Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Shakespeare - The Man who Pays the Rent


ShakespeareThe Man who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench with Brendan O’Hea.  Penguin Michael Joseph, 2023 (imprint of Penguin Random House).

Illustrations by Judi Dench

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Brendan O’Hea begins his Introduction:

This was never meant to be a book.  My plan was to record Judi Dench talking about all the Shakespeare parts she has played and, with her blessing, to offer it to the archive department at Shakespeare’s Globe.  But when a friend of her grandson overheard one of our many discussions at her home in Surrey, and was intrigued to know what all the laughter, passion and arguing was about, it made me wonder if these interviews might have a wider appeal.

They certainly appeal to me in my role as theatre reviewer, one-time amateur actor/director and paid drama teacher.  That’s wide enough, I think, to pass on my enthusiasm to theatre practitioners and theatre-goers of all kinds.  Not just because Judi Dench is justifiably famous for being such a good actor, but because these interviews are funny and passionate – and especially explain acting in personal and practical ways.

Acting in Shakespeare’s plays may have paid Judi Dench’s rent, but we also come to see how the writing, directing and acting of his plays not only paid William’s rent (actually making him quite rich) but gave us a body of theatrical work that continues to be known worldwide for its universal understanding of human relationships – as relevant today as four hundred years ago.

Like me (born in December 1934, she’s barely 6 years older than me), Judi does “worry nowadays about actors being miked as I think it flattens everything out … and also there’s a danger that you hold back because you’re being artificially boosted – it can make you lazy.  Audiences need to see your mouth moving and your body breathing; if they can only hear your voice coming from a speaker twenty feet away, and there’s more than one person on stage, then who they hell do they look at?  How do they know who’s talking?

Hear, hear, I say, as I have to switch my phone back on during a show to readjust my hearing aids.  When I tried the ‘hearing loop’ system, voices came through clearly, but in two dimensions instead of three.  And I couldn’t hear the audience responses.  Getting this old doesn’t make life easy!

And I can’t get away with being a pontificating critic.  Brendan asks Jude, What is your view on critics?

Some I like, some I don’t, and some are friends.  But ultimately, it’s just one person’s opinion.  Caryl Brahms never liked anything I did.  She was vitriolic, and clearly allergic to me.  She’d always refer to me in her reviews as ‘Dench, J’, as if I was in the school play, or ‘little Miss Dench’.  She said I played Juliet ‘like an apple in a Warwickshire orchard’, whatever the hell that means – and that Rosalind Iden was much better in the part.  (Criticism I can deal with, but I loathe comparison.)

That was the 1960 Old Vic production “when the Artistic Director, Michael Benthall, offered me the part of Juliet.  Franco Zeffirelli was to be the director….  He had never directed a Shakespeare play before.  Franco didn’t reckon the poetry of it – he had no interest in the verse, or the rhythm, or the line endings, he worked purely on instinct.  But what he did bring to the production was a Mediterranean sensibility.  He instilled in us the heat and the passion and the sultriness of Verona.

63 years ago, and Judi Dench’s recall is as clear as a bell.  Just imagine being there!  Between my having done a staged Grammar School reading of Prince Hal in Henry IV (I was 12 and Hal was only 16); and seeing John Bell in 1964 when “he was a sensational Henry V, with Anna Volska as Katherine, in an innovative Adelaide Festival tent presentation. The Sydney Morning Herald called him ‘a possible Olivier of the future’”.  
I remember my excitement on both occasions – especially when the Bell performers burst through past me in the audience and up on to the stage in the tent like the beginning of a great circus.

I wish I had Judi Dench’s memory for details and names – even just for the parts she’s played, in book order: MacbethLady Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s DreamTitania, Hermia, First Fairy; Twelfth NightViola, Maria; The Merchant of VenicePortia; HamletOphelia, Gertrude; CoriolanusVolumnia; As You Like ItPhebe; Measure for MeasureIsabella; Much Ado About NothingBeatrice; King LearRegan, Cordelia and Goneril; The Comedy of ErrorsAdriana; Richard II Queen Isabel; Antony and Cleopatra Cleopatra; CymbelineImogen; All’s Well that Ends WellCountess of Roussillon; Henry VKatherine, Hostess; The Merry Wives of WindsorMistress Quickly, Anne Page; Richard IIIDuchess of York; The Winter’s TaleHermione, Perdita, Paulina, Time; Romeo and JulietJuliet.

Phew!  I didn’t even know some of these names.  And what an amazing array of women characters written by Shakespeare – so many of such great individual personal strength, who stand up for their rights and show so much more capability than most of the men in dealing with fraught, even life-threatening situations; and in times of passionate love – for a partner, or for a son or daughter.

Time after time, as you read a character’s lines in context with Dench’s recalling of how what she says fits into that part of the play, and why she says those words, or says nothing, or does some specific movement, or moves in the space – you find yourself seeing and hearing the performance happening; learning from this great actor how to create that role; realising how astute Judi Dench is in her own right; and absorbing the depth and quality of Shakepeare’s writing.

Yes, this book is a collection of Judi Dench’s practical responses to Brendan O’Hea’s questions, comments and sometimes argumentative points, including a stream of stories, both serious and humorous.  

Yet, it is also, as the equally famous Kenneth Branagh says, ‘A magical love letter to Shakespeare’, full of appreciation for what he achieved – with a powerful sense of purpose for theatre in the world today and in the future, even if it be as fractious as it was in Shakespeare’s time.  My copy was a wonderful surprise Christmas gift from my wife – but you don’t need to wait for a special occasion to give yourself or a loved one such stories as:

Taking a curtain call with a live snake in her wig…

Cavorting naked through the Warwickshire countryside painted green…

Acting opposite a child with a pumpkin on his head…

As the book cover says, “These are just a few of the things Dame Judi Dench has done in the name of Shakespeare.”


Thursday, January 25, 2024

She wowed audiences at the Canberra Theatre in 1976. Now, 48 years later, the final curtain falls for Melanie

Singer and songwriter Melanie in the early 1970s. Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

by Tony Magee

US folk singer Melanie, aka Melanie Safka has died.

Safka passed away on January 23 in Nashville. No cause of death was given.

Appearing in Canberra on March 24, 1976 at the Canberra Theatre, she performed a string of hits including Lay Down, Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma, Brand New Key, Ruby Tuesday, The Nickel Song and Ring The Living Bell.

Her Australian tour that year also included Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston, Newcastle, Perth and Sydney, with an extra performance due to demand being staged at Sydney Town Hall, March 25 1976, one day after her Canberra concert.

In 1995 Max Sharam covered Lay Down and made the song a hit again in Australia.

Born in New York City in 1947, Safka studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but it was her interest in performing at the folk clubs of Greenwich Village that would lead to her ultimate career path.

Rising to fame through her performance at the Woodstock music festival in the summer of 1969, she appeared as a relative unknown, following Ravi Shankar, who had just delighted the audience with his brilliant sitar playing.

It began to rain as she came on stage and her show looked as though it would be a performer's nightmare. 

But as she sang, accompanying herself on guitar, lights appeared in the audience as people responded by holding lighted candles above their heads.

This was the inspiration for her song Candles in the Rain (aka Lay Down), a gospel infused collaboration with the Edwin Hawkins Singers and one of her biggest successes. It also became one of the theme songs of Woodstock. 

Candles lighting up became a trademark of her shows for about a year after that. “That song became so connected with my concerts that my shows were getting banned because fire departments wouldn’t approve them,” she said.

It was to be 38 years before Melanie would grace our shores again. 

Preparing for her 2014 Australian tour she said: "Since we started talking about coming back ‘Down Under' I've been looking at a photo of my two daughters and me with a koala that was taken last time we were there.

"I remember clearly how beautiful the country was and how warm and welcoming you Aussies are. My son and guitarist, Beau Jarred, was not born then but he'll be with me this time and, hopefully, we'll get the opportunity of meeting another koala."

Alas, Canberra was not on her itinerary that time.

Melanie later in her career. Photo: Yui Mok, PA Archive

Safka had been in the studio earlier this month working on three new recording projects: 

A record of cover songs, "Second Hand Smoke", for the Cleopatra label. It would have been her 32nd album. Tracks already recorded include Nine Inch Nails' Hurt, Radiohead’s Creep, the Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin, Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence and David Bowie’s Everyone Says Hi.

Also, a tribute album celebrating the music of Morrissey. Safka had only recorded one track for that so far - Ouija Board, Ouija Board.

And finally, the re-issuing of her entire recorded music catalogue since 1971 (not including songs recorded for the Buddah label in 1970 and ’71).

Only hours before her death, the singer-songwriter announced the re-issue of her 1984 live album, “One Night Only - The Eagle Mountain House”, as a limited edition 12 inch gold vinyl LP, a CD equivalent and streaming via Bandcamp. 

The offical release date is scheduled for February 16.

Her three children, Leilah, Jeordie, and Beau Jarred posted: “We ask that tonight [Jan. 24], at 10pm, each of you lights a candle in honour of Melanie. Raise, raise them high, high up again. Illuminate the darkness, and let us all be connected in remembrance of the extraordinary woman who was wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend to so very many people.”

Safka was an envoy for UNICEF and raised large amounts of money for that organisation through her concerts.

Melanie Safka was 76.

First published at Canberra City News, in a slightly edited format, January 25, 2024.

Monday, January 22, 2024


Screenplay by Samy Burch

Directed by Todd Haynes

In cinemas from February 1


Reviewed by Len Power 22 January 2024


For those who know the popular Joseph Losey 1971 film, “The Go-Between”, that film’s arresting theme music, composed by Michel Legrand and adapted for this film by Marcelo Zarvos, plays over the main title of the new film “May December”.  It signals a similarity between the themes of both films as they look back at illicit relationships from which psychological damage may remain to this day.

“May December” concerns a couple who had a notorious affair many years ago. She was 34 and jailed for having an affair with a legally underage teenage student. Still together, the couple now seem to live a normal and unexceptional married life with their children. A television actress, who will be playing the woman in a movie about the affair, spends time with the couple to research her role.

A frequent performer in past Todd Haynes films, Julianne Moore plays Gracie, the older married woman, and the actress, Elizabeth, is played by Natalie Portman. Both give highly detailed portraits of these complex women.  At first welcomed by Gracie, the relationship between the two women subtly changes as the movie progresses.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton

The husband, Joe, well-played by Charles Melton, seems settled and happy in his relationship with Gracie but the questioning by the actress seems to awaken issues long buried in the past.

As in his 2002 film, “Far From Heaven”, a modern day homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, the director, Todd Haynes, has made another compelling, complex film about human relationships that are outside the norm.  As much a comment on the world’s thirst for scandal, our desire for knowledge about these people is voyeuristic. The ending of the film is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s study of two women, “Persona”.

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore

This is a fine film with particularly strong performances from Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman.  Todd Haynes impresses with his tightly disciplined direction and subtle indications that, despite appearances, all may not be well under the surface of relationships.


Len Power's reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 in the ‘Arts Cafe’ and ‘Arts About’ programs and published in his blog 'Just Power Writing' at https://justpowerwriting.blogspot.com/.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Mutiara - Sydney Festival


Mutiara – Produced by Marrugeku Inc with Bahri and Co (Broome, Western Australia).  Sydney Festival at Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 19-21 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

About Mutiara - at https://www.marrugeku.com.au/productions/mutiara  
The cruel, haunting past of the Kimberley’s now famous pearling industry told through intercultural dance and visual art revealing the resilience, love and strength of ancestors.  The work is a celebration of the unsung bond between First Peoples of the Kimberley and seafaring Malay peoples during a time of colonialism exploring the coexistence and the path that often led to love and lifelong companionship.

Mutiara reveals buried truths washed up and left along the shores of time, during an era of colonialism, racism, exploitation, slavery, and stolen children.  Ancestors tell stories, bones speak, ancestral beings feud, seas change and deep beneath the surface the diver yearns for home. Mutiara celebrates, heals and rewrites histories.

Co–choreographers and dancers Dalisa Pigram, Soultari Amin Farid and Zee Zunnur with Broome’s Ahmat Bin Fadal (ex–pearl diver) collaborate with visual artist Abdul–Rahman Abdullah, composer Safuan Johari, dramaturg Rachael Swain, costume designer Zoe Atkinson and lighting designer Kelsey Lee, to reflect on living within multiple shifting frames of identity, culture, faith and belonging.  Drawing on Yawuru and Minangkabau dance forms as well as silat and diasporic connections to land and sea to create a new dance language that disrupts binaries of identity and the borders of the nation state.

Mutiara is collaboratively created by:
Concept: Soultari Amin Farid, Dalisa Pigram, Zee Zunnur and Rachael Swain
Co-Choreographers and Performers: Soultari Amin Farid, Dalisa Pigram and Zee Zunnur with Ahmat Bin Fadal
Cultural Dramaturg: Soultari Amin Farid; Dramaturg: Rachael Swain
Composer, Sound Designer and Performer: Safuan Bin Johari
Set Designer: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah; Costume Designer: 
Zoë Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Kelsey Lee
Pearl Diving History and Malay Cultural Advisor, Silat Training: Ahmat Bin Fadal

Mutiara is an important expressive dance work, especially when presented in this kind of Festival.  Though there was a smaller audience than I would have hoped, it was clear that people were there with a positive expectation of the work, as dance and as cultural history.

Because of the different elements of the history of the pearling industry in north-western Australia and the way the European colonists related to the Malay divers; to the Australian Indigenous people; and to relationships between all three communities, it is a good idea to read the above information from the Marrugeku website and spend some time in the foyer exhibition before seeing the show.  

Then you will more easily appreciate the shifts in dance style, the highly original set design, and the combination of music and voice in the soundscape.  This is not a conventional linear story, but works in the ancient Aboriginal tradition that all the past is here now, together in the present.

The effect, as emotions are expressed in response to all those different elements, is to create not just a critical approach to colonialism, but a kind of wonder at the nature of this community, particular to the Broome and surrounding coastal region. Having driven more than once all those thousands of kilometres from my eastern Australia home to Broome and north to Cape Leveque, and seen some of the 130 million-years-old dinosaur footprints, it’s fascinating to gain a new understanding of life there today – in an original local modern dance form.

For me, a special value of this work is that it is cross-cultural.  It is a new way of expressing understanding and feelings of the Aboriginal, the Malay, and the European-based people; and the inter-related people of all three communities.  The establishment of such a company as Marrugeku Inc looks forward to a new and better world.

Though having only a short season here at the Sydney Festival, check the website for future tour opportunities.

Pearl Divers of Broome
Foyer Exhibition, Mutiara 2024

Thursday, January 18, 2024

SEND FOR NELLIE - Sydney Festival


Elenoa Rokobaro in "Send for Nellie"

Written by Alana Valentine - co-curated by Kween G

Co-produced by Sue Donnelly and Stuart Davis

Directed by Liesel Badorrek – Musical Direction by Zara Stanton.

Performed by Elena Rokobaro and Eleanor Stankiewicz - Wharf 1 – January 10th-14th

Performance on 11th January reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

Elenoa Rokobaro as Nellie Small in "Send for Nellie"

Of West Indian heritage, Nellie Small forged a successful 40 - year career in night clubs and major theatres including the Tivoli circuit, around Australia and New Zealand. Black, and proudly gender non-conforming, Small was best known as a male impersonator, but she also worked in prestige clubs as a jazz and blues singer.

This writer can recall seeing Small perform in Narrandera, sometime during the 1940’s. The image of Small in the spotlight, immaculate in top-hat and tails, strutting the stage as the headliner in Sorlie’s’ travelling tent show, remains vivid. Even then coloured entertainers were a novelty but Nellie Small was a star and newsworthy.

Nellie liked to wear men’s clothes off-stage as well as on, and as a result, experienced discrimination directed at both her colour and sexuality. However Nellie Small was no shrinking violet, and stood up to her tormentors, and although her exploits were legend at the time, until this show, she has been largely forgotten.

Elenoa Rokobara as Nellie Small in "Send For Nellie"

Perhaps it has been the emergence of Elenoa Rokobaro, a power-house performer of Fijian heritage, which has inspired Alana Valentine to rework “Small Mercies”, a work she had written earlier about Nellie Small.  Rokobaro is lavishly equipped for the task, however, despite her best efforts and those of many others, “Send for Nellie” does neither her nor Nellie Small justice.

One of the problems is that “Send for Nellie” tries to do too much. Besides expecting to be entertained, the audience has come to learn about Nellie Small, whether or not they knew anything about her previously. 

Biographical cabaret is a superb medium for providing this knowledge particularly when the performer applies their talent, not to necessarily to impersonating, but rather to capturing the essence and style of the artist they are eulogising.

“Send for Nellie” did not take this route. The impression was that the director felt that Nellie Small’s story was not entertaining enough and needed propping up with support acts. As a result Rokobaro was frequently side-lined by Eleanor Stankiewicz in a series of guises, and even the band.

Elenoa Rokobaro - Zara Stanton - Eleanor Stankiewicz - Camilla Bellstedt in "Send For Nellie

Stankiewicz’s contributions commenced at the top of the show as an aggressive red-nosed MC exhorting the audience to “Hold up that drink for Nellie” before Nellie had actually done anything. She joined Rokobaro in duets, an unfunny “I say, I say, I say” routine, and a clownish strip routine.  Her most successful contribution was as Small’s manager, Edith Meggit, but even Meggit was portrayed as an idiosyncratic figure of fun. 

The show was at its best when Rokobaro had the stage to herself supported by the excellent band which consisted of Zara Stanton, (Keyboards), Camilla Bellstedt (Saxophone/Clarinet) and Jodie Michael (Drums).

Elenoa Rokobaro as Nellie Small in "Send for Nellie"

Rokobaro is a charismatic singer and the repertoire of songs, presumably sung by Nellie Small,  included excellent arrangements of “Sing, Sing, Sing”, “Sunnyside of the Street”, “Stormy Weather” , “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and “At Last”, all of which she performed stylishly, utilising  contemporary vocal stylings rather than those of the singers of Small’s period. 

According to entertainer, Bobby Limb, Nellie Small used her hands beautifully when she sang, likening her to Lana Cantrell and Shirley Bassey. Rokobaro used her hands beautifully also, but in a modern musical theatre style.

She looked great in her costumes, but neither the lighting design, which frequently left her in darkness, nor the sound design, which at this performance was unbearably loud, did her any favours.

Hopefully “Send for Nellie” will be reworked. It is a terrific idea, but in its present form, anyone hoping to be informed about Nellie Small will come away disappointed. Both Nellie Small and Elenoa Rokobaro deserve a better show.   

                                                 Images by Wendell Teodoro

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


Are we not drawn onward to new erA - Sydney Festival


 Are we not drawn onward to new erA. Ontroerend Goed (Belgium) in Sydney Festival at Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 16-20 2024.

Ontroerend Goed in coproduction with Spectra, Kunstencentrum Vooruit Gent, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Adelaide Festival & Richard Jordan Productions Ltd
The performance features William Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’ by Spectra Ensemble

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 17

Director:     Alexander Devriendt

Angelo Tijssens / Giovanni Brand; Charlotte De Bruyne / Leonore Spee
Jonas Vermeulen / Ferre Marnef; Karolien De Bleser / Britt Bakker
Maria Dafneros / Kristien De Proost; & Vincent Dunoyer / Michaël Pas ​
Musicians: Spectra Ensemble
Tille Van Gastel/Katrien Gaelens (flute); Pieter Jansen/Wilbert Aerts (violin)
Bram Bossier (tenor violin); Peter Devos (cello); Frank Van Eycken (percussion)
Rik Vercruysse/Simon Haspeslagh (horn)
Dramaturgy: Jan Martens; Scenography: Philip Aguirre
Light, video & Sound: Jeroen Wuyts & Seppe Brouckaert
Lighting Design: Babette Poncelet; Technical assistance: Brecht, David & Pepijn
Costumes: Charlotte Goethals
Composition: William Basinski; Arrangements: Joris Blanckaert
Finishing off statue: Daan Verzele, Jelmer Delbecque, Jesse Frans
Photography: Mirjam Devriendt; Internships: Morgan Eglin, Tim De Paepe
Many thanks to: Ilona Lodewijckx, Luc De Bruyne, Matthieu Goeury, Simon Stokes, Björn Doumen, Les Ballets C de la B, everybody involved in the pre-study 'koortsmeetsysteemstrook' @ Toneelacademie Maastricht & our fantastic test-audiences.

I’m sorry to be such a philosophical sourpuss, but when a theatre company tries to take a quotation from Kierkegaard literally – “Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards” – I suspect a kind of intellectual self-indulgence, and theatrical game-playing.  Perhaps I’m not a good member of a fantastic test-audience.

As is my wont, I chose not to pre-research this production, preferring to see it fresh without preconceptions.  Powerful theatre depends on actors having at their disposal a script, directing, sound, lighting, costumes, make-up and set design supporting them to create emotional responses in us – watching – as we find we can identify with characters, even those we would dislike if we met them in real life.

This is how theatre helps us understand our life anew.

For the first 40 minutes of Are we not drawn onward to new erA, we watched apparently disparate characters, who may or may not have known each other before meeting here, sometimes speaking in an apparently incomprehensible language (which I took not to be Flemish or Dutch nor Belgian French, but with occasional sounds that might have come from English) – and who mysteriously destroyed a small tree, floated a small helium balloon away up into the stage lighting, had the whole stage covered with plastic bags that mysteriously fell from where the balloon had gone, while two characters shared eating an apple from that clearly not-an-apple tree – and then even more mysteriously brought on stage a head and large sections of a four-metre plastic statue, and with great effort put it together and raised it to standing position.

Characters behave very much as individuals, with perhaps the apple eaters the only ones developing what could become a personal emotive relationship.

Not exactly exciting to watch beyond some sense of satisfaction in achieving the standing statue of a male figure.  Where might this story go, and what might it mean?

I had been told beforehand that the show lasted 85 minutes.

But at 40 minutes the main stage curtain was closed.  One woman actor came out onto the apron and spoke in English, mentioning something like life having to be lived bit by bit.  Then the curtain opened to reveal an image of her apparently on stage where she had been just before the curtain had closed.

As soon as I realised I was seeing a screen the full size of the stage proscenium and that it was beginning to show the second last position of the characters, I understood that I would be watching a technically quite astounding video which would go backwards for the second 40 minutes.

Would this be more interesting than the first 40 minutes?  Well, there were some moments when an action going backwards was surprisingly realistic-looking, some were quite amusing – but how would our understanding of life develop, when all the show became was a guessing game of trying to remember what we had seen before?

To make this entertaining, would there be an upbeat, light-hearted music accompaniment?  Well, all we heard was a boring constantly repetitive orchestral sound that offered nothing to add to what we were watching.  The unknown gentleman next to me began to fidget and I found my brain switching off, waiting for some new development to wake me up.

It never came until the end, where apparently all that had been on stage had disappeared in reverse.  Then the screen arose to reveal the mess still there from the live performance, and the live actors appeared for a conventional happy curtain call and the audience dutifully applauded.

On the Ontroerend Goed website, a reviewer, Els Van Steenberghe is quoted:

This is one of the most beautiful, most intelligent and committed performances Ontroerend Goed has ever made, on the boundary of visual art and theatre, poetry and politics. The piece looks marvelous [sic] (but sounds brutally inaccessible) during the first twenty minutes. These, however, are necessary to enable the masterful twist. Only then the performance turns into a clear, miraculous statement about how we threaten to destroy ourselves and our world.

Well, I got the idea watching the ruined tree and the plastic bags in the first half, but taking Kierkegaard literally backwards was an even less enlightening experience than reading this meangless quote in the first place.

To keep to the European theatrical culture, I think the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen did a much more threatrically powerful job of making a clear statement about how we threaten to destroy ourselves and our world in his 1882 play An Enemy of the People than the Belgians have done in this pretentiously named Are we not drawn onward to  new erA.  Just read it backwards: it’s just a joke – gameplaying in reverse, when we need action in reality, and powerful theatre to help make it happen.



Wednesday, January 17, 2024

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE - Opera Australia and Sydney Festival present Opera Queensland's production in association with Circa.


Opera Australia Chorus - Circa Ensemble - Christophe Dumaux in "Orphekus & Eurydice"

Composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck – Libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

Direction and Set Design by Yaron Lifschitz – Conducted by Dane Lam

Costume Design by Libby McDonnell – Lighting Design by Alexander Berlage

Projection Design by Boris Bagattini – Choreographed by Yaron Lifschitz, Bridie Hooper and Circa Ensemble.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 31st January 2024.

Opening night performance on 12th January reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

Christophe Dumaux (Orpheus) - Sandy Leong (Eurydice) in Opera Australia's
"Orpheus and Eurydice"

It was an interesting decision by Guest Creative Director, Lindy Hume, to look back to the era of European Enlightenment for inspiration for her mini summer festival of opera experiences for Opera Australia.

When writing “Orpheus and Eurydice” Gluck was heavily influenced by the writings of Francesco Algarotti who declared that operas “should delight the eyes and ears, rouse up and affect the hearts of an audience without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense”.

Gluck’s pera premiered in 1762, and tells the story of a young man who ventures into the underworld to rescue his wife who died on their wedding night. Gluck wrote his opera for just three characters, a chorus and an orchestra. As much of the singing is static, he also included plenty of ballet music.  

Lifschitz’s concept has the entire opera taking place in a stark white asylum, with Orpheus strapped to a bed for much of the opera. The events being witnessed by the audience are taking place in Orpheus’ imagination.

It was premiered by Opera Queensland in 2019, and certainly ticks all of Alganotti’s boxes.   

The very first vision is of Eurydice. She is costumed in red and suspended high above the stage. Slowly, twitching fitfully in the clouds, she is lowered to the floor.

There is nothing static about Lifschitz’s stagings.  The stage is filled with a constant stream of extraordinary stage pictures, drawing on the skills of ten extraordinary athletes who keep the audience on the edge of their seats with their truly breathtaking acrobatic feats.

How these acrobatics represent aspects of the story-telling is not always clear, but they are certainly spectacular and a major reason for why this production is so fascinating. 

Christophe Dumaux (Orpheus) - Circa Ensemble -in "Orpheus & Eurydice"

Offsetting the constant movement of the acrobats, the chorus in identical black costumes, form stationary tableaus or process around the outskirts of the stage while maintaining perfect harmonies.  It is only in the final scene that they get the opportunity to glam up in Libby McDonell’s fanciful, elegant individual costumes.

Atmospheric lighting by Alexander Berlage and extraordinary projections by Boris Bagattini which featured huge images and surtitles which distintegrated and melted away when projected onto the stark white walls, added to the unworldly atmosphere of the production.

French countertenor, Christophe Dumaux, in his Sydney Opera House debut, plays Orpheus. He carries the bulk of the solo singing, and fascinates with his ringing, silver-toned voice, whether strapped to a bed, participating in acrobatic manoeuvres or strung up by his ankles. However he is at his most glorious singing Orpheus’s all-important solo, “Che faro senza Eurydice?”

Circa Ensemble - Opera Australia Chorus - Sandy Leong (Eurydice) in "Orpheus & Eurydice"

On opening night, the roles of both Eurydice and Amore were played by diminutive soprano Sandy Leung, a full-time member of the Opera Australia chorus, who stepped into the role at short notice when Cathy-Di Zhang became ill.

Leung was born and studied in Hong Kong, where she sung principal roles. In 2017, she joined Opera Australia as a full-time member of its chorus for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s production of “Carmen”. Since then, she’s completed many full-time chorus seasons with the company.

This performance unexpectedly became her Australian solo debut. Judging on her assured performance however, this was certainly not obvious. She quickly won over the audience with her sweet, clear soprano and confident demeanour, even managing Lifschitz’s acrobatic stagings with remarkable élan, while creating one of those “A Star is Born” moments for the audience.

Sandy Leong (Eurydice) - Christophe Dumaux (Orpheus) - Circa Ensemble
in "Orpheus & Eurydice"

Dane Lam, who conducted the original 2019 production, and is well-known by Canberra audiences for his conducting of National Opera’s production of “La Clemenza di Tito”, guided the Opera Australia orchestra through Gluck’s sparkling score, obviously revelling in the opportunity to share his fascination with this opera.

Running just 80 minutes and presented without interval, this production so unique, innovative and entertaining, it would be a shame if it were not seen in opera houses, not only around Australia, but around the world. 

Opera Australia Chorus - Circa Ensemble - Christophe Dumaux (Orpheus) in "Orpheus & Eurydice"

Images by Keith Saunders

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.www.arts review.com.au

LA TRAVIATA - Opera Australia

Samantha Clarke (Violetta Valery) - Andrew Moran (Marquis d'Obigny) -Angela Hogan (Flora Bervoix) - Opera Australia chorus in "La Traviata".


Composed by Giuseppe Verdi – Libretto  by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Sarah Giles – Conducted by Jessica Cottis

Set and Costumes designed by Charles Davis – Lighting designed by Paul Jackson

Revival Choreography by Allie Graham – Intimacy coordinator –Michelle Miall

Joan Sutherland Theatre. Sydney Opera House until March 14 2024

Performance on January 10th 2024 reviewed by BILL STEPHENS.

The first offering chosen for Opera Australia’s 2024 Summer Season by guest Creative Director, Lindy Hume is a new production of “La Traviata” directed by Sarah Giles and shared with Opera Queensland, State Opera South Australia and West Australian Opera.

While it is hoped that Opera Australia audiences will still be offered opportunities to enjoy revivals of its treasured Moshinsky production of this opera, Sarah Giles new production, provides a refreshingly new perspective on one of the most popular operas in the canon.

With this production, Giles explores the role of courtesans in a decadent society, without placing her production in any specific period.  Designer Charles Davis has taken advantage of this to provide lavish costumes which hint at the fashions of Charles James, Dior, Vivienne Westwood and Valentino.

During the overture the audience is privy to a post-coital scene in Violetta Valery’s bedroom where Violetta (Samantha Clarke) awakens with her lover, Baron Douphol (Richard Anderson) still asleep beside her. Her guests are already assembling in the adjacent rooms.

Before taking his leave, Douphol presents Violetta with a stunning gown. As the audience watches on, a maid assists Violetta into the gown in which she dazzles her guests as she enters the adjoining ballroom to greet them.

It is the first of several captivating stagings devised by Giles which allows the audience insights into the practicalities of Violetta’s life as a courtesan.

Samantha Clarke as Violetta in Opera Australia's "La Traviata".

Later, as the party draws to its conclusion, Violetta realises she has fallen in love with the dashing young Alfredo Germont (Kang Wang) but unwell and exhausted, collapses on to her bed  in her bedroom as her guests begin to leave.  

Her maid helps her out of the gown, freeing her from the restrictive undergarments. Then alone in the now-empty ballroom, Violetta reflects on her lifestyle, launching into the famous aria, “Sempre Libera” in which she declares her decision to live life to the full.

Samantha Clarke ( Violetta Valery) - Richard Anderson (Baron Douphol) - Angela Hogan (Flora Bervoix) - Andrew Moran (Marquis d'Obigny) in "La traviata"

All this takes place in Davis’ ingenious setting which depicts three rooms of Violetta’s house, allowing the audience to view the action in each of the rooms at the same time.

Although this allows more focus on Violetta, and is particularly effective for the staging of the scenes between Violetta and Alfredo, the ballroom scenes, where the guests are confined to the back of the stage, look uncomfortable and crowded.

Australian soprano, Samantha Clarke, makes a particularly impressive Opera Australia debut as Violetta. Her luscious soprano voice, considerable acting skills, elegant demeanour and ability to display her glamorous gowns with the flair of a catwalk model, combine to make her portrayal of the glamorous courtesan transfixing.

Petah Cavallaro (Annina) - Samantha Clarke (Violetta) in "La Traviata"

Her final scene however, for which she wipes away her make-up in full view of the audience, dons a shabby nightdress and waits for death in a room stripped bare of her possessions, is ruined by an inexplicable directorial decision to have another actor, also in full view of the audience, replace her on the chaise on which she has just died, surrounded by the grieving Alfredo, his father, her doctor and her maid, so that she can rise up and walk off into the sunrise.

Kang Wang as Alfredo Germont in "La Traviata" - image by Jade Ferguson

Rising young Australian/Chinese tenor, Kang Wang is also impressive, and excellently cast, as Violetta’s impetuous young suitor, Alfredo, particularly in the scene where devastated by Violetta’s apparent rejection, he humiliates her in front of her friends.

The changes of emphasis in Giles’ staging provides opportunity for New Zealand baritone, Phillip Rhodes as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, to nuance his interpretation towards a more sympathetic depiction of the reasons compelling Germont’s  demands that Violetta give up Alfredo, even though the inclusion of actors acting out those reasons upstage while Germont was making, provided an unnecessary distraction.

Throughout, the supporting roles were superbly interpreted, with Angela Hogan as Violetta’s confident, Flora Bervoix;  Richard Anderson as her overbearing patron,  Baron Douphol; Shane Lowrencev as Doctor Grenvil; and Petah Cavallaro as her servant/companion, Annina, being particularly outstanding.

Conductor, Jessica Cottis, making her first appearances in the Opera Australia orchestra pit, kept the production moving at a cracking pace, impressed with her attention to detail, which elicited responsive confident performances not only from her principal singers but also from the Opera Australia Orchestra and Opera Australia Chorus.

Although not without flaws, this attractive production offers fresh insights into a familiar and favourite opera. It is superbly performed by an outstanding cast, and certainly deserved the enthusiastic response it received from its audience.  

                            All images unless marked otherwise are by Keith Saunders

           This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 15.01.24


Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Ode to Joy - Sydney Festival



Marc MacKinnon, Lawrence Boothman, Sean Connor
in Ode to Joy 2024

 Ode to Joy (How Gordon got to go to the Nasty Pig Party).  Stories Untold Productions with James Ley (Scotland) at Sydney Festival, Bell Shakespeare Studio, The Neilson Nutshell (The Thirsty Mile), January 16-21 2024.

Created with support from Creative Scotland

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 16

Creative Team
Writer / Director: James Ley
Dramaturg: Rosie Kellagher; Assistant Director: Matt McBrier
Movement Director: Craig Manson
Sound Designer: Susan Bear & DJ Simon ‘Simonotron’ Eilbeck
Lighting Designer: Emma Jones
Costume Designer: Cleo Rose McCabe; Wardrobe Asst: Hana Eggleston
Production Manager & Show Technician: Chris Gorman
Company Stage Manager: Robyn Jancovich-Brown

Ode to Joy is at its heart about how the UK Referendum on leaving or staying in the European Union, which resulted narrowly in a vote for “Brexit”, has cut Scotland off unfairly from Europe.

Since, as we all understand, the personal is political and the political is personal, James Ley has imagined ‘Gordon’, a sexually active gay male government lawyer – one of some 250 such lawyers, the others presumably straight.  Where will he find love?  Only in exotic Europe.

In a speech naming all the hot-spots, only there will he find freedom, without the conventions of borders – and indeed will find the joy that the German Beethoven expressed in his gloriously symphonic Ode to Joy.

Can he make it happen by drafting Scottish law to hold a second referendum?  Yes, he can.

But starting from this frustrated gay personal position has resulted in a weird kind of absurdist dance drama.  Tom is, or says he is, the narrator of Gordon’s story – which means he can change the story as needs be.  In fact he claims to become God – even though Gordon doesn’t believe in God.

Where Marcus fits in I was never sure.  And both he and Tom become sex drug pushers as Cumpig and Manpussy respectively.  After all, of course, it’s all pure imagination.  Don’t mention reality.

However you will receive a program which includes a “Glossary of Gay”, detailing Chemsex – “a term commonly used to describe the sexualised use of recreational drugs and the involvement of drugs in your sex life.”  Though as a non-gay at 83 I found the list irrelevant, it was interesting to learn that ‘Scat’, for example, means “sexual practices involving faeses”[sic]; and that ‘Pig’ “refers to a man who wants as much sex as he can get with as many different men as possible.”

In other words this manic dance is not for the faint-hearted.  It’s a kind of satire I guess, but my inability to understand much of the thickly Scottish accented dialogue meant I missed many of the specific jokes which many in the mixed-sex audience laughed at appreciatively.  (My 83-year-old hearing aids didn’t help much either.)

So I suggest I’m not really qualified to judge the quality of the show – as (I think) Cumpig remarked at some point, it’s a matter of personal preference.  It was certainly true that men in the audience were engaged in lively conversation as they left after genuinely-felt applause.

For me, on the political front, the play makes a serious point about the move, now in England as well as Scotland, to hold the referendum a second time.  This could mean that Scotland could leave the United Kingdom – and some have even suggested that Northern Ireland may reunite with the South, and Wales might make it difficult for King Charles III, who once was titled Prince of Wales.

An interesting experience, is my conclusion.

Lawrence Boothman, Sean Connor
in Ode to Joy 2024