25 January 2015

Review: Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom
Global Creatures et al
17 January 2014
Her Majesty's Theatre

Strictly Ballroom began when NIDA student Baz Luhrmann led a student-devised piece in 1984. This production went on to play at the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986 and, with new designer Catherine Martin, was performed in Brisbane and Sydney in 1988 by the new Six Years Old company, directed by Luhrmann. This led to the film that opened in Cannes in 1992, won a pool room of prestigious film prizes and ran for over a year in Australian cinemas. The musical version opened in Sydney in 2014 and this time the critical acclaim was silent. So it was tightened up before it opened in Melbourne.

I saw the 1988 version in Sydney. I loved this small show and the story of Scott and Fran going against the rules of ballroom dancing to be their true selves. Made with heart and guts, it celebrated an authentic Australian suburban voice and told a story that, despite its inevitable ending, twisted and turned like the dancing it celebrated. It was also made with a budget that wouldn't buy the new seat covers of the musical.

The film took the heart and guts of the play, but let it be bigger and placed it firmly in Sydney so that the famous Coke billboard in Kings Cross is mostly known for being in Strictly Ballroom, and placed it so deeply in the hearts of Australians that it remains one of our most-loved films.

And it let Lurhmann and Martin go on to make more films that are very loved, and equally not loved.

The nostalgic passion for this little-film-that-did will sell tickets to the new stage version, which is, as much as it can be, the film on stage.

From the Coke sign to the dialogue and from the colour of the gowns to Scott's famous knee slide across the floor, this time carried on the shoulders of dancers, everything on the stage is recognisable and referential. Except there's more of it.

There's no new story or extended characters, but there's more music that includes "Time After Time", from the film, "Perhaps, perhaps", made famous by Doris Day, and the Melbourne addition of a couple songs by satirical wonder Eddie Perfect. Unlike the cultural mish-mash of music that works in Lurhmann's films, on a musical stage, the lack of musical consistency distracts from the story. As characters stop to sing, the story stops and re-starts, losing tension and bringing it into the world of the original music. And that's before the new Baz lyrics; a rhyme is not a lyric. (If only Eddie had been brought in on day one.)

The apparent fear of not being the film also leaves little room for the performers (who are some of our best) to bring themselves to the characters and make them their own. A couple overcome this, but most have the consistent control that ensures that no one will notice when an understudy slips in, and most are copies of performances created over 20 years ago.

Being like the film, it's still set in the 1980s of wacky printed lycra and frizzy hair but it doesn't comment on the 80s or look at that time from today. The film story is known, so why not add something, twist it or tell a new story circa 2014? Scott and Fran running a dance studio that's stuck in the 80s and their own kids rebelling?

At its best, this lavish show celebrates the time and ballroom dancing. It's also at its best when it's satirising the time and the dance. But the tone jumps around so much that it's hard to know what we're meant to be feeling; laughing at them or laughing with them?

Where it can't help but shine is Catherine Martin's design. Glorious gaudy and made from enough sequins to cover Mount Kosciuszko, it celebrates the outrageousness of ballroom and turns the sparkle up so high that that any imperfections are lost in the glare.

But sparklier doesn't mean better. We don't have to look far – cough, Lion King re-opens in Melbourne very soon – to be reminded that a successful musical based on a film doesn't have to look anything like the film.

Strictly Ballroom has the kind of pedigree and talent and support that should let it be astonishing. It  should be the sort of show that re-defines Australian music theatre and runs for years. And there are moments, like the Spanish dance scene that closes Act 1 (after the Carmen re-write), where the show comes together and brings the audience into its world, but these moments of magic and heart also highlight how dull the rest of it is.

Sadly no amount of sparkle can cover dull. Let's hope that it keeps changing and is allowed to become the show it should be.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

22 January 2015

Mini review: Anton and Olaf, a fruity fairytale

Anton and Olaf: a fruity fairytale
La Mama
21 January 2015
La Mama courtyard
to 1 February

La Mama's Midsumma show for kids is Anton and Olaf: a fruity fairytale.

There's no squeezing into the dark theatre, as this puppet adventure made from cardboard and fruit uses  the outside courtyard – all the way down to the street. There are trees, big umbrellas and lots of coloured parasols for shade; cushions, rugs and chairs to sit on; water spray bottles; and frozen treats at the end. 

Chris Molyneux and Zenta Schuber tell the story about two kings and an empress (Jack Beeby, Russ Pirie and Annabel Warmington) who need to decide who's going to rule the kingdom. The cardboard sets and puppets are gorgeous, and the messages that women are powerful and that being nice is better than being mean are always winners. The performers are terrific, but the story needs to tighten up (including less impro for the adults) and have some real stakes.

The ridiculously wonderful children's writer Mem Fox says this about trouble (stakes) in children's books: "The trouble must be trouble on a grand scale. It must be the kind of trouble that works its way into the depths of children’s souls and makes their hearts sink into bleakness and despair. Momentary despair, of course!" The book she is talking about is Where is the Green Sheep, a picture book of 190 words.

Never compromise on story when writing for children; they'll love you all the more for it.

None of which makes thus fruity show any the less fun. Make your grown-ups take you.

Photos by Dorine Blaise

20 January 2015

Review: Softly Pouting ...

Softly pouting while walking into breezes
MUST, La Mama
14 January 2015
La Mama
to 1 February
Photo by Sarah Walker

Softly pouting while walking into breezes started as a MUST (Monash Uni Student Theatre) show that was so popular that it needed to be seen by more people and found its way to La Mama for Midsumma.

With vignettes of memories, it's story of first-love-gone-bad-before-it-ever-had-the-chance-to-be-good. Ben, who is played by all eight male and female cast members, is lonely and embarrassed and afraid that he blew his one chance (in the bad way).

Playwright Jake Stewart is off to VCA this year and is a writer to keep an eye on. With a conscious wit, he captures the intense over-sharing and over-analysing passion of young adulthood. It reminded me of the endless times I fell in love at uni; every one was real, those who still make me smile and those whose names are lost. He's still to discover the real joy of cutting his darling words, but the over-writing and over-referencing feels right with the over-thinking of the Bens about the boy he loves.

He also has another show on at Midumma: Sexy Dead Schoolboys.

The cast grab the script with all their hearts, which have each known the tingly exhilaration and sweaty humiliation of love. They all bring themselves to their Ben, which makes it feel like there is a part of everyone's story on the stage. Awkward love is for all, after all.

Director Jessica McLaughlin Cafferty ensures that all the Bens have their moment and never lets any Ben overshadow the rest. She and the design team take advantage of the intimacy of the tiny La Mama space, while never letting the it be too small for a song and dance or too big to lose a moment of closeness.

As the best selfies come from softly pouting while walking into breezes, this is a love story from the generation who grew up with smart phones, social media and over sharing – and they show that it feels no different from us who wrote notes in class and left messages on answering machines.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

16 January 2015

Review: I, Malvolio

I, Malvolio
Tim Crouch, presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
7 January 2015
Fairfax Studio
to 11 January

I saw Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree at the 2008 Melbourne Festival. It assured me that I'd see anything he created and I Malvolio has confirmed my commitment.

Crouch is from Brighton in the UK and he makes theatre that embraces and confronts the assumptions that audiences and performers take into a theatre.

This is the fourth work he's created in which he re-tells a Shakespeare story from the perspective of one character.  I, PeaseblossomI, Caliban and I, Banquo were part of a project for children and young people to discover Shakespeare in different and accessible ways. Although certainly welcoming for young audiences, I, Malvolio was devised for everyone and its 2014 Sydney and Brisbane seasons sold out.

Malvolio is the duped pompous servant in Twelfth Night who's easy to laugh at, in his yellow cross-gartered stockings, and easy to forget, when everyone else dances off to a happy-ever-after.

By unpacking the story as Malvolio sees it, Crouch invites us to see the clown as a man who glimpsed the one hope of love in his sad life and had it viciously ripped away. This re-telling alone is fascinating – almost like looking at the backstory preparation of an obsessive method actor – but it's not the brilliance of the work.

This Malvolio, who begins the show in fly-ridden underwear after the humiliating jest has been discovered, drops the convention that a performer is a character. As the friendly performer who loves his audience and the contemptuous character who wishes ill to all who watch him, he talks with the audience and makes even the reluctant a willing part of the story. He encourages humiliating laughter, dares anyone to trick him and, literally, invites a kick in the arse, but turns it all back on those by asking why we did it.

Why do we laugh at the duped, the ugly and the stupid? While Crouch is far from any of these, as the house lights never dim to the safely of darkness, each show becomes a one-off conversation about the strange cruelty of theatre audiences who are willing and eager to watch people suffer.

The good-looking and wealthy people in Twelfth Night are horrible to Malvolio, but they are the ones cheered for. Shakespeare knew why. So does Crouch. And we know we'll keep on cheering and laughing.

I, Malvolio is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until Sunday. Be warned that you might want to see it again.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

22 December 2014

What I loved in 2014: The Best of Melbourne Theatre

I saw over 230 shows this year, closer to 250 if I count all the Live Art performances.

These are the ones that I loved the most.

And I still missed too many. (When all the 'best of' lists are put together at the end of the year, remember that great shows might have not been seen.)

Along with writing, there's been judging, mentoring, editing and teaching this year – and I'm mostly looking forward to doing more teaching and mentoring next year because we need more arts writers, thinker, arguers and advocates.

Outstanding Artists 2014


Jesse Cox for Wael Zuaiter: Unknown, Creative Nonfiction and Theatre Works at Next Wave.

Jesss Cox in Wael Zuaiter: Unknown. Photo by Sarah Walker
Special mentions

Tim Wothersooon for The Safe House, 3rd Room Theatrical at The Owl and the Pussycat.

Fleur Kilpatrick for The City They Burned, Attic Erratic at Melbourne FringeMelbourne


Dale Ferguson (set) for Night on Bald Mountain, Malthouse

Paul Jackson (lighting) for Night on Bald Mountain, Malthouse

Night on Bald Mountain

Harriet Oxley (costume) for Into the Woods, Victoria Opera

Chloe Greaves (costume) for The Bitter Tears of Petra Von KantDirty Pretty Theatre and Theatre Works


Kate Cole for Grounded, Red Stitch

Kate Cole in Grounded

Angus Cerini for Resplendence, MTC NEON

Special mentions

Maria Mercedes for Masterclass, fortyfivedownstairs

Aliro Zavarce for The Book of Loco, Malthouse

Kate Cole, Brett Cousins and Emily Milledge for Out of the Water, Red Stitch


Declan Greene for Calpurnia Descending, Sisters Grimm Malthouse

Calpurnia Descending

Special mentions

Danny Delahunty for The City They Burned, Attic Erratic at Melbourne Fringe

Daniel Lammin for Masterclass, fortyfivedownstairs

Outstanding Productions 2014


The Von Muiznieks Family Hoedown for Melbourne Cabaret Festival at The Butterfly Club

The Von Muiznieks Family Hoedown

Special mention

Sunglasses at night: The 80s apocalypse sing along cabaretGeraldine Quinn for Melbourne Cabaret Festival at Chapel off Chapel


OnceMelbourne Theatre Company & John Frost, Barbara Broccoli, John N Hart Jr, Patrick Milling Smith, Frederick Zollo


Into the Woods, Victoria Opera

Into the Woods


Dr Professor Neal Portenza Performs his Own Autopsy Live on Stage. One Night Only. (Obviously). Josh Ladgrove at Melbourne International Comedy Festival at Tuxedo Cat

Dr Professor Neal Portenza Performs his Own Autopsy Live on Stage. One Night Only. (Obviously).

More Tape, The Boy With Tape On His Face at Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Special mentions

Single White Slut, Tim Key at Melbourne International Comedy Festival

After Ever After, Rama Nicholas at Melbourne Fringe


The Riders, Victorian Opera & Malthouse Theatre

The Riders. Photo by Jeff Busby


S, Circa for Darebin Arts Speakeasy

Special mentions

The Long Pigs, fortyfivedownstairs

Carrousel Des Moutons, D'irque & Fen, Explosive Media at Melbourne Festival


A moment in yarn, Sayraphim Lothian at Craft Victoria's Craft Cubed festival

Very special mention

Sayraphim and Rob's wedding at The Village

A wedding. Photo by Sarah Walker


The Worst of Scottee, Theatre Works at Midsumma

Sex Idiot, Bryony Kimmings, Theatre Works at Melbourne International Comedy Festival

The City They Burned, Attic Erratic at Melbourne Fringe

The City They Burned. Photo by Sarah Walker

The Bookbinder, Trick of the Light Theatre at Melbourne Fringe

Have I No Mouth, Brokentalkers at Melbourne Festival

Have I No Moith


Credible Likeable Superstar Role ModelBryony Kimmings, Theatre Works

Bryony and Taylor in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model

20 December 2014

What Melbourne loved in 2014, part 9

And with Bon Batten, Rhys Auteri and me, it's time to farewell Melbourne's favourite moments for 2014.

What I Loved in 2014 will be up on Monday.

Bron Batten
I don't know how to describe what she does, but it's fucking awesome

Bron: There was heaps of stuff I loved this year (contrary to the popular belief that I hate everything), Green Screen as a part of Neon, Oedipus Schmoedipus at Belvoir, Calpurnia Descending  at The Malthouse and Have I No Mouth at the Melbourne Festival.

Credible, Likeable, Superstar, Role model at Theatre Works was bloody astounding and I left the show feeling like I'd been kicked in the chest. Touching, funny, real and relevant.

Other good stuff was Tessa Waters's Womanz, Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken at Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Dr Professor Neal Portenza makes me laugh a lot and watching Adrienne Truscott's Asking for It and Zoe Coombs Marr's remount of Dave kicking the comedy world in the balls.

And witnessing a small, balding David Sedaris sell out Hamer Hall by literally reading from an A4 piece of paper made me really happy because you just can't predict what people are going to like.

SM: There was the anaconda at Last Tuesday Society's YouTube Comment Orchestra, the look on her face when I told her that I liked Marzo, but it has to be the moment in the Use Your Illusion (NO, not "that" moment) when we realised that the hypnotist was an actor.

Rhys Auteri
writer, musician, possum

Rhys: I wrote a first draft of this and it was far too long, going into too many shows – even after seeing under 50 shows for the year, my lowest attendance for many years. As such, I’ve heard of at least half a dozen shows that sounded like I missed something special, but oh well.

Sisters Grimm’s Calpurnia Descending  again made me suspect that they write their scripts in bold and underline, possibly scrawled in lipstick and adorned with stickers. Hilarious and razor sharp, clever, it indulged in its own delightful vacuity to find surprising moments of emotion and revelation. Its use of live video and other media was brilliantly executed and helped the Sisters Grimm continue to develop the theatricality of their work to match their pointed writing and perfectly over-pitched performances. The image of Paul Capsis climbing a staircase to nowhere, draped in a green screen of lost possibilities was mesmerising.

My highlight of the Melbourne Festival was Circa’s fantastic Opus. Their ability to transform the skills of circus into a touching and vast language of dance was revelatory and brought an array of new ideas to an ancient craft. There were lots of tumbles and lifting and jumping, but these spectacles of strength were presented not for their own sake but pitted towards a higher visual aesthetic of movement. Basically I felt pretty fat and unfit after watching this – I’m not entirely sure this wasn’t their whole plan.

Nicola Gunn once again delighted with Green Screen – playful, engaging, maddening, confusing and crystal clear all at once. Gunn is fearless in her exploration and use of theatrical language to say what cannot be put merely into words. A teacher of mine once commented that great theatre was like a dream, an intense unforgettable experience that nonetheless proves difficult to explain to those who were not present. The image of Gunn riding a slowly deflating thrown of air mattresses seemed at once courageous, ridiculous and omnipotent.

I was fortunate enough to catch Jono Wants a Wife at the Fringe. It was an unassuming piece that really delivered. Jonathan Burns’s confessional solo piece gave a rare glimpse of the vulnerable male journeying from awkward adolescence to heartbreak and often self-loathing – romantic, inept, confused, ashamed and predatory. The woman I saw it with found it a revelatory insight into the male of the species:  “I didn’t realise that men think like that” (or something to that effect). It was a brave, warts-and-all performance, perfect “poor theatre” storytelling.

Melbourne favourites Blue Grassy Knoll premiered their new score to Buster Keaton’s The General. Their ability to transform the crowd into a raucous mess of cheers and boos transport you back to the days and spirit of silent cinema. If you think you might like to get into Keaton – this is the way to do it.

And finally, I caught a few hours of the 52 hours straight improfest that was Little Soap on the Prairie. This completely improvised durational saga featured fantastic character work and storytelling that ran the gamut from absurd and silly to heartbreaking and poignant. It’s easy to dismiss a work like this as somehow “lesser” than similar durational works by “serious” theatre groups like Lone Twin, Forced Entertainment or Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. But this was not merely an exercise of self-indulgent theatre games. The ability of the performers to plumb the depths of fascinating characters, while creating an epic and engaging story was pretty magical. I will always remember the murder of Constance (played by Jenny Lovell) in the final hours of the show. As her murderer crept towards her – hands outstretched to make a gun - you could sense the tension in the performers and the audience. There were actual gasps as the murderer shouted ‘bang, bang’ and pulled the trigger. This moment was about as simple as playing on stage gets, yet it was one of the most powerful things I witnessed this year.

Other shows I loved this year included Therese Raquin, Applespiel Make a Band and Take on the Recording Industry, The Government Inspector, Neighbourhood Watch, Single White Slut, Sex Idiot and Marzo.

SM: The first time the possum hissed in Bucket's List.

Anne-Marie Peard

Photo by Sarah Collins

A-M: Some of my favourite moments this year were in Live Art experiences. There was the small group experience of Yana Alana snuggling into my chest, with six of us on her bed, in In Bed With Yana Alana; asking a stranger if I could stick a label on her and take her photo in Take the Call;  the unexpected joy of making a band with Sam Halmarack & the Miserablites; and writing a very bad poem in bed with my cat for A Day Like Every Other.

But the one I'll never forget is The Rest is Silence: the 4 am encounter at The 24-Hour Experience. I wasn't well and I was so close to going home at 5 pm, but I wanted to go to the forensic morgue. There were no actors: it was just the staff running through what they do when a body comes into the Homicide Room (crime and accident victims) and then showing us how they harvest tissue. And the staff then sat and talked to some of us – at 5 am – about their jobs. It was the most real, fascinating and honest encounter I had seeing arts events this year.

17 December 2014

What Melbourne loved in 2014, part 8

It's an international edition as Karin Muiznieks, Alex da La Rambelje and Yvonne Virsik go travelling.

Karin Muiznieks
cabaret performer and songwriter

Karin: I was invited by a friend to be an extra in a "cabaret video" he was filming. Turns out it was the promotional trailer for the 2014 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The trailer was being shot in Melbourne, using an entirely Melbourne cast,crew and scenery and heavily featuring artists who live and work in Melbourne. They said that Melbourne had "the right feel" for cabaret. It made me feel kinda triumphant and sad at the same time. It showed me that everybody secretly knows in their hearts that Melbourne is the true centre of cabaret in this country, and yet we are still scrambling to receive the funding and support that other states take for granted.

Why bother shipping out to Adelaide when the soul of cabaret is in Melbourne? I bust my arse to break even here, so I'm also shipping out. See you in 2015, Melbourne. Hopefully, the government and sponsoring bodies will realise what jewels they have in our local scene and not force performers out of town if they want to earn a living.

SM: The Von Muiznieks Family Hoedown was such a surprise. I don't know what I expected, but it surpassed all expectations and created new ones. I laughed myself sick, saw my first bass ukelele and can't believe that they're not being invited to perform everywhere.

Alex da La Rambelje

Alex: My top five theatre experiences in 2014:

5. Max and Ivan, The Reunion (Melbourne International Comedy Festival)

Sharp, hilarious and rich with narrative complexities, Max and Ivan's follow up MICF show was my stand out pick from the festival this year. The guys inhabited a myriad of living and breathing characters, and managed to create some moments of genuine pathos at the end. It's always awesome seeing a high-concept theatre/comedy show at the Comedy Festival.

4. Matilda (RSC)

Joyous fun. It felt totally fresh. The musical numbers flowed organically from the narrative, and when the audience started cheering I realised I was watching damn good writing. Melbourne, just you wait.

3. Monsieur Butterfly (Edinburgh Fringe)

This high-concept stand up show had me standing up in anticipation at the final moment. Alex Horne constructed an intricately woven machine of a show that was embodied in the actual, impossibly complex, tangible machine he constructed on the stage. Using balloons, VHS tapes, pool cues, bowling balls, a potato on a zip-line and lots of other randomly drawn common-or-garden items, he created a machine just like the one he’d always wanted to create in his childhood. 

2. Elephant Room (Edinburgh Fringe)

I went to Edinburgh Fringe with the intention of seeing as many magic shows as I could (I clocked up over 10). This show was a standout – a surreal trip that brought magic and theatre together more seamlessly than I have ever seen. The world of the piece was the Elephant Room, a bizarre limbo land inhabited by three "shadows of magic personalities", who seemed to be reliving former glories that belonged to no particular set time or place. The show elevated common conjuring routines above the mundane and set them in a world that was able to frame the illusions as truly magical.

1. Derren Brown, Infamous (Glasgow Theatre)

I’ve spent the last ten years periodically pouring over every live recording, tv special and written word Derren Brown has offered. Seeing him live was a thrill. He truly commanded the stage. I realised how the skillful, dangerous and ballsy performance techniques I had perceived in his recorded work were in every way real. The man is a god.

SM: I watched him do close up card tricks determined to figure it it out. I couldn't. I know how it's done and I can't see him do it.

Yvonne Virsik
director, Artistic Director MUST

Yvonne: I was lucky enough to start the year in New York and saw loads of shows there, but except for Sleep No More and a great King Lear featuring Frank Langella at BAM – I don’t like the play much, but this was simply and exquisitely staged with a galloping pace – my highlights for 2014 have all been in Australia.

Tonelgroep Amsterdam's Roman Tragedies at The Adelaide Festival was a brilliant experience: three “Shakespeares”, extraordinary performances from powerful actors, a set you could move around on and order drinks from and tongue-in-cheek text via an LED screen announcing how long till the next major character died.

At the Melbourne Festival, I found Roslyn Oades’s Hello, Goodbye and Happy Birthday (Malthouse) playful, life-affirming and profoundly affecting, my only quibble the lack of diversity of expression in the 18 year old “stories” chosen.  And One Step at a Time like This’s Since I Suppose  was a rare and rich experience.

Opus from Circa left me enthralled when a lot of the circus pieces disappointed – not just the music and bodies doing extraordinary things, but the intimacy, humanness and moments of real meaning.

Red Stitch’s Grounded was remarkable in all elements. I found the style fascinating – a touch heightened and gestural – but somehow all the more real and engaging for it. Beautiful work from Kate Cole and Kirsten Von Bibra is surely one of our most underrated directors.

The Defence by Chris Dunstan at MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival was brilliant, bold and uncomfortable, playing with gender dynamics and abuse of power, as did Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo’s Richard II (MKA at Melbourne Fringe) – immediacy to gasp for.

The Good Person of Szechuan at Malthouse Theatre was a delight – alive, cheeky, and chaotic, yet surprisingly clear.

Masterclass with Maria Mercedes at forttfivedownstairs was directed by Daniel Lammin with glorious clarity as was his work The Cutting Boys at La Mama.

In Thérèse Raquin at Theatre Works, Gary Abrahams orchestrated an inexorable build in tension. Some of my favourite moments were Thérèse struggling with her hoop skirt with increasing ferocity in the small apartment.

The City They Burned (Attic Erratic) by Fleur Kilpatrick and directed by Danny Delahunty was wonderfully shaped and horrifying. Violence begets violence has never been as palpably realised for me as when the daughters turned on their father in act two.

Other 2014 memorable theatrical moments include:

Bryony Kimmings handing around cups for people to discreetly trim their pubes into during Sex Idiot.

Realising I had learnt a lot about the experience of being on The Autism Spectrum from the student-created Them Aspies in the MUST Season, and having a bit of a cry at my immense pride in their achievement.

Lloyd Jones impassioned introduction and running amok in When the Cream Sinks to the Bottom at La Mama – “Did he really just do that?!”

Experiencing the beautiful, raw but caressing honesty of Jess Gonsalvez’s Naked at the MUST Container Festival.

The cheer when Sarah Hamilton and Justine Campbell‘s They Saw a Thylacine was announced as part of the 2015 Malthouse Season.

The hoot-inducing moments and technical acrobatics of Calpurnia Descending (Sisters Grimm at Malthouse).

Hanging out with the brilliant participants in The MTC Women Director’s Program.

That’s a fair bit, I know and there are heaps I haven’t mentioned. These are just some of my memorable moments and experiences from over 150 shows in 2014.

SM: Yvonne really tried to donate some pubes to Bryony but it was difficult in jeans. I'd forgotten about that; lucky she mentioned it.

I'm blown away every time I see a MUST (Monash University Student Theatre) show. Student unions are brilliant things and the thought of them disappearing as tertiary education becomes all about money is too depressing. My MUST highlight was getting to meet next year's lot at #NotDramaCamp. I'm excited about the theatre they are going to make.

15 December 2014

What Melbourne loved in 2014, part 7

Richard Watts, Cassanda Fumi and Tobias Manderson-Galvin share their favourite shows today.

Richard Watts
arts journalist

Richard: At the start of 2014, I made a vow to myself to cease constantly and consistently burning the candle at both ends. Consequently I’ve only seen 112 live performances across various genres this year (so far – there’s another few to try and squeeze in before Christmas!) but I’ve also avoided the debilitating, lingering lurgies that had regularly laid me up for weeks at a time the last few years running.

Consequently, despite missing out on some apparently excellent productions as a result of pulling things back a notch (e.g. The Rabble’s Frankenstein and Grounded at Red Stitch), I still managed to see some mad, magnificent and moving productions in 2014. Here are the highlights of the year that was:

From Adelaide, Gravity and Other Myths staged the single best circus production I’ve seen all year at Northcote Town Hall, as part of the City of Darebin’s Speakeasy program. A Simple Space wasn’t just exhilarating, intimate and a bravura demonstration of fine-tuned human physicality, it was also a glorious display of circus as art, and an evolution of that form that was the perfect counterbalance to the corporate Euro-pudding blandness of juggernauts like Cirque du Soleil.

Also at Northcote Town Hall, Elbow Room’s Prehistoric lit up my synapses and set my heart racing like no other show in 2014. Infused with a punk sensibility, it was vibrant and alive, it was also a knowing, insightful and carefully crafted work that managed to be simultaneously nostalgic and utterly of the moment; everything that indie theatre should be, and more.

Bryony Kimmings’s Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model at Theatre Works was not only a continued demonstration of producer Dan Clarke’s astute eye for programming the brightest and best, but also a marvellous, insightful, deeply moving and empowering exploration of life in our modern world. Without doubt the most affecting production I saw this year.

Finally, my single best show of the year: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies at Adelaide Festival. Six hours of Shakespeare in Dutch, with English surtitles. Going into this show I was full of dread. Coming out of it, I was envious of those audience members who would be experiencing it in the following days, and would have killed a Liberal Party politician to see it again. Exquisite acting, a thunderous and dramatic live score, inspired direction by Ivo van Hove, and intelligent and nuanced use of multimedia and social media – as well as giving the audience the opportunity to not only move around the auditorium at regular intervals but to actually take to the stage – made this one of the most memorable productions I have any seen anywhere in my 47 years. Fuck it was good. If it ever comes to Melbourne – or anywhere else in Australia for that matter – DO NOT MISS IT.

Honourable mentions: The Worst of Scottee at Theatre Works; Bryony Kimmings’s Sex Idiot at Melbourne International Comedy Festival; Trygve Wakenshaw’s Kraken at Melbourne International Comedy Festival; Ray Chong Nee’s performances in The Motion of Light in Water and Jumpers for Goalposts; Caroline Lee and Maude Davey in MKA’s The Trouble with Harry, and Lachlan Philpott’s beautiful, poetic script; Carousel Des Moutons at Melbourne Festival; Big hArt’s Hipbone Sticking Out at Melbourne Festival; and Sisters Grimm’s Calpurnia Descending at the Malthouse.

SM: Richard’s been hosting Smart Arts on RRR for ten years: that’s a lot of pretty amazing moments. I can’t imagine Melbourne’s theatre and arts scene without Smart Arts. Richard always asks great questions and from his choice of music to his guests, he’s one of the greatest advocates and supporters of independent theatre, music, artists and creators in Melbourne. Buy him a drink when you see him.

Cassandra Fumi
arts editor, theatre maker

Photo by Sarah Walker

Cass: When I think of 2014 it's green! Green Screen was the standout work for me. I loved the delicateness and vulnerability of this piece. It was a Nicola Gunn show unlike other Nicola Gunn shows, but then oh so much a Nicola Gunn show (does that make sense?).

I also loved Bron Batten’s Use Your Illusion that was part of Field Theory. I thought it was a clever, engaging piece. My presence as an audience member was really needed, not only to be hypnotised but also to go on a journey with Batten. Oh yeah, I totes bought into the hypnosis thang.

I also adored Calpurnia Descending; the dancing rat made me laugh. Ugly laugh. Like Dawson’s ugly cry. This work made me think, whilst having a great, entertaining time at the theatre. I also went to Katy Perry a few nights later and – yes, yes! – Katy also had a rat on stage. The gift that keeps giving.

SM: I so nearly had a Live Art moment with Cass at the Melbourne Fringe, but it turned into a very individual live art moment because I missed her by seconds. (Bloody burger that took forever that I ate  as I ran to be on time – and it wasn’t even nice.)

Tobias Manderson-Galvin

Tobi: My best top 5:

5) Perth's Fringe World. That was a really great fringe festival. It may be the best in the world right now. Supportive core staff, varied curated and non-curated spaces, selection of hub areas, a real cool artist bar, great audiences, beautiful design. I can't give this festival a better rap. It is the best. Fuck you Adelaide and Melbourne, do we need to call an ambulance – and any other Australian fringe you don’t really exist, get over it.

4) Luke Devine's The Land Than Time Forgot (Melbourne Fringe, Hares & Hyenas). Luke in nothing but a black tee, white 'away' shorts, and holding a hot pink notebook, tells the story of growing up in Tasmania. This better happen again. If you missed it. Whooo boy. You missed it.

3) Inventing a festival with MKA massive and primarily Mr John Kachoyan. Calling it HYPRTXT. It having almost nothing to do with the internet. Doing a show in it that also didn’t really have anything to do with the internet. My new pal John Kachoyan reading in the show on the final night. JK also doing a reading of his solo show. Just everyone involved in all of that. Like Jenn Taylor. Like people from the Gong. A playwright from Finland. All of you/them!

2) Kerith Manderson-Galvin's commissioned work for Union House Theatre Don’t Bring LuLu. I went more than once. I gather that for a while there people thought Kerith was a pseudonym I'd made up, but she's actually my sister. I think for a while there, people thought she was my sister but she's also herself and that's a thing too. But she is my sister too, so obvs i'll deck you if you don't like her shows. And this was a great show. Really a show more than a play. There has not been another script like it. Not here not anywhere. If you haven’t read it, you should find a way. It better have another life. Meanwhile i guess you could just see Being Dead (Don Quixote), her next show in Midsumma in January.

1) Big thanks to Stephen Armstrong and the Arts Centre who were part of hosting IETM/Asian Satelite Meeting and Lab in Melbourne.

Also a special mention of something bad/good so far: my podcast with Kerith has only had two episodes because a bunch of data got deleted and then I was without internet for weeks/also without a credit card for a month and a half and lost my account. So anyway.... Jolly Good Radio returns sometime when I'm rich and the gods smile upon us.

SM: Every moment with Tobias is a moment, but my favourite was watching his mum watch him in his Thank You Thank You Love (HYPRTXT).

13 December 2014

What Melbourne loved in 2014, part 6

Today, it's Penelope Bartlau, Declan Greene and Sarah Collins with discussion about how ongoing funding makes conservative theatre, why some audience member's should be removed from the world, and why Google should shut down when cat guardians try and diagnose their pet's non-existent illnesses.

Penelope Bartlau
director, writer, creator Barking Spider Theatre

Penelope: Theatre moment knockout this year has to be Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More (New York City). I wish I could have my max-highlight from something in Melbourne because there is SO much going on in this city; we have such remarkable and vital theatre here.

I know plenty have talked about Punch Drunk's  Sleep No More – and justifiably. Why is it so compelling? Because it’s utterly unpredictable, it’s a completely individual experience as it’s virtually impossible for any two audience members to take the same passage and see the same things. I was determined to understand the dramaturgy – and not be disappointed. 

The backstory: they took Macbeth and cut it up and laid out the rawest pieces of the story for us to experience. It’s set in an old hotel – in the Speakeasy period, but it’s not like any hotel you’ve ever been to. Hotels are designed for guest ease and smooth navigation. They took an old hotel and reinvented it into a dreamscape. There are no stage left or right entrances or exits in a dream; so-too it is with Sleep No More.

The work is designed to be, in part, cyclical – by knotting one part of the narrative to the next in a way that is deeply poetic, and all the more so as it was told without dialogue. For example, Lady Macbeth’s dance of persuasion morphed into her “take my milk for gall” scene, to Macbeth’s return after the murders – the first time around – and then this was repeated, added to and completed a second time around by merging directly to her mad “out damn spot” scene. 

To follow any of the action, you had to make an immediate decision about which character to follow – if any, and if you could keep up. You could easily take a misdirection and lose a character, and end up in Burnham Wood encroaching on Dunsenane, or stumble upon someone burying a foetus in a graveyard, or simply get lost. 

It seems no irony to me, that I pursued narrative – given my role as an artistic director and writer, and my set/lighting designer husband Jason Lehane was absorbed primarily in the installations/set – that we had totally different experiences. We came out, compared notes and all the conversations we tracked around the show were “did you see this?” or “did you encounter that?”. Sleep No More is a masterpiece.

Regarding theatre in general in Melbourne, the most dynamic work is – as always – coming out of individuals and from smaller groups, productions and companies. 

I met a guy who knows a thing or two about theatre in New York, and my ears are resonating with his philosophy on funding. It’s no real news to hear it, but he says “Ongoing funding makes artists risk adverse” – heard it here before. But this is resonating especially now in light of the Australia Council six-year organisational funding that is in the offing for 2015. If it’s true – and I think it is – that everything is based on economics, then this six-year strategy is born of deeply conservative economic drivers. Bring on the ecology, and let us “little guys” flourish and make more work, everywhere. The big trees are going to grow bigger and cast greater shadows across the forest floor: the floor dwellers have to become even more inventive, more subversive and louder artistically and politically – if we are to not only survive but thrive.

SM: Penelope's Barking Spider Theatre created an amazing experience in the State Library that started with the Press Dress worn by Matilda Butters to a fancy dress ball in 1866. It explored how Melbourne society saw women and Chinese immigrants in the 1860s and tied it all to now with moving (and moving) explorations of fashion, ethnicity and bodies. It was all so beautiful, but my favourite moment was standing in the State Library Dome room – which was full of people studying and Facebooking – knowing that in any moment their peace would be broken by loud drums.

Declan Greene
playwright, director Sisters Grimm

Declan: For me: 2014 was all about the grrlz.

It started with post’s Oedipus Schmoedipus at Belvoir: a playful satire of the recent adaptation trend – and the dead, straight, white men that continue to colonise our cultural imagination. Coming off Belvoir’s 2013 season, it was conceptually brilliant site-specific theatre. Watching some 20 unrehearsed volunteers dressed in mismatched bed sheets as ‘ghosts’ – while attempting to replicate terrible dance moves off a video monitor – was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre. And summoning this mass elation from the idea of death was fkn genius.

(Speaking of death: I wish it upon the scowling piece of shit who sat next to me in that audience and radiated hatred at the stage. You are 80% of everything that is wrong with theatre in this country.)

I was obsessed with I’m Trying to Kiss You’s Madonna Arms at Next Wave. The production was fantastic – but as a piece of writing. I thought it was the most inventive, brilliant text I’ve seen onstage this year: a wild, bruising journey through female representation in popular culture. And very, very, very, very funny.

The journey in Nicola Gunn’s Green Screen was also remarkable. I admired its emotional bravery; the way it used irony, sarcasm and anger to pry open a very recent grief, onstage, every night. It can’t have been easy to do.

Also The Rabble’s Frankenstein. Also Adena Jacobs’ adaptation of Hedda Gabler. Also Fleur Kilpatrick’s The City That Burned. Also Diamanda Galás’ work-in-progress Das Fieberspital at DARK MOFO. Also Emma McManus’ Carly & Troy Do A Doll’s House at Adelaide Fringe. Also... fuck, I dunno. There was a lot.

There were boys who did some very kool stuff too: Matt Lutton’s epic, unsettling take on Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain (Julie Forsythe and Melita Jurisic’s ‘drinking’ scene was probably the finest acting I’ve ever seen onstage), Meng Jinghui’s batshit crayyy take on The Good Person of Szechuan, Angus Cerini’s Resplendence, Jackson Davis’s Jackson! Le Diner est Pret! for Woodcourt Art Theatre...

But yeah. To quote Jim O’Rourke ===>

SM: Calpurnia Descending. Yeah, yeah our Dec’s a fucking amazing playwright, but the first thing that I really noticed about him was his direction (many years ago in a car park). He knows how to take a piece to the knife edge of offence or shock, dangle it over the edge and pull it back at the exact second and turn it into something that’s close to profound, or just filthy.

Sarah Collins
playwright, photographer

Sarah: I feel really bad because I'm going to give an answer so simplistic it will SHOCK. It will be like when Kerith Manderson-Galvin talked about loving Miley, but dull. 

I'm pissed off I am not naming a show that is more original, less well-funded and not even moderately steeped in metropolitan Melbourne theatre controversy. 

You guys know I aim to be controversial with every fibre of my being, always. I never intended for this to be my answer. Never forget that I am a girl who got scalped tickets off ebay to be second row at The Seekers concert. Never forget about the feathers I ruffled when I stood up during Georgy Girl and blocked the view of the 80-year-olds behind me. The term controversial doesn't even cut it. 

My point is, I have barely seen a thing and I feel bad because the one show I did see that I LOVED was such a good piece of HAPPY FLUFFY THEATRE and I know I should have something here involving Paul Capsis, but I just don't, and I blame it on things happening that I can't control. (Like today, one of my cat's pupils is bigger than the other. No other theatre lovers wake up to this kind of insanity daily. It means you guys all get to go out and see the great stuff and I have to stay home googling "uneven pupil dilation + potential feline brain injury + home remedies"). 

So with that out of the way, you cannot judge me when I say:

My highlight was Beautiful the Carole King musical on Broadway.

It was amazing. It was happy. It was hilarious. It was jaw-dropping. It was so so smart and everything most contemporary musicals aren't. Just watch this and tell me you don't feel some tingles. 

Judith D 4eva.

SM: I’ve checked my cat’s pupils. All is good. She was napping in prep for her late-morning sleep, but I couldn’t let her snooze knowing that her pupils may be unevenly dilated.

Sarah wrote the very gorgeous Bucket’s List and introduced "bucketlingus" to our vernacular, but my favourite moment was seeing Facebook explode when she "accidentally" announced her pregnancy on national television (The Project) while being interviewed about Hanson (yes, Hanson) .

11 December 2014

What Melbourne loved in 2014, part 5

Today, we're hearing from other reviewers: Jane Howard, Myf Clark and Kevin Turner, and Jane gives us the three words that all reviewers should have o a sticky note stuck on their computer "passionate, detailed, intelligent".

Jane Howard

Self portrait with dog by Jane Howard

Jane: Since this blog is filled with moments in the theatre, I’ve picked one that came after the theatre. Jordan Beth Vincent’s review of HEX for DanceTabs is the sort of criticism I aspire to write: passionate, detailed, intelligent.

It’s impossible to succinctly summarise her review. She looks at the difficulty galleries and art critics had confronting work about HIV/AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s; she makes us consider how different contemporary dance would be today if so many dancers and choreographers hadn’t died from the disease; she looks over the history Welsby and his collaborators used to create the work; she shows incredible knowledge of the independent dance scene in Melbourne; and, of course, she takes us through the piece itself with a precise dance vocabulary.

I’m very lucky to be constantly learning from and inspired by other critics in Australia and internationally, but it’s the Melbourne critics I keep coming back too. Through their work, I am given an understanding of a cultural scene I am all to often watching from afar, but most importantly I learn more about my craft – while having wonderful friends in them, too.

This piece, in particular, inspired me to work harder. Jordan had a much larger word-count than I did for the production, but even then I couldn’t have begun to write a review as detailed and knowledgeable as hers. One day, I will. In the meantime, I’m very glad there are critics like her I can look up to.

SM: We have a pretty fine group of arts writers and critics in Melbourne and I'm not the only one who considers Jane one of ours. She's passionate and articulate and she cares, and she reads reviews from all over the place. She showed me this review site, which makes me smile so much that the only reason I didn't steal the idea is that it's one of the first review sites I show students and emerging writers when we talk about finding your voice. As for a favourite moment: It was in Adelaide where we had brunch at Lucias and I almost forgot that I haven't known Jane for years.

Myf Clark

Myf: My favourite show of the year was definitely Bucket’s List in Melbourne Fringe. Written by Sarah Collins and directed by Yvonne Virsik, this beautiful and touching production had me run through the gamut of emotions and I was definitely struggling to hold back tears by the end of the show. I honestly can’t wait to see what Sarah creates next.

The MTC Neon season once again was a highlight of the year. Seeing so many people I know be involved made my day, especially Kerith Manderson-Galvin. I will see everything Kerith is in because she is amazing. A particular image stuck in my mind was the breathtaking sight of Nicola Gunn slowly coming down from the tower of mattresses in the terrific Green Screen, while it was fantastic to see Angus Cerini on the stage again, after so many years, in Resplendence.

Workwise, I loved watching the first year students from my work perform in their end of year showcase With You, Alone at Theatre Works. The last scene was just a sublime and magical moment filled with blue lights, slow dancing and a beautiful rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Smile”. Simple and stunning

Other highlights of the year included experiencing Adelaide Fringe for the first time, seeing Juliette Burton’s wonderful When I Grow Up twice at MICF (because once just wasn’t enough!), having a gleeful squeal at the Buffy references in Keith Gow’s terrific Who Are You Supposed to Be?, feeling incredibly proud of Sarah Hamilton and Justine Campbell’s They Saw a Thylacine (my 2013 theatre highlight!) being programmed into the 2015 Malthouse program.

And finally getting to put many faces to names of people I’ve previously only know from online, include Anne-Marie herself! To sum up, 2014 gave me some of the most beautiful and touching pieces of theatre that I’ve ever seen (and many hilarious nights out). Bring on 2015!

SM: Myf and I had followed each other on Twitter and finally met during the Fringe, I think it was after a conversation about the ever wonderfulness of Buffy and our love of Bucket's List. 

Kevin Turner
reviewer, theatre maker

Kevin: I really had no idea what to say when I asked myself what my favourite moments of 2014 theatre were. But when I thought about it, moments started to clarify. They centred around getting caught up in the action. Audiences sweeping the performance up and carting it to heights it could never have otherwise achieved.

The first occurred during True Romans All, a pervasive street game inspired by Julius Caesar. Pop-Up Playground, Melbourne's resident makers of awesome situations, worked in conjunction with Bell Shakespeare to bring the Romans of Shakespeare's play to the streets of Melbourne.

I was lucky enough to be one of the facilitators assisting the company in making sure that the players had the best possible experience. Three quarters of the way through every run through, there came the point where the members of the audience I supervised were brought to meet the man himself: Julius Caesar. No matter the group, high school students or adults, the moment became charged with power, and from that moment on even the least interested audience member got caught up in the action.

From that moment onwards there was no controlling the audience. They made their way to Treasury Gardens with a sense of desperation. They made up chants like "Spqr we know who our leaders are hail Ceasar" and "Hey Caesar your so fine, your so fine you blow my mind. Hail Ceasar". In that moment every actor got caught up in the flow, even as the objective facilitator I was positive we were going to win and Caesar would survive. It was magical and it was powerful and it was terrifying. It was exactly the awesome situation Pop-Up promise to deliver.

The second moment of audiences sweeping a performance away came earlier in the year during the Fresh Air Festival. Pop-Up Playground and Serious Business together created one of the flagship games of the festival: Spirits Walk. Players travelled around Melbourne communing with "Spirits" and acquiring tokens that were used to create a mask that let them infiltrate and take part in the spirits walk. A parade through Federation Square, where we hollered and hooted, danced and jigged. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever been a part of. Helped also by it being the first Pop-Up Playground game I got to play not having had anything to do with its creation.

On the main stage my love was split between two shows. The Good Person of Szechwan at the Malthouse was batshit, bugfuck insane and gave no apologies for the madness we witnessed on stage. It was refreshing and joyous. I sat there with a giggle on my lips and a grin on my face.

Finally I got to see Once, one of my favourite stories/movies to come out of my home country. My response to this was simple, I was so happy I cried. I think that say's it all.

SM: As Kevin's review editor, I've had the joy of seeing his writing and his critical eye develop over the last year as he's found his voice. And he puts up with me telling him to use less words, kill adjectives and trust his subtext. As for a moment: him showing me what he did to Rob and Sayraphim's (from Pop up Playground) car after their wedding/performance/live-art/celebration.