Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


October 19

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 18th October.

This week I stepped off a flight home from Paris and into the theatre for the Melbourne International Arts Festival (well almost – I did have a nap in between). I’m planning to do a longer post soon about my adventures in Divonne les Bains, France performing in the Festival d’Australie, but for now i’ll focus on the Melbourne Festival shows i’ve seen this week.

The first show I saw was ‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre. This is a new dance theatre work by award-winning American choreographer and director Bill Forsythe whose work has been seen in Australia several times before, at both the Adelaide Festival and the Melbourne Festival.

He is known for working very closely with his dancers/actors. I include ‘actors’ because they all speak on stage and have to do much more than ‘just’ dance. For example during the creative process with a new piece Forsythe often sends them off to do homework, tasks like ‘blindfold yourself and move around your home and come back and report to me how it felt’. As a result the dancers are more intensely engaged than in any other contemporary dance company I’ve seen. There’s none of that glazed-eyes, just-look-at-my-body thing – they’re fully present the whole time.

I LOVED this show. It was a wonderful welcome home present for me. Forsythe recently turned sixty and he says this work was in response to that event, and it’s certainly full of intimations of mortality. But it’s also full of comedy so I spent half the show laughing. There are nutty scenes that re-occur, like the one in which a female dancer describes a visit from the neighbour from hell, a man who flirts menacingly with her, who won’t leave, and who she doesn’t know how to handle.

Meanwhile the stage is covered with small black plastic balls that look like rocks or perhaps bits of shattered meteor, so a part of you is wondering whether this neighbour story is a reference to our fear of menacing visitors from outer space – or is it Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf re-told – or is it about social anxiety? There are so many possible layers, as with most of the best art.

Forsythe is also very playful with music, so another recurring theme is that the dancers keep finding ways to slip the lyrics of ‘I Will Survive’ into whatever scene they’re involved in. Sometimes the lyrics delivered dead straight like a poetry recitation, sometimes they’re spoken with a thick Japanese accent, but every time they take you by surprise and leave you wondering about the deadly serious way in which popular music can impact on our emotional lives.

And the text they’ve used – the script, if you like – has some very beautiful poetic writing. There’s lots of repetitive spoken material about objects and the spaces between them and their movements – falling, coming together, moving apart – which could also be a reference to what an audience sees human bodies doing on stage in a dance work.

At the same time, the dance language Forsythe is employing is very clear and specific and incredibly athletic. so there are all the pleasures of seeing the human body doing astonishing things. I sat in the front row and literally had those black plastic balls rolling off the stage and into my lap and I could see every sinew of every muscle moving on Forsythe’s multicultural body of dancers.

So it’s playful and it’s chaotic (or it looks chaotic, although it’s clearly highly choreographed) and in the end it is also deeply moving. The final scene involves one dancer pointing to another dancer’s body parts and slowly listing all the bits that will no longer be moving or expressing or present after death, which left me in tears. A beautiful work.

‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company was on at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre until Monday this week.

The second show I’ve seen is ‘Michael James Manaia’, a one man play from New Zealand being performend at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival.

This is a play written a couple of decades ago which reportedly had a big impact in New Zealand. It’s a fictional story about a Maori man called Mick who goes to fight in Vietnam and when he comes home there’s a high personal cost to that war experience.

This play feels like a real immersion in Maori culture from the first to the last. We begin with what seems to be a ritualized prayer spoken in Maori and we end with a ritualized washing by the solo actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, and there is a lot of Maori spoken in the text. It reminded me of the fact that we’ve had a number of really great one-person shows by Australian indigenous actors over the last couple of decades, including Leah Purcell, Kutcha Edwards and Ningali Lawford. Many of them have been autobiographical and you find yourself wondering how much of this New Zealand play is drawn from the playwright Bob Broughton’s own life, because the program notes tell us he spent 17 years in the NZ army.

In some ways this is very traditional story-telling. There’s a chronological description of the character’s life story, from his childhood growing up in the Pa (traditional Maori family ‘village’) with his beloved brother, his authoritarian Maori father and his English mother, to his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam, and then his marriage and the tragedies that followed (which I won’t be giving away!)

The actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, has an extraordinary stage presence. It’s a very physical show – he’s leaping and jumping all over the stage, onto and off raised platforms, crawling under low platforms, doing ritualised Haka-style dance movements – and he has the most mobile face I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a virtuoso performance, although at times I would have liked to have had some more quiet moments, with less frenzied physical activity and less high intensity emoting. Sometimes less is more…

But if you’re interested in New Zealand culture, in particular Maori culture, and in the history of the Vietnam War, and if you like good theatrical solo story-telling, then this play is definitely worth seeing. Warning though – there are some pretty graphic sexual references and some ‘language’ – but we’re all pretty used to that now aren’t we?

‘Michael James Manaia’ is on at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival until Sunday October 28th.

September 20

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, September 20th.

Three shows to review this week – two one-man plays and a musical.

‘Walking Mark Rothko’ is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival and it’s performed and written by Adam Cass.

This play is billed as ‘adventurous theatre’ and it’s best to go along being prepared to be nudged out of your comfort zone. Not only is there no ‘fourth wall’ between the stage and the audience, but the performer Adam Cass, or ‘Orange’, as his character is called, speaks directly to the audience the whole time and invites us to get involved in the performance – if we’re willing.

Adam Cass has written at least half a dozen plays in the last five years. He’s worked with Red Stitch Theatre and he will soon have a show at the Sydney Opera House, so he’s definitely a talent to watch at the moment. And it seems he enjoys destabilizing the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Orange has a problem – he can’t feel emotions. He can feel physical pain and in fact he makes himself endure agonising foot pain, perhaps just to remind himself what pain feels like. But he can’t feel happy or sad or in love so he has to simulate these things. For example, he’s written a script which he invites a woman from the audience to get up and read with him, in which he asks her to hop into bed with him so that he can try and feel something. This is a very funny scene, especially on opening night when the girl who got up from the audience was a really lovely performer. Orange also has a dominating mother who he talks about constantly, and you wonder whether some of his emotional problems stem from the relationship with her (cherchez la mere… ).

There’s an interesting challenge for the solo performer with a show like this – what if you get a real exhibitionist in the audience who is willing to get up, and perhaps even try to take over?

There’s no clear or didactic ‘message’ or even story in this show, but it does make you think about empathy and numbness, about the impact of our increasingly digital virtual lives on how much we ‘feel’. It made me think about the current debate about ‘trolling’ by people willing to be extremely rude and bullying on Twitter and on comments pages of websites – are we somehow numbing ourselves to others feelings?

At times this production felt a bit slow. For example Cass sang one whole section of the play as improvised opera, which was a lovely idea, because opera is so full of overblown highly dramatised feelings (was Orange hoping that telling a story in this style would help him to feel something about the story?) but it went on too long.

So overall – a challenging and provocative work, not entirely successful, but very interesting theatre.

‘Walking Mark Rothko’ is on at La Mama Theatre in Carlton until September 30th.

‘Angela’s Kitchen’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre, performed and co-written by Paul Capsis, directed and co-written by Julian Meyrick.

This is a one man autobiographical show by Capsis who is well known as a cabaret artist. He’s an incredible singer – a star – and I have long been a huge fan of his work so I went along to see this show with very high expectations.

But I have to say I was a little disappointed.

Capsis tells us the story of his Maltese grandparents’ migration to Australia and about his very close relationship with his beloved grandmother Angela. We learn that his grandfather was a frightening and forbidding figure. We ‘meet’ his mother and his aunt briefly, we see a graphic of the family tree, and we hear a few snatches of some traditional Maltese songs. And when Capsis goes into character as one of his family members – his grandmother or his aunt or even as the leader of the bingo nights his grandmother loves so much – he is riveting. He has always been a very good comic character actor.

But this story is mostly told from the first person perspective – in other words, Paul Capsis telling us Paul’s story in Paul’s own words – and when he is just ‘playing’ himself, he seems much less confident and charismatic than when he is in character. That is one of the reasons I didn’t fall in love with this show. For me, Capsis works best in character.

The other reasons are that I’m not sure the co-writers ever clearly decided exactly what the heart of this story was. Is it a story about migration and his grandmother’s survival in a foreign land? Is it a story about Paul Capsis himself, and how he ‘survived’ his own childhood? We’re given what seems to be a lot of personal information about the family but not quite enough personal information about Paul and about what’s been ‘at stake’ for him in telling this story.

And finally – there’s not enough singing! Surely that’s one of Capsis’ strengths, perhaps even one of his survival strategies, and yet there are very few songs in this show.

I have always loved this style of one-person autobiographical verbatim theatre and there have been many brilliant examples of it produced in Australia over the past couple of decades. Perhaps it would have worked better, though, to have written this story entirely from the perspective, and in the voices, of those family members/‘characters’ who Capsis introduces us to.

‘Angela’s Kitchen’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank until September 23rd

Finally to ‘South Pacific’, a new Australian production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, starring Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

This musical has been one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most successful works. It was made into a film which many of you will have seen and there are lots of ‘hits’ in it, including ‘Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’, ‘There Aint Nothing Like a Dame’ and ‘Bali Hai’. There’s also an exotic plot set during WW2 involving a handsome and mysterious Frenchman and a plucky nurse from Little Rock in the US of A. And most astonishingly there is a great anti-racism message running throughout it all – that love is colour-blind – so it’s a wonderful musical and with one exception I thought this was a wonderful production.

What works well?

The choreography is stunning – acrobatic, sexy, with few cliches.
Lisa McCune is show-stoppingly good in the role of Nurse Nellie from Little Rock – intensely charismatic and totally convincing.
Kate Ceberano is a revelation as Bloody Mary – she’s a really good actor and of course her voice is like brandy cream.
Eddie Perfect is funny and dirty.
And Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Joseph Cable has an exquisite music theatre voice and his acting is great.


I think Teddy Tahu Rhodes has been mis-cast. (Pause for communal gasp of shock/horror)

Rhodes is an absolute star of opera. He has a strong rich baritone voice, he usually looks good on stage, and although his acting has never been his greatest strength, he gets away with that in opera because it’s so formalized in its performance style, and he almost never has to speak.

But his speaking parts in this musical were NOT good. He has a silly French accent (which made people around me giggle a bit, even in the most serious moments) and he sometimes looked physically uncomfortable on stage, as if he was not quite sure where to put his long frame.

At times it was almost as if he was in a different show to the other performers – in an opera by Delibes or Bizet perhaps, rather than an American musical.

Nevertheless I highly recommend this show. We have so many great music theatre performers in Australia, it’s a joy to see them getting their teeth into these roles

‘South Pacific’ is on at the Princess Theatre in Spring St.

I’m off to France to perform myself for the next few weeks so i won’t be in the Culture Club for a month, but I’ l be back in time for the Melbourne Festival. Can’t wait.

September 17

World’s (third) Most Livable Country?

(First published as a column in The Age newspaper)

Only third-best. That’s what the newspaper said. According to a UN report
Australia was only the third-best country on the planet in which to live.
Norway took the gold, Sweden took the silver, and we had to make do with
the bronze medal. I was mystified. Was there more crime in Australia? Did
Scandinavians enjoy each others company more than we did? Was real estate
cheaper? Did they produce better music? Or was it their flair for design?
The newspaper article offered no explanation, so I decided to investigate.
On the long flight north I tried to recall what I knew about these
far-away countries. Norway had fjords, herrings and the midnight sun.
Sweden had ABBA, IKEA and lots of blondes. I would blend right in.

The first place on my itinerary was a small Norwegian town called
Stavanger. Down at the harbour I hopped on a boat that was heading up a
fjord. On the way we passed dozens of little islands and on
each island there was a tiny rust-red house. I met a Norwegian man on the
boat called Tryggv and we talked for a while about the lack of vowels in
his name. I offered him one of mine because two only confuses people but
he graciously declined. Then he told me that practically everyone in his
country owns their own island cottage. When they get sick of their fellow
Norwegians they row out to their island and sit on
their front porch, drinking beer and enjoying the solitude.

Back at the Stavanger harbour I farewelled Tryggv and continued on my
journey. Further north I passed through a village called Hell. It was
surrounded by rolling green fields and clear blue lakes so I stopped
worrying about the afterlife.

In the town of Trondheim I met a man called Thor with an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian rock music between 1978 and 2004. So we drank vodka and he told me all about what Nick Cave, Steve Kilby, Mark Seymour, Peter Garrett, Renee Geyer, James Reyne and Jo Camilleri were doing with themselves these days. Thor has been known to fly all the way from the Arctic Circle to Oslo to hear visiting Australian bands. He works in primary schools, looking after Norwegian children with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Thor told me that his girlfriend thinks he has special insight into these children’s problems, what with his Aussie rock thing and all.

I said goodbye to Thor and headed for Sweden. First stop was a town called
Borlange. The world-famous Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling was born there. A
big statue of Jussi dominates the central mall, his mouth wide open, frozen
in mid-aria. In the mall I met a man with thick spectacles called Ingemar
who told me that Borlange was the crime capital of Sweden. Someone was
kicked to death by a gang of youths a few years back, right under Jussi
Bjorling’s nose. Ingemar has a record store in the mall. He doesn’t sell
many of Jussi’s records but the kids who don’t want to join the local
gangs spend a lot of time hanging out in Ingemar’s store. He often sells
them CDs for less than he paid for them. His friends once dressed up the
Jussi Bjorling statue in one of Ingemar’s T-shirts. They put a pair of
thick spectacles on its face and a sash around its waist, with the word
‘Ingemar Rocks!’ written on the sash in big black letters. Ingemar’s
friends reckon he’s more important in Borlange these days than the
world-famous tenor ever was.

Last stop on my itinerary was Stockholm. At the hotel I was given a map of
the city. It was a miracle of modern design. It folded neatly together like
a piano accordion and for a while I just sat in my hotel room, opening and
closing it for the sheer pleasure of the experience. Finally I ventured out
to stroll the footpaths of Stockholm, admiring the many bicycles propped up
on their little metal stands. No locks, no chains, no security at all. I
met a blonde man called Lars who told me nobody steals bicycles in Sweden.
He gave me a dink on the back of his bike to a bar called Ostagagotan.

I could be here for some time.

September 12

Did you lose something?

(First published as a column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers)

Every telephone pole bears a tragic tale. I can’t even enjoy a simple walk to the beach without having my heart-strings tugged. Right alongside the cheery notices for garage sales there are endless stories of grief and loss.

– Missing Dog: Reward $500. Female Labrador, ‘Cindy’, wool coat, creamy white. Much loved pet and friend. Call this number.
– Have you seen Boots? We miss him. Ginger male, bell and name-tag. Reward offered. Call this mobile.
– Lost – male, de-sexed, four years old. No tags – choker chain. Answers to Wiggs. Please phone.

And every poster sticky-taped to the pole features a fuzzy photo of the beloved pet, perched happily on the living room couch or the matrimonial bed, head cocked to the side or paw lifted in a cute pose. Boots is looking very relaxed, sprawled on a couple of pillows. He’s obviously just had a nice saucer of milk. Cindy is so blurry she could be a small horse. Wiggs is my favourite, a terrier with a look of great intelligence. I bet he could collect the newspaper AND untangle it from that infernal plastic wrapping. But where is he now?

All over this city, pets are disappearing from their homes, leaving their owners bereft. Lost, stolen, or taking a holiday? Maybe Boots has a cousin called Socks in the next suburb and has decided to pay an extended visit.

I stroll towards the strand and on the way I see a woman walking a dog which looks just like Wiggs. Should I make a citizen’s arrest? I could call out ‘wiiiigggs!’ and see if he comes running to me but people might think I’m hawking hairpieces. Besides, this woman doesn’t look like a dog-napper. She looks like she could afford to buy her own brand new latest-model terrier without resorting to theft.

I bet most families in Melbourne have lost a beloved pooch or moggy at some time or another. It happened to our family. When I was young we had a corgi called Buffy. He was old and grumpy and inclined to snap at young children. Still, we loved him. Then one day Buffy disappeared. We searched the neighbourhood but there was no sign of him anywhere, not even a sad, stiff body by the side of the road. My parents told me he’d probably been stolen but it never made sense to me. Who would want a pre-loved snappy old corgi with eczema? Twenty-five years later, part of me still mourns for poor Buffy and longs for the mystery to be solved.

You probably think I’m over-reacting to those rain-soaked posters on telephone poles. The problem is, we get the first act of the drama but we rarely find out what happens in the final scene. Maybe these stories have happy endings. Just like garage sale notices, no one ever thinks to come around and remove lost pet posters when they’re out of date. Maybe there’s a tearful reunion going on right now as Cindy comes bounding down the street in slow motion, creamy white coat rippling in the wind, and jumps into the out-stretched arms of her ecstatic owner. Maybe Boots’ folks came home one day and found him sitting in his usual place beside the front gate, catching a few rays and reminiscing about the good times he’d had with Socks.

I think the local council should pass a new by-law. They could call it the ‘Domestic Pet Tragedy Narrative Closure By-law’. If you stick up a notice advising of a disappearance, then you must advise us of the resolution to this drama, whether it’s good news or bad.
And for those of us with unresolved cases, I guess we just have to learn to live with our losses and try to avoid resorting to cat or dog-napping to fill the gap in our sad, empty lives.

(Stop barking, Wiggs, they’ll hear you.)

September 7

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, September 6th

I’ve been to three very different productions in the last week, but all very good.

‘The Kitchen Sink’ is a Red Stitch Theatre production of a new play by English playwright Tom Wells. It only had its English premiere about a year ago.

‘Kitchen sink drama’ is one of those phrases that has a sting in the tail. These days it can be used as a bit of an insult, with an imputation that the play’s themes or concerns are trivial or merely domestic. It was first used to describe a genre of English working class theatre that emerged in the 1950’s (John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’ for example) and the phrase has been transformed into something more pejorative, maybe because certain TV soaps became known as kitchen sink dramas.

But in this case the domestic world has universal resonance.

I LOVED this show. It was quite traditional theatre in many ways, which isn’t usually my bag, but it sucked me in and made me laugh and made me really care about the characters. I felt like I’d had a thoroughly nourishing night out at the theatre.

The action takes place over about a year, and the different seasons in that year are marked by Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, but that’s about as highbrow as it gets in this play. It’s all about one small family living in a fictional northern English town – Mum, Dad and two grown-up kids, including the gay son, Billy, who’s trying to get into art school with his lurid paintings of Dolly Parton, and the daughter, Sophie, who wants to teach ju jitsu to young girls, for reasons that only become apparent towards the end of the play.

Dad, Martin, played by Russell Fletcher, is a milk delivery man, possibly the last one on the planet, and he’s slowly but surely going out of business. Mum, Kath, is a school lunch lady (or possibly a lollypop lady, it’s not clear) but she’s the glue holding this family together. Kath is played by Chris Keogh and she’s simply one of the most adorable characters you’ll ever see on the stage.

There’s also a fifth character, a local plumber called Pete who’s in love with young Sophie, but who can’t ever seem to finish his sentences. So imagine how hard it is for him to declare his passion for Sophie. Each of the family members – and Pete – are all grappling with their own individual fears, and with a resistance to change.

The set is literally a kitchen, complete with a dodgy old kitchen sink whose faucets need to be turned on and off with a hammer, and this kitchen is the centre of the family’s life.
This play is funny, it’s sentimental, and it’s beautifully acted. The characters are comic characters but never caricatures, even when Kath the mum and her son Billy are standing on kitchen chairs dancing and singing Dolly Parton songs into soup ladles. You want to jump up and sing and dance along with them.

I particularly loved Tim Ross as Pete the plumber,the sweetest, most loyal beau a girl could ever wish for. He played Pete as understated and entirely believable.

It’s a traditional play, a ‘well-made play’ as they say, and in the end this is a play about transformation – once the characters have acknowledged their fears and embraced change – so it’s a feel-good play too!

The Kitchen Sink is on at Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda until September 22nd.

‘Doku Rai’ was a show that premiered at the Darwin Festival recently, and also had a season at the Meat Market in North Melbourne last weekend. It will next be seen at the Adelaide Festival, and this was a much more challenging and complicated contemporary work than ‘The Kitchen Sink’.

It’s a collaboration between a group of East Timorese actors and musicians and some Australian theatre-makers from the Black Lung Theatre group. I saw some of these East Timorese artists performing, and also making visual artworks, when I first visited East Timor in 2004, so for me it was fascinating to see what they were doing now.

The words Doku Rai have been translated to mean ‘you dead man, I don’t believe you’, and the play starts with the simple telling of a traditional story about two brothers, one of whom is jealous of the other, and who organizes for him to die, using a doku or a death curse. From this kernel of a story the cast and their director, Thomas Wright, have created a piece which, for me, really captured some of the essence of what it’s like to live in East Timor post their independence from Indonesian rule.

The Australian cast apparently got together with the Timorese performers in June this year, in an abandoned colonial hotel on the island of Atauro, just off the coast from the capital Dili, and together they put together this new play. It sounds like conditions were pretty rough there, as they are in many parts of Timor still. Power going on and off, no water, constant threat of malaria, and some of that chaos has been incorporated into the show.
The set is simply one big room, with mattresses on the floor, pot plants, musical instruments scattered around,and a big wooden canoe in the middle of the stage, full of water. (In fact I went out to the island of Atauro in just such a canoe myself about six years ago – a very memorably and frightening four hour trip.)

And with that simple story of the man who has his brother killed, the cast have created a surreal plot about a man who will not die. There’s a doku in him, a death curse, and he keeps being killed over and over again – stabbed, drowned, you name it, it’s been tried – but every time, he comes back to life.

And within that plot device lies the essence of perhaps East Timor’s biggest challenge – the cycle of violence. Every now and then we hear news reports about flare-ups of inter-communal violence and burning of houses in different parts of Timor – mobs rampaging with machetes – and this play asks the question, how can that violence be stopped?

It is also a play within a play, in that at times the director and the performers break out of performing the show and talk about the process of putting the show together. It’s a post-modern theatrical device that shows us the insides of the workings of theatre. So you hear them debating what the whole project is about – is it just another case of well-meaning whitefellas coming to ‘help out’ their poor neighbours, to tell them what to do? It’s quite challenging for the audience too, in that it forces us to ask ourselves – why are we there? to see good theatre, or as an act of solidarity or charity?

Many of the East Timorese cast members are former freedom fighters so they know about death and violence. They’re also all musicians, and many play in a band called Galaxy, so the play is interspersed with about five original songs.

‘Doku Rai’ is performed in both English and Tetun, but there were sur-titles for the parts that weren’t in English.

This is one of the most interesting productions I’ve seen this year. Nothing about it is easy, just as nothing about forming a new nation out of such a violent and repressive history has been easy for the East Timorese.

‘Doku Rai’ was on at the Meat Market Arts House last week. If you missed it you might like to consider going to the Adelaide Festival next year where it will be on from February 28th to March 4th.

‘Top Girls’ is the latest play in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2012 season, on at the recently re-named Southbank Theatre. This is a work with an all-female cast, written back in the early 1980’s by English playwright Caryl Churchill, during the time that Maggie Thatcher was the British Prime Minister – the first female PM in Britain. So in some ways it’s a play very much of its time, but as I discovered last night when I went to see it, it’s still actually a very timely play, particularly maybe for Australian audiences who’ve been witnessing the responses and the debates over our first Australian female Prime Minister.

Caryl Churchill has revered status in the theatre world as someone who never sits still, and never takes the easy path. For a long time now she hasn’t bothered with the so-called ‘well-made play’. She likes to challenge her audiences. So in ‘Top Girls’, for example, most of the first half of the play is a dinner party at which the guests are famous female figures from history – some real, some fictional – who’ve got together to celebrate the fact that a contemporary English woman called Marlene has just been made CEO of her human resources company.

The guests include Pope Joan, a fictional female Pope from the 9th century; the Japanese Lady Nijo a memoirist from the 13th century; the fictional Patient Griselda from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’; and a woman in a painting by Flemish artist Breughel called Dull Gret. It’s a hilarious scene in which the women are waited on by a couple of waitresses wearing rabbit masks (one step further on from the Playboy Bunny ears, presumably) and the women tell their stories, comment on each others stories, talk over the top of each other, about the men they married, about the children they gave birth to and lost, and they drink steadily to drown their sorrows.

And the stories they tell each other carefully plant the seeds for what will happen in the second half of the play, which is a slightly more naturalistic story about Marlene and her work and her family members, and the dark secrets they keep from each other. I won’t give too much away but it’s quite a bleak view presented here, of the high price some women had to pay – and probably still have to pay – to be successful in a male-dominated workforce.

And Marlene turns out to be a Maggie Thatcher supporter, a fan of the conservative, individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps view of the world – shades of Gina Rinehart, actually.

There is flawless direction in this production by Jenny Kemp, and some stunning performances, in particular by a young actress called Eryn Jean Norvill who plays Marlene’s disturbed niece Angie, a teenager who is very seriously contemplating killing her mother. I believed every second of her performance.

As I said, this play left me feeling slightly bleak about relationships between men and women – the whole Mars/Venus thing – and about whether true equality between the sexes (not just equality but respect) is ever going to be possibl. But it is such good theatre, it had me on the edge of my seat the whole night. It was great to see a big group of male school students in there last night too and would love to have known what they thought about it.

‘Top Girls’ is on at the MTC’s Southbank Theatre until September 29th.

Next week – ‘Angela’s Kitchen’ (Malthouse Theatre) and ‘Walking Mark Rothko’ (La Mama).

September 1

Dropping Names

I’m planning to post on this website some of the columns i had published in The Age newspaper several years ago. Here’s the first:

I admit it. I’m guilty. A week ago today, I committed the crime of name-dropping. Whilst giving a speech at a conference, I deliberately, unashamedly, FLAGRANTLY informed the audience that I once shook the hand of Nelson Mandela.

I watched their reactions closely. Some smiled and nodded, obviously impressed. Others furrowed their brows in disbelief. The rest simply curled their lips. I’d lost them. Whatever pearls of wisdom I may have been planning to share with them had now been wasted, because honestly, who wants to listen to a big-noter? I tried to minimise the fall-out by following up my self-aggrandising brag with a lame joke (“haven’t washed my right hand since!”) but the damage was done.

I wasn’t surprised. I’d have felt the same way. There are few people more irritating than compulsive name-droppers. At an opening night event recently I overheard one of the guests dropping the names of her ‘good friends’ Malcolm Fraser, Xanana Gusmao and Geoffrey Rush, all in the space of about five minutes. By the time she’d finished up with a reference to her ‘very dear friend’ the Dalai Lama I was just about gagging.

But when is serial name-dropping ‘the familiar mention of famous people as a form of boasting’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary definition) and when is it simply talking about the people you know? The name-dropper at that event was a fairly well-known public figure herself so it was hardly surprising that she was mixing with other well-known people. If I mentioned her name you’d probably think I was name-dropping again.

When a person is so famous that the mere mention of their name could lead to accusations of name-dropping, do they have automatic immunity from accusations of name-dropping themselves? Or is there an unstated hierarchy of celebrity which ensures that, even if they’re pretty famous, when they talk about people more famous than themselves, they’re still bragging?

In which case, should famous people try never to mix with people more famous than themselves, for fear of dropping those famous names later in front of their other less famous friends? Or should famous people only ever mix with other famous people so that nobody feels like anyone else is big-noting, because they’re all too famous to be impressed by anyone else’s fame? The mind boggles.

But why DO so many of us love to hate a name-dropper? Sometimes it’s a simple case of envy. Perhaps we’d quite like to be mixing with the Oscar-winners ourselves and we resent the fact that someone else has had the opportunity to bathe in their reflected glory. My friend who is a friend of Cate Blanchett, for example, never EVER mentions their friendship in company for fear of inspiring exactly this kind of resentment. (Does mentioning the famous name of a friend of a friend count as name-dropping?)

Or perhaps we believe that in a world which is increasingly dominated by media images of celebrities, and where celebrity equals power, unless we can rub shoulders with the famous and the powerful we despair of ever becoming more famous or powerful than we currently are.

On the other hand, judging by our appetite for celebrity biographies, it seems readers can’t get enough of literary name-dropping. And because we’ve read about famous people in someone else’s book, we can never be accused of bragging when dropping those juicy morsels of gossip about famous people into a conversation.

One of the most famous name-droppers in English literature is the clergyman Mr Collins, from “Pride and Prejudice”. Every conversation he has involves several references to his wealthy patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Although Lady Catherine is a woman whose ‘manners are dictatorial and insolent’, Jane Austen writes, ‘the respect which (Mr Collins) felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself (and) his authority… made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility’.

In mentioning Mandela, I was clearly showing off. But I guess it can’t be called name-dropping when one national leader publicly refers to another national leader. Why, then, did I sometimes find myself thinking of Mr Collins and his beloved Lady Catherine whenever John Howard talked about his good friend George Bush?

August 24

Culture Club review, 774 ABC Melbourne, August 23rd

Last week i went to see ‘His Girl Friday’, a play I think Drive presenter Raf Epstein would really enjoy, because it’s all about investigative newspaper journalists and what drives them to keep digging around in the dirt for the story.

This is an MTC production of a play that is an adaptation of another play and also of a film. So there’s a slightly complicated history here but I’m sure a few of you will remember the 1940 screwball comedy movie of the same name starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. This film was itself based on a play called ‘The Front Page’ and about ten years ago an American playwright called John Guare was commissioned to create a third work based on both of those – which was also also called ‘His Girl Friday’. And that’s the version the MTC have produced.

The plot is complicated too. The main characters are a formerly married couple, a pair of journalists called Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson (played by Philip Quast and Pamela Rabe) who used to be a crack team in the Chicago newspaper game. But the marriage has fallen apart and Hildy has left the paper they both worked for and found herself a nice mummy’s boy to marry.

The problem is, there’s just One Last Big Story that she can’t resist getting embroiled in. It’s about a Jewish refugee who is on trial for murder and who may hang for it – which by the look of it would be a travesty of justice – and the trial is also part of a complicated tale of political corruption that Walter and Hildy want to unravel.

There’s a cast of thousands in this play – sixteen actors playing about 20 different characters – and amongst them are some of this town’s best comic actors, including Peter Houghton, Tyler Coppin, David Woods and Deirdre Rubinstein. They all look like they’re having a lot of fun with the snappy one-liners, the jigsaw puzzle plot and the period set – an old-style press room beside the court where the trial’s taking place – where everyone’s always jumping on the old 1930’s-style telephones to phone in the headlines to their waiting editors.

The two lead actors, Pamela Rabe and Philip Quast, are consummate, charismatic performers. Rabe nearly steals the show, but Quast’s not far behind her. Rabe plays Hildy as gawky and girly, but also as smart and strong and up against it in this very male world of the court-reporters. On other words, quite believable.

So it’s a fun production with plenty of laughs and there are some dark and still pertinent messages in there about the way the media operates at its worst: politically compliant, with lazy journalists who are willing to sacrifice people’s lives and reputations for the sake of a dramatic story. even if it’s completely untrue. Sound familiar?

My only quibble is with the direction by Aidan Fennessy. This screwball comedy style requires perfect pitch in terms of how the energy flies around the stage. I thought in the second half it started at too high a pitch and consequently had nowhere to go. At times, the characters seemed on the verge of hysteria, in a way that was quite wearying for the audience. I reckon ‘more’ could be ‘less’ here. The characters are meant to be caricatures but that doesn’t mean they have to be totally cartoonish.

His Girl Friday’ is on at the Arts Centre until September 15th

‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show/What Next?’ was a double bill of one-act operas produced by Victorian Opera and performed recently at the Recital Centre. I’d have to say I enjoyed these works more for their curiosity value than necessarily for their musical pleasures.

Most people would have heard of ‘Don Quixote’, the 17th century novel by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes about the nutty knight who travels around the Spanish countryside. It was adapted into a musical called ‘Man of La Mancha’ first performed in Melbourne back in the early 70’s (my mother played in the orchestra pit for that show!)

But before ‘Man of La Mancha’ there had been several opera adaptations including ‘Don Quichotte by French composer Massenet and ‘Don Quixote’ by an Austrian composer called Kienzl. And here is another opera adaptation of at least part of the Don Quixote story, called ‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’. This one-act opera was composed in the early 1920’s by Spaniard Manuel de Falla and it’s a show within a show. We’re introduced to a puppetry troupe who are putting on a shadow puppet show called ‘The Rescue of Melisandra’. Melisandra is the heroine of the story who has been kidnapped by the evil Moors.

This is apparently the first time this opera has been performed in Australia, and to be honest it seems kind of slight, so maybe that’s why it hasn’t been on before. The main interest comes from the shadow puppetry, directed by Nancy Black, using stick figures and masked actors working behind big brown pieces of canvas. These are hung on what look like washing lines with lights projected behind them. But even the cute puppets weren’t enough to fully engage me here.

The second opera in the double bill is more contemporary. ‘What Next?’ was written in 1998 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Elliott Carter when he was 90 years old! We usually expect people to be in a state of some confusion by that age, but in this instance it is the characters who are confused. There is a group of people on stage who don’t know exactly who they are or what has happened to them. Although we know something terrible must have occurred on the way to a wedding, we never find out exactly what. All the characters are having trouble finishing their thoughts and sentences.

This work is incredibly fragmented, both musically and narrative-wise. The performers have quite challenging contemporary music to sing with few clear melodies, so bravo to the cast who did a brilliant job with a difficult score. Soprano Jessica Aszodi in particular gave an energetic performance as the bride and her creamy voice sounded absolutely effortless. But once was enough for me – I probably wouldn’t feel the need to see that opera again.

Victorian Opera’s double bill of ‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’ and ‘What Next?’ was on at the Recital Centre until August 22nd.

A quick note to let you know that most of the major theatre and opera companies in Melbourne are launching their 2013 seasons this month. I attended the MTC launch last night at Hamer Hall, hosted by new Artistic Director Brett Sheehy, and a couple of highlights should be a new production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ starring David Wenham, and
New York playwright Sharr White’s new play ‘The Other Place’ starring Catherine McClements.

Opera Australia’s first Melbourne season for 2013 will feature a new version of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo In Maschero’ produced by cutting edge Spanish theatre company La Fura Dels Baus (google their XXX show to see just how edgy they are), and of course Neil Armfield’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The Malthouse 2013 program launch is on September 10th and Victorian Opera’s launch is next week – their first program with new Artistic Richard Mills who replaces founding AD Richard Gill. So get your 2013 diaries out and get ready to book some tickets!

August 9

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, August 9th

I feel like I’ve seen three different versions of hell in the theatre this week – and two of them literally start with the prefix ‘hel(l)’.

1) ‘Hell House: Provocation, Belief and Morality’ is the latest production from Back to Back Theatre, a Geelong-based ensemble that works with actors with a disability. I saw this show at the Meat Market in North Melbourne last weekend, where Back to Back faithfully staged a community theatre show that is used as a religious ‘propaganda’ tool in the American mid-west to scare teenagers away from choosing to engage in ‘sinful’ activities.

‘Hell House’ is a bit like a ghost train trip, or maybe more a tour of a haunted house, in which you move from room to room, led by an actor dressed as one of the Devil’s minions. In those darkened rooms you watch different staged scenarios that represent what that particular religious community believes are bad or sinful choices in life.

The first takes place in a funeral parlour, where someone has died from pursuing what the Devil’s servant calls a ‘gay lifestyle’, therefore contracting HIV AIDs. The second involves a woman having a simulated abortion, the next is the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a result of drinking and driving, the next is a teenage suicide – you get the picture…

The audience (about 50 people at a time) is led from room to room, watching these re-enactments, with the Devil’s servant giving us a fairly unsubtle lecture each time about how she succeeded in leading this person astray, turning them away from Jesus, and causing their demise.

But importantly, you don’t just watch the show because after each performance, Back to Back held a forum with a different panel of expert guests, each chaired by a different ABC radio presenter, to discuss some of the religious, moral and theatrical issues raised by the Hell House phenomenon. The afternoon I saw it there was a panel of three speakers including an Anglican, a Catholic and a secular Jew – all of whom were in furious agreement in rejecting the moral universe presented by Hell House. (They pointed out its lack of Christian compassion, its mis-reading of the Bible, its weird blaming of absent fathers, etc.)

This is terrible theatre, so bad that many people laughed. The tableaux were old-fashioned, caricaturish, and clearly propagandistic. The performers were a mix of volunteers from Geelong and the Back to Back ensemble performers and although they did a great job in bringing this show to life, they couldn’t make bad theatre into good theatre. The ‘owners’ of Hell House have established rigid rules about its staging and interpretation, so there was literally no room to move for the performers.

It’s important to point out the background to this production. The last Back to Back show was ‘Ganesh Vs the Third Reich’, an original (and critically acclaimed) piece of theatre which turned out to be controversial, in that some members of the Indian community in Melbourne were upset by its storyline and threatened to protest outside the performances at the Malthouse. Some even wanted the right to change the script, some would have liked to have shut it down, and the theatre company had to engage security guards to ensure the performers and the audience’s safety. So Back to Back has had to engage with some very serious questions in recent times about who has the right to have a say about religious matters, and this Hell House production is presumably their answer to those who would seek to shut down art because of religious sensibilties.

Back to Back is one of the country’s most exciting theatre ensembles t the moment. This was tacitly acknowledged by the fact that Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director, was invited to a dinner in Canberra with Barack Obama when the American President visited Australia recently. They make challenging, provocative, brave, interesting work, and as a result the company is touring the world with their shows.

I love the idea of theatre provoking a conversation. Melbourne has become a town of public conversations, at Festivals, at the Wheeler Centre, the State Library, and with Melbourne Conversations at the Melbourne Town Hall (Melbourne City Council). We just can’t get enough of hearing intelligent debate and discussion about ideas, and it’s surely one of the best things about living in this city.

‘Hell House’ closed last weekend at the Meat Market in North Melbourne.

2) Another version of hell was presented in the play ‘Blood Wedding’ at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank. This is an adaptation of a work by the revered Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, adapted by Melbourne playwright Raimondo Cortese and directed by Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Marion Potts.

It’s a play about family feuds and loyalties, about passion, and revenge. A young couple in rural Spain persuade their (remaining) parents to allow them to marry, but the bride-to-be is in love with another man, and as you can tell from the play’s title, it doesn’t end well.

The production is performed in both English and Spanish by a cast of local actors from Non English speaking backgrounds and also international actors, including several from Spain and Italy. It is aurally challenging – the dialogue slips seamlessly between languages, and many of the actors, even when they’re speaking English, have strong accents so your ears and your brain have to work very hard to keep up with the dialogue.

But I enjoyed the discomfort zone generated by that challenge because it mirrored the discomfort zone that all the characters are living in, trying to fit their desires into the strait-jacket of this closed and feuding rural Spanish community. This is especially so for the women, who are expected to be obedient and homebound while the men are out working and feuding and – often – killing each other, leaving the women widowed and alone. So this is a kind of living hell represented on stage.

Lorca’s text is intensely poetic, especially in the third act, so you can sit back and let the poetry wash over you. But it’s also intensely emotionally engaging. As the tragedy enfolds it becomes just a matter of when and how, not whether, it will all end in tears.

The designers have created a huge open set with a dusty gravel floor and every now and then it had to be hosed down to reduce the dust raised by performers moving around the space or dancing at the wedding. The walls are lined with big industrial fridges full of bottled water – conveying the parched landscape, and perhaps the parched emotional lives of the characters.

There is a sense of openness and grandeur created by the set, but also by the international cast. It feels like a Melbourne Festival show, or a show you might see anywhere in the world, and it reminds you of the universality of good theatre and the way it can transcend national boundaries. Passion, vengeance, grief – show me a culture where those things don’t consume us, or don’t lead to tragedy, and I’ll eat my hat.

The acting is mostly very strong, especially from Mariola Fuentes as the Mother of the groom who embodied rage and grief. Her character both rails against but in the end endorses this culture’s constraints on women.

‘Blood Wedding’ is on at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank until August 19th.

3) The third version of hell i’ve seen in the theatre this week is Australian middle class suburban hell, as depicted by ‘Helicopter’, a new play that opened in the MTC’s Lawler Studio last week and that is part of the company’s Education series. This is a new work by the prolific Australian playwright Angela Betzien and directed by Leticia Caceres, who is about to become as Associate Director for the MTC. The play is both very entertaining and very painful to watch, and in the end, kind of annoying.

I would describe this as an issues-packed tragi-comedy. It ticks off a long list of controversial contemporary topics, including; school bullying, helicopter parenting, racism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anorexia nervosa, self-medication with pharmaceuticals, the perils of the internet for young people, especially posting inappropriate stuff on YouTube, all packaged up in a story about a middle class Australian family who live next door to a family of African refugee migrants. There is a tragedy involving the death of a child and this leads to the two families becoming involved in each others lives. (I can’t give too much more away without spoiling it).

The best thing about this play is the acting. The cast of five are all very strong but I particularly loved Daniele Farinaci as the anxious self-obsessed mother, and Terry Yeboah as Thomas the African refugee who tries to build bridges between the two families.

It also contains some pretty strong messages about how NOT to bring up your children and how NOT to behave towards traumatized refugees and how ethically dubious our Australian McMansion-worshipping suburban lifestyle can be.

But there’s not much subtlety here. It’s very black humour, very cynical, and in the end you find yourself swinging wildly between wanting to feel sympathetic towards the characters and their hellish lives, and wanting to knock some sense into them. The characters become more like caricatures than three-dimensional human beings.

I’m not sure what student audiences will make of it. There was a lot of laughter on the night I saw it, but at times it felt almost inappropriate, given the plot developments. And I’m afraid I can’t promise you a happy ending with this one.

‘Helicopter’ is on in the Lawler Studio at the MTC Theatre until August 17th.

July 13

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, July 12th

This week i’ve been to see a couple of shows, starting with ‘Briwyant’ at the Malthouse Theatre at Southbank. The first challenge with this show is working out what to call it. It involves contemporary dance but it’s not just a dance work. Nor is it ‘just’ theatre, although it involves acting and dialogue. It’s not just a multimedia event, though it involves video footage. And the set looks like a work of art. So here’s a stab: it’s a hybrid dance-theatre-multimedia work.

Awkward, isn’t it?

Anyway do labels really matter? Perhaps it’s more interesting to talk about what the show is like. This work has been directed by indigenous dancer and choreographer Vicki Van Hout, and choreographed by Vicki in collaboration with her six dancers (Henrietta Baird, Raghav Handa, Sean Marcs, Rosealee Pearson, Beau Dean Smith and Melinda Tyquin). Vicki Van Hout says it’s been inspired by an effect within traditional Yolngu painting of ‘the brilliant shimmer and shine of a pattern that seems to move before the eyes…’

It begins with the outlines of human faces and hands looming and pushing through a stretchy white scrim on the side of the stage – quite dramatic, quite grotesque images – and you could make all kinds of meanings for yourself from this scene – black performers trapped within a white culture?

Then Vicki stands in front of the scrim and tells a traditional indigenous story about a duck and a goanna, with the dancers moving around her, illustrating the story using bird and goanna-like dance movements. From there the work keeps shifting focus, ever changing – one minute it’s the abstract language of pure contemporary dance; the next minute three women are sitting inside a humpy having a conversation about borrowing money while they play a game of cards; the next, video footage is screened onto the walls of the humpy, and we hear an audio interview with a drag queen describing putting on his/her make-up. At another point in the performance an indigenous woman is being instructed (bullied) by a disembodied voice about where to put each limb on a kind of giant projected Twister game made of lines and dots.

There are also some mini-stories told in monologues by the performers, including one about going to a party and not getting drunk. I can’t say there’s a clear narrative to this work, but there are many brilliant, surprising and memorable images and sounds. In the end I decided that this show is closer to an art installation or to performance art, perhaps, than to a traditional theatre show.

‘Briwyant’ began life at the Performance Space in Sydney, where this kind of hybrid work (ignoring or blurring the boundaries between different art forms) is quite common. But I wondered what people who came to the Malthouse THEATRE expecting a THEATRE show, or even a contemporary dance show along the lines of what Bangarra does, would have made of it? Expectations sometimes matter a lot to your enjoyment of a performing arts production.

I enjoyed it, although I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I had stopped trying to make some kind of narrative ‘sense’ of it earlier on, and just let the sounds and movements and images wash over me.

But it was interesting to reflect on how the Malthouse Theatre program this season is trying a bit of everything. The last event in their 2012 season was a series of short opera works; before that there was the circus show Circa; before that, dance; before that, a text-based so-called ‘well-made play’; and next up, ‘Blood Wedding’, which involves the work of a Spanish poet and the music of Tim Rogers from You Am I. So Artistic Director Marion Potts is determinedly mixing it up in 2012, and I’m enjoying the ride.

Briwyant is on at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank until July 14th.

This week i also went the opening night of Melbourne’s Opera’s latest production, ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, at the Atheneum Theatre in Collins St.

This is one of Mozart’s sillier operas but also one of his most sublime, musically-speaking. It has my absolute favourite opera trio. ‘Soave Sia il Vento’ (May the wind be gentle) which i have performed several times, and i never tire of it.

Melbourne Opera is one of the smaller players in the Australian opera scene, but they are stayers. Somehow they keep on keeping on, producing shows on the smell of an oily rag, with scratch orchestras and limited budgets, and giving up-and-coming young singers a chance to try out substantial roles.

This production is directed by a highly experienced theatre and opea director, Suzanne Chaundy, and it shows. Chaundy has set the opera in 1960’s multicultural Australia, where two spunky and spoilt Italian-Australian sisters, Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Victoria Lambourn) and Fiordiligi (soprano Danielle Calder), are devastated when their boyfriends Guglielmo (baritone Phillip Calcagno) and Ferrando (tenor Roy Best) are called up to fight in Vietnam.

Except that they haven’t really been called up; it’s all part of a bet that the boys are having with an Italian café owner, Alfonso (baritone Roger Howell) that their girlfriends can’t be faithful. ‘Cosi fan tutte’, he tells them – ‘they’re all like that… ‘. So the boys pretend to go to war then come back disguised as Indians from the local hippie ashram and try to seduce each others girlfriends.

The direction in this show is detailed, playful and effective, and with the help of a witty colloquial translation into Australian-English, the setting is entirely believable. One of the most fun operatic roles Mozart ever wrote was that of Despina, the girls’ maid, and soprano Andrea Creighton practically steals the show here. Her Despina is a fag-smoking, cocktail-sipping, man-eating good-time girl who tries to teach the two sisters to be more worldly and have some fun before they hook up forever with their boyfriends. Creighton has brilliant comic timing, a relaxed stage presence and a thrilling light soprano voice.

There is some sloppiness in this production. The orchestra was not always in tune, nor in time with the singers, which is ultimately the responsibility of conductor Greg Hocking. And the tenor Roy Best was the weakest link in the cast; his voice is not as strong as the others, nor is his acting.

But Christina Logan-Bell has created an excellent set on a small budget, which transforms easily from a suburban Australian house and garden into an Italian café and an ashram.

So although i had some reservations about the musical details of the performance, overall it’s a good night at the opera.

‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ is on at the Atheneum Theatre in Collins St until July 18th, and there is also a performance at the Alexander Theatre at Monash University on July 31st.

June 29

Culture Club reviews on 774 ABC Melbourne, June 28th

This week i’ve been to see the new show from Circus Oz – ‘From the Ground Up’ – which is on under the Big Top at Birrarung Marr, down beside the Yarra River on the north side. It’s hard to believe that Circus Oz are nearly 35 years old now. The ensemble is using the same basic ingredients that have been there all along – circus skills, rock’n’roll music, theatre, satire, slapstick, clowning – and all with a background of progressive politics. It’s a rough and tumble aesthetic which has been really effective in reaching out simultaneously to child and adult audiences, keeping both groups interested and entertained. Circus Oz are a really important part of the Australian tradition of physical theatre, and have been been touring the world now for three decades. To use an over-used phrase, they have iconic status in our performing arts culture, so its ALWAYS interesting to see what they’ve been up to.

The new show is billed as a tribute to the fact that the company is building a new home for itself in Collingwood (Melbourne), just off Smith St (near the Tote). So the backdrop to the stage (which is ‘in the round’, of course) is a skyline view of the city. The theatrical conceit is that the performers are on some kind of building site. A huge girder is lowered up and down from the ceiling, and performers walk on it, hang from it, roller-blade on it – in fact it reminded me of those famous photos of the workers who built the Empire State Building sitting precariously on the edge of giant girders, eating their packed lunches up in the clouds.

This new show is a bit of a mixed bag. There seem to be quite a few newish performers involved, so I didn’t recognise many faces from previous shows I’ve seen, and i thought the second half of the show was a LOT better than the first half. The first half seemed a bit scattered – too busy, a bit messy, kind of random – there was lots going on on stage but at times you weren’t quite sure where you were meant to be looking. The giant girder came and went and it wasn’t always clear why that was.

Circus Oz has always been really good at creating ‘characters’ out of their performers, individuals with recognizable (exaggerated) traits and many running jokes (i guess this is a key part of clowning) but it took until the second half for this character development to kick in and for us to finally got to know and like the characters; Fantasia Fitness, for example, the strident rollerblading aerobics queen who has trouble standing up on her roller blades and who tells us repeatedly that she’s ‘totes co’ (totally coordinated) and that when she falls over, she ‘meant it, meant it, meant it.’

The music as always was fantastic, performed live by the multi-instrumental musicians who back the whole show, occasionally coming forward to do a star turn on drums or piano or electric guitar. The keyboard player in particular – Ania Reynolds – is phenomenally talented, and there’s a nice visual gag at the beginning of the show with her dressed as the main (piano-playing) character of the film ‘The Piano’.

And the circus skills of the performers were breathtaking – including juggling, tumbling, trapeze acts, sway pole, Chinese pole, rola bola (that’s where someone stands on a wobbly plank balancing on a cylinder, then other objects are added underneath to make it all higher and higher and more and more precarious)

The politics, though, were a bit unclear. There’s a vague theme of celebrating cultural diversity, with an over-simplified and rather stretched metaphor of people as fruit and ‘wouldn’t we prefer to be in a fruit salad rather than a blended smoothie?’ One of the problems with this metaphor, of course, is that smoothies can be quite delicious, so the answer to this rhetorical question is not obvious.

But in the second half of the show the energy levels lifted, the characters came to life, we had some great tumbling and aerial acts to get us all ooh’ing and aah’ing, and it all felt much more cohesive. It was almost as if the first half had no director, and the second half had a really good director. The work is apparently group-devised, so perhaps it just needs some more dramaturgical tweaking in the first half.

Still, ‘From the Ground Up’ is definitely worth seeing, especially for the second half. It’s on under the Big Top at Birrarung Marr until July 15th

A couple of weeks ago i saw a brilliant show at the Footscray Community Arts Centre called ‘Bindjareb Pinjarra’, a West Australian production auspiced by Victoria’s Ilbijerri indigenous theatre company, which was billed as a comedy about an indigenous massacre (!?)

Some of the performers in this show have been touring with it for almost two decades. It started with four performers, and over the years it has been extended to incorporate six performers – three indigenous, three non-indigenous. The show has changed but the essence has remained the same – a braided exploration of three narratives, including: the Pinjarra massacre of an indigenous tribe in West Australian in the 1800s; a young indigenous man living in 21st century Perth who is trying to get to the memorial event for the Pinjarra massacre; and a young white boy lost in the bush who is found by two young indigenous boys.

The show is a mix of comedy and tragedy, using a blend of impro, clowning, personal testimony, verbatim material from historical records, and even rap. Everything is thrown into the mix and somehow it all comes together as a seamless whole that is both wonderfully playful and yet deeply challenging.

Watching the impro sections is a little like watching Theatresports, with the audience being invited to offer story suggestions. So for example, in a scene set in a Centrelink office, audience members got to choose what sort of a mood Geoff Kelso’s Centrelink officer is in today (‘passive aggressive’, the night i saw it) and to decide why the other characters have to be there that day.

There are some brilliant scenes set on a Perth train station, where self-righteous white people try to police other people’s behaviour. It gives a vivid glimpse of what life can be like for young indigenous people in Perth who are subject to casual and at times vindictive racism on a daily basis.

The set is simple but effective, with a backdrop consisting of a beautiful long painting of the waterhole where the Pinjarra massacre took place, and a bare black stage floor on which the performers sometimes chalk indigenous word and names.

It’s hard to pick the stand-out performers, given the overall strength of the ensemble, but Geoff Kelso is an impro star and a great actor with a strong stage presence, and Kelton Pell (The Circuit, One Night the Moon) has charisma to burn.

After the performance that i watched, the actors came out front to answer questions from the audience. ‘We were told to let sleeping dogs lie, with this massacre story, by both blackfellas and whitefellas’, one actor told us. ‘but that’s just what theatre does – we kick them awake’.

This show is neither preachy nor worthy – it is funny, sad, and it asks important questions.
The Melbourne season ended last week at the Footscray Community Arts Centre but it’s bound to come around again so don’t miss it next time!