Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Platform Papers No 38

Enlightenment or Entitlement by Peter Tregear.  Platform Papers No 38, Currency House, February 2014.

Commentary by Frank McKone

For Canberra critics and the arts community Peter Tregear’s “Reflections on Tertiary Music Education” is of particular concern.  “About the Author” (page ix) states In 2012 he was appointed Professor and Head of the ANU School of Music and has led a successful overhaul of the curriculum and staffing of that institution.

I am not professionally able to make any judgement about the success or otherwise of his appointment, since straight theatre is my area of arts criticism and teaching.  But since the change of approach at the Canberra School of Music, as it was known throughout its long history before being amalgamated with the Australian University, generated great controversy, I think it is appropriate to alert interested parties to the publication of this Platform Paper, available from February 1.

Go to http://currencyhouse.org.au/node/317 for a description and purchase options.

Much of Tregear’s argument is about education, of which music education is one aspect.  From an educator’s point view, he raises the issue of a distinction between ‘conservatoire’ and ‘university’ style education.  This issue is also relevant to discussion of the change at ANU of the Theatre Studies course, after the retirement of Reader and Convenor, Geoffrey Borny, into Performing Arts And Creative Writing.

On curriculum grounds, Tregear goes into detail on “The Limits of the Mentor-Protégé Model” which he describes as the essence of the ‘conservatoire’, saying that the shift at ANU to a ‘university’ model, should never have been received as the existential threat it was made out to be, but rather as a timely occasion to implement necessary change.

He goes on to say, Gearing a curriculum – and the ‘pitch’ made to prospective students – so strongly (and uncritically) towards ‘elite’ classical and jazz performance per se, and the increasingly chimeric career path as a full-time virtuoso performer, operatic soloist or orchestral musician that might sustain it, is self-evidently no longer justifiable.  We have an urgent need, instead, to produce graduates who have an empowered sense of agency and responsibility for the musical culture that now surrounds us.  To do that, we need urgently to reassess both what we teach and how.

Platform Papers are published quarterly by Currency House, which is an independent not-for-profit organisation based in New South Wales, Australia, founded in 2000 by Katharine Brisbane.  For more information go to www.currencyhouse.org.au .

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Shadow King by Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor

 Photo: Robert Frith

The Shadow King by Tom E. Lewis & Michael Kantor.  Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, for Sydney Festival, directed by Michael Kantor at Carriageworks Bay 17, Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 26

The set represents the mining juggernaut destroying country.
Photo: Prudence Upton

The Shadow King is simply extraordinary.  For the second time in the Sydney Festival I have been brought to tears.  And like Black Diggers, it’s a close collaboration between the European and Aboriginal cultures.  Where Shakespeare made the legend of King Lear into an English drama, Murrungun man Tom Lewis and European Michael Kantor have made the story deeply Australian.  They have shown how the universal issues of King Lear – the ruination of the land on which we all depend, through family demands, jealousies, greed and spite – are the same in our fractured country, with terrible consequences in Aboriginal experience.

I have seen several King Lears from the Genesian Theatre, Sydney in 1967 to Bell Shakespeare in 2010, but never one to match The Shadow King for emotional effect.  This was because there was more to the tragedy than Lear’s personal folly and realisation too late to save Cordelia.  Edmund’s evil, for one thing, turned him into a policeman acting against his own people, as had happened notoriously in Queensland.  Goneril had her children taken away – by Cordelia when she returned from banishment.  Edmund was sexually violent to Regan, at the point where she began to regret her stand against her father.  Gloucester became a mother – of Edgar and Edmund – of great moral standing and strength, but still blinded by the forces unleashed in her children.  The Fool, who dies mysteriously in Shakespeare’s play, returns to complete his role as the spirit narrator who puts the story into its Aboriginal context.

It’s in this extra dimension, with all the implications and references to Indigenous history on country, that brings the emotions of great sadness welling up. 

And, to conclude, the characterisations by the actors, speaking their own Kriol, or Yolnu Matha as well as Shakespeare’s English are finely drawn with simple clarity.  Tom E Lewis is a remarkable Lear, a leader among equals in Jada Alberts, Jimi Bana, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Damion Hunter, Kamahi Djordon King, and Natasha Wanganeen, thoroughly supported by the band Selwyn Burns, Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bart Willoughby, and the film makers Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham and Murray Lui.

They all deserved the standing ovation they received on their last night in Sydney – a fitting celebration of Australia Day.

Lear divides his country
Photo: Jeff Busby

and his family
Photo: Prudence Upton
Evil Spirits: Edmund & Goneril
Photo: Jeff Busby

True Spirits: Edgar, Lear uncrowned, Fool, Edgar's Mother
Photo: Jeff Busby

Othello: the Remix by GQ and JQ

L to R: Jackson Doran, GQ, Postell Pringle, JQ
Photo: Michael Brosilow

Othello: the Remix written, directed and music by GQ and JQ.  Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions for Sydney Festival at York Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 26

Othello always seemed to me to be the least satisfactory of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Either the play should end as Othello rises, horrified at what he has just done in smothering Desdemona; or he should face justice.

But Shakespeare lets him go.  However much he admits his failing, he is not brought to book.

This Chicago rap music version fails to resolve this issue for me.  I think, for modern times, justice should be done – not only to Iago, the leader parallel to those in Serbia in the Kosovo conflict; but because regardless of his being duped, Othello killed Desdemona.

Dramatically, the stronger ending – and it was a very strong point in this version – is as Desdemona dies.  We all know by then that all the women are innocent, while only men are the killers.  Why Shakespeare felt the need to have Emilia knock on the bedroom door, giving Othello the opportunity to explain himself and for the play to fiddle about with the details of Iago’s perfidy being told to us again, I don’t know.

But we end up forgetting Desdemona!

The long pause after her death said to me that the Chicago team clearly felt the problem, but then decided to stay true to Shakespeare.  The message of the play was shot into our hearts by Desdemona as she died, even when, in this all male cast, she was no more than a fabulous singing voice and a flattened pillow.  I’m sure a modern audience, tuned into the rapid niceties of the language of rap, would need no more.

On the issue of should we modernise Shakespeare, I must say that this is the most successful attempt I have seen.  The rap scene, with its misogyny, drug dealing and anti-social attitudes among the worst of its practitioners is cleverly turned on its head through the very movement style, rhyming, timing and humour that is rap’s signature.

Photos: Prudence Upton

The performances are absolutely tight, even including the highlighted DJ.  Though I’d just like to tweak Shakespeare at the end, the final spotlight on a silent Othello gave us a clear focus to this version’s conclusion.

I had wondered, being rather older than the rap scene myself, how I would cope with this update, but it was less pretentious than Steven Berkoff’s Cockney “rap” and definitely never as sentimental as West Side Story

I can’t judge how the rappers of Chicago might respond, but I found it very interesting, fast, loud and surprisingly funny.  A success, in other words.

Postell Pringle (Othello) and GQ (Iago)
Photo: Michael Brosilow

Arc, Memento Mori & Every Action… by Ockham’s Razor

Photos: Nik Mackey

Arc, Memento Mori & Every Action… devised and performed by Ockham’s Razor (UK).  Sydney Festival at York Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 25

 Photos: Prudence Upton

When a show depends on pulleys and fulcrums you might expect a science connection.  That’s made in this company’s name, Ockham’s Razor, and the remarkable skill they have for keeping their audience in suspension.

But don’t be taken in by the photos.  Each of the three items is much more than aerial gymnastics.

Even the lightest work, Every Action…, with its premiere (in 2005) having taken place at Ah! Les Beaux Jours, Palaiseau, France, is a fun work about how strangers can come together in enjoyment when something intriguing is in the offing.  In this case it is 25 metres of rope suspended through two separated pulleys.  Pull one end down, and the other goes up.  How simple!

But William of Ockham would be proud: keep your explanation simple – no more complex than it needs to be.  This principle keeps this company’s work clean, neat, accessible, poignant and pointed.

Memento Mori is a vertical dance duet.  Based on a woodcut by Holbein which shows Death as a “skeleton that dances each of us to our grave”, this work shows a young woman coming to terms with the shock and loss, finally reaching acceptance.  At first she sits bolt upright on the horizontal deathly pale male body, as if in surprise or in an attempt to say “It’s alright, I’m OK, I’m in control.”  But as the dance of the living and the dead develops, she goes through remorse, fear, guilt, love and in the end becomes horizontal herself in acceptance of the inevitable.

To watch all this created on a single trapeze is to see physical skill and art entwined in a way which could not be done on a flat dance floor.

This may be the most pure and simple work, but Arc is perhaps the most surprising and original.  What seems to be a raft, in at times stormy seas, is always at risk of failing to support the two women and the man clinging on for dear life.

As they face disaster, their relationships go through stages from childish unthinking spontaneous behaviours which inevitably have unintended consequences – causing friction, disappointment, anger, disdain and division – until the realisation dawns that their situation will not change, even as they have survived the storm.  There is no solution but to make the best of things together on our raft on the rough seas of life.

Arc is a dance work but, set on its hanging grid of climbing bars, it becomes a work of imagery.  I saw a raft swept off a ship in stormy seas, but it could be seen as a children’s playground on which the children play until they grow up, into a mature understanding of adult relationships.

Arc may be more complex than Every Action…and not as pure dance as Memento Mori, but it remains in keeping with William of Ockham’s injunction: no more complex than it need be.

And, for the Sydney Festival, it proved its worth to a full York Theatre, from the children to the ancients like me.  The laughter, the silences, and the extended applause said it all.

Photo: Prudence Upton

Oedipus Schmoedipus by post

Photo: Brett Boardman

Oedipus Schmoedipus by post (Zoë Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor & Natalie Rose) with Belvoir, in association with Sydney Festival.  At Belvoir St Theatre January 9 – February 2, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 25

Zoë Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor
Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Death!  Should we take it seriously?  In the final moment of Oedipus Schmoedipus the answer is “Yes”.  Blackout!

The seriousness of the ending catches us by surprise when the show has begun with highly realistic – and terribly funny – deaths as depicted in an enormous range of plays by “Great White Writers”, from Sophocles on, to a soundtrack from the most dramatic sections of Verdi’s Requiem and other operatic scenes.  But there was a clue even in that first scene as the women stripped to their bras to reveal strapped on suicide bombs, and the theatre exploded.

Zoë Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor
Photo: Ellis Parrinder

The material in the script, mainly a kind of lecture on the nature of death by Zoë and Mish (in their blood-soaked white dresses resulting from their first scene) is an original idea.  They pick up on lines, often by a dying character (Shakespeare gets a good go) and expand on them largely by word association until the idea of death becomes absurd.

But the other very original aspect of this work is that 25 people from the general public volunteer (“without pay” gets a laugh) to take part.  They are, after only a brief rehearsal a few hours before the day’s performance, directed by a highly sophisticated program shown on screens in the wings and above the stage (which the audience can’t see), with stage manager Roxzan Bowes coordinating their cues with the dialogue on stage.  Each volunteer has a personal number, so that instructions can be given about what they say, how they say it, what they do, and what costume they wear – as individuals or in groups – so that they form a continuously changing background comic illustration for the actors’ performance.

The absurdity gets more and more out of hand as the hour long show progresses, all with the dead body of Natalie Rose lying on the stage, until that final moment when we are brought to the point of realising that, absurd or not, we all will die – and it could actually happen this minute.  The blackout, of course, caused all the still living members of the audience to wildly clap, whistle and cheer.

Lights up for the bows, and for a second time, as applause continued and everyone left the stage – except for the dead body.  Pause.  Then stage manager Bowes appears, crosses the stage, and drags the body off – to more cheers.  House lights up – the end.

I thought then of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author(1921), which I don’t think was quoted, where the audience are actually left wondering if an actor (the little girl) has actually been killed, as the stage manager tries to clear the stage and deal with the crisis.  Oedipus Schmoedipus in the end did not go that far.  We all knew that Natalie Rose was not really dead, but she played the part extremely well.  I just hope that, one night, no-one does actually die, on stage or in the audience.  That really wouldn’t be funny!

Mish Grigor, Volunteers, Zoë Coombs Marr
Natalie Rose
Photo: Ellis Parrinder

I guess we can’t really avoid taking death seriously, and we should also take seriously the clever writing and design involving the volunteers who effectively represented us – the ordinary people.  post  say they “take being silly very seriously, and have a deep and true commitment to innovation that doesn’t alienate audiences or get boring.”  They certainly  have achieved their goal in this show.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Arts criticism opinion piece

The Canberra Critics' Circle has been alerted to an opinion piece about arts criticism which critics may care to read. 

"The arts thrive in a climate of active and informed debate, says Sarah Kent – passive adulation is as poisonous as neglect"

Sarah Kent
Thursday 23 January 2014



Tuesday, January 21, 2014


The mercury creeps slowly over the 46 degree mark and Adelaide swelters in an extreme heatwave that makes it on this hot Summer’s day  the hottest city in the world. It is little wonder that Adelaide Fringe director, Greg Clarke, is late for our interview. The city is moving slowly in the searing heat and Clarke apologizes profusely when he actually answers my second call.

From February 14 to March 16, Adelaide will again be the hottest city to visit in Australia, but for a very different reason.  For four weeks of the year the city experiences a cultural explosion like no other. Around Adelaide’s Festival Centre on the banks of the River Torrens, the Adelaide Festival of Arts attracts some of the world’s most remarkable artists to provide an international feast of music, theatre and dance. In the parkland behind the city’s charming Botanic Gardens, WOMAD echoes to the rhythms and sounds of the very best in world music. Throughout the city’s CBD and reaching out to the regions, the Adelaide Fringe brings its unique community based open access festival to the people of Adelaide.

2014 marks Clarke’s fourth Adelaide Fringe, and I ask him what excites him most about this year’s festival.

“What’s got me excited about this Fringe is the actual diversity and growth and spread of the event.” he says. “We’ve always tried to promote the whole city, but this year we’ve also got to talk to a lot of the regions and councils such as the Barossa Valley. Salisbury Council have paid for the registration of all the artists in the Salisbury area and have created a Fringe venue out there called The Secret Garden Party in the Turkey Flat Vineyards in Tanunda. It’s not just local artists taking part but some of the main artists such as Mary Tobin who brings out a lot of the big comedians.  We’ve just really started to see the Fringe begin to spread throughout the whole of the State.”

From Port Augusta in the north to Goolwa in the South, the Fringe comes alive with local, national and international events that breathe new life into the cultural life of the community.

During discussions with the Unley City Council, situated outside the parkland belt of Adelaide, Clarke asked what they felt was special about Unley. “The amount of coffee shops.” they replied. “people in Unley love their coffee.”  Double Shot, the Unley Coffee Fiesta, will be staged in the Soldier’s Memorial Garden throughout the Fringe and Fringe goers are invited to “bring your family and friends and celebrate all things coffee – entertainment, coffee sampling and great food.

I ask Clarke why he thinks that the regions have so eagerly responded to his invitation to participate in the Fringe this year.

“I think it’s just because the event is so popular,” he says,  “ and well-loved here by so many people. It is the kind of event that lends itself to feeling that anyone can be in. So if you can get that message out there.. all of these councils have arts officers and they all put on events and what better time to run an event than do it during the Fringe? They have also seen the great work that the Adelaide City Council has been doing and they want to be a part of the Fringe.”

The main focus of the Fringe will naturally remain in the CBD, but Clarke’s dream of reaching out to the regions has become a reality and as he says “It’s not just the city anymore. The Fringe is everywhere for everyone.”

The redevelopment of Adelaide Victoria Square by the Adelaide City Council provides another innovative opportunity for Clarke’s imaginative vision. A look at the city’s map revealed 21 venues in the region of the square. If they could erect a new venue in the square, that could become the focus for major fringe events. The result is the Big Square Hub with buses running from the East End to the Royal Croquet Club, where South Australia’s amazing young circus performers Gravity and Other Myths in association with Aurora Nova Productions will perform their A Simple Space that played to sell-out audiences at the Edinburgh Festival. After the show, audiences will be able to remain and play a game of croquet.

Clarke is also excited by the increase in Music events. From opera to classical music to jazz and rock and music cabaret, musicians will provide programmes that now rival the popular comedy offerings in the Fringe. In the past, the Fringe has been criticized for leaning too much towards a Comedy Festival. This year, Clarke has redressed that. Not only is there a more abundant diet of music, but theatre too has gained further prominence with the registration of many independent theatre .companies from across the nation and overseas. The ACT is represented by Spread the Wyrd Theatre with their show The Black Cat- The Small World of Aristide Bruant and the very quirky Sparrow Folk comedy cabaret duo with Nested Confessions .

Clarke has a history of seeking to create large scale events for the community. In New York he introduced a programme of discos, and prior to becoming director of the Fringe, Clarke would oversee large community events for the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. “I truly believe in creating those special free events, creating something that everyone can come to and increasng the buzz of the festival.”

This year Clarke has introduced the Disco Cuttlefish.

“ I wanted to create a giant creature that  needed to be full of colour and unique to South Australia.” Clarke says. “Sydney Festival may have its Yellow Duck, but Adelaide Fringe has its giant Disco Cuttlefish. We’re building a 15 metre giant cuttlefish, unique to South Australia. There are 60,000 of them and they come together once a year to mate and when they mate they turn into strobe disco machines and change colour with all this amazing light and sound and we’ve called it the Disco Cuttlefish. Its tentacles move like a giant puppet. We’ve created a dance piece called The Cuttlefish that goes with it. The cuttlefish will appear every Saturday night at 9.30 in Rundle Street and everyone can take part. There will be a performance piece as a curtain raiser and then it’s time for everyone there to join in the Cuttlefish to the Fame soundtrack.”

Clarke’s excitement bristles down the phone line. His fourth Fringe is only a matter of weeks away and already he bathes in the success of increased statistics in attendances, ticket sales and events. His great challenge for 2015 is to encourage greater participation and audience attendances from interstate. A glance at the comprehensive coloured Fringe Guide reveals artists from all corners of the globe, but Clarke would like to see more visitors from wider afield enjoying the second largest Fringe Festival in the world.

Because the Fringe is Open Access, even I could be in the Fringe if I want to.” says Clarke. In fact Clarke is exhibiting his street photography along with the figurative paintings of artist Louise Vadasz in the State Library of South Australia over the duration of the Fringe. 18 photographs of street scenes, taken during his travels through Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea will be exhibited under the title of Alter /Flock.

Images abound of a flock of birds changing flight to discover new directions, carried aloft by the winds of change. It could well be a metaphor for Clarke’s flight during the past four years to bring the Fringe to new heights and take audiences and participants on exciting new paths of discovery.

“I think the programme is really exciting.” Clarke concludes. “Because anyone can register, and this is a non-curated festival, I haven’t seen a lot of the work, but when you read the guide, you go ‘Wow!

The traditional Fringe favourites will also be there to entertain and entice. The city will burst into life with the opening Fringe Parade. Visitors can take in the many offerings of the Garden of Unearthly Delights and there will be free entertainment during the Fringe Street Theatre Festival and the indigenous Spirit Festival at Tandanya, home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events.

“This will be the year of discovering new names and exciting new works.” Clarke says. “There are some great shows in there.”
Peter Wilkins

Adelaide Fringe 2014
February 14 – March 16
For further information and the Fringe Guide go to:




















Monday, January 20, 2014

Black Diggers by Tom Wright

Cast in rehearsal
Photo: Stephen Henry

Black Diggers written by Tom Wright.  Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival in association with the Balnaves Foundation, directed by Wesley Enoch at Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House January 17-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

I approach commenting on Black Diggers in all humility, for this is impressive theatre dealing with difficult history.  It is an important achievement for our culture, for our country, and for our theatre.

In one hour and forty minutes, Wesley Enoch has done a brilliant job of making Wright’s text come to life with humour, straight talk, and finally with ceremony which both ennobles his subject and must bring tears to anyone’s eyes.

The drama covers the experiences of the Aboriginal men – at least 800 of them, according to Sydney University researcher Dr David Williams – who fought as Australians in World War I.  Their story necessarily requires context before and after the War, and falls into five parts: Pre-Nation, Enlistment, The Theatre of War, The Return and The Legacy.

Not only is this a story of literally epic proportions, but the men’s Aboriginal identities also required permissions from elders and agreement from families from many different communities all over Australia.  As Enoch has written, “When constructing this piece of theatre we were confronted by the enormity of the task, the cultural protocols, the military records, the family lore….” 

To have shaped all this into 60 scenes so that the emotional flow of the drama never falters, while the truth of the history is not lost, is a task that I suggest has not been achieved in our theatre before.  It is Shakesperean in scope, and more true to history.

It could be done only because the Aboriginal tradition of storytelling, with its mix of humour, irony and directness is so well understood by the Indigenous team of actors (above, in rehearsal) – led by George Bostock as cultural consultant, with Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tobian Wyles and Meyne Wyatt – working with the doyen of Indigenous directors in Wesley Enoch.

But even more is achieved because this is, I believe, the first-ever absolute crossover piece of Aboriginal-European theatre.  The essence of Indigenous performance is that the actors and the audience are one and the same community.  Because the lives and deaths of the Indigenous soldiers in the War were no different from those of the 400,000 non-Indigenous men who fought in that same conflict – believing in their contribution to Australia’s place in the world – this play brings together everyone on stage and in the audience as one. 

This is not an Aboriginal play about Aboriginal experience, separate from the lives of a Euro-centred audience.  It is a play about the Australian experience of world wide warfare: the bravery, the practicalities, the violence, the destruction – and the sadness, not just because of these men’s deaths and injuries, but from the disappointments which followed.  What was it all for?

For the Aboriginal men who survived – “dozens were killed” writes Dr Williams – there was extra disappointment because they had fought on equal terms and in equal relationships with their non-Indigenous comrades, but were denied equal rights when they returned.  When the Last Post is sounded, my tears were for all those who had died for little gain, but with an even deeper shame for those who were Aboriginal and whose descendants still today are so disadvantaged.  The example those more than 800 men showed us all in World War I should have changed the world for the better, but White Australia would not listen.

Wesley Enoch - Director
Tom Wright - Writer

The Balnaves  Foundation, the aim of which is “to create a better Australia through the funding of education, medicine and the arts with a particular focus on young people, the disadvantaged and Indigenous communities” is to be congratulated for its support, in association with the Sydney Festival, for the Black Diggers project.  It has achieved its hope that “this production will be a landmark for future Indigenous theatre projects.”  I hope it will be a landmark for real political and social change as well.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

All That Fall by Samuel Beckett. Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland

All That Fall by Samuel Beckett.  Pan Pan Theatre, Ireland, for Sydney Festival.  Directed by Gavin Quinn at Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney, January 9-26, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 18

It was a sad night (but only for 70 minutes) because Beckett was determined to not allow Mr Rooney (Andrew Bennett) to tell Mrs Rooney (Áine Ní Mhuirí) what happened to delay his train home from his dingy little office; but finally she was told by the little boy Jerry (Joey O’Sullivan) what the station master Mr Barrell (John Kavanagh) had told him.  A young child had fallen onto the tracks and had “fallen under the wheels”, said Jerry.

This play, said Beckett, ironically perhaps, was written “for voices not bodies” and was originally broadcast on the BBC in 1957.  Nicholas Johnson, Assistant Professor of Drama at Trinity College, Dublin has written a mini-essay in the program notes entirely about the business of presenting a radio play on stage, but nothing about the content of the drama.  I found myself rather saddened on both points.

The play seems to me to belong to the British depressed culture of the 1950s, alongside John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger for example, made even worse by Beckett’s emphasis on his characters’ deep and constant anxiety about the inevitability of their deaths.  It’s a mental world of worthless post-war suburban life that hardly seems to fit in our world from the swinging sixties to today’s social media. 

Presenting the play seemed to me to be an exercise in museum theatre, despite the attempt to do something new with the audience, seated on rocking chairs among loudspeakers beneath a ceiling covered in dim incandescent globes and facing, more or less according to our inclination, a wall of par can lights laid out in a grid 12 vertical by 14 horizontal.  Different configurations were lit and unlit at points throughout the play: sometimes we were in complete darkness, listening to the voices.  Sometimes we were dimly or brightly lit – perhaps with the intention of making us take notice of each other, or for us to interpret the changing configuration.

Unfortunately, though I found some interest in noticing odd features of some other audience members, I could not see any particular relevance of the light show to what was happening in the play, except for once when religion was mentioned and the wall lights formed a cross.

The rocking chairs were problematic too.  I supposed, since Mr Rooney talked so much about retiring and having nothing to do but wait for the next meal, we were meant to experience these old people’s lives in our rocking chairs.  I did this so well that I fell asleep and missed several minutes, until the earth shaking sound of the train arriving at the station woke me up.

I had no concerns about the quality of the performances of the voices, but even as I was listening it occurred to me that I could not tell if the whole show had been pre-recorded (including the software for the lights) or whether I was hearing a live performance.  When the play was written, of course, it was common to broadcast live – from the Goon Show to Mrs Dale’s Diary (or Blue Hills in Australia) – but how could I know on this occasion?  The Goon Show had a live audience who could see the shenanigans going on around the microphones, and we could hear their reactions.  But on this occasion we had no actors to watch, only their voices to hear.  Perhaps the whole show was an Irish joke, with all those actors and technical designers down at the pub in Dublin except for a couple of roadies to rig and push the buttons at the Seymour Centre.

(Actually, as one audience member complained, the roadies seemed to have forgotten to connect all the surround-sound speakers tonight.  I agreed that all the sound was coming from one source behind my seat, and none from the other speakers I could see across the space in front of me.  The stage manager was made aware of the complaint – hopefully just a one-off technical problem.)

On the other hand, presenting this work in the university context and as part of the Festival of Sydney can be seen as a valid thing to do.  It provides an opportunity for students today to hear Beckett’s voice through a different medium than the inevitable Waiting for Godot.  Yet one aspect of Beckett’s work which was very well brought out in what some have called “The Sir Ian McKellen Production” was the richness of the humour.  I haven’t heard the original broadcast of All That Fall, but I heard plenty of points in this script which I think should have been played for laughs.

Then, rather than an essay about the nature of radio broadcasting and “Pan Pan’s faithfulness here to the sense of ‘occasion’ of early broadcast media”, we might have found ourselves engaged in the tragic contrast between the funny, inconsequential obsessions of our daily lives and the reality of sudden, random death.  This is what I think Beckett was on about.  But tonight the audience only laughed once, and the death, though sad, was a bit of a dramatic let-down.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Wayne Shepherd
Ickle Pickle Productions
Belconnen Theatre January 10 to 25, 2014

Review by Len Power 10 January 2014

Although the Dr Seuss books were not available to me as a child, I certainly became aware of them in later years.  His works have been adapted for television, feature films and as a Broadway musical, ‘Seussical’, in 2000.  The musical had a short life on Broadway but has gone on to be one of the most popular shows for non-professional companies in the USA.  This production from Ickle Pickle Productions has used the shorter ‘Theatre For Young Audiences’ version for their school holidays production at the Belconnen Theatre.  It concentrates on fewer characters and incidents and cuts a number of the songs from the original Broadway show.

The strength of ‘Seussical’ is in the music score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.  Given the fantastical nature of the show, the writers produced a score using various musical styles from latin to pop, swing, gospel, R&B and vaudeville, so there’s something here to please everyone.

Wayne Shepherd, the director and set designer has produced a magical show which moves like the wind and surprises and delights at every turn.  The colourful set is cleverly designed with references to the books and Dr Seuss himself displayed here and there.  Imaginative touches are everywhere with surprises galore.  Just wait until you see how they involve the audience during a rainstorm.

The production has a large, enthusiastic cast of adults and young people.  There are particularly nice performances from Adam Salter as The Cat In The Hat, Steven Galinec as Horton the Elephant, Kaitlin Nihill as JoJo, Sarah Hull as Sour Kangaroo, Debra Byrne as Mayzie La Bird and Jenny Watson as Gertrude Mc Fuzz but everyone onstage gets their moment to shine.

Musical director, Susan Davenport, has obtained a high standard of singing from the entire cast.  The singers are accompanied by an excellent pre-recorded accompaniment rather than a live orchestra and it works very well.

The choreographer, Talisha Jackson, has staged great dance and movement for this show, which the cast perform admirably.  Her work demonstrates a good understanding of the requirements of musical staging.  Based on her work here, she is a choreographer to watch out for in the future.  The costumes, designed by Janette Humphrey, are imaginative, funny and eye-catching and the clever lighting design by Justin Watson complements the show throughout.

While ‘Seussical’ has been produced for the school holidays, it’s just as entertaining for adults as well as children.  The nicely designed program includes a colouring in competition where you could win tickets to the next Ickle Pickle production.  I couldn’t wait to get home and get out the coloured pencils!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 12 January 2014.