Monday, March 1, 2021

Playing Beatie Bow

Photo by Daniel Boud

Sydney Theatre Company presents, PLAYING BEATIE BOW, by Ruth Park, in a stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany, at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 28th February - 1 May.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a Young adult novel published by Ruth Park in 1980. Ruth Park died in 2010 at the age of 93. The book has had a staunch readership in its brief history and is a favourite for a few generations of young Australian readers. Both Kate Mulvany, the adapter of the novel for the theatre and the Director Kip Williams are two of those long affected readers, they declare in the program notes. I have never read the book even though I have had a long connection to most of Ruth Park's work and so am discovering this work here on the STC stage. Both the aforementioned artists were responsible for the stage adaption of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) and POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago - the old gang reunite: "When you are on a good thing stick to it."

Ms Mulvany has opened, expanded the novel to some contemporary familiarities (an Indigenous story: Johnny Whites for example is introduced that is NOT in the novel) and has set the prologue of Abigail's rebellion against her warring parents in 2021, not 1980, which is really of not much harm and adds the opportunity of many a wry joke reference to our COVID and Woke culture before our heroine is tripped into The Rocks World of 1873 where most of this story unfurls. 

A mere 9 actors take on the many roles required to tell the story and they are all relatively outstanding, every actor has their moment to shine: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan (Beatie Bow), Rory O'Keefe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van Davies (Abigail) and Ryan Yeates.

The story is told on a huge black stage with a few pieces of theatre furniture that are mostly symbolic of location employing some old fashioned theatrical gestures such as a window frame, ropes suspended with white sheets, a huge canvas covering the whole dynamics of the stage, to suggest laundry or the sails of ships - nothing too imaginatively arresting for theatre goers in 2021 which mean they have a minimum of surprise or magic - it is all a trifle theatrically pedestrian.  Kip Williams has eschewed his usual use of video and film to help tell his tale: examples being in his complicated ambition/aspiration urging (overweighted, I declare) in the recent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY (though he must be saving on the the budget for the technical gear, let alone the cost of the electricity of each performance for the STC) or either of his versions of two of the great plays CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (unnecessary, really).  

PLAYING BEATIE BOW follows the imaging of his work in the other Ruth Park theatre adaptations THE HARP IN THE SOUTH  and POOR MAN'S ORANGE - simple open black box with minimal elements of Design, the usual choice of David Fleischer, accompanied by the reliable input of Renee Mulder (Costume), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and Clemence Williams (Composer - the Director's sister, I believe) and David Bergman (Sound Designer). The Sound design may be a little too ambitious and or loud to be an unnoticed influencer to the story shaping and telling - in the theatre it was distracting and over dominant.

All of the performances, however, are creditable, but I will note my favourite offers from old-comer Heather Mithchell and a newbie Ryan Yeates, as particularly pleasing.

The biggest obstacles to the popularity of this play may be its wordy length: On opening night running at 3 hours or more and stuffed with so many words, with so much exposition about fairy magic weaving through history and the spaewife myths from the Orkney isles with an aural overload of sometimes impenetrable dialect work from the actors that obfuscates some of what is going on.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW seems to me the ideal program for the Christmas holidays when the young audience is available to catch it in the theatre following on from the highly successful example/policy of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The month of March/April just as school has begun seems an odd Marketing choice - except for the Easter break holiday.

This production has had the honour of opening the renovation of the Wharf theatres and the STC precinct - and impressive in its corporate chic it is. Comfortable new seating facing a wide and deep black hole with no permanent wings or fly tower. One has no ability to ascertain the acoustics of the space as all these actors are microphoned or pre-recorded. 

Since the STC is the most important surveyor of Storytelling in our city it is curious that the play or adaptation the Company chooses for this occasion is a white colonial-centred story set in 1873 in the Rocks - the place of so much history in the interaction between the British and the Indigenous tribe(s) - it featured momentarily in THE SECRET RIVER. One wonders whether the honouring of our First Nation's History of Storytelling in this new theatre space should have been in finding a way to present the story of this island's history and peoples with their unique creation myths, or even more politically dangerously, an adaptation of the Bruce Pascoe DARK EMU book would have been a better and more appropriate choice? One ponders. 60,000 years of Storytelling - now that could have signified a real celebration of this new sacred space, don't you think?

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a pleasant entertainment that needs editing down from its 3 hour length - it is a kind of tough ask for young adults without the whiz bang of contemporary theatre production tricks. Adults, not as engaged in the story as kids, might find it all a bit passé.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Symphonie Fantastique

Little Eggs present SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, a self-devised work led by Matthew Lee and Oliver Schemacher, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) at the Kings Cross Hotel. 17th  FEBRUARY - 27TH February.

Remembers Oliver Schermacher: Matthew Lee travelling in a car from Canberra with musician Oliver Shermacher,  when he hears for the first time Hector Berlioz's SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, at 

full blast - bopping in my seat and enthusiastically head-banging to Berlioz' erratic and colorful music. Mat became intrigued when I described its deranged story and the eye-brow raising background of the piece as a love letter to a woman he had never met.

Though Berlioz did stalk and woo her for seven years threatening to over dose on heroin, before she, actress Harriet Smithson, capitulated and married him. (Ultimately, of course, the marriage failed!)

The music piece, "SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE is a passion-filled quasi-autobiographical love note by the (then 26 year old) Berlioz to his unsuspecting muse, who had repeatedly rejected his advances. Likewise, his composition pens a protagonist driven to a hallucinogenic suicide by the indifference of his female beloved who haunts him. In 1830's Romantic France, it was revolutionary and even today is revered as a masterpiece of unrequited love."

So, during the 13 month Covid-19 time of contemplation Matthew Lee (Director) and Oliver Schermacher (Musical Director/Sound Designer) gathered artists Benjamin Brockman (Set and Lighting Designer), Grace Stamnas (Movement Coach), Aleisa Jelbart (Costume Designer) and a team of  seven performers : Lloyd Allison-Young, Cassie Hamilton, Clare Hennessy, Nicole Pingon, Annie Stafford, Chemon Theys and LJ Wilson to construct a contemporary performance piece that explores the creative angsts of the composer's struggle to produce his work. The language that this co-operative Little Eggs has chosen is mostly an a cappella sound/noise scape accompanied by a disciplined physical choreography where the collective toss centre stage and dress in a grey tailcoat and trousers, LJ Wilson, as our protagonist (perhaps the artist, Hector Berlioz), whilst they become a kind of supportive Greek-chorus in action.

The Set Design, by Benjamin Brockman, of a mirrored raised floor with a low hanging roof is dramatically lit by the same Mr Brockman to create illusory visual reflective effects that could be interpreted as part of the hallucinogenic experience of this artist - (perhaps, the representative of Berlioz). In the Costume Design by Aleisa Jelbart we are given skimpy underwear and draping blouses and other accessories all black with silver trimmings - a supposedly suggestive S&M (that is mostly quasi) I guess is the effect desired -- that culminates in the principal performer being placed in a leather harness attached to a long, silver choking chain yanked by some of the cast in the climaxing moments of the 50 minute work.

Composer, Oliver Schermacher, has created a score that may use some of the famous musical thematics of the Berlioz Symphonie (I am not musically educated to guarantee that), but in his own composition/sound design seems to dwell in a European pastiche of seventies and eighties disco dance venue sounds - it begins in the pre-show sound scape and is, for us oldies, a relaxing entrance to the night. 

However, one gets what the piece is doing within five minutes of the performance and the Design elements and Sound choices merely become cliches of repeated boredom, and while one can admire the vocal and physical disciplines achieved by Matthew Lee and Grace Stamnas with this company, one is quickly intellectually bored. This 50 minutes is a very long night in the theatre. 

One desired some original heft, some  provocation, since in their program note they suggest: 

But we dig deep. Within our psychedelic narrative, we explore the fragility of our artist's ego, how their rejection descends into an obsession and visions of violence, and ultimately, steers their own path to their own destruction. ... We are eager to explore the mind of a person who does not get what they want and what they feel they deserve.

They go on to say : 

In a contemporary world of artists in positions of power behaving badly, our queer team - aged around the same age as Berlioz at the time - aim to question if his masterpiece can be harnessed to probe whether he deserves celebration for a work that champions a persistent sex pest.

Wow, their objectives are many and complicated to discuss, and possibly could be exciting to engage with, so it is sad, then, that none of that is really explored with any clarification in its kinetic offerings on the KXT stage. They have not dug deeply enough,  and they haven't found the method or language to argue their case. 

Covid-19 should have provided a long time to wrestle with this work to find the  contemporary way to arrest an audience to its concerns, but LIttle Eggs misfires spectacularly in its many visual cliches in this present work called SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE. 

P.S. It is amusing that the company wanted to provoke us to consider whether we should celebrate this work of "a persistent sex pest" and yet still to be encouraged by Mr Schermacher in his Musical Director's notes to celebraate it: "(I) warmly encourage you at home to find a recording, have a few glasses of wine, lay back with some headphones and let this piece wash over you." Clearly, Mr Schermacher has made up his mind in this endeavour. Listen to the Berlioz - it's a masterpiece no matter the present political concerns, he thinks. I do agree with him, by the way, no matter the time spent with Little Eggs.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Video Tape

MONTAGUE BASEMENT presents VIDEOTAPE, at the Kings Cross Theatre, in the Kings Cross Hotel. 29th January - 13th February.

MONTAGUE BASEMENT is a theatre company led by Saro Lusty-Cavallari and in the case of this new Australian play, he is the writer, director and is the Video and Sound Designer - quite a brief of responsibility.

A couple Daniel (Jake Fryer) and Juliette (Lucinda Howes)  are stuck in their apartment during a COVID19  lockdown. The apartment has a comfortable look, resonating wealth and security, a warm wooden designed platform with two couches and practical room lighting, Designed by Grace Deacon, and has a colour support in the Lighting from Sophie Pekbilimli.

The play is made up of many short scenes sketching the journey of the couple. The play is 80 minutes long. In the very first scene we meet the pair, each involved deeply with the tools of their communication. One in a book. One with a laptop computer. They don't talk. They both seem to be completely comfortable with their inaction with each other. The outer world holds gripping fascination for each - the book and the laptop is enough! With an irritating sizzle and a spat of noise we move to the next scene. The play introduces a VHS tape arriving from the unknown outer space and it seems, when the old machinery of the VHS is organised, to be a capture of the action of the couple - we recognise it when we view it  with them. It is a disturbing mystery for where is the recording camera and who is recording and delivering the material - the angle of vision is not possible and yet there it is. The logic and feasibility of the possibility is thrown over by the effect of the material displayed - its rustling of the emotional connections 'feathers' of the relationship becomes the subjective wheels of the action of the piece.

Anxiety creeps into the cumulative scene 'weight' and when the Videotape on a short loop reveals the physical abuse of one of the partners with the other - we witnessed it live, it escalates to the beginning of a fever that reaches towards a peak when on a later videotape a strange woman begins appearing - who is she? what is she doing? Why? WHY? WHY! It appears not only as a recorded past but is becoming a live force on the screen to the direction of the relationship - it is live! How is that possible?!

Some of the audience in attempting to solve the intention of this play have made reference to the David Lynch film LOST HIGHWAY (1997) - it has a place in the Director's program notes, so take it on as a clue (or is it a deliberate diversionary tactic by the Director?); THE RING, a Japanese horror film by Hideo Nakata (1998), remade in America by Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts (2002) also bubbles into the memory recall. But for me I kept 'hearing' the French film CACHÉ (HIDDEN) by Michael Haneke made in 1997.

CACHÉ has a bourgeois French family, comfortable and secure, that begins to receive Videotapes that progressively breaks this family into pieces. In the long (blabby!) program notes from Mr Lusty-Cavalllari he writes (online) that he feels we are ready to participate in story-telling that does not require an explanation of  what has happened. And so here we are with VIDEOTAPE that concludes playing but not explaining - it is a provocative offer, it can strike an audience that has been totally engaged, viscerally - deep in the stomach. (CACHÉ did that to me - although I stayed through the credits to the film and maybe got a clue that led to an explanation.)

VIDEOTAPE, does not hold one with the closing grip of anxiety significantly enough, so the provocation of no explanation fails - instead one feels cheated, cheaply cheated, cheated of our valuable time.

I find my inability to cooperate with the actor, Lucinda Howes, in her playing of Juliette. I believe that her acting chops are fairly in tact but her attention to her vocal work seems to be out of whack - her characterisation is pitched at a high piercing range and has over the long duologue of the play's requirement the ability to have an audience to become distracted, looking for a rest from the aural attack - an objective activity that begins to negate the subjective identity that the play requires from its audience.. Mr Fryer delivers a fine dramatic performance that has a vocal pitch (whether, conscious artistry or not) that demands attention and empathy.

So, VIDEOTAPE, at the KXT is an interesting and curious experience, although it appears in a very comfortable, familiar structure - and so, a  bit boring. However it is another offer from Saro Lusty-Cavallari that signifies here as some growing talent. Watch his progress.