29 February 2008


Malthouse Theatre

20 February 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

The creatives and cast of Malthouse Theatre’s Tartuffe seduce the audience so convincingly that imperfections with the production become irrelevant.

It’s an intimidating task to adapt a classic work. Louise Fox remains true to Molière’s structure and characters, whilst delightfully playing with the language. (How could anyone resist rhyming Tartuffe with poof?) Grange, the Financial Review, Byron Bay and Desperate Housewives didn’t make the 17th century French original, but they set up many a contemporary reference and joke in this version. If Molière had a Facebook profile, I’m sure he too would have referenced it.

In this version we find ourselves in a suburb like Toorak, complete with its own pool and ornate faux French iron fencing. As always Anna Tregloan’s design beautifully supports the script and the space with an intelligent balance the practical and the aesthetic.

Living here are an indulged family, frustrated by their patriarch’s (and his mother’s) admiration and support of the very religious Tartuffe. With a cast including Marcus Graham, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto and Malthouse favourites Francis Greenslade and Peter Houghton, it would be difficult to be disappointed in cast. On a technical level, the scenes between Alison and Marcus are superb. There buzz from making an audience laugh is naturally addictive for a performer, but some of the clownish aspects of some performances could be better balanced. The clowning can be huge in this farce, but there was a bit of “look at me” acting, which really shouldn’t happen in a cast this experienced.

The build to Tartuffe’s entrance is structured perfectly. Certainly there is a lot of exposition in the first scenes, but we are eager to see the god-like presence that has taken over the household. Marcus doesn’t disappoint. His god-like entrance is as divine as it can be and we very soon discover how this Tartuffe was able to so thoroughly deceive and seduce. Getting over the fact that he is pleasing on the eye, Marcus’ delivers a complex and rounded character. He successfully elicits a degree of empathy and support for the character we could so easily despise – which makes his Act Two downfall even stronger.

The pace picks up significantly in Act Two as it heads to the unavoidable deus ex machina (used almost in its literal sense). I do wonder if a contemporary “king” may have been more relevant than the choice of Christian king or even a less obvious Christian image. It certainly worked in the context of the script, but in the context of Melbourne in 2008, there was something lacking. The final ironic twist may also have been more poignant with a different image of religion, belief or intervening deity.

Finally Matthew Lutton’s direction must be acknowledged. (He was assisting director Michael Kantor until a few weeks ago, when his own ironic deus ex machina intervention arrived when Michael became ill.) There are some hints of inexperience, especially in communicating in a big space, but otherwise the direction is tight, balanced and admirable. Act 1 would benefit from work on establishing the status and relationships of the characters through direction and performance, rather than relying on dialogue and exposition. And sometimes a joke for the sake of a laugh distracts too much from the story and doesn’t serve the script and production as a whole.

At the end of the night, Tartuffe is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not the strongest or most relevant piece of theatre I’ve seen at the Malthouse, but it’s one that sets the bar high for the rest of season.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Photo by Jeff Busby.

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll
February 2008
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre

Tom Stoppard brilliantly uses the potent, resonating, loud, angry symbolism of rock and roll throughout Rock ‘n’ Roll. Stoppard continues to write superb scripts; so why is the MTC’s production about as rock ‘n’ roll as Nanna quietly humming “The Sound of Music” as she has a luke warm cup of tea and a Milk Arrowroot?

There’s a very interesting story hidden in the Stoppard script. It combines the historical with the political and the very personal; then wraps it all in an image understood by anyone born in the 20th century. It follows the lives of an English and a Czechoslovakian academic who met at Cambridge in the 60s. The Czech returned to his home during the brief period of liberty in 1968. Their stories weave through to opening up of Eastern Europe in the late 80s.

I’m sure director Simon Phillips and his cast know the story, but it isn’t told clearly on the stage. The characters, the plot and the context are all confusing. I read the program after the show and learnt things I didn’t know about Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1989 – facts and people that were vital to the story – shame I didn’t understand all of this after watching a three-hour long production. Programme notes are great – but they shouldn’t be necessary to understand a production.

The coherency also suffered from a lack of context. I think the picture of Gough was letting us know it was the 70s. I hope it wasn’t implying that the 1975 debacle in Australian politics was as oppressive as living behind the iron curtain at the same time. The whole production just felt so old school. Here we in Australian theatres, AGAIN pretending that we are in the UK.

I think Stoppard wrote these characters to be played with a generous dose of satire. Has anyone ever said, “The only thing that would make you happy is of the workers owned the means of production” in any context other than a first year politics tutorial? Phillips directed it far too seriously. There wasn’t room to enjoy the humour. A couple of jokes got laughs – but we were laughing at the joke, not the comedy inherent in the script or the characters.

Genevieve Picot and William Zappa stood out amongst the cast. They brought an authenticity and life to their characters and to the stage. The story, however, does revolve around Jan, played by Matthew Newton.  As an actor, you don’t have to like anything the script or the director tells you to do, but your job is to make the audience not only believe, but care about your character.  I didn’t give a toss about Jan and what happened to him. Newton’s performance was as beige as Jan’s high waisted cord trousers.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll set suitably looked like a rock gig with a wall of speakers and a moveable lighting rig. Scenes changes were music, lights and video footage establishing time and place.  A rock concert is bright, loud and imposing. So why weren’t these changes rock and roll? The sound wasn’t even half of 11 and it didn’t take long to suspect that the lights on the rig were just decoration. I can understand many of the decisions made in the direction, but this one just floored me.

In Act 2, Jan says to Nigel, “We mass produce banality in Czechoslovakia.” We seem to be doing it here in Melbourne as well. Am I wrong to expect to walk out of production by our flagship company feeling inspired?

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

28 February 2008

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Malthouse Theatre
27 February 2008  
Tower Thearte, CUB Malthouse 

Director Oscar Redding aptly says, “If a play has continued to be extraordinary for four hundred years and you fuck it up you only have yourself to blame”.  So Oscar, I guess I’m blaming you.

Malthouse Theatre chose to include a film in their 2008 season. I was so looking forward to seeing this. Poor Theatre’s original production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was performed in 2004 in a shopfront to a maximum audience of 15. Looking at the actors, the design and the interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, I’m sure it would have been stunning and I wish I’d seen it.

This is the film version. It was shot in 38 hours, at night over nine days. The effort and dedication of everyone involved is clearly evident. It’s shot in some of Melbourne’s identifiable seedy spots, including Bourke Street Mall, the Degraves Street underpass (where the cast use to rehearse, because it was dry and free) and The Waiters Club.

This is a film, so it has to be viewed and reviewed as a film. I don’t want to use the word atrocious – as I really respect and admire what these folk did to make this film – but it is not a good film.

The whole thing is seen from the POV of whoever is holding a camera. Some googling revealed that it is Osic and he’s the wedding cameraman for Gertrude and Claudius wedding. I spent most of the film trying to figure out who he was. I thought it might be Hortatio and that Hamlet’s little hand puppet was a joke, rather than an indication of madness. Why all of these people continue to trust Osic with their secrets is never clear.

I know Hamlet – it’s one of the best damn stories ever written. If I didn’t know that story, I would have had no idea what was going on on that screen. Nothing was done to establish who the characters were and what their relationships were with each other. So much was hidden in darkness and shadow, that it wasn’t clear what was happening. I get that it’s meant to be hidden and dirty – but isn’t the whole point of film that we see what is going on? It looked like Hamlet pulled back the shower curtain to find Polonius having a drunken nap in the bath.  Ophelia’s death and even her burial were even more mysterious. Gertrude runs into the Waiters Club and says she has drowned. Who drowned? You have to show on the screen, telling doesn’t work. Seriously, please show this film to someone who doesn’t know Hamlet and ask them to summarise the story for you.

Then there was the actual filming. I can see that you were trying to emulate the Dogme 95 declaration. However the Dogme directors knew what rules they were breaking and some did it stunningly (I’m by no means a Lars Van Triers fan, but he could shoot a film). This had unfocussed and wobbly close ups and two shots with lots of language – but rarely did we see what was going on and the quality of the film was so distracting that it was even harder to concentrate on the slabs of language.

The nauseating shaky camera makes the screen almost unbearable to look at. The individual shot composition went from dodgy to bad to “have you ever actually sat in a cinema and watched a film?” I’d love to see the storyboard – if there was one. I really do not understand how a film can look so bad on a screen.

I don’t care about the lack of resources and the roughness. That had nothing to do with this film. It has some admirable ambitions, but was shot badly and failed to show an understanding of film, action and visual story telling. 

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com