Friday, April 30, 2010

Tin Pan Aussie by John Shortis & Moya Simpson

Tin Pan Aussie Shortis & Simpson at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, April 29 – May 1, 2010.

Reviewed April 29, by Frank McKone

I first reviewed the John Shortis and Moya Simpson team at the beginning of their Canberra Region history in 1996, in Shortis & Curlies at the erstwhile Queanbeyan School of Arts Café. There’s always been a certain gentleness in their musical humour and political satires throughout their 14 year career, and a kind of earnestness in John’s stage manner. There have been times when I thought the cutting edge of political commentary was softened too much. But Tin Pan Aussie seemed to me to get the balance right.

Shortis plays himself, but with a note of humorous self-deprecation in calling himself Professor. Yet when one considers the 44 songs dating from 1900 to 1957 which tell us the story of Australian popular music related to our social history throughout this period, his research justifies the title. Between the Federation Polka and Wild One we see and hear the development from ragtime, through jazz, hillbilly and songs from the wars which ordinary Australians wrote, played and sang. For me, a 10£ Pom who arrived in 1955, here was a new understanding of the culture that I belong to today.

But there is nothing academic about the performances of Moya Simpson, whose range and quality of voice has matured markedly in recent years, of Shortis himself on piano and singing, and especially of the band – Peter J Casey, Ian Blake, Jon Jones and Dave O’Neill – unless you would like to class their skills at reproducing 44 pieces of music in each of the original styles as an academic exercise. To me it was an involving thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.

The choice of songs, so many expressing vernacular humour, while often telling the truth about real people’s experiences in the good times and the bad, has taken this Shortis & Simpson show a step further towards the edge. There is no softening here in “My Little Wet Home in the Trench” (World War I), “Happy Valley” (from the Depression) or “Back in Circulation” (written in a Japanese World War II PoW camp), and wonderful contrasts in such songs as the pseudo-Hawaiian “Memories of a Lovely Lei”.

Instead of relying on inventing satirical commentary external to the subject matter, the selection of material creates its own comment on Australian life from within. The result is telling, showing us now to ourselves as we once were. And it shows me how Shortis & Simpson have grown in musical and political stature since their School of Arts Café days.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Power of Yes by David Hare

The Power of Yes by David Hare. Company B Belvoir directed by Sam Strong. Belvoir St, Sydney, April 22 – May 30, 2010.

Reviewed April 27 by Frank McKone.

This play reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Shaw’s response to The Great War was to write a comedy about a tragedy. David Hare has done the same for the Global Financial Crisis.

At first I thought the device of the author himself being the central character could not be sustained. It seemed suspiciously too easy, and difficult to imagine how a storyline beginning in February 2007 with “United States subprime mortgages industry worth an estimated $US1.3 trillion collapses, with 25 subprime lending firms declaring bankruptcy” and concluding on 1 June 2009 with “General Motors, the world’s largest car-maker, declares bankruptcy” could possibly develop dramatically on the stage.

Shaw used fictional characters in a house full of sea-faring references as a metaphor for an England being changed forever by the sad lie that this was the War to End War. But Hare’s characters, including himself, are real. Shaw had to delay the production of Heartbreak House until after the end of the war, but Hare lets us know in no uncertain terms that the perfidy of the banks and the people paid so much to run them that they have no interest in checking their company accounts is a system of lies whose story still has a long way to go.

In fact, the drama in The Power of Yes is successful because as the character David Hare listens to a great array of financial system stake-holders, trying to understand such things as how the Royal Bank of Scotland could amass assets greater in value than the whole of the output of the British Isles, we identify with his wanting to know and with his terrifying suspicion that no-one really knows how the GFC happened, nor what to do about it. Though George Soros does get a guernsey.

For a theatre-going Sydney audience which I guess included many of the monied class, the laughter and the still moments of embarrassed reflection rang external and internal bells. We cannot wait till after the end of the war to see this play, because we may never know when the end has come.

On the night I attended, even events in the audience and off-stage proved that the unpredictable may happen at any time, exactly as demonstrated in the play. No Harvard Business School mathematical formula could have foretold that a woman would faint, creating a 20 minute break in the performance, just as building societies were being turned into banks which were destined to fail. Nor could anyone know that actor Rhys Muldoon’s mother would be hospitalised suddenly, so that he had to leave the stage before the final scenes. We hope for the best for both families.

The evening concluded with warm appreciation from the audience for the actors’ work, not only in so clearly performing a text horribly replete in the jargon of financial complexity, but for their professionalism in the face of unfortunate unavoidable interruptions. It was a great cast for a great play.

Monday, April 26, 2010

BLISS - Opera Australia

An Opera by Brett Dean and Amanda Holder Based on the Novel by Peter Carey.
Sydney Opera House March 12 - 30 2010

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Only time, and a few more productions, will tell if "Bliss" is a great opera, but there is no doubt that Opera Australia's premiere production is an exciting one.

With significant assistance from Brian Thomson's extraordinary LED-studded setting, complete with revolving turntable, Neil Armfield has devised a brilliant production which literally swirls through Peter Carey's surreal story of Harry Joy, the Managing Director of an advertising agency, whose major mid-life crisis sees him end up in an asylum, allowing his ambitious wife Betty to take over the business with catastrophic results. It's a production which intrigues, fascinates and disturbs.

Stunningly orchestrated, Brett Dean's music is given a fastidiously detailed performance by conductor Elgar Howarth, and though it took a little while to get used to hearing Australian vernacular sung out loud, Amanda Holden's libretto is remarkably successful in capturing the essence of the Peter Carey novel.

There are confronting scenes and marvelous performances. Peter Coleman-Wright is superb as Harry Joy, a role written specially for him. He creates a flawed but believable everyman so compellingly that I felt slightly impatient when the focus of the opera moved to the plight of his wife Betty, despite an arresting portrayal by Merlyn Quaife.

Former Canberra soprano, Lorina Gore, was superb as Honey B, Harry's call-girl lover. She brings warmth and charm to a vocally dazzling role. David Corcoran and Taryn Fiebig also find unexpected depth in their roles as Harry's two wretched children.

Opera Australia deserves congratulations for the meticulous care it has lavished on bringing "Bliss" to fruition. It is indeed a welcome addition to that rarest of endangered species..Australian opera.

An edited version of this review was published in "City News" on 22nd April

THE SILVER ROSE - The Australian Ballet

Choreography by Graeme Murphy. Set and costume design by Roger Kirk, Music by Carl Vine, Conducted by Nicolette Fraillon. Sydney Opera House till 29th April 2010

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Originally devised for the Bavarian State Ballet, but acquired by the Australian Ballet for its 2010 season, "The Silver Rose" is a magical new ballet inspired by the opera "Der Rosenkavalier" but re-imagined by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon into a ravishing concoction that is sexy, funny and wonderfully entertaining, offering as it does superb dancing, gorgeous costumes and settings, and some of Graeme Murphys most inventive and joyous choreography.

Obviously enjoying the task, Graeme Murphy has teased out a storyline that has a young toy-boy escaping the clutches of a glamorous cougar just in time to meet and fall in love with a gorgeous young woman who is about to be married against her wishes to a lecherous baron. All of which is danced to a lovely score so expertly chosen from existing music composed by Carl Vine that one could be forgiven for thinking that it had been composed expressly for this ballet, and given a superb performance by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Nicollete Fraillon.

Designer Roger Kirk has created a wonderfully erotic Art Noveau dream-world for the ballet, inspired by fin-de-siecle Vienna, and the artwork of Gustav Klimt, all floating draperies and burnished gold decoration, inhabited by dancers whose costumes vary from sexy white underwear, to all-over black leather, and glamorous ball gowns which could have been designed by Dior or Balenciaga. The over-all effect is of erotic decadence, only marred by the bare-top overalls for the five nightmare figures in Act 111 which seem strangely out of style and mood with the rest of the ballet.

At the performance I attended the dancing by the principals and the ensemble was first-rate. Perfectly cast as the Marschallin, Lana Jones was sophisticated, elegant, coquettish and deliciously sensual in the Act 1 pas de deux with her young lover, Octavian, yet achingly melancholy in the Act 11 pas de trios as she sends the young lovers on their way. Her assured combination of confident acting and virtuoso dancing combine to produce a memorable performance that is both arresting and deeply affecting.

Handsome and passionate, Daniel Gaudiello was also well cast as her young lover Octavian, partnering attentively and not afraid to go for the laughs in the scenes where, disguised as the maid, he attempts to evade the unwelcome advances of the odious Baron Ochs, played with great gusto by Andrew Killian.

As the object of Octavian's affections, Madeleine Eastoe was a delightfully feisty Sophie, refusing to bow to her father's wishes in her determination to choose her own partner. It was a great pleasure to see Damien Welch bringing his considerable presence to the role of Sophie's father, while both Brook Locket and Jacob Sofer attacked their roles as the journalist and the leather-clad photographer with style and finesse. Brett Simon, Rohan Furnell and Brett Chynoweth had great fun with their roles as the Marschallin's colourful and fastidious trio of  fashionistas.

"The Silver Rose" is a welcome addition to the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and a jewel in the crown of the growing collection of fine Graeme Murphy ballets currently offered by Australia's flagship ballet company.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Musk at M16 Artspace - Review by Yolande Norris

Hardware, maths and arm wrestling. That’s what real men are made of. Benjamin Forster, Robbie Karmel and TJ Phillipson are a group of local artists questioning and exploring what it is to be men in their exhibition Musk at M16 Artspace.

All three are well known about town for their tongue in cheek cultural appropriations and witty subversions of the art world. For Musk, the lads have collaborated on many of the works on show and are refusing to credit individual artworks with their maker. This over-arching anonymity means that the artists are released from the confines of self-representation, able instead to present bigger picture ideas and a common view. Despite this, the contributions of each artist are easily recognisible to fans of Forster, Karmel and Phillipson, who have been storming the local art scene for the past eighteen months.

No stereotype is spared and pop-culture references are peppered throughout. Fans of TV’s first family The Simpsons will instantly recognise Spice Rack – After Homer, a perfect replica of Homer Simpson’s attempt to prove that he is manly enough to build things for Marge.

This persistent cliche of the Man As Builder is expressed in the plentiful references to hardware that appear in the show. The unmistakable influence of Ben Forster is evident as he nerds out in typical form with a selection of artworks that utilise custom computer programming. The Men I Look Up To series is portraits of Forster’s heroes, their likenesses mapped out by binary code in a patterned nuts and bolts motif.

Robbie Karmel (face obscured) appears in a row of gargantuan photographs on the adjoining wall. Resplendent in glittering tights and a peacock feather headdress he makes an eye-popping homage to ostentatious male beauty in the natural world. Nearby, a collection of rubber pool toys are intermittently inflated to attention by screaming leaf-blowers - those iconic suburban male playthings - before again withering out of shape in a suggestive though pathetic display.

The flexing and posturing continues with Arm Wrestle, a platform built for the very purpose including a camera to record and play back bouts for subsequent spectator’s viewing pleasure. This hotbed of competition becomes the central focus of the exhibition and represents a competitive streak that some would say is inherent to maleness.

An unmistakable self-deprecating humour occurs throughout the show. This larrikin approach particularly anchors the works in the realm of Australian male identity and creates a non-threatening environment into which more serious agendas are able to emerge.

Although Musk doesn’t attempt to make any hard hitting constructive commentary on the state of modern masculinity, it is a collection of highly entertaining works that antagonise further consideration of male identity.  It does only scratch the surface however, and maybe, in this case, bigger would be better.

Musk continues at M16 Artspace until the 2nd of May

For more on the Canberra art scene, please visit Useless Lines

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Theatre by Frank McKone: The Age I’m In - Dance Theatre by Force Majeure

The Age I’m In  Dance Theatre by Force Majeure directed by Kate Champion.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre April 16-17, 2010.

It’s a great thrill to see work of this quality at The Q.  Congratulations to program manager Stephen Pike for including The Age I’m In in his Simply Irresistible 2010 season.  This show simply is.

Kate Champion’s Force Majeure won ‘Outstanding Performance by a Company’ for The Age I'm In at the 2009 Australian Dance Awards, so it’s a special coup for Queanbeyan.  What I found most impressive was the natural way that diverse elements – pure dance, creative movement, mime, spoken word – are integrated with the physical space, recorded sound and music, lighting and finally back projection and portable video screens.  Making a focussed artistic work using all these devices turns what, in principle is a simple or even ordinary idea – showing the experience of being different at different ages – into a higher form of art.

The video screens are the most extraordinary.  It was hard to imagine how the images could appear so precisely in time with the action, while the effect of the picture on the screen often being an image of the part of the person who is behind the screen was quite unnerving, though one could not look away.  This is a new way of interpreting the idea of mask,  using sophisticated technology. 

Yet it is the oldest form of expression, bodily movement and dance, which remains the core of the work, a commentary in action on the words spoken by Australians in real life interviews, about generational differences, family relationships, disability, ageing, drugs, sex, money, class, body image and even rock’n’roll.  There is humour, sympathy, empathy and real concern, but there is also resilience, hope and success. 

All in 90 minutes, through 26 scenes.  There is Robyn, a woman played by both Veronica Neave and Vincent Crowley; a little boy Jack by Byron Perry and Kirstie McCracken; Tracey by Ingrid Weistfelt; Dan by Josh Mu; Sam the air guitarist by Samuel Brent; and Grandparents and Grandaughter Tilly Cobham-Hervey, Brian Harrison and Penny Everingham.  Some performers originally trained in dance, while others as actors, all working together in ever changing roles and moods.

Kate Champion has put together a team of great strength behind the scenes: Geoff Cobham (designer), Roz Hervey (artistic associate), Max Lyandvert (composer), Bruce McKinven (costume designer), Mark Blackwell (sound editor), Tony Melov (audiovisual producer), Neil Jensen (audiovisual designer), and finally William Yang, the photographer whose show My Generation opened the National Portrait Gallery in December 2008. 

Unfortunately you will have missed the Queanbeyan presentation by the time you read this, and will have to chase the show to Wagga Wagga, Griffith and Newcastle or to Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts on May 4 – 5.  I would book now.  There should be spare planes to fly there while the Iceland volcano keeps erupting.

For the full touring schedule, check out

and if you are a technical buff, have a look at Age I'm In - Technical Specifications Regional.pdf  for the touring specifications – just fascinating.

Theatre by Frank McKone: King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare Company directed by Marion Potts at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre April 15 – May 1, 2010.

If there is one thing King Lear makes clear, it is that kings can’t expect to comfortably retire on a super pension, even if it is backed by 100 knights. What about an actor/director?  John Bell’s constitution is more than impressive.  It’s amazing to me that he can go on putting out such energy night after night (and present himself for the public at the opening night cast party).  Can he keep going?

Considering the historical significance of this play and this production, there is as much to say about Marion Potts’ directing, the design and execution, as there is about the acting.  In King Lear and The Tempest, though their earthly political plots look superficially familiar, Shakespeare took flight creatively into an ethereal theatre of symbolism.

Because this production marks the 20th anniversary of the Bell Shakespeare Company as well as the year in which John Bell turns three score and ten (and the $15 Anniversary Edition Souvenir Program includes a Wesfarmers advert titled “Presenting the Extraordinary”), I cannot avoid the question, does Bell Shakespeare reach the heights of William Shakespeare?

BHPBilliton quotes Ben Johnson: He was not of an age, but for all time.  They go on “This comment was made about Shakespeare but we think it also holds true for John Bell.”  It’s nice of the biggest mining company in the world to pay for the privilege of saying so, but I think it’s not entirely true.  John, indeed,  has placed himself in a more realistic relationship with William in his note as Artistic Director, writing It is incontestable that, to some extent, Shakespeare invented us; and through constant engagement with his work, we go on re-inventing ourselves.

So, to the performance I saw on April 16, 2010 just ten days short of William’s 446th birthday. 

The beginning was extraordinary as a circular white curtain rose to reveal the Lear family isolated in an island of light.  Off to the side, but made visible, the instruments of emotion interplayed with the action of the sculptural figures in the centre of our attention.  Here was King Lear prefiguring The Tempest.  Shakespeare’s words were as clear as we might expect from Bell, and the scene was set for “Nothing will come of nothing.”  Much, in theatre, will come of simplicity.  The open stage with no more than a central raised revolve, with light and sound, was all that was needed.  Stage design held the play in place.

For this we must thank Marion Potts, designer Dale Ferguson, lighting designer Nick Schlieper, sound designer Stefan Gregory, and composer Bree van Reyk: seen and heard, even though largely mysterious to us spectators. 

But the edge was taken off the imaginative intensity, at various points and in various ways.  I found it difficult to feel the purity of truth in the naïve Cordelia, dressed as she was in a mess of clothing, in which she reappeared, with the addition of a cloak, years later as the mature Queen of France.  She needed clean lines, simple in style in Scene 1 to contrast with her overblown sisters, an idealistic 15 year old who naturally would entrance the King of France, with or without a dowry.  As grown-up strategic leader of the rescue invasion, she should more than match her sisters for wealth in a costume of plain elegance. 

Cordelia was always my favourite Shakespeare character, and I was disappointed, even though I could not fault the quality of any of the acting.  The characters seemed to be speaking just as themselves, even when speaking directly to the audience.  Whatever they symbolise, there was never a hint of “speaking Shakespeare”.  Perhaps the audience responded to three actors in particular (though their parts also help) – Peter Carroll as The Fool, Tim Walter as Edmund and Leah Purcell as Regan, especially when she makes her move on Edmund.  So spiteful towards her rival, her sister Goneril , a ferocious Jane Montgomery Griffiths.

The speed and ease of entrances and exits made the set work wonderfully.  The transitions from scene to scene are so often a major point of weakness in other productions, but never in Bell Shakespeare.  However, I was surprised that the on-stage musical instruments disappeared after interval and sound became distant and only electronic.  It was an emotional loss, especially because in the first half, characters used the instruments to comment on themselves.  It was an imaginative master stroke, for example, to have Lear strike a cymbal and use his stick to strike an inferior character.

But the major disappointment for me was the staging of the ending of the play.  Why were Lear and Cordelia left grovelling on the floor downstage left, where I could not see them except by wriggling about trying to peer between the audience’s heads in front of me?  Why were they not taken to the central circle?  Why didn’t the ending reprise the opening, with Lear and Cordelia isolated on the island, delicately enclosed again in the white curtain while Kent and Edgar spoke the words which reinforced what Cordelia had said in Scene 1?  Am I being too obvious?  Shouldn’t the symbolism be made this clear?

And, returning at last to the constitution of John Bell, I have found, over perhaps the last ten years or so, that the quality of his voice has often become restricted to a flat, rather thin sounding tone.  This could work, for example, when he played Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, but it left me cold in King Lear.  On the night, there was much strength and range of tone in Scene 1, but by the storm scene I lost feeling for this huge old man facing up to the elements as if he might defeat whatever they could throw at him, and in the final scene I could not feel the loss that this father felt, realising that his failing was the cause of his true daughter’s death.

Perhaps it is the clarity of meaning which John Bell has brought to the performance of Shakespeare, (which I still remember being impressed by when I first saw him in a tent in Adelaide in 1964, and still today is a great achievement), that has taken the focus off the creation of emotion in those of us watching.  So I conclude that this production is in many ways a very good presentation of  King Lear, but it does not reach the heady heights of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Theatre by Frank McKone: Ich Bin Faust written and directed by Joe Woodward

Ich Bin Faust written and directed by Joe Woodward, Coordinator of Creative Arts and Theatre, Daramalan College, Canberra.  Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 6-10, 2010, 8pm.

The first purpose of this production is to extend the theatre experience of a group of senior secondary students who last year presented a group devised performance based on their studies of the Faust story, mainly derived from Marlowe and Goethe.

This script, written by Woodward but with considerable workshop input from his students, is also intended to develop the students’ thinking about the relevance of the Faustian theme to present day life.  The plot follows what happens to a drama group who previously worked on a piece about Faust, starting from the cast party, reaching the end of their schooling and meeting up again four years later.  Characters in this story parallel characters in the Faustian dramas.  Is it possible not to sell one’s soul to the devil in the modern world of “I am”?

I guess there is also a desire to demonstrate what the students can do theatrically, and raise issues about the transition into adulthood for an audience of parents and student peers.

It’s not my place to write competitive reviews of individual performances, but it is fair to say that the group standard was very much what I would expect from a seriously committed Year 12 drama class.  I certainly saw some potential tertiary theatre studies students.

It took me quite some time to feel involved in the drama, so I have some doubts about the script writing.  It is true that the characters begin as youngish, a bit immature, almost “typical” dramaheads and grow into young adults, but the slow pace and background broken-up video images and sound track, combined with short duo scenes interspersed with drama workshoppy group movement segments made it difficult for me to find focus in the first half.  Only in the more substantial mother-daughter scene did things start to fall into place, and in the later sections the metaphorical use of masks and devil characters worked effectively, reaching a strong emotional ending which made the ethic of being principled in life rather than self-indulgent come to the fore.

As an educational exercise, the work is obviously well worthwhile.  Using the Large Hadron Collider as a focus for the range of questions around science and religion, life and death, and ethical principles certainly works for young people just reaching adulthood, as they search to establish their own identities and philosophies to carry them through an uncertain future.  The script, in a nice piece of irony, was written before the Collider actually proved to work, only a few days ago, without causing us all to be sucked into a black hole.