Sunday, 19 August 2018

2018: The Widow Unplugged by Reg Livermore

The Widow Unplugged or An Actor Deploys written and performed by Reg Livermore.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, July 26 – September 1, 2018.

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Charles Davis; Lighting Designer – Christopher Page
Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 19

I reckon Arthur Kwick, janitor, employed by awfully wealthy Gina Rinestone, CEO of Time and Tide Nursing Home, not only to keep the place clean (no swearing) and proper (what, no drinking!!?) but to keep the “children” entertained, got a bit confused about 1969.  It seems from his published history that his alter ego Reginald Liveforevermore didn’t actually play Widow Twankey in the pantomime Aladdin that year, but acted in The Mikado in a revue devised by William Orr at the Doncaster Theatre Restaurant, Kensington, Sydney.

This news is important as you will find later, but in the meantime you will enjoy absolutely this ockergenarian vaudevillain, full to the goog as he is of malapropisms galorious.  Since most of the Sunday afternoon audience at The Ensemble were, like me, about as old as Kwick and his creator – approaching 80 – it didn’t seem odd to find ourselves enrolled as a bit past it, needing to have things explained.  Laugh?  You wouldn’t believe it!

Now in straight review mode, let me explain that Reg Livermore is certainly not past anything.  He is as spry, verbally and intellectually on the ball as he was as Alfred P Doolittle in Opera Australia’s terrific My Fair Lady when he was still only 78 last year (reviewed here August 31, 2017).  He didn’t tell us, as Arthur Kwick, how he had trained with Hayes Gordon as a founder member of The Ensemble Theatre-in-the-Round in the late 1950s.  Like Kwick, my memory can be a bit unreliable nowadays, but it’s quite likely I saw the real Reg in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound in 1969, perhaps when I took students to observe Hayes Gordon directing a rehearsal (though that may have been for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel in 1971, which Reg wasn’t in).

I may seem to be rambling a bit, but this is how Livermore’s play works – wandering through the memories – at least for the first 45 minutes.  Then after an interval (essential for a visit to the dunny by that time), we see Reg as Kwick, as the Widow Twankey.  I had forgotten, from my very young days in England, how Aladdin was supposed to be a middle-eastern story (by those people with that religion, says Kwick – what’s it called?  You know with the mosques – that’s right, the Mosquitoes).  But Aladdin’s mother, Widow Twankey, runs a Chinese laundry (including laundering money, says Kwick), and racist Chinese jokes abound.  How did this happen?  Go to Wikipedia as I did, and you find that Kwick’s characterisation is true to the tradition: .  So Reg has done his homework – but I just wondered if his acting in The Mikado in 1969 had got mixed into Kwick’s story of acting Widow Twankey in that year for J.C. Williamson.

The importance of Livermore’s show is how, behind the humour, there is a story of an insecure living.  Arthur Kwick has a sad ending, as at the last a nurse cheerfully settles him in his bed in the tiny attic room that Gina Rinestone has given him.  He works for no more than board-and-lodging, and we realise – with sympathy and appreciation for the entertainment he has given us – that his erratic storytelling means he is really just another of the “children”, whose only way out is “through the back door”.

On the serious side, here we see in action the theme of the current Platform Paper by Mark Williams called Falling Through the Gaps (Currency Press) about “Our Artists’ Health and Welfare” (see this blog August 10, 2018). As Williams notes, “At the welfare level, there are terrible dangers of falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in their career path” and he mentions the fact that fame as an actor does not imply wealth or even health.  In Livermore’s play, Gina Rinestone (ie Australia’s wealthiest woman) is the opposite of Arthur Kwick, the dedicated actor sleeping on the streets after his men’s home burns down (not because they were smoking, he assures us). 

He talks his way into the janitor’s job (that’s the skill he has as an actor): though it’s only one step up from the vagrant’s home, and Gina won’t let him smoke, it’s the best security he can get – at the age of nearly 80.  Of course, it’s not my place to ask personal questions, but Reg Livermore’s Arthur Kwick ends up in the same place as Helen Mitchell, that is Dame Nellie Melba, who died in poverty.

Let’s just hope that Reg will live for quite a while yet, even though Liveforevermore is just my little joke.  He has an AO award already, and now deserves to be gonged a Living Treasure.

Dan Leno
as Widow Twankey
Theatre Royal
Drury Lane
London 1896
Photo: Alfred Ellis

Reg Livermore as Arthur Kwick as Widow Twankey

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 17 August 2018

2018: Circus Oz - Model Citizens

Circus Oz – Model Citizens, at Canberra Theatre Centre, August 17-18, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 17

“Circus Oz explodes back onto stage, audaciously unpacking the myths of modern Australia in their latest high octane circus show Model Citizens, the first creation fuelled by new Artistic Director Rob Tannion.

Model Citizens seamlessly blends the risk and beauty of breathtaking physical improbability with theatricality, choreography and Circus Oz’s distinct brand of Australian humour.”

There’s always a risk in pumping up the promotion that expectations might not be met.  This time around, Circus Oz needs more dramaturgy to create a clear storyline to unpack the "myths of Modern Australia" and a lot more originality in choreographic design to reach the heights of distinct Australian humour for which the company was famous from its beginning.

I suppose it is unfair or at least unfortunate for the young, and very competent, performers today to be judged by this particular critic who was lucky enough to see that wildly satirical and sometimes quite gruesome 1978 performance.  The title Model Citizens would seem to open up possibilities, but apart from a meaty song about diversity – “but not in my backyard” – and another about loving one’s Weber (which has probably mainly served to increase that brand’s sales), the humour was mildly funny and the message sometimes a bit too obvious and other times just lost in the physical improbability.

The set design of a nondescript kind of diagonal wall with an inconsequential turret at each end was hard to interpret.  A prison wall perhaps, but the message never came through.  It kept the very busy two-person orchestra partially hidden, and it seemed to be used only to give the fire-breather (who was rather frightening to the very young children near me) an access to the high wire – or rather high horizontal rope ladder – which was cleverly used to make human trapezes.

Perhaps, considering the very high proportion of very young popcorn munchers in the audience (who dismally failed the opening instructions, including to always clean up your mess – which did suggest more biting satire to come); perhaps it was OK to keep the intellectual level simple.  Of course the show was enjoyable, what with a kelpie chasing sheep all over the paddock (that is, where we were sitting), the gymnastic skills good (though I have seen better), and live musical accompaniment very effective.

So, entertaining in an ordinary sort of circus way, but not quite the explosive, audacious, and improbably absurd Circus Oz I have come to know and love.

Photos by Rob Blackburn

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 16 August 2018

2018: Calamity Jane - Hayes Theatre Co

Calamity Jane adapted by Ronald Hanmer and Phil Park, from the stage play by Charles K. Freeman, after Warner Bros. film written by James O’Hanlon.  Lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.  Music by Sammy Fain.

Presented by One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals & Hayes Theatre Co.  At Canberra Theatre Playhouse, August 16-19, 2018.

Director – Richard Carroll; Musical Director – Nigel Ubrihien; Choreographer – Cameron Mitchell; Production Designer – Lauren Peters; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Sound designer and Operator – Camden Young; Wig Designer – Lauren Proitti

Tony Taylor as Henry Miller, Nigel Ubrihien on piano
Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: Jeff Busby

Reviewed by Frank (Francis) McKone
August 16

With the intelligence and wit that would make a David Pope cartoon proud, Hayes Theatre’s Calamity Jane makes America Great Again, even outshining the original 1963 Broadway production (which you can still see on the eighth wonder of the modern world, Youtube, at ).  Carol Burnett’s Calamity was a comic performance par excellence; yet Virginia Gay, as directed by Richard Carroll takes us to a different level of interpretation.

Anthony Gooley, Sheridan Harbridge, Virginia Gay, Rob Johnson, Laura Bunting
Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: John McRae

In 1963 Calamity was undoubtedly a woman challenging the norms of women’s behaviour, gun-toting on stage, while immediately and publicly making up to and making out with Lt. Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce 2018) at first contact.  And it’s true that her speech demanding that Katie Brown be given the chance to prove herself – “do it your own way” – was a convention-breaking message in the transition to new feminism from the 1950s’ ‘little woman’.  Culminating in her threat to put her fist down Wild Bill Hickock’s throat and peel him like a banana, Burnett was more than funny: her audience cheered in 1963. Did Doris Day match this in the original 1953 movie?

The next scene, A Woman’s Touch, gives us a clue to the Hayes Theatre approach.  Is it possible that Calamity is Trans – sexual, gender – or maybe L or at least Bi?  In 1963 a woman’s touch meant a comic transition for Calamity as Katie Brown dresses her prettily as a conventional woman (spot-on performance by Laura Bunting 2018).  In 2018, there are hints of a ‘touch’ of a different kind, as if Virginia Gay is playing a friendly joke upon her surprisingly appropriate real name.

Of course, in the end Calamity’s being unsure of her sexuality is resolved into a straight scene of three plainly male-female marriages, in the tradition of romantic comedy going back to Shakespeare’s parallel Much Ado About Nothing. Think of Benedick as Wild Bill Hickock: the men’s names are telling – try saying them out loud with emphasis on the last syllable (and a great performance by Anthony Gooley) and Beatrice as Calamity (a fascinating complex characterisation by Gay).

Foreground: Anthony Gooley, Virgina Gay, Laura Bunting, Matthew Pearce
Background: Nigel Ubrihien, Tony Taylor, Rob Johnson, Sheridan Harbridge
in Hayes Theatre Co: Calamity Jane 2018
Photo: John McRae

Then, the other clever aspect of this production, which I guess couldn’t have been done on old Broadway, was Richard Carroll and Lauren Peters’ involvement of the audience.  It was fun to have a few tables on stage in the Golden Garter Saloon, but the really clever bits were the references to Canberra as if it were Deadwood, and today’s politics squeezed in, including Donald Trump’s famous claim.

When we really thought an irate audience member was attempting to get in late, knocking furiously on a door near us, with an attendant firmly explaining no-one would be let in until the next song-and-dance number (which we supposed would cover the disturbance of his entry), the door was finally burst open to the horror of all on stage, to reveal Rob Johnson as a wonderful Francis (not Frances) Fryer, just off his stage coach and determined to persuade Henry Miller (a strong performance by Tony Taylor) to let him perform, and finally to marry his ‘niece’ Susan (an excellent performance by Sheridan Harbridge, who also played Adelaide Adams in Chicago and who was never going to perform in, shudder, Deadwood). 

And, more fool us, we were even found ourselves standing for a full house ovation! 

Except, of course, the quality of the acting, singing and dancing deserved it.  Hayes Theatre’s Calamity Jane is entertainment plus.  An essential part of the plus is musical director Nigel Ubrihien, with a terrific ragtime style on piano (better, I think, than the big-band production on Broadway – more ‘right’ for Deadwood’s Golden Garter, and a much more personal feel for this small-cast production).

More subtle in design and characterisaton, with not a shot fired on stage, this Calamity Jane is definitely not to be missed.

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 10 August 2018

2018: Mark Williams: Falling Through the Gaps - Platform Papers No 56

Falling Through the Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare by Mark R.W. Williams.  Platform Paper No 56, Currency House, Sydney, August 2018.

Commentary by Frank McKone

“Many giants stand on the shoulders of pygmies” is a comic insight well worthy of a lawyer who has spent his life on and off stage as much as in courts.  He acknowledges his wife, Fiona Gruber, for her “insights going back to a cast list for The School for Scandal in the 1770s containing RB Sheridan’s notes”. Sheridan wrote “scratch Groves”.  The Groves not chosen was an ancestor of  “the last of the Groves”, Gruber’s late uncle Donald, while earlier in the line was Fred Groves “who worked for Fred Karno’s circus and developed the silly walk that Charles Chaplin took over when Fred Groves left the company”.

“To the Groves family: you aren’t forgotten.”

The sense of humour is infectious but in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs “if self-actualisation sits at the top, and making and working with great works of art brings one towards it, some seekers will always struggle up to grasp it before they have a firm footing….So, keeping the prize firmly in view, let’s have a look at the base of Maslow’s pyramid for workers in the performing arts.  At the welfare level, there are terrible dangers of falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in their career path.”

And so his Chapter 6 “From problems to solutions” begins:

From my own observations of the Australian and, to lesser extent, English performing arts scene, anyone of my generation who expected to have a career in the performing arts needed to start with the price of a house.  That’s right, start with it.

Williams’ purpose is not to wallow in stories of  performers living in poverty, drawn into dangerous use of alcohol or other drugs, or even committing suicide; nor of the difficulties of short-term and unpredictable employment, the need to move – often around the world – to follow the work, and the effects of these on family and personal mental stability.  He does make the point that the public’s perception of well-known performers as doing well for themselves is often out of touch with the reality that a big payout for one event (or even several events over years) which makes their name does not create what he calls a “longtail” income, or set them up with a comfortable retirement.

He does mention Helen Mitchell aka Nellie Melba as a case in point, though, and it is instructive to read the details of the provisions and lack of provisions for people working in the theatre industry, and the facts and figures about incomes and superannuation balances in comparison to other industries.

Williams’ purpose is to lay out practical structural steps “to fix the problems with which we find ourselves today”.  In brief:

 Industry superannuation funds trust deeds to make particular provisions for emergency and charitable support;
 Commercial funds to build in elements of social responsibility to support their members and the wider community;
 Government to consider a better salary sacrifice system for individuals in relatively good times of well-paid work to make additional contributions to their super via the PAYG system;
 Levy (say 5 cents) per ticket sold in Australia to live performance to fund super supplement for performers;
 Greater training and funding for dealing with health and mental health in the performing arts;
 Performing arts education institutions to teach realistically about the downside of being a creative performer, the protocols of good performance and the economics of the industry;
 Industry unions and producers to encourage whole-of-life support by companies.
 Benevolent funds to be inclusive…and avoid divisions of employment between ‘legitimate’ theatre, the media, variety and cabaret, circus, backstage and front-of-house.

I found Williams’ description of the situation and past history which has led to how the Australian industry operates made me think wider than employment in the arts.  He mentions in passing the similarities with what has begun to be called the ‘gig economy’, in which people are contracted for all sorts of jobs (the ‘gig’ – a word borrowed from the pop music industry, I think), without the protections and benefits of being ‘employees’.

This leads me to take seriously the moves already well underway in Europe towards a new system of supporting whole-of-life survival in the new life of flexible work and continuously changing technology.

The concept of Universal Basic Income, which is being trialled in Finland and elsewhere including Canada right now, may be well worth a visit.  There’s an interesting run-down of what’s happening (as of April 26, 2018) at

If you would like a more substantial discussion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I invite you to look at the RSA article

[The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a still active 17th Century London-based, British organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges.  Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the RSA ANZ]

For a fun finish, read “I hated maths at school. It came back to bite me later.” by Danny Katz (Canberra Times, 10 August 2018).  He turns the Binomial Theorem into the Buy-no-meal Theorem and Differential Calculus into Depressional Calculus, and – consistent perhaps with Mark Williams’ arts education suggestion – demands that “ArtsMaths should become a proper subject, compulsory for all poncey gits, massive wankers and arty dickweeds” like him.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 26 July 2018

2018: Dark Emu by Bangarra Dance Theatre

Dark Emu.  Bangarra Dance Theatre at Canberra Theatre Centre, July 26 – July 28, 2018.

Artistic Director – Stephen Page; Costume Designer – Jennifer Irwin; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland; Cultural Consultant – Yuin/Biripi Nation Woman, Lynne Thomas; Set Designer – Jacob Nash; Dramaturg – Alana Valentine; Composer – Steve Francis; Language Consultant – Yuin knowledge holder, Warren Foster.

Choreographers: Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Yolande Brown, and the dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 26

To say Bangarra’s Dark Emu is just wonderful is not enough.  I felt a great sense of wonder growing from the first appearance of the people – our First People – heads and then lifted arms, hands exploring space, whole bodies stretching, twisting, turning in a new land.

By the end it was a great wonder, expressed in glorious, powerfully appreciative applause from the full house, for the ingenuity, determination and resilience in the people’s survival – throughout the ages long before as well as since 1770.

In this beautifully abstracted dance-drama, the enclosure of the people by invaders’ fences and cultural tie-downs is just the latest brief time of struggle compared with the aeons of learning to manage growth in this land of fire and flood.

The people win through as they always have.  In the final image, a reprise, we return to the land of the beginning.  The dancers leave the scene, heads high.  The wonder of their living is complete.  This is their land still, and ever will be.

After how I felt and what I thought, there’s much more to be said about this production.  I am not formally qualified to judge dance technique in any detail, but I saw here a unified style clearly deeply engaged in traditional dance forms yet developed into highly emotive modern dance.  That in itself dramatically represents the theme of the work.

The energy of the drama is driven by extraordinary surround sound, tremendous visuals (the fire scene was frightening while unavoidably beautiful) – the whole combined with the most original costuming of the dancers becoming a great example of the effective integration of technology in the work, moving us along through 16 scenes in 70 minutes.

The modern qualities (and top-class quality) of the staging enhances the point of the story – First Peoples belong to the ancient past yet live essentially in our world today – still exploring new ways to express their continuing culture.

There is the wonder indeed, working from the study done by Bunurong/Tasmanian Bruce Pascoe in his book – essential reading – Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books, 2014).  This work – both the book and the dance-drama – changes all our understanding of rhe past towards a better future.  More than wonderful – just outstanding.

 Photos by Daniel Boud

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 15 July 2018

2018: Bliss by Peter Carey, adapted for stage by Tom Wright

Toby Truslove as Harry Joy
in Bliss
Photography by Pia Johnson

Bliss by Peter Carey.  Adapted for the stage by Tom Wright.  Belvoir & Malthouse Theatre at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, June 9 – July 15, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 14

Cast: Marco Chiappi (Alex Duvall and others); Mark Coles Smith (Joel Davis and others);  Will McDonald  (David Joy and others); Amber McMahon (Bettina Joy and others);  Charlotte Nicdao (Lucy Joy and others);   Susan Prior (Alice Dalton and others); Anna Samson (Honey Barbara and others);  Toby Truslove (Harry Joy)

Bliss is an unreal play.  If you are my age, which is about the same age as Peter Carey, who was about the same as Harry Joy was when Peter Carey published his first and I think best novel in 1981, then you know what I mean when I say the novel, and even more this stage adaptation is ‘unreal’.  A bit later in time (‘unreal’ was first recorded in 1965) Harry Joy’s daughter Lucy might have said ‘gas’.

Nowadays, ‘cool’ doesn’t cut it  This show is full on.  I can’t say, don’t miss it – because you already have in Sydney.  And in Melbourne too (May 4 – June 2).  What a bummer!

Charlotte Nicdao as Lucy Joy, Anna Samson as Honey Barbara, Toby Truslove as Harry Joy
in Bliss

So, why would you want to see a show about a weird kind of 1970’s adman, sort of naïve about making money (reminds me of the 2007 Mad Men tv series set in the 1960s).  But Harry Joy dies three times, by my count. 

Nearly, when he has his heart attack and wakes up in what he thinks is hell – that is his old life.  More metaphorically when his wife Bettina (now the kids are grown up) turns out to be better at running a business than he had ever been, and drags him back into advertising.  That’s when the image of Honey Barbara draws him away to the rainforest.

And finally for real, when the gum tree he had planted in his blissful forest retreat drops a branch on him in old age while he works in his garden.

It’s all about Australia, you see.  Or perhaps you don’t – yet.  It’s certainly all about Peter Carey, who escaped from a 20 year career in advertising  (and mainly short story writing) until his The Fat Man in History got him noticed (1974) and Bliss made him a celebrity.  So why since 1990 has he lived in New York?  Not the seductive rainforest like Harry Joy?

I guess this is the Australian bit.  Harry Joy’s retreat to the world of nature is actually unreal.  His being recognised by Honey Barbara at the climactic point in the play as essentially honest in his naif kind of way, and so she loves him for genuinely being himself – this is the quality of being Australian.  Even though the gum tree, being equally itself, drops a branch and kills you.

And as for the work of adapting the novel by Tom Wright, directing by Matthew Lutton, designing by Marg Howell (Set & Costume), Paul Jackson (Lighting), Stefan Gregory (Composer and Sound), and all the cast – it is exactly this Australian quality that makes this production unreal. It has life, energy and honesty.  And, for us, even though we know about widow-maker gum trees, we leave the theatre on a high note.

The story is about truth in art.  This production of Bliss is truly art.

Charlotte Nicdao as Lucy Joy, Amber McMahon as Bettina Joy, Anna Samson as Honey Barbara
in Bliss

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018: The Man in the Attic by Timothy Daly

The Man in the Attic by Timothy Daly.  Shalom & Moira Blumenthal Productions at Eternity Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney July 4-22 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 14

Director – Moira Blumenthal; Set & Costume Designer – Hugh O’Connor; Lighting Designer – Emma Lockhart-Wilson; Sound Designer – Tegan Nichols;

Cast:  Barry French – The Jew; Danielle King – The Wife; Gus Murray – The Husband; Colleen Cook – The Neighbour

Shalom Theatre, in conjunction with Moira Blumenthal Productions, stages a professional production each year, “telling universal stories which reflect the history, culture and identity of Jewish life.” 

Timothy Daly has written “I first came across the story of The Man in the Attic over a decade ago, in a book of German radio plays, which made the briefest of references to a newspaper clipping of the trial of a couple who were accused of keeping a Jewish man ignorant of the fact that World War II had ended…. I needed access to the records of the actual court case. (The un-named couple were apparently taken to court over the deception.) All attempts to locate the transcript failed, not least because it took place in a rural area whose court appeared no longer to exist.”

So “in the absence of the full historical record, some of the play had to be re-imagined and even re-invented. As a simple example, to this day, I do not know the name of the Unknown Jew who is the hero of my play. But, in a strange way, it did not matter.”

The Man in the Attic, then, indeed reflects “the history, culture and identity of Jewish life”, but is a story of much wider significance.  In the German tradition, for example, the story of why the anti-Semitic husband kept the man in his attic, despite the risk – in order to make money on the illegal black market in the chaos of 1945 – was a parallel to the fictional story that Bertolt Brecht had written in 1939, Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, set in the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th Century. 

And, I imagine, in the current chaos of refugees doing their best to escape – often with the worst results in detention centres around the world, not to mention boatloads drowned – there are many making money on the side.  We might see The Wife who rescued the man hiding in the woods, in this play, as a ‘bleeding heart’ – as Peter Dutton, Minister for Border Security would say – but her Husband turns out to be Dutton’s other bete noir: a ‘people smuggler’ of a particularly nasty kind.  He uses sex with the Party woman next door who might reveal his business to authorities, and finally kills her when he can steal her ill-gotten gold – for the money and also to permanently protect his business.

The Wife, of course, has to go along with her husband and even compromise herself by telling lies to the The Jew, since the reason she found him in the first place was she was searching for wild fruit in the forest when she had no money and the shops, even if she could have paid, had been bombed by the Allies.  Even after Hitler’s death (which the German radio announced as a glorious sacrifice) and the Americans appeared with pictures of the Holocaust, these villagers had to keep the expert watchmaker in their attic working.

What actually happened in real life is not clear, but Timothy Daly finally allows The Wife’s conscience to get the better of her, and she releases The Jew while her Husband is away ‘on business’.  The play does not suggest how The Jew might have got on even when freed.  I can only add a personal touch.  I am named after my uncle who was captured early in the War, but who fortunately returned to England in 1945.  He walked from Poland to Holland to get home, but would never say anything about what he saw on the way.

So, though I cannot say that Daly’s scriptwriting is of Brechtian quality, the set design, costuming, lighting and especially sound are effectively done, and the acting and directing competent.  The result is a production which should be seen because it reveals how terrible are the effects of big power play in human society on the lives of ordinary people.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

2018: Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith

Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith.  Pigeonhole Theatre at Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, July 3-14, 2018.

Director – Jordan Best; Designer – Michael Sparks; Lighting Designer – Cynthia Jolley Rogers; Props – Yanina Clifton; Composer – Matthew Webster.

Performed by

Karen Vickery – Patricia Highsmith
Lachlan Ruffy – Edward Ridgeway

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 4

Karen Vickery and Lachlan Ruffy
as Patricia Highsmith and Edward Ridgeway
in Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith
Photo: David James McCarthy
Joanna Murray-Smith has written a quite remarkable play.  Not only does Switzerland play cleverly and wittingly with the genre of murder mystery, the form for which Patrica Highsmith is famous when creating the character Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), and, of course, the form which made Agatha Christie compulsory reading in my mother’s generation.

In this play, Murray-Smith has created two characters – one based on Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) and the other presumably entirely fictional Edward Ridgeway, supposedly sent from Highsmith’s New York publisher to her retreat in Switzerland to persuade her to write one more Mr Ripley novel before she dies.

Pigeonhole’s direction, design and casting are all up to the standard well-established since their original offering (Playhouse Creatures by April de Angelis, reviewed on this blog March 2016) – with the added intensity of a demanding confrontational two-act two-hander.  Our attention never wavered, watching Karen Vickery’s aggression and Lachlan Ruffy’s determination.

Two aspects of this play interested me - Murray-Smith’s inventive twist of the murder mystery convention and her interpretation of the psychology of Patrica Highsmith.  The central twist is that Edward Ridgeway, in standing up to Highsmith’s contumely, morphs into the character she had created.  He becomes Mr Ripley and murders his creator.  So she dies before writing the last Mr Ripley novel, after all.  Or did the real Highsmith complete the work, Ripley Under Water (published 1991), and then was metaphorically murdered when she died in 1995?

It is Murray-Smith’s interpretation of what this means that fascinates me.  At this point I have not read all the research material that I assume Murray-Smith has (you can start at ), but I wonder why Murray-Smith’s Highsmith insists on her lesbian sexuality, and for the right of women to be equal and independent against society’s patriarchal forces, yet at the end of the play appears to have fallen for Edward Ridgeway / Mr Ripley – and he for her – making their encounter apparently essentially sexual rather than professionally platonic, in an all-encompassing kiss.  After which, as she turns away in contemplation of the experience, he kills her with her favourite knife, which he had given her, taken down from the display of guns, swords and knives which cover the wall of her writing space.  (The other play you might like to consider at this point is Le Leçon by Eugene Ionesco).

Is she simply thanking Ripley / Ridgeway for her writing success?  Is she denying her lesbian nature?  Are we to take this as a political statement in support of sexual difference and the right to individuality; or are we to think Murray-Smith sees Highsmith as psychologically disturbed – that her writing and creating fictional characters is/was more real than reality?

Could it even mean that Murray-Smith herself is concerned about her own psychological state as a writer?  Or that all creatives live in “a world of their own”, as Murray-Smith’s Patricia Highsmith says she does?

And does this make Switzerland and its author something unusual and even “great” in Australian writing? 

I leave that consideration for my readers, but in my view Joanna Murray-Smith wittingly challenges patriarchal society in Switzerland.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 28 June 2018

2018: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time adapted by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon.  National Theatre of Great Britain at Canberra Theatre Centre, June 27 – July 1, 2018. 

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 27

If I describe this highly energised show as “children’s theatre for adults” I may upset most of the very large and equally highly appreciative audience on opening night.  I might perhaps ameliorate their response a little if I called the show “adult theatre-in-education”. 

I would probably make things worse for myself if I objected to the gratingly commercialised approach to the publicity, including the business of selling “official merchandise” derived from telling an ultimately heart-warming story of a child savant who as an impossible child splits his parents apart but equally impossibly brings them back to working together on his behalf.  Here’s what you can buy in the foyer:

But let me explain.  The drama is plot-centred, based upon setting up anticipation, points of potential achievement, episodes of likely disaster, climaxing in a major success and leaving us with a grand sense of hope for the future. This is the story of Christopher Boone, who can only tell the literal truth, succeeds in discovering who killed his neighbour’s dog, and scores 100% in a matriculation-level advanced maths test and expects to become a scientist – in other words, essentially a children’s story. 

Joshua Jenkins, on stage throughout each hour-long act – and even after curtain call to demonstrate the algebraic equation which describes Pythagoras’ square on the hypotenuse theorem – maintains an exhausting pace in physical movement, let alone in the abrupt changes in Christopher’s responses to a world which overloads his senses.  He does an admirable job, as indeed do the whole cast, but in truth (like Christopher I can only tell the truth) the plot is the thing, not any complexity of character. 

The style, appropriate to the task, presents us with a quite amazing picture book: we want to turn the pages.  We feel for Christopher and his Mum (Emma Beattie) and Dad (Stuart Laing), and even for the dead dog with the garden fork stuck in it.  We want to cheer Christopher on. We laugh and are happy for him when the train leaves Swindon before the policeman can get Christopher off (which would have been to face his father at the police station). We are afraid for his life when he jumps into the underground train track to rescue his pet rat.  We are amazed he manages to navigate the London Tube as chance voices give him incomprehensible clues.  And I was stunned when his mother and her current partner happen entirely by chance upon Christopher in a street presumably not too far from the address he has memorised – from the letters he secretly found in his father’s room, which proved his mother was not dead from a heart attack, as his father had told him, but alive in London.

So the acting is physical and close to cartoon in style – and very well done at that – while the set design is visually, audibly and technically dramatic, including especially Christopher’s putting together, bit by bit throughout the performance, a toy electric train set covering the whole stage.  It lights up and starts the train running as the play ends – highly symbolic of Christopher’s journey.

There is plenty to think about from an adult point of view, even though the design, in technique, is what the best of theatre-in-education teams would do – if they had the money.  A good comparison would be with Australia’s Shake & Stir Company, for example in their stage interpretation of  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (reviewed on this blog March 9, 2016). 

The inability of Christopher’s mother to cope with a son who cannot recognise ordinary emotional clues, let alone respond to them except by extraordinary but purely literal logical comment, and her finding solace in a neighbour’s husband, is sad.  The response of Christopher’s father in violently rejecting his wife, killing the neighbour’s dog, telling his son that his wife has died (including a lengthy fiction about her time in hospital and her death), and hiding her letters addressed to Christopher from London, is an awful indictment of human vindictiveness.  This is an adult tale of the human condition.

Yet, because the core of the play is the plot and the characters cannot be fully developed, I found it hard to believe how Christopher’s mother could return to Swindon so easily – though it was true that she continued to live apart from her husband and, I suppose, kept herself at a distance from married intimacy just enough to support her son’s continuing need for help.  The play did show his father’s attempt to regain his son’s acceptance – this was a symbolic gentle hand-touching – and Christopher’s rejection of the contact.  I haven’t read the novel and at this point I’m therefore only considering Simon Stephens’ play. 

There are certainly adult concerns and issues here, but the happy ending as Christopher receives his result – which he accepts without excitement since he had no doubts about his having completed the exam perfectly – leaves me unsatisfied.  His teacher (Julie Hale), a great example of compassionate professionalism, is overcome by Christopher’s success, as is his mother, and even his father sincerely tells Christopher how proud he is.  But the play fails the adult education question I have: what chance does this extreme Asperger Syndrome character really have of coping when he is frantic under the normal bombardment of noise and movement which is part of other peoples’ ordinary lives; when he is obsessive to the extreme that his mother has to clean his toilet before he can use it after any stranger; and when he quickly turns to aggressive acts like hitting and even trying to stab someone – admittedly his mother’s London manfriend who is clearly obnoxious.

This play doesn’t offer any hope to us adults, except for the everlasting patience of the teacher – who, of course, even so, must remain at a professional distance and refuse Christopher’s request to live with her in her house.

So, I conclude that this production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time is an interesting example of theatre-in-education which raises questions for adult consideration – but leaves us with no easy answers or even suggestions.  That’s why I find the promotion of the production – done in much the same format as for the recent royal wedding – is superficial commercialism, which I find grating, when the issues of how we can improve the lives of people born with such differences as Asperger’s Syndrome are deeply difficult, and require great respect from the rest of us.

Joshua Jenkins and Emma Beattie
in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Director – Marianne Elliott; Designer – Bunnie Christie; Lighting Designer – Paule Constable; Video Designer – Finn Ross; Movement Directors – Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (Frantic Assembly); Music – Adrian Sutton; Sound Designer – Ian Dickinson (Autograph)

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 18 June 2018

2018: Saint Joan by George Bernad Shaw

Sarah Snook as Joan
in Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
Photo: Brett Boardman
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 5 – 30, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

I first acknowledge George Bernard Shaw.  At 16, my adult life began with my reading his 1924 play Saint Joan and his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.  This phase took me from the fifties to the sixties, to Bob Dylan’s words about The Times They Are A-changing: “I had to play this song on the same night that President Kennedy died.”

Now in 2018, at a similar age Shaw was when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, I humbly acknowledge Imara Savage and Sarah Snook for showing me the right Saint Joan for our times, true to Shaw and the direction of change – even in the face of those who would take us backwards to the fifties or worse.

This production of Saint Joan must surely travel the world.  Not merely because it has such clarity of purpose and theatrical intensity, but because people need to understand the ethics of civilisation – if you like, of the Western tradition.

Sarah, Imara and writer Emme Hoy have done what I had never imagined could be done: they have made Shaw’s work even more powerful than he could have known.  As Imara has written in her Director’s Note: “Shaw, like Joan, was a thoroughly modern individual, a rebel and an agitator.  It is in this spirit that we have approached the work.  And whilst failure is always a possibility, an unambitious Saint Joan is really no Saint Joan at all.”

They have trimmed and refocussed the original script because times have indeed a-changed.  Shaw’s audience, shortly after the mass destruction of World War I, needed to have Joan, seeking support early in her career, introduced to them via some seemingly inconsequential comedy at Robert de Baudricourt’s expense: “No eggs!  No eggs!  Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?”  His steward explains:  “Sir: it is not my fault.  It is the act of God.”

Today’s audience, after World Wars I and II and the current threat of a breakdown in world order, wants humour of a different kind – direct and pointed.  And so we begin today with the meeting in Scene IV of Richard de Beauchamp Earl of Warwick and Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais.  Apart from asides like “We were not fairly beaten, my lord.  No Englishman is ever fairly beaten”, the issue of Joan’s success – “Charles is to be crowned at Rheims, practically by the young woman from Lorraine; and – I must not deceive you, nor flatter your hopes – we cannot prevent it...” as Warwick lays the political cards out:  “It would, I presume, be the duty of your reverend lordship to denounce her to the Inquisition, and have her burnt for that offence” of being a sorceress.

This is Shaw with no leavening of the horror of Joan’s situation.  This the Shaw whose every word is telling, whether it makes us laugh or cringe in its irony.  Nothing of Shaw’s writing is lost, while some is added so that we come to know and understand Joan’s voices.  We know from the beginning of this production that we are in the hands of a great playwright.  Sarah’s Joan becomes more than a mere theatrical symbol as she realises how she has been fooled into signing a confession which will lead to a life worse than death.  Sarah’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.

Focus in simplicity of costume, set design, lighting and sound is the keynote to this production.  Wherever it goes, this design must go with it.  See it very soon if you can, or seek out Sydney Theatre Company’s Saint Joan wherever in the world you may find it.

Director – Imara Savage
Additional Writers – Imara Savage, Sarah Snook, Emme Hoy

Set Designer – David Fleischner; Costume Designer – Renee Mulder; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer & Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert

Gareth Davies – Dauphin / King / Assessor / George
John Gaden – Inquisitor / Archbishop
Brandon McClelland – General / Executioner
Sean O’Shea – Priest
Socratis Otto – Officer / Prosecutor
Sarah Snook – Joan
Anthony Taufa – Brother / Bluebeard / Julian
David Whitney – Earl / Captain
William Zappa – Bishop

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 17 June 2018

2018: Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison

Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, June 15 – July 21, 2018

Previewed by Frank McKone
June 16

The Ensemble Theatre this week brings the original stage play of Marjorie Prime to Australia for the first time.  Written in 2013, workshopped that year at the Pacific Playwrights’ Festival, and premiered by the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles in 2014, the play made Jordan Harrison a Pultizer Prize finalist.

The film adaptation by Michael Almereyda, made after the play’s New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, was a winner at the 2017 Sundance Festival.

Opening night on Tuesday is already booked out, and I’m not surprised.  In many ways the 85 minute stage play is more tightly focussed on the relationship between Marjorie and her daughter Tess than the more “discursive” movie, which is only slightly longer.  This is because all the external scenes – about the dog Toni on the beach, for example – are created by us in the theatre, in our imaginations, as we watch, listen and try to work out what really happened and what were slightly manipulated memories among the questions, answers and stories of the four living characters and the three “primes”.

For those who haven’t heard of “primes” (and haven’t seen the trailer of the film on Youtube), these are artificially intelligent compassionate robots of those who have died, providing some kind of comfort for those still living.  They are ‘primed’ about the past by what the living tell them about themselves and others.  In a sense, we in the audience are ‘primed’ too, though we don’t speak back, asking questions or commenting as the ‘primes’ do – we just listen, think things out and maybe talk to our friends afterwards.

When Maggie Dence appears as Marjorie Prime after her earlier scenes as Marjorie, the subtle shift in her characterisation is startling and even quite disturbing.  The same is true later of Lucy Bell as her Tess translates into Tess Prime.  We always know that the long dead Walter is Walter Prime (still aged about 30), but I found myself wondering whether Jon, Tessa’s husband – a linking character throughout the drama – is or is not a Prime at certain points.

On stage the immediacy, especially in the Ensemble’s intimate theatre-in-the-round, makes the play stronger, I think, than a movie which feels more like ordinary reality.  Because Mitchell Butel has kept his design simple and stylised as an obviouly staged performance – where the actors shift the furniture and props into place for each new scene – the effect is to create a kind of Brechtian distancing which makes us think about the issues – of human family interactions as much as ideas about artificial intelligence devices and their potential in our future lives.

The quality of the acting in the preview I saw goes without saying considering the experienced cast, and certainly says not to miss the opportunity – after Opening Night, of course – to see Marjorie Prime in its original form.

Director – Mitchell Butel
Set & Costume Designer – Simon Greer
Alexander Berlage – Lighting Designer
Lucy Bell – Tess
Maggie Dence – Marjorie
Jake Speer – Walter
Richard Sydenham - Jon

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018 The Hypochondriac, adapted by Hilary Bell

The Hypochondriac – a new version of Molière’s Le Malade Imaginaire by Hilary Bell.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, June 9 – July 1, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 17

Though mildly amusing, this highly energetic slapstick farce, full literally of toilet sight-gags, does a disservice to the still relevant issue of forced marriage.  Molière was the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, whose plays were banned because his satiric comedies threatened the powers that be – resulting in his excommunication from the Catholic Church and his incarceration in the debtors’ prison.

Writer Hilary Bell and director Jo Turner have no likelihood of such a fate; yet forced marriage is still “normal” in many places, and in the news especially in the UK as well as here in Australia.  When Argan, the recalcitrant father, complained towards the end that his brother Béralde and his housemaid (sorry, household manager) Toinette were making fun of him – as they were well justified in doing – I suddenly thought “But this play is making fun of Molière” – as it certainly should not.

Molière’s play certainly has singing and dancing, but not of the kind that Bell has used.  His characters, like Pan, Daphne, the Two Zephyrs and the Troupe of Shepherdesses and Shepherds were satirical romantic fantasies, to contrast with the awful anti-romantic Argan and his cynical moneygrubbing second wife Béline whose only concern is to force his daughter Angélique either into marrying for Argan’s personal convenience or being sent to a nunnery so she cannot inherit his property and wealth – for Béline’s personal convenience.

Bell has, I think, combined the original all-singing all-dancing prologue with the later version of Molière’s play (in the 1674 edition) which has instead a romantic forest scene with “agréable” music, fauns and satyrs, with a single shepherdess who sings that all the doctors in the world – despite their “grand mots latin” cannot cure the pain of love.

This has taken the direction of Bell’s version into inane television advertising of “alternative” medicines and concentrated on making fun of Argan’s fixation of believing he is sick because of the massive influence of the alternative medicine industry.  This becomes the “serious intention” of her play, setting aside the matter of how Angélique is treated; whereas for Molière it was his then very modern issue of the denial of love and independence of women which was central to the play – while Argan’s “malade imaginaire” is a sideline device to make a satirical comment on how unfeeling and self-centred such fathers are.

Then there is an awful irony in the behaviour of Béline, who will send her step-daughter Angéline to a nunnery to gain her, Béline’s, financial independence.  Despite the overwhelming slapstickery of this production, Sophie Gregg as Béline managed to make her nasty enough in her description of her husband, when he has collapsed and is apparently dead, to bring us back adequately to Molière’s true intention to expose upper class graft and inhumanity.

It is also true, as Bell has suggested with a more limited cast, that Molière ended with ‘une cérémonie burlesque” with eight enimatic syringes, six apothecaries, twenty-two doctors, eight surgeons, all singing and dancing.  This goes on for seven pages in Molière’s script, written in extremely funny rhyming imitation Latin, with the climax line “Fluxus de sang, et dysenterias!”

But the problem for Bell was that modern medicine has split into the scientific and so-called alternative.  Her adaptation can only deal with the fad for alternative medicine, while for Molière there was no alternative.  In his day it was true, as the Shepherdess sang “Votre plus haut savoir n’est que pure chimère, / Vains et peu sages médecins.”

Unfortunately to satirise alternative medicine today has not enough strength as a theme to support a parallel serious criticism of the treatment of women in our time.  Going for slapstick, however well done by the likes of Darren Gilshenan and Lucia Mastrantone, sacrificed that second theme and only really got to grips with the first in Gabriel Fancourt’s scene as Béralde berating his stupid brother Argan for believing such medical nonsense.

See The Hypochondriac for the clowning and brilliant timing, but don’t expect Molière.  For that, you should have seen Justin Fleming’s translation of Tartuffe into wonderful modern English rhyming couplets in the Bell Shakespeare production at the Sydney Opera House in 2014 ( reviewed on this blog August 13, 2014).

Playwright & Lyricist – Hilary Bell
Director – Jo Turner
Production Designer – Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson
Sound Designer & Additional Music – Maria Alfonsine
Music for Songs – Phillip Johnston

Gabiel Fancourt – Cléante / Bonnefoi / Béralde
Darren Gilshenan – Argan
Sophie Gregg – Béline
Emma Harvie – Angélique
Lucia Mastrantone – Toinette
Jamie Oxenbould – Thomas Diafoirus
Monica Sayers – Doctor Diafoirus

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 15 June 2018

2018: The Beginning of Nature by Garry Stewart

The Beginning of Nature, conceived by Garry Stewart.  Australian Dance Theatre National Tour, June – August 2018.  Canberra Theatre Centre, June 14-15, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 14

As a drama goes, birth – excitement – occasional chaos – sex – and death is a reasonable representation of nature as we know it.  As choreographed by Garry Stewart and the dancers of Australian Dance Theatre of Adelaide, South Australia, it’s astonishing that Life on Earth (for it seemed as big a canvas as David Attenborough might draw) could all take place in 80 minutes.

With the range of A to Zephyr’s music drawing us into each mood from the glory of unbridled action to the sadness of final stillness, I was satisfactorily exhausted by the end.

Having not had technical training in dance I would not dare to comment on the amazing athleticism required to perform this work.  How the dancers survive is a mystery to me, let alone how they remember such detail from tiny expressive movements to literally flying – and especially how they can do this suddenly in unison or deliberately out of sync to make images fleetingly appear out of nothing.

In any case, to give a detailed analysis of such a dynamic work would remind me of teenagers being required to produce ‘literary criticisms’ of poems.  They want just to experience the whole poem, not pull it to pieces like cutting up a frog in a science lab.  The Beginning of Nature is an 80 minute poem – just let it stand in its own right – and Enjoy!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

2018: Young People and The Arts: The child as cultural citizen.

Young People and The Arts: The child as cultural citizen

Industry Forum: Theatre Network Australia at Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) at Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, Sydney (The Wharf), Wednesday May 30, 2018.

Intro by Fraser Corfield, ATYP

Keynote Address by Sue Giles: Young People and The Arts: An Agenda for Change
(Platform Papers No 54, Currency House, Sydney, February 2018)

Sector Updates by:
The House That Dan Built
Monkey Baa
Tantrum Youth Arts
Bankstown Poetry Slam

Industry Panel: Whose Theatre Is It Anyway?
Tasnim Hossain (Writer)
Amy Matthews (Parramatta Riverside Theatres)
Stefo Nantsou (Zeal Theatre)
Sarah Parsons (Outback Theatre for Young People)
Moderated by Sue Giles

Commentary by Frank McKone

Theatre Network Australia, based in Melbourne, held the original forum to launch Sue Giles’ Paper at the Coopers Malthouse on February 2, 2018.  That success was emulated in Sydney, bringing together a wide range of people from theatre practitioners to venue administrators, with a particular concern for young people’s theatre.

For those unaware of the Network’s role: “Theatre Network Australia (TNA) is the leading industry development organisation for the performing arts, prioritising independent artists and small to medium companies.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, TNA works nationally and has a dedicated Victorian program. We run professional development forums, including the biennial Australian Theatre Forum, workshops on current issues for the sector including sustainability, touring, diversity in theatre, Indigenous theatre, women in theatre and interconnections, and we provide information and resources through our popular e-news and the online resource library.”

Then there is the Theatre Network NSW (TNN) [which] “is the peak agency for theatre in NSW. ... All the latest theatre news from around NSW and goings-on in the network.” 

Additionally many attending in Sydney are active in ASSITEJ (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) which “unites theatres, organisations and individuals throughout the world who make theatre for children and young people. ASSITEJ is dedicated to the artistic, cultural and educational rights of children and young people across the globe and advocates on behalf of all children regardless of nationality, cultural identity, ability, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. ASSITEJ brings people together so that they can share knowledge and practice within the field of theatre for children and young people in order to deepen understandings, develop practice, create new opportunities and strengthen the global sector. The members of Assitej are National centers, Professional Networks, and individuals from around 100 countries across the world.”

In other words, my role on this occasion was to respectfully watch, listen and learn.

You might have thought that, with themes like “the child as cultural citizen” and “whose theatre is it anyway?”, the talk would be perhaps pseudo-philosophical or aggressively political.  I could have spouted in that manner endlessly, but held my tongue as people spoke, many more than those mentioned above, with stories of practical experience.  From these stories, the issues which had been flagged in Sue Giles’ Paper became manifest. [See Canberra Critics’ Circle and Frank McKone  March 20, 2018 at and ]

Time and again, young speakers proved the essential point that they are ‘cultural citizens’, as innovative designers and managers of successful theatre programs.  The young woman organiser of the Bankstown Poetry Slam, Sara Mansour, was particularly impressive for her determination to change her local culture and the conventional assumptions made by others about that part of Sydney.

At the other end of the age range, Stefo Nantsou’s story of Zeal Theatre and his refusal to be bound by the conventions of government funding over many decades provided a fascinating take on the politics of theatre.  Rather than following the conservative line of liberalism (no taxation and plenty of unregulated commercial profiteering), his form of what I might call Artistic Marxism equally rejects government control alongside anti-commercialism.  “Zeal Theatre is an internationally renowned touring theatre company dedicated to creating plays for schools, theatres and festivals. Founded in 1989 by actor / writer / director Stefo Nantsou, Zeal has created over 45 original productions and has performed throughout Australia, Europe, North America, Asia, New Zealand & South Africa, with their plays being staged in over 30 countries worldwide.”

So there!

Somewhere in the middle is the work of Sarah Parsons at Outback Theatre for Young People which “engages with young people from regional and remote communities to make distinctive contemporary theatre through collaborative processes, dedicated to creating innovative, participant-owned youth theatre. We engage young people, aged 4 to 26 years, from throughout the Riverina region of NSW and Northern Victoria, in collaborative, generative theatre projects that celebrate their lives and their aspirations. OTYP works with an Artistic Directorate model where a small group of Artistic Directors work across our region, supported by a Creative Producer. Each project is designed for and shaped by the participants, with two stages over two years in order to develop sustainable arts practice in our communities.”

Yet, she told us, none of the high schools in this vast region, which stretches up to Broken Hill, has a drama teacher.  Nor a theatre.  But no matter – any space, even after many hours’ travelling from place to place, will be turned into an “Empty Space” à la Peter Brook.  Hers was a brave and daunting story.

Even within the industry there were questions about the extent of support, not only for theatre for children and young people but more especially by them. Amy Matthews gave a spirited defence on behalf of Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres programming, going beyond assumptions of other times and places about participation by children and young people.

So where I had at first considered Platform Paper 54 as too much focussed on advocacy, I now understand that the key issue is recognition of and proper support for children and young people as the cultural citizens they already are.  Where the Paper was subtitled An Agenda for Change it did not just mean we should be doing theatre ‘with, for and by’ young people, but that this well-established branch of arts industry should be better understood, including by the powers that be who make political and funding decisions.

I see this Industry Forum as an essential step, to articulate clearly within the industry an agreed understanding of what Young Peoples’ Theatre consists of, and what distinguishes it from other kinds of theatre.  The panel discussion and Q&A session were, I think, very successful. 

Now I see the need for Theatre Network Australia to take determined and long-term action to develop understanding in the general community to underpin campaigning for improved and continuing funding.  The case of Outback Theatre for Young People seems to me to be an excellent model to start the ball rolling.

Nicole Beyer, Executive Director
Simone Schinkel, General Manager
Bethany Simons, Program Director
Jamie Lewis, Communications Coordinator
TNA E-News Submissions

Office Telephone:
(03) 8640 6014
Office/Postal Address:
Theatre Network Australia,
222 Bank Street
South Melbourne VIC 3205

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 1 June 2018

2018: Sense & Sensibility by Kate Hamill

Sense & Sensibility by Kate Hamill, based on the novel by Jane Austen.  State Theatre Company South Australia at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, May 29 – June 2, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 30

Director – Geordie Brookman; Designer – Ailsa Paterson; Lighting Designer – Geoff Cobham.

Musical Arrangements – Stuart Day and Cast; Accent Coach – Jennifer Innes; Wardrobe Supervisor – Emma Brockliss; Wigs/Dresser – Jana di Biasi; Ball Choreographer – Erin Fowler.

Cast (alphabetical):

Rachel Burke – Margaret Dashwood / Lucy Steele / Gossip / Servant
Miranda Daughtry – Marianne Dashwood
Rashidi Edward – John Willoughby / Thomas / Gossip
Lizzy Falkland – Fanny Dashwood / Mrs Jennings / Gossip
Dale March – John Dashwood / Colonel Brandon / Gossip / Servant
Caroline Mignone – Mrs Dahwood / Anne Steel / Gossip / Doctor
Nathan O’Keefe – Edward Ferrars / Lady Middleton / Robert Ferrars / Gossip / Servant
Geoff Revell – Sir John Middleton / Mrs Ferrars / Gossip / Servant
Anna Steen – Elinor Dashwood

In rehearsal: Miranda Daughtry and Rashidi Edward
as Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby

An exquisite delicacy, beautifully prepared and presented, this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility makes a traditional recipe in the style of modern cuisine.  Were Jane Austen here to see it she would be pleasantly surprised, somewhat intrigued, and absolutely delighted.

She would undoubtedly recognise the qualities of satirical farce, not only in the French commedia dell’arte style but in the English tradition begun by her novelist predecessor Henry Fielding, whose 1730 play, The Author’s Farce, caused the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 to be enacted “to control and censor what was being said about the British government through theatre. The act was modified by the Theatres Act 1843 and was finally named as the Theatres Act 1968.” []

It was a stroke of genius on the part of the American author [], director Geordie Brookman and designer Ailsa Paterson to see how subversive Austen’s first published novel was – and still is when presented in modern times as great fun, yet with a dark shadow for women, and indeed for men, if they have their independence untimely ripped from them by unscrupulous wealthy men. Our amusement turns to genuine concern as we see the real possibility that Marianne Dashwood might die.

Even when we find ourselves at a rom com ending, we now know the fears that twist young men’s behaviour and compromise young women seeking love, because of the demands of social status.

Yet watching was exciting – I just wished I could have been in the cast.  Everyone on stage and off were obviously having so much fun, and I can imagine the rehearsals with those costumes, hairstyles, amazing set changes, bird-whistles, ‘musical’ accompaniment and clowning, and finally the stunning lighting, all part of the enjoyment.  Pure jealousy on my part. 

Though I have to say, the costume changes for so many of the actors must have been scary.  How on earth Dale March managed to get so correctly and precisely kitted out as Colonel Brandon so fast between three completely different characters – or even worse for Nathan O’Keefe playing the romantic lead Edward one moment, then his brother Robert, and the fearsome Lady Middleton in between being a servant and a village gossip monger in the wonderful sort-of terribly British Ancient Greek chorus.

It’s the intelligence in the fun that I am certain Jane Austen herself would love about this staging of her first major work – rejected in its early version when her father tried to get it published in 1797, and reworked as the family moved to Bath and then Southampton in considerable financial straits, very much like the Dashwood mother and her three daughters: Elinor, the sensible; Marianne, with more sensibility than sense; and Margaret, without either sense or sensibility as yet.  The playing of these three by Anna Steen, Miranda Daughtry and Rachel Burke was a wonder to behold.

Don’t expect to see anything like the 1995 movie with Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood, Kate Winslet as Marianne, Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars and Greg Wise as John Willoughby.  Of that version, one reviewer, Bob Smithouser, wrote “Jane Austen's nineteenth century novel is brought to life as a refreshing tribute to a more innocent age of ladies and gentlemen.”  Forget the ‘innocence’: Hamill’s play – and especially this modern cuisine design and directing of it – is a terrific satire of competitive social status.  As relevant today as it ever was, just as Jane Austen intended.

In rehearsal - I wish I could have been there
Nathan O'Keefe and Anna Steen

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 5 May 2018

2018: ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ - Exhibition at NMA

‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ – Faith and Culture in Islam.  Exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, April 20 – July 22, 2018.  Free Entry.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 6

Museum people love to tell you how many ‘objects’ they have in a collection.  For this exhibition, I prefer the French word ‘objets’, as in objets d’art‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ is certainly not about exhibitionism.  The items on display are from the daily lives of people, from the many ordinary to the occasional wealthy, shaped and decorated in beautiful ways.

 Is that what you expected from the rest of the title, ‘Faith and Culture in Islam’?  Perhaps not.  There is as much to learn from the story of this exhibition as there is to see in the exhibition.  Senior curator Carol Cooper’s quietly effervescent enthusiasm shines through.  An overhead spotlight projects an outline of the map of the world from Italy in Europe to China in the Far East, and round the corner to Australia in the South.

It all began with the Roman Catholic Pope Pius XI in 1925 and Fr Nicola Mapelli nearly a century later.  Let me explain.

I think of the NMA as a dynamic museum, not stuffed with objects from the past for people to stare at, but always mounting changing exhibits which illuminate not only the past, but the present too, with implications for the future.  Songlines – Tracking the Seven Sisters is a terrific example (reviewed here 17 November, 2017).

The story of ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’ begins in a museum set up in the Vatican by an Italian pope, Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, perhaps looking forward to the present Pope (who hails from South America).  Pius XI took the meaning of ‘catholic’ to suggest the church should collect in a museum – now known as the Anima Mundi – items which would show the philosophy of being ‘universal in extent – involving all’ (Macquarie Dictionary). 

As I see it, there could be two motivations for this decision.  Translated as ‘the soul of the world’ it might be seen as Roman religious colonialism.  But I suspect that Pius XI also thought of bringing to the Vatican, which in those days was an insular organisation, the ‘life’ of the world to make his administrators and Italian Catholics aware of the variety of other peoples’ beliefs and practices.  It is this interpretation which I’m sure Fr Mapelli, and the Director of Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, are working from.  It makes the translation something more like ‘Welcome to the World’.

Though I, personally, don’t subscribe to any religious belief, I see in their work the human rights and understanding value in a cooperative venture with the Sharja Museums Authority of the essentially Muslim society in the United Arab Emirates.  I don’t doubt that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was elected the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church in March 2013, becoming Pope Francis, and the first pope from the Americas, fully supports cross-cultural cooperation.  His choice of the saint’s name ‘Francis’ is obviously significant, and bodes well for human rights.

On the other side of the hand-shaking is a human rights interpretation of the essential Islamic text, the Q’ran.  Though I, again personally, have concerns about the parts of text that seem to be divisive, encouraging fighting in defence against believers’ enemies, there are two quotes which underpin this exhibition.

In Chapter 57, Iron, after the early prophets Noah and Abraham, “We sent other apostles, and after these Jesus son of Mary.  We gave him the Gospel and put compassion and mercy in the hearts of his followers.” (trans. N J Dawood, Penguin 1956)

The other includes the title of the exhibition: "O Mankind, We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you" (Chapter 49, The Chambers).  This translation is from an excellent paper by Abdul Malik Mujahid, delivered at the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) Conference, Istanbul June 23, 2010.

In this paper, Abdul Malik Mujahid explains:

In this brief verse, Islamic scholars have been able to draw several fundamental Islamic principles which are reaffirmed elsewhere in the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings:

 God addresses all of humanity, not only the Muslims. 

 God says that He created us from one man and one woman, thus making us all
brothers and sisters. 

 The verse invalidates the claims of superiority due to one’s birth by stating that all
are born through a similar process, i.e. from a male and female. 

 God is the One who made human beings as part of tribes and nations as a means
of identifying and differentiating. This is not meant to be a source of superiority
or inferiority, nor as a contributing component of tribalism, caste systems,
nationalisms, colonialism or racism.

 The only measure of greatness among human beings is at the individual level, not
on a national or group level, based on the characteristic called “Taqwa” in Arabic.
This word means God-consciousness.

 This singular criterion of preference, Taqwa, however, is not quite measurable by
other human beings since it deals with the inner self. Therefore, human beings
must leave even this criterion to God to decide rather than using it to judge each
other. At the same time though, this principle does not mean that we are unable to
differentiate between right and wrong behavior, nor does it prevent us from acting
against wrong actions. Rather, it discourages the human tendency to ‘sit in
judgment’ of others.

And so, as you explore the extensive exhibition at the National Museum of Australia,  you will see objects from a camel’s saddle, a desk calendar, a lectern, an embroidered wedding shawl, among “over 100 precious 18th to 20th Century objects from over twenty countries” illustrating “the evolution of Islam across the globe and celebrates diverse Muslim societies from the Middle East, through to Africa and India, China and South East Asia” – and including objects and photos of Muslims in Australia, from early contacts with Indonesia several hundred years ago to those who came in substantial numbers from 1860.

Though the catalogue might seem expensive at $30, it is a wonderful record of the exhibition to keep, not only for the excellent quality of the photos of the objects, but especially for the detailed historical and cultural information in the text.

We can be justifiably proud of the humanity expressed in the meeting of the minds of Fr Nicola Mapelli, Ulrike Al-Khamis and Carol Cooper in bringing together the best of the collections in the Vatican Anima Mundi Museum, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and our own National Museum of Australia.  As Dr Barbara Jatta writes: “As I followed the preparation of this exhibition, I was sincerely struck by the beauty and sophistication of the Islamic world – I saw firsthand the refined productions of people living across a vast area stretching from Africa to Australia.”

For Australians now as much as for Pope Pius XI in 1925, such appreciation of others’ beliefs and cultures is essential for a better future around the world.  This exhibition is not to be missed.

 © Frank McKone, Canberra