Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews 774 ABC Melbourne January 31st [February 1]

This week I returned to the Culture Club on 774 ABC Melbourne for the first time for 2013 and it was great to have three excellent theatrical experiences to report on. In the last few weeks I’ve been to see a couple of international spectaculars and a local independent production of a rarely seen play by Tennessee Williams.

1) ‘War Horse’ opened at the Arts Centre a month ago now so many of you may have seen it already. Or you may have seen Steven Spielberg’s movie version, which by all accounts was not so brilliant. The original stage version is a puppetry show based on a book written in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo. It is about a farm boy named Albert and his horse Joey who get caught up in World War One. Calling it just ‘a puppetry show’, though, doesn’t do justice to this wonderful production.

The life-sized puppet horses, created by South African’s famous Handspring Puppet Company, are operated by two or three or sometimes even four people and very soon after the show begins you forget that these are big machines made out of wood and metal. The suspension of disbelief kicks in and you totally believe they are horses – and not just horses, but horses who you relate to as you might relate to a human – anthropomorphized horses, with strong individual personalities, senses of humour, likes and dislikes. It’s an astonishing feat of animation.

The story is told in quite a sentimental way and the characters are almost caricatures – the Greedy Uncle, the Drunken Gambling Father, the Long-Suffering Mother, the Lonely Son – but it is beautifully acted and in the end you just go along with the sentimentality. And in the background to the stories of these individual characters is the huge, terrible story of a war which is ugly and stupid and in which people who could very well have been friends in peace time are instead trying to kill each other. I found it a very emotional experience watching the daily nightmare of life in the trenches of France brought to life on the stage.

There is also a lot of lovely music in this show composed by John Tams and Adrian Sutton, including a lot of harmony singing to give us some respite from the drama of what’s happening to Albert and his poor horse Joey. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but it’s both a love story between a boy and his horse and a coming of age story for the fearful boy.

There is a huge cast – 21 actors and another 12 people maninuplating the puppets – and the stagecraft is simply brilliant. You will rarely see such skill in creating vivid realistic dramatic scenes using basically just lights and props and puppets. So there are many good reasons why this show has been such a success since it first premiered in London back in 2007 with the National Theatre of Great Britain. By all accounts its success has enabled that company to put on a lot of other more risky ventures – a bit like the way the publishers of the Harry Potter books were able to afford to publish less profitable books because of the rivers of gold that came from J K Rowling’s efforts.

The night I saw ‘War Horse’ it received a standing ovation and my mother reckoned it was possibly the best piece of theatre she’d ever seen – high praise indeed. ‘War Horse’ is on at Arts Centre till March 10th after which it will travel to Sydney and Brisbane.

2) ‘Ovo’ is the latest circus spectacular from Canadian company Cirque de Soleil, under the Big Top at Melbourne’s Docklands till March 24.

I have to confess that I went to this show not expecting to love it. Judging by my previous experience of seeing Cirque de Soleil material, it wasn’t an aesthetic that appealed to my tastes. I found it a bit too slick, a bit too shiny, and a bit too impersonal. Yes it’s a hugely successful cultural export product with Cirque de Soleil shows currently touring all over Europe, the USA, Canada, Brazil, South Africa. In fact there may not be a continent on the planet in which a Cirque de Soleil production is currently being performed.

Most of their shows have these slightly mysterious and exotic-sounding one word titles like Kooza, Dralion, Corteo, Alegria and Amaluna – it’s a classic branding technique. They employ about five thousand people around the world (although they are reportedly just about to cut nearly 10% of their workforce, mostly from their headquarters in Canada) and they sell huge amounts of merchandise with every show. So it’s culturally much closer to Disneyland than to Circus Oz.

This new show Ovo is centred around a giant egg – the ‘ovo’ – which at the beginning of proceedings is lost by a clown character called the Foreigner. Meanwhile he is falling in love with another clown character, Ladybug, and he spends most of the show pursuing Ladybug and trying to find his egg. These clown antics provide fun, loose narratives to hang the acrobatics on.

As expected, I didn’t love the aesthetics. Most of the acts were accompanied by a kind of bland world music ‘lite’, and with the performers dressed in brightly- coloured insect-themed costumes it was all very shiny and slick and very culturally non specific. When you compare it to a Circus Oz show, what works best love about the local product is the way the Australian character comes through in each production, whereas I suspect Cirque de Soleil is deliberately blurring and blanding cultural boundaries so their product can appeal to any audience anywhere on the globe.

Having said that, I would be prepared to go down on my hands and knees and sing a hymn of praise to the Cirque de Soleil performers and their astonishing physical feats.These people can do stuff you would never imagine the human body can do, defying gravity, defying fear, defying reason!

There are so many different and amazing acts it’s hard to know which ones to mention. Total respect to the group of women (the ‘ants’) who lay on their backs and held up a bunch of other women on the balls of their feet while those women juggled rolling cylinders in the air. Hallelujah for the many different flying acts, for the contortionists, the slack wire walker and my personal favourit, the trampoline acts.

The set is amazing – giant flowers open and close, complex trapeze gear is set up and pulled down with lightning speed. So I reckon most people will love ‘Ovo’ if they can afford to see it (tickets are not cheap, starting from around $75 all the way up to $275 I believe, though I had trouble getting through to ticket bookings site yesterday so you need to check for yourself).‘Ovo’ from Cirque de Soleil is on under the Big Top at Docklands till March 24.

3) ‘Vieux Carre’ (pron. voo carray) is a play by American playwright Tennessee Williams produced by Itch Productions and on at 45 Downstairs till Feb 3rd as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival

Most people will know of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh and more recently turned into an opera that we saw performed in Melbourne a couple of years ago. ‘Streetcar’ is set in a community of genteel poverty in New Orleans and this later Williams play treads similar territory. It is also set in the French quarter of New Orleans, in a rundown boarding house full of lost, tragic characters. Apparently ‘Vieux Carre’ is a highly autobiographical play which Williams started writing when he first went to live in New Orleans in the late 1930’s but didn’t finish until forty years later in mid 1970’s. This is probably in part because the main character and narrator the Writer (presumably the Tennessee Williams character) is overtly gay (as are several other characters) and no doubt it was unacceptable to write so openly about homosexuality back in the 1930’s.

The play has always had a mixed reception, with some critics hating it, others loving it, and I have to say that while I think there are problems with the text, particularly toward the end, I was totally caught up in the story and the performances in this new production. The boarding house in Vieux Carre is full of outsiders, including two elderly genteel ladies who are living in poverty – virtually starving to death – and a New York society girl who we discover late in the piece has a very tragic reason for being stuck in this house with her drug-addicted violent lover (don’t want to give it away). There is also a tubercular gay artist who refuses to accept that he’s dying and a crazy landlady who sometimes believes that our hero, the young writer, is her long lost son.

Tennessee Williams had such an incredible ear for dialogue – a piercing mix of comedy and tragedy, of nuttiness and profound poetry – so I just loved listening to the language in this production, performed with more than passable southern American accents (credit to the vocal coaches Les Cartwright and Jarrod Benson). You really came to care about the characters and how they could possibly survive, given all that had been taken from them or how shunned they were by the mainstream of society. And as with ‘Streetcar’, there is a constant undertow of sexual desire and repression throughout the narrative.

The play involves 14 characters played by 10 actors and it is a very strong and even cast. Perhaps the women’s acting stood out slightly more than the men’s performances, especially Kelly Nash who plays the landlady Mrs Wire with great poignancy and Samantha Murray who plays Jane Sparks, the fragile New Yorker lost in New Orleans. There is excellent direction by Alice Bishop, who I noticed in the program notes also did the costume design and co-produced the show. There is also great live music from blues musician Bob McGowan on guitar, sound designer and musician Nat Grant and from one of the actors who double on keyboards, Josh Blau.

And the choice of 45 Downstairs for this production was inspired. There is often a slightly claustrophobic feeling in this basement space which matched the atmosphere of the boarding house. Alexandra Hiller’s ingenious set design used a very small space to create a rambling structure with an upstairs and downstairs, three different bedrooms, a kitchen and porch, and even a basement – just magic.

This is the first show I’ve seen by Itch Productions, established in 2008, and I will definitely be interested to see what they do next. ‘Vieux Carre’ is at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane till Feb 3rd in the Midsumma Festival.