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Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews November 7th [November 7]

The Melbourne theatre scene has been relatively quiet since I posted my last reviews. I think everyone collapsed in a heap on their couches after the Melbourne Festival ended. But there is never a time when there’s NO theatre happening in this town, and I’ve been to see three very different shows in the last couple of weeks:

‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’ is a two-hander play by American playwright Neil LaBute who is probably best known here in Melbourne for his play ‘Fat Pig’ which had a couple of seasons at Chapel off Chapel this year. He’s a playwright with a very dark view of humanity who often writes about social dysfunction and in particular about love gone wrong.

‘In A Forest’ has been produced by a small local company called Winterfall theatre who’ve been around for about three years now, and it’s directed by Denis Moore, a very experienced actor and director whose face you’d recognize from many theatre, film and TV roles. The venue is the tiny Husk Theatre in Clifton Hill (my first ever visit) which looks remarkably like La Mama theatre on the inside. It’s a cosy space with a small stage area, just the right size for this production, because the play could be described as a ‘kitchen sink drama’ and all the action takes place in a small claustrophobic bedsit-type room.

The plot in brief: a middle-aged woman called Betty is alone in this cottage in a forest on a dark and stormy night when her brother Bobby arrives at the door. It turns out she has asked Bobby for his help, but things are not great between these two. They immediately start bickering about their shared past, and meanwhile Bobby is trying to find out what’s going on here at the cottage. Betty says she needs help to pack up a whole lot of stuff left by the previous tenant, but Betty’s story keeps changing.

Over the course of the next hour and a half Bobby tries to unravel is sister’s stories in order to get to the truth. I don’t want to give too much away but we audience members are a bit like Bobby – in the dark, trying to work out what, if anything, Betty tells us is fact and what is fiction. It’s like walking on quicksand and when the truth is finally revealed, it is worse than anything we might have imagined.

So this is a play about a tragic family relationship, about two very damaged people who need each other, and who love each other, but who can’t find a functional way to relate to each other. It’s also about class, because Betty has got herself an education and moved up the social ladder, while Bobby has stayed firmly working class. But he bitterly resents the differences between them now. And it’s also about morality, and how we decide what kind of behaviour is acceptable in the people we love. For example, Bobby keeps trying to lay down the law about how Betty should behave, according to simple Christian values, but every time he uncovers a new layer of lies from his sister, he has to re-configure his moral code until he totally loses sight of what’s right and wrong in a very dramatic way.

It’s kind of gruelling but also gripping, and very well-directed by Denis Moore, And while both performers handle this intense material very well, I have to take my hat off to Chris Connelly in particular, who plays Bobby. It’s a beautiful performance. You totally believe in this lost character, this guy who at one point describes himself by saying ‘I have a truck; I don’t ask questions’, when in fact he spends the whole night asking his sister questions. It’s a very physical performance, and you can feel the threatening energy stored up in that body.

If you think you can handle a ‘dark night of the soul’, check out ‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’ at The Husk Theatre in Clifton Hill. It’s on until Saturday November 23rd.

And for something COMPLETELY different I’ve been to see ‘Miss Jugoslavia and the Barefoot Orchestra’, a show written, directed and performed by Tania Bosak (with the help of her Barefoot Orchestra) at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane.

Tania Bosak is a musician who grew up in Australia with Yugoslavian parents, including her father Rudy Bosak who was also a musician. This show is in part a tribute to her father and his extraordinary story. Back in the 1960s when Yugoslavia still existed and was still ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, as we used to say, Rudy was a piano accordionist and a member of a internationally touring musical ensemble, of which 12 members out of 80 were secret informers for the state!

There was to be a tour of Belgium and Rudy was interrogated as a potential defection risk, but did manage to go on the tour. And after the final performance in Belgium, he did defect, and went into hiding for months until he was granted asylum and migrated to Australia back in 1962.

Tania Bosak has created a show which is part musical, part physical theatre, part concert, part circus, which she performs with her own Balkan jazz ensemble of seven talented local musicians. And just a suggestion: do read the program notes before the shows starts because there’s no clear story to this show, and no English. It’s all songs and actions, and all the songs are in Croatian.

There is a fantastic raw energy to this show. Tania Bosak often stands up on a table in the middle of the stage, holding a conductor’s baton and wearing a sexy ringmaster’s outfit, from where she manically conducts the band. Then she launches into a song in Croatian, then jumps down from the table and plays the drums or the piano accordion. In fact all the musicians appear to be multi-instrumentalists in this group, and you find yourself wondering which instrument they’re going to pick up next.

Although there is no clear story, there are constantly shifting moods in this work, from joyful celebratory moments to mournful dirges to breath-taking virtuoso solos from each of the musicians. There are lots of little references to Rudy’s story but they are quite fragmented. For example, at one point the guitarist Jon Delaney seems to be doing an audition, with everyone else standing behind him scribbling in notebooks and watching him critically. At other points the tuba and bass player Dan Witton walks across the back of the stage with a big jangling set of keys, trying hopelessly to get out through a locked door. Every now and then the band members pass secret notes between themselves, a reference I guess to the secret service informers.

I loved this show. I was already a fan of Balkan jazz and if this was just a concert I’d have been quite happy, but it was so much more than that. So if you don’t mind not being told a clear story and not being spoken to in English, then go and see it, if you can get a ticket (I think it’s almost sold out). ‘Miss Jugoslavia and the Barefoot Orchestra’ is on at 45 Downstairs until Sunday November 10th

And finally I’ve been to see a new show called ‘Good Greek Girl’, written and performed by local poet Koraly Dimitriades. It’s part of the Explorations season of works-in-development at La Mama theatre in Carlton, so you go to these shows knowing that the work is in its very early stages, not a finished product. (The performer in this instance moved between performing with and without a script during the show.) It’s almost a one-woman show, in that Koraly Dimitriades is the only actor, but she’s accompanied by local bass player and composer Nick Tsiavos.

A bit of background to this project: Koraly Dimitriades wrote a book of poems called ‘Love and Fuck Poems’ which she self-published and this collection has apparently become the best-selling poetry book at Readings Bookstore this year. Then she made a series of short films based on the poems, and now she is creating this theatre show which incorporates the poems, the films, live music and live dramatic performance. Fragments of the films are screened onto a big sheet hanging at the back of the stage during the performance, and the show does come with a warning that there’s plenty of ‘R-rated’ material in it.

Even though I was keeping in mind the fact that this was a work in development, I really struggled to enjoy this show. There is a loose narrative buried somewhere under the layers of poetry about a sexually dysfunctional marriage that comes to an unhappy end. Presumably it’s an autobiographical story, because the ‘character’ in the poems is a young Greek Cypriot Australian woman, as Koraly Dimitriades is herself.

And there are some very graphic descriptions of the young woman’s sexual encounters and her struggles with the idea of being a ‘good Greek girl’ when she’s in a failing marriage and dealing with acute anxiety about her own sexual impulses. But both the material and the form of this show seemed very under-processed to me. If you want to share the details of your relationship break-up with the world through your art-form, there needs to be some art applied. You usually need to have at least some level of distance from the material so you can craft it into something universally interesting, and so it’s not just raw, unprocessed, confessionalism.

The material in the films at times almost seems to be part of a send-up, because there are so many visual clichés; a distressed bride in her bridal dress wandering around a cemetery, for example. The way the film material is integrated into the live performance is kind of odd and repetitive, with the performer often kneeling in front of the screen clutching melodramatically at her head, sometimes speaking along with the lines her own on-screen image delivers, sometimes speaking to herself on screen, sometimes just yelling.

What this show needs is first of all a dramaturg, to help shape the textual material into a performance text, and then, secondly, a director, someone who can help to shape the performance and encourage Koraly Dimitriades to offer her audience some more variation in the way that performance is delivered.

One of the best aspects of the show for me was the performance by Nick Tsiavos on bass. He’s a beautiful musician and he improvised underneath much of the spoken text. Otherwise, though, it’s hard to recommend this show in its current form. ‘Good Greek Girl’ is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until Thursday 7th November.