Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov adapted by Eamon Flack

Image by Julian Meagher
Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Eamon Flack. Presented by Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre Upstairs, Sydney, September 23 – November 1, 2015.

Set designer Michael Hankin; Costume designer Mel Page; Lighting designer Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound designer Steve Toulmin; Song translation Francis Merson.


Borkin – Fayssal Bazzi; Shabelsky – John Bell; Babakina – Blazey Best;
Sasha – Airlie Dodds; Gabriella – Mel Dyer; Lebedev – John Howard;
Ivanov – Ewen Leslie; Anna – Zahra Newman; Lvov – Yalin Ozucelik;
Zinaida – Helen Thomson.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

To Stanislavski, or not to Stanislavski?  That was the question.  This is not an academic exercise.  Eamon Flack did it both ways, and it works wonderfully well.

L to R: John Howard, Airlie Dodds, Blazey Best, Ewen Leslie, Helen Thomson, John Bell
Photos by Brett Boardman

Wikipedia records:

"Ivanov (Russian: Иванов: драма в четырёх действиях (Ivanov: drama in four acts)) is a four-act drama by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

"Ivanov was first performed in 1887, when Fiodor Korsh, owner of the Korsh Theatre in Moscow, commissioned Chekhov to write a comedy. Chekhov, however, responded with a four-act drama, which he wrote in ten days. Despite the success of its first performance, the production disgusted Chekhov himself. In a letter to his brother, he wrote that he "did not recognise his first remarks as my own" and that the actors "do not know their parts and talk nonsense". Irritated by this failure, Chekhov made alterations to the play. Consequently the final version is different from that first showing. After this re-write, it was accepted to be performed in St. Petersburg in 1889. Chekhov's re-write was a success and offered a foretaste for the style and themes of his subsequent masterpieces."

J.L.Styan in Modern drama in theory and practice 1 – Realism and Naturalism notes:
"The Moscow Art Theatre went on to produce the last plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), each with a structure more fragile than that of The Seagull with its comparatively conventional plotting.  These were Chekhov’s masterpieces, Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).  Whereas Stanislavsky largely developed his thinking about the art of the theatre after Chekhov’s death, it was during the production of these plays that Chekhov increased his understanding of stage realism.  He learned by experience and largely taught himself."

Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Zahra Newman as his wife Anna

Airlie Dodds as Sasha

 On the one hand, Flack has made the three central characters – Ivanov, his dying wife Anna and his almost wife Sasha – as the only ones who need a serious dose of Stanislavski.  We see how well Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman achieve realism, especially in their last moment together at the end of Act 2.  We are already aware of Airlie Dodds as her Sasha sees through her crass commercial parents, but in her speech Active love is better... in Act 3 and then her final speech when she tells the doctor Lvov exactly what she thinks of him and takes control of the situation ...It’s a beautiful day, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and I’m getting married or else... we see characterisation with clear intention and motivation as Stanislavski hoped for.

Zahra Newman as Anna, Ewen Leslie as Ivanov

Except that Ivanov is really at the end of his mental tether.  I can’t reveal the ending, especially since Chekhov, according to Flack’s Program Notes, couldn’t make up his mind on that point anyway, but I can say that by that stage I really was beginning to worry about Ewen Leslie’s state of mind.  If he was using Stanislavski’s original Method, or worse Lee Strasberg’s version (the American Method), his creation of Ivanov’s  absolutely frantic incapacity to cope might have left him in danger of becoming a Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Marlon Brando.

On the other hand, fortunately, Flack has had the good fortune to be brought up on later theatre developments, including Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, and in Sydney the Hayes Gordon technique (a practical Stanislavski in his Acting and Performing) and a large dose of the Marvellous Melbourne effect.  So these three characters are kept in check by all the others who could easily have come on board direct from The Legend of King O’Malley (by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy).  The whole group singing Advance Australia Fair in Russian language and musical style has to be the highlight of absurdity which brings the house down.  Literally in Ivanov’s mind as his country estate falls apart, in a set which includes very dodgy French doors, obviously ‘found objects’ picked up at a recycling facility.

Fayssal Bazzi as Borkin

John Bell as Shabelsky

John Howard as Lebedev, Airlie Dodds as his daughter Sasha

Mel Dyer as Gabriella (Lebedev's servant)

So Eamon Flack, with a team of the usual excellent suspects, has created a comedy-drama surely beyond anything Chekhov could have imagined.  But to the extent that Chekhov was anything like his Ivanov, always on the verge of existential self-destruction, he would have been saved from suicide if he could have known that his first complete play had been such a success 118 years later.

Chekhov actually died of tuberculosis, in a similar situation to Anna in this play, whose fate is modernised and described by Dr Lvov as a cancer which has metastisised.  Ivanov might be seen as a great memorial to add to Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya in 2010 and this year’s Platanov, an adaptation by Andrew Upton of Chekhov’s even earlier attempt at exploding the myth of upper-class social security in Russia.

Helen Thomson as Lebedev's wife Zinaida
Family photos: Lebedev, Sasha, Zinaida

Blazey Best as Babakina, Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Helen Thomson as Zinaida

And, now to end, on an economically sound note, entirely in tune with the busting-out all-over Blazey Best’s piggery-owning Babakina.  Paul Keating has a lot to answer for, I guess, as she bemoans to her best friend, Sasha’s mother  (Helen Thomson’s flower-rearranging Zinaida), Labour’s expensive, infrastructure costs go up and up ... it’s a fine line between growth and inflation ... There’s just no certainty any more ... I don’t want management costs, I’m thoroughly sick of innovation.  Efficiency dividends.  How efficient finally is a pig?....  Maybe Rod Sims and his Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be pleased to note the proper degree of competition without graft and corruption between these two producers of Anton Chekov plays.

Neither can be said to dominate the market, and quality is clearly on the rise.

And the ACCC may also like to suggest to the new Prime Minister that competition in the theatre market generally could be improved by returning $105 million to Rupert Myer AO at the Australia Council and letting that independent arms-length body also manage the international market in conjunction with the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade.

But maybe that's just me, wanting the ways of the old days never to change.  Sigh....

Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Airlie Dodds as Sasha


Book, Music and Lyrics by Amity Dry
Directed by David Lampard
Presented by Poplam Productions
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 27 September 2015

Review by Len Power 26 September 2015

‘Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life’ is one of those shows where you go along and recognize yourself as one or all of the characters onstage.  It’s about four women friends – one single and pregnant, one married with three young children, one about to get married and one in a troubled marriage.

Amity Dry, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, also performs one of the girls in the show.  The performances of all four women are excellent.  They sing well and harmonise beautifully where required.  The book gives them all meaty characters to play and they are all convincing and appealing actors.

The attractive set has been designed to be able to represent various settings easily.  The lighting plot enhances the set very nicely.  There was no program, so it’s not possible to mention who was responsible for these aspects.

David Lampard has directed the show very well, keeping it moving at a good pace with smooth transitions between scenes.

I was not impressed by the music, however.  It’s a stream of consciousness type of score, so there are no standout songs.  About halfway through the first act, every song started to sound the same.  In addition, the show is too long for what it is.  It had made its point by interval and would have been more effective with about 30 minutes cut out and played without an interval.


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Cate Clelland
Canberra Rep at Theatre 3 to 3 October

Review by Len Power 25 September 2015

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.  When the men return after a war, a battle of courtship between two couples begins.  After overcoming some problems on the way, love triumphs in the end.

Cate Clelland has set her production in an imaginary province in Australia in the 1920s.  You probably wouldn’t know that unless you read it in the program as it mostly still looks and sounds very European.  The action plays out on a beautiful garden set designed by Clelland and nicely lit by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers.  Clelland also designed the magnificent 1920s costumes.  The large cast vary in their abilities with the language but overall it’s a very strong production in all aspects.

Jim Adamik gives a commanding performance as Benedick, effective in both the comic and serious aspects of the character.  Lainie Hart gives a charismatic and beautifully controlled performance as Beatrice.  An audience member was overheard at interval saying she was so good they could imagine her playing it in London.  Other standout performances were given by Tony Turner as Leonato, Colin Milner as Antonio, Joshua Bell as Borachio and Riley Bell was a delight as Dogberry.  Vivek Sharma as Claudio and Marni Mount as Hero gave charming performances as the second set of lovers and Fraser Findlay sang beautifully as Balthasar.

The choreography by Jamie Winbank was excellent.  It was a nice touch to have Jim Adamik, who really can dance, appearing to struggle with the dance steps in the finale.

This is a fine production of one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays.

Friday, September 25, 2015

But Wait...There’s More Circus Oz

But Wait...There’s More  Circus Oz at Canberra Theatre Centre, September 23 – 26, 2015.

Musical Director: Ania Reynolds

Performers: Sam Aldham, Candy Bowers, April Dawson, Sharon Gruenert, Spenser Inwood, Nathan Kell, Derek Llewellin, Olivia Porter, Kyle Raftery

Musician: Ben Hendry  Musician & Performer: Matt Wilson

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 24

It seems a bit odd to keep calling Circus Oz ‘new circus’ after nearly 40 years.  It’s still different, though, even from any of the other ‘new’ circuses from the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil to Britain’s Okham’s Razor, and even Australia’s other company, Cirque (with an upside-down ‘i’).

I saw Circus Oz when it was brand new.  What made it different and very popular then, just as it does today in But Wait...There’s More is the combination of having a theme but turning everything into a joke.  Cirque’s recent Le Noir – the Dark Side of Cirque, for example, was a grand display with a theme expressed mainly in costume.  Circus Oz takes up its serious theme, this time of consumerism gone rampant with a parallel concern for Indigenous issues, but with a larrikin absurdist approach.

This is the Australian way, of course: never taking itself too seriously.  It grew, in Circus Oz, from the old tradition of clowns – who were funny because they always got things wrong, such as attempting to walk the high wire and seeming to fall off.  Only later did you realise that to do this was even more skilful than not falling off.  The other thing the old clowns did was to play music, again often out of tune but again showing top musicianship to be deliberately funny.

As I recall the trapeze artist ‘accidentally’ letting go and flying sort-of horizontally until hitting the wall in a spreadeagled splat, and the slightly wild jazz band of the early days, I see that Circus Oz performers are all clowns, and great musicians.  This is their ‘new’ tradition.  And it still works so well because it taps into the best thing about being Australian. 

In fact we need Circus Oz even more now, considering our national political history of the last 25 years or so.  Bob Hawke was the last of the larrikin prime ministers, unless you want to see Tony Abbott as a clown on his bike in his budgie smugglers.  Everyone’s a clown in Circus Oz.  They just reflect our society.

Though it’s completely unfair to pick one performer out above any other, since everyone is brilliant in their own way, the consumerism theme is led by a character played by the contortionist Matt Wilson.  He does the acting so well that you won’t believe it when you see him lose an arm and a leg, and finally everything before your very eyes.  And don’t close your eyes for the amazing trapeze sequence, although you’ll want to when you’ve seen the first near miss.  It just gets better and better, until if you’re like me you’ll feel completely exhausted by the end of the show.

Excited and exhausted.  Just as I felt at the end of the great old circuses of my childhood.  If Circus Oz can do that for this ancient septuagenarian, it’s no joke, I can tell you.  Just very very funny, and occasionally scary.  And very very worthwhile.

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

L to R: Charlie Cousins, Andrea Demetriades, Mitchell Butel
as Sergius, Raina and Bluntschli
in Arms and the Man

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Richard Cottrell; set designer – Michael Scott-Mitchell; costume designer – Julie Lynch; lighting by Damien Cooper; sound by Jeremy Silver.  At Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, September 18 – October 31, 2015.

Nicola – Brandon Burke
Captain Bluntschli – Mitchell Butel
Major Sergius Saranoff – Charlie Cousins
Raina Petkoff – Andrea Demetriades
Catherine Petkoff – Deborah Kennedy
Russian Soldier – Jason Kos
Louka – Olivia Rose
Major Paul Petkoff -  William Zappa

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

 “What a man!”  So says Sergius, and so said all of us at the curtain call.  But Sergius, being Sergius, inevitably must say one more line: “Is he a man?”. 

Our praise was not only for the wonderful cast, a director who understood how they should be directed, and set, costumes, sound and lighting designers who knew how to make all the author’s stage directions work, but also especially for George Bernard Shaw.  What a perfect performance, say I.

The musical introductions and interludes were jaunty as they should be for this humorous take on the Bulgaria / Serbia war of 1885, but the pièce de resistance in sound was not flagged by Shaw, despite his always extensive directions: a short “ta da” trumpet voluntary before the line “What a man!” and again before “Is he a man?” rang out a different note. 

The effect was brilliant, lifting the ending out of a quieter sense of wonderment, which almost makes Sergius seem sensible at last, up to a very funny but much more significant glorious celebration of integrity in love – of Bluntschli and Raina, and of Louka and Sergius himself – as the key to understanding the play.

In my own directing of Arms and the Man (many years ago for the amateur Wyong Drama Group ) I had taken the quieter way.  Cottrell takes the much more daring leap.  What an ending was here – two great bursts of laughter and instant applause.  And what a lift for the cast after their two hours’ traffic upon the stage.  Their hard work, so detailed as it has to be to satisfy the demands of Shaw’s text, received the reward it deserved, with a great sense of rapport between us and them as they bowed.

Yet neither ending quite answers the question, what did Shaw mean by his very last line?  My ending had placed the emphasis on “he”.  “Is he a man?”  At the time I saw this as a simple re-emphasis of the line before: “ What a man!”

Cottrell’s ending seemed to say, more evenly stressed but possibly asking, “Is he a man?”  This raises a more extensive question: What does it mean to be a man?

This question makes the play, in its historical context, more interesting, I think, than my simpler ending.  And more relevant to a modern audience.  And it explains something about why, as the Program mentions in an essay by Diane Stubbings Debunking Military Glory: Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’, the audience at the first production was confused as well as amused.

My interpretation would still be confusing to the many who still believe that there is reason and justification for warfare, always boosted by romantic nationalism.  Sergius in the end sees Bluntschli and the whole circumstances in a new light, where principled political decision-making, competent organisation and serious negotiation  avoids people being killed.  In my day I was as strongly influenced as I suspect Shaw was by Carl von Clausewitz’s 1832 On War (translated and published in London in 1873), not only for the well-known quote that “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, but also for his dictum that it was each commander’s central task, whichever side he was on, to reduce their own casualties to the absolute minimum.  This underlies Bluntschli’s horror at the stupidity of Sergius in leading his Bulgarian cavalry charge against machine guns (and the incompetence of the Serbian side in supplying the wrong ammunition).  Logically this leads to not only running away (as Bluntschli describes so well)  but also to commanders arranging peace negotiations as soon as they can get the politicians out of their hair.

As a polemical play against warfare, Arms and the Man still stands up tall and strong.  Using real events of his time, Shaw created a metaphor which we can still see being played out in the Middle East today, as it was in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia and Rwanda and so on.

But is this all that Shaw was concerned about?  The other interpretation of the line “Is he a man?” takes on a very different thread that Shaw followed through many of his plays – and took him close to ethical disaster in the time of Herr Hitler.  Picking up on the, admittedly schizoid, philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly as expressed in his 1883 poetic work Thus Spake Zarathustra, first translated into English in 1896, (just after Arms and the Man was written), Shaw became fascinated by the idea of the Ubermensch.  Through later plays, particularly in Major Barbara, Man and Superman, Back to Methusaleh, Saint Joan and the much later The Applecart, the idea took hold that a “beyond-man” could evolve and look down upon the ordinary man of our day (as Zarathustra does from his isolated mountain-top) and see our crude behaviour in much the same way as we may look down upon the behaviour of our evolutionary predecessors.  Though the plays remain comedies, Shaw’s attraction to mystical ideas like “Life Force” and “Creative Evolution” was real enough.  (See Bernard Shaw as Artist-Philosopher: an exposition of Shavianism by Renée M. Deacon: London 1910 if you want to read more.)

It was unfortunate that, for a while, it was possible to think that Hitler could be in the line of Bluntschli, Adolphus Cusins, Jack Tanner, Lilith, Joan, or even Magnus, the King in The Applecart (1930) who proposes to stand for election against his own Prime Minister.  That thought became unthinkable as Hitler proved that being elected could be a useful way of establishing insane absolute power.  Shaw’s comedy was turned on its head by anything but a “superman”.

I felt, in watching Richard Cottrell’s Arms and the Man that he has achieved in those last two lines something near to Shaw’s heart, as recalled in Diane Stubbings’ essay: “You are wrong to scorn farcical comedy.  It is by jingling the bells of a jester’s cap that I […] have made people listen to me.  All genuine intellectual work is humorous.”

Being intellectual doesn’t mean always being right, but in Shaw’s case it certainly meant having the wit to be very funny.  I thank all the cast, crew and director for having their wits about them to match. 
Photos by Heidrun Lohr
Andrea Demetriades as Raina, Mitchell Butel as Bluntschli

Andrea Demetriades (Raina), Deborah Kennedy (Raina's mother Catherine Petkoff)
and Mitchell Butel (Bluntschli)

Andrea Demetriades (Raina) and Charlie Cousins (Sergius)

Andrea Demetriades (Raina) and Mitchell Butel (Bluntschli)

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Circus Oz - But Wait There's More.

Directed by Mike Finch. Designed by Felipe Reynolds. Costumes Laurel Frank Lighting by Paul Jackson. Sound Engineer David Swinton. Circus Oz. Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until September 26.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

During the past thirty seven years, Circus Oz has performed in twenty seven countries to four million people. I remember seeing a performance in Elder Park on the banks of Adelaide’s River Torrens by the Adelaide Festival Centre. The fledgling, enthusiastic, agile and energetic troupe already showed the trademark qualities of strength, stamina and flexibility that underpinned their acrobatic and gymnastic talents. However, what set them apart and continues to set them apart from traditional circuses, such as the Ashton’s Circus or the highly sophisticated and spectacular Cirque de Soleil is their unaffected humour,  heartwarming appeal and totally unpretentious attitude to their art. But don’t be fooled. The simple grass-roots troupe that I saw in the early Eighties have developed into a brilliantly inventive, highly skilled, dexterous and imaginative troupe of circus performers, whose appeal lies not only in their technical expertise, although this is formidable, but also in their brilliant imagination and inventive, fresh and new approach to the magical world of circus.

After a successful tour of America and Canada, Circus Oz returns to Australia and the Canberra Theatre with But Wait There’s More, a tantalizing, top-notch bargain bursting show-bag of specials, including  comical clowning, body balancing, aerial acrobatics, eye-popping illusions, hoop-leaping gymnastics and gravity defying unicycling. Throughout a brilliant energy charged band of musicians upped the tempo, elevated the excitement and strung along the moments of suspense.

Circus celebrates the art of surprise and suspense. Audiences crane forward or sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation. Young children bounce up and down in their seats or sit transfixed by the sheer skill of the performer. They are all waiting for the mistake – the fall, the trip, the missed trapeze, the dropped juggling baton. Danger shadows the artist, scorning the interminable hours of practice, the inevitable mistakes and the risks. Circus Oz knows the dangers. They take the risks and they colour the familiar circus acts with an original, fun-loving showmanship that amazes and delights. Mistakes, on the very rare occasions that they may occur, are acknowledged and the act is repeated with flair, invariably succeeding on the second attempt

Throughout the performance,  members of the troupe exude an infectious sense of fun. As the audience enters, they are met by artists, dancing in the aisles, clambering over the seats, greeting and warming up the audience. Singer/Emcee, Candy Bowers, draws the audience in with her effervescent enthusiasm. Matt Wilson picks up the narration and turns on the second half with his show stopping But Wait There’s More, surrounded by the ensemble in bar code costumes and clown heads. Everything in this production shines with originality. Ironically, the show is set within a monolithic arch from a Victorian adventure into wild, primitive lands. Wilson, with his handlebar moustache and body clinging singlet and tights recalls the acrobatics of the Victorian age.  The humour, however, is contemporary and good-natured cheekinesss

Too many acts to mention or moments to applaud, it is worth mentioning the breath-taking unicycle act, while balancing a performer in the arms. Or the clever clown routine with boxes, the hoop-diving routines and the smoke ring leaping sequence.  The baton juggling is a feat of incredible precision and Olivia Porter’s ball balancing and juggling routine is miraculously  skilled. 

Circus Oz, after lampooning the hard-sell harangue of the hungry retailer, close their show with a stylish, sculptural balancing composition that atmospherically morphs into a curtain call. It is a gentle conclusion to a stunning and startling show of phenomenal expertise and vibrant theatricality.  There is no glossy artifice; no manipulative spectacle, no sideshow trickery. The appeal of But Wait There’s More is its unadorned  talent, its ingenious theatrical imagination and its ebullient sense of fun. You will be amazed, delighted and filled with the joy of child-like wonder. Don’t miss this world-renowned and unique circus troupe when they come to town.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Wharf Revue 2015 - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

A week is a long time in politics, so the saying goes.  But even a day can be an eternity, especially when your trade is political humour.  On Tuesday night the question before the audience of this year’s Wharf Revue was how well they would adapt their material to the leadership spill that ousted Tony Abbott as Prime Minister only 24 hours before.

The answer is: “extremely well”.  Partly through good planning (this year’s show had a retrospective theme, so contemporary material was less important) and partly through impressive improvisation, the crew delivered a seamless show, even managing to provide a sketch on the previous day’s events.  “Les Liberables” set the leadership tussle between Abbott, Bishop and Turnbull to passionate tunes from Les Mis.  This was in fact Tony Abbott’s only appearance in the show – out of power for a day and already reduced to a footnote.

Whatever jokes about onions had been planned will forever be a mystery to the Canberra audience, but even this brief appearance was spot-on.  The comic highlight of the night was Tony Abbott getting unstuck in his song and blanking on what to say next for the famous 28 seconds.  When he did speak he reminded us, of course, that he had stopped the boats.  As though we could ever forget.  But more subtle and more savage was the appearance of a leather jacket-sporting Malcolm Turnbull, who gave a stirring encomium on his endless personal virtues before wrapping himself up in robes of state and marching offstage with the dignity of a King.

As the theme was a celebration of 15 years of the Wharf Revue, this year’s performance often had the feel of a greatest hits compilation.  The show opened on a wobbly note with a parody of Geoffrey Robertson – hardly timely satire.  But it hit its stride with the first full sketch, a look at the final days of the Howard Government imagined as Hitler fuming in his bunker.  Alexander Downer, Paul Keating, and of course the Kevin and Julia double act all came out of retirement for lengthy sketches.  More recent figures of fun like Jacqui Lambie and Christopher Pyne were given their moment to shine, but the real love was lavished on the great impersonations that dominated previous shows.  Their Paul Keating in particular is always a delight.

This year’s Revue also tilted towards the artistic side, with Julia Gillard’s heritage prompting a remix of Under Milkwood, the QANTAS CEO giving an appropriately Joycean oration, and in the show’s climax a devoted recreation of The Goon Show.  Music also felt more important to the show than in previous years, with not only Les Mis but Phantom of the Opera getting a medley: Rudd Never Dies.  No matter how many times you stab it in the back.

More than previous years this Wharf Revue felt like a labour of love, a reminiscence on past successes.  As recent events have shown, politics marches inexorably on.  Howard, Keating, and Rudd are comic figures not just of their day, but for all time, and this year's Revue takes us down memory lane for welcome reunions with those old friends.  Tony Abbott, on the other hand, they seem only too glad to be done with.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life

Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life by Amity Dry.  Presented by Popjam Productions at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre.  Book, music and lyrics by Amity Dry; music and arrangements by Mark Simeon Ferguson; directed and designed by David Lampard; lighting by Daniel Barber.  September 15-27, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 16


Kate – Amity Dry, Bec – Nikki Aitken, Jessie – Rachel McCall, Lily – Susan Ferguson

Bass – Alana Dawes, Piano – Brenton Foster, Drums – Jarrad Payne

This is a women’s play about women’s business – being mothers and wives.  Kate, Bec, Jessie and Lily learn as they go along, and teach us through humour and empathy, in talk and song, that girls’ expectations of a ‘perfect’ life are simply not realistic.  But, as their final song says, that does not mean that life isn’t ‘worth it’.

Quite the opposite, in fact.  The show ends in a celebration of recognising that freedom from those false expectations is what makes life worthwhile.  A woman, and only  a woman, has babies, and no amount of information can prepare her for the unknown.  Only she can have this experience.  Only she can know how she feels and what it means to go through the pain, the fear, the determination and strength not only of the physical birth but of being a mother for her children, at the same time as being in a continuing relationship as a wife and as well as playing her part in the wider world – and satisfying her own need for personal growth.  Only she can know love – and know when love is missing – from a woman’s point of view.

The bravery, the directness, and the skills as performers of these women, made this father (and husband of nearly 50 years’ standing) a humble observer on several fronts. 

I thought they were far more brave than I would have dared to be, in my 30s as they are now, to write so honestly of the details of sex and marriage.  It seemed to me that there must be a great deal of personal experience in the writing of the dialogue and the lyrics of the songs, which in the past would have been kept private.  But, maybe, and I hope this is true, generations after mine have become much more open about such matters.

Other shows, of course, seem to have been similarly public in this way – Menopause, the Musical is the obvious comparison.  But I think that show squibbed the basic underlying truth by emphasising comedy at the expense of the ‘Complicated Life’.  These women laugh, in many of their songs, at the contrasts and absurdities that arise in their experiences, but the fears caused by the one-night stand for Kate and the breakdown of her marriage for Lily produce serious and thoroughly affecting talk and song.  Amity Dry has written a work of genuine depth, balancing the theatrical value of humour with the emotional value of truth.

Finding, as a writer, a way to satisfactorily conclude the slice of these characters’ lives was perhaps the only point where Dry had to bend reality a little.  Before her one-night stand and definitely unplanned pregnancy, Kate had tickets to Paris which she could not recoup in the circumstances.  She offers these (by now many months later) to persuade Lily to take the trip to rebuild her confidence after her marriage and life running a restaurant had fallen apart permanently.  Though, perhaps, a too-neat ending, it made a strong point about the importance of the bonds between the group of women.

For me, on the second night of the run here in Queanbeyan, it was odd that there were hardly any men in the audience.  Though women were clearly delighted that their ‘business’ was so energetically and realistically presented on stage, I think it is equally important for men to come to realise that women really are essentially different.  Though I have experienced  being present at my child’s birth, that can never equal my wife’s and daughters' complicated lives.

And the weird thing, for those men who still see feminism as a nasty plot against men’s rights, is that they will find themselves laughing most of the time and at the end will be nodding in agreement with the common sense.  Take the ticket to Paris, Lily.  Even Paris won’t be perfect, but sure enough it will be worth the trip.

Like the trip to see Mother, Wife and the Complicated Life.

Susan Ferguson, Amity Dry, Nikki Aitken, Rachel McCall
Lily, Kate, Bec, Jessie

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Wharf Revue: Celebrating 15 Years

Rehearsal photos: Hon Boey

The Wharf Revue: Celebrating 15 Years by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, with Amanda Bishop.  Music director: Phillip Scott; Lighting by Matthew Marshall; Sound and Video by David Bergman.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, September 15 – 26, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 15

I’ve become so used to the annual Wharf Revue that I felt as though I’ve seen every show, but my reviews go back only to when Julia, despite Kevin’s avowed love for her in the guise of the Phantom of the Opera, stabbed him in the back to make really sure he would never rise again.  That was 2011.

In 2015, this scene was recycled in Celebrating 15 Years.  After a minute’s silence, while apparently slumped dead at the piano, one of Kevin’s hands creepily crept around the side, white against the shiny black surface.  Then the other began to crawl, climbing up off the keyboard and over the top.  “But the Phantom never dies” – we all know what happened, and what resulted in the 2013 election.

Phillip Scott and Amanda Bishop
in rehearsal as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (about to stab the Phantom)

And, even more creepy according to your viewpoint, on this very day after the historic Liberal Party Room vote on Monday night, September 14, 2015 – “When the ‘Canberra games’ turned lethal”, to quote a Canberra Times headline (by James Massola and Tom Allard, September 16, 2015), The Wharf Revue team had to add a new ending to their history of theatre and politics.  Malcolm Turnbull has done a Kevin Rudd, with Julie Bishop holding the knife which has left Tony Abbott “dead, buried and cremated”.  Malcolm gloriously swans off, wrapped in the backdrop as if in the Australian flag.

The writing and the performances are as incisive and funny as ever – and as necessary to the Australian cultural scene as David Pope’s cartoons.  In the Canberra Times, (Times Two, September 16: ) we see Pope’s satirical metaphor: Turnbull, looking like some kind of cockatoo, has stolen Abbott’s traditional ‘budgie-smuggler’ swimmers, leaving the ex-PM fuming naked on the beach, while everything is recorded by the Press in the form of seagulls.  Turnbull, is screeching (as sulphur-crested cockatoos habitually do) “Free at Last! Free at Last!”, but his feet are entangled in the budgie-smugglers, labelled ‘Liberal Right’.  The smile on Turnbull’s face (which has been in every photo opportunity since Monday night’s vote) is already looking rather haunted.  Maybe he is not so free to be a small-l Liberal while still hamstrung by the Tea-Party types of the Liberal Right.

The artistically equivalent scenes in The Wharf Revue which were, I think, the best written, concerned the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Qantas, Irishman Alan Joyce, and Welsh-born one-time Prime Minister Julia Gillard (famous for her ‘misogyny’ speech against then Opposition leader Tony Abbott). 

Alan Joyce becomes the writer of Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce, performed magnificently by Drew Forsythe in an amazing speech about the modern airline industry with all of the twist and turns of Finnegan’s thoughts and language, exaggerated for an even greater comic – and satirical – effect than the original James Joyce achieved.

The Welsh connection turned Julia Gillard’s life into Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, played almost exactly as the original performance of that play was done on stage at the YMHA Poetry Centre on May 14, 1953.  The actors stood still, as they had then, being just ‘voices’ of all those characters, except that they formed into a quartet for Drew Forsythe to step forward briefly as the Reverend Eli Jenkins – as Dylan Thomas himself had done – and to end in a kind of hymn.  I still have that original recording (Philips B 94022 L / B 94023 L: 2 12inch LP records) and it was a goosebump moment to watch The Wharf Revue team play their wonderful satirical version.

Having now played out their first 15 year history, next year will be even more fascinating to watch, as it will probably be at about the same time as the next Federal election.  What will happen to Malcolm Turnbull and Labor’s Bill Shorten between now and then?

Don’t miss this year (if you don’t make it to Canberra by September 26, you can pick it up at Wharf 1 in Sydney from October 20 to December 19), and look forward to election year 2016 full of excitement.  Just be careful not to fall off the wharf into Sydney harbour as the famous human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson appears to do in the introduction to The Wharf Revue, Celebrating 15 Years.

LtoR: Phillip Scott, Drew Forsythe, Jonathan Biggins, Amanda Bishop
in rehearsal (Under Milk Wood  'quartet' scene)