Monday, July 13, 2020

It Must Be Heaven (film review)



Cinema going is always a risk. At the moment with the re-opening of the cinemas there seems to be a dearth of product - new product. The BIG films are being held back from launching I guess to ensure a proper audience take-up to ensure a monetary return, as investment due for the risk taken. Fair enough.

So, besides the reprise of many films that have had a proper screen time before the Coronavirus interruption we have been given, in new film, a lot of art film investigations.

IT MUST BE HEAVEN, Directed by Elia Suleiman, in 2019, is one of these. It has had a positive critical response, and I heard Jason Di Rosso rapturing about it on The Screen Show on Radio National.

My addiction urged me to attend.

Elia Suleiman wrote, directed and starred in this project that begins in Palestine, moves to Paris and then New York. It is supposedly a satiric, comic observation that one place is much like the other. The commonality of being human dominates the observations. Suleiman places his character as an observer of the world around him. There is little dialogue and much of the work is made up of animated facial responses to indicate us to places of personal contemplation.

I am not sure of the persona that Suleiman projects: for instance I thought the Paris section spent an inordinate time with the camera directed at the bodies of the young women of Paris passing him by in the streets. I found it cumulatively an uncomfortable experience. a kind of soft-pornography.

Some have mentioned Suleiman's mentors have been Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Tati is an earned appreciation and is a difficult one, for me, to view in the full length feature mode. If I could see the Keaton influence I might be more amenable. One wishes he had indulged in the Chaplin politics and entertainment fashion.

My experience of IT MUST BE HEAVEN, was that of an art house dirge with a less than charming 'host'. I wondered if I needed to be Palestinian to appreciate this work. I was so glad when it finished.

One responds with the swings and round-abouts of the cinematic art form and you too may enjoy it as Jason Di Rosso did.

Que sera sera.

The Personal History of David Copperfeild (film review)

The cinema is back. I have an addiction for the cinema experience. So, a friend of mine booked the first morning session: 11am! I just love sitting in my seat as the lights go down, watching the previews and then the feature close to the front, to be enveloped by the width of the screen and surrounded by the sound. I have diagnosed the need to have the stimulation of the flicker of the large image otherwise I can become a little depressed, literally. No matter the quality of the film or its genre I feel so much better when I come out of the darkened 'cave'.

I went to see the new Dickens adaptation of his novel, whose title has been edited down to: THE PERSONAL LIFE STORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Armando Iannucci co-wrote with Simon Blackwell and Directed the screenplay himself. His other work includes the satiric comic television series THE THICK OF IT and VEEP.  In 2017 he Directed THE DEATH OF STALIN - a wondrously dizzy excursion into political satire with a stellar cast of actors, a must see.

The film is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATION OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE YOUNGER, which was published first in serial form but arrived as a complete novel in 1840. This was Dickens' favourite work and has an autobiographical aura about it. The novel was special for Dickens - his favourite achievement.

The novel takes us on the maturing journey of David Copperfield who is shaped by the family and friends of his acquaintance who we get to know precipitously through the robust comic caricatures we meet on his life journey. There are liberties taken with the source material but not to any lessening of the adventures we encounter. Iannucci seems to be as in love with the material as Dickens himself was and has a tremendous respectful attitude to the source - as in any novel adaptation there are instances of character and event that have been excised that will, possibly, distress you - but in a 2 hour storytelling,  something has to give in the huge epic that is the book.

The film is boisterous fun set in the many social stratas of the early Victorian era celebrating it with a sense of joy but with an acute and accurate (and subtle) eye for the difficulties of the huge adjustment that the British nation was having shifting into the economic and social challenges of the Industrial Revolution in the city of London and the country, both rural and seaside. It is the Victorian Era writ large with the social, political, satiric energy that made Dickens such an important artist of his time in indicating where the social reforms by government ought to be made.

Iannucci begins the film with David Copperfield arriving on a Victorian theatre stage to read and impersonate the novel much as, famously, Dickens did: acting out his books, creating his characters, performing - he was a famous amateur actor (ham!). The Director then shifts us into natural locations, bantering back and forth from the 'theatrical' locations to naturalistic renderings. It begins much like the Joe Wright adaptation of the 2012 ANNA KARENINA, with Keira Kneightly, but does not pursue the same risky consistent bravura shifts that the Wright film has (I love it, some others were disconcerted by the Wright 'method' - it does take adjustment but it is worth making an effort to do.)

The other offer that Iannucci makes with the film is to practice colour blind casting right across the board. David Copperfield is played by Indian actor Dev Patel. Mr Whitfield is played by British Asian actor Benedict Wong, whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalin Eleazar. Niki Ameka-Bird plays Mrs Streerforth whose patrician son, James, is played by Aneurin Barnard. There is no question of visual racial contradictions that could intrude on the film as an obstacle to our involvement as the sheer confidence of the company and that each actor is absolutely the best actor for that role sweeps us imaginatively into utter belief - the speed of the film allows no time for quarrel or questioning  the choices. It is a refreshing exercise and ought to be a standard for imaginative casting to come; both in the cinematic world and in the theatre (where it has been in practice for some many years in Europe and the United States.)

This film is also boasting and bursting with actors who, if you are a fan of the work of Iannucci, are a familiar team: Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Uriah Heep) are some of them. (I especially loved Dev Patel, who seems to be able to do anything. Ben Wishaw is astonishing and was at first not recognisable.)

The DAVID COPPERFRIELD story was famously told in film  for MGM, directed by George Cukor (one of the Great Directors of the era), in 1935. It was the quality standard bearer of this story and is still a film that is worth watching and loving. The acting company is sublime and the story, for its contextual period, is moving, funny and enhancing. Compare the achievements.

I thoroughly recommend Armando Iannucci"s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction, Biographical: By Women Possessed (Eugene O'Neill) and The Letters of Cole Porter

I always try to keep my knowledge of the Performing Arts and the creators expanding to augment my vision and knowledge to teach my students with insights that only Knowledge can give me.
So, here are some of my recent excursions and a brief response.

BY WOMEN POSSESSED: A LIFE OF EUGENE O'NEILL

by Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

The Gelb's, husband and wife, spent a great deal of their creative energies researching and writing investigations into the genius and life of American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.They have written several books on O'Neill and some of the other people of the era. BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016) is the last of their collaborations and is a dense and gruelling read using O'Neill's relationship with women in his life: His Mother and then his three wives: Cathleen Jenkins, Agnes Boulton and Carlotta Monterey to, perhaps, explain, his driving creative energies - his furious response to what he viewed as the carnivorous woman. Both he and the women seemingly POSSESSED.

The book is wonderfully prepared with a life time of discoveries by these two writers (they have written another biography - 1962). The psychology of cause and effect is woven with an enlightening sensibility by the Gelb's. The writing career, play by play, is examined and parallels with his personal struggle with the demons of his psyche - burying him in fierce states of depression augmented by an addiction to alcohol, from which his fierce plays emerged. The ancient Greeek myths, bible stories and historical context of his world are used to lubricate his visions.e.g. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. Later, his auto-biographical penchant is evident. AH, WILDERNESS, A TOUCH OF THE POET, THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, besides the one act sea plays. He was a winner of many Pulitzer Prizes and became a Nobel Laureate for literature.

An American son, his father an actor, a matinee idol (THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO), his mother a convent girl who becomes addicted to morphine, he of a dark Irish temperament determined not to have his writing distracted by women and children. His personal demands were outrageous and facilitated by the context of the times and the macho embrace of his genius. He mesmerised his women to subservience to allow him to write without distractions of the ordinary life.

The book is astoundingly illustrative into the origins of the plays and the explorations - experiments - of form that O'Neill produced. It is a tremendous resource that I recommend as a must if you are working in the O'Neill ouvre. It also reveals the theatre experience in New York and the Americas that helps one to enter and begin to understand the reason why this man wrote those plays and why the audience embraced his work with such interest both savage and felicitous.

Literally the book weighs a ton - difficult to read in bed - but is also a disturbing and turbulent exposure of an unpleasant man that has produced some of the most important plays/visions of life for the theatre.

I recommend but be warned: it is not for the feint hearted reader. It is grinding.  An indispensable background.


THE LETTERS OF COLE PORTER

by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (2019)


I picked up this book as a result of an article in THE NEW YORKER. I know, really, only a cursory amount about the great musical composers of the early 20th century American era.

This book is a collection of letters (624 pages of them) and are dated from the first decade of the twentieth century to the early 1960's and features correspondence with many of the movers and shakers of the musical world - Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Orson Welles as well as many of his friends and lovers. Coming from money, marrying money, he had other money most of his life raining down with the musical genius of tune and lyric. Married, suffering a shattering horse accident, his homosexuality is part of the information we read through. His interaction with the wheels of Broadway and the Hollywood film studios are amusingly, cynically, revealed. The suffering of an artist in the naked reveal of his work and struggling with success as well as failure is recorded first hand.

I found the book a boorish insight and sometimes just plain tiresome. I pushed through it. It is a dip-in, dip-out book and is probably of most interest to the musical theatre tragic. I'm not one of those.

JED HARRIS; THE CURSE OF GENIUS

by Martin Gottfried (1984)

This is a biography of one of the great and legendary Directors of the American Theatre. He was the son of Esther and Meyer Wolf Horowitz who arrived in Newark with their son, Jacob Hirsch Horowitz. He was one of several children but was the bookish one - finding the realm of literature a sanctuary in the harsh life of the Jewish American immigrant. He was a wilful determined person, fractious with his family and locals, who blighted his study at Yale, and gradually bullied his way into the theatre where he produced a series of triumphs one after the other. BROADWAY, THE ROYAL FAMILY, THE FRONT PAGE, OUR TOWN and THE HEIRESS are some of his landmark successes. He worked with playwrights such as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Edward Chodorov.

He died in 1979. At his memorial few people turned up. Most people thought he had long been dead and were surprised he had survived so long. The absence of the collaborators, celebrants of his career life was really his greatest achievement, which the writer Martin Gottfried intimates was his principal objective: to make enemies and to destroy his own legend. He, apparently, succeeded.

Being of Jewish inheritance was a burden and the cruel relationships with the women in his life are presented as some of the combustible fuel of his pernicious artistic drive. Most people worked with him only once. His rages, his quarrels, his feuds, his cruel witticisms, were wanton and shocking - disturbingly vicious. He was a genius of the theatre, with a great sense of finding the play, 'fixing' the play, casting and directing the play, he had the ability to diagnose the problems of the playwrighting and the gifts of his actors. He always cast his plays and rarely changed his mind - his instincts were an exceptional talent but were the undoing of his self - he was a genius in pursuit of perfection and had liitle patience with the less talented or the less motivated. Was it worth enduring him to have success? Time told him: NO. He vanished from sight (It could be seen as a result of a deliberate strategy of his own!)

This book is sometimes a little shallow in its insights but is stuffed with anecdotal references that is enough of a bait to keep one engaged. The background to how the Broadway Theatre 'worked', its history through the century is a great knowledge to have to store in the resources of my own practice. I gained a lot from reading it. I recommend it very much.

JUDITH ANDERSON, AUSTRALIAN STAR, FIRST LADY OF THE AMERICAN STAGE

by Desley Deacon (2019)

I read of this book in the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course I was curious. For Judith Anderson is a world famous actor, stage and screen who was born in Adelaide - in ADELAIDE (As was Helpmann) and found an illustrious future, particularly on the stages of Broadway. How does she achieve such success is what one reads the book for. She died in 1992. Most famously she created Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film REBECCA. That performance is an iconic one for cinephiles. But it was her theatre work that is thrilling to discover: her MEDEA is legendary. That career spanned decades. (She toured 'down under').

I am grateful for this book by Desley Deacon but would not recommend it as a satisfactory read. It is rather a documented review of her career and personal life that is not to 'juicy' in its details. Important, undoubtedly, but not riveting. (It was interesting to read that she was one of many women that had a long, off-and-on relationship with the notorious Jedd Harris - as did Ruth Gordon - who, in fact, had an illegitimate child with him, a scandal he ried to hide - James Harris).

If you're an Australian artist then this book is a must. As she is a successful woman in the world theatre it should be part of your knowledge of history. HERSTORY no just history. She, apparently, was a formidable artist. Her film and television career is worth finding: Tony Awards and Emmy.

TONY CURTIS, the autobiography 

By Tony Curtis and edited, supplemented contextually, by Barry Paris. (1993).

Given to me by a friend it was an insightful read into the life and , especially, times of Mr Curtis' career - especially the 40's-60's America.

Things I learnt: Tony Curtis was the son of a Hungarian Jewish family: Bernard Schwartz (I always thought of him as being  of Italian origin). His youthful adventures in the inner city of Manhattan, especially in the 30's during the parallel rise of the Nazi's in the Weimar Republic, there were in the 'ghettos' of the refugee immigrant, German conclaves in New York, gangs of Brown shirts full of the anti-semitic propaganda and violence of the home country. Surviving in that environment was a war in itself. Fascinating insight into history - now there is a Scorsese film to sit beside THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Enduring that was one of the formative experiences of this young actor's life, as was his relationship with his brutal mother and vagrant father. Formative traits that influenced so much of his direction of career.

It was his incredible good looks that facilitated the career of Tony Curtis, who along with a precocious sex life developed his own approach to acting - personalisation - eschewing the Method as indulgent crap that was the great influence of the period. Brando was a 'genius' and really didn't need the Strasburg influence.

I am not especially excited by autobiographies of artists and read them with a cynical eye. The Biographies are more reliable and the further the book is away from the death of the artist the more interesting and illustrative they are. Read the late biographies of Olivier, for instance, for a most honest assessment of the actor.

What this book did was to remind me of some of the great performances and films of Tony Curtis besides the 'popcorn' commercial ones that entranced us momentarily in the cinema as kids: IVANHOE!

THE DESPERATE ONES, SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, SPARTACUS, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, INSIGNIFICANCE - iconic performances.

Curtis does not skirt his drug and alcohol period of the 70's and 80's and is prepared to talk of his many fractious relationships with women and his children. Reading this book contextualised the Hollywood experience of his era and gave some anecdotal insights to some of the great artists he worked with. Recommended.

You may want to find these books..

Thursday, July 2, 2020

More book reviews Pt 2: "The Offing" and "Smoke and Ashes"

CORONAVIRUS reading time.

Two books that are very different from each other but both easy and good reads.

THE OFFING, by a young writer, Benjamin Myers, was published in 2019. It has some ecstatic reviews.

Set in England just after the end of World War II, Robert Appleyard decides to take a year off after finishing school, and explore the world outside of the Durham Colliery, in which his family have been miners from generation to generation. Is he destined to mine the mines? His family expect so. He is not so sure. This is the vague fuel to the quest he engages in.

He wanders by foot into the countryside, following nature and its flora and fauna, taking on light tasks and camping on properties that he is passing through. It is a journey that connects him to the wonder of the natural world - a world he had not ever before regarded.

Robert finds himself, stumbling onto a bushy hillside with a ramshackle cottage and sheds overgrown by nature, not far from the seaside. There he meets Dulcie Piper, an older bohemian eccentric with her German Shepherd, Butler. She without inhibition invites him to food and alcohol and literature, to poetry. To an ideal of Europe. His world is broken open to a scale, a potential, he had never known before.

The local fishing village have adopted Dulcies' eccentricities and take a care for her surviving, and Robert taking himself away to continue his journey is guided back to Dulcie's with a seafood gift from one of the local fishermen. Robert, then, finds himself further drawn into her influence by taking on small jobs to organise the garden and to restore a shed that reveals itself as a once studio for a foreign artist - a poet, Romy Landau - a companion of Dulcie's who has died.

This is a coming-of-age story for Robert and a resurrection of hope and faith for Dulcie as both participate in the reveal of a lost and unpublished collection of poems by Romy, called The Offing, that had been abandoned in the studio/shed.

Offing is defined as "the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge". In that space there is possibility and growth.

This short novel is written in descriptive language that sparkles with the reflective light of sparkling jewellery. The language is strangely old fashioned in its vividness and charm but has a disarming energy that wraps about you with a warmth of familiarity and comfort. I found myself propelled into the reading of the book with a sense of delightful ease. The descriptives are overrich yet completely entrancing. Given to me by my friend, a bookseller, it was a present for which I am so grateful.

The grief of a nation flowing out of the destruction of a World War, a land in scattered decay, and a woman devastated by a broken heart are healed by the grafting of a miner's son to a blossoming into a poet - a novelist - into the becoming of joyous simplicity of experiential depths. Robert Appleyard, now an older man, is the voice of this narrative as he recalls the year that changed his life - this is his novel of memory, when his life was changed. THE OFFING may change your life, too. And, if not, you will, at least, have had a very pleasant read.

Highly recommended.

Okay. Let me continue my fandom for the Abir Mukherjee crime detective series which I have written about in an earlier blog post.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the third book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-Not' saga. All three books are set in Calcutta in the 1920's. These two men are members of the British Police Force and are investigators of crime. The books have followed these two men and a collection of other characters in their natural growth, personally and politically, during this highly volatile time in India during the rise of the Gandhi driven Independence movement enveloped in the corrupt collapse of the British Raj.

Wyndham, a cynical survivor of the trenches of World War I, and the death of his young wife, after a short stint with Scotland Yard, is seconded to Calcutta under the aegis of Lord Taggart. He has been commissioned there for some two and a half years. Opium is readily available in this city and he has become addicted intensely - taking risks that could ruin his career.

SMOKE AND ASHES, is set in December, 1921. Wyndham's addiction to opium has become quite intense and this book opens in an opium den where he is woken mid-way through an indulgence as there is a vice squad police raid going on. To be found there will be the end of his career. He takes flight and finishes on a roof where he stumbles over a corpse with its eyes gouged and a ritual stabbing in the chest.

He is not able to report the crime for fear of exposure but when another body is found with similar wounds he becomes alert and is sent with his native detective companion, Surrender-not', to investigate and solve.

These crimes spiral and a pattern of murder becomes revealed in a gradual exposure of a secret British research biological experiment investigating the effect of chemical weapons, illegally using Indian troops as their human 'guinea-pigs'. These new crimes may be revenge actions.

What is thrilling is that as this investigation climaxes, it is set against the non-violent, non-cooperation protests held in Calcutta at this time led by Gandhi deputies: Chitta Rajari Das, Subhash Bose, and Das' wife Basanti Devi, climaxing on the day of the Royal Tour of Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII's, arrival in Calcutta.

As usual, Mukherjee handles the storytelling with a deft speed and a comfortably sensed researched dramatic integration, if not with complete historic accuracy. It gallops along in its twists and turns. Add the development of the individual characters' dilemmas, especially that of Wyndham and his habit, and the native sergeant 'Surrender-not' who has a duty to the Raj as a member of its police force but is also a member of a family highly engaged in the Gandhi confrontation with the white culture. He is torn in his ambitions and loyalties.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the best of the three books, so far, in its drafting and exciting juxtaposed content. The book does stand on its own but is more interesting because the chronological order created is especially arresting.

Recommended

Monday, June 15, 2020

More book reveiws

More light reads.

I found an Australian crime writer that has a series of books - 11 books - written about the character of Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Sydney artist. Sulari Gentill is the writer. Each book is centred in a different background. The one I read: ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, is set in Shanghai in 1935.

Sinclair's brother, Wilfred, runs the family business - a wool business and is unable to attend an important international negotiation meeting in Shanghai and seconds his younger brother, Rowland, to stand in for him despite his relative ignorance of how it all works.Quickly instructured in the facts of the business and ordered not to agree to any offer from any of the participants - to stall every ofer of negotiation - he travels to Shanghai with his three Sydney companions: Clyde, an artist; Middleton, a poet; Edna, a sculptress - it seems they are inseperable, a bit like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five or the Talley Ho gang, inventions of dear Enid Blyton.

In the exotic realm of China's international port filled with refugees from the revolution In Russia, the shady movers and shakers in the underground gangster 'industries' of this glamorous city with its taipans and tycoons and suspect police force, with the subtle but lethal pressure of the presence of Japanese invaders and their pursuit of economic and political power in China, in an unstable world of German, Italian and Spanish agitation for war, our Australian companions indulge in the sexual and drug hedonism of this exciting Eastern environment. On their first night Rowland and his friends brush up against the taxi girls in their luxurious hotel's ballroom only to be plunged into a murder investigation which Rowland Sinclair becomes the principal suspect. 

To unravel the crime to find the actual culprit, Gentill takes us through many landscapes of the city - rich, poor, desperate, celebratory - meeting a complex set of international characters that enliven the storytelling with well researched detail. Some 374 pages it is a lively read although I found the principal characters superficial and cumulatively rather boring, maybe even objectionable asses of entitled wealth and preposterous derring-do. The catalyst character - a love besotted newspaper 'madman' - was for my taste too obvious a novelistic ploy - and a very shallow psychological projection - to shift the storytelling into its final action. Hugely disappointing, and fairly banal.

But, then, there are 11 books and so the characters are a source of pleasure for many other readers. The Age is quoted as saying: "A sparkling crime series ...Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie ..." . This is what, ultimately, persuaded me to pick it up, buy it: Waugh and Christie - if only. 

A TESTAMENT OF CHARACTER is the latest in the series. Perhaps I need to read another to confirm or reverse my reaction.

At the same time I picked up a new novel from the creator of DOWNTON ABBEY. I thought it would be an untaxing diversion to fill the Coronavirus vacuum in time. The book is BELGRAVIA, published in 2016. It is fruity in its world which is early Victorian - 1830's - and is stuffed with the clambering rivalry between the gentry and the new upwardly mobile trade successes of the period, with all of its prejudices and well worn striving. Class, as usual, is under the scrutiny of this writer. But it is not the Upstairs Downstairs politics in a family house this time but a rubbing of the Ancestral shoulders of the old collapsing money peoples with the rising of the new money of the industrial tradies. If you want standing: marry into the gentry, if you want money to survive, accept and marry the rising status of the power of well earned money.

For me, there are too many caricatures written to spin the wheels of the plot into 'violent' activity. Too many of them are, in the writing, just thumb nail sketches of melodramatic types. 

It begins in  Brussels on the evening of Duchess of Richmond's ball - which 25 years later has become a legendary occasion - is interrupted by the news that Napoleon was gathering his forces on the fields of Trafalgar. The young soldiers leave their dancing to prepare for battle. Some of them will never return. One of them, the young son of the Duchess, is one of those who never returns. But he has left behind a young woman who was fooled to give her virginity without marriage to him. The resultant child of this 'fallen' woman becomes the centre of the story. He is a secret that draws the Duchess and the Trade family, the Trenchards, into necessary interaction.

In the writing the characterisations are rather cloak and dagger caricatures serving the turn of the wheel of an obvious plot that sits in the shadow of say, Thackery's VANITY FAIR, without any of its wit, machinations, or relish of satire or irony. 

At page 271 of the 411 pages of this book I discovered that a new television series of 6 episodes had been made to bring this book to a wider audience - I think it is now available on one of the many streaming platforms. Checking through the casting and watching a Trailer or two on Google, I deducted that the acting by a very competent cast of actors would more than likely provide ALL the characters with a complex internal life as well as the external actions of the storytelling of these intrigues. That the embodying of these characters by very good actors would do the work that Mr Fellowes does not do in this book, which may have been, now I think of it, been written as a very long winded "pitch' for the filmmakers of our era. (Certainly, that is what I observed while watching the previews.) So, I gave up reading any further and decided to wait for the series to be screened.

I cannot imagine it necessary to read the book. And the script and acting of the series may be a more satisfactory experience of BELGRAVIA.

Crime novels, Katherine V. Forest's 'Kate Delafield Mystery' series

One of my favourite series of Crime novels are those by Canadian/American Katherine V. Forest, with her Kate Delafield Mystery series.

Kate Delafield is an ex-marine employed as a Detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

I came across this series of books last year and was fortunate to read them in chronological order, or at least six of them: AMBER CITY (1984), MURDER AT THE NIGHTWOOD BAR (1987), THE BEVERLY MALIBU (1989), MURDER BY TRADITION (1991), LIBERTY SQUARE (1996) and APPARTITION ALLEY (1997).

What is fascinating is that not only is each book deeply involved in the solving of a particular crime investigation written with a great sense of detail and intense research of period and geography (we get to know the LA roads and the 'personalities' of each suburb) incorporating a canny conviction of deep knowledge of police procedural practice that gives the reader a comfort of truth. It is cool, particular and non-emotional. We get to know her superior officers and her partners. We watch Kate become one of the highly respected detectives in her division over the passing years, driven by a great sense of mission and honour, loyalty to her hard learnt values originating from her torrid experience as a marine in the Vietnam War.

The books are involving because we become engaged with the personal life of this woman and we follow her emotional journey over the years and are privy to her relationships and her struggles with her homosexuality. Katherine Forrest writes with restrained but non-inhibited ease in the sexual interludes with Kate's casual sex partners and finally in her significant relationship with Annie. We develop a caring relationship with Kate Delafield. As a lesbian police officer in the LAPD we are brought to the dilemma and politics and the changing attitudes to the LGBT community in this notorious LA department, for this is the misogynistic department that was a part of the O.J. Simpson saga, the Rodney King riots - remember the police officers that were exposed during those very public trials. Being gay is a quality of life that needs to be 'buried' if one wishes to have a career. At least that is how the books begin. But as we follow the developing personal life of Kate Delafield we also become witness to her growing political conscience over the passing of the years and the slow changes of the LA Department.

There is not only the Kate Delafield character that is in every book but also a rolling collection of men and women who appear in changed and growing circumstances from book to book. We can identify particular individuals and the burgeoning community, it is not not fiercely realistic - it has a ring of truth rather than a fanciful fictionalisation. Over the chronological reading of the novels we not only have a brilliantly researched set of crimes but also a sense of the passing of historical events that are shaping the growth of the American attitude to the LGBT community through the tough prism of LAPD.

I recommend these novels without hesitation and believe them to be setting a contemporary standard in Crime Fiction. Search them out. You will not be disappointed whatever your sexuality. Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlow detective, Dashiell Hamnett and Sam Spade, and James M. Cain with his crime figures are matched indeed by Katherine V. Forrest.

P.S. The next three books that await my appetite are SLEEPING BONES (1999), HANCOCK PARK (2004) and HIGH DESERT (2013).

Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Book Reviews

Hello. Besides the literary books of 'weight' - fiction and non-fiction - I have distracted myself with some relatively lightweight reads.

Recommended by a bookshop owner friend I embarked into the detective genre. Abir Mukherjee is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in West Scotland and now lives in london. His debut novel A RISING MAN appeared in 2016. We meet Sam Wyndham, a World War veteran and Scotland Yard refugee, who takes on a job offer in Calcutta in 1919. A rising man belonging to the British Raj ruled by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford is found murdered in a disreputable part of Black Town with a message stuffed in his mouth warning of the coming independence movement that is taking a path of revolution.

Sam Wyndham is placed in charge of the investigation by his superior, Lord Taggart, and is partnered by an arrogant British officer Inspector Digby and a British educated but Indian born Sargent Banerjee. He reveals himself as an invaluable local for interpreting and understanding the 'methods' and values of this great city, to lucidly assist his officer superior in the solving of the crime. In the novel he is called 'Surrender-not' as his British superiors can not - will not - pronounce his name Surendranath. This is the first of the racist tensions that colour the world of this book where the British population of all classes regard that they belong to a superior civilisation and despise the local peoples.

No-one in this novel, except, perhaps, Banerjee are without flaws. Our leading man Sam Wyndham is 'lost' in a PTSD depression, having survived the trenches of World War I and the loss of his young wife and has a naked cynicism to the values of the world. He balances his sanity with an addiction to opium (as does Sherlock Holmes) and has little trust for his British commanders and is dogged in the pursuit of unravelling the murder. We meet a very interesting range of characters, especially, an attractive anglo-indian secretary, Annie Grant, that provides a tantalizing possibility of a romantic interlude. The climax of the investigation comes with the background issue of the troubles/massacre of Amritsar.

We find out truths but you must not expect justice. The novel is permeated with a cynicism that is very 'modern' and gives the work a contemporary resonance although it is set in a period of history a century ago. The writing rattles along at a galloping speed and leaves one breathless and keen to turn the page - it was a day long read. It was mostly fascinating, although, there are some too obvious clues to the suspicions of whodunnit that undercuts a fully committed surrender to the chase. However, A RISING MAN won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, and a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Eastern Eye ACTA Award for literature, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

I followed up a few weeks later with his second book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-not' Banerjee series, A NECESSARY EVIL, published in 2017, and is set in 1920. The book is a continuation of Wyndham's career set in Calcutta as part of the Bengal Imperial Police and we meet characters we already know from the first book and observe the deepening relationships as well as a whole intriguing set of new principals in the solving of the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore's eldest son - the heir apparent, Adir.

In the royal family ,there are three wives and forty odd concubines with hundreds of children, living in the zenana. The Maharaja, Rajan Kumar Sai, the wives: the first elderly Maharani Shubhadrra, the third Maharini Devita,(the second Maharini has died); the heir apparent Adir, his younger brother Punit, and the very young Prince Alok, the third in-line for the kingdom. The novel of 370 pages begins on Friday 18 June and is over on Thursday 24 June, a mere six days. The story rockets along and is full of political twists and turns intriguingly bound in religious entanglements and beliefs. The suspects are numerous.

The guiding deity is Lord Jagganath (the origin of the English word juggernaut) and is the centre of the Maharini Subhadra's worship, supported by the mystic priest Dewan. The English representatives are Mr and Mrs Carmichael - professional diplomats bored to mundanity soaking in alcohol; Golding the practical, realist, efficient bookkeeper/accountant of the affairs of the Kingdom; Fitzmaurice, the corporate leader of the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company attempting to claim the kingdom's money resources: coal, as the diamond mines dwindle as the money maker; Colonel Aroa, in charge of the Maharaja's police, he seems to have a foot in the present and the future - which side is he on?; a powerful eunuch of the harem, Sayed Ali; Miss Pemberley, a white British woman sought by the playboy Prince Punit; and the outspoken radical critic of the political structures, schoolteacher Shreya Bidika. All have motive. Even the British Government who wish to enforce the Kingdom of Sambalpore to become a member of the Chamber of Princes - an instrument that will maintain British control: Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and police controller, Lord Taggart have much at stake with their career on government view, of which Wyndham/Benerjee are the accidental tools of enforcement.

The corruption of the Kingdom is surrounded by the corruption of The British Raj and Mukherjee in his handling of the description of the places of the book signals the degradation of the Empire. The genre is crime fiction but it is also a political critic of the affairs of history. Fortunately it is delivered without overbearing didacticism but seeps insidiously into the spine of the tale.

There are now two new books in the series: SMOKE AND ASHES and DEATH IN THE EAST, and I am curious to see the developments of character. Of Wyndham's addiction - the dangers that its revelation will put his career in peril; of the growing relationship with his Indian partner, "Surrender-not' Banerjee, who one hopes becomes even more central to the unravelling history of Bengal, Pakistan and India.

A NECESSARY EVIL was a one day read. It was a page turner much like its predecessor. Recommended

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright (book review)


Theatre and Cinema closed. reading is able to be done. So here is a response to one of the recent reads.

Norah is an Irish writer of 5 novels and is 58 – the same age that her mother, Katherine O'Dell, an actress of international fame - both of the theatre and cinema, particularly Theatre - died. Died after a long depression, an accident with a gun and a descent into 'madness'. An academic is writing her Phd on the life of Katherine and is interviewing Norah to get some insight into her subject. Norah becomes disturbed as she observes the young academic has some pre-conceived projection of her mother that she will 'jemmy' onto her subject, and feels she has a duty to recollect her mother to set the facts straight.

She is encouraged by her devoted husband to attempt to remember her mother. She does so, writing a novel, using her personal quest that becomes the substance of the context of the book. It is a success. It is definitely a fiction, that uses her personal life to create art. It is a painful and difficult chore, although there are some tantalising references to real events, plays and people woven into the story density - it is the sixth novel that Norah has written.

ACTRESS, is by the way, the sixth novel written by Anne Enright (Published by Penguin Books, Australia). This detail, is indicative of the sly and deliberate humour of Ms Enright. Although this book, which is typically, for me, an uniquely Irish concoction: dripping, and permeated with melancholy and sadness. It is set mostly in Dublin during the 60's and 70's during the time of the 'Troubles' - though there is no overt referencing of that setting. It is riddled as well with comedy and much laughter, too. Norah, for instance, says that she feels she has a mother that had overnight turned like a milk bottle left out of the fridge: Drinkable to soured, from sanity to madness.

The Writer/artist investigates the Actress/artist.

The book subtly underlines the selfish demands that any art form, if you are to be great, insists upon. The sheer difficulty of creating, the amount of focused energy that is expended to produce 'performance', either as an actor or a writer (a participator in the plastic arts; a musician) is a tyrannical master and exhausts the striver so that they really have no time or any spared energy for the real world. It demands all your powers.

Concurrent to this book, I have been struggling through a biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb on the life of Eugene O'Neill: BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016). This biography details the tragic demands that his "ART" required, to serve his literary genius - its ruthlessness, selfishness and cruel intensity that only truly thrived in the writing studio/room - real life responsibilities were necessarily kept at bay - O'Neill's Black Irish inheritance and imaginative instincts along with its lubricant, alcohol, dominated and terrorised all of those about him in his real life: Wives, women (except as servants), children, especially his own, and all but the drinking sponges and soaks of the prohibition underground bars. In ACTRESS, as with O'Neill, Katherine and Norah's personal life is the servant, the sacrifice, that feeds their 'greatness'. It is this slow reveal that is the substance of ACTRESS.

Recently, I re-read THEATRE, by Somerset Maugham - one of my favourite writers - a novel written in 1937, that has a successful actress, Julia Lambert, at its centre. It is a jolly good story beautifully written with all the human foibles cannily, and amusingly, observed but is in form basically a melodrama - an entertainment. The events, theatricals, of the book are heightened emotional 'traumas', as are the vivid characterisations - excesses. ACTRESS, on the other hand, is a contemporary work that is life-like in its exposition. All the events of the story are under dramatised and are casually given, so that it is only in hindsight that you gather the enormity of the events that has been the webbing of the narrative and characters - which includes vicious psychological as well as physical rape, that had no dramatic impact when told, but, definitely, as we read on, has a cumulative poisoning that perverts the characters' spirits to a withering self-persecution - as, when one is older (I am an elder), say 58 (I am more elderly - mmm!), one can calmly sit back and reflect upon the past with more dispassion- a kind of surrender to one's fate and not get too biased or upset. (Oops, Anne Enright is 58 this year! The year of this book's publication. What is fiction and what is fact in this novel? A Hitchcock MacGuffin, perhaps?)

Norah's foggy knowledge of her mother is the disturbing element of her quest/search. Katherine as a young woman at the age of 19 with no training at all is cast in a mediocre play that unexpectedly becomes a sensation in the West End Theatre of London, and subsequently, in New York. Katherine is instantly a STAR. Really not an actor but a STAR. Her Irish heritage is buried, her name changed and some minor cosmetic changes are predicated to facilitate her advancement in that superficial world. She becomes an invention. Her career, however, reflects that Katherine was special and not easily commodified, an extraordinary presence that with 'innocent' instincts was able to create a mystique of sexual power on stage that bedazzled her audiences into imagining that they were watching greatness. (I think of Marilyn Monroe. I remember Arthur Miller's tragic observation that Marilyn was a victim of the power of her presence, of which she had no real inkling, that was pinched and plucked at by any man (woman) that met her, to try to transubstantiate to empower their own flesh and psyche). Katherine creates a magic spell that tantalises everybody and of which she has no real knowledge or control - she has no technique, just that god-given curse: animal instinctual power. This first play, that she acts in, is the artistic highlight of her career - and although she works in the theatre regularly - even late in her career absolutely naked for the entire performance - avant garde experiment - never achieves the same kind of adulation. At the age 26 she is a has been. She becomes a curiosity, a Norma Desmond of the Irish theatre.

Ironically, her film work is limited and perhaps because of the ruthless lens of the camera she, in contrast to her theatre work, is only occasionally able to seduce her audience: the deep truths of the character are elusive in the large exaggeration of the cinema screen - the effort of the emotional recall required by the laborious demands of film making, she is unable to conjure, sustain. So what the editor has to use in the 'take' after 'take' to create Katherine's "art' is limited and flawed. For history's sake Katherine has one war film remnant, an ace melodrama, and, humorously, a TV commercial for Irish butter with a catch phrase that she pronounces: "Tis only Butter" as her most enduring film work. There is no close up, Mr de Mille, for Katherine O'Dell.

Katherine's only other creation is a daughter, who she neglects, in pursuit of her international career for the stage. Norah is brought up only partly with Katherine who is mostly absent because of her professional obligations. Her mother is possessed, completely absorbed in the world of make believe - hopelessly obsessed. Norah without bitterness remembers that her mother was probably always acting. The stage and the real world were not necessarily different. Norah felt that when she was with her mother "she was always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one". Norah has had no other mother and so what she has received from her Katherine is normal - she is comfortable and not judgemental of her mother's relationship with her.

The men in Katherine's life are predators that were (are) typical of the period that the #Metoo movement has now spotlighted, disturbed. Katherine was fairly diffident about the men and has never told Norah who her father was. One of the many threads of the novel is Norah's casual unravelling of that identity - perhaps it was Katherine's Catholic priest who was always attentive in his regular, private visits to the house - there were always furtive movements in the room on Norah's unprompted appearances. Maybe, dad was the egotistical Director, Boyd O'Neill, who is shot, in the foot, accidentally, by Katherine? (again, the Enright sense of humour).

ACTRESS is not a casual read. I had just read APEIROGON, by Colum McCann (which is highly recommended, by the way) and had to re-teach myself to read again. This novel is full of digressions and circumlocution circumstances, so that one not only must take care of the words and the order that they are placed in, but also a care, a strict attention to the syntax - to guide one through the mental drama and comedy of Ms Enright. This attention to this detail is required to gain the most out of the writing. Not since the last Patrick White novel that I had read have I needed to so discipline myself.

ACTRESS, is a demanding but rewarding novel. Anne Enright was mentored in her writing studies, particularly, by Angela Carter, a writer with a spectacularly unique approach to the childhood stories in her short story collections, for instance: THE BLOODY CHAMBER (1985) her last novel WISE CHILDREN - a story of two twin girls and their escapades in the theatre. Both, referenced books, wrestling with the relationship of daughters to mother and family in a language of Wildean flamboyance. Angela Carter's influence on Ms Enright is, for me, present. Her other mentor was Michael Bradbury, an academic and novelist who in his 1975 novel THE HISTORY MAN, writes, in the revealing of the dilemmas of his hero, Howard Kirk, of "life's jumbled truths". Norah in her quest of knowing and settling her qualms concerning her mother and present family connections, too, reveals the non-patterns of "life's jumbled truths".

ACTRESS makes me contemplate my knowledge of my mum and dad. I know nothing. Well, nothing much, and you know what? I think I shall let sleeping dogs lie. Opening Pandora's Box is an extremely daunting proposition. I am grateful that Anne Enright, in a cornucopia of courageous constructions has introduced me to the possibilities of that hazard and warned me off, with insight, humour and a nostalgic aura.

The darkness, the bleakness, the comic/tragic lens of the Irish soothsayers of olde: Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett, is the undercurrent of this work to be found echoed in the recent work by Anna Burns, MILKMAN (2018) - a hard but rewarding read (Booker Prize), and in John Boyne's THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES (2017) - comic, full of co-incidence and downright passion.

In the recent French film LA VERITE (THE TRUTH) (2019), the Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (SHOPLIFTERS), guides Catherine Deneuve through the role of a possessed actor, Fabrienne, and exposes her relationship with her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and extended family. Her dedication to her art is unyielding. "I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a great actress," she says, "You may not forgive me, but my public does." Enright's Katherine O'Dell, another actress, has a mirrored friend.

Recommend reading.


Monday, March 30, 2020

Everybody


Cross Pollinate Productions in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre, present EVERYBODY, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross. 6th March - 21st March. (Closed early as a response to the World Health Crisis).

I was especially keen to see this play, mostly because of the writer and his growing reputation as a force in contemporary American playwriting. AN OCTOROON - 2014 (seen in Brisbane. Needs to be seen in Sydney), APPROPRIATE - 2014 (again unseen), and GLORIA - 2018, which we saw last year at the Seymour Centre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a subversive writer with a tremendous sense of comedy and balanced political/social critique - he is kind of fearless.

EVERYBODY - 2018 - is based on the 15th Century medieval mystery play - EVERYMAN. It tells of the Everyman who is summoned by Death, at the command of God, that he come and present his life achievements as a 'passport' to heaven (or hell).

EVERYBODY has a company of 9 actors, 2 of which play one role each throughout the play (Annie Byron (Death), Giles Gartrell-Mills (God and Host). 7 actors (Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Isaro Kayites, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood), playing all of the other characters, though not the same ones necessarily each night. Death has them choose out of a rotating basket their roles for the night - all of these actors have learnt the entire play.  Just as in life their destiny is an accidental event. Every night Fate chooses Everyman and his world companions, to die and face his creator with a justification of his life.

Gabriel Fancourt, in his Directorial debut, adopts many techniques that contemporary theatre has available for him: recorded voice, microphones able to be 'treated' for sound effect (Felicity Giles), complicated light (Morgan Moroney), and the magic of 'haze' to keep it all swirling forward. The Set  is an impressive podium of solid wood (Stephanie Dunlop - she also has created the Costume), draped with a green altar cloth covering a door - that when opened is the 'doorway' that we cross to enter the other world!

The play is full of direct intervention/participation with the cast seated in amongst the audience keeping one on edge that, "Yes", Death could be just waiting for me, seated beside me now and to cause me to wonder: "Am I ready to face a summary of my own life?" Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is aware of the strategic powers of the live theatre and in most of his works employs them.

This production is strong but not as good as the play.

Problem number One is the use of the 'treated' microphone that God uses to communicate (for some time) the premise of the play and later again when used by Death - the electronic treatment, the effect, obfuscated the text content and dominated our aural reception rather as noise - an irritating noise- resulting in an ignorance of the text content, as well, literally, giving physical pain!

The second and biggest problem seemed to me to be that in the task given (by the writer) to have 7 of the actors learn all of the rest of the text content and be ready, in the moment, to jump in and create the randomly assigned characters each night  as 'owned' fully realised people was a tremendously difficult demand in which TIME, would be the necessary ingredient to solve the nuances of the humans they were asked to inhabit.

Were these actors afforded the TIME to find the solutions to own the people they were allotted in the witnessed lottery? It didn't seem so.

These actors were immaculate in the speaking (and miming) of the text but had not created individual figures representing fellowship, kin, goods, good deeds, etc. They were virtually 'mouthers' of text, having no supporting human dimension for us to connect, identify with, so that we could have an identification of a personal resonance in our (the audience's) own 'here and now'. The 'mouthing' of the text did not seem to be balanced with sufficient acknowledgement of the written syntax, which the writer has given signal space for the actors to use, to create the opportunity that would allow the audience to endow, invent, the unspoken, sub-text, of the dilemmas of the characters. This company remained actors reciting the text, jumping through technical demands of the production at the expense of exploring experienced truths, with an active development of the textual arguments to justify, explain, their character's problems.

There is bravery from this cast and company, Directed confidently by Gabriel Fancourt, imbued with a passionate sense of mission and achievement. As admirable, as that was, it was no compensation for the lacking of dimensional truths in the characterisations for it to be a fully satisfying confronting night in the theatre.

N.B. As a student I was once an actor in a version of EVERYMAN, and have Directed an adaption of my own for a school production, centuries ago. Recently, I also Directed a production of EVERYMAN, commissioned by the National Theatre in London, prepared by the then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. A brilliant contemporary rendering of the original play for our times. It was Broadcast into our cinemas. That production by Rufus Norris, was overblown and unbalanced the writing of Ms Duffy, I reckon.

CUSP


ATYP@Griffin, A Brown's Mart Theatre co-production, presents CUSP by Mary Anne Butler, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, 11th - 28th March. (Closed because of the World Health Crisis).

CUSP is a new work by Mary Anne Butler. It has taken three years of discussion, development and rehearsal which included two weeks of that development - one week in Darwin and another in Sydney - with the writer, director and actors to find manifestation in a theatre.

It is a quasi-poetic play that uses an abundance of 'lists' to achieve this - true to our Elizabethan and Jacobean forebears and their example. We meet three actors playing three young Northern Territorians at the cusp of having their life cycles moving from the teenage metamorphic to the young adult evolution. The opportunities for the evolution are spare in the play's world and are complicated by the tentative fragility of the young adults in this environment for it to be able to be realised.

In virtually, what is written as a monologue, Maddie (Stevie Jean) travels through - recalls - an early innocent sexual experience which results in a pregnancy that she faces alone, that thereby hampers her relationships and circumstances in her daily progress for a secure future. No matter her potentials, Maddie is 'trapped'.

The other writing of the play, interwoven with the monologue of Maddie's, is a duet between Elvis (Josh McElroy), an explosive young man with 'anger management' issues who has been attracted to Rosie (Nyasha Ogden) since school days, she having the intellectual promise to be offered educational opportunities that will take her away, interstate, with a certainty that it will liberate her potential as a positive contributor to her community. It is the story of the attractive animal brawn of the unleashed 'alpha' male meeting the sophisticated brain of a liberated woman full of heart. It is the battle of the tension between the sexual physical allure of our animal instincts and the sophistication of the 'gift' of reason that our species has inherited.

Neither of these stories are unfamiliar in performance literature  (Contemporary plays and  screenplays) and none of these characters or their treatment in CUSP are a revelation for us - we have been here before. Their familiarity and the playwriting choices of typicality hamper our interest  to the storytelling.

Josh McElroy, as Elvis, certainly has the dynamic skills, energies and physical attractiveness to jolt one into attention to regard this young man with an initial interest. However, as the play (90 minutes without interval) 'rockets' on, Mr McElroy finds little nuance to character insights and little opportunity to reveal the inner causes of Elvis' limited behavioural patterns - it is all an overwhelming bombastic temper expressed with a convincing and fierce noise and physical presence that gives little entrance to an inner life of motivational justification and limits any chance for us as an audience to give open empathy.

The young (attractive) actors playing Maddie and Rosie are limited in their experience as performers, as storytellers. Their artists' skills are not sophisticated enough to move beyond saying the words with a 'pretended' emotional state - they both 'understand' the character's dilemma and can, intellectually, see them but have none of the necessary actor's skills to truly inhabit them. It is, in actor's parlance, that they are playing "her" rather than identifying the character as "me". They sit outside the young women that the writer has written. They remain immature actors speaking a text rather than authentically experiencing the emotional journey of the characters.

It seems the Director, Fraser Cornfield, has not been able to draw from his actors the way to reveal the truth of Ms Butler's characters journey.

The performers skills limit the audience's ability to engage fully in the play.

The production design, by CJ Fraser-Bell, is mostly made up of gleaming metallic boxes, set in a black background void, that can be moved to create shapes and intimidate with clash of noise to support the elements of the violence in the play. The Lighting Design from Jessie Davis supports the atmosphere of the story and is assisted with the Sound Design by Brad Fawcett.

CUSP is a contribution to the artistic goals of the Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP).

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Distorted


Fixed Foot Productions present DISTORTED, by Xavier Coy, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St Newtown. 10th - 22nd March.

DISTORTED is the latest play from Australian writer, Xavier Coy, whose other plays BURIED and ARE YOU LISTENING NOW? I have seen, both at the OLD 505. Mr Coy's writing has always intrigued, provoked and excited me.

This work is 90 minutes long with no interval and charts ten characters in a journey-arc to depression. Mr Coy is exploring Mental Health.

Director Richard Hilliar with Mr Coy and his actors have 'workshopped' the original collection of independent people into a text to reveal definite characters with individual narratives, all existing in the same world but not at all connected to each other. Originally some 73 scenes, perhaps the time plan for this showing was pressured in its need to find dramatic shape and character such that the creative application to find expressive truths for character belief had to be rushed.

It is essentially a piece 'about people yearning to connect with one another' and yet finding that, ultimately, they are all alone, that they cannot ever really know anybody but themselves.

Kate Tempest, the slam-poet, presented her latest Album: THE BOOK OF TRAPS AND LESSONS, as a soloist with a musical soundtrack, in February at the Arts Factory Theatre in Marrickville - and her envisioned people, like the people in DISTORTED are, presently living in the mouth of a society that is breaking down. What can they do to survive? Ms Tempest gives us an inkling of hope. Mr Coy's people don't get that far, they arrive in a 'pit' of despair, of nihilism and the play stops - stops short of providing hope.

Mr Coy's play has its energy fed with an acute observation of our present zeitgeist. However, DISTORTED is probably 40 minutes too long, as its dramaturgical point is made quite clearly early, and unfortunately repeats that conceptual well-spring over and over again with a tedious insistence that allows all 10 of the people the opportunity to speak.

Mr Hilliar, the Director, has staged the play by shifting his company on and off the stage and around it relatively efficiently, but has not paid sufficient attention to the vocal demands of the Ensemble, especially in terms of tonal contrast, or for the ensemble to have a technical ear empathy for the choral effect of the text in this small space. (N.B. the shouty 'chorus' that speaks to Mr Coy's character and his struggle with his pet cat. There is little characterisation or presence in that 'chorus' who vocally broadcast sounds with no personalised, owned text - no word for word clarity or acted intention, whereas Mr Coy has a deep ownership of his pathetic man-child, both, vocally and with a clear inner monologue with an expressive face physicality.) Mr Hilliar indiscriminately allows the actors the choice to shout - and to shout far too often - and making 'noise' rather than communicated textual information. The Old 505 is a space that does amplify the sound incontestably - a boom-box.

Neither has the Director drawn fully developed characters from his actors who are mostly exhibiting two dimensional representations of type with no depth or complexity of the human condition and relying on emotional states and sentimentality to communicate. Really the buck does stop with the actor - it is the actor's responsibility to do that work in detail - it is simply the applied craft of the actor that one ought to expect. The best performance and the one that truly moves one is that created by the writer, Xavier Coy, who, as one would expect knows who his person really is, beyond just speaking the words. Michael Arvithis is next best.

The playwriting is better than this production, although the Set design, by Hamish Elliot is both beautiful and a satisfying support to the 'ribbon' of the decent to a state of instability. - it has great sophistication.

DISTORTED is a disappointment but has a writer of interest to encourage an audience.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Vale Ron Haddrick


Ron Haddrick passed away on February 11th this year, 2020. A memorial service was held at NIDA on Sunday 1st March that included celebrants of this man's life: Daughter: Lyn, Son: Greg, Granddaughter: Milly. Peter Carroll was the Master of Ceremonies and invited John Bell, Aubrey Mellor, Drew Forsythe, and Kirrily Nolan to speak.

The surprise guest speaker, for some of us, was cricketer, Ian Chappell. Mr Chappell apologised for his presence but soon illuminated the raison d'etre for it. As a boy Ian Chappell used to watch Ron lead one of the local cricket teams in the Adelaide suburbs onto the field. He remembers watching Ron appear in the State representational team for South Australia as an opening batsman and he remembers, when he was a child, the dressing room 'joshes' and interplay among the players and the good nature that Ron exuded as a contributor to the spirit of the teams.

The cricket connection was easy for me to understand because my memory sees Ron through three lenses: his acting; his obsession with the annual International Piano Competition that often ran in tandem with us, they upstairs in the Concert Hall that was broadcast by the ABC live and we downstairs in the Drama Theatre, toiling through the dramatics, of say, THE CRUCIBLE, and his addiction to the Cricket seasons that he kept us informed about, wandering through the passage ways in our dressing room areas with his transistor radio plugged into one of his ears when he was not required on stage. Cricket played a big role in Mr Haddrick's life.

Ron had returned to Australia in the early '60's after a career in leading companies in Great Britain. He quickly established himself as a leading performer in Australia possessing a vocal instrument of much beauty and expressiveness and physical aptitudes that only a sportsman could have hewn. I met Ron when I was a young actor joining the Old Tote Theatre Company after my stint of training at NIDA, as we all prepared for the Opening of the Sydney Opera House with a three play repertoire: THE THREEPENNY OPERA, RICHARD II, and a new Australian play WHAT IF YOU DIED TOMORROW? by David Williamson with Ron Haddrick and Ruth Cracknell starring as the hapless parents (this pairing was a long one over the coming years, and he became known affectionately as "Sir Ron" and she as "Dame Ruth".)

Ron was the leading man of the company (us youngsters thought he was an "old man" - he was only 44!) and was a tremendous influencer on the atmosphere of the company by setting, through a thoroughly professional approach to all his work, abetted with a sensitive but discreet eye that was kept out for us youngsters' care as we negotiated our way through the work tasks we were given. He led without overtly leading. Every production that I was in with Ron, he was, in hindsight I recognise, responsible for the very positive and happy environment, that no matter the trials and tribulations of getting a work onto the stage, no matter the volatile creative temperaments about us, he was present to calm us down and focus our attention on solving the problems, collaboratively, together. THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1980) in which he as Mr Crummles led with Ms Cracknell the Acting Company of that play was the penultimate time I worked with him. His leadership was so subtle that none of us - 36 of us in 'NICK NICK' - really saw it. He saw to it that it was one of the happiest experiences that any of us had on a stage. He was a Crummles for us Sydneyites.

Ron was a Gentleman of the Performing Arts - he gained our respect by example, by just being there and doing the work. He had an easy humorous disposition that gave the rehearsal and performance space a glow of safety and comfort. He subtly encouraged us to take risks. The quality that the speakers at the Memorial who worked with Ron especially noted was his comic timing and characterisations, launched they told us by his very outrageous Australian Larrikinism. The last role I saw him in was in NOISES OFF, by Michael Frayn, in an endearingly eccentric but perfectly pitched performance as a farceur - with a physical dexterity and sense of comic timing that a man of his age should not have had, still - he was, then, remarkably 84 years young.

Our paths crossed later when I was Head of Acting at NIDA and he was a member of their Board - his gentle curiosity and warm support was a balm for my anxieties over the responsibility I had been given. His gentle touch and handshake accompanied by a reassuring smile was a support to me every time we met. His approval was a blessing for me - a comfort.

Ron Haddrick: a Family man, devoted to his wife Lorraine (and she to him - what an example?); a Gentleman of the Theatre, leading actor, subtle larrikin, cricketer and lover of the classical piano are my memories.

One, as well, should not forget his many achievements on Radio, Television and Film - a vast, vast career. One of the most prolific Australian Performing Artists I should think.

Ronald Norman Haddrick AM, MBE.
April 9th, 1929 - February 11th, 2020

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

They Took Me To A Queer Bar


The Flying Nun presents THEY TOOK ME TO A QUEER BAR, by Tommy Misa, at the East Sydney Community and Arts Centre in Burton St Darlinghurst (opposite The Eternity Playhouse.) 28th February.

THEY TOOK ME TO A QUEER BAR, is a devised work by Tommy Misa. Mr Misa was inspired to honour the queer artists of the past that have built through hardship, persistence, talent and luck a tradition of queer performance and the creation of spaces to present their culture and share. Mr Misa is an employee of THE BEARED TIT, a performance bar in Redfern. If those walls and many others (RED RATTLER of Marrickville) could talk, what would they tell.

This  work is a series of short vignettes illustrating interactions over the history of Sydney's evolving queer performance growth. In spaces as diverse as a bar, a theatre, the street, a toilet etc performance has flourished. Characters became legendary. Mr Misa was supported by Sound Artist Jonny Seymour, and was mentored by Dino Dimitriades. The work was made possible with the support from Create NSW and City of Sydney.

In the venue simply organised with raised platforms and a clothing rack for costume changes for the various characters, and rudimentary Lighting, Mr Misa performed for a packed audience, filled with loving friends to encourage his creatively. It is scary to perform. It is frightening to perform solo work of your own devising, exposing, inevitably, your strengths and weaknesses to a live audience. to friends. The learning curve is monumental.

The next step is the further development and the 'polishing' of the writing and the performance skills. Let us hope that Mr Misa has been encouraged to explore his need to create and tell stories that are relevant to his tribe and hopefully for those outside that clique. He has begun.

As part of a contribution to the performance art shown during the time period of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras of 2020, THEY TOOK ME TO A QUEER BAR, was a walk down memory lanes for some, a revelation of the 'folk' history for the young, and a provocation to want to know more of the wider perspective of what has happened in the past to encourage a self-expression that is today not only tolerated but encouraged.

ArtsLab: Behind Closed Doors


Shopfront presents ARTSLAB: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, at 107 Redfern, Redfern St, Redfern. 26th February - 1st March

ARTSLAB: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS is Shopfront's annual emerging artists festival. It offered a 6 month long residency, an industry mentor, professional masterclasses and a week long season to showcase their art works.

5 emerging artists were chosen from a large set of applications. This presentation was the fruition of that creative opportunity.

There were two foyer works.

1. AMPLIFIER by Tall Jan, is a video work by Brendan Donnellan aka Tall Jan. It consists of a series of edited self-interviews concerning a sexual transition. The mentor was Bhenji Ra. It is, frankly, a work that is not well executed either technically or content wise. I was able to view it 3 or 4 times in the progress of the night I attended and did not truly learn much of the journey that Tall Jan has gone through. Neither of the emotional journey nor the physical journey and its repercussions. The most successful element was the exotic makeup solution of the persona. Not the costuming, the choreography (?), cinematography or its editing. The images and sound were not of a competent standard as to justify its presentation. It has no rigour at all. No craft. I'm very curious about this social phenomenon of gender fluidity, so this presentation was disappointing.

2. PLASTIC SLIPPERS by Bill Chau, is a free-standing installation of found objects supposedly exploring " the nuanced beauty of Chinese-Australian culture" to show "what it means to grow up in an immigrant family." It was mentored by David Capra, and was a collaboration with Emma Silwanis, Jessica Kim, Siann Boustead, Nicole Pingon. The work is there to be seen. Its significance is relatively opaque to the observer.

In the theatre space at 107 there were 3 performance works.

1. STALLS, by Lily Hemsby and Lana Filies. It is a self-devised work that begins with discussion of farts, poo, and haemorrhoids - it goes on to talk of other manifestations of body evacuations, with  song and dance interludes. You get the idea. It is a short play (sketch) that is intended to be "a relieving experience, creating an un-constipated kaleidoscopic view of the experiences women face in the loo." coming from their realisation that are "all poo but they feel a bit weird about it." Imagined, I guess STALLS was going to be 'shocking', daring to talk openly about bodily functions, the content is juvenile and pallid in its effect, not helped by artists with undertrained skills of voice and body. It feels as if it were a high school joke that has had 'legs'. It has no 'legs' in this theatre but to take us to despair at the use of the 6 months of  creative opportunity. Mentored by Lally Katz, both the originating artists were assisted in devising and performance by Olivia Harris and Cara Severino. It was almost 30 minutes of total embarrassment. Tiresome. As they say: the wheel has been invented. It has all been said before and by real artists.But, of course you had researched your predecessors hadn't you? Probably, NOT.

2. LITTLE JOKES IN TIMES OF WAR, by Charlotte Salusinszky. In a solo performance Charlotte Salusinszky tells us of her heritage, the English side of her family but, especially, passionately, of her Hungarian father and his mother, her grandmother and some her refugee peers. Particularly, her grandmother's story, began to stir her to attention. Charlotte learns the language, she goes to folk dance classes and steeps herself in this strange culture of food, music and, unexpectedly, of Hungry's history.

Pricked by an insatiable curiosity, "Charlotte chases after her grandmother's anger in the moment that ensured their family's escape from Hungary in 1956, and the repercussions upon her grandmother and herself." Tragic repercussions for her darling grandmother and many others of her peers that survived.

It is told by Charlotte with an intense investigation and enactment by an artist/storyteller of some note/promise. This is the blessing of her reaction, repercussion, to the events she discovered. It is written, performed and Directed by Charlotte herself. It has a sophisticated researched Sound and AV Design component by Rowan Yeomans, projected onto the wall behind her, found in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia's Film Australia Collection, illustrating and backing up visually the background to the work's verbal content.

Ms Salusinszky has a gripping personality that captures one's attention without delay and her skills: voice, body (dance skills), emotional attachment and intellectual acumen is outstanding. It is a complete seduction. Her wry sense of humour are tool of welcome and delight. The content is riveting and confronting. It has no sentimentality. It is rigorous and fearless - wonderfully edited. It is raw and filled with great love and steadfast admiration. Pride. A glorious pride. This work deserves exposure again and again. I wish to observe it again. I was tremendously moved. Very excited.

The work was Mentored by Deb Pollard. I know of Ms Pollard's own work and am usually, similarly impressed. It seemed to me there was an intense and fruitful artistic collaboration,  between  the two, one of great simpatico, with the time usage of the 6 month opportunity apparently deeply engaged with.

LITTLE JOKES IN TIMES OF WAR, is a special project of great integrity and skill. Congratulations.

3. STRIPPED, by Luke Standish. This work is part documentary, based on his own experiences, who while living in Dubbo, began a career as a male stripper in his local area at the invitation of a friend. Devising a text to tell of his journey and dawning realisations of his new 'profession' Mr Standish demonstrates some of the different techniques and props/costumes (and lack of them) which he utilises to persuade and win his audience to places of ecstasy.

The work felt to be still in an early stage of development. It had a simple structure with an audience physical interaction but the marrying of the physical and vocal, even when it was a pre-recorded voice, was not yet confidently sure. Certainly the physical effort was not effortless and one did wish he had prepared his body tone to a more startling effect. To do that, of course, requires a regime of intense commitment and rigour, exercise and diet - it is time consuming. And however I may generally feel about the "body builder' as an aesthetic to admire, I am so aware of the time and dedicated effort that is entailed in sculpting their flesh to achieve such a goal, I give respect. It is a difficult thing to do.  Just as it is to achieve a theatrical impact. It needs rigour and hard work, daily application.

STRIPPED is ambitious but is naive in skills. This work was written, directed and performed by Luke Standish. His Sound design was by Duncan Standish. His mentor collaborating with him is David Williams.

One recalled the MAGIC MIKE film (2012 ) starring Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, the story of the lives of a troupe of trippers in Tampa, Florida - one wonders whether this was a useful inspiration for this team with this interesting exploration of male country town burlesque.

STRIPPED, as it is at present is an undercooked work - but is worth pursuing.

5 projects. 6 months development. Program director for Shopfront, Natalie Rose has nurtured and curated the 2020 ARTSLAB. That one of the five, LITTLE JOKES IN TIMES OF WAR, by Charlotte Salusinszky, is an outstanding success is a wonderful statistic. A success rate of 20%. This project gives these emerging artists the space, time, supervision and material support to explore their passion. It allows for failure as an important part of the learning process. Whether the artists applied themselves vigorously over the 6 months to their creative opportunity only the individuals know. It will be interesting to see what the future may hold for these participants. One hopes the exposure and the critical response whether positive or negative will become part of the energising inspiration for their next work.

Resilience, persistence, luck and hard work will take you there. As one knows: Preparation is ALL.

Australian Open

Photo by by Clare Hawley

bub presents AUSTRALIAN OPEN, by Angus Cameron, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross Hotel. 14th - 29th February.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN is a new Australian play by Angus Cameron. It is a gay-themed play playing during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Humourously, the management of the Kings Cross Theatre has re-badged the building for the Festival season as the "Queen's Cross Hotel"!

Lucas (Patrick Jhanur) is a champion tennis player about to face Federer in the Australian Open final. He is an openly gay player in an open relationship with a vulnerable and conflicted partner, Felix (Tom Anson Mesker) - who is as nerdy and neurotic as his name sake is in Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE, I wondered if they were related. Lucas and Felix are certainly an odd couple, but this play is thematically, definitely, a comedy with a 21st century point-of-view.

Felix's mother, Belinda (Di Adams) is restless in her long standing marriage to Peter (Gerard Carroll) and inspired by the modern, contentious values, sexual and philosophic, of her son and his partner, decides to divest herself of the boring responsibilities of wife and mother to follow her own need for exploration and self-actualisation - in this case climbing Mount Everest. Reluctantly staid Peter follows her lead and hilariously embarks on an investigation into his sexuality, which Lucas, his son's partner is happy to be part of, facilitate even, after meeting accidentally in a gay dance bar. Add to the mixture a nerdy scientist sister, Annabelle (Miranda Daugherty), with a penchant to solve problems, both scientific and family orientated, who has returned from Geneva to attempt to put all things personal to rights.

Mr Cameron has written a very funny comedy with an appealing ability to write a type of screw-ball dialogue - rapid exchanges of logic that take on an escalating sense of the ridiculous. In this production Directed by Riley Spadaro, the actors are well drilled in the verbal acrobatics of the piece - the speedy timings are wonderfully played. That not all the characterisations have clear background stories to motivate the characters and justify what they do, is a failing of the production - the writing appears to be better than some of the acting.

Ms Adams is wonderfully cheeky in her character's journey as is Mr Carroll in his transformation from uptight dad to sexual adventurer. Mr Jhanur is relaxed and a seductive figure to hang this story on - at ease with the moral stances of his character and adept with the whimsical verve of the comedy style, whilst Mr Mesker, having the more complicated character, is sometimes right-on and sometimes right-off - mind you, Felix is not always an easy character to like as his arrested emotional development and sexual prevarication is a real frustration for all. It seems it is so for Mr Mesker, too, for he has not found a completely sound way to put the contradictions convincingly together - a problem for the production as he really is the major concern of the writer.

Ms Daughtry has intellectually discovered the writer's function of the sister/daughter, Annabelle, and simply delivers the 'type' without any true investment in creating a 3-dimensional human being. She has not transparently created any credible backstory to help us understand her character's behaviour. Her performance solution is stilted in exposing Annabelle as a robotic in a tightly held physical caricature, dressed in formal, uncreased style with a helmet-type hair dressing, utilising a shallow vocal sound both as the scientist in her early solo scientific wonderings and in her interactions with her family when she meets them with a surprise visit.

Whatever is the dramaturgical function of the scientific text in the early part of the play from the writer, it is not clear in the work of Ms Daughtry. Is it a metaphor or explanation of the behaviour of the others in the play (a la a Stoppard scientific observation), or not? Ms Daughtry has not the means to connect it for us and it all seems extraneous and obtuse - and in performance - arch. Her solutions are so out of kilter with her other actors stylistically that they intrude obviously as an obstacle, for the audience, to a belief in the comic world of the play. Annabelle is just not in the same play as the other characters.

The contribution of Tom Hussell as Hot Ball Boy is mostly that of furniture mover and seems to be an artificial addition to the action of the actual play - it is far too self-conscious in its effect.

The Set Design by Grace Deacon, makes clever choices considering the traverse stage she is working in, helped by the Lighting Design by Phoebe Pilcher, and is backed up with the location sound Composition and Design by Alex Turley.

Mr Cameron has written a play of some promise. Comedy and social/political comment is not an easy marriage to pull off. His ambition is not quite revealed with this production where the comic style has had more attention than the revelation of the dramaturgical arguments of the content. Just what is the writer saying?

Laughter is not always enough.

Crunch Time

Photo by Prudence Upton
Ensemble Theatre presents a World Premiere, CRUNCH TIME, by David Williamson, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 14th February - 9th April.

It is indeed 'Crunch Time', as this is, we are told, the last play that Mr Williamson will write. A Crunch Time that he must feel a pressure about: what, why and how he chooses to write as his 'last testament' on the stage. After 50 years of creative output, the most outstanding, prolific chronicler of our times, having observed, assessed and critiqued the churning social evolutions of our culture Mr Williamson puts down his 'pen'.

I have always felt that Mr Williamson's work, in the time to come will serve, particularly, as a fascinating sociological record for students of history and politics. His work as a kind of 'verbatim' marking of a crafted, edited entrance to all the tangles at all levels of our society in the shaping of Australia. His plays as well as being an entertainment of wit and melodrama are a social history - a text for our Social Studies Courses, where his words have been a gift to be made flesh via the intermediary of the actor's body. Mr Williamson is then not simply a playwright. He has, perforce of his longevity, written over a very long period of the development of the Australian cultural scene. He has been, then, a kind of "Historian", too.

In the good old days at the beginning of his career, it was thrilling to see many manifestations of the same play bursting forth from different companies in different cities, with different collaborators, at almost the same time - say, at the Old Tote in Sydney or the Melbourne Theatre Company or the South Australian Theatre Company. To have the same source text grow, uniquely, through those different perspectives as they landed on our geographically sprawled stages.

In those good old times the audience had the opportunity, if they had the time and money, to be serious 'artists' of the theatre as audience. They could compare and contrast a plays various incarnations! In today's straightened times Australia mostly sees the same production of the one play toured around the sites - if the writer is lucky. We have a single production point-of-view instead of many points-of-view made on the material of the text.  And, so, it can be sometimes misjudged, not because of the writing but because of other collaborative failings - possibly the direction, the design, or the acting.

It is the common burden that all our contemporary writers bear. They can only hope that they are in safe hands when the gate-keepers of our performing art culture, give the pass key for their work to be seen. One chance, is what you get these days. They trust and hope that the appointed collaborators are appreciative and diligent.

Mind you, especially latterly in Mr Williamson's output, perhaps the writing was at fault - dare I say? For some time I have lamented that Mr Williamson was writing too regularly, too quickly, a play (or two) a year. I feel that a playwright needs time for percolation of ideas, structure and character for a work to crystallise into irrefutable offers of possible excellence. (It maybe why I find Andrew Bovell the most interesting and consistent Australian playwright on our present stages - he gives his work time - 'a slow cook' before it is shown on the Main Stage.)

As a playwright Mr Williamson has often been underestimated as to the kind of writer he is. Most of us may remember him as a chronicler of family and extended family in a naturalistic style and setting. He is a much more complicated writer than that and I only came to appreciate his expertise when I was working as an artist with his work - either as an Actor or Director - and not just as an audience member. I often understood the characters and the always relative simple structure of his work quickly but never appreciated the complicated musical construct he employs, as an audience member. One can not just apply the Stanislavski method questions and an accompanying opening up to the identification of the character through thorough 'personalisation'. One also found that one had to make a careful study of the musical structure, through his syntactical clues on the page with a close observation of his instructions, to discover how the content of the writing landed with a pin-point accuracy that was not only the key to character development and storytelling narrative but also revealed the precise time, note and colour for the 'dramedy' to really land. It is all on the page (in his best plays) - complicated but subtle. A careless or carefree Actor or Director can sabotage a production of a play, quite easily.

CRUNCH TIME, Directed by Mark Kilmurry, on an oddly shabby Design, both in Set and Costume, is made up of two main streams of interest for Mr Williamson. The first is a re-iteration of a pre-occupation he has had of late, and is the principal action motivations of his other play, now showing in Sydney - FAMILY VALUES - at the SBW Stables Theatre for the Griffin Company. Both plays are occupied with exposing cauterising sibling rivalry, the family history of it - with the parents pushed centre stage and are argued to be made responsible for it with their casual 'favouritism' - the unresolvedness of it and the destructive residue of it. The horrid arrested emotional development of the family because of it.

In CRUNCH TIME, the sons of the family: Jimmy, the elder, the sportsman and successful business manager, go-getter charmer, womaniser (Matt Minto), and Luke (Guy Edmonds) the younger, the nerdy, non-sportsman, an introverted IT expert, retiring self-assessed 'victim' of an alleged 'toxic' parent are set to 'warring' and are the centre of the play's main action, as are the siblings, Lisa, Emily and Michael in FAMILY VALUES. The corrosive sibling relationships are almost caricature in both plays, and the 'mother' figure, Sue in FAMILY VALUES, and Helen (Diane Craig) in CRUNCH TIME are revealed as indulgent enablers, while the fathers, Roger in the former play, and Steve (John Wood), in the latter, are chronically neglectful if not absent influences in their respective families, each in a different way.

The quarrels are vicious and relentless and in experiencing them in the theatre in both plays they become exhaustingly tiresome, repetitive. One wonders: Is it the writing? Or, is it the relatively un-nuanced Direction or Acting? Does the writing have room for more subtle characterisations? In some cases I think so. Certainly Luke has the opportunity to be so in CRUNCH TIME but Mr Edmonds plays the same emotion - unbridled anger - in all his scenes' realisations - it undermines the reception to the play.

The second writing-concern in FAMILY VALUES is the ethical debate about Australia's treatment of the refugee dilemma, whilst in CRUNCH TIME it is the confrontation with the ethical situation around Assisted Dying - euthanasia - as Steve, the father, faces a swiftly deteriorating cancer of the pancreas. He wants to be assisted to death, before the quality of his life radically alters, and he passes the burden of his will to the family conscience - as he, as usual, abrogates the ability, responsibility, to do it himself - and with the sons typically emotionally unable to do it, it falls to the mother figure to be the consistent dutiful wife who undertakes the criminal but compassionate action. The consistency of character traits are one of the thematics of the play - the 'leopards' cannot change their 'spots'. Not the father, the mother or the children, they all play their learnt traits to the end.

Mr Wood gives a performance of some dimension and Ms Craig is quietly delicate in her creation of the 'good' mother and wife. I did enjoy the work of Megan Drury (Susy) and Emma Palmer (Lauren) as the in-laws (long suffering wives) in this conflicted family environment - both actors negotiating the rickety moral actions of the relationships and the methods they use to survive them as best they can.

The pertinacity of the Euthanasia confrontation for the audience in the Ensemble theatre was palpable, and one wished it had more interrogation of debate. Certainly, I was concerned that the debate be better aired - indicating it but mostly dwelling on the responsibility of this particular family in agreeing to do it was a sentimental avoidance of the arguments, the pro and cons of the moral dilemma. That was a disappointment. Raising the social issue is not sufficient, especially considering my own age and diminishing physical mobility. I wanted discussion. It is a very personal modern concern and I would like as much airing of the argument as our institutional governments - religious and secular - duck and weave action and the facing up to societal wants and needs. I can put my pet to sleep to assist them away from pain but cannot do it for myself. What? In the tragedy of this family's dysfunction and in the raising of the moral dilemma concerning Assisted Dying, Mr Williamson leaves our stages.

It was a moving piece of History to watch as the tall but bent grey-haired writer climbed down the steep stairs of the Ensemble auditorium to take a final curtain bow.

DON'S PARTY (1971), THE CLUB (1977), TRAVELLING NORTH (1979), the FACE TO FACE TRILOGY (2000) and his screenplays for GALLIPOLI (1981) and THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1985) are some of the works of Mr Williamson that I treasure. I am sure that his audiences have a different list from an incredible play writing output of nearly 60 plays.

Many Thanks, Mr Williamson.