Trojans runs at PACT in Erskineville from November 14-22 2014 as part of the Tiny Stadiums Festival.
Trojans by Project Mess at PACT Sydney is not the greatest piece of theatre you’re ever going to see. It’s probably not in the top twenty either. But it is a lot of fun: and fun, as far as I’m concerned, is a good enough reason to see anything.
The conceit behind Trojans is one drawn from Mexican telenovela (essentially soap operas, generally of the most hyperbolic kind). The story moves so fast and the actors are required to film so many pages of script in a day that it isn’t possible for the actors to learn their lines, so dialogue is fed to them via radio as they tape. One take, one chance: that’s it. In Trojans, the lines are delivered to actors via radio and they deliver them as we watch, the action happening in real time against a green screen.
I love this idea. Like, I LOVE IT. The idea of genre fiction and maligned popular artforms – which most definitely includes telenovela and soap opera – on the stage is one that appeals to me greatly, so when I heard about Trojans, I pretty much hallooed HELL YES to the reverberate hills. Trojans, sadly, does not make the most of this conceit – at least not in the episode I saw, which was the episode performed on November 14, written by Annalise Constable. Instead, it delivers a fairly staid episode of a knockoff Cheers: a kind of sitcom set in a bar where two mental patients converse about pretty much nothing.
It’s not without its charms. Barman Brett (Brett Johnson) is a pretty entertaining fixture, and there are a couple of amusing exchanges. But telenovela is so big, so dramatic, so ridiculous and spectacular, that I wanted something more – something soapier. The program notes state that Project Mess visualise Trojans “as more of a sitcom than a soapie”, so I guess the Cheers-esque vibe suits that, but… why give up a golden opportunity to do telenovela on stage and make it awesome, especially when you’re adopting the conceits of its delivery? The recent success of Jane The Virgin shows that telenovela can be brought and brought well to a mainstream audience, even if the soap opera is the most maligned of televisual forms. I wish Project Mess hadn’t backed away from the spectacularised form of the telenovela and opted for the more acceptable sitcom. I feel the former would have made better theatre.
That said, even though the script on the night I saw Trojans was pretty ordinary, the evening is a great deal of fun. Interspersed with ad breaks and audience engagement, it’s definitely an enjoyable night out at the theatre. Every night features a new writer, and I’m coming back next week to see what another episode of the show has to offer. It’s a short night – the show clocks in at only an hour – and while it might not necessarily be great theatre, it is very entertaining.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Saturday, October 25, 2014
I reviewed Griffin Theatre Company's production of Emerald City over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here.
(Reminder that I'm in the final throes of my PhD and thus mostly confined to a study cave right now, so not reviewing as much as normal. Regular programming will recommence in 2015!)
(Reminder that I'm in the final throes of my PhD and thus mostly confined to a study cave right now, so not reviewing as much as normal. Regular programming will recommence in 2015!)
Monday, September 29, 2014
My review of Kryptonite at Sydney Theatre Company is now up at Australian Stage. Check it out here.
NB: I'm only reviewing a small amount of shows for the next few months - my doctoral thesis is due at the end of November and as such, is keeping me pretty busy! Regularly scheduled programming will resume by the New Year.
NB: I'm only reviewing a small amount of shows for the next few months - my doctoral thesis is due at the end of November and as such, is keeping me pretty busy! Regularly scheduled programming will resume by the New Year.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Joan, Again (subtlenuance, SITCo) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 5-23 August 2014. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.
In 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Ten years later, in a quiet little village known mostly for making cushions (“where France learns to sleep!”), she has returned. Or has she?
Joan, Again explores the power of narrative as a way of understanding the world. Every character in the play knows the story of Joan, and on each of them, it has had a different effect. For gregarious Bernadette (Bonnie Kellett), Joan represents the promise of power, righteousness, and agency: the story of a girl who has done something is deeply inspiring for a girl who has been able to do so little. For her mother Isabelle (Helen Tonkin), Joan represents war, a monstrous horror which stole her son from her. The story of Joan reminds Gerard (James Collette) of all the things he did and did not do when he was at the Siege of Orleans. It is a great example of how a story is somehow more than itself: that it is polysemic, containing many layers, and that it can be interpreted and read many ways. When Joan or someone claiming to be her (Sylvia Keays) appears in the village, all these disparate readings of her story are thrown into sharp relief.
I think there were some really clever ideas underpinning Joan, Again. I’m very interested in the polysemic nature of narrative in my academic work, and it was exciting to see it explored in such an interesting way here. I was particularly intrigued by the way that the work put the emphasis on women’s stories, particularly in the first act. Throughout the play, the female characters are continually being told to be quiet by the male ones – that speaking is not feminine. The play opens begin with a collection of four female characters talking (and talking about how they talk too much). Throwing Joan – that woman who dared not only to speak, but to speak to kings and armies and to God himself – into that mix was very potent indeed.
Sadly, I think this element of the story fell away a bit in the second act, as stories about God and the politics of the church became more important. Overall, while I was very interested in the way Joan, Again dealt with questions of narrative, I think there was just too much stuff in the play for it to be really effective. It was kind of ironic that in a play so focused on the power of narrative that the narrative was obscured. This was mostly because there were simply too many words. I know I say this about a lot of shows (and it is obviously indicative of my own theatrical preferences), but at two and a half hours, this show was too long. If it had been cut down to about ninety minutes, I think it could have been scintillating. Pared back, with some of the unnecessary dialogue stripped away, and maybe less indulgence in one-liners (the play is very, very funny is some places, but I think sometimes this came at the expense of the pacing), Joan, Again could have been an absolute bombshell.
As it is, it’s still quite an absorbing play. There are some great performances, particularly from Helen Tonkin as Isabelle and Sylvia Keays, who is luminescent as Joan. It’s a very thoughtful piece of theatre. However, it could definitely have been improved if the really interesting thoughts that underpin it had been allowed to shine through the web of verbiage a little more.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose plays at the Bondi Pavilion as part of the Bondi Feast Festival from July 22-26 2014. By Jessica Bellamy and David Finnigan, directed by Gin Savage.
Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is a gentle, contemplative, rich piece of theatre. Actually, I’m not entirely sure it’s technically “theatre” per se (but then we would get into a whole debate about what constitutes theatre and there would be definitions and stuff and no one wants that). It’s certainly not theatre in the traditional sense. It’s more akin to a radio play, but it’s not quite that either. I wondered for a while if it would have been best as prose – I think I certainly would have liked to read it, because there’s a lot in it and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff – but on second thought, I think theatrical conceit added a lot to it. We as audience sit around a pool of water, watching and listening as conversations and snippets of stories ripple across its surface.
One of the stories Scheherazade tells in the Arabian Nights (I think that’s where I remember it from!) is about a man who, entranced by a pool of water, sticks his head into it. While his head is in the water, he lives lifetimes: he conquers cities, defeats dragons, rescues princesses, all that kind of thing. When he removes his head from the water, only a few seconds have passed. (This story was part of Kenneth Slessor’s inspiration for Five Bells, BTW.) It’s easy to imagine that the pool of water in this show is the same kind of pool – full of infinite stories.
In this case, the stories were framed by, or came from, or maybe even emerged in spite of, Jack Kerouac’s guideline for writers, which are being discussed and talked through by two writers sitting in a café. Normally, I would find a show about two writers sitting and talking about writing unbearably self-indulgent – and there is certainly an element of indulgence here – but one of the things I really liked about this show was the way that stories kind of kept crowding their way over the top of the rules for prose. The two writers describe the best way to get close to the story, a kind of monstrous creature which you must submit to. There was one line which described language not as a dress you can pull off but as a tattoo, something imprinted on you, something bound to you. And yet in the midst of this, story is happening anyway without much interference from them – they are distracted by people sitting a few tables away, wondering if they’re getting married or divorced.
There’s a Daoist meditative ritual called zuowang – literally, sitting and forgetting – where you sit and stare into water and forget all your training and education in an effort to learn simply to be, to return to a state of pu (lit. “uncarved block”), which is the natural state of humans. I was reminded irresistibly of this during Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, staring into the limpid pool that was our theatre. Many of Kerouac’s rules were kind of about this: removing barriers and preconceptions and pretensions to literary technique so that you were able to face the story in a kind of pure state. I don’t think we as audience ever exactly achieve a meditative state – there is way too much to think about in this – but there is something very enchanting about staring into water and letting words bubble over you. It removes a number of the barriers that usually stand between audience and language in the theatre. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in Kerouac’s rules, in that rules in general seem to be figured as a kind of restraint. I think Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is fascinating in its theatrical realisation of this idea.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I'm back in Sydney after some time spent researching overseas. The first play I saw on my return was The Effect at Sydney Theatre Company. You can read my thoughts here at Australian Stage.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Scenes From An Execution (Tooth and Sinew) runs at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 13 – 31 2014. By Howard Barker, directed by Richard Hilliar.
Scenes From An Execution is an incredibly rich, textured piece of theatre. There is so much here to chew on, intellectually and emotionally. At its heart is an enthralling female character, prickly, complex and utterly engaging. The show raises fascinating questions about art and authority which I’ll continue to mull over for some time.
The play is set in Venice in 1571. Controversial artist Galactia (Lucy Miller) is commissioned by the Doge (Mark Lee) to paint a picture commemorating the Battle of Lepanto, one of Venice’s most comprehensive victories over the Ottoman Empire. He expects her to conform to certain artistic boundaries – to celebrate the victory and the glory of Venice. But Galactia has a different story in mind. After an encounter with Prodo (Peter Maple), a war veteran made ridiculous by the arrow shaft stuck in his head, she decides to paint a portrait of the battle as it really was: a bloody, merciless slaughter.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away and spoil it – particularly as this is a show well worth seeing for yourselves – but the ongoing story of the painting and its contentious ownership raises questions about art and intention that I’m very interested in. This play might be about sixteenth century Venice, but these are questions with ongoing resonance. I’m not sure whether there was a similar moment in art history, but I am familiar with some of the literary theory around these questions. Schleiermachian hermeneutics, one of the early forms of literary criticism, placed the author at the centre of the work. In this model, the reader became a sort of detective, puzzling over the text in an effort to reach the author’s true intentions. But in the twentieth century, the New Criticism emerged, which centred the text, rather than the author. In 1968, Roland Barthes famously declared that the author was dead. Michel Foucault made a similar claim when he called the author a function.
While this is congruent with literary development at the time, it is also not coincidental that this is a period when marginalised writers’ voices started to be heard: voices from writers disenfranchised by their race, class, orientation and/or gender. The dead author trope became another way of marginalising them. We see something similar in Scenes From An Execution, particularly in the second act. Galactia is so certain her work belongs to her, but a new mode of criticism is emerging, represented here by the critic Rivera (Katherine Shearer).
Let’s talk a bit about Galactia, this fascinating female artist, and her relationship with her work. Her character arc in this play is remarkable, centring as it does around art and her pursuit of truth rather than her relationships, as so many female arcs do. (I have absolutely zero problems with female arcs centring on relationships, but this should not be the only option open to women.) Indeed, the most important relationship she has in this play is not with her lover Carpeta (Jeremy Waters), but with her art – and, by extension, with truth. Galactia believes she is doing a brave and noble thing with her art: an important thing, an incontrovertible thing, an intrinsically political thing. But she does not take into account the fact that ownership of her work might be challenged. I found the way this idea of truth and art is treated and mobilised in Scenes From An Execution so, so interesting. I want to say a lot more about it, but a) a lot of it involves Foucault and that’s a bit boring, and b) I don’t want to spoil the show.
This is a really good production of a very difficult script. It is very intense the whole way through and perhaps could have benefited from a little more light and shade, but when I think about where that stillness could go, I’m at a loss. Like Galactia, this play is relentless – and that is part of its appeal. Director Richard Hilliar has put together a great ensemble – Lucy Miller as Galactia and Jeremy Waters as Carpeta are particular standouts. There is so much going on in this piece, and it would have been easy for it to get bogged down in its own verbiage. But happily, this does not happen. I found Scenes From An Execution utterly fascinating. Make time to go and see it.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 5 – 10. By Will Eno, directed by Julie Baz
NB: I saw a preview of this show.
It’s hard to know what to say about Thom Pain (based on nothing) that isn’t just, “…um, what?” It’s one of those things which seems to be an exercise in pointlessness – the “based on nothing” in the title is not false advertising. It’s a long, rambling monologue (complete with interval) about nothing.
This play was a critical darling when it was first performed in 2004, but to be honest, it’s not a type of theatre I have a great deal of patience with. Its self-conscious performativity – the title character (played here by David Jeffrey) is very, very aware that he’s telling a long, confusing, pointless story to an audience – is frustrating. While there are some great lines in it (I especially enjoyed, “I disappeared into her, and she, not knowing where I went, left”), it’s very self-indulgent… and dull, to be honest. A big chunk of the audience in the preview I saw left at interval, and it was hard to fault them.
Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about why: what was the point? why should we be interested in listening to Thom Pain ramble about his life? why should this man’s confused ramblings be considered worthy of our time? (“There’s going to be a moment when you only have thirty seconds to live,” Thom says at one point. “You’ll think of me then.” And I probably will, still trying to work out what exactly I was doing with the hour and a half of my life I spent watching this play.) I found it interesting that Eno has imbued Thom Pain with a name – and a resonant name at that. It’s hard to miss the allusion to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. So why this name? why this allusion? Because Paine was a revolutionary and this Pain is… painful.
I don’t really have an answer to this question, but it did make me start thinking about another revolutionary pamphleteer from the same period: Mary Wollstonecraft. (The fact that I was thinking about this during the show is probably testament to the fact that I wasn’t really engaged by what was going on onstage.) And that made me wonder what would happen if the central character was a woman. Would this play be nominated for a Pulitzer if it was about a woman narrating confusing, rambling episodes from her life? Would listening to her talk be considered literature, a worthy demand on our time?
Obviously I can’t prove this, but I don’t think it would be. I read an interesting piece the other day by Katie Heaney where she talks about the three types of hate mail she and other female writers receive. One is a type she has called, “Announcement of My Male Existence.” And that’s what this felt like – an announcement of Thom Pain’s male existence, to an audience that is expected to listen to him, to want to listen to him, even though he really has nothing to say. Which made me wonder if this was a deliberate exercise in dullness, but either way, it’s dull, you know?
Others may feel differently, but I find this kind of self-conscious theatre very frustrating. I’m just not that interested in hearing a man self-indulgently talk about nothing and expect me to listen. David Jeffrey does his best as the titular character, but for me, there was no saving this play. If someone’s going to talk about themselves for an hour and a half, I’d like it if they were saying something worth listening to (or even something interesting).
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Antigone: The Burial at Thebes (Furies) runs from April 30 – May 4 at the Tap Gallery. By Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney, directed by Chris McKay.
One of the first questions I ask when it comes to restaging classic works like Antigone is the question of relevance. Why this play? Why now? What is the significance? Of course, “interesting intellectual exercise” is a perfectly valid reason, but for a play to truly strike the mark, there needs to be some sort of resonance.
In this sense, if one has only the canon of Greek tragedy to choose from, Antigone was a smart choice to put on. The figure at its heart, Antigone (played in the performance I saw by Krystiann Dingas, who is alternating the role with Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou), is a fascinating, complicated heroine. Forbidden by the patriarchy of Thebes, the city of which she was once princess, to bury her brother Polyneices, she is defiant, unapologetically seizing agency. It is a fascinating portrait of a woman in rebellion against an unfriendly society: something which I think many women relate to quite viscerally.
Antigone is portrayed as heroic – that word is explicitly used in this translation by great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. She places honour above everything else, even her own life. Honour is a character trait most often coded masculine (and, indeed, Antigone’s sister Ismene cannot live up to this standard), as is filial devotion. But Antigone is most definitely a female character: subverting patriarchy by asserting agency. This dynamic is one I find so, so interesting, especially considering how many thousands of years old this play is.
It’s a shame, then, that although Antigone is the title character, the play is mostly about Creon, the patriarch whom she defies. This can’t really be helped, given the ancientness of the play, but Creon is significantly less interesting than his niece. The second half of the play is mostly about his man-pain, and it’s nowhere near as powerful as the first – although it is very interesting to see how the patriarchy deals with being destabilised by a defiant woman, something Heaney highlights brilliantly in his translation.
I’ve talked so far about the play: let’s focus now on the production. It is a good one, but not a great one. I wasn’t ever bored, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of Greek theatre were translated well to the modern stage. (I wasn’t entirely sure what the relationship of the chorus character, played by Peter Jamieson, to Creon was supposed to be, but it wasn’t that big a concern.) All in all, it was a very tidy one and a half hours of theatre. However, it was a bit awkward and one note in places, and I felt it could have been imbued with significantly more nuance. Several characters fell victim to declaiming, pronouncing their long monologues with great gusto but only one emotional level. This was particularly true of Brendan Layton’s Creon, who was hard to get a handle on. His emotional arc was clear from his words but not necessarily from his acting: he went from autocratic! to angry! to sad! without very much in the way of transition.
Because the play had this very flat emotional trajectory, it made it very hard to connect with. I was talking about it afterwards with my theatre date, and he said that, “I believed that they [the actors] felt it, but I didn’t feel it.” I agree completely. More care needed to be taken with the show’s emotional tapestry for it to be truly affective for the audience.
(Also, the bit with Tiresias really doesn’t work at all. It verges on the parodic: Tiresias is played by Peter Bertoni as a kind of caricature of a prophet. And whoever decided to put him in a luminescent orange toga really isn’t doing him any favours, especially since everyone else in the play is dressed in modern clothes.)
Overall, though, I think this was a solid production of a difficult play. I very much enjoyed Krystiann Dingas’ performance as Antigone, and I’d be very interested to see how Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou, who was fabulous as Ismene, does in the same role. The most interesting part of the show is its female characters: they are what makes this ancient play resonant and relevant.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Construction of the Human Heart runs from April 16 – May 3 2014 at the Tap Gallery. By Ross Mueller, directed by Dino Dimitriades.
Construction of the Human Heart is one of the cleverest pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing onstage. It’s dense and difficult, but it’s also complex, nuanced, multi-layered. As the layers are peeled back and back and back, more and more is revealed.
This is normally where I’d offer a brief précis of the play. The “plot” of this show, if it can be said to have one (it is picaresque, more interested in scenes than in a linear narrative) is relatively simple. Two writers, a man and a woman, are in love, have a child, and lose that child. But to reduce the show to this brief description is doing it a major disservice. There is so much in this play that seems to be about so little.
Writers writing about writers writing has the potential to be – and often is – the height of self-indulgence. What sets Construction of the Human Heart apart is the fact that, although it features writers, it is not really about them. Instead, it’s about stories, about scripting: about the way we script the narratives of our own lives, how we use stories to save us, and how we construct our own emotional worlds, our human hearts.
It’s the kind of play I’d like to read so I could unpick and unpack more of the ideas embedded within it, but the performative aspect to it is key. I’m not normally a huge fan of the Brechtian alienation effect (distancing the audience emotionally from the work so as to force them to think about it analytically) but it was perfectly employed here. Director Dino Dimitriades has mounted a very intelligent production of what must have been a horrendously difficult script to approach.
Although Construction of the Human Heart touches on very emotional issues – love, life, loss – it is not really emotionally engaging. I do not think it was at all intended to be: the alienation effect sees to that. But intellectually…? SO ENGAGING. I was transfixed. I was glad it wasn’t longer (it’s only an hour), because I think it would have become exhausting. The delicate threads of story and scene and art and performativity are woven together here to form a fascinating cerebral tapestry. It made me think, and I think I’m going to keep thinking about it a lot.
If it’s not already obvious, I thought Construction of the Human Heart was a fantastic piece of theatre. It was theatre that had to be theatre. No other medium would have sufficed. It’s a difficult piece – do not go along if you simply want to be entertained – but I thought it was so, so fascinating. And the production does the script justice. If this is indicative of the level of work they’re producing, I’ll be extremely excited to see what Apocalypse Theatre Company do next.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Lies, Love and Hitler runs at the Old Fitz Theatre from April 17 – May 3 2014. By Elizabeth Scott, directed by Rochelle Whyte.
I should begin this piece with a disclaimer: I know and like many of the people involved in this show, including the writer and several members of the cast. This fact makes it harder for me to say what I have to say about this show, which is that I found it deeply problematic.
This is not a problem with the production itself. All three members of the cast execute their roles with aplomb. The play is cleverly directed – the only issue I took with that aspect was to do with an over-reliance on blackouts, which made some scene changes seem jerky where fluidity would have been preferable. And I think the writing is good too: witty, snappy, funny.
But Lies, Love and Hitler and I suffer from a fundamental ideological incompatibility, and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to fix that. While I think other people might really enjoy this show – and, indeed, the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it a lot – it managed to hit on several areas about which I have very strong opinions. It’s a play about ambiguity, but for me, some of the questions it touched on were not ambiguous at all.
Lies, Love and Hitler follows theology professor Paul Langley (James Scott). Langley teaches ethics, and while teaching the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a German pastor who conspired to kill Hitler – he finds himself visited by Bonhoeffer’s ghost (Doug Chapman). As he negotiates a nascent romantic relationship with his student Hannah (Ylaria Rogers), he finds himself tormented by a series of ethical questions, which he seeks Bonhoeffer’s advice in solving.
The first of these questions is posed right at the beginning of the play as we watch Langley teach his ethics class. Would it be, he asks, morally right to kill Hitler? Bonhoeffer, a devout Christian, was regarded as a hero for attempting to do this – but was it ethical? Does the end justify the means?
Personally, I don’t think this is a particularly interesting question. Most people would say yes, on the basis of simple mathematical calculation – one life versus many lives. We can see a similar question in Game of Thrones: Jaime Lannister broke his oath and killed King Aerys Targaryen, but Aerys was mad and wanted to burn the entire country, so... what was he supposed to do? (It would have been intriguing, actually, if the play had explored someone who faced this question and said no – a far more interesting position to defend.) But it is not in and of itself problematic. No, what I found problematic was the line drawn between Bonhoeffer’s dilemma – is it moral to kill Hitler? – and Langley’s: is it okay for a teacher and a student to have a romantic relationship?
As an academic myself, I have some fairly strong views on this question, which basically boil down to one word: no. “Is there anything objectively wrong with a teacher and a student falling in love?” Bonhoeffer asks Langley at one point. Langley’s answer is “no,” to which I raised an eyebrow, because my answer is definitely – and unambiguously – “yes”. There is a reason that teacher/student relationships are proscribed, and that reason is to do with abuse of power. Conflicts of interest can arise over mere friendly acquaintanceships, let alone romances. This is not a grey area. Hannah and Langley have known each other for many years, which ostensibly complicates the matter, but a) the fact that she is in his class and he is marking her assignments is already a conflict of interest, and b) he has known her since she was a little girl, by which time he was already a young man, which kind of makes it even grosser.
And all this is leaving aside the big problem: the equation of whether or not to kill Hitler and whether or not to engage in a teacher/student relationship, as if these were in any way equivalent.
This is not the only problematic parallel drawn in the play. Hannah, we discover, has filed sexual harassment charges against another professor. Langley is visited by a university sexual harassment officer who essentially asks him for a character reference for Hannah. Coached by Bonhoeffer, he lies to her. This officer is clearly looking out for the interests of the university and not the student, which leads Langley at one point to equate the investigation with the Gestapo. Now, there are certainly horrible instances of things like this happening in universities, especially in the USA, but it’s not common, or anywhere near this clear-cut. Sexual harassment officers like these exist explicitly to look after students’ interests, and I imagine they would be having an ethical dilemma all of their own if they were asked to protect the institution at the cost of the victim. (Again, maybe that would have been a more interesting moral question to explore.) This was a very narratively convenient way to draw a very, very problematic parallel. To compare an investigation of sexual harassment claims to the Gestapo, to make analogous the questions Langley faces with the interrogation Bonhoeffer did? Oh no. Oh hell no.
I had no idea why Bonhoeffer’s shade was hanging around Langley, to be honest. Langley seems kind of terrible. What he’s doing isn’t that morally grey. It’s pretty clearly wrong. Yes, even if the woman involved is actively consenting.
Said woman Hannah identifies as a feminist, but this didn’t ring true for me. This was not necessarily because of her relationship with Langley. Rather, it was because her feminism didn’t feel real at all. There was an “ugh, men” moment at one point, another to do with men opening doors, and another, where she said to herself, “I’m supposed to be a feminist! An intellectual! And yet I can’t tear myself away from these love letters!”
I am… not sure what the conflict here is supposed to be, exactly? I am a feminist historian of love and romance, so I have more than a few thoughts on this matter, but modern feminism (that is, third-wave feminism) is certainly not anti-love. Hannah felt like a caricature of a feminist, and as someone invested in seeing more explicit representations of feminism on stage, I found this very disappointing.
(Also, there was a crack about Mills & Boon readers I didn’t really appreciate, but then, I am very sensitive to that kind of thing and cannot expect to Hannah and Langley to share my opinions on this issue.)
Lies, Love and Hitler is never dull. It certainly keeps you engaged the whole way through. A lot of the dialogue is very good – there’s a real quality of banter and some great comic moments. But the ethical underpinnings of this play left me a bit horrified, to be honest. The moral dilemmas? Not that dilemma-y from where I was sitting. Morality exists in shades of grey, and sometimes all the choices are bad – but I’m pretty comfortable saying that things are pretty clear cut when it comes to things like teacher/student relationships and comparing sexual harassment investigations to the Gestapo. While others might enjoy this show a lot, I found it very difficult to see past the political problems I had with it.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Cough (Unhappen) runs at 107 Projects in Redfern from April 10 – 20, 2014. By Emily Calder, directed by James Dalton.
Cough is an unusual little piece of theatre. It covers a subject that I haven’t seen represented before on stage: the imaginative capacity of children, and the angst their parents feel when they do not and cannot follow. It took me a little while to warm up to, but overall, I thought this was really intriguing theatre.
There are two sets of characters in Cough. First, there are the children: Isla (Vanessa Cole), Jess (Melissa Brownlow) and Finlay (Tim Reuben), who all go to the same daycare. There they meet Frank (Tom Christophersen), older and wiser than them at the grand age of three and a half, who tells them about a terrifying monster called Brian who lurks nearby. And then there are the children’s parents: Isla’s mother Isabelle (Cole), Jess’ mother Julie (Brownlow) and Finlay’s father Clive (Reuben), angsting over the minutiae of their children’s lives and the parent/teacher politics at the daycare. And meanwhile, a mysterious tree has appeared in the daycare’s backyard and continues to grow and grow and grow...
It took me some time to work out just what was going on in this play, and just how realistically I should treat it. In the end, if I had to fit it into a genre, I would probably call it magic realism. The world of the children is both imaginary and not, loomed over by the figure of Brian and the tree (a kind of evil Faraway Tree, as far as I could tell). The parents are worried about very normal, grounded things – germs from the sandpit, how much their kids are eating – but at the same time, cannot dismiss or deny the effects (sometimes physical) that Frank’s fantastical stories have had on their children. What I initially thought was not working within the play actually turned out to be one of its greatest strengths: a kind of deliberate ambiguity between the real and the imaginary. The ending is proof positive of this – I won’t spoil it, but it’s wonderfully staged and viscerally affecting.
There is something very sinister at play in Cough, an ongoing suggestion that maybe the monsters of our childhood do not disappear, we just forget how to see them. The ambiguity I highlighted above plays into this beautifully. However, sometimes I think the play runs the risk of being too ambiguous – for example, there’s a major reveal at the end about Frank, but the implications of this are never really explored. Similarly, a few other narrative threads and motifs are raised and then forgotten (the cough, for one – what happened to that?). I would have liked a few of the loose threads to be tied up better. I also would have liked to see the play edited a little tighter, as there were some points where I felt my attention drifting. At an hour and twenty minutes it’s not long, but I think if it was brought down to an hour or so it would be a much stronger piece of theatre.
One of the things I liked best about this play was the way it was staged. I was initially unsure about the use of dolls (they were used to represent the children at the beginning of the play), but they grew on me. This is a very small space and it was used to wonderful effect, particularly vertically – the ladder scene at the end was superb. One thing I would note, though, is that the smoke machine is used and abused, to the extent where I think it set the fire alarm off at the end of the performance I saw. I’m not a smoke machine fan at the best of times, and this really was a bit much. (The title “cough” was quite apt for many people in the audience!)
Overall, although there were some areas for improvement, I really liked Cough. It’s one of the more unusual pieces of theatre I’ve seen in 2014, and I applaud its ambition and creativity. I’ll be very interested to see what Unhappen do next.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Saturday, April 5, 2014
My review of Music (Stories Like These and Griffin Independent) is now up. Check out what I thought here. (Sadly, it wasn't my favourite.)
Thursday, March 27, 2014
A Moment On The Lips (Mad March Hare Theatre Company in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 25 March – 12 April 2014. By Jonathan Gavin, directed by Mackenzie Steele.
I loved this play from the moment I read the press release. A show that focuses on the bonds between women – sisters, friends, lovers – with an all-female cast? Oh yes. Oh HELLS YES. That is something I am immediately interested in. These are the types of relationships that are desperately under-explored. And call me selfish, but as a twenty-something woman, I am totes going to be into a show about other young women. Strange, I know.
So perhaps I went in with crazy high expectations, but A Moment On The Lips really bummed me out, because I did not get what I wanted from it at all.
There was a line at the end where one of the characters demands of the others, “so what are we going to do now? Sit around and think up clever new ways to be awful to each other?”. I thought that that pretty much captured the whole play. This was a show that basically revolved around women – sisters, friends, lovers – being awful to each other.
Two points. 1) I do not believe that characters have to be likeable for a show to be good. (Which is lucky, because none of the characters in this show are.) 2) I firmly believe that women can be and often are awful to each other. I’ve been awful to other women. Other women have been awful to me. It’s a thing that happens.
But OMG, the women in this show were SO UNRELENTINGLY awful to each other. And that was the problem. You couldn’t understand why they hung around each other: why the friends stayed friends, why the lovers stayed lovers, why the sisters kept talking to each other. You never, ever understood why they couldn’t stay away from each other. And I mean, sure, there are terribly unhealthy relationships where you’re bad for each other and mean to each other and still can’t stay away. But not every friend is a frenemy. I feel like A Moment On The Lips was shooting for “complex, messy female relationships” but ended up at “women being bitches to each other”.
This play didn’t ring true for me at all. Not that every play about young women should, like, replicate my life, but there was very little in here that resonated with me. Take, for example, the character of Rowena (Lucy Goleby), who is a PhD student writing a dissertation. That is not so far from my life. That’s something I recognise at once. But when she starts talking about her thesis, she’s immediately told to stop by the people that are supposed to be the closest to her. That is exactly the opposite of my experience. If people care about you, they’ll listen. Even if they’ve heard you talk about it a million times. Even if they think it’s boring.
That’s quite a specific example of a broader problem with the play. The dynamics of the female relationships just weren’t… right. This is one thing that I think Lena Dunham’s Girls does very well: while some of the characters can be totally unlikeable and are often terrible to each other, you still understand why they hang out with each other. Hannah and Jessa, for instance, have both been narcissistic and self-centred and showed little care for the feelings of others, but you still understand a) why their friends are still friends with them, and b) why they are still friends with each other. For all its other faults, this is also something I think Sex and the City did reasonably well at. Teen girl drama Pretty Little Liars has four girl leads, and while it has a spectacularised hyperbolic storyline, it is great at female friendship and its complexities. I didn’t find that in A Moment On The Lips at all, and it made me so, so sad.
The character I was the most engaged with was Emma (Claudia Barrie), probably because her relationships were the most complex and nuanced. She was the only one I really believed felt genuine affection for her friends: one of the play’s most accurate moments came, I thought, when she lied to her artist friend Victoria (Beth Aubrey) about liking her exhibition when she’d actually hated it. Her storyline, however, which involved her being stalked and almost murdered by someone who had seen her on TV, did not ring true. Other storylines did – the selfish Victoria reliant on her career being funded by her older sister Jenny (Sarah Aubrey), and being resentful when that money was taken away – but the relationships felt so one-dimensional that the story too became unbelievable.
I think the problem was that we don’t see any of the characters being really genuinely nice to each other until right at the end of the play. And that is just not how female friendship works. Sure, sometimes friendship is performed, but most of the time? Women like hanging out with other women. Genuinely. Really. For me, my female friendships are the most cherished relationships in my life. And if you’re going to do a show that centres around the bonds between women – whether they’re sisters, friends, or lovers – the pleasures of those bonds are something that need to be recognised.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
High Windows, Low Doorways (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from March 19 – 30. Written by Jonathan Ari Lander, Noelle Janaczewska, Katie Pollock, Alison Rooke, Mark Langham, Ellana Costa and Melita Rowston. Directed by Paul Gilchrist.
High Windows, Low Doorways is a series of monologues loosely focused around the theme of spirituality. Like many of subtlenuance’s productions, it’s layered and complex. There is a lot in this show to mull over. I thought it was beautifully curated and well performed.
One of the things I liked the way in which the monologues often seemed to be in conversation with each other – not necessarily literally, but thematically. As a result, I thought the best way to write this review was in conversation with my theatre date, my friend Martin.
JODI: Hi Martin.
MARTIN: Hi Jodi.
JODI: So we’ve just been to see High Windows, Low Doorways. Tell me your initial impressions.
MARTIN: Um –
JODI: I won’t put the um in.
MARTIN: No, don’t put the um in.
JODI: Actually, I think ‘um’ might be a good place to begin. When approaching a subject as broad and intimidating as spirituality, our first instinct is often to say ‘um’.
MARTIN: Indeed. I was surprised by the lack of… religious content… or, content I would associate with ‘spirituality’ in my own concept of the term.
JODI: Can you explain that for me a little further?
JODI: Sorry, I realise this is a totally intimidating exercise. But then, religion is intimidating.
MARTIN: I didn’t identify the characters on stage as spiritual as such or the stories that they were telling as inherently spiritual. And I guess I was expecting people who were more religious in a day to day sense of the word. I think what we got was people explaining aspects of their lives that they loosely associate as spiritual. And… I had a very sort of spiritual childhood and half of my teenage years were the same and… um… yeah. I thought we would experience people who had more of a day to day connection with the spiritual. But it was something else.
JODI: Not being especially spiritual myself, I found the pieces I connected with most were the ones associated with spirituality and childhood – I went to a Catholic primary school and so a lot of that resonated with me very strongly. However, I’m not sure whether spirituality per se was actually what the focus was. I feel like more of it – and maybe this ties into you not feeling the experiences related as particularly spiritual – was more to do with ritual than with actual belief. Would you agree?
JODI: There’s a concept in Islam that I’ve always quite liked when applied to religion more broadly. They distinguish between islam – the vertical relationship between person and god – and iman – the horizontal relationships between members of a religious community. I feel like what was explored here was much more iman, and I feel like ‘spirituality’ would be much more islam – a personal, rather than communal experience.
MARTIN: Yes. And it is interesting to note that I think every story that was told in this piece of theatre involved someone’s relationship with a family member or friends – in one case, a teacher at school. They all connected with this theme of spirituality through people within their own social or community networks.
JODI: Totally true. One was about a guy and his grandma, another about a Lao girl and her culture, another about an oppressively discriminatory school experience… but not very much about gods or actual personal belief. And I wonder whether that was the thing missing. The only real gesture towards gods we got were hymns, and a lot of the time, they rang quite hollow for me. What did you think?
MARTIN: Yes, I thought of the hymns as theatrical embellishment – a nice way to break up the style of presentation. But not a moment of… spiritual connection or… prayer, I guess? In the way that I’ve experienced it from childhood.
JODI: That was what was missing, wasn’t it? That notion of prayer?
MARTIN: Yes. I would agree with that.
JODI: Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I find it quite interesting that most of the associations with this theme were ritualistic – that is, social – rather than individual or personal. I wanted that notion to be explored more, unpacked and unpicked, I guess. But in this medium, where you have seven different writers creating seven different pieces, I wonder how much room there was to do that.
MARTIN: I see that point of view. And I also – from my own personal experiences, feel like that [individually spiritual] aspect of religion is becoming more and more rare in our society. Personally, I feel that this reflects my own journey that I’ve taken in life away from that personal relationship with gods towards a more communal one.
JODI: I wonder what this says about communities. Do we in fact worship our communities in a religious sense? I don’t really know.
MARTIN: I think that my own personal relationships have replaced for me that thing that the religious aspect of my childhood fulfilled, so I would support that.
JODI: So would the show, I think. There was a lot of loneliness there. Would you agree?
MARTIN: Yes. There was a lot of the single person reflecting on memories of relationships but doing so in such a way that they felt like they were alone even though they were communicating to the audience.
JODI: Personally, I found the piece set in a Christian high school quite affecting, probably because I could relate to it – that basically was my school experience. Were there any that stood out to you in particular?
MARTIN: I did relate to that one as well, having gone to a religious school. I really connected with the story about a person who was having a bad year and kept finding feathers in various places and that moment where she just spills everything in a prayer in a Buddhist temple… I related to that moment where you just break down and spill everything as a last resort as an effective way of dealing with that kind of situation.
JODI: That one took me back to a moment when I was in Malaysia a few years ago and I did something similar – though nowhere near as dramatic. I remember being in a Buddhist temple and hanging a kind of wish ribbon on a tree and just really sincerely imbuing it with wishes about all these worries I had and… it seems quite minor in the scheme of my life, you know, but it was one of those moments that sticks in your mind.
MARTIN: I had a very similar experience in a church in Poland. I do remember it quite vividly… I do think it was a turning point for me. It might have been the last time I really prayed.
JODI: Which is why I found it so interesting that this show focused so much on ritual – rituals stay with us, even if belief does not. I think that was really the common theme echoed throughout, and it resonated with me.
MARTIN: Me too.
JODI: Any closing remarks you want to make about the show?
MARTIN: It’s interesting having a conversation about it because I feel like the impact for me has been felt more on reflection than during the performance. Maybe that’s a credit to the show.
JODI: I think it’s a thought provoking show – maybe not one that you’re glued to the whole time, but definitely one that you have to mull over afterwards. Thank you for chatting with me post-show, Martini.
MARTIN: Pleasure, McAlister.
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Seven kilometres north-east (Version 1.0) runs at the Seymour Centre from March 8 - March 22 2014. Devised and performed by Kym Vercoe.
It’s hard to know where to begin to write about seven kilometres north-east. There is so much in this piece: travel and history and beauty and coffee and atrocity. It’s an intense experience, the kind of theatre that can leave you a little short of breath. I’m going to be thinking about this piece for a long, long time.
Devised and performed by Kym Vercoe, seven kilometres north-east is the story of her travelling alone in the Balkans and falling in love with the area. One night, on the advice of a travel guide she refers to as “the Bible”, she stays in a health spa seven kilometres north-east of Višegrad, a small town on the river Drina. On her return to Australia, she does some research and realises that Višegrad was the site of horrific ethnic cleansing in the 1990s and that this health spa was Vilina Vlas, a rape camp. On her return to the Balkans a couple of years later, she returns to Višegrad, forced to come to terms with the hideous history underpinning its idyllic surrounding: history which is so awfully, terribly recent. The eleven-arched bridge of Višegrad might have been built in the sixteenth century, but not even twenty years have passed since it was the site of countless murders.
This show is not a history lesson. It is not a travel memoir. Most importantly, Vercoe does not attempt to co-opt this narrative, from a culture admittedly not her own, for herself. Instead, the underpinning question of the piece is, “what am I supposed to do with this information?”. I liked the way that Vercoe, her journals, and the videos she took in the Balkans were the lens through which we viewed this show. At one point, she talks about walking around Višegrad on her second journey, unable to cope with the fact that the people she was passing on the street might have been complicit with or actively involved with the social genocide, and the only way she could cope with it was to look through her camera, to turn it into horror on the small screen. She successfully uses this lens on us as an audience, making the political personal. (The final image of the show is a perfect visual example of this. It is gutwrenching, a potent visual reminder of the way that the horrors of history were performed on the bodies of individuals.)
Parts of this show made me feel physically short of breath. Not because it was gratuitous – it wasn’t, not at all. But the images Vercoe evokes are so, so powerful. Perhaps the most potent is to do with Višegrad’s eleven-arched bridge, a repeatedly echoed visual motif throughout the show. There’s one scene in particular which I think I’m going to remember for a long time: an almost joyous scene set to A-Ha’s Take On Me. The simple act of dancing and the dirt and the bridge… wow.
Seven kilometres north-east is not misery porn, although with this subject matter, it easily could have been. Nor does it set out be a history lesson, although I definitely feel like I learned something (a lot of somethings). It’s intense theatre – if you’re looking for light entertainment, then this is not the show for you. It’s thoughtful and provocative and haunting, and I recommend it highly.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Stop Kiss (Unlikely Productions) runs at ATYP from 5 March – 22 March 214. By Diana Son, directed by Anthony Skuse.
Stop Kiss is the third show directed by Anthony Skuse I’ve seen this year, and the third one I’ve adored. If you want to look for a Director of the Year, I think we have an early favourite. Skuse is ON FIRE, yo.
I loved Stop Kiss. I LOVED it. It made me feel, and it made me think, and if a show can do these two things, it has got me, wholeheartedly and uncomplicatedly. This show did both. It is a show about love and a show about violence, a show about pleasure and a show about pain, a show about friendship and a show about something infinitely more agonising. And I loved it.
Stop Kiss follows Callie (Olivia Stambouliah, in a bravura performance), a traffic weather reporter who lives in New York City. She’s agreed to look after the cat of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, Sara (Gabrielle Scawthorn), but doesn’t count on the intense friendship that forms afterwards. At the heart of this play is a kiss. At the heart of this play is a beating. The non-linear structure follows the journey before and after, to the moment where things between Callie and Sara changed forever, to the moment where everything exploded. (The structure reminded me a lot of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which ends with a beautiful love scene: the scene that sparks many of the horrific events that take place during the book.)
There is so much I want to say about the construction of love and femininity in this play that I don’t think I’ll fit it all in. Stop Kiss is the story of a beautiful tragic love affair, and it made me happy and made me cry. It’s an accurate picture of how things are for women – especially, but not limited to, lesbian women – and that is why it grabbed me so particularly. It’s the story of how hard it is for so many women to admit how they feel: to not say what they DON’T feel, but to say what they do feel. It’s so easy to say what you don’t want, but it is so, so hard to say what you want. (There was a study a few years back that found that most people define their tastes by what they don’t like than what they do. Truthfully admitting that you like something or that you want something is HARD.) It’s the story of a proscribed desire, a beautiful desire, a desire that should be admitted, that rightly should be admitted, but when it is admitted, leads to horrible results, because the world is not yet beautiful enough for it.
There is so much I recognised in this play. So much. The way that Callie struggled to admit how she felt and what she wanted, to confess her desires… that is so familiar. This is not just her desire for her friend Sara, although that is a big part of it. Callie can’t admit what she wants for her career, for her social life, for her life in general. And that is so symptomatic of what women are culturally taught to feel. Michelle Fine wrote in 1988 about the “missing discourse of desire” for girls, a behaviour I think many of us have carried into adulthood. As a straight lady, I don’t share that added burden that Callie has as a lady with lesbian leanings, but… oh god, I recognised so much of myself and of the women I know in her. And in Sara, that woman encouraging Callie to say what she felt, to admit her desires, the woman who reaches for her dreams even when everyone tells her they’re wrong, the woman who refuses to sit down and shut up, to “walk on by” when something is wrong… I’ve been her, too. And being her isn’t easy, and yes, it will get you punished – maybe not as literally as Sara is, but punished nonetheless.
Every so often, you come across a show that speaks to you. I did not expect that show to be Stop Kiss, but it was. I felt like I got this show and this show got me, on a really deep level. There were events in this show I have not experienced (and hope never to experience), but there was so much that I recognised. This show made me laugh and it made me cry not because it looked like my life but because it spoke to my life. This is not the only time an Anthony Skuse-directed show has done that to me this year (I’m looking at you, On The Shore Of The Wide World), and I’m beginning to think he might be a little bit magic.
Go and see this show. Especially if you are a woman in your 20s or 30s, but seriously, everyone, go and this show. Stambouliah and Scawthorn are outstanding, and Skuse has directed an incredible production. If you know what it’s like to have trouble saying what you want or what you feel – to feel like the world is hemming you in and there are things you have to do, because… you know, you just have to – then this show is for you.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Fully Committed (Brevity Theatre) runs at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from 24 February - 1 March. By Becky Mode, directed by Alexander Butt.
Fully Committed is probably not a piece of theatre that is going to change your life, but it is great fun. Nick Curnow delivers almost forty characters in this one-man show in a testament to his range and capability. But it’s not just an actor showing off: there’s a coherent storyline, and it’s weirdly touching (as well as super funny).
Sam is a wannabe actor who is making money by working as a junior administrative assistant in a high-demand restaurant in New York City. His superior Bob is late because his car has broken down (or has it?), and he’s forced to man all the phones by himself, as well as deal with requests from the highly-strung chef, maitre’d, hostess, security guard, and, not least, his family. As more and more customers inundate his phone with requests for tables at ridiculously short notice, more and more responsibility is forced onto Sam’s shoulders when Mr and Mrs Zagat (presumably of the Zagat Guide) walk in, only to find that their reservation has been screwed up. And on top of all this, Sam is forced to deal with his self-aggrandising actor friend Jerry and the stress of finding out whether or not he’s got that big callback he wanted…
Sam is obviously the protagonist of this piece, as well as being the only character that technically appears on stage, but Nick Curnow manages to play the panoply of characters in Fully Committed with aplomb, from the surly chef wanting to know where his helicopter is to Tyra Banks’ bubbly assistant Bryce to the hysterical Mrs Sebag. Curnow is simply fabulous in this piece: sympathetic as the harrowed Sam, neatly differentiating between the myriad of different characters. If I had one criticism, it’s that he probably relies too heavily on accents, but hey, if you can do them, why not flaunt them?
The show takes a little while to get going while the audience settle in and suspend their disbelief – one actor playing so many characters is a massive theatrical conceit, after all – but once it finds its feet, Fully Committed is great fun. It’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever worked answering phones (the time I spent working in a call centre came immediately flooding back to me), and as well as being very funny, it has a heart. It plays this week only, so if you want some fun theatre and a good laugh (it’s only about an hour long), get along to the Old Fitz and check it out.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
I reviewed Jump For Jordan at Griffin Theatre Company over at Australian Stage. YOU NEED TO GO AND SEE THIS PLAY. Here are the reasons why.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Privates on Parade runs at the New Theatre from February 15 – March 8. By Peter Nichols, music by Denis King, directed by Alice Livingstone.
It’s really hard to know what to say about Privates on Parade. It is a mess. A glorious mess – an officers’ mess – but a mess nonetheless.
Mess isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, there are scholars who have devoted lots of time and space and energy to thinking through the poetics and erotics of mess). But mess has to be carefully contained, otherwise you end up with the literary/textual/theatrical equivalent of one of those houses you see on Hoarders. That’s kind of what I felt happened with Privates on Parade. There is just way too much going on in it. All this stuff has been thrown into a big heap and jumbled around and then strewn chaotically across almost three hours, and… and it’s a mess. It’s difficult and confusing and occasionally rewarding, but mostly, it’s just cluttered. And that is a problem, because all that junk is hiding the bits in this show that are genuinely fabulous.
Privates on Parade is set amongst a group of British soldiers stationed in Singapore in 1948. If I was going to try and describe the plot, it would a) be confusing, and b) probably be spoilers, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that it follows a group of British soldiers in an environment they don’t really understand, coping the best they can. At the beginning of the play, Private Steven Flowers (David Hooley) is introduced to the group, and quickly realises that there are two distinct groups: one, spearheaded by the nefarious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond (Matt Butcher), and the other, a group devoted to entertaining. These include drag queen Acting Captain Terri Dennis (James Lee), and gay couple Corporal Len Bonny (Martin Searles) and Lance Corporal Charles Bishop (Jamie Collette). The avowedly straight Steven also has to negotiate his growing relationship with half-Welsh, half-Indian dancing girl Sylvia Morgan (Diana Perini). Ideas of sexuality, race, and class are mobilised and explored.
If that summary was confusing, don’t worry – I was confused too. It was hard to tell whether Privates on Parade had too much or too little plot. There was so much going on it was genuinely hard to keep track of, and yet the actual linear thread of the story seems to be quite insubstantial. It’s almost like there are too many genres cobbled together here: there’s vaudeville and pantomime and dance and all kinds of things going on, as well as scenes between characters that might be interesting in terms of elucidating character but didn’t really go anywhere. Some of it enhances the story, but some of it obscures it.
I feel like this was an actor’s play – there was a lot in here for the performers to sink their teeth into, and they clearly relished this, because there were some fabulous performances. Diana Perini as Sylvia was particularly outstanding, but there were no weak links across the board. However, I’m not quite sure if it’s an audience’s play. It seems strange to say this about a play from the 1970s which won the Olivier award for best new comedy, but it feels like it’s one or two good workshops away from being ready for the stage. It needs taming. It needs a firm hand to turn its messiness into delicious complexity. The direction here goes some way to achieving that – I think Alice Livingstone has done a fine job – but it’s the kind of thing that probably needs to start from the ground up.
Privates on Parade is a lot of fun. There are great performances, and a lot of the songs are genuinely toe-tapping. But there is just way, way too much going on in this piece. It’s fun, but it’s messy.
Monday, February 10, 2014
Friday, January 31, 2014
Hotel Sorrento runs at the Genesian Theatre from 18 January – 22 February 2014. By Hannie Rayson, directed by Shane Bates.
One thing I like, and have always liked, about Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento is the way it engages with complex issues of art and cultural identity and the role of women and what it means to be Australian and does not resolve them. These issues are complicated, the show seems to say, and I’m not even going to pretend to have a solution when it’s so hard to express what the problem even is. It’s a show with no hero and no villain. Instead, it just has people, people who are trying to muddle through the best that they can, and who love each other, even though they might not like each other very much.
For context, the basic outline of the show is this. Three sisters – Hilary (Sarah Purdue), Meg (Melanie Robinson) and Pippa (Gemma Munro) – grew up together in the 1950s in a little town on the Mornington Peninsula called Sorrento, with an affable but usually drunk father and a mother forced to bear the burden of the whole family. When the show begins, it’s 1991. The mother is long dead, as is Hilary’s husband. She has stayed in the family home in Sorrento, taking care of her now aged father (Barry Moray) and her teenage son Troy (in a wonderful performance by fifteen year old Oliver Beard). Pippa has moved to the US but is back in Australia consulting for an advertising firm. Meg has lived in the UK for many years with her husband Edwin (Martin Bell). Her novel Melancholy, about three sisters growing up in a small coastal town in the 1950s (which she insists is not autobiographical), has just been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. As the sisters are drawn back to Sorrento, they are forced to come to terms not only with their past, but with their future.
The production that Genesian Theatre has put together is a good one. I don’t think it’s a great one, but it’s certainly a good one. It’s well-balanced, which I think is important. If one of the three sisters is overshadowed, it’s probably Pippa, but I think the script is as much at fault there as the production. It’s not heavy-handed in its direction – we aren’t shepherded towards identifying with Hilary or Meg or any other character. The action unfolds quite simply and beautifully at times (although it is hampered by a set that is way too clunky and fiddly for such a picaresque play – moments which should be quite poignant are ruined by scene changes on several occasions). I greatly enjoyed the performance of Sarah Purdue as Hilary, Melanie Robinson as Meg, and especially Lynn Turnbull Rose as Marge, the English teacher who has read and deeply identifies with Meg’s book. (Turnbull Rose reminded me so much of Jill Forster as Meredith on the classic ABC series Seachange in this role, and I thought it was just perfect.)
But what holds this production back is the fact that sometimes I felt like it didn’t know what it was talking about. Points about literature and the domestic and especially about feminism, all of which are explicitly addressed in the script, seemed glossed over. This is a very even production – and don’t get me wrong, consistency is a good thing. But sometimes I felt like some moments weren’t given the weight they deserved. This happened especially with the character of Dick (Rob White), political journalist who objects strenuously to the way Meg as an expatriate characterises and criticises Australia. There is so much meat in what he says, particularly in his arguments with both Marge and Meg, and a lot of it felt kind of like it drifted away.
Watching this production, I was struck by how little actually happens in Hotel Sorrento, in terms of concrete events which move the plot forward. There’s only one, really, and to be honest, it’s one of the weaker points of the script, which doesn’t really add that much to the story going forward. It is very much a character-driven rather than a plot-driven piece. Added to this, it is issue-driven – Rayson’s commentary on what it means to be a woman and an artist in a blokey Australian culture is pointed, but never preachy. There is so much going on in what seems to be quite a small domestic drama. Which is the point, really – why shouldn’t melancholic Australian domesticity be the site of literature?
This production of Hotel Sorrento is solid. It’s nearly two and a half long, but it doesn’t feel it – it’s interesting from start to finish. But what it misses, I think, is some of the wonderful complexity buried in Rayson’s writing, which I’d love to see given more weight.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
I reviewed On The Shore Of The Wide World (pantsguys and Griffin Independent) over at Australian Stage. Check it out here.
Friday, January 10, 2014
First review of 2014! I reviewed Wittenberg (Brevity Theatre Company and SITCO) at the Old Fitz. Check out what I thought here at Australian Stage.