Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: The Mysteries: Genesis

Mysteries: Genesis is a strange monster to be walking into on a Monday night at the Wharf. In three parts, directed by Matthew Lutton, Andrew Upton and Tom Wright respectively, Mysteries tracks the opening moments of the bible, from Creation through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah’s ark. I call it strange not only because of the conceit of the work (somewhat like Hayloft’s 3xsisters; same actors, 3 directors, three different takes on the same progression, except with the bible and no fake blood) but also because of the fact that I was viewing it as part of STC’s mainstage season. This feeling continued through the night, a strange mix of radicalism and conservatism.

Wharf 2 has been completely transformed for this performance. The audience surround the space on two levels, ground floor and upstairs, in the centre we look onto the playing space. The blurb states designer Alice Babidge took inspiration from “old courtyards, bear-baiting pits, cloisters and coaching inns of the medieval world.” and this rings true, although I was also reminded of an underground parking lot or food court at any multi level mall. While I had thought that sightlines would be a nightmare in this space, such was the confidence in design that I never felt I was missing anything, despite staying on the ground floor and hugging the walls most of the night. It is a credit to Babidge and each director that the space was used in vastly different and developing ways across the three sections of the piece, I felt only at the very end had I seen a trick before.

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Matthew Lutton’s Eden is a square of white confetti, populated by the naked Adam and Eve (Cameron Goodall and Sophie Ross) in glorious white wigs, a fluffy suited penguin and hanging from a rope in the corner of the square, is a plastic apple filled with milk, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Lutton’s piece is the most aesthetically assured of the three, establishing a theatrical language almost immediately as the lights slowly rise on God, slumped naked in a chair. The performances are heightened, as is demanded by Hilary Bell and Lally Katz’s highly poetic text, Lutton matches the poeticism of the text with a formalism of gesture, repeating certain actions that we become familiar with the meaning of. Because of this the piece takes on a sort of distance, and we become sucked into the theatrical world of Eden, the text and movement of the naked bodies lulls us into an almost meditative (perhaps religious) state. This serves Lutton brilliantly as paradise is stripped from it’s inhabitants after Eve succumbs to Lucifer and the serpent, rendered here as a lock of black hair. The text shifts into purer action and so does the performances, we see Adam and Eve shiver from cold and beg God for one last hug before they are cast out. In this first section of the Mysteries, Lutton has created a stunningly confident and rather unsettling opening. And while the piece is occasionally marred by weaker passages of language and some fairly indulgent acting to match it, I think I may be starting to “get” this Lutton thing.

After a fifteen minute break head back in for Upton’s After the Fall, which is, I have to say, pretty rock and roll. There are a few balloons strewn around the place and the cast (STC’s residents) are belting out a version of Velvet Underground’s Run Run Run from the upper and lower levels of the space. Upton’s piece is performed in promenade and the performers move and appear amongst the audience as Adam and Eve (now a dysfunctional Australian family swearing at each other) lament their great loss while their son’s Cain and Abel feud over their respective harvests. Through this landscape stalks death, a girl with her pony tail hanging over her face, claiming everyone as the end comes to them as murder, suicide or old age. The actors are here given license to play clear, somewhat realistic actions, Adam bitches about Eve, Abel teases Cain and Seth wanders around trying to calm everyone down. This is a massive relief after Lutton’s formalism, and while Upton lacked Luttton’s aesthetic confidence, it certainly gained something from this shift. The space is used well and the performers seem to relish the opportunity to be so close to the audience, allowing a different sort of communication, I always get a kick out of laughing and having the actor look straight at you to share the moment. It’s magic: television can’t do that. The audience seemed fairly bemused by the staging, and for the most part they steered clear of wandering around to get a better look at the action. This is so far removed from the world of promenade performances at PACT or Performance Space, where the audience is more literate in this style and will move freely to view more or even to test the limits of the performers. The strange mix of radicalism and conservatism was no where more prevalent than in Upton’s section, made more obvious by some clunky sections of text intoned once again to great virtuosity but little effect, set against really powerful images and kick arse music. Stranger and strangerer.

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The final section dealt with Noah and his ark. Here Noah is a bedridden obsessive compulsive listening intently to the radio as his wife pleads with him to come down and back out into the town. Tom Wright’s set is a pile of mattresses in the centre of the stage on which Noah remains for the entire piece. His daughters coming to him from the depths of the sheets and God appearing to him through the radio or from the foot of his bed. Wright’s piece is the weakest of the three, suffering from further ponderous sections of text and some fairly unsubtle choreography. I am also totally sick of revolves and as soon as the mattresses did so I switched off, content to watch the lights in the ceiling and listen to the loud amplified rain instead of what was happening onstage. The strength of Wright’s section was in how he combined formal elements from the other sections and reused them so as to illuminate the story of Noah, it was a fitting end to the whole performance as it reminded us of what had gone before and suggested beginning anew after the flood.

The Mysteries: Genesis is an amazing thing to be occurring as a part of a main stage season at STC, The Residents (STC’s new crack team of young theatre makers) are committed and sometimes thrilling performers, the direction is playful, assured and considered and the language, while sometimes ill formed, invokes a certain tone of spirituality that is invaluable to the work. It is flawed, in some places quite deeply, but nevertheless it is a landmark thing to be occurring at a flagship company and deserves support for this kind of programming. It is the most interesting thing I have seen at STC all year, and I hope that their 2010 season can come up with something just as interesting, by the looks of it… maybe not, but fingers crossed anyway.

Also sorry for being out of the loop for ages, I had shows and assignments. Here is a picture from Elephant People by Daniel Keene, which I directed with 2nd students at UOW.

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Mark

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Catch-up: The Bougainville Photoplay Project, Gethsemane, A Streetcar Named Desire

Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve done any real blogging. Both Mark and I regret the lack of sweet blog times on offer lately, and you’ve already heard our excuses before so I won’t bother giving them again. Instead what I do have to offer is a quick wrap of a few things I’ve seen lately that I wanted to comment on. It goes back a while so I thought rather than doing full reviews that nobody is going to bother to read about shows that finished a month ago, I’d just write some comments about a few different things that hit me about each production. I’m sure Mark will get some writings up sooner or later, even if only to say “holy shit man, K├Ârper changed my world” (although he’s a little busy right now directing the English language premiere of Daniel Keene’s Elephant People). Anyway, let’s get to the plays…

The Bougainville Photoplay Project – Version 1.0 at The Old Fitz

This was truly an extraordinary night of theatre. The concept is quite simple. Paul Dwyer recounts some stories from his life based around his trips to Bougainville, a small region of Papua New Guinea. In the course of doing so, we learn about his father’s work as a surgeon, the various human rights abuses that have been perpetrated in Bougainville, and the amazing reconciliation process that is now occurring in the region. The stories themselves are amazing, insightful and at times truly horrifying. The delivery is honest and is set against the backdrop of the physical objects of Dwyer’s memories – newspaper articles, photos, and even a set of bones that his dad once used to demonstrate surgical techniques. There are several visual aids to the storytelling, from an old slide projector, to Sean Bacon’s video stylings which were perfectly measured as usual. However, the true victory of this show is that amidst these many technical elements and dramatic techniques, the story is what comes through. It is because the show is so tightly crafted that the message comes through pure and strong.
For more info about Bougainville, one can consult the ever-useful wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Bougainville

Gethsemane – Belvoir St

I know I’m coming incredibly late to the party, but I think I just might be a David Hare fan. After seeing this show I finally got around to reading The Vertical Hour which I bought a few months back, and I was impressed by both, and if the hype is anything to go by I haven’t even got to his best plays yet. I was expecting a lot from Gethsemane. I cared a lot about the subject matter, the problem of corporate funding controlling political parties, and I’m yet to see an Armfield show that I dislike (Scorched in particular was an affecting experience).
For the most part, the show delivered. The script was tight, and merciless, going for the jugular of a variety of political players, the direction cool (setting props by lighting rectangles? Very cool…) and the performances were mostly memorable. In a weird turn of events, it was Charlie Garber’s Fran Pegg, the irrepressible butler, that stole the show, with Garber turning one word answers into moments of comedy brilliance. In fact all the younger players were impressive, with Emily Barclay simply stunning as the troubled teenager of the home secretary, played with equal skill by Sarah Peirse. However, Claire Jones as sympathetic teacher was anything but sympathetic, and Dan Wyllie’s journalist never seemed real to me. Hard to reconcile from actors with such strong history.

Unfortunately, the play lacked a strong ending, something I found similarly problematic in the Vertical hour. It seemed in both texts as if once Hare had finished his political discussions he struggled to conclude the personal stories, and in turn the plays. I’ll keep an eye out to see whether this is a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.

A Streetcar Named Desire – Sydney Theatre Company


Now we come to one of the most anticipated theatre events of the year. Cate Blanchett as Blanche. This was the show that more people in Sydney were going to see than any other, and therefore the biggest theatrical opportunity of the year, and in my opinion it was wasted. There is no question that the acting was top notch. With the exception of a few of the bit parts, the performances were solid and beautifully crafted, and yes Cate proved once again that she is truly a chameleon, this time eschewing her powerful low register to take on the soprano range of the faux-timid Blanche. What was so frustrating though was that the play was really, really slow. I got bored, regularly, and maybe that’s because I’m born of the internet generation that as a result of tabbed browsing and violent video games can’t pay attention to anything for longer than 30 seconds, or maybe it’s because I’ve studied the text twice at different institutions. Maybe it’s because I missed the details of the relationships, or because I’d driven 2 hours in the pouring rain and was a bit stressed and was therefore distracted easily. But maybe, just maybe it was because this main stage production, which sold out before it opened, whose budget I can only imagine, was directed by a first time theatre director, was horribly paced, and failed to find anything new or insightful in the text, and instead simply came over as a bit bland. I was hugely disappointed. I have been defending Cate and Andrew’s decision making to the more cynical of my theatre friends all year, and was disappointed to not have a gem in the crown of my argument. I just hope star-studded Uncle Vanya next year doesn’t prove to be another lifeless staging, a fear that will perhaps be confirmed or denied when the director is finally revealed.

Well that’s all I have for now. I’m off to the next in the Appleloft series, a performance night presented by everyone’s favourite performance collective Applespiel.

- Simon