Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


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!

June 15

Culture Club reviews on 774 ABC Melbourne, June 14th

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.

June 1

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 31st May 2012

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).

May 18

Culture Club theatre; May 17th on 774 ABC Melbourne

This week i’ve been pondering how to get 774 ABC Melbourne Drive host Raf Epstein to the theatre. Every fortnight I come in and tell him about the marvelous plays and operas i’ve seen and every week he says, ‘yeah, I dunno, I guess I should go to the theatre’, but it doesn’t happen. Well I think I’ve found the solution.

Raf is a current affairs journalist with a deep interest in the news – in real stories and real happenings – what if I pointed him in the direction of some opera and theatre that has come straight from real life? Some has even come straight from the newspaper headlines. Let’s call it ‘reality theatre’. Would that whet his appetite? I hope so.

For example, this week a new opera opened in Melbourne inspired by the awful murder of Melbourne woman Maria Korp. ‘Midnight Son’ is a Victorian Opera production which I’m going to see this weekend (and will review next time I’m in the Culture Club), a new Australian work based on a story from the nightly news.

And another kind of ‘reality theatre’ is ‘verbatim theatre’ – theatre based on real stories told by real people about real events – and there’ve been a lot of those done in Australia over the past couple of decades. There’ve been plays about refugees, about the lives of indigenous Australians, and even one about the Newcastle earthquake I remember seeing over a decade ago.

This week there’s even a sequel to a verbatim theatre show opening in Melbourne (which will also be reviewed in the next Culture Club session) – ‘The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later’, about the murder of a young gay man in the American town of Laramie, Wyoming.

And the verbatim play I saw this week at the tiny La Mama theatre in Carlton was called ‘The Weather and Your Health’. Based on interviews with the grandmother of playwright and actor Bethany Simons, this is a one hour long two-person show written by Bethany in which mostly only one person speaks – Bethany herself.

This is a deeply nostalgic and very sweet little play which takes us back to a time when life seemed much simpler. The character based on Bethany’s grandmother Dawn is not given a name, but she’s a lass from the NSW country town of Gilgandra who grows up with simple, positive, Christian values and a traditional view of a woman’s role as cook, home-maker, carer and procreator. This woman tells stories about being a child growing up during the Second World War, and about coveting pretty dresses in the local frock shop as a teenager, and going to the local pictures and the local dance each fortnight, and meeting her husband-to-be when she plays piano for the local dances.

Somehow this character conjures a whole community just with the simple personal stories she tells. Meanwhile her husband (also un-named) sits silently in a chair, marking up the racing pages of the newspaper, occasionally turning the tranny on and listening to the races, and saying almost NOTHING.

So underneath this apparently simple, pleasant tale of one woman’s life is a much darker story about a poverty-stricken upbringing followed by a lonely marriage to a man who is clearly a gambler, and who ignores all her attempts to be romantic – in fact all her attempts to get him to talk to her, really. The title, ‘The Weather and Your Health’, is never directly referred to or explained, but you assume perhaps these are the two main topics of conversation in a town as apparently quiet as Gilgandra.

Bethany Simons is a very engaging performer. She turns herself into around a dozen other characters from the town, simply with a change in posture or a change in voice. As her silent husband Daniel Mottau certainly looks the part – the tall handsome stranger who turns out to be a serious disappointment. The play was originally seen in 2009 and now it’s been revived as part of a Regional Arts Victoria tour. The theatre was full of VCE students on the day i saw this play, because it’s on the 2012 VCE Drama Playlist. It would certainly be lovely example for them of an effective self-devised one-person play.

‘The Weather and Your Health’ made me feel very nostalgic for my own late grandmother Peg and her stories of the past. It is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until May 27th.

May 4

774 Culture Club reviews, May 3rd

I’ve been to see three shows in the last fortnight, including two plays and an opera:

1) The first play is a new political comedy called ‘Australia Day’, a joint Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Arts Centre, written by Johnathan Biggins. Biggins is best known for his Wharf Revues which have been performed annually in Sydney at the STC towards the end of the year for quite a few years running now. They’re political satire sketch shows – topical, local, light-hearted, funny. So this seems like new territory for Biggins, to write what you might call a ‘well-made play’.

The plot is deceptively simple: a committee gets together in the fictional Australian country town of Coriole to plan the town’s forthcoming Australia Day celebrations. The members include the Mayor (who’s an aspiring federal Liberal Party candidate), a Greens member of the local council (who is usually the lone dissenting voice on the committee), a young teacher from the local primary school (whose parents were Vietnamese migrants) and a couple of other colourful locals with strong opinions and a desire to help.

But the situation is far from simple: there’s dirty business afoot within the local council, and several of the committee members have dark histories which cause conflict and inevitably come out in the open during the course of the play. Meanwhile the weather is threatening to wreak havoc on the big day – not to mention some slightly dodgy sausages on the Australia Day Barbie.

This play is a vehicle for exploring ideas about who has the right to call themselves ‘true’ Australians now – are we white-bread-loving Anglo-Saxons who don’t like change? Are we the children of migrants who’ve happily assimilated into the dominant culture? Are we inclusive or exclusive of outsiders? The debates rages about so-called ‘political correctness’ (how i hate that term) and how we label each other; what constitutes racism; and who has the right to define our national identity.

At the matinee performance that I went to, the audience loved this play. They laughed long and loud and went away happy. But I have to say I sometimes felt a bit impatient, even perhaps a bit bored. The jokes and the ‘issues’ they came from seemed incredibly familiar and almost predictable at times. Maybe I’m not the target audience for a play like this – it felt like a vintage naturalistic David Williamson play – take a bunch of cultural stereotypes, put them in a room together and get them to fight it out with words. Yes, these are important questions that Biggins tackles, but it almost felt too easy to laugh at them. There was alos a profound underlying cynicism in the text about all politicians that i found quite depressing, in spite of the laughs. You come away concluding that everyone is corruptible, which leaves you feeling entirely pessimistic about the possibility of change.

There are some great performers in the cast, especially Geoff Morrell as the Mayor. He’s played characters like this quite often in the past, including in the ABC TV series ‘Grass Roots’, which this play really reminded me of. Valerie Bader was also fantastic as Marie the local Country Women’s Association representative; beautiful comic timing and a memorable appearance in an animal suit!

So overall, yes, most people will love this show but if you like your theatre to be a bit challenging, a bit surprising, maybe it’s not for you.

‘Australia Day’ is on at the Arts Centre until May 26th.

2) If you ARE in that second category – you want to be surprised, even a bit disturbed by a visit to the theatre – try ‘Far Away’, a play that’s on at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane, written by the award-winning English playwright Caryl Churchill. I’ve been thinking about this play ever since I saw it last weekend. Churchhill is known for her non-naturalistic approach to theatre – she’s a political playwright but political in a very different sense to Johnathan Biggins’ party politics – politics in the broader sense of power and the uses and abuses of it.
The play is divided into three different scenes and as the first one opens, we see a child who has woken up in the middle of the night approaching a woman in a kitchen. We learn the woman is her aunt and the child gradually reveals that she’s just witnessed a deeply disturbing scene outside in the garden. There’s been violence and blood and the child is trying to make sense of it all. And the aunt is trying to first of all explain what the child has seen, but then – we realize – she’s trying to cover up what’s been happening. We see the world from the child’s perspective as she tries to understand adult behaviour that, on the face of it, is simply terrifying. We’re in moral quicksand as the aunt keeps changing her story. What IS going on out there in the garden shed? – we never really find out.

Then in the second scene the child has grown up and is a young woman working in a hat factory. But we gradually find out that the hats are to be worn by prisoners just before they’re put to death. What is going on? The prisoners come out chained together but wearing these glamourous Melbourne Cup-style hats and do a parade, accompanied by jolly band music, a scene which is simultaneously hilarious and sickening.

In the final scene things get weirder and weirder. The whole world is at war, but as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, the enemy keeps changing – sometimes it’s the Brazilians, sometimes it’s the crocodiles or the deer, or perhaps even the river is at war with the people.

There is an incredibly dystopian view of the future embedded in this play which touches you somewhere very deep and very dark. Good and evil, truth and fiction, are never clear and morality is in a constant state of slippage. It might seem a bit like some of your weirdest nightmares ,where you’re struggling to make sense of what’s going on and maybe relieved when you finally wake up and discover it was all coming from your sub-conscious.

The underground theatre space in 45 Downstairs adds to sense of claustrophobia. This is a play produced on a small budget but with beautiful acting by the performers playing the three main characters – Caroline lee, Paul Ashcroft and Suzannah MacDonald.

This is the kind of theatre that I like – it takes you to a completely different place, asks you difficult questions, and rather than offering you pat answers, it leaves you wondering.

‘Far Away’ is on at 45 Downstairs until May 13th.

3) Finally, to an opera: Opera Australia’s annual autumn season in Melbourne is on and they’ve brought back a familiar production of Rossini’s popular opera ‘The Barber of Seville’, a version set in the late 1920’s complete with Keystone Cops and people doing the Charleston.

The plot, in brief: Count Almaviva wants to win the heart of the beautiful young Rosina, but Rosina’s evil ward Dr Bartolo wants to marry her himself, possibly simply to avoid having to pay a dowry. So Count Almaviva dresses up in various disguises and, with the help of Figaro, the most popular barber in the Spanish town of Seville, he sneaks into Dr Bartolo’s house and woos Rosina.

Rossini operas are not usually my favourites – I find them a bit light-weight – but this is a totally charming production. The direction, originally by Elijah Mojinsky but this time round re-rehearsed by Roger Press, is brilliant. There is incredible attention to detail so that there is always something funny going on on stage to entertain you, even when the music itself is incredibly repetitive.

There are lots of running gags, including Bartolo’s stoned doorman staggering around the house, and the drunk maid also staggering around behind him, and the doctor’s clients keep coming and going and never actually having their ailments seen to. The sets are deliciously lavish – an art deco terrace house which opens up like a dolls house, so we can see inside two stories – lovely to look at but ‘hard yards’ for the singers acoustically.

The stand-out performers are Jose Carbo as Figaro – a strong confident baritone and he totally relished the famous Figaro aria – and mezzo-soprano Sian Pendry (yes another Sian P!) as Rosina. She’s still a young singer but what a stunning rich warm even voice she has – she’s one to watch!

I was slightly disappointed with the tenor John Longmuir who plays Count Almaviva. It’s not quite a flexible enough voice for those really fast tricky Rossini passages, but his acting was pretty good.

‘The Barber of Seville’ on at the Arts Centre until May 17th.

April 23

774 Culture Club reviews 19th April 2012

Today I will be reviewing four shows, including three Melbourne International Comedy Festival productions. The first two i want to talk about seem most unlikely topics for comedy – a one man show about living with multiple schlerosis, and an opera about netball.

1) Contact! is a new Australian opera being performed in the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, written by composer, conductor and baritone Angus Grant. I need to declare at this point that I know Angus – we studied opera together at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 90’s and have performed in recitals together in the past.

A couple of years ago he started writing this opera about an Australian suburban netball team and then he applied to the Arts Centre to be part of their Full Tilt program (supporting new Australian musical theatre works). The work-in-progress performances at the Arts Centre in 2011 were very successful so the Arts Centre commissioned him to finish it off and programmed it for a full season in the Fairfax Studio this year.

In some ways this opera is surprisingly traditional – there’s conflict and jealousy, there are love interests, there’s a woman with a dark and tragic secret which is revealed towards the end of the opera, there are beautiful soaring melodies and harmonies sung by a bunch of operatic sopranos and one tenor, there are characters struggling to work out what their destiny is, and there are even projected sur-titles – well, sort of – there is some text projected on a screen above the performers.

On the other hand, though, no one dies from consumption or is murdered, the characters have names like Kayla and Bev and Bevan rather than Lucia or Mimi or Figaro, and the words projected on that screen are actually hilarious bitchy text messages flying between members of the girls’ netball team.

Above all this opera is really funny. The humour is a bit like ‘Kath and Kim’ – fond mockery of suburban lives – and people were laughing really hard the night I went. It’s quite short, just over an hour I think, and I reckon it would be the perfect introduction to the opera form if you’ve never been before, or have felt intimidated by it. (If you are familiar with opera, it will make sense when I tell you the musical style sits somewhere between Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Stephen Sondheim.)

I particularly love the fact that there are lots of female roles in this work. There are a bazillion excellent sopranos out there and it can be hard for them to find work, but there are about 8 roles for women in this show, and it shows the depth of talented young singers in Melbourne at the moment. So many stunning voices, and the piece is quite challenging vocally, but they’re all totally up to it.

If anyone stands out in terms of acting it’s Frederica Cunningham, who plays the bitchiest, baddest girl in the netball team, Gayle. Cunningham has beautiful comic timing and a great range of p###ed-off facial expressions. There are lots of in-jokes for people familiar with netball (characters are always being told to ‘keep their eye on the ball’), lots of wordplay, and lots of Australian colloquialisms. If you’re in a netball team, i suggest you take the whole team along to see it.

Full credit to the Arts Centre for investing in this project. It must have felt like a bit of a risk, because the idea of a netball opera sounds so bizarre, but I predict it’s going to have a long life. It’s fresh, original, familiar and highly recommended.

Contact! is on at the Arts Centre until April 29th and then will be touring to various suburban and regional areas, including Ballarat and Warrnambool, in early May.

2) I saw Tim Ferguson’s one-man Comedy Festival show ‘Carry a Big Stick’ in the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall. Some people would have read the profile on Tim in one of the weekend papers about a month ago where he revealed that he has Multiple Schlerosis – hence the title ‘Carry a Big Stick’, because he literally does – and he has written what is essentially a comedy monologue about living with MS.

If you’re older than about forty you’d remember that Tim Ferguson used to be part of a hugely successfully comedy trio called the Doug Anthony Allstars. They were stars of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, did multiple international tours, and you can still find a lot of their work on YouTube if you’re curious. They were ‘comedy rock stars’, as Tim describes it – edgy, risk-takers, with the other members of the trio being Richard Fidler (now an ABC radio presenter) and Paul McDermott (who’s since become a really successful TV host). It was right in the middle of all this outrageous success that Tim first started getting the weird symptoms of MS – limbs that stopped working, tingling in his head, etc. At one point his whole face went numb just when he was about to host the Logies, so he had to do it deadpan, and he describes how lots of people thought it was a deliberate comic effect and congratulated him on how hilarious it was!

So in this show Tim sits on a stool and just talks to us, telling us an almost unbelievable tale about being side-swiped by this disease in the middle a stellar career, and somehow he finds the humour in what seems like a pretty horrible situation. He gives us lots of juicy gossip about the world of TV, stories about hanging out with Kerry Packer and various other bigwigs at Channel Nine, there are certain prurient pleasures for the audience in hearing those stories.

A lot of comedians use self-deprecation as the basis for their humour – putting themselves down – but in this show Tim Ferguson goes the other way. There’s a bedrock of braggadocio to his humour – a bragging style – which of course doesn’t fit the stereotype of people with serious illnesses, and for this reason it’s really refreshing. He’s not asking anyone to feel sorry for him, he’s there to make us laugh and tell us what a great and talented guy he is, and that his life is still good – and you come away pretty much agreeing with him.

‘Carry a Big Stick’ is on at the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday afternoon 22nd April.

3) ‘Plus One’ is a comic play on at the Trades Hall featuring husband-and-wife team Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish (Mike played Keating in ‘Keating The Musical’).

Written by Fiona, who is a successful TV comedy writer and actor, this is a play about three couples who all meet when they’re young and when some of them are in a rock band together. (Fiona and Mike between them play three characters each.) Then the story moves forward about ten or fifteen years to show us what has happened to them all since then.

There are some familiar character types here (and I mean that in a good way) – the beaten-down husband with the bullying, unfaithful wife; the hippy-dippy woman who has spent her life moving from one new age fad to the next; and the stay-at-home mum who writes a ‘mummy blog’ and is actually quite happy with her life but feels that others judge her for not having a so-called career.

The humour is a mix of snappy dialogue, clever instant character changes from the performers (just add a scarf or an Irish accent or a different facial expression and we totally get who’s playing who) and a couple of hilarious songs from Mike McLeish.

My only complaint would be that it seemed a bit short (most Comedy Festival shows seem to be expected to be about one hour). I’d be happy for it to last a bit longer and add a few more songs to make the most of McLeish’ musical talents.. I hope this show gets another life, maybe tours, because would be very portable and cheap to tour and it’s a totally enjoyable hour of theatrical comedy.

‘Plus One’ is in at the Trades Hall in Carlton till Sunday April 22nd.

4) ‘The Histrionic’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank. It is a Sydney Theatre Company production that has been included in the 2012 Malthouse season, and it’s a new Australian translation of a play by Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard (translated by Tom Wright), originally written in the early 1980’s. And though this is an hour and half long play with seven characters played by seven actors, it is ALMOST a monologue, performed with incredible skill and stamina by Bille Brown.

Brown plays an ageing actor called Bruscon who is at the tale end of his career, trailing around small towns in rural Austria performing a play he’s written himself, using his family members as supporting cast, and he is a MONSTER. He’s labeled a histrionic but I think he’s something worse. I think he’s a classic example of a narcissist – entirely self-absorbed, a bully with a gigantic ego and a persecuted belief that the world fails to understand and acknowledge his genius.

Bruscon arrives in the little town of Utzbach where the pig population is greater than the human population and he spends the day of his first performance haranguing the poor locals (and his long-suffering children) non stop with his demands, his brags, his whinges. Utzbach itself has a dark past – there are still photos of Hitler hanging in the local town hall where Bruscon is to perform – so it’s hard to know who’s more despicable really, Bruscon or the people he’s haranguing.

It all sounds fairly gothic but it is very, very funny – you’re groaning while you’re laughing at Brown/Bruscon. If you want to see one of Australia’s best actors at the top of his form, doing a virtuoso performance, then go and see ‘The Histrionic’.

It’s on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank until May 5th.