30 January 2009


Melbourne Theatre Company
7 January 2009
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre

MTC’s 2009 season starts with Grace, a comprehensive debate about religion, belief, faith and love. It’s another play about middle aged academics in crisis, but no one can ever say that this company don’t target their core audience.

Originally performed as On Religion, Grace was developed in the UK by Mick Gordon’s company On Theatre. Gordon calls his works ‘theatre essays’. Each is a group-devised piece exploring a specific issue through a dramatic narrative, with works including On Death, On Ego and On Emotion. He co-wrote On Religion with English Philosopher A C Grayling.

Grayling is not a believer and his views sit firmly in protagonist Grace. Gordon’s views are more encompassing with each member of Grace’s family having specific and changing perspectives about religion. Questions arise when Grace’s son plans to become an Anglican priest and everyone is forced to confront their core beliefs when tragedy strikes.

Gordon says, “The theatre demands argument and balance. It’s no good at didacticism. In my experience, an audience will just not accept it.” The script reflects this with a fascinating range of well researched, contemporary and authentic arguments. And this is where the problem sits.

It’s a very well written work, but it feels too much like a philosophy student’s honours thesis. You certainly leave the theatre discussing and questioning the arguments put forward, but not talking about the characters and the world just seen. There was chat about what Noni (Hazlehurst) did and what Brian (Lipson) said rather than what Grace and Tom went though. I spent the rest of the evening discussing whether a practicing Anglican can reject a literal belief in Jesus or the concept of Christ. It’s great coffee talk, but it was academic; it wasn’t an emotional discussion about what I would do in a similar situation or dilemma.

It felt like the story was forced upon the ideas and the characters were developed from arguments and points of view. This may well be the aim of Gordon’s work, but it left his characters lacking in complexity and making decisions that were consistent with the argument, rather than the character.

Nonetheless, director Marion Potts breaks down most of the rhetoric and tells the story with warmth and passion. The most moving moments occurred when there was no dialogue and the characters were able to show us what they were really feeling. Hazlehurst is especially stunning when she reacts to a very long monologue at a grave side.

The casting is perfect. Hazlehurst and Lipson are joined by Grant Cartwright and Leah Vandenberg and each brings a complexity and emotional life to their character that isn’t evident in the writing.

Adam Gardnir is on his way to being one of the must have designers in the country and Grace is his first main stage design for the MTC. The design initially seems quite obvious and practical, but as the story unfolds, it shows its suggestiveness, and ultimately reveals its symbolism and complexity.

Grace is well worth seeing for the calibre of the creative team. Its writing is sure to encourage many discussions, but would be so much more powerful if it could break free from its own restraints and create a world not so strictly governed by text book debate.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

12 January 2009

Golden Valley

Golden Valley
Perilous Productions

11 January 2009
Northcote Town Hall

In 1982, Dorothy Hewett’s Golden Valley won the Australia Writers’ Guild Augie award for best children’s script. Perilous Productions bring this Australian fairy tale to the stage for its first professional Melbourne production since 1985.

Director Suzanne Chaundy says, “Let’s make theatre for the young that is every bit as complex and developed as other main stage productions.” Anyone, young or not-so-young, who has sat though a kids show bored to tears, has to agree. I’ve never understood why some companies and performers think that young audiences will accept sub-standard shows and it’s exciting to see a holiday production that respects its audience and lets them engage in a complete theatre experience without a hint of condescension.

Golden Valley is a fairy tale set in the Australian bush with authentic and recognisable Aussie characters. The good guys are good, the bad guy is bad enough to create a couple “I’m scared” whimpers, and the everychild protagonist, Marigold, has faults, faces a series of challenges, is helped by adults and some natural magic, but ultimately saves the day by herself – and grows up a little bit more in the process.

Symbolism fills the poet’s script, with various layers of significance evident beyond the immediate story. This complexity is not necessary for the basic story, but the tale wouldn’t live so vividly without it. Fairy tales that have been simplified to just the superficial story are never as enjoyable or powerful.

Detail and complexity continue onto the stage. From the gorgeous collage-style design to the offstage live music and warm performances, Golden Valley is a delight.

There are only a few performances left, so don’t let young theatre buffs miss Marigold’s adventure.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.