Saturday, December 28, 2019

Packer and Sons

Photo by Brett Boardman
Belvoir Theatre Company presents, PACKER AND SONS by Tommy Murphy, at Belvoir Upstairs, Surrey Hills. 21st November - 5th January.

PACKER ANS SONS is a new Australian play by Tommy Murphy.

It is a play that focuses on the men of the Packer dynasty. Sir Frank, Kerry, Clyde and James. We meet Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch - another Australian power merchant family. And wheeler-dealer Jodie Rich - a failed power interloper.

No women appear in this two and a half hour saga - is it that their invisibility or silence is a tacit wink that they are consenting agents to the world about them? Silence is Consent?

On a bare stage, Design, Set and Costume, by Romaine Harper, supported peripherally with a fixed opaque glass passage across the long back wall, so that the moving figures behind look like blurring 'ghosts' reminiscent of the Harry Potter imagery that we know as The Death Eaters, with the wheeling on and off of location descriptive furniture and minimum properties (office, home,- outdoor and indoor - hospital, etc) supported with a drama impacted Light Design by Nick Schlieper, the play begins with a melodramatic lightening sharp white spot accompanied by an overheated orchestral score from Alan Johns that shockingly jolts us to an adrenaline witness of the polo field where Sir Frank (John Howard) lies flat on his back after a heart attack has de-horsed him as his sons Kerry (Josh McConville) and Clyde (Brandon McClelland) urge the panicked minions to get the ambulance and helicopter to bring rescue - technically Sir Frank was dead for 6 minutes but rose like the vampire/zombies in our dystopian popular fictions to continue his reign with added determination and concentration.

The movement and Direction of the play under the hand of Eamon Flack is dynamic in its energy effort and the elicited performances by the company of actors are impassioned and detailed realisations that keeps one alert and partly mesmerised. The casting trick of shifting Josh McConville from the young Kerry to the young James through a remarkable physical demonstration and his other bravura offers are startling in their accomplishment - here is a great actor, challenged by the role and rising to it with courage. Whilst the dominating focus that John Howard brings to both Frank and the older Kerry is multiplied-up by his physical size which is employed as a crushing weapon: ruthless bullies, both, used to have everybody, anybody to dance to his savage tune. To be loved by Dad is to be his tool/fool. His manipulative skills knew no boundaries.

The play focuses on the father and son relationships and through the well known incidents in the lives of these men Mr Murphy reveals the ugly toxic masculinity and the dominating patriarchal closed-fist that is wielded in the passionate pursuit of money and power through the generations of this archetypal Australian family. Without much relief of comedy or much warmth of human kindness, the revealed ugliness of PACKER AND SONS might go to explain the culture of this country that has begun to unwind in the teens of the twentieth-first century: it might begin to illuminate as to how the corporate world - our banks and institutions (churches) and our political party governments have felt it had permission to shift the ethical boundaries of our founding principles so long as they won the wealth and power race. (It goes certainly to explain the United States and its Trumpian rise to Power.) This is a play about power when utilised by men and its inevitable corrupting influence.

Another 'theme' of the functionaries in PACKER AND SONS has manifested itself in my consciousness as well: that the decay function of our biology which is nature limiting our life spans to a brief 60 or 70 odd years, cannot dim the manifest surge of our species to strive at all costs the passionate pursuit of Wealth and its brother product, Power. Decrepit Old Age" has no effect on the will-charged emanating Atomic/Nuclear menace that once seeded and owned grows and glows even as the corpse of our flesh and blood rots us.

The play, however, does not sustain its thrilling initial energy, and becomes bogged down in its middle section (ending Act one beginning of Act Two) with a deeply researched blow-by-blow account of the 0neTel crash led by James. Mr Murphy has a habit to bind himself too strictly to his research (e.g. Mark Colvin's Kidney) - and he needs to be encouraged to give himself permission to take some poetic license with his facts to maintain a dramatic dimension trajectory. In truth it is the performance conviction by all that brings the play relatively into safe harbour: Brandon McClelland, John Gaden. Nick Bartlett, Anthony Harkill (and two young boys alternating night to night: Nate Sammutt, Bryson Wolfe).

One wonders whether we should now see the female view of this family and that time, with their strategies to participate in the hell's kitchen of such malignant bearishness. The television series SUCCESSION, could be, arguably, about the International career of the Australian Murdoch family - and it works because there is poetic fictionalisations in their family, the Logan's, political rivalries that allows dramatic opportunities in the 'melodrama' of great storytelling.

PACKER AND SONS is, still, a good night in the theatre, but not a great one. SUCCESSION and the Logan family is a great one.


Token Events presents DOUGLAS, by Hannah Gadsby in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. 17th December - 21st December.

A large screen at the back of the Concert Hall stage is covered with a projected photograph of Ms Gadsby and her dog Douglas (a large poodle). It is Douglas that has inspired this new show, tells Ms Gadsby - well, new to Sydney for it has already had a showing in Adelaide in March, then Melbourne and has toured to some cities in the USA. In 2018 Ms Gadsby became an internet star with the release of a performance of NANETTE on NETFLIX, which has received an international critic rating of 100% and has been acclaimed as 'ground breaking'.

Coming through one of the huge side doors on the side wall of the Concert Hall Ms Gadsby in her dressing of trousers and jacket with her hallmark black rimmed glasses strode confidently but politely middle stage to the roaring support of the two and a half thousand audience. Acknowledging her reception with gentle waves she begins by referencing the likelihood that most of us are here as follow-up to NANETTE, and rhetorically wonders what the expectation might be from us of this new show DOUGLAS. She tells us that Douglas was inspired by the response to the last show, in which some social media participators had described NANETTE as 'less comedy and more a lecture'. She then proceeded to give us a "chapter' breakdown of what were the order and subjects to be covered, this night, finishing with the announcement of a concluding power point LECTURE and if we felt disinclined with any of the plan she would understand if we left.

No-one did.

Ms Gadsby is a standup comedian, writer, actor, political and gender activist, art historian and an astonishing observer of the social interactions of humanity with all of its historic habit of repeating itself. In my observation the great comedians have the 'heavy' capacity to see the world about themselves with piercing eyes that then translates to devestaing comedy. Devastating because of the ,often, naked force of their observational truth delivered in a voice that summons courage of the highest order to publicly articulate. The great comedians release for us the daily anxieties of being alive and of our attempts to function with some sense of hope to find a way to optimistically move forward as a species. These 'visionaries' are often the contemporary and dreaded "Cassandra" that speak the unspeakable truth and are generally disbelieved. To be a seer, the seer, in the tribal structure is not, necessarily, a comfortable thing to be.

Over the next 90 minutes or so Ms Gadsby took us across many hot press button issues in our sociological and philosophical real-time landscape that were both scorching to hear but charged, fortunately, with the weighty shock of the usually 'unspoken' to beckon gusts of comic laughter from us that crashed noisily about this Concert Hall with a palpable gratifying relief. The relief of a communal identification of what was been given - spoken - accompanied by a joy to have Ms Gadsby as our spoke person/verbal witness, for her intelligence is obviously peerless and her courage superb. (I mused a scary dinner guest). Even if you may not agree with her subject targeting or, perhaps, the vernacular argot in which she couches her propositions, you will be impressed.

90 minutes or more, is a generous offer, in a solo performance, and the alertness she has to the energy response of her audience is utterly, utterly brilliant. Her concentration and control is astonishing. The time spent in the auditorium zipped by. The performance never dragged. In fact I felt less tired at 10 o'clock that evening than I had when I entered at 8. I was inspired and felt smart. I felt like the mere man Bernard, shown to us during her power point lecture on medieval religious panting, who was with the spurting lactation of milk from the Virgin's breast transformed to become a higher being by becoming a saint: Saint Bernard. I entered the Concert Hall as Kevin and after being euphemistically 'lactated' upon with showers of witty words, felt I was leaving that hall as Saint Kevin and a possible enlightened proseltysing of the gospels of Hannah Gadsby!

Part of the preparation for the performances was a stipulation that one's iPhone was to be turned off and then placed in a supplied package, that was then locked. At the end of the performance the package would be unlocked. 'Inconvenient', I rankled. But, in practice, not at all. So, no-one was able to illegally film the work.

DOUGLAS will be released in 2020 on NETFLIX, so if you have missed this brilliant night in the theatre you will be able to catch it then.

Do not miss it.

Hannah Gadsby: NANETTE; DOUGLAS.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: FLEABAG.
Both amazing.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Krapp's Last Tape

Photo by John Marmaras
Red Line presents, KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, by Samuel Beckett, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo. 27th November - 15th December.

Red Line, under the Artistic Directorship of Andrew Henry, after a Director had to withdraw from the project of a production of KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, by Samuel Beckett, due for performance at the Old Fitz, in late November, after consulting with the actor already engaged, Jonathan Biggins, reached out to Gale Edwards, to see whether she was available at this short notice to take on the task. She had just returned from Directing two one act operas for YARRA VALLEY OPERA: THE CORONATION OF POPPEA (1643), by Monteverdi, and in contrast, on the same program, a Children's opera for discerning adults: THE ENCHANTED PIG (2006), music by Englishman, Jonathan Dove.

Now Gale Edwards, just based on statistical facts is the most illustrious Director, Internationally and Nationally, Australia has ever produced. EVER PRODUCED. (Why she does not have, at least her portrait celebrating her achievements, hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, beside the other commissioned portraits of Women Artists and Contributors to Australia Culture, is beyond my comprehension. Or, is it because she is - dare I say it - just a woman and can be neglected as per the tradition of the usual practice?) You would think she would be well known and lauded with honour for what she has achieved. Achieved working beside some of the greats, and by reputation, vernacularly also known as the 'monsters' of the theatrical world, in their pursuit of excellence: Trevor Nunn (LES MISERABLES), Andrew Lloyd Webber (WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR), Sir Cameron Mackintosh, etc.

Ms Edwards has worked in Musical Theatre all over the world, including London's West End and Broadway, and in Australia. She has worked in the United States of America in several important centres Directing Shakespeare (THE WASHINGTON SHAKESPEARE THEATER COMPANY, for instance). She was, in fact, the first woman in the world to Direct on the main stage for the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY (RSC) at Stratford-on-Avon, and has done so many other times since. She has Directed productions that have been part of the London West End commercial theatre. She spent a year in China having been commissioned by the Chinese Government to write and Direct a major musical for them.

Ms Edwards has Directed for all the major theatre companies in Australia, many, many times: the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), The State Company of South Australia (STSA), The Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), at Belvoir, at the Griffin. She was a leading Director for Opera Australia (OA) for many, many years. Her LA BOHEME is still programmed and is almost in annual revival, usually bringing in the New Year celebrations (despite the fact she has not been permitted to re-produce it for the company for many years now, even though she lives in Glebe, just around the bay from the Sydney Opera House, and has been available.) Similarly, her production of SALOME was revived for OA to glowing reviews again (not under her hand), a year ago. In my estimation a production so astonishing and prescient to our volatile sexual political times in its intellectual concept as to surpass any other on the world stage at the moment. Her productions for the Handa Opera seasons on the Harbour, for instance CARMEN - It has been staged TWICE and AIDA, were two of the greatest successes that the OA have ever had.

It was Gale Edwards who developed a production - co-wrote and Directed - at NIDA with Nick Enright and Terence Clarke the Australian musical SUMMER RAIN, in 1983, which, subsequently was re-developed for the professional stages around the country.
It was Gale Edwards who alongside Nick Enright and Max Lambert coaxed and developed in 2003, the original production of THE BOY FROM OZ.
It must not be forgot that Gale Edwards and her remarkable achievement in working with George Palmer, on libretti and book, as well as Directing the operatic version of Tim Winton's CLOUDSTREET, that featured at THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL in 2016, for the State Opera of South Australia, with whom she has a history, having given the Australian premiere of the John Adams' Opera NIXON IN CHINA in 1993. CLOUDSTREET has been rumoured to be planned as a part of a national season soon to come, if the OA and Lyndon Terracini can come to agreement with the original collaborative artists. CLOUDSTREET, seems reputationally to tower over this year's OA production of a new Australian work, WHITELY. (keep everything crossed,)

Ms Edwards was available to accept the offer from Red Line at the Old Fitz as she is not working at the moment. She was eager to come to the tiny Independent theatre space at the Od Fitz , despite the great theatres she has worked in, because she loves to WORK - it is her raison d'etre - the charge that stimulates her to living. The Old Fitz and its scale, she reminisces,brought her back to her experiences, the roots of her early career when she and the Company - Energy Connection, in Adelaide (her home town) - she had created way back in the late 70's/early 80's.

Gale Edwards, in my experience of her, is an artist with a formidable reputation. I reckon that reputation has been forged by an instinct to achieve greatness. Interestingly, I was listening to Perter Eyers Award winning Podcast: STAGES this week and heard an overseas Director discussing the Australian Actor Syndrome, that he and others have observed, that the majority of Australian artists are quite comfortable to work at 70% of their capacity. This, I too, opine. It is one of my sorrows in working with student actors in Australia who have some fantasy that Acting does not require continued HARD WORK, to be great - or, even just to be able to secure a JOB opportunity. I, on meeting my students, direct them - professional artists, as well - to an extraordinary documentary film EVERY LITTLE STEP (2009), which follows the audition process and rehearsal of a recent Broadway production of A CHORUS LINE. In it one is flabbergasted at the standard that the American Broadway actor AUDITIONS at - at a level that I have rarely seen even in the final production performances on our Australian stages. One gasps and wonders what then will the Company rehearse for the next six months since they present offers at audition level that are astounding.

It is interesting to talk to some of the artists who return from the wider world having not succeeded in the realms of Hollywood, New York, London and Great Britain etc, and talk of what they have observed, learnt, whilst competing at an International level. Ms Edwards, similarly encounters this when she returns home and tries to encourage a 100% commitment - this can often be seen as intimidating, confronting. She is asking for all her collaborative artists - Actors, Designers, Technical Staff and Management - to explore and take risks of failure - a frightening concept for some. Certainly, other artists who work on the International scene when they come home to Australia are also attempting to lift the quality of work and, too, are regraded as intimidating, DIFFICULT - but they are mostly men and therefore are not regaled - neglected - in the way that, perhaps, Ms Edwards has been. Again, I ask is it because she is just a woman and power, a fierce demand for excellence, is not a feminine domain? It is an almost tragic curiosity that Gale Edwards has not Directed on the main stages in Sydney for nearly a Decade? Why? I merely ask for information.

Andrew Henry and Jonathan Biggins know of Ms Edwards commitment to her work. They are aware of her intense and formidable approach to her work. They seem to value the quality of what Ms Edwards can do, what she knows from a career of constant work. They respect the body of her work and the force of creativity she can bring to the work. Mr Henry wants a product in his tiny theatre to continue to establish this company's continuing rise in esteem in Sydney, if not anecdotally, around the art centres of the nation.

I find it interesting that Mr Biggins one of our esteemed performance artists - especially for his Revue work, in the creation of many satirical portraits of our political and cultural world - has searched out the opportunity to explore his 'chops' as an actor, not just performer, by choosing to work on one of the great works of Samuel Beckett's oeuvre in a sixty seat space in the Independent scene in Sydney, in Woolloomooloo, around a few bays from the home of the STC, his usual stamping ground. Is it that the company, the STC, that has been enriched and enlivened with his long running annual Wharf Revue could not facilitate his need to 'apprentice' himself to a completely different mode of approach to the performing art to stretch his theatrical gifts and muscularity into the demands of contemporary classicism? That he has decided that the Old Fitz will be the best place for him to do this, is a curious wonder.

I have, of late, in the avalanche of the sustained, relentless promotion of the young emerging artists in Sydney and around the country, felt that as a counter balance to what feels like Ageism Discrimination (neglect) that I should set up a NEARLY DEAD ARTIST THEATRE COMPANY! Let's bring those highly experienced artists centre stage to exercise their knowledge and skills to crowd the theatre with the opportunity of bringing back that elder echelon to mentor the young by example. In Great Britain the Elder Actor is seen on regular stages: Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Simon Russell Beale, Kenneth Branagh etc. Where are our Australian Elder Artists to be seen with any regularity?

Here, at the Old Fitz, at last, the nearly 'dead genius' of Elder artist Gale Edwards, who has called on Elder 'dead genius' Designer Brian Thomson, to help hone the instinct and skills of the Elder 'nearly dead' artist Jonathan Biggins, on a play that is 'Elderly'- some 61 years old. The experience of years of practice bring this important work to life and it is to be savoured for the rarity of the foresight that Mr Henry has demonstrated to engage with the waiting resource of the experience of years to bring onto his stage a production of radiant clarity.

More power to Red Line. Ageism will no longer be a weapon of discrimination?

We shall see.

I find it a relief.

The 'nearly dead' artists of this city and country have a treasure trove of insight and experience to maybe mentor the emerging artists that dominate the 'talent' pool used by the present theatre companies - to have them realise that the 'wheel has been invented' and some advice is available to help facilitate constant quality. One cannot see the generation of our elders practising on our stages, often enough. How exciting, then, to see the choice at Belvoir of the Caryl Churchill play, ESCAPE ALONE (2016), a play for Senior artists: Judi Farr, Kris McQuade, Heather Mitchell and Helen Morse. (I have seen it in its first outing at the Royal Court Theatre, in London.)

Ms Edwards is a meticulous creator and works religiously with the written instructions of the writer. And Beckett is one of the writers that is demanding in the detailed instructions for his artists when they attempt to bring his play from the page to the stage - even down to the timing of a Pause in increments of specific timing.- seconds, even. Ms Edwards regards the writer as God - the originator and reason that the work exists. Each moment of this production is interrogated deeply, obviously highly researched in its preparation and resultedly, the performance given by Mr Biggins is nuanced and personalised to a searing degree of angst. He manages to scale and render the heights and the depths required to reveal the personal devastation of KRAPP'S LAST TAPE. The personal exploration and courage to expose his own life to create Krapp is the development that one can see informing the result of Mr Biggins' work. No easy thing to risk and do - especially, night after night. And so different a technique needs to be reached for him to convince us, so different to that that he has regularly used for his usual immaculate performances in revue satire.

Krapp arrives in a room, Design by Brian Thomson, stacked with draws of files and on a table has a tape recorder to revise a tape and produce a new one. These tapes are a record of his life and we are witness to his reporting on the turning point in his life when he turned away love and made a choice otherwise - to pursue his passion, to write..

Edna O'Brien, the Irish novelist, has on a wall in her home the famous photographic portrait of Samuel Beckett and she has remarked his lined face reveals a psyche that 'must have wrestled for every second of his working life with the cruelty, crassness and barbarity of mankind'. Read my WAITING FOR GODOT Blog

Written in 1958, KRAPP'S LAST TAPE is the third in the quartet of great plays beginning with WAITING FOR GODOT in 1953, followed by ENDGAME in 1957, and ending with HAPPY DAYS in 1960. KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, however, differs from those other three plays in that Krapp explores the personal value that love has in contrast to his determination to be a writer. It deals with the 'little' picture of his life dilemmas rather than the great existential world view of the other three plays. It is a powerful, personal examination - comment, exposure - on his own relationship with women, excusing himself from that encumbrance that could undo his real passion. It is an autobiographical portrait. He had written long novels: MURPHY (1938), MOLLOY (1951), MALONE MEURT (1951) WATT (1953) and THE UNNAMABLE (1953) and hadn't found a publisher. GODOT had become a cause celebre but played in theatres mostly the size of the Old Fitz - no money to cover his living needs.As an artist writing this play he was staring into the relative abyss of neglect and despair which manifested, ultimately, in a movement forward to minimalism even to silence - plays without words, just an image.

We witness this sad and tragic 'confession' that comes to Krapp as an aged man who reflects that at the age of 39 he had 'divorced' himself from love as a choice in life. Beckett has Krapp stare straight forward contemplating the significance of such an action on his life, the choice of an arid life style so as to be able to create in his writing output.

Mr Biggins, reveals his potential to scale the great roles of maturity.

Hail Beckett, Edwards, Thomson, Biggins and Andrew Henry.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Little Miss Sunshine

Photo by Bob Seary

New Theatre presents, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, Book by James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. At the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 12 November - 14th December.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is a musical adaptation, by James Lapine and William Finn, of the 2006 film, that won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt, with a stellar ensemble cast that included Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin and introducing Abigail Breslin. The film became a 'cult' hit. The musical originated in San Diego, in California in 2011, and evolved later on Off-Broadway in 2013.

James Lapine has written libretti for musicals: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984), INTO THE WOODS (1987), FALSETTOS (1992), and PASSION (1994). William Finn's most successful music work was FALSETTO LAND (1990) with a further expansion in 1994 to create FALSETTOS that won Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Book.

The story is of a car journey/road trip with a dysfunctional family on board, attempting to fulfil their daughter Olive's dream to compete in a Beauty Pageant. It is an 800 mile journey and what with the eclectic mix of temperaments in this Volkswagon combie van much happens and is revealed. The plot has a congested number of crises which all move through with a smile of sunshine beckoning them to hope that all's well that may end well.

There is a strained marriage (Richard - Martin Grelis, Sheryl - Fiona Pearson), a failing family business, a depressed son (Dwayne - Christopher O'Shea), a suicidal homosexual brother (Frank - Julian Ramundi), a grandpa (Edwin - John Grinston) with iconoclastic tendencies - a happy heroin taker - who flouts many other conventions of the law, recommending happily that participation in a lot of sex is a solution for good living, with his solo song: THE HAPPIEST GUY IN THE VAN (and who, by-the-way, dies mid-trip and is swathed 'mummy'-like in the back seat of the van, as the family's circumstance-need to get to the Beauty Pageant can't wait for a funeral interning!), and a young Miss Sunshine (Olive - Kiera Dzeparoski) who has the permanent optimism of the 'blessed' with an iron-welded deflecting innocence that becomes the adhesive that keeps this family together and surviving - just. (They don't know the future of the USA that they will be facing in little over half a decade. This is an example where ignorance can be a bliss. We are not so lucky, we are not ignorant about our present day circumstances at all and tremble with anticipatory anxiety.)

The film and now the musical is a cute counter-cultural experience that stretches itself into a 'camp' comedy that has a kind-of similar feel as the very famous film of HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon), a black comedy-drama, by Australian Colin Higgins, Directed by counter-culture 'hippie' and film genius, Hal Ashby. The musical LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE does not have, in my estimation, the sincere gravitas of the artistic objectives of Higgins and Ashby that has turned HAROLD AND MAUDE into a cult hit - belatedly (by 1981, it had made back its cost and went into profit!) - of some respected standing.

Miss Sunshine, the musical, is content really to gain laughs at a fairly sustained superficial level of character and action, that did, however, appeal to the audience I was with, who embraced eagerly a parody of some of our present world's dilemmas - a sign of the times, perhaps, where distraction from our actual ridiculous world personalities and national/international tensions can be momentarily shunted from the centre of our daily concerns to give the possibility that we might all weather through the fire of our terrors by seizing any little ray of sunshine that might gleam through the smoke haze in our line of vision.

The company gathered by the Director, Deborah Jones, at the performance I saw - the last of the season - had acquired a surety of confidence with the material and delighted us with ease the characters and their adventures. Staged on a simple but effective Set Design by David Marshall-Martin - a Magritte blue with puffy white clouds studded/painted on the walls which hidden panels that could open and shut to surprise reveal characters in narrative comment and action - lit winningly by reliable Michael Schell, and Costumed amusingly by Bobbi Rickards. The company moved about the space with alacrity, delivering the choreography and movement from Virginia Ferris to enhance the joys of the piece.

The singing was, I should say, mostly 'valiant' as it was not always reached accurately in its execution by all. Though the musical Direction under the conductorship of Laura Heuston (also keyboard 2), with her band consisting of Thomas McCorquodale (Keyboard 1.), Riley Diesta (percussion on Thursday Friday) and Luke DiDio (percussion on Saturday and Sunday) was seamless and brightly pert.

I especially enjoyed our heroine Olive as performed by Ms Dzeparoski and the Mean Girls (of the pageant): Grace Ryan, Aneke Golowenko, and Ellacoco Hammer McIver (no, that is not a print misnomer it is Ella Coco as one word (!) and is followed by a Hammer. A stage name that won't be easily forgotten. Smart show-biz stuff.)

However, the scene stealer was John Grinston, given the role of Grandpa Edwin, who has a fantastic baggage of plot and character outrageousness, inherited from the film, which memorably Alan Arkin aggressively indulged in, which Mr Grinston with a similar, but different, ravenous appetite ingests, and does what is characterised in the business as 'eating the scenery' to make his character's mark in the show - I say this meaning it to be a positive compliment. The energy and focused concentration harnessed to a great integrity and theatrical intelligence gave Mr Grinston's performance a palpable halo of light - what a pity Grandpa died halfway through the show - I'm sure Mr Lapine and Mr Finn could have had the poetic vision/license to bring Edwin back, even as an incandescent spirit guiding Olive through the Beauty Pageant Dance that he had choreographed for her - I'm sure, really sure, that Grandpa Edwin was there beside her and the rest of the family in that last story offering - as vulgar as the dance may have been - was.

All in all this end of year production of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at the New Theatre fulfilled a brief as a distracting lightweight entertainment. Its not my cup-of-tea but then neither is Mr Finn's Award winning FALSETTOS. The New is following the trend in Sydney's theatre curating, banking on, the musical as a 'honey pot' to attract audience. Coming up soon is a short season of a stage version of a Judy Garland hit, MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (17th December-21st December) and early next year a brief showing of a musical adaption of George Orwell's mighty 1984! (8th January - 25th January.)

Think about it.

De Profoundis

Red Line presents, an adaptation of DE PROFOUNDIS, by Oscar Wilde, by Dino Dimitriades and Paul Capsis at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St. Woolloomooloo. 13th November - 22nd November.

Oscar Wilde's DE PROFUNDIS, performed by Paul Capsis, a theatrical event not to be missed. So, a group of friends (from the local neighbourhood around the theatre) booked seats and had some food at the Hotel restaurant and eagerly entered the theatre.

DE PROFUNDIS (Latin: from the depths), the title created by his most devoted friend Robert Ross when it was published in 1905, five years after Wilde's death, is, possibly, the last writing by Oscar Wilde. He wrote it toward the end of his imprisonment in Reading Gaol,(having been found guilty of Gross Indecency), between January and March, 1897. The poem/letter was written one page a day, which was then taken from him and only at the end could he read it over and make revisions. The letter which was addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, his ex-lover, known as "Bosie", but it was not permitted to be sent, although it was given to Wilde in tact on his release. Bosie had not contacted Oscar at all during the five year length of his imprisonment - not once, in any manner.

The Director of this project at the Old Fitz, Dino Dimitriades, told us in a preamble before the performance that it is some 50,000 words and if done in its entirety, it might be 6 hours in the theatre. Mr Capsis and Mr Dimitriades, though, had edited the work down to some 15,000 words and presented the work of a 90-minute length, with an added interval.

The original is in two parts. The first half is a recount of Wide's previous relationship with Douglas and their extravagant lifestyle, indicting Douglas for his vanity (and demands) and himself for his own weakness in acceding to those wishes. The second half Wilde 'charts his spiritual development in prison and identification with Jesus Christ. [...] The letter began "Dear Bosie" and ended "your Affectionate Friend". Wilde wrote, "I don't defend my conduct. I explain it [...] Also in my letter there are several passages which explain my mental development while in prison and the inevitable evolution of my character and intellectual attitude towards life that has taken place ...."

We are taken into the black cavern of the Old Fitz stage with an ugly 'deal' table and wooden chair centre, dimly lit, on which was a glass jug of water and a tumbler glass. Mr Capsis dressed simply in a comfortable contemporary deshabille that was respectful with a slight appropriate glance of a period feel, entered with a copy of the text in his hands, donned his spectacles, and read their edited version of the text. This was a reading. No attempt to learn or inhabit Wilde - it was simply a reading.

Unfortunately, Mr Dimitriades permitted Mr Capsis to find idiosyncratic patterns of tonal scoring that were more musical than a clear statement of the information in the line and so, it became boringly repetitional in its repeated pattern of tonal 'noise' and led us to a detachment from the intellectual content and composition of the Poem. It was a disappointing experience. If one really persisted in listening and penetrated to the word content and ignored the musical obstacles of tonal inflexion created by this artist, what one could take from this theatrical event, at least, was that Wilde was certainly, "The Lord of Language". It was an encouragement for us to find a copy of the text and read it at our leisure at home. It was the wealth of the language that sustained one through this work that, otherwise came to be a (slight) trial  to endure.

Love does not traffic in a market place, nor use a huckster's scales. Its joy, like the joy of the intellect, is to feel alive. The aim of Love is to Love: no more and no less.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Suffering is a very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons.
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow ...

Much else to savour. Read the text.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Sydney Theatre Company presents THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, by Martin McDonagh, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney. 23rd November - 21st December.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE was the debut play, from the Irish/English writer Martin McDonagh. There followed a plethora of stunning successful companions to his stage repertoire which audiences looked keenly to see. In Sydney we were impressed with mainstage productions of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (1996), THE CRIPPLE OF INNISHMAAN (1997), THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE (2001). Elsewhere in the Fringe theatres, A SKULL IN CONNEMARA (1997), THE LONESOME WEST (1997), THE PILLOWMAN (2003), and regular revivals of the Mainstage exhibits arrived. And of course his film repertoire: IN BRUGES (2008), SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012) and THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), has enjoyed kudos from all his fans. In 1997, McDonagh had four plays on the professional stage simultaneously - popular, indeed.

Part of the attraction to Mr McDonagh's work is his old-fashioned storytelling skill creating vitally alive characters involved in classic narrative mode, glittering with a dark sense of humour and a thrilling Hitchcock-like instinct for dramatic tension with a glowering undertow of menace/violence - a dominating vibration of our time. His plays are gripping in a very old-fashioned way - full of moments of held breaths and gasps of shock, alongside a 'vicious' sense of humour, that can draw a generous laughter from its audience - and so are always awfully anticipated. That they sometimes have a serious observation of the Troubles of Ireland and the social traumatic consequences of that era on the ordinary people is also a pay-off for some of the audience who may be in need to justify their salacious pleasure.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, set in the desolate countryside of Connemara, in a decrepit home on the top of a hill, invites us into the world of Mag Folan (Noni Hazlehurst) in her declining years under the care of her youngest daughter, Maureen (Yael Stone). The tensions between Mother and Daughter are stretched to breaking points of need and frustration. From outside, a hope of escape is offered to Maureen by a sensitive boyo, Pato (Hamish Michael), who is wanting to take her away to a new life in Boston, messaged through his 'thunk-headed' brother, Ray Dooley (Shiv Palekar).

This production of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, is by far and away the BEST work that the STC has given its Sydney audiences for years. Their subscribers must be giving a sigh of relief: at last!

What gives this work that accolade from me is the sense that Director, Paige Rattray, set out to honestly reveal the work of Martin McDonagh without any flourishes of intellectual showing-off - i.e. drawing attention to the hand in charge (the Director as auteur). So much of that kind of artistic behaviour has been endured by audiences on the STC stages (and other theatres in Sydney) for some time - many, many years now. This production has the old-fashioned tried and true confidence in Martin McDonagh and his writing. Respecting the writer as the key to the source/sauce of a great production and then religiously, tirelessly to set out to solve with her collaborators the ways and means to do just that. The result is a prodigious joy to receive.

The Design, Set and Costume, by Renee Mulder creates a detail of naturalism that is challenging and thrilling. The external of this bleak 'house', is exposed as we enter the auditorium, on top of a hill, that is a 'home' for some in this Irish wilderness. It is lit against the pallid sky cloth signalling an over whelming sense of isolation and loneliness. It feels cold, kind of forbidding. It revolves to show an interior meticulously grotesque in the detail of the poverty of care and disabling spirit that has ruined any possibility that a happy way of life would be possible there. The details are calamitous in their presence. It has an olfactory impact that almost emanates an actual stench of rot and neglect that seems to waft out to us to enflame our endowing imaginations. It is a place that none of us would want to enter and if we did in reality, probably with a handkerchief across our noses and mouth to prevent waves of nausea and vomit in our mouths. Like voyeurs we peer into this space, from our seats, carefully breathing to filter away our anguish for the inhabitants that may live there. The Lighting Design by Paul Jackson supports this aesthetic with a sure eye to woo us into the atmosphere of the environs. Subtly, Steve Francis provides Composition and a Sound Design that also impresses subliminally our ears to complement the visuals with anticipation of a tragedy, a sadness, for the decay of a civilisation as represented by a Family of this community.

Then, with a keen eye for what is needed, Ms Rattray, invites Noni Hazelhurst to create, to inhabit the wreck of Mag, a mother, a woman for whom life has given nothing but disappointment, who has been reduced to being a barely existing carcass simmering in the 'soup' of a life-long disappointment, in a filthy colour faded dressing gown almost completely marooned - crippled - in a well worn armchair in front of an unsound television that mostly entertains with visions of Australian soap operas - perhaps, the only sunshine in this world of glum - how ironic a poetic image to be given to us Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzies in 2019! (For after all, How Great is Australia? How great Mr Morrison?)

Home from shopping, climbing and slipping on the ragged dampened path, on her journey up the hill to the interior of this 'home', the youngest daughter and the only one willing to be around, to look after her mother, Maureen, created, owned, by Yael Stone, almost sadistically bright in spirit, enters with food that is scantily a support for sustenance, but is a habitual need of her regularity that myopically Mag demands. The Maureen of the text is written to be in her 40's - and this is a Directorial decision that is different from the writer's intention - is cast here with an actor who is definitely in her late 20's or early 30's. On reflection, having seen this play with much older actors as Maureen (one of them being Pamela Rabe at the STC, a few years ago - 1996), the visual impact of having a younger Maureen, who is in the physical bloom of youth, of flaunted 'busty' firmness, bubbling with the spiritual enthusiasm of someone who can still contemplate the real possibility that a good life may come, the play's tragedy of her true circumstances becomes even more powerful and oppressive. It is a canny choice by Director, Rattray, for Ms Stone is robustly right in the way she presents and in all that she does with her natural gifts.

It is also a remarkable chemical mix/choice, for these two actors who seem to be at a creative place that allows, commands them, to be explosively dangerous in their investigation of their women, and fearlessly, it seemed also joyously too, willing to provoke each other to levels of exposure that emanates a heat of truth that is scarifying in its intensities and seeming improvisational 'in the moment' energies and alertnesses. Ms Hazelhurst, seems to be, at this time, in a place of remarkable creativity, her work in MOTHER at Belvoir, heralding a flowering of courage and skill, that is confirmed with this performance, that her audiences can celebrate in - and anticipate more from. While Ms Stone, who has been away working in American television, returns to the Sydney stage with a transformational confidence that is astonishing in its detailed and courageous choices. The emotional revelations of this young woman, Maureen, across a wide landscape of contrasted possibilities, of immense peaks and despairing valleys is carefully crafted by Ms Stone, to allow us to empathise even at Maureen's most vengeful. Her performance is magnificent, tragically wrought.

The visceral chemistry between these two actors is personally invested and further confirmed with a great sense of the ironic comedy of the situation that Mr McDonagh wickedly, famously, seeds through all his writing works. And both these women are not shy of 'going for it',rather, they appear to genuinely relish it with great appetite, to then contrast it brilliantly with the density of the darkness of the petty but tremendous acts of vengeful violence that both these characters welter each other with.

That these two principal roles are so immaculately created is more than worth the price of the ticket.

But, Ms Rattray has invited and drawn from Hamish Michael in a role that could be sentimental and cliche ridden, that of Pato - the 'good' guy in the scenario of this play - to create a warm and three dimensional man, that is never more sure than in the solo reading of a letter - a (horrible) writer's conceit in structure, a risk that Mr McDonagh takes, that for me demonstrates his cheeky ego and confidence, that makes him, contemporaneously, unique in his output - and is so powerfully a hopeful vision of goodness that we all hope for a happy ending for Maureen's aspirations. It is through the identification that Mr Michael's brings to his moments in the play that pushes us to belief. It is a 'miracle' of performance and skill.

Too, then in the function of the well worn cliche of the 'messenger' (think of all those messengers and messages that lubricate the action of those Greek tragedies and in Shakespeare's famous oeuvre, in both the comic and tragic plays.) Shiv Palekar, as Ray, is delightfully hilarious as an ill-educated youth, a ruin of a boy-man, the confection of his daily poverty stricken culture, that creates some unbearable tensions in the play with his character's recklessness and innocently arrogant physical power. All the characteristics of nervous ticks and childish observations of a man of this kind that Mr Palekar creates, adds to the brew of the play's almost unbearable exposure of humanity, with all's its tensions, comic and tragic and all of it so carelessly engaged in by Ray Dooley in Connemara. The consequences of his actions are part of his horrible ignorance at being so self-oriented/pre occupied - a sadly comic illustration of a modern life. A wonder filled contribution from Mr Palekar.

Play, Design, Acting and the Direction are all engaged collaboratively on the STC stage to serve the writer Martin McDonagh and this production is a 'rain' worth welcoming after the relative 'drought' of good work at the STC. Sad to say that THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE is an exceptional piece of craft that creates art, that is the usual norm on the STC stages. (It might be fun to see HANGNMEN, a McDonagh play not yet seen in Sydney,)

Do go.

P.S. Ms Rattray is scheduled to direct one of the GREAT plays, Terrence Rattigan's Chekovian-like Masterpiece, THE DEEP BLUE SEA, next year. Rattigan is now in a positive re-evaluation mode in the British theatre after years of denigration and neglect, historically beginning with the arrival of the British realists, the 'angry young men',led by LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1956), by John Osborne, and the iconoclastic Kenneth Tynan (sometimes a cruelly bombastic critic, who was as much interested in promoting himself as he was in critiquing). One hopes that Ms Rattray has the same interrogative care with every detail that Mr Rattigan has put in pen onto the published page - every 'mark' should be deeply considered. He is, among many other theatrical virtues, a master of edited clues and artistic restraint, that will reveal with scrutiny the layers of opportunity he provides for imaginative craftsmen to create.Ms Rattray and her collaborators have done this on Mr McDonagh's play -and I look forward to that discipline executed on THE DEEP BLUE SEA. With Marta Dussldorp, playing the lead, it seems to be in promising hands.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

School of Rock

GWB ENTERTAINMENT and S&CO in association with KHAM Inc by arrangement with Really Useful Group Limited present SCHOOL OF ROCK - The Musical, based on the Paramount Movie written by Mike White. Book by Julian Fellowes. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. At the Capitol Theatre, Sydney. 15th November, 2019 - February 2020.

SCHOOL OF ROCK - The Musical, is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the highly successful Paramount film (2003) Directed by Richard Linklater, that starred a hyper-charged Jack Black, with Joan Cusack, in support.

Bursting on to The Capitol Theatre stage is a phenomenal performer, Brent Hill, who with impressive energy and immaculate theatrical instincts and a highly refined comic and musical technique, drives this show with a manic, magical force. His performance, as Dewey Finn, is astonishing to behold.

But this version of the original film has expanded its attention to the children in the 5th grade classroom at the prestigious Horace Green School and they have as central a place in the scheme of the musical as Dewey. There are three teams of 12 children who alternate through the performances. On the Opening Night they created a force of irresistible attraction, not only for their sparkling characterisations but for their awe-inspiring talents: singers (Outstanding Sabina Felias as Tomika and her rendition of AMAZING GRACE), dancers and some, instrument players, and gave a perfect balance to their leading man, but also making room for the other leading member of the creative triangle, Rosalie Mullins, inhabited by Amy Lehpalmer. Musically she covers an aria from Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE, Queen of the Night, to a throbbing rock number (Where Did The Rock Go?) with a Stevie Nix homage! and a metamorphic growth from a disciplined stuffy headmistress to a released free spirit. (Ms Lehpalmer is fond in my memories for her Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and Christine Colgate in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, a few years ago).

The musical has also expanded the persona of the parents of the children and in this production are ably led by John O'Hara as Ned and Nadia Komacz as Patty. The artistic demarcation of character types is economic and easily recognisable in their cliche demands for this art form. Spot-on and hilarious in their pathos and angst!

Original Director, Lawrence Connors; Associate Director, Chris Key; Resident Director, Leah Howard; Choreography, Jo Ann M. Hunter; Resident Choreography, Bree Landgridge; Scenic and Costume Design, Anna Louizos; Associate Costume Designer, Abigail Hahn; Associate Scenic Designer, Jeremy W. Foil; Lighting Design, Natasha Katz; Associate Lighting Design, Stuart Porter; Musical Supervisor, John Rigby; Associate Musical Supervisor/Director: Laura Tipoki/Mark Chamberlain.

All in all SCHOOL OF ROCK was a joyfully brilliant night in the musical theatre at the gorgeous Capitol Theatre. (Who would have suspected that I would surrender so easily?) It should appeal to all members/generations of the family and it is especially fortuitous that you can see it in Sydney over the Summer holiday period. What a great gift - outing - for all.

Your family may be converted to the ARTS in a big way. Take them along.

Do go.

H.M.S. Pinafore

Photo by Phil Erbacher

Hayes Theatre Company presents, H.M.S. PINAFORE or The Lass That Loved a Sailor. Book by W.S. Gilbert. Music by Arthur Sullivan. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point. 13 November - 14th December.

H.M.S. PINAFORE is a comic operetta written in 1878, by a famous double act: W.S. Gilbert, responsible for the Book (Lyrics), with Sir Arthur Sullivan who wrote the music.
Mistaken identity, class warfare, sisters, (cousins, aunts) and sailors and the trickiest of tongue twisters abound in this nautical caper. H.M.S. PINAFORE is a sharp satire of the English social hierarchical system of the Victorian Age. (...) It answers the burning question(s) of who among equals is the most equal and whether love can level all ranks.
At the Hayes Theatre, Director Kate Gaul, brings this Victorian work onto its 2019 stage with an hilarious cultural wink of high flown 'campery' that has a decidedly contemporary heritage intravenously channelled from the Ru Paul phenomenon, (and from other Sydney icons such as, perhaps, Betty Blokk Buster - due for revival at this year's January, Sydney Festival), where the act of theatre travesty is, in full make-up and costume, demonstrating gender fluidity and gender blindness in casting to an hilarious offer of comic relish. For instance, Ralph Rackshaw, the young sailor hero is impersonated by soprano Billie Pallin and the mysterious dame of the show, Little Buttercup, is possessed by Tom Campbell, while the Patter Song lead, Sir Joseph Porter, is brought to life by Rory O'Keefe, and for us 'hipsters' could be more related to Frank-n-Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show than the traditional heritage of the D'Oly Carte, Savoy Operas, which were a big part of Australia's theatre appetite.

I remember, in the 60's waiting for the annual Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) showing in the old stuffy version of the Verbrugghen Hall at the Sydney Conservatorium, in the stultifying Australian summer and, of course, later the Australian Opera productions in the air-conditioned Opera Theatre (so much more comfortable to be in) with the incomparable Dennis Olsen and later, Reg Livermore, in the wickedly funny Patter roles of which Sir Joseph Porter was one of the gems of their talents. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (1879), IOLANTHE (1882), THE GONDOLIERS (1889), and perhaps the best of them all, THE MIKADO (1885) were as well known and anticipated with great glee by us all in those olden times.

G&S was also a favourite of the amateur theatre repertoire. I once was singing in TRIAL BY JURY (1875), and believe it or not, as Captain Corcoran in H.M.S. PINAFORE. Then, the Theatre Musical, principally the Broadway Musical, exiled these works from our stages until, today, we see them only as occasional antique curiosities or 'souped up' with contemporary accessories.

This Hayes Theatre production is a chamber version of the full work with a small cast of only 11 actors who double-up in many different characters and guises (even as Musicians). All of the performers have excellent voices, wonderfully honed by Music Director, Zara Stanton, and their dexterous Choreographic feats measured exactly with much sprightliness by Ash Bee. The design, by Melanie Liertz, is delightfully 'twee' in all its many changing ways made 'shining' by the Lighting Design from Fausto Brusamolino. It is all an easy 'wicked' delight.

This H.M.S. PINAFORE, is blessed with great singing and deviously clever comic acting - droll and knowing - from all, elicited with gentle skill by Director Kate Gaul. Her production's tempo is marvellously controlled and is as influential in the efficacy of the unfolding events. Tom Campbell is wickedly wonderful as Little Buttercup, but is just as amusing in every role he undertakes throughout the night - a scene stealer, even in his most subtle gesture and incarnation. I was impressed with Tobias Cole in the relatively straight role of Captain Corcoran, Katherine Allen (Josephine), Billie Palin (Ralph Rackstraw), and in the Ensemble actor/singers Zach Selmes, Gavin Brown and mesmeric Bobbie-Jean Henning, with those huge "Bette Davis Eyes", take impressive moments.

Fun. Cute. Cheeky. Camp. Nostalgic. Worth a visit.

P.S. I recommend that you find Mike Leigh's marvellous film TOPSY TURVEY (1999), which focuses on the strains of the first production of G&S's THE MIKADO. It is meticulously researched and the Design astonishing in its detail, and the tensions with all the major personalities of the creative team - Gilbert, Sullivan, D'Oly Carte bristling with comic (and tragic) revelations.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

First Love Is The Revolution

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION, by Rita Kalnejais, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst. 1 November - 14 December.

Rita Kalnejais is an Australian actor/writer (BABYTEETH), who now lives in London. FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION was written 5 years ago and had its premiere at the Soho Theatre, London. It originated, Ms Kalnejais writes in the program notes, when she was in a state of 'culture shock', encountering an English language that was so different from her natural Australian English, and in an amorous state with the foxes roaming the streets and backyards of the suburbs of London.

Basti (Bardiya McKinnon) is a young adolescent, surviving a family of violent father, Simon (Matthew Whittet), and mentally ill mother, and sexy predator neighbour, Gemma (Amy Hack), who befriends a fox, Rdeca (Sarah Meachan) who has wandered into the boy's backyard. He adopts the fox and speaks to it, and to his delight she talks back. They have a common language, these two. They develop a mutual relationship, that becomes a co-dependency.

Now Rdeca has sibling foxes, Gustina (Amy Hack) and Thoreau (Guy Simon), and fierce mother, Cochineal (Rebecca Massey) who has warned Rdeca of the dangers of the humankind and advocates that she stay loyal to her own kind and let man go their own way. But like the Juliet and Romeo story the two youngsters here have given way to a first love. Like the Montagues and Capulets their relationship will be fraught with dire consequences.

Rdeca discovers that her father had been rundown and killed by Simon, Basti's father. Cochineal seeks bloody retribution. The chicken house is rampaged. The human family let loose their dog, Rovis, in retaliation. Both families become decimated, all dead by the play's end except for the fox, Rdeca and her partner, boy, Basti. The closing image in the play is that of bloody corpses scattered about the stage, both foxes and other animals including the older humans, with fox/Redeca and boy/Basti on top of the hill as fireworks explode, the only survivors, standing in handheld intimacy, radiating a kind of joy.

This production where the actors engage in creating both human and animal characters is a kind of adult allegory with talking animals. It has the charm of the Wes Anderson stop motion animation of 2009, FANTASTIC MR FOX. FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION is an anthropomorphic fairytale fantasy for 'dizzy' adults. It could be, is, a delightful 110 minutes even though it crosses into much blood and murder - decimating destruction - and a sexual relationship that by strictly logical and ethical boundaries is the taboo, bestiality, and became hugely uncomfortable to watch as Rdeca and Basti consummate their mutual attraction on the couch surrounded by savaging blood lust.

This love is, truly, a revolution, n'est-ce pas?

Now I had, mostly, a delightful distraction and I was alert to the hilarity and identification of most of the audience in the SBW theatre, but after all that time, being teased, I began to long for its point to crystalise. After 110 minutes without interval what was the play saying? What do I take home from this excursion into fantasy? I could not find an answer, a solution. I could not determine what it was all about. My companions were similarly bewildered and so we read the program notes from the writer and from the director Lee Lewis. They didn't really make any clarity of intention.

Says Ms Lewis:
FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION ... what a title ... what an assertion ... what an extraordinarily hopeful vision for the future. In an act of radical generosity, this playwright offers this age of despair an imaginative leap into optimism. But it is a 21st century optimism, alive with the knowledge of poverty, violence, and desperation, energised with the hardest of choices, and pushing us to face ancient knowledge. ...

What ancient knowledge? We wondered.

This production is well done but its parts do not add up to much of a whole. The acting is delightful from all. The Design elements are amusing. Design by Ella Butler. Lighting by Trent Suidgeest. Composer and Sound Design by David Bergman. But the meaning of it all? Who can decipher?


Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company present, COSI by Louis Nowra, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 5th November - 14th December.

Lewis (Sean Keenan) is a character creation of Louis Nowra that appears in three of his plays, SUMMER OF THE ALIENS (1992), COSI (1992) and THIS MUCH IS TRUE (2017). In COSI, Lewis takes on a job directing some patients of a local mental hospital in a 'therapy' production of Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTI. This is not Lewis' choice but one foisted on him by the thespian leader of the hospital patients, Roy (Robert Menzies), and his enthusiasm will not be brooked. The play charts the development of the rehearsals and first performance, hilarious in its ups-and-downs, as it negotiates the temperaments and obsessions of these 'artists', all engaged by many different motives to play, whilst isolated from the tempestuous real-world drama of the 1970's, except for occasional poignant intrusions, of the social upheaval of socialism in the guise of 'free-love' and anti-Vietnam protest - a time of youthful 'revolution'.

There is a theatrical history where drama set in a Hospital for the mentally distressed is revealed: famously, for me in Peter Weiss' THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF MONSIEUR DE SADE - MARAT/SADE (1963/65), the adaptation of Ken Kelsey's novel of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1962) into a play by Dale Wasserman (1963) - later become a famously lauded film in 1973.

With those plays there are as well the many, many films dealing with mental illness, going in my experience, way back to an Olivia De Havilland vehicle called THE SNAKE PIT (1948) - I was a shocked, terrified adolescent watching at home on TV - or, just as disturbingly a Ray Milland vehicle called LOST WEEKEND (1945) - an alcoholism centred eruption of mental illness entering my terrified consciousness, and not to forget the shock and fearful awe of mad Mrs Rochester in the attic in the 1944 Jane Eyre. And more recently, cinematic experiences such as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), GIRL INTERRUPTED (1993), SILVER LINING'S PLAYBOOK (2012), SPLIT (2016), or the present sensation JOKER (2019). I have never felt comfortable about viewing into this world. Horror or comedy has often been the storytelling mode, adopted by the creators. For me, the 'horror' of it is stressful; the comedy of it awkward.

In COSI, Mr Nowra, uses comedy as the principal tool to tell this partly autobiographical story with, in this production, a leaning into seeing the exercise of the play as a vivid intersection between theatre and therapy - art therapy - supported and 'pointed' by a program interview with drama therapist, Dr Kristen Myer.

I have seen many productions of this play, including the premiere at Belvoir Theatre in 1992, and, really, have resisted its effect, essentially being extremely uncomfortable watching the antics of the patients being treated with such comic hilarity. This is a joint production by the Sydney theatre Company (STC) and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and it is oddly astonishing to realise that this is the first time the STC have put the play on - nearly 27 years have passed.

It is an elaborate production, Directed by Sarah Goodes (my personal favourite younger Director), Designed by veteran, Dale Ferguson. The set is a gloomy fire-blackened box that is pierced from the side with vivid slashes of outside light through the doors of entrance and exit (Lighting by Niklas Pajanti) until it is converted into a white floor and walls stage for the actual rendition of Mozart's COSI, with the character's transformed from the hum drum realistic clothing of everyday life to the riotous hodge-podge colours of the 'found' costuming organised by the cast themselves for the fantasy of the opera (Costumes by Jonathan Oxlade).

This company of actors are encouraged to a robust explosion, in turns, of pathos and hysteria, where, unfortunately, the vocal work is often pitched into higher registers that sometimes provide a strangulation of sound instead of a clarity of vocal narrative storytelling - the robust emotional life overriding the information in the lines and creating an obstacle with all that happens on the stage.

Especially interesting, however, is the work by Rahel Romahn, as the pyro-maniac, Doug - he, again, strikes one as an entirely inventive and deeply invested actor in all the choices he creates - he maintains a growing consistency of excellence. So does Glenn Hazeldine playing Henry revealing a wounded man with a deeply owned dignity and integrity - truly moving in his big Act One moments. Robert Menzies is assured as Roy, as is Esther Hannaford in the double playing duty of patient Julie and girlfriend Lucy. Television actor, Sean Keenan gives a performance of some stabilising effect to make Lewis the calm at the centre of the 'storm' guiding his 'actors' steadily to fruition of the discovery of the joy of theatre. While the exuberant energy and huge presence of Bessie Holland as Cherry, is just held together, just, preventing a spin into performance mayhem.

Ms Goodes' concept and control is admirable and well worth seeing, even if the play itself is, for me, an uncomfortable experience. I have decided never o watch this play again. There is a film, as well, 1996, with an all Australian star cast.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Underpants

Photo by David Hooley
Sugary Plum Productions and Seymour Centre presents, THE UNDERPANTS, by Steve Martin, adapted from DIE HOSE, by Carl Sternheim, in the Reginald Theatre,Seymour Centre, Chippendale,.

Carl Sternheim was a German Playwright and Short Story writer. Play, DIE HOSE, was written by this German writer, in 1910, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm was an infamously unstable (neurotic? paranoid?) leader of a world power who became what some people regarded as "Prussianized'. He became immersed in the romance of the 'look' of the military uniform which leant him to the conception and instrumentation of a highly militarised country with a civil government of rules and regulation that made way for an ultra socially conservative way-of-living for his populace. It was he who built a war machine, competing with his British cousin's, Edward VII's, navy that encouraged him to war in 1914, that became the cause, perhaps, for the continuing carnage of the mid-twentieth century that was to follow in consequence of the 1914 - 1918 catastrophe.

Sternheim's play was a cheeky satirising of the moral sensibilities of the emerging German middle class: its petty snobbery and insidious growth of anti-semitism - a sly (dangerous?) act of iconoclasm from a German citizen.

Steve Martin, the American actor, comedian, writer and musician, following his success as a screenplay author, which includes, ROXANNE (1987), L.A. Story (1991), and several plays including the hilarious PICASSO OF THE LAPIN AGILE (1993) that featured Einstein and Picasso in debate with a time-traveller blue-suede-shoed musician (Elvis, is it?), wrote in 2002 an adaptation of DIE HOSE, we know as THE UNDERPANTS.

Unlike the original cultural satire that Sternheim wrote, Mr Martin's adaptation of THE UNDERPANTS seems to be preoccupied with creating a light-weight sexual farce full of puns and double-entendre and precisely calibrated comic entrances and exits with little serious concern of comment on the social mores of his society's political developments (Context, of course, being the 2002 era). This production THE UNDERPANTS, by Anthony Gooley (I have seen other productions) seems, as well, to have taken on the new cultural development created by the #MeToo movement (context, of course, being 2008 - some 6 years after the debut of the original production of THE UNDERPANTS), and attempts to create a more nuanced dilemma for the heroine at the centre of the story, Louise Maske, played by Gabrielle Scawthorne. I don't believe that that works and believe it rather intrudes on the farcical flow of the comic concept of Mr Martin's play.

Whilst in a nearby park attending a military parade that actually features the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Louise Maske's enthusiasm for Royalty caused her underpants to fall from under her skirts to her ankles. She quickly recovers the 'pantaloons' hoping that no-one has noticed. Unfortunately, her husband,Theo Maske (Duncan Fellows), a deeply conservative public servant, has witnessed it and is aghast that it may be an impediment to his advancement in the civil service. His temper with his wife is deeply wounding in its misogynistic tenor - the accepted tenor of the times.

But to make matters worse, the Maske's have been unsuccessfully attempting to rent a spare room in their apartment, but after the recent incident in the park, they have applications from two men, a foreign, romantic poet, Frank Versati (Ben Gerrard), and a local accountant, Benjamin Cohen (Robin Goldsworthy). Later, two other men enter the scene, an elder gentleman, Klinglehoff (Tony Taylor) and, believe it or not, The Kaiser himself! (Ben Gerard). It turns out that they all have seen the underpants around Louise's ankles and have been 'moved'. Mein gott im himmel!

The success of this evening in the theatre are essentially, the performances. The actor with the most consistent and best grasp of the style is Beth Daly, playing Gertrude Deliter, a neighbour and sexual conspirator in leading the innocent but unconsummated wife, Louise, into the libidinous opportunity that these men present. Ms Daly has the vocal rhythms and physical discipline to deliver everything that is required for pulling off the difficult demands of the farceur, with faultless accuracy. Mr Gerrard as the poet, as well, creates a character of seeming insouciant care as Versati (although, his impersonation in the later cameo as the Kaiser, tempts him back to his too oft tendency to play it for 'camp'. (See my blog of AMERICAN PSYCHO). Robin Goldsworthy manages his masked Jew in a hostile world with a delicate balance that also permits the comic element of Benjamin Cohen to glow. It is a pleasure to watch Tony Taylor at work, although his role requires only a brief appearance. Duncan Fellows carrying the leading role as pompous Theo Maske lacks the consistency of form to have us fully engage with his offers.

In the central role of Louise, Ms Scawthorn, who is usually so secure with her choices in creating character, sometimes in this work appears bewildered as to how to marry the exaggerated demands of the comic lens that is farce and the nuanced naturalism, the more tempered expression required for a woman in a crisis of loyalty, guilt and need, to be revealed. The 'gear changes' to do this are apparent and seems to interrupt the advancing accumulative speed of the farce and so, prevents the climax of the comedy to be fully exploded.

The other admirable elements in this production are the work of Choreographer, Cameron Mitchell, with some interpolated features of dance wittily and confidently carried through, as well as a slow-motion fight hilariously sustained by Mr Goldsworthy and Gerrard, under the direction of Fight Co-ordinator, Scott Witt.

The design is mostly functional that appears to be under constraints of Budget by Anna Gardiner to create details of location and is brightly lit by Benjamin Brockman, with an accurate and witty selection of Sound Design by Ben Pierpoint.

The play finishes after about 90 minutes. One concludes that the parts are worth seeing but they do not up to much of a whole. Full enjoyment, then, is thwarted and one feels a little unsure of what was the point of it all. Certainly, it seems to have no satire of any of the social sensibilities of our world in 2019, as the original play aimed for under the wit of Carl Sternheim. As some one we know might say: "Sad. Sad."

Friday, November 1, 2019

Baby Doll

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, BABY DOLL, by Tennessee Williams, Adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 18th October - 16th November.

BABY DOLL, began its life as a film in 1956, written by Tennessee Williams. It was Directed by Elia Kazan as 'a black comedy'. It was shaped from two one act stage plays by Williams: 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON (1945) and THE LONG STAY CUT SHORT or THE UNSATISFACTORY SUPPER (1946). Tennessee Williams adapted the screenplay as a play, himself, under the title TIGER TALE in the 1970's, but this work at the Ensemble Theatre has been made by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann - long time collaborators at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

The film was nominated for 5 Golden Globes, 4 Academy Awards and 4 BAFTAS. From my teenage memory (in the 60's) the lasting, arresting impression of the film is the sensuality, sexuality of life below the Mason Dixon Line in the American state of Mississippi in the emerging but passionately resisting steamy culture of the 1950's. One tastes this flavour again in the adaptation of most other Tennessee Williams' plays for film - the raw sexual tension between a man and a woman - A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), and later in other's films such as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988). The sexual undertow of a peculiar world sparking into inevitable violence and tragedy.

BABY DOLL recounts the story of Archie Lee Meighan (Jamie Oxenbould), an ageing owner of a similarly ageing cotton gin (mill), who has struck a bargain with a dying father that he could marry his daughter,'Baby Doll' (Kate Cheel), if he promised not to consummate their marriage until she reached the age of 20. Almost twice her age Archie has been stretched in the honouring of that promise, particularly as 'Baby Doll' is both ambiguously defensive and enticing, Lolita-like - often employing deliberate flirtation in their 'heated' relationship which has become 'hotter' of late as the 20th birthday is only days away.

Besides the heat of this sexual tension, Archie's business is under threat from an up-to-date corporate-owned cotton mill nearby. He simply solves this problem by striking out, in the cloak of night, with an act of arson destroying his rival. The manager of the burnt out mill, a young stud of a man, Silva Vaccaro (Socratis Otto) turns up at Archie's mill, next day with 27 wagons full of cotton that he needs milling, urgently. Archie may have won out with his business interests. But, on the other hand, inevitably, Silva and 'Baby Doll' scent each other out and Archie's other world erupts into high tension - the core of the action of the play, on the stage.

The film was attacked by the moral right of the period with, particularly, the Catholic church regarding the film as "greviously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency" and had the film "Condemned". Some respected critics also joined tho protest declaring the film 'as a lurid tale of a virgin child bride, her sexually frustrated husband, and her smarmy lover." TIME magazine called it "possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited". This production at the Ensemble Theatre will have no such moral protest to deal with - it is bombastically, intellectually too tame.

Director of this production, Shaun Rennie, says in the program notes:
Re-examining BABY DOLL through a contemporary theatrical lens has allowed us to explore the continually evolving and shifting beliefs regarding a woman's right to autonomy and control over her sexuality. Together we've interrogated the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding Affirmative Consent, the many roles women are forced to 'perform' in order to manoeuvre their way through an unbalanced system where the male gaze is omnipresent, and to question the permanence and depth of exciting social changes that have been made slowly and progressively towards righting that imbalance.
That does seem to be an exciting proposition for the artistic collaborators of this production to have had during their rehearsal period, but to be honest, at our entry point, as an audience to the result of such cogitation, it does not seem to have affected, influenced, much, the storytelling in this production of this 63 year old provocation embedded in the mores of its period. Except as a possible encouragement for, as Mr Rennie suggests, a personal 'further interrogation' of the community values of our contemporary sexual politics. The play as written is for its time, the social and political atmosphere of the 1950'-'60's' at the centre of its interest, and to attempt to gainsay it into the contemporary debates about the agency of female sexuality etc, without a dramatic re-writing adjustment seems to be a far-fetched aspiration. The context is of great importance.

The film interpretation is a highly emotionally charged experience that resonates the skill of its actors: Carol Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, Directed by Elia Kazan, and all four of these artists are steeped in the "Method" technique devised by Lee Strasberg that had such a profound affect on the major performing artists of this cinematic and theatrical period - a created reality of heightened intensity that was based on a known truth played, usually, in a heightened state of expression. It always and still does create a physical, visceral response to the sensitive in the theatre or cinema - it is of a genre style of deliberate sexual disturbance.

This technique of 'playing' was served, in part, by the demands of the writers of the period of which Tennessee Williams was a strong advocate (it is, also, present in the works of playwrights William Inge, Arthur Miller).

As the writer Anton Chekov, served the 'revolutionary' style of acting that was the evolving technique of naturalism led by Constantin Stanislavsky who collaborated with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, his co-Artistic director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, that changed the style of approach to acting at the turn of the twentieth century, Tennessee Williams was the principal inspiration for the "Method' approach. BABY DOLL serves violently the Strasberg 'Method' of the mid-twentieth century which was an exploration and exaggeration of the traditions of his forebears, it situated at the core-heart of the Williams' plays and screenplays. It is what gave these texts the vivacity and conviction that was the underlining support for the period's work as a shock of the new.

It was this artistic element that, for me, thwarted my marrying with this Ensemble production, as this company of actors were not engaged intimately with the Method and failed to serve the thrust of the energy of the Tennessee Williams writing style.

The performance style of this company was signalled by the overwrought and over loud Sound Composition (Nate Edmondson) as an overture to the beginning of the play which seemed to encourage a 'bellowing' noise pattern of the text, from all the actors, particularly, from Mr Oxenbould, that seemed to preclude any real communication to the other actors for cause to affect the development of each character's argument of objective. Each actor/character seemed to be locked into a self-contained bubble of intellectualisation - a style that was more analytical - than of an expression of a primary subjective emotional source of energy.

(The loud sound volume of this production both electronic and human reminded me of a recent interview with the Musical Theatre star, Patti Lupone, who gave an evaluation of the contemporary Broadway Musical - 'they hurt my ears' was her reply, and that the electronic sound manipulation prevented any real ability for the audience and singer/actor to achieve any real nuance of private intimacy exchange for the character development and narrative journey).

The sensual sexuality and ambiguous preening of the Baby Doll character so powerfully evident in the film, and definitely the cause of much of the political scandal that erupted about this work as film, was absent in the work of Ms Cheel - besides the fact she did not appear to be the self-described 19 year old teenager struggling with the power of her growing sexual radiance, but rather presenting a much older woman reasoning her evaluation of how best to 'win' in the situation she has found herself placed in by Archie, her much older husband, and the arrival of the young stud called Silva. Without that vividness of the burgeoning sexuality of this "virgin child bride" the play has hardly a solid lubrication to deliver what Tennessee Williams has written for provocation in 1956. The intellectual cogitations about this work in 2019 are not part of the Williams' interest.

This production of BABY DOLL was a huge disappointment. The best of the work was given by Maggie Dence as the disappointed-with-life old lady of the house, Aunt Rose Comfort, who mostly, appears to ignore what is going on about her.

The Set Design by Anna Tregloan has been prescribed as a whole contribution to the atmosphere of the Mississippi milieu as it shares a repertory need with another play that uses the same space in a scheduled pattern of performances. Verity Hampson with her Lighting Design does as well as she can to support an atmosphere to create the theatre vision of a steamy sweaty environment that goes beyond naturalistism as best she can.

This is a one act play that in its content provocation may be better served by viewing the film.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Little Trojan in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre presents, ROSALINE, by Joanna Erskine, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) 11th - 26th October.

In Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET, Romeo, a son of the Montague's has been wandering in the woods alone, "[w]ith tears, augmenting the fresh morning's dew/ Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs." All, he thinks, for his love of Rosaline. Later, that evening he breaks into a party held at her cousin's Juliet's home to be close to his Rosaline - both women, daughters of the enemy family of Verona, the Capulets. On seeing Juliet, Romeo, instantly, falls in love with her and the prescient admonition - chiding - that Romeo's priestly mentor, Friar Laurence has given him "for DOTING, not for LOVING" Rosaline rings, fatefully, true. ("Dote" means to be infatuated or foolishly in love, or in love with the idea of love - it comes from the same root as the word meaning "to take a nap".) Romeo's 'love' has been an artificial one - he has been in a stupor, a dotage of adolescent indulgence. Rosaline is forgotten, post-haste, and Juliet becomes all.

In Shakespeare's play we never learn much about Rosaline. She is glimpsed, once, at the Capulet ball, but she is not a dramatic character in the play: she has no lines. What we know of her is Romeo's and his 'mates' projection. Part of Romeo's frustration (attraction?) with Rosaline maybe that she has "sworn that she will still live chaste", that she will die a virgin and without progeny - a challenge that any red-blooded Italian machismo might take up! (Juliet, then, on sight, seems to be an altogether different proposition/challenge.)

ROSALINE, is a new Australian play by Joanna Erskine. Since 2007 Ms Erskine has ruminated on how she can give a voice to the woman scorned in one of the world's great romantic tragedies. To tell Rosaline's story. For, Ms Erskine refused 'to believe that Rosaline simply disappeared'. The play, ROSALINE is, of course, Ms Erskine's contemporary projection of a possible alternative drama for Rosaline (Aanisa Vylet), involving Romeo (Alex Beauman), his friend Peter (Jeremy Campese) and a Friar (David Lynch).

The Rosaline, of this play, is furiously possessed - obsessed - in lust with her Romeo. She will have him and, she determines, y no-one else shall. This belief passion leads her to actions and extreme behaviours. Ms Erskine's play tells a story that is as predictable in its tragic trajectory as the original Shakespeare does when trumpeting his story in the opening sonnet-Prologue of ROMEO AND JULIET.

Directed, by Sophie Kelly, on a dour Set design (Set and Costume Design by Lucy McCullough) - a raised grey rectangle, encasing a pit, where most of the action takes place - the actors, in a collection of multiple scenes tell the story of Rosaline and her pursuit of her Romeo.

The difficulty, for me, was the acting style from all the actors of an almost unabated earnestness. The actors seemed to sit above the text and played the 'idea' of the characters and the dramaturgical intention of the narrative. There was, for me, an artificiality of sound and gesture, not, observerdly, sprung from any organic truths of personalised experience. I had an impression of actors with a clear romance with the missionary zeal of the play and Ms Erskine's 12 year yearning. Truth, evidence of a real lived experience (personalisation), owned vocal characterisations, were strangely rare in the 75 minute production of the play. The actors seemed to be talking at each other not to each other, no-one seemed to be affected by what they heard or saw - they were performing in a bubble. I could not believe the plight of anyone in the play. I was guided to the idea of the play rather than to experience any authentic 'happening' in the tragedy of this Rosaline.

Ms Vylet, who plays Rosaline, I remember essaying a passion not much different in energy and 'nakedness' in a production of THE GIRL THE WOMAN out at Riverside, Parramatta last year - her characters, in both instances, driven by a sexual need that, too, led to disaster. This possession of Rosaline, by Ms Vylet, did seem extremely familiar. (Oddly, I felt, there is no other female character in the play - one wondered if Juliet ought to have appeared, even as Rosaline does in ROMEO AND JULIET, a silent presence?)

In the time of my uninvolvement during the performance "Does it always need to be the case - that tragedy is the conclusion to a woman who pursues her free life choices? I have just finished Elizabeth Gilbert's novel, CITY OF GIRLS (2019), whose intention, partly, was/is to tell the story of a young nineteen year old woman - Vivian Morris - finding herself in the world of New York in the 1940's and decades after. A story of empowerment that includes wild choice that leads to consequences that are both near tragic but also, satisfyingly, concludes as a celebration of her freedom of choice in her complicated life.

ROSALINE, is the fruition of a 'passion' of writer, Joanna Erskine. Last year I was truly moved by Ms Erskine's play AIR and could recommend it unreservedly. This production of this new play I am less enthusiastic about. It plays at the Kings Cross Theatre until the 26th October.

As You Like It.

That play has a Rosalind - one of the great Shakespearen creations. His other Rosaline is one of the 'teases' to the gang of men led by Berowne in the comedy, LOVE LABOUR'S LOST.