Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club review, 774 ABC Melbourne, August 23rd [August 24]

Last week i went to see ‘His Girl Friday’, a play I think Drive presenter Raf Epstein would really enjoy, because it’s all about investigative newspaper journalists and what drives them to keep digging around in the dirt for the story.

This is an MTC production of a play that is an adaptation of another play and also of a film. So there’s a slightly complicated history here but I’m sure a few of you will remember the 1940 screwball comedy movie of the same name starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. This film was itself based on a play called ‘The Front Page’ and about ten years ago an American playwright called John Guare was commissioned to create a third work based on both of those – which was also also called ‘His Girl Friday’. And that’s the version the MTC have produced.

The plot is complicated too. The main characters are a formerly married couple, a pair of journalists called Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson (played by Philip Quast and Pamela Rabe) who used to be a crack team in the Chicago newspaper game. But the marriage has fallen apart and Hildy has left the paper they both worked for and found herself a nice mummy’s boy to marry.

The problem is, there’s just One Last Big Story that she can’t resist getting embroiled in. It’s about a Jewish refugee who is on trial for murder and who may hang for it – which by the look of it would be a travesty of justice – and the trial is also part of a complicated tale of political corruption that Walter and Hildy want to unravel.

There’s a cast of thousands in this play – sixteen actors playing about 20 different characters – and amongst them are some of this town’s best comic actors, including Peter Houghton, Tyler Coppin, David Woods and Deirdre Rubinstein. They all look like they’re having a lot of fun with the snappy one-liners, the jigsaw puzzle plot and the period set – an old-style press room beside the court where the trial’s taking place – where everyone’s always jumping on the old 1930’s-style telephones to phone in the headlines to their waiting editors.

The two lead actors, Pamela Rabe and Philip Quast, are consummate, charismatic performers. Rabe nearly steals the show, but Quast’s not far behind her. Rabe plays Hildy as gawky and girly, but also as smart and strong and up against it in this very male world of the court-reporters. On other words, quite believable.

So it’s a fun production with plenty of laughs and there are some dark and still pertinent messages in there about the way the media operates at its worst: politically compliant, with lazy journalists who are willing to sacrifice people’s lives and reputations for the sake of a dramatic story. even if it’s completely untrue. Sound familiar?

My only quibble is with the direction by Aidan Fennessy. This screwball comedy style requires perfect pitch in terms of how the energy flies around the stage. I thought in the second half it started at too high a pitch and consequently had nowhere to go. At times, the characters seemed on the verge of hysteria, in a way that was quite wearying for the audience. I reckon ‘more’ could be ‘less’ here. The characters are meant to be caricatures but that doesn’t mean they have to be totally cartoonish.

His Girl Friday’ is on at the Arts Centre until September 15th

‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show/What Next?’ was a double bill of one-act operas produced by Victorian Opera and performed recently at the Recital Centre. I’d have to say I enjoyed these works more for their curiosity value than necessarily for their musical pleasures.

Most people would have heard of ‘Don Quixote’, the 17th century novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes about the nutty knight who travels around the Spanish countryside. It was adapted into a musical called ‘Man of La Mancha’ first performed in Melbourne back in the early 70’s (my mother played in the orchestra pit for that show!)

But before ‘Man of La Mancha’ there had been several opera adaptations including ‘Don Quichotte by French composer Massenet and ‘Don Quixote’ by an Austrian composer called Kienzl. And here is another opera adaptation of at least part of the Don Quixote story, called ‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’. This one-act opera was composed in the early 1920’s by Spaniard Manuel de Falla and it’s a show within a show. We’re introduced to a puppetry troupe who are putting on a shadow puppet show called ‘The Rescue of Melisandra’. Melisandra is the heroine of the story who has been kidnapped by the evil Moors.

This is apparently the first time this opera has been performed in Australia, and to be honest it seems kind of slight, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t been on before. The main interest comes from the shadow puppetry, directed by Nancy Black, using stick figures and masked actors working behind big brown pieces of canvas. These are hung on what look like washing lines with lights projected behind them. But even the cute puppets weren’t enough to fully engage me here.

The second opera in the double bill is more contemporary. ‘What Next?’ was written in 1998 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Elliott Carter when he was 90 years old! We usually expect people to be in a state of some confusion by that age, but in this instance it is the characters who are confused. There is a group of people on stage who don’t know exactly who they are or what has happened to them. Although we know something terrible must have occurred on the way to a wedding, we never find out exactly what. All the characters are having trouble finishing their thoughts and sentences.

This work is incredibly fragmented, both musically and narrative-wise. The performers have quite challenging contemporary music to sing with few clear melodies, so bravo to the cast who did a brilliant job with a difficult score. Soprano Jessica Aszodi in particular gave an energetic performance as the bride and her creamy voice sounded absolutely effortless. But once was enough for me – I probably wouldn’t feel the need to see that opera again.

Victorian Opera’s double bill of ‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’ and ‘What Next?’ was on at the Recital Centre until August 22nd.

A quick note to let you know that most of the major theatre and opera companies in Melbourne are launching their 2013 seasons this month. I attended the MTC launch last night at Hamer Hall, hosted by new Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, and a couple of highlights should be a new production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ starring David Wenham, and
New York playwright Sharr White’s new play ‘The Other Place’ starring Catherine McClements.

Opera Australia’s first Melbourne season for 2013 will feature a new version of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo In Maschero’ produced by cutting edge Spanish theatre company La Fura Dels Baus (google their XXX show to see just how edgy they are), and of course Neil Armfield’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The Malthouse 2013 program launch is on September 10th and Victorian Opera’s launch is next week – their first program with new Artistic Richard Mills who replaces founding AD Richard Gill. So get your 2013 diaries out and get ready to book some tickets!