Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Viceroy's House

Review by © Jane Freebury

This sweeping historical drama is the work of a filmmaker with a happy knack for the comic and the absurd, and for discovering the spaces between cultures where people can meet and be themselves. With work as sharply observed and uplifting as Bride and Prejudice, Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham, how was Gurinder Chadha, being the kind of director she is, going to find her trademark warmth and optimism in the story of Partition? Was she even going to try?

Partition ripped the subcontinent asunder in 1947 leaving two great countries, India and Pakistan, at loggerheads. The sectarian violence it unleashed was no laughing matter. Chadha’s Sikh grandparents had seen the writing on the wall in the Punjab a few years earlier and they became part of the Indian diaspora living in east Africa, before they moved to London. The director has said that she just ‘had to’ make this film and the reasons for her personal connection with the events appear on screen just before the closing credits. Her commitment is understandable, but the result on screen is less compelling.

Great setting, though, bringing all the players together. The titular house of the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, was in fact palatial, far bigger than Versailles, and historically significant. It became the residence of the President of India when independence was declared that saw off the British Raj and centuries of colonialism.

Sent to India to do the deal, Mountbatten (a ruddy faced Hugh Bonneville) is revealed as a stickler for speedy efficiency. This is okay when you don’t want to waste time climbing into all that viceregal paraphernalia, but less a virtue when it comes to gentle persuasion and facilitating others to work out what they want for their future. Lady Edwina (Gillian Anderson in top form) cautions him and, in the veiled suggestion in her two-shot with Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani), looks like she would happily settle in.

The march of history towards Partition is overlain with the romance between a beautiful young couple who work for the Mountbattens. A Hindu man and a Muslim woman like Jeet (Manish Dayak) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) who fall in love despite cultural differences was probably not unheard of then, even when wholesale sectarian slaughter was taking place everywhere, but the characters and the reasons for their mutual attachment is never given the underpinning it needs to make it real. Chadha and her co-writers needed to work harder on developing this narrative centrepiece to make it seem less of a device to bring the strands of story together and conclude with hope for the future.

Of course, the romance is a counterpoint to catastrophic historical events and a pure emotion that throws into relief the political manoeuvring, arrogance, compromise and faint-heartedness all around them. It was the politicians and the officials, some of whom are made to seem quite buffoonish, who carved the subcontinent up expediently, and unleashed one of the biggest movements of displaced people the world had then seen.

Viceroy's House was largely shot in Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Films that are set on location in India are usually vibrant and visually compelling but, for all the colour and movement, this is neither very satisfying period drama nor touching love story, when it could have been both.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog

Monday, May 29, 2017

Shirley Valentine - The Q

Review by John Lombard

Willy Russell's award-winning play flips the faithless wife plot, making the audience enthusiastic for Shirley Valentine (Mandi Lodge) to ditch her husband and find fulfilment in adultery.

The play is a marathon monologue delivered over two acts, a challenge for both writer and performer, but the script is clever and Mandi Lodge invests it with the same boisterous energy she displayed in "Always... Patsy Cline."  The vibe is of an intimate kitchen-side natter with a flamboyant and likeable friend.

While Shirley Valentine is the only person on stage, Russell's excellent ear for dialogue coupled with Lodge's convincing mimicry bring other characters vividly to life.  The British-born Lodge perfectly articulates the Liverpool setting, and unseen characters such as the confident Jane and Greek Lothario Costas feel perfectly real. 

Direction from Denny Lawrence keeps the blocking from getting stale, and the detailed kitchen set is exploited to provide Lodge with a lot of stage business to carry her through the first act.

The play's great strength is how well the characters are drawn, especially the brilliantly realised Shirley Valentine, and the highly specific detail makes the action easy to visualise.  At points I was so transported by the descriptions that I saw what was being described as vividly as if it was actually happening on stage.

The feminist angle of the play is also well-realised, with Shirley's husband vile in a perfectly believable way, drawing many murmurs of recognition from the audience.  The candid discussion of sex worked particularly well, as well as the brutal but authentic satire of English holidaying abroad.

This Creative Victoria project takes what should be an daunting challenge - keeping the audience's attention for two hours with a single monologue - but does it with perfect grace.  A triumph for the performer and a delight for the audience.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

ORB - Sydney Dance Company

Canberra Theatre May 25th – 27th 2017
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

For this program, Artistic Director, Raphael Bonachela has divided the Sydney Dance Company into two separate groups of eight dancers. Bonachela has worked with one group to create a work entitled “Ocho”, and invited Taiwanese choreographer, Cheng Tsung-Lung, has worked with the other group to create a work called “Full Moon”. Together these two works, under the umbrella title of “Orb”, provide an evening of stunning contemporary dance which absorbing, sexy and exciting.

Sydney Dance Company in "Full Moon" 

For his first work on the Sydney Dance Company, Cheng Tsung-Lung has employed an Asian fusion dance style and a celestial theme to create “Full Moon”. His dancers, representing various oriental deities, were costumed individually, in a variety of elegant flowing costumes, mixed with exotic sculptural shapes. They moved in and out of the shadowy, atmospheric lighting executing seemingly endless complex and graceful combinations to create a meditative, Zen-like mood, enhanced by an atmospheric score, by Lim Giong, which interweaves the sounds of traditional Taiwanese instruments with sophisticated electronica.

Sydney Dance Company in "Full Moon" 

As the work progressed, a black curtain rose at the back of the stage to reveal a huge gold frame against an elegant, superbly lit backdrop, gracefully confirming the celestial theme of the work.
In complete contrast, both in mood and style, Raphael Bonachela’s work “Ocho”, a Spanish word for eight, commenced mysteriously with dramatic lighting stabbing through blackness. Eventually several figures are revealed, enclosed in a small glass fronted room, which later turns out to be part of a much larger space. The dancer’s costumes, grunge variations of active-wear, suggest that this may be a gymnasium. The mood is sensuous and erotic, as the dancers mill restlessly around the small room.

Sydney Dance Company in "OCHO"

Then one dancer, Nelson Earl, escapes and performs an extraordinary solo. The mood suddenly becomes explosive and dynamic, accentuated by a driving soundscape from Nick Wales, which incorporates lightning strikes which herald a succession of aggressive solos and combinations. Eventually the work dissolves into an affecting unison section, performed to the sounds of Yolngu songman, Rrawun Maymuru, performing a songline referring to the passage between the Earth and the Milky Way, neatly referencing the theme of the first work “Full Moon”.

Sydney Dance Company in 'OCHO"

In his program notes, Bonachela indicates that the impetus for his work was to explore the virtuosity of his eight dancers, and “Ocho” certainly succeeds in this. Cheng Tsung-Lung has been equally successful showcasing each of his eight dancers in “Full Moon”.

In this way  “Orb” is  not only a  celebration  of the sixteen remarkable dancers who make up the current  Sydney Dance Company, as well as the extraordinary designers, composers and technical staff who surround them, but is also  a celebration of  the special skills and foresight of the remarkable director who leads them.

This review first published in the digital edition of "CITY NEWS" on 26.05.17 

Icons passing and passing through…

Last week saw the beginning of the end for Teatro Vivaldi, with a sharp little Noel Coward double bill directed by Tony Turner (who used to head Drama at ANU) as a not quite final nod to the years of good food and shows this little corner of the ANU Arts Centre has hosted. (Not the greatest stuff that Coward ever wrote but the evening was funny and two of his short plays, Mild Oats and Weatherwise, supported delicious performances from the likes of Elaine Noone, Duncan Driver, Alessa Kron and Henry Strand)

Not quite final because there’ll be a couple of appearances by George Huitker and his band Junk Sculpture and Shortis and Simpson, along with Peter Casey, will do the final few shows.

The Arts Centre itself of course is going. And what a pity. Since the 1970s when it started out as an empty brick shell with the world’s worst acoustics it’s been added to and augmented, sometimes for the better.

 It’s been host to dozens of productions, local, touring, musical, dance, operatic, dramatic. It was a home for ANU Drama when that had the necessary active, practical form that should be associated with tertiary drama studies. Halls of residence and student groups put on shows there. Local productions of musicals and plays turned up there. The National Playwrights Conference used it annually for a number of years. 

When Di Riddell and Val McKelvey worked at properly equipping it and looked after it it became a place you could go to for all kinds of theatrical technical and design assistance. At one stage I think I knew every inch of those catwalks in the main theatre and almost every piece of lighting equipment.
It and the smaller studio space had the virtues of roughness and adaptability and atmosphere to burn.

Meanwhile over at the Canberra Theatre another icon was passing through in the form of Petula Clark. The woman next to me was amazed to discover that she’d had a career before the 1960s. I was amazed in the second half to be reminded of a stage career that included Blood Brothers and Sunset Boulevard and pounded off after the show to renew acquaintance, not with the 1960s songs but with Goodbye Mr Chips, in which she was improbably (but charmingly) paired with Peter O’Toole in a musical update of this story. Finian’s Rainbow is next on the research list.

(I was also hoping to hear from an older film of hers about greyhound racing called The Gay Dog but no such luck.)

Sometimes such visitations are a bit like a visit to a ruined castle and there were dodgy moments but never in Clark’s earthily fey persona, which sustained a full programme with no supporting act. In the second half, when the stories started to blossom and she gave us a glimpse of her steely Norma Desmond, you could see the power that’s sustained a 70 year career.


Alanna Maclean

Friday, May 26, 2017

I Am Heath Ledger

Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film. 

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age. 

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand. 

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact. 

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog