Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

774 ABC Melbourne Culture Club [March 8]

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.