Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

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June 15

Culture Club reviews on 774 ABC Melbourne, June 14th

I’ve been to see three plays this week.

1) ‘National Interest’ (MTC) is a play by Melbourne writer and director Aiden Fennessy about the so-called Balibo Five. A quick reminder: these were the five Australian and NZ television newsmen who were murdered in the border town of Balibo in 1975 during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The circumstances of their deaths were subsequently covered up by both Indonesian and Australian Governments over several decades, supposedly ‘in the national interest’, ie. in the interests of maintaining good diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia.

About four years ago the story was made into a feature film called [‘Balibo’ ](http://www.balibo.com/)directed by Rob Connelly – one of the best Australian films made in the last decade, in my opinion – and now Aiden Fennessy has written a play that focusses on the family of just one of those newsmen, Tony Stewart – who happens to have been Fennessy’s cousin.

Let me declare my own biases here: as a journalist I’m predisposed to think this story is important, because it’s about journalists dying in the course of their professional duties. I’m glad that it’s being re-visited and kept alive in this new theatrical version. I’ve also been to the East Timorese town of Balibo and written an [essay](http://meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-68-number-3-2009/article/remembering-balibo/) about the Balibo Five for the Meanjin literary magazine. So I went to see this production with high expectations.

And they were not disappointed. This is a beautifully written play which I found intensely moving, not least because of the stunning performance by Julia Blake, who plays June, the mother of Tony Stewart.

The play is in three parts and Fenessy has clearly labeled them Fiction, Fact and Conjecture (these words are literally projected onto the stage floor) so that we know when the text is departing from the absolute facts of the story. In the first (fictional) section Stewart’s mother June is gently tackled by her daughter Jane about the fact that she’s getting old, not coping with living alone in the family home, and that her memory is failing her. Jane thinks her mother is having trouble knowing the difference between fact and fiction. At the same time, they are debating whether there’s any point to the latest inquiry trying to establish the ‘facts’ from the ‘fiction’ about the deaths of the Balibo Five. I think Fennessy is asking the question here: what is the value of finding out the truth, and of hanging onto the truth, be it in our own personal memories or in the stories our governments tell us?

The playwright is also making the point that when it comes to these big news stories, these major political events in the history of the nation, the impact on the lives of individuals often gets forgotten – the grief of the family members left behind.

In the first section the three newsmen who were in the Channel Seven team – Tony Stewart, Greg Shackleton and Gary Cunningham – appear as ghost figures, wandering in and out of the family living room, trying (unsuccessfully) to intervene in the conversation between June and Jane. In the second part the text begins to fragment and the three men replay moments from the past. Fennessy has used verbatim quotes from various relevant sources including the recent NSW Coroner’s report into one of the deaths, letters written by Tony Stewart from East Timor, and news reports filed by the men, to create a textual mosaic of What Actually Happened.

In the final part, Conjecture, we witness heart-breaking versions of the men’s last moments together and their deaths. Finally June Stewart comes to some kind of resolution about how she’s going to try to deal with this tragedy from now on.

The acting is very strong from this ensemble cast. My only query is whether audience members who know nothing about the story of the Balibo Five would find it hard to piece together the ‘facts’ of the matter, given how fragmented and tangential the re-telling of the central narrative becomes at times.

A few weeks ago on Culture Club we were discussing whether plays and operas should be based on ‘real’ stories taken from the newspaper headlines. This is another case where I say – absolutely – this is a story which should be kept alive, to remind us about the injustices that can occur when the truth is covered up.

‘National Interest’ is on at the Fairfax Studio at the Arts centre until July 21st

2) ‘Macbeth’ is the latest production from the Bell Shakespeare Company, and another show I went to with high hopes, partly because I love Shakespeare but also because I have long been a big fan of the actor playing Macbeth, Dan Spielman. He did a lot of lovely work with a company called the Keene-Taylor Project about a decade ago, and I think he has a very special quality on stage.

But unfortunately, after seeing this production, I think that he wasn’t the best choice to play this character. Macbeth is a brute. He is overwhelmed by ambition and it leads him to murder anyone he perceives as getting in the way of his destiny. He’s a complex brute, because he does feel remorse and doubt, and yet he is so convinced by the predictions of the three witches that he allows himself to sink into an amoral morass. And I simply didn’t find Dan Spielman’s portrayal of that brutishness convincing. Maybe he’s just too much of a nice guy to carry off the role at this stage of his career? Or maybe it was a problem with the direction by Peter Evans, which was perhaps a little too sympathetic to both Macbeth and his wife.

It’s a highly stylized production with a fantastic set. The stage looks like a piece of boggy Scottish heathland and there is a large pane of reflective glass hanging above the stage in which the characters can observe themselves ‘acting’ (‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’). The production is quite choreographed too, so that at moments it is almost like a contemporary dance work in the way actors move around the stage. Sometimes this worked but sometimes the actors looked a little awkward and self-conscious.

Another thing I found annoying about this production was that the three witches had been ‘downsized’ to just one witch wearing weird vocoder technology attached to her head, giving her three simultaneous voices. This was aurally interesting for a while but in the end it had the effect of reducing the power of these three powerful female characters – as did the scene in which the remaining witch comes out on stage half naked and Macbeth lies on top of her in a simulated sexual pose – yet again undermining the power of these female characters in such a boring way.

There was also an odd stylistic mix in the way the lines were delivered by some of the actors. At times it was a quite formal, straight delivery, at other times it lapsed into an almost Kath’n’Kim tone, especially from Kate Mulvaney who played Lady Macbeth. Again, for me, this undermined the deeply serious and tragic nature of this play.

And finally I found the soundscape inappropriate and distracting at times. Some scenes had very portentous loud string music playing all the way through, almost over-directing the audience about how we should be feeling in each scene.

‘Macbeth’ (Bell Shakespeare Company) is on at the Playhouse at the Arts Centre until June 23rd.

3) And finally, ‘Tying Knots’ is a new play that opened at the tiny La Mama theatre in Carlton this week night. Written by Indigo Brandenburg (now isn’t that a great name for a playwright) it’s a six-hander romantic comedy about relationships, and specifically about gay marriage. So in one sense it’s very timely, given the current intense level of debate about the legalisation of gay marriage in Australia (OF COURSE IT SHOULD BE LEGAL!)

The play centres on two gay couples, Ben-and-Tim and Kate-and-Jo, who share a house and who decide they want to get married. But of course they can’t because gay marriage still isn’t legal here, so they decide to settle for second-best; they’ll go to the church and go through with a double wedding, but the men and women will have to marry each other.

It’s a fun and potentially interesting premise for a play, but I have to say I was disappointed with a number of aspects of this production. The writing is at times witty and at times touching, but at other times it struggled to rise about the kitchen-sink-drama level. The interactions between the characters at times seemed quite banal, almost TV soap opera material. There is a lot of ‘telling rather than showing’ about the characters’ emotional lives and the swag of emotional ‘issues’ they all seem to be carrying. One important character who’s mentioned often but doesn’t actually appear on stage, Heather, seems so two-dimensionally evil, she’s completely unbelievable

The set was also not ideal. It needed to be both the wedding dressmaker’s shop and the couples’ kitchen so there was a huge table in the middle of the small stage space. The actors struggled to get around it without crashing into each other. It made me feel claustrophobic in the space as a viewer in ways that other La Mama productions I’ve seen haven’t done.

And the cast was uneven, Some of the acting was quite convincing. Tarah Carey who plays Jo, one half of the lesbian couple, was very good, with a lovely confident stage presence, but some of the others were guilty of either over-acting (really hamming it up) to get laughs, or scarcely seeming present on stage because of under-acting.

(And in some ways the banality of the writing matched the banality of the characters’ aspirations – in the end, they just wanted what the heterosexual bridal magazines tell you you should want – a traditional marriage with the white wedding dress, in the church, etc. etc. Yawn.)

‘Tying Knots’ is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until July 1st.

Next Culture Club we’ll take a look at the latest productions from Circus Oz, and the Ilbijerri indigenous theatre company.

June 1

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 31st May 2012

I’m very happy to report that 774 Drive presenter Raffy Epstein has at last been sighted in a Melbourne theatre foyer – attending the opening night of ‘Circa’ at the Malthouse in South Melbourne this week. It was great to be able to chew the fat with him on the wireless this week about a show we’d both just seen.

Circa is a Brisbane-based circus and physical theatre ensemble (formerly known as the Rock’n’Roll Circus) led by artistic director Yaron Lifshitz. This self-titled show is a ‘re-mix’ of three of the company’s previous works and it has been performed internationally in Germany, Edinburgh and London.

The performance style of this ensemble covers a spectrum from contemporary dance to physical theatre to circus, a wonderful hybrid whose common ingredient is human bodies ‘in extremis’. But if the central artifice of circus is the audience’s perception that the performers are in danger, then this is true circus. We gasped, winced and held our breath throughout this show, and at the end there was an immediate standing ovation for the seven young performers from the Circa company.

I attended the show with my cousin who is a physiotherapist and she gasped the loudest, being hyper-aware of the horrendous injuries that could result if any of the on-stage manouevres went wrong. But nothing went wrong, and therein lies the great skill and craft of these artists. Who knew the human body was capable of such dangerous beauty?

The work is at times intensely moving, at other times wonderfully playful. There are fragments of narrative – the woman who tries to match the height of her male partner by leaping, stretching and even using her pony-tail – but ‘Circa’ doesn’t try to tell a story. It presents us with exquisite human sculptural forms and fetishistic tableaux, including a woman in sparkly red stilettos who walks all over the back of her male partner. There are old-fashioned circus/burlesque moments, including a woman with blue hula hoops whirling from several limbs. There’s body percussion, tumbling, contortionism and trapeze, and there’s loud heart-pumping music from Leonard Cohen, Sigur Ros and Aphex Twin.

And just when you think the artists must be ready to collapse in a pile from sheer physical exhaustion, they finish with a choreographed collage re-visiting many of the more memorable moments of the show.

‘Circa’ is a delight – see it if you can – you will go home determined to take more control of your own body.

‘Circa’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in South Melbourne until June 10th.

This week I have been to see a play called ‘The Heretic’ by prolific English playwright Richard Bean. It’s an MTC production starring Noni Hazlehurst and Andrew McFarlane, two very well-known actors from our TVs.

Here’s the basic plot: Noni plays an English scientist called Dr Diane Casell who has had a longterm research project measuring sea levels in the Maldives and she is put under pressure by the head of her department at her university, Professor Kevin Maloney (Andrew McFarlane) to delay the publication of her recent findings – which to be honest are never entirely clarified – has she discovered that sea levels haven’t risen? Or has she discovered that the land mass is rising and that that’s skewing the data on the sea levels?

But the thrust of the story is that her boss (who is also her ex-lover) is a weak-kneed sissy-boy who’s prepared to fudge the science in order to earn some Nasty Corporate Sector Dollars for his department.

Those conspiracy theorists who don’t believe in human-induced climate change and who think it’s a plot by the extreme green movement will LOVE this play. For the rest of us, it’s a bit of a trial.

Last Culture Club we talked about the new Australian opera drawing on newspaper reports of the Maria Korp murder. In this instance it seems that in order to concoct this plot, the playwright has drawn on reports of the so-called ‘Climategate’ debate over whether or not the climate science was fudged by scientists at the University of east Anglia in the lead up to the Copenhagen Climate conference.

It all gets a bit messy; there are too many different narratives and sub-plots at play, too many ‘issues’ being explored – the daughter with anorexia, the student alienated from his parents, the eco-terrorists threatening Dr Diane’s life, the climate change evidence conspiracy, the ex-lover-cum-boss who decides to sack Dr Diane from the university (with the help of the two-dimensionally nasty HR woman) and yet who somewhat improbably resumes a relationship with her at the end of the play.

The plot goes haywire at the end. It’s too complicated, it can’t decide whether it’s a black comedy, a farce, a serious piece of political theatre, or all of the above.

It’s too long, too smart-alec, and in spite of actors best efforts I couldn’t enjoy this play. And to be honest, I fear it will only fuel the ignorant conspiracy-mongerers who can’t accept that anthropogenic climate change is upon us. (Richard Bean himself is an avowed climate change skeptic).

Bean has apparently written 17 plays in 11 years. Too many plays, me-thinks.

‘The Heretic’ is on at the MTC theatres in Southbank until June 23rd.

Briefly, to ‘The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later’. This is a play we talked about last Culture Club just before it opened, and I have now had a chance to go and see it at the Arts Centre. A verbatim play created by the Tectonic Theatre group in Amercia, it is based on actual interviews with residents of the town of Laramie, Wyoming in America, where a young gay man was brutally bashed and left to die by two young men. Matthew Shepard’s murder subsequently became the international symbol of gay hate crimes. This play was the follow-up to the original play ‘The Laramie Project’, made not long after the crime was committed over a decade ago.

What was most interesting about this play was the way it dissected the process by which the truth can get swept aside by rumour, innuendo and outright lies. The two killers confessed to the crime and admitted that they’d killed Matthew Shepard because he was gay; the court records show that clearly.

But several years after the killers went to jail, a dodgy tabloid TV show put together a story purporting to prove that actually the crime as the result of a drug deal gone wrong. And the people in the town of Laramie who didn’t like the idea of their town being synonymous with gay hate crimes started to help spread that rumour, so that now it seems most of the town believes this new (false) version of events. They want to believe it, so they do, in spite of the forensic evidence to the contrary.

It was interesting to watch ‘The Heretic’ in the light of the argument put forth by ‘The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later’. The two plays almost seemed to be talking to each other, because in a sense I think that’s what’s going on with climate change denialists. They don’t want to believe that humans are causing the harm, so they cling to whatever ill-informed alternative view is put forth. It could be that the fictional plot in ‘The Heretic’ will just get blended into the mix of stories and rumours out there about climate change and feed people’s belief that there is a conspiracy going on. Watch this space.

Politics and rumour-mongering aside, it was a very good production, I thought. I only had only one major reservation, and it was more to do with the writing of ‘The Laramie Project – 10 Year Later’ than the performances by Red Stitch Theatre actors. I didn’t like how much the writers put themselves into the story. It seemed a little unnecessary, a little narcissistic even – I would have preferred just to hear the verbatim tales from the locals.

‘The Laramie Project – Ten Year Later’ closed at Arts Centre May 26th.

And finally to ‘Midnight Son’ the new Australian opera by librettist Louis Nowra and composer Gordon Kerry, performed by the Victorian Opera. The night i first tried to see this opera there was a bit of a drama because one of the two sopranos was ill and so the performance had to be cancelled. The next couple of performances had to be done with Dimity Shepherd, the ill mezzo soprano, acting her role and another singer, Judith Dodsworth, singing the role from music from the side of the stage (I sincerely wish the company had enough funding to engage understudies – singers do get sick!).

Such is the nature of the suspension of disbelief required by opera, in fact it didn’t matter too much that one singer mimed and another sang her part offstage – you just accepted it.

This is a worthy addition to Australian contemporary opera, without being in any way gob-smackingly brilliant or innovative. There is a really interesting plot device whereby where the story starts at the end with the suicide of the husband of the murdered woman and moves back scene by scene to when the original couple, Marisa and Ray Clark, first got together.

The libretto by Louis Nowra had a few awkward moments including some gratuitously silly rhymes. Nowra can’t resist the bad taste joke every now and then. But overall it gave us a real insight into how a murder like that could happen, without in any way excusing it – the psychological processes that take over when people are driven by urges and needs they can’t seem to control. This was especially the case with Dimity Shepherd’ s character, the murderess Clara Johnson, who was depicted as being under some kind of sexual spell cast by Ray Clark.

The naturalistic direction by Nicki Wendt worked well and all the cast were good actors (and doesn’t that make a difference, with opera!) including Dimity Shepherd, soprano Antoinette Halloran as Marisa Clark, baritone Byron Watson as Ray Clark, mezzo-soprano Roxane Hislop as Ray’s friend Leanne and tenor Johnathan Bode as his friend Andy.

‘Midnight Son’ closed at the Malthouse May 23rd, but I hope it gets a run interstate.

Next week in the Culture Club i’ll be reviewing ‘National Interest’ (MTC),’ ‘Macbeth’ (Bell Shakespeare) and ‘Tying Knots’ (La Mama).

May 18

Culture Club theatre; May 17th on 774 ABC Melbourne

This week i’ve been pondering how to get 774 ABC Melbourne Drive host Raf Epstein to the theatre. Every fortnight I come in and tell him about the marvelous plays and operas i’ve seen and every week he says, ‘yeah, I dunno, I guess I should go to the theatre’, but it doesn’t happen. Well I think I’ve found the solution.

Raf is a current affairs journalist with a deep interest in the news – in real stories and real happenings – what if I pointed him in the direction of some opera and theatre that has come straight from real life? Some has even come straight from the newspaper headlines. Let’s call it ‘reality theatre’. Would that whet his appetite? I hope so.

For example, this week a new opera opened in Melbourne inspired by the awful murder of Melbourne woman Maria Korp. ‘Midnight Son’ is a Victorian Opera production which I’m going to see this weekend (and will review next time I’m in the Culture Club), a new Australian work based on a story from the nightly news.

And another kind of ‘reality theatre’ is ‘verbatim theatre’ – theatre based on real stories told by real people about real events – and there’ve been a lot of those done in Australia over the past couple of decades. There’ve been plays about refugees, about the lives of indigenous Australians, and even one about the Newcastle earthquake I remember seeing over a decade ago.

This week there’s even a sequel to a verbatim theatre show opening in Melbourne (which will also be reviewed in the next Culture Club session) – ‘The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later’, about the murder of a young gay man in the American town of Laramie, Wyoming.

And the verbatim play I saw this week at the tiny La Mama theatre in Carlton was called ‘The Weather and Your Health’. Based on interviews with the grandmother of playwright and actor Bethany Simons, this is a one hour long two-person show written by Bethany in which mostly only one person speaks – Bethany herself.

This is a deeply nostalgic and very sweet little play which takes us back to a time when life seemed much simpler. The character based on Bethany’s grandmother Dawn is not given a name, but she’s a lass from the NSW country town of Gilgandra who grows up with simple, positive, Christian values and a traditional view of a woman’s role as cook, home-maker, carer and procreator. This woman tells stories about being a child growing up during the Second World War, and about coveting pretty dresses in the local frock shop as a teenager, and going to the local pictures and the local dance each fortnight, and meeting her husband-to-be when she plays piano for the local dances.

Somehow this character conjures a whole community just with the simple personal stories she tells. Meanwhile her husband (also un-named) sits silently in a chair, marking up the racing pages of the newspaper, occasionally turning the tranny on and listening to the races, and saying almost NOTHING.

So underneath this apparently simple, pleasant tale of one woman’s life is a much darker story about a poverty-stricken upbringing followed by a lonely marriage to a man who is clearly a gambler, and who ignores all her attempts to be romantic – in fact all her attempts to get him to talk to her, really. The title, ‘The Weather and Your Health’, is never directly referred to or explained, but you assume perhaps these are the two main topics of conversation in a town as apparently quiet as Gilgandra.

Bethany Simons is a very engaging performer. She turns herself into around a dozen other characters from the town, simply with a change in posture or a change in voice. As her silent husband Daniel Mottau certainly looks the part – the tall handsome stranger who turns out to be a serious disappointment. The play was originally seen in 2009 and now it’s been revived as part of a Regional Arts Victoria tour. The theatre was full of VCE students on the day i saw this play, because it’s on the 2012 VCE Drama Playlist. It would certainly be lovely example for them of an effective self-devised one-person play.

‘The Weather and Your Health’ made me feel very nostalgic for my own late grandmother Peg and her stories of the past. It is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until May 27th.

May 4

774 Culture Club reviews, May 3rd

I’ve been to see three shows in the last fortnight, including two plays and an opera:

1) The first play is a new political comedy called ‘Australia Day’, a joint Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Arts Centre, written by Johnathan Biggins. Biggins is best known for his Wharf Revues which have been performed annually in Sydney at the STC towards the end of the year for quite a few years running now. They’re political satire sketch shows – topical, local, light-hearted, funny. So this seems like new territory for Biggins, to write what you might call a ‘well-made play’.

The plot is deceptively simple: a committee gets together in the fictional Australian country town of Coriole to plan the town’s forthcoming Australia Day celebrations. The members include the Mayor (who’s an aspiring federal Liberal Party candidate), a Greens member of the local council (who is usually the lone dissenting voice on the committee), a young teacher from the local primary school (whose parents were Vietnamese migrants) and a couple of other colourful locals with strong opinions and a desire to help.

But the situation is far from simple: there’s dirty business afoot within the local council, and several of the committee members have dark histories which cause conflict and inevitably come out in the open during the course of the play. Meanwhile the weather is threatening to wreak havoc on the big day – not to mention some slightly dodgy sausages on the Australia Day Barbie.

This play is a vehicle for exploring ideas about who has the right to call themselves ‘true’ Australians now – are we white-bread-loving Anglo-Saxons who don’t like change? Are we the children of migrants who’ve happily assimilated into the dominant culture? Are we inclusive or exclusive of outsiders? The debates rages about so-called ‘political correctness’ (how i hate that term) and how we label each other; what constitutes racism; and who has the right to define our national identity.

At the matinee performance that I went to, the audience loved this play. They laughed long and loud and went away happy. But I have to say I sometimes felt a bit impatient, even perhaps a bit bored. The jokes and the ‘issues’ they came from seemed incredibly familiar and almost predictable at times. Maybe I’m not the target audience for a play like this – it felt like a vintage naturalistic David Williamson play – take a bunch of cultural stereotypes, put them in a room together and get them to fight it out with words. Yes, these are important questions that Biggins tackles, but it almost felt too easy to laugh at them. There was alos a profound underlying cynicism in the text about all politicians that i found quite depressing, in spite of the laughs. You come away concluding that everyone is corruptible, which leaves you feeling entirely pessimistic about the possibility of change.

There are some great performers in the cast, especially Geoff Morrell as the Mayor. He’s played characters like this quite often in the past, including in the ABC TV series ‘Grass Roots’, which this play really reminded me of. Valerie Bader was also fantastic as Marie the local Country Women’s Association representative; beautiful comic timing and a memorable appearance in an animal suit!

So overall, yes, most people will love this show but if you like your theatre to be a bit challenging, a bit surprising, maybe it’s not for you.

‘Australia Day’ is on at the Arts Centre until May 26th.

2) If you ARE in that second category – you want to be surprised, even a bit disturbed by a visit to the theatre – try ‘Far Away’, a play that’s on at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane, written by the award-winning English playwright Caryl Churchill. I’ve been thinking about this play ever since I saw it last weekend. Churchhill is known for her non-naturalistic approach to theatre – she’s a political playwright but political in a very different sense to Johnathan Biggins’ party politics – politics in the broader sense of power and the uses and abuses of it.
The play is divided into three different scenes and as the first one opens, we see a child who has woken up in the middle of the night approaching a woman in a kitchen. We learn the woman is her aunt and the child gradually reveals that she’s just witnessed a deeply disturbing scene outside in the garden. There’s been violence and blood and the child is trying to make sense of it all. And the aunt is trying to first of all explain what the child has seen, but then – we realize – she’s trying to cover up what’s been happening. We see the world from the child’s perspective as she tries to understand adult behaviour that, on the face of it, is simply terrifying. We’re in moral quicksand as the aunt keeps changing her story. What IS going on out there in the garden shed? – we never really find out.

Then in the second scene the child has grown up and is a young woman working in a hat factory. But we gradually find out that the hats are to be worn by prisoners just before they’re put to death. What is going on? The prisoners come out chained together but wearing these glamourous Melbourne Cup-style hats and do a parade, accompanied by jolly band music, a scene which is simultaneously hilarious and sickening.

In the final scene things get weirder and weirder. The whole world is at war, but as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the enemy keeps changing – sometimes it’s the Brazilians, sometimes it’s the crocodiles or the deer, or perhaps even the river is at war with the people.

There is an incredibly dystopian view of the future embedded in this play which touches you somewhere very deep and very dark. Good and evil, truth and fiction, are never clear and morality is in a constant state of slippage. It might seem a bit like some of your weirdest nightmares ,where you’re struggling to make sense of what’s going on and maybe relieved when you finally wake up and discover it was all coming from your sub-conscious.

The underground theatre space in 45 Downstairs adds to sense of claustrophobia. This is a play produced on a small budget but with beautiful acting by the performers playing the three main characters – Caroline lee, Paul Ashcroft and Suzannah MacDonald.

This is the kind of theatre that I like – it takes you to a completely different place, asks you difficult questions, and rather than offering you pat answers, it leaves you wondering.

‘Far Away’ is on at 45 Downstairs until May 13th.

3) Finally, to an opera: Opera Australia’s annual autumn season in Melbourne is on and they’ve brought back a familiar production of Rossini’s popular opera ‘The Barber of Seville’, a version set in the late 1920’s complete with Keystone Cops and people doing the Charleston.

The plot, in brief: Count Almaviva wants to win the heart of the beautiful young Rosina, but Rosina’s evil ward Dr Bartolo wants to marry her himself, possibly simply to avoid having to pay a dowry. So Count Almaviva dresses up in various disguises and, with the help of Figaro, the most popular barber in the Spanish town of Seville, he sneaks into Dr Bartolo’s house and woos Rosina.

Rossini operas are not usually my favourites – I find them a bit light-weight – but this is a totally charming production. The direction, originally by Elijah Mojinsky but this time round re-rehearsed by Roger Press, is brilliant. There is incredible attention to detail so that there is always something funny going on on stage to entertain you, even when the music itself is incredibly repetitive.

There are lots of running gags, including Bartolo’s stoned doorman staggering around the house, and the drunk maid also staggering around behind him, and the doctor’s clients keep coming and going and never actually having their ailments seen to. The sets are deliciously lavish – an art deco terrace house which opens up like a dolls house, so we can see inside two stories – lovely to look at but ‘hard yards’ for the singers acoustically.

The stand-out performers are Jose Carbo as Figaro – a strong confident baritone and he totally relished the famous Figaro aria – and mezzo-soprano Sian Pendry (yes another Sian P!) as Rosina. She’s still a young singer but what a stunning rich warm even voice she has – she’s one to watch!

I was slightly disappointed with the tenor John Longmuir who plays Count Almaviva. It’s not quite a flexible enough voice for those really fast tricky Rossini passages, but his acting was pretty good.

‘The Barber of Seville’ on at the Arts Centre until May 17th.

April 23

774 Culture Club reviews 19th April 2012

Today I will be reviewing four shows, including three Melbourne International Comedy Festival productions. The first two i want to talk about seem most unlikely topics for comedy – a one man show about living with multiple schlerosis, and an opera about netball.

1) Contact! is a new Australian opera being performed in the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, written by composer, conductor and baritone Angus Grant. I need to declare at this point that I know Angus – we studied opera together at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 90’s and have performed in recitals together in the past.

A couple of years ago he started writing this opera about an Australian suburban netball team and then he applied to the Arts Centre to be part of their Full Tilt program (supporting new Australian musical theatre works). The work-in-progress performances at the Arts Centre in 2011 were very successful so the Arts Centre commissioned him to finish it off and programmed it for a full season in the Fairfax Studio this year.

In some ways this opera is surprisingly traditional – there’s conflict and jealousy, there are love interests, there’s a woman with a dark and tragic secret which is revealed towards the end of the opera, there are beautiful soaring melodies and harmonies sung by a bunch of operatic sopranos and one tenor, there are characters struggling to work out what their destiny is, and there are even projected sur-titles – well, sort of – there is some text projected on a screen above the performers.

On the other hand, though, no one dies from consumption or is murdered, the characters have names like Kayla and Bev and Bevan rather than Lucia or Mimi or Figaro, and the words projected on that screen are actually hilarious bitchy text messages flying between members of the girls’ netball team.

Above all this opera is really funny. The humour is a bit like ‘Kath and Kim’ – fond mockery of suburban lives – and people were laughing really hard the night I went. It’s quite short, just over an hour I think, and I reckon it would be the perfect introduction to the opera form if you’ve never been before, or have felt intimidated by it. (If you are familiar with opera, it will make sense when I tell you the musical style sits somewhere between Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Stephen Sondheim.)

I particularly love the fact that there are lots of female roles in this work. There are a bazillion excellent sopranos out there and it can be hard for them to find work, but there are about 8 roles for women in this show, and it shows the depth of talented young singers in Melbourne at the moment. So many stunning voices, and the piece is quite challenging vocally, but they’re all totally up to it.

If anyone stands out in terms of acting it’s Frederica Cunningham, who plays the bitchiest, baddest girl in the netball team, Gayle. Cunningham has beautiful comic timing and a great range of p###ed-off facial expressions. There are lots of in-jokes for people familiar with netball (characters are always being told to ‘keep their eye on the ball’), lots of wordplay, and lots of Australian colloquialisms. If you’re in a netball team, i suggest you take the whole team along to see it.

Full credit to the Arts Centre for investing in this project. It must have felt like a bit of a risk, because the idea of a netball opera sounds so bizarre, but I predict it’s going to have a long life. It’s fresh, original, familiar and highly recommended.

Contact! is on at the Arts Centre until April 29th and then will be touring to various suburban and regional areas, including Ballarat and Warrnambool, in early May.

2) I saw Tim Ferguson’s one-man Comedy Festival show ‘Carry a Big Stick’ in the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall. Some people would have read the profile on Tim in one of the weekend papers about a month ago where he revealed that he has Multiple Schlerosis – hence the title ‘Carry a Big Stick’, because he literally does – and he has written what is essentially a comedy monologue about living with MS.

If you’re older than about forty you’d remember that Tim Ferguson used to be part of a hugely successfully comedy trio called the Doug Anthony Allstars. They were stars of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, did multiple international tours, and you can still find a lot of their work on YouTube if you’re curious. They were ‘comedy rock stars’, as Tim describes it – edgy, risk-takers, with the other members of the trio being Richard Fidler (now an ABC radio presenter) and Paul McDermott (who’s since become a really successful TV host). It was right in the middle of all this outrageous success that Tim first started getting the weird symptoms of MS – limbs that stopped working, tingling in his head, etc. At one point his whole face went numb just when he was about to host the Logies, so he had to do it deadpan, and he describes how lots of people thought it was a deliberate comic effect and congratulated him on how hilarious it was!

So in this show Tim sits on a stool and just talks to us, telling us an almost unbelievable tale about being side-swiped by this disease in the middle a stellar career, and somehow he finds the humour in what seems like a pretty horrible situation. He gives us lots of juicy gossip about the world of TV, stories about hanging out with Kerry Packer and various other bigwigs at Channel Nine, there are certain prurient pleasures for the audience in hearing those stories.

A lot of comedians use self-deprecation as the basis for their humour – putting themselves down – but in this show Tim Ferguson goes the other way. There’s a bedrock of braggadocio to his humour – a bragging style – which of course doesn’t fit the stereotype of people with serious illnesses, and for this reason it’s really refreshing. He’s not asking anyone to feel sorry for him, he’s there to make us laugh and tell us what a great and talented guy he is, and that his life is still good – and you come away pretty much agreeing with him.

‘Carry a Big Stick’ is on at the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday afternoon 22nd April.

3) ‘Plus One’ is a comic play on at the Trades Hall featuring husband-and-wife team Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish (Mike played Keating in ‘Keating The Musical’).

Written by Fiona, who is a successful TV comedy writer and actor, this is a play about three couples who all meet when they’re young and when some of them are in a rock band together. (Fiona and Mike between them play three characters each.) Then the story moves forward about ten or fifteen years to show us what has happened to them all since then.

There are some familiar character types here (and I mean that in a good way) – the beaten-down husband with the bullying, unfaithful wife; the hippy-dippy woman who has spent her life moving from one new age fad to the next; and the stay-at-home mum who writes a ‘mummy blog’ and is actually quite happy with her life but feels that others judge her for not having a so-called career.

The humour is a mix of snappy dialogue, clever instant character changes from the performers (just add a scarf or an Irish accent or a different facial expression and we totally get who’s playing who) and a couple of hilarious songs from Mike McLeish.

My only complaint would be that it seemed a bit short (most Comedy Festival shows seem to be expected to be about one hour). I’d be happy for it to last a bit longer and add a few more songs to make the most of McLeish’ musical talents.. I hope this show gets another life, maybe tours, because would be very portable and cheap to tour and it’s a totally enjoyable hour of theatrical comedy.

‘Plus One’ is in at the Trades Hall in Carlton till Sunday April 22nd.

4) ‘The Histrionic’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank. It is a Sydney Theatre Company production that has been included in the 2012 Malthouse season, and it’s a new Australian translation of a play by Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard (translated by Tom Wright), originally written in the early 1980’s. And though this is an hour and half long play with seven characters played by seven actors, it is ALMOST a monologue, performed with incredible skill and stamina by Bille Brown.

Brown plays an ageing actor called Bruscon who is at the tale end of his career, trailing around small towns in rural Austria performing a play he’s written himself, using his family members as supporting cast, and he is a MONSTER. He’s labeled a histrionic but I think he’s something worse. I think he’s a classic example of a narcissist – entirely self-absorbed, a bully with a gigantic ego and a persecuted belief that the world fails to understand and acknowledge his genius.

Bruscon arrives in the little town of Utzbach where the pig population is greater than the human population and he spends the day of his first performance haranguing the poor locals (and his long-suffering children) non stop with his demands, his brags, his whinges. Utzbach itself has a dark past – there are still photos of Hitler hanging in the local town hall where Bruscon is to perform – so it’s hard to know who’s more despicable really, Bruscon or the people he’s haranguing.

It all sounds fairly gothic but it is very, very funny – you’re groaning while you’re laughing at Brown/Bruscon. If you want to see one of Australia’s best actors at the top of his form, doing a virtuoso performance, then go and see ‘The Histrionic’.

It’s on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank until May 5th.

April 6

774 ABC Melbourne Culture Club Reviews – April 5th

I’ve been to see four shows in four different venues in the last couple of weeks, including three Melbourne International Comedy Festival shows and a play. I’ll start with the Comedy Festival shows:

1) ‘Die Roten Punkte: Eurosmash!’ at the Spiegeltent on St Kilda Rd.

‘Die Roten Punkte’ translates as ‘The Red Dots’ and they are brother and sister Astrid and Otto Rot who have an indie/pop/rock band – she plays drums, he plays guitar, and they both sing. But actually this is a comedy cabaret act with Melbourne comedians Clare Bartholomew and Andrew Tobias. I’d seen this duo once before and found them completely hilarious. They perform catchy, nutty, original tunes with names like – ‘I am not a Robot, I am a Lion’ and in between they chat and argue and tell stories and flirt with the audience and dream about becoming big stars.

So although this show seems on the surface to be a musical-spoof, a lot of the comedy actually comes from the way the two relate to each. They’re glued together in a weird symbiotic love-hate relationship – at times there’s a hint it might even be sexual. Astrid is tough and sexy and bad and eats junk food the whole way through the show and tries to pick up a random bloke in the audience. Otto is kind of a wimp and is always trying to be a good boy, eating vegan food and writing songs about making the world a better place, and he gets jealous when Astrid flirts with other men.

Otto wears red smeary lipstick and too much eye-liner, and Astrid wears a skin-tight silver concoction that looks like a costume from a 1970’s Dr Who episode and the ongoing joke is that these two characters think they’re really cool – and they’re desperate to BE cool, in the glamourous rock’n’roll world – but actually they’re really lame in ways they just cannot see.

This show would be very funny if you’re seeing them for the first time. My only slight reservation is that I don’t think Eurosmash! takes us any further than the last show of theirs I saw. It doesn’t seem to be covering much new ground. I don’t mean they’ve repeated the last show but perhaps they haven’t pushed the boundaries. In Eurosmash! we learn a little bit more about their childhood and there are some new songs, but although I laughed a lot and really enjoyed myself, I left wanting something a bit more.

If you’re not sure whether you’d enjoy this show, check them out on Youtube, they’ve got half a dozen videos up there.

‘Die Roten Punkte – Eurosmash!’ is on at the Spiegeltent till April 8th.

2) ‘Van Park’ – the musical – at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran (it finished last weekend).

This show was written by two Australian brothers, Greg and Steve Appel, who are in a band together called King Curly. I have been a huge fan of this band for a decade now. They play quirky, gentle, country-pop with a bit of raw rock’n’roll mixed in, and i can highly recommend their albums. ‘Van Park’ stars Australian pop legends John Paul Young and Steve Kilby (former lead singer of The Church) so I went with high hopes of a great night out.

And yes, we got to hear lots of King Curly songs, because what they’ve done is create a loose narrative around existing songs. This is an increasingly common way to create a new musical – think ‘Mamma Mia’ and all those Abba songs – there’ve also been many biographical musicals about stars such as Johnny Cash and Dusty Springfield – which trade on people’s familiarity with (and love of) existing songs.

This is a story about a washed up rock’n’roll hero, played by JPY, a one-hit wonder who’s now living in a caravan park with his long-suffering wife and son, and dreaming of writing another hit, but mostly just drinking, bragging and shagging. Steve Kilbey plays a hippie relic from the ’70’s who has long had a crush on JPY’s character’s wife, and when the son shows some musical promise – and develops a crush on a spunky English backpacker in the van park – Kilby’s character tries to encourage the young man to win her over with his songs. So – a cute story with lots of potential – but actually this show was quite shambolic.

There were a couple of problems. JPY and Steve Kilbey may be great pop singers but they’re not great actors, so they do a lot of waving their arms around awkwardly and stealing each others scenes and it was sometimes funny but often really hammy.

Also the direction seemed to be almost non=existent. Greg Appel wrote and directed the show and it felt like the performers had been left to find their own way through the chaotic script. So there were a lot of those awkward moments where either things were moving too fast and we audience members couldn’t keep up, or there were sudden holes in the show, silences or random lines that left you scratching your head.

The young man who played the son was very good, he had a lovely voice and a sweet stage presence, and the live band is great – basically it’s the King Curly band – but I think this one was mostly for the fans. And if you weren’t a fan of any of those musicians or singers, you’d struggle to have an enjoyable night. Buy the albums, I say – they’re better than the musical.

3) The pick of the bunch for me from the Comedy Festival shows I’ve seen so far is ‘Tina C: Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ which is on at The Malthouse in Southbank.

This is probably going to be the hardest one to describe, but basically Tina C is a drag character created by British actor and comedian Christopher Green, and this was the first time I’d seen Tina C in action. Tina is tall, slim, pretty, with flicky blonde hair, long legs and a sweet country’n’western voice, and at times it’s almost impossible to believe she’s actually a he.

Tina thinks she’s a star – and she is! – she has the audience eating out of the palm of her well-manicured hand within the first five minutes of this show. She’s warm and sentimental and narcissistic and she had us all giving each other hugs in the audience at the start of the show and line dancing together at the end of the show and i’m still not really quite sure how she did it.

Tina is here to help – she’s figured out that there is an unresolved problem between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – that reconciliation is still a goal, not an achievement – that our history is full of sorry business and that just saying sorry isn’t going to be enough to make reparations for the way indigenous Australians have been treated – and she’s going to deliver a lecture on this topic, and in between bits of her speech, she’s going to sing us some original songs.

Trouble is, Tina calls them ‘Indig-JY-nous Australasians’ or ‘Abori-JYN-als’, and all of her songs have carefully constructed lines to rhyme with those mis-pronunciations, and when she figures this out in the first few minutes of the show it looks like she’s in strife. And to be honest, I had some very nervous moments at the start of this show, wondering how Christopher Green dared to come treading in his stilettos through this minefield of political sensitivities.

But I decided about half way through that actually this guy is a comic genius. Tina the fictional creation can do and say things that a real person would never dare to. She’s faux- naïve, self-obsessed, but has a heart of gold, and what she’s brilliant at doing is pointing out hypocrisy and double standards and unconscious racism and ongoing injustice. And Tina has done her research – she even uses direct quotes from the writings of early Australian colonial governors – and she does this all even while she’s making you laugh yourself sick.

I don’t want to give away too many more of the gags, but DO go and see this show – it’s brilliant, and didn’t want it to finish. Tina C has a beautiful accompanist on guitar, James Henry, who is also the nephew of the late great Jimmy Little who sadly we lost this week. And there is a guest appearance by Aboriginal country singer Auriel Andrew, who used to perform regularly with Jimmy Little. She brought the whole audience to tears with her songs.

‘Tina C: Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ is on at The Malthouse in Southbank until April 14th.

4) Finally to a more conventional piece of theatre , a play called ‘Red’, which is part of the 2012 Melbourne Theatre Company program. It is written by John Logan, who is probably best known as a screenwriter – he worked on ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Aviator’, and more recently the film ‘Hugo’ – and the story goes that Logan fell in love with the paintings of American artist Mark Rothko when he visited the Tate Museum in London about five years ago. He became fascinated with this artist’s life and work, and wrote this play about him.

Rothko was a giant of abstract expressionism. He became very famous and successful in the middle of the last century and his paintings sold for many thousands of dollars, but he committed suicide in 1970. He was born in Russia (part of what is now Latvia) to Jewish parents and the family fled to America to avoid persecution when Rothko was a young boy. But Rothko always felt like an outsider – or at least that’s what this plays argues – and there was clearly a dark side to his creativity.

So this play is a two-hander with Colin Friels playing Rothko and Andre de Venny playing his young assistant Ken, and it’s been directed by Alkinos Tsimilidis, better known as an edgy award-winning Australian film director (directed ‘Everynight… Everynight’, ‘Silent Partner’ and ‘Tom White’, which also starred Colin Friels.)

Everything takes place inside Rothko‘s studio where he paints those luminescent red canvases that New York fell in love with. And while the two men prepare the canvases they talk about art – and talk and talk and talk – and argue – and to be honest I think that becomes a bit of a problem with this play. It becomes more like a two-handed theatrical lecture than a piece of engaging human drama. Yes we can learn a lot about the history of art and of Rothko’s own work in particular, but until the second half of the second half of the play, not very much actually happens.

I almost felt sorry for Colin Friels. He’s a wonderful actor and he puts his heart and soul into this role, but mostly he just has to deliver long diatribes about the nature of art, with the assistant acting as the foil to the monologues. I don’t think it’s a problem with the acting or directing. it’s a problem with the play itself. I felt a bit hectored, and as if perhaps the writer had fallen in love with his research but not necessarily with his characters. So I was surprised to learn that ‘Red’ won a Tony Award two years ago (for the Broadway production) for Best Play.

So – interesting – but not enthralling, I’d say. If you’re a fan of Rothko’s art – and I am – then you’ll be interested, but if you prefer theatre that really engages your emotions as well as your intellect, it might not be for you.

‘Red’ is on at the MTC’s Sumner Theatre in Southbank until May 5th.

March 23

Culture Club Reviews March 22nd

I’ve been to a couple of operas in the last week but to be honest, it’s hard to believe these shows belong in the same cultural category or musical genre, they were SO different.

The first is an opera by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called ‘The Rake’s Progress’, a Victorian Opera production on at the Arts Centre and directed by John Bell, from the Bell Shakespeare Company. It was first performed back in 1951 and has a libretto written by the famous English poet W H Auden, so it involves a collaboration between a couple of mighty innovators in their fields.

The story is, not surprisingly, about a rake, a young man called Tom Rakewell who is tempted by the Devil (disguised as a guy called Nick Shadow) to leave the love of his life, Anne Trulove, for a life of wealth and debauchery down in the big smoke of London. Tom has all sorts of adventures, including marrying a bearded lady called Baba the Turk, but ends up going mad and dying, in spite of Anne’s best efforts to save him. I guess the moral of the story is, if you betray those you love and choose a life of selfish sensual pleasure, you will eventually play the price.

This opera isn’t performed all that often, it’s not as popular as some of the older, more traditional Puccini or Verdi operas, and the music is a bit more challenging. so it’s a real treat to get a chance to see it performed in Melbourne.

And this is a very good production. It has excellent singers, led by Tiffany Speight as Anne Trulove and Benjamin Namdarian as Tom Rakewell, who are also really good actors – very necessary here because the text is quite poetic and at times a bit abstract, so it’s important to get the story across.

Another stand-out is the tenor John Bodey, a very talented singing character actor, who plays an auctioneer who sells off all Tom’s belongings including – almost – his bearded wife Baba the Turk. Anyone who’s been to an auction will recognize the hard-sell type here…

John Bell has had a lot of fun with this show. There’s a lot of sauciness in the costumes and direction, including some cross-dressing and quite a camp aesthetic at times. Tom is led around a brothel at one point by a transvestite with a dog leash…

The production is conducted by Richard Gill, and there is some fantastic ensemble playing in the score for different section of Orchestra Victoria. I was leaning forward in my seat half the night to make sure I could hear every detail. The orchestra won a special award at the Green Room Awards ceremony on the weekend for ongoing excellence and this production is a great example of why.

Highly recommended: ‘The Rake’s Progress’, on at the Arts Centre till March 27th.

The second production I want to mention is a world premiere of a new work called ‘The Box’ commissioned and performed by Chambermade Opera, which specializes in cutting edge contemporary music. Chambermade has been commissioning a whole series of new works to be performed in living rooms. They find benefactors with deep pockets and large lounge rooms willing to sponsor and host a work.

It’s a brilliant idea – you could call it value-adding to the opera experience – because not only do you get to see a show, but you also get the voyeuristic pleasure of sticky-beaking into someone else’s house (as people often do before auctions, don’t they?) and they’re usually very beautiful houses. You also get to go to a new and different venue each time, rather than the ‘same old same old’ theatre, and at the end of the performance they give you a glass of wine and a box of sweets, and invite you to stick around and talk about the show with other audience members and with the cast! Someone described it as ‘more house party than grand opera’ and that’s very true.

I’ve been to several now, in all sorts of different homes and suburbs, from high-rise apartments to Victorian mansions in the leafy suburbs. But this one absolutely takes the cake for venue. ‘The Box’ is composed by Fritz Hauser (Switzerland), who is renowned for his explorations of sound and space, in collaboration with architect Boa Baumann
, and it is performed in the living room of one of Melbourne’s most architecturally-significant private homes, a modernist house called The Iris designed by Australian architect and writer Robin Boyd. It is down on the banks of the Yarra River in Kew.

Let me set the scene for you: the audience members descend through what looks like a big hole in the floor down a staircase and into a large curved room where we sit looking out through a bank of huge high windows into bushland, right there beside the Yarra River. You can see giant gum trees, birds flitting amongst them, the sun going down filtered through the leaves, and outside the window is a woman with a wiping cloth, cleaning the windows and making all sorts of very strange sounds. Sometimes she sounds like she’s singing, sometimes like a chirruping bird, sometimes like a cat – real vocal acrobatics.

Inside the room, in front of the audience, is a big green box on legs and from inside the box come strange rhythmic scraping sounds. And that’s just the start of the show. It gets more and more strange as the woman comes inside and speaks some very poetic text about being stuck inside these white rooms – rooms ‘the colour of angels and eggs’, she says – with other women sipping tea and ‘showing their white smiles’. The text seems to be about women trapped in domesticity. Then she start to interact with the box, talking to it, cooing to it like we coo to little children or perhaps to lovers. I won’t say too much more because you need to see it to experience the mystery of this show.

The singer is Deborah Kayser, one of the country’s most accomplished singers of contemporary music. She has an incredible vocal range, from very low to ear-piercingly high The percussion, if that’s what we can call the sounds coming from the box, is composed by Eugene Ughetti.

This is cutting edge musical composition – you shouldn’t go to this production if you want a clear story-line and hum-able tunes – the pleasure is in trying to figure out what’s going on. Afterwards people had many different theories: was her dead husband inside the box? Was she in love with a box? Had the box taken the place of a lover who’d left her? Who knows. See it and make up your own mind.

‘The Box’ is on until March 24th.

March 8

774 ABC Melbourne Culture Club

These three reviews were broadcast live on 774 ABC Melbourne on Thursday 8th March 2012.

1) ‘The Seed’ is an MTC production being performed at the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre. Written by Australian playwright Kate Mulvaney, this is a play that draws on the playwright’s own life and family history. It’s about a 30 year old woman called Rose Maloney who travels from Australia to England with her father to meet her Irish Catholic grandfather for the first time, on his 80th birthday.

There are familiar and potentially engaging themes in this play – family secrets, skeletons in the closet, stories revealed, lies uncovered, and the longterm impacts of the Vietnam War on those who fought over there. Rose’s ‘Grand-da’ turns out to be kind of monstrous – a braggart and a bully – and Rose’s relationship with her father changes in the course of this visit.

But to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy this play very much. I thought Sarah Gleeson, the actor playing Rose, was a bit of a weak link. I found it hard to believe in her, and given she’s the central character, that puts a spanner in the works right from the beginning.

Max Gillies plays the Grandfather and he plays the comedic aspects of that character beautifully, as you would expect. He’s got the Irish accent just right, again as you would expect from such a wonderful mimic. But Gillies mis-timed quite a few lines on opening night which makes you nervous as an audience member, and when the comedy turns to tragedy, I lost faith in the character.

The strongest cast member is Tony Martin, best known for his role in the TV drama series ‘Wildside’. He plays Danny Maloney, a Vietnam vet who’s a real survivor, both of that war and of his own dysfunctional family. He’s a man who fled his tribe and we find out that that was for good reason. He’s the most convincing character.

I think there are some structural problems with this play. Every now and then the ‘Rose’ character breaks the flow of the drama and suddenly moves into a long, fragmented and not entirely interesting monologue about going crayfishing with her father when she was a child (feels like a bit of a Tim Winton moment) and it mucks up the narrative tension of the play.

And towards the end there’s a scene where Danny gets really upset and angry and starts throwing furniture around and it just goes on a bit too long. undermining the drama of the scene. I think the problem lies with the direction there. (The play is directed by Anne Louise Sarks)

So I couldn’t really recommend ‘The Seed’, which is a shame given that two weeks ago i was banging on here about the importance of getting more Australian plays on the mainstream theatre stages. ‘The Seed’ is on until April 4th.

2) I wanted to talk about a new production of ‘La Boheme’, even though it’s perhaps not the best show to focus on on International Women’s Day – this is yet another one of those operas in which the heroine (Mimi) dies in the end. Opera composers and librettists have always LOVED killing off the women. I can immediately think of at least seven or eight others: Violetta in La Traviata, Aida in Aida, Cio Cio San in Madame Butterfly, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Isolde in Tristan and isolde, Carmen in Carmen, Floria in Tosca, Desdemona in Otello….

Sigh.

But this is a Melbourne Opera production of Puccini’s very popular opera about struggling artists living in a Paris garrett at the end of the l9th century. If you were thinking about sending someone to the opera for the first time, Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ would be a good choice. It’s in a style called ‘verismo’ which refers to a more naturalistic approach to the drama. So a lot of the time the characters – the writers and artists in the garrett – are just mucking around, chatting away, trading jokes, trying to keep warm – but all this is done through music – they’re singing their chat. This opera also has some of the most beautiful melodies ever written for the human voice – ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ is probably the most famous.

This production has a lot going for it. including some really strong performances from the lead roles, especially from the male cast members, including tenor Roy Best who sings the role of Rodolfo, the hero of the story (Roy is best known from his success on the reality TV series ‘Operatunity’) and Rodolfo’s friends Marcello the artist, sung by Philip Calcagno, Schaunard sung by Nathan Lay and Colline sung by Steven Gallop. They’re all really fine singers and lovely actors.

The chorus were pretty ragged – they sounded under-rehearsed – and the pace was often a bit slow from the orchestra, or rather from conductor Greg Hocking – so they were not always entirely in synch with singers. I’m not sure the set entirely works. It’s a small stage at the Atheneum Theatre and whenever the chorus came on it seemed completely crammed. (I think with opera in general you can afford to spend less money on complicated sets and let the audience use their imagination a bit more.)

The opera was written in Italian but it is sung here in English which in some ways is great – it makes it more accessible, theoretically, because you don’t have to have surtitles. Except that the English that opera singers sing is inevitably distorted by what we have to do with our voices, so at times the audience struggled to make out the words and follow what was going on (we might need surtitles even with English.)

But it’s a solid production with beautiful singing, a nice way to dip your toe into the opera world if you haven’t yet.

‘La Boheme’ is on at The Atheneum Theatre in Collins St until March 18th, and they’re also doing a performance at Monash Uni at Robert Blackwood Hall on March 31st. Tickets range from $25 to $98 dollars so they’re quite affordable at that low end, especially compared to Opera Australia production tickets – $57 to $250!

3) ‘Stripped’ opened last night at La Mama theatre in Carlton, a one woman play which has been adapted from a novel written by the actor Caroline Lee. I have to declare here that I know Caroline quite well. This is a small town; if you’re interested in theatre you end up knowing a lot of the people involved, but i thought it was important to mention it.

This is incredibly intimate theatre, in more ways than one. The space at La Mama is intimate, and the actor in this show is confined to a small raised platform that looks like a cross between a cat walk and a coffin. She has limited space to move, a couple of meters at most I’d say, so every movement, every gesture becomes loaded with meaning. And the set works in neatly with the themes of this play, which are about sex and death.

The story revolves around two sisters, Sophie and Lilian, one a stripper, the other a lawyer. Lilian is diagnosed with cancer which becomes terminal – and I’m not giving anything away here because we learn at the very beginning of the play that she’s going to die.

It’s very moving and confronting material. We’re brought literally face to face with a dying person, with their thoughts, their feelings, their sexuality, their pain, and with those loved ones who have to look after them.

Caroline Lee does work role-playing patients with cancer in training sessions for medicos and i think she may have used that experience in writing the book and now in creating the theatre adaptation. She has won several Green Room awards for her one-woman shows, most of them (including ‘Stripped’) beautifully directed by Laurence Strangio. She has specialised in this very challenging performance style. Virtuoso performances are required when you’re the only actor – and are delivered.

My one question about this show is how easy it will be for people who haven’t read the book (as I had) to follow the different characters and their stories. Caroline Lee does a great job of embodying the seven different characters but there are not always easy signposts to know which one is speaking at any one time. Because I’d read the novel I generally knew who was who, but someone I sat with found it a bit hard at first to differentiate between all the characters.

There’s a helpful diagram in the program which explains the characters and their connections, which is worth looking at before the play begins. And copies of the novel are on sale outside the theatre too for people who want the full story.

‘Stripped’ is on at La Mama Theatre in Carlton until March 18th.

March 3

Australian Writer Profile – Deborah Robertson – ‘Sweet Old World’

This profile was published in the March 2012 edition of the Readings Bookshop magazine:

Deborah Robertson’s latest novel began life as a story about three sisters grappling with the impacts of infertility. Eighteen months into the first draft, the Melbourne-based author was so bored with her own project that she ditched it.

‘It had the tone of a Sunday newspaper supplement. We all know about childlessness and it’s all been about the woman’s body and the woman’s longing. There has been such a feminisation of infertility and of parenthood in recent decades’.

Robertson hadn’t lost interest in exploring the experience of childlessness through fiction. What interested her more, she realized, was the silence of men on this subject. She began again and the result is Sweet Old World, an exquisitely melancholic tale of a middle-aged man who longs to be a father.

In 2009 the Irish-Australian journalist David Quinn is living alone in a cottage on one of the grey stone Aran Islands, at the mouth of Galway Bay, where his sister Orla runs a B & B. David is haunted by the image of a ghost-child whose absence fills him with a ‘black and icy…feeling of extinction’.

In a quiet café in North Fitzroy, Robertson ponders the word melancholy; ‘David loves the world. He’s not a misanthrope, but the fact that his deepest wish hasn’t been fulfilled renders him vulnerable. Perhaps melancholy is what vulnerability looks like from the outside.’

One of Robertson’s greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to convey the infinite variety of human emotional states. ‘The problem with melancholy,’ thinks David, ‘is that melancholy doesn’t admit anger, or perhaps it’s anger suppressed’ (p.35). Robertson teases out the subtle affective transformations that can lead to dramatic shifts in people’s lives. When does embarrassment morph into shame? How does shame lead to silence, and what happens when silence becomes a habit?

’I’ve always been interested in masculine silence and the way women try to talk into that silence’ she says. ‘Why do men so often feel ashamed of wanting to be fathers? I discovered this male friend of mine was in complete despair about it but he had never talked about it, he just went about his life. And these days, with the availability of medical technologies for women and of adoption for gay male couples, a single heterosexual man is completely on his own with this desire to have children.’

Vulnerability, particularly that of children, was a dominant theme in Robertson’s last novel. Careless (Picador, 2006) won the Anita Kibble Literary Award and the Colin Roderick Award and was short-listed for half a dozen other literary prizes. It tells the story of a shy girl called Pearl whose young brother dies as a result of a random act of male violence. Robertson says she has ‘an ongoing horror of children suffering and of children not feeling safe in the world’.

In Sweet Old World the suffering child is a teenage traveller called Ettie who has an accident on the island that leaves her hospitalised in a coma. David, who has met Ettie just once, becomes her only visitor until Ettie’s mother Tania arrives from Australia. David collects Tania from the airport: ‘Her face is lovely, but he wouldn’t be able to describe it. A bright light shines from her and makes him look away, a warning light that says don’t you fucking dare.’ (p. 68) But of course he does dare and while Ettie lies silent in her hospital bed the two embark on a stop-start courtship.

Given the ubiquity – and narrative predictability – of popular romance writing, trying to convey the experience of falling in love with fresh prose must be one of the hardest tasks a writer can set themselves. Robertson is up to the challenge. She remembers the small, vivid details that most of us forget once we’ve moved from being-in-love to simply loving; the sudden sense that the world has been made to your specifications; the desire to show your lover the world through your eyes.

She describes David catching the ferry back the island and consciously trying to remember in exact detail the look of the Elvis impersonators on board, ‘so he can paint (Tania) a picture, so she can be there’.

‘One of the wonders of falling in love’, says Roberts, ‘is that the world suddenly stretches wider. It lets you out of the closet of your own life – as expansive and as rich as that might be – and gives you access into someone else’s world. Francoise Sagan said once that being in love meant having someone to look at you. I think that’s really smart, but it’s also having someone look at the way you see things.’

The growing attraction between David and Tania tantalizes the reader with the possibility of a happy ending that Robertson says ‘would have helped me sell another 10,000 copies’ of the book.

‘But I think it’s impossible to reach middle age and not be deeply defined by your past, as these two people have been. I do think character is destiny. The romantic fantasies of popular culture bear as much resemblance to real love as pornography does to real sex and I’m not in the business of peddling a romantic fantasy’.

Robertson also turns her unflinching gaze on the suffering body, both human and animal. David remembers covering a story on ‘The World’s Fastest Turkey Plucking Championship’ at an English industrial factory farm when he was a young journalist:
‘The stink of bird fear, there’s nothing in the world like it. Behind the curtain, turkeys were shitting and screaming and beating their wings; it was probably the most activity they‘d known in their lives, the closest they’d ever been to their bird natures, and it was all about to end’.

David recalls this gruesome scene when a back injury renders him immobile and bed-ridden for several days and his emotional vulnerability is suddenly mirrored by his physical incapacity: ‘The light wakes him, or it might be his pain, or hunger… Now life has come down to a few choices: should he bend his leg or keep it straight? Arm across his eyes or out to the side? Pain is the nucleus of everything.’ (p. 103)

‘I believe that once that happens in a body, an injury that is never repaired,’ says Robertson, ‘once mortality comes in that way, the difference between that sort of human body and the body that has never know pain or illness is greater than the difference between the human body and the animal body. Pain deeply insinuates itself into the way you look at the world and respond to it.’

Robertson plays with the analogy between the slow deterioration of David’s body and the erosion of his adopted home, an island that is literally falling into the sea. And as the Atlantic Ocean carves chunks off the coastline, the Irish economic crisis is gouging away the economic foundations of the island community. Everyone, it seems, is feeling vulnerable.

‘It was a very melancholy time for Ireland’, says Robertson. ‘The prosperity that came from the so-called roaring Celtic Tiger was unusual because Ireland’s history had been all about poverty and emigration and colonialism. Then the Celtic Tiger ran away from them. But melancholy is not nihilism; it’s not a failure to believe in anything. It’s an appreciation of potential riches and a sweet reflection on the gap between potential and realities – that’s the case for Ireland at that time and also for David Quinn.’

February 24

774 Drive Culture Club – Theatre Reviews

I’ve been to see three plays in the last fortnight but I’d have to say the most interesting theatre around at the moment is the K Rudd vs J Gillard Show. Is it a tragedy or is it a comedy?

Or is it a sport?

You might remember a sport called farnarkling which was invented by comedian John Clarke several decades ago. He’d give fake reports on the results of farnarkling games and it was entirely bewildering – you couldn’t really understand the rules, or how the scoring worked, or how many players there were, or how they got their injuries – or even why anyone would bother playing this game. It seems to me the Labor Leadership Game is a bit like farnarkling to most of us. You hear the commentators talking endlessly about it and it seems so irrelevant to your daily life and you just shake your head and wonder why anyone would bother playing.

But there are some parallels between what’s happening inside Labor and some of the plays I’ve seen this week.

1) ‘Tribes’ is an MTC production, a newish work by English playwright Nina Raine, and it’s beautifully directed by Julian Meyrick.

It’s a play about an English family – a tribe – who seem to be at war with each other – sounding familiar? Every conversation involves multiple layers of insults and innuendos, endless blaming and criticizing.

Mother Beth is a writer and father Christopher is an academic who seems terminally disappointed with his three adult children (two boys and a girl), all of whom are still living at home and one of whom, Billy, is deaf. Christopher believes ‘everyone should be laughed at’ and he is the master of the vicious put-down.

This is what many critics would describe as a ‘brave’ play because it goes where few would dare to tread. It takes a long hard look at the idea of disability, and how people treat those who are differently abled. It’s willing to be critical of the deaf signing community, a ‘tribe’ that one character describes as gossipy and insular. It treats mental illness with a casualness that almost makes it seem normal. And it shows us that we can behave most cruelly towards the people we love the most – the people with whom we have most in common.

The question at the centre of the play is – where do we belong? Which tribe should we identify with? Our family? Even if our family seems totally dysfunctional, even if they let us down? Or should we try to find another tribe to belong to – in which case, will the other tribe love us as much as our family will? And what concessions do we have to make to earn our place in the tribe?

The acting in this production is wonderful, especially Alison Bell who plays Sylvia, a young woman who is going deaf, and who people might know from the ABC comedy series ‘Laid’, and David Paterson who plays Daniel, a young man who in the end seems even more disabled than his deaf brother.

At times I thought Brian Lipson, who plays the father, was a little too shouty. Everything was in top gear, which left him nowhere to go when the most crucial dramatic moments came along. But overall this production is highly recommended. It’s exhilarating, illuminating and exhausting to watch. Warning – there is plenty of strong language from the very first moments.

‘Tribes’ is on at the MTC in Southbank until March 14th. The performances on Saturday 25th February at 4pm and Monday 5th March at 6.30pm are captioned for the deaf community.

2) The second production I saw is a play called ‘Good People’ by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, a Red Stitch Actors Theatre production. As many would know, this is a small theatre ensemble based in St Kilda which has been punching above its weight for many years, doing great work on tiny budgets.

‘Good People’ is also about tribalism and disability, and about class – yes folks, it does still exist. The play is set in Boston, Massachusetts – working-class South Boston, or ‘Southie’ – where people struggle to pay their rent and spend their Saturday nights playing bingo, hoping for a win so they CAN pay their rent. Everyone’s name has an ‘ee’ at the end of it in these parts – Margie, Mikey, Dottie, Jeanie, Stevie – which is kind of a way of saying, everyone’s equal, and everyone’s also equally diminished by their hard lives.

Margie is a single mother of an adult daughter with a disability, and at the beginning of the play she loses her job at the check out counter. She may also be about to lose her home, because she can’t pay the rent. Margie meets up with an old flame, a doctor she calls Mikey, who escaped his working class roots and ‘made good’. Mikey has come back to town with a beautiful wife and a daughter in tow. Mikey is what Margie calls ‘good people’ – a decent bloke – part of Margie’s tribe, in spite of his success – or is he?

The drama revolves around what Margie hopes Mikey can do to help her out, what she knows about Mikey’s past, and who she’s prepared to reveal it to. I don’t want to give any more away or I’ll spoil it but there is a really satisfying dramatic end to this play. The acting from ensemble cast of six is excellent. It’s hard to single anyone out but do keep an eye out for Olga Makeeva, a Russian-Australian actress who plays Dottie (who is Dottie by name and dotty by nature) and who has brilliant comic timing.

There’s a simple, ingenious set design by Peter Mumford for this tiny, intimate theatre, and the direction by Kaarin Fairfax is spot on.

‘Good People’ is a great night out. It’s on until March 3rd.

3) ‘The Wild Duck’ is a production that began life in Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre and is now having a season at the Malthouse Theatre. Many people would have heard of or seen the original Henrik Ibsen play of the same name (you might have studied it at school perhaps) but writer and director Simon Stone has taken the original play, pulled it apart, and put it back together again, setting it in contemporary times and using colloquial Australian language. (Simon is also the new Artistic Director of Belvoir Theatre.)

The characters have the same names ( though I think they’re more likeable in this version than in Ibsen’s) and the plot is very similar: a young man called Gregers returns to his father Werle’s house supposedly to attend his father’s wedding to a much younger woman, but in fact he’s come to wreak revenge for his mother’s suicide by exposing some family secrets.
He re-establishes contact with his old friend Hjalmar and Hjalmar’s beloved wife and daughter, but when Gregers finally reveals some home truths to Hjalmar, tragedy becomes inevitable.

This is a GREAT production. I was on the edge of my seat the whole evening. Simon Stone has done a really interesting thing, he’s put the actors very clearly behind the so-called ‘fourth wall’ – in this instance, he’s put glass windows between the actors and the audience, and then miked the actors – so we’re watching them as if we’re peering through someone’s living room window, like voyeurs.

And the mikes ensure that every tiny sound or breath the performers make can he heard. There’s none of that loud declamatory style that most stage actors have to use to get their lines across, it’s very, very subtle. It’s odd to be so separate visually and yet so close aurally. You imagine it might make us feels distanced from the characters but actually they remain almost unbearably real and close.

The acting is superb from a very even cast. John Gaden is a veteran of Australian theatre who plays the father Werle. Ewan Leslie plays Hjalmar. He’s the ’it’ boy of Australian theatre at the moment, an incredibly talented stage actor. And Hjalmar’s teenage daughter is played by Eloise Mignon. She’s actually in her mid 20’s but is entirely convincing as a fifteen year old school girl.

Go and see it, if you can get a ticket. ‘The Wild Duck is on until March 17th at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank.