Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 31st May 2012 [June 1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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