Saturday, September 28, 2019


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, SPLINTER, by Hilary Bell, at the SBW Stables, Darlinghurst.6 September - 12 October.

This is a revival production of SPLINTER, by Australian writer, Hilary Bell. It was first produced by The Sydney Theatre Company (STC), in 2012.

Man (Simon Gleeson) and Woman (Lucy Bell), husband and wife, have just had their daughter Laura returned to them. She had been absent for nine months. No-one knows where she has been or what has happened. The play begins in a mood of wonder and excitement. Also, disbelief. Are they laughing or crying? Is it a dream? Is it real?

Laura has not spoken. She is an enigma.

In the original production at the STC Laura, the daughter, was represented through puppetry, manipulated by two actors. In this production she is an invisible figure that Man and Woman have colluded to invent and believe. They both interact comfortably with the empty space where their Laura, for them, palpably exists. It was, at the STC, I remember, an intriguing performance adjustment to endow the puppet(s) with the responsibility of being Laura. There grew in the storytelling an intriguing sense of mystery and magic - spooky even, like the surreal episodes with the puppets in Ingmar Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982).

In this production, Directed by Lee Lewis, it is a very odd visual 'offer' to have Woman talking and feeding an empty space, invisible soup on a real spoon. I came to endow the empty space with them and justified that acceptance by coming to believe that Man and Woman have become desperately unhinged in their grief and have invented, jointly, a 'child' to help them survive what life has thrown at them, they are splintered in front of our eyes - much like George and Martha are in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1962) - remember their invented son with blue hair and blonde eyes? With this theatrical ploy in this production of SPLINTER, the atmosphere that permeates this production is one of a discomfortable sadness viewed through a fog of the possibility of a Norman Bates psychological possession, a la Hitchcock's masterpiece, PSYCHO (1960). That so desperate is their grief that can manifest a life force which they believe is a human being not a fantasy.

Man and Woman are joined together and concentrate on Laura, to enable her to recover. The couple begin empowered with their invention but that disintegrates gradually through the events of the arc of Ms Bell's story. As time moves on Man begins to express moments of doubt that their invisible Laura is NOT their Laura. He tells Woman of his problems and the relationship begins to splinter, too. The splintering becomes a growing battle to maintain their sanity, with Man moving to the rejection of this Laura, whilst Woman desperately clutches at the splintering 'game-play' of the invisible Laura. The tension between the two positions becomes unbearable.


And so different an imaginative path from that that I created with my first experience of the play. Hilary Bell's thematic obsessions are influenced by her life long entanglement with fairy stories and the influence of the unreliable narrator. Both elements are at the creative core of her writing - all of it, I dare say. This work at its glimmering beginning and in its progress development was fuelled/referenced by "spanned sources as diverse as Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW, folk tales about changelings, the Grimm Brothers' THE WILD SWANS, Anderson's THE SNOW QUEEN, and a memoir written by Ed Smart about his daughter's disappearance. ... At the core of the play's story is doubt and its corrosive nature." , says Ms Bell in her Program notes.

Doubt leads to shifting of the lines of logic and when, as in the case of this play, the two protagonists: Man and Woman, take opposing stances: one of change and the other of holding ground, the stress/strain splinters their worlds.

The blank weirdness of the colour palette of the Set Design by Tobhiyah Stone Feller, delivers the creeping sense that outside that wooden doorway, window frame, we will find ourselves in the middle of the woods - alone and lost with invisible threats - Red Riding Hood's big bad wolf or, Hansel and Gretel's ginger-bread house that has a caged boy been fattened for dinner. That we are on the edge of our fears, sanity. There is a great visual stimulation enhanced by Benjamin Brockman's Lighting with the shadows of Mic Gruchy's Video Design.

Hilary Bell has a powerful ability to create, subtly, her stylistic language obsessions inside a text that seems on a surface read simplistic and obvious - tackling it, in depth, however, and the hidden complications become an exciting challenge for the artists.

Thus the work requires actor's with a confident intelligence and an easily accessible resource that can create the sub-text in communicable action alongside the audible text. The VOICE becomes the necessary tool to solve the complication of this play. With only two actors carrying the work the task is, indeed, formidable.

The major hurdle for me in fully embracing this production lies in the vocal quality of Simon Gleeson. Mr Gleeson is a highly appreciated Musical Theatre Artist (LES MISERABLES, OKLAHOMA, THE FAR PAVILLIONS), his singing voice sitting in the upper register. Mr Gleeson's speaking voice, on the night I watched the play, sat high in its register, too and unfortunately had a kind of strangulated quality. I had the experience of hearing an instrument that could not/did not reach into the resonant body qualities that could contrast 'musically' with his regular sound and so handicapped the effect of the tragic unwinding of the Man's splintering.The dark dramatics of a Bass were not used. His sound was an obstacle to my engagement, belief, in the Man and his dilemma.

This was made more obvious when the verbal and vocal skill that Lucy Bell was able to command as the Woman filled the SBW Theatre space with a variety of calibrated choice of sound that not only created drama but a resonant character with whom we could comfortably identify and care about because of her vocal access to her fully body resonant quality.

SPLINTER, having a new production in Sydney, is worth seeing. Whether it be your first encounter with it or, as in my case my second that permits me to compare and contrast. One of the important experiences of going to the theatre, that is a rare one in Sydney, is of being able to appreciate not only the core content and its qualities but also to observe how the individual artists can shape and highlight the material in a new and more individual challenging way.

Part of the excitement of being a regular theatre goer in London (New York) is that one can see many productions of, say, HEDDA GABLER - many in one year and to be able to observe the influence of each of the artists playing Hedda on the experience of the character and story. In Sydney, I have seen Glenda Jackson, Judy Davis, Cate Blanchett (with others) tackle this great challenging role and being devastated by the influence of their unique self on Ibsen's challenge. However, those opportunities have been spread over 30 or 35 years -when did we see Ms Blanchett's Hedda: 19, 15 years, ago? For the general public the Sydney audience virtually has to re-learn the play because of the passing of time not always giving the audience the easy opportunity to compare and contrast, appreciate or disparage, the ART of the performers, creatives and writer. It is, is it not, great to see different principals performing the Prince an ODette/Odile in the same season of Swan Lake? To see those varied artists, encompassing the same choreography and characters on the same musical beat, and yet create unique individual contributions that can throw new light onto the possibilities of the story. Is it not a gift in your theatre going experience?

This revival of SPINTER, although still spread over a time space of 7 years, is invaluable if you are a serious theatre goer and not just someone who simply wants entertainment. One can become, with this opportunity, a connoisseur of art - like reviewing a film or re-regarding that painting hanging faithfully on the walls of the NSW Arts Gallery.

SPLINTER is playing up at the SBW Stables for a few more weeks.


Photo by Clare Hawley
Outhouse Theatre Co and the Seymour Centre, present JOHN, by Annie Baker, in the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale.19th September - 12th October.

JOHN, is a play by American writer, Annie Baker. It is the third play by Ms Baker that the Outhouse Theatre Co have produced for Sydney audiences. THE ALIENS and THE FLICK. All three Directed by Craig Baldwin. All three of them have been extremely rewarding nights in the theatre. Ms Baker becomes more interesting and more daring with each play. JOHN takes you somewhere beautiful and is gentle in taking you there.

JOHN, is, in literal length, a three-hour fifteen-minute experience (with two short intervals). Set in the living space and breakfast room of a Bed and Breakfast (B&B) accommodation in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, convenient to the haunting sites of the battle-fields of the American Civil War. Two customers, Jenny Chung (Shuang Hu) and Elias Schreiber-Hoffman (James Bell) girl-friend, boyfriend, arrive late one winter's night during the Christmas season, to be welcomed by Mertis Katherine Graven (Belinda Giblin), the owner and devoted hostess.

The bedrooms are named after notable figures of the bloody Gettysburg collision and are situated upstairs. Eric finds that he is not in the room that he had booked because of a leak - he is not happy about the unexpected change - it is a curious moment of whiny petulance, of expressed dissatisfaction that, on reflection, later, is a signal to his persona, that, we will gather is not satisfied with much. It is, we discover, the worm in the bud, the core of his relationship with Jenny. It is, evidentially, a deteriorating relationship that has an unseen character, a friend of Jenny's, John, floating in the ether (ethereal) background of their tensions, that materialises, climatically, as a force of overwhelming destruction, as Eric pursues with mounting hostility, in the closing act of the play, access to a mobile telephone belonging to Jenny.

Oddly, Mertis' first husband was also called John, he seems to have been a force for good. Her second husband, George is, we think, living in the back-of-house, ill and dying - we never meet him, just hear of him - he could be just an empathetic projection of imaginative invention for the grieving Mertis - we never get to know. George haunts the back rooms and our curious perceptions.

There are lots of things that we don't get to know. There are lots of things that are raised over the course of the play to which no answers are given. Ms Baker is more interested in giving us connections and contemplations not just narrative 'facts'. She is interested in engaging you into inventing and endowing the possible layers of the life - lives - in the play with your own primary knowledge and developed secondary resources. We, the audience, become creative agents, in support of the actors who are giving us JOHN.

The fourth character of the play is Genevieve Marduk (Maggie Blinco) a friend of Mertis, who visits every now and then for the comfort of the friendship that Mertis can give her. Genevieve is blind. One demonstrable way of their friendship is that Mertis reads to her - a spiritual sustenance. She also supplies earthly sustenance with cookies. Genevieve is sightless but not blind - rather like a kind of Greek Seer. Tiresias-like. She tells us of visions of her dead husband and of his vengeful actions that are as vivid as you could wish them. Dark images of invasive insects that invade her head and body, devour and turn her mad, she claims. Genevieve has an entrance, a gateway, to a vivid metaphysical world. Blind in the real world but vividly sighted in the metaphysical dimension.

In Mertis' house, meticulously Designed by Set and Costume Designer Jeremy Allen (assisted by Veronique Benett, who also is the Lighting Designer) - even to an overhanging ceiling - stuffed with the detritus of spooky collections of 'dolls' and other paraphernalia perched on every possible surface that all seem to stare (glare) at us, one is, subtly, discomforted.

Sitting in the theatre one may recollect the horror films of CHUCKY - who was a serial killer whose spirit inhabits a "Good Guy" doll and continuously tries to transfer his soul to a human ( as does Genevieve's husband?), for in Mertis' house it is the "Samantha Doll" (1986) sitting on a shelf, unavoidable to one's sight as one ascends the stairs, that features in the memory of Jenny and haunts her with a particular dread - and is used as a tool by Eric who threatens 'abuse' to the Doll unless he is given her iPhone, unlocked - be careful for what you wish for!

Featured above this is a portrait of a widow from the days of the Civil War. This house, situated near the bloodiest battle field of the Civil war, with 57,225 casualties over the three day fight, maybe haunted. This battlefield was the Turning Point on which this nation's fortunes were drawn. This B&B maybe the Turning Point for these two adults: the maybe-boyfriend/girlfriend in the existing world. Genevieve, quietly, believes so and silently witnesses the disaster. Mertis thinks maybe so, too. They both know that the haunting is important. One of them believes that the haunting may possibly be positive. In a reverie with Jenny, Mertis talks of the metaphysical soul of the human animal, of the other animals, of plants and, even, she provokes, of the soul in the picture frame around the widow's portrait.

When was the last time a play, a night in the theatre, offered that kind of provocation to contemplate, take home, change you?

This is a 'weird' play. One feels the creep of Henry James and his perceptions of spiritual dimension: THE TURN OF THE SCREW, or, more nakedly, John Clayton's film adaptation, THE INNOCENTS (1961), with Deborah Kerr. JOHN, grew, for me, as the evening passed, into a supernatural psychological thriller - the shivers of the insidious naturalism of ROSEMARY'S BABY suggestive ascetic (1968 - Roman Polanski) chimed into my consciousness. The ultra naturalistic style entwined in the existential metaphysics of the gifted.

For, like the 2016 film by Olivier Assayas, PERSONAL SHOPPER, starring Kristen Stewart as Maureen, who is embedded in the details of a modern 'frozen' world: fashion, jewellery, travel, computer laptops and iPhone - recognisable gadgets of little emotional consequence, Maureen is, also, passionately enmeshed in the belief and pursuit of proof that her dead brother, Lewis, is attempting to contact her from the other world - from the spiritual realm. Similarly, Annie Baker presents to us, also, a beautifully articulated real world - it is presented in ultra-naturalistic detail that when it is engaged by the actors is something more than theatrical storytelling but is a kind of glacial documentary, (at a daringly boring reality time pace). We see authentic human beings, doing very ordinary things, that are surrounded by worlds greater than what they know, for certain.

Mertis, however, is in touch with those layers of perception and simply articulates the possibility. Annie Baker with her play JOHN is urging us to put away your wifi 'gadgets' and just be, to see what is there - to extend the walls of our perception. As in Christopher Nolan's 2010, INCEPTION, find what is really there? It is astonishing.

Mr Baldwin as coaxed his actors into trusting their writer, and although there were nervous tentative moments on the Opening Night, it seemed the actors sensed the intrigued absorption of their audience as the play evolved and began to trust, and honoured, without fear of boring us, the writing and the intention of Ms Baker. The modern robo-humans Eric and Jenny collide on this battle field in this B&B at Gettysburg, and there are revealed dire consequences to their relationship, blindly overseered by Genevieve, and, especially, the wonderful Mertis, each suspended, on the rims of the ethereal world of the awakening consciousness that every human animal can have if awoken.

Now, Thornton Wilder is another author, that with his plays, particularly: OUR TOWN (1938), THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (1942) and almost any of his wonderful novels: THE BRIDGE OF SAINT LOUIS REY (1927), for instance, has dared to treat his audience's with spiritual possibility in the contemporary world and JOHN, the other night, transported me to that miraculous level of pursuing that gate way to sensitivity.

I recommend JOHN and its layers, levels, possibilities, that if you attend with your eyes truly open,  perception of your world beyond the everyday activities may be able to be made possible. Tall order but worth the time to try. Put down that social media eater of your time and just relax, spare the time and permit perception beyond your venal needs. The actors, especially, Ms Blinco and Giblin are rewarding. Mr Bell is so very good that I could not decide whether it was the character or the actor I was responding to with such hostility! Whilst Ms Hu was a gently winning performer for whom I hoped her John was going to be rescuer.

JOHN, is worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing night. (Thank you Kate.)

Emerson String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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