Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Death of a Salesman

Sydney Theatre Company presents DEATH OF A SALESMAN, by Arthur Miller, in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd The Rocks. 3rd December to 22 December, 2021.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, written by Arthur Miller in 1948, produced in 1949, tells the story of an ordinary American family : the Loman family. Father/husband Willy (Jacek Koman), Mother/wife Linda (Helen Thomson), Sons Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Callan Colley). Biff is 34 and has returned home to Brooklyn, after an adventure in the cowboy world of the horse for dog meat Misfits, in a dilemma of disillusionment, seeking confession with his socially degraded brother before confronting his father with a shared secret that has eaten up half of his life, that will devastate his mother and push Willy to a decision that is at once criminal and yet, possibly, a salvation.

This is the story of an ordinary family that has lived through the war to end all wars: the First World War, then the monetary boom of the Jazz Age of the false hope of the possibility of the American Dream, busting in the stock market crash of 1929 and flattening out through almost a decade of what is called The Great Depression, a time of cruelty and terror, rescued by the industry of another great war with a cynical cause of optimism for saving the world, concluding with the exploding of two Atomic bombs to demonstrate power leading to the bleak cold war politics of fear rustled up by their President Harry F. Truman who had a finger not far from the next button, the Nuclear Button. Why is the bland domesticity of the Loman family find itself on the edge of a tremulous emotional abyss? Because History will out. Terror, fear, cynicism, greed, poverty, distress and depression. Depression that leads to the act of Suicide. And, oh, this is a family of Jewish immigrant origin. 

Does not this play reverberate for us in its titanic truth telling, whilst sitting in a token of good citizenship, the Roslyn Packer Theatre, during an enduring pandemic? Is not the Loman family a fair representative of families I know, today? My own family, perhaps? Sitting on the edge of another tremulous abyss?

This is why DEATH OF A SALESMAN is regarded as a Great Classic play. The ONE of the 20th Century, I say. And, this is why we get to see it revived in our theatre spaces time and time again, Nationally and Internationally. 

This is not my first encounter with the Loman family. There have been many, many others.

Christopher Bigsby, an academic devoted to the study of Miller/s work recorded Miller saying in his book of conversations ARTHUR MILLER AND COMPANY(1990):  

All these years later I see a play of mine that I wrote thirty-five years ago, and I see that the audience is screwed into it in the way that they were in the first place, I like to believe that the feeling they have is that man is worth something. That you care that much about him is a miracle, I mean considering the numbers of ourselves that we have destroyed in the last century. I think art imputes value to human beings  and if I did that  it would be the most pleasant thought I could depart with, apart from the fact that it entertains people, keeps them amused for a while. If I left behind that much value, it would be great. I have a weakness for actors and when they are transformed, or seem to be, by something I wrote, it's a miracle to me. When they become somebody I imagined it moves me very much. I guess the other thing is the wonder of it all, that I'm still here, that so much of it did work, that the people are so open to it, and that we sort of clasped hands somehow, in many places and many languages. It gives me a glimpse of the idea that there is one humanity, there's just one homo sapiens. Underneath all the different etiquette and the incomprehensible languages we are one. And I think it is a sort of miracle. What does a writer want? He wants to have left his thumbprint on the world. (That sounds like Willy Loman.) That's right. Who does not want that?

So it seemed, last night in 2021, that the audience was "screwed into it ... " Time, almost 3 hours flew past, for some. This play still holds its thrall on an audience. Even one as far away as Sydney, 71 years after its first performance.

This was, probably, my tenth experience of Willy Loman. I, sitting in my seat, remembered my first : Ben Gabriel at the Old Parade Theatre for the Old Tote Theatre Company. He was the described small man Miller had wanted. I've seen more statuesque individuals give the work, and it works best when Willy is a feisty, diminutive individual. I've seen Warren Mitchell give it at the Seymour Centre, and of course the filmed version with Dustin Hoffman, a small but robustly dynamic figure (both, much admired by Arthur Miller), and last night when Jacek Koman exhaustedly entered to lay down his bags and remove his coat to begin the marathon journey of Willy Loman, we saw a small man that was to be writ large.

The Director, Paige Rattray, has presented with a Set design by David Fleischer, with an open curtain to allow us to digest the picture : a striking image of a huge architectural art piece that has a decaying proscenium arch, slightly off-centred, upstage, flanked by a towering set of ware house windows that reveal a 'warehouse' wall of bricks; to our left a height exaggerated white doorway surrounded by drab green coloured walls, with a five pronged chandelier of period bulb design hanging from the roof, as if of a period dance hall; an abandoned white refrigerator, a card-sized table and a few chairs litter the space as the audience gathers it self together. It is a puzzle to solve. Where are we? What does this image mean?

Enter, when all is ready, a group of actors dressed in costume of the late nineteen forties manner, organised by Teresa Negroponte, to have a figure called The Woman (Brigid Zengeni) make verbal selection of Arthur Miller's description of the Set Design he had imagined. Our imaginations are asked to imaginatively produce the time and place of the actual play via the verbal descriptive recitation inside a vastly looming real image that, in my case, defied understanding. It seemed to be a grandiose solution! Why not build Mr Miller's solution? As an old actor, I fumed at the STC Budget costs for such a design - which is the usual artistic solution that Mr Fleischer presents: an expensive Art piece that gives little aid to the explication of the play for us plebs sitting in the auditorium whatever the patricians, he and Ms Rattray, know of its intention and symbols. The waste was exampled in the gigantic chandelier hanging from the roof, which was only once functionally lit, for the curtain call, and at no other time in the playing. An arrogant gesture of gratuitous design. Cost? Mr Fleischer's work on Terrence Rattigan's THE DEEP BLUE SEA was also an expensive, curious and useless solution to the demands of that play. Beautiful? Perhaps. USEFUL TO THE STORYTELLING? NO! It was extremely informative to see the Design solution that the National Theatre in London employed to present a contemporary read of the same play. Throw Mr Fleischer, the designer, into the Museum of Contemporary Art with his images, and employ some more actors, with the money saved, for God's sake!

Jacek Koman is fully informed of the opportunity of this iconic role, and there is an actor's intelligence of selection at work and the physical life of the character is vividly impressive throughout the night, peaking in his growing madness of helpless depression, in the night club scene. In quiet moments his vocal efforts can be intelligible, but in moments of emotional demand the injured raspy voice grates - is ugly and jarring -  and obfuscates the content of the line, and any musical pleasure in presenting the lyric prose/poetry of the writing. The performance is physically masterful, undermined in its achievement by a vocally inadequate sound. It is the Physical life that burns indelibly in my memory of Mr Koman's Willy. However, Mr Miller wrote in a form of prose/poetry, honed with this work to a perfection, and such that it becomes a hallmark of all his subsequent work - each text scripted with a craftman's exquisite pain - an achievement that is not possible to hear here. Here, Mr Koman reveals a mis-casting by Ms Rattray. His voice is an injured instrument. Willy requires an actor that can 'sing', subtly, with the beauty of the English language, to reveal the text. You will understand what I mean when you listen to the cadent beauty of Philip Quast's musical sensibilities as Ben, in this production, using an instrument that is primed to deliver content whilst simultaneously revealing the beauties of the sound of the English language shaped by a major mid-century American poet. Miller has picked up the baton from Odets, O'Neill, which he passed to Albee, and then onto Shepard. 

The original title of the play was THE INSIDE OF HIS HEAD, the play conceived as taking place in Willy's head, conjured on this desperate night of reckoning, conjuring the other figures to help him justify his determinations. Willy draws the Biff he needs and the crisis that brings Biff home is the catalyst that organises Biff to an agonising climatic confrontation, in the third act of the play, with his father that is resolved in the revelation that Biff LOVES his father. It is what Willy needs, conjures : the revelation that gives Willy a confirmed sense of worth despite his failings that ushers him to his final sacrifice to provide for his wife and son(s). So, he hopes!

Josh McConville creates a Biff that cries like a baby, at the age of 17, at the event of his discovery of his father's fallibility and betrayal of his mother, Linda, in the highway motel, that festers into a disease of awkwardness after a brooding on it for a further 17 years to a volcanic eruption of grief and rage in that climatic scene between father and son. McConville exploded into physical expression that had the bravura of an actor rather than the passions of the character in the given circumstances offered, it was as if the physical gestures of the actor were being pumped to generate the emotional force, instead of using the considered intellectual emotional construct in the information of the text - to which he should be listening, vibrating from. These moments, towards the end of the play, undermined  Mr McConville's wonderful choices of frustration we saw in the nightclub scene and caused me to withhold my full admiration of his passionate fury. 

Whereas, Callan Colley gives a marvellous controlled muscularity to his lunkheaded Happy determined for mediocrity when his youthful bloom begins to set - the arc of Mr Colley's work was consistent and buried in the character/man he was charged to bring to life. The work felt full and deliberately purposeful, beat by beat.

Helen Thomson creates her Linda from a place of exhausted empathy imbued with the effort of holding her world together, as it is her duty to do. Miller gives this woman no feisty objection but instead a saintly devotion to her allotted role in this family of masculine demands.  Washing, cleaning, repairing, making do, anticipating her men and offering advice, begging for change. Linda is part of the memory, vision, that Miller has with all his Mother roles, taking, as a poet does, from the three dimensional construct of his own mother, revealed to us in his magnificent autobiography TIMEBENDS, so that he can employ the poetic licence of selection to suit his artistic purposes. From his knowledge of his mother Augusta, Linda becomes the Good Woman of this play, as the Mother is as ROSE in THE AMERICAN CLOCK, and not as the Mother figure in AFTER THE FALL, for instance. It is a praiseworthy performance from Ms Thomson until we come to the all important and hotly (historically) debated Epilogue : the scene at the graveside. It was Arthur Miller's insistence that the scene remained in the first production. In the published text for all consequent productions.

Says Miller to Christopher Bigsby

The key (to the play) is in the requiem at the end, which everybody wanted me to cut out. They said the audience were never going to stay there because Willy Loman is dead; there's nothing to say. Of course they did want to stay there, just as you do want to go to a funeral. And what  is the point of a funeral? You want to think over the life of the departed and it's in there, really, that it's nailed down : he won't accept this life.

The difficulty for Ms Thompson is the indecisive staging of the scene, by Ms Rattray. Unfortunately, the gathering is spread, initially, upstage and gives the actors obstacles to prevent a muffling of the dialogue and, similarly, when the circle is brought closer downstage around the seated, on the floor, Linda Loman. The scene is rushed and the sense of the word by word importance of the contribution of each speaker and, as importantly, the active listening, the attention that must be paid to what is happening, the conscious construct by the play's writer, for the audience to pick up the clues of the subtext, was not made meaningful. Instead of this scene being the climax of Mr Miller's intention it seemed to be treated as an unnecessary adjunct to the play.  A play, any of Mr Miller's plays particularly, do not ever finish until the final point of syntax is expressed: that famous full stop. The casual staging and direction of  the Epilogue dispersed the focus and reduced the opportunity for the story of Mrs Linda Loman to truly count. She is the last one standing. Is it, therefore, her play? Is the death of this salesman Willy her tragedy? Her playing arc for the audience to embrace finishes with the final full stop. In Mr Miller's life, as his autobiography testify's, his mother counted. Linda in the daily sacrifice of herself as the wife to Willy Loman, and mother to Biff and Happy, always knew that Willy could never accept his life. She knew this and she knew it was the inheritance that her boys would be forced to live with and out.  All that she has left at the end of the play is the materialistic gain of the decaying house. Her husband dead, her boys ruined, that house is all she has left of the promises of the American dream. The irony of her  line to be, at last, "Free and Clear", repeated twice, is a punch to our gut. Ms Thomson's Linda under the direction of the scene by Ms Rattray is unable to make a satisfactory conclusion to her story. The epilogue we see is sentimental and lacking in the objectivity of the ruthless eye of Miller as he strips Linda bare and bereft in the aftermath of Willy's actions. She sits in the crucible having her 'fat' burnt away, and we are meant to watch and feel her terrors just as in a later play, THE CRUCIBLE, John Proctor, is shorn of all of his delusions and stands near naked with all his strengths and weaknesses revealed.

(By the way, FREE AND CLEAR, was also once considered a possible title to this play.)

Bruce Spence as cousin Charlie gives a measured and masterful construct to a role that floats between the naturalism of the period writing style and the Miller experimentation with the surreal tendencies of Eugene O'Neill and some of the more interesting European writers of the time (Eugene O'Neill, Miller and especially Edward Albee and then Sam Shepard outriders of the mainstream American dramatic literature style?). Later, Mr Spence blots his contribution with a set of gratuitous choices as a drunken waiter, even to his elbow slipping on the curve of the refrigerator door, gaining laughs but undermining his integrity of choice.

Philip Quast takes on the role of Ben, a huge and dynamic construct of Willy's mind, a giant of a figure 'sailing' across the stage in white suit, panama hat and umbrella, cane, declaiming in an ultra poetic/prose of journeys to the fabulous wealth of Alaska and Africa. Mr Quast meticulous in his handling of his text making a delicious moment in managing to reveal  the internal rhyme of AlaskA and AfricA wittily exaggerating Willy's dreamy delusion of what is a successful life. The exaggerations conjured by Willy a tragic exposition of his state of mind on this precarious night in the Loman house is manifested in Mr Quast's performance. (His song and dance act, introducing the Nightclub scene, is not his fault and is not part of Arthur Miller's plan!).

Other members of the cast provide function to the machinations of the play's wheels if not always making impressions of considered understanding of Miller's dramaturgical intention for their presence on the stage in their scene. Little intellectual interrogation, I thought. Vulgar comic opportunism instead. The nightclub scene for instance begins in Ms Rattray's production with a vulgar musical interpolation to the text as something "delightful, delicious" via Cole Porter, instead of the tragic loosening of Willy's mind - the two  louche women played for vulgar laughs instead of the ghost train conjuring of Willy's mental breakdown - so that the scene becomes a diversion of comic release rather than the cruel, deliberate dismembering of our 'hero's' state of mind - "in my own head." Instead of forcing the audience to brace itself into the gradual, tragic burning away of Willy's self in the crucible of the action of the play, Ms Rattray provides a comic distraction as if the play was merely a series of vaudeville sketches, with a dark ending! 

I could go on and on in this deconstruct forever.

The play, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, is a 5 Star rating.

The Sydney Theatre Company's production of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a 2 star bust.

 It begins with that design by Mr Fleischer, which has nothing much to do to reveal the actual action of the play (where his grandiose chandelier is lit only in the curtain call), through to a poverty in the interrogation of all the elements of every scene by the Director and the actors in them. This maybe my tenth production and so, in my experience, this production has the same function as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare for Shakespeare - a cursory introduction to Arthur Miller's work simplified for easy digestion if not always an accurate exposition of the actual play. 

That the Sydney Theatre Company continues to produce work of such interrogative poverty is indeed a tragedy for Arthur Miller's reputation and for the quality of theatre going in this city/this country. Thank God for the regular National Theatre Broadcast in our local cinemas that show us why the plays  are in their repertoire - old or brand new - and deserve to be seen. 

Every time I see an NT production I count the number of actors on the stage and weep for the Australian actor's opportunities on their main stages. Hire more actors. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, about to have its second showing in Sydney and a tour, has ONE actor, and TWELVE technicians onstage to assist her - "wtf", as they say. Our actors have been mostly unemployed for 18 months -2 years. While the administration of this leading company took home pay every single day of the disaster. EMPLOY SOME MORE ACTORS. Save money with simpler, economic design!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Merrily We Roll Along

Photo by Phil Erbacher

Luckiest Productions and Hayes Theatre Co present, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by George Furth, based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. At the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point. From 21st October - 27th November, 2021.

Going off to the Hayes Theatre in the expectation of once more (I have seen at least three other productions in Sydney) engaging with Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. I had a palpable sense of excitement. 

Stephen Sondheim is one of the Greats of contemporary theatre. I have rated him alongside Edward Albee, a writer and figure of the same generation - Albee born in 1928 and Sondheim in 1930. Albee passed away in 2016 at the age of 88 and Sondheim in March celebrated his 91st birthday. Two Great American geniuses spanning two centuries with a body of work of great note. I would include Tom Stoppard, who is a contemporary English writer and is only 84 as another Theatre Elder Genius whose work one approaches with anticipation and respect. Both these latter men are still writing, Stoppard having in the West End his latest play, LEOPOLDSTADT, on stage (It has been announced that the National Theatre Broadcast will screen performances of it in early 2022 in selected Sydney cinemas - a don't miss opportunity), and Mr Sondheim is working with writer David Ives on a new musical called SQUARE ONE. Interestingly, this work explores a romance between a couple that is told backwards in time. Sondheim had been working with Terrence McNally on another romance moving backward in time. That work lost impetus some time ago. Well before Mr McNally's passing. This time exploration is a constant challenge it seems

The range of work, both in content and explorations of form, from Mr Sondheim, is staggering - he is regarded as having "reinvented the American Musical". One of the bio-graphical tit-bits I have always held close is the fact that Mr Sondheim has always enjoyed the creation and solving of puzzles. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, was just such a task that Hal Prince, a regular collaborator, a theatre Director, proposed to Sondheim (via an introduction to the original play by Prince's wife Judy). The original play (1934) on which the musical is based (of the same name), by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells the history of three friends in reverse time order - from older to young; from bitterness to innocent ambitions/appetites. Sondheim shifts the time zones and creates relationships differently to the original. 

Sondheim in his book, FINISHING THE HAT (2010), reviewing and investigating his body of work, tells us he took, when tackling MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, 

The Notion: Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter and movie producer in his forties, reviews his life, both professional and personal, especially his relationships with his best friends, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas (his song writing collaborator), and two wives Beth and Gussie. The action moves backward in time from 1981 to 1957.

The fact that the work ends in 1957 - the year of Sputnik moving through space -  requires that he reflect the musical traditions of the period - the thirty-two-bar song - and working through the standard musical structures. He uses an example of the problem solving he had: "The structure of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG suggested to me that the reprises could come first : the songs that had been important in the lives of the characters when they were younger would have different resonances as they aged; thus, for example, "Not A Day Goes By," a love song by a hopeful young couple getting married, becomes a bitter tirade from the wife when they get a divorce, but the bitter version comes first in the musical's topsy-turvy chronology." This kind of puzzle was part of the attraction to this particular project for this artist. "In addition", he adds, "the show gave me the chance to revert to the sharp urban feeling of the songs in COMPANY and FOLLIES."

Indeed, as this production reveals itself on the Hayes Theatre stage the bitterness, anger and pain in the opening sequences that the major characters meet us with, makes this show not necessarily a happy night of escapism, which, especially, as we had all just come through stringent times in our Pandemic lives (and still are in), whether MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG was an appropriate demand of us - "Give us laughter and escapism, some songs to hum at home tomorrow morning!" - Of course, the optimism of youthful dreams in the midst of early attachments, does come and takes us out of the Hayes Theatre to the streets in a relatively hopeful state with songs such as OPENING DOORS and OUR TIME, having given us a chance of 'rapture'. It is, though, in the last half hour of the two and half journey that we are allowed to wallow in sentimental optimisms about the potential of our futures both professionally and personally. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG is quite a demand. 

This difficulty of not having easily attractive individuals to want to identify with for such a long time in the structure of the playscript may be part (there were other possible artistic choices) of the reason that the original Broadway production failed with only 16 performances and 52 previews before closing. However, Sondheim continued to develop the script, tinkering with it in a production at La Jolla in California at the invitation of James Lapine in 1985, and further working on it for a production in Seattle in 1990, and an Off-Broadway revival in 1994. Each time making decisions that helped the audiences to 'get on board' with the show were introduced it seems. 

Then came British productions, the first notable one in the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester in 1992. It was the Donmar Warehouse production in December in 2000, Directed by Michael Grandage, that received the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Like a dog with a bone, Sondheim with positive collaborators ensured that MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG would become a work as interesting and exciting a challenge for artists and audience. A work that not only entertained but asked you to participate as a thrilling puzzle-solver. A work, like all of Stephen Sondheim's offers, that pleased you with affected feelings and intellectual challenges, involving both music and language. Content and form wrapped together and with an exhilarating energy that all Artists reach for.

When MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG begins, arrive with all your senses alert and invested in the thrill to be treated by an artist that respects and trusts that you are not a comatose but an intelligent sentient being. Someone PRESENT in the MOMENT. It is a work that has not only the basic ambitions of a work such as the musical COME FROM AWAY, that reopened in the huge commercial theatre space of the Capitol Theatre the night before, but, also a challenge to ask you to 'act' with the artists to be able to have a complete night in the theatre. All of Stephen Sondheim's body of work have this aura, and it is why I include him as a genius, who, as with Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard lift the theatre experience into something more than a good night out. (That he not only writes his lyrics but creates in the mysteries of the musical language as its partner, he may be the superior of the three)

Directed, by Dean Bryant, and with a longer rehearsal experience than usual, that has included not only the practical needs of staging and re-staging to employ the growing gifts of his small cast of only eight, he has had an invaluable extended dreaming time with all as the show was faulted to the necessary closures perforce of the Covid-19 virus Pandemic.

The Set Design (Jeremy Allen) is a static warm brown wooden box surround (good for acoustic) that intimates, in some of its details, of an art deco radio broadcast theatre space which envelops a raised platform that allows the necessary furniture to inhabit the space alongside a permanent straight backed piano. Behind is a curtained space where the band/orchestra of four is situated, guided by the versatile Musical Director for each performance, Andrew Warboys. The work has been scored, traditionally, for a 13-piece orchestra, but Mr Warboys says in the program notes: 

I felt it important to be able to emulate the big Broadway orchestra sound and also access the intimacy of a tight jazz quintet.

My response to Mr Warboys' orchestration is that it errs in a definite flavour to the sound of a jazz quintet. The 'intimacy', that Mr Warboys suggests is diminished with a Sound Design (Dave Bergman) that enjoys a bombast of volume that is discomforting to hear in the small space of the theatre and, maybe, reduces the personality of each of the songs, plotted and woven particularly through the cultural aural profile (sounds of the popular music) of each of the musical decades, beginning in 1975, through to the sounds of the 60's to the late 1950's - a challenge that Sondheim talks about as one of the thrills of creativity that he had to solve. However, the microphoned actors are balanced extremely well to make the important lyric content as clear as a bell. The Stage Design also accommodates cameras and screens that is both pre-recorded (image and musical sound - Dave Bergman) as well as live throughout the night, that prescribes the lighting design to not 'flood' the image (Veronique Bennett) and causes more a need for a generic style rather than a sophisticated spot one.

Among the actors the performance to relish is that of Ainsley Melham, as the lyricist/writer character, Charley Kringas (Mr Melham gave us the Disney Aladdin - which he subsequently gave on Broadway and in the Stage filming of it in London for the Disney Company!). He exudes intelligence, wit and a physical and vocal confidence that appears effortless. He takes charge of the 'patter' song: FRANK SHEPARD INC., in the middle of the first act and hauls this production into focus, (and an enthusiastic and grateful break for applause), that in the hands of the other artists, in the first half-hour or so of the show, has meandered entertainingly, but without clear direction of communication of Sondheim's sophistication of intent. It is not fair to say right out, but Mr Melham has the famous "IT" quality  - just look at his video imagery beside the other members of the company. They all individually can shine but Mr Melham glows. It's a gift which he has no control over (Monroe and Dean had it. Judy Davis has it. Kristen Stewart, Sarah Snook and Adam Driver, Ryan Cor have it), and when harnessed with instinctual gifts and brightening skills (and good luck) is a launching pad to the A-list.

Part of the difficulty of this production includes the gifted but technically immature performance by our leading character Frank Shepard, impersonated by Andrew Coshan, who uncomfortably 'pretends' that he understands what it is to be 40, and a commercial success who has knowingly sold his creative soul to the devils of money and power, while deserting his first wife, Beth, (Tiarne Sue Yek) and family, to ruin two other women, his other besotted best friend, Mary Flynn (Elise McCann) and a conniving woman, Gussie Carnegie (Georgina Hopson), she, too, besotted, but besotted as only an emotional narcissist can be. Mr Cosham becomes more comfortable as his character youthens and gradually moves into his power that, at last, reaches out to our empathetic buttons. Life might bake Mr Coshan's gifts to permit his talent the opportunities to grow, for there are grace and obvious vocal and physical skills. Is Mr Coshan shy? Or, is he surprised by this opportunity? I hope his courage grows to help to risk failure (I would not have thought that this Frank was either a composer or a film director).

Tiarne Sue Yek, gives a very moving performance as Beth and reveals the complications of living, in her rendition of her bitter iteration of NOT A DAY GOES BY. What follows is a well thought out sub-textual motivation for Beth's survival and the character and actor become immersed in each other. And as Ms Sue Yek begins to move into the younger, and more familiar emotional territory, the characterisation grows. What I saw, as well, was a sturdy ensemble actor in the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG company.

Similarly, with less writing of sophistication in his given tasks (Joe), Aaron Tsindos, is a great support to the ensemble, although there are instances when he reaches for the temptation of receiving response rather than choosing subtlety of a truthful characterisation. Although playing function without building a person, Mr Tsindos is almost always an asset to the production.

Vidya Makan, playing a variety of roles is a very sophisticated member of this ensemble, enough to have me read her biography in the program, only to be reminded of her offers as Catherine Parr in the musical SIX. I hope she is returning to that production if, and when it resurrects. Evan Lever appears in the ensemble as well. 

The acting in the company for the first third of the show was generally  strained - tentative - unsure to commit. 

Elise McCann, playing the bitter Mary Flynn is more caricature than character and while scoring the laughs (and how  - a la Elaine Stritch) lacks visible character motivation - and, once again it is only in the last youthful section that Ms McCann reveals to us clearly the yearning for Frank's attention that is the lynchpin for her character's action - it was too late. This Mary was not funny she was a withering hostile. 

Georgina Hopson given the 'peachy' role of mendacious Gussie to create, decides to truly belt it, and bat it she does with the decision to go for the camp - High Camp, chew the furniture and walls of the set Camp - to belt it into the stratosphere of our universe - searching for 'star' rather than for the ordinary human truths and the revealing realism that that demands of an actor creating character. Like any canny actor Ms Hopson recognises the gift that Mr Sondheim has written for Gussie at the opening of Act Two, NOW YOU KNOW, and it has become the apotheosis of her performance. She chooses to throw out sub-textual subtleties for over-the-top energies that literally obfuscates the lyrics with demonstrations of  "I love it"-explosive emotional states. Her acting choices for a very wonderfully written character is lazily all too dependent on extravagant physical gestures and face pulling - bent at knee and jutting chin - to achieve her characterisation. It needs directional aid for an approach to the Sondheim repertoire that demands naturalism and observational truths. Truth is required for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, not a classic musical theatre caricature - Sondheim doesn't write those kind of people unless he is indulging himself with the crazy merriment of say: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where he wrote the Music and Lyrics for a Roman farce by Plautus. 

Mr Bryant, as part of his responsibility has neglected to help the actors solve the acting of the older iterations of these characters or calm the grotesques. With his choreographer, Andrew Hallsworth, simple physical adjustments coupled with psychological investigation and observational skills could help the actors find a way to a more truthful possession.

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, has become one of the 'sleepers' in the Sondheim repertoire and although this Musical is not a match for the best of his work, it is still true to life and full of challenges that can test the best of the singers/actors in our industry. I left The Hayes Theatre pleased and stimulated with a growing admiration for the subtleties of the challenge of this work as an actor, director, both musically and as a character driven work. It is a worthwhile time in the theatre.

There are some who will choose COME FROM AWAY, as their musical theatre experience. Some will choose MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

I choose both, enthusiastically. 

Horses for courses, of course.

Welcome back to the theatre.

Thursday, July 1, 2021


FUSER Production present INTACT, Devised work by Cecile Payet, Emily Yalli, Sabrina Muszynski, at the Woodburn Creatives Redfern, 1 Woodburn St. Redfern. 26th May - 27th June.

Cecile Payet is a young French artist I came into contact through an acting class situation. It is several years since we last crossed paths. Recently I was invited to attend a performance of INTACT, the debut work of this company: Fuser Production. Cecile was always an artist one thought had the determination and vision to make a contribution to the arts scene in Sydney.

INTACT, is a solo movement piece built on the physical skills of Olivia Hadley with input from Steve Lu, Cecile Payet, Emily Yalli, Sabrina Muszynski - fellow devisors. A young woman dons a uniform and wielding a weapon, she explores the physical power necessary to be an active military soldier - we witness physical shifts of some beauty and exhilarated confidence that belie the coming horrors of war and the devolving into disability - with legs that are paralyzed, demanding a whole new perspective on life and movement. The potential of a 'new' body movement is explored.

The arc of this journey uses the Set Design (Sam Wylie), a focus on a gleaming hospital gurney that with its mobility and shelving facilitates the transitions of the work from episode to episode. The confidence and trust that the performer has in the evolving characterisations is never more evident than in the propulsive Sound Design  (Martin Gallagher) that vibrates an energetic force, illustrated in the intense and flexible Lighting Design, by Travis Kecek.

This debut work can be found in a little 'hole-in-the-wall' venture, access easy from Cleveland St, with seating for 20 or 25 people, cosied up on these winter nights with teas/or coffee. INTACT is modest in budget but aesthetically beautiful and intriguing in its posed ideas - driven by a passion that is engaging and makes one curious with what this company might follow up with.

FUSER Production and Cecile Payet, keep your eyes peeled.


Photo by Robert Catto

Darlinghurst Theatre Company present, ONCE, Book by Enda Walsh, Music and Lyrics, by Songwriters, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, based on the film (2007), Written and Directed by John Carney, at the Eternity Theatre, Burton St Darlinghurst. 4th June - 18th July.

A few years ago on a Saturday afternoon in New York I took myself to a matinee performance of an Irish musical, ONCE, staged by the New York Theatre Workshop mostly, because it was Directed by John Tiffany. Mr Tiffany had, also, that season (2013-14) Directed a production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, and I had been very excited by it. Alas, his production of ONCE, with the same artistic team was an irritating disappointment. The production was on a Broadway scale, even to a working bar on the theatre stage where you could imbibe and meet your neighbours, before the show and in the interval before been ushered to your seat. It was an Irish work that was deeply rooted in its Irishness  - maudlin unrequited love with a growing mystery of attraction and encouragement going on, and going on, and on, and on. It was raining outside, on the Broadway streets, a depressing cold rain, and, in contrast, my fellow audience members were boisterously excited. I was, sadly, not. Not. Not.

A week or so ago, in Sydney, on a wet winter afternoon I went to a Saturday matinee of ONCE at the Eternity Theatre. This theatre is, in contrast to the Broadway experience, an intimate exchange between the audience and the cast. The budget covers pieces of furniture surrounding the walls to create an impression of a drinking pub somewhere in Dublin which facilitates the company to sit, stand on it and even move it about. center stage etc. Too, there are a couple of doors that allow the actors to move on and off the stage to facilitate intimate exchanges between characters and fullon company songs of joy and hope. It is all a much more pleasant environment, even without the working bar on the stage. 

Production Design is by Hugh O'Connor assisted by a sympathetic and useful Lighting Design by Peter Rubis. The work is Directed by Richard Carroll, aided by a Movement Director, Amy Campbell and they create a clarity and fluidity for the performance that was easy to sit through. The Musical Director, Victoria Falconer, has guided the artists to produce a handsome and empathetic sound, with Sound Designer, Dylan Robinson, balancing the orchestra instruments which are present on stage with some of  the performers, costumed as 'characters' in the bar.

Guy (Toby Francis), a street singer has said goodbye to his girlfriend who has gone to find a life in the United States (New York) that her family and Dublin cannot do for her. He will follow her when he can 'make' the money. A Czech Girl (Stefanie Caccamo), who carries an enigmatic and charismatic energy, bumps into the street busking that Guy gives and has an instinct that his music should be nurtured. Girl has her family in this Pub 'tribe' and they all facilitate the evolving talent of Guy, building a musical band around him, resulting in a recording. Over the arc of the play Guy becomes torn with his relationship to the woman in New York and with the mysterious Girl. We have never met the mysterious girl in New York and don't until almost the last beat of the work, whereas we have 'travelled' through the growing tendrils enveloping the two on stage: the Guy and the Girl. The Girl was whom we were favouring - but that favouring results only in another unrequited love.

The ensemble inhabiting this Dublin Pub all look and feel comfortable, supporting the arc and ache of most of the journey of the protagonists with the songs of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, though I drift off and remember the afternoon as a long blur of songs of unrequited lamentations of love. However, this production, in contrast to my other encounters with this work, was comfortable and not one of agitation, as the others have been. Something was working at the Eternity. Toby Francis being especially attractive in his character of Guy.

This production was warmly embraced by the audience  around me. In fact, this season has been extended to meet the demands for seats. Meanwhile, I had seen COME FROM AWAY at the Capitol Theatre earlier that week. Both works are driven by the 'folk' origins of the given circumstances of the story telling, Ireland or Newfoudland. However, the personal love life of Guy in ONCE is overwhelmed, in contrast, to the relative vastness of the lives of the visiting passengers and the citizens of the city of Gander of COME FROM AWAY. The humanity of both works make ONCE a 'micro' or 'COME FROM AWAY a 'maxo' illustration of an optimistic possibility for the homo sapien, as a species, in places and times of significant stress. 

I can thoroughly recommend COME FROM AWAY as a pertinent contemporary conversation in contrast to the 'siren' calls of the over familiar dilemmas of ONCE. 

See both, if you have the time and money.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Grand Horizons

Photo by Prudence Upton

Sydney Theatre Company presents, GRAND HORIZONS, by Bess Wohl, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd The Rocks. 7th June - 3rd July.

I thought, as I sat in the Roslyn Packer Theatre on the Opening Night that GRAND HORIZONS, has a set of characters mirroring the highly successful 9 seasons, 210 episodes, television sitcom, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (1996-2005 : two elder parents who are abusive and abused - in our case 80 year old Nancy (Linda Cropper) and husband Bill (John Bell), two competitive brothers - in our case married, harried Ben (Johnny Nasser) and hysteric gay son Brian (Guy Simon), and a wife - in our case a very pregnant, patient one called Jess (Zindzi Okenyo). The play has two guest spots to enliven the family interactions, in our case a young gay pickup (James Majoos) for our uptight Brian who is taught a few surprising things about his internalised homophobia and the 'girlfriend', 'floozy' (Vanessa Downing), that Bill has met at his Standup comedy class who is in much sympathy with Nancy who has weathered Bill all this time. Ms Wohl's company of characters are familiar and very comfortable to be with.

Nancy and Bill go through the habit/ritual of preparing to eat the evening meal - a choreographic dance for the huma-trons. After chewing, 80-year old Nancy asks for a divorce, Bill chomps, and, calmly, gives it. Divorce ON. The sons are just panicked-spare at the news while Jess offers stock new age guides to calm them down. The big woofs of laughter come from the revelations of 80-year old mum's sex life and her flagrant use of 'potty' language to talk about cunnilingus and the use of clittorial vibrators - "How shocking - how hilarious!" - and Bill's woeful standup comic jokes about  4 nuns and St Peter  and curmudgeon sling-off's at everybody around him, at the over-the-top whinings of Brian, the grossly grotesque gay hysteric Drama teacher son, Brian, backed up by a similar overworked lawyer brother, Ben, who feels massively under-appreciated (they could be the Crane brothers from Frasier - two closeted 'straight'/gay men!) 

Now, I'm not denying that there are regular laughs going-on, some of the audience were highly entertained. But why they would pay $89 or $67 to watch this down there on Hickson Rd when they can see it free to air every day on Channel 11 Bold, I don't know. Director Jessica Arthur has encouraged an enlarged facsimile of the Broadway Helen Hayes Design, more or less, from Renee Mulder - this retirement apartment in the Grand Horizons building for the STC is sooo large - the floor plan is huge, the height to the ceiling is gigantic and every nook and cranny is visible in the white blaze of light ( bright light for comedy, so they tell me) from Verity Hampson. One wonders the Budget cost for such extravagance - it could probably cover the costs of 5 or 6 independent theatre productions! Ms Arthur has adapted the play to a Sydney location and employed the Australian accent to deliver the American rhythms and word sounds (I assume the author Ms Wohl has given permission, and not just a gross appropriation of another artist's work or culture) and deftly moves the actors across the space and manages the sensational act one curtain with great aplomb. 

Linda Cropper is astonishing. Her characterisation is marvellously observed and delivered and seems to be able to make so much TV dialogue dross, a kind of verbal Gold.

Is there not an Australian comedy out there? I recently attended the reading of Joanna Murray-Smith's THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, which I don't believe has been professionally seen in Sydney. And if we are going international, I might encourage the curators of our season repertoire at the STC contact the people at the local Outhouse Theatre Company and get a few tips for they seem to read the international reviews and the new pertinent plays: GLORIA, THE FLICK, JOHN, ULSTER AMERICAN, a recent choice. THE SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, is another contemporary play produced at the Eternity Theatre, Darlinghurst, by The Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company, that seems to have escaped the door keepers at the STC who curate their season/s work

If the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) regards itself as the leading theatre company in Australia, can you imagine its equivalents in London: The National Theatre of Great Britain (or Scotland, for that matter), or The Royal Court, can you imagine these leading National Theatre companies presenting GRAND HORIZONS on their stages? 

I meditate - agitate - that QUESTION: ... ... Not bloody likely! 

Come on STC, leave this play to the Genesians, the amateur theatre down in Kent St. Become what the present  sparks may call AWOKE!

GRAND HORIZONS, is a slick professional production of a play for the comatose.

Come From Away

Photo by Jeff Busby

Junkyard Dog Productions and Rodney Rigby present COME FROM AWAY, with Book,  Music, and Lyrics David Hein and Irene Sankoff, at the Capitol Theatre, Campbell St Haymarket. 3rd June…

On September 11, 2001, the world stopped when two planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York and in some targets in Washington. As recalled in the program notes for this performance:

In a heartbeat 38 planes with 6,579 passengers were stranded in a remote town in Newfoundland and the locals opened their hearts and homes hosting this international community of strangers - spurring unexpected camaraderie in extraordinary circumstances. On September 12, 2001, their stories moved us all.

COME FROM AWAY, uses 12 actors in a no-interval production to tell the stories of the passengers on a plane landing at Gander in Newfoundland, and also playing the people of Gander who associate and befriend these unexpected visitors. Using the theatre traditions/techniques of the theatre-in education (TIE) passed down and re-configured from the traditions of German practitioners of early last century such as Erwin Piscator and Bertold Brecht, Director, Christopher Ashley, and Choreographer in charge of the Musical Staging, Kelly Devine, manages the techniques and the actors into a very slick ensemble that as well reveal through detail-packed gesture of voice and body to create many different characters, swiftly and accurately. Add the contribution of the Musical Supervision, Ian Eisendrath, for this sung-through musical theatre with the colour of folk music and we have a concentrated entertainment that tells us of the basic 'goodness' of some humans facing shattering events of contemporary history. 

COME FROM AWAY, is a deserving winner of many theatre Awards and this Australian production is a first rate heart warming time spent in the Capitol Theatre. Zoe Gertz, Sharrrriese Hamilton, Douglas Hansell, Kolbe Kindle, Philip Lowe, Simon Maiden, Sarah Morrison, Ash Roussety, Alana Tranter, Kathleen Moore and Jasmine Vaughns were the artists that delivered a knock-out ensemble work.

The Set Design is simply designed for general visual support for all the locations required, it is by Beowulf Boritt, supported by the Lighting design of Howell Brinkley. Costume Design is by Toni-Leslie James.

I can recommend COME FROM AWAY with enthusiasm and encourage parents and family of a sophisticated age to GO see it.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Ulster American

Photo by Richard Farland

Outhouse Theatre Company and the Seymour Centre present, ULSTER AMERICAN, by David Ireland, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, City Rd Chippendale. 13th May - 2nd - 9th June (extended season).

ULSTER AMERICAN  (2018) is a play by Irishman, David Ieland. Another of his plays : CYPRUS AVENUE (2016), was presented at the Old Fitz by Redline and Empress Theatre in 2019.

In ULSTER AMERICAN, an ambitious English Theatre Director, Leigh Carver (Brian Meegan) has nurtured a promising young Irish (identifies as British) woman writer, Ruth Davenport (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), who has now presented an astonishing  new play about "The Troubles" of Ireland. It is so arresting that Leigh has been able to contract one of the 'hottest' American (who recognises his Irish American origins) Academy Award winning actors, Jay Conray (Jeremy Waters), to play the lead. It is the night before rehearsals commence and Leigh has organised a meeting between himself, the writer and the lead actor, as a social courtesy for each of them.

For the Director the success of this production will be an obvious boost to his standing as an artist of influence, as well as a fairly rich man, as the production has been fully Sold Out, on the reputation of his famous leading actor. For the actor, Jay, this role presents an opportunity to reveal his true Acting Chops to the world, on stage - an opportunity to justify his Academy Award status, in a role that he believes, as well, will give him positive 'glory' as an Irish American in the world political sphere. For the writer, Ruth, this production of her play will draw the attention of the film industry, such as the illustrious Quentin Tarrantino, and give her access to the Hollywood 'machine' and great monetary, if not artistic, opportunity.

The stakes for each of the characters are high. The Director presents as a modest soft spoken intellectual but reveals in the tumult of the conflict that arises to be a calculating and ruthless 'animal' of masterful manipulative skill - he will take no prisoners! The Actor presents as an artist of volatile ambition which quickly collapses when his arguments for 'status' reveal a pseudo-intellect fuelled by an arrogance of grandiosity and an ego of monumental proportion that aspires to much more than mere social and political reputation. He carries his Oscar in his bag as the touch assurance of his abilities! The Writer presents as a modest, near helpless woman grateful for the power that these men can wield for her advancement, until they begin to interrogate her play script and attempt to introduce changes and edits and re-writes that will disfigure and 'destroy' her creation, her 'child' - she becomes a 'superhero' of Marvel Comic proportions, a force of physical wrath, the reflex of the defensive mother creator to combat her predators. The stakes for each of the characters become DESPERATELY high, that demand, from each, desperate actions!

ULSTER AMERICAN is a satire. The play is full of subtly clever jokes, as well as shocking causes of huge stomach laughter response, for the comedy of satire allows the writer to put into the mouths of his characters statements of argument of exhilarating inappropriateness, to passionately pursue their objectives, that can create a physical punch that a gasp of disbelief (Did she/he say that?) as the spontaneous reaction that, then, demands the noise of big laughter to cover the shock.

ULSTER AMERICAN is an hilarious verbal farce of temperament for most of its 80 minutes, that I thought, unfortunately, devolved into a physical escapade that had the woman murdering (at the least in bloodily assaulting the two men to a pulp) using the actual phallic Oscar figure as a bludgeoning weapon. 

Mr Ireland had drafted this play before the #metoo movement began but the sight of the bloodily smeared Ruth collapsing, in this play, trying to regain her breath, as a cue for the lights to fade to black and on the night I went, a cheering cabal of support for justice done to the sexist, racist male egotists, Leigh and Jay, rang out from the audience : wolf whistling and stamping!!!

Now, the tradition of farce, has more often than not, usually just 'blacked out - curtain down' to finish a play, as the tying up of bows to bring a naturalism to a "lunar' situation is nigh-near impossible : consider the Aldwych Farces of Ben Travers to the Whitehall Farces of Brian Rix; to the Carry on films even to the television creations of Fawlty Towers and Absolutely Fabulous, the episodes just stop. However, I felt that Mr Ireland had just stopped and reached for an ending that appeared as a tack-on - i.e. the physical brawling. It may have been the actors relative lack of skill with the choreography, but , for me, it felt a squib considering the blistering verbal dynamics that had buoyed and dominated most of the night's drive to another 'planet' of mounting hilarity - the physical life of character or the action of the play was not a major part of this play's tool box, until those final beats! Mr Ireland,in my estimation,fails his climax by resolving to physical dumb-show instead of arguing consistently with his clever verbal intellect. Brawn called in, abandoning the use of brains to conclude this play.

Shane Anthony, the Director of this production from Outhouse, had had a steady hand up till those added physical beats, with Jeremy Waters producing the crazy Over-the-Top red-blush hilarity as Jay, which we have seen him give before (great casting), balanced by a dexterous contrast of style by Brian Meegan, giving the performance of the night as Leigh, the low-keyed 'villain'. Harriet Gordon-Anderson arrives late and floats an intelligent energy in the room that slowly combusts into the woman (worm) that finally turns in the power dynamic she and her 'child', the play, finds themselves in - Ms Gordon-Anderson was, on my night,I felt, a little under charged. This trio of actors build an ensemble of control over the very enriched comic bravura of the subtle reference-joke writing to the full outrage of daring to articulate  the culturally inappropriate, articulating, maybe, what we have often thought, but have never had the  courage to say.

This production by Outhouse Theatre Company has an impeccable Set and Lighting Design by Veronique Bennett, Costume Design by Claudia Kryszkiewicz, with Mary Rapp backing up the production with the Sound Design.

The Outhouse Theatre Company, under the Direction of Jeremy Waters, have constantly had their fingers on the pulse of contemporary international writing and have produced works of quality in all of its artistic choices. For instance, Branden Jacob-Jenkins's GLORIA, many of the Annie Baker plays ; THE FLICK and JOHN. Now, ULSTER AMERICAN,  a contemporary play that delivers satiric comment in the form of comic farce that attacks the solar plexus with powerful punches. Someone is reading Contemporary World Dramatic Literature at the Outhouse (this is sometimes true at the New Theatre, as well). 

The Sydney Theatre Company has caught up, this year, with giving us Mr Jacob-Jenkins' APPROPRIATE  (at last, the leading company in Sydney finds and presents GOLD) - an extraordinary comic theatrical experience but then, follows up with mere competent writing such as HOME, I'M DARLING, by Laura Wade or the grizzily comedy of a television sitcom on the Roslyn Packer stage called GRAND HORIZONS, by Bess Wohl. Both plays, I reckon, for the comatose.

Thank God for companies such as Outhouse that keep Sydney theatre audiences in the international conversation loop. I was given a late tip to catch it, I was so pleased. Much as I was at the Eternity Theatre with their production of SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER by Jasmine Lee-Jones. A relevant crash into the Dramatic Theatre Literature of the NOW.

7 Stages of Grieving

Sydney Theatre Company presents, 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, at the Wharf Theatre, Hickson Rd.Sydney.  21st May - 17th June.

This production of 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, written in 1994 - 1995, by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, is the fourth one devised by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). The first production was performed by Deborah Mailman and directed by Wesley Enoch. This new production is performed by Elaine Crombie and Directed by Shari Sebbens,

In the 26 years since the original production Time and History has happened. In the reading of the content of the original play, based (built) around the structure from the profoundly influential book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross : ON DEATH AND DYING (1969), certainly Time has passed if not much pertinent History, too. The grieving of the Indigenous artists involved in this new production (and of their brothers and sisters in their everyday experiences in 2021) is still as deeply felt now as then. What has changed? Not much, this production reveals.

It seemed to me that Ms Sebbens and Crombie had been working with one of the original writers, Wesley Enoch, in making subtle changes to the original scene text to make its telling a truly contemporary one. With permission, these artists have made changes, and also added an 'epilogue',  which pierces the fourth wall of the theatre-stage and collapses it into a definite conversation in the last section of the performance - between those doing and those that have been watching and listening, the performers and the audience.

This production has made some adjustment in the design elements of the original play. First, Elizabeth Gadsby, has created banks of midden featuring shells, bones and other materials across the width of the stage that have washed up over time, to create for Ms Crombie, a space of an ever evolving accumulation of history, that became, she has said, a deeply personalised historical projection: Ms Crombie is not alone on this stage in telling her story anymore, she is surrounded by the visual 'evidence' of her people. The stage visuals, with permission, have been influenced by the Quandamooka artist, Megan Cope - with connection to Stradbroke Island. In Ms Gadsby's design it is an effective set of black 'rises' covered in white shell-like shapes, while other introduced properties are mostly stark contrasts, perhaps, being signs of hope, tokens splashed with colour for the future. Secondly, the Design has a large back wall screen, that presents text messages in white and grey video imagery, managed by Verity Hampson, to great emotional effect. The personalised photographs of Ms Crombie's family are not screened as in the original with Ms Mailman, the audience is invited to endow from their own life history.

Ms Sebbens, helps tell the original play's ambitions in presenting a "Testament of Love, Family and Resilience". However, she and all the gathered artists, involved in the present 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, go, actively further, in the tradition of the theatre that originated in the known expressed needs of the surviving texts of our Western heritage: the Greek Theatre, and evidenced later in the provocation of the Group Theatre's production of WAITING FOR LEFTY (1935), by Clifford Odets, that uses, as does 7-Stages, a series of related vignettes, illustrating a powerful social grief, to frame a 'meeting' to inspire its audiences into action - to "strike" for change. And, this is in not just the warm pleasure of the joint expression of a group sharing, choir-like, the joys of singing in a group in harmony, but to engage and provoke the audience to DO something, to go into ACTION, using a giant QR code projected on the back wall screen of the stage, that they can capture with the click of their mobile phones: a link to a page on the STC website "The 7 Actions of Healing" - that visitors can use to sign petitions, follow and contribute to conversations social media, and make donations with.  We the audience are weaponised. Will you Do something? Will you help facilitate change - to right the social injustice, that rests in the minds and hands of our elected representatives? Your representers? 

This production of 7-STAGES OF GRIEVING, becomes an 'agent provocateur'.  It becomes what some regard the play by Beaumarchais (1784) and the  more influential, the opera, by Mozart: THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (1786)  did - it helped create a Revolution in France (1789). It provoked Social Change.  It is what Orlando Figes illustrates in his book: THE EUROPEANS (2019), of the power of Opera (Performance Art), in the nineteenth century as a tool of provocation for Change. From Mozart through Wagner, Verdi et al. What Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA (1994-5) helped in the National and State governments of the United States to an awakening in their attitude to the funding for research into the AIDS virus. Who would of thought the STC to be such an agent of change? Not enough of us, I'm afraid!

Whatever the gifts Ms Crombie may have as an actor, in this performance, it is with certainty, her personal charm - despite the need for stage management prompting - that wins the audience into attending to her personal story, her First Nations historical and daily experience. Ms Sebbens has lifted the revival of this important Australian play from just a shared testament of grief of our Indigenous brothers and sisters into an urgent demand for Social Justice and Action. One that asks its audience to have more than a shared warm identification and appreciation of our First Nation Peoples inflicted tragedy, but to encourage by facilitation to switch on their mobile phones and use it as a weapon for social justice. For real change. Not just mouthed homilies of intention. Ms Crombie is a force of charm harnessed to serve a revolution.

Ms Sebbens was also responsible for the cauterising contemporary production of SEVEN METHODS FOR KILLING KYLIE JENNER, by British writer, Jasmine Lee-Jones, at the Eternity Theatre, in Darlinghurst. It was an exciting night in the theatre of brilliant modernity. A production of a play that similarly raised issues of a marginalised culture that called for a demand for Social Justice - for Social Change.  Ms Sebbens, there, employed a brilliant and unerring aesthetic eye with her designers to serve the play, and with her actors discovered and employed the different musical tempos for the interludes of the text to best serve the play, while highlighting the content with astute clarity.The actors were encouraged to a safe style of convincing comedy with clear voices in demand for change. 

Now, with 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, Ms Sebbens, with a different set of Designers, again demonstrates a brilliant and unerring visual aesthetic, one that, this time, is black and white with levels of inter-leaving grey, a harmony exquisite in its studied detail even to the type of font used for the screen messages that hung over the action of the play. Her empathy with her actor - in a one person play - seemed to be one that helped the actor to harness her natural gifts to engage the audience with near accuracy to the writers' intentions - while there was high achievement in the musical control over the many changes of tempo and 'colour' of the written word.

The quality of Directorial achievement in these two works is noteworthy not just in the high contrasting visual and aural offers in each work but in the social, and subtle, responsibility that Ms Sebbens presents in the works that have been given her.

Shari Sebbens is an interesting and Promising Young Woman, indeed. An Actor and Director of some convincing quality. 

Will the STC production of 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING cause or provoke change? A social change? 

Well, its next performance stop is Canberra. Pull out your headphones and get to it. 

But Kevin, realistically? This nation is mostly comatosed and are only too content to hear our Prime Minister, boast, Trumpet, that we are the luckiest and best nation in the world , so why change a thing. Revolution? Never?

But thanks, Ms Sebbens, keep it up and at them.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner

Photo by Teniola Komolafe

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company present SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, by Jasmine Lee-Jones, at the Eternity Theatre, Darlinghurst. 17th April - 15th May (an extended season).

SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, is a 2019 play, by Jasmine Lee-Jones. It premiered at the London based ROYAL COURT THEATRE - a theatre company that is a factory (meant in a complimentary way) producing some of the best new work that there is to see. If we are ever are able to get over to London again in our lifetime, this is a theatre that should always be on your list of must attend no matter what is showing. (In fact, I advise, no matter what you have read from the British critics, go. The standard of work is always impressive even if the particular production is regarded as a dud. The Australian stage, rarely, reaches that quality of presentation we see over there. It is always rewarding somewhere, somehow.) With the available National Theatre productions the quality of work one can see in London is immensely impressive and, mostly, awe inspiring. 

The National Theatre can be seen on the Net, so, some of the Royal Court repertoire can also be seen. The productions are also screened in the Art House Cinemas: The Palace and the Dendy.

SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, after reading the London reviews, seemed to be an impossible wish to see in Sydney. It is written for two black female Londonites: Cleo (Moreblessing Maturure) and Kara (Vivienne Awosoga), arguing in a difficult regional dialectical demand debating black politics, and using a youthful cultural entry point of the twittter/internet sphere. All this may have presented as obstacles for attempting to produce this play in Sydney as an Independent Production. Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company were not deterred. Bravo their courage.

A twitter announcement from Kylie of the Kardashian/Jenner cultural juggernaut as the cause of triumphalism as the first self made billionaire infuriates a low earning citizen, Cleo, to retaliate with a reply that burgeons a dynamic lighting up of the 'gadgets' of contemporary communication. Cleo's best friend Kara joins her at Cleo's small flat/home where the 'twitter war' ignites a cauterising battle of political ethics that are at once, universal, and personal, between the two women. Covering, amongst much else then just colour/race, blackness, feminism and queerness, the play becomes a crucible of hot confrontation and telling of truths that flay the two women to the central core of their joint beliefs - challenging their friendship. Kara is forced to leave the friendship, and standing alone, Cleo must confront the pedestal that she has placed herself on. The play is brilliant in its furious argument, a stimulant for intellectual awakenings and compassionate empathies, rawly exposed for the characters and, I believe, for the audience. The play, I must add, is a comedy as well as a confrontation - bracingly funny. 

SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER, in this jubilant, bold production by Shari Sebbens is the best theatre that I have sat through in ages. It is a theatrical, intellectual  cyclone of energetic thoroughness that makes one feel that the theatre is not dead as a contemporary means to stir an audience to thought, word and hopefully, deed. 

Now, reading some other reviews of this production it has been interesting to see the authors declare their cultural age/heritage in assessing this play, to justify their owning and loving the material, treading delicately around the social appropriation, by them, (HA!) for having enjoyed it so much. I have to declare that I'm an elder of the tribe, an old, near dead white guy, who has passionately pursued his life goals and is quietly satisfied, and I wish to declare my identification with the conversation action of this play. I am unequivocal in my love of it.

This text had a third character on the stage : a live action video by Wendy Yu that vitally flashes the internet conversations in their encrypted language and emoji images, above the stage, accompanied by an adept Sound Design by Kim "Busty Beatz" Bowers, both, helping to sustain a flow of energy that ensnared our concentration. It was no matter that I had to 'learn' what was going on above my sight lines, for while I sat there, I became a quick learner - because the energy of this production made me to want to be in the know, not to be left out of it or behind. Nor did the fact that the  dialect used by Ms Maturure was almost, to begin with, a foreign language, to my ear, for, similarly, I gradually 'tuned' in, and I used the distinctive contemporary cultural gestural offers that both the women used, as an accompanying tool to assist in my translating. Nothing much was lost in translation - though I saw this production late in its season and I wished - wish - I could see it again.

The Set and Costume Design by Keerthi Subramanyam, fitted this space as best I have seen it used, lit well by Kate Baldwin.

Both Ms Maturure and Ms Awosoga, as individual artists and as a comic duo - ensemble - were brilliant in all their courageous flamboyances. Ms Sebbens should and ought to take great credit for her whip smart, daring Direction. Jasmine Lee-Jones was brought to life with assuredness  to bring contemporary theatre life in Sydney into the next age. This production should find a further extension. I, personally, have many, many theatre going friends who missed it in this first showing and I would like them to be able to see it and grow. I, definitely, want to see it again.

It is interesting to see that the Royal Court has announced that a revival of SEVEN METHODS OF KILLING KYLIE JENNER will be the opening production of the Theatre after the long stop hiatus caused by Covid 19. 

Bring it back to Sydney. We can learn from its urgency.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021


Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company presents, DOGGED, by Andrea James and Catherine Ryan, at the SBW Theatre, Darlinghurst/Kings Cross. 30th April - 3rd June.

DOGGED, by Andrea James and Catherine Ryan, directed by Declan Greene, is a new Australian play. It is set in the 1840's during the colonisation with sheep farmers in the electorate that became McMillan, up in the Alpine district that we know today as Monash, but is Gunaikurnai land. 

DOGGED is an Australian Gothic tale of a white farm daughter (Blazey Best) with her dog (Anthony Yangoyan) scrambling in the primitive bush for a living and engaging with a Mother Dingo (Sandy Greenwood), in search of her "little ones", her lost pups. It is a bleak unforgiving land realised in an oppressive black and white envelopment by Designer, Renee Mulder: claustrophobic  walls, floor and roof, that is pierced by atmospheres of light created by Verity Hampson, met by the eerie and penetrating musical score by Steve Toulmin. It is the constant aural presence of the Sound that is a pregnant propellant of the tension of the storytelling.

Catherine Ryan has written a poem play with the dialectical grounding of the Gunaikurnai woman Andrea James. The language is for the human and the animals of the story- the dogs and dingo - accompanied by a physical muscularity created on the bodies of Sandy Greenwood and Anthony Yangoyan by Kirk Page.

It is an intense and impressive 80 minute immersion into a dark time past in a territory of bleak scratchings for the means of survival. It is primitive and full of blood, blood and brutal domination, told with a sense of savage time and place, but resonating with the terror and horror of the cycles of life that do reveal, then disappear but, inevitably reappear. Sitting in our seats in the SBW Theatre, 2021, the patterns of nature are still palpable and present - the engagements of the past are the meetings of today.

The production is mostly a visceral confrontation that is physically exciting  - breathtaking - if it is not quite as thrilling in the delivery of the vocal work that is often full of noise and blurred content (remember, as a contrast, the poetry of Angus Cerini's 2013 play THE BLEEDING TREE),  Problems with text, are its many stagnating repetitions that slow the advancement of the action of the play - though, that is buoyed  by the propulsive and incessant score, disguised by the energetic force of the committed actors and their personal belief in the webbing of the play.

I felt the content and protest of the play had been more or less superseded by the Gothic power of the text of the play THE DROVER'S WIFE, by Leah Purcell (2016), and, certainly, in the Screenplay of THE NIGHTINGALE, by Jennifer Kent (2018). The magical realism of the mask and physical possession of the actors in creating the storytellers of this story is a theatrical feat but I felt it landed as a phenomenon for the young adult audience. 

DOGGED, may capture the attention of some, but mostly for its theatrical genre and 'tricks', and not for its message that I felt I had heard before and with more adult power of confrontation.


Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, HONOUR, by Joanna Murray-Smith, at the Ensemble Theatre Kirribilli. 23rd April - 5th June.

HONOUR, by Joanna Murray-Smith, is a 'war-horse' in the canon of Australian Dramatic Literature, for we have seen several productions of this play over the years since its inaugural production in 1995 at the Playbox in Melbourne. Kate Champion is the Director of this present offering. Ms Murray-Smith in her program notes talks fondly of this play and suggests it may be the best of her work. Certainly, its success in Australia and Internationally might, also, verify that thought. 

I have always thought that Ms Murray-Smith was one of Australia's leading playwrights despite an infamous time when Ms Murray-Smith was represented only by this play on our professional stages in Sydney, but times have changed, and despite the fact that much of her repertoire  has not appeared in professional production here in Sydney still, plays such as her SWITZERLAND have found honour on Sydney stages and thrilled us with her wit, acuity and sensitive eye and mind for her social and political critique of our times. 

This play concerns George (Huw Higginson), a successful literary figure married to Honour (Lucy Bell), who gave up her own literary aspirations as a young poet, to care and facilitate her husband's career, and nurture their daughter, Sophie (Poppy Lynch). And after 32 years of marriage abandons it for a younger woman, Claudia (Ayeesha Ash), a brilliant student of his. It is, as Ms Murray-Smith herself asserts, not a very original story. It is one that we have seen and heard before.

In HONOUR, however Ms Murray-Smith, in a brilliant collection of two-handed scenes allows each of these intimates in this familiar domestic tragedy, to argue passionate points of view that allows us, the audience, to be enthralled by the harrowing verbal thrash for these relatively sophisticated persons in search of reason and survival. 

In this small space at the Ensemble Theatre, I found the play was revealed to me with much more clarity than ever  before, and this was despite the weakness in the casting of Ms Ash, as Claudia, who seemed to me to lack both the physical and intellectual lust of this recklessly ambitious woman who chameleon-like can shape shift her actions with such blade-sharp accuracies to justify her actions throughout her encounter with this family. A clever family that becomes devastated.

Mr Higginson creates a brilliant, elder man helplessly entranced by a youthful siren who can sing and dance the right tunes of flattery to cause him to abandon easily, ruthlessly, all his good sense and life balance for us to suspect that it was always a veneer that cloaked a cruel streak of cold-hearted selfishness cured in misogyny. Beside him, Ms Bell radiates a woman of much hidden strength and ultimate goodness as she navigates the wreckage of her life to arrive at an end that is independent and heading for blossoming fulfilment. It is a warmly intelligent reading of the role. Too, Sophie, has cause to grow up swiftly in a tempestuous sea of moral challenges, that are wonderfully juggled by Ms Lynch in scenes that are mostly of a fragile delicacy of uncharted discovery.

Higginson, Bell and Lynch, are marvellous, attractive to observe. 

The set by Simone Romanuik does not serve the actors comfortably on its different levels that are sharp edged and squashed, nor does it successfully convey a metaphor to enlarge the content  or environments of the play with its Ikea-like unfinished chipboard colours, despite the gesture of the tower of shelves of books (that, with thought during the night, appear to be mostly inaccessible). Damien Cooper lights this space as empathetically as this design allows. While the composition of the music and structure of the Sound Design by Nate Edmondson is sensitive and resonant.

HONOUR, at the Ensemble was an okay night, rescued by wonderful acting by Higginson, Bell and Lynch, and despite the weakness in the casting of Claudia the catalyst of the play's raison d'etre.