Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Max Lyandvert

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

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

 

Weaving Magic: Review of STC’s Macbeth

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Shakespeare’s Macbeth has held a long fascination since it was first written in the early 17th century. Witches, murder, madness, manipulation, and at its heart a deeply political message, which, much like Julius Caesar, will never lose its relevance. With all Shakespeare’s work, though, there are profound ruminations going on beneath the story: is Macbeth the victim of fate or the architect of his own downfall? Questions of freewill and determinism are raised, and like any artists worth his salt Shakespeare provides no answers.

But what of this production? Well, we’ve long been calling for the STC to take greater risks with their staging, and it seems that in director Kip Williams they’ve finally found the man for the job. Anyone who saw his rendition of Romeo and Juliet last year will remember the breathtaking spectacle that he was able to achieve; but whereas Romeo and Juliet was done on the epic scale, Macbeth is on the intimate. But therein lays the genius of this production. Because it is on the intimate level: the usual 900 seat capacity of the Sydney Theatre is here only a third of its usual size and the main stage has been reduced down to a narrow platform, putting the audience right up near the action. But behind it rises a vast and empty auditorium, creating a cavernous space as a backdrop. Just like the ‘poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage’ we are reminded that each of our lives are played out in a confined sphere, while behind us looms a much larger world and society that encompasses us; and when someone is in the public eye, like a politician or a king, it passes judgment as well. Williams’ inverted stage invokes these feelings.

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But this is not the only treat Williams has in store. Although the play has a slow start, with the actors largely confined around a table on their narrow stage, it is midway through Act Two that the production kicks into gear. It begins with tormented knocking, as the cast starts thumping on the table, gradually raising the tone until it’s a thunderous noise that catches you in the chest. This is followed by an eerie, all-consuming fog that creeps up and completely shrouds both the stage and audience. Shafts of light cut through it, until it eventually comes to evoke a foggy Scottish moor. Williams’ ability to create powerful imagery is impressive: whether it’s something simple like the lone Macbeth standing on the stage’s edge, looking up at the empty auditorium, the staging of the witches’ second encounter, or a rain of sparkling plastic that falls from the rafters; it’s one visual treat after another. The only scene that doesn’t land is the final battle that is played out under a strobe light. Whether it’s because the sequence runs too long, or the frequency of the strobe is mistimed, the scene fails to affect in the same way that the rest of the play does. This is only a minor detraction from what is otherwise a brilliantly designed and innovative piece of theatre.

Hugo Weaving plays the title role. Weaving’s Macbeth is simply brilliant – he is human, volatile, and vulnerable. Weaving produces beautiful moments of tragedy; as he settles on Banquo’s ghost for the first time a collective shiver runs down the audience’s spine. When he hears of the Queen’s untimely demise, Weaving does nothing, and in doing so, we see everything.  It is a pleasure to watch an actor of such calibre flawlessly execute one of the meatier roles in Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, Melita Jurisic misinterprets Lady Macbeth. Jurisic denies any sexuality embedded in the role; there is no chemistry to speak of. This wild-haired Lady Macbeth swaps out strength and resolve for undifferentiated frenzy and lamentation. Jurisic sometimes makes sense of the language, though she is inconsistent, and the final ‘madness’ is largely incomprehensible and appears to be unsupported by the character’s journey (or lack thereof).

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Both leads are supported by a solid ensemble. Made up of Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Paula Arundell, Eden Falk, John Gaden and Robert Menzies, the cast weave their magic and prop up the many characters found within the Scottish play. However, there needed to be greater lyricism and clarity in their Shakespeare. The exception to this is Gaden, a veteran, who speaks this text with natural cadence. Menzies and Arundell also produced clearer speech, though, most of the cast fell back to speed, cantering through the language. Shakespeare should never be rattled off. Its greatest communication comes from an actor’s understanding. Weaving’s scene with the would-be Banquo assassin, is a fine example of crystalised meaning.

It is a credit to Kip Williams that his gender-blind casting is well thought out whilst never played up. Why shouldn’t a woman play Banquo? Or a man one of the Wicked Sisters? It works well without imposing upon the world created.

This is that very rare thing: an exciting and well thought out and executed piece of theatre. For those of you with tickets that are yet to see it you should not be disappointed.

Macbeth has currently sold out, but for more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/macbeth

 

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

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