Thursday, 10 June 2021

2021: Grace Under Pressure by David Williams and Paul Dwyer



Grace Under Pressure by David Williams and Paul Dwyer, in collaboration with the Sydney Arts & Health Collective.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, June 10 – 12, 2021.

Performed by Emily Taylor, Sal Sharah, Tanya Schneider and Meg Dunn
Understudies: Carla Jane McCallum, Richard Bligh, Mary Helen Sassman and Stephanie Panozzo

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 10

Director: David Williams; Dramaturg: Paul Dwyer
Lighting Designer: Nick Higgins; Sound Designer: Gail Priest
Set & Costume Designer: Isabel Hudson
Grace Under Pressure
Photo: Isabel Hudson


Grace Under Pressure is theatre, plain and simple.  Apart from the microphones, stage spotlighting and a quiet amorphous background recorded soundscape, these could have been four from our community who have come forward around our campfire to tell us their stories of what happened on their long arduous journey.  Sometimes one takes the foreground; then two may tell a story together; or someone listening may ask a question, and get a couple of different responses.  There were times of worry, times of success, times of friction and others of happiness, until all four come forward together to tell about the end: about the beauty and practical reality of dying.

Perhaps this is how theatre began, telling such stories honestly and openly, without performing for effect, maybe 300,000 years ago in Africa as our species found their voice.  And still today, in The Q, the elemental drama of telling stories works wonderfully.

The purpose of the storytelling is ostensibly to “open a broader public conversation about some of the persistent workplace issues facing health workers”, using verbatim material from “around 30 people – physicians, surgeons, interns, registrars, nurses, a paramedic, a hospital administrator and even a union official” ranging in “ages (from mid-20s to early 70s) and experience levels (from medical students to recently retired)”.

So each of the four performers take on many different “characters” as they reproduce the interviewees’ stories.  There is no clear storyline, but the drama is created by the way the stories have been selected and often interrelated, so that the mood and our feelings change through the 85 minutes of determination, worry, unexpected humour, success against seemingly impossible odds, fear and insecurity, and yet, finally, warmth and a tremendous sense of the humanity and self-sacrifice of those who do so much for everyone else’s benefit.

Grace Under Pressure presents us with the drama of life and death.  It is not a politicised campaign for better conditions but a revelation of reality more powerful than confronting street protest or petitions.  The tour across the country “has been assisted by the Australian government through the Department of Communication and the Arts’ Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund…and assisted by the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund – an Australian Government initiative.”

We can only hope that Members of Parliament have their eyes opened by Grace Under Pressure, and find creative ways to legislate and fund what is needed to make these stories able to focus more on the satisfaction and success side of the equation than on the worry and how to cope aspects of these extraordinary real life performers.

Perhaps the tour should include a performance in Parliament House.  I will suggest it to my local member.



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

2021: Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg



Playscript and Program
published by Currency Press

Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 9 – 12, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 9

Director – Ginny Savage
Set and Costume Design – Imogen Keen
Lighting Design – Gerry Corcoran
Sound Design – Peter Bailey
Cultural Consultant – Gaye Doolan
Movement Cultural Consultant – Tammi Gissell

Performed by
Roxanne McDonald – Character A
Katie Beckett – Character B
Dylan Van Den Berg – Character C

Milk is a new and powerful development in Australian First Peoples’ theatre.  It is a highly emotional work in the long-standing tradition which can be seen in four contrasting examples from among many since The Cake Man by Robert J Merritt (1975) became well-known in its film version in 1978, followed (selected just from my own 20 years’ of reviews) by Conversations with The Dead by Richard Frankland (2003), My Urrwai by Ghenoa Gela (2018), and Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui (2018).

It is also a major achievement of the development program under-pinning The Street Theatre’s work, not only for the scriptwriting and direction, but for the beautiful set design and lighting, especially for the lightning on the distant edge of brooding mountains.

To explain how affected, in fact shaken, I felt as the lights and sound faded on the history and personal experiences of these three characters – “an Aboriginal woman from 1840s Tasmania, an Aboriginal woman from 1960s Tasmania, and a fair-skinned, young Aboriginal man from the 2020s” – I need to go to my own experience, weirdly enough in a café in a Canberra suburb, Ainslie, across the city from my usual area.

Dylan Van Den Berg has written “Milk reflects the complex private struggles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living out bifurcated identities.”  A few days ago, I found myself at a loose end in Ainslie waiting for a doctor’s prescription to be filled.  A café offered onion soup for lunch, and had a Covid-spaced table available.

The café is named Breizh, which I couldn’t pronounce in English.  The onion soup was very definitely French.  The people serving were clearly Middle Eastern.  The specialities were Breton.  This is multicultural Canberra.  

When I looked up Breizh on my phone while waiting for the soup, I found it is the Breton language name for Brittany in France – the language related to Old Cornish in England and Welsh in Wales, where I was born.  Now my mind began to do what Dylan Van Der Berg’s mind was doing in creating his play.  One of my grandmothers was Welsh.  My father was one of her six sons, but my mother’s father was born within the sounds of Bow Bells in London, with a Cockney accent like I had when my parents brought me to Australia, aged 14 in 1955.  His surname was Solly – Jewish, perhaps?

But then, because of the French connection in the café, I remembered going to Normandy to find my Australian wife’s grandfather’s World War I grave, and then my mind turned to Richard the Lionheart, the English king buried at Anjou with his heart kept at Rouen.  Then I began thinking, but my background on my father’s father’s side must be in Ireland, as my clearly Celtic skin's lack of colour and red beard and face shape show.

I knew I would be seeing Milk, written by an Aboriginal man with a Dutch name (I assume), so I began to think how my knowledge of the history of Europe which informs my background and personal connections, and the whole way I think and approach life, simply are not in any way part of an Aboriginal person’s make-up.

Though I now have Australian citizenship, I cannot be Australian in the same way as a First Australian is.  I only have one or two thousand years to call on; nothing like the tens of thousands represented, say, in the oldest rock art in the world at Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula in WA) where I have heard the local elders speak.  

After watching the play, I began to wonder if any of my Irish ancestors who probably left poverty-stricken Western Ireland for London in the late 18th Century, had been transported to Australia in the days of the invasion , or perhaps had become whalers and sealers on Bass Strait islands who had become ‘husbands’ of women such as Character A in Milk.

Other McKones, I think unrelated to me, arrived here in the early 20th Century.  I can only hope none of them were the drunkard types that Character B met in pubs in her time.  Like Character C, on his European side, I have had the opportunity for a university education and recognition; but without the slur he suffered when whiteys thought he might look a bit Aboriginal.  The worst I’ve been called is Ten Pound Pom.

What hit me hard in seeing Milk – a title which I guess might refer to skin colour or even to the fact that Aboriginal people have had difficulty digesting milk which was never in their evolutionary history – was exactly what Van Den Berg has described in his program note:  Writing Milk has been a tremendous challenge and an unexpected pleasure.  After trawling through stories of grief and pain, what became apparent to me was the strength and resolve of our mobs – despite what we have lost (or, rather, what’s been taken from us) and despite concerted efforts to resign us to history books and anthropological study, we are still here.

As director Ginny Savage wrote,  This metaphorical, time and space shifting world asks its audience to consider: what are the truths of the land you’re standing on?  Shouldn’t you know them?

Yes, indeed.

L-R: Dylan Van Den Berg, Katie Beckett and Roxanne McDonald
as Characters C, B and A in Milk, The Street Theatre, Canberra
Photo: Creswick Collective

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 4 June 2021

2021: Impermanence by Sydney Dance Company



Impermanence  Sydney Dance Company at Canberra Theatre Centre, June 4-5 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Choreographer – Rafael Bonachela
Composer – Bryce Dessner
Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper
Stage Designer – David Fleischer
Costume Designer – Aleisa Jelbart

Australian String Quartet:
Dale Barltrop – Violin I
Francesca Hiew – Violin II
Christopher Cartlidge – Viola (Guest)
Michael Dahlenburg – Cello

Rehearsal Director – Chris  Aubrey; Rehearsal Associate – Charmene Yap
Dancers: Juliette Barton, Isabella Crain, Sabine Crompton-Ward, Davide Di Giovanni, Dean Elliott, Riley Fitzgerald, Jacopo Grabar, Liam Green, Luke Hayward, Telea Jensen, Dimitri Kleioris, Rhys Kosawoski, Chloe Leong, Jesse Scales, Emily Seymour

Photos by Pedro Greig

There’s a great irony in the creation of Impermanence.  We all seek continuity, stability, even harmony in our lives.  We treat this as the ‘normal’ state we expect, or at least hope for, in our physical world and in our personal relationships.  But in this dance work the moments when everything comes together in unison, or the connection in spirit between a couple is locked in: these moments are surprising, wonderful – and fleeting.  There is a great sadness, finally, as the last figure in the fading light understands that this is the truth.  Nothing is permanent.

Yet, at that very moment we are brought to our feet to celebrate the discipline of the musical composition, the choreography, and then the dancers and musicians – the continuity, stability and harmony which they have demonstrated to create this work of art. And, ironically, in this there is great joy.

The work originated in the experience of Dessner and Bonachela who were in Paris in 2019 shortly after the Notre Dame fire, then here as the bushfires engulfed the east coast of Australia, followed by the Covid pandemic in 2020.  Scenes are broken up by flashes of light and changing cyclorama colours, following the line of extraordinary unexpected harmonies within the dissonant urgent music, as the dancers form unrelated groups, individuals leave and enter at random, pairs, threes and fours form and break apart and at intervals a solo dancer takes the space, perhaps only to be discovered by horrified observers as if melted into the ground.

In the Program, which can be found online at the Sydney Dance Company website, the scenes are entitled:
Alarms 2
Requiem – Ashes
Another World

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 3 June 2021

2021: The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race by Melanie Tait



The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race by Melanie Tait.  Ensemble Theatre (Sydney) at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, June 3-5 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 3

Director and Dramaturg: Priscilla Jackman
Assistant Director: Felicity Nicol
Dramaturg: Jane Fitzgerald
Set Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Costume Designer: Genevieve Graham
Lighting Designer: Karen Norris
Composer and Sound Designer: Tegan Nicholls
Stage Manager: Lauren Tulloh
Touring Production Manager: Tim Burns

Cast: Valerie Bader, Merridy Eastman, Sapidah Kian, Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip

Entirely predictable and therefore thoroughly enjoyable, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is a celebration of women’s equality.  As soon as we know that the winning man will receive $1000 and the winning woman only $200, we can be sure that the ending will be happy.

The mood is humorous and energetic from the beginning, entirely – of course – performed by women.

The play, written by Melanie Tait, is an autobiographical story about Tait’s return home to Robertstown, NSW, in 2018. The playwright and journalist discovered the town’s annual potato race awarded a $1000 prize to the winner of the men’s race, while victorious women only walked away with $200.

She started a Go Fund Me page to bring the women’s prize money up to be equal to the men’s and then wrote a play about it.

[Zoe Rice:]

The real town, well-known to Canberrans, is Robertson on the Southern Highlands which sports The Big Potato:

The Big Potato, Robertson NSW

I have to say, since I attended professional development courses in Robertson many years ago, I’m sure it’s a much more sophisticated place than Tait represents.  Coarse language is a major feature of the dialogue, and I can’t imagine the wreck of a fifties Holden ute would be left to dominate the scene:

L-R: Amber McMahon, Merridy Eastman, Sapidah Kian, Sharon Millerchip, Valerie Bader
Photo by Phil Erbacher (

But I wouldn’t doubt that sexism abounds as it does, after all, apparently even in the Australian Parliament and sports such as tennis, as the story of Naomi Osaka tells us.  The symbolism of the unfair Ladies’ Potato Race, laugh out loud funny though it is on stage, should not be missed.  Nor should the terrific performances of all the cast – an ensemble show in the true sense of The Ensemble Theatre.

A telling issue in the play, adding to the basic unfairness of the treatment of women, is the way social media is so destructive of community spirit, especially in a small town.  When the doctor, herself originally from the town and now returning with a ‘politically correct’ message about women’s rights, reads out-loud the attacking Facebook posts ‘liked’ by a sports-mad woman she had gone to school with, the language is disgusting, violent and literally shocking.  Of course, the ending is happy: reconciliation is possible, at least among these strong-minded women.

Some have called the play ‘heart-warming’ and I’m glad to say they are right.  But that scene told me I’m right to keep my social distance well away from ‘The Facebook’ virus.

Published by Currency Press

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 31 May 2021

2021: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov



The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov.  Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, May 29 – June 27, 2021.

Director and Adaptor EAMON FLACK
Set & Costume Designer ROMANIE HARPER
Lighting Designer NICK SCHLIEPER
Composer & Sound Designer STEFAN GREGORY
Intimacy Coordinator CHLOË DALLIMORE
Movement/Fight Director NIGEL POULTON
Assistant Director CLAUDIA OSBORNE
Stage Manager KHYM SCOTT
Assistant Stage Manager JESSIE BYRNE
Photos by Brett Boardman

Previewed by Frank McKone
May 29

When you see Eamon Flack’s presentation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, don’t expect a museum exhibit of decaying Russia in 1904.  Remember that, sadly, Chekhov was very disappointed with the first production:

It opened at the Moscow Art Theatre on 17 January 1904 in a production directed by Konstantin Stanislavski. Chekhov described the play as a comedy, with some elements of farce, though Stanislavski treated it as a tragedy. Since its first production, directors have contended with its dual nature.

This Belvoir production is nothing like the usual approach in what has become one of the most popular plays for amateur companies.  A nice example is on YouTube at recorded at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois, on October 17 & 18, 2013.

Flack has “set our production not in Russia but in ‘Rushia’, and not in 1904 but ‘now’, which is a time somewhere between the last and the next hundred years.”  As the cast shows, this means in a multicultural society which could be modern Australia – or the world.

Well before his time, facing dying from tuberculosis, Chekhov saw the absurdity of people who believe that life should and would go on forever ‘as we know it’.  His comedy is black – terribly funny.  In this, surely the most highly energetic production imaginable, you’ll be surprised – and thoroughly engaged – by the wild choreography of movement, the frantic singing and dancing, the extremes of laughter and tears.  After all, this is the end of these characters’ world as they think they know it.

But Flack has also “contended with its dual nature”.  He has not fallen into Stanislavski’s trap.  To drag acting out of 19th Century melodrama, Stanislavski has been essential for showing us how to make acting ‘realistic’, developing his theory and practice from about the time he directed The Cherry Orchard, seeking to express directly the tragedy.

Flack has understood Chekhov’s desire to show the tragedy obliquely by emphasising the absurdity of the character’s behaviour.  So the audience ends up laughing at them – but bit by bit realising we are losing our personal cherry orchards every day.

This is an exciting presentation of The Cherry Orchard to watch, and thoughtful on reflection – and highly recommended.

The Cast in rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Belvoir 2021
L-R: SARAH MEACHAM as Dunyasha; MANDELA MATHIA as Lopahkin;
Not in photo: LUCIA MASTRANTONE as Charlotta; JOSH PRICE as Pishchick;
JACK SCOTT as Yepikhodov

Note for Chekhov enthusiasts: The original cast list in The Portable Chekhov (Penguin/Viking 1947)

Lubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, a landowner [Pamela Rabe]

Anya, her seventeen-year-old daughter [Kirsty Marillier]

Varya, her adopted daughter, twenty-two years old [Nadie Kammallaweera]

Leonid Andreyevich Gayev, Mme. Ranevskaya's brother [Keith Robinson]

Yermolay Alexeyevich Lopahin, a merchant [Mandela Mathia]

Pyotr Sergeyevich Trofimov, a student [Priscilla Doueihy as "Petya"]

Simeonov-Pishchik, a landowner [Josh Price]

Charlotta Ivanovna, a governess [Lucia Mastrantone]

Semyon Yepihodov, a clerk [Jack Scott]

Dunyasha, a maid [Sarah Meacham]

Firs (pronounced fierce), a man-servant aged eighty-seven [Peter Carroll]

Yasha, a young valet [Charles Wu]

A Tramp, Stationmaster, Post Office Clerk, Guests, Servants.

The action takes place on Mme. Ranevskaya's estate.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 29 May 2021

2021: The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman



Program Cover
Elaine Crombie
 The 7 Stages of Grieving
Sydney Theatre Company 2021

The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman.  Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, May 21 – June 19, and at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, June 23-26.

First premiered at Metro Arts, Brisbane, 1 September 1995.  Now with additional material by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman 2008 and Shari Sebbens and Elaine Crombie 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 29

Performed by Elaine Crombie as The Woman
Director – Shari Sebbens; Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting & AV Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Steve Francis; Assistant Director – Ian Michael; Stage Manager – Todd Eichorn

Elaine Crombie as The Woman
The 7 Stages of Grieving
Photo: Joseph Mayers

Elaine Crombie’s performance of The Woman in The 7 Stages of Grieving is at once terrifying and glorious.  This is an acting role which does not provide her with the personal distancing an actor can normally use to protect herself emotionally.  She represents her personal reality of survival after 233 years of violent oppression by an inhumane colonial society – our Australia.

“We can’t go back now.  To go back is to deny our humanity.”  

She means reconciliation now, no more WRECK ON SILLY NATION, the joke which flashes on the screen behind her.  Should we laugh?  Of course not.  But in her dignity and strength of character and purpose, the humour central to her Indigeneity, she gives us permission to see the joke.  And we laughed, with her.

The Woman is not a character in a play.  She is Elaine Crombie investing in our education, offering us a new understanding.  Asking us now not merely to act in conventional sympathy, but to take practical action politically to achieve proper recognition of the justice of self-determination for First Nations people in Australia, whose continuing culture is now known to be at least some 65,000 years old – twice as old as the broken history of the European invaders in 1788.

The addition this year of 7 Acts of Reconciliation starts with An Act to Lift the Age of Imprisonment so that 10 and 12 year old children, whose families need help and support, will no longer be jailed – as they are now, for example in one of her stories, for swearing at police who are applying racial profiling and violently arresting them for minor offences as if they are adult criminals.

Then there is her own story of accidentally locking her keys in her car.  Police will not believe it is her car, as she tries the door.  This is no joke.  No-one laughed.

She names a clutch of offending politicians, from Peter Dutton to Pauline Hanson.  For me, the most upsetting is Malcolm Turnbull – the apparently moderate – who instantly dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart.  What an absolute insult!

I can only conclude as director Shari Sebbens ends her program note for this, the fourth production by the Sydney Theatre Company since 1995:

“To me this play feels eternal,
which makes me so happy.

But also, this play feels eternal
And that makes me furious.”

Don’t miss Elaine Crombie in The 7 Stages of Grieving, in Sydney and soon in Canberra.  Don’t lose your fury, but please, to keep your balance, also enjoy this picture of the happy team working on the production:

Photo: Joseph Mayers

And consider the story of the play in the Writers’ Note:  “In many ways it is not a play that is to be slavishly reproduced but is an invitation to be remade with every passing year.  We once entered 7 Stages into a playwriting award and were rejected as they said it was not a play but more a ‘blueprint for a production’.

So here, for contrast, are Deborah Mailman in the role in 2002, Ursula Yovich in 2006 and Lisa Flanagan in 2008.

Photos by Tracey Schramm

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

2021: The Twins - Truer than Fiction by Sarah Butler, Ian Darling and Greg Fleet



The Twins by Sarah Butler, Ian Darling and Greg Fleet.  Shark Island Institute and The ArtsLab Kangaroo Valley at Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, May 3 – 6, 2021

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 3

Directors: Terry Serio and Sarah Butler
Producer: Mary Macrae

Designer – Sarah Butler; Lighting Designer – Morgan Moroney; Voice & Acting Coach – Terry Serio; Additional Accent Vocal Coach – Jillian O’Dowd; Production Assistant – Alisha Manning

Ian Darling and Greg Fleet
in The Twins - Truer than Fiction

Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Ian Darling, “an award-winning documentary filmmaker, who returns to the stage for the first time in 40 years”,  and Greg Fleet “an award-winning actor, comedian, playwright and author” are apparently preparing to rehearse the roles they played together at school all those years ago – the twin sons of Ægeon, who is a wealthy merchant from Syracuse,  in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors; both of whom are known as Antipholus.

In Act I, the racist Duke of Ephesus demands:
“Well, Syracusian, say in brief the cause
Why thou departedst from thy native home,
And for what cause thou camest to Ephesus.”

Ægeon, explains the long and complicated story in which he adopts a pair of twins from a poor family (each become known as Dromio) and how by accidents at sea on his “prosperous voyages”, he and his wife, each with one son and his attendant, become separated.  So we end up with Antipholus (and Dromio) of Syracuse, at the age of 18, going off to search for their twins Antipholus (and Dromio).  As we find out much later, they are in Ephesus, where the Duke, though sympathetic, has just jailed their father, after

“Five summers have I spent [searching] in furthest Greece,
Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia,
And, coasting homeward, came to Ephesus
Hopeless to find, yet loth to leave unsought.”

But, in keeping with the Australian government, that’s the law, says the Duke : “Which princes, would they, may not disannul.” I have to do this to you: “Yet I will favour thee in what I can.”  Refugees still effectively held in Papua New Guinea and Australians trapped by Covid in India will surely understand.

The Twins is an 80 minute journey of discovery about what actually happened to Ian and Greg when they were separated after school.  They never get around to performing more than a few snippets of Shakespeare’s play – mainly bits of their “father’s” speech.  This becomes significant because both of them seem to have been unduly influenced by their real fathers’ expectations and lifestyle.  

Perhaps the most interesting issue that divides them, as they argue about what they think they remember, is that Ian comes from a wealthy family who buys his private education, while Greg from a poor and dysfunctional family seems to have got to Geelong Grammar on a scholarship.  Ian, it seems, was the real Antipholus, while Greg was really a Dromio.

I have in mind that Act II of The Twins might be to work up a piece from the Shakespeare.  Perhaps we could see the two families, based upon Ægeon’s emphasis on his loving wife with a strong sense of responsibility equal or more than his own, compared and contrasted with the Dromios’ mother who, says Ægeon, was

“A meaner woman [who] was delivered
[in the same inn where his wife became
A joyful mother of two goodly sons]
Of such a burden, male twins, both alike.
Those, for their parents were exceeding poor,
I bought, and brought up to attend my sons.

In other words the “meaner” woman had no option but to sell her children.

This story is relevant to Ian’s life because he says that he feels guilty for being so wealthy.  Has he, in real life, come to understand and live up to the goodness of his Shakespearean father and mother?  Antipholus of Syracuse is certainly rather like the stockbroker Ian says he became, but Shakespeare gives a different view of family life in Act II Scene I in the house of Antipholus of Ephesus, where Dromio is treated in the worst way as a slave; and bites back magnificently.

So, though the stories of Ian Darling’s and Greg Fleet’s adult lives are interesting, and their playing of themselves raises questions about the nature of being an actor, I felt they could have written a play incorporating what they have learned from playing Shakespeare with such a strength of mutual connection at the age of 16.

They write in the program “We have coined the term ‘theatre verite’ to describe this piece because it is a play, first and foremost, but the characters are real people and are also played by themselves.”  I have several times recently reviewed what I have termed “Personal Theatre”.  John Bell’s One Man In His Time takes up the Shakespeare theme, of course, but I think Stop Girl by Sally Sara has been the most powerful, alongside My Urrwai by Ghenoa Gela and Red by Liz Lea.

The Twins is given a structure, which raises social issues, making the play more significant than two guys nattering about their lives.  They begin and end with stylised statements that “I am a man” and “I am a white man”, implying that they recognise, for example, that they are not women and not diverse.  They also focus often on the question of being truthful and trustworthy, because being an actor can mean hiding the truth, and social prejudice can raise its head.  That raised for me the question that, having written this play and continuing to perform it, have they not changed simply as a result of this experience, especially working together after so many years apart?  Maybe the script will have to keep changing.

John Bell pointed out that you can only trust an actor to the extent that you know they are pretending.

So, though The Twins is not “great theatre”, it certainly can stimulate a lot of ideas.

Greg Fleet and Ian Darling
in The Comedy of Errors
Geelong Grammar 1978

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 30 April 2021

2021: The Point by Liz Lea



The PointLiz Lea Dance Company and Belco Arts at Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre, Canberra, April 29 – May 1, 2021

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 30

Director and Choreographer – Liz Lea

Contemporary dance devised and performed by –
David Huggins, Nicholas Jachno, Billy Keohavong, Eliza Sanders, Jareen Wee

Classical Choreographers –
Mavin Khoo, Ira Patkar, Nandana Chellappah, Divyusha Polepalli

Bharata Natyam dancers –
Reshika Sivekumaran, Soumya Sudarshan, Shweta Venkataraman, Dhivya Vignesa

Kathak Dancer – Ira Patkar

Kuchipudi Dancers – Vanaja Dasika, Suhasini Sumithra

Lighting Designer – Karen Norris
Projection Designer – James Josephides

Composers –
Liberty Kerr, DJBC, Taikoz, Malthar Jam, Harish Sivaramakrishna

Excerpt from Burnt Norton (No. 1 of 'Four Quartets') by T.S. Eliot:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The world, not just of coronavirus but even more of politics here and abroad, has seemed to me in recent years to have become the churning world.  Liz Lea’s remarkable dance work, The Point, took me for a brief hour last night to that still point which Eliot’s poetry first took me to in my youth.

I am reminded again that even in times of pointless churn, we have art to give us strength; to give us comfort in the knowledge that we can still reach that moment of peace and joy in dance – perhaps the most pure artform.

It’s a wonderful surprise, as Lea has written, to find “how lucky are we in Canberra to hold such artistry within our community” in her note of Thanks.  And such a wonderful idea of hers, in our so multicultural city, to work up a dance of modern style with ancient traditional forms from India, reaching a point of togetherness, of unity in diversity.

And what an imagination to take “inspiration from the designs of Walter and Marion Griffin”, the American designers of Canberra who also worked in India (where Walter is buried) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Marion’s birth.  

Rather than write about the dance, since that, as Eliot pointed out, is really to miss the point, “I can only say, there we have been” and encourage everyone to see The Point for themselves.  I can only hope, too, that Liz Lea will be able to take this production, with its evocative lighting, visuals and stunning soundtrack, further afield or at least extend its too short season here in Canberra.

Contemporary Dance

Traditional Dance
Image: Apsaras Arts Canberra

Publicity Designer: Andrea McCuaig

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 29 April 2021

2021: Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith




Lucy Bell as Honor and Huw Higginson as George
in Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney 2021

Photos by Prudence Upton

 Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, April 23 – June 5 2021

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night April 28

Director – Kate Champion
Set & Costume Designer – Simone Romaniuk; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper;
Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson

Honor – Lucy Bell
George – Huw Higginson
Claudia – Ayeesha Ash
Sophie – Poppy Lynch

Since I last saw this play ten years ago it is an honour today – no superficial wordplay intended – to see how good a writer Joanna Murray-Smith was and still is.  She has done some re-writing on Honour, thanking Ensemble Theatre for inviting her to attend rehearsals: “Honour 2.0: tinkering with a success” by Kelly Burke
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The writing is quite extraordinary, beginning with the opening solo speech by George.  He almost seems to be aware of an audience – really talking to and sometimes at himself – which is funny even while we sense a feeling of his being on the edge, of what neither we nor he can yet understand.  At the end, can we say we enjoyed a romantic comedy?  Yes definitely…but…but.  But are you sure?

Murray-Smith’s words are just so good for acting.  Little words like ‘but’ or phrases like ‘you’re leaving me’ may be said many times over, even in quick succession, always with a new turn of the head, a different glance, a precise change in tone of voice, an unexpected angle of an eyebrow.  Of course all four of these actors are experts, and Kate Champion has always been so skilled at making words dance since the days of  her own dance theatre company, Force Majeure.  Joanna Murray-Smith provides the energy and motivation in the way her words and gaps between words open up her characters’ feelings.

See this play and be prepared to find yourself surprised by your own feelings as you question yourself about yourself.  And laugh at yourself laughing.  Comedy, yes – but not romantic in any conventional sense.  

In the past ten years, of course, sexual politics have galloped apace, so the arguments from the three women about George’s behaviour now have a new piquancy.  George, as a committed journalist, starts from the position that writing the truth wins, over ‘the heart’.  To myself I translated this as ‘Truth Trumps Heart’, and fell into thinking about the mess of deliberately manipulated ‘fake news’ from the recently defeated US president, as well as the mishandling of the men in our so-called egalitarian parliament who take themselves off on leave on full pay for empathy training, or with a doctor’s certificate because of their stress when accused of rape.  

In her play, which I also found myself calling ‘Honour thy Mother’, Murray-Smith, through the ways in which each of the women – Honor, Claudia and Sophie – develop a clear understanding of their positions as wife/mother, as lover and as daughter, ironically shows how truth does ‘win over’ the heart.  Enduring love means supporting while knowing, accepting and respecting your own and your partner’s good and not so good points.  

Honor learns that she does love George, despite everything, as she always had for the 32 years of their marriage; Claudia, as time and her meetings with Honor and Sophie go on, realises that she doesn’t love George after all, and that he doesn’t really love her;  Sophie grows up in her appreciation of her parents and is beginning to understand what her independence means.  

And at the end, I think, George knows he must be truthful with himself and honour Honor – it’s still all mysterious to him, but he knows now in his heart it’s the right way to go.  As a mere male myself, I identified with him.

Honour is fascinating, too, from another angle.  It’s written by a writer writing about being a writer.  Each character is a different kind of writer.  Honor is a poet; George is a journalist; Claudia is a feature writer working on a project about George’s career; and Sophie hopes to become a writer, perhaps like Claudia.  So here I am, a reviewer writing about this playwright.  For me, then, there is a special kind of buzz in this experience.  Joanna Murray-Smith stands out as a creative artist.  

To deliberately misquote that other great playwright, William Shakespeare, Joanna Murray-Smith is an honourable woman, whose writing has integrity.  The actors had the same understanding in their performances.  The audience on opening night responded in kind.  We were honoured to be in her presence.  


Huw Higginson (George) and Ayeesha Ash (Claudia)
Ayeesha Ash (Claudia) and Lucy Bell (Honor)

Poppy Lynch (Sophie) and Lucy Bell (Honor)
Huw Higginson (George) and Poppy Lynch (Sophie)

Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney

Photos: Prudence Upton

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 18 April 2021

2021: seven methods of killing kylie jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones - preview article



Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner by Jasmine Lee-Jones.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, until May 2, 2021

Previewed by Frank McKone

Directed by Shari Sebbens
Associate Director – Zindzi Okenyo

Performed by Vivienne Awosoga as “Kara” and Moreblessing Maturure as “Cleo”

Twitter in the morning.  Twitter in the evening. Twitter in your dreams.  Who on earth is this #incognegro?

Surely it’s some racist git (that’s London Cockney for ‘idiot’).  Who is the Kylie Jenner that somebody wants to kill?  Is this meant to be funny?

Well, it’s often very funny, especially for the social media generation who get all the jokes in online language.  KMT (kiss my teeth!). JS (just saying!)

Why Cockney?   That’s because this exciting, irreverent and ultimately emotionally gripping play comes from the best of London theatre:

Jasmine was originally developed as a writer through the Royal Court’s Young Court programme and seven methods of killing kylie jenner was first commissioned as part of The Andrea Project – A day of free events inspired by the life, work and legacy of Andrea Dunbar. This work was part of the Young Court’s mission to expand the Royal Court’s commitment to new voices.  

Andrea Dunbar (1961-1990),  wrote her first play at the age of 15, The Arbor, about "a Bradford schoolgirl who falls pregnant to her Pakistani boyfriend on a racist estate”. It received its première in 1980 at London's Royal Court Theatre. At age 18, Dunbar was the youngest playwright to have her work performed there.

This production of Seven Methods was destined for Belvoir Theatre in November – December 2020, but “Given the unprecedented global health crisis we currently face, Belvoir has made the difficult but necessary decision to cancel all performances of 7 Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. We are being cautious and following the government’s directive to restrict public gatherings. The health and safety of our audience, staff and actors is always our first priority.”  So it is a coup for the diverse multicultural community which Darlinghurst Theatre Company represents to begin this year’s recovery with this outstanding example of committed theatre.  Masks are now voluntary, not required in NSW.

A remarkable feature of the show is the finely detailed choreography and timing of the action, combined with AV projections on a very unusual set design, which is very often ironically humorous in its own right, reminiscent of the best standup comedians.  Yet this style morphs into genuine and empathetic characterisation.  

The strength of the play and this production in particular is that the audience is taken on a journey to understand from the inside and identify with these people, so affected by the issues of racism and sexual preference, of historical and present-day abuse.

For Canberrans, many of whom may be regulars at Belvoir, now is the time to discover Eternity, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company playhouse in Burton Street, between the well-known Crown and Bourke Streets, just off Oxford Street.  

In addition, to see this play will give strength to Canberrans’ submissions to the discussion paper announced today on the new laws proposed by the ACT government to create a charter “that says the territory will support multiculturalism by promoting active citizenship and mutual respect regardless of background”: in Canberra Times News Page 3 [ ]

And if, like me, you unfortunately missed the musical Once, “the only Broadway show to have music that won the Academy Award ® , Grammy Award ® , Olivier Award and Tony Award ®”, in 2019, Darlinghurst Theatre Company will this year take it on tour – to Canberra in August 26th-29th .

And, BTW, Kylie Jenner is real and apparently thoroughly justifies this play:

Kylie Kristen Jenner (born August 10, 1997) is an American media personality, socialite, model, and businesswoman. She has starred in the E! reality television series Keeping Up with the Kardashians since 2007 and is the founder and owner of cosmetic company Kylie Cosmetics.

In 2014 and 2015, Time magazine listed the Jenner sisters on their list of the most influential teens in the world, citing their considerable influence among youth on social media. As of December 2020, with over 206 million followers, she is one of the most followed people on Instagram. In 2017, Jenner was placed on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list, making her the youngest person to be featured on the list. Jenner starred on her own spin-off series, Life of Kylie, which premiered on E! on August 6, 2017. In November 2018, New York Post credited her for being the most influential celebrity in the fashion industry.

According to Forbes, in 2019, Jenner's net worth was estimated at US$1 billion, making her, at age 21, the world's youngest self-made billionaire as of March 2019, though the notion of Jenner being self-made is a subject of controversy, owing to her privileged background. In May 2020, however, Forbes released a statement accusing Jenner of forging tax documents so she would appear as a billionaire. The publication also accused her of fabricating revenue figures for Kylie Cosmetics.

How good is the internet, hey?  Tweet, tweet.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 16 April 2021

2021: Cosi by Louis Nowra



Cosi by Louis Nowra.  Canberra Rep at Naoné Carrel Auditorium, April 8-24 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 16

Director – Sophie Benassi

Set Designer – Andrew Kay; Sound Designer – Neville Pye; Lighting Designer – Mike Moloney; Costume Designer – Monique Doubleday

Cast: in order of appearance

Lucy – Emily Pogson            Lewis – Martin Fatmaja Hoggart
Nick – Alex Castello            Roy – Chris Baldock
Justin – John Lombard        Doug – Blue Hyslop
Henry – Max Gambale        Cherry – Steph Roberts
Ruth – Alexandra Pelvin        Julie – Isobel Williams
Zac – Elliot Cleaves

Photos: Helen Drum


The sincerity of Louis Nowra’s art flows off the stage in Rep’s thoroughly engaging presentation of Cosi.  The energy, commitment and sense of both enjoyment and satisfaction is surely the product of quality directing by Sophie Benassi.  I look forward in anticipation to a career firmly based in her BA and DipEd, and NIDA training, following her appointment as Co-Artistic Director of Canberra’s Mockingbird Acting Studio and Theatre Company alongside founder Chris Baldock.

I came away with a sense of a new generation in Canberra theatre and, as the Covid experience grinds on, my faith in humanity was reaffirmed.  

Cosi is fascinating because we find ourselves laughing, often very much out loud, at what characters are doing, at the same time as understanding empathetically their clinical situation.  This production works so well because not only is the acting consistent with Nowra’s intention, but so also is the casting – of actors whose physical features are exactly as I have always imagined for these characters – and the wonderful costumes, make-up and hairdos.  The characters we see look like the real thing, as themselves and in their roles in the final performance of their play, at the same time as symbolically representing the types of people they would have been in the period of the Vietnam War Moratorium Marches, the first of which in Australia was on May 8, 1970.  

Just look at Lewis’s wide-bottomed trousers, and anyone my age remembers – not just the fashion, but the ‘Arts’ university personality which I’m sure Louis must have been.  We can’t help but feel for his discombobulation when faced by the strength of character of people who have been classed and ‘sectioned’ as clinically insane.

Cherry confronts Doug in Rep's Cosi
L to R: Max Gambale (Henry), Isobel Williams (Julie), Blue Hyslop (Doug)
Steph Roberts (Cherry), Chris Baldock (Roy), Martin Fatmaja Hoggart (Lewis)

L to R: Blue Hyslop (Doug), Alexandra Pelvin (Ruth),
Steph Roberts (Cherry), Chris Baldock (Roy)


Though some characters are naturally likely to attract our attention more than others, such as the fire-bug Doug, the dominant Roy, the mysteriously silent Henry and the Wagner accordion player Zac, the value of this production is in the care taken to give equal standing to each part.  Julie’s somewhat distanced watching of the action early on and progress towards being discharged, Ruth’s obsessive compulsive disorder, and Cherry’s sexual fixation become the central throughline connecting Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte story – of how women are thought of by men and what women actually think of the inadequacies of men – to the modern situation women are in.  

Interestingly, the only characters with whom we feel little sympathetic connection are the three sane figures: Lewis’ moratorium organiser friend Nick; his girl friend Lucy – who ‘sleeps’ with him but ‘has sex with’ Nick; and Justin, the social worker who represents the authority over the patients.  Though Alex, Emily and John played their roles perfectly well, they were hardly funny and are left somewhat in the shade – except for Alex as Nick when Max’s Henry very nearly throttles him.  That scene was horribly funny.

The set design was equally impressive, having been previously half-burnt down by Doug and so having unexpected holes for entrances and exits apart from the doorway in on our left and the clearly labelled “dunny” on the right.  I’m still laughing at Henry’s several times’ complete circumnavigation of his theatre, which included our auditorium, when he has to work off his energy because of his medication upset.

All round then, literally as well as metaphorically, Rep’s Cosi does justice to Louis Nowra’s ‘Lewis’, ending with Martin Fatmaja Hoggart’s quietly done and emotionally gripping return to reality as he describes what happened in later life to his two girlfriends.  That’s when the laughter stopped.  

The synopsis in the program says “Cosi blurs the lines between sanity and insanity, fidelity and infidelity, and reality and illusion”, but I think Cosi makes the distinctions clearer.

Elliot Cleaves as Zac - pianist and accordion player

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 15 April 2021

2021: One Man In His Time by John Bell



One Man In His Time by John Bell and Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, Wednesday and Thursday, April 14-15, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 14

Conceived and performed by John Bell

Lighting Designer: Ben Cisterne
Stage Manager: Eva Tandy

Actors are the only people who can be trusted, because we all know they are pretending.  But, said the actor John Bell, I wouldn’t trust an actor.

I’m not quoting his words exactly – my 80-year-old memory, two months younger than Bell’s, is a disgrace in comparison.  Not only can he give us many of Shakespeare’s most significant speeches, he makes One Man In His Time a masterclass study of that other actor/writer’s universal truths.  

His audience ‘got it’ when it came to issues like political leadership in modern times,  well before the ‘T’ word was spoken.  Manipulative advertising men as Prime Ministers didn’t even need to be mentioned by name.

Trust in Shakespeare is the message, as Bell has done throughout his life in acting roles, as a director and founder of the Bell Shakespeare theatre company, “Thanks to an innate love of theatre and the inspiration provided by two wonderful high school teachers.”  His show was devised to celebrate Bell Shakespeare’s first 30 years as arguably the longest-lasting and only truly national Australian theatre company.

I found myself feeling inspired by John’s elucidation of that other writer/ performer/ director man in his own time (probably b. April 23rd 1564 – definitely d. April 23rd, 1616); but I also felt that I would love to understand more about our own famous theatre man in his time (November 1940 – 2021 ongoing…, or at least since about 1955 when those teachers grabbed his attention).  

His illustrations from the History plays, the Roman plays and especially Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest – and his demonstrations of how to play the enormous variety of Shakespeare’s characters –  revealed, with the immediacy of an actor we undoubtedly could trust, exactly the attributes Bell has described in his note “From John Bell”:

In putting together this meditative piece about Shakespeare I avoided structuring it around any one theme in case it got too academic.  Instead I have chosen to focus on just a few of his attributes: his compassion, empathy, shrewd understanding of politics and power structures, his earthy humour and, of course, his peerless poetic language which,” he says, “will go on living only if we go on speaking it and listening to it.

My interest in knowing more about the real John Bell has been stirred in recent times by reviewing what I have seen as a new genre which  I have named Personal Theatre.

The most recent is Stop Girl, a 90 minute piece at Belvoir, Sydney, written by foreign correspondent journalist Sally Sara.  Her central character, “Suzie”, is a true representation of Sally’s personal reaction, post traumatic stress disorder, following years of war-zone reporting.  Her play is double-edged, showing the horror of war for others as well as for herself, even as a professional objective reporter.

Another extraordinary piece, by Canberra dance artist Liz Lea reveals her lifetime experience, through a solo dance with spoken word, Red, of suffering from endometriosis.

An experience of a quite different kind, but again effecting a change of life, is shown in My Urrwai, in which Ghenoa Gela, again in dance and voice, tells her story of re-engaging with her original culture in the Torres Strait after a childhood in Brisbane.  This is a story of gaining new appreciation and personal strength, in life and as a performer.

I would look forward to, perhaps, something called When the Bell Rings.

I first saw John Bell when “In 1964 he was a sensational Henry V, with Anna Volska as Katherine, in an innovative Adelaide Festival tent presentation. The Sydney Morning Herald called him ‘a possible Olivier of the future’”.  Since then I have maintained an interest in his career before and after establishing Bell Shakespeare, and since my retirement from drama teaching in 1996 I have reviewed his work as performer and/or director of 9 shows, from King Lear to Carmen; from the Bell Shakespeare art exhibition The Art of Shakespeare to Christopher Hampton’s translation of The Father by Florian Zeller.
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Of The Father, I recorded “Of course, especially for John Bell playing Anne’s father André, the short scenes are not so simple.  As he has said ‘I find this text particularly tricky to learn – and I think I speak for the other actors as well – because it’s very fractured and you need to make your own links between phrases.  It’s just short grabs of text, which are hard to learn.  It’s easy to learn a slab of Shakespeare, for instance, or Chekhov.  They write these long passages that have an internal logic, that might even rhyme’.”  

Watching The Father, I also found myself, already in 2017, beginning to worry about how I might cope with the onset of dementia “when you, if you are unlucky, reach a late stage of dementia where memory becomes completely unreliable but your feelings in reaction to others – who are by now caring for you full-time – are just as strong as ever, even though you are misinterpreting reality.  It’s even worse when you realise that you don’t actually understand things at all.”  I was amazed at Bell’s performance, considering questions like what will John Bell do when his memory gets as bad as mine, and how does an actor know when s/he is acting or not; or knows, as my mentor Ton Witsel put it, when you are only ‘acting acting’?  

(Ton worked at the Old Tote as Mime and Movement Director in the 1970s with John, who had been the original Director, and was then Associate Director for the later tour to the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Suva, Fiji, of the iconic new wave Australian play, The Legend of King O’Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis).  [ ]

So, maybe I was hoping for Two Men In Their Times – William Shakespeare and John Bell, but perhaps that’s an unfair expectation.  One Man In His Time at a time is surely enough.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 11 April 2021

2021: Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins


Program cover for Sydney Theatre Company's
Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Photo: Prudence Upton

LtoR: Mandy McElhinney, Johhny Carr, Sam Worthington, Lucy Bell, Brenna Harding

 Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 15 – April 10, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 10

Director – Wesley Enoch
Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis; Assistant Director – Shari Sebbens; Fight & Movement Director – Nigel Poulton; Voice & Text Coach – Danielle Roffe

Cast: (as described by the author)
Mandy McElhinney – Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette: the eldest sibling, white, late 40s/early 50s

James FraserRhys Thurston: her son, white, late teens

Sam Worthington – Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette: the middle sibling, white, late 40s/early 50s

Lucy BellRachael Kramer-Lafayette: his wife, white, late 40s

Ella JacobCassidy “Cassie” Kramer-Lafayette: their older child, white, early teens

Robbi Morgan (alt Joel Bishop) – Ainsley Kramer-Lafayette: their younger child, white, a child

Johnny Carr – François “Franz/Frank” Lafayette: the younger sibling, white, late 30s/early 40s

Brenna HardingRiver Rayner: his fiancée, white, early 20s but looks younger

Unacknowledged – Indigenous Australian young woman (final scene)

For me to “critique” this play and this production, as a white man brought by his parents to Australia under the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ immigration scheme, naïve at the time about its colonialist implications, may be inappropriate.  

Though the play is American, written by an avowedly black author, set in “The living room of a former plantation home in southeastern Arkansas”, Noonuccal Nuugi man, director Wesley Enoch, has placed me at risk of appearing to be just another whitey who claims not to be racist.

In Appropriate, the script ends with describing the stage set of the house literally falling to bits after the departure of the absolutely dysfunctional white ‘family’.  The sound of cicadas which began the play starts up again.  Then lights go off, and on again.  “A knocking is heard at the front door.  Someone says, ‘Hello?’  Beat.  Then more knocking.  But no answer.”

There are seven more blackouts, representing years of passing time, with more parts of the stage set breaking away and “starting to disappear”.  Then “One day, lights immediately come up on a stranger in the middle of the living room, taking notes on a clipboard.  He inspects the room with a flashlight, takes a couple of pictures.  Just before he leaves, he takes a look around, thinking.  ‘Look at this place.’ He leaves.”

Enoch chose to make this stranger a young unnamed adult Australian Indigenous woman whom we have not seen previously, shaking her head rather than saying what she thinks out loud, as she leaves through the front door and closes it behind her.  

Without previously having read the script or even very much about the play – including avoiding reading the program until after the performance – I took the meaning of this ending to be possibly more than a mere shaking of the head at this family’s failure to deal reasonably with each other in a settlement of the property bequeathed by their father, known as “Daddy”, after his recent death.

She seemed to be assessing the property.  Was she a tax office agent, since there had been talk of selling pictures on the black market of lynching black people found in Daddy’s stuff?  Was she a criminal investigation officer chasing up the drug/alochol/sex crimes committed by Franz/Frank?  Was she a bank insurance officer or real estate agent assessing the value of the property for sale to recoup the over-valued mortgage Daddy had taken out.

Or was she a black person assessing white inequity?  A black person in paid employment to take on this task?  A black person, in fact a woman, in an important responsible decision-making position?

Does she represent Wesley Enoch himself, a justifiably proud Aboriginal man born on Stradbroke Island in Queensland. “Growing up gay and Aboriginal in a bi-racial family, Wesley Enoch struggled to understand who he was. But theatre helped him break a pattern of violence and find his voice.”  Isn’t he now a highly respected leader in Australian society – and in paid employment to take on this task, as indeed he should be?

This brings me to consider whether I agree with a review published in New York Vulture magazine  Mar. 16, 2014 that  says Appropriate Explains Too Much and Says Too Little, by Jesse Green. .

The play, she says, “is as overstuffed as the house, but at least the house gets cleaned during the action. The play just gets more cluttered.” Green asks, “Is Appropriate a comic tragedy? A tragic comedy? No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained, with enough pregnant symbols (dark lake, shrieking cicadas, two graveyards) for an Ibsen festival."  "Granted,” she says, “great plays have been written about some of the same kinds of characters: viragos, pedophiles, wingnuts, dingbats. But in — let’s say — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or How I Learned to Drive,  the playwright finds ways to seduce us into accepting his creatures as real and even attractive. That doesn’t happen here. The Lafayettes are under no one’s control; all you want is to get away from them. Fortunately, people like that don’t live in real houses.”  

And, importantly, Green concludes “They live only in theaters, and you get to leave them there.”

Although, after my leaving the theatre 24 hours ago, the unforgettable bravura performance of Toni, the sister from hell, by Mandy McElhinney stands out as the driving force keeping the production on track. But I felt, while watching, as Jesse Green had in that original Signature Theatre production.  The characters are cyphers rather than real.  The plot consists of injections of issues contrived by the author but without finding “ways to seduce us into accepting his characters as real”.

When you do read the program, you find an interview with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins published in 2013 by Signature in which BJJ says “I ended up deciding I would steal something from every play that I liked, and put those things in a play and cook the pot to see what happens.  The characters in Appropriate are somewhat inspired by characters from the family plays; for instance Franz and River are cousins to Vince and Shelly in Buried Child, and Toni is a little bit Blanche-y and also like Madame Ranevskaya from Cherry Orchard.  And then Bo and Rachael are kind of like Mae and Gooper from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof…also like the in-laws from Dividing the Estate.  ‘Greedy in-laws’ are pretty much a staple of the genre, I guess…”

And there’s the reason for my concern.  It’s called appropriation, in my view.  Compare this play with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example, and you can only wonder how Jacobs-Jenkins could have been awarded the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award.

Of course, the central issue of the old Arkansas family’s history, one-time wealth and modern dysfunction being based in slavery, racism, and sexual depravity needs to be presented in powerful theatre, but despite the best efforts of Wesley Enoch, his actors and designers – and those efforts are top-class – the play is not a comic tragedy; not a tragic comedy. “No, just a mess, undercooked and overexplained” as Jesse Green wrote.  

But, to Enoch’s great credit, that little touch at the very end gives a meaning to the play which the author may have wished for – to make us think more deeply and seriously about how we, personally, relate to people who have grown up in cultures other than our own on a basis of equality and respect.  

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 28 March 2021

2021: Stop Girl by Sally Sara



 Stop Girl by Sally Sara.  Belvoir Theatre, Sydney, March 20 – April 25, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 28

Director – Anne-Louise Sarks
Set Designer – Robert Cousins
Costume Designer – Mel Page
Lighting Designer – Paul Jackson
Composer & Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory
Associate Composer – Hamed Sadeghi
Movement Director – Nigel Poulton
Video Deviser & Cinematographer – Jack Saltmiras
Video Content Creator & Systems – Susie Henderson

Suzie (Foreign Correspondent Reporter) – Sheridan Harbridge
Bec (Feature Writer) – Amber McMahon
Atal (Afghani Asylum Seeker) – Mansoor Noor
Marg (Suzie’s Mother) – Toni Scanlon
Psychologist – Deborah Galanos
AV Actors – Hilal Tawakal; Aqsa Tawakal; Aisha Tawakal; Najiullah

“Connecting is never a mistake”.  Coming to understand what this means for Suzie, returning home to Australia after a year reporting on the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, is the key that unlocks this important, at times horrifying, drama.

Though the play ends with a kind of resolution for Suzie, I was taken by surprise to find how shaken I was when walking away from the theatre into the normal Sydney evening buzz.  I had, following my usual principle, deliberately not researched the writing of the play or other reviews – and felt a heightened concern for Sally Sara, clearly represented on stage by 'Suzie'.

Two other women, who have created theatre about their own lived experience – in  their cases performed by themselves – came to mind from my previous reviews.  In 2018 I saw Red by Liz Lea, a dancer who suffers from essentially untreatable endometriosis; and My Urrwai by Torres Strait Islander Ghenoa Gela, returning to her home island after growing up in Brisbane.  I wrote of their work “which seems to me to be a new original and significant form, which I’ll call Theatre of the Personal Self.”

Though Sally Sara has made her experience into a play performed by others, Suzie’s response emotionally must surely be as close to Sally’s as theirs was to Liz and Ghenoa.  They took us into their confidence through a combination of words, music and dance.  

Sara’s piece is superficially a more conventional series of short realistic scenes, backed by sound effects, video and sharp lighting jumps from bright light to absolute dark.  Our feelings become those of Suzie / Sally.  We feel with her and for her, and fear that we can so easily make those kinds of mistakes ourselves.  Have we always properly respected other people, in life and in death?

There is an irony here in my being a reviewer of another person’s sense of shame, almost in parallel with her being a reporter filming, asking intrusive questions, and sending back to ABC TV her live reports on people as they are injured and killed.  Keeping her distance emotionally, choosing her shots and her words to fit the expectations and conventions of “objective” reporting is a requirement of success as a professional journalist.  And, indeed, Sally Sara is one of our most respected journalists.

It’s scary, then, as her play shows, that maintaining the proper professional approach can turn into a case of post traumatic stress disorder.  But what can a PTSD counsellor advise when she – despite having seen the Foreign Correspondent reports on TV –  could not possibly imagine the horrors of what Suzie/Sally has actually seen, and done, or not done, in Afghanistan – and in Sierra Leone, and in so many other places fraught with war and poverty?

Suzie has at least her long-term friend Bec, her assistant/translator Atal, and finally her mother to make connection with.  Watching that story play out is what makes the drama work on stage.  I’m left just hoping that Sally is OK – perhaps the writing of the play is proof of that.

But the awful feeling of despair remains in the title, spoken in his language and translated by Atal, by a father walking away from his wife because she has just borne a daughter, who is therefore worthless to him.  “Stop girl!”  

Sheridan Harbridge’s tour de force performance of Sally Sara’s 'Suzie' puts that man and that culture, wherever and in whatever degree, to shame.

Sheridan Harbridge in Stop Girl by Sally Sara
as Suzie, on location in Afghanistan
Photo: Brett Boardman



© Frank McKone, Canberra