Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Performance

 

Published by Hachette Australia

The Performance.  A novel by Claire Thomas.  Hachette Australia, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone


When watching a performance in a theatre, I often wonder what is going on in the heads of others in the audience.  You hear the occasional cough, and sense if the cougher seems embarrassed or seems to have no concern for the feelings of others.  I laugh, and shrink in a little as I realise I’ve laughed too loud.

As a critic, my feelings in response to what’s happening on stage are mixed with thoughts of many kinds about the technical elements like casting, costume and hairdressing, lighting, sound, use of voices, choreography of movement, and even placing of this play and this production in the history of theatre.  If thoughts about private matters arise, as they can, of course, I will try to set them aside and re-focus my attention on the performance.

As I write this, I seem to have become a character, not mentioned by Claire Thomas, in her audience watching Happy Days by Samuel Beckett.  Except that I am remembering the production directed by the one-time Canberra High School highly respected principal and noted theatre identity, Ralph Wilson, in 1991 – in what is now affectionately known as the Ralph Wilson Theatre.

In The Performance, the performance is clearly in a professional theatre.  Margot is an established academic and subscriber, Summer is an usher and budding actor, while Ivy is a middle-aged arts enthusiast who has brought her friend Hilary.  She thinks “Hilary was the obvious person to bring along.  They studied Waiting for Godot together in high school, an experience that marked the beginning of Ivy’s passion for Beckett, or SB as she came to refer to him.”  

“Summer has once again missed the beginning of the play” because she’s not “on Stairs” this night, but “on Door” where “her main task is handling the latecomers in the foyer".  Margot is “almost late”, “shuffling in a balletic first position along the strip of carpet between the legs of the already-seated people…and the chair backs of the row in front”.

And I immediately thought of the occasion in the Canberra Theatre, when my wife and I were amused, fortunately not in the same row as their one nearer the stage, watching the tremendously tall Margaret and Gough Whitlam, one-time Prime Minister of Australia, doing a more commanding kind of shuffle.  Then I thought, there’s another book everyone should read: Margaret Whitlam – A Biography by Susan Mitchell (Random House, 2006).

That’s what I love about The Performance.  It just naturally takes you into thinking about things, just like the characters in the story.  They are making connections, thinking and re-thinking about what’s happening on stage and what’s been triggered in their memories and about what’s happening around them at the moment.  It’s an absorbing book to read.  Though I had to take a break of a few days at interval, I understand entirely why musician and writer Clare Bowditch commented “I read from start to finish almost without looking up”.

I meant “at interval” literally.  The novel has a theatrical structure.  Before interval there are six parts, simply numbered ONE to THREE, focussed in turn on Margot, Summer and Ivy; then FOUR to SIX following each of them up later in Act One.  

Then comes THE INTERVAL – a short play, in four scenes, by Claire Thomas.  The characters listed are

SUMMER, female, early 20s, theatre usher
PROFESSOR MARGOT PIERCE, female, early 70s, audience member
IVY PARKER, female, early 40s, audience member
HILARY FULLER, female, early 40s, audience member
JOEL, male, mid-20s, audience member
APRIL, female, mid-20s (screen and voice only)

After The Interval, there are parts SEVEN to NINE, again following up Margot, Summer and Ivy in order through Act Two of Happy Days.  You don’t need to have seen or read Happy Days, but you certainly get to feel you appreciate Beckett’s work as each of the three respond to particular images, sounds, words and quality of light which spark their thoughts and feelings.

It is Ivy, then, through whose eyes we see the end of the play, in which Winnie is buried up to her waist in Act One and up to her neck in Act Two.  Ivy notes “When the lights darken to allow a surge in applause, Winnie will not climb out of her trap to appear whole again like a magician’s assistant whose destruction was an illusion.  Winnie will stay inside the mound.  She will not appease the audience.”

This is where the novel comes to its fruition, matching the insights of Samuel Beckett and the director and designer of his play (whom I take to be Claire Thomas, since there is no reference to any actual performance) with the inter-related experiences of the three women, and the traps they may or may not climb out of.

I can only agree with the other readers quoted on the cover of this novel: “Witty, affecting, brilliantly wise and original” (Gail Jones); “A potent meditation on the intensity of women’s lives” (Charlotte Wood); and “Read it as soon as you possibly can” (Emily Bitto).



 

First published by Grove Press NY
1961
First production at Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City on 17 September 1961

Monday, July 19, 2021

UNVEILED

 

Anna Hosking and Joshua Walsh in "Unveiled"

Produced, Directed and Choreographed by Bonnie Neate and Suzy Piani.

Erindale Theatre. July 15th and 17th.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Canberra is fortunate to have many excellent dance schools which over the years have produced dancers who have gone on to significant National and International careers. For those dancers wishing to forge a professional career as a dancer, the leap from dance school to a dance company or professional employment as a dancer, usually requires that they leave Canberra to undertake further training to bring them to professional level.

Enter Bonnie Neate and Suzy Piani, two passionate professional dance educators, who having observed the high calibre of the dancers being produced by local dance schools, identified a need for a local transitional program.

With that in mind they instituted this self-funded project for which they held open auditions to select  20  young aspiring-professional dancers, aged between 15 and 23 years  from dance schools around Canberra to work at professional level on an original full-length contemporary work entitled “Unveiled”.

An inspired deconstruction of the romantic classical ballet “Giselle”, “Unveiled” incorporates none of the music or choreography from that ballet.  Instead Neate and Piani have compiled a superbly recorded soundtrack of contemporary and classical music and songs.

Eschewing traditional scenery the work is presented on a bare stage enhanced by striking lighting effects, with a huge screen providing a background for atmospheric video images and shadows. .

Elegant, sophisticated modern dancewear with only occasional references to the classical inspirations of the piece focussed full attention on the meticulously groomed dancers as they skilfully executed the demanding choreography with impressive attention to mood, characterisation and detail.

The choreography devised by Neate and Piani for this production is complex, inventive and continually interesting, embracing classical, acrobatic and contemporary dance elements.  The brilliantly executed ensemble sequences demanded and received precise, committed execution, bringing to mind lavish Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, but cleverly incorporated in this production for particular effect, as in an early sequence when Giselle and Albrecht desperately maintain eye contact as the dancers swirl around them.

Anna Hosking as Giselle already possesses a brilliant technique. Her beautiful line and extraordinary extensions and flexibility are showcased in complex acrobatic choreography for moody solos and expressive duets for which she is sensitively partnered by Joshua Walsh as Albrecht. 

As the only male in the production Walsh partnered  with distinction while evoking a charming blokey characterisation which provided an excellent focal point for the ire of the willis, led by Alice Collins as the Queen of Girlfriends past, when his roving eye finally brings about his comeuppance.

Anna Hosking and Joshua Walsh in "Unveiled"


Holly Hilder as Albrecht’s jilted fiancé Bathilde, Sarah Duffy and Ali Mayes as Giselle’s friends, Bertha and Hilaria, and Olivia Smith as the Temptress, all provided sharply delineated characterisations which kept the storyline focussed throughout the many cleverly choreographed and superbly executed ensemble sequences.

Delightfully entertaining as well as brilliantly choreographed and performed, “Unveiled” provides a compelling argument for the benefits of pre-professional training.  One hopes that it is seen by decision makers who could provide the funding to make a reality of the ambition of Bonnie Neate and Suzy Piani to provide talented Canberra dancers with such a resource. 


                                                             Photos by ES Fotografi 



          This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 17.07.21.

LOVE AND OTHER TRAPS - ART SONG CANBERRA

 


Piera Dennerstein, Soprano

Lucus Allerton, Piano

Wesley Music Centre 18 July

 

Reviewed by Len Power

 

Love doesn’t always run smoothly and Art Song Canberra’s concert, ‘Love and Other Traps’, covered a wide range of rapturous songs and some unsettling songs involving loss and even death.  The nicely balanced program included several very well-known songs as well as some lesser known ones.  There were songs by Scarlatti, Giordani, Debussy, Fauré, Schubert and Britten amongst others.

Soprano, Piera Dennerstein, completed a double Bachelor in Music and Arts (Hons. 1) at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University.  She has performed in opera in France, Italy and China and has worked extensively in Australia with the Victorian Opera Chorus and Lyric Opera of Melbourne as well as in corporate events.

Piano accompanist, Lucus Allerton, graduated from the ANU School of Music with Honours in Piano in 2013.  Now employed as an accompanist for vocalists at the ANU School of Music, he is active and much in demand on the art song scene nationally.

Lucus Allerton and Piera Dennerstein

The program commenced with Scarlatti’s ‘If Florindo Is Faithful’.  Dennerstein sang it with great passion and accuracy, giving the song an unexpected and welcome depth of characterization.  She is clearly a fine actress as well.

Piera Dennerstein

Moving on to the very well-known ‘Caro mio ben’ by Giordani, she sang it with great tenderness but with strong feeling underneath the words.  Revealing to the audience that she is Italian and that her friends’ nickname for her is ‘Pavarotti’, she then gave us a sparkling and fun ‘O solo mio!’.  It was sung with great joy and her powerful voice easily handled the sustained high notes in the song.


Other highlights in the program included ‘Pierrot’ by Debussy, ‘Ave Maria’ by Schubert, Britten’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’ and Fauré’s ‘Fleur Jetée’ with a masterful performance by Allerton of the complex accompaniment for this song.

Both performers gave friendly, often amusing and informative background information about the songs and their down to earth delivery easily won their audience over.  Dennerstein’s love of singing was obvious throughout the program and she shared that joy with vivacity, passion and skilful singing.

Once again, Art Song Canberra has given us a superb concert with two very fine performers.


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.

 

This review is also published in Len Power’s blog ‘Just Power Writing’ at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/.

 

 

 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

SANDSONG - Songs from the Great Sandy Desert - Bangarra Dance Theatre

 

Riki Hamaguchi and Company in "Sandsong"


Choreographed by Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Composed by Steve Francis – Costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin

Set Design by Jacob Nash - Lighting design by Nick Schlieper

Canberra Theatre from 15th – 17th July 2021.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Perhaps its most political offering to date, and certainly one of its most ambitious, Bangarra’s first full-length work in three years, “Sandsong”, traces the history of the indigenous inhabitants of the Great Sandy Desert over the centuries.

This history is encapsulated in sixteen episodes, some of which are harsh, starting with an uncomfortably loud filmed sequence with a deliberately grating soundtrack incorporating archival images of men in iron chains, prison scenes and gunshots. Some sequences are literal, involving traditional dances and initiation ceremonies. Others depict people being auctioned to work as labourers on stations, and station workers rising up against their treatment by the landowners.

Riki Hamaguchi - Baden Hitchcock in "Sandsong"

Lyrical episodes include a beautiful sequence involving a lost boy which concludes with a lovely duet between the boy and his sister, memorably performed by Rika Hamaguchi and Baden Hitchcock.

The episodes flow seamlessly in a kind of  living tapestry depicting significant events and customs relating to the Great Sandy Desert and ending in a spectacular finale for which the entire company was costumed in costumes splashed with gold against a gorgeous shimmering gold backcloth creating, perhaps incongruously, the effect of an exotic Klimt painting.

Bangarra dancers in the finale of "Sandsong"


Jennifer Irwin’s costumes for the various sections ranged through simple brief earth-coloured trunks and tops, through trousers, skirts and shifts, until finally the afore-mentioned spectacular finale costumes and always perfect for the events being portrayed.

So were Jacob Nash’s beautiful moody sculptural settings, beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper to create sympathetic environments for each of the episodes.

Bangarra is a proud ensemble company, but since its last visit to Canberra there have been some significant changes in the line-up of dancers. The choreography for “Sandsong” is attributed to Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the dancers of the company. It was danced with extraordinary commitment and skill by the dancers, perhaps as a result of their involvement in the choreography.

However among the familiar faces, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Rika Hamaguchi both continue to exhibit that special charisma and presence that draws the eye to them whenever they are on stage.

One section entitled “Build up/ Walk off” featured aerial work performed by Rikki Mason and Lillian Banks. Although marginally interesting, the necessary clumsy apparatus caused it to become an unwanted intrusion on the otherwise mystical atmosphere of the rest of the piece.



"Sandsong"

Bangarra Dance Theatre is unique in that it is devoted to telling indigenous stories through the medium of dance. “Sandsong”, with its stories of the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert, is a compelling addition to its extraordinary repertoire.  


                                                      Photos by Daniel Boud



This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW. www.artsreview.com.au

Friday, July 16, 2021

SANDSONG Stories from the Great Sandy Desert

 


 

Sandsong.

Choreographed by Stephen Page and Frances Rings. Music composed by Steve Francis. Set designer Jacob Nash. Lighting design Nick Schlieper. Costume designer Jennifer Irwin. AV designer David Bergman. Dancers: Lillian Banks, Bradley Smith, Courtney Radford, Kassidy Waters. Kallum Goolagong. Gusta Mara. Kiarn Doyle. Emily Flannery. Maddisom Paluch. Daniel Mateo Bangarra Dance Theatre in consultation with Wangkatjungka/Walmajarri Elders from the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions. Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. July 15 – 17 2021.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Steve Francis’s powerful composition explodes forcibly as the curtain rises on set designer Jacob Nash and lighting designer Nick Schlieper’s landscape of pindan red dust soil rising to a flaming red backdrop of spindly tree trunks in the heart of the Kimberley Desert. This is the landscape of an ancient culture of an ancient peoples. It is the landscape of invasion and cruelty, of protest and of survival. Images flicker against the trees. People of the Kimberley Desert enslaved in chains, torn from their families, dispossessed of their land and imprisoned behind wire walls. It is the landscape of pride, spirits and totem, of Nature, the environment and age old custom and laws. It is a landscape defiled and an environment that renews and offers hope, the hope revealed by the songlines that sweep through the ages and sung by the proud people of the Kimberley Desert.

Here lies the heart of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest tribute to the resilience of the land’s First Nation people. Sandsong is a stunning, moving, thought-provoking expression of the power of art to reveal in all its profundity the human spirit. Contemporary dance and traditional ritual and commemoration combine in a fusion of dance, music, song  evocative lighting and the spoken word. Grace and athleticism give rise to story and commentary. The language of Bangarra’s dance is articulated through the image of experience. Men’s business and women’s business encapsulate the order and custom of a society. Choreographers Stephen Page and Frances Rings weave a physical masterpiece of magical storytelling.

Told in four Acts, Sandsong takes us on a journey of awareness as a young woman is guided through kinship and the traditional Bush Onion Dance. Similarly, a young man is initiated into the ritual transformation to manhood. In Act 2 men and women perform their separate business. They are rooted to the land and imbued with the spirits of ancestral custom. The women hunt while the men make shelters from the smoking spinifex. In Act 3 tranquility and order are rent asunder by the arrival of the invaders, the enslavement of a noble people and the vile voice of an auctioneer who condemns the captives to cruel labour, only to be offered hope by the voiceover of Vincent Lingari. A lost boy in Act Four serves as the catalyst for rescue by his sister and the spirits of the ancestral Lore Men who can initiate the healing. This is the Lore Time, the time of hope and healing, of resilience and commemoration of spirit and union. These are the stories of the Great Sandy Desert, sung and danced by the people who have survived the oppression, the displacement and the ignorance of centuries of occupation of their land. Page and Rings use the power of their creative imagination to tell their story through a dance that transcends time and space. Ritual passed down through the ages is threaded through a woven tapestry of spiritual  and emotional physicality, powerfully connected to the earth and embracing the air in a soaring aerial display by a male and female dancer. Page and Ring’s choreographic tapestry is rich in form and movement, combining the familiar with the innovative. Ever changing like the seasons that give it substance, the dance weaves its song lines and stories in a  performance of visual and aesthetic bewitchment.

To witness Sandsong is to be transported to a new consciousness. I am left at the end of the performance as the dancers find comfort in the sands of their people with a faith in their power to survive, but a despair that Sandsong sings the same laments of ages past. There is hope. There is change, but Bangarra teaches us that the past serves to instruct the future and the magnificence of their art is the mirror to a people and a culture that must be preserved and shared,

A final word of advice. Do read the programme notes before the curtain rises, You will be transported by this beautifully staged and exquisitely danced experience, but even more enriched if you appreciate the way the story is magically woven through the dance. Sandsong reaffirms Bangarra Dance Theatre’s exalted place as the nation’s national treasure.

SANDSONG


 

Bangarra Dance Theatre

Choreographers: Stephen Page, Frances Rings

Composer: Steve Francis

Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre to 17 July

 

Reviewed by Len Power 15 July 2021

 

With ‘Sandsong’, Bangarra Dance Company takes us again into the world of stories emanating from our vast country and its First Nation people.  Tradition, memory, history and songs handed down through generations come together to produce a dance work of great beauty and purpose.

Subtitled ‘Stories From The Sandy Desert’, ‘Sandsong’ tells the stories of the desert homelands of the Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri peoples of the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions.

The central core of ‘Sandsong’ is a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.

The dance consists of four acts.  Acts one, two and four depict the seasons – the cold dry, the hot dry and the wet season.  The third act depicts the impact of the White Man.

Baden Hitchcock
 

Traditional dances and stories feature in the Cold Dry Season (Makurra) – kinship and place, ceremony, food and totems.  In the Hot Dry Season (Parranga), the women hunt in spite of drought and the scarcity of food and water.  The impact of the White Man (Kartiya) shows the injustices of servitude, trauma and station labour and the people leaving the land.  The Wet Season (Vitilal) looks to contemporary times, healing, empowerment and reaffirming ties to Country.  As the people gather for the Ceremony, the cycle of seasons and life continues.

Choreographers Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the Bangarra Dancers have created a haunting work filled with meaning.  Quiet sections are almost dream-like with combinations of dancers creating moments of great beauty.  The aerial sequence is especially arresting.  Contrasting dramatic sections highlight the precision and skill of these expert dancers.

Bangarra ensemble
 

The set design by Jacob Nash is dramatic and colourful and the costume designs by Jennifer Irwin are richly derived from nature.  Music by Steve Francis provides a fascinating soundscape that continually heightens the drama onstage and Nick Schlieper’s lighting design gives a striking focus that often elevates the dance to another level.

Once again, Bangarra have given us a work that instructs while it entertains.  This first new full-length work in three years is unique and memorable.

 

Photos by Daniel Boud

 

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

This review is also published in Len Power’s blog ‘Just Power Writing’ at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/.

 

 

 

SandSong

 

SandSongStories from the Great Sandy Desert.  Bangarra Dance Theatre at Canberra Theatre Centre July 15 – 17, 2021.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 15


SandSong is a major work of celebration tinged with sadness, the four seasons representing the history of the people.  

The dance is a drama of the establishment of ancient Indigenous culture, seemingly against the odds in cold and dry Makurra when “Time and space collide in a cloud of black collective consciousness”;
 
of new cultural understanding in the hot and dry Parranga – a “meditation on fragility, survival, balance, knowledge, life and death;
 
of the strength of culture needed in the time of Kartiya – the invasion of the land and the “lawlessness of a new frontier and the whims of station owners” when “people begin their new life…in servitude”;

of the determination in Yitilal, the Wet Season, by which “the spirit of people and place endures to stand strong in their kinship and belonging”.

The sadness?  “SandSong is our way of honouring and paying respect to our sister Ningali, to her People and Country” who “passed peacefully, surrounded by family and friends” in 2019 when “seriously ill in an Edinburgh hospital while on tour with Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River.”  Stephen Page and Frances Ring describe in their essay “Caring for Story” how they were able to “travel with Ningali’s family to Edinburgh to farewell and bring home our beautiful and irreplaceable friend.”

You may remember the impact of Ningali Lawford, as I do particularly for Solid,  a Black N'2 production for Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre by Ningali Lawford, Kelton Pell, Phil Thomson.  Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, 2001. (Review: Canberra Times, and available at www.frankmckone2.blogspot.com.au).

Solid ended in ironic humour with "How would you like your tea?  Black n'2 like you and me."

SandSong in dance is like the picture that hangs on my study wall: Wild Yam Dreaming by Annette Pitjara.  Just as dot painting and non-representational symbolic figures are ancient Australian forms of art which seem to be ‘modern art’ in the eyes of non-Indigenous viewers, so Bangarra’s dance – firmly based in the traditions of the Wangkatjungka and Walmajarri peoples of the Kimberley and Great Sandy Desert regions, the Lawford family’s people – integrates the ancient and ‘modern dance’ forms.

The effect then is not a focus on plot, not on linear story-line.  Each scene creates a mood, from images and movement, which take us along through experiencing living on this Country.  As in the painting, there are often small details of shape or action in the dance which an outsider may recognise as Aboriginal linked in with modern dance style.  Watching is to absorb the whole as an atmosphere.

Steve Francis’ sound is an eclectic gathering of songs, musique concrète and spoken word which makes an aural space for the dancers to perform in.

Following Bangarra’s 30 years of sixty five thousand, I see SandSong as a powerful symbolic representation of what it means to be Aboriginal – of the importance and place of Australia’s First Nations in the formation of our total culture, and therefore of central importance to us all.


Choreographers:
Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre –

Rika Hamaguchi, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Lillian Banks, Courtney Radford, Kassidy Waters, Maddison Paluch, Emily Flannery

Beau Dean Riley Smith, Rikki Mason, Baden Hitchcock, Ryan Pearson, Bradley Smith, Kallum Goolagong, Gusta Mara, Kiarn Doyle, Daniel Mateo

Cultural Consultants:
Putuparri Tom Lawford, Eva Nargoodah

Cultural Consultancy:
Wangkatjungka & Walmajarri Elders

Composer:
Steve Francis

Set Designer – Jacob Nash; Costume Designer – Jennifer Irwin; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; AV Designer – David Bergman; Rehearsal Director – Daniel Roberts; Aerial Movement Consultant – Joshua Thomson; Rigging Consultant – David Jackson; Lighting Realiser – Chris Twynam; Sound Recordist – Brendon Boney

Kimberley Country



 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

THE PENELOPIAD



The Penelopiad 

Adapted from the novella and play by Margaret Atwood. Directed by Kate Blackhurst. Original music by Glenn Gore Phillips. Choreography by Brooke Thomas. Vocal coach Tony Turner. Set design by Cate Clelland. Costume design by Annie Kay. Sound design Neville Pye. Lighting design Stephen Still. Stage manager Imogen Thomas. A Crouching Giraffe Production in association with Papermoon Theatre. Courtyard Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. July 7 – 17 2021. 

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins 
Elaine Noon (Penelope) and cast of "The Penelopiad"
 

The Penelopiad, produced by Crouching Giraffe Productions in association with Papermoon Theatre and directed by Kate Blackhurst is in my opinion the most significant production that I have seen on a Canberra stage for quite some time. This may seem a grand claim, but Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Odysseus’s deserted wife, Penelope, is a scathing attack on the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. Atwood sagaciously assails her audience with antithetical themes that resound with deafening universality. Justice and injustice, power and powerlessness, authority and servitude play out their universal conflict.
Penelope and her maids in The Penelopiad
 
Some may regard Penelope’s account of her experience during Odysseus’s long absence at the Trojan War as a feminist tract. Others may regard it as an indictment of gender politics that disadvantages the woman in a male dominated society. It is simply the story of Penelope’s life told from her afterlife existence in Hades. In the telling, Atwood entices her audience to consider, judge and reflect on the circumstances and fates of her characters, until we are left in no doubt that the innocent have been wronged and that power is manifest in the omnipotent men, including Penelope’s father who would have her drowned, the hero Odysseus, and the rapacious suitors. Atwood and Blackhurst observe the exception – the beauteous, vain Helen with the power to launch a thousand ships, perfectly played by Victoria Dixon, the sternly authoritative and manipulative Euryclea ( a thoroughly convincing performance byCarolyn Eccles ) and Penelope (Elaine Noon), who must eventually be compelled to use her wits and innate cunning to survive the suitors’ advances.
 
Kate Blackhurst’s direction is as tightly woven as the Grecian style tapestry hangings suspended as a striking atmospheric backdrop to Cate Clelland’s design. Blackhurst’s direction is sensitive, intelligent and imaginative and she is ably supported by Brooke Thomas’s ritualistic choreography , Glenn Gore Phillips’s original choral music and Neville Pye’s effective sound design. The production evokes the authentic feel of a Greek drama with a central character as narrator to the story and a chorus of women who comment on the action. Theirs is largely the commentary of gender politics perceived through the eyes of the twelve maids, cruelly hanged by Odysseus. Blackhurst and Thomas create a wonderful ensemble, expressing the power of Atwood’s tale through excellent choral work, carefully coached by Tony Turner and dythiramb song and dance in the tradition of Greek theatre. Also evoking the spirit of the Greek drama is the thespian-like emergence of the maids as principal characters in the drama. There are fine performances from Heidi Silberman as the heroic Odysseus, Carolyn Eccles as the domineering nurse, Eurycleia and Martha Russell as the arrogant young son Telemachus. Every aspect of this intelligently performed production of Atwood’s alternative perspectives is firmly rooted in research which informs the authenticity of the Greek art of storytelling. 

Martha Russell as Telemachus and

Carolyn Eccles as Eurycleia

 
Central to the success of the production is Elaine Noon’s performance as Penelope. Her Penelope is real, her recounting natural and appealing. From the naïve fifteen year old bride to the sexually awakened wife, the loving mother, the outsider in a foreign kingdom and the cunning survivor she unfolds her version of her unhappy plight. Noon’s performance is disarmingly natural. She presents a character, reflecting on her life with the awareness of hindsight. Noon relates Penelope’s narrative simply and with the emotional detachment made possible by reflection, until she becomes the protagonist, playing out Atwood’s reconstructed scenes. It is a balance that Noon convincingly commands, so that we are absorbed by her story and moved by her experience. The Three Fates have spun a tangled and unjust web for women, forced to construct their own art of survival. 

Atwood’s The Penelopiad casts the tale of heroes in a very different light, illuminated insightfully by Crouching Giraffe and Papermoon’s challenging and theatrically engrossing performance of this important alternative myth. This is theatre that confronts, challenges preconception and entertains. It would make Bertolt Brecht proud! 

Postscript: At the time of this production, America and Australia are considering the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, relinquishing their protection and the fate of women and children to the Taliban while opening the way to fearful consequence. Atwood’s call for gender equity and justice in The Penelopiad continues to reverberate through the ages to our present time.