Posts tagged ‘Simon Stone’



“I have no original ideas.” Anyone doubting the veracity of Simon Stone’s recent explanation of why he’s so prone to adapting other people’s texts should go and see this droning, bloodless take on Ingmar Bergman’s film Face To Face.  The production is ill-advised and ill-conceived, lacking in tension, complexity or depth. It’s not for lack of trying. Messrs Stone, Upton and Wright have made some effort to contrive convey the tale of an outwardly happy woman’s psychological decline and redemption; what a marvellous thing to aspire to unpack the strange pressures of being an attractive professional female in today’s world – or maybe just This Is What A Crazy Woman Looks Like. As writ by men, adapted by men, directed by men. Thank You Captains Patronise.

Fool me once. I had similar misgivings about Stone’s explanation for Strange Interlude- it being a woman’s story and so forth.  At the time I put these aside and looked for the positives. I’m not so sure anymore. So many plays or films are out; this could be adapted from actual women’s stories, not some Svengali intellectualisation of what must be going on deep within the mysteries of She but an Actual Woman with Ovaries’ Experience. Asking too much?  Apparently. These aren’t women’s stories, they’re stories about how it’s ok, we understand chicks are total whackjobs, so we’re expressing our sensitivity towards women’s issues by making these psychodramas where the madness of women is exposed and we demonstrate that men must do what must be done before women might not know what to do with themselves. 

The thought of these three affluent white males conspiring to determine how such a story might be told is jarring at best, and at worst, actively nauseating.  A couple of vignettes: a) man at dinner with woman drunkenly comments on her breasts. She gives him her phone number (NOTE TO SELF TRY THAT NEXT TIME); b) an attempted rape is abandoned because “she’s too fuckin’ dry”. Later she laughs it off and reveals she wanted him to go through with it (YEP MEN WROTE THIS QUEASY YET?).  While the innocuous staging of such moments is perhaps the most shocking thing about them, I’m not sure that it’s a man’s place to tread the path of trivialisation when it comes to sexual assault. Regardless of your intent.  And let’s assume for a second that the minds behind this theatrical ingrown toenail are on the level, genuinely wanting to talk about women’s mental health through the theatrical form. Why this play? Why now?  Without knowing the arcane secrets of pitching and programming which got Stone directing two shows within several months dealing with loveless, mentally unstable women and the men who care; at some point during those decision processes we can safely assume the phrase “I want to do this” came up. Twice.

And here’s the rub: “I have no original ideas” is just one of the eyebrow-raising comments Stone has made doing publicity for his shows. The latest epigrammatic “theatre texts have no literary value on their own” caused a minor storm in a hiccough on the social medias when the comment (echoed at the time by STC Director Andrew Upton) was published in the lead-up to the play. What are we to make of these remarks?  Well a pinch of salt for starters, given Stone’s tendency for public quips that are less than thought through. But if in fact he is referring to the theatrical value of performance (something I rank above literary value), as I suspect; then it is the director adding to the script which enables a greater truth to be found. In a nutshell, the principle espouses that the value of theatre texts is in their being spoken. They are written to be spoken aloud, enacted – and it is in this process that a text can truly come into its own. A script can adopt entire new sets of values this way, and this value is found in theatrical forms such as subtext or composition. In other words – actions speak louder. Good writers understand this and leave the dialogue ‘open’ for actors and directors to add subtext on their own.

Unfortunately, in this case nothing is added to the script by having it staged. The play is bereft of action. Dialogues occur with contrived movement to make things seem dynamic – with nothing relevant to the thematic content to create a powerful composition (almost certainly the strength of Bergman’s career).  At one point the ensemble merely sit and listen to music.  The same problem occurred in Interlude as well with entire scenes portrayed in a virtual tableaux – and by adding nothing in terms of mise-en-scene the result is a tensionless series of lamenting conversations. If the content of these conversations as written hold no literary value, what value is there in staging it so uncritically? We’ve seen all these tricks before.

The theatrical value of course is found in the earnestness of the performance – and earnest they are, almost to the point of a complete lack of tonal variation within some of the speeches. It’s this-is-the-emotional-state-I-am-feeling type stuff – but the trick with long speeches is to coach the actors out of simply giving over to the intensity of the emotion. Startling moments of intense anguish are fine but audiences crave a counterpoint, because madness does rationalise, it does talk to itself, it doesn’t actually know that it’s insane. Understanding how to get actors to deliver this doublethink is how to reach the complexity required for a text like this to work. And there is none. She’s fucked up. End of story.  This is a cardboard cut-out of emotion, delivered with photorealistic intent – but there is nothing behind it.  No matter how experienced the actor you must identify and draw out the intricacies in madness. It is this that allows an audience to extrapolate and learn from the characters’ experience. Otherwise we are looking from the outside in (the hallmark of this production) and the result becomes an exercise in academia. Actors of the standard we are used to seeing at the STC can portray any emotional state you might want – but even the best demand direction, so that difficult emotional scenes don’t get washed out by monotonic shrieking and we can engage with the subtleties.

If the text has no inherent value and you add virtually nothing to it, one must ask the inevitable. Why would you want to do it at all? The emotional climax certainly beckons as one of the key moments when the play, like a sleeping elephant rouses momentarily and shuffles its feet. But any empathy or intrigue is washed out and sterilised by the cavernous void passing itself off as a set design and unfortunate glass screen betwixt us and the actors. Could you make the one interesting scene any less accessible? Whatever fine acting may have been occurring up there was diluted by the cleverness of the problem solving, and although I knew when to feel moved (they brought in the minor chords, see) it was cold as the proverbial dip in the Fjord, I felt nothing. Why this play? Why now? A fascination with Bergman doth not make a good reason for the level of expense going unspared. When I was an undergraduate theatremaker I was enamoured with the likes of Jim Jarmusch. What a guy!  I actually wanted to be him, would you believe… Does this mean I wanted to reproduce his filmography for the stage? You bet! 

Of course I saw quite early that filmic and theatrical composition are totally different animals. When writing for film one takes on an utterly different language to surround the dialogue, because any writer worth their salt knows that frame-by-frame the meaning of the words can warp and swell according to the context of the staging.  So when you write for film you write visually. Every close-up, every hand held pan, every dolly becomes a part of the composition, the dialogue, the rhythm of the work. Then there’s the editing process, a chance to recreate the story once again. So when we say “texts have no literary value of their own”, it’s kind of true, because meaning and subtext is created in how it’s delivered.  Writing for theatre has no such luxury, as such we must write with enough space for the subtext to grow in rehearsal, that the actors and director can explore the nuances and reinterpret. Composition can add to or change the meaning but we are working outside of the medium that made Bergman such a powerful artist. So whatever your intentions, not understanding this is the road to Hell. For a play about such difficult, deeply held emotional states (and nothing else) is it too much to ask to put it up in a way that actually lets the audience in?

I have no objections to experimentation, or adaptations, or translating film to the stage, and I would rather see an artist try something new and fail than do something obvious and safe to succeed. Unfortunately this is not risky, nor does it succeed. Good intentions can only go so far, some shows belong in small theatres; and surely, with our current arts media if this was one, it would get the lack of recognition it deserves.

Face To Face, by Ingmar Bergman, adapted by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone, featuring Humphrey Bower, Mitchell Butel, Kerry Fox, John Gaden, Wendy Hughes, Anna Martin, Jessica Nash, Queenie van de Zandt and Dylan Young, playing at the Sydney Theatre until September 8th.

28/08/2012 at 9:09 pm 5 comments


presented by Company B, Belvoir St Theatre, Upstairs, May 2012

The black-on-white imagery of the first key scene between the main players of this bizarre love-triangle capture a starkness and distant emotional sterility evident in the portrayal of Nina in this modernisation of the O’Neill psychodrama (for want of a better word – tragicomedy is woefully insufficient). As the actors shift around the stage your retinas find ghostly remainders of such high contrast as to resemble the very same spirits of the lingering past that haunt these central characters so doggedly. The effect is disconcerting at first. Detached, and endemic to the director’s style of timeless, placeless mise-en-scene. For an audience it becomes necessary to reach into their own memories to find context, and as such it becomes an easier reach to empathise into what is indeed a strange dark interlude of sacrifice and solipsism.

It’s that detachment of self which recurs throughout her journey, buffeted by the choices of the men in her life until the final, sinking, cyclic glimpse of a freedom found not but a moment too late. In his adaptation Stone has tapped into probably the most difficult undercurrent in modern Australian society, and the most pervasive: that of mental illness and depression. The metaphor is simple enough, to be free – truly free – we must abandon the ghosts of our histories, our genealogies, our experiences. So long as these things yoke us unto submission to the world’s expectations we can never take true responsibility for our lives. This is the tragedy of Nina’s story that irrespective of her being right, wrong or ill-advised in her choices; the legacy of self-doubt seems to be passed on whether she likes it or not. The closing scene and accompanying questions that are posed make that perfectly clear even if (or perhaps because) they don’t spell out the kind of closure an audience might crave after investing so much in this woman’s journey. One woman’s sense of relief is another’s looming anxiety – for so long as she’s defined by the relationships she has with men there will be no self-determination. And the legacy is passed on in the touching – if altogether unsettling denoument.

There are some jarring moments in the script which switches between naturalistic dialogue and the internal thoughts, and a few cuts here and there wouldn’t go astray – but it’s our severe privilege to second guess writers from the armchair position. Fine performances all-round make it well worth your time and exploration.

STRANGE INTERLUDE presented by Company B, upstairs at the Belvoir St Theatre. Written by Simon Stone after Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Simon Stone. Featuring Akos Armont, Emily Barclay, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Mitchell Butel, Callum McManis, Kris McQuade, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan, Toby Schmitz and Toby Truslove. Playing until June 17th.

21/05/2012 at 1:35 pm Leave a comment



Presented by Belvoir and Sydney Festival in association with Carriageworks.
Originally created by THE HAYLOFT PROJECT.
A Malthouse Theatre Commission.
Bay 20, CarriageWorks, February 2012

The word itself sounds like a disease. Onomatopoeic. From the Greek. Meaning “I Make” and “Name”. Thyestes. Like a coldsore. Not something you would want to share with someone. Not unless you truly love them. And even then it’s a kind of horrific scabrous viral parasite. You know how sometimes words sound like what they mean? Thyestes. To most people the word is meaningless, but you would still shy away from the thought somehow. It’s embedded. Like something crawling up the inside of your spine. You know it’s coming, inevitable, and when it reaches your brain who knows what? Not I, said the fox…

Is this a movement or a tradition? The retelling of old stories through the fish-eye lens of the modern urban patois; where once they were passed along in the ancient tavernas unrehearsed by the lyric poets, or expertly carved into marble friezes, or painted on Attic vases, these warnings against the madness of power and corruption and disloyalty long since smashed to pieces by the ravages of time. Or as Joyce might say of history without war (in Stoppard’s Travesties) “a minor redistribution of broken pots”. So it’s tradition. Modernism circa 2010 AD. The creative team at The Hayloft Project have picked up the ceramic shards of one such busted planter and like an archaeological jigsaw done their level best to piece it back together.

The missing fragments are well disguised with reams of inconsequential dialogue, crafted almost too cleverly from pop-cultural scotch tape and waxy bits of post-dramatic conceit. And the bottom half seems to be put back in place all out-of-order… But it definitely holds water. Oh yes. You wouldn’t want to drink from it though. It remains uncleansed – the catharsis is but a brief splash, a vignette placed out of context, which the audience must make their own sense of by reframing the out-of-sequence events in the second half. Like a half-remembered bad dream. You’d rather forget, but you can’t. It forces you to put it together yourself, scene by scene, so the horrors are multiplied because you know what happens next.

Thus the casual banality of the dialogues become loaded with a sickening irony. Simple things like a lover’s gift should make you smile, but they make you frown, as you sift through the wreckage of the cursed Atrean house, like the archaeologist just trying to figure out the who and the why. It happens so fast. Too fast. The speeding surtitles give as much confusion as exposition, so the people next to you have to ask what’s going on? Who is who? English was not their first language so they are stuck. Which one was Thyestes again? You thought it was the other one – so the jumbled pieces collapse and the process begins anew.

While it was Joyce who began the fusion of modern and ancient – it was Foucault who cleaved concepts of history, knowledge and the archaeology of meaning; and the play, perhaps through its self-awareness and unwavering commitment to emotional intensity, excavates a terrible truth that threads right back into a world we will never know, but somehow recognise. It is the sterility of the production design which enables these three performers to create a platform of brutal all-too-human foibles to fire up the imaginations of their utterly captive audience. Backed up with tight direction and some truly astonishing mise-en-scene; the minimalist approach gives way to the kind of psychological and emotional arm-wrestle of which there is no choice but to win.

THYESTES playing until February 19th, 2012
Co-written by Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Simon Stone and Mark Winter after Seneca. Directed by Simon Stone, featuring Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter

09/02/2012 at 11:18 am 4 comments

“We can’t talk to shadows in the street”


presented by Company B Belvoir, August, 2011

When I was a small boy, back in the early 17th Century, I used to look at the strange people on the street as we went past in our carriage and wonder about the lives they lead, their fears, hopes and the many different stories they all had to tell. It’s a fascination I have always had with the city, and the strangeness that comes with being in such proximity of strangers. It’s an affliction I’m guessing is common to storytellers the world over, when they look at their local area, and think things like “where do all these people come from?” or “how many others are there in the world with dreams like mine?” But there’s that convention, that social nuance that prevents us reaching to find out about those who surround us, that business that keeps the mind’s eye focused inward, stuck on our own little world of problems, not so much on the manifold difficulties of the rest of the world.

And this is where things break down. Try as I might, I can’t help but see this production in the context of extraordinary events as have happened in London in recent days. Even though it’s ostensibly about street communities in a suburban city of Australia, it’s about so much more. How the personal is political, how we can carry so much weight of the world – together yet somehow alone. How this culture of picket-fenced segregation leads to whole communities alienated from each other and themselves. How this self-interest leads to the loss of wisdom between generations, which might seem some small thing but can become catastrophic.

Lally Katz has crafted a rare morality fable imbued with modern wit and fear; set around this unlikely friendship between an impressionable young woman Catherine and the indomitable, effusive, charismatic, irresistible Ana across the street. Within simple this framework are such leaps of imagination, magic, music and mystery that draw in its audience, stealthily as I have ever seen, teasing out the empathy with delight and genuine moments of horror or surprise throughout. You know it’s working when your feelings toward a character flare simply because they turned up. Or shift and flip at the behest of a single line – it’s an intoxicating brew of kindness and strangers.

I can say no more without making spoilers. The understated direction from Simon Stone allows the simplest detail of costume or voice to transport us anywhere – almost at the actor’s whimsy; which in harmony with Stefan Gregory’s gorgeous soundtrack and sound design has helped create a new entry to the modern canon. This play will go far. It’s Australian in context – but these are universal stories, set locally, but they could be the voices of any two women, across the street or across the world. It barely matters these days. Global, local, personal, political – everything is connected.

Neighbourhood Watch, By Lally Katz, directed by Simon Stone, featuring Charlie Garber, Megan Holloway, Kris McQuade, Ian Meadows, Heather Mitchell & Robyn Nevin. Playing at Belvoir St Theatre until August 28.

12/08/2011 at 12:54 pm 2 comments

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