30 March 2007


Malthouse Theatre

17 March 2007
The Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse

A post-avant-garde-performance-art-installation is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Well, I drink coffee and Anna Tregolan’s Black is as welcome and satisfying as the first strong, aromatic and lovingly-made expresso on a slow Sunday morning.

There is a mixed sense of anticipation and apprehension as we are gradually let into the Tower Theatre. All we know is that the performance runs for three hours, but we can come and go as we please.

Walking down a dark corridor, a small screen with a changing collage is our first clue. Sounds of muffled voices and dropped cutlery begin to filter in as we round the corner and find ourselves above the space we will enter and, perhaps unwittingly, merge with.

Black is the stories of Elizabeth Short, a young Hollywood starlet, whose severed body was found in an empty lot in 1947. Her unsolved murder has created many fictitious, semi-factual and imagined accounts of her demise on screens and in novels, newspapers and gossip mills.

Each performer (Caroline Lee, Moira Finucane, James Wardlaw and Martyn Coutes) represent a facet of the multiple stories. They could be witness, media, detective, victim, friend, family or stranger. All spin web of movement and text that fills the space and draws the audience closer.

The text is designed to be listened to like music, with a four part vocal score of monologue. It’s quite meditative, but separating the parts reveals a poetic and evocative language that was almost unexpected. “The collaging of a body” with “postage stamps of flesh removed”.

The performers are separated by a zigzag wall of perspex. They move through and around the walls, forever changing their position. What makes this work remarkable is that each wall acts as a transparent mirror – we can see through it, and it reflects multiple images around the space.

One performer looks like a conjoined twin from a carnival freak show, whilst simultaneously standing in the audience, looking at another performer, holding her own hand and watching herself. The performers don’t touch or interact but their multiple reflections touch and merge, some morphing like a 90s music video, others walking through each other like ghosts. The effect is stunning, as there are so many versions of the same scene to look at.

As an audience we are allowed to choose if we sit, stand or move. We think we are controlling what we witness and who we see it with. However the reflective walls and changing light take away our control and bring our images into the performance space and the story.

The creation, rehearsal and performance of this complex work is precise and perfect. Design, direction and performance blend to create an experience that is genuinely original, creative, intelligent and brave.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

23 March 2007

Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon
Michael Coppel Ventures and
Louise Withers & Associates
28 March 2007
Her Majesty’s Theatre

Miss Saigon is a simply superb and I dare even the most jaded of theatre goers not to love it. It’s about power and grief and situations where you cannot imagine a happy ending, even though your heart and mind search for a way to make it all work out. The outstanding cast are a balance between fresh and experienced performers and the, much anticipated, new staging adds moments that could not have been imagined in the original.
Anyone who has read anything of mine knows that I have some issues with commercial theatre – but when it’s done right – it’s done right. There are reasons why Miss Saigon has been consistently running all over the world since 1989.
The power of Miss Saigon is in the writing. Spectacle will never compensate for bad writing. The book is structured to reveal every piece of information at exactly the right time, with a balance of emotion that builds, relieves and rebuilds tension to its ultimate breaking point. Its themes and story continue to resonate on so many levels, as it contrasts the personal with a very political understanding of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Its French origins are evident with references to the French occupation of Vietnam, as well as a bitter satirical stream of anger towards “Uncle Ho” and “Uncle Sam”. It may be one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen about refugees and the fear and desperation that makes people want to leave their homes.
This is balanced with an understanding of the unimaginable chaos, control and freedom experienced by the fighting American soldiers. Chris and John are young men who are happy “getting stoned and waking up with some whore”, but their lives are changed so profoundly by their experiences in Saigon.
And, of course, it’s ultimately a love story. Chris, Kim and Ellen: if you hated any of them, it would be an easy story to resolve, but we are always allowed to see their flaws and their strengths. These are characters whose actions you understand; even when you know that they are making choices that are going to cause pain and grief.
This production does use many theatrical and dramatic clichés. Sunsets, ghosts, guns, weddings and adorable children are all there. However, there is a difference between the uses of a cliché for effect, compared to the use of an archetypal image because of its universal reach. (I still can’t believe that a walk into the sunset made me cry.)
And, yes, it is a toe-tapping, hum-along musical. Music can reach ours souls instantly. Words have to go though the brain first. Maybe this is why music can tell the most epic and tragic of stories so effectively. The music isn’t as memorable as Les Miserables (the other great musical by Boublil and Schonberg), but it serves the story and characters perfectly.
Laurie Cadevida (Kim), Leo Tavarro Valdez (The Engineer) and Juan Jackson (John) are all unforgettable. Each has played their role in various international productions of Miss Saigon. Their experience and understanding of their characters is evident. It is such a skill to make a character believable and sympathetic when they are prone to burst into song.
The imported cast members are ideally balanced by the Australian cast. The emotion and strength David Harris brings to Chris fare outweighs the one or two notes he missed. He will quickly settle into this role and make Chris his own. Christina Tan (Gi Gi), PJ Rosales (Thuy) and Sophie Katinis (Ellen) all bring a depth to their roles that may soon surpass the experienced cast members. They show us their characters souls through their songs.
The supporting cast and chorus are still the ones who make or break a big show. It only takes one chorus member to drop their energy to ruin the show for everyone. This cast make the show. Each person on the stage is as strong and believable and the principals. Having seen many of the understudies in supporting roles, I suspect that audiences lucky enough to them perform the leads will be in for some amazing performances.
The new design is ideal for smaller stages, but it never looks like a compromise. It’s no secret that the famous US evacuation helicopter scene is now done using projections. What makes this so amazing is the 3-D technology used. It could have looked so cheap and so bad, but this is phenomenally effective. Projections are also used to boost the emotion of “Bui Doi” and add a new depth of satire to “The American Dream”. The animation used in this number was created by Gerald Scarfe, who designed and directed Pink Floyd's, The Wall.
I have spoken to other people who have seen this production from the balconies. Their response wasn’t as enthusiastic as mine. There appear to have been some problems with sound. I really hope that the power of this Miss Saigon isn’t lost as the ticket prices go down for a view from the gods.
It is expensive to see this style of show, especially if you are caught up with the additional expense of programs and merchandise. But if you are going to see one expensive show this year, this one is worth is. Just give the extras a miss and use that money to go and see a few smaller, independent productions as well.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

07 March 2007

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer
Melbourne Theatre Company
7 March 2007
Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre

I think Ross Mueller is one of the best playwrights around. His structure is flawless, he creates characters and situations that we see in ourselves and our lives, and the emotion he creates resonates in the hearts of his audience. I was thrilled to see the Melbourne Theatre Company commission and present his latest work, The Ghost Writer. I just wish I wasn’t disappointed with the result.

The Ghost Writer had all the marks of a Mueller work. It explores the fictionalisation and sensationalising of other people’s tragedy’s and horrors. His familiar themes are all in place – the complexity of grief, pain and forgiveness, inner city living in Melbourne, writers trying to earn a living and the unimaginable death of a child.

Nonetheless, The Ghost Writer didn’t seem like an authentic Mueller. It felt like there was almost too much effort in the writing. The structure was a bit too perfect and contrived.

Act 2 was especially frustrating. Everyone I spoke to during the interval was predicting the ending and hoping that we were wrong. We weren’t wrong and were given the final clues at the opening of Act 2. There were no surprises. Everything had already been neatly revealed or blatantly stated. The mystery, tension and pace developed in Act 1 were gone.

And, at the end of the day, I wasn’t feeling for these characters. Mueller has written some of the most heartfelt and authentic characters I’ve seen. Everyone in The Ghost Writer was well drawn and delightfully flawed, but they were a step away from believable.

Is this because he is writing for the MTC audience? The MTC audience is not the same audience who goes to independent theatre. They may love this work. It is easy to understand, the overt and latent ghost symbolism is obvious, the story is a bit like that well known Jaiden Leskie murder and it has, the ever lovely and wonderful, John Wood (whose performance is memorable and beautiful.)

The Ghost Writer allows many people get to see Mueller’s work. This is a very good thing. The MTC supporting and commissioning local playwrights is bloody marvellous. I just wish this work was as brave, original and focussed as some of his past works. (Construction of the Human Heart remains my favourite piece of recent theatre.) And I hope that he isn’t alienating his original audience by creating work for this new audience.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

01 March 2007

Harp on the Willow

Harp on the Willow
Presented by Malcolm Cooke and Ensemble Productions
1 March 2007
Comedy Theatre

Mary O’Hara’s story deserves telling and re-telling. Playwright John Misto spent many years searching for her and was thrilled to be able to beat Hollywood and television to the story. If you prefer an episode of Touched By An Angel to a Six Feet Under, then Harp on the Willow will be an ideal night of theatre for you.

Following the death of her husband and years of success and fame as a singer, O’ Hara entered a convent when she was 25. Completely withdrawing from her life, her family and any contact with the world, she was believed dead. Harp on the Willow enters the story 12 years later. She is still a nun and suffering from clinical depression. The only person close to her says that she “lives without joy and despairs of life”.

What could follow is a work about depression, grief and guilt. As a huge crucified Jesus dominates the stage; I also expected that faith, God and belief would be significant themes. All appear in the script, but are about as significant as religion is to The Sound of Music.

Harp on the Willow is written to entertain; not to challenge, question or confront. Jokes appear almost rhythmically – especially nun jokes. According to the audience, there is nothing funnier than a sex/nun joke – except a nun smoking, of course. The jokes break any tension that was developing and continually remind the audience that this is a piece of safe theatre. The delivery and direction ensure that the actors wait for the beat that allows the audience to laugh. This distracts from the drama and reminded me a bit too much of a bad sit com.

The acting style also drifts to the TV soap/sit com style. Marina Prior and Julie Hudspeth both give engaging and enjoyable performances, but neither were convincing as their characters. Prior’s style jumps from “funny nun” to “distraught woman”, but never allows them to be the same person. O’Hara’s depression is only evident by lines in the script, not by her performance.

In contrast Lucy Maunder, as the young O’Hara, and Christopher Stollery, as the man who releases her pain, both present real characters who are able to touch the hearts and minds of the audience. Stollery was skilfully able to balance the drama and the comedy, without distracting from his character. Maunder was working with scenes that could so easily have turned to melodrama, but was able to turn down the drama and subsequently make the young O’Hara’s grief and pain real.

The highlight of the evening is brief an appearance by the real O’Hara. With the help of slides, she briefly talks about her amazing life after the convent. This allows a very happy ending for the audience and makes the past couple of hours on the stage much more real. She has not read or seen the play – and does not intend to. I really wonder what she would think. As she gave Misto the freedom to dramatise, I also wonder why he didn’t explore the obvious themes more thoroughly.

This review origially appeared on AussieTheatre.com.