26 July 2015

Review: Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden
Melbourne Theatre Company
23 July 2015
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 22 August

 Death and the Maiden. Susie Porter. Photo by Jeff Busby

Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden in 1990 on his return to Chile, after 17 years in exile, in the aftermath of Pinochet's military dictatorship. The 1993 MTC production is still talked about and the 1994 film is still a favourite, so why have the MTC chosen to tell it again? Why this story? Why now?

With Australian politics tumbling into an abyss of secrecy and blame where those who speak out about  inequity and abuse are punished and threatened, and those who are meant to oppose turn a blind eye or support, it's a story to help us remember recent history and how governments and countries have broken themselves and their people as they've moved to the far right.


The full review is on AussieTheatre.com and will be published here in a few days.

22 July 2015

Review: L'Amante Anglaise

L'Amante Anglaise
La Mama
19 July 2015
La Mama Theatre
to 26 July

The novella L'Amante Anglaise by Marguerite Duras was first published in 1967 and Duras adapted it for stage in 1968. The stage version is two interviews about a murder that was discovered when body parts, except the head, were found on trains that all passed through one spot. It's currently back at La Mama because too many people missed it last year.

As the murderer, Claire, confessed before it opens, the mystery of the story is who she is and why she killed her deaf-mute cousin. Claire's husband of 20 years, Pierre, is interviewed first, setting expectations and questions about Claire.

Unlike monologue, where characters tend to talk to the audience (and done extraordinarily well at Red Stitch this month in Dead Centre and Sea Wall), the presence of the interviewer gives the audience the closeness of fly-on-the-wall observation without the emotional intimacy of being in the characters' heads. This distance lets us ask far more than the interviewer does and more than the characters want.

The story is filled with answers, but few, if any, to what we ask.

Director Laurence Strangio has cut back the production so that all is left is characters experiencing the story as it happens. 

With indicative costumes and a black empty stage, each sit, listen and react.  The world is in the text and the text is in the hands and souls of the actors.

Jillian Murray and Robert Meldrum are the actors, each acting as interviewer to the other. These are performances where actor and technique disappear. Both are totally in the moment and not even a split second ahead of their charcters. (Listen and react.) Pierre and Claire know their truth and secrets and keep them from interviewer and audience. There are no cheeky hints to let us into their heads or to know more than they do. And there's nothing to ensure that audience, or interviewer, ask the right questions.

L'Amante Anglaise is disconcerting in how it engages. It's no more than two people in a space, but the world they create is vivid and real, and Pierre and Claire are unforgettable.

This was on  AussieTheatre.com .

20 July 2015

Review: Dead Centre & Sea Wall

Dead Centre & Sea Wall
Red Stitch Actors Thearte
18 July 2015
Red Stitch
to 15 August

Ben Photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Dead Centre is a new piece by Tom Holloway that reflects on and adds a new dimension to the 2008 work Sea Wall by Simon Stephens. Both are solo short plays told from the hurt of emptiness, and this combination of new/local writing with a known-but-not-seen-here work has created an exceptional piece of compelling and affecting theatre.

In this style of monologue, the character's connection to the audience is intimate. There's no fourth  wall as the audience are the person – friend, doctor, priest, judge or stranger – being confessed to. As the characters reveal more and get closer to, or run from, the moment they have to face, the audience becomes an integral character in the story, because without our willing listening there'd be no need for the character to talk.

Australia's Tom Holloway was commissioned to write a companion piece to the UK's Simon Stephens  Sea Wall, written in 2008. With works like Pornography, about the 2005 London bombings and Birdland, about the destruction of fame (and just finished at MTC), Stephens has become one of the best known and in-demand contemporary theatrical voices – and his adaption of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has won Oilver awards and most recently a Tony Award for its Broadway production.

Sea Wall is based on Stephens's family and experiences and comes from a fictional "what if?" that leaves 30-something Alex (Ben Prendergast) trying to describe how he saw the life he knew end in a careless and blameless moment, and how this led to the act he's most ashamed of.

Holloway's Dead Centre starts with this story but is told first. Here 30-something Helen (Rosie Lockhart) tells us about leaving the UK for Australia and the lead up to her breakdown as the sun rises at Uluru and her world becomes red. The style's a step more distant that Stephens's, but the distance makes her final breaking more personal, as the audience imagine what left such pain.

With some background action and a digital projection (by Katie Cavanah onto Matthew Adey's design), Julian Meyrick's direction asks and answers more questions than are directly addressed in the text, while he lets the actors find the exposing balance between self and character that makes Alex and Helen far more then Prendergast and Lockhart. 

There's room to hold back more, as the on-stage extras create breathing space away from the stories, but the space is welcome and could be the comfort that creates the only hope that they'll not fall so far.

And it is hope that drives these stories; hope that their story isn't what we imagine because Helen and Alex have chosen us to confess to and, willingly or unwillingly, become our friends.

This was on aussietheatre.com.

17 July 2015

Last day for government submissions


Today is the LAST DAY to have your voice heard about arts funding. It's easy to complain, but our state and federal governments are asking for us to speak up, so let's do it.

1. Creative Victoria (used to be Arts Vic) have been calling for submissions about their Creative Industries Strategy for a while now.

All the info is at strategy.creative.vic.gov.au.

You can read the responses to themes (I wrote one about supporting, developing and encouraging emerging and alternative arts writing voices) and respond yourself or just send a tweet. Really, just a tweet!

2. Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Arts Budgets

This one is about George Brandis and the Australia Council and #FreeTheArts.

All the info is at aph.gov.au.

I know that many more submissions have been made than are currently on the web site, but there's room for more. Don't worry about writing essays (they've already been submitted); short, easy-to-read submissions are more likely to be read.

Or if you don't know what all the fuss is about – isn't excellence a good thing? – have a read of some of the submissions that have been put on the site.

And The George Brandis Live Art Experience on Facebook is rather brilliant.

PS: Yep, this is why reviews are lacking this week.

13 July 2015

Kickstarter: Trying My Best

Trying My Best

I think it's a safe bet that George Brandy aint going to fund the super-excellent folk who created the wonderfully depraved filth of Slutmonster and Friends.

So they're on Kickstarter and have six days to reach their goal of $9,800. They're close.

Authentic and honest voices are what make independent art thrive. There's no one like the Birthday Loyalty Club and they want to make web series that has no chance of ever being on commercial television.

If you have a few spare coins, here's their campaign.

12 July 2015

Review: West Side Story

West Side Story
The Production Company
11 July 2015
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 19 July

West Side Story. The Production Company. Sean Mulligan and Jets.

The Production Company was formed in Melbourne in 1999 by Jeanne Pratt AC. Still supported by individual and business sponsors, they present three short-run musicals a year with the ongoing goal to "provide professional opportunities for local artists and to entertain Melbourne audiences with the best shows from Broadway and beyond".  They usually sell out the State Theatre and chose to celebrate their 50th production with the show that changed how Broadway, and beyond, saw and made  music theatre: West Side Story.

.It's hard to imagine just how mind blowing West Side Story was when it opened on Broadway in 1957. An opening-night critic from the New York Herald Tribune said: "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning." Here was a story about teenagers, gangs, back streets, sex, racism and violence. Its music was influenced by opera and its dance by ballet but it felt and looked like the streets it was set on. This was Broadway without grinning showgirls and high kicks. This was romance without a happy ending. This was a story about New York and about the real anger, pain and love that wasn't far from the comfy seats and flashing cameras of the opening night.

And it was created by Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Burnstein and Stephen Sondheim: artists who had no idea how loved they were to become.

This production is as close to that 1957 production as we can get, being based on Robbins's original direction and choreography that was re-created by Gale Edwards and Michael Ralph. Thanks to the 1961 film, its familiarity – I almost expected the audience to finger click along – is immediately welcomed and loved and it was pretty amazing to see just how wonderful the school dance scene looked like on a stage.

The cast ooze their love for this show. They know how important this piece is; most of them would have been singing and dancing along to the film for as long as they could remember. Even if their accents are a bit dodgy, they are all stunning and their dancing is an tribute to Robbins.

The vocal highlight is Anna O'Byrne's astonishing singing of Maria. On opening night, laryngitis left Deone Zanotto playing Anita karoke style with Amanda Harrison singing and Natalie Gilhome, the assistant director, providing the dialogue off stage. The theatre is big enough for most people to not really notice, but it does question why there weren't covers in the ensemble.

In all, the show was kind of like being there in 1957, except it's no longer mind-blowingly new. Even Tim Chappel's costumes, which capture the 50s and hint at the decades since with super-bright colour and nods to trends like acid wash jeans and ra-ra skirts, don't bring it out of its time.

The expectations, familiarity and determination to be 'that' West Side Story takes away its edge and doesn't let it find its own voice.

It's a story of racism and anger about immigration in a big city where young people are unemployed and first generation immigrants despise the next generation of immigrants because of where they came from. It could be our story. But it's not. While in 1950s and 60s it was a story of the city and world its creators lived in, this one is a piece of history.

Which is exactly what this company aim to do. And they do it well. Sold out theatres really don't care if anyone disagrees. I loved seeing it, but I'd love to see the next Australian telling of the extraordinary West Side Story as a show about us and now (like Barrie Kosky's re-told the piece as  Berlin's story at Komische Oper Berlin). I want to see one that blows our minds all over again.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

11 July 2015

Review: Cuckoo

15 Minutes From Anywhere
9 July 2014
to 26 July

Photo by Lachlan Woods

Jane Miller completed Cuckoo as part of the Masters of Writing for Performance at VCA. Produced with the support of fortyfivedownstairs, it's beautiful writing that lets hope shine in its blackness and continues to establish Miller as one of Melbourne's most exciting independent writers.

Mel (Natalie Carr) and Leo (Matthew Molony) are a middle-aged couple talking about their freedom as they sit at home, as they do every night; him playing with Lego and her with her laptop. When a teenager (Samuel Russo) knocks on their door claiming to have been hit by a car, he wants to eat toast and brings in memories and possibilities that Mel, Leo and their ex-cop friend Dan (David Kambouris) welcome and dread.

Miller's writing always captures the souls of her very broken characters by letting the truth of comedy reveal the disfunction that they can't see in themselves. With a structure that builds the tension like a Jenga tower, Cuckoo creates an ever-deepening mystery as everyone holds their secrets tight and hopes that their truth isn't found in the silence of the subtext.

Alice Bishop's direction keeps the rhythm beating and the tension high, the cast make the balance of laughter and the unthinkable feel as natural as they are, and Bronwyn Pringle's lighting leaves shadows that remind how the bigger picture is always bigger, darker and less defined.

Hidden underground near some of the city's best and swankiest restaurants in Little Collins Street, fortyfivedownstairs supports Melbourne independent art and artists and continues to win the support of Melbourne theatre-goers. Hopefully, it will continue to present works like Cuckoo because it's up there with some of the best script-based theatre around and without places like fortyfivedownstairs, it might never have been seen.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

05 July 2015

Review: Saltwater & Letters Home

Letters Home
Theatre Works
2 July 2015
Theatre Works
to 12 July

Joe Lui, Jamie Lewis
Saltwater and Letters Home is a double bill of solo shows by 20-something artists who were born and brought up in Singapore and now live in Australia. Jamie Lewis and Joe Lui share their stories of  parents and childhood to explore what they think of when asked about "home".

Jamie Lewis's Saltwater can only welcome enough people to fit around a large dining table. The back of the Theatre Works space has become her living room, with hand-washing bowls hanging from the ceiling, a small kitchen in the corner and the round table where we sit, talk and eat.

The first task is trimming bean sprouts and the group – mostly strangers – almost immediately start talking about cooking as our all-in or clean-bench styles become obvious.

Jamie encourages conversation, but it isn't long until she's telling us about her mother, cooking and family dinners. Jamie was brought up in Singapore and moved to Melbourne when she fell in love with and married an Australian.

She talks about Christmas dinners and the Eurasian Devil's Curry that every family expects in Singapore (think Christmas leftovers Malaysian–Chinese style ) and wonders about her mother told her that marriage is hard work. Her story, of the first time she hosted a family Christmas in Australia, continues as she serves us her vegetarian version of the curry – which is delicious – and a dessert of Wife Cake.

It's a loving reflection on the mother–daughter relationship and cross-cultural relationships and its informality lets the audience become family for an hour as differences and awkwardness disappear.

Its style of cooking and serving food while telling a story is similar to Barking Spider's recent One Suitcase, Four Stories (about being Italian and living in Northcote) and Dokboki Box (about living in South Korea) at last year's Next Wave festival. The experience was delightful but it left us with more questions than answers about Jamie and could benefit from a re-focus on the story and the conflict or question that's being explored.

The second show is Letters Home by Perth-based Joe Lui. With bookshelves, plastic curtains and a changing projection onto an artists canvas, its theatre setting is his dream world. There's also some cooking, but it's a more intimate work as Joe reveals his demons and questions if he will ever see his parents again.

His upbringing wasn't as loving as Jamie's. When he went to Perth to go to university (he'd earned money as a host on a children's tv show), he knew he had two years of unavoidable National Service or three years in gaol on his return. He didn't get on his flight back to Singapore.

Letters Home is a series of letters that his parents may never see about how he became his true self in Australia and why he left his childhood and upbringing as far away as he could. He begins by adding pre-made stock (!) to a traditional steam boat dish and apologises to his parents for the overly emotional and earnestly angry first letter he did send them – is there anyone who shouldn't apologise letters we wrote in our early 20s – when he didn't return home.

Joe isn't his birth name and the story about why he chose it is brilliant. His parents probably wouldn't call him Joe and may not even recognise the man with long hair who wears a red Asian dressing coat over his blacks; has the logo of his company, Renegade Productions, tattooed on his chest; and is thrilled to have broken at least every sexual taboo he grew up with. And he's certain that they wouldn't be proud of the success and respect he has in Perth's independent and professional thearte world

Their voice is silent and the noise of that silence raises as many questions as it answers.

Sure, it could also benefit from a less-attached dramaturgical tighten that focuses on story, but it's a strong and powerful piece that leaves the audience feeling like they know Joe Lui as a friend and are more than happy to be a part of his extended new family of friends in Australia.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

03 July 2015

Mini review: Love, Sarah

Love, Sarah
Panopticon Collective
1 July 1015
Scratch Warehouse
to 5 July

Love, Sarah. Photo by Shannon Ly Photography

Another day, another new independent theatre company in Melbourne performing in an amazing warehouse venue that I have to trust my GPS to get me to.

Panopticon Collective focuses on new Australian work and was founded by University of Ballarat Arts Academy graduates Jeni Bezuidenhout and Sebastian Bertoli. They invited Kathryn Goldie (Love Triangle, 1919, Short + Sweet, Baggage Productions) to write their first work.

Love, Sarah is about Sarah and her grandmother (Bezuidenhout and Penelope Langmead) and the realtionship between the generations who love each other but know that age creates distance, misunderstanding and separation. Told through flashbacks and Sarah's travel postcards to her Nan, it's a gentle story that creeps up on you with heartfelt performances and the hope that the conclusion isn't inevitable.

Goldie's writing is at its best in her creation of complex characters that welcome actors to bring themselves to the roles, and in creating honest and real relationships between her characters. It's ultimately Sarah's story, but it's about how her relationship with Nan is a part of her, and it leaves space for the audience to think about their own grandparents. (I'd like to see a bit more conflict though to add a couple more questions.)

Bertoli's direction is at its best in supporting the actors to create that relationship on the stage, but could benefit from looking at the work as a whole, especially in how design, music and blocking can work together to tell the story rather than just support the story.

New companies come and go in Melbourne. Early productions are about finding voices and finding the audience that the company speaks to. And the only to discover new companies is to see their work.

02 July 2015

Review: More Female Parts

More Female Parts
30 June 2015
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 4 July

Evelyn Krape

Lois Ellis first directed Evelyn Krape in Female Parts in 1982. Written by Franca Rame and her theatre collaborator, co-activist and husband Dario Fo (who dedicated his Nobel Prize to her), its monologues addressed issues facing women in their 30s. Originally performed by Rama, and called All House, Bed and Church in the original Italian, it was a loud and strong voice for women in the 1980s.

Writer Sara Hardy wrote the follow-up for the women creators and the characters, now in their 60s. Gooogle isn't giving me the original scripts, but old programs show me that the three stories follow themes and ideas from the first monologues: there's too much to do, the kids (now grandkids) need me and I've lost the keys; a women imprisoned in her own house; and a fairy-tale about a foul-mouthed dolly and a young women who wants to be an economist.

Krape's performance is a joy to watch. With a physicality that defies any ridiculous idea about what 60 should look like, she combines clowning with the passion that she feels about the ongoing issues of being a woman and getting old in a world that still needs to grow up a bit in how it treats women and how it treats women as they age. These woman face Centrelink and job training because of a divorce, the pressure of looking like a 20-year-old, and the diminishing hope that the ceiling isn't glass.

All nail recognisable issues and concerns and let us laugh at what can be a miserable reality. They could all do with tighten – which would also get the work into a stronger one-acter rather than breaking the mood with an interval – but what left a bitter and unsatisfied aftertaste was their conclusions.

SPOILER ALERT. Stop now if you don't want to know.

Two are resolved by a male relative giving the woman money, and the other is about a woman who accepts imprisonment by her rich husband to be saved from the perceived violent world. The imprisoned one is the only one to finally solve her own problem. The other two can only get out of a dud situation by being passively saved by a man's money.

I don't know if this is a reflection of the original scripts. Even if it is, surely this isn't the story to celebrate and re-tell? The best I can see is that it's meant to be about the men are giving back everything that the women gave them when they were younger. Still, what begins as positive and honest and hopeful, ends by leaving these women with "being saved" as their only way to happiness.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.