peter A cross

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The Russians are coming and Gant’s mind is going

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I’ve been trying to work out why I have had so much trouble writing about the last two plays I have seen: The White Guard and Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, finally I think I have worked it out – they didn’t really move me. Well ‘der’ I hear you say. It’s no easy thing sometimes to work out, not what but why a certain play has or has not worked for you. Don’t get me wrong I mostly enjoyed them both but neither had a “wham bam, take that you sucker, now sit up and pay attention” affect on me.

I blame Terminus; it was such a standout that whatever has followed has been a let down.

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov as envisioned by Andrew Upton:

Russia is falling apart and revolutions seem to be happening daily. In one house, in the Ukraine, Lena (Miranda Otto) tries to keep her ragtag family together through the threat of advancing and conflicting ideologies.

On the cavernous stage of the Sydney Theatre the warring armies of monarchism, socialism, democracy and communism all fight for dominance. A large(ish) cast of 14 strong do their best to describe the futility and farce of war and the importance of family and love. Otto, the sole female in the cast represents I guess some kind of mother Russia while her husband, children, nephews etc all rush headlong backwards and forwards singing songs and drinking vodka to an unknown future represent the past and possible future that would become the USSR. Okay even I think I am reading far too much into that metaphor.

The set, designed by Alice Babidge, and the music, Steve Francis, that accompany the set changes are really the big winners in this production. Yes there are good and in some cases strong performances, Patrick Brammall as Leonid but in the end, by the time I had reached the car park, I had pretty much moved the entire production to the back of my mind. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – it just didn’t grab me in ‘me vitals’.

Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness by Anthony Neilson:

Emily Tomlins as Madame Poulet

A couple of years ago I was pretty scathing about a certain play or more correctly a certain production of one of Anthony Neilson’s plays. I remember leaving the theatre in a bit of a fury at, what I felt, was a badly directed piece of nonsense, I’m talking of course about The Wonderful World of Dissocia, so I had no great expectations of this night out to see Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness;(EGAFoL) – even just the name set my few remaining teeth on edge. The hardest thing in winter is to leave the comfort of the sofa and the lure of the telly, and venture out into the wind and rain to see a play. I’m glad I did – mostly.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a troupe of actors who have stayed too long in one show? EGAFoL is that troupe. Gant’s gallant troupe of troubadours has been touring for too long. Their simple stories of loneliness and unrequited love have taken an unnatural edge and become a mixture of madness and grotesque melancholia; from the girl with pock filled pearl producing face to soldier in love with the ‘jam tart’ tart.

In the style of Victorian melodrama with a dash of ‘Around the Horn’ and a hint of ‘Monty Python’ thrown in Neilson’s world unravels in front of us.

Now I love a tent show (set design Renee Mulder) as much as the next fellow and I do love a good frock on stage, and the frocks are VERY good in this production thanks to Romance Was Born balanced with strong performances from the tight ensemble of four so in theory we should be in for a very entertaining night out – and again mostly we are.

The strength of the story telling is more in the fantasy than in the reality. I know what the hell does that mean. Simply, I enjoyed the tall tales but true section much more than the cold light of reality thrown over us by a Little Nicholas Ludd (Lindsay Farris).

Neilson is at his best when he lets his mind run free with a suitcase full of characters like ‘Ranjeev the Uncomplicated’ and the more bizarre the character the happier I was but somewhere near the last third of the play, after the story telling stops, the play runs out of steam – it kind of, sort of, you know stalls. Luckily the madness of the finale saves the play – or at least for me it did and I left in a much better mood than when I walked in.

And – how could I forget – Sarah Goodes direction was pretty darn slick. I can’t wait to see more of her work.

However I have been spoiled – spoiled by a trio of Irish actors who do no more than stand and tell a story for almost two hours. No tricks, no blood, no seeping pustules just a story.

I wonder if I will be over my love affair with Terminus by the time I get to see The Seagull?

Terminus

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Olwen Fouere (top), Declan Conlan and Catherine Walker

You can say what you like about the Irish and many do but they sure can spin a tale although I’m not sure that the fine city of Dublin would take kindly to the tale told by the fine young cannibals of The Abbey Theatre who in association with The Sydney Theatre Company present Terminus in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.
Boy that’s a mouthful.
I have to say that I loved it from first spoken word to last drawn breath I was with them every step of the way. Thank you, thank you thank you Abbey Theatre and thank you STC for realising that this is a piece that needs to be performed by the people who created it.
However it’s not enough for, and I use the term loosely, a reviewer to just announce that he or she loved a show or performance. I’ve got to give to you some solid reasons why.
Fair enough.
Terminus isn’t really a play, it’s more a triple monologue woven and connected together with the art of old fashioned fire-side story telling.
From the moment we enter the theatre we become part of the tale, the subliminal beat of the music (Philip Stewart), the fog filling the shattered proscenium frame and then running down across the lip of the stage we all had a prediction, our own pre-set fantasy of what was about to happen.
The beat of the drum louder and louder vibrating through the floor shaking us awake, the lights (Philip Caldwell) suddenly turned up and on us and then blackout. And most of our predictions and fantasies were knocked on their head.
Three actors: A (Olwen Fouéré), B (Catherine Walker) and C (Declan Conlon) stand alone on a fractured stage behind a shattered window/mirror and for 100 minutes they take us on a macabre tour of one night in Dublin. ‘A’, a middle aged woman, sits in her booth at the Samaritan’s counselling service when ‘B’, a young woman, who wants an abortion rings in while ‘C’, a man, picks up a girl in bar to have sex with and then kills her. Each character is connected and no story can exist without the other.
Mark O’Rowe writer /director has constructed a macabre world: demons and angels, lesbians and lovers, mothers and daughters, and using rhyme each tells their story, as one story reaches a climax the next begins and so on and so forth until the whole story is told.
After the initial shock it becomes the kind of night you can close your eyes, slide down in your chair, put your feet up in front of the fire and nursing a pint of whatever takes your fancy while the wind howls outside you let the story unfold around you.
Yes, in places, it’s self indulgent and yes it’s self serving in others but if you pay attention and go with the flow it’s a very satisfying, nourishing exhilarating ride. It is a masterful piece of story telling that is a tribute as much to the writing as in the telling – does that makes sense?
For me it was as glorious as Ginsberg reading Howl or hearing Burton in Under Milk Wood.
Terminus is playing in the Drama Theatre at the Opera House until July 9, 2011.

Baal

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Baal (Thomas M Wright) is all things to all people: visionary, rock god, lover, destroyer, creator and poet. Baal couldn’t give a shit – I warn you now there will be profanity in this review.   

On an empty stage bathed in an unflattering yellow light that washes up across the first few rows Baal lies next to his electric guitar making his poetry as we the audience enter his world. Immediately I think of George Harrison and his seminal song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” but there is nothing gentle about this cacophony, this aural rape, we are forced to listen to before the ‘play’ begins.   

One by one the middle-class sycophants of the gallery opening, cocktail party circuit join Baal on stage to bask in his originality, his dangerous talent and his sex. Baal wants to play his music, sing his songs, drink and fuck, anyone, anytime, anywhere with no thought of consequence. Each player is used and then thrown aside or in the end murdered by Baal.  There is a never-ending parade of cock and cunt for Baal to choose from. Everyone is fair game even his best friend, the one person who has actually loved him without any judgement Eckhardt (Oscar Redding) who seems to spend the entire play comfortably naked… and wet.   

Thomas M Wright

Baal is Dorian Grey without the picture to hide the flaws, Baal is Jim Morrison or Charlie Sheen, Baal is the hot guy across the bar who you know is bad and you know he will fuck you over and yet you still want him in you.   

Baal is also Brecht’s first play written when he was twenty just after World War 1. It is a flawed, angry piece that lacks a strong narrative structure yet it flows seamlessly down the path of self-destruction and offers no apology, no final act of public or private redemption. Baal dies as he lived his life – alone.   

Thomas Wright, same name as the actor but different person, and Simon Stone have given us a good adaptation of the original play – not that I have ever read the original in German or any other language for that matter.   

Stone has directed a no-nonsense, grinding production that has drained any possible thought of eroticism out. It is a harsh, unforgiving, cold night of in your face theatre.    

Some plays or at least some productions of plays invite you in, this production, like Baal the character, wants none of that. The staging the rain, the noise, the lighting and even the players distance themselves from the audience. Baal never asks us to like him or feel his inner pain or go on some ‘hero’s journey’ with him; he actually couldn’t give a fuck. He stands before us with his guitar, in the rain, and says ‘this is me and I don’t fucking care what you think or who you are. Accept me or not I couldn’t give a toss.’   

The set and lighting, designed by Nick Schlieper, is the other major character in this production: sparse white walls, devoid of furniture, the occasional mattress for the players to rut on. In the second half, after one of the best set transformations I have seen for a long time, the rains come; at first light and misty then heavier, pelting rain forcing the players to shout to be heard. Sure we may lose some of the nuances of the text but this is not a subtle production. The rain isn’t there to wash away the sin or cleanse the sinner but more to constrain and restrict them. 

Baal is a transfer from the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne and is currently playing @Wharf 1 Hickson Road until June 11

Written by peteracross

May 13, 2011 at 16:41

Zebras crossing… blunted swords

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Colin Friels, Nadine Garner, Bryan Brown

 

The theatre can be a zoo and not all of the animals are on stage. I certainly felt like a mindless sheep as I was herded in to the theatre to see the opening of the STC’s latest offering Zebra, by automated male and female voices all around the theatre annoyingly telling me every minute to “turn off my mobile phone”. It got my dander up. 

Zebra is the new play by writer Ross Mueller starring Bryan Brown as Jimmy, Colin Friels as Larry and Nadine Garner as Robinson and directed by Lee Lewis. Set in a neighbourhood ‘dive’ Irish bar in the post GFC and pre-Obama New York, 

The last time I saw Friels on stage he was with his wife Judy Davis in the STC’s production of ‘Victory’ and they were magnificent. I can’t remember ever having seen Brown on stage although I know he has done some good work or at least I am told he has. Garner has a resume that would be the envy of many an actor twice her age. 

Zebra attempts to tell the simple story of what price love. Can a failed Beach Volleyball player turned property tycoon from Australia convince a successful dot-com millionaire who had the sense to know when enough was enough that he really, really loves his daughter and is not just after that big pay-out. Larry (Friels) is horrified to find out that Jimmy (Brown), a man uncomfortably close to his own age is marrying his estranged daughter – is it for love or is it for the money? 

But something tonight didn’t gel. 

Mueller has written a lot of words in this play and for them to work there needs to be a rhythm, a dance between the characters. They seemed to be a beat or two off. Maybe that rhythm will come as they get in to the run and settle their characters. 

Set designer David McKay has created a sensational playground for these actors to play in, a neighbourhood bar that’s going bust, and they all strut and fret throwing back bourbon or scotch at 11:30 in the morning with free abandon to allow them to explore what has happened to the American dream, to manhood, to America – when cash, if you still have it, is king and if you don’t you can barter whatever you do have for it. All Jimmy has is the love of Larry’s daughter and the rest is a negotiation – what price is that love worth? 

Friels and Brown prowl the stage goading and prodding each other like two aging alpha males; who is the better salesman, who has the bigger balls? Friels is good but not great as the cash rich father of the bride to be and Brown is great but not good as the cash strapped suitor. Maybe it’s the age difference, maybe Friels isn’t quite old enough and Brown not quite young enough to make the scenario work. 

Garner plays the down on her luck widowed bar owner faced with foreclosure somewhere between victim and feisty and she plays it well but she has little to do in the big scheme of things. 

“A Zebra walks into a bar, up the wall and across the ceiling then out the door…” and so the gag goes. There are plenty of gags like this in Zebra; there are some genuinely funny moments but few moments of pathos to offset the boy’s own humour. 

Theatre by its very nature is contrived but there is a growing trend to a much more organic form of play/acting, think The Wild Duck, a more collaborative evening that involves the audience as willing participants in what is happening. In this play we are told to sit back, watch and let us the actors do the work for you. Sure we’ll throw in some Sorkin-esque dialogue and talk over each other as if it’s all happening real-time but we’re in charge and you are the audience. It’s almost as if Mueller has one foot in both camps and committed to neither. 

And something else was missing on opening night there was a warning that strobe lighting was to be used during the production, probably during a really ordinary fight sequence to help cover the fact that these two guys are not fresh from NIDA, I’m guessing about that, but no strobe, so there might have been a couple of technical hitches going on back of stage as well. 

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the production, because I did but as we made that long post theatrical walk down the wharf corridor we pondered that something didn’t quite work and we didn’t really know what it was – cast or play or direction or maybe just all three on the same night. 

Zebra plays @ The Wharf Theatre until 30 April 2011.

Written by peteracross

March 11, 2011 at 16:41

Uncle Vanya… or “darling I love you but give me Park Avenue”

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Anton Chekhov at 22

‘Uncle Vanya’ , by Anton Chekhov, premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1899, directed by and featuring Konstantine Stanislavski as Astrov; a play with a pedigree and one sometimes feared by audience and performer alike. The Sydney Theatre Co., in association with Bell Shakespeare, has assembled possibly one of the best casts that this city has seen in a long while, so we are expecting something pretty damn special.

The plot: In the day-room of a run-down country estate Vanya (Richard Roxburgh), his mother Maria (Sandy Gore), his Old Nanny (Jackie Weaver) and his niece Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), the daughter of Serebryakov (John Bell), the owner of the estate, all live their life in a constant, timely, ordered struggle. With the arrival of Serebryakov and his much younger wife Yelena (Cate Blanchett) that orderliness has begun to collapse; lunch becomes dinner, work is ignored and love affairs that have been simmering below the surface finally come to the boil and then, like the estate itself, begin to crumble and fail. No one seems happy. Vanya is in love with Yelena: Yelena is in love with Astrov (Hugo Weaving): Astrov is in love with Yelena: Sonya is in love with Astrov: Maria is in love with Serebryakov: Serebryakov is in love with himself, his pain and possibly Yelena: Astrov, complains about his age and his boredom as a country physician. Serebryakov announces his intention to sell the estate provoking Vanya. Vanya gets a gun, shoots and twice misses Serebryakov, adding to his humiliation and tries to steal enough morphine from Astrov to do himself in. All is settled, the visitors depart and from the chaos some form of normality and order begins to return. Vanya complains of a heavy heart and the weariness of this life, Sonya declares that the rewards they all deserve are in the afterlife and this life is just the vehicle to get them there. All in all it’s really just a storm in a samovar.

Oh yes the Russians know how to write a rip snorting, knee slapping comedy heavily tinged with as much tragedy as you can handle.

This adaptation by Andrew Upton of Chekov’s play is directed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who is one of the foremost interpreters of Chekhov of our times and who I am told does not speak a word of English (this may or may not be true). How does a (possibly) non-English speaking Hungarian direct a non-Hungarian English speaking cast in one of the great plays of Russia? Easy if you accept that most of what Chekhov has written is actually never spoken; “if Shakespeare is about the words then Chekhov is about the silences.”  

Ascher’s one direction to Upton, while he was doing the adaptation was to keep it simple, keep it true to the original comedy that Chekhov had written, in this seemingly simple task Upton has largely succeeded. Upton has set the play in the mid 1950s, mainly I suspect to provide ‘Our Cate’ with a range of rather ‘glam’ costumes, designed by Gyorgyi Szakacs that offer a splash of old Hollywood.

Hugo Weaving (Astrov) - Richard Roxburgh (Vanya)

Weaving and Roxburgh are the winners, at least among the males, in this production; each one of them seems to luxuriate in the character, enjoying the silences with which Chekhov fills his works, especially in the third and fourth acts. Both of them seem to be hitting the peak of their performing careers, both showing a willingness to let the play work its magic rather than forcing the ‘acting.’  Oh to have seen either of these two actors in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’

Also special mention should be made of Anthony Phelan as Telegin, Phelan is one of those supporting actors whose work is so consistently high that he often goes unnoticed on the stage allowing others to shine and it is a shame because he is one of the better actors that Australia has produced.

Now to the femmes: Jackie Weaver is, whether she intends it or not, a scene stealer, her underplaying, her dry comic sense of timing and flat delivery never leaves you wondering why she is there and god help any lazy performer on stage with her. Sandy Gore is given very little to do as the dotty and not so doting mother, what she is given she does well.

Andrew and Cate

And so we come to Cate, I am ambivalent about her performance. She certainly looks the part even though she is slightly too old to be playing the twenty-five year old Yelena. When she is on stage it is hard to take your eyes off her, she is a strikingly beautiful woman and her performance is certainly energetic when needed and her voice has great colour and depth but does she hit the mark? I’ll get shot for this but in the end she doesn’t quite pull it off. She’s good, very good in fact, but in this company she does not shine as brightly as some of the others.

Ultimately it was a real pleasure to see Uncle Vanya played for the laughs that it was written for, rather than the heavy handed tragedy it has sometimes become and because of that it allowed the sadness and pathos of these lives to come through.

I doubt any of you have read this far but if you have and if you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket and get along to see this show – you will not be sorry.

Uncle Vanya plays at the Sydney Theatre, Hickson Rd., until 1 January 2011. 

Written by peteracross

November 14, 2010 at 16:41

The Grenade – not as much bang as you would want

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Garry McDonald and that Grenade

Tony McNamara’s new play, aptly titled ‘The Grenade’ explores what happens when you come home and find a grenade in your living room. Although real the grenade is obviously a metaphor for the unexpressed: desire, anger, lack of trust and paranoia that fuel us poor humans.   

The plot: Busby McTavish (Garry McDonald), is one of those political hatchet men who will do anything, say anything to keep his Premier in power, aided and sometimes abetted by his camp offsider Whitman (Mitchell Butel). His second wife and sometime author of cheap romance fiction, Sally (Belinda Bromilow), fresh from the nunnery and having just given birth to Busby’s second child, the never seen Esperanto speaking, bird eating three month old, and stepmother to his first Lola (Eloise Mignon), the eccentric genius who longs to be a normal bad girl, like all the others at her private school. Lola is in love with Wheat (Gig Clarke), another quirky boy-child with a bent for conspiracy theories. Enter Randy Savage (Bert Labonte`) possible soldier of fortune, free thinker and uninhibited new age writer of erotica who helps Sally unleash the inner whore and you have the makings of an off-beat, fast paced comedy about a family falling apart.

The Grenade

Belinda Bromilow and Garry McDonald

Well that’s the plan anyway; however things don’t always go to plan in the theatre or in life.   

Heavy handed direction (Peter Evans), broad acting, some shrill performances and a revolve that is just too busy for it’s on good combine to make this one of those nights at the theatre that leave you wondering “why bother.” On a set (Richard Roberts) worthy of a channel seven tele-drama the six actors strut and fret for two hours of my life that I will never get back.   

Let me say upfront that I actually like Tony McNamara’s work, his play ‘The Great’ was a standout success for me at the STC in 2008 and his other works including The Café Latte Kid and The Recruit are all worth a viewing. However this particular offering does not live up to the promise of previous work. The Grenade is all pop and no powder. It sits meekly between an indifferent Williamson play and a mediocre Neil Simon not a happy spot to sit. I was surprised as I left the ‘Oprah House’ to see the Harbour Bridge; I was really expecting to see the suburban red brick houses of Marian St.   

Sure the play was met with roars of laughter from some of the first-nighters but I defy anyone to remember one line of dialogue or one true emotion thirty seconds after leaving the foyer.   

The thing is that it isn’t a bad play it just isn’t a good play. I realise my reaction may be coloured by just having seen True West (STC) and Namatjira (Belvoir St), two of the best productions I have seen all year so it makes it hard for a froth and bubble comedy to follow them.   

Yes I get that the play is a satire, a play about living life in the moment and feeling every breath as if it is your last but there is no subtlety, no light and shade in this production. The truth is the play lacks a heart. Why would any of us emotionally engage with any of the characters when they have no depth? A few of us were hoping that someone would actually pull the pin on the grenade so we all could all escape home to watch Mel’s final moments in ‘Packed to the Rafters.’   

The Grenade plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 12 December.

Go west… True West that is

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Wayne Blair

This has been the season of ‘America’ at the Sydney Theatre Company, from the dysfunctional (August: Osage County) to the homespun (Our Town), each play has had something to say about the fantasy that holds the American quilt together. So it seems appropriate that finally we look at that great American myth – the West.

Playwright and screenwriter Sam Shepard (Buried Child, and Paris, Texas) says he wanted to write a play about the ‘duality of humans.’ So he wrote ‘True West.’  A play full of contradictions: it is a hard biting naturalistic drama and yet at the same time a muddied surrealistic piece; contradictions sure but then so are we humans.

The plot: while Mom (Heather Mitchell) is away in Alaska, Austin (Brendan Cowell), has been left in charge of the house and all he is expected to do is make sure that the plants are watered and don’t die. Austin is in LA to pitch a story to his producer, Saul (Alan Dukes). One night, as he sits at the table researching his script, by the light of a lone candle with the sound of the crickets and coyotes in the distance, in the background his brother Lee (Wayne Blair) stands drinking beer, goading him, annoying him, pushing him to react. Lee is a crook, a conman and a thug, his talent is to break and enter, he is a standover man, always threatening some physical or energetic act of violence. Austin is the good younger brother, the talented one, the brother with potential.

Lee, an unwashed, unkempt, unshaven brute and Austin, neat almost to the point of prissy, eager to please and slightly in awe of his brother, are one half of the same creature, each capable of cruelty or genius, of light and dark. Over the next hour and forty minutes we watch as their chosen roles are reversed until the mild, likeable brother becomes the bullying petty criminal with penchant for toasters and the beer swilling thief becomes the tortured artist desperate just to get his story told.

This is actor/director Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s (The Talented Mr Ripley, Doubt) second time out with the STC, having directed Riflemind in an earlier season, and he makes his actors work for their dinner; he throws them around the stage in a frenzy of violence both physical and psychological. The two brothers, fuelled by booze and cigarettes, are forced by Hoffman to confront the fact and the fantasy of their life. He never allows them an easy ride in this production, each step of the way he pushes them on forcing them towards the final confrontation. As the suburban ‘dinette’, designed by Richard Roberts, is slowly destroyed and the plants wither and die, with the balance of power swinging from one brother to the other: this is exhausting edge of the seat theatre. It makes the gunfight at the OK Corral look like a church picnic.

Hoffman, with John C Reilly, has played both parts in this play and you can tell he has a huge personal investment in the production.

It is impossible for me to single out either Wayne Blair or Brendan Cowell; each one stands or falls on the others performance. If either of them is off their game then the other will sink with him. It is a wonderfully co-dependant piece of theatre.

Not a play for the subscribers I think but for anyone with a love of really GOOD theatre go along and enjoy the ride.

True West plays @ the Wharf1, Hickson Road – until 18 December.

Written by peteracross

November 3, 2010 at 16:41