Sunday, August 31, 2014

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