Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

774 Culture Club reviews, May 3rd [May 4]

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.