Saturday, February 20, 2010

THEATRE BY FRANK McKONE How to become an emerging theatre director by the age of 32 – Kelly Somes

Following the success of Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper (reviewed by Peter Wilkins in The Canberra Times and by me on this blogspot), I thought to open up our critics’ blog to more than our standard reviews.  Readers may like to know something of the people behind the scenes.  What is the life of a professional artist like?

I should begin by revealing some personal interest in Kelly Somes, since she attended my audition training class in Year 12, 1995. What happened to the quiet, unassuming girl whose first role was as a witch, in Year 7?  Well, Kelly became one of the best examples of my advice to take time before making the decision to audition for professional training.  At 18 anyone over 30 seems already over the hill, but now Kelly sees herself as one of the young ones just beginning to establish herself professionally.

The steps she took on the way, her decisions, are of course unique.  What I noted, though, is that at every point she focussed on how she understood herself at that time.  This is not a story of unmitigated ambition, of determination to win out at all costs, of  achieving predetermined goals.  It’s a much gentler story than the world’s go-getters would understand.  As she spoke it seemed to me that she put into practice what Laertes struggled with – “This above all: to thine own self be true.”  Polonius may have been pompous and overbearing but this advice, taken with common sense, is worthwhile.

Kelly did not rush into auditions but enrolled in Arts/Law at ANU.  However, she found that Theatre Studies was a continuing interest, leading her to drop Law in favour of an Honours in Theatre.  In Years 11/12 she had experienced acting and directing, indeed she had directed some work while still in junior high school.  For her the undergraduate work, directing short pieces with her student colleagues and then directing a full length play for her Honours was to me an interesting example of the education process – spiralling round the same kind of work but at a new and more mature level each time around.  It was pleasing, though a little humbling for me to hear her praise for the quality of her university teachers, Geoffrey Borny, Tony Turner and Cathy Clelland.  Yet, with a degree and now a clear interest in directing rather than acting, where would she go?

To support herself had to be the immediate answer, so for three years she worked in Canberra, as much as possible in theatre.  Administration work paid her way, while directing in the family theatre company, Free-Rain, continued to build her experience. My review in The Canberra Times of her 2002 production of Hotel Sorrento (by Hannie Rayson) reveals an aspect of Kelly’s interests which she had to face when she made the decision to apply for the directing course at Victorian College for the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. 

I wrote "Somes claims to have set the play in its period, when Margaret Thatcher was still in power in Britain: a point which is important to the politics of the play.  At the same time, though, to deal with the family's memories and emotional conflicts, she has seen the characters as costumed figures against a blank background, making the whole set white except for the symbolic painting of 'Hotel Sorrento' (in which all of the older generation pictured have now died).  Though this is ostensibly a good idea, the contrast in the first act between scenes in British London and the Australian beach village of Sorrento is not made as obvious as the drama demands.  Or, on the other hand, a much more stylised set, using perhaps something like a Whiteley painting as a model, might have given the design the visual life it needs."

In her VCA interview she was asked why she had not applied for animateur training rather than directing, since she had a clear interest in design.  But by this time, and confirmed as she progressed through her VCA training, her deepest interest was working directly with people within the settings she could imagine.  Perhaps the central question she resolved during her time at VCA was whether she should centre her work on text or action.  I am not surprised, since Lindy Davies was Head of the School of Drama, that Kelly now sees movement as the core of her work, both as the underpinning of text and as a ‘text’ in its own right which the audience can read.

It was this understanding which gave strength to the production of Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper which had stirred me to find out how Kelly had got to this point.  And where to now? 

Kelly Somes now works in Melbourne as a freelance director, concentrating on newly written work and on women’s theatre.  Some work is with cooperatives, where pay is equally shared, and some is by invitation to take paid work as director or dramaturg.  She spoke of having to learn how to promote herself and her work, having to become objective about her strengths and weaknesses, and especially of “opening up yourself to critical comment from new people, not just the trusted people you already know” and learning to make “judgements about other people who might be the right people to judge you”.

There is still a quietness, an unassuming quality in Kelly Somes, and I suspect a satisfying career ahead of her.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper by Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes


Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper by Tim Stitz and Kelly Somes.  Directed by Kelly Somes. Two Blue Cherries & Soulart Productions in association with Free-Rain Theatre Company at The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 18-21, 2010, 7.30pm.

I can only hope that my grandson, who will be 25 when I am ninety, will present as warm, delightful and down-to-earth a homage for me as Tim Stitz has done for his grandfather, Lloyd Beckmann.  Beekeeper could easily have been a merely personal, sentimental memoir of the hard life of an Aussie battler.  But Somes’ direction with lighting by Bronwyn Pringle and sound by Liz Stringer and Neddwellyn Jones keeps the sentiment inside a clear boundary of reality.

The result is a 70 minute performance by Stitz which has more significance than the merely personal.

At first the character of Lloyd Beckmann could have easily seem to have been lifted out of a Steele Rudd Dad and Dave sequence, as he told us of the hilarious details of the sex-life of a queen bee.  It was Beckmann’s old-fashioned Australian accent that centred our focus on the character, and made me think of On Our Selection. Arthur Hoey Davis, the real “Steele Rudd”, interestingly enough, based his stories on his father’s bush farming experience at Emu Creek, Queensland, not too far from where Beckmann lived most of his life.  Davis’s publications made humorous bush characters highly popular from their beginning in The Bulletin in 1895 through to the 1940s, especially through the 1920s and 30s as Beckmann was growing up.

But once we moved indoors, into Beckmann’s granny flat, filled with family photos, furniture collected over the years, but missing his wife, now “up the hill”, we gradually came to understand that the humour of Beckmann’s character as he genuinely wanted to entertain us, his guests, was covering up the many disappointments in his life.  At fleeting moments, his grandson Tim, would appear in a change of accent to modern Melbourne, and we then also began to understand that this show is a brave act on the part of Tim Stitz.

At the end, as Beckmann lays out the implements, boots and white overalls of the beekeeper on the floor between us in the intimate setting of the granny flat, and places the broad-brimmed bush hat with its surrounding veil at its head, suddenly all the totemic images of old Australia, the workers in the bush, immigrants, farmers, miners and soldiers, are blended into a feeling that with Lloyd Beckmann’s passing that Australia will be no more than a memory.

Tim Stitz allows us into his memorial for the past in a quite remarkable way, and leaves us to wonder what we are gaining or losing as we move on into the new world order of the 21st Century.

Lloyd Beckmann, Beekeeper is planned to go on tour through regional centres as well as major cities.  I wish the company well in this venture, which is in itself part of a long tradition of travelling showmen who have maintained the links across this wide brown land.  In this way the grandson pays homage to the grandfather, the present recognises its roots in the past.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Department of Heaven

The Department of Heaven, a musical by Andrew Hackwill, and directed by Lainie Hart, opened on 10 February for a very brief season finishing on the 13th. It is presented by the Alan Key Collective. Apart from Lainie Hart, I recognised none of he other names (ecept Christine Pawlicki, more of whom later). The musical is set as a cabaret and all the cast members were obviously selected for their skill in microphone work and musicianship which was of a professional standard.

A delightfully dotty story using public service jokes as a basis, concerns the loss of the key to the Pearly Gates, while God has gone off to think about other things. The introductory number set the scene for the rest of the story, opening with an infectious melody sung by Saint Peter (Andrew Hackwill) and joined by a 'barber shop' quartet of Elizabeth I, Rasputin, Lady Godiva and Saint Anthony. Thor enters after this and has at least five costume changes, becoming campier by the minute. Laine Hart is the Fallen Angel dressed in what I thought rather chic black wings. Cleopatra, Rapunzel, Robin Hood, Eve, Sir William Wallace, Lady Macbeth, Sigmeund Freud (treating Lady M!), Alexander the Great. Michelangelo, Julius Caesar (some doubling, here) all made their mark.

The show goes at a cracking pace; not one drop in the tension. Accompanied by pre-recorded music composed and performed by the multi-talented Andrew Hackwill, it kept up enthusiasm of both cast and audience throughout. As for the costumes! Christine Pawlicki has outdone herself: all beautiful and rich-looking - Elizabeth I had at least three/four changes? All stunning crinolines. Wow!  I can only hope this show will be taken up by other promoters.

Any downs? Well, I missed some of thr dialogue (my beter hearing companion did too) and it was a shame as words are clever andf funny. But it doesn't take away from the sheer exuberance of the night.

Stella Wilkie

Late One from 2009 – Stella Wilkie

Very late last year, I attended two performances which somehow were not reviewed in the mainstream press. Both deserve comment.

First, the Canberra New Music Ensemble, Klavierstucke, a piano recital by Margaret Legge-Wilkinson, was  performed on 29 November at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture at 3 pm (note: a very useful venue). Since I am not a musician, I am not formally qualified to review it, but as there was no review published, it should at least be recorded,  particularly since ABC FM Classic played a recording by Margaret the day before, and gave exact details of time and venue of the concert. There is a hope that the concert may be repeated in Melbourne this year.

It was a magnificent programme: Klavierstucke IX and VII by Stockhausen, Preludes 10 and 1 by Rachmaninoff, Sonata in B minor by Liszt, Echoes by Stephanos Malikides and Transcendental and Heavenly Birds by Legge-Wilkinson.  This listener tries to understand 'new' music as a self-training project and found herself really enjoying the Stockhausen pieces immensely. Both the Rachmaninoff and Liszt were new to me, and strangely, more difficult to 'get' than the Stockhausen. The pieces by Legge-Wilkinson and Malikides I had heard before.

This was a really meaty concert and deserved a review.  I am appalled that months of hard work in preparation ending in a performance of world stature should appear without a word of critical comment.

Another performance, this one in a genre for which I am qualified to review, was  On Course at the QL2 Centre for Youth Dance, 12 and 13 December 2009. This was reviewed, I understand. The programme was presented by QL2 students who are now in tertiary study - mostly 1st or 2nd year at such places as VCA, WAAPA  and QUT. I was delighted with their work, both as choreographers and dancers. Each choreographer presented his or her work beforehand, explaining the background and purpose of the piece. Dance themes varied between abstract relationships, emotions and perceptions and more basic subjects, such as personal experiences - Sleep, about two brothers sharing a bedroom for too long! - and Hello. My Name is . . ..  I could not fault either the choreography or the performance ability, which ranged from classical to modern to jazz. I was also pleased to see that the students actually danced, as opposed to showing off their physical skills - an increasingly tiresome feature of many professional shows.

On Course was a credit to the work that QL2 instigates. Ruth Osbourne has, I believe, created a unique environment where young students can both learn and experiment without pressure and absorb a discipline which will stand them in good use for a lifetime.

Review "Pennies From Kevin" – Malcolm Miller

I was going to write about this show, which I saw on the opening night, as did Frank McKone, but he has said everything that I would have wanted to say, and probably better than I could have.  I can now only say that if you want to see Australia's top revue/cabaret team in action, this is the one to see.  The sheer professionalism of the players is superb, the product of years of experience, and every detail polished.  We are very fortunate that the Wharf review has come to Canberra, and hope that they will now be regular visitors.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pennies from Kevin – The Wharf Revue by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, with Virginia Gay. Sydney Theatre Company at The Playhouse, Canberra


Pennies from Kevin – The Wharf Revue by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, with Virginia Gay.  Sydney Theatre Company at The Playhouse, Canberra, February 9-13 and March 11-13, 2010

What diversity of talent these four thrust before us.  They sing, play and dance in every popular style since the 1930s, but the most surprising and fascinatingly funny is to watch the Colliery Brass Band perform the opening bars of 2001: A Space Odyssey with trumpets, trombone, euphonium and drum.  They are the only four left in the band, of course, now that the rest are unemployed or working in “renewables”.

It’s amazing how there can seem to be some kind of logic in a story beginning in the Lower Chamber, Hogwart House, Kirribilli, rollicking through amongst other wonders the Independents of the Upper Chamber, the Democrats in Heaven, Michelle in the White House, Bob Ellis at 3am, up against the Wall in Palestine, and La dolce vita with Amanda V.

Berlusconi, Ratzinger and Vanstone is a combination of horror and laughter not to be missed.

It seems weird to write a serious review of such a riot of a revue, but I think it should be done.  The question is raised in my mind, is it a farcical parody or worthwhile satire?  To use the kind of wordsmithery Bob Ellis might employ, is it nobler in the mind to let fly the outrageous slings and arrows of political criticism, or to take arms against the oppressor’s wrongs, the proud man’s contumely? 

The high point of satire in the show, I think, is the scene entitled “Master Robert Ellis” (so like the real thing in some hidden Hogwart chamber in nightgown and candle that I found it hard to recognise which actor played the role).  Every nuance of Ellis’ shuffle, moody hesitation and originality of language is recreated, but this would still be only parody (and therefore insulting) if it were not for the wit in what he says.  We laugh not only because he sounds like Bob Ellis speaking, but because what he says is as politically pin-pricking as the real Bob is.  And it is not insulting to feel a certain sadness in the character who still wants to pretend he had an affair with Jackie Weaver, because there is a depth of feeling in the real Bob Ellis, a sadness in his integrity as he pinpoints our failings.  He reminds me, as his character in Pennies from Kevin does, of Pooh’s friend Eeyore.

To write and perform at this level, interpolated with pure slapstick for light relief, is to make a show which is far better than parody, and therefore worthwhile.  To come away laughing is one thing, but to see what is worth laughing at makes this show more than pennies, from Heaven or Kevin.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Manon" - Opera Australia - Sydney Opera House

January 15 to February 13 2009

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Opera Australia have scheduled only eight performances of this charming Stuart Maunder production of Jules Massenet's tuneful opera about a rather giddy young girl tempted away from a life in a convent, when she falls in love with a young chevalier, Des Grieux, who she meets at a coachhouse on the way to the convent. Manon runs away to Paris with Des Grieux, but it is not long before a decadent nobleman promises her a life of luxury as a courtesan and she leaves Des Grieux. Heartbroken Des Grieux decides to join the priesthood, as you do.

However after a few years Manon tires of the high life, the parties, the pretty dresses and jewels, and decides to visit the seminary where Des Grieux is just about to take his final vows. She persuades Des Grieux to run away with her and to gamble the last of his inheritance at the casino. When Des Grieux is accused of cheating, there is a scuffle and Manon and Des Grieux are arrested. Manon is sentenced as a prostitute for deportation to the colonies, and although Des Grieux tries to rescue her, it is too late, and she dies in his arms on the road .

Although this particular production was premiered by Opera Australia in 2004, this is the first opportunity I've had to see it, and it was fascinating to see it so soon after seeing Puccini's treatment of the same story in his opera "Manon Lescaut", which Opera Australia's presented last year in a terrific production, directed by Gale Edwards which starred Cheryl Barker as Manon. I had also seen the gorgeous ballet "Manon" choreographed by Kenneth McMillan and presented by the Australian Ballet at the end of 2008, in which Amber Scott danced the wayward heroine. The ballet also used Massenets music, but not the music he wrote for the opera.

Stuart Maunder's production of "Manon", earned him a Helpmann Award nomination, and it's easy to see why. Its everything one could wish for in a night out at the opera...crisp, witty direction, gorgeous sets and costumes, again by Roger Kirk who also designed "Manon Lascaut", and a handsome cast who looked and sounded as though they had been born to play the roles.

Absolutely captivating as Manon, Amelia Farrugia looked superb, sang gloriously and acted with confidence and  flair.  Also in great voice, Julian Gavin made a handsome, dashing Des Grieux., while Jose Carbo was  excellent as Manon's brother. Kanen Breen added another unforgettable characterisation to his repertoire as the effete nobleman Guillot de Morfontaine. Jacqueline Dark, Taryn Fiebig, Amy Wilkinson and Richard Anderson all  added strength to the production, as did Stephen Bennet as De Grieux's dignified father.

However, you'll have to be quick to catch this production as it ends on Saturday 13th February.

Broadcast in "Dress Circle" on Artsound.. Sunday 7th February.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House


La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave.  Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House February 1 – March 29 2010

I am not qualified to make critical judgements of the musicianship in this production,  which is directed by Elijah Moshinsky and features Elvira Fatykhova as Violetta and Aldo Di Toro as Alfredo.  However the full house on opening night applauded very enthusiastically after every aria and other set pieces.

Musically, I like what I like, and to hear Verdi’s music on this grand scale is a special experience.  But this was the first opportunity for me see the whole play, rather than hear parts sung in isolation, on recordings.  Theatrically, this presentation more than met my expectations.

In La dame aux camélias, the Dumas fils novel and play which were the source of the plot, Marguerite’s words define the central concern of the drama: “Whatever she may do, a fallen woman can never redeem herself!”  Though Alfredo loves Violetta truly and his father (Jonathan Summers) finally understands that she is worthy in herself, and is not to be treated simply as a fly in the ointment of his family’s reputation, tuberculosis is the device the author uses to avoid facing up to the final solution.  If she had not died, what would have become of her?

There has long been a trend in theatre to find a different setting for previous centuries’ plays to “update” them for a modern audience.  Last year I thought this had not worked for the production of Don Giovanni and some commentators have been concerned about this year’s Tosca.  This La traviata was set in its mid-19th Century Parisian high society context. Ironically Verdi had insisted on present-day costuming, but the Venice opera house overrode his wishes with a setting around 1700 instead of 1850.  Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J Hall’s costumes have done the right thing by Verdi, and by the modern audience. 

The effect, as I saw it, was that for us in modern Australia the “fallen woman” issue is a thing of the past, but the social pressures on Violetta and Alfredo and their emotional responses become metaphorical, symbolic of the determination of people of our generation to be independent of traditional family strictures and to find our own way in the world.  What for Verdi was a realistic story, for us is a timeless fairy story. 

The result was that the singers could freeze while the audience applauded, holding the emotion of the moment, and then pick up the thread to take us into the next phase.  The chorus could be wonderfully choreographed in group movement and dance on a crowded stage, almost like an Ancient Greek chorus providing context and commentary on the actions of the protagonists. 

Let’s not turn tuberculosis into breast cancer and dress Violetta in jeans.  Let’s be true to Verdi’s original conception, as this production is, so we can take what we need from his art.