Friday, 5 August 2022

2022: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion



The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  Critical Stages Touring at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre August 5,6 (postponed from July 7-9) 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 5

Creative Team

Written by Joan Didion
Directed by Laurence Strangio
Performed by Jillian Murray
Lighting Designer – Andy Turner
Sound Designer – Darius Kedros
Photography – Jodie Hutchinson
Production / Stage Manager – Cecelia Scarthy

I had not read Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, nor even known what it was about.  I’m glad I hadn’t, for the same reason that her daughter said she did not want to read her parents’ writings: “I don’t want to judge my parents.”

Coming to Jillian Murray’s performance without preconceptions meant that I was not distracted, as I otherwise surely would have been, by making a judgement about how well – or not – she accurately represented the book.  What I saw was an actor presenting a highly complex intelligent character speaking directly to me about the deaths of her husband and her daughter, wanting to explain what she did, what she thought and what she felt throughout that fateful year.

She was motivated by thinking that everyone may, at some time in their life, have a loved-one die – and would benefit by understanding beforehand how they might behave in ways quite different from what they might assume they would.

Jillian Murray made me feel that she was that very person for real.  She was telling to me all that she was thinking in her continuous internal personal dialogue, just as I talk to myself, constantly analysing what I said and did, or could have said or done, and what would have happened if….  Having been to my own cancer specialist that very morning I was already talking to myself about what my wife and daughter need to know about what he told me.  Like Joan, so much was about practical matters – about keeping my control of the situation.  Jillian’s acting was personal – and brilliantly done.

So for me, as a theatre critic, the simplicity of the staging, costume, lighting and background sound was the key to success.  Looking back now, I can see, though, the fine details in Jillian’s acting, for which Laurence Strangio must surely also be given credit as director.  Underplaying, which makes the characterisation so strong and realistic, takes a great deal of work, of mental focus and concentration to make it seem simple and without ostentation – to make it seem real.

I am not sure how the tour is going, being thoroughly messed up I presume by Covid, but I congratulate Jillian Murray and Critical Stages for presenting such significant theatre.

Jillian Murray
in The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Critical Stages Touring 2022

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

2022: Romeo and Juliet - Canberra REP


 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  Canberra REP.

28 July - 13 August 2022: Season: Wed - Sat, 8pm, Matinees: 6, 7, 13 August, 2pm

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Directors - Kelly Roberts and Chris Zuber

Romeo - Pippin Carrol; Juliet - Annabelle Hansen; Capulet - Richard Manning
Lady Capulet - Crystal Mahon; Nurse/Lady Montague - Tracy Noble
Tybalt - Francis Shanahan; Gregory/Paris - Marcel Cole
Sampson - Grayson Woodham; Friar Lawrence/ Prince - Ryan Street
Mercutio - Anneka Van Der Velde; Balthasar - Lachlan Herring
Abram - Blue Hyslop; Benvolio - Mischa Rippon
A Montague/Apothocary - Tasman Griffiths

Set – Christopher Zuber; Sound – Justin Mullins; Original Composition and Performance – Richard Manning; Lighting – Michael Moloney; Wardrobe: Costume Designer – Jennie Norberry; Coordinator – Jeanette Brown.


The directing and design concept of Canberra Rep’s Romeo and Juliet is original and very successful.  The set design is a good place to begin to understand how and why.

The set for REP's 2022 production of Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Helen Drum


Starting perhaps from Shakespeare’s placing the play specifically in Verona, this image of colonnades is about city life where action is constrained by the spaces between, around and behind walls.  Conflict is easily generated between houses literally; or between “Two households, both alike in dignity” as the Prologue says.

How ‘dignified’ are they when the Prince must report “Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, by thee, old Capulet, and Montague, have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets”, threatening “If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.”

The moving of the seeming solid walls and doorways, on secret silent rollers, becomes a character in the play itself.  The unadorned style contrasts symbolically with the often too, too florid language – in anger, say, when old Capulet will make his daughter be married to Paris; in irresponsible fun from Mercutio; in fury because of so-called insult from Tybalt; from Romeo on first sighting Juliet:

“It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”

The acting matched the hard-edge scenery in what I would call ‘presentational’ style, so that the audience is kept at some distance from the emotional experiences of the characters.  As the first act was ending I felt a bit concerned that – though it was working very well for the storytelling, often with a sense of comedy – the second half would need to change gear.

And this was done very well.  The opening after a relaxed interval went immediately into the horror of the young people actually knifing each other.  Using a kind of ‘modern’ dress and dispensing with swords was powerful.  I had at first some qualms about Mercutio being played by a woman – whose wit was certainly up to the mark – but when she stabbed and was stabbed, the feeling was awful to watch; and then more than justified Romeo’s defence of her and his killing of Tybalt.  From here on, the seriousness and depth of feelings were established right through to the dreadful end.

The casting was well balanced.  Appropriately no roles were allowed to become ‘star’ parts, though it would be unfair not to mention Tracy Noble’s frantic nurse trying so hard to keep everything together; and the rather surprising Friar Lawrence as played by Ryan Street – sometimes quite wildly almost ‘losing it’, frustrated with these people, rather than being the more usual philosophical adviser.

Overall, then, this is a realistic Shakespeare – a picture of social dysfunction, when love is not allowed to have its proper place.  Despite old Capulet and Montague shaking hands and talking of a golden statue to commemorate Juliet, this production made the final lines feel like the truth we can never avoid:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Pippin Carroll as Romeo and Annabelle Hansen as Juliet. Photo: Helen Drum
Canberra CityNews

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 30 July 2022

2022: Terrain - Bangarra Dance Theatre


Terrain by Bangarra Dance Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre July 28-30, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 30

Choreographer – Frances Rings; Composer – David Page
Set Designer – Jacob Nash; Costume Designer – Jennifer Irwin
Lighting Designer – Karen Norris
Cultural Consultant – Arabunna Elder Reginald Dodd
Rehearsal Director – Daniel Roberts; Remount Consultant – Deborah Brown

Bangarra Dancers
Beau Dean Riley Smith; Rikki Mason; Glory Tuohy-Daniell; Ryan Pearson
Lillian Banks; Courtney Radford; Kallum Goolagong; Gusta Mara; Kiarn Doyle
Emily Flannery; Maddison Paluch; Daniel Mateo; Janaya Lamb; James Boyd
Chantelle Lee Lockhart

For the first 1 minute of 60 minutes, the stage backdrop is ghastly, bright, flat, white light: the last 234 years.  Fade to black for more than 60,000 years: a small circle of sunlight begins to reveal the First People.  Their story says ‘Always Here; Always Will Be’.  Terrain is from the heart.

A friend said he would have liked it to begin with an aerial photo of “Lake Eyre – Kati Thanda – [which] is one of the largest lakes in the southern hemisphere.  The monsoonal rains off the coast of Queensland travel down through the Channel Country spilling into South Australia’s Lake Eyre basin which is 9,500 square kms.  Uncle Reg Dodd, an Arabunna elder, told me to tell the story of Country from our urban perspective.” (Frances Rings Reflects on Terrain).  

But I know, as the backdrop changes with the development of the people, that this art is not a romance needing a pretty picture to begin.  We who are not First People need to know the truth of these blank white years.

In that very Channel Country “The careful time-honoured ecological balance was drastically disrupted by the arrival of large cattle herds, which crowded around and polluted accessible waterholes and billabongs.  The Kalkadoons raided the pioneer stations, spearing cattle and retreating into the rugged hills.  When stockmen and miners [at Cloncurry] were killed, the Native Police were called in.  The first punitive expedition was carried out in 1879 [101 years after the invasion began] in response to the killing of a stockman called Molvo.  But the low-level conflict continued, accompanied by persistent demands from cattlemen and the townspeople in Cloncurry for further police action….

“Their opportunity to take revenge came when the Kalkadoons killed the well-known station owner JW Powell…. ‘For every one of [his] poor bones / A Kalkadoon shall die’…. The punitive campaign ended in September 1884, when the troopers caught up with a Kalkadoon band on a rugged hill that came to be known as Battle Mountain…. [It is estimated] that in the punitive expeditions between 1878 and 1884 at least 500 Kalkadoons died and the toll may have been as high as 900.” (Henry Reynolds: Forgotten War, page 204-5, revised edition 2022).

It’s now ten years since I saw the original performance of Terrain, (reviewed on this blog September 13, 2012).  I didn’t note the white beginning then, but Reynolds’ updating of his 2013 history has changed my ‘urban perspective’.  Reynolds ends his book with “ When considering war overseas, Australians are admonished to remember forever those who did not return.  ‘Lest We Forget’ is not so much a phrase as a sacred incantation.  It provides the guiding spirit for the miscellany of monuments at the eastern end of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin in and adjacent to the Australian War Memorial….  On the other side of the lake Reconciliation Place manifests a very different attitude to Australia’s own wars.  The guiding phrase there is not ‘Lest We Forget’ but rather ‘Best we forget the conquest’.”

I wrote very positively in 2012: “David Page and Frances Rings, speaking at the pre-show forum, said that dance is its own language, so it is difficult to explain in words.  The best I can do is to describe Terrain as a symphonic poem in nine movements, however trite, old-fashioned and European that sounds” and compared the quality of the art  of Rings and Page with that of greats like Brahms, T.S.Eliot and Jackson Pollack.

The international recognition of Terrain since then, and the performance I saw today, fully justifies such comparisons.  But what an ‘urban perspective’ that was.  Today I sadly felt the absence of David Page, whose passing still haunts me, especially when absorbing the sound he created with Frances as she choreographed this artwork for and by the oldest continuing culture on earth.  

For Frances Rings, soon taking on her role as Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre from David’s brother Stephen as he retires, opening with Terrain is a triumph.  It will surely play its part in changing Reynolds’ concluding fear that “The process of reconciliation may have brought some people closer together, but white history and black history are as far apart as ever.”  

Voice, treaty and truth is the future.  



 © Frank McKone, Canberra


Thursday, 28 July 2022

2022: The One by Vanessa Bates



The One by Vanessa Bates.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, July 22 – August 27, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night July 28

Helen - Gabrielle Chan;  Mel - Angie Diaz;  Jess - Aileen Huynh
Cal - Damien Strouthos;  Eric - Shan-Ree Tan

Understudies: Sam O’sullivan, Monica Sayers & Gareth Yuen

Director - Darren Yap
Assistant Director - Sophie Kelly;  Dramaturg - Sarah Odillo Maher
Set & Costume Designer - Nick Fry
Lighting Designer - Verity Hampson
Composer & Sound Designer - Michael Tan
Choreographer - Angie Diaz
Makeup Artist, Hair & Wig Stylist - Lindsey Chapman

Photos by Prudence Upton

In this new play by Vanessa Bates, the story of The One is complicated – in the right sense for comedy, but equally seriously for people coping with living between cultures, of different kinds.  Multiculturalism is not always so amusing when it’s all in one family.

Eric and Mel re-enact their childhood performance
Shan-Ree Tan and Angie Diaz
in The One by Vanessa Bates

In Act One the play is clearly written to be funny – and it is.  But you may sense there’s something odd about the brother, Eric, and his seemingly dominating sister, Mel; about Mel’s relationship with her boyfriend Cal – which began when they appeared together on a reality ‘Getting Married’ TV show; and about what they all think of Eric and Mel’s Malaysian mother, Helen.  

That’s all complicated enough until Jess, the Chinese waitress now running Jim’s Oriental Restaurant, blasts her way into the younger one’s attempt to take Helen down memory lane – not to celebrate her birthday but, as she says, to celebrate her survival.

Aileen Huynh as Jess

Aileen Huynh (Jess) and Gabrielle Chan as Helen
at the table set with the lazy susan

But then, if you felt just a bit tentative about why you were laughing in Act One, Act Two, focussed around the lazy susan of what might have been an Aussie Chinese restaurant celebration, jumps up to an unexpected – and terribly funny – level of absurdity until, equally unexpectedly, laughter at becomes empathy with each member, each one, of this complicated family.  In particular, what will Mel decide about her future with Cal, considering what happened about the children’s father?

Damien Strouthos and Angie Diaz
as Cal and Mel in The One

Vanessa Bates’ writing is highly original because she takes the risk of sitting on the knife-edge where the absurdity of reality is at the same time devastating and comic.  Director Darren Yap and his design team match the author’s originality in every way – in the use of video, props and stage furniture, choreography (when 9 and 12 the brother and sister had won an Australian Asian Ballroom Dancing competition!); not forgetting make-up, hair and costume (for Eric in particular) – and especially the creation in sound of the final central character, Fifi / Spike: Helen’s dog, who is The One who really matters.

The community feeling which is the mark of Ensemble Theatre becomes part of the play as we find ourselves being the characters’ audience as well as the actors’ audience – another risky but clever device by Vanessa Bates.  So even while Australians’ racism is exposed, the curtain call is a celebration of the real culturally-mixed cast of quite extraordinary performers.

Another Ensemble success not to be missed.

Angie Diaz and Shan-Ree Tan as sister and brother Mel and Eric
lighting joss sticks together
in The One by Vanessa Bates
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney 2022

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 24 July 2022

2022: An Eye for Talent by John Clark


Cover design: Katy Wall

An Eye for Talent – A life at NIDA by John Clark.  Coach House Books, Currency Press, Sydney, 2022.  
Foreword by editor Nick Parsons.  

Reviewed by Frank McKone

We critics indulge in our feelings in response to what actors do to entertain us, but how much do we understand about how great actors – so many of whom have been trained at NIDA – create our sense of satisfaction, gain our appreciation and our applause for their work?

John Clark served on the staff of the newly established National Institute of Dramatic Art from 1960 until 1969 when he was appointed director, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 2004.  This record of his forty-four year life at NIDA explains why the way actors are taught there has made NIDA recognised as arguably the best drama school in the world.  This is not boasting like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It’s because NIDA actors are taught how to think their way into creating the feelings we respond to.

I never went to NIDA.  After all, surely my only sensible choice in 1958 was the prestigious University of Sydney; definitely not that upstart technical college now called the University of New South Wales.  Yet, by some kind of osmosis, my thoughts on drama turned out to be much more in tune with what Robert Quentin had in mind as the just-appointed director of a school for actors at UNSW, which became NIDA, than with the only drama activity at Sydney, where the Sydney University Drama Society (SUDS) were focussed on presenting melodramas.  There was no undergraduate course in drama, so I took up politics with the Labour Club instead.

My reviews since retiring from teaching, published here, show my long-abiding interest in George Bernard Shaw from my teenage days and my Masters thesis (1972).  Now John Clark reveals an amazing link to Shaw, Pygmalion and the My Fair Lady movie I saw in 1958, on Page 207-8.  Clark had earlier explained that his approach had long been opposed to the American Method actor training, where actors were to focus their characterisation work on their own experience of feelings.  He had them research their character, and that character’s social and even political world, and then to focus on thinking about how that character would behave – and in this way create that character’s feelings which are communicated to the audience.

This means that the actor-in-training, though learning skills of voice and movement, does not then ‘obey’ her teacher/director but through research and thinking becomes an independent creator of the character.  The teacher is successful when the student no longer needs direction.  Here is Clark’s example:

Acting remained the central course. It set out to teach young artists how to transform their voice, their body, their emotional life and their thinking according to the demands of the character they were playing and the play’s imaginary world – exactly what Professor Henry Higgins tries to achieve in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Shaw knew what acting was all about; a performer himself, he also taught acting at the London Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and bequeathed the rights to his best-known play to his old school. The difference between the ending of the play and the ending of the musical adaptation is striking.

My Fair Lady ends with a blazing row between teacher and student.  Eliza storms out, but not for long. She returns to Professor Higgins and the implication is they will marry and live happily ever after. The play ends differently. Eliza says to Higgins, ‘You can’t take away the knowledge you gave me … ! I’ll go and be a teacher … what you taught me … phonetics’. Higgins is thrilled. This is exactly what he wanted to hear. ‘Five minutes ago, you were like a millstone around my neck.  Now you are a tower of strength.’

Throughout An Eye for Talent, as we find out about what happened to NIDA from its Tin Shed days to Clark’s retirement when “Astonishingly, less than 50 years from its inception, NIDA was included in the International Theatre Institute’s list of the ten best theatre schools in the world”, you will find stories and comments on the process of theatre work which will surely make connections for you – whether as performer, audience member, as teacher, or even as reviewer.

Two Canberra connections, for example, are Karen Vickery, very prominent currently at The Hub, and Ken Healey, one time reviewer for The Canberra Times.  Both were graduates who later taught Theatre History and General Studies at NIDA in John Clark’s time.  

Ken reviewed me – before he taught at NIDA.  He observed one of my group improvisation classes at Hawker College and gave me the title “The Invisible Man” because, once the action was set up and underway, I had disappeared behind the curtain to watch without interfering in the drama being created by the students.  For me, a Professor Henry Higgins moment.

Though I had not gone to NIDA I had been to World Education Fellowship summer schools in movement and improvisation with the indomitable Margaret Barr in my early years of teaching (English, of course, before Drama became a separate subject). Clark writes

Margaret Barr reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, charging through life with a single-minded, ruthless determination to survive…. What mattered to her was the human body and its capacity for supple, expressive and dynamically energetic movement.  She despised prettiness, elegance, lightness and grace. The body had weight and substance and, unlike in classical ballet, the floor was the actor’s best friend. Her morning exercises would have exhausted the Australian rugby football team. Miss Barr also taught Improvisation: acting exercises without a script that encouraged young actors to create directly from their own experience; to think, imagine and feel from the heart, rather than ‘having plays thrust upon them’, presumably by directors and teachers of Theatre History [ie John Clark at that time]. So much of what she taught was fundamental to good acting: truthfulness, honesty, simplicity and clarity. She detested pretence, emotional demonstration and generalized acting. Everything the actor did had to come from an inner impulse: what she called ‘the inward motivation of the outward gesture’.

Apart from personal lucky links of this kind, An Eye for Talent is hugely informative about the experiences, backgrounds and future lives of hundreds of the actors, production students and directors who ‘got into NIDA’ – so often against the wishes of their parents, as Clark recalls:

Perth-born Jason Chan wanted to become an actor after leaving school, but his parents were opposed, so he studied medicine and became a doctor like his father. Only then, having fulfilled his parents’ wishes, did he audition successfully for NIDA, paying his way by doing locums each weekend. His first acting job was in Spain with Playhouse Disney presenting children’s television programs for Asia. He then became the Green Power Ranger and now has his own film production company in Singapore.

Stories like this provide us with an understanding of the changing times not just in Australian theatre but in Australia, from White Australia to Multicultural Australia, and at last to the increasing acceptance and appreciation of Indigenous Australia.

The 14th Chapter is titled with a quote from Twelfth Night: Foolery Doth Walk About The Orb.  Like all good drama the through-line has to reach some kind of climactic point.  Clark had announced his intended departure as Director some years before 2004 to allow for finding a suitable replacement, but he remained a Member of the NIDA company.  What can only be called the NIDA Tragedy of Governance following his retirement is dramatic reading indeed.

Of course, the drama e non finita.  A takeover of the Board by business and academic interests, rather than experienced theatre practitioners operating as an arts-centred organisation, may be working to a dénoument after catastrophe, as NIDA reported on 4th May 2020:

NIDA has been ranked in the top 5 of The Hollywood Reporter’s world’s best drama schools for an undergraduate degree. The Reporter’s international ranking of acting schools places NIDA in the top echelons, along with Carnegie Mellon and New York’s Juilliard School.

The Hollywood Reporter canvassed alumni, instructors and top theatre and Hollywood pros to arrive at its list. The stringent ranking took into account management and staff, guest mentors and visiting artists, recent graduates’ notable film, TV and theatre credits, and buildings and facilities.

For The Hollywood Reporter, NIDA was proud to list its achievements. These include Director of Acting, John Bashford, the former Head of Acting and Vice Principal at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Iconic Australian actor Sigrid Thornton and NIDA alumnus and Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, Kip Williams have been appointed to NIDA’s Board of Directors to help shape the future of the institute.

Hope is eternal, and so is my fascination with John Clark’s story not merely of having an eye for talent, but for giving NIDA the life it, and the theatre world, deserved.  It is important also to understand the remarkable professional relationship Clark had throughout with his General Manager, Elizabeth Butcher.  During the period of crisis a figure of doom stated that a company cannot be run by two bosses.  However true that may be for a private business, for an arts institution based on the educational principle of learning through group cooperation, because that kind of teamwork produces the best art, the cooperative leadership over four decades by Clark and Butcher is an outstanding example of good in the world.

And finally, Clark demonstrates this approach in the creation of the book itself, when he writes in Acknowledgements:

"Many thanks, too, to Nick Parsons [son of Currency Press founder, Katharine Brisbane, and NIDA Graduate] whose extensive edits were probably made in revenge for my bold cuts and re-arrangement of scenes in at least two of his plays. I have to admit, Nick’s advice has invariably been spot on."

An Eye for Talent – A life at NIDA is essential reading for any theatre critic – and isn’t that everyone?


John Clark


 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 22 July 2022

2022: This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood



This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood (Script available Tonic Theatre, UK).  Echo Theatre - Youth at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, July 22 – 30, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 22

Director – Jordan Best; Set Design – Jordan Best & Ray Simpson;
Lighting Design – Jacob Aquilina; Original Music – William Best
Costumes – Jordan Best & the company

Cast: Stephanie Stephens (Tuva); Indi Mullins (Moa); Georgia Hollis (Klara)
Abigail Lawler (Malin); Callum Doherty (Alva); Jade Breen (Maja)
William Best (Basic Jane); Char Hopper (Elin); Genevieve Bradley (Agnes)
Zoe Ross (Ali); Shara Murdoch (Lucy); Tara Rose Blake (Kim);
Emma Richards (Evie); Kendra Robertson (Freya); Clare Coleman (Eve/Lisa)
Abigail Marceau (Henri); Phoebe Silberman (Sam/Hanne); Sebastian Leigh (Ebba)

The whole cast on set in
This Changes Everything
Echo Theatre - Youth 2022

Photo supplied
The idea is interesting, especially for the inaugural production by Echo Youth.  Young people meet online, disillusioned with the state of the world, and (quite impractically) relocate secretly on an isolated platform way out in the ocean.  There they expect to create a new society.  Perhaps they can change everything.  But they discover they are in the same boat as the rest of us – isolated on our only planet with all our human failings.

Klara, Kim and Alva manage to find The Community.  Kim brings a taser, with dire consequences later in the play.  They are talking to Eve and Evie:

ALVA. We’re looking for a place called ‘The Community’.
KLARA. Of course it’s ‘The Community’, Alva, they’re living
in the middle of the sea!
ALVA. Right. Wow. This place is like an urban legend.
As if watching a movie, EVE and EVIE open a bag of crisps
and begin sharing them with each other.

KLARA. She means that when you all disappeared, it was on
the news, on the front of papers, all these theories about how
you’d all just vanished. All on the same day. There were
some clues, not many, but some and these rumours started,
about a place called ‘The Community’.
ALVA. We’ve been trying to find it for ages.
ALI, EBBA and BASIC JANE arrive to watch. ALVA,
KLARA and KIM feel the pressure

On paper, the script may be promising for teenagers to use for its ideas.  But without trained actors the play easily becomes a lot of talk and little believable dramatic action, because characterisations are cardboard cutouts.  I often could not pick up what they were saying.  I didn’t feel the pressure along with Alva, Klara and Kim, though I could see what the characters were meant to be feeling.

The set design – apparently an abandoned fossil-fuel oil rig – could have made an ironic note.  But the attempt at realism was unbelievable, when pairs or small groups met to talk on apparently floating pods, and people could walk off the platform and disappear in all directions.  The result of this design was a complete lack of focus for the action.  Much of the speech was too fast and emotionally black or white, and often hardly understandable.

Perhaps the symbolism of the situation would have worked better on a plain, empty stage with an imaginary boundary within which all characters had to be present, with the emotional pressure rising after the boats were taken by those who wanted out.

The basic message about the need for the world as we know it to be changed for the better was obvious from the beginning, and the ending made it clear that change can only happen by working from within the whole world community.  But without characters for whom we could feel empathy, this presentation of This Changes Everything left me without any hope for the future, despite, as Jordan Best describes them, “this astonishing cast of smart, funny, engaged, socially and politically aware young actors”.  I appreciate their efforts and the sincerity of their intentions, and hope they have opportunities to develop more subtlety and depth of character in future drama work.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 16 July 2022

2022: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë



Co-commissioned and developed by the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 21 – July 16, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 16

Emme Hoy writes “I’m the same age Anne was when she wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I think the sting in the tail of this story is how little has changed when the same story is tackled by two young women centuries (and continents) apart.”  

The novel, ending “Till then, farewell, Gilbert Markham.  Staningley, June 10th, 1847” is written in the form of letters and diary entries, and begins “You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827” as Markham begins his first letter to his brother-in-law, Jack Halford.  Jack had, at their last meeting, told stories about his youth to Gilbert, who had not responded in kind at the time.  Now he writes his story – of meeting and finally marrying Helen Graham – as a way of hoping to make up for his rudeness.

When reading the letters we are put in the position of Jack, but as the story proceeds, much of what is happening is written from an ‘absent author’ point of view, rather than as Markham’s personal observations.  Emme Hoy has very cleverly used ‘speaking directly’ to us at points of emotional tension by the characters in Markham’s story, including from Markham himself, so that we hear what all the characters think and feel about each other as the mystery of Helen Graham’s presence at Wildfell Hall is unravelled.

It’s not surprising, then, that ‘Acton Bell’ published the work in 3 volumes in 1848.  My Kindle has 554 pages.  

I found Emme Hoy’s two hour stage adaptation a wonderful surprise.  I can’t imagine the time and the imagination she has put into so successfully telling us the story in action, with every moment emotionally re-defining each character as they act upon and react to each other.  ‘Wildfell Hall’ is just so right for this den of suspicion, intrigue, violence, sexual impropriety – and even some hope.  

I can imagine something of the workshop process that must have made rehearsals into dramatic scenes in their own right until just the exact tone of voice, length of potent silence and height of emotional outburst became established.  For me, the closeness of the three women – writers Ann Brontë, Emme Hoy and director Jessica Arthur – and the power of their impact on the actors was clear and present throughout that two hours.

The relevance of seeing how the series of men treated Helen, talked about her (and women more generally) and behaved towards each other as males of the species cannot be questioned in the days of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.  Though the attitudes and actions of the women in this story require some critical thinking as well. The play’s presentation just as our election results were being finalised – think of those ‘teal’ women – looked like a great sense of timing, even if it must have been a matter of luck in these pandemic years.  

It was Covid-19 that prevented my wife and I reviewing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall at the beginning of the season as planned.  To catch up on its final day made those four vaccinations and anti-virals of more worth than I can find words to say.

Tuuli Narkle as Helen Graham,
holding Danielle Catanzariti as her son, Arthur
in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Sydney Theatre Company 2022

Photo by Prudence Upton

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2022: Urinetown The Musical - Heart Strings Theatre



Urinetown The Musical. Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman; Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis.  Heart Strings Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, July 14 – 24, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening night July 15

Director / Founder Heart Strings: Ylaria Rogers
Musical Director: Leisa Keen
Choreographer: Annette Sharp
Costume Design & Construction: Helen Wojtas
Lighting Design – Linda Buck; Sound Design – Kyle Sheedy
Set Construction – Eryn Marshall & Cherylynn Holmes

Piano – Leisa Keen; Drums & Duck Whistle – Steve Richards
Reeds – Benn Sutcliffe; Euphonium & Trombone – Phil White

To describe Urinetown The Musical as farcical is, of course, to give the play and this production in particular a great compliment.  

As Wikipedia says: “Urinetown: The Musical is a satirical comedy musical that premiered in 2001, with music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and book by Kotis.  It satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics. The show also parodies musicals such as The Threepenny Opera, The Cradle Will Rock and Les Misérables, and the Broadway musical itself as a form.”

I’m sure I heard a bit of West Side Story in the music as well.

Interestingly, although the acoustics for amplified voices over an extraordinary live band were sometimes difficult in the Courtyard Studio, I thought the frantic style of this production probably worked better for a small audience in a confined space than it might have in a bigger theatre like the Playhouse – and it would have been lost in the 2000 seat main theatre.  

We felt personally engaged by Karen Vickery’s police officer/narrator Lockstock.  Barrel was there too, but their (gender was sometimes fluid in this show) manner towards us as well as to the cast (note the Brechtian alienation effect) and towards the characters was certainly a case of lock, stock and barrel (note the gun violence imagery).

And as well, the sincerity (as actors) of Petronella Van Tienen’s Hope Gladwell, of Max Gambale as her purely profit-making father Mr Gladwell, and perhaps even more in Joel Horwood’s presentation of the honesty in Bobby Strong, with strong support from Natasha Vickery as Little Sally and Deanna Farnell as Penny Wise, carried the drama sufficiently beyond simple farce.  We could even begin to believe in Hope’s recognition of her father’s iniquity and the need to remove him from her life – literally – in honour of her true love, Bobby, killed by police violence upholding ‘the law’.

The quality of the singing was exquisite, despite such complex yet marvellous choreography, matching the amazing range of musical effects from the band – from grand opera, through Southern Baptist spiritual, to trad and modern jazz.  This Urinetown The Musical is a joy to watch: an amusing farce with satirical implications, showing up the modern political economy.  But thanks to the goodness of heart of the Canberra Theatre Centre, I had three free pees before, at interval and after the show.  Very satisfying, and full of hope for another new Canberra artistic upwelling, Heart Strings Theatre Company.

The Company (out of order):

Lockstock – Karen Vickery; Pennywise – Deanna Farnell;
Hope Gladwell – Petronella Van Tiernen; Mr Gladwell – Max Gambale
Bobby Strong – Joel Horwood; McQueen – Alex McPherson
Little Sally – Natasha Vickery; Ma Strong / Senator Fipp – Joe Dinn
Barrel / Hot Blades Harry and Dance Captain – Glenn Brighenti
Pa Strong – Alexandra Pelvin; Little Becky – Katerina Smalley

Photo by Jane Duong

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

2022: A Sonnet for Sondheim - Lexi Sekuless



Photo: Andrew Sikorski

A Sonnet for Sondheim, presented by Lexi Sekuless and Belco Arts, at Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre, June 29 – July 2, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 29

Director, co-producer and performer – Lexi Sekuless
Pianist – Carl Rafferty; Choreographer – Annette Sharp
Performers – Jay Cameron, Katerina Smalley, Martin Everett, Tim Sekuless
Lighting and Sound – Linda Buck and Stephen Rose

My direct experience of Sondheim shows is limited to West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods (on stage at the Gunghalin College Theatre, 2015, directed by Richard Block and Damien Slingsby).  I never became an aficianado, but A Sonnet for Sondheim shows why I should have.

Through the device – a bit like Chorus Line, or Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth with Hugo Weaving – the cast on stage are themselves, an ad hoc group of actor/singers, telling some of their personal histories and performing audition pieces for a show.

“Don’t worry, just relax – it’s only a play” they sing at the beginning and end from Sondheim’s Ancient Greek musical The Frogs: Parabasis.  In my ignorance I have now found from Merriam-Webster that parabasis means “an important choral ode in the Old Greek comedy mainly in anapestic tetrameters delivered by the chorus at an intermission in the action while facing and moving toward the audience.”

I didn’t know this while watching, but I cottoned on to the idea that the show is a kind of meditation on the nature of art, using a collection of items from Sondheim, interspersed with sonnets (from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23), and some other pieces from Shakespeare, Browning and Emily Dickinson.  

As important as the choice of literary material among Sondheim’s lyrics – very much about the art of creating art, and the art of accepting, maintaining, losing and even escaping from love – is the impressive performance on the grand piano by Carl Rafferty, in the role of audition accompanist, and the neat choreography of the action by Annette Sharp which helps define the character of each actor in their varied solo roles, pas de deux’s and as chorus members.

The quality result in all these departments is excellent music, singing and dancing – yet never in the form of a standard ‘Musical’.  The dramatic throughline wanders about rather than creating a strong sense of development to a climactic point.  Did any of them succeed in their audition?  I’m not sure.

So at the end of the day A Sonnet for Sondheim is an interesting example of something I think of as meta-philosophising on art (parallel to terms like ‘metaphysical’ or ‘metacognitive’ thinking).  Clapping at the end of items was generally polite – though genuinely appreciative – and even at the end was not over-excited, because the show is not presented as a popular grand-scale musical entertainment, but is a thoughtful consideration of Stephen Sondheim – Artist.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 26 June 2022

2022: Australianness in Our Art - UC Snailbox & New PP 3


Australianness in Our Art – A Snailbox Discussion Paper.

By Frank McKone
For the Centre for Creative & Cultural Research, University of Canberra Faculty of Arts and Design – Producer: Kiri Morecombe

“The University of Canberra welcomes artists to our platform for creative community engagement projects.”  I have been engaged in the Snailbox Project, and have also participated in the Keeping it Real – Seat at the Table Forum which was conducted in conjunction with the ACT Government, artsACT, Saturday June 4, 2022.

For the Canberra Critics’ Circle I have briefly reviewed Nobody Talks About Australianness on our Screens by Sandy George:  New Platform Papers No 3, June 2022: Currency House, Sydney.

In this discussion paper, as a contribution for members of the Snailbox Project, I offer more detailed information from Sandy George’s Paper (at ) and consideration of the meaning of her term “Australianness”, as well as follow-up suggestions for political action supporting the positive approach in the recent Commonwealth Government election, as demonstrated in the speech by the incoming Arts Minister, Tony Burke, at the ALP Arts Policy Launch.

The first main thread of George’s Paper “is about how only Australian film and television delivers local cultural value to local audiences, about why less drama is available, why it is harder to find, why there is uncertainty about its future”.  The key, she suggests, is “there is evidence everywhere of economic value taking priority over cultural value”.

Crucial information is in Chapter 3 - Let’s talk about drama financing, change and consequence which begins:
“To raise enough money to make a major drama requires entrepreneurialism, and involves drawing on every scrap of experience at one’s disposal, exploiting every contact and deploying considerable chutzpah. Traditionally and still, money comes from a variety of sources. In television, these are likely to include the local screening platform and a sales agent/distributor who will handle worldwide sales, and perhaps secure some before production commences. Federal and state governments are likely to be involved, and private investors as well. In a similar way, partners and finance must be cobbled together for feature films. Some partners will only pay upon delivery, which means turning to bankers and lenders. Interest charges can be very ugly. All projects will dream of great success. Few will achieve it, or earn big profits.”

A leading example is what happened to Neighbours:
“Australia’s longest-running drama, Neighbours, was cancelled after 37 years on air and almost 9,000 episodes because the UK broadcast partner Channel 5 wanted to divert its funding to original UK dramas. It is a crushing example of how a financing partner on the other side of the world can make a decision with monumental consequences for Australia. Thousands of practitioners have learned their craft on Neighbours. The cancellation of the series has been likened to closing a film school.”

The irony is, of course, that without that external funding, Australia lost an iconic Australian drama.

After describing the changes happening in people’s viewing habits – about free-to-air television, cinema attendances for feature films, and the developments online of subscription video-on-demand, Chapter 4 - Government offers financial incentives for both local and foreign drama takes up the key issue:
Taxpayer funding and rebates sit alongside regulation to assist Australian drama to get made.

First, there are regulations about the broadcasting of Australian content – “to ensure local drama is available in homes, although not as actively now as in the past, and it is not applied at all to SVODs or to cinemas.”

Then there are two kinds of financial incentives for the making of shows having Australian content: indirect tax rebates; and direct taxpayer funding.

The main rebate is called Producer’s Offset.  The producer has to demonstrate the show is eligible first.  Then they “send a box of receipts to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) once the project is finished, to get back 30% if it’s for the home screen, and 40% if it’s for cinemas. For features, at least $500,000 has to be spent to make any claim. For television it's either $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the format.”

It’s important to know that there is no upper limit set for the Producer’s Offset, so there is an incentive for foreign producers to make “Australian” shows, and are encouraged by the state governments to make them here – but with a focus on profit-making overseas, since the Australian market is relatively small.  This is becoming a big issue with the development of the SVOD platforms, like Netflix, Stan etc, for home screen consumption, even more than with traditional feature films for cinemas.

The question is, what does Australian content mean?  How do producers here and overseas interpret it – a story written by an Australian; a story set in Australia; a story filmed by Australians – or just teched by Australian technicians; a story acted by Australians (or maybe including just one who is famous);  a story which ‘rings true’ to Australians – but may not be appreciated by people in other countries; a story with universal appeal with some connection to Australia?  

The main source of direct taxpayer funding is Screen Australia and state governments’ departments like artsACT.  This money is limited, but can be provided to a producer who also claims the Producer’s Offset.  Of course the same questions of eligibility arise.

George explains funds are “given out at the discretion of Screen Australia staff and board members to a range of funding programs and initiatives, although applications are only eligible if they have the support of the market.  ‘The agency provided more than $42 million in production funding for drama
titles in 2020/21,’ one media release reads:

That included $15.9 million for general television drama, $9 million
for features, $10.7 million for children’s television, $4.5 million for
online drama productions (SVODs and platforms such as TikTok
and YouTube) and $2.7 million for First Nations productions. A
further $22.6 million of additional funding was injected into the
industry in 2020/21 for drama development, documentary, talent
development, distribution, international marketing, festivals and
guild assistance.

For the record, Screen Australia received nearly $92 million from government that

In other words, the business of being an arts producer – a creative – even in a small local-scale business as for many I met in Snailbox and Keeping it Real, takes place within a huge world-wide conglomerate of arts activity; remembering as Sandy George points out that most other countries offer variations of financial inducements and regulations.  In some cases, cultural stipulations are placed on what may or not be made or presented in that country; some may be seen as political propaganda or essentially national advertisement.

And some may wish to see their arts, as Minister Tony Burke puts it:

“And that’s why I want to talk today about cultural policy.

Because creativity that comes from this land isn’t important simply based on whether the rest of the world takes notice.

It isn’t important simply because of its commercial value, although the economic contribution of our creatives is immense.

To Australians, our creativity should matter simply because it’s ours. It happens here. Its roots drive deep into our home. Our stories matter because they are ours. And I am determined to shine a spotlight on our artwork, have our poetry spoken, our literature read, to fill the stalls and dress circles of our theatres, see the names of Australian creatives as the credits roll on screen, and crank up the volume to 11 for our music.”

It’s at this point that Sandy George’s distinction between art which has “Australianness”, and art which may merely have Australian content, must raise its head for discussion.  The image I have in mind is that moment when the kangaroo’s ears flick-twist in my direction though she appears not to be aware of my presence.  Does she recognise my humanness?

“Governments around the world support local film and television. Disbursement
methods vary enormously so comparing levels of support is difficult and there are no
global formulas for per capita contributions.  There’s never discussion on how much Australia should put into drama with Australianness compared to drama without it, or the extent to which cultural value is trumped by economic value. A lot has changed in the production landscape in the 15 years since the rebates were introduced and they now need thorough examination from every angle.”  George seems to define the distinction as between drama without Australianness being merely of economic value; while drama with Australianness has cultural value.

She provides an example of the recent Fires six-part drama by Tony Ayres on ABC TV as a clear case with Australianness.  I have no hesitation in agreeing with her response to the program:

“I had to see Fires for work and otherwise would not have done so because in horror and shock I had watched the Australian countryside burn over and over on the nightly news in 2019. Others felt the same way. Sure enough, it reawakened my feelings of despair. But the experience also left behind the sensation that I’d sat holding hands with the people who lived through the trauma, listening intently to them while they told their confronting stories.”

The show was not funded by Screen Australia, but by the ABC and Tony Ayres Productions, which is backed by NBCUniversal/Matchbox Pictures. Fires was supported by Film Victoria through the Victorian Screen Incentive and Regional Location Assistance Fund.  From George’s report, I’m not sure who took the Producer’s Offset – Tony Ayres Productions perhaps, but I’m guessing more likely the US backer, NBC.  It was clearly first embraced by Sally Riley at ABC TV.

The point of importance is that this is the kind of work which Screen Australia should be funding directly, rather than a foreign backer being needed.  This means, I suggest, $92 million a year is not enough for searching out and investing in Australian original material – with Australianness – to outweigh the foreign investment money, so that Sandy George’s fear that our young generation will not see enough of our culture on their screens can be allayed.

But there is also the question of Australian material which should not be invested in because it fails to make the grade of sincerity of the Australian experience, which we so fortunately saw in Fires.  A feature of government regulation, for investment by Screen Australia or state governments, has to insist on presenting in the name of Australia – with it’s Producer’s Offset attraction – only work of that level of artistic quality.  It’s not just a matter of saying to Netflix, or to a local entrepreneur pitching on Tik Tok, no more bland cop-shows or horror for the sake of horror – however popular they might be.  Somebody – like lots of Sally Rileys – will be needed to keep our culture supported.

We do this sort of judgement-thing in the Australia Council, and perhaps a lottery like the British National Lottery is what we need to find the funds – not just for film on screens, but for all kinds of art projects.

But at the end of the day, there is still in my mind a worry that “Australianness” is an amorphous thing to imagine.  It would be easy to say it must have that sense of ironic risktaking in the old cartoon “for Gor’sake, stop laughing” which has always defined the Australian way for me.  But I represent only one – the Ten-Pound Pom – of all the different peoples who make up the Australian people as a whole.  Can we insist on Australianness, with money attached, without losing our particular sense of humour, individuality, originality – our creativity as artists in an ever-evolving culture?  


For gorsake, stop laughing - this is serious!
Stan Cross (1888-1977




Saturday, 25 June 2022

2022: New Platform Paper No 3 by Sandy George



Nobody Talks About Australianness on our Screens by Sandy George.  

New Platform Papers No 3, June 2022: Currency House, Sydney.  Edited by Julian Meyrick.
Media Contact: Martin Portus, Phone 0401 360 806,

Reviewed by Frank McKone

"The simple act of watching film and television equates to very big business for some……My argument is about something much more important than financial value. It is about how only Australian film and television delivers local cultural value to local audiences, about why less drama is available, why it is harder to find, why there is uncertainty about its future and why some of it feels a lot less Australian……and there is evidence everywhere of economic value taking priority over cultural value––a folly, given cultural significance is the predominant reason the industry gets public funding."

So Sandy George’s central question is How can more and better film and TV with (on-screen) Australianness at its heart be made and seen?  It’s not for her just a practical and economic problem, despite her longstanding experience in “the business that sits behind film and television” where “the menu [is] offered to audiences and how each dish on that menu appears on the plate.”

“Stop pretending everything is OK,” she yells. “Depending on economics to deliver cultural value is arse about.”

Determined so furiously to have the right thing done, who is this Antigone yelling at?  

Not the recently dead king, her father, Oedipus (Scott Morrison); but his incestuous brother-in-law Creon (Anthony Albanese) who’s just taken over.  But surely it will all turn out OK if she marries Creon’s son, her cousin Haemon (Tony Burke), won’t it?

I feel a Baz Luhrmann coming on.  He’s done Elvis a treat, so I hear.  Will my pitch make it on Netflix?  Will it be made in a Melbourne, Sydney or Gold Coast studio by all our expert Aussie techs, with American money?  Will that mean it can be called an Australian production and attract the Producer’s 40% Offset?  Will Screen Australia buy-in?

Before reading New Platform Paper No 3, this was all Greek to me.  Now I know much more about FTA TV and SVODs and the way the viewing world is changing, for screens at home and in cinemas, as the younger generation is not just watching video-on-demand but creating work on TikTok and other platforms, ready for streaming services to distribute.  

Now available at the Paper is essential reading for anyone seeking to create work or perform in any version of the drama world.  Sandy George is an insider with self-awareness in the production process across the sector, providing real-life examples which explain why we must be concerned about maintaining our culture, how it may evolve, and how Australianness is being and will be perceived – by ourselves and by people around the world.

Importantly, she is not just crying out like Antigone.  Nor will she suggest such direct action, as Antigone did in burying her brother, which inevitably led to her death.  She writes, with statistical backup, of Australians’ love for Australian content and our recognition of what makes the grade as having Australianness.

George has many practical action suggestions on different aspects of government arrangements and funding, for the new Federal Government, State Governments, and even at local levels – which I trust Tony Burke as both the previous Shadow Arts and now the fully-fledged Arts Minister will take to heart.  

She writes, for example: We need to cultivate that love and encourage it to be shared. The enthusiastic can be given resources to run book-club-style events that would elevate attention at the time of a production’s release. If done right, the impact could be phenomenal. Fostering a community of supporters would help keep some local cinemas open on the back of Australian films, and could even lead to the establishment of a lottery that funds production initiatives designed to involve the public.
To have the Minister open his Arts Policy Launch, in St Kilda, Melbourne, in this way, is enormously encouraging:

“Very few drivers realise they are accelerating past the oldest living thing in Melbourne.

The Bunurong Corroboree Tree, or 'Ngargee' Tree.  An ancient red gum thought to be between 300 and 500 years old.  With leaves still soaking in energy and roots deep, deep into the land of the Kulin nation.

That the tree belongs in place and on country - matters.
That it lives - matters.
That it grows - matters.

It has stood guard over every change, every ceremony, every battle, every conversation of pain or love, that has occurred beneath its boughs, and within its sight. It has stayed, flourished, and grown.

Stories can be universal. Emotions, and ideas can ricochet around the globe. But everything starts with place. Every story, work of art, movement, harmony or discord starts in a place.

And that’s why I want to talk today about cultural policy.

Because creativity that comes from this land isn’t important simply based on whether the rest of the world takes notice.

It isn’t important simply because of its commercial value, although the economic contribution of our creatives is immense.

To Australians, our creativity should matter simply because it’s ours. It happens here. Its roots drive deep into our home. Our stories matter because they are ours. And I am determined to shine a spotlight on our artwork, have our poetry spoken, our literature read, to fill the stalls and dress circles of our theatres, see the names of Australian creatives as the credits roll on screen, and crank up the volume to 11 for our music.”

Perhaps a modern Creon’s son will form a true relationship with Oedipus’s daughter, and change the ending of Sophocles’ play of present and future doom.  I, the old blind prophet Teiresias, need no longer warn of horrific omens from the gods, but hope for a perfect marriage for Sandy George and Tony Burke.  With Prime Minister Albanese's blessing.

Sandy George
Photo supplied

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 16 June 2022

2022: A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith



A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (Norway 1879), adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith.  Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney, June 10 – July 16, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night June 15

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Understudy Director – Sophie Kelly
Set & Costume Designer – Veronique Benett
Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Daryl Wallis
Intimacy Coordinator – Shondelle Pratt

Photos by Prudence Upton

Set Design by Shondelle Pratt
for A Doll's House, Ensemble Theatre 2022

Nora – Chanelle Jamieson; Torvald – James Lugton
Krystina – Lizzie Schebesta; Krogstad – David Soncin
George – Tim Walter

In the original script the characters are listed as
Torvald Helmer
Nora, his wife
Doctor Rank (George)
Mrs Linden (Krystina)
Nils Krogstad
The Helmers’ Three Children
Anna, their nurse
A Maid-Servant (Ellen)
A Porter

Above L-R
Standing - Chanelle Jamieson, James Lugton
Seated - Lizzie Schebesta, Tim Walter
Below L-R
Chanelle Jamieson, David Soncin


Any new production of an old play makes it a new play.  Each performance – including how its audience responds – is a new experience.  That’s the wonder of live theatre.  

Joanna Murray-Smith has adapted Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House placing it in a modern world of unreliable financial security rather than Ibsen’s more compact almost small-town 19th Century local banking system.  To picture the difference, consider that today Australia has only four major banks, while in the 1890s depression more than 50 Australian local banks went bust with managers like Helmer. › publications › rdp

Today’s Torvald and his wife Nora are caught in financial wild weather of dubious loan sharks and fragile business reputations, where sexual relationships have implications for personal success.  

In this scenario, Nora’s way of coping with marriage, to an emotionally limited Aspergers up-and-hopefully-coming Torvald, not only means three children in eight years but outwardly presenting herself as a show-pony socially, while borrowing secretly (and disastrously) to build her husband – almost another child – into the executive level they both want for the wealth it would bring.

Chantelle Jamieson’s manic performance in Act 1, and the force with which she escapes from this conflicted existence – into an unknown but independent future – is an extraordinary tour-de-force.

This is also where the close-up in-the-round Ensemble Theatre shows its power.  We are in the lounge room with her when Torvald, affectionally but so ironically, calls her his little sparrow.  We feel as she does, that she is trapped in this house, treated as a doll with no real life of her own.  I still thank Hayes Gordon for taking the risk on this Kirribilli boathouse in 1958, and remain so glad that it is still afloat 64 years later.

All the cast, equally with Jamieson, establish their characters definitively, so that the mystery of how they relate to each other over the years before and during the Helmer marriage is bit by bit revealed, and therefore explains why Krogstad does what he does just before the end of the play – and why Nora can make no other decision but to leave.

The adaptation, using modern devices (emails instead of letters in a glass letter-box, for example), has kept the story and most of the dialogue the same as in William Archer's translation of 1889.  That in itself is an amazing commendation of Ibsen’s modernity.  

Murray-Smith has shortened the playing-time, leaving out the scenes with the children, the nurse and the maid, and having a short scene-change between the original Acts 1 and 2, with a full interval before Act 3.  I can see the economic reasons for this in our day, but it seemed to me that this made the ending seem to come in too much of a hurry.  

The dramatic intensity when Nora finally shuts Torvald up with such an angry – however justified – “No!” works for Jamieson’s frantic character, yet it is different from the quiet, rational, absolutely determined, steely-minded Nora that I have always found in the original script just before she stands up to leave:

HELMER I would gladly work for you day and night, Nora – bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves.

NORA Millions of women have done so.

HELMER Oh, you think and talk like a silly child.

NORA Very likely. But you neither think nor talk like the man I can share my life with.  When your terror was over – not for what threatened me, but for yourself – when there was nothing more to fear – then it seemed to you as though nothing had happened. I was your lark again, your doll, just as before – whom you would take twice as much care of in future, because she was so weak and fragile.

Helmer becomes pitiable, begging, forever incapable of understanding.  He “sinks into a chair by the door” without our pity. In this production, we were in danger of feeling a bit sorry for him.

But that’s what makes live theatre of such great value.  I have seen the play anew in this production of A Doll’s House, in Joanna Murray-Smith’s adaptation under Mark Kilmurry’s direction.  Definitely not to be missed.

The relationship changes between Nils Krogstad and Krystina Linden
David Soncin and Lizzie Schebesta

Dr Rank reveals his feelings for Nora
Tim Walter and Chanelle Jamieson
Torvald confronts Nora as she begins to realise the reality of her situation
Chanelle Jamieson and James Lugton

© Frank McKone, Canberra