peter A cross

ramblings from a troubled mind

Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Upton

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?


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

From Kafka to Kasher to Wilder – what a week.

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It all starts with Kafka’s play “The Trial” which opened this week at The Sydney Theatre Company.  

Franz Kafka

The Trial” first published in 1925, one year after Kafka’s death, tells the story of a man charged with an unspecified crime and his struggle to bring his case to some form of resolution while still being allowed to roam free in society. Naturally there is no resolution driving the accused mad until he accepts his fate and is executed. That’s the Readers Digest version of the plot.  

This production, directed by Mathew Lutton and adapted by Louise Fox, is a transfer from The Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, featuring Ewan Leslie as Josef K, the slightly seedy accused bank manager, and is set in a utilitarian world of functionality that could be anywhere or indeed anytime.  

It’s a physical production with actors throwing themselves around, usually partially dressed, on a stage that revolves at manic speed. Ranging from farce to black comedy to high drama, “The Trial” runs for an hour and fifty, perhaps twenty minutes too long, however the cast which includes: John Gaden, Igor Sas and Belinda McClory are tight and they keep the play alive, all playing multiple characters.  

Kelly Ryall certainly has left his imprint of the production with one of the best sound designs I’ve heard for a long while. Noisy, brash, seductive and pervasive, Ryall provides the necessary ‘noise’ that never allows you to rest comfortably in your chair.  

The Trial” is a good show, good production and worth a viewing.  

And now to Kasher  

Moshe Kasher is a name few if any of us would have heard of but I get the feeling we will be hearing a lot more of him as the years progress, this twenty something stick insect American is headlining at the Comedy Store.  

Moshe Kasher

This Kasher is kosher folks, he has the chops and the performing credits to carry a show. He has appeared on ‘Chelsea Latley’, Comedy Central’s ‘Live at Gotham’, ‘Just for Laughs’ and Jamie Foxx’s ‘Laffapalooza’.  

His humour is self deprecating and, being Jewish, slightly anti-Semitic. During a forty minute set he demolished Hitler, homophobia, racial stereotyping and the Irish. Taking pot shots along the way at Govt controlled masturbation and how to compliment a vagina.  

I sat through three other acts, two ordinary one pretty good, to get to hear Kasher rant, rave and revile at everything and anything. His timing is superb and the act is smooth. It was almost a master class in stand-up; from his awkward entrance dressed as a good Jewish college boy in a cardigan and tie, who just happens to have Hitler’s haircut, through to his willingness to share his physical ‘deformity’ at the end of the act, Moshe never put a foot wrong.  

Self described as “the gayest straight geek” Moshe had me at hello, I want more of Moshe.  

And lastly to Wilder  

Thornton Wilder

Our Town” by Thornton Wider; another Pulitzer Prize winning play in a season filled with Pulitzers for the Sydney Theatre Company. Our Cate and hubby Andrew are certainly pulling out all stops to win back their audience which for the last few years has been drifting to Belvoir Street or even back across the bridge to The Ensemble.  

“Our Town” directed by Iain Sinclair, is set in Middle America, “Grover’s Corners” to be precise, where through the eyes and ears of the “Stage Manager” (Darren Gilshenan) we explore the comings and goings of the populace, specifically George (Robin Goldsworthy) and Emily (Maeve Dermody). We are giving a glimpse of just how extraordinary normality is.  

Wilder was determined to strip back his story to the essentials; he didn’t want his message muddied by gigantic sets and other artifice. On a bare stage with ladders and chairs serving as the only props Wilder weaves his simple homespun philosophy. Three acts representing life: Act one – birth, Act two – love and marriage and finally Act three – death and grieving. Simple themes conveyed with no fuss: “Most people are so busy living life they forget to live life and that life is better lived ‘two by two.’” Remember this play was written just as the world was to once again launch itself into another world war.  

Goldsworthy and Dermody are charming and engaging lovers, both players hitting the tone, pace and feel of Wilder’s writing perfectly. Gilshenan as the Stage Manager has the bulk of the dialogue but he seems nervous and less comfortable in the role; this may just be opening night nerves. A large ensemble cast make up the towns population with Frank Whitten growling in the background as the town drunk.  

“Our Town” is a charming, wry, feel good play while Act three still has enough of the necessary edge to remind us that the things we hold so important while we are alive are meaningless unless we appreciate them at the time.  

“The Trial” – The Wharf Theatre until 16 October 2010   

Moshe Kasher – The Comedy Store until 25 September 2010   

“Our Town” – The Drama Theatre until 30 October 2010

Long days… and nights in the land of O’Neill

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Eugene O'Neill


In 1957 Eugene O’Neill posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for his largely autobiographical play “Long Day’s Journey into Night” – talk about “write what you know.” In the play O’Neill lays bare his dysfunctional early life for all and sundry to see. The play written in 1942 was never meant to be produced until twenty-five years after O’Neill’s death, however his third wife managed to circumvent that restriction and the first production premiered in Sweden in 1956 just three years after his demise.              

The Tyrones are a family of addicts: Mary (Robyn Nevin) is a morphine addict who has just returned from a ‘cure’, her two sons, James Jnr. (Todd Van Voris), Edmund (Luke Mullins) and her husband, James Snr. (William Hurt) are all alcoholics and over the course of this long day, from breakfast through to dinner, they all try to avoid dealing with the secrets and lies that hold the family trapped in their cycle of addiction and co-dependency; unwilling to face the past and scared of the future the Tyrone’s retreat into the fog of the present.              

On a frugal but effective set, designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell, director Andrew Upton explores the lies and self deceptions that tie this family together.               

William Hurt, Todd Van Voris, Robin Nevin and Luke Mullins


This production takes a while to grab you; the aging actor with the dope fiend wife, the dying son with the dissolute brother, all brilliantly written parts, and perfect for a tight ensemble of actors who are prepared to get dirty and wrestle with the crap of the Tyrone’s lives. However what we end up with, in the first half at least, are four actors on stage who don’t really mesh as an ensemble should. They move about and say their words but there is little connection between the actors, it’s as if they have all been rehearsing in separate rooms. It isn’t until the second half when Edmund, James Jnr. and James Snr., all of them fired up by cheap whiskey; confront each other that the production really begins to fly. Hurt, Mullins and Van Voris at last seem to enjoy the words that O’Neill has given them and they play off each other wonderfully. Finally, as the audience, you begin to feel involved, like a voyeur peering in through the window watching this family almost come to terms with the lies they have been telling each other.              

Something strange has happened to Robyn Nevin in this production; I’m not sure if it is direction or if she really doesn’t want to be there but it is a lazy performance, there is a hint that she would rather be somewhere else, something that you can’t blame on the morphine. Maybe it is because she has played the part before and wishes she wasn’tagain, or maybe she just needs the money; to borrow a phrase “her Mary runs the full gamut of emotions; from A to B.”  Her scenes with Hurt lack any real feeling of emotional investment (from both of them) and I was left wondering if they even liked each other. It isn’t a bad performance but compared to her tour de force in “The Women of Troy” this leaves you slightly dissatisfied.              

Having said all of that if you can get a ticket – grab it, productions of Long Day’s Journey into Night are few and far between and well worth seeing.              

Long Day’s Journey into Night plays at the Sydney Theatre from July 3rd until August 1st then travels to Portland, Oregon.

Written by peteracross

July 4, 2010 at 16:41