Saturday 29 October 2016

2016: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

Colin Friels as Frank Hardy
in Faith Healer
Photo by Brett Boardman
Faith Healer by Brian Friel.  Presented by Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, October 26 – November 27, 2016

Director – Judy Davis

Set Designer – Brian Thomson; Costume Designer – Tess Schofield; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound Designer – Paul Charlier

Performed by Colin Friels – Frank Hardy; Alison Whyte – Grace Hardy; Pip Miller – Teddy.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 29

Frank Hardy – Fantastic Faith Healer Francis Hardy, One Night Only – begins his story without telling us about his ending. 

Grace Hardy – he said mistress, she says wife – tells her story without her ending, of her life with Frank, yet without making the end of his life known, if indeed it has yet ended at all.

Teddy – manager of artistes extraordinaire, so he says – tells his story of Grace and Frank.  His own story has not yet ended.  He knows her ending, but even he does not make Frank’s ending clear.

Then Frank, now apparently after his end, tells his story with some more embellishment.  He obviously ends, but still we are not told exactly what happened.

Maybe it’s all a story of Irish blarney.  You kiss and polish the blarney stone while you tell fantastic stories, mostly about what you wish would happen.  This wasn’t mentioned in the play, but it’s what the play is about.

From our point of view it’s all about listening, and trying to work out what’s blarney and what’s not – except that the whole, the perhaps bigger, question is whether all art is just blarney – or not, as the case may be.

The three actors have clearly been directed by her excellency Judy Davis down to the very last aaargh! of their characters’ lives, but in the end – or in their ends – or even my end, there wasn’t enough beginning to make the play as significant as others seem to want to make it.  Davis makes a fair attempt in her Director’s Note, quoting Brian Friel saying “I certainly think we’re a maimed people in this country [Ireland, that is]”, that it’s about ‘issues of identity, of the importance of a sense of place, of foreign conquest, and of the damage done when one’s destiny is out of one’s control’, and concluding with ‘another quote from Friel may be helpful: “I gave up my study for the priesthood out of conflict with my belief in paganism.”

Well, perhaps, but I honestly think Brian Friel couldn’t match his sort-of confrere, Samuel Beckett.  This is because Beckett created, and knew he was creating, an original form of drama, a new genre in the aburdist line.  Friel’s story-writing is apparently ordinarily naturalistic – and so the possibilities remain rather ordinary – while Beckett created metaphors redolent with interpretations.

This doesn’t mean that Faith Healer isn’t quite watchable – the actors are very good at naturalism after all – but there’s not the poetry I need.  Maybe that’s my version of blarney.  You might well feel differently if you kiss the stone. 

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2016: The Wharf Revue 2016 – Back to Bite You

Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott, Jonathan Biggins
in Back to Bite You The Wharf Revue 2016
Photo by Hon Boey
The Wharf Revue 2016 – Back to Bite You, written and created by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, performed with Paige Gardiner (originally with Katrina Retallick).  Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, October 19 – December 23, 2016.

Musical Director – Phillip Scott; Lighting Designer – Matthew Marshall; Sound and Video Designer – David Bergman; Costumes – Scott Fisher and Nick Godlee; Wig Stylist – Margaret Aston; Video Artist – Todd Decker;  Music Tracks – Andrew Worboys.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 29

Someone told me they were disappointed that no sitting Prime Minister appeared in this year’s Wharf Revue.  But Malcolm Caesar was spoken about in such glowing or scathing terms by so many Senators in Ancient Rome AD 2016, that we did not need to see him in person to know all about him.  The Treasurer “didn’t come to bury him, but to praise him”.

On the other hand, perhaps the Revue Creators simply could not find anything funny about him to present.  While on the third hand, they had no difficulty presenting Antonius Abbottus doing a fandango fan dance in red budgie smugglers, now banished to the isolated island of Warringah.

As always Drew Forsythe was absolutely remarkable in every role, as was Jonathan Biggins, both live and on video; Phillip Scott played the grand in every impossible style from Dave Brubeck to Gilbert and Sullivan; and Paige Gardiner was wonderful all the way from Juliana, the experienced vestal virgin, through a West Side Story conservative illegal Mexican horrified at Donald Trump, to a terrific characterisation of Hillary – who nearly forgot to mention the other minority group: Women!

The meeting Georgie Brandis called to negotiate terms with Pauline Hanson (Forsythe) and Jacqui Lambe (Gardiner) – she called him Georgie – was a great example of political and other types of innuendo, one of the best among a lengthy series of skits taking us all the way from the Shakesperean politics of Ancient Rome, through the less than enlightening politics of the Australian Parliament (Brandis had to explain to Pauline that she had been in the Green House last time – before she went to jail courtesy of Tony Abbott – but now she is in the Red Senate, but the House isn’t Green now that M Caesar has a one-seat majority), and finally on to the American shenanigans of Bernie, Hillary and Donald.

This historical perspective gave this year’s Revue an intellectual depth, with satirical finesse (and terrific use of video) which makes it one of the best.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Katrina Retallik, but Paige Gardiner was certainly a very fine performer as actor, dancer and singer, fully up to the mark required by the Wharf Revue tradition.

What will change when the US election result is announced I can’t guess, but it could well be worth another trip to Sydney to find out.

But in the end the most powerful episode in this year’s Revue was not a black satirical piece, but the warm, loving, wonderful visit from Heaven by the ever shambolic but so erudite Bob Ellis.  Not to be missed – yet how much do we miss him.

And so it goes….

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday 28 October 2016

2016: Antigone by Sophocles

Andrea Demetriades as Antigone, William Zappa as King Creon
in Sophocles, Antigone adapted by Damien Ryan
Antigone by Sophocles, adapted by Damien Ryan.  Presented by Sport for Jove and The Seymour Centre at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, October 27-29, 2016.

Damien Ryan: Writer and Director; Terry Karabelas: Director.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 27

It may seem a bit far-fetched to compare Damien Ryan with the Ancient Greek Sophocles, but.... 

Of course, the idea of writing three plays tracing the myth of the accursed House of Labdacus was entirely Sophocles’.  The story shows how Oedipus became King of Thebes (Oedipus Rex), why he was banished by his successor Creon and settled in the village of Colonus near Athens where his “soul was received into the blessed abodes...” (Oedipus at Colonus), and finally how Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polynikes fought – Eteocles defending Thebes while Polynikes allied with the Argives to attack.  When both were killed – they killed each other – and Creon was once more in charge, he decreed that only Eteocles would receive proper burial rites, while the body of Polynikes “should be left in ignominy, un-wept and unburied, upon the plain where it lay.  Penalty of death was promulgated against any who should defy this order; and the voices of the city, whether in consent or in fearful submission, were silent.”  [Sophocles: The Theban Plays trans. E F Watling]

Antigone shows the final collapse of the House of Labdacus, as the two daughters of Oedipus – Antigone and Ismene – and Creon’s son, Haemon, defy Creon’s order.

I’m guessing that the words of the Chorus, the people of Thebes, stimulated Damien Ryan to seek a way to show how modern Sophocles’ thinking was, at the time when Athens was experimenting with a new form of government – rule by the people.  With Creon still in power as King, they say to Antigone:

An act of homage is good in itself, my daughter;
But authority cannot afford to connive at disobedience.
You are the victim of your own self-will.

Here is the essence of the politics in the play, as Ryan notes in the Program: The theme of the individual conscience struggling against the power of judicial law and the state is eternal and inspirational.  The loss of political balance into extremism and groups that kill for their own moral or religious law is terrifying.

But Ryan has cleverly not done as many other directors have done in recent times with Shakespeare.  He has not transposed the play into some modern place, though the stage set looks eerily like this week’s news pictures of Aleppo, but he has written into the dialogue mention of modern weaponry and human rights violations as if Thebes is one of the cities we know, like Mosul or Raqqa, or indeed Aleppo today.

Then he has done the most daring adapting by writing in what Sophocles might have thought of, but couldn’t quite go there: Ryan’s Creon announces that “tomorrow” we will have democracy, saying that he and his family will stand down from kingship to become ordinary citizens like everyone else.

The edict of the death penalty concerning burying the body of Polynikes legally remains in force, of course, and Antigone does her deed that very night – before tomorrow comes.  And dies before Creon heeds the voice of the people to release her from prison.

Yet the strength of this production is not just in the twists and turns of argument about government: Damien Ryan has brought the personal story of Antigone, her sister Ismene and her lover Haemon to life in a way that could never have been presented on the great outdoor theatre in Sophocles’ Athens.  We see and hear them speak to us directly in scenes additional to Sophocles’ descriptions by messengers in the original script.

Ryan writes: Tragedy’s intention is to remind us we are alive.  And indeed his writing and directing has brought Sophocles to life in this remarkable production of Antigone.

The success of this production also relied very much on casting, set design, sound design and lighting.

Casting Andrea Demetriades as Antigone, Louisa Mignone as Ismene, Joseph Del Re as Haemon, Anna Volska as Tiresias – the seer who so severely criticises Creon’s actions, William Zappa as Creon, Deborah Galanos as Creon’s wife Eurydice, and Fiona Press as the Leader of the Chorus made a brilliant team – all except William Zappa (for obvious reasons) doubling as members of the Chorus along with Janine Watson, Thomas Royce-Hampton, Marie Kamara and Elijah Williams, who also played respectively the Sentry, the Soldier (and live percussionist), the young Boy and the older Boy with critical messenger roles.

Such quality casting and grouping emphasised the sense of community in the people of Thebes, enhanced by the use of song and Greek language shouts for action, of acclamation, of concern, drawing us into their culture and involving us emotionally in their lives.  Terry Karabelas’ work shone through the production, as did Scott Witt’s choreography.

Sets and costume design by Melanie Liertz, working with scenic artist Rosalind McKelvey Bunting, took us exactly into a city almost destroyed by years of warfare, even down to graffiti, with a mood to match in Matt Cox’s lighting and Bruce Halliday's sound design.

This is a production not to be missed, with a run after Canberra at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, November 9-12.  Well worth the drive. 

© Frank McKone, Canberra   

Friday 14 October 2016

2016: Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Centre, Playhouse, October 14-22, 2016.

Directed by Peter Evans; Sets and Costumes by Michael Hankin; Lighting by Paul Jackson; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Movement and Fight director – Nigel Poulton; Voice Coach – Jess Chambers.

Ray Chong Nee – Othello; Yalin Ozucelik – Iago; Elizabeth Nabben – Desdemona; James Lugton – Brabantio/Lodovico; Michael Wahr – Cassio; Edmund Lembke-Hogan – Roderigo; Joanna Downing – Emilia; Alice Keovahong – Bianca; Huw McKinnon – Duke/Montano

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 14

I had some difficulty seeing this performance by virtue of the fact that the raking of the seating in the Canberra Playhouse is at far too shallow an angle.  It only took a normal height couple immediately in front of me to mean that I had to keep shifting from left to right, and when I wanted to concentrate closely, shifting forward to the edge of my seat to see the actors on different parts of the stage.

Maybe it’s Row F where the problem is worst.  I hope I didn’t distract the people behind me too much.

Row F, I think, is perhaps also the worst for acoustics.  I’ve been further forward and further back before, but in the middle the sound seems to be especially muzzy.  Perhaps that was why I found it quite difficult to pick up all the words, especially when spoken fast (such as in Scene 1 when you need to hear Iago and Roderigo to get the detail of their complaints and their financial arrangements which underpin the rest of the action), and in general of the men compared with the women.

Being aware of these technical issues and doing my best to discount them in my judgement, I still have to use the word “lacklustre” to describe this production of Othello.

This is disappointing after Peter Evans’ Romeo and Juliet.  His modernisation worked then, despite the anachronisms, because the central story is still universal to today’s families and their children; but not for Othello. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of the Moor demanded that he be so strategic in war, so compelling a commander and so attractive in love – indeed, so genuine a personality – that his blackness simply has to be put aside, despite white Venice’s standard discriminatory assumptions.   Othello is highly intelligent, working through the detail of information he receives to see the possibilities and probabilities, and taking decisive action.  Of course, though Shakespeare’s audience in a time of absolute monarchy would recognise the value of such a man – and pick up on Shakespeare’s point that these characteristics are not exclusive to  Englishmen (or white Venetians) – it is his tragedy not to see through the subtlety of Iago’s manipulative intelligence. 

Unfortunately, neither Ray Chong Nee nor Yalin Ozucelik showed us the complexity of these characters – presumably because they were not directed to do so.  Chong Nee’s Othello seemed too limited in intelligence, commanding presence or personal charm, and indeed was represented as actually being mentally unstable; while Ozucelik’s Iago was clever to an extent at a superficial level but was never the smooth operator – not oily enough to succeed against a man of Othello’s erudition; or indeed even enough to explain how Emilia would ever have married him.

One demonstrative example was when Iago turned on Emilia, threatening violence, insulting her as a ‘fool’, and obviously frightening her.  The real Iago (and they are extant today as ever they were in Shakespeare’s time) would never be so obvious.  They smile as they call their wives fool, just as they speak so apparently genuinely while taking their ‘mates’ down.  This Iago actually made some audience members laugh openly when speaking directly to us, when we should have felt the need to stop ourselves from laughing because of his dreadful intention.

Though all three women, as Emilia, Desdemona and Bianca, performed their roles with tremendous strength of character – and thoroughly justified Shakespeare’s insistence on their equal rights – without properly fine-tuned male characters, their work was not enough to bring this production of Othello up to Shakespeare’s mark.

I suspect that attempting to use modern dress (which lacks the specific delineation of social position) and technology to create massive alarums was a distraction in the directing of this play.  Its setting is so specific (where Othello even speaks of his action in Aleppo!) that keeping to the time and place that Shakespeare chose would work better, allowing the characterisations to grow from those circumstances and yet making the story of Venetian domination and its undermining from within be told metaphorically via the ironic tragic story of the Moor, Othello, his pure Venetian wife Desdemona, and his disaffected underling Iago.

Ray Chong Nee and Yalin Ozucelik
as Othello and Iago
in Shakespeare's Othello

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2016: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, trans. by George Tabori.  Daramalan Theatre Company at McCowage Hall, Daramalan College, October 12-15, 2016.

Directed and designed by Joe Woodward; Musical director – Damien Foley; Choreography by Miri Slater.

Original music by Damien Foley, Christopher Walsh and Bartholomew Bunk; Costumes, masks and set pieces by Joanna Howard.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 12

Joe Woodward is the head Drama teacher at Daramalan College, a Years 7-12 Roman Catholic co-educational secondary school in Canberra.

Government secondary schools in Canberra are separated into High Schools to the end of Year 10 and Secondary Colleges for Years 11-12, leading to the Year 12 Certificate at Accredited level or matriculation at Tertiary Accredited level.  Non-Government schools, though generally retaining their Year 11-12 students in the same school as their 7-10 students, provide Accredited and Tertiary Accredited programs after Year 10.

In keeping with the approach taken in other Secondary Colleges in Canberra, stage productions are mounted in a theatre company model as an education device to teach an understanding of how professional theatre works, especially (but not only) for those students who aim to become arts practitioners in their adult lives.

To provide a context for this review, this is Woodward’s description of Daramalan’s approach:

The Daramalan Theatre Company was formed in 1998 to give a professional structure to the theatrical performances presented by Daramalan College students and staff. It acknowledges Daramalan’s very fine prior record in the Performing Arts while developing a formal rationale for the development and presentation of theatre.

The Company explores theatrical processes and subject matter of particular relevance for younger people, the Daramalan community and the wider society. Its program varies from group devised productions, classic and contemporary scripts, in-house scripted works and musicals. Each production is given a fresh treatment that will be of benefit to the participants and audiences. The range of productions is illustrated by the devised joint production of “Installation Ark” presented with the Visual Arts Department (2013), Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr (2014), Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew (2014) and CLONE (2015).

The chosen themes are often spiritual in nature while acknowledging the contemporary reality of contemporary experience: ennui, rampant materialism, the abandonment of spiritual values, the reduction of life and existence to commodities, the havoc caused by drugs and addictions, the growing violence between competing belief systems. Focusing on these issues gives greater leverage and support to curricula and pastoral care programs offered within the school. It also gives the wider community a focus for artistic relevance for everyday existence.

In presenting Brecht, in a design very much in the tradition of expressionism and using documentary film (much as Erwin Piscator, Brecht’s early mentor, had done from the mid-1920s), Woodward has given his students and their audience a clear picture of the parallels between the rise of Ui’s control of the fictional cauliflower market in Chicago and the next door town of Cicero and the real history of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Austria in 1933, as well as how to perform in this style.

In the final slides, Hitler’s image is replaced by many others since that time, from Stalin, through Pol Pot, even unto Donald Trump.  Woodward succeeds very well in developing his program note, Whatever one thinks of Brecht’s politics and personality, there is no doubting that Brecht’s theatrical concepts and approaches have advanced theatre’s potential for challenging stereotypes and for linking art with serious trends in society and culture.

To quote one student’s response to their work with the Daramalan staff: “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” is a bold statement.  It’s a statement saying that, I individually, as well as us (as a cast), will not stand for tyranny and dictatorship in our world.  We will not stand for the egomaniac demagogue.  As the Barker says: “Great Murderers, and that’s a well-known fact, still do command from us too much respect”.  So we are taking away that respect.  We’re unveiling these monsters for who they truly are.  All of my characters [The Barker, The Old Actor, The Pastor, Gun Man, Court Physician, Ensemble Member] are quite comical, and I believe that comedy is the best platform to make fun of a demagogue as it demolishes the fear and respect we have for them as people.  So, here’s the show to end all gangsters shows.  Enjoy it folks, before the siren blows... (Oliver Durbidge)

I couldn’t say it better.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday 13 October 2016

2016: Boys in the Band by David Malek and Dale Burridge

Boys in the Band by David Malek and Dale Burridge.  Produced by SMA Productions at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, October 13-15, 2016.

Performers: Mat Verevis, Simon McLachlan, Nana Matapule and Tom Struik.
Band: The Players

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13

At first I thought I was not appropriately qualified to judge the quality of these four singers’ performances of songs by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, The Beatles, Jackson 5, Bee Gees, Righteous Bros, Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Take That, Human Nature, and Backstreet Boys, ranging from the 1950s to the 1990s.  I’ve been around all that time and more, but this kind of pop music in concert was never my ‘thing’.  The point of presenting the show was made, though, since I recognised quite a large proportion of the songs which I must have absorbed by osmosis. 

Then I realised that Boys in the Band is a scripted piece of theatre, not just four guys singing for our enjoyment.  The banter between themselves and with us in the audience was memorised dialogue with a little improvisation.  Each set of songs from each decade included some interspersed history.  After the 1980s, the show was apparently going to finish, but the performers reappeared as if in response to our applause to offer more – the 1990s.  When that ended, it seemed to be the end, but then they appeared again, asking if we wanted more.  Cynically working the crowd, I would call it.

They then performed The Beatles’ Imagine and Let It Be as a finale of significant work – which to my mind proved that Lennon and McCartney were the masters of social conscience, beyond even Simon and Garfunkel, and well beyond most of the others from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes to You Should be Dancing.  And it was interesting to note that the Beach Boys never surfed.

This realisation meant I can make some comments on the technical aspects and the dramatic nature of the ‘play’.

I had the impression that there had not been much in the way of tech rehearsal.  Lighting was a bit erratic throughout the show, especially fixed spots and follow spot.  But I was more concerned in the first half that the audio balance between the band and the singers’ mikes meant that the voices were drowned – yet to hear them sing was the main reason we were there.  I guess somebody got to work in the bio-box over interval, because this problem was much improved in the second half.

Then I had to conclude that the purpose of the show was not made out.  If our focus was to be on the musical skills of the singers (and band) in a concert, then that could be sufficient in itself for a satisfying night in the theatre.  And the singers were good enough to do this, I think, even if they couldn’t match the original No 1’s, while the band was also up to the mark.

On the other hand, if we were meant to come to a new understanding of the qualities and value of the boys in their bands over those five decades, then the rather banal banter and tricks to make us laugh or think the show was ended were cheap distractions from what could have been a strong story of this element of popular culture.  As the impressive finale of the Beatles’ songs proved, and the different feeling behind the 1990s songs compared with those of previous decades suggested, this quite entertaining but otherwise rather shallow show could be made into a drama of considerable depth.

On the third hand, perhaps the show could have been a fun-spoof of this kind of show.  The tightly choreographed synchronised movements (not exactly but almost dance) that the Boys displayed were funny at the beginning, but gradually became rather ho-hum, even though I recognised that each song from a different original group had its own dance routine.  If this aspect of the show had been worked up to, for example, become more and more extreme as the decades rolled by, including the ‘now we’re going, now we’re not’ comic business, the show could have become a gentle satire of all the Boys in their Bands, until a contrasting selection of important songs as a finale to show the worthwhile impact of this tradition.

So, though I enjoyed the performances by these Boys, I think an opportunity has been missed drama-wise.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday 7 October 2016

2016: Henry Five written by James Scott and William Shakespeare

Henry Five written by James Scott and William Shakespeare.  Honest Puck Theatre Company at CADA Theatre, 1/9 Lithgow St, Fyshwick, October 7-16, 2016.

Directed by James Scott; Sound and Lighting by James Scott; Original Music by Annie Liana Scott.

Cast: Brendan Kelly (Peter Figg/Westmoreland/Bedford); James Scott (Nick Topp/Henry); Katherine Berry (Hermione/Katherine/Exeter); Annie Liana Scott (Paris/Montjoy/Alice); Scott Bowcher (Tom/The Dauphin/Archbishop)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 7

A bit of a theatrical oddity, this Henry Five is essentially a demonstration of the theatre training courses offered by CADA – Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art – which is a privately owned registered VET (Vocational Education and Training) organisation.  James Scott and his wife Elizabeth Avery Scott saw a gap in Canberra between the Drama courses offered in the secondary school and university programs, and after some years’ operation currently employ some 18 theatre, film and TV professionals as teachers of 600 students, 65 of whom are enrolled in accredited programs and the rest in classes for children and young people or adults' leisure programs .

Honest Puck Theatre Company puts graduated or near-graduation students on show as they seek to move on into professional employment following their training covering subjects such as Vocal Arts, Into the Space, Actor-to-Actor, Character from Text, On Screen, On Stage, The Audition: Keys to Success and The Actor: Then and Now, which make up the course 10197 National Certificate IV in Acting for Stage and Screen. 

Or they may have taken Cert IV in Musical Theatre, or a Diploma of Musical Theatre, or an Advanced Diploma of Performance as Brendan Kelly, Scott Bowcher and Katherine Berry have done.

So Henry Five has been put together by Head of Studies James Scott around a story of Figg and Topp’s attempt to succeed in a local Shakespeare Festival, presenting Henry V, after their previous disastrous attempt at Coriolanus five years ago.  Topp prefers to drink himself into oblivion than face up to Figg’s insistence they carry on with no money, sets or props; Paris is from Berlin and doesn’t speak the French needed for Henry V despite Figg’s assumption from her name that she would; Hermione has arrived under orders from a magistrate to redeem herself from a life of petty crime; while Tom is suspiciously from a rival theatre group, where in fact he has become disaffected and is now committed to Figg.

Scott’s writing is cleverly done, highly reminiscent of the ‘rude mechanicals’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Figg’s role as a sort-of Peter Quince and Topp nodding towards Bottom the Weaver.  Despite the present day setting, lines subtly remind us of Shakespeare’s stress patterns, rhymes and famous phrases.  I imagine the often quite ludicrous Figg and Topp scenes might have happened in preparations for the summer Thredbo Ski Resort Shakespeare Festival which I remember reviewing some years ago.  Here, of course, Scott has provided his cast with the opportunity to play something like those English village television comedies like the Vicar of Dibley.

But then the severe trimming and reworking of Henry V for five actors is well done.  Scott as Topp takes the lead in playing Henry, and provides a model for his less experienced colleagues in his careful strong characterisation of this king with a genuine conscience, yet in a position where it is essential, because he is king, that he must win the day.  In some 50 minutes, we get the essence of Shakespeare’s artistry and social philosophy, through very effective sound effects, use of ‘presentational style’ in speeches directly to the audience, and particularly in the relationship set up between Henry and the French spokesman Montjoy, played with precise characterisation by Annie Liana Scott.

It turns out that Annie, as Princess Katherine’s maid, speaks French rather well, and Katherine Berry is highly adaptable in swapping from the raffish petty thief Hermione, through her roles as a soldier in battle, to a quite delightful scene as the Princess trying to learn to speak English.  It may be Shakespeare rather than James Scott who made it difficult to seriously accept Henry’s demand for marriage to Katherine as essential to the French submission to England while he also claims he loves her, and she is supposed to return his affection.

Of the men, I thought Brendan Kelly needed more variety of tone as Figg, while he handled the Shakespeare roles well; but in some contrast, I thought Scott Bowcher played the modern character Tom nicely, but his clarity of diction and phrasing needed improving for the Shakespeare.

So, though I wouldn’t see this production as entirely up to the full professional standard that I’ve seen recently in Sydney (see my reviews this year on this blog), it is entertaining and has elements of an effective presentation of Shakespeare which makes it very worthwhile for young people to see especially if they are seeking to understand what they would need to learn to do as prospective theatre students.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday 2 October 2016

2016: Remembering Pirates by Christopher Harley

Remembering Pirates by Christopher Harley.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, September 16 – October 16, 2016.

Directed by Iain Sinclair
Q&A Author and Cast

Designers: Production – Alicia Clements; Lighting – Daniel Barber; Sound – Katelyn Shaw; Composer – Nate Edmondson

Cast:  Robert Alexander (Mr Darling); Fraser Crane (Peter); Emma Palmer (Wendy); Simon London (John); Stephen Multari (Richard)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 2

When is a play complete?  Darlinghurst Theatre Company is proud – as it should be – to focus on presenting new writing, such as  Remembering Pirates.  In the Q&A session after the performance I saw, there was much discussion about the development and rehearsal process, and the fact that major changes were made shortly before the season opened, and minor changes continued well into the run – and maybe there are still more to come.

My role as critic, of course, is to report on the performance I saw.  Usually I’m inclined not to report too much about the plot of a new play, to retain the surprise element at least for the first-run audiences.  But sometimes I see the need to distinguish between the quality of the production and that of the writing to explain my response on the night.

The great strength of the show was in the directing, the designing and the acting.  The cast is listed in the program without naming their individual roles, so it may be unfair to say that I was very impressed by all the performers, but most impressed by Emma Palmer as Wendy (whose off-stage photo I am sure of).

The set design with its wind-blown shadows behind the window’s curtains was genuinely magical.  Like the characters, I found myself obsessed with thinking there were figures out there – until there really was one.  With eerie lighting, sound effects, and thunder and lightning, dramatic tension built – until the whole wall and window finally came crashing down in a symbolic collapse of childhood memory into harsh adult reality.

This is where the plot comes in.  In J M Barrie’s Peter Pan story, which over the past century has become ingrained into the minds at least of English-speaking children around the world, the children of the Darling family – the sensible Wendy and her two much younger brothers, the elder John and the younger Michael – escape the confines of their bedroom by flying through the window to the treetops at the instigation of a sort of fairy, Peter – the boy who never grows up.  High up in the tree, they are attacked by pirates.  One might wonder about Barrie’s state of mind when writing this story for children, but his imagination has shone through the generations.

These children are fictional, of course, but what if we were to imagine them as grown-ups.  And what about Mr Darling, when his children are in their thirties?  Christopher Harley wonders what they would remember, and reveals a story of what ‘really’ happened.  Though I have some doubts about the psychological truths of his story – which is why I need to tell you about it – the play raises an important question.  How reliable are any of our memories, and are we actually out of our minds when we feel we would like to go back to a previous time when things were ‘better’?

From a political point of view, I think about conservatives who seem to want to take us all back to the 1950s, for example.  And get themselves elected to parliament, what’s more.

In Harley’s play we find out little about Mrs Darling who I presume has died, but Mr Darling is now in a dementia unit, regularly rattling at the door and looking out the window.  Radio news voice-overs are about a missing boy, and Mr Darling seems to want to get out to search for him.  Wendy has brought him slippers, but he insists on waving them about, making demented semaphore signals.  She cannot calm him down, but when John visits he accepts his father’s delusions – and his father loves him, but not his daughter who wants him to recognise normal reality.

John has become a history teacher, rather mysteriously considering his peculiar behaviour: seeking out other men, but undermining any hope of establishing a long-term relationship by complaining when they make a move in his direction.  He sees Wendy’s attempts to help him as trying to mother him, as she did when he was young; yet he insists on staying overnight in the original Darling family home, where she now lives with her husband Richard.  John has his own house to go to; Richard is not impressed by John’s interference.

John still believes that Michael and he did fly.  How he became a teacher, I’d love to know.  But there’s more to the story.

Richard, for some reason with no explanation, has a loaded pistol in the house, with which he scares Wendy (and us) nearly ‘out of our skins’ (an expression used often by old Mr Darling).  When the pistol reappears in John’s possession later, we realise its presence is a simple device by the author to create expectations of disastrous events to come.  But why should John come close to suicide?

The back story is that when John and Michael had flown up in the tree and the pirates were attacking, John had pushed Michael off the branch, telling him to fly and get help (presumably from Peter Pan).  Wendy, on the ground under the real tree, saw the push, saw Michael fall to his death, dragged his body into the lake because she didn’t know (as a child) what else to do, lied to John that she had seen Michael fly, and kept her secret not only through the four months’ police search for Michael but even until the point in the play when her relationship with Richard is under stress from John’s behaviour.

John still believes that Michael is simply missing because he flew away.  Wendy’s now telling him the truth, including that she lied to him to protect him (as a child) from seeing the death of his brother, takes him to the original bedroom in the family home with the gun to kill himself.  At the last – very long moment – before he pulls the trigger, an apparently real boy bursts through the window.  John believes it to be Peter, who wants John to fly with him to Michael, except that Peter sees John’s eyes no longer are bright as in childhood.  He is an adult now, and can no longer fly.  As Peter goes to leave through the window, John shoots him.

In the final scene, Wendy and Richard say that John has shot a real boy – but no-one explains how he could have got to a 3rd storey window.  Then the whole wall crashes down over John who remains standing in the space which had been the window as the stage lights go down.

I can understand Mr Darling’s descending into dementia and being deluded about finding his long-lost son Michael (I’ve seen this kind of delusion in my real life), but I think the extended belief in flying in John is unlikely, unless he actually had some form of schizoid psychosis.  To suggest, as the play seems to, that the Peter Pan story, like belief in Father Christmas, might not be amenable to a more realistic understanding as children grow up, is a bit far-fetched.

So in the end I found that though there is a logic to the storyline, despite Richard’s unexplained gun and the unlikely claim that the Peter who came through the window was a real boy, the play turned out to be essentially a kind of murder mystery with Agatha Christie-like motivations. 

The idea of going back to an earlier happier time was certainly talked about, by Wendy and Richard as John’s behaviour became an intolerable interference in their current life.  It was also implicit in Mr Darling’s dementia: if he could find Michael everything would be all right again.  And the same is true for John.  But it is still a thought we might get from seeing the play, rather than one on which we focus while watching. 

So, though our one-time Canberran, the director Iain Sinclair could not be present for the Q&A, I can quote his thoughts about taking on this task:

The magic in Christopher Harley’s
writing is elusive but beautiful. When
you read the script dry, something
makes sense in your heart as you
are reading it then the moment you
disassemble it, it becomes impossible
to reassemble according to known
dramaturgical laws. He has a stage
language that is his own. The idea of
staging this script strikes me with an
equal measure of terror and fascination
– and that’s a good reason for any
director to put on a new play. It feels
like unknown territory and that’s the
most rewarding place for any artist.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2016: The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

Photo by Brett Boardman

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell.  Belvoir in associastion with Oombarra Productions at Belvoir St Theatre, September 17 - October 16, 2016.

Directed by Leticia Cáceres
Designers: Set by Stephen Curtis; Costume by Tess Schofield; Lighting by Verity Hampson; Composer / Sound – THE SWEATS
Dramaturg – Anthea Williams
Movement – Scott Witt
Traditional Movement and Language Consultant / Spear Maker – Sean Choolburra

Cast: Leah Purcell – Drover’s Wife; Mark Coles Smith – Yadaka; Will McDonald – Danny; Benedict Hardie – Merchant / Leslie / McPharlen; Tony Cogin – McNealy / Parsen

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 1

It’s some time since I have been so directly affected by a play that I feel incompetent to make the conventional kind of critical judgement about the production.  The first occasion was when I was just 18.  Watching the first performance in Australia, with Frank Waters as Tyrone and Dinah Shearing as Mary Tyrone, of Long Day’s Journey Into Night was an awful experience in 1969 as I was drawn in to Eugene O’Neill’s self-destructing family. 

Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland, in August 2003, was a more recent play of this highly personal kind of response to life experience (my review is available at ).  And now another, like Frankland’s coming from an Aboriginal writer, in Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife.

The title, of course, is of Henry Lawson’s perhaps most famous story, published in 1893, of which Leah Purcell writes: Like many Australians, I’ve grown up with this story and love it.  My mother would read or recite it to me, but before she got to that famous last line, I would stop her and say, ‘Mother, I won’t ever go a drovin’.

Purcell’s story starts from the lonely wife whose husband goes away droving sheep for months on end, leaving her in 1893 … Alpine country, southern New South Wales, but she incorporates into her version the experiences of her Aboriginal great grandfather.  So Lawson’s white drover’s wife waiting for the opportunity to shoot a snake discovers her own Aboriginal identity as Yadaka appears in her gun sights.  It seemed to me that the writing, the development, the rehearsing and finally her performing of this role is so close to Leah's self that I don’t want to interfere with her feelings, even though she has termed the result an “Australian western for the stage”, as if the American western gun-toting cowboy is from a genre suited to our bush way of life in the days when the wars against Aboriginals were real, although never acknowledged as such.

In any case Purcell’s story develops into a level of hard reality way beyond any Hollywood heroics, or even of Tarantino who she references in her Director’s Note.

All I can say is that Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife is a remarkable piece of theatre which, even this far in its run, was treated by the audience as a great community event, an expression not only of Leah’s personal work as an artist but also as a celebration of making Indigenous and women’s rights central in our history, and by implication in our present time.

Purcell’s words make her feelings clear:  A massive thank you to the Balnaves Foundation for the 2014 award I received to help bring this play to fruition.  I also want to thank Mr [Eamon] Flack for commissioning my play.  It was the first play he programmed as Artistic Director, allowing me to continue my 20 year working relationship as actor, writer and director for Belvoir St Theatre… It means a lot.  Such a lot.  Thank you.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2016: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Photo by Hon Boey

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House, September 12 – October 22, 2016.

Directed by Kip Williams.
Designers: Set by Robert Cousins; Costume by Alice Babidge; Lighting by Damien Cooper; Composer – Chris Williams; Sound by Nate Edmondson.

Cast: Paula Arundell (Hippolyta/Titania); Matthew Backer (Puck); Rob Collins (Lysander); Honey Debelle (Helena); Emma Harvie (Robin Starveling/Cobweb); Jay James-Moody (Francis Flute/Peaseblossom); Brandon McClelland (Demetrius); Josh McConville (Nick Bottom); Robert Menzies (Theseus/Oberon); Susan Prior (Peter Quince); Rose Riley (Hermia); Rahel Romahn (Snug/Moth); Bruce Spence (Egeus/Tom Snout/Mustard Seed).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 1

Kip Williams, I’m sure, decided that anything Eddie Perfect could do, Kip could do perfecter.  If you thought as I did (on this blog 31st July 2016) that The Beast had the most extraordinarily funny ending to a first half ever, then Titania and Bottom (note the double meanings) are well up to the same mark in this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Just bloody brilliant!  Literally.  Where Eddie had his cast totally bloodied before interval, Kip left us at that point with the Queen of the Fairies having a sexual encounter of a very interesting kind with the Bottom of an Ass, and saved the massive blood spatter for the deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe, creating the funniest ‘tragical comedy’ I could imagine.

On the serious side of critical commentary, this production makes clear – perhaps for the first time in several centuries (like the four since Shakespeare died) – why this unlikely story of sensible, tolerant government in the face of extreme authoritarianism remains a regular in the theatrical canon.  Shakespeare artfully parallels three tragical comedies:

     the egregious Egeus’ demand that he has absolute right over his daughter’s decision about who she loves and will marry in a story which becomes terribly frantic and therefore funny;

     the power struggle between the Fairy King and Queen over the changeling boy which also turns funny for a while but, to my mind, remains a tragedy of family conflict (which is also implied in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta who are played with the same attitudes, by the same actors);

     and of course the story of the ‘rude mechanicals’, in which Bottom the weaver is tragically funny in his overbearing manner – but the success of their performance, which depends on him, makes for a happy community, which Theseus recognises (as he does in overriding Egeus' complaint) while Hyppolita is scathing about their silliness. 

But in the end what makes the play so worthwhile is Shakespeare explicitly explaining how it is the artist – and only the artist – who keeps the madness of the real world in perspective.  By reprising at the very end the scene where the lovers wake up in the forest after Oberon has got Puck to apply the potion correctly, Kip Williams has placed the focus on Shakespeare’s message.  Demetrius asks are we still asleep and dreaming, or are we awake and is this reality? 

Puck repeats the question in his final speech, asking us in the real audience to be his friends and give him applause.  In doing so, Shakespeare is playing out the ‘tragical comedy’ that I see around us every day, from the family violence game, through politicians playing games with same-sex marriage plebiscites, to the end-game of warfare in the name of religious belief or democratic freedom.

Or arts ministers undermining artists in the name of ‘excellence’.

I think the clarity of purpose in this production has been carried through in the stage design, lighting and use of music, making all these elements into an integrated artistic work.  Shakespeare might be surprised at some modern devices, like the smart phone which answers a crucial question, or Puck singing ‘Summertime, and the living is easy…’, but I’m sure Shakespeare would be pleased that what he hoped to do for his audience in the days of the Queen’s lover being executed among all the other excruciating behaviours of his times, has been faithfully translated for our modern yet still so unchanging times.  This is Shakespeare, the artist of great intellect.

And speaking of unchanging times, amongst all the terrrific performances, it was great to see Bruce Spence, after all these years since his oyster-up-the-nose trick in that early David Williamson play, Stork, glorying in playing the most marvellous Wall with chinks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This production is a real dream, and not be missed.

© Frank McKone, Canberra