Monday, April 30, 2012

Food by Steve Rodgers

Emma Jackson as Nancy and Kate Box as Elma

Food by Steve Rodgers.  Directed by Kate Champion (Force Majeure) and Steve Rodgers at Belvoir Downstairs, Sydney, April 28 – May 20, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 29
Kate Champion - Co-director

Steve Rodgers - Writer and Co-director

Kate Box as Elma and Fayssal Bazzi as Hakan

Elma, of the sharp knives, looking into the eyes of Hakan, peripatetic Turk, as he looks into hers, making her decision to give him permission to kiss her, thinks aloud these words: Between the words!

This is the thematic climax of this new play, down-to-earth Australian in content, character and style.  It seems to me to settle into this century’s tradition set by Andrew Bovell and Christos Tsiolkas in its dialogue, yet takes off into the new form of dance theatre which Force Majeure has created.

The result is at times terrifying, funny and deeply saddening.  In this work, as in all good drama, it is what is happening, has happened and might happen, between the words, that catches our imagination and rings bells of truth about our lives.

Before going further, I should declare my potential for bias, since I taught Steve Rodgers drama in his senior secondary school years and trained him for the audition which took him to his tertiary training at University of Western Sydney, Nepean.

I also broke what I’m told is a cardinal rule for a critic, never to talk to the author or director after the show.  After 25 years I couldn’t miss the opportunity.  But I guarantee my reaction to the play, thoroughly confirmed by the excited response from the rest of the audience, was absolutely established in the last moment of silence before the lights came up for curtain call.

Because I have previously favourably reviewed two of Kate Champion’s works, The Age I’m In (2010) and Never Did Me Any Harm (Sydney Festival 2012) and seen the development from pure dance toward dance theatre, I wanted to ask Rodgers about the process he and Champion had gone through.  In this play I saw the choreographed movement working to reveal the feelings and meanings behind the everyday actions and words, integrating the text and plot in a new way.

Interestingly, Rodgers said that his original text was much longer, but as he and the actors worked with Champion, and she choreographed movement which ‘illustrated’ the text, it was often the case that the text should be cut and the movement stand in its own right.  In Never Did Me Any Harm which I saw only last January, words were used but seemed to me to be an expressive layer often exploding out from the feelings established in movement, which itself was choreographed closer to pure dance than in Food.  Now the words, movement and feelings come to us as a three-dimensional whole. 

It really is exciting to see new developments in theatrical form happening literally before my very eyes, only a metre or so from my front row seat.  It was also satisfying, talking about past times with Steve, to realise that he recognised the value of the educational drama processes of group improvisation, giving students the power to lead their own work, allowing creative writing to be assessed on the same terms as critical or analytic writing, and basing drama work on relationships in action rather than studying text isolated from action.

So what does happen in Food?  Elma (Kate Box) is in the kitchen of the small country town café she has set up with her sister Nancy (Emma Jackson).  The whole set is made up of pots and pans of every imaginable size.  Elma is already busy with the knives preparing for the men who will soon be there for breakfast, but Nancy is still in the shower, moving and singing to dance music.

At first she moves gently and in sync with the rhythm, but gradually becomes more and more agitated and out of time before at last coming out angrily responding to her sister’s increasingly autocratic demands.  Half-spoken words and looks – every turn of a face, twist of a wrist, sideways glance of an eye is choreographed, with the same kind of skill as in a traditional Indian dance – begin to reveal a dark family history for these two sisters.  It’s not my place to tell you of it here.  You need to experience the revelations for yourself.

The plot lightens when the sisters advertise for help, and Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi) steps off the bus. He’s a joker but essentially sincere, nothing like the Aussie boys and men who have wreaked havoc, physical and emotional, in the growing-up time of the two sisters.

He offers something that Nancy understands her elder sister needs.  He also is crucial in making the business grow, including indeed all of us in a kind of loaves-and-fishes audience participation.  I’ve seen real cooking on stage before, but this was a great degustation event not to be missed.

It was while celebrating the wonderful success that the scene is set for that kiss and more “between the words”.  Of course, Hakan has gone in the morning, knowing his role in Elma’s new understanding, and, I guess, recognising the conflict he would cause between the sisters if he stayed.  As they prepare the food for the coming day there is a brief mini-reprise of the tensions we saw at the beginning of the play, a sort of sadness at Hakan’s departure, then an understanding in their eye-contact, and a calm silence as they settle to the work and the lights dim to black.

The sensitivity and skills which each actor showed was quite extraordinary, supported in every detail by Anna Tregloan’s set and costume design, Martin Langthorne’s lighting and audio visual effects, and Ekrem Mülayim’s sound and music composition.  This production is literally and metaphorically a brilliant reflection of life in this country of contrasts of the best and the worst kind.  It is theatre you should not miss.
Kate Box

Emma Jackson
Fayssal Bazzi

DRAMA QUEEN by Geraldine Turner.

Music by David King

Lyrics by James Millar

Directed by Caroline Stacey

Sound Design by Seth Edwards-Ellis

Reported by Bill Stephens.
FIRST SEEN, is a new initiative of the Street Theatre which is creating quite a buzz in theatre circles.  Over four consecutive Sundays, Canberra audiences have the opportunity to be first to see a new work, selected from The Street’s THE HIVE creative program for further development. Each of the works is given a week’s workshopping by professional creatives and actors prior to a public showing at the end of that week, at which members of the public are encouraged to attend and provide feedback.

The works already unveiled in this round of showings include “From a Black Sky” an operatic work about the Canberra bushfires by Sandra Frances and Helen Nourse and  “Drama Queen” a musical written by Geraldine Turner, with Music by David King and Lyrics by James Millar. Two plays are yet to be shown,   “Two plays” a play by Cathy Petocz and “Sampaguita” a play by Noonee Doronila.

Having missed out on seeing “From a Black Sky” because I arrived too late to be accommodated in Street Two where the showings were being staged, I made sure I arrived in good time for “Drama Queen”.  Lucky I did, because again there was a capacity house in attendance.

“Drama Queen”, Geraldine Turner’s first musical, is written for four actors, two female and two male. It’s a searing examination of a dysfunctional relationship between a mother and daughter. Its challenging script wrestles with changes in time and locality, and characters who may be real or figments of imagination.

The music is written by David King, who has previously written music for several musicals including three with Nick Enright. David is Head of Music at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

The lyrics are the work of James Millar, whose previous musicals include “The Hatpin” and “Lovebites”.

At the showing, the mother was played by Geraldine Turner, the daughter by Claire Watson while PJ Williams played a character called Leo, and James Millar played several other male characters.  

The composer, David King accompanied the performance from a piano placed to one side, as the four actors, sitting on chairs arranged across the playing area, read from scripts, only occasionally standing or walking.  The disembodied voice of the husband/father was featured in a soundscape designed by Seth Edwards-Ellis.

Caroline Stacey, who directed both the workshops and showing, provided verbal links to the action from side stage as the performance progressed.

Because of the absence of visual prompts like scenery or stage movement, and the variance in the unmiked voices, the performance was a relatively challenging experience for the audience who had to rely on what they could glean from the script and song lyrics to follow the action as it moved between timeframes and localities. 

But they listened intently, applauded the songs, and laughed at the dialogue, and when it reached its conclusion, responded with enthusiastic applause. Then at the invitation of Caroline Stacey, many took the opportunity to provide their feedback on their response to their first glimpse of what they sincerely hoped would become a new and exciting work.  

There are just two more opportunities to participate in a FIRST SEEN experience at The Street. “Two Plays” by Cathy Petocz on May 6, and “Sampaguita” by Noonee Doronila on May 13th. You could just find yourself at the birth of something truly exciting.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Let the Sunshine by David Williamson

Let the Sunshine by David Williamson.  Presented by Christine Harris & HIT Productions at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, directed by Denis Moore, April 26-29, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 26

This is a comedy of very good manners, on the part of the cast and crew especially. 

Even the characters finally work their way through their prejudices, self-centredness and argumentativeness to a neat rom-com happy ending, as the parents finally learn to accept the reality of their 30 and 33 year old children’s love of the “inward smile” kind.

What I liked about this production, reviving the success of the original 2009 Ensemble Theatre show, was the high energy level of all the performances, the nicely managed twists and turns and timing which showed excellent directing, the design of a simple set which kept the action constantly on its toes, and the live and recorded sound design.  Williamson’s best comedies of manners are traditionally ‘well-made plays’ and this production is well made on all fronts.

Reviving the play, and touring around the country, is also a well-worthwhile exercise. 

It reflects on the Great Financial Crisis which began in 2007, and looked forward to the likelihood of things getting worse rather than better.  In 2012 we can reach our own conclusions about Williamson’s perspicacity.

It also shows us the ‘issues’ of Gen X, Y or Z (wherever we are up to by now), especially letting us come to terms with the fact that while all things change, all things stay the same, as each new generation has to deal with its parents.  Both sides may look for rational and reasonable deals, but the human condition is not actually of that kind.  The best we can do is look for the kindness of the inward smile.

In other words, I was more than entertained by the comedy.  It was a satisfying night out at a serious level too, and makes me keen to see the next Williamson play in a couple of weeks’ time, When Dad Married Fury, which Sandra Bates is directing at The Ensemble.  The idea that Williamson’s move to Noosa was into retirement has been knocked on the head, especially as, in Let the Sunshine, he seems to reflect through film-maker Toby and his musician-turning-producer son Rick on something of his own experiences since the 1960s.

I have one gripe, though, about the Christine Harris & HIT management, as I did about the management of the previous The Q presentation I reviewed, Syncopation by Critical Stages & The Follies Company.  Can’t touring companies at least provide the audience with a record for them to take home of the cast and crew?  I think it’s an insult to the actors especially, and unfair in terms of their careers, as well as unfair to The Q, that I had to stand in front of a single poster, while others had to read over my shoulder, in order to write down the names of seriously praiseworthy theatre practitioners.

Here the actors are:  Toni Scanlan as the musician’s mother Ros, Dennis Coard as his father Toby, Peter Phelps as millionaire developer Ron, Alexandra Fowler as his big-spending wife Natasha.  Their daughter, feral lawyer and partner in love, Emma was played ferociously at first and warmly at last by Hannah Norris, and Ryan Hayward transformed from wafty musician to business-like husband Rick.

With director Denis Moore were Shaun Gurton (set design), Adrienne Chisholm (costumes – Ron’s changes got great laughs), Nick Merrylees (lighting – spot on) and Peter Farnan (sound).  But without a program, I haven’t all the pictures I would like to show here.  This is a shame.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

CD Review - Nick Charles - Return of the Travelling Fingerpicker

Return of the Travelling Fingerpicker
Nick Charles

Review by Clinton White

Catalogue 810 398 2

In a career spanning more than 25 years, roots guitarist, singer and composer, Nick Charles has released a dozen albums and performs over 150 gigs a year in Australia, New Zealand and the US.  His laid-back style of blues, folk and early ragtime acoustic guitar has held unparalleled popularity among a variety of audiences.

His newest album, Return of the Travelling Fingerpicker, offers 13 tracks, of which ten are new Charles originals.  It’s a kind of back-to-the-future approach; something of an extension to Travelling Fingerpicker, also a solo instrumental album, which Charles released in 2004.

Even so, it’s not simply a case of ‘more of the same’.  Charles has further developed his style and technique.  It’s still laid-back and a good Sunday arvo jam kind of approach, but he’s got a fresh take with some great riffs, driving rhythms and imaginative improvs.

There’s a range of music styles, too, from full-on blues, to teary ballads and steel guitar rattles and slides taking you to an old rocking chair on the dusty front porch of some deep-south ranch house in the blistering humidity of summer.  Charles’ arrangement of the two trad folky tunes Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair deftly lulls the listener into a false sense of security, starting off with an introspective what-you’d-expect intro, which soon launches off into a rhythmic bluesy style.

The recording quality is superb, too, with some close and beautifully clear miking, faithfully delivering the full dynamic and sonic range of the instruments.  And it’s all as natural as fresh fruit, too.  No overdubs, enhancements or tricks.

I’ve heard Nick Charles play a few times now.  He’s always entertaining, always enthralling, and always a nice bloke.

Go see him.  He's playing at the Harmonie German Club, Jerrabomberra Ave, Narrabundah, ACT at 3pm on Sunday April 29.  And buy his CDs.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Presented by Supa Productions

ANU Arts Centre until 5th May.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Production photo by Craig Burgess - Family Fotographics 

It was always going to be a night to remember.  Many of the audience wore period costumes to salute the  initiative of  Supa Productions in presenting  their second production of the musical “Titanic” exactly one hundred years to the day from the actual sinking,  and were rewarded with a magnificent  ensemble performance  which had  them cheering.  

Director Garrick Smith has assembled a huge cast of Canberra’s finest music theatre performers, taken advantage of the larger stage and included impressive multimedia effects to add fascinating detail to the events happening above and below the decks. Fine performances abound especially from Peter Dark, the owner, Dave Evans, the builder and Max Gambale, the captain.

Maury Yeston has gifted this show with a gorgeously atmospheric score, and among the many pleasures of this production is just how well this challenging score is sung by the cast, and played by the excellent orchestra assembled and conducted by Rose Shorney.  Particularly memorable musical highlights include Pete Ricardo and Simon Stone’s luminous duet “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive”, Emma White and Brian Daly with “I Have danced” and Sarah Golding, Kate Brand and Rebecca Franks with  “Lady’s Maid”. 

Clever set design, beautiful costumes and neatly appropriate choreography  all  add lustre to a beautifully-paced production which falters only in the second half when a series of static scenes, played out on a sloping gangplank on one side of the stage, interrupts the sweep of an otherwise extraordinarily accomplished production.
                                  (This review appears in the April 19th edition of "City News)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Punch and the Magic Box Hunky Dory Puppets

Punch and the Magic Box  Hunky Dory Puppets at Belconnen Arts Centre, Tuesday April 17, 2012, 3pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

What would you want a chainsaw for?  To open a milk carton, says Mr Punch.  But it makes such a mess.  I don’t know what to do.  What should I do with a chainsaw? 

The littlies say, Cut wood.  What kind of wood?  Tree wood, they say.  Like those trees outside my house?   Should I cut down the trees?  No, say the kids.

And so begins the lesson about our natural environment.  Despite Mrs Kangaroo’s objection that she needs the shade, Mr Punch is so excited to rev up his chainsaw that he cuts down the first two rather ordinary looking trees.  After all, Mrs Kangaroo could just wear a hat.  But when he comes to the big old tree with holes in it, leaves on it, and roots under it, Mrs Galah stops him because of her young babies in the hollow, Koala stops him because he only eats that kind of leaves, and Wombat stops him because he depends on eating those roots. 

On the way we learn that birds being born in tree hollows is just like children being born in hospital, koalas eating leaves is just like children eating leaves – like lettuce (I hope your parents give you lettuce to eat, says Koala), and wombats eating roots is just like children eating carrots (the littlies all liked carrots, just as Mr Punch did).  All through the story, Mr Punch asks the kids, Did you know that?  Yes – well you kids are really clever.  He finally puts his chainsaw away under his bed.

As Hunky Dory Puppets say on their website   The stories we use are devised to be educational, non-violent, positive and always have some kind of intrinsic environmental and people friendly flavour. 

In effect, Marcus and Carolyn Goddefroy apply the principle devised by the doyen of educational drama, Dorothy Heathcote, placing on the children – even 3 and 4 year olds – the ‘mantle of the expert’.  Mr Punch doesn’t know and the children tell him what to do, confirming them emotionally, and then extending their knowledge (about lettuce and carrots, for example).  And the children in the audience I observed certainly participated eagerly – though a couple of rather older kids saw through the device and sometimes deliberately challenged with the wrong answer. 

Typical! is what I would say, as a former teacher.  But Marcus, as Mr Punch, was never fazed, taking up the littlies’ responses and moving the story along.

As well as Carolyn and Marcus being puppeteers and puppet makers (of all kinds of puppets), and offering puppet making sessions for the children (at Belconnen Arts Centre this Thursday or by invitation: just email, Marcus is also a good magician and musician. 

As a lead-in, he involves the children in the action, in role as Hunky the Clown, giving the child volunteers the magic wand and incantations to make the tricks work, since Hunky causes failures because of his big red nose itching or sneezing.  He builds in constant surprises which keep the children on their toes.  With Marcus playing tin whistle, recorder, button and piano accordion, the magic introduces Dory with the dancing string puppets Angelina Angel (whose wings sprout so she can fly) and the rather thin, in fact skeletal, Pete the Pirate who hasn’t eaten for 300 years.  I hope you eat, says Hunky to the kids.

A community arts centre, I guess, has two key functions.  One is to provide exhibitions and performances which increase people’s appreciation of the arts, while the other is to engage people in the creation of art.  Hunky Dory Puppets covers the field in both directions.  It was good to see what they themselves call an ‘old-fashioned’ approach – not ‘slick’, not glossy, with all live music and sound effects, and with the traditional props and Punchinella style booth.  The children certainly didn’t need or miss the racy formula approach of shows like Dora the Explorer, for example, which are designed for massed audiences (and mass financial exploitation, I suspect).

Marcus and Carolyn Goddefroy are to be respected for their commitment to the small scale, personal and genuine concern for children, and their willingness to maintain ‘old-fashioned’ values in their work.  They work out of old European traditions, especially the Dutch, but apply them to themes suited to today’s children in New Zealand where they began their career, in country Queensland for some 17 years, and now in the ‘country’ city, Canberra.

Belconnen Arts Centre has a wide ranging program, but this is the only piece that involves chainsaws.  Coming up soon is everything from dance, kites, visuals, music (at Live@BAC on Fridays 5.30-7.00pm), and even the celebration of the winter solstice.  Go to or ring +61 (0)2 6173 3300 for information  for bookings

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Written and performed by Henri Szeps,
Street Theatre until 21st April 2012
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Written and performed by Henri Szeps , on a surprisingly basic set attributed to Graham Maclean , “I Wish I’d Said that” is a charming one-man show in which Szeps portrays a failed actor – Joe Bleakley -   who has recently become a resident of the Foggadieu Retirement Village and who  is preparing an entertainment for the residents.
The audience watch Bleakley  in his retirement village apartment as he rehearses his piece ,  mainly consisting of  excerpts from roles in which he didn't appear during his career, or commenting on recent events, particularly some involving his daughter,  interspersed  with some favourite gags….all of which are delivered with consummate charm and skill.

No director is credited ,  so I assume Szeps directed the show himself – which may account for the difficulty I had with the piece.
Henri Szeps  is a consummate actor and raconteur who quickly  establishes  an astonishingly direct connection with his audience.  Joe Bleakley looked a lot like Henri Szeps in real life .
Therefore  I had to keep reminding myself that I was really meant to be  watching an  actor in rehearsal , rather than Henri Szeps  actor giving a performance , which my mind told me I was really watching….if you know what I mean.
In any case, it’s a lovely performance of an interesting piece, which has some important things to say about ageing and life, and you well may respond to it quite differently to me.
 If you want to see it,  you’ll have to be quick as the season finishes this Saturday 21st April.

Excerpt from  “Dress Circle,  broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7, Sunday 15th April 2012.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Doubt: a parable by John Patrick Shanley

Cate Clelland



Hannah McCann                                                                                          Naoné Carrel

Doubt: a parable by John Patrick Shanley.  Free Rain Theatre Company, directed by Cate Clelland at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 13-29, 2012

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 13

It’s a great pleasure to see a risky piece of theatre done well.

You may ask why a Pultizer Prize winner (2005) could be called risky.  When it’s all about two people who have an argument.  You might think an argument would be dramatic, but not unless the characters come to a new understanding and change their position.  In this play only a side character, the young teacher Sister James (Hannah McCann), takes a step towards greater maturity, while the central characters – Sister Aloysius (Naoné Carrel) and Father Flynn (Jarrad West) - remain at the end as they were at the beginning.  The only other character – the mother of the Latino boy at the centre of the story, Mrs Ruiz (Ronnie Flor) – comes to the Principal’s office ready to breathe fire, and leaves in full flame. 

And what’s more challenging is that when we have watched the argument for 90 minutes, we can’t decide who won or what the truth was.  And even worse, there’s absolutely no action.  Just talk – even sermons!

The story behind the talk is quite simple.  The Principal expects the inexperienced teacher to tell her of anything she, the teacher, is not sure about.  The teacher reports that Father Flynn had taken a vulnerable recent arrival – the only boy in this Bronx school who was not Irish or Italian – for a private talk, and the boy had seemed disturbed when he returned to the classroom.  The Principal, suspicious that the boy had been molested, goes outside the rules – the Catholic ‘chain of command’ – which places men in charge of the women.  She confronts Father Flynn directly and uses subterfuge to put him in a position where he has no choice but to resign.  We learn, though, at the very end, that the Bishop not only did not accept the Principal’s accusation, but covered up by promoting Flynn to a higher position in another parish, with its school full of vulnerable boys.

So the story is, as the author has called it, a parable.  A very model of a post-modern parable in which nothing can be proven either way, yet we feel that the Principal was right to take action to protect her pupils despite her admitting finally that she had her doubts.  Any doubts we had about Father Flynn’s behaviour were swept aside by the Bishop’s promoting him – yet the truth could have been that the Bishop was correct to protect his subordinate’s career against unsubstantiated accusations.

So how was this production done well?  By focussing on simplicity, in the stage design and the acting.  By not being afraid to use disciplined silences to allow us to think through the implications of what was being said and how each character was reacting.  The drama was happening in our minds, established by the opening sermon where Father Flynn spoke directly to us in the congregation.  The writing is good, but quality presentation is needed to make it work on stage.

Each of the actors made sure that we were made aware of the motivation they had for saying what they did, for not saying what they might have, and for being silent when nothing might be said.  Each took up the challenge, and took us along with them. 

This made a highly satisfying piece of theatre, a great pleasure to experience, even though it revealed the awful side of the rigid male-dominated religious system.  Set in New York in the 1960s, shortly after the assassination of the Catholic President John F Kennedy, the play is not only still relevant today for the issue in the story (as we are now seeing in Victoria where a full inquiry into the abuse of children by priests is being seriously mooted), but is universal in its concern that we often cannot not take action despite never being able to prove the truth.

Cate Clelland and her team have taken the risk, kept their nerve throughout, focussed on the universal, and succeeded brilliantly.

              Ronnie Flor                                                                                                                             Jarrad West


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MIDSUMMER (A Play with songs)

By David Greig and Gordon McIntyre

Canberra Playhouse until March 31st.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
                                                     Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon

This gritty little play certainly has coarse language, strong sex scenes and adult themes. It’s definitely not a musical although it does have songs, and it’s astonishingly well-performed by Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon.

Bissett plays Helena, a cynical, lonely lawyer and serial bridesmaid who hangs out in wine bars, and several other characters who inhabit the narrative.  Her rich Scottish accent often makes it difficult to decipher her lines, but there’s no mistaking her body language.  Pidgeon plays Bob, a small-time crook who cheers himself up by reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”.

 After Bob accepts Helena’s offer of a night of unbridled sex, no strings attached, they embark on a frantic relationship which includes a wild weekend disposing of 15,000 pounds which Bob should have deposited into a bank for an associate. The play skips back and forth in time, during which Bob finds himself musing on life after 35, and, at one point, engaged in a long conversation with his penis.

The Edinburgh Festival origins of “Midsummer” are obvious in the messy bedroom set, which, while appropriate, looks unattractive and makeshift on the playhouse stage.  But it’s  the freshness of the writing with its overlaid dialogue and quirky construction, and the skill and unflinching commitment with which the actors invest the appalling lives of their characters with warmth and humour, that make this a satisfying, if challenging, evening for anyone interested in experiencing  current British playwriting.   
This review appears in the digital edition of "City News" from 29th March

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Syncopation by Allan Knee

Emma Palmer                                                               Justin Cotta

Syncopation by Allan Knee, presented by Critical Stages and The Follies Company directed by Stephen Helper at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 27 to April 5, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 30

Noel Coward would have called this a ‘nice’ play.  It makes for an enjoyable evening, but it’s the dancing that gives it a feel-good quality despite a predictable, melodramatic and sentimental plot. 

Fortunately the dance work by Emma Palmer (Anna) and Justin Cotta (Henry) carried the day, while the quality of their acting kept our interest through a too long first half and another too long second half.  There was as much a sigh of relief at 10.40pm for the play having finally ended, as there was the inevitable sigh of satisfaction that at last these two determined ballroom dancers had reached the conclusion that they just belonged together.  Si-i-i-igh!

It’s amusing to see in one week two plays with the same basic romantic structure – Midsummer (reviewed March 28) and Syncopation – but with such different degrees of theatrical originality.  Syncopation has in the background something of the same issues of social class (in 1912 New York) as Midsummer (in modern Edinburgh), but the plot – will the seamstress marry the boring but conventional shopkeeper, the rich sophisticated but married man in the cape, or the dancing meatworker – is no more telling than the plot of Out in the Cold, Cold Snow, the well-known melodrama of the late 19th Century.

Considering that by 1912 Bernard Shaw had already written Major Barbara and was about to write Pygmalion and Heartbreak House and in America Eugene O’Neill was busy writing his first plays while convalescing from tuberculosis, I can only wonder where Knee is coming from.  It was nice to hear Anna tell a rather bemused Henry that she wanted women to be allowed to vote, and the idea of freedom from the conventional restraints is played out as the two come together and dance, but, for a 21st Century play, it’s all too predictable.  The characters are cyphers, carrying out the author’s predetermined construct.  Knee needs to study David Greig, the author of Midsummer, to see what I mean.

Certainly see the play, because the dancing is lovely and the sigh factor gets to you in the end.

But there are backstage questions that seem to need answering. 

One is about hype. “Syncopation is the only truly integrated play with dance in the world” says Stephen Helper on the website

Sorry – not true.  Try Wallflowering by Peta Murray, a much better script than Syncopation, in my view, and an Australian play which travelled to England and the USA.  We saw a revival of this 1989 play, at Tuggeranong Arts Centre, starring Noeline Brown and Doug Scroope, in 2004.  Its original production, after a reading at Sydney Theatre Company, was by Carol Woodrow’s Canberra Theatre Company.

The other concern is about management. Critical Stages and The Follies Company did not supply The Q, at least until four days into the run when I saw Syncopation, with printed programs for the audience.  Some posters for the foyer had arrived, but even if all the audience had gathered around to read them, they might not have been clear about the names of the actors performing that night.  Now that I have searched the website, I see that the cast has changed over time.  The professionalism of Emma Palmer and Justin Cotta was exemplary on the night, with no indication of anything amiss, but if I were one of the actors I would not have been pleased.

Breaker Morant by Kenneth G Ross

Breaker Morant by Kenneth G Ross.  Everyman Theatre, directed by Jarrad West at Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, March 21-31, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 31

Since there has been some mention in the press arguing the toss about the truth of the Breaker Morant story, I should begin by making it clear that I have not studied the history of the Boer War nor any details of the Court Martial and execution of Morant and Handcock.  I look at this play as an interpretation of history, just as Shakespeare’s history plays are.

This doesn’t mean that I think this play is up to Shakespeare’s standard, however.  It is almost entirely a courtroom scene with brief excursions to the defendants’ meetings with their defence lawyer, Major Thomas, and the prison cell housing Morant, Handcock and their co-accused, George Witton, who escaped the firing squad, and to Lord Kitchener’s office.

The Court is represented as a shambles because the accused refused to be subordinate, making it very difficult to avoid most of the play being a shouting match, without much opportunity for subtle emotional developments to be displayed.  The strongest scene – and the quietest – is near the end when Major Thomas confronts Colonel Hamilton to try to have the execution delayed to allow time to contact the Australian and British governments.  Kitchener has already signed the death warrants and left, leaving Hamilton to fob off Thomas.  Dr Duncan Driver played Thomas’s determination and frustration in the face of immutable forces very well indeed, while Colin Gray’s Hamilton was so cold that the atmosphere in the whole theatre silently froze.

Duncan Ley as Morant and Robert DeFries as Handcock successfully presented themselves as men of maturity and authority, but at the same time the script, I think, too often puts them out as too willing to interrupt the court proceedings with obscenities and open attacks on witnesses and the court itself.  It may be that this may have happened in the real court martial (suggesting that British law was falling apart in the wilds of Africa), but too much too often lessens the theatrical tension on stage.  I would have expected the President of the Court Martial to have taken action against them for contempt of court, but all he did was to keep saying he wouldn’t allow them to keep up their unacceptable behaviour.

Though I could see the justification for the director’s desire to make the story ‘timeless’ by using military costume from different eras, having a female prosecutor (Major Bolton played very well by Andrea Close), and removing references to specific dates, I found this distracting rather than making a strong point.  It might have been more bold to do as was done in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, and use a recent modern setting, in Iraq, say.  However, I think it would take much manipulation for this to work with this story, though perhaps the Bosnian war would have allowed for summary executions.  In the end keeping strictly to the historical period, when armies did as a matter of course execute their own, would have been the better way to go. 

This production of Breaker Morant, as I saw it, certainly made the point that the executions were politically motivated rather than justified in court, but the sympathy for Morant that was engendered in the film version in 1980 (which was entirely based on this playscript) was replaced by empathy with Major Thomas, who so valiantly tried and ultimately failed through no fault of his own.  It became his play, and in that way became a legal drama rather than a myth about a wronged Australian. 

I’m not sure if this was Jarrad West’s intention, but it still made this a worthwhile production to see.