Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Report: Monthly Friend: Ficto-Critico

I’m not sure that a name has ever been so apt as it was for the crew from Bake Sale For Art’s first Monthly Friend. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, at my new favourite Sydney venue – the Red Rattler, in Marrickville, a small collection of artists and their fans joined together for a relaxing afternoon of art and discussion. 

The theme of the day was Ficto-Critico, exploring the possible overlaps between the subjective World of creativity and the supposedly objective world of criticism. There were several performances, a couple of installations and the afternoon finished with an open-floor discussion about subjectivity and critical theory in art, led by Georgie Meagher with special guest Chris Ryan.

The performances ranged from short story readings to stand-up comedy to more performance art based work. The atmosphere was always relaxed, thanks largely in part to the natural light offered by the afternoon time slot which meant that the usual gap between performer and audience was never created. This meant the afternoon felt more like a sharing of ideas and personal insights than a traditional programme of performances.  

The Red Rattler is a converted warehouse which offers a selection of incredibly comfortable couches and a bar which at this event was stocked with Bake Sales’ signature cupcakes, and a selection of delightful teas. The stage itself is a little proscenium arch, and is fully equipped with a massive speaker system and a bunch of lights. But most exciting of all, is that it’s run on a not-for-profit basis, and is doing very well, which is great for a small but vital community venue. Check it out – theredrattler.org. Also, don’t forget to keep up the with Bake Sale blog - Bake Sale For Art.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Whore - B Sharp

By Rick Viede
Directed by Christopher Hurrell

is Rick Viede’s coming of age story about a young girl, Sara (Rhiannon Owen), who travels to London with a desire to become “interesting”. This desire leads her to work as a prostitute after meeting Tim (Paul-William Mawhinney), a fellow young Australian who has earned a significant amount of money in the trade. Tim teaches her the rules of the job and we watch as their friendship and lives develop concurrently, going from the initial exhilaration to disillusionment. This all takes place in 10 segments as we go through the 10 steps to a happy life that a self-help author offers Sara at the beginning of the play. The various characters that Tim and Sara encounter are played by the experienced Keith Agius and Ben Mortley.

The script won the 2008 Griffin Theatre award, and is solid enough. It reminded me of Ross Mueller’s Concussion - naturalistic scenes, interspersed with rock songs and hyper-real monologues, minus the problematic meta-theatrics. However, like Concussion, I found the production somewhat confused. The play moved between naturalism and stylisation often, but more often than not I felt the stylised moments, such as the bath with no water, were the demand of practicality rather than dramaturgy. This was most jarring during the penultimate scene, as I watched actors clumsily move between the stylised world of mime, and the naturalistic world of blood-smeared props.

I also thought the performances felt slightly too big for the space. Downstairs Belvoir puts you so close to the action that the every hint of feeling is laid bare. This works beautifully for plays such as Ladybird where we see a cast truly inhabiting a text. I felt that for much of this play however, the actors lacked the subtlety the space demands. Mawhinney, who I was greatly impressed with recently in Dennis Kelly’s DNA at the Old Fitz, has a talent for making large reactions feel natural, and if anything his voice was too soft at points, but I found the other actors lacked integrity in crucial moments.

Director Christopher Hurrell describes the play as a “crime thriller” but the problem was that I was never thrilled; I was never on the edge of my seat, because I found myself confused by the form. The numerous blackouts also hindered the building of tension despite the rockin’ soundtrack.

The soundtrack was in fact one of the most exciting parts of the project. A collection of local Sydney bands wrote the music for the play, under the curatorial eye of sound designer David Heinrich, a member of the band Lions At Your Door, but much more importantly, a founding member of Adelaide’s The Border Project whose Highway Rock ‘n’ Roll Disaster remains one of my favourite productions to date. This sort of collaboration between the theatre and music industries fascinates me as an artist who intends to be a part of both. The songs were quite good, and the soundtrack is currently being sold online at www.fbiradio.org.au, however, I can’t say that I found they played any great part in forming my experience of the play. They simply felt like a way to try and keep the energy going through the blackouts and had limited success in this role.

Belvoir’s downstairs theatre has the power to be so affecting, yet I have found that every performance I have seen there since the season opener Ladybird has failed to take advantage of the intimacy the space offers. I hope that the newly announced August to December season will rectify this.

- Simon

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: The Duel


Adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
By Tom Wright
Directed by Matthew Lutton

Right. Well… I didn’t like it very much. First of all I thought it was derivative, Matthew Lutton has seen one too many Benedict Andrews shows and liked them a bit too much. I imagine him taking notes eagerly during the performances, sneaking in a camera phone so he can pore over the set design, delighting in the acting style and jotting down all the people Beno has worked with. The set design for The Duel was alarmingly similar to Moving Target, even with a bright red couch. The actors playing all the music themselves from a boombox, same kind of concept as the Ipod in Who’s Afraid… at Belvoir. The performance ended on an intake of breath, as if the actor (David Lee Smyth) was about to say something more, the same way Beno’s Far Away ended at STC. I’m sure there were more but these are the ones that stood out as the most blatant.

Now, I’m not saying that Beno himself was the first to use these ideas, nor does he have some kind of theatrical copyright on them. I’m not burying my head in the sand hiding from postmodernism, or Roland Barthes “tissue of quotations” or the transient nature of images in out media soaked culture. But… come on. If you’re going to pinch and borrow, let some time pass, or at least don’t do them all at once, and certainly not from the same artist. It’s like copy/pasting from Wikipedia into your major essay. It’s just not done.

The work was an adaption of a chapter from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, in which Zosima looks back on his death bed on his rash youthful behavior leading to The Duel of the play’s title, and the conflicted friendship that arose from it. The writing is clear and in some parts quite gorgeous but it is not enough. Even Luke Mullins as Zosima, who I’ll admit I adore having seen WOTR, The Eisteddfod and The Serpent’s Teeth, was not enough to keep my interest. Which is a real pity because I was looking forward to seeing him in what I assumed to be a play with a cool young director. I was wrong. I’ll see another Matthew Lutton if it comes around, I’d be happy for it to be proved otherwise, but The Duel did not do it for me.

It prompted me however, to think about my own work and where it comes from. I am now in the middle of production week for Osama The Hero, which will be the first show I have directed after ADing a few with Chris Ryan and Tim Maddock. I’m obviously going to be influenced by these individuals but outside of that, where do I draw my inspiration? From whom am I borrowing?

Schaubuehne videos on youtube. (Fluros rule)
The White Devil – Tim Maddock and Miriam Wells (plastic sheets)
The Lost Echo – Kosky (tiles, bathroom)
Tricky –Council Estate filmclip (the mess, the smudged faces)

And that’s just the aesthetics. It was an interesting thought and a revealing list for me to mull over and one, thanks to The Duel, I’ll continue to check up on moving forward onto other projects.

Here’s a shameless pug for Osama, if anyone is interested. http://www.uow.edu.au/crearts/performances/UOW060177.html


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: Food Court – Back To Back Theatre


Text, Direction and Set Design by Bruce Gladwin
Music by The Necks

First and foremost, Food Court was an aural experience. A gradually cresting wave of sound made by the performers incredible voices which, true to the program, “circumnavigate the universe, dissecting heaven and hell, good and evil” and the unclassifiable work of The Necks. The sound of the piece breathes with you, often jarring or unfathomable but always interesting.

Back To Back Theatre predominantly works with an ensemble of actors with intellectual disabilities. The piece is based on their own experiences of control and guilt. At first we see a highly theatrical realism, all the workings of the stage are laid bare as two gold gym suit clad performers accuse a girl (Sarah Mainwaring) of being fat. From the gap in the pros ach curtain chairs are brought out for them to sit on, the mics are held in place for them so they can be heard. Then as the accusations increase in volume and intensity we descend from the workings of theatre and into a harrowing fantasy. The curtain parts and we see everything behind a screen, the performers are just shadows and colours, smudges in a forest of incredible animation (Rhian Hinkley). The degradation doesn’t stop there however, in this darkly beautiful landscape everything gets worse. After the girl is made to strip and dance a crowd of people emerge, pointing at her while more insults are thrown. Then as they leave, in a moment I in the audience so desperately wished would be tender, a boy takes a mic and begins to speak to her. He’s not had much experience sexually, he wants to touch her face, he wants someone to love him. The only reply she gives as he holds the mic in front of her is her breath. This moment is not tender, nor does it give any respite from blame and guilt, it is free from morality, innocent and very very threatening. Finally, as The Necks build in intensity and waves of sound patterns shake the stage, she struggles alone as she speaks an excerpt from The Tempest being projected onto the front screen, Caliban: The isle is full of noises… At first trying to catch up with the scrambling letters, then overtaking them and making them her own. It is an extraordinary and cathartic finish, despite a major screen fuck up at the end on the night that I attended.

It is tragic in structure, Bruce Gladwin describes it in the program as a Geelong tragedy. Coming from a company whose work is mostly produced outside a traditional ‘theatre’ context, Food Court reinvents within the classical western canon and absorbs it into Back to Back’s own practice. It is an aesthetically sophisticated and harrowing work but it is the sound of it that gets to you, the sound of it that awakes in you fear and horror, the gradual build to a climax of sound that creates the tragedy. The Necks are fucking awesome.

It is this that I took away for my own work. The quality of music and sound that dictates emotion and even the body’s physical reaction is an incredibly powerful tool in the creation of theatre. It reminded me of this passage in Artaud’s No More Masterpieces

“Snakes do not react to music because of the metal ideas it produces in them, but because they are long, they lie coiled on the ground and their bodies are in contact with ground along almost their entire length. And the musical vibrations communicated to the ground affect them as a very subtle, very long massage. Well I propose to treat the audience just like those charmed snakes and to bring them back to the subtlest ideas through their bodies.”

For this, and the experience itself, Food Court is a show I am not likely to forget.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Chicago

After seeing Chicago I was left feeling a bit hollow. Let’s start however, with the positives. The design was a welcome change from the busy sets that normally occupy the Lyric, with the only setting being the band sitting on stage, tiered like a jury blasting out the fantastic, brassy score. The dancing is spectacular. The Bob Fosse inspired choreography is crisp and exciting, and the ensemble takes to it with vigour. Other than Gina Riley as “Mama” and Damien Birmingham as “Amos” the entire cast produce some truly exhilarating moments. This is matched by superb vocal performances from the cast. The two leads, Caroline O’Connor and Sharon Millerchip are of course outstanding, but they are almost overshadowed by Gina Riley’s impressive range.

The problem with this production was that it had no soul. The story of Chicago is dark and fascinating. It is a tale of sex and violence, of adulteress husbands being killed by their wives, and adulteress wives killing their lovers. The stakes are high for the women in prison as they could all be hung for their offences. It is not a happy, go-lucky tale. Yet that is how it is presented in this production. The show focuses on the razzle dazzle rather than the more dangerous content, and the result was that I simply didn’t give a damn about any of the characters. When an innocent woman is hung, as is the case in the second act, I should care. However, this event had no power, as the character had not been utilised as anything other than shallow comic relief, and as far as I am concerned this was a directorial mistake. I think the major problem was that other than the two leads, who were able to find an integrity in their broad American accents, none of the performers found truth in the text. The ensemble’s brief contributions were generally over-acted (I actually cringed at the judge), Craig McLachlan seemed to be walking through Billy Flynn and I was particularly disappointed in Gina Riley, whose television work I so admire (particularly The Games). Damien Birmingham came as close as one could hope to a few touching moments as the na├»ve husband Amos, but with no support these glimmers were lost amidst the sparkles. I often find myself defending music theatre as a genre to peers who accuse it of being over-funded, meaningless entertainment. In the case of this production their accusations would be justified. With the minimalist design, I had hoped that a performer-led show would result in a moving experience. Instead, I enjoyed a night of dance and song, which I couldn’t help but feel was an opportunity missed.

- Simon

Geoffrey Rush Wins Tony

Geoffrey Rush wins Tony for Best Actor

Very exciting to see one of our own actors, and in fact productions, doing so well on the international stage. Who would have known that the show many of us saw at Belvoir St two years ago would now be taking New York by storm.

- Simon

Sunday, June 7, 2009

UOW Review: Arabian Nights

Written By Mary Zimmerman

Adapted from The Book Of The Thousand And One Night

Directed By Tim Maddock

Assistant Director Mark Rogers

The first thing one notices about Arabian Nights is the space in which it is performed. The Hope theatre used to be a large, proscenium arch, 500-seat theatre. Whilst it was mainly used for lectures, it also housed a number of performance works and was certainly the largest space the university had to offer. It was a “traditional theatre” with side stage space, a massive fly area and an orchestra pit, a very different experience to the black-box style spaces the majority of our work is performed in. The stage area often acted as a rehearsal space while lectures continued on the other side of the fire curtain. Recently however, the performing licence ran out, and the decision was made not to renew it. I should say that I am certainly far from privy to any of the details of these decisions, but these are the events as I have been told them. The fire curtain has been replaced with a wall and the majority of the rigging has been ripped out. Soon the space will be divided into two levels and it will become a new rehearsal room and sound studio, but currently it is simply a massive concrete room. It has the same feeling of depth and height that Carriage Works offers, yet with an impressive informality that only a space you are forced to enter through a giant loading dock roller door can have. The stark concrete walls provide a surprisingly beautiful aesthetic, and as you enter on to the stage space and walk past the technical crew and then in turn the performers, who are all simply milling about on stage playing with pillows and doonas you feel strangely comfortable as you are guided to the opposite end of this vast industrial room.

The comfortable feeling makes sense, as you soon realise you’ve paid to come to an awesome sleepover. The performers lie about on the ground, and then gradually get up and do party tricks. The scene quickly turns awkward when two girls manage to fit their fists inside their mouths, and you realise that there are two people having sex at the front of the stage under a doona. The participants are revealed and violently dealt with, and thus begins the story of the Arabian Nights. Adapted by Mary Zimmerman from The Book of The Thousand And One Night, it is the story an Iraqi caliph Shahryar, who having been cuckolded by his first wife, now weds, beds and murders a different virgin every night, and the brave Scheherezade, his intended bride, who postpones her execution by telling the caliph wonderful tales, stopping tantalisingly short of their conclusion just before dawn.

The ensemble of 16 performers (my year) bring a youthful energy to this fable, as over the course of two hours using no more than a few sheets, doonas, pillows and a guitar they bring Scheherezade’s stories to life. Having been a performance student at the University of Wollongong for two and a half years now, I have both seen and performed in my fair share of ensemble work. With year groups ranging from 25-50 people, finding texts to perform is never easy and often ensemble investigations are seen as a more practical alternative. In some cases, I have seen this approach forced on texts which do not necessarily welcome it, however with Arabian Nights the text is elevated because of it. The stories serve as springboards for the image work that the ensemble and director Tim Maddock have created, whereby the performers make the work their own. It proved a delight to watch the unique talents of my colleagues being utilised to full effect. This ownership also went some way to removing the connotations of words such as Baghdad and phrases like “By Allah”, that we have heard bandied about in the press so often in recent history. This production is about people not place. The decision to avoid comment on Iraq is a good one in my eyes, because the material within the text is not strong. Short of some “Muslims are people too” moments, the play does little to try and deal with the issues, and Zimmerman’s intended ending of air raid sirens and the cast stopping, dropping and rolling is thankfully avoided (although possibly the most amazing deus ex machina I’ve ever seen is not). The fun filled first act is particularly successful in this, but when in the second act we hear a lecture about how many words there are in the Koran, one can’t help but feel the words “Iraq” and “Islam” flash across their eyes in big red letters.

While the space provided a beautiful aesthetic it also presented some practical problems, namely the appalling acoustics. The vast concrete walls simply rebounded sound around the room in all directions, making clarity for the performers difficult. Curtains were hung from the remaining lighting bars to combat this, and the packed audience sucked up much of the sound, but there were still moments when it was hard to hear the dialogue over the sound of the ensemble and the laughter of the crowd. Rarely however did this take away from the performance, as it generally occurred at moments when the images were doing more work than the words anyway (the most obvious example being that of the family dance, an event that simply cannot be adequately described in text form).

The lasting thought for me is how successful the sense of informality was in this performance, and how this was a direct result of this being a site-specific work. The informality stemmed from the venue. There was no foyer, the audience simply hung around outside until the loading dock opened. When the first act finished, a performer simply took a step forward, thanked the audience and informed them there would be a 20-minute interval. The back stage area only had one set of bathrooms which the cast and audience had to share, therefore at interval the actors and crew simply hung about, chatting to family and friends. There was no pretence and this served the work beautifully. No attempt was made to force the morality of the stories on the audience, one simply felt that stories were being shared in a bedroom, albeit a cavernous concrete bedroom.

- Simon