Thursday, 7 November 2019

2019: Matrix - Expressions Dance Company and BeijingDance/LDTX

Matrix.  Modern dance: Auto Cannibal by Stephanie Lake and Encircling Voyage by MA Bo.

Expressions Dance Company and BeijingDance/LDTX at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, November 7-8, 2019.


Auto Cannibal
Choreography by Stephanie Lake with the dancers
Music – Robin Fox
Lighting – Joy CHEN
Costume – XING Yameng
Rehearsal Director – Richard Causer

Encircling Voyage
Choreography by MA Bo
Music – David Darling
Sound Effects – MAO Liang
Lighting – Joy CHEN
Costume – WANG Yan

Photos by YIN Peng

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 7


Over a five-week period, the Brisbane dance company Expressions worked in Beijing with China’s first officially registered private professional modern dance company LDTX, co-founded by Willy TSAO and LI Han-zhong, to create these two works.  “LDTX is an acronym for Lei Dong Tian Xian which translates as ‘thunder rumbles under the universe’.

Performing at The Q adds an interesting element to the production, since “The incidence Q matrix is defined as a K×(2K−1) matrix that contains items that probe all combinations of attributes when they are independent.”  [ Theorems and Methods of a Complete Q Matrix ... – Frontiers https://www.frontiersin.org › articles › fpsyg.2018.01413 › full  ]

Don’t worry – you won’t need any mathematics to understand the dance.  Stephanie Lake explains her background thinking for Auto Cannibal, writing “I’m sometimes afraid that I’m repeating myself or cannibalising my own work….We are all a product of our influences and experiences.  Ideas are also part of a life cycle – they are born, they thrive, they degrade and deteriorate and become the fertiliser for the next batch of ideas.”

This was exactly how I responded to her thoroughly abstract dance, immediately it ended.  During interval, words flowed in my interpretation of what the dance represented:

Abstracted thought.  Think of the mind – your mind – forever insistently generating thoughts.  How, at entirely unpredictable points, a mass of thoughts can momentarily seem to have all come together as one.  Yet a fraction later a single thought takes off on its own – others follow, perhaps.  .  Then a new focus – two ideas seeking to work out meaning, but the energy of the mind finally settles – represented here by the falling of silent snow, whitening the scene, blanking out the thinking, white against the dimming light – in peaceful calm.

Suddenly a whole crowd has taken over your mental space
A scene from Auto Cannibal by Stephanie Lake

A lovely, original work of dance art – a visual poem.  An honour to participate in, in our contemplating minds, our own thoughts incessant, like the dancers, until a natural end point – our applause.


Final scene from Auto Cannibal by Stephanie Lake
Photo: WANG Xiao-jing


The Encircling Voyage takes us, in symbolic form, into the ebb and flow of human society.  MA Bo tells us the terribly sad story of the march of time, the weight of history: the inevitability of our inability as people seeking individuality to escape the gravitational force of society.  In the end the work focusses on the grip of unavoidable responsibility for women, the creators of new birth confronting the reality of their own death.

Final scene from Encircling Voyage by MA Bo

As the lights dimmed on this awful scene, the audience began to applaud only hesitatingly, muted by their feelings, until the whole company reappeared for several curtain calls to receive the whole-hearted recognition they deserved for the complete presentation of Matrix, when all our independent attributes came together as one.

Special praise must be given to The Q and its artistic director Stephen Pike for having the vision, and perhaps even the temerity, to bring such wonderful work to our regional theatre.  This is surely Lei Dong Tian Xian – thunder rumbling under the universe.




© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

2019: Cinderella - Queensland Ballet


Cinderella, original scenario by Nikolai Volkov, based on Cendrillon by Charles Perrault (1697). Music composed by Sergei Prokofiev (1944).  Choreography by Ben Stevenson (1970).

Queensland Ballet, artistic director Li Cunxin, at Canberra Theatre, November 5-10, 2019.

Set Design – Thomas Boyd; Lighting Design – David Walters; Costume Design – Tracy Grant Lord.

Photo: David Kelly
Reviewed by Frank McKone

What a wonderful production of Cinderella!  I love theatre because I can always be surprised by the unexpected.  Who would have thought that this rom-com rags-to-riches fairy story could be so engaging and feel just right in our world where the promise of progress seems to be falling about our ears?

As the Prince – Victor Estevez – and Cinderella – Laura Hildago – gently rested their heads together in love, the lights dimmed to 1239 aaah!s.  The mood was so satisfied, even after three acts and two intervals for ice creams and sparkling wine – or maybe because of the terrific sense of social togetherness the show engendered.

Laughter was the key, including the very funny moment when Cinderella, dragging herself up by the boot straps out of despondency, danced in imitation of the teenage-like shenanigans of Ugly Sister Short and Ugly Sister Tall. Camilo Ramos and Alexander Idaszak clowned their roles magnificently.

Then Thomas Boyd’s set – so impressively huge, yet so simply shifted from the oppressive ugly family kitchen to the glorious lakeside panorama, scene for the princely ball and perfect wedding.

Costumes and the lighting which brought out all their possibilities were literally brilliant, not merely for the sake of show but as essential elements of expression, giving the choreography of the dance more than a fairy story meaning.

Think of Sergei Prokofiev beginning to compose this music early in World War 2, putting it aside while he worked on the opera, War and Peace, and completing Cinderella for its first production in 1945.  Throughout this music there’s a sense of irony.  Can we really expect a perfect marriage of prince and pauper?  The humour in the music set for Nikolai Volkov’s scenario says we can’t become mired in the depression of Cinderella’s situation – and so the step family status has to be treated as a cartoon, except for the touch of depth of feeling for her mother’s image.

From this point, the absurdity of the story of the matching slipper (which literally slips from the pocket in Cinderella’s ‘slavery’ dress) sets us up for an unbelievable instant romance and marriage.  There’s hope in 1945, but …. 

Prokofiev wrote he saw the work “... as a classical ballet with variations, adagois, pas de deux, etc... I see Cinderella not only as a fairy-tale character but also as a real person, feeling, experiencing, and moving among us”, and I think by 1970, Ben Stevenson and now with Li Cunxin have achieved a melding of opposites, a step beyond Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1948 conception as “full of dreams”.  We respond to the romance as if it is real, as much as we laugh at the comedy which makes fun of reality.  In this production, the wedding is conducted without extravagance: despite the absurdity all around us, there is still hope after the nearly 80 years since Prokofiev began this work; just as I was dancing into this world.

So for me, over a lifetime, this is a Cinderella not to be forgotten; and certainly not to be missed.


© Frank McKone

Sunday, 27 October 2019

2019: Siblingship by Daniel and Chiara Assetta


Siblingship at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, October 27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone


Daniel Assetta and Chiara Assetta as themselves

Writer – Tobias Madden
Co-Directors – Scott Irwin and Danielle Barnes
Lighting Design – James Wallis

Musical Director / Arranger – Nicholas Griffin
Drums – Charlie Kurthi
Bass – Konrad Ball
Guitar – Yianni Adams

Siblingship follows the childhood journey of Daniel Assetta (The Book of Mormon, Wicked, CATS) and Chiara Assetta (West Side Story, Good Omens The Musical, The Dismissal), two real-life, all-singing, all-dancing, Italian-Australian siblings. Through classic show tunes and a splash of pop music….  
https://www.siblingshipcabaret.com ]  

Accentuate the Positive is one song from a much earlier generation that these twenty-something performers could have used to highlight their theme.  The audience at The Q was up for it.  It was a standing ovation for a humorous celebration of a loving sibling relationship.

The story of their dancing lives began on amusing slides and video-clips from their births and took us through to the present time, as they re-enacted themselves at home (Italian) and on stage in Western Sydney talent quests and by invitation at all kinds of social occasions, including weddings.  Choosing the right songs for weddings – and rejecting the wrong ones – was a nice satirical number.

While they were amazingly able to fling themselves and occasionally each other around the stage as the video showed them doing as children, the story has its strength in illustrating the process of growing up.  Family (Italian) held everything together for them until the time came for Daniel, now married to Tobias who has written this show, had to reveal (on an answering machine voice message!) to his mother that he is “a little bit gay”.  For Chiara, her older brother leaving to go on tour on his first professional engagement, just as she was finishing high school, was an emotional loss.

The take home message, though, was that ‘siblingship’ is stronger than parental and conventional expectations – it’s about love and protection of each other.

It’s awkward for me to review this show in the way I would for a fictional drama.  Playing themselves in their true story – their love for each other which concludes their performance is surely real – stops me from suggesting that the ending is hopeful for the characters but doesn’t guarantee such a perfect relationship forever. 

Yet the idea of writing their story and presenting it on stage – where, as we know, ‘theatre is illusion’ – puts the show into a category which I have previously called Theatre of the Personal Self. 

Two recent examples that Canberra and Queanbeyan people will remember are My Gurrwai by Torres Strait Islander woman Ghenoa Gela and Red by Liz Lea.  In this category, Siblingship, though highly entertaining and full of positivity, and therefore very well worth enjoying, is a much lighter piece from a dramatic point of view.

And, of course, there is plenty of room on stage for light entertainment, especially when it is as well choreographed, musically put together and performed as by Chiara and Daniel Assetta – siblings extraordinaire.



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 24 October 2019

2019: Fragments by Maura Pierlot

Fragments by Maura Pierlot. The Street Theatre, Canberra, October 23 – 27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 24

Creatives: Director - Shelly Higgs; Stage & Costume Design - Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kyle Sheedy; Lighting Design - James Tighe; Cultural Consultant - Daniel Berthon

Cast (in order of appearance):
Tom Bryson Will
Marni Mount Freya
Prithvi Saxena Vijay
Erin Pierlot Reena
Linda Chen Mila
Damon Baudin Nicky
Zane Menegazzo Mason
Holly Johnson Lexy



Fragments has a didactic purpose, especially appropriate at this time of year as young people (in the southern hemisphere) complete their Year 12 assessment and receive their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) results.  The author writes: “Please help create awareness about mental health issues, while reaching out to those who may be struggling, now and in the weeks ahead.”

It’s a kind of theatre-in-education as much for parents and children (and even grandparents) as for social decision-makers in modern times.  I wondered if the ubiquitous nature of social media on the internet has made things worse than in my time in the 1950s facing what Maura Pierlot describes: “Fragments embodies the theme that stress at home, at school and in life is challenging young people beyond their usual coping abilities, often leaving them disenfranchised and vulnerable.”

These eight young people have the same central concern that I remember: is my outward presentation true to my real internal self?  Under the onslaught of 24/7 Instagram images and over-the-top positive and negative judgemental commentary from peers, I think struggling through that ten-year period from, say, 14 to 24, which I remember well, is made far more fearful for this generation. 

No wonder mental health issues are so much more on the public agenda today than in yesteryear.  So it should be, and this play has a valuable role to play.

The concept of fragmentation within each character’s personal perception of themselves and between themselves and others is displayed visually in Imogen Keen’s use of solid black cubical rostra blocks, carried about, put in place, stood upon and even thrown; contrasted with sheets of almost-transparent material, some complete rectangles like windows, some sharply shaped like accidentally dropped window glass.  Characters carry these about at times, looking into them as mirrors, looking through them, being seen through them: looking always in danger of shattering. 

Lighting was used very effectively to emphasise the points of separation and isolation – and finally to reach a general sense of hope, the last word spoken.  Sound provided a background of current music and song, which gave the young characters a common context; while action was often punctuated by the beeps, ringtones and notification tones we constantly have to respond to from our smartphones.  And, I thought, G5 is only just beginning to make its presence known!

Each of the eight speak to us directly, and each actor performed very realistically.  This is an important achievement on each of their parts, because being ‘fragments’ means that there is very little direct interaction, and no throughline for an actor to use in developing new understanding within a character. 

The situation, as I understood it, was that Mason, as school captain, has to give a speech to the school as he graduates at the end of Year 12.  Each character is different in their own particular way from any of the others.  The issues which arise include at least racism, sexuality, body image, parental academic expectations, parental divorce, the education system’s control of students’ future possibilities, and the Black Dog - which, as Mason points out, is not the friendly trusting pet you want to pat.

The theatre experience backgrounds of these young performers, not very much older than their characters, listed on the online program at http://www.thestreet.org.au/shows/fragments-maura-pierlot is in itself a positive record of the school, youth theatre and young persons’ professional training available in Canberra and further afield.  The results shown in Fragments represents the very hope that the play concludes with.  Here are young people, speaking through Maura Pierlot’s characters, who are achieving what she hopes: “I wanted to explore the healing that may come from looking outwards – from our connectedness to others and our realisation that we are not alone.”

This is what theatre does, and this production does it very well.


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 13 October 2019

2019: West Side Story - Opera Australia





West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins.  BB Group (Mannheim, Germany) production presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment.

Canberra Theatre Centre October 12 – 27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13


Photos by Jeff Busby


Jets men (not in order):
Joshua Taylor, Nicholas Collins, Christian Ambesi,
Nathan Pavey, Jake O'Brien, Blake Tuke,
Sebastian Golenko
Sharks men  (not in order):
Anthony Garcia, Temujin Tera, Matthew Jenon,
Jason Yang-Westland, Brady Kitchingham

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson
as
Maria and Tony
 This production of West Side Story is a great example of museum theatre.  I mean this as a compliment because to update such an iconic show from the 1950s might not make much sense when teenagers today spend their time instagramming and sexting instead of rumbling and grooving on the street in gangs.

Nowadays we worry that the young are cut off from learning how to manage physical social contact.  Though I was not in New York in 1955 when Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and the then 25-year-old Stephen Sondheim wrote the choreography, story, music and song lyrics about the West Side, I knew well of the ‘bovver boys’ and ‘Teddy boys’ in my native London, and of the ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ here in Australia fighting on the beach at Manly.

What impressed me about the young people performing on stage last night was how well they, in their dancing and their acting, were so clearly teenagers taking all those silly terrible risks.  At least sexting, I hope, is less likely to lead to murder.

Though in this performance I felt I was kept at a little distance emotionally through the first Act, even up to the murders just before interval – perhaps partly because the music and songs are so well-known, and the skills in recreating Robbins’ original choreography took my attention – the final shorter Act 2 made its emotional mark.

It was not a matter of sentimental sorrow for Tony’s death and Maria’s loss.  Sophie Salvesani brought out the great sense of waste. Not only of three young men’s lives, but for herself having to live on – and for the whole community knowing that reconciliation is so fragile.

I realised then what Jerome Robbins had done in updating William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Juliet, in taking her own life, leaves the Montague and Capulet families to grieve and reconcile as a memorial – a neat and positive conclusion.  But Maria, who frighteningly fails to kill herself when the pistol that killed Tony misfires, then cannot try again.  She, unlike Juliet, must live with the consequences of her own and others’ actions, whether her conflicting communities genuinely reconcile or not.

Though Jets and Sharks carry out Tony’s body, the future is not secure.  As the Synopsis in the Program says, they “carry Tony’s dead body off the stage together as if in procession – a gesture of hope for reconciliation.”  But is it no more than a gesture?  This is a messy and not necessarily positive conclusion.  Robbins was more realist than Shakespeare, I think.

The quality of the production was excellent in all departments.  Because the production credits list includes designers and directors as ‘associates’ and ‘originals’ it’s difficult to be sure of who to give credit to most.

The balance between the orchestra, in the pit, and the singers worked very well.  It was good to hear a live performance of instruments and singers.  Musical supervisor/conductor Donald Chan’s expertise has seen him conduct more than 3000 performances of this production of West Side Story around the world.  His work, with associate musical director Anthony Barnhill, was ably supported by original sound designer, Rick Clarke, with Jonny Keating and Anthony Craythorn making it all happen.

The set design was quite remarkable, with projected backdrops of New York behind three storey high scaffolding ‘tenements’ which were moved on, off and around amazingly smoothly.  [ If you would like to compare with the original 1957 set, see https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/west-side-story-2639Paul Gallis from The Netherlands was the designer, but I would like to congratulate the mechanists (headed by Tony Bergin) who made the scene changes a delight.

I am not surprised to see costumes which brought the characters so wonderfully to life, especially for the dance sequences, having been designed by Renate Schmitzer.  The white costumed sequence was particularly stunning, making such a contrast to the standard street dress of ordinary life. The Australian touring production, with wardrobe, hair, wigs and make-up headed up by Jennifer Hall, Stephanie Meilak and David Jennings, is dedicated to her memory, after her very recent death after a short illness in her home in Ulm on 15 March, 2019, noted by Detlef Brandenburg:

“Renate Schmitzer's costumes were never just "something to wear". They were always an interpretation of the character, her character and sometimes her quirks. Thus, they made a substantial contribution to the characteristics of the characters - and met the director's work halfway, as it were.”
[translated from https://www.die-deutsche-buehne.de/zum-tod-der-kostuembildnerin-renate-schmitzer ]

Lighting designed by equally prominent internationally, Peter Halbsgut, took us from the high brilliance of Jerome Robbins’ most energetic street dance to the awful darkness of the rape of Anita – both solidly practical and clear in its emotional effects.

So finally to come to overall direction and performance, the story is just as complex.  Director Joey McKneely, a one-time student of Jerome Robbins and the one to reproduce the master’s choreography, with associate choreographer Jaquelyn Scafidi-Allsopp and resident director/choreographer Brendan Yeates, have given the Australian cast the precision, the timing and the humour to create the character of all the young performers as the crowd of teenagers racing ahead of themselves from childishness to the edge of adulthood.

Every young performer, all singing and dancing, had their clearly defined personalities as in the original production in 1957; as did the adults Paul Dawber (Lt Shrank), Beryn Schwert (Officer Krupke) and Ritchie Singer (as the saddened pharmicist, Doc).  The leads – Maria (Sophie Salvesani), Anita (Chloe Zuel), Tony (Todd Jacobsson) and Riff (Noah Mullins) were not allowed to stand too much out from the crowd – making the point as I see it about the theme of community.

On this point, I think, there is a difference between Robbins’ original conception of the drama compared with the famous movie, awarded ten Oscars in 1961, where stars were the focus.

I prefer the stage production for sincerity and integrity.




Jets women (not in order):
Molly Bugeja, Natasha O'Hehir, Angelica di Clemente
Taylah Small, Sarah Dimas
Sharks women (not in order):
Olivia Carniato, Nikki Croker, Amba Fewster, Ariana Mazzeo
with Jade Coutts


West Side Story cast and set design


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 11 October 2019

2019: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare - Bell Shakespeare

Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice)
Set Design by Pip Runciman
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare directed by James Evans.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 11-19, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 11

What a wonderful production of Shakespeare at his irreverent best.  I have long tended to think of Much Ado About Nothing as an interesting play about a lot – that is, Shakespeare’s take on what we now call feminism: a kind of polemical comedy, a bit like Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man.

But James Evans’ directing of this terrific team of actors has revealed the real still-youthful William Shakespeare, in his thirties in 1598, whose play is just so funny!  I can’t recall, even when looking back at Bell Shakespeare’s excellent production in 2011, being in an audience so taken up with laughter, especially throughout the first half.

At last I felt like how I surely would have felt if I had been there when Shakespeare and his cast must have done as Duncan Ragg (Benedick) and Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice) do in this production.  They become standup comics playing directly to the crowd, drawing laughter from all the innuendos and making fun of individuals in the audience. 

It must have been a hit still, even more than a decade later in 1612–1613, during the festivities preceding the marriage of King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth with Frederick V, Elector Palatine.  Imagine that audience of wedding guests for the future Queen of Bohemia as Benedick picks out women in the crowd, even the bride perhaps, winking at each: “One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.  Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or not come near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.”
[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Much_Ado_About_Nothing  ] 

There was certainly something of Judith Lucy in Okenyo’s Beatrice, while Ragg’s Benedick is certainly at home in Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.  And what was even more insane was Mandy Bishop (who you’ll remember played Julia Gillard in eight Wharf Revues), here in male roles as Balthazar, Prince Don Pedro’s servant and singer; and an extraordinary scooter-riding Constable of the Watch, Dogberry of Spoonerism fame – a character straight out of Mad as Hell, cheered along by the audience like The Kraken.  And can she sing!

It worked so well in the first place because Evans has Leonato as a great entertainer.  David Whitney’s house was the centre of attraction for sophisticated fun, and we felt we were welcome guests.

That’s where Evans’ reverence for Shakespeare comes in.  After interval we find ourselves in Leonato’s house of hatred, even of his own daughter Hero, because Don Pedro and Claudius, betrothed to Hero, have been fooled by a plot contrived by Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John.  They believe they have seen Hero with an unknown lover at midnight immediately before the planned wedding.

The change in atmosphere from enjoyable laughter to vicious hatred was absolutely palpable for us, the more so because we had felt so much part of the entertainment before.  We hadn’t really liked Paul Reichstein’s Don John before interval.  He had given us an occasional laugh, but as we saw his plot being concocted, we became ready to boo him if he appeared again – which he didn’t.  He left town, but had himself been fooled by paying Borachio 1000 ducats to carry out the plot.  Borachio confesses after being arrested by our zany Dogberry.

In the meantime we see the other side to acting Shakespeare.  Comedy edges towards potential tragedy, and all the cast morph into stunningly good realism, taking us along with them.  As Evans writes in his Director’s Essay, “Shakespeare was never constrained by the limitations of genre”.  But the important point is that he shows us this, in action.  Everyone on stage, and backstage, understands.  And we sense the change.

So when we feel relief that Hero is shown not to be guilty, and the mood seems to revert to good humour, we hear Vivienne Awosoga's speech and cheer her on when she slaps Will McDonald's Claudio in the face.  As Evans writes “it is essentially a hybrid play”: just as hybrid as real life will always be for the two couples in their marriages. 

The whole company thoroughly deserved the ecstatic acclamation they received last night because they matched the maturity of Shakespeare’s writing – and magnificently changed my appreciation of Much Ado About Nothing for the better.

Not to be missed – in Canberra till October 19, then at Sydney Opera House October 22 – November 24.


If, by the way, you would like to know more about Shakespeare’s use of innuendo, have a look at “Noting” on that Wikipedia page.  There’s more than a nod-and-a-wink to the play’s title than you might think.


Cast:
Beatrice – Zindzi Okenyo                                  Hero / Conrade – Vivienne Awosoga
Don Pedro / 1st Watchman – Danny Ball          Margaret / Verges – Marissa Bennett
Dogberry / Balthazar – Mandy Bishop              Claudio / Barachio – Will McDonald
Antonio / Sexton – Suzanne Pereira                  Benedick – Duncan Ragg
Don John / 2nd Watchman – Paul Reichstein    Leonato – David Whitney

Creatives and Musicians:
Director – James Evans; Designer – Pip Runciman; Lighting Designer – Niklas Pajanti; Composer and Sound Designer – Andrée Greenwell; Movement and Fight Director – Nigel Poulton; Voice and Text Coach – Jess Chambers
Photography - Pierre Toussaint / Prudence Upton
Oboe – Angus Webster; Guitar – Nick Meredith; Bass – Jessica Dunn; Drumkit – Luke Herbert


Finally, the wedding of Claudio and Hero
L to R upstage: Danny Ball (Don Pedro), Paul Reichstein (Don John), Duncan Ragg (Benedick), Zindzi Okenyo (Beatrice)
David Whitney (Leonato), Suzanne Pereira (Sexton)
L to R foreground:  Will McDonald (Claudio), Vivienne Awosoga (Hero)
Photo: Clare Hawley
© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 6 October 2019

2019: Oliver! Queanbeyan Players

Willum Hollier-Smith
Photo: Michael Moore


Oliver! Book, music and lyrics by Lional Bart.  Orchestral arrangements by William David Brohn.

Queanbeyan Players at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 27 – October 6, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 6


Queanbeyan Players have picked up on an interesting point about Oliver!, the musical, compared with Charles Dickens’ original novel, Oliver Twist.  Director Jude Colquhoun writes “Yes, there are great, fun songs for the whole cast.  The kids get right into it all but there is an underlying sadness to this story, and it isn’t necessarily Oliver’s.  It is Nancy’s.  We see her struggle with the life she has been dealt and, although she smiles through the pain, she doesn’t want this child to suffer.”

Her directing – with assistant director Christina Philipp; co-directing music with Jenna Hinton; and clearly working very closely with choreographer Jodi Hammond –  was very successful on the musical comedy aspect which Lional Bart’s book emphasises. 

Then, in the second half, Colquhoun comes to grips with the violence of Bill Sikes and his murder of Nancy, pushing the limits set by Bart (but not by Dickens) in Emily Pogson’s and Michael Jordan’s characterisations to make a clear and necessary statement for a modern audience about the issue of domestic violence.

In the end, since he wrote it this way, Bart wins the day, as did the Vernon Harris / Carol Reed movie (1968): we all cheerfully clapped along, whistled and whooped for the curtain call of 41 on the stage, as well as for the 26 in the orchestra under the stage in a show of high energy and great communication between cast and audience.

Picking out individuals for special praise can be unfair when actors and their characters naturally fall into classifications – kids, adults and principals – while the success of the show is how such a large cast worked so well together.  The sense of teamwork, yet with individuals having their own characters even in large group numbers, bounced out to us (even up to my Row K), keeping up our lively interest.

But I would like to say that Willum Hollier-Smith surely has a great stage future ahead of him as an actor and singer; I appreciated very much Emily Pogson’s capturing of Nancy’s awful state of mind in the face of Michael Jordan’s terrifying viciousness; and Anthony Swadling, often quietly spoken and singing, made Fagin into an understandable survivor in a criminal world, rather than a merely melodramatic monster.

This Oliver!, then, was very well done and justifiably filled The Q on its last night.

If, though, you would like to consider what Lionel Bart might have done – if he had been a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera) or a Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) – you could have a look at
An Analysis of Oliver Twist And Oliver!
Angela Marie Priley
Children's Literature Association Quarterly
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 1993
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/249378/pdf

Just Priley’s first page, which you can read online without needing Project MUSE authorisation, will show you what I mean.


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

2019: NoneSoBlind by Garreth Cruikshank

NoneSoBlind by Garreth CruikshankDark Pony as part of Sydney Fringe 2019 at Erskineville Town Hall, The Living Room, September 24-28, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 24

Director and Set Design – Susan Jordan; Lighting/Sound Design – Jacinta Frizelle; Artwork – Andrew Langcake; Fight Choreography – Kurtis Wakefield.

Martin Portus as Mr Shepherd
Russell Cronin as Jude
Thomas Burt as Scott
Dale Wesley as Teenager


NoneSoBlind is an illuminating short play showing the difference between genuine gay relationships and manipulative pedophilia. 

It raises difficult questions.  Is Mr Shepherd strictly speaking a pedophile (as defined in Wikipedia “Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children”) because he claims his behaviour is an uncontrollable obsession?

But, because his focus is on teenage boys who, he claims, are sixteen and willing to be paid, should we see him as Jude ultimately does as a fraud who uses young gay men purely for his own gratification? 

In the small confines of The Living Room, with the limited audience sitting almost in the acting space, the playing out of Jude’s middle class attempts to do the right thing by this old blind man demanding help, while working out his relationship with working-class Scott, and by chance observing Mr Shepherd in a sexual encounter with a teenager, the play is confronting.  When violence ensues, barely two metres from my seat, it is quite simply shocking.

When the story was revealed, by Jude’s insistent questioning, about how Mr Shepherd was blinded by his gay partner; and then when Scott reveals his abuse as a child by ‘friends of the family’ – and explains how he recognises that he is manipulating Jude to sustain his love – the complexity of Garreth Cruikshank’s writing becomes apparent.

Martin Portus successfully plays Mr Shepherd’s demands and sly manoeuvres, using his old age and blindness, against the truth that he is psychologically disturbed and did grow up in the past when homosexuality was a crime, and had to be hidden and kept secretive. 

Though he abuses others, he is also the victim of abuse – by social attitudes and the law, and by the attack in which he, an art teacher and sculptor, being blinded, lost his one opportunity to achieve positive recognition.  As he points out, many famous artists, like Michelangelo,  and philosophers, like Sophocles, were homosexuals like him.  I thought of Joe Orton murdered by Kenneth Halliwell, in their Islington flat in 1967. 

Capturing this complexity and our changing feelings for and against Mr Shepherd was a major achievement for Martin Portus.  And, though his was the role central to the issues in the play, the quality of his acting was thoroughly backed by Russell Cronin as Jude, who plays our representative in this drama.  He asks all the questions of both Mr Shepherd and his partner Scott in their developing relationship that we are asking ourselves.  Thomas Burt in that role shows us how modern understanding is changing, while Scott’s backstory shows us how much further there is to go.   Both younger generation actors, in their intense emotional reactions, make us understand their feelings – and wonder how we would go in their circumstances.

Being in the Fringe Festival means only small-scale financial support, not including funds to pay everyone or even pay for rehearsal space.  Set, props, lights and sound equipment are minimal.  Yet the directing and design worked very well in creating the three areas needed: in the street outside Mr Shepherd’s flat, inside his kitchen, and along the street to Scott’s dining table.

So to conclude, I saw NoneSoBlind as a successful production of an important play, which needs now to be taken further afield.  Perhaps Dark Pony, a very new outfit headed by Susan Jordan, can work in cooperation with Creative Partnerships Australia (see my commentary on this blog 15 May 2019) to build support, perhaps for touring this production and for developing a continuing program. 


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 21 September 2019

2019: Spencer by Katy Warner

Spencer by Katy Warner.  Presented by Lab Kelpie at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 19-21, 2019

Director – Sharon Davis; Designers – Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen; Stage and Production Manager – Tanje Ruddick; Photo by Pier Carthew

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

The play is an excruciating embarrassing success.  But you certainly could not call the extended family, into which the two-year-old Spencer is about to be welcomed, an embarrassment of riches.  If you were to draw up a family tree for Marilyn, Ian and their sons Ben and Scott, and their daughter Jules, it might look rather farcical. 

Yet author Katy Warner keeps us very cleverly right on the edge, balanced between farce and comedy.  Then, almost against our expectations, the story of the young up-and-coming footballer who couldn’t remember or even recognise which was the girl, among many, who has become the mother of his son – that story becomes sad, and has something significant to say about our society.

For a nation-wide tour to lots of smaller performing spaces, the designers have put together an amazingly effective set centred on the family lounge room; even down to the banging-shut screen door out in the hallway.  With the props, including things that pop-up among welcome decorations that make a huge mess, I wonder what size truck they have to fold it all into.

The casting and the resulting performances were spot-on.  Lyall Brooks as Ben, the elder son who has never grown up, is quite extraordinary.  The manic unloveable sexist larrikin kids’ football coach is a character ripe for over-playing.  Brooks makes Ben almost believable. 

Fiona Harris plays the eldest, Julia – always “Jules” in this drinking swearing family on the outer edge of Melbourne suburbs – with a dignity.  She has a sense of how her life could have gone if she had been able to work in fashion design; yet knows she is somehow held back.  I felt some hope by the end that she will find a way out.

Ian, the father who left when the uncomprehending children were small, is played by Roger Oakley with a subtle kind of knowingness while pretending naïvety.  He captures perfectly the frustrating nature of this man from the point of view of young women like Marilyn, when he married her, and the one who has just left him, taking his children with her to Queensland (2000 kilometres away).  So, says Ben, she couldn’t even stay in the same state!

To Jane Clifton as Marilyn and Jamieson Caldwell as her youngest son Scott get my special accolades for character development. 

Caldwell shows us Scott apparently in relaxed mode as Ben chivvies him in the opening scene; but bit by bit we cotton on, as his sister does, that he is hiding depression and guilt for the way he had treated Spencer’s mother.  As we come to understand him, the farcical nature of his surrounding family takes on new meaning.  His past behaviour towards women raises our attention to all those news reports of sports athletes in court; and his sense of guilt and pride in wanting to have his unexpected son welcomed, and his decision to drop a promising professional career in football, offers hope for positive change.

Clifton gives us an absolutely realistic Marilyn: the mother doing her very best to keep everything going from the days when when she certainly did not hate Ian (Julia asked her about that); through separation and another man, now also departed, to be her children’s Dad; while keeping faith always for Scott’s success. 

Her swearing, drinking and smoking may cause us to laugh – until Jane Clifton turns the table on us with Marilyn’s speech saying sorry to her children.  The words may have been written by Katy Warner, but it is Jane Clifton who makes us understand.

Spencer, then, is not laugh-out-loud comedy: quite remarkably it is laugh-along-with comedy because it is full of the typically Australian chiacking – the teasing put-down intra-family way of keeping up not only the appearance of continuing fun, but even the reality of love.  And in the great Australian cartoon tradition, we keep laughing while we quote from Stan Cross: “For gorsake stop laughing: this is serious!”



LAB KELPIE – An Australian New Writing Theatre Company is a “not-for-profit organisation with a board of experienced and passionate industry professionals [who] are strong advocates of new writing and aim to support Australian playwrights by developing, presenting, touring and publishing their work…”


© Frank McKone, Canberra

2019: The Irresistible

The Irresistible.  Side Pony Productions and The Last Great Hunt at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, September 20-21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

On overnight reflection on my initial response – that The Irresistible is the most boring theatre work I have seen for a long time – I think I have worked out at least what was the intention.  It’s a new kind of theatre which I dub Metaphoric Obscurantism.

Even the cast and creatives are hidden, since we were not presented with a program, until you search online.  Here they are at https://www.artsontour.com.au/tours/irresistible/

Director: Zoe Pepper
Writers: Zoe Pepper, Adriane Daff and Tim Watts
Performers: Adriane Daff and Tim Watts
Designer (Set & Costume): Jonathon Oxlade
Composer: Ash Gibson Greig
Sound Design: Phil Downing
Lighting Design: Richard Vabre

The metaphor seems to be that a young couple (perhaps married, but at least in a relationship) are represented as the pilot (male) and co-pilot (female) of a plane which crashes.  The backstory seems to be about the woman, when aged about 12, having been left by her sister Bridget to walk home alone through a park where she was followed by a man.  Though apparently nothing actually happened, the woman was (justifiably) frightened. 

How this was connected to a more immediate story about going to an airport to pick up a child (who may have been Bridget’s daughter, though I was never sure of this) seemed to be that the woman’s intention to care for the child became the source of raging conflict with her husband – who at one point raves at her in the foulest of language for several minutes.  I took this to be an example of at least verbal abuse of women.  Perhaps the plane crashing was meant to be a symbol of the violence and failure of men to understand women’s needs – as sisters and carers.  Her insistent concerns seemed to prevent him, during interminable bouts of rage, from getting on with the job of piloting. 

Whether we were meant to blame him or her for the crash, I couldn’t work out.

The production was obscure often to the point of incomprehension, especially because the two actors (behind a plastic screen) were using microphones which often (deliberately) distorted their voices.  Either of them at any one point could sound like the woman, the man, Bridget or the young child, in between announcements by either of them as pilots to their passengers.  Were we meant to be the passengers on this ill-fated plane?  Perhaps.  (I have to disclosure my generation gap here.  Picking up and understanding distorted high frequency sound is difficult through hearing aids.)

I began to wonder if the actors were miming to a pre-recorded sound track.  Their performances were amazingly detailed in physical movement, but entirely cold in terms of emotional response with us.  For me, theatre is about living communication between the actors, through their characters, with us in the audience. 

Watching this show was alienating in its normal meaning during the performance; at best, as my overnight reflection suggests, I could see it as a more modern form of expressionism with the intention to create distancing effect (Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt).

But where Brecht’s plays engaged us in progressive understanding while we watch an unfolding story, The Irresistible is just a plane crash.  Resistible, in my case.

 
© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

2019: The Woman in the Window by Alma de Groen

Image: Helen Drum

The Woman in the Window by Alma de Groen.  Canberra REP, directed by Liz Bradley.  At Theatre 3 (Acton, Canberra) Naoné Carrel Auditorium, September 5 – 21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Wednesday, September 11

Set Design – Michael Sparks OAM; Costume Design – Anna Senior; Lighting Design – Chris Ellyard; Sound Design – Neville Pye; Properties – Brenton Warren.

Cast:

The Russians                                          The Australians

Karen Vickery – Anna Akhmatova        Zoe Swan – Rachel Sekerov
Lainie Hart – Lili Kalinovskaya              Alex McPherson – Maren
Thomas Hyslop – Stetsky                      Alex McPherson – Miz
Michael Sparks – Korzh                        Michael Cooper – Sandor
Amanda Brown – Tusya                        Marli Haddeill – Auditor



There are three reasons to praise Canberra REP’s production of The Woman in the Window: for their revival of this significant and currently highly relevant 1998 play, rarely performed since; the quality set, sound and lighting design; the excellence of the directing and acting.

I must say I was surprised to find fewer than 20 attended last night.  I trust there will be many more on Friday and Saturday.  

The play:

‘Dystopia’ is the opposite of ‘utopia’: “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic”; the opposite of “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”.

Alma de Groen didn’t have to imagine the historical dystopian society of Stalin’s Russia where the poet Anna Akhmatova was kept under surveillance, forbidden to write her own poetry and required to show herself at her window twice a day to the security police.  Perhaps it was the election of the Howard government in 1996 that stirred de Groen to imagine an Australia in the year 2300 where total surveillance is inescapable. 

Her play is extraordinary for a gradual melding of time and place, as if our future is seen almost hologram-like by Anna.  Finally, the Russian-Australian young woman, Rachel Sekerov, who has illegally searched and copied the secret deep archive of poets from the past, sees Anna. They reach out to each other across space-time.  Their mutual hug dissolves into a hopeful blackout to end the play.  Maybe if not utopia, but at least a future where artistic and scientific imagination and questioning are at the heart of society.

De Groen’s story is almost a parallel to a combination of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (published 1945) and 1984 (1949), starting from a satirical fictional view of Russia.  Orwell imagined the corruption represented by the pigs in the end who could not be distinguished from the corporate humans.  Looking 40 years ahead he also saw how the use of electronic technology would allow surveillance and control to become the central feature of society. 

The Woman in the Window starts from actuality in Russia in the 1950s and extends forward (from 1998) some 300 years to a time when quantum computing and artificial intelligence programming turn humans into virtual robots – even the poets.  But Rachel, employed to service the poets (only men), and the poet she serves, Sandor, break into the system.  With an indestructible virus they publish the whole of the archived poetic works.  I’m paraphrasing, but the Auditor says that knowledge of history causes disruption of social order, and that’s a crime.

In the revelations by whistleblowers Chelsea Manning (2010) and Edward Snowden (2013) we can see how prescient Alma de Groen’s thinking was, just 20 years ago.  We needn’t wait until 2300!  We already have the politics of 3-word slogans; of random drug-testing of the unemployed; of ASIO and AFP attacks on freedom of the press and prosecutions of whistleblowers and even their defence lawyers; and Immigration officials bursting in at 5am, to arrest a family with young children born in Australia because their parents’ visas have expired.

And Newspeak has become internalised in Twitter and Facebook posts.


The production design:

The stage design creates three spaces: on our left, a claustrophobic room cluttered with kitchen cupboard and small table – and books – for Anna, the poet.  Lili, a mathematician, wife of a ‘disappeared’ nuclear scientist who revealed the danger of radiation from contaminated cooling ponds, is Anna’s house help and protective companion. 

Anna’s window, where she must show herself twice a day, looks onto an open space centre stage, with a low platform upstage and cyclorama which can represent the sky.  This space provides for outdoors in 1950 and 2300, and so becomes the time crossover area.

On our right is a cold bare area with two chairs – the 2300 administrator’s office.

With effective lighting and projection, and voice over instructions and announcements, and props which include ‘real grass’ where Sandor can take Rachel, who has never been outdoors before, to see a projection of the night sky “which is accurate” says Sandor, the scenes move from our left to right and centre – at first simply in space, but gradually in time as well.

This design, with costumes of the periods (2300 looks ‘modern’) is essentially simple in concept and works very well.

The directing and acting:

This is the heart of theatre.  From constable plod (Thomas Hyslop) and Russian security interrogator (Michael Sparks) through Administrator Miz (Alex McPherson, who also plays Rachel’s friend Maren) and Auditor (Marli Haddeill), next-door neighbour/informer Tusya (Amanda Brown) and to the four leads, each actor’s characterisation is precise and complex even though many scenes are quite short. 

Especially noted is Karen Vickery’s combination of authority, strength of self-awareness and poetic imagination.  She provides a crucial grounding of purpose for the whole play, supported so well by Lainie Hart and Michael Cooper as partners of Anna and Rachel.  Zoe Swan takes Rachel from a naïve, innocent and confused young woman (reminding me of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale) through to a new maturity of understanding as she meets Vickery’s Anna to complete the drama.

Some have classed The Woman in the Window as science fiction.  I call it social realism.  Not to be missed.



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 8 September 2019

2019: The Last Wife by Kate Hennig



The Last Wife by Kate Hennig.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Mark Kilmurry.  August 30 – September 29, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 7

Assistant Director – Adam Deusien; Set & Costume Designer – Simone Romaniuk; Lighting Designer – Nicholas Higgins
Cast:

Eddie – Emma Chelsey             Bess – Emma Harvie
Thom – Simon London             Kate – Nikki Shiels
Mary – Bishanyia Vincent        Henry – Ben Wood

Whose ‘Last Wife’ could we possibly be thinking of?  King Henry VIII, you say?  And what was her name?  Oh, yes – Katherine Parr?  Well done!

But here we are in ‘A Royal Household’ where Thom and Kate, and Henry when he bursts in, and then Mary and Bess with little Eddie are all obviously speaking Australian.  It’s not long, of course, before we all cotton on to the fun.

Hold on though, what’s going on in this family is not as much fun as it seems.  Henry already knows about Thom and Kate – basically tapping his nose.  Henry is King of England and Ireland and he’s obviously not going to have anything going on between his political adviser and the woman he’s now planning to marry.  The way he orders people about and won’t brook any criticism or objection – and he’s got a horrible infection on his leg – means we soon accept that we are not watching a modern parallel. 

This is King Henry VIII in about 1542 saying what he would have said translated into modern vernacular so we can understand not only the meanings of his words, but all the underlying feelings and intentions among what remains of the Royal Family. 

He has just beheaded his fifth wife, Catherine Howard;
that was just over a year after anulling his marriage to Anne of Cleves;
that was only three years after Jane Seymour had died;
that was only a year and a half after he beheaded Anne Boleyn;
and that was only three years after he annulled his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

If you want a more recent family history of this kind have a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddam%27s_family.
 
As Mark Kilmurry writes “I am thrilled to have been transported to this world with this wonderful cast and marvel at the ways we haven’t changed much in the last 500 plus years.”

At the beginning of the play, all that remains of the Tudor family are:

Henry aged 51, now with no wife and looking at Kate;
Mary: Catherine of Aragon’s and Henry’s daughter (aged 26);
Kate (30) whose mother was Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting and was brought up with Mary;
Bess: Anne Boleyn’s and Henry’s daughter aged 9; and
Eddie aged 4, but with no mother since Jane Seymour had died a few days after he was born.
Thom was Jane Seymour’s brother, and Kate’s cousin.

Shakespeare wrote history plays using the English of his own time.  If you thought his plots were complicated, then I think you’ll find Kate Hennig may have outdone the master in intra-family detail.

Here is Bess at the end of Hennig’s play, still only about 12, making Mary celebrate their father’s death with a Protestant Bible.  We all know by then that Mary remained a determined Catholic against her father’s separating the English Church from the Pope.  And the rest is history, of course.

Katherine Parr, after the play finishes, did historically provide for Elizabeth’s education to be furthered, until her own death in childbirth five years later, in 1548 – a great preparation for Bess, after Mary had died, to become the Queen in 1558, that Shakespeare knew from his birth in 1564.

The great thing about Kate Hennig’s writing is that you don’t need to know all this history because all you need to know is brought out in the family interactions, conflicts and occasional, if temporary, resolutions over the 6-year period.  The amazingly clever thing is that everything in the play is historically consistent with what we do know, at least as much as anyone can, of the real story.

In other words, the play is remarkable and the performances thoroughly justify Mark Kilmurry’s being ‘transported’.  It was as if the cast were entirely imbued with the atmosphere and family dynamics.  You could not escape Ben Wood’s towering viciousness, even as you knew underneath was insecurity linked to the political necessity to keep the throne in Tudor hands.  Nikki Shiels’ Kate was a characterisation par excellence, a fascinating combination of integrity of intention with acuity of family political perception.  You couldn’t excuse Wood’s Henry even though you could understand where he was coming from; but you were with Shiels’ Kate even when she had to make risky decisions and execute ploys for herself and the children.

And so she was not executed as two previous wives had been – but be prepared to cope with the moment when it could well have happened.  If you want to look for it, you’ll find plenty to learn about domestic violence, and how a woman is murdered each week by a man who thinks he is king.

The audience on Saturday at 4pm was as deeply engaged and appreciative of the acting (and therefore the directing and design) as any audience could be in the more standard witching hour in the evening.  This is exciting theatre, perhaps one of the best I have seen in my more than 50 years of playgoing at The Ensemble.

Definitely not to be missed.


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 7 September 2019

2019: Avalanche by Lulia Leigh

Maxine Peake
Photography – Richard Davenport

Avalanche by Julia Leigh.  A Barbican Theatre and Fertility Fest Production (UK), co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Audible. 

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, September 2 – 14, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 6

Designer – Marg Horwell; Lighting Designer – Lizzie Powell; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory; Dramaturgs – Penny Black, Kirsty Housley, Hilary Bell; Movement Coach – Imogen Knight.

Maxine Peake – direct from the premiere London production, as Woman

Childlings (on different nights) – Kaan Guldur, Jethro Jensen, Hannah Sistrom, Amy Wahhab



In Avalanche, a “Woman” has everything come crashing down upon her.  Her “childlings” never become more than silent images of her desperate hope.

“Woman”, who speaks directly to us, does not give herself a name, because, as I see it, she represents the fact that all women must face reality in a way that men never have to.

This woman, in our modern society, leaves aside having a child as she moves in and out of her relationship with “Paul” from the age of 19 (he is 23) while she establishes herself as an independent professional.  She becomes a successful writer and film maker, but at the age of 37 and finally entering a rocky marriage with Paul, discovers that he has had an irreversible vasectomy.

IVF becomes the only option.

Can she produce viable eggs?  What are the chances that Paul can provide viable sperm?  What about donors, of sperm or eggs?  If frozen, to provide extra sperm or eggs – are they as good as fresh?

It’s not long before Paul goes his own way – again, as he has always done.  Surgery to reverse his vasectomy fails.  He already has children from other women.  He doesn’t need her.  But now she must go on, against the odds and at great expense.

Maxine Peake drags us into her story almost unwillingly, yet we are fascinated as she is by the chance of succeeding.  I found myself thinking of those ‘problem’ gamblers playing poker machines, even when they know the machines are designed to win against them.  Woman plays the IVF game for a horrifying eight rounds, until at the age of 45 the chance of success is down to 2% at best.  She quotes some of the costs on the way – later my wife and I calculate probably around $100,000.

At this point the whole set, representing the bare pale walls of uninviting clinics, suddenly, literally comes crashing down around her.  It’s a frightening experience even for us watching from the safety of comfortable seats.

Yet the play is not a tragedy: more a recognition of reality.  As women have always had to, “Woman” faces up to disappointment, finding she can love her sister’s new baby and extend her love beyond herself.

In the end, Avalanche, with its detailed descriptions of what IVF entails, becomes a source of continuing thinking and discussion about the practicalities of our evolution.  Are we better off for having invented artificial insemination, or should we simply accept that nature is not romantic or sentimental?  In fact, would the Earth and us living on it be the better if we had not tried to selfishly improve everything?

Maxine Peake’s performance, with a little help from her childling friends, is a tour de force, with frightening real and philosophical implications. 







© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

2019: My Brilliant Divorce by Geraldine Aron

My Brilliant Divorce by Geraldine Aron.  Christine Harris / HIT Productions on tour: Directed by Denny Lawrence; Sets and Costumes by Adrienne Chisholm; Lighting by Nick Glen.  

At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 4-7, 2019.  Bookings: (02) 6285 6290

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 4

I left the theatre in two minds about this presentation of My Brilliant Divorce.  Though there were laughs at points throughout the show, we were not fully engaged in feeling empathy with Angela at any time.  I think this was reflected in the somewhat muted applause at curtain call.

Mandi Lodge deserves praise, as we might expect from such an experienced actor, for a highly crafted performance, showing her skills for fine detail in presenting Angela’s changing moods, as well as in her abilities in mime and voice as Angela acts out other characters in her story – of divorce from ‘Maximus’ (aka Mervyn) and new love in Dr Steadman.

Perhaps it was the style of the presentation, using pre-recorded voices of, for example, Angela’s mother and the grotty Welsh Adventure tour operator, as well as the illustrative slideshow (as a window on the world behind the action set in Angela’s loungeroom) that took our attention away from how we might have felt for Angela’s dilemma.  Should she sign the divorce agreement papers, or keep up hope that her ‘roundhead’ philandering husband might return – and that she may be able to love him again?

The style turned even more to simple laughter when her dog rolled on stage on wheels – and the skateboard-like trolley wheeled itself off as Angela cuddled her toy pet.

On the other hand, considering the content of the story and the scriptwriting, perhaps making an obviously staged presentation might be the only way to make the play work.  It might be difficult to play Angela in a straightforward naturalistic way, since she seems to speak directly to us, sometimes seeking to make us laugh, or to shock us with some detail of men’s and women’s sexual parts; and sometimes seeking our sympathy.  The structure of the story is too clearly designed by the author for us to accept Angela as an entirely believable character.

Imagine, though, if Judith Lucy, one of our more acerbic standup comedians, took on this role: alone on a bare stage, with just a microphone.  She would surely have the self-awareness to see the irony of her inability to free herself for so long from Mervyn’s grip on her love.  There would be an extra dark edge to her phone calls to her Irish Catholic mother.  And would she seriously be happy with the offer of her gynaecologist doctor to go further than he had on the operating table, already knowing “everything about me”?

But would the Irish author Geraldine Aron be happy?  Probably not: her script seems to ask for no more than a light approach, based on what seem to me to be fairly old-fashioned jokes about women and men: this 51-year-old pretends to be 39 going on 38; she sees men (or she herself?) as only concerned about the size of their penises.  1950s jokes seem a little out of place in a play puiblished in 2003.

So for me Angela’s divorce was not as brilliant as it might have been if the author had written a character of much greater depth, and of a more modern kind.  Then the questions, and Angela’s answers, that arise for us all about love and divorce could be both much funnier and more telling.

But for you, and certainly for quite a few people in the audience at The Q last night, HIT’s production of My Brilliant Divorce could be an enjoyable hour and a half to have with a glass of bubbly.



© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 2 September 2019

2019: None So Blind by Garreth Cruikshank - preview notice


A new startup indie theatre company, Dark Pony, will present None So Blind by Garreth Cruikshank at The Living Room, Erskineville Town Hall, Sydney, near the end of this month, September 24-28 2019, 6.15pm.

The play, starring Martin Portus as Mr Shepherd, a former Catholic school teacher, gay and blind, “explores the loneliness, repression and moral ambiguity lurking behind sexual abuse, and the anger, emotional ambivalence and violence it sparks”.

Jude (Russell Cronin) plays the good Samaritan, but “his well-educated moral principles are shattered” while his boyfriend, Scott (Thomas Burt), a working class apprentice chef, “faces his own dark fears”.

Directed by Dark Pony founder and co-producer, Susan Jordan, None So Blind promises to be a “big story from little theatre”.  “That’s what I love about our Indie scene,” says Jordan, “ – the persistence and creativity on a shoestring approach to telling a good story.”

The issue represented in this play has great significance in view of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and current conviction of Cardinal George Pell. 

I shall certainly be there to review None So Blind on September 24.

© Frank McKone, Canberra


Saturday, 24 August 2019

2019: Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrick


Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrickEcho Theatre directed by Jordan Best at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 24-31, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 24

Cast:
Judith – Isabel Burton
Sarah – Phoebe Heath
Ellen – Joanna Richards
Hannah – Natasha Vickery
Molly – Eliza Jennings

Set Design – Chris Zuber; Lighting Design – Murray Wenham; Music and Sound Design – Peter Best; Costume Design – Anna Senior

In her article ‘The Genesis of Belfast Girls’ [ https://www.writing.ie/news/the-genesis-of-belfast-girls-by-jaki-mccarrick/ ] (January 2018) Jaki McCarrick wrote “I’m also currently developing Belfast Girls as a screenplay with help from the Irish Film Board.”

I hope this happens because Jordan Best and her well-balanced cast have shown us how intense a close-up movie of these particular five young women’s journey would be. 

In their confined accommodation well below decks for the four months it took to sail from Ireland to Australia in 1849, even with occasional brief sorties to view the never-ending sea, or to invade the space of the violent crowd next door to their private enclave, we see the clashes between social classes played out in angry argument to the point of awful physical attack.

The drama, which shows Best’s tight directing, works from the personality of each ‘girl’ growing from cover-up and self-protection to revelations which bring them together – to a new understanding.  McCarrick, of course, has provided the actors with the words they say out loud, but I imagine for each one of the actors the analysis of their characters and developing how they could express them must have been a highly emotional experience.

The result for me was as if I was looking through the camera, focussing from one face to another, from one image of an action to the next, until a kind of relief from that close-up intensity as my camera panned along the group standing on deck, ready to embark in Sydney.  Coming, ready or not.

The acting skills, and the sense of equal standing among the five actors, are at the heart of this production.  But then the set design, with its great sail, puts the small scale of the girls’ cabin into the context of the seemingly interminable voyage ‘halfway round the Earth’ as one says.  And then again there is the essential mood created by Peter Best, linking the scenes as they appear and fade – and not forgetting the literally frightening storm effect, when sound and light explode.

Only afterwards did I think, of course: this is Peter Best, film composer from Bliss, through Crocodile Dundee, to Muriel’s Wedding!  Perhaps Jaki McCarrick should be approached for her film.

The history of the Irish Potato Famine and the advantage taken by the British to transport the Irish poor and literally starving women from Belfast to Sydney to provide wives and workers is now much better known because of this play.  Jaki McCarrick’s article is an excellent read to fill out what we learn in the theatre, from when she discovers the name – Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Sligo – among the four thousand ‘Belfast girls’ sent under Earl Grey’s so-called Orphan Emigration Scheme.

Jordan Best is to be congratulated for producing and directing this significant play.  Special thanks too to the Queanbeyan Palerang Regional Council and The Q Team Leader Stephen Pike for supporting the work of Echo Theatre.

Not to be missed.

L-R: Phoebe Heath, Isabel Burton, Joanna Richards, Eliza Jennings, Natasha Vickery
as
Sarah, Judith, Ellen, Molly, Hannah

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 23 August 2019

2019: Shakespeare in Love - Melbourne Theatre Company

Shakespeare in Love, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; adapted for the stage by Lee Hall; music by Paddy CunneenMelbourne Theatre Company production at Canberra Theatre Centre August 22-32, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 23

Michael Wahr as the musing Will Shakespeare
Photo: Limelight


The set design for Shakespeare in Love on stage is nothing less than magnificent, and the deliberately coarse acting is often Laugh Out Loud.  But LoL is not enough to sustain a full-length RomCom – too long, in fact – unless the romance is believable.  The director has done their best and the lead actors are very good, but this script fails at its heart.

Are we expected to simply find a bumbling ‘rude mechanicals’ version of London theatre in Shakespeare’s day funny?  In this view Will appears as Peter Quince, and there are several Bottoms.  But unlike in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s no depth in the lovers' relationship.  The writer of this script is certainly not Shakespeare.

A 'rehearsal' scene
Photo: MTC
Are we supposed to take the play as a serious condemnation of the apocryphal state of women, not only in the past but still today?  Queen Elizabeth I in this script, by forgiving Viola for performing on stage, and by performing herself as an absolute monarch, could be seen as a feminist symbol.


In real history, of course, Queen Elizabeth made Proclamations against 'excess of apparel' and gave actors (all male) special licence to wear clothes, in specified colours, to represent characters who were of a different class from that of the actor in real life.  Shakespeare in Love’s Viola would not have been forgiven.

But, as in Twelfth Night’s treatment of Malvolio, Shakespeare in Love would have to take us beyond the laughter into a deeper level of social criticism.  We would need to feel the tragedy of this Viola’s realising that she will never perform again, and must leave Will to marry the awful Wessex.  But her acceptance of such a fate for herself, and the mere quoting back to Will how his writing will make true love last forever, is just soppy romanticism.  There is just a touch in a throwaway line earlier in the play, when Shakespeare says, of course, a comedy has to have a happy ending.  But the irony of the tragic ending for this Viola, because she is a woman, barely peeks through the LoL.

Queen Elizabeth and her Court
Photo: Jeff Busby

Another approach might have been to turn the Shakespeare in Love idea into a satire.  The beginning and the end, where Shakespeare is searching for the right words for ‘Shall I Compare Thee…’ could have gone this way, perhaps.  And Daisy the Dog made me wonder.

But satire has a central component of criticism; anathema for a romcom needing a happy ending.

So apart from thoroughly enjoying the wonderful sets and their imaginative changes, and appreciating the whole team of actors for keeping it all moving, I found the play needs re-writing to give us more satisfying theatre.




Photos supplied
© Frank McKone, Canberra