Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Bruce Spence

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