Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bougainville Photoplay Project

When I first saw The Bougainville Photoplay Project at the Olf Fitz last year, I was blown away. I expect to like version 1.0 (which I learnt recently is spelt with a non-captialised vshows, but they always manage to surprise me. I wrote a bit about it for this blog at the time which you can find  here (in the same post I damned Streetcar… controversy-monger that I am). When it was announced that Belvoir were presenting the show for another season, I was pretty stoked. Firstly, it was another chance to see one of my favourite pieces of theatre and secondly it meant a chance for my friends who had missed out previously to see the show. I had one concern, and that was the size of the venue. Part of the show’s charm was its personal nature and I was worried that in a bigger venue the personal connection between Paul Dwyer (performer and writer) might be lost. In hindsight, this was a fear fuelled by ignorance. The show has been touring at various times for three years now and has been performed in a variety of venues of differing sizes. Never mind the fact that in Dwyer’s role as a university professor he has no doubt lectured to similarly large rooms. The show worked beautifully in the upstairs space, and both the laughter and the weighted silences stretched from the front row right up the back.

In my very short review of the Old Fitz incarnation, I focused on the content of the show and I imagine that most other reviews have done so. The issues are fascinating after all, from Dwyer’s personal recollections, to the stories of his father, to the horrific facts about Australia’s recent colonial past, you can’t leave unaffected. However, I feel that something that often gets overlooked is the construction of the piece, which is nigh on perfect. Hence, that’s what I’ll be devoting this reflection of the Belvoir production to. (If you’re after a simple judgement “should I see this or not?” sort of review, the answer is yes you should).

As good a place to start as any is the vision which handled by version 1.0’s regular video artist Sean Bacon. Whenever I have to write about his work I always come up with the word “measured.” I’m sure I’ve written about this before but video in theatre is very easily overdone. It’s often horribly integrated and distracting and rarely creatively useful. More often than not I feel like it’s there for the sake of having technology in the project. This is not the case with version 1.0 shows however, and that is because of Sean Bacon. He always finds the perfect balance between intrusion and insignificance, hence I think of his work as perfectly measured. In this project his role is relatively simple (certainly compared to the last project he undertook at Belvoir, Bendedict Andrews’ Measure For Measure) and often he is simply showing pictures or video at the request of Dwyer. But there are moments when he has a little bit more freedom, when he reminds of images we have previously scene, or carefully scrolls through particularly evocative pictures that we realise Bacon is more in control than we realise.

This brings me to the images that are shown. At first the photos and close-ups of documents seem simply expository, however as the play continues there are some important parallels that are drawn. The most telling of these are the two sets of images that Dwyer feels the need to warn the audience about, the process photos of his father’s surgical work and the images of the aftermath of a massacre at a church in southern Bougainville. Both are photos that involve blood and the stark reality of our anatomy. What is particularly telling to me is that the surgical photos are perhaps more gruesome than the photos of those injured and killed in the violence. Images of violence abound on our televisions, cinema screens and newspapers. Yet the reality of life-changing surgery, the blood, the holding of skin, the implements used, these are the images we are not accustomed to. However, it is by far the photos of violence that are more affecting. When the images of surgery are shown, the audiences allows themselves many sounds, a few groans, squeals and even laughter at the excessive redness of the image. When we are shown a picture of man who no longer has a head due to an explosion, the room is completely silent, as the weight of the moment rests of every single person.

Another part of the show’s construction that I find fascinating is all the “things” involved. I suppose you might call them props, but as more often than not the objects are relics of Dwyer’s childhood I find it hard to think of them merely as props, yet I suppose that is what they are in this context. The first two props we are drawn to are those that Dwyer enters with, a human spine and a briefcase. This serves several purposes. It introduces Dwyer as an academic, who else would be walking around with a spine and a briefcase? It also serves a practical purpose, with the briefcase containing a slide projector which is used later in the show. The briefcase also inspires images of travel, whilst the spine introduces us to one of the play’s other key themes, the work of Dwyer’s father, although we are yet to realise this. The spine is never mentioned again, but its presence serves as a symbol of the biology beneath our skin that binds us together as humans. Other props of note include an authentic set of vertebrae which Dwyer performs an operation on, a noticeboard full of maps and newspaper clippings ranging in subject matter from Dwyer’s father to the Bougainville Crisis and a table which serves a variety of purpose including briefly that of a hospital bed. What I love about all these items is that they are never removed from their place. No attempt is ever made to clean the space after a prop has served its purpose. Instead by the end of the play the objects in the space serve as the landscape of the hour and half journey the audience has just travelled. Perhaps I am pushing this too far, but it became for me a perfect mirror of the events of the play. Just as the props stay on stage as reminders of past action, the open-cut mine, the battle scars and the life-changing orthopaedic work of Dwyer’s father remain in Bougainville, as reminders of past battles and bravery.

The work done by both David Williams and Dwyer in the meshing of the stories and the pacing of the work is also superb. The way the personal stories of Dwyer and his family are used to draw you into the work before the political implications of the story are raised is classic version 1.0 and you can see why the company has made a name for themselves discussing these sorts of issues. The ebb and flow between exposition, humorous anecdotes and tragic events is beautifully managed so that one is never left feeling like they’re being bombarded. The fact that despite the show’s somewhat lecture type feel, the more theatrical moments such as the room going dark whilst Dwyer recounts a journey by torchlight, do not feel out of place is a testament to the show’s skilful construction. Pacing is another area that has clearly been paid a lot of attention to. There are times when Dwyer is veritably flying through the material, particularly when creating the nervous mood of the unsure traveller, and others when the audience clearly needs more time to comprehend the material. The final build is particularly skilful, with the audience in darkness, the mood of fear and eventual relief that is created is positively palpable.

It is due to all these beautifully crafted measures that Dwyer’s stories, and the moving content of the work is so affecting. This is not the sort of show you want to miss.

- Simon

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Apologies, The Trial & Namatjira

It seems that more than not when I post something on this blog, it starts with an apology for a lack of updates. Sorry about that, maybe I should just stop promising these things! Unfortunately for you readers, it’s been a very busy few weeks, between the Sydney Fringe Festival, This Is Not Art Festival (which you should definitely check out the results of at Applespiel's blog - you can download the show we did... awesome., and just a general amount of crazy things happening in our personal lives, that things have been put on the back burner here at The Perf.

What I offer to make up for it is a quick wrap of a couple of shows that I’ve seen lately. I might get around to doing a closer analysis of other seasons as well as post my long-awaited opinions on the Belvoir Downstairs changes, but I guess I have to start learning to make fewer promises.

The Trial – STC

Let’s put it out there – I’ve been excited about this production since it was announced last year. More Ewen Leslie in my life can only be a good thing. When the production rolled around however, I realised that there was even more amazing acting to be had with a fantastic ensemble of John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. I mean, they’re all stars in their own right really, so it was pretty exciting to have them all together, and this was really what I took away from the production. I thought the production was strong, and vividly created the increasingly maddening world of Joseph K. Unfortunately it dragged and there were definitely times when I dropped out of it and started thinking about other things. However, the further I get away from the show, the more I simply remember the fantastic performances and intelligent stage design. The final stage trick, whereby what was previously thought to be a backstage area was revealed through a dropping of curtains to create an almost cathedral like feel in what is not one of Sydney’s most giant theatres, was quite an achievement and more than brought me back into the world of the play. I left impressed. From what I hear though, others did not, let me know why!

Namatjira - Belvoir

This show made me feels some things very strongly. The strongest of which was a sense of absolute regret for not seeing Ngapartji Ngapartji. It must have been a phenomenal show. Trevor Jamieson is amazing. He is amazing physically, he is an amazing storyteller, he has amazing comic timing and he is amazingly honest. What this translates to is an incredibly engaging performance. For the two hours of the show you are absolutely in his hand, following along as he recreates the story of Albert Namatjira, Australia’s first Aboriginal citizen, and one of our country’s finest painters. The content, which Scott Rankin has done an amazing job of synthesizing, is absolutely astounding and depressing at the same time. All the things that you go into the show expecting will make you happy turn out to be sad. The fact that was the first Aboriginal citizen is countered by the fact that this was simply allowed so that the government could tax him, and it also placed him between a rock and bottle shop in his community, where his newfound ability to buy alcohol (a privilege only extended to citizens) made him a lackey to the many people who saw him as their uncle. His meeting with the Queen is countered by a radio report of his visit to Taronga Zoo which describes how the other animals got very excited at having a creature that was closer to them in their midst. The fact that his artworks at one point epitomised the height of Australian art culture is obscured by his inability to buy land that would allow him to support his community. In fact all of his achievements are left marred by the revelation that despite all his fame he died poor, and unhappy. It is these paradoxes of his life that Rankin has so effectively highlighted and Jamieson masterfully brings out, putting forward a few paradoxes of his own. One particularly memorable moment was when Jamieson explains that Aboriginal practice of leaving behind elders who have grown incapable of keeping up with the tribe. He doesn’t pass judgement on the practice, but instead turns the moral question onto the audience asking, “Would you take them in? Surely, if an old Aboriginal person knocked on your door asking for help at 2am you’d welcome them into your home.” However, Jamieson’s perfect manner of audience interaction is impossible to adequately describe here, instead, I just recommend you get along to this show in its final weeks if you haven’t already.

It would also be remiss of me to not to mention Derek Lynch, who does a superb job of playing all the characters around Jamieson. His turn as the queen is particularly memorable, and it gave me an odd jolt of patriotism knowing that I live in a country where an Aboriginal man can portray our female head of state with no more recourse than hysterical laughter from the audience.

Perhaps even more exciting than the show itself however, is the community project around it. Check out the details RIGHT HERE.

Hope that’s enough to keep you interested for a while. Hopefully have more for you soon.

Oh, and Applespiel have a show tomorrow night, it’s free, in Sydney, and a whole lot of fun. Check out the details here: We're very excited to be presented by Performance Space.

Hope all is well!


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tis The Season... (Belvoir Season Wrap-Up)

It’s that time of year! Theatre season time. Pretty much everybody in Sydney has now announced what’s going on in their 2011 seasons and isn’t it all very exciting? I know I’m a bit late to this particular party but there’s the small matter of the Sydney Fringe festival which has been taking up a significant amount of my time, (*Cough* Come see Appleloft please *Cough*). I’m going to start with Belvoir and hopefully work through the other major players in the coming days. So with further ado…

I was trying to think of a cleverer superlative here but I’m just going to say the first thing that came to mind… holy crap on a stick! The new Belvoir season is phenomenal. Aside from the not so small matter of the changes to the Downstairs theatre set-up (which I intend to devote a whole post to some time soon) I could not really be more pleased with the offering Ralph Myers has thrown up in his debut season. It’s a such a strong start you’ve got to wonder whether he’ll ever be able to follow it! Let’s go through the plays one by one.

12 February – 27 March
Written and Directed by: Simon Stone (after Henrik Ibsen)
With: John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Ewen Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Toby Schmitz

From the moment the picture of Toby Schmitz and Ewen Leslie came up on the screen, I knew we were off to a good start, I just didn’t know how good. Simon Stone and the Hayloft Project have made a name for themselves with their investigations of classic texts. If you feel the need to reacquaint yourself, head back to our review of the Only Child from last year. The man has done some solid work, and if we only lived in Melbourne we would have seen even more of it. Now he’s the resident director at Belvoir and his first play in the role is set to be a solid start. Now I can’t say I’ve read the play, nor am I a huge Ibsen fanboy or anything, but what excites me about this play is the cast. THE CAST. Seriously, if I was asked to list my favourite actors write now, it would read Ewen Leslie, Anita Hegh, Toby Schmitz (the order would change depending on the day). Add to that, the ever reliable John Gaden (who is currently tearing it up in The Trial) and Eloise Mignon, who is better known to Sydney audiences for her TV work, but who we’ll soon get a glimpse of in STC’s The Grenade later this year, and one can only assume that this show is going to be golden. It would take some dramatic self-sabotage for this project to turn sour with such good ingredients. I’m pretty freakin’ excited about this one.

An Ilbijerri Theatre Company Production
30 March – 17 April
By: Jack Charles and John Romeril
Directed by: Rachel Maza-Long
With: Jack Charles

Autobiography shows are something I have always found intriguing. Whether it’s William Yang, or it’s The Bouganville Photoplay Project (soon to be seen at upstairs Belvoir), there is something incredibly powerful about having someone tell you a personal story, offering insights only they, the protagonist, can give. One can only imagine that with a life as vibrant as Jack Charles’, this format will be all the more rewarding. This is also the first play in the season to show that Belvoir don’t intend to be criticised again for a lake of female directors on their stages.

CUT (Downstairs)
7 April – 1 May
By: Duncan Graham
Director: Sarah John
With: Anita Hegh

The creative team of Sarah John and Duncan Graham were last seen at downstairs Belvoir in April last year with Ollie & The Minotaur. That show was memorable, not least of all for its all female cast, but also for it’s moving script and tight performances. Now the Adelaide crew will have another chance to impress us with their new show Cut. Rather than the gritty naturalism of Ollie, this show is described as a “theatrical riddle” that walked the line between fantasy and reality. It’s great to see Myers pulling in great artists from out of state, and as I’m sure you’ve already gathered, I’m pretty happy with the casting as well.

23 April – 29 May
Based on: Vassa Zheleznova by Maxim Gorky
Adapted by: Jonathan Gavin with Cristabel Sved
Directed by: Cristabel Sved
With: Russell Kiefel, Sarah Peirse

This is one of the projects I’m not quite as sold on. Relocating a play based in early 20th Century Russia to Australia in the eighties is always going to be a dangerous move. But that is perhaps what makes it exciting. Gorky’s reputation precedes him, and for anyone who saw Gethsemane last year, which I hope most of you did (see the archives for my thoughts) you’ll be aware that Sarah Peirse is an amazing actor to watch. She dominated the ensemble cast in David Hare’s play and I can only imagine that she will bring just as much gusto to this new project.

THE KISS (Downstairs)
12 May – 5 June
By: Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Peter Goldsworthy and Guy De Maupassant
Director: Susanna Dowling
With: Danielle Cormack, Catherine Davies, Yalin Ozucelik, Steve Rodgers

This is without doubt the bravest of the season’s offerings. Dowling spoke at the launch about how this project, where four short stories with the common name “The Kiss” are retold word for word, was partially inspired by Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz. I was not able to see this show, but from what I’ve heard, which you can see for yourself by reading Mark’s review from last year, what began as an exciting experiment dissolved into hours of tedium. This is however a quite different prospect, calling on the work of four authors, and what I imagine will be a slightly different setting. The goal here I assume is to reacquaint ourselves with the power of the written word, and with yet another strong cast (I suppose you do expect that from main stage companies) one has to hope it will come off. For more info on the director’s previous work, check out my review of Yellow Moon from only a few weeks ago.

(Hilarious photo)

4 June – 17 July
By: Anton Chekhov
Director: Benedict Andrews
With: Emily Barclay, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody, John Gaden

It’s truly odd that considering the fact that for all writers at the Perf (past and present) Benedict Andrews constitutes one of our favourite directors, that only one of his shows (The City) has ever been written about here. Well, just to get you up to speed, we’re all pretty big fans, and so the prospect of Andrews taking on Chekhov’s classic with such masterful actors at his disposal is a pretty exhilarating one. There’s not really much else to say. Oh, this play does mark the first, but certainly not last, appearance of another of our favourites, Gareth Davies, in the season.

23 July – 28 August
By: Lally Katz
Director: Simon Stone
With: Charlie Garber, Heather Mitchell, Robyn Nevin

Lally Katz, why aren’t you brought to Sydney more often? Who knows, but let’s just be happy for the ones we get! This play, which Katz wrote specifically for Nevin, is set to be hilarious, and as with all things hilarious, it will be great to have Charlie Garber along for the ride. Simon Stone wins again, getting to direct one our finest actors in a role that is set to stick in the memory for a long time to come.

WINDMILL BABY (Downstairs)
28 July – 21 August
By: David Milroy
Director: Kylie Farmer
With: Roxanne McDonald

Continuing the drawing in of talent from all over Australia, this project comes from Perth-based playwright David Milroy, whose new script has already been seen and read all over the world, from Paris to Ireland. Somehow, Sydney has always been left out, but Belvoir are jumping in to fix that. Along with Jack Charles vs The Crown, this show reaffirms Belvoir’s commitment to supporting Indigenous stories on Australia’s main stages, and considering the play has already won the 2004 Patrick White Award and the 2005 Equity Guild Award, I think we’ll all be better for it.

A Lucy Guerin Inc. and Malthouse Melbourne Production in association with Perth International Arts Festival
31 August – 18 September
Choreographer: Lucy Guerin
With: Stephanie Lake, Alisdair MacIndoe, Talitha Maslin, Harriet Ritchie, Stuart Shugg, Jessica Wong
Hold your hourse, what’s this? Cross-artform programming at Belvoir? This is a new age indeed! Perhaps that like the theatre that this work premiered at (Malthouse) Belvoir is going to become a place for more broader sort of theatrical experimentation. By all accounts this show should be pretty phenomenal, an exploration of the bombardment of media in our society, and again shows that this season is set to be one of the most varied Belvoir seasons yet.

A co-production with The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm
15 September – 9 October
By: Gareth Davies
Director: Thomas Wright
With: Gareth Davies

If there is one show in the season that I am perhaps more exciting about than the Wild Duck it is this show. I have been reading reviews of Black Lung shows for years now and could not be more excited for them to finally come to Sydney. Gareth’s second entry in the season is a one-man plea for respect. I only hope that this production is chaotic as all the descriptions I’ve read of other Black Lung shows. If what I’ve read and heard is true, we are sure to leave this performance truly affected.

24 September – 13 November
By: Ray Lawler
Director: Neil Armfield
With: Robin Nevin, Yael Stone, Helen Thomson, Dan Wyllie

As far as texts go, this is the play I’m least anticipating. The HSC has a way of draining the life out of many things and this play is one of its victims. However, the fact that Neil Armfield, who is barely out the door, is at the helm gives me hope. To quote one of my previous reviews “I’m yet to see an Armfield show I dislike”, and with a cast this strong I doubt I’ll change that opinion. Particularly happy to see Yael Stone working with Armfield again after her brilliant turn in Scorched two years ago.

THE DARK ROOM (Downstairs)
3 – 27 November
By: Angela Betzien
Director: Leticia Caceres
With: Brendan Cowell

Bringing the tally to five out of eight of Australia’s states and territories represented in the season, this new work from the founders of Queensland theatre company Real TV sounds fascinating. Billed a work of great emotional complexity yet theatrical simplicity, my interest has certainly been piqued, not least of all because of the casting of Bredan Cowell, who let’s face it, was totally awesome in SBS cult series Life Support.

19 November – 24 December
By: William Shakespeare
Director: Eamon Flack
With: Alison Bell, Gareth Davies, Charlie Garber, Shelly Lauman

I think I’ve gushed enough already, so all I will say about this last show is that you should go and read my review of the Flack’s Midsummer from December last year, and you’ll know why I’m keen for this new Shakespearian outing. The show completes Gareth Davies acting residency at the theatre this year, one assumes that he will have set up some sort of tent in the rehearsal room by this point.

All in all, I think Myers has delivered a season that answers all the critics. If you want more new Australian plays on our stages, they’re there. If you love the classics, they’re there. If you want more female directors at Belvoir, they’re there. There's even some dance just to mix things up. If you read this blog you’re probably aware I have a pretty strong pro-Belvoir bias, the humanity of the plays offered gets to me pretty much every time, but even I was stunned by quality of the works on offer next year. It’s diverse, drawing on artists from all over the country, and there is not one play that I don’t want to see. Let’s hope they deliver on the hype (that I am creating for myself). If you’re still reading, thanks for putting up with my gushing.

- Simon

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Helpmanns and helping ourselves.

What’s that? There was a big theatre awards ceremony this week? Surely as a blog that presents itself as a place for theatre commentary, “The Perf” should be writing about it (I hear you say). Well guess what, we are! Sort of.

First off, I know most theatre commentators have already discussed this topic, but I feel the need to get something off my chest…

Things that make me happy: The ABC news covering a live performance awards night - did not expect that.

Things that make me unhappy: Half of that coverage being “OMG I can’t BELEEV CATE BLACNHET wasn’t EVEN NOMINANTED>>>>WTFBBQ”. (They seriously talked like that. I could tell they were making spelling mistakes from their tone).

I expect this crap from News Corp, but seriously ABC, if you’re going to cover the thing, which like I said, I was excited you did, then cover the event! Not a meaningless story that was created by the media as an excuse to talk about Cate Blanchett. (I feel I should at this point clarify that I am a massive Cate fan. She is an incredible actor and deserves to be discussed in the media, just not in this ridiculous context). Props on the interview with Ewen Leslie though.

Other than that I really don’t have that much to say about the Helpmanns. There were no big surprises for me, and as I said when the nominations were announced, the most frustrating thing for me is the constant reminder that I missed MTC’s Richard III. Sydney Festival planners, if you’re reading, please bring Richard III to this year’s Sydney Festival. The winner I was most excited about was Version 1.0 who won Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production for their show “This Kind Of Ruckus”. If you read this blog at all last year you’ll know that we’re kind of big fans. Hopefully they will now be commissioned to create new works at all the major theatres. I was also happy that Ewen Leslie won, because I’m also a fan of him (looking forward to The Trial), and that Neil Armfield is as well received in the opera world as he is in the theatre world.

In other exciting theatre news the Sydney Fringe Festival has begun! This is very exciting for a few reasons namely, the three project that we here at the Perf are involved in:

Nathan and myself are in this one! It’s going to be an awesome night of baked goods and short performance works culminating in a festive dance. Good times will be had.


Rip Whitening’s Synchrodestiny Experience
These two are Jenni’s festival babies. The first she assistant directed, and she has produced both of them. Very exciting times for every so please get along to them. In case you haven’t realised, the titles are links to the Fringe page which has times, dates and ticket details.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short bit of self-promotion. You should be getting a review of the Trial sometime next week, so keep checking back for that. Also, there’ll be more self-promotion in a couple of weeks as Applespiel heads to the This Is Not Art in Newcastle straight after the Fringe. Stay with us.

- Simon

Monday, September 6, 2010

Yellow Moon - B Sharp

It’s funny the way by pure accident shows with similar themes can end up being on at the same time. In some cases it even happens that the same show ends up being done within a short period of each other. In my first year of uni, I think there were three Virginia Woolfs going on in Australia at the same time. In my second year, it seemed as if the broader theatre scene was looking to our university for inspiration, as just after we did productions of Titus and Antigone, Bell Shakespeare and Belvoir followed suit. This year, it seems that after however many years of absence there are not one, not two, but THREE Howard Barker plays happening in the region (again, two of them are UOW productions). Now, after only having seen Tusk Tusk at the Wharf a couple of weeks ago, I found myself at another play about teenagers. Oh and the same play was JUST performed in Perth.

Apart from the main characters being troubled youths however, there isn’t much else that ties the two plays together. Whereas Polly Stenham is interested in the failure of middle-class families, David Greig’s poetic play is about a couple of individuals with very different backgrounds. “Stag” Lee (John Shrimpton) comes from a troubled family. With a depressed mother, an uninterested would be stepfather, and no biological father in sight, he is pretty much left to his own devices. This leads to many an altercation with the police and family services. All you need to know about Lee is that he never takes of his hat. It’s embroidered with an image of a proud male deer which as well as looking like an advertisement for a low-carb Toohey’s product, is also where young Lee he gets his nickname. Silent Leila on the other hand is the daughter of migrants, we think, she does after all dress a bit like a Muslim. No one is really sure, all they know is that she never talks. The two are brought together by coincidence, and bound together by crisis. Then follows a relatively standard coming of age story complete with a near-death experience, a hard-working montage, and a shocking revelation.

Told through narration, the play is essentially four actors in a room telling you Leila and Lee’s story, although there are clear characters throughout, there are times when it is actors describing action rather than actors playing actions. This allows a certain freedom of character, with the two older cast members moving fluidly in and out of the various adult roles that have an impact on the lives of the two young protagonists. This narrative style means that the language holds a lot of power in the text. Action is not always necessary for it is often perfectly described with language and to try and represent it would only take away from that description. However, there is always a balance that has to be struck between the narration and the acting to ensure that emotional investment is kept and Greig’s text finds this balance pretty well throughout the play, although there are times when you wonder why you’re being told things rather than just shown them. But it does offer its own beautiful moments where the characters take control of how they are depicted.

Originally written for a youth theatre company, there is a certain immaturity that remains in this script, which is at times tiresome, but also works to the advantage of the main roles. So often when scripts are written for teenagers by adults, the teenagers are either wise beyond their years, or caricatures of teenage angst. Here however, I found them quite realistic. Sure, they are extremes of teenage behaviour that are explored, but they also hit the nerve right on the head with a lot of the little details, starting with Lee’s refusal to take off his hat (the amount of fights that people got into in high school over people stealing their hats was ridiculous).

The cast is quite strong with the two young leads in Estasy and Shrimpton finding a beautiful chemistry together, brewing with hormonal desire. Their older counterparts in Danielle Cormack (who I can’t help but mention used to be in Xena) and Kenneth Moraleda bring an equally playful energy to the small stage.

The most exciting aspect of this production which I probably should have mentioned by now is the physical language that the creative team have brought to the work. Much talked about in the promotional material, but not overbearing at all in the final work, director Susanna Dowling and choreographer Johanna Puglisi have worked with a soundtrack by sound designer Ekrem Mulayim to bring a dance-like physical fluidity to the work. The result is some beautiful illuminations of the poetic text. I found that this attempt to physicalise the subtext of the work was particularly effective for Leila’s character. Given that she is such a reserved presence, there was more to learn about her through this process. When Estasy and Cormack work together this technique is especially beautiful. This physical approach was best used when it was at its most removed from plot points. Occasionally it was used to simply indicate action or place and this was when it sometimes proved unnecessary. However, overall, I was delighted by the subtle investigations into the text which the movement highlighted.

Oh wow, I just remembered that I forgot to mention that there is regular A-Ha referencing in this play. A definite positive. Kenneth Moraleda's heatfelt rendition of "Take On Me" was truly a highlight.

 - Simon

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gwen In Purgatory - Belvoir

I am not normally the sort of person to complain about a lack of “Australian stories” on theatre stages. I have a certain amount of belief in the universality of the human race and don’t really care where a play is written or who it is written for as long as it’s good. I’m much more critical of television in this respect, and get really excited whenever home grown shows do well – I was over the moon the other day when I found out that Gruen Nation won the ratings for Wednesday. I think this differing standard is due to the fact that television has a larger audience and stands to affect our culture more dramatically. Anyway, this is getting off topic. The point is that I don’t give plays extra brownie points for being written by Australian playwrights. I think this is perhaps also related to the writing I normally like which is generally more international issue based than local problem based. However, in the case of Gwen In Purgatory, I felt a definite sense of pride that it was written by an Australian for an Australian audience.

If I’m honest with myself, there is one big reason for this – the play is set less than an hour away from my hometown of Goulburn and Goulburn even warrants a mention in the play (even if it is only for our gaol). I’m sure for people who live in New York or London it would be exhausting to get excited about every new film or TV series or play that mentions your home city, but for me, it is downright exhilarating to hear the words “he went to Goulburn” on a stage. Apart from this irrational excitement, it also means that I get most of the local references, which is nice, but far from enough to carry almost two hours of theatre. Fortunately however, Tommy Murphy has written a delightful play with characters who are fascinating and perhaps more to the point, familiar.

Gwen is 90 and has just moved into a new house. Not just any house, but rather one of those new development type places that exist on the edges of towns and look like they were bought from IKEA and then simply put together on site. The sort of place one drives past and thinks “who would ever want to live out here?” To which one answers, “I guess rich retirees who want to get away from the city”. Gwen is certainly not rich, but she is definitely a retiree, perhaps several times over. As we watch this slice of life, we soon discover that her children’s stories are just as important here and are in fact at the centre of the drama that drives the play. What makes it so compelling is that every person who is shown on stage is someone that you’ve met. You’ve met the troubled grandson who’s job has saved him from worse, you’ve met the slimy uncle who’s out to make a buck wherever he can, you’ve met the worried mother who’s trying for a new life. Perhaps the only person one is likely to not have met is the Catholic priest who’s come over from Nigeria, and he is certainly someone worth meeting. This is not to say that they are stereotypes, far from it, but rather that in this case, we are seeing art reflecting life in the positive sense of the term.

It is the characters’ likeability that gives the play its success. With perhaps one exception, I found myself drawn to everyone who appeared, desperate to give them all a fair hearing. I found myself particularly drawn to Peg, whose story of a life dedicated to others I found most touching. Neil Armfield, as always, has brought out the humanity in the play to its fullest, and I can’t really imagine the work in any other director’s hands. It is a compliment to the production that rather than coming out in awe of all the actors, I was simply left with love and affection for the characters. So much these days I spend my time admiring craft rather than content, but there was none of that here, for the stage was too well inhabited.

In the end however, I found myself dissatisfied with the play’s conclusion. It seemed to me that Murphy had created this fruitful situation full of beautifully real and fleshed out characters, only to have it all end rather abruptly. It all went quite fast for me, and I was genuinely waiting for a second act when the lights came up. I knew there was no interval and thus assumed that there was going to be some sort of theatrical break. This is quite an achievement really. I genuinely thought there was at least another 40 minutes of play to go. So to make an hour and 40 feel like only an hour is a tribute to both Armfield and Murphy. But it was also truly disappointing that there was no more material.

However, I’ve come to accept lately that I hate most endings to plays. Good endings are just so hard to find, and especially in a slice of life style play such as this, it is always hard to find the point where that slice finishes. So I guess that’s my only real criticism… I wanted more from the characters. I wanted more story. I wanted a second act that delved even further into this family’s machinations. But for my only desire to be more of the same, I guess that’s a fairly laudable achievement.

- Simon

Monday, August 16, 2010

Woyzeck - B Sharp

I’m not going to lie. I feel a certain trepidation whenever I am told that a show will incorporate dance. It’s not that I don’t like dance, quite the opposite, some of my favourite theatrical moments have involved dance, (the friends who were unfortunate enough to see The Border Project’s “Highway Rock ‘n’ Roll Disaster” with me will never forget my visceral, joyous reaction to that show) it’s just that sometimes, I find that dance can be used very badly in theatre. I think it’s because of how out of place it can often seem, or tacked on, or that perhaps the best dancers in the world are not always the best actors. It may also be because I just don’t get dance and it never really seems to do for me what they director wanted it to do. At its worst it can completely take me out of the play, and even sometimes at its best it simply leaves me with the feeling one gets when watching someone play guitar really fast (Man I wish I could do that!). So I was a little bit worried about seeing Woyzeck, and as it begun with a series of dances in the Belvoir foyer, it took a short time for that fear to dissipate.

It didn’t take me long to realise that this would be the sort of play I would love to love. It does some interesting things (certainly the first show in my four year history at B Sharp that started in the foyer) has some great performances and is based around a great text which is far from treated with reverence. It’s the sort of contemporary investigation of a text that can be truly rewarding when done well. Unfortunately this one only makes it halfway. In her director’s note, Netta Yashctin says that “without forcing a concept onto the work, the audience are free to make up their own view of Woyzeck’s journey.” What this translates to is a complicated web of cultural references and theatrical techniques that often feels in need of a through line or clearer directorial vision. Instead, I was left feeling off-put as an audience member for pretty much the entire time, as each new scene came out of nowhere.

A problem I often find with work like this that when so many different techniques and references are used, with each new scene I am waiting for the trick rather than investing in the scene. Between Katy Perry, the Spice Girls and professional wrestling, to name a few there’s quite a bit of pop culture implanted into this show. Thus, with each new scene often feeling incredibly separate from those around it, I often found myself thinking “what’s the trick with this scene? Will it be a Venga boys dance number? I would really like a Venga Boys dance number” rather than worrying about the characters in the scene, or even the theatrical language. (For the record, there is no Venga Boys dance number).

However, this feeling of being on the backseat the whole time is perhaps Yashctin’s way of dealing with the presence of war in the play. This is another thing she mentions in her programme note as key to the work, yet I feel the production moved away from the physical and mental realities of war. I guess in an attempt to use a more theatrical language of movement and gesture, the harsh reality of war was softened. Instead perhaps, the feeling of unease that I felt throughout the play was the desired effect, the lingering presence of war keeping me on the back foot.

There is only one truly unifying force in this play, and that is Michael Pigott’s performance in the leading role. Woyzeck’s journey into mental decay is a hard one for any actor to take on, but Pigott does so with gusto, finding a perfect rhythm for the character’s decaying body. But more than anything else, it is his honesty in the role that really wins you over. It would be easy for Woyzeck’s metaphysical monologues to fall in posturing and falsity, but one never doubts Pigott as he negotiates the twisting and turning of Woyzeck’s existential arguments. It is Pigott’s consistency that one can hold onto throughout the show as it bounces from scene to scene.

Now I worry that this all sounds a bit negative when in fact I genuinely enjoyed the show. I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet, but there are great live musicians and for all my fears, dance was used really well. I was always sure that the next scene was going to be the one that would draw me in and leave me raving. But sadly it never quite made it there. Instead it is a production that is worth seeing for the performances, for the exciting approach to a classic text, for the opportunity to see a work that is likely to never be produced again on such a stage for a long time, but which failed to leave me in awe.


P.S. We don’t discuss this often on here, but this show has a great marketing image. This is an underrated achievement. I hate most marketing images. Perhaps not most, but certainly a lot. Thought it was worth a mention - Well done to whichever person in charge of marketing was responsible.