Monday, June 10, 2019

Pime Facie

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre presents, PRIME FACIE, by Suzie Miller, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Nimrod St, Darlinghurst. 17th May - 22nd June.

PRIME FACIE, is a one hundred minute, one person play, by Suzie Miller. It won the Griffin Award for Best Play in 2018.

Tessa is a feisty young woman from a working class background who finds her talent in the practice of Law. In the journey of this play Tessa experiences what it is to be on both sides of the incidents of the court system. It becomes a devastating revelation.

Suzie Miller is a writer who has practised in Law to subsidise her first love: writing. Many a writer, especially the Australian writer, with this country's limited opportunities to be able to make writing the lone occupation of their industry and source of a sustaining income, have had to have a 'second' job. The Griffin Theatre have presented on the SBW Stables stage other works by this writer: CARESS/ACHE; SUNSET STRIP and her career has had support internationally, with many of her works having had nominations for awards of excellence.

For me, PRIME FACIE, is the 'flowering' of her gifts, it is a work of high quality, bursting with an intensity of a lived/observed experience and with a missionary passion of the highest integrity to talk about issues concerning the Law and its application to this country's citizens, underlining the injustice it can wield especially on women. It is a play that says something of great importance for our present day, fearlessly. It has, at its centre, a woman of high intelligence, ambition (and not a sportsperson!). A woman we come to admire and support in her daily interactions in a world dominated by men. What happens in the play becomes an almost unbearable angst for those of us seated in the audience. PRIME FACIE is the best of the theatre writing that I have experienced from Suzie Miller. Her courage to put this in the public domain is what makes this work glow with irresistible power.

PRIME FACIE, is posed as a one person monologue. It is a hundred minute journey. A Hundred Minutes as the lone storyteller on any stage is a truly daunting challenge. The solo actor has no other resource but themselves to develop a relationship with that unrehearsed other 'actor' - the audience, which is different every performance (and that is where the act of improvisation/being 'in the moment' becomes the other essential ingredient/thrill of being an actor) - to bring them into an empathetic state of sharing so they are able to invent and act the sub-text of what is said and shown to them.

It requires an actor of tremendous technical skill with the resources to cross a great landscape of emotional range and to have the courage to delve into the 'truths' of their own self to convince the audience to suspend their judgements, so that they are able to jointly participate in the story and take in the lessons of the play for their lives. Actors, good actors, quite early in their careers divine acting is not an escape from their own life. That it is not a game of 'pretend'. Rather, acting requires the actor to 'reveal' the first hand experiences of their own lives/identity to be the basis of their ability to tell the story of the character.

I have reckoned that the Best Resource an actor has is her/his self: their own life, which is made up from the experiencing and conscious gathering of their lived life, supplemented with the secondary resources of other lives which the actor has unconsciously (consciously) observed, with an added intense engagement with the other arts practised about them: dance, art, music, and absorbing what they have to say of our times. 95% of every character is essentially the particular actor engaged in the task of revealing the aspects of their self, that, with imaginative expansion or diminishing can create the uniqueness of the character. It takes courage as a craftsman to do such a thing but it is the essential element that is required for any performance to have the possibility of conviction and, sometimes, it can assume greatness.

Knowing oneself, having the capacity to be able to make selection and, then, the skill to edit/refine those details to piercing specifics, crowned with the COURAGE to do it every night, is what the artist - the actor - embarks upon every time they step onto the stage or in front of the lens. It is a frightening challenge that every actor takes on to story-tell for their 'tribe'. Sometimes, it becomes an ephemeral witness of Art. The actor permits the character to 'possess' them. It is a practice of great moment and risk to themselves. It is the exquisite 'magic' of the artist at vulnerable capacity. It is, for the audience, a gift that they may not always realise has been given them.

This is all leading to underline the astonishing performance that Sheridan Harbridge offers to the audience to illuminate the source material of Ms Miller's story (life experience). Feisty, funny, world wise, street wise, intelligent, committed, arrogant, confident, self aware, prejudiced, observant, skilful, compassionate, confronted, devastated, angry, outraged, courageous, stubborn, humility, are some of the facets that Ms Harbridge shares with us about Tessa, Ms Miller's woman. What is marvellous is the craftsmanship of Ms Harbridge's craft, its clever structured revelations that are presented with a sure integrity of judicious selection and restraint. Never does the acting of Ms Harbridge shift into sentimentality - it gleams with intelligence and wit, even taking us into a place of surprised compassion when her Tessa shockingly plunges into a raw emotional pain. We all, willingly, create with her, under her subtle control of our wills/focus, the heart centre of the play's injustice.

One knows that Ms Harbridge creates a 'miracle' of sage revelation when one realises that one has been watching this one woman for 100 minutes. The passage of time is so swift - Ms Harbridge's clever disguised detail at speed, induces us to reveal ourselves in identifying the commonalities of Tessa's experience (and gets us through a slightly didactic spell of indulgence from Ms Miller, late in the play), so that the busy contribution of our attention has been so intense that not a single minute of Ms Harbridge's offers allows us any mind wandering from the centre of the stage. Time had been suspended - a rare experience in the Sydney theatre going travails.

Lee Lewis, The Director, after the masterstroke of casting Ms Harbridge, has stepped back and allowed the actor to take possession of Tessa, and permitted the play to take hold of the audience. Her contribution is invisible, but, on reflection, firm. It is the opposite to the overkill that we recently had with the Sydney Theatre Company's production of A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF under the hand of Kip Williams. Gentle visual choices of signage guidance on the walls of the space, along with just a slight, raised, circular platform, in shades of black/grey and white, Designed by Renee Mulder and lit by Trent Suidgeest, subtly Sound scored by Paul Charlier, are elements that support and focus the actor and the writing without drawing attention to themselves.

PRIME FACIE, is the play we have been waiting for. Ms Harbridge has created the role that should propel her into the front line of casting in this city: magnificent, astonishing. There was, and I hear, is, every night a spontaneous standing ovation for Ms Harbridge's performance. I teach that an actor is not the 'high priest' at the altar of thespis, but is the sacrifice. Ms Harbridge does that for us every night on the SBW stage and merits your attention in a very contemporary work of important debate.

Do not miss.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Made to Measure

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti
Seymour Centre present, MADE TO MEASURE, by Alana Valentine, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale.16th May - 1 June.

Alana Valentine, the writer, notes in the program:
Weight bias is a pervasive and destructive form of discrimination. Shaming and bullying people who are living in large bodies is common, callous and counter-productive to their life and health. But equally problematic is an attitude which advocates that people living in large bodies should just be left to their own devices, that when they ask for support and advice they should be ignored.
Tim Jones, the Director of this project, is also the Artistic Director/General Manager of the Seymour Centre and as part of his mission in those positions has determined to highlight the presence of the Seymour Centre as the University of Sydney's performing arts venue and connecting it to the many Departments of research of the University to encourage a joint development of communication through the theatre of their serious investigations and endeavours so that the general public can easily absorb and appreciate, be enlightened of the studies of the University. With this project assiduously researched by Alana Valentine, Steve Simpson and the many nutrition scientists and doctors within the university have made a focused and active support to the project.

The text is voluminous in its language density, although, nothing is offered that is not easily recognised and absorbed. It is an old fashioned theatrical set of argument and debate, that has a roller-coaster emotional 'ride' that forbids any indulgences of sentimentality.

This has to do, as well, with the incredibly generous and open facilitation of the material by Megan Wilding who inhabits the body and world of the character of Monica with a naturalness and confronting honesty that allows the audience to participate in the hurdles of her pursuit of a dress for her wedding/marriage. Ms Wilding has a remarkable persona of a woman who has dealt with welters of discrimination and yet has managed to find an intelligent, though, not un-pained journey to survive. One can sense, both Monica's and Megan's past and admire their present that seems to be open to public exposure as it serves their mission to inform the world of the lives of the marginalised ''other". Ms Wilding's sense of reasonable forgiveness and acceptance accompanied by a striking wit permeates this work but, in truth, has done so in all of her offers I have seen on our stages.

Opposite her, Tracey Mann, as the couturier, the designer and maker of the wedding dress, with her character's experienced confidence of adapting to the needs of her 'customer', is cool and empathetic, and as the dramaturgical antagonist of Ms Valentine's writing, holds a credibility and wonderful balance to the offers of the Monica character. This pair of actors are worthy and generous participants that keeps this robust exposure of discrimination and the hurtfulness of it, both from the outside and more tragically from the inside of the world of Monica.

Sam O'Sullivan in his two roles gives support to the machinery of the play without pushing for attention, merely supporting the central story revealed by Ms Wilding and Mann.

The Set Design and Costuming, by Melanie Liertz are, relatively, pragmatic in their effect.

MADE TO MEASURE is another fine contribution by Alana Valentine to the canon of Australian Theatre Writing, in her artistic mission to revealing the marginalised voices of our communities, wholly justified by her intense practice of 'massaged' verbatim after a very focused research plan in the world of each play's focus of interest.

American Psycho - The Musical

BB Arts and Two Doors Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co presents, AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical. Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa, Music and Lyrics by Duncan Sheik, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, at the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave., Darlinghurst. 16th May - 9 June.

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, is an adaptation of the 'infamous' novel by Bret Easton Ellis of 1991. It is a satiric observation and skewering of the American values of the 1980's in which the (anti-) hero, Patrick Bateman, a corporate aspirant, among many other idiosyncrasies, regards Donald Trump as a figure of admiration. It is an ironic note that we in 2019, 28 years later, are engaged with 'a media-saturated society where a narcissistic, greedy misogynist with severe status anxiety can become the leader of the free world'. Donald Trump is a prescient mentor, indeed, for the Musical's hero Patrick Bateman. This deliciously terrible outcome/parallel gives the musical adaptation some possibility of a fearful edge.

The novel became a film in the year 2000, starring Christian Bale, and was, interestingly adapted by a Guinevere Turner (an out Lesbian, so Google tells me) for Director Mary Harron, which gave the screenplay and subsequent film an interesting 'slant' to the over the top misogyny and toxic male violence of the original novel. The gay and feminist perspectives provided the material with a challenging context. I enjoyed the film very much way back, 19 years ago.

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, in the Book by Roberto Aquirre-Sarcasa seems to have leant further in that direction and in this production of the Musical by Alexander Berlage is embraced with the emphasis emphatically on the 'camp' aesthetic, in its design both Set (Isabel Hudson) and, especially, Costume (Mason Browne) - all three of these artists having so successfully collaborated last year in the wonderful over-the-top-campery of their production of CRY-BABY last year at the Hayes. Susan Sontag wrote that: the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. And although Mr Browne does not have the budget to do it: Camp says Sontag, "is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers". Mr Browne does marvels with what he had to spend for what he wanted the show to be without the three million feathers. As does Ms Hudson and the choreographer, Yvette Lee, taking full advantage of the Designers offers and the undoing of the creative leash that Mr Berlage gives her to play in.

This aesthetic is carried on in the casting of Ben Gerrard as Patrick Bateman, who has made such a splash with his appearance and style in work such as I AM MY OWN WIFE, BUYER AND CELLAR, at the Ensemble Theatre, and, spectacularly in the recent Bell Shakespeare/ Griffin adaptation of Moliere's The MISANTHROPE, where his creation of Cymbeline seemed to be a flawless/seamless identification with the narcissistic inclinations of some of the world about him, with a performance that had the shirt off more often than on. Mr Gerrard followed on with an investigation of one of the leads in ANGELS IN AMERICA, at the Old Fitz. All in all, this CV is quite a collection of gay men of extreme temperament to work on - not that Patrick is gay, just that he has those exaggerated qualities - which this production shrieks out for. Mr Gerrard has had plenty of practice to get to Mr Bateman and toy with it under the permissive Direction of Mr Berlage.

Mr Berlage and his team, with a musical adaptation of the score by Andrew Worboys (there is no live orchestra), grab back to a Set Design that like Mr Berlage's first introduction to the Sydney Theatre scene with his graduation production from NIDA, THERE WILL BE A CLIMAX, (later seen at the Old Fitz), revive the trope of the continuous turn of a revolve to help create and propel the relentless energy of the work - one thinks, exhaustedly, during this performance: 'When will the revolve ever stop? and, later, 'Is there a metaphysical meaning to when the revolve reverses into the anti-clockwise mode, or not?'

All of the action is reflected in three rooms of mirror, creating an illusion of a crowded self-obsessed humanity that values image over any sense/glimpse of character depth or empathy. The shimmer of ice-cold perfection is the universe of this stage vision (perforce of the content of the novel), illustrated, amusingly, in the famous competition of the young corporates over the 'elegance' of one's calling card.

It is lit in support, startlingly, in primary colour, and fluorescent tubing, also by Mr Berlage, glowering in, mostly, a black-hole/abyss, to give a cutting edge to the look of all the bloody action of the story. This production of AMERICAN PSYCHO seems to be a natural for the present Sydney audience's pre-occupation that counts appearance/style over any serious interrogation of the content of the work.

Patrick Bateman is both the principal character in the action of the story as well as being the narrator. It confronts the actor with a demand to sit comfortably as the subjective experiencer of the events of the work as well as being required to step out of the narrative and take on a sardonic, dry, smart-mouthed objective commentator of the action. Slipping in and out of those guises is a kind of circus trick that makes demands for a technical feat of some skill. Mr Gerrard manages it with panache, using a repertoire of physical and vocal gestures that we have enjoyed in most of the work we have seen previously, in his stage (and television manifestations), but, which also could leave the audience in a disconnected position of nodding (I've seen this before) while watching the familiar mannerisms.

This was not, for me, too much of a problem, but was one that revealed the performance as lacking in spontaneity or originality, especially surprise, and when compared to the relative 'weakness' of Mr Gerrard's singing voice was almost not remarkable. Mr Gerrard is undoubtedly an accomplished actor but has, merely, an adequate singing voice. That that voice had to carry the central figure in a Musical who barely leaves the stage and has a huge musical demand, seems to be huge risk. For, on the night I saw the performance, he did not seem to have the added 'oomph' to pitch his sound over and above the accompanying chorus and orchestrations, and, so, relatively 'disappeared' in vital moments. It was never more worrisome than in the final song, 'This is Not an Exit', when Mr Aguirre-Sarcasa (Book) and Mr Sheik (Music and Lyrics), attempt to give Bateman a redemptive dimension and a gesture to suggest that he is a human just like all of us in the audience (in this production he leaves the stage and sits with his audience looking at the other players, identifying as one of us). Mr Gerrard did not have the vocal power or the warmth of sound to convince us of this contrivance - this pivotal moment fell flat - one was not convinced that Patrick Bateman was a human worth embracing or forgiving. Patrick Bateman remained a bloodless murderous psychopath - frightening.

The rest of the company are startling in the commitment to the demands of this production requiring them to shift scenery and location, change costume, sing untiringly,, and dance effortlessly while negotiating the ever turning stage-revolve. Shannon Dooley (Evelyn Williams), Liam Nunan (Luis Carruthres), especially, create characters that stick in the mind despite the obviousness of the dramaturgical function, while Blake Appelqvist (Paul Owen) steals the show with an ease of presence, having a physical plasticity and accompanying singing quality that could, perhaps, take on the role of Patrick Bateman with ease and power (recently I saw Mr Appellqvist in a solo role, in a new Australian musical DORIAN GRAY NAKED, and was mightily impressed - a Star?)

The 'politics' of the novel and the film, and, perhaps, even of this musical version of that source material that "ambition is an instinct necessary to survive, and empathy can be switched on and off when convenient. (and) Perhaps the only way to break such a cycle is to strive for authenticity and rediscover what actually makes each of us happy, mindful and above all else, human ...' (Program notes), seemed to me relatively elusive in this dazzling production. The textual content and its tools of telling seemed to be about a decade or two passé - the events and times have moved on. Of all the novels of that time the social impact and heritage of AMERICAN PSYCHO, may be, mostly, today, famous for the the sensation of its original scandal and the scary fascination that we have as a species for the bloody serial killer that may be stalking our neighbourhood. BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, the 1987 novel by American Tom Wolfe , a work studying the same times, sits higher as a superior work of satire and literature, I reckon - a Dickensian-like forensic study of a society in terrible straits (it was by the way, a terrible film).

AMERICAN PSYCHO - The Musical, at the Hayes Theatre, is a dazzling production, that is relatively empty in its content impact. Sydney should love it. I was admiring but unmoved.