Saturday, 3 June 2023

Garry Starr Performs Everything


Garry Starr Performs Everything - Damien Warren-Smith.  Presented by Milke at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, June 3 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Producer Milke - Laura Milke Garner
Performer/Creator – Damien Warren-Smith

Director – Cal McCrystal.

WINNER - Emerging Artist, Adelaide Fringe 2018 Weekly
WINNER - Tour Ready Award, Adelaide Fringe 2018
WINNER - Best Comedy, Manchester Fringe 2018
WINNER - Best Physical Theatre & Circus, Sydney Fringe 2022

You would think by now, on tour in prestigious Queanbeyan (Australia), Garry Elizabeth Starr could not still be the “disgraced actor” who “has decided that the performing arts are dying and he is just the man to save them” after such a history of being a WINNER – and having just flashed his Greece Lightning at this year’s even more prestigious Melbourne Comedy Festival, where he performed “all of Greek mythology in order to save his Hellenic homeland from economic ruin” – also a WINNER Best in Fest 2022 Gothenburg Fringe.

But believing “theatre is dying” and having struggled for much of his life to stick at anything” (except slapstick, as he demonstrated with five audience members tonight), “Garry is our only hope”.  He succeeds in brilliantly saving at least 13 kinds of theatre from themselves, making them all the butt of uproarious laughter – very much in the literal sense.  I suggest, though, that he should not endeavour to tour Uganda right now.

To write a series of spoilers about how Garry Starr treats genres like Romantic Comedy, the latest European minimalist theatre focussing on the emotions by stripping out the dialogue or, say, the Australian penchant for physical theatre, would be unethical in a review, since it is the element of the unexpected that makes the show work so well.  And, in any case, his extensive employment of members of the audience relies on the real actor behind the character having improvisation skills extraordinaire – as Warren-Smith has to the umpth degree.

His disciplined skills as a performer showed particularly in the segment on Japanese Noh and Butoh.  His satire of the Butoh Body on the Edge of Crisis (see the trailer at  of the Michael Blackwood 1990 production) required the very skills he makes fun of; just as true as for his Cirque du Nouveau sequence.

However much a continuing failure Garry Starr is, is the measure of the continuing and I suspect developing success Damien Warren-Smith is.

The trip all the way to Queanbeyan was well worth it – especially for the Royal Hotel special offer of a free glass of house beer or wine with dinner before the show.  No joke!

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 29 May 2023

Reconciliation Concert 2023 - Yothu Yindi



Reconciliation Concert 2023Yothu Yindi with Alinta Barlow and Stewart Barton at Canberra Theatre Centre, Sunday May 28 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

‘Coming together’ was the theme in word, song and practice at Yothu Yindi’s Reconciliation Concert on the eve of the Reconciliation Day public holiday in the Australian Capital Territory.  

The 1200-seat theatre audience were at one together in insisting on two encores after their standing ovation.  The 7pm show, after support performances by local First Nations singers Stewart Barton and Alinta Barlow, and a 20 minute interval, finally ended at 10.30pm – three and a half very worthwhile hours with great significance for the whole country: a powerful Indigenous Voice sent out from Australia’s Federal Parliamentary city.

Yothu Yindi have a lengthy history [ ].  Around ten years before the band was formed in 1986 – by merging a “a white rock group called the Swamp Jockeys” with “an unnamed Aboriginal folk group consisting of Mandawuy Yunupingu, Witiyana Marika and Milkayngu Mununggur” – I had the privilege of meeting that old man Wandjuk Marika, at a drama-in-education conference where he, with a younger man, presented a Yolgnu culture demonstration.  A completely new experience for us Balanda, or “Watharr Yolngu” – meaning “White Humans”.

Amazingly, in 1979 Marika was gonged with an Order of the British Empire, despite his continued actions to prevent mining corporations destroying Yolngu land, physically and culturally.  He was also a radical within his community, as he told me, because he saw the need for his culture to be taken out to the wider world, not kept protected, private and secret.  

Before Marika died in 1987, Yothu Yindi – an expression of unity in diversity, a relationship of difference (child-mother) out of which stems good society – came to pass, merging traditional ‘folk’ music with white ‘rock’.  

Meanwhile in 1982 I had taken drama students to the first ROM Ceremony outside traditional country, brought from Maningrida to the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies here in Canberra.  “In the languages of Yolngu Matha, the foundation of the relationship between country and its people is called Rom. Rom is a complex word that has no direct translation equivalent in English; it has deep roots that start from the time of creation, extending to the present and into the future. Rom is like a tree, standing firm, not like grass that comes and goes with every season.”  
Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation  › culture › rom 

A book is now available:

ROM An Aboriginal Ritual of Discovery - Stephen A. Wild (editor)
Regular price $13.00 at AIATSIS Shop

Marika’s desire for ‘coming together’ has spread throughout Australia, as the history of Yothu Yindi shows and for me was brought to a new stage as we saw not only the mother ‘Yindi’ but the child ‘Yothu’ represented last Sunday by the young emerging local First Nations performers.  Our host was Wiradjuri teenager Tahalianna Soward-Mahanga with her own strength of singing voice, song-writing and managing the event with warmth and friendship.

Stewart Barton, born in Canberra and making a point of his performing on Ngunnawal land, presented songs from personal experiences in different relationships, focussed on his second single ‘Waiting on You’.  Proud Ngunnawal woman, Alinta Barlow, gave us a series of songs documenting her period of life finding new relationships, recognising and appreciating her love for her father after his death; the change when leaving the family home; and in young adult life producing a withering condemnation of some men’s behaviour towards women in ‘Alpha Man’.

And then as the Yothu Yindi show progressed through songs, many of whose titles are on this delightful running sheet gaffed to a tree somewhere:

two of the families’ little children – maybe 3 and 6 – appeared on stage, already showing their learning of how to play the clap-sticks.  Just so cute – and another ‘coming together’, of the Generations.

It was fascinating too, at least for me, and it could be for you if you have seen my recent review of the book by Don Watson, The Passion of Private White (here and at May 18, 2023) which covers 50 years of Dr Neville White’s relationship as “a bit of the ‘Anthropologist as Hero’” with Yolgnu elder “Tom Gunaminy Bidingal, the man who steadfastingly held on to his Yolgnu social principles”.  Here was another story of ‘coming together’ across cultural boundaries along quite different lines from the Marika and Yunupingu Yothu Yindi story.

To have now experienced a Yothu Yindi musical – and I must say, theatrical – performance is a recognition of the strength and importance of First Nations and their value in Australian culture.  Treaty, perhaps still their most famous song after some 40 years of Yothu Yindi’s life so far, includes the words:

Now two rivers run their course
Separated for so long
I'm dreaming of a brighter day
When the waters will be one

Let us look forward, then, coming together to vote Yes for Voice, Makarrata, Treaty and Truth in this year’s ultimate Reconciliation Referendum.  It’s the least we could do in appreciation for Yothu Yindi’s 2023 Reconciliation Concert.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 18 May 2023

The Passion of Private White by Don Watson



 The Passion of Private White by Don Watson.  Scribner Australia 2022

Reviewed by Frank McKone

We often speak of the importance, indeed the need, for people of all cultures to ‘tell their own stories’.  This idea is even now built into the Australian Government’s National Cultural Policy – Revive: A Place for Every Story ( > publications ).

Commonly it is thought that fiction has an advantage over reporting fact with intelligent commentary.

Fiction, by getting to the heart of the story, can reveal deep truth.  Facts may be true, but can leave the reader at least cool, if not cold.

Don Watson, in The Passion of Private White, proves that an entirely factual record can be as heart-warmingly truthful as any novel.  And, like the best novelist, he can disturb our understanding of humankind in deeply personal ways.

There is mystery on Page 5:

Dr White, Neville, “had about him a bit of the ‘Anthropologist as Hero’, Susan Sontag’s designation for people who pursued ‘one of the rare intellectual vocations which do not demand a sacrifice of one’s manhood’.  (It was an odd choice of words given the number of famous women in the field, but we know what she meant.)

And there is a central character – a long-term confidant of Dr Neville White – who we meet on Page 7.  This is Tom who “spoke Ritharrngu, the language group (or ‘matha’ meaning ‘tongue’ or ‘voice’) to which his Bidingal clan belongs.

But then, on Page 292 we read “In the crowd near the coffin room, Wanakiya keened.  With yidaki, sticks and singing, they came forward, men and women on their knees.  Each raised a hand holding a plastic flower, to be placed by the carers on the coffin.  Plastic flowers would have been traditional feathered sticks and strings.  …A shooting star fell blazing in the west.

Who was Tom Gunaminy Bidingal, the man who steadfastingly held on to his Yolgnu social principles?  Why did he die honoured with plastic flowers?

What was the nature of Vietnam Veteran Private White’s passion?

This year, in September 2023, I can only hope, Tom’s voice will at last be heard in our vote for The Voice.  Don Watson’s head and heart story will surely help make it happen.

It is a continuing, terribly complicated, yet absolutely fascinating story which will challenge your own preconceptions, whether you are woman, man or other gender; Indigenous or Non-Indigenous; progressive or conservative.

Read The Passion of Private White for the good of everyone.

Neville and Tom on his last return to Donydji, 2012
Photo © Neville White

Author: Don Watson
Photo by Susan Gordon-Brown

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 21 April 2023

Troilus & Cressida - Daramalan Theatre Company



 Troilus & Cressida by William Shakespeare.  Adapted by Tony Allan; directed by Joe Woodward; original music by Jo Philp.  Daramalan College Theatre Company, at McCowage Hall, Dickson, Canberra.  April 22-29 2023.

Commentary by Frank McKone

In the best theatre education tradition, these senior secondary students are established as a complete company, covering front of house, backstage and onstage – with input from professionals on occasion.

There are times in the learning process when facing up to a challenge beyond expectations is a valuable exercise.  Staging Troilus & Cressida fits the bill.  The Daramalan group are not the first to find Shakespeare’s 1602 play a bit of a mystery.

As Wikipedia records “Troilus And Cressida; Or, Truth Found Too Late is a 1679 tragedy by the English writer John Dryden. It was first staged by the Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. It was a reworking of William Shakespeare's 1602 play Troilus and Cressida, set during the Trojan Wars. In acknowledgement of this Dryden has the prologue spoken by Shakespeare's ghost, defending the alterations made to the play.”  It has been categorised as a Shakespeare ‘problem play’, and this may have been the first attempt after, it appears, only one performance in 1602/3.

But in more recent times “it has become increasingly popular. Peter Holland of Cambridge University attributes this to the work's relevance at times of impending war: William Poel's 1912 production served as a warning as the Great Powers of Europe armed themselves for conflict and Michael Macowan's modern dress production of 1938 at the Westminster Theatre coincided with the Munich crisis. In the international production at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, of August 2012, the depiction of Thersites as a wounded war veteran, and the manner in which the Myrmidons killed Hector, "resonat[ed] with […] the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."  

Today, considering Russia’s attempt to take control of Ukraine and other examples of warfare, Troilus & Cressida, with its combination of the politics which ended with the killing Hector by Achilles and the frustrated love story of the Trojan prince Troilus and the Trojan Cressida – whose father (Calchas) defects to the Greeks – is highly relevant.  Calchas persuades the Greeks to exchange the captured Trojan commander Antenor, for his daughter, so that he might be reunited with her. Troilus sees her at a distance, appearing to break her promise that even in the Greek camp, she will remain true to him.  In fact the man Troilus sees has engineered  the situation against her wishes; but Troilus is left believing an untruth, and never sees Cressida again.

In politics and in this personal romance, trust, faith in promises, and truth are the central issues of the play.  Much of the time the action is delayed, while characters argue about these issues in Shakespeare’s often philosophical and poetic language, based on Homer’s The Iliad – until finally Achilles does kill Hector.

Though this made the pacing of the student’s production slow, the success is not so much to be compared with what a fully professional company might do, as to be seen in the clear sense of achievement with which the cast were justifiably satisfied in the preview performance I observed.  And I have no doubt the experience and the learning about performing and social relationships will continue to grow over the five days of the show’s run.

For further study, read
Shakespeare’s Iliad: Homeric Themes In Troilus And Cressida
John L. Penwill
Text of the H.W. Allen Memorial Lecture
Ormond College, 19 September 2006

Available at

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 18 April 2023

Canberra Circus Festival 2023



Canberra Circus Festival 2023, April 18th – 23rd,

at The May Wirth Big Top on Chifley Community Oval & Warehouse Circus, Maclaurin Cres, Chifley,  9.30am – 9.30pm each day.

Details at

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Tuesday April 18



I begin at the Festival’s Opening Night with very good news.  

Warehouse executive director Aleshia Johnson explained that it takes up to 18 months to organise a circus festival which is as much a training week for Canberra’s young performers as an entertainment week for the general public, bringing in a wide range of professional modern circus teams from around the world.

Aleshia credits her artistic director Tom Davis as the driving force who established the Canberra Circus Festival last year and again this year, in the hope for a long-term future.  The ACT Minister for the Arts, Tara Cheyne, who opened the Festival, has made it clear that the government funding which helped make it happen this time, will be available in future.

So Warehouse Youth Circus, with its 33-year history of providing training and performance experience, now plans a permanent, but biannual, Canberra Circus Festival, from 2025, after a pause to recover next year with more time to plan and organise.

I thought perhaps the Great Big Circus Gala(h) night might be renamed The Great Big Circus Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo night as I watched the first group of young women performers doing the same kind of fantastic aerial gymnastics as the birds love to do.  Of course, they didn’t leave the floor covered with broken bits – and they did things, while suspended, like scaringly balancing on top of each other, which I haven’t seen the cockies do.

The purpose of the opening evening was to show the range of circus work covered by the festival.  Seven youth performances, groups and individuals, showed not just the circus skills, but how modern circus is educational as well as entertaining.

I saw each piece as representing important thoughts about our way of life.  The larger group items became metaphors about the individual working to be a reliable and competent member of a social group in creating something of value.  The pair and solo items, of course, have the same effect but focus on individuality and originality of skills.

I found myself coming up with a word or two for each item: hanging about; gymnastic communication; illuminated juggling; throwing themselves around; comic stillness; body image not a problem; and, from the older group’s “Sunny”, the key word was trust.

An essential element that I saw in these items – and from among the audience who included a large proportion of young people and parents involved in the circus community – is how young women gain self-confidence and a powerful sense of self-worth in their involvement in circus.  This was clear not only from achieving the physical skills but from their participation as equals in planning and designing performances.

The Gala(h) night then showed two of today’s established performers, alumni from previous training at Warehouse, Jack Wild and Jake Silvestro.  As the MC, Master Showman Shep Huntly put it, they “validated their life choices”.

Two fiery professional pieces were presented to end the evening: a Sideshow performance with angle grinder by Canberran Sian Brigid, and juggling with flaming torches by Americans Maya McCoy & Brent McCoy of Her Majesty’s Secret Circus “with a licence to thrill”.  In a sense you could say the Great Big Circus Gala(h) night was a taster from go to wow of the Canberra Circus Festival shows and training workshops over the rest of this week.

When Warehouse Circus began, around 1990, as a drama teacher I was pleased to see them grow from the history of modern circus (the circus where the humans are the only animals) which had such strong beginnings, largely in Melbourne.  

My elder brother had made me a pair of stilts, so I was hooked from the age of eight, but never had the opportunity for proper training.  But when I started Canberra’s first high school Drama (not reading plays in English) classes at Ginninderra High in 1974, Year 8 was soon engaged in devising and performing circus to take to the local Holt Primary.  Only at floor level, and largely rope whirling and clowning.  Neither school exists now, but not through any fault of mine, I trust.

At that same time “Circus Oz was the amalgamation of two already well-known groups: the New Ensemble Circus, a continuation of the New Circus, established in Adelaide in 1973; and the Soapbox Circus, a roadshow set up by the Australian Performing Group in 1976.”

Then “The Flying Fruit Fly Circus was one of the productions of the Murray River Performing Group, initially an ensemble of nine artists, set up mostly by graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School. The group began full-time operations in 1979, the International Year of the Child.” 

And, as Amy Martin reported in The Canberra Times (April 18, 2023) about Suitcase Circus, one of the companies in the Festival, "the majority of performers have a Bachelor of Circus Arts".

And so the history goes.  Warehouse Circus and Canberra Circus Festival are in the place where they belong.  Enjoy, and appreciate.


© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 15 April 2023

Macbeth - Bell Shakespeare



Image: Pierre Toussant

Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, April 14 – 22, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night, April 15

I wish I had been stage manager for Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth last night.  After the cast was still receiving such continuing enthusiastic applause for their second curtain call appearance, I would have, in all modesty, have kept the stage lights up and sent them out again for what I am sure would have become a standing ovation – richly deserved.

Originality of direction by Peter Evans and especially by Nigel Poulton as Movement, Fight and Intimacy Director gave all the actors the opportunity to extend themselves beyond expectations.  Here was a story of a relationship between a man and a woman, each with such delusions of grandeur and such degree of intensity that disaster could be the only result – for themselves and for the whole nation.

Jessica Tovey and Hazem Shammas bring out, with amazing depth of characterisation, all our fears of autocratic rule, which we see being played out in many countries today, not least in Russia.  William Shakespeare lived in such times, writing his Scottish play soon after the death of Elizabeth I and the (fortunately peaceful) takeover of England by James VI of Scotland in 1603.  He may have left us the King James Bible, but Brexit shows his political legacy may not last much longer.

What I loved about this Macbeth was the return to the principle of The Empty Space (Peter Brook).  There was no need to move realistic-looking sets of castle interiors as the play travels to and from Inverness to Dunsinane.  There was no need even for the very successful Sydney Theatre Company use of live video.  In a set simply surrounded by full length drapes, and Max Lyandvert’s sung music and sound, and dressed in Anna Tregloan’s costumes invoking the period between World Wars I and II, the cast were choreographed in movement and still positions, dance-like, to create images to reinforce the mood of the moment; beginning, of course, with the three witches who may or may not be figments of Macbeth’s imagination; and wonderfully supported by Damien Cooper’s lighting in mysterious mist and whole fog dropping down out of what could only be a Scottish gloomy sky.

This is the best of truly exciting theatre, topped by Hazem Shammas’ exquisite detail in physical action, facial expression and voice as Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness” turns into the horror of the murder of Macduff’s wife and children and his own death at the hands of a man “not of woman born”.

All this while, so carefully directed with what I’m sure must have been concentrated input from Abbie-lee Lewis and James Evans as Associate Director and Dramaturg, Shakespeare’s language in all its originality and poetry is spoken so well, with absolute clarity and force.  It was a joy to listen to, even while realising the perfidy, conspiracy and deliberate misinformation being perpetrated.

Here in Canberra the show runs until April 22 after selling out at the Opera House in Sydney through March.  If you can’t get in here, it will be worth flying to Melbourne Arts Centre for the run there from April 27 to May 14 (despite the carbon dioxide fog which smothers the stage and at least up to Row D, where I was lucky to be seated, in the final scene).  

Hazem Shammas and Jessica Tovey
as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Bell Shakespeare 2023
Photo: Brett Boardman

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 1 April 2023

Choir Boys by Tarell Alvin McCraney


Choir Boy by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta at Canberra Theatre Centre, March 29 – April 2, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 1

Directed by Dino Dimitriadis and Zindzi Okenyo
Musical Director: Allen René Louis
Executive Producer: Joanne Kee; Co-Executive Producer: Craig McMaster
Producer: Daniel Cottier
Set realisation: PaperJam Productions
Costume Designer: Rita Naidu
Lighting Designer: Karen Norris; Sound Designer: Brendon Boney
Choreographer: Tarik Frimpong

Associate Musical Director Zara Stanton; Dialect Coach Angela Sullen
Intimacy Director Cessalee Stovall; Casting Director Rhys Velasquez
Creative Futures: Assistant Director Masego Pitso
Stage Manager Adrienne Patterson; Company Manager Jen Jackson
Assistant Stage Manager Alice Cavanagh
Production Manager Daniel Potter; Production Associate Hannah Crane
Lighting Realisation (tour): Sammy Reid
Social and Community Engagement  AJ Lamarque and Arran Munro

Darron Hayes
Gareth (Gaz) Dutlow
Robert Harrell
Abu Kebe
Tawanda Muzenda
Quinton Rofail Rich
Tony Sheldon
Theo Williams

I think that I have never seen a play as intimate as Choir Boy has been – for me, at any rate.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He is the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble. He co-wrote the 2016 film Moonlight, based on his own play, for which he received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. [Wikipedia]

In his program note he writes: In 2007, I began writing Choir Boy. I completed a degree that year and believed I would never be in a formal school setting as a student again. My education about the world, its joy and cruelty, were far from over, but I was reflecting a great deal about the education system in my home country, state, city, and even neighborhood. What were the pieces of history, the modes of story telling, and the unspeakable and yet powerfully legible lessons, passed on to me in that 20-year period?

What was I to do it with it?

The history and modes of story-telling at my all boys’ English grammar school  were entirely different from that of his American all boys’ high school.  We sang Anglican hymns each Monday morning in an otherwise secular Enlightenment setting; his Afro-American choir boys sang spirituals in an intensely religious setting encapsulated in the words ‘trust and obey’ – which did not only apply to Jesus.

It was the Spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home which connected with me, having never forgotten the rendition by Odetta in her 1960 Odetta at Carnegie Hall album.  By then I was well-settled in Australia, but the feeling was there even as I was completing my degree just like Tarell McCraney in 2007.

I need to say at this point, as a matter of simple fact with no moral judgement, that I was never attracted to another boy as happens in Chorus Boy, though I was ‘unmanly’ and known as 'Muscles' because I didn’t have any.  In this play McCraney opens up the boys’ confusions about their relationships, about being a ‘true man’, mixed in with their need for mothers and security, as well as the history of their forebears’ slavery – which I had come to understand from Odetta’s singing the song which played a powerful role in the movement for racial equality in USA.

Disturbingly, I note that the Pew Research centre reported in 2019 that More than four-in-ten Americans say the country still has work to do to give black people equal rights with whites. Blacks, in particular, are skeptical that black people will ever have equal rights in this country.

The story-telling in Choir Boys is superbly done.  Though as Tarell did, Pharus does succeed in graduating, there is a sense of foreboding as the play ends.  But surely we can hope that we will Vote Yes for our First Nations to at least have a Voice in our Constitution.  Choir Boys raises this sort of question and exposes hypocrisy in education and politics.

In other words this is a play for which the National Theatre of Parramatta, a city central to Australia’s multicultural way of life, must be congratulated.  The design, directing, singing and choreography are inspiring to watch, to respond to with humour and depth of feeling, and to think about on reflection.

This is the answer to the author’s question, What was I to do with it?  Riverside’s National Theatre has done it absolute justice.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Julia by Joanna Murray-Smith


Justine Clarke / Julia Gillard
Julia   by Joanna Murray-Smith.  Presented by Sydney Theatre Company and Canberra Theatre Centre at The Playhouse, Canberra, March 18-25 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night March 21

Director – Sarah Goodes; Designer – Renée Mulder
Lighting Designer – Alexander Berlage
Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis
Video Designer – Susie Henderson
Asst Director – Charley Sanders; Voice Coach – Jennifer White

Performed by Jessica Bentley representing ‘Young Woman’ in her developing understanding of Justine Clarke’s ‘Julia’ – one-time Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the first and as yet only woman prime minister of Australia.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s Julia, ending as it must with Julia Gillard’s ‘Misogyny’ speech, is an extraordinary work of theatre art – perhaps the most important Australian play in our history, past, present and future.

The writing is compact, every word is significant, placed perfectly to reveal Julia’s character, motivation, intellect and power in the context of real life and death.  The text is a gift for an actor of Justine Clarke’s sensitivity and for director Sarah Goodes’ intuition in making meaning of every moment in voice, movement and facial expression.  This production takes us to the core of drama, to the performance of the truth, to the story-telling which is the essence of human nature.

Julia is a play about leadership.  You may not expect it, but Julia is as central to the modern political leadership question – the place of women at the top – as another great play from the past – Shakespeare’s Richard III (1592-3).  This was about leadership by a king, ironically written at the very time that William’s ruler was the extraordinary woman, Queen Elizabeth I.  And so I could not help remembering Kate Mulvany’s terrific performance of Richard (reviewed here 13 April 2017).  Justine Clarke is a perfect match.

Of course the parallel is not perfect.  500 years of archaeology – see The Lost King also reviewed here, 7 December 2022 – has shown that Shakespeare’s story was not all factual.  Julia quotes Hansard when she demolishes Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, but Thomas Hansard took over William Cobbett’s 1803 parliamentary reporting business in only 1810.  Julia notes the point, and I add that there was no written record of Richard III killing the two boys in the Tower of London.

The parallel, though, is very close when it comes to the anguish and self-analysis while finding the way to becoming the leader, whether King or Prime Minister, and managing the task when in the role.  As Julia represents it, Question Time is not far short of throwing the opposition into dungeons, while the Party Room surely often came down to words like these:

Buckingham: Your grace may do your pleasure.
K. Richard: Tut, tut!  Thou art all ice, thy kindness freezeth.

Was Julia Gillard Kevin Rudd’s ‘Buckingham’ in 2010, with the roles reversed in 2013?

The reason I emphasise the importance of this play is that gaining full equality in decision-making powers of women, men, and all the other varieties of humankind (determined by our genes or our cultural differences) is crucial to our future – in our daily lives and as a species.  

We face a world still run by those who think they are kings.  And a world where our kindness freezes even as we cause the ice to melt.

Listen to Julia. Hear, see and understand Justine's performance. Notice Sarah's concept of the drama.  Respond to Joanna’s work of art.  Let the wonderful depth of feeling in Renée’s set design call you to do as Julia Gillard said:

….I say to the Leader of the Opposition I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever….Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror. That's what he needs.

Julia is the mirror we all need.  Don’t miss it.


Copies of Frank McKone's reviews are also available at 


 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 9 February 2023

At Dinner by Rebecca Duke


Thea Jade as Anna
in At Dinner by Rebecca Duke
ACT Hub, 2023

At Dinner by Rebecca Duke.  ACT Hub at Causeway Hall, Kingston, Canberra, February 9-11, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 9

At Dinner – or rather “at DINNER” – could be called "The Cancelling Game" or perhaps the more sophisticated "Dangerous Liaison".

It’s frightening to realise, watching this play written and directed today by such young people, that nothing has changed in my 82 years.  Anna and Eden are ‘right’ for each other because they both enjoy, as a skilled game, manipulating others’ assumptions that people are normally honest.  

But then, as IMDB online reminds us, in the popular TV series, Dangerous Liaisons, “A pair of scheming ex-lovers attempt to exploit others by using the power of seduction. TV adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' classic 18th Century novel 'Les Liaison Dangereuses'. 

So Rebecca Duke and Holly Johnson are in good artistic company with Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The School for Scandal 1777) and you could say even William Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors.  

Obviously my ideals about how modern people should behave online and at dinner are simply naïve.  And that’s no joke.  As the company describes their play:

After some months apart, a young couple go out to dinner at a restaurant. At first, Anna appears to be stuck in a dead end relationship with her high-school boyfriend Eden.  As the night progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Eden is out-matched by Anna and tangled up in a situation over which he has little control.

'At Dinner' is a serious, funny, and twisted examination of modern love.

The writing and the directing are a great example of the ‘less is more’ rule.  Thea Jade does an exquisite performance of every little nuance of Anna’s expressions and mannerisms which she uses to undermine the expectations of both Eden and the waitress, Pearl – giving Timothy Cusack and Nakiya Xyrakis every opportunity to read things the wrong way, which they succeed in doing very well.

This quality in the acting makes the play pass on a message at a different level for denizens of the digital world of the web: live performance is real – you can never trust TikTok, nor even what you see on any screen, where editing and post-production rule the roost.  But when Nakiya fell down and Thea and Tim rushed to help her, I instantly felt for her and them – and then in a minute realised this was written in the script.  Only live theatre can do this, (though I was always a bit concerned about Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello).

For me at least, then, At Dinner in barely an hour offers much that is “serious, funny, and twisted”, and is well worth recommending.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

2023: Little Explorers' Days at Questacon



Questacon Little Explorers’ Days.  National Science and Technology Centre, Canberra. February 8, 9, 10 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 8

Like Dr Who’s Telephone Box, Questacon is huge on the inside.  It’s a relatively small building between the Australian National Library, the Australian National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia and the High Court of Australia.  

Maybe Einstein could see a case of relativity in this universe.  It’s certainly a prestigious position for STEM education to be in.  That’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, of course – and Questacon is absolutely chockfull of hands-on experiential learning, though I was a little concerned for the 4 year old as the Tesla coil Faraday caged lightning exploded on its 15-minute deadline.  She hid behind her loving mother’s skirts and was not too frightened, I hope.

But the Questacon Tardis really runs on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS and Mathematics.  Its 170 seat theatre plays 3 shows every day of the year except Christmas Day – 364 x 3 x 170 = 300,000 according to what BJ Anyos, the Early Learning Coordinator in the Learning Experience Team told me.  Even if it should be 185,640, that’s still probably the largest audience reach per annum of any theatre in the country, as she claimed.

Today, with parents and carers and their 0 to 6 years children (yes, there were some 0’s), I watched Mutti, a plant-eating Muttaburrasaurus, (puppeteered by Dan Power) learn to be brave  - with the help of a hundred or so little dinosaurs – rather than be scared of a meat-eating Australovenator (Brent Brosnan).  We all had to run away very fast together from the billabong, leaving our footprints to record a fossil stampede.  We were gobblers, bug-suckers, or slow-moving yawners with appropriate hand actions, even while we were stamping our feet hard and fast.

As palaeontologists, of course, we had to practise pronouncing Muttaburrasaurus.

Out of the theatre, perhaps in recognition of our DNA, strings of littlies explored the spiral of galleries beginning in Gallery 1 Robots and Artificial Intelligence.  Hold a lever down outside the glass to lift the other end up inside, and a robotic jointed arm with an eye sees what you have done, and (gently but firmly) reaches out and pushes the inner end down again.  Though very littlies basically absorb the experience, as they grow older – and become grown-ups – even such a simple device asks questions, like does the robot have feelings and (I thought) how do I feel about the robot and AI?

There are hours’ worth of activities in the main 5 galleries.  Some are about engineering and spatial learning around fitting what appear to be impossible shapes together; some involve a staff teacher, such as one I saw doing practical mixing of liquids of different colours.  As the children chose and helped with the mixing, they were being asked to predict what colours would result and to work out how to create the colours they wanted.  Here was the Arts again in a lab setting.

My three hours’ exploring with the littlies left me thoroughly impressed with the originality of the Questacon team in their approach to experiential learning, and with the obvious engagement of children and their accompanying adults throughout.

And I remembered how the use of theatre and games in museums had really got under way in Australia some twenty years ago, when Questacon started the Excited Particles performance team, and in March 2002 the first Australian national conference Raising the Curtain: Performance in Cultural Institutions took place at the National Museum of Australia, on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, inspired especially by Catherine Hughes, of Boston's Museum of Science and IMTAL (International Museum Theatre Alliance), who began her keynote speech as Mary Anning (who discovered the first complete fossil remains of an icthyosaur at the age of 11 in the year 1812) and ended the conference with a lecture and workshop on how to evaluate the successes - or failures - of performance programs in museums.

For more detail, go to my review of that conference at

Twenty years later, Questacon has fulfilled the promise of Catherine Hughes’ inspiration to the Nth Degree.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 21 January 2023

2023: Holding Achilles



 Holding Achilles.  Produced by Legs On The Wall, Dead Puppet Society, Sydney Festival, Brisbane Festival, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Glass Half Full Productions.

Sydney Festival at Carriageworks Bay 17, January 19-22, 2203

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Director and Co-Creator David Morton
Movement Director and Co-Creator Joshua Thomson
Creative Producer Nicholas Paine

Lighting Designer Ben Hughes
Sound Designer Tony Brumpton
Rigging Designer David Jackson
Composers Tony Buchen and Chris Bear with Montaigne
Puppet Design Dead Puppet Society
Music performed live by Montaigne
Dramaturg Louise Gough
Set Co-Designers Anna Cordingley and David Morton
Associate Director Matt Seery
Costume Designer Anna Cordingley
Associate Producer James Beach

Achilles Stephen Madsen
Paris / Chiron Nic Prior
Patroclus Karl Richmond
Briseis Christy Tran
Ajax / Hector / Puppeteer (Baby Bear) Ellen Bailey
Priam Caroline Dunphy
Odysseus John Batchelor
Thetis Montaigne
Agamemnon / Lead Puppeteer (Bear) Lauren Jackson
Ensemble / Counterweight Johnas Liu
Meneleus / Peleus Christopher Tomkinson

The ideas behind this conception of the Trojan War are interesting and worthwhile.  But the style of presentation – in the writing of the dialogue, the acting, the sound composition and singing, and the symbolic aerial dance work – makes the performance a re-enactment of an idea, rather than a creative work of art with the emotional impact that the ideas deserve.

Perhaps the intention was to attract a young generation brought up on The Game of Thrones, but subtlety is not the word for what needed to be an intimate development of the love relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, nor for the depth of anguish felt by Patroclus as the machinations of the powerful play out in the continuing use of violence for political ambition.

Considering what is happening in Ukraine right now, and the changing – and improving – attitudes on the human rights of people across a wide range of differences, the issues arising in the story of how, why and what happened in Ancient Greece are highly relevant today.

(Wikipedia records: Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War are derived from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the 12th or 11th century BC, often preferring the dates given by Eratosthenes, 1194–1184 BC, which roughly correspond to archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy VII, and the Late Bronze Age collapse. )

But Holding Achilles mixes up theatrical genres in a way that tells a story – through a kind of ‘grand’ style interspersed with action in aerial acrobatic form symbolising warfare almost like circus – yet with spoken dialogue in very ordinary modern day language.  The massively over-loud music and singing is oppressive rather than impressive; the dance sequences are far too long, seeming indulgent rather than progressing the drama; the spoken scenes are ‘acted out’ rather than expressed from within.  Only a few of Odysseus’s explanations of political necessities and some of Patroclus’s expression of frustration at the acceptance of violence create some empathy on our part.

If you want a modern, highly effective – and wonderfully affective – account, written with depth of characterisation and achieving the kind of impact that Holding Achilles misses, you can’t go past the novels by Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Penguin 2018) and The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton 2021).

There you will find the story of the woman Briseis, Achilles’ concubine, with a sincere interpretation which I think reflects more deeply on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles than Holding Achilles gives us.

The messages about the need for love as individuals and for non-violence in international politics are clearly there in the Holding Achilles version of Homer’s Iliad – and surely we need to hear what David Morton, Nicholas Paine and Joshua Thomson have to say.  The production is big and loud, but needs much more subtle development for the emotional impact worthy of its themes to come through.

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

2023: Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream



Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis.  Indian Ink Theatre Company (New Zealand) for Sydney Festival 2023 at Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta January 17-22, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 18

Writer/Director – Justin Lewis
Dramaturg – Murray Edmond
Set Design/Projected Imagery Artist – John Verryt
Costume Design – Elizabeth Whiting
Composer/Sound Design/Musician – David Ward
Musician – Adam Ogle
Lighting Design/Production/Tour Manager – Andrew Potvin
Projected Imagery/Photographer/Editor – Bala Murali Shingade

Performed by
Writer/Actor – Jacob Rajan
Puppet Designer/Builder/Puppeteer – Jon Coddington

Jacob Rajan and Jon Coddington
in Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream

 It’s hard to know where to start and end discussing Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream.  It is a play with seven characters all performed by a man who is dead at the beginning, just as a traditional vulture begins to clean his bones; and places himself in the same position at the end for the vulture to continue providing its service to humanity.

In the intervening 110 minutes we are thoroughly entertained while learning about the way of doing business in Mumbai, especially selling ice cream; about the need for conservation of the dwindling population of vultures (I wondered if human induced climate change is a factor in addition to our poisoning them - › wiki › Indian_vulture_crisis); and about human cultural rituals in response to the knowledge that the most consistent feature of life is that all of us will die.

Emotionally, Jon Coddington’s vulture is beautiful; while Jacob Tajan’s physicality, even to the most extraordinary facial expressions, is reminiscent of and equally powerful as the master of mime, Marcel Marceau.  

Then, David Ward explains, Each new Indian Ink production presents new challenges, new instrumentation, new techniques and technology, and Paradise has been no different! Significant this time around has been the move away from live musical instruments, towards a much more atmospheric sound design. The lack of physical props and minimal set, means that sound effects play a huge role in defining the sense of place and atmosphere. This has meant delving into hundreds of sound effects and many, hours editing and mixing them to create the sound world. Marceau could never have imagined such a sound and video-imagery setting, becoming a character in its own right in this constantly surprising, often funny yet thoughtful play.

As a Festival presentation, the originality of this work, the quality of the performance, the cross-cultural standing of the Indian Ink company, and its origin and history in Aotearoa New Zealand makes Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream an ideal choice.

Jon Coddington and Jacob Rajan
in Paradise or The Impermanence of Ice Cream

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 14 January 2023

2023 Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly


Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly (UK).  State Theatre of South Australia at Seymour Centre, Everest Theatre, in Sydney Festival 2023, January 5-15, 2023.
This play was first presented at Royal Court, London (2018); this production for the Adelaide Festival, Odeon Theatre, (February – March 2022); and it will be shown again in Dunstan Theatre, Adelaide in August 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 14, 2023

Director - Mitchell Butel
Set & Costume Designer - Ailsa Paterson
Lighting Designer - Nigel Levings
Composer - Alan John
Sound Designer - Andrew Howard
Assistant Director - Rachel Burke

Performed by Justine Clarke

Sydney actor Justine Clarke makes a quite remarkable lower-class London girl into a story-teller, who begins seeming like a stand-up comedian; develops into a wife, a mother dealing with her strong-minded son and daughter, and a woman becoming a creative successful documentary maker; and ends as a tragic survivor whose own story is true for far too many women the world over.

I have a habit of avoiding reading up on plays new to me, and I recommend this especially for Girls and Boys.  I have already told you too much.  I can certainly tell you how well Justine caught the personality and style in the early scenes that I remember personally from my bringing-up in the very Wood Green in London she makes fun of, along with Paris and Rome.  The prejudices as well as the romance of travel (based apparently on Dennis Kelly’s own experiences) are very English, and works very well as comedy for Australians, according to last night’s audience.

But you may wish to put aside the rest of what I have to say until you have seen the play yourself.  I certainly recommend a trip to Adelaide in August.


Dennis Kelly decided that he would not give his central character a name, intending of course for her to represent all the women who face what she calls – literally – marriage destruction.  In Australia, the play cannot help but remind us of the 2015 Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, who has taken on such a powerful role in the campaign to prevent family violence since her husband’s murder of their son.

Perhaps Justine Clarke had her example in mind when concluding the play with such a sense of determination that we, these actual ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ in the audience, appreciate the reality that any of us can make assumptions about our close relations that are wrong; that for our own emotional needs we can misinterpret the other’s behaviour.  

In an interview ( shortly before the first production with Carey Mulligan performing, Lyn Gardner reported “There are only two characters in this play: the actor and the audience,” says Kelly. “You risk running the audience out of the play when it gets hard.” The going gets very hard indeed, and anyone who has tickets for the sold-out hit may not want to read any further. As Kelly says: “You can’t talk about the play without giving away what’s going on.” But he thinks we do need to talk about it – and it’s his job to do it.

The point of seeing the play is that, as ‘Justine’ talks directly to us, acts out scenes with her invisible children and husband, talks to herself as we overhear her thinking, often trying to work out what is happening, and why – including, as she matures, philosophical questions about human relationships and even thoughts about the evolution of power and violence – we ourselves are placed in her kind of situation.  When at last the worst that we can imagine might happen actually does, we are as overwhelmed by the fact that it was as unforeseen by us as it was by ‘Justine’.

The effect is quite extraordinary.  We feel a tremendous sense of respect for ‘Justine’ and her strength in the aftermath of the moment, just as much as we feel respect for Justine in having created the role and held us in her thrall for 110 minutes.

No wonder the whole audience gave Justine Clarke, and ultimately Dennis Kelly and the State Theatre of South Australia team, a genuinely felt standing ovation.  

Justine Clarke in Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly
Photo: Sam Roberts

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Sydney - A Biography by Louis Nowra. Book Review


 Sydney, A Biography by Australian writer, playwright, screenwriter and librettist Louis Nowra.  
Published by NewSouth Publishing, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

A pot-pourri of a book: an eclectic collection of pecadillos, full of fascinating anecdotes.  Sydney: born in 1788, still growing up in 2022, with touches of maturity and little sign of premonitions of old age.  Louis Nowra is a playwright: here we read his observations and background research for his characterisation of the protagonist, in late pregnancy named romantically Albion; but pragmatically named at birth, on Gadigal land, after an absent progenitor, Lord Sydney.

And what a complex character Sydney is!  

So what is Sydney really like, when we delve into ‘their’ transgender nature, their motivations and their self-understanding?  Do we find consistency in a sense of personal development – a positive drama; perhaps even a romantic enjoyable comedy?  Or, as many literary commentators say of theatrical characters, do they struggle with unresolvable internal conflicts – often never recognised except by others in sympathy or enmity – which turn their life’s drama into tragedy?

Will the author, like the best of dramatists, avoid pushing his view down our throats, but provide us with scenes strategically put together so that we, the readers, come to a new understanding – perhaps of more than just this character, but even of our own lives?

Here’s one episode, a short scene from one of the 49 chapters.  You will see that Nowra is writing in plain style, without literary flourishes.  Yet his work is all about storytelling and letting each story do its own thing.  This one is in the chapter called Undercurrents, beginning with his creating the TV series about Bondi Beach, The Last Resort.  He writes “The 30-part series wasn’t a success (though it was big in Malaysia), but I learned to like Bondi….[even though] the area became known as Bondi Badlands.”

But Sydney’s beaches have had another side as sites of religious fervour.  In 1924 the Star Amphitheatre opened at Balmoral Beach.  It was constructed by the Order of the Star in the East, founded by the president of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant.  The amphitheatre was intended as a platform for lectures by the mystic Krishnamurti.

At this point I must confess feeling part of Louis Nowra’s Sydney.  A one time girlfriend’s family in Sydney belonged to the Theosophical Society and she left to attend Krishnamurti’s ashram in India in the early 1960s.

An urban legend persists that it was built in order to watch Christ’s second coming, when he would walk through Sydney Heads.  The crumbling amphitheatre was demolished in 1951.

In January 2003 one of Sydney’s most popular beaches, Coogee, a favourite party zone for backpackers, became a site of religious veneration.  One day, a man was looking out of his front window when he suddenly noticed an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the end of a wooden safety fence.  He called his friends to have a look.  By the next day, word had spread, and several hundred people flocked to the park.  Soon the crowds swelled to several thousand a day, especially in the late afternoon when the apparition materialised.  As the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Some wept, others sang, most prayed.  Scores more hiked up the cliff path 

to touch and kiss the post which had been transformed into something like a shrine.  

Pictures of the Virgin, rosary beads and flowers were piled up around the 

whitewashed fence.  Most agreed they could discern the shape of a veiled figure.

The rational explanation was that the vision was an unlikely combination of the fence’s design and colour, late afternoon shadow, and a small rise that changed the angle at the end of the railing.  Even so, the Catholic Church didn’t know how to react, with the Sydney Archdiocese issuing an anodyne message:’If people are experiencing a sense of peace by being there, then it is a good thing.’  Ten days after the Virgin Mary arrived vandals destroyed the fence where she had appeared, disappointing thousands of believers.  The fence was quickly rebuilt but with a slight alteration to the original design.  Although the Virgin Mary hasn’t returned, a tiny garden has been planted to mark the spot and people still come to pray.

Louis Nowra, a Melbournite, first saw Sydney and was “stunned and speechless” viewing the harbour while driving over the Harbour Bridge in his father’s truck, at the age of nine.  “‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it?’ exclaimed my elated father.”  Only five years before that, I, arriving from London at the age of 14, was equally amazed entering the harbour on the immigrant ship Otranto, through the Heads, tugboats guiding us under the Harbour Bridge to Pyrmont Wharf 13.   

As Nowra turns 72 and I a month later turn 82, his almost 500-page ‘Biography’ of Sydney reveals the fantastic nature not only of what you see, but of the many surprising aspects of the city’s character hidden in history.

In the end, he writes, I turn my attention back to the water.  It is a beguiling sight.  Today the air and the light of the intense blue sky and how it plays with the water seems magical.  It’s like one great act of affirmation, an open heart that invites you to take Sydney personally.  And I do.

And now I do too.  Because now I see, as Nowra quotes the author Peter Corris as saying, that Sydney – Australia, indeed the whole human world – has “its beauty, atmosphere and culture providing a spectacular contrast to its underbelly of poverty, corruption and vulgarity.”  And racism, I would add; though I would call it ‘ethnicism’ since we are all members of the only human race left on Earth.

But la commedia is not quite yet finita.  Is humankind’s a drama of positivity or tragedy?  Sydney says, I think, it might go either way.  

Frank McKone’s reviews of productions of plays by Louis Nowra – The Incorruptible (1996), Summer of the Aliens (1999), Cosi (1998, 2001, 2019, 2021), Radiance (2015) and The Golden Age (2016) – are available at




Saturday, 10 December 2022

2022: The Tempest by William Shakespeare




 The Tempest by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 15 – December 21, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 10

Director Kip Williams
Set Designer Jacob Nash
Costume Designer Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Composer & Sound Designer Stefan Gregory
Dramaturg Shari Sebbens
Associate Director Jessica Arthur
Fight & Movement Director Nigel Poulton
Associate Fight & Movement Director Tim Dashwood
Intimacy Coordinator Chloë Dallimore
Voice & Text Coach Charmian Gradwell

Ariel – Peter Carroll; Antonio – Jason Chong; Sebastian – Chantelle Jamieson
Alonso – Mandy McElhinney; Ferdinand – Shiv Palekar
Prospero – Richard Roxburgh; Miranda – Claude Scott-Mitchell
Caliban – Guy Simon; Stephano – Aaron Tsindos; Gonzalo – Megan Wilding
Trinculo – Susie Youssef
Understudies – Danielle King; Ian Michael; Nicole Milinkovic

Photos – Daniel Boud

Shive Palekar and Claude Scott-Mitchell
as Ferdinand and Miranda
in The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Sydney Theatre Company 2022


A 1972 Performance Syndicate production of The Tempest received critical and popular acclaim, being remounted and taken on tour until 1974.  

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, 2021

Because The Tempest has played a leading role in my working life as a drama teacher, and later as theatre reviewer, I was not as enthusiastic as the rest of the audience seemed to be when the final spotlight faded on Richard Roxborough, standing atop his rock, as Prospero, appealing to us “In this bare island…release me from my bands…With the help of your good hands…[or else] my ending is despair”.

Rex Cramphorn was born on 10th January 1941, one day younger than me and tragically died of AIDs in 1991.  The influence of that 1972 production, taking up the work of Peter Brook and especially Jerzy Grotowski’s “Poor Theatre” approach, was the basis of the group improvisation workshop teaching format which I and, over some 16 years, several colleagues developed, reaching its climax in the 1992 Hawker College Drama course.  Our public performances had begun in 1976 with The Tempest using mime and group sound effects to a narration by Prospero, the students working with a local community group, Melba Players.  The always-present cast encircled Prospero, representing the island, moving into his space for action and out to the edge as scenes required.  The student-designed backdrop showed a huge almost menacing eye watching.

Sydney Theatre Company grew out of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) with Richard Wherrett as first artistic director in 1979.  I attended a professional development workshop with Wherrett, who had worked with Cramphorn in Nimrod Theatre, including a 1977 production of The Duchess of Malfi.   Peter Carroll, playing Ariel wonderfully today, was in that production, while in the year before John Bell had directed A Handful of Friends at Nimrod.

I sat with Bell to watch his Bell Shakespeare production of The Tempest in 2015 (reviewed here August 29, 2015).

Two aspects I found to be missing in Kip Williams’ production, which lost connection with my expectations from this history.  To quote my Bell review:

First: “It was the creation of a spirit world that had inspired me about Cramphorn’s work.  It was a world of philosophic enquiry, where the island became the universe, a place of wonder and mystery….Though Cramphorn (and I) had kept all our actors in the circle on stage throughout, as if there were no other place to be, even for those not active in the scene, Bell used the circle as an ever-changing space into and out of which characters come and go….and the movement exciting and telling: the balance between fantasy and reality, or rather the fact that both exist at one and the same time, is made in the movement design and the capacity of the actors to work as dancers….”

Second: Bell “shows us Miranda as the girl brought up in the wild – she hisses at Caliban with animal ferocity.  Now the hormones of developing sexuality lock her onto the quite proper young man, Ferdinand.” And shows us Caliban  “representing rebellion.  It makes him a genuinely serious threat to Miranda’s safety, which Prospero must defend, while we also realise that Caliban is justified in hating Prospero, in parallel to Ariel’s position – though Ariel is more like an indentured labourer, while Caliban is enslaved.”

In today’s presentation, with the island so dominated by the rock, and the circle established only at the very end by fire, the island becomes not so much a “universe, a place of wonder and mystery” as a place of threat and fear where dancing and our enthusiastic clapping have little effect.

On another hand, today’s Caliban is angry because his ownership of the island is stolen from him, just as in Shakespeare’s play – but Shakespeare’s view is uncompromising.  Those in power will never give the land back.  Caliban (and even the naïve comics Stephano and Trinculo) are chased off with no mercy.  Prospero makes it clear to Ariel: “Let them be hunted soundly.  At this hour / Lies at my mercy all mine enemies.”  There is no Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hand of Vincent Lingiari.  The best for Caliban finally is to accept Prospero’s pardon – can you believe?

The irony of Prospero’s final appeal to us is lost in this production of The Tempest.  “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free”.  Kip Williams’ Prospero, who gives Caliban his island back, is a romance at best.  Shakespeare knew he wouldn’t, and knows that possession is ten points of the law.  Caliban can have his island only because Prospero has regained his Milan and has no more need of the rock.  Why should we indulge him?  All he wants is for us not to even make him say sorry, despite his crime of invading Caliban’s land; and to praise him for making Caliban think he should “seek for grace”.  Whose grace?  It’s as if he has to say sorry to Prospero.

Maybe if we can get enough of us Prosperos to pass the proposed referendum for the Voice from the Heart, we might prove Shakespeare wrong.

The odd effect of making this The Tempest more of a political play than a philosophical play is that the style or presentation is technically brilliant, in lighting, sound effects, and real flames (which was perhaps how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burnt down), but the detail of the words and Shakespeare’s use of language was too often lost.  In the very first storm scene, yelling in fear of the lightning overcame the play between Gonzales, Sebastian, Antonio and the Boatswain, with the Boatswain trying to get the upper class passengers out of the way so he can get on with his job of saving them, if possible.

Prospero’s telling of his story to Miranda became, as she says: “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness”, as a teenager might carry on; but the problem was that I couldn’t follow the story either as it was pumped out at her, rather than being the lengthy (to her interminable) expression of his feelings about what happened.  He tries hard to explain everything to her, as Shakespeare wrote it.  Although she may get bored, we must not be.  But, I’m sorry to say, I was, because I didn’t hear and sense his feelings at each point.

In terms of theatrical effect the production is outstanding for the most part, though I did think the music was sometimes less prominent in the soundscape than it should have been.  But in terms of drama effect – of our emotional responses to what characters were saying and how they were behaving – it was Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban who made it through to me best, until the very end.  The final speech by Prospero, isolated on his rock, with its background rumbling thunder, made it through and, I think, was the effect that made the applause happen – and continue as the cast took to the stage around the rock.

So my feelings about the show as a whole are mixed.  Kip Williams writes “Nature is a pivotal character in any reading of The Tempest, and in our production we have sought to bring this aspect of the text to the very fore.”  As I see it, Nature is the spirit, wonder and mystery, but the text and the subtleties of expression and emotions – the details – of the relationships between the characters have to be to the very fore.

The ring of fire
in The Tempest
Sydney Theatre Company 2022

© Frank McKone, Canberra