Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews on 774 ABC Melbourne, June 14th [June 15]

I’ve been to see three plays this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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