Friday, July 17, 2009

Review: The Promise

Written by Aleksei Arbuzov
Directed by Simon Stone

Hype is a dangerous thing, a poisonous thing. It is seductive and works within the imagination first of all; a few sentences or a picture is enough to get it started. There in the imagination it simmers; the words of praise repeat themselves, the picture grows bigger, 3D in fact, and then extends to represent the entire breadth of one’s desire. But however perfectly it manifests in the brain, it isn’t satisfying simply to think on it. Despite trawling through the vast pools of information in the internet or library for more snippets or glimpses of its true nature, once that is exhausted you are left in the same position. Unfulfilled. Hungry. At this point it moves into the real world and becomes about sharing the hype externally, spreading it onto close friends or colleagues. Mining them for information, exciting them, watching them build their own fantasy and letting it inform your own. But still this is not enough, you’re still hungry, you just have company. Hype works insidiously to take over personal consciousness, until every waking moment is empty unless satisfied, for better or worse, by whatever is being hyped up.

For me, Simon Stone had a lot of hype. This is a director who at 24 is a member of one of “melbourne’s most vital new companies” (Alison) The Hayloft Project, who, after winning the $20000 George Fairfax Memorial Award in 2008, this year alone has directed 3xSisters, Spring Awakening, Leaves of Glass and The Promise, with The Only Child set to premiere at Downstairs Belvoir in September/October. He is in vogue, described variously as “brilliant”, “classical” and “dynamic” with an “eye for a memorable theatrical image”. I pored over the reviews of The Hayloft Project, excited that such a young company could be doing such intellectual and consistently acclaimed work, gagging to actually SEE something, after missing Spring Awakening at B Sharp in 2008. (which my co blogger Simon raved about to me). Finally, (and surprisingly) my opportunity came with The Promise upstairs at Belvoir, featuring two actors I greatly admire in Alison Bell (Moving Target) and Ewen Leslie (War of the Roses, The Serpent’s Teeth) and a third closely aligned with Hayloft, Chris Ryan. So, obviously… well come on, wouldn’t you be, I was keen keen keen keen for the show.


The Promise is written by Aleksei Arbuzov, a post thaw Soviet playwright who, in this particular work, focuses on a relationship formed between three teenagers during the grueling siege of Leningrad from 1941- 44. Then in a series of filmic scenes, follows the development of this triangle over the passage of time, first at the end of the war, then months, years later as they try to reconcile their fevered teenage dreams with their relatively comfortable existences. Steady jobs. Marriage. It is a work concerned with friendship, love and longing.

Simon Stone stages it on Adam Gardnir’s revolve, a raised wooden square construction which the actors appear from under and are turned around upon. Behind this, as the play progresses, various household items are placed opening up a new location, softly lit by lampshades. But the set is plain, and underused. The revolve adds little to illuminate the changing dynamics of the characters, more often than not serving to obscure our view of them, with the back wall of upstairs Belvoir getting many of the most powerful lines. The lighting after a promising start of strobe explosions and thin beams of warm light through a hazer, descends into a energy draining slew of long scene change blackouts which kill any tension or interest in the way the play moves through time. Even Hamish Michael’s gorgeous sound design couldn’t cover these deathly pauses in the story, which completely undercut the filmic nature of the text. Further than this there were TWO intervals, which further slowed down my engagement with the performance. I could say that the intervals were conceptually valid in that it broke up the acts, and divided the three distinct periods of the character’s lives, but really… It felt more like an opportunity for a set or costume change, (however miniscule or ineffectual they were) and purely practical rather than creatively interesting. The performances are strong, Ewen Leslie was by turns invigorating and desperate, Alison Bell passionately committed and Chris Ryan has a natural warmth and gift for comic timing. But even with these brilliant actors the piece is overly sentimental and never approaches the political undertones of the play’s setting, seemingly whitewashing it with romance and mateship. So if I can’t place the blame on the actors, or purely on the lights and set, I suppose I have to lay it on the director.

This for me is the danger inherent to hype. I thought the work was bland and after having read and built up an ideal image of perfect actor/adaptor/director Simon Stone, this was a severe let down. I saw no memorable theatrical images, nor anything of the brilliant staging I was led to believe in. Perhaps The Promise suffered for my expectations, maybe it was never going to live up to my imagination, but I don’t think that is the case. Other shows where I have indulged in the hype have far exceeded my expectations, the often used as an example War of the Roses and Pacciti Company’s Finale being examples of this. Given the sheer amount of hype Simon Stone has floating around him (the biggest rumour perhaps being the SMH’s suggestion
that he’s in line to fill the gap Neil Armfield is leaving at Company B’s artistic director), I thought that like the others I would be more than satisfied after seeing The Promise. In fact I was disappointed and not a little disillusioned. It’s left me with mixed feelings regarding The Only Child at downstairs Belvoir, which I will see, if only to compare a Hayloft project work, with a pure Simon Stone work like The Promise.

Has anybody else had any experience like this, or indeed an experience like this with Simon Stone? I’d love to hear your thoughts, however depressing they are.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review: Elling

Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen
Adapted for stage by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss
Translated by Nicholas Norris Adapted by Simon Bent
Directed by Pamela Rabe

At the end of a pretty intense burst of theatregoing over the past week came Elling at the STC. I had been back and forth between the Gong and Sydney far too much and I was fairly exhausted, the trains being cold and every single one happening to be the ‘all stops’ service. The Wharf at STC is freezing when you have a bit of a wind lifting the air off the ocean and, despite having a new coat I’m growing quite fond of, I was shivering the whole time I was there.

Luckily, Elling turned out to be one of the most warming theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Elling is the story of two unlikely friends, Elling (Darren Gilshenan): an agoraphobic would be underground poet and Kjell (Lachy Hulme): a sex starved orangutan who doesn’t wash his underwear. After being released from the mental asylum where they met, we follow these two as they try to exist in the ‘normal’ society of Oslo; in which they will order pizza, use the telephone and fall in love. Pamela Rabe stages Elling sparingly at first, with beds and tables being moved around to create the asylum, their government apartment or a local diner, then as we move further into the strange world of these characters the stage starts to get lived in, food and refuse pile up on the floor, books fall from the ceiling, and panels on the back wall open up to reveal the moon, an open mic night and a box of sauerkraut. By allowing the stage to map the events we share with Elling and Kjell, Rabe maintains the delicate relationship that this play needs, a sense of camaraderie and care.

Normally I wouldn’t be interested in something quite as sentimental as Elling, but this production won me and the rest of the audience over. After a strange first half in which there were few titters from the auditorium, almost from the outset the second half had us in stiches. This is testament, I think, not to a pacing problem or a lack of humour in Act One but the audience’s need to build a relationship to the characters and larger world of the play. This is a difficult point for me to reconcile with my own practice, having always been interested in colder, more distant works. (see the Martin Crimp Report [The Country, The City, Dealing With Clair] coming soon) That being said I think the important point is not the warmth of the piece, but its focus on a creating a specific kind of relationship with the audience, a strength I also recognised in Talking To Terrorists at UOW. It’s not about making something unmalleable or fixed, it’s about treating every audience member as different, and surfing the wave of the crowd each night. Terrifying… yes. But as in Elling, when soiled underwear mistakenly flew into an elderly gentlemen’s face in D row, Darren Gilshenan’s wide grin proved it can be exhilarating too.



Sunday, July 5, 2009

UOW Review: Osama The Hero

Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Mark Rogers

Osama The Hero is a heavy text. It spans a huge amount of subject matter regarding fear, terrorism, justification of terrorism, torture, the effect of torture on the torturers and perhaps most importantly of all, the volatile environments that are British council estates. All of this in just three acts running under an hour and a half. Dennis Kelly’s handling of the material is deft, and with the exception of a few heavy-handed moments, the play rarely feels preachy. By entrusting the material to such powerless people, Kelly has ensured that the weighty words are easy to swallow. The play was written several years ago, but with the British government currently revising its view on torture, Obama cleaning out Guantanamo and the recent trouble in Sydney public housing, it retains a biting relevancy.

The story is based around Gary, a school kid whose misguided idealisms leads him to writer numerous school projects that question the western notions of terrorism, the penultimate of these being a presentation about why Osama bin Laden was a worthy hero. His polarising views make him the perfect scapegoat for violence that is occurring in his council estate.

Mark Rogers has placed the show on a corner stage, within which a smaller tiled square is placed and it is clear from the start that this is the only area that Gary is allowed to move in. The first act is a combination of three scenes playing concurrently. In the centre, in his tile prison, is Gary. He talks straight to us, desperate for us to comprehend his often misunderstood views. To his left are Louise and Francis who embody the council estate culture, the history and the pent-up rage. Francis is worried that his father’s legacy is being ignored with the arrival of a new neighbour – a pervert, Mark. To the right of the stage, we see this “pervert” and Mandy, his younger female friend. They are a playing a weird sort of coupley game, talking to an imaginary press about their happy family. A division between them soon becomes obvious however, as he pontificates about his desire for even a touch of her, which she refuses all but once.

The second act brings these three parties together, and explores the violence that ensues, with the staging emphasising this violence from the beginning. Immediately after the first act, the lights snap to black and two of the actors winch down the lighting bars, bringing with them a black square box directly above the tiles. It houses a number of fluoroes which flicker and strobe as the sound design shoots out heavy bass accompaniment. Amongst this, Gary is gaffa-taped to a chair and gagged. As the act progresses, we watch as he is interrogated, tortured and eventually beaten to death with a hammer, an image which is achieved here through the murderer smashing the tiled floor, the sound of which was then amplified throughout the theatre. This entire act was limited to the tiles, and sometimes felt cluttered, but more often than not the claustrophobia served the tension of the scene.

The third act follows each character in a personal monologue as they try to move on in the wake of Gary’s murder. For this act, two rolls of plastic are unfurled from the lighting bars leaving Gary to roam his tiled after life behind a veil of plastic. The last act is performed all on one microphone, beginning with Mark discussing his home cooking skills and then building as the other characters also begin sharing their thoughts. All of a sudden we are in a weird open mic club spanning stand-up comedy, spoken word and train of thought discussions. The play ends with every character behind the plastic and shadows being cast by the soft light of Mandy’s iPod.

There were two key elements that I found to be the most strident, but also effective. The first was the violence. Stage violence is something I find myself having stronger and stronger opinions on as I see it used badly in many shows. Time and again I see a realist approach failing to have the strength that the violence clearly needs, and thus more and more I feel a desire for stylisation. The actors can’t actually hit each other with hammers on stage, so instead something has to happen that impacts the audience as much as the literal violence would. I feel that this production found that with the eventual image of smashing tiles. The sheer sound of this action reverberating through the seats of the audience had real power. However, the first two hammer hits, which were achieved through a slow motion action accompanied by a bass thud through the speakers, lacked this. They felt half-hearted, with the bass not being nearly loud enough to have true impact.

The second element was the microphone. It worked beautifully to begin with, doubling the power of every consonant and revealing the rhythm of Kelly’s words. Each actor brought a unique style to the performative nature the mic demanded and the mic-lead took on a life of its own. However, as the monologues intertwined more and more, the practicality of one mic between three performers began to hinder rather than serve the language. One was overcome with a certain sense of relief when it was again handed to a solitary performer.

I left the theatre with a sense of excitement and pride. Excitement at the work - a gripping realisation of relatively new script by a playwright I am growing to love. The more I see of Dennis Kelly’s work, the more I become a fan of his stammered style that can so easily bring massive world issues down into the domestic sphere. But also pride at the artists, my colleagues who have worked hard to bring this difficult play to life. There is nothing that inspires one more than seeing your friends doing good work.

- Simon