Saturday, 16 March 2019

2019: How to Rule the World by Nakkiah Lui

Michelle Lim Davidson, Nakkiah Lui, Anthony Taufa

How to Rule the World by Nakkiah Lui.  Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, February 11 – March 30, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 16

2430 years ago, Aristophanes ripped into the stupidly destructive power play between ancient Sparta and his home town Athens in his satiric play Lystrata.  The women made it plain: no sex until you stop fighting.

William Shakespeare began his lifetime criticism of the rule of absolute monarchs (ie Queen Elizabeth) in the 1580s (Henry VI, Richard III) but soon realised he had to write obliquely, for his own safety, and turned to comedy (The Comedy of Errors and Taming of the Shrew)

In 1677 Aphra Behn established the place of women writers in The Rover, or The Banish'd Cavaliers, her satiric re-write of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso.

As World War I approached, George Bernard Shaw used the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion in his most enduring comedy of manners, of Professor Henry Higgins and flower-girl Eliza Doolittle, nowadays in the musical form of My Fair Lady.

This is one tradition in which Nakkiah Lui has written How to Rule the World.

Fortunately she is in less physical danger from power-figures than Shakespeare, writing very directly about our current state of political shenanigans through the attempt by a threesome of millennials to create their own white non-entity independent Senator (à la Ricky Muir):

  • a substantial urban educated Aboriginal woman very like the author, and played by Lui herself (Vic),
  • a quite diminutive Asian immigrant-family woman, equally urban and educated, (Zaza, played by Michelle Lim Davidson)
  • and a Kanaka-family Pacific Islander, physically large and assumed by whites to be a bouncer – but also highly urban and educated (Chris played by Anthony Taufa).

The action focusses on their Pygmalionic choice, Lewis Lewis – a blank-slate with no family or friends nor any interests, especially in politics – who becomes 'Tommy Ryan' (I wondered if Lui knew about Thomaso), but who has one secret to be revealed in the play’s climactic point.  Hamish Michael is remarkable in this comic role (remember the slightly gormless Richard Stirling in The Crownies?), in a complete personal development transition from blankness to prime ministership.

The dramatic tension is built around the upcoming federal election in the first half, and the result in the Senate for the incumbent Prime Minister, played with elegant flair by Rhys Muldoon.

And just watch out for the amazing array of characters played by Vanessa Downing and Gareth Davies, including something vaguely akin to Barnaby J.

To tell you in more detail how this cleverly constructed absurdist satire progresses would be a spoiler.  Each scene and shift between scenes is surprising.  From the beginning we, watching, were in fits of laughter, eyes filled with tears.  At the very end, the satire bites – only the tears remain, in a play about the universal conflict between two human needs: for love and for power; for compassion and for success; for the personal and the political.

It is this depth at the core of the satire that firmly places Nakkiah Lui in this long theatrical tradition.

The directing, design (set and costumes), lighting, video, sound and terrifically comic choreography have come together in a triumph for the Sydney Theatre Company – acknowledgements below.  If there have been concerns about the tendency of the major performing arts companies to favour the ‘classics’ rather than put new Australian writing on stage, STC has broken the mould with How to Rule the World.  This is a classic.

But Nakkiah Lui fits neatly into her other tradition as well, beginning with the classic storytelling, of the shape-changing characters, going back over the tens of thousands of years of her Australian Aboriginal culture.  We saw these in Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, the recent exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, created by the Mardi and many other peoples from Western Australia, from a base in Roebourne.  It’s a long way from Sydney, but make a visit to see the local women artists at work there, as I have, and you’ll begin to see the connections.

How to Rule the World satirises not only the inequities, subterfuge and hypocrisy of our European political system which cartoonists from James Gillray in 18th Century England to our David Pope in today’s centre of government, Canberra, have pilloried and exposed; but Lui also does what a satirist must – laugh at her own culture.  And so, in her play, Lui shows her recognition of the same lack of ethics and breakdown of political unity among her three who seek to game the parliamentary system, and by implication shows that politics in any human society, including her own, is prey to the desire for achievement at any price.

The final speech of the play – given by Vic, magically appearing out of custody – seeking Treaty, to complete unfinished business, is no longer funny, not just a criticism of ‘white’ rule, but tinged with sadness for everyone’s failure…so far, at least.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 8 March 2019

2019: The Full Monty - Musical by SUPA Productions

The Full Monty – the musical, book by Terrence McNally, music and lyrics by David Yazbek (2000), based on the Fox Searchlight Motion Picture written by Simon Beaufoy (1997).  SUPA Productions at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 8 to 23, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 8

Director – Chris Baldock; Musical Director – Katrina Tang; Choreographer – Jordan Kelly.

Principal Cast:
Dave Smith – Jerry; Max Gambale – Dave; Bailey Lutton – Malcolm; Michael Jordan – Harold; Garrett Kelly – Horse; Jake Fraser – Ethan; Lauren Nihill – Jeanette; Callum Doherty – Nathan (alternate: Josh Nicholls); Emma White – Georgie; Kirrily Cornwell – Vicki; Sarah Hull – Pam; Cole Hilder – Keno.

Lottie Bull, Emily Byass, Hayden Crosweller, Chelsea Heaney, Bridgette Kucher, Brad McDowell.

Ironic, perhaps, to see such a professional quality, thoroughly engaging show essentially about male bonding on International Women’s Day – but I’ll leave philosophical issues aside for the moment.

SUPA, the long-standing local Canberra-based musical production company, has maintained its remarkably high standard in stage directing and performance; music directing and performance; and even excelled on this occasion in Jordan Kelly’s choreography. 

The nature of this modest national capital city of 400,000 sited mid-way between Sydney and Melbourne, each with 10 times our population and vying internationally as the best-living cities in the world, means that much theatre here is technically amateur or at best semi-professional.  While many on stage and backstage have professional experience and training, few can earn a living as full-time theatre practitioners.  Over its history of some 20 years,
Supa Productions Inc’s mission is to be a community based theatre company bringing quality amateur theatre productions to the Canberra area. Our vision is to be the leading theatre company of the region. Our core values are:

    Quality We deliver theatre productions with pride and to a standard demonstrating professional excellence.
    Integrity We act honestly and ethically in all our dealings with our members, sponsors and the general public.
    Development We provide our members with the training and support to allow each individual to grow in confidence and artistic ability.
    Rewarding Experience We provide an environment where all members can experience a rewarding and enjoyable theatrical association.

The Full Monty, in my view led by a stunning performance by Dave Smith as Jerry (‘Gaz’ in the original movie) who solves his child maintenance payment problem by persuading his co-ex-workers – as Buffalo, USA, industrial centre shuts down – to perform naked on stage, absolutely fulfills SUPA’s mission.

All the performances showed detailed intelligent design and direction, confirming Chris Baldock’s reputation, and to this extent Smith stood out because Jerry is the central driving character.  His singing was powerful and effective, but the key to his success was his movement work choreographed by Jordan Kelly, who in his notes gives special thanks to “my main man Jake [Jake Fraser, who played the comic role Ethan]…for all the extra effort you went to with the boys to form the awesome unit….It really was appreciated and meant a lot to me.”

Of course, I was never present in workshop and rehearsal stages of the production, but in Kelly’s words and in practice on stage I saw the product of SUPA’s focus on Quality, Integrity and Development, and the resulting Rewarding Experience.

So now I turn to International Women’s Day. 

I saw the show without having previously seen the original movie.  You may not believe that, considering its world-wide popularity and awards, but that’s the truth.  I had some vague impressions of men dancing naked, but knew nothing of the storyline.  I did know it was British and was a bit surprised to discover the musical is an American adaptation.  But, I assumed the basic story of men losing their jobs in Buffalo would be a reasonable parallel to the setting of the original.  And I could see the sense of a musical format since the men were supposed to dance.

Something about the women in the show made me feel a bit uneasy, though.  The wives – Georgie, Vicki and Pam – were played as strong women very effectively by Emma White, Kirrily Cornwell and Sarah Hull: very appropriately for International Women’s Day, I thought.  But some of the language and attitudes of the working-class men didn’t quite ring true for American industrial workers; while the girls in the various minor roles seemed very much like silly and sexy American girls. 

I seemed to be watching Americans even pre The Pajama Game.

So I explored Youtube and found that the movie of The Full Monty was indeed very definitely Midlands English. 

The ending of the American musical, despite the truth in the job-loss story, became basically a very successful fun performance for our enjoyment; while the re-establishment of good relations between Jerry, Dave and Harry with the women, and Jerry’s son Nathan was a touch too sentimental for me.

But the movie was set in Sheffield, with a two hundred year history of fine steel making, as its culture was being destroyed – by Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in the 1980s.  The film was not so much about men bonding and gaining confidence, or even women finding independence and regaining love, but about a community coming together in the face of attack. 

The difference could be seen in the final scene Let it Go

For the musical, the choreography – perfectly made for the music and the American scene – was clever, witty, and sophisticated, showing the men’s development of dance skills.

In the movie, the men are still not anything like good dancers, but are now OK about performing because it is their statement of defiance – with the support of the women and even the police and the priest – against an unforgiving world of drip-down economics.  You feel proud of them for doing it, glad that the men and the women of the community now stand together, but sad in the knowledge that the jobs have gone and a one-night stand won’t bring them back.

I would love now to see the play version of The Full Monty, which I discovered was written by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the original film  – but only after the musical version – and which became winner of the UK Theatre Best Touring Production award 2013.  Yet The Independent report said in 2014:

“The stage version of smash hit film The Full Monty is to close just over a month after opening in the West End. The news comes shortly after the production was nominated for one of the UK’s top theatre awards.

The play about unemployed steelworkers who turn to stripping opened at the Noel Coward Theatre in London on February 25 and will stage its last performance on March 29. It had been due to run until mid-June.”

I wonder why, but I still certainly say, go and see SUPA’s musical production of The Full Monty because it so well done.  You can deal with the philosophical issues later.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

2019: The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary by Tom Zubrycki

The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary by Tom Zubrycki. Platform Papers No 58: Currency House, Sydney, February 2019.

Commentary by Frank McKone

If theatre, and therefore its modern offshoot film, is all illusion, then what exactly is ‘documentary’ film?  Should we regard, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III as documentary history, or as a biassed view of that king’s reign which we can regard as ‘art’ even though we know it was not all the truth?

In a theatre with a stage and live actors we are necessarily conscious of the artifice and look for the artistry.  But in a movie theatre, unless we can recognise the actions of the camera – its angles and length of shot, and use of filters – and understand what the director and editor may have done in the cutting room, we find it hard not to believe that what we see is what there really was.  This is true of watching fiction when we know it’s fiction, let alone if it’s apparently ‘faction’ or supposedly the historic truth.

How do we know, then, whether a documentary film is ‘the truth’ or a director’s interpretation of the truth?  Is it no more than a work of art?

Originally a maths and science teacher, Tom Zubrycki’s first film, after several years as ‘a leading participant in the video access movement’ – Waterloo (1981) – is described as “a historical account of a battle by residents against the redevelopment of their inner Sydney suburb”.  Later titles are Kemira, Diary of a Strike (1984); Friends and Enemies (1986); Billal (1995) tracing “the impact on the life of a Lebanese-Australian family disrupted by a racially motivated attack”; Homelands (1992) telling “the story of a refugee family torn apart by their conflicting desires for a new life or a return to their homeland”; and many others including “the highly regarded The Diplomat (2000), a profile of freedom fighter Jose Ramos Horta in the turbulent year of his campaign to secure independence for East Timor”.

Zubrycki has no doubt that, though documentary is “as much an art form, as about real life”, it has an especially important function:

Documentaries matter now more than ever.  Documentary storytelling is a vital way to explore, and make sense of, our world and of who we are as a nation: it is essential to a healthy and democratic society.  It allows us to walk in another’s shoes, to reflect the life, hopes, dreams of ordinary people, to build a sense of shared humanity, to give a voice to the marginalised, and to strive to hold those in power to account.  Documentary is about telling stories that matter.

More Shakespearan than Shakespeare himself!  But we have no doubt where Zubrycki is coming from, and we soon learn why he is so concerned about the nature of “The Changing Landscape”.

The landscape of still photography changed in 1896 with the first Australian documentary – “essentially nothing more than a silent recording of an event” – the Melbourne Cup.  By Federation in 1901 “every available camera in Australia was owned by the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army” who were well ahead in the proseletysing game, adding “small docudramas” to their lanternslides and gramophone records in their lecture presentations.  And so the fascinating history begins.

Where does it end?

Half a century later, still sounding a bit like the Salvation Army, “for many of us more ‘established’ filmmakers there is nothing new in the concept of working intensively to take films to the public….restricted by the publicity we could muster: pinning up posters on community notice boards, depositing flyers in cafes, chatting up friendly journalists to write a story, and hoping for ‘word of mouth.”  Then came the TV broadcast, the educational distributor, and now “with the help of the internet and social media platforms, filmmakers are able to carry their documentaries much further than they could ever have done before.  They don’t need a distributor.  They can self-distribute using cinema-on-demand platforms, YouTube, Facebook and many more new and yet to be invented.”

Why the concern?

It’s the change in the landscape.  “It is often the case that ‘factual’ is conflated with ‘documentary’.  Documentary is not television (i.e. factual); documentary has its own character and imperatives….A decade ago the opportunity existed to grow and develop a nation-wide cottage industry to make precisely these kinds of films…but [there has been ] the growth of large, vertically integrated companies, which now work across different genres: drama, format television, and documentary.  Most are now local branches of international companies, and are no longer Australian-owned….The auteur independents, and the small companies specialising in one-offs, struggle to survive.

It’s a valuable exercise to read the details of Zubrycki’s story.  When he writes “A decade ago” you soon realise the political import, especially of the effect of the infamous combination of Attorney General cum Arts Minister George Brandis (now representing us in London, no less).  In theatre we are now in the thick of sorting out the proper relationship for our culture between the ‘mainstage’, the small scale and the community arts.  In the face of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, Zubricki concludes, they “could potentially become key players in commissioning Australian documentaries, as has happened in the US…[while] the European Parliament [has] approved a set of guidelines by which a minimum of 30 per cent of all content on streaming services operating in the European Union will have to come from the region….This is why quotas are not just necessary, they are essential”.

The parallel with theatre’s concerns shows as Zubricki writes: “we should keep in mind the ubiquitous nature of documentary: that niche projects have equal intrinsic value to ‘blockbuster’ documentaries.  We owe it to our predecessors to preserve the rich diversity of the form that historically has given us so many memorable works.  Independent documentary filmmakers are the chroniclers of our age, the narrators of our nation.”

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 25 January 2019

2019: Beware of Pity based on the 1939 novel by Stefan Zweig

Beware of Pity from the novel by Stefan Zweig, in a version by Simon McBurney, James Yeatman, Maja Zade and the ensemble.  Schaubühne Berlin, Germany, and Complicité (London), UK.  Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney Theatre Company), in Sydney Festival, January 23-27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 23

Direction – Simon McBurney; Co-Direction – James Yeatman; Set Design – Anna Fleischle; Costume Design – Holly Waddington; Lighting Design – Paul Anderson; Sound Design – Pete Malkin; Sound Associate – Benjamin Grant; Video Design – Will Duke; Dramaturgy – Maja Zade.

Robert Beyer, Marie Burchard, Johannes Flaschberger, Christoph Gawenda, Moritz Gottwald, Laurenz Laufenberg, Eva Meckbach.

If bühne means “stage” and schau means “show”, then an unfortunate English translation of Schaubühne might be a theatre which stages only for show.  When I add a translation of Complicité in to the mix, I start to wonder about the motivation for putting on Beware of Pity.  Are we expected to be complicit – that is “involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong”?

Certainly the style of this production looks terribly like “let’s be as avant garde as possible – that is, ‘favouring or introducing new and experimental ideas and methods’.”  That translation’s unfortunate too, since avant garde became old-hat last century.

I actually fell asleep several times during the first hour of this two-and-a-quarter hours with no interval show.  At times the story seem to be told by the man I took to be the actual story-teller, yet others who may or may not have been characters in the story – on separate microphones from different places on the basically bare stage – seemed to tell their own story, or somebody else’s; while sometimes it seemed that someone spoke the words of another character who was speaking her words at the same time.

I suppose if Complicité is about turning theatre topsy-turvy for the sake of it, that may not be unlawful.  But for me, at least, it looked like show (including lots of sudden explosive noises which woke me up) for the mere sake of show – and that’s pretty much morally wrong theatrically, in my view.

Of course, having to concentrate on reading distant surtitles meant dividing my faculties between watching, listening, working out meaning and keeping up with the storyline – yet it seems that an English company choosing to work with German-speaking actors suggests that this is a planned zeitgeist for many audiences around the world.

However, does the form of presentation mean that the show was completely pointless?  Did the interminable story have a theme of note?

What does it mean to beware of the pity expressed by a socially naïve young lower-class soldier, who gets himself into a mess by trying to do the right thing by a young upper-class wealthy partly-paralysed young woman, after innocently asking her to dance?  Let’s consider.

In modern times in Australia he would have apologised when he realised the situation, she would have said something like “that’s alright – not your fault.”  Her parents might say to him, “Sorry, we should have told you.”  Any pity he felt, as any of us might feel, might make us feel a bit guilty and we might say, “Is there anything I can do?”
And yes, it is true that his apparent sympathy for her may turn into warm feelings for him on her part, which he may not be able to reciprocate – and so a complex story might begin.  It might even end in her suicide.  It might make a two hour movie or even a two-act play (with interval).  It might even cause us to think about how an innocent action can lead to unforeseen consequences – a sad reality – but not to Beware of Pity like Shut the Gate with a sign Beware the Dog!

So I’m left seeing this play as being about history, rather than old-fashioned psychology.

Only in the final few minutes, after all those explosive emotional shows, do we get to what may be meant to be the nub of the story.  The soldier must obey orders.  Archduke Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated, the soldier must leave with no way to communicate with the distraught young woman.  She kills herself; he faces the other kinds of explosions but survives World War I; his uniform ends up in a museum.  In 1939 (the year when “The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig [who] was a master anatomist of the deceitful heart” according to Goodreads, published his only novel) he tells his story to visitors seeing his uniform – and in some way this may be meant to be a warning about the foreboding World War II, when soldiers must again obey the Führer, whatever the consequences.  And was the young woman Jewish?  That might make sense.

Or that may be just my imagination.  If I’m right, the production of Beware of Pity has some point.  If not, it seems an odd play to present about such out-of-date attitudes and understanding of psychology – even for Jung or Freud.

So be a bit wary of Beware of Pity – you’ll need an open mind, but be ready to close your ears unpredictably while watching the surtitles like a hawk.

Photos by Will Duke

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: Man with the Iron Neck by Ursula Yovich from an original work by Josh Bond

Man with the Iron Neck by Ursula Yovich, based on an original work by Josh Bond.  Legs on the Wall, in Sydney Festival at Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre, January 23-26, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 24

Photos by Victor Frankowski

Tibian Wyles, Kyle Shilling, Caleena Sansbury
as Ash, Bear and Evelyn

in Man with the Iron Neck
Legs on the Wall

Co-Director and Original Concept – Josh Bond; Co-Director – Gavin Robins;
Writer – Ursula Yovich;
Co-Composers – Iain Grandage and Steve Francis; Set Design – Joey Ruigrok;
AV Design – Sam James; Lighting Design – Matt Marshall; Costume Design – Emma Vine; Sound Design – Michael Toisuta and Jed Silver; Dramaturg – Steve Rodgers.

Ursula Yovich – Mum Rose
Kyle Shilling – Bear
Tibian Wyles – Ash
Caleena Sansbury – Evelyn

Kyle Shilling
in Man with the Iron Neck

Ursula Yovich, Tibian Wyles, Kyle Shilling
in Man with the Iron Neck

The purpose for creating Man with the Iron Neck is clear and important.  Why do people commit suicide?  Why young people?  Why young Indigenous people in particular?  Why this particular Indigenous young man, nicknamed Bear by his twin sister Evelyn?

Before the story telling began – by Evelyn’s boyfriend, aspiring actor Ash – the welcome to Gadigal land, on which the Sydney Opera House stands, included a minute’s silence in which the audience stood in memory of the nine Australian Indigenous girls, aged 15, 14 and 12, who have taken their own lives just since the beginning of this year – that is in the first 24 days. 

Bear’s fictional story represents all that tragic truth.

Ash begins with his story of The Man with the Iron Neck, which you can find at . Posted on Thursday, February 1st, 2018 by John Wood: “Aloys Peters was a German acrobat who developed an unusual skill — he could jump off a platform 75 feet in the air with a hangman’s noose around his neck and yet not hang himself. He had figured out the knack where he could maneuver his body mid-air and “tame the arc” taking the jolt out of gravity’s cruel grasp. Peters performed this feat initially for the famous Strassburger Circus in Berlin and then the Sells-Floto Circus on US shores in the early 1930’s.”

From this image, Legs on the Wall – a company famous for aerial dance – turn Rose’s teenage children into literally flights of fantasy, firstly swinging on the rotating Hills Hoist clothesline, which itself takes off in a dangerous entanglement, and jumping from the high limbs of a giant eucalypt, culminating in the hanging – when Ash, Evelyn and Rose herself cannot lift Bear’s body to save his broken neck.

Kyle Shilling as Bear
in Man with the Iron Neck

Caleena Sansbury and Tibian Wyles
as Evelyn and Ash
in Man with the Iron Neck

Ursula Yovich as Mum Rose
in Man with the Iron Neck

But it is not the physicality, the mental visualisations or the emotional anguish of Bear’s sister, his friend, nor even of his mother, which ask the key question.  Why did he do it?

The answer is shame.  Bear rarely spoke.  He was a young man of action, an AFL footballer who had won his first professional placing – only to have a racist call him a ‘monkey’.  This had happened in reality to Adam Goodes: [ ].  Bear was ashamed because he could not restrain his feelings, punching in response, sending his attacker to hospital with a broken nose.  Should he have walked away, maintaining his dignity?

But suicide…?  Not only because he had broken the code of responsible behaviour the football team expected, but because he – and we – realise that racism is the lot of Indigenous people daily throughout their lives.  This is what makes life not worth living.

So, the story is powerful and needs to be told.  Does the theatrical presentation stand up?  Not so well, in my view.

The dialogue, the choreography and the imagery tell the story too literally.  Legs on the Wall in previous work has moved and created images more poetically, making our imaginations work to seek out their meaning. 

In the scriptwriting, when Mum Rose expresses her feelings in a soliloquy, and when Ash makes his final observations about Bear and Evelyn, we are drawn in to identifying and deeply empathising with them.  Ursula Yovich especially stood out in her performance at this level.  But the characters of the young people, aged 16, needed much more development, with less obvious words and actions.  We needed to know from the beginning there were complex unexplainable feelings in the family and friendship relationships.  For this, though the words spoken might seem ordinary, the implications in the spaces between words must raise questions in our minds about what Mum Rose, Evelyn, Ash and Bear are really thinking and feeling about each other and themselves.

Then, with poetry in the aerial motion, Man with the Iron Neck could become the greater theatre experience which the importance of its theme deserves.


Following this short season at the Sydney Festival,
Man with the Iron Neck  will  be at the Adelaide Festival
Fri 8 March – Mon 11 March, 2019
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

while another Sydney Festival show, Counting and Cracking, reviewed here Sunday January 20,  will be on March 2 – March 9, 2019, at the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showgrounds, Goodwood Road, Wayville, Adelaide.  Tickets & Info:

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 24 January 2019

2019: The Big Time by David Williamson

The Big Time by  David Williamson.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, January 18 – March 16, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 22

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Melanie Liertz; Lighting Designer – Nicholas Higgins; Sound Designer – Marc Ee.
Vicki Fielding – Claudia Barrie
Nelli Browne – Zoe Carides
Celia Constanti – Aileen Huynh
Nate Macklin – Matt Minto
Rohan Black – Jeremy Waters
Rolly Pierce – Ben Wood

A tightly scripted comedy of treachery, The Big Time shows that learning from experience is the way to go.  It’s not only true for the characters in his play, but for David Williamson himself.  My point is relevant particularly because for the first time, as far as I can recall, Williamson has focussed his critical attention on the business of acting, writing for the stage or a movie, the role of an agent, and the power of a producer and financiers.

To write a play about what is inevitably too close to home for comfort is to take a great risk.  Williamson, though, has learnt well from his many decades’ life-long experience to avoid self-indulgence and superficiality.  His lightness of touch balances our laughter with our disgust at some people’s behaviour.

Honesty about one’s own capabilities becomes the theme.  There are clues in the characters’ names.  Vicki Fielding, actor and dictatorial film director, plays the field looking only for the big time.  Nelli Browne is an agent who comes to understand the true motivations of her more colourful clients, and to respect those who have integrity.

Celia Constanti, who trained with Vicki at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, maintains her essential sense of what constitutes ethical behaviour – which writer, and her potential partner, Rohan Black, has to come to terms with, and learns for himself through his relationship with an old school friend, Rolly Pierce.  Rolly is not the brightest spark, but pierces Black’s darkness.

The role of Nate Macklin, movie producer, is kept as an example of the executive attempting to focus on the practical job of making money for investors, keeping himself outside the frame of personal relationships that constrain the others.

So this play is not laugh out loud except every now and then when you are caught out by surprise.  It’s also not  a condescending moral tale, and certainly not a conventional rom com, even though it seems that it might be in the early stages.  The second half and the ending show us the integrity of David Williamson, writer for stage and film, and occasional director of his own work, to match that of his central character, Celia Constanti.

Director Mark Kilmurry and his team have got the style of design and directing just right – no fuss, no unnecessary business, using less not more – to concentrate on the essentials.  Kilmurry writes: “I feel my job as director is to do two things: cast really well and secondly let the words fly”, mirroring Celia Constanti who knew she was “flying” in her audition for her duplicitous ‘friend’, Vicki Fielding’s movie.  Aileen Huynh won me over in this stunning scene – an actor believably playing an actor auditioning, in effect for us, the real audience, as much as for the fictional character Nate Macklin, is mindbending.

Kilmurry’s “job” was very well done indeed – by everyone: writer, actors, and all.

Photos by Brett Boardman

Truth telling over coffee?
Aileen Huynh and Claudia Barrie
as Celia Constanti and Vicki Fielding


Doing the right thing by your old school mate?
Jeremy Waters and Ben Wood
as Rohan Black and Rolly Pierce

Good news from your agent?
Zoe Carides and Aileen Huynh
as Nelli Browne and Celia Constanti

Watching Celia's audition video - how good is she?
Claudia Barrie and Matt Minto
as Vicki Fielding and Nate Macklin

Children with you?  Or not?
Jeremy Waters and Aileen Huynh as Rohan and Celia

Will she really make it big in LA?
Claudia Barrie as the ambitious Vicki Fielding

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 20 January 2019

2019: Counting and Cracking by S. Shakthidaran (directed by Eamon Flack)

Counting & Cracking by S. Shakthidharan.  A collaboration between Belvoir and Co-Curious in the Sydney Festival, at Sydney Town Hall, January 11 – February 2, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Director – Eamon Flack; Cultural and Costume Advisor – Anandavalli; Set and Costume Designer – Dale Ferguson; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory; Movement and Fight Director – Nigel Poulton; Accent Coach – Linda Nicholls-Gidley.

Prakash Belawadi – Apah and others
Nicholas Brown – Hasanga and others
Jay Emmanuel – Young Thirru and others
Rarriwuy Hick – Lily and others
Antonythasan Jesuthasan – Older Thirru and others
Nadie Kammallaweera – Older Radha
Ahilan Karunaharan – Sunil and others
Monica Kumar – Young Dhamayanthi, Swathi and others
Ghandi Macintyre – Priest, Hopper Cart Man and others
Shiv Palekar – Siddhartha and others
Monroe Reimers – Jailor, Vinsanda and others
Hazem Shammas – Ismet, Mr Levy and others
Nipuni Sharada – Young Nihinsa
Vaishnavi Suryaprakesh – Young Radha
Rajan Velu – Fundraiser, Bala, Maithra and others
Sukania Venugopal – Older Nihinsa, Aacha, Older Dhamayanthi and others

Kiran Mudigonda; Janakan Raj; Venkhatesh Sritharan

Counting & Cracking: stage setting in Sydney Town Hall
Photo: Frank McKone

The gestation of this play has been very long, since S. Shakthidharan’s Australia Council Young Artists Initiative grant in 2008, then the beginning of collaboration with Belvoir in 2013 and travel around the world including gaining family permissions in Australia (Yolngu), Sri Lanka (Colombo, Jaffna, Kayts, Batticaloa).  “We travelled to London, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur [and] spoke to people in Paris, Wellington, Toronto, New York….Together it has taken our two companies six years to bring everything into alignment”, wrote director Eamon Flack.

I understand the need for migrants to find the truth about their origins.  Only after my arrival here in 1955 and my father’s death in 1989, did my mother tell me important truths about my birth and why she had migrated from England and had never gone back, even for a visit.  In the meantime I became thoroughly Australian with, even after visits there, no desire to live in England again.

So I recognised why the audience gave a standing ovation to Counting & Cracking, as we came to understand how very-much-Australian Sid (that is Siddhartha) was born in Australia because his mother Radha had to escape from Sri Lanka even while pregnant, because she (Sinhalese) had insisted on marrying Thirru (a Tamil) who she believed was killed, since his sister had joined the Tamil Tigers.  “Counting and Cracking is a work of fiction”, writes Shakthi, “and there is no intention for any of its characters to represent or reference anyone in real life.  Nevertheless, real life has occasionally worked its way into the story, as it almost always does.”

Hazem Shammas as Ismet; Shiv Pakelar as Siddhartha; Rarriwuy Hick as Lily; Nadie Kammallaweera as Older Radha
Photo: Brett Boardman
Behind Sid’s story was the rise of post colonial Sri Lankan nationalism.  English had been made the official language, keeping the dominance of Sinhalese over Tamil at bay.  In the play the motto of Radha’s father, a Government minister in a time of election conflict, said “Two languages, one country; one language, two countries”.  But social status and economic benefit flowed to Sinhalese/English speakers; poverty and low status was the lot of Tamil speakers.  As Tamils were attacked – shopkeepers in Colombo to the Tigers in the north of the island – and Sinhala was made the only official language, Radha’s father was arrested and kept in home detention – for his own safety, despite his high status – and the time came for Radha to be given a visa by Australia, through unspoken diplomatic channels.

The story on stage was complicated in Act 2 by flashbacking to Radha’s grandfather’s generation to tell the story of her birth, upbringing and marriage.  While in the present time, Siddhartha and Lily – a young Yolgnu woman from Yirrkala in far-northern Australia – were meeting at university and falling in love.  In addition, Radha, by now 21 years away from Sri Lanka, was found to be attractive by Ismet from Lebanon – and she found herself responding to his rather Australian-style direct sense of humour.  Would she remain faithful to the memory of Thirru?

Shiv Palekar and Rarriwuy Hick
as Siddhartha and Lily
Photo: Brett Boardman

Nadie Kammallaweera as Older Radha
Photo: Brett Boardman

Antonythasan Jesuthasan as Older Thirru
Photo: Brett Boardman

But am I cynical to point out that, of course, Thirru is found to have been hidden in jail all this time.  Radha had been expected by her family to agree to an arranged marriage to Sinhalese Hasanga, whose continuing search for Thirru is finally rewarded when Thirru is released – but as a trap to catch anti-government sympathisers against the 20-year war against the Tamil Tigers.  Hasanga has become a journalist, and is at risk because he reports both sides of the conflict, but has knowledge to keep threats at bay.  He now gets Thirru on a boat to India, after phoning Radha and putting Thirru on to allay her disbelief.

Long before this point – in fact during the first interval after the first hour – I had realised this fiction is an adaptation of the Ancient Greek myth of Penelope patiently waiting, putting off suitors, for the 10 years it took Odysseus (presumed to be dead) to get home from the sacking of Troy.  Their son, Telemachus, parallels Siddhartha.

Did I need all the backflashing in the second hour?  Did I expect Thirru to be found, and at the end of the last 40 minutes past the second interval, to be released from Villawood Detention Centre, for a family hug – Radha, Thirru and Siddhartha – while Lily gives them a little private space before she and Sid marry?

I thought – at 4.30 pm after a 1 pm start – that the ending was nice, and I hadn’t really needed much of Hour Two.  But maybe, since most of the audience partook of the provided curry lunch, they had a greater sense of satisfaction – while I, of a more lean and hungry disposition would have liked a tighter and therefore perhaps a more strongly flavoured drama.

I did find out what the title meant, though, from Act 2.  It was about democracy, said Radha’s father: it means counting heads, but only up to a point; after which cracking heads becomes inevitable, if not strictly necessary.  Radha, with her educated non-violence belief, was after all much better off in Australia.

Curry lunch ay Sydney Town Hall
Photo: Frank McKone

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: The Weekend by Henrietta Baird

The Weekend by Henrietta Baird.  Mooghalin Performing Arts in the Sydney Festival at Carriageworks, Redfern, January 18-23, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

Performed by Shakira Clanton

Director – Liza-Mare Syron; Producer – Lily Shearer; Set Design – Kevin O’Brien; Lighting Design – Karen Norris; Sound/Music Design – Nick Wales and Rhyan Clapham; Choreographer – Vicki Van Hout.

Developed from the author’s experience of a mother’s worst-ever weekend, The Weekend fools us into laughing at deeply ironic black moments of humour leading ultimately to a bleak recognition of the reality of domestic violence and a father’s inability to take on responsibility.  While performing as a dancer in Cairns, far-north Queensland, Lara receives a call saying that her children have been left alone by their father for days without food.  She takes the weekend off to fly to Sydney.  Unable to find Simon among drug-dealers who prey on poverty-stricken women, Lara, at risk of the violence already meted out by Simon to her children, manages to take them to Cairns with her to safety.

“Our vision is transformation through cultural arts.  We create community-based stories and produce distinctive cross-cultural and interdisciplinary performance works.  Moogahlin supports both emerging and established First Peoples performing artists, nurturing work created, produced and performed by First Peoples for First Peoples.”

Henrietta Baird’s is an Aboriginal woman’s story, culturally embedded in verbal language, body language and unexpected twists of humour – but our feeling of empathy is powerful, for her plight as well as her success in saving her children, no matter what our cultural background.  The Weekend is a terrific example of success for Moogahlin .  It is an excellent choice for the Sydney Festival because, as my neighbour audience member commented, it gives people the chance to see theatre of a kind they might not normally go to.

Tower block 1 or 2 - Floor 7 appeared to Lara exactly the same in
either tower as she escaped the awful smell in the lift.
 Photos by Jamie James to illustrate Lara's experience searching for her children's father Simon in Sydney.

Lara in the entry approaching the filthy lift

For the Aboriginal community, despite The Weekend’s concern about drugs, alcohol and so many men’s failure to provide their sons with proper role models, I found when speaking with Henrietta and actor/dancer Shakira who represents her on stage, a powerful sense of celebration of their art.  There is in Redfern and in the old railway workshops a proud history of Aboriginal theatre from the days of the first National Black Theatre (1972 to 1977).  I thought I recognised the director’s name – Syron:  Dr Liza-Mare Syron, who has written “An Actor Prepares: what Brian told me” (search for ).

Brian Syron, her father’s uncle, famously directed and trained actors, as I recall from seeing early Black Theatre work, leading to his production of Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man in 1975. She writes: “I was front row with my dad at the Bondi Pavilion production of Bobby Merritt’s The Cake Man  in 1977. I was fourteen…. and in 1986 I left Sydney to audition for the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) acting course in Melbourne; I was twenty-four. Before I left, Brian suggested I change my surname from Kenny to Syron, which he believed would assist my career. I took his advice.”

So The Weekend has cultural and personal history – back to an Aboriginal man who did provide a positive and productive role model for its director when she was young.

The performance style and design shows a fascinating development from the early naturalistic Black Theatre plays I remember, via the symbolism of The Cake Man, to a blending of traditional storytelling in dance, mime, rhythmic sound, and vocal effects, using a cleverly lit simple backdrop which could change, from a mirror reflecting Lara back to herself, to a filthy lift in a drug dealers’ block of flats where she could not bring herself to touch the disgustingly besmirched buttons to get to the 7th floor.  We laughed at her disgust, but....

Shakira Clanton begins as the professional dancer, Lara, incorporating “modern dance” and traditional Aboriginal styles; then shifting into storytelling mode, creating an array of women characters – but never the character of Simon, the father who she cannot find.  Her skills as an actor make the story engrossing as she, like the ancient mythical shift-shaper, switches in and out of characters; and from Lara telling the story, to her observations about herself and others.

The writing is intense and cleverly constructed, and, as Shakira explained to me, required her to find parallels in her own life experience for all these contrasting characters and emotions to make Lara’s story real.  Hard work, very satisfying for us to watch, and for her to achieve in this form of a kind of dance-drama.

This is a work, small in scale but immensely large in impact, which must surely go on long after this Festival production.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 17 January 2019

2019: The Auction by Katie Cole

The Auction written by Katie Cole.  “Out of Place Theatre” at the amphitheatre in the park between Finn and Busby Streets, O’Connor, Canberra, Thursday January 17, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Directors – Mirjana Ristevski and Michael McNally

Cast: Ellen Sedgley (Local Resident; Greenie); George Breynard (Ron the Auctioneer); James Gardner (Russian Woman, Olga / ukulele), Marcel Cole (Homeless Hobo / Borzoi Ballet dancer / ukulele) ; Meg Foster (Teneille - sales assistant / Team Leader) ; Natasha Lyall (Police Officer).

Composer and Music Director: Katie Cole (ukulele)

Set design: ACT Parks and Gardens.

The POP Band (Pickled Onion Properties) in action
in The Auction

It was not until after this zany, thunderstruck performance had come to its final end that the company mysteriously became titled “Out of Place Theatre”.  In typical Canberra summer fashion, a lone sulphur-crested white cockatoo squawked a dire warning of doom about half-an-hour in.  Thunder rolled closer, lightning began a magnificent son et lumière.  Umbrella-less I dashed for shelter in my car, only slightly soaked, as the downpour drowned any hope of action on stage.

The storm begins to loom over The Auction

Yet, again typically, the rain eased enough for the second half of the show to go on, as it must, after only 15 minutes when the pink galahs chorussed their special kind of cackle.  It all seemed a natural part of this constantly diverging song and dance story of corrupt real estate selling.  How much should we bid when we are told the auctioneer has already bought our local park?  $6 million is not enough.

Should the local residents of Busby Street raise the money to buy back their own public park?  Should the kangaroos be culled?  What about the homeless buying the park as a place for socialising homelessly?  And how did the Borzoi ballet dancer and his twin brother-cum-female policeman and their mother Olga get into the story?

The auctioneer offered us the “golden key to unlock the pearly gates” while we sang along to “O’Connor’s got a country feel” with the Pickled Onion Properties team; and the Greenie said “I think we should cull the people according to how much they damage the environment.”

Absurdist is just the beginning of the words you might find to describe Katie Cole’s very funny piece of summer entertainment, but I found some serious things to say.

Though “Out of Place” was right on the night, I could term this a piece of “In Situ Theatre”: that is, the theme of corruptly turning every possible space into sellable real estate – played out in a suburban public park – is very much in its place, considering the regular criticism of the ACT Government’s public and green space management, even including demolishing long established public social housing along the route of the new light rail in favour of upmarket development, while the Minister for Housing and Suburban Development proposes taking community open-space land for social housing scattered around the suburbs, as Paul Costigan has reported in this week’s CityNews.

The crowd of some 170 largely O’Connor local residents watching The Auction sang along with Katy Cole’s satirical songs with laughter clearly tinged with knowing cynicism.  So here is community theatre very much in its place.

On a different note, Canberra is noted for its many uprisings of off-centre theatrical groups and bands with names such as Bohemian Theatre, Elbow Theatre and Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, going back to the Doug Anthony All Stars among many who have come or gone, or gone on.  The Auction and its company of actors, many of whom have relatively recently taken drama courses in local senior secondary colleges, is typical of the seeding of new groups in Canberra.  In this sense, too, the new Out of Place Theatre is In Situ Theatre – another in our tradition of often quirky groups.

The Hive Program at The Street Theatre, under the direction of Caroline Stacey, has a special role in encouraging all kinds of new theatre, and has played its part in developing The Auction, with guidance from playwright Peter Matheson.  The script still needs to be tightened and focussed, but in the context of a wild night of storm, squawking cockatoos and cackling galahs, the random divergences of plot and characters didn’t seem out of place, but rather farcical and funny – a humorous twist on the theme of corruption in situ.

The audience upstanding in action
in The Auction
 Photos: Frank McKone

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

2018: Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page

Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page.  Presented by The Acting Company in association with Shadowhouse Pits at The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, December 4-8, 2018.

Director – Kate Blackhurst; Lighting Design – Ben Pik; Set Design – Ronan Moss; Sound – Neville Pye

Micki Beckett as Shirley; Nikki-Lyn Hunter as Shirley’s elder daughter, Sarah; Elaine Noon as younger daughter, Jane; Alex McPherson as Jen, Sarah’s daughter-in-law.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 4

Coda for Shirley is perhaps the final part of a verse-play trilogy. 

I missed Shirley and Lawrie, about their loving relationship (she in her seventies; he aged 81), largely on a romantic tour of Europe, some years after the death of Shirley’s dependable but less than exciting husband of 30 years, Ted.

In Cara Carissima (reviewed here December 17, 2015), we saw public servant Barry, Sarah’s husband, leaving her for Cara, his executive assistant; and leaving her with two sons.

Now Shirley, once again on her own since Lawrie accidentally drove into an elm tree and was killed, is in need of hip replacements and has had a heart attack, leaving her wheelchair-bound in a nursing home.  Knowing she may not live long, she writes to her daughters in a poem, about the terms of her will, leaving most of her estate directly to Sarah’s sons, rather than to the daughters.

So the stage has three settings: Shirley downstage centre with the will, in her wheelchair next to a small table; the two sisters upstage on our right at a kitchen bench with glasses and a supply of wine bottles; on our left a swinging garden chair for Jen, who with the boys had formed a modern quality rock band named Noise.

All speak in rhyming couplets: Shirley presents her poem, which she has written and sent to her daughters, directly to us; Jen speaks to us as if we are present at a funeral which she attends with the two boys (is it their father Barry’s funeral, or Lawrie’s – I lost track somewhere at this point); while Jane and Sarah talk to each other behind the fourth wall as we see them becoming tipsy discussing their mother and her will, trying to avoid (and failing) talking about men.

Though they can see how their mother’s late-in-life fling with Lawrie gave her a new sense of freedom after a conventional married life with their father Ted, Lawrie has upset the apple cart by leaving his estate to Shirley. 

There is little action, each set position being lit independently, and so one has to concentrate essentially on the spoken words.  Though the sets and costumes were well presented, as time went along (for an hour and a bit) I felt I could quite happily close my eyes and listen.  I thought of the ABC ad for Radio National iView. 

But more suitably I found myself misquoting Dylan Thomas – Shirley goes reasonably quietly into that good night – taking me into thinking of Under Milk Wood – A Play for Voices. 

And I have seen this done before as a theatre production, as if the audience were in a radio studio but not able to see the performers. All That Fall by Samuel Beckett (which he said was “for voices not bodies” and was broadcast by the BBC in 1957) was presented by Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland, for Sydney Festival at Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney (reviewed here January 18, 2014.) with the audience seated in rocking chairs among surround-sound loudspeakers.

This really did not work very well, but I suspect that Coda for Shirley would be very effective on radio.  Or it could be done with an audience as if in a studio, as The Goons did so succesfully.  Or by taking the idea of the All That Fall production, but gather the audience in small groups, each around a loudspeaker, as if each were a family listening in as we used to do in the 1950s.

After all, it is family that this poem-play is about – of the three generations (even four when Shirley recalls her father’s part in World War II) – and gathering around the wireless seems to me to feel just right.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 29 November 2018

2018: Revolt. She Said. Revolt. by Alice Birch

Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch (UK).  The Street Company at The Street Theatre, Canberra, November 28 – December 1, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 29

Director – Karla Conway; Assistant to the Director – Daniel Berthon; Lighting Design – Jed Buchanan; Set Concept – Karla Conway, Sam Pickering; Set Realisation – Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kimmo Vennonen

Anneka van der Velde; Ash Hamilton-Smith; Bronte Forrester; Damon Baudin; Hayden Splitt; Hiyab Kerr

To one side there is a representation of a wall, with a central door, except that it consists of netting.  What seem like windblown scraps are suspended in the net like caught birds.  The image seems to me what the play is about.  Modern city life as young lovers, office workers, and as family members is fundamentally disjointed – meaninglessly flung; flattened against some reality which is itself insubstantial.

In this production, the three men – different from each other but somehow the same – represent all men, imagine themselves to be in charge of their lives and therefore in control of women.  Their delusion makes life even more impossible for the three women, who find some sort of solace in a group together by the end – but saying “revolt” and “revolt again” makes no real difference.  Words, literally in this production, are no more than projections on the wall opposite the bird-catching net.

The performance style is something that I can define only as “metrosexual”, belonging to a generation way ahead of my style of living.  Yet, as theatre goes, this production satisfies my requirement for truth in performance – sincerity of motivation. 

The weird thing is that the newly formed The Street Company, nurtured through a year of work to reach its first professional production by Karla Conway (previously artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre and currently Education Program manager at the Canberra Theatre Centre) demonstrates in its strength of ensemble playing the exact opposite of Alice Birch’s theme.  In their working together so well, there is a sense of purpose and direction in their lives as actors, while the characters they play are but mere bagatelles tossed about with no end except talk of revolt.

So how odd it is to see a such a successful production of something I might call “anti-theatre”.  I have found a useful explanation of Birch’s playwriting on a page (with no acknowledgement of the author) titled Biography of Alice Birch at :

“The plays can be called post-dramatic in that they always question the dramatic form itself. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is loud and dialogues overlap, and yet we hear; the notions of narrative and characters are deconstructed, sometimes two scenes are played at exactly the same time, and yet something happens on stage; sex and body fluids and strong language exude from the actors' bodies, and yet they all crave for peace and quiet and connexion. But for all the noise the plays make, when language happens, it is hesitantly assertive, or assertively hesitant. Not so much in a state of infancy as in a state of urgency, when you want to say so much and yet the words won't come easily, when even silence is potent.”

The program states “The Street Company is the next generation of Canberra talent”, in, as I see it, the long tradition perhaps beginning with Elbow Theatre’s Elbow Room, about which I wrote in July 2000, Elbow's program offers "live music, stand up comedy, sock puppetry, serious dwama, new writing, skits, faux rudeness, talent, 'art' etc", and the only thing I missed were the socks. And whose director, Iain Sinclair, went on to a highly successful professional career. 

Karla Conway writes “Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt Again. represents the professional debut of The Street Company.  It has been a gift to be given the responsibility of Alice Birch’s words, which make tangible the collective experiences of women through time, to the here and now.  I look forward to seeing the careers of our artists soar in years to come.”

And indeed, so do I.

Photos: Shelly Higgs

Bronte Forrester and Anneke van der Velde
in Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch

Bronte Forrester and Damon Baudin
in Revolt. She Said. Revolt. by Alice Birch

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 23 November 2018

2018: I Love Paris - Salon at The Street with Jane Rutter

Jane Rutter - Madame Flute
I Love Paris.  Salon at The Street, hosted by Jane Rutter (flute) accompanied by Marcello Maio (accordion and piano).  The Street Theatre, Canberra, Friday November 23, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Jane Rutter told her story of how she came to be taught by the famous French flautist, Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal, in Paris at the age of eighteen. 

Lots of people in today’s audience nodded their heads wisely as she mentioned her enthusiasm for Rampal’s recordings – bought by her parents from the World Record Club.  I well remember those too, as I started buying them as soon as the World Record Club started up in Australia in 1958 – the year I began uni, and the very year Jane Rutter was born.  So I felt quite at home with my old vinyls – they’re still comfortably stacked, waiting for their turn on the turntable.

So it was a very pleasant fireside chat about her living in Paris for four years at that time, and how much French music, from Debussy through Sati to Charles Aznavour, from mediaeval Gregorian chant to 20th Century cabaret, became her favourite thing.

Just as she became a favourite French thing, being dubbed Madame Flute and receiving the prestigious award Chevalière de l’Ordre des Arts at Lettres (though she seemed a little bemused, or at least amused, to think of herself as a Knight).

It was a bit like a family slide night, except that the pictures were all pieces of music, performed with her signature sensitivity and emotional depth.  Marcello Maio, switching regularly between piano accordion and grand piano, was far more than mere accompanist. 

In fact, I felt that in the early stages Jane seemed a touch less confident than I expected – in telling her story; but never when expressing herself through her flute, of course; or rather several different kinds of flute.  Marcello provided a strength of musicianship and warmth of personality which brought everything together as the hour and ten progressed.

So, as we all had hoped, extra pieces and encores took the show to a good hour and a half, taking us out into the foyer for supper.  But only after we had joined in, according to the degree of our Frenchness, to the theme and variations (including even a touch of Waltzing Matilda) on La Marseillaise.

My phone couldn't cope with the lighting too well, but here's an impression of Jane and Marcello in action:
Photo: Frank McKone (with permission)

© Frank McKone, Canberra