Sunday, August 31, 2014


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Evans
Bell Shakespeare
Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse
August 30 to September 13, 2014

Review by Len Power 30 August 2014

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays.  Its strange plot about young lovers, a forest, fairy kingdoms and magic spells gives directors plenty of opportunity to use their imagination when staging it.

The famous Peter Brook production of the 1960s dazzled audiences with its way-out production.  I remember it left this first-time viewer of the play none the wiser about the story even though I enjoyed every minute of it.  Bell Shakespeare’s snappy new production, retitled, ‘The Dream’, probably works best for people who know the play, too.  If you’re not familiar with it, you might wonder at times what’s going on, but it won’t really matter.  You’ll have a hugely enjoyable evening watching this excellent cast play up the farcical elements of the play.

The setting by designer Teresa Negroponte looked like the loft of an old building with a dilapidated roof.  It gave the play a feeling of it all being a bit of a shambles.   This feeling was continued into the many mixed-style costumes hanging on racks ready for use as needed and clearly visible behind the setting.  Scene changes seemed improvised with, for example, furniture being simply being thrown onto its side or a table being suddenly swept clean of props and dumped into a corner.  The wooden roof became the forest of the play with lots of holes for the cast to hang from or climb through.

The lighting by Rachel Burke added great atmosphere, as did Caitlin Porter’s subtle sound design.

The apparently rough and ready playing by the cast matched the setting very well.   There was strong ensemble playing by the cast of eight playing multiple roles throughout the show.  Standouts amongst the cast were Nikki Shields as Helena, Julie Forsyth as Puck, Richard Piper as Bottom and Lucy Honigman as Hermia.  The frantic acting of the cast of the play within a play was a very amusing highlight of the show.

Director, Peter Evans, has produced a very enjoyable, very theatrical production which celebrates the show for itself without any impositions of style or period.  It’s a dream of a comedy and that’s all you need to know when you take your seats for this one.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 31 August 2014 from 5pm.

Highways, Food and Dreams

Highway of Lost Hearts written and performed by Mary Anne Butler.  An Art Back NT, Arts Development and Touring Production, directed by Lee Lewis.  Dramaturgy by Peter Matheson and Lee Lewis.  At The Street Theatre, Canberra, August 26-30, 2014.

Food by Steve Rodgers (writer/co-director ) and Kate Champion (co-director).  Co-produced by Force Majeure and Belvoir, at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 27-30, 2014.

The Dream written by William Shakespeare, adapted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and directed by Peter Evans.  Bell Shakespeare at Canberra Theatre Playhouse August 30 – September 13, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 30

This week has become a demonstration of today in Australian theatre, confirming or challenging the views of Professor Julian Meyrick and Noonuccal Nuugi playwright and director Wesley Enoch in their Platform Papers The Retreat of Our National Drama and Take Me to Your Leader (Canberra Critics’ Circle blog, 15 May 2014 and 8 August 2014 respectively). 

Both Food and Highway of Lost Hearts are quintessentially Australian, while The Dream is a modern re-working of a European classic.

Butler works on a tiny scale out of Darwin, and appears in the tiny Street Theatre 2, with a solo piece from the heart. 

Rodgers’ play began, already in the margins of the new mainstream, Downstairs at Belvoir, Sydney, two years ago (previously reviewed on this blog 29 April 2012).  Wednesday this week at The Q was the hundredth performance.  Is it on its way to becoming an Australian classic? 

Bell Shakespeare is surely in the old mainstream, but feels the need to shake up Shakespeare.  The Dream was first developed in Bell’s education program for young people, with such success that it has now grown up, opening tonight on the mainstage in Canberra.

Do they all have their place?  Is it a level playing field?  Should the new mainstream resources go into more Rodgers and Butlers, rather than more of the Macbeths and Tartuffes that have been the stars of the last few weeks in Sydney?

Is this a conundrum I see before me?

While there are issues to be discussed, the quality of these three shows and their theatrical value has made this week an excellent reminder of how good Australian theatre can be.  Each play is distinctly different in content, yet surprisingly similar in what Peter Evans termed the ‘conceit’ in the writing, and equally successful in creating a sense of community in the theatre.  I would call each production a performance with the audience, not one for an audience.

I suspect that this directness of contact, and lack of pretension about performing, is a natural Australian characteristic.  We recognise Australian actors, even in films made in America, because of this quality.

The keyword for this week is heart

Mary Anne Butler searches for her own heart after the loss of her friend, drowned in Darwin harbour.  As she travels through the heart of Australia, 3000 kilometres south to Port Augusta plus 2000 kilometres east to Sydney, bits of her heart jump back into place as she experiences truths – good and bad, some fearful, some full of human warmth – until she accepts reality and finds peace.

Steve Rodgers’ two sisters, the elder Elma (now played by Mel King) and the younger Nancy (Emma Jackson) have broken hearts, bit by bit revealing the history of Nancy’s teenage gang-rape and Elma’s guilt.  Their ‘highway of lost hearts’ takes them to a takeaway pie shop in a small country town.  Their hearts are put back together by Turkish kitchen hand Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi), stopping over on his own international highway.  As he departs, all three – like Mary Anne, on the beach with her dog in Sydney – have accepted reality, both bad and good, and know there can be peace.

Shakespeare’s four lovers Helena (Nikki Shiels), Hermia (Lucy Honigman), Demetrius (Johnny Carr) and Lysander (Gareth Reeves) take a highway less travelled, through a European wood full of dangers – bears, lions and wolves – and mysterious forces – the spirits Oberon (Ray Chong Nee), Titania (Janine Watson) and Puck (Julie Forsyth).  On a parallel track is Nick Bottom, the weaver (Richard Piper), with a sense of his own importance to match that of the most self-centred young lovers.   For all five, their road is as rocky as Mary Anne’s, Elma’s, Nancy’s and Hakan’s, through their midsummer madness, and like those others they reach an acceptance of reality and a time of peace in their hearts.

The key to the issues raised by Julian Meyrick and Wesley Enoch lies in the theatrical style and the relationship between the actors and our audiences which make these three productions real and heartfelt.  Our tradition of theatre being made physical makes a solid ground on which directors Lee Lewis, Kate Champion and Peter Evans firmly sit.  Whether small and independent, middling mainstage or long-established theatre company, it is the choreography of movement which holds the text together and gives it meaning. 

Bell Shakespeare has captured, I imagine, the very sense of theatricality that Shakespeare achieved for the groundlings of his day.  The Chamberlain’s Men, when Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of 31, probably had about as much security as Mary Anne Butler or Steve Rodgers, at a similar age and stage.  The Swan theatre had just been built in 1594, but according to Amanda Mabillard in Shakespeare's Theatres: The Swan, Shakespeare Online, 20 August 2000  The Swan has a rather bleak history after 1597, when the staging of plays gave way to a variety of other activities such as amateur poetry readings, and swashbuckling competitions.  Some other sources say that the Government closed all theatres in 1597, presumably because of their bawdy productions.

Considering our current and future government, independent and less than mainstage companies, who can’t command the level of sponsorship that Bell Shakespeare has achieved, may have to face new highways of lost hearts.  This is the point about leadership from government and community culture that concerns Wesley Enoch.

But I have to say that Bell’s The Dream is a challenge to the even bigger mainstage companies that Meyrick criticises, such as Sydney Theatre Company.  As my review of their Macbeth suggests (Canberra Critics’ Circle 13 August 2014), emphasising star actors and star directors who seem to experiment for experiment’s sake should not be the way to go.  Using the attraction of the European (and American) classics as bait for audiences on a commercial basis, and thus taking the bulk of government subsidy through popularity, leaves the development and maintenance of good Australian work somewhere on that highway of lost hearts.

The Dream does not fall into the error of STC’s Macbeth.  Peter Evans understood that Shakespeare, in this play, deliberately made the nature of acting and the actors’ relationship with their audience an overarching theme which supported the story of lovers, amateur actors, kings and queens, and faery forces.  By beginning with the eight actors as the ‘rude mechanicals’ who turn into all those other characters, and return to acting out their farcical Pyramus and Thisbe story at the end, Evans has integrated Shakespeare’s intention with the action, brought the audience into the actors’ world, and put all of us in the position of the characters on stage.  Peace and understanding is the result.  The positive feeling was palpable at the curtain call, in the foyer and in the drinks and nibblies speeches after the show.

The same was true after Food and Highway of Lost Hearts.  It was not the feeling after STC's Macbeth.  But where does the money go?  Where is the level playing space?  Where is the leadership which will make Food or Highway of Lost Hearts the classics they deserve to become?

Mary Anne Butler
Photography: Street Theatre

Fayssal Bazzi (Hakan), Mel King (Elma)                               Mel King (Elma), Emma Jackson (Nancy)
Photos: Heidrun Löhr
The Lovers L to R: Nikki Shiels (Helena), Johnny Carr (Demetrius), Lucy Honigman (Hermia), Gareth Reeves (Lysander)

Ray Chong Nee (Oberon), Julie Forsyth (Puck)
L to R: Ray Chong Nee (Thisbe), Johhny Carr (Wall), Janine Watson (Quince), Richard Piper (Bottom), Lucy Honigman (Lion), Nikki Shiels (Moon)
The Dream Photos: Lisa Tomasetti

Friday, August 29, 2014

A delicious concert of grace and charm from Imogen Cooper

Review by Clinton White

It’s no wonder that Imogen Cooper is described as ‘a pianist of virtuosity and poetic poise’.  Her concert for Musica Viva at Llewellyn Hall in Canberra on her birthday, 28 August, was that and much more.

Playing a program of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann – all composed in the Romantic period within 40 years of each other – Cooper’s lyrical, even singing, style used a vast canvass to paint a vivid picture of light and shade, brightness and solemnity, thunder and calm.

I couldn’t see her hands and, therefore, her playing technique, but the sound she produced showed consummate expression and control of the instrument and the music she was playing.  Her interpretation fitted the musical style of the period perfectly.  But more than that, it was as though she wanted to give every single note its own beauty, grace and charm.

Even though her hands were out of my view, I could see her feet and was intrigued and captivated by her extraordinarily intricate use of the sustain pedal.  It was not simply a matter of up and down at the beginning and end of phrases – very likely how the music is marked – Cooper had that pedal working ten to the dozen, but in a most delicate manner, often feathering it such that the dampers barely rose above the strings.  Individual notes, even in fast passages, were given just the right amount of sustain, yielding a clarity I had not heard before from any other pianist.

Imogen Cooper is also a person of gracious and gentle personality.  Her on-stage presence was commanding and confident but not in any way arrogant, charming but not gushy.  At the beginning of the second half she spoke to the audience in a most relaxed and engaging way about how the program was devised and the links between the works.

After the concert, her graciousness continued.  In a Q&A session, anchored by Musica Viva artistic director and very fine Australian composer, Carl Vine, Cooper answered a range of questions from the sizable gathering with humour, candour and charm.  And the local Musica Viva manager, Michael Sollis, in his usual innovative style, had a birthday cake ready for Cooper’s arrival, and prepared the gathering for a rousing “Happy Birthday to You”.

For me, this delicious concert by Imogen Cooper goes into the top five of the best of the many, many concerts I have attended over quite a few decades.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Richard Anderson

31.12.1939 – 20.8.2014

With the passing of Richard Anderson Canberra theatre has lost one of its best actors, liable to turn up whenever there was a need for a strong character role to be played with class, humor and style.

Frequently that was at Canberra Repertory but he also worked with companies such as Everyman, The Players Company/UC Players and Centrepiece. Canberra Rep credits him on Facebook with ’some 50 plays in the Canberra region’ and reminds that he also designed the occasional set.

He brought an avuncular presence and a fine line in the rolling eye to period plays like Tartuffe (1995), The Miser (2005) and School for Scandal (2006). But he could also happily inhabit more modern settings like those of Under Milkwood (1992), Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1995) and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (2010).

He seemed equally at home among the extremes of toga territory in Duncan Ley’s When in Rome (2005) and the strange suburban terrors of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (2000).  He made Harold Hobson a convincing domestic tyrant in the old classic Hobson’s Choice (2008). His rich TV voice-overs promised ‘Botanicus Perfectus’ to any who shopped at a particular gardening store.

And I am pretty sure he was to be glimpsed as Havelock Vetinari the Patrician, urbanely, ruthlessly, but with a twinkling eye, running the city of Ankh Morpork in a long ago production at Theatre 3 of Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms.

His presence will be missed. 

Alanna Maclean


Written by Steve Rodgers
Co-directed by Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers
Minestrone by Benedict House
Wine by Royal Hotel Queanbeyan
Sourdough by Baker’s Delight Queanbeyan
Presented by Belvoir and Force Majeure
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan 27-30 August 2014

Review by Len Power 27 August 2014

Here’s a show with everything – including dinner!

In a kitchen of what seems to be a takeaway shop, possibly in an Australian country town, two sisters work side by side preparing food.  Their conversations paint a picture of their lives and memories, not all of it happy or satisfying.  Into their lives comes a young Turkish man looking for work as a kitchen hand.  Cultural collisions between them are amusing at first and we are drawn into the emotional needs and actions of the characters as the play progresses.

Writer, Steve Rodgers, and his co-director, Kate Champion, have produced a striking production which shows some very real people in an Australian setting we can readily identify with.  There is a strong blend of acting and movement in the direction that is uniquely satisfying.  The tasteful design of a love making sequence in movement and without words is beautiful and especially memorable.

Mel King as the older sister gives an excellent performance.  There is such subtlety in her playing that, by the end of the show, you know her so well it hurts to think about where her life is going.  Emma Jackson plays the wilder younger sister with great physicality, emotional strength and excellent comic timing.  Fayssal Bazzi as the young Turkish man also displays great comic timing as well as a finely controlled intensity in the later emotional scenes.

The set design by Anna Tregloan is visually pleasing and clever in its use of kitchen pots and pans as part of the design.  Martin Langthorne’s lighting design complements the set very well and is especially striking when lighting changes cause the polished bases of the pots on the wall to change colour and create a different mood.  Music composed by Ekrem Mülayim is subtle and adds greatly to the atmosphere.

What could have just been a gimmick – the cast serving food to the audience at one point – actually works very well.  It’s not just the lucky few down the front who get fed.  The cast nimbly work their way around the whole theatre offering lots of cups of minestrone, bread and red wine.  Their ad libs during this sequence were well chosen and delightfully funny.  It’s a real skill to be able to do something like this and stay in character throughout.

The play presents very real people in real situations, some of it funny, some of it bleak and unsettling.  It certainly presents a slice of Australian life that is not flattering.  The language is raw but not inappropriate for the characters portrayed.  This might be one of the most memorable plays I’ve seen this year.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Libretto by Alessando Striggio the Younger
English translation by Anne Ridler
Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Musical Director: Peter Tregear
Stage Director: Cate Clelland
ANU School of Music August 21, 22 August 2014

Review by Len Power 21 August 2014
The earliest surviving opera still in the standard repertoire, ‘L'Orfeo’, first performed in Mantua in 1607, is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and depicts his extraordinary love for Eurydice and the story of his descent into Hades in a vain attempt to bring his dead bride back to the living world.

Presented by the ANU School of Music, in collaboration with the School of Art and the Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, ‘L’Orfeo’ was presented at Llewellyn Hall with stage direction by Cate Clelland and musical direction by Peter Tregear. The production utilises a specially-commissioned digital set, designed by Milan-based award-winning Australian digital artist, Andrew Quinn.

There was fine singing by Nicholas Mulroy as Orfeo, especially in his Act 5 soliloquy.  Paul McMahon as Apollo, displayed a fine dramatic presence as well as singing his role very well.  Krystle Inness was in good voice as the Messenger, as were Rachael Thoms and Veronica Thwaites-Brown as the allegorical figures, Music and Hope, respectively.  Some of the less experienced soloists sang well but needed to project more.  The large chorus sang the complex music with great assurance.  However, it was hard to understand the words throughout the performance even though it was sung in English.

The orchestra, conducted by musical director, Peter Tregear, gave a fine performance of the score.  Lighting by Alessandro Chiodo added greatly to the atmosphere.  The digital projections by Andrew Quinn were fascinating and used with restraint.  They didn’t always seem to complement the action but they were especially striking in the heavenly finale.  Choreography by Liz Lea was effective and nicely performed by her small group of dancers.  The staging by Cate Clelland mostly worked well but the deliberately slow entrances and exits by the chorus were a bit dull and dreary.

There have been so many different musical and non-musical versions of the Orpheus legend over the years and the story continues to fascinate audiences.  This production was a great opportunity to see the earliest surviving musical version.  Peter Tregear and everyone involved in it have done a fine job with this production.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 24 August 2014 from 5pm.