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 Cliffoed 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 Social 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.