Thursday, March 29, 2012

Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre

Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig (writer/director) and Gordon McIntyre (songwriter).  Traverse Theatre Company, Edinburgh, at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, March 28-31, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 28

What an interesting play!  It’s like pass the parcel: surprise after surprise at the unwrapping of each new layer, right until the very centre at the end.  Surely it’s a rom-trag?  But no – the last revelation is still to come.  Rom-com after all.

The play, its original structure, sparkling design and presentation by actors Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon, proves the truth of the announcement by the supposed (or is it real in Scotland?) parking ticket payment machine: CHANGE IS POSSIBLE.

The storyline, after all, is no different than Shakespeare’s tale of Beatrice and Benedick or Shaw’s of Bluntschli and Raina.  An unlikely couple meet in highly unprepossessing circumstances and find that love happens regardless of what they think they feel.  For Shakespeare it was all much ado about nothing – except that it was really about the nature of proper governance of the nation.  For Shaw it was really about the taking up of arms between nations.  For David Greig it is about the human disaster of modern urban consumer society.  Com though it might be for the characters as they “dance ere we are married’, give her hand “to my chocolate cream soldier” or board the ferry for Belgium, the fun of realising that love conquers all cannot completely hide the trag behind

My lord, your brother John is ta’en in flight / And brought with armed men back to Messina, or

Time’s up, Major.  You’ve managed those regiments so well that youre sure to be asked to get rid of some of the Infantry of the Teemok division, and

the need for Bob, at the age of 35, to have had to depend on being a criminal’s courier to survive in modern Edinburgh, the pointless lives of the youthful ‘Goths’, the irresponsibility of ‘nightlife’, and the sadness of Helena’s desire for a child and fear that at 35 she may be too late.  Using Bob’s ill-gotten gains to flee to Europe for a few weeks’ fun may not be all that it promises on the Monday after this midsummer’s wild weekend.  We can only hope that the parking machine is right, and change is possible after all.

So, if the plot is traditional, what makes this play original?  The answer is the same as it was for Much Ado About Nothing and Arms and the Man.  It’s in the language and the relationship set up between the characters and the audience.  Change in writing for theatre is possible.  It was Shakespeare who used the soliloquy as a device for a character to speak directly to the audience, it was Shaw who put the bluntness of Bluntschli on stage, and in the last century Brecht who had characters sing songs as singers rather than as the characters they otherwise were playing, while Tennessee Williams wrote characters who separately observed and commented on the action. 

Greig has taken this tradition a step beyond.  Bob and Helena switch moment by moment from being their own character to describing what the other was or is doing or playing out other characters in the other character’s life.  The play constantly shifts the ground beneath us, which is often funny even as it can make us feel insecure.

This is a new style of theatre suited to today’s 24/7 culture, but does not fall into the common trap of using technology just because it is there.  In fact the clever design, by Georgia McGuiness, uses perfectly old-fashioned visual and audio techniques, while the one more modern device which does the trick for the play is the simple continuous roll-along brightly-lit message from the ticket machine.  Change is possible, indeed, but is most effective when introduced sparingly and only to make a specific point.  The script is about a wildly out-of-control weekend, but is tightly written, giving the actors every opportunity to make the most of every minute.  As they do.

As always, discipline and being true to the right style is what makes theatre work.  It certainly does in Midsummer.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tales from the TARDIS…

LA meets Dr Who

Finding theatre in unfamiliar places is a good sport so although I’d gone to Gallifrey One’s February Dr Who convention in Los Angeles for the fan in me that has loved science fiction ever since H G Wells’ lot and Radio BBC’s Journey Into Space in the 1950s, I kind of hoped that there would be some theatre pay offs. I like the stories actors and directors tell about their experiences and can listen to the yarns and legends all day. 

Top this off with some side gallops into Los Angeles proper to get a glimpse of Hollywood and to have a go at the two Getty museums all complicated by the time it takes to get around such a spread out town and you can see why I did not quite manage to follow up on a chance to see an experimental Richard III (which had had mixed reviews). That I also managed to have a glimpse of President Obama flying past Santa Monica pier in a helicopter phalanx while I was paying homage to Ray Bradbury, the tents of Cirque du Soleil and the end of Route 66 (where a busker was singing Here’s to You, Mrs Robinson) was just plain luck.

In Hollywood the acting starts as you come up out of the train station down the road from Grauman's Chinese Theatre. There’s all these people dressed as everything from Captain Jack Sparrow to Darth Vader and his Imperial Storm Troopers. Their job is to get you to tip them for having your photo taken with them and to make it just that bit more difficult to find Jean Harlow’s foot and hand prints that you’ve promised to find for your 100 year old mother outside Grauman’s. ‘She’s just up from Elizabeth Taylor’, says the man in the kiosk and so she is. Tiny feet, tiny hands and dead at 26 from renal failure, much to the sorrow of fans like my father who wrote to her, got a signed photo back but lost it in the numerous moonlight flits round the Cross in Sydney when the rent couldn’t be paid.

Actually all of the talent seems to have been tiny. I am spruiked into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre by a young Pom offering short tours of the inside (came out to break into Hollywood… well, he’s gotten as far as Grauman’s…) The film costumes on display in the foyer of Grauman’s don’t go above a size 10 and come to think of it the hands and feet in the cement outside are all on the small side too. Even John Wayne’s boots don’t have heft – R2D2’s footprints look bigger.

(Later on, back at Gallifrey One, Paul McGann (Doctor Number Eight, The Monocled Mutineer, Withnail and I) also turns out to be physically tinier than his performances would ever indicate. He has a superb singing voice that would go down a treat at the National Folk Festival.)

Inside Grauman’s it is all red and gold and restored Chinoiserie from the 1920s. That’s not as tinselly as it sounds. Between the wall paintings worked on by performers like Key Luke (a long CV but you might best remember him as the old bloke who passes on the gremlins in Gremlins with a warning) and Xavier Cougat and the silk house tabs and the Chinese gods and the dragons woven into the carpets this theatre that started out as a home to the old silent films has a gorgeous ambiance for film and live performance.

Outside they are getting ready for the Oscars, techie heaven with people in black with mobile phones, lights going up, the street blocked off, the seating going in for the red carpet entrance and a huge sweeping gold curtain set into the archway of the Kodak Theatre. Snapping away with a digital filmless ‘point and shoot’, I am not unaware of the ironies of the name.

Next door is the greatest of follies. I live near to a video shop that actually carries a copy of D.W.Griffith’s Intolerance but I hadn’t realised that the set for the Babylonian section was left up long enough to become a landmark and that the shopping mall next to the Kodak has been constructed as a kind of a homage to it. This means mad Babylonian architectural elements and elephants trumpeting from the ramparts. Encouraging quotations from those who ‘made it’ are immortalised on the pavements. You can walk in and view the HOLLYWOOD sign on the faraway hills from a great height or downstairs next to a sculpture of a huge couch – the ultimate casting couch upon which tourists can now cast themselves for pictures.

You can take one of those topless double deckers for a do it yourself hop on hop off tour. So I do that, being hopelessly out of time for anything else, and we rampage around Hollywood, spotting Hollywood High with its paintings of alumni like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, the old LA police department which was the exterior of Kane’s castle in Citizen Kane and resonant places like the La Brea Tar Pits. I end up eating at a Singaporean place in the Farmers Market where they actually seem to have heard of real food. As it gets dark I manage a snap of the Paramount parking lot’s outdoor sky screen which features in Star Trek IV and in The Ten Commandments when the Red Sea is being parted, get a glimpse of the cemetery where Rudolf Valentino is buried and see all lit up above the city the Griffith Observatory where James Dean carries on like a two bob watch in Rebel Without a Cause. We also glimpse a demo on Hollywood Boulevard on behalf of the Syrians, passed by Snow White and The Flash who are walking the other way, talking on mobile phones, apparently undisturbed.

Next to this the corridors of the Marriott Hotel, thronging with Daleks and people dressed in TARDIS costumes, are positively sedate. I don’t have a costume to put on but I’ve failed to arrive in America with a haircut and so I’m wearing a Harris Tweed flat cap and a bright red Thai silk scarf so I won’t disappear in a crowd of 3000 fans. A genial older bloke setting up for autographs hails me and says, ‘I like your hat!’ It’s the charming Richard Franklin, the slightly tragic Captain Mike Yates from Second Doctor Jon Pertwee's era.

But it’s the origins of the show in the 1960s that draw me and there’s William Russell, one of the first companions ever, now in his late 80s. Courtly and bemused by American teenage fans who stand in the queue muttering ‘What am I going to say to Ian Chesterton?’, he’s done stage and film and television, the Ghost in Hamlet with the RSC at Stratford, opened the New Globe in London in Henry V, has a son (Alfie Enoch) in the Harry Potter films and has a passion for teaching young actors stage work and Shakespeare. (He says ‘I like your hat’ too, which makes my weekend.)

Maureen O’Brien, another early First Doctor William Hartnell companion (Vikki) who has also had a long stage and TV career as well as being a crime novelist, has a fascinating conversation with me, not about liking the hat or the Zarbi or being chased around Nero’s Rome but about the lovely complexities of As You Like It and playing Rosalind despite it being traditionally the part that goes to a tall woman.

Michael Troughton (son of Patrick, the Second Doctor, and an actor himself) is signing copies of his biography of his father and that’s got more actor stories in it. Respected director Waris Hussein, the East Indian from Lucknow who directed An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of all, is gently describing the circumstances that led to Dr Who being born.

(1963 and change was about, even at the BBC. The show’s creator, Sydney Newman, was Canadian, Hussein, despite an English education, was seen as Indian, Anthony Coburn, writer of that first episode, was Australian and producer Verity Lambert was a woman. And Australian Ron Grainer composed the theme tune which was then arranged by BBC Radiophonic’s Delia Derbyshire. True, they’d been thrown a job that no one else much wanted but look what came of this combination of colonials and females.)

Daphne Ashbrook (companion Dr Grace Holloway in the 1996 McGann Dr Who TV movie) turns out to have actually done David Williamson’s The Coming of Stork in Los Angeles, for which the cast had to learn an Australian accent. I laugh out loud at the ironies of all those elocution lessons in the 50s and 60s that were supposed to rid my generation of women of such a thing when she admires the way I speak.

All of this is bloody wonderful but the unexpected bonus comes when I wander over to an older bloke who has a raft of pictures on a table of him in every kind of role from the Civil War to a Klingon prison governor and a rather kindly looking Vulcan.

‘I LOVE your hat!’ he says and he’s got my attention.

I don’t immediately register that he’s the older Canton Everett Delaware III in Dr Who’s The Impossible Astronaut and that the bloke nearby who, on hearing my accent, begins to talk about how good the Dr Who orchestral concert that just ran in Melbourne was, is his son Mark, and the younger Canton Everett Delaware III. (Fancy me having to scramble to keep up in Dr Who territory…) Aha. Penny drops. We are talking to W. Morgan Sheppard, Anglo-Irish, face with the wandering of the world upon it, trained at RADA, worked with Peter Brook and Grotowski, played in Pinter’s The Caretaker (‘Horrible characters…horrible...’) and was in the RSC’s Australian tour…

‘1970? Adelaide Festival?’ I ask.

Saw Judi Dench in Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, I did, and never forgot her voice with that expressive break in it. Nor the bear that pursues Antigonus when, caught between the fires of his wife and his king, he abandons a baby on a sea shore…

It was a bit like that moment in Oedipus when the shepherd says ‘Here stands your baby boy’ except it wasn’t tragic. Here was that Antigonus (and also Antonio from Twelfth Night), calling out to passing Daleks and Tom Bakers,  ‘She remembers! She remembers!’ and going on to remember himself how as Antigonus he would look across the stage at Brenda Bruce’s Paulina and say to himself ‘I love her, she’s so lovely…’ and how that became the drive for the character.

I extend the story by telling him that I’ve just done that very scene with a group of Thai performers in a workshop on Shakespeare in Makhampom’s Chiang Dao theatre north of Chiang Mai and we part with a signed picture of him as the scholarly Vulcan elder because there isn’t one there of Antigonus and somehow this one seems to have the proper gravitas. And that all does not even begin to touch on his knowing the story of Paul Robeson singing to the workers at Sydney Opera House and how that resonated later with singer John McLaughlin who was singing in Sydney when an old bloke in the front row requested Joe Hill and it turned out he’d been an electrician on the building of the Opera House and a car drew up and a big black man got out of it and said ‘I won’t be able to come back and sing here when it’s finished but I’ll give you a really good concert’ and he sang Joe Hill to the workers and it was Paul Robeson…*

I had a go at both the Getty museums and they were quite wonderful, what with the reconstructed Roman theatre in the Getty Villa and the way the bigger Getty museum crouches on top of a ridge overlooking Los Angeles and divides your attention between the art and the views of a city on the shore that will be chaos if a tsunami ever arrives. I rode the buses and the trains and listened to Spanish being spoken and saw how this city is not all glamour and gold curtains. But I reckon it was the actors’ tales that made the trip.

That, and being able to say that Ian Chesterton, Captain Mike Yates and Canton Everett Delaware III all said they liked my hat. 

William Russell (Ian Chesterton) and The Hat.

By Alanna Maclean



 Report by Bill Stephens

Photos by Len Power

                                                              Emma Mathews in "La Traviata"

An invitation to attend the final dress rehearsal for a sneak-peek at Opera Australia’s spectacular new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” was irresistible. Particularly as this new production is being staged under the stars on Sydney Harbour, at a cost, according to Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini of $11.5 million, and stars Emma Mathews, in her role debut, as Violetta teamed with Italian heart-throb  tenor Gianluca Terranova, as Alfredo.

Later in the season, a no less sensational casting has Rachelle Durkin taking over the role of Violetta, with the Korean tenor,  Ji-Min Park as her Alfredo.

As luck would have it, the day of the dress rehearsal dawned overcast, and by dusk, a light drizzle had set in. However, buoyed by the advice from Opera Australia that the performance would only be cancelled if weather conditions made it dangerous to proceed, I invested in a new umbrella and headed for the harbour.

As we arrived, my colleague, who was reporting for Artsound’s radio program “Dress Circle”, and I, along with the rest of the audience, was thoughtfully presented with complimentary ponchos, a practical gesture which certainly enhanced our enjoyment of the event despite the relentless drizzle.

We were invited to enjoy the catering facilities, which included three glamorous, al fresco eating areas and mobile champagne bars, while busy stage-hands mopped the amazing stage, designed by Brian Thompson in the shape of a huge trompe l’oeil painted gilt-framed mirror, secured on pylons drilled into the ocean bed. Resting on the stage was an amazing chandelier, which was raised above the stage for the performance.

At 7pm, the advertised starting time, Lyndon Terracini announced that as weather radars indicated that the rain would soon pass over the site, the commencement of the performance would be delayed.  Canvas coverings were quickly pulled over the stage area to keep it as dry as possible.

However the rain didn’t ease up as expected, and after a couple more postponements, it was announced that the performance would proceed, despite the rain. However, because of the late start, Act 11, the act in which Alfredo’s father visits Violetta to ask her to give up her relationship with Alfredo, would be omitted. The canvas coverings were whisked away, the huge chandelier rose, dozens of guests, dressed in Tess Schofield’s glamorous La Dolce Vita inspired costumes, flooded on to the stage, and Violetta’s fabulous party was underway.  

The Australian Ballet and Opera Orchestra under Brian Castles-Onion sounded magnificent, and the amplified sound balance between singers and orchestra was crystal clear and exciting.
                                                                  Emma Mathews

As Violetta, Emma Mathews was magnificent.  Dressed in a gorgeous 1950’s-style, ankle length, scarlet gown, with a Grace Kelly hairstyle, she looked and sounded ravishing, and despite the huge the stage, was immediately the focus of attention, the perfect hostess, acknowledging and flirting with each of her guests.

When the handsome Alfredo (Gianluca Terranova) arrived at the party, their attraction was immediate and obvious, and even though this was a dress rehearsal, there was no holding back.
                                   Gianluca Terranova and Emma Mathews in "La Traviata"

Director, Francesca Zambello’s flair for staging large-scale spectacles is masterful.   Her staging of both the party scenes, for which she keeps the stage filled with swirling imagery, while carefully maintaining focus on the principal characters is particularly impressive, and the way she has included the fantastic harbour backdrop as an integral part of her production is at times breathtaking.

Stephen Baynes has contributed dazzling choreography which includes lilting waltzes for Violetta’s party guests and a spectacularly costumed gypsy floorshow for Flora’s party.  

 The use of fireworks at the end of the famous “Libiamo” chorus was stunning and remarkably appropriate for such a party. The perfectly-timed final burst of fireworks at the moment of Violetta’s death created another unforgettable moment, as did the sight of Violetta soaring into the night sky in the huge chandelier at the climax of “Sempre Libre”.   

Brian Thomson’s stage setting is a masterpiece of scenic design, holding its own against the magnificent Sydney skyline, and with the addition of elegant props, providing satisfying environments for each of the acts.  The much-heralded chandelier, a particularly spectacular scenic element in its own right, was also integral to the production design, floating above the party scenes or descending to the stage to form a succession of moodily lit backdrops.

At some point in the evening the rain stopped, but I was so engrossed in the opera, that I hadn’t noticed precisely when. The realisation struck me that even though I had expected to enjoy this production as a spectacle, even with an act missing; I had been caught up in the story-telling.

Emma Mathews and Gianluca Terranova were a stunning couple, completely believable as the glamorous courtesan and her young lover.  The combination of Mathews’ stunning appearance, glittering soprano and confident acting, and the good-looking Terranova’s soaring Italianate tenor was both thrilling and moving.

Then there was Jonathan Summers, also in glorious voice, bringing great presence and gravitas to the role of Alfredo’s father, especially in the final scene in which he seeks Violetta’s forgiveness.  The rest of the cast, including the chorus and dancers, had woven their magic so effectively that I had forgotten any discomfort caused by the rain, and simply didn’t want it to stop.

Surely the mark of a great production.

Don’t let the weather deter  you. This is a triumphant production which works on every level, guaranteed to provide you with an opera experience you will cherish for years to come. 

                                                              La Traviata - Opera Australia

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Telstra Ballet in the Park

The Australian Ballet 
Stage 88
March 16
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

Knowing full well that the impending rain was keeping away at least a few people who had planned on attending this event, the size of the crowd gathered at Stage 88 was impressive.

This one-off, free performance from The Australian Ballet was a gift to Canberra for the Company’s 50th birthday, as we no longer have the pleasure of being part of their regular season.

A short rainfall just before 7pm stopped right as the performance was due to commence. The night was mild and no more rain fell, so apart from soggy picnic blankets and muddy shoes to deal with, there were no more dramas with the weather, as anyone planning an outdoor event in Canberra recently would have worried about!

And those who came were well rewarded, once a vantage point was found, between umbrellas and those standing or preferring chairs to braving the wet grass. It wasn’t an easy feat, as the venue was about as crowded as I’ve seen it.

Thankfully, due to the antics of an over-zealous man in a high-visibility jacket, (whom we mistakenly took to be an official, later to realise he was simply a patron of the arts like the rest of us who had taken it upon himself to enforce a rigid policy in no uncertain terms that you “MOVE to the side with umbrellas or SIT DOWN so those behind can see”) meant we umbrella-less souls were able to see for most of the performance.

It was exciting to see Commonwealth Park used for this event, and the setting was actually quite magical – bats rustling overhead, even the prospect of watching ballet in the rain seemed romantic.

A blank canvas for the dancers - no sets, and only simple light projections onto the back wall left all the focus rightly on dance. No interval would be included, which worked well with this programme of about one-and-a-half hours.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello opened the show in the energetic and colourful La Favorita. They danced fabulously together, clad in red and gold ornate costumes. Gaudiello impressed with his personality and confidence. It felt as though both dancers were holding back a little with the absolute abandon in their aerial work lacking, perhaps due to any residual rain on stage or an unfamiliar dancing surface. But this hesitancy seemed to have vanished by the next act and indeed by the next time these dancers took to the stage.

If the chance arises to see Molto Vivace in full, choreographed by Stephen Baynes, I will possibly jump as high as some of the dancers at the opportunity. With simply a projected full moon and dark lighting, monotone costumes by Anna French and set to a beautiful Handel score, Amber Scott and Adam Bull created a sensual dynamic, smooth, silky movements blending into effortless lifts and slow releases. The beautiful rawness of the choreography executed with fluidity and control, was for me, seeing it for the first time, one of the highlights of the evening’s performance. The mood was momentarily broken by one of our party commenting that if one of the bats flew past the projector thereby making the batman signal on the full moon it would be pretty cool. True, but this was by no means a reflection on their interest or enjoyment of the show and said party thoroughly loved the whole evening.

A pas de deux from Don Quixote followed with Chengwu Guo and Reiko Hombo taking the stage. Guo gave an enthusiastic rendition, with a strong, masculine performance. The chemistry between Guo and Hombo was not entirely convincing. However their solo performances were impressive.

The familiar notes of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” wafted across the audience, who enthusiastically applauded the solos of Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian.

And then there was Giselle. A staple in the repertoire of any ballet lover. It was fantastic to once again watch former Canberran, Rachel Rawlins, a stalwart of the Australian Ballet, dance. And how perfect she was. Floating across stage en pointe, as if suspended above the ground, Rawlins completely encapsulated the sheer beauty and skill of a life dedicated to the art of classical dance. So captivating was her Giselle that Albrecht, Ty King-Wall, was barely noticeable until his solo.

I was particularly anticipating Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, having not seen it live before. Typically giving his contemporary edge to classical ballet, his interpretation was low-key and required maturity and subtlety to pull off Odile's seduction of Prince Seigfried and the jealousy of Odette, which Scott and Amy Harris achieved. In this instance, Bull’s lanky, casual dance style just missed the mark and so did a couple of turns, with his landings a little shaky at times.

Murphy’s pas de trois and ensemble work usually leaves one wondering how the dancers did not tie themselves up completely in knots. And this pas de trois was no exception, with wonderful emotion and timing, especially from the females. The choreography gave a feeling as if underneath the smallest or seemingly simplest of manoeuvres, lies a world of unbelievable choreography, skill and layers of meaning waiting to explode out at any moment.

The most obvious audience response to an individual was in Le Corsair. Guo received enthusiastic applause mid-dance for his acrobatic display of spin-turns that just seemed to hang in the air far longer than gravity would dictate possible for mere mortals. The dancing from Kubota and Guo really had the wow factor, with the showy and acrobatic choreography suiting them very well.

An ensemble piece from La Bayadere closed the show. This didn't highlight the strongest dancing or most captivating choreography of the evening, but it was fitting to end with a traditional, ensemble piece, with dancers donning white tutus. With a solo from Dimity Azoury, another Canberra-trained dancer, the dancers from the Australian Ballet bid us goodnight. 

What a wonderful night. If ballet inspires young, non-dancing men to post about it on Facebook, as was the case, then that must be saying something. Telstra Ballet in the Park was a blatant reminder of how keen we are to turn up to see the Company perform – rain, hail or shine. I can only hope that the Powers that Be decide to reinstate our city on the Australian Ballet calendar or at the very least that we will be graced again with an event such as this. Perhaps for Canberra’s 100th birthday next year?

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Choreographed by Nerida Matthaei

Musical Direction by Nicole Canham

Courtyard Studio – Canberra Theatre Centre.

14th – 17th March 2012

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
          Nicole Canham - Nerida Matthaei - Andy Ferriari (not in performance reviewed)

Choreographer, Nerida Matthaei and musician, Nicole Canham, have combined their talents to devise an imaginative, entertaining and good-humoured new dance work.

Using a book on dance etiquette, published in 1925, as their starting point, and the additional talents of dancers, Leah Shelton and Alex Bryce, they’ve interpreted and de-constructed the advice,  in often hilarious and startling ways.  

The Courtyard Studios were converted into a glitzy dance studio for the program, complete with twinkling lights and functioning bar from which the audience was encouraged to purchase pre-show drinks and chat with the performers already dressed in 1920’s inspired costumes.

The performance commenced with one surprised audience member being given a cleverly choreographed, introductory dance lesson by Leah Shelton, drawing on quotes from the book. These quotes set the tone and theme for the rest of the performance  which consisted of a series of pas de trios, pas de deux and solos inspired by the theme.

Nerida Matthaei’s choreography, particularly in the first half, was clever, complex, demanding, and mostly, beautifully danced. Matthaei, Leah Shelton and Alex Bryce are all experienced professional dancers, each exhibiting excellent techniques and individual dance personalities which were beautifully displayed by Matthaei’s choreography.   Among the many highlights was a clever pas de trios in which Matthaei attempted to intrude between Shelton and Bryce, and a brilliant catfight between Matthaei and Shelton. Alex Bryce’s solos allowed him to show off his extraordinary flexibility and delightfully mobile face. 
                                                      Leah Shelton and Alex Bryce

Nicole Canham is the least experienced dancer of the group, but her contribution to the work was absolutely integral.  Some sections were danced to recorded music, some of which came from the 1920’s. The rest was either contemporary or specially written.   At various points Canham played live clarinet to a recorded background while negotiating choreography, and in one instance she and Shelton played clarinet and wind-organ for a solo danced by Matthaei. The results were often surprising, always  fascinating and quite intriguing.  

It was a pity however that the work was interrupted by an interval, as  this allowed the mood to dissipate somewhat, and given that the second half was very short, and the  content rather less interesting than in the first, allowed the impression that perhaps the ideas had run out.
                                                          Leah Shelton and Alex Bryce

Saturday, March 17, 2012


The Australian Ballet

Stage 88, Commonwealth Park, Canberra,

16th March 2012.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

                                             Dimity Azoury - Rachel Rawlins - Alana Jones
                                      Canberra dancers featured in Telstra Ballet in the Park
                                                        News Limited photo - Kym Smith

If anyone needed proof of the importance of art in daily life then surely the attendance at the Telstra Ballet in the Park is a shining example of the value people place on it.

Thousands braved the prospect of a drenching to attend this one-off performance of the most beautiful and esoteric of the performing arts, classical ballet, offered on this occasion by the Australian Ballet as a gift to celebrate their 50th Year.

Many who attended had probably never been to a ballet performance before, but their curiosity was rewarded with a truly remarkable performance which they are likely to remember fondly for years.
                                                    Crowd gathering in front of Stage 88

Throughout the afternoon dark storm clouds hovered over the city, drenching various suburbs in turn. But encouraged by radio reports that the performance would proceed as advertised, people began arriving in their hundreds from around 5pm in time to watch the company go through their warm-up on stage 88 in preparation for the performance timed to begin at 7pm.

The warm-ups proved a welcome diversion, especially for the little girls who mimicked the dancers movements while their parents staked out soggy patches on which to settle into the ingenious cardboard chairs provided free by Telstra. They also provided an interesting and rarely seen insight into the more mundane side of the dancer’s preparation. However, just as the warm-ups were winding up the heavens opened again and another heavy shower drenched the area.

Miraculously, right on 7pm, the rain stopped. Australian Ballet Artistic Director, David McAllister took the stage to introduce the Telstra representative, who welcomed the audience, before the lights lowered and the program commenced with a prettily costumed pas de deux, ”La Favorita”, choreographed by Petal Miller-Ashmole to music by Donizetti, and danced with panache by Canberran Lana Jones and her husband, Daniel Gaudiello.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull followed with an elegant performance of another stylish pas de deux, “Molto Vivace”, this time choreographed by Stephen Baynes to music by Handel, following which Reiko Hombo and Chengwu Guo took the stage for an electrifying performance of the famous “Don Quixote” pas de deux”.

This was the first time Canberra audiences had had the opportunity to see Chengwu Guo, but even those with only the most rudimentary knowledge of ballet, quickly realised that they were watching an extraordinary performance from a remarkable young dancer, so that when he made his second appearance, this time in the showy “Le Corsaire” pas de deux, for which he was partnered by Miwako Kubato, Chengwu was greeted with cheers.

Less showy perhaps, but equally exciting, was the beautiful “The Nutcracker” pas de deux, elegantly danced by Juliet Burnet and Andrew Kyllian to the music of Tchaikovsky, and the supremely romantic “Giselle Act 11” pas de deux, for which Ty King-wall partnered another Canberran, Rachel Rawlins, who appeared to float around the moon-lit stage as lightly as thistledown.

Among all these very classical showpieces, the Act 111 pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s “Swan Lake” was an interesting inclusion. Stripped of dramatic context in this environment, it nevertheless provided, for those who had never seen Murphy’s version of this ballet, a tantalising glimpse of his  mastery of utilising classical technique in a contemporary setting, and was superbly danced by Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris resplendent in elegant Kristian Fredrikson costumes.

An excerpt from Act 11 of “La Bayadere”, featuring a corp of dancers in white tutu’s, and Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returning to perform the pas de deux, provided a suitably elegant conclusion to an evening of superlative dancing, and the opportunity to see Queanbeyan dancer, Dimity Azoury, together with Amy Harris, both among the six dancers competing for the 2012 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, and Reiko Hombo, each of whom performed solos during this item.

Despite the vagaries of the weather, Stage 88 proved an excellent venue for this program. Following the rain, the evening remained balmy and calm for the duration of the 90 minute program which was presented without interval.

David McAllister had wisely chosen a program to please ballet enthusiasts and the wider audience alike, without in any way comprising the high standard of dancing and production expected of our flagship ballet company. The procession of pas de deux allowed us to enjoy the dancing of many of the current principal dancers, including several past winners of Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards who are now soloists and principals, as well as several of the nominees for the 2012 Awards.

The Australian Ballet is set to return to Canberra in 2013 to premiere a new ballet as part of the 2013 Centenary Celebrations. Given the numbers attending, and the enthusiasm demonstrated for the Ballet in the Park event, is it too much to expect that Canberra once again will be included in the Australian Ballet’s annual touring schedule?

Meanwhile, thank you Australian Ballet for your delightful and very cherished gift.   

Friday, March 16, 2012


Sydney Opera House

Until 24th March 2012

Performance 6th March reviewed by Bill Stephens

                                           Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) Joshua Bloom (Figaro)
                        Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva) Elvira Fatykhova (Countess Almaviva)
                                                            Artists of Opera Australia

For his first production for Opera Australia, director Benedict Andrews has come up with a cracker of a production. Working from a witty English translation by Jeremy Sams, the story-telling is clear, light-hearted and funny, completely in harmony with, and indeed illuminating, the gorgeous Mozart melodies.

Don't be put off that the production is played in a contemporary gated community setting. Ralph Myer's inventive set design and Alice Babidge's costumes are so in tune with Andrews’ concept, that everything seems completely logical. It’s is a concept that is a delight from the very first moment of the overture until the curtain comes down on the final glorious notes.

The opera opens in a stark white box relieved only by a rack on each side bearing pale green uniforms of the type seen in hospitals and factories. During the overture the chorus arrive singly or in groups, remove their street clothes and banter as they dress in the uniforms. Among them is Susanna, who has brought her wedding dress to show the girls, before they set off to undertake their duties.

Then the setting starts to move across the stage, revealing other rooms in the building, all of them white, until we come to the room allocated by the count for Susanna and Figaro to occupy once they are married. It appears to be a laundry, because it contains a large washing machine around which much of the hilarious early action takes place.
                                      Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) Dominca Mathews (Cherubino)
Keeping within the white box theme, Meyer's intriguing set design adapts endlessly to suit the action of the various scenes. Among them, a wedding banquet played out among tables dressed in long white tablecloths, gleaming wine glasses and floating silver balloons. This scene ends dramatically with the table-settings being gathered up in the tablecloths as the tables are folded, whizzed off the stage, and the white plastic chairs are formed into a large circle, upon which multi-coloured confetti flutters down throughout the following scene.

                                      Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) with artists of Opera Australia.

Andrews' direction is continually fascinating and inventive, and he has a marvellous cast to work with, who really embrace the concept.

                                           Taryn Fiebig (Susanna)  Joshua Bloom (Figaro)
Joshua Bloom is a fine Figaro. Good looking, with an expressive face and a warm rich baritone voice, he's as equally at home with the comedy, as with the dramatic elements of the role. He’s delightfully teamed with the marvellous Taryn Fiebig, whom it seems, can do no wrong. As Susannah, she not only looked gorgeous, but also sang like a dream, acted intelligently, and most importantly, made the audience care about her character.

            Joshua Bloom (Figaro)  Taryn Fiebig (Susanna)
Having only seen Elvira Fatykhova as a heart-breaking Violetta in “La Traviata”, it was a revelation to see her as the Countess Almaviva in this production. Her superb singing of  'Hear My Prayer” at the beginning of the second act was breathtaking, and her duet with Fiebig, “Can you hear the gentle breezes ?” in Act Three, were among the evenings many vocal highlights. But her lightness of touch with the comedic possibilities of the role, was as unexpected as it was charming.

                          Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva)  Elvira Fatykhova (Countess Almaviva)

Michael Lewis is magnificent as Count Almaviva. In fine voice, mature, dignified, but always on the look-out for the opportunity for a little lechery on the side, his is a performance that is deliciously nuanced and totally riveting.

     Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) left  Conal Coad (Dr. Bartolo) seated Jacqueline Dark (Marcellina)

Jacqueline Dark and Conal Coad are marvellous together as Marcellina, the delightfully imposing housekeeper and Dr. Bartolo, complete with oxygen tank in tow, never missing an opportunity for visual and aural silliness, while Kanen Breen, as the music master Don Basilio, continues to delight as he adds yet another memorable characterisation to his already huge repertoire of outlandish characters.

At this performance Ann Yun stood in for an indisposed Dominica Mathews as the page Cherubino, and was so spectacularly successful in the role that at the end she was rewarded with well-deserved cheers from the appreciative audience.

              Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva) Taryn Fiebig (Susanna) Joshua Bloom (Figaro)
                                                       Artists of Opera Australia

Conductor Simon Hewett insured an excellent balance between orchestra and stage, and seemed to be enjoying the proceeding as much as the audience. Choregrapher Lucy Guerin contributed delightfully funky movement for the wedding scene, in keeping with the mood of the production. 

This is a production which works so successfully on all levels, and is so jam-packed with brilliant ideas and performances, that one can hardly wait for a second viewing. Make sure you see it at least once.

         Joshua Bloom (Figaro) Michael Lewis (Count Almaviva)
                       Conal Coad (Dr. Bartolo) 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Don'ts for Dancers
Courtyard Studio
March 14-17
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

“Don’t be frightened of your partner” and “Gentlemen should follow their partner’s idiosyncracies” was some of the advice demonstrated in “Don’t for Dancers”. Inspired by the book of the same name, Nerida Matthaei and Nicole Canham interpret and play with dance etiquette from the 1920’s and blend it with today’s music, dance styles and social mores.  
On arrival, audience members are approached to fill the performers’ dance cards (a fan), and if they politely decline, they are offered the option of stepping into the “dehypnotising” den for those who are of the anti-dance persuasion. An eclectic set included the bar on stage, (explaining the absence of champagne in the foyer on arrival!)
Matthaei and Canham were joined by Alex Bryce and Leah Shelton (and a few game audience members!) Bryce gave a wonderful performance as the debonair, albeit “wet” dance partner portrayed in old movies, and followed it up with a very funny, camp, jazz routine to Lady Gaga, where he flamboyantly accepted “belle of the ball”.  His characterisation was engaging and entertaining, and he danced with flair and grace. Shelton, as chaperone, perfectly fit the stereotype of the 20’s flappers. She mixed humour with poise and strong dancing. Matthaei demonstrated strong technique and control and Canham’s dancing, which was not as strong as the others was overshadowed by her musical talent and creativity, which formed a large part of the show.
Some partner work seemed a little unnecessarily awkward, but on the whole was well executed and fluent. Cutting-in, sulking over not being chosen to dance, girl-on-girl fighting and the whole nightclub experience of trying to yell over doof-doof music, the awkward moment when you try to coordinate dance "moves" and of seeing your partner in full light at the end of the night are all touched on.
The toe-tapping audience was kept laughing as the Charleston seamlessly became the Nutbush, the Macarena, krumping and much to the amusement of the YouTube generation, Beyonce’s "Single Ladies" even gets a look-in.
The cast created a good chemistry and maintained a high level of energy throughout the performance. They exemplified just how silly, beautiful, awkward, exciting and challenging social dancing and etiquette can be!
After the curtain call, and filled with sage advice that Nanna would be proud of “Don’t go to unknown clubs and bars, they usually turn out to be sordid dens”, audience members bopped away on stage with the cast, or each other, to Whitney’s “I wanna dance with somebody”.
“Don’t for Dancers” was lots of fun with laugh-out-loud moments and a clever mix of dance, music, sound, comedy and social commentary, that seemed to leave the audience wanting more.
Then again, etiquette would dictate that’s precisely how it should be. 

A version of this review appears in The City News, online from March 15.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Mousetrap – A Near Death Experience at The Q

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie presented by Queanbeyan City Council. Directed by Jordan Best at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 7-24, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 7

This is a misconceived production of a play which, despite its 60 years of continuous performance in London, is essentially a farce. It certainly got some laughs on opening night, despite the director’s apparent intention from her Director’s Notes that we should have been scared and spooked by ‘a cracker of a mystery’.

Christie’s crime fiction consists of nothing but artifice – an artificial plot on which is hung artificial characters with motivations which have nothing to do with psychological truth. Her stories are interesting as games, working out possible directions to take in a maze which has already been predetermined by the designer. The more unexpected twists and turns in the design, the more fun it is to play the game. But that’s all there is to it.

Best, unfortunately, despite her professional training and previous excellent productions, has missed the point here. Naturalistic playing of these characters is boring because it is the wrong style for this type of play. The cast worked hard, but only Jim Adamik’s over-the-top Mr Paravicini and to some extent Brendan Kelly’s Christopher Wren had the exaggerated characteristics a farce requires.

The director’s decision to place the play in Australia (with such a blizzard in, presumably, Katoomba, that would cheer the cockles of a climate skeptic’s heart) compounded her problem. This play is quintessentially English, filled with stock characters, stock references to the weather and places like Majorca, and entirely in the style of English farces of its day, the 1950s before rock’n’roll, such as those by William Douglas Home who, like Agatha Christie, looked back with some kind of sentimental awe to the hey-day of English culture – the 1930s. Australia was never like this.

Mind you, it is true that my first acting role, in Australia in 1963, was as an upper-class twit in Home’s 1956 play The Reluctant Debutante. No-one, but no-one, would bother to present that even in a country town today, and presenting The Mousetrap could only work if it was made thoroughly absurdist – a spoof of the very crime fiction it represents. When you consider what we watch on tv nowadays – Silent Witness for example – the idea that we might be scared or spooked by the ‘horrors’ of The Mousetrap is the ultimate absurdity.

I would like to praise the set design (the indomitable Brian Sudding) and construction (Craig Francis and Ian Croker), except for one point – the door that should have creaked, didn’t. There was also a sound problem – almost inherent in the script – when the loud radio drowned out the characters’ voices. We needed to hear what they said because there were clues to the plot in their words.

So The Mousetrap is a disappointment, which is a pity because The Q has presented so much better local productions in recent times, and I hope will do so in the future.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dance scholar unveils findings

Three members of the Canberra Critics Circle were present at the National Film and Sound Archive on February 29, when Canberra dance scholar, Michelle Potter, also a member of the circle, unveiled some of her findings made as part of the NFSA’s Scholars and Artist in Residence program for 2012.
The first of this year’s scholars, Potter has undertaken research on theatrical designer Kristian Fredrikson, (1940–2005) a giant figure in the world of Australian theatre designed best known for his work with the Australian Ballet and in her view, “perhaps the most awarded and acclaimed designer to have pursued a career in theatrical design in Australia to this point in our cultural history.”
“In a highly diverse and prolific working life that spanned some 40 years and resulted in the creation of around 140 works, Fredrikson was equally at home designing for dance, opera, theatre, musicals, film and television and was also one of a team of designers who worked on the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympiad.”
While Potter’s ultimate aim is to produce a book on the work of Fredrikson, this research project was specifically aimed at Fredrikson’s film and television commissions.
After giving an account of Fredrikson’s long career, Potter outlined his work as a costume designer for film and television, drawing some fascinating contrasts between the highly artistic and colourful artist’s impressions of the costumes for “Oedipus Rex” at Wal Cherry’s Emerald Hill Theatre in the 1960s, to the more austere black-and-white pencil drawings of costumes for a TV mini-series about Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war produced by George Miller and starring Nicole Kidman.
But the main focus of her work was on “Undercover,” the 1984 Palm Beach Pictures’s film about the Berlei underwear promotional enterprises of the early 20th century. Potter’s trained eye discerned connections between the original costumes of dancers promoting the Berlei product and those created by Fredrikson for both the film and other productions, like the 2001 Sydney Dance Company-Australian Ballet collaboration, “Tivoli.”
Finally, Potter unveiled some of her preliminary findings about Fredrikson’s designs for an eccentric film, never made, called “The Magic Telescope.” We look forward to further revelations after she has a chance to meet the director.
Helen Musa, March 3 2012