Friday, February 28, 2020

Kate Tempest

Handsome Tours present KATE TEMPEST, at The Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria St. Marrickville. 19th February, 2020.

Kate Tempest is a British writer, activist, performance poet. A fierce observer and commentator of our contemporary times who has delivered four albums of her work, the latest: THE BOOK OF TRAPS AND LESSONS (2019) is the principle content of this concert. She, looking clear-eyed at her nation that is 'living in the mouth of breaking down'. This isn't a gig its a reckoning. "We're dead all of me knows it", Ms Tempest opining the behaviour of the people about her 'trapped' with the instruments of social media and convention suggests that we 'look for the warmth in each other instead'.

Dressed in street clothes in shadings of black with her hair tied back and no make-up on a bare stage with a large circular disc hanging in the background sometimes wreathed in haze and lit theatrically with flame orange/yellow/red lighting, occasionally standing in a spot of searing white light, with a one woman electronic back-up sound punching a support 'noise', though, in contrast to past work, is significantly stripped back, to permit a clarity for the spoken words. Ms Tempest progressively transforms from a shy, tentative young woman into a poet, into a force, emanating a dark vision to become, in relative scale, a mystic-type seer, a figure of Prophet proportions delivering a message that is considerably personal and yet, after weathering a withering critical take of the world stuffed with the toxic expressions of wealth and power, that is horrific in its pessimism, she guides us, ultimately, into a place of optimism: "Look for the warmth in each other instead, for there is something in this tenderness that makes me to want to live."

The experience of this 90 minute concert that includes glimpses from some of her earlier work: LET THEM EAT CHAOS (2016), THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES (2017), is one of inspirational transformation. Despite the physical endurance of standing for the length of the night one leaves the theatre in a lightened state, though dragged through a marathon of confrontation, and one feels happy, yes, optimistic that the goodness of the human spirit will prevail. Sensational.

Prior to Kate Tempest's entrance Omar Musa the Australian slam poet, writer of novels and poetry collections had warmed us up, trained our ears to the sound 'frequency' to facilitate the ability to hear the complicated stripped language of the poetic form - his and especially Ms Tempest's. Omar Musa is a favourite of mine - this is a third meeting with him - and I understood and admired the bravery of some of his content (not all of it) and yet after the fearless nakedness of Kate Tempest's preoccupations which she shared with us in a kind of 'fuck-you-like-it-or not' persona, his contributions were, by contrast, tame - Australian tame, having a kind of self-deprecating technique - manner - encased in his natural charisma that, I think now, is a performer's sleight of hand, a sly sexual seduction employed as a tool of his performance mode to kind of 'apologise' for his temerity to say those challenging things.

This concert/recital a special night.

P.S. I had also seen, twice, the Broadcast of Philip Glass' opera, AKHNATEN, from the New York Metropolitan Opera. The second time on that same Thursday that I attended Kate Tempest. I was in a heightened state of a spiritual transcendence, the opera experience so mesmerically wonderful, and so my senses were perhaps particularly open to the Tempest offer.

The opera was composed in 1984 and was Directed by Phelim McDermott - an English artist - who had a few years ago also presented SATYAGRAHA, another Glass Opera. This production originated at the National Opera in London and had played in Los Angeles, as well. Designed by Tom Pye, Conducted by Karen Kamensek - her Met debut and only the fifth woman to conduct there - Choreography by Sean Gandini (featuring juggling). AKHNATEN was sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, The Narrator, Bass Zachary James, Nefertiti by J'Nai Bridges with Disella Larusdottir singing Queen Tye.

If you missed these screenings try to force further showings by request.

The production is remarkable and rare in its power and beauty. It could change your life.

No Pay/No Way!

Photo by Prudence Upton
Sydney Theatre Company presents, NO PAY/ NO WAY!, by Dario Fo. A new adaptation by Marieke Hardy. In the Drama Theatre, at The Sydney Opera House. 10th February - 28th March.

Dario Fo and his wife, Franca Rame, were a famous team of political clowns. Inspired by the traditions of the Italian Commedia dell'arte - of 16th century origins - comedy sketches that were both scripted and had improvisational freedoms, freedoms that could be pertinent to the political 'auras' of the local community they were playing in - using character 'types' that the populace recognised by particular masks - both half or full. Fo and Rame began their theatre work as political 'sketch' artists lambasting the political authorities in the Italian governmental and institutional hierarchy. They were invited to develop a program for television and became even more famous and dangerous for those that had the "power". They also wrote Plays. Last year the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presented ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST*** written in 1970 and now present his most famous play NO PAY? NO WAY! - 1974.

The work is known as a Marxist political farce. It springs from a consumer backlash, led by the women, against the high prices of the everyday necessities in the local supermarket. They refuse to pay and instead "liberate" the goods they need from their shelves and take them home - it becomes a neighbourhood rite and riot. In this macho (male) world the women, of course, have to keep their actions a secret from their husbands. The men are much more conservative and serve the status quo fearing for their jobs, avoiding the Unions call for strike action - avoid attention at all costs. However, their curiosity is stirred with the intrusion of the local constabulary raiding their homes for evidence of the local supermarket perfidy.They are outraged - their wives would not dare do such a thing! One deceit leads to many others complicating the logic of everyday life by a hiding and a seeking for the 'truth'. The world of the play escalates into an hilarity of comic satire.

The women - forthright Antonia (Helen Thomson), leading her timid neighbour, Margherita (Catherine Van-Davies), into the maelstrom of rash comic catastrophes, are confronted by their husbands politically conservative Giovanni (Glenn Hazeldine) and macho swaggerer Luigi (Rahel Romain) who, too, are drawn into the storm whilst discovering their wives' outrageous temerity and, subsequently, having to deal with the hated authority of the snooping constabulary.

Director, Sarah Giles, has cast well and these four actors take to their tasks with joy and alacrity, finding the 'ego' of each character and skilfully fitting it to the necessary submission to an ensemble, interlocked for the farce mechanism: a precision of verbal and physical comedy of necessary fluidity. On contemporary Sydney stages a rarity to see. (see my blog on FAMILY VALUES).

Ms Thomson is in her usual element as a self-conscious commentator on Antonia's character and situation to score knowingly her laughs which, by the way - come in a profusion - is a comic exaggeration in the old commedia' tradition (with no mask) if not being at all a very real - 'be still my beating heart' - person. There is a contemporary necessity, layer, missing in her work:the revealed emotional truths. On the other hand the bewildered innocent, Margherita, from Ms Van-Davis, ricocheting from pillar to post in the dilemma of her situation is perfectly human in a Chaplinesque/Lucille Ball kind of way.

Mr Hazeldine is measured in the surety of the comic opportunities provided by his writer and is properly pathetic in his character's conservative comical stance - wonderfully human in Giovanni's entitled stupidities. The surprise is the hilarious presence and deft comic lightness of touch of Mr Romahn as a blonde lothario, Luigi - this young actor never rests on his laurels as a performer and has continuously grown in magnitude on the STC's stages. He has skills galore it seems and a charm and presence that attracts one's attention with ease. One longs for him to be facing the challenge of one of the great classic roles around his age. He seems to have a deep access to the tragedy of living and a courage to reveal it and yet seems to be maturely consoled with a comic irony of the "nothing matters' mantra of the great writer, Anton Chekhov - how and when did he get to 'know' this? Not many do. Only the great ones - those with what we call "Old Souls" - blessed (some say cursed) with a perception of the great width and depths of the accumulated wisdoms of the history of our species - swirling invisibly about us in the ether of time.

The fifth actor of this production, Aaron Tsindos, has the comic gift from Fo and Rame's imagination to be challenged to play four personas that demands a giddy entrance and exit, change of costume cyclone of precision. He manages it with panache.

The first act of this production, is satirically adapted by Marieke Hardy in a welcomed politically astute and contemporary way with words - what would one expect, Ms Hardy, coming from a family with a famous 'lefty' dad? She found the right language to press our buttons to a political consciousness that was exciting because we could see from what we heard in the theatre that this play is about us today. Not one part of her text adaptation was self-conscious or gratuitous. Mr Fo, was famous for his commedia dell'arte space for improvisation and I am certain he would have approved of her adaptations. This production of this first act fulfils the map-making that the Nobel Prize for Literature (1997) winning playwright, has drawn for his collaborators to succeed. The experience on the first act opening night was thus a dazzling, exhausting comic feast. Pert, relevant, ridiculous and celebratory. The interval was welcomed because it gave us an opportunity for pause for all of us to rewind and prepare to take off again.

Oh, if only Ms Giles and her company had been as faithful to the genius of Fo in the second act as they were in the first, and trusted that what Fo had written would be enough to do to serve this great political satire. The second act in this production literally broke up the set that was then dragged about the space creating 'dead time' for the interpolation of some comment or other - who cared? - about the world we are living in now that was extraneous to Fo's methodology, and most tragically, a derailing mechanism to the accumulative tempo of the comic structure of the farce.

For the study of the dramaturgical rules of structure for a successful farce, any farce - study: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (THE MAGISTRATE - 1885), Georges Feydeau (CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS - 1884, A FLEA IN HER EAR - 1907) Ben Travers (ROOKERY NOOK - 1926, THARK - 1927), Philip King (SEE HOW THEY RUN - 1944), Ray Cooney (RUN FOR YOUR WIFE - 1964), Joe Orton (LOOT - 1967, WHAT THE BUTLER SAW - 1969), Michael Frayn (NOISES OFF), Richard Bean (ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS) and they will show you how it works.Teach you. Not only did Ms Giles break up the set but she braked the rules of the form she was working in. Unexpectedly, we were presented with a self-conscious and gratuitous set of contemporary offers that caused the actors to have to invent a whole other set of character motivations, to justify what they were asked to interpolate. To my mind, ruinously betraying Mr Tsindos' performance by causing him to extend and extend a whole bunch of funny walks and bits of business that took acres and acres of time for he suddenly had miles and miles of stage to traverse to get from one entrance to another to facilitate what ought to be a gob-smacking array of fast changes that are, when pulled off as written, are superlative moments for a true farceur - Tsindos was reduced to a clown act that in of itself was admirably clever - the John Cleese school of funny walks - but not useful to the comic intentions of Fo, the action of the mechanisms of the play. Mr Tsindos was as obvious as obvious could be, instead of shocking as amusingly shocking as he could be with the breakneck elision of time for his entrance and exit change of clothes and persona.

Played on a large set by Charles Davies (he seems to think and is indulged by the STC to build large scale every time - his THE REAL THING design was also an unnecessarily extreme vision - attractive for sure, but a tad over-the-top, the STC Design budgets seem to be very, very generous), that was manually pushed into place by the actors (and crew) - it seems to be the season trope with the other current production THE DEEP BLUE SEA's design, similarly dragged manually by the artists around the spaces for the action - an arbitrary decision by the Director. For what theatrical gain to the clarification of the play, one may ponder and be, ultimately, perplexed to find a satisfactory answer. The braking of the tempo of the play because of the Director's intervention to the structure of the playwriting threw the work into a working class sentimentality which when having an Italian folk song tagged onto the ending of the play, the tone of the night became maudlin and boringly bourgeois - oh, isn't that nice?

When this play first appeared in 1974, it caused riots in the theatre, which were taken out into the Italian streets and to the local super markets where there was a riotous 'liberation' of food goods. The police were called. At this production in the Drama Theatre there was not a flame of anger, rebellion, not a demand from anyone for our governments and institutions to do something other than 'spin' the moments with their empty words. There was no reportage of ransacking in Sydney, alas. Instead there were a glasses of wine and some canap├ęs passed around to accompany blithe gossip about one's next job, or the weather, or, blah, blah, blah. Wasn't that fun?. No Fo or Rame heat there.

How comfortable it is to be in Australia!
We believe, like our Mr Morrison, in miracles, not actions for change.

P.S. I was in a production of this play in 1980 out at the Q Theatre in Penrith. Such a joy to do. I was lucky to play the role of the four personas.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Campaign

White Box Theatre and Seymour Centre present THE CAMPAIGN, by Campion Decent, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, City Rd, Chippendale. February 11 - 28.

THE CAMPAIGN, is a new Australian play from Campion Decent, commissioned by the Tasmanian Theatre Company, telling the history of the 9-year campaign for the human rights of the Gay and Lesbian community of Tasmania.

THE CAMPAIGN is presented largely in a verbatim mode and based on interviews and research through the Parliament of Tasmania, the State Library of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. It is a meticulous 90-minute work loaded with a plethora of material. Every twist, obstacle and turn in the pursuit for justice in the State of Tasmania is delivered in a classic Theatre in Education (T.I.E.) theatre style.

Five actors: Matthew Lee, Simon Croker, Madeline MacRae, Jane Phegan and Tim McGarry, impersonate some 32 characters. They do so with great skill and clarity. Earnest, zealous, emotionally (with occasional coy sentimentally) imbued with a marvellous sense of ensemble. Simon Croker, particularly, engaged us with his simple ownership of all he was responsible for, as was Jane Phegan, in a more matter of fact way.

THE CAMPAIGN impresses as a very confident attack of the material, drilled by Director, Kim Hardwick, in a simple Design of Setting and Lighting by Martin Kinnane, backed by Composer and Sound Designer, Patrick Howard.

One leaves the theatre teeming with information, a history. And it is an important one to record. This production is part of the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival of 2020 and is of significance for that community. The problem is that there is no drama here. It is a long, blow-by-blow chronological account of the events and characters involved.

It became, frankly, difficult to stick it out, to participate with it, attentively, for 90 minutes. Restlessness crept up. It became a bit of a bore.

A play? A lecture accounting a political history? More the latter than the former.


Photo by James Morgan, Getty Images

Sydney Opera House in association with Louise Withers, Michael Coppel and Linda Bewick by arrangement with Kenny Wax, Wendy and Andy Barnes and George Stiles, presents, SIX , by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss - Book, Lyrics and Music - in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House. 4th January - 5th March.

SIX, is a contemporary musical, having its origin as part of the Edinburgh Festival in 2017. Taken up, it was further developed and is now represented by seven companies throughout the world, including a Broadway production opening in 2020. SIX is a musical phenomenon.

SIX is the 'herstory' of the six wives of Henry VIII. It has been conceived through the influential contemporary lens of womens' empowerment, catapulted by the energy of the #metoo stance. It is a brilliant, sassy, sexy, vital deconstruction of history - amusing cheeky and out there.

Henry WHO?

This is the story of Katherine of Aragon (Chloe Zuel), Anne Boleyn (Kala Gare), Jane Seymour (Loren Hunter), Anne of Cleves (Kiana Daniele), Katherine Howard (Courtney Monsma), and Catherine Parr (Vidya Makan), told with an energising musical score that, we are told, has been influenced by contemporary artists as wide-ranging as Beyonce, Shakira, Lily Allen, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Sia, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Alicia Keys and Emeli Sande - a pop sound of thrilling daring throbbing with the delicious skill and power of an all women band: the Ladies In Waiting: Claire Healy (Musical Director and Keys), Ali Foster (Drums), Debbie Yap (Guitar) and Jessica Dunn (Bass). The energy of 10 empowers women irresistibly envelops you.


Henry and the other men do not appear and all we need to know is what the women tell us. Forget the historians Agnes Strickland, Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and David Starkey's (and countless others) forays into investigating the historic sources of these women (some of it very 'lean' and/or politically distorted) and 'play' with the alternate that writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss have provokingly conceived for you. Their six women are inhabited by roistering Australian artists with broad 'colonial' sounds welcoming "Sydney" - "Hello Sydney " - into their version of what happened inviting us to choose our champion queen after we have heard their 'pitch' for supremacy, who finally jettison that conceit for the power when they intuit that 'sisterly' co-operation will succeed redemption for  their stories when they act as a team rather than as competing rivals.

SIX has a costume Design (Gabriella Slade) with a nod to history but rendered in over-the-top contemporary pop-music style, with glamorous lighting (Tim Deiling) and feisty choreography (Carrie-Anne Ingrouille) propelling you into an out-of-mind experience of uninhibited fun. We stand at the end of the show and groove along with the Queens in ecstatic celebratory style. I spotted some 'groupies' who seem to have seen it before, recording iPhone camera in hand, as they mouthed almost every lyric in this 75 minute cyclonic whirl of history told with tongue-firmly-in-cheek.

All the company is sculptured into a secure ensemble - you will have your favourite(s) - mine were: Chloe Zuel (the Spanish Queen - NO WAY) and Kiana Daniele (the German Princess processing with the company in a Berlin Club: the HAUS OF HOLBEIN, with green outlined fluorescent glasses and fringed Elizabethan neck ruff added to their clothing styles - GET DOWN, sings Anne).

With SIX the Sydney Opera House curates another great night in the theatre: Hannah Gadsby: DOUGLAS and the Hofesh Schetcher Dance Company with their GRAND FINALE.

Catch SIX, if you can. Great night.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Angry Fags

Photo by Chris Lundie

New Theatre presents ANGRY FAGS by Topher Payne, at the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 5th February - 7th March.

ANGRY FAGS, is an American play by Topher Payne, first appearing in 2015, to be re-written and achieve some very positive attention in 2017. This new version is what the New Theatre is presenting as their contribution to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festivities.

A friend of Bennett Riggs (Brynn Antony) and his room mate, Cooper Harlow (Lachie Pringle), has been bashed. In the state of Georgia, where they are living, there is no legislation regarding Hate Crime and despite protest from the community, the local Lesbian Senator, Allison Haines (Meg Shooter), does not feel it is appropriate to take legal action against the perpetrator.

Feeling disempowered Cooper takes a vigilante revenge. Stimulated by that decision and successful action Cooper begins to develop a plan of vendetta sabotage and assassination, speculating that what respect is not given to the Gay community through good will and social compliance will be altered through acts of fear: that then, attention will be paid. The crimes escalate in their radical violence and the two men descend into a realm of heinous criminality.

in the first scene, Cooper and Bennett capture us with whip smart 'gay humour' while having a picnic before they ignite an explosion that kills, we learn later, not only their targeted victim but also many innocent bystanders. The play's structure takes us back in time and we watch these intelligent men grow from scene to scene into American psychopaths. The gathering horror towards our 'heroes' becomes overwhelming as they begin to have to kill their friends and co-workers to protect their anonymity.

We have met Kimberly Phillips (Phoebe Fuller) a young mother of children working in the same campaign office for the Senator as the two men do and found her endearingly funny. By coincidence of time she has to be silenced - killed. This leads to another two murders. Adam Lowell (Tom Wilson), a lover of Bennett takes control of the situation and escalates himself into an electable position of power with the help of the corrupt media represented by a television investigative reporter, Deidre Preston (Emily Weare). The political opposition, Peggy Musgrave (Monique Kalmar), is haplessly naive.

ANGRY FAGS begins as a gay comedy and finishes as gay horror. And like the South Korean Academy Award winner PARASITE, travels through several modes of genre. This is a whip smart play full of surprising twists and turns that reflects for us a recognition of the dark machinations of the moral dilemmas faced by our protagonists that step by step shifts the ethical lines of our supposedly civilised world. Sitting there in the New Theatre we recognise the corrupting influence of the Trump Era and what we have come to ignore and passively accept as the new normal.

Director Mark G. Nagle, guides his company of actors smoothly through the play, with Mr Wilson and Ms Fuller especially interesting inhabiting their responsibilities with confident wit and charm.

ANGRY FAGS is a surprisingly entertaining night in the theatre and probably worth your attention. It is witty, clever and has an objective that uses the gay invitation as a subtle temptation to take you into a a dark critique of the world we live in.  We watch the world we know warp before our eyes. Amusement turns into horror.

Grand Finale

Sydney Opera House presents GRAND FINALE from the Hofesh Shechter Company, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 29th January - 2nd February.

GRAND FINALE is the third work presented by the Sydney Opera House of the Hofesh Shechter Company: a dance company based in the United Kingdom, with an international cast of nine dancers and five musicians from France,Taiwan, United Kingdom, Poland, Belgium, Republic of Korea, Singapore and Scotland, led by Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli whose origin/training was with the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv. They are now resident at Brighton Dome and Shechter is an Associate Artist of Sadler's Wells.

In 2010 he created POLITICAL MOTHER, and in 2014, SUN (both seen in Sydney). Olivia Ansell, Sydney Opera House's Head of Contemporary Performance tells us in the program notes (a free program?! AMAZING. Something free from the Sydney Opera House Trust management - there will probably be an internal inquiry as to how that Happened! For, of course we still had to pay the TAX they call a Booking fee.) : ' As we struggle with political and environmental crisis, GRAND FINALE is timely. Shechter's latest work addresses civil collapse, ecological disaster and humanity's demise. Shechter stares unflinchingly into the void and creates a masterful dance for the dark. Equal parts lyrical musical performance, theatrical experience and manic celebration, GRAND FINALE is an electrifying post-apocalyptic tale of euphoria, surrender and doom.'

It is, as well, I reckon, a simply marvellous emotional high - one comes out feeling there is hope in the world if work like this can be created in our stressful ugly time.

Using the vast width of the Drama Theatre stage and its depth, the consequent black void is wreathed in dense haze illuminated through with a moving lighting design (Tom Visser) of red, yellow and orange streaming (lightening strikes) through the murk that is moved around by the whirl and hurl of the extraordinary flexible writhing bodies of the dance company: moving, collapsing, falling, collectively as one, or in many combinations of solo, duo, trios etc, with impressive large gesture of the whole body to meticulous hand, wrist, neck detailed choices (a la Fosse), dressed in a range of magnificently selected contemporary styles and clothing combinations (bare feet). The set has moveable black oblongs reminiscent of the wall shapes that have divided the Palestinian and Israeli Territories, or abstractly, for me, to 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, as my imagination reached back to the mysterious black oblongs standing as a radiating force in unexpected places in the Kubrick scenario (Set and Costume design by Tom Scutt).

The vitality and challenge of the choreography is dazzling and presents a thrilling intellectual puzzlement of true non-verbal communication, that keeps one on edge and in the moment in the pursuit of understanding if there was significance, with the dancers and the choreographic offers, enlivened by a moving orchestra of five creating live in a sound surround of a compelling, vibrating electro-acoustic score and its effective atmosphere (music by Hofesh Shechter and Music collaborators Yaron Engler and Nell Catchpole).

All the senses are properly engaged by light and sound into a subjective emotional state that kept one enthralled throughout the two halves of the work. The live orchestra (almost a klezmer band - James Adams, Christopher Allan, Rebekah Allan, Sabie Janiak and Desmond Neysmith) clearly love their  role in the energising of this performance, and of us, directly, in a wonderfully silly interactive collusion in the interval - "sing, hum along with us!" They play lengthily a romantic selection from Lehar's THE MERRY WIDOW throughout the first half. (Hey, could I be seduced as well by any other piece of musical kitsch? Answer: probably not.) I was pitched into a kind of irresistible euphoric emotional rapture and couldn't have enough of it - whilst being surrounded by the most contemporary propulsive electronic composition - the mixture of the old and new acoustic compositions was spectacularly successful.

GRAND FINALE was simply an extraordinary experience for the senses and intellect that was both confronting with its imagery and messages and yet full of the hope that the good spirit of the human may still shine through the murk of the destruction we are causing to the planet and to our species' moral ethical guidelines. The company in the despair of the present demonstrated with striking beauty of sight and sound images, to give us a faith that we might hope that we, as a species, will (can) come to our senses. Our possibility of invention is available if we wish it.

I rushed straight to my iPhone and messaged as many of my friends as possible to buy a ticket and see this work. It was without doubt a creation worth sharing and celebrating even in the distressing journey, to get  there, one would have to make through the smoke haze of our outside atmosphere, the leftovers of the terrible cataclysmic fires that had erupted all around us (now, water and rain - floods).

GRAND FINALE is why one goes to the theatre. I expected nothing, necessarily, but received much. A greatness that will live in my memory banks and the gift of a hope that was translated into an emotional, intellectual confidence, that seemed to signal the possibility of survival. In all the honest striving of our artistic brothers and sisters there is never any guarantee that it will succeed. And we, who go to the theatre often enough can testify to that. Many more misses than hits. Ha, ha. There is absolutely no guarantee that the application of practised Craft will metamorphose into Art - but when it does manifest it can compensate for all those other honest failures that we have supported and endured. All of my contacted friends who got to the Drama theatre agreed with me. The audience I was with on that fortunate night certainly did as well. (How did I know to go - I didn't - this was a belated Christmas gift from my dear friend Kate - it was the grandest gift of the season, thank you. What a friend, eh? Spoilt.)

GRAND FINALE, simply breathtaking. Craft becoming Art.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Songs for Nobodies

Photo by James Morgan
Duet Productions in association with the Sydney Opera House present SONGS FOR NOBODIES, by Joanna Murray-Smith, In the Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera House. 23rd January - 9th February.

SONGS FOR NOBODIES is a work written by Joanna Murray-Smith. This performance is a revival production, it having been seen first some 10 years ago.

Five nobodies tell us of their individual brush with fame, interactions with five extraordinary divas: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas.

All ten figures appearing in this 90-minute show are inhabited by Bernadette Robinson, she dressed in a simple black skirt and tailored black jacket of an indeterminate period fashion with a coiffured hairstyle that, similarly, is of an undefined time, that together radiate a visual cohesion to the setting, whilst moving with subtle vocal dialects from one character to another, in different places and time zones, telling their stories comfortably on a circular raised platform surrounded by black pieces of furniture that permits the making and drinking of tea and or alcohol in a casual naturalistic manner - it radiates an all confident mood of relaxed environment. Safe and secure.

Each anecdotal interlude - curiosity - leads us to a musical performance from each of the stars, impersonated by Ms Robinson with extraordinary physical studies of the iconic gestures and adjustments to the vocal characteristics of each of the singers and the stylistic demands of the particular music genre of the divas we meet. We recognise  the stand and deliver dramatics of Judy Garland, the honeyed country and western crooning of Patsy Cline, the pained vocal tones of an older and injured Billie Holiday, the gutsy broad planted challenge of defiance from Edith Piaf with her strident vocal personality, and the glory of the dramatic operatic soprano diva Maria Callas taking no prisoners in the giving of her vocal energies and acting gifts to her audience. Ms Robinson is impressive, supported wonderfully by a live band.

This experience of SONGS FOR NOBODIES in the Playhouse in 2020, was one to admire. Ten years ago the virtuosities of Ms Robinson may have inspired. But time has passed and the energy of this production, Directed by Simon Phillips, is now so comfortable that the daring and cutting edge bravura techniques, the 'circus dangers' of possible failure, engaged by Ms Robinson with the challenge she has taken on, no longer has the effect of wonder. Its dominating quality now delivers a safely expected ease and so has us, as an audience, to objectively admire the artist but are not necessarily placed in a vulnerable subjectively that gives us permission to be awed, to be inspired, by  what is been offered, happening. With this 'trapeze' artist and her act there was no moment when one felt she might fall, fail to pull off her 'trick'.

There is, thankfully, an audience for this work still, and there were many admirers on the night I saw it. I was slightly distracted, observant, but no longer moved, either for Ms Murray-Smith's five women or the five musical artists in the revelation of their vocal exposures, created by Ms Robinson.

For the admirers.

Family Values

Griffin Theatre Company presents, FAMILY VALUES, by David Williamson, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst/Kings Cross. 17th January - 7th March.

FAMILY VALUES, David Williamson tells us it is his second-last play. CRUNCH TIME, soon to premiere at the Ensemble Theatre will be his last. After 50 years of writing for the theatre, its time to put up the pen, type writer, computer keyboard, or what ever. The Stables Theatre was where we saw THE REMOVALISTS way back in 1971, so it is fitting that the Stables Theatre, then the Nimrod Theatre, hosts this play.

On the eve of Roger's 70th Birthday, dutiful wife, Sue, has organised a family get together with balloons and funny hats to mark the occasion and celebrate - an infantilisation of a high court judge. Is there meaning there? one wonders. A conservative dining room table and six chairs around it, centre stage, becomes decorated, gradually, with the bringing on of a cake crowning the whole event. A set of stairs (that lead nowhere - they, too, maybe a metaphoric symbol?) dominates the space. Set and Costume Design by Sophie Fletcher.

In this room we meet a privileged conservative North Shore family. And each of the characters have been given extreme 'political' positions to 'stand-in', demarcating, very obviously, their profile differences. A brouhaha is certainly to erupt when they gather in close quarters with each other, for sure.

Mr Williamson gives us an ultra conservative law maker and rigorous sustainer of the letter-of-the-law Judge Roger (Andrew McFarlane); a domestically obedient but quietly opinionated political spouse (when roused) - domestic duty first but with a 'book-club' bourgeois curiosity ready to take 'arms' for a just cause, lovely Sue (Belinda Giblin); daughter one, a radical political activist and feminist with a defy me, if-you-dare set of beliefs, Lisa (Danielle King) ; daughter two, an emotionally frail (maybe not be all there?) timid lesbian administrator of Border Force legalities, Emily (Ella Prince); a family interloper, Emily's not liked partner, a forceful, dominating lesbian, with a missionary zeal to enforce Border Force legalities who embraces her military role-power with ruthless relish, Noeline (Bishanyia Vincent); mysterious stranger, a runaway illegal refugee fleeing Border Force control - who is a deluded innocent believing that goodness will triumph in the end, Saba (Sabryna Walters); and only son, a damaged middle boy-child who has found himself by adopting a radical born-again Christian ideology (Pentecostal Hillsong?), that has given him an identity and responsibility to proselytise to all - he feels empowered, at last, Michael (Jamie Oxenbould).

In the family interactions, Mr Williamson dials up the language of each of these diametrically opposed beings to extreme and simplistic blatant temperatures of venom and conviction that releases a gale force verbal farce. Add inflamed sibling rivalries that have not been resolved despite their growth into physical adulthood: they are burdened with arrested emotional development. An indulgent helicopter parent and partner, who has for all of her life been visibly as neutral as possible with all of the demands and stances of her very needy family. A set of political-religious zealots, each with the energy of the righteous believer that they are ABSOLUTELY right. And, lastly, the intelligent innocent caught in a desperate trap of circumstances.

With the sureness of a vintage and experienced writer Mr Williamson constructs the dramaturgical logics of the observational comedy as farce and lets it unfurl.

Lee Lewis, Directing her last play for the Griffin before her shift to Queensland, attempts to manage the 'rage' that Mr Williamson unleashes in this work, to guide her actors into a mode of acting that has been out of fashion in Sydney for some time - except in the sketch comedy that dominates much of commercial television - FARCE. You may recognise it when you recall the FAWLTY TOWERS television classic. We rarely see it on the Australian stage and not many of our actors have the practised skills available as part of their tool kit. It requires a central truth that can be exaggerated to spin into controlled realms of ridiculousness - it demands precise technique and a cool observational in-the-moment rapport with all that is going-on around you.

This company of actors have varying success in creating and/or sustaining the Marx Brothers mayhem that this form of theatre requires. We have the secure central reality of a 'Roger' character and a phlegmatic Sue to gradually become the anchors of reference for the other comic specimens that lift off 'mother earth' and spin into the farcical outer planetary system of say the far away Uranus or Mercury - extreme realities. It means that all must 'fight' - compete - for their character's point of view with a restless tenacity and fearless attack. (Like playing winning doubles tennis on speed).The Griffin actors all exhibit a passion that unfortunately gets out of their control so that shouting becomes the most favoured mannered choice for these actors to claim their characters and argue their point-of-view.

A perfect example of this style of performance we in Sydney saw when the National Theatre brought their magnificent farce ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS to the Roslyn Packer, a few years ago. And if you are really alert you would have seen The Old Vic theatre company, led by the brilliant Andrew Scott, give a stunningly funny and exhausting farcical performance of a re-conceived version of Noel Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER. (Catch it if you can - it still has some limited screenings around the Art House Cinemas in Sydney).

On the first Opening night (Wednesday) there was still an unsure investigation of the required style that Mr Williamson had set these actors. The performance was very precariously held together. None of them had really found a sureness of confidence in what they were doing. At one end of the offerings from this company one had the bizarre intricacies of choice that were been made by Ella Prince as psychically wounded Emily, providing puzzles of acceptance that drove one to believe that her character was either a deranged nervous wreck in need of urgent therapy, or an actor just plainly out of her depth in finding the solution for her given task - it was most confusing. The acting style of the others having to present extreme theatrical positions, building on the 'offers' of the other actors, were mostly demonstrated with a lot of shouting and deliberate naturalistic cross-over argument and physical confusions. The focus of the play became opaque in the welter of out-of-control offers.

Now, the play's arguments are extremely familiar - cliche  simplifications - for most of this audience. There was a comfort in that the content of the play was pitched as a familiar mirror - the writing was pandering to the converted who responded with the confident knowing that this family and its values live next door and are not, definitely not, our family values. Thank god or, at least goodness, if you don't believe in him any longer.

The experience of the performance I saw was discombobulating - on the one hand it being familiar territory of contemporary argument and so mildly amusing, but on the other hand delivered with an unsure set of technical 'guesses' in offers from the acting company of a kind that were mostly visual and verbal obfuscations that prevented a clarity of connection to the 'humanity' of these people and their point-of-views. It looked dangerously out of control. However, Ms Walters, in her  speech - plea - for the position of the refugee, Saba, was plainly moving and brought a calm centre to the events -creating the eye of the storm - for the play to, momentarily, have space for comprehension - a wonderfully motivated piece of work from this actor. Just why we don't know of her on our stages is a worry, considering the quality of her judgement in the mayhem of this performance and play.

The audience, I was with seemed to appreciate the play in action but in discussion afterwards were more than slightly bewildered of what they had just watched. Curious, indeed. See what you think. Maybe the performances have gradually found their way with the information that the audience responses may have semaphored to them as they gave one performance after another. Comedy is so dependent on the give and take, the cause and effect, the exchange of creative energy between the actors and the audience that the production might have been slightly undercooked on the Wednesday night but now has gradually found its way with a more stylistic confidence to ensure the black, black satiric observations of the typical Australian bourgeois family entrenched with a set of 'terrifying' values, that has made Mr Williamson so angry, that in his penultimate 'shot' of speaking as our contemporary storyteller felt the need to deliver the extreme obviousness of bitter caricature to hammer his point-of-view as a farce - a literary mode that he has never really engaged in before in his dramatic writing history.

It will be interesting to hear what his ultimate play CRUNCH TIME, at the Ensemble Theatre, has to say in his writing farewell. And in what dramaturgical mode he shapes - proposes it. Interesting.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined

Redline Productions in association with the Sydney Festival 2020, present, BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED, text by Reg Livermore, Mary Rachel Brown and Louis Nowra in the Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, Sydney. January 7-26th January.

With the announcement that there was to be a re-imagining of the BETTY BLOCK-BUSTER show/phenomenon that had made its debut in 1975 at the Bijou Theatre in Balmain, confirming Reg Livermore a star - for he had made his mark of ascendancy to the 'stars' in our theatrical heaven as part of the 'Tribe" in the 1969 production of the American musical HAIR, and spectacularly in the first - 1974 - production of the British musical ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW - I, who was there (twice) all those years ago, on one hand reacted with a positive excitement to the nostalgic yearning that BETTY may be made flesh again, but on the other hand had a contrary fear of possible disappointment. Flip-flopping with anxiety in anticipation of the Resurrection of BETTY. Fellow rememberers exchanged hopes and fears.

BETTY was Reg Livermore's conception, and those of us who saw Her remember the occasion as one of those experiences that was a turning point in our lives. The counter cultural revolution that had sprung into being in Carnaby Street in London in the sixties, on the streets of Paris in 1968, or in the Sex-Drugs-Rock 'n Roll movement of the youth in the United States in the anti-Vietnam and Race Protests/Riots for African/American equality and 'Gay' rights, US 60's-70's, seemed to arrive as an authentic expression of our rebelliousness at the BETTY Bijou in Balmain. Her audacious presence awakening some of us in limpid Australia to Go for it. Speak up. Do something.

It was a full decade, at least, after the international shift in the performance language that had resounded around the world before Australian artists caught up. And BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER was the production and performer that dragged the provincial Sydney audiences into a new and thrilling cultural engagement that was a Shock for the New in a uniquely Australian voice. It was in a verbal and visual language of our own. It was vernacular Australian. This production awoke us fully to the power of seeing our culture being perceived through the eyes of one of us with skills, intelligence and courage, with a raw and visceral energy. We felt a definite climax of home-grown revolution radiating out from white-faced, aproned, naked bummed, Betty Blokk-Buster armed with a feather duster as a weapon to sweep the cobwebs of our comfortable life styles away.

There had been some glimmers of an authentic Australian mode of critical style and content on our stages that in my consciousness began in 1970 with the NIDA/Jane St. rambunctious production THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY, by Michael Boddy and Robert Ellis (directed by John Bell), followed by the fledgling Nimrod Theatre Company at work in the SBW Stables Theatre in Darlinghurst/Kings Cross under the aegis of John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler, who with an authentic set of plays, commissioned from Australian playwrights, spoke to us in a language, vocal and physically, about urgent and cultural issues of our own.

This was a time, I remember, when going to the theatre could be a radical statement, especially, to our parents' generation, that is, they who had participated for long years under the Federal Government of re-elected, re-elected Robert Menzies. It was a palpable thrill and a keen sense of cultural revolution to go to the theatre in Kings Cross around the corner from one of Sydney's most notorious Police Stations watching David Williamson's THE REMOVALISTS (1971) - a play about domestic violence and the brutality and corruption of the NSW Police Force - one wondered, sitting on the wooden benches of the packed theatre, on a hot summer evening, whether we would be 'raided' by the cops and arrested. It was just as thrilling to be watching David Williamson's political/sociological critique in his famous/infamous DON'S PARTY (also, !971, Directed by John Clark). Those were the days when going to the theatre could be dangerous.

On television, in our lounge rooms, the MAVIS BRAMSTON SHOW (1960's) - a political review and sketch show, even an astounding soap-opera called NUMBER 96 (1970's) had prepared us, taken us into a titilating place of dare. They were outrageous - my Catholic upbringing was in shock with the challenge of its upfrontery, and we were excited (and secretive) to confess to our school peers the iconoclastic entertainment we were watching. Those religious mentors, the Marist Brothers would have NOT approved (Well, what did I know about my spiritual guides!) It was confession material:"Bless me Father for I have sinned 6 times this week. I watched Mavis Bramston once and Number 96 five times and had strange revolutionary thoughts especially in bed".

Reg Livermore's BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER live launched us into another stratosphere of cultural revolution. Attention was demanded. Attention is what we gave. Not one of us, who entered that theatre in Balmain (it is no longer there, of course), was the same person when we left it - we had been transformed into much more alert citizens. We had been given courage, as well.

So this new REIMAGINED version in the Sydney Festival was going to be what, like what? Were we in for a contemporary dare of a shock of the new zeitgeist? Were we going to be awoken/provoked to revolutionary stirrings?

Sadly, no, we weren't.

This new version was a kind of homage to some of the icons that were part of the Bijou Show. We were given an impersonation of the redoubtable BETTY in the famous opening routine. We met the complaining 'snitch' - a woman, of course. We were taken back to the memory of Reg's version of Billy Joel's CAPTAIN JACK - swirling cloak et al in a hallucinogenic daze of lighting, stage smoke (as it was called then) and cloth. The band and singers revived WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. (Oh My God, to talk/sing of drugs so publicly, in 1975 was so amazing, today not so much). We recalled the house wife and the smashing of the plates 'tied' to a kitchen sink sketch - the original was more caustic than Dame Edna had ever been - this version in 2020 was without even a wink at the treatment of women in this age of #metoo. No Indigenous observation at all. No pointing to cultural diversity or disability as part of our world experience. This re-imagining of BETTY lacked cultural edginess, unlike the original which was all edge. In this show's content there was barely a twitch of confrontation or dare. It was a comfortable cabaret full of nostalgia, for those of us who remember the original, and of appreciation of the skilled, safe, entertaining cabaret mode in the conservative 2020's for those who were meeting BETTY for the first time. The audience encouraged to stay in their comatose state.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is not a turning point of experience for any audience of 2020. You'll have a nice night in the tent - camping, as you know can be fun. Take your aunty.

New material was written by Rachel Mary Brown and Louis Nowra and perhaps Reg Livermore - he was certainly aware of the show and was a collaborator. However, this new material lacked the flash and dash confrontation of the originals - this content was mildly, even timidly, pleasant and oddly with no resonance of urgent concern for our day-to-day lives - it lacked a vital contemporary observation or critique. We were not incited to 'rebellion' or to even give a simple nose-snoot to our betters. Mr Morrison and his peers were safe from satiric scrutiny. There was no mention of any international or national government flaws. No mention of the most important issue of our times: Climate Change - fire or smoke or destruction of fauna and flora on a catastrophic scale. No comment about refugees or detention centres. No mention of the stark exposure of the corruption in our National Corporations or Institutions, unearthed by a reluctant Governments Royal Commissions and the subsequent crushing of our trust, the demoralisation in the rulers of our laws, of ourselves. Do you remember the time when the Banker and Priest was regarded as a pillar of the community?? - there was no allusion to that destruction of our civilisation as we have known it. Being bereft and without moral anchor is with this BETTY alright, I guess. Not worth mentioning.

The musical program led by Andrew Warboys and his orchestra and support singers/dancers was delivered with panache by the star of this production Josh Quong-Tart. And within the boundaries of the musical and satiric gifts/skills of Mr Quong-Tart , when he was dealing with the idiosyncrasies of his own musical interests - some heavy metal rock - there was an authentic palpable dynamic that was admirable. That was not always true - easily seen - of his homage choices, of Reg's/Betty's choices.

Mr Quong-Tart is a very fine actor - his performance as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's play THE JUDAS KISS, at the Old Fitz, was a brilliant one. Most of his other work has been for middle-of-the-road television. His musical experience, on his internet profile, seems to be relatively limited (a season in THE LION KING). So it is a surprise in the act of faith the Producers and Director has given this artist to bear the responsibility of reawakening audiences to the genius of Reg Livermore. His affectionate homage of the Reg Livermore BETTY was, at least, relatively accurate, if lacking the hutzpah incisive, precise energy of the star quality that Mr Livermore has in spades. Still, has it - note Mr Livermore's extraordinary work as Alfred P. Doolittle (Reg is 82) in the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY.

BETTY BLOKK-BUSTER REIMAGINED is an entertaining middle-of-the-road cabaret, in the magical environs of the famous spiegeltent, that fondly unfolds from the proffered hook of revisiting a cherished icon of past years. Craig Ilott Directs with his customary 'smoke and mirrors' sleight/slight of hand (not much depth), supported in a Set Design by Brian Thomson, with costumes by Tim Chappel and the razzle dazzle of Lighting, streaking in the haze, by Trent Suidgeest. Choreography is by Ellen Simpson. Glitz and surface.

What this pleasant cabaret in the balmy atmosphere of Hyde Park does do is insist that you get onto the internet and find the video/film of the original production with Reg Livermore in the full force of his gifts. Youtube it. There it all is. See why BETTY is a Legend and not a myth - you can watch what BETTY was and why she is revered. Mr Livermore's rare gifts startling still today. The discipline and laser like finesse to all he does is incendiary. Mr Quong-Tart does well but not as well as our memories were, or of the actual vision one can google of the recorded original. There is no thrill of cultural shock or dare here. There is a pleasant cabaret with an artist having a go, provoking a justified nostalgia.