25 May 2007

The Pillowman

The Pillowman
Melbourne Theatre Company
25 May 2007
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

The Australian premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is already dividing audiences. There are those who stay and those who leave. It’s an ingenious, highly original, dark, complex and intriguing story. Sadly it’s hidden in an over-written, over-complicated script, and buried in an under-directed and sometimes tedious production.

I was initially worried when FOH staff warned me that it’s three hours long (warned in a “get a drink while you can” way, rather than – “you are going to love this” way). 15 people left during Act One (and they didn’t wait for suitable breaks) and I counted nearly 100 abandoned seats after interval (not including the many rows behind me).

Katurian K Katurian, a writer, is arrested and interrogated because his short stories are almost identical to recent murders of children. We meet the good cop, the bad cop, Katurian’s retarded brother, Michael, and Katurian’s stories. This is unique and original writing.

The Pillowman won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards Best Foreign Play 2004-2005 and the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Play. It’s a brave and excellent choice for the Melbourne Theatre Company, but people kept filing out of the theatre.

Katurian says, “The duty of a story teller is to tell a story”. Act One initially seems too caught up in telling his stories, rather than telling us his story. I found it over-written, with dialogue that was too repetitive, often obvious and relied far too much on the exposition of the characters narrating the stories. However, I’m sure if I read the script, I would have loved it.

This production isn’t translating this script well. The style is a combination of The Bill, Law and Order, 1984 and an early Lynch film. Take all the good bits and edit them together. Unfortunately the result isn’t symbiotic.

There are some delightfully disturbingly, dark and astonishing moments (it really is worth hanging around for the opening of Act Two). McDonough says he starts in a dark place and goes even darker, but that the darkness is balanced by the comedy. The comedy is what is failing in this Pillowman. The script is as dark as a black cat on the dark side of the moon after the sun has exploded and disappeared. It needs the balance of the comedy. The over-written dialogue, the unimaginable acts, the racism and the mocking of the “spastic” are meant to be funny. But when it isn’t coming across as funny, all that is left is the disturbing.

The grey design is highlighted in shades of grey. Grey isn’t dark - grey is bland and dull. The direction reflects the design. The few props are so obvious that you know they will become integral to the action, which lessens their impact when they do. Act One is begging for pace and tension. This is the half that sent the audience away. They didn’t seem offended at the content, they just seemed bored. And they missed the much, much better Act Two.

Dan Wyllie as Michael is superb, among a generally excellent cast. Joel Edgerton is engaging as Katurian, but was missing the fear and anger that drives his character’s actions. Torture, the threat of imminent death and the revealing of the most heinous results of your own actions – this results in more than a bit miffed and worried.

People leaving the theatre indicates that there is something seriously wrong with a production. The Pillowman could be astonishing, but needs some very serious tough love and some brave directorial re-thinks. Please don’t blame the audience for not understanding the vision. We understood it, we just didn’t like how it was done.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

20 May 2007


Eagle’s Nest Theatre

20 May 2007
Northcote Town Hall

There is no denying that Hamlet is a fabulous story. Eagle's Nest Theatre’s version has been pared down to a tale about a royal family whose shenanigans rival the tabloid stories of our contemporary royals.

Eagle’s Next Theatre is one of Melbourne’s many independent companies. This one was formed with the goal to produce professional independent theatre and ensure schools and communities beyond the central city area have access to the work. Their program of VCE scripts, classics and original works has created a broad and appreciative audience.

This Hamlet concentrates on the family. Fortinbras has been let go, which has created a slightly different, yet beautifully strong ending. There are some original character interpretations. Bruce Woolley's Claudius is forever drunk, and Phil Zachariah’s Polonius is comical and dithery (oh dear, Ophelia/ Oh, Dear Ophelia).

James Adler knows Hamlet. His regular performances of the Danish prince have given him the insight that allows for multiple interpretations. This time his Hamlet is very controlled and constrained. There is method to his feigned madness and Hamlet can clearly see the consequences of his actions. We so wish he could make his world right. I would, however, have liked to see more of Hamlet’s internal struggle made external. Soliloquies were written to show our internal thoughts. These are the thoughts that aren’t constrained by relationships and people watching. They don’t need to be held so close.

The less experienced members of the cast struggled with the language and in consistency. This is the nature of a company that offers opportunity to all performers. It is the director’s decision about how to temper and present performers of vastly different level skill levels.

The direction was uneven. The story was told well, but seemed to have been directed scene by scene, rather than as a whole. Act Two needed much more pace and tension and the staging needed more attention to detail (Claudius could have stopped Gertrude drinking because he was so close to her).

Hamlet is about status and power; within the country, the court and the family. When the design uses velvet, crowns and pewter goblets – it is acknowledging the role of royalty and the hierarchy at play. A travelling player would not touch a prince; a daughter would not sit when her king and father stood. Using character status as an acting/rehearsal technique may have significantly helped the lesser experienced performers. We needed to see the relationships between the characters and how their status and power motivated their actions.

The relationships between some characters were also unclear. I knew Gertrude was fond of Ophelia, but had no idea if she even liked Hamlet, or if she enjoyed being regularly groped by Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seemed to have a different motivation in each scene. Were they there because their best mate Hamlet needed them, because Claudius would kill them if they weren’t there, or because Gertrude had offered them reward? This is all in the text, but was not clear on the stage.

This isn’t a perfect Hamlet, but it tells the story with intelligence and clarity. As such, it is an ideal introduction to anyone who doesn’t know the tale and twists in some original character and plot interpretations for those who can quote along with the cast.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

09 May 2007

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament

OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament
Uncle Semolina (and Friends) and Malthouse Theatre
9 May 2007
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse,

When Yahweh created mankind he said “it was good”. I left Uncle Semolina (and Friends)’s OT: Chronicles of the Old Testament saying it was good. It was actually very, very, very good. In fact it’s the kind of authentic, original, mind blowing theatre that awakens your brain and shows the unique power of people on a stage.
Imagine Playschool and The Wiggles getting together to tell a story. The toys are getting old and worn, the set really is cardboard, the cast aren’t the best of friends and the director is difficult and ambivalent, but he really IS God. The story is of Yahweh, his creation of mankind and the brutality and violence that is the source of our modern sense of morality.

Directors and creators Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe say with OT “we want to explore the building block of our morality.... to re-imagine the stories of the Bible but at the heart of it we are trying to explore and pull apart what the values are.”

OK...a show that deals with the entire morality of society, using the world’s best selling book as a starting point. The enormity of this task is overwhelming. I can think of one or two religions that have been attempting the same task for a more than two thousand years.

Uncle Semolina (and Friends)’s attempt isn’t perfect, but they’ve come pretty close.

At first the pace seemed forced and I was concerned that the performers were simply narrating a well known tale, rather than showing us an authentic story. However, the structure of the work gradually lifts the pace and the emotional commitment of the characters. The initial doubt made the realization that this is seriously brilliant theatre even more powerful. For me that moment came when the storytellers lost their God .The complexity and confusion of literally and figuratively flooded the stage, and the real strength of this piece emerged.

Luke Ryan’s performance is superb. His story of that “tough cunt” Sampson (the bogan re-telling is how is should always be told) and his stand up comic Job (aka Head) were highlights from a consistently intelligent and engaging performance. The rest of the cast are very good, but need to settle into the run and break away from performing so much. It is hard to hide how much you love being on a stage, but let the telling of the story come first. This will make the audience forget we are watching you perform, which will actually make us love your performance even more.

The direction seems very influenced by Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess ( Melbourne International Festival  2005). As OT runs, it will also achieve the directorial balance of humour, story, character and chaos, which Bloody Mess did so well. The image of Burt rimming Teddy is carved into my brain for ever, but, at such times, the humour distracted from the rest of the stage and from the story.

I say this regularly and will say it again. The support the Malthouse Theatre is giving to independent theatre creators in Melbourne is brilliant. Authentic, original theatrical language can only be created when artists are given the freedom to create, without the restrictions of commercial viability. Looking at the Malthouse program for the rest of the year, I’m also expecting (and hoping) to see this authenticity appear more in Malthouse main stage productions

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

07 May 2007

The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance
Opera Australia
17 May 2007
The State Theatre, The Arts Centre

There were cat calls, hollers and whoops of joy from the audience.  Most knew every lyric, were humming in the foyer and just itching to sing along. It wasn’t a midnight performance of Rocky Horror – this was Australian Opera presenting The Pirates of Penzance.

A Gilbert and Sullivan opera is as English as a white bread sandwich or egg and chips. By no means sophisticated or original, but an enjoyable favourite, that many like to orphan indulge in.

The plot resolution is shocking, the characters lack substance and there are no surprises. Nonetheless, the paradox is that 75, 000 people have seen this production since it opened last year.

Opera Australia’s new production of Pirates is simply perfect for their audience. It’s not an especially creative re-interpretation of a classic work. I’m sure it could be an intelligent musing about rejection and the impermanence of beauty, or even a sensible exploration of sense of duty. However, it wouldn’t be filling the State Theatre. G&S fans know what they like and this production serves it up in great big splendid bucketfuls.

It is all a bit of joke, but it really doesn’t matter, because the audience are not only complicit in the joke, but would be horrified if anyone really took it too seriously.

As expected from a company of this calibre, the casting in excellent. Reg Livermore was born to be a G&S comic and his Modern Major General is the very model. Suzanne Johnston’s Ruth is a balance between crone and emancipated, hot 40 something and Taryn Fiebig brings a subtle, and appreciated, depth to Mabel. The chorus is cast with some of the best young singers, who I’m sure we will see as principals in years to come.

It is, it is a glorious thing to be Johnny Depp. Tradition asks directors to follow Gilbert’s lead and have characters as parodies of prominent public figures. So, I suppose the Pirate King being based on Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean is fair. But it isn’t really a parody, as much as an impersonation. Anthony Warlow does it rather wonderfully, yet it is also a glorious thing to be Anthony Warlow, and I would have liked to see a touch more originality.

Richard Roberts design is simple, iconic and delightfully ironic. With a rake, a proscenium of light globes and cartoon ships that wheel on and off the billowy waters, this design shows how to have a lot of fun with tradition and still create something of beauty in its own right.

If you like G& S, this is unmissable. If you’re hesitant about opera, but like a good musical, you’ll probably love Pirates and want to see more and more. Sullivan’s melodies are memorable and Gilbert’s eloquent diction creates a delightful fiction. The best thing about having surtitles was being able to read the wit and wordplay (and look out for the surtitle joke in ACT 2).

At the end of the night, everyone had a lot of fun. Pirates is G&S designed, directed and performed very, very well and the audience loved it. Hurrah for Opera Australia.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.