Sunday, 19 May 2019

2019: Winyanboga Boga by Andrea James

Winyanboga Yurringa by Andrea James.  Directed by Anthea Williams.  The song Ngalya Woka composed for this production by Dr Lou Bennett AM.

Presented by Belvoir, in association with Moogahlin Performing Arts at Belvoir Street Theatre Upstairs, Sydney, May 4-26, 2019.  Indigenous Theatre at Belvoir is supported by The Balnaves Foundation.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 18

 For me, a non-Indigenous unsuspecting then-teenage invader of this country in 1955, to claim that I can ‘review’ this work is not sensible.  Winyanboga Yurringa is Aboriginal theatre which becomes cultural ceremony, which I can observe and respond to – but not judge.  It is both Aboriginal business and specifically Aboriginal women’s business which I can respect, and participate in only through my imagination.

I have long been, through non-Indigenous law, an Australian citizen, and a bushwalker all my adult life.  In her illuminating excerpt from her PhD thesis, quoted in the program, Danièle Hromek quotes Torres Strait Islander architect and artist Kevin O’Brien writing:

“Country is an Aboriginal idea.  It is an idea that binds groupings of Aboriginal people to the place of their ancestors, past, current and future. It understands that every moment of the land, sea and sky, its particles, its prospects and its prompts, enables life.  It is revealed over time by camping in it….There is no disenfranchisement, no censorship and no ownership.  Country is a belief.  It is my belief.”

Though my camping and walking on country in many parts of Australia has a history of only some 60 years – and cannot be compared with the Aboriginal history which we now know to be more like 60,000 years – my enjoyment and appreciation of ‘going bush’ means I understand the feelings of Auntie Neecy, played by Roxanne McDonald, in seeing the need to insist on the young city women camping out, even if only once a year, in the bush without their phones and alcohol.

The essence of the play is not a romance about the purity of nature (which is more like how a person of European upbringing like me might see it).  For these women, it is where the realities of their lives and the conflicts which arise daily can be worked through with better understanding of how their Aboriginality literally and culturally connects them.

When the young Jada (Tuuli Narkle) rebels, steals a phone and cannot be found – since she had gone to find a spot with a mobile signal and then walked to a road to meet a boyfriend – the group, in facing the risk that she is lost and could be in harm’s way, must work together as they search.  In fact, her boyfriend failed to meet her as promised.  Jada returns, taught by the experience to respect the concerns of the women for her welfare, and a return to country ceremony is played out by returning items held in a museum (one woman is a PhD researcher) to be buried in the sands of this sacred site.

The crucial item is a full length possum skin cloak which they place reverently on Auntie’s shoulders in recognition of her essential role as an elder – an act of powerful emotion which connects them to the past, the present and the future.

I feel proud of the good fortune I have had at Belvoir to see again a performance by Roxanne McDonald, who I first saw in Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar (reviewed in The Canberra Times, September 2008, available at ).

Angela Penrith, Tasma Walton, Roxanne McDonald, Tuuli Narkle, Dubs Yunupingu, Dalara Williams

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Pamela Rabe, Zahra Newman, Hugo Weaving
Photo: Hon Boey

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre April 29 – June 8, 2019.  By special arrangement with the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 18

Production photos by Daniel Boud
 Kip Williams may be no relation, but his production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is  literally a vindication of Tennessee Williams’ brilliance.  It’s all about light, mirrors and reflection – a grand celebration of the work of lighting designer Nick Schlieper, within a magnificent space shaped by sound designer Stefan Gregory.

Nothing is out of place theatrically in this billionaire’s expansive mansion, except the family within, lost in the forces of jealousy, lust, frustration and retribution.  Though a sociologist might write an erudite essay on the social and economic causes in the nature of capitalism, this playing out of ‘a synthesis of all my life’, as Williams wrote, becomes a lived experience for us, watching from the safety of our theatre seats.

The design of the staging seems to have given the actors freedom of action, expression and feeling to match the magnificent space.

Zarah Newman’s Act One performance is almost beyond belief as Maggie – the cat on that terribly hot tin roof, where to stop for even a fraction of a second would be to be destroyed.

From even a simple acting-skills point of view, let alone accuracy of characterisation, Harry Greenwood’s manipulation of his body, balancing on one leg, wielding his crutch not so much as a support but as a weapon, becomes a horrifying representation of his psychological state.

I could give examples of every actor’s particular wonderful achievements, especially including the antics of the children (and the directing of such young ones), but will focus on Hugo Weaving’s voice.  Even Big Daddy could not physically fill the empty reaches of the space, yet his voice in anger was as frightening as the explosions of the fireworks to celebrate his birthday; while when weak in sorrow or confusion, the sound of Weaving’s voice carried his mood all around and off the stage, into our minds and even our hearts.  A great performance, indeed.

This is a modern production of a great American play which I’m fortunate not to have missed.  I hope it will go on tour, especially to Tennessee Williams’ homeland.  America needs to learn now as much as in the 1950s from its great artists; as we do here and all around the world, through the honesty and truth-telling of such writers, producers, directors, designers and actors.

Zahra Newman and Harry Greenwood
as Maggie and Brick

Harry Greenwood and Zahra Newman
as Brick and Maggie

Children: Buster, Dixie, Polly, Sonny with
Peter Carroll, Anthony Brandon Wong, Josh McConville and Hugo Weaving
as Reverend Tooker, Doctor Baugh, Gooper, and Big Daddy

Zahra Newman and Hugo Weaving
as Maggie and Big Daddy

Harry Greenwood and Pamela Rabe
as Brick and Big Mama
 For further thinking, the essay “Tennessee Williams: Life on a hot tin roof”, published in the program (with no acknowledged author!) is excellent, in addition to Kip Williams’ Director’s Note; while the interview with Hugo Weaving written by Harry Windsor, published in The Saturday Paper, May 18-24, 2019 adds a great deal more detail about the production than I have space for here.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: Folk by Tom Wells

Folk by Tom Wells.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, May 3 – June 1, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 17

All photos by Phil Erbacher

Set design by Hugh O'Connor for Folk by Tom Wells
Genevieve Lemon, Libby Asciak, Gerard Carroll

Folk is a quirky unusual 90 minute play about the end of one life and the beginning of another, accompanied by folk songs, in a ‘Dirty Old Town’ on the Yorkshire coast.

Three characters are oddly brought together in a church house provided for the past 35 years to accommodate an Irish nun, Sister Winnie.

Gerard Carroll and Genevieve Lemon

Gerard Carroll and Libby Asciak

Genevieve Lemon is a rumbustious centre of goodness in a town crucially damaged by the results of Margaret Thatcher industrial policies, the destruction of manual jobs by modern technology, the failure of schooling made worse by the developing internet, and the collapse of families in poverty.  Yet Sister Winnie is herself a victim – insistently cigarette smoking and drinking Guinness with Stephen, and now with angina at a dangerous stage.

Representing the working man, painting pipes for maintenance at the gas works, while playing guitar and tin whistles (which he makes from offcuts from work) and singing folk in private with Winnie, Gerard Carroll’s Stephen is self-effacing to a fault,  Yet he finds his way, despite his job becoming redundant, in an unexpected turn of events in the final scene.

15-year-old Kayleigh, pregnant to a boy who has just been killed in a car crash, literally crashes her way into Winnie’s singing-dancing lounge room.  Libby Asciak creates a character forced to rapidly grow up, with the help of Winnie’s insistence on treating her with goodness instead of the standard negativity.  How her relationship with Stephen changes is the central thread of the play.

The set design is cleverly built in to the Ensemble’s fourth wall – not between the actors and the audience in-almost-the round, but in relief on the back cyclorama wall, with a street door entrance, windows out of which Winnie blows her smoke, a staircase to the upstairs, and a doorway entrance into the kitchen.  The effect is to make us feel we are in Winnie’s lounge room with her, Stephen and Kayleigh.  In the aftershow Q&A, the cast said that each audience had been different, but many had joined in singing these songs from the folk revival period I remember of the 1960s.

Gerard Carroll, Genevieve Lemon, Libby Asciak
Singalong on guitar, spoons and tin whistle
in Folk by Tom Wells

I felt like singing along too, but our audience last Friday generally kept their singing under the breath – though I saw some lips moving.  This was the unusual feature of this script, where the characters were singing with each other for their own reasons, yet we felt we could sing with them, and react to what they said or did as if we were one of them.  Of course, it was Genevieve Lemon’s skill in creating the inclusive character of Winnie that made this work, but it was also the homely set design and the intimacy of the small theatre where we could all see each other, including the characters, in our circle, that makes this play an excellent choice for The Ensemble.

Kayleigh and Stephen together
Libby Asciak and Gerard Carroll
in Folk by Tom Wells

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

2019: Creative Partnerships Australia

                                                            Wildskin, a NORPA Production. 
                                                 Directed by Julian Louis. 
                                            Image by Darcy Grant

Creative Partnerships Australia – The Arts Funding Process.  Information seminar and discussion, Friday May 10, 2019 at CMAG – Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Commentary by Frank McKone
May 2019.

Are you a major, small-scale or individual maker of art?  How do you find the money to start up; keep going; increase (if you want to) your output, your impact, the quality of your work?

These questions form an important part of the context for a reviewer.  My being conscious of the situation in which an artist or a company finds themselves, perhaps with implications for their status, affects not so my judgement of artistic quality as the terms in which I present my judgement.

As a critic, I am also seeking to place the work I see in the context of cultural change.  Is this stage production more ‘modern’ in style, for example; or is it more culturally authentic; and are new developments more theatrically successful artistically?

In 2012 (January 21) I reviewed (here, and also available at ) Buried City by Raimondo Cortese, presented at Belvoir Street Theatre, one of the ‘majors’ alongside Sydney Theatre Company.  The performance by Urban Theatre Projects received a damning criticism, though I acknowledged “the intentions of Urban Theatre Projects are worthwhile in principle – to expose the terrible empty space of living without purpose”. 

I made negative comparisons with famous works such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  This seemed appropriate at the time, in the context of the expectations I should have of Belvoir Street productions.  Similarly, I criticised the production by Sydney Theatre Company of Dinner by Moira Buffini (September 24, 2017).

But listening to Jill Colvin, director of philanthropy for the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a seminar conducted by Este Darin-Cooper, NSW/ACT manager for Creative Partnerships Australia, I realised the error of my ways.  Sydney Theatre Company deserved what it got, but I had misjudged in the manner of my writing about Urban Theatre Projects 7 years ago.

Jill Colvin is UTP board director, a position she undertakes in a volunteer capacity alongside her paid position at the ACO. ACO patrons may have their $500 per head fundraising gala at Carriageworks and be taken on trips to the Barossa Valley wineries; while donors to UTP have cups of tea with warm-hearted quietly committed artistic director Rosie Dennis as she continues to work on group devised projects in the less affluent suburbs of western Sydney. 

The point is that UTP has grown its funding and its impact in the community from its first crowd-funded one-off project to an established donor pool, without the need to rely only on ticket selling and government grants.  Looking back, embarrassingly, I now see that Belvoir was doing the right thing back in 2012 in supporting and promoting UTP, just as Belvoir continues to support Aboriginal writing and productions – with the Balnaves Foundation as a key long-term sponsor.  My reviews, especially from Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead in 2003 (August 21), show the terrific results.

Creative Partnerships Australia, and its platform for fundraising, the Australian Cultural Fund, originating in the development of the Creative Australia policy by Arts Minister Simon Crean during the period of Labor governments from 2008 to 2013, has continued to provide assistance to people such as the 21 who attended last Friday, representing, for example, major organisations such as the National Portrait Gallery, the rather smaller M16 visual arts centre and some individual artists.

The concept of Creative Partnerships is to assist artists and arts organisations to diversify their sources of income beyond direct grants from government and sales (of tickets or art works) into the world of sponsorship and philanthropy, while it also aims to increase support and awareness for private giving to the arts.

Perhaps Carol Woodrow’s planned production of Chekhov’s The Seagull by her Canberra Theatre Company (for which I was researching translations) may have gone ahead in 1991 despite the failure of one sponsor company to come up with the money at the last minute.  An established donor ‘pool’ as described by Jill Colvin and with help from Creative Partnerships could have saved the day.  Or indeed may have enabled Woodrow’s Wildwood Theatre to continue after the introduction of the GST in 2000.  As volunteer chair and treasurer of the board, receiving the standard one-off project money from the Australia Council, I realised it was not possible to handle the seeming complexities of the GST administration without having reliable continuous funding to employ professional accounting staff.

The advantage of Creative Partnerships Australia is that it uses government money in an AusAid or Oxfam kind of way – assisting people to more easily do what they need to do.  The most important issue at last Friday’s session, concerned artistic integrity.  Would the emphasis on seeking private individual and corporate money mean compromising on the quality of the art?

Jill Colvin, after her experience across the range, was absolutely adamant that the key to creating a successful donor pool is to never waver from authenticity.  Cups of tea with Rose Dennis are just as powerful in forming and maintaining UTP’s support base as are ACO board members chairing committees in Melbourne and Sydney.  It’s about people’s commitment to the purpose of the art and their personal involvement in owning the results – not in the crass sense of getting returns on their money, but in the process of working together as a group of donors for the benefit of the artist’s work.  What struck me about the Creative Partnerships process is the positive cooperative approach at its core.

To conclude, Nicole Hasham reported last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald “Labor’s arts spokesman, Tony Burke, on Saturday [May 11] is expected to announce that if elected next weekend, the party will revive its Creative Australia policy and ensure arts and culture reaches the lives of everyday Australians.”

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 10 May 2019

2019: Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl

Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, May 3 – May 26, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 7

How good is your guru?  How true to yourself are you?  Are you a complacent little green frog deep in your narrow-bounded well; or are you a widely-travelled big colourful frog who knows the depth of the infinite sea?

Fact check:  How well do you feel, little green frog in your week-long strictly silent retreat, when your oh-so impressive-sounding guide-frog’s mobile phone rings.  Do you feel sick because the yoga mat has been pulled from under your hope?  Do you breathe out knowingly?  Laugh at the irony?  Feel a kind of wonder at the totally unexpected?  Feel almost frightened because something’s gone wrong?  Or know that at some point you are going to have to tell your life story because…well, you just need to, despite everything?

Joan              Judy              Jan              Rodney              Alicia              Ned
Sharon Millerchip, Jane Phegan, Justin Smith, Dorje Swallow, Amber McMahon, Yalin Ozucelik

To try to explain to you all that Bess Wohl’s six characters in search of enlightenment go through would be ridiculous, and spoil for you what makes this satire so funny.  It’s equally subtle and LoL.

I will tell you about the staging, the acting, the costumes, the lighting, the accompanying sounds (not all small, and not all mouth, sounds), and why they needed an Intimacy Choreographer for a bit more than the warning about nudity.  All was done so well that within a few minutes you are drawn into forgetting your disbelief for 90 minutes straight.  But then, you ask yourself, what are you laughing at except your own capacity to believe nonsense?  More fool you!

But it also proves that the illusion of theatre, even if not Jo Turner’s lugubrious guru, can be an enlightening experience.  More satisfied you!

Sharon Millerchip (Joan) and Jane Phegan (Judy)
Mat pulled from under hope
Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl
(Photo: Robert Catto)

Dorje Swallow and Amber McMahon
in a moment of intimacy choreography
in Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl
(Photo: Robert Catto)

From a more pedestrian viewpoint, it is great (sorry, Mr Trump) to see Darlinghurst Theatre Company thoroughly fulfilling its purpose in life.  That is, to show us Australians that Americans (or at least this American woman) actually can have a sense of ironic humour, and that our actors and designers can exploit the opportunity to the max.

Every tiny movement, from eyebrow to little toe and literally everything in between, expressed character and the electric connection between characters so precisely, so tellingly – even between the Alicia (Amber McMahon), Joan (Sharon Millerchip), Ned (Yalin Ozucelik), Judy (Jane Phegan), Jan (Justin Smith and Rodney (Dorje Swallow) we could see on stage and the purely voice-over guru (Jo Turner).

Small Mouth Sounds is an original, intriguing play.  I loved the early morning Sydney magpies and cockatoos, a morning chorus to outdo any silent retreat, making this production thoroughly Australian.

L-R: Justin Smith (Jan), Jane Phegan (Judy), Yalin Ozucelik (Ned), Dorje Swallow (Rodney)
Amber McMahon (Alicia), Sharon Millerchip (Joan)
in Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl (Photo: Robert Catto)

Post Script:  I studiously avoid reading others’ reviews or commentaries, before writing, especially of plays new to me; but I wondered about my thoughts about the Aussie sense of irony.  So I went to the New York Times:
mainly to see if the original set design had been kept by Darlinghurst.

Yes, it has; but as I read on through Charles Isherwood’s review where he calls Small Mouth Sounds “enchanting”, refers to its “humour and pathos” and how the play “leaves behind its own warming glow”, I feel not so sure that all Americans would appreciate Jo Turner’s almost absurdist take.  Where Isherwood sees the play “laced with gentle satire”, I see a touch of American sentimentality which Turner’s production thankfully avoids.  See what you think.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 2 May 2019

2019: Sydney Dance Company: Season One

Season One 2019 – Bonachela / Nankivell / Lane. Sydney Dance Company:

Performed in this order:

Neon Aether choreographed by Gabrielle Nankivell
Music by Luke Smiles; Costume by Harriet Oxley; Lighting by Damien Cooper

Cinco choreographed by Rafael Bonachela
    Music by Alberto Ginastera, String Quartet No.2 Op.26
    Costume by Bianca Spender
    Lighting by Damien Cooper

Woof choreographed by Melanie Lane
    Music by Clark
    Costume by Aleisa Jelbart
    Lighting by Verity Hampson

Canberra Theatre Centre May 2 – 4, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 2

Since we are in election mode in Australia – compulsory preferential voting – I shall review in my order of preference, despite Season One’s title.

Neon Aether
Photo: Pedro Greig

 Nankivell’s Neon Aether is the best (indeed most wonderful and meaningful) of the three works on offer.  Lane’s Woof is a special kind of satire – very effective.  Bonachela’s Cinco – notwithstanding the terrific performance by the dancers – is disappointingly unimpressive.

So, in reverse order.

Photo: Don Arnold

 A gentleman seated in front of me had been intently engaged throughout Neon Aether.  But about half-way through Cinco, he decided it was necessary to re-tie a loose shoe lace, bending forward and sideways into the aisle – and blocking my view for at least a minute.  When he straightened up, what I saw on stage looked more or less the same as before, as it had for most of the time before that, and continued to do afterwards.

Of course, the choreography of the individual moves was a ‘modern dance’ representation of changing relationships between the two men and three women – the five of the title – but as a work of theatrical art it was disappointing because there was no development, no drama with a beginning, middle and end.

When I read Bonachala’s Note in the program, I began to see why.  “Using 5 dancers [because the music has five parts], I have explored the duality and opposition that I hear in the texture of the music….My approach to the work has been driven by a mathematical approach which” so he claims “has been wholly softened and enriched by my collaborators.”

I can certainly see the intention of Spender’s costumes and Cooper’s lighting, but the choreography is the problem.  Ginastera’s String Quartet is an energetic description of the state of things, firstly in 1958 when he composed the work, but with an extra sense of how things were going wrong in his revision of 1968.  It’s a powerful work, using strings to create an almost industrial musique concrète effect.  It’s worrying from the beginning and ends with foreboding.  But Bonachela’s response shows some minor ups and downs of mood with no particular state of feeling at the beginning, nor at the end.

All dance is mathematical – I’ve always been amazed at dancers’ capacity to keep to hugely complex counting systems which bamboozle me entirely – but the dance artist, the choreographer, must invest the mathematics with emotion and meaning for the audience.  In Cinco I felt the dancer’s technical skills were all I had to engage me.

Photo: Pedro Greig

 In contrast, Woof was intriguing from the beginning.  For so long nothing seemed to be happening except for freeze-frame photos between odd apparently random blackouts, as it the lighting system was playing up.  Then bit by bit the movement speeded up, the freezes were overtaken by continuing change – and the choreography developed into what seemed to me to become a satire of modern dance itself.  Soon there were a collection of characters on stage showing up all their pretentiousness, extending the satire off the stage.  These characters, thinking themselves so full of importance, are us!

By now I was quietly laughing, foot-tapping along, and thinking am I really as bad as that?  And how could this end?

As action got most absurd, the lights dimmed, the black cyclorama curtains parted to reveal a wonderful warm sunset glow, for the dancers to resolve into perfectly ordinary sensible people as they exited peacefully and cooperatively, the curtain closing behind them.  A satirical ending?  Perhaps, yet with positive feeling that we can get past pretention when artistry alerts us to the need for change.

Neon Aether
Photo: Pedro Greig

Finally, Neon Aether presents us with a deeper sense of our place in the universe.  I give it 5 stars.  It’s an exciting, highly original and emotionally moving work.  Where in Cinco the dancers could be seen to being ‘choreographed’ rather than dancing for themselves, and in Woof you could see the whole company working as a team to create their story, the dancers in Neon Aether seemed to have been given freedom to express themselves in a new way. 

They were not ‘doing modern dance’ but each telling their own story of how impossible it is to understand how we fit into an unknowable universe.  This work makes us understand that movement is everything and everything is moving – to forces which we may learn to manipulate in some small ways, but ultimately are far beyond our control.

The drama is played out through a single dancer – a woman in red who seems to represent Gabrielle Nankivell herself – who at times watches the actions of others, tries to become part of others’ action without ever being sure of her place, until she stands outside watching again in the second last scene, as she had done at the beginning.  Then she is left alone on stage in a final terribly sad solo – alone on stage, alone in the world, alone in the universe.

All that freedom of expression, which is the core of great art, still takes us nowhere in the face of an uncomprehending universe.  This work is the clear star of Sydney Dance Company’s Season One in 2019.

Chloe Leong in Cinco
Photo: Wendell Teodoro

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 22 April 2019

2019: Spooky Men's Chorale at the National Folk Festival

Spooky Men's Chorale in rehearsal
Spooky Men’s Chorale – Workshop at The Majestic. National Folk Festival, Canberra, Saturday April 20, 10.30 am.  With a mention of Phil Bates at the Flute ‘n’ Fiddle.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Spooky Men’s workshop was a great example of classroom management, but raised questions in this one-time teacher’s consciousness about political bias in education and society.

The great thing about the National Folk Festival is that’s where you meet old friends on common grounds.  Penny, a teaching colleague on occasions and a public servant retired from the federal Department of Education, is a person whose observations I know I can trust.  Though it’s not possible to review the whole four-day NFF from the one day and five main performances I attended, she thought there was much less overt political material on show this year.  Why would this be so with a May 18 election in the offing?  Shouldn’t we expect more, not less?

Disturbing my self-indulgent equilibrium – just enjoying the wonder of singing, dancing and musicianship of my annual Easter escape into the world of folk – Penny’s thoughts struck home.

Of course, as you would expect, there were social issues behind the songs of Stu Tyrrell – but more of a personal nature than strictly political.  His was literally a family show – his family – with his very young but wonderfully enthusiastic daughter up on stage with her favourite Dad.  Ricardo Tesi & the Banditaliana were terrific performers, filling the Budawang with, for me, a new kind of concert Italian Folk.  And just the fact that Yolngu man Gawurru Gaykamangu, from North East Arnhem Land, was performing his own work in language and had a crowd dancing along, was a political statement in itself.

Phil Bates, a quietly spoken and singing presenter of what I think of as traditional Australian folk songs, entirely un-commercial in origin, explicitly spoke and sang politically.  His Andy’s Gone with Cattle Now by Henry Lawson made the life of the ever-waiting worker’s family a sad reflection on the demands required to earn a living.  But only in his last item did he raise the politics of modern times.  He said that in an interview, Arlo Guthrie had said we don’t need to write new songs about the dire straits of democracy, because we already have them from 1968.

So Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin' made the point without need for further discussion.  For me, though it was oddly ironic that Phil lost his words and couldn’t even get them again on a second try – for the very verse that I had to hear:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

So the political guernsey falls on the shoulders of the Spooky Men’s Chorale, described (by them) – accurately – as a “vast, rumbling, steam powered and black clad behemoth, seemingly accidentally capable of rendering audiences moist eyed with mute appreciation or haplessly gurgling with merriment.”  I know this is true because I saw them at a previous NFF, in between their overseas tours (they’re Blue Mountains men, from the fog-bound ranges west of Sydney).

But this was a workshop, and we were going to learn how to sing like them.  So my praise begins with their musicianship – which certainly has my mute appreciation; and goes on to their leadership, teaching us a new song in four parts, rising in pitch and rhythmic complexity, our merriment gurgling all the way until a final point of chaotic haplessness.

Penny’s thoughts were stirred by the content of the song, which went basically like this (except for the bits I forgot while laughing):

Vote them; vote them; vote them; vote them out;
Vote them; vote them; vote the bastards out.

Then there was the maudling bit about wondering why some people vote them in, and wanting to leave the country.

Then a reprise of the original lines, designed to reach a crescendo of chaotic waving and yelling “out!”.

I thought GetUp! should take the Spooky Men to the electorate of Warringah to take over the campaign management, especially since our audience in The Majestic looked to me exactly like the middle class nice people who have set up Vote Tony Out at .

But Penny pointed out the undercurrent of lack of enthusiasm for this election.  She said what the corporates want is for people to not believe in anything to vote for.  The ploy is to undermine representative democracy, to get government out of the way, not pay taxes, encourage individual libertarianism, and have people go along with “We’ll give a fair go to those who have a go”, and hard luck to the rest.

And suddenly (half a day after the Spooky workshop experience) I had the most horrifying thought.

The spooky part of their song it’s only against.  Is the Spooky Men’s Chorale, by so cleverly getting us into a state of gurgling merriment over voting the bastards out, actually working as an arm of the corporates who want the ‘freedom’ from people being voted in because they are for something – like regulating the market.

Oh horror!  Where goes the Folk Tradition now?  Are The Times A-Changin’?

How Spooky is the Men’s Chorale!

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 21 April 2019

2019: The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by Wliiam Shakespeare - Almeida Theatre, UK

Rear: Leo Bill, as Bolingbroke
Foreground: Simon Russell Beale, as King Richard the Second
 The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare

National Theatre Live, UK, shown at Dendy Cinema, Canberra: April 20, 21, 22, 2019.  Original season on stage at Almeida Theatre, London, UK: Previews 10 Dec – 17 Dec; Season: December 19, 2018 – February 2, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 21, 2019

This modern pared-down but full of symbolism interpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard II is absolutely fabulous theatre by London’s Almeida.  I mean this literally, for it shows Shakespeare’s genius for fable-making – turning (for him) a century old history into an everlasting story of universal significance.

Director Hill-Gibbins’ genius is to have turned (for us) a 400-year-old work of theatrical art into a gripping emotional and intellectual experience – a study of the nature of political power – of crucial importance to us, now, as it was for Shakespeare and his audience, then.

How is it done?  What does it mean?  Why should Almeida Theatre be so highly praised?

Here’s how a different recent production was done:

Hermione Gulliford as Bolingbroke; Tim Delap as King Richard II

[In 2016] Jack Gamble and Quentin Beroud’s Richard II is the first Shakespeare play to have been performed at the House of Commons. The opening performance at the prestigious site sought to emphasise the relocation of the play into modern Westminster by literally taking the action there. 
[ ]
[Then back] at Arcola Theatre the set consists of little more than a desk and regal chairs hinting at the political-meets-royal dimension of the reinterpretation. The modernisation of Richard II is intended to point out that the essence of political conflict is timeless, and that the dynamics of power can be easily transferred and applied to a modern setting.

"Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;
Let's purge this choler without letting blood"

Unity of purpose behind Bolingbroke

Mud and blood, but where is Bolingbroke now?
 In 2018, at Almeida the set is a single room made of iron walls, high, with no doors or windows – the prison in which Richard, king by divine right, is held without hope by his usurper, Bolingbroke.  But note that all the cast of nobles and the commoners who serve them, are all equally trapped – yet cannot learn to live together.  As Bolingbroke finally ‘wins’, his power is already being challenged by the next generation as illegitimate.

I call this production a modern interpretation because of a simple device: the end is a repeat of the beginning, which has to remind one of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – who never comes.  Richard speaks directly to us, saying “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world…Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented: sometimes am I king; then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, and so I am: then crushing penury persuades me I was better when a king: then I am king’d again; and by and by think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke, and straight am nothing: but whate’er I be, nor I nor any man that but man is with nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased with being nothing.”

How is this, then, in a world where we are all made to believe that we can all achieve our ‘dream’: we will all have a fair go, if we give it a go.  But the reality is what our caretaker prime minister actually said – to encourage us to vote for his party again next month: “We’ll give a fair go to those who have a go”.  As Charles Body of Canberra suburb, Kaleen, wrote in a Letter to the Editor in The Canberra Times, today [who] “will decide who is having a go.  Bad luck to those individuals who through disability or for some other reason are deemed not to be having a go.  How sad for our nation that care and compassion are now available only on a user-pays basis.”

Or, as Shakespeare wrote, in effect, those deemed not to be having a go must be “eased with being nothing”.  When this line repeats, near the end, Richard seems to have lost himself in a dream, hearing mysterious music, “and now time doth waste me; For now hath time made me his numbering clock.”  Yet still he lashes out and kills two before Sir Pierce of Exton ‘strikes him down’.  Is this what ‘having a go’ means, rather than being ‘eased with being nothing’?

So this design, of actors in rehearsal clothes, in a set in which they, the walls and the floor become mired in mud and blood, becomes far more than a mere study of political conflict – monarchy or people power – but takes us to where time ticks us all in his numbering clock.  In Shakespeare’s day, of course, people died young; yet today with all our technical advances so we have longer to live fulfilling lives of care and compassion, we still cannot learn to be eased with being nothing.  Still we, like Richard, can be “irresponsible, foolish and vain” sending our “kingdoms into disarray and our courts into uproar”, as the program notes.  And still like Bolingbroke we see “no other option but to seize power”, be “ambitious” and “challenge the throne” and the “divine right to rule”.

Shakespeare was just 31, like a modern Millennial or Generation Z, when he wrote the character of King Richard the Second from the inside.  I am never less than amazed at the maturity of his understanding; and too I am stunned by the skills of clear expression of Shakespeare’s meaning – of what each character is feeling and thinking – on the part of all the Almeida cast, with an extra plaudit for Simon Russell Beale.  He achieved as he had hoped in his preview interview, shown in this film, to help us find empathy with and even some sympathy for a king who, according to history’s lights, failed his country. 

This is what great art can do for all of us, whatever the state of our country.

Simon Russell Beale and Leo Bill
as King Richard II and Bolingbroke
in the Almeida Theatre production of
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 12 April 2019

2019: The Miser by Molière, in a new version by Justin Fleming

The son, Cleante.  The father, Harpagon.  The daughter, Élise.

The Miser by Molière – a new version by Justin Fleming.  Bell Shakespeare at  Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse April 11-20, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 12 (opening night)

Let me reveal my personal bias to begin: I am jealous of John Bell.  Having first seen him perform (as King Henry V) in a tent at the 3rd Adelaide Festival of Arts 1964, I wish I had his capacity for characterisation (which I never had) and his loose physical flexibility – which he still has, but I have lost forever.  He’s only two months older than me, dammit.

And for him to be able to return to such quality acting in ‘retirement’ from his own Bell Shakespeare Company is just awesome.

But, to this version of Molière’s 16th Century play by 21st Century writer Fleming. 

Four doors onto any set says ‘Farce’.  By interval I found myself wondering if farce was enough. 

But, in the final scene, John Bell’s representation of Harpagon’s loneliness and bewilderment as the lives of all those around him achieve a positive conclusion – all four doors have nothing behind them for The Miser – leaves us unexpectedly feeling for him. 

His loss of control, though we may see this as his own fault, is a modern experience.  Perhaps Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, by 1668, foresaw his own end: he collapsed and died after just four more plays, during the fourth performance of  Le Malade imaginaire, aged 51, in 1673.  Like so many of us today from a middle-class background, he worked in a ‘gig’ economy struggling against insecurity of employment, trying to innovate and facing official and political intransigence. 

No wonder his Harpagon was desperate to hang onto his ten thousand crowns.  Maybe even John Bell, after establishing and running a theatre company all his adult life, understands Harpagon / Poquelin – and shows us what he feels in that final scene.

So it was right of Fleming to insert into Molière’s script jokes from today’s Australia, from the squawking of cockatoos to cooking shows on tv – and including same-sex marriage.  And it was right on the part of Peter Evans to direct the acting way over the top to the point of absurdity – all picked up on, with consummate skill, by the whole acting ensemble.

And, as the pictures show, Anna Tregloan’s costumes, hair and make-up designs were right up there, though these don't show the wonderful La Fleche nor the full-frontal Signor Anselm, both played by Sean O'Shea.

Damien Strouthos, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Jessica Tovey, Jamie Oxenbould
as Cleante, Élise, Valère and Master Jacques

John Bell and Damien Strouthos
as the miser Harpagon and his son Cleante

Michelle Doak and John Bell
as matchmaker Frosine and Harpagon

While, underneath, Max Lyandvert provided a soundscape surruptitiously simple – looking for a grounding in a nicer humanity.

Bell Shakespeare, with John Bell, makes for a night of satire in a farce with a human touch.
Photos © Prudence Upton

Surprise revelation in The MiserStanding:      Sean O'Shea (Signor Anselm); John Bell (Harpagon);
Michelle Doak (Frosine); Russell Smith (Commissioner of Police)
Seated: Harriet Gordon-Anderson (Élise); Jessica Tovey (Valère); Elizabeth Nabben (Mariane)

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

2019: Life - The Show by Strut & Fret

Life – The Show by Strut & Fret in The Spiegeltent, Canberra Civic Square, March 30 – April 21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 2

Creative Director: Scott Maidment
    Artistic Associates: Spencer Novich and Nick Beyeler
    Choreographers: Hilton Denis & Rechelle Mansour
    Sound Operator: Tom Strode
    Costume Designer: James Browne
    Lighting Designer: Jason Raft
    Music Arrangement: Steve Toulmin
    Stage Manager: Cat Hobart
    Assistant Stage Manager: Dani Miller
    Visual Effects: Mik Lavage and Perceptual Engineering
    Original Cast: Helena Bittencourt, Hilton Denis, Tim Kriegler, Rechelle Mansour, Goos Meeuwsen, Elke Uhd, Yammel Rodriguez
    Musicians: Attis Clopton (drums), Blaise Garza (sax & flute), Fantine Pritoula (vocals), Lee Taylor (vocals)
    Aerial tube act created by Nick Beyeler for LIFE – the show and is used with permission.

Strut & Fret – an independent and dynamic company producing and managing theatre, artists, events, festivals and venues. We believe artistic experiences should be breath-taking, heart-gripping, unforgettable and entertaining. With almost 20 years experience and a collective of passionate and creatively inspired individuals, we deliver distinctive events nationally and internationally.

Tim Kriegler in Life - The Show

The aim is impressive but the only breath-taking and memorable experience is provided by the two aerial performers, Tim Kriegler and Elke Uhd.  Kriegler’s solo on straps, in which he becomes a human trapeze, is remarkable.  His control and flexibility is beyond any other performer I’ve seen.  Their pas de deux inside a transparent soft plastic 4 metre suspended tube is original in conception and technique.  This is the only artistically developed segment of the show, where the theme of reaching out for love, frustrated by the invisible boundaries of human life, is played out symbolically – and therefore much more powerfully than in the mimetic action, or purely dance and song entertainment of the rest.

When I look back at Spiegeltent shows, like La Clique (2007), Smoke and Mirrors (2011) and Tomboy Survival Guide (2017), or to burlesque by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith over the years since their The Burlesque Hour (2009), Life – The Show seems like no more than a mildly funny entertainment for unsophisticated “young adults”.

You can check those other shows at

The climactic moment of the show about a failure of a man who works all day and masturbates all night is finally reached when Goos Meeuwsen “accidentally” reveals his penis poking through old-fashioned underpants the like of which I’ve not seen (nor worn) since the nineteen-fifties.  Certainly the young women behind me whistled and whooped, but I mean to say…!

Goos Meeuwsen in Life - The Show

I am aware of the French clown tradition behind Meeuwsen’s training at the École Nationale de Cirque de Montréal, but I have never forgotten my teenage encounter with “Genial, bumbling Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) [who] loves his top-floor apartment in a grimy corner of the city” [  ] particularly in M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle

M. Hulot certainly never revealed his penis but in my 1950s his clowning was funnier and his commentary by implication on social conventions was far more telling than Life – The Show seemed to understand.  I could, of course, go on to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean with the same comment.

Goos Meeuwsen and Helena Bittencourt
in Life - The Show

But I mention the 1950s because the image of the expectations set up in Life – The Show about “the voice of a real man’s man” and the sexist fantasy of the clown as our leading man – including the admittedly slightly unconventional role of the wife with the vacuum cleaner – overlaid with music by Leroy Anderson (which might have been played by Tommy Tycho in Australia) left me thinking, this is a retro show.  But simple entertainment 1950s style without the satire it deserves from a 2019 perspective just isn’t enough to be “heart-gripping, unforgettable and entertaining” any more.  Particularly if you remember Tommy Tycho’s music backed The Mavis Bramston Show way back in 1964.

My life’s story is not stuck in the 1950s when I was a teenager/young adult, and I noticed in a full house that there were relatively few whistles and whoops.  The two young adult couples sitting immediately in front of me, for example, were amused a little more than I was, but….

Hilton Denis, Rechelle Mansour, Blaise Garza
in Life - The Show

© Frank McKone, Canberra