Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: Travesties (Sydney Theatre Company)

There is no doubt that Travesties is a great play written by a great playwright. It is the perfect example of what Stoppard does so well – taking a series of highly intellectual concepts and boiling them down into an entertaining, yet none the less didactic work of theatre. He takes the theories that we performance students struggle to incorporate into our essays, in this case about the purpose of art and its place in society, and weaves them seamlessly into plays digestible to the theatre-going public. His latest work “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was met last year with mixed reviews, however this play displays Stoppard in his finest hour – as the marketing is so desperate to tell us.

There is also no doubt that the actors who took part in this particular production were of a high quality. Each executed their character to a great standard, with Toby Schmitz’s Tristan Tsara being the standout for me, although this may have been more due to the success of costume designer Julie Lynch. Stoppard’s clever words flowed out of the performers at a great speed, but with great clarity, and at no point did I feel the length of the piece, which is quite significant for a two and half hour show.

The only problem I had was that I couldn’t help but feel that if the same actors had simply been given the text without direction, they would have come up pretty much the same show. I understand that directorial restraint is often a choice made to enhance the beauty of the text itself, perhaps the most striking recent example being the first hour of Benedict Andrews’ “The War Of The Roses”, however I felt that this was not the case with Travesties. I was so sure that the busy set decorated with text from “The Important Of Being Ernest”, and placed on a revolve was desperately trying to convey something, I was just never quite sure what. At times I wondered if the revolve was simply an easy way out of having to incorporate two sets which can easily morph between one another. The exception to this confusion being the arresting moments when “Dada” was projected across the stage as Tsara threw the crockery about.

In the end, it is Tom Stoppard’s name that is on the poster, but it is disappointing that director Richard Cottrell didn’t try and earn a place alongside it. This is perhaps the major difference between the work that I feel impacts greatly on my practice and the shows that I simply enjoy. Between work that is directed and plays that are merely staged.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Review: Metamorphosis (Vesturport Theatre/Lyric Hammersmith)

Franz Kafka’s novella where a man awakens to find he has transformed into a giant insect has been reimagined in many mediums since its original publication in 1915. Its latest internationally successful incarnation, a co-production between Iceland’s Vesturport Theatre and England’s Lyric Hammersith, conjures the mood of a Grimm fairy tale to explore the fable as an allegory for Jewish experience in 20th century Europe.

Metamorphosis’ clever design is integral to its success. Börkur Jónsson’s split-level set is striking, shifting Gregor’s upstairs room 90º so we are looking down on his furniture from above. I was not surprised to learn from one of the performers that the set was built in the rehearsal room early on in the process, as it has been fully taken advantage of by directors David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, with Gregor’s newfound insect form moving intimately throughout the space. The startling images this produces are supported by Björn Helgason’s measured lighting design, and the atmosphere is created throughout by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ unsettling soundtrack.

However, it is Björn Thors’ bravura performance as Gregor that is the true focus of this show. From the moment he emerges from his straightjacket like bed, it is hard to take in anything other than his acrobatic movements within the warped environment of his family home. Whether it be crawling down the railing of the stairs, or simply sitting in a horizontal chair as if were nothing, the physical demands of the role are truly astounding. In the original production, the role was played by Gardarsson, co-adaptor/director, and it therefore must have been quite intimidating for Thors to take on, yet not a hint of this is ever revealed as he owns the stage throughout, with the family left feeling like a strong supporting cast. This doesn’t necessarily serve the story however, as it is the family’s response to Gregor’s condition which is the thematic focal point of the work.

Speaking of thematic, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we really needed another investigation of Jewish mistreatment, a topic which has already been explored at great length since the horrors of World War II. It seemed to me an odd choice to apply the story to the past given the current proliferation of fear throughout many first world nations. In the Sydney Morning Herald, director David Farr commented that he wanted the work to be open, as theatre should be a conversation, however I felt that among other things, the exaggerated gestures of the family and the father’s overt love of uniform made it hard to escape the references to Nazi Germany.

It is a credit to the work that my frustration with the interpretation did not stop me from engaging with the production. I thought that it was a rare example of ingenious design combining harmoniously with strong performances and a clear directorial vision. It is perhaps due to the show’s quality that I was so perturbed I didn’t share in this vision.



I’m a little more critical than that.

This production is the love child of amateurish bourgeois naturalism and lame 80’s physical theatre. I found the performances mannered and irritating, the set design pointlessly detailed and distracting and as for the gimmicky 90° angled upstairs trickery, putting aside the obvious strength it took Björn Thors to achieve the images I was never impressed by the strength of the images themselves. For a production which has been garnering praise for its physical verve and ingenuity (most recently by Simon Binns, see above), it felt as if it had run out of its bag of theatrical tricks too soon. The first half of the performance is basically only sustained by waiting to see how Gregor the insect will next use his environment and even the introduction of a trampoline, the removal of furniture to climb on and tearing a way down through the upper level floor is not consistently surprising enough. Once again I stress that I was impressed by the strength of the performer but not with the images themselves.

The piece was momentarily lifted by the presence of a prospective lodger for the family home Herr Fischer (Jonathan McGuinness), whose performance seemed to invigorate the other actors, or perhaps that was the presence of a clear cut dramatic situation with conflict and the promise of comedy. Sit-com stuff but certainly more entertaining than anything else that happened.

It seems problematic also for David Farr to speak of the piece being read as allegory for the 19th century Jewish experience, when considering that Kafka wrote this short story in 1915, twenty to thirty years before the Nazi’s came to power. Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware and a firm believer in the right of a director and company to reflect and interpret as they will, I’m certainly not advocating a kind of textual sanctity, I am not a bloodless, unimaginative stickler who complains when Shakespeare is performed with anything other than complete historical accuracy. I am simply questioning, just as Simon has, the relevance of this particular understanding of the work.

If David Farr considered the piece “open” and wished for it to be a “conversation”, why then did he refer to the Jewish experience at all, why not let us see it as we will? As the family dealing with a gay member (the monster closeted upstairs), the corrupting and transformative powers of economics or, like I did, as a mediocre and fairly irrelevant work with nothing much interesting to say nor a way of saying it interestingly.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: Concussion (Sydney Theatre Company/Griffin Theatre Company)

Concussion tried to do a lot. From the meta-theatrics, which permeated throughout to the dancing scene changes scored by modern rock songs and a storyline that we discovered in reverse it was always pushing for something greater, something cooler. Unfortunately in this production, I don’t think that vision was achieved. The play began with the central character, Julia addressing the audience to explain that she was taking it upon herself to ensure that we didn’t witness yet another tragedy. Her plan was to take hold of the action and give us a sexy comedic romp. Sadly, this break into reality simply didn’t feel real, and instead of being engaged and intrigued by Rachel Gordon’s performance, I was immediately alienated. If the piece had continued in this vein I probably would have walked away disappointed, but once we got past the unnecessary setting up of the stage by the actors, a moment which seemed to lack any dramatic purpose, everything solidified.

Ross Mueller’s dialogue is very strong, and once the scenes began, the momentum rarely let up. Particularly impressive were brothers Luke and Chris Ryan as the brothers James Junior and James Junior Junior. What could have been disregarded as a piece of novelty casting, produced some of the most memorable moments of the production as we watched how their relationship had deteriorated. The staging allowed for the vignettes to flow seamlessly in and out of each other, and as the story emerged the connections between each character became more and more engaging. It was then quite jarring when the action was halted by the few scene changes that were accompanied by blasting rock songs and exaggerated physical action. These moments that I assume were meant to heighten the tension and emotion, had the opposite effect of slowing down the play and giving the audience time to resettle. It seemed in these moments that the production was caught between the reality of the scenes and the perceived need for stylisation due to the text’s meta-theatrics.

It was in these confused moments that one got the feeling the play was trying just a little too hard. This feeling was strengthened by Julia’s direct address about fellating herself in her dreams. This production was unable to take advantage of the opportunities offered by these non-naturalistic moments and instead they served only to clutter and confuse the narrative rather than build or enhance it. Fortunately the strength of the text and the performances, with a couple of exceptions, carried the action past this, and left me excited by the experience of this new Australian work.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Ladybird(B Sharp/small things productions)

By Vassily Sigarev. Translated by Sasha Dugale.

The strength of Ladybird was in the language, adapted or localised by Ian Meadows and the company to match the casual, violent and limited vocabulary of any group of kids in town on a Thursday night. “I just, like, kept kicking him for like fifteen minutes, ay.” This simple approach made this Anti-Putin Russian play feel more crucial and important to our context than any Australian play recently programmed at B Sharp. As it was adapted by the company, the actors seem to really own the language, which contributes to some truly excellent performances, specifically Sophie Ross as Lera and Ian Meadows as Dima.

The coarseness and brutality of the language is reflected in the design by Justin Nardella, the stage rakes up with a construct of junk, a mess of TV’s, antiques and take away food wrappings. While this does make for some interesting playing spaces, for the most part the set is completely superfluous and at worst rather distracting from the realities of the language. The TV’s embedded in the set flicker on and off with AV that has no bearing on the performance and really seems like an attempt to incorporate vision for visions sake. Yes, indeed we are living in a world of advertising, shock! Far more effective would the play have been if we were allowed to just engage with these ‘cool’ young actors and the text standing alone.

In terms of affecting my emerging practice, Ladybird highlights the problems inherent to incorporating design in theatre. Where is the line between an illuminating and beautiful design that is inseparable to the action of a performance and a pointless add on that is tacted on to a text? I’m certainly not sure yet. It is to Ladybird’s credit that this split was so obvious, for I would not have been able to make this distinction if the texts adaption were not so keen and so dazzling.


Ps. Also. Herbal Cigarettes? I was frustrated by this claustrophobic party not smelling anything like one. In fact it smelt more like a Body Shop, or a room full of incense. I say to hell with the audiences sensitive nostrils, give us the real smell of decay.


I disagree almost completely about the set being superfluous. Rather than take away from the realities of the language, the set offered the perfect frame, its overbearing nature highlighting how all these coarse, brutal characters are merely products of their harsh environment. It allowed for the simplest of scene changes and the two “trick” moments, where Slavik disappeared through a newly discovered hole in the ground and then again through the fridge door, were just magic. The only element I found to be tiresome were the TVs, which I agree felt quite token, as if they had been added late and not fully explored. However, their being switched off added a nice accent to the final moments of the play, certainly a much nicer effect than the half-hearted attempt at snow falling that was simply not required.

Overall, I thought the show was outstanding, with remarkable performances of a fascinating text. An exciting start to the next section of the B Sharp season.