Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Nick Schlieper

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

Murder She Wrote: Review of STC’s Switzerland

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Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was an American novelist of psychological thrillers, who is probably best remembered for her adapted novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland, though, she becomes the central character of her own story.

Highsmith is a caustic, sharp-witted woman who has escaped to the Swiss Alps to enjoy her retirement away from the brash and shallow confines of New York, which she sees as populated by critics and sycophants. She instead prefers the company of animals, owning several cats and a colony of snails. These sexually ambiguous mollusks are a source of fascination for her. This all comes to an end when a young representative from her New York publishers, Edward, arrives at her home with the intention of getting her to sign on to write another novel. Highsmith is resistant to the idea, claiming that she’s done with Ripley. Edward doesn’t take no for an answer though, and his seemingly innocuous character becomes increasingly sinister, setting the stage for a battle of wits and wills. As the two duel it out the plot gradually comes to mirror that of her novels.

Murray-Smith’s writing crackles, and her wit is both cruel and by turns hilarious. At its core, this play becomes Highsmith’s process of coming to terms with her own death. Ruminations of mortality, legacy and murder, as well as the process of writing litter the text. Being a two-hander placed in a single setting, the play does tend to throw a lot of exposition at the audience with limited action. However, Murray-Smith’s characters are fascinating and well rendered, and her writing is tight enough to sustain this over the play’s 100 minute course.

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Both performances are first class. Sarah Pierse sparkles in the role of battered crime writer Patricia Highsmith. She is raw, abrasive, and thoroughly broken. Pierse rounds her characterisation with a perfectly eared whiskey accent, and pained gait. She is stiff, and this seeps into her personality. The cynicism is unrelenting, as is her deep-seated resentment for the river of white male publishers that she constantly fights against. She is the archetype of a revolutionary female writer, and yet with Pierse at the helm, we cannot look away.

Highsmith is confronted by young hopeful Edward played by Eamon Farren. Farren is now considered one of Sydney’s leading men, and with good reason. His transformations are textbook; showing versatility and dexterity in mapping the final reveal. Everything from demeanour and stance to the detail of speed of movement is carefully considered. Ultimately, Farren has a difficult task: he is expected to shift substantially over the course of the play, and he does so marvellously.

Together and separately, both actors have a dynamic presence on stage. It is a credit to director Sarah Goodes for weaving the two styles to create flawless chemistry.

Last year Murray-Smith brought us Fury. Switzerland is a complete departure in structure and theme. However, the same keenly observed characters and dazzling writing is still present. Her partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company has no doubt been a fruitful one to date, and one that will hopefully continue into the future.

If you want to learn about Patricia Highsmith and her infamous creation Ripely, Switzerland 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/switzerland

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

 

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

 

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

Very Much Alive: Review of STC’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

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It’s no mistake that this year both Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) are featuring together as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s season. Both are cornerstone texts in theatre of the absurd, and although there are similar themes between them – such as the Beckettian pseudo-couple, a fruitless pursuit for meaning and of course the delightful word-play – at their core, each play is dealing with something very different.

Stoppard’s play centers around two very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a pair of courtiers who are charged to discover the nature of the malady that afflicts the prince, and then transport him to Britain. Insofar as the plot exists, this is pretty much it and the pair spends a good portion of the play struggling to establish what their significance in the Hamlet plot is. This level of intertextuality provides a lot of comedy however it is also vital to understanding Stoppard’s broader message. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters stuck in a story that isn’t theirs, and their actions are compelled by the whims of others. Stoppard is dealing with the conflicting forces of Determinism and Free Will, and arguably comes down in favour of Determinism. Both men are unable to understand their place in the story and have no ability to control where they go or what they do. Indeed, when they end up on a boat to England they can’t recall how they got there or why they are there. By the end of the play we come to realize that their lives are set on a pre-determined course from which they cannot escape, and even when it is revealed that the course leads to their deaths they are unable to prevent it – indeed, they don’t even try to.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin

Stoppard is of course making a comment about life in general: we all live with forces that constantly compel us, and although we may believe ourselves to be the protagonist in our own stories we may in fact be the minor characters of a much greater story in which we have no agency.  Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we are all on a ship within which we have the freedom to move anywhere, but ultimately it is compelling us toward a single destination (death?) and we have no power to alter it. Unlike Beckett’s characters who constantly approach death but never get there, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do. So what can we do? Laugh. Director Simon Philips has a done a wonderful job of bringing out the comedy, and has made the most of not only Stoppard’s dialogue, but of the staging and utilization of numerous aspects within the play, such as the troupe of travelling actors and the portrayal of the characters within Hamlet. This hits home the idea of a play-within-a-play, adding both humour and meaning to the production as it engages with ideas of reality, truth, artifice and meaning.

Absurdist theatre is distinctive for its lack of plot. There is an obvious disadvantage to this, for it means that the dialogue must work extra hard to make up for it. Tom Stoppard is one of only a handful of playwrights who manage to compensate – Stoppard’s is pure artistry. Yet to pull this off, the players must be masters of language. Both Schmitz and Minchin have great command. Great, but not perfect. Truthfully, there is little to criticise of the pair, however the average punter would welcome, at least initially, a decrease in pace. A slowed pace would simply ensure the true enjoyment of the genius of Stoppard, which is, and always will be, the words being spoken. So, to the cast then:

The Troupe of Actors with Ewen Leslie as The Lead Player

The Troupe of Actors with Ewen Leslie as The Lead Player

Simply put, Toby Schmitz is Guildenstern. With the intelligence and diction of Benedict Cumberbatch, the physicality of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and the comic timing of John Cleese, Schmitz seems born to play Stoppard. As a colleague put it, he is the fantastically ‘high-camp’ version of Guildenstern, and produces a flawless delivery in every measurable way. One cannot stress how perfectly he milks every joke. Schmitz is destined for great things.

Playing against Schmitz is the wondrous Tim Minchin as Rosencrantz. Minchin has cleverly given the character a sunny disposition whilst possessing a slowed cranial activity that is always just behind the beat. Minchin, being a comedian, is no stranger to the science of comedy and timing. He too produces a flawless comic performance. However, there are a few moments where Minchin just misses the dramatic height. These are either ill-judged or sections which lack direction, but generally this is by the way. He and Schmitz are, for all intents and purposes, a perfect pair.

A pleasant surprise came from Ewen Leslie as the chief player to Hamlet’s acting troupe. In gait and voice he was the embodiment of the pirate Blackbeard, and is hardly recognisable in doing so. Leslie is just as funny and just as capable as Schmitz and Minchin. He was a much needed leader to the troupe he led though suffered, like the others, from sporadic inaudibility. Once again however, this is a minor flaw.

Adele Querol as Ophelia and Tim Walter as Hamlet

Adele Querol as Ophelia and Tim Walter as Hamlet

A brief mention must go to Tim Walter as the ‘stark raving sane’ Hamlet. He produced a fun-filled, kooky Hamlet, but was ready to rise to the dramatic moments when the script called for it. Special, special mention goes to the Acting Troupe, making up the majority of the support cast. They were the stage version of Circ de Soleil: beautifully crafted, wonderfully timed, perfectly subtle and completely magical. It is a real treat to watch, and a refreshing change.

The costumes are also very worthy of mention, fabulous and gaudy and again creating the distinction between the play and the play-within-a-play. Likewise, the simple set with the tapering vanishing point, reminiscent of M. C Escher’s geometric explorations, evoked ideas of the pre-determined path we all walk. It was a nice touch and designer Gabriela Tylesova should be congratulated.

This is a brilliant production and proof that the STC can stage a show of true quality and delight.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is playing at the STC until the 14th of September. For more details see:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/what’s-on/productions/2013/rosencrantz-and-guildenstern-are-dead.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.