Friday, March 7, 2014

Every venue is a stage: Adelaide Fringe 2014

ONE OF the intriguing surprises that a visit to the Adelaide Fringe has in store for the visitor is the array of unique and interesting venues that are commandeered to stage the 900 odd events that make up this open access festival. Artists come from far and wide and payment of the registration fee guarantees a place in the second largest Fringe Festival in the world.
I am in Adelaide for two weeks to savour the fare and comment on a sample of the offerings. I head for the events that are in alternative performance venues and are by and large theatre events.  After my phenomenal experience with the Adelaide Festival’s Roman Tragedies in the city’s large Festival Theatre with its foyer lined with Nolans and Frenches, plush, though now slightly aged, red carpets and upholstered seats, I know that the Fringe will be just that, an alternative to the more extravagant and opulent festival.
And so I set off on my first day of Fringe shows, careful not to run into overload, only to find that Amy Michaels and the Good Time Girls have had to cancel their Gluttony venue event because of the racket from the nearby Clipsal V8 car event. And so I made my way to Victoria Square in the heart of the CBD to see We Should Quit in a tent in the Royal Croquet Club venue, filled with tents and temporary bars for the hot and weary Fringe goer. I stood at the end of a long queue and entered a relatively small tent, now stiflingly hot under the afternoon sun and sweltering under the coloured lights. We Should Quit is a physical theatre performance by two young guys from Afterdark Theatre , one of whom performs aerial feats while the other balances ball and eggs on a pen on the nose. The Guide announces them as the winners of Melbourne Fringe’s Best Circus 2013. Sorry, but in the stiflingly hot tent, their very shaky narrative about two human cogs in the office world of a large corporation, trapped in a daily routine, did little to alleviate the discomfort of the heat. Audience laughter was sporadic, and only when one performed the rope routines and the other the ball-spinning and egg-balancing act did their potential talent show a glimmer of showmanship. A moment of audience participation centred on an attractive blonde woman seated next to me aroused slightly more interest in the packed tent, but I fear that a more engaging narrative and a greater variety of circus skills would have earned this short performance a more enthusiastic applause. If a Fringe allows young performers to practice and develop their skills and they take the opportunity to work at their craft with a target audience in mind, then Afterdark Theatre may begin to light up their skills and amaze, rather than simply amuse.

On the outskirts of the city, a darkly lit street leads down to The Deli, a corner delicatessen since converted into a cafe and bar. At the rear is a garden setting, overhung with vines and paper lanterns and in the corner, before a brush fence over galvanized fencing, Homesick Productions prepare to present Folly- A Miserable Yorkshire Poetry Musical. Yorkshire lass, Sally Atkinson takes her audience on a poetic travelogue from her native England to Sri Lanka in search of enlightenment, fulfillment and meaning to a life in her private folly where dreams can be followed and refuge may be found from the confusion and the pain of broken relationships and undiscovered purpose. A song of experience tumbles from her lips in a waterfall of words that rise and fall to the furious strumming of Nuala Honan’s acoustic guitar. Alan Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas and the tumbling stream of consciousness paint the portrait of Sally’s search. Folly could so easily have been the pretentious ramblings of a self-obsessed victim of circumstance. Instead I found it to be appealing, engaging and genuine in its heartfelt need to discover an explanation for life’s vagaries. To close with a primal scream did seem unnecessary and my sympathy, so carefully elicited during Sally’s rhythmic monologue diminished my empathy but obviously released their frustration in a wail of cacophonic catharsis. For the second time today, I witnessed young performers in the throes of things to come and in the case of Sally and Nuala the genesis of a talent for theatrical intimacy.

Over four days in the sweltering Adelaide heatwave, the production team for The Bunker Trilogy slaved away to convert a warehouse space in a side street close to Adelaide’s western perimeter into a World War1 trench bunker, complete with hessian walls, dirt floor, wooden beams and a galvanized iron roof. Oppressive in its claustrophobic dust and dirt setting, the conversion provides the ideal, authentic setting for Agamemnon, the company’s reimagining of the Orestean myth. The audience sit on three sides of the small space while actors play out the drama, set during the Great War. Direct from a highly praised season at the Edinburgh Fringe, director Jethro Compton’s production is faultless in its intense recreation of the horror of this terrible war and the performances of the four actors. A wounded soldier screams in excruciating pain, attended by his private, who desperately attempts to provide relief. In his ravings, he recalls his wife at home, their loving moments of courtship and marriage, and his heart-rending decision to enlist, leaving his pregnant wife at home to fend for herself. She seeks comfort in the company of a distant cousin, with whom she plots her terrible revenge after learning of his affair with a Belgian prostitute. Upon the husband’s return, shell-shocked and tormented by his ordeal, she murders him with the aid of her lover.
Agamemnon is a powerful, intense and utterly absorbing drama. The actors draw us into their world of grim war, loving moments of tenderness and chilling conspiracy. But it is not tragedy. However horrible the motives and actions of the characters, this is not the retelling of a tragic tale. The affair with a prostitute is not a fatal flaw of a noble hero, who has done wrong in the eyes of the Gods. It is rather a tale of stained expectations, human failing and desperate consequences, and in this, this production succeeds admirably. As a theatrical experience it is without doubt a highlight of the Adelaide Fringe’s programme and deserves a five star rating. This production by some other name would have been as powerful and as stunningly performed. Let them render unto Aeschylus that which is Aeschylus, and unto Bunker Trilogy that which is Bunker trilogy. But methinks I quibble. This is a Fringe hit, and deserves to be praised as such.

Producer, Martha Lott, has taken over a bluestone house and a neighbouring church in the suburb of Thebarton, and converted them into three theatre spaces. I make my way to the Holden Street Theatres by the tram that runs from the beachside suburb of Glenelg to the Entertainment Centre on Adelaide’s outskirts to see another visiting British performer, presenting Charlotte Josephine’s one woman show about Chloe, a female boxer with aspirations to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Bitch Boxer, written by Charlotte Josephine and skilfully directed by Bryony Shanahan is a knockout, rapid punching story of Chloe, a young woman from the working class, struggling to come to terms with her father’s death, her fractious relationship with her mother who ran out one her and her Dad when she was only eleven and her relationship with an adoring Jamie, as well as the natural fears and insecurities of an athlete, determined to live up to her father’s boxing training and her own dream to win gold at the Olympics. Defining her space with talcum powder to border her square ring, Augustine launches into Chloe’s story with the thrusting jabs of fistfuls of words, rapid and loud, belting their way to the audience’s ears. Here is a performance driven by the explosive energy of her pugilistic determination. Actor Holly Augustine’s technique is precise, impressive and unfaltering in its energy. What strikes me most during the hour is the charismatic shifts of emotion as she steps from the boxer to the girlfriend to the grieving daughter and the goal-hungry athlete. There is a truth to her performance born of experience and natural talent. Bitch Boxer is engaging, endearing and entertaining. More than that is a tour de force performance by an actress whose versatility is still to be discovered, and in Snuff Box and Richard Jordan’s tightly directed production Augustine reveals the promise of a bright future on the stage. Perhaps too loud at times for the intimate black box theatre at Holden Street and too soft vocally beneath the boxing ring commentary, these are minor distractions in a performance that held the audience spellbound. 

It seemed appropriate that Bewitching Macbeth should be performed in the Meeting Room of the Adelaide City Council. Garage International are veteran visitors to Adelaide Fringe and this year director Alex Kingsford-Smith has brought the company’s dance/performance interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That is the character Macbeth: his ambition, his motives and his actions, played out with dancer Shakti on a low stage beneath the high arched beams and hanging chandeliers of the somewhat ecclesiastical Meeting Room. Leof Kingsford Smith is the tormented Macbeth, driven by desire and seduced by the power of corrupted ambition in the guise of seductress and bewitching temptress, Shakti, an Indian dance representation of the witches, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s inner monologue. In keeping with Garage International’s intention to tell the story from Macbeth’s perspective, many of the words of Lady Macbeth and other characters such as Malcolm are said by Macbeth or recorded with a male voice on voiceover. In this version of the story, Macbeth is clearly responsible for his own actions and has succumbed entirely to his own fatal flaw.
Bewitching Macbeth is at times beguiling, entrancing, and magnetically absorbing, with a strong performance from Kingsford Smith and a sinuous dance from Shakti. However, it does require a more intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. In under an hour, director Kingsford-Smith weaves the major elements of temptation and consequence into a sequence of key moments, at times confusing for anyone without a firmer knowledge of the play. My familiarity with the text allowed me to engage in the action, although the performance suffers from a repetitive pattern of action and dance. It is supported by voiceovers and rock music accompaniment, but this tends to bewilder rather than illuminate as a coherent interpretation of the play. Bewitching Macbeth is a skilfully devised and performed piece of theatre in education, ideal for performance to those with an intimate knowledge of the play or to schools studying the text and open to discussion of Macbeth’s motives and actions and the effective use of dance to represent the supernatural and psychological forces at play. For those who may not be familiar with the more detailed content of Shakespeare’s tragedy, a programme note would help to give this production context. 
Woodcourt Art Theatre is a company, chiefly made up of graduates of the University of Wollongong Performing Arts Department and making an award winning mark for itself at the Adelaide Fringe.  I was intrigued to discover that they were performing in The Coffee Pot, a venue above Rundle Mall shops in the heart of the shopping district. A narrow coffee brown, paint bespattered staircase climbs steeply to an open bar with booths and old copies of The Advertiser along the wall, recalling the Black Sunday fires of 1983. Another flight of stairs takes one to the upper level, past an open toilet and into a large room with plaster peeling walls of white and a hole in the ceiling and milk crates covered with cushions for seats. Three actors with painted white faces converse in the corner before the start of Encounter, and, as the small audience fan themselves to escape the discomfort of another hot Adelaide night, the actors leave, their conversation at an end. A short pause and one re-enters and starts the recording. It is the voice of a reporter, sitting on a park bench, when she is approached by a running man, who has been running for twenty years. This is not fiction she tells us at the start of the tape, and suddenly we are lured into a supernatural fantasy where fiction and fact, reality and illusion fuse in the reporter’s tale of the running man, with a dread of the dark, fearful of a beast, pursuing the running man, and the old man with a gun in pursuit of the beast. Gradually we are drawn into the reporter’s wildest imaginings as she methodically constructs her radio drama, her ultimate escape from the drudgery of park and gardens reporting.
In a Fringe, largely dominated by comedy acts, circus and straight drama, I found Woodcourt’s quirky science fiction horror refreshing. This was the result of fertile, creative and original imaginings. Still in its formative stage, the performance was unabashedly honest, unashamedly inspired, though not consciously necessarily, by Albee, Ionesco and the Absurdists. It is not imitative. And that is its appeal. The performers are still exploring their craft, and their performance technique, especially vocally, is not yet fully developed. However, I found myself drawn into their surreal nightmare, compelled to search for meaning in illusion in a theatre that confronted complacency and challenged the imagination. I am watching fledgling performers explore a brave new world, and that alone gives hope for the future of a theatre that dares to have its own voice.

La Bohème has established itself as a prime cabaret venue in Adelaide. Exuding the tasteful charm of the French salon cabaret with framed photographs on soft green walls, a mirror ball, chandelier and thrust catwalk stage, La Boehme promises the cabaret of the Bohemian combined with the svelte style of  honey-voiced cabaret. Bel Canto Bowie unfortunately delivers none of this. Two Italian choir girls, cutely costumed in traditional dress rebel against hymnal songs and their choirmaster and pianist’s passion for Mozart. The discovery of a David Bowie album leads them into temptation and rebellion against the old order and into the ethereal world of Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom, as they enter trance like a new communion. It’s a novel idea, poorly executed and more befitting the title Can Belto Bowie as they parody the rock legend’s songs. An audience behind me applauded enthusiastically at the close of this silly sacrilegious romp. An audience member in front of me, and I suspected, a more devoted fan of Bowie than I, and with an obvious knowledge of the songs clapped lamely and left hurriedly. Fortunately, the show was only 45 minutes long, or else I suspect she may have left much sooner. This flighty piece of foolish fluff needed ground control in the guise of good direction, disciplined acting and clever musical direction. Here is talent unfettered, allowed its shrill abandonment. ‘Tis a far far better show that they could do than suffer poor Bowie to such indiscretion.

I have been in the bar at Holden Street Theatres many times over past festivals, but this is the first time that I have seen it set up for a performance. The setting lends Splash Theatre Company’s production of an Australiana anthology of songs, poems and stories an immediate intimacy. Audiences sit on a couch and a small number of chairs to watch writer/director/performer Chris John, Singer/performer Pete Michel and musician/singer Lachy Bruce entertain in the dinky-di tradition of the woolshed entertainment. Iconic Australian set items conjure a past that now belongs more to the bush than the city. A statue of Bluey the mongrel dog watches faithfully on. There is the billycan and the wooden tea-chest, the hessian potato sacks and the bottlecap stick. For an hour, the trio entertain with poems, yarns and anecdotes, told with the laconic, wry larrikin humour of the Aussie bloke. Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson paint he poetry of the bush, a romantic nostalgic wide and open land, the envy of the city slicker and Nature’s own Paradise. John spins the tall story, Michel sings the rollicking song and Bruce plucks and strums the rhythms of the outback on the banjo and guitar. To a mainly grey-haired audience at this show I attended this was a joyful trip down memory lane to younger years when the bush promised the romance of Clancy of The Overflow, the misadventure of the Geebung Polo Club and the mateship of There’s Only The Two Of Us. Sentiment swamps the small gathering on couches at Michel’s rendition of Tenterfield Saddler, coming straight on top of his frenetic flight antics in Turbulence, and there is hope for the man on the land when the rain tumbles down on Dad ‘n Dave in July
I confess to the wave of nostalgia that swept over me, all credit to the skilful storytelling singing and playing of the mates in their akubras.   Theirs is an appeal, an easy charm and a casual cheerfulness that gently recalls a literature less familiar in a land now blessed with a rich cultural tapestry. Here is a tradition woven into the very fabric of Australian nationhood and origins, and like all cultures deserves its patch upon that embroidered history. This touring show reminds us that the past still contains the DNA of a nation’s character and seeks to preserve the spirit of a people who still shape the way we are.
Splash Theatre Company states in its programme “If we Australians don’t share these expressions of our country and our culture, who will.” It is that they do it in such an entertaining, natural and cheerful way, that their mission affirms the message and their performance the conviction. Me ‘n My Mates is feel-good, bush-spun philosophy which doesn’t take itself too seriously but does deal with the serious issue of preservation of culture.  Neither deep nor intellectual, Me ‘n My Mates has been one of the more refreshing adventures in a diverse and enjoyable Fringe.
To be continued……
Reviewer  Peter Wilkins

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