Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents, Shostakovich 'Symphony No.4' and Khachaturian 'Violin Concerto In D Minor'


I reckon that you can trust the Russian composers for a great experience in Concert. So, it was last Saturday.

I had never heard the Khachaturian Violin Concerto in D minor ever. In fact I know little of the output of Khachaturian, the ballet scores: GAYANE and SPARTACUS, the most familiar.

Aram Katchaturian was of Armenian extraction, educated as a child in Tiblisi, Georgia - that city being important to Josef Stalin.

Stalin was extremely interested and demanding in his concerns for the influence of the Arts on his citizenry and, in particular, that of the influence of Music. During the domination of the Soviet by Stalin from the mid-1920's until his death in 1953, as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the three regarded composers of the Soviet were Khachaturian (1903 -1978), Shostakovich (1906 - 1975) and Prokofiev (1891 - 1953).

Prokofiev lived mostly in the United States (with Soviet sanction) after the 1917 Revolution until a voluntary return to the Soviet in 1936, but both Khachaturian and Shostakovich remained in their homeland and weathered the demands of the tyrant, Stalin, as to their musical output. It seems that Khachaturian was the most compliant in fulfilling the demands of the officially-approved classicism of Socialist Realism entwined with his passionate love of his heritage of the folk songs and dances of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia - and except for a very brief period was the favoured Soviet Composer and was publicly rewarded.

The Violin Concerto in D minor was made in 1940 (during World War II) and became an enormous success, approved by Stalin and the war feverish citizens. It is a lush escape into a romantic musical heritage, especially in the introspective focus of the second movement (andante sostenuto) that sweeps one away into a kind of blissful 'heaven' of an idealised Russian 'sound'.

The solo work of Canadian/American violinist (he trained at the Juilliard School - 1993 -1997), James Ehnes, was outstanding. Looking 'cool', holding his 'Marsick' Stradivarius of 1715, with what appeared to be a concentrated nonchalance over the approximate 35 minute playing, he subtly wove a magic control of his responsibility with a very sympathetic and supportive orchestra, wonderfully conducted by, Mark Wigglesworth (the principal guest conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra - how lucky are they?) Modest but spectacularly gifted and prepared, Mr Ehnes received a tumultuous response from his audience which he further gratified with a thrilling virtuosic solo encore. One went into the interval energised with a romantic optimism that, even if only momentarily, the cares of our traumatic world became a faint issue.

The second half of the program, Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op,43, that demands a very large orchestra, crashed into our presence, literally, sonically CRASHED, introducing the reality of what it may have been like to be a creative artist under the ruthless scrutiny of Stalin. The score over its lengthy 60 minute duration teases us with what could be a parody of the Socialist Realism 'grand style' demands of the regime riddled with what could be interpreted as sudden musical imagery of the desperate bleakness of the soul. (One is required to ponder.)

Shostakovich was one of the Soviet artists that did not leave his country but loyally and dangerously stayed with his comrades and attempted to survive with integrity. Julian Barnes' 2016 novel, THE NOISE OF TIME, is a great insight into the possibilities of the exhausting life - physically, psychologically and emotionally - that Shostakovich elected to endure, alongside his family, to create music in what I call, romantically, Russia (other than the USSR - Soviet).

This great Symphony was almost completed, it written in 1936, during which time his highly received opera, LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK DISTRICT, was viewed by Stalin himself in that January. There followed soon after an anonymous critique, in the Communist party newspaper, Pravda, which condemned the work without mercy - and suddenly Shostakovich, a musical hero of the times was regarded as a traitor to his country, and was deserted by his fellow musicians and the general public - his life seemed to be in possible jeopardy. Was this article in Pravda written by Stalin, himself?

The result was that the 4th Symphony was withdrawn by the composer from performance - shelved judiciously for fear of further denunciation, or worse. The 4th Symphony had its first performance in 1961. Stalin had been dead for 8 years. The 5th Symphony appeared in late 1937 and it was praised for its accessible style and Shostakovich became rehabilitated with and by the Soviet hierarchy. Just how much of a dissident was Shostakovich is one of the great debates concerning his work even up to today. I have been persuaded he was one of the great creative artists who lived all his life in the Soviet defying the tyranny of power as best he could, most subtly in the midst of a terrifying quandary where interpretation becomes the defining element of intent. I try never to miss a work played live, written by Shostakovich. And, one should not neglect the chamber compositions - their tempestuousness is thrilling and arguable. What more does one want from art?

Mark Wigglesworth majestically and with great passion led the Sydney Symphony into a performance that shook his audience into a spell bound embrace. The contrast of efforts, the contrast of noises in the time of the composition's length: fast and slow and all in between, loud and soft and all in between, tonal range from top piercing spears of pain to melodic bathing romanticism and all in between - seemingly influenced by Mahler - from solo instrument to the full orchestra were 'tools' of great manipulative control. I was forced to 'think' while listening not just 'feel'. This was a composition of humanity revealing the pain of a single artist daring to reflect, perhaps, the pain of betrayed comrades, fellow patriots. The Nazi's and the Siege of Stalingrad was soon to come.

The 4th Symphony is still, relatively, under represented in the concert hall. One is so much more familiar with the popular and accessible 5th. But after hearing this rendition, could the 4th Symphony become recognised as the GREAT work of Dimitri Shostakovich?

One can always trust the 'Russian' composers for an experience in the concert hall.

Amazing night. (Thank you Kate.)

Emerson String Quartet

Musica Viva present, EMERSON STRING QUARTET, at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney. September 7th and September 9th.

The EMERSON STRING QUARTET. One of the world's great string quartets. They must be heard live. I have their recording of the Shostakovich Quartets (2000), which may account for part of my love obsession around all of the music by Shostakovich. Included in Program One was a Shostakovich quartet scheduled - so, no brainer - I had to attend.

The Emerson String Quartet, which took its name from the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was formed in 1976, while they were studying at Juilliard. In 2013, the Quartet was reconfigured when cellist Paul Watkins joined the original members of the Emerson Quartet: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton.

Saturday at 2pm in the City Recital Hall we heard, Joseph Haydn String Quartet in D major, op 71 no 2. (1793).The Bela Bartok String Quartet no 5, Sz 102 (1934) and Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet no 8 in E minor, op 59 no 2 'Razumovsky' (1806).

I know little musical repertoire and all this music was new to me. It is strange to hear music that one has not the slightest knowledge of. I found myself sitting in the concert hall, hoping that a familiar melody would be played to comfort one with the glow of recognition - an acquaintanceship. It didn't happen - there was no recognition of a single 'melody'. But the beauty of the musicians and their control and soul-bearing energy entranced one enough into a state of transfixed awe to give satisfaction.

I do not believe I am a fan of Beethoven - a capital sin, I am supposing - but the sheer concentrated skill and devotion of the Emerson Quartet drew a spell of contentment and insight in the quartet's post-interval rendition of the Beethoven contribution that, especially, in the third and fourth movement (the Finale) skipped into a jaunty mood surging with a Russian folk tune quotation that may have (may have) awakened a memory. It certainly had a feel of youthful energy, of Spring, and I was subsumed into an all embracing of Beethoven's quartet.

Brexit, Trump and Scott Morrison. Economic woes and the tension caused by the unprecedented fires ravishing our country, the dread of irreversible Climate Change, all seemed, relatively, distant, as one applauded the gift of the music that the Emerson String Quartet had just given. One left the Recital Hall, high on life.

Monday evening at 7pm: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart String Quartet no 21 in D major, K575 (1789). Antonin Dvorak String Quartet no 10 in E-flat major, op 51 (1879) and Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet no 5 in B-flat major, op 92 (1952). Again, the excellence of the musicianship was transporting despite the relative lack of familiarity with the music.

Of course, I was rewarded with the Shostakovich, as I had a familiarity with it. from my CD collection. The pain and agony of the composer weathering the condemnation of Stalin, haunts this quartet through and through. The humanity of the composer was bared with great restraint and respect: Honour, by the Emerson Quartet. Their ability to translate with superb skills and amazing  empathy the grief of the composer from instruments to instrument, must have cost the players much. The performance was astounding.

Musica Viva, congratulations for bringing the Emerson String Quartet to Sydney (philistine Sydney - the Hall was not sold out in either concert.) These two performances were great musicianship and emotional experiences of some powerful depth.

(I wondered sometimes whether the musicianship was so excellent in its sensitive detail and playing whether it rendered the quartets a little too drily? The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), a jewell in the Performing Arts experiences in Sydney, have a skill as wondrous as the Emerson Quartet but deliver, I think, a lustre of flowing life, a fluidity of sound that is more accessible. Still, neither of these two musical cohorts should ever be missed.Dedication that can deliver genius, I think.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Caroline, or Change

Photograph by Marnya Rothe
Hayes Theatre Co presents, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Elizabeth Bay. 23 August - 21 September.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is a work, an autobiographical work from Tony Kushner. He is famous for ANGELS IN AMERICA (1993) - (maybe, as well, for the screenplay of LINCOLN (2012). Born in Manhattan, his family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he was a young boy. He wanted to write about race relations, the civil rights movement, and African Americans and southern Jews in the early 1960's.
This play comes from sorrow, from anger and grief, and also from hope learned from history, from recent history, which has shown us both the terrors and also the pleasures of change, which shows that change, progress is difficult, uneven, uncertain, but also absolutely possible.
The two principal antagonists are Caroline Thibodeaux, an African-Americas maid working in the Gellman household, and 13 year old Noah, the son of this Jewish family, living in Lake Charles, in 1963, both growing and challenged in a world that is demanding change.

ANGELS IN AMERICA is a landmark play that is still celebrated and contemporaneously performed at regular intervals. That work holds a fascination and level of satisfaction like almost no other play in recent history. And though all of Kushner's output is remarkable nothing has quite achieved the greatness of that play, is my observation. So how does CAROLINE, OR CHANGE fit?

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is a musical written over four years of intensive work and first produced in 2002, with Jeanine Tesori as composer. The Hayes produced VIOLET her 1997 OFF-BROADWAY musical and I recently caught her work FUN HOME which won the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2015. It was marvellous. This production, Directed by Mitchell Butel, is the first iteration of this work in Australia. One, I, have hung out to see this Kushner/Tesori collaboration, over the years, for many reasons, the least of which was to make contextual valuations of the writing of the work. ANGELS was so intensely, brilliantly, confronting in its political aspirations, and also entertaining, I was deeply curious as to the content and achievement of this work.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is an intense observation of the pressure-cooker challenge of the 1960's for an older fashioned African-American woman bringing up her young family, as a single parent, in times of sweeping political debate and striving for civil rights, as to whether she can afford to change. She must be able to ensure the stability of her family. Caroline understands the unconscious racism of her employers and makes a choice to endure it for safety's sake, but struggles to maintain her submission in the argumentative heat blast of her 'liberated' daughter, Emmie's beliefs. Caroline may agree with her daughter but can she afford to do anything about it?

It, also, reveals the struggle of a 13 year old pubescent boy, a Jewish boy, in the midst of great physical and philosophical change as he begins to face the challenge of growth from boy to man and the necessary adjustments he may need to make to respect himself and his actions (this is the Kushner autobiographical reveal) especially, towards his 'friend' Caroline - just what is the value of a $20 bill in the great scheme of things?

The writing work is complex and relentless. It is naturalistic and also surreal (the Moon sings to us), it is political and dramatically domestic. The musical form is that of gospel/rhythm and blues/folk sung-through in an operetta style. I kept re-calling the Aretha Franklin documentary, AMAZING GRACE. To find the cast was and is a challenge for any production of CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. Mr Butel has found an actor/singer, Elenoa Rokobaro, to inhabit the difficult role of Caroline, and almost coaches her to assurance. Her performance crystallises in the second act with a wonderfully committed rendition of Lot's Wife that moves one gratefully, this having been prepared for with the contribution of Nkechi Anele during the pressure-cooker demands of Emmie in the second act. In fact, the second act is when this musical began to realise its spectacular potential. It was when Amy Hack (Rosie Stopnick-Gellman) supported by Tony Llewellyn-Jones (Mr Stopnick) blossomed into power, as well.

The Set Design is crowded with the demands of the writing and yet fulfils its needs with visual grace by Simon Greer, and the Lighting of Alexander Berlage. Choreographically the stage is relatively cramped and Yvette Lee has a company of 'dancers' of varying ability to coalesce as an ensemble, although the multiple-role casting, requiring swift dexterity in Costume change (Melanie Liertz) by the company, might be solved with the repetition of performance (I saw this production in first preview). Musically the show is in steady hands under the Direction of Lucy Birmingham with a live orchestra of six. The Sound mix is complicated (Anthony Lorenz) and, as yet, not absolutely balanced.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is definitely a must see for Kushner and Tesori fans. Now, I need to hunt down Kushner's THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH THE KEYS TO THE SCRIPTURES, and I might die satisfied and happy.

P.S. The Company includes:Alexandra Fricot, Andrew Cutcliffe, Daniel Harris or Ryan Yeates, Elijah Williams, Emily Havea, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva.

An Intervention

Photograph by Clare Hawley
Last One Standing, in association with Old 505 present, AN INTERVENTION, by Mike Bartlett, at the Old 505, Eliza Street, Newtown.

Mike Bartlett wrote AN INTERVENTION in 2014. He had just had an amazing response to his quasi-Jacobean verse play called KING CHARLES III, which Sydney saw on tour here a few years ago in the Roslyn Packer Theatre. Mr Bartlett is, probably, the outstanding young male writer in the British Theatre at the moment - 'hot, hot, hot'. The Old Fitz introduced his work to Sydney with a production of COCK (2009) and later with BULL (2013).

AN INTERVENTION, is a play for two actors: A and B - the roles are not gender or age specific. In this instance at the Old 505, Jessica Belle-Keogh is A and Bardiya McKinnon is B. They have met at a party and found that they 'spark' each other off. They develop a 'friendship' based around their political interests. During the course of this 90 minute, no-interval play, we chart a number of their encounters, that allow us to observe A has a drinking problem, and B has a girlfriend (partner) problem. Should they intervene with each other to help guide the other through difficult times? The play has deeply serious intentions but is guised in truly comic observational accuracies.

In this production, Directed by Erin Taylor, Ms Belle-Keogh and Mr McKinnon have created personas that are agilely fragile and at the same time heaps funny. But even better, these two actors have developed a 'playing' rapport that is truly marvellous to see. It is rare to see such seamless bonding and generosity on a Sydney stage. Ms Keogh, skates to the edge of parody but manages to always stay credible and Mr McKinnon anchors his man firmly and sensitively to the reckless driving force of his partner's offers. These are, in my opinion, the best performances that I have seen these actors give. In fact, the duo are fairly incredible in their simpatico. I saw the play Opening Night, I hope they have managed to maintain their delightful restraint and empathetic give and take and not been tempted to overplay (which one has seen them do, elsewhere, and at other times.) As their work stood when I saw it, these performances are definitely worth seeing. The reward is great even when it is painful.

These two actors with their Director, in a Design by Jonathan Hindmarsh - a set that permits, with the parting of a red curtain and the humour of the performers, the change to many locations - lit (roughly) by Liam O'Keefe, with a bouncy Sound Design by Ryan Devlin, kept everything nicely contained and expectant.

I attended this work at Old 505 because of the writer attached: Mike Bartlett. I promise you an adult, sharp, empathetic, witty time in the theatre. Recently, idly, watching ABC television I became starkly taken by the courage of the writing of a British drama called DOCTOR FOSTER. Boy, oh boy, did it take risks in the trajectory of the story telling and one was stunned by the daring of the actors - especially Suranne Jones (SCOTT AND BAILEY, you will recognise her; her latest is a series called GENTLEMAN JACK, too, unforgettable work), encouraged, undoubtedly, by the strength of the writer. I found that DOCTOR FOSTER was the work of Mike Bartlett.

The Writer is GOD, I say - get god on board with some daring artists and you will probably strike GOLD. Remember the premise and form of KING CHARLES III: about Charles taking the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth and the machinations of the rest of the royal family, including the ghost of Princess Diana - outrageous and royally entertaining. AN INTERVENTION, is different but just as thrilling to see.

Do go.

P.S. Notice that this company barely acknowledges the writer - his name in tiny, tiny print on the front cover, and NOTHING else. No biography, nothing. Everybody else But the writer - Sydney weird, but tragically, rudely commonplace behaviour in the Sydney Theatre scene.

Friday, August 23, 2019

West Side Story

Opera Australia present WEST SIDE STORY. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Choreography and Direction by Jerome Robbins. In the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. 20th August - 6th October.

WEST SIDE STORY debuted in 1957 on Broadway. Four genius artists somehow subdued their egos to collaborate as an Ensemble to produce one of the great works in the Musical Theatre canon: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins. A motion picture version was made and arrived in 1961 winning 10 Academy Awards - it created a permanent number of indelible moments. (please read my 2010 review of another production of WEST SIDE STORY*** to get my grasp of this work's greatness).

This production led by American Choreographer/Director, Joey McKneely is the second version of this iconic work presented by Opera Australia (OA) this year. The other was the Handa on-the-Harbour in February. This Design is by Paul Gallis, utilising some magnificent historic photographs of 1950's New York to sustain the visual context for the location of the work with two portable side towers/constructs of quasi scaffolding to represent the housing of the denizens of this world at war: two gangs of youth contesting their right to territory, The Sharks and The Jets - white ethnic second generation Americans versus recent Puerto Rican immigrants. Arthur Laurents used the framework of William Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET, and then bent it for these artists needs to tell a contemporary story.

From the first Musical notes from the OA orchestra led by Donald Chan there is a thrilling nostalgia awakened in all of us in the audience and the words of the famous songs are shaped silently in our mouths alongside the performers on the stage. The great demand of this work is that the triple skills of the Musical theatre performer; that of been able to Sing, Dance and Act, is required from almost every character on the stage (the older background characters are excluded).

The OA Company is a very young one with a great number of the artists making their debut (first) outing onto the professional stage. One can see these artists in their singing and, especially, dancing, performing at optimum levels of skill. They are striving with fixed concentration to 'conquer' the demands of the work and one can feel that they have little or no reserve and it is that potent visible fragility that undermines the impact of this show. This company is good but not great. They are 'kids' at the start of their careers - the OA claims that casting these youngsters fulfils the age requirements of these gang members and thus claims a positive credence whilst lamenting the usual casting of older (more experienced) performers in the gang - but I believe the film casting of the gangs despite the discrepancy in the age look works more than convincingly. The experience of those actors/singers/dancers does not allow any doubts of credibility from entering our aesthetic appreciation and belief in the drama of the work. I reckon we lose out in not having consistent assured quality in the casting of this OA production.

They, of course, are not assisted by the Design side pieces that crimp the open dance spaces and inhibits full flight and even complete take-off in the choreographic demands - the Joan Sutherland stage space is so 'tiny' and becomes an obvious flaw in the aesthetics of this production in this theatre. It is the reason that one prefers, when one can afford it, to attend the Australian Ballet in the Melbourne Arts Centre - dance space scale. This theatre, belatedly called the Joan Sutherland, was never constructed for the Opera or Ballet, it was originally a Dramatic Theatre Design intention, superseded by the demands of the powerful Symphony Orchestra politics of the times. The decisions about the Concert Hall and Opera Theatre was and is a great disservice to the quality of the Arts presented in this building.

The best of the performances in this production comes from Chloe Zuel in the dynamic role of Anita, in all three demands of the Musical Theatre artist. She is outstanding. Of the straight acting roles, Ritchie Singer, as Doc, gives a performance of some passionate insight.

In this performance Todd Jacobsson, the scheduled leading performer for Tony was re-placed by Daniel Assetta, who gave an assured but nervous interpretation and showed some uncertainty in his top notes (at least early in the night) and a lack of blending skills with the rather noisy overwhelming operatic sound (or is it a Sound Design mixing problem from the desk of Matt Grounds?) coming from his Maria, sung by Sophie Salvesani - who is a little short of the top Dramatic Acting skills to convince us and/or move us, in the tragic climax of the work. The climax is, rather, all dramatically expressed as routine from all the company on the stage (except the work of Doc), which, unfortunately, robs this WEST SIDE STORY of its powerful statement - it limits the profound influence of the drama of the creators' intentions. The musical scoring that one remembers from the Robert Wise film is rushed through here by Mr Chan and does not allow the tragedy to pierce the audience's consciousness about the futility of violence. (The speedy tempo hiding the weakness of the company's acting skills?)

If you have never seen WEST SIDE STORY this near faithful revival of the original work, led by Mr McKneely, will still impress you, for this is a theatre work that is up there as one of the greats. Its greatness lies with the inviolable vision of the four creators. If you have seen it and love it from before you may be underwhelmed. (All I can add is, there were no flying LED screens to distract us from the stage. What a relief that was - see my review of WHITELY and ANNA BOLENA!)

Rainbow's End

Photo by Robert Catto
RAINBOW'S END, by Jane Harrison, a Darlinghurst Theatre Company production in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts, at the Eternity Theatre. 10TH August - 1st September.

RAINBOW'S END, is a play by Jane Harrison, author of STOLEN (1998). Both of these plays have become part of the school HSC syllabus. RAINBOW'S END, written in 2005, is an evocation of the lives of three generations of First Nation's women: the Yorta Yorta nation, in the 1950's, in the Northern Victoria region of Sheparton and Mooroopna, on the banks of the Goulburn River. It is the gentle and tender telling of some social studies indigenous history. The history of the women seeking justice by voicing the need for better housing for their families, and finding that power through the opportunity of better education.

Nan Dear (Lily Shearer), the matriarch of the family, holds firmly to the status quo, fearing the loss of all if the family become to conspicuous in their seeking better conditions. Her Daughter, Gladys (Dalara Williams), a highly intelligent and ambitious woman, handicapped with a lack of a proper education (she cannot read or write) pursues the rights of her family and attempts to guide her daughter, Dolly (Phoebe Grainer), to opportunities that will give her agency for self-realisation. Amidst the action of the narrative we meet, the deadening effects of the wilfully ignorant, racist government representatives, all inhabited by Frederick Copperwaite. As well, a young white salesman, Errol, played by Lincoln Vickery, who falls in love with Dolly, that adds complication (serious and amusing) to the situation.

The dramaturgy of the writing of the play, by Jane Harrison, is anachronistic in formula and style. It is as if it were written in the 1950's, with short linear scenes of naturalistic action, that are handled by the Director, Liza-Mare Syron, in an unimaginative period style, in a dated design approach by Melanie Liertz, that causes an unbearable number of entrances and exits up and down a series of platforms, partly decorated by trees, lit empathetically by Karen Norris. The play and Direction reminded me, much, of the Clare Watson clumsiness in the current production of The Torrents for the Sydney Theatre Company - an actual play written in 1955.

The acting is also handicapped with a wide variation of ability, from a superficial ownership of character from Ms Williams and Grainer - mostly, simply, mouthing the textual responsibilities, to a tentative line dropping and 'cardboard' ownership by Ms Shearer in the pivotal role of Nan Dear. It is a very curious experience in a contemporary theatre and is at tremendous variance to the recent Sydney Festival production by Ms Syron and the Moogahlin Performing Arts Company of THE WEEKEND, by Henrietta Baird.

RAINBOW'S END is interesting for the telling of a very important social history, and a friend recently becoming an Australian citizen and ignorant of most of Australia's social history found the experience educational, but the formula created by the writer is so old fashioned that it hardly merits attention, except as museum theatre, from regular theatre goers.

Up at the SBW Stables Theatre now is a very important and passionate contemporary First Nations play by Meyne Wyatt: CITY OF GOLD (not to be missed). THE WEEKEND, THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO, BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS,and some of the output of Nakkai Lui represents the present maturity of Indigenous theatre writing and production now, and this contribution by RAINBOW'S END, to the conversation in contemporary times feels very oddly dated.

Life of Gallileo

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir Theatre present LIFE OF GALILEO, by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by Tom Wright, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 3rd August - 15 September.

LIFE OF GALILEO, by Bertolt Brecht has been adapted by Tom Wright for this present Belvoir Theatre production. My introduction to the Galileo play was through the British translation into English by John Willlett. It was this that I first read as an acting student years ago, and re-read before seeing this production, along with the translation that Brecht had worked with the actor Charles Laughton that premiered in Los Angeles in 1947. Brecht had exiled himself from Nazi Germany with the rise to power of Adolph Hitler, and while in Switzerland began working on this play between 1937-39, it having its premiere in Zurich, in 1943. He moved further to the United States ending in Los Angeles during the war.

The new adaptation by Mr Wright was a fairly interesting one in comparison and had, I thought, a respectful approach that con-temporised the play without straining to making too obvious an Australianising that, for me, blighted his work on the Sydney Theatre Company production of THE RESISITABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI last year.

The Director, Eamon Flack in his program notes tells us:
... why the LIFE OF GALILEO is such a formidable work: it knows what it is talking about, it knows about exile and cunning; it knows about truth and lies; it knows about compromise and ideology; it knows about the beauty and exhilaration of thought; it knows about the corruptibility of human knowledge; and it knows about the species' unique capacity for destruction. ...
Colin Friels tackles the formidable challenge of Galileo in this production and has a clear-eyed handle on the arguments and compromises of his man, and manages to manoeuvre us, the audience, through the intellectual journey with clarity and alacrity. Mr Friels manages to keep us all engaged with the playwright's interests and he provokes a thought stimulation from us leavened with wit and a basic humanity that appears to be thrilled and humbled by thinking that lead to discoveries, that is pained by the compromises and feints that one may have to make to be able to continue to contribute to the progress of man, despite the tidal force intent from the authorities that ignores proof so as to be able to maintain the status quo and hold onto power.

The other eight actors play multiple roles, and in this production modishly shift gender - at least from male character for female inhabitation (none the other way round): Laura McDonald, Peter Carroll, Miranda Parker, Damien Ryan, Damien Strouthos, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Sonia Todd and Rajan Velu. Usually the play is cast with eighteen actors and possibly, extras, to tell this story in the Brechtian Epic Theatre style. With this minimalist production there is a general competency of clarity with arresting work from all, but especially from Ms Todd, in a gender swap role as the Vice Chancellor; Mr Strouthos, as Ludovico; and Peter Carroll in a number of scene stealing opportunities with a special relish in the famous dressing of the Pope sequence (a debt seems to be owed to the 2016-17 television series THE YOUNG POPE, Created and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law, courtesy of the input in this Belvoir instance, by choreographer, Kate Champion and the music scoring by Jethro Woodward.)

Belvoir has brought back the theatre in the round mode that we saw earlier in the year with the EVERY BRILLIANT THING play production, Designed, in this case, by Zoe Atkinson. Ms Atkinson also Designed the post-modernist contemporary mix of costume for the actors. In adopting this mode the production is minimised and feels as if it were a kind of Reader's Digest 'lesson', lacking the scale and impact of an Epic Power and energy, that one may see in the Berliner Ensemble Theatre, for instance.

(In a few weekends time I am attending a concert given by The Metropolitan Orchestra of Mahler's enormous Fifth Symphony with eighty musicians. Watching this production of LIFE OF GALILEO is a bit like what I would imagine the effect would be if the orchestra in the Eugene Goossens Hall were reduced to thirty instruments: a diminishment in power!)

The content of Brecht's LIFE OF GALILEO is powerful in its current relevancy and in this production elucidated with marvellous skill by Colin Friels who gives an intellectual clarity to the density of thought and situation of the play. Two reasons to see the production, perhaps.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Photo by Robert Cato
Wheels and Co Productions in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company present WINK, by Jen Silverman, in the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), at the Kings Cross Hotel. 2nd - 24th August.

WINK, is an American play by Jen Silverman. Earlier in the year we saw a production of another of her plays: THE MOORS.

Sophie (Eloise Snape) and Gregor (Graeme McRae) are recently married but now drifting apart. Sophie has a cat. For Gregor, Sophie's attachment to their cat Wink (Sam O'Sullivan), is too uncomfortable for him to endure. He skins the cat - murder's it - and keeps it's pelt of fur in a box that becomes a sexual face-stroking turn-on!

Sophie and Gregor coping with the loss of the cat see their therapist, Dr Frans (Matthew Cheetham), who becomes illusionarily attached to WINK, manifesting materially Wink into a growing relationship. Dr Frans loves Wink. And ditto!

You must see WINK so that you can make head or tail of what is going on. It is a very intriguing proposition that Ms Silverman offers you in the form of a black, surrealistic comedy that may be dealing with contemporary urban relationships of a certain generation.

The acting by all the company is complimentary and charming in its understatedness and Director, Anthony Skuse alongside his Designer, Siobhan Jett O'Hanlon, make you comfortable with the circumstances of the playing space that is eerily lit by Phoebe Pilcher and is underlined with a wonderfully evocative Sound Design by Ben Pierpoint.


An interesting and oddly, satisfying night! What with TREVOR, the talking monkey, and now WINK, the talking cat, the KXT is serving in spades, someone's fetish (not mine).

P.S. These artists have not given any biographical acknowledgement of the writer in the program. Very Sydney!

City of Gold

Photo by Stephen Henry
Griffin Theatre Company presents a Co-production with Queensland Theatre Company, CITY OF GOLD, by Meyne Wyatt, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Nimrod St., Darlinghurst, 26th July - 31 st August.

CITY OF GOLD, is a new Australian play written by actor, Meyne Wyatt - his first play. And what a debut play it is!

Writing a play was a plan that Meyne Wyatt had thought would happen in the future when he felt more established as an artist. He was not yet ready. Then, a 'perfect storm' of personal events caught him off-guard and accumulated into an overwhelming state of depression that conjured a responding energy, driven by a 'rage', that forced him to sit down and write. 

Writes Meyne in the program notes:
So, I did what many first-time writers do, and are encouraged to do. I wrote from a place of experience. I wrote about my grief for the loss of my dad. I wrote about my work in this crazy business they call the entertainment industry. I wrote about the place I call the 'City of Gold', Kalgoorlie! And I wrote about the biggest stain that afflicts this country to this day: racism and my never-ending battle with it. ... I've grown up with it. I experience racism on a weekly basis. Even where I live now - Sydney - and I am sick of it. I have worked as an actor for nine years, and in that time I have been fortunate enough to have worked pretty consistently. I understand because of that I have a responsibility to represent my community. I have a platform and I must use it. That's what this play is. This play is me doing just that. CITY OF GOLD is an act of rebellion. It is a revolt. It is me using my platform to hold a mirror to Australia and ask it, do you like what you see? ... I ask questions. I don't give answers. ... I am not arrogant enough to know the answer to the questions I pose in this play. I don't have the solution. But hopefully the questions the audience members ask each other after the play will give the glimmer of hope and change that is so desperately needed. ... This play is hard work. I hope you like it. I hope you hate it. Just don't feel anything in between. ... Because there are things in this world that are wrong and we all have the responsibility to try and make them right.

Meyne Wyatt's CITY OF GOLD erupts from a raw and passionate place ignited by painfully lived truths refined, however, by a scintillating intelligence, crafty wit and empathetic grace that prevents it from being just a cascade of rage recrimination. This is a play about the state of a nation where the 'blacks' and the 'whites' may stand opposite to each other with suspicions, but, also, a play about a family, the Black family: Breythe (Meyne Wyatt), Carina (Shari Sebbens), Mateo (Mathew Cooper), Cliffhanger (Jeremy Ambrum) and Dad (Maitland Schnaars) who, also, may stand opposite to each other with suspicions.

The play is made up of two acts of twenty scenes. It is a mix of naturalism, magic realism (spiritualism) and monologue, ranging across domestic comedy and bitter political confrontation of subtle and not so subtle racism and family division. The dramaturgical structure is surprising and keeps one, as an audience, deliberately, provocatively, attentive. Just when you believe you have the measure of the stylistics one is thrown out of one's comfort zone. 

These stylistics combined with acting that is clear sighted and highly impassioned, especially in the bindings that Mr Wyatt, Cooper and Ms Sebbens bring to their sibling relationship - marvellous acting (how do they do it seven or eight times a week? - it must cost!), and the ugly conviction of racial tension and tragedy from all the cast, including Christopher Stollery and Anthony Standish, reveals the power of CITY OF GOLD, so that one feels that one is witnessing an important production, Directed by Isaac Drandic, of a play that is timely in its presence. Important. Important for the health of family and nation.

Mr Wyatt in speaking out shakes the world we all live in and if we all who have witnessed it can simply listen, perhaps some glimmer of hope of change is possible to believe in. Encourage all you know to see this work - it speaks for us all and none too soon.

The Griffin this year have spoken for our community: Omar Musa's SINCE ALI DIED; Betty Grumble's LOVE AND ANGER; Suzie Miller's PRIME FACIE and now CITY OF GOLD. Plays and productions that ought to be a part of everybody's conversation.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


White Box Theatre Company in association with the Seymour Centre presents, TABLE, by Tanya Ronder, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 25th July - 17 August.

TABLE, is a 2013 play by British playwright, Tanya Ronder.

David Best builds a table in London somewhere. It is later taken to Tanganyika, by a family member, Sarah, as part of her missionary 'dowry'. It shares in the 'adventures' of this family and in due course returns to South London. A table, six generations. A table that witnesses the dramas and triumphs of the family Best.

The play is a neat old-fashioned evening and has the talents of the actors playing 23 different characters over a century or more to bring it passionately to life. Julian Garner is most impressive as Jack and especially Gideon where he has a spectacular dramatic tension with Danielle King, as Michelle.

The rest of the company: Stacey Duckworth, Chantelle Jamieson, Matthew Lee, Brendan Miles, Nicole Pingon, and a pleasingly restrained Annie Stafford, with always reliable and winning Charles Upton, give good illumination to the Direction of Kim Hardwick who has lavished great care onto this play. The Set and Costume Design is by Isobel Hudson, enhanced by the subtle and detailed Lighting by Martin Kinnane. There is a fairly robust Composition and Sound Design from Nate Edmondson that places with aural mood and detail the history of the table and its locations.

This play though lovingly cared and rendered by these artistic creatives was a slight and romanticised exercise, for me. I longed, as the night passed, for the rigour and surprises of the memoir story of THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES. Written by Edmund de Waal, it tells of the confiscation of the property of the Jewish family, Ephrussi, and the survival of 264 Japanese Netsuke (miniature sculptures), and their hidden journey through Odessa, Paris, Vienna and Japan across the century, 1871 until 2003, and its influence on the people who kept them together, over a time cover similar to the TABLE.

The play and this production is a pleasant evening in the theatre. I, perhaps, unreasonably, wanted more said, with less cliches of the dramatic concerns.

Lord of the Flies

Sydney Theatre Company presents William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES, adapted for the stage by Nigel Williams. At the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay.. July 23 - August 24.

I had just finished my schooling in a traditional Catholic school and was investigating what 'real' life was like outside the indoctrinations of that institution, at Teacher's College and University. I was only 16 turning 17 but even then I had become a cinema addict - escaping real life?, how immaturely ironic, eh? - and although my breeding, of late, was mostly school holiday Disney or Jerry Lewis comedies (except, of course, the free-to-air television repertoire), I took myself off to one of the 'risqué' Cinema Art Houses (The Savoy?) I had read about in The Daily Mirror, in Sydney, in 1965 (or so), to see a controversial-near-banned film by a famous British theatre Director, Peter Brook, called: LORD OF THE FLIES.

It was in a 'contemporary' in-yer-face black-and white mode with some very young boys who had never acted before - the film is/was very emotionally raw and scary. I had not read the novel - imagine, having it in our Catholic school library! - so, the film was a total shock to my system. Probably, because I recognised the bullying and the violence in my own classroom and school in the graphic detail on that screen. And, although, in the scenario of the LORD OF THE FLIES it was taken to truly grotesque extremes it was, for me, no exaggeration of possibility - what happened in that film could of happened in my own classroom - to some degree did happen (I wonder what ever happened to Peter Hooker?). I identified, I think, as "Piggy", the quintessential outsider, respected by the dominant group but not quite trusted.

LORD OF THE FLIES was a traumatic experience and my fear of the piercing of the thin veneer of 'good' behaviour has always been part of my risk assessment when contemplating the investigation of exploring new environments, new acquaintances. Can you imagine how much further I was disturbed when watching in 1968/69 Lindsay Anderson's film IF, starring Malcolm McDowell (add awakening sexual tensions, mine and their's), and, in 1971 with McDowell again, in Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and those Droogs, particularly, because I felt I was surrounded by them in the Barclay Cinema , they are hooning the rape scenes! I had to slink unnoticed out of the theatre for fear of unwanted attention and skid-daddled up George St.

In William Golding's novel, a group of snotty-nosed primary school boys (6-12 year olds) survive a plane crash on an island and grapple with how to behave. They do not do well. Mr Brook's version captured that well.

Kip Willliam's has a group of eleven young adult actors of all contemporary 'gender' in contemporary rehearsal clothing (Costume Design, by Marg Horwell)- in their 20's - gathered onto the empty stage space of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, with some pieces of scenery, and, later, found properties (Set Design, Elizabeth Gadsby), that will be manipulated in improvisation, as they explore, within the boundaries of the theatre adaptation of the novel by Nigel Williams (2005), some of the premises, as it occurs to them, of the novel.

After the lights go down in the auditorium, a series of mimed actions signal us into the crashing of a plane onto an isolated island, with the actors marauding, flocking, the stage in fiercely physical states. We meet, Mia Wasikowska, who identifies as sensible, Ralph, as he buddies up with be-spectacled, wise "Piggy", inhabited by Rahel Romahn who carries the conch of debate/reason. Then, actor Contessa Treffone, who identifies as Jack, the head bully of the troupe, aggressively barges into the scene and in a vocal volume of 9.5 decibels claims leadership and directs the honing of spears to kill the' beast'. Jack breaks the stranded island collective into two factions/ two tribes, and as the synopsis breakdown in the STC program warns us: "More than just pig's blood will be spilled before long."

Ms Treffone, under the Direction (permission) of Kip Williams takes charge at 9.5 decibels in the first 15 minutes, or so, of the performance, that will be given without interval for one hour and fifty-five minutes. I cogitated that if you begin at 9.5 decibels there is very little room for nuance of expression or energy for the rest of the night. Ms Treffone takes us swiftly, unerringly. into bullying chaos and then sustains it for the rest of the night. Her stamina is breathtaking, I wished, as an audience member, I could have stayed interested enough to sustain it with her. It wearied me, mightily, and I couldn't. Looking back at Ms Treffone's offers in past production it seems to be her her go-to choice for solving most of her characterisations: an 100% energy effort.

Just what this production has to say to us in the Roslyn Packer Theatre is not rendered with clarity for it is, mostly, just a blaring kind of overwhelming noise. For Jack's allies follow, taking their performance mode from his example of a kind of a long-sustained hysteric mania: Justin Amankwah (Henry), Nyx Calder, (Bill), Yerin Ha (Maurice), Mark Paguio (Sam), Eliza Scanlen (Eric) and Nikita Waldron (Percival), and differently, Joseph Althouse (Simon). They all appeared to be having a terrific time.

It was a relief to have Mia Wasikowska (in her debut theatre role) as some kind of ballast to the bombastics of Ms Treffone and her allies. Her powerful stilled presence and unfussy reading of Ralph is a life raft of sanity throughout the night. This is supported by Rahel Romahn as Piggy. Mr Romahn is so centered, witty and intelligent, apparently, an infinite well of compassion, that all of his work remains with one in one's consciousness when one meets again.

This is the third (or fourth?) production of this text by Mr Williams - I have seen two of them - and I don't know if Mr Williams has ever revealed just what he wants to tell us or make it evident why this is a story that we must see now. He is mightily obsessed. The washing machine chaos on the Packer stage is memorable for me, for the spectacle of the Lighting Design of Alex Berlage - who, as we know is a very interesting Director, as well. The floating fluorescents and the patterns of image, that he creates are arresting and distracting in their contribution to the night as the production descends into more and more mess. All that noise, all that movement, all of that gloom, all of that distracting lighting spectacle that leaves most of us asking, "What the f.ck is happening?"

There are better ways to spend your time and money, I reckon. I, personally, believe it is hard to beat the impression of the Peter Brook cinematic rendering if you don't want to read the novel to grasp Mr Goldings insight to our species.


Opera Australia presents a World Premiere of WHITELY, an Opera with Music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Libretto, by Justin Fleming. In the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. July 15,18,20,24,27, and 30, 2019.

Three years in the making (not very long, really) Opera Australia (OA) commissioned a new work with Music by Australian Composer, Elena Kats-Chernin, with a Libretto by Australian Playwright, Justin Fleming, focusing on the life of an iconic Australian painter, Brett Whitely.

Whitely, in life, was a controversial figure. He is, still, a controversial figure. His art however, has grown more and more powerful as time as moved on. Born in 1932, he died young at the age of 53. The death as a result of a drug overdose. Whitely had become in 1985 an incurable addict.

The Opera Australia Company, under the Direction of Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, has invested in a very complex and impressive Digital Art form to visually support the storytelling - it has become the dominant part of that company's Design. A large number of LED panels, fly in and around the stage (the tracking must be very complicated), illuminated with imagery that purports to support the events of the stage.

Several weeks ago I invested to see OA's production of ANNA BOLENA. It resulted in a very mixed experience, the principal difficulty being the use of the LED Digital imagery that seemed mostly to lack clarity in its support of the opera, driven, I have speculated, by a limited budget that hindered the choice of the image content (not enough variety or content source) and the TIME required to rehearse the effects for a consistent, 'second by second' contribution. I have not seen the AIDA, or MADAME BUTTERFLY, that, also, is dependent on the Digital technique to facilitate the visuals of the storytelling.

Watching the spectacular success of the Production Design, by Dan Potra, with the Digital Content arrived at by Sean Nieuwenhuis for WHITELY, one may wonder if this new Artistic Imperative given by Mr Teraacini, may have been made with this new opera in mind. Having the licence to pluck from found family and documentation film video, plus, the extraordinary range of the paintings resource available to the Designer and his assistants, the 'pool' of content must indeed be vast. The result we have is to take us into the 'summery' colour palette of Whitely to allow the Director, David Freeman, to stage with simple properties, some very beautiful stage environments. The visuals are enhanced with the sensitive Lighting design by John Rayment.

Mr Freeman has not really directed, but, mostly, unimaginatively, grouped the singers, (principals and chorus) in positions to deliver the libretto to the audience. The Libretto, by Mt Fleming, is a really an old-fashioned auto-biographical (Wikipedia-thin) collection of some of the facts of the events of the life of Brett Whitely, from that of childhood to his demise, skimming the main bourgeoise expectations of living in Australia, and then the rest of the world, with a set of artistic skills that distinguished him from most of the 'folks' about him, with superficial aplomb.

Whitely's sense of antipodean awe and encouraged curiosity has him as a kind of naive Alice-in Wonderland figure meeting and greeting, this city, that gallery, this museum, that painter, that painting, those colours, that person, the villain, an evil-one that contrasts with that saint, that gives balance to what it is to be a human, (what a relief), and an introductory embracement to some 'philosophical' readings, that 'justifies' some of the madness of his mind and especially his reason for indulging in those drugs - the world of perception that they grant to the taker, ah, indeed: an inspiration!

The OA Whitely, is in Mr Fleming's libretto a rather flat rendering of a history figure, telling us: that this happened and then that happened which meant that that, of course, happened next. What happened was sometimes 'good' but also, sometimes 'bad' - as baldly as that. There is very little interrogation of any 'turning points' in Whitely's life, or of the struggle that they may have had. There is very little drama in this libretto. It is all kind of, in compound, boring, and has us with a 'hero' (anti-hero?) who seems to be, in total, a superficial 'wanker' who it becomes rather an embarrassment to have spent so much time with.

In that last quartet of the opera, spotlighting his mother, Beryl (Dominica Matthews), his daughter, Arkie (Natasha Green), his wife, Wendy (Julie Lea Godwin) and Brett, the artist himself (Leigh Melrose), across the width of the stage, a sudden grasp of what has been wrong or felt wrong most of the night with this meeting in the theatre, was that this opera should have been called WENDY - now, there is a hero, a hero who is still standing and still creating - a living garden - having survived all the dependencies that Whitely made on her and all the others to keep his art going. At what cost to her? Now there is a libretto.

Mr Fleming's work is a great disappointment. Sitting in the theatre and looking at all the colours of the LED support, around the dutiful singers on the stage I was struck with my remembrance of one of the great novels about an artist: THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, by W. Somerset Maugham (1919), which was written as glimpses into the mind and soul of its central character, Paul Strickland, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. Oh, what perceptive, dramatic and fierce darings from the Master Maugham. Is there not some potential in dealing with the life of Brett Whitely in that way?

Is it possible to have Whitely struggle with the demon by making a bargain of selling his soul to be able to create work such as the Composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's great novel DOCTOR FAUSTUS?

Or, a character treatment such as Pam Gems gave the British painter, Stanley Spencer, in STANLEY (1996)? Where the cost to all the women he collected around himself is used as a scaffold for Spencer's output. Just a thought!

Mr Fleming's libretto is such a safe boring approach to the life of a very curious artist in obvious self-conflict. Was it too daring a life? Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Did that perspective need more than three years to yield any stage possibility? For what the OA has given us is a pocket diary of the main events of the Life of Brett Whitely (without interrogation, or comment). Not much interesting going on here to interest any international stage, I should think. Everyone lives a life in that kind of package - it is in the details that originality may appear, is it not?

This work will stay safely here. Will be let sit in the cupboard and moulder away because it is so, collectively, ultimately, dull in its content and structure. Seeing it once is enough. One heard all it had to offer the first go round. Truly. Money has been thrown at the production for sure, but, no courage at all.

How did we Australians end up with a building as astonishing as the Sydney Opera House? Where is the equivalent Jorn Utzon on this project? Who had the commissioning courage to insist that they think outside the box for this project? Not Lyndon Teracinni, it seems, or any of his acolytes at any level in the OA structure, who seem to have kowtowed and said "Yes sir, three bags full, sir. Whatever you say, sir."

For this WHITELY is a dud.

P.S. Sorry Elena, give me your ballet score for WILD SWANS any day.

Monday, August 5, 2019

A View From The Bridge

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre in association with Red Line Productions presents, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, by Arthur Miller, at the Ensemble Theatre, Milson's Point. 18th July - 24th August 2019.

This production, of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, by Iain Sinclair was first presented at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, in 2017. There has been some major casting changes with Anthony Gooley now playing Eddie Carbone and Scott Lee essaying the antagonist, Rodolfo. Otherwise, Giles Gartrell-Miles (Louis), David Lynch (Alfieri) David Soncin (Marco) Zoe Terakes (Catherine) and Janine Watson (Beatrice), are re-creating their original contributions.

Written By Arthur Miller, originally as part of a double-bill programer (A MONTH OF TWO MONDAY'S, the other half), in 1955, it was revised into the form that we see here at the Ensemble Theatre. A one act play that plays for, almost, two hours without interval, and has the growing presence of unfortunate catastrophe gathering, to cast a shadow of disaster, pulsing with the flesh and blood of the men and women of the story, that will be sacrificed for us in an inevitable shattering climax.

Miller's work is generally inspired by his obsession with the social agenda plays of Henrik Ibsen and the responsibility of the artist as storyteller (shaman) for his 'tribe', braced in the power of the primal, great Greek Dramas of 2000 years ago.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN (1949) and THE CRUCIBLE (1953) are two of the perennial plays of his that can be found to be on the constant revival schedule/wheel of theatre companies, and still are as powerfully relevant for the audiences who attend to the work today, as those who attended over the past sixty-odd years. A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, has grown to be part of that reputation. The recent Young Vic production, that was broadcast in the local cinemas as part of the National Theatre program, and which I saw, as well, live in New York, Directed by Iva Van Howe, a few years ago, is evidence of that growing history - a memory that is indelible.

Put these great plays on the machinery of the theatre production track, cast them with creative artists and actors of courage, who are inspired not only to show the 'visible', but who, also, need to dig deep for the 'vision' of the play/the playwright, to bring to the light the responsibility of the cultural necessity of its confronting 'visibility' and an unforgettable 'lesson' will be made. (It is what I protested about with Neil Armfield's treatment of Andrew Bovell's THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE - a production that diminished the cultural necessity of its need to be told.)

This is what Mr Sinclair has done with this revival of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. On a bare setting of wooden floor and walls with only a single wooden chair and a switch-blade knife as properties (Set Designer, Jonathan Hindmarsh), in period costume (Costume Designer, Martelle Hunt), one leaves the Ensemble Theatre shattered but exhilarated.

Life can be extraordinary. The human species is flawed but majestic when framed with such dedicated ambition and skill.

Most of this production's artistic values are in tack, but there is still room for discussion and disagreement, if one wants to have close discussion in the coffee shop or bar, afterwards. But, whatever your point of view may be, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, ought to be in your diary as an unmissable experience.

Do go.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Torrents

Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company present, THE TORRENTS, by Oriel Gray, in The Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 18th July - 24th August.

THE TORRENTS, is an Australian play written by Oriel Gray. It was the joint winner of a prestigious playwriting award from the Playwright Advisory Board (PAB) in 1955, sharing with SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, by Ray Lawler. The Lawler play began a rich Australian production history in 1955 that took it onto the National and International stages: London, New York, and, still appears regularly today as part of the Australian Theatre Companies repertoire.

On the other hand, Ms Gray's play was almost entirely neglected, forgotten, and did not receive a professional stage production until 1996 in Adelaide. Although, there was a television broadcast in 1969 of the play by the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) in a six play anthology, called AUSTRALIAN PLAYS, Directed by Oscar Whitbread, starring Barbara Stephens, Ken Shorter and Alan Hopgood. (Those were the days, eh?, when the ABC was indeed loyal and adventurous about their responsibilities to the Australian writer). This co-production in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, by Black Swan Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company is its second professional staging. Sixty four years after its prize winning bow. How that has happened will be the centre of many thesis dissertations to come, I am sure.

I had read the play and always had an affection for it, particularly, as I have been a regular contributor to the New Theatre as an actor and Director, the theatre that Oriel Gray had been firmly attached to in 1947 when she was a gauche 17 year old. Then, the New Theatre was affiliated with the Communist Party and the repertoire was focused on political agitation and propaganda serving the working classes of Australia - a definite belief in Socialism as an alternate doctrine for successful government. The theatre and all involved were, of course, suspect and were kept under surveillance by the Federal and State Governments. (The New Theatre was founded in 1932 and is the oldest theatre in continuous production in New South Wales). Ms Gray, later did grapple with the Communist Party philosophies and eventually quit the Party in 1949, though her social justice preoccupations never disappeared from her writing.

It was an anticipatory excitement I carried into the auditorium to see THE TORRENTS, at last.

It is a production by Clare Watson, the Artistic Director of the Black Swan Theatre Company (Perth), the co-producer of the project. The play is an example of the solid 4-square dramaturgical structure of the 1950's, peopled by familiar character types suitable to the environment of the play, and Ms Watson with her Set and Costume Designer (Renee Mulder) have striven to re-create, visually, a 'museum' accuracy for a newspaper office set in a Western Australia country town of the 1890's - a fictional town called Koolgalla, that is on the wane after the glories of a Gold Rush have diminished.

The play is a period melodrama that conjures the comic socialist work of G.B. Shaw with hints of the influence of the agenda theatre of Henrik Ibsen. So, THE TORRENTS, has an uncanny reference to contemporary issues such as 'gender politics, mining versus sustainable environmental practices and the power of money to corrupt truth in our media'. The capture of water the central concern of the characters in the play - water is more valuable than gold. Ask the denizens of the Murray/Murrumbidgee Rivers. More valuable than gold.

It is a story of the New Woman confronting the muddling patriarchy with zeal and values. It requires a galvanising, radiating energy at the play's production centre. It needs a performance that lights up the stage and manages the 'leading lady' responsibility with zest, confidence, grace, charm and wit. Cast in the central role of J (for Jenny).G . Milford is stand-up and television comedy star, Celia Pacquola (UTOPIA, ROSEHAVEN).

This production begins with Ms Pacquola, in contemporary clothes in front of the red curtain, beneath a pink neon lighting feature (illustrating the signature of the author of the play, Oriel Gray), with a microphone in hand, in a bright spotlight, introducing the history of the play, author and production, interacting, improvising, with the audience with charming, comfortable comic ease. She left the stage, the curtain rose and in the fashion of the1950's period dramaturgy we are introduced into the necessary given circumstances of the play's world and its dramatic concerns, through the interactions of quickly identified character types - familiars - building inevitably to the (late) entry of the star (catalyst) onto the stage for the comic/drama to be ignited.

Ms Pacquloa, now appears period-dressed in dowdy browns and cream, with brunette wig, and reveals a dimmed stage wattage/presence (so unlike her confident swaggering pre-curtain standup persona, when she had no script, only her ready wit, with microphone and spotlight). Her vocal equipment, that despite artificial electronic boosting (all the company are adorned with facial microphones), is underwhelming in its ability to capture an audience to a state of breathless 'star' awe. The skill technique for the theatre is so different for the standup or television performer. Ms Pacquola  has little technique for her efforts of inhabiting an exhilarating persona for J.G. Milford.

That the two Production companies have cast a commercial television star, much appreciated by her fans (I, being one) to 'sell' their show, (to put bums-on-seats?) seems to be a cynical strategy so as to explain what we experience in the Sydney Opera House. Ms Pacquola does not have the experience of a skilled actor held within the demands of a writer's script, to reveal the joys of Ms Gray's heroine in this neglected play. What we really need in J.G. Milford is the energy of say, a Rosalind Russell comic skill, exampled in her female journalist role in the Harold Hawks, screwball comedy, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). Ms Pacquola's performance is charming but merely capable. Not uninteresting just lacking in the techniques to create and sustain a tantalising presence to reveal the dramaturgy of the play over an interval free, one hour and forty minutes marathon.

There is otherwise some good old fashioned acting going on from most of the rest of the company, serving the play as it requires in its period truth and stylistics, to convince in its entertainment and social ambitions/agenda. Tony Cogin, as the confronted newspaper editor, Rufus Torrent, who has the malleability to grow beyond his prejudices, spurred because of the oppositional blustering, bullying energies of the 'moneyman' (villain) of the town, John Mason, created with similarly unerring accuracy, by Steve Rodgers.

They are surrounded by a supportive trio of comforting character familiars played with witty confidence by Sam Longely (Jock McDonald), veteran, Geoff Kelso (Christy) and ingenue, Rob Johnson (Bernie).

The gradual blossoming of the town beauty into a spirited feminine independence, Gwynne, under the tutelage of Jenny, is nicely handled with a knife edge wit and set of intelligent choices by Emily Rose Brennan, that, resolvedly gives us a convincing 'period' gentlewoman, yet with an added subtle, sly contemporary comment. Unfortunately, she is not well served, dramatically, with the offers of Gwynne's two romantic suitors, Kingsley, uncertainly embraced by Luke Carroll, who is not totally comfortable with the imaginative adaptations required to capture this 'stock' character, that definitely belongs to a by-gone era. While the comic schtick of Gareth Davies, that he predictably chooses to use, is technically clever, and is rewarded with audience laughter (and admiration), the cleverness, the 'mannered' stylistics, draw more attention to the skill of the actor than as a true contribution to the realisation of the potentially complex burdened son and heir of fortune and advantage in the town of Koolgalla, Ben Torrents. Ms Brennan has to do much to create Gwynne's journey, successfully.

This production of THE TORRENTS is a disappointment but not a complete failure to invite us to an appreciation of the skill and intentions of Oriel Gray. The play and the playwright still intrigues and perhaps, in the sometime future we will see a more rigorous, enlightened production that could lift the play into something more than a curiosity, wronged by history. This evening in the theatre is a safe entertainment.

Omar and Dawn

Photo by Robert Catto
Green Door Theatre Company, Apocalypse Theatre Company and bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, presents OMAR AND DAWN, by James Elazzi, in the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel. July 12th - July 27th.

OMAR AND DAWN, is a new Australian play by James Elazzi.

Dawn (Maggie Blinco) is an 80 year old widow, and following the death of her son, is living alone in a three bedroom home, who has made it her civic duty to foster care young adults living under stress. It gives her a life challenge. She has a brother, Darren (Lex Marinos) who runs a garage and feels that Dawn ought to consider moving into care herself. Her latest responsibility is Omar (Antony Makhlouf), a young seventeen year old man of Lebanese/Australian and Muslim background from a broken family, who because of his 'gay' predilections has been exiled from his community. Carrying a deep rage at the world he lives in, his only true companion is Ahmed (Mansoor Noor), and together they have survived on the streets as sex-workers 'serving', mostly, married men 'under the bridge'.

James Elassi, a writer from the Western suburbs of Sydney, is claiming space as a voice for the marginalised Lebanese Muslim culture - especially of the sexual outsiders - and courageously has determined to tell stories that he has observed in his world with an uncompromising truth. It is unusual to have central to the narrative these young men and an older woman who has a toughness equal to anything that Omar, especially, can confront her with. Dawn can give Omar as good as he can give - there is on the KXT stage the meeting of an irresistible force and an immoveable object. Something will have to give.

The work is much like the output of Patricia Cornelius in that the world brought to the stage is that of an underclass of our society rarely examined, but unlike Ms Cornelius, looks at a masculine concentration, whereas she has focused, mostly, on the feminine crises.

DAWN AND OMAR, is an eighty minute play of many, many short scenes - it seems more a tele-play or screenplay (most scenes are no longer than 3-4 minutes) than a work for the theatre - and shifts into many locations. The language is an argot of relentless profanity fuelled by the blind rage of the young men: sharp, blunt and ugly and without the poetry of the Cornelius output that helps to make her texts palatable without reducing their challenge.

The physical setting designed by Alesi Jelbart, has created a raised platform covered in gravel, with a central kitchen table and chairs, and a refrigerator and locker to store the properties when needed, with stools in the corner edges. Because of the dramaturgical structure of the playwriting, the Director, Dino Dimitriadis, has had to find a method to keep the stage action fluid, and as the work is essentially naturalistic with props - food and liquids - has had to accomodate the shifts from kitchen to a commercial garage to the sex refuge 'under the bridge', and has done so by creating a feature of the scene changes accompanied by a repetitive drone (Sound by Ben Pierpoint), that has a tempo effect that is glacial in its command, under mood Lighting shifts from Benjamin Brockman.

This is not the first work of Mr Elassi's that I have seen and OMAR AND DAWN is consistent in his 'missionary' zeal of subject matter concerns. All the work is posed in this cinematic scene length and is ultimately the main source of difficulty for maintaining an audience's concentration in the theatre.

Maggie Blinco, as Dawn, is a glowing presence radiating a lived life of trials and tribulations determined to make a positive contribution while she can - stubborn, compassionate and fearless - the performance full of subtle detail to build a 'heroine' role model of gracious humanity in the cruel world of old age and cultural poverty. Lex Marinos provides support as Darren, both, to irascible Dawn and explosive Omar.

The problem of the production is the offers from Antony Makhlouf, as Omar, which is mostly manufactured from the rage of the young man that has little variation of intensity - it is fierce, almost psychotic in its flarings. The performance is limited, there is little range or breadth of other qualities, with little or no nuance to give an audience a reason to have empathy for Omar's position. This is especially obvious as Mansoor Noor in the supporting role of Ahmed, in contrast to Mr Makhlouf's offers, has been able to create not only the exterior of the man but also insight to the motivating interior, that invites the audience to identify and engage with his character's dilemma. It is a performance that is consistent with his other work: e.g. THE LADEN TABLE, an STUPID FUCKING BIRD. A very interesting actor.

That Mr Elassi is an alternate voice revealing lives in the Australian community rarely seen is to be encouraged. But the dramaturgical demands of the theatre play needs more attention - I long to see a scene longer than 3 minutes, a one act structure, perhaps, and a more sophisticated vocabulary usage, so that the repetitive expressive pattern of the pain of his principal character has more nuance (the poetry achieved in the writing in the intimate seen between Omar and Ahmed, late in the play, needs to be heard more often). Too, this production of the play needs a more skilful performer at its centre or otherwise the experience could become what some might call, in its intensive relentless concentration and language haranguing, 'misery porn'. It sometimes felt like that.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Anna Bolena

Photo by Prudence Upton

Opera Australia presents, ANNA BOLENA, Music by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Felice Romain, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. July 2, 6, 9, 13, 17, 20, 23, 26, 2019.

ANNA BOLENA, is an Italian opera written in 1830, by Gaetano Donizetti, using the court of Henry VIII and his forcing of divorce from his second wife Anne Boleyn and the courting of his third wife Jane Seymour as the spine of the narrative. There is very little historical nuance to this libretto by Felice Romain but a great deal of dramatic confabulation to engender as much drama as possible to allow the creation of great dramatic music from orchestra and singers. Solo, duet and other figurations of ensemble, backed by the presence and usage of a large chorus and orchestra, is employed to create what we now know as classically, the Grand Opera style: a bel canto feast for the ears that when ignited with the best of available talents can inflame a passionate emotional excitement in the theatre audience. Neither narrative (story) or character is the reason to go to a Grand Opera experience, it is the least important consideration to attend the performance (don't go expecting a true history of Anne Boleyn), and is, basically, a framing device that is virtually displaced by the indulgent, glorious MUSIC makers - Composer, Orchestra and Singers.

ANNA BOLENA is an example of this experience, capped perhaps with his LUCIA DE LAMMERMOOR (1835), whilst in claque competition with other composers of the time, Vincenzo Bellini: LA SONNAMBULA (1831) or NORMA (1831); Giacomo Meyerbeer: ROBERT LE DIABLE (1831), LES HUGUENOTS (1836) (and much else - make your own list. It may include Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (1816), SEMIRAMIDE (1823) ). These works feeding the appetites of the great opera houses and their audiences of the time, have gone in and out of fashion as time passed which can partly be understood because of the 'incredible' musical demands of the composer and the physical scale of the works: talent and budget considerations. The recent revival period for the bel canto style happened in the '50's and 60's when singers such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo appeared with musical instruments of breathtaking presence and technical dexterity that transported the audiences into ecstatic states of musical heaven.

Opera Australia's decision to present ANNA BOLENA, is following a recent international 'trend' to resurrect this opera, not often presented. The OA's audiences should have jumped with excitement at the opportunity to hear and see this work - an invitation to journey back to the 'grand old opry' days. Bombastic, perhaps, but when the ingredients are 'talented', a thrilling bel canto 'noise' indulgence can be made, and that can make life worth living through.

The work requires solo voices of some flexible talent and formidable technique, especially so when the composer decides to have the principal performers 'face front and stand to deliver' across the width of the proscenium arch, the characters' inner monologue expressed in musical harmonic competition, backed by a large murmuring chorus and orchestra. The Opera Australia, BOLENA company, does astoundingly well, under the control of Conductor, Renato Palumbo, led on-stage by the coloratura soprano of Ermonela Jaho (Anna Boleyn), surrounded by the mellow maturity of the mezzo, Carmen Topciu (Jane Seymour), and rich baritone, Leonardo Cortellazzi (Lord Percy), glorious soprano Anna Dowsley (in the trouser role of Mark Smeaton) and the support of bass, Teddy Tahu Rhodes (King Henry VIII), however uncomfortable he sounded.

This was especially so in the first act of the performance I saw on the opening night. Each sequence throughout the first act, thrillingly peaking musically only to be 'topped' with the next grand-standing musical challenge that followed. One was whipped into a breathtaking aural awe at the whole company's disciplined confidence in delivering Donizetti's 'goods' - an ecstatic high, in the interval.

Unfortunately, the second act did not have the same affect. Whether it is a weakness in the actual musical structure of the work, or the lack of time for the company to prepare this part of the work in rehearsal with the necessary on-stage rigour, to give the same practised balance of accomplishment as act one - after all it is nearly three hours and a bit of music, quite a demand - I have not the sufficient knowledge to analyse. But he second act was a considerable disappointment. It would be interesting to attend later performances to see what 'doing-time' may have settled, cemented. Has the second act improved in its affect?

The work is Directed by David Livermore in a fairly stodgy manner with a 'modernising' (post-modern) concept (such as the opera Company's dancers' presence, in a set of visually puzzling post-modern costume choices, during the overture, and in many other vital moments of dramatic import during the story telling throughout the night), with clumsy staging of singers' positions about the space that suggested, in my growing frustrated state-of-mind, a kind of ill considered amateur vision of the Grand Opera style, it being continuously hampered by a ridiculous indulgence in permitting melodramatic emotional expression in gesture (especially from Ms Jaho, sitting legs wide in the dramatic confrontation with Jane Seymour on the revolve steps like some exasperated tavern shrew, or latterly, bent backwards like a dying swan, as the reality of Anna's execution approached) that could not often be accepted as a serious solution for a contemporary audience to believe in as a sensible offer. Often, it was risible. Objective laughter instead of subjective immersion. Add the catastrophe of the mis-matched post-modern concept for the costuming, by Mariana Fracasso and they created an intellectual distraction as we tried to understand them instead as a clarifying aid to interpret the action of the play.

Then, Mr Livermore was burdened with a Digital design demand, made by the philosophy of contemporary opera staging envisioned by the Artistic Director of the Opera Australia Company, Lyndon Terracini, that not only has ingenious 'flying' panels of LSD - oops, sorry I meant to write LED, not LSD - screens being continually positioned and re-positioned during the physical action and musical singing of the performers, and that are covered in imagery that is both still and/or animated continuously throughout the night, Designed by Set Designer, Gio Forma, who was served in visual content supplied by D -Wok, to support (compete?!) with the primary interest of the night, the singing and dramatic characterisation of the performers.

The visual offers of this ANNA BOLENA were often being a distraction from the principal reason to spend one's money and time in the Joan Sutherland theatre; to hear and see Donizetti's ANNA BOLENA. The imagery was often visually repetitive in its presence so that it seemed to have no dramatic purpose for narrative or metaphoric symbolism for the action of the performance. For instance, the panels with digitalised animated beetles crawling up-and-down the huge screens, when first appearing were so thrusting in their visual presence that one attempted to 'define' their meaning in matching it to the action of the narrative on the stage, embodied in the performers - one, either could, or could not. But can you imagine the irritation when the same imagery came back in the opera storytelling later in the evening and have it hang about for an extensive time with no direct harmony to what had happened before, when they demanded our attention, or, to now, to the events of the play. One could only conclude they had re-appeared merely as decorative background and were so because the budget for the digital design had all been consumed and no other imagery could be afforded. One became mesmerised by the repetitive distraction of the computer-generated-trails of the beetles. Was this why the second act was moribund in its effect? Whatever, the cutting edge benefits of the flying buttresses of the LSD  - oops, I meant to write LED not LSD - screens on their tracks illuminated by a very limited collection of images - still or animated - soon exhausted their acceptable usefulness in creating a rewarding creative experience in the theatre for the storytelling. It must be said that when the music and the musicians were free and clear from the visual clutter of repetitive imagery it worked best.

Simple choices to focus on the raison d'etre of the revival of this opera ought to have being employed. The artistic explorations using the latest design fad ought to be more astute and economical in their selection by the Director and the Designers. Time to solve this is an expensive part of the budget dispersal I imagine - but if you are going to do it, then do it well and ensure that you have the budget to do it well, all of the night. For this Digital regime coming from the Direction of Mr Terracini for AIDA, BUTTERFLY, and WHITELY, in this year's new production work, signals, in the result which we so far have endured, needs much more care, time, money and ART. As it is, it is an obvious blight to the full success of the production and the experience..

ANNA BOLENA, then, is a mixed 'bag' of excitement and irritation. It was great, though, to be able to attend an old fashioned night at the Grand Old Opera.

Things I Know To Be True

Phot by Heidrun Lohr

Belvoir presents, THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, by Andrew Bovell, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 8th June - 21st July.

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, has gathered a critical and word-of-mouth reputation. Such, that I was urged to see the play. I did last Friday night. Afterwards, I was just kind of angry, angry that such a great piece of writing had been so bowdlerised in production.

Andrew Bovell's play, for me, Australia's leading playwright, is a wonderfully perceptive and astringent overview of the Australian Family and the different readings a six unit family have in practising and understanding what Love is within the spread and influence of relentless Time. Dad, Bob (Tony Martin) and mum, Fran (Helen Thomson) and their four grown children, Pip (Anna Lise Phillips), Mark (Tom Hobbs), Ben (Matt Levett) and the youngest, Rosie (Miranda Daughtry, talk directly to us, in monologue form between abreacted episodes that cover the passing of a year, indicated visually for us by the passing of the seasons, in the presence of the family pride, Bob's backyard roses. Those Pink roses, on the side of a green painted, cracked concrete backyard.

Watching (reading) the play the epic dimension of THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, shone through and resonated, in my imagination, with the observed power, of the great Russian family sagas: for instance, especially, Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA, Dostoyevsky's THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Chekhov's THREE SISTERS.

The famous first line from Tolstoy's novel: "All families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" ricochets around my memory often during the performance of Mr Bovell's play. In ANNA KARENINA, the Oblonsky family, the Levin family, and the Karenin's career through the time structure of the novel, the toy of the frailties of human needs that manifest in unexpected ways and create dramatic and comic trajectories of a gathering profundity of experience for one and all. None of what happens, necessarily, is what any one of them expected, but is what was fated, as they pursued their idea of happiness. So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Dostoyevsky's last novel, reveals at length the family struggles between Father (Fyodor), his sons, Dimitri, Ivan, Alexi and their partners. Says Ivan:
So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course, ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it.
So, is the scenario of Mr Bovell's play.

In Chekhov's masterpiece, THREE SISTERS, shaped by the influence of a life lived and forensically observed, alongside thinkers - philosophers - such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the family Prozorov: Olga, Masha, Andrey and Irina, struggle through three years or more of their lives in the quest for happiness, idealised in the desire to return to Moscow, away from the exile in the boondocks of the Urals. We are told by Masha, the eldest of the surviving family:
The music is playing so cheerfully, so proudly, you feel you want to live! Oh, God! Time will pass and we'll be gone forever, we'll be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, how many of us there were, but our suffering will turn into joy for those who come after us, happiness and peace will come to the earth, and we who live now will be remembered with a kind word and a blessing. Oh, my darling sisters, our lives are not over yet. We will live! The music is playing so cheerfully, with so much joy and it seems in just a little while we will know why we are living, why we are suffering .., if only we knew, if only we knew! (It doesn't matter! It doesn't matter!) If only we knew, if only we knew!
So, is the scenario in Mr Bovell's play.

Andrew Bovell in his THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, builds from his other theatrical writings (e.g.SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1998), WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING (2008)), a uniquely brilliant Australian contemporary context for a similar literary focusing on the building blocks of our civilisation: Family, Love and Time, in the Aussie backyard!

This is a provocatively, timely, play.

It is a pity then, that Director Neil Armfield lacks the courage to reveal the play's philosophical confrontations for the Australian audience face on but instead dumbs down the serious aspects of Mr Bovell's look at how Australians survive their family 'tragedies' of living. Where Bovell writes comedy of a Chekhovian kind in THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE, Armfield conjures caricatured farce, permitting Ms Thomson, especially (it is her usual caricatured comic-revue performance), and the other actors - some more than less -  to unleash their formidable comic techniques to obfuscate the deep wounds and the consequences of them on the family's history of interaction. And, when there is serious issue of life changing events, such as the confession of Mark desiring a gender reassignment or Ben's criminal embezzling, we witness a kind of high scale soapie-melodrama. So, when intransigent tragedy strikes one of the persons of the play, we are delivered a syrupy dose of indulgent sentimentality from Rosie. Caricatured farce, melodrama and sentimentality.

Every issue of cultural importance written into this play by Mr Bovell, to facilitate our ability to confront with true maturity the realistic blemishes of what it is to be human in the modern world, Mr Armfield, has guided his actors to reduce it all to banal triviality, permitting the audience to ignore it as suffering and brush it off as merely amusing and or sad, allowing a shallow warmly comforting contemplation. There is no striving or offering for any manner of in-depth engagement with the cultural challenges revealed. It is an Old School, out-of-date Aussie Directorial aesthetic that deflects serious examination for popular entertainment. It steers us away from difficult contemplation. This Directorial conceit belongs to a by-gone era. This Director will not point us to employ close scrutiny, to confront the realities of our lives. He seems to wish us to sustain a warm by-gone fantasy, to allow us to continue to bathe in a romantic delusion of living in the 'lucky country'.

The response of the audience I sat with was predictably beguiled into the comfortable raptures of this far-flung antipodal world, demonstrating for me, the willingness of our performance art culture to lead our audiences to a delusional myopia to the realities of what is happening in our world, what life demands of us - how else, I asked myself, could one understand the politics of our day and the lies we swallow for comfort's sake.

Mr Armfield's gestures mirrors a commercial wrapping that pervades the programming sensibilities of our theatrical gate keepers, starkly instanced even in the recent selection of the Sydney Film Festival 2019 opening film, where they scheduled the soft and bourgeois PALM BEACH, with its set of social dramas amusingly confronted, to be ultimately, blithely giggled away, played by the familiar old gals and boys of our unreal film world, rather than with the exposure to a part of Australia's history that is a thing known to be true but is ignored or hidden in a more important film, shown in the same Festival, such as Jennifer Kent's THE NIGHTINGALE or Mirrah Foulkes' JUDY AND PUNCH. Both these films with a subject narrative and characters too hard for an Opening Night audience at an Australian Film Festival?


Anna Lise Phillips as Pip, the 'Nora' figure fleeing her marriage and children comes nearest to showing us a situation of a thing we know to be true as she digs down as best she can, despite the lack of honest contemplated support from her surrounding actors, into a raw experience of pain and guilt whilst also finding the courage to embrace, for Pip, the possible joy of escape to Canada. Painful human ambiguity.

Tom Hobbs, given the difficult character of Mark who needs to be Mia doesn't convince us of the pain and reality of the social and psychological contemporary dilemma of the choice she has made - the toll of living in the 'judgemental'  environment of most of our culture for all of her life so far. There is a baulking in his physical realisations of both Mark and, especially, Mia and an adoption of melodramatic gesture in the emotional requirements of the character and story, which are aided and abetted by Ms Thomson and Mr Martin in their characters' response of relative hysteria. I felt uncomfortable with the lack of truths that I know of in this section of the play.

Matt Levet, too, seems to lack complete conviction of technique to deliver on stage Ben's nefarious and drug-addled alpha truth. While Miranda Daughtry makes theatrical choices almost on every occasion rather than contemplated and engaged truth based revelation, withdrawing from any self-knowledge to create Rosie. We, rather, see an awkward actor at work to a conscious affect, than that of a life existing in front of our eyes.

All these actors chosen and giving performances under the Direction Of Mr Armfield.

The use of the rose bushes as a metaphor for the action of the play and arc for Bob's story, Designed by Steven Curtis, is blatant and horribly boring in the climatic moments in the destruction of the garden, where the theatricality of pretend rose bushes overrides any essence of truth to be believed as, especially, Mr Martin, appears to be truly, emotionally, 'running on empty' to be believed.

There is in this production of this play not enough truths that I recognised to be true. Artifice rather than Art. I was extremely disappointed (and, did I mention, angry?) Admire the play, loathe the Direction.

P.S. I yearned, during the night, to see the family sagas of Sean O'Casey, JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1924), or THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS (1926). Edwardo de Fillipo's SATURDAY, SUNDAY AND MONDAY(1959.  How about Jez Butterworth's recent, THE FERRYMAN (2017)?

THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE has a cast of only six actors - illustrating, further, the 'genius' of Mr Bovell, in the dramaturgical density of theme and truth he manages to reveal with such limited assets. All of the examples I have instanced in my yearnings have casts of an unfashionable size. So, not likely to be curated. Although, Belvoir did buck its usual 'method' with their early year production of COUNTING AND CRACKING. More of that, please!