all his skillful actors, character semaphores of gesture and thought with as much soul as they can mine - personalise. I, especially, found Duncan Ragg, and Ben Hall amusing and enjoyed their imaginative energies and simple honesty.

As you can tell, I am in my usual horse-for-courses dilemma, about this play, THE KITCHEN SINK, despite the skillful production. I kept wishing, if we had to go to this location (North Country, I think) and this kind of play, why, say, ummm ... Arnold Wesker wasn't in front of us - I longed for the Ensemble to have resurrected, pulled out, say, ROOTS, than to give us this rather sugar-coated feel-good pill.

Then, of course, we wouldn't have had Dolly Parton on stage, a patron saint, I think of this household in THE KITCHEN SINK - certainly, this family knew her lyrics as if they were hymns of survival. Some of us commented in the foyer after the show, as we dipped our strawberries into the chocolate fondue sauce, that the Ensemble seems to be a 'Temple of Camp' at the moment (and why not?) what with Barbra Streisand occupying so much attention in the other show in its repertoire: BUYER AND CELLAR.

My personal prejudice believes that Barbra beats Dolly hands down in this 'temple'. Go, to one or the other, or both, as you wish.

No End of Blame

Photo by Kate Williams

Sport For Jove Theatre Co. and Seymour Centre present, NO END OF BLAME, by Howard Barker, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. October 12 - October 28.

Sport For Jove have taken on British playwright, Howard Barker's 1981 play NO END OF BLAME: Scenes of Overcoming.

Ideas plus entertainment can equal art.

Howard Barker writes plays that are robustly muscular in content (ideas!) and language usage (literate!). 'Challenging', might be a word to describe them. He calls his great catalogue of work: The Theatre of Catastrophe and since 1988 has run his own company: The Wrestling School to do his plays that most others won't. The National Theatre did produce SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, not too many years ago, nothing else. Barker is still writing and has been since the early 1970's.

In Sydney we have rarely seen his work: THE LOVE OF A GOOD MAN; THE HANG OF THE GAOL; VICTORY, at the Sydney Theatre Company (Directed and starring Judy Davis); SCENES FROM AN EXECUTION, at Belvoir (starring Lindy Davies); WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (an adaptation of Thomas Middleton's play), Directed by Kate Cherry; whilst I Directed NO END OF BLAME, way back in 1983 for the New Theatre -I mean, how cutting edge were we? (How I would love to direct THE CASTLE).

His plays, usually, are connected to historical events. NO END OF BLAME, follows the lives of two Hungarian artists, one an internationally revered (feared!) political cartoonist: Bela Veracek, known as 'Vera' (Akos Armont), the other a painter, Grigor Gabor (Sam O'Sullivan). We meet them on the battlefields of the Austro-Hungarian Campaign, at the fag end of World War I, follow them into a near decade of Lenin and Stalin's USSR, then, to Great Britain throughout and after World War II, into the early 1970's.

Barker has contempt for 'messages' in the theatre, declaring he is not trying to influence anyone, instead proposing scenes that have no unified aim to response, rather giving us scenes that are complex, ambiguous and unstable, trusting that we will understand metaphors and not expect his theatre to be a place of literalness - he is famously, fascinated by contradiction. An audience cannot be comfortable with their identification of the characters in any of his plays' journeys, for Barker is more than likely to challenge your usual comfortable, first-impression middle class mode of reading a play or a character and categorising it or them (which, maybe why his theatre company is called "The Wrestling School"?!). His characters, his scene choices for his story, his subject matter, are not written to make it easy for you in the experience, doing all, whilst employing a pre-dominant view of the world that is essentially tragic. That 'tone' is not always a 'popular' choice (especially in Sydney). That tragic mode, though, liberates his language from banalities and returns 'poetry' (muscular poetry) to the speech of each of his creations. But be assured that he has a provocative sense of ironic and cultural humour to 'hook' you in, even though it is often coloured through a prism of sorrow. A sorrow for the follies of his fellow human beings. Of man repeating himself. Of man hopelessly flailing about with the aspirations of angels but with the 'pathetic' habits (needs) of animals.

This production is a major piece of work, amazingly 'built' by Sport For Jove (of the vibrant Independent Sector of the Sydney Theatre offerings), that is in production values equal too anything we have seen from the major companies this year. Damian Ryan, the Director has collaborated with Melanie Liertz to find a large, functional set and costume design solution to the many locations of the play spanning some six decades of history. They have also inveigled two contemporary cartoonists, Cathy Wilcox and David Pope, and artist, Nicholas Harding to illustrate - illuminate - with their creativity the projected background images for each of the scenes and its narrative. Fausto Brusamolino manages in the tight space of the Reginald Theatre to provide a Lighting Design to support the action of the play with avid sympathy and care for the projected images. Alistair Wallace has developed a Sound Design with atmospheric music (sometimes, too loud?) and sound effects.

This play written and performed originally with a company of nine men and three women, is, in this production performed by a company of eight , that attends with a conscious alertness to gender parity - one of the 'urgent' political developments of our contemporary scene - with four men and four women. It works seamlessly and rewards the actors (especially the women), and the audience, with stimulating challenges of intellectual adjustment. The decision to have only eight performers makes for heavier demands on all the actors who, besides, having the responsibility of creating and 'inhabiting' the 'life forces' of almost sixty characters of the play, also, are complicatedly involved with the multiple and immense scene changes. This company is heavily and vitally tasked to bring this play to its audience.

One intuits the energy and commitment of this set of collaborators to Howard Barker's vision in NO END OF BLAME. It can be a major strength that sweeps the audience into the experience, though it, on opening night, did give, to some of us, the appearance of an over zealous urge to point out solutions (messages) - a kind of limiting, earnest didacticism contrary to the intentions of Barker in each of the scenes of overcoming. Instead of trusting us, the audience to be immersed in its contradictions, its ambiguities - 'stewing' in it, finding it for ourselves. (The nervousness of the actors, the adrenalin so obviously 'pumping', sometimes gave the work a sense of it coming from a 'missionary' pulpit - Jesuitical in its certainty of clarity - of its importance!)

The passion of the actors for their solutions to their character and the realistic dilemmas that they find themselves in, sometimes squeezed out the 'cultural' comedy written with Barker's usual merciless irony. Was it a fear of creating, playing, caricature, perhaps?, that unbalanced the effect of Barker's constructed affects, for with study you will find that this use of irony is one of the strengths of Barker, in most of his plays. There are so many 'heavy' ideas going on in the play (all his plays), that any production does need to give the writing's levity room to breathe more luxuriously. It is, I believe a necessary theatrical relief for any of his plays to be a bearable night in the theatre - it reminds one of the argument that Chekhov, the Writer, always had with Stanislavski, the Director, about whether his plays were comedies or dramas. NO END OF BLAME could be funnier in the experience of this production.

Each actor has found a sound ensemble support for each other's work whilst also having moments of individual achievement: Lizzie Schebesta in her moments with ILona and her verbal desires in the park with her two men; Bryce Youngman, with his cartoonist, Mik; Angela Bauer with her life class model, Stella; Amy Usherwood in every offer she gives - it is very exciting work - especially her Ludmilla and Kenny; Danielle King, especially, in her first scene as Bobbi Stringer; Sam O'Sullivan, vivid in his work as Grigor (the painter) and in his appearance in the English newspaper scene - his is a central performance that helps to focus the scenes he is present in. Akos Armont is boldly brave but too often becomes belligerently bellicose in his energy efforts in every scene he is in - it is an amazing commitment  but it lacks a sense of arc judgement, there seems to be little deliberation of choice for restraint - a careful gradation of effort from scene to scene. Sometimes the emotional effort, complicated with the dialect work smothers verbal clarity. The performance becomes an endurance of admiration but is wearying in its consistent, relentless overwhelming effort - sameness. Less maybe more.

Bela Veracek, (inspired, partly, on the career of Victor Weisz, known as 'Vicky'), who embraces the craft of the political cartoonist, making quick art: "Dries quick, speaks quick, hurts", triumphant when "I stirred the police, (and) therefore I touched the truth" is caught in the paradox of the incongruities of the freedom of expression for the artist. Barker in NO END OF BLAME reveals the disabling of the truth speakers in the interest of the need for ideological government of society, for the good of that society, whether it be under communism or capitalism, where ideas of 'responsibility' counts more than freedom or even honour.

Sport For Jove brings another charged production of a play of ideas and poetry. Worth seeing - recommended, especially for the serious theatre goers.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Buyer and Cellar

Ensemble Theatre presents BUYER AND CELLAR, by Jonathan Tolins, at the Ensemble Theatre, Macdougall St. Kirribilli. 6 October - 12 November.

BUYER AND CELLAR is a one man play by American Jonathan Tolins. It was inspired by the book published by Barbra Streisand: MY PASSION FOR DESIGN.

Alex More is an out-of-work-actor in Los Angeles who accepts a job in the basement of a famous artist's home, where there has been a curation of the objects of career and the wide-ranging interests of this star. Alex will take the daily care of them. He discovers that his employer is none other than Barbra Streisand. He is an idolater and has to contend with the cynicism of his boyfriend, Barry, in carrying out his duties.

Ben Gerrard takes on this production with great elan and a set of skills that he employs to create with subtle physical and vocal adjustments a great range of characters to an enormously entertaining effect. Not only is Mr Gerrard able to cause great laughter he also with an incisive internalisation of personalised feeling able to conjure an emotional (not sentimental) radiated compassion in moments of deeply affecting pain as he tells Alex's story. The impact of the range of Mr Gerrard's ability is impressive, and as I heard in the foyer afterwards, 'adorable'.

In a one man tour de force, by Mr Gerrard, the ninety minutes of this fictionalised encounter with a great star on a pink set - chaise lounge et al (Charles Davis) - lit with apt virtuosity by Alex Berlage, supported by a witty Sound Design (Marty Jamieson), sensitively Directed by Susanna Dowling, an evening of comedy is given to us that often teeters on the edge of 'camp' but through delicacies of 'good taste' and plain and simple honesty maintains a tenor of respect and engrossing interest. We come to care for Alex More, we come to care for Streisand and Barry and, indeed, all of the other cameos of the tale.

For a fun evening in the theatre, BUYER AND CELLAR is recommended. If you want to watch an actor with a sensibility of great modesty conjuring a performance of some magic, it is highly recommended.


New Theatre presents BIRDLAND, by Simon Stephens, at the New Theatre, King St., Newtown. 3 October - 14 November.

BIRDLAND, is a British play written, in 2014, by Simon Stephens. Simon Stephens, generally, writes from a 'working class' perspective (the provincial English city of Stockport is the usual location) and focuses on the struggles of particular ordinary individuals dealing with the social and materialistic difficulties that the 'progress' of the world throws up/at them.

Mr Stephens is a very prolific and critically celebrated writer and his output includes, amongst many plays: BLUEBIRD (1998), HERONS (2001), PORT (2002), ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD (2005), MOTORTOWN (2006), PUNK ROCK (2007), HARPER REGAN (2009), THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT (2012). His work has been seen only in the Independent Theatres in Sydney (no Sydney Theatre Company interest at all!), and has been championed, mostly, by Director Anthony Skuse.

Paul and Johnny are members of a provincial city band that has escalated into the realm of Super Stardom. We meet both of them towards the end of a long international tour in the cities of Moscow, Berlin, Paris and, ultimately, in London where enormous crowds (up to 100,000, we are told) have idolised the music and the musicians. Paul is THE Rock Star and BIRDLAND is part of his story.

When we meet him we are shown a man of immense wealth and personal power who is in a state of a fearsome ennui who can find no positive stimulus from his advantages, and in compensation, instead, wreaks psychological intrigue - bullying - seemingly delighting in the pulling off of the 'wings' of anyone that comes within his circle. We witness how absolute power has corrupted absolutely a Faustian-like figure, and like Faust, Paul, meets consequences.

Scene after scene we witness excruciating personal cruelty of an alarming intensity, where the victims have no defence or power to resist. Whether companion or recent acquaintance no-one is spared. The horror of this man's behaviour is that we are aware that Paul recognises his actions but elects to continue - he is not an unwitting individual, he is a self-conscious hapless 'monster' of will. This insight into Paul's internal awareness is what draws the audience into this two-hour, no-interval vortex that resolves like all moral fables do.

The skill of the playwright is the paramount reason to go to the New Theatre.

On a raked, varnished floor-boarded Set (Anthony Skuse) a team of seven actors - Jack Angwin, Graeme McRae, Charmaine Bingwa, Leilani Loau, Louise Harding, Airlie Dodds and Matthew Cheetham - play a range of characters, that in this production, are sometimes cast against age or sex appropriateness - the actors relish the modish opportunities. Charmaine Bingwa is impressive in the solutions she has made for her many responsibilities (particularly, as Paul's father, Alistair). Airlie Dodds arrests attention in her work as Jenny.

Mr McRae (Paul - a marathon role) and Mr Angwin (Johnny) reveal intellectual insights of the musicians they play and demarcate knowingly the character arc written by Mr Stephens, but do not combust the charismatic presence or realise an access to the 'profundity' of that mysterious manifestation that is STAR power - you know, what we see, meet, when in the presence of that kind of genius, say in Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger or Janis Joplin, Diana Ross. These two Rock Stars are hardly on the richter scale of charisma-power. One longs to see the irresistible attraction that is radiated by a figure with the status of Mr Stephens' Paul.

It is hard to resist the writing and incisive observations of Mr Stephens and, even in a production by Mr Skuse that does not always honour the 'musical score' of this writer's manuscript it can still be spellbinding.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Natural Conservatorium for Wise Women

Clockfire Theatre presents, THE NATURAL CONSERVATORIUM FOR WISE WOMEN, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St Newtown. 3rd October - 21st October.

THE NATURAL CONSERVATORIUM FOR WISE WOMEN, is a newly devised work by Clockfire Theatre, under the Direction of Emily Ayoub, with a set of collaborative artists that have created a remarkable experience.

The subject is the story of the Patriarchy at war with the other elements of his world. Whilst sitting in the defended achievements of his home space he receives letters of provocation from the Yours in truth, La Femme du Jardin. Preparing for invasion the patriarch is surprised when, instead, the women make an exodus from his influence. He has nothing to fight and is left only with the bitter/sweet fruit of his enterprise - a lemon and its tree and ultimately left begging for entrance to the world of the wise women.

What is arresting in this performance is to be immersed into a form of symbol - metaphor - where the use of deliberate abstraction is the means used to tell of the concerns of this collective. It is a welcome technique in contrast to the norm of communication in our theatre. It is, particularly welcome because of the quality of the skills and the passionate commitment to the mode of storytelling by this Clockfire Theatre collective. The confidence of all the artists sweeps all hesitation or initial bewilderment from the audience, away.

Its first conceit is to have it spoken in both French (with sub-titles) and a highly poetic English (inspired by the letters of Emily Dickinson). The next is a physical movement language that is stylised from the subtle to the broad, performed by the individual and as a company collective. (Three of the devisors/performers are graduates of the Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.) The next is a Design Collaboration of striking image led by Amanda McNamara - a surreal comic book - charmingly disconcerting,which is sympathetically lit by Ryan Devlin. The Composition and intrusively powerful Sound Design from Ben Pierpoint has dramatic impact and is a container for supporting the sophisticated craft/art form of this company's 'tools' of communication.

Tony Weir, is central to the success of the work as the representative Patriarch, and has a range of skills from the delicacy of minute physical skill of a high order to an expressive vocal instrument that demarcates the arc of the journey drawn by this company with tremendous skill and attractiveness - it has a human fragility - pathos - in his gestures of change and challenge. Catherine Parle, as the spokeswoman for the Femme du Jardin has a tremendous control of voice and physical life, supported, in contrast, by the silent but vibrating stillness of Laura Turner in several incarnations of character. The comedy of Alicia Gonzalez is adept and the presence of Sam Newing-Stern completes the jigsaw of the methods of seduction evoked by Ms Ayoub. The production is highly sophisticated loaded with intrepid integrity.

I had the night before watched the new film BLADE RUNNER 2049 and have been in a state of a dreamscape hangover since. The bleed from that immersive cinematic imagery to the strivings and solutions of Clockfire Theatre in this much more modest visual (and verbal) challenge was full of supportive echoes. Not least the thematics of the conscious rise of the Wonder Woman, or the 'Miracle'-woman of Blade Runner 2049, - who incidentally is first seen in a simulated garden investigating botany - to that of the Wise Women of this production.

I recommend THE NATURAL CONSERVATORIUM FOR WISE WOMEN, as an exciting and different mode of experience of storytelling in Sydney. Go, surrender, and be bewildered with a kind of wonder, and enthused with a sense of a future of change - hopefully of wisdom, equality.

The Gloveman

Photo by Hayden Brotchie

Actors Anonymous presents, THE GLOVEMAN, by C.J. Naylor, at the Blood Moon Theatre, 24 Bayswater Rd Kings Cross. Wed - Sat 4th - 14 October.

THE GLOVEMAN, by C.J. Naylor, is a new Australian play. The gloveman is the goal keeper in the game of soccer. This play was germinated from the match fixing scandal that came to light at Southern Stars Football Club in Victoria a few years ago.

The play however is really an observation of some of the people that kick about in the lower grades of the sport. Mr Naylor introduces us to Royce (Chris Argirousis), the 'gloveman' - also a gambler - who has taken a bribe to throw a game. He has a slightly disabled sister, Edith (Brinley Meyer) who runs the local pub/bar for him.There is, too, a loyal mate, Col (Matt Blake) and a past club rival, Clive (Ben Dewstow). The three of them, apparently lunk-heads and more than slightly dim witted, who, when 'threatened' by the needs of Hugh (Chris Miller), a representative of the match fixing enterprise, come up with a plan to circumnavigate the problems, especially as a newshound, Gabe (Janine Penfold) is onto the story/scandal for publication. There is further complication when the unsavoury Hugh seduces Royce's sister.

Mr Naylor on turning to writing for the theatre has mostly succeeded in the ten minute format. (Crash Test Drama and Short and Sweet). Mr Naylor's strength appears to be with his control of the dialogue between characters. There are many short and snappy scenes with dialogue of an entertaining interest. However, in this longer format of the full length play (this is not his first) the requirement for a more motivated backstory and sustained logic for the actions of the characters over a 90 minute arc of storytelling is where, ultimately, the play fails to gel.

The performances elicited by the Director, Michael Block, are well drilled if not fully mined for a three dimensional exposure of the foibles of the protagonists. Ms Penfold gives the best of the performances.

THE GLOVEMAN, is a fledgling exploration in the long format of the play by playwright C.J. Naylor, and, as yet, it is, relatively, underdeveloped.


Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir St Theatre presents, Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Eamon Flack, from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, in the Upstairs Theatre. 20 September - 22 October.

Belvoir presents Henrik Ibsen's play, GHOSTS, in an adaptation by the Director Eamon Flack. It is an agile and careful, faithfully respectful version (unlike his recent production of THE ROVER), in which the actors, so the program notes tell us, were as participatory in its final language choices, based on a literal version of the play by Charlotte Barslund, as was the Director/Adaptor. It is presented in a one act, no interval one hour and forty-five minute sitting. This focused demand reminds us of the influence of the Greek play construct that was a part of the Ibsen ideal. The speedy vertiginous, no escape spiral to 'disaster' is an asset to the intentions of Ibsen for his audience.

Written in 1881 (following A DOLL'S HOUSE in 1879) the play is a social agenda work that heralded the movement towards what we have come to recognise as Realism, on our stages. It was a source of scandal when originally seen in the European capitals, having had its first production in Chicago in the United States in1882. The Daily Telegraph of London, in 1892, in response to a presentation:
Ibsen's positively abominable play GHOSTS ... An open drain ... a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly ... Gross almost putrid decorum. Literary carrion ... Crapulous stuff.
Indeed, it deals with religion, illegitimacy, sexually transmitted disease, incest, euthanasia and all the social (human) hypocrisies masking those subjects from the daylight of the sun's searching exposure.

The play concerns itself with a widow, Helene Alving (Pamela Rabe), on the eve of a triumph of 'social engineering' with the opening of a home for orphans to honour the memory of her husband. Her intellectual life has been liberated since her husband's death and she has become an avid, if timid, absorber of the contemporary literature discussing the role of women in society. Because of this she is at odds with her spiritual advisor and long friend, Pastor Manders (Robert Menzies), who is an exemplar of conventional values, of the deliberate social blindness that counsels no bending to the laws of nature, rather a Protestant adherence to the strictures of an archaic set of beliefs and behaviours for the sake of a civil society and one's heavenly reward. Mrs Alving's son Osvald (Tom Conroy) an artist, has just returned from Paris. He is unusually agitated and almost violent for the need to fulfill the demands of his biological urges and has settled his attentions/intentions on the servant/maid of the household, Regine (Taylor Ferguson), who has been rescued by his mother from the influence of her father, Jakob Engstrand (Colin Moody). There are, we will learn, 'skeletons in everyone's cupboards'.

Ibsen sets up a world of social conventions that on the surface is a role model of propriety. Mrs Alving has manipulated her circumstances to sustain that image. To do so she has lived a life, of deliberately hidden events, creating a construct of lies to hide the hypocrisies of her society and world. In the action of GHOSTS, like a Greek play (such as, OEDIPUS), at one step at a time, for Mrs Alving, the secrets are revealed, and her manipulated world is gradually but inexorably undermined and she is left bewildered and with an ultimate decision that will force her to an act of mercy (or not) at the cost of confronting the demands of her society.

William Shakespeare is the most performed playwright of contemporary times, Henrik Ibsen is the second most performed, and he has been just as influential on the writers that have followed, right up to today. Mr Flack's production, reveals the relevancy of GHOSTS, to our present world, as potently as it did in the time of its creation. The evolution of man is slow in its progress. The hypocrisies of our society just as active. The traditional English title of this play, GHOSTS, has never quite captured Ibsen's meaning, rather: THE REVENANTS - The One Who Returns, may be more resonant, for in this 2017 production, despite its 1881 heritage the sense of man repeating himself, of us seeing 'one who returns' is achingly piercing.

The Set Design by Michael Hankin, is fantastically atmospheric in its overwhelming 'greyness' of wood, rain and mist, lit with a bleakness in a colour palette of a stark and foreboding sterility shafted with narrow warmth from portable light fixtures until the break through of the Sun (and enlightenment?), from Nick Schlieper. The Costume Design by Julie Lynch is thoroughly calculated to inform the theme of the world of the play and demarcate character. The Composition and Sound Design by Stefan Gregory is spare but apt. It is a very handsome and intelligent production.

The storytelling is clear though one could wish for more of the 'thriller' dimension of the writing as reveal after reveal is given in unmasking the 'heaving underworld of uncertainty and double-vision' of the Alving world - the play can have the tension and shock of the Sophoclean Oedipus discoveries that could, similarly, hold one dramatically in a powerful grip. Too, one wishes that Mr Menzies/Eamon Flack could have relished more the mordant comedy, deliberate irony of Ibsen in the explication of the passionate but deluded Pastor Manders, in all his interactions with the others of the play - often, Ibsen's sense of wicked humour at the observation of the comedy of life and its players is not seen, or rather is ignored in production The irony is the essential element that inspired Chekhov in his admiration of Ibsen, which resulted in his more sophisticated and less agenda driven plays and short stories.

The intelligent objective knowledge that Ms Rabe has of the journey of Mrs Alving is spectacular, but one could wish that she would trust what she is experiencing and told us less - acted less, indicated less - gave us room to read more subtle clues so as to permit us to enter more imaginatively, and therefore, with more vulnerability, with her, into the pathetic plight of this 'good' woman. Mostly we are invited by Ms Rabe to watch Mrs Alving rather than 'live' with her - 'experience' the trials of her existence.

There is, on the other hand, in the work of Mr Conroy, particularly in the demanding Act Three of the play, a truly inhabited - lived - moment by moment truthfulness that transfigures the actor into the character and his needs, that convince us of Osvald's dilemma. He seems to almost combust - a kind of self-immolation - It is breathtakingly heartbreaking and confronting in its reality. He is matched, but with fewer opportunities by Taylor Ferguson, who, is allowing Regine to use those elements of herself - the actor - to create a persona on stage that is revealing a scorching truth of abuse and the human resilience to continue on, even if it is 'by hook or by crook'. One is tempted by the 'heat' of the creativity of these two actors to ask Is Osvald/Regine speaking, or is it Tom/Taylor that is speaking, experiencing with us. Both these actors are engaged in a contemporary style of acting that is one of self-exposure and sacrifice to the "God of Thespis".

This production is interesting for those of us interested in the development of acting in our times. All these performances on this stage, are what we can call, at least 'good', are of great integrity, but the styles at reaching the deserving of that epithet are historically different as amplified by the generational risks, techniques employed by the individual members of this company. Mr Moody and Ms Rabe are intelligent but hesitate to 'burn' themselves up for the character - they rather appear, to me, to choose, intellectually, and carefully (coolly) what they want - no more and no less, probably, each time, deliberately accurately. Whilst Mr Conroy and Ms Ferguson 'shoot' from a personal security of revealing self-truths, apparently 'recklessly', in each moment, that have come from a 'learnt' refinement of explored real truths in the repetition of rehearsal, that have, then, in performance an appearance of searing rawness, but which is coming from a rehearsed, secured body memory. Interestingly, Mr Menzies has a foot in both camps and switches from one to the other depending on with whom he is engaged with in each of his scene tasks.

It is fascinating to see the changing of the artistic 'baton/guard' to render good acting for the theatre.

Mrs Alving is, finally, confronted with the power of helping her loved one, her son, to an assisted death. She holds in her hands the 'tools' to do it. Euthanasia. What issue could be more pertinent for our society today as we all contemplate the slow creeping life of old age that removes the spirit and even consciousness of our personal loved ones - our parents, our relatives, ourselves. What will we do? Yes or no?

GHOSTS, at Belvoir, for many reasons, of both social relevance and art/craft observations, is worth catching.

In the published text and program of GHOSTS, there is no biographical information given to Henrik Ibsen. All the other artists except the originator of this enterprise The Writer is given space. Not a unique happening in Sydney Theatre, alas.

Landscape With Monsters

Circa and Merrigong Theatre Company Co-Production, LANDSCAPE WITH MONSTERS, by Circa, created by Yaron Lifschitz and The Circa Ensemble, in the Illawara Arts Centre, Wollongong. 23rd September.

LANDSCAPE WITH MONSTERS is a new circus-theatre work from the Circa Ensemble under the Direction of Yaron Lifschitz. It is a Brisbane based company.

In the publicity blurb we are told:
LANDSCAPE WITH MONSTERS tells the story of post-industrial cities now in decay. Metal and wooden objects intersect with fast-paced aerobatics. This intense physical new show is at once humorous and brutal, savage and beautiful.
This is my first 'meeting' with Circa and it is certainly an intense and expert display of gymnastic and acrobatic skills engaged with a set of seven wooden boxes, later a 24 foot metal ladder and metal balance platform. It is all performed in front of a colourful Audio-visual Design of a night burning from a set of industrial chimney across a wall of screens (Lighting and AV Design by Toby Knyvett).

This is circus as theatre with an emphasis on the extraordinary skill and invention of the artists. This circus is costumed with not a skerrick of burlesque sexuality or nakedness, all seven of the artists - 3 women and 4 men - costumed discreetly, by Libby McDonnell, in greys, with just a hint of the effort of this extraordinary troupe of actors indicated by a progressive and spreading sweat pattern on the t-shirts.

The politics of this show telling a story of a decaying industrial city is really 'wishful thinking' on the part of the Director, Yaron Lifschitz, but there is no doubt as to the artistic construction around the skills of the performers, enhanced with a very arresting and culturally 'nostalgic' Sound Design by Daryl Wallis (very European in its feel).

In an hour and fifteen minutes one is held suspended into an admiration of the artists and their gifts - a delightful distraction.

My Fair Lady

Opera Australia and John Frost with Elizabeth Williams, Benjamin Lowy and Adrian Salpeter, Jeanne Arnold, Beckett Swede, Just For laughs Theatricals and Glass Half Full Productions, present MY FAIR LADY. Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's Play and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture 'PYGMALION'. At the Capitol Theatre, Campbell St, Haymarket, Sydney. 27 August - 14 October.

I recently read DAZZLER, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOSS HART, a biography by Steven Bach (2001). It was an intriguing and subsequently, easy and enjoyable read giving one a look into the career (and personal life) of Moss Hart. It was especially interesting following the unfolding of the plays and productions that this man was part of. Moss Hart was the original Director of My Fair Lady that had its World Premiere on the 15th March, 1956 on Broadway in the Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York. It was he who guided Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in their famous incarnations as Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in the Oliver Smith Set Designs and Cecil Beaton Costumes.

Opera Australia with Gordon Frost 'lured' Julie Andrews to Direct a Diamond Jubliee, 60th Anniversary Production of MY FAIR LADY for Australian audiences. I had never seen MY FAIR LADY on stage (the film many times, of course) and thought it would be a very interesting production to see, particularly with the chapter from Mr Bach's book concerning that original incarnation sitting so alive in my head, and knowing the intense memory knowledge that Julie Andrews could probably bring to the staging of the work.

The look of the production is 'gorgeous' to behold. The Set Designs and Costumes rich in the conceits of their time with a contemporary Lighting Design, by Richard Pilbrow, based on the plans and methods of Abe Feder, the original Lighting Designer, is luxuriously ravishing. Mr Pilbrow relighted the show (I quote) "…as if Abe Feder were to be with us at the production desk in 2016. Employing his principles that of course recognised the exquisite, subtly coloured Smith sets and Beaton Costumes, but employing - as he would have done - today's technology. [...] Hopefully our very modern lighting, 'inspired' by the great Abe Feder, will once again help bring MY FAIR LADY to glorious life.' - it does. It is one of the many pleasures of the production. (The only odd modern decision was not to change the painted back-drop setting for the two songs: "On the Street Where You Live", in Act One and "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" in Act Two - it looked definitely archaic! and WAS distracting to the opportunities for both those important songs.)

Charles Edwards, a guest artist from the United Kingdom, is a wonderful Higgins, with a comfortable ownership of all he does. His performance seemed to be an 'existence' on stage with all the nuance of the lyrics and music of Lerner and Loewe, and consummate skill with what is left in the musical's book of the Shaw text - PYGMALION - expertly communicated.

Anna O'Bryne, has had the great comfort and, probably, great challenge of creating Eliza Doolittle under the tutelage of the original. It is beautifully sung and the arc of Eliza's transformation is drawn clearly, although there are some dramatic insecurities, especially in the latter confrontations of the work, that just pulled one (I am talking for myself) out of a whole hearted emotional identification (Ms O'Bryne appeared and Eliza shrunk) - it became a little overwrought.

Around these two principals, have been gathered a call sheet of some remarkable vintage Australian talent, playing to their strengths with comfortable margins to spare: Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins; Tony Llewellyn-Jones as 'fussy' Colonel Pickering; Deidre Rubinstein as Mrs Pearce and a glorious performance from the redoubtable and theatrically energetic 'charmer', Reg Livermore as Alfred P. Doolittle.

The discipline of the Ensemble on stage is steadily remarkable (Choreography by Christopher Gattelli), as is the sound from the orchestra led by Laura Tipoki.

All in all a very pleasant night in the theatre - nostalgic, rich in familiar song and secure in performance. We have much to thank Mosss Hart - the Dazzler, for. And, of course Julie Andrews!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

In Real Life

Darlinghurst Theatre Company, supported by Screenwise and Dominic Tayco and Darren Conlon, present, IN REAL LIFE, by Julian Larnach at the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 15 September - 15 October.

IN REAL LIFE, is a new Australian play, by Julian Larnach.

Luke Rogers, the Director of this play, began a collaboration with the writer, Julian Larnach, almost three years ago. In the program notes, Mr Rogers uses a quote from Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology: 'Technology doesn't just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are'. 

Says Mr Rogers:
This play is about much more than technology [...] Through the relationship between a mother and her daughter, this work examines our need for human connection, the dilemmas that arise when our technology develops beyond our existing templates for the world, and the lengths we are prepared to go to hold on to those we have lost.
Set some time in the near future we meet a mother, Theresa (Anni Finsterer) who has created a high tech 'gadget' called The Drum which is revolutionary in its applications for connection to all things in the world. Her estranged daughter, Eva (Elizabeth Nabben) arrives at her mother's fabulous country get-away. Theresa finds that she knows less about her daughter than her other technical creation and when Eva disappears - deliberately disconnecting herself from The Drum, maybe - Theresa finds herself desperate to re-establish connection, to find her daughter. The lengths to which she goes are extensive and, ultimately, delusional and despairingly obsessive.

The play travels into areas of intriguing desperation and the trick of the writer to have one actor play multiple roles (Elizabeth Nabben) is absorbing and sustains our curiosity. The play in this production is better than the performance. Ms Finsterer and Nabben both deliver, in this very widely designed modernist minimalist (empty) architectural 'house' (Production Designer, Georgia Hopkins), performances that are vocally underwhelming (projection) and so not at all commanding of our attention. Once again, James Brown, has composed and created a Sound Design that propels the intrigue of the play forward - THE NETHER, another alarming futuristic gaze, also benefits from Mr Brown's input.

IN REAL LIFE, then, is an interesting piece of new Australian writing, hampered by performances that do not communicate to all of the audience (I sat in Row D in Seat 19 and found the play text often inaudible/ at best muffled - it was almost as if the actors were playing to/for themselves!)

The Nether

Photo by Ross Waldron
Catnip Productions and Seymour Centre present the Australian Premiere of THE NETHER, by Jennifer Haley, in the Reginald Theatre, the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 13th September - 7th October.

THE NETHER is an American play by young playwright, Jennifer Haley. It premiered in 2013.

THE NETHER is set in the not too distant future: 'Soon', says the author. The nether is a development of the Internet - a virtual reality realm.

The Nether realm is

1. Another world for mythical creatures
2. Demon World.
3. A dimension of Evil or Imagination

The play begins in an interrogation room where a young female detective, Morris (Katie Fitchett) is investigating Sims (Kim Knuckey), a successful business man who has created the Hideaway - a Victorian world where the fantasy life of clients using avatars can be lived out to the full of the imagination within the rules of its originator. That in this realm, sexual predators can create their fantasies, even to the dismembering of their world, is the source of the provocative debate that it is at the crux of this challenging work.

 It is a fiercely intelligent play.

Jennifer Haley is concerned with the ethics of technology and what constitutes a crime in an imaginative world. A world where avatars are used/permitted to act the inclinations of deviating minds, and whether it is better to have these places of existence in the Nether, that allows for extreme fantasies to take place, rather than for them to be perpetrated in the real in-world.

The play shifts from the bleak world of the interrogation space to the lush romantics of a Victorian house surrounded by forest where a young girl called Iris (Danielle Catanzariti) - an avatar, created by Doyle (Alan Faulkner) - interacts with Papa (also, Kim Knuckey) and a new visitor/avatar, Woodnut (Alec Snow). (The in-world identity of Woodnut is a shock of some scale.)

One never sees anything of distaste to disturb us, rather, it is the act of our imagination that fills that void and one is left as the play reveals its machinations and its subtle arguments, with an uneasiness, a sense of perplexed alarm, that provokes one to terrifying contemplations of the possibilities of the near ethical debates we must have in the not too distant future - 'SOON', as the playwright intimates.

Within limited budget restraints, Set Designer, Pip Runciman, has managed to create the worlds of the play with gripping effect, assisted by the atmospheric Lighting of Christopher Page, sustained with wonderful Sound Composition and Design by James Brown - the Sound is the enveloping power that helps us stay suspended in the notions and realms of the play.

Director Justin Martin has an intellectual grasp of the play and even though he has only been able to lead his company of actors to a just satisfactory explication of the men, women and creatures of the scenario, he leaves us disturbed and, maybe, morally 'unclean'.

Witnessing this play is not easy, but better this provocation than the relative intellectual time wasting at the STC with its present production of DINNER. If you want a challenging night at the theatre that will lead to important debate and contemplation, then THE NETHER is worth a visit. Brave New World, indeed. This play will disturb as the recent production of 1984 did not.

N.B. Once again we have a Production program that has no biographical information about the writer. Of late, Sport For Jove, bAKEHOUSE and its associates, and now Catnip and the Seymour Centre, neglect to include the originator of the enterprise, the writer, from the program - all, but the writer - incredible disrespect, really.


Photo by by Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company present, DINNER, by Moira Buffini, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 15 September - 28 October.

DINNER, is a British play, written in 2002, by Moira Buffini.

In the original and published text, which is different to what we see in this production, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Paige (Caroline Brazier), a famous gourmet hostess, invites a group of middle class intellectuals (not aristocrats, as suggested in the program) to a, supposedly, celebratory dinner, for the successful publication of her husband's, Lars (Sean O'Shea), philosophic how-to-live a happy life tome BEYOND BELIEF. Wynne (Rebecca Massey), a not famous painter, arrives without her husband Bob, a politician, who has just run off with one of his 'temp's'. She does not appear to be upset. Paige, is more so, for now, she has an uneven table and an excess of food, and her planned scenario of cast activity thwarted. She must begin to improvise rather earlier than hoped for, it seems. And as we discern throughout the night, Wynne, herself, has a romantic agenda of her own going on and is relatively comfortable with the state of things, without hubby. Hal (Brandon Burke), a micro-biologist, lately divorced from suicidal Mags - a close friend of Paige's - and newly married to Sian (Claire Lovering), a television journalist/presenter - 'a news babe' - arrives next. (To digress, in a time when Marriage Equality is being debated, heatedly, it is arresting to note that none of the four heterosexual marriages revealed here are positive role models of success, and one has to believe, consequently, that it is the question of Equality rather than Marriage that ought to be at the centre of Australia's contemporary debate -if these people represent marriage, who would want to do it?) Paige has hired a waiter (Bruce Spence), who is silent, found on the Internet, who also has other special gifts, and makes a requited demand, that his services are to be paid expensively in cash, in advance. The Menu consists of PRIMORDIAL SOUP, as a starter; APOCALYPSE OF LOBSTER, for The Main; and a Dessert: FROZEN WASTE. The planning by Paige for this night has been meticulous and spiteful, to say the least. Just after the Starter has been served, a working class lorry driver, Mike (Aleks Mikic), arrives - further disturbing the well laid plans of the ' hostess with the mostest' - he is invited to stay.

A dinner party of vicious verbal wit ensues revealing the meticulous plan that Paige has drawn up to revenge herself on her duplicitous husband, in front of her chosen guests, with her own bloody public murder/suicide by the Silent Waiter to be this Dinner Party's coup de grace. In the original, published text, the waiter reneges on the deal, returns the money and leaves. Paige is distressed and accidentally shoots the working class representative at the party, Mike, in the back, then, in the ensuing panic from the other guests, attempts to shoot herself and fails. A plan is made to collude on a fabrication concerning Mike's death and put it into action by these 'wankers' only to have the 'newsbabe' to inform them that she has managed to call the police and that they are on their way. The 'new moneyed' pseudo-intellectuals have perpetrated murder of the lower order and now are left 'stewing' in their juices of venom - A Dinner, indeed.

The original version of the play was, probably, written in response to the oligarchical moneying of London in the '90's where the rich seem to be in a universe of no real consequence for actions, all of their own. 'What money can buy, we can have!' Produced just two months after the tragic, symbolic, time changing attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, this play seems to be completely irrelevant as a contribution to the conversation through Art, of and for our anxiety ridden state in our contemporary world.

And despite the auteur intervention by the Director, Imara Savage and her Designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, by placing the play in a sealed box with a vast glass wall for us to see through to distance us from the 'performative' script of the playwright, as well as providing a detailed stylised, architectural set of rooms, including a not needed kitchen for other 'illuminating' (?) Directorial activity, and further isolating the performers from the audience's easy identification, with the use of obvious micro-phoned sound to further disembody the performers as flesh and blood- rather, creating comic target caricatures - with an additional series of directorial flourishes to further 'theatricalise' the production, such as: introducing the drowning out of the actors with low passing jet sounds; eerie music (Max Lyandvert) that is a cue to paralyse the performers who then slowly turn to stare at us through the glass sheets; the appearance of stage-management with stage equipment or cleaning tools, without any other comment throughout the action of the production, and the scrawling on the glass walls: "Fuck Shit Up", of which, not any of this auteurship gestures can make this play work as a vital and justifiable part of contemporary conversation. Not even the new last scene (as contrasted to the published text), where the working class figure is witness to his hostess's murder/suicide instead of being the victim, makes a clear mark - just what is the relevance of this new statement by the Writer and Director?  What was the point?  Anyway, the production had gone far beyond my caring by the time we reached its end after a wearying hour and forty minutes of personal abuse comedy, with no interval to relieve the tediousness.

The very best thing about this performance, and the only reason to attend this production, is the quality of the actors who manage to survive the importunate choices of the Directorial team, and this is despite the diminishing returns of the relentless denigrating dialogue of this pseudo- revenge/comedy/satire/tragedy. Caroline Brazier, is brittle and bright, poised - indefatigable - in the central 'poisonous' role of Paige, while Rebecca Massey is a tour de force of character comic, with all, Claire Lovering, Brandon Burke, Bruce Spence, Sean O'Shea and an interesting comic debut by Aleks Mikic, supporting each other with an ensemble approach of performance survival style in their attempt to reach us, and communicate something to us, through that damnable glass wall. DINNER, on opening night was an experience where intellectual conception burdened the play and players over much.

This play was presented in Sydney by a team led by Alice Livingstone many years ago now, in the SBW Theatre in Kings Cross. I saw a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company with Pamela Rabe, as well, some time ago. Why the STC thought this was a relevant play to occupy our stages in 2017, is, frankly, beyond me. Kip Williams in his introductory message in the program suggests that Moira Buffini's debut at the STC, 'applies a liberal helping of Luis Bunuel surrealism and Alfred Hitchcock thriller with a dash of J.B. Priestly class interrogation'. It is what we see but it is more Imara Savage than the writer Moira Buffini, that has Bunuel, Hitchcock and Priestly, in mind, I think. Ms Buffini has more of some of the grand guignol of the Jacobean Revenge plays in mind.

DINNER, in the Drama Theatre is not as Mr Williams would wish: a must see "Bon appetit".

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Diving for Pearls

Griffin Theatre Company presents, DIVING FOR PEARLS, by Katherine Thomson, in the SBW Stables Theatre Kings, Cross. 8 September - 28 October.

DIVING FOR PEARLS, is an Australian play by Katherine Thomson, first performed in 1991 - a play, then, some 26 years old. However, this production, Directed by, Darren Yap, gives this play an energy and clarity that makes it resonate and feel as if it were written today, in 2017. This is a state-of-the-nation play delivered with confidence by all concerned.

A good play - vivid, individual characters in wonderfully observed scenes, with dialogue that crackles and caresses with authenticity, both comic and dramatic, with a distinct ethical contemplation of urgent concern at its centre (even if, for today, the narrative may appear to be, for some, a trifle slow moving); wonderful casting - not a single weakness in this company of 5 actors revealing imagination and courage, utilising their considerable craft skills to deliver Ms Thomson's concerns; an astute Director (not least, in finding the right cast) solving the many location demands of the story with a Costume, but especially, Set Design, by James Browne; with an atmospherically rich, complex Lighting Design, by Benjamin Brockman, that helps propel the dynamics of the action forward, supported by the joint Composition and Sound Design, of Max Lambert and Roger Lock. The majority of this team collaborating familiarly with Mr Yap.

On morning radio (Radio National- RN) one heard a Union representative (Sally McManus - Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary ?) disputing the present policies of Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Employment, for the ex-businessman/banker, multi-millionaire, Prime Minister's government of 2017, and its pro-industry and anti-workers stances (attacks). DIVING FOR PEARLS, seen that evening, although, written some 26 years ago, jumped out to one with even more pertinence than ever before, a mere 9 hours later.

Says Den - a worker - in the penultimate scene of the play, standing on the fabrication shop floor of his factory:
I'm not just some mad bastard who cracked up. But I have just formally refused the retrenchment package. And I will be heard. [...] Because I will have my say. Because this will keep happening. Because we're one more thing that gets disposed of - and I keep thinking, what do they think I am? And the point is, there were people who were paid to plan, to win contracts, to stop the rust. If the writing was on the wall, why wasn't it read out loud? Look, I know I'm thick, but this accountancy, all this accountancy - where are the people in their equations? It's all rates of return [...] We're not stupid - we could be told the truth. But its just deceit and - The money this region's produced - and it doesn't seem to get back here. All around us these companies - making these profits, but it all gets spent in Chile or North Sea oil or one bad year and they go. And we - we put up with it. We're like some cargo cult, all of us in this city. Sitting on the floor of a quarry, lighting fires and hoping someone'll come down and save us. Then you wonder - well, what if no-one does? If they think we'll just ... disappear ... 

Den, in 1991, speaks as a blue collar worker and no-one, apparently, has listened, these pearls fell on swinish ears - no-one listened and the poor became poorer and the rich have become richer. A glaring contemporary (universal) political issue, in 2017, so that the remaining blue collar worker does still protest, and in the computer/internet/'robot' world, the white collar worker, too now, is looking for its 'Den' to enjoin a chorus of protest to draw regard to the 'people' in the all powerful Corporations equations for cash. (Is there some poetic-literary irony in the Minister of Employment's name Michaelia CASH, intended by this Government, in her appointment?)

This play is concerned in giving the honest working poor a spot-light, a voice, so as to be seen and heard. At the centre of Ms Thomson's concern is Den - late 40's (Steve Rodgers) and Barbara, nearly 40 (Ursula Yovich). Den is a shy loner with a big, if, simple heart, still living in his dead parents house, having worked doggedly in the near-by factory, and having never lived or worked anywhere else. He has never felt the need to do or live any other way - he has, relative, contentment. He has a toy train network hobby. He once had a love for Barbara, and has never worked out what went wrong. Barbabra, has worked hard all of her life in an industry of disposable 'goods'- a clothing factory -has had a child with disabilities, Verge (Ebony Vagulans), which she has disposed to her older sister Marj (Michelle Doake), and is now living in a run-down boarding house. Den and Barbara's paths cross again, and, advantageously, Barbara accepts refuge and a relationship with Den as she, aspirationally, seeks to find employment in the hospitality industry with a newly constructed International chain hotel development, on the beach front, nearby. Den lovingly facilitates all her needs, even to taking in her 'surprise' child as his own.

Barbara, is played relentlessly, and at some noisome (crushing?) pitch, by Ms Yovich, with remarkable courage, to give us a portrait of a woman driven to a last defence, a fierce narcissistic core by her 'gathering' circumstances, blaming all others, except herself, for her failings, and having no rescuing sensibility to hear those about her who want to love and protect her. Barbara's 'mania', as played by Ms Yovich, is dreadful in its emotional confrontation and is only relieved by the aspect that Den has for her - one of devoted love-sickness - that permits us, as we watch him grow happy with her, to develop an empathy for her - we, nearly, see her through his eyes. It is a scarifying character observed with, it seems to me, a kind of admiring grief by Ms Thomson, and a deep seated knowledge by Ms Yovich.

Steve Rodgers is a remarkable actor who draws, it seems to me, from his inner organic centre as a human, to create with simple gesture of action and, especially, thought, the whole of a character's life, his, in this case of Den, Den's simple past, his honest present and his loving aspiration for the future, who grows, belatedly, but inevitably, because of his purity of heart, sensible, to the injustices of his and his fellow workers lives and has the spine of an ethical consciousness to stand up for what is right against the expediency of money - a corrupter of human values. The tragic flaw in Den and Barbara's relationship is the recognition that their difference is one of moral principle - even though they, probably, could not say what it is, in so many words. Barbara wants him to give into the advantage of the money of the redundancy offered by the Corporation, Den can't, ethically, do so. Mr Rodgers gives a great performance to put in one's theatrical memories.

Jack Finsterer, as Ron, is a man who began on the factory floor with Den, but who took advantage of his opportunities to become an industrial consultant, and incidentally, Den's brother-in-law, brought in to be one of the many hatchet-men to undo the local factory/industry. Mr Finsterer draws not a knowing 'villain' but an empathetic and compromised man of practical survival. It is a sensitively observed performance of some moving dilemmas.

 Newcomer, Ebony Vagulans, creates Verge, the mildly intellectually disabled, physically handicapped and abandoned daughter of Barbara's, with a keen eye for detail and insight to the frustrations of Verge's world, blossoming under the care of Den and protesting for him with loving but devastating consequences.

Finally, one welcomes back Michelle Doake to the stage, as Marj, the misunderstood and awkward sister of Barbara who only has good intentions but no educated finesse to articulate them in any socially acceptable manner. Her performance is an exquisite one of comic and pathetic dimension - sometimes both at the same time - it is remarkable to watch the 'technique' of this actor with its second-by-second development of surface and character depth. Ms Doake's Marj is not simply, the comic relief function of this play's construct, but part of this play's human tragedy.

A good play with great characters and a 'thumping' moral heart. The acting from this ensemble  is much to be admired and not to be missed. Direction from Darren Yap, including all of the necessary Design supporting elements of his collaborators, make this Australian play of the past, shine with meticulous study and execution.

One hopes that the Emerging Playwright's of the newly announced coming season are able to watch this classic play construction, character realisations and story, with a moral heart (a philosophy), by Katherine Thomson - for to stand on the shoulders of greatness, to learn from observing, can be an advantage.

Recommended, highly.


Photo by Rupert Reid Photography

Millstone Productions presents MOTH, by Declan Greene, in the ATYP Theatre, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 6 September - 16 September.

MOTH is a one act play by Australian writer, Declan Greene. It is a very early example of his work and the 'promise' that this text predicts has been continually advanced upon with project following project: e.g. LITTLE MERCY; EIGHT GIGABYTES OF HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHY and more recently, THE HOMOSEXUALS OR 'FAGGOTS'.

Two young teenagers, Claryssa (Ruby O'Kelly) - a self-declared emo, Wiccan art-freak, and Sebastian (Jeremi Campese) - an underdeveloped, sickly 15 year old with a fantasy life chock full of anime robot scenarios, have found a bonding as the school weirdo outsiders. The bullies of the school find them an easy target. It is their imaginative wit and super-human resilience that keeps them going. Inevitably, one them begins to unwind and their friendship undergoes severe pressure and possible tragedy.

The play is essentially overwritten and in the event of it in this production, by Rachel Chant, it appears overwrought. Ms O'Kelly gives an obvious leaning to melodramatic (pushed) choices from no organic 'core' of identification (acting rather than 'existing', 'being'), which highlights the brilliant restraint (naturalism) and ease that Mr Campese brings to the highs and lows of his character's journey. It is a very creditable performance and appears to be more so beside the less truthful performance one of his partner. Mr Campese, is, I suspect, someone to look out for.

The Set and Costume Design is by Tyler Hawkins and is made more 'handsome' in its concrete spareness through the Lighting of Alexander Berlage, whilst the atmosphere of the narrative is supported and further created by the Composition of Chrysoulla Markoulli and the Sound Design of Tom Hogan.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Where The Streets Had A Name

Photo by Michael Bourchier

Monkey Baa Theatre Company presents, WHERE THE STREETS HAD A NAME, by Eva Di Cesare, adapted from the novel of the same name by Randa Abdel-Fattah at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Darling Harbour Precinct. 5 - 7 September.

WHERE THE STREETS HAD A NAME, is a play adapted from the novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah. It reveals the experience of how ordinary Palestinians negotiate violence and injustice while going about their mundane, everyday lives, as two children go on a quest to fulfil the dying wish of one of their beloved. Says Ms Abdel-Fattah:
Monkey Baa's production beautifully captures how Israel's occupation machinery and policies affect the everyday spaces of people's lives - especially children.
I beg to differ about the production but not with its social convictions.

Monkey Baa aims its work at young children of all ages. The audience I saw this production with were a mixture of ages. Their reaction to the material was attentive and in some cases, from specifically Palestinian refugees, and other nation refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan, now living in Fairfield, some tears and identification was made evident.

Playing out the family and other characters of the environment are Mansoor Noor, Dina Gillespie, Alissar Gazal Sitti Zeynab, Aanisa Vylet Hayaat and Sal Sharar. The biggest problem, at the moment, with the play is its fairly perfunctory adaptation by the Writer/Director Eva Di Cesare. For the play, in this production has, mostly, representational caricatures of a mother, father, grandparent and children of either sex, to facilitate the narrative of the difficulties it is to be Palestinian in an occupied military territory, so it can facilitate the apparent novel's social situation, which is of a grossly inhumane proportion. One wishes the writing was better and/or that the acting was better -  for the experience to be more than two-dimensional.

The Design, by Antoinette Barboutis, with a back panel of grey cement blocks to represent The Wall, with transparent screens to re-produce the AV Design, by Jerome Pearce, of real images of location, has good 'ideas' but they are not explored with enough scrutiny, by the Director, to contribute to the drama of the story.

This work is clearly, at core, a relevant experience and encounter for the young audience. It could be for a general audience as well - but it can't be in its present dedicated by lack-lustre production.


Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, HIR, by Taylor Mac, in the Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills. August 16 - September 10.

HIR is a play by the American artist, cult figure -"A critical darling of the New York scene" -  Taylor Mac (also, referred too as, 'judy' - as in Judy Garland - as a gender pronoun).

In the Writer's Note in the program:
I'm a lover and maker of the alternative, underground, and radical movements, and basically every work I've made is somehow rooted in a subculture. HIR, however, is a new kind of play for me, as it's dealing with the mainstream; rather the remnants of the former body politic and the rise of a new progressive body politic.

Issac (Michael Whalley), a recently dishonourably discharged soldier (for drug problems) returns to the lower middle-class suburban home of his family. Since he was last there much has changed. Arnold (Greg Stone), the patriarch of the family has had a disabling heart stroke and his wife, Paige (Helen Thomson) has, at last, found herself liberated from the physical and psychological abuse of her world and has begun a revolution of a new behavioural mode that is beyond gender, beyond materialism, even beyond the past (history). She has dressed her husband in a dress and elaborate make-up and has decided the order of the house is not her responsibility or high on her new agenda. Included in her new agenda, way of life, is an active embracement and support of the transition of her daughter, Max (Kurt Pimblett) to another sexual identity. On the refrigerator door are some alphabet  magnetic letters that spells out LGBTTSQQIAAC and the new gender pronoun and its origin: Him and Her that has become Hir; He and She that has become Ze. This new world order in this suburban home with this family is a radical re-imagining of possibilities.

Writes Taylor Mac:
In my time since I left home (25 years), its been thrilling to notice how many of those queer refugees, along with the straight radicals (and even progressives), are exploding the oppressive traditions, dictates, laws, and culture we've inherited and are creating a new world order in our new homes. Sure it's taking time, it should have happened long ago, and isn't even close to actually being what it needs to be (in terms of dealing with inequality, climate change, and economic disparity), but it's happening. There is tangible progress.

The two hours (including the interval) passes swiftly. The politics are sharp and are pleasantly funny (more often, hilariously so) and this is principally because the play has no anger, no self righteousness, no text book, academic blah, blah, blahing no pedagogic preaching, rather, it brings a modern, an ordinary family coping with the evolution of a more sophisticated world. I felt the world of the play was similar to Sam Shepard's, THE CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS (1978) and its family, each with the same economic struggle but in HIR has the addition of a skilful focus shift to the sexual paradigm of today.

On a scarily recognisable, and cleverly detailed Set Design, by Michael Hankin, in both acts where a transformation takes place, Director, Anthea Williams, manages her actors through the chaos of the space. She is blessed with a wonderful full-bore characterisation from Helen Thomson, who has not been so good since her stand-out work on Shaw's MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION, a few years ago. When given a character that is a challenge for her, the courage and skill of this artist comes to the fore - Ms Thomson is always a reliable comic but, it seems to me, when given more than that, transforms into a remarkable force of complex motivation. Her Paige is an unforgettable creation - the engine thrust of the play. Too, Kurt Pimblett, is arresting in the advocacy of Max and the transformative growth of the character. Mr Whalley and Mr Stone are suitably bewildered in the world that their Issac and Arnold find themselves in.

With this radical shift in the politics and order of this family there is, as Taylor Mac admits, 'collateral damage' which the two men of the play must bear - who are simply 'two people who are in the world regardless.' The violence of the last beats of the play, I assumed, after conversation with my friends after the show, was a statement by Mac, that it is the combative instinct of our species that will continue to undo us, prevent that evolutionary process from moving forward without bloodshed and exile - there will be a cost which must be, inevitably, paid. It is here that the Director, Ms Williams, fails to reveal what is happening in those final beats to clarify what we are meant to read from the stage offers. At the moment the production seems to finish precipitously in an opaque confusion.

HIR, is a highly recommended night in the theatre: Entertainment, Enlightenment, and for some of us, results in a state of Ecstasy. There is hope for a more enlightened way of living beyond the usual binaries. This production at Belvoir is as timely as our present political debate around Same Sex Marriage is.

N.B. Taylor Mac presents A 24-DECADE HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC as part of the upcoming Melbourne Festival in October.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

American Beauty Shop

Some Company and Oleg Pupovac in association with bAKEHOUSE present
AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, by Dana Lynn Formby, in the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), at the Kings Cross Hotel. August 31 - September 16.

AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, is an American play, by Dana Lynn Formby, written 2015.

It begins in the dark with a radio news bulletin reporting on the culpability of the Lehman Brothers and the resultant Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008. We are then brought to Cortez, Colorado, into the basement Beauty Shop belonging to Sue (Amanda Stephens Lee), where she's re-located from main street, as a result of that crisis. Sue is a struggling business woman with a fading traffic of old customers, like Helen (Jill McKay), with a stand-by loyal help-mate, Meg (Charmaine Bingwa). She has two things going for her, she believes: a hair product which she has invented and is going to patent to make her fortune, having saved a $1000 to do just that, and Judy (Caitlin Burley), a bright daughter who is possibly going to win a scholarship for Berkeley University to study Chemical Engineering that may lead to an upwardly mobile trajectory for the family. Judy's future is what Sue has 'slaved' for.

Sue is a single mum, having got pregnant, with Judy, without a man to take some responsibility with her. Her sister, Doll (Janine Watson), too, got pregnant and had a child, which died. The cycle of the struggle against poverty and the frustrated hopes of aspiration, especially for single women, are what this play is all about. (There are no men in this play). So, when Judy reveals that she is pregnant, to a local boy, the dilemma of whether she ought to abort the child (with mum's saved money) or possibly thwart her university study and future by keeping it, becomes the grist of this drama.

There is some good, if predictable, writing, though,the situation and the characters are tiresomely familiar which makes the first act a very long exposition and set-up for a much more interesting second act of confrontations. And it is then that the actors pull out some strong offers to keep this play alive for a patient audience.

In trying to puzzle the problems of the production - its relative inertia - as the narrative is so familiar, I wondered if the production had to be more of a character study opportunity, that might have made it  a more engaging dramatic entanglement. For, under the Direction of Anna McGrath, none of these actors have developed their women beyond what the action dictates and one wishes that there was more insight into the frustrations, eccentricities and needs that drive these women - I kept thinking of the characters in plays like STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1987), CRIMES OF THE HEART (1979), and , even further, of the recent GFC themed recovery films and the characters drawn in them: HELL AND HIGH WATER (2016) and LOGAN LUCKY (2017) - though these films deal with mostly men at the centre of the work.

This naturalistic play is Designed by Ellen Stanistreet for the KXT traverse space and the difficulties for that illusion, e.g. of the need for running water etc, provides some obstacle, whilst Liam O'Keefe lights the staging competently and the Sound Design, by Ellen Griffin, creates some atmosphere.

AMERICAN BEAUTY SHOP, is well done, (if, on my night,  a little 'wobbly' in its performance security) and that the play itself is a little underwhelming in narrative, character and content thematics. It is, however, an easy night out, to be sure.

N.B. This production set of companies have forgotten to give any biographical information about the writer. This is not unusual for productions in Sydney where the writer is sometimes disregarded. It is particularly distressing to see that the primary artist, Dana Lynn Formby, the writer, and the reason why, how, this work is being engaged, has no place in the program information.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Father

The Sydney Theatre Company and Commonwealth Bank present a Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company production of THE FATHER, by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton. August 24 - October 21.

THE FATHER, is a play written in 2012, by French playwright and novelist, Florian Zeller. It won the Moliere Award for Best Play in 2016 and has had an international life of some reputation. It has been translated into English, by Christopher Hampton - his play, LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (1985) being his best remembered work.

From the Program notes from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) the synopsis:
Andre (John Bell) was once an engineer. He lives in Paris, in an apartment he bought 30 years earlier. Or perhaps he lives with his daughter, Anne, and her husband, Antoine. Or was he a tap dancer whose daughter Anne, lives in London with her lover, Pierre? Whatever the living arrangements, he's still wearing his pyjamas and he can't find his watch.
Reading, that information, the idea that we are about to see a play that may be a psychological thriller, or, possibly an inheritor of the conundrum of the French absurdest play tradition, say, Ionesco's THE CHAIRS (1952), rises in one's consciousness. Both of the above might be the truth of the experience in the theatre.

For from the beginning, the offers of the Set Design, by Alicia Clements, of a middle-class Parisian apartment are slightly askew. Subtly, but askew. There is something just a little odd about the look, the furnishings. One has, after all many memory references from recent French cinema of the middle class Parisian apartment: ELLE (2016), THINGS TO COME (2016), AMOUR (2012), CACHE (2005).

THE FATHER, is made up of some fifteen scenes of various lengths and after the darkness between each, accompanied by an eerie Sound Design (Steve Francis), subtle shifts of organisation of the rooms has happened. It is subtly disconcerting and it undermines one's confidence of what one has seen previously, of what is true, what is real, of what usually has helped, to make secure, to build a belief system to enter the world of the play, the usual 'rules' of the normal game of make-believe in the theatre.

Andre, a retired engineer, is looking for his watch. He is urgently in search of it for he tells us that he had always had two watches, the one on his wrist and the one in his head - he always knew the time, the 'when' of his life. As this play unrolls one is not so sure that he has that grip on both his 'watches' anymore. He, we, meet his caring daughter, Anne (Anita Hegh), her partner, Pierre (Marco Chiappi), his carer, Laura (Faustina Agolley) and two others, Glenn Hazeldine and Natasha Herbert, who may not be who they say, and/or Andre believes they are.

This is a play about the experience of dementia. For those of us living with it through the health of parents and friends, and the personal fear that it might be happening to one self.  THE FATHER, can be, is a very difficult, confronting time. For what Florian Zeller manages is to place one in the mind (head) of Andre. The gathering accumulative journey that one has, as an audience, is the feeling of losing one's mind where the reality we are watching is not consistent and so is distractingly frustrating and panic inducing. It is a marvelous piece of writing. Listen carefully to the dialogue repetitions, and their subtle changes. Christopher Hampton, translates the 'tricks' the verbal constructs of Florian Zeller with wonderful skill - all is not secure.

John Bell, playing Andre, creates a man of masculine aggression, a man not, necessarily easy to like, a man whose difficult personality traits become magnified as he flounders in a bewildered whirl to find an equilibrium to his waking moments that ultimately dwindles into a pathetic (empathetic) figure of need and child-like wanting. It is a performance that keeps one at a distance, and whether it is one of 'logical' rejection or simple fear of the future, that position cannot but be challenged with the final moments of the production. One can be moved to tears. Whether it is one of empathetic embrace or fear, will be an individual choice.

The company of actors are uniform in their simple and straight-forward tasks that present the world of the scenes of the play with naturalistic clarity - no comment, no 'flourish', little to no sub-text, and Director, Damian Ryan trusts that the writing embodied by his actors will create the affect of the play's intentions, balanced by a subtle Lighting Design, by Rachel Burke, creating a visual offer that can create a sense of unease and doubt.

At 90 minutes with no interval this is a play of enormous skill that can shatter one's confidence about the future - indeed, one's own in a very visceral way. The production serves the writer with a bleak hand of consistent restraint.

N.B.: There is a twined play by Mr Zeller, called THE MOTHER (2015), which, too, examines a contemporary social issue of a commonly experienced confrontation. It is worth reading (or, perhaps seeing).

Monday, August 28, 2017

Lip Service

The Ensemble Theatre presents LIP SERVICE, by John Misto, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 17 August - 30 September.

Photo by Prudence Upton

LIP SERVICE, is a new Australian play, that premiered in a separate production in London, earlier this year, with the title: MADAME RUBINSTEIN with the indomitable Miriam Margolyes, as Rubinstein and Frances Barber, as Elizabeth Arden.

In Kirribilli, at the Ensemble we have Amanda Muggelton playing Madame Rubinstein, and it is a performance that I loved a lot. A performance of comic skill and emotional truth, when required, bringing to bear a technical bravura from an actor that knows her theatrical 'onions'. I was full of 'wonder'. It could be described by some as 'old-fashioned'. I could describe it as 'old fashioned' but it has a full heart, soul and set of exquisite theatrical 'brains' - technique - and is, therefore, glorious, because of it. I was full of warm admiration for her magnificent 'managing' of what Mr Misto gave her to work with. The emotional arc that she drew was breathtaking in its conviction and expression. I reckon, younger actors could learn a lot from what they will see if they go. A lesson in 'grand' acting technique.

For, what Mr Misto has given Ms Muggleton, and the other actors: Linden Wilkinson (Elizabeth Arden) and Tim Draxl (Patrick O'Higgins) is not much more than a lot of 'lip'. These cardboard characters, on the page (I have read the play), fortunately, have a real-life biography to help the actors to flesh out what is not much more than lippy, campy grotesques, engaged in a battle of verbal one-upmanship that wallows in Jewish, Catholic, Irish and Homosexual/Gay put-downs of a voluminous number of a kind that may have been funny in a time and place past, but today, feels like a step back into a less nuanced social era - one that I am glad I, rarely, experience anymore. There is no doubt that Mr Misto has the gift for comedy and knows how to write, construct it, it's just that LIP SERVICE, is a two hour play and not just a comic sketch, which except for moments when death treads the boards with his people, is all you get.

It is, cumulatively, tiring to sit through. A comedy of caricatures can't hold for an entire evening without a story to build it from. It is the lesson that George F. Kaufman gave Moss Hart when they were writing their first play together ONCE IN A LIFETIME (1930). One longs for some more substance and considering the lives of his two principal figures, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, there is substance to be mined, a story to build from.

After the show I googled Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. My gosh, here are two women who created business EMPIRES of some note over a very long time. Helena Rubinstein was born in 1872 lived until she was 92! Elizabeth Arden was born in 1878 and died at the age of 87! Some world history these women lived through and had the know-how -chutzpah - to build a business. Worth investigating what they did to achieve that in their time era don't you think? (and, by the way, these women never met in life, and interestingly, Rubinstein, a Polish immigrant, began it all in Australia). Making them 'monsters' of cruel wit, alone, and that is the dominant impression of the characters in this play, is not respectful enough, I reckon. A question momentarily raised towards the end of the play of whether these Titans of the cosmetic industry 'empowered' or 'exploited' their customers seemed to be an interesting angle to base a play around. Earlier this year, there was a version of these two women in a new Broadway musical: WAR PAINT,  starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, that, it seems, did just that.

Linden Wilkinson slouches through her character's combativeness, heavily costumed which is all Mr Misto asks her to do, while Tim Draxl as the Irish, ex-soldier, gay assistant to Rubinstein responds as only a verbal punching-bag can do: with a submissive empathy that descends to a musical bathos at its end on her death bed - this is the second time this year that we have seen Mr Draxl naked on stage - sexual objectification come full circle, I guess.

Director, Nicole Buffoni, manages with Designer, Anna Gardiner, the many set changes in this small space and keeps it all cracking along, assisted by the Lighting of Christopher Page. Daryl Wallis mixes the Sound Design with period memories to help us sit in the world past.

To see Ms Muggleton give a performance of some grace and judgement is a fair reason to see this production but go forewarned about the exhausting and disappointing formula of the writing. It is less lip service and more lip surface.