Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, March 2013 [March 29]

Things have started happening in threes. Last month I reviewed three plays in which the lead female character was struggling with memory loss. This time I‘ve been to see three shows that have swimming pools as part of their set. In fact the only show I’ve seen recently without a swimming pool is the latest Shakespeare offering from the Bell Shakespeare company – Henry IV – and this production is simply brilliant.

The plot (briefly): young Prince Hal is a lay-about and a prankster who has been hanging around with a dodgy overweight old character called Falstaff who is leading him astray. Falstaff is a compulsive liar but charming in a sleazy way and he is something of a surrogate father figure for young Hal whose dad, the King, is all caught up with civil wars and being a hard man. It’s a fraught relationship between father and son – every interaction they have is filled with mutual disappointment. So the play is in part about the Prince Hal reluctantly coming to terms with his future as a leader of the nation; aka growing up.

Co-director (with Damien Ryan) John Bell plays Falstaff with fake fat stuffed down his shirt and blackened teeth and long lank scraggly hair. Bell inhabits this character with intense physicality – his Falstaff reminded me of the Australian actor Bob Hornery, actually. As well as being a play about the fraught relationships between fathers and sons, Henry IV is also a play about old men coming to terms with the loss of their youth and power and Bell’s Falstaff conveys this with great poignancy.

By the look of the set and costumes Bell and Ryan have ‘updated’ Henry IV to the ‘80s. The back of the set is made of dozens of stacked milk crates and young Hal is living in what looks like a converted warehouse complete with rundown couches and a drum kit and guitar in the corner. Stephen Curtis is the set designer and although I’m sometimes a bit dubious about attempts to set Shakespeare plays in very specific modern times (and I’ve been critical of some Bell Shakespeare productions in the past for this very reason) in this instance it works. There are lots of subtle references to what England was like in the 80’s, including the rise of the ‘lager lout’ and an ugly kind of nationalism, combined with great nostalgia for England’s glorious past. The 80’s setting also allows for some humorous touches involving English coppers and their batons, and a couple of women who the English would no doubt call ‘slappers’.

It’s a uniformly strong cast. Matthew Moore is wonderful as Prince Hal – all spiky hair and boyish vulnerability – but there are a number of supporting cast members who play four or five different characters and you just have to marvel at their virtuoso transformations.

If you have a chance over Easter, do go and see this production. It’s a surprisingly accessible, entertaining and moving psychological drama. ‘Henry IV’ is on at the Arts Centre until March 30th.

So – to the swimming pool shows!

The first is a play called ‘Penelope’ by contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It’s a Red Stitch Theatre production being performed at Theatreworks in St Kilda, and the set is literally the inside of a huge tiled in-ground swimming pool. There is no water in it, but there is quite a lot of blood. And inside this swimming pool, surrounded by piles of outdoor furniture, a bar table loaded with grog, and a giant barbecue, are four men – four suitors of the lovely Penelope. For those who remember their classics, Penelope is the longsuffering wife of Ulysses. She’s been waiting a couple of decades for her husband to get back from his endless odyssey and meanwhile the men have been lining up to woo her. The four men in the pool are her last surviving suitors and it’s a life or death situation – if Penelope doesn’t accept one of them before Ulysses gets back, they’re all dead men.

This is a very dark play. Do you remember ‘Lord of the Flies’, the William Golding novel about the five boys stuck on an island who try to govern themselves but who turn quite nasty? At times this play seems to be a grown-up version of that scenario. The men are all desperate and all jostling for advantage in some way. One in particular, Quinn, is a vicious bully who might just be responsible for the river of blood that trails across the set. Then there’s the meek one, Burns, who is the target of the worst bullying but who seems to have the most humanity left in him.

This play also reminded me at times of the US TV show ‘Breaking Bad’ – a story which asks – just how bad can humans be, once they allow their moral compass to start wavering? In contrast to the bad stuff happening between the men, though, there is a cheery musical backdrop of lounge music including Tijuana Brass hits, which only adds to your disquiet as you stare at that trail of blood.

This is a hard play to watch. At times nothing much is happening. The men are just arguing inanely about the taste of barbecued sausages or about who should make the next speech into the microphone to try and win over Penelope. She only appears twice, through a distant window, and she never speaks, so she is more of a symbolic figure than a real woman, something that everyone is desperate to have, something they are crawling over each other to win, but will it be worth it in the end? That’s the question you end up asking yourself.

Towards the end of this play there’s a brief, sudden, hilarious change of mode when the men in the pool present a theatre show for Penelope. It’s a play-within-a-play, much like the ones Shakespeare loved to write into his plays, called ‘Love in Six Acts’. The four men present a series of mimed performances of classic love scenes from famous texts such as ‘The Titanic’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It comes as a great relief to have a laugh for a moment, but there is a twist at the end which brings you right back down to earth.

The cast for this production is not entirely even. The stand-out performer for me was James Wardlaw who plays Fitz, a bookworm and an accidental poet. About half way through the play he makes a speech to Penelope which, on the night i saw it, was so exquisitely delivered that you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.

I found this play intellectually stimulating but hard to watch and hard to enjoy. ‘Penelope’, a Red Stitch production at Theatreworks, is on until April 13th.

The next theatrical swimming pool I saw was in the set of ‘Other Desert Cities’, an MTC production at the Sumner theatre at Southbank. The play is written by American playwright Jon Robin Baitz who was also was the writer and creator of the US TV series ‘Brothers and Sisters’. I haven’t watched the series yet but I have heard rave reports about it.

This is the third MTC play I’ve seen this year since Brett Sheehy took over and he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. He has employed a bunch of young directors – including Sam Strong, who directed this play – and there is a real freshness to these MTC productions this year.

‘Other Desert Cities’ is set in Palm Springs in the home of retired Republican Senator Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly. There is a lovely pool in their back yard (with water in it this time) around which this not so lovely family loves to argue. And the main thing they’re arguing about during the course of the play is the latest book by their daughter Brooke. She is a writer who had great success with her first book but who has struggled since then to produce another. What she has finally produced is a memoir about their family, and in particular about the death of her beloved elder brother. So now all the skeletons in the family closet are threatening to jump out and ruin the Wyeth family’s well-defended public reputation.

The plot of this play is loosely based on several real-life stories, including Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti’s memoir and also the true story of Diana Oughton, an American politician’s daughter who was a member of an underground revolutionary group and who died in an explosion when she was holding a pipe-bomb.

This is a play in the long tradition of excellent American family dramas (think Tennesee Williams and Eugene O’Neill) about a group of people feuding over who has the right to tell their family’s story. Whose version of their family life is the true version? It touches on a whole lot of very interesting questions about the ethics of memoir-writing. At times it’s like watching a war happening in slow motion. There are shifting alliances between family members, attempts at peace and reconciliation, and these characters use language like the American military uses drones – as deadly weapons. It’s exhilarating to watch but also devastating – a portrait of a group of family members who, deep down, desperately love each other but who are so consumed by the griefs of the past, they just can’t forgive each other.

The acting is wonderful. Robin Nevin plays Polly Wyeth, a real tough nut who at one point says ‘families get terrorized by their weakest member’. She has been trying to bully weakness out of her children for decades. John Gaden plays Lyman Wyeth in a beautiful, understated performance of a nice guy trying to broker peace between his wife and children. Sacha Horler plays the daughter Brooke as a wounded eternal child, Ian Meadows is the peace-making youngest son Trip Wyeth, and Sue Jones is Polly’s vengeful alcoholic sister Silda. And there is a brilliant twist at the end of this play that shifts everything. I can highly recommend this production. ‘Other Desert Cities’ is on at MTC’s Sumner theatre at Southbank until April 17th.

Finally – a bit of a cheat with the ‘swimming pool in the set’ thing – I’ve been to see ‘I, Animal’, an immersive ‘show’ at the Melbourne Zoo (where there are lots of pools for the animals to take a dip in). This show has been going all summer and has just been extended until late May. I had heard good reports about it so I was quite excited about going.

It is billed as ‘a world-first interactive experience – part multi-media tour, part theatrical experience, part animal encounter – that has been designed for adults only at Melbourne Zoo’. I know that the Zoo was specifically trying to draw in a younger adult demographic with this show – people in their 20’s and 30’s who maybe haven’t been back to the Zoo in many years and wouldn’t otherwise go, unless they had children to take along.

I have to say I DIDN’T love ‘I, Animal’. It’s going to be a little hard to talk about it without giving too much away – and the Zoo people emphasise the element of surprise with this event – but I felt way outside the target demographic and in the end I decided I would rather have just had a visit to the zoo.

You set off as part of a small group inside the Zoo around dusk, when all the other visitors have gone home, and you carry around with you a little digital device a bit like an iphone, called a Zoe (Zoo, Zoe, get it?) and the voice coming from the Zoe tells you what to do and where to go. First problem: the Zoe voice sounds like one of those annoying recorded voices that ‘talk’ to you when you’re trying to get through to your hopeless phone service provider or you urgently need to buy a Citylink pass – that fake warm-and-caring robot voice.

I managed to talk myself out of that particular irritation but then the Zoe kept trying to make me interact with it when I would much rather have been looking at the amazing animals. It demanded that you answer very personal questions about your family history and emotional life and that you draw pictures on it and watch video footage (only some of which is interesting) and at one point it plays a song which is like something you might hear on the children’s TV show ‘Playschool’. Later it feeds images and information back to you, based on the questions you answered earlier, and for some people this could be quite inappropriate and even upsetting. Again, it’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but the interactive narrative is fraught with problems and makes a lot of assumptions about what the participants are like and often it will be getting that very very wrong.

On the upside I got to see a lot of interesting primates, including the little kapuchin monkeys and the big gorillas, and they were fascinating to watch. It was nice to be there at dusk with the sky fading and the birds tweeting, although I got bitten by mozzies so if you do go, don’t forget the Aerogard.

Technological interactivity can sometimes seem like a bit of a gimmick and that’s how it felt to me with this show. ‘I, Animal’ is on at the Melbourne Zoo and has been extended until May 26th

I also want to mention two free literary events i’m hosting in April:

I will be ‘In Conversation’ with Christos Tsiolkas, the author of ‘The Slap’, talking about his forthcoming new novel ‘Barracuda’ at the State Library on Thursday April 11th. See the State Library of Victoria website for bookings.

I will also be hosting a panel discussion about the inaugural Stella Award and about Australian women’s writing on Thursday 18th April. This one is at the Wheeler Centre – see their website for bookings

And finally, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival opened this week and runs till April 21st. Last night I saw Andrew Marlton’s show ‘Cartoobs and other Typos’ at the Victoria Hotel. Andrew is FirstDogontheMoon, the cartoonist for Crikey.com, and it’s a hilarious show. I’ll be doing a proper review in the next Culture Club but go and see it if you can.

I’m off to the Byron Bay Blues Festival now.

Have a great Easter.