Thursday 6 June 2024

Friday 3 May 2024

2024: The Actress by Peter Quilter

 

 

The Actress by Peter Quilter.  Canberra Rep, May 2 – 18 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night May 3

CREDITS
Director: Aarne Neeme AM; Director’s Asst: Mandy Brown

Set Designer: Andrew Kay; Set Coordinator: Russell Brown OAM
Costume Designer: Anna Senior OAM
Lighting Designer: Mike Moloney; Sound Designer: Neville Pye
Stage Manager: Paul Jackson

CAST
Lydia – Liz St Clair Long; Katherine – Sally Rynveld; Charles – Saban Berrell
Harriet – Jane Ahlquist; Nicole – Kate Harris; Paul – Rob de Fries; Margaret – Jazmin Skopal



Anton Chekhov is having a bit of a revival on the Canberra scene.  In a kind of parallel to Chaika Theatre’s Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, the famous actress played by Karen Vickery in their very recent production of Seagull (reviewed here April 11 2024), Peter Quilter’s play The Actress  is about a famous actress, Lydia, played by Liz St Clair Long, ending her career playing Liubov Andryeevna in The Cherry Orchard.

In a cleverly designed set and lighting arrangement, we see Lydia in her long-standing dressing room (at the Old Vic perhaps) where she has installed a very comfortable couch, before going on stage. Then we see her, apparently from backstage, performing towards the end of Chekhov’s Act Two, and returning to her dressing room for interval (ours as well as hers).  We see her on stage, again from behind, in Chekhov’s Act Four, before her last return to her dressing room and her final exit from life as an actress – in parallel to Liuba’s final loss of her cherry orchard.

So Liz St Clair Long is actually an actress playing the fictional once-removed Lydia, an acclaimed actress afraid to go on any more, playing the fictional twice removed Liuba, afraid of what will happen to her, sobbing “Oh my darling, my precious, my beautiful orchard! My life, my youth, my happiness …goodbye!…Goodbye!”

This gives Liz two roles to play, in a sense both at once, with an extra twist at the end of Quilter’s play.  She has left her dressing room forever, but then appears on stage – as Lydia in her final curtain call – giving her farewell speech, but now directly to us, as if we have switched positions from backstage to auditorium and have become her fictional audience.  

And what a wonderful speech it was!  While nutting out what she might say, Lydia thinks Chekhov could write this better.  A nice little joke by Peter Quilter about himself, I guess.

In addition to the success of Liz St Clair Long creating this often difficult character – Lydia is very often very like Liubov Andreyeevna – Aarne Neeme has made sure that The Actress is a comedy.  There are many laughs as Lydia deals over-the-top with her dressing room guests – daughter Nicole, ex-husband Paul, new (old) beau Charles, her director’s lover-offsider theatre manager Margaret, her agent Harriet and her dresser Katherine – much funnier than Chekhov’s often dark, if not entirely black comedy with social criticism built-in.

Lydia’s character could be seen as undermining people’s assumptions about famous people who may not be as perfect as they seem, but Rep’s production sensibly keeps the play more light-hearted.  You will not forget the comfortable couch.

Though it’s not exactly an exciting production – because, I think, the playscript has weaknesses in setting up the relationships between the characters – it’s certainly interesting.  Jane Ahlquist’s agent Harriet is something to behold;  Sally Rynveld’s dresser Katherine puts her famous charge in her place; Jasmin Skopal’s Margaret is suitably annoying, even vindictive; Kate Harris’ daughter Nicole is a rather mixed up young adult which is not surprising when her father Paul, played especially well by Rob de Fries, keeps turning up to mess things up with his now famous ex-wife; while Saban Berrell’s too-nice old admirer now-fiancé Charles quietly engages our sympathy.  How he and Lydia will succeed in having a quiet life of snow and chocolates in Switzerland remains a mystery.

Enjoy. 

 

 

Liz St Clair Long as Lydia
in The Actress by Peter Quilter
Canberra REP 2024
Photo supplied

©Frank McKone, Canberra


Thursday 2 May 2024

2024: Humans 2.0 by Circa

 

 


 Humans 2.0 by Circa.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, May 2-4 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night May 2


CREDITS
Director Yaron Lifschitz
Original Music Ori Lichtik; Lighting Designer Paul Jackson
Costume Design Libby McDonnell; Technical Director Jason Organ
Danielle Kellie / Circa Australia & New Zealand
Photos: Lesley Martin; David Kelly

Performed by 10 Circa acrobats


Humans 2.0 is incredible – it is truly unbelievable that this company of dance-drama gymnasts can maintain such energy, such discipline, such complexity of choreography, such humour, and so often create such fear and relief in us, for a straight 70 minutes – and look so much at ease during our ecstatic applause for the group as a whole and for each individual performer in their curtain call.

I had wondered about the title – Humans Two Point Zero – and now I understand its layers of meaning.


The play begins with separated beings and ends with the creation of community.  Humans 1.0, through seeking sincere self-expression and all the possible ways of linking with others – with absolute trust, deep respect, and equal recognition – become Humans 2.0.

At that level, the work of art is the model for us all.  This is human community at its best.  This is what the world should look like.  What we all wish it would look like.  What it could look like.  If only we humans really tried.

Then what is absolutely stunning is to realise that this company of performers actually tried and really succeed as Humans 2.0.  We could see in each performer their personal dedication to self-expression through movement.  We saw their absolute trust in each other, as people were literally flung and caught across the space and balanced up to four high.  We could see the deep respect everyone had for everyone else – forming a bond with enormous strength, emotionally as well as in physical form.



In this company balanced in numbers of women and men, we saw all as equals – in gymnastic skills, in taking real risks, in being supported – and especially in initiating moves and taking responsibility.

Their show is not just an acting out of an idea, as entertainment or even as a moral tale.  Their ensemble teamwork is a demonstration of sincere theatre, which works so well because of the real bond the group has formed in creating the work.

As I left the theatre, returning to concerns with current issues in our society – about coercive control, men’s belief in their entitlement, and their killing of women, for example – I wished that it were possible for everyone in the world to see Circa’s Humans 2.0.  And learn to become Humans, Two Point Zero – please!

Humans 2.0 by Circa

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday 16 April 2024

2024: Billy Elliot - The Musical by Free Rain

 

 

 

 

Billy Elliot – The Musical.  Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall.  Music by Elton John.
Free Rain at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre,  April 9 – May 5 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 16

CREATIVES
Director: Jarrad West; Asst Director: Jill Young
Musical Directors: Katrina Tang & Caleb Campbell
Choreographer: Michelle Heine
Set Design: Dr Cate Clelland; Costume Design: Tanya Taylor
Lighting Design: Jacob Aquilina; Sound Design: Dillan Willding

ORCHESTRA
Keys 1/Conductor: Caleb Campbell; Keys 2: Vivian Zhu / Katrina Tang
Reed 1: Lara Turner; Reed 2: Caleb Ball
Trumpet: Sam Hutchinson / Elsa Guile
French Horn: Carly Brown / Dianne Tan
Guitar: Dylan Slater / Michael Rushby
Bass: Hayley Manning; Drums: Brandon Reed

CAST
Billy Elliot – Fergus Paterson and Mitchell Clement
Michael Caffrey – Charlie Murphy and Blake Wilkins
Jackie Elliot – Joe Dinn; Tony Elliot – Lachlan Elderton
Mrs Wilkinson – Janie Lawson; Mum – Jo Zaharias
Grandma – Alice Ferguson; Mr Braithwaite – James Tolhurst-Close
Debbie – Zahra Zulkapli and Madison Wilmott

FEATURED ENSEMBLE
David Gambrill, Tim Maher, Thomas Walker
Dave Collins, Sian Harrington, Jordan Dwight

Easington Cast                                  Maltby Cast
Florence Tuli, Addyson Dew             Eleanor Ladewig, Ella Field
Millicent Fitzgerald, Laura Keen       Sophie Kelly, Kaity Hinch-Parr
Rosie Welling, Amber Russell           Mia Veljanovsky, Laney Himpson
Heidi McMullen, Taylor Bollard       Giselle Georges, Ellie Grace de Landre
Caitlin Hunt                                       Bella Henness-Dyer

ENSEMBLE
Ash Syme, James Morgan, Anneliese Soper, Liam Prichard
Cameron Sargeant, Sam Welling, Jackson Dale
Bianca Lawson, Cassie Ramsay



Billy Elliot the Musical is about community.  Not just a coal-mining community in northern England in 1984 where the story is set.

On strike when PM Mrs Thatcher closed the coal mines.

Jarrad West and his huge cast make the evening about celebrating the performing arts in our community right here.

The whole community in Christmas celebrations

The audience in The Q were as energetic and enthusiastic as the onstage dancers, singers and actors in being together.  In community, in action.

It’s the real-life warmth of feeling that flows off the stage that makes this production so enjoyable to see.

The story itself is of a government cruelly destroying a community, and that community is divided even within families, which makes the original movie a tragedy for Billy to fight against.  His need for self-expression and determination to go his own way against the odds makes an engrossing drama.

But watching on a screen, at an emotional distance, means we focus on his individual experience.  In the theatre with a real Billy singing and dancing, real police tap dancing through their duties, and all those young girls showing Billy the way, life is clearly so much more positive – and we are no longer just watching but enjoying with the performers their expression through the art of performing.

And, of course, that’s the other theme of Billy’s success, even at last in his father’s eyes, at least, despite his never really understanding ballet.  The great thing was about seeing (I think on my night) Mitchell Clement as Billy showing exactly what his stage dance teacher Janie Lawson as Mrs Wilkinson sees in him, a potential Royal Ballet School entrant.

Billy ready for audition.  Father still doubtful.

Character acting was also forceful, and engaging at times in less than pleasant situations:

Photos side by side as if
Billy and Grandmother opposed to boxing lessons with Mr Braithwaite and Michael

Billy with his father, brother and dance teacher
Billy Elliot the Musical
Free Rain 2024
Photos supplied

 Overall, a highly successful production of a rather different kind of musical.

 

Concluding thought:

In closing down the coal mines Mrs Thatcher perhaps ironically foreshadowed our need now to close down as much fossil fuel industry as possible.  We can only hope our government can manage the transition to renewables with fair treatment of the communities involved. 

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday 13 April 2024

2024: Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto

 

The Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto. Lexi Sekuless Productions at the Mill Theatre at Dairy Road, Canberra, April 10-27 2024

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 13

Production Team
Director: Lexi Sekuless
Sound Designer and Composer: Leisa Keen
Production Designer: Annette Sharpe
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Wright
Production Stage Manager: Katerina Smalley
Production Photography and Film: Daniel Abroguena
Interviewer voice: Timmy Sekuless
Set Construction: Simon Grist
Producer: Lexi Sekuless Productions
Publicity Photographer: Robert Coppa
Publicity Hair and Makeup: Vicky Hayes
Major partner: Elite Event Technology

Cast
Bridie: Andrea Close
Sheila: Zsuzsi Soboslay
Contingency: Tracy Noble

Bridie: Andrea Close,  Sheila: Zsuzsi Soboslay
in Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto
Lexie Seculess Productions 2024
Photo supplied

This is an unusual sonata, being a duet for trumpet and piano.  It’s the story, based on true stories from nurses captured by the Japanese in World War II, of “Bridie” and “Sheila” who saved each other’s lives more than once during the period from 1942 to 1945, following the failure of the British administration and security to prevent Japan’s forces invading Singapore.

Nurses come in different shapes and sizes.  Bridie is tall, a strongly built Australian, a get up and go, let’s do it now no matter what, type of nurse.  She tells it as it is.  We would say, No Bullshit.  

Bridie trumpets at; while the English Sheila is softer and more tuneful, playing her scales for rather than at.  Yet there is a time when her grand opera, a Tchaikovsky 1812, bursts out.  And in the end her quiet secret, kept for 50 years, escapes, and brings Bridie to a new understanding about Sheila’s private strength; and a new self-awareness for herself.

The setting is a television interview with an invisible voice-over asking the questions, sometimes responding to the stories the women tell of what happened to them, as they were shipped out in crowded small boats from Singapore harbour; met each other nearly drowned when the Japanese Air Force fired on and sank their boats; and survived against soldiers and tropical sickness at a secret inland jungle camp with no known end to their incarceration.  Japan’s intention was that all the women (and even their children from Singapore families) would die – but in secret, to avoid the Japanese being called to account for their war crimes.

In the foyer Lexie Seculess has displayed the real diary, kept by the real Betty Jeffrey, writing in pencil on exercise books stolen from the supervising soldiers, amazingly kept and kept secret until publication after the war as White Coolies.  John Misto read this when young – and so began this play.

Betty Jeffrey's diary published as White Coolies

Betty Jeffrey's pencil
Photos: Frank McKone

The fascinating, yet in a sense awful, aspect, while watching the performance (with occasional snippets on a 1960’s tv set of how they looked on screen), is how these traumatic experiences generate both often dreadful criticism of each other at the same time creating an unbreakable bond of mateship.  It is the revelation of the secret Sheila kept for 50 years which seals the bond at last during the interview.  What is revealed is as powerful in its effect on us, watching, as it is for Bridie.

The performances of both Andrea Close and Zsuzsi Soboslay are outstanding.  The Mill Theatre is small and they are very much up close.

Bridie: Andrea Close and Sheila: Zsuzsi Soboslay
in Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto
Lexie Seculess Productions 2024
Photo supplied

And we never miss even the smallest turn away or look towards, expression of concern or sudden anger between these two such different but bound together characters.

You should take the chance as I and others did to meet the actors and director in the foyer after the show.  For me the essential value of our meeting was for the women to explain how the mateship bond in war is so different for women than for men.  These women – those who survived, and those who did not – knew from when they were girls how they were always under threat from men.  So for these women – these actresses – telling the stories of these wartime nurses, the sense of threat and the need to be so brave in the face of an army of men instructed to literally rape and kill, or just leave to die, provided the energy and determination which created their characters with such strength.

And so this play is not merely an historical documentary – which it might look like on an external screen – but becomes a plea for men – in or out of war – to treat women with the respect and honour with which they should treat their own mates.

And in a case of amazing serendipity I have also just reviewed RGB: Of Many, One with precisely the same demand, and warning if we men fail, from eminent human rights lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Don’t miss.

©Frank McKone, Canberra


 

 

 

 

2024: RGB: Of Many, One by Suzie Miller

 

 

RGB: Of Many, One by Suzie Miller.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, April 12-21 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 12

Director Priscilla Jackman
Designer David Fleischer
Lighting Designer Alexander Berlage
Composer & Sound Designer Paul Charlier
Assistant Director Sharon Millerchip
Voice & Accent Coach Jennifer White
Associate Designer (Tour) Emma White
Associate Sound Designer (Tour) Zac Saric

With
Heather Mitchell

Understudy
Lucy Bell

Marketing image Rene Vaile
Production photos Prudence Upton


RGB Of Many, One brings together three extraordinary women – the eminent American lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg; the international award-winning Australian playwright Suzie Miller; both in the remarkable hands of Australian actor Heather Lee Mitchell AM.

All three are, of course, directed on stage by a fourth woman – Priscilla Jackman, whose website explains: Priscilla is a multidisciplinary director working across theatre, opera and screen. Priscilla is invested in the exchange between performers and audience through a dynamic use of space using traditional and twenty-first century technologies and the hybrid fusion of innovative Arts and theatre practices in Australia.

It’s not surprising, then, for me to have little to say beyond effusive praise for an astounding theatre experience last Friday night.  

I want to use only their first names, rather than their surnames which ironically represent male relatives, even though – wonderfully – Ruth Bader’s marriage to Martin Ginsburg lasted 59 years together and then surely continued in spirit until her death at 87 in 2020.  Though Ruth is remembered as "the Notorious R.B.G.", Heather’s recreation of Ruth’s personality, sense of humour and strategic determination – using far more than just her hands and an amazing array of voices – was the wonder of the night for me.

And, through the telling of her story in such an intense and detailed 1 hour 40 minutes solo performance, reaching an understanding of how women’s human rights have not been put into practice nor even guaranteed in law as they should be.

All four of these women’s lives and work in creating such powerful theatre demonstrate what RGB stood for.  Perhaps the most telling and amusing stories in the play are her interviews with the three US Presidents, William – call me Bill – Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Suzie’s scriptwriting and Priscilla’s directing, as well as the very clever use of props, lighting and sound track, make a very simple stage setting bring out the best in drama – the opportunity for Heather to communicate personally with every member of the audience.  Her Ruth spoke to each of us as a friend who we come to respect – to the point where we need not be sad for her in her dying moments, but proud of all she achieved even while being realistic about what the rule of law can and should mean.  For women, of course – but importantly for us all.

I don’t know how long Heather can continue touring, following her extensive run in 2022, so I have to say do everything you can not to miss the chance of catching up with RGB: Of Many, One.






Heather Mitchell AM
as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG: Of Many, One
Sydney Theatre Company, 2024
Photo: Prudence Upton

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday 11 April 2024

2024: Seagull by Anton Chekhov - Chaika Theatre

 

 

Seagull, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Karen Vickery.  Chaika Theatre at ACT Hub, 14 Apinifex St, Kingston, Canberra April 10-21 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night April 11

Directed by Caitlin Baker and Tony Night
Characters:
Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina – an actress, married surname Trepleva
Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev – Irina's son, a young man
Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin – Irina's brother, owner of the country estate
Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya – a young woman, the daughter of a rich landowner
Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev – a retired lieutenant and the manager of Sorin's estate
Polina Andreyevna – Shamrayev's wife
Masha – her daughter
Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin – a novelist
Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn – a doctor
Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko – a teacher in love with Masha.
    Yakov – a workman
    Cook or Chef
    Maid

Cast:

Joel Horwood – Konstantin (Kostya)
Amy Kowalczuk –
Polina
Arran McKenna –
Ilya Shamrayev
Neil McLeod –
Pyotr Sorin
Natasha Vickery –
Nina
Meaghan Stewart –
Masha
Michael Sparks –
Dr Dorn
James McMahon –
Boris Trigorin
Cameron Thomas -
Semyon
Karen Vickery -
Irina


The translation of Seagull (without ‘The’, since Russian doesn’t use definite articles) into up-to-date OMG educated Canberra English (social platform style) is only problematical if you are like me.

I have always taken it as read that Chekhov, in what he called a comedy, was satirising with serious intent a specific group of people – the upper class Russians of his day, 1895, whose wealth and lives as landed gentry was beginning to disintegrate.  

As Wikipedia describes it: The Seagull is generally considered to be the first of his four major plays. It dramatizes the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Treplev.

The joke of the day, I guess, was that in the character of Kostya, Anton was satirising himself.  Except that he hadn’t shot himself.

So, does Chaika (ie Seagull) Theatre’s production work today as a satiric comedy?  Yes and No, I think.

Because that kind of landed gentry – especially since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 – doesn’t exist any more, in Russia or Australia, it’s a bit confusing when they have names and refer to things so obviously Russian while speaking like us.  For Chekhov’s audience, everyone falling so extremely in love with everyone else – and the gunshots as Kostya tries and finally does kill himself – is funny.  

Yet, of course, there is a dark side hinted at in the working class characters: Yakov, the Chef and the Maid.  These are obsequious servants.  In the ‘standard’ translation (Penguin) by Elisaveta Pen, as Irina is packing to leave she gives the Chef a rouble saying, “Here’s a rouble, between you three.”

They reply with Chef: “Thank you kindly, madam.  Good journey to you!  We’re most grateful for your kindness”; Yakov: “God-speed to you!”; while the Maid says nothing.

Without having Karen Vickery’s script to hand, I can’t give details, but she has cut or incorporated these parts into her play.

On the other hand, Vickery has turned Nina’s speeches as “This common soul of the world” in Kostya’s “Decadent School” play where “The souls of Alexander the Great, of Caesar, of Shakespeare, of Napoleon, and of the basest leech are contained in me!” into a plea for action on climate change as “my voice rings dismally through this void unheard by anybody.”

Playing Act One outdoors works very well for creating a sense of reality as the characters come and go to set up the stage near the lake as described by Checkhov.  We had no problem accepting that Trigorin had just ducked down to the lake, the real one, for another spot of fishing, even if it was dark because the moon hadn’t come up as expected – and fortunately Masha’s prediction that there would be a storm didn’t happen.  It felt as though we were not watching actors, but found ourselves among these rather peculiar people in emotional turmoils whom you might easily meet in Kingston on Lake Burley Griffin foreshore.  Though it was amusing when someone said they could hear music, while we heard a not very distant train shunting at Kingston Station and a plane taking off a bit further away at Canberra Airport.

So going back into the theatre felt like going into the family home.  We were in the lounge room, with doors to other rooms and the front door behind us, where we had just come in.

Using modern English certainly worked to make believable characters for us.  Some 30 years ago I worked for Carol Woodrow searching for the least stilted translation of The Seagull for our intended production for her Canberra Theatre Company.  I thought the translation by David Magarshack was better for acting than Elisaveta Pen’s, but that show never went on because a major sponsorship deal unexpectedly fell apart.  

But I suspect that Vickery’s translation is the best for an aspect of the comedy.  The OMG including the occasional F word as a style made characterisations – especially her own performance of Irina, and Joel Horwood’s as Konstantin – forceful without becoming farcical.  Farce may be more funny, while more stilted would have blunted the humour.  The very final scene in this translation and performance was fascinating because everyone’s reactions to the gunshot – from the terribly fearful shock that Natasha Vickery’s Nina must feel when she hears about what has happened,  to the let’s just carry on playing cards from Amy Kowalczuk’s Polina – left us in the audience a bit stunned, not knowing what it all meant or how we should respond, until the lights went out and we realised that’s the end.

This makes this Seagull something more in the line of absurdism – is it funny or is it not?  How should we respond to this relationship quagmire, representing as it does what we see around us all over the world?  What will be the end of that?

This is the strength of the success of this production - that this translation into our language makes Chekhov's play reflect how people around the world are feeling today, facing, as many think, the possibility of World War III.

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday 4 April 2024

2024: Potted Potter

 

 


 Potted Potter by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, April 3 – 7, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night April 4

Creatives
Writers and Co-creators: Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner
Director: Richard Hurst; Associate Director: Hanna Berrigan
Designer: Simon Scullion
Lighting Designer: Tim Mascall; Composer: Phil Innes
Production Relighter: Andrew Haden; Line Producer: Jared Harford
Producer: James Seabright


Cast
Scott Hoatson (as “Scott” playing Harry Potter and others)
Brendan Murphy (as “Brendan” playing Voldemort and all the others)
Alternate: Jacob Jackson



The most serious thing I can say about the ‘parody’ of all seven Harry Potter books in seventy minutes is that it’s just too funny for words.  This may make my review seem as silly as the show itself – except that Potted Potter is not as silly as it looks.

Written by the British equivalents of our ABC’s Playschool presenters, known on the Children’s BBC as Dan and Jeff, behind the entertainment of the whole theatre audience excitedly playing Quidditch and the whole show being “A fabulously funny parody [which] will tickle the funny bone of every age group” (as the London Daily Telegraph puts it), it’s very clear if you think about it that Clarkson and Turner have two intentions.

The first is educational for the younger readers.  The show makes the acceptance of violence and death so ridiculous that it takes on the quality of that old cartoon “Stop laughing.  This is serious”.

For the grown-ups there is the final song “We will survive” with the line “She will survive!”  

Played with a Scottish accent, Scott as “Scott” admits he has lied about knowing J.K.Rowling personally.  This had made Brendan, as “Brendan” believe that “Scott” was a real expert, but now discovers he tells a lie to make himself seem more important than he really is.

“Scott” admits he doesn’t even know what the J and K stand for.  But in the song, it’s all about the threat to Harry, the death of Dumbledore, and when Voldemort attempted to kill Harry, his curse rebounded, seemingly killing Voldemort, and Harry survived with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead [which] made Harry famous among the community of wizards and witches. (Wikipedia)

All written by J.K.Rowling – but who will survive?  She, who has made a mint and reputation out of these morally questionable stories, is the only one to survive.

Indeed, since 2016 she has written another seven works after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a new era of the Wizarding World, put out by global digital Pottermore Publishing.

It’s interesting to note (not mentioned in Potted Potter) that J.K.Rowling also pretends to be “Robert Galbraith” in the Cormoran Strike series of classic contemporary crime fiction – another set of seven.  

Perhaps Dan and Jeff might consider another parody?  

But I wonder, as probably much the oldest audience member (even older then Dumbledore), how on earth they can keep up the energy for this tour:
04 – 07 Apr Canberra, ACT Theatre Centre
12 – 21 Apr Sydney, NSW Seymour Centre
24 Apr – 05 May Melbourne, VIC Athenaeum Theatre
08 – 12 May Adelaide, SA Festival Centre
23 – 26 May Perth, WA State Theatre Centre

I hope they survive, for they actually made me stop thinking for 70 minutes about the dreadful violence and death going on all around us – until I began to see that Mr Netanyahu thinks he is Harry Potter, using his latest wizardry to eliminate his Voldemort with help from the bumbling Dumbledore of the White House Castle.

The skills of these performers, Scott Hoatson and Brendan Murphy, as interpreters of such clever scriptwriting but especially also as improvisers working a full-house audience, gave me a great feeling of relief through spontaneous laughter that everyone needs.  Though at some extreme absurdist point in the show, Scott exclaims that ‘theatre is the victim here’, the terrible irony is that, to paraphrase The Beatles, ‘all we need is theatre’ – to bring us to our senses.

Please don’t miss Potted Potter.

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday 23 March 2024

2024: Holding the Man

 

Photo: Daniel Boud

 Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy, adapted from the book by Timothy Conigrave.  Belvoir St Theatre, March 9 – April 14 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 23

Creatives

Playwright: Tommy Murphy; Original Author: Timothy Conigrave
Director: Eamon Flack; Asst Director: James Elazzi
Set Designer: Stephen Curtis; Costume Designer: Mel Page
Lighting Designer: Phoebe Pilcher; Composer & Sound Designer: Alyx Dennison
Choreographer: Elle Evangelista; Fight/Movement Director: Nigel Poulton
Vocal & Accent Coach: Laura Farrell;
Associate Sound Designer: Matthew James; Aerial Consultant: Finton Mahoney
Community Engagement Coordinator: Thinesh Thillainadarajah
Stage Manager: Luke McGettigan; Asst Stage Manager: Mia Kanzaki
WAAPA Stage Management Secondment: Sam Rechichi

Cast

Tim – Tom Conroy; John – Danny Ball
Ensemble:
Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Guy Simon. Shannen Alyce Quan



I hadn’t thought previously of Tommy Murphy being in Shakespeare’s realm, but Holding the Man is surprisingly a kind of parallel to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

John/Hermia loves Tim/Lysander despite Father/Aegius’s prejudiced refusal to accept any such relationship.  Although the parallels get a bit messy when adding in Helena and Demetrius, Tim the Drama person and John the Football Captain come together in the rehearsals of a play within this play.

The big difference is that the King and Queen of the fairies are not visibly present but Puck has done his infecting work, and Oberon becomes HIV in a nasty relationship with Titania’s AIDS.

And so the comedy, of which there is plenty in Murphy’s Act One, turns into tragedy in Act Two, in a reversal of Shakespeare’s comic deaths of Pyramus and Thisbe as an entertainment for the audience of nobility, Theseus and Hippolyta.

The other difference, of course, is that Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man is real life.  My own grandson is named for the teenage family friend with haemophilia who picked up AIDS from a necessary blood transfusion, dying in 1984.  And despite his comedy, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, aged just 11, probably of plague, as he was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1596.

The adaptation of Conigrave’s memoir is also interesting for using the device of Tim stepping out of the action on occasion to tell us about what actually happened as the result of what we have just seen acted out.  In this way we see the story written by Tim, reworked by Tommy as a playscript, worked up by Eamon as director, played by Tom as Tim, working with Danny as John, and with Russell, Rebecca, Guy and  Shannen as the other characters – including Juliet who clearly could have fallen in love with Tim from when they played as Juliet and Romeo in Shakespeare’s play – with ‘Tim’ filling in gaps by speaking to us directly.

And, in addition, the characters often interact personally with members of the audience, individually with some in the front rows of this almost in-the-round arrangement, and on a group basis with cheer-leading of us in enthusiastic arm-waving and cheering.

By interval we feel we know everyone as friends involved together in a theatre group, just like Tim’s, or indeed Belvoir’s.  And so then we feel we know John personally, and Tim, as signs of sickness come on.  Then the most awful part is when Tim decides he has to tell John of his past outside their close relationship, and the likely way he and now John have become positive to HIV.

What Murphy has achieved, in this production with such lively directing and choreography, is a play without sentimentality, engaging to watch, and using aerial performance to stylise the most emotional points in the story, giving us permission to understand the depth of the HIV AIDs tragedy in silence as John dies.

As Tim says “The End”,  the silence is broken by instant applause in praise of the actors’ performances – and also for the life and the love between these two.
 

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday 17 March 2024

2024: The Great Divide by David Williamson

 

 

The Great Divide by David Williamson.  Currency Press, 2024.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 8 – April 27, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 16

Creatives

Playwright: Davide Williamson AO
Director: Mark Kilmurry; Asst Director: Julia Robertson
Set & Costume Designer: James Browne
Lighting Designer: Veronique Benett; Sound Designer: Daryl Wallis
Stage Manager: Erin Shaw; Asst Stage Manager: Alexis Worthing
Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik

Cast

Penny Poulter – Emma Diaz; Rachel Poulter – Caitlin Burley
Alex Whittle – Georgie Parker; Grace Delahunty – Kate Raison
Brian / Joel – James Lugton; Alan Bridger – John Wood



Among David Williamson’s highly successful earlier plays, The Club (1977) was all about the same ‘great divide’ as now, in 2024.  But The Great Divide is the better play, and hits at the social crux of the issue with greater force.

The Club was all about men maintaining the traditions of Australian Rules Football against the threat of commercial profiteering.  Williamson’s Melbourne origin made this a necessary plea for an Australian cultural icon, saying “My original intention for The Club was that it was a satire of male competitive behaviour and ruthlessness when power and success were dangled before us. So originally it was a satire of bad male behaviour towards each other.”  

This was in an interview – We speak to the playwright about how one of his most revered works has aged over the last forty years – when, in 2019, the State Theatre Company of South Australia presented The Club with an all female cast.
https://medium.com/behind-the-curtain/david-williamson-on-the-club-34606386beaa

Williamson supported the move, saying “one of the things that The Club will underline is how much values have shifted or, at least, should have shifted.

In 2020 –  https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jan/11/david-williamson-on-retirement-politics-and-critics-for-years-i-couldnt-go-to-an-opening-night – as his Family Values and Crunchtime were being staged, he announced his intention to write no more plays.  Yet “In March 2024 the Ensemble stages his new play The Great Divide while in September 2024 the State Theatre Company of South Australia opens with another of his new plays The Puzzle.
https://davidwilliamsonplaywright.com/biography  ]


The Puzzle remains a puzzle as yet, but, because by interval at The Great Divide I found myself already being reminded of The Club, I am guessing that that  female casting stirred a deeper need for a more crucial issue – maintaining Australia’s unique environment: social and natural – as seen from the perspective of how women deal with competitive behaviour and ruthlessness when power and success are in the offing.

In Australia there is the Great Dividing Range, separating the east coast of the continent all the way from Victoria to Cape York – an image representing the issue of essential concern as commercial forces destroy our environment – literally as fossil fuel burning overheats the planet.  In the play, just the title is enough to remind us of the enormity of what Penny Poulter will need to do to save “an almost idyllic life in one of Australia’s best kept secrets, Wallis Heads”.

In the action we see the equal enormity of Alex Whittle (clearly referencing Gina Rinehart, Australia's richest woman with an estimated $36.7 billion fortune), who sees only ‘development’ of the environment as the way to stimulate the economy – meaning profiteering by and for the wealthy, including herself.

And then we see how this massive conflict – still often satirical in form and stirring us to laughter – is played out in the life of Rachel Poulter, Penny’s 16-year-old daughter, facing her sense of responsibility to herself, her family and her future.  And indeed, our future.

It must seem odd to John Wood, after playing in the original The Club, to play now in The Great Divide, where football is certainly not such a big issue as in 1977.  Especially as he so successfully plays the bemused male, mayor of Wallis Heads Council, trying so hard to bridge the gap between the proposed investment opportunity offered (are rather demanded) by Whittle, and the strength of support in the community for Poulter – not only for never allowing the natural beauty of their environment to be lost, but equally for working in real terms for reducing economic inequality.  Penny Poulter is a genuine battler, a mum left to raise her daughter by a recalcitrant ex and determined to change the world for the better.

James Lugton and John Wood
as journalist Brian and mayor Alan Bridger
in The Great Divide, Ensemble 2024

The role of the journalist, played very correctly by James Lugton both as the small-town newspaper man and national tv interviewer, is an element not presented in The Club – and at this point in our struggle to regulate social media platforms, such as Meta, is absolutely relevant to the future, even, of democracy.

Kate Raison as PA Grace Delahunty and Georgie Parker as Alex Whittle
The Great Divide, Ensemble 2024

 

 

 

Emma Diaz as Penny Poulter and Caitlin Burley as Rachel Poulter
The Great Divide, Ensemble 2024

Georgie Parker as Alex Whittle and Emma Diaz as Penny Poulter
The Great Divide, Ensemble 2024


 Photos by Brett Boardman

What makes The Great Divide better than The Club as a drama is Williamson’s perceptive writing of the women’s complex emotions and the intensity that the situation develops.  Each of the four actors Emma Diaz as the mother and social activist; Caitlin Burley as her equally determined daughter on the cusp of adulthood; Georgie Parker with her own story of financial and political power; and Kate Raison as Whittle’s PA with so much more to offer both her employer and her competitor – each create characters we feel about remarkably strongly.  

We begin expecting a social satire – after all, this is David Williamson, isn’t it?  We end knowing so much more clearly what our society does – doesn’t do – for these women.  

And we all need to know.  So don’t miss The Great Divide.

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday 9 March 2024

2024: A Midsummer Night's Dream - Bell Shakespeare

 

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Sydney Opera House Playhouse, March 2 –30, 2024.
(Production Patron: Katie Page, CEO Harvey Norman)
West Australia – April 9; Victoria – April 25-May 11; Canberra – Jun 7-15; Northern Territory Jun 29

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 9

Creatives

Director: Peter Evans; Associate Director: Julia Billington
Set and Costume Designer: Teresa Negroponte
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Cisterne
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert
Movement, Intimacy and Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Voice Director: Jack Starkey-Gill; Dramaturg: James Evans

Cast 2024

Puck: Ella Prince (they); Hermia/Snug: Ahunim Abebe; Helena/Starveling: Isobel Burton
Demetrius/Snout: Mike Howlett; Lysander/Mechanical: Laurence Young
Oberon/Theseus/Flute: Richard Pyros; Titania/Hippolyta/Quince: Imogen Sage
Bottom/Egeus: Tom Matthews (understudy for Matu Ngaropo)

An announcement apologised for Mat Ngaropo, unable to perform because of injury.

______________________________________________________________________________
Despite now well-known actor Steve Bisley giving me the funniest death of Pyramus I could hope for in my Wyong High School production of Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1967), in the longest possible inch-by-inch collapse before staying dead for the longest time through Thisby’s
        Asleep, my love? / What dead, my dove?
speech, until she at last acts with
       Come, trusty sword; Come, blade, my breast imbue,

I’m going to have to admit that Peter Evans, Julia Billington and especially Nigel Poulton have out-sworded my directing skills.  

Despite Tom Matthews having to come in at short notice as the inimitable Bottom playing Pyramus, with Richard Pyros as Flute playing Thisbe, the difficulties of Matthews’ stabbing himself with a full length sword, Pyros’ extracting the sword, and then stabbing him/herself in an entirely different way, made the most extraordinary laugh-out-loud scene.  

Bell Shakespeare in this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have achieved William Shakespeare’s satiric intention – all set, literally, in Athens, and a Wood near it.  And what a surprising all wooden backdrop and properties set it is, thanks to the imagination of Teresa Negroponte.

Laugh as we may, so we should, and indeed we did from the gathering of the characters in Scene I:
Theseus: Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;
              Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth…
through to Puck’s exhortation to
    Give me your hands, if we be friends,
    And Robin shall restore amends.


But Theseus also introduces us to issues, as relevant to the youth of today as in Shakespeare’s day, as he speaks to his fiancee Hippolyta – Queen of the Amazons – saying:
    Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
    And won thy love doing thee injuries;
    But I will wed thee in another key,
    With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling.

There’s that sword.  How can that pomp and revelling be a triumph, if love is won by doing injuries?  What are the realities of love and life when we look at the news today of family and international violence?  

But at another level, Shakespeare in this fantasy play of fairies and play-acting, is saying to us, come off your high horses, take a look at yourselves through the medium of the arts.  Realise that what we believe to be true is never an excuse for doing injuries to those who believe differently.

On ABC Radio National on the very morning while driving to Sydney to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I heard Anwar Ibrahim tell Geraldine Doogue and Hamish Macdonald how essential it is for people to stop automatically taking sides for and against in every politically complex situation:

https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/global-roaming/malaysia-prime-minister-anwar-ibrahim/103482398
Sitting down with Geraldine and Hamish on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim revealed his desire for Australia to adopt a more 'mature' approach on China, his frustration at Western 'hypocrisy' concerning Gaza, achieving 'spiritual enlightenment' through Shakespeare and why being Prime Minister is no 'bed of roses'.

This is exactly why seeing Bell Shakespeare’s production is important.  Andy McLean writes in their program:

The overall effect gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “painfully funny”.  Make no mistake, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more a black comedy than a golden idyll….  It’s all hilarious of course.  But there’s something about the games that the fairies play and the fun they have which points to the potential for danger.  One suspects that Puck would do far worse (and certainly not bother to put things right) were they not bound by the will of Oberon.  Yet it’s precisely because of this danger that we laugh so much.

And there’s the measure of the excellent quality of this production.  The acting – which includes a huge amount of physical theatre as well as wonderfully precise clarity of expression in each actor’s speaking – is exactly in the style needed to take the play just the right amount beyond realism into a kind of Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ which is both funny and illuminating at the same time.

And that makes the extra little push into farce so funny as Pyramus manages to kill himself with such a long sword, and Thisbe follows suit – in almost a kind of spoof of Romeo and Juliet (which Shakespeare had recently written).  The curtain call becomes an enormously enjoyable celebration of the actors’ success – in itself a great positive statement about the value of art, on William and Bell Shakespeare’s part.

A terrific show, not to be missed.

 

Bell Shakespeare 2021 cast as the Rude Mechanicals
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

©Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday 23 February 2024

2024: Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon

 

 

Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon.  Canberra REP February 22- March 9, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Feb 23 Opening Night

Director: Anne Somes; Associate Director: Cate Clelland
Stage Manager: David Goodbody; Asst Stage Manager: Bede Doherty
Set Design: Cate Clelland; Set Cooridnator: Russell Brown OAM
Lighting Designer: Mike Moloney; Sound Designer: Neville Pye
Set Dressing: Cate Clelland, Anna Senior OAM; Rosemary Gibbons
Costume Designer: Fiona Leach
Production Manager: Anne Gallen


Wikipedia records: The play opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on December 28, 1969, and closed on September 4, 1971, after 706 performances and six previews.

And also under the heading Reception: Clive Barnes, in his review in The New York Times, wrote: "He is as witty as ever...but he is now controlling that special verbal razzle-dazzle that has at times seemed mechanically chill... There is the dimension of humanity to its humor so that you can love it as well as laugh at it."

Eugene O’Neill???  Somehow these characters in the sad comedy of the failure of sexual anything-goes a la 1969 seem somewhat out of place in a theatre dedicated to that great playwright so deeply critical of his own American culture.  

OK, I don’t mean Desire Under the Elms or Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  Just The Hairy Ape.  There’s a dimension of humanity to its humour way beyond Neil Simon.

But hey!  What should we expect in 1969?  The year in which David Williamson set his Don’s Party (which opened in August 1971 – a month before Last of the Red Hot Lovers closed). “To the party come Mal, Don's university mentor, and his bitter wife Jenny, sex-obsessed Cooley and his latest girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Susan, Evan, a dentist, and his beautiful artist wife Kerry.”

In other words don’t expect such inventive satire from Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the plot neatly summarised, again by Wikipedia:

Barney Cashman, a middle-aged, married nebbish wants to join the sexual revolution before it is too late. A gentle soul with no experience in adultery, he fails in each of three seductions:
Elaine Navazio, a sexpot who likes cigarettes, whiskey, and other women's husbands;
Bobbi Michele, an actress friend whom he discovers is madder than a hatter; and
Jeannette Fisher, his wife's best friend, a staunch moralist.

If you don’t know what a ‘nebbish’ is, the word is American Yiddish for “One who is fearful and timid, especially in making decisions and plans, in discussions, debates, arguments, and confrontations, and in taking responsibility.”  David Cannell does an excellent job of making us laugh at his character; but does Neil Simon intend, when Barney’s final phone call to his apparently loyal wife apparently fails to inspire her to join him, for us to laugh along with a sense of ironic comedy?  

Or should we empathise with Barney, with his head in his hands as the lights fade, and feel sorry for this 23-years married, 47 year-old, after he has attempted to explore breaking out of tedium with the sexpot, mad actress and his wife’s best friend, each played brilliantly by Victoria Tyrell Dixon, Stephanie Bailey and Janie Lawson respectively?

I have difficulty agreeing with that first review by Clive Barnes.  Despite the play’s success, and being filmed in 1972, I think Neil Simon’s early plays, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, are much better because they were much more original in concept.  

On the other hand, though to me the character and life of Barney is not interesting enough, even to make decent satire, the deliberately over-the-top characters of the three women make the play – and this production – quite fascinating to watch.

And to think about, when you consider the superficiality of Simon’s picture of the new open sexuality – the Sexual Revolution – as he pictures it in 1969.  Could one write such characters, and see them as laughable, today?  

That’s a question which makes the production of the Last of the Red Hot Lovers as REP has done it – strictly reproducing the American accents, style and settings of 1970 – very worthwhile.


David Cannell as Barnie, with
Victoria Tyrell Dixon as Elaine Navazio
Stephanie Bailey as Bobbi Michele and Janie Lawson as Jeanette Fisher
in Last of the Red Hot Lovers by Neil Simon
Canberra REP, 2024

 ©Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday 17 February 2024

2024: How To Have Sex by Molly Manning Walker

 

 

 

 


 How To Have Sex – movie by Molly Manning Walker.  
Canberra Palace Electric Movie Club previews February 17, 18, 25, 27; Dendy Sunday Session Preview February 25. Release date: 7 March 2024

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 17

Directed by Molly Manning Walker; Written by Molly Manning Walker
Produced by Emily Leo, Ivana MacKinnon, Konstantinos Kontovrakis

Starring    
    Mia McKenna-Bruce
    Lara Peake
    Samuel Bottomley
    Shaun Thomas
    Enva Lewis
    Laura Ambler

Cinematography: Nicolas Canniccioni; Edited by Fin Oates; Music by James Jacob
Production companies:
Film4, BFI, MK2 Films, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Umedia
Wild Swim Films, Heretic
Distributed by    Mubi
Release dates 19 May 2023 (Cannes), 3 November 2023 (United Kingdom)
7 March 2024 (Australia)
Running time 91 minutes
Countries: United Kingdom, Greece, Belgium
Language: English

Plot
Sixteen-year-old best friends Tara, Em, and Skye head to the party resort of Malia on the Greek island of Crete for a rites-of-passage holiday. While Em will be off to college in the autumn, Tara and Skye are less certain of their futures. The girls all look forward to drinking, clubbing, and hooking up in what should be the best summer of their lives. Tara, the only virgin in the trio, feels pressure to match the sexual experiences of her friends.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Have_Sex#Reception


Mia McKenna-Bruce in How To Have Sex. Photograph: Mubi

This is the movie that needs to be shown at the very beginning of Schoolies Week, Saturday morning November 16, 2024. To every participant, and perhaps again every day.

I suspect the Gold Coast venues may not be quite as over-the-top as in, what Anthony Frajman in The Saturday Paper calls “the holiday hotspot town of Malia, Crete”.  If it is, it’s thumping loud, frantic, and openly about getting laid – equally aimed for by girls as by boys.  I don’t remember it being quite like this when I was their age some 67 years ago.  The Modern Jazz Quartet, which my father called jazz on tiptoes, was more my thing.

The essence of the movie is an awful sense of foreboding as Tara begins to realise that this is not all fun and nervous laughter, when the raucous mcee has two boys up on stage holding drink cans out like their penises, and girls come up to have ‘pee’ poured down their throats.  Gross is just not the word for it.  And it gets worse, which I will not try to describe.

Can Tara escape and not become the centre of attention?  Apprehension and dread are strong synonyms for foreboding.  I felt all of that with her.  And her mental and emotional confusion when she is given no choice, losing so much more than just her naivety.

The flight home to London is not an easy ride.  Molly Manning Walker tells Frajman (The Saturday Paper, February 17-23, 2024) How To Have Sex is ‘partly drawn from [her] holidays in Majorca and Ibiza as a teenager and in her 20s, but it also reflects her experience of being sexually assaulted in London on a night out when she was 16.  Echoing the frankness of How To Have Sex, she speaks about her assault with incredible candour. “No one talks about it,” she tells me.  “And when [an assault] happens, it sucks the air out the room and you can’t talk about it openly, and as a victim, it makes you feel even more shame and even more guilty about it because you’re like, ‘Maybe it’s my fault.  Maybe they don’t want me to talk about it.’”

As Tara begins, just a little, on her way home, to laugh like her friends again, I knew she was covering up, pretending it’s ok enough to not completely lose her social life.

And I knew what the issue of ‘consent’ is really about.  And I thank the writer/director of How To Have Sex, and the actors who make the story so real.

And hope the movie is seen widely, and definitely at the next Schoolies Week, where it might be renamed “How To Have Sex, Not


©Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday 15 February 2024

2024: The Great Escaper

 

 

 

 


 The Great Escaper – movie. Release date: 7 March 2024 (Australia)
Media Contact: Sue Dayes suedayes@tmpublicity.com

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Directed by Oliver Parker; Written by William Ivory; Produced by Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae
Starring: Michael Caine, Glenda Jackson
Cinematography: Christopher Ross; Edited by Paul Tothill; Music by Craig Armstrong

Production companies:  Pathé; BBC Film; Ecosse Films; Film i Väst; Filmgate Films
Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment UK
Original release date: 6 October 2023 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 96 minutes

Cast:
    Michael Caine as Bernard (Bernie) Jordan
        Will Fletcher as young Bernard Jordan
    Glenda Jackson as Irene (Rene) Jordan, Bernard's wife
        Laura Marcus as young Irene Jordan
    John Standing as Arthur; Jackie Clune as Judith, manager of the care home
    Danielle Vitalis as Adele, Brennan Reece as Martin – care home workers
    Wolf Kahler as Heinrich; Ian Conningham as LCT Commander Parker
    Elliott Norman as Douglas Bennett; Donald Sage Mackay as Nathan
    Carlyss Peer as Vicky; Isabella Domville as Susan Everard
    Joe Bone as Tim; Victor Oshin as Scott


I find myself thinking of The Great Escaper, with its quite simple storyline, as if it were a stage play.  The central set would be of the rather well-resourced room in a retirement home where Bernard Jordan, who was born on June 16, 1924, lived with his wife Irene (‘Reenie’).  In real life Bernard died at 90 in hospital on December 30, 2014, and Irene a week later at 88 on January 8, 2015.

The dates are especially significant because the story is about Bernie’s determination –  as a retired sailor who had been on duty that day – to attend the 70th Anniversary in France of the Invasion of Normandy – D-Day – on June 6, 1944.  This was a ceremonial event attended by Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, with travel and accommodation arranged by the returned soldiers.  Reenie is not well enough to go.  But the real issue is that Bernie forgot to book a place in time.  What will he do?  Make his own way across, of course; especially to visit one of the 5000 graves in the Bayeux War Cemetery.

Approaching 90, needing a walking stick, but otherwise apparently in reasonable health, he leaves for a morning walk on the beach (at Hove, East Sussex, where he was born and died).  

On stage there would be scenes such as when Bernie meets other old soldiers like Arthur and even a German pilot, Heinrich, who may well have shot at Bernie’s landing craft on the day, on the forestage, while Reenie remains in their room dealing with the retirement home staff and her own health scares.  Then there would be projected scenes on screen of when they were young, meeting up at a wartime dance and of what happened on the landing craft, until the final scene at that huge war cemetery.

There are 3000 such cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorating over 575,000 men and women in France.  “What a waste!” says Bernie.

On stage with the live actors communicating directly with the audience, I can imagine the depth and strength of feeling we would experience.

But there is an awful irony in watching this film.  Michael Caine turned 90 in March, 2023.  Glenda Jackson died aged 87 in June.  Filming had been planned for June 2021; finally got underway in September 2022; and “Parker screened the finished film for Caine and Jackson a few weeks before the latter's death on 15 June 2023.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Escaper

I feel somewhat hesitant to criticise the film in the circumstances, but it doesn’t achieve the dramatic power I imagine as live theatre.  This is not to do with the quality of the acting.  

Perhaps the problem is that the story of Bernard Jordan is real, and appears on film too much like a documentary, a documenting of the events.  But this movie is a fictional recreation based on the true story.  At the same when we watch any film we feel we are seeing reality.

Ivory, as the writer, uses flashbacks to represent actual memories and and their emotional impact, but when filmed, the younger versions of Bernie and Reenie don’t look enough like or their voices don’t have the same accents or manners of speaking as the Bernard and Irene we see in old age.  So the illusion of theatre is broken.  But maybe my reaction was influenced by my being an 83-year-old one-time Cockney.

The flashbacks to the scenes on the landing craft certainly created the horrifying effects of being under fire from the German aircraft, showing what happened to the tank, and the soldier Bernie persuaded to drive it out into danger.  But it was filmed for us as observers, instead of being a memory from within Bernie’s viewpoint.  

Caine and Jackson created their personal relationship very well, so that we (as we would have in a play) easily found ourselves identifying with each of them and feeling the bond between them.  But other scenes, such as Bernie’s meeting up with the Germans, being introduced by a ‘French’ hotel manager who didn’t sound like a real native French speaker, nor like a Frenchman trying to speak German, just didn’t seem real.  On stage it might even have been funny, rather than creating the tension that was likely if it had been real – nor did it create the other sense of recognition between fighters on such opposite sides, and the feelings that made Bernie and Arthur give Heinrich their tickets to the memorial function.

I certainly, though, could recognise the feeling of satisfaction that Bernie achieved when leaving his memento at the grave in Bayeux, after my wife and I had ourselves searched for her grandfather’s grave in Normandy, where he died in 1918, and where we saw the respect with which the local people keep up the maintenance of all those cemeteries.  

So though the film is made with good intentions, and raises important issues about warfare and its glorification, the writing and directing is inconsistent as a 90-minute drama.  

Yet it stands as a recognition of Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine’s acting capabilities, even their determination – like that of both Irene and Bernard Jordan – to go where he knew he must go, despite old age and the expectations of others.  



©Frank McKone, Canberra