Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

L to R: Yalin Ozucelik (John Worthing J.P.), Rory Walker (Rev Chasuble), Lucy Fry (Cecily Cardew),
Anna Steen (Hon.Gwendolen Fairfax), Nancye Hayes (Lady Bracknell), Nathan O'Keefe (Algernon Moncrieff).
Off stage: Caroline Mignone (Miss Prism)

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.  State Theatre Company of South Australia, directed by Geordie Brookman.  Designer: Ailsa Paterson; Lighting: Gavin Norris; Composer: Stuart Day; Hair, Make-up and Wardrobe: Jana DeBiasi.  At Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, August 18-23, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 19

An enjoyable, if conventional, production of Wilde’s highly amusing comedy of manners, this production stands out for the stage design and a clever approach to stylising the acting.

The set, made by the Company’s workshop for touring, has its own circular curtain which defines the acting space for whatever stage the performers find themselves on.  It’s simple in concept but, with a minimum of props, furniture and suspended lights, and sections of curtain with different decoration, the mood, location of the scenes and the historical period are quickly and smoothly suggested as the butler draws the curtain around.

As the design takes us out of the convention of a naturalistic box set, it follows that the acting includes choreographed movement which takes on a life of its own.  The humour of the play is already built in to Wilde’s one-liners and highly unlikely plot, while, under this director and I suspect his assistant director Yasmin Gurreeboo,  physical actions are used to define each of the characters and how they relate to the others, adding substantially to the comedy.  Perhaps for the first time I was able to see Wilde’s work in the context of English absurdism, which for me goes back to Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel Tristram Shandy and on through the university traditions which spawned shows like The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I could almost see John Cleese’s funny walks and Faulty Towers in the making.

Instead of finding myself wondering if Wilde should be compared with his more or less contemporary Bernard Shaw, this production made it clear that Earnest is nearer to farce than Shaw’s comedies of social analysis, and that this is not a bad thing.  The basic structure of the play is not too far from a Feydeau farce, though Wilde’s servant class do not much more than roll their eyes at their ‘betters’, rather than undermine them.  Wilde focusses on and exposes the human foibles of the upper class without pontificating.  The fun of doing this is what has kept this play alive well into its second century, even in ‘classless’ Australia.  We may not have too many real Lady Bracknells in Canberra, but we surely have plenty of micro-managerial operators, and plenty of young people falling in love with superficial features in the opposite sex and bonding or arguing immediately they meet with others of the same sex.

The performers – Nancye Hayes (Lady Bracknell), Lucy Fry (Cecily Cardew), Nathan O’Keefe (Algernon Moncrieff), Yalin Ozucelik (John Worthing), Anna Steen (Gwendolen Fairfax), Caroline Mignone (Miss Prism) and Rory Walker (butlers Lane and Merriman, and Rev Chasuble) – were all up to the professional mark required, as we expect nowadays from the mainstage companies, both as individuals and as a close-knit ensemble.  The result was a very satisfying presentation of a favourite English classic.

Saturday, August 16, 2014



Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company and UBS. Sydney Theatre Company Mainstage. July 21- September 27.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth.

Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth. Hugo Weaving as Macbeth

While watching director, Kip Williams’s highly original staging of Shakespeare’s prophetic warning of the tragic consequences of “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” I was reminded of Cassius’s words to Brutus in “Julius Caesar” : How many times shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er in states unknown and kingdoms yet unborn?”

Williams is obviously cognisant of how well-known is the dramatic tale of Macbeth’s fearful fall from grace; how familiar the text with its plethora of instantly identifiable soliloqies. His production unabashedly strives to jolt his audience into disconcerted attention, thrusting them from their complacent comfort zone and challenging them to sit in judgement of the unfolding tale. Narrow and largely uncomfortable tiered seating on the mainstage rises from the reduced performance space with the vast auditorium behind. To display his own inversion of his usual directrorial and storytelling practice, Williams also inverts the audience and his actors. Already, such brazen assault upon the Mainhouse convention demands an altered perspective on the action.

To take it even further, only eight actors play out the swelling scene, at first seated about a long table and allowing Shakespeare’s imagistic text to tell the bloody story of a brave and honourable soldier who, at his ambitious wife’s urging, murders his noble king, Duncan ,played with gracious gentility by John Gaden, and sets about a train of events that will inevitably lead to his terrible doom. Only Hugo Weaving, bestriding the narrow stage like a colossus, plays the solitary, titanic role of Macbeth, while the remaining seven performers assume witches, apparitions, soldiers and murderers and the principal characters of the tragedy.
 Eden Falk as Malcolm. John Gaden as Duncan
Williams’s idiosyncratic minimalism continues through designer, Alice Babidge’s random costuming from T shirts and jeans to ermine and fur to Eden Falk’s Malcolm in doublet and hose, pantaloon and ruff to draw us back to the Elizabethan stage. If nothing, Williams’s production is consistent in its inconsistency. It is to the credit of the cast and production team that Shakespeare’s irony and ambiguity, cloaked in the contradiction of antithesis drives the powerful narrative through the text. Voice and text coach, CHarmian Gradwell  has tutored her actors well. Only Paula Arundell’s Banquo speaks the speech trippingoverly on the tongue, thus diminishing Banquo’s soldierly stature. She rises more effectively to the occasion during the horrific slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son.

Williams restrains theatrical effect throughout the exposition, preferring minimalism and storytelling to excessive theatricality.  After Duncan’s assassination the full impact of the horrendous deed is heightened by Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Max Lyandvert’s soaring composition and sound. Dry ice shrouds the stage to draw an audience towards the “dunnest smoke of hell” following the heinous deed. Banquo’s fearful flight from fate into the knives of his murderers takes place in the auditorium as does the news of the slaughter of Macduff’s family. Strobe flashes across Macbeth’s swordfight and snow seems to cascade upon the battlefield as the tyrant is drawn towards his inevitable fate.

Throughout, Weaving’s Macbeth is a man possessed and obsessed. Melita Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth may act the catalyst, but Weaving’s noble hero corrupts at the prophesy of the witches and the sheer power of his performance gives full credence to his total usurping of the role of protagonist, allowing Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth to play the fragile strains of neurosis from the outset and cast her fateful trajectory towards the vale of insanity. Her twisted, tormented sleepwalking soliloquy reveals a more fragmented spirit as her feet turn upon a spot upon the floor. Here is utter degradation, lending plausibility to her impending death.  Hers is one of Shakepeare’s most challenging and elusive female roles and Jurisic makes it entirely her own, eliciting some sympathy for the woman whose loyalty and devotion sealed her irrevocable demise.

But it is Weaving’s Macbeth that towers above all expectation. His performance is riveting, charging inevitably towards utter degradation and defeat as he crawls in contorted agony to grasp the ankles of victorious Macduff, played with vocal authority and conviction by Kate Box. Williams’s decision to cast a mere eight actors may disturb conventional expectation, but it does create a strong ensemble, who serve Shakespeare’s simple plot with the storyteller’s art of engagement, mystery, suspense and resolution.
Eden Falk as Fleance. Paula Arundell as Banquo
Sydney Theatre Company’s Macbeth is a director’s playground, allowing Williams and his company to tell a familiar morality tale afresh. The universality of Shakespeare’s commentary on immoral ambition, fate and consequence gives licence to a contemporary staging of a story that will contain for all time the eternal nature of the human condition. This production tells it as it is, simply, truthfully and with powerful allegiance to Shakespeare’s mirror up to nature.

The production is not without controversy, but that is theatre’s function throughout the ages and this production is a full uninterrupted  two hours traffic upon the stage that seeks not to elicit empathy nor offer catharsis, but invites us all to witness and to judge the eternal battle between good and evil through one tragic hero’s fatal flaw.
Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth

All photographs by Brett Boardman




Friday, August 15, 2014


Nancye Hayes as Lady Bracknell 
 In DRESS CIRCLE this week, Nancye Hayes discusses her role as Lady Bracknell  in “The Importance of Earnest” opening in the Canberra Theatre Centre this week and Musical Director, Peter Tregear takes us behind the scenes of a new production of “L’Orfeo” which will premiere in Llewellyn Hall next Thursday.

Peter Tregear 

Tim Stephens has had another look at the Sydney production of the musical “Strictly Ballroom”. We’ll hear Tim’s review and talk to former Canberran, Daniel Edmonds about his experiences as the Musical Director of “Strictly Ballroom”.

Daniel Edmonds 
Kate Peters and Judy Burnett perform excerpts from their cabaret "Together At Last" in the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, Isobel Griffin presents “Arts Diary” and Blue the Shearer has something to say about Team Australia.

Kate Peters and Judy Burnett

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 and repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm. It is also streamed live on the internet at

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tartuffe, the Hypocrite by Molière. A new version by Justin Fleming.


Sketches by Anna Cordingley
 Photos: Lisa Tomasetti
                    L to R: Robert Jago (Cléante), Kate Mulvaney Dorine), Helen Dallimore (Elmire), Charlie Garber (Damis), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Jennifer Hagan (Madame Pernelle)



Sean O'Shea (Orgon), Geraldine Hakewill (Mariane), Kate Mulvaney (Dorine)

Tartuffe, the Hypocrite by Molière.  A new version by Justin Fleming, directed by Peter Evans.  Designer: Anna Cordingley; Lighting: Paul Jackson; Composer: Kelly Ryall; Movement: Scott Witt.  Bell Shakespeare, Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, July 26 – August 23, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 13

In the light of recent developments, where a politician appears to have special relations with Chaser dogs, cartoons are defended by Leaks and Popes, and bigots are politically correct (or very nearly), Molière’s introduction to his 1664-69 play Tartuffe should bring a smile to all our two-faces: If the function of comedy is to correct men’s vices, I do not see why any should be exempt...  It is a vigorous blow to vices to expose them to public laughter.

The very public laughter from the mixed matinee audience when I saw the show, in the company of a never cross section of a model modern audience – from teenage school groups to staid ancients like me – proved the author’s point magnificently.  But when you consider that Molière’s central character appears as a pillar of the Church, deliberately using his position for his own personal satisfaction – sexual and financial – then it may not be long before we see writer Justin Fleming, director Peter Evans and even the institution of Bell Shakespeare itself brought before a certain Royal Commission for Institutional Perversion of Youth.

After all, that’s what happened to Molière, to quote from Melissa Lesnie’s most informative article published in the Program: By the time the final, heavily revised version of Molière’s most controversial comédie made it to the boards in 1669, the playwright’s name would be forever tied up with Tartuffe’s, linked with anti-clerical sentiment and what was deemed morally depraved theatre.  Schoolgirls and schoolboys in Catholic school uniforms (and some were there on Wednesday) beware: Fleming has written a new version which seems to me to reinstate everything sexual that the original author was forced to ‘heavily revise’.  It is not Tartuffe’s financial greed and gluttony which makes the play salacious and open to Church attack.  It’s his twisted and devious sexual demands that threaten his author.

Fleming, Evans and Bell are as brave in modern times as Molière was in his.  Whereas, Lesnie writes Paradoxically, in making the play more acceptable to religious dévots, Molière managed to transform it into a reactionary critique not only of hyprocisy, but also of the very censorship to which it was subjected, the Bell Shakespeare team have allowed themselves every modern licence, to the point where some of those schoolgirls’ reactions behind me made it very clear that they expected, excited in their trepidation,  that Tartuffe (Leon Ford) would actually expose Elmire’s private parts in the scene of his seduction exposé.  Fortunately Helen Dallimore maintained her privacy, in a very funny scene where she, now hidden from the audience on a huge turned-around sofa, apparently with no chance of escaping Tartuffe as Ford dropped his daks and leapt with amazing athleticism over the sofa’s back ... only to arise face to face with Orgon, Elmire’s husband, who is now finally disabused of Tartuffe’s manipulative ‘humility’.

It may be an old slapstick device, but it works.

It is, of course, the Maid Dorine, inevitably pronounced in Australian as ‘Doreen’, with the blunt wit of the old commedia traditional servant, who runs rings around the stupidities of the upper-class men.  Here’s her description of Tartuffe:

True, it is something altogether scandalous
A stranger in the house with no idea how to handle us;
He arrives with no shoes, his clothes not worth a cracker,
No sooner in the door, than he starts to wag his clacker.

At once you can see what Fleming is doing – taking the original French and turning it into racy rhyming English.  Kate Mulvaney’s Dorine has a complete set of movement and gestures to go with her words that turns her into a very funny annoying bane of Sean O’Shea’s Orgon’s life, as he does all he can to maintain control of his wayward family.  But Dorine is not just wonderfully funny: without her perspicacity, Tartuffe would have had his way without real opposition.

Yet Fleming is actually doing far more with the language than meets the ear and eye.  He’s a serious classics academic, no less.  (He will now sue me under Section 18C for ‘insulting’ him!)  But there it is: the rhyming patterns are as complex as anything Shakespeare wrote, while the choice of words is as bawdy as in Aristophenes’ Lysistrata.  I think, in precise Australian (watch for the one about a man bringing his sausage, but the woman doesn’t have to cook his steak) Fleming has done what Molière would be proud of: shown that Tartuffe, written by a rouseabout bloke of the theatre, is a work of art of classic proportions, and an example to us all.

Everybody, from Jennifer Hagan’s overbearing grandmother figure as Madame Pernelle to the teenage lovers Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill) and Valère (Tom Hobbs) have the timing and the precision of movement and rhythm exactly right for a true comédie.

Finally, indeed at the very end, when it seems that Orgon has no way to recover his property from the nefarious Tartuffe (whose name, so Melissa Lesnie tells us, is derived from the Italian word for ‘that pungent fungus buried deep in the ground’: a truffle), Fleming comes up with his cleverest twist.  A figure rises from the depths to explain that only one person has the power to save Orgon, despite his foolishness.  In the original play, this figure is an official of the king, the name of whom is not mentioned but was Louis XIV.  It must have galled Molière to conclude his play by giving the king not only a sense of morality but also the ultimate say (unless he hoped his audience would see through his rigidly smiling mask to the reality of political power). 

Referring to Tartuffe the official says:

Ce monarque, en un mot, a vers vous détesté
Sa lâche ingratitude et sa déloyauté

In Fleming’s version, it is not an autocratic king, however morally inclined, but the Author himself – also not named, but in other words Molière – who cannot allow perfidy to win the day.  What lesson indeed would we learn if hypocrisy rules?  So, it is the Author who reveals Tartuffe’s criminal past, who is horrified at his ingratitude and disloyalty, who forgives Orgon for his ineptitude, and tears up the contract he had signed passing all his estate over to Tartuffe, and sends Tartuffe and his odious agent down into what looks like a fiery hell.

The family – now rather like Pirandello’s six characters having found their author – are grateful not to the temporal power of a monarch but for the omnipotence of the artist and the power of art.

A great ending to a magnificent comedy.

Robert Jago, Charlie Garber, Geraldine Hakewill, Helen Dallimore, Kate Mulvaney

Leon Ford (Tartuffe), Helen Dallimore (Elmire)

"Jesus wants to be your friend"

Kate Mulvaney, Geraldine Hakewill, Tom Hobbs, Sean O'Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan, Robert Jago

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

What the audience sees

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth


The witches tell Macbeth that he cannot be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, nor by a man of woman born.  Chaos reigns behind him.

Kate Box, Robert Menzies, Hugo Weaving, Ivan Donato

Macduff, Banquo, Rosse, Malcolm, support King Duncan
Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies
Eden Falk, John Gaden

Melita Jurisic as Lady Macbeth, Hugo Weaving as Macbeth

Hugo Weaving
Eden Falk as Fleance, Paula Arundell as Banquo
are about to be attacked by Macbeth's thugs

Paula Arundell as Lady Macduff and Hugo Weaving as Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company: director, Kip Williams; designer, Alice Babidge; lighting designer, Nick Schlieper; composer and sound designer, Max Lyandvert.  At Sydney Theatre July 21 – September 27, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 12

This staging of Macbeth is brilliant but flawed.  Macbeth himself is brilliant but flawed: that’s why the play is a tragedy.  Hugo Weaving, who plays Macbeth, is brilliant, but not flawed.  Overall the production is not a tragedy, but rather like Macbeth’s character, it contains conflicting elements.

Shakespeare, as Weaving so magnificently demonstrates, gives us a clear and detailed understanding of the character who is determined to be king at any cost, and therefore believes what his witches and ghosts would have him believe.  Unable to recognise that these are the figments of his wishful thinking, not solid truths, the gap between the extremity of his actions and his underlying guilt widens until he is mentally torn apart.

This constitutes the brilliance of this production, where Weaving is thoroughly supported by all the ensemble of actors: Paula Arundell (Banquo / Lady Macduff); Kate Box (Macduff / Witch); Ivan Donato (Seyton / Witch); Eden Falk (Malcolm / Fleance / Apparition); John Gaden (Duncan / Old Man / Young Macduff / Apparition); Melita Jurisic (Lady Macbeth / Bloody Captain / Apparition); Robert Menzies (Witch / Rosse / Porter).

The cast list and their characters may give you some surprises, and some clue as to what I see as a flaw in the direction, which results in some design issues (though Alice Babidge creates some highly successful solutions).

The conceit (using the term as in John Donne’s poems, for the sake of some reference to Shakespeare’s period) seems to be that a group of actors have come together to explore the nature of this play, Macbeth.  For some reason unknown to those of us who have been invited to watch this improvisation / workshop, it happens that there are only eight actors, only three of whom are women.  It might be thought that, gender balance being an important concern in modern times, the parts might be passed around so that everyone has a fair go at significant roles.

Because we audience are backstage rather than frontstage, we find ourselves looking down onto an extended apron from temporary bleacher seats set up on the stage.  We are not comfortable.  It could be said to be true that I sat on the edge of my seat for two hours, but mostly not because of the emotional impact of the show.  It was to stop my circulation being cut off by the edge of the seat.

I thought for some time that this was a device to tell me that Macbeth is an unsettling play, but as time went along it was the quality of the acting by Hugo Weaving of Macbeth and Melita Jurisic of Lady Macbeth that told me this.  It was her mad scene and his response to her breakdown that made me forget that damn’d seat.

The point is that on the one hand we seemed to be watching actors acting a play – very Brechtian in concept I suppose – but in some scenes we seemed to watching a play as if it were ‘real’.  Our ‘distance’ was deliberately maintained until after Duncan’s murder (for example, as witches dunked their faces in a plastic bowl of water to represent their cauldron, or death was represented by splashing fake blood onto Duncan’s face, among many other such devices).  Then the acting area was engulfed in stage fog for the porter’s ‘knock, knock, knock, who’s there’ scene, as if the group of actors around the long table had been whisked away and we were now transported to Shakespeare’s mediaeval castle.

Of course, this illusion of reality was still surrounded by all the backstage lights, an impressive sound track, and the fake smoke, so the Brechtian insistence on us knowing we were watching a play was not broken.  But from then on we were switched on and off from one ‘reality’ – the actors’ improvisation around Shakespeare’s words, in rehearsal clothes with bits of costumes added where they thought necessary – to the other apparent reality of scenes like Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost, or persuading thugs to kill Banquo and Fleance, while at the end there was a weird mix of Macbeth with a hugely long sword being defeated by a female Macduff by her words and a splash of fake blood.

I had read in a newspaper interview that the placing of the audience on the stage, and the action taking place in the auditorium would be a ‘surprise’.  I suppose, as a one-time drama teacher and observer of theatre since the 1960s, I might be expected to not be surprised by such playing around with convention.  I certainly didn’t notice anyone else being surprised the night I saw the show.  Some laughed rather nervously as they had to ask others to stand on tiptoe so they could be squeezed past to get to seats, along rows set far too close for comfort.

For the convention of a play (Macbeth) within a play (of actors rehearsing or workshopping), looking down onto the apron with the empty seats in the auditorium rising on the other side, and some of the action being played among those seats, worked quite well.  Macduff and Malcolm were in England up in about Row J while Macbeth was pacing about in Scotland on the apron below them, where he had just killed Lady Macduff and her young son, played by the same John Gaden in modern casual dress who had recently been Duncan alive and dead, and later was an old man fearful for the future of Scotland.

But the breaking in and out of this convention, despite the power of the acting, left me unsettled.  Was I supposed to be focussing on, and being appreciative of the actors’ skills in clarifying Shakespeare’s text, which was certainly very well done; or was I supposed to be absorbed in the story and the interplay of Shakespeare’s characters, and the implications for life today (just as he was using past history to imply concerns about the abuse of power in his own day)?

In the end I have to conclude that this production of Macbeth is an interesting but not entirely original experiment.  For me the experimentation, though cleverly and skilfully done by the actors and designers, got in the way of the absorption in the drama, which I think was what Shakespeare was on about.

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth waiting for Macduff for the final battle

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Amanda Muggleton at Teatro Vivaldi
Musical Director: John Martin
8th and 9th August 2014.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
With its cosy theatrical ambiance, rich red walls resplendently decorated with gold-framed theatre posters and photographs, Teatro Vivaldi’s is one of Canberra’s most elegant and cherished entertainment venues.  
Since it was first established 10 years ago by Mark Santos and Anthony Hill, Teatro Vivaldi  has played host to some of the country’s best known cabaret performers, among them,  Amanda Muggleton and Dennis Olsen, who performed their show “Marvellous Party!” for the official opening of the venue in May 2004.
How fitting then, that 10 years on, Amanda Muggleton chose Teatro Vivaldi to launch her new solo cabaret “The Men That Got Away Thank God!” 

Intimate cabaret provides a wonderfully seductive medium for an experienced performer to showcase their talents. But it can also be riddled with booby-traps for the unwary, as Amanda Muggleton discovered on the opening night of her new show. Ideally cabaret is the opportunity to let the audience know more about the person behind the performer. Some have famously described it as turning around and discovering yourself naked in front of an audience.
 In the pre-publicity for her new cabaret “The Men Who Got Away – Thank God!” Muggleton promised that her show would be revealing. On opening night it certainly was, but not, one suspects, in the way she had intended.

Muggleton is a master communicator. She is widely admired for her ability to communicate with her audiences through her characterisations. This talent she has demonstrated over many  years,  in roles as widely varying as Maria Callas in “Master Class” , Bette Davis in “Me and Jezebel”,  and Dolly Levi  in “Hello Dolly”. Those who saw her stunningly revealing performances in “Steaming” and “Shirley Valentine” and most recently in “The Book Club” cherish the memory of these performances.  But of course, in all these she was playing characters, and although Muggleton is  no stranger to cabaret,  when here, stripped of the façade of a character,  her first performance of “The Men That Got Away – Thank God” at Teatro Vivaldi,  seemed surprisingly insecure.   
The show commenced promisingly, with Muggleton making a pensive entrance through the audience, dressed elegantly in a long black ensemble.  Eschewing a conventional microphone, she wore a head-mic. Her only stage props were a music-stand on which rested her script,(no doubt intended only as an aide memoire should she need a prompt) and a coat-stand draped with costumes.
Her opening song was a down-beat version of “The Man That Got Away” which segued into a section of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”. The lyrics for the latter, she read from the open script. She also appeared uncomfortable and hesitant with her connecting dialogue, referring to her script frequently, even though she had written it herself. Her famous bravado seemed to have deserted her.
As the show progressed reading from the script became the modus operandi, as if she couldn’t tear herself away from it , even for “Mad about the Boy”, which she must have sung literally dozens of times before.

The song selection was good.  Cole Porter’s “The Physician”, Tom Lehrer’s “The Masochistic Tango”, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”, Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon”, even Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” were included, as well as less familiar songs like “I Regret Everything” and “My Shattered Illusions”. All should have been highlights, but none had been sufficiently explored to discover how best to deliver the lyrics to serve the storyline, or indeed even survive her often strident delivery.  
Musical Director John Martin provided good-natured accompaniment on the baby grand. He sang gentle harmonies for “Something Stupid” and “Nature Boy”, contributed an excellent account of Chopin’s “Fantaisie Impromptu”, and joined Muggleton for a short piano duet.

The best moment in the show occurred in the second act when Muggleton spoke about her parents. For this section she abandoned the script and for the first time, allowed her obvious enthusiasm and affection for the topic full reign. In this moment we caught a glimpse of the private Amanda Muggleton, the doting, indulgent, loving and vulnerable daughter, usually hidden behind the polished façade of the witty, glamorous leading lady.  
There is much more to be discovered about Amanda Muggleton, a true professional, and a quick learner,  who will no doubt have learned a great deal from this uncomfortable first performance of “The Men Who Got Away – Thank God!”. One suspects that once she gets the full measure of the material, future audiences will be treated to a very different show. One which truly celebrates the talents of a leading lady of her stature.




Saturday, August 9, 2014

Take Me to Your Leader by Wesley Enoch

Take Me to Your Leader by Wesley Enoch.  Platform Papers No. 40, August 2014, published by Currency House, Sydney.

Commentary by Frank McKone
August 8

Wesley Enoch’s subtitle is The dilemma of cultural leadership.  Let me begin by pointing out that Wesley is a cultural leader in his own right.  He should be formally recognised.  We have the right government at this very moment to do this.

Just as in England we have Sir Paul McCartney et al, PM Tony Abbott can have His Excellency, General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) dub Sir Nick Cave, Dame Cate Blanchett and Sir Wesley Enoch, as well as all those others that Wesley nominates, including: “filmmaker Gillian Armstrong AM, novelist Thea Astley AO, novelist Rodney Hall, designer Jennifer Kee, ABC broadcaster Jill Kitson, Indigenous teacher and performer Michael Leslie, choreographer Graeme Murphy AM, cartoonist Bruce Petty, arts czar Leo Schofield AM and academic Peter Spearritt”.  This was the team that wrote “the first ever national cultural policy, called Creative Nation” for Paul Keating in 1994.

Among other “elders of the theatre [who] are often forgotten, thrown on the scrap heap of natural attrition and fashion [are] the rare few [who] seem to float above it all – Robyn Archer, John Bell, Wendy Blacklock, Carol Burns, Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Roger Hodgman, Liz Jones, Robyn Nevin, George Whaley; but for every person remembered there are untold casts of forgotten.”

But is this European style what Australian leadership is all about – a sort of cultural popularity contest where the monarch picks the winners?  Is it what this “Nunuccal Nuugi man from Stradbroke Island” really wants?  Is it appropriate?  At the risk of offending the Australian Indigenous “race” under Section 18C, this one-time £10 Pom says I don’t think so.

Nor does Wesley, of course.  He’s far more polite than Sir Paul McC, as I suspect are all those others Wesley mentions (though I’m not so sure about my suggestion, Sir Nick).

So let’s get down to the business of Enoch’s argument.  Talking of theatre, his artistic milieu, he claims essentially that the history of government support for the arts, largely through the Australia Council, has ended up undermining the creative energy which we saw taking the lead – despite lack of support – during the 1960s and 1970s.  “In the 1970s with the establishment of the Australia Council we saw the formalising of funding support and the growth of some kind of official culture.  Funding provided a framework within which to experiment and explore ideas that examined Australian life and reflect our own aspirations.  The question today is whether the idea of state-sanctioned culture has led to the taming and silencing of the rambunctious, dissenting mob that ruled our performing arts for over two centuries.  In the search for the approval of the public purse have we lost our wit and charm, the art of surviving through persuasion, our critical purpose and our taste for the popular?[Enoch’s emphasis]

In particular, Enoch notes, “After the stock market crash of the late 80s a new type of economic speak crept into the cultural language....We started to see papers on economic impact and multipliers, and we moved from an artistic community to an industry.”  In 1993, when the Drama Committee of the Australia Council, which included Wesley Enoch, divvied up the money according to the old criteria – diversity, gender representation, Indigenous arts, young people and Australian content, and the overarching ‘excellence’ – “All hell broke loose.”

The committee had found “that the larger theatre companies did not comply with the criteria.  Their lack of cultural diversity, gender representation and Australian content was very clear....Most of the large theatre companies received decreases in funding of around $500,000.  This freed up resources to support a range of other activities across the country.”

Then, writes Enoch, “The boards and artistic directors of the larger theatre companies went direct to government to have the Australia Council return the money that had been taken from them.  This was the beginning of the MOB (Major Organisations Board), an unfortunate acronym that soon changed to MPAB (Major Performing Arts Board).  This Board removed almost all artistic and cultural leadership criteria from the assessment of these privileged companies.”  Only “the overarching criterion of excellence remained unchallenged” and the “larger companies exited the general application process and the dollars they had been receiving from the Drama Committee went with them.”

Enoch sees cultural leadership as much more than putting on ‘excellent’ productions.  He writes, “Artists, by their very nature, are rogues and philosophers – instinctual, naughty, vibrant, edgy, fringe-dwellers who use their wits to survive in a world that pressures its citizens into many shades of conformity.”  And, in a brief reference to his own culture which I would love to know much more about, he states, “For thousands of years in this country there has been a balance between the sacred and the profane in performance.  Lewd, sexually explicit dances sat side by side with the most profoundly-felt ceremonies.”

So is there a way we can get back, at least to the kind of leadership we once had from another list of names: Jennifer Blocksidge, Rex Cramphorn, Jack Davis, Alma De Groen, Max Gillies, Louis Nowra, John Romeril, Stephen Sewell, Brian Syron, Rod Wissler and even the still popular David Williamson?  But, Enoch asks, “would a vocal critic like Stephen Sewell ever get produced on our mainstages these days?  Would any radical voice find access to the resources of the larger companies and if so under what conditions?  It is interesting to remember a time when Neil Armfield, Gale Edwards, Dorothy Hewett, Stephen Page, Geoffrey Rush, David Williamson, were radical and new and the systems that were in their infancy supported them to grow into national and international figures.”

I sense that in his conclusion, Wesley Enoch does not agree with previous Platform Papers contributors, Peter Tregear in Enlightenment or Entitlement and Julian Meyrick in The Retreat of our National Drama (reviewed on this blog February and May 2014 respectively).

Opposing Tregear, he writes “The apprenticeship is a long-established trade practice in other fields but has been abandoned by theatre and the responsibility surrendered to the tertiary education sector.  But the university structure, with its emphasis on academic excellence and compliance is an inappropriate place for a budding actor or entrepreneur to learn the practicalities and opportunities of theatre life.”

Enoch doesn’t mention Meyrick, but perhaps the two could meet in the foyer of Meyrick’s proposed National Theatre (which I proposed could be established in Canberra).  The National Theatre would be entirely focussed on producing new and classic Australian work, would not be a university institution, and would operate as a guild, with its practising performers, writers, directors, designers, technicians and managers mentoring apprentices in each field.

Productions by the National Theatre would not take place only in Canberra, of course.  The leadership it offers must be seen around the country.  The model I see for this in  today’s theatre world, perhaps, is the way Bell Shakespeare is based in Sydney, opens shows in other cities, tours, and offers both mainstage and educational productions.  We have some of the management structure already in place in Playing Australia.

All we need is someone like Wesley Enoch to be the artistic director.  Not Sir Wesley.  Just the Wesley from Stradbroke Island who writes “In Aboriginal society, I was taught, everyone dances and sings and paints and tells stories.  You have to, the arts are the way you understand the world.  If you don’t sing and paint and dance and tell stories you have no way of connecting with your family, your landscape, your history, your religion, your survival.  Everybody does it and understands the power of culture.”

And the Wesley Enoch who worried about accepting sponsorship from a sandmining company – the one which works on his traditional country, Stradbroke Island.  “On one hand the money could facilitate the project’s realization and enable its artists to reach their potential.  On the other, there are deep cultural and spiritual issues connected to the exploitation and extraction of the Land.  I talked with my father and other elders.  Their advice was to accept the money and use it to promote the stories, people and spiritual and cultural values that the project was attempting to celebrate.  I should also use what skills I had to speak up about the issues that were important to me.  So in the end I decided to accept the money of the sand mining company.”

The project was the play Black Diggers, reviewed on this blog January 19, 2014.

Enoch lays out his sponsorship options, saying “I don’t believe in such a thing as ‘clean money’.

1. Boycott or deny participation as artist or

2. Accept support from the sponsor; but at the same
time create a critical environment within the
work or in a discussion about the work that
promoted alternative views to those of the donor;

3. Adopt a ‘it has nothing to do with me I just
make the Art’ position.

He concludes:  “The only way to really promote debate is to be part of it; and to engage through your work.  That is why my preference is Option 2.”