Thursday, March 28, 2013


Kate Bright (Prince Orlofsky) Jeremy Tatchell (Dr.Falke)
By Johann Strauss.

Director: Frank Ford A.M

Conductor: Julie Sargeant

Presented by Co-Opera

Albert Hall – Canberra – 26th March 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Since 1990, the Adelaide- based opera company, Co-opera, has been undertaking extensive tours of fully-staged opera productions to regional and remote towns around Australia, and occasionally overseas. Apart from the enjoyment they bring to audiences who would otherwise have little chance to experience opera, these productions provide excellent experience for rising young singers.
For their current tour, director Frank Ford A.M. has adapted the popular Strauss operetta “Die Fledermaus” for a cast of 11 singers and a small orchestra of six instrumentalists, under the title of “The Revenge of the Bat”.  Since its first performances in 1875, “Die Fledermaus” has had many adaptations and titles, including “Pink Champagne”, “Oh Rosalinda”,  “Waltz Time” and “The Bat” among them, but this is probably the only production that has been set in Australia in the 1920’s. How appropriate therefore that it should be presented in Canberra’s 1920’s Albert Hall during our Centenary Year.
Ford has written new dialogue for his new adaptation, and provided a prologue, delivered by Dr. Falke (Jeremy Tatchell) ), to explain Falke’s desire for revenge on his friend Eisenstein, who, it appears, following a previous drunken fancy dress ball, had left Falke naked in the town square.  Much of the following action is concerned with mistaken identities, extra-marital flirtations and unlikely champagne-fueled mayhem before, during and after another party thrown by the mysterious Prince Orlofsky (Kate Bright). Predictably though, by the end, all is resolved happily over yet another glass of sparkling champagne.

Raymond Khong (Gabriel Von Eisenstein), Sara Lambert (Adele), Lynette Harris (Rosalinde von Eisenstein)
The singing through-out was confident and spirited, with Matthew Holzinger’s stylish musical arrangements for the six piece orchestra providing a particularly attractive accompaniment.
For the most part Kathryn Sproul’s touring set looked delightfully  appropriate in the venue, and her costumes were witty and attractive, but, possibly because of the lack of time to re-block the staging for the Albert Hall stage,  the singers often looked cramped, appearing not yet to have mastered the art of ‘dressing the stage”; too often "bread and buttering" together at the back when they should have been occupying available empty space at the front.
Also, despite the fact that much of the dialogue, and some of the arias, most notably the famed “Laughing Song” sung by Adele (Sara Lambert) was delivered, disconcertingly, in a exaggeratedly broad Australian strine, there was not much that was inherently Australian about the production. The names and pedigree’s of the characters remained  unmistakably European (a Hungarian countess, a Russian prince etc), and the situations steadfastly resisted transplantation from their European origins.

Lynette Harris as Rosalinde von Eisenstein
 In his program notes Frank Ford mentions that the production strives to capture “the vivacity and engagement of vaudeville theatre”,  which may account for the semaphore acting style and over-emphasised delivery of most of the dialogue, and while most of the cast certainly worked diligently at being vivacious, the only one who really captured the vaudevillian spirit was Roderic Schultz as the Police Inspector, Frank, whose clever drunken turn at the beginning of Act 3 was genuinely funny and provided the acting highlight of the night.
All the characters in “Die Fledemaus” may be shallow and witless, but when played with panache and style can appear exquisitely charming and funny. This cast has no problems with the musical challenges of the piece, and once they discover how to make their characters believable, this production could well become the scintillating evening of operetta so obviously aimed for.
Sara Lambert (Adele), Roderic Schultz (Frank) , Lisa Cannissaro (Sally)


Rinat Shaham as Carmen 
Conducted by Brian Castles-Onion.

Directed by Gale Edwards
Choreography by Kelly Abbey.

Set Design by Brian Thomson
Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour.

Opera Australia until 12th April.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Bizet’s “Carmen”, the opera about a sultry gypsy girl who seduces a soldier only to dump him for a glamorous toreador, is reputed to be the world’s most popular opera. Is there anyone who can’t hum at least one melody from “Carmen” (“The Habanera”, “The Toreador Song”, “The Seguidilla”)?  It’s the opera that has been given countless productions around the world since it was premiered in 1875, and the opera chosen by Opera Australia to follow its inaugural Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour, “La Traviata”. And what a great choice it has turned out to be.

Director, Gale Edward’s concept places this “Carmen” in the Spain in the 1960’s, during the reign of Franco when the effects of the Spanish Civil War were still evident. Tanks, trucks and shipping containers litter the streets, while the rich parade in the latest Dior fashions. Within this context Edwards has come up with a brilliantly staged and performed production, notable, not only for its glorious singing and eye-popping spectacle, but equally for the compelling clarity with which Gale Edwards has been able to keep the focus firmly on the characters and on the telling of the story. 

Because of the need to perform on consecutive nights, there are two casts of principals. The performance reviewed, which was the first dress rehearsal, featured Rinat Shaham as Carmen, Dmytro Popov as Don Jose, Nicole Car as Micaela and Andrew Jones as Escamillo, the Toreador. The second cast, not seen by this reviewer, but which looks equally promising on paper, consists of Milijana Nikolic as Carmen, Adam Diegel as Don Jose, James Clayton as Escamillo and Sharon Prero as Micaela.
Rinat Shaham as Carmen, Dmytro Popov (right) as Don Jose

 Israeli soprano, Rinat Shaham, has played the role of Carmen in 37 different productions of “Carmen” around the world since her Glyndebourne Festival debut in the role in 2004, including Opera Australia's last Sydney Opera House production.  She’s a magnificent Carmen who doesn’t just sing the role, she positively inhabits it. Sexy, sensuous, dangerous, she sounds and looks stunning, whether she’s  prowling  the stage, dancing up a storm, or exercising her formidable talent for seduction over her hapless Don Jose.  Shaham’s performance is electric and unforgettable, the  brilliant centre-piece of this spectacular production.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen with the soldiers
(Note Canberra singer Damien Hall -soldier with beard - left)

Her Don Jose is the good-looking Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov, who’s also an excellent actor as well as a superb singer and their scenes together sizzle. Especially memorable is his gloriously sung “Flower Song” and the magnificently staged death scene at the finale.

Andrew Jones is terrific as the swashbuckling Escamillo, arriving to sing “The Toreador Song” in a neat little Italian sports car surrounded by an entourage of glamorous admirers.  His scene in which he humiliates Don Jose in front of Carmen is especially well handled.
Escamillo (Andrew Jones) and Carmen (Rinat Shaham) 

Nicole Car, who was outstanding earlier this year as Mimi in Gale Edwards’ production of “La Boheme”, is again very impressive as Don Jose’ childhood sweetheart, Micaela.  She’s also incredibly brave, at one stage singing while kneeling on top of a swaying shipping container suspended high in the air. It looked so precarious as to be almost unbearable to watch.
Indeed, Brian Thompsons set is also remarkable in the way it accommodates equally well, the spectacle and the more intimate sections, and how it allows the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.  The massive circular stage is dominated by six huge letters which spell out the word “Carmen”.  The audience is looking at the back of these letters, but during the course of the opera, ladders and scaffolding are revealed which allow cast members to clamber up and over the letters and also over a truck and a tank which are flown in by cranes. There are fireworks, and at one stage Escamillo is also flown in on a crane high above the cast and audience to join in the celebrations for the bull-fight.

Choreographer, Kelly Abbey, taking full advantage of Julie Lynch's ravishing costumes, and the large team of excellent dancers, has utilised every opportunity to create brilliant movement and spectacle, even incorporating the overture and entr’actes, for additional dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the dancers, acrobats, and in some cases, the huge chorus. Such touches as her choreographed fans for the cigarette factory girls, and the dazzling specialty dance for Kate Wormald and seven male dancers, are inspired.
Carmen chorus

Equally crucial is  the remarkable lighting design of John Raiment  which constantly floods the stage in brilliant colour, yet manages to keep the audience focussed on the principals during even the most frenetic crowd scenes. Carmen is always spotlit, which allows the audience to watch her reaction to Escamillo’s “Toreador Song”, and to Frasquita and Mercedes revellations sung from the top of a shipping container, as Carmen wanders among the camp fires,  and to watch Don Jose’s reaction to Carmen’s horror as she realises her fate during the card song.
Underpinning all of this magnificent singing, dancing and spectacle is Georges Bizet’s stunning score,  given a glorious performance by the  Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra, conducted , with obvious affection, by Brian Castles- Onion, who takes every opportunity to highlight all the inherent drama, passion and sweetness of this ravishing score. Special mention also for sound designer Tony David Cray who has done a  remarkable job on the sound reproduction, allowing every glorious note to be heard with utmost clarity.
If I sound as if I’m raving about this production..then I am. It is quite simply quite the most exciting production of “Carmen” I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few over the years. Try not to miss it.

Carmen Fireworks
                                                   Photos by Pat Stephens

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thursday by Bryony Lavery

Thursday by Bryony Lavery.  Brink Productions and English Touring Theatre, director/dramaturg: Chris Drummond.  At Canberra Playhouse, March 20-23, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 20

Before seeing this play I chose to avoid reading any details of the story of Dr Gill Hicks who lost both her legs in the London bombing of the train taking her to work in 2005.  I had also missed hearing or seeing interviews she gave, including the one on Enough Rope which stimulated the interest of Chris Drummond and led to the cooperative venture between these two theatre companies, one in Adelaide – Dr Hicks’ home town – and the other in London, where she works.

I did not want to find myself judging how correctly the play told her story.  I was hoping for a play, based upon her story, but standing in its own right as an artistic work.  And, indeed, that’s what I saw tonight.

The structure of the work is from the general to the particular, beginning that Thursday with an intriguing picture, almost like a movie where the camera shots from many different locations can be juxtaposed to make a montage in motion of the lives of the people and their partners who, by chance, became placed on that train jam-packed next to the suicide bomber.

After the explosion, which was imaginatively – and very effectively – represented in movement and light rather than excessive sound, the work draws in bit by bit to focus on Rose, based on Dr Hicks, played by Kate Mulvaney, until she walks again in the company of all those who have given so much of themselves to help another human being.

As a work of art, it was the originality of the staging, the characterisations and especially the use of heightened language which made the play work for me.  The approach to presenting what could have been a purely melodramatic plot – however true to actual events – was like using lights from oblique and unexpected angles, rather than obvious spotlighting.  The language, and a figure representing Death working to persuade Rose to depart with him, kept our conventional reactions at bay, just enough to see and feel in response, yet not to be overwhelmed by emotion.

To achieve this, Laverty writes “If I had the choice, I would always make a play in the Brink way....I always felt Chris [Drummond] and I were making it together.”  She makes it clear that “We were turning fact into fiction and those two states are empirically different....  One is random, the other is constructed.”

Yet the art is that the constructed fiction tells us so much more about the nature of the real experience than any news report.  And the artistry of all the actors met the demands of the writing.  The result was demanding but exhilarating theatre, a great confirmation of Dr Gill Hicks’ words: My hope is that Thursday will make us more conscious of the everyday and the intricacy of our interconnected relationships, whether that be with those we know and love, or with strangers.

Not to be missed.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Two Gents Productions

Tonderai Munyevu, Denton Chikura, Arne Pohlmeier in rehearsal
 Two Gents Productions Approaching End

by Frank McKone
March 20, 2013

Two Gents Productions is a cross-cultural theatre company based in London.  In Canberra at The Street we are seeing its penultimate program of Vakomana Vaviri Ve Zimbabwe (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, before the company’s final season on international tour in May 2013.

I was fortunate to catch them between performances, wondering how it came about that a freelance director named Arne Pohlmeier has worked with actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu since 2007 on Zimbabwean interpretations of Shakespeare.  Why Shakespeare?  Why Zimbabwe?  And, as it turned out, why Pohlmeier?

Arne Pohlmeier is German born, but spent his childhood in Cameroon, was educated in the US and lives in London.  This is the source of his concern with the migration experience.  What does it mean to leave one culture and join another? 

Travel back to Africa took him to Johannesburg, by this time as a theatre practitioner, where the idea began for a project exploring Shakespeare from a different cultural perspective.  Back in London, he found Shona-speaking actors rare.  Munyevu had come to London after a childhood in Zimbabwe and still had family connections there.  Chikura, after seven years’ insistence by his parents in London that only English must be used at home, came seeking work with much better English than Shona.  So the three began work, with little money, but what turned out to be a highly successful idea: Not only were we able to see the production (Vakomana) through a successful run at one of London’s premier fringe venues, the Oval House Theatre; but we were also able to honour invitations to perform at such exciting events as the 10th anniversary Harare International Festival of the Arts; The Market Theatre Laboratory’s 20th anniversary celebrations (in Johannesburg); and the celebrated Shakespeare Festival in Neuss, Germany.

They explained to me that the first production was, in my words, from outside in.  The two actors were exploring, in a collaborative style, to find ways of using their Shona traditions to express Pohlmeier’s idea.  But in doing this, both Munyevu and especially Chikura had to re-discover their culture, travelling back to Zimbabwe as adults.  For Munyevu the experience was more a matter of remembering, than re-learning; but Chikura found that he was treated and felt like a tourist – even having to pay ‘white’ prices because people heard his London-accented English and saw him dressed as an outsider.

Then, as work progressed, the next production became an inside out exploration of Hamlet, starting from the father-son relationships of Shona culture and connecting from that beginning with the story of Hamlet, his father and his uncle.

In this process, a new show telling the personal story of Munyevu’s return to Zimbabwe was devised by the group, called Magetsi.  This brings directly home to viewers the traditional storytelling style incorporating dance, voice calls, and drums, as well as words, which is used  in the Shakespeare works, now also including The Moors Project focussing on the black characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Othello, the Prince of Morocco from The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus.

There was such a strength of connection between the three as I spoke with them, grown from five years’ working together, understanding their different perspectives and finding such powerful forms of expression on stage, that I was quite shocked to find that Chikura now has a young daughter – to whom he speaks Shona every day – and not only will finish up with Two Gents in May, but will even give up acting in favour of a stable home life instead of touring as an actor must; while Pohlmeier is already working with a new group in Cameroon to explore his childhood experiences through a classical German text; and Munyevu simply says he will be ‘unemployed’.

I’m sure that the skills and experience they have gained over these five years will mean they all have a interesting future to look forward to, and I thank them for a conversation which opened up for me the beginning, the heights of the middle, and the necessary end of a professional and deeply committed theatre company. for further reading.
Denton Chikura
Arne Pohlmeier

Tonderai Munyevu

BRIEFS - All Male revue

Fez Fanaana
The Famous Spiegel Garden,

Senate Rose Garden, Canberra until 22nd March.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

It’s doubtful that Canberra has seen a raunchier, cheekier or more dazzlingly daring entertainment than this current offering at the Famous Spiegel Garden. Hosted by Fez Fanaana, a pleasant, potty-mouthed drag queen with a beard, who confesses that his only skill  is changing outfits between acts (but who towards the end of the show flashes some seriously impressive dance moves), “Briefs”  is a delightfully subversive entertainment, a slick,  if deliberately chaotic excursion, into the realm of male burlesque and alternative circus.
Dressed in neat business suits, the six men who make up the cast take to the stage. With the aid of feather fans, the suits are quickly disposed of in a cleverly choreographed and  neatly executed routine. From then on costumes come and go rather rapidly in a succession of finely honed acrobatic routines.
Muscular Mark Winnell brought gasps from the audience, twisting and turning precariously above their heads in a slack rope act which won him first prize at the 2011 Las Vegas Boylesque competition. Newcomer, Ben Lewis, whose parents were in the audience, pushed his body beyond reasonable limits in an amazing high strap act. Heavily tattooed Natano Fanaana, who won the Melbourne Fringe Circus Oz Award, impressed with his ability to manipulate himself gracefully suspended on silk straps. The handsomely moustachioed Johnny Domino brought back memories of old-time strongmen, while Davy Gravy, definitely the least muscular of the cast, demonstrated some unusual uses for a meat tray.
Be warned, “Briefs” is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended, but the adventurous will be rewarded with a first rate show which not only pushes the boundaries, but is also surprisingly funny and engaging.
Mark Winnell


It’s My Party (And I’ll Die If I Want To) by Elizabeth Coleman

It’s My Party (And I’ll Die If I Want To) by Elizabeth Coleman.  Produced by Christine Harris & HIT Productions.  Directed by Denis Moore, designed by Shaun Gurton, sound by Chris Hubbard, costumes by Adrienne Chisholm.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 19-27, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Superficially an entertaining farce involving revelation, death and resurrection, It’s My Party... has a little something extra.  Elizabeth Coleman, in this – her first full length play – skilfully, smoothly, shifted the mood from laughter (on our part) at the characters’ family wrangling to moments of silent recognition of the truth of each adult child’s accusations against their father, and back to laughter in no time at all.

Quality writing gave all the actors every chance of establishing strong characters and clear relationships, and every one of the family members – Henri Szeps (father, Ron Patterson), Robyn Arthur (mother, Dawn Patterson), Trent Baker (son, Michael), Sharon Davis (elder daughter, Debbie) and Freya Pragt (younger daughter, Karen) – took full advantage of the offer.  Though Szeps is so well-known that he was applauded just for appearing on stage, there was no prima donna in this ensemble performance.

In the end (literally) the role of the undertaker, Ted Wilkins, emphasises the farcical nature of the situation but introduces a character from outside the web of the family’s relationships.  The writing is not so strong here, and I thought Matt Furlani could have made this character rather more absurdist in style to make the point.

One of the delights of this production was the set designed by Shaun Gurton.  Though the drama takes place in an internal room, above the “walls” are trompe-l'oeil pictures of the tiled roofs of the suburban house – at least I assume they were painted flats rather than the complete 3-dimensional structures they looked like.  This cleverly established for us, with the furniture in the room, the small business lower middle class status of Ron Patterson, stationery shop proprietor. 

Though first produced at La Mama in Melbourne 20 years ago, with a little updating of some references, It’s My Party... still works well as a study of the changing generations.  Even if our adult children don’t use Blackberries much any more, the question Ron wants to have answered by them – was I a good father? – is still relevant, and their answers are just as funny, or devastating, as ever.
Henri Szeps as Ron Patterson

Monday, March 18, 2013


A new stage adaptation of the 1928 classic narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March.

Adaption, direction and design by Pauline Wright.

Musical Direction by Jiri Kripac

Performed by Pauline Wright and Joe Woodward

Musicians: Jiri Kripac and David Bates

The Famous Spiegel Gardens, Senate Rose Garden, Canberra

16th March 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

First published in 1928, this long Jazz Age narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March was originally banned in Boston because of its risqué content. Its violent story of a vaudeville dancer who throws booze and sex fuelled party quickly achieved popular success however and was made into a film in 1975, and formed the basis of two musicals.
Both musicals were presented in New York in 2000. The version composed by Michael John La Chiusa was presented on Broadway, and the other composed by Andrew Lippa, (whose musical “The Adams Family” opens in Sydney this week), was presented off Broadway. A concert version of the Andrew Lippa musical was presented at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2005 with a cast which included Simon Burke, Sharon Millerchip, David Harris, Chelsea Gibb and Eddie Perfect.
What better venue then, in which to present Pauline Wright’s  new adaptation of the original poem for which Jiri Kripac has written an original score, than the deliciously decadent atmosphere of the  1920’s Belgian spiegletent,
The presentation was as simple as it was sophisticated. Just two musicians, David Bates on piano and Jiri Kripac on trumpet and two actors, Pauline Wright and Joe Woodward, and a stage dressed with two gold antique chairs, separated by a small antique table holding a  glowing lamp ,a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
After an appropriately bluesy overture, Wright and Woodward each sing a song which sets the context and mood before both sit on the chairs to read the rest of the poem. They read, rather incongruously, from hand-held electronic readers. Convenient perhaps, but somewhat at odds with the otherwise carefully evoked period atmosphere.
The static presentation placed the emphasis very much on Joseph Moncure March’s extraordinary writing and Wright and Woodward, both skilled actors and storytellers, drew on their formidable vocal skills to invest the protagonists and the many lesser participants with a variety of accents and personalities. They wisely relied on Moncure March’s idiosyncratic and evocative words, enhanced by Kripac’s evocative music, to do the rest. Very soon the willing audience found themselves inexorably drawn into the seductive world of prohibition, decadence, drugs, booze and sex.
Despite the interval, which rather broke the spell, and the unfortunate competition from Skyfire towards the end of the performance, this delightful presentation of “The Wild Party” proved to be a memorable experience as captivating for the uniqueness of its spiegletent presentation, as for the opportunity it provided to engage with one of the more provocative and celebrated poems of the twentieth century.



Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Chalk Pit by Peter Wilkins

The Chalk Pit by Peter Wilkins.  The Acting Company directed by Tom O’Neill at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, March 15-16 and 20-23, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Based upon Wilkins’ research into the history of the Hon Thomas John Ley,  Parliamentarian and Minister in NSW and Commonwealth governments in the 1920s and 1930s, this play is a lengthy narrative displaying the personality of a charismatic murderer – a psychopath.  To this end, I must give credit where it is due: to Craig Higgs, who successfully presented this worst kind of politician.  His carefully managed charm covering up his megalomania, his corrupt dealings, gradually releasing more of his essential violence as life deals its inevitable disappointments, was well done.

Otherwise, what has been a long term project for Wilkins, which began in 1986 with a chance discovery of Ley’s papers at the National Library of Australia, to cover this quite extraordinary story from the 1890s to Ley’s death in Broadmoor Prison in 1947, still needs a great deal of work – to trim and focus the drama, and to establish a consistent style.

In the first half I was strongly reminded of the 1953 folk musical by Dick Diamond, Reedy River.  There were the rambunctious bush characters, fighting for their various political causes (in Reedy River’s case around the 1890s Depression and the Shearers’ Strike), the political speeches, the softer and sometimes grim tones of Henry Lawson’s poetry (such as The Faces in the Street), and a propensity to burst into song.  Though I came to Australia a couple of years after the New Theatre staged Reedy River, I quickly absorbed this traditional culture through songs like The Ballad of ’91 from the 10” Diaphon LP which I still have, and was grateful to see the whole play performed at the National Folk Festival a few years ago.

But even in the first half, the writing in The Chalk Pit could not match Reedy River.  Dee Sheville, the singer, and Sabrina Tesfouxis on piano, had an unenviable task.  Only once, as Miss Collins, did Sheville’s singing have a role to play in the action – when invited by Ley to sing to the crowd to follow his rousing electioneering speech.  After that, songs – usually only snatches of song – were interspersed among the dialogue, sometimes with some relevant words but often with no apparent purpose beyond filling in a gap.  In Reedy River all the traditional songs are integral to the action and mood of the play, and in fact drive the drama along.

The Lawson poems might have had a better impact if they had been given much more stage prominence, rather than coming from spaces outside the central acting area.  Though Martin Hoggart and Kristy Richardson tried hard, their skills as performers were not good enough to overcome the staging.  Lawson’s poems are powerful enough to have been used as deliberate action-stoppers which reflect critically at each point in the life of John Ley.  Perhaps this was the intention, but it was lost in this production.

By interval, the first apparent ‘suicide’ by one of Ley’s opponents, but probably a murder, has taken place.   If we were to pick up the folk drama tradition, we could expect the second half to expose Ley as he becomes step by step more paranoid, more aggressive, more violent, and literally more murderous.  The style for this development might use a melodrama form, or of course move into something Brechtian as in Mother Courage and her Children, the climax of which is devastating.

But it seems that Wilkins became tied up in the minutiae of the truth of Ley’s story, which moves to England and becomes almost a comic Cockney cop story with a detective who says things like “I can feel it in my bones” that Ley is guilty of murdering John McBain Mudie, with a representation of the Old Bailey trial full of cliché lawyers and seeming to belong to some early 19th Century court rather than anything like one which would have taken place in 1946.

Along the way, the genre shifted dramatically towards artifices like having Ley arguing with both his wife – in Australia – and his mistress – in London – as if they were in the same time zone.  And, finally, we see the device where characters from his past throw up at him remembered words, I suppose reinforcing his paranoia, while he declines and dies isolated in the insane section of Broadmoor Prison, ironically escaping being murdered by the State after all.

Were we supposed at this point to feel empathy and sympathy for this psychopath?  Hardly, especially after a tedious, far too long, second half.  We had been spoken to, during the court scene, as if we were the jury, but on the evidence in this script, I was certainly somewhere beyond reasonable doubt, not about Ley, but about the play.

It’s a shame, since the virtually unknown story of this figure, elected to both the NSW and the Federal Parliaments – and therefore a warning to us all for the need to be very, very careful about those who would claim to represent us – should be made into a drama for our times.  This will be a demanding task - as the effort that Wilkins has already put in shows.  It needs, perhaps, an Andrew Bovell.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Arnold Rawls as Manrico
By Giuseppe Verdi

 Joan Sutherland Theatre -Sydney Opera House

26th February 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Regarded as one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular operas, possibly because of the inclusion of “The Anvil Chorus”, “Il Trovatore has some of Verdi’s finest music bound up in a fairly turgid story of sibling rivalry, maternal sacrifice and passionate love affairs which offers plenty of scope for bold characterization and strong, dramatic confrontations.

If you judge the success of an operatic production only on the quality of the singing then certainly Opera Australia’s current production of “Il Trovatore” is an outstanding success. The singing is consistently glorious throughout. According to Opera Australia Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, Enrico Caruso was fond of saying that ““Il Trovatore” is easy to stage all you need is the four best singers in the world “.
Daria Masiero as Leonora - Arnold Rawls as Manrico

Even if they’re not the four best singers in the world – and who’s to judge that? – Milijana Nikolic, Michael Honeyman, Daria Masiero and Arnold Rawls still constitute a formidable quartet.  Their singing, both solo and combined, together with the full rich sounds elicited by conductor Arvo Volmer, from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, and the Opera Australia chorus, resulted in a deeply satisfying aural feast.  

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s towering, flexible set design, lit quite magically by Nick Schlieper, made sure the eyes were appropriately feasted also.  Particularly memorable is the scene in which the great doors of the convent slowly open to reveal multiple red-lit icons which in turn slide away to reveal nuns.  

However, moving of the period to the 1936/39 Spanish Civil War robbed costume designer Judith Hoddinott of the opportunity for spectacular costuming. The best that can be said of the current, not particularly flattering, costumes is that they ‘look right’. However many of them also look as though they have been cherry-picked from other productions and those for the female principals being particularly unflattering. Why do directors continually feel the necessity to bring ‘relevance’ to their productions by changing the period? What’s the matter with presenting the opera as the composer intended and take advantage of contempory staging techniques to make them more acceptable to modern audiences if necessary.  

The nude scene for the soldiers seemed snappier than previously remembered, and certainly made the audience sit up in their seats, but why the old-fashioned semaphore acting style adopted by the principals?  At times the acting was so overstated that it bordered on the ridiculous, often so extreme that it was hard not to giggle instead of being moved by the plight of the characters.  This over-acting was not remembered from previous productions, and as Matthew Barclay is credited with the direction ‘based on a production by Elke Neidhardt’, one can only imagine that this must surely be some misconceived innovation he has imposed.

Over-acting aside, it was a pleasure to revisit this production and thrill to Verdi's sublime score, especially when performed as superbly as it is by this current cast. 

Milijana Nikolic as Azucena - Michael Honeyman as Count di Luna
                                                                All photos by Branco Gaica


The Famous Spiegel Garden,

Senate Rose Garden, Canberra

13th March 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Amid the faded rococo splendour of the antique Famous Spiegel Garden, in which it is reputed that Marlene Dietrich has also performed, a packed house of rapt Canberrans were treated to an exquisite performance of the art of cabaret, when French chanteuse, Caroline Nin gave the only Canberra performance of her show “Hymne a Edith Piaf”.

Caroline Nin is the real deal. She spends most of her professional life singing at the Paris Lido, but finds time to tour Australia annually with her stylish cabaret shows, among which “Hymne an Edith Piaf” is her signature show and her most acclaimed. It was nominated for a Helpmann Award for the best cabaret show of 2012.

As the name suggests, this show is not an autobiographical telling of Piaf’s life. Nor does Nin imitate Piaf’s guttural singing style. However, during the course of the show we do learn quite a lot about Piaf, and the songs evoke the sound and passion of Piaf's voice as a result of the way they are written.

Besides being a superb vocalist, Caroline Nin is also an arresting story-teller, with a sure sense of the use of movement and stillness. Each of the songs, often given brilliant jazz-inflected accompaniments by John Thorn on piano and Jonathan Zwartz on double bass, was preceded by a mesmerising set-up.

Sometimes Nin, tall, elegant, clad in a tight black dress slit to the thigh, simply quoted the English lyric in her warm heavily accented voice prior to singing the song in French.   For “L’acccordeoniste” she became “a girl of joy” – a sex-worker - who dreamed of having her own brothel complete with an accordionist. For “If You Love Me” she told of how Piaf first sang that song at a concert on the same night that she received word that her lover had been killed in a plane crash.

Her introductions on each occasion were engrossing, often cheeky and playful, always enlightening, creating the perfect ambiance for the song which followed, whether it be passionate or tender, regretful or defiant.

Some in the audience may not have understood the language, in which the song was sung, but they certainly understood the meaning of every word and all were conscious that they were participating in a rare, sublime cabaret performance.

Friday, March 8, 2013


Todd McKenney as Pluto
Operetta by Jacques Offenbach
Libretto by Hector Cremieux and Ludovic Halevy
in a new performing version by Jonathan Biggins and
Phillip Scott from a condept by Ignatious Jones.
Conductor: Andrew Greene
Director:    Jonathan Biggins
Designer:   Mark Thomson
Lighting Design: John Rayment
Choreographer: Amber Hobson

Opera Australia,
Sydney Opera House until 27th March 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Thank heavens for surtitles! Not because the singers didn’t sing clearly enough, but without them we would have missed many of Phil Scott’s brilliant gunshot-fast gags. A lethal combination, director, Jonathan Biggins, and writer Phil Scott, both best known for their annual Wharf Revues, have taken to Jacques Offenbach’s mad romp and, with the enthusiastic participation of a very game cast, have come up with a production which is delightfully silly, lavish, campy, cheeky, occasionally tacky, but most of all great fun. It is also one which brilliantly captures the essence and intent of the original in the way that it satirises current political figures, media and morality.

The performance gets off to a great start with conductor Andrew Greene, resplendent in red velvet jacket, setting a brisk beat for the orchestra for what surely must be one of the loveliest operetta overtures. However, the overture is rudely interrupted by Public Opinion, Suzanne Johnston, delightfully authoritive, as the guardian of morality and good taste.
Rachelle Durkin (Eurydice) Andrew Brunsdon (Orpheus)
Everyone seems to be having way too much fun, certainly in Arcadian Thebes, where we first meet musician, Orpheus (Andrew Brunsdon) and his strung-out wife Eurydice (Rachelle Durkin). Eurydice seems more interested in running off the shepherd next door than in Orpheus’s latest composition.
Rachelle Durkin (Eurydice) Todd McKenney (Pluto)

 It turns out that that shepherd is really the god Pluto, (Todd McKenney, revealed in a marvellous on-stage transformation). As Pluto, Todd McKenney looked and sounded great in his heavily muscled black leather breastplate and silver codpiece, however on opening night, he seemed not to have decided on how to play the character, vacillating between campy and heroic, and dropping character altogether when he joined the line-up for the energetic can-can towards the end.

Rachel Durkin is a gorgeous Eurydice. She tackled the singing challenges brilliantly, and gave such a wickedly clever comic performance that she almost stole the show. Andrew Brunsdon, with more than a touch of the Elvis Presley’s, clearly relished the comedic possibilities of his role as Orpheus, while Mitchell Butell as the green and decomposing John Styx, complete with blow-flies circling his head, made a big impression in a smallish role.
Mitchell Butell (John Styx) Rachelle Durkin (Eurydice)

As well as the brilliant script, this production is packed with plenty of satisfying vocal performances, as well as marvellous visual moments, among them Mercury’s entrance,  (Stephen Smith flown in on a jet propelled motor-bike) and Eurydice’s bathtub seduction by Jupiter (Christopher Hillier disguised as a blowfly).
Sian Pendry (Venus), Jane Ede (Diana), Christopher Hillier (Jupiter)
Katherine Wiles (Cupid), Victoria Lambourn (Juno)

Opera buffs may find it all a little too trivial, but then hasn’t “Orpheus in the Underworld” always been trivial? And how often is it that you spend a night at the opera which keeps you chuckling for days afterwards?

Todd McKenney (Pluto) Mitchell Butell (John Styx)

(All photos by Lisa Tomasetti)


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Animal Farm by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by shake&stir theatre company

Animal Farm by George Orwell, adapted for the stage by shake&stir theatre company (Brisbane), directed by Michael Futcher.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 5-7, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 5

shake&stir is essentially a theatre-in-education youth theatre group – and young people came along in considerable numbers.  The applause from them and from those of us who are somewhat beyond youth was for a very satisfying piece of theatre, which made the message of Orwell’s famous cautionary tale absolutely clear.

All of us benefitted from a reminder to watch out for the con men and women of politics, especially when they spout slogans which morph mysteriously from All animals are equal to All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others!  There could be no more salutary lesson for us in this election year.

The success of this 90 minute adaptation relied on high energy precision in movement and voice by the cast of five, playing over 30 animal characters plus brief narration roles; and on equally high energy and precision in the sound track and visuals.  It was a joy for me to see multi-media and stage action thoroughly integrated, yet never becoming robotic (as I have seen in some children’s shows, for example, like Dora the Explorer performed to a pre-recorded tape).

Here, Ross Balbuziente, Nick Skubij, Tim Dashwood, Bryan Probets, and Nelle Lee (especially in her role of Molly, the horse who could not resist sugar, ribbons and a properly brushed mane) were all spot on in their timing and mood creation.  This Animal Farm was a revolution in action from go to whoa, never a comfortable fable of talking quadrupeds.  Or rather: Two legs Bad, Four legs (or two legs with wings) Good – or the chooks would never have stayed.

The set was quite extraordinarily complex, especially for a touring group to cart around the country.  It must be constructed as a huge jigsaw of pieces of myriad shapes and sizes, including speakers, lights and projector.  I can only admire the designer, Josh McIntosh, for his ingenuity – and the lighting designer, Jason Glenwright, and composer/sound designer Guy Webster – in making a set where actors, lights and sounds, and visuals on screens could all come and go in the right places at dizzying speed.

No roadie’s name is recorded in the program, so I presume everyone must be congratulated for amazing teamwork just to bump in and bump out.  Maybe Michael Futcher whips them all into place every night, unless they have all become as compliant as 457 Visa holders in the mining industry.  Whatever – it’s a great show for old and young to learn or re-learn Orwell’s warning.


Mirramu Dance Company in association with artists from Arnhem Land.

James O Fairfax Theatre,
National Gallery of Australia.

1- 3 March 2013

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

How appropriate that the opening night of the Enlighten Festival was chosen for the world premiere of this extraordinary collaboration between traditional indigenous dancers and four highly trained contemporary dancers of the Mirramu Dance Company, to communicate a sacred song line of the Yolngu people through a modern dance work.

Six dancers lead by the indefatigable Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, together with two on-stage musicians, weave authentic ancient traditional movement with sophisticated abstract contemporary choreography to produce seventeen mesmerising interludes depicting the circle of life from sunrise to sunset.

A simple backcloth, sensitive lighting, attractive, often surprising costumes and an evocative soundscape of rolling waves and distant voices combined with the haunting sounds of a didgeridoo and sticks played live on stage,  transport the audience into a world of spirits, canoes, birds and animals through a series of group dances and solos, which include a particularly memorable brolga, danced by Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, and an extraordinary bat danced by Albert David.

At times the two styles of dance looked uncomfortable together, the meanings not always obvious. However, at one point, each of the participants introduced themselves in their native tongue. Although the audience did not understand what some said, it  knew what each was saying.  The same could be said of the movement. An engaging and potent form of enlightenment.

          (An edited version of this review appears in CITY NEWS March 6 - 12th edition)