Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Artist of the Year Award goes to “inspiring” Canberra cellist.

The 2010 Citynews Artist of the Year award has gone to cellist David Pereira.

Pereira was described as “inspiring” by special guest, Sydney theatre director Iain Sinclair, as he presented him with a cheque from Citynews to the value of $1000.

At the ceremony, hosted on Tuesday November 30 by the Canberra Critics Circle at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, he was also presented by David Williams on behalf of the Canberra Glassworks with a glass paperweight crafted by Benjaimin Edols.

Before coming to the Canberra School of Music in 1990, Pereira enjoyed an international career, playing as Principal Cellist with the Australia Ensemble, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After recovering from a serious illness, he has made his mark anew in Canberra and the region with the David Pereira Cello Series. He is a patron of the ACT Mental Health Foundation.

The Canberra Critics Circle Awards went to writers Kaaron Warren, Peter Stanley, Alan Gould; filmmaker Christian Doran; visual artists Jude Rae, Simon Maberley, T.J. Phillipson, Patsy Hely and curators Deborah Clark and Mark Van Veen; Dance artists QL2, Jackie Hallahan, Jacquelyn Richards; theatre artists Everyman Theatre, Boho Interactive, The Street Theatre, Jordan Best, Tony Turner, Louiza Blomfield and SUPA Productions & Phoenix Players; musicians Lucy Bermingham, David Pereira, Shortis & Simpson, Donal Baylor, Tobias Cole and The Street Theatre & the ANU School of Music.

Painter Ruth Waller was singled out by the Circle for her outstanding body of work and her strong advocacy of the visual arts.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance announced that the Green Room awards for professional productions went to sound artist Kimmo Vennonen and to the production of “When the Rain Stops Falling.”

The full list of Critics’ Circle members for 2010 is as follows:

Anne-Maree Britton . Margaret Pierce-Jolley . Samara Purnell . Jennifer Gall . Helen Musa . Ian McLean . Clinton White . Bill Stephens . Stella Wilkie . Malcolm Miller . Glenn Burns . Alanna Maclean . Joe Woodward . Wendy Brazil . Frank McKone . Peter Wilkins . Kerry-Anne Cousins . David Broker . Yolande Norris . Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak . Diana Kostyrko . Annika Harding . Meredith Hinchliffe . Gia Metherell . Cris Kennedy.

The full list of  Canberra Critics' Critics’ Circle citations for 2010 is below:

Presented to
Karron Warren
Her novel “Slights,” a work of horror fiction praised as “a deeply intense, disturbing read” that tells  of human despair.

Presented to
Peter Stanley
His non-fiction work “Bad Characters,” in which he tells the story of those Australian soldiers in the Great War who were not heroes. His account advances an understanding of who these men really were  and what war did to them.

Presented to
Alan Gould
“The Lakewoman,” a mysterious and compelling novel praised as a bold portrait of male decency and resilience.

Presented to
Christian Doran,
producing, writing, directing and editing “Broken,”   a tight, exciting thriller on the theme that every man has his breaking point. 

Visual Arts
Presented to
Jude Rae
her exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery. The strength of her painting and drawing can be found in the way it produces an emotive encounter and consequently private experience that is far greater than the sum of each piece’s individual parts.

Visual Arts
Presented to
Deborah Clark and Mark Van Veen
their virtuosic curatorial vision and realisation of the exhibition “Something in the Air: Collage and Assemblage in Canberra Region Art” for Canberra Museum and Gallery. 

Visual Arts
Presented to
Simon Maberley
his breakout exhibition New Works at ANCA gallery, applying his technical prowess and the tradition of vanitas to a collection of works that encompasses both the personal and political.

Visual Arts
Presented to
T.J. Phillipson
his solo exhibitions “Semblance” at PhotoAccess and “There is Fire Inside” at CCAS Manuka, presenting intelligent, innovative, resolved and at times self-deprecating artworks utilising photography, video and installation.

Visual Arts
Presented to
Patsy Hely
her exhibition “roundabout” at the Helen Maxwell Gallery last December. She decorated her fine porcelain ceramics with intimate glimpses of Canberra life that celebrated the more domestic aspect of life in the national capital that, unlike images of the national icons, speak to those of us who actually live here.

Visual Arts
Presented to
Ruth Waller
For her survey exhibition of works at Canberra Museum and Gallery, encompassing thirty years of her diverse painting practice. In the past twelve months she  has also presented solo exhibitions recent work at both Helen Maxwell Gallery in Canberra and Watters Gallery in Sydney.

Presented to
its contribution to youth dance in the ACT, particularly for its outstanding provision of opportunities for young dancers to work collaboratively with established artists and for its significant contribution to the nurturing of young male dancers.

Presented to
Jackie Hallahan
her contribution to dance in the region, and her 25th year at the Canberra Dance Development Centre.

Presented to
Jacquelyn  Richards
her outstanding choreography for The Queanbeyan Players production of “Fame.” Her exuberant routines successfully captured the youthful spirit of the show and were danced with confidence and enthusiasm by the whole cast.

Presented to
Everyman Theatre
its productions of “Richard III,”  “The Laramie Project” and “Musical of Musicals (the Musical),” which set high benchmarks for innovative production and performance.

Presented to
Boho Interactive
its original and innovative science theatre production at Belconnen Arts Centre  of “True Logic” and its continuing illumination of scientific theory and concept through imaginative theatrical performance.

Presented to
Jordan Best
her performance as Blanche DuBois in Free Rain Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which took on  a daringly unorthodox casting by director Fiona Atkins  to produced a portrayal of great power and fragility. 

Presented to
The Street Theatre
its very successful “Made in Canberra” season, which   provided strong support for local companies and individuals actors, writers, directors, designers  and stage technicians.

Presented to
Tony Turner
his  terrifying, moving performance as Big Daddy in Jordan Best’s production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for Free Rain Theatre.

Musical Theatre
Presented to
Louiza Blomfield 
outstanding performances in leading roles in several musicals during the year including “Musical of Musicals (the Musical),” “Spamalot” and “The Boy From Oz.”

Musical Theatre
Presented to
SUPA Productions and Phoenix Players 
their outstanding production of “Miss Saigon,” directed by Kelda McManus, which with limited resources cleverly succeeded in capturing the sweep and drama of a difficult and demanding musical.

Presented to
Tobias Cole
For his outstanding contribution to music-making in Canberra, as both Choral Director with the Oriana Chorale and the University of Canberra Chorale, and soloist singer in several major Canberra musical events including the Canberra International Music Festival and the Hughes Festival of Music.

Presented to
Lucy Bermingham  
her unflagging and outstanding contribution to musical life in Canberra as a composer, performer, musical director and accompanist.

Presented to
David Pereira 
Making his mark on music in Canberra and the immediate region with his cello-focused David Pereira Cello Series, which  demonstrated  his ability to interpret different compositional styles; and for his encouragement of  young associate artists which stamps him as an outstanding figure in the Canberra arts scene.

Presented to
Shortis & Simpson  
their production of “Tin Pan Aussie.” A cleverly conceived entertainment devised by John Shortis  and performed by himself, Moya Simpson, Peter J. Casey, Dave O’Neill, Ian Blake and Jon Jones, it explored the history of early Australian popular song-writing.

Presented to
The Street Theatre and the ANU School of Music
Geoffrey Lancaster and Caroline Stacey’s production of “Dido and Aeneas” which breathed new life into the famous work by staging the opera in a contemporary street-culture setting.

Presented to
Donal Baylor
his fine performances as a blue-grass and Western Swing musician, including his 2010 appearance at the National Folk Festival Canberra which demonstrated his versatility, dazzling technique and warm musical relationships with those on stage.
List ends

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov.

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov.  Adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Tamás Ascher.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre, November 9 – December 23, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

November 24

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

Despite the success of the first production by Moscow Art Theatre of Uncle Vanya in 1899, I like to imagine that Konstantin Stanislavsky was troubled.  He had not wanted to play the role of the doctor, Mihail Lvovich Astrov “for I had always dreamt of another part – the title role.  But [director] Vladimir Ivanovich managed to break my will and even got me to like Astrov.”

In Ascher’s production, I think Stanislavski’s troubles are over.  Considering he died in 1938, you may think it’s a bit late.  But there’s 111 years of theatrical history behind Ascher’s and Upton’s work, and it shows to perfection in the performances of top-class actors Hugo Weaving (today’s Astrov), Richard Roxburgh (Vanya), Cate Blanchett (Yelena), Hayley McElhinney (Sonya), John Bell (Serebryakov), Jacki Weaver (Nanny), Sandy Gore (Maria), Anthony Phelan (Telegin) and Andrew Tighe (Labourer).

Stanislavski also directed Chekov’s works and in the 1920s and 30s focussed on training actors to perform ‘naturalism’.  His work was the key to making the break from melodrama to the form of drama the 20th Century needed.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone got his ‘system’ right.  I think we were lucky in Australia, from the time of the early NIDA classes and Hayes Gordon, to eschew the ‘American Method’ of Lee Strasbourg. 

Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya   
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

Australians, being perhaps less sentimental than Americans, knew that when Stanislavski said act ‘as if’ you were the character, he never meant ‘become’ the character.  This cast, with this director, backed by their Australian training and experience, demonstrated exactly what Stanislavski meant.  I suspect, too, they also ‘got’ Chekov better than Stanislavski himself had achieved in 1899.

The clue is the fun in this presentation.  Here is the humourist Chekov we know from his short stories and plays like The Proposal.  Weaving skips and even Russian dances about the stage.  Roxburgh swings and sways from gloom to fury, from lust to murderous intent.  The two of them reminded me of Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Roger Rees (Vladimir) in the recent production of Waiting for Godot – the same understanding of the absurdity of the social condition.

One might imagine that the young wife of the old fart professor, so imbued in boredom, would be waspish or merely sad.  Not this Yelena.  Blanchett collapses into unbridled laughter as often as she is the worst manipulator.  And who would have thought that the professor’s horribly put-upon daughter could lose herself so freely in laughter and take the audience along with her, especially in McElhinney’s marvellous scene with Blanchett in Act Two. 

And John Bell at last is free of the constraints he seems to have laid upon himself in recent years.  Compare his Lear with this pretentious old Serebyakov, and Chekov looks better than Shakespeare.

But how is this not mere farce or melodrama?  Because every actor plays their character’s intention behind every facial twitch, every loose movement, every eye contact, every incomprehensible vocalisation, every word which means the opposite of its apparent meaning, or diverts attention away from reality.  As Stanislavsky taught, nothing must happen on stage without the audience being aware of each character’s intention.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, was missed in this production.

A simple demonstration, but a most exciting moment in the play, was the silence after Yelena and Astrov realise that Vanya, bringing roses for her, has seen them kissing.  Such wonderful theatre in which no-one says anything for minutes on end.  My copy of the script has just four dots to indicate no more than a pause before Astrov says [with bravado] ‘The weather is not too bad today.’  On this stage, with this director and these actors, what tension was there – and what laughter from us watching this embarrassed triangle.  What a creation of the illusion of natural reality!  What honour to a master playwright.  What grateful thanks on my part for the skill and artistry of this company.

What a pity for so many of you that the season is fully booked.

Sandy Gore and Richard Roxburgh in Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya
© Lisa Tomasetti 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Phoenix Players,
The Q - Queanbeyan Entertainment Centre until November 27th.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Utilising a large cast, bright sets and costumes and well-staged production numbers, Phoenix Players and director Kelda McManus have mounted an ambitious production of this bawdy musical which takes place in a brothel in Texas run by the world's nicest madam, Miss Mona (Megan Baran).

HIghlight of the evening is the Aggie dance at the end of Act one, where the men, as lusty footballers, have some boot-stomping fun in one of several energetic dance routines choreographed by Nikole Sklavos. The "whores" also worked well as an ensemble, particularly during "Hard Candy Christmas", with Jacinta Le a standout as the new Chicken Range recruit, Angel.

As Miss Mona, Megan Baran looked lovely and sang with an attractive texas twang, however Jon Garland, as the hot-tempered and coarse Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd provided the emotional fireworks.

Among a strong line-up of principals, Liz De Toth (Jewel), David Smith (Melvin P. Thorpe), Aleisha Stevens (Doatsey Mae) and Pat Gallagher (Governor) all made the most of their big moments.

However on opening night the second act lacked the energy of the first and looked as though it had missed out on a technical rehearsal. The sound and lighting cues were erratic and the abrupt ending appeared to leave the cast stranded and the audience non-plussed and maybe wondering why the spectacle of football jocks cavorting in a brothel seems rather less palatable now than it might have back in 1978.

(An edited version of this review appears in the November 18-24 edition of City News).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell

When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell.  A collaboration with Hossein Valamanesh and Brink Productions.  Directed by Chris Drummond at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, November 10-13, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 10

This production of a play, described by Richard Zoglin in Time as ‘easily the best new play of the year’ at its US premiere at the Lincoln Centre in March this year, is a privilege to behold.  The acting, direction and design all fall into their right places stylistically and technically in a jigsaw puzzle which comes together piece by piece. 

At first there are scattered elements of a picture picked up seemingly at random from four generations leading to the meeting of Gabriel York and his son Andrew Price.  The experience watching is exactly as happens while reconstructing a complex 1000 piece puzzle.  Aha! realisations light up completely unexpectedly when it becomes clear that this or that piece just has to go here or there.  Yet it is not until the very last piece is in place that we feel the tension that we might not have everything correctly understood, fall away.  Only as the last clue is revealed, just as the rain stops falling, do we suddenly feel we can breathe again with satisfaction that all is now positively complete.

Zoglin goes as far as to compare Bovell’s work with the achievements of the novelist William Faulkner.  It is a fair comparison in two ways. 

Faulkner used devices like plain print interspersed with italic print and standard sentence structure interspersed with poetic line forms as a way of shifting from time to time or from internal to external experience.    The result is difficult reading until you allow the feelings expressed in the words to wash into your mind without self-consciously seeking logical understanding or even clarity of events.

Bovell’s writing is theatrically interpreted by this production team to create a similar kind of time and perspective shifting, which as Faulkner achieves in the end of The Sound and the Fury, finally comes into clear focus in the final scene of When the rain stops falling.

But the perhaps more important way that the comparison with Faulkner is sensible is that Bovell, as does Faulkner, creates in his jigsaw, images and themes in words and action which symbolise elements of the human condition which recognisably belong to the writer’s culture – American in Faulkner’s case, and Australian in Bovell’s.  In the local we see the universal. 

It is interesting to read the American Zoglin’s description: ‘The play is unrelievedly bleak but with a denouement of unexpected hope: a moving, almost revelatory evening of theater’ while the Australian audience on opening night in Canberra responded to the many moments of ironic humour which are built into our culture.  We certainly found the unexpected hope, but not an unrelieved bleakness.  In fact, without laughter, I suspect, the unexpected hope at the end would have been maudlin and sentimental.  In this production, it was ultimately satisfying to know that Gabriel and his son Andrew, with the help of a fish falling from the sky, could at last enjoy each other’s company after four generations of emotional disaster.

Bovell’s work, it seems to me, has matured in this play even beyond his earlier Holy Day.  Now he has achieved strength in simplicity, placing him among the great playwrights not only of Australia but around the world.

Monday, November 1, 2010


By Bruce Hoogendoorn,
Street Theatre  6 -16 October 2010

reviewed by Bill Stephens

A statistic revealing that university science enrolments had dropped by 3000 in five years provided the inspiration for this biting satire by Canberra playwright Bruce Hoogendoorn.

Cataloguing the trevails of scientist Andrew Dean (Bruce Kavanagh) who invents a machine supposedly capable of stimulating minds to improve the ability to draw and play music, provides Hoogendoorn with plenty of grist for wicked comment on the ethics  of the science, fashion, advertising and television industries.

When the Minister for Science (David Vallenti) offers Andrew 10 years funding if he can raise science enrolments by 20 per cent in a year, Andrew accepts the challenge which includes the services of the Minister's ambitious assistant Sarah (Michelle Cooper) who strongly believes "a message is not as important as the messenger".

Andrews' inept attempts to win the challenge are catalogued in a series of well-written scenes, highlighting in the riotous punch-up with the director of a fashion school (Clinton McRobert) during a television show when both men try to attract student Fiona (Jamie Ishfani) to their respective disciplines.

Director Daniel McCusker has his strong cast play the characters in an exaggerated surreal style which works well for the comedy but tends to prevent the characters making much emotional contact with the audience. However good performances particularly from Kavanagh, Cooper, Vallenti, Isfahani and a delightfully eccentric Fiona Fox ensures an entertaining, even thought-provoking evening of theatre.

(This review was published in the October 14-20 edition of "City News".)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Namatjira by Scott Rankin: Big hART at Belvoir St.

Namatjira by Scott Rankin.  Co-directed by Scott Rankin and Wayne Blair.  Big hART at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until November 7, 2010.
Trevor Jamieson    Photo: Brett Boardman
Reviewed by Frank McKone, October 19.

Following their highly successful production in the 2008 Sydney Festival of Ngapartji Ngapartji (reviewed in The Canberra Times Thursday 17 January 2008), Big hART and Belvoir Street continue their series of Indigenous cultural projects in Namatjira.

Pitjantjatjara speaker, well-known performer Trevor Jamieson plays the man the general public knows as Albert Namatjira, attracting a friendly joking comment from an elder of the extended Namatjira family who gave permission for this presentation of their famous grandfather’s life story.  “How can a Pitjantjatjara man do an Arrernte?”

Very well indeed, in my view. 

Rankin’s writing tells the story plainly, allowing plenty of emotional space for the miming, dancing, singing, language and characterisation skills of Jamieson and his young performing partner Derek Lynch to be shaped into a major work with co-director Wayne Blair.  I am reminded of Wayne Blair’s own work as a performer in Wesley Enoch’s 2003 production of Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead.  It seems to me that there is a continuing strength of development in Aboriginal theatre, which I expect will go on being supported so well by Belvoir as Neil Armfield steps down in favour of Ralph Myers, whose work on Conversations was noted in the Canberra Times review (August 21, 2003).

But it’s not just important to see Namatjira placed in its Indigenous theatre context.  This play sits just as firmly in the context of non-Indigenous Australian theatre, because of the place Albert Namatjira has as the first Aboriginal person to be classed as an Australian citizen.  It was at this pinnacle of success that his downfall began.  This story is a tragedy which I found hit home just after the last line was spoken as the lights took the focus from the entertaining performer to his painted portrait which faded “Into the blue.”

This play for both cultures works so well because the central theme of the story is the remarkable relationship which grew over a lifetime of the two men, Elea – whose European first name, Albert, was arbitrarily given him by the German pastor at the Hermannsburg Mission combined with a mispronunication of his father’s totemic name as a surname – and Rex Battarbee, damaged physically and mentally as a young soldier in World War I, for whom painting watercolours was his only way of surviving.  In this production itself, writes Rankin, “Every layer of the project is dependent on the strength of the foundation formed with both the Namatjira family and Rex Battarbee’s daughter Gayle Quamby.  If this new performance piece resonated with audiences it does so because of the generosity of these families in contributing their stories to the research for the play, and their support for the broader Big hART project.”

There is no doubt, at the performance I witnessed, that this play resonated with all the culturally mixed audience (even German speaking friends of mine thought Jamieson’s pronunciation of German as the Pastor was “funny” – as, of course, it was meant to be).  For me, one of the great successes was to see Aboriginal people making biting satire of Australian institutions, right up to the Queen, but especially of speeches actually made by society women sponsors of the arts praising Albert Namatjira, to unrestrained laughter and applause throughout the audience.  It made the hypocrisy with which he was treated over his attempts to buy his country back, and finally the circumstances of his jailing, so much more poignant.

To my mind, this kind of theatre takes us in a new direction.  The move towards the end of last century to support community theatre rather than nothing but flagship companies is coming home to roost.  Here we see top-class quality performance, design and technical theatre used to bring people together into community across old divides.  Big hART refers to their work as “projects” because they are more than presenting plays on stage for people to sit back and watch.  This play engages us in coming to know the families in the story and to understand the reality of our own history.  We see Kevin Namatjira, Albert’s grandson, chalking the backdrop images of the Macdonnell ranges in his grandfather’s tradition.  From the next generation, Elton Wirri works with him.  There are some paintings on show in the foyer, but if you go to Alice Springs (Mparntwe) you can visit the Araluen Arts Centre and see the works of Albert Namatjira’s extended family as I did a few weeks ago, as well as works by Rex Battarbee and a portrait of Namatjira by Alfred Cook, painted in 1940, showing us a strong and forward-looking man as he was then, rather than the sad figure of his last years. 
Derek Lynch     Photo: Brett Boardman
Kevin Namatjira       Photo: Brett Boardman
You can follow up Big hART on 03 6423 4577, at www.bighart.org or email bighart@bigpond.com.au .  For political action, there is to be a rally organised by the Stop the Intervention Collective at Sydney Town Hall on Friday October 29, 12 noon.

Belvoir Box Office: (02) 9699 3444.

Namatjira will be seen in Canberra at The Playhouse, September 14-17, 2011.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Canberra Repertory: Lady Windemere’s Fan

Lady Windermere’s Fan

Canberra Repertory Society, 10 – 25 September

Reviewed by Naomi Milthorpe

When Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan first premiered in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the things it explored would have been quite risqué. Infidelity and sexuality were (at least in the common understanding of Victorian society) things not to be spoken of, which may be the reason Wilde – gnomic purveyor of the salacious drawing room witticism – seems so coy in this play. His characters – the painfully young and puritanical Lady Windermere (Zoë Tuffin) and her stitched-up husband Lord Windermere (Ross Walker) – tiptoe around all but the cleanest of subjects, allowing the audience and the more dynamic characters Lord Darlington (Adrian Flor), Mrs Erlynne (Christa de Jager) and the Duchess of Berwick (Liz Bradley) to smile archly, twitter knowingly, and generally feel superior (an emotion Saint Oscar himself was very likely familiar with).

Wilde’s fin-de-siecle comedy of manners, in which the gauche Lady Windermere is led to believe that: a) her husband is having an affair with the fallen woman Mrs Erlynne, and b) that the appropriate response to such news is to elope with Lord Darlington (he of ‘I can resist everything but temptation’ fame) rather than to tell Lord W to foot it, is in this version updated by Tony Turner and the folks at Rep – but not totally.

Turner is cognisant of the play’s general outmodedness; the manners and mores of Victorian society do not fully mesh with our own. (Having said that, if I found out that my spouse was giving large sums of money to women of dubious repute, who he then insisted I invite to my own birthday party, I’d probably chuck a tizzy, too). Turner does not, however, simply plant Lady Windermere et al in 21st Century London, along with F-book, Twitter, and iPhones. To bridge the gap between Wilde’s world and our own, Turner has set the show in the entre deux guerres period, complete with bobs and dropped waists on the ladies and a monolithic modernist set done in sorbet colours, courtesy of Quentin Mitchell.

The cast do a fine job of capturing the moral ambiguities of Wilde’s script. I confess I enjoyed the bad characters far more than I enjoyed the good ones: Bradley’s Duchess was zestfully delicious, while de Jager’s Mrs Erlynne combined complicity and sass in a winning performance. Jerry Hearn was another delight as the crusty, baffled Lord Augustus. I must also confess that, having retained the upper-class English setting, I do wish that Turner had made a bit of extra effort with some of his actors in retaining the upper-class English accent, but this is a minor quibble. The costumes are sumptuous, the players attractive, and the Repertory crowd has a grand old time - which makes me think of Wilde’s apparent words after the first performance:

“Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bangarra 'Of Earth & Sky' - Review by Yolande Norris

Bangarra is dance theatre for people who aren’t particularly interested in dance or the theatre. Such is the magic they weave over audiences.
Following Bangarra’s twenty-year anniversary and retrospective last year the pressure was on for Of Earth And Sky to herald a new era for the company. The hotly anticipated double bill pairs new work ‘Riley’ by emerging Choreographer (and Canberra expat) Daniel Riley McKinley and ‘Artefact’ by the acclaimed Frances Rings.
McKinley’s spark of inspiration for his choreographic debut was the minimal yet powerful work of his cousin and well-known photographer the late Michael Riley. I had seen the images from Riley’s Sky Series on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, and there they had left me a little cold. But now, in massive projection above the stage and retold through movement, the images burst to life.
Six images were interpreted by McKinley, each of them symbolic of stages of Riley’s life journey. The aggressive rhythm of ‘Locust’ created a crescendo of excitement about what was to come, subsequently tempered by the ominous regimentation and unsettling black crucifixes of ‘Bible’. The duet ‘Angel’ exuded a somber, simmering strength and ‘Feather’ swung between beauty and pathos, hope and loss, ending ‘Riley’ with the gravity of its namesake’s voice ringing posthumously through the theatre.

Following interval ‘Artefact’ commenced with quiet power. In the half-light two dancers emerge from a huge and sumptuous possum skin cloak; Plumes of ochre powders unfurling from the fur and dancer’s bodies contributing to an intoxicating mysticism.
From here the cast proceeded to interpret other traditional objects - such as the grinding stone or coolamun - and important traditional practices such as weaving. The closing piece of the same name left the audience spellbound and aching for more.
With ‘Artefact’ choreographer Rings is bringing to light the uncomfortable positioning of culture as curiosity and the treatment of a people as specimen. The objects are simply a starting point through which to reclaim ownership; to delve into the deeper meaning and associations they possess beyond the anthropological surface.
An innovative set and incredible costumes help realize this vision, sensitively setting the scene and adding a warmth and tactility. The score by David Page perfectly rounds out the sensory experience.
In the pre-show Q and A session, Rings spoke passionately about Bangarra’s intention for their dance works to act as a starting point for audiences to gain a fuller understanding of Indigenous culture; a culture that the company comfortably encapsulates so many aspects of. There are the views of both urban Indigenous people and those living traditionally, stories from the past, reflections of the present and visions of the future. With such breadth, accessibility and eloquence, Of Earth and Sky is another solid step towards Bangarra’s ultimate aim, leaving the audience both moved and changed.

This review appears in issue #356 of BMA Magazine

Monday, September 13, 2010


Bangarra Dance Company
Canberra Theatre,
September 3rd & 4th 2010

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

A tall figure clad in a dusty possum rug appears out of the darkness. Suddenly an arm, then a man's torso, appear above the rug and we realise that this is in fact two bodies, (Daniel Riley McKinley and Leonard Mickelo) who intertwine in a series of striking images which commence Frances Rings' remarkable "Artefact".

Utilising objects central to aboriginal life as her inspiration, Rings has fashioned a series of intriguing dances around string bags,  weaving, grinding and even the aboriginal body. Her mesmerisingly fluid choreography is superbly performed by the company in a work that is visually ravishing, theatrically satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

There was considerable interest in the opening work, "Riley", choreographed by former Canberra dancer Daniel Riley McKinley, and the audience was not disappointed. Drawing his inspiration from photographs by his cousin, Michael Riley, McKinley has fashioned a lovely work which also draws on familar objects,in this case a feather,locusts and a bible. McKinley's mastery of imaginative group movement was evident in the opening movement, "Boomerang", while the achingly beautiful imagery of the duet, "Angel", danced by Waangenga Blanco and Leonard Mickelo remains imprinted on the mind.

Both the works which made up the program benefited from Jacob Nash's simple, inspired settings, both brilliantly lit by Damien Cooper, and from the imaginative costumes of Gabriella Tylesova. But most particularly from David Page's brilliantly evocative soundscapes which have become so much a part of the Bangarra experience.

(An edited version of this review was published in the September 9 -15 edition of "City News".)

Saturday, September 4, 2010


By Tommy Murphy,
Presented by Company B Belvoir,
Belvoir St. Theatre. Sydney
4th August to 19th September.2010

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

"Gwen in Purgatory" is a new play by Queanbeyan playwright, Tommy Murphy, who already has another  play "Holding the Man" running on the West End in London.

Interestingly, this play is set in Queanbeyan, and focusses on a fiercely independent 90 year-old widow, Gwen, who, following the death of her husband, and against the wishes and advice of her family, buys herself a brand new three-bedroom house, complete with all mod.cons; the first house built in a new housing estate.

As the play opens we find Gwen, alone in the huge family room, surrounded by unpacked boxes, trying to cope with the phones, the remote controls for the microwave, the airconditioning and the burglar alarm. One by one various members of her family arrive to assist her, although Gwen insists she is confident she can manage alone. Several arguments result as Gwen fights for her independence during which some devastatingly shattering home-truths emerge.

Directed by Neil Armfield, "Gwen in Purgatory" is funny ...on the surface. The performances are superb, particularly those of Melissa Jaffer as Gwen, and Sue Ingleton as her wretched daughter, Peg. Grant Dodwell plays Gwen's self-serving son, Laurie, Nathaniel Dean,  her equally self-serving grandson, Daniel, and Pacharo Mzembe plays Father Exekiel, a young priest who inadvertently finds himself involved in the family arguments.

However, beneath the highly amusing surface, Tommy Murphy has managed to pack quite a few solid punches which challenge our attitudes to growing old, how we treat our elderly, and indeed, how we priortise our lives. Compelling and thought-provoking, "Gwen in Purgatory" is a play I haven't been able to get out of my mind. I like that sort of play.

(This review was broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7, during "Dress Circle" on Sunday 29th August 2010)  

Friday, September 3, 2010

'Exciting A Blush' Autumnal Collective - Reviewed by Yolande Norris

My review of Autumnal Collective's debut work 'Exciting A Blush' appears in the latest issue of BMA Magazine. To read the online version please click HERE

Can't wait to see more from this exciting group of performers!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost - Review by Yolande Norris

Before I begin, a couple of things to bear in mind: Firstly, I’ve never seen a play by William Shakespeare, or even read one. There, I'll wait a moment for the shock to pass........ Furthermore, I’m not a regular reviewer of theatre, or even a regular audience member. There’s no particular reason for this, just that for years now I have occupied my time with visual art and an occasional peppering of dance.

Following last night, however, I predict this may change, as it was last night that I was invited to the preview of 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' – a production by Director Naomi Milthorpe and the National University Theatre Society (NUTS).

I have to admit trepidation, having heard that 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' is one of the Bard’s least performed works, in no small part due to the fact it is one of his most inaccessible and incomprehensible. Talk about throwing myself in the deep end.

The beginning of the opening act, I confess, had me regretting my decision to attend. The quick-fire language was so completely over my head that I was hard-pressed to contextualise what I saw, let alone find the supposed humour in it.

But then, within minutes, something clicked and I was completely absorbed. I’m not sure whether the brain just takes a moment to crank into a higher gear when dealing with Shakespearean English, or whether the King of Navarre (Shane Pike) and his Lords (Andrew Holmes, David Travers and Josh Wiseman) needed a little time to warm into character, but after this point I didn’t need to understand every flowery word – the riotous story unfolded before me.

The four aforementioned lads can take much credit for this turnaround, their convivial interaction making the narrative instantly relatable and triggering the first of many giggling fits for the night.

Humour went into overdrive with the first appearance of the dubiously accented Don Adriano de Armado (Tom Connell). It was a performance that could easily be considered over the top, but presented with such a perfectly outrageous character, and an audience in stitches, I believe Connell played the Spaniard perfectly.

The Princess of France (Cathy Hagarty) and her Ladies (Ruth McHugh Dillon, Shannon Steele and Katie Doney) are every bit as charming, sassy and razor-witted as one would hope, and their energetic banter with their Lordly counterparts is a wicked delight. The actors manage the old-world language masterfully, and the dialogue comes across as fresh and modern as if it were made yesterday.

Other perfectly executed characters to charm the audience were Cameron Thomas as larger-than-life oaf Costard, Nick Tranter as the Ladies’ annoyingly assiduous attendant and Robert Selth as the Latin-spurting Schoolmaster. The many large personalities on show means there is much to love and never a moment’s boredom. 

Music, including original pieces by Andrew Holmes, is used to great effect, showcasing the multiple talents of many cast members, setting the scene and contemporizing the story. The visuals presented the only negative for me – I found the set, particularly the painting, lacked the quality of the rest of the production. In the case of no budget or time then a more simplified set would have perhaps been better, but given my background in art this is probably a pet peeve.

Despite the play portraying life as a frustrating juggling act the overall impression is thoroughly uplifting. 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' turns out to be a surprisingly simple tale of young hearts distracted and enriched by love. Either its scary reputation is sorely mistaken, or Naomi Milthorpe and NUTS should do us a favour and give more marginal works the same sweet treatment.

'Love's Labour's Lost' shows 7:30pm Thursday, Friday & Saturday at the ANU Arts Centre

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Canberra Philharmonic Society
Erindale Centre, 13th August - 4th September

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Among many good reasons to see "The Boy From Oz" is Jarrad West's remarkable performance as Peter Allen. This proudly-Australian musical, crammed with Peter Allen songs, charts the life and loves of the charasmatic entertainer, and sinks or swims on the ability of the lead performer to capture some of Allen's legendary charisma. Jarrad West has charisma in spades, and his knowing, sardonic, direct-to-the-audience delivery goes a long way towards capturing Allens unique performance style. It's a tour-de-force performance which succeeded brilliantly on opening night despite the threat of potential disaster from some unsynchronised lighting and music cues.

Impressive also was the touching portrayal of Liza Minnelli by newcomer Anne Maree McLeod, the sassy sophisticaion of Janie Lawson as Judy Garland, Bronwyn Sullivan's gutsy Marion Woolnough, and the delightfully assured performace of Cameron Taylor as the young Peter Allen.

Choreographer, Michelle Heine, pays homage to some of the great choreographers of the era, including Ross Coleman and Bob Fosse, with some brilliantly executed song and dance routines performed on a versatile,  classy setting designed by Brian Sudding, and accompanied by Craig Johnson's small but punchy band.

But perhaps most impressive of all, is how successfully Director Carissa Campbell has managed to achieve an essentially large-scale show in the comparative intimacy of te Erindale Centre with an ensemble production that is funny, moving, spectacular and packed full of good old-fashioned pizzaz. Don't miss it!

(An edited version of this review appears in "City News" issue 19th-25th August)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Recently reviewed on Uselesslines

Visual art reviews recently appearing on Uselesslines:

Leah Bullen 'Shutterbug' at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Manuka

Happy weekend reading!


Friday, July 30, 2010


QL2 Centre for Youth Dance.
Canberra Playhouse,
28 -31st July 2010

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The annual QL2 performance in the Canberra Playhouse offers many pleasures, not the least of which is the opportunity to see the work of some of country's foremost contemporary dance choreographers. This year those choreographers were Anton, Jodie Farrugia, Adam Wheeler, Marnie Palomares and Ruth Osborne, each of whom created on the QL2 dancers an individual ensemble piece which explored a central theme.

The theme this year was "Night.Time." and it was fascinating to watch how differently the choreographers interpreted it...all working to evocative soundscapes composed by Adam Ventura.

Marnie Polamares set a pensive mood in her piece, "Night. Light.". Following filmed projections of busy city traffic, the dancers enter, as at the end of a busy day and perform a series of cleverly choreographed rituals suggesting arriving home, removing outer clothing and preparing for bed. One especially lovely moment when lines of girls flicked their hair back to form arches remains a powerful image from this interesting piece.

In the next section, entitled "Night.Mind.", Anton explores the seemingly unlikely topic of rapid eye movement sleep. The result however is an arresting work which includes a passage in which white clad dancers perform rapid staccato movements in front of projections of brain scans.

Jodie Farrugia chose white pillows as the motif for what is perhaps the most inventive piece in the program, "Night.Stir.". Contrasted against a black background, the dancers manipulate the pillows to create a series of striking, often spectacularly acrobatic images in an original and captivating work.

According to the program Adam Wheeler's contribution, "Night.Life.", is based on improvisation and collaborative task-based exercises, and  features a series of aggressive, muscular abstract night-time street scenes, to create a gritty, slightly disturbing, though engrossing, vision.

Completely contrasting was Ruth Osborne's light-hearted tribute to night-shift workers, "Night.Scape.", which provided a colourful and neatly optimistic comment on the night-time theme, before transitioning into the cleverly choreographed finale, which not only referenced each choreographer's contribution, but also demonstrated Osborne's admirable talent for creating exciting mass movement.

"Night.Time." is an exhilarating and persuasive demonstration  of the achievements of the QL2 Centre for Youth Dance. The determinedly ensemble nature of the challenging choreography, together with the highly professional technical presentation, ensures that despite the variances in the abilities of the individual dancers, every dancer is seen at their best and given the opportunity to test themselves against other dancers, not only from the Canberra region, but, as in this particular program, also against dancers from Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Thailand. The results are inspiring, and not only for the dancers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Andrew Upton at Sydney Theatre, June 29 – August 1, 2010

Reviewed by Frank McKone, July 14.

If you have read about O’Neill’s personal life you will understand the significance of the title of this long play, which ran 3 hours 40 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).  Alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide were subjects he could not avoid, though he did put off writing this gruelling story until 1941, as the Parkinson’s-like neurodegenerative disease known as cortical cerebellar atrophy began to take hold, preventing him from writing ever again, until his death in 1953.

Some commentators see O’Neill as taking up, for the first time in America, the Chekovian tradition of realism, but this is not true of most of his work.  His characters and plots are full of symbolism, even though he employs apparently naturalistic forms of dialogue.  In fact, each of his plays is an experiment in theatrical form.  He was an innovator, an inventor never fully satisfied with his last creation. 

Before Long Day’s Journey Into Night only his structured study of racial discrimination in All God’s Chillun Got Wings produced a drama of ordinary internal family relations.  But Long Day is a searing journey to the centre of the night which, in my opinion, has not been undertaken by any other playwright since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

I’ll come back to themes later, but my first concern is whether or not Upton and his cast – Robyn Nevin as wife and mother Mary, William Hurt as husband, father and actor James Tyrone, Todd van Voris as eldest son James, and Luke Mullins as younger surviving son Edmund, and not forgetting Emily Russell as Mary’s household employee Cathleen – would have had any hope of satisfying the author who claimed, I believe, not to wish to see his plays on stage because he could always do a better production in his own imagination.

If the performance I saw had not been a matinee, requiring us to accept only two curtain-call appearances before the cast took a break to prepare for the evening,  I’m sure the demands of those calling for a standing ovation would have been granted by the whole audience on a third appearance.  Despite Edmund’s disparagement of James Tyrone’s old-style Irish Catholicism, almost certainly true of Eugene O’Neill’s attitude towards his actor-father James O’Neill’s religion, it would not be hard to imagine the author, looking down from theatrical heaven, with satisfied eyes.

The acting was, as we expect from STC, superb. 

Emily Russell’s small but crucial role is a great example.  In a family full of delusions, Cathleen is a normal person, seeing the funny side of situations, wanting to please but standing up for herself, recognising the realities of her job as household help and maintaining a commonsense relationship between her drug-affected employer and Bridget, the terror in the kitchen whom we never see but get to know well.  After a first act which takes us out to interval wondering if we can cope any more with the twists and turns of bickering, accusations, regrets and unsuccessful attempts to express love, Russell opens Act 2 with a large and ebullient Cathleen bringing out a vivacity in Mary so enjoyable to see that we can believe that Mary can perhaps achieve her sanity.  Yet it is Russell’s Cathleen who suddenly has to step back as she realises that Mary’s responses to normal enjoyment of life are abnormal.  Cathleen knows how to deal with Bridget the kitchen tyro, but this is beyond dealing with.  Russell loses nothing of Cathleen’s open personality, but by the time she leaves the stage we know what she knows, and we wonder how on earth this family will end its days.

As the long drunken evening winds it misty way around the men, each little gust of interaction sometimes seeming a little warmer but trending icy overall, we wait in dread.  If we ever see Mary emerge from the spare room again, what will we see?  It is Robyn Nevin’s triumph that, after perhaps an hour off-stage, in the dead of night her Mary is such a sad, sad figure that when she stands so still and speaks we are completely absorbed.  When she stops speaking we are silent.  No-one breaks as the lights slowly dim, and we even feel a bit tentative about beginning to applaud when the lights come up to relieve the intensity with appreciation for such actors.

Of course, without three men to match, no woman could produce such a Mary.  Each one had his element of surprise.  Tyrone, the “great” actor, was not the expected booming theatrical cliché voice.  Often he spoke too fast to pick up all the words, sometimes seeming as if William Hurt was not quite in control of his role.  But think of the complexity of an actor playing the role of an actor who only feels himself to be in control when he is acting before an audience.  At “home” he has no audience, only a wife and sons who see through him.  He is at home on the stage, or used to be in his hey-day, but he is no more than an illusion in this house which even looks like a run-down one-night stand hotel room.  And we are watching William Hurt in this illusion on stage before us, his audience.  So Hurt was right to show us Tyrone unable to maintain the cliché, too mentally messed-up to sound out the booming foghorn voice.

James was a visual surprise to me.  I had never imagined him as rotund as Todd van Voris appeared.  I suppose my cliché expectation was that he would be a drunken broken down version of his tall square-shouldered theatrically heroic father, as William Hurt appeared.  But this was the son who deliberately rejected his father’s appearance of athleticism, even though he showed that he was, at least when sober, a more sincere actor than his father.  And, in his cups, this James was a capable clown – until his cups overflowed, spilling his insecurity all over the floor in the final scenes, and the clown could only watch the horror of his mother, and do nothing.

Even though I knew the story of O’Neill’s tuberculosis, and thus Edmund’s “consumption”, and expected a sick looking Luke Mullins, his slimness looked so thin against van Voris’s roundness that at once his cough said what we needed to know.  So casting was not just a matter of finding actors who could act, especially actors who could act actors when they were acting and when they were not, as well as actors who can act characters who are always pretending, sometimes deliberately but often subconsciously.  Casting was also about design to create images of the characters which tell the story visually.  And this was very well done.

The design, too, of the claustrophobic ugly room, looking cheap and yet also reminiscent of the sort of ship’s cabin that O’Neill himself would have inhabited as a rough merchant seaman, set the atmosphere to dead astern.  But rather than hold us in this confinement for three hours, lighting and gaps in the wings allowed us to see out a little and place this dead centre in the beginnings of a context: the hedge out front, the verandah, the dining room, the street which led to the pub.  But there were only small disturbing sounds from the spare room upstairs, where Mary had her “naps”.  This was just sufficient for us to survive our time with this family – well done again.

The play operates on three levels, and Andrew Upton has allowed O’Neill’s writing to reveal them all.  First, conflicts within each of the personalities become apparent in more and more detail as the second level, conflict within the family between the individuals, grows apace.  These are the levels at which we respond to the action on stage as we watch.  The intricacies of the interactions make this play one of the greatest written in the 20th Century and an outstanding play historically.

The third level is not made explicit on stage, yet is shown in clues – put there by O’Neill – which may be cryptic.  This is an American play.  What does it say about America?  Upton, as director, has not only made sure the first two levels are fully developed, but he has been careful to put issues before us which are core questions in American culture.

The “ould country” is Ireland, and the accents of the two generations, compared also with the original Irish of the immigrant worker Cathleen, bring out the issue of change which we know so well in Australia.  This is fine voice design which, like good lighting, is done so well that it is not noticed.  But it establishes the credentials and credibility of this production, and I bet that O’Neill’s ghost is pleased.  This is because the theme of the migration to America and the consequential belief in the “American Dream” is crucial to appreciating O’Neill’s sense of tragedy. 

It is not just a story of characters who fall into the traps of alcohol and morphine addiction, for whom we may feel sorrow as they effectively commit suicide (as O’Neill’s sons did in real life – one only three years before O’Neill himself died).  It is the story of the failure of America to know itself – to understand that the Dream is a delusion, that America is not the great heroic nation it believes itself to be, that America cannot impose dictates upon others while maintaining its belief in freedom, that even within its own culture the dream of never-ending success for everyone is an impossible dream.

We see the effects of the American Dream played out in the news every day, and even in Australia (where we tell ourselves that we don’t accept authority, with a philosophy of “no bullshit”) we follow America into unwinnable wars and people constantly talk of achieving their dream.  O’Neill’s play is a warning: the dream is a self-destructive delusion. 

Yet the irony is that to create this drama on the stage so effectively, as Upton and his team have done, is to prove that O’Neill’s “dream” can be fulfilled – perhaps better even than in his imagination.  Watch Cathleen, the minor character of no apparent importance but the only one who will survive.

If you have to miss the Sydney season, your next opportunity is at the Newmark Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, Oregon USA, August 13-29, where it will be followed by Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness in September.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Opera Australia - Sydney Opera House
Season ends 15th July 2010.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This new production of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical "A Little Night Music" is a deliriously sensuous affair.

Designer Roger Kirk's ravishing costumes and attractive fluid setting provides the perfect environment for the giddy whirl of romantic liaisons which drive this wickedly sophisticated show.

The direction of Stuart Maunder is almost balletic as he manoeuvers his cast through a series of delightful set pieces, beautiful to watch and simply glorious to listen to.

Sigrid Thornton, in her first musical, is quite superb as Desiree Armfeldt. Hoydenish, funny, but always gorgeous, her beautifully restrained performance of the song "Send in the Clowns" rightly drew prolonged enthusiastic applause.

With his fine voice and handsome presence, Anthony Warlow is practically perfect in the role of Desiree's ex-lover, Fredrik Egerman, somehow managing to appear ridiculous and dignified at the same time. He is well-matched by Ben Lewis, his rival for Desiree's affections, as the pompous Count Carl-Magnus.

Both Lucy Maunder and Katrina Retallick are beautifully cast in roles which showcase their considerable individual talents, while Nancye Hayes effortlessly dominates every scene in which she appears as the matriach Madame Armfeldt.

Stand-out performances from Matthew Robinson as the desperately lovelorn Henrik and Kate Maree Houlihan as the maid, Petra, plus the lush sounds of the large orchestra under Andrew Greene, with the superbly balanced singing of the five Liebslieder singers, all add patina to this superbly realised production.

(An edited version of this review appears in the City News July 8-14)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Caravan by Donald MacDonald

Caravan by Donald MacDonald. Directed by Rodney Delaney at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, June 24 – July 3, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone, June 24.

Caravan is more or less in the tradition of romantic comedy – we know this because the final scene ends in a tableau of all the characters laughing outrageously while drunk – except that the setting is not exactly conducive to romance and the dalliances have already happened years before this summer holiday in the rain.

The play is a situation comedy, with pretensions to be a traditional farce, but for me has serious weaknesses, despite its history of productions since 1983, when I first saw it at the Opera House Drama Theatre, no less. I wondered then whether it deserved that venue, but with strong professional actors of that era like Kirrily Nolan it succeeded as pure entertainment.

Delaney’s production has recognised that pure fun is the objective. On first night things began a little too slowly, as if we were expected to take the relationship between Penny and Parkes Robinson seriously as the owners of the caravan waiting for their invitees to join them. But the very effective acting of everyone bashing their heads on the low door (except for Pierce’s cradle-snatched girlfriend, of course, until she was as drunk as the rest) began to get us in the mood for the farcical situation. By the second half things were well underway as we wore our plastic coats while the rain could be heard belting down.

The acting was well done all round. Highlights for me were Bernadette Vincent’s scene reporting her “rape” in the shower. Not only was her entrance at full intensity, but she maintained the energy throughout the scene, and built on Monica’s character throughout her performance. Jenny Rixon impressed as well, particularly in turning Penny’s character around as she became seriously drunk, from compliancy to the strength and determination need to enforce “nice” behaviour. In the end it is only the relationship between Penny and Monica which holds the play together, and these two actors succeeded in making it work.

So it was not difficult to sing along with the cast at curtain call – just for fun.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Sean Mathius, Haymarket Theatre, London. Produced by Andrew Kay and Liza McLean at Sydney Opera House, June 15 to July 10, 2010

Reviewed by Frank McKone, June 23.

Starring Ian McKellen (Estragon), Roger Rees (Vladimir), Matthew Kelly (Pozzo) and Brendan O’Hea (Lucky), how could this production fail?

And where on earth do I stand when to alleviate boredom Vladimir and Estragon decide to insult each other? Which insult got the biggest laugh from the full house – you guessed it:

ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.

Well, I didn’t wilt. In fact from Estragon’s first finger grappling over the rotting stone wall to his final “Yes, let’s go. They do not move.” I found myself entirely captivated. It was impossible to turn away.

Though Ian McKellen has had the publicity highlight, which is more than well-deserved, each of the actors has matched the demands of their roles. Often I have come across people who almost fear Waiting for Godot as if it is a “difficult” play and so “tedious”. These performances make nonsense of this undeserved reputation.

Estragon is a sweet old man who only wants the world to treat him decently.

Vladimir would like to believe he has more control over things than he really has. Despite everything, he will never give up trying. And hoping.

Pozzo is all bluster, knowing that he depends on Lucky, his slave. Though he represents all that is powerful, he has premonitions in Act 1 that his position is insecure, which proves to be the case in Act 2. Now blinded, he is entirely dependent, having to rely on the goodwill of the two tramps.

Lucky, of course, is in the most unlucky position of all. When he speaks, important truths roll off his tongue repetitively. He thinks but has no control over even his thinking, let alone his life. He speaks only when given permission, when he wears his hat. But in Act 2, to the horror of the tramps, even this is taken away, and he is dumb.

My description superficially may seem to support the play’s reputation, but Mathius’ directing has emphasised the humanity of each character and the actors have found the ways to express all the moods of their relationships with each other and with the universe within which they live. The result is a huge amount of humour – after all, how else can people survive what this set design represents as the collapse of society, except to laugh at the absurdity of everything. I am reminded, from my personal background, of the humour of the British under years of bombardment during World War 2. This crumbling ruin of a set design, in fact, looks very like what I remember of the London bombsites of my childhood. But I remember, too, the laughter and song of that era. The end may be nigh, but it doesn’t have to be depressing.

Rather, even though there is sadness in Vladimir and Estragon’s hope that Godot will come some day, their ability to enjoy a carrot and spit out a parsnip, dance a little and hug each other for comfort, is actually uplifting. This is a wonderful production: theatre at its best.

(I would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of Robyn and Jack Geary in enabling me to attend Waiting for Godot)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Oresteia by Aeschylus, adapted and directed by Tom Wright

Oresteia by Aeschylus, adapted and directed by Tom Wright. Sydney Theatre Company Residents at Wharf 1, June 5 - 27, 2010.

Reviewed by Frank McKone, June 22.

The Residents have been together as a permanent company of actors within the Sydney Theatre Company for a year now. This is their second mainstage production and the value of being able to work together consistently shows in this concentrated, highly focussed performance of Aeschylus’ moral tale of the cursed generations of the House of Atreus.

It was Meet the Actors night which I chose for the opportunity to find out how the transition from the earlier STC Actors’ Company to The Residents is progressing. The play, based mainly on Aeschylus’ first two plays rounded off by Apollo’s speech from the third (defending Orestes in Athene’s court, where the black and white pebbles are even in number but Athene adds her white pebble to acquit), ran for nearly three hours (including interval), followed by questions from the audience to Tom Wright and the actors. This made for a highly satisfying evening from 6.30 to after 10pm, in which time slipped by very easily.

This production was my kind of drama. Imagery was used symbolically, tension and focus were created through stillness, atmosphere developed from simple vocal harmonies, horror created in backlit shadow forms, reinforced by bloodied bodies frozen in death, and the story told in clear poetic rhythms. Though in “modern” dress, often more undressed, the staging is a simple open space in front of three double translucent doors which open and close like elevator doors to reveal or hide, or become shadow-puppet screens, as needed.

For me the modern symbols, meant to cue the audience in to elements of the story, were not all successful. The loss of childhood was represented by a door opening on a spinning wheel of a child’s scooter, yet the story is entirely set in Aeschylus’ Ancient Greece. I had the same problem of mismatch with the unattractive anorak used by the soldier and later by Orestes to represent hard-bitten travel. Yet the use of simple clinging shifts for the chorus women and Clytemnestra in the first act worked very well to represent the vulnerability of women, not only in the ancient militaristic world of the war on Troy, but in modern times still. Dressing Aegisthus in the same shift as the women wore in act one certainly made a humorous, and effective, point about his role in contrast to the cuckolded husband Agamemnon. After Clytemnestra has killed Agamemnon, in act two she and the chorus women are dressed as successful modern women, while Aegisthus might be described as a petty dictator pretending to be metrosexual. No wonder her surviving children, Orestes and Electra, feel they must destroy their mother and her toy-boy king.

The audience raised the question of male/female balance in Wright’s interpretation. Richard Pyros, who played Aegisthus, thought that the sexual and the violent aspects fell equally on both sexes. Then he described his experience, while acting, of an absolute “line down the middle” between the male and female characters but feeling “weird falling on both sides at once” in his role.

This kind of commentary and the discussion it generated was a mark of the group understanding among The Residents. The company was formed by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as a deliberate contrast to the previous STC Actors’ Company, which Robyn Nevin, based on her early experiences in Rex Cramphorn’s Performance Syndicate, had structured to include iconic actors well advanced in their careers to work with and to be mentors for young up-and-comers. Despite her good intentions, this system finally became unworkable.

The Residents, instead, are all actors showing great promise early in their careers, with an experienced associate director working at one remove from Blanchett and Upton, the overall Sydney Theatre Company artistic directors. The actors described being auditioned through a workshop process and finding themselves able to take risks in their work which are not possible when auditioning for specific parts as freelance actors. They talked of the security of having long-term membership, of working on many different projects (especially including theatre education programs), of “getting to know people as people” and developing a “different sense of trust”. I can only say that this looks like my kind of theatre company.

Since the run of Oresteia ends this weekend, there is little time for you to see it. Get there if you can, but certainly keep your wits about you for when The Residents appear again in STC’s Next Stage, Education or Main Stage program. Check out www.sydneytheatre.com.au .