Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, May 23rd [May 23]

It’s been another excellent fortnight in the theatre for me, I’m very happy to report.

Last week I went to see ‘Nixon in China’, an opera written by the American composer John Adams in 1987, and produced in this instance by the Victorian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Now you might well be wondering – how do you make an opera out of a US President’s official visit to communist China – where’s the theatre in that?

In fact lots of operas have centred on some kind of political drama, either factual or fictional (I can think of several operas by Handel and Verdi, for example). Perhaps it’s simply that we’re not used to those operatic dramas being based on events that have taken place within living memory. The drama often comes from the larger-than-life characters at the centre of these stories, and also from the resonant historical significance of the events.

This is only the second time Adams’ opera has been performed in Australia. The first was at the Adelaide Festival in 1992 and although I didn’t see it, I heard rave reports about how good it was. It’s taken 21 years for a new production to be staged here and I’m very glad I got to see it this time.
The story is quite simple and is based on the known facts: in 1972 US President Richard Nixon and his wife made the first ever US Presidential visit to communist China, an event that signaled a huge change in relations between the two superpowers and the opening up of dialogue after a quarter century of frostiness.

The opera opens with President Nixon (baritone Barry Ryan) and his wife Pat (soprano Tiffany Speight) arriving on the air force plane, accompanied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and being greeted by Chou En Lai, Mao Tse Tung’s loyal lieutenant. Soon we meet Mao, an ailing but still charismatic figure whose every word is noted down by a trio of female secretaries. And eventually we meet the formidable Madame Mao (Eva Jinhee Kong), the instigator of the infamous cultural revolution in China.

The drama comes from the power play between the two men, both trying to ‘keep it nice’ but also to assert their status and demonstrate that their political worldview is the correct one. It also comes from a series of dream-like scenes when, for example, Nixon slips into moments of fear and paranoia about the forces gathering against him back home.

One of the best things about this opera, and about this production in particular, is the role of the chorus. In many scenes there are ranks of Chinese people wearing their uniform Chairman Mao suits, singing propagandistic lines based on Mao’s own words – and in this instance, singing with astonishing precision, perfectly reflecting the kind of control that the communist regime had (or wanted to have) over the Chinese comrades back then.

A lot of the the music is in this opera very difficult to sing. There are a endless repetitive arpeggios with minor variations and some of the arias are insanely virtuosic including one by Madame Mao about the Little Red Book. (It’s worth checking it out on YouTube, it will make your hair stand on end.) Eva Jinhee Kong was absolutely note perfect the night I attended. But all the principals were strong. Barry Ryan as Nixon was a great combination of bluff, bluster and vulnerability.

The set and lighting design is spectacular (Richard Roberts and Matt Scott) with liberal use of the communist colour red, of course (excuse the pun); startling washes of red and orange light, long red curtains, contrasting with the grey of the uniforms worn by the chorus of citizens.

This production has been directed by Roger Hodgman, the former Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, and he has chosen not to make the obvious choices in directing. Hodgman has given the production a slightly dream-like quality rather than trying to be like a political documentary, and that works particularly well in the last section of the opera where the characters are all lost in their own worlds, wondering and worrying about the future.

I can highly recommend this production and with only one night left to see it, you’d have to go tonight. ‘Nixon in China’ is on at the Arts Centre.

And for something completely different, I saw a brand new Australian play this week at 45 Downstairs. It is called ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’ and has been written by Jane Miller who has been writing plays for about eight years now. She has won several awards already including a development award which allowed her to keep working on this play.

The opening lines of this show totally sucked me in: a young woman called Maggie walks on stage and says to the audience, ‘None of this is my fault, I wasn’t even there.’ Immediately you need to know – what wasn’t her fault? And actually, was it? Gradually the thing that ‘wasn’t her fault’ is revealed during the course of the play.

Maggie (Emily Goddard) is a young woman living in an Australian country town but dreaming of going to Graceland in Memphis, Tenessee. Maggie is not very happily married, she has an unhealthy obsession with the movies of Elvis Presley, and she’s having a fling with a local lad called Jake (Glenn van Oosterom) who everyone else in the town thinks has a few roos loose in the top paddock. Jake is not very worldly and you just know it’s going to get him into terrible trouble.

This is primarily a comedy (or perhaps, in the end, a tragi-comedy) and there are certainly plenty of laughs in it. Miller offers us tight, nutty scripting and great characterization. Maggie’s Mum Glenda (Elizabeth McColl), for example, is a woman who is constantly complaining about her lot in life but she has such a dry wit that you have to laugh with her, not at her, whenever she complains.

The language of the dialogue captures something essential about life in this Australian country town, where the local chemist turns out to be Maggie’s hitherto invisible father, and a resident tough guy called Richard can procure guns for people at the drop of a hat. This is a clue to the drama that unfolds, but I don’t want to give it away. Let’s just say that it’s one of the funniest depictions of a hostage scene that I’ve ever come across.

At times this play is reminiscent of some of the Working Dog screenplays – The Castle, The Dish, for example – peopled with quirky Aussie battler types who you can’t help falling a little bit in love with.

All the cast members are highly skilled comic actors but not clownish, if you know what I mean. These performers also give us quite subtle moments of tragedy and vulnerability when it’s required. And there is very tight, detailed direction from Beng Oh, who has been working on the development of this play with playwright Jane Miller for several years now.

For a thoroughly enjoyable night of home-grown comedy-drama, go see ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’ at 45 Downstairs (on until June 2nd).

And finally, on Tuesday night I went to the opening of ‘One Man Two Guvnors’, a Melbourne Theatre Company/Arts Centre co-production of a British play by Richard Bean. The play is an adaptation of a work by Carlo Goldoni called ‘The Servant of Two Masters’, written in 1743.

Goldoni wrote a staggering 260 plays during his lifetime, including 16 plays for one season alone, so no wonder Richard Bean thought he might be onto something good when he decided to update this play to Brighton, England in the early 1960’s.

One of the lovely things about this show is the live music. When you first take your seat there is already a live skiffle band playing on stage, complete with washboard, upright bass and guitars, played by a quartet of musicians who look like they’re about 14 years old (or maybe it’s just those clean-cut 1960’s hairstyles – think early Beatles). The band comes and goes in between acts and set changes throughout the show, playing in a slightly different musical style each time.

The plot – briefly: our hero Francis, a not-very-bright Welshman, finds himself in Brighton in 1963 working for two different bosses. One is a former boarding school boy (now a ruling class prat) called Stanley Stubbers. The other is a woman called Rachel who is disguised as a bloke. In fact she is pretending to her own twin brother, who was in fact recently murdered by her lover, who is in fact the other guvnor, Stanley Stubbers (are you still with me?)

There are layers of complex plot twists here. Rachel’s dead brother was meant to be marrying a not-very-bright lass called Pauline Clench, but Pauline wants to marry a bloke called Alan Dangle (don’t you love the names? Clench, Dangle, Stubbers – they almost sound like Dickens characters).

The comedy is mostly based on poor Francis juggling these two different bosses without them finding out about each other, and without him realising that one is a woman or that they are lovers. There are plenty of hilarious running jokes throughout the show; our hero Francis is desperately hungry and always trying to find (or steal) himself some food; there’s an aged waiter who’s always about to spill or drop everything he touches; and lots of physical clowning especially, from Olwain Arthur who plays Francis – a really astonishing comic actor, in quite an old-fashioned way.

There are elements of old style English music hall in this show, as well as farce, and lots of classic stereotypes with the characterisation, like the Slow Welshman and the Slippery Lawyer who’s always quoting Latin. There’s even some audience participation so if you’re sitting anywhere near the front – beware! You may end up on the stage.

This show comes from the National Theatre of Great Britain, the same mob who’ve been filming some of their best productions and screening them at places like the Nova and Palace cinemas in Melbourne. They also produced ‘War Horse’ which was recently seen here at the Arts Centre, and like War Horse, this show was a huge hit over in England, hence the decision to bring it out to Melbourne. I have to say I did find myself wondering why the MTC would be involved in this as a co-production. It would have worked perfectly well as a commercial theatre production, I suspect.

But it is certainly a very enjoyable night’s theatre. There is nothing ground-breaking here, but lots and lots of laughs.

‘One Man Two Guvnors’ is on at the Arts Centre until June 22nd