Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Andrew Upton

Updating the Present: Review of STC’s The Present

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It’s becoming a bit of a sad tradition that we’re seeing a lot of main-stage plays be subtitled with, ‘by some-would-be-writer, after some-undisputed-master’, as if the works of Ibsen, Chekhov and Miller were pretty good starts, but really hadn’t quite reached their full potential. It’s either an indictment against Australian playwrights who don’t have the balls to write something of their own, or Australian audiences who are unwilling to see anything they haven’t already heard of. Possibly a bit of both.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present, ‘By Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov (1878)’ is another member of this ever growing club. However – and it is a big ‘however’ – of all the plays out there this is possibly the best one to do it to. Written when Chekhov was just eighteen, the piece originally ran to five hours, with Chekhov himself never considering it complete. It was never staged in his own life-time, and when performed today usually appears as an abridged or edited version. Upton has condensed the story and updated the setting to Russia of the mid-1990s (yes, we remember, VHS was a thing). Having said that, the sensibilities of the characters within the piece are undeniably Australian, even setting aside the accents; Upton’s use of dialogue and even the mannerisms of the actors all place the aesthetics of the piece squarely in this country. At one point, a character even picks up a meat pie from the local servo. The occasional references to Russia jar at times as we’re reminded that this isn’t Oz, and one wonders how difficult it would have been to have found a comparable time in Australia’s history where the story would have worked. Thankfully, though, this is not a deal breaker.

Credit must be given where credit is due, though, because for its faults, The Present is an engaging piece of theatre. It may not sound much like Chekhov anymore, but for the most part the writing works; the comedy inserted into the text and accentuated by Director, John Crowley and his cast, turns what might have been a slog of three hours into something entertaining.

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The play opens on the day before Anna’s 40th birthday. Gathered for the first time in years is a group of friends who are all connected through the friendships forged by their own parents many years ago. The relationships are complex, but Sergi, Nikolai and Mikhail are three sons born of the previous generation who spent their childhood together. They all started out with the potential to change the world, but following one compromise after another they have lapsed into a lack-lustered middle-age. They are surrounded by the stories of the glorious past, and listen to the plans that the youthful have for the future. But when you’re middle-aged you only have the present: whatever you were going to do, whatever you were going to be is what you now are; it’s only at 40 that people begin to fully realize this. Mikhail had big plans for his life, and even though he holds down a respectable job as a teacher and has a newborn child he feels unfulfilled. Enter the women. Mikhail is a bit of a babe magnet, and over the course of the play there are four who believe themselves to be in love with him. Each represents a different aspect of his life that he feels is lacking: Sasha, his wife, is warm and nurturing; Sophia is ambitious and wants to improve the world; Maria is young, sexy and vibrant; and Anna is the person who understands him. Mikhail’s frustrated life, his attempt to recapture a lost youth and potential in one of these women, and his inability to choose between them, makes up the drama of this piece.

Even with Upton’s stripped down and rebuilt version of the play, it’s hard to disguise some of the limitations in this early Chekhov. The four female love interests are a little pigeon-holed into their character-types and what they mean to Mikhail’s crisis than they are fully rounded characters. This is more so the case with Maria and Sasha, but all four suffer from this limitation to one degree or another. Likewise, the first two acts are a little over drawn and not as tightly wrought as the back end of the production. It is fascinating to note, though, that Chekhov, at eighteen, managed to write what is a detailed study of the mid-life crisis.

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But let’s face facts, at the end of the day this is a little bit of a show piece of the STC. As such, there is no lack of star power in this production. Cate Blanchett takes on the role of Anna Petrovna, birthday girl and widow to a late General. Blanchett heads this production with A-list stamina, once again demonstrating the energy and skill required to successfully navigate theatrical marathons, such as this. Blanchett is always transfixing, though one laments the missed opportunity to see her tackle Chekhov’s heavier drama over Upton’s amusing but light comedy stylings. Richard Roxburgh is similarly magnanimous as tortured womanizer Mikhail Platonov. Roxburgh could make a shopping list seem interesting and natural in conversation. And it is this performance, one of great ease and ochre charm, that sees us once again delight in Roxburgh’s treading of the boards (though he leans perhaps a little on the character of Rake for guidance). Whilst all the other actors put in some good performances, both Roxburgh and Blanchett left them a little in the dust. Chris Ryan was sweetly naïve as the lovesick Sergei Pavlovich. His best moments occurred when he moved out of daft comedy bits and into wrenching desperation. Toby Schmitz was suitably jarring as the sarcastic and indecisive Nikolai Ivanovich, though one would like to see him do some further character work. Jacqueline McKenzie was surprisingly unrecognisable as the quiet though enthusiastic Sofya Yegorovna, wife to Sergei and an old lover of Mikhail. Hers was a wonderfully measured and subtly nuanced performance. Susan Prior was also excellent as the plain Sasha, doting wife to the often uninterested Mikhail. In the role of her father, Marshall Napier was barrelling and jovial; a joy to behold. Also worth a mention is Brandon McClelland as the Demitri, son to Porfiry, who struck a chord as the outspoken, sullen youth who challenges Mikhail’s antics.

The Present is a great opportunity to see a raft of Australia’s stage talent strut their stuff on stage. It would be unwise to go in expecting to see a Chekhov play, but nevertheless, this is an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre. Get tickets if you can.

The Present is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 19th of September. For more information see: https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/the-present

Top of his Game: Review of STC’s Endgame

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Out of Samuel Beckett’s major plays, Endgame (1957) is possibly the most elusive. As with all Beckett’s works, whether theatre, novel, film or poem, the piece represents a deconstruction of his chosen media, and Endgame is particularly meta-fictive in this regard. But while Beckett is always interested in ruminations on the process and means of artistic representation, there are more curious things going on in Endgame than a mere breakdown of traditional plot or character structures.

Set in a small stone bunker, Endgame tells the story of the last living people on earth after an unspecified cataclysmic event. The tyrannical and chair-bound Hamm can neither see nor walk. He is tended to by his servant Clov, who limps around the stage and is physically unable to sit. All the while Hamm’s legless parents reside in two trash cans. Beckett was always fond of cripples, and here he offers a depiction of life’s gradual descent into degradation. In this setting, though, the portrayal is not merely confined to bodies, but life as a whole. Everything is in a state of decay.

In a world where there are no more bicycles, sugarplums or pain killers, the only thing anyone has left to cling to is other people.  Hamm is an invalid and so totally dependent on Clov. Clov serves his every whim, yet he does so unwillingly. ‘There’s one thing I’ll never understand. Why I always obey you.’  Throughout the play Clov constantly threatens to leave, yet he never does.  Here we have another example of Beckett’s pseudo-couples: two people bound together and unable to separate. We see them in Godot with Didi and Gogo, Happy Days with Winnie and Willie, and Not I with Mouth and Auditor. So why does Clov obey, why can he never leave? It’s because he is equally dependent on Hamm. Only through his interactions with another person, who can confirm his existence, is his life given any semblance of meaning. It’s the same reason why Hamm forces his father to listen to his story, when he could just as easily tell it to himself. Theatre of the Absurd is always concerned with questions of where meaning in our life comes from and Endgame represents Beckett’s attempt to get to its core.

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This could well be one of Andrew Upton’s finest productions. Nick Schlieper’s confined set design, equipped with dripping and reflected water keeps to Beckett’s original intention without falling into the overly familiar. Together the two have created some striking imagery. Endgame is not a play for the lighthearted, though, and without a strong cast the piece would be unbearably tedious. But Hugo Weaving has successfully made this one of the ‘not to be missed’ productions of the year.

Weaving is simply masterful in the role of Hamm; he is cruel and selfish, bound to a chair, unable to stand. Hamm has lost the use of his eyes and for the actor, it is a hard slog. However, you wouldn’t know this with Mr Weaving at the helm. Aided by only voice and gesture, Weaving commands the stage from his immobile position, no small feat. In a word, his performance is faultless as he weaves through the dialogue with effortless musicality, each syllable ringing in our ears, bringing the lyricism of Beckett to life. This is Shakespeare for the existentialist, and Weaving is in fine if not perfect form.

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Tom Budge plays Clov, servant to Hamm, who is unable to sit (so he tells us). Hunched over, Budge is a powdered clown, with agility and timing largely on point. Budge does not begin how he intends to finish and he finds his rhythm later than we would like, but once found, he fits well with Weaving’s pace.

Bruce Spence and Sarah Pierse have comparatively little to do in the script, as Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, both of whom have no legs and live in dustbins side by side. Pierse is melancholic and sombre, her voice a morbid rhythm of time and hope running out. Spence shows Nagg to be a fading light, one that flickers every now and again at the thought of distant happy memories. Together they strike a chord, such as a church bell would at the end of a funeral.

If there was ever a moment to get acquainted with Beckett then it would be now, when a seasoned cast is able to do justice to this challenging piece. This isn’t easy viewing, Beckett demands a lot of his audience, but this is an occasion where the rewards are well worth the effort. Endgame is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 9th of May.

For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/endgame

Striving for Perfection: Review of STC’s Cyrano de Bergerac

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Originally written in verse (and then translated by Marion Potts), Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) has been adapted by Andrew Upton into straighter prose version which has largely retained its original lyricism. Despite Upton’s little modernisms, justice has been done to this famous piece.

Poet, playwright and romantic; the greatest duelist and bravest soldier that ever lived: Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac seems to have it all, and he does it all with his trademark wit and panache. But he is accursed, having been born with an abnormally large nose. Behind his joyful antics and boundless confidence lies a deep insecurity that no woman could ever love his disfigured form. And so when a young and handsome, somewhat vapid soldier, Christian, falls in love with the object of Cyrano’s affection, Roxane, he agrees to tutor the hopeless man in the ways of love. With the combination of Christian’s good looks and Cyrano’s dazzling rhetoric, the pair manage to capture Roxane’s heart. Such a deception can only lead to complications and tragedy.

Ideals are at the core of this production. Cyrano is a true romantic at heart and will not settle for anything less. It is for this reason that he agrees to help Christian – the promise and allure of creating the world’s perfect lover. Yet this longing for perfection finds its way into all aspects of Cyrano’s life. He refuses to let anyone tamper with his work and will never kowtow to have it staged. An unwavering commitment to ideals leads Cyrano into strife. He is largely unrecognized as a writer and his belief in his disfigurement truly prevents him from finding happiness. Even on the battlefield he insults De Guiche who discarded the scarf that identifies him as an officer because it makes him an easy target. Cyrano claims that he would wear it willingly; its symbolism is enough, though to wear it would drastically increase his risk of dying. Here we reach the point of the play. The only real choice we have in life is the ability to choose the source of our misery. Later in the play De Guiche confesses that each compromise he made weighs on his soul. It reminds him of the man he dreamt to be, but never became. Cyrano, clinging to every ideal he holds, is no better off. The world is not made of ideals and as Cyrano discovers, the world will eventually crush anyone unwilling to compromise. It’s a catch-22.

Yalin Ozucelik as Le Bret and Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano

Yalin Ozucelik as Le Bret and Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano

The marvellous Richard Roxburgh plays our title role with impressive timing and pathos. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. Yet we find ourselves waiting in anticipation for Cyrano’s panache to kick into a higher gear, and it never quite does. This does not detract from the deep sadness that Roxburgh portrays so well, but it does deny that extreme juxtaposition that pushes Cyrano from good to great.

Josh McConville plays the deliciously vain De Guiche, Count and Colonel to the French Army. McConville is a master of comedy in his own right, though his greatest strength lies in his catlike ability to slink between characterisations. McConville is almost unrecognisable as the older De Guiche. Formerly filled with naïve courage and confidence he has now faded, leaving an old man with only regret.

Eryn Jean Norvill plays the beautiful Roxane, displaying good temperament and comic restraint in performance. The role is somewhat thankless next to the pizazz of Cyrano but Norvill takes it in her stride and manages with gusto. She too has a penchant for character, best seen in her sharp contrast from a flighty, romantic youth to a worn and grieving elderly woman.

Chris Ryan plays the handsome but rather dense Christian, Roxane’s love interest. The role seems straightforward on paper but it becomes all too apparent that Ryan has worked tirelessly to shape the performance, displaying great awareness of character. Christian’s ‘stupidity’ is constantly teetering between subtle and overplayed, exactly where Ryan wants it.

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Eryn Jean Norvill as Roxane and Josh McConville as De Guiche

Amongst the supporting characters is the delightful Julia Zemiro playing Roxane’s Nurse, though the role is treated as a bit of a cameo within which Zemiro can do her shtick. Thankfully, this works. David Whitney is endearing and energetic as Raguenaeu the baker and dinner (breakfast?) poet. And fresh from his stint as Cyrano in the Sport for Jove production, Yalin Ozucelik plays Cyrano’s right hand man Le Bret with generosity and grace.

Upton offers a fairly straight staging of the play. There are a couple of visually compelling moments, such as the sleeping soldiers on a misty battlefield, or raining autumnal leaves under a red wash as Roxanne comes to terms with her loss. But these moments seem to have the fingerprints of the production’s associate director, Kip Williams, on them.

This is a funny, tragic and thought-provoking play featuring one of Australia’s finest actors in his element.  Cyrano de Bergerac is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 20th of December. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/cyrano-de-bergerac

Blocking out the Sun: Review of STC’s Children of the Sun

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While the Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun (1905) isn’t an awful production, Andrew Upton has tried very hard to make it awful.

Gorky set his play in the country home of a Russia family born into privilege. Professor Protasov works tireless in his laboratory, attempting to unlock the secrets of life. But his devotion has caused him to neglect the people around him. He barely notices his wife, who is possibly finding emotional solace in the resident artist, neither is he sensitive to his fragile sister’s despair, nor the almost obsessive devotion his best friend’s sister has for him. Prostasov claims that when set against the vastness of creation, petty human concerns pales in comparison. It is only by appreciating ‘the whole’ that humanity can hope to advance. Ironically, in doing so he has separated himself from that humanity, and as the play progresses we see that this impacts not only the people who love him but it highlights the burgeoning gulf that exists between the upper and lower social classes. Unrest is growing in the lower classes, but it is the ignorance that each has for the other that breeds it.

This is a play largely about ideas, and even in the original text there is little plot upon which these concepts hang. As a result, maintaining an audience’s engagement is always going to be a challenge when mounting this play. Although there are moments when this production grabs our attention there are long stretches that are just plain dull.

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Following on from The Maids last year, Mr Upton has had a crack at adapting (updating) this piece and all his old tricks are there: colloquial language and ready swearing, drawing our attention once again to the fact that he is at best a mediocre talent. While the language has been updated he has opted to maintain the Russian setting and turn of the century aesthetic, no doubt because he thought it looked pretty. In his director’s note Kip Williams states that this has created a tension in the piece. He may go onto to say that it is fruitful (what else can he say?), but this tension makes the whole production ring false. None of the characters speak, act or conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the world they inhabit. And the less said about the crude, clunky and embarrassing innuendos Upton has put in the characters’ mouths the better. There is nothing wrong with adapting a text, but if you’re going to make nineteenth-century Russian characters speak and behave like contemporary Americans is there any point leaving them in their original setting? In a way it’s insulting, as it suggests that the theatre-going public is unable to appreciate the anguish, reverence, love or joys of a character unless they are expressed in our colloquialisms.

Children of the Sun features an all-star cast, though it would be wrong to say that they were an ensemble. Whilst a great deal of talent features here, the production felt fragmented into a dozen tiny plays, each with a different actor starring as the lead. The cast lacked harmony, which made it difficult to endure through the dialogue-heavy, light-on-plot story.

The female cast tended to outshine their male counter-parts with Jaqueline McKenzie putting in a beautifully measured performance as the ailing Liza. Justine Clarke was credible as Yelena the neglected wife of Protasov whilst Helen Thomson was unfailingly charismatic as Melaniya, a Protasov devotee, though her portrayal bordered on caricature. This was arguably the case for Chris Ryan as Boris (would-be lover of Liza), Hamish Michael as Vageen (a Russian Hemmingway and admirer of Yelena) and Toby Truslove as Protasov (the oblivious chemist), though Truslove had moments of clarity and pause, in particular his monologue towards the close of the first act. Julie Ohannessian and Yure Covich played husband and wife, Avdotya and Yegor, peasants and servants to the illustrious family. Both Ohannessian and Covich brought a sense of hardship that revealed the Russian landscape of which Gorky wrote. Amongst the rest of the cast, however, much of the emotion attached to the Russian character was traded in for an American sense of joviality.

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Once again, Kip Williams (with set designer David Fleischer) has utilised the revolving stage, and a beautifully crafted set, filled with secret nooks and crannies for all to hide in. It is not overdone, and largely the set is used to enhance the storytelling. Of note was the final scene in which rioters storm the house, wonderfully illustrated by a burning fire behind the scenery, creating a sobering image to finish on.

This is a sloppy production in a lot of regards. The set may be gorgeous, but the adapted script is mediocre and the choice to maintain the original aesthetic seems arbitrary. While there are some wonderful individual performances, the cast doesn’t mesh. Kip Williams is a talented director, but you wouldn’t think it from this production. None of his usual flare is on display; no doubt he’s been channeling his energies into Macbeth. Gorky’s story and his ideas are still potent, and there are moments when they become apparent long enough to capture our attention, but these brief glimpses are punctuated by extended periods of boredom and the continual sense that the characters simply don’t belong in this world.

Children of the Sun is playing at the Sydney Opera House until the 25th of October. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/children-of-the-sun

 

Bound For Success: Review of STC’s Travelling North

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Travelling North (1979) may be touted as an oddity in David Williamson’s oeuvre for its lack of satirical edge; however, those familiar with his work will still recognize the same style when it comes to scene construction, establishing characters and revealing their inner-lives. At times Williamson isn’t always the most subtle writer, and as a result he probably has as many admirers as detractors. Having said that there is nothing overrated about the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production of Travelling North, currently being staged at the Wharf Theatre.

The play, set between 1969 and 1972, tells the simple story of Frank and Frances, a couple who have found each other late in life, fallen in love and now seek to enjoy the freedom that comes with retirement by travelling north. Frances’ daughters, Helen and Sophie are less than impressed with their mother’s plans and see Frank as an aging user who just wants a carer to look after him in his declining years. In the play’s beginning Frank appears the very picture of vitality, however, as the story progresses he develops angina. From there, the plot tracks his deteriorating health. At any rate, Frank is just as frustrated by the two daughters. He sees Helen and Sophie as wanting to use Frances as their emotional crutch when the two go through marital and child-rearing issues. Between the two positions, focus lies not only on Frances’ struggle to be with, and help the people she loves, but also on the idea of commitment; particularly when commitment means sacrifice.

Perhaps ironically, just as the north represents freedom, Frances is unable to reach either – the couple land just short of the Queensland boarder at Tweed Heads and never progress any further due to Frank’s failing health. Freedom in the north cannot be reached, and we come to see that Frances is completely smothered by her commitments to both Frank and her daughters. These burdens cause her great strain, but she continues to bear them in spite of it all: such is the strength of her love. Yet commitment rears its head in other ways throughout the play, whether it is a question of commitment to marriage, one’s political beliefs, occupation or children. Many of the characters abandon one commitment or another throughout the course of the play, and they, and the people around them, suffer the consequences. Frances though, stays strong until the end. We come to admire her for her strength and she is rewarded for it, in more ways than one.

Bryan Brown as Frank and Alison Whyte as Frances

Bryan Brown as Frank and Alison Whyte as Frances

Frank is an active senior citizen, though this is largely out of defiance. He is sensitive about his age, and is determined to defy the books. Bryan Brown was simply marvellous. He exuded an easy charisma as this cranky ex-communist, being both confident and lively whilst possessing the curmudgeon sass of a retired goat. When Frank’s condition continues to deteriorate, Brown played the arc for its comedy but also for its humanity. The increasing cantankerousness is littered with moments of enlightenment, which only an experienced actor such as Brown could pull off without being obvious.

As Helen, Frances’ Melbourne based daughter, Harriet Dyer fell head first into a sea of coarseness, and she was wonderful for it. With her big blonde hair, fetching platforms and abrasive edge, Dyer is an actress of versatility. She demanded of her audience a pace of her own choosing, so that when Helen’s inner turmoil surfaced, it was easy to see how being ‘uncouth’ is actually a defence mechanism.

Alison Whyte as Frances was an absolute trooper, having only been rehearsing the role for five days when the show was viewed. Whilst she was still script in hand for the majority of Act Two, Whyte did a deft job as this most compassionate lover and mother. It is written with confidence that Whyte will seriously impress as the run continues.

Andrew Tighe as Freddie, the obnoxious neighbour with a heart of gold, was a hoot from start to finish. The man wore his shorts well. More importantly however, Tighe captured the stereotype of the well-meaning but slightly misplaced Australian mateship envisaged by Williamson without making the character laughable in the wrong way.

Andrew Upton has offered a sound rendition of this piece. The choice to have Frances on stage throughout the entirety of the play, as a silent observer when not part of the scene, is a nice choice and undoubtedly representative of how attached she is to these people. The set is elegant in its simplicity, and one feels that with a play such as this, with scenes transitioning quickly between space and time, that David Fleischer’s multi-level timber deck design is exactly what is needed to fit the bill.

This is yet another solid production from the Sydney Theatre Company. It is an absolute treat to watch Bryan Brown on stage, and once Alison has her lines down it will be an amazing show. Give her another week. Travelling North is playing at the Wharf theatre until the 22nd of March. For more information see:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/travelling-north.aspx

 

Dinner and a Show’s Year in Review: 2013

Belvoir's Peter Pan

Belvoir’s Peter Pan

2013 has been a full year for the Sydney theatre scene, and so here is rundown of the most memorable productions (at least the ones we saw).

Belvoir’s 2013 upstairs season has been interesting. Under Simon Stone as Resident Director, Belvoir has largely been responsible for contemporizing classics – Hamlet, Miss Julie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The concept itself is welcomed if we wish to keep plays relevant. However, it requires a deft creative hand and a thorough textual analysis in order to be successful. Certainly Stone possesses the former, but not the latter. Stone habitually changes the text to suit his initial creative vision, without much thought to a complete justification as regards the original text. For example, the choice to change Southern accents to Australian ones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made little sense considering the Southern lyricism imbedded in Tennessee’s dialogue, especially when the setting of the play was not re-contextualized (remaining a Southern one). Similarly, the choice to significantly compress ‘slower textual revelations’ into a montage-esque ending in Hamlet made certain that audiences did not have time to listen to, or enjoy Shakespeare for what it is. It is true that Miss Julie benefited from contemporizing more than the others, but it was not without its problems in the translation.

Miss Julie - with Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson

Miss Julie – with Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson

However, without a doubt the raspberry award goes to Persona, a less than impressive start to Adena Jacobs’ Belvoir stint. Puzzlingly, critics hailed this an innovative ‘theatrical response’. Yet audiences, consistently, came out confused or found it unnecessarily abrasive. ‘Theatrical responses’ (whatever that means) aside, Jacobs was unable to find the ‘theatrical equivalent’ to Bergman’s cinematic techniques, taking the lazy way out with full frontal nudity in an attempt to unsettle the audience. Nevertheless, to end on a high note, the early production of Ralph Myer’s Peter Pan made for delightful viewing and a superb set design/directorial vision. Myer’s talent as a set designer must be acknowledged singularly, and it is hoped that he will also have more involvement in the directorial side next year.

Meanwhile across town, under the artistic direction of Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company has continued to maintain its reputation as the city’s premiere theatre maker. The season was punctuated by a collection of solid productions and quality performances typified by Mrs Warren’s Profession, Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Benedict Andrew’s outing with The Maids stuck out as the only show this year to go really wrong, of which the less said the better, while Simon Philips’ brilliantly executed and rollicking rendition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arguably stands out as the top production from the wharf in 2013. It’s true there is little that can be broadly faulted with the season however one does get the feeling that these are all very safe staging’s and adaptations – no one at the STC seems willing to take a risk and push the envelope. The one exception of course was Kip WilliamsRomeo and Juliet: a visually spectacular production with a firm interpretation of the text, it possessed a stunning set and clever choreography that made the audience sit up and pay attention. Unfortunately its second act paled in comparison to the first and, just as Belvoir found the need to muck with the ending of Hamlet, so too here did similar issues prevent it from becoming what could have been the show of the year.

Romeo and Juliet - Eryn Jean Norvill as Juliet and Dylan Young as Romeo

Romeo and Juliet – Eryn Jean Norvill as Juliet and Dylan Young as Romeo

Also part of the wharf season was Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Fury, a contemporary exploration of racism in Australia that became so much more than a political opinion piece. Fury sits as the most polished piece of new Australian writing to be staged this year. Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland will be performed next year with the STC and if it’s anything like Fury it should prove to be another success. Of course in Sydney, the independent theatre scene tends to feature the majority of new writings. It is often difficult to find original pieces of truly exceptional writing to rival the canonical works, and generally most pieces this year have seemed a draft or two away from reaching their true potential. An exception was Robert Allan’s gentle tale of trauma and recovery – An Ordinary Person. Produced by the Sydney Independent Theatre Company, this work was easily the stand out piece of new writing to appear on the independent stages, as well as being one of SITCO’s best shows this year.

An Ordinary Person - with Cherilyn Price, Mel Dodge and David Jeffery

An Ordinary Person – with Cherilyn Price, Mel Dodge and David Jeffery

Elsewhere in the Independent scene the production of the year has to go to Butcher of Distinction, directed by James Dalton and performed by Heath Ivey-Law, Liam Nunan and Paul Hooper. At the Old 505 Theatre, Dalton did an excellent job of directing and utilizing the intimate space. The play itself, written by Rob Hayes, is very new, receiving its first performance in England in 2011. Nevertheless, this production presented an excellent opportunity to see a fresh piece of theatre, skilfully performed, which shocked and delighted audiences.

This year also saw a number of notable performances in both the professional and independent scenes. Honourable mention goes to Charlie Garber as the periwigged Captain Cook in Belvoir’s Peter Pan. Excitingly though, it seems to have been a year for the younger female actresses. The towering Elizabeth Debecki produced a fantastic interpretation of the narcissistic ‘bitch-from-hell’ Mistress in STC’s the Maids – this was certainly impressive considering her age and caliber of the co-stars she shared the stage with. At the TAP Gallery, Amy Scott-Smith is again to be congratulated on a well observed, deeply emotional portrayal of Electra. So too did Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie make a wonderful stage debut as the title character, bringing to life Strindberg’s Lolita. All three women demonstrated nuance in performance, and they can be certain that this did not go unnoticed. A surprise came from Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who was hardly recognizable as the Black-beard inspired principal player. On at NIDA was George Banders’ as Bentley in Rooted. His was a finely tuned, comedic whiplash performance mixed in with a large serving of Michael Crawford. Look out for him in the future. And last but not least was Lisa Chappell as Maddie in On/Off. Wickedly funny and surprisingly human, Chappell continued to impress in the two-hander.

Butcher of Distinction - with Heath Ivey-Law, Liam Nunan and Paul Hooper

Butcher of Distinction – with Heath Ivey-Law, Liam Nunan and Paul Hooper

So that was the year that was. The 2014 seasons from both professional companies and a number of the larger independent groups have now been released and next year should prove to be just as interesting as this one.

 

Waiting’s Half the Fun: Review of STC’s Waiting for Godot

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Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1953) has a reputation of being one of ‘the’ plays of the twentieth century. Even though we are able to find earlier works that deal with similar themes (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, 1938) or use similar stylistic devices (Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, 1928) Waiting For Godot nevertheless stands as a cornerstone of the western literary canon.

The audience follows Vladimir and Estragon, two tramps, waiting by a tree for Mr Godot. It is implied that upon his arrival, Godot will cause an improvement to their situation. Spoiler alert: he never shows up. The play stands as both a comedic exploration of the waiting process, and a tragic examination of continually deferred hope. For such a simple story it is loaded with meaning that allows for multiple readings; indeed, in academia, after James Joyce, Samuel Beckett’s body of work is the most written about. Unsurprisingly, there are many thematic angles that could be taken when it comes to discussing this piece: religion, memory, habit, companionship, torture, distraction, and like a true masterpiece the themes are interwoven to create a single portrayal of the human experience (at least from Beckett’s perspective).

Hugo Weaving as Vladamir and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

Hugo Weaving as Vladimir and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

We can take the theme of time as an example. In Waiting For Godot Beckett challenges the way in which we conceive it. In day-to-day life it is easy for us to think of time as being circular. Our clocks are circles, where they end they begin again. There is the sun: it rises and sets with predictable regularity. The seasons repeat each year, and the months return to us time and again. Each day we repeat a routine, which we will do again and again. And though we think of time as circular, ever repeatable, it is in fact linear, forward flowing and irreversible. We know this to be true and yet we live as though it were circular. We repeat and relive our routines as though each moment were identical. This is the experience of Vladimir and Estragon: each day is a carbon copy of the last; but as Vladimir says, ‘Habit is a great deadener.’ Beckett suggests that when one lives this way, one becomes unable to experience the uniqueness of a moment, or indeed life as a whole. In Godot we are reminded that we need to break away from this way of thinking. We should instead see, experience and embrace each moment for what it is: utterly ephemeral, unique and never to be repeated. If we do not, just like Estragon and Vladimir, we risk losing our memories in a mass of generic past, and likewise we risk losing our future – for what future do we have when our tomorrow will be the same as today?

To this production in particular; Tamás Ascher was originally slated to direct, but due to illness Andrew Upton had to step up. The set is a rundown stage. Although visually striking, it is a common interpretation (the celebrated McKellen/Stewart version of Godot staged at the Opera House in 2010 also took this angle). The program states that the set ‘is covered in … volcanic ash; it is the end of the world,’ a theme more commonly associated with another of Beckett’s plays, Endgame. Regardless, the set serves its purpose, giving us the veritable wasteland of eternal sameness that our two tramps are trapped in.

Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, Philip Quast as Pozzo and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, Philip Quast as Pozzo and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

Hugo Weaving plays the cerebral Vladimir, the metaphorical ‘sky’ of the relationship.  Weaving danced around the stage with his hulking two-step, kicking up his heels whenever the excitement grew. It was like watching a bird in flight. Weaving has a magnanimous energy as a performer, whilst still attending to the tenderness of the piece. Both Weaving and Roxburgh proved equally adroit in executing what might be called tragic pratfalls, and they communicated the oft times unspoken tenderness that exists between the two characters.

Richard Roxburgh played the more instinctual Estragon. He permeated the character with a simple gruffness which in many ways reinvigorated the role. In his comic play Roxburgh is a tour-de-force – he growls as he walks whilst punching the floor with his stained feet. This was glorious in the first half, though it became apparent that Roxburgh (at times) relied on gimmick. Whilst it is hard to go wrong with the stock footage of comic delivery, it can spill over into the dramatic arena, sacrificing other touching moments or indeed, more interesting approaches to the line. This however, is largely suggestive of the need for a more involved directorial hand.

Whilst Estragon and Vladamir are joking, bickering and musing on the profound, their shared test of endurance is interrupted by the overbearing Pozzo and the hapless Lucky. Philip Quast plays the grotesque tyrant; he is solid and booming. Quast has a lyricism about him that makes his presence electric. He was impressive in all manners of speaking, though arguably his second act was weaker than the first. But the real stand out of this production was Luke Mullins as Lucky, Pozzo’s simpleton slave. Mullins’ Lucky was a disturbingly fragile, twitching bird of a man, sporting long flowing white hair. Mullins was an impressive physical performer and concocted a shattering gasp for Lucky’s communication, always unsettling to hear. His performance was measured and uncompetitive, which made it all the more impressive.

Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, Luke Mullins as Lucky and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, Luke Mullins as Lucky and Richard Roxburgh as Estragon

There is perhaps little to be faulted within this production, and likewise there is much enjoyment for an audience to take. Nevertheless, Beckett aficionados might feel that the rendition lacks thoughtful interpretation. The troupe of actors, although doing a marvelous job, may have tried too hard for the cheap gag. To be fair, they do get the laughs, but they may have missed some of the tragedy. We cannot forget that this play is by definition a tragicomedy. Admittedly, hitting this balance is a difficult task, for while the McKellen/Stewart version received this same criticism, the 2001 Beckett on Film adaptation is often thought of as having the opposite problem. Simply put, the desperation towards the hopelessness of their situation is not always evident. When it is, it comes across as mere anger. This could be symptomatic of a lazy production, after all this play is not Upton’s baby, or maybe just evidence of how hard it is to get something as complex as Godot right.

Waiting for Godot is play with the Sydney Theatre Company until December 21st, for more details see their website:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2013/waiting-for-godot.aspx

The Maids Make a Mess – An STC Production

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In 1947 when Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes (The Maids) first appeared it shocked. The play tells the tale of two house maids who secretly desire to murder their Mistress. Each night the pair, Claire and Solange, takes turns in adopting their Mistress’ persona. The other pretends to bow and scrape after her until the tables turn and they enact their violent desire. Of course, when the Mistress returns both girls become the proper meek and obedient maids, at least on the surface. They have however hatched a plot to be rid of their overbearing Mistress, and although it is nowhere near as direct or violent as their fantasy the result is the same.

Like many of Genet’s plays The Maids deals with similar themes: power, freedom, cruelty, ritual, fantasy and identity. Through the sadomasochistic fantasy of their role play, the maids are able to enact their desires for cruelty and violence. In these brief moments they experience a power and freedom they would otherwise never know. Broadly speaking the play is a study of the darker desires lurking below the surface which are kept in check by the constraints of society. It is also a deep analysis of the masks we wear to hide such desires. Genet is dealing with some pretty meaty ideas here. Unfortunately, Benedict Andrews’ production does not engage the audience with any it.

Opening Scene

Opening Scene

First and foremost the problem could very well be the translation. For this production Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton decided to translate the original text themselves, supposedly to update the piece. Bluntly, neither is renowned for their ability to translate, which is an art form in its own right. The text, especially during the first scene, feels needlessly dense, overwritten and difficult to follow. This isn’t helped by the fact that Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert race through their delivery. The result: the text washed over the audience and essential plot points were missed.

Benedict Andrews also made the choice of having a video screen above the stage which offered the audience different angles of the performance. There was a ‘logic’ behind this. In the program Andrews explains the screen was used to develop the idea that the maids’ identities were fragmented and that this was a reflection of the fantasies and fictions the two build around them. This is a nice idea which is certainly consistent with the text, yet tragically overdone. At best (10% of the time) the video screen offered an interesting angle, at worst (the other 90%) it acted only as a distraction from the performance and needlessly pulled focus. Alice Babidge’s set was also extremely extravagant, in classic STC style. It does not serve the purposes of the text (a middle class mistress’ bedroom) and instead looks like a funeral parlour. There were just too many flowers and no personal décor – it was sterile and thus an emotionless setting.

Cate Blanchett as Clare and Isabelle Huppert as Salonge

Cate Blanchett as Claire and Isabelle Huppert as Solange

Unfortunately there were acting issues as well. To state the obvious, Isabelle Huppert is a French-speaking actress. Unsurprisingly, she suffers in an English role. The biggest problem for Huppert is that the text is so language driven. Her dramatic pace and timing inevitably sat a bit off centre, and at times she struggled to keep up with Blanchett in conveying every nuance the script affords. Particularly, Huppert found it difficult to capture exactly who Solange was. This is not strictly her fault however. Huppert is evidently an actress of great skill. Her comedic skill is highly polished, and she is able to produce genuine moments of hilarity. It thus seems unfortunate that her talent was largely lost in translation (to excuse the pun). In the end, she was probably miscast. Upton (almost) inadvertently admits this, in suggesting that a dinner party with Blanchett and Andrews was effectively Huppert’s audition.

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Like Huppert, the luminosity of Cate Blanchett (Claire) is not to be doubted. She is every bit the first rate actress, with an impeccable tone and controlled pace to match. Nevertheless, Blanchett at times could be accused of overacting. Whether to compensate for Huppert’s language difficulties or for some other reason, she seemed pushed to melodramatic heights which were not altogether warranted by the text. This can be somewhat excused however as she is every bit the professional, aiding her partner seamlessly when inevitable costume slips occurred (for example). Both Huppert and Blanchett seem genuinely comfortable with each other on a physical level, but for all intents and purposes, it is not believable enough that they could be or were sisters.

The Maids - Cate Blanchett

A pleasant surprise came from Elizabeth Debicki, a positively towering young actress who held her own in a role that was ripe for the taking. It is possible that she too suffered from a melodramatic stint but this increasingly seems to be a directorial error. Debicki was wonderfully hateful as the narcissistic ‘bitch-from-hell’ mistress, who, through single turn of phrase, could reveal her flawed, pathetic nature and debase the sisters irretrievably. Debicki may have been a tad too young for the role, but notwithstanding this, she took it in her stride and did a wonderful job, demonstrating great skill in doing so.

Elizabeth Debicki as The Mistress and Cate Blanchett as Clare

Elizabeth Debicki as The Mistress and Cate Blanchett as Claire

Yet despite the best efforts of the performers the production as a whole was a bitter disappointment. The play drags, you don’t empathize with the characters, and ultimately it’s boring and frustrating to watch. What is even more disappointing is that the STC can get away with this: the show has sold out and is apparently slated to travel overseas. In this case it would appear that Cate Blanchett’s name on the billboard is all that’s needed to pull a crowd. This is ridiculously lazy. STC – you have the money, you have the talent, how about investing the time to make a decent piece of theatre. The audience certainly pays enough.

This production has sold out, information can however be found here:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/what’s-on/productions/2013/the-maids.aspx

For those of you who already have tickets, brace yourself.

Shaw Assures Success: STC’s Production of Mrs Warren’s Profession

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In 1893 Mrs Warren’s Profession was unable to attain a license for performance and was to remain unperformed for the next twenty years. So scandalous was its subject matter. By today’s standards it is pretty tame, and you almost wish they’d just say the word ‘prostitute’. Nevertheless, Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the Shavian classic still has impact.

Kitty Warren is a woman with an infamous past and a daughter, Vivian, whose linage is sketchy to say the least. Kitty keeps her ignorant however, with an expensive education and a comfortable lifestyle – although the pair a virtual strangers to each other. Upon their reunion it isn’t long before the truth comes out, sparking conflict as they differ over the other’s lifestyle choice. As such, the relationship and indeed their identities are called into question.

Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren

Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren

The crux of the play lies here. In her note, director Sarah Giles states that the play is essentially about the feminist question (obviously). For a Victorian audience this may have been true, but for today’s audience, the play is about something a little different. By and large it comes down to a question of duty and principle. Mother and daughter respectively sacrifice one for the other – it is a question of how far one is willing to tip the scale. Ultimately, Vivian and Kitty are both right and wrong in their conclusions, and the genius of Shaw allows you to see the world from both perspectives. It is a tossup as to whose side you’ll come down on. Audiences will undoubtedly disagree as to whose, but that’s what makes it so true to life. Perhaps Giles needed to unpack the text a little more to get to this universal reading rather than falling back on the safety of feminism. Having said that, the young director made a deft job of bringing the cast together as an ensemble.

Lizzie Schebesta as Vivian Warren and Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren

Lizzie Schebesta as Vivian Warren and Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren

To begin with, Helen Thomson is a very powerful performer. She commanded the stage and committed every inch to the role of Mrs Warren. There is little to criticise except for the decision to drop the ‘posh’ accent when in scenes alone with Vivian. By consciously reverting to the character’s original cockney roots for lengthy periods, she loses the credibility that is otherwise afforded by her performance. Yet director Giles should be criticised here too, as it is just as much a directorial failing (though it is called for in the script, some discretion as to the extent of its use should have been exercised). During these scenes Thomson also drops her middle class mannerisms, (wrongly) to enhance the ‘from nothing’ aspect of her character – it is only slightly more forgivable. For all this however, Thomson delivers the cheeky, sly, calculating mother well, and is especially powerful in her final speech.

Lizzie Schebesta as Vivian Warren and Martin Jacobs as Sir George Crofts

Lizzie Schebesta as Vivian Warren and Martin Jacobs as Sir George Crofts

Lizzie Schebesta (Vivian Warren) looked every bit the Austin heroine. Overall, Schebesta made a good fist of the role. Yet the character required a sharper energy, rather than one that was simply ‘oppositional’. The young Miss Warren was also physically restrictive, doing little more than pacing when flustered or emotional. For the two faults mentioned, she just fell short of making us believe that she unreservedly rejected love.

Simon Burke played Praed – the attractive middle-aged friend of Mrs Warren. In this role, Burke was cute and light. He fluttered around the stage and played the audience well, almost too well in sections, though he mostly got away with it. Burke is obviously experienced with ensemble work. He sat well within the frame of his character and produced a lovely performance.

Simon Burke as Praed

Simon Burke as Praed

Martin Jacobs was superb as Sir George Croft; he is a very impressive performer. Beautiful stage skill (always audible) and impeccable presence – he makes it look seamless. Like Burke, probably more so, his experience allows for a remarkably controlled performance. Beautifully observed, Jacobs understands that people only really ‘get angry’ about personal convictions – as such he delivers the cope de grace perfectly – as measured and controlled as the rest of his performance.

The young Frank Gardner was played by Eamon Farren, and he packs a real punch. Farren has a wonderful energy which should have been matched by his co-star, though perhaps it was more a question of conviction – for he had this as well. Also to Farren’s credit was his freedom of movement – he allowed himself to physically explore the character, making for some very creative stage craft.

Eamon Farren as Frank Gardner andDrew Forsythe as Samuel Gardner

Eamon Farren as Frank Gardner and
Drew Forsythe as Samuel Gardner

Drew Forsythe was highly competent in the role of Samuel Gardner – in suffering the disadvantage of an obvious plot device; he was a joy to watch and worked with what he had – though occasionally forgoing the truth of the character in order to achieve a gimmick. Luckily it worked.

Giles has offered the Sydney theatre scene yet another minimalist production. Granted, it does work, but one hopes there is something different coming in the pipeline for audiences. Having said that, the music composed by Max Lyandvert perfectly suited the play and the backdrop of silk roses (a nod to Victorian excess and sentimentality without miring the action) were visually stunning and seemed to shift and alter in appearance with the assistance of Nigel Levings’ lighting design. Costumes were period but striped of ostentation.

Set Design

Set Design

In the end this is a very fine production, but in all probability, it was always going to be. Is the STC capable of something with more punch or edge? We’d like to think so and we’d like to see them try. Shaw and Giles do however deliver the goods on what is to be congratulated as a solid production.

Mrs Warren’s Profession runs from 19 February – 6 April, with an extended season from 4 July – 20 July. For more information:
http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/what’s-on/productions/2013/mrs-warrens-profession.aspx