Friday, August 31, 2018

Harp in the South

Charlie, Dolour (above), Rowena
Program Cover
The Harp in the South: Part One and Part Two, by Ruth Park, adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvaney.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 16 – October 6, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 29

The time came when I knew I had to leave my green islands [New Zealand] and find a wider world, so I went to Australia and married D'Arcy Niland, a young short story writer. For a while we led a wandering life. I saw a little of this vast, magnificent land, and was captured for ever by its noble indifference to humankind. I felt that one day this continent would give a shrug and shake all the humans off into the sea. But it would still be its own self. That's what I call identity.
Text Copyright © 1988 Ruth Park, Photos © Niland Collection.

Ruth Park
Sydney, 1940s
As an Evolutionary Marxist, a late teenager in 1959 with the ambition to write the great Australian novel (despite my very recent £10 Pom arrival), I attached myself briefly to the periphery of the Sydney Realist Writers’ Group, headed by the Communist, Judah Waten.  I was blissfully unaware that Ruth Park had already done what I never managed to do, when she published The Harp in the South a decade before, after it was judged Best Novel in the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald Competition in 1946.

I caught up by performing Lick Jimmy for Broken Hill Repertory Society in 1965. .  Directed by Kay McLachlan, the play was by “writer Ruth Park, adaptor Leslie Rees” but I haven’t been able to source a copy.  Ted Mosher, the Barrier Daily Truth reviewer, wrote under the headline Harp in the South plays well at Repertory “it is a play which will touch your heartstrings presenting as it does a pathetic-cum-humorous picture of the inhabitants of Sydney's poverty-stricken Surry Hills tenement district.”

12½ Plymouth Street, Surry Hills
Photo: Daniel Boud

Kate Mulvaney, in this massive 6 hour adaptation, has added an element of anger to Ruth Park’s novel, which she has Dolour express in a major damning speech about the treatment of women. 

It’s interesting to listen to Ruth Park!/media/1454074/harp-in-the-south
saying “one of the quaintest criticisms was because I wrote about poor under-privileged people I was a communist and in the same mail … I was a capitalist … I was making money out of them.”  She goes on to describe her “absolute bewilderment” because she thought of her book as a “domestic comedy” – “a funny book”.

That’s how I remembered playing Lick Jimmy, who never spoke except for one line in Mandarin as he gave Roie a Christmas present.  The role was comic because he had no toilet in his next door fruit and vegetable shop.  Several times I would knock on the Darcy’s door with an anxious look, hurry through and out the back, reappearing a few minutes later with a satisfied expression, smiling sweetly on my way back next door.
This was the expression of warmth and community in this perhaps 2-hour play in 1965.   I never quite had that feeling while watching a quite fascinating complicated picaresque naturalistic narrative through Part One.  Some way into Part Two, which is staged as a more obviously symbolic drama, I cottoned on to a through-line concept which Mulvaney has used to give purpose to the story. 

In the novel, three elements come and go at times throughout.  The Darcy culture is centred on a romantic view of their ancient pre-Christian Irish heritage, distant in time and place.  In the present is the conflict between the rigid institutional injunctions and the socially inclusive ethics of the Catholic Church.  The third concern is the black-white divide in Australia. 

You may not be familiar with the old Irish figure of Death, who appears in the guise of someone real to take a real person ‘away’.  In Mulvaney’s play, this is the little boy Thady, Hugh and Margaret Darcy’s only son, who disappears aged six soon after they move to Surry Hills.  He reappears to ‘take away’ Hugh’s brother Jer, Margaret’s mother Eny, and his own sister Roie.  J M Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows is the Irish play which encapsulates the feeling, the inevitability and mystery of death which has clearly inspired Kate Mulvaney to open her play with Thady speaking to us.

For the Catholic matter, think of the story of how Australian teacher Mary McKillop became a saint and you’ll recognise Sister Theophilus, Sister Beatrix and Father Driscoll on stage here.

In the novel, Charlie Rothe – who marries Rowena and after her death finally lives on with his son Michael and her younger sister Dolour – has a great grandmother who he knows was Aboriginal.  In despair after Roie’s death, Charlie considers suicide but changes his mind after a chance meeting with an Elder.  In the novel, Ruth Park does not play up the mysterious nature of Aborigines in this encounter, though some of her characters do, at the same time as using the ‘n’ word.  Kate Mulvaney has given Angus McIntosh more to say to Charlie, in the role of an Elder teaching and giving traditional understanding to an uninitiated man, than in the novel.  Ruth Park had Charlie come to his own realisation simply as a result of Angus’ kind treatment of him in his distress.

Charlie and Roie's Wedding
Guy Simon and Rose Riley
Photo: Daniel Boud

So, has Kate Mulvaney done the right thing by her author, Ruth Park?  The Genesian Theatre, in their production some 15 years ago, called The Harp in the South ‘bitter-sweet’.  This Sydney Theatre Company production, though there is often laughter, especially in Part One, is far more bitter, while Park in the novel is surprisingly – and therefore powerfully – even-handed in presenting the motivations, feelings and understandings of her characters across the board, both of the perpetrators and receivers of bad behaviour.  Ruth Park’s calm objectivity shows the individual behaviour as the result social inequity.  In doing so, she exposed the worst of behaviour by men towards women, while her comedy keeps genuine love a real possibility.  Kate Mulvaney’s mood is a little less inviting, I feel. 

The production – as we have come to expect of STC, from the direction by Kip Williams; the stage, costumes, lighting and sound designs; and of course with such a wonderful 20-member cast playing at least 50 characters over three generations – is highly engaging throughout.  I was happy to see Part One at a 1:00 pm matinee and Part Two at 7:30 pm the same day, but since the style of Part Two is quite distinct, it would do no harm to have a day or two’s break between.

Ab [intra] - Sydney Dance Company

Review by John Lombard

In ‘Ab Intra’ Sydney Dance Company choreographer and artistic director Rafael Bonachela seeks to capture the movement from internal to external - how an impulse of the soul can burst into energetic movement of the body.

The recurring motif in this piece of dancers walking with purpose in different directions captured this feeling of energy, with the motion of the dancers resembling the ceaseless movement of atoms.

Romantic duets between male and female dancers were a key feature of this piece, with stirring music by composer Nick Wales providing an appropriately ecstatic crescendo for the entwined lovers.

With a tuft of cloud visible in the vista-like set design by David Fleischer, in these sequences it was hard not to think of  Broadway Melody Ballet from Singing in the Rain.

Bonachela invigorated these courtships by letting the dancers play with lightness and weight in a way that felt refreshingly gender fluid.

Sexuality was a clear element in the work, with the half-dressed dancers resembling lovers swaddled between trysts.

Nick Wales’ compositions (including some additional music by Peteris Vasks) contributed to the sensuality of the performance with pulse-throb percussion, longing strings, and the painful thrall of electronic soundscape.

‘Ab Intra’ is a passionate and generous work, a meta-commentary on abandoning your body to dance and love.


Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra] Photo by Vishal Pandey

ab [intra].

Choreography by Rafael Bonachela with the dancers of Sydney Dance Company. Rehearsal director Chris Aubrey. Original music. Nick Wales. Additional music. Peteris Vasks. Lighting design. Damien Cooper. Production and costume design. David Fleischer. Sydney Dance Company. Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. August 28–30 2018. Bookings: or 62752700..

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

While watching the opening sequence of Sydney Dance Company’s full length work ab [intra], I was reminded of an acting exercise. Actors are given a series of commands, for example: Run, walk, stop, go, sit etcetera. They are to do any of these at any time without thinking, and resume or change on impulse. The aim is to clear the head and be in the moment. Sydney Dance Company Artistic Director. Rafael Bonachela has begun his latest work from a similar perspective. “I asked the dancers to be in the moment with each other, to feel and listen – to use their instincts and their impulses and then seek to capture those moments in writing.”

The result is spontaneous, impulsive energy fired by a creativity that sets the stage alight with extraordinary expressions of emotion and interaction emerging from the inner being and exploding into the choreography of action and reaction, fluidity and stillness, interaction and separation. An audience sits transfixed, mesmerised by the moment and the sheer dynamism of movement and sculptural grace that is the orchestrated pattern of the dance, a poetic symphony of body and soul. Mind and body, emotion and intellect are fused in the dancer’s extraordinary synergy of muscle and limb. Anguish and love, closeness and alienation, dependence and rejection counterbalance in a virtuoso display of corporeal muscularity of movement. 
Davide di Giovanni and Charmene Yapp in ab [intra]
Photo: Vishal Pandey
The sheer physical dynamism of Bonachela’s company is astounding. Every moment astonishes. Bodies intertwine, flowing through negative space with the grace of a ballet dancer or the electrifying impulses of the shock to awaken the senses. The internal rhythms find expression in the pas de deuxs before emerging in the explosive similitude of the ensemble scenes to the syncopated sound of Nick Wales’s original compositions in conytrast to the classical beauty of Peteris Vask’s entrancing cello composition. Damien Cooper lights the introspective moments with soft lighting before blasting the open stage with a white wash. Music. lighting and dance depict the inner and outer nature of the human condition.
Nelson Earl and ab [intra]  Photo: Vishal Pandey
I sit amazed by the dancers’  versatility and the imaginative force of  choreography that transcends expectation. Whether a solo by a possessed Nelson Earl or a pas de deux by Davide di Giovanni and Charmene Yapp or a full company routine, danced as a round or in unison, one is compelled to watch in wonder at a collaboration that is entirely unique, visceral and totally immersive.

Without a sustaining narrative, experiencing ab [intra] is like gazing with the untrained eye upon an abstract work of art. Bonchela, rehearsal director Chris Aubrey and the dancers  invite an audience to look within themselves and, informed by the excitement, skill and art of the Sydney Dance Company discover the rich canvas of their lives.
“You blew me away” Bonchela told his dancers after the show. He was not the only one.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Misanthrope

The Misanthrope by Molière, a new version by Justin Fleming.  Bell Shakespeare in association with Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House Playhouse, August 28 – September 28, 2018.

Previewed by Frank McKone
August 28

I think I can say without reservation that
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin and Justin Fleming at
the game of couplet rhyming are equally exquisite –
so please make sure you pay them both a visit.

Their minds surely meet over four centuries fleet
In this stage production which is such a glorious treat
That even the very first preview had the audience on their feet.

Enough!, I say, but it is absolutely true that Fleming’s adaptation of Molière’s often vicious rhyming, satirising the pompous wealthy of his 17th Century day, works as well as ever for tearing strips off our modern Me, Me, Me middle class.

Even better – sex role reversal opens up the issues of individual integrity, purity and honesty, and the conflict of interest between reason and love, in a new way for a modern audience.  The old convention of the beautiful but a bit naïve young woman having to deal with two men both claiming to love her, but with very different motivations, is more than turned on its head when Alceste is now a woman, Cymbeline (Célimène) is a man – but so is Orton; and  Philinte (a polite and tactful man for Molière) becomes Philippa, whose object of romantic attentions is Éliante, still a woman now known as Eleanor, Cymbeline’s sister.  The puritanical prudish Arsenio, remains male, as up-himself as ever today as he was 400 years ago.

The clever idea in this production, I think, is that Eleanor is the Stage Manager – the most practical and unassuming person, working hard in a backstage setting that I’m sure Jean-Baptiste would instantly recognise, to get the dramatic cats herded.  This setting is a great original idea which opens up theatrical opportunities in wonderful, satirical and very funny ways.

The cast enjoyed the first run, including a couple of interesting improvisations, as much as we did and you will:

Alceste – Danielle Cormack        Arsenio – Simon Burke
Eleanor – Catherine Davies        Cymbeline – Ben Gerrard
Philippa – Rebecca Massey        Orton / Cleveland – Hamish Michael
Angus – Anthony Taufa

Director – Lee Lewis            Designer – Dan Potra
Lighting Designer – Matthew Marshall
Composers and Sound Designers – Max Lambert and Roger Lock
Voice Coach – Jess Chambers    Choreographer – Kelley Abbey


Screening at Palace Electric
Rated M, subtitled
4.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The Insult begins with a petty altercation over a drainpipe that escalates with punches thrown and insults traded. The issue goes to court, is picked up by the media and spills out into the street and across the country.

If it were a story from somewhere more peaceful, it might take the form of a farce or a satire, but this is from Lebanon, so often in the headlines with its bitter civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. Old enmities are still deeply and fiercely felt.

It is the job of Yasser (Kamel el Basha), to fix faulty construction in the district, so he attaches a new piece of downpipe to a balcony outlet, but without permission. Apartment owner, Tony (Adel Karam), immediately leans over his balcony and smashes it to smithereens. Yasser swears at him, you ‘f---ing prick, not an unreasonable response in the circumstances.

The matter might have stopped there, at least with the big box of chocolates proffered in apology, but this exchange between these residents of Beirut won’t rest. Tony, a Lebanese Christian, recognises the foreman’s Palestinian accent, and takes things to court after an attempt at conciliation at his workshop ends in Tony saying something really wounding and Yasser punching him in the ribs.

Despite attempts by his pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek) to make him see reason, Tony escalates the matter to a higher court, hires a counsel and has his mild-mannered assailant charged with assault and the potential charge of manslaughter because Shirine has suffered a miscarriage, and their baby daughter is being kept alive in a humidicrib.

Tony (Adel Karam) gives evidence in court
 It’s in the courtroom that things in The Insult get really interesting. A scintillating duel between Tony’s counsel (Camille Salameh), a seasoned barrister, and a glamorous young woman (Diamand Bou Abboud), who turns out to be his daughter. With Nadine, a Palestinian sympathiser acting pro bono, and her urbane father Wajdi sympathising with the Christians, it makes for thrilling exchanges between them. The performances here are a joy to watch.

The screenplay was written by the director Ziad Doueiri, of Palestinian background, and his wife, Joelle Touma, a Christian, while they were divorcing apparently. Surely the differences between these two, ethnic and personal, has something to do with the well-honed debate.

More is revealed about the dark intransigence that Tony harbours. So much so, that it mitigated my view that he was overplayed by Karam. The dignified Yasser, on the other hand, who says little but commands considerable attention, is played with great presence by El Basha. The optimism of the film’s resolution of a conflict that has endured for generations could be wishful thinking but if it really is possible, then bring it on.

This fine film, Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film awards at the Oscars, has much to say and put questions to us all. It is clever, passionate and entertaining and sometimes exhilarating, even for observers like me on the sidelines.

Also published at Jane's blog


Venus in Fur by David Ives.

Directed by Caroline Stacey. Designed by Imogen Keen. Lighting by Verity Hampson. Sound design by Kyle Sheedy. Accent coach. Diana Nixon. Stage Manager. Angharad Lindley.  Street One. The Street Theatre.  Until  September 2. 2018. Bookings: 62471223 or

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Joanna Richards as Vanda Jordan and Craig Alexander as Thomas Novachek
in The Street Theatre's production of David Ives' Venus in Fur.


An enormous, shuddering thunderclap, followed by an incandescent  flash of lightning illuminates the basement of a deserted sweat shop, where playwright Thomas Novachek (Craig Alexander) has been unsuccessfully auditioning actresses for the lead role in his adaptation of Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, Venus in Fur. Nature’s powerful force presages  human nature’s encounter between will and dominance in David Ives’  fascinating gender drama of the same title as Sacher-Masoch’s tale of masochism, sexuality and degradation.

An expletive shouts out from the top of the staircase of Imogen Keen’s imposing set design. Aspiring actress, Vanda Jordan (Joanna Richards) stumbles upon the scene, cursing her lateness and fearing failure to be auditioned by Novachek. Brash and loud, Jordan appears utterly unsuitable for the role of the cool and composed Wanda von Dunajew of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Comical in her forthrightness and hilarious in her fumbling, Jordan is a self-mocking assertion of the actor’s powerlessness in the light of causes of rejection. In an act of deliberate wile, Jordan removes her coat to reveal the leather underwear of a dominatrix, without a whip but with the erotic power to allure.

From this moment, Ives’s initial spoof of the audition process assumes a very different tenor, while still couched within the convention of an audition. Jordan dresses in the period dress she has brought with her and chameleon-like adopts the composure and presence of the nineteenth century noblewoman. It is a transition that both unsettles and fascinates Novachek, who finds himself inextricably drawn into playing the part of servant Severin von Kusiemski.  What ensues is a power play that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Although admitting to only having glanced at the script on the train, Jordan has arrived with the entire script and the nineteenth century novel and launches word perfect into the role. Reality and fantasy intertwine in Caroline Stacey’s intriguing and tightly directed production. Ives, with Brechtian deliberateness, brings Jordan out of character in key moments of Wanda’s empowerment of Kusiemski, and Jordan’s loud and bombastic persona shatters illusion. As quickly, she resumes the magnetizing allure of von Dunajew. Audience and Novachek are flung into a revolving vortex of absorption and entrapment as Jordan cunningly and manipulatively shifts the power of seduction and subservience from character to actress to the last triumphant moment, when Novachek and Severin scream to the departing actress and goddess of desire, “Hail Aphrodite”.  Sexual power has played out its dominant end game, and the audience is left wondering, with Novachek, who is this actress? Why has she come? Who is the auditioner and who the auditionee? Ives offers no conclusive answers. Like Novachek, strapped to the heating flu, the audience is left to consider the questions and discover for themselves the answers.

Every aspect of the Street Theatre’s production is brilliantly realized. There are some outstanding examples of powerfully staged professional theatre emerging on Canberra’s local stages, and Venus in Fur is dressed in the finest theatrical fashion to conquer any stage. Imogen Keen’s stunning set design, built by Stephen Crossley and his team, sets the tone from the start. Verity Hampson’s lighting design, operated by Angharad Lindley, shifts the mood with subtle persuasion, accompanied by Kyle Sheedy’s sound design, operated by Seth Edwards=-Ellis. Dianna Nixon’s accent coaching and Emma Strapps’ movement direction add to the total professionalism of a production that does Canberra theatre proud.
Craig Alexander as Severin Kusiemski and Joanna Richards as
Wanda von Dunajew in Venus in Fur
At its heart, though, are the performances of Alexander and Richards under the astute and disciplined direction of Stacey. This is a formidable team of artists, who have created an unmissable theatrical tour de force at the Street. Richards beguiles and bewitches, effortlessly and magnetically playing the power game to perfection.  She embodies the seductive song of the Sirens, the enchanting beauty of Helen of Troy, the heavenly adoration of the Goddess of Love, the dangerous attraction of a Medusa and the powerful feistiness of the rough, tough New York survivor. Her performance holds the audience in its sway.
Alexander’s Novachek is a victim from the start after a day of unresolved auditions. His power as a first time director of his own play crumbles under the forceful presence of Jordan who then shifts his authority to subservience, bewitched and oppressed by natural forces over which he has no control. Alexander evokes pity and empathy, a confusion of reaction as he wields his characters’ frailties and desperate longings. His delivery of the account of Kusiemski’s beating with a briar by his sadistic Aunt reveals Sacher-Masoch’s beguiling fascination with the pleasure in pain of the masochist.

The complexity of performing double roles is surmounted with utter aplomb, as two outstanding actors grapple with Ives’ themes and hold the audience for one hundred minutes of magnificent theatre and skilfully directed ensemble playing. Venus in Fur warrants a far longer season and queues jostling for standbys. In other theatrical Meccas this production would be the talk of the town. Be seduced and give in to the power of Venus in Fur at The Street Theatre before the season ends!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

MOZART AND BRAHMS CLARINET QUINTETS, Barbara Jane Gilby and friends. At Wesley Music Centre, August 26. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Barbara Jane Gilby brings to the stage an international class of playing and experience. With a sound reflecting Yehudi Menuhin both in intonation and tone production, she plays these days an exquisite 17th century Italian violin made by the Guarneri family, which she says opens up an extra palette of tonal colours and dynamics more-so than any other instrument she has owned.
The Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets are a marvellous coupling for a concert in so many ways. They share similarities in both the opening measures for two violins and also the opening phrases for the clarinet soloist. In addition however they are stylistically poles apart. The Mozart centres around beautiful melody, whilst the Brahms is more complex and polyphonic. Both quintets feature ample opportunity for the players of the inner parts to shine forth and this was one of the stand-out features of the pieces and the entire concert.

The Mozart “Quintet, K.581 in A Major” is a bright and joyous work. The first Allegro movement traded themes between all the string players and it was particularly nice to hear so many solo moments, albeit short, from the viola, played to great effect and with feeling and projection by Lucy Carrigy-Ryan. Gilby and 2nd violinist Pip Thompson played with excellent phrasing and unity during this movement. Thompson, an excellent violinist, projects a slightly darker tone than Gilby, but the contrast only served to strengthen the timbre and sonority of the blended sound.

The Larghetto and Menuetto-Trio movements both featured lengthy solo parts for the 1st violin (Gilby), who controlled the balance of her sound beautifully, so as to feature herself in these passages without up-staging the solo clarinet which would return later. Ah yes, the solo clarinet - played with wonderful depth of tone and projection by Eloise Fisher. It is a showcase part for the instrument and demonstrates how much Mozart loved the clarinet. Many of the passages in the piece remind the listener of the Concerto, also in A Major.

The final movement is a set of variations and once again highlighted the inner parts played by 2nd violin, viola and cello which combined created a beautiful foundation over which 1st violin and clarinet could soar and weave. On the cello was the youngest member of the ensemble, Samuel Payne, who has the honour and distinction of being fourth generation musical lineage to Pablo Casals, through Howard Penny/Julian Smiles and Nelson Cooke. He played with a light tone when bowed and a more projected tone in pizzicato phrases, with one tiny little moment of intonation wobble in the upper register during the variations. Overall, he is a fine player and at the beginning of what could be a wonderful music career if he so wishes.

Brahms’ “Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115” is a dark and brooding work in many places, full of drama, intensity and complexity. Composed in 1891, towards the end of his life, it shares with Mozart the full extent of a composer in the maturity of their writing and musical thought. The two works are 102 years apart.

Fisher blossomed even more during this performance, delivering extraordinary dynamics, phrasing and variation in tone colour throughout the work. Each passage was sweetened into phrases of such delight with incredible tone production. Also notably different was Gilby’s tone and projection of the violin, which became darker and more intense.

Something went momentarily wrong towards the end of the first Allegro movement - an ensemble tuning blemish of some kind, which just marred the event in a very minor way. The positive side of this of course is that it humanises a performance. We are listening to real people, not robots and you take it in - warts and all. Larry Sitsky once said to me, “thank goodness for wrong notes”.

The final movement of the Brahms is also a set of variations and the writing calls for a sustained showcase solo from the cello, which young Payne delivered with conviction, projection and excellent intonation.

The piece finished with gentleness and delicacy. Throughout the entire concert, the ensemble playing was a stand-out feature. Everyone was together, musically almost as one, the sound and phrasing led so masterfully by Barbara Jane Gilby, who also allowed Eloise Fisher on clarinet to feature beautifully as the star soloist.

First published in City News Digital Edition, August 27 2018

Monday, August 27, 2018

Barnum - Canberra Philo

Review by John Lombard

Circus performers are often victims of their own skill: they make death-defying stunts look too easy.

When Barnum (Greg Sollis) mounts a tightrope near the end of the first act, the brief wobble doesn’t seem staged, and the safety mats take on renewed significance. What if Barnum doesn’t make it?

Director Anita Davenport’s down-to-earth production of Barnum captures of the thrill of circus acts by keeping them simple, and adding a dollop of humour.

Paul Sweeney’s comic strongman routine at the top of show sums up this likeable whimsy, with Sweeney struggling to heft fake weights, before finally unleashing an unexpected feat of strength.

Later in the show when one of the performers clambers up silks to the roof of Erindale Theatre, the act is more striking and thrilling than it would in a production helmed by elite athletes.

Barnum is the 1980 musical retelling of showman, politician and loveable grifter P.T. Barnum, unashamed hagiography bolstered by snappy and sometimes surprisingly beautiful songs.

Set design by Steve Galinec and Ian Croker is strategic but generous, with some elaborate pieces of set bursting onto the stage before vanishing. With the effort that must have gone into building Jumbo the elephant, it’s a wonder he didn’t pop up in every scene.

Sollis’ Barnum brings a sense of wonder best displayed in songs like “Colours of My Life”, but is slightly too straight-laced for the raw hucksterism the part demands.

Barnum’s “opposites attract” marriage to killjoy wife Charity (Julia Walker in this performance) faltered. Walker was strong in the part, and sang it very well, but the couple’s genteel spats lacked fire, and rather than hoping their relationship would survive against the odds, from their first scene I was hoping for a divorce.

Barnum is a dated musical where diversity basically just means being old or short. The show also has a pervasive sexism, true to the era but a barrier to empathy with Barnum. Barnum faces no meaningful consequence for adultery, beyond the mild inconvenience of selling his lover to a new manager.

But strong direction from Davenport and a delightful ensemble help us discover a half-forgotten musical’s secret charm, and renew our childlike wonder at the thrill of the circus.


The Darcy Family in STC's The Harp in the South. Photo; Daniel Boud

The Harp In The South by Ruth Park. 

Adapted by Kate Mulvaney. Directed by Kip Williams. Designed by David Fleischer. Costume designer Renee Mulder. Lighting designer Nick Schlieper. Composer The Sweats. Sound designer Nate Edmondson. Musical director. Luke Byrne. Assicstant director Jessica Arthur. Movement and Fight director Nigel Poulton. Voice and text coach. Charmian Gradwel. Roslyn Packer Theatre.  Sydney Theatre Company. Premiered on Saturday August 25th.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins 

Charlie Rothe (guy Simon) marries Rouie Darcy (Rose Riley) Photo: Daniel Boud

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Kate Mulvaney’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s trilogy, The Harp in the South is one of those rare theatrical experiences that remain forever indelibly printed upon the mind as a masterpiece of the Australian stage. Mulvaney has spent three years finding the heart and soul of Ruth Park’s Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man’s Orange. STC’s Artistic Director Kip Williams has fashioned an epic portrait of the life of the Darcy Family in Surry Hills between the two world wars and post the Second World War in the Forties. Vast in its panoramic sweep of Park’s intimate observation of the people who struggle to live out their lives on Plymouth Street and microscopic in its investigation of the hopes, the dreams and the torments of the panoply of characters who people this world of courageous battlers, society’s flotsam and jetsum and people unwittingly caught up in the maelstrom of misfortune. In the tradition of Dorothy Hewitt’s Man from Muckinupin, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and the staged production of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, The Harp in the South is a classic production of a classic Australian work. It is a production that will stay with you in heart and mind.

What is so remarkable is the production’s ability to capture the very essence of the period, whether that be the festive community spirit of the country town of Trafalgar, the down and out dirt and grime of the houses on Plymouth Street or the struggling city life upon the streets of Surry Hills. We can feel the ground, breathe the air and live in the very hearts and minds of the characters that people this intensely visceral world. Cast and creatives conjure an epic tapestry of experience that propels us into the minutiae of Park’s evocative world. Mulvaney’s adaptation is precise in its faithful adherence to Park’s novels, but free enough to allow the drama to thrive without the encumbrance of burdensome fidelity. We are witnessing a powerful and gripping drama unfold, unhindered by pedantic allegiance. We live every moment of the lives of the Darcy Family and the host of characters that people the stage for the six hours of Parts One and Two.

What emerges is an experience that transcends all expectation and hurls us headlong into an unconscious involvement in every moment of this absorbing production. Young love of young Margaret Kilker (Rose Riley) turns to the struggle to survive by the adult Margaret (Anita Hegh), Young Hugh Darcy (Ben O’Toole) discovers hope turned to the  disillusion of adult Darcy (Jack Finsterer), the promise of Dolour Darcy (Contessa Treffone) to loss and despair. And yet, through all this hope remains, defiantly expressed by brothel madam Delie Stock (Helen Thomson) and Father Cooley (Bruce Spence). The overarching impression is one of community, of shared experience and a resilience that in spite of the tragedy, the eviction, the disappearance of young Thady Darcy (Joel Bishop) or the death of a daughter (Rose Riley) or poor simple Johnny Sheily (Rahel Romahn) the community and the battlers will survive. Mr. Gunnarson (Bruce Spence) and Miss Sheily (Tara Morice) find comfort in each other while Dolour discovers love with Charlie Rothe (Guy Simon) A superb cast, playing as many as six characters each in this epic saga, bring not only every character, but the entire world of Ruth Park’s Surry Hills to life in a theatrical triumph that carries you away through vales of nostalgia, mountains of emotion and a belief that love and the spirit of community can prevail and sustain. It is a salutary lesson for all time. We may laugh at the old fashioned antics and attitudes of Heather Mitchell’s Eny Kilker or weep at Margaret’s desperate search for her missing son, but we will always recognize a part of ourselves in every character on the stage.
Delie Stock (Helen Thomson) in The Harp in the South

We saw the three and a half hour matinee followed in the evening by the two hours and twenty minutes second part. If you are unable to see it all on the one day, be sure to see Part One first, or even Part One only if unable to see both parts. You will be amply rewarded by your visit to a production that I predict will sweep the Helpmann Awards. Whatever your decision, hurry to secure your seats. I offer another prediction – this brilliant production will sell out within a very short time, once the reviews and word of mouth hits the streets. I leave the final word to Kate Mulvaney as expressed in the programme “I hope this play makes you look at the person next to you and smile…Embrace a hopeful future. And keep passing the baton of stories and community.” Her adaptation of Ruth Park’s novels under Kip William’s superb direction of his brilliant cast does all this and much more.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur by David Ives.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, August 22 – September 2, 2018.

Director – Caroline Stacey; Stage & Costume Design – Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kyle Sheedy; Lighting Design – Verity Hampson; Accent Coach – Dianna Nixon; Movement Coach – Emma Strapps

Performed by Craig Alexander as Thomas Novachek, playwright/director; Joanna Richards as Vanda Jordan, aspiring actress

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 25

In David Ives’ clever and intriguing play, Venus in Fur (singular), we see fictional Thomas Novachek as author/director of his (Novachek’s) adaptation for stage of Venus in Furs (German: Venus im Pelz - plural), an 1870 novella by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. 

Good Reads at describes the novella: 
'Venus in Furs' describes the obsessions of Severin von Kusiemski, a European nobleman who desires to be enslaved to a woman. Severin finds his ideal of voluptuous cruelty in the merciless Wanda von Dunajew. This is a passionate and powerful portrayal of one man's struggle to enlighten and instruct himself and others in the realm of desire. Published in 1870, the novel gained notoriety and a degree of immortality for its author when the word "masochism" - derived from his name - entered the vocabulary of psychiatry. This remains a classic literary statement on sexual submission and control.

Novachek waits in frustration, bombarded by magnificent frightening thunder and lightning, for his idea of a woman who can play Wanda von Dunajew.  He complains that in the old days a 24-year-old would have been married with five children with life experience enough to play the part – but nowadays 24 year-olds just chatter inanely in silly high-pitched voices like 12-year-olds.  Vanda Jordan clatters down the steel staircase to the only audition space Novachek can afford, a concrete basement, sounding exactly like the woman Novachek does not want.

You don’t need to have read Venus in Furs to understand Venus in Fur, though it might be interesting to do so; but I certainly do not recommend reading the summaries and study guides you can find online of Venus in Fur before seeing the play.  Much better to be surprised by the unexpected.  All I will say is that role reversal is a key element of the play’s exposure of male/female relations.

The acting by Joanna Richards and Craig Alexander, under Stacey’s direction, makes the complex transitions between their ‘real life’ roles and their roles as Severin von Kusiemski and Wanda von Dunajew look easy.  The coaching by Dianna Nixon and Emma Strapps has worked so well that we bit by bit are drawn into sensing the depth of the changing relationship which is the essence of the play – David Ives’ play, that is.

Though I find whistles, whoops and hollers an unpleasant form of applause which has become the modern fashion, I have to agree that this production is top quality from set, costume, sound and light design through to the acting, all showing a true integration of all the theatrical elements not always seen even in major company productions.

Craig Alexander (behind) and Joanna Richards
in Venus in Fur by David Ives

 Then there is the play itself.  Ives has written in the best of American tradition – Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams come to mind – where stories from the past become deeply felt expressions of character and disturbing new ways of understanding the present.

Venus in Fur is small in scale compared with Mourning Becomes Electra, or Streetcar Named Desire, but it comes to grips with today’s central issue of the treatment of women.  When Joanna Richards, playing Vanda Jordan as Wanda von Dunajew, throws her line like a javelin in the face of  von Masoch / von Kusiemski/ Thomas Novachek / Craig Alexander, saying how as a woman actor in his play she is “denigrating herself”, the modern state of tension in the power-play of men and women suddenly becomes reality.  We even saw it played out this last week at the top level of government in this country.  Chaotic men still dominate, destroying the career of the woman who was probably their best bet to retain government.

But wait till you see how this play, written by a man, ends.  Maybe there’s a kind of hope after all.  Though as Shakespeare wrote “True love never did run smooth”, love doesn’t have to be quite as painful as von Masoch suggests – if men and women treat each other as true equals.

Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards
as Thomas Novachek and Vanda Jordan
in character as Severin von Kusiemski and Wanda von Dunajew
in Venus in Fur by David Ives
Photos: Street Theatre

Mirusia - From the Heart Tour 2018

Mirusia Louwerse
July 2017
Photo: Belinda McDowall
Mirusia – From the Heart TourMirusia Louwerse with Graeme Press (musical director and composer on piano), Leo Kram (violin) and backing singer Shannon Robinson.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 25, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

At the end of a seemingly interminable week of vicious internecine political shenanigans at Parliament House in Canberra, feeling distinctly cynical, what a welcome surprise it was to find myself feeling warm and fuzzy, even a bit teary as Mirusia ended her second encore singing along with her upstanding audience “I am, you are, we are – Australian” on Saturday afternoon in our great little theatre, The Q, in Queanbeyan.

Mirusia’s joke was to thank us for making her feel more than a human being (‘humanbeyan’).  We made her feel a ‘Queenbeyan’.

Her concert of classical songs, music theatre and even the old folk song ‘Botany Bay’ focussed on heart and home.  Her theme is how, after ten years living in her parents’ home country, Holland, she remained homesick for Australia and the Brisbane of her birth and upbringing – finally succeeding in ‘importing her husband’ Youri who mans the sales desk in the foyer, where you are encouraged to buy the album of the show and donate to the Australian Children’s Music Foundation.

From the Heart is an unpretentious presentation of Mirusia’s journey from Brisbane, her success at the Queensland Conservatorium in Australia, where at the age of 21 she was announced as the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious Dame Joan Sutherland Opera Award, and her career touring the world for 10 years “as a featured soloist with the Johann Strauss Orchestra. This much loved orchestra is based in Maastricht, Netherlands and is led by the acclaimed violinist, André Rieu.”

Mirusia with André Rieu, 2016
Bringing Mirusia to The Q was a mark once again of the success of Stephen Pike and his team in providing a range of quality attractions to our region.  From the Heart indeed.

I have only two suggestions. 

I wondered if, especially in such a small theatre, whether the show might have been better un-miked.  Oddly enough, voices were rounded and clarity excellent when using the hand-held mikes, but this was not the case when Mirusia sang and spoke using only the ‘cheek’ clip-on mike.

I also felt Shannon Robinson, who sang very well, deserved to be introduced to the audience right at the beginning.  Even though it was great to hear her singing the Flower Duet with Mirusia later in the show, she looked left out of the group before that, even though we knew she was providing backing harmony.  In fact I would have liked at the beginning to have had a proper introduction to Shannon, Graeme Press and Leo Kram, with a little music played or sung by each.  In this way – in the Australian way – we would have felt more at home with a team of equals presenting the concert.

BARNUM - Canberra Philharmonic Society

Music by Cy Coleman – Lyrics by Michael Stewart – Book by Mark Bramble
Directed by Anita Davenport – Musical Direction by Rhys Madigan

Choreographed by Jodi Hammond – Designed by Steve Galinec and Ian Croker

Costumes designed by Chelsea de Rooy – Lighting Designed by Phil Goodwin

Presented by The Canberra Philharmonic Society

Erindale Theatre 23rd August to 8th September, 2018

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

He was known as the Prince of Humbug, and reputedly responsible for the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute", but Phineas Taylor Barnum was also the man responsible for the longevity of the modern circus when he established and toured his “Greatest Show On Earth” the length and breadth of America.

Cy Coleman’s musical “Barnum” celebrates the legend rather than the man, with a score crammed with toe-tapping songs and a cast which includes some of Barnum’s most famous attractions in Jumbo the elephant, General Tom Thumb, and Joice Heth, the 160 year old nurse of George Washington

Canberra Philharmonic Society's  "BARNUM" 

Photo: Ross Gould
For this exuberant production, stylishly directed by Anita Davenport, the Erindale Theatre stage is transformed into a giant circus ring to capture the magical milieu of the circus. Acrobats swing from trapezes, jugglers, dancers and unicyclists compete for attention in Jodi Hammond’s cleverly choreographed production numbers. Rhys Madigan adds to the excitement by accurately capturing the brassy circus sound with his excellent band.  

Greg Sollis (Barnum) - Julia Walker (Chairy Barnum)

Photo: Ross Gould
Greg Sollis gives a masterful performance as P.T. Barnum. Commanding attention from the outset, he sings his songs with conviction, finds the humanity in his characterization, and even manages to juggle and walk a tightrope with aplomb. Matching him every inch of the way, as his long-suffering wife Chairy, Julia Walker sings beautifully, and imbues her character with a lovely mixture of warmth and feistiness which makes their scenes together quite delightful.

The show is packed with stand-out feature roles in which Demi Smith (Jenny Lind), Meaghan Stewart (Joice Heth), Mark Zatschler (Tom Thumb), Kate Tricks (Blues singer), Paul Sweeney (in a variety of cameos) and Jano Simko, who brings his circus skills and effervescent personality to the role of the Ringmaster, are particularly memorable.

No doubt adjustments will be made to the lighting design so that important characters are not lost in the gloom, and to the sound balance which, on opening night, resulted in the band sometimes overwhelming the singers, but these technical blemishes apart, this superbly performed production with its excellent costumes and setting is a ‘must see’ for anyone looking for a joyous, entertaining night in the theatre.

           This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 24.08.18