Saturday, September 29, 2012

HAIR The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

Queanbeyan City Council,
The Q  - Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre until 6th October.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Set in the hippie counter culture of the 1960’s sexual revolution, with its depictions of  illegal drug use, strong anti-war message, and famous nude seen, “Hair”  sparked outrage and protest when it first surfaced in 1968. Many will still find it a confronting experience.

Director Stephen Pike, perhaps wisely, has somewhat sweetened the pill in this confident, spectacularly-staged production, and while the issues remain relevant, the passion is somewhat diluted.  

The nude scene is tastefully staged. All the familiar songs are superbly sung and danced by the large, attractive ensemble of hippies who make up “the tribe”. Choreographer Jordon Kelly has devised a series of inventive, eye-dazzling “happenings”, and though eschewing the familiar astringent guitar riffs for a more brassy sound, Geoff Grey’s tight band provides punchy accompaniment.  

There are stand-out performances aplenty, particularly from Maigan Fowler as the pregnant, spaced-out Jeanie, quite wonderful in “Air”, Kitty McGarry, luminous in the poignant and silly “Frank Mills, Joanna Licuanan singing up a storm in “I’m Black”, and from James Court (Woof), Will Huang (Hud) Rebecca Harman (Sheila) and Laura Dawson (Jasmine).

However, “Hair” is essentially about the relationship between tribe leader Claude and free spirit, Berger.  Despite engaging performances from Pete Ricardo and Tim Stiles  in these roles, both  have yet to  discover  the  passionate fire at the core of both characters necessary to allow them to dominate the production.
                   (This review appears in CITY NEWS . Edition  September 27 to October 3)



Thursday, September 27, 2012

The School for Wives by Molière, translated by Justin Fleming

Harriet Dyer, John Adam, Meyne Wyatt
The School for Wives by Molière, translated by Justin Fleming.  Bell Shakespeare directed by Lee Lewis.  Designer: Marg Horwell, Lighting Designer: Niklas Pajanti, Composer: Kelly Ryall, Movement Director: Penny Baron.  Canberra Theatre Playhouse, September 26 – October 6, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

Originality + is my assessment for the translation into modern Australian rhymed verse, a movable feast of a set design, the Parisien Charlston era setting, precision characterisation, and the especially clever use of pause and silent movement.

The + is for John Adam’s voice in the lead role of Arnolde, the man whose wealth leads him into territory rather akin to some more modern moguls or mining magnates: assuming he has the right (because he has the power) to arrange other people’s lives to suit his own requirements.  Except, of course, his expectations don’t match other people’s reality, so he comes seriously unstuck.

I’ll deal with Arnolde’s sticky end later; the + for Adam’s voice is because I was aware that he almost had to abandon opening night to the vicissitudes of a throat infection.  Anyone not in the know would never have known – a great performance which I can only hope he can maintain.

Originality abounded everywhere.  Pianist and percussionist Mark Jones had a ball (you’ll see what I mean when you see the play), tinkling the ivories like the accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin silent movie – always the right ironic mood, but never dominating the scene, even when he became a comic character in his own right.  If Jean-Baptiste Poquelin had had a Kelly Ryall and a Mark Jones available in 1643, he would have surely realised that comedy was his métier, would never have tried to act (in his stage name of Molière) the tragedies of writers like Corneille, would have employed them in his Illustre-Théâtre – and would never have gone to debtor’s prison. 

Poquelin would also have appreciated aluminium scaffolding on wheels to make frames, screens and even Agnes’s balcony.  It didn’t look 17th Century, or even 1920’s Paris (unless you wanted to see a reference to the iron-frame Eiffel Tower :-), but what a touring set, for France in his day or for playing Australia today.  This set took the old Peter Brooks’ Empty Space to its ultimate point – to create the scene  in the audience’s imagination, not by filling up the stage with predetermined pictures on immovable flats and blocks.

Then there was the rhyming, coming thick and fast, first and last.  Justin Fleming is a stickler for getting it right, working with all his might for rhyming couplets (AA/BB) when Arnolde is raving on, 1st and 4th – 2nd and 3rd line couplets (ABBA) when he is dealing with his young rival Horace, alternate rhymes (ABAB) for Agnes as she begins to realise her position, and back to rhyming couplets for the ensemble at the end.  Poquelin and Fleming could have been a great team – and still are.  The language itself becomes a character full of humour with which the actors play.

And this brings us to the style of acting, a combination I guess of the efforts of Lee Lewis, Penny Baron and Vocal Coach Anne McCrossin-Owen – and the skills of John Adam (Arnolde, originally Arnolphe); Harriet Dyer (Agnes – Agnès – all pure honesty and naiveté); Meyne Wyatt (the lovely Horace – rhymed on one occasion with “horses” for a great laugh); Arnolde’s commedia-like servants Georgette (Alexandra Aldrich) and Alan – Alain (Andrew Johnston); Jonathan Elsom (Notary and Henri); Mark Jones (Laurence, as well the musician); and Chrysalde – known in Australia as Chris – played magnificently by Damien Richardson.

Theatre of the era can be called “presentational” or maybe “representational”, as characters “present” themselves to the audience, sometimes directly and sometimes in the manner in which they speak and act towards other characters.  Later in history, Brecht would turn this into a theory of “alienation effect”, because stylisation sets the audience back from identifying with characters in a personal way, and allows them to see the characters for what they represent.  At one end of this scale is much of 19th Century English melodrama; at the other end I would put Shakespeare; while on the way between is commedia dell’arte. 

Molière sits towards the Shakespeare end, but – as I have mentioned – he was never a good tragic actor.  Shakespeare probably was.  So this production uses devices in mime, gestures, facial expression, expressive movement, silences, which we recognise from melodrama and commedia, but takes them at times into an expressionistic level, which makes the comedy into the kind of humour which tells – about character, social convention and ultimately about the human condition.  Arnolphe’s treatment of Agnès is far beyond acceptable norms, yet is understandable because he has human needs – for gratification and love.

The ending of this production raises for me what may be a difference between the 17th Century Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and the 21st Century Lee Lewis, perhaps between the centuries and perhaps between the sexes over the centuries.

Molière’s Chrysalde tells Arnolphe that he will never be able to marry, and Arnolphe leaves the stage transportè, et ne pouvant parler, just managing to huff and puff “Oh!”, implying that he will never change.  Lewis’s Arnolde seemed to me to leave rather sadly, leaving open the possibility that he might recognise his faults and mend his ways, or at least realise that he should change even if he can’t bring himself to do it.  Maybe our time is just a little softer in judgment of others than 350 years ago.

Whatever your interpretation, this is a great production.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Ladybug - Foreigner - Flipo

Under the Grand Chapiteau
The Entertainment Quarter,
Sydney 13th Sept. to 4th Nov. 2012
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Whether or not circus is your thing  ..a visit to a Cirque Du Soleil performance is an experience you should treat yourself at least once in your lifetime. Cirque Du Soleil is more than just an entertainment. The production values are of the highest order. The performers consistently astonishing. It’s a trip into the fanciful.

The latest Cirque Du Soleil show to visit these shores is “Ovo” currently playing in the familiar blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau erected in the Entertainment Quarter in Sydney. “Ovo” is certainly one of the more remarkable Cirque offerings to date, particularly from the design point of view.

The Crickets
Themed as a day in the life of insects, all the performers in “Ovo” are costumed as fantastic abstract interpretations of various insects. Each individual costume is itself a work of art. A tribute to the art of the costumier. Not only do the costumes have to look remarkable, they also need to withstand the serious rigours of the spectacular routines. Designer Liz Vandal has used polyester, lycra, crystallette, stretch and transparent fabrics,  even expanded foam,  to transform the cast into a myriad of colourful insects, the most spectacular of which are the brilliant green grasshoppers with their protruding back legs. To complete these costumes each performer wears a wonderfully surreal make-up designed specially created by Julie Begin. 

If your budget will run to it, it’s best to commence your evening in the Tapis Rouge Lounge which opens an hour before showtime. The Tapis Rouge is its own sophisticated experience where you can browse the many tantalising souvenir stalls, while enjoying a drink and a selection of delicious taste treats, which on opening night even included quails eggs.

At showtime you’ll be ushered into the Grand Chapiteau transformed into a huge stylised ecosystem designed by Gringo Cardia which during the performance magically morphs into an ant-hill, forest, or cave.  At intervals during the performance huge moving flowers emit fragrances,  commencing with the oroma of fresh grass as the audience enters.

On the centre of the stage is a giant egg, and already there are surreal creatures circulating among the audience setting the atmosphere for the forthcoming performance. 
In what seems like no time at all, the onstage band, also dressed as insects, begins to play strangely erie music, the lights dim, the huge egg magically disappears to be replaced by an army of   incredible insect-like creatures, carrying a smaller egg which becomes a recurring theme throughout the show. So much is happening that it is  difficult to know where to look first.

The Ovo egg

This spectacularly choreographed opening eventually gives way to a series of specialty acts, each more incredible than the last. As the first group of creatures move off the stage we focus on a crystalline dragonfly who unfolds to performs unbelievable contortions balancing on a vinelike apparatus.
The Dragonfly 

The Antsy Ants 
The dragonfly is replaced by six delightful ants who scamper around the stage, performing an intricate juggling routine with giant sections of kiwi fruit with amazing precision. Had just two acrobats performed this routine it would have been remarkable, but to see six working with such precision, was simply thrilling.

The Butterflys

Following the ants two cloaked figures sweep onto the stage, and discard their huge wings to morph into beautiful butterflys to perform an erotic routine on a rope high over the heads of the audience.

The cricket. 
No sooner have the butterflies disappeared when a lively cricket takes their place to perform a brilliant routine with diabolos.

The Scarabs
Then a team of scarabs climb to the very top of the Grand Chapiteau to fly through the air in a series of heart-stopping manoeuvers overhead without trapezes.

The scarabs performing high above the audiens sans trapezes 
Back on stage level three apparently boneless but sexy spiders twist and contort their bodies into the most unbelievable positions before being joined on stage by a troupe of bouncing fleas which  perform balancing and tumbling moves so extreme that you would'nt believe them possible unless you had seen them with your own eyes.

The fleas - note the spider on rock in background. 

Then a shiny black male spider takes the stage to perform even more incredible balances, this time on a slackwire. He concludes his act with a truly amazing feat in which he balances on his head on a unicyle. 
Spider on slackwire 
After more mind-boggling acts the show draws to a climax when a troupe of bouncing crickets swarm on to the stage to perform impossible manoeuvres on trampolines which propel them high up a cliff face at the back of the stage. 

Bouncing crickets

Between these acts the stage is populated either by surreal creatures performing choreographed routines, or by a trio of truly funny characters caller Ladybug, Foreigner and Master Flipo who perform wordless sketches which advance a flimsy storyline about finding acceptance and true love, which also cleverly disguises the technical wizardry involved in the  preparations for each of the various acts. Not that this show needs either justification or storyline.

Ladybug - Foreigner - Flipo (background)

The fantasia ends all too soon in a storm of golden butterflies fluttering down over the audience - who reluctantly file out of the magical world inside the Grand Chapiteau back into the common-place, marvelling at the extraordinary skills of those amazing performers from all around the globe who make up the cast of Cirque Du Soliel’s “Ovo”.  



Friday, September 21, 2012

Rolling Home

Catherine Hagarty and Chrissie Shaw

Rolling Home by Greg Lissaman.  Music and songs by John Shortis.  Presented by Canberra Theatre Centre in the Courtyard Studio September 17-22, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

Greg Lissaman, himself once-upon-a-time an artistic director of The Jigsaw Company – Canberra’s regular theatre-in-education team – has written, produced and directed this independent production for 7-10 year olds with support from the Canberra Theatre Centre, ArtsACT and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta (Sydney).  He has pulled together an experienced team in composer John Shortis, lighting designer Matt Cox, sound designer Kimmo Vennonen, costume designers Hilary Talbot and Imogen Keen, and puppetry director Catherine Roach, with actors Catherine Hagarty and Chrissie Shaw.

The result is high quality material and performance which held a mixed audience from Kindergarten to Year 5 this morning, including an enthusiastic 20 minute Q&A session conducted by the actors when the story was finally finished.

“Finally finished” is not a criticism of the script, but its main theme.  You could call Rolling Home Brechtian theatre for littlies.  The two main characters are Figaro (Shaw) and Georgio (Hagarty) who are fairytale story tellers, in the story they tell to us in the audience, singing songs as they go along.  They slip easily between their characters as wandering story tellers, the characters they become in the stories they tell, and as out-of-role actors in teacher mode, asking questions of the children about the characters they played, as well as in actor mode explaining about the business of theatre.

Georgio is young and rather naive, seeking to settle down in his own home – his story cannot finish until the story of the magic crystal belonging to the Queen of the Dark Forest is concluded.  Figaro is older, craftier, and prefers to keep moving on, even after their caravan has rolled away downhill and smashed to pieces.  In the end, they find their “home” in their friendship, built up through all the experiences they have had together in returning the crystal to its rightful owner.  Only then does Figaro reveal to Georgio that the King (who had stolen the Queen’s crystal, and from whom Georgio had taken it) had actually paid 12 gold pieces for their storytelling, not the 3 he had at first said the King had paid.

So the story finally finishes when true friendship means honesty – Georgio can build a home, Figaro can travel on, but both are welcome in each other’s life.

Would this complexity of levels of understanding come through to the children watching? 

In the session I saw, my half of the audience were mainly well below the age of 7, while the half I could watch in the opposite seats were mainly 8 plus.  On my side the children responded to everything as if they understood (after the little boy in front of me had wondered after the first song and we all clapped “Is that the end?"), but when it came to Q&A, the littlies had questions which they couldn’t remember when asked to speak.  The actors handled these potentially embarrassing situations with positive encouragement but without improper pressure.  Good teaching approach, in other words.

On the other side, I could see faces light up during the performance as children picked up what was happening in the relationship between Georgio and Figaro, and there were many very thoughtful and insightful questions in the Q&A.  Good theatre-in-education at work, in other words.

I don’t need many more words then to say that this is an interesting and well worthwhile theatre and educational experience, especially for the intended age group but even for much younger children.

But then I had other thoughts about the concept.  Essentially the script, songs and music draw upon a range of storytelling traditions which come down to us from Europe, including the key “quest for the holy grail” element in the magic crystal story and the “royalty / commoner” characters.  In the Australian context this material is in the background of most people, but is quite outside the traditions of Indigenous Australians. 

Though there is great value in Rolling Home, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it is a confirmation of the power of invasive culture, with no counterbalance.  So I proposed to Greg Lissaman that he might take up the search for a way to make a play for young children which would draw on maintaining country and community from the ancient Australian tradition.

I suppose this is just another quest, but in our conversation we wondered how David and Stephen Page, and Frances Rings, might like to take Bangarra into work for young children, now that Terrain has shown how their work can ring true across our cultural differences – as Lissaman’s Georgio and Figaro found in friendship and honesty.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hair at The Q

Hair – The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical  Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.  Music by Galt MacDermot.  Presented by Queanbeyan City Council, directed by Stephen Pike at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 19 – October 6, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 19

Excellent musicianship by a neatly arranged band led by Major Geoff Grey set the tone for a quality all-singing-acting-dancing cast on a set (Brian Sudding) and in lighting (Adrian Rytir) that thoroughly loved to rock.

The shocks that reverberated through the audience in the war scenes, ostensibly in Claude’s pot-driven imagination but terrifyingly real to those of us who have seen the footage of all the wars since Hair was first produced in 1967, were a special achievement in sound, lighting and movement.  And the final tragic scene was played with just the right level of intensity – touching our hearts and minds without over-stepping into sentimentality, which is always a risk in American musicals.

Especially wonderful is to know that here, in the Capital region of Australia, 45 years on and despite the “demeaning” politics of our democracy today (according to Tony Windsor, Member for New England, discussing with Anne Summers and Natasha Mitchell Civility, sexism and democracy, on Life Matters, Radio National, 20 September 2012), young people can respond to the feelings and the message of peace with so much enthusiasm and sincerity as this cast achieved.  This production is not an imitation of the 1967 Hair, but a highly successful re-creation.

After reading David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 47 Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, I naturally searched for a quote from B.A.Santamaria about the production of Hair which I saw in Sydney in 1969.  No luck, except that Wikipedia states “The Sydney, Australia production's opening night was interrupted by a bomb scare in June 1969”.  I wasn’t surprised, then, to see that a bomb was actually exploded at a theatre in Cleveland, Ohio in 1971.

Though I remember that people around me reacted most to the shock of nudity on stage in sophisticated 60’s Sydney, I realised yesterday that for Americans the most shocking scene concerned the “Folding of the Flag”, perhaps the most emotive nationalistic ceremony one can imagine, taking the people back to the horrors and final resolution of the Civil War.  Yet it is interesting to note that though both the issues of nudity and the desecration of the American flag were taken to the Massachusetts and the Federal Supreme Courts, nudity caused the most problems for the continued presentation of Hair, since, on the flag issue, the show "constitutes ... an obscure form of protest protected under the First Amendment."

In Queanbeyan 2012, the nudity, which is essential to complete the first half, was managed with great delicacy as the spotlights went to blackout and no more than some unspecified flesh tints were visible.  I’m guessing that this doesn’t mean that regional Australians are more prudish today.  I think it’s more likely that nudity no longer shocks, and that the lessening of this scene’s impact allowed the major theme of the production to take its proper place.

The same effect could be seen in the treatment of the pot-smoking.  For us the greatest shock was to see smoking represented on stage (I have that reaction when I watch old Hollywood movies), but the effects of marijuana were acted out in a light-hearted way since we are long past believing that pot-smoking means the end of the world as we know it.  We just know it is part of the world, and even the occasional US president admits it, even though we also know of the psychological effects.

Of course, the draft – or in Australia’s case, the lottery – which was used to force people to fight in the unwinnable Vietnam War, has fallen into the wastebasket of history, perhaps to at least some extent due to Hair.  But the decision, represented by Claude’s dilemma, to be willing to kill or be killed in the name of one’s country or ideology, or to seek to live peaceably without causing deliberate harm to others, has been a difficult, if not impossible, choice to make throughout human history.

Entertaining as Hair is, and especially so in this Queanbeyan production, I think Stephen Pike’s direction has made the right balance of high energy youthful life-affirming enjoyment against the truth of human self-destructive tendencies.

I went to the show with some trepidation about a Hair revival, but revived I have been by such strong performances by all concerned.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Terrain - Bangarra Dance Theatre

Terrain    Bangarra Dance Theatre: Cultural Advisor – Arabunna elder Reg Dodd, Choreographer - Frances Rings, Composer - David Page, Set Designer – Jacob Nash, Costume Designer – Jennifer Irwin, Lighting Designer – Karen Norris.  Canberra Theatre Centre September 13-15, 2012.

Review by Frank McKone
September 13

David Page and Frances Rings, speaking at the pre-show forum, said that dance is its own language, so it is difficult to explain in words.  The best I can do is to describe Terrain as a symphonic poem in nine movements, however trite, old-fashioned and European that sounds.

The nearest Frances herself could give us was to say it is an abstract work, not a narrative, and I suppose this refers to visual art rather than music.

Like a symphony, there are leitmotifs in action creating such a complexity of movement around Rings’ original style that I found myself thinking of Brahms for depth of feeling.  As a poem, it has the terse, and I may say, dry quality of T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, though in nine parts rather than just four.

As an art work it is indeed an abstraction in which, as in many Aboriginal paintings, an almost hidden angle of a woman’s bent arm, a man’s knees briefly widened apart remind us of traditional dance, or a momentary flow of loose feathery costume denotes a mother emu, or hands brought up briefly show us a powerful male kangaroo.  This is not a dripping Jackson Pollack, but referential and entirely reverential expression of feelings constructed with the flair, speed of action and linear detail of a Blue Poles.

Then realise that the dance work and the music are integrated in close creative cooperation between Rings and Page, and wonderfully enveloped in the set by Jacob Nash and costumes by Jennifer Irwin,  and you understand you are experiencing a major work.

Terrain draws us away from the world of city cacophony, beyond the boundaries of settlement, into the centre of our land itself, where tiny groups of people have learned to understand the harshness and the beauty of their country, from the whiteness of ever-extending salt in the dry times to the rippling colours of water in times of flood.  For any Australian, Terrain is essential viewing.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Widowbird by Emma Gibson

Widowbird by Emma Gibson, directed by Joanne Schultz at The Street Theatre, September 8-16, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 8

An epic play of mythical proportions, Widowbird is interesting for its ancient Greek tragedy sensibility.  It is still a work in progress, coming out of the Street Theatre’s Hive Development Program.  Emma Gibson is surely a busy bee.  There’s enough honey here to make the presentation of the work worthwhile at this stage, but the royal jelly will take some more buzzing.

The meaning of the title eluded me – until I looked up Percy Bysshe Shelley.  I didn’t understand what he meant either.  But he gave me a clue to the sort of buzzing Emma Gibson might need to make.  Shelley’s rhymes can sometimes be execrable, but Emma needs poetry to give her work regal quality.

Her entirely original folk tale of a woman whose sympathetic tears instantly heal anyone’s illness or injury is exactly on the money in modern times.  Just send $13 a month and the world will be saved.  But what would happen if your charitable tears really worked?  Gibson’s mediaeval-style King just uses the woman’s tears to repair his battalions and keep his wars going until ... well, until he chooses to stop being King, which he will never do.  Political parties of all modern stripes, from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to the ALP or the LNP are not so different in their desire to be in, or stay in, power.

That’s some of the honey – the symbolism which allows you much metaphorical interpretation – but in the second act, where the now blinded woman tries to protect her daughter from the world by blinding her so that she cannot produce tears, we see dramatic quality beginning to gel.  In Act 1 the story is told and acted out with accompaniment on drums and xylophone, all a bit too illustrative rather than emotionally engaging.  In Act 2, the action becomes more central, while the story-telling becomes more explanatory, so we understand and identify with the implications for ourselves and our family relations.  A bit more like Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone.

But the heightened effect of the Greek tragedies was achieved by the dialogue being in verse, not ordinary prose, and sung by the Chorus, with music to which the actors danced.   If Gibson can turn her play into a total poetic work, in words, movement and music, then her symbols and metaphors will begin to vibrate with meaning.  Experiencing a performance will then be a real buzz.

At this point praise must be awarded to Caroline Stacey, The Street’s director and originator of the Hive.  Canberra’s role has long been the incubator of original new work, hiving off performers, writers and directors from myriad small companies to the big cities which think of themselves as the real Australia.  Despite many attempts previously to coordinate our theatrical creativity – think Carol Woodrow (Fool’s Gallery and Wildwood), Camilla Blunden (Women on a Shoestring), David Atfield (BITS Theatre) or the CIA (Canberra Innovative Arts) and maverick David Branson – only recently have we begun to get our act together.

Stacey brings in solid professional help for new writers, like Peter Matheson, one of Australia’s best recognised  dramaturgs, who has worked with Emma Gibson to turn an idea – “For me, this play really began as an exploration of how far a person must be pushed before their goodness is corrupted” – into a story on stage.  Stacey’s abiding purpose is to provide the theatrical “infrastructure” for the writers to transport themselves to a place where they find their “voice”, and thus their confidence, learning the skills of playwriting along the way.

But rather than a linear journey, it’s all about collaboration and networking – buzzing and dancing like bees in a hive – all supported by government through artsACT, the Australia Council through the Local Stages program, and Canberra 100, as well as the ACT Government supporting Gibson to attend the recent Women Playwrights International Conference in Stockholm, where Widowbird was first presented as a reading.

May Stacey’s work continue and grow to match the extensions of The Street Theatre, coming soon.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Thoughts on: God/pool (no water) /Midsummer Nights Scenes /Ngapartji Ngapartji /South Pacific /The Memory of Water.

by Alanna Maclean

Seen a lot in the last few weeks and feel the need to comment on a few shows.

Everyman Theatre’s sharp and funny double bill was a ‘letting the hair down’ kind of night with directors Duncan Driver and Duncan Ley having a lot of theatrical fun, first of all with Woody Allen then with the rather nastier humour of English playwright Mark Ravenhill.

God is a piece of anarchy with a Woody Allen-type character at the centre of it. Philosophy and history and Classical Greek theatre come into it, but basically it’s a bemused look at existence and theatre with the poor old Actor (Jarred West) caught in the middle. He has to cope with the ego of Hepatitis (The Writer) (Duncan Ley) as they try to put on a play that involves some of the usual suspects,  The Fates (Euan Bowan and Amy Dunham). The Guard (Zac Drury) and The King (Euan Bowan), while the ‘know nothing/know it all’ Chorus (Wayne Shepherd) lurks around (mostly upstage avoiding trouble).

This got the fast and furious treatment with clever updates and local references making it a good warm up for the real meat of the evening, Ravenhill’s pool (no water), an absorbing, funny yet repellent exploration of morality. A group of friends reunite with a friend who is a much more successful artist than any of them, despite ambition, can hope to be. Are they her friends? Is she theirs? Jarred West, Steph Roberts Amy Dunham and Zach Raffan worked as a tight team, almost at times as one entity, as the play twisted its way through complex viewpoints. All of this was done on a very spare set with multiple locations often suggested by the movement and position of the actors themselves. Their movement was sometimes as convoluted as the twisting plot.

There’s always a sense of assured theatrical polish and intelligence in an Everyman show.

CYT’s A Midsummer Nights Scenes worked in a rougher, more risk taking way but left a similar sense of intelligence. For two nights only the Teen Ensemble set Shakespeare against the screen, running pieces of A Midsummer Night’s Dream against an intriguing selection of recent film takes on love. A cunning set put characters like Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius and Oberon, Titania and Puck into the local multiplex where their forest struggles with love and jealousies and misunderstandings were played among the vocal popcorn eating audiences for films like Titanic and Ever After and Four Weddings and a Funeral. As should be the case the whole lovely tangle was topped by a grand Pyramus and Thisbe, with a stalwart female Pyramus offset by a Thisbe who brought the theatre to a hush when he took off his wig and reverted to his usual voice partway through the finding of the dead Pyramus. The boy actor became the boy and the tragedy struck home.

Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji has had notice before in this blog but it sat beautifully in the Canberra Playhouse, reminding audiences not to forget what was done at Maralinga. (I used to feel very reassured that the British had ‘tested an atomic device’. At least it wasn’t an atomic bomb, I would tell myself.) Trevor Jamieson is an unforgettable storyteller, as he was in Namatjira. Poetic, important, unmissable work.

South Pacific has had enthusiastic reviews and as a child audience for the first Australian production where father was driving a follow spot in Sydney I certainly found myself absorbed. I was struck back then by two things, Bloody Mary (Virginia Paris) being hypnotic in Bali Hai and the bloody great brooding volcano of Bali Hai on the backdrop.

Opera Australia opted for much less brooding and a rather visually pallid approach to the robust light and vegetation of places like Vanuatu but I suppose this is a post modern approach. At least it was uncluttered and the set changes went with a speed that ought to be studied by any theatre group still in the throes of the black out and the black clad holding up the action. Yes, the Opera House does have quite a deal of stage machinery that helps but there are ways.

However, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ deep and effortless voice as Emile was worth the trip to Bennelong Point and the sections of typescript MSS from James Michener’s Tales from the South Pacific which were on the opening and closing act drops were grand and moving. I kept wishing the audience would stop to read them. But no, it was musical comedy time at the preview and they were mostly chatting to their neighbours and singing along with the overture and even applauding at various points in it. I also wish our audiences would learn to wait until a number has actually finished before clapping. As for the disastrous practice of clapping along with the music, yes, it surfaced in South Pacific (bet Teddy Tahu Rhodes never gets that in Don Giovanni). I know the male chorus encouraged it in a bit of pre act two business and it was not happening during the singing, but it is an intrusion even during curtain calls. 

As musician and humorist Martin Pearson once said while ticking off a Canberra audience with similar proclivities, ‘I might try it without your kind assistance…’

Everyman Theatre’s Two Comedies: God by Woody Allen directed by Duncan Driver /pool (no water) by Mark Ravenhill directed by Duncan Ley at The Courtyard Studio Canberra Theatre Centre, July 19-28.

Midsummer Nights Scenes. Directed by Alister Emerson and Craig Higgs. C-Block Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre. Gorman House, August 24 -25.

Ngapartji Ngapartji

South Pacific 

And here’s a link to my Canberra Times review of another recent excellent production, Canberra Rep’s Memory of Water.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Canberra Dance Development Centre

Canberra Theatre

Saturday 25th August 2012

By Bill Stephens

Students of the Canberra Dance Development Centre performing "Midnight Symphony"
Hayden Baum (Left) Georgia Powley (Centre) Nick Jachno (Right)
Photo: Greg Primmer

Canberra has no shortage of excellent dance schools. Around this time each year, these schools present their annual showcases, which not only provide students with goals to work towards, but also parents and family with the opportunity to see what their children have learnt during the year. For parents looking to enrol children, they also provide an excellent opportunity to compare the standard of the schools.

Though the Canberra Critics Circle does not review these annual showcases, we sometimes attend because, not only do the best of them provide excellent entertainment, they also offer an insight into dance trends, and perhaps even an opportunity to spot a future dance star.

Earlier in the year I attended a performance in Llewellyn Hall given by students of the Canberra Dance Development Centre, in association with the Canberra Youth Orchestra, of “Romeo and Juliet Suite No.2”, which had been choreographed by CDDC principal Jackie Hallahan, and which I wrote about on this blog. I had also interviewed dancer/choreographer, Paul Knobloch, for the Artsound FM 92.7 program “Dress Circle”.

Knobloch is an ex-student of CDDC who became a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, before dancing with the Bejart Ballet in Lausanne. This year he joined the Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco where he is a principal dancer. At the time of our interview he was home on a short break from LINES Ballet and giving master classes and workshops at the Canberra Dance Development Centre. During our interview he mentioned that he had also taken the opportunity to choreograph some items for inclusion in“Treasure”. The opportunity to see an example of Knobloch’s choreography provided extra impetus to have a look at the work of this particular dance school.

“Treasure” proved to be quite an extravaganza with more than 300 spectacularly costumed students demonstrating their prowess in 48 items during the evening. The performers ranged from adorable tiny tots making their first stage appearances to senior students about to embark on professional careers. No doubt it was probably a nightmare backstage for stage-manager extraordinaire, Dot Russell, but from the audience, the show ran like a dream.

“Treasure” had a theme inspired by Mother Teresa’s poem “Life Is”with the 48 items loosely connected by the story of a woman’s journey through life. Not all the connections were obvious; however the transitions between the numerous scenes were imaginative, quick and efficient, accommodating an astonishing array of dance styles and even a vocal ensemble item performed by the dancers.

Along the way there was a welcome opportunity to revisit some excerpts from “Romeo and Juliet Suite No.2”, including Jackie Hallahan’s exquisite pas de deux from this work, beautifully performed by two senior dancers, Georgia Powley and Hayden Baum. Hallahan had also choreographed a delightful light-hearted solo for Baum, “Cowboy”, which cleverly showcased his excellent line and confident classical technique.

Hayden Baum performing "Cowboy"
Photo Greg Primmer

As it turned out Knobloch had choreographed several items including a spectacular ensemble classical ballet “Midnight Symphony” which opened the second half of the program. Beautifully costumed, “Midnight Symphony” was a superb showcase of classical ballet technique and Knobloch had made few concessions for the youth of the dancers. It was excellently danced and would have done a professional company proud.

Among other items choreographed by Knobloch were two extraordinary solos. One a contemporary piece entitled  “Spider”, which received an impressively confident and
superbly acrobatic performance from Georgia Powley

Georgia Powley performing "Spider"
Photo: Greg Primmer
Nick Jachno performimg "Prisoner"
Photo: Greg Primmer

The other was a moody gymnastic piece entitled "Prisoner" which provided Nick Jachno with an excellent vehicle to demonstrate his impressive dance development. The choreography for both these pieces was well above the standard usually encountered in a student presentation.

These were not the only examples of excellent choreography in “Treasure”. Several of the teaching staff had contributed items to showcase various levels of achievement by the young dancers, and apart from those already mentioned, those I found particularly impressive among the 48 items were Joanne James’ exhilarating ensemble tap routine “The Musical”, and Renee Hallahan’s spectacular finale numbers “Life” and “Far and Away”.

Canberra Dance Development Centre students performing "The Musical"
Photo: Greg Primmer

And as for doing a bit of star spotting. Watch out for Hayden Baum, a young man with all the attributes needed for a successful dance career should he so choose. His excellent all-round training was obvious throughout “Treasure”where his excellent stage presence, superb classical ballet, contemporary dance technique, his attentive pas de deux partnering skills and obvious delight in performing the tap dancing routines were a joy to watch.

No doubt everyone in the packed Canberra Theatre had spotted their own special star among the hundreds of enthusiastic performers and of course there were many other dancers who displayed huge potential, and many who probably have no intention of pursuing a career in dance, content just to enjoy the thrill of having their own special moment in the spotlight on the Canberra Theatre stage.

Canberra Dance Development Centre students performing "Life"
Nick Jachno (Centre)
Photo: Greg Primmer

Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins

Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins.  Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company co-production at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, August 29 – September 1, 2012.

Review by Frank McKone
August 29

It’s a bit weird, I know, but Biggins’ name always reminds me of Lord of the Rings, J.R.R.Tolkien and English culture.  So watching Australia Day reminded me of an English comic playwright, famous for The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn.

In 1974, critic Eric Shorter wrote “The latest [Ayckbourn play] is called Confusions and consists of five sketches in a typically jaunty manner which have no bearing on each other but which again exhibit the author's delicious sense of humour in droll abundance.”  In fact, in my view, the second last of the five, Gosforth’s Fête, is not as frothy as this sounds, just as Australia Day is more than a witty spoof of country town incompetency.

The odd thing is that the plot of Gosforth’s Fête is almost the same as the second act of Australia Day (was Biggin’s channelling his English heritage, or borrowing from Ayckbourn?), but the social satire says that Australia is indeed very different from the Mother Country.

Both plays involve a conservative politician, a public occasion in a village/country town, speaking over a public address system which is accidentally left turned on to reveal dastardly behaviour as a tremendous thunderstorm explodes all around.  The details of the two plays are, of course, a little different, but the comic elements work beautifully in both.  The difference is how the central characters – Gordon Gosforth and Brian, the mayor of Coriole (all the Australian characters have only first names) – end up as the forces of nature and human failure reach their last gasp, and the audience’s last laugh.

The English Gosforth turns into a Hitlerian dictator, or at least would like to.  Brian, on the other hand, realises his ambition to micromanage and manipulate everything and everybody is justifiably washed away in the final downpour. 

Ayckbourn effectively warns of the dictator at the core of English whimsy.  And I suspect the Lord of the Rings makes the same point, though Tolkien and Ayckbourn were personally on opposite sides politically (Ayckbourn still is, though Tolkien died in 1973).

But, the Australian Liberal Party Mayor, Brian (played by Geoff Morell) , seeking preselection for a Federal seat, and his political opponent  Australian Greens Party, Helen (Alison Whyte), reach an understanding on two levels as the roof of the marquee caves in: respect and empathy are the keys to a workable community,  and honesty in politics is preferable.

After the laughter, Ayckbourn leaves a nasty taste about English life, which ironically our ex-pat Rupert Murdoch has tapped into since Gosforth’s Fête was written.

Biggins recognises our political game-playing, but leaves us with the good taste of common sense and compromise which can be distilled from the Australian culture.

Theatrically, Biggins’ Act 1 doesn’t match up to Ayckbourn’s playlets which lead up to Gosforth’s Fête in Confusions.  Eric Shorter seemed critical of their having “no bearing on each other”, but Ayckbourn was writing in the days when absurdism had moved on from an esoteric theatre form after World War II to the popularity of The Goons, The Goodies and Monty Python.  When I directed Confusions each of the first three playlets built the mood of impending disaster which came crashing down upon Gosforth, which is followed by a reflective Talk in the Park.

The short scenes in Act 1 of Australia Day, as the Committee meets over the months before 26th January  (or 25th March, or October – who knows?), the characters are introduced and divisions between them are laid out, but there need to be more clues, like an Agatha Christie mystery, which would lead us to talk during interval about the possible developments.  But without enough direction in the plot, we found ourselves over coffee and champagne without much to talk about, though much to laugh over. 

And much to appreciate in the performances.  But we were concerned that the role played by Kaeng Chan as Chester, an Australian born teacher of Vietnamese refugee parents, appeared, in the first Act, as token rather than of equal value.  But when it came to Act 2, Chester comes through as the most rational, the best organised, with the least personal issues and certainly incorruptible (after all, he is a teacher), alongside the rough-mouthed dogmatic, but truthful and practical Wally (powerfully played by Peter Kowitz),  the old-fashioned but genuinely caring CWA lady Marie (Valerie Bader, bravely wearing a “numbat dreaming” costume, who reconciles Wally and the Green feminist Helen), and finally the honest Robert (David James) who stands up to the culture of political manipulation (revealed over the public address system via CB radios which he thoughtfully imagined would make things go more smoothly), and who makes it clear that he is happy being a deputy rather than being corruptly made mayor.

The Coriole Australia Day Committee being democratic meant that all the actors were equal, and they certainly performed as an exemplary team.  The plot, as the Day itself turns to mud, flood, thunder and lightning, enlightens us about the Greens’ agenda.  Helen outmanoeuvres Brian, as Alison Whyte matches Geoff Morrell.  It is fair to say that here is where Biggins goes one better than Alan Ayckbourn, just as Baggins wins honourably against the Lord of the Rings.  (I won’t try to push this envelope too far!)

Rather than the sense of deep absurdity in English life leading to a simple, if horrific, conclusion – the final cynical words, in Talk in the Park, are “Might as well talk to yourself” – Australia Day brings the complex inanities of Australian life to a positive conclusion where we have seen professional give-and-take among the actors, between the actors and us in the audience, and finally among the characters of Coriole.  The play, more subtly than Gosforth’s Fête, represents the life of its culture.  This Australia Day is certainly not a disaster, whatever the forces of nature – human and atmospheric – bring to bear.

Footnote: Alan Ayckbourn went on to write 74 plays so far; this is Jonathan Biggins’ first ‘proper’ play, but he is already famous for the annual Wharf Revue.