28 February 2009

Poor Boy

Poor Boy
Melbourne Theatre Company
and Sydney Theatre Company
27 February 2009
Sumner Theatre

The Melbourne Theatre Company opened the shiny, brand-spanking-new Sumner Theatre this very-hot week with a shiny, new, very hot Australian work.
Poor Boy is described as “a play with songs”. Matt Cameron’s script weaves with Tim Finn’s music from over the last 30 years, including songs from Spit Enz and his solo work.
This highly original work is not a piece of musical theatre. The songs are not part of the plot and used like an emotional commentary. The story stands by itself without the music and the music tells its own story without the play. As neither is dependent upon the other, they support and strengthen each other to create something surprisingly powerful and unexpectedly moving.
‘Poor Boy’ is also the title of a song from Split Enz’s album ‘True Colours’. (Remember, “My love is alien” with lots of dated swishy synth.)This was my favourite album of 1980 (constant playing of “I hope I never” got me though much tween-heartbreak) and still makes it onto my iPod. Ian McDonald’s arrangements make the music feel like it was written for the story, while Cameron’s script captures Finn’s recurring natural motifs and recreates the mood of each song through a completely different story.
When Jem turns seven, he claims to be adult Danny who died several years ago. Truths are and secrets are revealed as both families cope with the loss of a son. Cameron places the supernatural and the extraordinary well within the ordinary and recognisable world of the two families, while developing a sense of wonder and a dreamlike detachment. The MTCS’s companion piece Grace deals with similar themes, but Poor Boy is so much more powerful because the playwright never questions the truth of the situation and lets the beliefs of the characters guide the audience to their own conclusions.
Cameron’s perfectly crafted writing surprises at each turn and concludes so perfectly that you could never imagine it being anything else. Each character had their own complete and engaging story and balance within the overall plot. His complex imagery of water, digging, biblical heroes and zebras seems ridiculous as I write it, but beautiful on the stage and forms the lyrical base of the script. The dialogue sounds slightly unnatural, but it clearly comes from the unspoken and unconscious thoughts of the characters and conversations that are more fluid would break the haunting atmosphere.
The star-power of Guy Pearce as Danny will bring many people to Poor Boy – and rightly so. Pearce on stage is as enigmatic and addictive as he is on film. He puts the character before his performance and makes you completely forget you are watching an actor.
The rest of the cast (Greg Stone, Linda Cropper, Matt Dykrunski, Sara Gleeson, Abi Tucker, Sarah Peirse and a rotating cast of three boys) are equally as outstanding, and Simon Phillips’s direction steps back to let the script and music speak for themselves while discretely helping when a little more is needed.
The love that the creative team have for this work spills from the stage. There is never a moment when it doesn’t feel like this is something very special and it’s wonderful to sit amongst an audience who can feel and share this sense of pride and wonder.
This time last year I was saying how consistently disappointed I was with the MTC. Perhaps the move to the terrific new theatre has released some demons. Poor Boy is setting the bar high for what this company should always producing and I hope I never have to see a lesser production again.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
Melbourne Theatre Company
presents Sydney Theatre Company’s production
27 February 2009
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre

Joan Didion had a blessed life. She married the man she loved, had a much-adored child and enjoyed an envious writing career among the New York and LA literati. In an unfair matter of months her husband and daughter died, leaving Didion with only her writing. The Year of Magical Thinking is her memoir of that unimaginable time. She wasn’t convinced she should re-write it as a play. Fortunately, she took that risk.
Cate Blanchett directed Robin Nevin in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the 90-minute monologue in 2008 and Melbourne Theatre Company are letting us share this memorable work. The sound and lighting design didn’t cohesively make the trip, but this awkwardness did little to lessen the impact of this remarkable production.
In the US, Didion isn’t a tabloid-worthy celebrity, but is faced with recognition from most memoir-reading and theatre-going audiences. Blanchett knows well the joys and curses of being a celebrity persona, and her direction purposefully takes the work away from Didion as a character and reveals the raw story. The balance struck between emotion and story is where this piece shines.
For some, Didion’s exploration of her own grief seems distant, as she created a metaphorical world of water around her grief and structured it for “easy” reading. For others her restraint and control is natural and a relief to recognise that all heartbroken widows and mothers don’t collapse in a cliché of screaming tears to prove that their very essence is hurting.
The Year of Magical Thinking is about extreme emotion, but Blanchett and Nevin let the story guide the audience. It would have been easy to play the emotion – and it would have struck all the right chords – but by restraining the character, the audience infuse the story with their own experiences of grief and love – which makes the experience so much more powerful and personal.
None of which can take away from Nevin’s performance. It’s not just that she creates a character who lets us forget that she’s Nevin, but that she enables a full audience to empathise with a woman who is so unlike most people watching. Nevin may have an odd reputation in our gossipy world of theatre, but there are few actors who equal this level of skill and understanding. Her performance is about letting us feel our own grief and love, not about us watching her fine performance.
“Magical thinking” is described as tribal thinking, such as sacrificing to ensure a good harvest - but it’s not unknown to anyone. As children we try not to step on cracks; Didion chose her actions secretly believing that her behaviour would bring her loved ones back. There’s no logic or sense in the reasoning, but maybe the magic of this thinking is that lets our hearts keep beating when loss and grief are trying to overwhelm us.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

16 February 2009

I Love You, Bro

I Love You, Bro
Three to a Room and Malthouse Theatre
14 February 2009
The Tower, Cub Malthouse

If you heard that I Love You Bro was not to be missed – but you missed its 2007 and 2008 seasons – don’t worry because it’s at the Malthouse Theatre until the end of the month. Don’t miss it this time.

Among the madness of the 2007 Melbourne Fringe was a small show called I Love You, Bro. I wasn’t the only reviewer praising, and Adam J A Cass secured a Fringe award and a Green Room nomination for his script. Local independent producers Three to a Room came on board and more great reviews and full houses followed at a short Melbourne return season and the Edinburgh Fringe. Whilst they were on the other side of the world, the Malthouse’s Executive Producer finally caught the show and promptly placed it in the company’s 2009 season.

Cass’s script is inspired by the true story of a Manchester teenager who convinced another boy to stab him solely from their internet communications. At the time, it was almost unbelievable that anyone’s reality could be so influenced by the falseness of the net. It happened when chat was still for the geeks, but now even my Mum chats to me on Facebook and it’s not so hard to imagine how easy it was for Johnny to lure Mark to that alley.

I’ve raved about this script before, but it continues to deserve many words of praise. Cass took the facts and made it a story. His fluid flow from past to present never ceases to intrigue, his simple use of minor offstage characters shows us so much about Johnny, and he gives Johnny opportunities to make it right – whilst knowing there is no was out.

Although it was written about a very specific sub-culture, increasing technology and our willing acceptance of the virtual world has revealed a depth to the script that wasn’t so obvious at first. As many of us now interact in a virtual world as much as Johnny did, the underlying themes of lies, deceit, loneliness and power play much more strongly than the plot about the boy chatting online. As our perceptions are changing, perhaps the script could be made even more powerful with some cautious editing.

If you saw the original production, the changes to I Love You, Bro are minimal, but the growth is substantial. Jason Lehane has redesigned his subtle, yet powerful, set for the larger venue, with his projections adding their own narrative to the stage and a lighting design that must be what cyber space looks like.

The piece is now also performed with a northern English accent. Having seen both versions, I wouldn’t have noticed the accent if I hadn’t known it was there. I do wonder about the choice to add accents when a story is universal, but it adds a degree of authenticity, without distracting from its power or from the story and Ash Flanders never lets the accent define or control the character.

I can’t imagine anyone but Flanders as Johnny. He is best known around town for his questionable “ball acting” in Sisters Grimm productions. His mad, punk-camp-drag is mighty fine, but his performance in I Love You, Bro is remarkable. The complexity of the script makes it a very difficult piece to perform, demanding that the actor be Johnny, his own object of desire and every persona he creates. Flanders relishes the difficulty and his connection to the audience reflects the state of Johnny’s thoughts, being intimate and personal, then distant and detached. He never lets us feel sorry for Johnny, but gives a sense of warped understanding and empathy.

A monologue set in front of a computer, with a disjointed sense of time and minimal action isn’t something most directors would jump at. Fortunately, Yvonne Virsik jumped. Her direction gives a satisfying completeness to the work, as she finds the changing truth in the script, lets the audience find a path though the complex plot, and guides Flanders’s performance to a level that he may not have known he could achieve.

I Love You, Bro is one of those shining examples of what can be created from passion and a desire to show a story to the world. Such romantic notions are well and good, but even artists need to pay rent and have a meal, so let’s hope that this Malthouse season opens up many more doors that help Bros’s 2009 UK tour.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.


Malthouse Theatre

15 February 2009
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

With music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Tim Rogers strutting around the stage, Malthouse’s Woyzeck was tipped to lure the cool folk back to the theatre and confirm the ultra-hipness of those who love hanging out in the dark spaces. It is rating well on the cool-o-meter, but opinions are very mixed on its value and success.

Woyzeck was penned by Georg Buchner around 1836-37. He died before he finished it, but his story of a solider who kills his lover continues to inspire. Director Michael Kantor writes of its “bedevilling moral conundrums” and “searing beauty” and hopes to connect the Cave/Ellis music with its universal emotion.

Well, that’s what I read in the program. I don’t think you should have to read the program to understand a show and I save my reading for the tram ride home. After reading Kantor’s program notes, I understood what he was trying to do and think he succeeded, but this understanding and intellectual connection didn’t bring this show back to life for me.

I found Woyzeck distracting. I didn’t dislike it, but was never engaged. The music was as terrific as it should be, the cast were great, the design was pretty neat and there were some great moments - but I didn’t care about the characters, didn’t feel the emotion and spent most of the show wondering why it wasn’t working.

The disjointed nature of the story makes character difficult, but there was enough inherent emotion in the story to sustain the most cynical. This production seemed so intent on looking great and living up to its anticipation that this emotional essence was lost. There were wonderful moments and performances, but the parts didn’t create a greater whole.

Of the wonderful, Tim Rogers is a lauded rock star for very good reason – he’s amazing on stage and you just can’t take your eyes off him. I loved watching him, but he seemed like a wild and bendy peg in a slightly square hole. Kantor is fond of putting singers and non-singers together on a stage. As with last years’ Sleeping Beauty, no matter how well an actor sings, they sound woeful when compared to a professional singer, and no matter how great a performer someone like Rogers is, his acting feels forced compared to the likes of Bojana Novakovic. So, instead of enjoying what these performers do best, we end up distracted by their lesser skills.

Many people love Woyzeck, so it is finding a grateful audience, but if you’re off to the Malthouse this week, I’d recommend going to see I Love You, Bro instead.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.