24 May 2008

Patrick White Playwrights’ Award

Patrick White Playwrights’ Award  
24 May 2008
STC, Wharf 2

On May 24, Angus Cerini and Timothy Daly were announced joint winners of the 2007 Sydney Theatre Company and The Sydney Morning Herald Patrick White Playwrights’ Award. Their winning plays, Wretch and The Man in the Attic were chosen from nearly 150 entries and presented as a rehearsed reading.

The $20,000 award, shared by the winners, is Australia’s richest playwrighting award. An initiative of STC and The Sydney Morning Herald, it was established in 2000 in honour of Patrick White. Previous winners are: Patricia Cornelius (2006), Wesley Enoch (2005), Stephen Carleton (2004), David Milroy and Ningali Lawford (2003), Reg Cribb, Ian Wilding (2002), Brendan Cowell, Toby Schmitz, Jackie Smith (2001), and Ben Ellis, Bette Guy, Ailsa Piper (2000).

Wretch’s reading received a very mixed response from the sold out audience; some refused to applaud at the end, many were simply stunned, while the rest of us cheered at the unveiling of such a unique and challenging voice.

On behalf of the judges Polly Rowe (Literary Manager, Sydney Theatre Company) said,
Wretch grabbed hold of us, shook us up and left us devastated. Angus Cerini drags the audience into the lives of characters who share a cruel yet tender relationship in which resentment, blame and love co-exist. The playwright’s original style unearths the poeticism in fragmented and brutal language.”

Cereni’s work is extreme and confronting in its content, its characters and its original language. A mother visits her son in prison. Poverty, violence and prostitution are simply part of their lives. Her cancer ridden ‘loogy booby’ means she has to lose her ‘woman bits’, but she still offers to help her son prepare for his likely anal rape. Meanwhile he is struggling with the guilt and consequences of his own violence. These are far from comfortable, accessible characters, but there is an almost exquisite beauty in their squalor. Cereni takes us to such extremes to create a remarkable work about love. We may not like his characters, but we understand their choices and want a miracle to save them.

Timothy Daly says, “The Man In The Attic is based on an amazing true story, of a Jew who was hidden by a German couple during World War II, but when the war ended, they decided not to tell the man. The story is a unique blend of intimate and epic, personal and political. It’s a writer’s gift.”

Rowe said that, “it impressed us all by demonstrating authorial skill, dexterity and craftsmanship.” Daly’s work is an extremely well crafted play, with a balanced combination of past tense narrative and present tense action.  When the family first find and hide the Jew, it proceeds like many stories we have heard before. Then the twist is finally revealed and the real drama begins - when the family don’t tell their ‘guest’ that the war is over and he is free.

The complex plot revolves around two unexpected pairings. The Jew and the wife, who talk daily, but cannot see each other because he is sealed in the attic; and the husband and their Nazi neighbour, who regularly see each other naked, but are unable to communicate. The second pair’s story is more complex, but nowhere near as compelling as the first. The Jew and the wife drive the story and our interest so much that I wondered why we needed to know so much about the other couple.

Cereni’s beautiful depravity and Daly’s images of stars and hiding will both lead to stage productions that hopefully won’t be too far away.

This  appeared on AussieTheatre.com

21 May 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass
Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera
21 May 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

Through the Looking Glass is the first collaboration between Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera. The 2008 Malthouse season continues to surprise and delight with this astonishing new opera.

Through the Looking Glass explores perceptions of childhood and growing up, while maintaining the absurdity and humour of Lewis Carroll’s writing.  Composer Alan John and librettist Andrew Upton have fashioned an intriguing work that draws from the “Alice” books and the report and rumour surrounding Charles Lutwudge Dodgson (Carroll) and his relationship with Alice Pleasance Liddell. (Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch’s discussion of this relationship is in the programme and is well worth reading.)  This Alice is followed and reflected by three ‘young Alices’ whose presence continually force us to question the truth and source of their wonderland.

Peter Corrigan’s incredible set, costume and puppet design delightfully re-invent the reflected backwards world. With hints of darkness and complex imagery, the design is as fascinating and confusing as Alice’s (and Carroll’s) thoughts.

 Director Michael Kantor brings a determined story telling aspect to the production. It is a complex and difficult story to follow, as well-known parts of the tale are missing and Carroll has become a character, but Kantor lets us understand enough, without compromising the music or spectacle.

 With the likes of David Hobson and Suzanne Johnston, the cast are all wonderful, including the children playing the young Alices. However, Dimity Shepherd is outstanding as Alice. Shepherd is always vocally superb and consistently brings complexity and depth to her characters.

 Conductor Richard Gill says, “Shiny new operas are held very close to our hearts.”  It is indeed rare to see an Australian opera produced. Victorian Opera are including a new Australian opera in their repertoire each year. By bringing a production as wonderful as Through the Looking Glass to a wider theatre audience, let’s hope that theatre appetites are whetted for more of thesame.

 This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

12 May 2008

Cellblock Booty

Cellblock Booty
Sisters Grimm

1 May 2008
Harmsworth St Collingwood

The breadth of the offence in Sisters Grimm’s Cellblock Booty is something to behold. Sexism, racism, homophobia and blasphemy are rampant in a work that entertains though sheer exploitation.

Declan Greene and Ash Flanders are the Sisters Grimm. They create queer theatre at its most anarchistic. Flanders has even introduced the term 'ball acting' to my theatrical vernacular.

Cellblock Booty is a homage to the 70s sexploitation prison flicks. Thrushmore womens prison is a world of jiggling breasts, implied (and blatant) homosexuality, innuendo and manipulation though stress and drugs by a power crazed ruler. Luckily, we have developed as a society and now demand quality non-exploitative entertainment like Wife Swap and the re-vamped world of Big Brother 08. Surely, a fisting from Thrushmore’s Matron can’t be more painful than a diary room chat with BB.

There should be something in this show that offends you. It’s meant to. It’s not just outrageously bad acting, unbelievable characters, unwarranted nudity, inconsistent plot and a pair of boots that make shoe lovers weep. Cellblock Booty pushes us to our limits of taste and tolerance.

Connie (Flanders) calls her African American inmate every racial slur she can muster. Chink, kike, packy, gook and spick roll off her tongue with abandon. Of course, none actually refer to the ethnic stereotype she is trying to offend. As a representation of ignorance and ridiculous racism, there is no finer than Connie. I should also mention that the inmate being offended is sensitively played by a young woman in an afro wig and a full body “blacking up” that makes the Black and White Minstrel Show look racially positive.

There is substance supporting the tacky high camp frolic. (And I’m not talking about the collection of substances in Connie’s arse.) The repeated image of God as a dragon is a remarkably detailed and astute observation about religion. They play with, break and satirise the conventions of drag by having men and women playing women. The men play lesbians, so this queer show has men regularly groping women.

The Sisters deftly balance the line between satire and offence. Then leap over it as far as they can. The jiggling breasts torture scene had me scribbling notes about women who still let themselves be directed like that. Then Greene’s direction lowered the lights at the perfect moment and took the scene to such an extreme that I was wiping away tears of laughter within seconds.

For the final irony, you have to see Cellblock Booty in the underground car park of the high-rise council flats in Collingwood. The echo effect of the venue saves the company a fortune on sound, the authentic cement interior is perfect for Thrushmore and the cold reminds the audience that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. However, they then went and created a totally welcoming bar space out of re-cycle crates and other found objects from the flats.

I’m not sure if the Sisters Grimm realise just how good they are. Don’t get me wrong – this is by no means slick, brilliantly written, soul-touching theatre; it’s cheap, chaotic and crappy. They do everything wrong and that’s what makes it so right. So, give BB a miss one night and head to the flats. Just remember to bring your muff.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 May 2008

48 Hour Play Generator

48 Hour Play Generator
The Emerging Writers Festival
11 May 2008
BMW Edge, Federation Square

Take four emerging playwrights and four famous paintings. Leave them alone for 48 hours and see what happens. Welcome to the second 48-Hour Play Generator, the closing event of Melbourne’s Emerging Writer’s Festival

How do local playwrights get their work read, let alone developed and produced? A script can be brilliantly written, but it’s only half-alive if it isn’t performed and seen. The Melbourne Dramatists are a group of well-known, mid-career playwrights trying to address the problem.  Group members Ross Mueller, Adam Cass, Robert Reid, Melissa Bubnic and Amelia Roper cranked up the Generator.

Early career playwrights Tom Maclachlan, Fregmonto Stokes, Meg Courtney and Michele Lee were The Generator’s chosen fuel. On Friday, each was given a well-known painting as a stimulus. On Sunday, their newly written short plays were teamed with a director and three actors. On Sunday night, an audience gathered in the glass surrounds of the BMW Edge, eager to see the results. It really sounds like a writer’s nightmare. Who hasn’t had that dream where they are totally unprepared and about to be judged by an audience of their peers?

There cannot be any serious criticism of works written in such a short time. Completing the process alone is admirable. The fact that all created credible, interesting and engaging short plays proves how damn good these writers are.

It was fascinating to see works at such a raw, almost still-bleeding stage. Most chose very encompassing themes (God, religion and morality were popular), some let their characters have a personal rant, and most plot holes were filled with description and exposition – but each writer created something highly original without resorting to formula, cliché or stereotype. I’m sure that the hokey pokey of Not in this Town (Maclachlan), the taboo discussion of Every Spitting Angel (Stokes), the confession hearing cow of Gopastami (Courtney), and the haunting celler dwellers of Cellar Children (Lee) will all be developed by their writers into something new and wonderful.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

03 May 2008

An Evening with Lorna Luft

An Evening with Lorna Luft
3 May 2008
Fairfax studio, The Arts Centre 

Melbourne didn’t see Lorna Luft’s multimedia show Songs My Mother Taught Me. Instead, we were treated to the much more intimate An Evening with Lorna Luft. This gave us the opportunity to see Luft for herself, without immediate association with well-known members of her family.

Luft made her television debut at 11, singing on her mother’s series (The Judy Garland Show). She said she was never comfortable with her legacy. Comfort, acceptance and celebration of her upbringing have come with age, love and distance.  She has also created and maintained her own astonishingly consistent career that spans Broadway musicals (at 19 she stared in Promises, Promises.), national tours, Off Broadway theatre, television, film (she was in Grease 2), concerts and variety. She has also had time to write “Me and My Shadows: Living with the Legacy of Judy Garland” and produce the Emmy winning series based on her memoir.

The evening’s standing ovation declared that Luft is indeed a performer to be reckoned with. She enthralled the eager audience, with a selection of musical and popular favourites ranging from ‘My Funny Valentine’ to ‘Don’t Cry Outloud’ (in tribute to the brother in law she loved dearly).

She was much more comfortable and settled after the interval. It was here that we got to hear her stories, feel her sincerity, laugh at her wit, and share some of Songs My Mother Taught Me. We were privileged to hear her stories (like Judy changing all the shoes outside the doors at the Savoy) and hear her sing some of those songs.  When she stated with, ‘The night is bitter...’ the room belonged only to her.

Luft doesn’t try to emulate her mother. Her arrangements (by her husband and pianist Colin R Freeman) suit her voice, her style and her personality. She captivates by being herself.

Luft is performing in other cities until the end of June. Nothing will stop fans going, but there will also be many more Friends of Lorna by the end of the tour.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com