Monday, April 28, 2014

Keeping It Moving

It’s not that I started musing on the art of keeping it moving during Bruce Hoogendorn’s funny and insightful Warts and All.* I’ve been grumbling about the need for shows to not hold up the action for some considerable time now.  Years, in fact.

But a couple of things triggered further reverie. One was Warts and All. The other was the sublime Sitkovetsky Trio in concert for Musica Viva.

In classical music there are pauses between the movements of a symphony or a concerto. It’s not over yet and everyone knows it but the pauses are always marked by discrete shifting in seats and dealing with a cough. Not, as a general rule, talking. It’s a pause but not the end. The instruments might get a little bit of adjusting but the thread is held.

The Sitkovetsky Trio signalled both the end of the movement and the end of the whole piece with particularly fine sweeping flourishes of the bow.  (This was particularly handy in the Carl Vine piece as it was new.) The audience, well trained in the conventions of the concert hall, responded with equal grace and did not let go of the line until the piece was properly finished.

Theatre can be rather different.

Now Warts and All certainly shows Hoogendoorn’s growing adroitness with a particular brand of wry local comedy.

Simon (Will Huang) is laid up with osteoarthritis of the knees at his granny’s house in Queensland, contemplating the ruin of a promising running career. He hasn’t done too well with year 12 in Canberra either, so he’s staying with his grandmother (Helen Vaughan-Roberts) while he regroups. Enter (via an impressive trick wardrobe) a truculent whistle blowing ghost of uncertain identity from the family’s past (Rob de Fries).

Grandma Margaret is trying to get Simon interested in family history so this is a helpful if alarming turn of events. Also alarming is the arrival of her overbearing cousin Alice (Oliver Baudert) and Kirsty  (Adellene Fitzsimmons), her granddaughter with eye rolling attitude. There are clearly family secrets and local historian Dotty (Elaine Noon) may know more than she’s letting on.

The twists in the plot were pleasingly not predictable and the dialogue was often snappily funny, particularly in the deft hands of Vaughan-Roberts and De Fries. Baudert did a bravura turn as Alice, Noon bumbled well as Dotty (the name tells all), Fitzsimmons was sharp as Kirsty and Huang made a likable Simon, in the end well on his way to a necessary resilience concerning life.

But staging needs to keep the audience focussed and the bugbear of the blackout, complete with long moments while stagehands in black reposition furniture and props persists round Canberra’s shows. Here the blackouts were many and threatened to hold up the action of what should have been be a swift comedy. 

The audience was being let off the hook to the point where some of my neighbours actually started conversations. Sotto voce to be sure and of course according to polite Western audience conventions they should not really have been doing it. But the blackouts were allowing that level of relaxation and a drop in audience energy. 

A shame because the play was funny and local and perceptive about the complications of families. 

Solutions? Keep it tight. Minimise what has to be shifted. Minimise what is on stage. Some shows use characters to move things. Some dress the stagehands in appropriate costume. I once saw a student Importance of Being Earnest where the set changes were choreographed and done with a flourish by the servants.  (Stage hands in costume. Now there’s a thought. But probably better in a musical.)

Above all, give some thought to minimalism when it comes to props and furniture. The long lists of both at the back of all of those French’s Acting Editions have much to answer for in forming ideas of how staging can be made to work and in any case are often based on a West End or Broadway premiere with resources like revolves and fly towers.

Start the next scene as soon as the previous one finishes. Think film. Think Shakespeare. If the action does require a snap black out then move on as fast as possible into what happens next, perhaps by putting it on another part of the stage. Use the lighting device of the cross fade to pull the audience’s attention elsewhere, preferably to where the next scene is starting. Anything to stop the action being held up. And anything to stop those in the audience who suddenly feel obliged to chat. 

(Upon which last point I was intrigued to find The Canberra Theatre has guides to theatre etiquette on its web site.

Of course if you go to foreign parts and sample some kinds of performance you will find all bets are off in terms of the above. Love the hill tribe shows in Chiang Mai where a piece will just suddenly stop dead for no apparent reason, leaving a couple of hundred Spanish, German, English and Australian tourists not knowing when to applaud. Or if.

The Sitkovetsky Trio was secure in the power of the concert hall’s conventions.  Warts and All was very secure in the writing and the acting but needed to do more with its staging by doing less. As for the hill tribe performers, I do not yet presume to know.

*Warts and All. Written and directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn. The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. April 2-12 2014.

An update of links to recent Canberra Times reviews:
*Please note that Liza One Note in Forbidden Broadway was performed by Halimah Kyrgios. This was the reviewer’s error.

Alanna Maclean

Friday, April 25, 2014


Written by: Tom Murphy
Maeliosa Stafford - Patrick Dickson
Director: John O’Hare
Presented by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company and O’Punsky’s Theatre
Eternity Playhouse – Sydney until 4th May 2014.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This production of “The Gigli Concert” provided an opportunity to not only experience my play by Tom Murphy, considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest living playwright, but also to make my first visit to one of Sydney’s newest and cosiest theatres, the Eternity Playhouse in Burton Street, Darlinghurst.
Interestingly, this is the fourth production of “The Gigli Concert” presented by the co-producers, O’Punsky’s Theatre.  Director, John O’Hare, and the two male leads, Patrick Dickson and Maeliosa Stafford, have been involved in all four productions, so I was curious to find out what they found so compelling about this play.
“The Gigli Concert” concerns a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic;  a quack  psychiatrist, JPW King, (Patrick Dickson) who’s  eking out a living conducting  consultations in his squalid office/apartment. Between constant telephone conversations with his wife, King is also having an on-going affair with a married woman, Mona, (Kim Lewis) on a convertible sofa-bed in his office.  When a mysterious millionaire Irish businessman (Maeliosa Stafford) walks into his office demanding King help him sing like the famous Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli, his life becomes even more surreal.
According to John O’Hare in his program notes “There is a Faustian pact in Gigli, to be sure, perhaps more than one. Who makes it and how it is worked with are endlessly fascinating”.

Well, maybe to Mr. O’Hare and his cast, who, by this fourth production, must have a deep knowledge and appreciation of the subtleties of the text, but to this first-time viewer many aspects of the play simply remain obtuse and confusing.

All three actors give solid ‘actorly’ performances. Throughout the three hours duration of the play, they deliver their lines in a sort of ‘disconnect’, constantly talking to each other, but not really communicating. We’re always aware that they are giving a performance, so we don’t become involved with them as believable people.
Ambiguous situations abound. The play commences with the psychiatrist, JPW King listening to a recording of Gigli, but when his client declares his ambition to sing like Gigli, King never acknowledges his own fascination with Gigli’s voice. Because conversations are often drowned out by over-amplified recordings of Gigli, information is lost. According to the program notes these recordings are carefully stipulated by the author, but because they are sung in Italian, any significance they have is lost on the majority of the audience. Towards the end of the play, King attempts suicide by ingesting handfuls of pills washed down with copious amounts of vodka. He collapses on the floor apparently in a coma for the duration of another Gigli aria, but  then awakens, brushes himself down, gathers up a few belongings, and marches cheerfully  out of his apartment into the ‘happily ever after’.

Perhaps this constant ambiguity is the fascination of the play. In which case, if you like to leave the theatre puzzling over what you’ve just seen, then perhaps this is the play for you.

       This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website



The Girls in Grey and Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility

 The Girls in Grey by Carolyn Bock & Helen Hopkins.  The Shift Theatre (Melbourne), presented by Critical Stages, directed by Tom Healey (original direction by Karen Martin), set designed by Alex Hiller.
The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre Thursday April 24, 8.00pm, Friday April 25, 5.00pm, Saturday April 26, 2.00pm & 8.00pm, 2014.

Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility exhibition by Geoffrey Jones at Tuggeranong Community Arts Centre, April 24 to May 30, 2014.
Opening on Thursday 24 April at 6pm, with a speech by Mr Graham Walker, Canberra Times Senior Australian of the Year. Special event Saturday 26 April from 12- 4pm with an artist’s talk at 2pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 24

On the eve of Anzac Day I have been honoured to witness The Girls in Grey, complemented fortuitously by the artwork of Geoffrey Jones on exhibition at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

The Girls in Grey is a ceremonial ritual, using the words in highly personal letters written by Australian nurses sent to the front in World War I.  Geoffrey Jones, a Vietnam War veteran, reveals his personal history in Reflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility.  Both shows bring home to the viewer the change from a naive acceptance of  warfare to the realistic understanding that no-one should be expected to face such destruction – of physical and emotional life.

The honour I felt arose from the honesty with which the nurses and Jones spoke through art – his own in Jones’ case and in the scripting, stage design, directing and performing by the Shift Theatre team of the nurses’ words.

Jones’ paintings, photographic work and installations speak for themselves.  Some pieces from this exhibition have been acquired by the Australian War Memorial, for display there from 2015 after exhibition in Sydney.

Shift Theatre’s 70 minute performance could justifiably become an annual ritual on Anzac Day.  The joie de vivre of the nurses as they take the oath of service and find themselves as if on holiday in Egypt; their down-to-earth practicality as “their boys” are brought in; their humanity; their determination to do everything they can with inadequate resources; their realisation as the patients arrive in their thousands that the war is beyond all reason; and their experience of the deaths of their loved ones, including among their own colleagues – leads us to a powerful ceremony of placing the poppies gathered from the grim field of war into an array representing the graves in ordered lines in the war cemeteries around the world.

With this image before us, the reprise chorus of the nurses’ oath of service is more than ironic.  It reflects the respect we must have for all the women and men in war, the great sorrow we must feel for all this unnecessary sacrifice, and the all-encompassing hope we must maintain that humanity will some day reign: that conflict will be resolved without such destruction.

The script for The Girls in Grey  has drawn upon letters of many members of the Australian Army Nursing Service, to form three characters – the matron Grace (Carolyn Bock), Elsie (Samantha Murray) and Alice (Helen Hopkins) – with James O’Connell, in this season’s tour, playing at times a generalised soldier, and the three men in these women’s lives: Syd, Harry and Len (originally played by Lee Mason).

This trimming down was a very effective way of bringing the enormity of deaths and injuries down to the level of personal experience, when, as the War Memorial records, “From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

To present these characters over the five-year period of the war not only required a massive amount of research, but also a style of performance which could tell enough of the individual characters’ stories while keeping us aware of the wider context.  Tom Healey’s direction focusses on what some would call a ‘presentational’ style – a form of storytelling with some symbolic action, choreographed placing of figures, and shifting between individual and chorus voices.  The cast worked together so closely that in some highly significant moments they were able to maintain a lengthy silence or period of stillness, and then precisely time their next word or movement all together.  Using such good timing, and with a high degree of poetic expression, the mood of the piece began light, and then bit by bit drew us in to the darkness.

At the end, there was a feeling in the audience that we shouldn’t clap immediately, though there was no hesitation when the lights came up on stage for a curtain call.  I felt that I would have liked the final fade to black to have been held longer, and even perhaps for the curtain call to have been less cheerful.  The standard smiles and recognition of the stage crew broke the mood too quickly for me, personally.  But this should not be taken as a serious criticism of a valuable and successful theatrical work, which extended my appreciation of the role of the nurses in wartime, for which I thank Shift Theatre.

It was sadly enlightening to see the play and the art exhibition on this day.  As Geoffrey Jones has written (quoting George Orwell to summarise his inspiration: ‘If the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking’), As an artist and former willing participant in one of these conflicts, I hope through this exhibition to encourage people to reflect upon Australia’s engagement in these costly and sometimes futile wars...The works question the apparent eagerness of Australia to become involved in overseas wars, and attempt to convey the enormous and terrible sacrifice and loss those wars incurred.

And, as Rauny Worm, CEO of Tuggeranong Arts Centre wrote – equally appropriate for The Girls in GreyReflections on Sacrifice, Loss & Futility “is sure to demonstrate the ability of art to act as a powerful tool for personal expression on important issues.”

Geoffrey Jones: Poppies in Afghanistan
Vietnam veterans, artist Geoffrey Jones and CT Senior Australian of the Year, Graham Walker

Thursday, April 24, 2014


Adam Bull - Lucinda Dunn
Music: Jules Massenet
Choreography: Sir Kenneth McMillan
Designer: Peter Farmer
Conductor: Nicolette Fraillon
The Australian Ballet - Joan Sutherland Theatre - SydneyOpera House until 23rd April 2014.

Performance 16th April reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Kenneth McMillan’s dramatic full-length ballet, charting the rise and downfall of a beautiful courtesan, was originally choreographed for the Royal Ballet in 1974. The Royal Ballet brought it to Australia in 1988 as part of the bi-centennial celebrations. In 1994 the Australian Ballet premiered its own production of “Manon”, which 20 years later, with Peter Farmer’s sumptuous costumes and settings intact, still remains a beautiful and compelling work with inventive choreography and central roles which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.

Through the course of the ballet, Manon’s journey takes her from innocent girl-hood to rapturous love, sexual awakening and decadent wealth, finally humiliating deportation as a prostitute only to die exhausted in a swamp of Louisiana. It is a role prized by dancers for the opportunities and challenges it offers as both dancer and actress. 

The Australian Ballet’s performance in the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House on 16th April was particularly memorable because it was the penultimate performance by Lucinda Dunn as Manon.  One of The Australian Ballet’s most admired and accomplished ballerinas, Dunn had announced that she would be retiring from dancing at the end of the Sydney season of “Manon” after a 23 year career with The Australian Ballet. 

Lucinda Dunn as Manon
From the moment she made her entrance as the young girl enroute to a convent, it was clear that Dunn was savouring every moment of this performance. So completely was she immersed in the role that the intricate choreography seemed to hold no terrors for her, as she abandoned herself completely to ballet.  

Her total trust and confidence in her partner, tall, elegant, Adam Bull as des Grieux, was obvious and he supported her with a passionate, thoughtful performance that made her instant attraction to him totally believable.  Their ecstatic lifts, explosive jumps, headlong rushes into each other’s arms in the post-coital pas deux were sensuous, exhilarating and thrilling  to watch.

Not only was Dunn’s dancing wonderfully detailed but so too was her acting.  The look of surprise which momentarily  crossed  her face at the beginning of  the sensual  pas de trois when her brother, Lescaut (Andrew Killian) offers her to Monsieur GM  (Stephen Heathcote) , and her growing awareness of the power of her sensuality as she succumbs to Monsieur GM advances was beautifully portrayed.

Andrew Killian (Lescaut) - Lucinda Dunn (Manon) - Stephen Heathcote (Monsieur GM)


Among the other central roles Andrew Killian was superb as Manon’s mischievous brother, Lescaut. His dancing throughout, but particularly in the hilarious “drunk” pas de deux at the ball, for which he was teamed with Laura Tong, excellent as his fiery mistress, was nothing short of brilliant.

Bringing his considerable experience to the role of the sinister Monsieur GM, Stephen Heathcote exuded charm and elegance, throwing his money around at every opportunity. The interplay between Monsieur GM and Madam X, (played by Olga Tamara) the accommodating proprietor of the salon in the Hotel Particulier, provided a chilling counterpoint to the festivities taking place as the “actresses” plied their trade.

Brett Chynoweth deserves special mention for his splendid dancing as the beggar chief, as does Brett Simon who, as the gaoler, provided perhaps the most confronting moment of this fascinating production. .

Although cobbled together from a number of Jules Massenet compositions, the atmospheric, tuneful score was superbly played by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, and provided a wonderfully lush and romantic soundscape for a ballet which proved to be the perfect vehicle in which to showcase the prodigious talents of a remarkable and much-loved ballerina making her final farewell appearances.

Lucinda Dunn - Adam Bull

         This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website













Monday, April 21, 2014


The Pan Pacific Grand Prix
Thomas Lacey (Scott) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran)
Photo: Jeff Busby
 Book:  Baz Luhmann and Craig Pearce
 Original Score and arrangements: Elliott Wheeler
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Set and Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Musical Supervisor: Max Lambert

Global Premiere reviewed by Bill Stephens

Following an unprecedented publicity blitz, the first night audience was expecting “Strictly Ballroom” to be spectacular.  They were not disappointed. From the moment you entered the theatre you knew you were in for a memorable theatrical experience.

Strictly Ballroom - Global Premiere
Photo: James Morgan
The auditorium of the Lyric Theatre has been transformed into a huge dance-hall with multi-colour lame seats and huge posters decorating the walls. It looks terrific. Smarmy JJ Silvers, (Mark Owen-Taylor) warms up the audience for the forthcoming dance competition, dividing them into sections which are given contestants to barrack for. Then the glittering curtains part to reveal a stunning riot of spangles, sequins, feathers and swirling ball-gowns.

Drew Forsythe ( Doug Hastings) and ensemble
Photo: Douglas Kirkland
Catherine Martin’s costumes, topped with sky-high hairdos, are gorgeous and gaudy. So are her wonderfully detailed settings which magically break apart, dance with the action, and regroup in endless combinations.

Song follows song as we meet the various players and begin the familiar story of ballroom dance champion Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey), who wants to change the dance rules, and ugly-duckling, Fran (Phoebe Panaretos) who’s just the girl to help him do it. Most of the audience seemed to be familiar with the movie, and as the musical follows the movie fairly closely, there were times where the audience were ahead of the plot, particularly when the plot was interrupted by an unfamiliar song.

“Love is in the Air”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, “Time after Time” and “Happy Feet” are all there, so is the “Blue Danube Waltz” and Bizet’s familiar  “Habanera”  (now with new lyrics about “A Life Lived in Fear”). There are also many new songs in various styles by a phalanx of composers, among them Eddie Perfect, Sia Furler, Dianne Warren,  Elliott Wheeler, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. These songs were presumably intended to advance the plot, but the lyrics were most often unintelligible, because of excessive amplification and brassy orchestrations. Hopefully a cast recording will reveal their lyrics.

"Time After Time"
Thomas Lacey (Scott Hastings) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran) - Top
Drew Forsythe (Doug Hastings) - Bottom
Photo: Jeff Busby
There are many highlights in the show. Personal favourites include the lovely staging of “Time after Time” where Fran and Scott dance on the rooftop against a backdrop of a Hills Hoist clothes-line with Baz Luhrmann’s  ubiquitous Coca Cola neon sign trade-mark twinkling in the background, while below them, Scott’s father, Doug Hastings (a memorable characterisation by Drew Forsythe) dances alone with his own memories.  It’s a powerful and touching image.

Then there’s the truly exciting first act finale when Rico (Fernando Mira) with the support of Abuela (Natalie Gamsu, who steals every scene she is in) teach Scott the Paso Doble. 

Act One Finale
Phoebe Panaretos - Natalie Gamsu - Fernando Mira - Thomas Lacey
Photo: Douglas Kirkland
The low points include the time-wasting audience-participation scenes where audience members are brought up on stage.  

Strong performances abound, including those of Robert Grubb as the lugubrious Barry Fife, Heather Mitchell as Scott’s loud and over-wrought mother, Nadia Coyote drop-dead-gorgeous as Tina Sparkle, and Sophia Kato deliciously spiteful as Liz Holt.

"Love is in the Air"
Thomas Lacey (Scott Hastings) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran)
Photo:Jeff Busby
Undeniably handsome, a terrific dancer and possessing a serviceable voice, Thomas Lacey surprisingly lacked the charisma necessary carry off the central role in a show of this size. Scott Hastings is a hugely demanding on-stage role. Hopefully Lacey will develop more presence as the season progresses.  
Phoebe Panaretos fared better as Fran. Following some unconvincing opening scenes and some unexpectedly dodgy notes in her songs, she quickly settled into a charming stage presence, although her dancing in the finale would certainly not have won her the competition.
Given that whole impetus of the story is to have Scott and Fran win the climactic Pan Pacific Grand Prix dance championship, the staging of this event proved a rather disappointing anti-climax, especially after all the razzle dazzle that had gone before. The show seemed to run out of new ideas at this point and despite the best efforts of the large cast, the ending seemed to fizzle into endless bows.

Doubtless over the next few months, Baz Luhrmann, clever director that he is, will continue to finesse this production, tweak some details, and maybe eliminate a song or two to expose the heart which is currently beating below the feathers and sequins.  
Meanwhile, despite the quibbles, “Strictly Ballroom”, is a must-see party show, spectacular to look at and delightfully entertaining.

Christina D'Agostino (Emily Waters)- Ryan Gonzales (Jonathan Drench)
Photo: Jeff Busby

         This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris - Review


Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Tanya Goldberg, March 19 – April 19, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 19

An excellent production of an excellent play.  The website says it all:


Is the popularity justified by quality?  I think it is.

The Ensemble has a long tradition, going back to its American founder, Hayes Gordon, of presenting successful up-to-date plays from the USA.  Clybourne Park fits the bill since its first production in 2010, having already won a Tony, a Pultizer, Olivier and Evening Standard awards. 

The basis of its success is the witty, often excruciatingly funny, exposé of the worst kind of NIMBYism which has property values and race in the mix.

Norris has skilfully put together, all in the same house, the story of social change in this fictional suburb of Chicago which has been true of central city areas across the US through the post-World War 2 to the present time.

Each of the seven actors has two roles – one in the mid-1950s, following the end of the Korean War in 1953, as ‘coloured’ people began to buy into middle-class white areas; the other in the late 20 noughties, by which time the house had a historical heritage value as the vanguard of the change to Afro-American middle-class ownership.

But there is also the ghostly presence in that house of the son of the earlier white owners, who had hanged himself in his upstairs bedroom because of guilt, apparently for having shot civilians during a clearing operation in Korea.

None of this sounds like material for a comedy.  Just imagine shifting the scene from Chicago to the more upmarket part of Moree, say, if the people from Toomelah had had the chance to buy in 1968, when they were still refused access to the swimming pool, and while the part played by Aboriginal men in Australia’s wars went not only unrecognised but officially denied.

In this play, Chicago has gone through and out the other side to the point where the now racially mixed community tries to decide what should be done to preserve, refurbish or update the house.  These people are two generations away from those in Act 1.  The measure of Norris’ success is that the funniest – and most excruciating scene – is when his characters in 2010 fire off racist jokes at each other.

This is the point at which, through comedy which satirises each character’s stance, we in the audience are forced, as we laugh, to recognise our own hypocritical attitudes – and it doesn’t take much thought to see the wider range of issues to which the laughter can be applied.

Of course, though, the sublety of Norris’ writing could be a disastrous and embarrassing flop on stage, if it were not directed and acted with detailed care to match.  Not only has Tanya Goldberg placed the characters precisely in their American setting – recognising that the drama must be played true to its locality to have global effect – but she and all the actors have understood the style needed.   Comedy requires a degree of exaggeration and pointed timing.  This makes the first act work.  Satire requires an extra fine control to turn comedy into inescapable self-recognition on our part.  This was achieved to a very high degree in the second act.

So my praise goes to all the cast: Paula Arundell (1950s Francine / 2010 Lena); Cleave Williams (Albert / Kevin); Richard Sydenham (Russ / Dan); Wendy Strehlow (Bev / Kathy); Briallen Clarke (Betsy / Lindsey; Nathan Lovejoy (Karl / Steve); and Thomas Campbell who played three roles – Jim / Tom, and Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth, in a kind of reprise which ends the play as he writes his suicide note.

This was a genuine Ensemble production.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Charmene Yap - Andrew Crawford

Canberra Theatre Centre  10 - 12 April 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

To celebrate their 45th Anniversary the Sydney Dance Company, under the artistic direction of Rafael Bonachella, has created “Interplay”, a program of three works by three different choreographers. The result is a stunning demonstration of the range and diversity of the prodigious skills of the 17 superb dancers who make up the present company.

The first work 2 in D Minor is Rafael Bonachella’s contribution. A lyrical abstract work which utilises the entire company to further explore choreographic ideas encountered while choreographing his acclaimed work Project Rameau. This time Bonachella draws his inspirations from Bach’s Partita 2 in D Minor, played live on stage by violinist Veronique Serret, who interacts with the dancers as they perform a series of complex, fluid duos and trios based on a motif established by Charmene Yap in a gorgeous solo which commences the work. Although Bonachella utilises the entire company, they are never all on stage at the same time. One particularly lovely section involves several trios of dancers moving in unison as each trio replaces the other.

The various sections of the Partita are punctuated by striking solos danced to a series of stringent electronic samplings, entitled 2inD Miniatures and composed by Nick Wales.

Benjamin Cisterne’s setting for 2 in d Minor is spare but dramatic, consisting of a slanting white rectangle hanging over the stage on which a square of white light marks out the dance area. The lighting moods change subtly to reflect those of the dancers, clad in soft black trousers with flowing jackets and vests designed by Bonachella. Skilfully they perform endless mesmerising variations perfectly attuned and inspired by the music. 2 in D Minor is a masterful creation and a superb demonstration of Bonachella’s choreographic gifts.

First premiered by the Sydney Dance Company in 2011, and revived for this season, Jocopo Gordani’s work Raw Moves is aggressive, visceral and exciting. It’s danced to an overwhelmingly powerful score by 48nord which reverberates around the theatre as the seven dancers, clad in sleek black costumes designed by Gordani; perform his sweeping spiderlike choreography which according to his program note represents “the prototype of a micro-social structure functioning on communication, empathy and complicity”.

Like this reviewer, you don’t need to understand what that means to be thrilled by the sheer originality of the choreography and the brilliance and  bravery of the dancers as they recklessly drop to the floor, or seductively prowl the stage in a series of fascinating vignettes each separated by a sharp blackout.  Godani has just been appointed Artistic Director of William Forsythe Ballet in Frankfurt, so it is particularly interesting to see this example of his work included in this program.

For the final work in the program, L’Chaim! (To Life), Gideon Obarzanek has drawn his inspiration from his own life in a Kibbutz to produce a charming work which utilises the full company. The curtain rises to reveal the dancers, clad in non-descript rehearsal clothes, studiously rehearsing a routine. Reminiscent of A Chorus Line, a disembodied voice (in Canberra, Gideon Obarzanek himself) interrupts the dancing, by calling out from behind the audience, questions about how they feel about their lives as dancers. “Are you Grumpy? “Is that why you tend to dance with your face?  How old are you? How long do you have left?”

The rest of the dancers attempt to ignore the questioning and maintain the routine, but as those being questioned become rattled by the questioner’s persistence, the dance slowly grinds to a halt. The questioner eventually joins the dancers on stage and they resume their rehearsing.

Dis-arming in its apparent simplicity, and surprisingly revealing, L”Chaim! Is a succinct reminder that dancers are people too, as well as providing a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to a superb program of exceptional dance.
                                                     Image: Wendell Teodoro

               This review appears in Australian Arts Review




Saturday, April 12, 2014

Warts & All

Warts & All written and directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 2 – 12, Wed-Sat, 2014-04-12

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 11

The title, I guess, imposes on me a duty to reveal all about this new play by perhaps the most indie of independent operators in the Canberra theatre scene.  Hoogendoorn calls it a comedy, but though there were some laughs from the small and sympathetic audience, there were not enough for me to think ‘comedy’.

Why not?  After all, the central device is the ghost of an athletics coach, Ken, played with exactly the right Australian manner by Rob de Fries, who is mistaken for the ghost of his father, Ted.  Though ghosts can’t be real – can they? – this one’s piercing whistle and sudden appearance from Simon’s wardrobe was certainly quite frightening.  I had a bit of a nervous laugh until my willingness to suspend my disbelief got the better of me, and he turned into a nice bloke.

Then there was Oliver Baudert playing the elderly Alice.  He did it very well, but I have to say that I could not find a reason for this casting, except perhaps that if Alice had been played by a woman, the role of bitter division between her and her contemporary Margaret would not have been funny at all.  Helen Vaughan-Roberts played Margaret straight as a realistic character who engendered much empathy.

Playing realistically, as the two just-finished Year 12 grandchildren were played by Will Huang (Margaret’s Simon) and Adellene Fitzsimmons (Alice’s Kirsty), also meant occasions when comedy was not appropriate.  On the other hand the role of Dotty, counsellor and family historian, gave the best chance for the laughs you get from the people who put their foot in it – and Elaine Noon did this well.

So what’s my problem?  Bit by bit the mystery of Ted, on one side of the family, who had patriotically volunteered in World War 2 and died in Syria, and Alan, on the other side, who had stayed in the small black soil town somewhere not far from Toowoomba to keep the family shop running, began to be revealed.

When it came to connecting the dots about Alan feeling so guilty after Ted’s death that he smoked himself to a cancerous death at 50, and Alan and Margaret’s daughter drowning – in fact committing suicide – shortly after Ted’s death, and then the discovery that she had borne Ted’s son – that is, Ken – who had been adopted out and knew nothing of his real parents (and had recently died in a car smash), I realised that this story was not the proper material for a ghostly romantic comedy.  In fact I was glad that the lack of one-liner jokes meant there was not much laughter.

To have succeeded in making a comedy out of this story would have been bizarre, when the issues of patriotism and cowardice, out-of-wedlock birth and forced adoption, and decades-long internecine family bitterness are hardly laughing matters.

Oddly enough, in his ‘Playwright’s Notes’, writing about conflict in families, Hoogendoorn says: “no wonder playwrights have mined it in such beloved plays as The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, and more recently August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities.  And funnily enough, no one gets on very well in them.  If they did, they wouldn’t be such fascinating plays.”

Just so!  There may be humour in these works, but they are not comedies.  There are ironies (like in the title Other Desert Cities reviewed in the Guardian as “a tense family portrait ...Jon Robin Baitz's Christmas-set drama uses fractured nuclear families to examine the broken American psyche”) which Hoogendoorn hardly glimpses in this script.

Maybe it’s time for his next play (he’s up to 15 according to his website to put genre and content appropriately together: on the topic of families, a truly absurdist take would be good (see my recent review of Perplex), or may be a realistic tragedy of misunderstanding and bitter division on the black soil plains as the younger generation feel the need, encouraged by a conservative government, to go to the Dawn Ceremony at Gallipoli in 2015.

Art is about finding the right form for what the artist needs to express.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Will Huang and Rob De Fries.
Written, Produced and Directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, until 19th April 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Bruce Hoogendoorn is probably Canberra’s most prolific playwright, having written and produced six of his own plays in as many years. His latest play, Warts & All, which Hoogendoorn directs himself, is his most accomplished and entertaining work to date.
Warts & All follows the story of a young man, Simon, whose promising athletic career is jeopardised by the onset of osteoarthritis. Simon is sent to live with his grandmother, Margaret, who, in an effort to shake him out of his depression, encourages him to join her in preparing a family history. Though reluctant at first, Simon’s interest is piqued when the ghost of a long-dead relative appears to him. In his enthusiasm to unravel an intriguing family secret, he unwittingly ignites a feud between his grandmother and some long-estranged relatives.

Heading a strong cast, as the boy, Simon, Will Huang gives a satisfyingly well-rounded and committed performance. Convincingly portraying his affection for his grandmother, evident in constant barrage of good-natured and often hilarious banter, Huang’s re-actions to the events unfolding around him are a constant joy to watch.  Equally as engaging is Helen Vaughn-Roberts as Simon’s acerbic but loving grandmother, Margaret, and their scenes together are delightful.
Hoogendoorn’s decision to cast veteran actor, Oliver Baudert, as Margaret’s adversary, Alice, is surprisingly effective. But despite Baudert’s beautifully detailed and interesting performance, with not a hint of campiness, the idea ultimately works against the play, because as the play contains so many unexpected twists and turns, the expectation is that  this cross-gender casting will be revealed as yet another plot device. 

Will Huang (Simon) Oliver Baudert (Alice) Adellene Fitzsimmons (Kirsty)

Rob De Fries adds great strength to the production with a charming performance as the somewhat confused ghost, Barry, whose surprising revelation provides the key to solving the family mystery. Adellene Fitzsimmons and Elaine Noon as Alice’s grand-daughter Kirsty, and the town-historian, Dotty, both provide interesting characterisations, but both would be more effective if they followed the examples of their more experienced colleagues and slowed down their delivery to let Hoogendoorn’s excellent lines do the work for them.
The play works so well that one longs to see it presented with a little more production than the minimalist setting of tables, chairs, bed and a double-sided cupboard. But a good lighting design by Kelly McGannon and some well-chosen costumes by Miriam Miley-Read do much to overcome this deficiency, and it says much for Hoogendoon’s initiative, tenacity and growing confidence in his directorial and producing talents, that Warts and All emerges as both an excellent showcase for his maturing writing skills and an intriguing and entertaining night of theatre.

                                                         Images by Kelly McGannon

                This review appears in Australian Arts Review




Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg

Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade.  Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Sarah Giles at Wharf 1,  April 4 – May 3, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 9

The theatrical form of Perplex is metacognitive farce.  The philosophical form is farcical metacognition.  If it had been written by Shakespeare, Hamlet would have been named Piglet, and his question would have been “To be, or not to be.  What is the question?”

If you feel perplexed so far, that’s great.  It’s also very funny – not what I’ve written, but what Marius von Mayenburg wrote, as translated wonderfully by Maja Zade.  If you thought philosophy was beyond your comprehension (that’s the meta-cognitive bit), you need never worry again.  Just Give Yourself to the Elk physically (you’ll be laughing with all your might) and intellectually, as you begin to understand that the universe really is absolutely unpredictable.  Not only does God, or any god, not exist, but – since everything we know consists of no more than a bunch of electrical pulses in our brains – even we don’t really exist.  Nor does the ‘fourth wall’ of stage performance.  Nor even the play itself, whose director has never shown up to rehearsal “since the beginning”.

It’s at this point, of course, that I go into analysis mode.  That’s what a critic has to do, otherwise I wouldn’t be a critic.

Should you see this play?  Absolutely, categorically and metacognitively.  To see the whole audience making their exit from the auditorium bubbling with excitement, laughing and babbling away (even at afternoon teatime on Wednesday) is proof Sarah Giles is still on top of the form she showed when directing Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession last year.

As for the cast, well, they come up to the mark brilliantly: Andrea Demetriades as Andrea, Glenn Hazeldine as Glenn, Rebecca Massey as Rebecca, and the occasionally nude Tim Walter as Tim.  As do the essential ‘creatives’: designer Renée  Mulder, lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, and composer & sound designer Max Lyandvert.  If you ever dare to invite people to a ‘Come as...’ party, you could not do better than ask Mulder to design the costumes – the funniest I’ve seen on stage for many a long year.

It is true (I think, therefore I...) that some education in European theatrical tradition will make you more cognisant of some of ‘meta’ aspects of this work from Berlin. In his 30s, von Mayenburg, already with a lucky 13 plays behind him, wrote Perplex in 2010.  In only his second year of writing, according to Wikipedia, his Feuergesicht (1997) won him the Kleistförderpreis für junge Dramatiker and Preis der Frankfurter Autorenstiftung. (

By his 14th year, in play number 14, Perplex shows his confidence as he plays with the elements of absurdism, with semi-oblique references at least to Pirandello (1921), whose Six Characters are in Search of an Author, to Ionesco’s couple of strangers (Mr and Mrs Martin in The Bald Soprano 1948) who discover they not only know each other, but are actually married, to Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildernstern (1966) trying to fathom out what’s going on in Hamlet and, according to Sydney Theatre Company’s blurb, to Nietzsche and Beckett.  The extra level beyond the ordinary is that von Mayenburg satirises his own place in the absurdist tradition, of which his characters are aware.  Even Pirandello’s characters knew they were in a play by Pirandello, but for von Mayenburg’s characters acting in his play is disastrous emotionally, as they realise that modern avant-garde German playwrights traditionally have to have the whole set collapse and cleared from the stage – I suppose for a neat and precisely tidy ending.

In fact, this isn’t what happens.  The stage is a mess at the end – another final twist in the logic of absurdism.  Funny though it is to watch, there really is a sense of sadness at humanity’s incapacity not only to understand our place in the universe, but even just to organise ourselves enough to maintain a little bit of equanimity in our lives.  I saw a touch of Brecht’s The Chalk Circle and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, after the laughter had faded away.

L to R: Andrea Demetriades, Tim Walter, Rebecca Massey, Tim Walter, Glenn Hazeldine, Andrea Demetriades, Rebecca Massey, Glenn Hazeldine
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti

Sunday, April 6, 2014


Mirror Image Company
Wong Jyh Shyong (standing centre)
Elizabeth Cameron Dalman (standing right) 
A collaboration between Mirramu Dance Company/Dancecology/DPAC Dance Company.
Choreography: Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Peng Hsiao-yin and Wong Jyh Shyong.
Lighting Design: Karen Norris
ANU Arts Centre 4th, 5th, 6th April 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

There is something very inspiring in the sight of doyen of Australian contemporary dance, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman still performing and choreographing in her 80th year. Martha Graham did it, so did Ruth St.Denis. There may be others, but it’s still a very rare event.  Since founding Australian Dance Theatre in 1965, then later Mirramu Dance Company, Cameron Dalman has continued to teach, choreograph and inspire generations of dancers both in Australia and internationally.

Mirror Image is the culmination of collaboration between Cameron Dalman’s Mirramu Dance Company, and two other dance companies, Dancecology from Taiwan and DPAC Dance Company from Malaysia. Each of these companies shares a compelling interest in the ecology and with Mirror Image they have combined resources to express this interest through dance. Later this year, following its premiere season in Canberra Mirror Image will be shown in Taipei and Malaysia, despite the fact that it has received no Government funding of any kind.

It was disappointing therefore that the first performance drew only a small audience to the ANU Arts Centre. Particularly as the small ensemble cast of Mirror Image included, in addition to Cameron Dalman herself, Peng Hsiao-yin Artistic Director of Dancecology with  her principal dancers  Chen Yi-ching and Chen Fu-rong, and Wong Jyh Shyong, the Artistic Director of DPAC Dance Company, together with Mirramu dancers  Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, Janine Proost and Linton Aberle.

Chen Fu-rong/Janine Proost
The work itself consists of nine sections with titles such as Old Tree, Earth Moving, Root and Earth, New Life, Human Footprint, Animal Spirit, Confrontation, Mirroring and Life Force, all seamlessly interwoven and presented without interval. Not all the references were obvious but memorable sequences included the haunting opening and closing sections, both featuring the powerful presence of Cameron Dalman, and others in which the dancers movements suggested  rolling spindle bushes, various animals, including goannas and crabs, performed to a haunting soundscape featuring bird songs, rain and storm effects and music from an eclectic assortment of composers including Riley Lee, Brian Eno, Gabrielle Roth, Andrew Ford and Canberran, Kimmo Vennonen.

Chen yi-ching (standing)/Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal
The cavernous ANU Arts Centre stage was draped in black overhung with white silk on which Karen Norris’s imaginative lighting design made effective use of projected video images of waterfalls, bushfires and forest greenery.

To accommodate the participation of three separate dance companies, attention had obviously be given to creating an homogenous dance style for the whole ensemble, however, given the quality of the dancers involved, one longed to see more individual moments like that provided by Wong Jyh Shyong in his remarkable solo performed naked except for a black G string.

Cameron Dalman mentions in her program note these Canberra performances represent “the first development” of Mirror Image, which suggests further finessing of work will continue. However even in its present form, Mirror Image  is a powerful, thoughtful and accomplished work which provides a unique opportunity to experience a remarkable collaboration between dancers from different cultures drawn together by their passion to influence what is happening in the world around them.     

Chen Yi-ching
                                                            (Photos: Barbie Robinson)
              This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 5th April 2014