Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews July 18th [July 19]

I have four theatre productions to review this month, beginning with two adaptations. ‘The Dragon’ opened at the Malthouse theatre on July 3rd and this show (I think you could almost call it a musical) is based on a satirical play written in 1944 by the Russian playwright Evgeny Shwarz, and adapted by Australian actor and writer Toby Schmitz. So it’s a Schwarz’n’Schmitz production. ‘The Dragon’ features the guys from the local comedy trio Tripod who play a Greek chorus of animals commenting on the action.

The plot in brief: the knight Lancelot arrives in a small town looking for a beer and a bit of action with the ladieees. Instead Lancelot finds that the town is being terrorised by a Dragon who demands the annual sacrifice of a beautiful woman. Lancelot promptly falls in love with Elsa, the scheduled next female sacrifice, and decides to slay the Dragon in order to save Elsa and free the town.

The trouble is, there are people in power in this town, including the local Mayor, who have no interest in changing the way things are. Everyone understands the rules, just about everyone obeys them, and everyone gets on with their lives accepting the limitations imposed on them by the rule of the Dragon (and of the dodgy Mayor). Lancelot has to try and persuade these people that change is possible and desirable and that courage is a valuable commodity. You can see how this would have resonated in Soviet Russia in the 1940’s.

The Tripod guys sing hilarious little songs all the way through the show, commenting on what’s happening, so there are plenty of laughs in it. They also play the Dragon, or at least the three different heads of the Dragon, none of whom has a brilliant grasp of the English language, so there is a lot of very clever wordplay here for those who love language.

I really enjoyed this show but I do have some reservations. The almost manic pace of the comedy tended to undermine the underlying serious political commentary in this play. Partly that was to do with the writing in Toby Schmitz’ English adaptation, and partly with the casting and direction.
Jimi Bani, the actor who played Eddie Mabo in the TV adaptation of that story, plays Lancelot, and he’s a charismatic performer and a natural comedian. It’s not until the final scenes, though, that I actually felt moved by his heroic quest. Kim Gyngell, another very fine comedic actor, plays the pompous Mayor and the production is directed by Marion Potts, the Artistic Director of the Malthouse.

Given the contemporary political context of what’s been happening in Egypt and Syria and practically all over the Middle East in recent years, places where people have been trying to get rid of their own political dragons and suffering terribly as a result, there was something almost too enjoyable about this show for my taste.

I would happily recommend it as a great night out at the theatre, but as I say, the message gets a bit lost because the medium is delivering us a bit too much fun.

‘The Dragon’ is on at the Malthouse in Southbank until July 26th.

I’ve also been to see ‘Wake In Fright’ at the La Mama Courthouse in Carlton. Most film buffs would be aware of the 1971 film version of this Kenneth Cook novel. It’s one of the most memorable Australian films ever made, a true Australian gothic horror movie, so this new theatre adaptation had a lot to live up to.

The novel has been adapted by Bob Pavlich and directed by Renee Palmer and as you probably remember, it’s the story of a gormless city-bred schoolteacher, John Grant, who gets stuck teaching in a small Australian outback town. When the holidays come he tries to make his way back to Sydney where a girl he fancies is waiting for him.

But on the journey John Grant is waylaid in another small outback town called Bundenyabba and it all goes pear-shaped. He is preyed upon by the locals, he loses all his money in a game of two-up, and he’s taken on a nightmare roo-shooting trip in the middle a drunken night. Worse things then happen and he becomes completely trapped in this claustrophobic beer-swilling town.
The actor who plays John Grant, James Harvy, is a good actor and well cast. He has a very open face with big, vulnerable eyes and he looks completely out of place surrounded by the muscley roughnecks who play the blokes of Bundenyabba. In fact most of the male actors in this production are quite strong performers.

There were, however, a few problems with this production. The set design involves a floor of red dirt, which signals the outback setting of the story very neatly, and a series of small tables which alternate as the local bar, people’s kitchens and even the ute that takes the men roo-hunting. But the lay-out of the space wasn’t ideal for that small venue. The audience were sitting on the side of the narrow rectangle rather than at one end, which meant that the stage was foreshortened and at times there were lots of actors crowding into a small space. That may have been useful in adding to a sense of claustrophobia but at times it felt like an unnecessarily awkward use of the venue.

The two female actors weren’t quite as strong as the rest of the cast so there was an unevenness there, which is a real shame because it’s such a ‘masculine’ play. We needed a strong contrast with the ‘Other ‘ of the female characters, the barmaids and the ‘town bike’ and various other feminine stereotypes. At times the women also sing and narrate the action (a device which didn’t quite work), sometimes both at once, and their voices simply weren’t projected well enough to carry in that space.

The biggest problem for this audience member was that there was a live musician playing distorted electric guitar all the way through the show. This became incredibly distracting (not to mention musically clichéd, with ominous rumblings when the action was scary, etc.) and to be honest, I think they could lose the guitar.

‘Wake In Fright’ is on at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton until July 28th.

The third production I’ve seen is ‘The Crucible’, a new MTC production of this classic American play by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch hunts of 1692. The play is also, metaphorically, about the McCarthyist era in the USA in the 1950’s when left wing writers and film-makers were targeted and banned for their supposed communist leanings.

This is one of my favourite plays of all time, with its brilliantly paced suspenseful writing, a psychological drama as well as political drama, and it just keeps resonating through the decades.
I enjoyed this production, with reservations. It received some less than positive reviews from other local critics, including a scarifying one in Crikey.com which sparked a bit of Twitter debate about what makes a fair review.

The plot in brief: a group of young women in Salem claim to have been be-witched and their claims spark a cascading series of trials of people accused of witchcraft and dealings with the Devil. At the centre of this drama is John Proctor, a married man who has had a dalliance with one of the young women claiming to have been bewitched, and when his own wife is accused of being a witch, Proctor tries to prove that the girls are faking their symptoms.

This production has been directed by Sam Strong, one of the new Associate Artistic Directors at the MTC this year, and has a stellar cast, including David Wenham (surely one of the most popular actors in the country) as John Proctor, as well as John McTernan, Brian Lipson, Greg Stone, all fine actors with many years experience in the theatre. I found their performances very moving.
One of the criticisms in the Crikey.com review was that the audience laughed all the way through the performance because it was so bad. I was there on opening night and that was not my experience of the play. Yes, there was laughter at times, including from me, but mostly it was laughter of discomfort at the absolute absurdity of the situation, particularly during the Kafka-esque scenes with the trial judges. Their completely nutty and ultimately lethal logic made you laugh with horror and disbelief.

But there is a problem with the design in this production. The set was very modern, all plain white walls and floors with small enclosed spaces for the actors to perform in, a non-realistic set that invited you to imagine this story being set in much more modern times. Once again, maybe the designers were trying to convey the claustrophobia of the events being narrated.
But in stark contrast the costumes and hair-dos were painfully authentic to the late 1600’s, so there was a weird disjunction there that made the costumes and hairdos a bit laughable. I got over it after a while and was caught up in the drama and the good acting, but for others maybe it was just too distracting.

Nevertheless I do recommend you see this production, especially if you haven’t seen ‘The Crucible’ before. It’s on at the MTC Southbank Theatre til August 3rd.

I’ve also seen another MTC production, ‘Solomon and Marion’, at the Fairfax Studio in the Arts Centre. This is a very traditional two-hander play by South African playwright Lara Foot, written quite recently in 2007. It is loosely based on the true story of the murder of two young white South African men in 2006, one of whom was known to the playwright because she had worked with him in the theatre. So it’s a very personal project for Lara Foot.

In Foot’s version of this story the mother of a young man who has been murdered is living alone and isolated on a rural property, waiting to die. One day she is visited by a young black man, the grandson of a woman who used to work for her, and Solomon says he has come to help her. The play is about the developing relationship between these two very different individuals and how that friendship helps both of them. There is a secret revealed at the end of the play, which I won’t reveal now of course.

The set design is great, with a sloping stage entirely covered in sand, making everything feel slightly askew and as if the natural environment is gradually taking over from the white man’s built environment.

At one point I think the female protaganist, Marion (played by Gillian Jones) refers to the writing of the South African-born, now Adelaide-based novelist J M Coetzee. (He wrote ‘Disgrace’, a novel with some plot similarities to this play, and which was later turned into a film starring John Malkovich.) Lara Foot also refers to Coetzee in the program notes. She clearly finds his pessimistic views on race relations in South African very depressing and she admits that she wanted to write a more optimistic story, one that leaves you thinking reconciliation is possible in post-apartheid South Africa.

I think that having that very clear agenda for the play works to its detriment. It all starts to feel a bit obvious after a while, like you know what’s going to happen and you know you’re going to get a happy ending. It begins to undermine any possibility of real moral and emotional complexity in the story. At the climax of the play Marion does a monologue which just doesn’t ring true to me. She reacts to the surprising news she gets in a way that I simply didn’t believe. It’s nothing to do with the acting, which is very fine from both Gillian Jones and from Pacharo Mzembe, who plays Solomon.

If you like a well-shaped, mostly well-written, well-directed (by Pamela Rabe), slow-paced play with a slightly predictable happy ending, this one will be for you, but it didn’t entirely float my boat.

‘Solomon and Marion’ is on at the Fairfax Studio until July 20th.

Little note to end on: at 2:30 pm on Sunday July 28th I’ll be performing in a concert of Australian music at the Benalla Art Gallery called ‘Sea Chronicles’, singing a song cycle (with a string quartet) by Australian composer Paul Stanhope. Feel free to come along if you’re in the area.