Posts tagged ‘STC’



“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


Interesting times are afoot. Looking back at the year past one senses shifts in the theatrical landscape, conversation and the possibility of new horizons beginning to open up in the distance. Or, depending on your POV – the more things change, the more they stay the same – but amongst the semi-recycled quality of theatre seasons to come, there are just a few key indicators allowing the astute observer to spot the subtext of what’s really happening next in the world of the performing arts. Because if we read between the lines of the key events of oh-eleven, it doesn’t take much to see where things are heading in oh-twelve. As such we present our user guide to the year ahead. You read it here first.

All the rage, it’s been a creeping, steady growth of remix versions of the classic text for years now. New translations have become entirely new scripts writ “after” the original. At least one major theatre company is counting these as “new Australian works” in their marketing, but the controversy continues over authorship as other industry figures will dismiss these reworked scripts as “covers”. It becomes a matter of degrees of separation; exactly how far from the classic text do we need to go before we can say it’s our own? CAGELING (2010) springs to mind as a work that is its own unique end of the spectrum, while acknowledging the work by Federico Garcia Lorca the piece held its own physical theatre presence to confront the audience in lieu of dialogue. And at least they changed the title so we know it’s not pretending to be anything other than itself. But the tide is settling across the odd middle-ground where we can’t quite tell who wrote the thing. Who owns it (apart from the audience)… We aren’t saying if this is good or bad, just how it is, so keep an eye on the season programs, and let ye who casts the first stone be without fault…

Speaking of throwing rocks… bigger, angrier, smarter, meaner, more insightful and just good old fashioned bitchy. Theatre weblogs are proliferating and the discussion expands, audiences participate and gradually, production houses start to take notice. Far too long have the publicity trains been in the sponsor and marketers’ pockets, so it’s no surprise the major theatre companies have resisted a thorough public conversation about the work – but whether we agree with the writers or not, whether we find the commentary useful, insightful, ridiculous, funny or just plain shit –we are talking on your play and we are very much here to stay.

Casting is becoming as much about selling tickets as it is about talent. Some have earned it, others do little other than a few comfortable years in television before swanning into the best roles. Not mentioning any names…

We are glad to see more experimental and physical works coming into ‘traditional’ theatre spaces. Kudos to Company B for introducing their audience base to something different. Also keep an eye on the Performance Space program and fringe groups like StageJuice and Freshly Squeezed for the more outside-the-box works in the Sydney subcultures.

Each and every one of you…

Free Tickets
Keep your eyes open! There are always freebies on offer if you know where to look.

The tug-of-war between supply, demand, import and export is felt in the performing arts as in every industry, but the localised nature of production makes for a uniquely difficult impasse. What it comes down to is the amount of top-quality artists willing to come and work on our stages (and who wouldn’t) – the STC offering something of a vanguard for the offshore director to stake a claim – and what exciting kinds of theatre are we getting as a result? Very exciting is what.

Naturally as this continues the funding bodies will adjust their funding structures accordingly so that our international guests aren’t taking precious Australia Council dollars away from local artists. Won’t they? I personally don’t have a problem with high calibre directors and performers working down at Hickson Rd, so long there’s an increase in local theatre production funding relative to the expanse of the international game. The Arts is a global industry, no doubt there, and we are (slowly) coming to terms with the idea that we can hold our own. But we need more room to breathe if we want to our own global artists to be able to reciprocate.

The flipside of the online proliferation of theatre comment (See B – Blogging) is the amount of trolling and nastiness that comes with. It’s enough to make a Critic Watcher hang up his binoculars as variations on thoughtless, hackneyed responses self-propagate across our screens. Check the comments section of Promptside’s review of The Economist for an inkling of the degree of vitriol abounding – it’s a lesson in how to look like a complete imbecile by saying nothing of value. Notably the creative’s responses are comparatively level headed – it shows the impact of giving comments serious thought before pressing *send*…

Indigenous Work
A few years ago John Ralston Saul spoke at the Sydney Writers Festival about the importance of tapping into collective stories and that the use of Indigenous languages was a critical component of our development as a storytelling nation… He said it much more eloquently than we do but over the years the rising profile of the First Australians in theatre has been steady and impressive; most recently Bloodland, spoken in traditional languages and resonating with all the cadences of contemporary Aboriginal theatre shows a willingness to recognise and embrace this part of Australian culture in the mainstream creative community that is essential to us taking a position in the world of theatre that is our own place. More.

Je ne sais quoi (I don’t know what)
Who Does? There is always a surprise in the air for the audience member or actor willing to take a shot on an unknown company, writer, a new play that gets overlooked by all the critics, always something special to be found in one of the nooks our city offers for creative, curious souls.

Trust me. Every half-baked critic worth the price of a complimentary glass of sparkling will be using this word to describe a piece of theatre that is slightly strange or absurd. It sounds so damned literary doesn’t it!

Seems like food writers can be sued for bad reviews, it’s only a matter of time before someone passes the buck over to blame the unsuspecting critic for box office losses… But then someone would have to take them seriously first.

Marginality, mediocrity and masturbation (more of the same)
Thank you, Peter Craven for highlighting everything that is wrong with your work. Oh wait, you were talking about art. Never mind. I must have missed the wanking scene in Baal


Opening Ceremony
Sport = Theatre + populism… Bring on London!

We tried graphing the *ahem* rise in phallic occurrences on Sydney stages this year and it was *cough* exponential.

Please wait until the end. I will answer them in due course.

Still the funniest, most politically acute show I have seen in a long time. Bring on 2012 for Federal Follies…

Yes. I am a trend for next year. Get used to it.

We’d like to see more leading theatre figures on this excellent microblogging platform. Everybody else is! Really, if you aren’t tweeting you’re missing half the real-time discussions and one cannot claim to have one’s finger on the pulse if it’s gently massaging the rectal passages of them who do the talking for you…

I thank Ms TN for this marvellous take on Bolt/Breivik in her recent review of The Economist:

“his contempt for evidence is symptomatic of an endemic toxicity in political discourse that itself produces delusion.”

Take THAT, fascist! I haven’t seen the play yet but honestly, I couldn’t have said it myself. We can only hope the power of the written word is as good for good as it is for evil.

More alternative spaces. Actually we need a decent mid-size theatre that’s open for independent producers.

I’m sure it’s nothing unusual but there are a lot of women in theatre making waves right now. Soon they’ll be allowed to own property as well…

(see G – Globalisation) We do love a good overseas company touring. Especially when they bring their own green laser pointers…

Young, upwardly mobile professionals
AKA New Audiences. I know how to reach them. Do you?

Archaic references in King Lear float my whistle. Watch this space.

That’s a wrap… Send me any thoughts or ideas for what you think are the touchstones of twenty-twelve. I welcome all comments!

07/12/2011 at 3:42 pm 3 comments


Some commentary on recent developments at Belvoir St Theatre

As reported, the big news this week is the shifting fortunes of the downstairs theatre, which has such a place in our hearts that scarcely an artist in Sydney hasn’t been involved in a show there at some point in the last ten years or so. So it’s no surprise that it sort of feels like ‘our’ space. Well news flash: it ain’t no more, and never was. The good folks at Belvoir have been kind enough to let independent companies operate through their B Sharp season over the years – and it’s been a win-win scenario in many ways; diversifying the audience for Company B and allowing the sector to flourish. But like all plants raised in fertile ground, in twelve years it’s grown bigger than anyone could have imagined. So the powers that be have taken what they see as a necessary pruning measure. And haven’t the howls rung out as what was never really ours to begin with gets taken away. I’ve only got one thing to say about that for now. Get over yourselves.

Continue Reading 13/07/2010 at 11:41 am 4 comments

Elizabethan, Expressionist, Epic Theatre at its Finest

…far more than a tale of bloodthirsty ambition and civil war. Director Benedict Andrews uses the text as a lever with which to pry open and peer into the darker depths of power, civilisation and war.

Continue Reading 10/08/2009 at 11:47 am 4 comments

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