Monday, January 30, 2017


Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Nicholas Christo
Choreographed by Kelley Abbey
Presented by David H.Hawkins
Hayes Theatre, Sydney until 5th March 2017.
Athenaeum Theatre Melbourne from 1st May 2017

Performance on 19th January reviewed by Bill Stephens OAM

The cast of  the David Hawkins production of "Cabaret"

Continuing in the long line of inventive small scale reworking’s of classic musicals at The Hayes Theatre, David Hawkins’s new production of the Kander and Ebb musical “Cabaret” is nothing short of brilliant. For those who only know the show from the Liza Minnelli film, this production will be quite a revelation … and all the better for that.

This production subtly refocuses the spotlight on the journey of the Cliff Bradshaw character, rather than Sally Bowles, revealing a whole new set of possibilities, of which director, Nicholas Christo and choreographer, Kelley Abbey, take full advantage. It also returns the show closer to the original Christopher Isherwood stories which inspired it.

An explosive combination of impeccable casting, imaginative staging, red hot choreography and a sizzling band, has produced a fire-cracker production which had the audience at this performance screaming for more.

Paul Capsis as The Emcee 

Heading the all-star ensemble cast, Paul Capsis, as The Emcee, is completely mesmerising, offering one of his most unforgettable creations. Preposterous makeup, oozing decadence from every pore, and all the charm of a snake, he completely  owns the stage, defying the audience to tear its eyes away from him as he struts and flirts outrageously.

With her flaming red hair, creamy white skin and long show-girl legs, Chelsea Gibb not only looks stunning, but is remarkably affecting, as the lovable, silly, doomed cabaret singer, Sally Bowles. The realisation of what she has lost, and the inevitable fate that awaits her, is strikingly portrayed in her sensational interpretation of the title song, which provides a brilliant high-point in the show.

The first person, and the last, you see in the show, is Cliff Bradshaw, arriving and departing Berlin. Bradshaw is charmingly portrayed with an air of bemused detachment, and a fine singing voice, by handsome Jason Kos.  At first, curious but uncommitted, he willingly submits to the temptations proffered, but finally flees the city, without Sally, when he can no longer cope with the results of his profligacy.

Cliff and Sally join The Emcee in the Kit Kat Klub for clever new staging of   “Two Ladies”, “The Money Song” and “Sitting Pretty”, moving more of the focus on to them without detracting from the Emcee.

Chelsea Gibb as Sally Bowles 

Stylish performances from Debra Krizak as Fraulein Kost, Marcus Graham as the manipulative Ernst Ludwig, Kate Fitzpatrick , heartbreakingly defiant as Fraulein Schneider, wringing  every ounce of pathos and almost stopping the show with her performance of “What Would You Do? “,  and John O’May, touchingly bewildered as Herr Schultz, add  considerable gloss and star power to an already classy production.

The rest of the cast is made up of triple threats, Michelle Barr, Michelle Smitheram, Nick Jones and newcomer, Matthew Manahan, who makes an eye-catching entrance playing a young German, Rudy. Everybody doubles in small roles, giving the impression that the cast is much larger than it actually is, an impression enhanced by the full-throated vocals, lightning fast costume changes, and dazzling dancing.

Lindsay Partridge leads the terrific band tucked in behind James Browne’s witty costumes, and atmospheric setting which includes members of the audience seated at tables, and which transforms seamlessly from decadent cabaret room to run-down boarding house at the blink of an eye. Members of the cast efficiently take care of necessary props as they enter and leave the stage. No hiding mischievous Andrew Worboys however, popping onstage with his accordion, just to prove that even the orchestra is beautiful.

This production is destined to become the hot ticket wherever it’s playing. Don’t miss out; get yourself a ticket while there are still some available.  

This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Still Life (Sydney Festival)

Still Life by Dimitris Papaioannou (Greece – Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens) at Carriageworks Bay 17, January 27-29, 2017.

Visual Concept, Direction, Costume and Lighting Design – Dimitris Papaioannou
Sculpture Design and Set Painting – Nectarios Dionysatos; Sound Composition – Giwrgos Poulios

Performers: Kalliopi Simou; Pavlina Andriopoulou; Prokopis Agathokleous; Drossos Skotis; Michalis Theophanous; Costas Chrysafidis; Dimitris Papaioannou.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 28

Still Life: figure of Sisyphus
Going to the theatre, at least at Carriageworks, can be an emotional risk.  As I sat down in the 30+ degrees of the huge ex-railway workshop to think about Still Life, my mood was not helped when I overheard a terribly enthusiastic conversation involving a woman toting a laptop and headset, who may have been (or not) a party to this production – like Stage Manager, perhaps.  She wore a large transparent plastic earring inscribed with the words (at least on the side I could see) in pretty cursive script:  Fuck off.

Is this Life, still?  What sort of Life is this, anyway?

So, shocked out of my almost anger at what seemed another imported pretentious European bit of ‘high art’, about which I didn't dare interview this woman, I began to think a bit more rationally about this very Still Life, with it’s long, highly-interminably long, sequences.   Should I describe a bit, then analyse; or just let my feelings go?

It was like watching an early silent movie in slow motion.  You remain watching as an outsider because there's little to see which engages you, especially at this speed – just an occasional visual joke for a bit of a giggle.  So you keep watching, just in case.  But the several scenes have no reason to be connected together, at least as far as I could work out.

Well, after the end, on the long weekend train ride from Redfern to North Ryde, I imagined some possible meanings….but here’s what happened.

We weren’t allowed in until starting time, so didn’t realise that the man seated on the stage in a low spotlight, watching us, was performing.  I thought maybe he would remind us to switch off our mobiles.  Then, just as we were all settled (the large Bay 17 was about two thirds full), someone marched across the stage and performed an old circus clown’s trick.  He snatched the chair from under the seated man – who, of course, remained seated exactly as before, but without the chair.  This event had no connection to anything else that happened for the next hour and a half.

I had read the program, which seemed to say that the work was based on the Sisyphus myth – about the man condemned to pushing shit uphill forever.  So I thought I knew what the next scene was about, as a man dragged what turned out to be a wall, coated with bits of plaster which kept falling off, all the way from upstage centre to downstage centre.  He rested, holding up the leaning wall against his back – until it fell onto him and he began to bodily break through, by which time we realised that there was another man (or two) behind the wall.

Still Life: the women breaking through the plaster wall
Bits of the other man came through to the front, intertwined with bits of our original man, until it was hard to know which bit was which.  This sequence developed when a woman came through from behind, as bits of her undressed bits of the front man and re-dressed his in women’s gear.  This inter-twining looked as though it might go somewhere story-wise, especially when the two women broke through, but was so deliberately slowly done that it stopped being funny – but never became anything else.

I did start to think about women breaking through the glass ceiling, even though this was a plaster wall, but in the end the last man (or it may have been a woman) standing dragged the wall away, and that was that.
Still Life: Woman in the Wind

The next scene was a woman behind a transparent flexible pane, downstage centre. (Aha, I began to think – a glass wall, if not a ceiling).  But no.  Men came down, stood behind her and shook the flexible pane to make her long flowing dress shake about as if in a wind.  Each man moved her a little way upstage, and after a very long time when she reach fully upstage, she picked up the pane as the spotlight went off, and she went off.  And that was that.

After this were several more scenes: a man carrying and dropping rocks (which really did seem heavy, or was it just a sound track that made them loud when they hit the floor?).  Aha, I thought, here's good old Sisyphus.  But he just came and went, leaving bits of rock all over the place.  And that was that.

Up to now all the men had been dressed in suits, but next was a workman with a long-handled spade – which got used in other scenes from here on.  This man shovelled his own feet in a deft manoeuvre to keep walking towards downstage, and behind him was a woman carrying rocks (a bit smaller than in the previous scene), which she dropped one by one until suddenly dropping them all at once, so he had to shovel them aside. Apparently he was very sexy, so she dropped his daks and underpants so we saw his bare backside.  He leaned forward (facing upstage) while she climbed up (in bare feet) and balanced (she actually fell off first time – in the act, or not?) and so he carried her on his bare bum, oh so slowly, back upstage until they disappeared. And that was that.

That looked like the end of anything obviously to do with Sisyphus.  For the next very long time people (back in suits, I think) found the ends of very long strips of gaff tape stuck to the wooden stage floor, which made fingers-down-the-blackboard type noises with deeper echoes because the floor was made of hollow rostra boxes, as they spent a very long time ripping all these strips from straight and circular lines, knocking away bits of plaster and rocks as they went.  When that was finished, then that was that.

Then a man in a suit, with some help from another one, managed to balance on things like rather large bricks.  He was good, but when that was done, that was that. 

Still Life: Sunrise with Shovel

But then the shovel got used to push up as far as it could reach into the lower surface of the translucent huge balloon-like structure which had been hanging all the time from the stage roof, with dry ice mist making it look like a cloud.  When the bottom was pushed up, and a large circular Fresnel lamp lit up from upstage pointing just about horizontally at me in Row N, the whole filmy material floated, giving an impression very much like a sunset over water with a more orange light, and while the shovel man (in a suit, not a workman) and another sat down to watch on the stage (with their backs to us), the light changed and became a sunrise.

Visually, the effect was wonderful, but when it finished, that was that.  Until out of upstage gloom came a fully set-for-a-sumptuous-lunch table, moving very slowly downstage especially because the bottom of each leg was placed on the top of a man’s head – no hands (except that some changed, like soccer players coming on from the bench, and hands were used to make the transition).

This table was carried off the stage onto the auditorium floor, at which point chairs appeared and all the cast sat down to eat.  The audience was not invited – in fact we were completely ignored.  So a number of people decided this was the end and started leaving the theatre.  There was a little more action, but nothing significant, and so the audience decided it was time to clap.  So the performers got up and left via the stage wings, lights went down, we clapped more and the cast came out for a conventional ‘curtain’.

And that was that.

In my later wondering, I went back to the program.  It quotes Albert Camus referring to the Sisyphus myth, saying “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Then I thought, remembering the broken paving in the streets of a very poor-looking Athens when I was last there, perhaps all those broken rocks and plaster walls are meant to represent the Greek economy.  But then is the sumptuous lunch supposed to mean, like Camus’ Sisyphus, just be happy.  Or was the lunch entirely cynical, saying it’s OK for those who can afford lunch, and don’t pay their income tax, but be damned to the rest of the Sysiphuses, men and women, struggling forever with their rocks, walls and gaff tape.

The program also refers to Dimitris Papaioannou as “Rooted firmly in the fine arts” and becoming “more widely known as the creator of the Athens 2004 Olympic Ceremonies”.  So that’s that, then.  I wonder.


Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Choreography by Marius Petipa

Production and additional choreography by David McAllister

The Australian Ballet

Canberra Theatre Centre January 21st – 24th 2017

Performance on 22nd January reviewed by Bill Stephens

Continuing its delightful series of fairy-tale ballets for children, which began last year with “The Sleeping Beauty”, The Australian Ballet has this year produced an even more appropriate ballet, “The Nutcracker”. Designed to introduce children as young as three to the world of classical ballet, both ballets have been artfully scaled down to a running time of around 50 minutes, and presented with a narration which explains the story as the ballet progresses. Many grandmas and grandads also found this narration surprisingly informative.  Included is just enough judicious audience participation to keep the young target audience thoroughly engaged, without interrupting the integrity of the ballet.

Edward Smith (Prince) Chantelle van der Hoek (Clara)
The experience commences right at the doors of the theatre, as dozens of excited young princes, princesses and ballerina’s arrive, and kit up with magic wands and jewelled tiaras from the merchandise shop. Some even manage to contain their excitement long enough to ooh and ah over the display of historical costumes worn by famous dancers in past Australian Ballet productions.

For the Storytime Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty” the company used existing costumes and set-pieces from previous productions, but for “The Nutcracker”, brand new costumes,  and an impressive setting, were designed by Krystal Giddings, who has used this production to try out some ideas she has for a full scale version of this work in 2018.

Down with the lights, and out with the wands, as the young audience is transported to a Christmas party at which Dr.  Drosselmeyer (Sean McGrath) is entertaining some rather naughty kids, with some clever magic tricks.

Drosselmeyer addresses the audience directly, to thank them for being at the party and invites them to help him make magic by waving their wands when he says the magic word.  He also explains the purpose of the Nutcracker doll which he presents to Clara (sweetly danced by Chantelle van der Hoek) who gets upset when one of the boys snatches the doll from her and breaks it.  Not to worry, Drosselmeyer puts a bandage on the nutcracker doll, waves the magic wand, and it’s fixed.

Chantelle van der Hoek (Clara) Sean McGrath (Drosselmeyer) Jack Gibbs (party guest) 

When the party is over and all the guests leave, Clara falls asleep, then the nutcracker doll transforms into a handsome prince who invites Clara and Drosselmeyer to travel with him to a magical world where they are entertained by dancing sweets, and saved from some villainous rates by the prince and his toy soldiers.

What is so impressive about this production is how beautifully it is danced. David McAllister has retained the Petipa choreography,  but adapted it where necessary, omitting some of the longer, slower dances including the Pas de Deux, Waltz of the Flowers and Arabian Dance,  in favour of the more energetic numbers, to compress the ballet into one act.

An important aspect of the Storytime Ballet is the opportunity it offers for performance experience for the Australian Ballet’s  young emerging dancers, so all the dancers work as an ensemble taking on different roles at different performances.

Kelsey Stokes,(Columbine) Lucien Xu (Harlequin)

At this performance, Chantelle van der Hoek was quite enchanting as Clara. Lucien Xu was a dashing Nutcracker Prince. Saranja Crowe stood out with her eye-catching performance as the Spanish Dancer.  Kelsey Stokes, costumed unusually in a lovely plum-coloured tutu, was every little girl’s fantasy, in a faultlessly executed performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo. The three Mirlitons in their striped stockings looked spectacular, as did the Harlequin and Columbine.

With every member of the cast dancing with accuracy and confidence and so totally engaged in their roles, the disappointment among the young capacity audience of budding young ballet dancers, at the realisation that this performance was about to end, when the Prince lifted Clara high above his head in the final ensemble number, was palpable.

 Judging from the excited babble and energetic pirouettes in the foyer after the performance it was obvious that this performance had certainly whetted the appetite of its target audience, and wild horses won’t keep them away when the next production of Storytime Ballet comes to town.

Audience member and possible future ballerina after the performance 

                                                   Photos by Jeff Busby

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.


Paradise Lost. 

Adapted and performed by Christopher Samuel Carroll. Bare Witness Theatre Company. Belconnen Arts Centre. January 26-28 2017.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost. Photo by Richard Lennon
 Christopher Samuel Carroll is the master of the solo performance. His recent performance at Smith’s Bookshop introduced audiences to Victorian cartographer, adventurer and raconteur Benedict Cooper Sullivan. For his latest venture into the challenging and often confronting realm of solo theatrical performance, Carroll mounts the gargantuan task of adapting John Milton’s epic seventeenth century masterpiece, Paradise Lost. Written in twelve books of blank verse, Milton’s monumental poem traces the story of Lucifer’s fall from grace into Chaos, his summoning of the legions of fallen angels to wage war upon God, and his eventual vengeful seduction of Eve culminating in the eviction of Adam and Eve from their lost Paradise in the Garden of Eden.
In a performance lasting a mere hour, Carroll’s remarkable talent shines through. Alone on the stage, dressed only in a loin cloth to mask his genitals and with shaven head, Carroll assumes the essence of Butoh to strip bare all vestige of the civilized being and render homage to the rolling language of Milton’s mesmerizing verse. As he recounts the events  of Satan’s quest for initial redemption and ultimate revenge, lithe sinews contort, twist and turn, conjuring characters and transforming the verse into the skilful utterance of the poem’s biblical characters. The art of Butoh, born of Japan’s struggle for identity, following the occupation of Macarthur in the wake of the nation’s terrible defeat, reveals the struggle to overcome oppression. Daubed in a chalk-white body wash, the sinewy limbs soar like threatening gargoyles of the air or slither serpentine . Limbs twist into the luring temptation of Satan’s silvery tongue or sensually descend with lustful guile. The dance of Butoh inhabits the domain of Satan’s evil intent in a performance that is as beguiling and mesmerizing as the epic grandeur of Milton’s swelling tale of Paradise Lost.
Only a couple of metres away from Carroll in the intimate performance space of the Belconnen Arts Centre, I am lured into the sonorous sound and shifting rhythms of Milton’s ambitious verse. It rolls over me in waves of sound breathing forth from Satan’s malevolent heart, sometimes, sweet and innocent, often devious and sinister , laden with corrupt intent, disguised with tempting allure and then ascending to monstrous threat. Carroll has me in his thrall, the masterful performer, weaving his adaptation with variation and changing emotion. Butoh, the Dance of Darkness and Transformation fuses with Milton’s glorious design to “justify the ways of God to Man” and both display the moral virtue of all time to battle the evil that possesses all mankind.
Christopher Samual Carroll as Satan in Paradise Lost. Photo by Richard Lennon

Carroll’s training in mime, movement and mask at Ecole Jaques Lecoq in Paris and his work with a Butoh company is evident in a performance that transcends the conventional or mundane. It is the powerful artistry of the professional that revives the marvel of Milton’s epic work. Naturally, it cannot hope to encompass all twelve books of Paradise Lost. What it does is lend voice to the blind poet across the centuries and introduce audiences once more to one of the greatest works every written in the English language. Combining Milton’s eloquence, theme and rolling verse with the stark and vulnerable muscularity of Butoh merges time and universality, leaving an audience not with the detail of a story that passes in a wave of sound and movement, but a sense of humanity’s vulnerability and evel’s powerful influence that reaches towards faith for confirmation of all that is good and everything that is evil. One leaves Carroll’s adaptation with an affirmation of goodness, a moral as true as Time itself.
The shifting episodes of this epic tale and the transformation of character and emotion are highlighted by Gillian Schwab’s superb lighting changes, at times bathing Satan in a celestial light or casting Carroll into the bleak and dangerous shadows of desire and dire intent. I was expecting, after the gentle introductory music that led us into the theatre in the footsteps of an usher, in Japanese gard and moving with Noh-like slowness more use of music to accompany the different events of Carroll’s daptation. Only his voice and movement told the tale of Satan’s version of events. The lack of musical accompaniment did not detract from an absorbing and original interpretation, but it may have heightened engagement with the power of the changing episodes.
That aside, Carroll’s performance is a tour de force display of the actor’s craft, physically absorbing, vocally engaging, emotionally exciting and creatively innovative. As Belconnen Arts centre’s inaugural artist-in-residence for 2017, Carroll bring s to the theatrical tapestry of our city a rare opportunity to see a masterful performer present a monumental work of English Literature in a style that compels attention.
Carroll will be taking Paradise Lost to the Perth Fringe World Festival  and the Adelaide Fringe Festival. I strongly urge a return Canberra Season so that all passionate theatre lovers and practitioners can witness this extraordinary and original performance.   

Ich Nibber Dibber (Sydney Festival)

Ich Nibber Dibber by post.  Campbelltown Arts Centre, January 20, 21, 27, 28, 2017.

Post, Lead Artists – Mish Grigor, Zoë Coombs Marr and Natalie Rose

Designers: Lighting and Production Manager – Fausto Brusamolino; Set and Costume – Michael Hankin; Sound – James Brown
Dramaturg – Anne-Louise Sarks

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 27

Ich Nibber Dibber is a new genre which I term ‘sit-up comedy’, rather than old-hat standup.  Whether or not you could or should wash a hat, or throw it out when it gets too dirty and just get a new one, was quite an important issue.  As important as, if God is dead, as Nietzche said he was, now that Nietzche is also dead, how might he be feeling when he gets to heaven and finds that God isn’t dead after all?

The three women of the theatre company post spent their hour and ten, each perched up on a 2 metre post, draped in loose white material somewhere between a bedsheet and a wedding dress, and talked – regurgitating ten years’ worth of off-task banter from selfie videos actually recorded between their on-task writing sessions creating shows such as Oedipus Schmoedipus (reviewed on this blog January 25, 2014 and about to go on tour in South America!) and many others. 

I could also call it ‘reality theatre’, except that no-one got voted off.  This was because they laughed at each other as much as we laughed at (or rather, with) them, both during the performance and, for those of us who stayed, during the following Q&A session.

Their ten year odyssey began when Mish and Zoë were 18 and 19 and Nat was 43.  Burst of laughter.  23! says Natalie.  Fascinating how their manner of speaking, what my drama teacher called ‘acting acting’ – to prove that you know what you are doing – was just right for that young age, but gradually changed, to the almost subliminal background accompaniment of pop music to match the history, to the point where maturity raised the question of being over the hill (at 40! says Natalie, not 30!), looking down the barrel of middle-age and menopause.

What made me sit up, thinking back to my 1950s upbringing when women’s body parts were strictly never to be mentioned (still like Queen Victoria’s ankles in the nether regions), was the excruciating details provided of women’s internal bodily functions.  I know this is all cool, nowadays, because all the women around me (who constituted about 90% of the audience) were metaphorically tweeting LOVL – laughing out very loud!

The most excruciating image of giving birth, from Natalie – whose efforts were being videoed (you never know, we might be able to use this in a show), except that the computer had 1950s qualms (probably overheating) and switched itself off for the climactic moment – was when she described herself in the “push” phase as feeling like a Bodum coffee plunger (except that all the mucky stuff came out the bottom).  Bottoms and what come out of them also got a good run with repeats throughout the rapid fire talk.

One experience I missed back in 1972 was to read Ways of Seeing by John Berger.  The women’s talk included Mish looking up on her phone and quoting what he wrote about how women are always conscious of how they appear to others, to men and to other women, so they are always “seeing themselves” as if they are an art object.  This took the show out of continually divergent apparently silly but very funny talk for just a minute or so, but to me seemed to be the serious theme behind these women’s work.

Discussion in the Q&A gave them the opportunity to talk about how, as young actors still in youth theatre orbit, they had had to learn that they had no choice about being seen by their audience as female, and how, in accepting that fact, they could present women on stage in new ways.  Oedipus Schmoedipus was a great example, where blood all over them took on new meanings, especially for men in the audience, as well as confirming for women what they already knew.

This led as well to talk about the business of being actors and designing a performance of themselves changing over the ten years.  Although their actual talk as originally recorded seemed discontinuous, they found themselves editing out (though keeping the true timeline) and so realised that there is a story – a through line – about their developing maturity, in contrast to their other shows where absurdist discontinuity was the experimental theatre mode.

So once again the Sydney Festival has produced a winner, and a very interesting comparison about the perception of women to put alongside the very successful humorous and emotionally affecting transgender presentation from Canada: Tomboys Survival Guide (reviewed here January 26, 2017). 

Maybe I can retitle these women’s teenage-nonsense-German Ich Nibber Dibber as the Upfront Modern Women’s Comedy Better Than Survival Guide.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tomboy Survival Guide (Sydney Festival)

Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote and Band (Canada) at Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Meriton Festival Village, Hyde Park North, January 25-29, 2017.

Storyteller and Writer – Ivan Coyote; Bass Guitar – Pebbles Willekes; Drums – Sally Zori; Trumpet – Alison Gorman

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 26

Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times (June 8, 2015) has written: “The recent debate over public restroom access for transgender people has prompted some questions on just how big an issue this is — how many people are affected by such rules? The size of the transgender population is tricky to estimate….There are no national data, but two studies have tried to quantify or describe the transgender population in the United States.”
The results suggest that somewhere between 0.3% and 0.5% of the total population is transgender.

Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide is designed for these people and their parents, focussing on “misfits and boy-girls and butches and lady mechanics.  It’s a show for nelly boys and drama queens and anyone who ever put the camp in camping.”

In fact, I found his storytelling, set to a range of music from about the days of Cat Stevens’ Tea for Tillerman to today, and his direct talking to us, left me much more seriously affected than this comic description.  His sense of humour was a bright shield for what for so many is a tragedy underneath.

But, as he concluded, “our freedom depends on society changing, not us changing.”

This is because people may be born with physical sexual features along a spectrum.  Being between male/female may mean behaviours and feelings are different from assumed conventional norms.  What do you, as a parent, do when your very young daughter really does behave like a boy?

The story to demonstrate this was when Ivan’s favourite uncle visited when Ivan was four.  This happened in northern Canada, while the uncle was visiting from New Zealand, and explains why this uncle became Ivan’s favourite.

When Uncle knocked on the door, it was opened by Ivan (at that time having a girl’s name which was not revealed), standing with one hand behind her back.  Uncle shook her hand and introduced himself to “my niece”, who responded: “Do you want to see a dead gopher?”

Quick on the uptake uncle replied, “Only the last few days I’ve been thinking about seeing a dead gopher.”  At which point, Ivan produced his other hand, holding up a very flat, bloodied, road-killed small possum-sized gopher for inspection.

He said to us it took until he was 44 years old to become fully comfortable as transgender, even though his mother always fully supported him through difficult situations when he was a child.  One reason it took so long is simply that only quite recently have people begun to accept the fact of transgender, distinct from male or female.  In fact the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (  gives this list: “lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, heterosexual, or questioning. Trans: This term is used as an umbrella term and can include anyone who identifies as transgender, transgenderist, or transsexual. Transgender: This term has many definitions.”

The evidence that all four in the group are both trans and comfortable (at least as much as any of us might be) was the quality of the writing, humour, music and especially their singing a “hymn” to conclude the show which just about brought the Spiegeltent down.  This show is not complaint but a celebration with pride.  The cheers and standing ovation in return showed our pride in their work as performers as well as for their personal human qualities.

For me, the most important message was to standard men.  Don’t deny feminity in oneself; don’t get locked into ‘being a man’ with all its implied aggression and violence; treat women genuinely as equals.  And when your daughter wants to show you a dead gopher, accept the offer and, as Ivan’s mother finally did, let ‘her’ dress in corduroys instead of skirts.  And always support your children in what they know to be their true feelings.

And provide toilets so that any sex may safely use them.  Which was the case at the Sydney Festival, at least right next door to the Spiegeltent, where each toilet was a separate, private cubicle.  With a washroom open to all.  Well done, Sydney Festival.

It’s not easy, but it’s the change society must make.  Then the tomboys can do more than just survive.  They can thrive as Tomboy Survival Guide shows they can.

Huff (Sydney Festival)

Huff by Cliff Cardinal.  Native Earth Performing Arts (Canada), at Seymour Centre, Reginald Theatre, January 24-28, 2017.

Playwright/Performer – Cliff Cardinal
Director/Dramaturg – Karin Randoja
Designers: Set and Costume – Jackie Chau; Lighting – Michelle Ramsay; Sound – Alex Williams
Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 25

Huff begins and ends with the actor’s head entirely encased in a transparent plastic bag: the very frightening possibility that all parents fear for their young child.  His hands are tied behind his back.  Within three minutes, he must persuade a member of the audience to rip the bag off and promise never to give it back, no matter what he says.

Is this theatre, where we come for entertainment, seated in comfort?  Or is this a threat in reality?

Fortunately the second audience member he selects satisfies him that she will not give the plastic bag back.  70 minutes later she is true to her promise – but he has more plastic bags in his pocket.  He gaff tapes a new one on, but at least this time his hands are free and at the last minute he rips the bag off, gasping.

But we know he might yet try again.

To have two couples at different times walk down the centre aisle in this very small theatre, almost to within touching distance of the solo performer, then turn and demonstrably make their exit, is some kind of measure of what you might expect from Huff.

Except that these people did not have the patience – even I felt I needed – to reach the point of understanding where this play would take me.  I came to Huff after having just seen Which Way Home (reviewed here January 22, 2017), by an Australian Indigenous writer and performer with such a different feeling and style.  Is it so different for this North American/Canadian Indigenous writer/performer?

Yet the social issues in both their families, and even their cultural traditions were not dissimilar.

‘Tash’ in Katie Beckett’s play grows up without a mother, with her single-parent father trying to cope with properly bringing up two sons and his daughter who needs his protection and guidance in the modern city world far away from his traditional country and spiritual guides: especially among the birds.

Soon after the second couple had left the audience in Cliff Cardinal’s play, we get the picture together of this teenage boy brought up on a Reservation, going to a Reservation school staffed by ‘whites’, brought up by a father – a traditional ‘warrior’ unable to cope with the inevitable frustrations of modern life – worse than faced by Tash’s Dad, who at least found work to support his family.

The boy’s mother had become an alcoholic to avoid her husband’s violence, and finally hanged herself in the forest.  His elder brother has just done the same.  He himself, now that his father has used his mother’s sister as a replacement and his guiding grandmother is no longer capable of keeping things together, is now fixated on suicide.

In this boy’s spirit world, will Trickster destroy him too, or can the calming ‘huff’ of Wind – the breath out, the exhalation of peace – keep him going?
How different is this story from those we often hear from many Aboriginal communities in this country, while we argue about celebrating Australia Day on the date when Captain Phillip stuck a flag in Eora country and declared ownership by the British Crown?

Why did those people walk out, I wonder?  I think perhaps because the structure of the play for the first half hour or more is ‘bitty’ in the extreme.  Cliff Cardinal plays all the characters, including Wind and Trickster, his mother, his aunt, his grandmother, his father, the uncomprehending school teacher, his brother and other ‘friends’, and a radio presenter from Shit Creek Radio reading the news – of the burning down of a motel, the setting alight of the forest, and the authority’s searching for the criminals.  But the news reader doesn’t know of the children’s plan to burn down the school – only not yet carried out because of the elder brother’s death.

It took me a while into the final stages of the performance to understand that this teenage style, over-the-top bravado skit format, was correct for the character of the young boy.  I had to go back to remember teaching Year 7.
That’s what makes this play so terrifying, to be made to understand why it is that so many young Indigenous children take their own lives.  And worse, because those people who walked out early missed the point – the reason for going to the theatre in the first place.  For me their leaving, and the manner of their leaving, was a question of respect – for the writer, the performer and the people Cliff Cardinal represents in this work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


By Karol Szymanowski
Directed by Kasper Holten,
Revival director Amy Lane
Conducted by Andrea Molino
Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House until 15th February 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This extraordinary staging by Opera Australia in the Sydney Opera House is the first time Szymanowski’s “King Roger” has been performed in Australia. A co-production with the Royal Opera House and Dallas Opera, this production was first presented in Covent Garden, and these performances in the Opera House are the culmination of Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini’s long held ambition to introduce this opera to Australian audiences.

Steffen Aarfing's act 1 setting for "King Roger" 

Premiered in Warsaw in 1926, “King Roger” turns out to be a musico-psychological examination of the composers own struggles with issues of his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was hidden. These struggles are represented through a situation involving a fictional King Roger 11 of Sicily (Michael Honeyman), troubled by a demand from his subjects that he punish a young shepherd (Saimir Pirgu) accused of blasphemy for preaching freedom, pleasure and love.

King Roger’s wife, Roxana (Lorina Gore), is drawn to the teachings of the shepherd, and persuades the king to arrange a private meeting to allow the shepherd to explain himself. At this meeting the king finds himself attracted by the shepherd’s seductive urgings
Michael Honeyman and Lorina Gore
King Roger and Roxanne
Szymanowki’s music is melodic and inventive, demanding massive choral and orchestral resources. Probably the only conductor in the world to conduct this opera from memory, Andrea Molino deftly moulds the Sydney Children’s Choir, the Opera Australia chorus and orchestra into an intoxicating kaleidoscope of luscious sound to compliment director, Kasper Holten, and designer Steffen Aarfing’s compelling visual concept.

The cast of Opera Australia's production of "King Roger"
Steffen Aarfing's Act 11 setting

Though sometimes presenting a wall of sound, the music is surprisingly transparent, and Molino takes great care to ensure that the musical detail is apparent to the listener.

The opera commences quietly, gentle choral music suggesting a cathedral. But slowly a huge sculptured head of the king is carved out by lights and dominates the stage for the first act. As the opera continues, the head revolves to be inhabited by the king and a troupe of muscular young men who writhe and disport themselves erotically in a strikingly vivid portrayal of the king’s mental state.
The final act takes place around a bonfire of burning books, culminating with the king arriving at his decision and being transformed by the golden morning sun.

Although much of the opera is static, and the libretto fairly incomprehensible, the intent of the opera always remains clear. The direction is careful to ensure that the attention of the audience is always focussed on the protagonists, never allowing the spectacle to distract from the emotions being portrayed by the impeccably chosen cast.

Displaying impressive stage presence in the role of King Roger, Michael Honeyman employs his superb dramatic baritone voice to great effect, convincingly portraying his character’s mental anguish without resorting to melodrama. As his queen, Roxana, Lorina Gore delights with her lustrous silvery tone and glamourous stage presence. Her confident interpretation of the demanding score confirming her as one of Opera Australia’s most accomplished and exciting singers.

Saimir Pirgu as The Shepherd 

As the third member of the triangle, Saimir Pirgu, in his first appearances with Opera Australian, having sung this role previously in London, was perfect casting in the role of The Shepherd. His confident demeanour, delightfully bright, flexible tone and suave good looks made it easy to believe in his power to bewitch both king and queen and their subjects.

Completing an outstanding cast, Gennadi Dubinsky and Dominica Matthews, as the Archbishop and the Deaconess, and James Egglestone as the king’s advisor, Edrisi, each contributed thrilling singing and intelligently considered performances in an outstanding production destined to become a treasured experience for anyone lucky enough to experience it.

Michael Honeyman and the Opera Australia chorus and dancers 
Act 111 of King David

Photos by Keith Saunders

This review also appears in "Australian Arts Review"


The Legend of Ben Hall

Review by © Jane Freebury

A refusal to submit to authority has pride of place in movies from down under. Here we expect a film about a 19th century bushranger, who robbed the banks and the filthy rich, to be a spirited journey with a man of the people. A man like Ben Hall, whose reputation has for some reason faded over time against that of bushranger turned folk hero, Ned Kelly. 

When at large, Australian bushrangers were feared for the brutal criminals they were, but some were charismatic rogues who people were prepared to hide when the police came knocking. And the authorities weren’t clean skins either which helps explain why early last century when bushranger films appeared on screen, the audience cheered them on. So boisterously, the authorities banned them. Too popular. 

Some of the bushranger—mostly blokes, though there is at least one woman on the record—weren’t complete blaggards either. Hall, who was mown down by police in 1865, had some land he leased and a wife and child before he took to a life of crime. He has some cachet in having never shot a policeman dead, though the same cannot be said for other members of his gang, John Gilbert and John Dunn.  

The newspapers of the day reported quite a crowd at Hall’s funeral in Forbes, NSW. A revealing observation. Hall was on the wrong side of the law, but he was reputedly courteous, brazen, loyal and often a step ahead of the police. Moreover, he was handsome and a daredevil horseman. All in all, an appealing package. It explains why Hall became an object of interest for writer-director Matthew Holmes and the subject of his recent film, The Legend of Ben Hall.

Unfortunately, the fascination does not translate into the result the filmmakers clearly hoped for. The action-adventure locations look fabulous but, critically, Ben Hall’s character is seriously underwritten. As for the case for Ben Hall as legend? We’re not there yet.

As the central character, Jack Martin does his best to be well-meaning and dashing, but he doesn’t have good dialogue to work with, and nor do most of the others. A hold-up of Cobb & Co coach, a key dramatic moment, is heavily over-played failing to ignite much tension. Nor do the scenes of the gang when they have their guard down inject the rollicking, irreverent humour we could all have done with. For a period film, the contemporary tone of the dialogue is jarring, and at odds with the effort that has been put into making costume and other period detail visually authentic.

The film achieves its vision to some degree with the action, in the stirring scenes of men on horseback, galloping through bushland and across high country. In this way, it becomes a valentine to the magnificent bush wilderness, like The Man from Snowy River, but falls short of showing us what Ben Hall means to us today. The film’s visual grandeur and lush heroic score insist on the man as legend, but it’s more a question of ‘tell’ than ‘show’.

The Legend of Ben Hall arrived on screen late last year and had a limited release. If the filmmakers are planning companion bushranger films as reported, they would do well to go for it by building flesh and blood characters of complexity and contradiction, and leaving the myth-making alone. There’s no reason to think the bushranger genre has played itself out yet.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog