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 .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Winter’s Discontent written and performed by William Zappa

Winter’s Discontent written and performed by William Zappa, with Andrea Close, at The Street Theatre, June 18 – July 3, 2010, 7.30pm.

Reviewed June 18 by Frank McKone

A mathematician asked me would this play be “theatre for theatricals”?

When the line “An actor prepares” was made prominent without any mention of Stanislavsky, I might have thought “yes” in response to my mathematical friend except that to see Winter’s Discontent as being limited to those with theatrical know-how would be to miss the point and misrepresent the play.

It is about an actor РRobert Winter Рpreparing (to play the role of Th̩nardier, the inn-keeper in Les Miserables, for which Zappa has won awards), but it could as easily be about a mathematician for whom working out a proof which has baffled others is as necessary to his or her sense of self as acting is for a serious performer. In each case there is technique, commitment, stress in the face of failure, wonder and beauty in success. This is art, essential to human life.

Winter’s Discontent works at several different levels.

It is a technical display of Zappa’s acting skills which in themselves are fascinating to watch. Seeing and hearing his fine control of voice, movement and facial expression can be compared with being at a Richard Tognetti concert. For the theatrically savvy, technique may be enough to satisfy. But for the wider audience there is more to come.

It is a carefully crafted script, in which a small seemingly insignificant mystery (an airmail letter) grows into a point of emotional climax in Robert Winter’s life, which he has to resolve when the “beginner’s call” takes him out of his dressing room as “the House is open and the stage is live”. The backstage language is opened up for a non-technical audience to understand, because it is used in the context of Winter’s experience. The dramatic structure is conventional, engaging the audience in an empathetic concern for the character. Will he be able to face his audience while carrying the weight of feeling that he has failed his own son?

At this level, some may feel the play is too contrived, but there is still more. William Zappa really is an actor. It is hard not to imagine that he has had to face up to something like the horrifying experience that he has written for his character, Robert Winter. Indeed, in his acknowledgements, he offers “special thanks to Asha Zappa for inspiring, and putting up with an absentee father”. This is the very fault that Robert Winter – an actor always away from home – believes is the cause of his son’s suicide. Is it not possible that Zappa’s play has had to “go on” despite something awful happening off stage?

Now this play and this performance becomes a matter of extraordinary bravery. And now it opens up for any kind of audience our feelings about things that so often must be done – for duty’s sake, for financial survival, for the sake of someone else’s mental or physical survival, for an ideal, indeed even for art’s sake – even though one’s circumstances seem to make “going on” impossible.

I can only conclude by encouraging mathematicians and anyone else with a human heart to experience Winter’s Discontent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Standing in line in order of height. STELLA WILKIE

Standing in line in order of height

A collaborative dance production by QL2 Centre for Youth Dance & Maya Dance Theatre (Singapore)
At the Gorman House Arts Centre Canberra, 10-12 June 2010
Standing in line in order of height explores journeys of individuals through their internal search and from the eye of urban society, In this day and age, is it possible to achieve success through conformity or individualism?
This quote from the program forms the frame through which we saw an awe-inspiring and original choreographic piece, bringing its first night audience to their feet with deserved cheers and long applause.
The production is divided into five parts: Samsara (Cycle), choreographed by Kavitha Krishnan, music by Rupak George; I am …, choreographed by Kavitha Krishnan, music by Rupak George; Choices, choreographed by Ruth Osborne, music by Adam Ventoura; Neat Streets, Messy Minds, choreographed by Liz Lea, music by Nicholas Ng, Adam Ventooura; In Your Own Skin, choreographed by Ruth Osborne& Kavitha Krishnan, music by Adam Ventoura, Rupak George.
One or two pieces were danced by either QL2 or Maya dancers, but the mostly it was a dazzling combination of modern western and eastern dance, with tantalizing glimpses of, for example, eastern foot and finger work, The use of music and spoken word added a deeper significance to the work, which, I might say, was performed with no intervals for about ninety minutes; I don’t believe I have ever seen such prolonged energy.
All the dancers are at tertiary level. They had learned this complex and difficult choreography in about two to three weeks, yet they all succeeded in conveying the underlying theme with a deep inner response besides an amazing accuracy and apparent ease in movement.
I hope their performance in Singapore, 17-19 June will be as well received as it was here in Canberra.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith

Honour by Joanna Murray-Smith. Sydney Theatre Company directed by Lee Lewis, at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 9-12, 2010 8pm and matinee June 12, 2pm.

Reviewed June 9, 2010, by Frank McKone

Perfect casting – Wendy Hughes as the wife Honour, Paula Arundell as the lover Claudia, Yael Stone as the daughter Sophie, William Zappa as the husband, lover and father George – would have made this production stand out even if the set design had not so cleverly presented the actors to us.

The acting was quite simply awesome. A mere critic can have almost nothing to say, seeing such clear definition of every emotion. Of course it is Murray-Smith’s writing which provides all the twists and turns of love, from beginning to end, for the actors to work on. It was just wonderful to see every opportunity taken, the complexity of each moment revealed by each performer as an individual and as a totally connected member of the ensemble.

It was without doubt an honour to to be present at such a performance of such a play.

Since the history of productions of Honour took it from its 1995 Melbourne beginnings off around the world, only now coming to us in Canberra via Sydney, it was a revelation to me to see such a mature understanding of marriage, and such a degree of control of dialogue as a theatrical medium when, as Murray-Smith says, “I wrote the play as a new writer” then aged 29. Recently I reviewed her quite recent play, Ninety, presented very well at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, but Honour is by far the better play.

Ninety is a deliberately neatly structured piece, also on the theme of a husband about to re-marry, to a young attractive woman, but with a degree of predictability in the to and fro. Will he go or might he return to his previous wife becomes a kind of game for us to watch. But Honour has levels of emotional slipping and sliding so like real life that we feel for each character because they can’t know what will happen, and we have all been in this situation. Can love ever settle into stability? Or must we always live in the expectation of unpredictable change?

With this theme, perhaps the only theme of great drama, it was good to see the action played in a set which offered many interpretations. Two horizontal levels, three wide steps between, enclosed but not bounded by vertical spaced timbers could become George and Honour’s upmarket house, Claudia’s flat, the grounds of a university, or simply an abstract space for the meeting of minds. Without the conventions that a naturalistic set would impose on our imaginations, we were free to identify with the characters as if from within their consciousness.

And so this is a production of a play which should not be missed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shakespeare’s R&J adapted by Joe Calarco

Shakespeare’s R&J adapted by Joe Calarco. Directed by Craig Ilott. Presented by Riverside Productions and Spiritworks at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, June 8-12, 2010.

Reviewed June 8, 2010 by Frank McKone

I left the Q feeling that something was missing or I was missing something.

Was it my fault for expecting more from a play which began a decade ago as a Spiritworks – Bell Shakespeare co-production? Perhaps it was created as a theatre-in-education piece rather than an adult production of Shakespeare. Young people behind me certainly enjoyed the young men’s sexual references at the beginning, and Nurse’s volubility, as I did, but I’m not sure they could believe in the love and self-sacrifice at the end.

Was it Shakespeare’s fault? Well, hardly, especially since we were given other bits even beyond Romeo and Juliet, like the Summer’s Day poem and part of Puck’s speech at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Was it the production? Well, no. Although much of the text was delivered at high speed, perhaps representing how young men might speak Shakespeare, the meaning was clear. The use of theatrical devices in the set design, sound and light design and choreography was very effective – less is more created imaginative imagery and meaning from simple props, costume changes, and lighting from darkness through hand torches to careful selective stage lights. Only the thunderstorm was overdone. Though the explosive sound represented the turmoil in the Romeo and Juliet story, darker rumbling may have been less melodramatic.

So I had to conclude the fault is in the writing – by Joe Calarco, who claims to have done no more than “adapt” Shakespeare. The problem is that this play is not about Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. It is about four young men supposedly “who live together in the repressive regime of a Catholic boarding school (of decades ago)” who “engage in a clandestine reading of Romeo and Juliet” and who – according to the director’s notes – “are awakened, to themselves and to something greater than themselves .... it frees them to experience, to express, to feel, to fail – and to love.”

I could certainly see this intention in the set design and to some extent in the way the boys spoke their lines. I could see the idea in having the boys acting out what Shakespeare’s script demanded – the taunting of young males to the point of attack, with tragic consequences; the kissing and touching intimacy of the boy playing Romeo and the boy playing Juliet. But the four boys, called only Students 1, 2, 3 and 4, never spoke to each other in their own words, never named each other, and had no individual personalities except those they required as they played each of their various roles. Only at the very end, as the boy playing Juliet was left alone in his shirt-sleeves while the other three donned their school uniform jackets and departed, did I have a feeling for this boy, as himself, as he moved on from Puck’s dream speech to his own dream.

By this time it was too late. Here was the beginning of this play’s story, but in the last line. Instead of these boys exploring the text, as the director’s notes say, they are represented as having learnt the text with professional technique and level of understanding. Between attempts to perform the Shakespeare, we needed to identify with each individual boy as he discovers what Shakespeare meant and becomes aware of his changing feelings for the other boys. The play of the relationships between the boys needs to run in parallel with their play of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, like a kind of double helix, to make a fully complex play called Shakespeare’s R&J. I saw one strand of DNA, but not its mate. This was what was missing.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE - Melbourne Opera - Canberra Theatre 29th May. Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Very well sung in English by an accomplished cast, with attractive sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, Melbourne Opera's "The Barber of Seville" is certainly one of the funniest productions of Rossini's masterpiece that I've seen.

Not afraid to spice up proceedings with topical references and vaudeville-style sight gags, director Hugh Halliday kept the farcical action bubbling along without losing the focus of the storyline or sacrificing the beauty of the delightful Rossini music.

Sally-anne Russell, in glorious voice as the rebellious Rosina, was wilful, rude and very funny, at one stage resorting to Ipod earphones to avoid listening to her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, given a stylish comic performance by Ian Cousins.

Handsome, charismatic and possessing a fine, rich voice, baritone Phillip Calcagno was excellent casting as Figaro, the manipulative barber. The surprise of the night, however, was David Gould, absolutely unrecognizable and uproariously funny as the decrepit old music teacher, Don Basilio, who uses a bicycle chain to secure his walking frame.

Operatunity tenor, Roy Best, revealed a flair for comedy as the object of Rosina's affections, Count Almaviva, but it was Margaret Haggart, as the housekeeper, Berta, who almost stole the show with her brilliant second act aria.

Adding to the pleasure, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra, conducted by Greg Hocking, provided crisp, sensitive accompaniment, full bodied when required, but alert to the necessity for the lyrics to be heard above the orchestrations.

An edited version of this review appears in the June 3 - 9 edition of "City News".

FAME - Queanbeyan Players - The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre - May 21 - June 5 -Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Queanbeyan Players have a winner in this dazzling production of "Fame", for which they've assembled an impressive cast of gifted young performers, backed by an excellent production team, to portray the trials and tribulations of young hopefuls attending the celebrated New York City High School of Performing Arts.

Thompsong Quan Wing has utilised every inch of the Q's stage for his clever multi-level set, successfully capturing the ambience of the run-down school. Raphael Wong's excellent band is accomodated in full view of the audience, and there's plenty of room for Jacquelyn Richard's frenetic dance routines, which the young cast attack with obvious relish and enthusiasm.

Drawing on all his experience and flair, director Stephen Pike coaxes strong performances from his young cast. Jaime Isfahani is compelling as the wilful, ill-fated Carmen Diaz. Peter Ricardo nails his laughs as the extrovert Joe Vegas, while Krystle Innes as the big voiced Mabel, Beth Deer as ballet dancer Iris, Jordan Kelly as street dancer Tyrone, and Joanna Richards and Bill Bouchier providing the romantic interest as Serena and Nick, all offer strong, confident performances.

Marie Le Brun, Berin Denham and Jonathan Garland effectively portray the teaching faculty, with Amy Fitzpatrick, as the authoritarian Miss Sherman, providing one of many highlights with her singing of "These Are My Children".

Attractive costuming and imaginative light and sound design add to the pleasures of this extraordinarily accomplished production.

An edited version of this review appears in the 27th May - 2nd June edition of "City News".