30 August 2006

Construction of the Human Heart

Construction of the Human Heart
Malthouse Theatre
Melbourne Writers Festival
August 17 2006
Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse

A white box, two chairs, two actors and a courageous script create some of the most evocative and beautiful images I have seen in a theatre. Construction of the Human Heart proves the exceptional quality and originality that emanates from Melbourne’s independent theatre artists.

Under the direction of Brett Adam, every element of this production reflects an understanding and ownership of the text. The artists used a positive collaborative process to create. The result is moving, intimate, confronting, honest and emotionally engaging.

Playwright Ross Mueller wrote in his programme notes that Construction of the Human Heart is:
“For all of us who want to sit in the dark with other people and experience something that cannot be replicated beyond this night. I wanted to tell a story that could only be told in the theatre.”
This is a production for people who love and understand theatre. It would not work in any other medium. It demonstrates how to use, twist and break every rule about form and structure.

Mueller does write for a very specific demographic. Mid 30s to early 40s / living in inner city Melbourne (preferably north) / over educated / know too much about theatre (please laugh at the “it’s David Hare, not Williamson” joke) / struggling with your own creative career while trying to earn an income / loath the concept of IKEA, but have too many Ikea items in your house / and have experienced the kind of love that leaves you empty and broken at its loss.

Fortunately that is most people I know (except some of us live on the south side of the river). Construction of the Human Heart is written for now and written for us. In doing so, Mueller shows how honest, personal writing can connect with universal themes. Even if you don’t get every cultural reference and joke, the emotion of the work sustains it.

Fiona Macleod (as Her) and Todd MacDonald (as Him) deliver two of the most honest and real performances I have seen on a stage. Neither dominated and both gave more to the other actor than they took for themselves. I wanted to see this production having seen them perform Jane Bodie’s Ride. Playwrights like Mueller and Bodie, please keep writing for these two.

Ron Irwin’s lighting design accentuates the text, empowers the performances and creates mood using nothing but light and dark - no colours, no specials. Construction of the Human Heart is all about the greys between our black and whites. The joy of this production is the integration of every element, so Casey Bennetto’s sound design (and voice over) must also be mentioned.

Thank you to the Malthouse’s Tower Theatre Program and the Melbourne Writers’ Festival for enabling independent work like this to be re-staged and seen by a wider audience. This was originally produced in the INSTORAGE season at The Store Room, so keep an eye the next season. If, like me, you missed the first production of Construction of the Human Heart, do not miss it this time around.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess
Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon
Malcolm C Cook and Associates
15 August 2006
State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne

Porgy and Bess is rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece. If you want to see a Porgy and Bess as the Gershwins envisioned it, the Living Arts Inc production should not be missed.

This production has been touring the world since 1993, including a visit to Australia 10 years ago. The advantages and disadvantages of a touring production and cast are clear. This is a tight, well rehearsed show, with a cast who inhabit and love their on stage world and their characters. However, this production lacks freshness and originality in its interpretation and staging.

In 1935 George Gershwin presented Broadway with a score unlike anything that had gone before it, an opera that successfully incorporates jazz and blues. Do not go to this show expecting your favourite jazz or even musical theatre renditions of 'I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ or 'I Loves You Porgy'. This is an opera.

The cast are all outstanding and experienced opera singers. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown establishes the vocal standard with her haunting opening treatment of 'Summertime'. She is one of the three cast members who play Bess. I suspect that those who see her Bess will be in for a treat.

In keeping with the tradition of opera, title roles were cast with excellent singers, but not strong actors. While I admired and enjoyed the performances of Richard Hobson (Porgy) and Jerris Cates (Bess) I didn’t find myself caring about Porgy or Bess. This is an engaging and emotional story and score that was not fully explored. I didn’t see the complexity of either character. Bess is a cocaine addict who finds herself choosing between abuse and prostitution, or love, family and community. She makes different choices throughout her journey, but I didn’t come away knowing why she made her choices. Did she really love Porgy or was he temporary safety? Like the citizens of Catfish Row, I never really understood who Bess was and why she was staying with them.

It is a story about race, poverty, disability, abuse and addiction, but fails to address these issues in a contemporary manner. Bess’s addiction to “happy dust” seems more a plot device than the basis of every choice she makes. Porgy and Bess is ripe for a new interpretation.

However, copyright of Porgy and Bess remains with the Gershwin Estate. You still need the Estate’s permission to perform the opera, and they keep a very tight rein on all productions, cast and even stage directions. Thankfully, these restrictions have refused permission to many productions, including several South African theatre companies wanting to present all white productions during apartheid. However the control is also is

The copyright has kept this Porgy and Bess well within the Gershwins' vision. For that I am glad, as I was able to see an excellent production of this show, as it was originally intended. This may be our last chance to see such a production, as the non-US copyright runs out in 2007 (the US-only rights have been extended). I am curious to see how Porgy and Bess will be reinterpreted once it is in the public domain.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.


Cirque Éloize
3 August 2006
The Palms at Crown

A circus character tells us that rain is like happiness – it comes from nowhere and unexpectedly goes. Cirque Éloize’s Rain is an experience of unexpected beauty and joy. Themed with nostalgic childhood memories, Rain evokes the joy and transience of happiness, without the need to mourn or regret its loss.

Canadian troupe Cirque Éloize have a very impressive reputation. In Rain their reputation is reached and surpassed. This show is spectacular, intelligent, beautiful, mesmerising and joyous. It is a reminder of why the experience of theatre is so unique. I thought I was going to see a circus.

Spectacle and stunning performances aside, Rain openly explores the role of contemporary circus. A performer stands centre stage and asks if contemporary circus is just too highbrow – as she is being showered with large boots. A fellow cast member declares the inexplicable beauty of the moment, only to be told it’s just a technician throwing boots. A short satirical moment, a joke and a quick trick, but a valid question asked.

Director/writer Daniele Finzi Pasca answers the question with a production that seamlessly merges circus and theatre. Traditional tricks are fused with theatre technique and “magic”. The simple premise that we are watching a circus show in rehearsal creates the freedom to interact with the audience, whist maintaining the integrity of both circus and theatre. There is no narrative, we are engaged by the interaction of the characters as the theatre and reality blend for the audience and those on stage.

The design is perfectly framed by the proscenium arch. With colours in shades of grey, touches of sepia and bright splashes of vivid red, it is like watching a 1920s hand-coloured seaside postcard come to life. I never thought I would say that one of the best uses I’ve seen of the proscenium frame was by a circus

Images blend and merge with an almost filmic quality. The theatre allows traditional circus tricks to be presented in original and striking ways. Aerialists hang in mid air, without visible rigging. One of the most memorable images is a line of five black silks, with five performers clad in red, using the silks to create stunning lighting effects.

Humour is, of course, vital to any circus. Rain’s combination of pure slapstick with sophisticated irony is appealing without being condescending or alienating.

And then comes the rain. It really does rain. The unexpected delight of a rainstorm is magnified as water and bodies and lights and music blend to create moments of pure happy.

As Rain it is being presented at Melbourne’s own Las Vegas lounge at the Crown Casino, it is not priced for a family outing. Priced for the venue, this is circus for those who prefer a glass of wine and a comfortable couch to an ice cream and a drafty wooden bench. Fortunately those who saw it at the Brisbane Festival were able to experience the joy of Cirque Éloize for about half the price.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

02 August 2006

Film: Absolute Wilson

MIFF 2006
Absolute Wilson
Forum Theatre
1 August 2006

Absolute Wilson is an interesting documentary about a theatre director that does not convey the power of Wilson's work.

I saw Wilson’s Einstein On the Beach in 1992. Part meditation, part spectacle, pure experience – and  one of the most phenomenal nights I have ever spent in a theatre.

Director Katharina Otto-Bernstein is also an admirer, which influences her choices. The film avoids criticism, and contribution by significant Wilson collaborators is noticeably absent.

Very successful is her exploration of how Wilson developed his unique theatrical language. Possibly his most powerful works have never been seen in public. Wilson used theatre games in schools and hospitals to enable communication with patients and children who were “unable” to communicate. I would love to have seen The Black Rider (Wilson/Tom Waits/ William Burroughs collaboration), but even better would have been a piece performed in a hospital in the late 60s. The cast were patients who could only make small movements with their hand or mouth. They were connected by photosensitive string. They created a visual language showing they could communicate.

Wilson’s public frame and regard were established by his collaborations with young artists Raymond Andrews (Deafman Glance) and Christopher Knowles (A Letter for Queen Victoria).  Andrews is deaf and Knowles is autistic. The acclaimed works created language that gave context & meaning to people unable to express themselves in a text and word based world.

There was criticism of these collaborations, even hints of exploitation. This was not pursued, and neither Andrews (who is also Wilson’s adopted son) nor Knowles were interviewed for the film.

Absolute Wilson gave me a greater understanding of an artist I admire. I would have liked more debate and wish the film could have captured the experience of being in theatre. Fortunately, this can be achieved by seeing his new work at the Melbourne International Arts Festival in October.

This appeared in The Pundit