Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright.  Performed by Robert Jarman.  Tasmanian Theatre Company at The Street 2, May 18-28 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 25

Charlotte von Mahsldorf, 1994

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, replied Ich bin meine eigene Frau to Mrs Gretchen Berfelde when she asked her cross-dressing son “Don’t you think it’s time to get married?” 

It has been used as the title for a German language film (Rosa von Praunheim, 1992) and a play (Peter Süß, 2006). Though “I am my own wife” is the translation which has been used by Doug Wright for this play, it may also be translated as “I am my own woman.”  Seeing Robert Jarman’s performance I think I prefer “woman” to “wife”.  It’s Charlotte’s independence – as a person facing the forces of humiliation throughout her life from her Nazi father, through the SS, the East German Stasi, to neo-Nazi skinheads and her treatment as a celebrity transvestite in later life – that forms the central thread of this production. 

The final twist – not represented in the play – is that her family refused to accept "Ich bin meine eigene Frau - Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - 18. März 1928 - 30. April 2002" as the inscription on a memorial at the Gründerzeit Museum which she founded.  Despite money for the memorial being raised in a public appeal, the inscription reads "Lothar Berfelde, 1928 - 2002, genannt Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Dem Museumsgründer zur Erinnerung" – Lothar Berfelde, 1928 - 2002, known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In memory of the (male) founder of the museum – denying her courage in public as a transvestite and exposing the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich and in Communist East Germany.

Wright’s play is a potential nightmare for the solo actor who plays not only Charlotte, but some 40 characters, including Wright himself in the process of interviewing and corresponding with Charlotte from 1993 until her death.  Jarman successfully carries off the transitions between one character and another, almost entirely in the one costume representing Charlotte in black dress, headscarf, heeled shoes and a row of pearls.  His skill is not only in mime as he speaks to a space as one character and then turns to reply from the other direction, but in representing each character’s specific body movement, facial expression and especially voice – both in accent and tonal quality in English and in German.

It took me a little while to get used to what seemed to be a rather slow beginning, but it was the right approach not to hurry us.  It wasn’t long before Charlotte, Wright and each of the lesser characters seemed real, and at curtain call there was a genuine sense of appreciation from the audience for the quality of Jarman’s work.

His acting was supported by a touring set which seemed huge in the Street 2 Studio – achieving exactly what was required to establish the Museum location.  The properties department excelled in providing full-scale items like the horn phonograph with original Edison cylinders and especially in the beautiful small-scale replicas of items from the Museum revealed one by one from a silk-lined padded display box.  On the technical side, the lighting was evocative and precisely designed and managed for each situation and mood, while the audio was particularly effective when, for example, we seemed to hear original 1890’s wax cylinders being played on the phonograph which morphed into surround sound.

I particularly appreciated Lotte Lenya singing Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera and other Weill / Brecht songs as background sound, placing Charlotte and her story into the context of criticism of authoritarianism and corruption.  I might have added:

    What keeps a man alive?

    What keeps a man alive if not the hours
    He spends devouring, tearing, killing all that he can?
    That’s how man lives his life, he has the power
    To make himself forget that he’s a man.

I can only say finally that the value of the play in exposing the awful nature of the regimes Charlotte managed to survive through, and the warning her experiences provide for us – that civil society is a delicate flower which can all too easily be turned into a grisly thistle by the violent and power-hungry – was well-matched by the quality of this production.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Statespeare – Studying Shakespeare Suckeths by Nelle Lee (& William Shakespeare).

Statespeare – Studying Shakespeare Suckeths by Nelle Lee (& William Shakespeare).  shake&stir theatre co at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 23-24 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 23

The context for this review needs to be made clear, as follows:

From an educational point of view there are positives and negatives in this show.  As a production put on for the general public rather than in a school context, there are different positives and negatives.  In Queanbeyan it was presented for the general public without its theatre-in-education purpose being made explicit.  At the same time quite a large proportion of the opening night crowd were young and possibly students.

The Q publicity says it is a “fast-paced, hilarious and eye-opening experience for all theatre lovers.”  The performance is certainly fast and physical – a positive, though I did hear some middle-aged people comment that they hadn’t been able to pick up all the dialogue.  As a later than middle-age person I had the same problem, but it was obvious from the laughter of recognition from the young people that they had no difficulty following every nuance of the latest patois.  No-one seemed to lose concentration listening to the Shakespeare and following the action.

It’s on the issues of being “hilarious” and “eye-opening” that the divide between the educational and potentially general audience purposes pops up.  The script is clever.  It was obvious that the two pairs of teenage drama students (played by Ross Balbuziente who also directed, Nelle Lee, Judy Hainsworth and Nick Skubij) were parallel to Benedick, Beatrice, Claudio and Hero who I had just seen in Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  They bicker, joke, play and expose themselves to emotional risks as they try out possible scenes from different Shakespeare plays to present for drama class assessment. Unintended revelations stop the fun but in the end conflicts are resolved and love is confirmed.  Out of my ex-drama teacher role, it was all just too predictable.

There were quite hilarious moments, such as the matter of Macbeth’s nipples which Lady Macbeth sexily pinches.  There was even a rather shocked laugh when Macbeth pinches her nipple in return.  I thought this represented a highlight of reality about the young characters’ relationships.  But as a play for an adult general audience, only Jay, written and played by Nelle Lee, approached the kind of complexity and depth of character needed.  The other three characters, all played with professional clarity, were too close to the sorts of conventional stereotypes seen in something like High School Musical or Fame.  Lachlan is the standard nerd boy, Nerys the standard nerd girl, and Rob the standard girl-mad boy.  Jay is much more complicated, rejecting the conventional tall poppies Lachlan and Nerys but showing real originality and maturity in how she plays with the Shakespeare, even though Rob is her man in the end.  I think Shakespeare had the same problem in Much Ado – Claudio and Hero never match Beatrice and Benedick – but Statespeare needs much stronger characters and a darker side to work as an adult drama, particularly because the teenagers do perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.  The acting here is very good, but Shakespeare’s characters stand out as real against even Jay, and especially against Rob, Nerys and Lachlan.  Shakespeare is the writer who is an eye-opener, not Nelle Lee, yet.

Back in my ex-drama teacher’s role, I might still question whether school students deserve better characterisation and complexity of relationships (I don’t remember a real Lachlan, Nerys or Rob among my 20 years’ worth of senior drama students).  But the educational purpose surely focussed on exposing students, probably in about Year 10, to Shakespeare’s work in a form that they would find enjoyable.  This works. 

From a Year 10 perspective, the play makes fun of the Year 12 drama students but also shows them growing up.  It also shows professional actors playing Shakespeare in a variety of ways which demonstrates very clearly how theatre is action, not just boring old-fashioned words.  Even the similarities to High School Musical work here to tune into ordinary students doing Shakespeare in an English class.

The up-to-date dialogue between the characters outside the Shakespeare scenes obviously kept up the interest of the younger members of The Q audience, and, I suspect, the hilarity and the eye-opening among Year 10s would be highly emotional.  I can see how easily students would be drawn into talk about Jay, about how the characters’ relationships in real life today are like Shakespeare’s experiences 400 years ago.  Probably the key to this talk would be the murder of Desdemona scene, played “straight” with a submissive Desdemona accepting death and then, by Jay, as a woman pissed off by Othello’s cruelty who storms off in a flurry of swearing.

This also opens up for drama students the real work of experimenting with different ways of presenting scenes, not just in Shakespeare but in any drama.  The trick at high school is to start where the students are – perhaps at High School Musical – and shift them up towards adulthood.  An important point in Statespeare is that the apparently corny drama teacher who does an audience warm-up at the beginning deliberately leaves her students to get on with the work on their own.  Of course, in fact, she has already done lots of guiding and setting up expectations, for these Year 12s over perhaps several years, and she knows that to put the less academic (even anti-academic) pair in with the nerds and leave them to discover how to come up with the goods will force the conventional to become more original.  Though not many of the Year 10s will recognise this aspect of the play, there is a message there for the teachers who supervise them.

So my conclusion is that shake & stir theatre can justifiably build a reputation performing this entertaining and engaging work for the general public, but I hope this doesn’t mean they reduce their school-based performances where the work is of most value.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Wayang Kelly. A wayang kulit from the bush of Australia by Mike Burns and Roger Montgomery; featuring the Morpeth Jugbusters and Gamelan Novo Kastria. National Folk Festival. April 2011

The National Folk Festival is not really about theatre but it certainly can throw up some beauties. Wayang Kelly turns out to be one of these. Indonesian shadow puppets work very well for the story of Ned and the mingling of Australian and Indonesian music is not nearly as difficult to the ear as one might have assumed.
Ned’s independent attitudes have much in common with those of the Indonesian puppet narrator, Semar, who has come looking for a god or a hero in this Australian foreign place that Ned lives in. He is supported by supreme god Bhatara Guru and joined by the Celtic Amergin and the Aboriginal Wanjina.
The world is that of the wayang, but the story is Ned’s, so Semar questions while Ned narrates.
One of the joys of this show and one that sent me back to see it again, despite a two hours running time, is that the arrangement of the performers and of the shadow screen is such that the audience is behind it, watching all the detail of musicians and puppeteers. The shadows are picked up by a camera on the other side of the screen and projected onto another screen at the side.  
Thus the audience is able to watch the shadow show and the backstage antics, which at times come close to those in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Puppeteers are not above scrabbling for the needed puppet in a mounting pile, nor do they hesitate to snap briskly at an assistant who is a little slow at finding what is needed.  This, and the occasional good humoured banter when there is a mistake, drives the performance along in fine style.
It is fascinating to see the Australian images adapted to the wayang style. Ned and his band remain European, if somewhat Egyptian in their frontality, but the women such as Ned’s sister Kate are rendered in spindly Wayang fashion. Ned’s presence is always a dignified one, however, and the story, with occasional bits of comic relief like the Indonesian-style Mrs Byrne darting about as she spies on the troopers, takes his history seriously. The coaches, the horses and the Glenrowan train fly in and out so fast it is hard to spot detail but the Kelly helmets are as iconic as ever.
A fabulous piece of fusion. 

Alanna Maclean

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Playhouse, May 20 to June 4 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 20

Usually I write immediately after seeing a show, but this performance (following a five week season at Sydney Opera House) caught me a bit by surprise.  I decided to give myself a day to think a bit longer before writing, since Bell has treated Canberra, as they traditionally do, to a run of a reasonable length for this city of 330,000 people.

I have always been amazed at the emergence of Shakespeare the writer, with such wit, humour, sense of tragedy and ability to stage everything from naturalistic speech to ceremonial ritual – all in one play.  In his early thirties, living in a society riven by religious conflict and controlled by monarchs who had, and used, power over people’s life and death, William Shakespeare’s brilliance stands out against, above and beyond those who destroy rather than create.  Much Ado is certainly not about nothing.

My surprise – not at all an unpleasant one – began to strike me early on, when Benedick’s facility with a stand-up comedian’s flow of words was not less in understanding than Beatrice’s sharpness of riposte.  This Benedick was not even just the equal of this Beatrice, but had far more humanity than she could muster.  Hallo, I began to think, is this because Blazey Best was overplaying her role and becoming too much the shrew?  Is Toby Schmitz simply the better actor?

Or was something going on here to turn my previous view of this play on its head?  Beatrice had always seemed to me to be a modern feminist – a woman of natural maturity in contrast to the incapacities of men of her age, and a significant role model for the easily infatuated Hero.  For me, she did go to an ideological extreme in demanding that Benedick kill Claudio, but in realising this when Don John’s evil perfidy is revealed, she understood that she should back down and accept Benedick for the honest man he is, even if he might not be all that exciting.

But in John Bell’s interpretation, the play belongs to Schmitz’s Benedick.  He becomes the central character through whose eyes we see the issues.  As he bit by bit realises the truth about his own feelings, not only for Beatrice but about all the other players, and sees that Beatrice has not the strength of character that she pretends to have, it is he, Benedick, who sees the danger and rescues her from the likely dire results of her immaturity.  He does indeed challenge Claudio, but takes his time to check things out and go through the proper motions of agreeing on a time and place for the action.  Why does he not challenge and kill Claudio as soon as he meets up with him?  Or even stab him without warning?  To do so would be as thoughtless as Beatrice’s demand.

Unfortunately, for me, the quality of Schmitz’s performance made Best’s performance of Beatrice seem a bit too mundane – except, ironically, for the scene in which she makes her demand of Benedick.  Though what Beatrice expects Benedick to do is, in today’s terms, unacceptable, Blazey Best came up to Toby Schmitz in the making of it.  “If I were a man…” showed a Beatrice absolutely equal to the man Schmitz had created in his Benedick.  And so I could be satisfied that their marriage was right, but probably with Benedick offering more to Beatrice than she might at first realise she needs.  This left me with the question, was Best’s performance exactly right for John Bell’s interpretation, or was the sharpness of her delivery a simplification, a lesser quality in her acting?

I can only recommend, dear reader, that you make sure you see Much Ado About Nothing to make up your own mind.  Of course, I wouldn’t do this unless the rest of the cast are up to your expectations.  Caparisons are unfair, but I have to mention Max Gillies as Dogberry – malapropisms galore, and wonderfully impressed.  Design, movement and music all combine to make something a lot more than mere RomCom, with an especially cleverly staged ending.  Not to be missed.