Monday, March 2, 2015

Hex by James Welsby

Hex   Dance choreographed and directed by James Welsby; Lighting Design: Rose Connors Dance; Sound Design: Claudio Tocco; Costume Design: Bryn Meredith; Production Manager: Jennifer Spiers.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, March 1, 2015.

Performed by James Andrews, Chafia Brooks and James Welsby.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 1

Hex is a dance work fit for its purpose, and with implications beyond its immediate narrative.  This was the final performance on tour to most major cities in Australia, but I suggest that its life should not yet be over.

I could call this work “D-ocumentary”, or Documentary Dance, to distinguish it from the kind of Dance Theatre I have reviewed in recent times from companies like Force Majeure (Nothing to Lose on this blog January 23, 2015).  Hex has a socially relevant theme, but adds a historical narrative – about the effect of the AIDS virus on the gay community from the days of the Grim Reaper television campaign to the present. 

James Welsby’s concern is that the younger generation are showing signs of apathy as management treatments seem to stave off the worst effects – like dying young in dreadful agony – and because they are not made aware of how it was in the 1980s.

Though I am not part of the gay community, I am aware of the horror of undeserved death from that time, as a young haemophiliac friend of the family unwittingly received the virus in a blood transfusion, in 1984, just before the Red Cross were alerted to the risk.

The history is in the form of imagery created in movement and sound, representing the stages of the story as Welsby sees it, remembering that he was only just born in 1987 as the deaths were mounting. 

Beginning with a “gay disco” which is gay in both senses in its na├»vety and lack of foreboding, the days of angels, Welsby appears as the Grim Reaper, whose mask is hung above the action as a reminder while he leads us, via popular songs and dance styles, through the emotions of each development in the story.

These were the times of transmission, illness, partner-loss, extreme homophobia, protest and defiance.  The 50 minute piece ends with terribly mixed feelings.  In the audio, the left channel has Edith Piaf’s "Non, je ne regrette rien" mixed with current upbeat club dance music on the right, as if the DJ can’t be sure which way the crowd wants to go: be gay and forget, or gay without regret.

In the end, the Grim Reaper’s mask and scythe are brought to the centre and the decision made: though all is not perfect today, knowing what we know, it is time to break the Reaper’s scythe and claim some kind of victory.

I am not a trained dancer and so I was suitably impressed with the dancers’ flexibility and capacity for representing (not simply reproducing) such a range of dance styles.  In my past I was influenced by the movement concepts of Rudolph Laban, which are such a powerful base for creating imagery on stage, as if the interwined limbs of the dancers grow naturally into position.  For me a high point, among many, was the image of an “angel” or perhaps just an abstract figure of a higher spirit to reach out towards, created by placing Chafia Brooks as the still centre supporting shapes formed from the three dancers’ total of six arms placed graphically above and around her.  In this single image there was both strength and vulnerability.

At this point I saw this work as more than a story specific to gay people.  Theirs is a case in point and certainly should be told, but the meaning and feelings expressed so well in dance, go beyond the particular into the universal.  The Grim Reaper is an ancient fear for all of us, brought to our consciousness by such an awful auto-immune deficiency virus which causes AIDS – as much a dreadful disease still for gays and straights alike in countries where modern treatments are not provided as it was in Australia 30 years ago. 

For this reason I hope that the end of this season of Hex will not be the end of the life of this documentary dance work.  It is relevant to us all, now and in the future.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Angelique Kidjo with Grammy
In DRESS CIRCLE this week, Angelique Kidjo, direct from receiving her Grammy Award, talks to Bill Stephens about her award winning album “Eve” and about her forthcoming Australian tour. 
Jim McMullin 

Canberra Critic Circle Award winning director, Jim McMullin discusses his forthcoming production of “Evita” which he is directing for the Canberra Philharmonic Society. 

CAT Award-winning actress,Liz Bradley, discusses the play “Tuesdays with Morrie” which she is directing for the Queanbeyan Council and soon to be seen in the Q in Queanbeyan.

Liz Bradley 
In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, Tim Page will conclude his program of excerpts from his cabaret “The Bard on Broadway” in which, together with Peter J. Casey, he explores the Broadway musicals based on the works of William Shakespeare.
Tim Page 

90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news about the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, DRESS CIRCLE is produced and presented by Bill Stephens, and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm. It is repeated on Tuesday evenings from 11.30pm and streamed live on the internet at


Created by Yaron Lifschitz   -  Canberra Theatre Centre February 25 - 28

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Circa never fail to surprise. Just when you thought you have seen every circus trick imaginable, Circa come up with something new and surprising. Often classic circus tricks reworked and pushed beyond what you thought possible.

In “Circa Beyond” a troupe of 7 acrobats, 4 female and 3 male, ( 3 of whom are former Canberrans), hardly leave the stage for a moment of this 80 minute, high energy, presentation currently  touring Australia after an eight month season in Berlin.

The performance begins simply with a spot-lit hand beckoning through the main curtain. The hand is replaced by a leg, then a torso. The torso appears to struggle with the hand and leg, before the curtains open to reveal a dramatic black and red setting, on which the women, dressed in snappy black and white leotards, and the men in white shirts, rolled up chinos and grey waistcoats, fill the stage with astonishing acrobatics involving flying bodies, flying chairs, and possibly some animals, to the tune of “New York, New York”. On the last note of the music the mayhem finishes in a tableau with the whole cast surprisingly wearing huge rabbit heads.

The following act, performed to the Johnny Mathis version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” involves a rubic cube being passed around among the cast as they perform complicated lifts, throws, and tumbles until the problem is solved on the last note of the song.

Each imaginative segment segues seamlessly into the next, punctuated by ripples of appreciative applause. Each is choreographed to the split-second and brilliantly performed. The rabbit heads are woven through the show, as are stylised animalistic movements and routines involving silks, straps, trapezes and Chinese poles, all designed to showcase the amazing strength,  extraordinary flexibility and indeed bravery of each performer.

Because the work is such an ensemble effort it would be unfair to single out a particular performer. All contribute brilliance equally and their names are Robbie Curtis, Rowan Heydon-White, Bridie Hooper, Kathryn O’Keefe, Paul O’Keefe, Skip Walker and Billie Wilson-Coffey.

The overall effect is surreal, tantalising, and occasionally bizarre. It is also constantly entertaining, mesmerising and memorable.  Those looking for hidden meanings will find themselves tantalised, while those seeking only to be entertained will not be disappointed. “Circa Beyond” is a brilliantly packaged demonstration of extraordinary circus skills.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Judi Crane
Canberra Rep, Theatre 3
February 20 - 7 March, 2015

Review by Len Power

Oscar Wilde’s, ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’, is the most well-known of his string of comedies written in the 1890s.  Judi Crane’s entertaining new production for Canberra Rep captures the spirit of the play very well.

To be successful, the play needs skilled performers who can play the intent of a line which often differs from what is actually being said.  For the most part, the performers in this production get it right.  Miles Thompson is outstanding as the young Algernon Moncrieff.  His stylish playing never falters and his delivery of some of Wilde’s best lines is excellent.  Karen Vickery gives a strong performance as Lady Bracknell.  She is formidable, as expected, but the actress adds an unexpected playfulness to her character which works extremely well.  Kayleigh Brewster gives a finely mannered performance as Gwendolyn and Jordan Best is almost unrecognizable in her delightfully funny performance as Miss Prism.  The other players give nicely judged performances, although Michael Miller as the butler, Merriman, overplays to the point of caricature.
From Left: Kayleigh Brewster (Gwendolyn), Miles Thompson (Algernon), Jessica Symonds (Cecily) and Karen Vickery (Lady Bracknell) - photo by Helen Musa
The play requires three settings.  Set designer, Michael Sparks, has opted for simplicity with essentially the same set re-dressed for each scene.  His design for the garden scene was the least successful, looking like another interior room.  Costumes by Heather Spong were nicely in period.  The women’s hats were well- designed by Helen Drum but those worn by Karen Vickery had a tendency to shade the actress’s eyes.

Overall, Judi Crane has delivered a fine production of this now classic play.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 21 February 2015 and broadcast on Bill Stephens’ ‘Dress Circle’ program on Artsound FM from 5pm Sunday22 February 2015.


James Welby 
 In DRESS CIRCLE this week dancer/choreographer, James Welby explains how his new work “Hex”, soon to be seen in the Street Theatre, explores the topic of growing up in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.

Tom Sharah 
“I Will Survive” finalist, Tom Sharah, talks about his new show “Boys in the Band” which is coming to the Canberra Theatre.

Chris Abrahams - The Necks 

Bill Stephens also talks to Chris Abrahams of The Necks, and Yaron Lifschitz, Artistic Director of Circa.

In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, actor and writer, Tim Page, together with Peter J. Casey, explores the Broadway musicals inspired by the works of William Shakespeare, in excerpts from his cabaret “Bard a la Broadway”.

Tim Page 
As well, Len Power reviews “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Isobel Griffin presents “Arts Diary” and our resident poet, Blue the Shearer muses on “Repetition”.
90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news focussed on the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, DRESS CIRCLE is produced and presented by Bill Stephens and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm, repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm, and streamed live on the internet at

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams.  Directed by Kip Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House, the Drama Theatre, February 13 - March 21, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 21

The play about whether Catherine needs brain surgery because she ‘babbles’, or is the only one who knows the truth, is one of Tennessee Williams’ enduring works for theatre.  In his own time he experimented with staging techniques, famously in The Glass Menagerie where Tom at times removes himself from the action and becomes a narrator, while text signs remind us of people’s misconceptions – such as the hopeful “Blue Roses” for the ill-health condition ‘pleurosis’.

Kip Williams, perhaps channelling his namesake, has taken this production of Suddenly Last Summer far beyond the standard Brechtian distancing approach into the modern world of live video – and has done a brilliant job with his design team, Alice Babidge (Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting), Stefan Gregory (Composer and Sound) and Shane Johnson (Audio-Visual Consultant).

For many years I have found myself critical of the use of multi-media as it became de rigeur – often being used as an unnecessary adjunct to the drama, merely because it had become the fashion.  This production proves that media on stage has grown up at last from its very early days (even back as far as Erwin Piscator’s political theatre in 1920s Germany).

An underlying but crucial theme of Suddenly Last Summer is revealed when the young woman under attack from her aunt, her mother, her brother, her nurse from St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital, and, she suspects, from the specialist doctor who must decide if she should have a lobotomy, bursts out that she knows she is ‘being watched’.  Here’s a theme which, of course, has nowadays become a major political issue called ‘privacy’, and we all feel the threat of ‘surveillance’.

Using live video in this production, everyone on stage is being watched – by us, in exquisite close-up when we need to see exactly how a character is feeling, or to judge a character’s motivation.  Combined with a full-stage revolve, we are able to see every nuance throughout the extensive semi-tropical, almost primeval, garden in a way that would normally be impossible in a large conventional proscenium theatre. 

In fact, for perhaps the first time in my experience, the far too wide letter-box shape of the Drama Theatre stage has been used to the advantage of the play.

The result is absolutely rivetting.  Whatever we might think of the psychological ideas of Tennessee Williams’ era, which this play criticises in any case, the technique used by Kip Williams exposes the awful attitudes and destructive behaviours of Sebastian Venable (Brandon McClelland), his mother Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin), his dead father’s sister Grace Holly (Susan Prior), and his cousins George Holly (also Brandon McClelland) and the central young woman Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill).

Including Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (or ‘Sugar’ in translation), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill, the whole cast expertly worked in both stage and film method.  The only (minor) technical fault was that the good doctor’s mic lead showed above his collar in shots from behind. 

If any special praise should be given, beyond the high praise all deserved, it has to be for Eryn Jean Norvill’s tour de force as Catherine.  Her performance, and the whole production, should be watched for its clarity of purpose on the part of the Sydney Theatre team and of the author, Tennessee Williams.  And, as usual, the STC program is a very worthwhile read in itself.

Grace Holly (Susan Prior), her son George Holly (Brandon McClelland) and her daughter Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)
 All photos by Brett Boardman
Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (watching live on screen), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill with Robyn Nevin as Violet Venable

Two views of Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin)

Violet Venable (Rovyn Nevin) being watched by Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill) on live camera

Three perspectives on Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Catherine Holly in a different mood (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Violet Venable and Miss Foxhill (Robyn Nevin and Melita Jurisic)

Watching as Catherine tells the truth:
Melita Jurisic, Susan Prior and Paula Arundell as Miss Foxhill, Grace Holly and Sister Felicity
with Robyn Nevin (foreground) as Violet Venable

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui

Illustration by Julian Meagher

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui.  Directed by Anthea Williams; set designer, Ralph Myers; lighting by Katie Sfetkidis; costumes, Mel Page; dramaturg, Jada Alberts.  Indigenous theatre at Belvoir, suppported by The Balnaves Foundation at Belvoir Upstairs, February 18 – March 8, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

Author: Nakkiah Lui

Kill the Messenger is a great little play, and a different play.  It is a modern play.  As I left the theatre, I was confronted by the vociferous excitable melee of Friday night revellers bunched around the restaurants in Elizabeth Street, and wondered what world I was in.  This was not where I had been for the previous hour and a half.

Great big plays of the past, let’s say by Sophocles or Shakespeare, were set in another time and/or place.  For the characters, the story might be personal, but the audience knew that after the emotional engagement, their task was to interpret the author’s intention.  What does Oedipus’ tragic unwitting mistake in marrying his mother tell us about the human condition?  Are the gods worthy of our continuing belief, or might not we be better off to forget them?  How does the ex-king’s son, Hamlet, deal with his uncle’s perfidy?  Is the play in 1604 a warning not to continue to rely on the honesty and propriety of the new King of England, James the First (also James the Sixth of Scotland).

We may look back on these plays and see how the ancient Greeks took the first steps which established the scientific method, without the need to believe in gods, and how the next King of England, Charles the First, was killed in 1649, and how the Commonwealth Parliament ran without a king for 11 years, establishing the principle that the Parliament would choose who would be King for evermore.

Nakkiah Lui has set her play in her time and place: St Marys in Western Sydney where her Nanna fell through the white-ant rotten floor of 37 Griffith Street, owned but never maintained by HFA – Housing for Aborigines – despite years of complaints.

Nakkiah Lui (Nanna on screen)

On the screens which are the backdrop we see the photos of Nakkiah’s family, including herself as a child and Nanna, bright, alive, and later near the death caused by the fall.  The time is recent: perhaps it was only yesterday when the phone call came from the hospital, or when Paul hanged himself in the park nearby because the Emergency Department had to make him wait while other more urgent lives were saved – or not, as the case may be.  Nakkiah did not know Paul but had to write his story.  Did she meet him in the park?  If she had, could she have changed his story?

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul

The modern play is immediate, in the here and now.  Unlike the authors Sophocles and Shakespeare, Nakkiah Lui is on stage.  For us, watching, she becomes a character in her own life, frightened even that we, observing from a certain distance, may not appreciate, like, understand her play.  Off stage, Sophocles and Shakespeare surely had the same fears.   On stage last night, at curtain call, in the centre of the line of actors, Lui’s fear was palpable.  This is extreme risk-taking.

Nakkiah Lui

But she needn’t be afraid.  She has written a great work, even if not on the grand scale.  Our engagement in the emotions of the characters, including the author herself, inevitably embraces us, urging us on to understand her intention.  Beyond the question of why are Aboriginal people still treated as beneath rather than of equal standing to others, is the more frightening concern.  Is life truly out of our control?  Are we kidding ourselves?  Like Nakkiah, we write our stories of our lives as if things make sense, as if there is some sort of order in our universe.  But at curtain call we must face up to the possibility that we cannot understand the what and why of life.

Shakespeare, perhaps seeing himself in Prospero, came to this point in The Tempest.  Lui has proved that she, a Gamilaroi / Torres Strait Islander, stands equal among her playwriting peers.

The performances and direction of this production are exemplary, and must provide Lui with a great sense of support.  Each part requires emotional expression of sensitivity and guts, in a structure of short scenes, and each actor – Matthew Backer (the ER nurse Alex), Katie Beckett (Paul’s sister Harley), Sam O’Sullivan (Peter, Nakkiah’s boyfriend and confidant), Lasarus Ratuere (Paul) and Nakkiah Lui as herself – has created an instantly real character.  Their work, under Anthea Williams’ precise direction, draws us into a weird experience where the borderline between what might or might not be fiction or fact keeps shifting, like those metaphorical goalposts.

The result is outstanding and should not be missed.  But give yourself a little time outside afterwards to adjust.

It’s important to realise that Nakkiah Lui is writing within a new tradition of Indigenous playwriting, presented on our mainstages.  Belvoir and The Balnaves Foundation have been crucial to this development.

Two plays earlier in this tradition are the Noongar story of Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar, 2008 (in association with Malthouse, Melbourne) and Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland, 2003, both directed by Wesley Enoch at Belvoir.  My reviews of these plays were published in the Canberra Times and can also be found on my personal blog at .

The script of Kill the Messenger is also published by Currency Press, 2015.

Nakkiah Lui as Author with Sam O'Sullivan as boyfriend and confidant Peter

Paul in the Park
(Lasarus Ratuere)

Matthew Backer as Alex

Katie Beckett as Harley
Lasarus Ratuere and Katie Beckett

Mathew Backer and Katie Beckett

All photos by Brett Boardman