Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

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September 14

Culture Club reviews September 12th

I’ve been to see three new ‘Australian’ plays in the last month. Although two of them are loosely based on real events they were all very different and to be honest, with one of them, it’s a bit doubtful whether it can actually be called an Australian play.

The first play is ‘Savages’, by Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius, which was on at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane. It was one of the best new plays I’ve seen in a long time – totally exhilarating.

Patricia Cornelius may not be a household name but in fact she has won many awards for her plays, including two AWGIE awards and several Premier’s Literary awards. She’s a political playwright in the broadest sense. She was a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre and she is deeply interested in power; who gets to wield it, and to what end. The director of this new show, Susie Dee, is someone Cornelius has worked with quite a bit in the past, and you can see that they have a very similar vision of what makes good theatre.

This new play is also about power, although not in any simplistic way. Patricia Cornelius has taken as her jumping off point the awful true story of the death of Australian woman Diane Brimble on board a cruise ship in gruesome circumstances (there were date rape drugs involved), a story that was all over the local media a few years ago. The playwright has backtracked to ask – how could a situation like that come to be?

She has created four fictional male characters, a bunch of mates who go on a cruise trip together, each of them looking for some kind of escape from their everyday lives and also, perhaps, for some kind of reward for enduring their own lives. And although the story ends before the men have even approached the imagined female character, by the end of the play you have an intimate understanding of how a situation like that could have come to pass, and perhaps even some empathy for the four men.

The writing in this play is a combination of the highly poetic and the profoundly colloquial. At times it’s like listening to a choir, except that they’re speaking rather than singing. At times there are rhymes and repetition, sometimes the characters speak in unison, and it’s always writing with great rhythm. At times the performances are quite naturalistic, and at other times they’re highly choreographed, almost like physical theatre.

Cornelius has taken a forensic approach to the study of masculinity, exploring the kind of upbringings and attitudes and cultural values that might lead a group of men to think it’s okay to consider ‘date- raping’ a woman. One description of this play that I read said it was about bereft men, men who feel like they haven’t had their due. Cornelius also uses the word stifled in the program notes. These four men feel as if they’ve been ‘dudded’ in their lives – with love, with their marriages, parenting, work, their dreams – and someone has to be held to account.

The changing dynamics between the four very different characters are fascinating. One of them is called Runt and that’s exactly what he is, the runt of the pack, the one who is bullied and blamed. At times this play reminded me of the novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, in the way that brutal pack mentality is played out. ‘Wake in Fright’ also came to mind, as did and Kate Grenville’s novel ‘Dark Places’, in terms of adding to your understanding of how men can do unimaginable things to women.

The set design is simple but effective; a raked wooden stage that looks a bit like the deck of a cruise ship, with a tiny hole in the ground which is the cramped cabin the men have to share. There is also great sound design by Kelly Ryall, and the ensemble cast of four actors are all very strong; like a well-oiled machine when they’re working together on the stage.

‘Savages’ was simply brilliant and if it has a return season (as I hope it will soon) you should get down there to see it.

The second so-called Australian play I’ve been to see is ‘The Cherry Orchard’, billed as being ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ . This is an MTC production on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

I really enjoyed this production and had a great night at the theatre, but I do think it was a bit cheeky of Simon Stone to claim authorship of this famous early twentieth century play by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, to be honest. It’s an adaptation, sure, or perhaps a free translation, but when you retain the main characters, the plot, and much of the dialogue, I don’t think you can claim ownership of someone else’s play.

Simon Stone has also directed this production and he has updated the setting to – well we’re not quite sure where but it could be modern day Russia, or it could be outer suburban Australia. There’s a McMansion with a big backyard that people sit around in, and a blow-up plastic pool, but the story is essentially the same: a wealthy but dissolute family have run through all their money and are going to have to sell off the family estate, including their beloved cherry orchard, to pay off their debts. And there’s a local businessman (a nouveau riche bloke we’d say in Australia) who wants to help them out, to find a way for them to keep the orchard, but because they can’t actually face the reality of what’s happening to their family, they ignore his offers until its too late.

The good news is that this new production has retained the sweet, sly, sympathetic humour of Chekhov. There are so many moments when you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or cry, because the characters are so nutty and so vulnerable. And the cast is incredibly strong. Toby Truslove is a stand out. He plays Trofimov, the eternal student and the butt of everyone’s jokes, but also a philosopher and idealist. He’s the unrequited lover who’s always making up really bad love songs to Dunyasha, the girl who will never love him in return, and it’s a beautiful, funny performance. And Rob Menzies is wonderful as Gayev, the hopeless brother who in this production keeps retreating to his toy train set to avoid the reality of his crumbling world.

It’s interesting how the themes of this play just keep resonating, long after the world that it originally portrayed has disappeared. It was all about the end of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the people who the communists swept away, but the human behaviour that the play examines remains the same: people who are unwilling to accept and adapt to change, people who feel they’re entitled to privilege, people seduced by the idea of wealth and power.

The Cherry Orchard’ – ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ – is on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

And finally I’ve been to see ‘Rupert’, the new play about Rupert Murdoch by one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, David Williamson, which is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Let me say straight up, I did NOT enjoy this play. Those were three of the longest hours I’ve spent in the theatre. But I know plenty of people will disagree with me about this because there was tons of laughter in the theatre and Williamson has a rock solid fan base. He’s written many of Australia’s most successful plays and screenplays, including Don’s Party, The Removalists, The Club, Gallipolli, and The Year of Living Dangerously. But I don’t think ‘Rupert’ will go down in history as one of his finest.

It starts promisingly when Rupert comes on stage with his mobile phone and starts bossing the audience around and sending off bragging tweets. Immediately you believe in the actor, Sean O’Shea, who is playing the older Rupert in this production. Rupert tells us that this is HIS version of events, that he’s telling his own story, the whole story, of the ‘real’ Rupert. Gradually we’re introduced to some of the key characters including Rupert’s mother Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, his three wives, his business allies and competitors, and eventually his children. So most members of the cast are required to play many different characters, except for Guy Edmonds who plays young(er) Rupert. Often the two Ruperts are on stage together and sometimes they are in dialogue with each other. But this huge cast of characters is part of the problem for me; Williamson has tried to tell us too much about Murdoch’s life and times, and has ended up not really telling us anything we didn’t already know.

There’s a great book I use in teaching creative writing called ‘The Situation and the Story’ by Vivian Gornick which argues that it’s not enough just to tell people about a ‘situation’; to create a really fine piece of writing you have to be very clear about the ‘story’ that you’re telling from within that situation. And for me, this is where ‘Rupert’ the play falls down. There are so many potentially interesting stories to explore in the life of this powerful man; the moral cost of a naked appetite for power; the process of political corruption that can take place when newspaper proprietors get pally with politicians; the personal cost of putting business before everything else. There is definitely room for a creative critique of this man whose business practices have had such a profound impact on so many lives. But it seems as if Williamson hasn’t decided what story he wants to tell us so he had ended up trying to do it all but doing none of it well.

Instead we get a lot of character impersonations, very briefly sketched, and lots of one-liners that depend on the audience being in the know about the details of Murdoch’s personal life and infamous career. There are lots of rapid costume changes and quirky props but in the second half of the play in particular the playwright has tried to cram so much history into the plot it just about busts apart from the pressure.

As I said, Sean O’Shea is great as the older Rupert, but I wasn’t convinced by Guy Edmonds as the younger Rupert. There is a lot of hamming it up for the audience, and a lot of physical comedy just for the sake of a quick gag, which I think the director should have kept a tighter rein on. The rest of the cast are total troupers and seem to be having a lot of fun but at moments it was like watching a university revue.

‘Rupert’ is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Don’t forget the Melbourne Fringe Festival starts next week on the 18th – hope you can get out and see some fresh Melbourne talent treading the boards.

And finally, a special mention for the return season of the Victorian Trade Union Choir production ‘I’ll Be There’ at La Mama Theatre at the end of this month. I saw it last year at Trades Hall and though i confess to being totally biased (i founded the choir) it’s totally delightful.

August 16

Culture Club reviews August 15th

Mein Kampf’ is a play that opened at La Mama theatre in Carlton last week. I have to admit that when I saw the title of this production, I quailed a little, given that this is also the title of Adolf Hitler’s deeply anti-Semitic autobiography. Of course it literally just means ‘My Struggle’ in German, and as it turned out, Hitler is one of the main characters in this comedy.

The play was written in 1987 by a Jewish Hungarian playwright called George Tabori. and apparently it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also a farce and mostly complete fantasy. Some important background information here is that Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz, and one of the questions I thought about as I watched this play was – how different might my response have been if I didn’t have that background information, or if Tabori wasn’t Jewish? (By the way a Hungarian friend of mine tells me ‘tabor’ means ‘camp’ in Hungarian and ‘tabori’ means ‘from the camp’)

The play did very well when it was first produced in Vienna in 1987. Remember that at this time an ex-Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, had just been elected Austrian President so an interesting context for a story like to appear. In 2011 it was also made into a film, which had mixed reviews.

So the plot in brief: an old Jewish man called Schlomo Herzl is living in poverty in Vienna some time early in the 20th century, trying to write his autobiography, which he calls ‘Mein Kampf’ – my struggle. Schlomo is sharing a room in his boarding house with someone who may or may not be God, a character named Lobkowitz, who insists on being called Boss. One day a belligerent young man enters their home, and it’s Hitler, come to Vienna to try to get into art school. Schlomo Herzel, who is above all a kind man, takes young Hitler under his wing and tries to help him. He feeds and clothes him and supports him through his many moments of rage and paranoia and hypochondria. He trims Hitler’s moustache and combs his hair and in spite of the worst behaviour from this young man, Schlomo keeps believing he can bring out the best in him if he just keeps applying kindness.

Meanwhile there’s a beautiful young Austrian woman called Gretchen who seems to be in love with old Schlomo. When she visits him she strips naked and wanders around his dingy basement home holding a pet chicken. At some point a glamorous women all dressed in black called Frau Death knocks on the door and says she’s come for Hitler. Schlomo distracts her while Hitler’s on the toilet and sends her away, to protect Hitler. If this was a pantomime, of course, we’d all be yelling ‘he’s over there!’

So the whole story is absurd but underlying the manic dialogue and the fast-paced comedy is deep tragedy. Perhaps there’s a question being posed here about whether it was human naivety that allowed Hitler to get as far as he did with his diabolical plans.

The production has had excellent direction by Beng Oh and there are some really strong performances in this production. It’s broad physical comedy, with lots of visual gags, everyone just goes for it. Mark Wilson plays Shlomo and is quite convincing as an old Jewish guy, and you almost fall in love with this Zelig character. (Shlomo claims to have been present at a whole lot of memorable historical moments but actually he’s a fabricator, a fabulist, and a poet – at one point he says ‘ the purpose of poetry is to chat up death and stall for time’). Glen Van Oosterom as Hitler is both very funny and deeply unlikeable, as he should be. Hitler’s megalomania comes out in this version of the character when he says he ‘wants the world be flat, not round, so he can push people off the edges’.

But this play won’t be for everyone. The dialogue is hilarious but relentless, there’s plenty of toilet humour and some full frontal nudity, and towards the end of the play there’s a scene involving the slow disembowelling of a dead chicken (or maybe it’s a turkey) which is a chilling visual reminder of the clinical way the Nazis disposed of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. It will turn your stomach, as it should.

But if you’re up for it, go and see ‘Mein Kampf.’ It’s on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until August 25th

I’ve also been to see, Prompter, a new theatre production that’s part of the Arts House (North Melbourne) 2013 program.

I went along to this show with high hopes because theoretically it was right up my alley – a play billed as being about the media, the impact of technology and digital media on story-telling and politics – all the stuff journalists deal with on a daily basis. I’d have to say, though, I was disappointed.

This production was co-written by Sam Fox and Patrick Pittman, directed by Sam Fox, and produced by a Perth-based company called Hydra Poesis. It’s certainly ambitious, involving multi-lingual actors, live dance performances, hand-held cameras simultaneously broadcasting performers in the space, and other performers beamed in via the internet from locations all around the world. There are giant screens and small screens and smoke effects and sound effects, all contained within the cavernous echoing space of the Meat Market.

The ‘plot’: a reporter is apparently doing a live cross from a small island in the South Pacific called San Supice (I think), where something terrible is happening but the reporter is not quite sure what. People are fleeing their homes, there’s been some kind of natural disaster or political drama, and this freelance reporter, Charles Boyd (played by Brendan Ewing) is trying to cover the situation with very limited information, so the story keeps changing. What he’s describing could be something like the earthquake in Haiti or the invasion of East Timor, with people fleeing in terror and becoming instant refugees in their own country.

A little later we’re introduced to another character, a woman who has gone to St Supice to try and help out after the ‘disaster’. She’s an aid worker who’s being grilled by another journo about her motivations for being there. So there’s an interesting debate here about the purpose and the effect of the intervention of first world aid workers in these kinds of situations, about and the choices they make when they leave their loved ones behind. There are questions raised about empathy and desensitisation to tragedy, and if this play is about storytelling, then there are potentially a couple of very interesting story-lines there.

The problem is, the stories get buried under all the other busy business that’s going on. The dance performances didn’t seeme to add very much to the whole, and the monologues beamed in via the internet are very hard to hear in that echoing space. In fact sound is a big problem with this production in general in this space, and I was left thinking, how much time was spent considering the audience in putting this show together?

I don’t mean that it should be made easy or comfortable for us, but I think there was some dramaturgy missing that could cut back on the busy business with technology and make sure there is more clarity in what is being attempted here. The company clearly wants to challenge the traditional relationship between performers and audience, and in the program notes they talk about the play beginning from the idea of ‘alienation’, so perhaps they wanted us to feel confused and disoriented and discomforted. I’m not sure they intend to alienate the audience quite as much as they actually do.

Brendan Ewing is very good as the journo Charles Boyd. His ‘fixer’ (the local journo who helps him find out what’s going on on St Supice) is played by French actor Jule Japhet Chiari and her character was convincing but her voice as so soft that we missed many of her lines. In the end, it felt like a long hour and half at the theatre.

There is material online about the production if you want to find out more about it – www.prompterdispatches.net

Prompter is on at the Meat Market in North Melbourne until August 18th

Couple of Festival previews for you: the Melbourne Fringe Festival program is out and the Festival runs from September 18th to October 6th. With 3400 artists performing comedy, theatre, circus and cabaret in more than 100 venues, it could be a nightmare trying to decide what to see.

So here are a few tips to get you started :

– A musical comedy show called ‘The Beyond with Leslie Squid’ about a psychic, on at the Frringe Hub upstairs at Errols’ in Errol St North Melbourne. I’ve read some screenplay material by the co-writer and director of this show, Stayci Taylor, and she is VERY FUNNY.

– A new Chambermade Opera production of an opera for solo voice about the experience of flying called ‘Turbulence’. This is one of the company’s ongoing living room operas and it will literally be performed in the living room of someone’s apartment. ‘Turbulence’ features virtuosos soprano Deborah Kayser and will challenge your preconceptions about what is ‘opera’.

– A ‘radical reinterpretation’ of Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ by Van Badham, who recently adapted Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for the Malthouse Theatre. This show, called ‘How It Is, or As You Like It’ is on at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton.

– A comedy show called ‘Come Heckle Christ’ which (I’m pretty sure) is by the winner of last year’s Best Comedy Award at the Melbourne Fringe, Josh Ladgrove. It’s an improvised performance where you get to ask Jesus Christ all those questions you’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance. ‘Come Heckle Christ’ will be on at the Imperial Hotel.

And the 2013 [Melbourne International Arts Festival](http://www.melbournefestival.com.au) program has just been launched. The Festival runs from October 11th to October 27th and here’s what I reckon looks good:

– Into the Bloodstream, a new show from singer/songwriter Archie Roach at the Arts Centre. This show is an autobiographical presentation of Archei’s work directed by Rachel Maza from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre and will feature a huge number of other fantastic musicians and performers as special guests.

– Singer/songewriter Gurrumul Yunupingu will be performing in the Myer Music Bowl with the Philharmonia Australia orchestra for one night only. If you haven’t yet seen him performing live, do.

– French pianists and sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque are performing a program of Debussy, Ravel and Bernstein at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

– The highly-regarded local theatre company the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble is doing a production called ‘M and M’, based on Bulgakov’s classic story ‘The Master and Margarita’ at Theatreworks in St Kilda.

– The Hofesh Schecter Company from the UK is returning for their third Festival. Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Schecter has a world premiere work in the program called ‘Sun’ at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre.

– There’s a new play by Eddie Perfect for the Melbourne Theatre Company called ‘The Beast’. Eddie was last seen on stage playing Shane Warne in his musical about the hapless cricketer. ‘The Beast’ is apparently about a bunch of tree-changers confronted with the task of killing a cow.

– There is a Kids Weekend on October 19th and 20th with theatre, puppetry, music, a book market, kids flicks, a pop-up veggie space all targeted at children of various ages.

August 6

Working with Words

I recently answered a series of questions for the Wheeler Centre about working as a writer:

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first few articles I had published were in the Melbourne University magazine Farrago. I wrote some profiles and arts reviews and also a personal column that was published anonymously because I was embarrassed about the subject matter. An editor picked that one up and published it in a high school textbook – the first time I was paid for my writing. Priceless encouragement. (And no I won’t tell you what it was about.)

What’s the best part of your job?

Variety. I have a low boredom threshold and being a freelancer in a range of areas (writing, teaching, broadcasting, singing, editing, event hosting, etc.) means that if I get tired of one thing, there’s always something else I can do until I feel refreshed.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Insecurity of income – although I have got better at tolerating that uncertainty over the years. It’s worth it at the moment for the freedom.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Being contacted by an editor who said she might be interested in the book I’m currently writing (the first one I actually believe I’ll finish). It’s been a painful process and it was good to be offered hope that all that work might see the light of day.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

American essayist Ander Monson has some insightful things to say about writing. In his essay ‘Voir Dire’ he wrote, ‘How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read…? How often is there actual risk involved…?’ Whenever I feel anxious about being too self-revealing in my writing I remind myself of those questions.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I once received some very negative emails in response to a critical column I wrote about the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I was shocked but those correspondents were right. I’ve now written a piece about how my thinking changed after receiving those emails. Writing is so ridiculously self-reflexive sometimes, isn’t it?

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

More music. More more more more more music. When I’m not rehearsing or performing music I feel like a limb is missing.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

As a long-time teacher of creative writing I am entirely biased. You can definitely have an influence on the quality of someone’s writing by encouraging them to develop new skills and to be more self-critical with their own writing. The RMIT writing courses (where I teach) have helped to produce some breathtakingly good published writers.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Take risks with your writing. Show your writing to others and take their criticisms seriously. Write every day.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I am doing a PhD and I buy most of my academic texts online (still hard copies) but I buy my novels in independent bookshops like Readings. I don’t yet own an e-reader (always a late adopter).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Can I pass on this one? I’m happy for imaginary people to stay within the pages of a book. I’d prefer to have dinner with some flesh and blood writers. New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, maybe. He seems like a compassionate bloke. We could talk about the fact that he has the same name as my maternal grandfather.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I am a passionate devotee of Margaret Atwood’s writing, both fiction and non fiction. I envy the deft way she mixes humour and political critique with suspenseful narratives. I find it hard to imagine the literary landscape of the 20th century without her books. As the weather gets weirder and weirder (with climate change) I think often about her book Oryx and Crake. If only we could clone and transplant her imagination into the minds of the world’s political leaders.

July 24

Why Royal Babies Transcend Politics

– because ever since forever we’ve been looking at other people, trying to figure out how best to be human

– because the other people who are the easiest ones to look at are often the famous (fictional or factual) people whose lives are displayed for our viewing

– because since forever there’ve been famous royals putting themselves on display for us with their blood that may or may not be blue

– because deep down we actually like the magical-thinking idea that because people are royal and may (or may not) have blue blood they are therefore more interesting to look at and better able to help us figure out how best to be human

– because for a little while there was that blonde one with the shy smile and the ducking way with the homicidal cameras who got under our skin in spite of her blue-blood-by-way-of-marriage status and who everyone wanted to look at

– because royals have babies in order to perpetuate their (possibly) blue blooded royal lines

– because when they have babies we can wonder what it might be like to have a royal baby and whether it’s just like having a red-blooded baby in the end

– because when royals bring out their babies for public display we see that their babies look just like our babies

– because when we see those babies who look just like our babies we respond to them as if they’re just normal babies and we can’t help getting that strange soggy feeling in our solar plexus that comes with the viewing of babies

– because when we see their royal babies we think of our dear friend who has just had a baby or who is just about to have a baby or who had a baby who couldn’t keep breathing or who tried really hard to have a baby but couldn’t, and the solar plexus thing gets even soggier

– because in the end, whether you’re a royalist or a republican, babies are just babies, whatever the colour (real or imagined) of their blood.

– Oh that poor baby.

July 19

Culture Club reviews July 18th

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.

June 21

Culture Club reviews June 21st

‘King Kong’ opened at the Regent Theatre last week, the world premiere of a new and spectacular musical theatre production. It was interesting timing to be reviewing this show in the light of Senator Cory Bernardi’s reported comments about the imminent threat of state sanctioned bestiality if gay marriage is legalized. Is King Kong a story about latent bestiality? (sigh) Or is it a story about the human exploitation of nature and the dire consequences of that?

The first thing I want to say is – I DO recommend that you go to this show. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in the theatre and the ticket price will be worth it just for the astonishment factor. The technical team from local company Global Creatures have done a superb job. I do, however, have some serious reservations about this new musical directed by Daniel Kramer.

The plot would be familiar to many of you from the various screen versions of the story (the musical is based on the novel of the original 1933 screen play). A documentary-maker and entrepreneur called Carl Denham finds a pretty young blonde, Ann Darrow, and takes her on a ship to Skull Island in the hopes of making a movie about beauty and the beast with the mythical giant beast that inhabits this island. Although he doesn’t get to make his movie Denham does capture the beast (a giant gorilla he calls King Kong) and takes him back to New York, where he turns him into a freak show. Then it all goes pear-shaped. The book for this new musical has been written by Craig Lucas and the original music is composed by Marius de Vries.

Aesthetically and stylistically this production is a bit all over the shop. If you were generous, you’d called it post-modern, in the way that it borrows bits and pieces from a whole lot of different popular cultural forms and historical moments. If you were less than generous, you’d say it lacked coherence. At times it looks like an R’n’B video clip direct from MTV, with bevies of pornographic blondes dancing in high heels and suspenders. At other times it looks as if it has borrowed scenes from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It’s a bit Eurovision-tacky and occasionally it looks like something that Cirque de Soleil might have produced.

Often the stage is incredibly busy, with so much happening that you don’t know where to look. It is something of a relief when all the singin’ and dancin’ stops and the love story at the heart of this show (between human and beast) kicks back in.

The music is a mix of different styles, with fragments of dubstep, quotes from 1930’s-style jazz and elements of classical choral music. Although Marius de Vries is credited as the composer, the show also ‘features songs and original compositions by’ a range of other artists, and the combination doesn’t always work to best advantage. (If you have sensitive hearing I recommend you take ear-plugs because at times the volume is thunderously loud.)

Esther Hannaford, who plays the blonde femme fatale Ann Darrow, is wonderful in the role. She has a natural, vulnerable and empathic stage presence which works beautifully in the scenes where King Kong is falling in love with her and when she is trying to protect him from harm. Some of these scenes literally brought me to tears. Hannaford has a very flexible voice and can sing in practically any style. At times, though, I wondered what her true style really is. Mimicry is admirable but we also look for something unique in a voice, don’t we? Perhaps the ‘Full Moon Lullaby’ she sings to King Kong comes closest to revealing that voice.

Adam Lyon who plays Carl Denham is also very good. His voice reminded me a bit of Eddie Perfect’s voice, a powerful instrument with great flexibility and range. But there are some rather odd minor characters who pop up, including Richard Piper’s ship’s captain, played as a kind of cartoon kilt-wearing dreadlocked Scot. The visuals set him up as a humorous character but the gag essentially goes nowhere.

To be honest, until the giant gorilla arrived I wasn’t entirely engaged in this production. And when he did I nearly fell off my chair. This is theatre spectacle at its best.

Without giving too much away, the six metre high creature has been brilliantly anthropomorphised so that his limbs look more like those of a human body builder than a gorilla. The face is unbelievably expressive, given that its movements are controlled by computers. And the puppetry that controls the rest of his body is as good as anything we saw recently in the English production of ‘Warhorse’ at the Arts Centre.

The black-clad puppeteers (directed by Peter Wilson) leap and scurry around the stage with great agility, present yet not present, in a strangely balletic choreography of precise timing (I hate to imagine what could happen if the timing ever went awry). When the giant creature is suffering you entirely suspend your disbelief and suffer along with him.

The lighting design is one of the stars of this show and it is absolutely critical to pulling off the thrills and suspense that go with the King Kong story. The digital wall of lights at the back of the stage make you feel at times as if you’re in the middle of a thrilling 3D video game.

There was not exactly an overwhelming response at the end of the show from the audience on the night I saw it. I’m not sure whether that was because they had reservations about the show or because the ending is inevitably so sad. To applaud raucously would have felt almost as inappropriate as applauding at the end of a funeral.

King Kong the musical is on at the Regent Theatre until at least October.

I have also been to see ‘The Penelopiad’, a Stork Theatre production at the La Mama Courthouse. This play is an adaptation of a feminist re-reading of history by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood (one of my favourite writers) and it centres on a character who would be well-known to those of you interested in the classics. Penelope is the long-suffering wife of the Greek hero Odysseus (of the Iliad and the Odyssey fame; hence The Penelopiad) and once again, it was very interesting timing to be watching this play, given the swirling currents of misogyny in Australian public life in recent weeks. So much of what Penelope talks about in this play is still so current, when it comes to the relative power of men and women.

Penelope is known traditionally as the archetypal ‘good wife’ – the faithful wife – the one who stayed home waiting for TWO DECADES for her husband to return, fending off other suitors, raising their child, while Odysseus was off conquering Troy and having affairs with sirens and fighting minotaurs. Penelope is a princess, the daughter of a Naiad (a goddess of the sea) and her father tried to drown her at birth. In this version of the story she’s given to Odysseus as a child bride after he cheats in a race whose prize was Penelope.

Much of the play is a monologue by Penelope, performed by Carolyn Bock, but there is also a Greek chorus of three young women who play all many different characters, including Penelope’s maids, Odysseus himself, Penelope’s suitors, and the beautiful Helen of Troy.

In case you’re wondering if this a dry didactic political play, it most definitely is NOT. The Penelopiad is incredibly witty, written in contemporary language with songs and visual gags and shadow puppetry and choreography, all delivered wih that classic Margaret Atwood sharp, droll humour. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments of clowning and plenty of jokes at Odysseus’ expense, about how his legs are really short and how he loves to talk about himself all the time and how he’s the ruler of this island, Ithaca, which has nothing but goats on it. Carolyn Bock is quite riveting as the white-faced Penelope. She moves like a trained dancer and is a natural comedienne, and the three other women in this show are give very fine performances.

In spite of the humour, this play is also a tragedy. As we know from Homer’s original tales, when Odysseus finally comes home from all of his travels, he has Penelope’s only allies – her maidservants – put to death. The story is told from the perspective of Penelope after her own death when she is wandering around in the afterlife feeling guilty about not having protected those women from male violence.

I have to say, in the wake of the much-publicised sexist comments about the Australian Prime Minister and the high profile media stories about rape and violence towards women that we’ve been pummelled with in the last couple of weeks, there was something incredibly cathartic about watching this play and seeing these (unfortunately) timeless themes reflected back at us in the theatre.

‘The Penelopiad’ is highly recommended and can be seen at the La Mama Courthouse in Carlton until July 7th.

And very briefly, last night I saw ‘Shane Warne The Musical’, a semi-staged version of this show at the Hamer Hall. It was hard not to compare this production to the original fully-staged one that toured the country a few years ago, and some of the voices in the new production were not quite as strong as last time around. The sound quality at the Hamer Hall was strangely muted so at times it was hard to catch all of the hilarious lyrics. (Could have been a factor of where I was sitting, though, in the corner of the stalls underneath a balcony.)

But cabaret artist Eddie Perfect, who wrote the musical, once again stars as the hapless Australian cricketing hero and if you didn’t see the original, it is worth seeing this show just to see Eddie strutting his stuff as ‘our Shane’. Somehow he manages to be both fond and critical of this guy who publicly cheated on his wife, harassed women with ‘sexting’ and (according to Eddie’s version) may be struggling to find meaning in his life now that he’s no longer playing test cricket.

Tonight (June 21st) is your last chance to see ‘Shane Warne the Musical’ in this Melbourne season.

June 6

Letter to an old friend

Today i went to the funeral of an old friend of mine. Deborah Cass was a brilliant woman and an unofficial mentor. This is an edited version (for reasons of privacy) of a letter i sent her a month ago, knowing how ill she was. I am so very glad she got to read it.

Dear Deborah,

I have been meaning to write this letter for a while now. Years, really. It’s a letter of gratitude to someone who has had an intermittent but incredibly positive influence on my life.

At university you were a glamorous feminist role model for me. You were like royalty, except that we were all republicans. At political club meetings you were always quietly offering the wise advice of someone who had been around politics for a long time and understood how it worked. You always asserted – and were given – equal status to the inevitably noisier boys. You were smarter than most of those boys but you didn’t need to work hard to prove it. And of course you were also beautiful and sexy and cool, none of which should matter, but all of which usually do matter, somehow.

As a Farrago editor you gave me some of my first and most enjoyable opportunities to be published in print, experiences that have had a profound impact on my professional life. (There was a deeply personal article i wrote) that you were happy to let me publish anonymously – otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. Then you passed on to me an inquiry from a publisher who wanted to re-print that piece in a school textbook – my first professional publication – and the first official recognition that I could write well enough to be paid for my work. Priceless.

Somehow our paths kept crossing over the years. The Victorian Trade Union Choir, where your obvious enjoyment of that nutty mob made me feel proud to have brought them together. RMIT, where I always left our occasional coffee dates with something important to think about – either to do with writing, or work, or relationships.

I vividly remember our conversation about my qualms about (working with my then partner) and your quiet reminder that I needed to preserve my separate independent professional reputation. And I was always full of admiration for your determination to keep working on your book, in spite of the pain you were enduring.

In fact my admiration for you has only deepened and strengthened over the decades. You are brave on so many levels. Your endurance has been Herculean. Or perhaps Amazonian? Your ability to preserve your dignity in the face of whatever challenge came your way has been the best role modelling I could have had from a friend.

And in the past year, when we were both (dealing with the loss of something) we had valued deeply, it was an incredible comfort to me to be able to speak freely, angrily, philosophically, politically, unguardedly about what I had been going through with (a friend) who was going through something just as painful.

So for all those reasons, and for all the ways you have made a difference in my life, I thank you, Deborah. It is a pleasure – and privilege – to be your friend. If there is anything at all I can do for you right now, or in the future, please let me know.

Lots of love

Sian

May 23

Culture Club reviews, May 23rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10

Culture Club reviews, May 9th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Culture Club reviews will be on May 23rd.

April 6

The Sounds of Silence

To the girl standing right in front of me at the Byron Bay Blues Festival last week:

Because you have only lived in that creamy clear skin for two decades I don’t expect you to know that it was not polite of you and your friend to push your way through the crowd of people who had been standing on their tired mud-caked feet for over an hour in order to be close to the front when Paul Simon sauntered on stage –

Because not one grey strand has yet pushed its way through your long blonde locks I don’t expect you to have noticed that the first middle-aged woman whose ribs copped your elbow had no hair under her rainbow-coloured scarf since the life-giving hair-killing chemo offered her half a chance to see half of Simon and Garfunkel at least one more time –

Because you and your friend were busy looking at your mobile phones as you shoved through the thinning-haired crowd I don’t expect you to have seen the yearning look on the face of the middle-aged man you passed whose biceps sported the tattooed names of his two daughters who he thought might look a little bit like you two but he couldn’t know for sure because they hadn’t spoken to him since he left their mother in a small town in Tasmania, accompanied only by a black dog that he hasn’t been able to shake no matter how hard he’s partied in the last decade –

Because you were busy shouting at your friend with the tattoo of butterflies on the back of her neck as you pushed through the crowd I don’t expect you to have realised that another middle-aged woman’s ribs felt your elbow as she was singing along – word-perfect – to ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ and trying to remember the name of the boy who had given her Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album for her twenty-first birthday and kissed her on the neck and who, by her twenty-second birthday, had disappeared under a train –

Because you were sending a text on your mobile phone when Paul Simon sang ‘Homeless’ I don’t expect you to have realised how heavily you landed on the toes of the middle-aged man beside you while he was remembering how it felt to be thrown out of his parents’ home at the age of seventeen because he was in love with a boy with green-flecked eyes who didn’t believe in a punitive God either –

Because you were standing right in front of me I don’t expect you will have noticed the frown on my face or my fists clenching as I tried in vain to listen to Paul Simon singing ‘The Sounds Of Silence’ and to see the funny side of the fact that you were shouting at your friend about the text you had just received on your mobile phone and had no idea what the sounds of silence might sound like –

Because you were shouting into your mobile phone at the person who’d just sent you the text I don’t expect you will have noticed that I was listening hard and trying to work out whether my lover had chosen one of the ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ when he left me just a few years before I turned fifty –

Because, just a couple of verses after Paul Simon had started singing ‘You Can Call Me Al’, you turned to me with a big smile and shouted ‘Has he sung ‘Call Me Al’ yet?’ and because I shouted back ‘He’s singing it now but if you won’t bloody shut up you won’t hear it’ and because you were so shocked you even forgot to check your mobile phone for a few seconds and because I desperately wanted to either slap you across the face or grab you and hug you tight until you could feel something real, not virtual, from someone right next to you, and because instead I poked my tongue out at you as if I was an idiot child rather than a middle-aged woman – I apologise.

Because you are young I don’t expect you to have realised how foolish and yet how relieved that tongue-poke made me feel.

But I expect one day you will.

(A version of this column, entitled ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, was published in The Big Issue magazine on April 26th)