Tuesday, 4 December 2018

2018: Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page

Coda for Shirley by Geoff Page.  Presented by The Acting Company in association with Shadowhouse Pits at The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, December 4-8, 2018.

Director – Kate Blackhurst; Lighting Design – Ben Pik; Set Design – Ronan Moss; Sound – Neville Pye

Micki Beckett as Shirley; Nikki-Lyn Hunter as Shirley’s elder daughter, Sarah; Elaine Noon as younger daughter, Jane; Alex McPherson as Jen, Sarah’s daughter-in-law.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 4

Coda for Shirley is perhaps the final part of a verse-play trilogy. 

I missed Shirley and Lawrie, about their loving relationship (she in her seventies; he aged 81), largely on a romantic tour of Europe, some years after the death of Shirley’s dependable but less than exciting husband of 30 years, Ted.

In Cara Carissima (reviewed here December 17, 2015), we saw public servant Barry, Sarah’s husband, leaving her for Cara, his executive assistant; and leaving her with two sons.

Now Shirley, once again on her own since Lawrie accidentally drove into an elm tree and was killed, is in need of hip replacements and has had a heart attack, leaving her wheelchair-bound in a nursing home.  Knowing she may not live long, she writes to her daughters in a poem, about the terms of her will, leaving most of her estate directly to Sarah’s sons, rather than to the daughters.

So the stage has three settings: Shirley downstage centre with the will, in her wheelchair next to a small table; the two sisters upstage on our right at a kitchen bench with glasses and a supply of wine bottles; on our left a swinging garden chair for Jen, who with the boys had formed a modern quality rock band named Noise.

All speak in rhyming couplets: Shirley presents her poem, which she has written and sent to her daughters, directly to us; Jen speaks to us as if we are present at a funeral which she attends with the two boys (is it their father Barry’s funeral, or Lawrie’s – I lost track somewhere at this point); while Jane and Sarah talk to each other behind the fourth wall as we see them becoming tipsy discussing their mother and her will, trying to avoid (and failing) talking about men.

Though they can see how their mother’s late-in-life fling with Lawrie gave her a new sense of freedom after a conventional married life with their father Ted, Lawrie has upset the apple cart by leaving his estate to Shirley. 

There is little action, each set position being lit independently, and so one has to concentrate essentially on the spoken words.  Though the sets and costumes were well presented, as time went along (for an hour and a bit) I felt I could quite happily close my eyes and listen.  I thought of the ABC ad for Radio National iView. 

But more suitably I found myself misquoting Dylan Thomas – Shirley goes reasonably quietly into that good night – taking me into thinking of Under Milk Wood – A Play for Voices. 

And I have seen this done before as a theatre production, as if the audience were in a radio studio but not able to see the performers. All That Fall by Samuel Beckett (which he said was “for voices not bodies” and was broadcast by the BBC in 1957) was presented by Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland, for Sydney Festival at Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney (reviewed here January 18, 2014.) with the audience seated in rocking chairs among surround-sound loudspeakers.

This really did not work very well, but I suspect that Coda for Shirley would be very effective on radio.  Or it could be done with an audience as if in a studio, as The Goons did so succesfully.  Or by taking the idea of the All That Fall production, but gather the audience in small groups, each around a loudspeaker, as if each were a family listening in as we used to do in the 1950s.

After all, it is family that this poem-play is about – of the three generations (even four when Shirley recalls her father’s part in World War II) – and gathering around the wireless seems to me to feel just right.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 29 November 2018

2018: Revolt. She Said. Revolt. by Alice Birch

Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch (UK).  The Street Company at The Street Theatre, Canberra, November 28 – December 1, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 29

Director – Karla Conway; Assistant to the Director – Daniel Berthon; Lighting Design – Jed Buchanan; Set Concept – Karla Conway, Sam Pickering; Set Realisation – Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kimmo Vennonen

Anneka van der Velde; Ash Hamilton-Smith; Bronte Forrester; Damon Baudin; Hayden Splitt; Hiyab Kerr

To one side there is a representation of a wall, with a central door, except that it consists of netting.  What seem like windblown scraps are suspended in the net like caught birds.  The image seems to me what the play is about.  Modern city life as young lovers, office workers, and as family members is fundamentally disjointed – meaninglessly flung; flattened against some reality which is itself insubstantial.

In this production, the three men – different from each other but somehow the same – represent all men, imagine themselves to be in charge of their lives and therefore in control of women.  Their delusion makes life even more impossible for the three women, who find some sort of solace in a group together by the end – but saying “revolt” and “revolt again” makes no real difference.  Words, literally in this production, are no more than projections on the wall opposite the bird-catching net.

The performance style is something that I can define only as “metrosexual”, belonging to a generation way ahead of my style of living.  Yet, as theatre goes, this production satisfies my requirement for truth in performance – sincerity of motivation. 

The weird thing is that the newly formed The Street Company, nurtured through a year of work to reach its first professional production by Karla Conway (previously artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre and currently Education Program manager at the Canberra Theatre Centre) demonstrates in its strength of ensemble playing the exact opposite of Alice Birch’s theme.  In their working together so well, there is a sense of purpose and direction in their lives as actors, while the characters they play are but mere bagatelles tossed about with no end except talk of revolt.

So how odd it is to see a such a successful production of something I might call “anti-theatre”.  I have found a useful explanation of Birch’s playwriting on a page (with no acknowledgement of the author) titled Biography of Alice Birch at https://rpn.univ-lille3.fr/public/aulias/aliceBirch/co/aliceBirch_racine_1.html :

“The plays can be called post-dramatic in that they always question the dramatic form itself. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is loud and dialogues overlap, and yet we hear; the notions of narrative and characters are deconstructed, sometimes two scenes are played at exactly the same time, and yet something happens on stage; sex and body fluids and strong language exude from the actors' bodies, and yet they all crave for peace and quiet and connexion. But for all the noise the plays make, when language happens, it is hesitantly assertive, or assertively hesitant. Not so much in a state of infancy as in a state of urgency, when you want to say so much and yet the words won't come easily, when even silence is potent.”

The program states “The Street Company is the next generation of Canberra talent”, in, as I see it, the long tradition perhaps beginning with Elbow Theatre’s Elbow Room, about which I wrote in July 2000, Elbow's program offers "live music, stand up comedy, sock puppetry, serious dwama, new writing, skits, faux rudeness, talent, 'art' etc", and the only thing I missed were the socks. And whose director, Iain Sinclair, went on to a highly successful professional career. 

Karla Conway writes “Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt Again. represents the professional debut of The Street Company.  It has been a gift to be given the responsibility of Alice Birch’s words, which make tangible the collective experiences of women through time, to the here and now.  I look forward to seeing the careers of our artists soar in years to come.”

And indeed, so do I.

Photos: Shelly Higgs

Bronte Forrester and Anneke van der Velde
in Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch

Bronte Forrester and Damon Baudin
in Revolt. She Said. Revolt. by Alice Birch

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 23 November 2018

2018: I Love Paris - Salon at The Street with Jane Rutter

Jane Rutter - Madame Flute
I Love Paris.  Salon at The Street, hosted by Jane Rutter (flute) accompanied by Marcello Maio (accordion and piano).  The Street Theatre, Canberra, Friday November 23, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Jane Rutter told her story of how she came to be taught by the famous French flautist, Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal, in Paris at the age of eighteen. 

Lots of people in today’s audience nodded their heads wisely as she mentioned her enthusiasm for Rampal’s recordings – bought by her parents from the World Record Club.  I well remember those too, as I started buying them as soon as the World Record Club started up in Australia in 1958 – the year I began uni, and the very year Jane Rutter was born.  So I felt quite at home with my old vinyls – they’re still comfortably stacked, waiting for their turn on the turntable.

So it was a very pleasant fireside chat about her living in Paris for four years at that time, and how much French music, from Debussy through Sati to Charles Aznavour, from mediaeval Gregorian chant to 20th Century cabaret, became her favourite thing.

Just as she became a favourite French thing, being dubbed Madame Flute and receiving the prestigious award Chevalière de l’Ordre des Arts at Lettres (though she seemed a little bemused, or at least amused, to think of herself as a Knight).

It was a bit like a family slide night, except that the pictures were all pieces of music, performed with her signature sensitivity and emotional depth.  Marcello Maio, switching regularly between piano accordion and grand piano, was far more than mere accompanist. 

In fact, I felt that in the early stages Jane seemed a touch less confident than I expected – in telling her story; but never when expressing herself through her flute, of course; or rather several different kinds of flute.  Marcello provided a strength of musicianship and warmth of personality which brought everything together as the hour and ten progressed.

So, as we all had hoped, extra pieces and encores took the show to a good hour and a half, taking us out into the foyer for supper.  But only after we had joined in, according to the degree of our Frenchness, to the theme and variations (including even a touch of Waltzing Matilda) on La Marseillaise.

My phone couldn't cope with the lighting too well, but here's an impression of Jane and Marcello in action:
Photo: Frank McKone (with permission)

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018: Madiba the Musical

Madiba the Musical at Canberra Theatre Centre, November 22 – 24, 2018.

Author & Composer – Jean-Pierre Hadida (French language); Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida & Alicia Sebrien; English Adaptation by Dylan Hadida & Dennis Watkins.

Director (France) – Pierre Yves-Duchesne; Director (Australia) – Dennis Watkins; Musical Director – Michael Tyack; Choreographer – Johan Nus; English Language Producer – Neil Croker.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 22

Amandla in the Nguni languages means "power". The word was a popular rallying cry in the days of resistance against apartheid, used by the African National Congress and its allies. The leader of a group would call out "Amandla!" and the crowd would respond with "Awethu" or "Ngawethu!" (to us), completing the South African version of the rallying cry "power to the people!".

To create a musical in which the central character is isolated in jail for 27 years in the prime of his life, from the age of 44 to 71, has to be a daunting challenge.  But the spirit of Nelson Mandela is built into Madiba the Musical.  Amandla!  Though some reviewers criticise the quality of the song writing and music, in the end it is the spirit which shines through.

The story can be told in just a few pictures (selected from the most attractive and highly informative program), and audiences here can feel justifiably proud that the original director, Pierre-Yves Duchesne, could write:

“[Seeking] a cast to deliver this story on my first trip to Melbourne and Sydney earlier this year for auditions, I discovered the giant artistic talent pool of this country.  We were able to work with the most talented artists, artists with strength in the three disciplines of musical theatre: singing, dancing and acting.  I am sure you will enjoy seeing your cast, a cast that would honour any stage in the world.”

The front cover above shows the hidden figure of Mandela as a spirit of the landscape of South Africa (so much of which is reminiscent of Australia since we were once joined together in Gondwana-land).

Here we see Mandela, the young lawyer in 1962 - the first black African to establish his own law firm.

In 1964 Mandela was charged with treason, found guilty because he could not say that if an armed rebellion against the apartheid regime took place, he would not support it.  This is the image of him in jail on Robben Island, off the coast of Capetown, where supporters had almost no access – one letter and one visitor per six months – because he was graded a Class D prisoner.

Here we see Nelson Mandela as a traditional figure of reknown, and his wife Winnie who stood by him throughout his incarceration.  At this point in 1982, after graduating to Class A prisoner in 1975, Mandela was transferred from the maximum security prison on Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town. From there, Mandela was moved to the then Victor Verster Prison on 9 December 1988, where he was able to communicate secretly with the exiled leader of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo – and gained his LLB degree in law.

Though still in prison but steadfast in his belief that “freedom is our right”, and therefore can never be granted with conditions by anyone else,  here we see Mandela in his strength with his principles supporting the young couple establishing their love across the colour boundary.  Their story becomes central to our emotional engagement in Madiba the Musical.

And here is the image representing the practical purpose of Mandela’s position: all the people, whether “black”, “coloured” or “white” show their votes – one person, one vote – in the first truly democratic election in South Africa, in which Mandela (freed in 1990) was elected President on May 10, 1994.  We heard his speech, in silence, between the singing and dancing:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people.  We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The audience last night, filling the Canberra Theatre Centre, themselves represented all those rainbow colours and felt the power of Amandla! continuing in more dancing and singing of the South African National Anthem, and extended applause and cheering – finally ending after the most exciting curtain call I can remember in any theatre.

Perhaps the greatest cheer was for the amazing physical acrobatic display as the modern rapper, singer and songwriter he is, David Denis, the narrator who linked this huge story together with humour, wit and understanding.  Here he is:

Madiba the Musical is very good musical theatre about a great man who must never be forgotten – in South Africa, Australia, or the whole world.  The creation and world-wide presentation of Madiba, here in its first English language production (after its original success in France) will surely play its part in the betterment of society everywhere.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

2018: A Cheery Soul by Patrick White

A Cheery Soul by Patrick White.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, November 5 – December 15, 2018.

Directed by Kip Williams.  Starring Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 20

I hardly know what I can write that will do full justice to this impressive production of A Cheery Soul.  Anything I might say would be like the school teacher analysing the poetry out of the poem.

Yet not to write is to fail in my duty.  So I must write, just as Miss Docker is compelled to speak her ‘truth’, and beg your forgiveness.

Much drama most people see today, mainly on screen, is written to a formula.  True drama is a mystery, created in the imagination – original because it is never formulaic.

Patrick White was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”.  There’s a mystery in this citation which portends another PhD, but A Cheery Soul was first staged in 1963 and must surely have played its part in that award.

Nobel Prizes are not given for formulaic work, and Kip Williams surely understands that White’s imagination in creating the do-gooder from hell, Miss Docker, must be respected by an imaginative presentation to match White’s invention.
 Photos by Daniel Boud

There will be people who dislike the result – like the couple next to me who did not reappear after interval.  But I, and all who stayed, became fascinated by the disturbing mix of realism and expressionism, culminating in an entirely unexpected empathy with the loneliness of Miss Docker’s ending.

Sarah Peirse, working so bravely on a two-ring revolve with live video in a remarkable stage design, showed us that behind her insistent domineering goodness which inexplicably set normal people against her, Miss Docker finally understood that she, like all of us, is alone in the universe – when the blue heeler dog, or god, she tried to befriend, pee’d on her skirt.

Peirse thoroughly deserved her extra applause when she stepped forward at curtain call – but then as she brought the whole cast forward, all were equally recognised.  The sense of a living organism with Peirse / Miss Docker at the nucleus was palpable.

So there was the mystery of true drama.  To show that, though at our core we are alone and ultimately insignificant, as is White’s philosophy, it is ironic that everyone – director and designers, performers and operators, backstage and on stage – must be (and certainly were) a complex cooperative group in which no-one is alone.

I could, of course, write screeds about the significance of the play and how STC has presented it, but the excellent program will do this for you.

Only please read the program only after seeing the show.  Predetermined expectations, however correct, will cut back on the surprise element which makes this show dramatically exciting.

To conclude, this production of A Cheery Soul – with its terribly ironic title – is an outstanding achievement by the Sydney Theatre Company.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018: Love by Patricia Cornelius

Love by Patricia Cornelius.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, November 17 – December 9, 2018.

Director – Rachel Chant; Production Designer – Ella Butler; Assistant Director – Hannah Goodwin; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland; Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson.

Performed by Rose Riley (Annie); Anna Samson (Tanya); Hoa Xuande (Lorenzo.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 21 (opening night)

In 75 minutes of intense dialogue, among three often inarticulate characters, is uncomfortable to watch.  That’s Patrica Cornelius’ intention. 

Between words, and scene changes made by merely moving to different positions along a straight-line left to right rostrum, the characters’ feelings towards each other become concentrated in a remarkable scripting of urban poor life.  For the playwright, and ultimately for us watching, the play is a study of the expectations and failures of love.

For the characters, each created so effectively – showing not only Riley’s, Samson’s and Xuande’s skills, but sure-footed detailed directing down to millisecond changes in mood and realisation of others’ intention – love is a necessity, an obsession, and a curse.

Young woman Annie, “been fucking since I was nine”, has only one way to support herself financially.  At sixteen going on nineteen, as the play progresses, how does this happen? 

Tanya, transexual identifying female, supports herself mainly by robbery, spending short periods in jail.  Claims to love Annie, and helps her by “managing” her work.

While Tanya is in jail, Lorenzo sees an opportunity to take over managing Annie, and persuades her that he loves her too.

The result is a bitter three-way contest pulling apart the naive and essentially romantic Annie, who wants her life to be different – except that they are all bound by failed education, failed family upbringing, and the need to survive in poverty.

For me the play stopped being a “study” of love, but became an indictment of a society which sets up such destruction of people’s natural capacity and need for love.

Glenn Terry, artistic director of the non-profit Darlinghurst Theatre Company, writes of Patricia Cornelius “Her opus of work is a fearless investigation of our world and Australian society.  Cornelius’ plays are not usually programmed by professional [ie the major] companies and through professionally staging Love I wanted to give this excellent play the attention Cornelius’ work deserves.”

This production achieves just that.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 16 November 2018

2018: One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini).  Canberra Repertory Theatre, November 15(Preview) – December 2, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening night November 16

If all you need is a thoroughly enjoyable laugh-out-loud evening as light relief from the absurdity of life, you can’t do better than this zany production of One Man, Two Guvnors.

If you don’t need to know why, stop reading now and book in immediately.  02 6257 1950.

About the production: it’s very cleverly done, but just make sure you are not Karen Vickery!  Did she fall for it on opening night, or was she pushed?

Director / Set Designer – Chris Baldock
Assistant Director / Musical Director / Dance Captain – Karina Hudson
Stage Manager – Joel Edmondson; Costume Design – Helen Drum
Lighting Design – Helen Nosworthy and Kai Fisher
Sound design – Joel Edmondson and Karina Hudson
Properties – Belinda Gamlen; Production Manager – Malcolm Houston

Skiffle Band: Nick Dennis – Lead vocals, guitar, harmonica;
Peter McDonald – Percussion; Hayley Manning – Double Bass

Paul Sweeney - Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench    Holly Ross - Pauline Clench
Patrick Collins - Harry Dangle        Brenton Cleaves - Alan Dangle
Steph Roberts - Dolly            Marc Mowbray-d’Arbela - Lloyd Boateng
Arran McKenna - Francis Henshall        Meaghan Stewart - Rachel Crabbe
Patrick Galen-Mules - Stanley Stubbers    Michael Cooper - Alfie
Declan James - Gareth
Ensemble: Annabel Foulds; Antonia Kitzel; Mark Ritchie

I’m going to begin by cheating.  It’s modern media, you see.  Youtube.  On Broadway, the original National Theatre production starring James Corden. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33u5Ms86hQQ

Canberra Rep’s set design I liked better, but I can see that director Chris Baldock has gone for the same style of acting, and Helen Drum’s costumes are deliciously British all over. 

Baldock’s Director’s Note makes it clear that we are seeing a very professional ‘amateur’ theatre production for Canberra Repertory Theatre following his success at the similar Heidelberg Theatre Company in Melbourne some two years ago.  This is not a criticism – it’s proof that experience makes the pudding more scrumptious.

Baldock wrote “When I initially read One Man, Two Guvnors, I thought it was fairly humorous but failed to see what made it such a hit.  It wasn’t until subsequent reads that I realised it is what the director and cast brought to it that gave it its potential for a hilarious night in the theatre”.  And indeed that is what makes this production sparkle.

But for me, personally, and perhaps for other long-retired persons with an English history, there were reminders – and some other thoughts.

First, only if you recognise and have visceral feelings about the following list of names will you have understood Richard Bean’s play more fully.  These are (for me largely radio, before my family’s first television in 1952) the comedians Arthur Askey, Tommy Handley, Norman Wisdom, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Tony Hancock.  It was the latter who hit me for six in 1968.

Hancock’s career began in 1942, the beginning of my life, and Hancock’s Half Hour, with Sid James on the BBC (1954 – 1961) was etched in my 14 year-old memory as I arrived in Australia in 1955.  Tony Hancock came to Sydney in 1968 – and committed suicide.  By now acting and directing myself, the news brought me up short.  How could that gentle comedian I still admired so much, kill himself?

That’s when I seriously began to question the popularity of American Method acting, and studied Stanislavski for what he really meant, with a lot of help from the work of Hayes Gordon and his Ensemble in-the-round Theatre in Sydney.

Here is the clue to the success of Chris Baldock and his beautifully selected cast of actors.  It looks like the National Theatre, but it’s not an imitation.  Perhaps it is even better because in the small scale theatre of Theatre 3, rather than the small but still 860 seat Music Box Theatre on Broadway, the cast could so easily establish physical interplay with us in the auditorium.  We all felt part of the play, and several, including the unfortunate Karen Vickery, played our parts on stage.  Karen thoroughly deserved our applause at curtain call after her thorough soaking just before interval.

This week, in three days of theatre in Canberra, I have seen American culture presented effectively (and therefore critically) by Everyman Theatre; English culture presented so effectively and effusively by Canberra Rep that it feels like going back to my childhood there; and the presentation by Scott Rankin at the National Museum of Australia, of his Platform Paper No 57, Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive, advocating “for communities experiencing the effects of disadvantage [especially our Indigenous First Peoples]”, arguing “that culture is a human right”.

One Man, Two Guvnors may be the English culture to which so many of us colonisers belong.  Rankin says “It may appear that I’m suggesting that the individual-messiah-genius-as-artist is not the only way to create theatre”, and it is obvious that Chris Baldock understands what Rankin means.  Australian culture is multicultural, and each culture has its place, whether disadvantaged or not – so long as we do not fail to respect each other’s human right.

Or as Rankin wrote: “Culture, and therefore cultural rights, are not the gravy on the economic meat and potatoes. Culture is nutrition itself.” 

Go enjoy the absurdity on stage, as relief from the absurdity of real life.

Canberra Repertory Theatre, set and direction by Chris Baldock
The audience were all upstanding for God Save the Queen!

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 15 November 2018

2018: Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive by Scott Rankin

Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive by Scott Rankin.  Platform Paper No 57, November 2018 (Currency House, Sydney)

Commentary by Frank McKone
November 15, 2018

“Culture, and therefore cultural rights, are not the gravy on the economic meat and potatoes. Culture is nutrition itself.”

If anyone can speak for community arts and cultural development (CACD), Scott Rankin can.

I first saw the work of BIG hART, with the Pitjantjatjara people, telling their story of Trevor Jamieson’s family history in Ngapartji Ngapartji.  It was shocking to see the effects on the country and the people, of invasion by horse and camel, of the World Wars and worst of all, as I wrote in the Canberra Times, January 17, 2008, “the explosion of nine major atomic bombs and many smaller bomb trials from 1953 to 1965 which killed and irradiated very many Pitjantjatjara and other Central Australian people.  Jamieson’s parents were orphans, refugees from their own country.” 

I knew then that Rankin would be a force to be reckoned with, and reading Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive now makes clear what was meant by the acknowledgement in that review “Written by Scott Rankin and co-creator Trevor Jamieson”.  At the time I imagined the two of them sitting down in a clay pan writing the script, but – to use my kind of terminology – they were enablers, finding the way with the whole community to express what needed to be told: firstly for themselves and ultimately for the rest of the world.

This is what Rankin calls “thinking big” and explains the title of what became the non-profit company BIG hART.

Before you read this Platform Paper – which is essential reading for theatre practitioners and critics – it would be good to know with whom you are dealing, to quote Pirate Jenny (of Threepenny Opera fame).  This requires a substantial quote from the January 2008 (ie a decade ago) annual Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture given by Scott Rankin at the Sydney Festival:

"The phrase, ‘Taken with a grain of salt’, means something like ‘to view something with a healthy dose of skepticism’.  Its original meaning, however, was far more onerous and dates back to the the rather imposing figure of Pliny the Elder who was born around 79AD and wrote the best selling tome, Naturalis Historia, in which he nominated salt as an important antidote for poisons.  In addressing [the title of the lecture] ‘DIY Virtuosity versus Professional Mediocrity’, I may inadvertently mention such things as:
 The process of creating new work with large groups of people;
 I may accidentally mention the word ‘community’;
 I may allude to the idea of ‘political’ work – both in terms of content of the theatre piece and the processes used to produce it;
 It may appear that I’m suggesting that the individual-messiah-genius-as-artist is not the only way to create theatre;
 You may even think I’m suggesting that governance should not be the main preoccupation for the boards of theatre companies; or that the pool of ex-Cranbrook, ex-Grammar, ex-Macquarie Bank Sydney business/legal/professionals is not necessarily the best pool from which to draw one’s board members for an arts company. 

"[These are] all dangerous, subversive and poisonous concepts I know, so pass the salt if need be.  From the other point of view, I may inadvertently use a dangerous word like virtuosity, or
 Somehow suggest I’m happy with the term ‘élite arts’ and that, God forbid, the term is useful;
 That there is a place for the individual vision of an artist, and that not every work has to be committed to the mediocrity inspired by creation through committee;
 You could misconstrue my words to suggest that somehow I think theatre is something more than just the nightly retail of small oblong pieces of printed cardboard, the hiring – for two hours – of an uncomfortable seat and the flogging of an overpriced glass of sponsored plonk and a wedge of cheap Cheddar cheese.

"In the current ‘either/or’ Arts climate, many of these concepts are of course poisonous,so, if I were you, to be on the safe side, I’d follow the advice of Pliny the Elder, and just quietly help yourself to some salt, should you be feeling a little queasy."
(Full text in Australasian Drama Studies No 52, April 2008)

So that was the background to the Ngapartji Ngapartji project, the whole Pitjantjatjara community work which, I think it’s fair to say, stunned the establishment from its inception at the 2005 Melbourne International Arts festival as a work in progress, through the production I saw at Belvoir, Sydney in 2008 to the 2011 International Community Arts Festival, Rotterdam, Netherlands (Ngapartji One). 

On the way it was seen in
2006 Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs (Developmental Showing)
2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival (World Premiere)
2006 Sydney Opera House (Language Show)
2007 Perth International Arts Festival
2007 The Dreaming Festival,(Language Show)
2007 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, (Language Show)
2008 Sydney Festival, Belvoir St Theatre
2008 Ernabella, (Open Air Community Showing)
2008 Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs
and finally (perhaps) in 2012 Canberra, Canberra Theatre Centre (Ngapartji One)

BIG hART and Rankin’s Platform Paper make it clear that this work is a ‘project’.  The next most well-known is the Namatjira project, which has wonderfully resulted in the copyright in Albert’s paintings only recently being returned by the Northern Territory Government to the family, with a compensation payment for that government’s wrongdoing in allowing their Public Trustee to sell the copyright to a private art-selling business.  The stage play was reviewed here on October 19, 2010 at Belvoir, Sydney; the movie documentary Namatjira Project appeared in October 2017.

In Canberra, we have been grateful to have hosted another huge BIG hART project, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia, originating with the Martu people of Roebourne, Western Australia – “Stories originally performed on country are shared in new ways, with artworks becoming portals to the deserts of the Martu, the Ngaanyatjarra and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples.” 
[ http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/songlines ]

In his speech today, launching Platform Paper No 57 at the National Museum of Australia, Rankin – recently announced as the Australian of the Year for Tasmania (where his career began in Burnie, following the closure of the timber mill some 25 years ago) – pointed out two key issues concerning Australian Indigenous people.

The great preponderance of government funding goes to a relatively small number of Major Performing Arts Companies – only one of which, Bangarra, is Indigenous.  At the same time the huge preponderance of smaller companies receive between them barely one third of the MPC total funding.

And, he explained, cultural justice is about supporting all cultures within the overall Australian culture, with the Indigenous people not only having arguably the greatest need on socio-economic grounds, but especially because of the longstanding nature of their culture. 

While European culture has been here in Australia for some 10 generations, and the culture of Ancient Egypt began some 130 generations ago, Aboriginal Australia goes back an estimated 2,400 generations, and is still evolving.  BIG hART is engaged with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation who manage their 40,000 year-old rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, in the Dampier Archipelago near Karratha, Western Australia, as they make their claim for UN World Heritage Listing – for the art, the first in the world to depict human figures and faces; and for their continuing culture in which the art is a crucial element in educating each new generation.

When I reported on the Big Ideas recording about the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition, on this blog November 17, 2017 [broadcast on ABC Radio National, January 24, 2018], I was struck by Scott Rankin’s manner.  While the Indigenous women, the curator Margo Neale and designer Alison Page held the floor, where was the firebrand one imagines from that Rex Cramphorn lecture?  Here was a quiet, almost self-effacing participant, very much in keeping, I thought with the manner of the young Martu man, Curtis Taylor, whose film-making with his elders made the telling of the story so personal and engaging for the blockbuster crowds of all cultural backgrounds who visited the exhibition.

As you see the firebrand Rankin again in the section in the Platform Paper called Stat-chat: CACD funding 2017-2018 and his final chapter The Way Forward, the answer is to remember the quotation from Rex Cramphorn (who I have to admit taught me achingly briefly for an hour or two in a summer camp workshop and was a major influence on my own drama teaching). As an introduction to the annual Memorial Lecture given by Scott Rankin, Cramphorn’s words were:

I believed that my most important function was to establish an atmosphere in which the grace of creativity might fall on any member of the group, giving him or her the right to lead the work.
 Rex Cramphorn

When I reviewed a project from BIG hART’s Project Cosmopolitana and the resulting stage performance local to us in the Canberra region – Ghosts in the Scheme – about the community in Cooma who had built the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the mid-20th  Century, I felt that it had not “produced highly effective theatrical storytelling of great significance to the wider Australian community” as I had seen in Ngapartji Ngapartji and Namatjira. [September 2, 2015].

Now,with Cramphorn in mind, I can read Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive and come to understand how Scott Rankin could tell you as follows:

Firstly, in his launch speech today, that BIG hART’s is a ‘non-welfare approach’, and in the Paper itself: “There is never a perfect project and failure is always a critical part of the mix. Being a humble listener, rather than focusing on delivering ‘solutions’, is a vital skill for artists in these cultural rights settings.”

Ghosts in the Scheme was a case where the essential value of the project was in the process, rather than a conventionally staged product.  Even so, it did have strength in the songs and performances by Michael Simic and his Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen.  I had taught Michael and knew his father, who had come to Australia from Eastern Europe and worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Mikelangelo, of course, continues a successful career today.
[ http://www.mikelangelo.net.au/

At the launch today he performed songs developed from that show, in the presence of his parents – and confirmed in conversation with me the value of that project as cultural justice for the community; for the men who “Wake in the dark / Work in the dark/ Sleep in the dark” in the hope that some day “The sun will shine in”.

Biassed as I may be, I say read Scott Rankin and be glad for CACD (and fund it at its real value):

“Cultural policy must be rebuilt from the ground up to meet the urgencies of the twenty-first century. We need to stop encouraging debilitating clusters of cultural sameness, while robbing high-needs communities of their human right to culture. Robbery is what it is.”

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

2018: 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose

12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Everyman Theatre at Queanbeyan Bicentennial Centre, November 14 – 24, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Director – Jarrad West; Set Design – Martin Searles; Costume Design – Fiona Leach; Sound Design and Composition – Tim Hansen; Lighting – Eclipse Lighting, Benjamin Novak; Voice/Dialect Coach – Tony Turner

Considering this play is essentially a clear thinking exercise about what “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” means, as distinct from “not guilty”, and is therefore inevitably structured to go from 11 guilty / 1 not guilty to 12 not guilty, it needs a close-knit ensemble effort for the actors to create 12 distinctive characters of equal dramatic standing.

Everyman Theatre’s production of 12 Angry Men succeeds very well with excellent casting and strong detailed directing from Jarrad West. 

I was very pleased to see that, from the USA flags on the jury room table, to the accents and mannerisms, and I think the types of characters, the concept of the play was strictly American.  Though on stage it was first produced in Britain in 1964, the original teleplay for the CBS Studio One anthology television series was written in 1954. 

It was perhaps ironic, certainly for us as Canberrans and Queanbeyanites, that as we entered our jury room set up in the Queanbeyan Bicentennial Centre on Wednesday November 14 2018, so did a real jury retire to consider their verdict in the almost six-month long re-trial of David Harold Eastman, accused (and previously found guilty) of the murder of Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner, Colin Winchester, on January 10, 1989 – almost 30 years ago.

“Justice Murray Kellam concluded his directions in the final stage of the five-month trial on Wednesday, telling jurors the burden rests solely with the prosecution and it is not for Eastman to prove his innocence.”
 [ https://www.theherald.com.au/story/5759028/eastman-jury-considers-its-verdict/?cs=7 ]

A jury found him guilty in 1995, but in Australia we had abolished the death penalty long before, so he was sentenced to life imprisonment – enabling Eastman to continue to claim his innocence and for an inquiry to raise the question of the possibility of new evidence or miscarriage of justice in the original trial.

In America in 1954, and still in far too many States, the death penalty is still applied, at least for first degree murder.  Though Everyman Theatre could not have predicted what would occur on their opening night of 12 Angry Men, it has turned out an auspicious occasion.  After all, that’s what the play is really about – that the possibility of doubt about the prosecution’s case implies that a sixteen-year-old accused of killing his violent father could not, in conscience, be executed.

We do not know as I write on Thursday morning November 15 what the Eastman jury will decide.  But it will not lead to his execution, either way.

As to the production of the play, the setting in the round on the floor of the expansive Bicentennial Centre – rather than on the proscenium stage of The Q theatre – had its pro and con. 

The con of a rebounding acoustic quality in the barn-like space (from the back row, slightly higher than the rows between me and the jury room table, to give me a bit better sightline), meant that I heard every sound but couldn’t always distinguish every word.

But the pro of the atmosphere for a fly-on-the-wall experience won hands down.  Enough detail of the arguments over evidence came through, but you didn’t need to hear all the words of these angry men.  West’s direction concentrated on the emotions – from grotesque violence to embarrassed silences – combined with careful choreography of the twelve, like a dance work; resulting in an engrossing inescapable drama.

Though it is a play from that other world – the past – where things are done differently, setting it in its time and place allows us to reflect on the issues.  The legalistic arguments at this level (did the old man really hear the boy shout “I’m going to kill you”?; could the woman from the other side of the train track have actually seen what she said she saw without her glasses on?) may seem unlikely – yet there are questions about the evidence in the Eastman case quite like these (about the purchase of the gun, for example).

And whether today’s jury in Australia includes people with the kinds of prejudices which direct the behaviour of so many of these 12 men is certainly a matter of concern. 

Three issues arose in the play for mention as relevant today: the attack on the educated European migrant who speaks with a non-American accent (but actually speaks better English than his “ocker” equivalent attacker; the assumption that all lower socio-economic people are essentially dangerous; and the still very current belief by men that a woman’s evidence should not be trusted, simply because she is a woman!

I had wondered whether there was a need to put 12 Angry Men on again (it has a long history of performances in many forms).  Now I conclude that this production should not be missed.


Juror No 1 – Tony Turner              Juror No 2 – Will Huang
Juror No 3 – Rob de Fries              Juror No 4 – Martin Searles
Juror No 5 – Glenn Brighenti        Juror No 6 – Pat Gallagher
Juror No 7 – Alex Hoskison          Juror No 8 – Isaac Reilly
Juror No 9 – Geoffrey Borny        Juror No 10 – Colin Giles
Juror No 11 – Duncan Driver        Juror No 12 – Cole Hilder
Guard – Lucas Frank                     Judge (Voice Over) – Chris Baldock

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 11 November 2018

2018: Exclusion by David Atfield

Exclusion written and directed by David Atfield.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, November 9-17, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 11

Political staffer Craig – Ethan Gibson; Jasper and Jacinta Ferrier - Craig Alexander and Fiona Victoria Hopkins –  contending for the position of Prime Minister and First Lady with Michael and Caroline Connor – Michael Sparks and Tracy Bourne.

Set & Costume Design – Imogen Keen; Lighting Design – Hartley T A Kemp; Sound Design – James Tighe.

Though Exclusion begins as if it will be satirical comedy – laid out in an almost cartoon-like story-board – it turns out to be in a dramatic Tardis form.  It looks small-scale from the outside, but once you get inside, its dimensions expand enormously; even quite disturbingly.

As a result I found myself increasingly respecting David Atfield as the play progressed: not merely for his skill in developing a surprising plot reaching an unexpected ‘neat’ ending; nor for providing his actors with demanding characterisations to challenge them; but especially for making me see the complexity of each character’s understanding of themselves in an interplay of attraction, love, and betrayal in sexual and political relationships.

A reviewer should be unbiassed – or at least that’s what many readers expect – but to appreciate the worth of the study of sexuality in Exclusion, one must reveal one’s own understanding first.  I knew very clearly as a teenager (the period that each character in the play has to re-examine for themselves) that though I never fitted in to the conventional macho-aggressive male culture, my sexual behaviour was absolutely hetero.  As an avid reader of English literature, of course, I was well aware of homosexuality but never felt attracted in that direction (though there were opportunities).

In Atfield’s play of the three men, only the modern younger man Craig (in his twenties) is secure in his understanding of his feelings of attraction and love – for men. 

Jasper (in his forties) uses both Jacinta and Craig for sex, but is thoroughly self-centred with little self-awareness – apart from his aim to gain political power.  Does he actually ever love anyone?

Ethan Gibson as Craig; Craig Alexander as Jasper

Michael (in his fifties) has repressed his homosexuality after one experience in his youth, and has played the conventional role of husband, despite losing interest in sex with Caroline without being able to explain why – until his relationship with Craig allows him to understand himself.

These three characters provide enough rethinking, you would think.  But Atfield also allows us to understand the feelings (entirely heterosexual) and the complicated situations of each of the women in having to deal with these messed-up men throughout their marriages.

By the end of the play – just as finally in the latest Dr Who – the Tardis is landed by the women.  They have the practical common sense, determination  and self-awareness which the male political ‘leaders’ lack.  Here there are some implications about our real faction-fighting politicians, especially considering the stories of Catherine Marriott, Sarah Hanson-Young, Ashleigh Raper, and Barnaby Joyce.  Indeed, Malcolm Turnbull’s ban on bonking among politicians and staffers, got a mention – and a laugh, though we were well past simple satirical comedy by then.

Fiona Victoria Hopkins and Tracy Bourne
as Jacinta and Caroline

Atfield’s women lay it on the line.  Hopkins’ Jacinta is absolutely, and completely justifably fierce as she takes charge of her husband.  Bourne’s Caroline works out her own independent life.  And the play ends with a scene of a quiet platonic kind of love for Michael and Craig.

Marriage equality is the political issue, of course, and Craig presents the arguments in favour as he works as adviser in both Jasper and Michael’s offices.  By the end, though, you will understand why you feel Craig is right.  Argument misses the point.

As Shakespeare wrote: the play’s the thing.  Exclusion is not to be missed, and surely will travel far and wide from its beginning at The Street, Canberra.

Ethan Gibson and Michael Sparks
as Craig and Michael

Photos by Shelley Higgs

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 5 November 2018

2018: Big hART Platform Paper launch in Canberra

For review: Platform Paper No 57, November 2018

Posted by Frank McKone

© Frank McKone, Canberra / Currency House, Sydney

Monday, 29 October 2018

2018: Canberra Theatre Centre Program 2019

Canberra Theatre Centre Program 2019

Previewed by Frank McKone
October 29, 2018

Following a warmly appreciative-of-the-arts speech, by ACT Arts Minister Gordon Ramsay, the 2019 Program Launch was short and keat – ing.  The "Honourable Paul Keating" did not go quite as far as to call us unrepresentative middle-class swill, but even if he had, his absolutely biassed take-over of the prime position as MC, emphasising his own show The Gospel According to Paul above all (especially denigrating that “cheap” show The Wharf Revue) would have been applauded just as enthusiastically.

I suspect a campaign for Jonathan Biggins as Prime Minister (so long as he only ever speaks in the inimitable Keating manner) would be a great success.  Indeed, I thought Biggins sounded more impressive than Keating himself, and certainly spoke with more intelligent wit than many currently in Parliament.

The Canberra Theatre Centre is an ACT Government-run venue, administered by the Cultural Facilities Corporation.  In some countries a standard collection of conservative work might be implied, but the range of shows for us next year seems to me to represent an appropriate mix of the usual expectations and up-to-date developments.  The works are all imported, of course, leaving the other government owned theatre, The Street, attached to the Australian National University campus, to take up locally written work at a professional level, as well as more ‘fringe’ visiting productions.

The Program is presented in packaged suggestions: 

I’m obviously not up to date, having no idea what that suggests.  An online dictionary tells me: noun. Slang, a feeling of anxiety or insecurity over the possibility of missing out on something, as an event or an opportunity: If I say no to a party invitation, I get a bad case of FOMO.  In the program, “For those who need to be first to see brand-new work”, we find

Dear old Biggins (sorry – I always think of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins) with The Gospel According to Paul in March;

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the new play How to Rule the World in April by Indigenous writer Nakkiah Lui, following her Black is the New White (reviewed on this blog March 28, 2018);

The Sydney Dance Company’s new works by Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane, Cinco, Neon Aether and WOOF in May;

Kate Mulvaney in a new play by Suzie Miller, Prima Facie, presented by Griffin Theatre Company (Sydney) in June; and

Bangarra: 30th Anniversary Season – A celebration of contemporary dance, story and culture, “inspired by 65,000 years of culture and the continual evolution of Indigenous storytelling", under Artistic Director Stephen Page, in July.

These and other shows are suggested under headings


John Bell in Moliere’s The Miser (Bell Shakespeare) in April;

Barbara and the Camp Dogs from Belvoir, Sydney – “A Rock-Gig Musical…part road-story, part family drama, part political cry-from-the-heart” by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, in May/June;

The Melbourne Theatre Company stage adaptation of the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard of Shakespeare in Love, in August;

The 39 Steps, adapted from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock and the novel by John Buchan as comedy in which “four actors perform 139 roles in 100 minutes at breakneck hilarity”, presented by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, in October / November; and

The Wharf Revue 2019 in November.

The Gospel According to Paul; How to Rule the World; Barbara and the Camp Dogs; Prima Facie; The Wharf Revue; and adds

American folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie (Alice’s Restaurant Massacree) in a one night stand on April 22 (presented by BluesFest).

GET READY TO LOL (For those who enjoy a good giggle) includes
The Gospel According to Paul; How to Rule the World; The Miser; Shakespeare in Love; The Wharf Revue; and adds

Bell Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing starring Zindzi Okenyo as Beatrice, in October.

And finally MOVERS AND SHAKERS, including Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane; Barbara and the Camp Dogs; Bangarra: 30th Anniversary Season; and the add-on

Nicole Car & Etienne Depuis, with Jayson Gillham, (presented by Andrew McKinnon) in a one-off recital on August 9, “featuring romantic French and Spanish songs, as well as popular opera arias and duets”.  Australian Nicole and husband Etienne “recently starred in Puccini’s La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

It seems to me that the only months I can get away for grey nomad adventures next year will be in February (already booked for Tasmania) and September.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

2018: The Wharf Revue 2018: Déjà Revue

The Wharf Revue 2018: Déjà Revue.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 23 – November 3, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 23

Written and Created by Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe
Designer – Charles Davis; Musical Director – Andrew Worboys; Lighting Designer – Matt Cox; Sound and Video Designer – David Bergman

Rachael Beck; Jonathan Biggins; Simon Burke (for Drew Forsythe); Douglas Hansell; Andrew Worboys.

Brilliantly executed, while the Australian Government self-destructs in real life, this year’s Wharf Revue gets it all together on the satirical stage. 

While Rachael Beck as Stormy Weather (aka Daniels) nearly gets into the all-together, revealing all about a Donald so sadly inadequate and essentially uncomprehending of social or political complexity that he absolutely trumps nobody.  Not only does Stormy run rings around him: Putin and Erdogan (Donald thought Turkey was what he ate at Thanksgiving) make mincemeat of him (and the show was written before the news of the Saudi murder of Jamal Khashoggi).

I can only hope that this year’s subtitle Déjà Revue does not suggest that we’ve seen it all before, and that this could be the end of the show’s decade and a half run.  Maybe the incisive satire may prevent another back-stabbed ex-Prime Minister being performed as the pantomime Principal Boy, beautifully played by Beck, singing “Poor Little Me” as Cinderella is kicked off stage by the Three Ugly Sisters –  Kevin (!!) Andrews, Eric(a) Abetz with Tony (Toni?) Abbott the most ugly Fairy Godmother of them all. Peter (Peta?) Dutton gets his dance with Malcolm later.

Rachael Beck and Douglas Hansell
as Malcolm Turnbull (Principal Boy) and Peter Dutton (Prince Charmless)
Photo: Brett Boardman

Because revues traditionally consist of a series of skits, in 90 minutes there are far too many items for me to review them all.  But the audience members around me said it all: so many times I heard not just uncontainable laughter, but people going silent and saying almost under their breath, “Oh…No!”.  Perhaps the Tamworth Golden Guitar Country Music performance of Barnaby Joyce, including the cooking of his little sausage in the business of his family values, caught our breath most strongly.

But the highlight most memorable for this Canberra, the Federal Capital, audience was surely Biggins’ Paul Keating, the ascerbic previous Prime Minister, the last Labor man before the awful election of Conservative John Howard in 1996.  (I was there in the Tally Room, and I’ll never forget.)  Howard doesn’t appear in Déjà Revue, but we all know how he is still such an influence – especially in last Saturday’s Wentworth by-election to replace Principal Boy, Malcolm Turnbull.

Paul Keating
Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica

 Biggins’ imagined speech that Keating would give – with all the mannerisms, significant pauses and turns of phrase that we know so well – is a devastating review of our current alt-Conservative regime, tearing itself apart.  The parallel in a later scene is where Donald Trump fails to recognise his current security adviser, John Bolton, as he thinks Bolton is each of the many previous advisers he has forgotten he sacked.

“We don’t hate,” says the Wharf Revue's Jonathan Biggins. “I actually pity politicians tremendously.”  [https://www.audreyjournal.com.au/arts/wharf-revue-2018/ ]  The strength of this year’s show is that the satire is so effective because we find ourselves pitying while we laugh.  The Keating speech could have been written by Paul Keating himself – a withering indictment of political ineptitude.  Biggins’ performance was cheered and applauded, while appreciated for the comic tradition in his imitation of the real Keating’s character.

Simon Burke was so good that I didn’t miss the always terrific Drew Forsythe.  Forsythe will be back on stage for the Sydney season, but catch the Wharf Revue 2018: Déjà Revue in Canberra if you can.


Jonathan Biggins as President Donald Trump
Photo: Brett Boardman

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 19 October 2018

2018: Salon at The Street, hosted by Jane Rutter: Composers in Exile

Jane Rutter as herself
Composers in Exile by

Peter Coleman-Wright – Baritone and Piano
and the Nexas Quartet:
Michael Duke – Soprano Saxophone
Andrew Smith – Alto Saxophone
Nathan Henshaw – Tenor Saxophone
Jay Byrnes – Baritone Saxophone
with Jane Rutter – Flute

The Street Theatre, Canberra, October 19, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

L to R: Jay Byrnes, Michael Duke, Peter Coleman-Wright, Andrew Smith, Nathan Henshaw
in Composers in Exile
Jane Rutter introduced the show with Eight Pieces for Solo Flute composed in 1927 by Paul Hindemith.  Like the other composers in the main part of the performance, he had been conscripted into the German Army in World War I.  As the Nazis gained strength and complete power by 1933, and the official criticism of Hindemith’s work became intolerable,  he “finally emigrated to Switzerland in 1938 (in part because his wife was of partially Jewish ancestry), before moving to settle in the United States in 1940.”  [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Hindemith ]

Rutter’s fine playing brought out for us the sense of release through music mixed with the sense of foreboding that was the key to appreciating the work not only of Hindemith but of those other composers who took up their fascination with banned American jazz, became Communists, were Jewish, and sought to educate the people politically through entertaining cabaret. 

Finally escaping as many did to the USA, they became a major influence as musical and film score composers on the perception we now have of American popular music and song before the advent of rock’n’roll; such as the long-term favourite September which ends the show.  It first appeared in the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, and then in the 1950 film September Affair.  How many realise that the music is by Kurt Weill (of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera fame) to words by the serious American writer, Maxwell Anderson!

Projected behind the players, as they took on the roles of composers Weill, Eisler, Schreker, Korngold and Stolz, were photos not only of them but of many of the scenes they witnessed or were happening in Germany, especially to Jews in the 1930s – in the streets, behind the wire, with signs in shop windows and official notices.  Jaunty or romantic though the music seemed, reality haunted the scene from behind.

The four saxophones (they were banned, too) made a fascinating band, with all the expressive possibilities from joy to despair (sometimes even overwhelming the power of Coleman-Wright’s operatic strength – partly, I think, because of the not-so-good acoustics of The Street auditorium); and a special highlight was Jane Rutter singing the part of Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera, in a very lively translation of her Whore House song in Act 2  – at least compared to that by Hugh McDiarmid that was the much duller official version when I directed it in 1976.

For me the show was enlightening history as well as a musically entertaining trip back to the days of those great talents between the World Wars, when a bit of unusually syncopated jazz played on a saxophone could be taken by a government to be such a threat.  Those composers, forced into exile or execution, made art which has far outlasted the murderers.  Thanks to Nexas Quartet, Peter Coleman-Wright and the irrepressible Jane Rutter for presenting Composers in Exile.

Jane Rutter in character

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 14 October 2018

2018: An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen

An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen.  Belvoir at Belvoir St Upstairs, Sydney, October 11 – November 4, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13

Director – Anne-Louise Sarks; Set & Costume Designer – Mel Page; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory

Morton Kiil – Peter Carroll; Randine – Catherine Davies; Peter Stockman – Leon Ford; Hovstad – Steve Le Marquand; Aslaksen – Kenneth Moraleda; Dr Stockman – Kate Mulvaney; Petra – Nikita Waldron; Billing – Charles Wu
Photos: Brett Boardman
Nikita Waldron, Leon Ford, Kate Mulvaney
as Petra, her uncle Peter and her mother Dr Stockman
An Enemy of the People, Belvoir 2018

Belvoir may be a “Major” in the Australian theatre scene – and therefore we can expect productions of plays from the past in the standard canon – but when I leave the theatre feeling excited and even quite shivery about our future, I know I’ve seen an old play do for us now what Henrik Ibsen did in Norway in 1882: blow the whistle!

“By Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen” means what it says.  She has taken his play by the throat and shaken out of it all the changes in society that have evolved since – and very much because of – what he started.  Naturalism on stage offended and frightened audiences and officials in his day.  Reeves, with her “gang of four…with Anne-Louise Sarks, Louise Gough, and Kate Mulvaney”, does not offend me – but certainly frightens me.

Ibsen himself, of course, was already telling men off for how they treated women in A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, while in An Enemy of the People he tells the men off for allowing themselves to be corrupted by fear of losing money when they should always stand up for the truth despite the consequences.

Here’s the relevant ending in the Wikipedia account:
Dr. Stockmann's father-in-law, Morton Kiil, arrives to say that he has just bought shares in the Baths with the money intended for the legacy that Dr. Stockmann's wife will inherit. He expects that this fact will cause his son-in-law to stop his crusade in order to insure that his wife and children will have a secure future. Dr. Stockmann rebuffs Kiil's threat and also ignores Peter's advice to leave town for a few months. Dr. Stockmann's wife tells him she is afraid that the people will drive him out of town. But Dr. Stockmann replies that he intends to stay and make them understand "that considerations of expediency and justice turn morality and justice upside down." He ends by proclaiming himself the strongest man in town because he is able to stand alone.

But the Gang of Four Women at Belvoir know that two issues are front and centre today: women being silenced, and the power of social media.  So their Dr Stockman is the widow of Ibsen’s Stockmann; Morton Kiil is her father-in-law; Peter, the mayor, is her brother; and the legacy money is for her daughter Petra.

In their ending Dr Stockman, like Ibsen’s Stockmann, goes over-the-top at the public meeting (except that they both spoke nothing but the truth) in a magnificent performance by Kate Mulvaney.  Her windows are not broken like his had been, but are scrawled with troll language: ‘bitch’ or was it 'witch' (as in ‘ditch the witch’ from Julia Gillard days) is the operative word.

The mother nearly gives in to her father-in-law’s threat to impoverish his granddaughter, but Petra, who has already been dismissed from her casual teaching job, tells Dr Stockman it’s too late – she has already posted everything on social media.  The truth is now out there.  Petra will stand alone.

Steve Le Marquand
as newspaper proprieter Hovstad, seeing his future as a politician
in the polluted waters of the health spa

At the public meeting

After the public meeting
Two moods of Dr Stockman: Kate Mulvaney

Catherine Davies as Dr Stockman's cleaner

The production of An Enemy of the People is brilliant.  Leon Ford is an awful mayor and brother, even raising in public, stories about his sister’s mental health after her husband died.  Peter Carroll’s Morton Kiil thinks the pollution story is fake news and remains frustratingly obtuse until the very end.  Nikita Waldron produces such a sensible and aware Petra for us to sincerely hope she will be able to stand the forces that we know will be brought to bear.  And Kate Mulvaney, in a fascinating kind of way, almost brought the strength of her Richard III to mind as she handled the most risky part of the show with such guts.

As a family story, there was more laughter from us watching than in ‘straight’ versions of An Enemy of the People, such as Hayes Gordon’s intense drama at Ensemble Theatre which I saw in 1969.  But even Hayes didn’t dare do what Anne-Louise has done – turn the whole theatre into the public meeting, with handouts to us all of pictures of the terrible skin disease effects of the heavy metal pollution of the spa baths.

This is brave theatre indeed, absolutely powerful in the Belvoir Upstairs shape.  The focus is concentrated on Dr Stockman on her microphone trying to manage the mayor who demands control, the small businessman with nothing but immediate profit on his mind, the newspaper proprieter with an aim to take over the town council, the aggressive reporter with his own agenda, interrupting from all points among the audience, marching down to take control and destroy the woman’s right to speak.

I felt like jumping up to take part myself, and kept thinking surely someone else will?  As a theatre critic, I was hamstrung, of course.  How could I become involved  when I am supposed to remain objective?  And why didn’t anyone else jump in?  I suppose because they were conscious they were an audience and were not meant to perform.

But that was the clever part in taking such a risk on the actors’ part.  The key point Dr Stockman makes is that even though we know the truth, and have the evidence in our very hands, what will we do?  Keep mum and do nothing!

And what an indictment of middle class morality among middle class audiences – even those who go to Belvoir.

I’m sure Kate Mulvaney will cope if someone joins in one night.  I hope they do, on her side.  I might still leave the theatre shivering, but more with the excitement of real hope for the future (even if I wonder how the play will end if the audience are at loggerheads with each other as the lights dim at the end of what was Act IV in Ibsen’s original, with the ending I quoted above still to go.)

Please don’t miss An Enemy of the People by Melissa Reeves after Henrik Ibsen at Belvoir.  You have only three weeks to go.

© Frank McKone, Canberra



The Daily Californian reports:

“An Enemy of the People” was brought to Berkeley by Schaubühne, an innovative theatrical group out of Berlin, Germany.

By Kate Tinney

During the final few scenes of the show, the actors opened the discussion of free speech and the value of democracy to the audience, asking them to contribute and pass around the microphone. One woman spoke of Flint, Michigan, another of the limits of representational democracy. Against each comment, Aslaksen (David Ruland), the newspaper’s printer, pushed back, twisting the facts and gaslighting the audience.

“You are trying to silence him, and we’ve had enough of people like you, so shut up and sit down,” one man said, pointing a finger up at Aslaksen.

“Then you drink the damn water,” another shouted against Aslaksen’s insistence that the water was both clean and fixable.

During the Beijing performance of this show just a month ago, this section of the play prompted shouted insults against the government and was met with a complete shutdown of the show and an end of that piece of the tour. In Berkeley, however, a call for government transparency and revolution was met with snaps and cheers from the audience.

There is something uniquely devastating about a show written hundreds of years ago about the mores of society remaining so relevant across cultures and centuries. “An Enemy of the People” was just such a show. Even across languages, Schaubühne effectively updated the show to make it viscerally relevant to today’s society.