Monday, March 30, 2020
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
|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.
|Photo by Prudence Upton|
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.