Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, May 9th [May 10]

It has been six weeks since our last Culture Club session on 774 ABC Melbourne so I’ve seen a lot of shows that I didn’t get a chance to review on air yesterday, but here’s the gen on just a few of them.

‘No Child’, a one-woman show at Theatreworks in St Kilda, is having a return season. It was here for the Melbourne Festival last year and the season was a total sell-out, so Theatreworks has brought it back for another run. It is on the VCE syllabus this year so there will be lots of school students watching it.

In ‘No Child’ the American writer and actor Nilaja Sun not only plays herself but she also plays 15 other characters in the space of about an hour and half, and it’s one of the best solo performances I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

Nilaja tells the story of going to work with a bunch of very difficult students at a New York public high school, mostly African American and Latino kids from incredibly poor families, who have driven away all their other teachers. Nilaja’s job is to get them to learn and perform a play in six weeks time, a play called ‘Our Country’s Good’ about convicts in colonial Australia.

In other words, ‘Mission Impossible’. But of course it’s not impossible, just incredibly difficult.

The play is narrated by the character of the elderly school janitor who has been cleaning the corridors and watching these kids come and go for fifty years. So you get a real sense of the history of social injustice that has produced this kind of educational ghetto for the kids.

Nilaja also plays the school principal, three of the teachers who take on this class, and half a dozen of the students, and it’s a real lesson in the craft of acting. She finds small gestures to signal to us within a split second which character she’s playing. There’s a Latino boy who’s always tugging at his shirt, for example, and a frightened Asian teacher who walks with an apologetic shuffle, and for each of these characters Nilaja has found a different voice, and all of those voices have their particular idiosyncrasies.

It’s a classic ‘hero’s journey’ story structure. The main character is assigned her ‘mission impossible’; she tries her hardest; it looks like she’s going to fail; but in the end she overcomes all the hurdles and she triumphs.

It’s not all good news because not all of those students will survive their tough beginnings, but there is enough good news to allow you to walk out of the theatre feeling like there is reason to be hopeful about the world.

I had a brief chat to the actor/writer after the opening night during which she was struggling to remember names, and she told me that that always happens after she’s done a performance. Part of her brain shuts down for a while, probably because that brain has been working SO hard to retain all those different characters and their lines.

If you can get a ticket, go and see it because I’m sure it’s going to sell out again.

‘No Child’ is on at Theatreworks in Acland St. St Kilda till May 26th.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ is a commercial theatre production that has been on at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne for the last month. Many of you will remember the film of this American play starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy (1989). This production has two equally stellar actors in it: Angela Lansbury as Miss Daisy and James Earl Jones as her driver Hoke Coleburn.

Angela Lansbury is possibly best known as the star of ‘Murder She Wrote’, the longest running detective drama series on TV ever, but she has been acting in film, TV and theatre for over fifty years. James Earl Jones was the voice of Darth Vader, no less, but he has also been winning awards for his stage and film performances for fifty years, including roles in many Shakespeare productions.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was written in 1987 by American playwright Alfred Uhry, and it’s ostensibly about the friendship between a wealthy Jewish woman who lives in Atlanta in the American south, and her African American chauffeur. Apparently the Daisy character was drawn from the playwright’s Jewish grandmother. The plot is very much based on the classic ‘odd couple’ premise, but of course it turns out to be about much more than that. It’s a story about race and class, religion and prejudice, and about growing old.

I confess I went along to see this production feeling slightly cynical. It’s my own prejudice – I often assume that commercial theatre productions are going to be less challenging, or less nuanced, or are going to rely more on ‘star power’ or whizz-bang sets than less mainstream productions. But I LOVED this play.

These two actors must both be in their eighties, an age when most of us are struggling to stay out of a nursing home, but they are both at the peak of their acting powers. At the beginning of the play the characters are a couple of decades younger than the actors, and Daisy and Hoke age several decades until they’re older than Lansbury and Jones, and these performances are real studies in the craft of acting. They use subtle changes in the way they walk, or in how heavily they lean on their walking sticks, so to convey the creeping slowness of old age.

There’s quite a history lesson in this play. We witness these characters living through the growth of the civil rights movement, the rise of Martin Luther King and the bombing of the local synagogue (based on an actual event) Above all, though, I think this is a play about compassion. The Hoke Coleburn character has immense empathy for Miss Daisy’s struggle to retain her dignity as she ages, and the final scene, set in a nursing home, is one of the most affecting and memorable things I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

Of course there has to be a car in this play – a whole lot of cars, actually, because Miss Daisy keeps updating them – but you shouldn’t expect a high-tech Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-style vehicle. Instead there’s a very cute pretend car made of a bench, a chair and a portable steering wheel, and really what more do you need? It’s all pretend anyway.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ is on at the Comedy Theatre till May 12th, then it goes on to Adelaide.

‘True Minds’ is the latest work by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and it’s a Melbourne Theatre Company production at the MTC’s Southbank Theatres. This play is very much in the tradition of farce. It’s a romantic comedy which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, with the degree of difficulty facing the main character being ramped up higher and higher.

Joanna Murray-Smith is one of our most successful contemporary Australian playwrights. Her plays have been programmed regularly by state theatre companies, she has had them produced in New York, and she has an established audience for her work, much in the way David Williamson does. Murray-Smith generally writes plays that are concerned with what you might call social and political frictions.

And superficially that’s what ‘True Minds’ is about, too. It revolves around a writer who has produced a best-seller that argues men will only marry women who their mothers approve of – a kind of marital oedipal complex theory. The problem is, the writer Daisy Grayson wants to marry the son of a high-profile and rather fierce right-wing political commentator – a female Andrew Bolt, perhaps – and she needs to pass the mother-in-law test herself if she’s going to get what she wants. There’s a dinner party planned at her place, for Daisy to meet her future mother-in-law for the first time.

So then the layers of difficulty start layering up. Enter Daisy’s ex-boyfriend, a bad boy who’s just come out of rehab and needs somewhere to stay. Then enter Daisy’s father, the left-wing equivalent of the mother-in-law, and the two commentators are fierce political enemies. Then enter Daisy’s mother, a new age hippy who is having an affair with a man about thirty years younger than her. And finally, the fiancé’s flight is delayed so Daisy is having to deal with all of this stuff on her own.

The production has been directed by Peter Houghton, who has directed some fantastic farces in the past. It’s almost his speciality. To be honest, though, I don’t think he’s quite pulled it off with this one, and in part it is because of problems with the text. There is SO much busy, busy stage action going on ALL the time that it becomes quite distracting – quite exhausting, even – to watch. There’s lots of mucking about with food, which is meant to be a running joke, but it becomes slightly tedious. Everything seems to happen at the same high pitch of emotional mania, which leaves you with nowhere go to, and some scenes, such as the one where the mother–in-law somehow ends up lying on top of Daisy’s father, having simulated sex, just go on a bit too long, so the comedy dies.

The other problem is that all the characters are unlikable.I don’t usually subscribe to the theory that we have to like or identify with the characters in a play in order to enjoy it, but these people are all SO annoying – so self-righteous or insensitive or just plain stupid – that, in the end, you want them all to go away.

Plenty of people in the audience were laughing hard the night I saw ‘True Minds’ so I suspect I could be in the minority of MTC-goers with these negative views. Genevieve Morris, who plays Daisy’s hippy mother, is quite funny and the play feels like a TV sit-com, a very popular form of story-telling. And there are plenty of topical issues peppering the dialogue to press your buttons: gay marriage, private vs public education, climate change denial, childcare – you get the drift. But I found it all a bit predictable and a bit over-wrought.

‘True Minds’ is on at MTC Southbank Theatres till June 8th.

Finally, ‘Partenope’ is an Opera Australia production that has just finished its season at the Arts Centre.

Now there are a few things that people often find difficult about opera, especially when they first start going to see it. The first is the plots, which can often be deeply implausible and very confusing. Another is the tradition of ‘pants roles’, where women are playing male roles. Sometimes men are playing male roles but singing with women’s voices (counter-tenors) and sometimes women are playing men who are actually women!

This baroque opera by Handel has all of those things: a confusing and improbable plot, and lots of gender-bending roles, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not performed as often as other Handel operas.

It’s meant to be a serious opera about love and war and romantic betrayal, but the director of this Opera Australia production, Christopher Alden, has taken huge liberties with the original plot and the libretto, and the result is absolutely brilliant and incredibly funny.

The basic plot: Partenope is a powerful woman with three suitors, all trying to win her hand. Enter a fourth suitor, Eurimene, who is actually a woman dressed as a man, and she has come to try to win back her former lover, Arsace, who is one of Partenope’s suitors, and the one who Partenope is actually in love with. (Are you still with me?)

When Partenope rejects another one of her suitors, Emilio, he declares war on her. Emilio is captured, there’s a challenge to a duel, and it all gets very complicated and, frankly, very silly.
But in this production the director has managed to turn it into a very sexy and naughty satirical comedy. He has set it in the 1930’s and drawn very heavily from the artistic movements of the time, so we see huge black and white photographs in the style of Man Ray, surreal Dali-esque touches with the props and costumes, and a series of different sets in a classic art deco style, including a long swooping staircase which the suitors spend a lot of time going and up and down, and sitting chatting and smoking pipes.

Soprano Emma Matthews plays Partenope as a sexually liberated beauty with a crimped bob, and there are some quite graphic but very funny scenes of simulated sex, all while these singers are performing incredibly technically difficult arias and ensembles. The principals are all very strong but one of the stand-out performers is tenor Kanen Breen who plays the rejected suitor Emilio. Kanen Breen is not only a brilliant comic actor but he’s also a former dancer and in the last act he does a walloping great big aria whilst doing a complicated yoga routine, including the splits, backwards rolls, and virtually standing on his head. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen on the opera stage. There is another scene where Emilio has been locked in a toilet and is trying to get out, and Kanen Breen sings an aria with his head poking out from a small window above the dunny door. Hilarious.

The libretto is in English and has been updated to a very colloquial style. Even the F word makes an appearance. So add into the mix some sublime singing from all the principal singers (there is no chorus) and overall it made for a really entertaining three and half hours at the opera.

Just briefly – this week I had the pleasure of seeing the premiere screening of the documentary ‘Alias Ruby Blade’ at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival at ACMI. It tells the story of Kirsty Sword Gusmao’s political activism on behalf of the East Timorese independence movement, and of her relationship with (and eventual marriage to) independence leader (now Prime Minister) Xanana Gusmao. The film is a brilliant and subtle mix of the personal and the political, and it manages to give you a concise history of East Timor’s struggle for freedom in an accessible and moving tale of romantic love. Go and see it if you get a chance.

Next Culture Club reviews will be on May 23rd.