Posts filed under ‘Sydney THEATRE’


Belvoir St Theatre, April 2014

It’s possibly the best kept secret in showbusiness that directing a play is 1) the easiest job in the world and 2) essentially an act of fraud. Just turn up and give them a script, preferably one that’s pretty good, and if the actors are worth their salt you’ll walk away looking like some kind of Sorcerer of Magick. Never mind set and costume and whatnot the real work is in the wrangling of the bag of cats that passes for what’s known in the industry as “talent”. Actors are notoriously shallow, fickle and hopelessly insecure. I should know. I’ve spent twenty years trying not to become one. There’s a special kind of egomaniacal joy in the moments backstage, or in rehearsal, a sense of self-importance and swagger that can only come from something so utterly meaningless as Art.

Difficult to explain, but I’ve seen actors threaten to refuse the stage without their jacket. I once shouted at a technician for not playing the correct warm-up music in the ten minutes just before the house went live (and that was just in the past month). Because although there are literally thousands of us walking the streets of any given city the show is quite impossible without us and as we know all too well, to paraphrase Mr Coward: it simply must go on. And this show does, for a quickfire 80 minutes or so of a play about a play within a play that may or may not have played out but for the concerted efforts of the cast who in rehearsal for two plays play out a joyful body of work. So altogether there’s three plays in one. I think. Possibly four. It’s complicated.

As the beleaguered Bob Menzies (he’s *very good* in this show) explains in the opening salvo of the production this may not be the play you turned up expecting to see. The Parry Estate refused permission to perform the originally scheduled production as advertised The Phildelphia Story – but fear not, because the minds at Belvoir have crafted a forensic theatre verité depicting the goings on behind the scenes, a real insight into the delicate art of programming and rehearsal, the intricate process behind the magic of show. The careful development, the incremental choices which build throughout to become a work-of-art, all is laid bare. The actors are playing themselves (they’re all *very good* even if not much “acting” is required) – and while Writer/Director Simon Stone does not (lamentfully) feature as himself, it is clear he is taking great risk in exposing his much-lauded process of adaptation to the microscope. And for this I salute him.

It’s all so very, very true to life. A fascinating study for any student theatremaker or person-on-the-street to enjoy, a veritable verbatim open-house and we thoroughly recommend you go and see it for yourself.

The Government Inspector by Simon Stone and Emily Barclay after Nikolai Gogol Instead of The Philadephia Story by Philip Barry after His Wife (Not The Episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air which goes by the same name), devised with the cast. Directed by Simon Stone (if that is his real name), featuring Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone, featuring music by Stefan Gregory.

rating: *Very Good*
*warning* contains occasional use of gold flutter.

11/04/2014 at 12:41 pm 1 comment


Three microphones, three male voices, a tale of a time gone yet just within grasp of living memory, and by making this reach we might peer further back into the years before, centuries perhaps, of Hamlets, MacBeths, Bottoms, Falstaves and Cassieia. This kind of theatrical telescope into the past can reveal all manner of insight into the word as spoken – alive again in the prism of Gielgud’s particular vocal method.

The text is by arrangement of Bob Ellis, weaving the anecdotal with the classical, the casual aside with the musical, and the historical with the modern. It is easy to cast yourself adrift in the sea of pentameter in this whistlestop steamboat cruise, a sampling plate of Elizabethan delights.Yet just as this rhythm starts to wash across there will be a change in tone or shift in tempo, or a phrase out-of-time to crash you back into the experience anew. The passing comment comparing Henry VIII’s brutal treatment of adulterers with the Taliban springs to mind – such is Ellis’s turn of phrase he perhaps matches the mentor for imagery, without letting his careful segues take the limelight from through some of the Bard’s most memorable characters and the scenes which some lucky actors might carve their likeness into the sandy shores betwixt the tides of time.

For as we well know theatre is such an elusive game, and only the rarest of us have ever caught Sir Gielgud in full recital mode (I am not one such creature) – but this might be as close as you can get, three voices in carefully trained mimicry of his style, each finding their own truth or bouncing off the other. It is a stark contrast with the Shakespeare of today and such an important historic counterpoint that is a must-hear for any student of the craft to fully comprehend the significance of the shift toward the conversational tones that are du jour. There is a cultural memory here -or perhaps one from watching BBC dramas in discontented wintry schoolrooms – but the marked and pointed vocality of Sir Gielgud is a kind of lightning rod for today’s casual emphasis toward the everyday. It’s highlighted with some archival footage of one such black and white film – a monologue of the lean and hungry Cassius, imbued with such epic intensity, barely a facial twitch with cross the screen, it is all in his eyes, and that voice – one cannot help but submit to be slain by the voice.

Gielgud cuts a fragile enough figure onscreen and is thus difficult to picture in the kind of commanding presences we have come to expect of today’s romantic casting we will often see in leading roles. There exists no footage of his stagecraft (not even for ready money) so one must imagine, and with a little help from the talents of Messrs Clarke, Burke and Ellis, now one can. The staging is of such simplicity our imaginations are forced into the kind of overdrive Shakespeare’s language will dictate. No flourishing sets or modernist imprimatur – Ellis remarked in a post-show conversation this is a “counter-revolution” against the kind of auteur Shakespeare we have come to know of late. And we enjoy as much, but to fully comprehend what we have won with such expressionistic leaps and bounds one must also take account of what we have lost. Which is, sadly, Gielgud’s particular emphatic approach to each and every word, then in sequence to the grander epic emotional reality of the world he would inhabit. To have glimpsed it is a revelation in itself.

Part rehearsed-read, part archaeological archive; “Anthology Theatre” is the term being used for this approach to a nostalgic review of a theatre icon – in homage to his muse William Shakespeare and fascinating vignette into the style with which Sir John Gielgud approached his immortal words, and such, his life. For the serious theatre historian, student or casual listener it is a vital piece of the tenuous lineage now some several thousand years in the make, for the art of live performance is one best handed on face-to-face. It is the second such arrangement of these scenes and fragments of note, the first in 2013 being The Word Before Shakespeare down at The Bondi Pavillion some windy Tuesday eve. My understanding is there are several more in process, all similarly themed or named from hitherto unheard of Ludlum Trilogies; The Olivier Expansion, The Shaw Revolution, The Beckett Tautology, The Milligan Conundrum, The Scott Morrison Dancing Bear Show
And So On…

The performances are intermittent so keep an ear out. The next reading for Gielgud is this Sunday April 13th at the Hughes Gallery Sydney. Further details here. Featuring Simon Burke, Terry Clarke and Bob Ellis. Recommended.

07/04/2014 at 3:50 pm Leave a comment


presented at the Old Fitzroy hotel March 2014

A fine ensemble cast assemble for this modern naturalistic take on women’s issues (Feminism? Femininity? Gender?) The script offers sizeable chunks of dialogue for the women to sink their teeth into and seems to tread a tight rope between a stark naturalistic representation of its characters and a kind of deep parody. Which makes for some exciting conflict but also a tricky, problematic set of questions for interpretation.

The humour can be disconcerting are we laughing at them or with them? Are we laughing at ourselves? Are we laughing at women or is there a broader spectrum of values being mocked. These are of course more than just a set of female characters, they are journalists, artists, lawyers, sisters, partners, lovers, strangers and friends. They are ambitious, they are kind, they are cruel, they are confident, they are insecure, they are just a little bit self-centred with just a touch of casual racism and a hint of homophobia – they are a myriad of interlocking facets; all of which speaks volumes about the complexity of the performances on offer.

This is an elusive quality to pinpoint so instead best ride through the waves of scene by scene as the culture of career surrounding these women their ambitions and challenges they face in vignette glimpses as their successes and fears ebb and flow like the changing tide of fortune.

You can’t help feel the inherent mockery of middle class privilege underlying the message. Is this a play supporting women or does its frame a more difficult question surrounding the aspirational values they embrace? The dialogue edges on issues such as class, cultural privilege marriage equality, terrorism, violence against women and racism – dipping its toe from time to time into difficult waters “Do you have a problem with globalisation?”

It never really dives into a full cultural critique of political structures. Instead the focus is on the personal and the interior lives of the women which populate this world their ambitions and their foibles. And boy do they have foibles. Much of the conflict comes from these women’s capacity to lie to each other or to themselves. This makes it difficult to be sympathetic when mistakes are so, so middle-class. But there is a certain amount of intrigue as to where this will end up and (spoilers aside) the charisma of the performances carries more than you’ll want from a night at the theatre.

Questions of feminist representation, sisterhood and patriarchy are raised (the play is writ by a man, Jonathon Gavin and directed by another Mackenzie Steele), and should provoke some interesting post-show discussions without necessarily forcing the issue. Jodi McAlister touches on these in her critique here, and these questions are worth asking, although I certainly don’t know the answers. But you need to see it for yourself before wrestling with this too much. And I suggest you do.

This is an actor driven piece borne out of another all-female cast production: Top Girls at the New Theatre. Three of the cast members were a part of that production – it’s clear that part of the motivations for doing this play is to showcase the talents of the cast, with seven strong female roles to explore. The direction and design is unobtrusive and do the actors work justice; who in turn serve the script as well.

This is straight-up naturalism done well, so if you like your theatre engaging and driven by intelligent dialogue with strong characters and a social awareness this is for you. It’s replete with Sydney references and in-jokes, very local, very nouveau-modern, turn of the millennia chic with fine production values and excellent casting.

A Moment On The Lips playing at the Old Fitzroy Hotel until April 12th, 2014.

Presented by Mad March Hare Theatre Company with Sydney Independent Theatre Company, featuring Beth Aubrey, Sarah Aubrey, Lucy Goleby, Sabryna Te’o, Ainslie McGlynn, Claudia Barrie and Sonya Kerr. Written by Jonathon Gain, directed by Mackenzie Steele.

31/03/2014 at 3:17 pm 3 comments



presented by subtlenuance at the TAP Gallery, March 2014


” ‘Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange! “

Lord Byron, Don Juan



pictured: Peter McAllum (photo courtesy Zorica Purlija)

It’s not a new tradition, by any means, but certainly a trend in the local independent theatre sector; the re-emergence of the monologue as dramatic form, and particularly the re-telling of the personal. Recent months in Sydney have found theatres small medium and large hosting a variety of curated (collated? collected?) works of the simple yet eminently complex and yes, strange tales told by actors, alone or with chorus; true stories from their lives.

One isn’t privileged enough to travel interstate or overseas to know if this trend is global yet – it feels very Sydney, very Right Now – to reach and look into the personal journeys of the people who make this city what it is. A year ago with The Political Hearts of Children this phenomena was observed, but since then we’ve also seen Performance 4A’s Stories Then And Now (using the “William Yang method”) – featuring incredible family histories and conflicts leading into more personal and moving journeys as the actor relates the tale of their happening to be here, in Australia, at this time.  These are vital histories for the city’s coming of age; a step toward a true embrace of our diverse roots, and storytelling is so bound up in this land that the intimate circle of the small theatre has begun to gel into a ritual engagement of sharing. 

It’s something that will grow and evolve as teams of writers and actors and storytellers and theatricians collaborate with each project. But the broad strokes are forming.  A writer is teamed with an actor or director to find a set of truths to convey, or question, or ignore, however they might. Sometimes it’s within a broad theme and curated for context (like Augusta Supple’s productions of recent years Singled Out or A View From Moving Windows) – slices of modern life, cut into individual short tales of fantasy or memory.

The trick with these monologues is that it doesn’t matter which parts are true. Which parts are impossible.

The trick is that it’s not even a trick. Know your audience, and the monologue is a communion.

We are there with these actors, we are there with the impossible, the fantastic, the remote.

The German theatre historian and theorist Max Hermann noted: “The most important aspect of the theatre art is the performance” (Research on the History of German Theatre in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,1914). Distinguishing from the notion of the “classic” academic theatre text as literature –  and identifying the ritualistic elements of the performance proper as a text unto itself. This duality of text / story vs text / performance is key to the emergence of this personalised framing of theatre art.

Simply put it is the confluence of actor and audience in the ritual space which makes these works so powerful.  Add that we can reach into the personal journeys of seven (using the Gilchrist method) tales at once creates a tapestry of the personal, spiritual, philosophical and emotive memories that make us who we are.

The stories are unique to the actors, translated back by seven different writers with care and diligence and craft, and then translated once again to the performance realm.  And as audience we are taken with them into the most uncharted and dangerous and moving territories, into the realm of the impossible, the irrational, beyond death, into questions of free will and fatalism. 

Hard to believe some critics did not find this “confronting enough” – but in a world so desensitised to possibility, so attuned to cynicism, I supposed some people just want their art to be less subtle, more “Piss Christ“.  Not this time. Gilchrist has weaved a truth of wonder and confusion, not a beacon but a kind of blanket, that maybe on the cold nights of winter we might find comfort we are not alone.

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

Mark Twain

HIGH WINDOWS LOW DOORWAYS presented by subtlenuance

Written by Ellana Costa, Noelle Janaczewska, Jonathan Ari Lander, Mark Langham, Katie Pollock, Alison Rooke and Melita Rowston. Performed by Kit Bennett, Matt Butcher, Alice Keohavong, Naomi Livingstone, Peter McAllum, Gavin Roach and Helen Tonkin. Directed by Paul Gilchrist, until March 30 at the TAP Gallery.

24/03/2014 at 1:54 pm 1 comment


A PRIORI – “What Comes Before”

As the founder of a startup theatre company I thought it would be worthwhile to pledge some Principles of Operation with respect to casting, cultural policy and programming choices. This is a draft version so any contributions or helpful pointers or general discussion is most welcome.

Open Casting
We aspire to allow all actors the opportunity to work with us, regardless of cultural background, gender or disadvantage. We wish to celebrate difference and diversity and as such, there are no barriers for an actor or collaborator who can bring their full devotion to a role.

Casting will occur in two phases. Firstly an open one-on-one discussion about the project, the schedule and concept behind the production. The actor and director will be able to contribute with the producer and ask questions in a equal footing before deciding if they wish to take the time to audition. The second phase – if an audition is feasible – will consist of a prepared scene and small workshop as per standard casting procedure.

Protocols of Cultural Respect
When dealing with stories from different cultures to our own we will always consult with people linked to that culture to ensure the appropriate respect is due (and paid).

New Work
Finding and developing New Work will be a defining principle of our programming choices, to complement the production of pre-written texts.

We will always seek to produce work that is relatively simple in presentation and format, avoiding complicated stagecraft the emphasis will always be on actors-in-a-room, highlighting the skills and performance elements over large-scale technological components (deus-ex-machina and so forth)

Actor-Text relationship
As an actor driven company we will prioritise the relationship between the performer and text in all major decision-making.
Audience comes Second.
Directors come Third (sorry).

All collaborators will have a share in the production and as such budgets and expenditures will be undertaken via a transparent accounting policy for all stakeholders.

Challenging ourselves
We will always aspire to choose and program work which is the Hard Option, to push our comfort zones and boundaries beyond what we already know.

what do you think?

27/01/2014 at 2:48 pm Leave a comment


Challenge as set on twitter during random discussion around “classic” plays – a two day turnaround to create an essential must-read catalogue for a theatre canon. A concept at odds with itself given the archaic notion of “canonical” in 21C and my own fractious relationship with the idea of “theatre text” in general – the tension between subjective and objective is palpable even before we have begun. My own list will be different to yours (ooh, subjectivity) whereas the very concept of “classic” implies an objective, historical consensus. An absurdity given the highly localised nature of theatre and sense of community resonance certain plays will have in certain regions but not in others.

Moreover, concepts of authorship and “text” have their own contentious place in the modern classic ouvre. it’s a topsy-turvy argument, with the popular citation that the “Author is Dead” (blithely followed with a pretentious reference to the author of that phrase). But let’s not go there right now. This exercise is more about must-reads for appropriate knowledge of theatre convention and history. Classics are defined by their influence.
And so, we begin at the beginning:

Constant re-interpretation of a tale that was a classic before it was ever writ down and thus taking the estimation of “Literature” before Literature existed as a concept. The complex dramatic ironies set around the epic Trojan War foreshadowed all Athenian dramatic convention and Achilles’s ‘lost-boy’ rage became the template for tragic heroism. It also opens up notions of authorship story would evolve and adapt for different audiences over generations in spoken word form regaled in tavernas before it existed as Homer’s ‘text’.

A rare Satyr play with a direct link to Homer’s Odyssey. Hardly ever done but vastly influential on the likes of Aristophanes.

The mother of all romantic comedies. Ted Hughes’ translation is to die for. So to speak.

Our personal favourite of the Greeks and something less of a tragedy than ancestor to the horror genre. Euripides’ vicious breakdown of the God vs State power struggle is currently undergoing the Sancez treatment for modernisation; with a tale involving a *religious foreigner*, some *psychic powers* and an outbreak of *hypersexual women* in the context of a *strictly conservative and repressed leader* [GASP].

As epic trilogies go this one spawned more imitators than Star Wars and Lord of The Rings combined. Everyone from Seneca to Sartre has had a crack at translating/retelling/adapting/updating this post-war tale of the fall of the house of Atreus. It’s like a thing.

If ever a play demonstrated the function of art as social critique and conscience this is it.

But which version?

Love it or hate it this is a very clever play subverting (or reinforcing?) the traditional role of women in Athenian politics. The quintessential farce.

“Shall I begin with the usual jokes at which the audience never fail to laugh?” Aristophanes demonstrating a capacity for meta-theatre and post-modernity before even hipsters thought it was cool.

Again Aristophanes with an expressionistic vision of conceptual metaphor as social critique. Way ahead of it’s time. Or maybe Everyone Else is just way behind.

Not every Shakespeare is a classic. Some are a kind of terrible crowd-pleasing fap [Romeo & Juliet, anyone?] But Lear is in my top ten plays of all-time.

In conversation at the Opera House a couple of years back Tom Stoppard was asked to reduce this play to a single word. He chose the word “if”. Well it would save a lot of time, anyway…

This simultaneously bold, visceral, absurd and hilarious literary lark is everything a play should be, and nothing a play can ever really capture since.

Probably one of the Bard’s more visionary and exciting plays with resonances well into today’s politic. In a word? Boats.

A play so dark we dare not speak its name. For the uninitiated:
Breaking Bad with witches and iambic pentameter. Say No More.

Anything that can be turned into a Rolling Stones song has my vote. Again, a defining characteristic of the classic is the universality of its retelling.

The first play ever to be put on in New York and the first play ever to be put on in Sydney (and subsequently spawning OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD).
Irrespective of quality, a classic.

“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” And there you have it.

Points purely for getting banned by the wealthy French factions but Moliere’s devastating critique of hypocrisy and religion demonstrates just how dangerous comedy can be.

A pleasure to read – and to watch – was privileged enough to see Bille Brown in the title role at Belvoir St in Kantor’s prodction. Alfred Jarry opened the door towards dada, surrealism and the most influential 20th Century movement: Absurdism. Fearless and joyful.

Hedda might be better but A Doll’s House broke the necessary ground by becoming the most influential text of the modern era. It speaks volumes that writers still ape his technique, and the Realist form is now the most conservative type of theatre writing you will find – practically the rule for ‘safe’ dramatic form. But only exceptional writers have been able to match Ibsen for his ‘drama of ideas’ fusing socio-political critique into painstakingly constructed dialogue and radical representation of action. A better model for circumspect use of stage direction is lacking… “That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world.”

Strindberg was at his best when he wasn’t jealously trying to mimic Ibsen and this (pretty much indecipherable text)

If I haven’t had at least one riot following my play I will consider my career a failure.

A play that must be performed perpetually. Not by the same actors or directors, a revolving troupe. Right? This is the kind reform our industry needs. Am I getting through?

More proof that farce and comedy rule the pre-modernist epoch. It feels dated no but the critiques remain relevant, even if the form is not.

Nothing against Shaw but he’s largely derivative of better writers. However this play has so many imitators and revisions it’s made the list.

The play, the film, the musical, the dance moves, the iconic jazz-handed red-and-black spectacular- the original was writ as a class assignment for Yale Drama School by journalist Maureen Dallas Watkins based on the true story of two allegedly murderous ‘jazz-babies’. Goes to show: take that drama school shit seriously.

TS Eliot’s gorgeous modernist poetic script on Becket and his struggles against authoritarian rule is too rarely done and I cannot imagine why.

Probably the first great European modernist work, subverting form, genre and content in a radical way that quickly took hold. Read all of Brecht but read this one more.

Powerful, inspirational stuff.

Another ‘based on a true story’ this play is a master class in playwrighting as the execution of conceptual metaphor. This is not nor ever was the story of the murderous French maids that scandalised the Paris aristocracy but a ritual dance teased out from the very idea that the working class might dare such a thing. Genet knew any attempt to act on class rage with violence or murder can only end terribly, and so depicted a cycle within a ritual within a wheel, wrapped in fur and flowers.

One’s ability to say a single word to convey reams of meaning defines the classic. In this instance, a masterpiece of American postwar ennui.

Ditto. Yeah but still kind of depressing.

One of the first plays I ever read, and re-read, and read again. Probably why I’m a writer.

I want to arrange a production of this in real time. Over six hours before dawn, with monstrous pauses and real booze. Should be good.

“Your monocle is in the wrong eye”

Take note. This is how you write an adaptation. Sideways. Anything less is derivative claptrap.

A delightfully cheeky comedy about price gouging. On an unrelated matter it is never put on at major theatre companies in Oz.

More wilful political farce from the Italian Nobel Prize-Winner. It’s scandalous his work is not done more often in Sydney.

The only Australian writer to be included on the list but this rare, adventurous play says much about our development as a nation, culture, our insecurity about finding our voice and our struggle with reconciling the past.

I’m biased. Because I’m currently touring this and our next performance is in just a month at 505. But it really is a brilliant modern classic and Berkoff is unmatched by any writer of the day. Come and see for yourself. The text is like climbing a small mountain – but the view is exhilarating.

See my response the recent production at the New Theatre

You thought I’d forgot about it? Never. If imitators and adaptations by numbers define a classic, this one defines itself. You cannot mess with the best. And Beckett is a once in ten generational genius. Untouchable.

These are not my *favourite plays* (some are) but the ones you have to have read a few times to stnd a chance at writing anything vaguely original. Hopefully that helps. Read them all immediately.

Honourable mentions go to a bunch of writers for whom I had not the time to narrow down and exhume the quality of their work; Jack Davis, Sarah Kane Harold Pinter, Buchner, Eugene Ionesco, Yasmina Reza, Corneille, Lope de Vega, Calderón, not to mention some fabulous modern writers of the last twenty years. But the exercise was to turn it around in just two days. Also it would be disingenuous to claim a play less than twenty years old as a “classic” when by definition I am looking beyond populism and especially for revolutionary or stylistically ground-breaking works. There is also a lack of women and a deliberate overlooking of classic Eastern texts, Kabuki and traditional Hindu theatre are two areas I have only passing knowledge so would baffle to guess which are the most radical or influential texts from those regions.

As I stated at the outset: notions of canonical lists are abstract and weighted towards systemic power structures. Men have the lion’s share because for thousands of years men were given positions of influence within the theatrical community. So they were influential. You will notice a similar trend upon viewing the upcoming work by POST interrogating canonical works (Oedipus Schmoedipus; playing at Belvoir in January) I had almost this exact discussion with the two women devising that piece when I interned with them last year…

So we (those of us with appreciation of post-modern etiquette) abandon adherence to the canon as less than useful as a guide but more as an historical facet of the craft. For if we cling too tightly to the past we will never find the future. Imitation is flattery – but innovation is battery. That is all.

03/11/2013 at 8:34 pm Leave a comment


Damn. Missed it again.

August marks four years of writing about theatre on this site, an unremarkable fact besides it also being something like twenty-one years of watching theatre as an audience and making theatre as an artist. As critic I’m a total noob, but I understand the language of theatre as well as anyone. It’s translating back into Anglais that’s the tricky part…

Via the throes of rehearsal and recovery for a little Fringe Show last month I have neglected the discipline of writing. But, having seen a few shows on Sydney stages since July, and weighed in on the tempest surrounding the no-adaptation-is-an-island debate, mouthed off at Arts Ministers and Editors alike, done the usual unpaid work at the usual festivals and entered/been rejected from the usual collaborative theatre callouts. Business as usual but Oh and I started my own business… but I digress. Perhaps that is a subject for another day.


Most recently it was the wild, raw, disparate and sexy Crack Festival and (the conservative and sterile) Miss Julie but before that were The Maids, Persona, Moving Parts and Friday – each a new work or new translation for the stage, each rife with sharp and thought provoking dialogue, and each portraying a precise grand narrative much broader than the sum of its parts. In terms of style, the ‘professional’ companies brought minimalist productions of a two-or-three hander dealing in themes of self-discovery, betrayal, child-abuse, death, and had barely a single moment worth mentioning. Only an attempted suicide by a child-beating salesman with cancer (I kid you not) brought an actual chuckle from this audience member in this highly professional, detailed, finely-tuned production. Ditto Persona, although without the laugh. That’s not to say they weren’t well-done. Just fucking morbid and introspective. Not my cuppa.

I tweeted my review of Miss Julie (harking back to my days as digital copywriter “if you can’t say it in eight words or less, don’t bother”) as thus: “Men! Dogs! Women! Cray! Cock! Tits! Bang! Blood!” I have not read the Capital C Crrrrtiiiics on this play but can’t help wonder if anyone noticed it has an almost identical plot to the universally hated “Every Breath”? Only without any sense of expressionism or intrigue. Just dour hyper-realist representation of a Mack-Truck Cliché. Fine work from the cast but playing for laughs when the character is a pig is probably a sign of an actor looking to score points amid a dearth of substance. If this is the world we live in it does not ring true.

On the other hand the premiere of Friday at The Old Fitzroy Theatre was loose, flawed, with a cast of about sixty, plenty of wit and more than a few belly laughs and snap. It could have used a bit of dramaturgy to curtail its sprawling Shakespearean ambition (think lots of gratuitous sub-plots, comedic interludes and bawdy one-liners). What it lacks in craft it makes up for in gusto and good-old-fashioned CRAIC, in the fine Australian tradition of taking the piss. Nuggets of pure gold amidst an uneven satire make it worthwhile… but more about this in a moment.

What strikes us vividly is the contrasting ambitions of the productions. One is trying to make something big and new, the others trying to be like something old. Note: who gets the funding, who gets the support, who gets all the added publicity and hype? What does a playwright do, anyway? As the key question coming out of the Crack Theatre Festival, as stated in the excellent slice of meta-criticism Kids Killing Kids “Why here? Why Now? Why You?” With the ramshackle SITCO production of Daniela Giorgi’s play this question was a pleasure to explore. With the fine-tuned professionalism of the others, we are left in the wind. NFI*, as the saying goes.

Persona attempting to emulate what is cited as “one of the greatest films of all time” (an entirely pointless observation) – putting what was in all likelihood a fascinating filmic concept in 1966 onto the stage in 2013 is bold enough, but this audience found nothing much to be added. Technically brilliant is the show, but I wanted a lie down. The transliteration into theatre from cinema meant we lose so much of the idiomatic Bergman filmic technique that it is reduced to story. Persona only hesitatingly broke new ground. On top of this, the use of a child in the opening sequence was hugely problematic in a show which (when it finally got going) dealt with full-on sexual content, including graphic descriptions of sexual assault on two small boys by the central character. Sorry. Spoilers. The boy does not return until the curtain call and while he opens the show (reading a book through binoculars while a clock tick-tocks for nearly five whole minutes) – one has to ask: What is he doing there? What possible greater artistic function can he serve, and how can that justify what amounts to a breach in duty of care, touring this show over and over with such explicit sexual content. I was not intrigued, not even impressed.

What does a playwright do, exactly? If it’s just coming up with intriguing is she/isn’t she/will he/won’t he plot lines then what progress have we made since a certain Scandinavian genius rattled all the critics cages and set a new precedent for drama circa 1898? Moving Parts – a fine example of a clockwork universe on stage – deftly represented by Friels and McGonville on stage in a tight sequence of dialogues which ratchet the tension and stakes until there’s nowhere to go but into the realm of the absurd. And so the aforementioned suicide attempt becomes fodder for a rather macabre diversion into comedy. But the clockwork universe (in which years, decades of events past conspire to influence the micro-decisions of the now) collapses when Roy declares an intention to take his own life. The stakes – his shop, his life, his pride all fall to oblivion in that moment, and while the choice was palpable in Friels’ portrayal of a man with nothing to lose – the writing suffers and the metaphor muddied in the process.

I submit the idea that a playwright brings a world into existence, and the *writing* element is merely a frame through which one can peer into that world. Thus these adaptations are new windows into the same world, which can only be viewed *between* the dialogue. The director’s role is to fill the frame with a tinted glass or crystalline lens with which to view the frame anew. Think of Chekhov or Pinter or Beckett- with multitudes of ideas contained in silences. There is no *rewriting* silence. The authorship of those moments is absolute and all a director or adaptor can do is provide the echo of the walls which surround. So the question for any playwright, adaptor or collaborative team is this: is the work telling us about the world of the play, or telling us more about you?

Do playwrights tell us about themselves? Or about the world they live in? A little bit of both, one hopes. But it’s the audience that fills in the gaps. And it’s the value of an idea that we take home, irrespective of the quality of its expression. Never forget it.

PS my eight word review of The Maids as follows:
“Once in a lifetime performances. Saw it Twice”

More about this later.
*No Fucking Idea

10/10/2013 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment



Presented by the New Theatre, July 2013

Top Girls. photo by Bob Seary

Top Girls. photo by Bob Seary

There remains no greater case to validate the work of the playwright than the presentation of their text as writ, no greater challenge to the actor or director to take on a cohesive writer’s vision and remain true to their intent. Such is the way at the New Theatre, no mincing about with rewrites or such periphery – their latest production in a series of good plays done well, opened to a well-earned third ovation and an opening night crowd (of the usual suspects) in a genuine conversational post-show buzz of ideas, politics, history and broad appreciation of the craft.

Still scalding some thirty years after its first showing, Caryl Churchill’s script treads between expressionism and vignette-realism. If you’re unfamiliar with her work, go and see this play immediately, for it remains one of the finest examples in the modern canon of bold social realist writing, with a representational aesthetic that forces audiences to examine what they see beyond the literal. The opening moments tell us thus, entering to a luxurious table setting in a dark parody of the famous game where one invites a group of historical figures for dinner. A shrewd device in this instance to create a socio-political context to shed light on the modern idiosyncrasies we will bear witness to in Acts II & III.  Churchill extending the metaphor in a truly fantastic (as in portraying the literal outcome of a fantasy) game of ‘what-if?’

In this case the women all represent different phases and elements of an historic and systemic patriarchal society.  Each reaching various dizzying heights of achievement within the worlds they inhabited, and yet always somehow defined by the male-dominated systems which surround them.  Much comedy can be found in the absurd expression of this familiar setting, the bristling and posturing of a dinner party made up of (shall we say) larger-than-life personalities.  We’ve all sat at this table at some point or another, although it’s arguable how many of these parties are held in the company of the famously dead.

The mercurial setting of the first scene thus offers a fascinating glimpse at history which allows the audience member to do their own excavation in light of the more immediately accessible second half. Paradoxically this modern account of the foibles of women’s liberation in the face of Thatcher’s Britain is a tougher theatrical journey to explore. Perhaps it’s the closeness to our own social experience which sits uncomfortably as social commentary?  Either way the expressionist grandeur of the opening salvo suggests the quiet familiarity of the domestic and workplace settings is not to be taken at face value. Churchill wants us to look at our own choices in the face of the impossible (as men or women) – whether it’s 13th Century Rome or Britain 1982, this sadly remains a markedly relevant question for Australia circa 2013. Especially 2013.

A simple, effective design scheme and some excellent dedication to the text from the cast make what seems short work of a very challenging and complex play. The careful dedication to the dialogue and timing and above all the engaging naturalism and warmth of the characters from the ensemble are, simply put: a joy to behold. We’ll be seeing it again.

Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Alice Livingstone, featuring Sarah Aubrey, Claudia Barrie, Julia Billington, Maeve MacGregor, Ainslie McGlynn, Bishanyia Vincent and Cheryl Ward. 

Playing at the New Theatre until August 3rd.

12/07/2013 at 6:43 pm 3 comments


…Paul Gilchrist’s latest work Rocket Man – a play which bows to the conventions of domestic naturalism – as a ‘story’ it follows the Chekhovian example of the everyday imbued with the monumental. These are working people from your life or mine. An aspiring actor, an exhausted nurse, a loyal friend, a troubled young man. You immediately know them. But the play actively resists classification as a simple piece of domestic realism, with reflexive aphorisms sparring around the function and value of theatre (some sharp jabs at the world of public funding – worth noting subtlenuance are self-sufficient), it spins a web of in-jokes and intrigue that’s something of a hallmark for the writer. Rocket Man seems to writhe inside its skin, like the eponymous astronaut (now there’s a pointless occupation if there ever was one) who’s self-aware but chained to discontent and thus paradoxically oblivious to his potential. The human story. Unsettling, wry, dark, rich in humour and tension. Everything a play should be.

Continue Reading 05/07/2013 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment



We caught the first preview of this autobiographical verbatim work from Danielle Maas and the team at Cupboard Love (pro-tip: always favour the preview over the bustle of opening night if you fancy sheer wattage in your theatrics – especially with new work), a first tentative venture back to the Old Fitzroy Hotel since the baton was passed to SITCO for running the space.  Happy to report there’s a piping hot show in the offing this month.  Danielle Maas is a force to be reckoned with onstage and off – having researched and dramaturged and ultimately performing this tale of love, lust and lunacy with Joe Kernahan in multiple supporting roles.  At once frenzied, funny, familiar and frightening – it has a visceral boldness that comforts the soul, in the way you might seek refuge from the freezing night by wrapping yourself in the still-warm bodily organs of a recently slain wildebeest on the plains of outer Mongolia.

As a series of vignettes gleaned from interviews with twenty men from the author’s life, the play creates an hilarious mosaic of the absurdity of romance in the digital era – sometimes edging cariacture, but more often treading the path of honest reflection and investigation. In terms of catharsis, Ms Maas has the courage to turn some of the pathos in her love-life into comedy gold – always on that flickering knife’s edge of tragedy. No mean feat, and another terrific example of the trend in local theatre toward staging the deeply personal in terms of the epic, to reflect and capture a uniquely modern Australian experience. You should go and see it.

Say Hello First, presented by Cupboard Love & SITCO, playing at the Old Fitzroy Hotel until 27th July. Written by Danielle Maas, directed by Jason Langley, featuring Danielle Maas and Joe Kernahan.

Continue Reading 03/07/2013 at 5:08 pm Leave a comment

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