Saturday, November 30, 2019

Baby Doll

Baby Doll, adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann from the 1956 film by Tennesee Williams and Elia Kazan.  Ensemble Theatre at Kirribilli, Sydney, October 18 – November 16, 2019.

Commentary/Review by Frank McKone

Director – Shaun Rennie; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Set & Costume Designer – Anna Tregloan; Composer & Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson

Baby Doll – Kate Cheel        Aunt Rose Comfort – Maggie Dence
Silva Vacarro – Socratis Otto        Archie Lee Meighan – Jamie Oxenbold

Photos by Prudence Upton

Kate Cheel and Jamie Oxenbold
as Baby Doll and Archie Lee
Set design for Baby Doll
Kate Cheel as Baby Doll

Tennessee Williams called the original stage play of the story of Baby Doll (Flora) being raped by the manager of a syndicate cotton gin (Silva Vicarro) because Flora’s husband  (Jake) had set fire to it and destroyed the competition to Jake’s own gin – a comedy.  This was 27 Wagons Full of Cotton

Scene: The front porch of [Jake’s and Flora’s] cottage near Blue Mountain, Mississippi. 
The porch is narrow and rises into a single narrow gable.
There are spindling white pillars on either side supporting the porch roof and a door of Gothic design and two Gothic windows on either side of it. 
The peaked door has an oval of richly stained glass, azure, crimson, emerald and gold. 
At the windows are fluffy white curtains gathered coquettishly in the middle by baby-blue satin bows. The effect is not unlike a doll’s house.

Jake is a “fat man of sixty”.  Flora is not described, except that she has a “huge bosom”.  Here’s a little excerpt of dialogue:
Jake: Everything you said [about them both being at home when the fire exploded] is awright. But don't you get ideas.
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas. Made to be hugged an' squeezed!
Flora ( babyishly ): Mmmm. . . .

Satirical comedy?  But there is no doubt about the rape:

Flora: Don't follow. Please don't follow! ( She sways uncertainly.
He presses his hand against her. She moves inside. He follows. 
The door is shut quietly. The gin pumps slowly and steadily across the road.
From inside the house there is a wild and despairing cry. A door is slammed . 
The cry is repeated more faintly.)

In the next scene: After a moment the screen door is pushed slowly open and Flora
emerges gradually. Her appearance is ravaged. Her eyes have a vacant limpidity in the moonlight, her lips are slightly apart.  She moves with her hands stretched gropingly before her till she has reached a pillar of the porch . There she stops and stands moaning a little. Her hair hangs loose and disordered. The upper part of her body is unclothed except for, a torn pink band about her breasts. Dark streaks are visible on the bare shoulders and arms and there is a large discoloration along one cheek. A dark trickle, now congealed, descends from one corner of her mouth. These more apparent tokens she covers with one hand when Jake comes up on the porch. He is now near approaching, singing to himself.

It seems to me La Commedia e Finita.

In the 1956 movie, the emphasis is on Carroll Baker being made a star by Elia Kazan, (as he had done for Marlon Brando in Street Car Named Desire).  Two elements of the movie were different from the original play, which I think ultimately altered the effect of this further adaptation back to the stage.

First is a minor point.  The story of Aunt Rose in the movie was no more than a bit of human interest on the sidelines of the central story of industrial arson and rape as revenge.  In an earlier play than 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, called The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper, Archie Lee (aka Jake) reminds his wife, Baby Doll, that Aunt Rose has overstayed her welcome in their home.  Under pressure to go, when a tornado rages, Aunt Rose will not go inside, and is carried away in a mighty gust of wind. 

In this stage adaptation, the role becomes more a distraction than a light relief.  The director, Shaun Rennie, may have seen Aunt Rose in a Greek chorus role as commentator or reflector on the action, I guess, but her entrances and exits are intrusive rather than illuminating.  That’s no reflection on Maggie Dence’s performance, of course, but a weakness in the scriptwriting.

The second development in the movie, though, is much more significant.  The characterisation of Baby Doll – I think for the titillation of blockbuster movie audiences – became a conflicting mix of childish naivety with knowing seductiveness.  If she had sex with Silva Cavarro in the child’s crib (all that’s available for him to sleep in), under his manipulative pressure, though it might still have been rape, it was nothing like the violence of the original story.  In fact, on stage, with the crib entirely off-stage (while in the movie we see the scene where she settles Cavarro in to sleep), we are even less certain that a rape actually took place.

Yet, as in the movie, we did see on stage a Baby Doll, in Kate Cheel’s excellent characterisation, who takes on her husband against his attitude in:
Flora: Ideas?
Jake: A woman like you's not made to have ideas.

The tension arising from the other new element in the movie – the agreement with Baby Doll’s father that Archie Lee would have to wait until she turned 20 to consummate the marriage – certainly raised the emotional state on film (especially with the extended reference to tomorrow being the day) and made its point on stage.

In the end, though, I suspect that to have played the original 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, because of its apparent comedy turning into tragic violence, would have made the main point of Tennessee Williams’ work more telling than either the film or its re-adaptation to stage.  Not only did it reveal bluntly the men’s attitudes to women as victims of sexual predation; it also more simply and clearly exposed the worst aspects of capitalist competition.

To this extent, the stage adaptation was better than the film:  Because on stage the setting and acting cannot appear to be ordinary naturalism, a degree of distance is established for the theme to take its place: that the exposé of red-neck Mississippi shows, as Karl Marx explained, how the economics of competition has consquences in human social behaviour. 

Tennessee Williams understood this, as we see in his other work on stage, especially in The Glass Menagerie (1944) where he used written signs above the stage for each scene to gain a similar effect to the alienation-effect (Verfremdungseffekt) used by Bertolt Brecht.

In conclusion, I saw the Ensemble Theatre production of Baby Doll as an interesting exercise, performed and designed very well; and I quote in the spirit of conversation the Director’s Note by Shaun Rennie.  “It feels like a dangerous conversation to be having in 2019 and I have questioned my own privilege as a white, male storyteller in this process.  I have faced the conundrum of not wanting to speak on behalf of anyone yet at the same time wish to engage in the conversation.  I hope that this production inspires further interrogation of a system that Williams and Kazan were clearly lampooning back in 1956, but which is still unfortunately pervasive today.”

Kate Cheels and Socratis Otto
as Baby Doll and Silva Vacarro
Socratis Otto and Maggie Dence
as Silva Vacarro and Aunt Rose Comfort
in Ensemble Theatre's production
of Baby Doll by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan
adapted from the film by
Pierre Laville and Emily Mann


Friday, November 29, 2019

The Odd Couple

Brian Meegan (Felix) and Steve Rodgers (Oscar)
The Odd Couple by Neil Simon.  Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli, Sydney) November 22 – December 29, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 27

Director – Mark Kilmurry; Set and Costume Designer – Hugh O’Connor; Lighting Designer – Christopher Page; Dialect Coach – Nick Curnow


Speed – Laurence Coy            Gwendolyn – Katie Fitchett
Roy – Robert Jago                  Murray – James Lugton
Felix – Brian Meegan             Vinnie – Nicholas Papademetriou
Cecily – Olivia Pigeot             Oscar – Steve Rodgers

On Wednesday’s formal opening night – as I imagine will happen at every performance of The Odd Couple – as the guys finally settled down for their traditional Friday night poker game, after the upset of Felix’s two divorces plus the excitement of Cecily and Gwendolyn (one of whom was a widow not a divorcee, because her husband had died moments before the paperwork was completed), the Ensemble audience exploded like a celebratory fireworks display of laughter and applause.

Brian Meegan’s Felix’s thoroughly irritating tidiness, cleanliness and cooking surely explained why his wife had gone to a lawyer; while Steve Rodger’s warm welcoming absolute sloppiness as Oscar understandably left him with an eight-room apartment in New York and an ex-wife who seemed perfectly rational over the phone.

Mark Kilmurry did exactly the right thing by keeping the setting true to the New York culture of these already old-fashioned men when Neil Simon wrote them in 1965.  They all sounded like variations of Woody Allen to me, from the days when he was still funny.  Maybe to try to update and place The Odd Couple in Australia today just wouldn’t make a comedy.

But the joke of Oscar’s divorce and being left rambling about in an empty house, inviting the distraught Felix to move in with him – to save Felix from killing himself and Oscar from drinking himself into oblivion – and the odd couple’s inevitable divorce because of their basic personality differences, stays funny at a certain degree of distance.

20 years later, Neil Simon himself wrote a female version, where the women played Trivial Pursuit instead of poker.  But it seems to me that the comedy of Felix’s suicidal possibility might not be read in the same way for the woman, named Florence, even if set in 1980 as Simon says. 

Essentially, as Kilmurry’s directing shows, the men are so lacking in self-awareness that we can’t help laughing at their stupidity.  He made sure, though, that although Gwendolyn and Cecily (taken straight from Oscar Wilde, of course) are giggly and excitable (done perfectly by Olivia Pigeot and Katie Fitchett), they are English in Neil Simon’s American joke, and therefore show simple practicality and commonsense.  Being divorced or widowed doesn’t see them turn suicidal.  I would be very wary of reversing these roles, in 1965 or 1980, let alone today.

So, this The Odd Couple is a great success, not only for the leads Steve Rodgers and Brian Meegan and for the women, but equally for the whole team of poker players with each of their distinct personalities and particular concerns for the welfare of Felix in his dire straits.

Go along to the famous boatshed in Kirribilli, the Ensemble, and laugh yourself silly – at these men, if you’re a man; and, equally, if you’re a woman.

Packer & Sons

Packer & Sons by Tommy Murphy. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, November 20 – December 22, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 26

Director – Eamon Flack; Set and Costume Designer – Romanie Harper; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer – Alan John; Sound Designer – David Bergman and Steve Francis; Fight and Movement Director – Nigel Poulton

Performed by
Nick Barlett                      John Gaden
Anthony Harkin                John Howard
Brandon McClelland        Josh McConville
Nate Sammut
/ Byron Wolffe

Tommy Murphy and Belvoir “gratefully acknowledge that aspects of this play are inspired by the books of Paul Barry, The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer, Rich Kids, and Who wants to be a Billionaire?

Murphy opens his Playwright’s Note quoting James Packer – the grandson of media mogul Frank Packer, and son of the even more media mogul Kerry Packer – saying “James Packer believes you want to be him.  ‘I recognise that the vast majority of people would swap places with me and I wouldn't swap places with – with anyone’ .”

After Josh McConville's powerful performance of James' mental anguish, in the after-show meet-the-cast (and author) session, Belvoir artistic associate Tom Wright put the question I already had in mind: What sympathy should we feel for the tears of a billionaire?

The further question as I saw it is: Should I see Murphy's play as no more significant than the 1980s American tv soap Dynasty; or should I upgrade it to compare with Shakespeare's study of the father and son kings Henry IV and Henry V?  In the discussion on the night, this similarity was raised.

But first, should I encourage you to see Packer & Sons?

For its theatrical quality, absolutely yes. 

It's true that I found the first hour, following the young Kerry (also played by McConville) and his brother Clyde (Brandon McClelland) rather less emotionally engaging than the second half, which followed the relationship between James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch (Nick Bartlett) in the One.Tel venture, and leading to James' mental breakdown.

This, I think, is in the writing which has perhaps kept too strictly to the information available to Murphy.  These families are not fictional as in Dynasty, nor in the distant past as the kings were for Shakespeare.  For Murphy there are matters of legal clearances when dealing with such current dominating global families, the Packers and the Murdochs.

The key to the success of the play on stage is the device of using the special skills of the actor John Howard as a throughline – first as the older Frank Packer and then as the older Kerry Packer, with McConville switching from  the younger Kerry to his son James.  The autocratic strength of Howard's interpretations, especially for the Kerry Packer role, are a wonder to experience.

His treatment of the young boy James (Nate Sammut on this occasion) in the learning-to-play-cricket scene was particularly awful.  James can do nothing right and is called a 'wuss' – later repeated at the time of the failure of Lachlan and James' attempt to make One.Tel succeed.  Their crooked partner Jodee Rich  (Anthony Harkin) has to go, bawls Kerry at James.  “You’re a wuss!”

The stylisation of the design which can make near-death scenes and wildly drunken vomiting seem funny – at least until James' final breakdown in contrast – works very well.  It's a risk well taken, by Murphy in the writing and by Eamon Flack in his directing.

So certainly see Packer & Sons, and then take on the questions it raises.

Of course it has much more to offer than the sentimentality of a tv soap.  But what does it not offer?

Murphy makes it clear in his Note that he, like Paul Barry, has concentrated on the father/son relationships rather than wider considerations.

How does it come about, as one description of Who wants to be a Billionaire mentions, that James Packer, by 2009 and the GFC, became “Australia’s richest man [who now] was $4 billion poorer and no longer on top of the heap.  He was smoking again, putting on weight and shutting himself off from friends.  Years earlier far smaller losses in One.Tel [where Murphy's play ends in 2001] had pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown and made him seek salvation in Scientology.”

The book promo ends “Can James survive this time?  Will he bounce back?  Or was his father right?”

In the play, James grits his teeth, now his father and his uncle are dead, as if he must soldier on.  Then blackout.

For me the applause for an excellent production is not enough.  Superficially there is a parallel with Shakespeare's Henries, but Tommy Murphy is not yet Australia's modern Shakespeare.  The key difference is that Henry V is about a young man with a dictatorial father in the top social power position – but Henry realises, after a period of irresponsibility, that he has to provide true leadership for his society, and for his own self-belief and integrity.  We may not, today, support monarchy – but Henry learns to become a worthy person, despite his father.  Kerry Packer continued his irresponsible behaviour, including whoring, far beyond youthful oats sowing.  Neither he nor his son James used their power for ethical social leadership.  Their money is their only measure of man.

I wonder, then, where Tommy Murphy and Eamon Flack stand.  Murphy writes about “allegations that Crown Resorts profited from improper activity by consular officials and allowed passage of organised crime and money laundering....This play is not the casino narrative”. Flack writes “The story, ultimately, is James Packer's, and he is still writing it himself.  I  can't help [but] admire  his decision to open up about the personal costs of running the business [from media mogul to gambling mogul] ....  With all my heart I can abhor the Crown monument at Barangaroo and wish James Packer well.”
(My square brackets)

Excuse me?  The massive destruction of the Barangaroo foreshore on Sydney Harbour by Packer's building of a giant gambling casino shows James Packer to be even worse than his father.  Murphy writes “This play is not the casino narrative.  That story is yet unwritten.”

Billionaire, irresponsible money-makers with no ethical principles provide us with the opposite of true leadership.  They twist people's worst proclivities to their own ends.  If they end up tying their mental states in knots, we may need to come to understand people like the Packers and their sons.  Tommy Murphy has certainly shown us the worst of patriarchal behaviour in practice.

But the real story that “is yet unwritten” – the one with no sympathy for these people (or for their friends the Murdochs who, for example, are virtually the only source of news in the whole of the state of Queensland) – that story should be written and acted out (and acted upon) right now.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

HOT TO TROT - 2019

"Bus Stop" choreographed by Jett Chudleigh 

Project Director and Provocateur – Ruth Osborne
Lighting design by: Guy Harding
Presented by QL2 Dance – QL2 Studios – Gorman Art Centre – 23rd, 24th November 2019.

Performance 23rd November reviewed by Bill Stephens

“Hot to Trot” is an annual program, staged by QL2 dance, which provides young budding choreographers with the opportunity to try their hand at choreographing a short work. Having participated in previous QL2  activities, under professional choreographers, the budding choreographers are provided with dancers, studio time and mentors, but must come up with a concept, organise rehearsals, costumes and lighting plot, as well as guide and rehearse their dancers to a short work to be performed for two performances in front of a paying audience.

The program consisted of five staged works, and two short films, “Lens” by Hollie Knowles, and “We’ll see how long that Lasts” by Christopher Wade – both of which demonstrated an admirable  grasp of the possibilities now available with modern technology to produce interesting dance works on film.

The first staged work was entitled “Decisions” for which Danny Riley and Penny Amoore combined talents to choreograph and perform an intense duet, which commenced quietly, then gathered   momentum as they challenged each other in a series of nicely executed unison sections.

Amalia Socha and Ela Parsons also chose to perform their own work, “Behind the Rack”, a thoughtful two-person piece examining the consequences of cheap throwaway fashion, from manufacture to point of consumption.

Sarah Long incorporated lemons, the music of George Gershwin, and shadow play, into an amusing duet for Alexandra Postai and Pippi Keogh entitled, “Citrus Limon”, in which she explored the response of changing emotions, attitudes and feelings when confronted with a new experiences.

Danny Riley’s work, “Outside the Box”, was the most ambitious work of the evening, involving six dancers, himself, Clare Daly, Hannah James, Jett Chudleigh, John Judd and Sofie Nielson. Although how the movement choices represented the theme of career choices was not always clear, the work did contain some inventive group movement, and a particularly interesting section in which dancers responded to puppeteer-like movements.
The most transparent work however was Jett Chudleigh’s “Bus Stop”, performed to an original score by her father, James Chudleigh, depicting the reactions of four travellers stranded at a bus stop.

Stylishly staged under the watchful eye of Ruth Osborne, each work was introduced by the respective choreographers, sensitively lit, with quick, well-managed transitions between  works. At the end of the program, the choreographers and dancers returned to the stage to answer questions from an obviously engaged and interested audience.
To communicate  complex ideas through dance is a daunting task for any choreographer, and  given the ages and experience of this year’s group, all of whom, with one exception, were making their first work, the results, though predictably variable, still provided a diverting evening of interesting dance works for the capacity audience.  But more important is the invaluable opportunity “Hot to Trot” provides the young choreographers and their dancers to explore their ability to create and perform meaningful dance.

                        Photo: Andrew Sikorski (Art Atelier Photography)

Monday, November 25, 2019


World premieres of two new oratorios
“Perpetua” by Michael Dooley
“7 Prayers of the Saviour”  by William Dooley
Llewellyn Choir conducted by Rowan Harvey-Martin
Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest 22 November

Reviewed by Len Power

Llewellyn Choir’s latest concert featured three works by two members of Canberra’s musical Dooley family.  “7 Prayers of the Saviour” was an oratorio by up and coming fourteen year old William Dooley and there were two works by his father, Michael Dooley, “The Land That Is Very Far Off” and an oratorio, “Perpetua”.  Both oratorios were world premieres.

The concert commenced with Michael Dooley’s “The Land That Is Very Far Off”.  Described as a celtic rhapsody for violin and piano, it was performed by Timothy Wickham on violin and the orchestral ensemble with Michael Dooley himself on piano.  It was a sweeping, melodic work of great beauty, wistful and nostalgic and it was especially well-played by Timothy Wickham.

Rowan Harvey-Martin then conducted William Dooley’s oratorio, “7 Prayers of the Saviour” with the Llewellyn Choir, four vocal soloists and the ensemble.  This ambitious work with recognizable influences from composers of the past commenced with rather tentative singing by the choir.

Rowan Harvey-Martin with William Dooley

It was most successful in the simpler vocal lines of “Prayer For Lazarus” and “Thy Will Be Done”, sung very well by bass, Andrew Fysh.

An opportunity to hear his work fully produced, it would have been of enormous help for this young composer on his journey to finding his own distinctive style in the years to come.

After interval, the choir presented Michael Dooley’s new oratorio, “Perpetua”.  The story of Perpetua is from the oldest existing document known to be written by a Christian woman, “The Passion Of Saints Perpetua and Felicity”.  It was a good choice for the oratorio as it has a strong and emotionally gripping storyline.  It tells of an educated woman who converted to Christianity and was ultimately martyred for her beliefs in the year 202 AD.

Michael Dooley

Michael Dooley produced a work of great beauty throughout.  From the haunting and atmospheric setting of the opening, “Soli Deo Gloria”, the work progressed from one highlight to another.  His underscoring of the recitatives was especially notable.

The beautiful, clear soprano of soloist, Emma Griffiths, who sang the role of Perpetua, was most effective in her recitatives and soared above the choir in the “Agnus Dei”.  Her singing of “Confitibor Tibi” towards the end was heart-felt and memorable.

Mezzo soprano, Veronica Thwaites-Brown, was a standout with her singing of the very moving “Felicity” lullaby.  Tenor, Dan Walker, was in fine voice with his singing of “Saturus Vision” and bass, Andrew Fysh, sang an excellent Narrator 2.  He gave an especially well-judged level of drama to his singing in “Day Of Victory”.

The choir sang the work with great confidence and clarity.  Rowan Harvey-Martin conducted the whole work extremely well.  The standing ovation at the end of the performance was well-deserved.

Photos by Peter Hislop
This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition of 23 November 2019

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.


Christina Wilson, Mezzo-Soprano
Alan Hicks, Piano
Wesley Music Centre, Forrest 24 November

Reviewed by Len Power

‘Journey’s End’ was a well-chosen title for the final Art Song Canberra concert for 2019.  A well-chosen romantic program of works by Duparc, Schumann, Debussy, Granados and Sculthorpe, it offered a sense of life, love and destiny that would have resonated differently for everyone in the audience.

Performing to a near-capacity Art Song Canberra audience, husband and wife duo, Christina Wilson, mezzo-soprano, and Alan Hicks, piano, have a deservedly strong following in Canberra.  They have also had busy international careers and teach at the ANU and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

The program commenced with a striking performance of ‘L’Invitation au Voyage’ by Henri Duparc.  A romantic and colourful work, it was sung with great appeal by Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks’ playing of the complex accompaniment was excellent.

This was followed by all 12 songs of Robert Schumann’s song cycle, ‘Liederkreis Op. 39’ which was composed in 1840.  These songs were set to the poems of Joseph von Eichendorff, a Prussian writer and poet of the era of Romanticism.  The highly descriptive words give a strong sense of nature and its impact on the human condition and Schumann’s music is sublime.  They were beautifully sung by Christina Wilson, especially the emotional “Intermezzo’, the haunting ‘Moonlit Night’ and ‘In A Castle’ with its disturbing undercurrents.

Christina Wilson

The second half of the program commenced with three ‘Songs of Bilitis’ by Debussy which were based on the 1894 collection of erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs.  Debussy’s music creates a romantic, slightly forbidding and fascinating world of emotion around these poems and they were sung with great feeling by Christina Wilson.  ‘The tomb of the water-nymphs’ was especially enjoyable and Alan Hicks provided a particularly fine accompaniment as well.

Alan Hicks and Christina Wilson

Moving from haunting and ethereal works to the more passionate works of Enrique Granados, Christina Wilson performed the three songs of ‘La maja dolorosa’ with an impressive emotional restraint that subtly and effectively displayed the passion behind the words.

Four Shakespeare songs set by Peter Sculthorpe were then wistfully sung to complete this fine program.

Christina Wilson is not only a superb singer technically, she also sings with great emotional depth and a clear understanding of the intent of the songs.  Alan Hicks is a brilliant accompanist.  Their performances together are not to be missed.

Photos by Peter Hislop
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.