Monday, 16 March 2020

2020 Theatre Network Australia Covid-19 Response

 

Email from Nicole Beyer
Theatre Network Australia

 Posted by Frank McKone

Contact: nicole@tna.org.au

Dear colleagues,
As you will be aware, the government has now banned events of more than 500 attendees and has made a firm call for social distancing and self-isolation, in order to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 virus. 
TNA is aware of the impact this has on our sector and we are hearing about the anxiety this is causing, especially to independents who work project to project. The cancellation of events and shows across the performing arts is a significant loss of work and income to an already financially precarious sector. 
In the TNA 2018 Independent Survey Report – THIS IS HOW WE DO IT: Working Trends of Independent Artists, Creatives, and Arts Workers in Australia – it was shown that respondents worked an average of 8 projects across a year, half of which were paid below industry rates. So right now, we are especially thinking of the independent artists, producers and presenters who juggle multiple jobs and roles to make a living, and we are concerned about those who are already marginalised and more vulnerable to the impacts of the virus, such as Disabled and Deaf artists.
What TNA is doing:
1.     TNA, together with our national colleagues are heading into a national industry roundtable with Paul Fletcher, the Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts advocating for an immediate and targeted assistance package for Australia’s performing arts industry.
2.    We are promoting the value of the small to medium and independent sectors to the media, and urging stimulus in multiple areas, including financial assistance for the sector's casual workers, and an injection of funds to ensure that all 162 short-listed organisations in the Australia Council's Four Year Funding round can be supported in the next cycle, providing vital infrastructure to our sector as it rebuilds over the medium term.  
3.     TNA has been speaking to advisors of both major parties and the Greens to seek their support for an assistance package.
4.     Updating the TNA Resources Page with relevant resources, links, and plans from national and international colleagues. 
What you can do:
1.     Log your loss of income with I Lost My Gig Australia. This will support the combined efforts of our national colleagues in advocating for an assistance package.
2.     Join in Live Performance Australia’s campaign #livesupport All industry workers are urged to record a short message and let the government know about the impact of the shutdown on our industry.
3.     Take the health and safety of our community seriously, and practise social distancing, and self-isolation if you are unwell to slow the spread COVID-19.
It is an incredibly stressful time with the loss of work and income, and we also acknowledge how heart breaking it is to have to cancel shows you’ve worked very hard to bring to life. But we cannot emphasise how much more urgently we need to show care towards ourselves and to each other.
Please feel free to contact us if you need any further advice or information.
Nicole, Simone, Jamie, Rani and Yuhui
Support Act Wellbeing Helpline 1800 959 500 – a free, confidential service, available 24/7 to anyone who works in the performing arts. We are doing our very best to keep up with the additional demand, but there may be a slight delay. If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please contact the Emergency Services on 000.
Phone Lifeline 13 11 14Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or click here for additional services.




Thursday, 12 March 2020

2020: Family Values by David Williamson



 Family Values by David Williamson.  Griffin Theatre Company (Sydney) at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, March 11-14, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 11

Director – Lee Lewis; Dramaturg – Van Badham; Designer – Sophie Fletcher; Lighting Designer – Benjamin Brockman; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Cast:
Belinda GiblinSue (Mrs Collins); Andrew McFarlaneRoger (Justice Collins ret.)
Danielle KingLisa (elder sister); Jamie OxenbouldMichael (middle brother); Ella Prince - Emily (younger sister)
Bishanyia VincentNoeline (Border Force naval commander; Emily’s partner); Sabryna WaltersSaba (Iranian refugee, in Australia for medical treatment; about to be sent back to Nauru)

Photos: Brett Boardman

In Family Values, David Williamson has written a masterwork. 

The Griffin Theatre production, in design and quality acting, picks up and runs with every opportunity the script provides.  It’s the Australian political satire I have been waiting for.

Going beyond satirical comedy, the Collins family “celebrating” Roger’s 70th birthday becomes a metaphor representing Australia, asking each of us what has happened to our humanitarian ideals.  Have we let the Fair Go go?  Can we bring it back … now … please!

Let me make it plain that my judgement on the quality of the play is not because I agree with Williamson’s stance on the issues.  It is because the work shows such expert control of all the elements of great drama.  This places David Williamson in the league alongside Shakespeare in his comedies like Much Ado About Nothing, George Bernard Shaw in his Major Barbara, and the serious drama of Henrik Ibsen in his An Enemy of the People.  The other modern Australian playwright also of special note is Nakkiah Lui in her Black is the New White (reviewed here March 2018).

The essence of achieving maximum effect is economy and structural complexity made to seem simple.  Though this may sound like the worst kind of public service doctrine, this is how it works:

Instead of his standard two-act play with interval (that is exposition followed by climax and denouement in the second half), Williamson has “gone modern” with a 90-minute tightly structured beginning-to-end story;

The story is apparently simple – Roger and Sue are waiting, bickering, for their children to arrive; Lisa explodes onto the scene with Saba, who uses an Anglo name as a cover; Michael belligerently arrives, and expounds on his religious conversion; Emily arrives hesitantly with her over-the-top partner Noeline; Saba’s illegal status is revealed; Sue concocts a solution to save Saba from being returned to Nauru.

The structure is spiral, reminding me of the image of a species’ genome, with its four letters of code interacting in unexpected and seemingly unpredictable ways, yet creating a complete life-form.

But in this species, which I could call Australianus politicus, there are seven code letters, each switching different sets of genes on or off.  But genetic diversification is how the system learns and changes.

Andrew McFarlane as Roger

Justice Collins begins with black-letter-law turned on.  At the end he turns it off.

Danielle King as Lisa

Lisa begins with risk-taking radical political activism, but finally accepts that there may be more subtle and softer ways of relating, even to authoritarian governments –  and her brother and sister.  Absolutist moral positions may be self-defeating.

Jamie Oxenbould as Michael

Michael, too, discovers that though his obsessive behaviour may have given him purpose as a child, in adult life his new-found obsession with Pentacostal Christianity needs to be thought through carefully.  Like his sister Lisa, he finds taking conventional absolutist positions fail when he has to test them in the face of the reality of Saba’s fate.  Christian love is about compassion, never obsession.

Bishanyia Vincent and Ella Prince
as Noeline and Emily

Emily says “Never be the third child”, meaning that she began believing it was natural that she always would be dominated, not only by Lisa, Michael and her ex-husband, but now by Noeline in a gay relationship.  By the end she has learned to stand up for herself, against Noeline’s black-letter-law view of their work for Border Force, and probably against their proposed marriage.  Self-realisation is the gene she turns on.

Noeline’s “Commanding Officer” gene is highly active until her environment changes irrevocably.  I’m not entirely sure at the end of the play whether her acceptance of the inevitable failure of the Border Force rules is a permanent switching off of that gene (when her Minister Mr Duck-it announces on Radio National that an un-named officer made a mistake, so he will treat Saba’s case as one-off, and allow her to stay).  I guess Emily will have to make that judgement “going forward”.

Belinda Giblin as Sue

It is Sue, who begins as mother-at-home to Roger’s man-always-at-work (until he retired and starts to get under her feet) whose practical management gene never changes.  She has always had to understand how to keep everything working in the family.  Saba is now in the family, and she works out what Justice Collins, ret. must say on national television about Saba’s case.  She hates the phrase “going forward”, so tells him that “in the future” their marriage is over unless he does the morally right thing. 

Sabryna Walters as Saba

Saba’s switched-on gene is truth – the proper understanding of the core elements of Islam, the denying of women’s rights by the mullahs when they arrested her for protesting because they made it law that women could not practise medicine, after she already had top results in her first two years’ medical training.  In her life-threatening escape, and despite her treatment by Australia, as morally evil as her treatment by Iran, her dream of life as a mother and a doctor – of compassion and science – remains undeterred.

Sabryna Walters’ performance of Saba’s major speech is quite extraordinary.

You may think from my description that this could not be a comedy.  But that is where David Williamson’s imagination shines.  He has written in a Playright’s Note:

From my earliest days as a playwright, as in Don’s Party and The Club, I’ve loved
to put people in the same room who are obliged to be together, but shouldn’t be
together, and don’t want to be together.  Humans being humans, this inevitably
results in drama and comedy.


It was Don’s Party and The Club, both famous for their satire of politics in their own ways, that I first thought of, before reading this Note. 

I think Family Values is more powerful and more comprehensive, and the comedy more telling.  I am just a year older than David Williamson.  I have been waiting for this play since The Coming of Stork in 1970.  I have reviewed 12 of his plays in the past 24 years, including Don’s Party and Heretic in 1996, Face To Face in 2000, and what he claims will be his very last play, Crunch Time, in February 2020.

I find it hard to imagine Playwright David Williamson, retired. 



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 6 March 2020

2020: American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith

Image: Rob Blackburn Photography and Work Art Life Studios


American Song by Joanna Murray-Smith. Presented by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre & Critical Stages at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 5-7, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 5

Director: Tom Healey
Performed by: Joe Petruzzi
Set & Costume Design: Darryl Cordell
Lighting Design: Bronwyn Pringle
Composer & Sound Designer: Patrick Cronin


Joe Petruzzi, as Andy – a very much middle American who is well educated but is not a registered member of any political party – quietly tells us over 90 minutes his personal story as a family man living in a culture where having the right, and feeling the need, to protect his wife and son is a matter of practical reality.

He is building a dry-stone wall as he speaks, seeking in his own life and in the spirit of being American the strength of purpose represented in the larger foundation stones and the skill of finding and placing the smaller and often oddly-shaped higher layer stones in just the right way, ready for the final top layer of regularly shaped and evenly thin stones which complete a perfect wall which, he says, should last another 300 years.

By then, he expects, some minor movement in the weighty rocks may cause a need for a little adjustment, but essentially the wall is not so much a dividing force (as we might interpret the famous poem Mending Wall by the American Robert Frost), but a force for strength and stability in life.

Joanna Murray-Smith has written a powerful study of this American man, perhaps taking a risk as an Australian interrogating American culture.  Petruzzi’s performance (he graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art and later trained in the HB New York studios) creates the illusion that this is a thoroughly American life on stage before us.

The reality of his and his family’s life, which as he says proves that we all have to accept that the past and the future do not exist – only the present – is terrifying because we can never know what will happen to us next.  Nothing like that solid, so carefully constructed wall that will stand steady for 300 years.

The strength of this play, and particularly in Joe Petruzzo’s effective under-played tour-de-force performance, lies in the emotional impact on us – watching him build and waiting to see the next piece fall into place, or not, in his life story.  We cannot help but feel empathy and sorrow, as much as joy and satisfaction as each stone materialises.

The simple open sky backdrop allows us to focus on the wall and Andy’s concentrated movement, while the American songs we hear to begin – which establish place and time for us – fade into a faint but somehow unnerving soundscape.  Like the wall visually, it is the story which stands out in our listening.

Afterwards, we may reflect on our own experiences as family members, and perhaps wonder if our culture gives us the chance for a little more stability than the American – or not.

This is a sensitive and thoughtful work by Murray-Smith and should not be missed.

Though finishing very shortly at Queanbeyan, you may be able to catch it on tour at

5-7 March: Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre

10 March: Warrnambool, Lighthouse Theatre

12 March: Moonee Ponds, Clocktower Centre

14 March: Dandenong, Drum Theatre

18 March: Frankston, Frankston Arts Centre, The Cube

20-21 March: Brisbane, QUT Gardens Theatre

26-28 March: Sydney, Glen Street Theatre


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

2020: Breaking the Castle by Peter Cook

Breaking the Castle, written and performed by Peter Cook.  Presented by The Street Theatre, Street Two, Canberra, February 28 – March 14, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 4

Cast:
Dave Smith – Peter Cook
Recorded Voices –  PJ Williams; Lainie Hart  
Creative team:
Director – Caroline Stacey
Dramaturge – Shelly Higgs
Production Design – Imogen Keen
Sound Design – Kimmo Vennonen
Lighting Design – Gerry Corcoran


It’s difficult to not believe that ‘David Smith’ is real, even though we are obviously watching a carefully constructed play.  In the writing, directing, design work and acting, Peter Cook challenges us to suspend our disbelief. 

Why?  I think so that we come to see, as David does after successful rehabilitation, the beauty of a butterfly’s wings – and the difference between an honest friend and those who would prey upon one’s addiction.  There is an irony in David’s discovery that he has to learn to believe in himself, which means accepting that he needs to learn – and working to understand his teacher’s technique.  By the end of the play, he becomes a success, teaching through drama with disadvantaged young people.

We find a further layer of irony because ‘Dave Smith’ is an actor playing ‘himself’, played by Peter Cook playing…himself?  Of course, we cannot really know, but the details of David’s drug-taking and rehab experience make one wonder if ‘research’ was the author’s only source.  The significance of the title, “Breaking the Castle” is not revealed in the play, nor in Peter Cook’s program note:  “I wrote this play as a testament to everyone who’s had to struggle with things unseen, which in a sense is all of us…explores all facets of life, from memory to childhood to grief to pursuing one’s passion in life.”

The ‘castle’ which ‘David’ ‘breaks’ perhaps represents each person’s experience of what was traumatic for them, and necessarily must remain private – and must be respected as such even by those who know the story.  Yet, in a theatre, on a ‘stage’, ‘David’, now an ‘actor’ can act out to his fictional ‘audience’ – the role which we, Peter Cook’s real audience, play –  to publicly reveal David’s childhood traumas which underly his drug addiction.  From this we learn to respect other people’s privacy, even while we should help them to be brave about facing up to their damaging traumatic experiences.

And so, Peter Cook is right in concluding his note: “It’s theatre for everybody, no matter who you are or where you are from.”  A brave piece of theatre, in fact.

Breaking The Castle was developed in 2019 through The Street’s First Seen: new works-in-progress program and further developed later in the year with dramaturgy support from Shelly Higgs.  It is an excellent example of the developmental theatre work The Street continues to offer and will be shown at HotHouse Theatre in Albury-Wodonga after this Canberra season. 



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 27 February 2020

2020: Monty Python's Spamalot by Eric Idle & John du Prez



Monty Python’s Spamalot.  Book and lyrics by Eric Idle.  Music by John du Prez & Eric Idle.  One Eyed Man Productions at Canberra Theatre Playhouse, February 26 – March 1, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 27
The Round Table
Director – Richard Carroll; Musical Supervisor – Conrad Hamill; Choreographer – Cameron Mitchell; Designer – Emma Vine; Lighting Designer – Kate Sfetkidis; Rehearsal Vocal Supervisor – Michael Tyack; Production Manager & Sound Designer – Carl McKinnon

Cast (alphabetical order)
Marty Alix, Blake Appelqvist, Cramer Cain, Amy Hack, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Abe Mitchell and Jane Watt
Photos: John McRea
We all sing together
I loved two features of this production – especially in comparison with the original big-stage shows.  It’s awfully grotty; and we all became part of the show, right down to Rob Miller, the peasant seated next to her husband (?) in B15 (ie B-ONE-S) – he was too shy to go on stage – who was awarded with all due ceremony for inadvertently discovering the Holy Grail.

And it was a delight to participate in the standing ovation!  And, of course, all singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
King Arthur meets
the knights who say 'Ni!'

Richard Carroll is a board member of In The Pipeline (Arts) Ltd, which runs Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, and, like this week’s other production connected to the Hayes Theatre Co, H.M.S. Pinafore at The Q, Queanbeyan, it was a joy to be able to laugh at the absurdity of life in the face of our summer, haec aestas horribilis, this year.  I haven’t yet been to the tiny 100 seat Hayes Theatre itself, but Carroll and his designer Emma Vine have made a highly successful transition onto the larger stage and auditorium of Canberra’s Playhouse which bodes well for the rest of their tour this year.

I would like to make special mention of Amy Hack as Patsy.  Not only were her coconut clip-clops exactly in time, but she stopped our inane laughter as Cramer Cain’s completely obtuse King Arthur sang about how he was “Alone”.  Her feelings, being so ignored, created the one genuinely sad, and serious, moment; giving purpose to the whole play.  Dramatically, her performance was my Holy Grail.

The whole cast, many switching between named roles and playing in the often weird apparitions in the ensemble, kept the show moving beautifully.  Marty Alix executed a great exit to the toilet as Sir Robin; Josie Lane complained wonderfully about not having any lines for most of the musical, despite having the female romantic lead as Lady of the Lake; Cramer Cain had, I thought, a much greater atmosphere of absolute authority (completely undermined by reality like our many recent Australian prime ministers) than the famous Tim Curry (who seemed to smile too much) as King Arthur; Jane Watt’s Sir Belvedere was brilliant in something like chain mail; Sir Galahad, by one-time Canberran, Blake Appelqvist, danced amazingly; Rob Johnson was so often something else that Prince Herbert melted into the crowd (was he the condescending Frenchman fooled by the empty wooden rabbit?); while Abe Mitchell as Sir Lancelot played the male romantic ‘grail’ perfectly.

If this is confusing, don’t worry.  You’ll be on a par with the knights who say ‘Ni!’.

Just enjoy!

What happened to my part?


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

2020: H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert & Sullivan

H.M.S. Pinafore.  Music by Arthur Sullivan. Libretto by W.S. Gilbert.  Hayes Theatre Co, presented by Siren Theatre Co, at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 25-29, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 25

Director – Kate Gaul; Musical Director – Zara Stanton; Choreographer – Ash Bee; Production Designer – Melanie Liertz; Lighting Designer – Fausto Brusamolino; Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson

Cast: (alphabetical)
Katherine Allen, Gavin Brown, Thomas Campbell, Jermaine Chau, Tobias Cole, Sean Hall, Billie Palin, Bobbi-Jean Henning, Dominic Lui, Roey O’Keefe, Zachary Selmes, Zara Stanton
Buttercup - one-time wetnurse to Ralph and Capt Corcoran -
sells provisions to the sailors as the play begins.
Capt Corcoran at sixes and sevens at the beginning of Act Two
(the balls represent cannonballs in the original)
If you wonder that a bit of political satire from the UK in 1878 could be seriously funny in 2020, just begin from Captain Corcoran of Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore pleading wonderfully mournfully with the Moon in Heaven

Fair moon, to thee I sing,
Bright regent of the heavens,
Say, why is everything
Either at sixes or at sevens?


In this summer of turmoil, of drought, fire, flooding rains, coal mining to reduce CO2 emissions, politically motivated sports-rorts grants and now coronavirus, all overseen by our equivalent of Sir Joseph Porter in the guise of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, I felt quite in tune with the Captain’s confusion.  As Sir Joseph sings

Sir Joseph Porter secluded in his cabin.
I am the monarch of the sea,
The ruler of the Queen’s Navee…
But when the breezes blow,
I generally go below,
And seek the seclusion that a cabin[et] grants…


From holiday in Hawaii to ‘cabinet-in-confidence’, our world is in more than sixes and sevens.  A mad-cap production of H.M.S. Pinafore was just what I needed.
Semaphore signalling:
"For he is an Englishman!"



Political correctness has caught me by the balls, so to speak: the non-profit left-wing communal basis of the Hayes Theatre Company has meant that I can find the names of the cast only in alphabetical order, without reference to who plays which parts.  But since, as Sir Joseph, Captain Corcoran and all the crew agree
Dick Deadeye calling for rebellion against the upper classes

A British tar is a soaring soul,
As free as a mountain bird,
His energetic fist should be ready to resist
A dictatorial word…
He never should bow down to a domineering frown,
Or the tang of a tyrant tongue.



So I can’t make pronouncements on the best performers (especially since half the time men are played by women, and the other half vice versa), but I can say the whole conception of this production is in the long tradition of apparently nonsensical satire which began probably long before Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BCE, when the women very sensibly refused to have sex with their men while they still kept fighting The Peloponnesian War, 431–404 BCE), passing through Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (in an appropriately absurd showing by Lakespeare in Canberra this month), my favourite novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (by Laurence Sterne, in nine volumes 1759 – 1767), on to Monty Python’s Spamalot (to be seen here this week in a One Eyed Man Production), and Shaun Micallef’s weekly Mad As Hell (on the ABC, which at least one member of the Prime Minister – Scott Morrison’s – government wants to close down).
Phew!  I feel better already.  Thank you, Kate Gaul, Zara Stanton, Ash Bee, Nelanie Liertz, Fausto Brusamolino, Nate Edmondson and all the cast and crew of Hayes Theatre Co for bringing me back to my senses.  We all need a good dose of Gilbert & Sullivan every now and then – and this is a good one indeed.



 Ordinary Seaman Ralph Rackstraw declares his love for Josephine, Capt Corcoran's daughter






Sir Joseph, who expected to marry her, is horrified at Josephine and Ralph kissing.
Buttercup explains that she mixed the children up:
Ralph is really upper class, and so becomes Captain and marries Josephine.
Corcoran reverts to ordinary seaman and marries Buttercup.
Sir Joseph retires to his cabin with two young women.

A little further research has revealed the named roles.  In keeping with the company's collaborative nature, I list them here:

Buttercup - Thomas Campbell
Capt Corcoran - Tobias Cole
Sir Joseph Porter - Josef Ber
Josephine- Hannah Greenshields
Violin - Dominic Lui
Ralph Rackstraw - Billie Palin
Music Director - Zara Stanton
Dick Dead Eye - Sean Hall
Ensemble - Bobbie Jean Henning, Elora Ledferm, Gavin Brown, Zachary Selmes

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 21 February 2020

2020: Hell Ship by Michael Veitch

Hell Ship – The Journey of the Ticonderoga   by Michael Veitch with co-writer Peter Houghton.  The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, February 21-22, 2020.

Presented by Chester Creative
Performer: Michael Veitch
Director: Peter Houghton
Lighting Designer: Tom Willis
Music: Thomas Veitch

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 21

Hell Ship  is both entertaining and informative.  Researching one’s own family history and presenting something significant, as Michael Veitch has done, adds to our understanding of Australian history.  The story of Michael’s great-great-grandfather turns out to be highly relevant today.

In earlier times, too, there was a tradition of itinerant solo performers travelling the outback which still continues to entertain grey nomads in caravan parks around the country today: storytelling, poetry and bush songs are the usual fare in my experience.  But Hell Ship is a different kettle of fish.  Melbourne based Chester Creative has the touring game highly organised, offering a complete show – actor, set, lighting and sound all included – to venues with the right technical equipment and experienced staff, at a price. 

The two nights at The Q are well worth the money.  Veitch takes on the role of his great-great-grandfather at a point much later in his life than his arrival in Melbourne in 1852 and his marriage to Miss Morrison, the young woman who had helped him so well to cope with the ever-increasing deaths, from typhus, on board the Ticonderoga.  He is now alone, after her recent death, and needs to tell his story – to a young sick boy whose fever can now be treated with better knowledge and new medicines like Aspirin.

As the old ship’s surgeon recalls boarding the Ticonderoga in England and events through the 100 days of sail it took to reach Melbourne, he takes on the voices and characteristics of the people involved, from the government official organising the emigration, through the people with many accents from Scotland, Ireland and England whose poverty drives them to seek a new life far away, to Captain Boyle – an ethical, thoroughly authorative figure, respected by all – and to the pilot in Port Phillip Bay who has to order the ship to disembark at an isolated beach for a long quarantine period, during which many more people died.  A quarter of the ship’s 800 passengers and crew did not survive.

We never see the young boy, hidden in his iron-frame hospital bed, but we are as alternately excited and horrified as he, and as relieved as his fever cools, and James William Henry Veitch can safely leave him to his parents’ care.

And, though of course this could not have been in Michael Veitch’s mind when he first toured this show around Victoria in 2018, I could not help thinking of the cruise ship held in quarantine in Japan and the dreadful news of the spread of the new coronavirus around the world.  The past is not such a different country, after all.

In character as Ship's Surgeon
James William Henry Veitch

Michael Veitch

© Frank McKone, Canberra






Thursday, 20 February 2020

2020: Crunch Time by David Williamson

John Wood and Guy Edmonds

Crunch Time by David Williamson. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 19 – April 9, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 19

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Lauren Peters; Lighting Designer – Nicholas Higgins; Sound Realiser – Anthony Lorenz

Cast (alphabetical)
Diane Craig (Helen); Megan Drury (Susy); Guy Edmonds (Luke); Matt Minto (Jimmy); Emma Palmer (Lauren); John Wood (Steve)

Photos by Prudence Upton

Diane Craig and John Woods
as Helen and Steve
in Crunch Time by David Williamson
Ensemble Theatre 2020

Crunch Time is a quite harsh-sounding title for a realistic study of generational succession told with some tenderness and humour.  Perhaps, since the author has announced that, after 50 years, this is definitely to be his last play, he may be sensing a Sword of Damocles descending. 

That’s certainly the feeling David Williamson has given Steve, as he retires, when he has to decide which son – the younger Jimmy with a Business Management degree; or the elder Luke with a combined Engineering/Law degree – will be given control of his highly successful engineering company.  The complex intra-family relationships are played out very well indeed by John Wood, Matt Minto and Guy Edmonds – the  father, himself trained as an engineer and somewhere on ‘the spectrum’, knowing that Jimmy’s social communication skills are essential for the continuing and expanding success of the company, cuts the highly intelligent but also autistic Luke off the Board.

Steve married Helen because he was fascinated by her playing the cello – the Goldmark Variations – when they were students.  Diana Craig’s playing on stage at the key moment of tenderness is a highlight. But, she points out, the Goldmark is the only piece of music – and indeed the only work of art of any kind – that Steve can recognise.

Diane Craig and Megan Drury
as Helen and Susy

Megan Drury playing Jimmy’s wife Susy (they have three children) gives us the most rational clear-sighted character in the play, recognising how she was so attracted to Jimmy – and why so many other women were and still are; and how she can become a genuine friend for Luke while they supervise their combined grandchildren.  Though Jimmy says he will “never do it again”, we laugh with Susy and recognise her right to independence.

Megan Drury and Matt Minto
as Susy and Jimmy
Susy also explains to Luke how being ‘ordinary’ is the right thing for him, even though Emma Palmer as Luke’s wife, Lauren, can’t stand his insistence on being himself, which means stating with great accuracy every truth, about her and everything else, any more.  So she leaves the children to him to find a less ‘ordinary’ life.

Emma Palmer and Guy Edmonds
as Lauren and Luke


Guy Edmonds and Megan Drury
as Luke and Susy

Of course, rumours will abound that David Williamson has finally written an autobiographical play, since he originally trained and even lectured as an engineer, and finally married a writer (they met in 1971) who is quoted on the ABC in 2009: “And Kristin says their blended family - two of her children with her ex-husband, two from David's first marriage and one mutual child ('They call him the love child') - cringe at their bohemian tales.”
[ https://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-04-03/wifes-biography-turns-tables-on-david-williamson/1639908  ]

It is true that this play’s family relationships feel to me more personal in nature, but then I have reviewed formally only about a dozen of his more than fifty plays.  It is the character of Steve, facing up to serious adversity, that brings up those feelings.  John Wood’s performance is so much deeper than being a character who represents a man of a particular place and time.  Whereas in the past I have seen Williamson’s work as highly valuable “comedy of manners” social commentary, this play – not only in Steve, but especially in Guy Edmond’s Luke and Megan Drury’s Suzy – shows psychological understanding of a different order, I think.

Of the playwriting and production, I suspect there is more development work to do.  It may be Williamson’s last play, but perhaps he may not retire absolutely yet.  The performance by Diane Craig of Steve’s wife Helen needed to create much more empathy in us, watching.  The clue, for me, was in the question on how Steve had rated Jimmy at 10, but Luke at only 8.5; while Luke had rated his father at only 2, but his mother at 10.

As a fly-on-the-wall audience member, I wanted to rate Helen at 10 but she came through to me at about 6.  Yet at the every end, she completely unexpectedly reveals her ‘bad girl’ behaviour before meeting Steve – her bohemian tale, I guess.  It’s either in the writing, or maybe in the directing, but Diane Craig’s performance needed to establish that aspect of Helen’s character – the liveliness and warmth it implies – from early in the play.

I also think that, in the directing, and perhaps because of the writing, the first several scenes lost focus and energy because they come through as not much more than exposition.  They tell us bits of the story, but it’s not until maybe 20 minutes in that our attention begins to become focussed, and therefore engaged, in the feelings of the characters as they interact.  Then we begin to work out for ourselves what is now and has been going on between these people.  The backstory needs to grow out of the immediate present, from the very first scene.

It was, of course, a great privilege to be present on the opening night of the last play of what I can only call (awfully) an ‘iconic’ Australian playwright.  I deliberately have not given away too much here, because it’s important for me not to preempt your expectations.  There’s a depth of humanity in this play which should catch you by surprise.

I think, finally, it’s not unreasonable to point out the role of the Ensemble Theatre’s relationship with David Williamson, and especially his relationship with Sandra Bates, who first attended the classes of the Ensemble’s founder, Hayes Gordon, in 1968, and was invited by him to become artistic director of the company in 1986. 

Since 1995 Ensemble Theatre has staged “24 Williamson plays…including 19 world premieres, and produced three national tours.”  Sandra Bates herself directed 15 of these in the boatshed in-the-round, beginning with Emerald City, as well as additionally directing the three plays, Face to Face, A Conversation and Charitable Intent in the Jack Manning Trilogy at The Concourse, in Chatswood in 2014, before handing over the artistic directorship to Mark Kilmurry in 2016.

David Williamson has written on her retirement: "The Ensemble Theatre and I have had a very fruitful relationship now for many years.  I love this little theatre and I love the philosophy that guides it and that philosophy has been driven for over thirty years now by one remarkable woman, Sandra Bates. 

“Her philosophy of theatre is disarmingly simple.  Program contemporary plays from Australia, America and elsewhere that have something to say to contemporary society.  Program plays that tell a strong story that impacts on the audience rather than plays consumed by their own cleverness that few relate to or understand.  Plays of emotional impact that tell stories about real people facing real and pressing problems.

“The Ensemble is a theatre in which storytelling about contemporary society comes first and that's what I love about it.”

Indeed.


[see http://www.stagewhispers.com.au/news/sandra-bates-retire-ensemble ]






Emma Palmer as Lauren

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 17 February 2020

2020: Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam by Peter Goldsworthy


Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, adapted by Steve Rodgers from the novella by Peter Goldsworthy.  A Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta production presented by Belvoir, at Belvoir Street Upstairs, February 6 – March 8, 2020.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 16

Director – Darren Yap; Set and Costume Designer – Emma Vine; Lighting and AV Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound Designer – Max Lambert and Sean Peter.

Cast (alphabetical)
Valerie Bader (Grandma / Dr Eve), Emma Jackson (Linda), Mark Lee (Grandpa / Priest), Liam Nunan (Ben), Grace Truman (Wol), Matthew Whittet (Rick)

__________________________________________________________

Though I am used to being emotionally stirred by theatre, this presentation of a controversial story as a live performance disturbs me. 

When reading a fiction, I can set myself at arm’s length, pause to consider the author’s intention, and decide whether or not to read any further.  In the theatre, as the father’s intention to kill himself and his 12-year-old daughter at some point of his choosing when it seemed that her leukaemia could not be stopped from killing her, I could not stop being taken beyond an unacceptable conclusion.

Though some people may simply consider this to be a ‘sad’ story of a father willing to sacrifice himself in the name of ‘love’ for his daughter – by keeping her company right through until the end – this motivation (in a fictional character, remember) is warped in the extreme.  This father justifies committing suicide, and murder.

Perhaps Peter Goldsworthy’s intention was to open up the reader’s thinking about this family’s twisted faith, apparently acceptable to the fictional priest.  Perhaps it was meant to be enlightening about the nature of a God who can kill a child.  Perhaps voluntary euthanasia was the issue in Goldsworthy’s mind – except that Wol (fictional again, don’t forget) was too young to be legally responsible, and Rick was certainly not terminally ill – nor of sound mind.

Perhaps, as I thought the title of the work meant, the novella and the play would be taking a severely critical view of religious belief which, for example, can lead Catholic priests to refuse to report confessions of child abuse, and protect their confreres from criminal charges.  That God is certainly not Love – and Rick’s ‘love’ makes him think that he is God.

The adaptation for the stage, unfortunately, is not clear in its intention.  The style is essentially naturalistic, except for an occasional speech from the father which seems to be aimed directly at the audience.  If the whole play had been presented in this out-to-us form then perhaps I could have stood mentally back enough to see the story as simply being about issues.  But the apparent realism of the interactions between characters, particularly between Linda and her mother and the treating doctor, and the understandable sullenness in Ben’s responses, made the play awful to watch.  So then the ending, when his mother reminds Ben, now four years older, of how his father carried out injecting his daughter and himself, as if this was a normal – in fact loving – thing to do, was just sickening.

I didn’t feel sad.  If anything, it made me feel angry that Rick had left his wife and son with no support after the unavoidable death of her young daughter and his younger sister. 

So, on reflection, I think if Goldsworthy intended to make Rick a heroic loving father, then that was a serious error of judgement on Goldsworthy’s part.  Reviews (at, for example,  https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/615999.Jesus_Wants_Me_For_a_Sunbeam )
range from “This may be the worst book I have had the misfortune to encounter. One of the most utterly hideous, contrived and disingenuous novels I have ever read.” to “I nearly shed a tear at the end of this novella, not because I was sad that the father and daughter were dying, but that the father was spinning the biggest lie - that they would be together in death.” [because] “A rejection of God and Jesus would result in them not being together and his ultimate suicide was really for nothing.”

One said simply, “A very good read. I read it at one sitting.”

Be warned, then, that you will see a well-designed and very well performed show; but be prepared for what you might shed a tear for.

Set design by Emma Vine
Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeamby Peter Goldsworthy
Riverside National Theatre of Parramatta
presented at Belvoir 2020
Photo: M McKone


© Frank McKone, Canberra

2020: No Pay? No Way! by Dario Fo (and Franca Rame)

No Pay? No Way! by Dario Fo, adapted by Marieke Hardy.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, February 10 – March 20, 2020 (and at Riverside Parramatta April 1-4, 2020).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 15

Director – Sarah Giles; Designer – Charles Davis; Lighting Designer – Paul Jackson; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Assistant Director – Madeleine Humphreys; Fight and Movement Director – Tim Dashwood; Voice and Text Coach – Charmian Gradwell; Literal Translator – Thomas McPherson

Cast (alphabetical order):
Giovanni – Glen Hazeldine; Luigi – Rahel Romahn; Antonia – Helen Thomson; Sergeant/Inspector/Undertaker/Old Man – Aaron Tsindos; Margherita – Catherine Văn-Davies
 
Photos by Prudence Upton

_____________________________________________________________

Helen Thomson (Antonia) and Glenn Hazeldine (Giovanni)
in No Pay? No Way!
Sydney Theatre Company 2020
Behind the uproaringly side-splitting laughter in Marieke Hardy’s adaptation of this Italian 1970s political farce (almost certainly by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, dubbed “the person behind the political”) is a highly intelligent design and directing concept.  Sarah Giles and Charles Davis parallel the collapse of the capitalist economic system by making the stage set of a neat, just adequate but seemingly substantial housing unit, break into scattered pieces around the characters, who struggle along until the point is reached where there is nothing left to do except sing a sad song of hope.

Though Hardy writes “if all else fails, let’s just be together for a spell and hold hands and laugh at how messed up it all is”, Sarah Giles’ ending is less hopeful.  Her characters sing quietly and beautifully, but distinctly apart from each other among different bits of their shattered environment.  They have made us laugh with references to our very own daily political farce, then sing us into a blackout which is a grateful pause in the madness.  We applaud in a moment about which we can only think, this is “Sad but True!”

I suspect, from the Youtube examples I can find, that Giles and her designer Charles Davis have taken us a step further into the absurd than Fo and Rame envisaged.  Other productions seem to finish on a note of defiance, still in the neat home setting, for which audiences cheer as the last line is spoken.  We went quiet in the darkness before the absolutely justified burst of applause as the lights came up for the curtain call.

Farce, of course, relies on surprise, so there is no way – with or without pay – that I can describe what happens in this production.  You simply must go along to the prestigious Sydney Opera House to laugh at pretension and laugh at the collapse of the ordinary good order of life.  Just watch out for the caesarian breaking of the waters, the brine and the olives.

Say no more – though you may understand a few more jokes if you know Italian.

It is a terrific production – an adaptation that Fo and Rame would surely be proud of, however horrified they might be to know that we still need to face up to the same, perhaps even worse farcical state in Australia and the world today.  I remember George W. Bush ringing in the new century 20 years ago with the cry “A New World Order!”

Ha! Ha!  No Way!


Rahel Romahn (Luigi)

Catherine Văn-Davies (Margherita)

Aaron Tsindos (as Sergeant)


© Frank McKone, Canberra