Friday, 17 January 2020

2020: Anthem by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela.

Anthem written by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela. 

Arts Centre Melbourne and Performing Lines at Sydney Festival 2020, Roslyn Packer Theatre January 15-19, 2020.

Uncensored by Andrew Bovell
Terror by Patricia Cornelius
7-Eleven and Chemist Warehouse, a love story by Melissa Reeves
Brothers and Sisters by Christos Tsiolkas
Resistance by Irine Vela

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 17

Director – Susie Dee; Designer – Marg Horwell; Lighting Designer – Paul Jackson; Composer, Music Director and Sound Designer – Irine Vela; Movement Consultant – Natalie Cursio.

Aboriginal Cultural Dramaturg – Bryan Andy
Creative Producer (2016-March 2019) – Daniel Clarke

Characters from Anthem
 Cast (alphabetical order):
Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard

Jenny M. Thomas (violin), Dan Witton (cello)

Anthem consists of five scenes with linked characters, bookended by two, unknown to each other, on their way to the airport when a political protest holds up their train.  They are in France.  He is apparently Black African Middle-class returning to Melbourne, of working class origin but now educated and successful in business.  His views are centre right conservative. Brexit for him is about economics and Britain’s trading position. She is  apparently White Middle-class, with centre-left small-L liberal views.  Brexit for her is about racism and anti-immigration attitudes to which she strongly objects – on the way accusing him of racism. 

They discuss – argue about – current issues before fading above the mainstage action, largely on Melbourne suburban trains, with one at a 7-Eleven store and another in a company office (not 7-Eleven nor Chemist Warehouse).  The five scenes run for two hours (with a 20 minute interval), until Ruci Kaisila as an Aboriginal beggar who has observed and sung at significant points (did I hear “We are One, We Are Australian”?  I certainly heard “I still call Australia home”), sings the anthem, "Amazing Grace".

At this point, the two waiting on their train in France reappear, in a flashback, without having reached any clear political consensus, and are pleased that their train begins to move again.

But is Australia’s train going anywhere?

The black man returning from education in France turns out to be the youngest of four siblings, who resent his having left them behind in poverty.  Among the others appears to be a young unmarried/divorced mother with a six-year old son who bangs his head against the doors on a train when he is being taken by court order to stay with his violent father.  His mother is a “rough white Aussie” who believes the country “belongs to us”, but can also understand Greek, when a Greek couple complain to each other about the woman’s behaviour.  Remember when Melbourne was known as the largest Greek city outside Greece itself?

One of her brothers appears to be of “Middle-Eastern appearance” and takes a relatively benign approach.  But the last brother, seemingly white Irish-Anglo Australian, surely would have used his bounding aggro energy violently in the Cronulla riots if he had not been a Melbournian from the outer suburban fringe instead.

Interestingly, since the Sydney Theatre Company will soon be presenting Dario Fo’s “No Pay, No Way”, the thread running through Anthem is about workers not being paid (and trying to use a starting gun to threaten to kill to get the money they are owed); beggars asking for money without success, and even refusing (and being told by others to refuse) to take money which is not genuinely offered; and a middle-class woman left homeless (by a husband taking a new young wife) trying to sponge off her previous Asian cleaning woman who was never properly paid. 

The black son of the family (presumably with diverse parents) offers $30,000 to his siblings, which his sister is inclined to accept until his violent Aussie, Aussie, Aussie brother forces the educated successful black brother out of the proudly poor family who refuse to accept charity.

For the older generation like me, who still remember the Sydney Communist New Theatre production of The Good Soldier Schweik, it’s good to see true agit prop theatre again.  Unfortunately I missed the Melbourne Workers Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? 20 years ago, when these five writers had first been brought together, then under director Julian Meyrick (whose Platform Paper “The Retreat of our National Drama” was reviewed on this blog May 15, 2014).

The style of presentation of Anthem is true expressionist agit prop – that is ‘agitation propaganda’.  Moveable rostra are shifted around to represent being on a train or street or office – no naturalism here.  The musicians play on stage, in amongst the action.  The action and spoken word is upfront – forthright in the extreme.  The lighting is full on and or full off.  The character of the Aboriginal beggar is directly out of the tradition of the Narrator in The Threepenny Opera who sings “Mack the Knife”.

But Anthem is perhaps even more bleak than the ending of The Threepenny Opera, when the Narrator sings (Hugh MacDiarmid translation):

Now we’ve got our happy ending
Everything is on the mend
Yes, the man with lots of money
He can buy a happy end!

There are some men live in darkness
While the rest have light for free
You can spot those in the limelight
Those in darkness you don’t see.

How ironic is it that an Aboriginal sings Amazing Grace as the ethnically (non-Indigenous) mixed Australian family tears down the Australian flag (which still includes the Union Jack – perhaps for not much longer) in a state of political frustration?

What train are we on?  Let alone where is it going?  This is a thinking person’s theatre show which should not be missed (especially by those who need to see it most).

Frank McKone's reviews also can be seen at

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

2020: The Aspie Hour - Sydney Festival

The Aspie Hour.  Created, written and performed by Sophie Smyth and Ryan Smedley.

Director and Dramaturg – Fiona Scott-Norman
Musical Director and Pianist – Rainer Pollard

Sydney Festival 2020 at Carriageworks, Bay 20  January 14-18, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 15

What on earth is an Aspie?  If you’re on the spectrum, you may be thinking is this what normal people call a joke, until Sophie explains that it’s a short-cut word for a person who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Fortunately I have known someone with Asperger’s over many years.  He would probably not think being called an Aspie was funny.  It’s no joke when you don’t understand how to initiate a conversation, say.  Or realise that what someone said was meant to be a joke, or it was an innuendo and actually meant something quite different from what the words said.  My friend’s an expert computer programmer.

Sophie explained, for example, that “come up and have a cup of tea” means “sex”.

The Aspie Hour is a very pleasant entertainment.  Because they each have an obsession with musicals, but not the same sort of musicals, they demonstrate their tendency to concentrate on informative details and a strictly logical approach by performing songs from an enormously wide range of musicals, mainly with their own words.

Ryan prefaces his song and dance routines with proof of his factual knowledge by having members of the audience call out a year date, like 1955, 1984 and three others last night.  He immediately tells us which musical that year was the most popular, or which in his view was the best, even though his choice may not have won awards.  And I am sure that he knew his facts.

His songs tell the story of a visit to New York, the source of more musicals than anywhere else in the world (he claims).  The essence of his song and dance act is about what he had to learn about social contacts in order to travel by himself to achieve his dream – to see a musical each night for 20 nights and meet famous musical performers.  And, I guess from his show, he learnt song and dance skills from his obervations.

Sophie took a different line, focussed on the elements of what makes up a musical, from the intro dance number, through the I want solo to the grand finale, which has nothing much to do with the rest of the plot.  She explained what we needed to know about each element before she sang, perfectly in style, each type of number.

For me, Sophie gets a special award for “Over the Rainbow”: “If little blue birds can fly, fly over the rainbow, why, then oh why, can’t I?”  This was a moment of tender appreciation by us all, through quiet tears for an Aspie’s frustration and at the same time recognition in the strength and quality of her performance that indeed, she can fly over her rainbow.

As they have written, “The purpose of this show is to relate ourselves to the audience, asking ‘have you had an experience like this?  We’re not all that different.”  How true, and how enjoyable.

Sophie Smyth and Ryan Smedley
in The Aspie Hour
Photo supplied

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

2020: I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch.  Conceived, written and performed by Bryony Kimmings (UK).  Sydney Festival 2020, at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, January 14-17 2020.

Co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre, Arts Centre Melbourne, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts and supported by Latitude Festival.  Supported by the British Council and Arts Council England using public funding.  In association with Avalon Management.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 14

Directors – Kirsty Housley and Bryony Kimmings

Art Director – David Curtis-Ring; Projection Designer – Will Duke; Composer – Tom Parkinson; Sound Designer – Lewis Gibson; Lighting Designer – Johanne Jensen; Dramaturgical Support – Nina Steiger; Choreography and Rehearsal Direction – Sarah Blanc; Makeup Design – Guy Common.

“Performing on stage is always a risk (break a leg!), but the greatest risk – to your sanity, if not in failing your audience – is to turn your own life into a public performance, and then perform it yourself.”  In quite recent times I have coined the term “Personal Theatre” for this kind of work.

Two especially powerful pieces were RED by Liz Lea  (reviewed here March 9, 2018), a dance work expressing her pain and determination to keep performing while suffering ever-continuing endometriosis; and Ghenoa Gela’s experience of shock in finding her personal salvation in re-connecting with her traditional culture through dance on her first visit to her mother’s home island Erub in the Torres Strait, after being born and brought up in Rockhampton.  My Urrwai is reviewed here January 21, 2018.

Based on dance with some story-telling, these were demanding and impressive works, though relatively straightforward theatrically.  I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is centred on Bryony Kimmings’ experience of her psychosis arising from the sudden onset in her baby son of ‘Infantile Spasms’, seemingly life threatening: the beginning of epilepsy. 

Her creating this work for performance arises from the principle of cognitive behavioural therapy – that is, learning to objectify frightening mental experiences and recognise reality through the process of telling others.  So I’m a Phoenix, Bitch begins rather as if Bryony is a stand-up comedian setting up a relationship directly with us, her audience, through humour, about sex, marriage and childbirth.

But as her child is in hospital and her husband has moved out, she finds herself left alone in what was meant to be the ideal little family cottage on an isolated hilltop in the country – fearing for her child’s life.  Her experience is expressed on stage in acting and singing, in a complex set design using live and recorded video, a model of the house, a representation of the hill and the flooded stream that prevents her from obtaining help, with sound miked so that her inner voice sounds male threatening her female self, and a surround soundscape creating her emotions in us as we watch her despair.

The real life experience took place over a two year period, which Bryony structured to make this work in 2018 after a highly successful career following a degree in Modern Drama from Brunel University in 2003, creating multi-platform art works.  ]

In the title she becomes a phoenix in the sense that she learns that even the worst that can happen is just bad luck, and that we must not feel guilty for what, in reality, we cannot control.  As she finally drives away from the house – now rented by another family and no longer haunting Bryony – she tells us 

“And I watched the cottage disappear out of sight in my rear-view mirror.  And for a moment I felt like I was in a film.  But then I stopped doing that.  Because I wasn’t.  This was real fucking life.”

Black out.
And to tremendous applause and a great sense of relief, Bryony takes a bow and takes us back to something like the comedian she had appeared to be at first.  But we now know, “it’s time to love the new Bryony now.  She has sharper edges, she laughs a little less, she is scarred.  But she is who you will need in the next flood.”

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is an important work of art because it is a story of real experience which becomes a meaningful metaphor for us each to interpret in our own lives.  Though more complex in the form of its expression, this is what Bryony Kimmings’ work has in common with those other works of “Personal Theatre” by Ghenoa Gela and Liz Lea.  They take the risk which is theatre; they succeed through genuine art.

And I note that these works are by women.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 12 January 2020

2020: Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan, performed by Steve Rodgers

Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan, with original performer and co-writer Jonny Donahue.  Belvoir, Sydney, January 11-26 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 12

Director – Kate Champion; Set and Costume Designer – Isabel Hudson; Lighting Designer – Amelia Lever-Davidson; Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Performed by Steve Rodgers (Co-Director)

The ethics of reviewing require the disclosure of potential bias.  The travel writer reveals the company that paid for their travel and accommodation at the holiday destination.  In my case, I have reviewed Steve Rodgers’s work as writer, director or performer a number of times (on this blog) with the note that he was once a student of mine.

The standing ovation he received last night at Belvoir for his solo performance as Narrator, and as co-director with Kate Champion, of Every Brilliant Thing requires me to explain in more detail why I was affected by the nature of this play, and by Steve Rodger’s interpretation of it, in a particular way, the same but different from other audience members.

I went to see the play cold.  That is, I had not been aware of its performance history, including the nomination of Jonny Donahue for several awards following his five months’ showing off-Broadway, also screened as an HBO World of Wonder Special.  My travel plans last year meant I missed the opportunity to see Kate Mulvaney’s performance; nor was I aware that Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers were the directors at that time.  I had not been aware either, of Joyce Morgan’s review in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 17, 2019), nor of any other reviews or commentary.  I had not known that a few clicks into Youtube would show me different stage designs, different actors in the Narrator role on stage and in rehearsal; even interviews with the author and company directors.

Steve Rodgers explaining her task to audience member,
Every Brilliant Thing, January 11 2020
Photo: Brett Boardman
I knew nothing, except that Belvoir advertised this return season, with a smiling photo of Steve Rodgers, as “BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND!” – and not even did I know anything about the content of the play, imagining it to have some reference, perhaps, to My Brilliant Career

So I was surprised to be greeted warmly, with a huge hug, by one-time student Steve on the stairs to Belvoir Upstairs, who gave me and my wife a slip of paper numbered 717.  “When you hear me say seven hundred and seventeen, you must read out loud what it says,” he told us.  It read “Nina Simones Voice” (without the apostrophe, the old teacher in me noticed).

“I am reviewing,” I told him.  “Well, then I’d better be good!” he replied, as he moved on and we entered the auditorium to find our seats, kindly provided by Kabuku Public Relations at the usual Row E 25/26.  But instead of the usual centrally-situated view of the acting space taking up the corner of the old tomato sauce factory floor, on the far side was a complete reproduction of the seating on our side.  Theatre completely in-the-round – as I had seen at Belvoir only once before, for Life of Galileo last year (reviewed here August 10, 2019).

Steve Rodgers, a quiet moment in role
Every Brilliant Thing, January 11 2020
Photo: Brett Boardman

 Then what happened stunned me.  I watched my student Steve doing what I had taught him to do in the Drama Room at Hawker College back in 1987.  Suddenly my reviewer’s mortar board hat was perched precariously on my drama teacher’s skin, now even more bald, but still firmly attached.  To review is to write about drama; to teach and learn drama is to simply “Do It” – as one educational drama professional association had named their journal in the 1970s.

Over their two-year course in Years 11/12, I had not run theatre skills training classes, not academic literary or theatre history studies, or even staging theatre productions as my central approach.  Taking up from English educational drama traditions for younger students, particularly of Dorothy Heathcote and Brian Way, and combining those with my experiences, particularly in Sydney with Margaret Barr and Richard Wherrett and strongly influenced by Rex Cramphorn, I focussed my teaching on participation and learning leadership through whole group improvisation.

Classes contained students, mixing those in Year 11 and Year 12, at anywhere from Unit 1 to Unit 6 level of experience.  The basic method was for me, or for a student, or for a small group, to provide a point of stimulation to begin a “workshop”.  This could be as simple as having a person stand in a spotlight.  Others might respond by asking that person a question.  Bit by bit as they answer, that person and everyone in the class find themselves creating roles which determine action, and a drama results.

Among my favourites was one which turned out to be an upperclass garden party, in which I became the silent garden gnome, thoroughly soaked when someone turned the watering system on as a lark, and finally being “accidentally” knocked over.  I was able surruptitiously to escape by unobtrusively rolling into the non-acting space behind the drama room’s surrounding black curtains.

The principal stimulating device in Belvoir’s Every Brilliant Thing was more sophisticated but still very simple: Steve Rodgers (in my terms as last night’s workshop leader) meeting and greeting participants on the stairway, giving some of them mysterious cards with numbers and words to say, coming in with everyone, explaining their tasks to some people with cards – and then, after walking around a little in the central acting space, just quietly standing still (without even a spotlight), looking thoughtful, perhaps a bit worried, until everyone has realised he is there and gone quiet.

Steve learned to do this in Year 12, became a leader in whole-group improvisations which could often become intense dramas (and played a very humorous God Hephaistos in a student written, directed and managed production), before attending my Audition Training extra-curricular class and attaining a place as today’s program records at Theatre Nepean at Western Sydney University.

And then what was so brilliant for me, perhaps even more than for the upstanding, cheering audience at the end of the one millionth Every Brilliant Thing, was how wonderfully well Steve Rodgers melded the written script with his selection of audience members, shifting so easily in and out of his role as the son of a woman who killed herself “in a masculine way” and his role as improvisation workshop leader.

The result is, as Duncan Macmillan clearly hoped for his play, an educational drama of the very best quality.  [  ]  

The humbling thing for me was to see a student so overwhelmingly surpass his teacher in such a magnificent performance – my personal millionth and one Brilliant Thing.

Audience member in role as "Sam" proposing marriage
to Steve Rodgers in role as Narrator
Every Brilliant Thing, January 11 2020
Photo: Brett Boardman

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 10 January 2020

2020: The Little Mermaid - Ickle Pickle Productions

The Little Mermaid.  Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, book by Doug Wright, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and the Disney film produced by Howard Ashman and John Musker and written by John Musker and Ron Clements.

Ickle Pickle Productions, produced by Justin Watson.  Belconnen Community Theatre, January 10-25, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 10

Director – Jordan Best; Musical Director – Adam Bluhm; Choreographer – Jodi Hammond.

Costume Designer – Fiona Leach; Makeup Design – Eryn Marshall; Set Designer – Ian Croker; Lighting – Sidestage Productions; Music Sequencing – Smilin’ James Aspland

When you go to see The Little Mermaid, make sure you pack your sense of humour.  Jordan Best and her team’s design and direction have set the tone exactly right.  Everyone on stage – and I think there were 40! – understood and thoroughly enjoyed the fun side of such an unlikely seaside story.  Don’t miss, for example, the array of complex characters among the wonderfully sweet-singing but terribly bitchy Mersisters.

Turning a cartoon, essentially made for very young children – almost at Sesame Street age level – into a stage show suited for 10-year-olds and up, is a risky venture.  As a movie, the close-ups of the character’s faces – especially, say, of the way Ariel’s eyes can take over the whole screen – or the way the moving image of life under the sea can be fascinating to watch just for its colour and variety, Disney’s The Little Mermaid is an attractive fairy-story fantasy.  We get the point of the story, but it presents a ‘lite’ version.

Ickle Pickle give us the grown-up version in which the Ariel’s teenage need to escape her royal father’s assumption – that he must control her life to protect his daughter – becomes a serious theme, even if it means she must accept the risks of becoming her own woman.  Emily Pogson successfully makes Ariel’s constricted life as a princess believable.  The risk for Jordan Best here is that the movie’s light quality (which is what makes it such a longstanding favourite) could become too dark and heavy.  (I almost began to think, when Samuel Dietz’s character Grimsby announces at the end “After all, I do believe in royalty”, of Prince Harry and his love for Meghan.)

The great success of Best’s directing is to find the right spot, where the characters are played with a clear sense of not taking themselves too seriously – in fact the whole production in its stage design, lighting effects, humorous choreography, costuming and makeup, and often arch singing, play with the truth that theatre is just an illusion.

And to bring this all together on such a small stage with such a large group of so many young performers (but not forgetting the adults, Michael Jordan playing King Triton and especially Janie Lawson playing Ursula as almost a spoof of Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania) is a logistical and artistic achievement in its own right.


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 19 December 2019

2019: The Divine Miss Bette Christmas Special - Catherine Alcorn

The Divine Miss Bette Christmas Special.  A TenaciousC and Neil Gooding Productions presentation at The Q / Bicentennial Hall, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, December 18 – 21 (Saturday 21 December 2019 – 8.00pm  Show Only  Tickets Available – Dinner & Show Tickets Sold Out.)

Performed by Catherine Alcorn
With Clare Ellen O'Connor and Kirby Burgess
And Michael Tyack (Piano), Geoff Green (Drums) Tommy Novak and Crick Boue (guitars)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 18

“I insist, that all my jokes be told letter perfect.”  So said Bette Midler, immediately after her joke about her boyfriend Ernie’s ‘woman as sex object’ comments.  “Get off my back!” she told him, to ecstatic cheers from a full house.

That was in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1976, and the joke still worked for Catherine Alcorn in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, in 2019.  Wow!

Here’s how her publicity describes The Divine Miss Bette Christmas Special:

“Catherine Alcorn’s fabulous homage to Bette Midler, swings back to town for a Christmas Special. Whilst Alcorn has been tottering in Bette’s shoes for a while now, her show has been revamped and is bigger, better and even more impressive as she oozes charm and charisma channelling her idol.

“With lots of Miss Midler’s well known songs and well-presented patter, Catherine Alcorn’s ‘The Divine Miss Bette’ is a must see performance. Her show is guaranteed to warm the coldest of Christmas Nuts and her live band promise to Jingle Your Bells. So polish off your Ornamental Balls folks and make Christmas 2019 one to remember.

“Audience Advice: Suitable for ages 15+, some adult themes.”

Appreciating Alcorn’s representation of Midler becomes a complicated story.  I was never a great fan of Bette Midler as a movie actor, but her show on stage was clearly a different kettle of fish.  In Australian terms, her stage character paralleled actors like Gary McDonald playing Norman Gunston, who conducted completely absurd interviews with famous people, such as Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House at the time of his dismissal by the Governor-General in 1975.

In her show Live at Last, Midler appears to play herself in a madcap but often telling satire of a star performer.  She doesn’t even use a separate name for the role.  The Norman Gunston story is relevant here, because even with a separate name for his character, Gary McDonald found himself in psychological difficulties as Norman became more ‘real’ than Gary.

Now we see Catherine Alcorn “channelling her idol” – apparently playing herself, including relating directly to people in the audience, while actually playing Bette Midler playing a fictional character apparently as herself.

The fascinating thing about Alcorn’s performance, as I saw it, was that she found she needed to work a bit harder than she seemed to expect at the beginning to ‘warm up’ the Queanbeyan audience (who also were clearly mainly idolising Bette Midler).  But she managed even before interval to make us feel as if she had become Midler – even though the Midler she became was a kind of satirical spoof of a performing star.

Her success, as it had been for Midler in Cleveland, was possible because ‘my girls’, Clare Ellen O'Connor and Kirby Burgess, could sing, dance and spoof to match Alcorn’s acting quality.  Midler had “The Staggering Harlettes” and also her band “Betsy and the Blowboys”; Alcorn also had a terrific band, so in tune with her even when she was improvising and responding to audience requests for songs – through two encores, ending (of course, without the need for anyone to ask) with The Rose.  So special applause from me for the women, and for Michael Tyack, Geoff Green, Tommy Novak and Crick Boue.

Is Catherine Alcorn “bigger, better and even more impressive as she oozes charm and charisma channelling her idol”?  I can’t judge since I haven’t seen her other versions of The Divine Miss Bette, but the Christmas Special certainly went down very well on Thursday – and I expect even better with the meal and champagne on Saturday night.

Yet as the advertising shows, Alcorn is not quite the real Midler.  This show certainly catches much of the raunchiness which made Midler a new woman on stage in the 70s, but Alcorn is closer to our more modern stand-up comedy performer – but without the harder edge of almost cynicism that Midler revealed in her satirical characterisation. 

Watching Judith Lucy interview Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, on Charlie Pickering’s The Yearly this week (ABC Wednesday December 17) showed me a modern descendant of the real Divine Miss M

But, after all, it is Christmas – so enjoy.

Go to for the Bette Midler show Live at Last.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 14 December 2019

2019: Cirque Stratosphere by Neil Dorward

Sal the Clown
Photo: Mark Turner

The Set Design
Photo: Frank McKone

Cirque Stratosphere.  Produced, choreographed and directed by Neil Dorward, Cirque du Soleil Entertainment. The Works Entertainment (Co producers Simon Painter and Tim Lawson) at Canberra Theatre Centre, December 11-21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 11

The world of circus has changed dramatically since I first saw Coco the Clown (Michael Polakovs), baby elephants, bareback horse-riding and Pinito del Oro doing her headstands on a trapeze at Harringay Arena, London, around 1950.  Shows then were all about and only about the skills of the performers, our excitement at what they could do – and our fear that they might fail, with disastrous consequences (which sometimes happened, even to a lion-tamer as I recall).

Circus was simple then.

Cirque du Soleil was started in Montreal, Canada, by Guy Laliberté in 1984, but in Australia, Circus Oz had already been underway since 1978, an amalgamation of Soapbox Circus (Melbourne) and the New Circus (Adelaide). Social commentary began to turn circus into a new theatre genre.  “They wanted it to be funny, irreverent and spectacular, a celebration of the group as a bunch of multi-skilled individual men and women, rather than a hierarchy of stars.” And without animals to steal the scene.

Of course, I liked Circus Oz from the beginning – remember Roger, flying off the trapeze and being flattened against the wall; and women being caught up in washing machine action.  As time went along, Oz shows took on themes which were successfully dramatised, such as consumerism in But Wait…There’s More (reviewed here September 2015); and sometimes less effectively but still on the same kind of song sheet, such as last year’s Model Citizens attempt to unpack the “myths of Modern Australia”.

On the international scene (where Circus Oz plays its part magnificently), Cirque du Soleil was impressive in a different way from its beginning.  Also without animals, their shows became more choreographed movement, reminding me of the developments in modern abstract dance.  Where Circus Oz in, say, From the Ground Up (October 2012) has something like a story-line, Cirque du Soleil left you to interpret the flow of action in your own way. 

Until the rise of James Thieree, a descendant of Charlie Chaplin, with The June Bug Symphony (January 2003) and Bright Abyss (January 2006).  The latter is like a dance composition about human relationships, with imagery “often very funny to watch as well as exciting, sometimes frightening, sometimes touchingly sad” (to quote my review).

Variations of approaches are now common – see Urban by Circolombia (January 2013) and shows by Strut and Fret like Blanc de Blanc (April 2018).

So where does Cirque Stratosphere stand in this new tradition of ‘contemporary’ circus?  Now that Neil Dorward owns Cirque du Soleil and The Works Entertainment – the very successful management production team from Brisbane?

I have reviewed this director’s work before – The Dark Side of Cirque Le Noir – in May 2015.  “Pure seductive entertainment” was my description – “Just relax and ooh and aah as appropriate.”  But Cirque Stratosphere at least has a theme – going to the moon, as in 1969.

Felice Aguilar
Photo: Mark Turner
Oleg Spigin
Photo: Mark Turner

Evgenii Viktorovich and Natalia Viktorovich
Photo: Mark Turner

As in all circus, each of the performers is a specialist:  the clown TapeFace acts as host, so there is no old-fashioned ringmaster; the three Vanin Brothers do gymnastics on the Russian Bar; the balancing act called Hand to Hand by Dmitry Makrushin and Oleg Bespalov included an astounding standing somersault from the support man’s shoulders back to landing on those shoulders; Anne Lewandowska performed graceful acrobatic dance on a Sphere Wheel lit all round by LED lights.

The duo roller-skaters, Evgenii Viktorovich and Natalia Viktorovna, spun on a tiny circular raised platform for an extended display which I watched heart-in-mouth – if they fumbled or lost grip, Natalia would have been flung into space, facing serious injury.  Evgenii had to be stock still spinning in the centre, if you see what I mean.

Felice Aguilar was another Spinning Artist, less likely to come to grief.  While Pole Artist Polina Volchek seemed to be able to stick to her pole at very considerable heights with very little points of contact – and slide in free-fall to stop just before hitting the ground.  And Antonio Leyva Campos was equally impressive and scary on the Bungee Straps.  As were Dmitri Feliksovich, Denis and Nikolai Alexandrovich who bounced each other to horrifying heights on a specially engineered teeterboard; and Oleg Spigin ‘defying gravity’ balancing on his head on his trapeze (like Pinito del Oro!)

Finally it was the Hoop Diving Nicolas-Yang Wang and Shenpeng Nie that most engaged the audience with a great cheer when the somersault through the highest hoop at last succeeded.  This was the circus of old, for me.

Yet as ‘contemporary’ circus, although the costumes clearly represented astronauts in space, so that the idea of commemorating the first moon landing was obvious, with the story told in an American accented voice over, there was little sense of relationship between what was performed in each act and what the story was about.  What did, for example, the duo roller skaters’ spinning have to say about space travel?

In the end, in retrospect, I wondered if Neil Dorward had some conception of space being represented by the lifting and lowering of the main polished and gleaming scaffolding which was the main set design, and the action taking place in three-dimensional space.  Did he intend to have us see the circus, with its more romantic title ‘cirque’, as more meaningful than fantastic gymnastic action?

I came up with only this: that space is the universe of circus performance.  But this was surely far too arty and esoteric for a show which more or less continuously blasted us with tremendously high-volume music (from 2001 The Space Odyssey among many other film scores, for example) and often blinded us with massive lights from the cleverly designed central frame – which included the lights and sound operator, acting like an extreme night-club DJ, whose name I have not been able to discover (since the show did not offer patrons a program).

The nicest part of the show was the audience participation by Sal the clown – but there wasn’t much to do with landing on the moon in that.

So – very much a mixed night for me in the Stratosphere.  A bit too much of the ‘hierarchy of stars’ and not enough of a ‘symphony of the spheres’.

Photo: Mark Turner

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 6 December 2019

2019: How Good Is 2019! - Shortis & Simpson

John Shortis and Moya Simpson
How Good Is 2019!  Shortis & Simpson, at Smith’s Alternative, Canberra, December 6 and 8, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 6

Political satire comes in many different guises – all essential to our social wellbeing – from Sydney Theatre Company’s annual mainstage The Wharf Revue (this year’s is reviewed on this blog, November 12), to daily newspaper cartoons across the country, standup comedians popping up anywhere and everywhere, through to perhaps the only small-scale dedicated regional outfit – John Shortis and Moya Simpson – working continually for more than 20 years.

To confirm my credentials (if you are using Windows 10 version 1903 you know what I mean), here’s the record of my first review of Shortis & Simpson [published in The Canberra Times]:

Shortis & Curlies - John Shortis, Moya Simpson, Andrew Bissett at The School of Arts Cafe, 108 Monaro Street, Queanbeyan.  Season: Thursdays to Saturdays till June 29, 1996.
“If you are a Liberal politician confident that cutting government spending is the only way to go; or a Labour politician feeling sorry for yourself after 100 days of the new regime; or a veterinary surgeon operating out of Woden Valley; or someone who thinks that a national gun register is not a good idea; or Princess Diana; or Jeff Kennett; or even a frozen embryo who hopes to inherit your dead father's estate: then you shouldn't see this show because you probably won't laugh.”

This year you can learn to do traditional village [Scott] Morrison Dancing; sing along with Pauline Hanson declaring she will never have anything to do with the NRMA – for our US readers, that’s the National Roads and Motorists Association, not the National Rifle Association; feel the excitement of a school student on an excursion to Parliament House Question Time; learn the essence of democracy from the Dalai Lama who explained the importance of being a mosquito; and, among the other eighteen equally zany songs, perhaps be most stunned – while in fits of uncontrollable laughter – to hear the consequences of Donald Trump’s tweet and meet with the environmentalist Prince of Whales [The Donald’s spelling unadulterated].

I have had the privilege of attending to Shortis & Simpson over all these years (I just accidentally wrote ‘tears’ – of laughter), but now face the horrifying prospect that they may not last forever.  Next year will see the last of The Wharf Revue: Good Night and Good Luck (at the Canberra Theatre Playhouse in September 2020).  The trio of Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott presented their first show (The End of The Wharf As We Know It) in 2000: they’re four years younger than Shortis & Simpson!

So it’s a worry.  We need to laugh politically at least once a year.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 5 December 2019

2019: Waiting in the Wings by Noël Coward

Waiting in the Wings by Noël Coward.  Canberra REP and The Q, directed by Stephen Pike.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre November 20–23 2019; at Canberra REP, Naoné Carrel Auditorium, Theatre 3 November 27–December 7 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 5

Director – Stephen Pike; Costume Design – Anna Senior; Lighting Design – Nathan Sciberras; Sound Design – Neville Pye; Properties – Brenton Warren

Photo: Foyer Photographs
Set designed by Andrew Kay
“The Wings”
a charitable retirement home for actresses

Director Stephen Pike notes “The [1960] play never had any resounding success for Coward, unlike many of his earlier scripts, however I have found through our rehearsal period the text held many surprises.”

Indeed.  These surprises are the reason for seeing the show.  Among many, the two I would like to mention specifically are Joan White’s performance of Sarita Myrtle, whose dementia is funny, sad and truthful; and Ros Engledow as Lotta Bainbridge, the very opposite.  She is self-aware and consistently rational, and Ros’ performance takes the play to its most telling point in the final scene when her son unexpectedly visits with a plan to take her out of “The Wings”.

Though the London critics of the original production “had neither the wit nor the generosity to pay sufficient tribute to the acting”, according to Coward, I’m guessing that he was expected to be more ‘sparkling’ in his fiftieth play.  I can see that this script doesn’t compare in this sense with, say, Private Lives (reviewed on this blog at Belvoir, Sydney, 2 October 2012).

The first two scenes come over as a bit too ordinary, naturalistic in style, with what sounds like a not very promising ‘sparkling’ plot about a committee that won’t spend money on making the verandah into a ‘solarium’ to capture the weak English sunshine.  No need for ‘mad Englishmen’ going ‘out in the midday sun’ here.

Then, suddenly, after an interval for a retirees’ toilet break and another glass of bubbly, Sarita Myrtle, quoting lines from all sorts of roles she may have had or imagined she had since 1904, out-sparkles the presumed other central dramatic through-line – why will May Davenport (in a strong performance by Liz Bradley) not talk to Lotta Bainbridge?

Sarita goes on to win the dramatic conflict by nearly burning the house down and having to be taken away, imagining she is leaving this ‘hotel’ for another ‘tour’, for a place where the doctor says she will be ‘treated kindly’.

Nowadays, let alone in 1960, the treatment of people with dementia is an issue of great public importance.  And I have to say I wonder with some trepidation about my own future as I approach octagenarian status, remembering my own mother, like Sarita, similarly mis-perceiving the real world for some eight years until her fortunately peaceful death at 92.  The quality of Joan White’s performance allowed me to laugh with Sarita, not at her, and I thank her for that.

The same goes for Ros Engledow. Noël Coward wrote “I wrote Waiting in the Wings with loving care and absolute belief in its characters. I consider that the reconciliation between "Lotta" and "May" in Act Two Scene Three, and the meeting of Lotta and her son in Act Three Scene Two, are two of the best scenes I have ever written. I consider that the play as a whole contains, beneath the froth of some of its lighter moments, the basic truth that old age needn't be nearly so dreary and sad as it is supposed to be, provided you greet it with humour and live it with courage.”

No matter what the critics thought in London in 1960, Ros Engledow and Liz Bradley absolutely got their reconciliation right; and Ros again with Iain Murray was even stronger in that final scene.  Despite what I have to see as a very ‘bitty’ structure of Coward’s script, her Lotta developed subtly, and truthfully, from her justifiably hesitant arrival at “The Wings” to her confident new appreciation of the importance to her of a real family rather than that offered by her son.

Maybe the thought of a woman making such an independent decision was still too much to accept in 1960, even by critics who were well aware of other playwrights, like George Bernard Shaw – whose Mrs Warren’s Profession showed such a woman way back in 1894.  Maybe we were only supposed to laugh at Noël Coward, not to take him seriously as we have, say, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House since 1879.

So, thanks to Stephen Pike, artistic director of The Q and director here for Canberra REP, for this surprise, and all the women (and men) in this production of Waiting in the Wings.  I now have a new appreciation of Noël Coward and hope to continue to greet old age “with humour and live it with courage.”

The Cast:

Residents at “The Wings”:

Bonita Belgrave – Lis de Totth                Cora Clarke – Adele Lewin
Maude Melrose – Penny Hunt                 May Davenport – Liz Bradley
Almina Clare – Micki Beckett                 Estelle Craven – Alice Ferguson
Dierdre O’Malley – Liz St Clair Long    Lotta Bainbridge – Ros Engledow
Sarita Myrtle – Joan White                     Topsy Baskerville – Golda Bergdicks

The Others:

Perry Lascoe – Peter Holland                  Sylvia Archibald – Nikki-Lynne Hunter
Osgood Meeker – Dick Goldberg            Dora – Rina Onorato
Doreen – Rina Onorato                           Zelda Fenwick – Antonia Kitzel
Dr Jevons – Iain Murray                         Alan Bennet – Iain Murray

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 29 November 2019

2019: Baby Doll adapted from the film by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan

Baby Doll, adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the 1956 film by Tennesee Williams and Elia Kazan.  Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli, Sydney, October 18 – November 16, 2019.

Commentary/Review by Frank McKone

Director – Shaun Rennie; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Set & Costume Designer – Anna Tregloan; Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson

Baby Doll – Kate Cheel        Aunt Rose Comfort – Maggie Dence
Silva Vacarro – Socratis Otto        Archie Lee Meighan – Jamie Oxenbold

Photos by Prudence Upton

Kate Cheel and Jamie Oxenbold
as Baby Doll and Archie Lee
Set design for Baby Doll
Kate Cheel as Baby Doll

Tennessee Williams called the original stage play of the story of Baby Doll (Flora) being raped by the manager of a syndicate cotton gin (Silva Vicarro) because Flora’s husband  (Jake) had set fire to it and destroyed the competition to Jake’s own gin – a comedy.  This was 27 Wagons Full of Cotton

Scene: The front porch of [Jake’s and Flora’s] cottage near Blue Mountain, Mississippi. 
The porch is narrow and rises into a single narrow gable.
There are spindling white pillars on either side supporting the porch roof and a door of Gothic design and two Gothic windows on either side of it. 
The peaked door has an oval of richly stained glass, azure, crimson, emerald and gold. 
At the windows are fluffy white curtains gathered coquettishly in the middle by baby-blue satin bows. The effect is not unlike a doll’s house.

Jake is a “fat man of sixty”.  Flora is not described, except that she has a “huge bosom”.  Here’s a little excerpt of dialogue:
Jake: Everything you said [about them both being at home when the fire exploded] is awright. But don't you get ideas.
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas. Made to be hugged an' squeezed!
Flora ( babyishly ): Mmmm. . . .

Satirical comedy?  But there is no doubt about the rape:

Flora: Don't follow. Please don't follow! ( She sways uncertainly.
He presses his hand against her. She moves inside. He follows. 
The door is shut quietly. The gin pumps slowly and steadily across the road.
From inside the house there is a wild and despairing cry. A door is slammed . 
The cry is repeated more faintly.)

In the next scene: After a moment the screen door is pushed slowly open and Flora
emerges gradually. Her appearance is ravaged. Her eyes have a vacant limpidity in the moonlight, her lips are slightly apart.  She moves with her hands stretched gropingly before her till she has reached a pillar of the porch . There she stops and stands moaning a little. Her hair hangs loose and disordered. The upper part of her body is unclothed except for, a torn pink band about her breasts. Dark streaks are visible on the bare shoulders and arms and there is a large discoloration along one cheek. A dark trickle, now congealed, descends from one corner of her mouth. These more apparent tokens she covers with one hand when Jake comes up on the porch. He is now near approaching, singing to himself.

It seems to me La Commedia e Finita.

In the 1956 movie, the emphasis is on Carroll Baker being made a star by Elia Kazan, (as he had done for Marlon Brando in Street Car Named Desire).  Two elements of the movie were different from the original play, which I think ultimately altered the effect of this further adaptation back to the stage.

First is a minor point.  The story of Aunt Rose in the movie was no more than a bit of human interest on the sidelines of the central story of industrial arson and rape as revenge.  In an earlier play than 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, called The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper, Archie Lee (aka Jake) reminds his wife, Baby Doll, that Aunt Rose has overstayed her welcome in their home.  Under pressure to go, when a tornado rages, Aunt Rose will not go inside, and is carried away in a mighty gust of wind. 

In this stage adaptation, the role becomes more a distraction than a light relief.  The director, Shaun Rennie, may have seen Aunt Rose in a Greek chorus role as commentator or reflector on the action, I guess, but her entrances and exits are intrusive rather than illuminating.  That’s no reflection on Maggie Dence’s performance, of course, but a weakness in the scriptwriting.

The second development in the movie, though, is much more significant.  The characterisation of Baby Doll – I think for the titillation of blockbuster movie audiences – became a conflicting mix of childish naivety with knowing seductiveness.  If she had sex with Silva Cavarro in the child’s crib (all that’s available for him to sleep in), under his manipulative pressure, though it might still have been rape, it was nothing like the violence of the original story.  In fact, on stage, with the crib entirely off-stage (while in the movie we see the scene where she settles Cavarro in to sleep), we are even less certain that a rape actually took place.

Yet, as in the movie, we did see on stage a Baby Doll, in Kate Cheel’s excellent characterisation, who takes on her husband against his attitude in:
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas.

The tension arising from the other new element in the movie – the agreement with Baby Doll’s father that Archie Lee would have to wait until she turned 20 to consummate the marriage – certainly raised the emotional state on film (especially with the extended reference to tomorrow being the day) and made its point on stage.

In the end, though, I suspect that to have played the original 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, because of its apparent comedy turning into tragic violence, would have made the main point of Tennessee Williams’ work more telling than either the film or its re-adaptation to stage.  Not only did it reveal bluntly the men’s attitudes to women as victims of sexual predation; it also more simply and clearly exposed the worst aspects of capitalist competition.

To this extent, the stage adaptation was better than the film:  Because on stage the setting and acting cannot appear to be ordinary naturalism, a degree of distance is established for the theme to take its place: that the exposé of red-neck Mississippi shows, as Karl Marx explained, how the economics of competition has consquences in human social behaviour. 

Tennessee Williams understood this, as we see in his other work on stage, especially in The Glass Menagerie (1944) where he used written signs above the stage for each scene to gain a similar effect to the alienation-effect (Verfremdungseffekt) used by Bertolt Brecht.

In conclusion, I saw the Ensemble Theatre production of Baby Doll as an interesting exercise, performed and designed very well; and I quote in the spirit of conversation the Director’s Note by Shaun Rennie.  “It feels like a dangerous conversation to be having in 2019 and I have questioned my own privilege as a white, male storyteller in this process.  I have faced the conundrum of not wanting to speak on behalf of anyone yet at the same time wish to engage in the conversation.  I hope that this production inspires further interrogation of a system that Williams and Kazan were clearly lampooning back in 1956, but which is still unfortunately pervasive today.”

Kate Cheels and Socratis Otto
as Baby Doll and Silva Vacarro
Socratis Otto and Maggie Dence
as Silva Vacarro and Aunt Rose Comfort
in Ensemble Theatre's production
of Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan
adapted from the film by
Pierre Laville and Emily Mann


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 28 November 2019

2019: The Odd Couple by Neil Simon

Brian Meegan (Felix) and Steve Rodgers (Oscar)
The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.  Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli, Sydney) November 22 – December 29, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 27

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Hugh O’Connor; Lighting Designer – Christopher Page; Dialect Coach – Nick Curnow


Speed – Laurence Coy            Gwendolyn – Katie Fitchett
Roy – Robert Jago                  Murray – James Lugton
Felix – Brian Meegan             Vinnie – Nicholas Papademetriou
Cecily – Olivia Pigeot             Oscar – Steve Rodgers

On Wednesday’s formal opening night – as I imagine will happen at every performance of The Odd Couple – as the guys finally settled down for their traditional Friday night poker game, after the upset of Felix’s two divorces plus the excitement of Cecily and Gwendolyn (one of whom was a widow not a divorcee, because her husband had died moments before the paperwork was completed), the Ensemble audience exploded like a celebratory fireworks display of laughter and applause.

Brian Meegan’s Felix’s thoroughly irritating tidiness, cleanliness and cooking surely explained why his wife had gone to a lawyer; while Steve Rodger’s warm welcoming absolute sloppiness as Oscar understandably left him with an eight-room apartment in New York and an ex-wife who seemed perfectly rational over the phone.

Mark Kilmurry did exactly the right thing by keeping the setting true to the New York culture of these already old-fashioned men when Neil Simon wrote them in 1965.  They all sounded like variations of Woody Allen to me, from the days when he was still funny.  Maybe to try to update and place The Odd Couple in Australia today just wouldn’t make a comedy.

But the joke of Oscar’s divorce and being left rambling about in an empty house, inviting the distraught Felix to move in with him – to save Felix from killing himself and Oscar from drinking himself into oblivion – and the odd couple’s inevitable divorce because of their basic personality differences, stays funny at a certain degree of distance.

20 years later, Neil Simon himself wrote a female version, where the women played Trivial Pursuit instead of poker.  But it seems to me that the comedy of Felix’s suicidal possibility might not be read in the same way for the woman, named Florence, even if set in 1980 as Simon says. 

Essentially, as Kilmurry’s directing shows, the men are so lacking in self-awareness that we can’t help laughing at their stupidity.  He made sure, though, that although Gwendolyn and Cecily (taken straight from Oscar Wilde, of course) are giggly and excitable (done perfectly by Olivia Pigeot and Katie Fitchett), they are English in Neil Simon’s American joke, and therefore show simple practicality and commonsense.  Being divorced or widowed doesn’t see them turn suicidal.  I would be very wary of reversing these roles, in 1965 or 1980, let alone today.

So, this The Odd Couple is a great success, not only for the leads Steve Rodgers and Brian Meegan and for the women, but equally for the whole team of poker players with each of their distinct personalities and particular concerns for the welfare of Felix in his dire straits.

Go along to the famous boatshed in Kirribilli, the Ensemble, and laugh yourself silly – at these men, if you’re a man; and, equally, if you’re a woman.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: Packer & Sons by Tommy Murphy

Packer & Sons by Tommy Murphy. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, November 20 – December 22, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 26

Director – Eamon Flack; Set and Costume Designer – Romanie Harper; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer – Alan John; Sound Designer – David Bergman and Steve Francis; Fight and Movement Director – Nigel Poulton

Performed by
Nick Barlett                      John Gaden
Anthony Harkin                John Howard
Brandon McClelland        Josh McConville
Nate Sammut
/ Byron Wolffe

Tommy Murphy and Belvoir “gratefully acknowledge that aspects of this play are inspired by the books of Paul Barry, The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer, Rich Kids, and Who wants to be a Billionaire?

Murphy opens his Playwright’s Note quoting James Packer – the grandson of media mogul Frank Packer, and son of the even more media mogul Kerry Packer – saying “James Packer believes you want to be him.  ‘I recognise that the vast majority of people would swap places with me and I wouldn't swap places with – with anyone’ .”

After Josh McConville's powerful performance of James' mental anguish, in the after-show meet-the-cast (and author) session, Belvoir artistic associate Tom Wright put the question I already had in mind: What sympathy should we feel for the tears of a billionaire?

The further question as I saw it is: Should I see Murphy's play as no more significant than the 1980s American tv soap Dynasty; or should I upgrade it to compare with Shakespeare's study of the father and son kings Henry IV and Henry V?  In the discussion on the night, this similarity was raised.

But first, should I encourage you to see Packer & Sons?

For its theatrical quality, absolutely yes. 

It's true that I found the first hour, following the young Kerry (also played by McConville) and his brother Clyde (Brandon McClelland) rather less emotionally engaging than the second half, which followed the relationship between James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch (Nick Bartlett) in the One.Tel venture, and leading to James' mental breakdown.

This, I think, is in the writing which has perhaps kept too strictly to the information available to Murphy.  These families are not fictional as in Dynasty, nor in the distant past as the kings were for Shakespeare.  For Murphy there are matters of legal clearances when dealing with such current dominating global families, the Packers and the Murdochs.

The key to the success of the play on stage is the device of using the special skills of the actor John Howard as a throughline – first as the older Frank Packer and then as the older Kerry Packer, with McConville switching from  the younger Kerry to his son James.  The autocratic strength of Howard's interpretations, especially for the Kerry Packer role, are a wonder to experience.

His treatment of the young boy James (Nate Sammut on this occasion) in the learning-to-play-cricket scene was particularly awful.  James can do nothing right and is called a 'wuss' – later repeated at the time of the failure of Lachlan and James' attempt to make One.Tel succeed.  Their crooked partner Jodee Rich  (Anthony Harkin) has to go, bawls Kerry at James.  “You’re a wuss!”

The stylisation of the design which can make near-death scenes and wildly drunken vomiting seem funny – at least until James' final breakdown in contrast – works very well.  It's a risk well taken, by Murphy in the writing and by Eamon Flack in his directing.

So certainly see Packer & Sons, and then take on the questions it raises.

Of course it has much more to offer than the sentimentality of a tv soap.  But what does it not offer?

Murphy makes it clear in his Note that he, like Paul Barry, has concentrated on the father/son relationships rather than wider considerations.

How does it come about, as one description of Who wants to be a Billionaire mentions, that James Packer, by 2009 and the GFC, became “Australia’s richest man [who now] was $4 billion poorer and no longer on top of the heap.  He was smoking again, putting on weight and shutting himself off from friends.  Years earlier far smaller losses in One.Tel [where Murphy's play ends in 2001] had pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown and made him seek salvation in Scientology.”

The book promo ends “Can James survive this time?  Will he bounce back?  Or was his father right?”

In the play, James grits his teeth, now his father and his uncle are dead, as if he must soldier on.  Then blackout.

For me the applause for an excellent production is not enough.  Superficially there is a parallel with Shakespeare's Henries, but Tommy Murphy is not yet Australia's modern Shakespeare.  The key difference is that Henry V is about a young man with a dictatorial father in the top social power position – but Henry realises, after a period of irresponsibility, that he has to provide true leadership for his society, and for his own self-belief and integrity.  We may not, today, support monarchy – but Henry learns to become a worthy person, despite his father.  Kerry Packer continued his irresponsible behaviour, including whoring, far beyond youthful oats sowing.  Neither he nor his son James used their power for ethical social leadership.  Their money is their only measure of man.

I wonder, then, where Tommy Murphy and Eamon Flack stand.  Murphy writes about “allegations that Crown Resorts profited from improper activity by consular officials and allowed passage of organised crime and money laundering....This play is not the casino narrative”. Flack writes “The story, ultimately, is James Packer's, and he is still writing it himself.  I  can't help [but] admire  his decision to open up about the personal costs of running the business [from media mogul to gambling mogul] ....  With all my heart I can abhor the Crown monument at Barangaroo and wish James Packer well.”
(My square brackets)

Excuse me?  The massive destruction of the Barangaroo foreshore on Sydney Harbour by Packer's building of a giant gambling casino shows James Packer to be even worse than his father.  Murphy writes “This play is not the casino narrative.  That story is yet unwritten.”

Billionaire, irresponsible money-makers with no ethical principles provide us with the opposite of true leadership.  They twist people's worst proclivities to their own ends.  If they end up tying their mental states in knots, we may need to come to understand people like the Packers and their sons.  Tommy Murphy has certainly shown us the worst of patriarchal behaviour in practice.

But the real story that “is yet unwritten” – the one with no sympathy for these people (or for their friends the Murdochs who, for example, are virtually the only source of news in the whole of the state of Queensland) – that story should be written and acted out (and acted upon) right now.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 18 November 2019

2019: Cosi by Louis Nowra

The Cast
Cosi by Louis Nowra
Cosi by Louis Nowra.  Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, November 1 – December 14, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 16

Director – Sarah Goodes; Set Designer – Dale Ferguson; Costume Designer – Jonathon Oxlade; Lighting Designer – Niklas Pajanti; Composer & Sound Designer – Chris Williams; Fight Choreographer – Dr Lyndal Grant

Gabriel Fancourt – Zac/Nick                Esther Hannaford – Julie/Lucy
Glenn Hazeldine – Henry                      Bessie Holland – Cherry
Sean Keenan – Lewis                            Robert Menzies – Roy
Rahel Romahn – Doug                         Katherine Tonkin – Ruth
George Zhao – Justin
Photos by Jeff Busby

L-R: Rahel Romahn, Robert Menzies, Sean Keenan and George Zhao
as Doug, Roy, Lewis and Justin in Cosi by Louis Nowra

Rahel Romahn and Sean Keenan
as Doug and Lewis in Cosi by Louis Nowra
 The quality of Louis Nowra’s writing was entirely unconstrained in this wonderful production of Cosi.  Laughter brought us even unto tears as Lewis spoke directly to the audience at the end – in recognition of the achievement of success in the illusion of theatre, and of the reality as he told us of Julie’s death by overdose some years later.

Esther Hannaford as Julie in Cosi by Louis Nowra
 ‘Julie’ of course was just a character in a play; but we felt for her, and for ‘Lewis’, as if they were people we knew well; though we had known them only for the “two hours’ traffic” of the stage.  It was enlightening to be reminded that of all our Australian playwrights, Mark Doyle aka Louis Nowra is the closest to being our Shakespeare.  If The Golden Age is his The Tempest, Cosi is his A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though ‘mental asylums’ of this kind are now a thing of the past, having flown over the cuckoo’s nest, it struck me as significant that the original production of Cosi – in 1992 – was already looking back 25 years to the days of Vietnam War ‘moratorium’ marches (which I had taken part in), described by the Australian National Museum as meaning ‘a halt to business as usual’.

The Miramax film of 1996 had the subtitle ‘Cosi: A Comedy That’s Not Quite All There’, but Doyle – despite becoming for all intents and purposes his ‘stage’ name Louis Nowra and naming his autobiographical character ‘Lewis’ – was clearly ‘all there’ as far as the seemingly insane politics of 1960s' Prime Ministers Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon were concerned.  As Shakespeare realised, setting his play in ‘another country’ in the past opens up the opportunity for universal meaning.

Presenting the play now, after another 30 years, also opened up for Melbourne Theatre Company opportunities for new thinking about acting, stage design, costuming and technicals.  Sarah Goodes and her team grasped them all with every hand.  Rahel Romahn’s Doug made me seriously wonder if the other bane of Shakespeare’s career – burning down the theatre – might really happen.  While the bane of Doug’s pyromaniac career, Bessie Holland as Cherry, nearly brought the house down.

Bessi Holland and Katherine Tonkin
as Cherry and Ruth
in Cosi by Louis Nowra

So if you can take up the opportunity, make the journey to Sydney Opera House.  December 14 is barely a month away, but I can promise you any trip, like my 300 kilometres from Canberra, is absolutely well worth it.

Robert Menzies, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Katherine Tonkin and Sean Keenan
as Roy, Julie, Henry, Ruth and Lewis in Cosi by Louis Nowra
performing as characters in Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 17 November 2019

2019: I'm With Her - Darlinghurst Theatre Company

I’m With Her.  Developed by Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney.  November 9 – December 1, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
17 November

Director and Lead Writer – Victoria Midwinter Pitt.
Contributing Writers: Arielle Cottingham, Michele Lee, Maeve Marsden & Libby Wood, Jordan Raskopoulos

Verbatim stories from conversations with:
The Hon Dr Anne Aly MP (Counter terrorism expert; currently Deputy Chair of Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement)
Julie Bates AO (Sex worker rights activist & sex worker)
Dr Marion Blackwell AM (Environmental scientist)
Pam Burridge (World Champion surfer)
The Hon Julia Gillard AC (Australia’s first female Prime Minister)
Nikki Keating (Bartender & Anti-sexual violence campaigner)
Prof  Marcia Langton AM (Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne)
Sister Patricia Madigan PhD (Catholic nun)
Erin Phillips (Champion Australian Rules Football player & Olympic Medallist)

L-R: Emily Havea, Lynette Curran, Doborah Galanos, Shakira Clanton, Gabrielle Chan. 
Photo by Robert Catto
Performed by:
Gabrielle Chan; Shakira Clanton; Deborah Galanos; Emily Havea;
Lynette Curran (replaced due to illness on this occasion by Victoria Midwinter Pitt)

Creative Team:
Director – Victoria Midwinter Pitt; Co-Producers – Amy Harris & Sophie Blacklaw; Associate Producer – Leila Enright; Dramaturg – Francesca Smith; Set & AV Designer – Mia Holton; Lighting Designer – Kelsey Lee; Sound Designer & Composer – Tegan Nicholls; Stage Manager – Amy Morcom; Production Manager – Lila Neiswanger; Researchers – Chrys Stevenson & Lilly Powell

I’m With Her is a quite extraordinary example of RealTheatre (like RealPolitik - a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.)

Of course there are moral issues when so many of these nine real women – so many significant successful women – talk of their experiences of invasion of their person, verbal and physical; of violence in marriage; of their fear of walking home at night.  That’s the most bluntly horrific part of their stories, when we see the figures on a big screen – a woman killed in Australia about every 9 days.

The cleverly written and even often humorous ways the women’s stories are presented and how the themes of their very different lives are linked together is engaging in unexpected ways.  The second hour begins as I fall into a trap for the unwary critic.  One of the cast is in the audience, loudly reviewing the play: in effect telling me what I am going to write about women.  So now I’m in a bind, especially since I happen to be male, white, originally a £10 English Pom, brought here in 1955 under the auspices of the Robert Menzies government and the male culture that still in 1998 could respond to 13 year-old Erin Phillips, after she had played Aussie Rules football from the age of eight, as follows (“My Dad was a champion footballer and he taught us all to play”):

“When I was 13, the next season was a development league.  I said to my coach, ‘Where’s my registration paper?’  He had to spell it out to me – after 13, girls weren’t allowed to play against boys.  The boys had their path laid out for them – all the way through the AFL, if they were good enough.  But for me, the next step was a dead end…You’d never find out how good you were.  No development, nowhere to develop to.”

Time wise, the story goes back to Marion Blackwell, born in 1928.  “I loved growing things….I did well in the school leaving [exam] and after that, I thought Vet Science would be a very useful thing to know.  Nobody in my family had ever been to university but my father thought that sounded sensible so we made an appointment with the dean of the Vet School at Sydney University.  Very important man…I was expecting to find out about the course, what I’d be doing, and where the classes would be.  But I was just ignored.  Just him and Dad having a good chat about the country and the weather you know, the way men go on.

“Finally my father got around to it – we’ve come to enrol young Marion.

“The Dean completely chopped him off.  He just erupted – ‘What?!  A girl in my faculty?!  Over my dead body!’  On and on he went.  When he finally stopped, my father – politely as he could – asked: why not?  Well, he looked at my father, and huffed and puffed for an answer and finally he spluttered out – ‘Well, how would she throw an elephant?’  I just looked at him and I thought – are you an idiot?”

Marion found other ways: “If the front door won’t open, go around the side”; and she did study Science at Sydney University, specialising in plant ecology and physiology.  Upon graduating, she was appointed the Foundation Lecturer in Mycology – “the study of fungi – the basis of everything!”

And Erin Phillips? The AFL launched the professional women’s league in 2017.  “The Adelaide Crows asked me to play.  I was 31.  The age most players retire.  It was 17 years since I’d stopped playing.  My wife Tracy – who was pregnant with our twins – was like, ‘do you even still know how to play?’  I knew.”

Despite breaking her leg, Erin Phillips was named best on the gound.  Her team, Adelaide, won the Premiership.  Text projection: The best footy player in the country made a speech…”When I was born, people felt sorry for my Dad because he didn’t have a son to play footy someday.  So – Dad I know you’re watching, and Mum….”

If you like, this RealTheatre is a kind of documentary, but the fascinating thing is that having actors perform in the roles of the real women turns the reality into what seems to be a fictional drama, with relationships forming between the characters (who in real life are not in actual contact in space or time).  Then weirdly, because it is drama, the underlying truth is revealed, as it would be, say, in a Shakespeare play.

And we all, then, come to understand at a great depth what equality really means.

My thought for the future is that the show needs a much wider dissemination than Eternity Theatre can provide.  Women – and especially men – need to come to that greater understanding across the whole community.  It would take a new development project to make it work on screen as well as this production works on stage in a theatre, but I certainly would like to see it happen.  One suggestion is that the ABC program You Can’t Ask That may provide a model to start off from

And, of course, like this production, it will need to be done entirely by women.  An authentic women’s voice.

 © Frank McKone, Canberra