Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Viliage Bike

Photo by Andre Vasquez

Cross Pollinate and Red Line productions present THE VILLAGE BIKE, by Penelope Skinner, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St Woolloomooloo. 7th June - 8th July.

THE VILLAGE BIKE is a British play by Penelope Skinner, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre, in 2011.

Rachel Chant in her Director's notes tells us
In preparing this play we went down many tunnels of research: the Madonna/Whore complex, objectification, gender roles, pornography, power and sexual liberation. ... In this so-called 'post-feminist' world, THE VILLAGE BIKE asks us to consider, "what does liberation look like?"
Becky (Gabrielle Scawthorn), a school teacher on summer holidays, and just pregnant, buys a push bike to exercise and discover the 'landscape' of her village life. Her husband John (Benedict Wall) has put away his shared pornography (but not thrown it away) and with a surprising 'missionary' zeal begins absorbing the 'sensitive new age guy (SNAG)' practice around the duty of care for the pregnant woman, and his world environmental responsibilities, exemplified by his study with 'text book' of the woman's experience, and developing passion around the curse of plastic bags. His need for sex is subsumed by these new cravings, whilst Becky has grown an insistent sexual need and looks for ways to relieve her cravings. Ignoring the 'mumsy' aid offered by neighbour Jenny, (Sophie Gregg), Becky finds herself oddly affected by the local plumber, Mike (Jamie Oxenbould), who has come to fix her home's 'sweaty pipes', and terribly attracted to the local village 'jock-atification', Oliver (Rupert Reid).

Initially (and maybe the first act is slightly over written), THE VILLAGE BIKE has all the gentle but pertinent middle class satiric tropes of early Alan Ayckbourn plays e.g. RELATIVELY SPEAKING (1965), ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR (1974) but gradually moves into much darker territory such as the later Ayckbourn material investigated in WOMAN IN MIND (1986). Becky imaginatively spurred by her pornography watching, finds herself plunging into a real life situation that like the Isabelle Huppert heroines in films like THE PIANO TEACHER (2001) and ELLE (2016) finds herself in a 'world' out of her control - be careful when 'fantasy' becomes a 'practice'!

This is a very 'adult' (unusual and so intriguing) experience in the theatre, more so as it places a female character centre stage with human needs usually framed within the (generalised) male psychological profile and is examined with an uncompromising and realistic gaze. In Sydney this feminine contemporary world view has probably not being shown so forthrightly since, perhaps, Dorothy Hewitt's work of the 1970's-80's (THE CHAPEL PERILOUS (1972), BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY (1972), THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY (1976). It has taken six years for this play to reach a Sydney stage and one ought to be grateful for its arrival.

Ms Chant, has had the good judgement in her casting by having Gabrielle Scawthorn at the centre of Ms Skinner's THE VILLAGE BIKE. Over the past few years Ms Scawthorn has given performances (STOP KISS, E-BABY) of insightful intelligence with a breezy charm, but more importantly, amazingly, centred around subtle revelation that blends a fearless personalisation of the actor with the given circumstances of the writer's creation to her character's journeys to such a degree of refined craftsmanship that one can be confused (sometimes to the point of alarm) of whether we are watching a 'life' on stage - of the truth of a being in the centre of an evolving existence - or, rather watching an actor crafting, acting out for us.

We see on our stages (and film) many performances that are good, very good, but, in my experience in the theatre, are of a style of the last century - decade. Ms Scawthorn is in the midst of finding a way to move the measuring stick/the bar of what passes for great acting to a new and higher place. With the character of Becky in THE VILLAGE BIKE, Ms Scawthorh has found a role with a breath of opportunity to put her instinctual explorations (and skills) in to practice. What is astonishing is the non-demonstrative offers Ms Scawthorn gives thoroughly and relentlessly throughout her every moment on the stage - In THE VILLAGE BIKE, she rarely leaves the stage - with an almost seamless self-demand that, in the theatre, is a marvellous, olympian-like feat. The 'volcanic' internal life Ms Scawthorn creates for us is wonderfully balanced with her expressive skills (voice and body) which are utilised with delicate and seemingly improvised, economy/restraint. Ms Scawthorn is no priest at the altar of thespis, but rather the sacrifice on the altar - it is daring, risky and demanding. The subjective life of the actor/character held firmly within the objective knowledge of the writer's creativity. A marvel of the evolving 'art' of acting. Within the confines of this 'tiny' theatre space the work is both 'theatrical' and yet 'cinematic' in scale, both, at their best.

What we might see, Ms Scawthorn give, in one of the great classic roles on a main stage is the adventure one, as a regular theatre goer, is looking forward to. A Nora. A Hedda. A Phaedra. A Hester Collyer (THE DEEP BLUE SEA). It is a limitless possibility.

Ms Scawthorn is well supported by the other performances about her. Rupert Reid gives a performance of consummate suavity and sexual lure that is unsettling in its physical ease and attraction. Jamie Oxenbould creates a man of bewitched and bewildered bumbling, surprised and grateful with his unexpected good luck, while Benedict Wall, straddles the honest goodness but naive husband/father to be, with a delicacy that prevents the character from becoming a caricature or writerly function, as does Sophie Gregg in her similarly difficult role as the neighbour/mother next door - this woman it seems is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And one must congratulate Kate Bookallil with a small but gigantically effective cameo as the other woman/wife, Alice - it creates a shocking moment of ethically confronting reality.

The women in Ms Skinner's play are startling, on consideration, in their refreshing clarity and are the 'powerful' centre of the point-of-view of the writer, with the men, wryly observed in all of their habitual and 'helpless' masculinity - flawed and culturally self-entitled to their 'function'.

Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt are the production Designers and solve the demands of the set requirements within the confines of the Old Fitz space with great skill. While the lighting by Hartley T A Kemp is focused on the illumination of the locations and is accompanied with a Sound Design and Composition by Nate Edmondson - Mr Edmondson seems to be on a cresting wave of creativity, what with JATINGA and other work heard in our theatre's so far this year.

THE VILLAGE BIKE, introduces us to a writer, Penelope Skinner, worth knowing and brought to life by a company of tremendous artistry. Within the modesty of the Old Fitz possibilities THE VILLAGE BIKE, production is a very interesting (important) time in the theatre. Along with Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, putting women centre stage in a refreshing and confidently focused bravura.

Should see.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

I Love You Now

Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents, I LOVE YOU NOW, by Jeanette Cronin, at the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St, Darlinghurst. 9 June - 9 July.

I LOVE YOU NOW is a new Australian play by Jeanette Cronin, for two actors, Jeanette Cronin and Paul Gleeson, Directed by Kim Hardwick, Designed by Isabel Hudson with a Lighting Design by Martin Kinnane supported by Co-Composers and Sound Designers, Max Lambert and Roger Lock.

Leo (Paul Gleeson) and June (Jeanette Cronin) have loved each other. Says Ms Hardwick in her Director's notes:
I LOVE YOU NOW is, at heart, the exploration of a deeply flawed marriage. Betrayal, guilt, complacency, denial have become embedded and now, at a precipice, June introduces Leo to the idea of role playing
For near 90 minutes, vignettes of role play unfold on a very handsome set representing a hotel room. From when lovers first fall in love and tell each other everything to when they fall out of love and don't say anything. The stakes in these lovers' games become high for June, as she reveals to Leo that she is dying. (Oh, no.)

My experience with this production of I LOVE YOU NOW became one of uncoupling progressively from the events on the stage and began, rather, reflecting on works of a similar pattern: Pinter's THE LOVER (1962), OLD TIMES (1971) and BETRAYAL (1978). Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). I even contemplated the memory of Bernard Slade's tiresome play, SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (1975) as an alternative to this. Anyone of those plays I wished I was watching, other than this. And, you know, I don't think the writing is the big problem - it seemed, from what I could discern, quite confident.

The problem at the core of this production is that Ms Cronin is both the writer and the leading actor. The writer of the play appears to have the sense (intellectual) of what is going on, but the actor, on the other hand, mostly wants to show us, only, what June is feeling (emotional). In other words the actor has mapped the emotional arc from vignette to vignette and displays it, but has not mapped the narrative arc with sufficient, enough, clarity. The subjective - emotional - choices of the actor overwhelm any objective - intellectual - storytelling choices that the writer has given.

Ms Cronin is best when she sits sadly contemplating June's coming death - she enjoys that sentimental communication to us - but otherwise seems to be simply acting-out, indulgently, for herself, rather than making considered choices to communicate to the audience , the character June's journey. Just what is the audience meant to receive from this play? The character on stage 'seems' to be Jeanette rather than June. One remembers her recent performance in another self-written play, I HATE YOU MY MOTHER at the Old Fitz, and recall character gestures, that, repeated here now, become 'habits' - 'tics' - of the actor. Ms Cronin's vocal and physical work is blurred in its spontaneous personalisation combustions making it enormously difficult for the audience to decipher, to focus a narrative arc to keep ourselves engaged, attentive. Ms Cronin keeps showing us lots of emotional 'stuff' but fails in telling us much with clarity.

Mr Gleeson, thank goodness, manages to hold a cleaner narrative line for his Leo and balances it more credibly with the emotional rise and falls of the many vignettes, the actor's simultaneous objective and subjective concentrations each supporting, clarifying the other, so that we, the audience, can 'read' fairly accurately what is going on with him. He is a stabilising influence to the experience.

The production looks very good in this space. Ms Hardwick has created a number of aesthetic choices in her work and has valiantly attempted to hold some focus for the audience's clarity of the 'events' of the play. The Design, the focusing and handsome lighting by Martin Kinnane, the use of the 'live' musicians, the 'game-play' with the losing and finding of the spectacles (metaphor?) are all thoughtfully employed to give the audience an opportunity, a chance to be stimulated. Alas, to no real avail.

On the theatre card blurb we are told:
I LOVE YOU NOW is a sexy, tragi-comedy about love and desire ... plus tango!
The quality of the dancing (much lauded in the pre-production news) is a symptom of the problem of the production. Not good enough to have such a central metaphoric place.

Sunset Strip

Photo by Patrick Boland

The Uncertainty Principle and Griffin Theatre Independent present, SUNSET STRIP, by Suzie Miller, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 14 June - 1 July.

SUNSET STRIP, is a new Australian play from Suzie Miller, following on from CARESS/ACHE, that was presented, too, at the SBW Stables Theatre, under the Direction of Anthony Skuse.

The setting of the play is beside a shack, on the edge of an almost-deserted dust bowl of what was once a mecca for holidaymakers on the edge of a lake. Now there is only 'sand' or 'dirt' and a marooned fishing boat. Desolation and aridity, the opposite of what the nomenclature of Sunset Strip may signal in our anticipatory imaginations are what we see. (Set and Costume Design, by Emma Vine).

The principal characters are two sisters with a 'terrible history' of sibling rivalry and parental favouritism: the older, Caroline (Georgina Symes), a successful lawyer with a smashed up personal life as a result of cancer and the continuing intrusive attempts at medical cure, returning home after a long absence, and the younger, Phoebe (Emma Jackson), a 'wreck' of a young woman suffering from drug addiction and the temporary loss of her children to Government care (DOCS) after a stint in rehab, who, besides looking after her father, Ray (Lex Marinos), in a state of unpredictable dementia, has fallen in love and is embracing marriage to a local man, Teddy (Simon Lyndon), who has come, it seems, to a certain peace with his own demons. That Teddy happens, as well, to be an ex-lover of her sister's, which ended complicatedly, complicates this reunion, this return home, further. The personal given circumstances of these characters lives are many - weighty, if not melodramatic, in their plentitude.

Ms Miller tells us in her long program notes:
SUNSET STRIP is a play about people who happen to be in a few shitty situations. I wanted to reflect how we bumble through life with all sorts of challenges, some of which will never be fixed or cured, but which we take on board and battle along with. There are also many funny and darkly ironic moments that come about even when we live with 'everything going wrong'. ... (that) human beings are remarkable at finding hope in the hardest and most unlikely places ... because in being lost, ill, getting old, having cancer, melting down or screwing up, we are at our most human, and sometimes that's the place where the best laughs are.

The form of SUNSET STRIP is that of a melodrama of family reunion with all its familiar tropes of memories both pleasant and unpleasant, burgeoning with sentimentality and recrimination, but in this case is overloaded with many, many obstacles (too many) for any kind of hope filled resolution - one worried that the children, if and when they arrived (appeared) - which, thankfully they don't - would bring further problems for the characters to deal with - an 'Electra' and 'Orestes' possessed by the Furies - the Kindly Ones, I feared.

Ms Miller strives for a balance between the 'drama' and the 'comedy' of it all. And there are a few laughs in this production of the play, and certainly some sentiment, but the dominant tone of this production, signalled by the acting, is one of continual foreboding of relentless melodrama, massaging painful realities of personal experience into a preference for pursuing pathos rather than the tragedy of the profundity of some of the human life-story possibilities. The play finishes, penultimately, in the horror of addiction, dementia and the subverting of a conscience to illegalities that we know will only bring calamity to all concerned. That the writer, then, ultimately, has created musical fish in a tank that learn to pull the strings of a 'strung-up' glockenspiel to play a tune - a poetic metaphor - so as to suggest that anything is possible, is a conceit that is palpably ridiculous and sentimentally romantic that only a Disney-world-view of happy-ever-after could offer. The play finishes in a wistful, silly fantasy, rather than in the facing up to the necessary resiliences for life.

Both Ms Jackson and Symes create characters 'boiling' with internalised suffering but in this close space at the SBW Stables Theatre we 'look' at actors visibly crafting, acting - externalising their suffering- rather than simply giving us beings existing, that we can imaginatively engage, empathise with. The contrast of judgment in the proffered offers from these actors in Mr Skuse's Direction is striking: for Mr Lyndon, in the relatively underwritten role of Teddy (maybe that is a 'gift') creates a persona with his character responsibilities that has more going on than he shows and thus invites us to endow, invent with him Teddy's hauntings - so that he is, by far, the most intriguing, interesting character on the stage. Mr Lyndon, in contrast to his leading ladies, seems to be practising elements of 'restraint' in his creativity, that neither Ms Jackson or Symes do.

Ms Miller reveals in her program notes that this play comes from a highly personalised need that
had obviously lived in (her) unconscious for a while and especially wanted to present two female characters 'front and centre' in the story of this play, to make no apologies for the very female nature of the storytelling - how women talk, relate and move through life' and to 'fully embrace and celebrate it. ... (that) there is a unique humour about women together, the way we laugh and love and get angry all at the same time. But (that) the male characters in this play are also fundamental to the telling of the story.
Perhaps, I felt, the source of the material and the passionate need to tell this story has not yet been through enough of a refined writing drafting process for it to be a more satisfactory experience in the theatre. Or that the actors were too 'moved' by the writer's source inspiration to craft more delicately.

I contrast SUNSET STRIP to a play and production, at present being presented at the New Theatre, by Sarah Ruhl: THE CLEAN HOUSE, which more or less attempts to present the same human dilemmas, with in this case four female characters (and one male) with a comic/tragic tone and arresting play dramaturgy/structure, that succeeds in all of Ms Miller's hopes in a very much more sophisticated and rewarding manner.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Photo by Natasha Narula
bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company presents JATINGA, by Purva Naresh, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. 9 June - 24 June.

JATINGA is the latest project from bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, following on from its startling play and production earlier in the year of THE LADEN TABLE in the same theatre space.

Suzanne Millar is Co-Artistic Director (with John Harrison) of bAKEHOUSE, and 4 years ago was working in Mumbai, at the Apne Aap Women's Collective in Kamathipura. Kamathipura is one of Asia's oldest and largest red light districts. In the program notes we are told:
Of the 10,000+ brothel based workers in the area, 45% are homeless; 74% are HIV+ and 1 in 4 is under 16 years. 88% are victims of sex trafficking. The average age of arrival is 12.
The Apne Aap Women's Collective is an anti-trafficking organisation that serves the women and children of Kamathipura, by providing tools and resources to create a better quality of life for the women and their daughters living in this environment.

Purva Naresh, is the writer of this play and it was originally written in Hindi. This is the World Premiere of the play. It is being played in English. Ms Naresh has travelled to Sydney to help supervise the translation and adaptation, by the artists of bAKEHOUSE. The play will be taken to Mumbai in November, 2017.

There are several strands interwoven into this play. The first important one is the natural yearly phenomena concerning the migration of thousands of birds to a village called Jatinga, where on arrival they hurl themselves to death from the surrounding cliff tops to the village below. It is now a significant tourist event for Westerners. The next tells the story of a group of run-away girls (women) who have been recruited (kidnapped) from their village and farms and not finding proper work are on a train and accidentally find themselves in a 'first class carriage' to become the interest of a female reporter, who is on commission for another story, but who, consequently, attempts to gather their story instead. This strand emphasises the relative 'medieval' practices and simplistic beliefs of these country village women in contrast to the sophisticated contemporary city world of the iphone and computers of Mumbai. In incident we also observe the clash and behaviours of various political stances of that vast country that makes up modern India - resulting, in this narrative, with menace, assault and death from a pro- Communist train invasion. The other dominant strand takes inspiration from the country's folk-tale heritage and the poetry of prominent Hindi poets, Vinod Kumar Shulka, Naresh Saxena and Katayaini.

On an authentic and - knowing this small traverse space - amazingly detailed and 'beautiful' Set Design, by Suzanne Millar and John Harrison, the story unfolds in a surrealistic juxtaposition of hard nosed contemporary reality and haunting folk myths in song, dance and puppetry (Puppetry Design and Construction by Aleisha Jelbart). The complicated and beautiful Lighting Design, by Benjamin Brockman creates a broad, and when needed, a detailed feature-guide, to help focus the audience's attentions for narrative impact, in co-hort, with a truly wonderfully culturally redolent soundscape of music and atmospheric support by Nate Edmondson. Suzanne Millar is also responsible for the Costume Design. The visual and aural creativity to assist us to suspend our disbelief is first class.

It is this craft mixture that is reached for by Ms Millar that recalled for me some of the lure and magic of Ariane Mnouchkine's six hour production: LE DERNER (ODYSSEES) LE FLEUVE CRUEL ORIGINS ET DESTINES, that was part of the Melbourne Arts Festival - the story of International Sex Trafficking - in 2006. (Sydney, memorably had seen, as part of the Sydney Festival, in 2002, The Theatre de Soliel's production of THE FLOOD DRUMMERS - those were the days when the Sydney Festival was truly an International Festival of the Arts!) The resources of these two companies are, admittedly, ridiculous to compare, however, what I experienced with JATINGA was the visionary aspiration and grasp of the Mnouckine work, staged here, by bAKEHOUSE, on a pocket-handkerchief scale and size, but with no less ambition, and some success.

Besides the writer coming from Mumbai for this production we also have two actors: Faezeh Jalali and Sapna Bhavani, and the Stage Manager, Yael Crishna (who, incidentally, is an international graduate from the National Institute of Dramatic Art - NIDA - of 2002), as well. The rest of this largish company are all Australian artists Amrik Tumber, Bali Padda, Claudette Clarke, Karina Bracken, Monroe Reimers, Sheila Kumar, Sue Mawer,Teresa Tate Britten and Trishala Sharma. The discipline of their work is tremendously convincing and vital taking us imaginatively into the situations of the journeys of the play with ease.

The contemporary issue of these young, naive, innocent but enormously spirited women been taken from their village lives to a life of unwilling degradation contrasted within the cruel, volatile politics and mechanisms of modern India mixed with the haunting mythical folk-tale of Jatinga, as Ms Millar tells us is a "big sprawling, beautiful thing ... a lot like India itself.' and that is what we view. It is, though, a magnificent 'mess', a work-in-progress, but no less, less admirable for being so, and is worth witnessing for that.

Like the recent bAKEHOUSE production of THE LADEN TABLE, this production of JATINGA is an ambitious contribution to the Sydney theatre scene and is outstanding in its achievement and leaves one questioning the product, ambition and courage of more financially advantaged companies such as the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir and the Griffin. Australia Council and the relevant Government bodies ought to be taking notice. bAKEHOUSE alongside PYT Fairfield (TRIBUNAL, JUMP FIRST, ASK LATER) seem to be meeting the challenge of telling the stories relevant to the diverse multi-cultural community that makes up modern Australia, and do so inventively, thrillingly and in spite of straightened financial conditions. The passion combined with artistic nous and invention as exampled here makes theatre of a most valuable kind. Modern and mythical India, alive in Kings Cross. Amazing.

Do go.

Films with a Female Perspective: 20th CENTURY WOMEN; WONDER WOMAN


20th CENTURY WOMEN is a film written and Directed by Mike Mills. It is
a kind of autobiographical revelation of Mr Mills' mother. BEGINNERS
(2010), his prior work, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher
Plummer, was an autobiographical revelation of his relationship with
his father. Both films, says Mr Mills, have an autobiographical origin
but, of course, are in result, works of poetic licence necessitated by
the act of the need to tell a story - cinematizing!

20th CENTURY WOMEN, is set in 1979, in Santa Barbara, California, in a
seminal year of cultural gear-shifting and in a place of the ignition
of a counter-culture revolution.

We watch Dorothea (Annette Bening), born in the twenties, a 55 year
old, divorced woman, with a 15 year old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade
Zumann), in a crisis of confidence and slight despair, realise that
she may never see her son grow into manhood - never know the real man
he will become. Living in a huge old house that is in a state of what
seems to be permanent renovation - metaphor for the human species'
life journey - she takes in flat-mates, with a view to have them
assist her in preparing her son on how to negotiate his future:
William (Billy Crudup), a 'hippie' sculptor, as a male figure
influence, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and 'feminist'
artist, on her own investigation - route - to her own journey, as a
guide to understanding the modern woman. Jamie has a young 'friend',
Julie (Elle Fanning) - tacitly approved of by Dorothea - who expresses
her need for a friend, uncomplicated by sex, and is another unusual
'shaper' of Jamie's emotional understanding of the normal biological
forces urging, needing expression.

20th CENTURY WOMEN has no real plot to hold the film together but
rather has a set of quirky portraits and interactions (and delightful
non-linear form challenges) open-ended and ambiguous that are
tantalising in their 'wobbliness' and fragility. One is engrossed and
on-board with the world of these characters and the storytelling -
delightfully so. It showing that there is some world out there besides
the fake, consumerist, trope-ridden culture, which gives one a few
select roles to live in. It is something that Jamie can embrace as an
evolving human of the late 70's that Dorothea from a heritage of
another cultural perspective, the '30's, even in her 'flaky' curiosity
for assurance that her kid will be alright, cannot quite take on board
without sincere fear and trepidation.

Annette Bening, as Dorothea, is simply brilliant in revealing the
scope of her character's struggle to understand the fate and times of
her son and that of her own continual renovation of information - her
own (daily) metamorphosis on the road to death. Her silences, her
moments of stillness speaking volumes of confrontation. Lucas Jade
Zumann, new to me, as Jamie, maintains an open-eyed wonderment to all
that is happening about him with a dexterous youthfulness and control
- totally believable. Greta Gerwig, with Abbie, adds to her canon of
work, another portrait of womanhood that is curious, urgent and
off-centred, but still powerful and determined. lost but unflaggingly
resourceful in the face of her predicaments - an unconscious
revolutionary, living through the moment-to-moment of her 'adventure'
towards a contented place. Elle Fanning, as Julie, is as lost as
Abbie, but is quietly in pursuit of an alternative way to be a woman
in the evolving social fabric of her world - there has to be another
way, she intuits. Ms Fanning is subtle and sophisticated in wending
her gentle way through the 'hoops' of the character - a performance
well worth watching closely. Interestingly, the most underdeveloped
role of the principal cast is that of William, but Billy Crudup
negotiates it with honesty and a personal physical charm that keeps
William as a wayward focus that provides means of circumstances for
change without really being aware of what he is contributing.

Mike Mills' script was nominated for an Academy Award this year. One
looks forward to his next contribution both as a writer - daring
storyteller - and Director of actors. This is a very fine film with a
unique perspective of the gradual revolution, restoration, of the
female psyche and influence on the world we live in, inspired by his
own mother and sisters. More power to them and him. Highly


What with the 'Art Film' 20th CENTURY WOMEN impressing me so much, I
felt it my 'duty' to see the mainstream WONDER WOMAN as one of its
counterpoints. WONDER WOMAN is the 4th DC Extended Universe film.
This one Directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins (MONSTER- 2003), from a
screenplay by a man, Allan Heinberg (YOUNG AVENGERS), with help from
Zach Snyder and Jason Fuchs.

WONDER WOMAN is a formulaic Comic Strip film. We meet in the present
day Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who on receiving a photograph of a past
exploit recalls it. So we move to an arresting 'first act' set on the
mythical island Themyscira, the home of the Amazons where we meet,
Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) and her sister, General Antiope
(Robin Wright) tooing and froing over the if and buts of training the
Princess Diana (Gal Gadot). She is, of course, trained secretly by
Antiope and it is lucky that that has happened because when Captain
Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands in the sea off the island's
coast and after rescue and recovery tells Diana of the war to end wars
- World War I - that is going on in his time zone, she decides she
must travel with him to confront the Greek God of War, Ares (David
Thewlis), who she believes is the obvious menacing force behind it

Off they go, she under the name of Diana Prince to an even more
intriguing 'second act' set in the London and European war zones,
including vivid and real trenches and factories of poison gas weaponry
being developed by Doctor 'Poison' (Elena Anya) under the direction of
the evil General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), where adventures are
had, heroes are sacrificed and villains are killed so that a tiresome
but necessary 'third act' of a cataclysmic show down between Diana and
Ares ensues; Crash, Kaboom etc etc etc - too long, I reckon.

The acting is breezy and confident, stuffed full with unfussy cliches.
Gal Gadot as Diana is spectacularly beautiful and if a little 'raw' in
the acting stakes - injured voice and a 'thrusting' head for textual
emphasis - carries it off well enough for us to further invest in
Wonder Woman when the physical action takes off, which occurs often
enough - she is amazing. The chemistry between her and Chris Pine is
amusing and sentimental enough for us to absorb and want to believe
in, whilst the comedy of Lucy Davis, as Chris Pine's character's
devoted assistant, Etty Candy, with contribution by the story's 'three
musketeers' played by Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Brenner and Eugene Brave
Rock, is deliciously balanced by the villainy of Danny Huston -
playing a character that is a red-herring to the revelations of the
screenplay - and Elena Anya, and ultimately, David Thewlis.

Director, Patty Jenkins manages it all with a subtle detail for
contemporary feminist politics with the bravura of the formula of the
genre. I was especially impressed with the World War I Production
Design from Aline Bonetto and Supervising Art Director, Dominic Hyman.
It looked so much more believable than the work I saw in the recent

I enjoyed myself for most of it. But what I have to report is the
experience that this film has given many of my women friends - across
a wide age range - who found themselves crying, spontaneously
reacting, during the film and, even, afterwards on the footpath at the
overwhelming JOY of seeing their sex represented so well by Diana
Prince - WONDER WOMAN. It is this cultural catharsis that I note and
believe is part of a wave of seeing a representation of women on
screen that is powerful and central. At last.

So WONDER WOMAN is a go see, no matter the obvious formula. It is
better than the norm of this genre.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Clean House

Photo by Bob Seary
New Theatre presents THE CLEAN HOUSE by Sarah Ruhl, at the New Theatre, King St, Newtown. 6 June - 8 July.

Sarah Ruhl is an American writer and Sydney has seen IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY (2009) and her adaption of Virginia Woolf's ORLANDO (2003), both for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC).

THE CLEAN ROOM introduces us to a household belonging to a married couple Lane (Mary-Anne Halpin) and Charles (James Bean), both successful doctors. In the house is a Brazilian house cleaner, Matilde (Keila Terencio) who, in a depressive state, no longer can clean. Lane's sister, Virginia (Alice Livingstone) arrives and offers to do just that - clean house! Enter an Argentinian, Ana (Colleen Cook), a patient of Charles's. Charles and Ana have discovered that are each other's soul mate, and Lane's emotional life is further disrupted. So, both the literal house and the emotional house of Lane need a clean!

The play begins with the direct telling of a joke by Matilde in Portuguese. Its is not translated, but we get its gist. The play finishes two hours later with Matilde summarising what has transpired by telling us, once again, directly, that "I think heaven is a kind of sea of untranslatable jokes, except everyone is laughing." 

In that two hour journey we have watched feuding sisters, infidelity, depression, heartbreak, cancer, a fruitless search for a cure, even to the world's ends - in this case Alaska - and death. But, what is wonderful is that Ms Ruhl contrives to tell it with a breezy humour and tender lightness of touch. Like Anton Chekhov, Ms Ruhl views life as an unavoidable comedy: characters, story, are all inevitabilities that are nothing that has not happened before, so one may as well take a profounder view and see the 'joke' that our conscious awareness of our lived travails can give us, and rather than angst rending, encourage us to die 'laughing'. Life can be a 'comedy' if it is imbued with love. We're all in it together. None of it makes any sense, let's have a laugh.

The company of actors under the Direction of Rosane McNamara find the rhythm and delicacy of the authorial tone with a direct simplicity and pertness. Ms Terencio, has the playful personality to quickly engage us in Matilde's 'game' as Mistress of Ceremonies as well as play personality, and each of the other actors capture the defining differences of their responsibilities with expert ease and can be compared and contrasted by us with an alert sense of conspiratorial delight that makes the events of the play easily digested as a comic moral fable for a way of living in the complicated modern world.

The playful writing formulas which Ms Ruhl explores, in THE CLEAN ROOM, are always surprisingly fresh and are a simple and 'fun' cause for arresting our attention to surrender our belief in the where and how she tells her story, and is a justification, alone, for its nomination for the Playwriting Pulitzer Prize in 2004 - our Australian writer's ought to look at this work as an encouragement for boldness beyond the usual choices of construction. It has a supreme confidence in its sense of all its considered rightness. The Set and Lighting Design, by David Marshall-Martin, and the Costume Design by Nicola Block, sustains with a visual confidence the play's playfulness and clean line construction, while the intricate and adventurous Sound Design by Tegan Nichols, escorts us intelligently through the ups and downs, whimsy's and melodrama's of the play's telling in a very sophisticated manner.

THE CLEAN ROOM, is a delightful, wise experience. I recommend it with few reservations. The New Theatre seems to be having a very good artistic year.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Film Reviews: Bonnie and Clyde; I Am Heath Ledger; Their Finest


BONNIE AND CLYDE, is a film released in 1967. I have a passion to watch the classic films of my eras on the Big Screen if possible. The Ritz Cinema in Randwick (a heritage Art Deco cinema) have a program of Classic screenings. There is nothing like watching the films on the big screen rather than the TV or computer or iPhone sized thingos.

I remember having seen this film in its original release at one of the Hurstville cinemas in Sydney, getting into a taxi to get me home and having to ask the driver to 'slow down' as my nerves were still in a jangle from having witnessed the film. I was a nervous wreck, knocked completely off my equilibrium.

BONNIE AND CLYDE, was produced and starred Warren Beatty - it led to his famous producer/director career to come: e.g. SHAMPOO (1975) REDS (1981). He has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards. His co-star in BONNIE AND CLYDE was Faye Dunaway and it was Directed by Arthur Penn (THE MIRACLE WORKER [1962]; ALICE'S RESTAURANT [1969]). It was influenced by the French New Wave movement, and was an expression of the counter culture reacting to the 1960's.

The film told a story of the Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker bank robbing career during the Great Depression. Written by David Newman and Robert Benton, it juxtaposed in quickly edited tonal contrasts between a slapstick comedy mode to disconcerting horror and graphic violence - the visual shock in the quick shifts were very disturbing and thrilling - still are, though now a familiar technique. It was the first film that used what in the industry are known as 'squibs' which were detonated 'packets' of blood on the costumes of the actors so it looked, graphically, as real as possible. The famous last sequence of the film, the entrapment and shooting of Bonnie and Clyde, had a lasting effect on screen violence and, for me was never topped in its emotional affect until the Oliver Stone film, NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994). Nerve wracking.

The relationship between Bonnie and Clyde, was daringly told in ambiguous sexual offers for 1967, and the performances by Mr Beatty and Ms Dunaway are brilliant in their empathetic chemistry. Arthur Penn is famous for the work he could extract from his actors and the support work from Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons (she won the Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor) is impeccable. There is, by-the-way a very funny and pathetic cameo performance from Gene Wilder, as one of the many kidnapped victims of the gang.

The film had eight nominations for the Academy Award with Burnett Gaffey winning for his cinematography. Theadora Van Runkle (THE GODFATHER PART II) was nominated for her Costume Design and although she did not win, set a fashion for 30's clothing with the signature beret, worn by Ms Dunaway, being made a prominent accoutrement for the late '60's trendy fashionistas.

In 1992, BONNIE AND CLYDE was preserved by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being 'culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant'. Do see. On the Big Screen, if possible. You can imagine the nostalgia of having Warren and Faye presenting at this year's Academy Award - whatever the disastrous recasting, reunion, gave us!


I AM HEATH LEDGER, is a documentary feature, made by Network Entertainment for the US cable channel SPIKE, Directed by Derek Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis. It has been released in cinemas here in Australia. I watched it with encouragement from my acting students who were very excited and inspired by it.

Made up from much found material made by Heath Ledger, with glimpses of some of his film performances and interview from family and friends (not Michelle Williams, however) we are introduced into the exploration that Heath Ledger investigated into the artistry of film Acting/Directing and surprisingly music. Whilst mildly informed and absorbed by elements of the film it is, for me, an unbalanced, perhaps a hagiographic, gesture to history. The story seems to me incomplete. And whilst encouraging my young students to take inspiration I felt it my duty to have them reflect on what was left out of the documentary.

Although there was reference to Heath Ledger's shocking insomniac state and a fleeting mention of his accidental death as a result of prescribed medications, it has a kind of air-brushed feel - in any of the film we watch, one barely, if ever, sees any alcohol or drug references to the world which any actor in that environment would have existed in, witnessed, let alone a charismatic leader and artistic force that Heath Ledger appears to have being. The lack of contextual reveal of all of this is dramatically absent enough for me to point out to my students that the world of Amy Winehouse in that documentary, AMY (2015), has more authenticity and balance - inspiring but also cautionary.

It was, also, strange to me that neither his two major Australian films TWO HANDS (1997) or CANDY (2006) are discussed at all in the trajectory of his development as an actor. There is a fleeting reference to NED KELLY (2003). No mention is made, either, of his Australian television work, so that the documentary gives the appearance that Heath Ledger sprang fully formed onto the Hollywood scene. It is a misleading story and thus flawed in its genuine inspiration as an example of an artist of interest - which, by the way, I believe he is.

Take it in, if you must, with a knowledge of what has been left out, for this film is not I AM HEATH LEDGER, it is rather, I AM HEATH LEDGER IN AN EXPURGATED TRUTH.


THEIR FINEST, is a British film, Directed by Lone Scherfig, written by Gaby Chiappe, based on the 2009 novel, THEIR FINEST HOUR AND A HALF by Lissa Evans. It concerns the making of a morale boosting film, THE NANCY STARLING, for the British public, telling a story from the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz.

There is a small feminist statement in the film when the main character, Catrin Cole (a proficient Gemma Atherton), takes on the job of writing the women's dialogue for the film, and gradually earns more responsibility for the shape of the project. There is a little charm in watching the film with-in-the-film being made, especially with the 'antics' of Ambrose Hilliard, so gently, cutely inhabited by Bill Nighy. I, too enjoyed the ever reliable Eddie Marsan and the handsome nuanced work of Helen McCrory, as Sammy and Sophie Smith. But it is all, the look - set and costumes - so art directed, especially the real world of the actual film (remember the recent BROOKLYN), that one can hardly lose oneself in the experience. Boredom creeps in as we look at the 'sheen' of the photographed images. The Blitz never looked so 'good'.

Much as THE NANCY STARLING is being made to boost the morale of the British public about the war effort and to celebrate the depth of character of the ordinary British Man and Woman, so this 2016 film, THEIR FINEST, seems to be, I surmised, in my boredom, a morale booster for the British public in the face of their choice to BREXIT, and a re-iteration of the strength of character of the Men and Women of that nation still today.

For us ex-colonists, way down here in the antipodes, it is a bit too much to take seriously. THEIR FINEST, was for me a bland, well made piece of contemporary British home propaganda, competently told by all. A time filler. Grind my teeth, time.

Why, oh, why, did friends encourage me to go to see this film? I should just trust my own instincts and resist other persuasion.

No, no, no. Don't go.

Only Heaven Knows

Photo by Robert Catto
Luckiest productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present, ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, Music, Book and Lyrics by Alex Harding, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 30 May - 1 July.

At the Hayes Theatre a revival production of, ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, by Alex Harding, is on show. Written and performed in 1988, in the midst of the early panic and bewilderment of the AIDS crisis and the attendant heightened discrimination of the Gay community, this play was set in 1944 and 1956, and presented a story of a small group of friends, outsiders, essentially gay men and a woman friend, finding a way to live, finding a way to survive in a closed and ignorant world. The events of this story in ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS are cocooned in a melodramatic romance between a country-boy and ex-soldier, showing the ups and downs of the prejudices of the time, of the historic resilience of this 'tribe', that was, surely, a much needed and reassuring experience, for the emotionally besieged target audience at its creation. The strength of courage, the ability to be just 'human', to love whoever one wanted, and, importantly, to be able to endure by accepting and defying limiting convention could create and sustain a future - a kind of normalising equality - were some of the messages of this work. It gave a means to hope, to have faith, that vigilance and determination, charity, could make a better world for all in the frightening turmoil of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its subsequent discriminating victimisation.

Alex Harding was a member of GAY SWEATSHOP, a theatre company set up in London in 1974. Its manifesto was to provide a more realistic image of the homosexual for the public 'and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on lives and the society that reinforces it.' The company was wound up in 1997. Mr Harding came to Australia in 1984. ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS is one of many plays he wrote, BLOOD AND HONOUR (1984) being the other better known - performed as part of the 1990 Mardi Gras Festival.

ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS, is essentially a play with songs, rather than a Musical. It is made up of many, many short scenes, mapping in the first act, set in 1944, the arrival of Tim (Ben Hall) from country Victoria to Sydney, where he finds accommodation in the house of an entertainer, Guinea (Blazey Best), in the Kings Cross area, during the frenzy of the war American R&R period. He meets Lana (Hayden Tee), an extraordinary out-there gay man and two ex-soldiers, ex-lovers, Alan (Matthew Backer) and Cliff (Tim Draxl). Cliff and he find attraction and begin a romantic life together. The second act is set in 1956, with Robert Menzies as Prime Minister, where the atmosphere of the world has reverted to an oppressive and punishing sexual conservatism. Life and its many evolutionary intrusions enter the romantic lives/fantasies of all and sundry, in the play, with realistic and weighty consequences.

In a familiar and bald storytelling structure with, relatively, cliche character types, the events of the play can have an accumulative soap-opera melodrama affect. It kind of dates the play as entertainment, today. However, the 'creakiness' of the machine parts are counterbalanced with often pithy and believable dialogue from scene to scene, and in this production a company of actors that can bring it all to life with a committed and identified truthfulness that dilutes the 'old-fashioned' stylistic flavour.

Outstanding is Matthew Backer who has the most difficult task of playing Alan. Alan in the first act of the play is a young man banished from his wealthy family because of his sexuality and is the ex-lover of Cliff's, both, dishonourably discharged soldiers. They share an apartment, though are not partnered, and it is when Tim appears that we watch Alan, bemusedly coping with the change to his domestic dynamics. His initial petty jealousy is superseded with acts of kindness and a sense of humour, and he seems to adjust easily. Alan appears as a warm-hearted figure of adult optimism and maturity, a figure to admire. In the second act, however, a loathing of his 'self' has catapulted him into seeking a medical solution to his inclinations. The social and medical darkness for a homosexual man, especially in this time (1956), seeking help: electronic shock treatment and prescribed drugs, is graphically explored with all the hopeless depressive consequences. The arc of the character is brilliantly conceived and played by Mr Backer with heartbreaking nuance of both physical and emotional detail. It is a performance of much power and carries, even for today, much meaning and truth for part of that community of men. We recognise this man not only as a figure of the past but of one of our time as well, where shame and a feeling of inadequacy drives some to unnecessary pain and injury.

Tim Draxl, creates a masculine assuredness with his portrayal of Cliff. A man, employed as a window dresser, who has accepted his sexuality, though chaffing against the social conditions of his time, who longs for the conditions of a normal life: to have a home, partner and future just like the rest of the world about him. Mr Draxl's Cliff has a steady fearless passion but also a stubborn need for the accoutrements of the mainstream lifestyle: a type of equality that is really a kind of conformity and innate conservatism. Cliff's inability to share the adventures, dreams of his lover, to take a journey to a new world, restricts and narrows his life, giving him instead a kind of emotional martyrdom to dress his fate in, which he resignedly, 'nobly' embraces, as he shakes hands and farewells Tim in the expected manner of the world around him. In my estimation 'a noble coward'. A sad figure.

Ben Hall, playing Tim, the author's hero, has a natural boyish charm and carries the demands of the role with a lightweight and gently sophisticated insight. The performance, however, lacks the real charisma of the excited focus for all of the satellite characters surrounding him. Mr Hall floats on the slipstream energy of the other performers - essentially a reactor rather than a generator of action - rather than as the force of nature that propels the story forward, pulling all forward, and shaping the action of the play with Tim's growing awakening to his coming of age/manhood, maturity - embracing the possibility of a fulfilled future no matter his sexuality.

The broader character types of Lana and Guinea are amply embraced with flamboyant gusto though anchored by observed realities and truthfulness by Mr Tee and Ms Best. Both have a sense of the period detail and restraint of the world they are meant to inhabit. Both relish the singing opportunities with powerhouse and classic musical theatre bravado, when required. For, mostly, the lyrics of the short songs carry the story forward and only occasionally become statements of politics or emotional demonstration.

The music has been supervised by Daniel Edmunds and Musical Director Michael Tyack, on a hidden piano, gives the sound a lush and empathetic tonal quality of support. Not much of the music is of the take home- memorable kind. There is adequate Movement Direction (not much real dance) from Ellen Simpson.

Although this play is supposedly set in Kings Cross it could be set anywhere in bohemian Sydney of the time - I kept visualising the world of Ruth Park's THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, set in Surry Hills. The Kings Cross of the play adds little dynamic to the action of the play or this production (say in contrast to the another Australian play set in the same initial period, Bob Herbert's NO NAMES, NO PACK DRILL), and the Set Design solution by Brian Thomson seems to acknowledge that. It is made up of four different levelled platforms, with one backing wall with an abstracted 'sloshed' white paint effect of unfinished work - a nowhere place - more purgatory than heaven, I thought. The furniture needs of the scenario lack authenticity and because of the Set Design are clumsy in their arrival and exit. It is true, as well, that because of the many scenes, the change-overs, the connective shifts from one scene to the other are labour-some and time consuming, halting the momentum of the production that, unfortunately, underlines the old-fashioned structure of the piece - it is both a Design failure and a Directorial flaw (Shaun Rennie) - to, virtually have only one entrance and exit that impairs the production's fluidity. The Lighting by Trent Suidgeest is mostly, simply pragmatic with not much dramatic or atmospheric heft. Visually the production is not very arresting or supportive, except for the Costume Design, by Emma Vine, which anchors the time of the play imaginatively for the audience.

Shaun Rennie has created a respectful, heartfelt revival of this work. His nurturing of the performances from his actors works to lift the work out of its difficulties as a contemporary performance piece. ONLY HEAVEN KNOWS works best as a history lesson for the community, both 'gay and straight', fulfilling the objective manifesto of the GAY SWEATSHOP  theatre company, that was the origin of Mr Hardings' artistic endeavours. It has, as well, a melancholic nostalgia that permeates the work and, I reckon, it is a timely recall for the contemporary LGBTI community to throw a light on, to illustrate, the primary struggles of their forebears in their pursuit for their rights which is the origin of the MARDI GRAS MARCH and its consequent annual Festival in March of each year since 1978. Mr Rennie flags a contemporary concern that is demanding EQUALITY 'in lights', that connects the time line of the play's world with the present. The creeping conservatism sweeping the world in trying to find a diversionary 'other' to direct fear, anger, and hate towards. The LGBTI community has become a vulnerable and obvious target: Russia, Indonesia, the alt-right of our so called democracies, etc, etc. Resilience and active vigilance. This production reminds the community why there is a constant need to remain alert, active to grant and preserve basic human rights for all.

The scene writing and the performances, the look at a particular, and relevant history of persecution and survival that Mr Harding has created makes this work and production a recommended experience.

N.B. Mr Harding has dedicated this production to the memory of the late James Waites.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

An Unseasonable Fall of Snow

Ewan Productions presents, AN UNSEASONABLE FALL OF SNOW, by Gary Henderson, at the The Actor's Pulse Studio - 103 Regent Street, Redfern. 30th May - 3 June.

AN UNSEASONABLE FALL OF SNOW is a play by New Zealander, Gary Henderson, written in 1998. It is a one hour show for three actors.

In a nondescript room, a table, two chairs, a steel drawed cabinet, a blackboard, chalk, a folder with files and photographs and a bottomless access to coffee, Arthur, in suit and tie, (Nico Papademetriou) impatiently waits. Enter, a young man, Liam (Alex Ewan), in a leather jacket and jeans. Liam is invited to sit down. Questioning leads us through a set of given circumstances that leads to the revelation of a death and guilt. Liam is distressed. Then, Arthur reveals another set of independent circumstances that lead to another death. Arthur is distressed. A door opens, Arthur exits. Liam is left waiting in the room anxiously, impatiently. Enter, Tony, in workman's clothes (Randall). He is invited to sit. Existential vibes galore, collide.

This intriguing play is a conundrum of some real tension and wit. The performances by Mr Papademetriou and especially Mr Ewan are convincing and invite the audience to surrender to the 'game' of the scenario quite quickly and comfortably. Giles Gartrell-Mills Directs the work and the actors with assurance and uncomplicated élan.

Have dinner at one of the many hip restaurants around the corners of Regent St, have some fun watching AN UNSEASONABLE FALL OF SNOW, and have a relax and chat at one of the many 'hip' bars up and down the street, after the performance. Fun three times over.

It is a recommended night out.