Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Marjorie Prime

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The Ensemble Theatre presents, MARJORIE PRIME, by Jordan Harrison, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 15th June - 21st July.

MARJORIE PRIME, is an American play, by Jordan Harrison, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

The play is set in this mid-twenty-first century. Tess (Lucy Bell) is caring for her ageing and deteriorating mother Marjorie (Maggie Dence). She is beginning to experience a creeping dementia. Jon (Richard Sydenham), Tess' husband, has organised from a Robot Company, a Prime. A Prime is a fully personalised life-look-alike.

They have created for Marjorie, Walter Prime (Jake Speer), her husband, who looks like he did when he was thirty and has been fed memories to be able to converse with Marjorie for comfort's sake. It is a very unsettling concept and leads to not always lucid or truthful conversations - after all Walter Prime can only speak what he has been 'fed' - other people's memories and needs, the Rashomon affect of truth is on full display. We all have variants of what is the truth.

Marjorie dies and Tess is given a Prime called Marjorie. This Marjorie Prime has been fed the detailed memories that Tess needs her to have so that she can say things she had never said in human life to her mother - for instance, that she had loved her.

Tess dies and Jon has a Prime called Tess commissioned.

All three Primes spend some time together and re-gurgitate what their information bank has been given. The cross conversations are idealised versions of the past - and not always congruent.

This play is less about the development of Artificial Intelligence and its possible flaws (though, of interest) and more concerned with the anxiety of loss of consciousness and the inevitable experience of death. It dwells in the world of grief and regret. Of guilt. Of secrets kept invisible, stored in a Pandora's Box to facilitate amnesia of events that all have found distressing, traumatic. Loss of love. Lack of love. Suicide, for instance.

On a beautiful Set Design, by Simon Greer, that looks like a gentle projection of order and efficiency in the ordinary home, of the near future, gloriously assisted by the futuristic possibilities of a Lighting Design for modern living by Alex Berlage, Director, Mitchell Butel has staged the production with care and crafted with Composer, Max Lyandvert, an intriguing accompanying score that creates an atmosphere that in its comfort is a sensitive contrast to the off-kilter happenings of the play.

Ms Bell's neurotic and 'injured' Tess is lightly balanced by the very sensitive reading of Jon, by Mr Sydenham. Jake Speer has the looks of an idealised partner and handles the physical life of this Robot/Prime with subtle details. Ms Dence has created a Marjorie that just avoids cliche but not entirely owned.

This is a gently provoking (creepy) play that indicates our projected, selective memories maybe our best acts of love. A love to protect ourselves in the lonely experience of journeying closely to the end and needing to be loved back - remembered well. How lucky it would be, if we all were. These imagined Science Fiction Primes just might facilitate that luxury and romantic escape! Or, not.

P.S. There is a film version with Jon Hamm and Lois Smith (2017).

They Divided The Sky

Photo by Patrick Boland

Daniel Schlusser Ensemble presents, THEY DIVIDED THE SKY, a novel by Christa Wolf, adapted for the stage by Daniel Schlusser, in the Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre. 13 - 30 June.

THEY DIVIDED THE SKY, is a new Australian play, based on an East German book (1963), by novelist Christa Wolf, adapted for the stage by Daniel Schlusser, as an exploration by the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble from Melbourne. This Ensemble has been working since 2009 and has developed a particular formula to investigate for the theatre. Mr Schlusser in interview has talked of the 'protective' nature that overcame him during the rehearsal process of preserving the language of Ms Wolf. He admits to having, unusually, for his process, a proliferation of words/language in his scenario. It is the words, handled so well by the actors, that compels one to endure.

At Belvoir during three weeks in the month of June, Mr Schlusser, working with two outstanding actors, Stephen Phillips (Manfred) and Niki Shields (Rita) has developed a physical language and mode of performance - a hyper-theatrical tension of reality that has a self-conscious awareness of its stylistic explorations, incorporating, knowingly, a very vivid and character-filled, demanding of attention, Composition and Sound Design, by James Paul, with the deliberate punctuations/punch into the action by the Lighting Design of Amelia Lever-Davidson.There is 'ego' in the Directorial conceits in this production that draws, deliberately, our attention to the affects.

This Ensemble has a self aware stylisation - very, dare I say: a Melbourne one? It is a mode of performance that is conscientiously non-realist/non-naturalistic and so provokes an entry into the performance from the audience that is off-kilter, in my instance, even a slightly arch one. We can sit cooly outside it all, objectively, while been fascinated by the dilemmas of the two characters (and some of the people about them). And it is, the spoken text and bold commitment of the actors that brings focus and acceptance of the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble's 'tricks' into an, ultimately, satisfying time in the theatre. One can simultaneously, sag with anticipatory loathing' at the sight of the familiar modern Design trope of a white bath tub that fills with water, in this black four-sided space (Set Design, by Robert Cousins), and cringe when each of the actors, predictably, sink into the water fully clothed - metaphor, I guess - and yet, still, enjoy the drama that winds onwards. It is the extraordinary 'chemistry' between the two actors and the mutual belief in all that is asked of them, that demands subjective experiencing and acceptance of all that we are given to digest.

Basically, narratively, we watch the metamorphosis of Rita and Manfred's love affair over many years, from the original giddy rush of infatuation to the discordant philosophical differences of life in maturity, that will separate them in the dramatically charged place of East Berlin in the time of the ultimate clash between Capitalism and Communism with the physical construct of the Wall in August, 1961, that will divide the city and these two protagonists. They both must make a choice. This is the kind of 'love' story we have seen many times, concerning the conceit of time passing and the effect of that time on the characters. I was reminded of the Russian Alexi Arbuzov's play THE PROMISE, in which the three protagonists change and challenge each other in their personal relationships during the Russian post World War II struggles to the launch of Sputnik into space.

Christa Wolf lived in East Berlin most of her life, acted for the Stasi, and became one of the most important voices of that culture in the novelistic form. Originally translated as DIVIDED HEAVEN, this new play has been inspired by the recent translation by Luis Von Flotow.

Arresting. Interesting. For thoughtful theatre experiencers.

P.S. Note that, unfortunately, Christa Wolf gets no biographical space in the program. Just saying.


bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of DRESDEN, by Justin Fleming, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. !5 - 30 June.

DRESDEN is a new Australian play by Justin Fleming.

August Kubizek, remembers attending a performance of Richard Wagner's opera RIENZI, der Letzte der Tribunen (the last of the Tribunes), of 1838-40, in the relatively new Opera House, the Konigliches Hoftheater, in Dresden, with his young 17 year old friend, Adolf Hitler, in 1906. The libretto was written by Wagner, based on the book by British novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and tells the story of Rienzi, a late medieval populist who succeeded in out-witting and defeating the ruling class of nobles, setting up government with power for the people, only to ultimately lose the confidence of those 'people' to be then conflagrated in the Capitol. Kubizek, supposedly, reminded Hitler of that experience in 1939 and was told: "At that hour it all began." Whether that is hearsay or not, Hitler was given the original score on his fiftieth birthday and had it with him in the Berlin bunker when he too was conflagrated.

What are the incidents of art experience that have hinged as major turning points in anyone's life? I claim Dostoyevsky's THE IDIOT, which I read in my late teens, as a significant shaper of my life choices. In DRESDEN, Justin Fleming, claims the opera RIENZI of Wagner to be significant for Hitler and part of the inspiration for his throw at destiny - and there is an uncanny parallel that can be traced.

Mr Fleming is an Australian playwright that has written a wide web of material. Of late, we have come to delight in his translations/adaptations of some of Moliere's classics, TARTUFFE, THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, THE LITERATI, THE MISANTHROPE, in robust Australian vulgarisms.

But, as well, he is one of those rare Australian playwrights that reaches outside the 'Aussie' bubble to give us work of a more International flavour and 'history'. For example: in 1983, THE COBRA - a play concerning the older Lord Alfred Douglas (played by Sir Robert Helpmann) and his fulminations around Oscar Wilde; and later, in 1989, HAROLD IN ITALY, a ballet/drama, unforgettable in its daring format, with its musical quotes from composer Berlioz. Mr Fleming is not shy of engaging, teasing, stretching the intellect and loading conceptual knowledge for our edification, his homegrown audiences.
Photo by Clare Hawley

And so, with DRESDEN where we meet Richard Wagner (Jeremy Waters) diarising his life to his second wife, Cosima (Renee Lim) remembering his youthful penurious peril, ducking his creditors whilst inducing through self-deprecation figures of influence such as Meyerbeer (Tom Campbell) to consider and promote RIENZI, his third work for production, and after succeeding, of the consequent struggle with the artists bringing his first performed opera - or as he preferred Music Drama - to life in the theatre: the tenor Tichatsheck (again, Tom Campbell) and Reissiger, Kapelmaster, and Schladebach (both, Dorje Swallow). This story, in tandem with the collision of Hitler with the REINZI opera, in 1906, and the parallels between Hitler's life and Wagner's art is the speculative drama of the play.

Directed by Suzanne Millar, for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co, Ms Millar has collected, mostly, a talented group of actors to bring credibility to this ambitious play. Yalin Ozucelik, gives an assured performance of Hitler from the age of 17 until his final moments in the bunker in Berlin in 1945 without any grotesque histrionics, he aiming to show the impressionable and subsequently deluded and twisted consequences of Hitler's fetid imagination that led to one of the greatest waves of human destruction we have ever known, without overleaping 'judgement'. The performance gradient is of great craft.

Tom Campbell and Dorje Swallow, each with a trio of rich historical characters, eke out with wit, intellectual perspicacity and at-hand-skills, characteristics of each of their men without resorting to parody or caricature to facilitate the storytelling and intention of the author.

While Jeremy Waters harnesses his usual over-energetic impulses to create/capture a 'genius'-fanatic, Wagner, from the Fleming fabric: driven, determined, possessed, egotistical, but also fragile, frightened and vulnerable.

Renee Lim glides through the opportunities of Cosima, without much dramatic impact - or is it the writing? - and Ben Wood is sufficient to play the friend of Hitler, Gustl Kubizek.

The Design elements of raised white walkways around a central pit (Patrick Howe) has the advantage of a Lighting plot by Benjamin Brockman to give it detail and life. And, although the recording of the Wagner score seems to be an older one and does not have the aural heft to lift one into ecstasy it is the Sound Design, by Max Lambert, that uses the music to a brimming passionate scale - it creates a feel to the events of the play to give it all some classic depth. (Although the opera was often performed in the 19th Century, it is rarely seen nowadays.)

bAKEHOUSE has had a loyal relationship with the author over the past ten years and Mr Fleming gives us a vastly intriguing flight of fancy in the Kings Cross Theatre, whatever its relevance maybe in the current topsy-turvy politics of out times.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


Photo by Pia Johnson
Belvoir and Malthouse Theatre present, BLISS, by Peter Carey, adapted for the stage, by Tom Wright in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills. 9 June - 15 July.

BLISS, is an 'old' Australian novel, by Peter Carey. It is his first novel - 1981 - adapted for the stage by Tom Wright. BLISS, the novel, has also been re-incarnated as a film, adapted by Ray Lawrence (the Director) in association with Peter Carey in 1985, and also as an Opera, music by Brett Dean with a libretto by Amanda Holden, in 2010.

The novel is a comic fable, where Harry Joy, an advertising man - 'a mediocrity' - dies for 9 minutes and is resuscitated to the self-delusion that he is in Hell. His family, his business, all, are representative of Hell and it is in finding Honey Barbara, a 'gold hearted' hippie, who lives in a forest, that he finds a refuge. He becomes a kind of 1980's Everyman, as he travels through the 'landscape' of his self-made environment seeing his life as it really is for the first time. The novel contains a simple minded message that the enemies/villains of society are advertising, cities, and his/our salvation is in embracing the ecological ideal where, for instance, the making of a special honey may be salve enough for healthy, healed living. This adaptation in 2018, is an oft-repeated trope from 1981, and considering that 37 years have passed and no real progress in embracing the Joy-Blissed Revelation has taken place, it may be a redundant contribution to our present cultural enlightenment. We've heard it, we've exclaimed over it, and we have ignored it. So, why is BLISS being adapted again?

This adaptation begins and is 'infected' throughout, with direct monologues to audience (three different voices to start with!!!), to give expositional securities to move the experience forward and its political dialectics clarity. As in Tom Wright's recent adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI for the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), Mr Wright has a contemporary political agenda that he wishes to communicate/pedal. In the form of this play after three hours of relentlessness, one feels that one has been preached at, vocally harangued, into being 'spoon-fed', a personal message. Says Mr Wright in interview with Stephen Romei before the Malthouse premiere of this work:

I don't understand the distinction between translation, adaptation or fresh writing.

How much of this text is straight Peter Carey or a concoction of Mr Wright I do not know, but I suspect, as there was in his STC UI adaptation a lot of 'fresh writing'. It is decorated with a usage of vocabulary that is starry in its breadth and depth and has a wonderful construction of sentence that often, however, has the feel of a narcissistic word-smith with no real sense of dramatic play writ. It is, probably, better appreciated when read than seen. It tends to show-off rather than engage us. It felt as if its form and formula is its primary goal of appreciation rather than narrative or character content. Is the writer wanting admiration for his word juggling and ideas rather than for dramatic communication of story through character in a live theatre?

Another political 'intellectual' of the theatre is G.B. Shaw and he has, at least, the perspicacity - perhaps, it is because of his Irishness - to mix it up with comic wit to make his 'diatribes'/arguments/disquisition palatable. He, also, creates the opportunity for his actors to create real, vulnerable human beings, as well, if the performing artists are rigorous in 'discovering' their Given Circumstances - and are not just 'talking heads'. Not much wit in Mr Wright's text - clever, admirable circumlocutions of language but not accessibly funny. There is little relief from the blunt earnestness of the promulgation of ideas.

Tom Stoppard, as well, has managed to create political critique with humour and a keen observation of real human beings. Howard Barker should not be forgotten as a powerful contemporary political playwright who manages to create real three dimensional characters and, though it is more often a grim "gallows humour", to be funny as well.

Brecht, too, is another play writer with political intellectual agenda, but has the ability to create from scene to scene, genuinely human, moving episodes with characters in subjective dilemmas, that gives an emotional impulse to its audience, that then is expertly undermined by his deliberate technique of 'verfremdungsteffekt' - alienation, theatrical distancing - to sober the audience's emotion to take on the objective intellectual intention of the order of the scene.

Is the writing the problem of BLISS?

Or, is it the style of performing that these, mostly, very gifted actors have taken on under the Direction of Matthew Lutton, that after a full season in Melbourne before opening here in Sydney, has become a well drilled proclaimed declamatory 'hurl' of shouted language - all helpfully 'miked' into a technical, cool 'noise' - and simplistically owned by the actors as mere representational figures of cliche character types? (Question: "Do we really need the actors to be artificially micro-phoned in the Belvoir space?"

In the creative 'space' of disconnection this production allowed me, the sight of the microphone curled across one side of the face of the actors, with the bag of 'battery' deforming the physical profile of the actor at their back, gave me permission to shift into seeing an illusion of mechanised 'robots' at work.For the acting does not ever approach real flesh and blood or invite any empathy from the audience. The performance glided forward as if it were on an inevitable track without any notice of the audience feedback to propel the experience that might contribute to the 'in the moment' vitality - life - of the story telling. One had to ask, "Did we really need to be there for these actors to perform?" So, that when the production Direction escalated into a 'farcical' mode in the second half of this three hour show, it became an absolute one way dialogue, for, the audience who, mostly, sat deflated, bewildered, by what was been offered, was unable/unwilling to participate in giving active energy to help sustain/inflate the actors to the stratospheric belief in the actions demanded by the 'style'. It all kind of fell flat.

These days when confronted with a glass box on stage - Set Design by Marg Horwell - even one that has a wooden frame variation, alarms of concern are alerted, unconsciously or consciously, by the weary recognition of past exclusions from the heat and sound of the actors, from within the closed-off, packaged, wrapped box. Add a revolve and an 'Ikea'-like wooden, blondish box to surround all and the sterility of it overwhelms. The actors were walking, literally, perhaps, intentionally metaphorically, on the spot while the world revolved by.

Anna Sampson as Honey Barbara comes out of this acting style best, Susan Prior most unlike herself, Amber McMahon, simply re-showing her performance as a skilled satirist, and Toby Truslove bearing the central role of Harry Joy, suggesting that when giving his characterisation, in occasional support, in the television satire UTOPIA, as Karsten Leith, the vapid media and marketing content creator, he was giving the apotheosis of his gifts, for nothing really gels on the Belvoir stage for us to appreciate what he has to say as Harry Joy. This performance confirmed my appreciation of his work in the STC's production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN.

BLISS, in play form at the Belvoir proved to be a long night in the theatre with nothing added to the experience of reading the novel and seeing the film in the nineteen eighties and much later appreciating the Brett Dean/ Amanda Holden Opera version.

Bliss defined in the dictionary: perfect happiness; great joy. In this adaptation/production, not for many of us, I'm afraid.

P.S. I notice that there is no biography of Peter Carey, the original creator, in the program. An interesting ommission.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Photo by Mansoor Noor

Joanna Erskine, Eloise Snape and Samantha Young (co-Producers) present AIR, by Joanna Erskine, at The Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St. Newtown. 13 June - 30 June.

AIR, is a new Australian play, by Joanna Erskine.

In a Community Radio station (2RIP - Ms Erskine's comic sensibility is signalled there!) Annabel hosts a program that reads the listed Obituary's of the Day to assist those who are reading impaired - this is a reality to be heard at 8.45am on 2RPH - 1224Am or 100.5FM, that Ms Erskine noted and took as her starting point for this wonderful adventure, exploration.

This play is about grief. Grief begins as a solitary experience. But then, gradually, we discover that we are not alone because we all have grief, and we will all be grieved, one way or another. Grief doesn't adhere to the notion that the further you are away from it the less you will feel it. Rather, it is something that you carry within you at all times. Grief may recede, but at any moment it can make itself known with astounding immediacy.

In an antiquated and run-down radio studio, one evening, Annabel reads a reference to a popular song in one of the death notices and a memory is triggered for her and a reality of twenty-three years of suppressed grieving makes it self felt. A grief is cracked open. With this trigger/crack Annabel conjures her listeners, her relatives, the living and the dead and, consequently, comes to a night of confrontation, where her deliberate isolation from life is challenged.

Ms Erskine takes us on a surreal experience that is as often as hilarious as it is terribly moving. I found myself laughing out loud a lot and yet experiencing a strangely familiar and in-depth emotional connection, over and over again. The weirdness of the logics of the play are superfluous to argument when one embraces the journey - it is a bit like just joining in on one of my favourite Woody Allen films, ALICE, starring Mia Farrow (1990), where a herbalist induces invisibility and the ability of flight for the principal figure to be able to be awakened to the realities of her life. Surrender to the journey and the contemplations are surprisingly healthful.

In a one 100-minute act, Director Anthony Skuse, has built a delicate framework and pathway for the unwinding of Ms Erskine's fantasia, 'confession', self-revelation and provocation. Mr Skuse is in top form, again, at last. The mood shifts are handled with tempo changes expertly timed and with an apt Soundtrack (Sound Design, by Benjamin Freeman), that seduces and triggers personal moments for its audience, encouraging us into endowing and contributing to the construct of the play with imaginative personal identification - it is an effortless act when one surrenders to the plotting of AIR and its twists and turns. The comedy is audacious in its off-centred intrusions, offsetting and balancing with tremendous skill the possible 'melodrama' of it all. The Set Design, of a moveable table, stacked with the paraphernalia of a shoe-string budgeted radio studio, is deceptively simple in keeping the story fluid and forward actioned, warmly bathed in the Lighting Design from Sophie Pekbilimli.

As well, Mr Skuse has drawn from all his actors a consistent sincerity and belief in all those 'crazy' twists and turns of the writer's scenario. Eloise Snape, as Annabel, is at the centre of the play and gives the best performance I have seen her give. It is grounded in a calm, beautifully observed and controlled naturalism with a quirky sense of humour that is endearing and absolutely central to the success of this production. Its eloquence is so compassionate and so gently respectful of the audience, that we can only give-in and travel with her. Around her the other actors can successfully spin, mostly, the dimensional needs that the characters, created by Ms Erskine, exude, seemingly as rational and 'real' personas as any drama should need. John Dean (Tel Benjamin), is a late-blooming, slightly emotionally retarded, romantic; Mabel (Diana McLean), a married partner that schemes murder in the fraughtness of her long-standing relationship; Susan (Suzanne Pereira), the grounded and 'real' sister in grief, coping with the Hardy family's dilemmas; and Kevin Hardy (David Lynch), the spirit at the centre of Annabel's tear in life with her family.

AIR, with the ingredients of a comedy of the absurd, a family drama of soap opera proportions, and a spiritual mixture of good sense, are all mixed and shaken for a richly rewarding night/cocktail in the theatre that can give your soul a glimpse into the ordinary and essential biological process, death, and the consequent natural tussle with grief, that all of us will have, that really is a normality for every living being, whether it is for a human or a budgie, or the memory of a barking dog! We learn we can invite others in, we are not unique in grief, there should be no guilt, no shame, and together, we can deal with it and find some reward of possible hope. For some, the relief can be soon, or, as in the case of our Annabel twenty-three years later.

This is an Australian play with a rare sensibility of emotional maturity: prepared to look at a 'taboo' of our culture with an open, experienced intelligence and a sense of humour that is not a piss-take, but a generous openness. Thanks to Joanna Erskine and the Company for sharing with such compassion.

Get your skates on, and go to The Old 505. Worth it.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Saint Joan

Photo by Rene Vaile

Sydney Theatre Company (STC) present SAINT JOAN, by George Bernard Shaw, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. 5th June - 30 June.

Says Bernard Shaw in his Preface to the play of SAINT JOAN:
Joan of Arc, a village girl from Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonised in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and most pious Catholic, and projector of a Crusade against the Husites, she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs. She was also one of the first apostles of Nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom-gambling chivalry of her time. She was the pioneer of rational dressing for women, and, like Queen Christina of Sweden two centuries later, to say nothing of Catalina de Erauso and innumerable obscure heroines who have disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers and sailors, she refused to accept the women's lot, and dressed and fought and lived as men did. 
As she contrived to assert herself in all these ways with such force that she was famous throughout Western Europe before she was out of her teens (indeed she never got out of them), it is hardly surprising that she was judicially burnt, ostensibly for a number of capital crimes which we no longer punish as such, but essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption ... there were only two opinions about her. One was that she was miraculous: the other that she was unbearable.
George Bernard Shaw wrote SAINT JOAN, in 1923, six scenes and an epilogue. Imara Savage, the Director of this production, has ambitiously taken many liberties with the original text. She writes in her Director's notes in the program:
Shaw's play consists of six scenes and an epilogue. Often, Joan enters only in the final moments of a scene. Once she doesn't appear at all. In a play that generally runs for three and half hours, she is on stage for less than one. I began to have the unsettling feeling that Joan was making a cameo in her own life story ... I wanted a play where the female actor was the central focus in the way that Hamlet is, or Lear is, or Macbeth is - a play that explored what it meant to be both a woman and a dreamer.
This production of SAINT JOAN occupies the stage for one hour and forty-five minutes, straight through, without an interval. A great deal of Mr Shaw's play is absent. Then, following the severe edit of Shaw's great play, to achieve her desire to have a play about Saint Joan to have the female actor as the central focus, Ms Savage, with Emme Hoy, a writer, part of the Sydney Theatre Company's Emerging Writer's Group, have introduced new monologues into the text. There are, as well, other 'robust' contemporary interpolations, from these two artists, throughout the play.

The production begins with a still, seated gleaming silver armoured figure centre stage in light, surrounded by a towering cyclorama curtain, Set Design by David Fleischer; Lighting Design, by Nick Schlepper; accompanied by an imposing sound score from Max Lyandvert. The Costumes are a quasi period/modern look - mostly in black - by Renee Mulder. All these elements are of great affect, particularly the contribution from Mr Lyandvert. On the front edge of the stage appear an English Earl (David Whitney), an English Priest (Sean O'Shea) and a French Bishop (William Zappa) and we are thrown into the debate of Scene Four of the original play (edited), as the strategy for the trial of Joan is essayed. This sets the framework of this production where Joan seated centre, mostly, is surrounded, by the men (the patriarchy) in a fairly 'stylised' physical mode, so that her journey as a sixteen year old farm girl to warrior commander of the French army, to condemned prisoner of war, a heretic, to be burnt to death at the stake, like a witch (at the age of nineteen), is told in a formula of formalised staged flashback.

This production has been supercharged by an abundance of talent where the creation of characters of human dimension (not just talking heads, often the signal, bane, of a 'bad' production of Shaw's work) have imaginatively been fleshed out by all, to bring the surviving crisp Shavian language and debate to a passionate and easily absorbed communication, through a no-frills intelligence and utilisation of technical instruments (mostly) alert to the speedy needs of the original writer. Its clarity and speed is a tonic of flattery that not many contemporary productions give an audience credit to have to bring to the performances, as part of their contribution to the 'joy' of being in the live theatre. The irony and quirky humour - Shaw after all is Irish, and a provocateur - is a privilege to respond to (there has been too much edit of Shaw's audacious wit for my money). The new writing from Ms Savage and Hoy serves their modern desire, slant/need of this production well enough but is distinguished and is in contrast to the surety of Shaw's language pertinency, and has a slightly romantic emotional tone - Shaw would be embarrassed by such a gesture - not quite sentimental but only just short of it in its 'perfumed' and sometimes overladen imagery. Shaw is blunt and hard - gleaming, cold, silver metal - Savage and Hoy are liquid and warm - melliflious honey, saturated yellow. Shaw is a debator and humorist. Savage and Hoy descriptive and earnest. However, this company of actors make the writing from these two different sources - one male, one female nearly a century apart - coalesce and appear as one and consistent in tone.

Mr Whitney (we see him not often enough on our major stages) is deftly amusing. Mr O'Shea comically attuned - it is a loss to to have his character's Shavian impassioned turnaround later in the play removed - edited out - which would have given him more character and less 'comic racist' caricature to deliver. Mr Zappa is an exemplar of the requirements that Classic work of this kind demand: physically, vocally armed with insightful intellectual clarity, all harnessed for us, with exquisite economy - splendid to have him onstage again and demonstrating the range of his skills with the contrast of the naturalism he so subtly executed recently in the STC's production of THE CHILDREN to savour. John Gaden, likewise, is firing full throttle with relish for his Shavian challenges as the Inquisitor and Archbishop, delighting in contrast to the recent banality of the text of DIPLOMACY. Gareth Davies, Brandon McClelland, Socratis Otto and Anthony Taufa support the Directorial demands with energy and precision, to keep the production moving with focused meaning and drive, each grasping the baton of responsibility, when it is thrust at/to them, with enthusiasm and zeal.

Any production of SAINT JOAN must stand or fall with the actor of Joan. Recognising the gifts of Sarah Snook (who is making her debut with the STC - really?) Ms Savage has been able to confidently present her vision of Joan with absolute surety. Ms Snook, has the full-blooded technical skills of Voice and Body of a top-flight actor, and is armed with a ferocious intellect and a capacity to be immersed in the dilemma of her character with a luminous translucence that is able to give us both the internal and external 'life-force' of the girl/woman and the saint. There is not a minute on the stage, and she occupies it the entire length of the production, where she is not radiating a second-by-second experience - she has no down time, no rest - she is inhabiting Joan, seemingly possessed - it is the stuff of unforgettable 'acting'. I was fortunate to attend her performance (twice) as Hilde Wangel in Ibsen's THE MASTER BUILDER at the Old Vic, with Ralph Fiennes, a year or so ago. Ms Snook's performance here, confirms and supersedes that achievement. Ms Snook certainly gave Mr Fiennes a run-for-his talent! Shaw was a great admirer of Ibsen and both writers were enthralled by the 'life force' philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Both Joan and Hilde are women possessed of the irresistible force of life. It seems Sarah Snook maybe as well. Her gifts in this performance is a bounty for us to never forget.

I recently saw at the Seymour Centre an interesting one woman piece called JOAN, looking at the legend/myth of Saint Joan. Its insights were refreshing (and amusing). Too, Ms Savage has created a unique approach to such an historical figure and famous play (Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature, not long after the writing of SAINT JOAN) and attempts to mirror that energy, courage and achievement with teenage 'heroes' of our present time, in program reference: Emma Gonzalez (American leader against the Gun Lobby in the USA) and Malala Yousafzai, the women of Pussy Riot. While not really connecting the contemporaries dots to Joan there is a resonance - give or take a thought argument.

The STC's production of SAINT JOAN, is a Reader's Digest version of the original play, and could be a disappointment if you are a fan of Shaw, if you have come to see the STC advertised (apparently, falsely) SAINT JOAN, by George Bernard Shaw, but is, none the less, a very thrilling hybrid with enough Shaw for you to recognise the originator and with enough impassioned personal point-of-view of the Director, Imara Savage (and Ms Hoy, I presume), for you to have a very exciting night in the theatre. The production values are clean and outstanding and the acting is of a uniform quality not seen often enough in Sydney. And not to see the work, the performance given, wrought, lived, by Sarah Snook would be an act of misdemeanour by any theatre lover. Not to be missed.

Highly recommended.

P.S. If you have never seen it, might I recommend PREDESTINATION as a film that resonates the gifts of Sarah Snook. Truly amazing.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Lost Boys

Photo by Zac Kaczmarek
Merrigong Theatre Company presents the world premiere of LOST BOYS, by Lachlan Philpott, in the Bruce Cameron Theatre, at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC), Wollongong. 23 May - 2 June.

LOST BOYS, is a new Australian play from Lachlan Philpott, commissioned by the Merrigong Theatre Company. It is based on the crimes of gang violence and murder centred in the community of Bondi Beach, that has also been featured in a recent documentary and television series (SBS Television).

The first act of the play is set in 1985, Prime Minister Hawke. The second act of the play is set in 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull. The location of the play is in the beach suburb of Bondi and concerns three generations of the local Murphy family.

In 1985, two brothers Robert and Cy, and his girlfriend, are part of the surfer-gang culture, riding the waves by day and getting vicarious thrills bashing and murdering gays ("faggots") at night, in a cliffside park. They got away with it, despite some attention from police of the time. In the second act of the play, it is 2017, and a television documentary investigates these crimes and stirs the NSW Police to re-open investigation. The gang perpetrators now grown and with their own families are once again under suspicion, there is police contact, and the family history threatens to confront, fracture, break. Time has moved on and attitudes are different. The family generations are at odds and the barely suppressed brooding evil seeps up to the light.

Some 30 of the murders remain unsolved and the now retired detectives who delivered a 2,000 page report into the crimes concluded that it was 'almost beyond certain' that the cold cases could be attributed to the same gangs responsible for the murders that were solved. Says Lachlan Philpott in his program notes:
Shocked ... I was compelled to ask many questions. What made these teenage gangs do such evil things? What kind of society could have allowed them to do and get away with it? How had it happened over and over again? Now that the perpetrators of these crimes have kids of their own, how do they live with and reconcile the legacy of their acts? And, could this happen again? ... The queer community were lulled into believing that their contemporary Australian society had shifted significantly (in attitude) from the 80's and 90's. Until the hate and violence so openly on display during the 2017 Marriage Equality campaign raised doubts that anything had changed at all. ... (Although the play cannot adequately memorialise the losses) perhaps it can make tears in the chthonic and terrible underthread of Australia's toxic obsession with masculinity and allow people to understand the dreadful damage that fatuous obsession spawns.
Director, Leland Kean has a company of only 8 actors so that Josh Anderson, Adam Booth, Jackson Davis, Lucy Heffernan, Jodie Le Vesconte, Ben Pfeiffer, Jane Phegan, Lincoln Vickery, play all the characters of the story. Interestingly, the casting makes a unique contribution to this production. Characters in the first act are played by different actors in the second act. This 'puzzle' of continuity recognition adds a frisson of tension for the audience - they are made to stay alert. It is, generally, carried out without real obstacle. In fact the second act seemed to gain more credible power in the 'acting' stakes.

In the first act not all the company seem to have created a 'back story' beyond what is said and done on the command of the writer and so played in a kind of shallow declamatory style, delivering information without real possession of a character, that is, a character as a 'life-force' with a motivated history. It produced a style of acting from some of the actors of an old fashioned caricature type - 'comic' or 'soap' - and a 'your turn, my turn' kind. The short scene structure of the writing, encumbered by the necessity of many exits and entrances, by the stage design, may also have contributed to the continuity of disconnection for the audience in their identification with the people of the play. Come to the second act of the production/play, however, and the audience could endow the characterisations with 'history' and emotional justification, that collectively built to an immersion of belief, especially in the final scenes, culminating in a powerful contribution from Mr Booth in his interaction with Mr Pfeiffer.

Mr Philpott wrests a play from the terrible history of Bondi Beach in 1985, and a speculative caution of the more recent times of 2017, employing a variety of playwriting techniques in many, many short scenes. There is direct monologue, the usual and familiar interactive scenes between characters, and sometimes poetic choral interludes and long moments of silent pauses, all moving the complexity of the narrative and its moral delving forward with gathering force.

The final moments of the play with the elder Cy sitting centre stage and ominously glaring into the void (the audience) we are confronted with a pure evil that has grown in a scorching intensity as prejudice, guilt and shame paralyses this man into an intractable state of venomous mind. Unlike the recent STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, at the Old Fitz, LOST BOYS embraces the Dostoyevskian ideal of confronting the consequences of "True Crime" and exposes a society's collective guilt and the consequences for all of the society that has allowed it to be nurtured. (see Blog comment). It is a challenging demand made on the audience as complicit witnesses, who have, mostly, elected to remain silent.

Mr Philpott, has demonstrated in the past with other of his works: e.g. COLDER, SILENT DISCO, TRUCKSTOP, M.ROCK, and last year, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, an uncanny ear for the accuracy of the argot of the 'tribes' of his concern, through verbative observation, that are sculptured into a unique kind of prose poetics. Listening to the interactions, the conversations, the language has an illusion of familiar 'reality' but on close listening (or inspection) the subtle manipulation of the words as text reveal imagery and musicalities that lift the work into a more sophisticated experience. This is true of the LOST BOYS, as well. Mr Philpott can be both Lyricist and Composer, demonstrated in the care of his language and syntax usage.

Merrigong Theatre Company as the commissioner of this work has, as well, recognised the potential of this play as a significant contribution to the Australian playwriting canon and facilitated a major production effort to bring it to life. Leland Kean has encouraged his artistic collaborators into a visual splendour that utilises a vast input from Projection Designer, Mic Gruchy, that is projected on to the cyclorama, and a large frontispiece of set structure, and on the floors of the space - this Bruce Cameron Theatre has a 'severe' raked auditorium perspective, so that the audience has an overview of all those elements. The look, using video-action and still photographic images, conjures the locations as a secure and vivid background to support the action of the play. It is a significant offer and was, undoubtedly, extremely complicated to produce for each performance - the 'bump-in' into the theatre would have been 'trying' to say the least - it was worth it.

The intricacies of the Lighting Design to facilitate the Projection Design without diminishing it and still covering the actors, so that they could be seen ( be read), by Jasmine Rizk, is amazing. The Sound Designer, Daryl Wallis, has completed the 'narrative' illusion of this work with much subtlety for period identification and dramatic structuring. Designer, Katja Handt, with her Set Design, has tried to find a solution to render the visuals of Mr Gruchy powerfully and, as well, to facilitate the difficulties of actor entrance and exit, in what is a multi-short scene playwriting structure that has not been completely solved by Mr Kean's ultimate decision making and, as it is at present, inhibits the full symphonic sweep of the writing - the music is held up, sometimes, with the banal physical obstacles, that the actors encounter, just to get onto the stage. The Costume Design by Ms Handt, is just as complicated but delivered well.

LOST BOYS, is certainly a major work. Lachlan Philpott is an interesting writer, nay, more than that, I reckon, as this play, the latest we have witnessed in the Body of his Playwriting, must surely place him as one of the more Important voices on the contemporary Australian stage. His social conscience content pre-occupation, the worlds he asks us to concernedly examine, along with his beautiful language and 'musical' skills must approximate him highly. One hopes this play, and or production, reaches the major city theatres and a larger audience.

This regional company: Merrigong, has achieved much in producing this work, LOST BOYS.

P.S. It was worth the train ride to Wollongong, there and back. Later this month (28th June-30th June) the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), from Adelaide, led by Gary Stewart, is performing. This Internationally acclaimed company is NOT performing in Sydney - how odd! ???? Merrigong is doing something well and the train ride there and back will be well rewarded, I'm sure.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Stalking the Bogeyman

Photo by John Marmaras

Neil Gooding Productions and New York Rep. in association with Red Line Productions presents the Australian Premiere of STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, adapted by David Holthouse and Markus Potter (additional writing by Shane Ziegler, Shane Stokes and Santino Fontana.), at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo. 23 May - 23 June.

STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, began as an essay and, then, Podcast from THIS AMERICAN LIFE, written as a personal true life 'confessional' account, by gonzo journalist David Holtman and, with permission, developed into a play by Markus Potter, for the New York Rep, in 2014

Gonzo Journalism is a form of writing that does not claim objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the storyline via a first person narrative. It was famously used in 1970 by Hunter S. Thompson - a 'notorious' counter-culture writer.

As a seven year old, David Holthouse (Graeme McRae) was raped in the cellar by a teenage acquaintance with both sets of parents (Noel Hodda, Deborah Jones and Alexander Palacio and Anne Tenney), playing cribbage upstairs. David is frightened into keeping silence about this incident with threats of physical violence. He does so all of his life with resultant crippling collateral psychological damage, and a penchant for participating in dangerous acts - he is an immersive gonzo journalist. On discovering, some twenty-five years later, or so, that his 'Bogeyman' (Radek Jonak) is living in the same city with a family of his own with two sons, David plots to assassinate his rapist.

Explaining (justifying) the writing of this play and its production, Markus Potter says:
Bearing witness is one of the most powerful means, I think, of changing and elevating society, of asking the world to be more compassionate, more empathetic, to hear one another and put ourselves into the other person's shoes.
Mr Potter is the father of two young children, a son (near the age of David when the crime was committed) and a younger daughter. Hearing this story on the radio hit him viscerally into taking action. He is the Artistic Director of a theatre company. 'Let's make a play', is his action.

"True Crime", in our present world, is the most popular podcast genre - has become a phenomena. "True Crime" has become a fabulous driver of viewing in our homes - on all the platforms we have for 'streaming' content into our very living spaces, on screens. This play, STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, on the Old Fitz stage, fits right in with this cultural mood/obsession.

It holds one in its grasp right from the beginning. It fascinates us with its morbid, ghastly details. It is a subjective experience. This production is a mesmeric observation that is handled in the living, breathing habitations of the actors under the Direction of Neil Gooding, with an unsentimental scale of energy and detail, underlining, pathetically, the relative ordinariness of it all. It could happen to any family, to any of us.

Co-incidentally, just before watching this production, I read an article in the New York Times: HOW DOSTOYEVSKY PREDICTED THE TRUE CRIME CRAZE, by Jennifer Wilson (28th May, 2018), claiming Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a journalist/reporter and novelist, as the father of "True Crime", culminating in two of his great novels, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1866), which introduced us into the guilty mind of killer Rodinov Raskolnikov, and of course, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1880), and their collective guilt for the death of their father. Says Ms Wilson:
Dostoyevsky ultimately wanted people to feel more at ease with the concept of guilt, to embrace it as a feature of common humanity and to recognize our own complicity in the everyday acts of violence that drive people to moral transgressions (cruelty, lovelessness), to the idea of collective guilt, that everyone is guilty for everyone else.
This popular genre as we devour it today, allows us, at arms length, to indulge in the excesses of crime, its motives, its actions and its consequences with a vicarious 'pleasure', that when we are exhausted by it, we can leave it with the appearance of our own personal virtuousness in tact (us, exemplars of "whitened sepulchres"?) Though, one does wonder what has happened to our conscience, our own moral compasses, while requiting this need. It is a wonder - a mystery (in the medieval sense) - of our species. Where the truly fiendish, villainous, fascinate us to a vicarious 'joy'. It can become addictive.

Friends who watched this production with me, afterwards were pleased, impressed by it all. And, so it is, for the style of writing is cosily familiar and old-fashioned in its form, in its undemanding chronological trail. It has, too, relievedly, no real moral debate, it has no philosophical demands for us to wrestle with, it is nearly all cool, clear narrative, so, easy - really easy - to ingest, to digest.

The acting, too, in this production, is terrific and re-assuring in presenting recognisable type and, who in action, never really get to demonstrate the grotesqueries of the crimes, too uncomfortably, or too unbearably for us not to be able to watch. Mr Hodda, Palacio, Ms Jones and Tenney are carefully nuanced as the respective parents and are wonderful in the adjustments they make for the 'chorus' of other characters they are called on to play to illustrate the story (especially, Ms Tenney as Molly, the damaged but wise drug dealer). Radek Jonak, is politely impressive as the 'Bogeyman' holding us to a state of repulse but yet is strangely attractive to watch, while Graeme McRae as the narrator and central figure, David - from the age of seven to the present of the narration - is restrained and brimful with an actor's integrity and skill.

The Set Design, by Lauren Peters, creates all the locations with the right detail of naturalism, supported by the Lighting Design of Alexander Berlage, that has eschewed his usual attention making offers, to fit in to the ordinariness of the style of the work. Benjamin Freeman's Sound Composition and Design is understated in its contribution, muted in its realistic intention.

Mr Potter, tells us in an interview featured in the Audrey Journal, on-line, that there are two endings written for this play. They have kept to the original, although, there has appeared a second essay that challenges the present ending: David's acceptance of the status quo and that the Bogeyman's act of rape was a once only aberration. There is intimation, however, at the start of the play, of another boy and a history that once lived in the Holthouse house in Anchorage, Alaska, that is left hanging and unresolved. Too, the level of the drug addiction and state-of-mind of David, is cursorily alluded to, and has no physical residue on the healthy look of 'our hero' - our visual image of our victim stays 'heroic'.

One wishes that the play went further than its cool statement of vicarious re-telling, that it was more morally sophisticated, with the Dostoyevskian imploring, exampled in that writer's novels and reporting,
that it is not only our task to support the innocent or wrongly convicted but also to recognize the humanity of the guilty and the shared sense of responsibility that we have for one another.

STALKING THE BOGEYMAN, is an example of a mode of digestible popular culture that glimpses into the darkness of our world and spares us the residue of the moral slime of it all. Watching it is a popular culture vicarious thrill, enthralling, but, relatively, unaffecting, except to those of my companions at the theatre that have selected to live as a deliberate comatose. Considering the recent horrendous stories of our Royal Commissions, STALKING THE BOGEYMAN more, than less, covers the same territory, and, so, ought not to be a shock, a revelation of the evil that men can do.

Then, is this play in its form and content enough?

Certainly, Mr Potter, as a father has had a jolt in his life and has been moved to re-tell this story for the theatre and share it with others. That is an action. But why does he not go further into delving the why and wherefore's of it all? To invoke the subjective response to this story, alone, may not be enough of a satisfaction, to be a cultural weapon for challenge and change in the real world atmosphere of  the "True Crime" indulgence as entertainment.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, is still a tear in my consciousness, even though, read many years ago. And, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, is almost too monumental in its human horror to contemplate too easily or to willingly have as part of one's self, one's consciousness. STALKING THE BOGEYMAN is, mostly, merely, of a popular horror storytelling genre - one can take or leave it, turn it off or on.

I wish it was more.

N.B. If one was looking for further tales of caution, Neil Labutes' IN A DARK DARK HOUSE (2007), is a challenge not yet taken up by any of our theatre companies! Does anyone dare?