Friday, December 27, 2013

Bali Puppet Theatre Festival and Seminar
Sept 22-27 2013
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

I feel like Swiss tourist Thomas Platter the Younger who in 1599 was in London and described a performance Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre. Except he did not describe it so much as say it was well done and there was a dance by the performers afterwards and men played women. When you think of what he could have written down…and so it was in Ubud.

It is so hard to know what is important to record, in case the traditions all go down in flames like at the Globe Theatre.  Certainly there’s a devotion to flames in Balinese theatre as witness the opening cejak (Monkey Dance) of the Bali Puppet Festival and Seminar where we were worried that the large monkey army was going to set fire to the wooden stage, so enthusiastic and spectacular was the throwing around of burning material, backed by a heavy smell of kerosene.

That may be why this open air theatre at Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets  backs onto the water logged rice fields.

Luckily the Bali Puppet Theatre Festival and Seminar wants to become an ongoing event and seems devoted to preserving as much tradition as they can, not just from Bali but across Indonesia and the world. The academic contingent was large, headed by keynote speaker Professor Dato’ Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof (Senior Academic Fellow, International Islamic University Malaysia; Expert (Pakar) University Malalya) who put the case for a deepening investigation of the local traditions underlying wayang kulit in Java, Bali, Malaysia and Thailand. He also spoke about hopes for the House of Masks and Puppets to become a world centre for research. 

Alongside the scholarly sessions it was possible to see a large range of intriguing performances that showed a huge range of traditions and methods. There were Phillipino puppets where the head was operated by a strut gripped in the mouth, gently rounded and funny Iranian puppets, and the fabulous Japanese Otome Bunraku soloist whose exquisite female puppets and dark stories of love were accompanied by a wonderfully sombre singer and a sober shamisen player.

There were also marionettes from Myanmar whose personalities shone. They were a bit over knee height and heavy to hold but there is something so winning and alive about the upturned inquisitive faces of these little princes and princesses and dancers.

But it was the local puppetry, with the local aficionados hanging around the stage and peering in at the backstage workings, that was often the greatest attraction. None of this western clearing of the stage of all inessential personnel. Every wayang kulit was surrounded by people having a look backstage, even in those set ups where the dalang (puppeteer) sat with back to the audience.  They were crowding in to look at technique and skill. And if the lighting was by oil lamp, the result was like some Eastern Rembrandt, full of rich skin tones and dark shadows.

I had some idea of what to expect, having been primed by some research, a little exposure to Thai theatre forms and the delightful Wayang Kelly done some years ago at the National Folk Festival. But there were unsuspected things like the Wayang Kancil, where animals were the characters and where the dalang was very youthful but superbly confident and a young female narrator and chorus had a hard hitting verve backed by a skilful gamelan orchestra. Then there was the Wayang Potehi, which turned out to be in the tradition of Chinese glove puppets, a clear testimony to the history of Chinese enclaves in Indonesia.

I liked the slowly unfolding pace of the Wayang Nawa Santhi, and the non shadow Wayang Cing Cing Mong where wooden heads rolled from shoulders in battle scenes in a way reminiscent of the hard headed violence of an English Punch and Judy show.

And I was surprised by the Wayang Beber which does not really use puppets at all. Instead the dalang sits back to the audience and holds up a scroll of pictures which is rolled on two sticks as he narrates and the gamelan orchestra plays.

All of this was taking place in the additional context of Ubud’s nightly parade of theatrical choices and for a few days before the conference I made sure I saw enough to be able to identify some forms and stories, catching shadow puppets, monstrous barongs, Ramayana stories and repeated variations on the cejak that ranged from 100-man monkey armies to a tiny group of five monkeys encircling Sita and Ravana under a cunningly used single overhead light.

I had to leave before the end of the conference for the theatre of a family wedding in Sydney, which meant unfortunately missing some of the time devoted to more contemporary takes on puppetry and the uses of modern technology but was able to catch ex Canberran puppeteer Peter Wilson’s talk on the combination of old and new techniques being used to bring the huge puppet King Kong to life in Melbourne as well as his work directing, producing and co- writing Bali Agong for Bali Safari and Marine Park. The huge King Kong puppet may use modern technology but Wilson showed that the skills of the physical puppeteer remain crucial.

Artist-curator-collector Agustinus Prayitno[1], of Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets mused pertinently before the Festival on the need to value indigenous cultures and to question the adoption of ‘global culture’. [2] And there is Agustinus Prayitno himself in the House in puppet form shown on equal footing with a puppet Barak Obama. 
It’s hard to know what context Thomas Platter was fitting Julius Caesar into. (Something for the tourists in Elizabethan London? An illustration of quaint local customs?) Much tougher now when so much global ‘entertainment’ is on offer. But the Festival and The House of Masks and Puppets exist as a powerful living counter.

Alanna Maclean.

Especial thanks to Salmyyah Raheem for her assistance before and during the Festival.

(Both this link and that in footnote 1 do not seem currently to be working. Continuing to search for a linkable reference in English.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Whatever Happened To...???

This is my very first entry on the Canberra Critics Circle blog, and I am hoping that it works. Please excuse any bungles and fluffs.
This post is about successful students and the profession that they have pursued. I have always been aware that drama teachers and theatre companies tend to overlook alumni who have gone on to achieve excellence in the performing arts.
Last weekend I was in Melbourne and noticed that Leon Ford from Narrabundah College will be appearing as Elyot in the MTC's production of "Private Lives." SBS screened a rather dubious award-winning movie "Sleeping Beauty" which also featured two Narrabundah College graduates, Robin Goldsworthy and Henry Nixon.
Neil Armfield's delightful production of "Book of Everything" in the MTC's Sumner Theatre featured St. Clare's graduate, Alison bell, who has been making  a name for herself in the theatre profession.
Ron Cerebona's article today about Lachlan Ruffy who has been accepted into WAAPA, highlights the talent of this St. Francis Xavier student.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of ex Canberrans who are making their mark in the theatre in Australia. Graham Henstock and Rhys Holden from Narrabundah are making waves as former Head of Lighting at STC, and Rhys Holden is now General manager of La Boite in Brisbane. Soren Jensen from Canberra College, or Phillip College as it was in his time, is constantly busy in Melbourne and Rhys Muldoon has come a long way since his student days at Hawker College. And the list goes on. I'm interested in hearing of the achievements of Canberrans on the national and international stage. Narrabundah student, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who trained as an opera singer and not in drama, is now Artistic Director of the Kings Head Theatre in Islington, London, and will be directing A Tale of Two Cities at the Q Theatre after its successful world professional premiere at the Kings Head.
It is high time that Canberra recognized and lauded its many success stories, and, as Ron has done today, promoted the Canberrans who will definitely make an impact on the theatre industry in Australia and overseas in the future.
This is a pilot posting, but I hope that other critics may also reveal the many success stories that have grown out of Canberra and fuelled the creative spirit of this nation.

Peter Wilkins

Wednesday, December 18, 2013



QL2 Theatre, Gorman House,

Sunday 15th December.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

For the last six years, QL2 Dance has been bringing together current dance students from tertiary institutions across Australasia to choreograph, collaborate and perform in an initiative entitled “ON COURSE”.  Over a two week period, young choreographers are provided with the opportunity and resources to choreograph a short work of no longer in length than 10 minutes.

This year participating choreographers came from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Victorian College of Arts (VCA), Deakin University and New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). Some, though certainly not all, had participated in previous QL2 programs. Their dancers are current members of Quantum Leap, some of the choreographers themselves and others attracted to Canberra by the opportunity to participate in the “On Course” project. They also receive technical assistance to realise their ideas, as well as mentorship by Ruth Osborne and Adelina Larsson.The resultant works are given two performances over two nights before a paying audience.

Given the limited time at their disposal, a polished end performance is not the main aim of the project. The focus is more towards the exploration of ideas, as well as providing opportunities for the young choreographers to engage with dancers from other institutions. Most of the works shown in “On Course 2013” however were indeed surprisingly polished and well danced, indicating how well these young emerging choreographers are equipped to produce interesting dance while coping with tight deadlines.

It was interesting to see the emergence, of so many young male choreographers and dancers this year. Five of the seven works were choreographed by men. Not unexpectedly most tackled weighty issues with their works, but often with an engaging and refreshing dash of humour.

"Sway" choreographed by Harry Morrissey
Photo: Lorna Sim

Harry Morrissey from WAAPA utilised six male dancers to explore concepts of identity and individuality in his work “Sway”. Created to a spoken voice sound track, Morrissey drew on the individual skills of his dancers to perform a series of quirky duets and solos punctuated by unison movement to create a good-humoured, thoughtful work.

Also from WAAPA, Dean Ryan Lincoln worked with six dancers, two girls and four boys, and an interesting movement vocabulary  to explore issues affecting existence in his work, “Circle of Nothing”, danced to a soundscape, some of which he composed himself, and  which included voices intoning statements such as “Have you  written a letter to your mother today ?”.

Eliza Sanders, a former Canberra dancer now with New Zealand School of Dance, made use of striking props in her solo work, “Queen”. Among them, a huge set of buffalo horns and a fur collar with which she created a series of striking visual images during her athletic solo.
Eliza Sanders in "Queen"
Photo: Lorna Sim

Sanders also made an amusing appearance, singing and dancing as a somewhat-confused Kate Bush-like character, in a witty piece, choreographed and danced by VCA student, Chad McLachlan, entitled “Base Point”.

Mackenzie Burn, from QUT, created a lovely work on six female dancers to explore the phenomenon of child marriage. Although “Lapse” contained some lovely moments, without knowing the Kristyn Tremble artwork which inspired the piece, it was difficult to know whether it achieved its purpose, but it was, never-the-less, an engrossing and visually rewarding work.

Another former Canberra dancer, Paul Jackson, now at Deakin University, offered “Quartet”, a work for two girls and two boys, danced to “By the Wall” by Tomas Dvorak, which included some quite lovely moments in which the dancer’s movements suggested leaves gently blowing in the wind.

“Of Primeval Human” was the name given to the work of another WAAPA dancer, Robert Tinning. Choreographed on two female dancers and four male dancers, this impressive abstract work was notable for its large sweeping movements and impressive floor work, and for its satisfying conclusion, one of the few works which didn’t just stop at the end of the music. 
Jack Riley in "Building Elvis"
Photo: Lorna Sim

Prior to the seven programmed works, audiences were treated to a sneak-peek of a moody solo, “Building Elvis” choreographed by Ruth Osborne and  Jack Riley, and danced beautifully by Riley to Elvis Presley songs, arranged in a soundscape by Kimmo Vennonen. This work was a commission by the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the current exhibition of Elvis Presley photographs.

Several of the works made extensive use of video projections and all had the advantage of Guy Harding’s excellent lighting design.

Following the performance, as is usual at QL2 presentations, the audience had the opportunity to question the assembled chorographers and dancers about their various works. Their answers provided revealing insights into the motivation and inspirations of the works just performed.  


Monday, December 16, 2013


Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duveyrier
Conducted by Antonio Pappano
Directed by Stefan Herheim
Captured live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, September 17, 2013
Presented on screen by Palace Cinemas

Review by Len Power 1 December 2013

Only a few years ago, leafing through old, tattered copies of London’s ‘Punch’ magazine or New York’s ‘The New Yorker’ in your doctor’s waiting room, you could only sigh with envy at the list of musicals, plays and operas with top artists that those cities played host to.  Now, we have digital live performances of these shows being screened in our cinemas even while a particular show is still running overseas.  These aren’t films based on a show.  They are the actual show as seen live on stage.  High definition cameras recording the event and masterly editing techniques ensure that we can enjoy the show at a fraction of the price of a seat and that’s not counting the cost of an airfare to get there in the first place!

I took the opportunity recently to see my first ever production of Giuseppe Verdi’s rarely performed opera, ‘The Sicilian Vespers’, which was beamed in to Canberra’s new Palace Cinemas as part of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s season of digital live performances.

This opera was the first of two that Verdi wrote with a French text for the Paris Opera.  It was first performed in 1855, putting it between La Traviata and the first version of Simon Boccanegra.  It was an attempt to emulate the success of Meyerbeer’s Parisian grand operas but it’s rarely heard today.  In fact, this production which opened in October is also the first time it has been staged by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and marks Verdi’s bicentenary this year.

This production differs from the normally expected staging.  Norwegian director, Stefan Herheim, has moved the action of the opera from 13th century, French-occupied Sicily to 1855 Paris, the year of the opera’s premiere, and sets it in the Salle le Peletier, the theatre in which that first performance took place. Not only does this point up the tensions between the people and the military but also shows how artists are exploited by the society that creates them.

Designer, Philipp Fuerhofer, has designed a lavish and remarkable set showing cross-sections of auditorium and stage.  While it looked superb, adding this level of complexity made the story confusing at times.  Another surprise was that the half hour long third act ballet, a requirement for Paris operas at the time it was written, has disappeared, although dance still remains an important element of the production throughout the show with excellent choreography by Andre De Jong.

There was thrilling chorus singing throughout the opera and Michael Volle as Montfort, the French governor and Bryan Hymel as Henri, his illegitimate son by a Sicilian peasant woman, sang their highly emotional roles superbly.  Lianna Haroutounian, a late replacement for the ailing originally scheduled soprano, sang the role of Helene well, if a bit tentatively at times.  Conductor, Antonio Pappano, did excellent work with the orchestra and huge cast, keeping the tension and colour in the music throughout the performance.

Although four and a half hours long including two intervals, the opera was constantly enjoyable.  The picture and sound quality in the Palace cinema was excellent.  Next in this season of broadcast operas at the Palace is Verdi’s ever-popular, ‘Aida’, from December 20 to 23.  I’ll see you there!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 15 December 2013.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Written by Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell
Directed by Duncan Ley and Duncan Driver
Musical Direction by Nicholas Griffin
Everyman Theatre
The Courtyard, Canberra Theatre Centre
December 5 - 21, 2013

Review by Len Power, 5 December 2013

‘A funny thing happened on the way to decorum’.  That’s just one of the deadly lines in Everyman Theatre’s revival of ‘The Musical of Musicals’ (The Musical!).  Written by Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell, this musical satire opened off-Broadway in 2003 and has had great success internationally.  Everyman Theatre first presented it here in Canberra in 2009 and now it makes a welcome return.

It is structured into five acts, each of which is a short musical parodying (and paying homage to) the style of an American or British musical theatre composer or composer/lyricist team, all dealing with roughly the same classic melodrama plot, "I can't pay the rent!"  Obviously, the more knowledge you have of musicals, the more fun you will have with this show.  However, one of the group of people I saw it with on opening night had very little knowledge of musicals and still thought it was very funny and very enjoyable.

Everyman Theatre was lucky to be able to re-assemble the same cast as in their original production.  The four principles, Adrian Flor, Jarrad West, Louiza Blomfield and Hannah Ley are a great team.  They’re all excellent singers and dancers who easily handle the very different musical styles and also have the acting skills to get the most out of the multiple characters they play.  Watching Adrian Flor as Big Willie in the ‘Oklahoma’ spoof is worth the price of admission alone and every cast member has their hilariously memorable moments.  Duncan Driver, one of the directors of the show, appears now and then as a kind of narrator and is wickedly funny.

Nicholas Griffin was the musical director for the opening night and played the tricky solo piano score superbly.

The set is a wonderful mess of musical props and appears to be mainly the work of Louiza Blomfield who is credited with design.  Sharp-eyed audience members will notice that there are numerous props from previous Everyman productions sprinkled here and there.  It was enhanced by a good atmospheric lighting design by Kelly McGannon.  Christine Pawlicki and Marion West have obviously had a lot of fun with the funny and appropriate costume designs.  The choreography in the show is by Hannah Ley and Jarrad West, who really did their homework to pinch the correct dance styles and then satirize them to suit the action perfectly.

Directors, Duncan Ley and Duncan Driver, have again done a great job with this show.  They obviously know their musicals and ensure that the pace and action don’t distract from the clever satire of the writing.  This is a great end of year show to relax and enjoy.  I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this, even if they don’t like musicals.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 8 December 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Written by Craig Alexander and Shelly Higgs Directed by Shelly Higgs
The Street Theatre, 4th to the 8th of December 2013

Review by Len Power

‘And Then There Were 3’, described as ‘a quirky comedy’, was developed as part of the Street Theatre’s The Hive program.  Written by the director, Shelly Higgs, and Craig Alexander, who also plays the father, it’s a heartfelt story about a young couple having a baby and learning to look after it.  They haven’t a clue where to start and we also observe the negative impact on their relationship through the stresses and strains that come with starting a family.

The strength of this production is in the design and direction.  It’s pretty much a family-developed show with the clever set and imaginative props as well as costumes and sound all credited to Craig Alexander and Shelly Higgs.  The excellent lighting design by Gillian Schwab adds strongly to the atmosphere and Josh Jones has provided some appealing original music with songs sung mainly by Craig Alexander.

There are good performances from Caroline Simone O’Brien as the mother and Craig Alexander as the father.  It was an inspired decision to have the excellent Raoul Cramer as the baby puppeteer/Greek Chorus/props person.

Some tightening in the writing here and there would help and, even if you argue that these people talk this way, the frequent bad language gets a bit wearing.  The straightforward story could do with a dramatic twist or an angle to make it unique and less predictable.  Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant ninety minutes of adult fun with some universal truths that most people will be able to identify with.

Originally published in Canberra City News on 5 December 2013