Thursday, February 27, 2014

“Stella for Star”: the 2014 Stella Wilkie Award

FORMER Canberra theatre director, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, has emailed overnight to tell us of the results in the second year of “the Stella,” (the Stella Wilkie award), named after one of the late actor, writer and Member of the Canberra Critics’ Circle, Stella Wilkie.

Luke Taylor, Photo Nicholas Dawkes

The single award this year has gone to East 15 Acting School honours graduate, Luke Taylor, for his original play, “A*”, set in his hometown,  Newcastle upon Tyne.

The play is described as follows: “In Newcastle, a desperate mother tries to reach her glitter sprinkled past through her son’s future…We are all in drag, in one way or another, it’s just that not everyone chooses a feather boa…”

On learning of his win yesterday, Taylor said, “I am delighted to have won this award, giving me the chance to further develop and restage my debut play 'A*'. To see a play I am so passionate about receive recognition within the industry is a humbling honour, and I am filled with excitement about the future of this story and how it will grow with the brilliant opportunity The Stella Wilkie Award has provided for it.”

Spreadbury-Maher, who was deeply saddened by the death in January last year of Wilkie, who had mentored  and encouraged him,  established the award in her name, in which new plays at  East 15’s annual  Debut Festival, would be judged w and  the possibility of a further season.

The inaugural winning play was “Sandpits Avenue and the runner-up was “League of St George”. Both were performed at the King's Head Theatre in a double-bill on Monday 25 March 2013 and both were then performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013, and transferred to open The Hope Theatre, which Spreadbury-Maher also directs, in November 2013.
Stella Wilkie

Last year in naming the award, he said, "I can see no better project than East 15's Debut Festival to name after Stella. This award is about what she dedicated her life to. Celebrating and nurturing raw talent is what she loved doing, so long may her spirit continue with this and the excellent work made by East 15 and the King's Head Theatre".

This year he  was able to negotiate a higher profile judging panel, headed by himself and London-based American playwright, Martin Sherman, whose most famous work, “Bent,” portrayed the persecution of homosexuals in Hitler’s Germany. As well, the committee 2014 comprises David Mercatali, (associate director, Southwark Playhouse) Mary Franklin, (resident director, Hope Theatre), Yasmin Zadeh, (last year’s winner - producer/actress) Nika Obydzinski, (literary manager, King's Head & Hope Theatres and David Luff (Producer, Soho Theatre). Robin Norton-Hale (Associate Director, King's Head Theatre) was also a judge, though she has read the scripts and reported from a literary perspective.

Spreadbury-Maher said he hoped that in years to come “the award will grow and allow the winner a longer run at the King’s Head and an even bigger platform.

The British-born Wilkie would be tickled pink.

Canberra director and actor Jasan Savage dies

CANBERRA’S theatre community has been saddened to learn of the death yesterday of one of its most notable members.

Jasan Savage

Jasan Savage: 21 March 1937  26 February 2014.
Actor and director,  Jasan Savage, died  peacefully at the  Kalparrin facility on 26 February after a long struggle with illness.

Savage was well-known to Canberra audiences for his distinctive and often eccentric character interpretations on stage and to the wider community as a distinguished director who headed up the now-defunct University of Canberra-based Players Company and brought café theatre to the campus for many years.

Savage, born in  Melbourne 21 March 1937, was a professional actor o was rumoured to have once understudied Sir Laurence Olivier. An over-the-top personality who had a strong opinion on every piece of theatre he saw, he often sidled up to the critics at interval to put his (usually unpublishable) point of view.

In recent years, as well as directing, he also devised a one-man show about the  writer Henry Lawson, which he took on tour around the country.

He was considered a fine classical actor, possibly at his best in the great works of the British theatre.

The funeral for Jasan Savage will be held at Norwood Park Crematorium at 10.30am on Wednesday, March 5.

Helen Musa

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Produced by Coralie Wood
Directed by Stephen Pike
Llewellyn Hall 22 February 2014

Review by Len Power 22 February 2014

It doesn’t seem 19 years since the CAT awards first commenced but there we were again all dressed up on Saturday night at Llewellyn Hall to celebrate this unique and popular theatrical event.  The ACTEWAGL Canberra Area Theatre Awards honour a wide range of theatre practitioners, both on and off-stage.  School and Youth productions as well as Adult productions are considered for awards.

The CAT judges are very busy and committed people, travelling far and wide around New South Wales to places such as Albury, Orange and Wollongong, as well as Canberra, to assess the quality of productions.  A weighted point system ensures that every production has an equal chance of scoring nominations.  There are 49 CAT award categories and many of the categories have several nominations.  This year, two new categories were added for ‘Best Dance Performance by an Individual Or Ensemble’ and ‘Best Dance Direction’.

This year’s show was amongst the best.  Tightly directed by Stephen Pike, the show was consistently entertaining and moved at a good pace.  Well-known actor, John Wood, and Canberra musical director and CAT judge, Ian MacLean, made a great team as comperes of the evening.  The award winners all made mercifully short but interesting speeches and the spectacular lighting and clear sound by Chris Neal of Eclipse Lighting and Sound was especially notable.  Musical director, Garrick Smith, delighted the audience with a hilariously spectacular entrance in a huge Liberace-like white cloak.

There were some great moments amongst the entertainment presented between the award announcements.  Canberra’s Damien Bermingham, now professional actor/singer and previous CAT award winner, beautifully sang Andrew Lloyd Webber’s emotional, ‘Till I Hear You Sing’.  The beautiful Jenna Roberts reprised her performance as a sad and faded woman with the electrifying, ‘The Very First Dating Video Of Rose Ritz’ from the musical, ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’.  The cast of Free Rain Theatre’s upcoming production of ‘Forbidden Broadway’ gave us a delightful sneak preview of their show’s sendup of ‘Les Miserables’ and veteran actors Graham Robertson and Oliver Baudert demonstrated their years of stage experience with beautifully nuanced performances in a scene from their play ‘A Month Of Sundays’.

There seemed to be quite a number of double awards this year.  I wonder if that takes a bit of the shine off winning when you have to share an award?  Anyway, if you’d like to see the full list of winners for the CAT awards, go to the CATS website at

Running the CAT Awards costs big money, so it was good to see that the list of sponsors of the various awards is growing.  Local and New South Wales businesses and individual members of Parliament as well as solo sponsors are all showing their support.  Founder of the CAT Awards, Coralie Wood, closed the show with a heart-felt speech that should see the CATS continue for at least another 20 years!

Originally broadcast on ArtsoundFM's 'Dress Circle' program Sunday 5pm 23 February 2014

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Proof by David Auburn

Photo: Dario Gardiman
Proof by David Auburn.  Design: Graham MacLean. Directed by Sandra Bates at Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, January 31 – March 8, 2014

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

The proof of the success of this production of Proof is that the house was very close to full more than halfway through its run.  The excellent quality of the acting is a measure of the important training role of the Ensemble Studio, demonstrated here by Matilda Ridgway (as the mathematical daughter Catherine), Michael Ross (as her pure mathematician father Robert), and Catherine McGraffin (as her less than mathematical sister Claire), thoroughly supported by the NIDA graduate Adriano Cappelletta (as the 28-year-old mathematician Hal, afraid he may already be past his creative prime).

The Ensemble has a long-established following (at dinner I overheard a dissertation at a neighbouring table about the famous University of Sydney Professor of Philosophy, John Anderson), with a warm sense of belonging to the tradition created by Hayes Gordon and whose mantle has been taken on so well by Sandra Bates.  For this appreciative audience, including myself as an Ensemble aficionado from way back, the performance I saw received the acclamation it clearly deserved.

What was impressive was the detail, not only in an evocative set which in the intimate in-the-round theatre made us feel at home with the characters, as if they were our next-door neighbours of many years, but particularly in the fine movement work – perhaps especially by Matilda Ridgway whose expressive eyes always told us what she was thinking and feeling – which was sure-footed and specific as in classical Indian dance.  Although on the surface the dialogue seems naturalistic, it was the skilful controlled action of the whole team, in examples from Ridgway’s eyelids to a sudden jump in reaction to an apparently accidental touch (this one by Catherine McGaffrin), that revealed the style directed so precisely by Sandra Bates. Even the screen door knew exactly when to bang shut.

The only disappointment for me was the sound track.  The program provides a great deal of detail about the music, by Bach (Musical Offering), Brahms (from Symphonie No 1 and Hungarian Dance 1), Lejaren Hiller (Illiac Suite – “the first musical composition for traditional instruments that was made through computer-assisted composition”), and an anonymous mathematician’s Cantor’s Theorem and Axiom of Choice Equivalent.  These latter pieces were posted on the Metamath website because the composer “noticed that a proof’s structure resembles that of a musical score and [he] decided to see what they ‘sounded’ like.”

Even though I had read the program over dinner before the show, I realised afterwards that I had only been aware of the occasional piece of the instantly recognisable Bach, and the striking extract from the Illiac Suite which introduced Act 2.  What was needed was a device to make us become aware and listen to the sound at significant points; whereas we were always drawn immediately in each of the nine rather filmic scenes to the characters and their relationships at that moment.  If the music was playing, our attention was elsewhere so that the sound was extraneous and our brains ignored it.

The idea of the music seems very sound to me, so I think I might have had an iPod sound system clearly visible on stage, which the daughter Catherine would switch on in the opening scene (where we see her in silence for some time) – or maybe it could be playing as she appears, until she switches it off.  At other times a character (probably the father Robert, but perhaps Catherine and her sister Claire) might be seen switching it on, or indeed off, but mostly, once we were aware of its presence, we would expect the sound and would listen to it in the spaces between action and dialogue.  In other words the music needed to be integrated into the action, instead of being peripheral, and unexplained unless you had read the program.

The play, set in the academic milieu of Chicago, has some extra resonance for Canberrans, with our close connection to the Australian National University (even apart from the original city design by the Chicagoan architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney). 

In my own case, I must disclose a special interest, since my daughter and her husband are ANU academics – he as an award-winning specialist in pure mathematics.  Like Robert’s daughter Catherine in the play, my grandson, when still six, awoke his parents one morning (after lying in bed from dawn until the time he was allowed to disturb their slumber), to announce that he had worked out that the number 31 could not be divided by any other number, except the number 1.  “Ah,” responded his father.  “You have just discovered prime numbers!  Well done!”

Despite my mathematical ability being no better than that of Claire, Robert’s other daughter in the play, my experience makes me appreciate the role of Hal, the one-time PhD student mentored by Robert in earlier times when he – Robert – had his full mental faculties.  Robert's loss of his mental “machine” is at the core of the plot in the play.  No wonder Hal is in awe of the man who had redirected our whole understanding of prime numbers (except in my case, of course – I remain blissfully ignorant).

Hal claims to realise that his own creative input is minor and is unlikely to reach such intellectual heights, since the common view is that mathematicians produce their best work before the age of 23 – and he is already 28.  In the play’s plot, now that Robert has died (and Catherine is turning 23), Hal’s insecurity, alongside his obsessive desire to search Robert’s notebooks for an even greater original proof, understandably makes him an annoying character – and even suspicious from Catherine’s point of view. 

Though I think Adriano Cappelletta captured the character very well, making me find him rather annoying too, I wonder if David Auburn has stereotyped Hal’s character too far to allow Catherine to finally accept him as she does in the last scene.  My experience of the mathematicians I knew when they were in their teens and twenties – and indeed now in their forties – has led me well away from the convention of ‘nerds’ who drank, used drugs and partied hard.  Hal, or at least his friends, sound more like the engineering students of my past.  My mathematicians were more likely to be found quietly discussing philosophy in the early hours.  In fact, much more like Catherine in the play.

Even so, Proof makes its point with very considerable power, especially about proper recognition of the place of women in the history of maths and science.  It results in an excellent night of theatre, especially when so ably performed.

Matilda Ridgway as Catherine and Michael Ross as Robert

Catherine McGraffin as Claire and Adriano Cappelletta as Hal

Catherine shows Hal the final proof

Photos: Clare Hawley

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Alliance Française Gala Charity Concert with Jane Rutter-Flute and Vincent Colagiuri - Piano: Hommage à la Flute Française – The Residence of the Embassy of France in Australia, 6pm Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

It is sun-soaked summer evening at the end of day of 34 degree temperature; the angle of the light tilts and the shadows lengthen; the air is dry and the pavements radiate heat as those attending walk through the gates of the Embassy of France in Australia to enter a different world. An Embassy staff member escorts the guests to the Residence where the concert will take place. Distinctive wood paneling and lavishly patterned drapes frame French-doors, open to capture the evening breeze. The transition is complete. Despite the eucalypts at the bottom of the garden, we are in France. 

His Excellency, Mr. Stéphane Romatet, Ambassador of France, and his wife Agnès generously opened their home as a performance venue for the Gala Concert, providing an elegant supper of champagne and canapés served on the terrace. The evening was conceived as a fund-raising event to raise money for much needed building work to maintain the Alliance Française as the organization at the heart of Canberra’s Francophile and Francophone communities. A full house attested to strong support for the cultural contribution made by the organization. More than simply providing French language classes, Alliance Française creates a vibrant cultural sanctuary in which members can immerse themselves. This gorgeous house concert epitomises the cultivation of pleasure through appreciation of art, music, intellectual debate - and of course, food.

Jane Rutter enters with a warm, generous presence that affirms her impressive reputation. A hallmark of the French tradition of Flute music is that the musician must play to serve the music. Rutter’s performance of excerpts from her original show, ‘An Australian in Paris’ embodies this philosophy, sharing music and memories of her life long love affair with Paris. Her candid personal reflections on the choices that led her along the pathway of a professional flautist establish a rapport with the listeners and introduce a vivid collection of her Parisian ‘friends’ in the words and music of Collette, Janet Baker, Debussy, Picasso and others.

At the core of Rutter’s performance is the philosophy imparted by her two famous teachers; Jean-Pierre Rampal and Alain Marion: ‘live expressively, with passion and in so doing, imbue musical performance with this celebratory credo.’ Anecdotes from the musician’s student years in Paris recreate the intensity of the experience for a young Australian studying within a foreign tradition of flute playing.  The audience is transported to smell, feel and hear the textures and sensations of Parisian life.

Classics such as Debussy’s Prelude a L’Après midi d’un Faun, Syrinx and Golliwog’s Cake Walk are contrasted with Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’, Gershwin’s ‘It Aint Necessarily So’ and Offenbach’s famous Gallop: Le Can Can to invest the program with humour and a fresh interpretation of these old favourites.

The jewel in Wednesday night’s program was Marin Marais'  Les Folies d’Espagne. In this unaccompanied piece, Rutter embodied the essence of her French teachers’ tradition with faultless breath control to enhance long, seamless phrases; light, crisp articulation and a natural vibrato. The spaciousness in her interpretation complemented the ornate detail and elaborate ornamentation. 

The entire performance of ‘An Australian in Paris’ has been released by ABC Classics on DVD offering music lovers a feast for the senses and a chance to time-travel though several glorious ages in the history of France, guided by Rutter’s seductive flute. For those in the audience, the concert and the stylish surroundings will be long remembered and those who were not members before the event will be brushing up their French and seriously considering joining the Alliance Française.

 Jennifer Gall

Monday, February 17, 2014


Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Jordan Best
Canberra Rep at Theatre 3
14 February to 1 March, 2014

Review by Len Power 14 February 2014

A ‘Steel Magnolia’ explains author, Robert Harling, is ‘something beautiful made of very strong stuff’.  That description perfectly characterises the six women in his play set in a small town beauty salon in America’s Deep South in the late 1980s.  Truvy’s Beauty Shop provides an oasis for six of the town’s women.  As the play progresses we get to know more and more about their lives and relationships.

Jordan Best’s production for Canberra Rep nicely captures the times and location of this play and her cast all give strong performances.  Nell Shipley gives a delicately nuanced performance in the central role of Shelby and Karen Vickery brings a moving depth and understanding to her role as Shelby’s mother.  Amy Dunham impresses as a girl who finds a new peace amongst her new friends in the salon and it’s worth the price of a ticket just to see the sparks fly between Judi Crane as Ouiser and Liz Bradley as Clairee.  Rose Braybrook gives a nice Southern characterisation as Truvy, the owner of the salon, but was a little hard to hear at times.

The set, designed by Michael Sparks, is attractive and finely detailed and costumes by Emma Sekuless have been well chosen to suit the characters.  However, the visible scene changing in low light broke the mood somewhat and the low lighting at the start of new scenes looked like something had gone wrong.  The strength of this play is in the level of involvement we feel with these characters.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 16 February 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Opera by Richard Wagner
Directed by Stephen Langridge
Musical Direction by Antonio Pappano
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Presented by Palace Cinemas February 7, 8, 9 and 12

Review by Len Power 9 February 2014

‘Parsifal’ is loosely based on a 13th century epic poem about an Arthurian Knight and his quest for the Holy Grail.  Wagner took 25 years to write his opera and it did not premiere until 1882 at the second Bayreuth festival.  He described ‘Parsifal’ not as an opera, but as "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage".  It was his final work.

This new Royal Opera House, Covent Garden production is set in an unidentified modern location which worked very well.  The stunning set by Alison Chitty gives the impression of a forest surrounding the scene and a light box enables changes to be made from a hospital room to memory flashbacks and other intimate scenes without holding up the action.  The production by Stephen Langridge is highly detailed and makes logical sense as it flows along beautifully with the music.

Photo by Clive Barda
Angela Denoke brings her difficult role of Kundry to life with an intense acting and singing performance that is just extraordinary.  Simon O’Neill sang the tenor role of Parsifal with great emotion, achieving the innocence required of this character and Rene Pape was an authoritative Gurnemanz.  Gerald Finley was compelling as Amfortas and Willard White was commanding as Klingsor.  As you would expect, these singers really are at the top of their game.  The large chorus also sang beautifully, creating a haunting atmosphere at times.

The huge orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano, produced a grand and exciting sound, subtly bringing out all the detail in this rich score.  The combination of music, acting and singing at the end of the third act was especially moving.

The presentation at the Palace Cinemas was excellent.  The image quality on the screen is bright and very sharp and the sound quality was crisp and clear.  Being able to see closeups of the individual singers at certain moments really helps your understanding of this opera.  That’s just not possible at a live performance unless you’re in the front row.

Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ is a bit of a challenge for even the most fervent opera lover.  It’s an opera with five solid hours of music plus intervals and a plot without a lot of action.  So why do some people become obsessed by it, even travelling around the world to see productions of it?  After experiencing the sustained emotional high of that third act finale in a production where, for the first time, all the elements came together, I can now understand why people become obsessed with this opera.