Sunday, January 22, 2012

Buried City by Raimondo Cortese

Buried City by Raimondo Cortese.  Alicia Talbot, concept and director.  Urban Theatre Projects at Belvoir Street Theatre Upstairs for Sydney Festival, January 6 – February 6, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 21
Photos by Heidrun Lohr
Top: Effie Nkrumah                                                                        
Below:Meyne Wyatt        

If you think that living down and out among scaffolding on a construction site might be less than exciting, then avoid Buried City for it is a kind of faithful representation described by the author as follows:  

What strikes me about Alicia Talbot’s work is that it is not about presenting a metaphor on stage, or at least it’s not about seeing theatre as a metaphor that transforms the performance into a poetic representation.  It feels much fresher, much more contemporary, in that what is aimed for is the presentation of a new form of theatre based on ritual everydayness.

Well, the director has succeeded in this aim, but unfortunately this is not exactly a new form of theatre.  Eugene O’Neill did it in The Iceman Cometh (1939) and even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and company, which we saw in Sydney in 2010, more powerfully showed life getting nowhere.  It’s just a bit of a pity that director Sean Mathias said Godot is “like an incredible poem or a very beautiful piece of music”, and this is what makes it effective over the generations of theatre goers.  Iceman was rather more like Buried City, in that nothing happens in an apparently naturalistic scene, but O’Neill knew how to make us feel the awful necessity of self-destructive ritual which the characters play out, which also becomes a picture not just of a few drunks in a bar but of America as a nation still in the Great Depression.

Cortese and Talbot show up their artistic problem in describing their work as “rather like a living film set with no close ups”, while also writing about revealing “how as human beings we build temporary bridges and alliances in an effort to have a meaningful purpose to how we live our lives.”  In fact there are some “close ups”: the two that work theatrically are Aboriginal actor Meyne Wyatt and Effie Nkrumah, of Ghanaian descent, particularly in their clash over belief in their different ‘spirits’.  Otherwise, the other characters are predictable, even though much of the action is unfathomable because there is no development of motivation.

The result for me was that I could not see or feel any sense of ritual in this ‘everydayness’, nor much reality.  At the end it was difficult for me to know how to respond.  I felt I should applaud the actors for their work – and they did manage to achieve some moments of dramatic tension – but this was despite the script which really didn’t help them.  They did come back for a second brief curtain call, but I noticed others in the audience also hesitating about clapping, perhaps from the same kind of confusion as I felt.

I guess the intentions of Urban Theatre Projects are worthwhile in principle – to expose the terrible empty space of living without purpose, and I suppose to show that this is a dreadful feature of our society – but this attempt is not ‘much fresher, much more contemporary’ theatre.  In her notes, Alicia Talbot writes The text has been stripped of its conventional theatrical content….  There’s no backstory and almost no personal information provided about any of the characters, no classic plot to speak of….

Perhaps then I am the problem: maybe I am just not fresh and contemporary enough for this play.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I’m Your Man. Created and directed by Roslyn Oades

I’m Your Man created and directed by Roslyn Oades.  Presented by Belvoir and Sydney Festival at Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, January 21 – February 5, 2012

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 21

Billy McPherson

Mohammed Ahmed

Photos by Heidrun Lohr                  
Katia Molino

L to R:
Justin Rosniak, John Shrimpton,
Mohammed Ahmed, Billy McPherson, Katia Molino

Using interviews recorded by boxers and trainers, I’m Your Man is another example in this year’s Sydney Festival of what I have termed ‘factional theatre’.  And, like Force Majeure’s Never Did Me Any Harm (see my review January 11), it works with explosive effect.  Reality bites, theatricality soars – like the ambitions of these ordinary men, typically the ‘little kid from Marrickville’ who ‘travelled the world'.

How it works, though, is a little different from Force Majeure’s ‘dance theatre’.  Katia Molino, the only non-male and non-boxing background performer, explained in conversation with me after the show, that I’m Your Man is acting, not dance. 

In both these shows, the words are the actual recorded words of the interviewees – in this case even more immediate because each actor has headphones in which the original recording is being played, while the actor reproduces the words, mannerisms, voice qualities at a slight delay.  Billy McPherson, who is also a professional boxing trainer, said it took four weeks’ rehearsal to create the characters using the technique, the five actors covering the experiences of seven professional boxers.  But the role of the choreographer, Lee Wilson, was to create a moving total image in the setting of a boxing training ring, but to allow the actors to put the appropriate individual movements to the words, personal style and the story being told by each character.

So I’m Your Man is ‘factional acting theatre’ while Never Did Me Any Harm is ‘factional dance theatre’, two variations of a quite new form of theatre – one which I hope will develop and last well into the future, because it gives theatre a new lease of life in the age of digital media and documentary recording.  There will always be a place for fictional drama, but, as I found watching I’m Your Man, factional theatre reveals to the audience truths about ordinary people’s real lives in a different way from great fictional work.  There is a sense of objectivity in the experience as an observer of others’ experiences that, oddly enough, is more telling about the nature of society than, say, Brecht’s attempts at ‘alienation’ which have had such a looming effect through most of the past century in Western theatre.

The performances of the five actors – Justin Rosniak, John Shrimpton, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, as well as Katia Molino and Billy McPherson – are quite extraordinary.  Physically the sparring, pummelling and other training exercises are done at the kind of speed and intensity which the real boxing training would require.  If this were not achieved, the characterisations would not be believable.  But within the first few minutes of this 70 minute show, as each character takes the floor, I found myself completely drawn into the boxing gym life – something completely outside my own experience.

At the same time, the stories showed how boxing, for these men of varied backgrounds, though with a common bond through poverty and discrimination, provided them with a structure to their lives – even down to the four rules (break the rules of no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking and no swearing and you’ll go back to New Zealand, as one was told by his trainer), and the fifth rule (no sex before a fight).  There’s a discipline here that I hadn’t imagined, and a growth of self-worth in the minds of these ‘Marrickville’ boys when they succeeded in competition.

This is Belvoir Downstairs at its best.

P.S. The seven boxers whose lives are glimpsed in I'm Your Man are Billy 'The Kid' Dib, Wale 'Lucky Boy' Omotoso, Gus Mercurio, Jeff Fenech, Tony Mundine, Wally Carr and the mysterious CJ.


Capitol Theatre, Sydney.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The much-acclaimed Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest extravaganza “Love Never Dies” has finally arrived in Sydney and it’s worth the wait.

No matter that the storyline is silly, or that a scenery mishap so threatened to mar the opening night in Sydney that director, Simon Phillips, felt compelled to apologise to the audience. In the end, this event only added to the excitement of a night which was a triumph for all involved.

                                                        Anna O'Byrne and Ben Lewis

“Love Never Dies” continues the “Phantom of the Opera” story 10 years on. The Phantom (Ben Lewis) has now moved to Coney Island where he runs an establishment called “Phantasma” in which he moonlights as a waiter, and pines to hear Christine Daae sing. Christine Daae (Anna O’Byrne), now a famous opera singer married to her manager, Raul (Simon Gleeson), unwittingly accepts the Phantom’s offer to sing at “Phantasma”.

                                                   Anna O'Byrne as Christine Daae

When Christine and Raul arrive for the engagement with their 10 year-old son, Gustav (Jack Lyall), the Phantom notices that the boy has musical talent, does a few quick calculations and decides that Gustav is his son, leading to the dramatic finale involving the mysterious Madam Giry (Maria Mercedes) and her daughter, Meg (Sharon Millerchip).

                                                     Sharon Millerchip and Girls

I know! It’s all very Mills and Boon, but add Gabriela Tylesova’s remarkable vision of Edwardian Coney Island which looks absolutely ravishing in the rococo splendour of the Capitol Theatre, a lush, beautifully sung, musical score, handsome cast, gorgeous costumes, carnival freaks and fantastic sideshows and it all seems perfectly logical, hugely enjoyable and definitely a “must see” show .

An edited version of this review appears in "City News"  Jan 19 -25 edition . 

Friday, January 20, 2012


Paul White in "Anatomy of an Afternoon"

Choreographer: Martin del Amo and Paul White
Composer: Mark Bradshaw

Sydney Opera House Playhouse Jan. 9-16

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Having marvelled at Paul White’s extraordinary performance in the exhilarating Tanya Liedtke work, “Construct”, but not having had the opportunity previously to see any of Martin del Amo’s choreography, the prospect of seeing them work together on a collaboration which, according to the publicity, was inspired by Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” was very enticing.

Along with the rest of the audience I cooled my heels in the foyer until the doors of the auditorium were opened right on 8 o’clock, the advertised starting time. As we took our seats, Paul White, dressed in jeans and T shirt, was already standing stock-still onstage, together with three musicians surrounded by an eclectic collection of instruments including a Tibetan singing bowl, who were playing gentle atmospheric music slightly reminiscent of Debussy’s original haunting score for “Afternoon of a Faun”

As I settled down in my seat in the full theatre, I quickly scanned the minute type in the complimentary (Thank you!) program to learn that “Anatomy of an Afternoon” had started out as a choreographic research project the aim of which was to allow Martin del Amo “to investigate how the practical exploration of an extant choreography would affect me as a choreographer creating original work” and that the research preparation included a visit to the zoo.

The houselights dimmed and attention focussed completely on the spot-lit figure of Paul White, who, after what seemed an eternity, slowly, very slowly, began to move one arm. He moves and isolates other parts of his body until eventually he starts to run in circles then in different directions. He also starts to remove his clothing (clumsily and distractingly) until he’s clad only in underpants, which at various points he also threatens to remove.

Remembering the visit to the zoo, and the original inspiration, I was looking for the faun, but soon realised that what I was seeing were a series of extraordinary evocations of a variety of animals, including what appeared to be a lizard sunning itself on a rock, a big cat, possibly a lion pacing around its enclosure, perhaps a dog chasing its tail, certainly an old-man kangaroo, also sunning itself, and very definitely, a monkey which at one stage bends over, slowly bares its backside to the audience, reaches in and withdraws an imaginary (hopefully) faeces which it draws past its nose. This last image drew embarrassed giggles from some of the audience.

Between the animals were series of quite lovely poses, seamlessly woven together, rather reminiscent of those of an artist’s model. Never did recognise the faun.

This is an intriguing work. Paul White is a remarkable, highly skilled dancer blessed with a beautiful body. He has extraordinary control over every muscle and “Anatomy of an Afternoon” gives him every opportunity to demonstrate that, as well as his amazing facility to morph into various animals.

But there is also a puzzle. Both the da Vinci inspired poses and the forensic examination of animal movement  ensures that there was no problem in working out the ‘anatomy’ part of the title. Had it been called “Anatomy of an Afternoon at the Zoo”, the response may have been different.

However it is the tenuous connection with Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of the Faun” that is much less clear. Perhaps the episode with the faeces was meant to approximate the audience outrage which resulted from Nijinsky’s mimed masturbatory movements in the original work. If so, then it came across simply as a try-hard attempt which simply caused embarrassment rather than shock. Also the clumsy way in which the dancer discarded his clothing was unnecessarily silly and demeaning and simply drew embarrassed giggles from the audience.

Martin del Amo and Paul White’s desire to explore movement boundaries is to be applauded and encouraged, and although this looks more like a work-in-progress than a finished work, I hope Martin del Amo has found a solution to his quandary. But personally, I would rather just like to see Paul White dance, without having to puzzle over unnecessary tenuous connections to other works ?

Paul White in "Anatomy of an Afternoon"

Blood Brothers – The Musical. Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell

Blood Brothers – The Musical Book, Music and Lyrics by Willy Russell.  Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre production directed by Stephen Pike, musical director Sharon Tree, choreographer Jacquelyn Richards, at The Q, January 19-28, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

What I liked about this production, which has already won Canberra Critics’ Circle awards in 2011, is that Stephen Pike captured the right style of performance for a script with an interesting mix of intentions.  This showed a knowledgeable approach which drew from his cast a sincerity in their singing and acting which made the musical worthwhile to watch for its meaning as much as for entertainment.

It’s not hard to find some rather different examples on You Tube for contrast, since the show has been produced, on all sorts of stages, just about continuously since its original incarnation in 1981 in the Merseyside Young People's Theatre program      
( ) .

It attracts comments like This is one of those songs [Tell Me It’s Not True] that is really sad when you hear it on its own, but when you find out the real story behind it, it is actually so upsetting and shocking.  Amazing song, I went to see this show for a school trip, I was crying so much my teacher had to check if I was alright during it. . . AbsolutelyAllybum, as well as a raging argument about Spice Girl Melanie C’s accent because it wasn’t proper scouse since she was actually born across the water in Birkenhead, not in Merseyside in Liverpool.

I’m originally a Londoner, so I couldn’t tell the difference, but I was impressed that Doreen Robinson as accent coach succeeded in gaining consistency, and showing up the characters’ class differences, so the setting seemed real enough to me.  And, after all, class was the central issue that you would expect to find in a theatre-in-education script in Maggie Thatcher’s England, especially in Liverpool.  Keeping the original setting, I think, was the right decision – I’m not sure Blood Brothers in Cronulla would have worked without a major re-write.

Russell’s ‘mix of intentions’ as I see it relates to Blood Brothers’ origins.  On the one hand, it seems, there was a literary source in the 1844 novella The Corsican Brothers by Alexandre Dumas, père, which provided not only the basic melodramatic plot, but allowed the issue of the role of the devil (which fitted with the Liverpool tradition of Catholicism) and immoral behaviour resulting in guilt and inevitable death to be a major theme.  This would be a great source for discussion in the classroom.

On another hand, Russell seems to have wanted to emphasise in a Brechtian manner the inevitable results of capitalist social class warfare.  British drama teachers I met in the 1980s seemed obsessed with a revival of Marxism, and Thatcher was certainly a major force to be opposed.  Interestingly enough, this theme also takes Blood Brothers back to the 19th Century, to a then famous melodrama called The Factory Lad by John Walker (1832).  It also shows connections to Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, especially in the role of the Narrator/Devil, and, in its ending, to Mother Courage and her Children.

On a third hand, psychology is a major theme on two fronts: is Mrs Lyons driven insane by her natural woman’s need to have a child leading to her forcing her social advantage on Mrs Johnstone to gain the twin Edward, then trying to murder the mother when the secret in the locket is revealed, and then revealing to the other twin, Mickey, that Edward loves the girl in common, Linda?  Is this real psychology, or some kind of hangover from 19th Century / Freudian ideas of women’s hysteria?  Or Jungian myth?  Or just a literary device to push the plot along?  I’m not sure what Russell meant here.

But on the second front, there is the important issue of depression and the proper treatment of it.  Mickey’s depression has a real cause – unemployment, desire to support his wife and child, and imprisonment when crime seemed the only alternative.  But is the addiction he develops to the medication, and his uncontrolled and violent behaviour when he stops the medication, true to life?  Here’s another great classroom topic.

Where Stephen Pike and his team, backstage and onstage, got it right was to recognise that Russell has written a work full of symbols.  It is not naturalism – no musical is, in the sense that people don’t normally sing at every emotional opportunity – and so the singing of each song stops the action with just enough Brechtian alienation effect to make the thematic ideas stand out, and this is carried through into the choreography, for example very effectively in presenting the 7 going on 8-year-olds, and then the changes in their movement style as they do a slide show through 15, 16, 17 and 18. 

This was nice work which meant that the melodrama of a kind of OK Corral ending (quite appropriate for grown ups who had played cowboys and Indians with real airguns as children) did not become sentimental.  It allowed us in the audience to be aware of tragedy in real life, without merely wallowing in terrible sadness.  Director Stephen Pike was, like AbsolutelyAllybum’s teacher, considerately checking out that we are ‘alright’. 

Thanks, Stephen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Conductor:               Jonathan Darlington
Director:                   Mathew Barclay - based on the original production by Julie Taymor
Set Designer:            George Tsypion
Costume Designer    Julie Taymor
Puppetry Design      Julie Taymor, Michael Curry
Lighting Designer     Gary Marder, based on the original design by Donald Holder
Choreographer        Mathew Barclay, based on the original choreography by Mark Dendy
Assistan Conductor Andrew Greene

Presented by Opera Australia

Sydney Opera House until 23rd March 2012.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
                                                             Andrew Jones as Papageno
                                                                 Photo: Branco Gaica
“The Magic Flute” has never been among my favourite opera’s. I puzzle over the shenanigans of the characters in this curious mixture of fairy-tale and masonic symbolism which seems to fascinate so many opera lovers.

Over the years I’ve seen several productions but none have been as magical as I imagine this opera should be. Therefore when Opera Australia announced that they would be presenting Julie Taymor’s Metropolitan Opera production, my hopes rose that this would be the production which would open my eyes to mysteries of “The Magic Flute”. After all, hadn’t Taymor been responsible for that truly magical production of “The Lion King”?

Alas my hopes were destined to be dashed. Taymor’s view of “The Magic Flute” has much to recommend it. It comes with a wonderful serpent, huge floating bears, birds and butterflies, riotously colourful costumes, spectacular chorus scenes and ingenious scenery all of which creates a psychedelic dream world into which Mozart’s convoluted story should fit quite comfortably.

Taymor has also shortened the opera quite significantly – this production lasts just two hours - including the interval. She has given it an updated libretto, sung in mostly well-articulated English. All of which I had hoped would clarify the opera. But although much of the spectacle is certainly quite diverting, somehow I wasn’t as swept up in it all as I had hoped to be, nor did I find it any clearer.

I attended the second performance of this production, and it wasn’t that the performance was bad, it just wasn’t good enough, which left me wondering whether something of Taymor’s vision been lost in its transfer to The Sydney Opera Hous. The trappiings were there but the soul was missing.

                                                          Andrew Brunsdon as Tamino
                                                               Photo: Branco Gaica

No doubt the production has been accurately reproduced by the director, but without the creator’s driving vision it somehow doesn’t seem to be a comfortable fit for the Australian cast. Certainly not yet.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but as Opera Australia had made much of the fact that they had cast this opera with many of their brightest young singers, I had been very much looking forward to hearing them. What a worrying surprise it was to discover that many of the voices were decidedly light weight, and from where I was sitting in the stalls, I found that I often had to strain to hear some of the soloists over the orchestra, despite the best efforts of conductor, Jonathan Darlington.

Andrew Jones as Papageno - Nicole Car as Pamina
                                                                  Photo:Branco Gaica
Apart from Nicole Car, whose lovely resonant tone and confident presence made her an ideal Pamina, Andrew Brunsdon, whose Tamino, though well sung was not otherwise particularly engaging, and Kiandra Howarth who brought some much needed sparkle to her Papagena, not many of the soloists seemed to have found the key to their characters. Most seemed content to simply wear their costumes, perform the direction and concentrate on the singing, without really inhabiting their roles. Some had clearly not mastered the use of their puppets, or indeed how to wear their costumes.

The three ladies, for example, initially had some very effective moments with the placements of their disembodied heads, but this effect was spoiled later when the heads just seemed to wave around with no particular purpose or co-ordination.
                                        Nicole Car as Pamina and David Parker as Sarastro
                                                              Photo:  Branco Gaico
Sarastro certainly looked fine in his costumes, but seemed to be concentrating so much on reaching his low notes, that, in the processions, he forgot, quite distractingly, to walk in time to the music. The Queen of the Night was clearly out of her depth and her idiosyncratic delivery of the famous aria made uncomfortable listening. Papageno was played like a character from “Playschool” with an ocker accent (?). Even the usually brilliant Kanen Breen seemed to be struggling to make his grotesquely costumed Monostatos interesting.

Overall, it was the type of performance that one expects from a group of talented students, but rather below what is expected from our National Opera Company.

This production will run until March 23rd and no doubt with more performances the company will work out the key to bringing it alive. It’s certainly worth a look, but meanwhile, perhaps I’ll need to keep searching for my ideal production of this opera, given the remark muttered by a bemused German gentlemen to his companion as they left the performance - “That’s not The Magic Flute” .

                                                    Andrew Jones as Papageno

                                                         Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday, January 13, 2012

I Am Eora, written and directed by Wesley Enoch with co-writer Anita Heiss

I Am Eora written and directed by Wesley Enoch with co-writer Anita Heiss, presented by the Balnaves Foundation for the Sydney Festival at Carriageworks, Redfern.  January 8, 10-14, 2012.
Photos by Prudence Upton
Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 12

Described in the program as World Premiere, I have to say that I Am Eora is a show still in need of further development before I would give it such an impressive introduction.

The theme of a new way of finding reconciliation between Aboriginal and the European cultures, of Sydney in particular, is of very great importance.  The essential point is to understand that the land of the Eora is still here – Aboriginal land was, is, and always will be.  Time – the past, present and future – changes, and the stories of the people living change with it.  But the land is permanent.  In this sense we are all Eora.

Wesley Enoch has put this in the program notes as “the most provocative thing we could do was to issue an invitation …How could we create a world where everyone living in Sydney could say I Am Eora…I am from this place?”

However, I found the presentation of three well-known stories of Eora heroes from the invasion period – Pemulwuy, The Warrior, who died in action; Barangaroo, The Nurturer, who stood for maintaining culture, stood up for political and economic rights, and died soon after childbirth; and Bennelong, The Interpreter, who sought to create understanding across the cultural divide – was powerful only in patches.  As  I am currently reading Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance I can’t help seeing the strength of his oblique poetic writing which creates imagery and feeling from his Aboriginal characters’ perspective as a great contrast to the often too literal representation of Pemulwuy and Barangaroo in I Am Eora, though it is true that there is strength in the old Bennelong’s philosophy and death.

On the other hand, Enoch has written “I Am Eora has broken the mould in so many ways.  It pioneers new ways of making Indigenous theatre [and] hopes to redefine Indigenous theatre and celebrates the resilience of a community.”  It does this by using music and songs in non-Aboriginal forms, such as rap, rock, blues, some almost Pacific Island style, most of which works well as individual items.  Dance, often in mimetic form, is also used extensively to illustrate in movement the words spoken and sung.  Speeches were also used, such as the Inaugural Speech of the first Indigenous (also a woman) to serve in the New South Wales Parliament, Linda Burney.  The skillion stage design, as the photo shows, was simple in concept and very effective for projections of images and text on both the floor space and the backdrop, which seemed to me to represent the overhanging caves in which I have seen many examples of magnificent art work.

My concern though is that it seemed the story–line of this history was that Aboriginal people survive, even after disease, genocidal massacres and the removal of their children, by being adaptable and taking on features of the European culture; while for the Europeans (or rather, in today’s Sydney, people from dozens of non-Indigenous cultures) there was little of Aboriginal culture for them to adapt to.

I sensed, especially from the audience reaction, that the main point of real contact between the two sides was the presentation of the gutsy strength of Aboriginal women in dealing with men.  Elaine Crombie’s piece as The Bride was the point when people were stirred into real excitement.   This was the moment of the WOW factor which the show needed as a whole rather than only in parts.  There was nothing, for example, quite like Gurrumul Yunupingu’s songs and singing style in English and in language which would have been the show-stopper I Am Eora needs, nor dance which creates meaning beyond illustration, such as we often see from Bangarra.

So, although the house was full the night I attended, the audience response at the end was more muted than the theme of this work deserves.  I think this Festival presentation should be seen as a trial run, and I hope the Balnaves Foundation can see its way to continuing its support for development to the point of a new World Premiere which might take Sydney and the world by storm.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Never Did Me Any Harm - dance theatre devised by Force Majeure

Never Did Me Any Harm dance theatre devised by Force Majeure, directed by Kate Champion. Sydney Festival and Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, January 11 – February 12 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 11

Initially stimulated by her reading of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, Kate Champion’s work on child rearing / parenting leaves me – a parent and grandparent – unable to suggest any advice beyond ‘Do what you can; don’t feel guilty (when you find yourself disliking your feral three-year-old); and don’t harbour any expectations that your child will turn out as you thought / hoped they might, whatever form your parenting takes’.

You might find, however, as a mother, that you are more in love with the little boy who smiles so directly at you than you ever loved any other man.

Using material from some 60 hours of interviews, and therefore quoting real people’s thoughts rather than creating purely fictional dialogue, Force Majeure have made what I suppose must be called factional dance theatre.  The result is impressive for its strength of feeling and its reversal of theatrical convention.  I have always seen movement as the core of drama, though emphasis is traditionally placed on the text.  Here Champion shows that indeed words are superficial, while action, down to the choreographed flicking of a wrist, the placing of a hand or lifting of an eyebrow, is where the depth of emotion, communication and meaning is expressed.

This is the essence of what some are now calling a new genre – dance theatre.

The great thing about a Festival is being able to see such a difference in dance theatre one night – Babel (words) – and dance theatre the next night – Never Did Me Any Harm.

Speed, rhythm, structured design, speeches one night; slow, gradual building of intensity, naturalistic mess with highly original lighting and projections,  and ordinary people’s talk the next.  Theatricality one night; drama the next.  Standing ovation with cheering one night; measured applause for three curtain calls with heightened sense of having learned from the experience the next.

Force Majeure certainly never did me any harm.  May its honest facing up to reality do all of us some good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hoarse for a Horse in a Barn of a House: Richard III, Kevin Spacey and the Lyric Theatre, Sydney. December 2011.

The beady green eye of Kevin Spacey on the programme lying beside the computer keeps goading me not to forget this production, Like Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester that eye insists on being noticed.

The show of course has been and gone. It did not quite soar but there was a deal of satisfaction in seeing such a full version played with thought and gusto.

The attraction was seeing how the star of American Beauty could deal with a stage performance. He has chosen to put his energies into London’s Old Vic in recent years and he would not be the only actor in the world working successfully in both theatre and film. Director Sam Mendes likewise operates in both worlds. Well, why not? It might be said that film needs the stage to keep certain skills robust. Or that film provides the income to do what you want in the theatre.

(Look up the career of Shakespearean Charlton Heston and see why he did clunkers like Earthquake. Then savour his Player King in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet)

Spacey certainly gave us a Richard of evil presence and charm but his performance was not free of vocal problems, of which more later.

The set with its moving walls, projections of characters’ names and surrounding row of back lit opening and closing doors was a player on its own. The play’s opening word ‘NOW’ dominated the upstage as the audience came in. Immediacy, action, want it now, first word in the play, no thought of future consequences – Richard is full of all of this and Spacey’s Richard, hobbled by an elaborate caliper, clearly enjoyed showing us an unprincipled rise to power.

Excellent support from a ghostly bag lady of a Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones) haunting her old enemies with truthful observations on their characters and actions and marking each door with a cross as another one exits, doomed by Richard.

The wooing of Lady Anne (Annabel Scholey) fell a little short of the necessary tension but the later joining of Anne with Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) and the Duchess of York (Maureen Anderman) for the great operatic grieving and cursing sequences was intense and hypnotic.

The show benefitted greatly from a Buckingham of cheerful personality in Chuk Iwuji, delighting in Richard’s machinations until the moment he is asked to kill the two little princes in the Tower, and from a lovely guilt obsessed Clarence in Chandler Williams.

And behind it all was the insistent and disturbing aural landscape provided by composer Mark Bennett.

Spacey’s voice in the vast barn of the Lyric did not always have the stamina it needed for a Richard that came in well over the 3 and a half hour mark. He was momentarily hoarse early on and definitely hoarse toward the end, having, I think, given the ghost nightmares before Bosworth rather more than his all. He certainly knows his way around a stage but the Lyric is a monster and you need staying power for Shakespeare and a capacity to always have something in reserve. (Wonder how it would have gone in the much more Shakespeare friendly Canberra Playhouse?)

However, the absorbing nature of a production that tackled pretty well the full text made being there very worthwhile. Even the Scrivener (Isaiah Johnson) who is a (usually cut) spit and a cough in Act III Scene vi was allowed to appear, the clear voice of an honest citizen seeing through the plotting.

The Lyric itself seemed to be having difficulties with a show that was not a big musical. The ushers at the Sunday matinee were giving out finishing times somewhat short of what actually occurred and the people next to me bolted moments before Bosworth, clearly needing to be on the way to somewhere else. The woman next to me dashed for a plane at the end. Why the two in front of us had gone by interval was any one’s guess (I would guess the show was not American Beauty) but the many empty seats upstairs were in need of a thorough papering with people who wanted to see Shakespeare. (Or a well promoted student rush)

Perhaps such a barn needed a barnstormer.

Alanna Maclean 

Babel(words) Dance theatre by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley

Babel(words) Dance theatre by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley.  Eastman vzw (Antwerp) and Theatre Royal de la Monnaie for Sydney Festival at Sydney Theatre, January 9-11 and 13-14, 8pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 10

Two main elements make this show a success, justifying the standing ovation Babel received on Tuesday.

First, the quality of the dance work by individuals and by the group in ensemble was outstanding, indeed quite frighteningly good, including especially the occasion when it seemed that a speeding performer had crashed into the constantly moving metallic frame set.  It was a Pirandello moment – remember Six Characters in Search of an Author – and worked beautifully.

Alongside the movement was percussion, instrumental work and singing which would have made the evening exciting on their own.

The second main element was one of surprise for me.  Over several Sydney Festivals I have seen “important” continental European works which failed by being essentially pretentious, sometimes overloaded with grand ideas, sometimes self-consciously post-modern in style but with little new to say.  When I read how Babel came about I thought uh-oh, another “Let’s get everyone together from all over the world and show how we can overcome the babble of languages and conflicting cultures.”  A good multicultural theme for Sydney, of course, but ripe for overloading.

But this show works, with “18 performers from 13 countries, with 15 languages, seven religious backgrounds and numerous performance modes between them” as dramaturge Lou Cope writes, because the basic structure – bringing disparate people together – is kept simple and in the end is grounded in the experience of the group itself rather than trying to make too much of the implications for the world.  These ideas are played out – and even given as lectures – but what comes through to the audience is not that conflict will be resolved in a fantasy “real” world of politics and commercialism.  We see a group of highly talented and individual people working together across all their differences as dancers, to produce a powerful ending which just made people stand up and cheer.

What a contrast this was with a determinedly modern piece some years ago repetitively showing us boring images of social failure for two and a quarter hours.  Those audience members who had not walked out finally got to experience one more self-regurgitating movement sequence which, for no apparent reason, just stopped, and the lights just went out, with absolutely no emotional response possible except to be glad that it stopped.

Mind you Babel did need to stop after 1 hour 40 minutes.  Some of the ideas in some episodes were too shallow, needing development or cutting; some images – though meant to be satirical – were too cliché; and there was a sense that, just as a jazz band has to give every member a solo, all 18 performers had to have their day on display.  But then, their talent and skills would have made it hard to cut.

So, whatever God did to the Tower of Babel,  the result for Sydney has been well worth the trip.

Friday, January 6, 2012

ANNIE - The Musical

Produced by: The Gordon Frost Organisation and associates.
Lyric Theatre, The Star, Sydney until the end of March 2012.

Performance 4th January reviewed by: Bill Stephens

Annie (Lucille Le Meledo), F.D.R. (Alan Jones) Miss Hannigan (Nancye Hayes) Daddy Warbucks (Anthony warlow)

If, like me, you consider you’ve seen more than enough productions of “Annie” for one lifetime, then think again! This new production is sheer delight from start to finish and you’d be silly to miss it.

There are many reasons why this show has remained a perennial favourite for both professional and amateur companies since it first opened on Broadway in 1977. Among them, it’s tuneful score, by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, which is packed with familiar, toe-tapping songs. It has a winning storyline, by Thomas Meehan, about a little orphan girl and her lovable stray dog, who catches the eye of a billionaire who enlists the American President to help find her long lost mother and father. It’s got children, animals and characters that are funny, appealing and lend themselves to interpretation.

For this new production producer, John Frost, has obviously not skimped to ensure that the show looks and sounds as fresh and bright as a new pin. He has assembled a topline cast and production team, which includes director Karen Johnson Mortimer who certainly knows how to keep the storyline clear and focussed, and the action bubbling along at a quick clip.

There’s lots of quick-flying scenery, designed by Kenneth Foy, to provide the spectacle including tantalising glimpses of various sumptuous rooms in Daddy Warbuck’s house, the streets of New York during the 1933 depression, and the inside and out of Miss Hannigan’s decrepit, run-down orphanage, all artfully lit by Trudy Dalgleish. There’s also Kristian Fredrikson’s elegant period costumes which enhance the many clever dance sequences devised by the brilliant Kelly Aykers.

                             Annie (Lucille Le Melodo) and Daddy Warbucks (Anthony Warlow)

Even though he played Daddy Warbucks to great acclaim in the 2000 production of “Annie”, Anthony Warlow has not been content to rest on his laurels. This time around his interpretation of the role is decidedly more playful and warmer. His scenes with Annie, especially in the second act, are quite touching, and his superb rendition of “Something Was Missing” provides the vocal highlight of the show.

Nancye Hayes, disregarding warnings about working with children and animals, is nothing short of wonderful as Miss Hannigan. Her characterisation is a lesson in timing and stagecraft, with its wickedly-detailed, deliciously funny, stage-business, underpinned with the genuine pathos that marks a great comedic performance. This sad, funny little person is such a push-over for the orphans, that you get the distinct impression, that, despite her curmudgeonly ways, they love her as much as the audience do.

Todd McKenney does little to disguise his delight in the role of the roguish Rooster Hannigan, and is perfectly teamed with the impossibly long-legged Chloe Dallimore, as Lilli St Regis. They are both extraordinary dancers, who obviously enjoy working together and both prove to be dab hands at comedy. Watching McKenney, Dallimore and Hayes chew up the scenery with their show-stopping number “Easy Street” is sheer music theatre heaven. It’s a pity these characters have so little to do in the second act.

Miss Hannigan (Nancye Hayes) Rooster Hannigan (Todd McKenney) Lilli St Regis (Chloe Dallimore)

Julie Goodwin (the singer, not the TV cook) is well cast as Grace, the demure, efficient secretary to Daddy Warbucks. Jack Webster contributes a spiffy tap dance moment as the butler, Drake, and Alan Jones proves to be surprisingly effective in the role of President F.D.R.

Lucille Le Meledo, the daughter of Debra Byrne, and one of three girls who share the role of Annie during the season, played and sang the role delightfully, even managing to hold audience attention against some strong competition whenever her dog Sandy appeared. The other children in the cast acquitted themselves well, and impressed with their abilities to perform some quite tricky choreography in their musical numbers.

                                                             Annie (Lucille Le Meledo)
Peter Casey directs the large orchestra which, joyfully, includes real string players instead of the ubiquitous keyboards.

One would be hard-pressed to think of a better way to introduce a child to the wonders of live theatre performance than treat them to a performance of this beautifully mounted, exuberantly performed production of a musical that has it all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal Roles? by Jane Harrison

Jane Harrison
Photo by permission of Currency House

INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal Roles? by Jane Harrison.  Currency House: Platform Papers No 30, January 2012

Review by Frank McKone

Way back in my innocent youth I played the part of Lick Jimmy in the stage version of Ruth Park’s novel Harp in the South.  (If you would like to see the evidence, click )

Self-aggrandisement is not my desire nowadays, but Jane Harrison’s essay in the Currency House quarterly Platform Papers has raised an embarrassing question.  Who gave me permission to play a Chinese character, presumably entirely fictional, with all my cultural assumptions about his mannerisms which I mimed (or rather mined, since it was a Broken Hill Rep production) for comic effect?

Considering the treatment of Chinese people in Australian history, was my performance an insult rather than a light-hearted touch in a warm-hearted drama (actually about Irish Catholics in down-at-heel Surry Hills)?

Jane Harrison is a playwright, a descendant of the Muruwari people of NSW, who describes herself as “light-skinned”.  Her plays, Stolen, Rainbow’s End, Blakvelvet and Custody have variously won significant prizes, have been produced in Australia and overseas, and been placed on English syllabi in Victoria and NSW.  This essay was based on the thesis which gained her an MA in Playwriting at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

In other words, who am I, a one-time British immigrant, to criticise?

Well, here goes….  What I have found is a highly interesting study written from within the experience of a person accepted and identified as Aboriginal, while able to stand outside as a researcher and creative writer coming to terms herself with the fact that “Those [non-Indigenous people] who do know something about Aboriginal culture might assume that everybody shares in that knowledge, but in my experience ‘everybody’ doesn’t.  [I am] regularly asked … maybe because, as a light-skinned Aboriginal person, I am not seen as ‘threatening’…” 

From her interviews and references to almost everyone one can think of involved in Aboriginal theatre, before as well as since Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers (1968), and even including careful use of Germaine Greer’s Quarterly Essay 11 Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood, Harrison reveals the complexity involved in the apparently simple question Who can play Aboriginal roles?

I represent the people she curiously calls ‘Indig-curious’.  She writes: “We need Indig-curious audiences and an Indig-curious readership.  No Aboriginal person I know wants to exclude non-Aboriginal people from the mix, or expects to see them excluded, but whether it be in matters of research or writing, Aboriginal people have a set of knowledges that we want to express and don’t want to feel like our intellectual property is there for the taking.  So, right now, at this point in our history, we need Aboriginal people to be in control of the message and the way in which that message is expressed.”

This is Jane Harrison’s message, after following up many issues: What causes offence?; Who is writing about us and why?; Aboriginal themes, can they be defined?; Why are they writing (and painting) like us?; Responsibility, anxiety and guilt: the burdens of the message maker; Can Aboriginality be learnt?; Lessons learnt – no longer ‘blacking up’; Why white girls don’t Dreamtime.

If you are Aboriginal, I think Harrison’s discussion will help clarify how to control your message and how to express it.  If you are Indig-curious like me (and I hope we all are) her work turns our cross-cultural mess into understandable elements which might be mixed with care into a new recipe for an Australian culture in this century.

In the meantime, I had better apologise to the Australian Chinese community for my Lick Jimmy act in 1965.  My only excuse is, as Germaine Greer wrote concerning Aboriginal people: “White Australians are in the main anxious to avoid upsetting black Autralians by referring to them in ways they might find offensive, but at the same time they are so unfamilar with black people that they have no way of knowing what gives offence and what doesn’t.” 

Reading INDIG-CURIOUS Who can play Aboriginal roles? is well worthwhile.

Go to for more info about Platform Papers.