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.

The Gulf

Lume Productions presents THE GULF, by Audrey Cefaly, at the FLOW Warehouse, 59 Denison St., Camperdown. 24 August - 5 September.

THE GULF, is by a young American (Southern) writer, Audrey Cefaly. It first appeared in 2016, and has two female characters - intimates - drifting in a boat in the Alabama Delta, part of the Gulf of Mexico, fishing and confronting the coming changes in their lives. Betty (Brenna Harding) is preparing to go to college and leaving town, while Kendra (Diana Popovska) from a different class (background) ponders her own more simple needs to have a future.

The play is delicately written full of pregnant pause and poetic metaphor that is not uneventful in the location of the small boat and the lapping water. The gulf between the two widens and narrows, as time moves through them as the inevitable shifts in their lives begins to relieve them of their close relationship - a relationship that in its intensity, they may have believed would last forever.

Both performers in a simply and beautifully designed setting on a traverse stage arrangement are directed attentively by Mia Lethbridge, sharing the story with their audience gently. They both deliver a sympatico relationship, with Ms Popovska especially impressive with a simple and truthful response to the writing she has to deal with, and the offers of her partner, in a nearly lived-in existence, pared back from being a performance to that of just 'being' - it is mesmeric - still waters in this gulf run deep!

To meet a new writer and to see a new all female company of artists at work with such naive (new, learning) but passionate creative energies in a warehouse space in the inner Western suburbs of Sydney is quite re-assuring about the possible future of the performing arts landscape. As it was, last year, when attending a one act opera, IL TABARRO, in the warehouse for Alfie's Kitchen in the backstreets of Enmore, this experience can be exhilarating for more reasons than just the performance.

THE GULF is only 60 minutes long and worth a visit if you are free. Raw but impassioned.

I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son of a Bitch

Theatre Eccentrique with the Old 505 presents the Australian Premiere of I'D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH, by Rodrigo Garcia, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St, Newtown. 22 August - 2 September.

I'D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH, is a fifty minute monologue by Argentinian-Spanish artist, Rodrigo Garcia, in a translation commissioned by Cartwright Productions.

Directed by Anna Jahjah, Gerry Sont gives us a monologue from a dissolute father who attempts to re-direct his two young sons (the youngest is a feisty six year old) away from the capitalistic lures of Disneyland Paris and have them smash a window into the Prada, with him, to see, at night, Goya's Black paintings.

Commerce versus High Art.

Accompanied by Sister Ursuline, a vocalist with an electric cello, Mr Sont leads us into what feels like a very European experience in its writing and subject matter.

While not altogether whole as yet it was a very interesting time spent in the theatre to meet a new voice, Rodrigo Garcia. He runs a theatre company of his own in Spain: La Carniceria Teatro and has a prolific output. The title of the piece is arresting enough to attract attention to further work by this writer.


Photo by Clare Hawley

MELBA, A New Musical, Book and Lyrics by Nicholas Christo. Music by Johannes Luebbers, Adapted from the book "Marvelous Melba" by Ann Blainey. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 15 August - 9 September.

MELBA, is a new Australian Musical. It has been nurtured through the New Musical Australia, Hayes Theatre Co's musical theatre development program. In 2014 TRUTH, BEAUTY AND A PICTURE OF YOU, by Tim Freedman and Alex Broun was presented by the company. THE DETECTIVES HANDBOOK, by Ian Ferrington and Olga Solar was presented in 2016 and now MELBA, by Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers is on show.

Johannes Luebbers and Nicholas Christo in their program notes tell us of their fascination with the great Australian opera star of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, who became 'our first, great, international presence.' A woman who, defying the conventions of her period, gifted with one of the great singing voices of her time, carved out a spectacular career and lived a personal life of some event. 'We were fascinated by the woman behind these exploits after reading Anne Blainey's I AM MELBA (2009), (and, as well, MARVELOUS MELBA - 2008). We have spent the past eight years and countless drafts creating this, our first, large scale music work.'

It is important to have this offer taken from the page to the stage. The difficulties and the labour of love in developing any new work has to be experienced for it to be appreciated, let alone the courage and altruism that needs to be invested in the preparing of a musical work which has so many other technicalities and obstacles (the financial commitment being a major one) than the so called 'straight play', to expect fruition.

So, it is great to see this work with a set of Directorial and Production commitments up in front of us to be able to truly evaluate what is there in this new inspiration to tell the story of Dame Nellie Melba, and to understand why we in 2017 should become acquainted with her. At this stage of development/nurturing at the Hayes Theatre one anticipates that what we are witnessing is what was known in the 'old' days (these days) of the Broadway musical as a 'try out'. In my experience of the contemporary musical development in the US of A (mostly while working through my time at the American Conservatory Theatre [ACT] in San Francisco), any musical that reaches the Great White Way in New York, has had many productions and the scrutiny of many audiences across a wide spectrum. Australia with an industry and population much smaller does not have that multi-resource which highlights the importance of the New Musical Hayes Theatre Co's venture and courage.

What one comes away with about Melba in this iteration of her life is the understanding of her great gift, as impersonated and sung, in operatic terms by Emma Matthews (herself, contemporaneously 'Australia's most highly acclaimed and awarded soprano'). Too, we are told the story of the carving out of a career to perform in all the premiere opera houses around the world and to become Australia's first self-made business woman, managing her career impeccably, whilst also having to commit to the ups-and-downs - travails - of a personal life, a family, and all its incumbent difficulties and pleasures in a time of prejudicial expectations of what a woman's responsibilities should be.

The book, by Nicholas Christo, at the moment, is a relatively conventional telling - adaptation from the biographical book sources - of Melba's life: This happened, then this, she met so-and-so and that lead to that, to this etc etc., with the sprinkle of appearances of some major figures that proved to be defining influences on the way Melba embarked and conducted her life, her unconventional, 'revolutonary' path: her father, David Mitchell (Michael Beckley); her Australian husband, Charles Armstrong (Andrew Cutcliffe); her son, George (Samuel Skuthorp); her European singing teacher, the famous, Madame Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon); some of her European 'patrons' that facilitated vital contacts, Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry), Frederick de Grey (Blake Erickson) and 'lover' Philippe D'Orleans (Adam Rennie).

It makes for a predictable and, when measured against modern musical theatre storytelling techniques, more than a little dull. My mind travelled to an upcoming (revival) musical telling of another woman's life, that of Evita Peron, and wished that the Australian writer's in this case had taken a more powerful contemporary (political?) point-of-view, as that team (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) had done, even controversially, way back in 1978. For me, this iteration of the work of these artists now can be seen, both its undoubted strengths and obvious weaknesses, so that one can now, begin again. Bring in the 'axe' and hew anew. The task to bring the achievements of Melba to the stage for a thrilling and relevant modern meaningful experience has just begun. It is a laborious commitment (it has already taken eight years!), but in this case, I believe worth pursuing.

This is true of the music written by Johannes Luebbers, as well. Within the limitations of the orchestration possibilities at the Hayes Theatre, led skilfully by Michael Tyack, I took no musical phrase or lyric home, away, from the evening, nothing really sticks in memory to hum or 'sing'. The work is voluminous but not as yet memorable. It is the Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Rossini Puccini and, especially, Verdi, that one remembers and hums.

The decision to give us two Melba's, playing side -by-side is the biggest 'risk' and 'inspiration' of the production: the young journeywoman, Melba, created by Annie Aitken, who carries most of the book and contemporary music demands - not always convincing in the acting schematics - alongside Emma Matthews who, mostly, takes on the mature singing of Melba's repertoire.

The most impressive work comes from Caitlin Berry, creating three personas, and singing with real clarity of intention; Samuel Skuthorp, as George, totally disarming, despite the puppet-persona he carries for most of the show; Andrew Cutcliffe as Charles (latterly, in the work); and especially Genevieve Lemon, in her expert (and unintentional) scene stealing bravura (what a year we are having with her gifted offers - THE HOMOSEXUALS OR 'FAGGOTS, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and now Madame Marchesi!).

Wayne Harrison, as Director, manages all the demands of the book with aplomb, although the design by Mark Thompson, provides him with some challenges, as it squashes the already tiny space of the Hayes Theatre into a relatively 'ugly' solution for movement and aesthetic pleasure. One should acknowledge the Sound Design by Caitlin Porter as she balances the back-stage orchestration with and against the micro-phoned performers with some skill for this intimate space.

MELBA - A New Musical, is in embryonic form, and one hopes that it has a life to develop further its potential as a story of a woman of extraordinary achievement. It is a necessary experience for all of us who have an interest in new Australian work, and especially in the New Australian Musical. In 2018, New Musical Australia will present EVIE MAY A TIVOLI STORY, by Naomi Livingstone and Hugo Chiarella, at the Hayes Theatre.


Opera Australia present PARSIFAL, an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner, Libretto by the composer, in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. August 9,12 (matinee), 14 August.

Leading the Opera Australia Orchestra, Pinchas Steinberg, as Conductor, harnessed an impressive cast of performers to give a concert version of this work of real beauty. Jonas Kaufmann sensitively (carefully) sang the leading role of Parsifal, supported by Michelle De Young, as Kundry; supported by an impressively powerful Kwangchul Youn, as Gurnemantz; Michael Honeyman, as Amfortas; and Warwick Fyfe, as Kilngsor (his physical inhabiting of the character and his function a theatrical wonder). In fact, all of the singing offers from this large company were of a uniform quality, including the Opera Australia Chorus and the Children's Chorus.

Wagner (1813-1883) saw opera as 'Gesamtkunstwerk' - the total work of art. For Wagner, the orchestra should have as many colours and textures as the singing, the drama should be paramount, and the stagecraft, including scenery and costumes, should have equal weight to the music.

I have seen this opera in performance once before at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Kurt Moll, James Morris and Ekkehard Wlaschiha in the early 1990's. One would have to agree that the work in the theatre is a powerful ritualistic experience resonant with a religiosity of deep feeling. In concert, the lack of the visual staging, the scenery and the action of the characters (in mime with orchestral 'speaking'), can hamper the full appreciation of what Wagner had envisioned. Much of the religious impact is diminished because of the lack of the visualisation in the staging. Still, though, the music from the singers and the orchestra gives one an experience of wonder and appreciation. Wagner is a unique artist.

PARSIFAL, a live concert experience of a memorable kind.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Photo by by Marnya Rothe
Sport For Jove and the Seymour Centre present, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale. August 3 - 19, 2017.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is best known as the Academy Award laden Milos Forman film, made in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. The essential core of the work is the battle between the Dionysian spirit with the formally controlled world that permits it to function for the supposed 'greater good'. Knowing that It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer's 1964 film) the metaphor of having this 'battle' take place in an asylum seems reasonable - after all, this literary view of the world goes as far back as Thomas Middleton's Jacobean comedy/drama A MAD, MAD WORLD performed in 1605, and even before, perhaps, to Euripides and his THE BACCHAE, written in C.405BC.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST began as a novel written in 1962 by counter culture 'warrior' Ken Kesey, who saw himself as a conduit of revolution against the confines of the values of Eisenhower America, beginning with the 50's beat generation-beatniks to the 60's hippie sex, drugs and rock 'n roll culture. The novel was then, contextually, a necessary cultural hit and was adapted for the theatre in 1963 by Dale Wasserman and, too, became a success for Broadway audiences. The message of the play struck the bells of alarum for the awakened to rise up and set the spirit free - they tried. That they have failed and passed the 'torch' to the next generation even to our children's generation and our social media infested correctness, is why this play is still a relevant archaeological wonder. That the original stage McMurphy was Kirk Douglas and that it followed his rebel Spartacus attempting to counter the Roman cultural straight-jacket, in the Kubrick film, tells us that this figure of counter culture was, is, and always will be a re-generating icon.

Kim Hardwick, the Director, has given the play a production of some respectful gravitas and, mostly, circumvents the now dated conventions of the writing. There is always a delicate path that artists must take when creating 'mad' people in a 'madhouse' and this company of actors have found a level of restraint that keeps the focus of the thesis of the writing free and clear. It is not a comic 'grotesque' of zoological - Charenton (MARAT/SADE) - watching.

Anthony Gooley, as McMurphy, gives a performance of surety of character and of a knowledgeable storytelling arc development and is matched by the subtle drawing of Nurse Ratched by Di Smith, who creates a woman of deep belief in what she is doing without stepping into the emasculating terror that we recall from the Forman film - these two performances gives some balance to the two positions of the protagonists with graduating intensity and focus.

There is good support work from Travis Jeffery (Billy Bibbit), Laurence Coy (Scanlon) and Wendy Strehlow (Cheswick). Staged with care the 'choreography' of the work is masterfully managed by Ms Hardwick, but it is in the 'orchestration' of the voices, the music of the writing - the pitch, volume and especially energy of the vocal work - where the production more often than it should drifts into theatrical doldrums. A large ensemble of 15 actors still have not all found the right performance orchestration entries to keep the work in developing momentum to quicken the pulse of the audience to a delirious immersion. This is where the innate sensibility of Mr Gooley comes, especially, to the fore, but he cannot drag the whole shebang forward by himself, nor can the other few tuned instruments cover with him - all the 15 must be attentive and alert to the music of the Wasserman storytelling. This may right itself as the season proceeds.

True to her usual aesthetic sensibilities, Ms Hardwick has created with Set Designer, Isabel Hudson, a 'beautiful' contemporary solution for the play. A raised, slightly raked stage of large blocks of white toned floor, surrounded by opaque plastic sheets, that fall to reveal a mirrored back wall at the play's end is spectacularly lit by Martin Kinnane in a Lighting Design of much complexity and theatrical intelligence. Too, Steve Francis with his Sound Design and Composition creates tension and a magical 'envelope' to serve the drama of the spiritual elements of the story.

This production of ONCE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is a curate's egg - an event that is good and bad in parts, and may leave you with mixed feelings of satisfaction. I was surprised that I had found the play still interesting and recognised the age old but true statement of the play, importantly appealing (I never liked the film much), or was it the performance of Mr Gooley that kept me in the work, it is certainly, for me, the best work he has given since his famous turn in THE LIBERTINE of a few years ago - though he is never less than good in whatever he tackles.

N.B. That Sport For Jove did not acknowledge the playwright, Dale Wasserman, ANYWHERE in their program. An oversight, that I believe was corrected when informed, but that the Writer's history is not presented in the program, is a, relatively, consistent Sydney Theatre  'habit'. Without the writer there is no play, no nothing in the theatre! And after all, Dale Wasserman, is no slouch in Broadway history, it was he who wrote the Book for the musical, THE MAN OF LA MANCHA, in 1966.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


Darlinghurst Theatre Company present, KINDERTRANSPORT, by Diane Samuels, at the Eternity Playhouse, Burton St., Darlinghurst, 28 July - 20 August.

KINDERTRANSPORT, is an English play written in 1993, by Diane Samuels.

Diane Samuels has written:
In early November 1938 an intensive series of 'pogrom' attacks on Jewish property and arrests of people were launched in Nazi Germany. This became known as 'Kristallnacht', The Night of Broken Glass, and has subsequently been called "pogromnacht' or Novemberpogrome'. In the wake of this calculated violence the British government was lobbied by Jewish humanitarian and Quaker organisations to provide refuge. Ten thousand permits were made available for children of sixteen and under to enter and remain in the United Kingdom. So began, at the end of 1938, a series of train relief trips, the Kindertransport, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. These continued for almost a year until the Second World War began in early September, 1939.

This play tells the story of a young Jewish German child, Eva (Sarah Greenwood), who is evacuated by her mother (Emma Palmer) to the city of Manchester and the home of Lil (Annie Byron), who cares, and after the end of the war, guides her into adulthood, as her parents are presumed dead. Much later after Eva has adopted an Englishness and new name Evelyn (Camilla Ah Kim) and nurtured a family of her own, her adult daughter, Faith (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), comes across memorabilia in an attic trunk that reveals a history of her mother that she has never known. In her entitled demand to have knowledge Faith aggressively forces Evelyn to reconnect to her childhood trauma, and the haunting of a childhood nightmare figure, the Ratcatcher (a figure that we recognise, know, as the Pied Piper of Hamelin), who captures children and removes them from their families, comes again to vivid and terrifying life.

The play is not based on a single story of history, but is a speculative fiction focused on investigating the psychological trauma that refugees may experience and the means that some may choose to find a way to survive, to be able to recover and thrive. The play presents the time-jumps of the storytelling in a non-linear way and is gentle, though surprising and enthralling in the emotional incidents it chooses to reveal on stage. It reveals the generational need to keep or expose secrets, and the clash of the rights of each generation to keep or expose those secrets. It connected me back to the intense and immersive experience of the bAKEHOUSE production earlier in the year of THE LADEN TABLE and its contemporary Jewish and Muslim family secrets and the contemporary, often clashing generational value placed on them.

The five women in this company: Camilla Ah Kin, Annie Byron, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Sarah Greenwood and Emma Palmer give satisfying and accomplished performances. Ms Ah Kin is the best I have seen her and is intensely moving in her character's struggle with the cleft stick of choice that confronts Evelyn. Whilst Ms Greenwood delicately and with gathering strength transforms the story of Eva from child to adult. Christopher Tomkinson plays all the 'uniformed' men of the play with aplomb.

The Set Design by Imogen Ross of walls of boxes and versatile period furniture are enhanced by the Lighting of Matt Cox and all aurally encased in the sure hands of Jed Silver, as the Sound Designer and Composition.

KINDERTRANSPORT is a warm and moving telling of the turmoil of the consequences of war on ordinary people - and their consequential lifetime of trauma/stress. It has a relevance for our own times and the great tragedy of the world's present refugees. The play and production by Sandra Eldridge tells a story that puts a personal face to the collective that we generally call, know as, 'refugees'. Gently recommended.

Dry Land

Photo by Marnya Rothe

Outhouse Theatre Company and Mad March Theatre Company in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company present, DRY LAND, by Ruby Rae Spiegel, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), in the Kings Cross Hotel. July 28 - August 19.

DRY LAND is an American play by a young writer, Ruby Rae Spiegel, played in a 90 minute no interval one act mode. It is a particularly interesting entry, for an audience, into a story concerning the issues of young women (American high school age), never really dealt with on stage (perhaps, Wedekind's SPRING AWAKENING is an exception, Premiered in 1906). For, this play is dealing with unwanted teenage pregnancy and the attempts to keep it hidden and the application of self-abortion through physical and chemical action. Talking to women friends afterwards, they spoke of knowing the circumstances of the play in their growing up. This was, for me, an eye-opener, new territory.

Two Florida students in swim training, Amy (Patricia Pemberton) and Ester (Sarah Rae, Anne Meacham) collude to hide and execute an abortion. We are in the locker room of the pool, a white tiled space with benches (Set Design by Isabel Hudson) as we are taken on a confronting and youthful ignorantly merciless journey of violence - oddly, there are no adults, parents, teachers or pool authorities, in this playing time to advise or assist with other alternatives. And it is not only the physical violence of the aborting of the foetus we are engaged with but also the psychology of the raw politics in the interactions of the developing psyches of these young evolving people, from adolescence to adulthood, where the discovering issues of one's own sexuality is just as frightening.

Ms Spiegel has an acute ear for the content and cruel psychological strategies of youth as they try to make sense of their 'powers' and how to assert their Darwinian need to survive in the tribe. It is both comic and stark in its ruthlessness. The fact that it is told through the lives of two young women puts DRY LAND into the confrontational and informative world of the work of Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius with her recently presented plays SLUT (2008) and SHIT (2015). DRY LAND, Directed by Claudia Barrie, in a hyper-realistic manner, in real time, offers the witnessing endurance of the blood-soaked and horrendously noisy ultimate act of delivering the dead foetus on newspaper on white tiles. Not since the stoning of a baby in a pram in Edward Bond's notorious but amazing play SAVED (1965), or, the plumbing with twisting knitting needles of the ear drums of a character in his LEAR (1971), will you have experienced such graphic stage images. (On opening night, a young man fainted at the near height of the action).

The two actors, Ms Pemberton and Meacham, are committed fearlessly in the present action of the play and are courageous in their investment. I, however, was not drawn in, not sensing or being presented with the complete life-force of their characters as fully realised people to be able to believe in them. The life force of any character on stage is shown with a realised sense of the time dimensions of the character, their past, their present and their future, all together, each moment, second to second, in the story. In life we exist in the present because of the 'actions' of our past and in 'conscious or unconscious' pursuit of our future. We are sitting, present, in that theatre because of our past, in conscious or unconscious pursuit of our future, which gives us our vulnerable humanity. Neither of these actors gave me thought processes that revealed their back story/history, their past, to help me justify what was happening in the present in front of me. I saw their passionate present choices/decisions but had no understanding how Amy or Ester got to this horrendous place. They just 'were' - two dimensional representations of youth in a particular time and space.

The closeness of this Traverse Space in the KXT is particularly demanding on actors to bring their own life existences to the storytelling, and not just to give good demonstrations of emotional states. Often, both these actors went to expert outpouring of emotional states at the expense of the technical need to harness, to balance the subjective emotional summonings with the objective need to story tell, to bring clarity to the text, the story telling tools of the writer, which often resulted in shouting which blurred the poetry, the artistry of the writing, and moved it into a kind of Grand Guignol, melodrama sensationalism.

The deliberate slow pacing of the many scene changes in the play accompanied by an ominous soundscape composition (Benjamin Pierpoint) and the instance of the laboured and dramatically extended floor cleaning of the blood (was there too much blood? - more suitable, with the noise, as well, to a full term labour than a three month expulsion?) by the nonchalant Janitor (Julian Ramundi) of the pool locker room, seemed to be an over statement of a sadistic tension that was a Director's prerogative. Atmospherically affective, perhaps, but dramatically implausible. Ms Barrie has an inclination to this over-heated' kind of statement, witness her choices in a work such as Philip Ridley's SHIVERED (2012). It was the restraint to the horror of the emotional and graphic world of her production, with her actors, that made BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, earlier in the year, a significant experience of a first-rate kind: fully endowed emotional states simmering below the surface as readable sub-text with deliberate restraint, for the audience to be able to partake in an endowed cathartic experience with clear storytelling support, because the playscript was communicated front and centre.

So my lack of belief in the playing of the two principal characters, Amy and Ester, left me out of the emotional loop of the writer's objective and gave me room to contemplate some of the dramaturgical holes in this first play by a young writer. I was more connected to the performances of Michelle Nye (Reba) and Charles Upton (Victor) in minor roles in the context of the story.

DAY LAND, is presented in this production as a 'sensation' (horror/gore) challenge and will be remembered by most who are courageous enough to attend as such, rather than as a brave exposure of what, it seems, is a regular part of the 'plotting' in most young women's worlds, rarely, publicly, talked about, let alone exposed in live theatre performance.

If you enjoy sensation, this might be for you.


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre present, RICE, by Michele Lee, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 26th July - 26th August.

RICE is a new Australian play, by Asian-Australian writer, Michele Lee. It received the Queensland Premier's Drama Award 2016-2017, and this production was first presented by Queensland Theatre in the Billie Brown Studio, in June, Directed by Lee Lewis.

Michele Lee has been working around the edges of the mainstream theatres for many years, and this is the first major mounting of one of her works. Nisha (Kristy Best), the Australian-born grand-daughter of a West Bengali migrant family, is a high-flying executive at Golden Fields, Australia's largest producer of rice. As an Executive-Officer she has been preparing a deal with the Indian Government - by 'hook or by crook', it seems - which will place her company at the centre of India's rice distribution. She is also dealing with the sad disintegration of her Didima, grandmother. Working late every night, she encounters Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang), a single Asian mother, who, while working under contract to clean offices, is also an enthusiastic entrepreneur with a trail of failed, dodgy businesses behind her. Yvette is, also, having to deal with a troubled activist daughter, Sheree. They both discover that they have a lot in common.

Says Ms Lee in her Playwright's Notes in the program:
Initially I said RICE was about a plethora of 'big' contemporary issues. As if I was some Mike Moore of theatre. Mass agriculture. Super economies. Mercenary corporations. Women in business. RICE is about these things. But it's probably, primarily, about two women searching out for new friendships and new intimacies, new versions of family, however fleeting.

Certainly, then, in the present political environment of our Performing Arts industry this play ticks many of the boxes that will take it to serious consideration for actual production from Main Stream companies. A writer of the female sex (tick) from a minority Australian culture (tick), with two roles for women (tick) that will demand a cultural diversity in casting (tick), dealing with contemporary issues (tick). Plus, the offer by the writer that the two actors, who play Nisha and Yvette will, also, play an extra four characters each, of various sex and ages, thus ensuring that the Producing company, or companies, need only employ two actors - a budgetary consideration of often irresistible attraction (tick) to get one's work produced by the Professional Company in Australia. (A strategic gesture by Ms Lee?) In this case the Producing companies, the Arts Funded Queensland Company and the Griffin Company (of NSW origin) need only pay one actor each for this three month rehearsal/performance season (tick,tick).

Now this suggestion by the writer to have the two actors to play five roles each, (although in the program it is indicated that the actors are to only 'also speak' the lines for the characters - "Speak", that's all? Is that an ignorance of the writer of the actor's field of creative effort?) across multiple sex and age dimensions, is no hindrance to successfully deliver the play to an audience. It, simply, demands that the Director, in this case Lee Lewis, find two very versatile (necessarily, experienced) actors - who have not only highly developed technical acting skills to switch swiftly from one character to another, but, have an instinctive ease and appetite to be able to do so. If achieved, it will be part of the magic of the production, and give the actors the thrill of a fierce artistic challenge. The opportunity that Ms Lee is offering could be a gift for the right actor - there are, I believe, not many actors that could meet, comfortably, the demands. The alternatives then, are 1. that the time to work with the Director to sort out with the two actors the necessary cues of change demarcations for the different characters for ultimate communication and 'thrill' will be time that will be both abundant (budget cost?) and intense (emotional cost?), or, 2. you employ more actors - even, in this case, you might get away with just two others - if you were really lucky. A cast of four, at least, two for the principal roles: Nisha and Yvette, and two for the other four roles - did the two Companies ever consider that choice? Did Budget concerns close down that option?

In the case of the present production neither of the actors are easefully skillful in demarcating either , physically or vocally - except with half-hearted dialectical adaptations (Dialect coaches, Jennifer White and Gabrielle Rogers) - the cues for the audience to 'read' with alacrity which character is speaking so as to keep attention on the content of the story. Ms Best, as Nisha, is best in her upfront pleasant presentational mode, wide eyed and smiling, which is utilised for all her characters. Her energy investment on the night I saw the show needed to be tempered to allow the audience in, to be able to identify and empathise - sometimes it was almost assaulting in its overpowering offers - and the gear changes from character to character were not very easily communicated. While Ms Tang, as Yvette, was more grounded in her energy on the night and therefore more successful in her responsibilities of demarcated difference.

The construction and content of Ms Lee's play is particularly interesting for its cultural insights, if not unique either thematically or observationally, and is hindered, mostly lost, in the pell mell and 'flat', shallow, differential characterisations drawn by the actors under Ms Lewis' Direction. The Set and Costume Design, by Renee Mulder, is serviceable in its impeccable neatness, adjusted from the Queensland production in a differently configured acting space with Lighting, similarly useful, from Jason Glenwright.

There are, then, many political tick box reasons to see RICE, but if you go, for clarity of content, don't go tired. To get the most out of this prize winning text in this production, you will have to be extremely alert. Or, wait to see a production that can afford more actors to overcome what is a versatility problem with this company.

Vale Doreen Warburton

In the year 2017, in what I feel is a year of a cultural murmur of social progress, with the arrival of WONDER WOMAN, at out local cinemas, where many of my 'girlfriends' have been seen, or have reported, that they wept, because of some deep stirring in their human/female psyche, Evelyn Doreen Warburton O.B.E. (Doreen Gabriel), on the 17th July, passed away. I believe Doreen Warburton was a real life Wonder Woman of her time. In my living through theatre history I have benefited from contact with Five Wonder Women, without whom, I have often wondered how my life would have been different. I wonder, really, how different Sydney Theatre would have been without their determined presence.

There are, in my experience, five Wonder Women of the Theatre of Sydney:

1. Doris Fitton and her extraordinary forging of a Performing Arts industry based in the Independent Theatre, in North Sydney, in the time of the lively cultural tentacles of the British Empire, the Commonwealth that followed and, Menzies' Liberal Party Kingdom - remember her groundbreaking Professional Repertory Season in the 1960's - it included UNCLE VANYA, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA - I was a school kid and remember and was inspired. I, also, briefly, attended an acting class, upstairs at the Independent, run, I think, by Keith Bain - my first one.

2. Elizabeth Butcher, who beginning as the Bursar at the National Institute Of Dramatic Art, in 1969, has had an extraordinary influence on the shape of the Sydney (Australian, International) scene, not only with her enterprising nurturing of her students in all the practises of the theatre crafts, but in her influence to found the Sydney Theatre Company (with John Clark) in its transition from the Old Tote Theatre Company, to find the Wharf 4 venue. Besides her presence in senior administrative positions at The Australian Council for the Arts, the Sydney Opera House, Council of the University of NSW, the Seymour Centre, the NSW Advisory Arts Board, and even to today, as an active member on the NAISDA Board, working with the Indigenous dance community.

3. Doreen Warburton, an actor and one of the co-founders, and leader of the Q Theatre, first, in a 14 year commitment to a lunch time theatre that was made 'glorious' in the AMP Auditorium, at Circular Quay, in the 60's and early 70's. Then, with her leadership and founding of the Q Theatre, in Penrith in 1977, which she took boldly, and against great advice to what Sydney proper called the cultural desert of the outer Western suburbs (still, in 2017, a prejudice in some minds of the ARTS Institutions!!)

4. Wendy Blacklock, actor and entrepreneur in the founding of the touring theatre organisation, Performing Lines.

5. Sandra Bates, and her cossetting of the artistic and financial fortunes at the Ensemble Theatre, after the 'reign' of Hayes Gordon, without government support - how did she do it?

All of these women with a missionary zeal, in a tight patriarchal society, were the visionaries and founders of much industry for actors and other artists, in the recent history and even present theatrical scene, in Sydney. They ought to be celebrated and have their contribution indelibly memorialised.

My first memory of Doreen, I think I was still at school, so, maybe, when I was 16, was in an Australian play called THE CELL, in which she played a nun (those of us who remember Doreen can only smile at Doreen in a nun's habit!), at the Independent Theatre, in North Sydney, run by, one of the other Wonder Women of the Sydney Theatre, Doris Fitton. (Co-incidentally, it was at Ms Fitton's theatre that I made my professional debut, in 1971, in a David Mercer play, AFTER HAGGERTY, Directed by Aarne Neeme).

Doreen was born in a 'rough' suburb of London in 1930, was blitzed out of London during World War II and evacuated to the country, separately, from her siblings. Doreen had a Quaker education that stimulated her endless curiosity about the world and led her to the wonder of the theatre. One of Doreen's seminal experiences was her work with Joan Littlewood and her theatre company - where she met the musician Ewan MacColl. All of this was a profound shaper of Doreen's theatre philosophy - a sense of responsibility to community and a belief that the theatre opens the doors and windows to the world for all, and that it needed to be both 'accessible' and 'affordable', for all. Doreen followed her family to Sydney, Australia, and as a young actress began to build a career. Radio, theatre - in her career arc it included such stuff as A TASTE OF HONEY, YOU NEVER CAN TELL, GETTING MARRIED, THE MATCHMAKER, IRENE, A HARD GOD, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. She was a member of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust Company that used to tour around Australia, presenting Shakespeare. Television and film followed (infamously, remembered for her scene-stealing presence in THEY'RE A WEIRD MOB - 1966). She, also, met Ben Gabriel, a Sydney actor of great reputation. They were temperamental opposites that was the bond of their great love in a marriage that lasted until the passing of Ben in 2012.

I came into the 'gravitational' pull of Doreen's vision in 1975, when after deciding that acting was too hard, had decided to give it up, and whilst working as a guide at the Opera House, began helping out front-of-house at the Lunchtime 'Q' Theatre. I was invited onto the committee of the theatre and was given my first professional production as Director, of a one act play by Michael Cove. I'm not sure why I was given the job other than, perhaps, as Doreen was to play the leading role, no-one else was prepared (or available!) to take it on - I, an innocent, led to 'danger'. Whatever transpired, it all, for me, went well. This was when Doreen presented to her committee, the idea of setting up a theatre in the outer suburbs of Sydney.

Doreen had come up with a plan.

In 1975 and 1976, 'acolytes': Richard Brooks, Michael Cove, Tony Ingersent, and myself, were sent out to the 'wilds' - what some called the 'cultural deserts' - of Sydney, as far west as the Blue Mountains, as far South as Wollongong, as far North as Newcastle, to provide Ten Week Free Acting Classes in different communities whose Councils had been persuaded by Doreen to provide a space/hall for us to do it in. I remember sometimes arriving at 7pm somewhere, say Blacktown, and meeting a group of people up to the number of 80, aged anywhere between 8 and 80 and beginning an introduction to acting - I learnt, quickly, in the first classes, to give vigorous physical exercises, that sifted some of the participants out of their inspiration to be want to be actors. From these classes we would choose the most interesting (promising) to attend an "Advanced" Acting Workshop, on Saturdays, which, organised by Doreen, I took charge of, based in the Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital, just across the road/park from the present Riverside Theatre site, today. We were building a loyal and enthusiastic cohort of citizens from many diverse backgrounds from all over the Sydney Metropolitan area.

In the meantime Doreen, whilst playing nationally in the J.C Williamson's musical IRENE, was becoming familiar with the different Councils and lobbying the Arts Funding organisations to support her vision. Doreen was a life-force of irresistible scale. Her personality was charming, masking her determination, and who was not afraid to use her flirtatious nature and robust, often bawdy, sense of humour to help persuade authority and Government, to her vision. Into, what was the highly charged testosterone 1970's political world, Doreen strode with all the glamour and strategy of an Amazonian warrior and seductress, usually dressed in a figure covering, multi-patterned and coloured mumu dress, large hoop earrings and her blonde hair in a bun on the top of her head with a triangle of cloth tied in it. Her great virtues were her open-hearted generosity and straight-forward common sense logic. She was a tough and demanding leader but I never ever heard her speak disrespectfully or with cruelty to any individual in her professional world. She none the less was a formidable force of determination, which is not to say she was not vulnerable - watching her prepare in a Tech week and on an Opening night as a Director of work, and especially as an actor, and meeting her before any of her major meetings with the authorities that could provide or prevent her vision to come to life was to see a nervous girlish child, laughing, and shallowly puffing on a cigarette  - she never seemed to ever inhale - to mask her fear of failure or rejection. She never was ever rejected, in my experience. She always was inflamed, exhilarated, by the 'battles' she found herself in. Blazing bravado!

After two years of seeding community support all over Sydney, Doreen proposed to certain Councils the idea of having a Professional Theatre Company within their midst. The successful council was Penrith who gave the 'Q' Theatre the local Railway Institute Hall, at a small rent, just across from the railway station, and although they couldn't give money, gave support in kind with plumbing, electrical work and re-assembling of the spaces, for the theatre. We were also in there, beside the tradesmen with sledge hammers, and tools of carpentry, often in the raw heat of 40 degree Emu Plains heat. The local blood-house pub, The Red Cow, was part of our daily recovery from Doreen's supervisory urgings - sometimes the community of the local bikies, part of the permanent scenery of The Red Cow, became part of our audience - friends were made through all startas of the local community.

In the meantime Doreen (actor/director/teacher/leader/politician/boss) had selected an organising force about her: Richard Brooks (director/actor/teacher/Red Cow denizen), Tony Ingersent (actor/director, administrator) Arthur Dicks (designer/director) Max Iffland (academic/dramaturge) and myself. We auditioned a group of professional actors. We could afford 5 and chose Ron Hackett. Vola Van Dere, Alan Brel, Linden Wilkinson and Ron Rodger to augment the artistic core (other actors became members of the company over its history e.g. Elaine Hudson, Alexander Hay, Bill Conn, Gae Anderson, Ben Gabriel, Judy Davis). Arthur Dicks had designed a portable, 'Mechano'-set, three sided theatre space that sat in the space of the Railway Institute, and in the first season we pulled down and transported to our other community centres (it nearly 'killed' us and we only did that for a year): Parramatta and Bankstown (a few years later to Orange). Two weeks in Penrith, a week in Parramatta, a week in Bankstown, a week in Orange. We all took on all tasks and if we were not performing we were front-of-house, stage management, constructors and set painter, etc. We were all paid the same amount of money - just above equity minimum. An instance of our jobs: was performing Wednesday to Sunday, rehearsing the next production Tuesday to Friday, and teaching in the 'Q' Acting Workshop, Saturday from 9am- 3pm (Shows at 4.30pm and 8pm). It was hard work but we all loved it and Doreen was our patient and diligent leader, task master.

We opened, the 'Q' Theatre, in Penrith, in March, 1977 - forty years ago - with a musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS. With Equity permission, to celebrate, the acting company, was expanded by members of the Q Theatre Workshop from our community. The audiences were thrilled to have their own professional theatre and be able to see friends on stage, as well - a coup de theatre in Doreen's strategy. A loyal and enthusiastic audience was captured. To subsidise the company's work - to support up to two productions - the 'Q' also played a Music Hall/Melodrama/Sing-along Theatre Restaurant season in Bankstown Town Hall for the Christmas season from October to late December, every year. This was a vital part of Doreen's plans and she cared for it with extra vigilance.

Doreen was a great supporter of the  new Australian writers of the time and included work by David Williamson, Peter Kenna, Bob Herbert in her seasons, and new work from fledgling writers including Martin Sharman and Noel Hodda, and commissioning musical theatre e.g. Phillip Scott's SAFETY IN NUMBERS, and several rock musical's including, ST MARY'S KID, from young people of the local communities, which she took to Sydney proper, to condescending appraisal. The 'Q' Theatre won the Sydney Critics Award in 1979.

Doreen provided creative and work opportunities for an astounding number of artists, entertained and 'educated' a local audience and laid the foundation for the presence of the Joan Sutherland Arts Centre in Penrith, which houses the latest iteration of the 'Q' theatre still today.

Whilst acknowledging the Riverina Trucking Company (1976) and the Hunter Valley Theatre Company (1976), Doreen Warburton's philosophy and hard practical actions for the 'Q' Theatre marks her out, for me, as a Woman of Wonder. Along with the other women I have mentioned above, who have made an integral contribution to my theatre experiences, Doreen Warburton, along with Elizabeth Butcher, were/are my theatrical mothers. I have much to be grateful for her life force energy that propelled and sustained my own career. Many of us do.

In Sydney, with the recent founding of the Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS), it is important to point to the women who have/are leaders of Theatre, who, without, I wonder where our industry would be today. What careers have been realised from their hard work and inspiration? Let us champion their history. Doreen's nephew, Darren Warburton at the Celebration of Doreen's Life, mentioned there was a rich collection of Doreen's papers stored in his garage. Is there someone able to tackle her lifework into a book?

Thank you with great love, Doreen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Rover

Photo by Anna Kucera

Belvoir presents, THE ROVER, by Aphra Behn, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. July 5 - 6 August.

THE ROVER, is a play by Aphra Behn, written in 1677. It is part of the playwriting literature emanating from the Restoration of Charles II to the throne and power, after the Puritanical leadership of Oliver Cromwell as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. The play, in verse, is a swash-buckling exuberance of Carnival time in the city of Naples, invaded by some English sea-dog exiles, roving the Mediterranean, some 20 years prior to the Restoration. It is based on Thomas Killigrew's THOMASO (1664) and its great strength lies not alone in the fact that Aphra Behn was the first woman to be a professional writer (other plays, novels - e.g. OROONOKO: or, The Royal Slave [1688] - and commissioned articles), but in the honest bawdy in the depiction of the exploitative nature of men in their sexual relationships. It is a witty verbal conflict in which the women of Naples give as good as they get - think of a more far ranging verbal playground of the Benedick and Beatrice kind in a MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING tone. It was brought to an acute modern attention in 1986 when it was successfully revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is the second production of the play in Belvoir's (Nimrod's) history.

The Director Eamon Flack writes a copious note which is accompanied by a brief history of the life of Aphra Behn, in the Belvoir program, both, full of handsome appraisal and admiration for the playwright and the play.

So, this production of the play begins with an actor, Nikki Shiels, addressing the audience directly with a newly minted foreword to the play proper, giving the impression that she is speaking as the author. Besides other stuff, she berates the critics who might diminish their appreciation of the work because it is written by a woman, and it finishes with a spoken sentiment that more than less urges us that if we don't like what she has said: 'To Fuck Off' out of the theatre. The play begins with that vulgar invitation. None of us left - we'd all paid good money to be there (in my case $70.00) and no offer of money return was given, so ... sit and see. Many, most, took the "Fuck Off ' cue as an offer to laugh and many did - they'd paid money to see Aphra Behn's THE ROVER, and I guess, the trusting audience thought, this was part of it.

Then, after almost three hours, the play finishes with The Rover, Willmore (Toby Schmitz), agreeing to enter the bondage of marriage to ex-convent novitiate (and virgin) Hellena (Taylor Ferguson), leaving the stage empty for a contrived coda by the Director, for the two actors playing most of the servant roles in the play, Callis (Kiruna Stamell) and Moretta/Lucetta (Megan Wilding), to be able, in extended dumb show, to get themselves comfortable, dangling their feet in the pool, counting their ill gotten 'loot', lighting a cigarette for each, puffing it with relaxing comfort, and looking about themselves in the relative 'peace' of the time, to deliver an exclaimed meta-theatre comment in the broadest Aussie 'noise' on the recent hectic traffic of the English sailors in Naples of c.1657: "Fucking Tourists". Lights out. Curtain calls.

The usage of the word FUCK and other broad Aussie lowlife comedy epithets, copiously interpolated into Alphra Behn's text throughout, has been the cue for the most laughter in the performance, not the duets of witty banter between the characters written by the original writer. What was disheartening, for me, was to have read the Belvoir program notes and pre-publicity claim to present the work of a woman of period with admiration and excitement and then to have to witness that company subvert that work with gross undergraduate 'campery' posing as wit: 'fuck that', 'fuck this'; introducing those hackneyed joke choices of men kissing men and discovering the pleasure of it; of men in dresses and loving it: "Oooh, I love your dress", coos one man to another; of actors lisping and limpwristing themselves as comic choices; of women in male attire and slapping their thighs in wide-legged or pigeon-toed, or both, comment; of women foulmouthing or using vocal extrapolations and range games for comic effect; of stopping the plot of the play by referencing contemporary social and sexual politics: Why is the only black actor, doing filthy clean-up duty? Hey, why two women cleaning up the mess? Where are the boys? Get out here!, ad nauseum; and to have Mr Flack indulge his (undoubted) romance with the chaos of the Marx Brothers chase sequences (see my blog on his production of Chekhov's IVANOV), and in this case having one of the actors dressed as a 'penguin' and referenced by almost every other actor, in a wearisome gallop of many, many minutes (hours?); of, I supposed, a subversive political take on strip tease, by having a male who need not be seen naked embrace the 'art' form of it! There was more. This is not just a modernist deconstruction of a play, it was the usual Belvoir destruction.

It seemed to me that there was probably an enormous amount of time in rehearsal invested in developing clowning routines (e.g.Willmore and Blunt, the 'chase' routine) - that took up a lot of the playing time - rather than in elucidating, untangling for modern ears the witty text of Aphra Behn - a very demanding modern task - what too demanding, for contemporary actors and contemporary audiences? This was a disappointing and progressively tedious night in the theatre played to the lowest common denominator of comedy routines - the usual penchant for Aussie caricature and sketch comic routine (what, no pies in the face!) undermining the verbal and plotting wit of Aphra Behn. The Belvoir production felt like a night at Minsky's Burlesque (see, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S - film, 1968) rather than a celebration of the work of the Restoration writer Aphra Behn.

There is so much theatrical intelligence and skill on the stage in this cast that all goes to uncritical permissions encouraged by the Director: Gareth Davies, as Ned Blunt (led to doing his usual sad clown act - not again!); Taylor Ferguson, as Hellena (led to playing vocal noise games with her text and sitting pigeon-toed or slapping thighs as comic character indication); Leon Ford, as Belvile (mostly swamped [though valiant in effort] with the disorder about him); Nathan Lovejoy, as Don Antonio (lisping Spanish dialect comedy and untidy wigggery), and Frederick (university undergraduate ad-libbing mistaken for specious wit); Elizabeth Nabben, as Florinda (the actor that, in my book, survives the ghastliness best, despite her broken wrist and cheap verbal references to it); Toby Schmitz, as Willmore (led to delivering what he has done successfully over and over again, over and over again e.g. PRIVATE LIVES, THE PRESENT - just to quote two examples - and it works, so stick with it, but, I know he can do other things?! Let's harness those other 'things', soon); Nikki Shiels, as Angelica Bianca (nearly getting on top of the 'mess' about her to honour Aphra Behn - tries bravely); Kiruna Stamell, as Callis (has a go at not much given, other than the comic turn as a penquin); Andre De Vanny, as Don Pedro (who tries to give faithful work, despite his employment of an inconsistent stammer, to Aphra Behn, but succumbs, ultimately, to wearing a beautiful green dress, clearly Designed and fitted for him, to be funny); Megan Wilding, as Moretta and Lucetta (who obviously has a gift for language but is encouraged to Aussie burlesque schtick to endear us to her work).

How did this happen? No dialogue with the Director? Or just plain submission by the actors? Are theatrical intelligence and theatrical integrity and respect for the writer, different things? Really? In the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Caryl Churchill's CLOUD NINE, there is a similar co-hort of actors with theatrical intelligence and skill who (despite a few blemishes of judgement) with their Director have the integrity of the writer at the forefront of their choices for their audiences. The play and its skill and intentions are beautifully served. A good night in the theatre.

This production is set in a never-never time of period/contemporary image and costumes (Mel Page, both) - there is a feature of an enormous portrait, Fellinesque-like (La Dolce Vita - 1960) of Naples' courtesan, Angelica Bianca, dominating the action of the work - with a shallow tiled pool sitting just off-centre stage, and the Director uses a heightened awareness and usage of the audience and the auditorium as an extension to the physical and verbal offers of the play - sometimes uncomfortably interactive for some members of the audience! The Lighting by Matt Scott delivers on the Directorial modernism and Steve Toulmin serves with his Sound Composition and Design the production's skewed needs well.

If, Mr Flack is so enamoured of the Max Sennett, Marx Brothers, Three Stooges physical and verbal comedy, why not, as he is also Artistic Director at Belvoir, schedule/adapt a Marx Brothers play - THE COCOANUTS (1925-26) ANIMAL CRACKERS (1928-29). Or, one of Mae West's groundbreaking plays - SEX (1926), THE DRAG (1927), DIAMOND LIL (1928)? Let's see a totally neglected farceur such as Avery Hopwood - THE BAT (1920), FAIR AND WARMER (1915), LADIES NIGHT (1920) on stage - and leave IVANOV and THE ROVER unmolested and in tact.

THE ROVER, if you want to. I recommend CLOUD NINE , as the go see.

The Incredible Here and Now

Photo by Brook Mitchell

The National Theatre of Parramatta, presents, THE INCREDIBLE HERE AND NOW, written for the stage by the novel writer, Felicity Castagna, at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. 13-22 July.

THE INCREDIBLE HERE AND NOW, is a 2013 novel by Felicity Castagna, and has been adapted for the stage by Ms Castagna, herself. Set in Parramatta and written in brief vignettes, it tells the story of 15 year old Michael, during a year when a car accident creates an intense year of sorting out the repercussions on the family, friends and community around him. Adjusting to new circumstances and charged and changing emotional maturations, whilst having to find the way through the continuing process of life.

The production, Designed by Isabel Hudson, has converted the playing space of the theatre into a Traverse one, with the audience seated on either-side, facing each other, with large projection screens, behind, using Video images to concrete images of the world of the play (Martin Kinnane) during the performance. Photographs and film (passing cars - including the idolised iconic mage of the white Pontiac Trans Am) are sophisticated, and the best part of this production. Besides, a stripped-down car body with seats, wheel and lights, that creates the rev-head environ of the world of Dom, Michael's bigger-than-life brother that is the catalyst to all that happens in the play, there is a park space and the tower of the diving board of the local pool. The Sound Composition, Design, by Sean Van Doornum, also packages the experience with ease.

Jeneffa Soldatic and Wayne Harrison are the joint Directors of this work. Unfortunately, the seven actors: Libby Assiak, Caroline Brazier, Alex Cubis, Bardiya McKinnon, Ryan Peters, Sal Sharah and Olivia Simone, who, all but Mr McKinnon, play several roles, never appear to be in connection with each other. The experience of the work was of seven actors still trying to find traction to tell a story. It was never, completely, an in-tune ensemble of storytellers.

THE INCREDIBLE HERE AND NOW, as a novel, creates a sense of what it might be to live in a certain part of Parramatta, at a certain time. It's atmosphere is visceral in its writing and the characters are vital as they deal with joy, tragedy, grief and the irresistible energies of the life forces of the species, in cautious courtship, school life, engaged with a myriad of multi-cultural and generational backgrounds. None of this was successfully created by this production. Whether there is difficulty in the adaptation by the writer I cannot discern as the acting was so disparate and disconnected in the experience in the theatre, that it was hard to realise. Surely the responsibility of the Directors. That the production was forced to postpone its Opening Night by a week heralded some misgivings. Problems were still evident.

This is another disappointing production from THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF PARRAMATTA.

The Verbatim Project

Canberra Youth Theatre in association with the Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP) THE VERBATIM PROJECT, AT ATYP THEATRE, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 19-22 July.

Canberra Youth Theatre under the Direction of Katie Cawthorne has developed a Verbatim work: THE VERBATIM PROJECT, with sixteen participants - ten 14-16 year olds and six 65-80 year olds - and brought it to Sydney for a short season, hosted by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP).

It is in the typical verbatim theatre staging formula - physical 'choreography' to illustrate and demarcate the issue segments with direct vocal communication to the audience - and is, relatively, arresting because of the range of personal experiences on some diverse life issues e.g. Mental Health - the issue of Depression, Anxiety; discussion on the difference between Love and Sex, Gender and Identity. The age differences within the group seemed to liberate the participants to some open and free observations and the mutual respect they had with each other, no matter the sex or age of the speaker let one have an empathetic endowment.