30 July 2009

You’re Not The Boss of Me

You’re Not The Boss of Me
La Mama
7 July 2009
La Mama Courthouse

You’re Not The Boss Of Me opens with two children playing Bonka in a red cage. Bonka is everything. We don’t know what it is, we don’t know why they are there, but we fear the worst and hope for the best.

Director Adam J A Cass says in his program notes that he’s sucked in by theatre that surprises, stays one step ahead and doesn’t spoon feed. No wonder he jumped at the chance to direct Natasha Jacobs’ script.

You’re Not The Boss Of Me plays with playing and we hope the physical cage is a metaphor. We try to find the truth amongst the tricks, teases, games and dreams, then try to avoid it when we see it. Jacobs excels at creating unease and discomfort by only letting us glimpse the truth as it plays hide and seek in the story and in our understanding. She knows that what we imagine is so much more powerful than what we are told.

Jacobs knows every nuance of her script and her performance as the girl is riveting. This girl doesn’t want to drop her mask of control, not even to her only friend and hope, and it’s a rare performer that let’s the character keep her control, while letting the audience see the horror and fear that created the mask. Sam Hall, as her friend, equals Jacobs’ energy and gently reveals his character’s reality as his innocence slips away and he is forced to take control.

Cass’ direction is paced perfectly. The first act is full of movement, fun and hope that it’s all just a game, while the second act almost stills to a halt, as the hints of truth can no longer be hidden and the tension becomes beautifully uncomfortable. Directing actors to perform as children can be more difficult than directing children. If either performer were allowed to fall into the unforgiveable cliché of a comic child, the impact would be lost. He lets the children play, while bringing an adult understanding that the reasons for their play are complex and hidden.

The design team (Luke Stokes – set, Richard Vabre – lighting, Camilla McKewan – costume and Brooke Taylor – sound) create the unsettling caged world the children play in. The design lets the audience feel slightly confused, but, like the script, is open to many interpretations.

Unfortunately, the season has ended, but this is a work that deserves to be seen again.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

A Narrow Time For Angels

A Narrow Time For Angels
Lucy Freeman, Walking into Bars and The Store Room
7 July 2009
The Store Room

The Store Room has been presenting some of our most innovative and original independent theatre for ten years and opens its five-show 2009 season with A Narrow Time For Angels by Melbourne playwright Cerise De Gelder.

Apart from having one of the best titles ever, De Gelder’s script presents unexpected characters, creates comedy with situation and plot and sprinkles the absurdity with plenty of jokes. Structurally there are some questionable flashbacks and awkward exposition, but it’s pacy and funny enough to overcome any minor issues that may disappear in any re-writes.

However, the humour isn’t quite working on the stage yet. Lucy Freeman’s direction brings too much drama and reality into the ridiculous world. Maggie breaks into the morgue so she can find her dead ex-girlfriend’s body, but is interrupted by a ghost and a cute forensic mortician, and proceeds to tell a rambling tale of gambling, revenge, politicians and questions of fidelity when your ex-hooker girlfriend knows you need a lot of money quickly. There’s no room for soul searching and understanding; the success of this script depends on a non-stop build of joke and farcical plot. When the pace drops for the serious moments of character revelation, it gives the audience too much space and time to wonder if it’s all meant to be serious. If the comedy consistently leads everything, the empathy, understanding and the heartbreak will come much more effectively through laughter.

Marcella Russo, Hayley Butcher and Georgina Naidu are ideally cast, but each bring a different type of comedy to the stage. Naidu brings a clownish caricature to her multiple roles (we laugh at the performance), Russo lets Maggie see only the drama (we laugh at the situation) and Butcher lets Sam’s internal conflict make her choices (we laugh at the character). Each performance is equally as funny, but the different styles don’t always on the stage.

The joy of theatre is that every performance is different and A Narrow Time For Angels will settle and change as the season continues. Under the artistic direction of Todd Macdonald, The Store Room has presented the first performances of some the most remarkable scripts created in Melbourne and, as works need that first production to iron out the creases, it’s always worth a trip to North Fitzroy to see what’s being uncovered.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Care Instructions

Care Instructions
Malthouse Theatre and Aphids
11 July 2009
Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse

You know that annoying moment when you’re watching a play, movie or even reading a book and you realise you have no idea what’s going on because your brain wandered off?

I loved watching and listening to Care Instuctions. As someone who hates washing, it was almost cathartic to see the white sheets, the pink knickers and the black t-shirts cast aside with an intriguing mix of love and irreverence. The design is beautiful, the performer trio (Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee) are divine and the language flows, splashes and meanders like creek made of music – but I wasn’t listening to the words and could not have told you what this show was about had I not read the program – and even then, I still missed the Sleeping Beauty references.

I know if I read Cynthia Troup’s script, I’d probably love it and could pontificate about the perfection of every metaphor, archetype and myth reference. This is a “writerly” script, which begs to be read. The words might be perfect on paper, but they become just sound on the stage. It was like listening to someone speak a language you don’t speak fluently, so that all you do is recognise the phrases and words that you understand, but you struggle to put them into context.

I kept trying to bring myself back to the script and the words (after all, I am rather fond of words and people who put them together well) but I kept getting lost. I didn’t mind being lost, as it was delightful to just watch – and I was vividly taken back to being a four-years-old and watching my teddy bear in the giant spin dryer at the laundromat – but I was felt like I was missing the essence of what was going on.

Writers, directors and all creators can never see their own work with the innocence and freshness of new eyes. It’s hard to see that other people have no idea what we are trying to say when it’s so clear in our heads. But maybe the enjoyment of Care Instructions isn’t in the understanding; perhaps we’re just meant to enjoy it.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Happy Days

Happy Days
Malthouse Theatre
12 July 2009
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

As I feel uncomfortably stuck to my ergonomic chair and unable to move from the confines of my desk and the growing pile of deadlines surrounding me, I have a soft spot for Winnie. Overwhelmed, out of control, unable to move and pouring forth words to someone who may not be listening; perhaps Beckett wrote Happy Days as an allegory for writers?

Writers tend to like Samuel Beckett, so do actors and people who love to natter about symbolism over a glass of Annie’s Lane Shiraz and a wedge of King Island Brie. So, of course, we love Malthouse Theatre’s Happy Days.

Director Michal Kantor lets Beckett’s words speak for themselves, while shaking up the purist opinions and giving us plenty of post-post-existentialist ideas to ponder.

If you missed out on an arts degree, Happy Days is another one of Beckett’s plays where nothing happens, but this protagonist is buried in a mound of earth. In this case, a post-apocalyptic, jagged mountain of earth supported with shards of broken existences. Anna Cordingley’s design brings an unexpected impact to the work. The deco sculptures, the endless sky curtain and the incessant circle of stage lights sustain our curiosity and wonder, while the artistry of Paul Jackson’s lighting floods the stage with emotion and changes our perspective.

At the centre of this visual gorgeousness sits Julie Forsyth as Winnie. Forsythe is already a legend for playing the same role for Anthill in the 80s and this performance confirms her status. Faced with a deteriorating world and a life without hope, Winnie still finds enjoyment in her routines and her conversations with her mostly silent husband (Peter Carroll) who lives behind her in a cave and has a pot of Vaseline to help kill some time. There’s a gun in Winnie’s bag if she ever needs it, but who would consider such an act when there’s so many other things to do? She is the eternal optimist, or the ultimate passive aggressive who turns her controlling aggression on to herself. Winnie never forgets to mention her migraines or remind herself to count her blessings; she knows that it sucks being buried in a mound of earth, but also knows that she had no choice. Forsythe’s cheery Winnie is hopeful and funny, but she also lets us glimpse Winnie’s inner-self, who only wears a smile so that no one knows that she’s defeated.

I love listening to post-show and interval audience conversations. Happy Days had the usual share of “It’s not my cup of tea”, “I stayed awake for most of it”, “I love that blue curtain” and “I prefer something with a story”. I wonder why these people come to see a Beckett. I also saw them at the MTCs current Pinter, where they said the same (just replace blue curtain with tea towels). If you know you don’t like Beckett, Kantor’s production isn’t going to convert you , so stay at home and enjoy Masterchef, and give your subscription ticket to a financially-strapped actor who can’t afford to go and really wants to see it.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

In A Dark, Dark House

In A Dark, Dark House
Red Stitch
24 July 2009
Red Stitch Actors Theatre

The great thing about seeing a Red Stitch show is knowing you are going to see an amazing script written by a playwright who loves theatre and understands the difference between writing to be read and writing to be performed. You’re also going to see the work of some of our best independent actors, directors and creators, who are involved because they love the emotional power of theatre. The opening production of Red Stitch’s 2009 Season Two is the Australian premiere of Neil La Bute’s In A Dark, Dark House.

American playwright and film director La Bute wants theatre that is unafraid. In 2008 he said to The Guardian: “Go back to the theatre, audience members everywhere, and get your hands dirty. Sit closer than you usually do. Smell the actors and make eye contact and let a little blood splash on your hem...Let us know that if we are brave enough to write about the stuff that matters, then you'll come and watch. I may never fight a battle, or run for office, or help an old lady across the street - but when I sit down and put pen to paper, I can promise to write about a subject of some importance, and to do so with honesty and courage. The time for fear and complacency is past. Bravery needs to make a comeback on both sides of the footlights, and fast.”

No wonder Red Stitch like him. In A Dark, Dark House is about the abuse, secrets and lies that bond and separate brothers Terry and Drew, and LaBute is unafraid to twist and turn the truth in this uncompromising and disturbing psychological drama.

The script pulls the audience through the story and refuses to let us go until the final moment. Director Wayne Pearn proves his detailed understanding of the script, but this knowledge is almost blocking the audience from the story. In his determination to make sure that we see every foreshadowing hint, he doesn’t let the script speak for itself and puts the audience in a position where we are too far ahead of the action. Because of some obvious sign posting with props and performances that underline the subtle clues, the Act 3 revelations are not surprising or unexpected. It’s so much more rewarding for an audience to think back and remember or re-interpret what we saw, rather than knowing the truth before its revealed to the characters.

Actors Dion Mills, Geordie Taylor and Eloise Mignon are as equally in touch with the script, but they are performing so intelligently that their process is too visible. Physical reactions are happening a split second before the character says or feels something. Characters are reacting to each other just before they actually hear what the other person says. I couldn’t “let the blood splash” on my hem, because I was watching and admiring their technique, rather than living with and feeling for the damaged souls they were portraying.

In A Dark, Dark House is already a terrific piece of theatre that may become astonishing. Everything is already there, but it need to turn the intensity down from a 9 to a 6, let the characters escape from the actors’ conscious thoughts, and trust that the script is so good that the audience don’t need to be “told” what to notice.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales

Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales
Mikelangelo and The Black Sea Gentlemen
Sunday 26 July 2009
Toff in Town

If I ever go all Big Love and choose a polyandrous lifestyle, it will be with Mikelangelo and The Black Sea Gentlemen. In the meantime, the Gentlemen have been sharing their irresistible dark love around our townships in Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales.

A night with the Gentlemen is rarely forgotten, as they continue to seduce the most hardened of souls with their deft combination of musical finesse, magic realism and perfectly coiffed hair. This new collection of tales and songs visits some shadowy places as the Gents taunt and defy death, but Mikelangelo loves his audience (and his Gentlemen) far too much to let us dwell too long in the darkness – and, anyway, he doesn’t like the attention to wander too far from his own humble magnificence.

It's been nine years since Mikelangelo began his collection of suave gentlemen musicians. His criteria being that they too had fled a Baltic nation, owned at least a fedora, a cravat and a fine suit – slightly less flashy than his own – and were sustained by a mix of testosterone, hope and a belief that originality will overcome populist and mundane offerings. (If Matt Preston were a musician, he surely would have joined the troupe.)

The early days found them crooning on street corners and any bar that offered them free shandies, but the Gentlemen now spend many months away from our shores, as distant entertainment venues demand they leave their antipodean home to present their exquisite musical offerings to the world, for there can be no other quintet of guitar, accordion, violin, clarinet and double bass that could ever be their equal.

If you missed the current tour, you could don your finest livery and follow them to the UK, or buy a copy of their new CD also called 'Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales'. It is their most thematically complete recording that brings a complexity and maturity to the music that necessarily takes second place to the theatrics of the live show – and Mikelangelo promises that each shiny disk contains a perfect imprint of their five souls.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses (July 2009)

Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses
The Tiger Lillies
29 July 2009
the Arts Centre
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre

Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses is a night for Tiger Lillies fans. As a ‘best of’ with favourite moments from the last 20 years, it was adored by the fans, but seemed to miss the Tiger Lillies new comers.

One of the side effects of popularity and success is playing in bigger venues. The Brechtian-punk trio have played theatres all over the world, but until now, Melbourne has only had the privilege of intimate venues. Although it was lovely to see the trio framed in a proscenium with pretty lights and lots of arty fog, the gap between stage and audience was difficult to break in the Playhouse and it’s just wrong to watch this group without a drink in hand.

This distance wasn’t for lack of trying on the stage, but it was strange to watch them getting sniggers instead of guffaws and almost disturbing to sit amongst an audience who didn’t all think that they are wonderful. I’ve seen The Tiger Lillies a few times and this was the first time I’ve ever felt that the audience weren’t with them and in on the joke.

The active alienation of Martyn Jacques’ white faced, falsetto-singing character is from Brecht. We need the slight distance to hear what he is saying and empathise with the characters he is singing about, but this night didn’t have the enough moments when audience and performers connected.

The ongoing issues with the sound mix didn’t help. The music sounded rich and inviting, but the vocals and the lyrics were often lost. There were too many times when the only people laughing were fans predicting the joke. When the extremity and irony of their lyrics are missing, the songs come across as smutty and obvious. Without the clear context of the complete lyrics, a song like “Kick a Baby” makes no sense and is far more disturbing than it really is. In ‘Lust’ the only clear words were ‘cock’ and ’tit’, which turned painfully black song about nothing ever being good enough into an uncomfortable cross between an episode of ‘Are You Being Served’ and ‘Deadwood’.

The show settled after the interval, but the most wonderful moments of the night were reserved for the encore when it was Martyn, Adrian and Adrian with their fans. It’s no secret that I am fan (if I could choose to one last performance in my life it would be a toss up between Einstein on the Beach or a few hours of The Tiger Lillies) – so I loved every moment of the evening, but Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses lacked the spark and the connection that make this group one of the most original cabaret performances around.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Interview: Martyn Jacques

Martyn Jacques: The Tiger Lillies
July 2009

Celebrating 20 years of Brechtian-punk, The Tiger Lillies begin their Australian tour of Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses on July 24 in Sydney, before visiting Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Darwin. Anne-Marie Peard spoke with founder Martyn Jacques about his inspirations and his quest for originality.

Like anything truly addictive and mind altering, The Tiger Lillies are an acquired taste. Often described as debauched, macabre, obscene and sordid, their inspired punk cabaret continues to defy genre and balances on a summit of originality that many aspire to, but few dare reach.

“The mainstream for me is just utterly depressing and dull. I’m not interested in that kind of world”, said founder Martyn Jacques. “If you’re not trying to do something in some original, unique and exciting way, then it’s just not worth doing at all – for me.”

Jacques (vocals, accordion and piano), Adrian Stout (bass and saw) and Adrian Huge (percussion, kitchen utensils and toys) began their rejection of the seen-it-all-before in 1989. Their brief visit to Australia is part of a world tour celebrating those 20 years since their formation. After Australia, they go to New Zealand, Edinburgh, Prague, Budapest and New York. And that’s just the next month! Not bad for a band who spent the first few years playing in “tiny bars and wine cellars”.

Jacques explained his early ideas. “I found this old beaten up accordion and thought I’ll sing in a high voice (because I could always sing in a high voice) and I’d already been playing the piano for 15 years … My earliest inspirations were people like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, and The Threepenny Opera, and people like Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf and I thought of just mixing these things together … and brought in some Billy Holliday and blues and just went for it really.”

Fans embraced their unique vision and masterful musicianship and the bars were soon “filled with drunken fans”.

“We were trying to be original and develop an original style and an original sound and hoped that this originality would lead to us becoming successful.”

Broader success came as the “arty farty” set began to notice the crowds and soon the depraved trio were appearing at arts festivals and playing in theatres. The result is an ever-growing mass of fans who are very proud to be called members of The Tiger Lillies’ cult.

For Tiger Lillies’ virgins Jacques explained, “We’re entertainers. We try to actually amuse people and make them feel happy at the end of the evening, but we do it in a rather difficult and challenging way.”

The challenge that can quickly slap an unsuspecting patron in the face is that Jacques’ haunting falsetto voice sings about freaks, violence, death, blasphemy, addiction, bestiality and all possible combinations of the deadly sins.

Imagine if Brecht had written a Carry On film – as a musical – and Ken Loach had been asked to direct it. The resulting “Carry On One-Legged Transsexual Crack Whore” begins to scrape the surface of the images and wonders that emerge on a Tiger Lillies’ stage.

“We cover subject matter that is a bit dark and quite strange but a little bit more twisted and more perverse than your usual TV violence. We like unusual directions with strange characters and things.”

Characters like Masturbating Jimmy and Aunty Mable (an old, transsexual whore with a plastic leg) are very hard to forget. As are favourite songs like “Banging in the Nails”, “Cancer”, “Piss on Your Grave” and “Hamsters”.

The shock is turned up to eleven, but Jacques said, “I’d hate to perform and have everyone leave depressed.” The unexpected joy of The Tiger Lillies is that out of the putrid and rotting remains of their stories emerges an experience that is remarkably positive. It is challenging to describe how a song about kicking little babies down the stairs is rib-crackingly funny; perhaps by showing us the worst in the world, they are daring us to see the best.

The twentieth anniversary tour show is Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses and features songs from ‘Shockheaded Peter’ and ‘The Gorey End’ – two of their most “commercial” albums (Jacques added the inverted commas) that are somewhat “nicer” (I added the inverted commas) than the likes of ‘Farmyard Filth’ or ‘The Brothel to the Cemetery’.

Shockheaded Peter started as a puppet theatre show that went on to win an Olivier Award. It was inspired by Heinrich Hoffman’s tales of naughty children who come to gruesome ends. Hoffman’s books are “sort of the Alice in Wonderland of Germany”, says Jacques, and the album is “a kind of absurd and ironic collection of songs based on this book ... (about) children dying doing innocuous things, like sucking their thumb and getting their thumbs cut off or walking along looking up into the sky and falling into a river and dying.”

The Gorey End is based on original works by underground writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, best known for his A-Z picture book of children meeting grisly ends, but Jacques insists that this album isn’t also about children dying, but simply about “people dying after doing fairly innocuous things, but they tend to drink gin and are prostitutes and things.”

Jacques meeting with the legendary Gorey sounds like a story from a Tiger Lillies’ song. Jacques said, “He was a fan, he really liked us and so he sent me this big box of unpublished manuscripts and asked if we’d like to do a show together. So we were going to do a show together, but unfortunately just before I was going to meet him, he died.”

As a fan, no doubt Gorey would still have been thrilled with the result. The Gorey End was also nominated for a Grammy for the Best Classical Crossover Album, as the other collaborators were the celebrated and influential Kronos Quartet. Kronos have spent the last 30 years expanding the range and context of the string quartet and are well known for their work with minimalist composers like Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. As Jacques said, “They are very game and are up for doing unusual and strange things.”

The Tiger Lillies world is unusual and strange, but one that still shakes the complacent and continues to fight the utterly dull.

You can listen to more of this interview the podcast of Joy 94.9’s The Outland Institute.

This article originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.