Sunday, August 30, 2009
Events such as this create a real sense of community, everybody is splayed out on comfy couches, sweet nibblies are abundant and so is conversation. This kind of support network is something that I highly value as I stare down the home stretch of my uni course. “The industry”; this thing we hear about from lecturers, grads and our parents; is a cruel, inhuman and vicious place, where we’re most likely to get torn apart and then shamefully crawl back to uni for a Dip Ed. But nights like Monthly Friend make it seem as comfortable as grandma’s biscuits, and I thank the Bake Sale crew for that.
The theme of the night examined all things wrong, slightly left of centre or not quite right. Things askew, amiss and awry. In keeping with the theme there were countless technical fuck-ups, awkwardly covered by Nat Randall MC; a stand up comic who sent a tape in place of himself; red wine appearing out of fish bowls of milk, and incredibly phat beats made entirely out of fruit. Despite all the memorable insanity however, it is the connections made and the joy of likeminded company that I really took from the night. Bring on Monthly Friend #3.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Directed By Sam Strong
Monologues are hard. In my first year at university we put on a production of Gary Owen’s Ghost City, which is essentially a collection of 25 monologues. It was a very useful exercise for us in terms of developing as actors, and while I thought it was quite a strong show (some of my classmates might disagree) I spoke to a lot of people who simply thought, “two hours of monologues… not really a good thing”. I’ve often wondered why this is the case and I think it’s because in life, we rarely listen to one person speaking for extended lengths of time, there’s generally some sort of dialogue. If we are listening to the one person speak for an extended period, it’s generally in a classroom or lecture situation, experiences we don’t normally associate with captivation. That being said, last year I went to a couple of one-person shows that I thoroughly enjoyed. Radio at the Old Fitz, was a beautiful story, tenderly acted by Andrew Bibby, and My Name Is Rachel Corrie, offered a strikingly personal insight into the Palestine/Israel conflict that brought me to tears. However, even in these works, there were moments when the labour of listening to the same voice for over an hour hit home and I tuned out. Therefore, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached Thom Pain (based on nothing). I knew Luke Mullins was a talented actor, and I had also heard good things about Will Eno’s script, but would it be enough to keep me interested? In short, yes.
At the heart of Thom Pain is a story of lost love. It would perhaps be too simplistic to say that it is Thom’s story, because one is never really sure who Thom Pain is, and whether anything or in fact everything is personal. The telling of the story is broken up by moments of existential contemplation, stand-up comedy, and audience interaction. If anything, it is this relationship, between audience and performer which is the core of Thom Pain.
The stage is completely bare, apart from a chair and a glass of water and from the moment the lights go down, the audience is on the back foot. I find it highly disappointing that in these days of OH&S the head usher has to tell us beforehand that the play will begin with an “intense blackout” (as opposed to a more placid “greyout” I suppose) because it somewhat spoils the surprise. However, as I discovered earlier in the year at Benedict Andrews’ The City, blackouts can really affect you whether you know they’re coming or not. Something about being plunged into darkness for an extended period of time sets some sort of inner alarm bell off, warning you that you’re vulnerable. Perhaps this fear is why so many mobile phone lights were visible in the audience at this point. More likely some people are just shit. Regardless, there was something truly wonderful about Luke Mullins appearing out the darkness with the lighting of a match. It was even better when he returned to darkness and kept talking, asking questions about how he looked. This production stopped you from getting comfortable for a long time. For the first fifteen minutes you were never quite sure what was coming next, and it was only after you got used to expecting the unexpected that you allowed yourself to relax. This settling was of course subverted later on.
Some of my favourite moments in theatre are when you ask yourself the question was that meant to happen? Surely that can’t have been rehearsed? The most memorable for me was the time during Exit The King when Geoffrey Rush’s wig fell off and he quickly replaced it whilst mumbling, “You weren’t meant to see that. 1, 2, 3 and you’re back in the room!” The ultimate pay-off was later in the show when the wig was taken off to reveal Rush’s decaying body, one performer exclaimed, “That’s never happened before!” The solution to the problem was almost too good to be random. Throughout Thom Pain I found myself wondering time and again what was detail and what was accident. By the end I had come to the conclusion that nothing was left to chance, it was just good theatre. This included a great piece of audience plant work, where someone ran out of the theatre, and Mullins ran after him saying goodbye, only to remark unhappily “cunt!” while returning to the stage. For a moment I was genuinely fooled, and was sure that this “random” audience member had just got a text message about his wife being in labour. Unfortunately, the text went on about the exit for just a little bit too long, and I recall being very disappointed upon realising that it was faked. But you were just as unsure when the glass of water was spilt, or when a light came up on a different area of the stage to where Mullins was standing. Throughout, the audience expectation was played with, culminating in the final section of the play where an audience member was brought up onto stage to help Pain finish the story.
Luke Mullins’ meticulous performance was stunning. He had impressed me before, particularly with the STC Actor’s Company, but this was a new level of his work for me. I’m sure that that is in part due to the intimacy of Downstairs Belvoir, but I also feel that the text gave him a lot of room to explore to the full realm of his abilities. No gesture was out of place, and his voice moved through its registers as if he was singing. He gave the words sufficient bite to confront you, but he also kept the sense of intimacy required for us to care about his stories. He also generated a lot of trust, which was important because of the playful nature of the work. I didn’t really mind when he made me jump in my seat by screaming “boo!” in my face, and I was more than happy to watch him as he laughed to himself for a while after commenting “I have a vibrant inner life”. The details created a fascinating portrait of a man, who almost made not wearing socks with a suit look good.
After a somewhat disappointing finish to the last B Sharp season, I’m once again excited about this strong start for one of my favourite spaces. Will Thom Pain be another Ladybird, the standout beginning that was too hard for the rest to live up to? I guess I’ll find out at the Lonesome West next week.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Directed by Geordie Brookman
Before this play, I had only heard brief allusions to David Harrower. I knew that successful productions of his Blackbird had been programmed by both the STC and MTC in recent years, and I had heard his named thrown about as the leader of a new movement of Scottish playwrights who eschew naturalism with poetic language. With these fragments of knowledge in hand, I was surprised at the opening scene of Geordie Brookman’s Knives In Hens. There was no poetry in the language whatsoever. Robert Menzies’ Pony William almost coughed out his words, while Kate Box’s Young Woman, was too lacking in knowledge of language to be able to treat it with care. Instead it seemed a decision had been made to ignore the poetic possibilities of the text and focus on physical presence, particularly in William’s attempted control of the Young Woman, and the industrial frames of the set’s impact upon the actors.
The set presented some nice opportunities, and I particularly liked the water at the front-right of the stage. I’m quite a fan of stage elements that can’t be faked. Everyone knows when an actor drinks a glass of wine on stage it’s probably iced tea or an equivalent, but with a large pool of water, you know their socks are getting wet whether they like it or not. I also enjoyed the sound as they walked through the water, in fact it’s probably the only sound I have any real memory of. I also liked the off-stage space of the stables created through Anna Cordingley’s ominous drainpipe. Unfortunately this dominating design robbed the play of a lot of its intimacy, as a well as requiring a lot of time between scenes as the actors moved about its various stage areas, which included an upstairs section for the Miller’s home.
Which brings me to my main reservation about the play, the pedestrian direction. I felt as if each scene had been directed without much care for those preceding or following it. There was very little build between scenes, with each instead seemingly treated as a self-completing entity. By paying too much attention to the ebb and flow of each moment, the overall experience was stilted. The audience was always given time to relax during the many transitions whilst the actors climbed ladders and battled with grates and doors making it very hard for the penultimate moments of the play to have any real impact. I never felt any moments of great dramatic tension, and they’re definitely there in the script.
In the end it was the text and Kate Box that got me home. Harrower’s deceptively simply story sent my brain off on many tangents about the importance of female education in a society (there is research to suggest that the only way forward with AIDS in Africa is to educate the women), and the freedom that language gives us to define our identity and experiences of the world. It reminded me of the angels in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings Of Desire who only learnt to speak when the humans they had been watching since creation gained knowledge of language. I also found Box’s portrayal of the Young Woman, in constant struggle with her own ignorance, engaging in what otherwise felt a long and stagnant show.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Spectacular is the latest work from UK theatre company Forced Entertainment, who this year celebrated 25 years together. The show is essentially one man in a terrible skeleton costume (Robin Arthur) describing a show that for reasons beyond our knowledge, and seemingly his, has failed to take place as usual. The set isn’t out, and the opening guy didn’t do his bit, so instead, this poor man is left with the task of explaining what we would normally experience. Other than his good self, the only element of the original show that makes it to stage is Claire Marshall’s epic death scene, which she undertakes for the majority of the show. The concept is not uninteresting and for a while I was completely engrossed. In a very understated English way, the beginning was hilarious. The way Arthur explained almost every minutia of the show was captivating and just as the energy was losing its way, Marshal entered and in the driest deadpan you’ve ever heard, announced the beginning of her death. Her violent throes provided an ideal counterpoint to the lulling monologue of Arthur, which was more than enough for an entertaining half hour of theatre.
Unfortunately, it continued for another hour after that (the programme’s promise of a 75 minute running time was either a poor estimate or a calculated lie) without change. No performer relationships emerged, there were no shifts in pace and only the smallest pay-offs for the effort the play demanded of its audience. In the play’s defence, the early morning flight to Melbourne had meant that I’d only gotten three hours sleep the night before, and instead of intellectually engaging with what the work was trying to do, I was instead thinking “eyes, stay open” and rueing my decision to sit in the front row. But I think that placing the blame on my interrupted sleeping patterns would be giving the show too much credit.
The play was attempting to investigate the idea of stage deaths and their inherent falseness. There are several deaths being explored, Marshall’s over the top theatrical death, the death of the show which is not being performed for unknown reasons, Arthur’s comical depiction of death, and then the death of the current show which peters out into nothingness. The work engages with these various deaths with what my friend described as “painful subtlety”, which I found simply translated to a boring show. I got so frustrated in the last half hour as I waited and waited for the play to do something, anything, to actually interest me. But instead I watched as a man performed a monologue he didn’t seem interested in, and a woman over-acted a death scene, which other than damaging Claire Marshall’s vocal chords didn’t achieve much. Now I know that this is probably the point of the work, that as we watched the play die on stage we ourselves died a sort of death, and what about the way they were deconstructing theatre as a form and aren’t all these things very interesting to think about? My answer is yes, these things are interesting to think about, but it’s also interesting to watch good theatre. My question is, what did Spectacular do in performance, that couldn’t have been done in a short essay? I would argue very little and that’s what I found frustrating.
Props to Arts House for their green ticket scheme, which meant that this disappointing experience was at least a cheap one.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
The three productions that Simon and I saw over the past few months answered a few of these questions and quite often raised more. Sanja Simic’s The Country, Benedict Andrews’ The City and Cristabel Sved’s Dealing With Clair were all surprisingly similar interpretations of the same writer, with incremental differences in how various aspects were handled. Differences which Simon and I discuss below…….
S: The most impacting of the designs was undoubtedly Ralph Myers’ looming staircase for The City. As soon as the lights came up, the sheer size of the stairs which almost completely filled the Wharf 2 stage space, pressed upon you, especially from my front row position.
M: Mirroring the audience obviously.
S: It also demanded a certain physical approach from the performers who had to negotiate the large steps.
M: Like Colin Moody galloping around the stairs or Belinda Mccory having to pace herself when ascending wearing a particularly inconvenient skirt.
S: The design allowed for some truly wonderful theatrical tricks, most notably the piano which appeared seemingly impossibly at the top of the stairs.
M: That was awesome. A trick obviously allowed by the EXTREME blackouts. Which also provided a space of disorientation for the audience between scenes. Couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
S: This I guess is where the problems began in terms of the impact of the text itself.
M: The text obviously works on various unsettling levels. First domestically estranged and uncomfortable then with increasingly bizarre images both in the language and in the doppelganger nature of the child figure.
S: However, because we were already unsettled by the design, the unsettling moments in the text had less of an impact.
M: Which is for me to do with a required level of naturalism in the work. You need a kind of base to work from. From where you can start to invade and fuck up the naturalistic world of the text.
S: On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Dealing With Clair which strived for naturalism at the expense of Crimp’s unsettling moments.
M: And at the expense of good design and theatrical sense.
S: Ouch. I agree. The Dealing With Clair set was stuck between trying for a beautiful theatrical image and trying for a realistic setting.
M: And so it basically ended up in no mans land. It was a little square carpet room
S: Filled with indicators of a family ready to move, such as cardboard boxes marked fragile, and lamps and laptops
M: And those black rope thingys
M: Yeah was that it,/ Cables?
S: Maybe they were something to do with trains?
M: That’s a little obscure isn’t it? In any case they didn’t really do anything.
S: You certainly spent the entire play wondering if they were going to do something, but when they were finally engaged with, in what was meant to be a climactic emotional moment with Boris Brkic cutting them, it was just horrible.
M: Yeah I think they made a real problem for themselves in boxing in the space like that, it meant that the transitions became stilted and awkward since there was just one entrance to the playing space. They were tripping over each other.
S: At first I was thinking surely that’s meant to be like that? That’s some sort of emotional world of the character right? The way they have to watch each other as they come and go. But no, it was really a matter of practicalities.
M: The metaphor got a bit swamped. So for me the level of naturalism in Dealing With Clair was almost too much. It didn’t allow the text to breathe poetically really. And so instead of seeing through the real estate world to the heart of human greed we got a very bourgeois dinner story about property investment. It was totally banal.
S: Which was really disappointing, because even though this is an early Crimp, written before he was critically acclaimed playwright “Martin Crimp”, you could see the hints of his unique style emerging, and rather than relishing them, this production bulldozed through them.
M: I got the feeling of being yelled at.
S: Why were they so loud?
M: I don’t know. That was full on. It was a feeling I did not get from watching The Country. Which I felt might have been closer to nailing the right level of naturalism in Crimp’s work. Obviously The Country, in looking at a domestic landscape, is a little more realistic than the imaginative warzone/thoughtzone of The City. But it struck me as finding the unsettling in less theatrical ways than Andrews’ production.
S: Well it was set on a traverse, with lighting bars shining at one end and a suspended tree emerging from a doorway at the other, The Country was obviously not attempting to create a realistic set, but at the same time, nor did it completely remove any sense of realism as in The City.
M: They sat on chairs and talked to each other.
S: They were always obviously in the same room, a physical room, and the hints of realism such as the chair and the phone anchored this sense of place.
M: So it became more about the language games that the characters play on each other. The wife against the husband, the husband against the lover, the lover against the wife. About tactics. Which the performers (Natalie Randall, Theresa Mullan and Murray Clapham) handled beautifully.
S: The emphasis on character kept the stories grounded, so that the relationships were never lost in the language. You were never swept up into Crimp land like in The City.
M: The Country was my favourite text of the three.
M: Although I can see the danger in it falling into the Dealing With Clair pothole, and just being more of a dinner story. In Sanja Simic’s production however this was nimbly avoided.
S: Imagine if it had been placed in naturalistic home, with pots and pans and babies’ booties lying about the place. One of Crimp’s greatest strengths I feel is the imaginative world he creates for his audience, and to rob his language of that power is to do a disservice to the text.
S: You can’t run away from the domesticity of Crimp’s work. The City did this, and I think it definitely hindered the lasting impact of the work. The final scene failed to leave me with any lasting effect really; because I felt the same way I’d felt the entire time.
M: So you have to get the balance right. It can’t be too naturalistic because then you destroy the language and it becomes dull, but it can’t be too far into fantasy theatre land otherwise it stops being menacing and you miss what the texts are trying to say.
Despite The City being the most accomplished and visually stunning of the three (I remember really liking it as I walked out) it sort of faded away over the next few days.
S: Now that raises an interesting question about which response is the most important, the initial reaction or the more contemplative week later thoughts.
M: I guess it depends on when we write the reviews.
S: (laughs) Ultimately, The City was the most accomplished production, with fantastic performances
M: Colin Moody!
S: And sharp design, but it was almost as if Beno let his imagination run a little too far ahead of text, hampering its overall impact.
M: And Dealing With Clair was a little misguided, seemingly lacking an awareness of how to deal with Crimp’s language, opting to plough through it at super pace and volume, instead of excavating the gaps in understanding and communication that make it an interesting work. Whereas The Country managed to balance the unsettling with the domestic, demonstrating a more complete understanding of Crimp.
S: Allowing his distinctive style to have its full effect.
M: It’s interesting that these three works are the less formally stunning Crimp plays. Attempts On Her Life or Fewer Emergencies are for me far more intriguing works because of their disregard for character and conventional dramatic structure. I’d be more excited to see Beno do one of these, where I think his eye for image wouldn’t be quite so out of place.
S: It was certainly a different experience to watching War Of The Roses, where his images often gave the actors the power from which to work. I felt that in this production, the actors held his images together. Which was perhaps the biggest problem with Dealing With Clair. The decision to treat the text naturalistically had been made, but the acting simply didn’t match up to this decision.
M: Between the drunk acting and the game of snap I just wanted to kill them.
S: I couldn’t help but feel though that poor direction was the major problem though rather than any lack of skill on any individual actor’s behalf. Why hadn't they been instructed to actually play snap? Why had they been led to perform at a size large enough for the Opera House’s Drama Theatre, rather than at a more intimate level that a space like the Stables demands? There even seemed uneasiness in the bowing. I’m not sure if I imagined it because of my own experience of the play, but there seemed to be a lack of confidence in the work.
M: Yeah. We probably didn’t help by squirming throughout the play and half heartedly applauding. I feel a little bad actually since I’m sure they are not as unilaterally awful as that production made them seem. It really was just a few degrees off where it should have been. But after having seen The City and The Country, the difference just grated on me.
M: Yeah. Right. I think that’s it.
Your turn. The discussion can continue below…
Saturday, August 8, 2009
In the meantime, UOW has lined up its spring season of performances. Make sure to check http://www.uow.edu.au/crearts/performances/index.html for dates and booking numbers closer to end of session, for all non gong people that's basically late October onwards.
Directed by Deborah Pollard
with first year students
Trumpets and Raspberries
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by Janys Hayes
with second year students
As I Lay Dreaming
Written and directed by Catherine Mckinnon
with second year students
Angels in America Parts 1 & 2
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tim Maddock and Christopher Ryan
with third year students
Attempts On Her Life
Written by Martin Crimp
Directed by Sanja Simic
Written by Daniel Keene
Directed by Mark Rogers