Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Fall of the City by Archibald MacLeish, directed by Andrew Holmes

The Fall of the City by Archibald MacLeish, directed by Andrew Holmes. ANU School of Cultural Inquiry, College of the Arts and Social Sciences at ANU Arts Centre Drama Lab October 26-29, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 29

Following Andrew Holmes’ production of MacLeish’s Panic (on the blog August 25, 2011), The Fall of the City is his next research project. Holmes writes “I am currently undertaking a PhD in Drama, with a focus on revaluing Archibald MacLeish’s early achievements in the genre of verse drama. However, rather than focussing on the more traditional methods of analysis that have accompanied much discourse around MacLeish’s career as a playwright, I am seeking to understand how his plays work in their performance context rather than, as MacLeish himself would have put it, how they read as ‘thin little books to lie on front parlor tables.’”

Holmes states that The Fall of the City was the first American verse play written for broadcast radio, in 1937, which places it in context as an early example of work such as Australian poet Douglas Stewart’s Fire on the Snow (1941) and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood (1954). The latter will be staged in May 2012 by Sydney Theatre Company as a “play with voices” rather than as a “play for voices” on radio.

Perhaps taking a cue from the original 1953 presentation at the YMHA New York of Under Milk Wood before it was broadcast by the BBC, where five actors stood on stage without moving, except for Thomas himself who stepped forward for the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ morning prayer, Holmes had his audience seated on the flat stage of the Drama Lab looking up at figures with white masks in the raked seating. Only Duncan Ley, as the radio reporter, was without a mask, speaking into his microphone.

In this role, Ley found just the right degree of precision of voice and clarity of descriptive expression for an announcer giving the radio audience a detailed mental picture of the scene in the city square, the flurries of movement and silences among the crowd (perhaps of 10,000, he tells us) as the Conqueror approaches. His commentary is interspersed with speeches, such as from a woman in the crowd expressing her fear for the future, a state minister on a podium seeking a peaceful response rather than violence in the face of terrorism, ‘messengers’ who report what has happened in a nearby city through which the Conqueror has just passed, a man in the crowd expressing the need to defend freedom. While each individual speaks s/he removes the mask, and the whole crowd (of 20 actors) move in stylised unison in response to the changing moods until the Conqueror arrives. Despite what has to be a deep apprehension, the crowd succumbs to the charisma of the Conqueror and cheer him as if he is a hero rather than a controlling dictator taking their freedom away from them.

This simple visual representation of the scene seemed to me to enhance the effect that the play would have if it were presented on radio today. Whereas radio in the 1930s had nation-wide sway (Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds proving a highly disturbing example, apart from Hitler’s speeches), today perhaps only the talkback shock-jocks can claim to have anything like the same impact. I guess that MacLeish’s poetry would quickly fade into the ether, while Holmes’ stage treatment, though for a small audience, had strength in a message that is a warning that today we are not far from the dangers that developed in the 1930s. Only an hour or so before seeing The Fall of the City tonight, I saw the breaking news intrude across the ABC website that Alan Joyce had just announced the complete shutdown of Qantas indefinitely, until the unions ‘come to agreement’.

I certainly think that Holmes’ approach to taking MacLeish’s work out of ‘thin little books’ and onto the stage has worked effectively to show the quality of MacLeish’s writing. Since it would not be practical to take so many actors on tour, it could be worthwhile videoing this production of The Fall of the City. Even a limited television or YouTube distribution could bring MacLeish’s warning to the fore, at the very time we need it. After all, PhDs in the sciences have direct impacts in the real world. Why shouldn’t a Drama PhD?


Presented by Queanbeyan Players
Director: Judith Colquhorn
Musidal Director: Matt Greenwood,
Choreographer: Belinda Hassall
Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre till 5th November.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

“Me and My Girl” is a charming musical with no deep messages but lots of funny one-liners, some double entendre and a delightfully catchy score by Noel gay which includes “The Lambeth Walk”, guaranteed to inhabit your mind for days.

The storyline revolves around a young cockney barrow-boy, Bill Snibson, who inherits a title, and a fortune, on the condition that he renounces his fiancĂ©e, Sally Smith, to marry someone ‘more suitable’.

As Bill Snibson and Sally Smith, Patrick McLoughlin and Ruth Albertson-Kill are an attractive pairing, bringing charm, likeability and pleasant singing voices to their roles. They receive enthusiastic support from the large cast which includes Peter Dark, wickedly funny as the bibulous Sir John Tremayne, Liz de Totth as the imperious Duchess of Dene, Gary Collinson as the nerdy Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke, and especially Georgia Pike, whose scene-stealing performance as the glamorous gold-digger, Lady Jacqueline Carstone, is alone worth the price of admission.

Though rather basic, the set design provides ample space for Belinda Hassall’s well staged production numbers, enhanced by colourful 1930’s inspired costumes, and the accompaniment of the enthusiastic, if uneven, band conducted by Matt Greenwood.

With more experience, first-time director, Judith Colquhoun will learn how to avoid having her actors mask each other during scenes, and how to get full value from their laugh lines, meanwhile this delightfully cheerful production provides a very pleasant theatrical experience.

An edited version of this review appears in City News October 27th - November 2 edition.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Four Flat Whites in Italy by Roger Hall

Four Flat Whites in Italy by Roger Hall. Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre at The Street, Canberra. October 25-29, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 25

It’s a nice play, like Mrs Worthington’s daughter, “But,” as Noel Coward sang, “Mrs Worthington, dear Mrs Worthington, don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.” I don’t mean the actors shouldn’t have been on the stage last night, but the author has some questions to answer.

Every play has a context within which it might be judged. Having just seen the so much cleverer Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I can’t help thinking Roger Hall needs some critical advice. However worthy, he’s a Kiwi who shouldn’t go out in the midday sun without a proper pith helmet.

My reason for taking such a critical position – rather than simply saying that this production is as entertaining as one would normally expect from Ensemble Theatre – is reading commentary in NZ Herald TV like ‘Rather than batting away the question of whether he sees himself as New Zealand's greatest playwright, he considers it through a rational commercial lens. "The merit or otherwise of my plays aside, I've written more plays and fed more into the box office than any other New Zealand playwright."’, while elsewhere the idea has been put around that Roger Hall is New Zealand’s David Williamson.

Though I have at times been critical of Williamson’s penchant for one liner comedies, Four Flat Whites in Italy can’t be compared with, say, Travelling North, which also deals with an older couple rediscovering the truth in their relationship in making a change. On the other hand, if Four Flat Whites is meant to be no more than light comedy, it hasn’t the delicate touch of a Noel Coward play like, say, Private Lives which has a similar pair of couples format.

Hall makes his themes – nowadays called ‘tropes’, I guess – far too explicit by using the husband Adrian as both commentator on and participant in the action. Sandra Bates as director and Michael Ross, the actor, handle this as well as the script allows, but you only have to look at Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to see how it should be done. The problem here is that Adrian’s action in the past (falling asleep at the wheel and causing his and Alison’s daughter’s paraplegia and early death) is so central to the serious side of the play that it is embarrassing to have Adrian speak directly to the audience in comedy mode.

Because we see Alison – played very well by Sharon Flanagan with the full depth of the emotions resulting from her reaction to her life as Joanna’s carer – as a realistic character coming to terms with tragedy, it is difficult to know how to respond to the revival of her love for Adrian who, to us, has been outside the story as much as inside. The dance under the stars at the end, to me at least, became a simplistic sentimental romance conclusion which undermined the reality of Alison’s experience, while apparently her forgiving Adrian simply lifted all guilt and emotional weight from his shoulders. All too easy, for my liking.

The other themes, of wealth, of political positioning, of being Kiwi, of realising that someone else needs a bit of help when life has treated them unfairly, are all embedded in the other two characters. Henri Szeps and Mary Regan play Harry and his second wife Judy skilfully and to great comic effect as well as neatly handling the change of attitude towards Alison and Adrian as they discover more about Joanna’s life and death.

Yet these characters are there as ciphers, obviously symbolising points that the author wants to include in the play that New Zealanders will respond to. The success of the play at home, and the recognition by the audience on opening night here of the right times to laugh, showed that Hall has found his marks.

It was a bit problematical last night, though, that in real life the All Blacks had just beaten France and won the World Cup, when in the play, set in 2007, France had just beaten the All Blacks in a quarter-final and the Kiwis were in mourning for the loss. Perhaps this affected my response to the scene watching the rugby. Though the actors did it all very well, it went on far too long for me, watching their reactions to a screen I couldn’t see. Maybe this was a case where multi-media could have been used and we could all have seen famous footballers flailing in the face of French infallibility.

So though the night was enjoyable, I can’t say it was fully satisfying. Perhaps it’s being too harsh to say that, like Mrs Worthington’s daughter, it shouldn’t be on the stage. But it does seem to me not to be a play of the same standing as Neil Simon or David Williamson who have been a standard for Ensemble Theatre over the years.


Those readers who are probably much younger than me (or perhaps you’ve just lost your memory) can see a fair representation of Mrs Worthington by Fenton Gray at (Uploaded by FentonGray on 16 May 2010)

and, though I think you will have to buy Coward’s original recording of this song, you can watch him singing others (like Mad Dogs and Englishmen) in his inimitable impeccable style at (Noel Coward's first television appearance! Uploaded by kitschbitch on 4 Feb 2007).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Alchemy comes to Belconnen

Performed by Suraya Hilal
and Hilal artists
Belconnen Arts Centre
Until October 16
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

"Build it and they will come” as they say. You might not think that Canberra would provide a big enough audience to support multiple performances of a specific style of Egyptian dance, let alone have its own training ground. But, due in part perhaps to more, smaller but diverse performance spaces, such as the almost complete Belconnen Arts Centre, the final show of “Alchemy” was just about sold out.

Suraya Hilal has trained and taught all over Europe and started her own style of dance, Hilal dance, rooted in the Egyptian/Arab tradition.

Supported by local and interstate dancers trained in Hilal dance, the performance was divided into three segments, depicting custom and ritual, evolution and evoking the elements of the land in the rural people’s dance.

Sarah Hamilton, one of the Australian co-choreographers, led the first movements, with grace and control, to the sounds of the Mizmar – a traditional Arab woodwind instrument, its incessant sound conjuring up snake charmers and market stalls in Egypt or India.

Between the pieces, percussionist Marianthe Loucataris played traditional handheld drums, manipulating the sound within the performance space by slow movements of the drum, and manipulating the audience with her eyes.

Suraya joined the troupe later in the program for “Alchemy” and the pace picked up somewhat and the music, from the album “Majaz” by Le Trio Joubran was beautiful, almost meditative.

The pieces may have gone for five minutes, or twenty-five, it didn't really matter. The feeling of being lulled into the dance, drawn in by anticipation of the repetition of rhythm and movements made the length of the piece inconsequential.

The women wear costumes covering their entire bodies, including various forms of headcoverings. Everything is plain, simple, non-ornate, no jewellery to decorate any part of the body. This was a complete contrast to other forms of middle eastern dance, such as belly dancing, where the aim is seduction and entertainment. Hilal had an aura of female strength yet dignified femininity - like an internalization of emotion that felt as if it was created by women and for women, but within strict religious and cultural boundaries of dress.

With the small-scale movements and significant coverings of the dress, it was important that each movement was sharp and precise or filled the whole beat or bar of music. Even facial expression was fairly unchanging, so connection must come through the eyes.
Hilal dance incorporates graceful and small, sharp movements – the undulation of a shoulder, a hip, the rise and fall as the small troupe move across the stage as one entity, in perfect unison, moving towards a crescendo as the tempo increases.

With only a handful of dancers, every single difference is noticeable, but as Suraya was the only “native” dancer, the differences between her movement and the other dancers was apparent, although not necessarily a detraction or negative observation. It whets the appetite for seeing other “native” dancers in this style of dance.
Suraya’s balance faltered slightly at the end of some movements just detracting from a solid finish.

“Alchemy” was part of an exhibition at the BAC, “Creative Alchemy”, including artworks and displays by local artists. The exhibition runs until October 23rd.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Debt Defying Acts – The Wharf Revue by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe & Phillip Scott, with Amanda Bishop

Debt Defying Acts – The Wharf Revue by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, with Amanda Bishop. Sydney Theatre Company at The Playhouse, Canberra, October 18-22, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 18

At the urinal, conversation flowed, fulsome and pithy:

“They really are clever.”
“They are! They are!”

Taking the piss out of politicians certainly worked on Canberra’s public servants.

Powers must have been specially delegated from DFAT considering the inordinate responses not only to the present Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd in the guise of the Phantom of the Opera, but also the mysterious appearance in the downstairs disabled toilet of ex-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who didn’t want to be told anything about anything. The Phantom, of course, was holding his ambition (i.e. the Prime Minister Julia Gillard) incognito, insisting in magnificent song on his undying love for her.

Why is the disabled toilet downstairs where disabled people can’t get to it? – exactly. Just the place for a quiet read (Alexander had come to recover a forgotten tome), or for holding someone incognito, and indeed for a final stab in the back. As Julia made clear, this time she will do it properly, while Kevin slumped across the piano keyboard – I could say, “dead, buried and cremated”.

Which reminds me of the other phantom of this circus: a clown who appeared only briefly at the beginning as a shadow figure with big ears – Tony Abbott, the evil Dr No with his Invisible Mandate. Julia, Queen of the High Wire Balancing Act, was there, though actually riding a nameless (faceless?) pony. Wild Barry O’Farrell (or was it Farry O’Barrel?) got his gun with the help of the religious right. Even the Faded Rose of Yesteryear, Miss Kittie Keneally, had her day. The Tragedy of King Rupert played out to its inevitable conclusion as his favourite seeming daughter Rebekah took nothing, while his Crouching Tiger wife took everything. But no show for Tony Abbott.

Was the problem that there is simply nothing funny to write about an Opposition in a political revue? Or just about this Opposition?

Getting a bit more serious, a good revue should edge towards satire. If it’s edgy enough it should reach some kind of horrible truth. This was achieved in this year’s Wharf Revue in a shadow puppet presentation of the shock-jock horror, Alan Jones and those he has spawned. Using recordings of their broadcasts, including the ring-ins, this segment was parallel to wayang puppetry which might bring down a dictator in another country. If only, in our case.

And getting very serious, this production is magnificent. The action is fast-paced with great timing throughout, in a circus-tent set which incorporates its own lighting, sound and visual media, reminding me of the amazing Famous Spiegeltent. We are used to the annual Wharf Revue, of course, but this year I thought Amanda Bishop’s singing, dancing and athleticism stood out (upside down at the very end), as did Drew Forsythe’s Rupert Murdoch as King Lear. Switching so many roles – and some very complicated costumes – in short order, with each new character instantly recognisable, was a strength in all four performers.

My conclusion is that the Canberra Theatre Centre should have employed this team to launch its 2012 Program (see Love Song blog posted October 6) as well as including The Wharf Revue again next year (as they have).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bloodland by Kathy Balngayngu, Stephen Page (director) and Wayne Blair

Bloodland by Kathy Balngayngu, Stephen Page (director) and Wayne Blair. Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, October 7 – November 13, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 12

We need patience for Bloodland just as the Yolgnu need it in their own culture and to survive in “Australia Fair”. Be patient, allow yourself to gradually become absorbed into the twists and turns of cross-cultural existence, and you will be rewarded with a new understanding at the end.

There is humour in this drama – Mrs White, who teaches the children Advance Australia Fair and kills them if they speak language, Donkey the Dog who howls when AAF is sung, and Cherish who collects mobile phones, including ones whose service has been disconnected. But laughter is relief from tragedy in the Shakespearian sense.

In Romeo and Juliet tragedy derives from the opposing families, the Montagues and the Capulets whose children must not cross an unnecessary boundary. It is a romantic tragedy, because the deaths force the issue of the moral imperative of peace upon us. For the Yolgnu life is much more complicated because there are clans based in different parts of Yolgnu country, while a person in any clan may be Dhuwa or Yirritja and is forbidden to marry a person from their own group.

So the opportunities for conflict over romantic attachments which cross boundaries are rife. Whereas the Duke could lay down the law, which would have made it clear that Romeo and Juliet should have been allowed to come together in peace, and that Juliet’s father’s choice of who she must marry had no standing, Yolgnu law says that the man Billy, although having been away for years while gaining an education in the city, remains the only correct husband for Gapu. She makes the proper decision despite her feelings for Runu and his for her. There is no romance in this tragic ending, for Runu or Gapu. The law has been fulfilled, as it has been established over thousands of years for the survival of the people as a whole.

Add to all of this the imposition and the attractions of a culture of individual demands for freedoms, and conflicts become irreconcilable, even when elders try to maintain the proper ceremonies. For those of us whose forebears have come to these shores in very recent times, the best – in fact the only – offer we can make is patience, respect and proper treatment of those who came here so long before us. Advance Australia fair is what this brave drama says to all of us.

Looking at this production from a theatrical point of view, it is impressive to see such a range of Indigenous performers working at top quality level. For me the concluding ceremony represents a major shift in drama – which of course Stephen Page’s Bangarra Dance Company has made in pure dance – from the attempts to imitate non-Indigenous naturalistic plays, which I remember from the beginnings of Black Theatre in the early 1970s, to work where scenes both display Yolgnu practice and create symbolic meaning for a non-Indigenous audience, even including performance in Yolgnu language. This takes Indigenous theatre beyond even work such as Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead which in my view was a major development – and was performed by Wayne Blair.

From a practical point of view, if it is difficult to get to Sydney for 8pm performances, take advantage of STC’s matinees at 1pm on Wednesdays or Mondays at 6.30pm. Try not to miss Bloodland.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth
Director: Goran Jarvefelt
Rehearsed by: Mathew Barclay
Designer: Carl Friedrich Oberle
Opera Australia,
Sydney Opera House until November 5th 2011

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Opera Australia has revived Goran Jarvefelt’s splendid 1991 production of "Don Giovanni" for this outing at the Sydney Opera House, and they have done it proud. Rehearsed by Mathew Barclay, and played out on Carl Friedrich Oberle’s uncluttered classic setting, this production is wonderfully detailed and superbly performed.

Though his performance as Don Giovanni is already the stuff of legends, it has been, surprisingly, almost five years since Teddy Tahu Rhodes last performed it for Opera Australia. In that time he has had many other operatic triumphs, but his first act entrance, clad in a brief pair of leather shorts, thigh high boots, a cloak, and little else, still draws gasps from the audience. But leaving his spectacular entrance aside, it is now Teddy Tahu Rhodes voice and presence in this role that is so memorable. His voice is now even more sonorous, warm and compelling, and physically he is every bit the licentious young nobleman of the program’s description – lean, handsome and muscular.

It’s not difficult to see why all the women in the opera fall helplessly under his prey, although his treatment of each of them is unforgivable. Despite his aggression and the easy way he murders, rapes and employs violence, the audience remain on his side. That is,perhaps, until the final act depicting the Don in the final throes of depravity, slopping wine all over his unfortunate associates until, finally, he is plunged into Hell by the unforgiving ghost of the Commendatore, chillingly portrayed by Daniel Sumegi.

Yet, despite his brilliance, it is not Teddy Tahu Rhodes performance alone which makes this production so satisfying and memorable. Each role has been carefully and perfectly cast, with each character not only singing brilliantly and looking the part, but bringing with them a clear understanding of the motivations which drives their particular character.

Tall and elegant, Rachel Durkin is arresting as Donna Anna whose father, the Commendatore, Don Giovanni kills without hesitation. Her singing is as clear and precise as her acting. The warmer voiced Jacqueline Dark is a charming contrast with her lovelorn Donna Elvira, unable to cope with the realisation that she has been abandoned by Don Giovanni. As Zerlina, the about-to-be-married peasant girl, Taryn Fiebig is dazzling in another intelligently acted and vocally arresting performance cementing her position as one of Opera Australia’s most versatile, popular and accomplished sopranos.

The male casting in this production is also particularly strong. In addition to Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Daniel Sumegi, both Henry Choo and Andrew Jones add lustre as Don Ottavio and Masetto, and Conal Coad brings dignity, warmth and a very fine voice to his impeccable interpretation to the Don’s long-suffering manservant, Leporello.

Mark Wigglesworth again demonstrate that his superb conducting of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra for “Peter Grimes” was no one-off, because the dramatic impact and excellent balance achieved between singer and orchestra during the performance added the icing to the cake of this truly thrilling and memorable production.

Cast Changes: Please note that from 11th October, Nicole Car replaces Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna, and from 19th October Jose Carbo replaces Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Don Giovanni, Stephen Bennett replaces Conal Coad as Leporello, David Parkin replaces Daniel Sumegi as The Commendatore, Steven Smith replaces Henry Choo)as Don Ottavio, and Teresa La Rocca replaces Jacqueline Dark as Donna Elvira for the November performances.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Little Day Out. Justine Clarke and her three-piece band

Little Day Out. Justine Clarke and her three-piece band at Canberra Theatre, October 6, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

As a theatre experience for littlies on an imaginary day out – when they are actually on a real littlies’ day out to the theatre – Justine Clarke’s show is not to be missed. But you will have to try to squeeze your way in to the Sydney Opera House on Saturday October 8. The original Canberra tour publicity mentioned only the 10am show that I saw today, but this was followed by a 12 noon performance as well, so I can only assume that bookings for Saturday will be overflowing.

And so they should be. Justine (I’m sure I can use first names like all the ABC Playschool viewers do) is not just multi-talented but speaks personally to every child in the audience, fully justifying her claim “If you imagine there’s one child sitting on the floor watching, and you might actually get that child up on her feet, spark her imagination, that’s really everything you want to do as an actor. You want to tell a story and for that to ignite something.”

She certainly ignited a toddler’s mosh pit in the Canberra Theatre and absolutely nobody cried despite the crush. Good training for when they become teenagers. Adulation training – but without the negative overtones they will have to learn to watch for in later years.

Acculturation training is another way of looking at this show, and others like it. Over the years I’ve seen a few. They are not all so alike when I look back.

The Playschool tradition, stretching at least from Justine Clarke back to Monica Trapaga clearly stands out because these performers are experienced actors and musicians who are expert at communicating, through the tv screen and on stage.

Shows not in this league that I recall are the Gary Ginivan style in Pooh (2000) when I heard a parent explain to her 3-year-old after the show, "A movie's on a big screen. This was a play." It was hard to tell the difference. Much the same was true of the Dora the Explorer Live! show Dora’s Pirate Adventure (2008) where the whole performance was in lock-step with a pre-recorded sound track and everything from eye-flashing to emotional expression was pure formula. Even Humphrey B Bear, which perhaps ironically began Justine’s career when she appeared as a littlie in an Arnott’s biscuit advertisement, never matched Playschool for personality and quality contact with children.

Learning to appreciate good theatre is one aspect of acculturation which I think children can never get enough of. And I could never complain about the wide range of musical styles, as well as the basics of singing, rhythm and dancing in Justine’s work. But there are aspects of the content of the songs which had me thinking.

Almost everything in the show is colonial white and British. Although it is secular, as it should be to maintain independence from religious affiliation, one would think that Australia is absolutely monocultural except for one feature: the music, which varied from jazz, reggae, country and western, and even Aussie 70’s to a smidgeon of Beatles in the pre-show intro. This was reinforced when under the sea Justine found a yellow submarine.

Otherwise the only non-British bit was in the Gum Tree Family song, where we find in and around the tree a kookaburra, a koala, a platypus and a kangaroo. But soon after we are back hopping with bunnies as if we don’t have an Australian hopping mouse – or a bilby. Even the sun is merely ‘yellow’ shining mildly through – on the big screen – English green oak leaves (though I could be mistaken – perhaps they were Canadian maple). And, despite the range of people in the audience, there was nothing to discover on this Little Day Out about all the different coloured people who live in Australia, or the people who live in dry red country and have never built a sandcastle at the seaside or even seen the sea.

So, educationally speaking, I would dearly love to see Justine’s wonderful theatrical skills turned more towards our children’s lives in this country. Even Dora the Explorer teaches American children the Spanish they will need when Latinos outnumber Europeans in many areas, though I’m sure Justine could do similar teaching much more subtly than Dora. Let’s take our littlies on an imaginary day out in a more Australian land. After all, how British are the Teletubbies, and how American is Sesame Street?

Love Song by John Kolvenbach, after Collected Works 2012 at Canberra Theatre.

Love Song by John Kolvenbach. Centrepiece Theatre directed by Jordan Best at The Q, Queanbyean Performing Arts Centre, October 5-9 and 12-15, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

My evening began with a rather boring and certainly unsophisticated presentation of the Canberra Theatre Centre’s program for 2012. That doesn’t mean that the program contains no shows of interest. Just the unfunny ‘humour’ of the on-stage presenters between talking heads videos was terribly anti-dramatic, in unfortunate contrast, I should say, to the excellent modern dance item by Charmene Yap and Richard Cilli from Sydney Dance Company. Even the aria and duet from Don Giovanni, though sung quite well, were not staged or acted to the standard one might expect for this theatre.

The 2012 season is an eclectic and quite varied set of ‘Collected Works’ which you can check out at .

What a relief, then, to dash over to Queanbeyan for Love Song. Jordan Best’s Centrepiece Theatre have done good work since their inception six years ago, and have become one of the region’s reliably worthwhile small independent companies. The Q stage, also small and worthwhile, with good sightlines and acoustics, was a nice choice of venue for this production.

Direction and design are right for this play, and all the actors – Tim Sekuless as Beane, Jenna Roberts as his sister Joan, Jim Adamik as her husband Harry and Sophie Benassi as Beane’s ‘lover’ Molly – have captured the absurdity of the situation, timed the comedy very well and created a genuine sense of empathy at the right moments.

The tricky thing about this play is that it can easily appear that Beane represents a realistic character with a mental illness. Some reviewers of other productions seem to assume this, but what is his illness? Is it an extreme form of autism? No, autistic people are normally rational, despite their problems with making social connections. Is it depression? It certainly seems bi-polar, but Beane’s kind of fantasy is out of place. Is it schizophrenia, since Beane seems to have illusions which seem real to him? Perhaps. But in the end this play is not derived from the author’s research into actual mental health states.

His characters are metaphors for types of people. The play is a purely fictional dramatic construct, designed to make us think about ourselves in comparison to his characters. It seems a very modern play (first produced in 2006) but the technology, the language and the jobs characters have are merely superstructure.

Beane represents no more than a character who is unable to understand the world he lives in, and creates a fantasy (Molly) of sexual success. Only when he comes to recognise what he has done does he begin to come to terms with reality. This is Hamlet – though Ophelia is real, it is her role as his fantasy which he has to come to terms with: a tragedy because she really dies before he reaches understanding. Kolvenbach plays something of a game with us by making Molly appear to be real to us, as well as to Beane, and she appears to us to really leave him at the point of his realisation that she is no more than his fantasy. This makes for a happy ending – making the play a comedy.

Because the play is an imaginary construct, the production needs to make that clear to us. The provenance of this play is more like the absurdism of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than even Albee’s The Zoo Story which at first sight it seems to be similar to. On the other hand all these authors were much more stringent, and never produced a neat OK conclusion like Kolvenbach, where Joan and Harry find love while Beane finds himself. Nor did Shakespeare. Maybe Kolvenbach has not honestly come to terms with the reality of the human condition.

Yet, despite Kolvenbach not being quite the great playwright, Jordan Best and her team have done his script proud. In fact they have made the play seem better than it is. What that says about coming to terms with reality, I’ll leave to you, the reader and hopefully the viewer of Love Song at The Q.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jill Downer

Jill Downer
(December 22, 1936 to September 20, 2011)

I have to report the passing of yet another figure in Canberra’s music community.

Jill Downer, the founder of Early Music Enterprises, died unexpectedly from a cerebral haemorrhage on September 20.

While not a member of our Canberra Critics’ Circle, EME was a Critics’ Circle award recipient and she was well known to many of our members, for her organisational skills in music, and for her work as a committee member of the Friends of the Classics Museum.

Jill was a dynamic force around town and after she retired from a long career teaching history and Latin at Girls' Grammar School, she took classics-minded Canberrans on fascinating in-depth trips to Greece and Turkey. Jill was a bon viveur and knew how to give people a good time on these trips, the most recent of which took place in May this year.

She had a huge database of music-lovers and if you every needed to get music news out to the community, she was the one to get onto it. With her contacts, she was an enormous help when we raised money for a concert at the International Music Festival last year in the name of our late Critics’ Circle member and music writer, Bernadette Cruise.

You always discover something you didn’t know when you meet to celebrate the life of somebody who has given a lot to the community. At a funeral Service in Canberra Girls Grammar on September 29, her life’s work was summed up as: teacher, concert manager, tour organiser, cook, knitter and cricket lover.

Jill studied at the University of Melbourne from 1952 and moved to Canberra in 1963 with her husband, Leslie. At school she became famous for her Latin and medieval feasts. She also took school tours as far as China and Turkey, during which time she fine-tuned her skills as a tour-leader.

She formed Early Music Enterprises after the “Recorder '90” event in Canberra, holding concerts and dance workshops in order to make up a financial shortfall. Eventually succeeding beyond the dreams, EME and the Classics Museum became the work of her later life. Concerts and a trip to Sicily will go ahead in her absence.

Known for her intellect and erudition, Jill’s wry sense of humour saved the day on many occasions. During a particularly dire production of an Aeschylus tragedy some years ago, I looked across the room for some moral support and got a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile from Jill, so knew I was in sympathetic company.

At the celebration of her life, Jill’s son Andy, said she has always been a perfect example of the principle Michael Leunig espoused when he wrote, “life is a holiday on earth.”
Helen Musa

MP by Alana Valentine

MP by Alana Valentine. Commissioned by The Street Theatre, directed by Caroline Stacey, designed by Imogen Keen. At The Street October 1-15, 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone

There is something Shakespearean about Alana Valentine’s latest play. I’m thinking about Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and, on the more political level, of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. I’m also thinking of the style of performance, which some would call ‘representational’, with its switching between inter-character speech and direct address to the audience – the soliloquies which Shakespeare made famous. And I’m thinking about the setting at the seat of central government and the issue of the nature of government. Is something rotten in the state of representative democracy in Canberra?

It also felt to me, as a citizen of Canberra, like what citizens of London, the seat of English government, must have felt in Shakespeare’s day. So many people – including politicians and bureaucrats I noted among the audience – responded so spontaneously to the experiences of the characters on stage that I’m sure this is how those in the political know in London would have laughed while watching the machinations play out.

Groundlings, like me, would have been empathising with the personalities of the politician Ava Turner, her supportive partner Raymond, her ambitious adviser Nadia, her terribly disabled son Cliff, her political party nemesis Drew, the astute journalist Tracey, the head of department Bonnie, and the couple Gary and Laura Robbins whose disabled daughter was raped and committed suicide. Watching how they all treated each other was a bit like watching Othello, except that the play is a political comedy with a kind of happy ending.

In other words, this is a play well worth watching for its content, plot and characters.

But, of course, a good script must be presented well – and this one is.

Geraldine Turner, billed as ‘starring’ in the role of Ava, fits the bill. She plays the twists and turns of emotion and power-play in Ava’s intimate and public relations with focus and strength of acting which holds the play together until the final surprising moment.

Her skill and standing as an actor might have dominated the production when working with a largely local cast with less experience, but it was clear that Leah Baulch (Nadia), Stephen Barker (Gary Robbins / Raymond), Soren Jensen (Cliff / Drew) and Andrea Close (Canberra Critics’ Circle Award 2007) in the multiple roles of Laura Robbins, Bonnie, Tracey, a waitress and Madeleine (another constituent from Ava’s electorate whose appearance concludes the play) had all been welded together to form a team of equals. This is to the credit, of course, of an expert director in Caroline Stacey, whose understanding of the style needed was also made clear in the technical aspects of the acting, movement, set design, lighting (by Nick Merrylees) and sound (by Liberty Kerr).

The set design – shaky towers of balancing plates representing a Member of Parliament’s massive correspondence load – was complemented by the sounds of smashing crockery and made a surprising but very effective metaphor for the fragility of the political life, and of life in general. Simple in form but imaginative, the design and directing allowed the themes of the play to stand out against the background of complex day-to-day government and the personal interplay of the people involved.

Author Alana Valentine, on opening night, took a curtain call with the cast and thoroughly deserved the applause. If this is the standard we can expect from the Street Theatre’s commissioning program in future, then Canberra may at last achieve the permanent local professional theatre company it has long deserved.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Avenue Q the Musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx.

Avenue Q the Musical Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Supa Productions directed by Garrick Smith. Music directed by Rose Shorney, choreography by Jordan Kelly, costumes designed by Suzan Cooper. ANU Arts Centre September 16 – October 1, 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 30

Isn’t it great? Isn’t it fun? Isn’t it just a relief to see a light-hearted satirical American musical! I nearly missed it, and I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a show I thought I’d heard of, but it had never entered my consciousness – perhaps because of my lack of enthusiasm for conventional American musicals. I guess the song Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist puts me in my place.

Several things about Supa’s production impressed me.

The puppets worked as characters in their own right, but this could only be achieved by the singers who also had to be dancers and puppeteers. Getting this right was a major plus, because the puppets’ characters became the focus instead of the show being just a display of singing and dancing.

The Velvet Underground Glove Puppet Modern Jazz Sextet played magnificently, although sometimes they could have been softened a little to bring out the voices more clearly.

The set designer Jeremy Bailey-Smith doesn’t get special mention in the program, but he should for a clever arrangement of movable units which kept our interest at each set change, all smoothly done.

Characters, within the limits deliberately set as spoofs of Sesame Street and of traditional musical romances, are not all this show requires. Fortunately Supa maintained its usual precision in movement and singing. Timing makes this show, not just as a comedy but as a satire, and I think no-one missed a beat. But I must add that Sarah Golding’s It’s A Fine, Fine Line brought the first half to a beautiful end, at a level beyond satire.

The result was enthusiastically received by the very age group it was aimed at in just the right venue at ANU. I even overhead people saying I Wish I Could Go Back To College as they faced the reality of the cold night air. In fact even this 70-year-old found himself wondering wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be fun?