Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra

Back: Robert Menzies as Melorne, Sarah Peirse as Ayre, Anthony Taufa as Mac.
Front: Liam Nunan as Stef, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb and Zindzi Okenyo as Angel

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams.  Wharf 1, January 20 – February 20, 2016.

Rarriwuy Hick – Betsheb
Remy Hill – Peter Archer / James
Brandon McClelland – Francis
Robert Menzies – William Archer / Melorne
Liam Nunan – Stef / Private Corris
Zindzi Okenyo – Dr Simon / Mary / Angel
Sarah Peirse – Ayre / Mrs Witcombe
Anthony Taufa – Mac / Mr Turner / George Ross MP / German Man
Ursula Yovich – Elizabeth Archer

Designer – David Fleischer; Lighting – Damien Cooper; Composer and sound designer – Max Lyandvert; Dramaturg – Paige Rattray; Voice and text coach – Charmian Gradwell.

Production photos: Lisa Tomasetti

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 27

“Only my younger self could have written a play with such audacity.  Perhaps that’s why I still have a great affection for it.”  So says author Louis Nowra in his program note, and so say I.

Of all Australian plays, this is the one which goes to the heart of being Australian.  We think we are egalitarian – the ‘fair go’ country – and others even tell us we are.  But it’s not true.  It was an audacious act to say this in 1985.  I certainly felt that when I saw an early production by the students of NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney, 1986. 

But it needed to be said that treating all kinds of other people truly as equals is not how we commonly behave.  We have to learn from bitter experience what giving a fair go really entails – and by the time we realise, it’s often too late.  Irreparable damage has already been done.

Mind you, on the Q&A program on Monday night, February 1, 2016, the various Australians of the Year gave us new hope.   [www.abc.net.au / iview, available until 10.40pm on 15 February 2016]

There has been considerable argument about the state of Australian theatre, in recent years.  One important question has been why Australian plays of the past have not become essential to the programming, especially of the major companies.  Sydney Theatre Company’s decision to present this play, absolutely necessary to Australians’ understanding of ourselves, is to be commended, and I hope it will be the beginning of an established tradition.

The equivalent is for British theatres to stage George Bernard Shaw, or Americans to revive the early Arthur Miller.  In Australia, for good reasons, we have always tried to cover the field of theatre from around the world, but it is now time to do this without losing our own culture.  To not regularly program, say (among many others) Dorothy Hewett, David Williamson, Alex Buzo, Alma de Groen, and not to keep adding to the canon the newer great writers (like Andrew Bovell) as they appear and become established, would smack too much of cultural cringe.  Louis Nowra could not possibly be left off any sensible list when you consider at least Cosi, Inner Voices, Radiance, Summer of the Aliens and of course, The Golden Age.

Importantly, the casting of this production of The Golden Age makes a symbolic point which parallels the essence of the play.  None of the characters as written are Indigenous Australians, yet today the cast can naturally include actors from a range of Indigenous and other backgrounds, thoroughly suited to their roles and who perform to the highest standards – as we would nowadays automatically expect from not only the Sydney Theatre Company but virtually all levels of theatre groups in Australia.

Of course the quality of the acting – and this means of the directing and dramaturgy in the rehearsal process – is crucial to the impact of the play.  I found my emotional response to the different elements of the story – the middle class doctor’s family in Hobart, the newly discovered group left isolated for nearly a century at the site in the deep Tasmanian bush of a briefly extant gold mine of the 1850s, the poor working class existence of Francis’ family in 1930’s Melbourne, the awful war experience for Francis in Berlin, and the terrible treatment of Betsheb and her family in the New Norfolk insane asylum – was lifted in hope and dashed in despair. 

The great quality of Nowra’s text is that the big issues of violence against people’s right to independence and dignity in life, at the individual and international level, are not dealt with through intellectualised argument.  Where Francis or Dr Archer raise the issues, it is always in the context of experience with which we identify and in which we feel how they feel. To achieve this is a mark of great acting of an audacious text.

So the 2016 The Golden Age is not to be missed.  The ending proved the point for me, when instead of ecstatic theatrical applause which seems to have become a habit of audiences, Betsheb’s quiet singing, her understanding now so limited by electric shock treatment, and Francis’ wondering if what Peter Archer had said as he left them alone together in the bush clearing might really be the truth, made our sense of the tragic mood deepen.  The text:

BETSHEB: [softly, singing]
        Rain, rain go thy way,
        Come a-back ne’er a day.

PETER: Goodbye, Betsheb

        She pays no attention.

She lives in a world of her own.  You know that.  She destroyed my father [Dr Archer] just as she’ll destroy you.  You have done the wrong thing.

FRANCIS: Maybe I have; I don’t know.  But she’s all I’ve got to believe in.

PETER: Goodbye.

FRANCIS nods a ‘Goodbye’.  PETER departs.  Silence.  BETSHEB continues to sing softly to herself.

FRANCIS: Betsheb? Betsheb?

BETSHEB, immersed in her own world, doesn’t answer.  FRANCIS sits down away from her and wonders if PETER is right.  BETSHEB laughs to herself.  After a time she turns around and notices FRANCIS: a lonely, confused figure.  She stares at him and, almost as if he has heard his name, he turns and looks at her.  She smiles across the gulf that separates them.

BETSHEB: Nowt more outcastin’.

The lights fade slowly to blackout.
Copyright © Louis Nowra 1985
Currency Press, Sydney
Revised edition 1989
Electronic edition 2012

At this matinee, at four in the afternoon, the applause began tentatively, and remained muted, but insistent, through two call backs for the actors before the houselights came up slowly.  I can still feel the beginning of tears even as I write this several days later.


Anthony Taufa as George Ross MP, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb,
Brandon McClelland as Francis and Robert Menzies as Dr William Archer

But the set design worried me, though perhaps only for me as a longtime bushwalker who knows the Tasmanian dense ancient forests from the inside.

Being nostalgic, I found the design in the photos below lost what for me is an essential element of the play being set in Tasmania.  Where is the wall of greenery surrounding even the Archer’s home and the New Norfolk Asylum, as well as the ‘clearing’ as Nowra describes the bush location?

Sarah Peirse as Ayre

Liam Nunan as Stef, Brandon McClelland as Francis and Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb

As I saw it, the contrast between the absolute fecundity of the Tasmanian bush landscape and the sterility of the treatment of Ayre, Betsheb and their little lost community, as well as of Francis’ mother’s death and the war scenes in Berlin: that contrast made the point about what Australia has to offer, that the conventional and official world has forgotten.

Oddly enough, in the photo below, the set for the NIDA students’ production looks much more conventional than the modern style.

Louis Nowra edited by Veronica Kelly
Australian Playwrights
Monograph Series edited by Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt
Published by Rodopi, Amsterdam 1987
But it was the combination of Grecian columns and the beautiful bush landscape, which could be simply changed by dropping a different backdrop for the funeral and war scenes, with little interruption to the flow of the action on stage, which was all that was needed.  The text and the acting does the rest – though I have to say the lighting and the sound effects for the thunderstorms and the war scenes in 2016 were terrific, almost literally, compared with 30 years ago’s technology.

The mound as the central feature of today’s production and the bringing of symbolic trees, fallen bits of ancient European culture, and poles looking rather like traditional Aboriginal spears as the wall of the asylum or of the prison certainly made for a much more active production, rather than one that could concentrate too much on dialogue.  So I think my solution would have been to paint the walls (which look like the interior of an industrial shed) with Tasmanian forest (it could still include its doorways).  A mound in the acting space would still work, but not apparently made of dry earth (loam, as Ayre calls it).  In Tasmania that hill would be pure mud, and impossible to perform on.  Bush litter among button grass clumps would be the way to go, with the occasional tiger snake curled up ready to strike.

That’s my Tasmania!

Rainforest clearing in Pine Valley, Tasmania.
Photo: Meg McKone

Buttongrass plain
Mount Oakleigh from near New Pelion Hut, Tasmania
Photo: Meg McKone



       Review by Jane Freebury

Just before 9/11, the Boston Globe was about to publish revelations of long-term and systematic child sexual abuse by rogue priests in the Catholic Church. The story was eventually published in 2002 and the newspaper's investigative work honoured with a Pulitzer Prize. The impact of the revelations still continues today, and it makes Spotlight a timely reminder of the importance of tough, investigative—and old-fashioned—journalism as we revisit it today.

What was the Church in Massachusetts doing to stem the abuse that was perpetrated for decades by a small but significant percentage of its priests? Did it say it was working to address ‘unacceptable’ behaviour? Not even that. It was reshuffling the deck and moving priests on to other dioceses, as it did here in Australia and other countries around the world.

A cracking screenplay by West Wing writer Josh Singer and a very talented cast including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber makes for a rivetting drama. The director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, who has some low-key, sensitive adult films like The Station Agent and The Visitor to his name, has managed to handle this highly combustible material deftly and still keep the drama extraordinarily immediate and real. I guarantee you will feel dismayed, angry and outraged.

We already know about the abuse, but the extent to which other institutions cooperated with the Church is the important point here. Few if any in the city establishment classes appeared willing to upset the applecart.

It took a new editor at the Globe, Marty Baron (Schreiber) to get things rolling. He arrived alone and his last known address was Florida. It just so happened that he was Jewish and he asked the question that no one else seemed able to. Being an outlier brought both advantage and disadvantage, however. Not being a Boston native, he could see things for what they were and name them with impunity, no love lost. But his outsider status could also be used against him. Keep an eye out for the machinations of city elite.

The question the film asks is how can serious crimes against children remain undetected year upon year? The pattern the journalists found explains. The victims were selected because they were perceived unlikely to tell on anyone. If they were socially disadvantaged they were fair game. If they came from single parent families, were emotionally vulnerable  and likely to be overwhelmed even by the unwanted attention of a man of god, they were fair game. Spotlight is, you might say, a creepy experience.

Using cool judgement, director McCarthy keeps the mood calm, balanced and very low key. Spotlight is a powerful statement on one of the most terrible crimes of the last century.

Alex Gibney's brilliant documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2012, was another fine film on these issues. It never got hysterical either. A brief moment in Spotlight when Ruffalo’s tenacious journalist Mike Rezendes loses it in righteous anger, somehow gives expression to what we feel and want to express. The actor has made interesting perceptive comment about Spotlight in a recent Guardian interview.

The church hierarchy had, as we now know, been putting priest perpetrators on ‘sick leave’, hiding them away ‘unassigned’, and eventually moving them on to other dioceses where the abuse began all over again. Lawyers who they hired to assist with victim compensation—a meagre $20,000—obliged by keeping no records. And the Globe itself passed up on the story when it first arose, though it got it right in the end.

4 Stars

Also published at www.janefreeburywriter.com.au

Monday, February 1, 2016

THE LAST TIME: A Story of Love, Lust and Desperation

The Last Time : A Story of Love, Lust and Desperation

Written, co-directed and composed by Lucy Matthews. Co-director and choreographer Miriam Slater. Stage Manager Jaymie Collins. Production Manager Ben Harris. Lighting and Sound EDGE Lighting and Sound. Acoustic Theatre in association with Shadow House Pits. Belconnen Arts Centre. January 28 – 31 2016.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

If you did not see The Last Time this time then make sure that you don’t miss it next time, and there should be a next time for the newly formed and extremely talented Acoustic Theatre’s  gritty, sexy, feisty musical of today’s youth and their struggle for love, security, identity and acceptance. If Canberra were New York, then this would be a sure-fire Off-off Broadway hit with a certain trajectory to the bigger stage. There are several reasons for this. One is the intimacy of the performance space in the Belconnen Arts centre Dance Studio. With audience seated in the round, a five piece band in one corner and four performers on stage within a metre of the audience. Occasionally the white faced lead guitarist (Samuel Gordon Bruce) makes an entrance as a Cabaret Club Emcee aka The Music Man. The other is the amazing talent of the four key performers. The irony of miking members of a company called Acoustic Theatre is inescapable, but it lends sheer force to Frances McNair’s gutsy, raunchy voice, Kat Bramston’s soaring soprano with its silver-lined high notes, Katherine Berry’s soulful sounds from the heart and Hayden Crosweller’s resonant and contrasting male vocals.
Hayden Crosweiler as Christopher and Kat Bramston as Caroline
in Acoustic Theatre's The Last Time. Photo: Reid Workman
The Last Time is pure Ensemble in action. There is no narrative plot to speak of, but rather vignettes of intertwined relationships. Caroline (Kat Branston) tumbles from one bed to another in search of love. Christopher (Hayden Crosweller with touches of elasticized Jerry Lewis) desires Caroline but can’t resist his lustful testosterone charged appetite. Ellie (Frances McNair) craves a steady lesbian relationship which she longs for with the vulnerable and secretive Valerie (Katherine Berry) This labyrinth of desire and frustration, suffocating control and freewheeling abandonment, fuelled by tequila and highs claws at the erupting conflicts between characters as they desperately search for an antidote to the torment of their unanchored desire. The Last Time holds the mirror up to a time when spinning out of control is a station on the rite of passage. Audience sit as voyeurs to the action, confronted by a life they recognize, a past they remember or perhaps a future they can already see. The production is a tightly woven mesh of absorbing theatricality. At time it is absurdly comical, at other times, heavy laden with pathos and sometimes simply a reflection of an experience that will pass, and yet, for the present appears the summation of life’s true agony. This is their song of experience, and for that reason alone it is an important new and original work from a team of talented and entertaining creatives.

Ketherine Berry as Valerie and Frances McNair as Ellie
Photograph by Reid Workman
Co-director and writer/composer Lucy Matthews with her co director and choreographer Miriam Slater have crafted a work of Real expressionism. Every scene echoes with the ring of truth. Nights before and mornings after, clubs and bus stops, interrupted by the ever present mobile calls and texts are the cultural signposts of the actors’ generation. Lucy Matthews’ writing is raw and honest. The actors’ performances recall the intensity of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio.

This is evocatively underpinned by the four members of the band, Brodie Heidtmann on guitar, Brent Brosnan on Drums, Reid Workman on Guitar and Luke Tompsett. Their arrangements are recognizable from Sondheim to Ebb and Kantor, but refreshingly original, and lending atmosphere to the turmoil and confusion of the whirling passions and lives of the characters. Edge Lighting heightens atmosphere with moody colours and angular lighting to cast shadows across the challenging Theatre in the Round. With two acts, interrupted by an interval, the musical is perhaps too long, but that does not take away the professional care taken by this company in all aspects of production.

At one stage, The Music Man jibes the self-possessed antics of the characters, and most specifically Caroline in a stroke of Brechtian alienation. “Does anyone really care?” he asks the audience. There is no reply. Perhaps in Bertolt Brecht’s Ensemble Theatre, an audience member may have called out in authoritative German.., “Yes I do!” But that is not the issue. Brecht asked audiences to judge, to seek solutions, to empower people against oppressions, personal and public. We are not meant to care, although it is inevitable that we may wish resolution to these characters’ desperate turmoil in love and lust and desire. The Music Man’s incantation is provocative, and it is the duty of a generation that has passed through this confusing rite of passage to judge, but not pass judgement, to change, but not condemn, to accept, but not deny. It may not be the last time for these characters to pass this way, but it could be a step towards the first time to carry experience through to the next time.

Katherine Berry as Valerie. FrancesMcNair
as Ellie and Kat Bramston as Caroline
Photograph by Reid Workman
Acoustic Theatre have made an impressive and entertaining entrance upon the Canberra stage with a production that deserves a journey towards future success. This is a company that lends a voice to its generation and a theatrical tour de force for all generations.

Whether theatre in the round is the most ideal performance space for a show that needs to connect directly with every member of the audience is a matter for debate. The Last Time deals with important issues in an attempt to resolve many of the conflicts and dilemmas of its generation and too often audience members are excluded from a performer’s total character. Intimacy is great. Exclusion can be too alienating.

Finally, this dynamic new work already has the potential to tour to other venues and Fringe festivals or cabaret festivals. It is a great ambassador for young Canberra talent with a show that has a lot to say in a thoughtful, consciousness raising way. Hopefully it will not be the last time for audiences to see Acoustic Theatre’s ground-breaking alternative musical.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Last Time - Acoustic Theatre

Review by John Lombard

The show kicks off with uni age sexual athlete Caroline (Kat Bramston) hunting the stage for her clothes and whatever is left of her dignity after her latest drunken one night stand, a routine that has become so stifling she vows that this will be "The Last Time".

Caroline isn't the only person tired of endless hook-ups - her intense lesbian friend Ellie (Frances McNair) is hungry for a relationship, and engaged in an equally desperate and charming pursuit of musician Valerie (Katherine Berry). Meanwhile Caroline's schoomzy friend Christopher (Hayden Crosweller) has always held a torch for her and takes Caroline's change in outlook as his chance to pounce on her.

The characters are very well observed, and writer/composer Lucy Matthews has a musician's ear for authentic dialogue. Some of the best moments of the night were the witty barbs the characters would frequently deploy to laughter and sometimes also applause from the audience. I recognised the characters from my own life, and the depiction of hook-up life in Canberra also felt very true - the visit to Mooseheads was spot on.

While the characters are true to life, they are almost unavoidably also extremely shallow. At one point the band leading "music man" (Samuel Gordon Bruce) directly challenged Caroline's self-pity, asking why we should care about her relationship woes. That was a bold move, because my instant response was: "I don't." Fortunately there is a self-awareness in the script that the stakes here are low, and the dreaded label "first world problems" is even used at one point.

Caroline and her friends have the sort of problems that age will automatically solve. One day, when asked to choose between sex and sleep, sleep will seem more inviting. There are moments where it seems as though the characters will raise the stakes and this will become a tragedy, but after an excellent set-up the story struggles to find any kind of resolution.

The actors however are uniformly excellent in the piece, giving a suite of mature and polished performances. Kat Bramston's Caroline is giddy, changeable and gleeful, contrasting with Frances McNair's sturdier but painfully hungry Ellie. Hayden Crosweller as Christopher is handsome but unlikeable, an entitled creep who comes close to being the villain. Katherine Berry is the trendy love object glimpsed from afar, but when she has private moments she also shows us the real person who has been roped into Ellie's fantasies.

This is a musical, but one strongly influenced by burlesque - one of the numbers is even a variation on the iconic chair dance. Clothes are donned, but they rarely stay on for long in Miriam Slater's sexually charged choreography. Particularly in the first act, it does feel like a burlesque night, with the unusually attractive cast celebrating their bodies in a series of numbers on the joy of sex. Lucy Matthews' original music is also strong, with vivid tunes giving each song its own identity.

The Last Time is a well-toned lover who sets the mood perfectly and builds up your anticipation before ducking out just when things are getting good. The cast, choreography and music are all compelling, but the package is let down by a weak story that ambles to an unsatisfying finish. But it's still a great (and very sexy) ride, and an enviable debut production for Acoustic Theatre.


Written and composed by Lucy Matthews
Co-directed by Lucy Matthews and Miriam Slater
Acoustic Theatre production in association with Shadow House Pits
Belconnen Arts Centre to 31 January

Review by Len Power 28 January 2016

Lucy Matthews’ play, ‘The Last Time’, focuses on the relationships between four young people and their need for love and the modern day issues that get in the way of it.  For a young audience member, the characters will be instantly recognizable.  Older audience members will find themselves comparing these people’s experiences with their own when young in a very different world to today’s.

Lucy Matthews has written very real characters who are played with great confidence and skill by her young cast who also sing well.  Frances McNair gives a fine performance throughout the show and her strong singing is particularly stylish.  Hayden Crosweller scores as a young man who can’t make his mind up between sex and love and Kat Bramston nicely plays the confusion of emotions in her relationships between very different friends.  Katherine Berry plays the coolest character of the four with great assurance.

The band-leader, in ‘Cabaret’-like Master Of Ceremonies makeup, is a strong presence in the show and is hauntingly played and sung by Samuel Gordon Bruce.  The music by Lucy Matthews is pleasant but a bit generic.  There are some good lyrics but some are jarring to the ear and need refining.  The band plays the score well but some of the drumming swamps the singers’ voices.

The script needs some cutting, particularly in the second act where the squabbling of the characters becomes more soap opera than good drama.  The show has been well-directed in the round and has fine lighting by Edge Sound And Lighting.  Overall, Lucy Matthews has produced a startlingly strong, at times confronting musical, which is also very enjoyable.

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition 29 January.  Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM’s ‘Artcetera’ program from 9am Saturdays.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Review © by Jane Freebury

It’s good to be reminded of why we said goodbye to all that in the 1950s. When advertising had women appear in high heels and tailored dresses to sell washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and the term gender equality scarcely existed. Although the decade is a byword for repression in western culture, it must have been more complex than that during the time that saw the birth of rock’n’roll.

So director Todd Haynes is on the money in his new movie, exploring the churn beneath the surface when homosexual relations were illegal. In this story based on Patricia Highsmith's novel of 1952, two women embark on an affair but social expectations eventually cruel their happiness and fulfilment.

The women are so different, but both are cool on marriage. Carol (Cate Blanchett), is an aloof wealthy woman who is divorcing her husband, and young Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store sales clerk, not at all sure about accepting her boyfriend's proposal and without much clue yet about what she wants. In their different ways, resisting or escaping, they are pushing back on marriage.

As an openly gay man, Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There.) would be interested in the climate that led to today’s gay rights movements and perhaps also not entirely disinterested, as he showed in Far From Heaven, in observing the fractures and contradictions of heterosexual partnerships. With this tale of a love that once dared not speak its name, how well has he managed?

Great choice of actors. Mara, without a hint of the oomph on display in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a resolutely demure, doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn type. Blanchett, who confirmed in I'm Not There she can do anything, plays it cool and predatory and not hugely sympathetic. With a bit too much posturing and hair flicking in the mode of Hollywood's great screen vamps, I think. And, as if the red talons didn't make the point already, there is a brief and distracting clip of Gloria Swanson, the ultimate aging vamp in Sunset Boulevard.

The women's eyes meet across a busy toy department. Does anyone think of sex at Christmas shopping for their kids? Anyway, so begins the long journey towards each other, before they take off on the road and finally sleep together. As need and commitment see-saws between them, choices inevitably have to be made. It is of course a timeless love story.

The romance is expressed in the most beautiful cinematic language, and on celluloid too, it's worth noting. So gorgeous that it is easy to be diverted by the 'look' created by cinematographer Ed Lachman. The images float past as the camera rounds the curve of marble on the corner of a building, as it swoons before Carol's mink coat and red cloche outfit and that draped chocolate brown number. And there are exquisite long shots of Carol and Therese reflected in mirrors and framed through windows and doors as they meet in public spaces.

We are in for the slow burn but there’s plenty of time. A contemporary director for once in no hurry to get his two romantic leads into bed together. That’s OK, and true to the times for all I know, but it doesn't explain why this romantic liaison has so little tension and passionate urgency about it. Desire just hasn't found compelling expression here.  The cowboy lovers in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain were so much more convincing.

Why so? We know that Blanchett and Mara, are totally marvellous. All that attention to period detail and the glories of celluloid (Carol was shot on super 16 mm) and self-conscious cinematic awareness but the actors seem smothered by those exquisite surfaces, or the direction, and unable to throw themselves into their roles. It's a very beautiful and delicate, but somewhat suffocating experience.

3.5 Stars